Sunday, January 24, 2010

How quickly can lava burn through your shoe?  

Not fast enough:
There was a case a few years ago where a geologist accidentally stepped into some lava. The nylon laces of his boots burned off almost instantly but the thick leather did not, and he had only minor burns on his foot. After that we all made sure that we only wear real leather boots out on active flows, not the lightweight part-nylon kind.
Revenge of the Sith, it ain't. Still, I'm not swimming in it.

-the Centaur

UPDATE: Reading around a bit on the site, it turns out if you aren't wearing one of those metal bunny suits you can catch on fire from radiant heat, so Revenge of the Sith, it is.

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Hey, *my* birthday is coming up *too*...  

... you might think about this:
Space shuttle for sale, fully loaded, air conditioning, one careful owner. It's the ultimate bargain. NASA has cut the price of a space shuttle to $28.8 million. The vehicles will go on sale after they finish constructing the International Space Station, scheduled to be later this year.
I take no credit for the "my birthday is coming up" joke, which I stole shamelessly from my coworker Othar Hansson.
-the Centaur



If the stars are aligned just right, you may be able to pick the Shuttle up at the Unclaimed Baggage Center.
# posted by Blogger bolot : 5:51 AM
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Rise, Lolho the Squamous!  

lenora and tachikoma

If the world didn't have enough evil already, dedicated computer engineers have figured out how to put it on tap. Behold the terror that is the Lovecraftian Name Generator! Go on, click on it, see what I'm talking about.

Back? Ok, I admit, "Lolho" and "Ual'ke" aren't the scariest Lovecraftian names. But it's programmatic. You can create more than one. The current limit is 25, but by the unholy names of Anai, Bbhaaat, Bosaush, Cazagorarl, Ch-yos, H'eligthorteg, Han-dha, Ibhagugu, K'zaru, Kephoital, Mazazho, Mephangos, Mmililog,Nacharsar, Nali-yatl, Naquggo, Niquggolo, Phomasothugn, Ralellosaq, Rhub-harny, Rlakibha, Uga-urshu, Uggugakithu, Ygg-cyo and Yishotha, not even in Lovecraft's coldest visions of an indifferent universe could he have imagined you'd be able to create an entire pantheon with the click of a button!

Even worse, that limit is no doubt arbitrary, designed to protect their computing infrastructure if not the fabric of space-time. A truly evil black-hatter could use a sequence of queries to generate matched sets of Cthulukin at the upper limit of the QPS (queries-per-second) their servers could handle! Hopefully they have some kind of DoS (Denial of Shoggoths) throttling on their servers to protect humanity. If not-

the mind reels.
-the Centaur

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Friday, January 22, 2010

The Sexiest ... Brain on Earth?  

From Coilhouse's shoutout Stephen Hawking - "It matters if you just don't give up":
Hey, guess who else was born on Jan 8th? World-renowned theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking. He turns 68 today. Here’s a small assortment of reverent (and not so reverent) clips and quotes concerning a brilliant and resilient man whose mind is arguably Teh Sexiest human organ on this entire planet:
One of my favorite of the clips in that article follows:

"I hope I would not use the [robotic boxing glove the Simpsons gave me]. But sometimes I'm sorely tempted."

Filed under "Thank You, Carl Sagan" because, well, he's practically the next best thing to Carl we have now.
-the Centaur

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Also candidates for next best thing to Carl: Steven Pinker; Richard Dawkins. Both are esteemed scientists who write well for the general public. Dawkins also has the resemblance to Carl with his skepticism.
# posted by Blogger Jim Davies : 9:36 AM
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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Real Fortress of Solitude  

More than a sixth of a mile underground. 122 degrees Fahrenheit. 100% humidity. An environment that could kill a man in ten minutes - filled with 35 foot long selenite spears straight out of the Fortress of Solitude.

They're the Naica caves, one of the most beautiful environments on Earth:
No images, they're copyright, so click through to the links.

