Friday, February 27, 2015

Behind the Eight Ball

When I was a kid, my mom was a fan of educational toys. She never described them as such, and so I didn’t think of them that way until years later. Even the comic books she brought home were likely to be Classic Illustrated, a brand that adapted famous novels. Thumbing her nose at Dr. Wertham’s anti-comic book crusade, she thought reading was reading and that if comics inspired it they were a good thing. Her plan worked. The first full-length adult novel I ever read was The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle; I opened it after having been inspired by the Classics Illustrated version. (That very 1959 edition hardback copy of The Lost World is still on my shelf.) She had less success with the art supplies and with science kits such as a chemistry set and a microscope. I played with them to be sure – dabbing paint, examining droplets of pond water, mixing powders in potentially dangerous combinations, and so on – but didn’t develop into an eccentric artist or a mad scientist. Too bad. Either persona might have worked for me, but at grammar school age I didn’t know.

Amazon’s website brought all this to mind a short time ago by listing chemistry sets under “Recommended for you.” My only explanation for this is the batch of oddball presents I buy for the Saturnalia event at my house in December. Somehow from these purchases Amazon’s algorithm decided “you might also like” a kids’ chemistry set. Well, maybe I would like one of those. But, I do notice from the description how much is not included compared to what was in my antique set. In that less safety conscious (or perhaps more parent-trusting) era, the bottled samples in my kit, if used properly, could have wreaked a modest degree of havoc. With the new kits one scarcely can blow up anything.

Of course, the manufacturers at the time were not completely reckless. My old set omitted most of the elements even then. This irked me as a kid because the set came with a periodic table that identified the 92 naturally occurring elements, and yet provided samples only of about two dozen – plus a few compounds useful for simple experiments. I figured the set should come with a majority of the elements anyway. I understood reasons for leaving off some: arsenic and thallium for two, which are too easily applied to the removal of inconvenient people. I grudgingly understood the omission of radium which I knew was radioactive, though I wasn’t aware how insanely expensive it is also. I also figured there was probably good reason to leave out uranium, given its utility in bomb making.

As it happens I was wrong about the uranium. It was then and is now perfectly legal for a private individual to own up to 15 pounds (7kg) of natural uranium. There are companies out there that will sell it to you, though don’t be surprised if some federal agency makes a note of it. You might already own some since one of the more mundane uses of the material is to glaze ceramics. Fiestaware dinnerware made before 1942 has uranium glazing; the plates turn up frequently on eBay. A large proportion of false teeth made before 1980 also flash uranium glazes. Radiation is not a cause for concern in either case – you’ll get more exposure from your granite kitchen countertops. Natural uranium is pretty safe because it contains only 0.71% U235, which is the usefully unstable isotope that powers fuel rods (enriched to 3% U235) or bombs (at more than 90% pure U235). More than 99% of natural uranium is tame U238, which has a half-life of four and one half billion years and therefore emits negligible radiation. If you want to be extra-safe you could opt for depleted uranium, which is uranium with U235 removed, though it is harder to come by since it is in high demand. The stuff makes great armor-piercing ammunition thanks to its density and its tendency to catch fire when it hits the target. Nonetheless, it probably is just as well I didn’t play with uranium as a kid. It was probably just as well I didn’t have the other 67 missing elements at my fingertips, either. I otherwise might have pursued a career as a chemist, and that can have a downside: I saw the last episode of Breaking Bad.

Those childhood kits, sets, and (alas) comics are long gone. A rummage through the attic, closets, and basement convinces me the microscope has vanished somewhere, too, though now I'm tempted to buy another one. In one dusty corner I did find one of those Magic 8-Balls, which still are manufactured as they have been since 1950; the ball will give one of 20 random answers when you ask it a question. I suppose using this device doesn’t quite count as science though.

Bush: The Chemicals Between Us

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Weighty Matters

This morning an evil thing caught my attention: the bathroom scale. “Step on me!” it cried out soundlessly. I defied its siren call, but am likely to succumb at some point.

