Friday, December 22, 2006

Happy Holidays!

I’m off for summer holidays- so see all you folks in January. I'll come back when I grow weary of beautiful beaches and summer fun. A few parting points:

Before your Christmas celebrations get too involved, please spare a kind word for Sabine and her dog Griff. Griff was shot and wounded by a depraved redneck grinch four days before Christmas. I hope he gets well soon.

And now, the merriment.

The writers of Inky Circus have given us a new science magazine, Inkling. Move over Seed, there's a new game in town. I'll even forgive their starting the subtitle with a preposition.

If I ever get sick of measuring stuff, I might have a new career as an SEM model. I was filmed acquiring backscatter images of either Antarctic sphenes or Brazilian monazites while over at biology earlier this month. Why so few actual biologists are in these pictures makes me somewhat suspicious.

Holiday cooking:
Brownies, by Miss Prism
Margarita meringue, by Yami
My Pecan Pie
Apple Pie by Clifford
Tapioca and eggnog, by Sara

If I’ve missed your holiday recipe, I apologize. Post a link in comments.

Luke-warm lava

Today, after a couple of false starts, I managed to finally reduce some data that’s been hanging over my head for a few months. I generally don’t do much data reduction or interpretation- I get people set up and collecting, and leave the minor step of interpretation up to them. It is only the really strange, unusual, or perverse projects that get kicked down the chain of command into my lap. Luckily, this was a project that actually interests me, as opposed to the completely bizarre, esoteric stuff that sometimes comes up.

So, I finally finished my crunching, fed the geochemistry into a geothermometer to get a crystallization temperature, and scratched my chin over the answer. 90 degrees. Not 900 degrees, 90. The temperature of a cup of coffee. Trouble was, this was not a sugar crystal. So the implications were somewhat interesting.

Let’s just assume that both my measurements and the thermometer (calibrated for a completely different range) were correct. Imagine, if you will, what a world we would live in if magmatic temperatures were below the boiling point. Better yet, imagine a world in which volcanoes simply erupted coffee. Some key advantages:
-Hawaiians would be more edgy, less laid back.
-The people of Martinique would still be alive today, as the 1902 eruption would have simply covered St. Pierre in a dollop of foamy milk, instead of destroying the city with a nuée ardente.
-The mud pots of New Zealand and Yellowstone wouldn’t need a separate coffee store.
-Seattle could still be the retail coffee capital of the world.
-My data might actually make sense.

This might seem like a bit of a stretch, but remember, it is the season of forgiveness. Imagine a better world, a kinder world, where natural disasters are after-dinner beverages. The sugarplum fairies could transform the bushfire embers into snowflakes and candycanes. We could have joy for all, and peace on earth. And if you can’t imagine that for Christmas, then what future is there? A role in a Dr. Suess book? Or perhaps the life of a Dickensian mench, cruelly ignoring the crippling influence of ignorance and want. So Merry Christmas everyone, and have a happy New Year.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Google simply doesn’t give a shit about woman scientists’ publication records

Back in September, I wrote about how academic indices are incapable of realizing that a woman researcher who changes her name is still the same person. As a test name, I used my grad school colleague Helen (she has published under both names, and when I asked her, she said she didn’t mind me performing this experiment). In September’s typically bombastic, tongue-and-cheek post, I gave a couple of rather snide hypotheses which I could pretend to address with symbolic examples instead of rigorous testing.

I would like to revise those hypotheses, at least with respect to Google Scholar.

I now suggest that Google Scholar does not realize that Helen Degeling and Helen Tomkins is the same researcher because:

Hypothesis 1: The google search technology is not sufficiently savvy to determine that she is one person who changed her name.

Hypothesis 2: They have the technology, they just can’t be bothered to apply it to this particular issue (e.g. they don’t give a shit).

