Wednesday Wonders: Red-blooded? Not necessarily

You may think that all animals have red blood, but this is far from the case. The possible colors cover the spectrum. Let’s take a tour of that rainbow.

Previously, I wrote about various foods that aren’t actually their original natural colors for various reasons. These include cherries, oranges, margarine, wasabi, and Blue Curaçao. Now, I’m going to go for the flip side of that one.

When I ask, “What color is blood?” I’d guess that your immediate answer would be “red.” And if you’re a member of certain species, then that is true, those species being humans and most vertebrates.

But that’s not true of every species at all. It depends entirely upon chemistry.

Red

So, if you’re red-blooded, what does it really mean? It has nothing to do with courage, valor, patriotism, or any of those silly attributes. What? Goldfish have red blood. So do dogs and cats. But why is that the case?

It’s simple. Well, it’s actually ultimately complicated, but all you need to really know is that the hemoglobin in our blood, which is the molecule that binds to oxygen and circulates it through our body, contains an iron molecule at the center of a ring structure.

This is what allows your red blood cells to circulate oxygen, out from your lungs, around your body, and back again as carbon dioxide.

If you’re wondering, “Okay, why red? I can’t see oxygen in the air,” think about this. Have you ever seen rust? What color is it? And what is rust? Oxidized iron.

In the body, in reality, the blood in the lungs starts out bright red and winds up a duller and more rust-like color by the time it comes back. But it’s red because of that iron.

But blood doesn’t necessarily need to use iron.

Yellow

Swap the iron out for the metal vanadium, and you get yellow blood, which is found, for example, in beetles and sea cucumbers. Surprise, though: vanadium does nothing to circulate oxygen, so its presence is still a mystery.

Green

While you might associate green blood with a certain popular Star Trek character, one human did surprise surgeons by bleeding green during surgery, although that was due to a medication he was taking rather than alien origins.

Otherwise, it’s really not normal for humans. But there are a few species of lizard that are very green on the inside and, ironically, it’s due to the same chemical that our bodies produce as a waste-product of red blood cell death, but which would kill us if it built up to levels that would actually turn our blood green.

That chemical is biliverdin, which is filtered out by human livers as quickly as possible via conversion to bilirubin.

It’s not such a problem for these species of lizards discovered in New Guinea, which have levels of biliverdin more than twenty-times that ever seen in a human.

Blue

Figuratively, “blue blood” refers to a member of the noble class. The English expression is actually a direct translation of the Spanish sangre azul, and it came from the noble classes of Spain wanting to distinguish themselves from the darker skinned Moorish invaders.

The nobles of Spain claimed descent from the Visigoths, who were actually Germanic and when one has paler skin, the veins that show through their skin appear blue, hence the term. Although, keep in mind that while veins may appear blue, the blood in them actually isn’t.

It’s just a trick of light and refraction, much the same way that our Sun is actually white, but our atmosphere makes it look yellow and, in turn, makes the sky appear blue.

If you want to find real blue blood, you’ll have to seek out certain octopodes, crustaceans, snails and spiders, which are all related. Instead of hemoglobin to transport oxygen, they use hemocyanin, and you can see the clue in the name: cyan is a particular shade of blue.

Instead of iron, hemocyanin uses copper as the oxygen-binding element. When copper oxidizes, it doesn’t rust. Rather, it corrodes, so while corroded copper picks up a green patina, when it carries oxygen in blood, it imparts a blue color.

One of the most famous blue animal bloods came from horseshoe crabs, who until recently were harvested in order to collect their blood because it could be used to test for bacteria, contamination, and toxins during the manufacture of any medicine or medical device intended to go inside of a human.

While the blood harvesting isn’t intended to harm the animals, many of them were still dying in the process, so scientists finally switched to an artificial substitute.

Purple

Finally, we come to the blood color that Romans would have considered the most noble, but find it mostly in lowly worms. These animals use the molecule hemerythrin to transport oxygen, which has two molecules of iron. Before it’s oxygenated, it’s transparent. Once it’s oxygenated, it turns light purple, almost violet.

So there’s a rainbow tour of blood, proving that we have plenty of “alien” biology already here on Earth, as well as that the simplest of molecular changes can make a huge difference in a surface appearance.

Image via (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Wonderous Wednesday: 5 Things that are older than you think

A lot of our current technology seems surprisingly new. The iPhone is only about fourteen years old, for example, although the first Blackberry, a more primitive form of smart phone, came out in 1999. The first actual smart phone, IBM’s Simon Personal Communicator, was introduced in 1992 but not available to consumers until 1994. That was also the year that the internet started to really take off with people outside of universities or the government, although public connections to it had been available as early as 1989 (remember Compuserve, anyone?), and the first experimental internet nodes were connected in 1969.

Of course, to go from room-sized computers communicating via acoustic modems along wires to handheld supercomputers sending their signals wirelessly via satellite took some evolution and development of existing technology. Your microwave oven has a lot more computing power than the system that helped us land on the moon, for example. But the roots of many of our modern inventions go back a lot further than you might think. Here are five examples.

Alarm clock

As a concept, alarm clocks go back to the ancient Greeks, frequently involving water clocks. These were designed to wake people up before dawn, in Plato’s case to make it to class on time, which started at daybreak; later, they woke monks in order to pray before sunrise.

From the late middle ages, church towers became town alarm clocks, with the bells set to strike at one particular hour per day, and personal alarm clocks first appeared in 15th-century Europe. The first American alarm clock was made by Levi Hutchins in 1787, but he only made it for himself since, like Plato, he got up before dawn. Antoine Redier of France was the first to patent a mechanical alarm clock, in 1847. Because of a lack of production during WWII due to the appropriation of metal and machine shops to the war effort (and the breakdown of older clocks during the war) they became one of the first consumer items to be mass-produced just before the war ended. Atlas Obscura has a fascinating history of alarm clocks that’s worth a look.

Fax machine

Although it’s pretty much a dead technology now, it was the height of high tech in offices in the 80s and 90s, but you’d be hard pressed to find a fax machine that isn’t part of the built-in hardware of a multi-purpose networked printer nowadays, and that’s only because it’s such a cheap legacy to include. But it might surprise you to know that the prototypical fax machine, originally an “Electric Printing Telegraph,” dates back to 1843.

Basically, as soon as humans figured out how to send signals down telegraph wires, they started to figure out how to encode images — and you can bet that the second image ever sent in that way was a dirty picture. Or a cat photo.

Still, it took until 1964 for Xerox to finally figure out how to use this technology over phone lines and create the Xerox LDX. The scanner/printer combo was available to rent for $800 a month — the equivalent of around $6,500 today — and it could transmit pages at a blazing 8 per minute. The second generation fax machine only weighed 46 lbs and could send a letter-sized document in only six minutes, or ten page per hour. Whoot — progress!

You can actually see one of the Electric Printing Telegraphs in action in the 1948 movie Call Northside 777, in which it plays a pivotal role in sending a photograph cross-country in order to exonerate an accused man.

In case you’re wondering, the title of the film refers to a telephone number from back in the days before what was originally called “all digit dialing.” Up until then, telephone exchanges (what we now call prefixes) were identified by the first two letters of a word, and then another digit or two or three. (Once upon a time, in some areas of the US, phone numbers only had five digits.) So NOrthside 777 would resolve itself to 667-77, with 667 being the prefix. This system started to end in 1958, and a lot of people didn’t like that.

Of course, with the advent of cell phones, prefixes and even area codes have become pretty meaningless, since people tend to keep the number they had in their home town regardless of where they move to, and a “long distance call” is mostly a dead concept now as well, which is probably a good thing.

CGI

When do you suppose the first computer animation appeared on film? You may have heard that the original 2D computer generated imagery (CGI) used in a movie was in 1973 in the original film Westworld, inspiration for the recent TV series. Using very primitive equipment, the visual effects designers simulated pixilation of actual footage in order to show us the POV of the robotic gunslinger played by Yul Brynner. It turned out to be a revolutionary effort.

