From the archives…

San Francisco's Terra Infirma

Ship to shore

Several months ago I was walking down the street in San Francisco when I noticed a large brass plaque embedded in the sidewalk. It said that the spot on which I was standing was once part of the shoreline of the San Francisco Bay. I turned and looked in the direction of the Bay, from which I was now separated by several blocks and quite a few very large buildings. Up until that time, it had never occurred to me to doubt Jefferson Starship’s claim, “We built this city on rock and roll.” The band was from San Francisco, after all, and they should know. But thinking about this area’s significant seismic activity, I started to wonder what all these buildings were really sitting on, if not solid ground.

The trivial answer, of course, is that the ground is made up of landfill. By itself, that’s nothing unusual—especially around here. Since the mid-1800s, the San Francisco Bay as a whole has lost 40% of its area to landfill. But in the northeast corner of San Francisco, the large, semicircular slice of land that was once called Yerba Buena Cove has a rather unusual makeup: it’s composed partly of the remains of hundreds of old ships. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Woodwose

Bigfoot’s European cousin

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Like the Loch Ness Monster or the Abominable Snowman, I usually think of Bigfoot (or Sasquatch as he’s sometimes known) as a distinctly 20th century phenomenon. However, while it’s true that interest in these legendary creatures was stoked by images captured through the modern means of photography and film, the stories surrounding them actually go back centuries. From the lakes of Scotland, to the heights of the Himalayas, to the Pacific Northwest of America, locals have long attested to the presence of these elusive beings.

Although little-known today, a mythical creature with striking similarities to Bigfoot was believed to exist an even longer time ago in medieval Europe. Called a woodwose, or in Anglo-Saxon wuduwasa, this wild man of the forest was a familiar figure in the literature and visual arts of the Middle Ages. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Truffles

Fungus of the gods

Last year on a trip to Paris, I had one of the most gastronomically memorable days of my life. On a single day, I had the best baguette, the best pain au chocolat, the best cherries, and the best melon I’d ever eaten. Without in any way meaning to slight the fine work of the bakers and produce sellers who contributed to the day’s find, something about the large number of factors that had to randomly converge to produce that experience struck me as cosmically significant. I don’t think it could have been planned or manipulated; it just had to happen, and I had to be in the right place at the right time, too.

The very same thing could be said of the truffle, one of the world’s most expensive foods. I didn’t eat any truffles that day in Paris—they were long out of season. But I couldn’t help thinking that France has a strange power to alter the rules of randomness in such a way as to make exceptionally rare and tasty foods more likely to occur. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Tulipomania

The quest for the perfect tulip

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

In his 1850 novel The Black Tulip, French author Alexandre Dumas (père) describes a competition, initiated by the Dutch city of Haarlem in the 1670s, in which 100,000 florins (150 florins being the average yearly income at the time) would be given to the first person who could grow a black tulip. Although Dumas’s story is fictional, it is based on a very real phenomenon that took place in the Netherlands in the early 17th century.

Between 1634 and 1637, the Netherlands (then called the United Provinces) saw the rise and fall of many fortunes due to an intense period of tulip trading. Now described as tulipomania, it involved the wild overvaluation of certain types of tulip, leading to the eventual crash of the inflated market. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Polyphasic Sleep

Hacking your internal clock

I’ve been thinking a lot about sleep lately. It all started when I saw the movie Into Great Silence, which depicted the lives of Carthusian monks who get by on about six hours of sleep per night, divided into two segments (see The Grande Chartruese). More recently I’ve been testing software called pzizz that’s supposed to facilitate power napping. And the publicist for a sleep researcher I mentioned in my article about sleep debt offered to send me a book on improving the quality of one’s sleep. So sleep has been very much on my mind, especially when I’m downing my third cup of coffee for the day, frantically trying to meet some deadline or other and wishing I could be dreaming instead. In fact, now that I look at how many articles I’ve written that have something to do with sleep, I’m frankly shocked. Clearly sleep is one of my favorite hobbies.

On the other hand, I always have projects stacked up months deep and never seem to have enough time to finish everything on my day’s schedule. So I was intrigued to read about a concept called polyphasic sleep, in which you sleep for several short periods of time each day, rather than one long period as you would in ordinary, or monophasic, sleep. (By the way, if you sleep for a long stretch at night and then take an afternoon nap, you’re practicing a form of biphasic sleep—a schedule I personally enjoy.) Proponents of polyphasic sleep claim that it reduces your overall need for sleep to as little as two hours per day, while keeping you just as alert and healthy as you’d otherwise be. Critics say it’s a dangerous practice that can shorten your lifespan and lead to physical, psychological, and social problems. But lots of people have tried it, and I’ve found it intriguing to read about their experiences. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Bossaball

The game with bounce

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Team sports don’t hold much appeal for me, with the notable exception of volleyball. I don’t know exactly why that is, but it may have something to do with the lack of violence in the way the game is played. There’s no tackling, tripping, checking, or jostling between players on opposing teams, just the graceful lobbing or purposeful spiking of the ball over the net. Other sports, such as tennis and badminton, have the same appeal, but I like the aspect of team cooperation that is so essential to a good volley.

I once played on a volleyball team and enjoyed it greatly; that is, except for the bruises on my forearms caused by excessive bumping, the aches in my jammed fingers from setting the ball, and the scrapes on my knees from my unsuccessful attempts to keep the ball off the floor. I’ve always thought I’d like to try beach volleyball for that reason, since sand seems much more forgiving than concrete, and the mood is often more casual than serious. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Grande Chartreuse

Keeping the faith quietly

Last Sunday afternoon Morgen and I went to a local theater to see the film Into Great Silence. We expected to be pretty much the only ones there—how many people could really want to sit through a three-hour-long documentary about a group of monks in the French Alps who live in almost complete silence? Especially on a Sunday afternoon, a traditional nap time if ever there was one! But the line stretched halfway down the block, and we were lucky to get seated before the film began. The documentary contained no music except for a few scenes in which the monks were chanting, no voiceover, very limited dialog, and in fact hardly any sounds at all. I’ll admit, in fact, that we both dozed off once or twice (it pays to go with someone who can nudge you when your eyelids droop). But we also left the theater agreeing that we’d just seen one of the coolest things ever: an intimate glimpse into the lives of the Carthusian monks who live at the Grande Chartreuse monastery near Grenoble, France.

That we should be drawn to the story of monks living in silence probably comes as little surprise; the themes of quiet and solitude have come up repeatedly here at Interesting Thing of the Day. But we were frankly shocked to discover that life at the Grande Chartreuse, as depicted in the film, seemed completely at odds with our image of what has been called one of the most ascetic monastic orders in the world. The monks’ cells looked quite comfortable and reasonably spacious. The monastery’s setting in the Alps was simply breathtaking. Even the food looked amazing—no shortage of fresh produce and delicious-looking bread. We also saw a few moments of monks at play and got a small taste of their sense of humor. They seemed, to me, quite comfortable, well-adjusted, and serene—yet intensely focused on their work. I turned, as usual, to the Web to get more details about the monastery and the order of which it is a part. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Influence of Color on Taste Perception

Palette vs. palate

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

It’s not a secret that the way food looks has an effect on our willingness to eat it. That’s why top chefs spend so much time perfecting the presentation of their plates, and food companies spend so much money on marketing and packaging. Of course, taste is the most important sense when it comes to enjoying food, but just how important is sight?

Try this thought experiment: a bowl of yellow-colored gelatin is placed before you. How would you expect it to taste, sweet or sour? It could be that you think it will taste sour, because of your prior experience with other yellow foods that are sour, such as lemons and grapefruits. Or you could think it will taste sweet, based on your memory of other sweet foods that are yellow (like bananas or pineapple). [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Chinooks

Snow-eating winds of the Rockies

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

For those who live in wintry climates, it can sometimes seem like spring will never arrive. Around the beginning of March in the upper Northern Hemisphere there is a palpable restlessness, an eagerness to shed winter clothing and begin planting spring gardens. At the northern latitude in which I grew up, winter would often linger into April, if not longer, and the sight of snow, which once seemed so novel in the fall, became unbearable.

Amongst these wintry places, however, there are regions where spring can arrive suddenly in the middle of January, but retreat just as suddenly. One such region, an area encompassing the southern half of the Canadian province of Alberta, along with parts of Montana and the Dakotas, is subject to a unique meteorological process that can cause this type of extreme variation in temperature. Known as the Chinook wind, or simply chinooks, this phenomenon is responsible for record-breaking fluctuations of temperature and humidity, as well as bringing relief to a winter-weary population. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Non-Newtonian Fluids

When liquids behave like solids

Like many people, I’ve tried very hard to forget my days in junior high school. That was an unpleasant time in my life for all the usual reasons, and thankfully most of it is now a dim blur. But a few pleasant moments do stand out in my memory. One of those was a report I did for my ninth-grade science class. For reasons I no longer recall, the topic I chose was Pascal’s Law, and I must have prepared well for that 10-minute presentation, because I could probably stand up and give pretty much the same talk today, even though I never went on to study any more about it.

Pascal’s Law describes the behavior of fluids in a closed system, and says, to oversimplify somewhat, that the pressure the fluids exert is always the same throughout the system. This is the principle that enables hydraulic presses to work—a small amount of force applied to a piston pushing down on fluid can exert much more force on a larger connected piston, making it sort of like a liquid lever. The same effect has applications in everything from scuba diving to ventilation systems and dam construction. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Wallace Line

Evolution and continental drift

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Entomophagy

Insects as food

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Ethogeology

Animals as seismographs

On our recent trip to Indonesia, Morgen and I were reading Simon Winchester’s 2003 book Krakatoa, a history of the devastating 1883 eruption of the eponymous volcano (known locally as Krakatau). A couple of hundred pages into the book, the volcano hasn’t yet erupted, but we’ve learned about Darwin, the spice trade, Dutch colonization, and a long list of other things that, in one way or another, illuminate the circumstances surrounding that cataclysmic blast and how it affected the world at that time. Just as Winchester gets ready to describe the big bang itself, he mentions the fact that animals sometimes appear to be aware of an imminent seismic event, changing their behavior markedly just before it happens—often by fleeing, but sometimes by making noise or otherwise acting erratically.

