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Archive for the ‘Delights’ Category

End-of-term fun

In Delights on May 7, 2009 at 3:37 pm

For anyone with a final coming up, or with a hankering for some Tom Lehrer, a rare recording (and lyrics) from a musical comedy he wrote in the ’50s while teaching at a certain community college up in Massachusetts.  A fun listen for review session season:

Ha, he asks if there are any questions.
Holy smoke have I got questions!
I’ve got a ton, and every one,
Would take him half a day to do.
But I don’t really want to stay here
Since he’s said all he has to say here
But it’s agreed that I shall need
Much more than luck on the examination.
And so I think I’ll let him say goodbye
I guess that he is as relieved as I
Goodbye, goodbye,
Thank God the course is over now, goodbye

A performance in 1951

A performance in 1951

Trivia: Tom Lehrer, of course, became a very successful satirical songwriter — one of the two or three most widely known during the 50s, 60s, and early 70s. Two of the other cast members were advisors to U.S. presidents, one became a photographer for Time and Life magazines, and three others became highly-regarded professors at Tulane, Case Western, and UC Davis. The recording of the show was made by a young professor, Norman Ramsey, who went on to win the Nobel Prize.


Google on H1N1 swine flu

In Biology, Delights on April 30, 2009 at 3:38 am

For your datahead enjoyment, a user has added a layer to Google Maps that lets you track cases of swine flu as they are reported.  We are still very much at the point of discovering preexisting cases of swine flu, so this will be a lagging indicator, but it’s still fun (and a little unsettling) to see how many cases of the disease have been spotted in the vicinity of Princeton.


A more utilitarian Google widget is Flu Trends, which tracks common search terms that, according to a Nature paper published by the company correlate well with actual disease levels.  (These terms include searches for symptoms that are related to flu; as Google points out, you get more allergy searches during allergy season and more sunburn searches during the summer.)  This can actually predict disease loads two weeks before health authorities announce new outbreaks.

Considering the hubbub about H1N1, it may surprise you that Flu Trends shows that influenza levels in the US are low and steady.  In the media blitz as new cases are discovered, it’s important to keep in mind that the normal seasonal flu causes 36,000 deaths a year.  While swine flu is newsworthy because of its potential to mushroom into a full-blown pandemic, in absolute numbers it is still a minor player in the disease world.

While the disease cannot be acquired by eating pork, pig farmers are naturally concerned that calling H1N1 “swine flu” will hurt sales.  However, the disease did originate in pigs, recombining with avian and human flu viruses, so it is unlikely that the industry’s calls for it to be redubbed will be heeded.  (“Mexican flu” was one suggestion, and I can think of at least one group that would be riled up over the name.)

Update: A remarkable new website allows you to tell whether or not you are suffering from swine flu.  This represents a significant step forward for online diagnostics.  Get yourself checked out here!

Something lovely: oscillography

In Delights, Math, Technology on March 3, 2009 at 4:06 am


Eric Archer, electronic media experimentor, has rigged up a vector art synthesizer with an oscilloscope, a digital pattern generator, and a set of identical cards called Quadrature Wavetable Oscillators, which convert digital information into analog voltages. The outputs are summed on a two-channel mix bus, with the two channels representing the X and Y coordinates in Cartesian space. The oscillations can make beautiful fine-line patterns reminiscent of the engravings on paper currency around the world.

Specialized lathes have been in use for hundreds of years to make complex patterns that are unreproduceable without directly copying them (i.e. photography or digital means). This is the historical art of guilloche (ghee-o-shay’) or Engine Turning. Remember the old 1970’s toy called Spirograph? It operates on a similar principle, producing mathematical curves called epitrochoids via revolving circular gears around each other while a stylus traces their motion. Other combinations of motion can be used, such as mounting the stylus to a rotating disc as it traverses a straight line. Watchmakers and jewelers have long used these techniques for ornamentation on their work. The famous Faberge eggs bear designs engraved by a similar technique.

Inside these sophisticated engraving machines, there are numerous settings to be made among the gears that revolve to cut the pattern. One doesn’t need many meshed revolving gears before it becomes possible to produce endless patterns that are practically impossible to replicate. Hence this technique was adopted very early by national governments to mint their paper currency, postage stamps, and other monetary certificates. The U.S. Treasury is rumored to maintain such a machine, known as a Geometric Lathe, containing ten interlocked pattern-generating discs. The settings of the discs would only be known to a select few, as this information must be guarded from the hands of counterfeiters… at least prior to the digital age we are in now.

