27 July 2011

Splitting the Atom and Freezing to Death

“God, I’m so bloody cold! I really don’t know how you can stand it!” screamed Gerry, breath exploding into a small cloud that froze and tinkled onto the deck. “Look! That can’t be good.”
“No, not good at all,” said the Berg.
“All this energy locked up around me too. If I had some magic power… If I could just split one measly atom I’d be warm as toast.”
“No, I did the numbers on that,” said the Berg dejectedly. “The phrase ‘splitting the atom’ is all very exciting, but really, you’re just getting a lot of atoms to move from one state to another - transmuting them - in fusion from hydrogen to helium, and liberating the difference.”
“Not with my bloody magic power. I’d split it. E=MC² Total mass to bloody energy!”
The Berg shifted uncomfortably.
“Even then it doesn’t work. Take hydrogen. The mass of 1 mole of hydrogen is 1.008g. In that mole there are 6.02 x 1023 particles of hydrogen.”
“That’s a lot.”
“Indeed. So divide one by the other and you can see that the mass of a single hydrogen particle is 1.67 x 10-24g.”
“That’s not much.”
“It’s 0.00000000000000000000000167 grams.”
“Especially when you put it like that.”
“And that’s molecular hydrogen, so two actual atoms. If we’re talking about a single atom it weighs half that again. Plug that into E=MC2 and your magical power gives you 0.0000000752 joules when it splits the single hydrogen atom you’ve plucked out of the air.”
“If we convert it to calories, to warm one cubic centimetre of water by 1 degree Celsius you’d need to split around 56 million hydrogen atoms.”
“Hand me the axe.”
The Berg laughed its deep laugh. Gerry felt it in his bones. The water around the boat vibrated.
“How did you get so good at maths, anyway?”
“Wolfram Alpha – that thing’s amazing.”
“Wait, you’ve got internet?”

19 July 2011

Animal Holocaust

Human beings have killed off some pretty amazing things in our time, but we usually think of these as remote (prehistoric man hunting the last of the mammoths already pressured by the end of the last ice-age), or already vulnerable (the dodo). Americans were particularly good at it.

1870s entrepreneurs and their 'Bison Bone Ski Slope' 
Plains Bison were famously hunted to near extinction in the 1800s, but think about what this means. Native Americans had lived in balance with the bison for centuries and the number of animals was such that large populations of humans could prey on them with little change to the bison’s overall numbers. The best estimates of the pre-Columbian bison population are around 30 million animals. At this time they were the most numerous single species of large wild mammal on Earth.
With the introduction of guns, Native American hunting escalated to the extent that the Comanche tribe were killing over a quarter of a million animals every year by the 1830s. By the 1870s the industry was in full swing and it is estimated that between 2,000 and 100,000 animals were killed every day depending on the season. Hunters had to put the barrels of their guns in the snow to cool them down.

Plains bison were saved from extinction by a few enterprising ranchers who preserved small herds which were later released into National Parks. The Passenger Pigeon was not so lucky. These birds were present in such numbers (between 3 and 5 billion animals) that in 1866 a flock over 1.5 kilometers wide was reported as taking 14 hours to pass overhead. That is, you wake in the morning to find the largest flock of birds you have ever seen blotting out the sky, and as night falls that same flock is still flying overhead. Unfortunately Passenger Pigeons were a convenient and cheap source of food. In 1878 one hunt killed 50,000 birds per day for nearly 5 months. By 1896 the last big flock was killed and in 1914 the last living specimen died in Cincinnati Zoo.

More numerous even than the Plains Bison and the Passenger Pigeon was the Rocky Mountain Locust. These insects were so numerous that there were serious questions raised as to whether agriculture in North America would be viable, such were their depredations. The famous “Albert’s Swarm” of 1875 was calculated to cover an area greater than the size of California and contain perhaps 12.5 trillion insects. 30 years later they were gone, and no-one was really sure why. The best guess is that farmers dug up the areas they used as egg-laying beds.

In the words of Kurt Vonnegut,“so it goes.”

7 July 2011

Complete Idiot’s Guide to Fare Evasion Part II – ‘The Evadening’

My earlier guide to fare evading involved fare evasion on trams. Since moving house though, I've been catching the bus to and from work, and this has forced me to update my modus operandi.  

At first the bus seemed far more expensive than the tram. I had to validate every time and could only save money by buying a weekly concession ticket, secure in the knowledge that the drivers would never check my concession card – or lack thereof.

Luckily the Victorian Government is the fare evader’s friend. At vast expense they have installed the Myki touch-card system. This new technology means fare evasion is, once more, a gentlemen’s sport.

Bus-based Myki fare evasion can be played at one of three levels. You may incorporate the skills you have developed in the lower levels when playing at the higher.

Level 1 (the ‘Double-Blind’): Simply have on your person a Myki card and a Metcard. Both systems are notoriously unreliable and at least twice a week you will be able to walk straight on with an apologetic smile and rueful wave of the offending card, as you are unable to validate it at the red-lit machine.

Level 2 (the ‘Swagger’): Brazenly step on the bus and wave your Myki in an ineffective manner across the scanner. Swiping quickly, or closer to the display, rather than the actual sensor area, means that most often you won’t be charged. By placing your body between the reader and driver, thereby obstructing the driver’s view, you can usually walk straight on and take your seat. Occasionally the driver may be roused from their torpidity and you will have to swipe properly or, if the scanner is facing towards the back of the bus, endure the beady eyes of fellow passengers.

Level 3 (the ‘le Carre’): For over twelve months the ‘Swagger’ was all I needed. It wasn’t great, but it allowed me to dodge 60-70% of the fares I would otherwise have paid. Then Myki upped the ante and I was forced to a new level of deviousness, a level where I now manage to avoid paying anything at all for public transport.
One morning I noticed that the ‘beep’ sound that occurred when a Myki was correctly swiped was suddenly much louder. The ‘Swagger’ was still good, but it was increasingly obvious that I wasn’t paying. Luckily there are a number of videos on YouTube where people have recorded themselves using a Myki card. By downloading one of these, then editing it into an mp3 file I was able to put the sound of a ‘successful touch-on’ on my phone. Now, when I get on the bus I simply hold my phone and Myki together, wave the card near the reader and play the sound file. Perfection.    

Catching the bus