From the archives…

Aquanomy

The quest for the best bottled water

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

A few years ago when we were in Patagonia, I had the chance to sample a very rare beverage. After hiking for about an hour or so on the Perito Moreno glacier, our guide called for a rest. We stopped near a pool of water, and we all gathered around to take a closer look. Its blue depths were mesmerizing, but our guide cautioned against getting too close if we didn’t want to sink all the way to the bottom of the glacier. He did recommend that we try the water, though, which we did eagerly, and I can still remember its taste—so pure and amazingly cold.

Of course, the rare part of the experience was drinking the water straight from the source. “Glacier water” is easy to obtain nowadays and comes in handy plastic bottles with no need to freeze your hands; still, there was something special about that Perito Moreno water. I usually find it incredibly difficult to drink the recommended amount of water every day because I feel like I just don’t have a taste for ordinary water; this glacier water was somehow different. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Marree Man

Mystery artwork in the desert

Previous articles here at Interesting Thing of the Day have covered some of the world’s best-known geoglyphs, or figures carved into the ground. Uffington White Horse in England and the Nazca lines in Peru are examples of huge figures that can only be appreciated in their entirety from the air, and yet date from thousands of years ago. Although scholars and UFO buffs debate how and why the figures were created, one thing seems clear: their existence is valuable. They’re impressive examples of artwork from ancient cultures and must therefore be preserved—not just for historical reasons but for aesthetic reasons. Destroying them, or allowing them to deteriorate, would be tantamount to defacing a painting in a museum.

So one might reasonably conclude that if an even larger and more impressive geoglyph were discovered, similar care should be taken to preserve it for the appreciation of future generations. Just such a figure was discovered in July 1998—on barren, public land out in the middle of an Australian desert, no less—but authorities ranging from government officials and Aboriginal leaders to prominent anthropologists immediately denounced it as vandalism and graffiti. The subject matter could hardly be considered controversial: it’s a giant line drawing of an Aboriginal hunter as he would have looked in the 19th century. Only two things truly set this image apart from others of its kind. First, it’s brand new: it was clearly created during the first half of 1998. And second, rather than relying on mysterious ancient artistic methods, it was made using modern technology—tractors and GPS receivers. But as with the older geoglyphs, no one knows for sure who made this one or why, and that’s the most maddening issue. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Gross National Happiness

Bhutan’s bottom line

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Although I don’t often give a lot of attention to news about economic indicators and analysis, preferring the much more enthralling subject of tax law to fill any spare time I have left to think about these kinds of things, I recently found out about an economic phenomenon that interested me greatly. I learned that the tiny nation of Bhutan, located between its gigantic neighbors, China and India, has a different way of measuring its success. Known as gross national happiness, this measurement of the quality of its citizens lives’ as opposed to their productivity, turns the usual economic indicator, gross domestic product (GDP), on its ear.

Gross Domestic Products
Also known as gross national product (GNP), gross domestic product refers to the total value of goods and services produced by a country within a certain time period. This measurement is meant to show the size of a country’s economy, and is sometimes used to track the standard of living, as it is assumed that increased productivity translates into better living conditions for citizens. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Assateague Island

The beach where people go to enjoy…the beach

Guest Article by Jillian Hardee

When I was young, my friends and their families would head out to the commercial beaches for their vacations. By “commercial beaches,” I mean the ones with oceanfront hotels, boardwalks, and a dizzying array of lights. My vacations, however, were quite different, as they were spent at Assateague, a 37-mile-long island off the coast of Maryland and Virginia. The island is owned by both states, and the state line divides it in two. Because it is a national seashore and wildlife refuge, buildings on this island are few and far between. Not a hotel, restaurant, or arcade can be found here. The beach offers a 360° view of the sea and sky, with nothing to mar the experience except for horseflies and kamikaze kites.

What do you mean there’s no boardwalk?
Assateague is a natural barrier island, so it is constantly battered by water and wind. Its topography changes often. Since 1866, it has “moved” a quarter of a mile inland. My vacations were spent on the Virginia side of Assateague, and as a child I remember wooden steps and walkways that would take you up and over the high sand dunes. After being away from Assateague for a few years and then coming back as an adult, I found the high dunes were gone, and smaller, less-protective dunes had taken their place. Water and sand are constantly moving on this island. Changes in landscape and scenery on Assateague are expected and accepted. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Lichtenberg Figures

Artificial lightning fossils

Go into almost any gift shop these days, and you’ll see paperweights, ornaments, or other decorations consisting of little crystal blocks with 3D laser-etched figures inside: a local landmark, a comic book hero, or whatever. In many malls, you can even find booths set up where someone will take a 3D scan of your head and convert it into a work of art right there on the spot. Working from the scanned coordinates, a laser beam focuses on a tiny spot inside the crystal, heating it until it cracks slightly, and in so doing makes a visible dot. It repeats this a few thousand times at various spots throughout the glass block and next thing you know, you’ve got a lovely image, especially when it sits on its custom-made stand (available at extra cost), illuminated from beneath by colored LEDs. I thought this was a pretty cool effect the first time I saw it years ago, but now that these things are so ubiquitous they’ve lost their appeal to me.

So my initial reaction upon seeing a Lichtenberg Figure, after receiving a recommendation from a reader to look into them, was similarly ho-hum. The picture appeared to be just the same as the laser crystal art—right down to the LED-illuminated base—except that the pattern looked like lightning rather than someone’s head. Lovely, I thought, but no big deal. However, on closer examination I discovered that the similarities were superficial. What had made this image was in fact a wholly different and much more interesting phenomenon. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Beurre Salé

The savory treat from Brittany

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

For those of us paying close attention to what we eat these days, there are always food items whose absence we mourn more than others, and we may even question why these items are restricted. What could be more wholesome than butter, made fresh from healthy milk, and with all those happy images on the carton? And as Mark Kurlansky detailed in his book Salt: A World History, salt has played an important role in human society and is even necessary (in a certain amount) to the healthy functioning of our bodies.

But, as we know, butter and salt are very high on the current list of dietary no-no’s, and with good reason. Just because we crave something doesn’t mean it’s healthy to have it in copious quantities. However, having switched to olive oil for most of my cooking and having made attempts to reduce my salt intake, I still love (and will indulge in) buttery, salted things from time to time. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Ischigualasto

Triassic Park in Argentina

I have a special fondness for deserts and other barren landscapes. Partly, I’m sure, it’s because of their rugged natural beauty, but I also find the lack of people and the coinciding lack of noise quite refreshing. I’ve spent plenty of time in desert regions of North America, South America, and the Middle East. One spot I missed during my trip to Argentina back in 2004 would undoubtedly have made it onto my list of favorite desert places. Located in the San Juan province in northwest Argentina, Ischigualasto Provincial Park is remote, hot, amazingly dry, and generally inhospitable, but nevertheless manages to draw over 30,000 tourists each year.

Smorgasbord of Fossils
The park takes its name from the Ischigualasto Formation, a large basin of sedimentary rock that was once a lush tropical swamp and is now a paleontologist’s playground. It contains a vast number of fossils, but its significance runs much deeper than that. It’s the only known place on the planet that contains a complete fossil record for the entire Triassic Period—a span of about 45 million years at the start of the Mesozoic Era, which began roughly 245 million years ago. What’s so significant about this period of time is that it’s when the first dinosaurs and the first mammals appeared. As a result, Ischigualasto is the best place to look for fossils of intermediate species. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Fata Morgana Effect

Fairy castles in the air

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

When people accuse you of building castles in the air, they are not usually congratulating you on an incredible engineering feat, but more likely trying to bring you back down to earth with a thud. Synonymous with daydreams, pipe dreams, and all other dreams unlikely to come to fruition, castles in the air are at best a hopeful vision, and at worst, a hopeless illusion.

Although the phrase “castles in the air” (the original phrase was “castles in Spain”) is most often used to describe imaginary constructions, it can also be used to describe a very real optical phenomenon—the fata morgana effect—in which different levels of hot and cold air distort the appearance of objects on the horizon to make them look like, well, castles in the air. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Quantized Time

Split-second thinking

The whole notion of time fascinates me endlessly—speaking metaphorically, of course. Numerous articles here at Interesting Thing of the Day have involved time or timekeeping in one form or another. (See the list of related articles in the sidebar for links.) In one of these articles, about analog clocks, I made what I thought was a commonsense and uncontroversial remark:

…time itself is continuous, not an infinite series of discrete steps. Units like seconds, minutes, and hours are just a convenient fiction…they don’t represent anything objectively real in the world.

A reader wrote in to suggest that I wasn’t up to date on my quantum physics, according to some theories of which time is indeed quantized, or fundamentally composed of very tiny but indivisible units. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Hubbert's Peak

The controversial theory of Peak Oil

Whatever your feelings about the cost of oil, the means of obtaining it, or the effect that burning it has on the environment, one thing’s for sure: there’s a finite amount of it, so sooner or later it has to run out. At least, I hope so, because once all the oil’s gone, perhaps the planet will finally have a fighting chance against global warming. Most people, however, would take a decidedly negative view of the impending disappearance of the world’s oil reserves for all the obvious reasons. Either way, just how long will the oil last?

