Special Relativity at 105

Albert Einstein in 1905 (Berne Historical Museum)

One hundred five years ago today, an obscure Swiss patent clerk by the name of Albert Einstein published his revolutionary paper “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” – one of the four “Annus Mirabilis” papers published in 1905 — introducing his concept of what later came to be known as special relativity, and initiating a new era in physics.

Published in: on June 30, 2010 at 4:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

Summer 2010 Consumer Information Catalog Now Available

The new Summer 2010 edition of the Federal Citizen Information Center’s Consumer Information Catalog has arrived. Copies are available free, on a first-come-first-serve basis, on the octagonal display of new arrivals at the library entrance.

The Consumer Information Catalog is chock full of free and low-cost brochures, pamphlets, books and other documents from a number of government agencies and departments on an extraordinary range of subjects, all available from the Federal Citizen Information Center.

(If you prefer, you may also order your own copy direct from the Federal Citizen Information Center website.)

Published in: on June 28, 2010 at 1:10 pm  Leave a Comment  


Ninety-six years ago today, on June 28th 1914, Austria Hungary’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg empire’s throne, and his morganatic wife Sophie, Dutchess of Hohenberg, were assassinated in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip, a young Bosnian Serb.

This deed was arguably the single most decisive act of the twentieth century, eventuating in the First World War and all its consequences – results which resonate to the present day.

For those interested in the immediate consequences of the assassination, an excellent classic and a perfect place to begin is with historian Barbara Tuchman’s great work on the opening days of the First World War, The Guns of August.

The automobile in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand and wife were assassinated (Military History Museum, Vienna)

Gavrilo Princip Arrested In Sarayevo, June 1914

Published in: on June 28, 2010 at 12:37 pm  Leave a Comment  

Seventh Graders Discover Cave On Mars

Martian Skylight Into Lava Tube at Pavonis Mons (NASA/JPL-CalTech-ASU)

Sixteen seventh graders in a science class at Evergreen Middle School in Cottonwood, California, have discovered what appears to be a pit linking an underground lava tube to the surface of Mars.

Working as part of the Mars Student Imaging Program offered jointly by NASA and Arizona State University, the middle school students have submitted the site as a candidate for high resolution imaging by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

For further information see NASA’s Seventh Graders Find A Cave On Mars.

Published in: on June 27, 2010 at 9:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

How Much Water Is There In Earth’s Oceans?

Estimates of Mean Ocean Depth Over Time (Matthew Charette WHOI/Walter Smith NOAA)

“If you want to know the water volume on the planet, you Google it and you get five different numbers, most of them 30- or 40-year-old values.”
— Matthew Charette, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

A new study by scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published last month in the journal Oceanography has significantly improved estimates of the total amount of water in the Earth’s oceans. Using satellite measurements, the researchers have determined that “the world’s total ocean volume is less than the most recent estimates by a volume equivalent to about five times the Gulf of Mexico, or 500 times the Great Lakes. While that might seem a lot at first glance, it is only about 0.3% lower than the estimates of thirty years ago.”

Calculating a mean oceanic depth of 3,682.2 meters (21 to 51 meters less than previous estimates) yields a total volume of water in the oceans in the vicinity of 1.332 billion cubic kilometers.

Want to learn more about the methods used or other details of the study? See this release from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Published in: on June 27, 2010 at 1:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

Hayabusa Returns: More Citizen Science in Action

Hayabusa spacecraft disintegrates upon re-entry (NASA)

“Last year, high school science teacher Ron Dantowitz of Brookline, Mass., played a clever trick on three of his best students. He asked them to plan a hypothetical mission to fly onboard a NASA DC-8 aircraft and observe a spacecraft disintegrate as it came screaming into Earth’s atmosphere. How would they record the event? What could they learn?

“For 6 months, they worked hard on their assignment, never suspecting the surprise Dantowitz had in store.

“On March 12th, he stunned them with the news: ‘The mission is real, and you’re going along for the ride.’”

NASA reports on three teenage students who made very real contributions to science when they developed observational, tracking and spectroscopic procedures to analyze the high speed re-entry to earth’s atmosphere of Japan’s Hayabusa probe, returning from its sample mission to asteroid Itokawa.

See Students Record Spellbinding Video of Disintegrating Spacecraft, complete with video of the fiery re-entry.

For more, see the Hayabusa Re-Entry Airborne Observing Campaign website and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hayabusa website.

Published in: on June 25, 2010 at 9:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

Korean War: 60th Anniversary

Sixty years ago today the first significant military conflict of the Cold War began when North Korean forces invaded the southern half of the divided peninsula. After a remarkable series of boomerang retreats and advances, the war ended in a stalemate three years later with the border substantially where it was when the conflict began — and where it remains to this day.

