From the archives…

The Oropendola

Wacky gymnast of the bird world

I’m not much of a bird watcher, but on my first visit to Costa Rica I kept hearing this strange sound, almost like one bird trying to laugh while another one is whistling. That made me look up, and when I spotted the bird that was making the sound, I started to laugh. I had the distinct impression that it was putting on a show just to entertain the tourists, and it immediately became one of my favorite rain forest animals. The bird is called the Oropendola (often, and understandably, misspelled as “Oropendula”). It’s a largish bird that looks black from a distance but is actually dark brown, with bright yellow tail feathers. There are two species of Oropendola: the Crested Oropendola (Psarocolius decumanus) and the Montezuma Oropendola (Gymnostinops montezuma). Oropendolas are native to Central America, with some found as far north as southern Mexico and some as far south as Ecuador and Brazil. In the parts of Costa Rica I’ve visited, the Montezuma Oropendola is more common.

Swingers
Both species of Oropendola share a unique and rather silly characteristic, as hinted at by the bird’s common name (roughly, “gold pendulum”) and the Latin genus name Gymnostinops. A male Oropendola stands on a thin horizontal branch, with his claws wrapped most of the way around it. Then the bird spreads his wings and swings around the branch so that he’s hanging upside down, his yellow tail feathers prominently displayed above him. Sometimes he reverses the motion and springs back to the top, and sometimes he flips all the way around the branch like a gymnast on the horizontal bar. At the same time, the bird lets out its loud, goofy call [click here to listen]. During mating season (January to May), this goes on pretty much all day, every day. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Burghausen

The longest castle in Europe

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

On a visit to the Louvre a few years ago, I was astounded by the amount of stuff there was to see—everything from da Vinci to Dührer to ancient Egyptian papyri. The collection is simply huge—the museum displays around 29,000 works of art in its endless halls. If you were able to stand in front of every object in the museum for only twenty seconds it would still take a full week, day and night. Not surprisingly, the “container” for all this stuff—the former Louvre palace—is gigantic as well. From its origin as a fortress during the reign of Philippe Auguste in 1190, to its present state today, successive governments and royal regimes have modified and beautified and expanded it along the length of the Seine into what it is now: a very large frame for the Mona Lisa.

After walking what seemed like miles past more Madonnas and children than I ever hoped to see, I had to keep reminding myself that there is a castle in Europe that is longer than the Louvre. Many years ago, when I was sixteen, I visited this castle while I was at a summer language camp in Bavaria. On one of our field trips, we went to Burghausen castle, 68 miles (110km) east of Munich, and 31 miles (50km) north of Salzburg. At the time, being a naive North American kid, castles and centuries-old European culture were still a novelty, and Burghausen made a huge impression on me. Heavy rain could not dampen my delight in visiting this imposing fortress, even though for my European friends it was just another castle. I was particularly wowed by its history, its size, and by the fact that Napoleon had once stayed there. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Freeze Drying

The amazing science of lyophilization

I remember where I was when I heard the news that Elvis died. On August 16, 1977, I was in Washington, D.C. on vacation with my parents. We were watching TV in our hotel room while getting dressed for our day of sightseeing when the news was announced. Although they would not have said so, I suspected my parents were secretly relieved that the world was rid of a corrupting influence. As for me, I was only vaguely aware of Elvis from commercials pitching his records, and from the fact that he and my father had the same birthday. I was much more concerned that we have time to visit the National Air and Space Museum, which had just opened the previous summer, and which was to be—for me, at least—the highlight of this trip. The promise of getting to see a real spaceship, real moon rocks, and so on was, for this ten-year-old kid, incredibly exciting.

The museum was everything I had hoped it would be—and more. The last attraction we saw was, naturally, the gift shop, and I tried to get my parents to buy me as many of those amazing goodies as possible. One particular item near the checkout caught my attention: freeze-dried ice cream (“like the astronauts eat!”). At that time, Astronaut Ice Cream was not available just anywhere, and this curious novelty was too good for my mom, a confirmed ice cream junkie, to pass up. We bought a packet and marveled at how this warm, dry stuff nevertheless tasted exactly like ice cream. I had previously thought that the coolest thing about astronauts was that they got to go into space. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Musée Mécanique

Good old-fashioned interactive multimedia

Fog, as I have said for many years, is my all-time favorite weather condition. Other than its impact on driving, I like everything about fog—the coolness, the dampness, the way it muffles sounds, and especially the mysterious, spooky quality it gives its surroundings. So the first time I took a streetcar out to San Francisco’s Ocean Beach years ago, I was delighted to discover that, more often than not, the entire area is covered with fog. Morgen and I walked along the beach and up a hill to a building called the Cliff House, a restaurant with a majestic, sweeping view of the mist—and, occasionally, bits of the ocean and nearby Seal Rock. The Cliff House is a favorite tourist destination—not so much for the food but for the view, the gift shops, and a few other attractions nearby. The attraction we had gone there to see was located inconspicuously around the back, downstairs in the basement of the Cliff House—and advertised only by a small, folding wooden sign on the sidewalk near the restaurant that said, simply, “Musée Mécanique.”

The Old Machine and the Sea
The Musée Mécanique (or Mechanical Museum) looked like something that belonged a century in the past—an effect enhanced considerably by the fog. Inside a large room with peeling paint and a crumbling ceiling was a collection of hundreds of very old mechanical toys, games, and other amusements. For example, there were dozens of automatons—machines in which small figures walk, dance, or otherwise move around when you insert a coin. There were fortune-telling machines, games to test your strength (the electric arm-wrestling machine was frighteningly strong), flip-card “movies,” a player piano, and all sorts of other mechanical shows and diversions. The amazing thing was that all these machines—ranging from the very campy to the very sophisticated—were fully functional. Admission was free, but nearly every machine required a quarter (or two) to operate it. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bodie, California

The liveliest ghost town in the West

One year for my wife’s birthday, I bought her a book called Ghost Towns of Northern California. I was excited to find it, because Morgen is not an easy person to shop for. Ask her about her favorite things, and “decay” will be close to the top of the list. By this she doesn’t necessarily mean antiques; age itself is not the issue. She likes artifacts with visible signs of the passage of time. What do you buy for a person who likes decay? I figured a book on ghost towns might be just the thing—especially since many of them were close enough that we could actually visit them. And I was right: the book was a hit.

We decided to rent a car and drive to one of these towns over a long weekend. After perusing the book thoroughly, we chose Bodie, a day’s drive east of San Francisco, near the Nevada border. Bodie was said to be the largest and best-preserved ghost town in the United States, and it seemed like an ideal place to experience decay. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Sarlat La Canéda

Time travel, French style

For the past decade or so, I’ve been in the habit of reading every new Michael Crichton novel as soon as it’s released. I like the stories, but what appeals to me more is the depth of historical and scientific research he puts into his work. It’s often had to tell where reality ends and fiction begins, which I’m sure is exactly what he’s aiming for. Given my fondness for France, I was especially interested in his book Timeline, published in 1999 (and made into a disappointingly forgettable movie in 2003). Most of the book’s action takes place in the Dordogne river valley in southwestern France—partly in the 14th century and partly in the 20th. In particular, Crichton’s description of the town of Sarlat caught my attention. It’s the site of just one minor scene and is only given a passing mention. But what the book describes is a quaint town preserved as it was in medieval times—a place full of history and character. Guidebooks generally speak highly of the town too, and I thought it sounded like a great place to visit. On our first trip to France, in 2000, our schedule did not permit an excursion to Sarlat, but Morgen and I decided we’d do our best to go there the next time we were in the area.

Getting There Is Half the Fun
In June of 2003 we returned to France, and we hoped once again to visit Sarlat. We had left the last week of our trip deliberately unplanned to allow ourselves the option of doing whatever seemed most interesting at the time. When it finally came time to choose where to go, we were in the French Alps (on the east side of the country near the Swiss border). We discussed Sarlat as one of several options for our final destination. The friends we were staying with tried to talk us out of it. “It’s really touristy,” they said, “and very hard to get to. We can recommend lots of places you’d enjoy more.” So we agonized over the decision for a long time, but finally agreed that we wanted to go with our first choice, touristy or not. We went to the train station to figure out how to get there. When the ticket agent heard “Sarlat,” he rolled his eyes and sighed as if to say, “You can’t get there from here.” Actually that would have been an overstatement. You can get to Sarlat from the French Alps, but it requires taking five different trains and a bus—a trip lasting about 12 hours in total (and not an inexpensive one either). We decided to rent a car instead. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tachyons

Tracking the elusive faster-than-light particle

As an amateur theoretical physicist, I know all about the principle that the speed of light is the ultimate speed limit in the universe. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s difficult to wrap my brain around this concept, but I accept that it’s true. Light not only travels really, really fast, it also travels at a constant speed, irrespective of the relative speed of an observer. Furthermore, any bit of matter that is in motion increases in mass as its speed increases, approaching infinite mass as it approaches the speed of light (and requiring, in theory, infinite energy to accelerate it to that speed). Taken together, this information rather strongly suggests that nothing can be made to travel faster than light. The details of the math and physics don’t fully make sense to me, even after reading the works of Einstein and several modern physicists. But then, these folks are professionals in the field whereas I am not; if they say that their long years of research lead them to conclude unhesitatingly that nothing can move faster than light, who am I to disagree?

Faster than a Speeding Photon
But in 1962, a group of physicists made the provocative observation that Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity does not actually prohibit matter from traveling faster than light, only from being accelerated to faster-than-light speeds. This may seem like an irrelevant distinction—and perhaps it is. But suppose there were a particle that came into existence already traveling faster than light. Because it did not have to be accelerated in order to reach that speed, it does not violate Special Relativity. Physicist Gerald Feinberg gave this hypothetical particle the name tachyon in 1967, from a Greek word meaning “speedy.” Later, the term tardyon was coined in order to identify ordinary, slower-than-light particles; these are also sometimes known as bradyons. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Great Clock of Westminster

Big Ben and beyond

And now for something slightly different.

Last year on my first-ever visit to London, I took in many of the standard tourist attractions—dutifully snapping photos, reading the histories in the guide books, and so on. But I quickly realized that there was a disconnection between the kinds of things I find interesting and the kinds of things most tourists find interesting. Take Big Ben, for example. You can’t go to London without seeing (and hearing) Big Ben. It’s just one of those things. (And it’s a rather prominent feature of the skyline, too, so it would be difficult to avoid seeing even if you wanted to.) So we saw Big Ben. But other than having heard about it in children’s songs and stories since I was young, I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to be so excited about. I’ve seen clocks. I’ve heard bells. Here’s one that’s larger than average. So? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Carbon Dating

Decay rates create debates

It has become my custom here at Interesting Thing of the Day to choose topics that I think will be unfamiliar to most readers—a sort of implicit “I’ll-bet-you’ve-never-heard-of-this” test. I think it’s fair to say that any educated person over the age of 10 or so has probably heard of carbon dating. But I realized the other day that even as an adult with a fair amount of scientific knowledge, I could not articulate exactly how or why carbon dating works. So I did a bit of research to fill in the gaps in my understanding, and not surprisingly I found the details to be quite interesting. What did surprise me was the huge number of Web sites and books vigorously attacking the legitimacy of what I had thought was a fairly straightforward, uncontroversial test. Apparently carbon dating is right up there with evolution in terms of the disdain it evokes from certain religious groups. As is often the case, the controversy over this topic is at least as interesting as the topic itself.

Carbon Copies
Carbon dating begins, logically enough, with carbon. High in the atmosphere, cosmic rays strike nitrogen atoms, producing a radioactive carbon isotope known as carbon-14 (or 14C); this is why it’s technically known as radiocarbon dating or, sometimes, carbon-14 dating. Carbon-14, along with the more common, stable (nonradioactive) carbon isotopes carbon-12 and carbon-13, combine with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide. In the process of photosynthesis, plants “breathe” this carbon dioxide, convert the carbon into carbohydrates for fuel, and then release the oxygen into the atmosphere as a byproduct. So some of the residual carbon in plants is carbon-14. Animals, in turn, eat the plants (or eat other animals that have eaten the plants), and thus the carbon-14 atoms propagate throughout the food chain. The result is that everything that is alive, or once was, contains some number of carbon-14 atoms. Although the number of carbon-14 atoms varies from one organism to another, the proportion of carbon-14 atoms to carbon-12 atoms is basically constant—and roughly the same as the proportion found in the atmosphere. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Rigo Artwork

Painting by the numbers

When it comes to art, I have very particular (and, often, unpopular) tastes. I’ve been to many of the world’s largest and most famous art museums, and I’ve seen and read enough to be able to talk fairly intelligently about what I’m looking at. But I must be brutally honest: of the many thousands of paintings, sculptures, photographs, multimedia installations, and other sorts of art I’ve seen in my lifetime, I have only actually enjoyed a tiny handful of pieces. My criteria for art enjoyment are quite narrow, having nothing to do with the time period in which something was made, the nationality of the artist, or the piece’s genre. If I had to deconstruct my art evaluation mechanism, I’d probably say I care about just three things: Is it visually appealing? Is it skillfully done? And is it interesting?

Needless to say, evaluating these three questions is a completely subjective matter, but in any case my answers tend to be “no” to all three more often than for most people. I don’t need art to be beautiful or evocative or metaphysically meaningful, but I do need it to flip those ineffable emotional switches in my brain that mean “this works for me.” Whatever else can be said about a piece of art, if I can’t grasp it in some basic way without reading a detailed treatise by the artist or some art expert on what it supposedly means, I don’t like it. In my book, the appreciation of a piece of art should be automatic, spontaneous, and immediate—not dependent on the knowledge of external facts. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pennsylvania Coal Fires

Heat under the street

There are a bunch of little facts that I sort of half-learned in elementary school, and have had a hard time remembering ever since. I remember the terms “Dromedary” and “Bactrian,” for example, but that crucial bit of information about which camel has one hump and which has two just didn’t stick. The same thing goes for names of cloud types—cirrus, cumulus, nimbus—I know the names but I forget which is which. And then there’s coal. I vividly recall learning about anthracite, bituminous, and lignite coal as a child in Pennsylvania, a state legendary for its coal production. But which type had which properties? It’s all a blur now. Since I did not pursue an education or profession in which this knowledge was needed, my brain apparently decided to delete those records to make space for really important information, such as Star Trek trivia.