The first 3D CGI happened to be in this film’s sequel, Futureworld in 1976, where the effect was used to create the image of a rotating 3D robot head. However, the first ever CGI sequence was actually made in… 1961. Called Rendering of a planned highway, it was created by the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology on what was then the fastest computer in the world, the BESK, driven by vacuum tubes. It’s an interesting effort for the time, but the results are rather disappointing.

Microwave oven

If you’re a Millennial, then microwave ovens have pretty much always been a standard accessory in your kitchen, but home versions don’t predate your birth by much. Sales began in the late 1960s. By 1972 Litton had introduced microwave ovens as kitchen appliances. They cost the equivalent of about $2,400 today. As demand went up, prices fell. Nowadays, you can get a small, basic microwave for under $50.

But would it surprise you to learn that the first microwave ovens were created just after World War II? In fact, they were the direct result of it, due to a sudden lack of demand for magnetrons, the devices used by the military to generate radar in the microwave range. Not wanting to lose the market, their manufacturers began to look for new uses for the tubes. The idea of using radio waves to cook food went back to 1933, but those devices were never developed.

Around 1946, engineers accidentally realized that the microwaves coming from these devices could cook food, and voìla! In 1947, the technology was developed, although only for commercial use, since the devices were taller than an average man, weighed 750 lbs and cost the equivalent of $56,000 today. It took 20 years for the first home model, the Radarange, to be introduced for the mere sum of $12,000 of today’s dollars.

Music video

Conventional wisdom says that the first music video to ever air went out on August 1, 1981 on MTV, and it was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles. As is often the case, conventional wisdom is wrong. It was the first to air on MTV, but the concept of putting visuals to rock music as a marketing tool goes back a lot farther than that.

Artists and labels were making promotional films for their songs back at almost the beginning of the 1960s, with the Beatles a prominent example. Before these, though, was the Scopitone, a jukebox that could play films in sync with music popular from the late 1950s to mid-1960s, and their predecessor was the Panoram, a similar concept popular in the 1940s which played short programs called Soundies.

However, these programs played on a continuous loop, so you couldn’t chose your song. Soundies were produced until 1946, which brings us to the real predecessor of music videos: Vitaphone Shorts, produced by Warner Bros. as sound began to come to film. Some of these featured musical acts and were essentially miniature musicals themselves. They weren’t shot on video, but they introduced the concept all the same. Here, you can watch a particularly fun example from 1935 in 3-strip Technicolor that also features cameos by various stars of the era in a very loose story.

Do you know of any things that are actually a lot older than people think? Let us know in the comments!

Photo credit: Jake von Slatt

Momentous Monday: Weird random facts

Six random facts from science for you to enjoy, argue about, and share.

Here are a few interesting facts to ponder — things that might not seem possible, but which are true.

Which planet, on average, is closest to the Earth?

You’re probably inclined to say either Venus or Mars, going by the simple logic that in the order of orbits, Venus is #2, Earth is #3, and Mars is #4. You might also have remembered that the distance between each successive orbit follows a formula, meaning that, by definition, Venus has got to be closer to Earth than Mars.

This makes sense because each successive orbit is larger than the previous by an increasing ratio that is similar to the Fibonacci sequence,  although it’s hardly exact. It does mean, though, that Earth is closer to Venus than it is to Mars and it naturally follows that it’s closer to Venus than it is to Mercury.

But the question included “on average,” and if we take that into account, then the planet closest to the Earth is… Mercury. in fact, Mercury is the closest to every planet in the solar system, on average, period.

The simple reason for this is that Mercury’s orbital period is so short — a “year” on Mercury is only a smidgen under 88 days, meaning that it orbits the sun 4.15 times (on average) for every orbit that the Earth makes. Meanwhile, Venus only goes around 1.63 times for every Earth year.

This adds up, because Mercury is on the same side of the Sun as we are for a lot longer than Venus, and when Venus, or any planet, is on the far side, its distance from us is basically double the orbit plus the diameter of the Sun.

This is obvious if we really simplify the numbers. Let’s just randomly designate the distances by orbit: Mercury = 1, Venus = 2, Earth = 3, and Mars = 5.

When Mercury and Earth are in alignment on the same side of the Sun, the net distance is 2 (from 3-1). For Venus, it’s 1, and for Mars it’s 2. But put the planets on the other side, and the formula changes to 2O+Sol, or twice the orbital distance plus the diameter of the Sun, so the new figures are:

Mars: 2(5-3)+Sol = 4+Sol

Venus: 2(3-2)+Sol = 2+Sol

Mercury: 2(3-1)+Sol = 4+Sol

We can eliminate the +Sol from each equation since they all cancel out, and this might make it look like Venus is still the closest, but those orbital periods make a big difference, because Mercury spends a lot more time on the near side of the Sun to us than Venus does.

If we look at the averages, because Mercury gets more time in our neighborhood, in the long run it averages out to be the closest planet to Earth — but the formula holds true for every other planet in the Solar System.

Are there more stars in the universe or atoms in a human being?

Using 70 kilos as an average human weight, the answer to this one is rather simple, and the winner outnumbers the loser by a ration of 7 million to 1.

A human body has approximately 7 octillion atoms in it, and most of those are hydrogen, since we are mostly water, and there are two hydrogen atoms per oxygen atom in each molecule of water. The universe has approximately 1 sextillion stars in it and, not surprisingly, most of the universe is also made of hydrogen.

That’s kind of remarkable when you think about it, because hydrogen is the lightest of all of the elements and the simplest of atoms, made of one negatively charged electron and one positively charged proton. Yes, there are variations, or isotopes, with some neutrons slipped in there.

These neutrons are what make so-called “heavy water” so important in nuclear reactions, but chemically they make no difference, since those reactions only rely on the electron and proton.

Now, as to the answer on whether humans have more atoms or the universe has more stars, you may have already guessed it if you remember your STI and/or Greek counting prefixes. “Octillion” comes from the number 8, and refers to a number in the thousands with 8 groups of three zeroes after it. “sextillion” comes from six, and refers to a number in the thousands with 6 groups of zeroes after it.

Since the human body has about 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms in it while the universe only has 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars, humans win, with 7 million atoms per person for every star.

What would happen to the Earth if the Sun suddenly became a black hole?

Gravitationally, nothing, unless the Sun lost a little mass in the process, in which case we’d drift a bit farther out in our orbit.

Otherwise, though, Earth would get very cold and dark and, depending on the orientation of things, we might or might not get blasted by intense gamma radiation that would scrub the planet clean of all life and its atmosphere.

We wouldn’t be able to see the Moon or planets anymore, just the stars, and we’d freeze to death pretty quickly but don’t worry — the Sun is too small to ever become a black hole.

People have this impression that black holes are cosmic vacuum cleaners that suck up everything that gets near them, but that’s not the case. They’re really just a matter of shoving ten pounds of gravity in a one-pound sack. Okay, maybe more like a hundred tons in a knee sock.

But the point is, the gravitational pull of that black hole is going to be no greater than the pull of the original object, and you have to get a lot closer, physically, before you hit the point where you can no longer escape.

Does my phone have more power than the Apollo 11 computer, and could it land me on the Moon?

Yes… and no. All of our phones have more computational power than a computer the size of a warehouse in 1969, and they can do amazing things. However, they would need very specialized apps in order to be able to do the kinds of calculations needed to adjust velocities and trajectories precisely on the way to the Moon, second to second.

Google Maps won’t do that because we don’t have GPS that works off-Earth. Your phone would have to be able to spot the Moon and either Earth or Sun, plus another star or two, all visually, calculate the angles between them, then keep track of them and use that to calculate velocity and direction.

At the same time, your phone would also have to interface simultaneously with 150 onboard devices and run five to seven programs at once. In case you hadn’t noticed, phones and computers don’t really multitask anymore. They stopped doing that when systems became fast enough to just pick up where it left off when you switched windows, so that it just looks like that other program was running in the background the whole time.