More here.
Flickr stream here.
Also: Archer has a gadget that lets you listen to the modulations in visible light. The sun apparently sounds incredible — like “pink static.” Listen for yourself here.

Don’t be evil?

In Delights, Technology on February 26, 2009 at 3:07 am

Google Street View, which tries to present car-eye-views of the landscape in addition to Google Maps’s satellite images, has managed to turn up some interesting artefacts, including a creepy guy with a sniper rifle and a marriage proposal.  But as it turns out, one of the Street View cars, which carry the cameras used to make these composites, hit a deer in upstate New York, and the accident was captured on camera.  Google has since published an official response to the incident (apparently the deer was able to leave the scene on its own), and removed the incriminating photos.

Bambi survived

Bambi survived

Fish with transparent head

In Biology, Delights on February 25, 2009 at 5:55 pm


The barreleye fish Macropinna microstoma lives at the bottom of the ocean off the coast of central California — and Monterey Bay Aquarium researchers have discovered that its head is transparent. Its eyes are surrounded by a transparent, fluid-filled shield that covers the top of the fish’s head, and they are free to rotate in any direction. Normally the shield is destroyed when the fish is dredged up to the surface — this is the first time it has been seen intact.

Geeks just wanna have fun

In Delights, History on February 15, 2009 at 9:00 pm

In connection with Sarah’s post on scientific clubs in the 18th century, it bears repeating that the majority of these scientists were hobbyists.  While this meant that there was a broader base of interested tinkerers, this system was not without its drawbacks:

“…Not long after the establishment of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, Mr. Say was prevailed with to become one of its members. Of the origin of this highly respectable and useful institution, I shall at this time merely assert, that its founders had any thing in view but the advancement of science. Strange as this may appear, it is nevertheless true, that the club of humourists, which subsequently dignified the association under the imposing title of Academy, held its weekly meetings merely for the purpose of amusement; and, consequently, confined itself to those objects which it was thought would be most conducive to that end.

…great was his surprise, on being inducted into the temple of science, to find that the whole collection consisted of some half a dozen common insects, a few madrepores and shells, a dried toad fish and a stuffed monkey: a display of objects of science calculated rather to excite merriment than to procure respect, but which, in the end, proved to be the nucleus of one of the most beautiful and valuable collections in the United States.”

-Say, Thomas and John L. Le Conte, ed. American Entomology: A description of the insects of North America v.1. Boston: Estes & Lauriat, 1859 (?). vii-x.

AcademyAcademy of Natural Sciences
Animal House

Animal House

The Lunar Society: citizen geeks of the 18th century

In Delights, History, Technology on February 15, 2009 at 5:55 am

Boulton, Watt, and Murdoch, members of the Lunatic Society, in Birmingham, England.

Boulton, Watt, and Murdoch, members of the Lunatic Society, in Birmingham, England.

Science before the twentieth century wasn’t done by “scientists.” There was no such word. There were educated amateurs and self-taught tinkerers, building their own labs in search of discovery or a patent. And so there wasn’t such a distinction between science and culture — the smart set went to “electrical parties” to see demonstrations of the newly discovered force. Ben Franklin wrote,

A turkey is to be killed for dinner by the electric shock, and roasted by the electric jack, before a fire kindled by the electrified bottle; when the healths of all the famous electricians of England, France, Holland, and Germany are to be drunk in electrified bumpers, under the discharge of guns from the electrified battery.

The best example of the public nature of science in Enlightenment England was the Lunar Society, a club of industrialists, natural philosophers, and intellectuals that met in Birmingham at the full moon between 1765 and 1813. The port and talk flowed. Joseph Priestley was a regular member: a self-taught chemist, political radical and Unitarian minister, he discovered oxygen and its necessity for animal life, invented seltzer water, and supported the American and French revolutions. Also a “Lunatick” was Josiah Wedgwood, the great ceramics industrialist and founding member of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. James Watt, the inventor of the modern steam engine, attended meetings regularly. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin visited occasionally; Antoine Lavoisier corresponded with Society members; John Smeaton, the father of civil engineering, and Joseph Wright, the painter of the Industrial Revolution, were also regulars.

