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.