In 1956, a geophysicist named Marion King Hubbert developed a theory to predict future oil production. He assumed that for any given oil field, production follows a bell curve. After the well’s discovery, production quickly ramps up as new wells are added. But eventually, as the oil is drained from the underground reservoirs, the production rate hits a peak after which it begins to decline, eventually returning to zero. And what is true of an individual oil field should, Hubbert reasoned, be true for the entire planet as well. Using these assumptions and the best data he had available at the time, he plotted historical oil production on a curve and estimated that oil production in the U.S. would peak by 1970, and worldwide by about…now. The moment at which global oil production peaks came to be known as Peak Oil (or Hubbert’s Peak), while the overall theory that oil production follows a bell curve in this way was called the Hubbert Peak Theory. After that time, there would of course still be plenty of oil, but the production rate would drop at about the same rate it rose, until eventually it was all gone. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Radio Call Letters

Minding your K’s and W’s

I’ve never entirely understood radio. As in: why do so many people have a radio on so much of the time? That’s a habit I never got into, and the whole concept of radio as an always-on background noise strikes me as odd, if not downright annoying. I love listening to music, but I prefer to pick my own tunes and play them when I’m able to pay attention to them. Besides, if I’m looking for audio, the Internet offers me a much wider range of choices than terrestrial or satellite radio stations do. As a result, I couldn’t tell you the first thing about my local radio stations: their frequencies, call letters, or what sorts of programming they offer.

When I was growing up in western Pennsylvania, however, I had a somewhat greater awareness of radio stations—particularly during the winter months, when we’d listen eagerly on snowy mornings to find out if school had been cancelled that day. The station we usually listened to was KDKA, which happened to be both the first commercial radio station in the country and a notable exception to the rule that all radio stations in the eastern U.S. had call letters that started with W. I always had the vague idea that these two facts had something to do with each other, but as a habitual non-radio listener, I never thought that much about it. It turns out that not-thinking-that-much-about-it was a prominent theme in the history of radio call letters. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Kakapo Parrot

Staying alive despite its best efforts

I’ve always been a sucker for endangered species—especially cute and comical endangered species. There aren’t that many of them—at least not anymore. But you’ve got to feel for an animal that spent many happy millennia peacefully minding its own business until humans came along. In this case, we’re talking about a silly-looking bird that had the misfortune of evolving in such a safe area that it lost (or never developed) most of the traits that could have enabled it to defend itself. It’s called the kakapo, and apart from being silly-looking and endangered, it’s unique in a long list of other ways.

Look, Down on the Ground! It’s a Bird…
A native of New Zealand, the kakapo (Strigops habroptilus, or “owl-faced soft feathers”) is a type of parrot, but only distantly related to other parrots. As its scientific name suggests, it looks somewhat like an owl (albeit with green or yellow plumage) and has exceptionally soft feathers. For decades, the world’s kakapo population has hovered near extinction, and that’s the only sort of hovering this flightless bird can manage. Besides having feathers that are poorly suited to flight, its bone and muscle structure have developed in such a way as to make flying infeasible. It’s also heavy for its size and wingspan; a full-grown kakapo is about two feet (60cm) long and weighs up to 9 pounds (about 4kg). Nevertheless, kakapos are good climbers, and can use their wings as a sort of parachute, to help them glide safely to the ground. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Nazca Lines

Peru’s mysterious geoglyphs

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

I like a good murder mystery now and then, and despite the violence inherent in the genre, often find these movies and TV shows fascinating. There’s something satisfying about following clues to reach the answers to those vexing questions—how, who, and why. The first two questions can be engrossing, but the last is sometimes the most consuming. Once the means and identity of the killer are known, knowing his or her motivation is the last piece to the puzzle. If no answer to that question is forthcoming, it can be maddening.

It’s human nature to want to know how the world works—and in the case of murder mysteries, to understand how another person thinks—when it is not obvious to us. This same phenomenon is at work when looking at history; there is no way, other than the evidence left to us, to know what was in the minds of those who preceded us. We see this gap in our knowledge clearly when we try to explain the existence of certain ancient human-made structures, such as Stonehenge or the statues on Easter Island. Another example is the Nazca Lines of Peru: a mystery 2,000 years in the making. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Project Habakkuk

Building aircraft carriers out of ice

H.L. Mencken has been famously quoted as saying, “There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.” Or, as the saying is often misquoted, “Complex problems have simple, easy-to-understand, wrong answers.” Either way, it’s true that simple solutions are often overlooked, and equally true that seemingly simple solutions often turn out to be infeasible. Such was the case with an ambitious project undertaken by the Allies in World War II: building gargantuan ships out of ice.

As silly as this may sound at first blush, the idea was meant to address a set of very serious problems. Supply ships on their way across the North Atlantic from Canada to the U.K. were frequently intercepted and sunk by German U-boats. Planes could protect the ships, but only within a limited distance from land, as there was nowhere to refuel in the middle of the ocean. Aircraft carriers would have helped, but they required enormous quantities of steel, which was in short supply. What was needed was a way to land aircraft in the mid-Atlantic without overtaxing the steel supply. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

Engineering marvel of the Canal Age

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

If you’re like me, with just enough knowledge of engineering to set up a camping tent successfully, then you may have had the experience of nodding politely during a conversation about, say, cantilevered bridges. Sure, I’ve heard of them, but how do they actually work? Not a clue.

One category of those things about which I have a passing knowledge is aqueducts. I understand that they have something to do with transporting water, but what do I know beyond that? Being relatively ill-informed about these things, I would assume that an aqueduct would be used to bring water to an area in which there is very little. But, when I looked into it further, I found that is not always the case. In fact, aqueducts have been constructed in areas where there is plenty of water—such as a river valley. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Aquanomy

The quest for the best bottled water

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

A few years ago when we were in Patagonia, I had the chance to sample a very rare beverage. After hiking for about an hour or so on the Perito Moreno glacier, our guide called for a rest. We stopped near a pool of water, and we all gathered around to take a closer look. Its blue depths were mesmerizing, but our guide cautioned against getting too close if we didn’t want to sink all the way to the bottom of the glacier. He did recommend that we try the water, though, which we did eagerly, and I can still remember its taste—so pure and amazingly cold.

Of course, the rare part of the experience was drinking the water straight from the source. “Glacier water” is easy to obtain nowadays and comes in handy plastic bottles with no need to freeze your hands; still, there was something special about that Perito Moreno water. I usually find it incredibly difficult to drink the recommended amount of water every day because I feel like I just don’t have a taste for ordinary water; this glacier water was somehow different. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Marree Man

Mystery artwork in the desert

Previous articles here at Interesting Thing of the Day have covered some of the world’s best-known geoglyphs, or figures carved into the ground. Uffington White Horse in England and the Nazca lines in Peru are examples of huge figures that can only be appreciated in their entirety from the air, and yet date from thousands of years ago. Although scholars and UFO buffs debate how and why the figures were created, one thing seems clear: their existence is valuable. They’re impressive examples of artwork from ancient cultures and must therefore be preserved—not just for historical reasons but for aesthetic reasons. Destroying them, or allowing them to deteriorate, would be tantamount to defacing a painting in a museum.

So one might reasonably conclude that if an even larger and more impressive geoglyph were discovered, similar care should be taken to preserve it for the appreciation of future generations. Just such a figure was discovered in July 1998—on barren, public land out in the middle of an Australian desert, no less—but authorities ranging from government officials and Aboriginal leaders to prominent anthropologists immediately denounced it as vandalism and graffiti. The subject matter could hardly be considered controversial: it’s a giant line drawing of an Aboriginal hunter as he would have looked in the 19th century. Only two things truly set this image apart from others of its kind. First, it’s brand new: it was clearly created during the first half of 1998. And second, rather than relying on mysterious ancient artistic methods, it was made using modern technology—tractors and GPS receivers. But as with the older geoglyphs, no one knows for sure who made this one or why, and that’s the most maddening issue. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Gross National Happiness

Bhutan’s bottom line

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Although I don’t often give a lot of attention to news about economic indicators and analysis, preferring the much more enthralling subject of tax law to fill any spare time I have left to think about these kinds of things, I recently found out about an economic phenomenon that interested me greatly. I learned that the tiny nation of Bhutan, located between its gigantic neighbors, China and India, has a different way of measuring its success. Known as gross national happiness, this measurement of the quality of its citizens lives’ as opposed to their productivity, turns the usual economic indicator, gross domestic product (GDP), on its ear.

Gross Domestic Products
Also known as gross national product (GNP), gross domestic product refers to the total value of goods and services produced by a country within a certain time period. This measurement is meant to show the size of a country’s economy, and is sometimes used to track the standard of living, as it is assumed that increased productivity translates into better living conditions for citizens. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Assateague Island

The beach where people go to enjoy…the beach

Guest Article by Jillian Hardee

When I was young, my friends and their families would head out to the commercial beaches for their vacations. By “commercial beaches,” I mean the ones with oceanfront hotels, boardwalks, and a dizzying array of lights. My vacations, however, were quite different, as they were spent at Assateague, a 37-mile-long island off the coast of Maryland and Virginia. The island is owned by both states, and the state line divides it in two. Because it is a national seashore and wildlife refuge, buildings on this island are few and far between. Not a hotel, restaurant, or arcade can be found here. The beach offers a 360° view of the sea and sky, with nothing to mar the experience except for horseflies and kamikaze kites.

