Making your own "X-ray Photographs"

Figure 1 - Roentgen's First X-Ray Photograph The discovery of invisible, penetrating rays in the 1890's ushered in a new era of scientific discovery and exploration.  It opened the doors to nuclear medicine, non-invasive medical scanning, nuclear weapons, and much more.

It began in 1895 with Wilhelm Roentgen's discovery of the x-ray ('x' for unknown) and Henri Becquerel's accidental discovery of radioactivity one year later.  The first x-ray photograph was of Roentgen's wife's hand.

Mrs. Roentgen held her hand between an electrically powered x-ray tube and a photographic plate.  The result not only reveals her bone structure but also her wedding ring.  A year later, while performing experiments on polarized light, Becquerel stumbled upon natural radioactivity.  He had stored an unexposed photographic plate in a drawer near some Uranium salt samples.  Later when the plate was exposed and developed, he discovered that the film had been fogged by the salts even though they emitted no light and the plate had never come into actual physical contact with the Uranium.

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December 29, 2007 in Science | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack (0)

Unrealized Architecture and the Skyline of Tomorrow

Speercapitol A city skyline captures the lives of millions on the back of a postcard. In the past, our structures symbolized, perhaps, an attempt to reach towards the heavens.  Today, skyscrapers remind us of the massive egos of their builders. 

The world's greatest buildings are instantly recognizable and so the development of a memorable skyline puts one's city on the world stage.  But, just as a skyline shows us what a civilization has accomplished, so its unrealized architecture shows us an ideological vision unfettered by reality.

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November 8, 2007 in History | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Rediscover Polaroid

Wow_1 In our era of five megapixel camera phones, ceaseless Kodak downsizing, and the discontinuation of most film cameras, it would seem that silver halide photography has taken up residence with typewriters as curiosities of the 20th century.  For a photographer, the digital revolution opens possibilities of technique and experimentation unavailable to all but the most accomplished professional photographers of years past.

Yet, there is something missing in the perfection of digital images and the creative control of Adobe Photoshop.  When image processing was new, 'overprocessed' was a style en vogue.  Like all new techniques, it had its hour of fashion.  Today, it is tiresome.  The image inside the picture has lost all nuance.  More often than not, digital photos are 'even better than the real thing'. 

Within the photographic artist is the desire for subtle imperfection; the same desire that drives audiophiles towards vinyl records and vacuum tube amplifiers.  Analog images enhance the human emotional experience because they accurately record the imperfection of the real world.

So, what is a photographer to do?  Shooting film offers a century of experiments in style, composition, technique, and alternative chemistries. However, film has one big detraction; a downside that the digital revolution has steamrolled past in the 21st century: the turnaround between taking the picture and having it developed. 

Every film photographer will tell you about the shots they lost because the lens cap was on, the film was bad, the camera setting was incorrect, or their own technique was mistaken.  In the film era, one only found out about these critical mistakes days or weeks later when the film was developed and processed.  By this time, the shot was lost forever.  Digital changed all of this with the tiny video screen on the back of each camera.

However, the inventors of the digital camera were not the first to solve this problem of image turnaround.  In 1947, a Harvard dropout was driven to invent by the impatience of his three year old daughter: "Daddy, why can't I see my pictures NOW!".  His name was Edwin Land and his company was Polaroid.

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August 27, 2006 in Art | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (1)

Happy Birthday To You

Birthday20cake “Happy Birthday To You” is perhaps the most recognizable and well-known song across the English-speaking world.  Many of us learned to sing this tune in different languages as children.  In China, Japan, and Argentina, they sing Happy Birthday.  If you are connected to Western culture, even remotely, you’ve heard this song before.  Many musicologists consider it to be the most popular song in the world.

If that's the case, why don't TV characters sing “Happy Birthday” like you would at home? Ever wonder why each chain restaurant makes up its own birthday tune?

The reason is simple: though the song was written in 1893 it remains under copyright.  All public performance or use in commerical entertainment requires the performer to pay a fee to the copyright owner. 

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February 9, 2006 in Politics | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Global Warming circa 10,000 BC

Pleistocene_north_ice_map With the advent of accurate mapping, high-resolution satellite imagery, and expensive beachfront property, we view the Earth's geography as static and unchanging.  Sure, the continents looked very different when the dinosaurs roamed, but that was 100 million years ago.

Today's landscape is a pre-printed game board.  The unchanging surface on which we, our children, and our children's children will live our lives.  When the size of a river delta grows or shrinks, people cry foul.  When a barrier island is ravaged by storm, people cry foul.  When a drought causes productive farmland to become arid, people cry foul.  Inevitably, the Army Corp of Engineers is brought in to make things right.

