Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Something Interesting About The Kilogram

You may or may not have heard, but there is an object in this world which is "the kilogram".

"Nonsense", you may say. "A kilogram is the weight of a litre of water".

"Nay", I reply, "The kilogram is a cylinder with a height and diameter of 39.17 millimetres, made of a platinum and iridium alloy (90% platinum to 10% iridium), known as the International Prototype Kilogram, which is stored in an environmentally monited safe in the lower vault of the basement of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures's House of Breteuil in Sèvres on the outskirts of Paris, with six sister copies. The vault can only be opened by three independently controlled keys (much like the urban legends concerning the formula for Coca-Cola)."

"Cor blimey!" you might reply, with a stunned expression.

"That's not all!" I respond with a grin. "The modern IPK is not the original kilogram - the original "kilogram", or the Kilogram of the Archives, was a cylinder made of solid platinum - but the IPK's mass has been found to be indestinguishable from that of the Kilogram of the Archives - which was made ninety years earlier."

"Wow. That's impressive."

"That's SCIENCE!"

Something Interesting About Holding Your Breath

Have you ever noticed that when you swim underwater, you can hold your breath for much longer than if you were just sitting above water not breathing?

This is because of a physiological response known as the mammalian diving reflex. When cold water (lower than 21 degrees Celsius) touches your face, changes happen in your body that allow you to hold your breath for longer. Let me just break from my professional tone for a moment:


The human body never ceases to amaze me.

(Warning - jargony biology-talk ahead)

I particularly like this because it supports the idea that humans retain features that are adaptations to an aquatic lifestyle, whether from the primordial soup that all life on earth evolved from, or whether humans as we know them - bipedal apes - once lived in a soggy environment that selected for features such as our down-turned nostrils and the webbed fingers and toes that some people still retain (I have heard of people being born with non-functional gills below the skin of their necks too, but this is probably related to the primordial-soup origins). Some biologists argue this aquatic origin theory passionately, saying that our long, muscular legs first evolved for swimming, and became useful for running later, after our wet habitat dried out, an idea I quite like on the basis of whimsy but one that I have not yet committed to in terms of scientific belief.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Dangerous Animals in Boxes

My friend Andi has, among a varied and interesting list of interests, a penchant for wild food and unusual pets. My other friend Alex - although there are far more interesting things about him than this - makes beehives for a living. So when Andi and Alex met, they got talking about bees. I was sort of half-listening to the talk of bees, until Alex said something along the lines of:

To get yourself some bees, find a swarm in a tree and take a cardboard box. Bang on the tree so that the queen falls into the box, and the other bees will follow her in. Then close the box. And then you've got a swarm in a box.

I was very entertained by the prospect of a SWARM OF BEES in a CARDBOARD BOX - much to the confusion of Andi and Alex I suspect - and what immediately sprang to mind was a trebuchet. Dead cows used to be flung over the walls of castles and cities under siege to spread disease and lower moral - flinging a box of bees would do much the same thing! (why a trebuchet, you ask? It's a cool word, and they're more accurate than catapults. My brother calls them trench buckets). Even if one didn't have a trebuchet, a box of bees would still be a deadly weapon. If it were a particularly flimsy or simply damp cardboard box, one could simply throw it at an opponent and run like mad.

All of which brought me to thinking... what other animals would be equally dangerous when packaged in cardboard? Here's an example of one from xkcd:

Bobcat in a box. Beautiful in its simplicity. Although the cat shown above has a long tail, and not the "bobtail" of a bobcat. Perhaps the buyer mistook a simple housecat, infuriated by containment in a cardboard box, for a bobcat by its wrath? Housecats in boxes can be very dangerous indeed.


Has anyone else read this?
My cat certainly likes to hide in boxes.

So dangerous animals in boxes. We have already established bees, bobcats and housecats. What else?