What do you mean there’s no boardwalk?
Assateague is a natural barrier island, so it is constantly battered by water and wind. Its topography changes often. Since 1866, it has “moved” a quarter of a mile inland. My vacations were spent on the Virginia side of Assateague, and as a child I remember wooden steps and walkways that would take you up and over the high sand dunes. After being away from Assateague for a few years and then coming back as an adult, I found the high dunes were gone, and smaller, less-protective dunes had taken their place. Water and sand are constantly moving on this island. Changes in landscape and scenery on Assateague are expected and accepted. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Lichtenberg Figures

Artificial lightning fossils

Go into almost any gift shop these days, and you’ll see paperweights, ornaments, or other decorations consisting of little crystal blocks with 3D laser-etched figures inside: a local landmark, a comic book hero, or whatever. In many malls, you can even find booths set up where someone will take a 3D scan of your head and convert it into a work of art right there on the spot. Working from the scanned coordinates, a laser beam focuses on a tiny spot inside the crystal, heating it until it cracks slightly, and in so doing makes a visible dot. It repeats this a few thousand times at various spots throughout the glass block and next thing you know, you’ve got a lovely image, especially when it sits on its custom-made stand (available at extra cost), illuminated from beneath by colored LEDs. I thought this was a pretty cool effect the first time I saw it years ago, but now that these things are so ubiquitous they’ve lost their appeal to me.

So my initial reaction upon seeing a Lichtenberg Figure, after receiving a recommendation from a reader to look into them, was similarly ho-hum. The picture appeared to be just the same as the laser crystal art—right down to the LED-illuminated base—except that the pattern looked like lightning rather than someone’s head. Lovely, I thought, but no big deal. However, on closer examination I discovered that the similarities were superficial. What had made this image was in fact a wholly different and much more interesting phenomenon. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Beurre Salé

The savory treat from Brittany

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

For those of us paying close attention to what we eat these days, there are always food items whose absence we mourn more than others, and we may even question why these items are restricted. What could be more wholesome than butter, made fresh from healthy milk, and with all those happy images on the carton? And as Mark Kurlansky detailed in his book Salt: A World History, salt has played an important role in human society and is even necessary (in a certain amount) to the healthy functioning of our bodies.

But, as we know, butter and salt are very high on the current list of dietary no-no’s, and with good reason. Just because we crave something doesn’t mean it’s healthy to have it in copious quantities. However, having switched to olive oil for most of my cooking and having made attempts to reduce my salt intake, I still love (and will indulge in) buttery, salted things from time to time. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Ischigualasto

Triassic Park in Argentina

I have a special fondness for deserts and other barren landscapes. Partly, I’m sure, it’s because of their rugged natural beauty, but I also find the lack of people and the coinciding lack of noise quite refreshing. I’ve spent plenty of time in desert regions of North America, South America, and the Middle East. One spot I missed during my trip to Argentina back in 2004 would undoubtedly have made it onto my list of favorite desert places. Located in the San Juan province in northwest Argentina, Ischigualasto Provincial Park is remote, hot, amazingly dry, and generally inhospitable, but nevertheless manages to draw over 30,000 tourists each year.

Smorgasbord of Fossils
The park takes its name from the Ischigualasto Formation, a large basin of sedimentary rock that was once a lush tropical swamp and is now a paleontologist’s playground. It contains a vast number of fossils, but its significance runs much deeper than that. It’s the only known place on the planet that contains a complete fossil record for the entire Triassic Period—a span of about 45 million years at the start of the Mesozoic Era, which began roughly 245 million years ago. What’s so significant about this period of time is that it’s when the first dinosaurs and the first mammals appeared. As a result, Ischigualasto is the best place to look for fossils of intermediate species. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Fata Morgana Effect

Fairy castles in the air

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

When people accuse you of building castles in the air, they are not usually congratulating you on an incredible engineering feat, but more likely trying to bring you back down to earth with a thud. Synonymous with daydreams, pipe dreams, and all other dreams unlikely to come to fruition, castles in the air are at best a hopeful vision, and at worst, a hopeless illusion.

Although the phrase “castles in the air” (the original phrase was “castles in Spain”) is most often used to describe imaginary constructions, it can also be used to describe a very real optical phenomenon—the fata morgana effect—in which different levels of hot and cold air distort the appearance of objects on the horizon to make them look like, well, castles in the air. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Quantized Time

Split-second thinking

The whole notion of time fascinates me endlessly—speaking metaphorically, of course. Numerous articles here at Interesting Thing of the Day have involved time or timekeeping in one form or another. (See the list of related articles in the sidebar for links.) In one of these articles, about analog clocks, I made what I thought was a commonsense and uncontroversial remark:

…time itself is continuous, not an infinite series of discrete steps. Units like seconds, minutes, and hours are just a convenient fiction…they don’t represent anything objectively real in the world.

A reader wrote in to suggest that I wasn’t up to date on my quantum physics, according to some theories of which time is indeed quantized, or fundamentally composed of very tiny but indivisible units. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Hubbert's Peak

The controversial theory of Peak Oil

Whatever your feelings about the cost of oil, the means of obtaining it, or the effect that burning it has on the environment, one thing’s for sure: there’s a finite amount of it, so sooner or later it has to run out. At least, I hope so, because once all the oil’s gone, perhaps the planet will finally have a fighting chance against global warming. Most people, however, would take a decidedly negative view of the impending disappearance of the world’s oil reserves for all the obvious reasons. Either way, just how long will the oil last?

In 1956, a geophysicist named Marion King Hubbert developed a theory to predict future oil production. He assumed that for any given oil field, production follows a bell curve. After the well’s discovery, production quickly ramps up as new wells are added. But eventually, as the oil is drained from the underground reservoirs, the production rate hits a peak after which it begins to decline, eventually returning to zero. And what is true of an individual oil field should, Hubbert reasoned, be true for the entire planet as well. Using these assumptions and the best data he had available at the time, he plotted historical oil production on a curve and estimated that oil production in the U.S. would peak by 1970, and worldwide by about…now. The moment at which global oil production peaks came to be known as Peak Oil (or Hubbert’s Peak), while the overall theory that oil production follows a bell curve in this way was called the Hubbert Peak Theory. After that time, there would of course still be plenty of oil, but the production rate would drop at about the same rate it rose, until eventually it was all gone. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Radio Call Letters

Minding your K’s and W’s

I’ve never entirely understood radio. As in: why do so many people have a radio on so much of the time? That’s a habit I never got into, and the whole concept of radio as an always-on background noise strikes me as odd, if not downright annoying. I love listening to music, but I prefer to pick my own tunes and play them when I’m able to pay attention to them. Besides, if I’m looking for audio, the Internet offers me a much wider range of choices than terrestrial or satellite radio stations do. As a result, I couldn’t tell you the first thing about my local radio stations: their frequencies, call letters, or what sorts of programming they offer.

When I was growing up in western Pennsylvania, however, I had a somewhat greater awareness of radio stations—particularly during the winter months, when we’d listen eagerly on snowy mornings to find out if school had been cancelled that day. The station we usually listened to was KDKA, which happened to be both the first commercial radio station in the country and a notable exception to the rule that all radio stations in the eastern U.S. had call letters that started with W. I always had the vague idea that these two facts had something to do with each other, but as a habitual non-radio listener, I never thought that much about it. It turns out that not-thinking-that-much-about-it was a prominent theme in the history of radio call letters. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Kakapo Parrot

Staying alive despite its best efforts

I’ve always been a sucker for endangered species—especially cute and comical endangered species. There aren’t that many of them—at least not anymore. But you’ve got to feel for an animal that spent many happy millennia peacefully minding its own business until humans came along. In this case, we’re talking about a silly-looking bird that had the misfortune of evolving in such a safe area that it lost (or never developed) most of the traits that could have enabled it to defend itself. It’s called the kakapo, and apart from being silly-looking and endangered, it’s unique in a long list of other ways.

Look, Down on the Ground! It’s a Bird…
A native of New Zealand, the kakapo (Strigops habroptilus, or “owl-faced soft feathers”) is a type of parrot, but only distantly related to other parrots. As its scientific name suggests, it looks somewhat like an owl (albeit with green or yellow plumage) and has exceptionally soft feathers. For decades, the world’s kakapo population has hovered near extinction, and that’s the only sort of hovering this flightless bird can manage. Besides having feathers that are poorly suited to flight, its bone and muscle structure have developed in such a way as to make flying infeasible. It’s also heavy for its size and wingspan; a full-grown kakapo is about two feet (60cm) long and weighs up to 9 pounds (about 4kg). Nevertheless, kakapos are good climbers, and can use their wings as a sort of parachute, to help them glide safely to the ground. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Nazca Lines

Peru’s mysterious geoglyphs

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

I like a good murder mystery now and then, and despite the violence inherent in the genre, often find these movies and TV shows fascinating. There’s something satisfying about following clues to reach the answers to those vexing questions—how, who, and why. The first two questions can be engrossing, but the last is sometimes the most consuming. Once the means and identity of the killer are known, knowing his or her motivation is the last piece to the puzzle. If no answer to that question is forthcoming, it can be maddening.

