Monday, December 29, 2003

Donner party, revisited:

Driving along I-5 in San Diego today, I heard about the closure of the I-5 several hundred miles to the North, between California and Oregon because of a strong snowstorm. Several hundred cars and trucks were caught, and gasoline and food had to be snow-mobiled in after the storm had abated, and until the big ploughs could get in to clear the road. The story mentioned that many of the vehicles had people in them that were completely unprepared. Clothing for 70 degree weather. No food or water. There were children in several cars.

It struck me that we are so focused on staring at our feet as we trudge through this life that we have become completely disconnected from the natural forces around us. As the city of Bam knows, nature can suddenly decide that it wants to shake you up. And we are usually quite unprepared for it. A compounding set of problems can prove deadly for even the wisest of survivors.

 Thursday, December 25, 2003

Sounds of good old Saint Nick:

When something moves really, really fast through the air, we can hear it. Faster than a speeding train. Faster than a speeding bullet. I'm talking hyper-sonic.

Lightning drills a 1 to 2 cm hole in the sky several kilometers long. Thunder is what we hear when the atmosphere is snapped open and then refills the hole. Imagine the sound when a hole about 1 meter in size gets drilled through tens of kilometers in a second or less.

That's what happens when a significant meteor comes down to within 50 km of the surface. The sound produced by this shockwave (particularly the infrasound below 20 Hz) can be detected from several thousand kilometers away. These events are of interest not only because of the spectacular display and their effect on unwary populations (on September 27 an event over the state of Orissa in eastern India caused several people to collapse in shock, and one person died from a possibly connected heart attack), but also because they are detonations in the atmosphere, and could be mistaken for nuclear tests. In fact, the energy of these bolides is often quoted in kilotons of TNT, the standard energy equivalent for nuclear shots. A bolide with total energies over 1 kt is needed for infrasound detection with the current comprehensive test ban treaty infrasound international monitoring system, and estimates of the bolide flux in this range are about 10 events worldwide per year. About 6 to 7% of a nuclear blast's energy goes into sound, and the estimates for bolides range from 0.2 to about 7%.

Here's a great summary of the collision flux with Earth, ranging over 14 orders of magnitude, from an often quoted letter to Nature by Brown, Spalding, ReVelle, Tagliaferri and Worden (10.1038/nature01238 - PDF file):

Other methods that are used to detect these events are satellite optical and IR observations of the fireball, radio reflections, seismic signals (again, just a form of sound), and ground-based video. The proliferation of security cameras has in fact been a good source for fireball data, but often what is seen is a reflection off a car or a window, since the cameras are looking down to catch crime, and not up to catch celestial phenomena.

Things to remember: shooting stars and fireballs are neither stars, fire, nor comets; groundfall (pieces reaching the ground) from an event is extremely rare and very difficult to find, but are often mistakenly reported; eyewitness accounts are almost without exception useless for research (we are poor observers of exciting events).

There is a great article by Alan Hildebrand of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada here that gives a nice mathematical summary of the chances of seeing a meteorite fall. Summary: of the approximately 7,000 groundfalls in a year, about 5 have a chance of being seen. His comment about a herd of dairy cattle extending a person's awareness cross-section made me laugh...

There is a nice page about the 1947 Sikhote-Alin fireball (and groundfall!) here.

A Colorado website tracks fireballs, here, and seems to have a scientific approach.

Then again, if you are listening on Christmas Eve, and hear a rumble under clear skies, it could be the crack of a reindeer whip you hear.


 Saturday, December 20, 2003

Jaenicke-Després, Buckler, Smith, Gilbert, Cooper, Doebley & Pääbo:

On trying to reduce my backlog of reading, I noticed an article in the November 14 Science about teosinte corn (maize, for my cross-Atlantlete readers).

The kernel of the story is that several traits of modern corn had already been established by human interference at least 4,400 years before the present. Selective breeding is genetic modification.

So genetically modified foods have a deeper history than we thought, and I perhaps need to revise my table of agricultural stages.

Nothing is ever as simple as we would like. Prehistoric popcorn anyone?

