Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Happy Leap Day!

Today is February 29. Most of you, of course, know why there are 29 days in February every four years, right? The simple answer is because there are 365.25 days in a year so years evenly divisible by four (like 2012) are given an extra day in February. End of story? Not so fast...

As with most things in this world, the real story is a lot more complex. But in order to understand it, we have to learn a little history first (look, history and science together – that’s why college has a liberal arts curriculum boys and girls!).

Around 50 BC, the traditional calendar used in the Roman Republic was in disarray. It actually had only 355 days in a year and every 2 to 3 year, the Pontifex Maximus, a political appointee, added an extra month (called the Mensis Intercalaris) into the middle of Febrarius. Problem was, he didn’t always do it correctly so by this time the calendar was about 80 days or so off from the yearly movement of the Sun.

Into this stepped Julius Caesar.  Caesar spend time in Egypt from 48 – 47 BC where he became embroiled in the Ptolemaic dynastic war (and with Cleopatra). Caesar was an intelligent man who spent much of his time in Egypt learning about their knowledge and culture. It was there that he heard about the ancient Egyptian solar calendar of 365 days. The Egyptians actually knew the year was 365.25 days long since they had learned if from the ancient Greeks (the city of Alexandria, on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt, was a center of Greek knowledge during the Greek classical age and hosted the largest library in the ancient world).

When Julius Caesar returned to Rome, he decided to reform the calendar which everyone acknowledged was a mess. He called together a council of mathematicians and astronomers, notably Sosigenes of Alexandria, who pulled together the old Roman Calendar, the Egyptian solar calendar, and the knowledge that the tropical year was 365.25 days long (this knowledge goes all the way back to Eudoxus of Cnidus – a brilliant Greek mathematician who lived around 375 BC).

Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote around 79 CE:

There were three main schools, the Chaldaean, the Egyptian, and the Greek; and to these a fourth was added in our country by Caesar during his dictatorship, who with the assistance of the learned astronomer Sosigenes ... brought the separate years back into conformity with the course of the sun.”

In order to align January 1, 45 BC with its correct position in his new calendar, Caesar decreed that 46 BC would be 445 days long – how far the old Roman Calendar had fallen behind the “real” date by the position of the Sun.

The Julian calendar had the following months.

   Ianuarius 31
   Febrarius 28 (29 on leap years)
   Martius 31
   Aprilis 30
   Maius 31
   Iunius 30
   Quintilis (Iulius) 31
   Sextilis (Augustus) 31
   September 30
   October 31
   November 30
   December 31

The old Roman month of Quintilis was renamed Iulius in Julius Caesar’s honor after his death in 44 BC shortly after his calendar reform (it didn’t make much sense to keep calling the seventh month “fifth”). A popular Roman senatorial decree in 8 BC also changed the name of Sextilis to Augustus after Augustus Caesar.

So by the beginning of the Christian Era, all of the months of the calendar had the names by which we know them today. Adding up the days of the month gives us 365 days in the year. By adding a leap year every 4 years, giving 366 days, the average length of the year was now 365.25 days. Since the mean solar year is slightly shorter at 365.2421897 days, this gives a difference of 0.0078103 days.

Let’s calculate how many years it will take before we have an error of 1 day:

   0.0078103 d / 1 yr = 1 d / X yr [Here’s the ratio]
   X yr = (1 d) (1 yr) / 0.0078103 d [Rearrange the terms to solve for X]
   X yr = 1 yr / 0.0078103 [Cross off day units]
   128.04 yr [Solved]

So, every 128 years, the calendar is off by one day – the date of the solstice will occur one day before the actual solstice – that’s actually a lot of error! Over time, the Julian calendar was doomed to failure for this inaccuracy.

This inaccuracy came to a head in the 1500s when church authorities finally dealt with the problem. The push to do this came from the fact that the method for computing the date of Easter uses the date of the Vernal Equinox. By the 1500s, the Julian Calendar was saying the Vernal Equinox was on March 10 instead of March 21 where it should have been and this was causing no end of confusion.

The solution to this problem was developed by Pope Gregory the XIII, with the assistance of Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius, by the creation of a new calendar. The Pope then issued a Papal Bull which decreed that the day after Thursday, October 4, 1582 would be not Friday, October, 5 but Friday, October 15! The loss of 10 days was necessary to align the new calendar with the actual date in the tropical year.

