Posts Tagged ‘science’

The elusive kilogram

Last night I had this conversation with Moomin. “I just want to make sure you actually understand this metric system stuff rather than doing the problems blindly. So let’s draw a little chart. How many grams in a kilogram?” “Um… ummm… ummmmmm…. Oh yeah! 1000!” “Okay, how many centigrams in a kilogram?” “There’s no such thing as a centigram.” “There is!” “No there’s not! They didn’t tell us that! Look, I wrote it down… Can you just let me finish this page? It’s my bedtime!” Bedtime is not a good time to explain the entire concept of the metric system so I gave in.
Later a certain person assured me that Moomin was right! Well, they are wrong! 8-P
And then led me into a delightfully pointless reading: Wikipedia: Kilogram.
The kilogram is the only unit not defined off a physical constant – it’s defined from this particular object, the 130-year-old International Prototype Kilogram or IPK. And a whole bunch of other metric units are defined using mass, like newtons, pascals, joules, amperes, couloumbs, volts, teslas, webers, candelas, lumens, and lux. (The plural is not “luxes”. I looked it up.) It was created and then defined as the standard. But some replicas of it were created, like the Kilogram of the Archives, and over time they have diverged from each other. The story of what they’re all made of, and how they’re periodically compared and verified, is pretty cool. And sort of insane. Is that a whole bunch of people’s life work? Making sure that we know how wrong our kilograms might be? Eeeeeee! That’s so hot!!!!!!
And so are multiple bell jars over a brass-looking pedestal thingie! It’s like The International Geek Thingamajig on a Steampunk Cake Stand of Awesome!

Burrow deeply into the kilogram article and you will get to the proposed alternatives that would tie the kilogram to a constant. Atom-counting approaches (I liked the Avogadro project, which would use a silicon sphere); Ion accumulation; and the rather sexy sounding watt balance method: the electronic kilogram!

I am tempted to show all this to Moomin but not until he finishes today’s tedious homework, which is three pages of textbook problems of temperature conversion. No one needs that many examples – it is very pointless. At the least I will wow him with the revelation that there are exagrams, zettagrams, yoctograms, and zeptagrams which I will prove through the irrefutability of Wikipedia because we all know the important thing to teach 4th graders is that Wikipedia is totally true.

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Vacation with Saturn and proplyds

I'm in the parking lot of a motel staring at spectacular red and buff cliffs! It's the Kaibab Limestone and the Coconino sandstone and that other red rock formation I forget the name of. Spiky little lizards are playing on the fence next to me.

After a great but exhausting week at ETech and SXSWi, I'm on vacation in Arizona with a rental car and no particular plan. Last night in Sedona we picked up a flyer in the Super8 lobby, for Evening Sky Tours which I pictured as a couple of old retired guys out in a parking lot picking up some spare cash for new lenses by showing off their amateur astronomy knowledge. While this was close to the truth the Adventure was run in a scarily businesslike and professional manner and rather than being a once a week or sporadic deal it was clearly a real job. Three guys pulled up with a trailer or two full of telescopes with a D**'s mount sort of a huge wooden box like a box kite with mirrors stuck in and lenses and spotting scopes stuck on! They had a row of folding chairs with wooly blankets laid out. Reclining lawn chairs would have been more the thing.
The main dude went around in a bossy way reminding his employees the telescope flunkies to "tell 'em what they're lookin' at". It was excellent. They did an especially good job of saying "In Africa" or "In the MIddle East" when talking about the names of stars and the history of astronomical discoveries.

As the Milky Way began to slide into our consciousness we saw a few satellites and every time I wanted to scream "Satellite!!!" Might have done just that. We had out our G1 Skymaps at first but put them away so as not to be assholes. I knew Orion, Taurus, Cassiopeia, the Pleiades, the Big Dipper and North Star, and that is about it. With luck I can spot Cygnus and the Corona Borealis. Zond-7 knew where Sirius was, which impressed me. I guessed where Gemini was, but got it wrong. Then I did what one of the astronomy dudes suggested and learned "Arc to Arcturus" and "Spike to Spica". Now I know a new thing!

