Thursday, January 21, 2010
Thursday, January 14, 2010
We see them all the time, rowing across a clear, blue sky, applauding into the air when we startle them, singing their sharp, sweet songs in the trees, spiraling, spinning over our heads … but when you take a bit of time and do a smidgen of research, you realize that birds are fascinating creatures, capable of some truly remarkable things.
Take, for example, the members of the anatidae family. Not familiar with them? Sure you are: aside from the city pigeon, they are probably one of the first birds people think of. Still fuzzy? Well, think ‘season’ and you might very well jump to ‘duck.’
The poor duck has gotten … if not grief then not a lot of respect, which is unfortunate because they certainly deserve it. Sure, they walk a tad comically and their quacks are more likely to get a chuckle than a salute, but they are capable of some astounding feats.
It’s common knowledge that many birds migrate – some halfway around the world, others not very far at all – but a few species of duck travel amazing distances as part of their regular travels, and at phenomenal speeds. The black brant is one such record holder, making the trip from the cold climes of Alaska to the much-warmer lands of Baja, California. No need to do the math: that’s more than 3,000 miles. A distance, by the way, covered in less than 72 hours.
The ill-respected duck is also a record holder for not just distance and time but also altitude. Although they commonly aren’t high flyers, preferring to stay relatively close to the ground, ducks have been recorded soaring to close nearly 20,000 feet. That most definitely is a ‘wow’ thing but what’s an even bigger – more like a real big WOW – is that a duck skeleton was found at 16,000 feet … in the form of a skeleton on Mount Everest.
This isn’t mentioned to make you want to shake the hand … er, ‘webbed foot’ of the mallard you see on the street with newfound admiration but to point out that if the common duck isn’t exactly common in its ability, consider the other long and high flyers among our feathered friends.
Take the Sooty Shearwaters. Sounds like a comedy character, doesn’t it? But what this seabird does is anything but funny. Remarkable, yes. Funny, no.
See, the Sooty holds the current record for the longest migration. Period. Think 3,000 miles was wild for a duck? Well, the Sooty travels from New Zealand, or thereabouts, out to the waters of the North Pacific (Japan as well as California), which is a trip much, much longer than just Alaska to California. In fact, it’s a round trip just shy of 40,000 miles.
WOW is right.
For altitude, ducks are amazing, no denying that, but if you want to get really, really high you have to look at the extremely ugly Rüppell's Vulture. That might not be fair to the bird, but ugly or not this vulture wears a handsome medal for going where no bird, or even a lot of airplanes, have gone. Ducks, sure, deserve applause for 20,000 feet but the Rüppell's Vulture goes more than just one better, attaining a remarkable 38,000 feet. Alas, the record was set when the poor bird got sucked into a jet engine at that height but you still have to admit that it was quite an accomplishment.
Here’s something that will really make you think twice about swearing at the next swallow that poops on your windshield: the Peregrine Falcon is not just a regal bird as well as a magnificent hunter: it can spot, and then swoop down on, its prey from more than half a mile away. But what’s astounding is the speed of the falcon, considered by many to be the fastest animal in the entire world, when it attacks. Faster than a cheetah, faster than a greyhound: the falcon has been clocked at close to 200 miles per hour.
Yep, that deserves another WOW.
But birds don’t have to be huge or travel long distances to be marvelous (though, in case you’re interested, the biggest living bird in the world is the ostrich, which can weigh as much as 350 pounds). The members of the family trochilidae – Hummingbirds to you and me -- aren’t big, don’t travel far, but they are certainly fast in their own way. Among the smallest of birds, they beat their wings up to 90 times per second – allowing them to fly every direction including backwards – and the hearts that power them can beat at more than 1,000 beats per minute.
Waddling across grassy fields, gliding through the air, becoming elegant silhouettes against the white of clouds, they are all around us: the magnificent – and amazing – owners of the sky. So let’s give the birds their due as well as some well-deserved respect.