Inevitably (a wonderful adverb that extinguishes responsibility), I add pounds beginning Thanksgiving week and peak on or shortly after January 1. Rarely do those pounds begin to come back off before March. In modern fashion, I blame others for this, particularly greedy furniture manufacturers for making sofas so soft and comfortable that I sit on them too much instead of exercising to wear off excess calories. The sofas don’t even come with warning labels, except for the mysterious little tags that say, “This tag may not be removed under penalty of law.” Perhaps businesses should be forced to offer furniture made out of “healthy alternatives” such as concrete.  (Thomas Edison actually manufactured concrete furnishings in 1911 – they didn’t catch on.) Perhaps also there should be a hefty sin tax on soft cushions to discourage consumers from buying them. Or then again, I could stand up and walk around of my own accord, though that’s asking an awful lot.

Another option to lower my weight is to raise my elevation, though even at 10,000 feet above sea level weight is reduced only by about 0.1%. In order to drop a full pound I’d have to rise much too high to breathe. Besides, that is just weight. The real issue is mass: a balance scale will read the same at .1g as at 1g since both weights will have been reduced by the same amount.

The real solution is to buy a metric scale. This won’t change mass either, but at 2.2 pounds per kilogram, the number in the faceplate will be substantially lower, and that at least will be satisfying. Besides, a kg scale would be official. The US Congress formally adopted the metric system in 1866. Yes, it did. Not that it has made a difference. Not even the federal government makes much use of it even in minor matters. The 1970s stab at converting highway signs to kilometers, for example, was so unpopular the feds gave up on it after only a few years. Americans have some sense of weights though, thanks to their vices. P. J. O'Rourke: “Drugs have taught an entire generation of Americans the metric system.”

A couple of blogs ago I mentioned the redefinition of the second back in the 1960s. It was part of a general move toward defining measurements in fundamental and immutable terms. Scientists ran into trouble, though, while trying to redefine the kilogram as something other than the cylinder of 90% platinum and 10% iridium sitting in a case in Sèvres. (This chunk of metal itself was an 1889 redefinition of the previous “1000 cc of water” adopted by the French National Convention in 1795, a standard which had problems of its own.) The scientists’ problem in the 1960s was that redefinitions put on the table for the kg either were tautological or still effectively required weighing a physical object, so what was the point? Yet, the mass of the IPK (International Prototype Kilogram) cylinder isn’t constant. No matter how well it is protected, some contamination to the surface is inescapable. According to Livescience, the IPK “has gained tens of micrograms of mass” since it was cast. Since the IPK by definition is the kilogram, and since carefully made copies will contaminate at different rates in different environments, undesirable inconsistencies are introduced into very precise measurements.

Relief is on the way. In 2015 the kilogram is the last remaining SI (Le Système International d'Unités) measurement defined by a particular physical object, but a proposal exists for redefining it in terms of the Planck constant. In 2010 the International Committee for Weights and Measures put this on the agenda for 2014 but then delayed it to 2015. If this new definition is accepted, the problem will be resolved, though the technical challenges of measuring mass this way mean that all but a handful of people still will opt for a balance scale and metal weights.

If the new kilogram is large enough (perhaps we can include those contaminants), I can lower the readout on the bathroom scale a bit. That beats the alternative of eating less and exercising more. Anything but that.

Beatles – Carry That Weight


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Of Lilts and Lesley

Earlier this month I stopped at the Green Knoll Grill. A friend was playing bass that night for Little Jimmy and the Starlites, a very good local band specializing in classic 50s-70s rock. There was a sizable crowd for the venue and a fairly enthusiastic one too, though naturally it was mostly older – not exclusively by any means, but mostly. I’m fully aware I fit the demographic, but it still looks funny to me to see gray-haired folks rocking out on the dance floor.

