Friday, August 31, 2012

DIY Uranium Chandelier

Here's a second post about an unusual element and the Willy-Wonka-eqsue offerings of Educational Innovations. You can buy uranium marbles from Educational Innvations -- well, not pure uranium, why do you ask? -- the element is suspended in glass, which does a good job of absorbing the emitted radiation. Perfectly safe, according to EI, just WHATEVER YOU DO DON'T EAT IT. Ok, then. The dull green color in natural light especially shines under black light with this eerie Springfield-Nuclear-Power-Plant green glow.

What some artists have done with this (Ken and Julia Yonetani) is to tie a bunch of these marbles together and suspend them from the ceiling as chandeliers. I suspect they have a black light nearby. Then you have this Haunted Mansion meets Cosmic Bowling meets Armageddon situation:

There are several of these chandeliers, each scaled to the size of the country's dependence on nuclear power. The U.S. one is the one on the bottom, it's big. It's supposed to be a warning because it is dramatic to see the glowing radiation. But to me it makes the opposite effect, that I'm thinking, hmm, maybe this means we could catch the source of this green glow if we do it carefully. If we can have all those uranium marbles suspended in glass and, you know, walk around and look at them in an art gallery, then maybe this form of energy can actually be handled safely, and with care. Maybe, although it's understandable to have doubts given recent events. Maybe we're just not grown up enough to handle that power yet. On the other other hand, it may be glowing green, but it's also not releasing a greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. One makes me feel eerie, but the other might cook the planet. Plusses and minuses.

Unfortunately, I don't think I can convince Laurie to install these in our dining room. Maybe I can propose a combo as a sort of trade: we buy a new flat TV, plus a radioactive glowing chandelier? Maybe Costco can set up a by-both-for-a-low-price deal? Hmmm...

DIY Bismuth

Theodore Gray does it again, with a short but sweet column on how to get the "Bismol" (Bismuth) out of Pepto-Bismol.

Start with this:

Then go through this stage:

Filter, add some Al foil, heat, cool, and voila:

In my office one of my prized possessions is a bismuth egg from Educational Innovations, made from cooling bismuth inside an egg so that it crystallizes, that looks like this:

Seems like we're most of the way to DIY bismuth eggs now. I wonder if this could fit in as a chemistry lab?

Friday, August 24, 2012

Book Review: Thinking, Fast and Slow

This is a sprawling book that covers the entire research life of a Nobel-Prize-winning psychologist/economist (Daniel Kahneman). I never failed to be impressed by Kahneman's crystal-clear explanations, but his own philosophy that the stories we tell ourselves about the world are just constructs gets in his way: he makes no effort to shape the separate stories into any kind of narrative. As a result, many of the stories do not "stick" (at least for this audiobook listener, maybe it's different with the book). So, in the spirit of the author, I have a bunch of bullet points of random thoughts. There were a LOT more, but Kahneman leaves a lot of the interpretation to you, so, there's no way I could capture them all. It's too bad, because every well-done experient has several implications, but again, Kahneman's own philosophy interferes with them being put together into any kind of story. And it is so long that, despite the fact that it's always moving, there were some dry spells, especially when I had heard of the experiment before. I may recommend that the reader approach this as a book, not an audiobook.

-- Body-mind connection demonstrated through the lemonade/Splenda body language experiment: Thinking uses glucose and you only have a limited budget of energy. So eat more sugar to think better?

-- Iris experiment can determine the difficulty of a talk from physical dilation of the iris. It's true: "The eye is the window of the soul" (Jesus)

-- "The Anchoring Effect" in negotiations is just "Ask and Ye Shall Receive" as well.

-- In his academic career, Kahneman deliberately sought out and worked with those who disagreed with him. This is his most unique and admirable trait as a researcher. I was particularly struck by his investigations of intuition when he combined his skepticism with Gary Klein, who was more trusting of the power of intuition. Together they made the excellent point that intuition is learning to read (just reading LIFE instead of books) and it requires both experience and a regular non-random situation. Kahneman dwells on the randomness, but I'm with the Klein: I see order.

-- Because Kahneman's behavioral economics overthrew the too-rational "utility theory," he has personal experience with how a scientific community can accept a theory for too long without question. I find this particularly disturbing. Kahneman doesn't seem to ask, where are we doing this groupthink now, as scientists? He's already smashed his icons, no need to look for more, I guess.

-- Behavioral economics is in some ways accounting for the sin of pride in the economic agent. Conversely, humility is seeing things fairly. Humility is seeing truthfully, objectively. The person acting with humility would be the rational actor!