The Night Sky Adventure dudes explained what we were looking at very well and were patient and sweet about all the questions. It was a little hard to get them to go into any depth. But it was light years better than going to a planetarium!
Stuff we saw: M51 which is sort of colliding or interacting galaxies, M3 (a globular cluster), M81 and M82 together (they affect each other with tides!), the Beehive Cluster, the Pleiades, a red dwarf star among the Double Cluster,  Mizar A and B and Alcor, (The horse and rider!), Saturn and 5 moons, and a bit of the Orion Nebula where the Trapezium is. We looked at Sirius through a polarized filter to see its spectral lines.

Later, the Wikipedia entry on the Orion Nebula turned out to be incredibly great; hello, iron tipped glowing blue "bullets" of supersonic incandescent gas. It just got more and more extreme and crazy in the descriptions. Keep reading. It gets better and better. Like this:

The green hue was a puzzle for astronomers in the early part of the 20th century because none of the known spectral lines
at that time could explain it. There was some speculation that the
lines were caused by a new element, and the name "nebulium" was coined
for this mysterious material. With better understanding of atomic
physics, however, it was later determined that the green spectra was
caused by a low-probability electron transition in doubly ionized oxygen, a so-called "forbidden transition".

In between lurching up from my wheelchair to peer through telescopes, I kept saying over the things we'd seen, so that I could look them up later. "You must have studied this!" one woman said in amazement. "No…. I'm just repeating to myself what the guy just told us…"

I don't mean this meanly, but I have forgotten how dumb most people are. Or maybe not dumb but just, without the most basic snippets of information about things like what a moon or a constellation or a galaxy is. Compared to our amateur astronomer hosts Zond-7 and I were just a couple of people who grew up liking science magazines and who might read the Planetary Society blog once in a while. But the people around us, holy crap. One lady was asking what it meant for something to be a moon. As we explained (super nicely) she *got it* that moons go around a planet, and planets go around the Sun, and so the moons are also going around the Sun at the same time, but with extra wiggling. I could see her getting it, even in the dark! Zond-7 explained very clearly to someone else what it meant for Saturn to be in Leo (which it was). Earlier, someone else went "Is there a thing called a .. a 'quark'?" and boy howdy did I feel like Mr. Peabody just able to say "It's a tiny elementary particle" Zond-7 asked if she meant quasar, but she meant quarks which were mentioned in a movie she saw. When I hung out with large feral packs of theoretical physicists I noticed how they would speak with disdain of washed-up media whores meaning anyone who ever talked to the press or wrote a popular science article. Meanwhile I wish popular science was more popular and more people would learn how to explain (with strangeness and charm) what a quark is to a regular person.

Anyway, I was struck by how much people don't know. We don't need to know it, people go around and function and are smart as anything, but I forget that most people don't care for some of the things I like to know. And I was struck by the thought that I am used to being around people who do know and who have a fairly huge internal database of random knowledge not applicable to their daily life. The people who came to the astronomy event were self selected to be people who were interested and curious and willing to learn stuff, unlike the general population. I am not trying to be judgmental on people by saying this, it is just that I felt a gulf suddenly between my assumptions about what's in people's heads all around me, and what actually is. Heather Gold at SXSWi in her talk show at Plutopia touched on this rather sweetly when she mentioned the movie Powers of Ten and said "You know, like that thing you do in bed when you're a little kid, where you imagine you're in your address, St. Louis, Missouri, United States, North America, Northern Hemisphere, Earth, The Solar System, Milky Way, like that? … and the crowd just kind of stared at her…. As Heather did, I assumed everyone did that! Did you? But no – not everyone spends hours poring over photographs of galaxies and nebulae and reading encyclopedia articles. I have not felt like a freak for having a lot of book learning for a long time, not for years. As a kid that was a hard lesson – I thought all reasonable people would automatically know what mitochondria were, and so on.
This crowd, the idea of spectral lines was going to be so completely over their heads that it was impossible for the guys to explain anything. I was glad they showed it anyway.

Meanwhile, I don't know the parts of an engine or how to fix a toilet or knit a sweater or take someone's blood pressure as probably the people on our Star Tour do know.

Saturn's moons freaked me out the most. They just hang there. The light reflected from Saturn shades them like our Moon is shaped and shaded by Earthlight. They were more surreal to me than Saturn itself, because they looked so three dimensional.

There is a flythrough of a 3-D model of the Orion Nebula! Can't wait to try it!

