Monday, October 31, 2005

Georgia Highway Construction

I got some spam comments on my last post. One of them explained to me that if I clicked on a link, I could get information about how to buy and sell products related to "georgia highway construction!" And I could learn more about "georgia highway construction!" I did not click on these, because I do not want to encourage the spam. But I was intrigued. Is there some sophisticated internet tracking device on my computer that has determined that I have a secret interest in roads being built a few states away?

The Mysteries of Fahrenheit

The Celsius system of temperature measurement is based on the freezing and boiling temperatures of water: 0 degrees is the temperature at which water freezes, and 100 degrees is the temperature at which water boils. That makes sense.

So what is the Fahrenheit system about? 0 degrees F doesn’t seem to be significant; nor does 100. Water freezes at 32 and boils at 212. So what’s going on?

Well, it turns out that we don’t really know. However, there are several interesting theories. Here are some of them. Some only explain one point on the scale, but of course he had to fix at least two points to create a meaningful scale.

1. Body temperature as 100 theory. According to this theory, Fahrenheit decided to set 100 degrees at the human body temperature. He measured his own body temperature and called it 100. Unfortunately, it seems that he was having a bit of a fever that day, because when other people used his thermometer, they found that their temperatures were generally closer to 98.6 (or so) on his measurement scale. So our whole system is based on an error.

2. Body temperature as 96 theory. Same idea as above, but he wanted body temperature to be 96. While 100 is nice if you like decimals, 96 is easily divided into fractions involving even numbers--it’s divisible by 48, 24, 12, 4, 3, and 2. According to this theory, Fahrenheit’s own temperature was a little lower than the average when he took it.

3. Making it easy to discuss the weather theory. According to this theory, he wanted the commonly encountered temperatures in Western Europe to be between 0 and 100--easy for the weatherman to talk about without using negative numbers or triple digits. So he measured the temperature in his Denmark hometown for a couple of winters and set 0 as the lowest temperature he encountered. Similarly, he set 100 to the hottest temperature he encountered in Western Europe.

4. Salt solution as 0 theory. If you’ve ever made homemade ice cream, you know that you use a solution of salt, ice, and water to get water cold enough to freeze the ice cream. It works because salt water can be colder than plain water without freezing. According to this theory, Fahrenheit mixed salt, ice, and water and set 0 degrees as the coldest temperature he could get without freezing it.

5. Freemason theory. According to this theory, Fahrenheit was a Freemason. In Freemasonry, there are 32 degrees of enlightenment, and 32 is the highest. Also, the word “degree” may come from Freemasonry.

I don't know which I believe, except that #3 sounds sort of stupid and #5 sounds very weird.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

You must listen to This American Life

I am obsessed with This American Life. If you haven't heard of it, it's a public radio show that airs for an hour each week, typically on the weekend. The idea is this: each week, the show chooses a theme and puts together a few stories related to that theme. They're just stories about regular people, some funny, some moving, all fascinating. I cannot say enough good things about it.

You can listen to archived shows at their website for free using RealPlayer. To actually download mp3s of the shows, you have to pay for them on iTunes or If you know how to get the mp3s for free through some illegal scheme, don't tell me; I don't want to know.

Because there are so many shows, the site can be overwhelming. My recommendations:

How to Take Money from Strangers: Includes a story about what it's like to work as a phone psychic when you know you're faking.

The Fix is In: The unbelievable tale of an FBI informant as he documents a price-fixing scheme at ADM. Knowledge of antitrust law not required.

Who's Canadian?: "Notes and stories about the Canadians among us. Are they in fact any different from red-blooded Americans? They claim they're not. Skeptical Americans put their position to the test." This one goes out to my readers from the great land to the north.

Windfall: Stories of how unexpected money changes people's lives, including stories about a lottery winner and an Indian tribe with a sudden influx of casino cash.

Hoaxing Yourself: People who tell lies and then come to believe the lies. Includes a story about an American teenager who starts speaking with a British accent and keeps it up for months or years. Awesome.

20 Acts in 60 Minutes: Unusual, because it's all very short stories. Good if you have a short attention span or if you're in the mood for something funny.

Superpowers: Includes an exploration of which is better, flight or invisibility--and what your answer says about you.


I enjoy reading about conspiracy theorists and other people with unusual beliefs. I will probably post about these people from time to time. Today's topic: chemtrails.

You may have noticed that when jet airplanes fly on a clear day, you can see trails of water vapor behind them. Those are called "contrails." What you may not have noticed is that some of those supposed "contrails" are really not made of water at all. Instead, they consist of chemicals being sprayed by the government as part of a massive conspiracy: chemtrails.

The government's purpose in spraying is not 100% clear; some think it is to control the weather; others think it is to prevent its citizens from attaining spiritual enlightenment. Fortunately, there is a large community of chemtrail observers meticulously documenting, photographing, and analyzing instances of vapor in the sky in an effort to solve the mystery.

You can get the basics here and recent updates here.

A somewhat more scholarly introduction can be found in the FAQ at Chemtrail Central. That site also has ways for you to get involved. Good luck fighting the New World Order, everyone!

Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Ph.D.s

Like so many young college students, I found myself several years ago about to graduate with an impractical degree and a decent GPA. I liked school. I liked my subject. I didn't know how to get a job. My advisor suggested grad school. Five years later, I found myself dissecting fruit fly brains 10 hours a day for a barely living wage, with no end in sight. While college friends had good jobs, houses, and adult lives, I was still at least 5 years away from having the "real job" I was going for--a tenure-track professorship. I got my Ph.D. and got out, but I consider it my responsibility as a refugee from academic science to keep others from repeating my mistakes.

I'm sure there are good things to be said about a career path that makes you go through 10 years of postgraduate education before you have a slim chance at getting a job with mediocre pay in a geographic region not of your choosing, but I'm not going to say those things. Instead, I offer the following articles to anyone with a friend or loved one considering getting a Ph.D.:

Wanted: Really Smart Suckers is an excellent article about the academic career path. Though it's specifically about the humanities, just about everything in it applies to science as well.

Here is an article naming research science one of three career paths with the most disproportionate ratios of training to pay.

So you want to go to grad school? Don't.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The panda needs to get fit

Tonight I hit the elliptical trainer for the first time in many, many months. I was disturbed to discover that I am in spectacularly bad shape. I almost reached my target heart rate just by punching in my weight and exercise time on the keypad.

I did manage to do 60 minutes, though (albeit at an embarassingly slow pace), because of wonderful, wonderful cable tv. I do not have cable. The exercise room in my apartment building does. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are on back-to-back at a time when I am almost always home. I will soon be able to run marathons.

Behold the scarlet panda

Because I'm enjoying my friends' recently created blogs, I've decided to join the fun.

Why scarlet panda? I spent several hours yesterday trying to come up with a meaningful, witty blog name. I reflected on my childhood experiences, my favorite books, and fruit fly-related terms from back when I was a scientist. I tried using a random band name generator for ideas. I tried opening the dictionary and pointing to random words with my eyes closed. I generated many possibilities, but none seemed perfect. I was paralyzed with indecision.

Finally, this afternoon, I said to my pal teddo, "I really want to start my blog tonight, but I don't have a name yet." He said something about the Dover Panda link on his blog. I said, "Maybe my blog name should have the word panda in it." He said, "scarlet panda?" I said, "Ok." So here it is. It means nothing.