The onboard computer on Apollo 11 was still a lot bigger than computers today, at 70 lbs (32 kgs), but it did the job and, because of the elegant way in which the code was written, it only required a grand total of… 2 kilobytes of memory, which is about 2,000 characters.

Yes, the actual code written for it was a lot bigger, but that 2Kb was working memory, and that was what was so elegant about it. The software itself was stored in static memory, which was literally woven by hand.

No, really. It was even called “rope memory.” This essentially created an incredibly complicated addressing system where the intersection of a particular pair of wires indicates the location of a single bit of data.

Touchtone phones worked on this same principal for years, and your phone and computer keyboards still work this way to this day. In fact, this two-point address scheme is still what makes your touch screens work as well.

It’s still mind-boggling to realize that not only did this computer somehow manage to do all of its runtime stuff in only 2Kb of memory, but that they had conceived of the idea of virtual runtime environments even then, so that they were able to run those five to seven programs at once, in such a small space.

What makes water so special?

The very short version is this: if water didn’t expand when it froze, life on Earth would not be possible and we’d probably be an ice-ball planet.

Water molecules have an interesting property. Made up of one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms, the hydrogen atoms naturally attach to the oxygen at 120° angles. Well, basically, since the whole thing is ultimately defined by the electron field around it in which we can only determine the likelihood of an electron’s location.

But it does give water these properties: When it’s a gas, the molecules bump into and spin off of each other. When it’s a liquid, they flow around each other. However, as the temperature lowers, a funny thing happens. Those hydrogen atoms in the molecules start to line up — remember, a sphere has 360° around it — and so as the water molecules slow down (i.e. as the temperature drops) the molecules line up and lock together and begin to create a crystal lattice.

You can see it large scale in a snow-flake, with its six-sided symmetry, but down on the molecular level what’s really happening is that the molecules are actually forming rigid structures and pushing themselves apart as they align.

And so… as liquid water turns into ice, it expands, and this is good for us (but bad for the Titanic) for one very big reason. It reduces the density of ice, so that it floats in water. If it didn’t, we’d be screwed, because ice would sink, wind up on the bottom, and then tend to never thaw when winter ended.

Eventually, entire lakes, rivers, and seas would completely freeze over, removing liquid water at first from our aquifers and, eventually, from our atmosphere. The Earth would become one vast desert, and the reflection of sunlight because of all that ice would just add to the runaway freezing.

Is time travel possible?

The short answer is “probably not,” at least not to the past, although time travel to the future is technically possible through things like suspended animation — as in if you travel more slowly than everyone else, you’ll objectively get to the future faster.

But your real question is, “Can I jump into a time machine and visit another era?” And the answer is this: “Sure, if you figure out how to actually travel in time, go for it, but you’ll need to figure out how to travel in space as well. Or, at the very least, do complicated equations that would have blown the circuits out of those first NASA computers.

Example: Marty McFly abandons all common sense, and jumps into the crazy old man’s time machine even as he’s being gunned down by terrorists. Marty guns it, the car hits 88 miles an hour, and suddenly Hill Valley and the Twin Pines mall vanish…

And the car is drifting somewhere in interstellar space. Since it’s not pressurized, Marty very quickly dies, alone and billions of miles away from Earth. End of movie, and the trilogy never exists.

What?

That’s because everything in the universe constantly moves. You may think that all of those atoms in your body don’t move at all, but that’s not true at all. The ones that are part of organs or tissues or the like may seem to be stuck in place, but they are constantly vibrating as they react with neighboring atoms. This is why you’re not a frozen block of ice.

The universe has two speed limits — the fastest you can go and the slowest you can go. If you have any mass at all, no matter how small, you can never reach the speed of light, or C. If you have no mass, you can only ever travel at C — which isn’t all that weird when you think about it.

Meanwhile, the bottom speed limit of the universe is motionless, which is defined as Absolute 0, or 0ºKelvin (-273.15ºC or -459.67ºF). Nothing can reach this temperature, because it would mean that it would have absolutely no motion at all.

The problem is that if something is not moving at all, we know its precise location. And, if we know its location, we cannot know its exact momentum. This is the core of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and, obviously, if an object is completely motionless, then we know both its location and its momentum.

As it turns out, molecules have a very clever way of hiding themselves when they get close to 0ºK. they turn into a fifth state of matter called a Bose-Einstein Condensate. In this case, suspecting that we’re about to figure out where they are, all of the atoms being reduced in temperature suddenly give up their angular momentum gladly. At the same time, they all kind of smear into a indeterminate blob, so that we have no idea where any single atom in the group is.

And… problem solved. Okay, the atoms aren’t thinking at all while this is happening. It’s just a result of the change in velocity that dictates which property is going to be hidden. But just as you can’t accelerate mass past the universal speed limit, you can’t slam the brakes on mass and bring it to a complete stop.

Note that I have no idea whether the Bose-Einstein thing affects photons, since photons do have momentum and spin, but by virtue of having no mass probably also have no real location, especially because (just a guess) they still move at the same speed at 0ºK.

Photons are tricksey fuckerses.

But despite all of that, okay. Let’s assume that time travel is possible. Marty hops in that DeLorean, travels back 30 years and, assuming that time travel is legit, he’s still not going to be in the same place on Earth because gravity isn’t going to work that way either.

Gravity is a very long range force, and it’s very strong on cosmic scales, but it’s absolutely not on quantum scales, and this may actually be the reason that it’s been so hard to reconcile classical physics with the quantum.

Look at it this way. Why do “flat-earthers” exist? Because, from their very limited perspective living on the face of the planet, the place really does look flat.

Even if you march their sorry asses to the beach and make them watch as giant cargo ships rise above and vanish below the horizon, they still won’t buy it.

You need to take them up and beyond so that they can actually see the curve and experience the gravity and all of that. I mean, after all, even if you circumnavigate the globe by boat, plane, train, automobile, or whatever, it’s still going to seem flat to you without that heightened experience.

So… how does gravity affect space time? It bends it. Or, in other words, gravity takes “flat” space time and curves it. And on a human scale, this is really easy to experience. Toss a ball into the air and watch it fall. It’s not going to land in quite the same place.

But on the quantum scale? Nope. Everything there would appear “flat” as well, because any bend of space that gravity might create would be totally imperceptible to particles so small.

So the force that would normally hold Marty and the DeLorean onto the ground on Earth and keep him in Hill Valley become totally irrelevant when you start to fuck with the quantum shiz that would be necessary for time travel.

The DeLorean pops out from here but is no longer bound to Earth or anything else by gravity, since it’s skidding gleefully through time but not limited by velocity — as in it will never travel faster than light, but does so by following an alternate path through space that, nevertheless, will still land it at the target date and place on the particular world it departed from.

In the Universe at large, that time and date 30 years ago in Hill Valley is exactly where it was in the 30 years ago of the place Marty left, which means he’s at least 22 billion miles away from the solar system, with the Earth itself some smaller increment nearer or farther.

It definitely doe not include the about 19 billion kilometers that the entire Milky Way Galaxy has moved toward the Great Attractor between the constellations of Leo and Virgo. Without that DeLorean being able to do some very complicated math and some space travel as well, it’s going to be a very short trip to the past, and no coming back to the future

image source: Mrmw, (CC0), via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday Wonders: Let’s get dark (Part 2)

Last week in Part 1, I looked at failed scientific hypotheses, the scientific method, and how Einstein’s Special and General Theories of Relativity hold up and yet are completely incompatible with each other, mainly because one explains gravity very well but nothing on the quantum level, and the other is the opposite. Here’s the rest of the why of that. Cheers!

May the force(s) be with you

In physics, there are four fundamental forces. They are gravity, electromagnetism, the weak force, and the strong force. We’ve already met gravity, which works with enormous masses across great distances but doesn’t seem to really have much effect in the sub-atomic realm.