Driven mainly by human urban and industrial activity, our planet is undergoing a rapid climate change.  The Earth is in transition from a moderate inter-glacial period into something hotter.  Our use of fossil fuels and resultant greenhouse gases heat our planet.  Our cities create localized heat islands of concrete, pavement, and glass.  Even without our influence, climate and geography are never fixed.  A beneficial climate may last for generations, but our Earth never stands still.

Many of us have seen maps of Pangea, the global supercontinent during the dinosaur age.  Although our imaginations can wander it's unknowable surface, it is very abstract to us.  No humans explored its mountains or shores.  No intelligent beings made maps and wondered 'Why is this here?"

The Earth at the end of the last ice age is more real because our ancestors lived it.  Pre-historic humans lived on and around the glaciers.  And, this ice retreated, our ancestors moved in.  What had once been buried by 2 mile thick sheets of ice became fertile farmland and hunting grounds.  As the weight of the ice was lifted, the land underneath rebounded, gaining in altitude.  As the ice melted, the seas rose.  Countless numbers of our ancestors died in catastrophic floods as rising temperatures caused natural ice dams to fail and release massive lakes of meltwater onto the landscape.

If an altered climate changed the world so drastically during recent glacial periods, how will the Earth be changed 2000 years from now.  How long will it take Mother Nature to wash away the impact of our industrial lifestyle?

The real question about global climate change isn't whether our Earth will survive our insults, but whether or not we are capable of living in the world we create.

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January 22, 2006 in History | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

A Brief Rundown of Micro-Nations

Conchrepublic What makes a nation?  What is a country?  Can one simply 'start your own country' on unpopulated land?  There are two legal schools of thought available to us.  The Montevideo Convention asserts a nation need have only:

  1. a defined territory
  2. a permanent population
  3. a government
  4. the capacity to enter into relationships with other nations

An alternate and also acceptable viewpoint is the constitutative theory of statehood.  It claims that a nation is only a nation when others agree.  If no one recognizes you, you don't exist.  But, do you need buy in from everyone or just a few?

Welcome to the world of micro-nations.  Tiny, often with a population of one, these rogue states attempt to assert their independence against the enormous power of existing sovereign nations.  While they are often seen as wacky or frivilous, they cannot always be easily brushed aside. 

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May 26, 2005 in Politics | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (1)

Auditory Illusions

Istair Optical Illusions are a popular topic for children's books.  We're all familiar with the most famous ones.  Until recently, they were viewed as mere curiosities.  Today, they are studied by cognitive scientists as a path to reverse engineering the visual processing centers of the brain.

Auditory illusions are less familiar.  Sounds, groups of tones, and auditory patterns can form an equally boggling sensory experience.

Years of discovery, analysis, and reverse engineering of these illusions have born real fruit.  Through the field of psychoacoustics, researchers created MP3, AAC, and other modern computer audio formats. They reduce the size of sound files by throwing away huge portions of it.  The computer knows that you won't notice the missing bits.  MP3 can discard up to 90% of the original sound before you'll start to hear the gaps.

Not all auditory illusions have been discovered in modern times.  The Devil's Tritone is a musical illusion where the listener has difficulty figuring out if one needs to move up or down to find the home base.  Documented by medieval composers, its use was prohibited in sacred music written for the church. 

In modern times, Diana Deutsch discovered that listeners in California and England resolve a similar paradox in opposite ways.  The perception of sound can be influenced by culture.  Other illusions are perceived differently by left handed vs. right handed people reflecting differences in the way our brains are organized.

November 26, 2004 in Science | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

The Soviet Exploration of Venus

V_smallpennant The language barrier, the Iron Curtain, and a patriotic sense of American superiority have left most of us unaware of Soviet accomplishments in outer space during the cold war.

From the beginning of the space age, Soviet rocket designs were able to launch substantially larger payloads into space.  United States rockets, by comparison, were limited in their lift capabilities.

While the exploration of Mars was well accomplished by the Americans using lightweight spacecraft, the extreme temperatures and pressures discovered on Venus required heavy-duty construction not unlike that seen in deep sea submersibles.  At this, the Soviets excelled. 

While the United States focused its exploration on the Moon and Mars, they explored Venus.

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November 25, 2004 in Science | Permalink | Comments (0)

It Might Not Be The Tobacco Causing all the Cancer

PoloniumThe mechanisms by which chemical carcinogens induce cancer have been well established.  But, what if we could make smoking safer?  Would it be a worthwhile goal?  As a society should we work on a zero tolerance policy or, instead, pursue a harm reduction strategy? 

