Monday, October 11, 2004

The best sign I have seen recently is from the Freeway Blogger:

"We're all wearing the blue dress, now!"

I learned a few things from my Science News this week. The earth is humming at a very low pitch, like a super bass drum tympanum vibrating so slowly that it goes in and out only once every few minutes. Can you feel it? Wondered what that was, didn't you?

A Scandinavian Carp can maintain a normal heartbeat without oxygen. This appears to be a survival trait evolved to allow it to survive in winter ponds frozen over so that the oxygen is depleted by all the water creatures trying to breathe. Turtles have been known for some time to be able to survive such times by shifting to a calcium carbonate biomechanism involving their shell material for neutralizing lactic acid, which builds up when there isn't enough oxygen. The carp does it all differently with a chemical pathway that doesn't need oxygen. The clever fish converts the lactic acid to ethanol.

Many humans use a similar chemical mechanism to survive the winter, also converting lactic acid to ethanol. The lactic acid is a byproduct of physical work, the physical work is converted to money, and the money then converted to ethanol, or ethyl alchohol, the magic ingredient in beer and wine. The ethanol comes from outside the body sources, however, and should humans ever evolve the ability to manufacture ethanol within their own bodies, I would expect huge economic disruption to occur. The house painting industry, for instance, being partially powered by ethanol, could come to a screeching halt if painters no longer had to present their paychecks to the liquor store clerk.

As it is, thankfully, humans have had to work for their rum for a long long time. Nearly every society that had writing, mentions beer or wine or both. The Sumerians mention it in texts that are at least 5000 years old. Scientists argue whether it was beer or bread that actually was the impetus for starting agriculture. I know which one my money is on!

"A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou..." I kinda think the jug of wine, leads to loafing around with a thou, don't you? (A couple of other punny perversions of the poem occurred to me, but this is a family blog, so do it yourself this time)

While we're drinking and loafing and thou-ing, the mind wanders to kissing, and as scientists are likely to do, they start thinking about things. Ruining a perfectly good train of thought scientists have determined that there is a "kissing number" problem to think about.

Ok, don't think about it, but here it is anyway.

On a flat surface, the kissing number for pennies is six. Six pennies will fit perfectly around another one. Try it. I think we've all done it as kids. This is a two dimentional problem. Change the circles, represented by the pennies, into spheres represented by tennis balls, and it becomes a three dimensional problem. Now here is where scientists and mathematicians get in a tizzy. On the tabletop the pennies seem to fit perfectly, with no space between adjacent pennies. If you try to stack tennis balls, oranges, or cannonballs, things don't quite work out. There was a legendary controversy about what the kissing number really is between mathematicians Isaac Newton and David Gregory somewhere around the year 1624. Sir Isaac, being his normal arrogant and disagreeable self, contended the fruit sellers at the market had it figured out. Twelve apples fit nicely together on the rack. Gregory pointed out that while apples and oranges might squish down just enough to make it work, cannonballs wiggled a bit and the kissing number might actually be thirteen.

The legend persists that there is some mystical way to physically stack cannon balls to make thirteen of them "kiss". Kurt Vonnegut used a variation on this concept to create "Ice Nine" and fortold the end of the world as we know it, due to some simple mistake by some obscure scientist who created a new water crystal that froze at above normal temperatures. You'll have to go to the library and find Cat's Cradle by Vonnegut. I won't give it away, but anyone who's made it this far will like the book. It is the moral of the story that interests me because we may have witnessed it already, things just haven't worked their way to the inevitable end.

We've all heard about Bucky balls and nanotechnology and now we learn something scary. Bucky balls are a new way to stack carbon atoms. All the nanotechs are busy making them and figuring out what we can do with them. Guess what? Bucky balls will kill you. They seem to be incredibly toxic at very very small concentrations, as in twenty of them to a billion water molecules will wipe out half the cells they come in contact with, just for starters.

Oooo baby, mister Vonnegut might be right. Stacking up carbon atoms into a soccer ball shape could be the real Ice nine. I recommend the book.

Cat's Cradle

All this is sullied somehow, by the fact that a mathemetician published a proof that the kissing number in three dimensions really is...ta da! twelve, and that, yes, there is a little room left over to cause a stack of cannonballs to wobble, but, try as you will, one more just won't go into the stack. The three dimensional world we live in just has a bit of slack to keep it interesting. If we could just slide into four dimensions it works out really nicely.

I can dream though.



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