It’s human nature to want to know how the world works—and in the case of murder mysteries, to understand how another person thinks—when it is not obvious to us. This same phenomenon is at work when looking at history; there is no way, other than the evidence left to us, to know what was in the minds of those who preceded us. We see this gap in our knowledge clearly when we try to explain the existence of certain ancient human-made structures, such as Stonehenge or the statues on Easter Island. Another example is the Nazca Lines of Peru: a mystery 2,000 years in the making. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Project Habakkuk

Building aircraft carriers out of ice

H.L. Mencken has been famously quoted as saying, “There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.” Or, as the saying is often misquoted, “Complex problems have simple, easy-to-understand, wrong answers.” Either way, it’s true that simple solutions are often overlooked, and equally true that seemingly simple solutions often turn out to be infeasible. Such was the case with an ambitious project undertaken by the Allies in World War II: building gargantuan ships out of ice.

As silly as this may sound at first blush, the idea was meant to address a set of very serious problems. Supply ships on their way across the North Atlantic from Canada to the U.K. were frequently intercepted and sunk by German U-boats. Planes could protect the ships, but only within a limited distance from land, as there was nowhere to refuel in the middle of the ocean. Aircraft carriers would have helped, but they required enormous quantities of steel, which was in short supply. What was needed was a way to land aircraft in the mid-Atlantic without overtaxing the steel supply. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

Engineering marvel of the Canal Age

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

If you’re like me, with just enough knowledge of engineering to set up a camping tent successfully, then you may have had the experience of nodding politely during a conversation about, say, cantilevered bridges. Sure, I’ve heard of them, but how do they actually work? Not a clue.

One category of those things about which I have a passing knowledge is aqueducts. I understand that they have something to do with transporting water, but what do I know beyond that? Being relatively ill-informed about these things, I would assume that an aqueduct would be used to bring water to an area in which there is very little. But, when I looked into it further, I found that is not always the case. In fact, aqueducts have been constructed in areas where there is plenty of water—such as a river valley. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Aquanomy

The quest for the best bottled water

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

A few years ago when we were in Patagonia, I had the chance to sample a very rare beverage. After hiking for about an hour or so on the Perito Moreno glacier, our guide called for a rest. We stopped near a pool of water, and we all gathered around to take a closer look. Its blue depths were mesmerizing, but our guide cautioned against getting too close if we didn’t want to sink all the way to the bottom of the glacier. He did recommend that we try the water, though, which we did eagerly, and I can still remember its taste—so pure and amazingly cold.

Of course, the rare part of the experience was drinking the water straight from the source. “Glacier water” is easy to obtain nowadays and comes in handy plastic bottles with no need to freeze your hands; still, there was something special about that Perito Moreno water. I usually find it incredibly difficult to drink the recommended amount of water every day because I feel like I just don’t have a taste for ordinary water; this glacier water was somehow different. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Marree Man

Mystery artwork in the desert

Previous articles here at Interesting Thing of the Day have covered some of the world’s best-known geoglyphs, or figures carved into the ground. Uffington White Horse in England and the Nazca lines in Peru are examples of huge figures that can only be appreciated in their entirety from the air, and yet date from thousands of years ago. Although scholars and UFO buffs debate how and why the figures were created, one thing seems clear: their existence is valuable. They’re impressive examples of artwork from ancient cultures and must therefore be preserved—not just for historical reasons but for aesthetic reasons. Destroying them, or allowing them to deteriorate, would be tantamount to defacing a painting in a museum.

So one might reasonably conclude that if an even larger and more impressive geoglyph were discovered, similar care should be taken to preserve it for the appreciation of future generations. Just such a figure was discovered in July 1998—on barren, public land out in the middle of an Australian desert, no less—but authorities ranging from government officials and Aboriginal leaders to prominent anthropologists immediately denounced it as vandalism and graffiti. The subject matter could hardly be considered controversial: it’s a giant line drawing of an Aboriginal hunter as he would have looked in the 19th century. Only two things truly set this image apart from others of its kind. First, it’s brand new: it was clearly created during the first half of 1998. And second, rather than relying on mysterious ancient artistic methods, it was made using modern technology—tractors and GPS receivers. But as with the older geoglyphs, no one knows for sure who made this one or why, and that’s the most maddening issue. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Gross National Happiness

Bhutan’s bottom line

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Although I don’t often give a lot of attention to news about economic indicators and analysis, preferring the much more enthralling subject of tax law to fill any spare time I have left to think about these kinds of things, I recently found out about an economic phenomenon that interested me greatly. I learned that the tiny nation of Bhutan, located between its gigantic neighbors, China and India, has a different way of measuring its success. Known as gross national happiness, this measurement of the quality of its citizens lives’ as opposed to their productivity, turns the usual economic indicator, gross domestic product (GDP), on its ear.

Gross Domestic Products
Also known as gross national product (GNP), gross domestic product refers to the total value of goods and services produced by a country within a certain time period. This measurement is meant to show the size of a country’s economy, and is sometimes used to track the standard of living, as it is assumed that increased productivity translates into better living conditions for citizens. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Assateague Island

The beach where people go to enjoy…the beach

Guest Article by Jillian Hardee

When I was young, my friends and their families would head out to the commercial beaches for their vacations. By “commercial beaches,” I mean the ones with oceanfront hotels, boardwalks, and a dizzying array of lights. My vacations, however, were quite different, as they were spent at Assateague, a 37-mile-long island off the coast of Maryland and Virginia. The island is owned by both states, and the state line divides it in two. Because it is a national seashore and wildlife refuge, buildings on this island are few and far between. Not a hotel, restaurant, or arcade can be found here. The beach offers a 360° view of the sea and sky, with nothing to mar the experience except for horseflies and kamikaze kites.

What do you mean there’s no boardwalk?
Assateague is a natural barrier island, so it is constantly battered by water and wind. Its topography changes often. Since 1866, it has “moved” a quarter of a mile inland. My vacations were spent on the Virginia side of Assateague, and as a child I remember wooden steps and walkways that would take you up and over the high sand dunes. After being away from Assateague for a few years and then coming back as an adult, I found the high dunes were gone, and smaller, less-protective dunes had taken their place. Water and sand are constantly moving on this island. Changes in landscape and scenery on Assateague are expected and accepted. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Lichtenberg Figures

Artificial lightning fossils

Go into almost any gift shop these days, and you’ll see paperweights, ornaments, or other decorations consisting of little crystal blocks with 3D laser-etched figures inside: a local landmark, a comic book hero, or whatever. In many malls, you can even find booths set up where someone will take a 3D scan of your head and convert it into a work of art right there on the spot. Working from the scanned coordinates, a laser beam focuses on a tiny spot inside the crystal, heating it until it cracks slightly, and in so doing makes a visible dot. It repeats this a few thousand times at various spots throughout the glass block and next thing you know, you’ve got a lovely image, especially when it sits on its custom-made stand (available at extra cost), illuminated from beneath by colored LEDs. I thought this was a pretty cool effect the first time I saw it years ago, but now that these things are so ubiquitous they’ve lost their appeal to me.

So my initial reaction upon seeing a Lichtenberg Figure, after receiving a recommendation from a reader to look into them, was similarly ho-hum. The picture appeared to be just the same as the laser crystal art—right down to the LED-illuminated base—except that the pattern looked like lightning rather than someone’s head. Lovely, I thought, but no big deal. However, on closer examination I discovered that the similarities were superficial. What had made this image was in fact a wholly different and much more interesting phenomenon. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Beurre Salé

The savory treat from Brittany

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

For those of us paying close attention to what we eat these days, there are always food items whose absence we mourn more than others, and we may even question why these items are restricted. What could be more wholesome than butter, made fresh from healthy milk, and with all those happy images on the carton? And as Mark Kurlansky detailed in his book Salt: A World History, salt has played an important role in human society and is even necessary (in a certain amount) to the healthy functioning of our bodies.

But, as we know, butter and salt are very high on the current list of dietary no-no’s, and with good reason. Just because we crave something doesn’t mean it’s healthy to have it in copious quantities. However, having switched to olive oil for most of my cooking and having made attempts to reduce my salt intake, I still love (and will indulge in) buttery, salted things from time to time. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Ischigualasto

Triassic Park in Argentina

I have a special fondness for deserts and other barren landscapes. Partly, I’m sure, it’s because of their rugged natural beauty, but I also find the lack of people and the coinciding lack of noise quite refreshing. I’ve spent plenty of time in desert regions of North America, South America, and the Middle East. One spot I missed during my trip to Argentina back in 2004 would undoubtedly have made it onto my list of favorite desert places. Located in the San Juan province in northwest Argentina, Ischigualasto Provincial Park is remote, hot, amazingly dry, and generally inhospitable, but nevertheless manages to draw over 30,000 tourists each year.

