Astronomy Biathalon


SPORT NAME: Astronomy Biathlon SUMMARY: Each competitor must run from the starting line, following a predefined route of approximately 1600 meters carrying a telescope of their choice. The route will end at a Sighting Area. The competitor must set up the telescope in the Sighting Area and accurately find and identify three (3) astronomical objects listed on a list provided. Then he or she will break down the telescope, and run the next route to the next Sighting Area. There will be five (5) Sighting Areas in all, followed by a final 1600 meter run to the finish line. Sixty (60) seconds will be added to a competitor’s time for each object not correctly identified. The competitor with the shortest final time will be the winner. Mixed genders.

POSSIBLE VARIATIONS: 4x1600 Astronomy Biathlon relay; Astronomy Biathlon medley (galaxies at first Sighting Area, binary star systems at second, etc); Astronomy Triathlon (routes alternate 1600m runs with 5km biking)

Low-carb diets

Low-carbohydrate diets predate Robert Atkins' eponymous phenomenon by more than one hundred years. The theory behind the diets goes like this: Food contains starches, which your body very quickly converts to glucose. When glucose levels spike right after a meal, in order to prevent blood sugar levels from getting too high, you convert them into triglycerides for storage (usually in fat). When your blood sugar gets very low, said fat stores (ideally) get converted to ketones, which your body can use like glucose. Low-carb diets work on the theory that the modern American diet never allows blood sugar to fall low enough for step 2 to occur.

On a whim, M and I are trying a one-week low-carb diet. Lunch and dinner we can handle. But what do you eat for breakfast when cereal and fruit and bagels are off limits? I can only eat so many hard boiled eggs before I go nuts.

Toxic waste garden

Memorial Day weekend is a somewhat-traditional planting weekend in the Northeast. This spring, even USDA hardiness zone 6a[1] has been experiencing some quite balmy temperature, so we’ve actually had our sprouts outside for almost all of May. But this weekend, we couldn’t buck tradition, and we went ahead and planted the majority of them, and took a trip out to Milton (a.k.a. the city that got beat up in middle school) to visit some nurseries. We came home with a butterfly bush to help screen our yard from the neighbor’s. The directions on the bush said to dig a hole twice as deep and thrice as wide as the root ball.

Eight inches down, I hit a layer of something weird. It was hard, and kind of looked like paint chips. And there were a bunch of them. Under the paint chips, there were plastic bags. (Wonder Bread! Doritos!) Under the bags were cans of Schlitz (!) and empty bottles of Nair (!!). Eventually, we passed through the garbage and emerged into some nice-looking dark organic soil. Shove the bush in the hole and run. But wait.. paint chips? The Schlitz can was clearly an old-style removable pull tab. According to the Wikipedia article, the new style was invented in 1975, and was almost universally adopted by the early 1980’s. And lead paint wasn’t banned for sale in the US until 1978.

Although plants don’t take up much lead, we should definitely clean all of our vegetables thoroughly, and probably get a testing kit.

[1] Boston is in zone 6a under the official (but relatively old) 1990 hardiness zone map. But it’s been placed in zone 7 under the 2003 draft of updated hardiness zones and other more recent drafts based on new climate data.

Classic science post: Penta water

The following is a classic science post I wrote for the coolass metablog in May 2004.

Sometime last week, Penta Water was introduced to our group. Not having any on hand, and only having vague second-hand assertions of “five-molecule water”, the usual response was “What, it’s just a very small quantity of water?” Based on the assumption that it was probably five-atom water (since that made slightly more sense to us), theories ranged from “Maybe it’s a liquid with a different molecular makeup but similar characteristics to H2O,” to “Maybe they count disassociated Na+ and Cl- ions from a tiny amount of salt in the water as two additional atoms,” to “Maybe it’s total bullshit.”

The key to unlocking this marketing mumbo jumbo is understanding water.

The Structure of WaterThe past decade or so has seen a small group of physicists and chemists trying to answer some of the most fundamental, yet troubling, questions about what liquid water is. For example, no calculation or model has ever been able to explain exactly why water has such high surface tension. Similarly, no one knows why water can hold so much energy (i.e., why it’s specific heat is so large). These and more esoteric questions about water have led these scientists to try to model how water molecules interact.

Because of their strongly polar nature, water molecules seem to spontaneously form structures, and although usually these structures are random and tree-shaped, sometimes they are ringed. These rings are called isotopomers, and can take the form of tetramers (4), pentamers (5), hexamers (6), and even larger. It’s important to understand that all water forms these structures spontaneously and transiently (generally on the order of picoseconds).