Pope Gregory XIII (1502-1585) and Christopher Clavius (1538-1612)

The Gregorian Calendar is now also known as the Western or Christian Calendar and is the internationally accepted civil calendar. The month names and days are familiar to all of us:

   January 31
   February 28 (29 on leap years)
   March 31
   April 30
   May 31
   June 30
   July 31
   August 31
   September 30
   October 31
   November 30
   December 31

The days of the months are remembered with the traditional rhyme:

   Thirty days hath September,
   April, June, and November;
   All the rest have thirty-one,
   Save February, with twenty-eight days clear,
   And twenty-nine each leap year.

How is this different from the Julian Calendar? What Pope Gregory did was institute another rule – years divisible by 100 would be leap years only if they were divisible by 400 as well. In other words, 1600 and 2000 were normal leap years but 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not (these would have been in the Julian Calendar). So every 400 years, you lose 3 leap year days. This gives the average length of the year as:

   400 yr x 365.25 d/yr = 146,100 d – 3 d = 146,997 d / 400 yr = 365.2425 d/yr [on average]

Compared to the tropical year value of 365.2421897 days, this gives a difference of 0.0003103 days. Let’s calculate how many years it will take before we have an error of 1 day:

   0.0003103 d / 1 yr = 1 d / X yr [Here’s the ratio]
   X yr = (1 d) (1 yr) / 0.0003103 d [Rearrange the terms to solve for X]
   X yr = 1 yr / 0.0003103 [Cross off day units]
   3222.69 yr [Solved]

In other words, the new Gregorian Calendar will lose a day every 3,223 years as opposed to the Julian Calendar error of a day every 128 years. From its institution in 1582, it will only have lost 1 day by the year 4805!

People rioted in the streets in some places over the loss of 10 days when October, 5 changed to October 15 but Catholic countries relatively quickly adopted the new calendar (the Pope still had a lot of power at that time). It took over 100 years before most of the Protestant countries in Europe abandoned the Julian Calendar. Great Britain and the American colonies didn’t switch until 1752 and in Russia, it wasn’t adopted until the Russian Revolution of 1917. One of the last major holdouts, the Eastern Orthodox Church, still uses the Julian Calendar for calculating the date of moveable feasts (church holy days that don’t fall on the same date each year).

No matter what you do, a calendar will always have some accumulating error due to the fact there are 365.2421897 days in a tropical year and, worse yet, that number is an average since the shape of the Earth’s orbit varies a bit year to year and over geologic time periods.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Kicking a bear in the balls

My wife just looked at me funny when I showed her this but it makes me laugh every time I see it.  No idea where it came from, unfortunately.  This guy is my hero.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Planet watching

This coming Saturday, March 3, will be a good night to go out and do some naked eye solar system astronomy (I'd say earlier in the week would be good too, but the forecast for the Hudson Valley sucks for the next few days!).

On Saturday, find somewhere you have a clear view to the west and go outside around 6:30 pm (sunset occurs at 5:49 pm EST).  High up in the southern sky will be the bright waxing gibbous Moon.  Looking toward the western horizon, you'll see superbright Venus (magnitude -4.12, the brightest thing in the sky other than the Moon), less bright (mag. -2.02), but still brighter than the brightest stars, Jupiter, and dimmer Mercury (mag. -0.58).

You can't see it, but just a couple of degrees higher and to the left of Mercury is Uranus.

Turn around and face east.  Low on the horizon is reddish Mars.

Mars will be nice and bright (mag. -1.23) because it's now at opposition - directly opposite the Earth from the Sun.  This is a once every two year or so event that leads to it being near its maximum brightness.

If you want to pop outside again after a few hours, you'll see Saturn rising in the east-southeast around 10:30 pm.

You'll have seen all five of the naked-eye planets known to the ancients in one evening (plus the Moon).  As I tell the students in my solar system astronomy class - it's a cheap Saturday night date!

Even better, Jupiter and Venus will get closer and closer together over the next few weeks and on Monday, March 12, at 8:30 pm EDT (after the time change!), you'll be able to see this spectacular sight:

By the way, the sky images here are from Stellarium, a totally free and awesome planetarium program you can download here.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Moqui marbles

One of the things I picked up at the gem and mineral show I went to in Albany on Saturday were a couple of moqui marbles.  They are spherical to oblate (the one on the right below is sideways) concretions found primarily in Utah.