Hypothesis one is testable. All we need to do is to determine if any of the scientific literature accessible via Google Scholar turns up evidence connecting these two Helens. If no such evidence exists, then it would be fair to state that Google Scholar, as currently programmed, simply doesn’t know that Degeling became Tomkins.

The easiest way to do this is to search for “nee Degeling.” Here are the results.

Those of you with journal access can see that “Helen Tomkins (neé Degeling)” is listed in the acknowledgements, and that Google scholar is smart enough to have found it there (which is why Watson et al. turned up in this search).

Thus hypothesis 1 is refuted. Of the hundreds of articles published in Helen's field this year, Google Scholar unerringly picked out the one that connects her maiden and married names. It just doesn’t bother to use this information when asked to compile her publications. Thus hypothesis 2 becomes our best working hypothesis, given the available data.

Suppositions as to why Google doesn’t give a shit are left as an exercise to the reader.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Thermodynamics of hot chicks

Over in Cocktail Party Physics, Jennifer has been complaining about boys’ propensity to measure their self-worth by the heat of their girlfriends. Meanwhile, Janet, Tara, and their commenters seem to be confused about how the heat of a chickybabe can be properly and scientifically defined.

The definition, quantification, and calculation of heat was one of the most enduring and important scientific discoveries of the 19th century. For those unfamiliar with it, I will provide a brief historical synopsis of the quantification of hot chicks, and the development of the theory with which this value, Q, can be calculated. Finally, by using Gibbs' free energy, I will explain why young males are so insistent on maximizing the Q of their girlfriends.

The first attempts to rigorously define female attractiveness were done by the well known, and heavily idolized, Heat Engine. Heat Engine was a 19th century boy band with the following members:

  • Rudolf Clausius: bass

  • Emile Clapeyron: percussion

  • Sadi Carnot: vocals

  • Hermann Helmholtz: calorimeter

Like most boy band members, these four engineers possessed limited musical skill, and vast teenage lust. However, because lip-synching had not been invented in the 19th century, the boyz had to find a different mechanism with which to reconcile their talent with their testosterone. This is why they invented thermodynamics.

The original thermodynamic equations and models were invented to explain the inefficiencies inherent in translating musical prowess into sexual activity. In his seminal paper single Réflexions sur la puissance motrice du feu( in English, How to get laid without playing an encore), Sadi Carnot proved that there was a maximum theoretical efficiency- about 40%- for the procurement of sex via musical activity. While this seemed fairly alarming given their meager talent, it was actually a ten-fold increase on the hottest touring bands of the time.

Although that hit single was enough to immortalize Heat Engine, Rudolf Clausius one-upped his lead vocalist by composing the formula album


In otherwords, the change in heat equals the work done plus the change in energy. This allowed mathematical confirmation of the empirical observation that hardworking, energetic chicks were hot. This simple, wholesome German formulation attracted little notice. However, his followup formulation, dQ=TdS, was considered obscene, and fell off the charts in three weeks.

Clausius and Emile Clapeyron went on to produce many successful duets on numerous seductive properties. These included the platinum selling “Second law of thermodynamics”, the irreversibly splendid “Entropy”, and an equation, named after themselves, that described the energy spent and entropy gained in changing phase or shedding clothes. They then tackled the thermodynamic concept that broke up the band, adiabatic cooling.

Carnot insisted that when a body expanded, she became less hot, a process that he described as adiabatic cooling. While the other three were in a jam session working out the instrumentals for this theory, he leaked it to the public, thus creating the multi-million dollar fashion, diet, and beauty industries, all based on the principle that denser is hotter.

Helmholtz and Clausius were both married to stout German hausfrauen by this time. When they found out about Carnot’s betrayal, they got all loga-rhythmic on his ass. In a blistering rush of calculus and musical genius, they proved that despite the change in temperature, adiabats not only conserved heat, but were also isentropic, and therefore reversible. Alas, the same did not hold for Carnot’s career, and he was banished from the band, dying from an STD on the streets of Paris later that year.