Saturday, January 9, 2010
George Lucas's new Star Tours attraction, which opened in early 1987. The attraction was narrated by Paul Frees, who also lent his voice to the Haunted Mansion attraction, another Omnimover attraction which is still open to this day.
The attraction was designed to simulate humans shrinking to a size smaller than an atom (the "inner space"). As riders waited for their journey into the atom, they were able to see other riders entering one end of the Monsanto Mighty Microscope. The other end of the Monsanto Mighty Microscope had a glass tube in which miniaturized riders could be seen moving across. The microscope was aimed at a panel beyond which snow could be seen falling.
Upon boarding their 'Atommobiles', riders were greeted by the voice of an unseen scientist (Paul Frees) who explained, "I am the first person to make this fabulous journey. Suspended in the timelessness of inner space are the thoughtwaves of my first impressions. They will be our only source of contact once you have passed beyond the limits of normal Mag-ni-fi-ca-tion."
The Atommobile entered the Monsanto Mighty Microscope and began to shake back and forth as the riders entered the darkness. As their vision returned, the riders saw giant snowflakes all around them, some still spinning as they fell. As they continued to shrink, the narrator exclaimed, "I am passing beyond the magnification limits of even the most powerful microscopes. These are snowflakes — and yet they seem to grow larger and larger. Or can I be shrinking — shrinking beyond the smallness of a tiny snowflake crystal? Indeed, I am becoming smaller and smaller!"
The snowflakes took on a crystalline form, eventually becoming large enough to cover the entire field of the riders' vision. Approaching the walls of ice crystals, the voice of the unseen scientist marveled, "These tiny bits of snowflake crystal tower above me — like an enormous wall of ice. Can I penetrate this gigantic prism? And yet, this wall of ice only seems smooth and solid. From this tiny viewpoint, I can see that nothing is solid, no matter how it appears." Indeed, it then became obvious to the Atommobile riders that the ice crystals were not solid, but a lattice-like structure that they pass through. "And still I continue to shrink! What compelling force draws me into this mysterious darkness--can this be the threshold of inner space?"
Next, we encountered a matrix of spheres appearing in columns and rows of infinite length. "What are these strange spheres?" asked the narrator. "Have I reached the universe of the molecule? Yes, these are water molecules — H2O. They vibrate in such an orderly pattern because this is water frozen into the solid state of matter."
As we continued to shrink, the molecules became larger, and took on a peculiar Mickey Mouse shape. "These fuzzy spheres must be the atoms that make up the molecule — two hydrogen atoms bonded to a single oxygen atom. And I see that it's the orbiting electrons that give the atom its fuzzy appearance. And still I continue to shrink."
The scientist wondered, "Is it possible that I can enter the atom itself?" As the atommobile entered the atom, a storm of lights flashed past on all sides at impossible speeds. "Electrons are dashing about me — like so many fiery comets! Can I possibly survive?"
Suddenly the frenzy of the electrons passed, and the rider found him or herself in a large, empty space, surrounded in the distance by a sphere of slow-moving lights. "I have pierced the wall of the oxygen atom," continues the Narrator. "I am so infinitely small now that I can see millions of orbiting electrons. They appear like the Milky Way of our own solar system. This vast realm, THIS is the infinite universe within a tiny speck of snowflake crystal."
A large pulsating red ball could then be seen inside the atom. "And there is the nucleus of the atom! Do I dare explore the vastness of ITS inner space? No, I dare not go on. I must return to the realm of the molecule, before I go on shrinking...forever!"
The riders then began the return journey to full size, but were soon greeted with the sight of water molecules swirling rapidly. At first the scientist was confused: "Ah, how strange! The molecules are so active now! They have become fluid — freed from their frozen state. That can only mean that the snowflake is melting!" Around us we saw molecules moving faster as their temperature increased. The molecules were depicted in green and yellow, with occasional star-shaped flashes representing evaporation.