 Friday, December 19, 2003

Ridge:Esker::Bin Laden:Erratic

The upcoming holiday season, all the air travel involved, and the change of U.S. threat advisory from elevated to high will be an interesting combination to watch.

It occurred to me that al-Qaeda has forgotten about China. Not in the sense that China has a large muslim population that they would love to radicalize, since I am sure they are at work on that, despite Beijing's obvious preoccupation with just such a scenario. It's the Made in China factor.

Both decorating for the season and making my purchases has made me aware that most everything is now "Made in China." If we continue in this direction, everything will be made in China. Everything. Even the continental substrate. The atmosphere. China will make it all. As foretold.

What I mean behind that hyperbole is that China has an enormous stake in the survival of the current economic system. As goes the U.S., so goes the Middle Kingdom - and if China perceives a real threat to the U.S. buying power for its own exports, it will act. A sleeping dragon will have been awakened that would be much more than al-Qaeda bargained for.

Merry Christmas! Buy Chinese!

 Thursday, December 18, 2003


I used to sleep six nights a week as an undergraduate. Now, if I skip a night, I seem to pay a much higher price. And I thought I was supposed to need less sleep as I aged?

I had a great night with Isabel. Hurricane Isabel, that is. We lost power for about 16 hours starting at about 7 a.m., and my wife and I spent that time bailing out the sump every 30 to 45 minutes to stop water from flooding the basement and ruining hundreds of our books... there is a sort of zombie rythm one gets into when the alarm goes off that frequently.

The next morning the alarm went off and I jumped out of bed, feeling well rested. I showered and got dressed for work, only to look at the clock as I was about to depart, and realize that it was 12:30. I had slept for about one-and-a-half hours. The clock time was correct, but the alarms had all been reset to midnight. By that point I was fully awake, so I knew going back to bed was going to be difficult.

That was a rare taste of needing less sleep, because lately our circadian rhythms have been dominated by cats. And that means nocturnal activity. Theirs, not ours. It's those odd digging noises that come from the study that worry me...

The sleep deprivation study comes to mind where they placed cats on 3-inch-wide islands in the middle of a pond for several days. Cruel indeed - they ended up with psychotic cats. More psychotic that normal, that is. Our cats are occasionally psychotic with 23 hours of sleep a day. I'm psychotic with an average of six to seven hours.

 Sunday, December 14, 2003

Patrick O'Brian and the Prinz Eugen:

I saw Master and Commander this weekend, and enjoyed it thoroughly. Parts of the sound track were recorded by Richard King using cannons supplied by Michigan cannoneers, with live shot of all sorts. What you hear in the movie are actual ball, bar, grape and chain shot flying overhead, so the whistling and humming sounds are probably quite authentic (NPR/All Things Considered story).

There's a good website about men-of-war here, although it seems related to another movie, Pirates of the Caribbean. The Royal Navy also has a nice history section to its website.

The lines in the Master and Commander about the phasmid disguising itself reminded me of a story my father told of flying a sortie over the English Channel during WWII and coming across a very large ship with what appeared to be cargo boxes on its deck. When they peeled off to attack the convoy, the boxes unfolded to reveal very large guns - it was in fact the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, against which the squadron had no chance, and so they quickly broke off, scattered, and returned to base.

I'm farily sure this was not any part of the famous Channel Dash by the Bismarck & Prinz Eugen described in this MOD article, since he never mentioned the Bismarck. It must have been some other movement - his flight logbooks are still around, so I will have to ask and have a look to try and find the dates.

I had an old Revell model of the Bismarck which I think I eventually destroyed with a pellet gun. I probably even made airplane noises and rat-a-tat-tatted at it as I made pass after pass, immune from its silent, plastic guns and frozen turrets. I'm sure my sound effects were just as effective as those depicting exchange of fire between the Surprise and the Acheron.

 Saturday, December 13, 2003

ME, not FL:

An interesting project I came across in one of my programs - Lobster Tales. You can find out where your particular lobster was caught, and find out a bit about the lobsterman who caught it. Purchased live lobsters often come with rubber bands around their claws. The bands from this program have a serial number on them that consumers can enter in the Lobster Tales website also printed on the band. It makes for an interesting connection between a consumer and a provider that has been severed in modern culture.