Want to learn more? An excellent and engaging classic work, John Toland’s brilliant narrative history of the conflict In Mortal Combat Korea, 1950-1953 remains one of the very best places to begin. Highly recommended for anyone curious about the origins and course of an all-too-often ignored war.

Published in: on June 25, 2010 at 4:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

Custer’s Last Stand

George Armstrong Custer during the Civil War, a dozen years before the Last Stand (Library of Congress)

One hundred thirty four year’s ago today, Custer’s Last Stand ended at Little Big Horn, with the total extinction of Custer’s immediate command – nearly a third of the entire 7th Cavalry.

Here’s what the Library of Congress writes of those events:

“After gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874, white miners flocked into territory ceded to the Sioux less than ten years earlier. Although the second Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) clearly granted the tribe exclusive use of the Black Hills, in the winter of 1875, the U.S. ordered the Sioux to return to their reservation by the end of January. With many Indians out of the range of communication and many others hostile to the order, the U.S. Army prepared for battle.

“On May 17, 1876, Lieutenant Colonel Custer led the 750 men of the 7th United States Cavalry Regiment out of Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory. Commanded by Brigadier General Alfred H. Terry, Custer’s division was part of an expedition intended to locate and rout tribes organized for resistance under Chief Sitting Bull. Hoping to entrap Sitting Bull in the Little Big Horn area, Terry ordered Custer to follow the Rosebud River while he brought the majority of the men down the Yellowstone River. After meeting at the mouth of the Little Big Horn, they planned to force the Lakota Sioux and the Cheyenne back to their reservations.

“Custer found Sitting Bull encamped on the Little Bighorn River in Montana. Instead of waiting for Terry, the lieutenant colonel chose to wage an immediate attack. He divided his forces into several groups and headed out. Quickly encircled by their enemy, the five companies under Custer’s immediate command were slaughtered in less than an hour. Over the next two days, the remnants of the 7th Cavalry fought for their lives as they waited in vain for Custer to relieve them.

“On June 27, the Indians retreated as reinforcements arrived. Expecting to meet Custer and prepare for battle, General Terry discovered the bodies of Custer and his men. Nearly a third of the men of the 7th Cavalry, including Custer and his brother, died at Little Big Horn. A stunning but short-lived victory for Native Americans, the Battle of Little Big Horn galvanized the public against the Indians. In response, federal troops poured into the Black Hills.”

Sitting Bull in 1885, nearly a dozen years after the events at the Little Big Horn (Library of Congress)

Published in: on June 25, 2010 at 2:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

2010 Computer Class Schedule

Published in: on June 24, 2010 at 4:46 pm  Leave a Comment  

Modeling on the Street

“Unfortunately, the U.S. economic system now finds itself crippled by a real-life technology-gone-wrong story line. In this case, the culprit is not a Pentagon fighting machine, but rather the computer-based modeling and trading programs developed for Wall Street over the last quarter century.”

With a considerably more nuanced appraisal than implied in that initial quotation, Joseph Fuller thoughtfully explores the role of extremely sophisticated computer trading models and their indispensable yet hazardous integration into the contemporary financial system. He then recommends a variety of measures to ameliorate the potential harms while preserving the benefits of these innovative systems.

See The Terminator Comes to Wall Street in the American Scholar for an interesting perspective on the state of our domestic and global financial systems.

Published in: on June 24, 2010 at 12:40 pm  Comments (1)  

The Enlightened Revolution

“A modern Wal-Mart would have been a place of incalculable riches to Charlemagne.”

“As befits a scholar of human knowledge, Mokyr’s overarching thesis is about the power of ideas. His grand idea is that the practical, avaricious inventors of the industrial revolution owed much to the academic, but worldly, philosophers of the Enlightenment.”

Writing for the New Republic, Edward Glaser reviews Joel Mokyr’s The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain, 1700-1850 in Thinkers and Tinkerers:

“It is easy to envision the massive mills of Manchester and think that the Industrial Revolution was all about scale and machines. But there was more. At its core, this economic and technological revolution was created by connected groups of smart people who stole each others’ ideas and implemented them. I tend to think that the chain of interrelated insights that brought us industrialization could have happened in other countries and at other times, but there is every reason to think that the Enlightenment had readied England’s intellectual soil for industrial innovation. Not least because it persuades readers of the plausibility of such an unlikely and colorful causation, Mokyr’s book is a splendid achievement.”

Published in: on June 24, 2010 at 11:43 am  Leave a Comment  

On Books, #50

Published in: on June 23, 2010 at 5:20 pm  Leave a Comment