Unfortunately, by that time the myth of adiabatic cooling was firmly entrenched in the public imagination, and even a lurid refutation was not enough to change public opinion. The German prediction of heat conservation was confirmed near the end of the century in a shocking thermodynamic experiment. A deranged Italian highway engineer tried to increase the heat of half a dozen schoolgirls, by attempting to adiabatically compress them. Unfortunately, he used a steamroller to do so, which resulted in an irreversible, entropy-gaining densification to cardboard thickness. However, in the enquiry that followed, it was shown that the highly compressed corpses were in fact no hotter that the original schoolgirls had been before the attack. Sadly, the thermodynamic implication of this case was not one of the angles most heavily featured in the tabloids, so the myth survived unscathed.

Back in the 19th century, with Heat Engine’s future in jeopardy following the expulsion of Carnot, the three remaining musicians turned to an American talent to revive their fortunes.

Josiah “Big Willie” Gibbs was an American soloist who started his own hot chick research program in the most unlikely city of New Haven. While his tour with Heat Engine started with promise, he and Helmholtz eventually developed irreconcilable differences. Helmholtz, a dietician, performed with constant volume, while the American insisted on singing with pressure that didn’t change.

This was the end of the band, with Hermann and Rudolf retiring to Germany to spend time with family. Emile, devastated by the split, spent the rest of his days endlessly repeating calculations for ideal gasses, using a blowup doll and a thermal probe. Big Willie returned to America.

While Big Willie is the namesake of Gibbs Free Energy, the concept was actually invented by his long-suffering sister.

Big Willie was a life-long bachelor, and used the family home as a party pad even while his sister and her husband tried to raise a family there. Distraught by Gibbs’ exploits, his sister Julia derived the formula that bears Big Willie’s name with the express purpose of minimizing what she constantly referred to as “Gibbs’ Free Energy”. She naively gave Big Willie the broadcast rights to the formula, hoping that it would perhaps give her some peace and quiet around the house.

What Julia didn’t realize was this:
Although she, as a stable married woman, wished to minimize G, BigWillie was leading a lifestyle as energetic and unstable as possible. The main way he did this was to invent amphetamines, so that he could turn his concerts into ecstasy raves. By covering Clausius’s failed album with a new, psychedelic sound, Gibbs took Q=TdS to a whole new level, as his pharmacological supplements increased both the body temperature and the disorder of the girls who partook.

Julia originally defined Gibbs Free Energy as follows:


Gibbs merely substituted dQ for TdS, and work for PdV, to live the following lifestyle:

G = heat – work

For a young, unstable bachelor like Big Willie, the method of maximizing G was simple. Maximize heat, and minimize work. In plain English, get the hottest chick for the least effort. Young hotheads have followed in his steps ever since. So when you see a whispy-cheeked studmuffin taking his gorgeous hottie for granted, he isn’t being misogynist, or cruel; he’s just using thermodynamics. By maximizing his chemical potential, he hopes that his reactivity will be enhanced.

Admin note

I have turned off trackbacks and disallowed anonymous comments due to spam.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Talking about the weather

Sciencewoman has been posting about the autumn rains in the Pacific Northwest recently, so for those people who are sick of rain, I have a somewhat different perspective: The Australian spring.

Below is a rainfall map for Aug-Oct of this year:

A map of the deviation from median rainfall is below:

(via the Bureau of Meteorology)

Canberra is the little blob in southern NSW, on the lower edge of the second largest red area. Obviously, this diagram does not say everything. After all, it’s a big continent, and the various regions have vastly different mean rainfalls and standard deviations from the mean. Additionally, many areas of Australia get little or no rainfall in some years, so it only takes a single storm to give them above average precipitation.