I do remember, though, that when I was quite young my father took me to a coal mine that offered tours to the public. I thought it was absolutely the coolest thing ever. Getting to ride in that train down into the dark tunnels, seeing all that amazing machinery, and imagining the life of a miner was exciting and mysterious. I’ve always had a fondness for caverns and tunnels—maybe that’s where it all started. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Spontaneous Human Combustion

Answering the burning questions

As a kid, I always wanted to be a mad scientist or inventor of some kind. So I taught myself just enough about chemistry and electronics to be dangerous, and I often had some sort of project or experiment underway. Around age 16 or 17, I was hard at work on my latest contraption—using my bed as a workbench since my desk was perpetually covered with junk. This project involved some soldering, a task at which I was moderately skilled. However, as I was leaning over my work, trying to steady myself by resting my elbow on the mattress, my arm slipped and I fell forward onto the bed with the soldering iron sandwiched between my forearm and the bedspread. Apart from the initial shock, the first sensation I recall experiencing was the smell of burning flesh and hair, followed by the realization that I had ruined my bedspread, and then very shortly thereafter, a good bit of pain.

Any number of lessons could be learned from such an experience—for instance, “Don’t solder in bed.” It’s also a reminder that there are any number of ways to generate dangerous levels of heat in close proximity to one’s body. Fortunately, this incident did not set me on fire. But if conditions had been just right, could this run-in with the soldering iron have reduced me to ash? This is just the sort of question pondered by those who investigate the phenomenon known as Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC). [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Writings of Carlos Castaneda

Sorcery, mythology, or both?

Bookstores are dangerous places for me. I invariably leave with less money—and more books than I’ll ever have time to read. But I have to support my habit: I’m basically an idea junkie. I like to learn things, absorb new ideas, and challenge my mind to form connections between concepts that don’t seem to go together. So I choose books not because I assume they’re true, but because I expect them to be interesting or thought-provoking. When I’ve finished reading a book, though, I usually have a pretty strong sense of whether or not I believe it. After reading a dozen books by Carlos Castaneda—along with quite a few criticisms of his work—I could only come to the conclusion that the stories he told may or may not be somewhat or completely true. This very uncertainty is one of the things that makes his books so interesting. I have since revised my conclusion—about which more later. But first, some background.

For years, as I browsed through second-hand books, I frequently came across Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. I’d invariably pick it up, glance at it, and put it back on the shelf. Then I read Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, which had a brief quote from don Juan at the beginning, and that piqued my curiosity. Shortly thereafter, I ran across the book at a thrift shop and decided I could give it a whirl for 50 cents. Within a few pages I was hooked, and after finishing it I read all 11 of its successors. For better or worse, I was too late to be a groupie—in April, 1998, before I had finished reading all of the books, Castaneda died. Only then did I begin to realize the extent of the controversy surrounding his life and work, and the state of confusion he left behind among both fans and critics. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Membership Libraries

Exclusive playgrounds for book lovers

Books used to be such rare and wonderful things. I’m not talking about centuries ago, either. As recently as a couple of decades ago, when I was in school, I felt awestruck every time I visited the large public library downtown. It was amazing to me that as an ordinary citizen—a kid, no less—I could walk in and borrow nearly any book, no matter how old, famous, or important it was. Searching through endless card catalogs seemed like a mysterious black art, and I was always slightly surprised to find that a book I was looking for was actually on the shelves. Wouldn’t everyone in the city want to read this?

I’m equally amazed at the profound changes that have taken place in the last ten years or so with respect to how people think about books. On the one hand, there seems to be an increasingly common assumption that all useful knowledge exists in digital form, or is at least catalogued that way. Where once a search for information would begin at the library, now it seems that’s the last place many people look—if it isn’t on the Web, how important can it be? On the other hand, despite the ever-increasing numbers of books being published and mega-bookstores like Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.com, the meme of borrowing books from a library has lost a lot of its vigor. You can pick up any book you might want on the way home from work, or order it online with one click. For a certain segment of modern western society, going to a library for books is now seen as a sign of lower, rather than higher, class. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

White Noise

Color-coding sound

During the summers when I was growing up, my bedroom had an air conditioner mounted in the window. I loved the hot nights when I got to turn it on, but only partially because it cooled the room. What I liked best was the sound, which I found to be very soothing. Years later, when I was in college, I had a classmate everyone made fun of because he couldn’t go to sleep without having a radio on next to his bed—playing static. For some reason, the sound of static on a radio seemed goofy in a way that the sound of an air conditioner did not, but they amounted to roughly the same thing: white noise, which has a well-known ability to promote sleep by masking other sounds.

Most of us have seen white noise generators or CDs of white noise that are sold as sleep aids—sometimes especially for infants. A different class of white noise generator is used for testing and calibration of pro audio equipment. But what exactly is white noise, how does it work, and why is it called “white”? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Oropendola

Wacky gymnast of the bird world

I’m not much of a bird watcher, but on my first visit to Costa Rica I kept hearing this strange sound, almost like one bird trying to laugh while another one is whistling. That made me look up, and when I spotted the bird that was making the sound, I started to laugh. I had the distinct impression that it was putting on a show just to entertain the tourists, and it immediately became one of my favorite rain forest animals. The bird is called the Oropendola (often, and understandably, misspelled as “Oropendula”). It’s a largish bird that looks black from a distance but is actually dark brown, with bright yellow tail feathers. There are two species of Oropendola: the Crested Oropendola (Psarocolius decumanus) and the Montezuma Oropendola (Gymnostinops montezuma). Oropendolas are native to Central America, with some found as far north as southern Mexico and some as far south as Ecuador and Brazil. In the parts of Costa Rica I’ve visited, the Montezuma Oropendola is more common.

Swingers
Both species of Oropendola share a unique and rather silly characteristic, as hinted at by the bird’s common name (roughly, “gold pendulum”) and the Latin genus name Gymnostinops. A male Oropendola stands on a thin horizontal branch, with his claws wrapped most of the way around it. Then the bird spreads his wings and swings around the branch so that he’s hanging upside down, his yellow tail feathers prominently displayed above him. Sometimes he reverses the motion and springs back to the top, and sometimes he flips all the way around the branch like a gymnast on the horizontal bar. At the same time, the bird lets out its loud, goofy call [click here to listen]. During mating season (January to May), this goes on pretty much all day, every day. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Burghausen

The longest castle in Europe

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

On a visit to the Louvre a few years ago, I was astounded by the amount of stuff there was to see—everything from da Vinci to Dührer to ancient Egyptian papyri. The collection is simply huge—the museum displays around 29,000 works of art in its endless halls. If you were able to stand in front of every object in the museum for only twenty seconds it would still take a full week, day and night. Not surprisingly, the “container” for all this stuff—the former Louvre palace—is gigantic as well. From its origin as a fortress during the reign of Philippe Auguste in 1190, to its present state today, successive governments and royal regimes have modified and beautified and expanded it along the length of the Seine into what it is now: a very large frame for the Mona Lisa.

After walking what seemed like miles past more Madonnas and children than I ever hoped to see, I had to keep reminding myself that there is a castle in Europe that is longer than the Louvre. Many years ago, when I was sixteen, I visited this castle while I was at a summer language camp in Bavaria. On one of our field trips, we went to Burghausen castle, 68 miles (110km) east of Munich, and 31 miles (50km) north of Salzburg. At the time, being a naive North American kid, castles and centuries-old European culture were still a novelty, and Burghausen made a huge impression on me. Heavy rain could not dampen my delight in visiting this imposing fortress, even though for my European friends it was just another castle. I was particularly wowed by its history, its size, and by the fact that Napoleon had once stayed there. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Freeze Drying

The amazing science of lyophilization

I remember where I was when I heard the news that Elvis died. On August 16, 1977, I was in Washington, D.C. on vacation with my parents. We were watching TV in our hotel room while getting dressed for our day of sightseeing when the news was announced. Although they would not have said so, I suspected my parents were secretly relieved that the world was rid of a corrupting influence. As for me, I was only vaguely aware of Elvis from commercials pitching his records, and from the fact that he and my father had the same birthday. I was much more concerned that we have time to visit the National Air and Space Museum, which had just opened the previous summer, and which was to be—for me, at least—the highlight of this trip. The promise of getting to see a real spaceship, real moon rocks, and so on was, for this ten-year-old kid, incredibly exciting.

The museum was everything I had hoped it would be—and more. The last attraction we saw was, naturally, the gift shop, and I tried to get my parents to buy me as many of those amazing goodies as possible. One particular item near the checkout caught my attention: freeze-dried ice cream (“like the astronauts eat!”). At that time, Astronaut Ice Cream was not available just anywhere, and this curious novelty was too good for my mom, a confirmed ice cream junkie, to pass up. We bought a packet and marveled at how this warm, dry stuff nevertheless tasted exactly like ice cream. I had previously thought that the coolest thing about astronauts was that they got to go into space. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Musée Mécanique

Good old-fashioned interactive multimedia

Fog, as I have said for many years, is my all-time favorite weather condition. Other than its impact on driving, I like everything about fog—the coolness, the dampness, the way it muffles sounds, and especially the mysterious, spooky quality it gives its surroundings. So the first time I took a streetcar out to San Francisco’s Ocean Beach years ago, I was delighted to discover that, more often than not, the entire area is covered with fog. Morgen and I walked along the beach and up a hill to a building called the Cliff House, a restaurant with a majestic, sweeping view of the mist—and, occasionally, bits of the ocean and nearby Seal Rock. The Cliff House is a favorite tourist destination—not so much for the food but for the view, the gift shops, and a few other attractions nearby. The attraction we had gone there to see was located inconspicuously around the back, downstairs in the basement of the Cliff House—and advertised only by a small, folding wooden sign on the sidewalk near the restaurant that said, simply, “Musée Mécanique.”

The Old Machine and the Sea
The Musée Mécanique (or Mechanical Museum) looked like something that belonged a century in the past—an effect enhanced considerably by the fog. Inside a large room with peeling paint and a crumbling ceiling was a collection of hundreds of very old mechanical toys, games, and other amusements. For example, there were dozens of automatons—machines in which small figures walk, dance, or otherwise move around when you insert a coin. There were fortune-telling machines, games to test your strength (the electric arm-wrestling machine was frighteningly strong), flip-card “movies,” a player piano, and all sorts of other mechanical shows and diversions. The amazing thing was that all these machines—ranging from the very campy to the very sophisticated—were fully functional. Admission was free, but nearly every machine required a quarter (or two) to operate it. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bodie, California

The liveliest ghost town in the West

One year for my wife’s birthday, I bought her a book called Ghost Towns of Northern California. I was excited to find it, because Morgen is not an easy person to shop for. Ask her about her favorite things, and “decay” will be close to the top of the list. By this she doesn’t necessarily mean antiques; age itself is not the issue. She likes artifacts with visible signs of the passage of time. What do you buy for a person who likes decay? I figured a book on ghost towns might be just the thing—especially since many of them were close enough that we could actually visit them. And I was right: the book was a hit.

We decided to rent a car and drive to one of these towns over a long weekend. After perusing the book thoroughly, we chose Bodie, a day’s drive east of San Francisco, near the Nevada border. Bodie was said to be the largest and best-preserved ghost town in the United States, and it seemed like an ideal place to experience decay. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Sarlat La Canéda

Time travel, French style

For the past decade or so, I’ve been in the habit of reading every new Michael Crichton novel as soon as it’s released. I like the stories, but what appeals to me more is the depth of historical and scientific research he puts into his work. It’s often had to tell where reality ends and fiction begins, which I’m sure is exactly what he’s aiming for. Given my fondness for France, I was especially interested in his book Timeline, published in 1999 (and made into a disappointingly forgettable movie in 2003). Most of the book’s action takes place in the Dordogne river valley in southwestern France—partly in the 14th century and partly in the 20th. In particular, Crichton’s description of the town of Sarlat caught my attention. It’s the site of just one minor scene and is only given a passing mention. But what the book describes is a quaint town preserved as it was in medieval times—a place full of history and character. Guidebooks generally speak highly of the town too, and I thought it sounded like a great place to visit. On our first trip to France, in 2000, our schedule did not permit an excursion to Sarlat, but Morgen and I decided we’d do our best to go there the next time we were in the area.

Getting There Is Half the Fun
In June of 2003 we returned to France, and we hoped once again to visit Sarlat. We had left the last week of our trip deliberately unplanned to allow ourselves the option of doing whatever seemed most interesting at the time. When it finally came time to choose where to go, we were in the French Alps (on the east side of the country near the Swiss border). We discussed Sarlat as one of several options for our final destination. The friends we were staying with tried to talk us out of it. “It’s really touristy,” they said, “and very hard to get to. We can recommend lots of places you’d enjoy more.” So we agonized over the decision for a long time, but finally agreed that we wanted to go with our first choice, touristy or not. We went to the train station to figure out how to get there. When the ticket agent heard “Sarlat,” he rolled his eyes and sighed as if to say, “You can’t get there from here.” Actually that would have been an overstatement. You can get to Sarlat from the French Alps, but it requires taking five different trains and a bus—a trip lasting about 12 hours in total (and not an inexpensive one either). We decided to rent a car instead. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tachyons

Tracking the elusive faster-than-light particle

As an amateur theoretical physicist, I know all about the principle that the speed of light is the ultimate speed limit in the universe. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s difficult to wrap my brain around this concept, but I accept that it’s true. Light not only travels really, really fast, it also travels at a constant speed, irrespective of the relative speed of an observer. Furthermore, any bit of matter that is in motion increases in mass as its speed increases, approaching infinite mass as it approaches the speed of light (and requiring, in theory, infinite energy to accelerate it to that speed). Taken together, this information rather strongly suggests that nothing can be made to travel faster than light. The details of the math and physics don’t fully make sense to me, even after reading the works of Einstein and several modern physicists. But then, these folks are professionals in the field whereas I am not; if they say that their long years of research lead them to conclude unhesitatingly that nothing can move faster than light, who am I to disagree?

