Friday, November 6, 2009


The first day or so, we all pointed to our countries. The third or fourth day, we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day, we were aware of only one Earth.

Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Saudi Arabian astronaut

quote found in the book "Billions & Billions" by Carl Sagan

Friday, September 11, 2009

the Universe, by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut, probably my favorite author, wrote this:

"To all my friends and relatives in Alcoholics Anonymous," I began, "I say that they were right to become intoxicated. Life without moments of intoxication is not worth 'a pitcher of spit,' as the felicitous saying goes. They simply chose what was for them a deadly poison on which to get drunk.

"Good examples of harmless toots are some of the things children do. They get smashed for hours on some strictly limited aspect of the Great Big Everything, the Universe, such as water or snow or mud or colors or rocks (throwing little ones, looking under big ones), or echoes or funny sounds from the voicebox or banging on a drum and so on. Only two people are involved: the child and the Universe. The child does a little something to the Universe, and the Great Big Everything does something funny or beautiful or som
etimes disappointing or scary or even painful in return. The child teaches the Universe how to be a good playmate, to be nice instead of mean.

From "Fates Worse than Death" and "Bluebeard"

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Tie tie tie dye dye dye

My girlfriend threw a tie-dye party recently, which by all accounts was a much larger success than the tie-dye party I threw a year or two ago. My party mainly involved me alone in my kitchen, tie-dying my socks and underwear with cheap Rit dye that I bought from the grocery store. Here is what my socks ended up looking like (notice all the bleeding that occurred):

My gf's party differed from mine in three crucial ways: 1-other people were present; 2-she printed off patterns so we knew how to make those awesome spirals and stuff; 3-she used expensive "fiber-reactive dyes" that tend not to bleed or fade. Here is how some of our best items turned out (notice the white whites, and vibrant colors):

Friday, July 17, 2009

the moon dude, the moon

Unfortunately right now the moon is waning (each night less area visible from earth is illuminated by the sun).

But once the moon comes back in all its glory, you should go outside and stare at it for a while. I am serious. You should try do this as much as possible, it can be kind of like meditation, which might improve your health.

Forty years ago the first chunks of living, conscious earth matter purposefully moved themselves from their home of the past 4.6 billion years to personally investigate and witness the earth's long-time companion, the moon.  The little astronauts and their little ship, which you can think of as little tiny particles of the earths' crust--earth particles, traveled over 200,000 miles! In absolute vacuum!! What were those earth particles thinking???!!! So dangerous! (p.s. I'm mega jealous). Now, in case you didn't go outside and stare at it yet, here is a high-quality picture of the moon (click for bigger picture):

Thursday, June 18, 2009

9/11 conspiracy theory, thermite

I was thinking about buying some flares off this guy at a yard sale. He was wearing a hat that looked like this:

I wondered aloud about what the flares were made of. The ensuing conversation went something like this:
Guy: "They're made of thermite. Same thing they used to bring down the twin towers."
Me: "Oh yeah?"
Guy: "Totally dude. They found molten iron at ground zero. Molten iron, I shit you not. That stuff melts at 1500 degrees Celsius."
Me: "Well, that makes sense, a plane full of jet fuel crashed into the building."
Guy: "No, it doesn't make sense man. Jet fuel burns at 1000 degrees Celsius. It couldn't possibly have melted the iron. Thermite, that's what did it."
Me: "Hhhhmmmm. I'm sorry, but I don't think jet fuel burns at any specific temperature. I believe it depends on the rate it burns and how fast the heat is carried away."
Guy: "No way man, you should look it up."
Me: "Okay."

Friday, June 5, 2009

on the importance of being earnest about oxygen

Last year in lab, this guy got burnt semi-badly when his oil bath caught fire (actually this story has the odd quirk that I never saw the guy, so i don't know how badly he was hurt, but I can promise you he exists). Actually oil bath fires are not so dangerous, but how you extinguish them can be really dangerous. The molecule that explains why this is so is oxygen. Before I explain, watch this video to see how bad oil fires can get:

Monday, May 4, 2009

Hubble Ultra Deep Field

Today we're going to talk about what you can see and can't see when you look up into the night sky. Let's see where it takes us.