The word moqui, also commonly spelled moki or mochi, was what the Spaniards called the Hopi Indians of northern Arizona - a name which stuck until almost 1900.  Problem was, the word moqui means "the dead" in their language and was, of course, a highly insulting name (typical in European's dealings with the Native Americans).

The Navajo Sandstone is a western rock formation famous to geologists and found primarily in Arizona and Utah.  It's the remnant of a huge sand sea desert (an erg) on the western side of the supercontinent of Pangaea around 200 million years ago (early Jurassic Period).  Dinosaur trackways are found in some areas of the formation.  The coloration and weathering of the Navajo results in some spectacular scenery in northern Arizona and southern Utah as seen below.

Antelope Canyon

Paria Canyon (the "wave")

Checkerboard Mesa, Zion National Park

The Navajo Sandstone is a quartz arenite with about 90% quartz, around 5% potassium feldspar, and 5% clays and other accessory minerals.  It's very porous and permeable resulting in easy groundwater flow through the rock unit.  Concretion formation is a diagenetic processess - this refers to changes that take place before or during lithification of a sedimentary rock while it's still underground.

Here are the proposed steps in the formation of these concretions (the explanation and figures which follow are based on a paper by Chan, et al., 2005):

1.  A small number of detrital grains of iron-bearing silicate minerals (e.g pyroxenes, amphiboles, etc.) accumulated along with the quartz sand which eventually became the Navajo Sandstone.

2.  Oxygenated groundwater circulating through the sediments chemically breaks down the Fe-rich minerals and the mobilized iron (Fe3+) then forms hematite (Fe2O3) coatings around the quartz sand grains (microscope view below right).  This is what imparts the pink to orange-red color of the Navajo Sandstone.

3.  Sometime after burial and cementation of the sediments (lithification), reducing fluids (there's evidence this may be hydrocarbons like methane) from underlying strata move up through the rock heterogeneously on a mm to regional scale (in other words, in some places they do and in others they don't - fluid flow in rock is complex and controlled by differences in porosity and permeability, the orientation and density of fractures, faulting, etc.).

4.  This fluid removes the iron oxide films from the quartz grains and "bleaches" the rock from reddish to white.  The bleached rock now has pore water with reduced iron (Fe2+).

5. The Fe-rich reducing fluids eventually meet with meteoric groundwater (water derived from the surface) which is oxygenated (oxidizing).  At the boundary between the reducing and oxidizing fluids, precipitation of hematite Fe2O3 and goethite FeO(OH) occur and the concretions form (and geology students wonder why they have to take a year of college chemistry!).

6.  While commonly spherical, some of the concretions are bulbous, pipe-like, and sheet-like in various areas.  There is some evidence that much of this mineralization occurred around 25 million years ago even though the sandstone itself formed much earlier around 200 million years ago (that's not uncommon, diagenetic changes in subsurface rock can occur millions of years after the rock initially lithified).

7. More recent erosion of the sandstone has exposed bedding planes along which large quantities of these concretions (moqui marble) can weather out and be collected (I'm so jealous looking at the picture below, and filled with lust for this collecting locale but since it's now in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, collecting is not allowed).

What I also find interesting is that paper by by Chan, et al., 2005 referenced about is titled Red rock and red planet diagenesis: Comparisons of Earth and Mars concretions.  Turns out the so-called "blueberries" discovered by in the Meridiani Planum region by the Mars Rover Opportunity are hematite concretions very similar in form, and possibly origin, to the moqui marbles of Utah!

Mars "blueberries - Rover view and magnified

Moqui marbles are also known as shaman stones or thunderballs.  One Hopi legend I heard was that  the departed ancestors of the Hopi played games with these "marbles" in the night when spirits are allowed to visit the earth. When the sun rises they must return to the heavens so they leave the marbles behind to let relatives know they are happy and well.

There's a lot of New Age nonsense about moqui marbles (just Google the term to see).  I'd like to see some archaeological evidence that shamans of any tribe used them (if anyone has a reference, send it to me).  By the way, I paid $5.00 at the mineral show for my two samples which are about 2 inches in diameter.  Check out what these greedy bastards are charging for them (I guess mine aren't specially "charged" with woo energy yet).