Even though I hadn’t heard many of the songs on the play list in years – in decades for a few – there were none to which I didn’t know the lyrics. The popular songs of our youth become entrenched in our psyches without any conscious attempt on our part to install them there. They not only provide a soundtrack to our lives but influence our perspective in ways of which we scarcely are aware until one evokes a strong emotion in us, often to the puzzlement of our older and younger companions. Music we encounter later in life can leave its mark too, especially if it is associated with some significant event or phase in our lives, but it never embeds itself in quite the same way as what entered our ears between the ages of 10 and 25. You can tell a lot about the quirks of a generation by listening to its music.

It should come as no surprise that we often feel an attachment (however one-sided) to the musicians/songsters as well as the songs. Back in January 2014 when Phil Everly died I commented about popular songs, “They are so interconnected with our life histories that when the artists who performed them die, we often feel the loss as a personal one.” All too frequently this happens when the performers are young (27 is a notoriously difficult age to survive), but in a way it is more unsettling when they begin to fall away at more natural ages: in the past year the departed include Joe Cocker (70), Paul Revere (76), Tommy Ramone (65), Johnny Winter (70), among others. Yes, I know the commonplace response is to say, “nowadays that’s young,” but in truth it isn’t. The deaths might well have been “too soon” by the way we like to reckon things, but the people were not really young. Neither are those of us whom they influenced, as we can’t help but be aware.

The latest to leave us is Lesley Gore (68) who began to chart when I was 10 (she was just 17) and who was a regular presence on radios and record players for the next decade. I’ll leave the commentary about her music and her life to others: there is quite a lot of that for a variety of reasons (many of them only tangentially related to her pop lyrics and sound), and there is little I can or wish to add. However, on a personal level, several of her songs are definitely entrenched in my mind in the way described above, and I’m glad they are. While news of her passing reminds me of my age, hearing her songs definitely makes me feel young.  Thanks for that, Lesley.

Lesley infatuated Robin when she was Catwoman’s sidekick in the “That Darn Catwoman” episode of Batman

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Cesium the Moment

“Just a second,” said the young lady at the counter as she answered the phone.

She didn’t really mean my wait would be a second, of course. She meant it would be some indeterminate length of time that was short on a human scale. A second generally is too brief for humans to accomplish very much. However, it is long enough for a pygmy shrew’s heart to beat 14 times. A hummingbird can flap its wings 50 times per second while a bee averages 200. A photon will travel 299,792 km. Even for a human, it’s enough time to drive 88 feet in car going 60mph. I’m not hummingbird or a photon and I wasn’t in a car, so in the first second of waiting I didn’t flap my arms even once or travel anywhere that the entire earth wasn’t going anyway. Nor did I accomplish much in the next 50 or so seconds before she hung up the phone and turned her attention to my purchase. But it was enough time for my thoughts to wander to the matter of seconds, which I recalled were redefined sometime during my school years; a reference check once I was back home confirmed that they were.

The Sumerians came up with the traditional second (reflecting their peculiar sexagesimal predilection) even though they had no timepieces accurate enough to measure one. By definition an hour was 1/24 of a day; there were 3,600 seconds in an hour and 86,400 seconds in a day. This worked well enough for millennia, but by the 20th century it posed a problem for scientists. The problem was that the earth’s rotation is variable, meaning the length of a second was variable too. This really wouldn’t do, so in 1967 a second was redefined as the time that elapses during 9,192,631,770 cycles of the radiation produced by the transition between two levels of the cesium 133 atom. An atomic clock that counts these cycles – using microwaves, resonance, and a crystal oscillator in a manner I don’t pretend to understand very well – is so accurate that it will drift no more than a second in 60,000,000 years, the length of time since the dinosaurs died. The first cesium clock was built in 1952, and so was well established technology by ’67.