The electromagnetic force, mediated by electrons and photons, seems to work on both a macro and micro level. It gives us electricity, lightning, and a sense of touch — all rather large phenomena quite visible in the quotidian world. On a subatomic level, it gives us friction and holds solid objects together, among other things.

An ice cube, for example, is just the electromagnetic force acting on water below a certain temperature. The electromagnetic force is also why you don’t just fall through the floor.

The weak nuclear force facilitates one kind of subatomic particle changing into another via the exchange of Bosons. This force is essential for powering the fusion that keeps stars alive, as well as transforming one kind of particle into another.

Finally, there’s the strong nuclear force, which is responsible for keeping the fundamental particles that keep atoms together. It bonds the quarks to create protons and neutrons, then bonds those to create atomic nuclei, to which the electromagnetic force attracts elections, creating elements.

Now, here’s the funny thing. In theory, the strong nuclear force is much, much stronger than the force of gravity — if its force is set at 1, then gravity is 6×10-39. However, there’s a catch. Gravity’s effective range is infinite, while that of the strong nuclear force is only 10-15 meters.

This is the basic stalemate between Einstein’s Theories of Relativity and quantum physics. The former explains the gravitational force very well, but doesn’t do that with the others. The latter explains the other three, but really has dick-all that can explain the former.

It’s kind of like the ultimate Nerd-Fight Cage Match, really.

Is it elementary?

I find it kind of interesting that modern physics settled on four forces, though (and four dimensions, but I’m not bringing that into it) when the ancient world settled on four “elements.”

This was long before any kind of theory of atoms, but by the age of Alchemists, who sought the holy grail of turning lead into gold long before anyone even realized that the only way to do that was via nuclear fusion, the prevailing wisdom was this.

There were only four “elements.” They were earth, fire, air, and water. This four-split in human culture, at least of the Western European kind, became so prominent that it was ridiculous.

How many suits in a deck of cards? How many Gospels? How many cardinal directions on the compass?

And don’t forget those famous Elizabethan “humors” that you probably learned about in high school: Melancholic, Choleric, Sanguine, and Phlegmatic.

Finally, how many limbs do we have, not counting our heads?

Somehow, this tetrapartite symbolism crept into Western culture and while the initial concepts about which elements actually existed are laughably wrong, let’s take a look at those naïve assumptions one more time, and map them onto modern physics.

Alchemists’ elements: Earth, fire, air, water

Elizabethan humours: Melancholic, Choleric, Sanguine, and Phlegmatic

Physics forces: Gravity, electromagnetic force, weak force, strong force

In at least the first and the last cases, it’s a game of “one of these things is not like the others.” Earth — which you can think of as soil or dirt or the planet itself — is solid matter. The other three are plasma, gas, and liquid.

Likewise, gravity seems to be a force created by the existence of matter, but unlike the others has no apparent particle that transmits it.

Little trouble in big bang

The idea that the universe began with a so-called “big bang” started with Edwin Hubble, the person, when he proved that the universe was expanding in all directions.

It followed that if the universe was expanding now, it had to have started expanding at some point in the past, and rewinding the clock indicated that the entire universe had been a single point 13 or 14 billion years previously.

So much for the idea of the universe being created in six days in 4004 BCE.

But this led to all sorts of logical questions. What caused the Big Bang? What came before it? And how did everything we know in the universe come into being in that instant and after, since all the energy and matter we’d ever have to work with had to have been generated at that point?

The other big question: How will the universe end? Will the expansion continue forever, eventually slowing down and stopping as entropy reaches a maximum, leaving the place cold, dark, and empty? Or did that first bang only give a sufficient kick to reach a certain point before the whole thing started to contract again, eventually returning to that initial point, slamming everything together into a Big Crunch that would recreate the original singularity?

In 1998, Hubble the Telescope did its namesake proud by throwing a wrench into things.

A little push

It turned out that the expansion of the universe was not slowing down or reversing at all. No — it was accelerating, meaning that not only might it never reverse or stop, it might just keep on going forever.

But this brought up the biggest and still unanswered question: What was causing the acceleration?

If we continue with the explosion analogy for the creation of the universe — which isn’t really that accurate, since the Big Bang happened everywhere at once — there’s no way to account for the acceleration without adding some outside factor.

But imagine this scenario. You launch a firework into the air and it blows up like it’s supposed to, sending its colorful pyrotechnics and sparks outward in a short series of multi-colored showers that make the crowd ooh and aah.

Now, when you designed the firework, it was meant to be a five second air-burst at a safe height of 200 meters, expanding to a maximum diameter of maybe 110 meters if you launched a 20-centimeter shell.

After all, all of the mass and energy that would ever exist in that explosion was packed into that shell before launch; before the Big Bang.

But then, your shell gets up there, and not only does it hit its intended 110 meter burst size before five seconds, but it keeps on going and growing, gradually expanding faster than the initial 22 meter-per-second growth rate — and it never stops expanding.

This is kind of what the universe appears to be doing.

The universe has lost your luggage

Other discoveries indicated that galaxies were acting like they had a lot more mass than they should have, or that we were able to observe because of their rotation. This led to the postulation of the concept of dark matter.

Meanwhile, the accelerating expansion of the universe led to various hypotheses, including the idea of dark energy.

By the way, please keep in mind that the terms “dark matter” and “dark energy” really should not be taken literally. They’re placeholders to indicate two things. The “dark” part just says that we cannot detect them. The “matter” and “energy” parts just tell us that, at the moment, we’re looking for force carrier — i.e. particle/wave thingie — and a specific force.

It’s like the term “dark saber” in The Mandalorian. George Lucas just needed to pull something out of his ass to justify a light saber that was black — hence, technically, not involving light at all.

</nerd>

The takeaway here, though, is that dark matter seems to be pulling on galaxies to affect their spin, while dark energy seems to be pushing on the universe to speed up its expansion.

The real scary part of this though, is that the fallout of these two ideas is that less than 5% of our universe is made up of the familiar matter and energy that we know.

None of the dark energy hypotheses has been tested yet, although I lean towards modified gravity, or MOND concepts myself, since these truly seek to reconcile the two theories of relativity and unite the fundamental forces at last.

Ether frolic II

My problem with the idea of dark energy and dark matter is that they could just be this generation’s ether and phlogiston. Maybe the acceleration of expansion is an error in the original measurements of the Cosmic Microwave Background.

Or maybe something about the inflationary period created an artefact that only makes it look like acceleration is expanding when it’s not.

There was a very long period after the Big Bang, called the Cosmic Dark Ages, before stars or galaxies even formed. This may have been when Dark Matter arose — or it may just be an era we can’t really peer through because fusion had not lit up the cosmos.

Finally, we cannot really discount universal inflation, which is when everything expanded much faster than the speed of light. This was possible because nothing was moving that fast. It was space itself that ballooned, so that anything that moved with it was moving at the same speed as space relatively — i.e., it was stationary, so no violations at all.

But, since space-time seems to be the macro-fabric that gravity acts on instantaneously but in an attractive and not repulsive manner, could inflation and not the dark ages actually have been the period when whatever dark energy might exist was created?

Could this also be how gravity got separated forever from the other forces? Who knows? However, since gravity also apparently has no particle that transmits its force, it also has no anti-particle, at least that we know of.

Finding a particle for it would probably lead directly to solving the dark energy problem, since gravity’s anti-particle would be the particle transmitting dark… well, at that point, it would probably just become anti-gravity.

One other mind-fuck in the basket. As noted previously, we have confirmed the existence of gravity waves, which ripple through space-time on a super-macro scale. But if gravity waves do exist, is there a way to observe them that will show their particle nature as well?

Because if we manage to pull off that trick, well then… Special and General Relativity are going to need to get a room.

Image Source, European Space Agency, licensed under (CC 4.0) International

Stupid Excel tricks #1: INDEX and MATCH

Enter the matrix… math

There is an entire class of functions in Excel that take things to a whole new level, and they are called matrices. Maybe you ran across this in math in school and have forgotten, maybe not, but the idea with a matrix is that it takes one grid of numbers of X x Y dimensions and uses operators to manipulate it using another grid of numbers that may or may not have the same dimensions.