Friday, February 24, 2012

Future Community College Students

Stumbled upon this clip on YouTube of students at a Washington State high school.  Watch it and weep.

This is representative of a fair number, although certainly not all, of the students I see at the community college where I teach.  And we have earnest discussions in various committees about what we can do to improve retention rates since so many of the poor darlings end up placing into remedial English and math courses and eventually flunking out of college.  The State and Federal government wonder what WE'RE doing wrong at the college level since so many students start college yet never complete degrees.

Colleges blame the high schools, high schools blame the middle schools, middle schools blame the elementary schools, and elementary schools blame the parents.  The bottom line is that academic standards need to begin in 1st grade and enforced throughout the student's public education.  Otherwise we get what we have now, young adults who never read books, can't write a coherent paragraph, can't calculate a 15% tip, and have absolutely no sense of history or western culture.

You reap what you sow (I bet these students don't know what that means or where the expression comes from).

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Something to do this weekend...

If you live in the Hudson Valley region and are looking for something to do this weekend, I can recommend the James E. Campbell Gem, Mineral & Fossil Show at the New York State Museum in Albany.  They always have neat stuff for sale and much of it is reasonably priced.  The museum is also nice to see - the mineral collection is awesome and I especially like the New York State fossils.

I used to work up at the New York State Geological Survey, about 20 years ago now, and worked with Jim Campbell on the mineral collections at the museum.  Even went collecting with him a few times.  Unfortunately he passed away of a heart attack a couple of years after I left.

I plan on going up on Saturday.  Just wish I had more money to spend!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Old fuddy duddy ranting about illegitimate kids

Wow.  Just read this article in the New York Times online - For Women Under 30, Most Births Occur Outside Marriage.  Some statistics:

Percentage of births to married  mothers (all ages) = 59%
Percentage of births to married  mothers (white, under 30 years old) = 49%

Don't even ask for the minority statistics (73% of black children born out of wedlock).  Some quotes from the article that kind of pissed me off...

Amber Strader, 27, was in an on-and-off relationship with a clerk at Sears a few years ago when she found herself pregnant.

She "found" herself pregnant?  Here's a clue Amber, honey.  When a guy sticks his dick in you and he's not using a condom and you're not on the pill, you can get pregnant.  I probably learned that little factoid in middle school.

A former nursing student who now tends bar, Ms. Strader said her boyfriend was so dependent that she had to buy his cigarettes. Marrying him never entered her mind. “It was like living with another kid,” she said.

Amber, Amber, Amber.  You're a fucking dolt.  Wait, you were fucking a dolt.  Whatever.  Really?  This is the guy you spread your legs for?  Am I supposed to feel sorry for you?  You can pay ten bucks a pack for cigarettes but skip the couple of dollars for an econo-size pack of condoms at Wal-Mart? 

What I really want to know is the secret these guys have that allow them to get women to sleep with them and buy them cigarettes so they can hang around and play video games all day.  Those are some admirable people skills.  I guess momma never told Amber the story about free milk and the cow.

How about this gem?

One group still largely resists the trend: college graduates, who overwhelmingly marry before having children. That is turning family structure into a new class divide, with the economic and social rewards of marriage increasingly reserved for people with the most education.     

College graduates don't have kids out of wedlock (even though they fuck like bunnies in college).  Why whatever is their secret?  Could it be they're smart enough to realize that babies are made by sex?  This esoteric knowledge causes them to, I don't know, maybe use some fucking birth control?

Oh look, it's a class divide?  Damn rich people forcing poor people to have all them babies out of wedlock.  By the way, speaking as someone who got married on the cheap (I was still in graduate school), you really only need about 50 bucks to get married (that's less than the cost of the tramp stamp a lot of these women sport on their backsides).  Oops, did I just say that?

Look, I'm not a prude or a moralist.  However, the plain fact is that many mothers of children born outside of wedlock require public assistance.  That isn't "government" money, the government has no money other than what it confiscates from people in the form of taxes.  It's partly my money.  What the hell gives people the right to make stupid decisions and then ask us to pay for them.  In addition, as the article states,

...children born outside marriage face elevated risks of falling into poverty, failing in school or suffering emotional and behavioral problems.       

