Monthly Archives: November 2008

What I learned today: Random Astronomy Tidbits

OK, technically this was from last night but I had neither opportunity nor inclination to write it all down at the time. These bits are from the tail end of “Death by Black Hole and other Cosmic Quandaries.” One thing that was brought immediately to mind was the unscientific fact that it’s often much harder to read on a topic that you know something about than one about which you are a complete novice. Of all the sciences, my grounding in astronomy is pretty solid (I have a state champion medal from the Academic Decathlon to prove that much) so when I pick up these books on astronomy it is with no small trepidation. The last thing I need is yet ANOTHER retelling of how stellar spectroscopy works. This forces me into a bit of a pattern of random skimming which makes it hard to find the bits that may be new to me. In the end, nothing struck me as particularly new but it was interesting to be reminded of a few amusing facts about the universe we live in. Let’s begin…

Like a large man with a dermatological condition, the sun is constantly shedding. This is surely not surprising as the sun does put out a hell of a lot of energy. You’ve got the constant onslaught of the cosmic wind and all that heat and light. What may be surprising is the magnitude of the shedding. Yes, boys and girls, it is calculated that the sun sloughs off 4 Million TONS of mass every SECOND. Yes, that’s every second. Not a typo. This gives one a right and appropriate scale of just how BIG the sun is. Welcome to the universe. Two million pickup trucks just gone into the vapor every time the second hand on your watch ticks.

Gravity, in the realm of the four basic forces of the universe, is a complete wuss. The somewhat pathetic example that the book gives is that if by some physically impossible process the Apollo astronauts had brought back the electrons (and just the electrons) from a thimble-full of moon dust then the electromagnetic attraction between those electrons and their orphaned protons back on the moon would have been greater than the gravitational attraction of the entire planet.

Totally unrelatedly, the book goes into some small detail about the so-called fourth state of matter, plasma. In short, plasma is just uber-excited matter. If you heat anything up enough then it’ll fall all over itself and become plasma. To those of us bound to the Earth this is most typically expressed as lightning. When lightning strikes, the air around the discharge becomes plasma and behaves according to a wonderously new set of rules. In my book, plasma is boring. What we really want to talk about is the TRULY degenerate states of matter. Let’s start with the stuff of dwarf stars. Think back to high school physics and chemistry and imagine the model of the atom. You’ve got the happy nucleus with its boisterous cloud of rotating electrons. That’s the stuff of normal matter but think for a moment what happens at the heart of super-dense stars. Eventually these massive furnaces run out of fuel. When they do, then they begin to collapse. A typical star is a constant battle between the energy pouring OUTWARD from nuclear fusion and gravity pulling INWARD. I won’t go into the details here but when a star begins to run out of fuel, then gravity begins to win the battle and slowly the star compresses. Eventually, the compression becomes SO intense that the atom itself is compromised. Rather than being comprised of a nucleus and a cloud of electrons, imagine the empty space being crunched down to the point where even the electrons are bound together in the nucleus and the nuclei are stacked right on top of each other. This is the stuff of the dwarf star. All the empty space has been most rudely removed leaving a super-dense material that the sci-fi aficionados refer to as “Dwarf Star Alloy”. Super dense and super tough, this is the no-nonsense material of the universe.

In some cases though, we go even further. If a dwarf star becomes TOO dense then it condenses even more. Based on the description of dwarf stars though, you may ask “how can this possibly be? There’s nowhere else for the matter to go?” And this is exactly true. Dwarf stars are comprised of matter packed tightly together to the nth degree. There’s no empty space left. Neutrons and protons and electrons are stacked on top of each other like a child’s building blocks. Beyond a certain point, the very laws of physics themselves are compromised. Above a certain mass the dwarf star actually punches a hole in the very fabric of spacetime. Once this happens, the star has become a black hole. At this point, the star has collapsed into a quantum singularity, a location of infinite mass and yet no volume. The very laws of physics have been violated. This is the stuff of which quasars are made; perhaps a good topic for another post. The point is, quite simply, that when your physics teacher lectured on solids, liquids and gases, he or she skipped the most entertaining states of matter.

