Friday, March 31, 2006

Einstein's face illusion

Here is an amazing demonstration from Mighty Optical Illusions. Click on the (promotional) video clip to see it in action. Einstein's head follows you as you move.

Good News Friday

I'm adopting the Winds of Change "Good News Friday" theme (at least temporarily) so that I can have an excuse to post this news item I read in The Week magazine (1 April 2006 edition).
A medical professor who suffered a major heart attack while driving was saved by his car crashing into a tree. When Ronald Mann lost consciousness, the car careered off the road and hit a tree. Since his ten-year-old Honda didn't have an airbag, his chest slammed into the steering wheel, jolting his heart back into action.
Talk about good fortune! Here is an on-line link to the story at New Scientist.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Spinning photography of large objects

Found Photograhy has a very interesting write-up on how to create those spinning movies or animated GIFs that you see on commercials and websites these days. His method is intended for large objects, such as automobiles.

(Via Make:Blog)

Monday, March 27, 2006

Check your brain speed using sound

PositScience has a free online test that determines your 'brain speed' by having you assess audio clips. Great for audio buffs who like a challenge (and it is challenging).

How babies learn their first words

Live Science reports on a study by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek (Temple University, USA) into how babies learn their first words. In short, at roughly ten months old, they associate the objects they are interested in with the words they hear at the same time and they can get (temporarily) confused if a different word is being spoken than the correct name of the object that their attention is on. By 18 months, their attention and word learning can be more easily guided by others' gestures and direction of gaze. All this makes sense on a practical level to someone who has reared children. The study appears in the March/April edition of Child Development.

(Image Source: Live Science)

Saturday, March 25, 2006

On the cochlea, Golden Mean, The Da Vinci Code, and low frequency sensitivity

Physics Web reports on work published in Physics Review Letters by the applied mathematician Manoussaki and colleagues on investigating the shape of the human cochlea. The special thing about the cochlea's shape is that it is a classic example of phi, also called the Golden Mean (GM), Golden Ratio (GR), Golden Number, and the Divine Proportion. The GM is a special number that shows up in nature, art, math and music over and over again. It is a never-ending, never-repeating number that starts out 1.6180339887 and keeps going, of course. Other classic examples are the spiral shape of a nautilus shell, the Fibonacci mathematical sequence, the number of petals on many flowers, and the proportions of the human body. Dan Brown highlights it in his bestselling book, and soon to be major motion picture, The Da Vinci Code. For further information on the GM, including examples of it in nature and art, click here and here. For one mathematician's analytical perspective click here.

Getting back to the story, over the years many people have sought to explain why the cochlea is shaped the way it is and, thus far, no one has succeeded, until (possibly) now. Manoussaki, et al, theorize that its GM shape may end up giving a 20dB (decibel) boost to our auditory sensitivity at low frequencies, where humans are particularly deficient to begin with. This is thought to be due to a slight tilt along the width of the cochlea as the spiral gets bigger and bigger, thereby leading to greater movement in response to low frequency stimuli relative to a spiral without such a tilt.

Their theory has some appeal on the face of it as a partial explanation of how we can hear so well with a set of structures that takes high-powered magnification to examine closely. The ear is truly amazing...

(Image Source: Picture of human cochlea from the online picture library of the Hospital of Sick Children)

Saturday, March 18, 2006

We can keep the organ if we all take turns pumping the bellows

The Law of Unintended Consequences raised its head today in this news article on church organs. Getting rid of lead is a good thing, right? Not if you are a pipe organ, it isn't. It turns out that organ pipes are made of 50 percent lead (to give them that characteristic sound). On the face of it, one wouldn't think that in itself would be a problem. The pipes are cast already and even during operation the most that happens to them is that air is blown through them, right?

(An aside: Alright, the analytical/contrarian side of my mind immediately starts considering things like lead dust being blown out amongst the congregation, creating a sort of second-hand 'lead-ing', but no one has reported any such issue that I am aware of, so back to the point of this piece...)
The problem is with the blowing - the air is pushed through the pipes by an electric blower. Here is where the Law comes in. The European Union has a set of directives (EU Directive 2002 95/EC RoHS and EU Directive 2002 96/EC WEEE) that dictate that electrical devices can have no more than 0.1 percent lead. Pipe organs have an electric blower, therefore they are electrical devices and either must be refurbished or replaced.

The other considerations my anayltical mind latched onto about the lead, its lifecycle, and impacts on the environment and human health are all reported to be non-issues. So, it all comes down to unintended consequences - at least one hopes that it was unintended. We don't have many 1,000 year old traditions in the first place and even fewer that have brought so much awe, joy, inspiration, and pleasure to the ears and hearts of so many. What would Mozart or Bach have to say about this, I wonder?

(Image source: the website of the Rieger Pipe Organ in the Christchurch Town Hall, New Zealand)

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Bloggies and "Bad Astronomy"

The 2006 Bloggies weblog awards have been announced. I perused most of the winning and nominated blogs this morning and liked The Bad Astronomy Blog the best. You will be able to find it under the Imaging and Astronomy Links on the righthand side of this blog's home page starting today. Enjoy!

Monday, March 13, 2006

Star Gazing Accessory - SkyScout

The Celestron SkyScout falls into the category of Good Gifts for Geeks. This device, which Celestron markets as your "Personal Planetarium", integrates a small finderscope, GPS (doesn't everything, these days?), LCD display, headphone jack, and database into a neat accessory for star gazing. You are supposed to be able to just point it at a celestial object and it will identify it. The SkyScout will also tell you something about it and its fellow stars, if it is part of a constellation. The SkyScout can also help you locate a celestial object by allowing you to choose from a list and then follow the arrows on the LCD to turn the viewfinder in the correct direction. The list even includes 'Tonight's Highlights'.

The LCD's color looks to be reddish-orangish, so it shouldn't kill your low-light vision. It has a USB port for updating the software and database, as well as an SD card port for inserting audio lesson recordings from Celestron.

I can see how the SkyScout would be particularly useful for urban skywatching (where constellations can be hard to identify due to the dimmer stars being washed out by light pollution) and for adults trying to get their children interested in the stars.

It seems pretty well thought out based on the specifications on Celestron's website and the reviews I've read. I haven't seen one yet myself but I'm looking forward to it. Speaking of which, the Celestron website says it will start shipping in May.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

BBC Human Body and Mind Site

BBC is a publicly-supported news service in the UK and, as such, it provides a good deal of educational material in fulfillment of its mission. I recently came across the section of their site on the Human Body and Mind. It is well worth browsing through, although the layout is a bit confusing. The animation of the human auditory system is the best I've seen (requires Flash).

PS. In case you have kids of your own or work with them, the BBC web site also has lots of math and reading exercises (games) for kids and several are quite good. Try this link to start.

PPS. If you are into astronomy, their Sky at Night television series is quite good. You can watch it online and see other information here.