Winchester writes: “There is no firm scientific evidence that there is a connection, nor is there a true basis for a new pseudo-science called ethogeographical prediction, which seeks to forecast earthquakes by observing carefully calibrated animal activity.” He says that while some geologists concede that animals might sense changes too subtle to register on modern instruments, no one has been able to prove a connection between animal behavior and impending earthquakes or volcanic activity. Nevertheless, a good deal of anecdotal evidence supports this notion, including a particularly interesting tale of a circus elephant that seemingly “predicted” the Krakatoa eruption. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

Faith with a side of Parmesan

Guest Article by Jillian Hardee

I admit that I’m rather obtuse when it comes to religion. I do know enough to recognize that meatballs, pirates, and midgets probably aren’t the cornerstones of a thriving religion, yet these three items are vital to The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Participation in this church would involve worshipping an extraordinary being who reveals himself in the form of tangled noodles and russet-colored meatballs. You might think I am making this up. You’ll have to read on to find out.

Every Action Has a Reaction
At the heart of the ages-old struggle between science and religion is the theory of evolution, a concept that many devout religious worshippers don’t want to accept and that hard-core scientists fervently stand by. Ever since the Scopes Trial in 1925, school officials, teachers, parents, and students have been fighting over whether and how to teach evolution in public schools. This argument came to a head in 2005 when the Kansas State Board of Education decided to require the teaching of Intelligent Design (ID) alongside evolution in science classrooms. The basis of ID is the proposition that features found in nature did not appear as a result of random processes such as natural selection, but instead were brought about by an intelligent agent—although this agent is not specifically named. ID advocates state that it is a scientific theory that can hold its own next to the theory of evolution. Needless to say, the idea of Intelligent Design, as well as the decision by the Kansas State Board of Education, drew serious criticism from the scientific community. It also caught the attention of Bobby Henderson, a physics graduate who thought ID had it all wrong. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Portmeirion

The Folly of Sir Clough Williams-Ellis

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

World-famous architects like Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano, and Rem Koolhaas often make headlines for their daring and creative buildings, but the vast majority of architects spend their time on more down-to-earth projects, like schools and fire houses. Their work is dictated by the needs of their clients, and their creativity is in service to solving any problems these needs might entail. But what happens when architects are given free rein? What do architects do for fun?

It is easy to imagine that Julia Morgan, the architect who designed William Randolph Hearst’s estate at San Simeon, enjoyed creating that fantastical world to Hearst’s specifications, or that Eduard Riedel, the architect of King Ludwig II of Bavaria’s Neuschwanstein Castle, found some pleasure in recreating a medieval castle in the 19th century. But these architects were still limited by the wishes and whims of their employers, unable to express themselves fully. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

San Francisco's Terra Infirma

Ship to shore

Several months ago I was walking down the street in San Francisco when I noticed a large brass plaque embedded in the sidewalk. It said that the spot on which I was standing was once part of the shoreline of the San Francisco Bay. I turned and looked in the direction of the Bay, from which I was now separated by several blocks and quite a few very large buildings. Up until that time, it had never occurred to me to doubt Jefferson Starship’s claim, “We built this city on rock and roll.” The band was from San Francisco, after all, and they should know. But thinking about this area’s significant seismic activity, I started to wonder what all these buildings were really sitting on, if not solid ground.

The trivial answer, of course, is that the ground is made up of landfill. By itself, that’s nothing unusual—especially around here. Since the mid-1800s, the San Francisco Bay as a whole has lost 40% of its area to landfill. But in the northeast corner of San Francisco, the large, semicircular slice of land that was once called Yerba Buena Cove has a rather unusual makeup: it’s composed partly of the remains of hundreds of old ships. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Woodwose

Bigfoot’s European cousin

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Like the Loch Ness Monster or the Abominable Snowman, I usually think of Bigfoot (or Sasquatch as he’s sometimes known) as a distinctly 20th century phenomenon. However, while it’s true that interest in these legendary creatures was stoked by images captured through the modern means of photography and film, the stories surrounding them actually go back centuries. From the lakes of Scotland, to the heights of the Himalayas, to the Pacific Northwest of America, locals have long attested to the presence of these elusive beings.

Although little-known today, a mythical creature with striking similarities to Bigfoot was believed to exist an even longer time ago in medieval Europe. Called a woodwose, or in Anglo-Saxon wuduwasa, this wild man of the forest was a familiar figure in the literature and visual arts of the Middle Ages. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Truffles

Fungus of the gods

Last year on a trip to Paris, I had one of the most gastronomically memorable days of my life. On a single day, I had the best baguette, the best pain au chocolat, the best cherries, and the best melon I’d ever eaten. Without in any way meaning to slight the fine work of the bakers and produce sellers who contributed to the day’s find, something about the large number of factors that had to randomly converge to produce that experience struck me as cosmically significant. I don’t think it could have been planned or manipulated; it just had to happen, and I had to be in the right place at the right time, too.

The very same thing could be said of the truffle, one of the world’s most expensive foods. I didn’t eat any truffles that day in Paris—they were long out of season. But I couldn’t help thinking that France has a strange power to alter the rules of randomness in such a way as to make exceptionally rare and tasty foods more likely to occur. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Tulipomania

The quest for the perfect tulip

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

In his 1850 novel The Black Tulip, French author Alexandre Dumas (père) describes a competition, initiated by the Dutch city of Haarlem in the 1670s, in which 100,000 florins (150 florins being the average yearly income at the time) would be given to the first person who could grow a black tulip. Although Dumas’s story is fictional, it is based on a very real phenomenon that took place in the Netherlands in the early 17th century.

Between 1634 and 1637, the Netherlands (then called the United Provinces) saw the rise and fall of many fortunes due to an intense period of tulip trading. Now described as tulipomania, it involved the wild overvaluation of certain types of tulip, leading to the eventual crash of the inflated market. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Polyphasic Sleep

Hacking your internal clock

I’ve been thinking a lot about sleep lately. It all started when I saw the movie Into Great Silence, which depicted the lives of Carthusian monks who get by on about six hours of sleep per night, divided into two segments (see The Grande Chartruese). More recently I’ve been testing software called pzizz that’s supposed to facilitate power napping. And the publicist for a sleep researcher I mentioned in my article about sleep debt offered to send me a book on improving the quality of one’s sleep. So sleep has been very much on my mind, especially when I’m downing my third cup of coffee for the day, frantically trying to meet some deadline or other and wishing I could be dreaming instead. In fact, now that I look at how many articles I’ve written that have something to do with sleep, I’m frankly shocked. Clearly sleep is one of my favorite hobbies.

On the other hand, I always have projects stacked up months deep and never seem to have enough time to finish everything on my day’s schedule. So I was intrigued to read about a concept called polyphasic sleep, in which you sleep for several short periods of time each day, rather than one long period as you would in ordinary, or monophasic, sleep. (By the way, if you sleep for a long stretch at night and then take an afternoon nap, you’re practicing a form of biphasic sleep—a schedule I personally enjoy.) Proponents of polyphasic sleep claim that it reduces your overall need for sleep to as little as two hours per day, while keeping you just as alert and healthy as you’d otherwise be. Critics say it’s a dangerous practice that can shorten your lifespan and lead to physical, psychological, and social problems. But lots of people have tried it, and I’ve found it intriguing to read about their experiences. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Bossaball

The game with bounce

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Team sports don’t hold much appeal for me, with the notable exception of volleyball. I don’t know exactly why that is, but it may have something to do with the lack of violence in the way the game is played. There’s no tackling, tripping, checking, or jostling between players on opposing teams, just the graceful lobbing or purposeful spiking of the ball over the net. Other sports, such as tennis and badminton, have the same appeal, but I like the aspect of team cooperation that is so essential to a good volley.

I once played on a volleyball team and enjoyed it greatly; that is, except for the bruises on my forearms caused by excessive bumping, the aches in my jammed fingers from setting the ball, and the scrapes on my knees from my unsuccessful attempts to keep the ball off the floor. I’ve always thought I’d like to try beach volleyball for that reason, since sand seems much more forgiving than concrete, and the mood is often more casual than serious. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Grande Chartreuse

Keeping the faith quietly

Last Sunday afternoon Morgen and I went to a local theater to see the film Into Great Silence. We expected to be pretty much the only ones there—how many people could really want to sit through a three-hour-long documentary about a group of monks in the French Alps who live in almost complete silence? Especially on a Sunday afternoon, a traditional nap time if ever there was one! But the line stretched halfway down the block, and we were lucky to get seated before the film began. The documentary contained no music except for a few scenes in which the monks were chanting, no voiceover, very limited dialog, and in fact hardly any sounds at all. I’ll admit, in fact, that we both dozed off once or twice (it pays to go with someone who can nudge you when your eyelids droop). But we also left the theater agreeing that we’d just seen one of the coolest things ever: an intimate glimpse into the lives of the Carthusian monks who live at the Grande Chartreuse monastery near Grenoble, France.

