Tag: Physics

Day 1000: How It Ends


Inside this cubicle the air is thick as honey, with asphyxiating flecks of the mundane bracing against the irrefutable promise of a golden weekend. Outside these pin-cushion partitions – and indeed inside as well – every tiny molecule in the universe is saying its goodbyes to its neighbors and preparing to splash into the unknown permutations of a distant someday. My fingers hammer at these tiny plastic letters, fully ignorant of what’s to come.

Or are they? The hallowed fingers of esteemed science – no doubt similar in size and shape to my own, only tasked with a far more specific purpose – have combed back the hair of the observable now and picked at the scalp-nits of projection. The fields of astronomy, physics, mathematics, and a cabinet full of –ologies have given us a map of what’s to come. A timeline of time’s last hurrah.

And the best part? If any of these predictions are wrong, every record of them will likely be destroyed before anyone finds out. That’s my kind of science.


Within 10,000 years, human genetic variation will no longer be regionalized. This won’t mean we’ll all look the same – the blonde gene will still speckle crowds and set up offensive jokes, but it will be distributed equally worldwide. This forecasted panmixia is far more optimistic than astrophysicist Brandon Carter’s Doomsday Argument, which places our present at roughly the halfway point of humankind’s civilized journey, and projects a 95% likelihood that we’ll be wholly extinct in 10,000 years.

If global warming hasn’t already soaked us into a Kevin Costner-esque hellscape by then, we may also be facing the melting of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, which will raise the sea levels by 3 or 4 meters above wherever it will be once we lose the rest of the polar ice caps, which should happen long before then.

Long term forecast: buy a big-ass boat. Read more…

Day 854: Training Your Barometer To Be A Really Long Ruler


One day a young student at the University of Copenhagen was asked if he knew how to measure the height of a building using only a barometer. The correct answer involves measuring the atmospheric pressure on the building’s roof and again on the street below, then calculating the height through the difference between the two results. The student came up with a number of alternative answers instead, forcing the professor to re-think the very nature of how he asked questions of his students. That young man was none other than Niels Bohr, future winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics.

Don’t believe me? What if I told you that student was future Vice-President of the United States Spiro Agnew? No? How about a savvy teenage Marc Price, who played Skippy on Family Ties? Are you getting the sense that I have no idea what I’m talking about? 854 days and finally the truth is revealed.

The barometer question is one of the most pristine examples of a true urban legend. We can trace its publication origin perfectly, yet not even the super-sleuths at snopes.com can confirm whether or not such a dastardly comedic display of youthful insouciance ever actually occurred in a college classroom.

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Dr. Alexander Calandra, a test designer with a face that practically dares you to challenge his charming and home-spun anecdotes, included this story in his 1961 blockbuster, The Teaching of Elementary Science of Mathematics. The legend’s origins can be traced to a Reader’s Digest story three years earlier. Dr. Calandra claims the incident actually happened to his colleague during the Sputnik Crisis, when American scientific minds were in a panic to avoid being the second superpower nation to conquer outer space. Read more…

Day 848: No One Is Very Far From Bacon


Those who know me (or who have read enough of my articles to have observed when my jokes and references get tired and therefore repeated) know that I love to write about bacon. Today I’m offering a new take on the topic; in fact, I’m refocussing my literary lens on a wholly different variety of bacon.

Kevin Bacon.

By now I’m sure everyone has heard of the game/meme/phenomenon that is Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. If you’ve somehow escaped this snippet of pop culture, or if you only ever visit the internet to read this site and play solitaire (hi mom!), this is a game in which you try to match any actor or actress to Kevin Bacon through their film and television appearances, using as few steps as possible. For example, Brian Dennehy was in Annie Oakley with Jamie Lee Curtis, who starred with Bacon in 8. Two degrees.

Even if you dip into the more obscure actors it’s hard to find a connection that requires more than three steps. I looked up Loni Nest, who had a small uncredited role as “child in window” in the 1925 silent German horror classic Nosferatu, and still it was only three paces away from Bacon (via Lil Dagover in Harakiri, who appeared with Max Schell in The Pedestrian, who appeared with Bacon in Telling Lies In America). It’s a little weird, really.


The game is based on the small world theory, that everyone is at most six steps away from everyone else via acquaintances. Its origins lie in a January, 1994 interview Bacon gave to Premiere magazine whilst hyping his new flick, The River Wild. He jokingly commented that he had worked with everyone in Hollywood, or at least with someone who had worked with them. Three months later the newsgroup rec.arts.movies began a lengthy discussion about Kevin Bacon as the ‘Center of the Universe’. Read more…

Day 830: Welcome To Liberal, Missouri – Leave Your God At The Door


For those who dance the steps of atheism, agnosticism, Jediism and so on, this world has always been a precarious place. It seems odd that one person’s lack of belief in an established monotheistic principle – even if that person is an otherwise caring, giving, deep-down good dude – can lead to such harsh hatred and judgment by the alleged “moral” majority.

