Monday, October 22, 2007

Marquee Moon

If you're a total weirdo who stares vacantly into the sky like me, last month you would have noticed the full moon looking completely amazing, kind of like this:

That gorgeous phenomenon was known as the Harvest Moon, and is the full moon closest to the autumn equinox (you know, when the day and night are equal in length). If you missed it, never fear, because this Friday is the equally lovely Hunter's Moon.

In fact, this year's Hunter's Moon is likely to be even more amazing than the Harvest Moon. Why? I thought you'd never ask.

The Harvest and Hunter's Moons are really fantastic to see for two primary reasons: their unusually large size and their reddish-orange coloring. Of course, since the moon doesn't actually change, they are both optical illusions created by the moon's low position in the sky. The times of sunset and moonrise change throughout the year, and in the fall the two times are particularly close together. This allows the moon to become bright and clearly visible while it is still early in it's rise and thus low in the sky.

Although both illusions are created by the same thing, they happen for very different reasons. The color is a result of seeing the low-hanging moon through a greater amount of atmosphere. See, the Earth's atmosphere scatters blue light (short wavelength light) more than it does other kinds of light. That's why the sky looks blue in the daytime and objects in the distance appear bluish and muted. When something luminescent, like the moon, is set against a dark background the blue light is basically scattered away into the darkness. That leaves the red light to make a beeline for your eyes and voila! The resulting red moon is sometimes known as the creepy-but-awesome Blood Moon.

The size thing, called moon illusion, is a lot more complicated, mostly because no one actually knows for sure why it happens. The thing everyone can agree on is that, unlike the color illusion where you are actually seeing real red light, the size illusion is a trick that occurs in your brain. The extra weird thing is that a small percentage of people actually don't see moon illusion. To them, the horizon moon looks just the same as it does at its peak.

One popular theory of moon illusion is this: most objects in the sky (clouds, birds, airplanes) appear larger overhead because they are closer, and smaller near the horizon because they are farther away. The moon, however, is the same size both overhead and on the horizon. Since you expect it to be smaller on the horizon, when it is not, it seems unusually large.

Don't believe your brain is tricking you? On Friday, try this: hold a coin up next to the moon when it appears large and close one eye. Compare the size. Now do the same when the moon is high in the sky and back to its usual size. It's the same! Also, the larger moon shrinks back to its smaller self when you view it upside-down, which is completely mind-boggling.

As for this year's especially amazing Hunter's Moon, that has to do with the angle of the moon's orbit. By a complete coincidence, the moon will be at its closest position to the Earth the very same night as the full moon, likely increasing the moon illusion effect.

The Harvest and Hunter's Moons aren't named because of their crazy visual effects. All full moons have a name, originally given to them by Native Americans. There are some variations, but here's a basic list:

January: Wolf Moon July: Buck Moon
February: Snow Moon August: Sturgeon Moon
March: Worm Moon September: Harvest Moon
April: Pink Moon October: Hunter's Moon
May: Flower Moon November: Beaver Moon
June: Strawberry Moon December: Cold Moon

Alright, so maybe the Sturgeon Moon and the Worm Moon aren't as glamorous as the Pink Moon (of Nick Drake fame), but it's supposed to be a functional reference for seasonal plant and animal life, not a beauty contest.

The moon rises at 5:11 p.m. on Friday night, and the sun sets at 5:45 p.m. So head outside around 6ish and admire that lovely thing in the sky.

Oh, and while you're at it, consider all the wonderful gifts you'd like to shower me with for my birthday on October 28th. My online wishlist is here. Cash donations are accepted.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Now I'm Feeling Zombified

I love zombie movies.
From classics like 'Dawn of the Dead' to the modern take of '28 Days Later' to cheesy B-movies like 'Flesh-Eating Mothers'--I just adore zombie movies. There's something about the particular rules zombies follow, the survival strategies, and the over-the-top gore that just gets me every time. In fact, I've never seen a zombie movie I didn't like.

Until last weekend.

'Night of the Living Dead 3D' was released on DVD about a week ago and, needless to say, my friends and I were excited. From what we could tell, it was essentially a remake of the original (and amazing) 'Night of the Living Dead'. The only difference: 3D! Zombies lunging towards you! Internal organs flying in your face! Bullets whizzing past your head! Awesome, right?