That we should be drawn to the story of monks living in silence probably comes as little surprise; the themes of quiet and solitude have come up repeatedly here at Interesting Thing of the Day. But we were frankly shocked to discover that life at the Grande Chartreuse, as depicted in the film, seemed completely at odds with our image of what has been called one of the most ascetic monastic orders in the world. The monks’ cells looked quite comfortable and reasonably spacious. The monastery’s setting in the Alps was simply breathtaking. Even the food looked amazing—no shortage of fresh produce and delicious-looking bread. We also saw a few moments of monks at play and got a small taste of their sense of humor. They seemed, to me, quite comfortable, well-adjusted, and serene—yet intensely focused on their work. I turned, as usual, to the Web to get more details about the monastery and the order of which it is a part. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Influence of Color on Taste Perception

Palette vs. palate

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

It’s not a secret that the way food looks has an effect on our willingness to eat it. That’s why top chefs spend so much time perfecting the presentation of their plates, and food companies spend so much money on marketing and packaging. Of course, taste is the most important sense when it comes to enjoying food, but just how important is sight?

Try this thought experiment: a bowl of yellow-colored gelatin is placed before you. How would you expect it to taste, sweet or sour? It could be that you think it will taste sour, because of your prior experience with other yellow foods that are sour, such as lemons and grapefruits. Or you could think it will taste sweet, based on your memory of other sweet foods that are yellow (like bananas or pineapple). [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Chinooks

Snow-eating winds of the Rockies

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

For those who live in wintry climates, it can sometimes seem like spring will never arrive. Around the beginning of March in the upper Northern Hemisphere there is a palpable restlessness, an eagerness to shed winter clothing and begin planting spring gardens. At the northern latitude in which I grew up, winter would often linger into April, if not longer, and the sight of snow, which once seemed so novel in the fall, became unbearable.

Amongst these wintry places, however, there are regions where spring can arrive suddenly in the middle of January, but retreat just as suddenly. One such region, an area encompassing the southern half of the Canadian province of Alberta, along with parts of Montana and the Dakotas, is subject to a unique meteorological process that can cause this type of extreme variation in temperature. Known as the Chinook wind, or simply chinooks, this phenomenon is responsible for record-breaking fluctuations of temperature and humidity, as well as bringing relief to a winter-weary population. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Non-Newtonian Fluids

When liquids behave like solids

Like many people, I’ve tried very hard to forget my days in junior high school. That was an unpleasant time in my life for all the usual reasons, and thankfully most of it is now a dim blur. But a few pleasant moments do stand out in my memory. One of those was a report I did for my ninth-grade science class. For reasons I no longer recall, the topic I chose was Pascal’s Law, and I must have prepared well for that 10-minute presentation, because I could probably stand up and give pretty much the same talk today, even though I never went on to study any more about it.

Pascal’s Law describes the behavior of fluids in a closed system, and says, to oversimplify somewhat, that the pressure the fluids exert is always the same throughout the system. This is the principle that enables hydraulic presses to work—a small amount of force applied to a piston pushing down on fluid can exert much more force on a larger connected piston, making it sort of like a liquid lever. The same effect has applications in everything from scuba diving to ventilation systems and dam construction. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Wallace Line

Evolution and continental drift

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Entomophagy

Insects as food

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Ethogeology

Animals as seismographs

On our recent trip to Indonesia, Morgen and I were reading Simon Winchester’s 2003 book Krakatoa, a history of the devastating 1883 eruption of the eponymous volcano (known locally as Krakatau). A couple of hundred pages into the book, the volcano hasn’t yet erupted, but we’ve learned about Darwin, the spice trade, Dutch colonization, and a long list of other things that, in one way or another, illuminate the circumstances surrounding that cataclysmic blast and how it affected the world at that time. Just as Winchester gets ready to describe the big bang itself, he mentions the fact that animals sometimes appear to be aware of an imminent seismic event, changing their behavior markedly just before it happens—often by fleeing, but sometimes by making noise or otherwise acting erratically.

Winchester writes: “There is no firm scientific evidence that there is a connection, nor is there a true basis for a new pseudo-science called ethogeographical prediction, which seeks to forecast earthquakes by observing carefully calibrated animal activity.” He says that while some geologists concede that animals might sense changes too subtle to register on modern instruments, no one has been able to prove a connection between animal behavior and impending earthquakes or volcanic activity. Nevertheless, a good deal of anecdotal evidence supports this notion, including a particularly interesting tale of a circus elephant that seemingly “predicted” the Krakatoa eruption. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

Faith with a side of Parmesan

Guest Article by Jillian Hardee

I admit that I’m rather obtuse when it comes to religion. I do know enough to recognize that meatballs, pirates, and midgets probably aren’t the cornerstones of a thriving religion, yet these three items are vital to The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Participation in this church would involve worshipping an extraordinary being who reveals himself in the form of tangled noodles and russet-colored meatballs. You might think I am making this up. You’ll have to read on to find out.

Every Action Has a Reaction
At the heart of the ages-old struggle between science and religion is the theory of evolution, a concept that many devout religious worshippers don’t want to accept and that hard-core scientists fervently stand by. Ever since the Scopes Trial in 1925, school officials, teachers, parents, and students have been fighting over whether and how to teach evolution in public schools. This argument came to a head in 2005 when the Kansas State Board of Education decided to require the teaching of Intelligent Design (ID) alongside evolution in science classrooms. The basis of ID is the proposition that features found in nature did not appear as a result of random processes such as natural selection, but instead were brought about by an intelligent agent—although this agent is not specifically named. ID advocates state that it is a scientific theory that can hold its own next to the theory of evolution. Needless to say, the idea of Intelligent Design, as well as the decision by the Kansas State Board of Education, drew serious criticism from the scientific community. It also caught the attention of Bobby Henderson, a physics graduate who thought ID had it all wrong. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Portmeirion

The Folly of Sir Clough Williams-Ellis

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

World-famous architects like Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano, and Rem Koolhaas often make headlines for their daring and creative buildings, but the vast majority of architects spend their time on more down-to-earth projects, like schools and fire houses. Their work is dictated by the needs of their clients, and their creativity is in service to solving any problems these needs might entail. But what happens when architects are given free rein? What do architects do for fun?

It is easy to imagine that Julia Morgan, the architect who designed William Randolph Hearst’s estate at San Simeon, enjoyed creating that fantastical world to Hearst’s specifications, or that Eduard Riedel, the architect of King Ludwig II of Bavaria’s Neuschwanstein Castle, found some pleasure in recreating a medieval castle in the 19th century. But these architects were still limited by the wishes and whims of their employers, unable to express themselves fully. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

San Francisco's Terra Infirma

Ship to shore

Several months ago I was walking down the street in San Francisco when I noticed a large brass plaque embedded in the sidewalk. It said that the spot on which I was standing was once part of the shoreline of the San Francisco Bay. I turned and looked in the direction of the Bay, from which I was now separated by several blocks and quite a few very large buildings. Up until that time, it had never occurred to me to doubt Jefferson Starship’s claim, “We built this city on rock and roll.” The band was from San Francisco, after all, and they should know. But thinking about this area’s significant seismic activity, I started to wonder what all these buildings were really sitting on, if not solid ground.

The trivial answer, of course, is that the ground is made up of landfill. By itself, that’s nothing unusual—especially around here. Since the mid-1800s, the San Francisco Bay as a whole has lost 40% of its area to landfill. But in the northeast corner of San Francisco, the large, semicircular slice of land that was once called Yerba Buena Cove has a rather unusual makeup: it’s composed partly of the remains of hundreds of old ships. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Woodwose

Bigfoot’s European cousin

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Like the Loch Ness Monster or the Abominable Snowman, I usually think of Bigfoot (or Sasquatch as he’s sometimes known) as a distinctly 20th century phenomenon. However, while it’s true that interest in these legendary creatures was stoked by images captured through the modern means of photography and film, the stories surrounding them actually go back centuries. From the lakes of Scotland, to the heights of the Himalayas, to the Pacific Northwest of America, locals have long attested to the presence of these elusive beings.

Although little-known today, a mythical creature with striking similarities to Bigfoot was believed to exist an even longer time ago in medieval Europe. Called a woodwose, or in Anglo-Saxon wuduwasa, this wild man of the forest was a familiar figure in the literature and visual arts of the Middle Ages. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Truffles

Fungus of the gods

Last year on a trip to Paris, I had one of the most gastronomically memorable days of my life. On a single day, I had the best baguette, the best pain au chocolat, the best cherries, and the best melon I’d ever eaten. Without in any way meaning to slight the fine work of the bakers and produce sellers who contributed to the day’s find, something about the large number of factors that had to randomly converge to produce that experience struck me as cosmically significant. I don’t think it could have been planned or manipulated; it just had to happen, and I had to be in the right place at the right time, too.

The very same thing could be said of the truffle, one of the world’s most expensive foods. I didn’t eat any truffles that day in Paris—they were long out of season. But I couldn’t help thinking that France has a strange power to alter the rules of randomness in such a way as to make exceptionally rare and tasty foods more likely to occur. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Tulipomania

The quest for the perfect tulip

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

In his 1850 novel The Black Tulip, French author Alexandre Dumas (père) describes a competition, initiated by the Dutch city of Haarlem in the 1670s, in which 100,000 florins (150 florins being the average yearly income at the time) would be given to the first person who could grow a black tulip. Although Dumas’s story is fictional, it is based on a very real phenomenon that took place in the Netherlands in the early 17th century.