Faster than a Speeding Photon
But in 1962, a group of physicists made the provocative observation that Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity does not actually prohibit matter from traveling faster than light, only from being accelerated to faster-than-light speeds. This may seem like an irrelevant distinction—and perhaps it is. But suppose there were a particle that came into existence already traveling faster than light. Because it did not have to be accelerated in order to reach that speed, it does not violate Special Relativity. Physicist Gerald Feinberg gave this hypothetical particle the name tachyon in 1967, from a Greek word meaning “speedy.” Later, the term tardyon was coined in order to identify ordinary, slower-than-light particles; these are also sometimes known as bradyons. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Great Clock of Westminster

Big Ben and beyond

And now for something slightly different.

Last year on my first-ever visit to London, I took in many of the standard tourist attractions—dutifully snapping photos, reading the histories in the guide books, and so on. But I quickly realized that there was a disconnection between the kinds of things I find interesting and the kinds of things most tourists find interesting. Take Big Ben, for example. You can’t go to London without seeing (and hearing) Big Ben. It’s just one of those things. (And it’s a rather prominent feature of the skyline, too, so it would be difficult to avoid seeing even if you wanted to.) So we saw Big Ben. But other than having heard about it in children’s songs and stories since I was young, I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to be so excited about. I’ve seen clocks. I’ve heard bells. Here’s one that’s larger than average. So? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Carbon Dating

Decay rates create debates

It has become my custom here at Interesting Thing of the Day to choose topics that I think will be unfamiliar to most readers—a sort of implicit “I’ll-bet-you’ve-never-heard-of-this” test. I think it’s fair to say that any educated person over the age of 10 or so has probably heard of carbon dating. But I realized the other day that even as an adult with a fair amount of scientific knowledge, I could not articulate exactly how or why carbon dating works. So I did a bit of research to fill in the gaps in my understanding, and not surprisingly I found the details to be quite interesting. What did surprise me was the huge number of Web sites and books vigorously attacking the legitimacy of what I had thought was a fairly straightforward, uncontroversial test. Apparently carbon dating is right up there with evolution in terms of the disdain it evokes from certain religious groups. As is often the case, the controversy over this topic is at least as interesting as the topic itself.

Carbon Copies
Carbon dating begins, logically enough, with carbon. High in the atmosphere, cosmic rays strike nitrogen atoms, producing a radioactive carbon isotope known as carbon-14 (or 14C); this is why it’s technically known as radiocarbon dating or, sometimes, carbon-14 dating. Carbon-14, along with the more common, stable (nonradioactive) carbon isotopes carbon-12 and carbon-13, combine with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide. In the process of photosynthesis, plants “breathe” this carbon dioxide, convert the carbon into carbohydrates for fuel, and then release the oxygen into the atmosphere as a byproduct. So some of the residual carbon in plants is carbon-14. Animals, in turn, eat the plants (or eat other animals that have eaten the plants), and thus the carbon-14 atoms propagate throughout the food chain. The result is that everything that is alive, or once was, contains some number of carbon-14 atoms. Although the number of carbon-14 atoms varies from one organism to another, the proportion of carbon-14 atoms to carbon-12 atoms is basically constant—and roughly the same as the proportion found in the atmosphere. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Rigo Artwork

Painting by the numbers

When it comes to art, I have very particular (and, often, unpopular) tastes. I’ve been to many of the world’s largest and most famous art museums, and I’ve seen and read enough to be able to talk fairly intelligently about what I’m looking at. But I must be brutally honest: of the many thousands of paintings, sculptures, photographs, multimedia installations, and other sorts of art I’ve seen in my lifetime, I have only actually enjoyed a tiny handful of pieces. My criteria for art enjoyment are quite narrow, having nothing to do with the time period in which something was made, the nationality of the artist, or the piece’s genre. If I had to deconstruct my art evaluation mechanism, I’d probably say I care about just three things: Is it visually appealing? Is it skillfully done? And is it interesting?

Needless to say, evaluating these three questions is a completely subjective matter, but in any case my answers tend to be “no” to all three more often than for most people. I don’t need art to be beautiful or evocative or metaphysically meaningful, but I do need it to flip those ineffable emotional switches in my brain that mean “this works for me.” Whatever else can be said about a piece of art, if I can’t grasp it in some basic way without reading a detailed treatise by the artist or some art expert on what it supposedly means, I don’t like it. In my book, the appreciation of a piece of art should be automatic, spontaneous, and immediate—not dependent on the knowledge of external facts. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pennsylvania Coal Fires

Heat under the street

There are a bunch of little facts that I sort of half-learned in elementary school, and have had a hard time remembering ever since. I remember the terms “Dromedary” and “Bactrian,” for example, but that crucial bit of information about which camel has one hump and which has two just didn’t stick. The same thing goes for names of cloud types—cirrus, cumulus, nimbus—I know the names but I forget which is which. And then there’s coal. I vividly recall learning about anthracite, bituminous, and lignite coal as a child in Pennsylvania, a state legendary for its coal production. But which type had which properties? It’s all a blur now. Since I did not pursue an education or profession in which this knowledge was needed, my brain apparently decided to delete those records to make space for really important information, such as Star Trek trivia.

I do remember, though, that when I was quite young my father took me to a coal mine that offered tours to the public. I thought it was absolutely the coolest thing ever. Getting to ride in that train down into the dark tunnels, seeing all that amazing machinery, and imagining the life of a miner was exciting and mysterious. I’ve always had a fondness for caverns and tunnels—maybe that’s where it all started. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Spontaneous Human Combustion

Answering the burning questions

As a kid, I always wanted to be a mad scientist or inventor of some kind. So I taught myself just enough about chemistry and electronics to be dangerous, and I often had some sort of project or experiment underway. Around age 16 or 17, I was hard at work on my latest contraption—using my bed as a workbench since my desk was perpetually covered with junk. This project involved some soldering, a task at which I was moderately skilled. However, as I was leaning over my work, trying to steady myself by resting my elbow on the mattress, my arm slipped and I fell forward onto the bed with the soldering iron sandwiched between my forearm and the bedspread. Apart from the initial shock, the first sensation I recall experiencing was the smell of burning flesh and hair, followed by the realization that I had ruined my bedspread, and then very shortly thereafter, a good bit of pain.

Any number of lessons could be learned from such an experience—for instance, “Don’t solder in bed.” It’s also a reminder that there are any number of ways to generate dangerous levels of heat in close proximity to one’s body. Fortunately, this incident did not set me on fire. But if conditions had been just right, could this run-in with the soldering iron have reduced me to ash? This is just the sort of question pondered by those who investigate the phenomenon known as Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC). [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Writings of Carlos Castaneda

Sorcery, mythology, or both?

Bookstores are dangerous places for me. I invariably leave with less money—and more books than I’ll ever have time to read. But I have to support my habit: I’m basically an idea junkie. I like to learn things, absorb new ideas, and challenge my mind to form connections between concepts that don’t seem to go together. So I choose books not because I assume they’re true, but because I expect them to be interesting or thought-provoking. When I’ve finished reading a book, though, I usually have a pretty strong sense of whether or not I believe it. After reading a dozen books by Carlos Castaneda—along with quite a few criticisms of his work—I could only come to the conclusion that the stories he told may or may not be somewhat or completely true. This very uncertainty is one of the things that makes his books so interesting. I have since revised my conclusion—about which more later. But first, some background.

For years, as I browsed through second-hand books, I frequently came across Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. I’d invariably pick it up, glance at it, and put it back on the shelf. Then I read Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, which had a brief quote from don Juan at the beginning, and that piqued my curiosity. Shortly thereafter, I ran across the book at a thrift shop and decided I could give it a whirl for 50 cents. Within a few pages I was hooked, and after finishing it I read all 11 of its successors. For better or worse, I was too late to be a groupie—in April, 1998, before I had finished reading all of the books, Castaneda died. Only then did I begin to realize the extent of the controversy surrounding his life and work, and the state of confusion he left behind among both fans and critics. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Membership Libraries

Exclusive playgrounds for book lovers

Books used to be such rare and wonderful things. I’m not talking about centuries ago, either. As recently as a couple of decades ago, when I was in school, I felt awestruck every time I visited the large public library downtown. It was amazing to me that as an ordinary citizen—a kid, no less—I could walk in and borrow nearly any book, no matter how old, famous, or important it was. Searching through endless card catalogs seemed like a mysterious black art, and I was always slightly surprised to find that a book I was looking for was actually on the shelves. Wouldn’t everyone in the city want to read this?

I’m equally amazed at the profound changes that have taken place in the last ten years or so with respect to how people think about books. On the one hand, there seems to be an increasingly common assumption that all useful knowledge exists in digital form, or is at least catalogued that way. Where once a search for information would begin at the library, now it seems that’s the last place many people look—if it isn’t on the Web, how important can it be? On the other hand, despite the ever-increasing numbers of books being published and mega-bookstores like Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.com, the meme of borrowing books from a library has lost a lot of its vigor. You can pick up any book you might want on the way home from work, or order it online with one click. For a certain segment of modern western society, going to a library for books is now seen as a sign of lower, rather than higher, class. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

White Noise

Color-coding sound

During the summers when I was growing up, my bedroom had an air conditioner mounted in the window. I loved the hot nights when I got to turn it on, but only partially because it cooled the room. What I liked best was the sound, which I found to be very soothing. Years later, when I was in college, I had a classmate everyone made fun of because he couldn’t go to sleep without having a radio on next to his bed—playing static. For some reason, the sound of static on a radio seemed goofy in a way that the sound of an air conditioner did not, but they amounted to roughly the same thing: white noise, which has a well-known ability to promote sleep by masking other sounds.

Most of us have seen white noise generators or CDs of white noise that are sold as sleep aids—sometimes especially for infants. A different class of white noise generator is used for testing and calibration of pro audio equipment. But what exactly is white noise, how does it work, and why is it called “white”? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Oropendola

Wacky gymnast of the bird world

I’m not much of a bird watcher, but on my first visit to Costa Rica I kept hearing this strange sound, almost like one bird trying to laugh while another one is whistling. That made me look up, and when I spotted the bird that was making the sound, I started to laugh. I had the distinct impression that it was putting on a show just to entertain the tourists, and it immediately became one of my favorite rain forest animals. The bird is called the Oropendola (often, and understandably, misspelled as “Oropendula”). It’s a largish bird that looks black from a distance but is actually dark brown, with bright yellow tail feathers. There are two species of Oropendola: the Crested Oropendola (Psarocolius decumanus) and the Montezuma Oropendola (Gymnostinops montezuma). Oropendolas are native to Central America, with some found as far north as southern Mexico and some as far south as Ecuador and Brazil. In the parts of Costa Rica I’ve visited, the Montezuma Oropendola is more common.

Swingers
Both species of Oropendola share a unique and rather silly characteristic, as hinted at by the bird’s common name (roughly, “gold pendulum”) and the Latin genus name Gymnostinops. A male Oropendola stands on a thin horizontal branch, with his claws wrapped most of the way around it. Then the bird spreads his wings and swings around the branch so that he’s hanging upside down, his yellow tail feathers prominently displayed above him. Sometimes he reverses the motion and springs back to the top, and sometimes he flips all the way around the branch like a gymnast on the horizontal bar. At the same time, the bird lets out its loud, goofy call [click here to listen]. During mating season (January to May), this goes on pretty much all day, every day. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Burghausen

The longest castle in Europe

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

On a visit to the Louvre a few years ago, I was astounded by the amount of stuff there was to see—everything from da Vinci to Dührer to ancient Egyptian papyri. The collection is simply huge—the museum displays around 29,000 works of art in its endless halls. If you were able to stand in front of every object in the museum for only twenty seconds it would still take a full week, day and night. Not surprisingly, the “container” for all this stuff—the former Louvre palace—is gigantic as well. From its origin as a fortress during the reign of Philippe Auguste in 1190, to its present state today, successive governments and royal regimes have modified and beautified and expanded it along the length of the Seine into what it is now: a very large frame for the Mona Lisa.

After walking what seemed like miles past more Madonnas and children than I ever hoped to see, I had to keep reminding myself that there is a castle in Europe that is longer than the Louvre. Many years ago, when I was sixteen, I visited this castle while I was at a summer language camp in Bavaria. On one of our field trips, we went to Burghausen castle, 68 miles (110km) east of Munich, and 31 miles (50km) north of Salzburg. At the time, being a naive North American kid, castles and centuries-old European culture were still a novelty, and Burghausen made a huge impression on me. Heavy rain could not dampen my delight in visiting this imposing fortress, even though for my European friends it was just another castle. I was particularly wowed by its history, its size, and by the fact that Napoleon had once stayed there. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Freeze Drying

The amazing science of lyophilization

I remember where I was when I heard the news that Elvis died. On August 16, 1977, I was in Washington, D.C. on vacation with my parents. We were watching TV in our hotel room while getting dressed for our day of sightseeing when the news was announced. Although they would not have said so, I suspected my parents were secretly relieved that the world was rid of a corrupting influence. As for me, I was only vaguely aware of Elvis from commercials pitching his records, and from the fact that he and my father had the same birthday. I was much more concerned that we have time to visit the National Air and Space Museum, which had just opened the previous summer, and which was to be—for me, at least—the highlight of this trip. The promise of getting to see a real spaceship, real moon rocks, and so on was, for this ten-year-old kid, incredibly exciting.

The museum was everything I had hoped it would be—and more. The last attraction we saw was, naturally, the gift shop, and I tried to get my parents to buy me as many of those amazing goodies as possible. One particular item near the checkout caught my attention: freeze-dried ice cream (“like the astronauts eat!”). At that time, Astronaut Ice Cream was not available just anywhere, and this curious novelty was too good for my mom, a confirmed ice cream junkie, to pass up. We bought a packet and marveled at how this warm, dry stuff nevertheless tasted exactly like ice cream. I had previously thought that the coolest thing about astronauts was that they got to go into space. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Musée Mécanique

Good old-fashioned interactive multimedia

Fog, as I have said for many years, is my all-time favorite weather condition. Other than its impact on driving, I like everything about fog—the coolness, the dampness, the way it muffles sounds, and especially the mysterious, spooky quality it gives its surroundings. So the first time I took a streetcar out to San Francisco’s Ocean Beach years ago, I was delighted to discover that, more often than not, the entire area is covered with fog. Morgen and I walked along the beach and up a hill to a building called the Cliff House, a restaurant with a majestic, sweeping view of the mist—and, occasionally, bits of the ocean and nearby Seal Rock. The Cliff House is a favorite tourist destination—not so much for the food but for the view, the gift shops, and a few other attractions nearby. The attraction we had gone there to see was located inconspicuously around the back, downstairs in the basement of the Cliff House—and advertised only by a small, folding wooden sign on the sidewalk near the restaurant that said, simply, “Musée Mécanique.”