Smorgasbord of Fossils
The park takes its name from the Ischigualasto Formation, a large basin of sedimentary rock that was once a lush tropical swamp and is now a paleontologist’s playground. It contains a vast number of fossils, but its significance runs much deeper than that. It’s the only known place on the planet that contains a complete fossil record for the entire Triassic Period—a span of about 45 million years at the start of the Mesozoic Era, which began roughly 245 million years ago. What’s so significant about this period of time is that it’s when the first dinosaurs and the first mammals appeared. As a result, Ischigualasto is the best place to look for fossils of intermediate species. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Fata Morgana Effect

Fairy castles in the air

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

When people accuse you of building castles in the air, they are not usually congratulating you on an incredible engineering feat, but more likely trying to bring you back down to earth with a thud. Synonymous with daydreams, pipe dreams, and all other dreams unlikely to come to fruition, castles in the air are at best a hopeful vision, and at worst, a hopeless illusion.

Although the phrase “castles in the air” (the original phrase was “castles in Spain”) is most often used to describe imaginary constructions, it can also be used to describe a very real optical phenomenon—the fata morgana effect—in which different levels of hot and cold air distort the appearance of objects on the horizon to make them look like, well, castles in the air. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Quantized Time

Split-second thinking

The whole notion of time fascinates me endlessly—speaking metaphorically, of course. Numerous articles here at Interesting Thing of the Day have involved time or timekeeping in one form or another. (See the list of related articles in the sidebar for links.) In one of these articles, about analog clocks, I made what I thought was a commonsense and uncontroversial remark:

…time itself is continuous, not an infinite series of discrete steps. Units like seconds, minutes, and hours are just a convenient fiction…they don’t represent anything objectively real in the world.

A reader wrote in to suggest that I wasn’t up to date on my quantum physics, according to some theories of which time is indeed quantized, or fundamentally composed of very tiny but indivisible units. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Hubbert's Peak

The controversial theory of Peak Oil

Whatever your feelings about the cost of oil, the means of obtaining it, or the effect that burning it has on the environment, one thing’s for sure: there’s a finite amount of it, so sooner or later it has to run out. At least, I hope so, because once all the oil’s gone, perhaps the planet will finally have a fighting chance against global warming. Most people, however, would take a decidedly negative view of the impending disappearance of the world’s oil reserves for all the obvious reasons. Either way, just how long will the oil last?

In 1956, a geophysicist named Marion King Hubbert developed a theory to predict future oil production. He assumed that for any given oil field, production follows a bell curve. After the well’s discovery, production quickly ramps up as new wells are added. But eventually, as the oil is drained from the underground reservoirs, the production rate hits a peak after which it begins to decline, eventually returning to zero. And what is true of an individual oil field should, Hubbert reasoned, be true for the entire planet as well. Using these assumptions and the best data he had available at the time, he plotted historical oil production on a curve and estimated that oil production in the U.S. would peak by 1970, and worldwide by about…now. The moment at which global oil production peaks came to be known as Peak Oil (or Hubbert’s Peak), while the overall theory that oil production follows a bell curve in this way was called the Hubbert Peak Theory. After that time, there would of course still be plenty of oil, but the production rate would drop at about the same rate it rose, until eventually it was all gone. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Radio Call Letters

Minding your K’s and W’s

I’ve never entirely understood radio. As in: why do so many people have a radio on so much of the time? That’s a habit I never got into, and the whole concept of radio as an always-on background noise strikes me as odd, if not downright annoying. I love listening to music, but I prefer to pick my own tunes and play them when I’m able to pay attention to them. Besides, if I’m looking for audio, the Internet offers me a much wider range of choices than terrestrial or satellite radio stations do. As a result, I couldn’t tell you the first thing about my local radio stations: their frequencies, call letters, or what sorts of programming they offer.

When I was growing up in western Pennsylvania, however, I had a somewhat greater awareness of radio stations—particularly during the winter months, when we’d listen eagerly on snowy mornings to find out if school had been cancelled that day. The station we usually listened to was KDKA, which happened to be both the first commercial radio station in the country and a notable exception to the rule that all radio stations in the eastern U.S. had call letters that started with W. I always had the vague idea that these two facts had something to do with each other, but as a habitual non-radio listener, I never thought that much about it. It turns out that not-thinking-that-much-about-it was a prominent theme in the history of radio call letters. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Kakapo Parrot

Staying alive despite its best efforts

I’ve always been a sucker for endangered species—especially cute and comical endangered species. There aren’t that many of them—at least not anymore. But you’ve got to feel for an animal that spent many happy millennia peacefully minding its own business until humans came along. In this case, we’re talking about a silly-looking bird that had the misfortune of evolving in such a safe area that it lost (or never developed) most of the traits that could have enabled it to defend itself. It’s called the kakapo, and apart from being silly-looking and endangered, it’s unique in a long list of other ways.

Look, Down on the Ground! It’s a Bird…
A native of New Zealand, the kakapo (Strigops habroptilus, or “owl-faced soft feathers”) is a type of parrot, but only distantly related to other parrots. As its scientific name suggests, it looks somewhat like an owl (albeit with green or yellow plumage) and has exceptionally soft feathers. For decades, the world’s kakapo population has hovered near extinction, and that’s the only sort of hovering this flightless bird can manage. Besides having feathers that are poorly suited to flight, its bone and muscle structure have developed in such a way as to make flying infeasible. It’s also heavy for its size and wingspan; a full-grown kakapo is about two feet (60cm) long and weighs up to 9 pounds (about 4kg). Nevertheless, kakapos are good climbers, and can use their wings as a sort of parachute, to help them glide safely to the ground. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Nazca Lines

Peru’s mysterious geoglyphs

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

I like a good murder mystery now and then, and despite the violence inherent in the genre, often find these movies and TV shows fascinating. There’s something satisfying about following clues to reach the answers to those vexing questions—how, who, and why. The first two questions can be engrossing, but the last is sometimes the most consuming. Once the means and identity of the killer are known, knowing his or her motivation is the last piece to the puzzle. If no answer to that question is forthcoming, it can be maddening.

It’s human nature to want to know how the world works—and in the case of murder mysteries, to understand how another person thinks—when it is not obvious to us. This same phenomenon is at work when looking at history; there is no way, other than the evidence left to us, to know what was in the minds of those who preceded us. We see this gap in our knowledge clearly when we try to explain the existence of certain ancient human-made structures, such as Stonehenge or the statues on Easter Island. Another example is the Nazca Lines of Peru: a mystery 2,000 years in the making. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Project Habakkuk

Building aircraft carriers out of ice

H.L. Mencken has been famously quoted as saying, “There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.” Or, as the saying is often misquoted, “Complex problems have simple, easy-to-understand, wrong answers.” Either way, it’s true that simple solutions are often overlooked, and equally true that seemingly simple solutions often turn out to be infeasible. Such was the case with an ambitious project undertaken by the Allies in World War II: building gargantuan ships out of ice.

As silly as this may sound at first blush, the idea was meant to address a set of very serious problems. Supply ships on their way across the North Atlantic from Canada to the U.K. were frequently intercepted and sunk by German U-boats. Planes could protect the ships, but only within a limited distance from land, as there was nowhere to refuel in the middle of the ocean. Aircraft carriers would have helped, but they required enormous quantities of steel, which was in short supply. What was needed was a way to land aircraft in the mid-Atlantic without overtaxing the steel supply. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

Engineering marvel of the Canal Age

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

If you’re like me, with just enough knowledge of engineering to set up a camping tent successfully, then you may have had the experience of nodding politely during a conversation about, say, cantilevered bridges. Sure, I’ve heard of them, but how do they actually work? Not a clue.

One category of those things about which I have a passing knowledge is aqueducts. I understand that they have something to do with transporting water, but what do I know beyond that? Being relatively ill-informed about these things, I would assume that an aqueduct would be used to bring water to an area in which there is very little. But, when I looked into it further, I found that is not always the case. In fact, aqueducts have been constructed in areas where there is plenty of water—such as a river valley. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Aquanomy

The quest for the best bottled water

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

A few years ago when we were in Patagonia, I had the chance to sample a very rare beverage. After hiking for about an hour or so on the Perito Moreno glacier, our guide called for a rest. We stopped near a pool of water, and we all gathered around to take a closer look. Its blue depths were mesmerizing, but our guide cautioned against getting too close if we didn’t want to sink all the way to the bottom of the glacier. He did recommend that we try the water, though, which we did eagerly, and I can still remember its taste—so pure and amazingly cold.

Of course, the rare part of the experience was drinking the water straight from the source. “Glacier water” is easy to obtain nowadays and comes in handy plastic bottles with no need to freeze your hands; still, there was something special about that Perito Moreno water. I usually find it incredibly difficult to drink the recommended amount of water every day because I feel like I just don’t have a taste for ordinary water; this glacier water was somehow different. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Marree Man

Mystery artwork in the desert

Previous articles here at Interesting Thing of the Day have covered some of the world’s best-known geoglyphs, or figures carved into the ground. Uffington White Horse in England and the Nazca lines in Peru are examples of huge figures that can only be appreciated in their entirety from the air, and yet date from thousands of years ago. Although scholars and UFO buffs debate how and why the figures were created, one thing seems clear: their existence is valuable. They’re impressive examples of artwork from ancient cultures and must therefore be preserved—not just for historical reasons but for aesthetic reasons. Destroying them, or allowing them to deteriorate, would be tantamount to defacing a painting in a museum.