Between 1634 and 1637, the Netherlands (then called the United Provinces) saw the rise and fall of many fortunes due to an intense period of tulip trading. Now described as tulipomania, it involved the wild overvaluation of certain types of tulip, leading to the eventual crash of the inflated market. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Polyphasic Sleep

Hacking your internal clock

I’ve been thinking a lot about sleep lately. It all started when I saw the movie Into Great Silence, which depicted the lives of Carthusian monks who get by on about six hours of sleep per night, divided into two segments (see The Grande Chartruese). More recently I’ve been testing software called pzizz that’s supposed to facilitate power napping. And the publicist for a sleep researcher I mentioned in my article about sleep debt offered to send me a book on improving the quality of one’s sleep. So sleep has been very much on my mind, especially when I’m downing my third cup of coffee for the day, frantically trying to meet some deadline or other and wishing I could be dreaming instead. In fact, now that I look at how many articles I’ve written that have something to do with sleep, I’m frankly shocked. Clearly sleep is one of my favorite hobbies.

On the other hand, I always have projects stacked up months deep and never seem to have enough time to finish everything on my day’s schedule. So I was intrigued to read about a concept called polyphasic sleep, in which you sleep for several short periods of time each day, rather than one long period as you would in ordinary, or monophasic, sleep. (By the way, if you sleep for a long stretch at night and then take an afternoon nap, you’re practicing a form of biphasic sleep—a schedule I personally enjoy.) Proponents of polyphasic sleep claim that it reduces your overall need for sleep to as little as two hours per day, while keeping you just as alert and healthy as you’d otherwise be. Critics say it’s a dangerous practice that can shorten your lifespan and lead to physical, psychological, and social problems. But lots of people have tried it, and I’ve found it intriguing to read about their experiences. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Bossaball

The game with bounce

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Team sports don’t hold much appeal for me, with the notable exception of volleyball. I don’t know exactly why that is, but it may have something to do with the lack of violence in the way the game is played. There’s no tackling, tripping, checking, or jostling between players on opposing teams, just the graceful lobbing or purposeful spiking of the ball over the net. Other sports, such as tennis and badminton, have the same appeal, but I like the aspect of team cooperation that is so essential to a good volley.

I once played on a volleyball team and enjoyed it greatly; that is, except for the bruises on my forearms caused by excessive bumping, the aches in my jammed fingers from setting the ball, and the scrapes on my knees from my unsuccessful attempts to keep the ball off the floor. I’ve always thought I’d like to try beach volleyball for that reason, since sand seems much more forgiving than concrete, and the mood is often more casual than serious. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Grande Chartreuse

Keeping the faith quietly

Last Sunday afternoon Morgen and I went to a local theater to see the film Into Great Silence. We expected to be pretty much the only ones there—how many people could really want to sit through a three-hour-long documentary about a group of monks in the French Alps who live in almost complete silence? Especially on a Sunday afternoon, a traditional nap time if ever there was one! But the line stretched halfway down the block, and we were lucky to get seated before the film began. The documentary contained no music except for a few scenes in which the monks were chanting, no voiceover, very limited dialog, and in fact hardly any sounds at all. I’ll admit, in fact, that we both dozed off once or twice (it pays to go with someone who can nudge you when your eyelids droop). But we also left the theater agreeing that we’d just seen one of the coolest things ever: an intimate glimpse into the lives of the Carthusian monks who live at the Grande Chartreuse monastery near Grenoble, France.

That we should be drawn to the story of monks living in silence probably comes as little surprise; the themes of quiet and solitude have come up repeatedly here at Interesting Thing of the Day. But we were frankly shocked to discover that life at the Grande Chartreuse, as depicted in the film, seemed completely at odds with our image of what has been called one of the most ascetic monastic orders in the world. The monks’ cells looked quite comfortable and reasonably spacious. The monastery’s setting in the Alps was simply breathtaking. Even the food looked amazing—no shortage of fresh produce and delicious-looking bread. We also saw a few moments of monks at play and got a small taste of their sense of humor. They seemed, to me, quite comfortable, well-adjusted, and serene—yet intensely focused on their work. I turned, as usual, to the Web to get more details about the monastery and the order of which it is a part. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Influence of Color on Taste Perception

Palette vs. palate

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

It’s not a secret that the way food looks has an effect on our willingness to eat it. That’s why top chefs spend so much time perfecting the presentation of their plates, and food companies spend so much money on marketing and packaging. Of course, taste is the most important sense when it comes to enjoying food, but just how important is sight?

Try this thought experiment: a bowl of yellow-colored gelatin is placed before you. How would you expect it to taste, sweet or sour? It could be that you think it will taste sour, because of your prior experience with other yellow foods that are sour, such as lemons and grapefruits. Or you could think it will taste sweet, based on your memory of other sweet foods that are yellow (like bananas or pineapple). [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Chinooks

Snow-eating winds of the Rockies

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

For those who live in wintry climates, it can sometimes seem like spring will never arrive. Around the beginning of March in the upper Northern Hemisphere there is a palpable restlessness, an eagerness to shed winter clothing and begin planting spring gardens. At the northern latitude in which I grew up, winter would often linger into April, if not longer, and the sight of snow, which once seemed so novel in the fall, became unbearable.

Amongst these wintry places, however, there are regions where spring can arrive suddenly in the middle of January, but retreat just as suddenly. One such region, an area encompassing the southern half of the Canadian province of Alberta, along with parts of Montana and the Dakotas, is subject to a unique meteorological process that can cause this type of extreme variation in temperature. Known as the Chinook wind, or simply chinooks, this phenomenon is responsible for record-breaking fluctuations of temperature and humidity, as well as bringing relief to a winter-weary population. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Non-Newtonian Fluids

When liquids behave like solids

Like many people, I’ve tried very hard to forget my days in junior high school. That was an unpleasant time in my life for all the usual reasons, and thankfully most of it is now a dim blur. But a few pleasant moments do stand out in my memory. One of those was a report I did for my ninth-grade science class. For reasons I no longer recall, the topic I chose was Pascal’s Law, and I must have prepared well for that 10-minute presentation, because I could probably stand up and give pretty much the same talk today, even though I never went on to study any more about it.

Pascal’s Law describes the behavior of fluids in a closed system, and says, to oversimplify somewhat, that the pressure the fluids exert is always the same throughout the system. This is the principle that enables hydraulic presses to work—a small amount of force applied to a piston pushing down on fluid can exert much more force on a larger connected piston, making it sort of like a liquid lever. The same effect has applications in everything from scuba diving to ventilation systems and dam construction. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Wallace Line

Evolution and continental drift

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Entomophagy

Insects as food

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Ethogeology

Animals as seismographs

On our recent trip to Indonesia, Morgen and I were reading Simon Winchester’s 2003 book Krakatoa, a history of the devastating 1883 eruption of the eponymous volcano (known locally as Krakatau). A couple of hundred pages into the book, the volcano hasn’t yet erupted, but we’ve learned about Darwin, the spice trade, Dutch colonization, and a long list of other things that, in one way or another, illuminate the circumstances surrounding that cataclysmic blast and how it affected the world at that time. Just as Winchester gets ready to describe the big bang itself, he mentions the fact that animals sometimes appear to be aware of an imminent seismic event, changing their behavior markedly just before it happens—often by fleeing, but sometimes by making noise or otherwise acting erratically.

Winchester writes: “There is no firm scientific evidence that there is a connection, nor is there a true basis for a new pseudo-science called ethogeographical prediction, which seeks to forecast earthquakes by observing carefully calibrated animal activity.” He says that while some geologists concede that animals might sense changes too subtle to register on modern instruments, no one has been able to prove a connection between animal behavior and impending earthquakes or volcanic activity. Nevertheless, a good deal of anecdotal evidence supports this notion, including a particularly interesting tale of a circus elephant that seemingly “predicted” the Krakatoa eruption. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

Faith with a side of Parmesan

Guest Article by Jillian Hardee

I admit that I’m rather obtuse when it comes to religion. I do know enough to recognize that meatballs, pirates, and midgets probably aren’t the cornerstones of a thriving religion, yet these three items are vital to The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Participation in this church would involve worshipping an extraordinary being who reveals himself in the form of tangled noodles and russet-colored meatballs. You might think I am making this up. You’ll have to read on to find out.

Every Action Has a Reaction
At the heart of the ages-old struggle between science and religion is the theory of evolution, a concept that many devout religious worshippers don’t want to accept and that hard-core scientists fervently stand by. Ever since the Scopes Trial in 1925, school officials, teachers, parents, and students have been fighting over whether and how to teach evolution in public schools. This argument came to a head in 2005 when the Kansas State Board of Education decided to require the teaching of Intelligent Design (ID) alongside evolution in science classrooms. The basis of ID is the proposition that features found in nature did not appear as a result of random processes such as natural selection, but instead were brought about by an intelligent agent—although this agent is not specifically named. ID advocates state that it is a scientific theory that can hold its own next to the theory of evolution. Needless to say, the idea of Intelligent Design, as well as the decision by the Kansas State Board of Education, drew serious criticism from the scientific community. It also caught the attention of Bobby Henderson, a physics graduate who thought ID had it all wrong. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Portmeirion

The Folly of Sir Clough Williams-Ellis

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

World-famous architects like Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano, and Rem Koolhaas often make headlines for their daring and creative buildings, but the vast majority of architects spend their time on more down-to-earth projects, like schools and fire houses. Their work is dictated by the needs of their clients, and their creativity is in service to solving any problems these needs might entail. But what happens when architects are given free rein? What do architects do for fun?

