Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Book Review: This is How You Lose Her

You must be a good writer if a book that's a bit of a let-down is still a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. At least that's my take on This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz: a bit of a let-down. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is an incredible book (reviewed previously!) and elements of what I loved about that show through in this collection of short stories occasionally, but there's just not enough history or nerd-lit in this to make it as surprising and, well, wondrous as the novel. There's some powerful moments in it but there's also some moments that aren't quite as powerful as they should be, and sometimes I felt buried under an avalanche of trivialities and superficial events. Also, the characters just aren't as likable, and I know, they aren't supposed to be likeable but it sure helps to move things along if they are. On the level of literature Diaz is still the excellent writer he always was -- but I have to admit if this was the first book by him I read, that I probably wouldn't read another. Still, Oscar Wao was such a revelation I will definitely read the next novel by Diaz, and I'm sure that'll be worth it.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Singing Sand: The Rocks Cry Out

Several dunes around the world "sing" when the sand is disturbed, and no one knows quite why. But now we seem to be closing in on what it is: not the shape of the dune but the type of sand in it. In other words, not so much the topography as the geochemistry and the geophysics.

The two different-sounding dunes in the video above still sound different when the sand is put in a shallow pan in the lab, and sifting the sand will change the sound. I find this all very cool. What kind of musical instruments could result from this? Something like the theremin at the very least.

More on the data, and another video, can be found here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Elevensies (AM or PM) Soon Available at Your Local Franchise

J.R.R. Tolkien and Denny's. We have truly amused ourselves to death:

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Beautiful, Breaking Bat

(Here I go making a pun reference to a  TV show I haven't seen but really want to start, some day ...)

I didn't see this happen but heard about it second-hand: the hit that broke open Game 7 of the NLCS last night shattered the hitter's bat and actually hit the bat two or three times. Just look at this:

Something about that is just beautiful, the way the bat bends and the ball just rolls along the line of the wavering wood of the bat, more scooped than struck. It's like one of those slo-mo water droplet pictures, and it basically meant the Giants return to the World Series and the Cardinals don't. So, more Angel Pagan!

Nice analysis of whether this was a legal hit or not, and why it faked out the shortstop, here at Fangraphs.

Monday, October 22, 2012

How to Advertise Science: Gold, Cat Pee, and Einstein's Happy Thoughts

Yes, that's really 2 oz. of gold.

This series of billboards (and other outdoor advertisements) put around Vancouver by the Vancouver Science Center shows that a clever marketing campaign is a lot like good teaching.

My favorite's either the Cat Pee one or the Gold one. I guess the gold one's classier but the cat pee one cracks me up. It's also the biochemistry one and a reason to carry around a UV light on your keychain (well, I do, in fact, why do you ask?).

Hopefully in my biochem lectures I can capture this spirit sometimes. This is what science teaching is about.

Oh, and thanks to my fellow physics prof that I co-teach a science seminar with, I now know that this particular advertisement ...

... has a unique place in science history, because it is this thought in 1907 led Einstein to the theory of relativity (his "happiest thought" of his life). It's an amazing world if a scale in an elevator can lead, through the right train of thoughts, to predictions of black holes and gravity warping space itself.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Book Review: Life Ascending

This is the first book I've read by Nick Lane and I already know I'm going to read more. Lane approaches scientific controversy with a light hand, but he talks about the real issues and the real science going on. Lane is a practicing biochemist who writes popular science, and it shows. This book is framed around 10 "innovations" evolved by life: all the way from the origin of life to mitochondria to consciousness and death. A lot of the general issues I've become familiar with from the scientific literature (Lane himself writes on these topics for Nature and refers to those articles throughout the book), but this book is at the Goldilocks level of enough but not too much detail. Sometimes I feel like the book gets a little too scientific for a general audience, and once in a while I wonder if the study Lane is highlighting is really "all that"; for example, I'd like to see the findings replicated that he reports as a tiny change in mitochondria causing a huge change in human lifespan, but it appears to rest on one paper from Japan. I do give Lane props for addressing consciousness with fairness, arguing for his interpretation rather than disparaging the Pope as he quotes him, little things like that. As interesting as the content of this book is, it's the tone that really impresses me and is something I'd like to emulate from my viewpoint.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

And Now For the Trolls' Point of View

This is a very well made and very short take-off on the Mines of Moria. Now I'm feeling bad for those poor trolls.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Another Reason to Like Gummi Bears

Gummi bears are already my favorite candy, but the fact that they do THIS when you add one (just one!) to heated potassium perchlorate piles on the reasons to love 'em:

Oxygen is a powerful element, no? It's what turns a gummi bear into a firework (and CO2).