The great part is that to use these functions in Excel, you don’t need to know any of that. Like I’ve mentioned before, it’s exactly like using a cookbook. Plug in the ingredients as specified, voila, the dish pops out the other end.

Maybe you’ve used the functions VLOOKUP and HLOOKUP, or maybe not, but they can be useful if you want to match exactly one criteria in a table and if the data you’re looking up is somewhere to the right of that criteria. So it’s perfect if you have something like a unique account number on the far left and want to use that to look up a name or phone number to the right of it:

=VLOOKUP(M2,$A1:$L556,6,FALSE)

This tells Excel to take the value in cell M2, compare it to all of the values in column A of the named range, then look up the value in the sixth column counting from the column defined in the second variable (in this case, F) where the first column is equal to M2. “FALSE” just means to use an exact match, whereas “TRUE” would mean to use an approximate match.

Again, this is great if you’re searching something with unique values in both places — there is only one account number, and only one data point associated with it.

Now what if you have multiple entries for the same person with different account numbers, or multiple sizes and colors of a product with differing prices, or you need to search on more than one data point in different columns, or your table was set up with the criteria you want to use somewhere to the right of the data points you’re searching?

Welcome, matrix functions! These are two nested commands that work miracles together. The first is INDEX, and what it basically does is point to a column with data that you’re going to pull stuff from, then follow that up with the criteria you’re going to use to do that. You can see the difference from the LOOKUP functions right off the bat, because those start with the single data point you’re going to use to search the data. The INDEX function starts with the place you’re going to get the answer from.

The MATCH function is the matrix math, and it allows you to specify multiple criteria matched to different columns in the source data. The nice part about it is that you can have as many different criteria as you need — first name, last name, account number; size, gender, color, style; title, author, binding, edition; and so on. And each of these can point to any particular bit of data you need — monthly cost, price, location, phone number, address, and so on. Any bit of data in the table can be found this way.

If you want to put a physical analogy on it, it’s this. LOOKUP functions are a librarian with a sliding ladder that moves horizontally or can be climbed vertically. But the way it works is that they first move it or climb it in the direction you specify until it hits the target word. Then, it slides or climbs the other direction however many rows or columns you specified, and has now targeted exactly one cell with the answer. Oh — and it can only move to the right or down from that initial search cell.

On the other hand, think of INDEX and MATCH as a whole bunch of librarians who have set out all over the same bookcases, but are simultaneously searching the rows and columns, and calling back and forth to each other to indicate what bits they’ve found that match.

If you work with any kind of inventory or any data sets where people’s info is broken down (as it should be) into separate first and last names and account identifiers, then you need to know these functions, because they will save you a ton of time. And the basic way they work is like this:

INDEX($E1:$E1405,MATCH(1,(W2=$C$1:$C$1405)*(X2=$D$1:$D$1405)*(AA2=$J1:$J1405),0))

(Note: All column and row designations here are arbitrary and made up, so they don’t matter.)

That might look complicated, but it’s not. Let’s break it down. The first part, referring to the E column is the “Where” of the formula. That is, this is the column you’re pulling your data from. For example, if you want to use size, color, and style to find price, then this would be whatever column has the price data in it.

Next, we nest the MATCH function, and this lets INDEX know that what comes next will be the instructions it needs. The “1,” inside the parenthesis is a flag for MATCH, telling it to return one value. After that, each nested thing — and you can have as many as you need — follows the form “Single cell to look at equals column to search.” So, as seen here, for example, in the search data, column W might be the first name, and cell W2 is the cell corresponding to what we’re looking at. Meanwhile, column C in the target data includes first names, so what we’re saying is “Look for the single value of W2 down the entire column of C1 to C1405. The dollar signs are there to lock it as a fixed range.

All of the other parentheticals here follow the same pattern. Maybe X is the column for last name in the source and D is where the last names are in the target; and AA is account number, as is J.

The two other interesting things to note in building matrix equations: The single cell and the column are joined by an equals sign, not a comma, and this is important because, without it, your formula will break. What this tells Excel is that whatever the matrix pulls out of single cell must equal what’s in the column at that point.

The other thing to notice is that between the searches within parentheses, there aren’t commas, but rather asterisks, *, which indicate multiplication, and this is the heart of Matrix math.

What this tells the formula is to take the results of the first thingie, apply those criteria and pass it along to the second. In other words, if the first evaluation turned up nothing, that is mathematically a zero, and so it would quash anything coming from the second and third functions. On the other hand, if it comes up as a one, then whatever the second formula turns up will stay if there’s a one, dump if not, and then pass on to the third, fourth, etc..

Lather, rinse, repeat, for as many steps down the process you’ve created. A false result or zero at any point in the matrix math will kill it and result in nil. Meanwhile, as long as the tests keep turning up positives, what will fall out of the ass end of it is the honest legit “This data is the true data.”

Funny how that works, isn’t it? The only other trick you need to remember is that after you’ve entered this formula, you need to close it out by hitting Ctrl-Shift-Enter to let Excel know it’s a matrix formula. Then, if you want to copy it, you can’t use the usual Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V. Instead, you have to highlight the column with the formula at the top, then hit Ctrl-D. Voila… the whole thing duplicates down the column — which is what the “D” in the command stands for. To do the same thing across a row, the command is Ctrl-R, which you could think of as “repeat” or “replicate.”

And there you have it — a way to search multiple criteria in a row in order to find a specific data point in a table. You’re welcome.

But there’s more! One very important trick I’ve learned is how to avoid getting the dreaded “N/A#” in your results, because that totally breaks any summation you’re doing on the data. So I add an extra layer to the whole thing with a combination of the IF() and ISERROR() formulas.

This can make the thing really long, but worth it. I suggest entering the short INDEX formula first, make sure it’s working, and then use F2 to edit the cell, highlight everything and hit CTRL-C. Next, add “IF(ISERROR(” before the existing formula, move your cursor to the end, close out the ISERROR with a right parenthesis, “)”, then add comma, 0 (zero), and hit Ctrl-V to paste a copy of the original formal at the end. Close that with a final right paren.
The whole thing looks like this:

IF(ISERROR(INDEX($E1:$E1405,MATCH(1,(W2=$C$1:$C$1405)*(X2=$D$1:$D$1405)*(AA2=$J1:$J1405),0))),0,INDEX($E1:$E1405,MATCH(1,(W2=$C$1:$C$1405)*(X2=$D$1:$D$1405)*(AA2=$J1:$J1405),0)))

Sure, it gets a little long, but the advantage will be that if what you’re looking for isn’t in the source data, you’ll get a nice zero instead of an error message. And if you’re searching a text field, like size or name, then use “” instead of 0 after the ISERROR to get a blank cell.

Wednesday Wonders: Baby, it’s cold inside

A hundred and ten years ago, in 1911, Heike Kamerlingh Onnes made an interesting discovery while futzing around with very low temperatures. It’s a discovery that will lead to many modern innovations that affect us just over a century later.

Strange things happen as the temperature drops toward absolute zero, which is basically the temperature equivalent of the speed of light in a vacuum (C) being the velocity limit for anything with mass. Oh, we’ve gotten really close to absolute zero — within nanokelvins — and in theory we could get really close to the speed of light, although that would take ridiculous amounts of energy.

But… where matter can’t be is right at these two figures: Exactly absolute zero, or exactly C. There’s nothing in the equations, though, that say that objects with mass cannot move faster than the speed of light or be colder than absolute zero.

Practically speaking, it would require infinite energy to jump from 99.99999% to 100.00001% of C, so that’s not possible, but scientists in Germany think they may have achieved temperatures below absolute zero.

Of course, these create weird situations like negative temperatures in an absolute sense, and not just as measured. That is, while we can say that it’s 24 below zero outside, that really isn’t a negative temperature by strict definition. It’s just a temperature that’s negative on the scale we’re using.