The redefinition caused its own problems. That particular number of cycles was chosen because it matched the average second based on the earth’s rotation over the previous century. However, a slight slowing of the earth’s rotation caused by rising sea levels since the late 19th century meant that by 1972 International Atomic Time already was off by a couple seconds from the common clock based on the earth’s rotation. In other words, by 1972 midnight came a couple seconds late. This wouldn’t do either, so in 1972 the leap second was introduced to re-synch the solar day while keeping the new definition of a second for all purposes. Whenever Universal Time (the common clock based on the earth’s rotation) drifts more than .9 seconds from International Atomic Time (which takes no account of earth’s rotation or its orbit) a “leap second” is added to the year, usually at midnight either on June 30 or on December 31. There have been 25 of these extra seconds since 1972. The last was in 2012, but we’ll have another in 2015 when June 30 will have 86,401 seconds.

The question “why cesium?” naturally came to mind. For once there was a fairly simple answer: the electron configuration of a cesium atom (a single electron in the outermost shell) makes it easy to manipulate for the purpose, and it has a higher cycle rate than other similarly suitable atoms such as rubidium. [Don’t get me started on “why cesium rather than caesium”; as a hangover from schoolboy Latin, my preference is the latter spelling but on these shores one gets corrected for using it; my Word 2013 has just underlined it in red.]

I also see that cesium has other interesting properties. For one thing it is yellow. This might seem a minor feature, but nearly all metals are grey or silver in color. The exceptions, notably gold and copper, tend to be valued for jewelry. So, why are there no cesium earrings, rings, and bracelets? For one thing it has a melting point of 28 degrees C (82 F), so the jewelry would turn to liquid at body temperature. This doesn’t really matter though, because it wouldn’t last long enough to melt. It would explode on contact with skin – more precisely on contact with the moisture of the skin – which would make short work of both the jewelry and the wearer. So, don’t give your sweetie a cesium necklace for Valentine’s Day this Saturday unless you are planning on ending the relationship.

Cesium and water

Saturday, February 7, 2015


By happenstance, I’ve found myself lately to be a sounding board for several Millennialsvoicing their angst about ever finding a fulfilling future. There is nothing new about this. See The Graduate (1967) for the iconic depiction of my generation’s moment. In truth it is a luxury: "a first world problem" in the parlance of our time. Anyone struggling just to survive doesn’t have much time for it. The difference between Boomers and Millennials is that the latter really do have reason to worry. Few are struggling to survive, but many aren’t moving forward. That statement needs qualification: a minority are doing very well indeed, but the rest are just muddling along. We’re not talking a minority of 1% . It’s more like 30-35% successes vs 70-65% muddles, but that still means the typical experience of a twentysomething isn’t very good. This hasn’t escaped the notice of the press, and many of the headlines are far from polite.

Salon Magazine: “Are Millennials Delusional?”
Pacific Standard Magazine: “Millennials: A Generation with Unrealistic Expectations”
Huffington Post: “Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy”
allBusiness: “The Millennials: What Have We Done to Our Children?”
and so on.

All of the authors of the above articles broadly agree on the problem. The Huffington Post notes “a desire for nice things and an unwillingness to work for them.” They also agree on the source of the problem. “Baby Boomers all around the country and world told their Gen Y kids that they could be whatever they wanted to be” (Huffington), while (allBusiness) “the inculcation of false hope that students can be anything they want to be and do anything they want to do, regardless of skill, ability or intelligence as long as they believe in themselves, is nurturing impossible expectations.” If Satisfaction = Reality – Expectations, it is unsurprising if young people are in negative territory.

All this is a little unfair both to youths and their parents, and much of it smacks of age-old complaints against the young in any era. Surely the economic meltdown of 2006-8 plus a persistently sluggish recovery since then – one which has greatly benefited 30-35% of the population while leaving the rest stagnant at best – have something to do with it. Angst is not an unreasonable reaction to the present environment by 2015 graduates of high school or college. Nonetheless, there may be some fire beneath all the editorial smoke.

The twentysomethings bending my ear are not asking for advice, and probably (justifiably, too) would shut down were I to give any unsolicited. So, I’ll stay quiet and just offer this comment to the ether. Once there was a notion (not widely shared in my own generation, btw, but more common a century earlier) that that the biggest achievement in life was to live as a free human being. To live by one’s own values. Not beholden, not entitled, and not subservient. One might be prosperous or not. One might have responsibilities or not, but if so they are of the kind taken on freely. Circumstances in life might prevent this, but that is why it was considered an achievement. Any other boon – money, fame, adventure, or whatever – may be all well and good, but as gravy not the meat (or soy burger for the vegetarians out there).

