Archive for October, 2006

The Strange Rumbling That Drives People Insane

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | October 30, 2006 6:00 pm

Something is making a very low-pitched sound that is annoying people with acute hearing in Auckland, New Zealand. What’s making this rumble? Well, that’s million-dollar question—no one knows. Scientists (like those pictured at right) have been using funny-looking devices in an effort to find the source of this “Unidentified Acoustical Phenomenon.” This story may seem silly (especially when we see one ingenious scientist cupping his hand to his ear), but for those who can’t get away from the insistent noise, it can apparently be horrible:

Dr Moir said one sufferer, a man, was so desperate to stop hearing the sound that he deliberately tried to damage his own hearing by cranking up a chain saw close to his ears. “He said it was so bad, he couldn’t stand it. It was driving him mad.”

One scientist says he suspects it’s “gas pipes, sewerage pipes, [or] factories in the distance,” but we’ve not heard any confirmation on that. Stay tuned, as DiscoBlog will bring you the exciting conclusion of Unidentified Acoustical Phenomena as soon as we “hear” something…

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Uncategorized

Science Poem of the Week (2)

By Josie Glausiusz | October 27, 2006 6:00 pm

Insects seem to be a popular topic for poets. William Wordsworth, William Blake, Robert Burns, Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath were all inspired by the antics of various of crawlers and creepers. Joining this crew was John Berryman (1914-1972) whose poem “They Have,” appeared in his collection “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet” (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1956). I am grateful to my late cousin, the poet and critic Philip Hobsbaum, for sending me this poem by email in 2002.

They Have


A thing O say a sixteenth of an inch
long, with whiskers
& wings it doesn’t use, & many legs,
has all this while been wandering in a tiny space
on the black wood table by my burning chair.
I see it has a feeler of some length
it puts out before it.
That must be how it was following the circuit
of the bottom of my wine-glass, vertical: Macon:
I thought
it smelt & wanted some but couldn’t get hold.
But here’s another thing, on my paper, a fluff
of legs, and I blow: my brothers and sisters go away.
But here he’s back, & got between the pad
& padback, where I save him and
shift him to my blue shirt, where he is.
The other little one’s gone somewhere else.
They have things easy.

Note: John Berryman’s collection Homage to Mistress Bradstreet won him widespread acclaim as a boldly innovative poet when it was published in 1956. It was soon followed by 77 Dream Songs (1964) which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. Berryman committed suicide in 1972 by jumping off a bridge in Minneapolis.

Of Mistress Bradstreet, (1612-1672) Philip Hobsbaum wrote, “America’s first woman poet. She wasn’t very good, but, bearing children and seeing them die in primitive Massachusetts, with wolves and bears and competing Indians, it is a wonder she got any writing done at all.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Poem of the Week

How To Steal an Election

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | October 27, 2006 1:00 pm

Ars Technica recently ran an interesting story on how to hack into election machines and steal elections. I’ll admit I didn’t quite make it through the whole, rather extensive piece, but seeing the video they linked to in which Princeton computer scientists show off a hacked voting machine was plenty spooky enough; Benedict Arnold ends up beating George Washington! Let it be said that these Princeton good-guy hackers would probably get Americans’ blood boiling if the video had a bit more special effects, dramatic music, human faces, etc.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!

Metal Has No Smell

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | October 26, 2006 6:00 pm

So you know how if you’ve been handling coins you get that distinctive whiff of metal? Or how the water from the fountain in the back end of your elementary school tasted pretty much like the smell of those coins? You were wrong—metal has no smell.

According to a Nature news article about a recent study in the famous Angewandte Chemie Internation Edition, what we think of as the smell of metal is actually the smell of our own body. When we come into contact with metal, it catalyzes reactions among the slime of organic molecules that coats our bodies. When skin oils are exposed to iron and copper they can produce smelly aldehydes and ketones; for instance, touching iron can produce the ketone 1-octen-3-one, which has a mushroom-like, metallic odor (which, I’m guessing, can’t be good).

One thing (among many) that seems weird to me about this is that I could swear that I’ve smelled metal that hasn’t touched my skin or the skin of someone near me. Maybe it’s possible that someone touched it in the past and although they’re long gone, their fetid, decomposing skin oils linger on. Or maybe that’s an effect of being an animal—unlike, say a dog—that usually brings smellable items up to the nose rather than the other way around.

(Via The Daily Grail)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Uncategorized

What a Difference 30 Seconds Makes

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | October 25, 2006 6:00 pm

Interesting video from Dove about transmogrifying a woman into a billboard model. I was most surprised by how much they could alter the picture digitally—particularly the extreme neck extension—without making the tweaks look horribly obvious. Which suggests that these alterations may be all over the place…

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!

Science Poem of the Week (1)

By Josie Glausiusz | October 20, 2006 6:00 pm

I love poetry. I love science. So what better way to combine my two loves than by starting Science Poem of the Week?

Herewith DiscoBlog’s first science poem, in celebration of autumn rains and the approaching winter:

Earth’s Embroidery

By Solomon Ibn Gabirol

With the ink of its showers and rains
With the quill of its lightning, with the
Hand of its clouds, winter wrote a letter
Upon the garden, in purple and blue
No artist could conceive the like of that.
And this is why the earth, grown
Jealous of the sky, embroidered stars in
The folds of the flower beds.