The Old Machine and the Sea
The Musée Mécanique (or Mechanical Museum) looked like something that belonged a century in the past—an effect enhanced considerably by the fog. Inside a large room with peeling paint and a crumbling ceiling was a collection of hundreds of very old mechanical toys, games, and other amusements. For example, there were dozens of automatons—machines in which small figures walk, dance, or otherwise move around when you insert a coin. There were fortune-telling machines, games to test your strength (the electric arm-wrestling machine was frighteningly strong), flip-card “movies,” a player piano, and all sorts of other mechanical shows and diversions. The amazing thing was that all these machines—ranging from the very campy to the very sophisticated—were fully functional. Admission was free, but nearly every machine required a quarter (or two) to operate it. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bodie, California

The liveliest ghost town in the West

One year for my wife’s birthday, I bought her a book called Ghost Towns of Northern California. I was excited to find it, because Morgen is not an easy person to shop for. Ask her about her favorite things, and “decay” will be close to the top of the list. By this she doesn’t necessarily mean antiques; age itself is not the issue. She likes artifacts with visible signs of the passage of time. What do you buy for a person who likes decay? I figured a book on ghost towns might be just the thing—especially since many of them were close enough that we could actually visit them. And I was right: the book was a hit.

We decided to rent a car and drive to one of these towns over a long weekend. After perusing the book thoroughly, we chose Bodie, a day’s drive east of San Francisco, near the Nevada border. Bodie was said to be the largest and best-preserved ghost town in the United States, and it seemed like an ideal place to experience decay. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Sarlat La Canéda

Time travel, French style

For the past decade or so, I’ve been in the habit of reading every new Michael Crichton novel as soon as it’s released. I like the stories, but what appeals to me more is the depth of historical and scientific research he puts into his work. It’s often had to tell where reality ends and fiction begins, which I’m sure is exactly what he’s aiming for. Given my fondness for France, I was especially interested in his book Timeline, published in 1999 (and made into a disappointingly forgettable movie in 2003). Most of the book’s action takes place in the Dordogne river valley in southwestern France—partly in the 14th century and partly in the 20th. In particular, Crichton’s description of the town of Sarlat caught my attention. It’s the site of just one minor scene and is only given a passing mention. But what the book describes is a quaint town preserved as it was in medieval times—a place full of history and character. Guidebooks generally speak highly of the town too, and I thought it sounded like a great place to visit. On our first trip to France, in 2000, our schedule did not permit an excursion to Sarlat, but Morgen and I decided we’d do our best to go there the next time we were in the area.

Getting There Is Half the Fun
In June of 2003 we returned to France, and we hoped once again to visit Sarlat. We had left the last week of our trip deliberately unplanned to allow ourselves the option of doing whatever seemed most interesting at the time. When it finally came time to choose where to go, we were in the French Alps (on the east side of the country near the Swiss border). We discussed Sarlat as one of several options for our final destination. The friends we were staying with tried to talk us out of it. “It’s really touristy,” they said, “and very hard to get to. We can recommend lots of places you’d enjoy more.” So we agonized over the decision for a long time, but finally agreed that we wanted to go with our first choice, touristy or not. We went to the train station to figure out how to get there. When the ticket agent heard “Sarlat,” he rolled his eyes and sighed as if to say, “You can’t get there from here.” Actually that would have been an overstatement. You can get to Sarlat from the French Alps, but it requires taking five different trains and a bus—a trip lasting about 12 hours in total (and not an inexpensive one either). We decided to rent a car instead. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tachyons

Tracking the elusive faster-than-light particle

As an amateur theoretical physicist, I know all about the principle that the speed of light is the ultimate speed limit in the universe. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s difficult to wrap my brain around this concept, but I accept that it’s true. Light not only travels really, really fast, it also travels at a constant speed, irrespective of the relative speed of an observer. Furthermore, any bit of matter that is in motion increases in mass as its speed increases, approaching infinite mass as it approaches the speed of light (and requiring, in theory, infinite energy to accelerate it to that speed). Taken together, this information rather strongly suggests that nothing can be made to travel faster than light. The details of the math and physics don’t fully make sense to me, even after reading the works of Einstein and several modern physicists. But then, these folks are professionals in the field whereas I am not; if they say that their long years of research lead them to conclude unhesitatingly that nothing can move faster than light, who am I to disagree?

Faster than a Speeding Photon
But in 1962, a group of physicists made the provocative observation that Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity does not actually prohibit matter from traveling faster than light, only from being accelerated to faster-than-light speeds. This may seem like an irrelevant distinction—and perhaps it is. But suppose there were a particle that came into existence already traveling faster than light. Because it did not have to be accelerated in order to reach that speed, it does not violate Special Relativity. Physicist Gerald Feinberg gave this hypothetical particle the name tachyon in 1967, from a Greek word meaning “speedy.” Later, the term tardyon was coined in order to identify ordinary, slower-than-light particles; these are also sometimes known as bradyons. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Great Clock of Westminster

Big Ben and beyond

And now for something slightly different.

Last year on my first-ever visit to London, I took in many of the standard tourist attractions—dutifully snapping photos, reading the histories in the guide books, and so on. But I quickly realized that there was a disconnection between the kinds of things I find interesting and the kinds of things most tourists find interesting. Take Big Ben, for example. You can’t go to London without seeing (and hearing) Big Ben. It’s just one of those things. (And it’s a rather prominent feature of the skyline, too, so it would be difficult to avoid seeing even if you wanted to.) So we saw Big Ben. But other than having heard about it in children’s songs and stories since I was young, I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to be so excited about. I’ve seen clocks. I’ve heard bells. Here’s one that’s larger than average. So? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Carbon Dating

Decay rates create debates

It has become my custom here at Interesting Thing of the Day to choose topics that I think will be unfamiliar to most readers—a sort of implicit “I’ll-bet-you’ve-never-heard-of-this” test. I think it’s fair to say that any educated person over the age of 10 or so has probably heard of carbon dating. But I realized the other day that even as an adult with a fair amount of scientific knowledge, I could not articulate exactly how or why carbon dating works. So I did a bit of research to fill in the gaps in my understanding, and not surprisingly I found the details to be quite interesting. What did surprise me was the huge number of Web sites and books vigorously attacking the legitimacy of what I had thought was a fairly straightforward, uncontroversial test. Apparently carbon dating is right up there with evolution in terms of the disdain it evokes from certain religious groups. As is often the case, the controversy over this topic is at least as interesting as the topic itself.

Carbon Copies
Carbon dating begins, logically enough, with carbon. High in the atmosphere, cosmic rays strike nitrogen atoms, producing a radioactive carbon isotope known as carbon-14 (or 14C); this is why it’s technically known as radiocarbon dating or, sometimes, carbon-14 dating. Carbon-14, along with the more common, stable (nonradioactive) carbon isotopes carbon-12 and carbon-13, combine with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide. In the process of photosynthesis, plants “breathe” this carbon dioxide, convert the carbon into carbohydrates for fuel, and then release the oxygen into the atmosphere as a byproduct. So some of the residual carbon in plants is carbon-14. Animals, in turn, eat the plants (or eat other animals that have eaten the plants), and thus the carbon-14 atoms propagate throughout the food chain. The result is that everything that is alive, or once was, contains some number of carbon-14 atoms. Although the number of carbon-14 atoms varies from one organism to another, the proportion of carbon-14 atoms to carbon-12 atoms is basically constant—and roughly the same as the proportion found in the atmosphere. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Rigo Artwork

Painting by the numbers

When it comes to art, I have very particular (and, often, unpopular) tastes. I’ve been to many of the world’s largest and most famous art museums, and I’ve seen and read enough to be able to talk fairly intelligently about what I’m looking at. But I must be brutally honest: of the many thousands of paintings, sculptures, photographs, multimedia installations, and other sorts of art I’ve seen in my lifetime, I have only actually enjoyed a tiny handful of pieces. My criteria for art enjoyment are quite narrow, having nothing to do with the time period in which something was made, the nationality of the artist, or the piece’s genre. If I had to deconstruct my art evaluation mechanism, I’d probably say I care about just three things: Is it visually appealing? Is it skillfully done? And is it interesting?

Needless to say, evaluating these three questions is a completely subjective matter, but in any case my answers tend to be “no” to all three more often than for most people. I don’t need art to be beautiful or evocative or metaphysically meaningful, but I do need it to flip those ineffable emotional switches in my brain that mean “this works for me.” Whatever else can be said about a piece of art, if I can’t grasp it in some basic way without reading a detailed treatise by the artist or some art expert on what it supposedly means, I don’t like it. In my book, the appreciation of a piece of art should be automatic, spontaneous, and immediate—not dependent on the knowledge of external facts. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pennsylvania Coal Fires

Heat under the street

There are a bunch of little facts that I sort of half-learned in elementary school, and have had a hard time remembering ever since. I remember the terms “Dromedary” and “Bactrian,” for example, but that crucial bit of information about which camel has one hump and which has two just didn’t stick. The same thing goes for names of cloud types—cirrus, cumulus, nimbus—I know the names but I forget which is which. And then there’s coal. I vividly recall learning about anthracite, bituminous, and lignite coal as a child in Pennsylvania, a state legendary for its coal production. But which type had which properties? It’s all a blur now. Since I did not pursue an education or profession in which this knowledge was needed, my brain apparently decided to delete those records to make space for really important information, such as Star Trek trivia.

I do remember, though, that when I was quite young my father took me to a coal mine that offered tours to the public. I thought it was absolutely the coolest thing ever. Getting to ride in that train down into the dark tunnels, seeing all that amazing machinery, and imagining the life of a miner was exciting and mysterious. I’ve always had a fondness for caverns and tunnels—maybe that’s where it all started. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Spontaneous Human Combustion

Answering the burning questions

As a kid, I always wanted to be a mad scientist or inventor of some kind. So I taught myself just enough about chemistry and electronics to be dangerous, and I often had some sort of project or experiment underway. Around age 16 or 17, I was hard at work on my latest contraption—using my bed as a workbench since my desk was perpetually covered with junk. This project involved some soldering, a task at which I was moderately skilled. However, as I was leaning over my work, trying to steady myself by resting my elbow on the mattress, my arm slipped and I fell forward onto the bed with the soldering iron sandwiched between my forearm and the bedspread. Apart from the initial shock, the first sensation I recall experiencing was the smell of burning flesh and hair, followed by the realization that I had ruined my bedspread, and then very shortly thereafter, a good bit of pain.

Any number of lessons could be learned from such an experience—for instance, “Don’t solder in bed.” It’s also a reminder that there are any number of ways to generate dangerous levels of heat in close proximity to one’s body. Fortunately, this incident did not set me on fire. But if conditions had been just right, could this run-in with the soldering iron have reduced me to ash? This is just the sort of question pondered by those who investigate the phenomenon known as Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC). [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Writings of Carlos Castaneda

Sorcery, mythology, or both?

Bookstores are dangerous places for me. I invariably leave with less money—and more books than I’ll ever have time to read. But I have to support my habit: I’m basically an idea junkie. I like to learn things, absorb new ideas, and challenge my mind to form connections between concepts that don’t seem to go together. So I choose books not because I assume they’re true, but because I expect them to be interesting or thought-provoking. When I’ve finished reading a book, though, I usually have a pretty strong sense of whether or not I believe it. After reading a dozen books by Carlos Castaneda—along with quite a few criticisms of his work—I could only come to the conclusion that the stories he told may or may not be somewhat or completely true. This very uncertainty is one of the things that makes his books so interesting. I have since revised my conclusion—about which more later. But first, some background.

For years, as I browsed through second-hand books, I frequently came across Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. I’d invariably pick it up, glance at it, and put it back on the shelf. Then I read Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, which had a brief quote from don Juan at the beginning, and that piqued my curiosity. Shortly thereafter, I ran across the book at a thrift shop and decided I could give it a whirl for 50 cents. Within a few pages I was hooked, and after finishing it I read all 11 of its successors. For better or worse, I was too late to be a groupie—in April, 1998, before I had finished reading all of the books, Castaneda died. Only then did I begin to realize the extent of the controversy surrounding his life and work, and the state of confusion he left behind among both fans and critics. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Membership Libraries

Exclusive playgrounds for book lovers

Books used to be such rare and wonderful things. I’m not talking about centuries ago, either. As recently as a couple of decades ago, when I was in school, I felt awestruck every time I visited the large public library downtown. It was amazing to me that as an ordinary citizen—a kid, no less—I could walk in and borrow nearly any book, no matter how old, famous, or important it was. Searching through endless card catalogs seemed like a mysterious black art, and I was always slightly surprised to find that a book I was looking for was actually on the shelves. Wouldn’t everyone in the city want to read this?

I’m equally amazed at the profound changes that have taken place in the last ten years or so with respect to how people think about books. On the one hand, there seems to be an increasingly common assumption that all useful knowledge exists in digital form, or is at least catalogued that way. Where once a search for information would begin at the library, now it seems that’s the last place many people look—if it isn’t on the Web, how important can it be? On the other hand, despite the ever-increasing numbers of books being published and mega-bookstores like Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.com, the meme of borrowing books from a library has lost a lot of its vigor. You can pick up any book you might want on the way home from work, or order it online with one click. For a certain segment of modern western society, going to a library for books is now seen as a sign of lower, rather than higher, class. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

White Noise

Color-coding sound

During the summers when I was growing up, my bedroom had an air conditioner mounted in the window. I loved the hot nights when I got to turn it on, but only partially because it cooled the room. What I liked best was the sound, which I found to be very soothing. Years later, when I was in college, I had a classmate everyone made fun of because he couldn’t go to sleep without having a radio on next to his bed—playing static. For some reason, the sound of static on a radio seemed goofy in a way that the sound of an air conditioner did not, but they amounted to roughly the same thing: white noise, which has a well-known ability to promote sleep by masking other sounds.