-- The real value of something good is not a constant straight line, but it is curved -- like thermodynamic functions looked at in detail. Value depends on history, and is relative to the previous state -- like thermodynamic functions in physical chemistry (delta G, delta H ... ). More in the context of plenty gives diminishing returns of good -- like entropy (see Atkins' third example of entropy in Physical Chemistry for the Life Sciences). Are there more connections between physical chemistry and behavioral economics? This is as far as I can get while listening in my car, so we may never know ...

-- After finding out so many interesting things, Kahneman's conclusions are again, somewhat flat and predictable/political. His refusal to tell a story once again gets in the way. Oh well.

Which is Bigger: The Universe or the Brain?

Here is a nice essay by Robert Krulwich bridging the two cultures divide by comparing the complexity of the universe with that of the brain that beholds the universe. I only wish Marilynne Robinson had been consulted ... but I'm sure she'd say something like this (from "Reclaiming a Sense of the Sacred" in The Chronicle of Higher Education):

Having read recently that there are more neurons in the human brain than there are stars in the Milky Way, and having read any number of times that the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe, and that the mind is not identical with the brain but is more mysterious still, it seems to me this astonishing nexus of the self, so uniquely elegant and capable, merits a name that would indicate a difference in kind from the ontological run of things, and for my purposes "soul" would do nicely.

The illuminating part of the question is not necessarily the answer you give it, which may be somewhat arbitrary. The illuminating part of the question is that the two things are comparable in the first place, and that one of them is yours.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Equivalent Books

I was enjoying a few hours blissfully lost in the stacks at Powell's in downtown Portland when I ran into this on the display rack:
I leafed through it and found that the popular beliefs under "explanation" cover pretty much anything that can't be quantified with a spectrometer. This being a normal-sized book there's only 5-6 pages per belief, which is probably inadequate to actually address issues like the existence of God or the fine-tuning of the universe. Predictably, each issue is flattened and condensed almost beyond recgonition. It's actually a pretty amazing accomplishment of Guy Harrison (the author) that he stands out from the new-atheist crowd in actually having some understanding of why people might believe in some of these unprovable things, and that he conveys that empathy (or is it sympathy?) in such a short space. Other similar authors would be advised to do likewise. But there's no way that such a book will change any minds, it's just too short. It's a confirmatory book, one that you don't actually read but keep up on the shelf to assure you that the answer's right there should you ever want to look it up.

It reminded me immediately of this book:
In high school I "read" this book, meaning I flipped through it and found articles of about the same dimensions (that is, word length and philosophical depth) as Harrison's, but from the Christian side, about why you should believe/behave in this way. These are pretty much the same book written by different tribes. Personally, I think the latter is more worthwhile and that there is more to it when you get down to it, but both are really reference works. My question is, these days, has Google replaced the reference book? If so, why did the 50 Popular Beliefs book come out now? It suggests to me that the church of atheism has produced its own Practical Christianity manual, at least when it comes to its theology. A second volume of ethics must not be far behind.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Warning from the Future: Avoid Swine

The scientists who study flu have discovered that there's a new swine flu, H3N2v, lurking in pigs and transmissable to humans. It's too new to be in the combined flu vaccine that's now being prepped for the winter. The good news is that the virus is not very good (yet) at human-to-human transmission, so until it learns how to do that better, the tip is to stay away from pigs, especially for the young and old. Guess my little ones won't be petting the pigs at the fair this year, just in case.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Learning Geography from It's a Small World?

It may seem that learning geography from It's a Small World is about as useful as learning astronomy from Space Mountain. But these rides form important impressions on whole generations of kids, so it's worth analyzing them and thinking about what we're saying. Here's a geography blog with an entry on doing just that for It's a Small World. It's a bit long and tends a bit too much toward making fun of the strange colors and caricatures in the ride, which is like criticizing The Very Hungry Caterpillar for the fact that a caterpillar probably wouldn't be able to eat so much on Saturday. There's a lot more to think about with what the stereotypes are doing, and the all-white finale (and the not-so-subtle insertion of classic Disney characters into the mix). Still, it's a step in a very interesting direction. Some day I'd love to teach a class on Theme Park Studies where we do things like this.

And, by the way, all those Saturday morning cartoons and Pokemon shows have a big effect on a lot of people (and not just Herman Cain). I'd argue that you understand more about people by studying these than other less-read and less-experienced works.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Titan, the Liquid Moon

Close observations of Saturn's moon Titan show that as it orbits it is deformed by Saturn's gravity. Here's an animation of what is seen, only slightly exaggerated:

Embedded video from

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory California Institute of Technology

This means that somewhere, deep down, Titan is a different phase of matter. It is a liquid moon. And where there's liquid flow could there be life?