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Thank You, Carl Sagan  

"Thank you, Carl Sagan" is an in-joke I and my friends use which requires a bit of explanation. I've been a member, on and off, of the Planetary Society since ... oh, heck, I don't know, since I lived in Greenville, South Carolina ... which makes it at least 25 years, a credible guess since the Planetary Society was founded by Carl Sagan in 1980.

Back in the 80's, I was first coming into my own as a space enthusiast - getting a subscription to Scientific American, joining the Science Fiction Book Club, and of course joining the Planetary Society.

A few years after I joined, I opened my mailbox in Greenville and found a renewal letter for the Planetary Society. That was great - I had planned to renew - but when I pulled out the envelope and prepared to write my check, I found the following (roughly reconstructed from memory):
Thank you, Carl Sagan for the opportunity to renew my subscription at the Planetary Society! Yes, I'd like to sign up for another year of the Planetary Report and to contribute to all the Planetary Society's great causes!

I was flabbergasted. This was my first barely-adult encounter with marketing speak and I couldn't imagine the hubris of someone asking me for money writing the response letter in such a way that it looked like I was thanking them.

Even though I was young and naive, on some level I knew Carl Sagan hadn't written that letter, and even if he had seen it he would have approved it without a second thought (I mean, come on, the Society IS providing a valuable service). But it was funny enough at the time to show it to all of my friends, most of whom were also big fans of Cosmos.

So every time Carl Sagan's name was mentioned, it was immediately followed by a chorus of: "Thank You, Carl Sagan!" I still hear those words every time I hear his name ... but the meaning has changed:
Cosmos. Contact. Intelligent Life In the Universe (with Shklovskii). The Pioneer Plaque. The Pale Blue Dot. The Planetary Society itself. And A Still More Glorious Dawn Awaits (with Stephen Hawking and Colorpulse).

Thank you, Carl Sagan, indeed...
-the Centaur

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Thursday, January 07, 2010

"He always had a lot to say ... too bad he left so soon"  

Carl Sagan ruminates on life on Earth, how, as seen by a far-off camera on a spacecraft, a pale blue dot houses everyone anyone ever has known in the course of human history.

the pale blue dot

From his speech on the Pale Blue Dot:
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

Thanks, Carl.
-the Centaur

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Real Estate Opportunities for the Far-Seeing Investor  

I don't know why this strikes me as so funny, but it does:

Exoplanets, also known as "extrasolar planets", are planets outside our solar system, orbiting distant stars. To keep track of this fast-changing field, the Planetary Society presents this list of exoplanets. Here you will find a complete and up-to-date registry of known exoplanets and what is known about them.

Perhaps it's because when I see "find out more", "explore our catalogue" and "go directly to listings" related to land masses I expect them to have a list of foreclosures or beachfront properties. Nevertheless, the search for extrasolar planets is hot, and is only going to get hotter:

fomalhaut b

Remember, "a new life awaits you in the Off-World colonies. The chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure!"

-the Centaur

Initial image and text from the linked pages on the Planetary Society web site (not to be confused with the Planetary Organization). Fomalhaut B image courtesy of NASA and Wikipedia. Full disclosure: I have been a member of the Planetary Society since, like, forever.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

The Killer Cookbook of Marie Curie  

Link roundup - file under creepy:
Due to their levels of radioactivity, her papers from the 1890s (and even her cookbook) are considered too dangerous to handle. They are kept in lead-lined boxes; those who wish to consult them must wear protective clothing.

"Verified" at

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Still More Glorious Dawn Awaits  

carl sagan glorious dawn
My buddy Gordon tipped me to the song Glorious Dawn by Colorpulse featuring Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking:

After so many years since his amazing television show Cosmos, it strikes me how much I like the way he thinks - how he imagines vistas of space and time:
An still more glorious dawn awaits: not a sunrise, but a galaxy rise - a morning filled with four hundred billion suns: the rising of the Milky Way.

How he synthesizes facts about the world:
But the brain does more than just recollect: it intercompares, it synthesizes, it analyzes, it generates abstractions ... the brain has its own language for testing the structure and consistency of the world.