So one might reasonably conclude that if an even larger and more impressive geoglyph were discovered, similar care should be taken to preserve it for the appreciation of future generations. Just such a figure was discovered in July 1998—on barren, public land out in the middle of an Australian desert, no less—but authorities ranging from government officials and Aboriginal leaders to prominent anthropologists immediately denounced it as vandalism and graffiti. The subject matter could hardly be considered controversial: it’s a giant line drawing of an Aboriginal hunter as he would have looked in the 19th century. Only two things truly set this image apart from others of its kind. First, it’s brand new: it was clearly created during the first half of 1998. And second, rather than relying on mysterious ancient artistic methods, it was made using modern technology—tractors and GPS receivers. But as with the older geoglyphs, no one knows for sure who made this one or why, and that’s the most maddening issue. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Gross National Happiness

Bhutan’s bottom line

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Although I don’t often give a lot of attention to news about economic indicators and analysis, preferring the much more enthralling subject of tax law to fill any spare time I have left to think about these kinds of things, I recently found out about an economic phenomenon that interested me greatly. I learned that the tiny nation of Bhutan, located between its gigantic neighbors, China and India, has a different way of measuring its success. Known as gross national happiness, this measurement of the quality of its citizens lives’ as opposed to their productivity, turns the usual economic indicator, gross domestic product (GDP), on its ear.

Gross Domestic Products
Also known as gross national product (GNP), gross domestic product refers to the total value of goods and services produced by a country within a certain time period. This measurement is meant to show the size of a country’s economy, and is sometimes used to track the standard of living, as it is assumed that increased productivity translates into better living conditions for citizens. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Assateague Island

The beach where people go to enjoy…the beach

Guest Article by Jillian Hardee

When I was young, my friends and their families would head out to the commercial beaches for their vacations. By “commercial beaches,” I mean the ones with oceanfront hotels, boardwalks, and a dizzying array of lights. My vacations, however, were quite different, as they were spent at Assateague, a 37-mile-long island off the coast of Maryland and Virginia. The island is owned by both states, and the state line divides it in two. Because it is a national seashore and wildlife refuge, buildings on this island are few and far between. Not a hotel, restaurant, or arcade can be found here. The beach offers a 360° view of the sea and sky, with nothing to mar the experience except for horseflies and kamikaze kites.

What do you mean there’s no boardwalk?
Assateague is a natural barrier island, so it is constantly battered by water and wind. Its topography changes often. Since 1866, it has “moved” a quarter of a mile inland. My vacations were spent on the Virginia side of Assateague, and as a child I remember wooden steps and walkways that would take you up and over the high sand dunes. After being away from Assateague for a few years and then coming back as an adult, I found the high dunes were gone, and smaller, less-protective dunes had taken their place. Water and sand are constantly moving on this island. Changes in landscape and scenery on Assateague are expected and accepted. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Lichtenberg Figures

Artificial lightning fossils

Go into almost any gift shop these days, and you’ll see paperweights, ornaments, or other decorations consisting of little crystal blocks with 3D laser-etched figures inside: a local landmark, a comic book hero, or whatever. In many malls, you can even find booths set up where someone will take a 3D scan of your head and convert it into a work of art right there on the spot. Working from the scanned coordinates, a laser beam focuses on a tiny spot inside the crystal, heating it until it cracks slightly, and in so doing makes a visible dot. It repeats this a few thousand times at various spots throughout the glass block and next thing you know, you’ve got a lovely image, especially when it sits on its custom-made stand (available at extra cost), illuminated from beneath by colored LEDs. I thought this was a pretty cool effect the first time I saw it years ago, but now that these things are so ubiquitous they’ve lost their appeal to me.

So my initial reaction upon seeing a Lichtenberg Figure, after receiving a recommendation from a reader to look into them, was similarly ho-hum. The picture appeared to be just the same as the laser crystal art—right down to the LED-illuminated base—except that the pattern looked like lightning rather than someone’s head. Lovely, I thought, but no big deal. However, on closer examination I discovered that the similarities were superficial. What had made this image was in fact a wholly different and much more interesting phenomenon. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Beurre Salé

The savory treat from Brittany

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

For those of us paying close attention to what we eat these days, there are always food items whose absence we mourn more than others, and we may even question why these items are restricted. What could be more wholesome than butter, made fresh from healthy milk, and with all those happy images on the carton? And as Mark Kurlansky detailed in his book Salt: A World History, salt has played an important role in human society and is even necessary (in a certain amount) to the healthy functioning of our bodies.

But, as we know, butter and salt are very high on the current list of dietary no-no’s, and with good reason. Just because we crave something doesn’t mean it’s healthy to have it in copious quantities. However, having switched to olive oil for most of my cooking and having made attempts to reduce my salt intake, I still love (and will indulge in) buttery, salted things from time to time. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Ischigualasto

Triassic Park in Argentina

I have a special fondness for deserts and other barren landscapes. Partly, I’m sure, it’s because of their rugged natural beauty, but I also find the lack of people and the coinciding lack of noise quite refreshing. I’ve spent plenty of time in desert regions of North America, South America, and the Middle East. One spot I missed during my trip to Argentina back in 2004 would undoubtedly have made it onto my list of favorite desert places. Located in the San Juan province in northwest Argentina, Ischigualasto Provincial Park is remote, hot, amazingly dry, and generally inhospitable, but nevertheless manages to draw over 30,000 tourists each year.

Smorgasbord of Fossils
The park takes its name from the Ischigualasto Formation, a large basin of sedimentary rock that was once a lush tropical swamp and is now a paleontologist’s playground. It contains a vast number of fossils, but its significance runs much deeper than that. It’s the only known place on the planet that contains a complete fossil record for the entire Triassic Period—a span of about 45 million years at the start of the Mesozoic Era, which began roughly 245 million years ago. What’s so significant about this period of time is that it’s when the first dinosaurs and the first mammals appeared. As a result, Ischigualasto is the best place to look for fossils of intermediate species. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Fata Morgana Effect

Fairy castles in the air

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

When people accuse you of building castles in the air, they are not usually congratulating you on an incredible engineering feat, but more likely trying to bring you back down to earth with a thud. Synonymous with daydreams, pipe dreams, and all other dreams unlikely to come to fruition, castles in the air are at best a hopeful vision, and at worst, a hopeless illusion.

Although the phrase “castles in the air” (the original phrase was “castles in Spain”) is most often used to describe imaginary constructions, it can also be used to describe a very real optical phenomenon—the fata morgana effect—in which different levels of hot and cold air distort the appearance of objects on the horizon to make them look like, well, castles in the air. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Quantized Time

Split-second thinking

The whole notion of time fascinates me endlessly—speaking metaphorically, of course. Numerous articles here at Interesting Thing of the Day have involved time or timekeeping in one form or another. (See the list of related articles in the sidebar for links.) In one of these articles, about analog clocks, I made what I thought was a commonsense and uncontroversial remark:

…time itself is continuous, not an infinite series of discrete steps. Units like seconds, minutes, and hours are just a convenient fiction…they don’t represent anything objectively real in the world.

A reader wrote in to suggest that I wasn’t up to date on my quantum physics, according to some theories of which time is indeed quantized, or fundamentally composed of very tiny but indivisible units. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Hubbert's Peak

The controversial theory of Peak Oil

Whatever your feelings about the cost of oil, the means of obtaining it, or the effect that burning it has on the environment, one thing’s for sure: there’s a finite amount of it, so sooner or later it has to run out. At least, I hope so, because once all the oil’s gone, perhaps the planet will finally have a fighting chance against global warming. Most people, however, would take a decidedly negative view of the impending disappearance of the world’s oil reserves for all the obvious reasons. Either way, just how long will the oil last?

In 1956, a geophysicist named Marion King Hubbert developed a theory to predict future oil production. He assumed that for any given oil field, production follows a bell curve. After the well’s discovery, production quickly ramps up as new wells are added. But eventually, as the oil is drained from the underground reservoirs, the production rate hits a peak after which it begins to decline, eventually returning to zero. And what is true of an individual oil field should, Hubbert reasoned, be true for the entire planet as well. Using these assumptions and the best data he had available at the time, he plotted historical oil production on a curve and estimated that oil production in the U.S. would peak by 1970, and worldwide by about…now. The moment at which global oil production peaks came to be known as Peak Oil (or Hubbert’s Peak), while the overall theory that oil production follows a bell curve in this way was called the Hubbert Peak Theory. After that time, there would of course still be plenty of oil, but the production rate would drop at about the same rate it rose, until eventually it was all gone. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Radio Call Letters

Minding your K’s and W’s

I’ve never entirely understood radio. As in: why do so many people have a radio on so much of the time? That’s a habit I never got into, and the whole concept of radio as an always-on background noise strikes me as odd, if not downright annoying. I love listening to music, but I prefer to pick my own tunes and play them when I’m able to pay attention to them. Besides, if I’m looking for audio, the Internet offers me a much wider range of choices than terrestrial or satellite radio stations do. As a result, I couldn’t tell you the first thing about my local radio stations: their frequencies, call letters, or what sorts of programming they offer.