Most of us have seen white noise generators or CDs of white noise that are sold as sleep aids—sometimes especially for infants. A different class of white noise generator is used for testing and calibration of pro audio equipment. But what exactly is white noise, how does it work, and why is it called “white”? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Oropendola

Wacky gymnast of the bird world

I’m not much of a bird watcher, but on my first visit to Costa Rica I kept hearing this strange sound, almost like one bird trying to laugh while another one is whistling. That made me look up, and when I spotted the bird that was making the sound, I started to laugh. I had the distinct impression that it was putting on a show just to entertain the tourists, and it immediately became one of my favorite rain forest animals. The bird is called the Oropendola (often, and understandably, misspelled as “Oropendula”). It’s a largish bird that looks black from a distance but is actually dark brown, with bright yellow tail feathers. There are two species of Oropendola: the Crested Oropendola (Psarocolius decumanus) and the Montezuma Oropendola (Gymnostinops montezuma). Oropendolas are native to Central America, with some found as far north as southern Mexico and some as far south as Ecuador and Brazil. In the parts of Costa Rica I’ve visited, the Montezuma Oropendola is more common.

Swingers
Both species of Oropendola share a unique and rather silly characteristic, as hinted at by the bird’s common name (roughly, “gold pendulum”) and the Latin genus name Gymnostinops. A male Oropendola stands on a thin horizontal branch, with his claws wrapped most of the way around it. Then the bird spreads his wings and swings around the branch so that he’s hanging upside down, his yellow tail feathers prominently displayed above him. Sometimes he reverses the motion and springs back to the top, and sometimes he flips all the way around the branch like a gymnast on the horizontal bar. At the same time, the bird lets out its loud, goofy call [click here to listen]. During mating season (January to May), this goes on pretty much all day, every day. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Burghausen

The longest castle in Europe

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

On a visit to the Louvre a few years ago, I was astounded by the amount of stuff there was to see—everything from da Vinci to Dührer to ancient Egyptian papyri. The collection is simply huge—the museum displays around 29,000 works of art in its endless halls. If you were able to stand in front of every object in the museum for only twenty seconds it would still take a full week, day and night. Not surprisingly, the “container” for all this stuff—the former Louvre palace—is gigantic as well. From its origin as a fortress during the reign of Philippe Auguste in 1190, to its present state today, successive governments and royal regimes have modified and beautified and expanded it along the length of the Seine into what it is now: a very large frame for the Mona Lisa.

After walking what seemed like miles past more Madonnas and children than I ever hoped to see, I had to keep reminding myself that there is a castle in Europe that is longer than the Louvre. Many years ago, when I was sixteen, I visited this castle while I was at a summer language camp in Bavaria. On one of our field trips, we went to Burghausen castle, 68 miles (110km) east of Munich, and 31 miles (50km) north of Salzburg. At the time, being a naive North American kid, castles and centuries-old European culture were still a novelty, and Burghausen made a huge impression on me. Heavy rain could not dampen my delight in visiting this imposing fortress, even though for my European friends it was just another castle. I was particularly wowed by its history, its size, and by the fact that Napoleon had once stayed there. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Freeze Drying

The amazing science of lyophilization

I remember where I was when I heard the news that Elvis died. On August 16, 1977, I was in Washington, D.C. on vacation with my parents. We were watching TV in our hotel room while getting dressed for our day of sightseeing when the news was announced. Although they would not have said so, I suspected my parents were secretly relieved that the world was rid of a corrupting influence. As for me, I was only vaguely aware of Elvis from commercials pitching his records, and from the fact that he and my father had the same birthday. I was much more concerned that we have time to visit the National Air and Space Museum, which had just opened the previous summer, and which was to be—for me, at least—the highlight of this trip. The promise of getting to see a real spaceship, real moon rocks, and so on was, for this ten-year-old kid, incredibly exciting.

The museum was everything I had hoped it would be—and more. The last attraction we saw was, naturally, the gift shop, and I tried to get my parents to buy me as many of those amazing goodies as possible. One particular item near the checkout caught my attention: freeze-dried ice cream (“like the astronauts eat!”). At that time, Astronaut Ice Cream was not available just anywhere, and this curious novelty was too good for my mom, a confirmed ice cream junkie, to pass up. We bought a packet and marveled at how this warm, dry stuff nevertheless tasted exactly like ice cream. I had previously thought that the coolest thing about astronauts was that they got to go into space. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Musée Mécanique

Good old-fashioned interactive multimedia

Fog, as I have said for many years, is my all-time favorite weather condition. Other than its impact on driving, I like everything about fog—the coolness, the dampness, the way it muffles sounds, and especially the mysterious, spooky quality it gives its surroundings. So the first time I took a streetcar out to San Francisco’s Ocean Beach years ago, I was delighted to discover that, more often than not, the entire area is covered with fog. Morgen and I walked along the beach and up a hill to a building called the Cliff House, a restaurant with a majestic, sweeping view of the mist—and, occasionally, bits of the ocean and nearby Seal Rock. The Cliff House is a favorite tourist destination—not so much for the food but for the view, the gift shops, and a few other attractions nearby. The attraction we had gone there to see was located inconspicuously around the back, downstairs in the basement of the Cliff House—and advertised only by a small, folding wooden sign on the sidewalk near the restaurant that said, simply, “Musée Mécanique.”

The Old Machine and the Sea
The Musée Mécanique (or Mechanical Museum) looked like something that belonged a century in the past—an effect enhanced considerably by the fog. Inside a large room with peeling paint and a crumbling ceiling was a collection of hundreds of very old mechanical toys, games, and other amusements. For example, there were dozens of automatons—machines in which small figures walk, dance, or otherwise move around when you insert a coin. There were fortune-telling machines, games to test your strength (the electric arm-wrestling machine was frighteningly strong), flip-card “movies,” a player piano, and all sorts of other mechanical shows and diversions. The amazing thing was that all these machines—ranging from the very campy to the very sophisticated—were fully functional. Admission was free, but nearly every machine required a quarter (or two) to operate it. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bodie, California

The liveliest ghost town in the West

One year for my wife’s birthday, I bought her a book called Ghost Towns of Northern California. I was excited to find it, because Morgen is not an easy person to shop for. Ask her about her favorite things, and “decay” will be close to the top of the list. By this she doesn’t necessarily mean antiques; age itself is not the issue. She likes artifacts with visible signs of the passage of time. What do you buy for a person who likes decay? I figured a book on ghost towns might be just the thing—especially since many of them were close enough that we could actually visit them. And I was right: the book was a hit.

We decided to rent a car and drive to one of these towns over a long weekend. After perusing the book thoroughly, we chose Bodie, a day’s drive east of San Francisco, near the Nevada border. Bodie was said to be the largest and best-preserved ghost town in the United States, and it seemed like an ideal place to experience decay. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Sarlat La Canéda

Time travel, French style

For the past decade or so, I’ve been in the habit of reading every new Michael Crichton novel as soon as it’s released. I like the stories, but what appeals to me more is the depth of historical and scientific research he puts into his work. It’s often had to tell where reality ends and fiction begins, which I’m sure is exactly what he’s aiming for. Given my fondness for France, I was especially interested in his book Timeline, published in 1999 (and made into a disappointingly forgettable movie in 2003). Most of the book’s action takes place in the Dordogne river valley in southwestern France—partly in the 14th century and partly in the 20th. In particular, Crichton’s description of the town of Sarlat caught my attention. It’s the site of just one minor scene and is only given a passing mention. But what the book describes is a quaint town preserved as it was in medieval times—a place full of history and character. Guidebooks generally speak highly of the town too, and I thought it sounded like a great place to visit. On our first trip to France, in 2000, our schedule did not permit an excursion to Sarlat, but Morgen and I decided we’d do our best to go there the next time we were in the area.

Getting There Is Half the Fun
In June of 2003 we returned to France, and we hoped once again to visit Sarlat. We had left the last week of our trip deliberately unplanned to allow ourselves the option of doing whatever seemed most interesting at the time. When it finally came time to choose where to go, we were in the French Alps (on the east side of the country near the Swiss border). We discussed Sarlat as one of several options for our final destination. The friends we were staying with tried to talk us out of it. “It’s really touristy,” they said, “and very hard to get to. We can recommend lots of places you’d enjoy more.” So we agonized over the decision for a long time, but finally agreed that we wanted to go with our first choice, touristy or not. We went to the train station to figure out how to get there. When the ticket agent heard “Sarlat,” he rolled his eyes and sighed as if to say, “You can’t get there from here.” Actually that would have been an overstatement. You can get to Sarlat from the French Alps, but it requires taking five different trains and a bus—a trip lasting about 12 hours in total (and not an inexpensive one either). We decided to rent a car instead. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tachyons

Tracking the elusive faster-than-light particle

As an amateur theoretical physicist, I know all about the principle that the speed of light is the ultimate speed limit in the universe. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s difficult to wrap my brain around this concept, but I accept that it’s true. Light not only travels really, really fast, it also travels at a constant speed, irrespective of the relative speed of an observer. Furthermore, any bit of matter that is in motion increases in mass as its speed increases, approaching infinite mass as it approaches the speed of light (and requiring, in theory, infinite energy to accelerate it to that speed). Taken together, this information rather strongly suggests that nothing can be made to travel faster than light. The details of the math and physics don’t fully make sense to me, even after reading the works of Einstein and several modern physicists. But then, these folks are professionals in the field whereas I am not; if they say that their long years of research lead them to conclude unhesitatingly that nothing can move faster than light, who am I to disagree?

Faster than a Speeding Photon
But in 1962, a group of physicists made the provocative observation that Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity does not actually prohibit matter from traveling faster than light, only from being accelerated to faster-than-light speeds. This may seem like an irrelevant distinction—and perhaps it is. But suppose there were a particle that came into existence already traveling faster than light. Because it did not have to be accelerated in order to reach that speed, it does not violate Special Relativity. Physicist Gerald Feinberg gave this hypothetical particle the name tachyon in 1967, from a Greek word meaning “speedy.” Later, the term tardyon was coined in order to identify ordinary, slower-than-light particles; these are also sometimes known as bradyons. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Great Clock of Westminster

Big Ben and beyond

And now for something slightly different.

Last year on my first-ever visit to London, I took in many of the standard tourist attractions—dutifully snapping photos, reading the histories in the guide books, and so on. But I quickly realized that there was a disconnection between the kinds of things I find interesting and the kinds of things most tourists find interesting. Take Big Ben, for example. You can’t go to London without seeing (and hearing) Big Ben. It’s just one of those things. (And it’s a rather prominent feature of the skyline, too, so it would be difficult to avoid seeing even if you wanted to.) So we saw Big Ben. But other than having heard about it in children’s songs and stories since I was young, I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to be so excited about. I’ve seen clocks. I’ve heard bells. Here’s one that’s larger than average. So? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Carbon Dating

Decay rates create debates

It has become my custom here at Interesting Thing of the Day to choose topics that I think will be unfamiliar to most readers—a sort of implicit “I’ll-bet-you’ve-never-heard-of-this” test. I think it’s fair to say that any educated person over the age of 10 or so has probably heard of carbon dating. But I realized the other day that even as an adult with a fair amount of scientific knowledge, I could not articulate exactly how or why carbon dating works. So I did a bit of research to fill in the gaps in my understanding, and not surprisingly I found the details to be quite interesting. What did surprise me was the huge number of Web sites and books vigorously attacking the legitimacy of what I had thought was a fairly straightforward, uncontroversial test. Apparently carbon dating is right up there with evolution in terms of the disdain it evokes from certain religious groups. As is often the case, the controversy over this topic is at least as interesting as the topic itself.

Carbon Copies
Carbon dating begins, logically enough, with carbon. High in the atmosphere, cosmic rays strike nitrogen atoms, producing a radioactive carbon isotope known as carbon-14 (or 14C); this is why it’s technically known as radiocarbon dating or, sometimes, carbon-14 dating. Carbon-14, along with the more common, stable (nonradioactive) carbon isotopes carbon-12 and carbon-13, combine with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide. In the process of photosynthesis, plants “breathe” this carbon dioxide, convert the carbon into carbohydrates for fuel, and then release the oxygen into the atmosphere as a byproduct. So some of the residual carbon in plants is carbon-14. Animals, in turn, eat the plants (or eat other animals that have eaten the plants), and thus the carbon-14 atoms propagate throughout the food chain. The result is that everything that is alive, or once was, contains some number of carbon-14 atoms. Although the number of carbon-14 atoms varies from one organism to another, the proportion of carbon-14 atoms to carbon-12 atoms is basically constant—and roughly the same as the proportion found in the atmosphere. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Rigo Artwork

Painting by the numbers

When it comes to art, I have very particular (and, often, unpopular) tastes. I’ve been to many of the world’s largest and most famous art museums, and I’ve seen and read enough to be able to talk fairly intelligently about what I’m looking at. But I must be brutally honest: of the many thousands of paintings, sculptures, photographs, multimedia installations, and other sorts of art I’ve seen in my lifetime, I have only actually enjoyed a tiny handful of pieces. My criteria for art enjoyment are quite narrow, having nothing to do with the time period in which something was made, the nationality of the artist, or the piece’s genre. If I had to deconstruct my art evaluation mechanism, I’d probably say I care about just three things: Is it visually appealing? Is it skillfully done? And is it interesting?

Needless to say, evaluating these three questions is a completely subjective matter, but in any case my answers tend to be “no” to all three more often than for most people. I don’t need art to be beautiful or evocative or metaphysically meaningful, but I do need it to flip those ineffable emotional switches in my brain that mean “this works for me.” Whatever else can be said about a piece of art, if I can’t grasp it in some basic way without reading a detailed treatise by the artist or some art expert on what it supposedly means, I don’t like it. In my book, the appreciation of a piece of art should be automatic, spontaneous, and immediate—not dependent on the knowledge of external facts. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pennsylvania Coal Fires

Heat under the street

There are a bunch of little facts that I sort of half-learned in elementary school, and have had a hard time remembering ever since. I remember the terms “Dromedary” and “Bactrian,” for example, but that crucial bit of information about which camel has one hump and which has two just didn’t stick. The same thing goes for names of cloud types—cirrus, cumulus, nimbus—I know the names but I forget which is which. And then there’s coal. I vividly recall learning about anthracite, bituminous, and lignite coal as a child in Pennsylvania, a state legendary for its coal production. But which type had which properties? It’s all a blur now. Since I did not pursue an education or profession in which this knowledge was needed, my brain apparently decided to delete those records to make space for really important information, such as Star Trek trivia.