Lastly, the book made some interesting statements about the Earth’s ‘radio bubble’. This is the sphere around the Earth that which has been exposed to radio transmissions from the radio and television age of the planet. Going back to the earliest transmissions this bubble has a radius of about 100 light-years and includes about 1000 total stars; many of which have been shown to have planets in orbit around them. So from a purely technical standpoint, it is entirely possible that a civilization somewhere is enjoying the first days of television on our planet. The problem, however, is one of reception not distance. Simply to detect the carrier wave of our signals a civilization at 100 light-years distance would require a radio telescope 15 times the size of our largest, Arecibo. To actually decode anything would require a radio receiver 20 miles in diameter. Sadly, the omni-directional nature of our transmissions works against us in a major way here. In the popular culture on the subject we like to show alien’s listening in on our every move with ease but in reality they would have to be pretty damn determined to do so.

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Thought for the Day: Blundering into Success

Over the years the random inputs to my mind have been rife with examples of the fact that sometimes you can just try TOO damn hard. Yes, I remember back in the late 70s I saw a Dr. Who episode in which the only way to solve some bizarre quandary was to simply stop trying to do so. Not long after, the “Key to Time” storyline from the same series has the Doctor escaping his somewhat dualistic enemies by randomizing his own destination so that not even HE knows there the fuck he’s going. Even later we find Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently proclaiming that the key to learning to fly is to simply “throw yourself at the ground… and miss.” Clearly Dirk’s modus operandi is doomed to a painful conclusion in the cold, hard light of reality but I think that in some twisted way there’s something to be said for the general concept.

This idea was brought to mind today as I was creeping up on 5:00 and writing the same UI for what is at least the 5th time. As a sidebar, let me say that when I say “the 5th time” I do not mean “the engineer-exaggerated version of the phrase which really means the 2nd time but has become the victim of hyperbole to elicit sympathy” 5th time but the more than a little annoyed version of the 5th time. This is the 5th time that comes just before the 6th time when you actually throw a coffee cup at your screen. Sidebar ends.

The clock was hovering around 20 minutes to 5 and therefore, as any employee knows, I had exactly -0- interest in what I was doing. The only purpose of even TRYING to do anything was the knowledge that doing NOTHING would simply make the remaining 20 minutes of the day seem even longer than they were already doomed to be. So as I was diligently and apathetically typing out code I had absolutely no interest in I was shocked to find that what I had carefully crafted out of my own ennui and general desire to be anywhere else but in the office was actually… working…? No… no, no, no, no, no… At this point I must take reality by the short and curlies and shake it until it yelps in an unmanly falsetto.

But no, gonadal agitations aside, it was indeed true. What I had TRIED to do 4 times without success despite much careful research and care and feeding had in fact appeared quite figuratively out of nowhere. Unluckily for my new creation, its sudden call into existence, though miraculous, was insufficient to keep me in the office even one nanosecond past 5:00 but I did ponder the significance of the event long enough to at least consider immortalizing its spontaneous generation with a blog entry. It was during that mental memorialization of the miracle that other strange examples of this came to mind.

My eldest daughter Amanda, for example, is profoundly personally apathetic. She walks down the hall and kids will trip all over themselves to say hello to her. She is the most accidentally popular kid in the class but her universal response to all such greetings is a stony silence. Her reaction isn’t due to snobbishness; in fact it’s quite the opposite. She is absolutely CONVINCED that she has no friends so the people who say “Hi, Amanda!” with such enthusiasm must most certainly be greeting some OTHER nearby person who happens to share the same name and therefore she needn’t embarrass herself by responding to them in error. In counterpoint you see people every day who try *SO* hard to be liked and to be popular and inevitably they are universally disregarded. They’d give their left arm for even the tiniest measure of what Amanda garners so effortlessly yet despite all their trying they come up empty.

On a personal level, I’ve noticed this bizarre phenomenon come into play for me in the most unimaginable ways. Invariably, the greatest things befall us when we least expect them and when we weren’t even really looking for anything to happen. The surest way to fuck them up, of course, is to overanalyze them too much and start asking questions of The Fates. Nothing pisses off a woman with a pair of shears more than unnecessary cross-examination. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few years it’s that sometimes you just have to grin, shake your head and quietly accept the gift that life has given you.