When I was growing up in western Pennsylvania, however, I had a somewhat greater awareness of radio stations—particularly during the winter months, when we’d listen eagerly on snowy mornings to find out if school had been cancelled that day. The station we usually listened to was KDKA, which happened to be both the first commercial radio station in the country and a notable exception to the rule that all radio stations in the eastern U.S. had call letters that started with W. I always had the vague idea that these two facts had something to do with each other, but as a habitual non-radio listener, I never thought that much about it. It turns out that not-thinking-that-much-about-it was a prominent theme in the history of radio call letters. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Kakapo Parrot

Staying alive despite its best efforts

I’ve always been a sucker for endangered species—especially cute and comical endangered species. There aren’t that many of them—at least not anymore. But you’ve got to feel for an animal that spent many happy millennia peacefully minding its own business until humans came along. In this case, we’re talking about a silly-looking bird that had the misfortune of evolving in such a safe area that it lost (or never developed) most of the traits that could have enabled it to defend itself. It’s called the kakapo, and apart from being silly-looking and endangered, it’s unique in a long list of other ways.

Look, Down on the Ground! It’s a Bird…
A native of New Zealand, the kakapo (Strigops habroptilus, or “owl-faced soft feathers”) is a type of parrot, but only distantly related to other parrots. As its scientific name suggests, it looks somewhat like an owl (albeit with green or yellow plumage) and has exceptionally soft feathers. For decades, the world’s kakapo population has hovered near extinction, and that’s the only sort of hovering this flightless bird can manage. Besides having feathers that are poorly suited to flight, its bone and muscle structure have developed in such a way as to make flying infeasible. It’s also heavy for its size and wingspan; a full-grown kakapo is about two feet (60cm) long and weighs up to 9 pounds (about 4kg). Nevertheless, kakapos are good climbers, and can use their wings as a sort of parachute, to help them glide safely to the ground. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Nazca Lines

Peru’s mysterious geoglyphs

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

I like a good murder mystery now and then, and despite the violence inherent in the genre, often find these movies and TV shows fascinating. There’s something satisfying about following clues to reach the answers to those vexing questions—how, who, and why. The first two questions can be engrossing, but the last is sometimes the most consuming. Once the means and identity of the killer are known, knowing his or her motivation is the last piece to the puzzle. If no answer to that question is forthcoming, it can be maddening.

It’s human nature to want to know how the world works—and in the case of murder mysteries, to understand how another person thinks—when it is not obvious to us. This same phenomenon is at work when looking at history; there is no way, other than the evidence left to us, to know what was in the minds of those who preceded us. We see this gap in our knowledge clearly when we try to explain the existence of certain ancient human-made structures, such as Stonehenge or the statues on Easter Island. Another example is the Nazca Lines of Peru: a mystery 2,000 years in the making. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Project Habakkuk

Building aircraft carriers out of ice

H.L. Mencken has been famously quoted as saying, “There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.” Or, as the saying is often misquoted, “Complex problems have simple, easy-to-understand, wrong answers.” Either way, it’s true that simple solutions are often overlooked, and equally true that seemingly simple solutions often turn out to be infeasible. Such was the case with an ambitious project undertaken by the Allies in World War II: building gargantuan ships out of ice.

As silly as this may sound at first blush, the idea was meant to address a set of very serious problems. Supply ships on their way across the North Atlantic from Canada to the U.K. were frequently intercepted and sunk by German U-boats. Planes could protect the ships, but only within a limited distance from land, as there was nowhere to refuel in the middle of the ocean. Aircraft carriers would have helped, but they required enormous quantities of steel, which was in short supply. What was needed was a way to land aircraft in the mid-Atlantic without overtaxing the steel supply. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Aquanomy

The quest for the best bottled water

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

A few years ago when we were in Patagonia, I had the chance to sample a very rare beverage. After hiking for about an hour or so on the Perito Moreno glacier, our guide called for a rest. We stopped near a pool of water, and we all gathered around to take a closer look. Its blue depths were mesmerizing, but our guide cautioned against getting too close if we didn’t want to sink all the way to the bottom of the glacier. He did recommend that we try the water, though, which we did eagerly, and I can still remember its taste—so pure and amazingly cold.

Of course, the rare part of the experience was drinking the water straight from the source. “Glacier water” is easy to obtain nowadays and comes in handy plastic bottles with no need to freeze your hands; still, there was something special about that Perito Moreno water. I usually find it incredibly difficult to drink the recommended amount of water every day because I feel like I just don’t have a taste for ordinary water; this glacier water was somehow different. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Marree Man

Mystery artwork in the desert

Previous articles here at Interesting Thing of the Day have covered some of the world’s best-known geoglyphs, or figures carved into the ground. Uffington White Horse in England and the Nazca lines in Peru are examples of huge figures that can only be appreciated in their entirety from the air, and yet date from thousands of years ago. Although scholars and UFO buffs debate how and why the figures were created, one thing seems clear: their existence is valuable. They’re impressive examples of artwork from ancient cultures and must therefore be preserved—not just for historical reasons but for aesthetic reasons. Destroying them, or allowing them to deteriorate, would be tantamount to defacing a painting in a museum.

So one might reasonably conclude that if an even larger and more impressive geoglyph were discovered, similar care should be taken to preserve it for the appreciation of future generations. Just such a figure was discovered in July 1998—on barren, public land out in the middle of an Australian desert, no less—but authorities ranging from government officials and Aboriginal leaders to prominent anthropologists immediately denounced it as vandalism and graffiti. The subject matter could hardly be considered controversial: it’s a giant line drawing of an Aboriginal hunter as he would have looked in the 19th century. Only two things truly set this image apart from others of its kind. First, it’s brand new: it was clearly created during the first half of 1998. And second, rather than relying on mysterious ancient artistic methods, it was made using modern technology—tractors and GPS receivers. But as with the older geoglyphs, no one knows for sure who made this one or why, and that’s the most maddening issue. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Gross National Happiness

Bhutan’s bottom line

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Although I don’t often give a lot of attention to news about economic indicators and analysis, preferring the much more enthralling subject of tax law to fill any spare time I have left to think about these kinds of things, I recently found out about an economic phenomenon that interested me greatly. I learned that the tiny nation of Bhutan, located between its gigantic neighbors, China and India, has a different way of measuring its success. Known as gross national happiness, this measurement of the quality of its citizens lives’ as opposed to their productivity, turns the usual economic indicator, gross domestic product (GDP), on its ear.

Gross Domestic Products
Also known as gross national product (GNP), gross domestic product refers to the total value of goods and services produced by a country within a certain time period. This measurement is meant to show the size of a country’s economy, and is sometimes used to track the standard of living, as it is assumed that increased productivity translates into better living conditions for citizens. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Assateague Island

The beach where people go to enjoy…the beach

Guest Article by Jillian Hardee

When I was young, my friends and their families would head out to the commercial beaches for their vacations. By “commercial beaches,” I mean the ones with oceanfront hotels, boardwalks, and a dizzying array of lights. My vacations, however, were quite different, as they were spent at Assateague, a 37-mile-long island off the coast of Maryland and Virginia. The island is owned by both states, and the state line divides it in two. Because it is a national seashore and wildlife refuge, buildings on this island are few and far between. Not a hotel, restaurant, or arcade can be found here. The beach offers a 360° view of the sea and sky, with nothing to mar the experience except for horseflies and kamikaze kites.

What do you mean there’s no boardwalk?
Assateague is a natural barrier island, so it is constantly battered by water and wind. Its topography changes often. Since 1866, it has “moved” a quarter of a mile inland. My vacations were spent on the Virginia side of Assateague, and as a child I remember wooden steps and walkways that would take you up and over the high sand dunes. After being away from Assateague for a few years and then coming back as an adult, I found the high dunes were gone, and smaller, less-protective dunes had taken their place. Water and sand are constantly moving on this island. Changes in landscape and scenery on Assateague are expected and accepted. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Lichtenberg Figures

Artificial lightning fossils

Go into almost any gift shop these days, and you’ll see paperweights, ornaments, or other decorations consisting of little crystal blocks with 3D laser-etched figures inside: a local landmark, a comic book hero, or whatever. In many malls, you can even find booths set up where someone will take a 3D scan of your head and convert it into a work of art right there on the spot. Working from the scanned coordinates, a laser beam focuses on a tiny spot inside the crystal, heating it until it cracks slightly, and in so doing makes a visible dot. It repeats this a few thousand times at various spots throughout the glass block and next thing you know, you’ve got a lovely image, especially when it sits on its custom-made stand (available at extra cost), illuminated from beneath by colored LEDs. I thought this was a pretty cool effect the first time I saw it years ago, but now that these things are so ubiquitous they’ve lost their appeal to me.

So my initial reaction upon seeing a Lichtenberg Figure, after receiving a recommendation from a reader to look into them, was similarly ho-hum. The picture appeared to be just the same as the laser crystal art—right down to the LED-illuminated base—except that the pattern looked like lightning rather than someone’s head. Lovely, I thought, but no big deal. However, on closer examination I discovered that the similarities were superficial. What had made this image was in fact a wholly different and much more interesting phenomenon. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Beurre Salé

The savory treat from Brittany

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

For those of us paying close attention to what we eat these days, there are always food items whose absence we mourn more than others, and we may even question why these items are restricted. What could be more wholesome than butter, made fresh from healthy milk, and with all those happy images on the carton? And as Mark Kurlansky detailed in his book Salt: A World History, salt has played an important role in human society and is even necessary (in a certain amount) to the healthy functioning of our bodies.