How he combines prediction and caution:
The sky calls to us; if we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day venture to the stars.

And most of all, how beautifully he writes:
The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. Recently, we've waded a little way out ... and the water seems inviting.

When I grow up, I want to be like Carl. So check the video out on Youtube, go to Colorpulse's site for more videos, or to Amazon for a copy of Cosmos.

-The Centaur

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Thank you for your warm words for Carl and for John Boswell's music/video.

Sagan Appreciation Society's YouTube channel
# posted by Anonymous Anonymous : 6:59 AM
  I completely agree, this is a great song with great words.
# posted by Anonymous Tyler : 4:02 PM
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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Gravity Wave Lasers and Faster Than Light  

If only the theory mentioned in this article were true...
Chiao and co ask how big is this effect of a gravitational wave on a thin superconducting sheet compared to the effect on an ordinary conducting sheet. The answer? 42 orders of magnitude bigger.
...then just by putting two superconducting sheets together we would have gravity wave lasers. They'd probably be practical within twenty years, and Lord knows what we'd have within a hundred. Unfortunately this probably violates the equivalence principle and is likely nonsense:
First, Chaio assumes that coopers pairs fall differently than normal matter in a gravitational field...which basically means violation of Equivalence Principle....and there is no physical evidence for that assumption....neither does he give a rigorous treatment to prove that ASSUMPTION.
In other news, scientists studying the Alcubierre warp drive have found yet another way it would not work: in addition to being unstable, non-steerable, non-startable, and requiring planet-sized masses of unobtainable negative energy, it would also cook the occupants as soon as you exceeded the speed of light.

-the Centaur



Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Set Phasers to "Ouch"  

Rayethon has developed the Klingon agonizer!

Run Away, The Ray Gun Is Coming:

In tests, even the most hardened Marines flee after a few seconds of exposure. It just isn't possible to tough it out. This machine has the ability to inflict limitless, unbearable pain. What makes it OK, says Raytheon, is that the pain stops as soon as you are out of the beam or the machine is turned off.

Actually this is better than a Klingon agonizer, which required direct contact:


An agonizer was a small device worn on the belts of Imperial personnel in the mirror universe, used to inflict pain for minor transgressions. [Agonizers] needed physical contact with their victims to be effective. In the primary universe, the Klingons also used a similar device...

Rayethon's "Silent Guardian", in contrast, is a beam of microwaves that penetrates the top layer of skin and stimulates nerve endings up to half a mile away.

Take that, Kang!
-the Centaur

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Cause and Effect  

So why is it when I read a book on five dimensional physics...

...all I hear is the sound of the TARDIS?

Most odd...
-the Centaur

P.S. Five dimensional physics is not a joke: the short story is that Kaluza and Klein outlined how one could rewrite Einstein's gravity equations in five dimensions and shake them real hard to make Maxwell's equations for electromagnetism fall out, and all that modern nonsense with strings is just an attempt to make all the other interesting particles we've found fall out of the equations too. For those of you (like me) who are only acquainted with length, height, depth, and age, and are thus puzzled where the extra dimensions go, ask yourself this: you can model a garden hose as a curved sheet with two dimensions, but how significant really is its circumference to a squirrel too large to do anything but run along its length?