It’s not a big deal these days to forsake the Biblical tenets held dear by so many of this country’s founders. We have lived through the 60’s, through new-age mysticism, through wacky spiritual hoodoo and comet-worshipping cults. To most everyone, a stranger’s religion is not a big deal anymore. But leap back in time to just over a century ago and you’ll find that the best a non-Christian could hope for in this part of the world was tolerance. Not acceptance, not a back-slapping welcome into the community, just tolerance.

One man decided to fight back. He created his own community, a land where atheism was to be the norm and where people could pontificate amid boundless intellectualism. John Lennon said, “Imagine no religion.” 91 years earlier, George Walser made it happen, cranking up the volume on atheism until it achieved the same intolerant, finger-pointing cacophony he had spent his entire life rallying against.

Welcome to Liberal, Missouri.


George Walser was a successful lawyer, a devoted agnostic, and by 1880 he had developed into a staunch anti-religionist. To George, it was offensive for those who do not follow the Christian faith to be branded as amoral, societally detrimental and the cause of all the world’s ills. He yearned for a utopian escape, a place where like-minded folk could go on about their lives without being persecuted by Christians. His solution? Persecute the Christians. Read more…

Day 813: Biting The Bullet


To my fellow fans of tweaked reality, I ask: what is the ultimate magic trick? Is it David Copperfield sending the Statue of Liberty into a temporary netherworld? David Blaine bending the laws of logic and physics two inches from a spectator’s nose? Jim Belushi keeping his garbage sitcom on the air for eight whole seasons?

When I was a kid, before the sombrero of skepticism had planted its weighty brim upon my cranium and killed off much of my wondrous buzz of rapturous imagination, I used to gape over the illusions that would court the most danger. Saws, swords, sickles – the puncture of flesh and the damning of imminent destruction, only to reveal that – whew! – Doug Henning’s mystical mustache and frilly mullet were safe after all. I hadn’t yet developed my appreciation of up-close street magic. To me – and I credit my mother for conveying to me this belief, even in the present – it was all magic. And like any young boy who swam in Star Wars and targeted Space Invaders with the subtle nudge of a joystick, danger was king.

The bullet catch fascinated me. Could someone snag a full-speed bullet in their hands or between their teeth without being blown to shreds? Of course the answer is no – like anything else performed by magicians, it’s not real (except for David Blaine – I’m convinced that guy is deep down the rabbit-hole of the dark arts). It’s just a magnificent magic trick. Sorry – illusion.

No article about magic is complete without a GOB shot.

No article about magic is complete without a GOB shot.

The first recorded grab of a bullet from the air came courtesy of a French magician named Coullew of Lorraine, sometime in the late 16th century. Reverend Thomas Beard told the story in his book, Theatre of Judgment. This was the same tome in which he related the death of Christopher Marlowe, whom he’d dubbed the first modern atheist. In a similar moralistic twist of one who would challenge God’s laws, Reverend Beard explains how Coullew of Lorraine was ironically clubbed to death with his pistol by one of his assistants. Read more…

Day 768: Archimedes Spins The Wheel


There are days when I sit at my desk, look at what I do (my tedious day job, not this particular knuckle-scrunchingly thrilling task) and the weight of my uninspiring career seems to drag down my insides like a kidney stone the size of a tennis shoe. I considered myself to be wildly innovative the day I rubber-banded two pens together so I could reach a third pen that had fallen on the floor, meaning  I wouldn’t have to scoot over to pick it up. I even had a little paperclip on the end so it would lift up a bit and I wouldn’t have to touch the carpet where I regularly spill root beer and pastrami grease.

I felt like frigging MacGyver.

Thankfully, some people are afforded the opportunity to think bigger, and devise clever solutions for problems that get measured in tonnage. When the southern tip of South America proved to be too much of a detour, they figured out how to blast a shortcut through Panama. When too many hardworking souls lost their teeth from trying to open a beer bottle in the manliest way they could think of, they invented the twist-off so we wouldn’t have to. And when a pair of waterways were no longer functioning as conduits for commerce and shipping, they came up with the Falkirk Wheel.


Before our planet was blanketed in a lattice of asphalt and concrete, we relied on waterways to get our stuff (and ourselves) to its destination. Where the Forth and Clyde Canal and the Union Canal meet in Scotland, a bit of ingenuity – even greater than that of my Pen Reachenator (patent pending) – was required. The Union Canal, which was completed in 1822, is located on land that sits about 110 feet above the surface of the Forth and Clyde. Engineers back then were already on top of their game; they devised a series of eleven locks to connect the two. Read more…

Day 718: Ball-Busting Horror Stories From The Sperm Bank Vault


As one who has followed the somewhat boring and traditional path in raising a family, I admire those who carve their own onramp to the domestic highway, so long as they do so with the passion and commitment of quality parentage. Single mom? Single dad? Two moms? Two dads? Seven moms and three dads in some crazy pan-sexual feather-and-lace-wearing love-bond? Whatever suits you, as long as you don’t raise the kid to be an asshole.

I know very little about sperm banks, apart from what I’ve seen in movies and on sitcoms (notably unreliable sources for factual information), but I think I get the premise. People – usually men – show up and deposit their little swimmers. Some of those are acquired by women seeking the joys of motherhood, while others are sent underground to be incorporated into bizarre and morbid experiments, thus producing goons and henchmen for future evil villains who aim to take over the earth.