Lastly, if you think about it, this actually really makes perfect sense. The entire body of life on Earth is the product of a lot of time and a hell of a lot of random chance. A billion years ago the planet was a ball of chemicals, a huge chemistry set waiting to find its true potential. As time passed, a little bit of this met up with a little bit of that until you had simple cells. Once those cells learned to reproduce then the wheels of fate and fortune really hit their pace as every conceivable organism that the laws of nature and probability could dream up found its place in the Cambrian Explosion. Forms came and forms went but in the end, standing at the top of the tree of life you find the miracle that is man. We really are the luckiest of the lucky, the pinnacle of success from a billion years of throwing dice. Should it really be any surprise that from time to time life smiles on us when we’re least expecting it?

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Movie: Nosferatu (1922)

This ancient silent movie adaptation of Dracula is set in 1838 in the fictional town of Wisburg and if there’s one thing you can say for it it’s that it certainly doesn’t fuck around with any of that silly “setup” crap. The first lines of actual dialog occur when our protagonist Hutter brings his wife Ellen some flowers and she responds by saying, “Why did you kill them… the beautiful flowers?!” One gets the feeling immediately that something is amiss. The second line of dialog occur in the street only a minute later. After exchanging friendly greetings with someone… (we know not who) Hutter is greeted with the words, “Don’t be in a hurry. No one can escape his destiny.” I’m sure this is a lot to digest for someone who only 2 minutes and 37 seconds before was happily standing before his shaving mirror.

An almost immediate observation on the silent movie genre is that in a bizarre way it leaves much more to the imagination than even reading the story. It’s clear from the action that a lot more dialog is occurring then the audience is privy to. Since actually conveying dialog in textual form requires the filmmakers to cut away to a printed card the use of words is pretty scanty. The primitive state of film-making is also glaringly obvious. Outside scenes appear in either blue and white or red and white while inside scenes are a happy brownish tone. The action scenes, such as when Orlock’s coach appears to retrieve Hutter, leave one laughing a bit with their almost claymation-like choppiness. Clearly we’ve come a long way to our HD DVD players.

Anyway, back to the story. Hutter is apparently on his way to work for Knock, the local real-estate agent. The film finds Knock reading a page of what is obvious gibberish but is apparently a letter from Count Orlock of Transylvania. He wants a home in Wisburg. Since he is of noble birth he of course has requested something abandoned and run-down. Something like the house just across the street from Hutter. Knock hypes Hutter up with promises of a “lot of money” and assigns him to travel to Transylvania to negotiate a deal. Hutter is ludicrously excited and runs back home to tell the wife, “I’m going to travel far away to the country of thieves and ghosts!” Ellen doesn’t bother to voice the worry that cascades most obviously across her face and so Hutter is off to his presumed doom. This will be a lesson to all of you young wives out there. Speak up, men are idiots.

Hutter eventually arrives in the Carpathians where one mention of Count Orlock puts the natives on their guard. Staying the night in a local inn he happens to find a copy of a tome on the subject of “Nosferatu” but poo-poos it with a hearty but unheard laugh. The next morning he finds natives who will drive him within sight of the castle but refuse to go any further on the grounds that the castle is “creepy”. I’d like to thank the makers of my particular copy of this movie for their BRILLIANT rendering of the movie’s subtitle cards from their original German into Leave it to Beaver-Style 1950s English. Creepy… unbelievable. ANYway… since the villagers won’t take Hutter to the castle he sets off on foot but no sooner does he step down than a coach arrives unbidden from the castle driven by someone who looks a LOT like the villain wearing a pointy hat. Wordlessly the coachman directs Hutter into the coach and then to the main gates of the castle.

Hutter is greeted inside by another man who has the same ghastly look as the coachman. He offers Hutter a meal despite the late hour. Our unwitting hero cuts himself slicing some bread leading our host to another bit of wonderously opaque dialog, “You’ve hurt yourself… The Precious Blood!” Said blood he of course licks from his guest’s hand. It should be noted that this is standard guest etiquette at Slaven dinner parties. To hell with band aids, we’ll drink the blood right off your bloody finger! After his snack, the host comes on to Hutter with the words, “Should we not spend a little time togther, my very dear friend? Sunrise is not far away.” This is also standard Slaven parlance for “get the fuck out, it’s late.”