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What's Inbetween a Single Bond and a Double Bond?

Anyone who's made it through the gauntlet of organic chemistry may remember that there's not only single bonds and double bonds, but there's "mixture" sort of bonds half way between the two. You can tell how much of a mixture by measuring the bond length accurately; the shorter the bond, the more "double bond" character it has. Measuring these bond lengths can lead to some very pretty pictures, with more pretty pictures here:

I got this one from this blog but it's all over the web in other places as well. It was made by atomic force microscopy looking at a "nanographene" molecule that's basically a collection of fused benzene rings. Each ring is a hexagon with six single-bond sides and three double bonds on top of that. The question is, where exactly do the double bonds spend their time most?

In a single hexagon/benzene ring, the three extra bonds are distributed evenly and each bond is more like a 1.5-bond than a single or double bond. Nanographene is more complex structurally and has more complex patterns of electron-sharing. The IBM researchers found that if you look at the hexagon in the exact center, that those bonds are shorter than the ones radiating out from the center, meaning the electron-sharing is a bit better in the ring in the center, like they're spinning around on the innermost wheel. Like a record player, if anyone remembers those. The "spokes" are a little stretched and are slightly worse bonds.

And I just realized ... this looks like a Settlers of Catan board! The smallest game of Settlers ever may now be possible.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Sociology of Middle Earth

It was bound to happen. Someone was bound to take the detailed years and dates of Tolkien's appendices from Lord of the Rings, etc., and make them into graphs and charts. Here's the link; go at it!

Two quick comments:

1.) Yes, the first chart proves a point, but I think it doesn't do much good to rail against the lack of women in Tolkien. He's kind of done writing, after all, not like you'll get him to write more for Arwen. He was kind of stubborn about that stuff. It's much more interesting to discuss Tolkien's roles for women in the context of the "saga" he was trying to write. In other words, the number of women in Lord of the Rings should be discussed in the context of the number of women in Beowulf or the Elder Edda. In that case I think you'll see Tolkien doing some very interesting things with the role of women, such as Eowyn (post-ring). But, yeah, overall it's a boy's story. (I'd like to see a chart like this for Jane Austen, although "weighted by lines given" would be even more interesting!)

2.) The distance graph is my favorite. For instance, it shows that about as much time was spent in the Hobbit as in the Lord of the Rings in total, for all events. In fact, more time was spent lounging around Rivendell in the latter! This gives me hope that maybe, just maybe, the source material for the Hobbit is rich enough to support three movies by Peter Jackson. We'll see.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Set the Controls for the Heart of the Nebula

(This makes two old Pink Floyd references today -- the first was when I was talking about separation science in biochem lecture and showed the cover of Dark Side of the Moon as an example.)

Here is a very detailed 3-D reconstruction of what a nearby nebula located in the constellation of Cepheus looks like (probably). It's quite beautiful, and reminds me of the Doomsday Machine from the original Star Trek:

There's a whole site of these out there located here. And thanks to this post for alerting me to this work of art. Or is it science? Hard to tell.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

No Tenure for Indiana Jones

McSweeney's published a great piece that is an academic review document for Dr. Henry "Indiana" Jones, explaining why his tenure has been denied. Read it here.

I just prepared one of these files myself. In fact, I think this would be a little funnier if it wasn't quite so negative -- academic documents are not as negative as this one, but the application of experience to standards does ring quite true.

I have an idea for one of these that is a "student evaluation form" of Jesus as teacher/rabbi. Maybe some day I'll have time.

Any other ideas for academic reviews of prominent figures?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

LEGO to Teach Color Inversion?

So there's a use for all those pink pieces after all! If you build something like this:

And then invert the colors of the picture, it suddenly looks like this:
Something tells me someone could make a pretty cool color physics learning exercise out of something like this ... let the students build structures and invert the colors to see what happens.