I do remember, though, that when I was quite young my father took me to a coal mine that offered tours to the public. I thought it was absolutely the coolest thing ever. Getting to ride in that train down into the dark tunnels, seeing all that amazing machinery, and imagining the life of a miner was exciting and mysterious. I’ve always had a fondness for caverns and tunnels—maybe that’s where it all started. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Spontaneous Human Combustion

Answering the burning questions

As a kid, I always wanted to be a mad scientist or inventor of some kind. So I taught myself just enough about chemistry and electronics to be dangerous, and I often had some sort of project or experiment underway. Around age 16 or 17, I was hard at work on my latest contraption—using my bed as a workbench since my desk was perpetually covered with junk. This project involved some soldering, a task at which I was moderately skilled. However, as I was leaning over my work, trying to steady myself by resting my elbow on the mattress, my arm slipped and I fell forward onto the bed with the soldering iron sandwiched between my forearm and the bedspread. Apart from the initial shock, the first sensation I recall experiencing was the smell of burning flesh and hair, followed by the realization that I had ruined my bedspread, and then very shortly thereafter, a good bit of pain.

Any number of lessons could be learned from such an experience—for instance, “Don’t solder in bed.” It’s also a reminder that there are any number of ways to generate dangerous levels of heat in close proximity to one’s body. Fortunately, this incident did not set me on fire. But if conditions had been just right, could this run-in with the soldering iron have reduced me to ash? This is just the sort of question pondered by those who investigate the phenomenon known as Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC). [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Writings of Carlos Castaneda

Sorcery, mythology, or both?

Bookstores are dangerous places for me. I invariably leave with less money—and more books than I’ll ever have time to read. But I have to support my habit: I’m basically an idea junkie. I like to learn things, absorb new ideas, and challenge my mind to form connections between concepts that don’t seem to go together. So I choose books not because I assume they’re true, but because I expect them to be interesting or thought-provoking. When I’ve finished reading a book, though, I usually have a pretty strong sense of whether or not I believe it. After reading a dozen books by Carlos Castaneda—along with quite a few criticisms of his work—I could only come to the conclusion that the stories he told may or may not be somewhat or completely true. This very uncertainty is one of the things that makes his books so interesting. I have since revised my conclusion—about which more later. But first, some background.

For years, as I browsed through second-hand books, I frequently came across Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. I’d invariably pick it up, glance at it, and put it back on the shelf. Then I read Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, which had a brief quote from don Juan at the beginning, and that piqued my curiosity. Shortly thereafter, I ran across the book at a thrift shop and decided I could give it a whirl for 50 cents. Within a few pages I was hooked, and after finishing it I read all 11 of its successors. For better or worse, I was too late to be a groupie—in April, 1998, before I had finished reading all of the books, Castaneda died. Only then did I begin to realize the extent of the controversy surrounding his life and work, and the state of confusion he left behind among both fans and critics. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Membership Libraries

Exclusive playgrounds for book lovers

Books used to be such rare and wonderful things. I’m not talking about centuries ago, either. As recently as a couple of decades ago, when I was in school, I felt awestruck every time I visited the large public library downtown. It was amazing to me that as an ordinary citizen—a kid, no less—I could walk in and borrow nearly any book, no matter how old, famous, or important it was. Searching through endless card catalogs seemed like a mysterious black art, and I was always slightly surprised to find that a book I was looking for was actually on the shelves. Wouldn’t everyone in the city want to read this?

I’m equally amazed at the profound changes that have taken place in the last ten years or so with respect to how people think about books. On the one hand, there seems to be an increasingly common assumption that all useful knowledge exists in digital form, or is at least catalogued that way. Where once a search for information would begin at the library, now it seems that’s the last place many people look—if it isn’t on the Web, how important can it be? On the other hand, despite the ever-increasing numbers of books being published and mega-bookstores like Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.com, the meme of borrowing books from a library has lost a lot of its vigor. You can pick up any book you might want on the way home from work, or order it online with one click. For a certain segment of modern western society, going to a library for books is now seen as a sign of lower, rather than higher, class. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

White Noise

Color-coding sound

During the summers when I was growing up, my bedroom had an air conditioner mounted in the window. I loved the hot nights when I got to turn it on, but only partially because it cooled the room. What I liked best was the sound, which I found to be very soothing. Years later, when I was in college, I had a classmate everyone made fun of because he couldn’t go to sleep without having a radio on next to his bed—playing static. For some reason, the sound of static on a radio seemed goofy in a way that the sound of an air conditioner did not, but they amounted to roughly the same thing: white noise, which has a well-known ability to promote sleep by masking other sounds.

Most of us have seen white noise generators or CDs of white noise that are sold as sleep aids—sometimes especially for infants. A different class of white noise generator is used for testing and calibration of pro audio equipment. But what exactly is white noise, how does it work, and why is it called “white”? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Oropendola

Wacky gymnast of the bird world

I’m not much of a bird watcher, but on my first visit to Costa Rica I kept hearing this strange sound, almost like one bird trying to laugh while another one is whistling. That made me look up, and when I spotted the bird that was making the sound, I started to laugh. I had the distinct impression that it was putting on a show just to entertain the tourists, and it immediately became one of my favorite rain forest animals. The bird is called the Oropendola (often, and understandably, misspelled as “Oropendula”). It’s a largish bird that looks black from a distance but is actually dark brown, with bright yellow tail feathers. There are two species of Oropendola: the Crested Oropendola (Psarocolius decumanus) and the Montezuma Oropendola (Gymnostinops montezuma). Oropendolas are native to Central America, with some found as far north as southern Mexico and some as far south as Ecuador and Brazil. In the parts of Costa Rica I’ve visited, the Montezuma Oropendola is more common.

Swingers
Both species of Oropendola share a unique and rather silly characteristic, as hinted at by the bird’s common name (roughly, “gold pendulum”) and the Latin genus name Gymnostinops. A male Oropendola stands on a thin horizontal branch, with his claws wrapped most of the way around it. Then the bird spreads his wings and swings around the branch so that he’s hanging upside down, his yellow tail feathers prominently displayed above him. Sometimes he reverses the motion and springs back to the top, and sometimes he flips all the way around the branch like a gymnast on the horizontal bar. At the same time, the bird lets out its loud, goofy call [click here to listen]. During mating season (January to May), this goes on pretty much all day, every day. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Burghausen

The longest castle in Europe

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

On a visit to the Louvre a few years ago, I was astounded by the amount of stuff there was to see—everything from da Vinci to Dührer to ancient Egyptian papyri. The collection is simply huge—the museum displays around 29,000 works of art in its endless halls. If you were able to stand in front of every object in the museum for only twenty seconds it would still take a full week, day and night. Not surprisingly, the “container” for all this stuff—the former Louvre palace—is gigantic as well. From its origin as a fortress during the reign of Philippe Auguste in 1190, to its present state today, successive governments and royal regimes have modified and beautified and expanded it along the length of the Seine into what it is now: a very large frame for the Mona Lisa.

After walking what seemed like miles past more Madonnas and children than I ever hoped to see, I had to keep reminding myself that there is a castle in Europe that is longer than the Louvre. Many years ago, when I was sixteen, I visited this castle while I was at a summer language camp in Bavaria. On one of our field trips, we went to Burghausen castle, 68 miles (110km) east of Munich, and 31 miles (50km) north of Salzburg. At the time, being a naive North American kid, castles and centuries-old European culture were still a novelty, and Burghausen made a huge impression on me. Heavy rain could not dampen my delight in visiting this imposing fortress, even though for my European friends it was just another castle. I was particularly wowed by its history, its size, and by the fact that Napoleon had once stayed there. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Freeze Drying

The amazing science of lyophilization

I remember where I was when I heard the news that Elvis died. On August 16, 1977, I was in Washington, D.C. on vacation with my parents. We were watching TV in our hotel room while getting dressed for our day of sightseeing when the news was announced. Although they would not have said so, I suspected my parents were secretly relieved that the world was rid of a corrupting influence. As for me, I was only vaguely aware of Elvis from commercials pitching his records, and from the fact that he and my father had the same birthday. I was much more concerned that we have time to visit the National Air and Space Museum, which had just opened the previous summer, and which was to be—for me, at least—the highlight of this trip. The promise of getting to see a real spaceship, real moon rocks, and so on was, for this ten-year-old kid, incredibly exciting.

The museum was everything I had hoped it would be—and more. The last attraction we saw was, naturally, the gift shop, and I tried to get my parents to buy me as many of those amazing goodies as possible. One particular item near the checkout caught my attention: freeze-dried ice cream (“like the astronauts eat!”). At that time, Astronaut Ice Cream was not available just anywhere, and this curious novelty was too good for my mom, a confirmed ice cream junkie, to pass up. We bought a packet and marveled at how this warm, dry stuff nevertheless tasted exactly like ice cream. I had previously thought that the coolest thing about astronauts was that they got to go into space. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Musée Mécanique

Good old-fashioned interactive multimedia

Fog, as I have said for many years, is my all-time favorite weather condition. Other than its impact on driving, I like everything about fog—the coolness, the dampness, the way it muffles sounds, and especially the mysterious, spooky quality it gives its surroundings. So the first time I took a streetcar out to San Francisco’s Ocean Beach years ago, I was delighted to discover that, more often than not, the entire area is covered with fog. Morgen and I walked along the beach and up a hill to a building called the Cliff House, a restaurant with a majestic, sweeping view of the mist—and, occasionally, bits of the ocean and nearby Seal Rock. The Cliff House is a favorite tourist destination—not so much for the food but for the view, the gift shops, and a few other attractions nearby. The attraction we had gone there to see was located inconspicuously around the back, downstairs in the basement of the Cliff House—and advertised only by a small, folding wooden sign on the sidewalk near the restaurant that said, simply, “Musée Mécanique.”

The Old Machine and the Sea
The Musée Mécanique (or Mechanical Museum) looked like something that belonged a century in the past—an effect enhanced considerably by the fog. Inside a large room with peeling paint and a crumbling ceiling was a collection of hundreds of very old mechanical toys, games, and other amusements. For example, there were dozens of automatons—machines in which small figures walk, dance, or otherwise move around when you insert a coin. There were fortune-telling machines, games to test your strength (the electric arm-wrestling machine was frighteningly strong), flip-card “movies,” a player piano, and all sorts of other mechanical shows and diversions. The amazing thing was that all these machines—ranging from the very campy to the very sophisticated—were fully functional. Admission was free, but nearly every machine required a quarter (or two) to operate it. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bodie, California

The liveliest ghost town in the West

One year for my wife’s birthday, I bought her a book called Ghost Towns of Northern California. I was excited to find it, because Morgen is not an easy person to shop for. Ask her about her favorite things, and “decay” will be close to the top of the list. By this she doesn’t necessarily mean antiques; age itself is not the issue. She likes artifacts with visible signs of the passage of time. What do you buy for a person who likes decay? I figured a book on ghost towns might be just the thing—especially since many of them were close enough that we could actually visit them. And I was right: the book was a hit.

We decided to rent a car and drive to one of these towns over a long weekend. After perusing the book thoroughly, we chose Bodie, a day’s drive east of San Francisco, near the Nevada border. Bodie was said to be the largest and best-preserved ghost town in the United States, and it seemed like an ideal place to experience decay. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Sarlat La Canéda

Time travel, French style

For the past decade or so, I’ve been in the habit of reading every new Michael Crichton novel as soon as it’s released. I like the stories, but what appeals to me more is the depth of historical and scientific research he puts into his work. It’s often had to tell where reality ends and fiction begins, which I’m sure is exactly what he’s aiming for. Given my fondness for France, I was especially interested in his book Timeline, published in 1999 (and made into a disappointingly forgettable movie in 2003). Most of the book’s action takes place in the Dordogne river valley in southwestern France—partly in the 14th century and partly in the 20th. In particular, Crichton’s description of the town of Sarlat caught my attention. It’s the site of just one minor scene and is only given a passing mention. But what the book describes is a quaint town preserved as it was in medieval times—a place full of history and character. Guidebooks generally speak highly of the town too, and I thought it sounded like a great place to visit. On our first trip to France, in 2000, our schedule did not permit an excursion to Sarlat, but Morgen and I decided we’d do our best to go there the next time we were in the area.

Getting There Is Half the Fun
In June of 2003 we returned to France, and we hoped once again to visit Sarlat. We had left the last week of our trip deliberately unplanned to allow ourselves the option of doing whatever seemed most interesting at the time. When it finally came time to choose where to go, we were in the French Alps (on the east side of the country near the Swiss border). We discussed Sarlat as one of several options for our final destination. The friends we were staying with tried to talk us out of it. “It’s really touristy,” they said, “and very hard to get to. We can recommend lots of places you’d enjoy more.” So we agonized over the decision for a long time, but finally agreed that we wanted to go with our first choice, touristy or not. We went to the train station to figure out how to get there. When the ticket agent heard “Sarlat,” he rolled his eyes and sighed as if to say, “You can’t get there from here.” Actually that would have been an overstatement. You can get to Sarlat from the French Alps, but it requires taking five different trains and a bus—a trip lasting about 12 hours in total (and not an inexpensive one either). We decided to rent a car instead. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tachyons

Tracking the elusive faster-than-light particle

As an amateur theoretical physicist, I know all about the principle that the speed of light is the ultimate speed limit in the universe. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s difficult to wrap my brain around this concept, but I accept that it’s true. Light not only travels really, really fast, it also travels at a constant speed, irrespective of the relative speed of an observer. Furthermore, any bit of matter that is in motion increases in mass as its speed increases, approaching infinite mass as it approaches the speed of light (and requiring, in theory, infinite energy to accelerate it to that speed). Taken together, this information rather strongly suggests that nothing can be made to travel faster than light. The details of the math and physics don’t fully make sense to me, even after reading the works of Einstein and several modern physicists. But then, these folks are professionals in the field whereas I am not; if they say that their long years of research lead them to conclude unhesitatingly that nothing can move faster than light, who am I to disagree?