It is easy to imagine that Julia Morgan, the architect who designed William Randolph Hearst’s estate at San Simeon, enjoyed creating that fantastical world to Hearst’s specifications, or that Eduard Riedel, the architect of King Ludwig II of Bavaria’s Neuschwanstein Castle, found some pleasure in recreating a medieval castle in the 19th century. But these architects were still limited by the wishes and whims of their employers, unable to express themselves fully. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

San Francisco's Terra Infirma

Ship to shore

Several months ago I was walking down the street in San Francisco when I noticed a large brass plaque embedded in the sidewalk. It said that the spot on which I was standing was once part of the shoreline of the San Francisco Bay. I turned and looked in the direction of the Bay, from which I was now separated by several blocks and quite a few very large buildings. Up until that time, it had never occurred to me to doubt Jefferson Starship’s claim, “We built this city on rock and roll.” The band was from San Francisco, after all, and they should know. But thinking about this area’s significant seismic activity, I started to wonder what all these buildings were really sitting on, if not solid ground.

The trivial answer, of course, is that the ground is made up of landfill. By itself, that’s nothing unusual—especially around here. Since the mid-1800s, the San Francisco Bay as a whole has lost 40% of its area to landfill. But in the northeast corner of San Francisco, the large, semicircular slice of land that was once called Yerba Buena Cove has a rather unusual makeup: it’s composed partly of the remains of hundreds of old ships. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Woodwose

Bigfoot’s European cousin

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Like the Loch Ness Monster or the Abominable Snowman, I usually think of Bigfoot (or Sasquatch as he’s sometimes known) as a distinctly 20th century phenomenon. However, while it’s true that interest in these legendary creatures was stoked by images captured through the modern means of photography and film, the stories surrounding them actually go back centuries. From the lakes of Scotland, to the heights of the Himalayas, to the Pacific Northwest of America, locals have long attested to the presence of these elusive beings.

Although little-known today, a mythical creature with striking similarities to Bigfoot was believed to exist an even longer time ago in medieval Europe. Called a woodwose, or in Anglo-Saxon wuduwasa, this wild man of the forest was a familiar figure in the literature and visual arts of the Middle Ages. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Truffles

Fungus of the gods

Last year on a trip to Paris, I had one of the most gastronomically memorable days of my life. On a single day, I had the best baguette, the best pain au chocolat, the best cherries, and the best melon I’d ever eaten. Without in any way meaning to slight the fine work of the bakers and produce sellers who contributed to the day’s find, something about the large number of factors that had to randomly converge to produce that experience struck me as cosmically significant. I don’t think it could have been planned or manipulated; it just had to happen, and I had to be in the right place at the right time, too.

The very same thing could be said of the truffle, one of the world’s most expensive foods. I didn’t eat any truffles that day in Paris—they were long out of season. But I couldn’t help thinking that France has a strange power to alter the rules of randomness in such a way as to make exceptionally rare and tasty foods more likely to occur. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Tulipomania

The quest for the perfect tulip

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

In his 1850 novel The Black Tulip, French author Alexandre Dumas (père) describes a competition, initiated by the Dutch city of Haarlem in the 1670s, in which 100,000 florins (150 florins being the average yearly income at the time) would be given to the first person who could grow a black tulip. Although Dumas’s story is fictional, it is based on a very real phenomenon that took place in the Netherlands in the early 17th century.

Between 1634 and 1637, the Netherlands (then called the United Provinces) saw the rise and fall of many fortunes due to an intense period of tulip trading. Now described as tulipomania, it involved the wild overvaluation of certain types of tulip, leading to the eventual crash of the inflated market. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Polyphasic Sleep

Hacking your internal clock

I’ve been thinking a lot about sleep lately. It all started when I saw the movie Into Great Silence, which depicted the lives of Carthusian monks who get by on about six hours of sleep per night, divided into two segments (see The Grande Chartruese). More recently I’ve been testing software called pzizz that’s supposed to facilitate power napping. And the publicist for a sleep researcher I mentioned in my article about sleep debt offered to send me a book on improving the quality of one’s sleep. So sleep has been very much on my mind, especially when I’m downing my third cup of coffee for the day, frantically trying to meet some deadline or other and wishing I could be dreaming instead. In fact, now that I look at how many articles I’ve written that have something to do with sleep, I’m frankly shocked. Clearly sleep is one of my favorite hobbies.

On the other hand, I always have projects stacked up months deep and never seem to have enough time to finish everything on my day’s schedule. So I was intrigued to read about a concept called polyphasic sleep, in which you sleep for several short periods of time each day, rather than one long period as you would in ordinary, or monophasic, sleep. (By the way, if you sleep for a long stretch at night and then take an afternoon nap, you’re practicing a form of biphasic sleep—a schedule I personally enjoy.) Proponents of polyphasic sleep claim that it reduces your overall need for sleep to as little as two hours per day, while keeping you just as alert and healthy as you’d otherwise be. Critics say it’s a dangerous practice that can shorten your lifespan and lead to physical, psychological, and social problems. But lots of people have tried it, and I’ve found it intriguing to read about their experiences. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Bossaball

The game with bounce

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Team sports don’t hold much appeal for me, with the notable exception of volleyball. I don’t know exactly why that is, but it may have something to do with the lack of violence in the way the game is played. There’s no tackling, tripping, checking, or jostling between players on opposing teams, just the graceful lobbing or purposeful spiking of the ball over the net. Other sports, such as tennis and badminton, have the same appeal, but I like the aspect of team cooperation that is so essential to a good volley.

I once played on a volleyball team and enjoyed it greatly; that is, except for the bruises on my forearms caused by excessive bumping, the aches in my jammed fingers from setting the ball, and the scrapes on my knees from my unsuccessful attempts to keep the ball off the floor. I’ve always thought I’d like to try beach volleyball for that reason, since sand seems much more forgiving than concrete, and the mood is often more casual than serious. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Grande Chartreuse

Keeping the faith quietly

Last Sunday afternoon Morgen and I went to a local theater to see the film Into Great Silence. We expected to be pretty much the only ones there—how many people could really want to sit through a three-hour-long documentary about a group of monks in the French Alps who live in almost complete silence? Especially on a Sunday afternoon, a traditional nap time if ever there was one! But the line stretched halfway down the block, and we were lucky to get seated before the film began. The documentary contained no music except for a few scenes in which the monks were chanting, no voiceover, very limited dialog, and in fact hardly any sounds at all. I’ll admit, in fact, that we both dozed off once or twice (it pays to go with someone who can nudge you when your eyelids droop). But we also left the theater agreeing that we’d just seen one of the coolest things ever: an intimate glimpse into the lives of the Carthusian monks who live at the Grande Chartreuse monastery near Grenoble, France.

That we should be drawn to the story of monks living in silence probably comes as little surprise; the themes of quiet and solitude have come up repeatedly here at Interesting Thing of the Day. But we were frankly shocked to discover that life at the Grande Chartreuse, as depicted in the film, seemed completely at odds with our image of what has been called one of the most ascetic monastic orders in the world. The monks’ cells looked quite comfortable and reasonably spacious. The monastery’s setting in the Alps was simply breathtaking. Even the food looked amazing—no shortage of fresh produce and delicious-looking bread. We also saw a few moments of monks at play and got a small taste of their sense of humor. They seemed, to me, quite comfortable, well-adjusted, and serene—yet intensely focused on their work. I turned, as usual, to the Web to get more details about the monastery and the order of which it is a part. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Influence of Color on Taste Perception

Palette vs. palate

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

It’s not a secret that the way food looks has an effect on our willingness to eat it. That’s why top chefs spend so much time perfecting the presentation of their plates, and food companies spend so much money on marketing and packaging. Of course, taste is the most important sense when it comes to enjoying food, but just how important is sight?

Try this thought experiment: a bowl of yellow-colored gelatin is placed before you. How would you expect it to taste, sweet or sour? It could be that you think it will taste sour, because of your prior experience with other yellow foods that are sour, such as lemons and grapefruits. Or you could think it will taste sweet, based on your memory of other sweet foods that are yellow (like bananas or pineapple). [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Chinooks

Snow-eating winds of the Rockies

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

For those who live in wintry climates, it can sometimes seem like spring will never arrive. Around the beginning of March in the upper Northern Hemisphere there is a palpable restlessness, an eagerness to shed winter clothing and begin planting spring gardens. At the northern latitude in which I grew up, winter would often linger into April, if not longer, and the sight of snow, which once seemed so novel in the fall, became unbearable.

Amongst these wintry places, however, there are regions where spring can arrive suddenly in the middle of January, but retreat just as suddenly. One such region, an area encompassing the southern half of the Canadian province of Alberta, along with parts of Montana and the Dakotas, is subject to a unique meteorological process that can cause this type of extreme variation in temperature. Known as the Chinook wind, or simply chinooks, this phenomenon is responsible for record-breaking fluctuations of temperature and humidity, as well as bringing relief to a winter-weary population. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Non-Newtonian Fluids

When liquids behave like solids

Like many people, I’ve tried very hard to forget my days in junior high school. That was an unpleasant time in my life for all the usual reasons, and thankfully most of it is now a dim blur. But a few pleasant moments do stand out in my memory. One of those was a report I did for my ninth-grade science class. For reasons I no longer recall, the topic I chose was Pascal’s Law, and I must have prepared well for that 10-minute presentation, because I could probably stand up and give pretty much the same talk today, even though I never went on to study any more about it.

Pascal’s Law describes the behavior of fluids in a closed system, and says, to oversimplify somewhat, that the pressure the fluids exert is always the same throughout the system. This is the principle that enables hydraulic presses to work—a small amount of force applied to a piston pushing down on fluid can exert much more force on a larger connected piston, making it sort of like a liquid lever. The same effect has applications in everything from scuba diving to ventilation systems and dam construction. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Wallace Line

Evolution and continental drift

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Entomophagy

Insects as food

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Ethogeology

Animals as seismographs

On our recent trip to Indonesia, Morgen and I were reading Simon Winchester’s 2003 book Krakatoa, a history of the devastating 1883 eruption of the eponymous volcano (known locally as Krakatau). A couple of hundred pages into the book, the volcano hasn’t yet erupted, but we’ve learned about Darwin, the spice trade, Dutch colonization, and a long list of other things that, in one way or another, illuminate the circumstances surrounding that cataclysmic blast and how it affected the world at that time. Just as Winchester gets ready to describe the big bang itself, he mentions the fact that animals sometimes appear to be aware of an imminent seismic event, changing their behavior markedly just before it happens—often by fleeing, but sometimes by making noise or otherwise acting erratically.