Hutter awakes after a fade cut with a cut finger and a sore neck but is greeted with a fresh meal including wine but absolutely NO vanilla vodka. Very sad in my book. After his meal he goes outside for a morning constitutional and to write a letter home. He writes, amusingly, that “the mosquitoes are a real pest. I have two bites on my neck very close together.” Transylvanian mosquitoes ARE the worst in my experience. Despite the fact that no villager will come near the castle, the place does apparently get mail so our hero can send his missive and retrieve the incoming mail for Count Orlock. While giving our good Count the mail, he drops a picture of the beloved Ellen. Upon seeing her, the count remarks simply, “Your wife has a beautiful neck…” I can relate to the man’s viewpoint on women. Personally, I always look first at a woman’s kneecaps, then left pinky toe and then her neck but to each his own. Driven by lust, the Count agrees to buy the beautiful, deserted house across the street from Hutter. Definite stalker tendencies coming to the forefront there.

Hutter returns to his room and peruses the book he found at the inn for more details on Nosferatu. Somehow, after all his giddy chortling he finally starts to take things seriously and exactly 30 minutes into the film we find Orlock standing in the doorway in that iconic pose that we’ve ALL seen a million times. Hutter finally realizes that he’s in deep shit. Meanwhile Ellen is somnambulating on the balcony in a most precarious manner as her husband is again set upon by the Count. Hutter awakes to a seemingly deserted castle and finds his way IMMEDIATELY to the casket of the Count who lies with his face exposed to the sun. In horror, Hutter runs away and swoons but awakes in time to find the Count packing to move. The count exits via carriage and Hutter makes his escape.

At this point, the movie either takes a horrendous turn into the unfollowable or else the wine has finally taken hold. OK, so Knock goes a bit inexplicably insane and starts eating bugs. This is a callback to the Renfield character after which he’s based but in the context of this movie… makes NO sense whatsoever. Ellen, in response to all this, decides to go to the beach while wearing a long, flowing black dress. Meanwhile Hutter is recovering in a hospital and sets sail for home. It’s a bit odd that he didn’t need a ship to GET there in the first place but needs one to get back. OK, so Orlock has booked passage on a ship and the whole crew is taken out by a plague. The first mate goes below to hack open one of the boxes below deck for no reason and out pops Orlock. The first mate is horrified and jumps overboard while Orlock takes out the captain.

It is at this point, that I completely lose the thread of the story. Orlock has presumably entered the neighborhood, the plague has taken hold. Hutter has returned home but his wife is worried and reading Hutter’s book about Nosferatu… OK, I have to admit that this movie makes no sense. Even when I was less distracted by the wine, it made little to no sense to me and lacked continuity. The town has turned on Knock which makes sense since he caused this mess by selling a house to Orlock, I suppose. Four minutes from the end, another iconic moment in movie history; Orlock is creeping up the stairs and all we see is his shadow. He’s closing in on Ellen… Oh the suspense! But wait! Orlock has failed to notice the sunrise! The cock has crowed and Orlock dies in most dramatic fashion! I failed to mention that Ellen read in the book that if someone gives willingly of their blood and distracts the Nosferatu from the coming of dawn then the villain shall be undone. Apparently that’s what I missed in this grainy dialog. In summary: yay. The forces of good prevail and the plague is ended with the death of Orlock.

Boy. That was a bitchin’ movie.

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What I learned Today: Lagrangian Points

While reading “Death by Black Hole and other Quandaries” I was reintroduced to a REALLY cool concept referred to as a Lagrangian point. You can read the long-winded Wikipedia version of this concept here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lagrangian_point.

The short and sweet description of this concept is that if you put an object out in space at a Lagrangian point then it’ll quietly just sit there forever. On the surface, yeah, I admit, this is pretty unassuming but think about it. In the vast majority of locations in the solar system if you set an object down it’s going to slowly make its way toward SOMETHING. Usually that something is the sun and anybody who’s had a sunburn knows that THAT is no fun whatsoever. So a Lagrangian point is the universe’s version of Free Parking. If you fly a satellite and park it at such a point then it’ll hang out there for a long time which in the grand scheme is damn convenient. These points have been used already by NASA for various long-term missions which you can read about in the Wikiepedia entry.

Executive Summary: Lagrangian Points – Solar System’s version of Free Parking. Mega-cool.

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