Never-the-less, it has been rather dry. The wheat harvest is looking to be 30-40% below average, the Murray River is in danger of drying up, and the Victorian bushfire alone have thus far consumed 550,000 hectares (860 square miles). So if anyone out there has any precipitation excess to their requirements, send it on over.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Pecan Pie

The art of pecan piery is a wild intersection of practice and passion, of ideology and indulgence. And yet, as with many of life’s fundamental pleasures, the basic principles are relatively straightforward.

For example, pecans are pecans. They are not, however, PEE-cans. A PEE-can is what, in Australia, we call a dunny. The most tasty and cultivated of the hickories, the pecan is a core ingredient, the presence of which defines this particular dessert. As a result, the only question when dealing with pecans is clast-supported vs. matrix supported. But I will leave that argument to diamictite and periglacial specialists.

A bit more variation is found in the caramelized substrate in which cements the pecans together. Here they are two independent binary choices, which yield a 2x2 matrix of sugary possibility. The first and defining choice is syrup: dark or light. The second choice is sugar: brown or white. Of the four possibilities generated, only two are widely used.

The light/white combination may only be consumed by pasty-lipped, precious Yankees, and has no place in the pantheon of pecan pie. If you want something that bland, move to Sweden, or replace the pecans with cashews. Or macadamias.

At the other extreme is the dark syrup, brown sugar pie. I’m sure that deep in the steamy bayous of the Mississippi Delta, there exists a testosterone-fuelled, hairy-chested John Henry of the pastry-rolling industry, who might just be man enough to bake such a dessert. But short of augmentation by an East German swimming doctor, my masculinity is nowhere near the level required to attempt such a pie.

This leads two possibilities: light syrup with brown sugar, and dark syrup with white sugar. My down-home, good ol’ boy and girl Southern friends and relatives tell me that the dark syrup is the more authentic of the two. But I prefer the light syrup for two reasons.

The first reason I prefer the light syrup is a matter of upbringing. My parents, who possess the professional drive and career development acumen that has thus far eluded me, chose my fate when I was born. Hoping I would grow up to be a classical hero, they bundled me up as a baby, put me in a chest, and cast it into the James River, hoping that it would be found by a fisherman with the capabilities of raising orphans into monster-slaying demigods.

The chest floated up the Chesapeake Bay, through the intracoastal waterway, and across the Delaware River, washing ashore on the Jersey shore, just north of the Mason-Dixon line. True to form, once ashore I was adopted by the wolves, mallrats, and members of the Gotti family that call New Jersey home.

As a result of this peculiar upbringing, I am not a real southerner. My palate sometimes reflects this high latitude upbringing, as my tastebuds have been ruined by overexposure to hoagies and bagels.

The second reason that I prefer light syrup is that dark Karo is hard to find in Australia. The light stuff is more widely available, and can be replaced with non-corn glucose syrup sourced from domestic sources. With Karo going for over $6 a bottle, this is not a bad thing.

My current recipe is a blend of book-pie, internet heresy, and old-time tradition passed down through several families not my own. Experimentation has warped the recipe beyond recognition, so I present the current version herewith.

Composite pecan pie

3/4 cup white corn syrup
Tablespoon maple syrup
Tablespoon honey
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups quartered pecans
Handful of unbroken pecans
4 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon each
ground cloves and allspice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Boil sugar, honey, and syrups together for 3 minutes. Blend eggs with fork (not beater). Melt butter in syrup, and stir together over low heat for 30 seconds. Pour egg into syrup, stirring vigorously so the egg does not cook. Add vanilla, salt, spices and broken pecans. Pour into raw pie crust. Cover with surface layer of whole pecans. Bake at 180C for 45 minutes, or until steel skewer comes out gooless.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Neandertal ≠ Chauvinist

In their recent Current Anthropology article, Khun and Steiner suggest that one of the important behavioral differences between Neandertal and modern humans was the development of gender-based division of labour. While many of the implications and predictions of this theory are discussed in the comments and reply section, there is an important corollary which the research and debate neglected to mention:

Neandertals are not sexist.