Winchester writes: “There is no firm scientific evidence that there is a connection, nor is there a true basis for a new pseudo-science called ethogeographical prediction, which seeks to forecast earthquakes by observing carefully calibrated animal activity.” He says that while some geologists concede that animals might sense changes too subtle to register on modern instruments, no one has been able to prove a connection between animal behavior and impending earthquakes or volcanic activity. Nevertheless, a good deal of anecdotal evidence supports this notion, including a particularly interesting tale of a circus elephant that seemingly “predicted” the Krakatoa eruption. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

Faith with a side of Parmesan

Guest Article by Jillian Hardee

I admit that I’m rather obtuse when it comes to religion. I do know enough to recognize that meatballs, pirates, and midgets probably aren’t the cornerstones of a thriving religion, yet these three items are vital to The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Participation in this church would involve worshipping an extraordinary being who reveals himself in the form of tangled noodles and russet-colored meatballs. You might think I am making this up. You’ll have to read on to find out.

Every Action Has a Reaction
At the heart of the ages-old struggle between science and religion is the theory of evolution, a concept that many devout religious worshippers don’t want to accept and that hard-core scientists fervently stand by. Ever since the Scopes Trial in 1925, school officials, teachers, parents, and students have been fighting over whether and how to teach evolution in public schools. This argument came to a head in 2005 when the Kansas State Board of Education decided to require the teaching of Intelligent Design (ID) alongside evolution in science classrooms. The basis of ID is the proposition that features found in nature did not appear as a result of random processes such as natural selection, but instead were brought about by an intelligent agent—although this agent is not specifically named. ID advocates state that it is a scientific theory that can hold its own next to the theory of evolution. Needless to say, the idea of Intelligent Design, as well as the decision by the Kansas State Board of Education, drew serious criticism from the scientific community. It also caught the attention of Bobby Henderson, a physics graduate who thought ID had it all wrong. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Portmeirion

The Folly of Sir Clough Williams-Ellis

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

World-famous architects like Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano, and Rem Koolhaas often make headlines for their daring and creative buildings, but the vast majority of architects spend their time on more down-to-earth projects, like schools and fire houses. Their work is dictated by the needs of their clients, and their creativity is in service to solving any problems these needs might entail. But what happens when architects are given free rein? What do architects do for fun?

It is easy to imagine that Julia Morgan, the architect who designed William Randolph Hearst’s estate at San Simeon, enjoyed creating that fantastical world to Hearst’s specifications, or that Eduard Riedel, the architect of King Ludwig II of Bavaria’s Neuschwanstein Castle, found some pleasure in recreating a medieval castle in the 19th century. But these architects were still limited by the wishes and whims of their employers, unable to express themselves fully. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

San Francisco's Terra Infirma

Ship to shore

Several months ago I was walking down the street in San Francisco when I noticed a large brass plaque embedded in the sidewalk. It said that the spot on which I was standing was once part of the shoreline of the San Francisco Bay. I turned and looked in the direction of the Bay, from which I was now separated by several blocks and quite a few very large buildings. Up until that time, it had never occurred to me to doubt Jefferson Starship’s claim, “We built this city on rock and roll.” The band was from San Francisco, after all, and they should know. But thinking about this area’s significant seismic activity, I started to wonder what all these buildings were really sitting on, if not solid ground.

The trivial answer, of course, is that the ground is made up of landfill. By itself, that’s nothing unusual—especially around here. Since the mid-1800s, the San Francisco Bay as a whole has lost 40% of its area to landfill. But in the northeast corner of San Francisco, the large, semicircular slice of land that was once called Yerba Buena Cove has a rather unusual makeup: it’s composed partly of the remains of hundreds of old ships. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Woodwose

Bigfoot’s European cousin

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Like the Loch Ness Monster or the Abominable Snowman, I usually think of Bigfoot (or Sasquatch as he’s sometimes known) as a distinctly 20th century phenomenon. However, while it’s true that interest in these legendary creatures was stoked by images captured through the modern means of photography and film, the stories surrounding them actually go back centuries. From the lakes of Scotland, to the heights of the Himalayas, to the Pacific Northwest of America, locals have long attested to the presence of these elusive beings.

Although little-known today, a mythical creature with striking similarities to Bigfoot was believed to exist an even longer time ago in medieval Europe. Called a woodwose, or in Anglo-Saxon wuduwasa, this wild man of the forest was a familiar figure in the literature and visual arts of the Middle Ages. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Truffles

Fungus of the gods

Last year on a trip to Paris, I had one of the most gastronomically memorable days of my life. On a single day, I had the best baguette, the best pain au chocolat, the best cherries, and the best melon I’d ever eaten. Without in any way meaning to slight the fine work of the bakers and produce sellers who contributed to the day’s find, something about the large number of factors that had to randomly converge to produce that experience struck me as cosmically significant. I don’t think it could have been planned or manipulated; it just had to happen, and I had to be in the right place at the right time, too.

The very same thing could be said of the truffle, one of the world’s most expensive foods. I didn’t eat any truffles that day in Paris—they were long out of season. But I couldn’t help thinking that France has a strange power to alter the rules of randomness in such a way as to make exceptionally rare and tasty foods more likely to occur. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Tulipomania

The quest for the perfect tulip

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

In his 1850 novel The Black Tulip, French author Alexandre Dumas (père) describes a competition, initiated by the Dutch city of Haarlem in the 1670s, in which 100,000 florins (150 florins being the average yearly income at the time) would be given to the first person who could grow a black tulip. Although Dumas’s story is fictional, it is based on a very real phenomenon that took place in the Netherlands in the early 17th century.

Between 1634 and 1637, the Netherlands (then called the United Provinces) saw the rise and fall of many fortunes due to an intense period of tulip trading. Now described as tulipomania, it involved the wild overvaluation of certain types of tulip, leading to the eventual crash of the inflated market. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Polyphasic Sleep

Hacking your internal clock

I’ve been thinking a lot about sleep lately. It all started when I saw the movie Into Great Silence, which depicted the lives of Carthusian monks who get by on about six hours of sleep per night, divided into two segments (see The Grande Chartruese). More recently I’ve been testing software called pzizz that’s supposed to facilitate power napping. And the publicist for a sleep researcher I mentioned in my article about sleep debt offered to send me a book on improving the quality of one’s sleep. So sleep has been very much on my mind, especially when I’m downing my third cup of coffee for the day, frantically trying to meet some deadline or other and wishing I could be dreaming instead. In fact, now that I look at how many articles I’ve written that have something to do with sleep, I’m frankly shocked. Clearly sleep is one of my favorite hobbies.

On the other hand, I always have projects stacked up months deep and never seem to have enough time to finish everything on my day’s schedule. So I was intrigued to read about a concept called polyphasic sleep, in which you sleep for several short periods of time each day, rather than one long period as you would in ordinary, or monophasic, sleep. (By the way, if you sleep for a long stretch at night and then take an afternoon nap, you’re practicing a form of biphasic sleep—a schedule I personally enjoy.) Proponents of polyphasic sleep claim that it reduces your overall need for sleep to as little as two hours per day, while keeping you just as alert and healthy as you’d otherwise be. Critics say it’s a dangerous practice that can shorten your lifespan and lead to physical, psychological, and social problems. But lots of people have tried it, and I’ve found it intriguing to read about their experiences. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Bossaball

The game with bounce

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Team sports don’t hold much appeal for me, with the notable exception of volleyball. I don’t know exactly why that is, but it may have something to do with the lack of violence in the way the game is played. There’s no tackling, tripping, checking, or jostling between players on opposing teams, just the graceful lobbing or purposeful spiking of the ball over the net. Other sports, such as tennis and badminton, have the same appeal, but I like the aspect of team cooperation that is so essential to a good volley.

I once played on a volleyball team and enjoyed it greatly; that is, except for the bruises on my forearms caused by excessive bumping, the aches in my jammed fingers from setting the ball, and the scrapes on my knees from my unsuccessful attempts to keep the ball off the floor. I’ve always thought I’d like to try beach volleyball for that reason, since sand seems much more forgiving than concrete, and the mood is often more casual than serious. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Grande Chartreuse

Keeping the faith quietly

Last Sunday afternoon Morgen and I went to a local theater to see the film Into Great Silence. We expected to be pretty much the only ones there—how many people could really want to sit through a three-hour-long documentary about a group of monks in the French Alps who live in almost complete silence? Especially on a Sunday afternoon, a traditional nap time if ever there was one! But the line stretched halfway down the block, and we were lucky to get seated before the film began. The documentary contained no music except for a few scenes in which the monks were chanting, no voiceover, very limited dialog, and in fact hardly any sounds at all. I’ll admit, in fact, that we both dozed off once or twice (it pays to go with someone who can nudge you when your eyelids droop). But we also left the theater agreeing that we’d just seen one of the coolest things ever: an intimate glimpse into the lives of the Carthusian monks who live at the Grande Chartreuse monastery near Grenoble, France.