More social costs from these piss-poor decisions.  I won't "judge" you if you don't come to me, hat in hand, demanding my hard-earned money for your support.

That's my rant for the day.

Saturday, February 18, 2012


Don't know where it came from, so I can't credit it, but someone emailed this to me.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Random Friday thoughts

Yesterday I saw the following on my StatCounter.  111,111 Unique Visitors.  Cool.  Must mean something in the cosmic scheme of things right?  Numerologically, the number 1 is great!  This will be a good day, I can feel it.

Haven't been getting much sleep this week for some reason so I have to watch what I type.  When I get overtired I'm apt to say inappropriate things.  I told my students one of my favorite mnemonics this week - "Kinky People Come Over For Good Sex."  Can you tell what it helps you remember?

Not helping my sleep situation is the fact that we adopted a 5 month old kitten this week.  It's been living in my wife's and my bedroom since it's still skittish of the dog (a very jealous dog since the kitten has been the center of attention).  My wife had the bright idea of getting a collar for the kitten with bells.  Ever try to sleep at 4 am with a jingling kitty racing over your head (literally racing over your head)?

Ugly little beast, isn't he?  Damn thing sleeps during the day when people are out and wants to play in the middle of the night.  If he doesn't watch out, I'll toss him outside and let they coyotes chase him.

Today is the end of the fifth week of classes.  One of my courses has an exam next week and some assignments due (online assignments through a package that come bundled with the textbook).  Assignments that were assigned on the FIRST day of class five weeks ago.  A student sends me an email tonight.  Doesn't have the correct book.  Hasn't done the assignments.  Whatever are they to do?  Ummm.  Let's see.  You completely ignore the course syllabus, handouts given on the first day of class explaining how to access the assignments, web site for the course with copies of all this material, constant reminders about this in class for the past five freakin weeks, you don't talk to me until practically the night before it's due, and I'm supposed to do what?  Give an extension?  Nope, sorry, get the access, do the damn assignments over this three-day weekend, or get a zero.  Real simple (and that's exactly what it says in the course syllabus).  We're not in high school anymore. Right mean bastard, aren't I?  Doing my part to teach the younger generation the value of personal responsibility.

Today I also told a class that I assigned a final paper for their benefit, not mine.  They laughed.  I explained how they need to learn to research (beyond Wikipedia) and write better - do they really think I enjoy reading 30 ten-page papers during finals week?  I could just give them a Scantron multiple choice exam instead and no one would care.  Except my conscience.

Hard to believe I am a past winner of the SUNY Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching, isn't it?  Telling my students mnemonics about kinky people having sex, having no sympathy for their textbook mishaps, and mocking their most excellent writing skills.  Easy to believe I have tenure, though.

After driving to Albany and back this afternoon (an hour plus each way), I stopped at Starbucks for a venti skinny caramel macchiato and whipped out my laptop to write up a blog post on a geological topic.  Went to search for an image I needed in Google.  Guess what popped up?  A picture in a post I wrote about this exact same topic in the summer of 2010 on this blog.  A post I had completely forgetten I had written.  The exact same topic.  I would have used the exact same image.  Pathetic.  Sometimes I wonder about early-onset dementia.  Deleted the post I was working on.  Sigh.  The coffee was good though.

Friday - I really look forward to a tall, cold glass of ale.  I have no classes Friday, I get to work on Department Chair administrative bullshit the entire day.  The only time I allow myself adult beverages is Friday after work when I go visit Meghan, my favorite bartender.  I think I'll go for the pint of Sam Adams Winter Lager.  I can taste it now.  Mmmm, beer.  No, I'm not a role model for young impressionable minds.  Never wanted to be one either.  I'm rambling, can you tell?  I do that when I'm overtired as well.  Rambling and saying inappropriate things.  Hell of a combination, isn't it? Gets me into trouble every time.  Hey, am I still typing?  I don't really have anything to say anymore.  Let's see - complaints about students, lust for beer, pretty bartenders, kinky sex - nope, think I have it covered for today.
Happy Friday everyone, enjoy the three-day weekend!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Fibonacci & Phyllotaxis

I love these videos from Vi Hart on YouTube.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Tropical Field Ecology this summer?