From here, we go from hard science into marketron land. Penta claims that their water is so pure, so free of impurities, so well filtered, that the molecules in their water forms smaller water clusters. They then go on to say that smaller water clusters are more easily absorbed by the cells in your body, and thus that drinking their water is somehow more “efficient”.

I will allow the reader to draw their own conclusion as to the validity of these statements. Penta has links to research “supporting” their claims, but I am neither a physicist or a chemist. I would be unlikely to go any further than suggesting that Penta is probably no worse than any other filtered bottled water.

Medical jargon II

More medical jargon you didn’t realize you needed to know:

  • emesis - vomiting
  • pandiculation - yawning and stretching
  • singultus - hiccups
  • rhinorrhea - runny nose
  • borborygmus - stomach growling
  • eructation - burping
  • sternutation - sneezing
  • epistaxis - nosebleed
  • horripilation - goosebumps


Three new planets

Supposedly, there’s going to be a new planet definition proposal made the IAU today. Everyone thinks “Pluto is a planet. It just is, so whatever we propose needs to keep it a planet”. So the new proposal also adds three new planets to the solar system: Xena (that’s 2003 UB313 to you), Ceres (the first discovered and largest known asteroid-belt object), and even Pluto’s moon Charon. Under the proposed definition, “A planet is a celestial body that (a) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (b) is in orbit around a star, and is neither a star nor a satellite of a planet.” What’s that you ask? Why does that make Charon a planet? Well, it’s because the barycenter for its orbit lies above the surface of Pluto. It would now be considered a double-planet system.

The rule also introduces the likelihood of even more planets (like Quaoar and Orcus) once we have a better idea of their size and mass. I definitely like some of the new terminology: a “Pluton” is any planet beyond Neptune. We need to start working on a new mnemonic for MVEMCJSUNPCX. Go.

Update 10:15: The IAU press release

Does stretching matter?

Does stretching really lower the risk of sports injury? Sports Injury Bulletin has a really great article that discusses all of the current research, including the difficulty of avoiding the inevitable bias in cohort studies.

Your DNA is Art

There’s a company called DNA11 that makes up big, nice looking, (expensive) pieces of art based on your own genome. I was perusing MetaFilter last week when I came across a question about finding a place that would do the same procedure, cheap, and just give a digital scan or a standard print that could be blown up. I liked the idea.

When I saw that one of the answers was offering to do it, I sent him an email post-haste. A few days later, he sends me (and several other Mefites) how to participate, along with a layman’s introduction to polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis.

The Dilbert Blog on Intelligent Design

Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams has a blog that I was pointed to by a cow-orker a couple weeks ago. Half-surprisingly, he’s very well written, funny, and intelligent; so it makes a pretty good read. And he posts quite regularly.

The other day, he posted about the Evolution versus Intelligent Design debate. He didn’t debate the issue, mind you (he says “I’m not a believer in Intelligent Design, Creationism, Darwinism, free will, non-monetary compensation, or anything else I can’t eat if I try hard enough”), he decided instead to discuss the discussion.

As if that wasn’t meta enough, he focused on how both sides of the debate mischaracterize the other side’s arguments. As I was reading it, I thought “man, he’s not doing a very good job here; I’ve never heard any of these points that he’s complaining about.” And then I realized that was the whole point. He was either using his own misrepresentation as a meta-joke, or he was just interested in stirring up trouble. Or probably both.

He then got 300 angry comments from both sides.

Today, Scott posted a follow-up. He essentially verified my theory, but apparently he had taken it a step further. “I was waiting to see how many people fell into the irony trap and misrepresented my blog entry and then attacked it.” (The answer is “a lot”.) He links to one blog post in particular, but the page is currently down. He reiterates his point, and at the end leaves the whole thing open for more recursive straw men.

I applaud his willingness to be stung by hornets just for the sake of a joke. But what’s more amazing is that, in the end, his joke was proven correct by those who were trying to refute it. It’s also more than a little disturbing. Can’t we engage in intelligent dialogue anymore?

Hurricane Craziness

Even apart from the particularly catastrophic devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, this has been an extremely active Atlantic hurricane season. Forecasts for the season started out relatively average last December. But as the ocean waters warmed, updated forecasts were released: from 11 named storms to 13, and to 15. After a remarkably busy spring and the most active July on record, the forecasts had been increased to 20. Hurricane Dennis was the strongest storm to ever form before August, and eight days later, Emily broke that record. Katrina was the fourth-strongest hurricane ever measured. Ever. And thanks to its surgical strike on New Orleans, it already stands as the second most deadly Atlantic hurricane.