That we should be drawn to the story of monks living in silence probably comes as little surprise; the themes of quiet and solitude have come up repeatedly here at Interesting Thing of the Day. But we were frankly shocked to discover that life at the Grande Chartreuse, as depicted in the film, seemed completely at odds with our image of what has been called one of the most ascetic monastic orders in the world. The monks’ cells looked quite comfortable and reasonably spacious. The monastery’s setting in the Alps was simply breathtaking. Even the food looked amazing—no shortage of fresh produce and delicious-looking bread. We also saw a few moments of monks at play and got a small taste of their sense of humor. They seemed, to me, quite comfortable, well-adjusted, and serene—yet intensely focused on their work. I turned, as usual, to the Web to get more details about the monastery and the order of which it is a part. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Influence of Color on Taste Perception

Palette vs. palate

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

It’s not a secret that the way food looks has an effect on our willingness to eat it. That’s why top chefs spend so much time perfecting the presentation of their plates, and food companies spend so much money on marketing and packaging. Of course, taste is the most important sense when it comes to enjoying food, but just how important is sight?

Try this thought experiment: a bowl of yellow-colored gelatin is placed before you. How would you expect it to taste, sweet or sour? It could be that you think it will taste sour, because of your prior experience with other yellow foods that are sour, such as lemons and grapefruits. Or you could think it will taste sweet, based on your memory of other sweet foods that are yellow (like bananas or pineapple). [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Chinooks

Snow-eating winds of the Rockies

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

For those who live in wintry climates, it can sometimes seem like spring will never arrive. Around the beginning of March in the upper Northern Hemisphere there is a palpable restlessness, an eagerness to shed winter clothing and begin planting spring gardens. At the northern latitude in which I grew up, winter would often linger into April, if not longer, and the sight of snow, which once seemed so novel in the fall, became unbearable.

Amongst these wintry places, however, there are regions where spring can arrive suddenly in the middle of January, but retreat just as suddenly. One such region, an area encompassing the southern half of the Canadian province of Alberta, along with parts of Montana and the Dakotas, is subject to a unique meteorological process that can cause this type of extreme variation in temperature. Known as the Chinook wind, or simply chinooks, this phenomenon is responsible for record-breaking fluctuations of temperature and humidity, as well as bringing relief to a winter-weary population. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Non-Newtonian Fluids

When liquids behave like solids

Like many people, I’ve tried very hard to forget my days in junior high school. That was an unpleasant time in my life for all the usual reasons, and thankfully most of it is now a dim blur. But a few pleasant moments do stand out in my memory. One of those was a report I did for my ninth-grade science class. For reasons I no longer recall, the topic I chose was Pascal’s Law, and I must have prepared well for that 10-minute presentation, because I could probably stand up and give pretty much the same talk today, even though I never went on to study any more about it.

Pascal’s Law describes the behavior of fluids in a closed system, and says, to oversimplify somewhat, that the pressure the fluids exert is always the same throughout the system. This is the principle that enables hydraulic presses to work—a small amount of force applied to a piston pushing down on fluid can exert much more force on a larger connected piston, making it sort of like a liquid lever. The same effect has applications in everything from scuba diving to ventilation systems and dam construction. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Wallace Line

Evolution and continental drift

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Entomophagy

Insects as food

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Ethogeology

Animals as seismographs

On our recent trip to Indonesia, Morgen and I were reading Simon Winchester’s 2003 book Krakatoa, a history of the devastating 1883 eruption of the eponymous volcano (known locally as Krakatau). A couple of hundred pages into the book, the volcano hasn’t yet erupted, but we’ve learned about Darwin, the spice trade, Dutch colonization, and a long list of other things that, in one way or another, illuminate the circumstances surrounding that cataclysmic blast and how it affected the world at that time. Just as Winchester gets ready to describe the big bang itself, he mentions the fact that animals sometimes appear to be aware of an imminent seismic event, changing their behavior markedly just before it happens—often by fleeing, but sometimes by making noise or otherwise acting erratically.

Winchester writes: “There is no firm scientific evidence that there is a connection, nor is there a true basis for a new pseudo-science called ethogeographical prediction, which seeks to forecast earthquakes by observing carefully calibrated animal activity.” He says that while some geologists concede that animals might sense changes too subtle to register on modern instruments, no one has been able to prove a connection between animal behavior and impending earthquakes or volcanic activity. Nevertheless, a good deal of anecdotal evidence supports this notion, including a particularly interesting tale of a circus elephant that seemingly “predicted” the Krakatoa eruption. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

Faith with a side of Parmesan

Guest Article by Jillian Hardee

I admit that I’m rather obtuse when it comes to religion. I do know enough to recognize that meatballs, pirates, and midgets probably aren’t the cornerstones of a thriving religion, yet these three items are vital to The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Participation in this church would involve worshipping an extraordinary being who reveals himself in the form of tangled noodles and russet-colored meatballs. You might think I am making this up. You’ll have to read on to find out.

Every Action Has a Reaction
At the heart of the ages-old struggle between science and religion is the theory of evolution, a concept that many devout religious worshippers don’t want to accept and that hard-core scientists fervently stand by. Ever since the Scopes Trial in 1925, school officials, teachers, parents, and students have been fighting over whether and how to teach evolution in public schools. This argument came to a head in 2005 when the Kansas State Board of Education decided to require the teaching of Intelligent Design (ID) alongside evolution in science classrooms. The basis of ID is the proposition that features found in nature did not appear as a result of random processes such as natural selection, but instead were brought about by an intelligent agent—although this agent is not specifically named. ID advocates state that it is a scientific theory that can hold its own next to the theory of evolution. Needless to say, the idea of Intelligent Design, as well as the decision by the Kansas State Board of Education, drew serious criticism from the scientific community. It also caught the attention of Bobby Henderson, a physics graduate who thought ID had it all wrong. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Portmeirion

The Folly of Sir Clough Williams-Ellis

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

World-famous architects like Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano, and Rem Koolhaas often make headlines for their daring and creative buildings, but the vast majority of architects spend their time on more down-to-earth projects, like schools and fire houses. Their work is dictated by the needs of their clients, and their creativity is in service to solving any problems these needs might entail. But what happens when architects are given free rein? What do architects do for fun?

It is easy to imagine that Julia Morgan, the architect who designed William Randolph Hearst’s estate at San Simeon, enjoyed creating that fantastical world to Hearst’s specifications, or that Eduard Riedel, the architect of King Ludwig II of Bavaria’s Neuschwanstein Castle, found some pleasure in recreating a medieval castle in the 19th century. But these architects were still limited by the wishes and whims of their employers, unable to express themselves fully. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Woodwose

Bigfoot’s European cousin

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Like the Loch Ness Monster or the Abominable Snowman, I usually think of Bigfoot (or Sasquatch as he’s sometimes known) as a distinctly 20th century phenomenon. However, while it’s true that interest in these legendary creatures was stoked by images captured through the modern means of photography and film, the stories surrounding them actually go back centuries. From the lakes of Scotland, to the heights of the Himalayas, to the Pacific Northwest of America, locals have long attested to the presence of these elusive beings.

Although little-known today, a mythical creature with striking similarities to Bigfoot was believed to exist an even longer time ago in medieval Europe. Called a woodwose, or in Anglo-Saxon wuduwasa, this wild man of the forest was a familiar figure in the literature and visual arts of the Middle Ages. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Tulipomania

The quest for the perfect tulip

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

In his 1850 novel The Black Tulip, French author Alexandre Dumas (père) describes a competition, initiated by the Dutch city of Haarlem in the 1670s, in which 100,000 florins (150 florins being the average yearly income at the time) would be given to the first person who could grow a black tulip. Although Dumas’s story is fictional, it is based on a very real phenomenon that took place in the Netherlands in the early 17th century.

Between 1634 and 1637, the Netherlands (then called the United Provinces) saw the rise and fall of many fortunes due to an intense period of tulip trading. Now described as tulipomania, it involved the wild overvaluation of certain types of tulip, leading to the eventual crash of the inflated market. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Polyphasic Sleep

Hacking your internal clock

I’ve been thinking a lot about sleep lately. It all started when I saw the movie Into Great Silence, which depicted the lives of Carthusian monks who get by on about six hours of sleep per night, divided into two segments (see The Grande Chartruese). More recently I’ve been testing software called pzizz that’s supposed to facilitate power napping. And the publicist for a sleep researcher I mentioned in my article about sleep debt offered to send me a book on improving the quality of one’s sleep. So sleep has been very much on my mind, especially when I’m downing my third cup of coffee for the day, frantically trying to meet some deadline or other and wishing I could be dreaming instead. In fact, now that I look at how many articles I’ve written that have something to do with sleep, I’m frankly shocked. Clearly sleep is one of my favorite hobbies.

On the other hand, I always have projects stacked up months deep and never seem to have enough time to finish everything on my day’s schedule. So I was intrigued to read about a concept called polyphasic sleep, in which you sleep for several short periods of time each day, rather than one long period as you would in ordinary, or monophasic, sleep. (By the way, if you sleep for a long stretch at night and then take an afternoon nap, you’re practicing a form of biphasic sleep—a schedule I personally enjoy.) Proponents of polyphasic sleep claim that it reduces your overall need for sleep to as little as two hours per day, while keeping you just as alert and healthy as you’d otherwise be. Critics say it’s a dangerous practice that can shorten your lifespan and lead to physical, psychological, and social problems. But lots of people have tried it, and I’ve found it intriguing to read about their experiences. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Bossaball

The game with bounce

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Team sports don’t hold much appeal for me, with the notable exception of volleyball. I don’t know exactly why that is, but it may have something to do with the lack of violence in the way the game is played. There’s no tackling, tripping, checking, or jostling between players on opposing teams, just the graceful lobbing or purposeful spiking of the ball over the net. Other sports, such as tennis and badminton, have the same appeal, but I like the aspect of team cooperation that is so essential to a good volley.