A biologist colleague of mine, Dr. David Lemmon, is offering summer field courses to both Pamana (May 21 - June 2, 2012) and the Brazilian Amazon (August 11 - 23, 2012).  For the Amazon trip, you live on an Amazon River boat (shown at left) with excursions into the jungle.

The Amazon trip has been run a dozen times already and the Panama trip is new for this year.  While I've never gone (there are few rocks in the jungle!), I have a number of students who've gone and they've all loved it and told me it was a tremendous learning experience.

There are no academic prerequisites but you have to be in good health, have a valid passport and immunizations, etc.  You don't have to be a student, either, you can audit the course as an interested adult.

Here are a couple of posters with addtional information.  Dr. Lemmon's contact information is on the posters, I'm sure he'd be happy to answer any questions about the courses.

 Tropical Field Ecology - Amazon

 Tropical Field Ecology - Panama

Tell David I sent you!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Scale of the Universe

I've gotten three links this past week emailed to me about this cool Flash animation.

It's called Scale of the Universe by Cary and Michael Huang.  From 10-35 meters (Planck length) to 1027 meters (the 93 billion light year scale of the universe), it allows you to zoom in or out while providing examples of objects of various sizes.

 Being egocentric humans, we tend to think the "world" is all that we see around us on a daily basis.  What we see and perceive is only a miniscule part of a much, much, much (62 orders of magnitude from small to large) larger universe.  And, to make it even cooler, things behave it completely bizarre ways (at least to us) and very small (quantum mechanics) and very large (relativity) scales.

Humans can use a little perspective sometimes.  We're less than nothing on a universal scale.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Darwin's Birthday

Happy 203rd birthday to Charles Darwin.

This about sums it up...

...from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

If you haven't read On the Origin of Species, do yourself a favor and do so sometime.  It just makes sense (much more so than stories of gods strolling in gardens and talking snakes).

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Grace Hopper

Many geologists, especially field geologists, are familiar with the expression "It's easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission" - especially when trespassing on someone's land to look at their interesting rock outcrops (I first learned of this expression from my first field geology professor, the late Russell Waines of SUNY New Paltz).

Anyway, for reasons I won't explain (you really don't want to know how my mind works), I wanted to determine the source of this quotation and found that it's often attributed to Grace Hopper.  Grace who? you may ask.  I didn't know who she was either (but I'm sure many readers of this blog may have heard of her).  She was an amazing woman.

Go to Wikipedia and read her biography.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Healing rocks?

Bizarre post over at The Geology P.A.G.E. titled "The Healing Power of Rocks" by Bridget Sandorford.  Here's an example of her wisdom when discussing amethyst:

Many people use amethysts to help them recover from an addiction. It is also used to help people who are struggling with insomnia. It can give you an energy boost when you wear it and provide a soothing effect if you are overwrought about something. It has been used to help during pregnancy and to help fight chronic fatigue syndrome.

Amethyst is a relatively common purple variety of quartz (SiO2).  It's a mineral, by the way, not a rock.

Did you know that the word "amethyst" comes from the Greek roots ἀ ("not") and μέθυστος (methustos or "intoxicated")?  The ancient Greeks and Romans believed amethyst would protect them from getting drunk.  Next Friday, I'll grab some from the lab before heading down to the local tavern after work and see if it helps.

This kind of nonsense has been around for a long time.  It's called sympathetic magic.  Amethyst is purple, wine is made from purple grapes, so amethyst must have some effect with wine (there's my problem, I don't drink wine but rather beer - I need a brown mineral).

Similarly, rusty red hematite (Fe2O3) is thought to have some effect on blood ("Hematite is good for any blood disorders...").

Check out the piece of nephrite jade below.  It looks a little like a kidney, hence the name λίθος νεφρίτίκος (lithos nephriticos or "kidney stone" in Greek).

Must be good for kidney ailments!  And, yes, that's what New Age crystal healers still claim.  Any evidence to back up such claims?  Not one fucking iota of evidence.

Want to use stones for healing?  Powder up some limestone when you're having reflux (or pop a Tums, same difference).  I heard cheery yellow orpiment is good for depression...

Just kidding, folks.  If any of you dumbasses try to take orpiment, keep in mind that it's arsenic sulfide (As2S3) and not very good for you at all (even though it's all natural).  It will, however, cure your depression.  Permanently.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Spring's coming...