Wrong. It was, in fact, not a remake of the original at all. It was the worst zombie movie I have ever seen, by a lot. There were barely any zombies in it, the plot made absolutely no sense, and the characters were all annoying. I mean, look at that picture! Consider the fact that they're slow-moving and can basically be shoved to the ground with one hand, and you've got the least threatening zombies ever. But the main character commits suicide in the end when faced with them? Even though she's outside and could easily run away? I don't get it. And yeah, I just told you the ending. Be grateful.

Fortunately, our evening was salvaged by the movie's only saving grace: 3D. Maybe it's because I'm a child of the 80s, or maybe I'm just a geek, but 3D will always be completely amazing in my book. Though my dreams of airborne intestines never quite came true, my friends and I spent the duration of this wretched film pointing out to each other everything three dimensional, "That gun is 3D! The casket is 3D! Her hair is so 3D right now!" Ok, so maybe we're easily amused, but 3D is still cool.

3D images like the one above are actually called anaglyph images, and consist of two layers of color that are superimposed on top of each other and offset slightly. The red and blue glasses cause each eye to filter out a different color, which results in each eye seeing a different image. Normally, your brain perceives depth by comparing the subtle difference in the perspective of each of your eyes. So when the brain combines the two colored images of the anaglyph, the differences created by the offset color give the illusion of depth, essentially tricking your brain into thinking it is seeing a three dimensional image.

Not all 3D images require glasses. Remember those annoying Magic Eye pictures that were everywhere in the mid-90s?

Now you do. Those were autostereograms, and can be viewed in two ways: the first, and most popular, is to look 'past' the picture; the second involves crossing your eyes. The idea here is to get your eyes to abandon their normal ways of seeing single images and look at each side of the picture separately, so that different images will be perceived. When an object is fairly close to you, your eyes rotate in a way that allows you to see one solid image. This rotation (convergence and divergence) does not happen when looking into the distance, and the eyes instead see exactly what is in front of them--the left eye sees to the left and the right eye sees to the right. When viewing an object that is too close, such as your nose, the rotation goes a bit too far and the eyes cross--the left eye sees to the right and the right eye sees to the left. In both cases, separate sides of the picture will be perceived and subtle differences in the illustration will create two corresponding images like the red and blue images in the anaglyph.

I find that the cross-eyed autosterograms are the easiest, although anaglyphs are certainly fashionable. In fact, you can even get your own 3D glasses that no movie theater can ever take away from you here. However, I strongly recommend NOT using them to watch 'Night of the Living Dead 3D'. Ever. For any reason.

Note: In spite of my obvious distaste for 'Night of the Living Dead 3D', it is not the worst movie I have ever seen. The worst movie I have ever seen is 'Cheerleader Ninjas', which is not even bad in a good way, so please don't try to watch it. What is the worst movie you've ever seen? And why the hell did you see it?

Monday, October 1, 2007


My friend Jackie is a vegan. That means she doesn't eat any kind of animal products--no dairy, no eggs, nothing. I think it's a really admirable thing to do, so I'm always keeping an eye out for tasty vegan recipes I can tell her about.

You can imagine my excitement upon discovering this:

Banana "Ice Cream"

several ripe [slightly brown] bananas
any other fruit, nuts, chocolate chips, etc. [optional]

Chop bananas into chunks, cover, and freeze. Once completely frozen, toss bananas and whatever else into the blender. Blend. Look! The banana will EXPAND just like magic! Scoop out the airy, ice cream-like treat and eat before someone else comes and takes it all.

Sounds great, right? Yeah well, you know me, I can't leave well enough alone. This magical banana expansion made me think of the way egg whites expand when you whip them, which then reminded me that bananas can usually be used as an egg replacement in baking.

What could possibly make a banana and an egg so similar? I mean really, bananas and eggs? What the hell?

This one, dear readers, was tricky. Apparently, people don't like to talk about the actual makeup and physical properties of food; they'd rather just tell you to shut up and eat. But I persevered and, in the end, I was victorious. The thing bananas and eggs have in common that makes them behave so similarly is... protein.