Again, I’m really not clear on the intricacies of these operations. But from what I understand, a woman acquiring sperm from such a source is rolling the genetic dice. Recessive diseases and hereditary horror stories are part of the gamble, though I imagine reputable joints do a fairly thorough job of background-checking their donors. But in the 80’s and 90’s, the truly discriminating mother-to-hope-to-be might take a trip down to Escondido, California, and snag an emission from the Repository for Germinal Choice.


No one wants to find out that the biological father of their child was in fact some hobo named ‘Spoot’ who dropped off a donation in exchange for $30 in malt liquor money. At the Repository for Germinal Choice, the sperm that would battle it out for claimer’s rights in your nether regions would originate from the balls of a Nobel Prize winner, guaranteed. Well, not ‘guaranteed’. In fact, almost not at all. Read more…

Day 710: Wolfgang Pauli – Physicist, Genius, Breaker of Stuff


Do you sometimes feel as though you’re haunted by bad mojo? Do you sense a crinkly shadow slurping up your footsteps, stalking you with hand-wringing deviousness and an insidious yen to muck up your days with the swift slap of a paranormal brute? Well, I have good news for you. You are almost definitely wrong, and it’s entirely possible that you’ve been soaking your brain too long in the tart brine of unjustified paranoia.


While it’s true that some people appear dogged by a mystical and unspoken conflict with their electronic devices, watching them break down at a rate far exceeding average, no one sporting an official science-badge in the brim of their hat has stepped forward and confirmed this phenomenon. There is no bio-electronic battlefield, no psychic-binary clash of DNA and circuit-board synapses. Yet most of us can relate stories of friends or relatives whose luck with electronics is notoriously foul. Folks who cycle through crapped-out cell phones more frequently than shampoo bottles, or whose computers are swimming in a vortex of perpetual blue-screen mayhem.

Maybe there’s something to this madness. It’s not like all of science has ruled this out. Take, for example, Austrian theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli.


Wolfgang was no slouch. Nominated by Albert Einstein, he snagged the Nobel Prize in Physics for developing the Pauli Exclusion Principle, which has to do with quantum mechanics, spin theory, and a star-studded cast of concepts I won’t pretend to understand. Pauli’s lasting reputation among those of us whose brains aren’t tuned to the frequency of theoretical physics is his bizarre effect on lab equipment. Read more…

Day 616: Top Floor – Ladies’ Wear, Shoes, And The Cold Dark Void Of Space


A scientist looks at a problem and asks, “How?” A skeptic looks at a problem and asks, “Why?” A caribou looks at a problem and just keeps on moseying along because a caribou has no damn problems. When faced with the dilemma of constructing a viable and dependable space elevator, the caribou will show no interest, exhibit no signs of stress, and simply carry on eating whatever it is that a caribou eats (I’m guessing raccoons?).

But humankind didn’t get where it is by giving up and eating. No, we packed that food into a quickly-consumable paste of protein and insulating chemicals, threw on our paisley thinking-vests, and addressed the issue with imagination, innovation, and ridiculously difficult math.

Certainly if we can transplant one’s butt hair to one’s head, if we can process cheese into shiny, single-wrapped squares, if we can teach a frog to play “The Rainbow Connection” on the banjo, we can figure out how to build an elevator into space. How hard can it be?


That crazy-looking Russian is Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, scientist, theorist, and professional crazy-looking Russian. His work in astronomic theory paved the way for all those people-packed tubes of steel we’ve tossed beyond the sky. One day, Konstantin was checking out the newly-minted Eiffel Tower and he thought,  “Hey… why can’t we build another one of these, except bigger? Like, all the way to outer space?” Read more…

Day 613: The Bullocky Stench Of The Temporal Jet-Set


Here’s a thought. If Marty McFly had set the time circuits on the DeLorean to show up fifteen minutes early instead of ten when he returned to 1985, he might have thwarted the Libyan terrorists before they’d shot Doc Brown, leaving two Martys in the parking lot and an irreconcilable paradox fluttering around the space-time continuum like a wayward grocery receipt in a wind gust.

Such is the fickle nature of time travel, which is why every movie that touches on the subject winds up raising heaps of skeptical finger-pointing at its plot holes. And for this reason, the majority of reasonable people tend to doubt that time travel – apart from that tediously slow, gradual one-way type we’re all experiencing right now – can exist.

But every so often, common sense will retreat to its cabin for a weekend and we’ll all get swept away in some tale so heinously unlikely, the slack-jawed sense of wonder we experience could only wind up thwacking us with an agonizing hangover of reason and logic the next morning.


We all know if anyone is going to play around with time travel then cover it up, it’ll probably be the US government. The most ridiculous rumor along this tangent has to be the Philadelphia Experiment. According to the story – which had been passed on to a respected astronomer by a guy who was later revealed to be an ‘imaginative loner’ – the USS Eldridge underwent an experiment during World War II in which it was ‘cloaked’, and rendered invisible. When it reappeared, some crew members had gone insane, while others had materialized with body parts fused to the hull. Read more…