Early this morning, February 4 at 1013 UTC (5:13 am EST), was an astronomical cross-quarter day - a half-way point between the winter solstice (December 22, 2011 at 0530 UTC) and the vernal (spring) equinox (March 20, 2011 at 0514 UTC).

I've written before about how this astronomical event has been associated with traditional holidays like the Celtic Imbolc, the Germanic groundhog day, and the Christian Candlemas.

For my midlatitude location (41° 52' N, 074° 06' W, rounded to the nearest minute), the Sun rose at 07:21 am (all times are in EST) and set at 4:29 pm giving us only 9 hours of daylight.  Today, the Sun rose at 07:06 am and will set at 5:15 pm, adding another hour of daylight.  By the spring equinox, sunrise and sunset will be at 05:59 am and 6:09 pm for 12 hours of daylight (equinox literally means "equal night" because it's the time when day and night are equal lengths at 12 hours each).

As someone who's mood is always affected by the loss of daylight winter brings, I always start to feel good this time of year and as someone who likes to spend time outside (without being bundled up against the cold), I really look forward to the coming arrival of spring.

Go outside and look around.  As this month advances, you'll start to see some of the signs of reawakening of plants and animals (especially if this unseasonably warm weather continues here in the Hudson Valley).

Friday, February 3, 2012

Wood Fueled Cars

I listen to Car Talk each week on NPR and on a recent show a caller named Hans mentioned that when he was in Europe during World War II, he saw cars that ran on wood chips.  They didn't burn the wood the steam, they just shoveled it into a special tank in the trunk of the car.  He wondered how it worked but Bob and Ray had no idea.  The following week a caller explained what Hans saw in Germany.

Turns out there were cars and trucks in Europe modified to run on wood gas during World War II as a result of severe fuel rationing.  According to Wikipedia:

In Germany alone, around 500,000 "producer gas" vehicles were in use at the end of the war. Trucks, buses, tractors, motorcycles, ships and trains were equipped with a wood gasification unit. In 1942 (when wood gas had not yet reached the height of its popularity), there were about 73,000 wood gas vehicles in Sweden, 65,000 in France, 10,000 in Denmark, and almost 8,000 in Switzerland. In 1944, Finland had 43,000 "woodmobiles", of which 30,000 were buses and trucks, 7,000 private vehicles, 4,000 tractors and 600 boats.

There are do-it-yourselfers around today who still tinker with these types of vehicles. I had never heard of this before and thought it was fascinating.

According to the website where the image was grabbed, the Volvo above can reach a maximum speed of 120 km/hr (75 mi/hr) and maintain a cruising speed of 110 km/hr (68 mi/hr). The "fuel tank" can contain 30 kg (66 lbs) of wood, good for a range of 100 km (62 mi).  Not good for a cross-country vacation but comparable to electric cars used for short-distance commutes.

So how does it work?  Here's a diagram from Wikipedia:

A. Wood, B. Fire, C. Air Inlet, D. Grating, E. Gases, F.Coarse Filter,
G. Filtered Gases, H. Radiator to Cool Gases, I. Cooled Gases,
J. Fine Filter, K. Wood Gas, and L. Air Mixing & Choke.

Generally, you have a tank for wood (anything from logs to wood chips).  The wood is heated and charred in the sealed container with limited oxygen input. Chemists call this process pyrolysis.  When you burn wood in the presence of oxygen (a fireplace, for example), you produce gaseous H2O and CO2.  In pyrolysis, with limited oxygen, you instead get H2 and CO - both flammable gases.  The smoke is then filtered (to remove soot and tars - not necessary but results in cleaner emissions) and cooled (to increase flammability of the gases).  It's then mixed with a little air and fed into a normal internal combustion engine (you don't really need to modify anything - it will power a standard car engine).

The output from a typical wood gas system consists of the following:

   20%  Carbon monoxide (CO)
   18%  Hydrogen (H2)
   4%  Methane (CH4)
   8%  Carbon dioxide (CO2)
   50%  Nitrogen (N2)

The energy content of wood gas is around 5.7 MJ/kg, compared to 44 MJ/kg for gasoline.  It's certainly not as efficient (or convenient) as gasoline.  But, hey, if times get bad and fossil fuels are in short supply, who knows, it might make a comeback!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

What do faculty do?

