Monday, October 25, 2010

What method did Harry Houdini use to debunk psychics even after his death?

Houdini and the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, c. 1...Image via WikipediaA scant 84 years ago this Halloween, the legendary stage magician and escape artist Harry Houdini died from appendicitis mere hours after performing on stage. Adherents to mysticism would no doubt ascribe some occult significance to Houdini -- a magician so successful as to be accused of actual sorcerous dematerialization -- dying on All Hallows Eve. Such suppositions would also no doubt irritate Houdini, who spent much of his life and career debunking fraud psychics and spirit mediums.

This professional skepticism earned Houdini the ire of many of his contemporaries, including Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was himself a staunch believer in supernatural phenomena. Ironically, it was Houdini the non-believer who developed a technique for continuing to debunk pyschics from beyond the grave.

What method did Harry Houdini use to debunk psychics even after his death?

'Internet TV and The Death of Cable' and 3 more must-read links

    P3260059Image by NathanReed via Flickr
  1. Internet TV and The Death of Cable TV, really
  2. New Scientist announces flash fiction contest judged by Neil Gaiman
  3. How Mint beat Wesabe
  4. Top 10 Important Blunders of Ancient Science

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

What unit of measure was created specifically to describe the energy output of supernovas?

Supernova haloImage via WikipediaHere's a fun fact for you: I am approximately 56 attoParsecs tall. Contrary to what Han Solo would have you believe, a parsec is a unit of distance. One Parsec is roughly 3.26 light years, or 3.085 x 1016 meters. The prefix atto describes 10-18 Parsecs. Carry the math and you get 3.085 x 10-2 meters, or 3.085 centimeters. Thus, at 5'8" I am roughly 56 attoParsecs tall.

There are lots of oddball units of measure like the attoParsec that have fallen into regular scientific usage, though many of them have more than mere amusement behind their origins.

Take a barn, which is equal to 10 square femtometers (10-28 m2). That's the cross-sectional area of a typical uranium nucleus, which is a scale of area that comes up a lot in nuclear magnetic resonance research. Describing the nuclear cross-section of uranium as "big as a barn" is ironic, but the unit has practical applications. Scientists don't enjoy using scientific notation much more than the next geek, so they create units of measure that let them use conventional numeric terms when describing observed experimental values.

Besides, it's much more fun to talk about barns than it is square femtometers.

Not all unconventional units of measure are there to accommodate extremely small scales. Quite the contrary. The Galactic Year (GY), for example, is roughly equal to 250 million years -- the length of time it takes for the Earth to complete one revolution around the Milky Way. Earth is roughly 20 GY old, and the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction Event that wiped out the dinosaurs occurred roughly 0.4 Galactic Years ago.

So what's the most out-of-scale unit of measure in use today? How about one that can describe the entire lifetime output of our sun without sneaking up on double digits. It's the same unit of measure explicitly designed to describe supernovas.

What unit of measure was created specifically to describe the energy output of supernovas?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

What name for a 10th planet did authors Douglas Adams, Larry Niven, and Arthur C. Clarke coincidentally "agree" on?

Representation of the Hitchhiker's Guide to th...Image via WikipediaI'm overloaded this week, despite it being the 31st anniversary of the publication of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Thus, today's truly trivial is another recycled Geek Trivia with a Douglas Adams bent:
The "formal" search for a 10th planet (to abuse the term loosely) began in the early 1900s when none other than Percival Lowell — the astronomer who basically bankrolled the search for the eventual discovery of Pluto — predicted that another Jupiter-esque gas giant must reside at the edge of the solar system. ... It turns out Lowell and his contemporaries just didn't have good data on Uranus and Neptune. When Voyager 2 finally did flybys of these orbs in the late 1980s, suddenly all the mathematical basis for Lowell's "Planet X" disappeared. Nonetheless, the Planet X concept was now a part of public consciousness, and an untold number of writers set about to use the "10th planet" as a plot device in their stories. ...
Still, one name seems to appear more often than most when authors and screenwriters christen a fictional Planet X. Inspired by the traditions of naming local worlds after figures from Greco-Roman mythology, several notable science-fiction scribes — including Douglas Adams, Arthur C. Clarke, and Larry Niven — coincidentally managed to "agree" on this planetary moniker.
Get the answer here.
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Monday, October 04, 2010

What class of aircraft does the FAA consider SpaceShipOne?

Spaceship One, the first privately funded and ...Image via WikipediaOn Oct. 4, 2004, SpaceShipOne completed flight 17P, its second manned spaceflight in five days, thereby securing the Ansari X Prize as the first viable private manned spacecraft in human history. To get there, SpaceShipOne first had to get US Federal Aviation Administration approval to fly -- which was somewhat complicated given that there was no existing registry category for a private passenger spaceplane.

Scaled Composites, the manufacturer of SpaceShipOne, applied for the registry number N100KM. N is the prefix for all US-registered aircraft. The 100KM was a reference to the 100-kilometer altitude that SpaceShipOne needed to achieve to qualify for the X Prize. Unfortunately, N100KM was already listed, so SpaceShipOne instead got the registry number N368KF for 368 kilo-feet, which is roughly equal to 100 kilometers.

To get that aviation equivalent of a license plate, SpaceShipOne had to be shoehorned into an existing passenger aircraft classification.

What class of aircraft does the FAA consider SpaceShipOne?

SpaceShipOne -- the first viable private manned spacecraft -- is officially classified as a glider by the FAA.

Yes, the FAA's Office of Commercial Spaceflight licensed SpaceShipOne's rocket motor for suborbital flight. Yes, you wouldn't expect anything with a rocket motor to be called a glider. That said, for most of SpaceShipOne's independent flight, it is an unpowered glider.

After the White Knight parent launch aircraft drops SpaceShipOne, it engages the rocket motor to achieve suborbital flight. Once space altitude is achieved, the motor disengages and SpaceShipOne deploys its "shuttlecock" glide planes that allow it enter a controlled glide back to Earth. For the entire descent portion of its flight, SpaceShipOne is a glider -- if a wildly unconventional one.

That's not just some non-traditional technical taxonomy, it's an aerodynamically extraordinary example of the Truly Trivial
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Friday, October 01, 2010

Six Sentence Sunday: No Good Deed

The inestimable Graylin Fox and Sara Brookes have inexplicably allowed me to contribute to Six Sentence Sunday, wherein authors (a group which I aspire to include myself in) offer six sentences from their current works in progress.

Below are six sentences from "No Good Deed", a short story I am revising in a perhaps futile attempt to get something fictive published. Judge with appropriate harshness. (And, yes, I am aware today is Friday, not Sunday, but the posts are aggregated for Sunday publication. One must have the work up for linkage in advance.)


“But if your friend isn’t burning, I wonder where the smoke is coming from.”

“Good question,” I replied. “His clothing, perhaps?”

“Engulfed in a pyre of mystical flame, and naked in public. Not your friend’s day, is it?”

“Actually, it’s his birthday.”


Comments are welcome. I may yet post the entire work (temporarily) for feedback before I sub it out again.