Smoking is a dirty habit and there's no doubt that it's bad for you.  However, despite popular conception, all those chemical carcinogens in tobacco smoke aren't responsible for many smoking-induced lung cancers.  This isn't a  conspiracy theory.  Public health officials, the tobacco industry, and informed doctors know it to be true.

Many researchers believe that a significant cause of lung cancer in smokers is from insoluble radioactive dust which sticks to the tobacco leaves when the fields are fertilized, is inhaled during smoking, and lodges (often permanently) in the lungs.  Once these particles find their home in your aveoli and bronchial bifurcations, they decay, eliciting radiation burns to the surrounding tissue.  Like any burn, inflammation follows. This attracts more radioactive and carcinogenic particulates to the area, concentrating the toxins. Eventually the genetic damage leads to cancer.

So, what's the source of all this radioactive dust?  Superphosphate fertilizer added to the fields by growers.

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October 25, 2004 in Politics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Truth is Stranger than Fiction

Sodatabs_1Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope famously quipped, "These days there's no such thing as an urban legend. There's just stuff that reality hasn't caught up to yet." He was dead on. It's as if the zeitgeist takes our unrealized fears as a challenge. From babies in the microwave to Kentucky's famous Kitchen Fresh Chicken to soda can tabs for kidney dialysis.

Where does it all lead? Is our collective unconscious compelling someone to tamper with halloween candy?

Urban Legends often arise innocently enough. But, they can be an effective tool for rumormongers to exact revenge or material gain.

Proctor and Gamble was once accused by Amway competitors of being run by devil worshippers who flaunted their satanic religion with a diabolical logo. The logo consisted of an old man's bearded face in the crescent moon, facing thirteen stars, all set within a circle. Some saw 666, the number of the Beast in Revelation (usually identified with Satan by the Christian watchdogs), lurking in the old man's beard and in the arrangement of the stars. Others saw a goat, surely a sign of the devil.
    - The Skeptic's Dictionary, Robert Todd Carroll
Before Google made it possible to quickly check on a rumor, one could forgive the gullibility of its believers. Look out though, some stories stoke our fears so perfectly they unleash our worst behaviour: the herd mentality.

October 21, 2004 in History | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (1)

Awake During Surgery

SurgeonIt sounds so horrible that you'd think it was a relic of the 19th century. But, it happens more often than you'd think. Where? In modern medical facilities in America and around the world.

In about two cases per thousand, general anesthesia doesn't work as planned. Patients can be awake and feel pain but remain paralyzed, unable to communicate to the surgical staff. Sometimes patients feel no pain but are aware of what is happening to them. Other patients have no recollection of the surgery but, clearly, an implicit memory of the trauma exists. These patients experience nightmares, flashbacks, and anxiety. Remember, surgery can last for hours...an unbearable length of time to a paralyzed but conscious patient.

Given the failure rate of two per thousand, this nightmare occurs to about forty thousand patients per year in the United States alone. Anesthesiologists are divided as to how best treat this problem. Many are hesitant to do anything. To begin with, general anesthesia is a tricky, dangerous thing. Until the 1980's the death rate from general anesthesia was 1 in 10,000. Although today, with the discovery of dantrolene sodium as an antidote to the most common adverse reaction, the mortality rate has fallen to 1 in 250,000.

It seems though that awareness is on the rise and an effort is being made to reduce these occurences in the future.

September 25, 2004 in Science | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

The Smiley Face Bomber

Lucas_helder_1If someone is willing to make 'the ultimate sacrifice' for their cause, no amount of security will stop them. Until mindreading machines are perfected and we can peek inside to see the motivations of others, we're all at risk.

Lucas Helder threw his life away. Perhaps he figured that infamy was an honest trade for a life? His goal was unique but I think he was tardy in action on his plans. Before September 11th, Helder would have been the 'story of the summer' with his own motley crew of copycats. In the 21st century however, his plan hardly made a blip. Well, he was Time Magazine's 'Person of the Week'.

Of course, what serial crime campaign could be complete without its own manifesto?

By now you must be saying to yourself, "What's wrong with this guy? He must be ill. I mean, this is really really weird!" The judge agrees with you.

September 19, 2004 in Travel | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

The Hidden Treasure of the Dead Sea Scrolls

copperscrollThe discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran is arguably the most significant archeology discovery of the 20th century.

What doesn't get much mention are the Copper Scrolls discovered in a cave some distance from casks containing preserved documents. It seems like this "tantalizing evidence of long lost treasure" would have gained more attention from the pop-science media.