Okay, so it's not earth-shattering, but it is interesting. See, protein molecules are flexible and exist in a natural folded state, but the stress of being beaten up causes the protein to unfold. Air is dragged through and the unfolded proteins start hooking up, trapping the air bubbles between them. Foam! This trapping of air is also what helps make cakes and other baked goods get all light and fluffy and awesome.

Protein based foams, however, are not just for eating. They're also used in fire extinguishers to put out fires started by flammable liquids, and to annoy the hell out of me if you're this guy from Bravo's "Top Chef."

that hair makes me homicidal.

Bonus! Not only are bananas high in protein, they contain tryptophan, which raises seratonin levels in the brain, helping reduce the effects of nasty things like depression, PMS, and seasonal effective disorder. Yay! So this Thursday, when the temperature hits the 80s, whip up some frozen banana fake ice cream; you'll be getting a good dose of protein, improving your mood, and giving the poor little dairy cows a day off!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Whisper To A Scream

This past week in my history class, we got to talking about a fascinating subject:


Oh, calm down.
You see, in ancient China, royal guards were often castrated to keep them from getting too friendly with the king’s many wives. Talk about paranoia. However, we are not here to discuss the pros and cons of polygamy amongst ancient royal families. There are far more interesting reasons for a person to undergo this drastic procedure. A lovely singing voice for instance.

That's right. Our class conversation somehow steered in the direction of the castrati, men who had been castrated in their youth to produce a unique singing voice considered very pleasant and desirable. In addition to the castration, these men underwent extremely rigorous training, and often achieved fame and fortune for their accomplishments. You can hear for yourself the eerie tones of a castrato's voice here.
But wait. What? I don't know about you, but I'm not completely buying this. This isn't my first time researching the inner workings of the human voice and it's all sounding a little suspect. Of course, I had to get to the bottom of the castrati's secrets.

Let's start with the basics. Vocal cords are two bands that run across your larynx (windpipe). When air passes these bands, they vibrate, creating sound. Variations in that sound come from changes in the tension of the bands, the force of the air passing through, and the resonance in your mouth. Lip and tongue movements shape the sound into words.

Got it? Bored? Okay, try this:

Male vocal cords are slightly larger than female vocal cords, which seems to account for the difference in male and female voices. However (here's where it gets good), there is an enormous amount of overlap in the possible range of sound for men and women, meaning there is little physiological reason for the drastic difference in voice. So why does it happen? Socialization. You heard me. Right alongside wearing pink and playing with Barbies, girls are taught through socialization what girls are supposed to sound like. Obviously, the same is true for boys. And like these other silly gender-linked behaviors, voice gender is fairly difficult to unlearn. Transgendered folks wishing to alter their voice must undergo some pretty serious vocal training to approximate a gendered voice that they weren't raised with, and hormone therapy doesn't make a difference.

But if hormone therapy doesn't help alter a gendered voice, how does castration - essentially a removal of testosterone from the male body - create such an enormous difference in the voices of the castrati?

Alright, now we're getting down to it. The secret of the castrati is... puberty.

During puberty, the hormones coursing through your body are making changes that are surprisingly not that gross, like causing your larynx to grow. This is what alters your voice from a child's high pitch to the voice of an adult. In biological males, that growth is more drastic and even causes the larynx to tilt at an angle that juts out from the neck - the Adam's apple. When a boy is castrated before this change occurs, it prevents this growth from happening as planned, resulting in the totally bizarre, child-like voice of the castrati.

Of course, the castrati no longer exist. Though there are some singers whose naturally occurring hormonal imbalances create a similar tone, today men just don't seem to be willing to sever their testicles for art. I wonder why?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Rainbow Connection

The title of this picture is Six Rainbows Across Norway. I'll just shut up for a second while you admire the awesomeness.

Done? Ok, here's how it happened:

Rainbow #1, the primary rainbow, was created the old fashioned way by sunlight reflected off the backs of raindrops. If you're saying to yourself, "which side of the raindrop is the back?!" then we're on the same page. Turns out that just means the side opposite where the light entered the drop; like if I ran into your house, bounced off a wall, and ran back out the front. Except I doubt I'd come out prettier than I went in. The reason that works for rainbows is that white sunlight is actually light of various colors blending to appear white. The different colors of light reflect at different angles, causing them to fan out inside the raindrop. When they exit, the separate bands of color are visible to the human eye. Rainbow!