I can't tell you the number of times an ignorant person has made a comment to the effect that teaching faculty have cushy jobs because we only work a couple of hours a day (e.g. today I taught from 8:40-10:00 and 11:40-1:00).

The first thing I ask people is if they've ever given a one-hour lecture before.  Then I ask how long it took them to prepare it.  Then I ask them to imagine doing 15 of them a week for four months.  Write a few dozen assignments and a half dozen tests while you're at it.  Grade them.  Doesn't sound so easy now, does it?

As a matter of fact, given a shit-load of work dumped on me recently, I've been at the office until 8 pm on Monday, 7 pm on Tuesday, left "early" at 5:30 pm Wednesday, and 6:00 pm today.  I have to be in before 8:30 most days since I have an 8:40 class.  I also work in the evenings at home (primarily grading and course prep).  And many weekends.  A 9-5 job would be like a fucking vacation.

Faculty at our community college also do a hell of a lot more than simply teach.  Here's a list I came up with off the top of my head.  As a professor and department chair, I do pretty much everything listed below.  I've probably forgetten a few things too.

Job Duties of All Faculty at our Institution:
Course preparation (hundreds of lectures a semester, writing quizzes, writing exams, etc.)
Course grading (quizzes, exams, papers, assignments, labs, etc.)
Upgrading courses (in science, material changes every semester with new discoveries)
Professional development (reading journals, attending conferences, short courses, lectures, webinars, etc.)
Training to use technology (online course management system, school's computer system for registration)
Periodically entering dates of attendance and grades into school computer system for over 100 students
Keeping office hours (4 hours/week minumum)
Student advisement and registration (beyond required office hours)
Meeting with students who need assistance (informal – varying numbers of hours – sometimes all day long)
Writing recommendation letters for students
Textbook evaluation and selection (and meeting with textbook reps)
Assistance with course scheduling
Course assessment (required by our accrediting agency)
Committee work (many faculty are on multiple committees)
Peer evaluation (most faculty at some point take part in faculty evaluation of a colleague)

Some Faculty Routinely Do More:
General Education course assessments (periodically required by SUNY)
Syllabi revisions (most faculty get involved in this at some point)
Faculty Senate and Faculty Association (our union) Executive Committee service
Field trips (including Saturdays with no extra pay) and astronomical night observations
Student Club advisement and activities
Science Olympiad (hosted yearly at our college and a big deal for us in the science department)
Research (some faculty do research and publish at our College)
Grant writing (we have no full-time grant writer at our institution)
Public outreach (e.g. local lectures, presentations, etc.)
Community service (many clubs on Campus and their advisors do stuff for the community)
Service to the college community (e.g. One Book/One College presentations)
Real-world experience supervision (some classes work on outside projects for the community)
Recruitment and scheduling of speakers and performers (who do you think does that?)
Advisory board meetings
New student recruitment (e.g. Open House, high school visits)
Lab setup and takedown (this is beyond normal classroom hours)
Periodic cleaning and maintenance of labs and equipment (somethings can’t be done by housekeeping)
Grading of math and English placement exams
Service on search committees (faculty & staff positions)

Some Faculty are Also Program Coordinators or Department Chairs:
Program review and assessment (required by SUNY)
Extra committees (Chairs serve on several special committees)
Program revisions
Articulation agreements
Course revisions (additions/deletions)
Adjunct recruitment and hiring
Adjunct supervision and mentoring
Adjunct evaluations
Course scheduling
Full-time faculty supervision (complaints about faculty from students & administration comes to chairs)
Supervision of department secretaries
Supervision of Instructional Assistants and Lab Techs
Supervision of student aides
Collegian program supervision (college courses in local high schools)
Developing the yearly budget and strategic plan (a LOT of work)
Hiring new full-time faculty (writing job ads, screening CVs, setting up search committees)
Running department meetings
Purchasing equipment (entering in system, getting a P.O, ordering, delivery, invoice, etc.)
Dealing with random requests from the public
Ad hoc work at Dean’s request (numerous requests every semester)

All that for significantly less money than people with comparable degrees earn in the private sector.

I'm really not complaining, I generally like my job.  Just don't fucking tell me I don't earn my pay.