I once played on a volleyball team and enjoyed it greatly; that is, except for the bruises on my forearms caused by excessive bumping, the aches in my jammed fingers from setting the ball, and the scrapes on my knees from my unsuccessful attempts to keep the ball off the floor. I’ve always thought I’d like to try beach volleyball for that reason, since sand seems much more forgiving than concrete, and the mood is often more casual than serious. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Grande Chartreuse

Keeping the faith quietly

Last Sunday afternoon Morgen and I went to a local theater to see the film Into Great Silence. We expected to be pretty much the only ones there—how many people could really want to sit through a three-hour-long documentary about a group of monks in the French Alps who live in almost complete silence? Especially on a Sunday afternoon, a traditional nap time if ever there was one! But the line stretched halfway down the block, and we were lucky to get seated before the film began. The documentary contained no music except for a few scenes in which the monks were chanting, no voiceover, very limited dialog, and in fact hardly any sounds at all. I’ll admit, in fact, that we both dozed off once or twice (it pays to go with someone who can nudge you when your eyelids droop). But we also left the theater agreeing that we’d just seen one of the coolest things ever: an intimate glimpse into the lives of the Carthusian monks who live at the Grande Chartreuse monastery near Grenoble, France.

That we should be drawn to the story of monks living in silence probably comes as little surprise; the themes of quiet and solitude have come up repeatedly here at Interesting Thing of the Day. But we were frankly shocked to discover that life at the Grande Chartreuse, as depicted in the film, seemed completely at odds with our image of what has been called one of the most ascetic monastic orders in the world. The monks’ cells looked quite comfortable and reasonably spacious. The monastery’s setting in the Alps was simply breathtaking. Even the food looked amazing—no shortage of fresh produce and delicious-looking bread. We also saw a few moments of monks at play and got a small taste of their sense of humor. They seemed, to me, quite comfortable, well-adjusted, and serene—yet intensely focused on their work. I turned, as usual, to the Web to get more details about the monastery and the order of which it is a part. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Influence of Color on Taste Perception

Palette vs. palate

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

It’s not a secret that the way food looks has an effect on our willingness to eat it. That’s why top chefs spend so much time perfecting the presentation of their plates, and food companies spend so much money on marketing and packaging. Of course, taste is the most important sense when it comes to enjoying food, but just how important is sight?

Try this thought experiment: a bowl of yellow-colored gelatin is placed before you. How would you expect it to taste, sweet or sour? It could be that you think it will taste sour, because of your prior experience with other yellow foods that are sour, such as lemons and grapefruits. Or you could think it will taste sweet, based on your memory of other sweet foods that are yellow (like bananas or pineapple). [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Chinooks

Snow-eating winds of the Rockies

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

For those who live in wintry climates, it can sometimes seem like spring will never arrive. Around the beginning of March in the upper Northern Hemisphere there is a palpable restlessness, an eagerness to shed winter clothing and begin planting spring gardens. At the northern latitude in which I grew up, winter would often linger into April, if not longer, and the sight of snow, which once seemed so novel in the fall, became unbearable.

Amongst these wintry places, however, there are regions where spring can arrive suddenly in the middle of January, but retreat just as suddenly. One such region, an area encompassing the southern half of the Canadian province of Alberta, along with parts of Montana and the Dakotas, is subject to a unique meteorological process that can cause this type of extreme variation in temperature. Known as the Chinook wind, or simply chinooks, this phenomenon is responsible for record-breaking fluctuations of temperature and humidity, as well as bringing relief to a winter-weary population. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Non-Newtonian Fluids

When liquids behave like solids

Like many people, I’ve tried very hard to forget my days in junior high school. That was an unpleasant time in my life for all the usual reasons, and thankfully most of it is now a dim blur. But a few pleasant moments do stand out in my memory. One of those was a report I did for my ninth-grade science class. For reasons I no longer recall, the topic I chose was Pascal’s Law, and I must have prepared well for that 10-minute presentation, because I could probably stand up and give pretty much the same talk today, even though I never went on to study any more about it.

Pascal’s Law describes the behavior of fluids in a closed system, and says, to oversimplify somewhat, that the pressure the fluids exert is always the same throughout the system. This is the principle that enables hydraulic presses to work—a small amount of force applied to a piston pushing down on fluid can exert much more force on a larger connected piston, making it sort of like a liquid lever. The same effect has applications in everything from scuba diving to ventilation systems and dam construction. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Wallace Line

Evolution and continental drift

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Entomophagy

Insects as food

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Ethogeology

Animals as seismographs

On our recent trip to Indonesia, Morgen and I were reading Simon Winchester’s 2003 book Krakatoa, a history of the devastating 1883 eruption of the eponymous volcano (known locally as Krakatau). A couple of hundred pages into the book, the volcano hasn’t yet erupted, but we’ve learned about Darwin, the spice trade, Dutch colonization, and a long list of other things that, in one way or another, illuminate the circumstances surrounding that cataclysmic blast and how it affected the world at that time. Just as Winchester gets ready to describe the big bang itself, he mentions the fact that animals sometimes appear to be aware of an imminent seismic event, changing their behavior markedly just before it happens—often by fleeing, but sometimes by making noise or otherwise acting erratically.

Winchester writes: “There is no firm scientific evidence that there is a connection, nor is there a true basis for a new pseudo-science called ethogeographical prediction, which seeks to forecast earthquakes by observing carefully calibrated animal activity.” He says that while some geologists concede that animals might sense changes too subtle to register on modern instruments, no one has been able to prove a connection between animal behavior and impending earthquakes or volcanic activity. Nevertheless, a good deal of anecdotal evidence supports this notion, including a particularly interesting tale of a circus elephant that seemingly “predicted” the Krakatoa eruption. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

Faith with a side of Parmesan

Guest Article by Jillian Hardee

I admit that I’m rather obtuse when it comes to religion. I do know enough to recognize that meatballs, pirates, and midgets probably aren’t the cornerstones of a thriving religion, yet these three items are vital to The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Participation in this church would involve worshipping an extraordinary being who reveals himself in the form of tangled noodles and russet-colored meatballs. You might think I am making this up. You’ll have to read on to find out.

Every Action Has a Reaction
At the heart of the ages-old struggle between science and religion is the theory of evolution, a concept that many devout religious worshippers don’t want to accept and that hard-core scientists fervently stand by. Ever since the Scopes Trial in 1925, school officials, teachers, parents, and students have been fighting over whether and how to teach evolution in public schools. This argument came to a head in 2005 when the Kansas State Board of Education decided to require the teaching of Intelligent Design (ID) alongside evolution in science classrooms. The basis of ID is the proposition that features found in nature did not appear as a result of random processes such as natural selection, but instead were brought about by an intelligent agent—although this agent is not specifically named. ID advocates state that it is a scientific theory that can hold its own next to the theory of evolution. Needless to say, the idea of Intelligent Design, as well as the decision by the Kansas State Board of Education, drew serious criticism from the scientific community. It also caught the attention of Bobby Henderson, a physics graduate who thought ID had it all wrong. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Portmeirion

The Folly of Sir Clough Williams-Ellis

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

World-famous architects like Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano, and Rem Koolhaas often make headlines for their daring and creative buildings, but the vast majority of architects spend their time on more down-to-earth projects, like schools and fire houses. Their work is dictated by the needs of their clients, and their creativity is in service to solving any problems these needs might entail. But what happens when architects are given free rein? What do architects do for fun?

It is easy to imagine that Julia Morgan, the architect who designed William Randolph Hearst’s estate at San Simeon, enjoyed creating that fantastical world to Hearst’s specifications, or that Eduard Riedel, the architect of King Ludwig II of Bavaria’s Neuschwanstein Castle, found some pleasure in recreating a medieval castle in the 19th century. But these architects were still limited by the wishes and whims of their employers, unable to express themselves fully. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

San Francisco's Terra Infirma

Ship to shore

Several months ago I was walking down the street in San Francisco when I noticed a large brass plaque embedded in the sidewalk. It said that the spot on which I was standing was once part of the shoreline of the San Francisco Bay. I turned and looked in the direction of the Bay, from which I was now separated by several blocks and quite a few very large buildings. Up until that time, it had never occurred to me to doubt Jefferson Starship’s claim, “We built this city on rock and roll.” The band was from San Francisco, after all, and they should know. But thinking about this area’s significant seismic activity, I started to wonder what all these buildings were really sitting on, if not solid ground.

The trivial answer, of course, is that the ground is made up of landfill. By itself, that’s nothing unusual—especially around here. Since the mid-1800s, the San Francisco Bay as a whole has lost 40% of its area to landfill. But in the northeast corner of San Francisco, the large, semicircular slice of land that was once called Yerba Buena Cove has a rather unusual makeup: it’s composed partly of the remains of hundreds of old ships. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Truffles

Fungus of the gods

Last year on a trip to Paris, I had one of the most gastronomically memorable days of my life. On a single day, I had the best baguette, the best pain au chocolat, the best cherries, and the best melon I’d ever eaten. Without in any way meaning to slight the fine work of the bakers and produce sellers who contributed to the day’s find, something about the large number of factors that had to randomly converge to produce that experience struck me as cosmically significant. I don’t think it could have been planned or manipulated; it just had to happen, and I had to be in the right place at the right time, too.

The very same thing could be said of the truffle, one of the world’s most expensive foods. I didn’t eat any truffles that day in Paris—they were long out of season. But I couldn’t help thinking that France has a strange power to alter the rules of randomness in such a way as to make exceptionally rare and tasty foods more likely to occur. [Article Continues…]

•••••

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