There have been fifteen named storms so far this season. The season officially lasts for 11 more weeks, and there are only six names left (Philippe, Rita, Stan, Tammy, Vince, and Wilma). After that, hurricanes will be named for letters of the Greek alphabet for the first time since they’ve had names.


My wife just sent me an email with a file called "ANUS.doc" attached. It wasn't quite as hilarious as I was expecting:

The dentate line- location of anal crypts and draining of glands
Superiorly visceral afferents, therefore non-painful; columnar epithelium
Inferiorly somatic afferents, therefore painful; stratified squamous epithelium

Doctors have to talk about funny things like anal crypts and gland drainage, but they have to be all clinical about it. It's sort of a shame.

Discovery moves to the VAB

The space shuttle Discovery was moved from the Orbiter Processing Facility to the Vehicle Assembly Building this morning, to prepare it for its expected May launch of STS-114. NASA has spent a lot of time and money making a number of improvements to the shuttle and its support systems.

Hooray for human spaceflight!

Fun Medical Terms

Medical terms for parts of the body that don't really otherwise have a name:

  • Antecubital fossa - Elbow pit
  • Popliteal fossa - Knee pit
  • Philtrum - That groove in your upper lip
  • Natal cleft - Buttcrack

Okay, that last one doesn't entirely belong, but I like that it has a technical unoffensive name.

Mars Meteorite

The Opportunity rover has discovered the first ever meteorite ever found on another planet. The probabilities involved have led some researchers to wonder what this tells us about the cratering rate and weather patterns on Mars.


The last time the European Space Agency tried to drop something onto a planet, the Beagle 2 was lost, and no one was able to determine why. This time, the Cassini orbiter has dropped Huygens onto the surface of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon and one of the few atmosphered bodies in the solar system. If everything is going according to plan, Huygens should have hit the ground about an hour ago, and NASA will begin recieving data (relayed through Cassini) around 10:30 EST.

Update: "European Space Agency mission managers for the Huygens probe confirm that data of the probe's descent to Saturn's moon Titan are being received." "The Huygens team ... hope to release first images later today." Great news!

2004 MN4

The Torino Impact Hazard Scale was created in 1995 to categorize near-Earth object impact hazards. Until last week, no object had been scored higher than a 1 (out of 10). The asteroid 2004 MN4 has been given a 4. NASA is reporting that there is a 1 in 37 (2.7 percent) chance that the 390-meter rock will hit the Earth on Friday 13 April 2029. More at Wikipedia.

Mars Rovers 50k images

Just before Halloween, the Mars Rovers silently passed the 50,000-image milestone. They have now sent back twice as many pictures as the three previous Mars missions combined. With another five months of their six month extension to go, they may be able to double that.

Upcoming Lunar Eclipse

There will be a total lunar eclipse next Wednesday, October 27 starting at 20:05 EDT. Totality will last between 22:23 and 23:44. (These times are for Naugatuck, CT. Use the lunar eclipse computer to calculate for your location).

Chris, I’m depending on you to get some good photos.

Mars Rovers get another six months

Just after passing behind the Sun ("conjunction"), the twin Mars Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) have received another six-month mission extension.

Milgram's Other Study

This is the most amazing thing I’ve read in weeks, about Stanley Milgram’s other study: ‘Excuse Me. May I Have Your Seat?'


Three years ago, NASA launched the Genesis mission. The satellite spent more than 1000 days orbiting the sun, collecting particles that are part of the solar wind. By the time the return capsule enters the Earth’s atmosphere, it will be travelling twenty-five thousand miles per hour. Then it will be caught, in midair, by a helicopter.

All of this to bring less than a half of a milligram of stellar matter to the ground.

Update 09-08: The parachute (that I forgot to mention was supposed to open during reentry, before the probe was caught by the helicopter) failed to open, and the Genesis return capsule slammed into the ground. Breaking news stories on Google News.

Drinking Nitrogen

Once in a while, when trying to debunk an urban legend, we can all forget that sometimes they’re true and get a mouthful of liquid nitrogen. Or is it this story that’s the urban legend? (Hm, shades of The Rocket Car)

Periodic Table Table

I found this a while ago, but it makes a good Friday-afternoon goof-off link. The Wooden Periodic Table Table. Inspired by an Oliver Sacks book — Uncle Tungsten — and later visited by the same (and likely the only) world-famous neurologist. Some highlights: His Sodium party (watch the videos), the radioactive Fiestaware bowl, and Flourine storage.