Right now, who knows? The great part about this is that it's close enough that we can imagine taking a jaunt out to see. Of course, kind of hard to call it a jaunt when it's probably a one-way trip for any humans ...

[More information on this observation found here.]

Thursday, August 16, 2012

How to Pitch a Perfect Game

Baseball is the best sport for after the fact analysis. Yesterday, after more than 5000 games for the Mariners franchise, a Mariners pitcher threw a perfect game. (If you know the Mariners at all, you don't even have to ask who it was.) But how did Felix do that? The game is broken down in this incredible piece of analysis, which shows very clearly just how the game changes as it wears on and players change their approach. Almost like an immunological arms race of pathogen vs. immune system. You can even see where the opposing manager argued a called strike, got thrown out of the game ... but then the umpire changed his strike zone as a result. So there IS a point to managers getting thrown out of games. I think I could teach a whole math and strategy class on this one game. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Tolkien in the Sky with Diamonds

If you're ever hanging out on Mercury, now you can find Tolkien there:
See him? Right there, between Goethe and Mendelssohn.

According to Tolkien's own writings, the half-elven seafarer Earendil (you know, Elrond's papa) carries the shining Silmaril on his brow as he crosses the skies. Now, the little bit of Mercury that we can see shining, chasing the sun, is Tolkien's vessel. He shines like a diamond ... explaining the rather bad pun in the title above.

More on why Mercury has craters named for artists on it can be found here.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

An 11-Set Venn Diagram

You're probably used to 2- or 3-set Venn Diagrams:

Apparently mathematic explorers have been searching for how high they can go. It took a long time to get the number of sets up to 7. And now they've found an 11-set diagram, which is just beautiful in its slight asymmetry:

Hopefully this news can inspire new apprentice math explorers to search out these virtual lands and find new species like this flower diagram. It's like Alice in Wonderland, but it's real ...

Friday, August 10, 2012

Greece's Problem, South Africa's Solution?

Could the answer to Greece's problems lie in a South-African style amnesty and starting fresh, with an economic rather than racial focus? The idea is more fully explained in this blog post by Dan Ariely. I'm intrigued by how the general idea of reconciliation (and jubilee) applies to both cases. It's worth noting that Ariely is a behavioral economist and so the economic angle is not far from his mind, yet he's making what's ultimately a moral analysis. What I appreciate about Ariely is how seamlessly he integrates the economics and the morals, more successfully (and less preachingly) than most, and with a solid experimental foundation to boot.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Book Review: Shada (Doctor Who)

You need a TARDIS just to be able to understand the entire title of this book. Best I can tell it's officially Doctor Who: The Lost Adventure by Douglas Adams: Shada by Gareth Roberts. But Roberts' name isn't on the spine. There's a reason for that: Shada was originally a TV script written by Douglas Adams (of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame) for the Fourth Doctor, even partially filmed but cut short by a strike. Roberts rewrites and expands the story as a novel, which is a particularly inspired choice because he's written at least two episodes for the new Doctor Who series that are both funny and thrilling in about the same ratio as Douglas Adams himself. He does a good job, in that it's a good story.

The end result is that it's about what you would expect. Some funny moments, a decent enough plot (a bit overstuffed and understuffed in parts), about the same as watching an average episode of Doctor Who, so I can't complain about that. It's not as sublimely funny as Hitchhiker's Guide or even as funny as "Closing Time" (my favorite episode by Roberts, you know, the one with the baby Alfie who in his own mind is named Stormageddon the Dark Lord), but it has its moments and works rather well for being patched together and spread out over time. That in itself is what makes it seem to fit into the patched together universe of Doctor Who. For those who can't wait for the next season to start in the fall, this is a fine substitute and good airplane reading too.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Book Review (2012): The Hobbit

Just two years after I read and reviewed The Hobbit, another boy's ready to read it aloud. At this rate there will be another review in 2018 and finally in 2020, and then I'll be out of boys to read it to.

What stood out to me this time was the sheer inventiveness of Tolkien's narrative. It's not enough to kill the dragon, there's a battle after. It's not enough to have two or three, you have to have a Battle of Five Armies. And the importance of having Dain the Dwarf manning the Lonely Mountain instead of Smaug the Dragon is not really spelled out here, but you can argue that the events of The Hobbit are important to making the world "savable" in Lord of the Rings. Maybe it's just Peter Jackson's impending movies in the back of my mind, but this time through the parallels between the children's book and the adult's trilogy stand out to me. It seems to fit together better the more times I read it.

It gives me hope that The Hobbit movie trilogy will be up to snuff ... more than the Star Wars prequel triology, at least.