Remember: 1º on the Kelvin scale is actually –457.87ºF.

These kinds of negative temperatures are actually below that absolute physical limit, and so they represent thermal energy that behaves the opposite as temperatures above absolute zero. And, in all likelihood, an object moving faster than light would also travel backwards in time thanks to the time dilation effect being reversed.

These, though, are theoretical arguments. What we do know is that things get weird as the temperature drops. At a few nanokelvin, the only energy left in the system is quantum, and so these strange effects take over on a massive scale, pun intended.

The key here is that as atoms lose energy and cool down, they stop moving as much, eventually reaching a point where they’re just sitting there. But… there’s a principle in physics, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which says that there is a fundamental limit to the precision with which you can measure two connected properties of any particle.

For example, if you measure position precisely, you can’t measure momentum with much accuracy, and vice versa. The sharper one measurement is, the fuzzier the other one becomes. Not to get too deep into the science of it, but there are two classes of elementary particle, Fermions and bosons.

Fermions are elitists, and when they’re in a bunch, they don’t like to occupy the same quantum energy state. Electrons are totally fermions, which is why that whole concept of an atom as electrons neatly orbiting a nucleus like planets orbit the Sun is only a metaphor and very inaccurate.

Each electron in an atom occupies a different quantum energy state, which is why there’s the concept of electron “shells” filling up, but the location of each electron is not a unique point that changes over time. It’s a statistical probability of a particular electron being in a particular place at any given time, and so the “shape” of those shells can vary from a sphere to two squashed and joined spheres to distended ovoid shapes, and so on.

Bosons, on the other hand, are egalitarians, don’t mind sharing the same quantum energy state. In fact, they love to do it. This leads to a very interesting form of matter known as a Bose-Einstein Condensate.

Basically, at a low enough temperature, a bunch of atoms can suddenly coalesce into a single quantum particle with the same energy state and even become visible to a regular microscope.

Why? Because when we stop their movement, we can measure their momentum at near zero. Therefore, our ability to measure where they are becomes very inaccurate. It’s like the fermions all gather together and then balloon up into one entity in order to hide their individual locations.

This would be the equivalent of a bunch of people preventing GPS tracking of each of them by leaving their phones in one room and then all of them heading out in opposite directions in a big circle. Or sphere, if they can manage that.

The discovery that Onnes made in 1911 is related to this phenomenon. In his case, he dipped a solid mercury wire into liquid helium at 4.2 degrees Kelvin and discovered that all electrical resistance went away. That is, he discovered a property of matter known as superconductivity.

The same principle and the low temperature led to the electromagnetic force interacting in a different way — fermions meet bosons under extreme conditions, and electric and magnetic sort of separate, or at least keep themselves at arm’s length, as it were.

This can lead to all sorts of interesting effects, like levitation.

This is the technology taking maglev trains to the next level. But superconductivity is also used in things like medical imaging devices, motors, generators, transformers, and computer parts.

But the holy grail of the field is finding the so-called “room temperature” superconductor. All right. In some ways, “room temperature” is a bit of a misnomer, and the warmest superconductor yet found has a transition temperature of –23ºC. But a more promising substance could be a superconductor at 53ºC. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it requires ridiculously high atmospheric pressures to do it — in the range of a million or more times the pressure at sea level.

Oh, well.

Of course, the U.S. Navy did file a patent for a “room remperature” superconductor just over two years ago, but it’s not clear from the patent whether they used the “Not 0ºK” definition of room temperature or the popular press definition of about 77ºF.

It makes sense, though, that barring low temperature, some other extreme would be needed to achieve the effect. Nature just seems to work like that, whether it’s extremely low temperatures or very high pressures required to create superconductivity, or the extreme gravity and energy conversion required to create that other holy grail so beloved of alchemy: transmutation of matter, specifically turning lead into gold.

Ah, yes. If those alchemists only knew that every star was constantly transmuting elements every second of every day strictly through the power of enormous gravity and pressure — hydrogen to helium and so on, right down to iron — then who knows. One of them might have managed fusion centuries ago.

Okay, not likely. But just over a century ago, superconductivity was discovered, and it’s been changing the world ever since. Happy 110th anniversary!

Why astrology is bunk

A lot of people believe in astrology — but not only is there no basis in fact for it, believing in it can be dangerous.

This piece, which I first posted in 2019, continues to get constant traffic and I haven’t had a week go by that someone hasn’t given it a read. So I felt that it was worth bringing to the top again.

I know way too many otherwise intelligent adults who believe in astrology, and it really grinds my gears, especially whenever I see a lot of “Mercury is going retrograde — SQUEEEE” posts, and they are annoying and wrong.

The effect that Mercury in retrograde will have on us: Zero.

Fact

Mercury doesn’t “go retrograde.” We catch up with and then pass it, so it only looks like it’s moving backwards. It’s an illusion, and entirely a function of how planets orbit the sun, and how things look from here. If Mars had (semi)intelligent life, they would note periods when the Earth was in retrograde, but it’d be for the exact same reason.

Science

What force, exactly, would affect us? Gravity is out, because the gravitational effect of anything else in our solar system or universe is dwarfed by the Earth’s. When it comes to astrology at birth, your OB/GYN has a stronger gravitational effect on you than the Sun.

On top of that, the Sun has 99.9% of the mass of our solar system, which is how gravity works, so the Sun has the greatest gravitational influence on all of the planets. We only get a slight exception because of the size of our Moon and how close it is, but that’s not a part of astrology, is it? (Not really. They do Moon signs, but it’s not in the day-to-day.)

Some other force? We haven’t found one yet.

History

If astrology were correct, then there are one of two possibilities. A) It would have predicted the existence of Uranus and Neptune, and possibly Pluto, long before they were discovered, since astrology goes back to ancient times, but those discoveries happened in the modern era, or B) It would not have allowed for the addition of those three planets (and then the removal of Pluto) once discovered, since all of the rules would have been set down. And it certainly would have accounted for the 13th sign, Ophiuchus, which, again, wasn’t found until very recently, by science.

So… stop believing in astrology, because it’s bunk. Mercury has no effect on us whatsoever, other than when astronomers look out with telescopes and watch it transit the Sun, and use its movements to learn more about real things, like gravity.

Experiment

The late, great James Randi, fraud debunker extraordinaire, did a classroom exercise that demolishes the accuracy of those newspaper horoscopes, and here it is — apologies for the low quality video.

Yep. Those daily horoscopes you read are general enough to be true for anyone, and confirmation bias means that you’ll latch onto the parts that fit you and ignore the parts that don’t although, again, they’re designed to fit anyone — and no one is going to remember the generic advice or predictions sprinkled in or, if they do, will again pull confirmation bias only when they think they came true.

“You are an intuitive person who likes to figure things out on your own, but doesn’t mind asking for help when necessary. This is a good week to start something new, but be careful on Wednesday. You also have a coworker who is plotting to sabotage you, but another who will come to your aid. Someone with an S in their name will become suddenly important, and they may be an air sign. When you’re not working on career, focus on home life, although right now your Jupiter is indicating that you need to do more organizing than cleaning. There’s some conflict with Mars, which says that you may have to deal with an issue you’ve been having with a neighbor. Saturn in your third house indicates stability, so a good time to keep on binge-watching  your favorite show, but Uranus retrograde indicates that you’ll have to take extra effort to protect yourself from spoilers.”

So… how much of that fit you? Or do you think will? Honestly, it is 100% pure, unadulterated bullshit that I just made up, without referencing any kind of astrological chart at all, and it could apply to any sign because it mentions none.

Plus I don’t think it’s even possible for Uranus to go retrograde from the Earth’s point of view.

Conclusion

If you’re an adult, you really shouldn’t buy into this whole astrology thing. The only way any of the planets would have any effect at all on us is if one of them suddenly slammed into the Earth. That probably only happened once, or not, but it’s probably what created the Moon. So ultimately not a bad thing… except for anything living here at the time.