Note: Solomon Ibn Gabirol was a Spanish poet, philosopher and moralist who has been called “the Jewish Plato.” He was born in Málaga in about 1021 and died in about 1058 in Valencia. His works include “‘Ana?,” a 400-verse Hebrew grammar arranged as an alphabetical acrostic, and “The Improvement of the Moral Qualities,” a treatise in which Gabirol codified a system of ethics independent of religious belief or dogma. For more of his poetry, see The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, edited and translated by T. Carmi (Penguin, 1981.)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Poem of the Week

Hawking’s Marriage Goes Supernova, Collapses

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | October 20, 2006 6:00 pm

Stephen Hawking is getting divorced; no word yet on exactly what’s the story or if there’s any juicy gossip. It seems strange when we catch a peek into the imperfect private life of someone so phenomenally intelligent and respected. Then again, with all we’ve learned about Einstein recently—especially his sex life—maybe we should just conclude that even smartest scientists have regular, flawed lives.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Uncategorized

Wikipedia Quaking in Wiki-Boots?

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | October 18, 2006 6:00 pm

Wikipedia—the Internet encyclopedia that anyone can edit—has gone through an entire dramatic cycle on a truly Internet-era timescale; over the last not-quite-four years, it was born, pushed on the user-generated-content craze, became the 12th-most-popular site on the Web, and is now experiencing a vigorous backlash for having pages that are written by kooks and/or full of errors. (“The hive mind is for the most part stupid and boring,” says Discover’s own Jaron Lanier.)

Now, one of its co-founders is launching a competing online-o-pedia with a fundamental difference: its content will be written and guarded by editors, experts who would qualify based on “imperfect but effective” credentials like “degrees, professional society memberships, things like that.” As someone who’s seen plenty of Wikipedia writers’ errors, belligerence, and most-of-all, flat-out bad writing, I think it sounds interesting. But we here at DiscoBlog think there’s a lot to a name (clearly), and I’m more than a bit skeptical that anything called “Citizendium” is going anywhere—or perhaps I’m just bitter that my mouthparts hurt when I try to say it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Uncategorized

Ready For Your Close-up?

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | October 17, 2006 6:00 pm

The 2006 Lennart Nilsson Award for Scientific Photography was recently awarded to nature photographer Satoshi Kuribayashi for his amazing images of insects.

Check out more of Mr. Kuribayashi’s mugs of bugs at the Lennart Nilsson Awards or by visiting his website, Kuriken.

And if you like these images in which tiny things loom large, take a look at the photographic mind-benders from our July 2006 issue, where the monumental is made miniature.

Ins & Outs of Vulcan Charity

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | October 16, 2006 1:00 pm

In 2000, University of Chicago behavioral economist Richard Thaler trumpeted that economics was finally moving “From Homo Economicus to Homo Sapiens“—that is, dropping the outdated assumption that people are robo-beings who always know what exactly they want and pursue those desires perfectly rationally (think Spock from Star Trek). Six years later, even after psychologist and outsider Daniel Kahneman stumbled the field of economics and walked off with their Nobel Prize, much of the field continues to go on ahead as if the psychologists had never kicked over one of their central pillars. (Thaler, who’s next in line to win a Nobel for behavioral economics, actually realized his optimism was misplaced, pointing out several reasons why psychological factors will “trap me into thinking that other economists will agree with me—20 years of contrary evidence notwithstanding.”)

Tim Harford’s recent article claiming that people are not really being altruistic when they give to charity relies heavily on this antediluvian thinking. For example, he says that anybody that gives money to charity should give it all to the one project that they think would do the most good, because if it does the most good with your first dollar, it’ll do the most good with your second, and your third, and so on (as long as you’re not actually giving a Gates-ian amount that could actually end the problem entirely). And because most people don’t donate this way, they must not really care about their donations actually doing good, he says. This of course ignores the fact that giving money is not only a transfer of funds but also a statement of support, one that is understood by the giver, the receiver, and everyone else, seemingly, that’s not practicing narrow-minded economics. And even if we accept that one-cause giving is the most rationally effective way to give, it’s plainly obvious that people very often do not maximize economic effectiveness—even when it would be to their own advantage. That’s the whole point of behavioral economics! The well-documented 35-year history of these ideas seems to have sailed right by without troubling Harford’s analysis a bit.

He also says people should almost never do charitable volunteer work but instead just work more and use the money to hire people for do-gooder work. “A Dutch banker can pay for a lot of soup-kitchen chefs and servers with a couple of hours’ worth of his salary, but that wouldn’t provide the same feel-good buzz as ladling out stew himself, would it?” Harford’s off-hand coarseness reflects well how pre-behavioral economics misses the human dimension of humans. Mightn’t the folks eating at the soup kitchen be happy that professional people are volunteering to help in addition to people who are professional helpers? Couldn’t the banker be affected by her experience at the soup kitchen and donate money to a political campaign that eventually had even greater power to improve the lot of poor people?

But if you’re hoping to find a piece on the economics of Vulcan charity, look no further.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: What’s Inside Your Brain?
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