"Yes, the snowflake has melted," intoned a scientist's voice (also (Paul Frees)), "But there is no cause for alarm. You are back on visual, and returning to your normal size." The riders could see evidence of the scientist's monitoring as they passed under a large microscope through which they can see his giant eye.
Having returned to normal size, the riders disembarked and passed by displays of Monsanto's advances in material science before exiting the attraction building.
Like many of the WED attractions of the 1960s including "It's A Small World", the Carousel of Progress and the Enchanted Tiki Room, Walt Disney assigned his staff songwriters, the Sherman Brothers, the task of writing an opening and closing song for the "Adventure Thru Inner Space" attraction. That song was Miracles from Molecules and bridged the ride message of adventure with the Monsanto company's mission statement. A techno version of the song is used in the Tomorrowland background music loop.
Pneumatic tubes (or capsule pipelines; Lamson tubes) are systems in which cylindrical containers are propelled through a network of tubes by compressed air or by vacuum. They are used for transporting solid objects, as opposed to more generic pipelines, which transport gases or fluids.
Pneumatic tube networks gained great prominence in the late 19th and early 20th century for businesses or administrations that needed to transport small but urgent packages (such as mail or money) over relatively short distances (within a building, or, at most, within a city). Some of these systems grew to great complexity, but they were eventually superseded by more modern methods of communication and courier transport, and are now much rarer than before.
A small number of pneumatic transportation systems were also built for larger cargo, to compete with more standard train and subway systems. However, these never gained as much popularity as practical systems.
Thursday, January 7, 2010
Hellish Weather on Other Planets
Most Powerful Supercomputers: Brains & Beauty
Monstrous Aviation, Part 2: Huge Helicopters!
Apocalyptic Scientific Experiments
One-Track Wonders: Early Monorails
Incredible Astronomical Clocks
The World's Most Magnificent Pipe Organs
Mysterious Non-Egyptians Pyramids
Walled Cities: Keeping Out the Joneses
The Art of Science, the Science of Art
Here's to even-more Dark Roasted Wonderfulness in 2010!
Sunday, January 3, 2010
Hampton Court maze is a hedge Maze; planted sometime between 1689 and 1695 by George London and Henry Wise for William III of Orange at Hampton Court Palace. The maze covers a third of an acre and contains half a mile of paths. It is possible that the current design replaced an earlier maze planted for Thomas Cardinal Wolsey. It was originally planted with hornbeam, although it has been repaired using many different types of hedge.
- "We'll just go in here, so that you can say you've been, but it's very simple. It's absurd to call it a maze. You keep on taking the first turning to the right. We'll just walk round for ten minutes, and then go and get some lunch."
- ...Harris kept on turning to the right, but it seemed a long way, and his cousin said he supposed it was a very big maze.
- "Oh, one of the largest in Europe," said Rachael.
- "Yes, it must be," replied the cousin, "because we've walked a good two miles already!"
- Harris began to think it rather strange himself, but he held on until, at last, they passed the half of a penny bun on the ground that Harris's cousin swore he had noticed there seven minutes ago.
Jerome exaggerates the hazards of the maze. The maze has relatively few places at which the path forks and at all but one fork (in Jerome's time) the wrong choice led to a dead end at the end of a short corridor. There are many larger and more elaborate mazes nowadays. Recently, three new forking places (not shown on the plan displayed just outside the entrance) have introduced more possibilities of walking closed loops within the maze. The maze can still, as Harris stated, be threaded from entrance to centre and back by the method of always remaining in contact with the wall on one's right. This method guides the traveller into (and then out of) some dead ends and is thus not the shortest path. Topologically, this is a depth first search algorithm.
In 2006, arts group Greyworld were commissioned to create a permanent artwork for the maze. Their installation, a sound work triggered by hidden sensors embedded in the maze walls, is entitled Trace. The maze has also been mentioned in Carol Shields' 'Larry's Party'.
Saturday, January 2, 2010
Via The Automata/Automaton Blog