The most recent translation is quite tantalizing.

Religious and political complications have always hindered archeological research in the region. Perhaps academics have shyed away from the copper scrolls because of the difficulties in deciphering the locations described? Even when a location is suspected, getting permission to excavate in those places may be well nigh impossible. Lastly, which aspiring young researcher wants to be labeled with the negative stigma of a "treasure hunter" - a moniker sure to hinder future employment, grants, and credibility.

Perhaps one day we'll get a clearer answer of whether these scrolls represent fact or fiction.

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August 17, 2004 in History | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Ivy League Nudes

nudesEarly 20th century eugenics is a bizarre collision of scientific fact, blatant pseudoscience, racism, authoritarianism, and cruelty. These ideas were criticized at the time, often with the 'slippery slope' argument. Well, society definitely slipped (a la Auschwitz) and the philosophy has become unacceptable today.

"A truly breathtaking missive. What Hersey seemed to be saying was that entire generations of America's ruling class had been unwitting guinea pigs in a vast eugenic experiment run by scientists with a master-race hidden agenda...to confer on some of the most overprivileged people in the world the one status distinction it seemed they'd forever be denied -- victim."
The Ivy League Nudes combine the mystique of the ivory tower, sceret rituals of initiation, the air of celebrity, and a hint of scandalous sexual activity under the pretense "for medical purposes only."

August 17, 2004 in History | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Allure of Fake Diamonds

c6_1For some, the allure of the diamond is intrinsic to its rarity. For others, the appeal is its unique beauty, apparent indestructibility, or fiery origins. For me, the allure is in how a diamond can truly ignite the fires of avarice in all of us.

You'll notice that there are commodities exchanges around the world for Gold, Silver, Platinum. Even Frozen Concentrated Orange Juice (FCOJ) has speculative traders. Notably lacking however, is an exchange for diamonds. A diamond's value lies in the perception of its rarity rather than its true abundance.

Given the mystique surrounding this adamantite stone, think of the hijinks a pile of fake diamonds (which are indistinguishable to the layman) can generate. Here's a tale.

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August 16, 2004 in Games | Permalink | Comments (1)

Explore the Homunculus

41490_big"Homunculus" is a great word.

Classically, it is described as a frankenstein-like creature created with assistance from the black arts. Designed to serve its master, it would often take on a mind of its own. Think 'The Dummy' episode from The Twilight Zone or the creature from Dr. Who's "The Talons of Weng Chiang".

"The alchemist Paracelsus once proposed that he had created a false human being through his science. Called a homunculus, this creature stood no more than 12 inches tall and does the work usually associated with a golem. However, after a short time, the homunculus was known to turn on it's creator and run away. The recipe consisted of a bag of bones, sperm, skin fragments and hair from any animal you wanted it to be a hybrid of. This was to be laid in the ground surrounded by horse manure for forty days, at which point the embryo would form. This supposed beast relied upon the theories of spontaneous generation."
After this metaphysical definition fell out of favor, the homunculus became known as the microscopic, yet fully formed, human which was believed to live in the head of each sperm. Thanks to the invention of the microscope, Mr. Sperm Man has left us!

Nevertheless, a modern homunculus, although completely different in character, bears an eerie resemblance to the unholy creature of the alchemists. You know how a cut on your lip feels huge but, when you look in the mirror, it's the tiniest of wounds? That's the modern homunculus: a human drawn so that it appears as we see ourselves from inside our own minds.

August 12, 2004 in Science | Permalink | Comments (0)

An Island To Oneself

It's fun to imagine living life's extremes.  The archetype of the hermit or the brainwashed cult member have been well explored in the popular media. beach_sceneSo few people actually live these kinds of lives, that when we discover one, we often dismiss them simply as 'crazy'.

However, just as the Unabomber's Manifesto is surprisingly lucid, so is the life story of another man who left society behind.

In 1952, Tom Neale, a white man living in the South Pacific decided to go it alone on Suvarov atoll.

This is the story of the years which I spent alone, in two spells on an uninhabited coral atoll half a mile long and three hundred yards wide in the South Pacific. It was two hundred miles from the nearest inhabited island, and I first arrived there on October 7, 1952 and remained alone (with only two yachts calling) until June 24, 1954, when I was taken off ill after a dramatic rescue.
- Tom Neale

Part Robinson Crusoe, part every man, his story was available in a fascinating book An Island To Oneself. To see the pictures that go along with this book (and hold it in your hands), try Amazon.

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August 3, 2004 in Travel | Permalink | Comments (0)

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