The idea to extend this tracking into the consumer side of things came from a scientific tracking system gone awry: a lobster with a scientific tag that was supposed to be removed by the fisherman accidentally made it all the way to a Wal-Mart in Wisconsin. A dutiful consumer called the telephone number on the tag, and the science program was left with a lobster catch indicator in the middle of the continent!

Lobsters are an interesting case in the world of aging research - I'm not sure if an upper limit to lobster age is known. They have a very great advantage over us mammals in that their telomeres do not shorten when their cells divide, which is what appears to be the limiting factor for our cell divisions. (FEBS Letters Vol. 439 (1-2) pp. 143-146). When large lobsters are caught, there is no way to tell their age - because they molt, they do not have annual growth marks. The largest lobster on record, weighing 44 lbs 6 oz was probably between 50 and 100 years old (I remember seeing a photo of this monster hanging beside a fisherman many years ago, about 3-4 feet long, but I can't find it on the net).

Here's a Lobster Cam inside a lobster trap in Maine - pity the poor fellow who wanders in (cam is often black - either night-time, or simply disconnected).

The The Lobster Conservancy site has a lot of good information on lobster issues, and you can even "adopt a lobster" here (although I'm not sure I'd want to get that telegram "...regret to inform that your adopted lobster, Elvis, was boiled and eaten on Sept. 12."...)

Hungry yet? Can't get to the The Maine Lobster Festival this year? Jess' Market participates in the Lobster Tales Program, and ships FedEx (unfortunately, their website appears to be somewhat hostile to Mac browsers (Safari and IE...), just be patient, and their page will load eventually).

 Thursday, December 11, 2003

D. Deutsch:

In the late nineteen eighties I came across the U.S.-Soviet Youth Orchestra in Oberlin, Ohio. In one of those gestures of cold-war détente, a mixed group of students was touring both countries, and playing well-known pieces by each-other's composers.

One of the tid-bits I learned while talking to them was that they had a fair bit of adjusting to do before they could play music together. Not only the expected language and cultural adjustments, but musical ones, too. It turns out that Middle-C can be different depending on where you are. Over here, Middle-C is defined as 261.63 Hz. Over there, Middle-C is 258.65 Hz.

The difference had come about because Middle-C is actually completely arbitrary. In fact, international agreement on what frequency to use to pin the western twelve tone equal temperament chromatic scale was only reached in 1939. Sure enough, the ever-present International Standards Organisation has a standard for it (ISO 16:1975, note that it is based on A in the treble stave as 440 Hz).

An earlier French law in 1859 had attempted this standardization with A at 435 Hz - the diapason normale - which was widely used until the 1939 ISO standard. This was the source of the Russian tuning.

In the end, the orchestra decided to use the U.S. tuning of Middle-C while over here, and the older diapason normale tuning while playing in the USSR. Seems obvious, but apparently it took an awful lot of arguing, diplomatic intervention, and several bottles of vodka to get to that point.

My question here is - how does somebody who has retained absolute pitch deal with this difference?

(And I say retained on purpose, because there's good evidence that we are all born with it. Only about 1 person in 10,000 in the West retains absolute pitch. Most of us lose it because there is no linguistic meaning embedded in pitch. Except in many tonal Asian languages. Sub-question: do more people who grew up hearing a tonal language have perfect pitch than people who grew up in an atonal household? Probably. Speakers of Vietnamese and Mandarin seem to be able to reproduce tones much more accurately than Westerners.)

For someone coming from a diapason-normale-tuned musical background who has absolute pitch, it must be very disorienting to have to readjust. No wonder they fought so hard against the Americans.

 Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Ike Shake:

Apparently there was a magnitude 4.5 earthquake just before 4 p.m. yesterday, but I didn't feel a thing. I was probably either walking around, or I am on a floor in my building that was a node for the dominant frequency.

Here's the USGS webpage for this event.

The epicenter was nearer to Richmond, and occurred in a known area of seismic activity that can just be made out on this map of seismic activity in the U.S.:

The event was very shallow, only about 5.0km. Western earthquakes are often between 10 and 150 km deep.