Faster than a Speeding Photon
But in 1962, a group of physicists made the provocative observation that Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity does not actually prohibit matter from traveling faster than light, only from being accelerated to faster-than-light speeds. This may seem like an irrelevant distinction—and perhaps it is. But suppose there were a particle that came into existence already traveling faster than light. Because it did not have to be accelerated in order to reach that speed, it does not violate Special Relativity. Physicist Gerald Feinberg gave this hypothetical particle the name tachyon in 1967, from a Greek word meaning “speedy.” Later, the term tardyon was coined in order to identify ordinary, slower-than-light particles; these are also sometimes known as bradyons. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Great Clock of Westminster

Big Ben and beyond

And now for something slightly different.

Last year on my first-ever visit to London, I took in many of the standard tourist attractions—dutifully snapping photos, reading the histories in the guide books, and so on. But I quickly realized that there was a disconnection between the kinds of things I find interesting and the kinds of things most tourists find interesting. Take Big Ben, for example. You can’t go to London without seeing (and hearing) Big Ben. It’s just one of those things. (And it’s a rather prominent feature of the skyline, too, so it would be difficult to avoid seeing even if you wanted to.) So we saw Big Ben. But other than having heard about it in children’s songs and stories since I was young, I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to be so excited about. I’ve seen clocks. I’ve heard bells. Here’s one that’s larger than average. So? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Carbon Dating

Decay rates create debates

It has become my custom here at Interesting Thing of the Day to choose topics that I think will be unfamiliar to most readers—a sort of implicit “I’ll-bet-you’ve-never-heard-of-this” test. I think it’s fair to say that any educated person over the age of 10 or so has probably heard of carbon dating. But I realized the other day that even as an adult with a fair amount of scientific knowledge, I could not articulate exactly how or why carbon dating works. So I did a bit of research to fill in the gaps in my understanding, and not surprisingly I found the details to be quite interesting. What did surprise me was the huge number of Web sites and books vigorously attacking the legitimacy of what I had thought was a fairly straightforward, uncontroversial test. Apparently carbon dating is right up there with evolution in terms of the disdain it evokes from certain religious groups. As is often the case, the controversy over this topic is at least as interesting as the topic itself.

Carbon Copies
Carbon dating begins, logically enough, with carbon. High in the atmosphere, cosmic rays strike nitrogen atoms, producing a radioactive carbon isotope known as carbon-14 (or 14C); this is why it’s technically known as radiocarbon dating or, sometimes, carbon-14 dating. Carbon-14, along with the more common, stable (nonradioactive) carbon isotopes carbon-12 and carbon-13, combine with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide. In the process of photosynthesis, plants “breathe” this carbon dioxide, convert the carbon into carbohydrates for fuel, and then release the oxygen into the atmosphere as a byproduct. So some of the residual carbon in plants is carbon-14. Animals, in turn, eat the plants (or eat other animals that have eaten the plants), and thus the carbon-14 atoms propagate throughout the food chain. The result is that everything that is alive, or once was, contains some number of carbon-14 atoms. Although the number of carbon-14 atoms varies from one organism to another, the proportion of carbon-14 atoms to carbon-12 atoms is basically constant—and roughly the same as the proportion found in the atmosphere. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Rigo Artwork

Painting by the numbers

When it comes to art, I have very particular (and, often, unpopular) tastes. I’ve been to many of the world’s largest and most famous art museums, and I’ve seen and read enough to be able to talk fairly intelligently about what I’m looking at. But I must be brutally honest: of the many thousands of paintings, sculptures, photographs, multimedia installations, and other sorts of art I’ve seen in my lifetime, I have only actually enjoyed a tiny handful of pieces. My criteria for art enjoyment are quite narrow, having nothing to do with the time period in which something was made, the nationality of the artist, or the piece’s genre. If I had to deconstruct my art evaluation mechanism, I’d probably say I care about just three things: Is it visually appealing? Is it skillfully done? And is it interesting?

Needless to say, evaluating these three questions is a completely subjective matter, but in any case my answers tend to be “no” to all three more often than for most people. I don’t need art to be beautiful or evocative or metaphysically meaningful, but I do need it to flip those ineffable emotional switches in my brain that mean “this works for me.” Whatever else can be said about a piece of art, if I can’t grasp it in some basic way without reading a detailed treatise by the artist or some art expert on what it supposedly means, I don’t like it. In my book, the appreciation of a piece of art should be automatic, spontaneous, and immediate—not dependent on the knowledge of external facts. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pennsylvania Coal Fires

Heat under the street

There are a bunch of little facts that I sort of half-learned in elementary school, and have had a hard time remembering ever since. I remember the terms “Dromedary” and “Bactrian,” for example, but that crucial bit of information about which camel has one hump and which has two just didn’t stick. The same thing goes for names of cloud types—cirrus, cumulus, nimbus—I know the names but I forget which is which. And then there’s coal. I vividly recall learning about anthracite, bituminous, and lignite coal as a child in Pennsylvania, a state legendary for its coal production. But which type had which properties? It’s all a blur now. Since I did not pursue an education or profession in which this knowledge was needed, my brain apparently decided to delete those records to make space for really important information, such as Star Trek trivia.

I do remember, though, that when I was quite young my father took me to a coal mine that offered tours to the public. I thought it was absolutely the coolest thing ever. Getting to ride in that train down into the dark tunnels, seeing all that amazing machinery, and imagining the life of a miner was exciting and mysterious. I’ve always had a fondness for caverns and tunnels—maybe that’s where it all started. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Spontaneous Human Combustion

Answering the burning questions

As a kid, I always wanted to be a mad scientist or inventor of some kind. So I taught myself just enough about chemistry and electronics to be dangerous, and I often had some sort of project or experiment underway. Around age 16 or 17, I was hard at work on my latest contraption—using my bed as a workbench since my desk was perpetually covered with junk. This project involved some soldering, a task at which I was moderately skilled. However, as I was leaning over my work, trying to steady myself by resting my elbow on the mattress, my arm slipped and I fell forward onto the bed with the soldering iron sandwiched between my forearm and the bedspread. Apart from the initial shock, the first sensation I recall experiencing was the smell of burning flesh and hair, followed by the realization that I had ruined my bedspread, and then very shortly thereafter, a good bit of pain.

Any number of lessons could be learned from such an experience—for instance, “Don’t solder in bed.” It’s also a reminder that there are any number of ways to generate dangerous levels of heat in close proximity to one’s body. Fortunately, this incident did not set me on fire. But if conditions had been just right, could this run-in with the soldering iron have reduced me to ash? This is just the sort of question pondered by those who investigate the phenomenon known as Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC). [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Writings of Carlos Castaneda

Sorcery, mythology, or both?

Bookstores are dangerous places for me. I invariably leave with less money—and more books than I’ll ever have time to read. But I have to support my habit: I’m basically an idea junkie. I like to learn things, absorb new ideas, and challenge my mind to form connections between concepts that don’t seem to go together. So I choose books not because I assume they’re true, but because I expect them to be interesting or thought-provoking. When I’ve finished reading a book, though, I usually have a pretty strong sense of whether or not I believe it. After reading a dozen books by Carlos Castaneda—along with quite a few criticisms of his work—I could only come to the conclusion that the stories he told may or may not be somewhat or completely true. This very uncertainty is one of the things that makes his books so interesting. I have since revised my conclusion—about which more later. But first, some background.

For years, as I browsed through second-hand books, I frequently came across Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. I’d invariably pick it up, glance at it, and put it back on the shelf. Then I read Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, which had a brief quote from don Juan at the beginning, and that piqued my curiosity. Shortly thereafter, I ran across the book at a thrift shop and decided I could give it a whirl for 50 cents. Within a few pages I was hooked, and after finishing it I read all 11 of its successors. For better or worse, I was too late to be a groupie—in April, 1998, before I had finished reading all of the books, Castaneda died. Only then did I begin to realize the extent of the controversy surrounding his life and work, and the state of confusion he left behind among both fans and critics. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Membership Libraries

Exclusive playgrounds for book lovers

Books used to be such rare and wonderful things. I’m not talking about centuries ago, either. As recently as a couple of decades ago, when I was in school, I felt awestruck every time I visited the large public library downtown. It was amazing to me that as an ordinary citizen—a kid, no less—I could walk in and borrow nearly any book, no matter how old, famous, or important it was. Searching through endless card catalogs seemed like a mysterious black art, and I was always slightly surprised to find that a book I was looking for was actually on the shelves. Wouldn’t everyone in the city want to read this?

I’m equally amazed at the profound changes that have taken place in the last ten years or so with respect to how people think about books. On the one hand, there seems to be an increasingly common assumption that all useful knowledge exists in digital form, or is at least catalogued that way. Where once a search for information would begin at the library, now it seems that’s the last place many people look—if it isn’t on the Web, how important can it be? On the other hand, despite the ever-increasing numbers of books being published and mega-bookstores like Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.com, the meme of borrowing books from a library has lost a lot of its vigor. You can pick up any book you might want on the way home from work, or order it online with one click. For a certain segment of modern western society, going to a library for books is now seen as a sign of lower, rather than higher, class. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

White Noise

Color-coding sound

During the summers when I was growing up, my bedroom had an air conditioner mounted in the window. I loved the hot nights when I got to turn it on, but only partially because it cooled the room. What I liked best was the sound, which I found to be very soothing. Years later, when I was in college, I had a classmate everyone made fun of because he couldn’t go to sleep without having a radio on next to his bed—playing static. For some reason, the sound of static on a radio seemed goofy in a way that the sound of an air conditioner did not, but they amounted to roughly the same thing: white noise, which has a well-known ability to promote sleep by masking other sounds.

Most of us have seen white noise generators or CDs of white noise that are sold as sleep aids—sometimes especially for infants. A different class of white noise generator is used for testing and calibration of pro audio equipment. But what exactly is white noise, how does it work, and why is it called “white”? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Oropendola

Wacky gymnast of the bird world

I’m not much of a bird watcher, but on my first visit to Costa Rica I kept hearing this strange sound, almost like one bird trying to laugh while another one is whistling. That made me look up, and when I spotted the bird that was making the sound, I started to laugh. I had the distinct impression that it was putting on a show just to entertain the tourists, and it immediately became one of my favorite rain forest animals. The bird is called the Oropendola (often, and understandably, misspelled as “Oropendula”). It’s a largish bird that looks black from a distance but is actually dark brown, with bright yellow tail feathers. There are two species of Oropendola: the Crested Oropendola (Psarocolius decumanus) and the Montezuma Oropendola (Gymnostinops montezuma). Oropendolas are native to Central America, with some found as far north as southern Mexico and some as far south as Ecuador and Brazil. In the parts of Costa Rica I’ve visited, the Montezuma Oropendola is more common.

Swingers
Both species of Oropendola share a unique and rather silly characteristic, as hinted at by the bird’s common name (roughly, “gold pendulum”) and the Latin genus name Gymnostinops. A male Oropendola stands on a thin horizontal branch, with his claws wrapped most of the way around it. Then the bird spreads his wings and swings around the branch so that he’s hanging upside down, his yellow tail feathers prominently displayed above him. Sometimes he reverses the motion and springs back to the top, and sometimes he flips all the way around the branch like a gymnast on the horizontal bar. At the same time, the bird lets out its loud, goofy call [click here to listen]. During mating season (January to May), this goes on pretty much all day, every day. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Burghausen

The longest castle in Europe

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

On a visit to the Louvre a few years ago, I was astounded by the amount of stuff there was to see—everything from da Vinci to Dührer to ancient Egyptian papyri. The collection is simply huge—the museum displays around 29,000 works of art in its endless halls. If you were able to stand in front of every object in the museum for only twenty seconds it would still take a full week, day and night. Not surprisingly, the “container” for all this stuff—the former Louvre palace—is gigantic as well. From its origin as a fortress during the reign of Philippe Auguste in 1190, to its present state today, successive governments and royal regimes have modified and beautified and expanded it along the length of the Seine into what it is now: a very large frame for the Mona Lisa.

After walking what seemed like miles past more Madonnas and children than I ever hoped to see, I had to keep reminding myself that there is a castle in Europe that is longer than the Louvre. Many years ago, when I was sixteen, I visited this castle while I was at a summer language camp in Bavaria. On one of our field trips, we went to Burghausen castle, 68 miles (110km) east of Munich, and 31 miles (50km) north of Salzburg. At the time, being a naive North American kid, castles and centuries-old European culture were still a novelty, and Burghausen made a huge impression on me. Heavy rain could not dampen my delight in visiting this imposing fortress, even though for my European friends it was just another castle. I was particularly wowed by its history, its size, and by the fact that Napoleon had once stayed there. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Freeze Drying

The amazing science of lyophilization

I remember where I was when I heard the news that Elvis died. On August 16, 1977, I was in Washington, D.C. on vacation with my parents. We were watching TV in our hotel room while getting dressed for our day of sightseeing when the news was announced. Although they would not have said so, I suspected my parents were secretly relieved that the world was rid of a corrupting influence. As for me, I was only vaguely aware of Elvis from commercials pitching his records, and from the fact that he and my father had the same birthday. I was much more concerned that we have time to visit the National Air and Space Museum, which had just opened the previous summer, and which was to be—for me, at least—the highlight of this trip. The promise of getting to see a real spaceship, real moon rocks, and so on was, for this ten-year-old kid, incredibly exciting.

The museum was everything I had hoped it would be—and more. The last attraction we saw was, naturally, the gift shop, and I tried to get my parents to buy me as many of those amazing goodies as possible. One particular item near the checkout caught my attention: freeze-dried ice cream (“like the astronauts eat!”). At that time, Astronaut Ice Cream was not available just anywhere, and this curious novelty was too good for my mom, a confirmed ice cream junkie, to pass up. We bought a packet and marveled at how this warm, dry stuff nevertheless tasted exactly like ice cream. I had previously thought that the coolest thing about astronauts was that they got to go into space. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Musée Mécanique

Good old-fashioned interactive multimedia

Fog, as I have said for many years, is my all-time favorite weather condition. Other than its impact on driving, I like everything about fog—the coolness, the dampness, the way it muffles sounds, and especially the mysterious, spooky quality it gives its surroundings. So the first time I took a streetcar out to San Francisco’s Ocean Beach years ago, I was delighted to discover that, more often than not, the entire area is covered with fog. Morgen and I walked along the beach and up a hill to a building called the Cliff House, a restaurant with a majestic, sweeping view of the mist—and, occasionally, bits of the ocean and nearby Seal Rock. The Cliff House is a favorite tourist destination—not so much for the food but for the view, the gift shops, and a few other attractions nearby. The attraction we had gone there to see was located inconspicuously around the back, downstairs in the basement of the Cliff House—and advertised only by a small, folding wooden sign on the sidewalk near the restaurant that said, simply, “Musée Mécanique.”