Momentous Monday: Tricky Questions

Here are five tricky questions to test how much you know about what you think you know.

  1. When did the United States become its own country?

If you’re an American, you probably wanted to say July 4, 1776, didn’t you? You could, but you’d be wrong. We had to win the war that was started when we declared independence, and that took a while.

The U.S.A. wasn’t officially that until March 4, 1789, when the Constitution went into effect — and George Washington became the first President. Why we don’t celebrate this as the birth of our nation is beyond me, but March 4 was the date of the presidential inauguration right up until 1933, when it was moved to its current January 20 date by Constitutional Amendment — number 20, to be exact, or XX if you prefer.

  1. How much gravity, in g, do astronauts on the ISS experience?

You’re probably thinking Zero, aren’t you? Nope. The gravity up there is a net downward force — as in toward the center of the Earth — of 0.89g, or almost what you’d experience on the surface of the Earth itself.

“But they’re floating around up there!” you may say.

Yes, they are, sort of, but they’re not really floating. They’re falling in the same way that you fall when you’re in a rollercoaster or other thrill ride that makes a sudden and very steep drop. It feels like you’re floating, but that’s because your downward acceleration (which makes you feel like you’re pushing up into the rollercoaster seat) counteracts the downward pull of gravity.

Drop faster than 1g, and you’ll rise out of your seat — but you’re still in Earth’s gravity.

  1. When there’s a Full Moon in the sky, how much of the Moon can we actually see?

Did you say “All of it?” Nice answer, but wrong. We’re only seeing half of it, of course, and that’s the near side. We never see the far side, but we actually do see more than just half of the Moon over time.

In fact, over time we can see up to 60% of the Moon’s surface thanks to libration, which is a tilt and wobble in the Moon itself. It wobbles along its East-West axis stopping during perigee and apogee,

The former is when the Moon is closest to Earth during its orbit, and the latter is when its at its farthest. Between each of these points, the Moon turns a bit farther, about 8 degrees  in either direction, showing a bit of its backside. Cheeky!

Likewise, the Moon “nods” north and south. This happens for the same reason that the Earth has season — the Moon’s orbital plane is tilted about 5 degrees relative to Earth’s. Also, the Moon’s equator is tilted 1.5 degrees relative to the plane of the ecliptic, which was set as the plane which contains both the Sun and the Earth’s orbit, meaning that the Earth is inclined zero degrees to the plane.

These lunar tilts add up to 6.5 degrees, though, which is exactly how much of its far side we can see to the north and south depending on where the Moon is in its orbital period.

So add it all up — 2 x 8 degrees plus 2 x 6.5 degrees, or 16 plus 13 degrees, and we get 29 degrees, more or less. Add that to the 180 we already see to get 209, divide by 360, and that’s about 58% of the surface we can see over time, give or take.

  1. So how much of the Moon do we see when the phase is a Half Moon?

You’re probably thinking “Half of the half we see, so one quarter.” Well, that’s the part we can see that’s lit — but have you ever realized that you can still see the whole near side of the Moon no matter what the phase, even if it’s a New Moon?

This is because the Earth itself has an albedo of 30 to 35%, varying due to cloud cover. This number indicates how much of the Sun’s light it reflects.

Under most circumstances, there’s enough light coming off of the Earth to illuminate the dark parts of the Moon at least enough so that they appear as a dark shadow against the night sky, and it’s much more obvious with a very starry background because there will be a “hole” in the stars where the rest of the Moon is.

If you live anywhere near the eastern shore of the Pacific, this effect is particularly pronounced, since there will be a good amount of sunlight reflecting off of the water whether it’s under cloud cover or not.

The Moon’s albedo is 12%, but it’s getting hit by a lot of light by the Sun — and this is why you can see the entire near side of a New Moon during the day. Sure, it’s fairly pale, but it’s there. Just look up in the sky away from the Sun and ta-da!

  1. One last question for the Americans: What is the official language of the United States?

Yep. Contrary to what way too many people think, the official language of the United States is not English. In fact, it’s… nothing. We as a country do not have an official language. Some states have tried to have official languages, while a number do not.

Not counting territories, we have 19 states with no official language, although some languages do have special status, like Spanish in New Mexico and French in Louisiana. the District of Columbia provides for equal access to all whether they speak English or not.

Twenty states have declared for English only, with two states (Arizona and Massachusetts) subsequently passing new English-only laws after previous laws were declared unconstitutional. My home state, California, passed an English-only initiative in 1986, when the state was much more conservative. However, for all practical purposes this isn’t really enforced, at least not in any government agency.

There are three states that have English as an official language in addition to others: Hawaii, with Hawaiian; Alaska, with over 20 indigenous languages recognized; and South Dakota, with English and Sioux. Okay, I’ll include Puerto Rico, with English and Spanish.

By the way, when the Colonies declared their independence from England, they also considered a full linguistic split as well, and there were many proponents of making Hebrew the official language of the United States.

How did you do, and how many tricky questions or errors in “common knowledge” do you know? Let me know in the comments!

Accentuate the positive

While I was trying to find an image file on my computer that was going to be the basis for an article about something my grandfather invented, I instead ran across a bit of video I shot nearly 14 years ago. (Never found what I was originally looking for, though.)

To give it some context, I shot the video on a camera that I’d just bought around that time as an early Christmas present to myself. The reason for that was because a gig that had started out as a “two day only” temp assignment in the middle of the previous July had turned into a full-time job that lasted over a decade by the end of that October. I shot the video over the course of a work day that was also the day of our office holiday party, my first with the company.

That camera stopped being compatible with my operating system a couple of updates ago, but that’s okay. My phone shoots higher resolution video anyway.

It was strangely nostalgic to see all of my former coworkers again, though. In fact, out of everybody in the video, only two of them made it with me all the way to the end, when the company self-destructed. Ironically, I still work with one of them now, for a completely different company.

But that’s not what this story is about. It also brought up the feels because that particular office — the first of four which the company occupied during my time with it — was long since converted into a Target Express, a sort of mini-version of the bigger stores. I visited it once, and bought a DVD about twenty feet from where my desk had been.

But, the point of the story: In this video, I was interviewing coworkers and narrating and I was once again reminded of how much I hate the sound of my own voice when I hear it coming from anywhere that isn’t inside my own head.

This is not at all uncommon. In fact, when I googled it, I only had to type “Why do people hate” before it auto-filled with the rest of the question — “the sound of their own voices.” Basically, when you talk, the sound you hear isn’t coming through the air. It’s coming directly through the bones in your ear, so the voice you hear is probably deeper and richer.

In my case it’s even weirder than that. The voice I hear in my head lacks two things that are very obvious when I listen to it recorded. One: I’m a lot more nasally than I think I am. Two: I actually have a noticeable accent, although I really can’t place it. I won’t count one other bit as three, though, because it’s true of everyone — the voice outside my head is probably half an octave higher than the one in my head.

The other noticeable thing, to me at least, though, is that despite being gay I absolutely do not have “gay voice.” And yes, that’s a thing. And despite being Californian, I do not have surfer dude voice or Valley guy voice either. I also exhibit none of the vowel shifts that are apparently part of the “California accent,” whatever that is.

Another complication is that, since the entertainment industry is centered here, the standard accent of film and TV is also pretty much how Californians, particularly of the southern variety, talk.

But, to me, the non-California accent I apparently have is really baffling. Well, at least the part about not being able to place it. I was born and raised in Southern California and so was my father. However, his parents came from Kansas (although his mother was born in Oklahoma) and my mother was from Northeastern Pennsylvania with parents from upstate New York.

As a kid before I started going to school, I spent a lot more time with my mom. Meanwhile, my dad’s accent was clearly influenced by his parents despite his growing up here.