Life without strings is an old-fashioned concept of fulfillment. I can’t claim much first-hand experience with it, but maybe it has some merit.

From Disney’s Pinocchio (1940):
I've got no strings so I have fun
I'm not tied up to anyone
How I love my liberty
There are no strings on me

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Scifi Sunday

It may be Superbowl Weekend, but for me it also is Scifi Weekend on page and small screen. I’ve been neglecting my fallback genre for too long, and the past couple days have been time to catch up.

The pages were Lock In, the latest novel by Hugo Award winner John Scalzi. Scalzi, best known for his Old Man’s War series, writes old-school science fiction, and writes it well. Lock In is set in a not too distant future when a pandemic has bedridden 1% of the population; the afflicted, called Hadens, are locked inside their bodies, conscious but unable to move. Technology comes to the rescue: neural implants and software allow Hadens to operate Personal Transports (robots) remotely; Hadens also can interface with Integrators, a small number of people with a special brain structure and neural implants of their own. So, the bedridden are still able to experience the world and to be mobile in it, either through their robots or through the human eyes of hired Integrators. However, the Hadens are still all too human, which gives two FBI agents (one of them a Haden) something to do. It seems a Haden may be at the bottom of murders, terrorist acts, and market manipulation. Has someone found a way to hack the Haden/Integrator implants and software? To what end? Lock In is a solid scifi/detective hybrid with characteristic Scalzi wry humor.

On the small screen, the pick was The Infinite Worlds of H.G. Wells, a 2001 TV mini-series that was quite ambitious for its budget. One scarcely could have better source material. Wells’ tales are tied together by the story of an interview with HG Wells by a supposed journalist in 1946 (the year HG died). In this interview HG reveals that many of his stories were true. Since the real HG used the first person from time to time (e.g. in The Diamond Maker), he probably wouldn’t have objected to this device on screen. I’m not sure how he would have reacted to the depiction of his youthful 1890s self or to the depiction of Jane. He is presented as the clueless male of modern sitcoms seeking Jane’s hand in conventional marriage while she is worldly wise and overflowing with the politically correct views of 2001.

Whenever one depicts a historical character in fiction, the question arises of how faithful one should be to reality. The real HG met and lived with Jane while he already was married to his cousin. (We hear nothing of a first marriage in the series). On some subjects HG and Jane were stuck in the 19th century, but in matters of feminism and Free Love their views were more radical than those prevailing in 2001. With Jane’s OK, HG fathered children with feminist authors Amber Reeves and Rebecca West while remaining happily married to Jane; he also carried on with birth control advocate Margaret Sanger among others. I can see why, however, the producers of a TV series (at the Hallmark channel) wouldn’t want to try to explain all that; it’s a distraction and some viewers might be off-put. Much better to cater to 21st century sensibilities while depicting Wells as a faithful lovesick puppy and Jane as firmly in control of the relationship. There have been sillier depictions of HG on screen. In the 1979 movie Time After Time he (played by Malcolm McDowell) is a time traveler chasing Jack the Ripper. In the TV series Warehouse 13 he is a woman and a villain. The departures in The Infinite Worlds of H.G. Wells are minor compared to those.

The tales themselves – all of them familiar to any Wells fan – are handled nicely. We have a portal to another world (The Crystal Egg), accidental backwards time travel (Brownlow’s Newspaper), a bio-terrorist who dumps germs that make people tell the truth into the water supply (The Stolen Bacillus), and more. All in all it’s pleasant fare, and a good portrayal of classic tales.

Meantime, the game (yes that one) is on. Maybe I should check to see who is winning.

Cole Porter: A Picture of Me Without You. Third verse:  “Picture H. G. Wells without a brain”