But, as we know, butter and salt are very high on the current list of dietary no-no’s, and with good reason. Just because we crave something doesn’t mean it’s healthy to have it in copious quantities. However, having switched to olive oil for most of my cooking and having made attempts to reduce my salt intake, I still love (and will indulge in) buttery, salted things from time to time. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Ischigualasto

Triassic Park in Argentina

I have a special fondness for deserts and other barren landscapes. Partly, I’m sure, it’s because of their rugged natural beauty, but I also find the lack of people and the coinciding lack of noise quite refreshing. I’ve spent plenty of time in desert regions of North America, South America, and the Middle East. One spot I missed during my trip to Argentina back in 2004 would undoubtedly have made it onto my list of favorite desert places. Located in the San Juan province in northwest Argentina, Ischigualasto Provincial Park is remote, hot, amazingly dry, and generally inhospitable, but nevertheless manages to draw over 30,000 tourists each year.

Smorgasbord of Fossils
The park takes its name from the Ischigualasto Formation, a large basin of sedimentary rock that was once a lush tropical swamp and is now a paleontologist’s playground. It contains a vast number of fossils, but its significance runs much deeper than that. It’s the only known place on the planet that contains a complete fossil record for the entire Triassic Period—a span of about 45 million years at the start of the Mesozoic Era, which began roughly 245 million years ago. What’s so significant about this period of time is that it’s when the first dinosaurs and the first mammals appeared. As a result, Ischigualasto is the best place to look for fossils of intermediate species. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Fata Morgana Effect

Fairy castles in the air

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

When people accuse you of building castles in the air, they are not usually congratulating you on an incredible engineering feat, but more likely trying to bring you back down to earth with a thud. Synonymous with daydreams, pipe dreams, and all other dreams unlikely to come to fruition, castles in the air are at best a hopeful vision, and at worst, a hopeless illusion.

Although the phrase “castles in the air” (the original phrase was “castles in Spain”) is most often used to describe imaginary constructions, it can also be used to describe a very real optical phenomenon—the fata morgana effect—in which different levels of hot and cold air distort the appearance of objects on the horizon to make them look like, well, castles in the air. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Quantized Time

Split-second thinking

The whole notion of time fascinates me endlessly—speaking metaphorically, of course. Numerous articles here at Interesting Thing of the Day have involved time or timekeeping in one form or another. (See the list of related articles in the sidebar for links.) In one of these articles, about analog clocks, I made what I thought was a commonsense and uncontroversial remark:

…time itself is continuous, not an infinite series of discrete steps. Units like seconds, minutes, and hours are just a convenient fiction…they don’t represent anything objectively real in the world.

A reader wrote in to suggest that I wasn’t up to date on my quantum physics, according to some theories of which time is indeed quantized, or fundamentally composed of very tiny but indivisible units. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Hubbert's Peak

The controversial theory of Peak Oil

Whatever your feelings about the cost of oil, the means of obtaining it, or the effect that burning it has on the environment, one thing’s for sure: there’s a finite amount of it, so sooner or later it has to run out. At least, I hope so, because once all the oil’s gone, perhaps the planet will finally have a fighting chance against global warming. Most people, however, would take a decidedly negative view of the impending disappearance of the world’s oil reserves for all the obvious reasons. Either way, just how long will the oil last?

In 1956, a geophysicist named Marion King Hubbert developed a theory to predict future oil production. He assumed that for any given oil field, production follows a bell curve. After the well’s discovery, production quickly ramps up as new wells are added. But eventually, as the oil is drained from the underground reservoirs, the production rate hits a peak after which it begins to decline, eventually returning to zero. And what is true of an individual oil field should, Hubbert reasoned, be true for the entire planet as well. Using these assumptions and the best data he had available at the time, he plotted historical oil production on a curve and estimated that oil production in the U.S. would peak by 1970, and worldwide by about…now. The moment at which global oil production peaks came to be known as Peak Oil (or Hubbert’s Peak), while the overall theory that oil production follows a bell curve in this way was called the Hubbert Peak Theory. After that time, there would of course still be plenty of oil, but the production rate would drop at about the same rate it rose, until eventually it was all gone. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Radio Call Letters

Minding your K’s and W’s

I’ve never entirely understood radio. As in: why do so many people have a radio on so much of the time? That’s a habit I never got into, and the whole concept of radio as an always-on background noise strikes me as odd, if not downright annoying. I love listening to music, but I prefer to pick my own tunes and play them when I’m able to pay attention to them. Besides, if I’m looking for audio, the Internet offers me a much wider range of choices than terrestrial or satellite radio stations do. As a result, I couldn’t tell you the first thing about my local radio stations: their frequencies, call letters, or what sorts of programming they offer.

When I was growing up in western Pennsylvania, however, I had a somewhat greater awareness of radio stations—particularly during the winter months, when we’d listen eagerly on snowy mornings to find out if school had been cancelled that day. The station we usually listened to was KDKA, which happened to be both the first commercial radio station in the country and a notable exception to the rule that all radio stations in the eastern U.S. had call letters that started with W. I always had the vague idea that these two facts had something to do with each other, but as a habitual non-radio listener, I never thought that much about it. It turns out that not-thinking-that-much-about-it was a prominent theme in the history of radio call letters. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Kakapo Parrot

Staying alive despite its best efforts

I’ve always been a sucker for endangered species—especially cute and comical endangered species. There aren’t that many of them—at least not anymore. But you’ve got to feel for an animal that spent many happy millennia peacefully minding its own business until humans came along. In this case, we’re talking about a silly-looking bird that had the misfortune of evolving in such a safe area that it lost (or never developed) most of the traits that could have enabled it to defend itself. It’s called the kakapo, and apart from being silly-looking and endangered, it’s unique in a long list of other ways.

Look, Down on the Ground! It’s a Bird…
A native of New Zealand, the kakapo (Strigops habroptilus, or “owl-faced soft feathers”) is a type of parrot, but only distantly related to other parrots. As its scientific name suggests, it looks somewhat like an owl (albeit with green or yellow plumage) and has exceptionally soft feathers. For decades, the world’s kakapo population has hovered near extinction, and that’s the only sort of hovering this flightless bird can manage. Besides having feathers that are poorly suited to flight, its bone and muscle structure have developed in such a way as to make flying infeasible. It’s also heavy for its size and wingspan; a full-grown kakapo is about two feet (60cm) long and weighs up to 9 pounds (about 4kg). Nevertheless, kakapos are good climbers, and can use their wings as a sort of parachute, to help them glide safely to the ground. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Nazca Lines

Peru’s mysterious geoglyphs

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

I like a good murder mystery now and then, and despite the violence inherent in the genre, often find these movies and TV shows fascinating. There’s something satisfying about following clues to reach the answers to those vexing questions—how, who, and why. The first two questions can be engrossing, but the last is sometimes the most consuming. Once the means and identity of the killer are known, knowing his or her motivation is the last piece to the puzzle. If no answer to that question is forthcoming, it can be maddening.

It’s human nature to want to know how the world works—and in the case of murder mysteries, to understand how another person thinks—when it is not obvious to us. This same phenomenon is at work when looking at history; there is no way, other than the evidence left to us, to know what was in the minds of those who preceded us. We see this gap in our knowledge clearly when we try to explain the existence of certain ancient human-made structures, such as Stonehenge or the statues on Easter Island. Another example is the Nazca Lines of Peru: a mystery 2,000 years in the making. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Project Habakkuk

Building aircraft carriers out of ice

H.L. Mencken has been famously quoted as saying, “There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.” Or, as the saying is often misquoted, “Complex problems have simple, easy-to-understand, wrong answers.” Either way, it’s true that simple solutions are often overlooked, and equally true that seemingly simple solutions often turn out to be infeasible. Such was the case with an ambitious project undertaken by the Allies in World War II: building gargantuan ships out of ice.

As silly as this may sound at first blush, the idea was meant to address a set of very serious problems. Supply ships on their way across the North Atlantic from Canada to the U.K. were frequently intercepted and sunk by German U-boats. Planes could protect the ships, but only within a limited distance from land, as there was nowhere to refuel in the middle of the ocean. Aircraft carriers would have helped, but they required enormous quantities of steel, which was in short supply. What was needed was a way to land aircraft in the mid-Atlantic without overtaxing the steel supply. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

Engineering marvel of the Canal Age

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

If you’re like me, with just enough knowledge of engineering to set up a camping tent successfully, then you may have had the experience of nodding politely during a conversation about, say, cantilevered bridges. Sure, I’ve heard of them, but how do they actually work? Not a clue.

One category of those things about which I have a passing knowledge is aqueducts. I understand that they have something to do with transporting water, but what do I know beyond that? Being relatively ill-informed about these things, I would assume that an aqueduct would be used to bring water to an area in which there is very little. But, when I looked into it further, I found that is not always the case. In fact, aqueducts have been constructed in areas where there is plenty of water—such as a river valley. [Article Continues…]

•••••

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