This is an important point. In contemporary western society the (stereo)typical liberal feminist spokeswoman will often place herself at odds with those of us who are block-headed, flesh-eating primitives with a genome that is 50,000 years out of date.

Ladies Females, we are not the enemy. We possess neither the cultural sophistication nor the hierarchical mindset necessary to associate roles and gender. As far as we are concerned, anyone- man, woman, or child- can make a living spearing buffalo, working in a sweatshop, or building mass spectrometers. So cut us some slack.

The bigots you want to look out for are the hairless, gracile, anatomically modern boys; the ones with complexity and sophistication. Those males will gladly pigeonhole you into roles such as gatherer, secretary, or permanent adjunct. It is the natural consequence of their compartmentalized worldview, which includes such trivialities as artistic expression, a varied, vegetable-rich diet, and projectile weaponry. But you don’t have to put up with it; we Neandertals are far more egalitarian. As long as you don’t mind killing megafauna for a living, y’all are welcome to join our hunting party department on equal and unbiased terms.

One final point: Please cease comparing offensively primitive males to cavemen. Caveman is an imprecise term, as caves have been used for shelter throughout hominid evolution. Specifically, in the European context, it can refer to either a dinky-di, non-judgmental Neandertal, or a cave-painting, patriarchal Cro-magnon. We prefer not to be associated with such avant-garde Frenchmen.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Shrill smokescreens and radioactive bananas

In a dashing blaze of opportunistic fear-mongering, the New York Times op-ed page is reporting that cigarettes, in addition to their usually toxins, also contain radioactive polonium-210. This is the same isotope used to assassinate Victor Litvinenko. The article, long on analogy and short on math, even goes so far to suggest that the total polonium dosage of second hand smoke in London could equal that which killed the former Russian spy. So, how much radiation is 0.04 picocuries?

Why, 1.48x10-3 decays per second, of course. That’s about one decay every ten minutes. You’d have to be in a very deep, shielded room to detect that sort of signal above the cosmic ray background, and if your shielded room was made of cement, sandstone, or granite, the decays from naturally occurring radioactive minerals would also dwarf your polonium signal.

For analogy lovers, here’s a more correct one that what Professor Proctor has dished out: Potassium, which is a vital nutrient, has a slightly radioactive minor isotope, 40K. With an isotopic abundance of .01% and a half-life of 1.25 billion years, a banana with 450 mg of K will kick out 14 decays every second. So a banana is over nine thousand times more radioactive than the polonium in a cigarette.

Now, how many cigarettes would it take to get a lethal dose? Well, the LD 50 for ingestion is around 8 million becquerels (decays/sec). So with 1.48x10-3 Bq per fag, you would need about 5.4 billion of them to accumulate a lethal dose of polonium. I reckon the nicotine would get you first.

Professor Proctor writes, “London’s smokers (and those Londoners exposed to secondhand smoke), taken as a group, probably inhale more polonium 210 on any given day than the former spy ingested with his sushi.” Can this be true? Well, with a lethal dose 5.4 billion times greater than that of a fag, and assuming that 5.4 million Londoners smoke, they’d have to suck down a thousand cigs a day (50 packs) in order for the figures to be correct. Muscovites may think a 50 pack day is cold turkey, but Londoners? I doubt it.

Professor Proctor obviously thinks that the risk of smoking justifies incorrect arithmetic and easily refutable generalizations. Hopefully, my calculations will allow all my smoking readers to rest easy tonight, secure in the knowledge that it will be the tar and the nicotine that kills them, not the 210Po.

p.s. As a geologist, I usually work in years, not seconds, so the first time I did the banana calculation, I instinctively calculated decays per year, and assumed I had seconds. However, I quickly decided that if 17 billion Bq was the dose from a typical banana, then I had bigger things to worry about than this blog.


Curse those wiley English, and their ability to learn from, adapt to, and plan around our neolithic style of play.