The Old Machine and the Sea
The Musée Mécanique (or Mechanical Museum) looked like something that belonged a century in the past—an effect enhanced considerably by the fog. Inside a large room with peeling paint and a crumbling ceiling was a collection of hundreds of very old mechanical toys, games, and other amusements. For example, there were dozens of automatons—machines in which small figures walk, dance, or otherwise move around when you insert a coin. There were fortune-telling machines, games to test your strength (the electric arm-wrestling machine was frighteningly strong), flip-card “movies,” a player piano, and all sorts of other mechanical shows and diversions. The amazing thing was that all these machines—ranging from the very campy to the very sophisticated—were fully functional. Admission was free, but nearly every machine required a quarter (or two) to operate it. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bodie, California

The liveliest ghost town in the West

One year for my wife’s birthday, I bought her a book called Ghost Towns of Northern California. I was excited to find it, because Morgen is not an easy person to shop for. Ask her about her favorite things, and “decay” will be close to the top of the list. By this she doesn’t necessarily mean antiques; age itself is not the issue. She likes artifacts with visible signs of the passage of time. What do you buy for a person who likes decay? I figured a book on ghost towns might be just the thing—especially since many of them were close enough that we could actually visit them. And I was right: the book was a hit.

We decided to rent a car and drive to one of these towns over a long weekend. After perusing the book thoroughly, we chose Bodie, a day’s drive east of San Francisco, near the Nevada border. Bodie was said to be the largest and best-preserved ghost town in the United States, and it seemed like an ideal place to experience decay. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Sarlat La Canéda

Time travel, French style

For the past decade or so, I’ve been in the habit of reading every new Michael Crichton novel as soon as it’s released. I like the stories, but what appeals to me more is the depth of historical and scientific research he puts into his work. It’s often had to tell where reality ends and fiction begins, which I’m sure is exactly what he’s aiming for. Given my fondness for France, I was especially interested in his book Timeline, published in 1999 (and made into a disappointingly forgettable movie in 2003). Most of the book’s action takes place in the Dordogne river valley in southwestern France—partly in the 14th century and partly in the 20th. In particular, Crichton’s description of the town of Sarlat caught my attention. It’s the site of just one minor scene and is only given a passing mention. But what the book describes is a quaint town preserved as it was in medieval times—a place full of history and character. Guidebooks generally speak highly of the town too, and I thought it sounded like a great place to visit. On our first trip to France, in 2000, our schedule did not permit an excursion to Sarlat, but Morgen and I decided we’d do our best to go there the next time we were in the area.

Getting There Is Half the Fun
In June of 2003 we returned to France, and we hoped once again to visit Sarlat. We had left the last week of our trip deliberately unplanned to allow ourselves the option of doing whatever seemed most interesting at the time. When it finally came time to choose where to go, we were in the French Alps (on the east side of the country near the Swiss border). We discussed Sarlat as one of several options for our final destination. The friends we were staying with tried to talk us out of it. “It’s really touristy,” they said, “and very hard to get to. We can recommend lots of places you’d enjoy more.” So we agonized over the decision for a long time, but finally agreed that we wanted to go with our first choice, touristy or not. We went to the train station to figure out how to get there. When the ticket agent heard “Sarlat,” he rolled his eyes and sighed as if to say, “You can’t get there from here.” Actually that would have been an overstatement. You can get to Sarlat from the French Alps, but it requires taking five different trains and a bus—a trip lasting about 12 hours in total (and not an inexpensive one either). We decided to rent a car instead. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tachyons

Tracking the elusive faster-than-light particle

As an amateur theoretical physicist, I know all about the principle that the speed of light is the ultimate speed limit in the universe. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s difficult to wrap my brain around this concept, but I accept that it’s true. Light not only travels really, really fast, it also travels at a constant speed, irrespective of the relative speed of an observer. Furthermore, any bit of matter that is in motion increases in mass as its speed increases, approaching infinite mass as it approaches the speed of light (and requiring, in theory, infinite energy to accelerate it to that speed). Taken together, this information rather strongly suggests that nothing can be made to travel faster than light. The details of the math and physics don’t fully make sense to me, even after reading the works of Einstein and several modern physicists. But then, these folks are professionals in the field whereas I am not; if they say that their long years of research lead them to conclude unhesitatingly that nothing can move faster than light, who am I to disagree?

Faster than a Speeding Photon
But in 1962, a group of physicists made the provocative observation that Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity does not actually prohibit matter from traveling faster than light, only from being accelerated to faster-than-light speeds. This may seem like an irrelevant distinction—and perhaps it is. But suppose there were a particle that came into existence already traveling faster than light. Because it did not have to be accelerated in order to reach that speed, it does not violate Special Relativity. Physicist Gerald Feinberg gave this hypothetical particle the name tachyon in 1967, from a Greek word meaning “speedy.” Later, the term tardyon was coined in order to identify ordinary, slower-than-light particles; these are also sometimes known as bradyons. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Great Clock of Westminster

Big Ben and beyond

And now for something slightly different.

Last year on my first-ever visit to London, I took in many of the standard tourist attractions—dutifully snapping photos, reading the histories in the guide books, and so on. But I quickly realized that there was a disconnection between the kinds of things I find interesting and the kinds of things most tourists find interesting. Take Big Ben, for example. You can’t go to London without seeing (and hearing) Big Ben. It’s just one of those things. (And it’s a rather prominent feature of the skyline, too, so it would be difficult to avoid seeing even if you wanted to.) So we saw Big Ben. But other than having heard about it in children’s songs and stories since I was young, I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to be so excited about. I’ve seen clocks. I’ve heard bells. Here’s one that’s larger than average. So? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Carbon Dating

Decay rates create debates

It has become my custom here at Interesting Thing of the Day to choose topics that I think will be unfamiliar to most readers—a sort of implicit “I’ll-bet-you’ve-never-heard-of-this” test. I think it’s fair to say that any educated person over the age of 10 or so has probably heard of carbon dating. But I realized the other day that even as an adult with a fair amount of scientific knowledge, I could not articulate exactly how or why carbon dating works. So I did a bit of research to fill in the gaps in my understanding, and not surprisingly I found the details to be quite interesting. What did surprise me was the huge number of Web sites and books vigorously attacking the legitimacy of what I had thought was a fairly straightforward, uncontroversial test. Apparently carbon dating is right up there with evolution in terms of the disdain it evokes from certain religious groups. As is often the case, the controversy over this topic is at least as interesting as the topic itself.

Carbon Copies
Carbon dating begins, logically enough, with carbon. High in the atmosphere, cosmic rays strike nitrogen atoms, producing a radioactive carbon isotope known as carbon-14 (or 14C); this is why it’s technically known as radiocarbon dating or, sometimes, carbon-14 dating. Carbon-14, along with the more common, stable (nonradioactive) carbon isotopes carbon-12 and carbon-13, combine with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide. In the process of photosynthesis, plants “breathe” this carbon dioxide, convert the carbon into carbohydrates for fuel, and then release the oxygen into the atmosphere as a byproduct. So some of the residual carbon in plants is carbon-14. Animals, in turn, eat the plants (or eat other animals that have eaten the plants), and thus the carbon-14 atoms propagate throughout the food chain. The result is that everything that is alive, or once was, contains some number of carbon-14 atoms. Although the number of carbon-14 atoms varies from one organism to another, the proportion of carbon-14 atoms to carbon-12 atoms is basically constant—and roughly the same as the proportion found in the atmosphere. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Rigo Artwork

Painting by the numbers

When it comes to art, I have very particular (and, often, unpopular) tastes. I’ve been to many of the world’s largest and most famous art museums, and I’ve seen and read enough to be able to talk fairly intelligently about what I’m looking at. But I must be brutally honest: of the many thousands of paintings, sculptures, photographs, multimedia installations, and other sorts of art I’ve seen in my lifetime, I have only actually enjoyed a tiny handful of pieces. My criteria for art enjoyment are quite narrow, having nothing to do with the time period in which something was made, the nationality of the artist, or the piece’s genre. If I had to deconstruct my art evaluation mechanism, I’d probably say I care about just three things: Is it visually appealing? Is it skillfully done? And is it interesting?

Needless to say, evaluating these three questions is a completely subjective matter, but in any case my answers tend to be “no” to all three more often than for most people. I don’t need art to be beautiful or evocative or metaphysically meaningful, but I do need it to flip those ineffable emotional switches in my brain that mean “this works for me.” Whatever else can be said about a piece of art, if I can’t grasp it in some basic way without reading a detailed treatise by the artist or some art expert on what it supposedly means, I don’t like it. In my book, the appreciation of a piece of art should be automatic, spontaneous, and immediate—not dependent on the knowledge of external facts. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pennsylvania Coal Fires

Heat under the street

There are a bunch of little facts that I sort of half-learned in elementary school, and have had a hard time remembering ever since. I remember the terms “Dromedary” and “Bactrian,” for example, but that crucial bit of information about which camel has one hump and which has two just didn’t stick. The same thing goes for names of cloud types—cirrus, cumulus, nimbus—I know the names but I forget which is which. And then there’s coal. I vividly recall learning about anthracite, bituminous, and lignite coal as a child in Pennsylvania, a state legendary for its coal production. But which type had which properties? It’s all a blur now. Since I did not pursue an education or profession in which this knowledge was needed, my brain apparently decided to delete those records to make space for really important information, such as Star Trek trivia.

I do remember, though, that when I was quite young my father took me to a coal mine that offered tours to the public. I thought it was absolutely the coolest thing ever. Getting to ride in that train down into the dark tunnels, seeing all that amazing machinery, and imagining the life of a miner was exciting and mysterious. I’ve always had a fondness for caverns and tunnels—maybe that’s where it all started. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Spontaneous Human Combustion

Answering the burning questions

As a kid, I always wanted to be a mad scientist or inventor of some kind. So I taught myself just enough about chemistry and electronics to be dangerous, and I often had some sort of project or experiment underway. Around age 16 or 17, I was hard at work on my latest contraption—using my bed as a workbench since my desk was perpetually covered with junk. This project involved some soldering, a task at which I was moderately skilled. However, as I was leaning over my work, trying to steady myself by resting my elbow on the mattress, my arm slipped and I fell forward onto the bed with the soldering iron sandwiched between my forearm and the bedspread. Apart from the initial shock, the first sensation I recall experiencing was the smell of burning flesh and hair, followed by the realization that I had ruined my bedspread, and then very shortly thereafter, a good bit of pain.

Any number of lessons could be learned from such an experience—for instance, “Don’t solder in bed.” It’s also a reminder that there are any number of ways to generate dangerous levels of heat in close proximity to one’s body. Fortunately, this incident did not set me on fire. But if conditions had been just right, could this run-in with the soldering iron have reduced me to ash? This is just the sort of question pondered by those who investigate the phenomenon known as Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC). [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Writings of Carlos Castaneda

Sorcery, mythology, or both?

Bookstores are dangerous places for me. I invariably leave with less money—and more books than I’ll ever have time to read. But I have to support my habit: I’m basically an idea junkie. I like to learn things, absorb new ideas, and challenge my mind to form connections between concepts that don’t seem to go together. So I choose books not because I assume they’re true, but because I expect them to be interesting or thought-provoking. When I’ve finished reading a book, though, I usually have a pretty strong sense of whether or not I believe it. After reading a dozen books by Carlos Castaneda—along with quite a few criticisms of his work—I could only come to the conclusion that the stories he told may or may not be somewhat or completely true. This very uncertainty is one of the things that makes his books so interesting. I have since revised my conclusion—about which more later. But first, some background.

For years, as I browsed through second-hand books, I frequently came across Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. I’d invariably pick it up, glance at it, and put it back on the shelf. Then I read Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, which had a brief quote from don Juan at the beginning, and that piqued my curiosity. Shortly thereafter, I ran across the book at a thrift shop and decided I could give it a whirl for 50 cents. Within a few pages I was hooked, and after finishing it I read all 11 of its successors. For better or worse, I was too late to be a groupie—in April, 1998, before I had finished reading all of the books, Castaneda died. Only then did I begin to realize the extent of the controversy surrounding his life and work, and the state of confusion he left behind among both fans and critics. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Membership Libraries

Exclusive playgrounds for book lovers

Books used to be such rare and wonderful things. I’m not talking about centuries ago, either. As recently as a couple of decades ago, when I was in school, I felt awestruck every time I visited the large public library downtown. It was amazing to me that as an ordinary citizen—a kid, no less—I could walk in and borrow nearly any book, no matter how old, famous, or important it was. Searching through endless card catalogs seemed like a mysterious black art, and I was always slightly surprised to find that a book I was looking for was actually on the shelves. Wouldn’t everyone in the city want to read this?

I’m equally amazed at the profound changes that have taken place in the last ten years or so with respect to how people think about books. On the one hand, there seems to be an increasingly common assumption that all useful knowledge exists in digital form, or is at least catalogued that way. Where once a search for information would begin at the library, now it seems that’s the last place many people look—if it isn’t on the Web, how important can it be? On the other hand, despite the ever-increasing numbers of books being published and mega-bookstores like Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.com, the meme of borrowing books from a library has lost a lot of its vigor. You can pick up any book you might want on the way home from work, or order it online with one click. For a certain segment of modern western society, going to a library for books is now seen as a sign of lower, rather than higher, class. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

White Noise

Color-coding sound

During the summers when I was growing up, my bedroom had an air conditioner mounted in the window. I loved the hot nights when I got to turn it on, but only partially because it cooled the room. What I liked best was the sound, which I found to be very soothing. Years later, when I was in college, I had a classmate everyone made fun of because he couldn’t go to sleep without having a radio on next to his bed—playing static. For some reason, the sound of static on a radio seemed goofy in a way that the sound of an air conditioner did not, but they amounted to roughly the same thing: white noise, which has a well-known ability to promote sleep by masking other sounds.

Most of us have seen white noise generators or CDs of white noise that are sold as sleep aids—sometimes especially for infants. A different class of white noise generator is used for testing and calibration of pro audio equipment. But what exactly is white noise, how does it work, and why is it called “white”? [Article Continues…]

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