  • Anything feline at all. We're not limited to bobcats and housecats. Think servals* and caracals, tigers and snow leopards. As long as the box is big enough. There's a pretty big box in my bedroom  (I don't know what it's from, but I use it as a bedside table) that would fit a clouded leopard. I'm not sure what sort of box you could get a Barbary Lion or Siberian Tiger into. Maybe the ones that fridges come in? Remember - the smaller the box, the more pissed-off the cat! (please read disclaimer regarding comments like this one).

  • Moray eels. Moray eels are dangerous anyway, and putting one in a cardboard box would make it angry - not a good combination with the moray eel's teeth, which are long and sharp and angled inwards (thanks for the biology lesson, Thomas Harris!). Once a moray eel bites you, there is no getting it off.

  • Wasps. Even more dangerous than bees, as wasps can sting multiple times, making a swarm of wasps more dangerous than a swarm of bees of an equal size.

  • Wolverines. Well, the name just says it all.

  • Waterfowl. Ducks aren't so bad, but geese and swans? They will bite you. Their beaks are not so sharp as those of the cockatoo, but they are hard and give you bruises and are on the ends of long necks that can seemingly extend to get you just when you think you're out of reach.

  • Box jellyfish. They're called box because they're box-shaped... just the right shape to hide in a box and then leap out and kill you! Seriously, even without boxes they kill people. I always wondered why they didn't have a more deadly name - now I know. Boxes are deadly.

  • Spitting cobras. Duh.

  • Eeeeeeeeeeeeeagles.
I am starting to run out of ideas, however I am sure the list does not end there. Feel free to add to it!

Disclaimer: However much I may be amused by the thought of flinging an animal in a box at someone using a trebuchet (or any other means), it is only the idea I find entertaining and the reality would be sick, twisted and cruel. I do not advocate cruelty of any sort towards any living thing, and do not recommend that anyone attempt to force any animal into a cardboard box against its will. Any outlandish claims in this blog are for the purposes of humour and do not reflect my own beliefs (unless I state otherwise).

*The late Sam, the serval formerly of Franklin Zoo was the only serval I ever met, but he was a grumpy critter. May he rest in peace.

Hey, where did summer come from?

So all of a sudden it's summer now! The sun is shining. The trees are green. The grass is brown. The sheep haven't started dying yet (touch wood). There's a long wooden deck along the front of our house that the living room and all the bedrooms open out onto. We use this deck as a thoroughfare between different parts of the house, as it's more direct than the hallway inside. However, the shady part of the deck is now filled with deck furniture that shouldn't be left in the sun (because the fabric parts will fade and the wood and metal parts will become too hot to sit on). So we have to walk along the sunny part of the deck, which is actually too hot to walk on in bare feet - jandals must be worn. Stepping outside feels like walking through water, the air is so hot and thick.

We've got this temperature doodad - I think Dad bought it on a whim or something - that shows indoor and outdoor temperature. The outdoor temperature is measured by a little plastic doodad that sends it to the bigger plastic doodad inside. Here's the little plastic doodad sitting on the edge of our big wooden table in the sun, where I put it this morning:

Yes, that is a lazy susan in the middle of the table.

So I put it there and left it for a while. And when eventually I looked at the big plastic doodad inside, this is what it said:

That at the top - 13:25 - was the time (1:25 pm). In the middle is the indoor temperature - 23.6 degrees Celsisus. And at the bottom next to my thumb, it says 45.7 degrees Celsius.


That's 114.26 Fahrenheit. I hypothesise that the actual outdoor air temperature in rural southern Auckland is not actually 45.7 degrees, but that the little plastic doodad is measuring the temperature of the hot wooden table, which has been in the sun for a looooong time. Right now, the big plastic doodad says that the time is 2pm, the indoor temperature is 24.1 degrees and the table outside is 45.1. It's gone down, but still! 45.1!

And this is the sort of weather that makes my parents come inside and say "It's a beautiful day! Why aren't you outside?" I love lying in the sun and reading as much as anyone else, but I'd rather not get second-degree burns from the deck furniture. It's a shame. My brother took me to the library and I've got some thrilling books to read - foremost among them The Philosopher at the end of the Universe and The Medici Giraffe.