When we get home I have a book called Agnotology waiting for me which promises to be about theories of Not Knowing. What don't we know? And why don't we? And how does that affect us?

One last note, Zond-7 asked one of the astronomy dudes how many stars
were in a galaxy and was told a trillion.  He gently drew out the guy a
little more and then shut up. Later in the car he told me that the
trillion stars theory was in the process of being debunked, as it is
based on "a trillion solar masses" but like 99.999 % of that is dark
matter so there are likely not a trillion stars in the galaxy at ALL.
Speaking of Agnotology!

If you are wondering about a proplyd you may go read the article on the Orion Nebula! Happy pointless knowledge voyage!

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Yet another geek party

All afternoon today I was at Debbie’s party, with Moomin, mostly chilling out on the ground floor. Legos, godzilla, the batcomputer, and good conversation. Picked this one woman’s brains about sf books (though stupidly i did not write down the series she recommended and I have also forgotten her name, but I’ll find her… and maybe interview her for her picks of new stuff – I could do this with local bookstores and publishers for the feministsf blog.) She loved Sabriel and Lirael. I’m still working through what I did and didn’t like about those books… I take it all way too seriously but can’t help reacting that way.

(Oh – and I spent the entire morning on the phone with mi suegra – after telling Rook he was being too mean to her and I could do better sweet hand-holding tech support for her and her computer – well after half an hour or so of it I lost my mind. Unfuckingbelievable. I love her but she does not listen or communicate well verbally. IN person she was easy to teach and sweet as pie. Over the phone she’s flailing and cna’t seem to describe the simplest thing accurately – so that she kept saying she was clicking on a button but what she was doing ws moving the cursor on the screen over a gray button which then greyed out more heavily. “I’m clicking it with the mouse and it turns into a hand!” No… you are mousing over it with the cursor. ” “No I’m not I’m clicking it with the mouse and it’s clicking, can see the dark grey when the button goes down!” “Noooo…Click the mouse with your physical real hand made of flesh on the left side of the object you are holding in your actual real hand!!!!!!!!!” Christ on a crutch…

Tom gave me an awesome back massage in his massage chair. I could suck up hours of massage. Especially good massage…. good massage has to respect that I’m in pain and listen to what’s going on and give me space to recover from stuff… like if there’s going to be digging in on a painful muscle then there has to be some pausing to let me breathe through it. Tom was good at that – I remarked on it and he said he had been wanting to write an essay on the similarities between good s/m and good massage therapy – I agree and think they have a lot in common. I do think for some people massage is just pleasurable (????!!!) and feels nice and at times I ahve not been able to communicate well with people massaging me who don’t understand that it’s painful but can potentially be good-hurting that works out the tension, if done right. Anyway I appreciated the massage.

Had even more fabulous connection/conversation with someone named, hmmm…. A-trap. I reject her smallest left toenail utterly. The rest of her can come right in and settle down. We agreed that something is wrong with people whose heads don’t go sideways when they enter other people’s houses to look at the books on the shelves. How can they not? And how sad when a nice person comes over and it doesn’t occur to them. “And it’s sad, you’re like, but.. but… but… pay attention to me” *points at imaginary bookshelves* Also she said something about my network connection and I yeah-yeahed her, said something dismissive like “it’s a mac not a pc” because I automatically say that to people who want to tell me how to get on networks, and then realized with a flush of shame that she knew perfectly well what she was talking about! I pointed out my dumbassery and did what she said, which worked. I then showed her LibraryThing, the better to flirt with….

Lori and I talked about programming for the con and I said I would do junk with the database. And can help out in a pinch.

I didn’t realize till way later that A. and S. etc. … oh, sadness! They broke up.

There was a guy I see sometimes at sf get togethers who likes to talk for a very long time about expensive first editions of things that he has. And I just don’t care and find it unappealing to talk on and on bout how they signed it in gold pen and how beautiful it is. what a strange fetish!

Jam and I talked about processy things all the way home and he was going into details of his past … Also I had not know he had been to Cuba. Interesting stuff about their 24 hour day cares which are integrated with orphanage/foster home system and basiclaly replace those functions.

I am so jealous – I’m dying to go there and go to any big libraries I can and to hang out with poets and science fiction nerds. Mostly the libaries – I have to research various poets –

& so to bed.

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