Step outside tonight and gaze into the heavens. Almost all of the lights you see up there are stars that are in our very own milky way galaxy. If you're like me, you live in a city and can't see but a handful of stars. So, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, here is what the sky looks like from the middle of the desert (definitely click on this to see the big version, definitely).

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

we are the byproducts of exploding stars

Today I am going to tell you where the atoms in your body came from.

Below you will find the periodic table of the elements. Stick with me, cuz this will melt your mind. Each of these elements has a different size nucleus. The nucleus is the very tiny very heavy part of the atom. Nuclei are made of these things called protons and neutrons, and the more protons that the atom's nucleus has, the higher the atomic number (atomic # increases left to right, top to bottom, just like reading)(different atoms of a given element can have different number of neutrons). Those are the basics, now on to the really good stuff.

Paul McCartney = the Universe

Paul McCartney at coachella 2009 was probably the best show of my life. It had everything, and made me think a lot about the universe. Read on. I could not stop feeling that this was probably one of the most amazing things ever witnessed on planet earth, ever. The songs were so perfectly crafted, the jumbo-tron so big, the fireworks so bright.

All this, happening in the middle of the desert. An artifical oasis. We drove all day, knowing that hundreds of gallons of clean, fresh water had been shipped to the middle of the desert for us, grass grown on sand for us, tents, pools, tesla coils, flames.... unbelievable. We live like kings.

Between songs McCartney addressed the crowd: "hello coachella, california, usa, earth, solar system, galaxy, universe!" Try going through this in your head from where you are right now, picturing each step...i mean it, don't just read, try it...go slow, it's better that way I think... couch, house, berkeley, california, usa, earth, solar system, galaxy, universe. I stop being able to imagine it realistically somewhere between california and earth. It's impossible to really comprehend, how tiny we are relative to everything else. The known universe is so huge relative to the milky way galaxy, which is enormous relative to planet earth... and so on.

This thought process was even more incomprehensible in front of Paul McCartney. If this show, at this time, in this place, was as huge and amazing as it seemed to be... and I think it was...then how could I possibly imagine anything bigger. How insanely big is the earth, solar system, galaxy, universe? Think about it. Would the concert have blown my mind if I was watching it from another planet?

Which is more amazing, the existence of the universe, or the existence of life within it?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

"Duck, Duck, Clam" or "Awesome Adaptations"

We were sitting underneath a tree in the mountain view cemetery on a sunny day in Oakland. The bay and the golden gate were laid out in front of us in all their glory and the dead bodies were laid out below us in all their sarcophagi.  Suddenly, a cute duck couple landed a few feet away from us.  They looked pretty much like this:

Cute duck couple: top left, male - bottom right, female.
We thought about giving them some food, but all we had were these disgusting circus peanuts in the shape of bunnies. We didn't want to poison the ducks with the same stuff with which we poison ourselves, so we kept the bunnies hidden.

Magic Eye of bunny-shaped circus peanuts.  Cross your eyes and a new image will appear (j/k).
The female duck was quacking and waddling around like a duck should, but the male duck was hobbling along pitifully a few feet behind.  Upon closer inspection it seemed that the male duck's foot had become totally rotten, as a dark mass could be seen on the bottom of its leg. It looked like this, except really gross:

Friday, April 3, 2009

"Weed Science" or "Activation Explained!!"

This is the chemical structure of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive substituent of weed:

If I were to make THC in the lab, this is how I would do it (please don't be freaked out by all the chemical structures, they aren't completely necessary to understanding this story, but I find they help):

Looks pretty easy, right?  haha!!!

Plants however, make THC like this (ref):

Notice that there is an extra COOH group on the THC when the plant makes it. This difference is critical to understanding why people use weed the way they do.