It must have been a thrill. Something like TEDTalks with Stilton. Writes Adam Hart-Davis:

The Lunar Society believed in argument and cooperation. They had long discussions about why thunder rumbles and decided the best way to test their various theories was by experiment. Boulton made a 5-foot-diameter balloon from varnished paper, and they filled it with a terrifying mixture of air and hydrogen (“inflammable air from iron”). They lit a fuse underneath, released the balloon into the night sky on a calm, clear evening and waited for the bang. Unfortunately, the fuse was rather long, and they all assumed it must have gone out; so they began to talk among themselves, when there was a colossal explosion, and they all said, “There it goes!” and forgot to listen for the rumble! Watt was at home 3 miles away and wrote that the bang was “instantaneous, and lasted about one second.” This seems self-contradictory, but in any case, the experiment failed to produce a simple answer to the original question.

There you have it: science, explosions, debate, optimism, politics, technology, curiosity. The future started more than two hundred years ago.

Darwin zen

In Biology, Delights, History on February 15, 2009 at 3:33 am

In honor of Charles Darwin’s 200th anniversary: the best and oddest of the web.
Darwin’s complete published and unpublished works.

Convergent evolution could reflect molecular constraints: “Things don’t just happen in chemistry.”

Adam Gopnik talks Darwin and Lincoln.

Swimbladders and humble-bees.

Darwinian animation.

Chuck’s daily routine.

Darwin has a posse.

Read aloud from the Origin of Species.

Darwin’s London.

Darwin and Adam Smith.

Darwin’s grant proposal is turned down.

Facebook, evolution, and mathematical modeling

In Biology, Delights, Math on February 12, 2009 at 6:09 pm

Slate has a neat article about Facebook’s new “25 things about me” craze. (For those who have remained blissfully ignorant: thousands of users wrote notes about random personal habits or goals, and tagged their friends in an expanding web of navel-gazing.) Turns out it can be modeled like an epidemic. A user is “contagious” for about one day — the day he tags a bunch of his friends in the note. After being tagged, most users respond within one day. Then response frequency drops off exponentially.

Here’s a nice Nature Review about the mathematics of modeling infectious disease.

biological infectiousness of influenza, HIV, and malaria

biological infectiousness of influenza, HIV, and malaria

The number of individuals that an infected person infects is given by a probability distribution. The probability that an infected person will infect another person within a small interval is

b(t) s dt

b is infectiousness, dt is an arbitrarily small amount of time, and s is the probability that the other person is infected.
If a group of individuals all have the same infectiousness, then the number of secondary infections that are caused by each infectious individual is a random number drawn from the Poisson distribution with mean R, where R is the expected number of new infected victims.

The interesting thing here is that the whole field of mathematical modeling of disease transmission isn’t going to be just a biological subject forever. It’s also going to be a behavioral subject. The idea that cultural ideas propagate and evolve like organisms isn’t new — it’s as old as Dawkins and his notion of “memes.” But back in the sixties he couldn’t have predicted just how concrete the similarities would be — that we could see the exact same differential equations governing Facebook crazes as malaria outbreaks. Watch as epidemiologists get drafted as marketing consultants in the next few years.

Better labs

In Biology, Delights on February 10, 2009 at 2:43 am

DIYBio, “an organization that aims to help make biology a worthwhile pursuit for citizen scientists, amateur biologists, and DIY biological engineers” has a lot of wonderful, decentralized ideas for making biology work better. One project is the SmartLab, a benchtop that can

1. identify tools (microscopes, pipettes, gel electrophoresis boxes, etc.) by barcodes or RFID tags, and display contextual information for them; how much you’ve pipetted, what you just put in the tube, and so on.

2. guide you through a protocol.

3. keep a virtual lab notebook of everything you do. Video, audio, measurements. Your electrophoresis box is “smart” and records data in realtime.

It’s a radical idea: human error isn’t inevitable. “Forgetting” a step in your protocol isn’t inevitable. You can work around your own fallibility.

Incidentally, this reminds me of something from my high school days as a Kid Intern in a genetics lab. The lowliest job was racking pipette tips by hand, and it was a running joke that someday someone would invent a machine that could rack tips automatically and make a fortune. Well, I found it. It was invented by a couple of guys in a kibbutz, the year I graduated.