It's actually very hard to get away from a fault if you are on land - the maximum distance between faults is about 5 miles in the U.S., a fact that makes siting nuclear power plants very hard, since seismic hazards are important to safety. The key factor is how active the fault is - and most faults are pretty much quiescent. The hazard map above takes that into account with the "2% Probability of Exceedance in 50 years" statement.

Note the hotspots in the East - the Arkansas-Missouri area, South Carolina, Massachusetts, and the St. Lawrence - all places where there have been very large, but rare, movements: the New Madrid earthquake in 1811 (M=7.58), Cape Ann in 1755, Charleston in 1886 (M=7.3), and Massena, NY in 1944 (M=5.80).

Yesterday's quake released about 100,000 tons of TNT-equivalent energy. I happened to come across this fact while looking over data for the "Atoms for Peace Program," which was announced by Pres. Eisenhower fifty years ago on December 8.

How is this related?

Ike's announcement led to the Plowshare program which explored the use of nuclear power to dig large holes for use in construction. There were a total of 35 shots in this series, the first of which was Gnome under Operation Nougat, forty-two years ago today.

The most famous Plowshare shot is probably Sedan, carried out on July 6, 1962 which created a crater over 300 feet deep. Tours of the Nevada Test Site stop here. Here it is in action:

The Sedan explosion had a yield of 104 kilotons - about the same energy as yesterday's earthquake. There are about 13,000 of these light earthquakes a year worldwide.

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 Saturday, December 06, 2003

Walter J. Boyne, John Daley:

Thanks to my father-in-law, we got a sneak peek at the Smithsonian's brand new Udvar-Hazy Center out at Dulles, Virginia.

In brief, WOW. An overview of the exhibition hall:

An odd view of the Northrop N-1M:

The nose of the Concorde:

And the brooding Enterprise (notice its leading edges are missing, used for the post-Columbia testing):

The list goes on: Gossamer Condor. Blackbird. Enola Gay. Little Stinker...

The Udvar-Hazy Center opens to the public on December 15, and I hope to get back there before the year is out.

Thank goodness Silver Hill is finally yielding up its secrets.

 Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Calderón (again) country:

Hello from Costa Rica. I'm here for two meetings, and yes, it's one of those trips where all I get to see is the airport and the hotel. Fortunately, I have seen some of this area before, and I'm quite sure I will get here again, on my own time, and be able to take some time to see volcanoes, rainforest, fauna, etc.

According to Allan Flores, the country's Vice-Minister of Environment and Energy (who spoke to us for a millisecond), one quarter of the country's area is under some form of environmental management. He also claimed that 99% of the country's energy comes from 'clean' sources, but I'm not sure what 'clean' means. Hydropower? Geothermal? Both are certainly possible here.

On one of my previous trips in 2001, I was here to observe the deployment of one of NASA's high-altitude research aircraft, the WB-57 (the other aircraft is the civilian version of the U-2, the ER-2). The WB-57 can fly well above 60,000 feet, which was quite amusing when we listened in to the comm between the taxiing aircraft requesting departure permission from the tower and ATC:

"San Jose, this is NASA 26 requesting flight level six-fifty."

Long pause...
"NASA 26, please repeat flight level."
"San Jose, NASA 26 requests Six-five-oh."
"Uh... OK, NASA 26, flight level six-fifty, um... OK."

Another pilot can't resist, and interrupts:
"What the hell are you flying?

Here she is taxiing after a landing:

And here is Andy Roberts walking the pilot (SH) back to the suit-up van. Notice the pilot and the engineer (SB, far right) have to wear a pressure suits, which also need a little refrigeration unit when they're not connected to the aircraft itself...

The WB-57 can get above the enormous tropical storm cells and sample the air that is being exchanged between the troposphere and the stratosphere, so that we can study how one level affects the other. Here is the website for the Harvard research team that was using the WB while I was there.

For lots of pictures both here in Costa Rica and many other place in Central America, visit Canary in a Coal Mine, which tracks the progress of my boss' son on his drive from San Francisco to Tierra del Fuego. Right now he's in Panama, pondering whether to go into Colombia or not.

Would you go? Read his reasoning, and give him feedback!