Thursday, March 22, 2007

Book Review: Physics and Beyond  

(Apologies for the repost ... testing out Blogger 2.0's new Labels feature)
Physics and Beyond by Werner Heisenberg
An amazingly human book about physics. In deeply personal terms, Heisenberg tells how he grew from a war-tossed youth to an elder statesman of physics. His thesis is that physics is more than just experiments, numbers and math; instead, it is a deeply social process of discussion among physicists trying to understand the world experiment reveals around them. He weaves an idyllic picture of the interchange among the physicists of his generation, portraying the quantum mechanics as emerging not from dry scientific discussions but from vigorous literary, philosophical and religious interchanges, shared excitement and brassy poker games, and invigorating hiking, mountain climing and sailing adventures. Heisenberg carefully picks out key conversations during his life that ultimately led to the Uncertainty Principle that bears his name, interwoven with key turns of events that illuminate the slow disintegration of Germany leading up to World War II. We watch the idealistic, musical Youth Movement of his childhood degenerate into an edgy conversation with a Hitler Youth member who overhears Heisenberg playing. We see his despair as he is conscripted into the atomic bomb program and tries to steer it towards nuclear piles, rather than nuclear bombs. And we follow him through harrowing bike rides through the lines, the rescue of an old man from a burning house, the shock of an avalanche and an encounter with an unexpectedly friendly American bear.

Truly an amazing book.

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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

News Flash: Established Scientific Theory May Be Wrong  

Which one, you ask? Oh. Let's see... uh, well, first of all, in health the low levels of radiation used in X-rays may pose a cancer risk after all, though it is a slight one - but on the other hand moderate sun exposure, long-derided for its potential for skin cancer, may prevent more cancers than it causes by helping the body generate cancer-fighting vitamin D. Or in particle physics and cosmology, it's hard to keep track of who's found a crack in the Standard Model and the Big Bang theory this week ... and which of those from last week have then been labeled crackpots this week.

But the theory I was actually thinking of was the traditional story of how humans got to the New World: by a land bridge, 11,000 years ago. According to New Scientist, 40,000 year old footprints preserved in ash may upset this view. The scientists who discovered and studied the footprints have no idea how humans got there so early --- but they are confident enough about the the dating of their footprints to ask other scientists to check their work.

This isn't the first time that evidence has surfaced that humans were there earlier, but traditional scientists wanted to ignore the evidence in favor of their models: "The conventional view is that humans arrived in the Americas via Beringia around 11,000 years ago, when a land bridge became available between Siberia and Alaska. There have been claims about earlier waves of settlers, who must have made the crossing over water, based mainly on sites with signs of habitation dated up to 40,000 years ago, but these claims have drawn intense criticism."

SO obviously this new evidence will need to be carefully vetted, as the scientists who put it forward themselves claimed. But, in the end, the truth will come out, found by people who are willing to look clearly at difficult problems with an open mind, clearing away the smudges from the screen until the phenomenon can be seen clearly, or not at all. The truth does NOT come to those who reject the data before them out of hand, on the specious principle that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence": that kind of thinking caused people to deny the movement of the Earth around the Sun, or of the continents upon the Earth, or of rocks from the sky to the Earth itself.

On that note, and of those people, I am reminded of Thomas Jefferson's thoughts on meteorites: "Gentlemen, I would rather believe that two Yankee professors would lie than believe that stones fall from heaven."

I, on the other hand, think we should let the data speak for itself.



Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Your Cometbuster Deformed My Horoscope  

Been feeling "off" lately? Does your daily horoscope no longer seem SO relevant just to you? Well, now we know why:

In the wake of the successful Deep Impact probe, an astrologer is now suing NASA over the irreparable harm it caused to "the natural balance of the forces of the universe."

Whoops. Sorry about that. For those who have been suffering more long-standing dysphoria, however, NASA scientists had this to say:

We had nothing to do with it.

Seriously, guys, if an entire comet (the astrological symbol of doom) smacking into the largest planet (the astrological symbol of luck) isn't going to deform your horoscopes, there's no way 300 pounds of copper dinging a comet will.

-the Centaur



Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Termination Shock: Welcome to the Unbound  

Voyager 1 has entered the termination shock. Mankind at last takes a step outside the solar system.

To quote the Bentusi from "Homeworld": Welcome to the Unbound.

-the Centaur



Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Cut me some SLAC!  

I just had some pictures developed and found these gems from my November 2003 trip to the Stanford Linear Accelerator:

Some of the other pictures developed are so old that, well,
let's just say that half the couples in one Christmas shot are
either getting divorced or have been for some time now.

Oy, do I need a digital camera.



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