The best way to describe my mom’s accent is Noo Yawk Lite. That is, while a lot of it was flat, there were certain words and vowels that just came out east-coasty. For example, a common household pet was a “dawg.” You dried your dishes or yourself with a “tahl.” The day after Friday was “Sirday” — which I think is unique to where my mom came from. Then again, apparently, the whole state has a ton of different dialects.

I talked to her sister, my aunt, recently — the last surviving sibling — and what most struck me about it is that she sounded exactly like Carrie Fisher toward the end of her life, after her voice had taken on the character and raspiness of a lifetime of overindulgence. It was the Carrie Fisher of the talk show circuit, not the Carrie of Star Wars.

Meanwhile, the Kansas side contributed a very flat, plain, and tight-lipped manner of speech, and I certainly heard this quite often from my dad’s mom, since we visited her more often than my mom’s mom, who lived ten times farther away. And although my dad’s grandfather was German, I don’t think he had a lot of influence because great-grandpa died just before my dad turned 22, and my dad’s own father sort of abandoned the family when my dad was 12. (Long story. Don’t ask.)

And none of any of this explains the way I talk. Or tawk. Oddly enough, when I’m not speaking English, I’m pretty adept at doing a Mexican Spanish accent (casi pero no completamente en el estilo chilango), although that’s probably not all that weird when you consider that the major (but not only) Spanish influence in Southern California is, in fact, from the country that most of California used to be part of.

On the other hand, when I speak German, it’s in total Hamburg Deutsch despite my German ancestors being Alsatian, mainly because my German teacher was from that very northern town. And, to be honest, I never met any of my German ancestors because they all died long before I was born — Sie sind alle gestorben bevor ich geboren werde.

To complicate things, when I’ve listened to recordings of myself speaking either Spanish or German, the most notable thing is that I am not nasally or half an octave higher at all. Or, in other words, my voice only sucks in my native language. Funny how that works, isn’t it? And the weirdest part, I suppose, is that none of that nasal thing happens in my head, even though, technically, nasal voice happens entirely in one’s head due to that whole sinus thing.

So, back to the beginning. When I speak my native language I hate the way I sound, but when I speak a foreign language, I don’t hate the way I sound. Then again, that’s also true when I’m performing onstage and playing a character. I just forget to play a character in real life, but maybe that’s a good thing.

There’s a book by Dr. Morton Cooper, first published in 1985, called Change Your Voice, Change Your Life, which posits exactly this premise. Ironically, though, he specifically mentions the flaws in voices — like Howard Cosell’s nasality and Barbara Walters nasality, hoarseness, and lisp — as their strongest points. Although his references are dated, I guess he has a point, stating that, “These personalities have all managed to project voice images that are— however unattractive and displeasing to the ears— distinctive and lucrative.”

Then… maybe I should change nothing? Hell, if Gilbert Gottfried (NSFest of W) can get away with talking the way he does, maybe I’m onto something. And maybe it’s not so much a matter of changing my voice as it is changing my feelings about it.

And that’s really the takeaway here — surprise, this was the lesson all along. There are certain things we can’t really change about ourselves, like our height, our hair, eye, or skin color, our looks, or our voices. (Okay, we can change hair, eye, or skin color through dye, contact lenses, or tanning, but those are only temporary and, in some cases, really obvious.) But we are stuck with our height, looks, and mostly our voices, unless we want to go to the expense of physically altering the first two, or learning how to alter the latter.

Or… we can just learn to accept ourselves as we are, flaws and all, and realize that we do not have to be some perfect ideal media version of a human in order for someone to love us.

And the part I intentionally left out of this up to now is this: Plenty of people have told me that I have a sexy voice. I may not agree with them at all, but if they think so, then that’s good enough for me. I mean, I got to be the Pokémon they chose before they threw their ball at me, right? And, in the end, that’s the only part that counts.

So… stop judging yourself for the flaws you think you see. Instead, listen to the flaws that people who love you clearly do not see.

Wednesday Wonders: How the world almost ended once

I happen to firmly believe that climate change is real, it is happening, and humans are contributing to and largely responsible for it, but don’t worry — this isn’t going to be a political story. And I’ll admit that I can completely understand some of the deniers’ arguments. No, not the ones that say that “global warming” is a hoax made up so that “evil liberals” in government can tax everyone even more. The understandable arguments are the ones that say, “How could mere humans have such a big effect on the world’s climate?” and “Climate change is cyclic and will happen with or without us.”

That second argument is actually true, but it doesn’t change the fact that our industrialization has had a direct and measurable impact in terms of more greenhouse gases emitted and the planet heating up. Also note: Just because you’re freezing your ass off under the polar vortex doesn’t mean that Earth isn’t getting hotter. Heat just means that there’s more energy in the system and with more energy comes more chaos. Hot places will be hotter. Cold places will be colder. Weather in general will become more violent.

As for the first argument, that a single species, like humans, really can’t have all that great an effect on this big, giant planet, I’d like to tell you a story that will demonstrate how wrong that idea is, and it begins nearly 2.5 billion years ago with the Great Oxygenation Event.

Prior to that point in time, the Earth was mostly populated by anaerobic organisms — that is, organisms that do not use oxygen in their metabolism. In fact, oxygen is toxic to them. The oceans were full of bacteria of this variety. The atmosphere at the time was about 30% carbon dioxide and close to 70% nitrogen, with perhaps a hint of methane, but no oxygen at all. Compare this to the atmosphere of Mars today, which is 95% carbon dioxide, 2.7% nitrogen, and less than 2% other gases. Side note: This makes the movie Mars Attacks! very wrong, because a major plot point was that the Martians could only breathe nitrogen, which is currently 78% of our atmosphere but almost absent in theirs. Oops!

But back to those anaerobic days and what changed them: A species of algae called cyanobacteria figured out the trick to photosynthesis — that is, producing energy not from food, but from sunlight and a few neat chemical processes. (Incidentally, this was also the first step on the evolutionary path to eyes.) Basically, these microscopic fauna would take in water and carbon dioxide, use the power of photons to break some bonds, and then unleash the oxygen from both of those elements while using the remaining carbon and hydrogen.

At first, things were okay because oxygen tended to be trapped by organic matter (any carbon containing compound) or iron (this is how rust is made), and there were plenty of both floating around to do the job, so both forms of bacteria got along fine. But there eventually became a point when there were not enough oxygen traps, and so things started to go off the rails. Instead of being safely sequestered, the oxygen started to get out into the atmosphere, with several devastating results.

First, of course, was that this element was toxic to the anaerobic bacteria, and so it started to kill them off big time. They just couldn’t deal with it, so they either died or adapted to a new ecological niche in low-oxygen environments, like the bottom of the sea. Second, though, and more impactful: All of this oxygen wound up taking our whatever atmospheric methane was left and converting it into carbon dioxide. Now the former is a more powerful greenhouse gas, and so was keeping the planet warm. The latter was and still is less effective. The end result of the change was a sudden and very long ice age known as the Huronian glaciation, which lasted for 300 million years — the oldest and longest ice age to date. The result of this was that most of the cyanobacteria died off as well.

So there you have it. A microscopic organism, much smaller than any of us and without any kind of technology or even intelligence to speak of, almost managed to wipe out all life forms on the planet and completely alter the climate for tens of millions of years, and they may have tipped the balance in as little as a million years.

We are much, much bigger than bacteria — about a million times, actually — and so our impact on the world is proportionally larger, even if they vastly outnumbered our current population of around 7.5 billion. But these tiny, mindless organisms managed to wipe out most of the life on Earth at the time and change the climate for far longer than humans have even existed.

Don’t kid yourself by thinking that humanity cannot and is not doing the same thing right now. Whether we’ll manage to turn the planet into Venus or Pluto is still up for debate. Maybe we’ll get a little of both. But to try to hand-wave it away by claiming we really can’t have that much of an impact is the road to perdition. If single-celled organisms could destroy the entire ecosystem, imagine how much worse we can do with our roughly 30 to 40 trillion cells, and then do your best to not contribute to that destruction.