Rainbow #2, the secondary rainbow, is created when the light ricochets around inside the raindrop a little more than usual. Imagine I ran into your house again, but this time I bounced off all the walls and part of me flew out the window and part of me went out the door. Ok, maybe that's a bad analogy, but you get what I mean. Because the secondary rainbow is basically a reflection of a reflection, the colors are inversed from those of the primary rainbow.

Rainbow #3 is a reflected rainbow, and this is where it gets weird. A reflected rainbow appears when light hits the raindrops, comes out all rainbowed-up, then reflects off a body of water and finally is projected in the sky. This extra reflection causes the rainbow to show up at a strange angle, which is determined by the sun's altitude. Reflected rainbows should not be confused with reflection rainbows, although I imagine they often are. Reflection rainbows occur when light hits the body of water first, then the raindrops. They wind up having the same end points as the primary rainbow, but a much larger arc.

The other three of the six rainbows are just the first three reflected in the water's surface, which you likely figured out for yourself. I'm sure a rainbow purist would argue that there are only three actual rainbows in the picture, but I don't know any rainbow purists and if I did they'd probably be jerks.

Extra bonus fact-- Since I just used every variant of the word 'reflect' more times than I ever thought possible, I figured I'd look the thing up. It comes from the Latin reflectere, meaning 'to bend back'. Fascinating. More interesting is that 'reflectedly' is a real word. I dare you to use that in a sentence that doesn't sound incredibly awkward. Double dog dare you.

Friday, September 7, 2007

The Unbearable Lightness of Water

One night, my friend Richie and I were watching PBS at about 3am. There was a fascinating program on about the creation of Earth [from a scientific standpoint, of course]. When it came to the origin of the oceans, the theory they presented was that massive meteors composed primarily of ice crashed into Earth. A lot of meteors. So many that when they melted, they covered almost the entire planet with water. Voila, oceans! However, as they pointed out, some disagree with this theory because the ratio of regular water [H2O] to heavy water [HDO] in our oceans is different from the ratio in all observed ice-meteors.

STOP. Back up. Heavy water? What the heck is heavy water? HDO? In the ocean?

We could barely pay attention to the rest of the show. Why hadn't we ever heard of heavy water before? It was mentioned so offhand, like EVERYONE knows what heavy water is. I began formulating conspiracy theories about all the world's secrets being revealed on PBS at 3am when no one is watching. The next day, I looked it up.

Heavy water, or HDO, or deuterium protium oxide, is water that contains higher levels of the isotope deuterium than normal, or light water.

Okay... so what does that mean?

Basically, it ain't water. In experiments, fish and other creatures placed in very high concentrations of heavy water dropped dead, and small mammals became sterile after drinking too much of the stuff. It only exists in small quantities in ocean water and has to be separated through distillation to be used. And what is it used for...?
Oh yeah. Nuclear weapons.
I am so not kidding. It's also used in nuclear power plants and other nuclear-type things. Something to do with plutonium? I'm not sure. But it all sounds very exciting and dangerous to me. In fact, the original Flash supposedly got his superhuman speed after inhaling "heavy water vapors." Cool, huh?

Actually, before you start snorting seawater, here's what heavy water will actually do to you: probably nothing. If you drank nothing but pure heavy water for a week or two, you'd eventually get sick and die, but since pure heavy water in that kind of volume is pretty hard to come by, it's kind of a non-issue. In small quantities, ingesting heavy water is totally harmless. Iranian Nuclear Chief Mohammad Sa'idi even thinks it could cure cancer and AIDS! You can read about that more here, but I wouldn't get your hopes up.

So in the end, heavy water is just some weird kind of water that won't give you super powers but probably won't kill you either. And from now on, I'm keeping one eye on PBS.


So basically the idea is this: I like looking stuff up. I'll be going about my day, minding my own business when--WHAM!--I'm hit with a question. Some little piece of information I just haven't got. A blank that needs filling in. I can't stand it. I've got to find that information as soon as possible, and tell everyone all about it.

That's where you come in.

Sometimes, it happens the other way around. I'll come into the information first and the questions come later. Either way, here I plan to collect the bits and pieces of knowlege that I aquire. For better or worse.