Posts for Category Science

Aug 102010

Yep: “The theory of relativity is a mathematical system that allows no exceptions. It is heavily promoted by liberals who like its encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the world.” Apparently the home-school crowd thinks relativity and relativism are the same thing just because they sound similar.

May 312010

sailing off the edgeThis recent Radiolab podcast has two fascinating stories about the links between language and the mind. In the second story, researchers at the Nun Study found a strong correlation between the complexity of the sentences in letters that nuns wrote when they were 18 years old and which of the nuns ended up with Alzheimer’s later in life: the nuns who were writing sentences with high idea complexity were far less likely to develop Alzheimer’s.

This got me thinking about myself, of course. I feel like I tend to go back and forth between two extremes of writing—either very simple sentences or very complex ones, and not so much in the middle. Out of curiosity I went and dug around for some of my writing from high school and college, to see if my writing style was sufficiently complex and dense. I haven’t found many school papers yet but I did find some of my “literary” writing from that time.

I have not drawn any conclusions about my idea density, but what I noticed immediately is that my writing style, voice, and thematic preferences don’t seem to have changed much in the last 21 years. I don’t know whether that says more about who I was then (fully developed) or who I am now (never progressed).

Here’s an example (the pseudonym must have seemed clever at the time). I don’t remember writing it back then—whether it was a high school English class assignment or a spontaneous expression—but I can easily imagine myself having written exactly the same thing yesterday.

A Fable

William Eponymous Anonymous

Once upon a time, a long time ago, a young man set out to prove that the world was round, and not flat as most people of that day believed. When he set out, many people laughed at him, as they thought his idea ridiculous. Secure in his faith, he continued undaunted, ignoring their mockery. Well, he was wrong. The world was flat, and he sailed right over the edge, never to be heard from again. 

The End.

And the moral, you ask? Well, when I read fables, I often find that what the author thinks is the main point is not what I think to be the main point. This always makes me feel like I’m missing something. So, I’ll list for you all of the morals I can find in this fable, and you can choose the one(s) that suit you best. Or make up your own.

Here, then, are a few suggestions, in no particular order:

  • When people laugh at what you set out to do, give up and don’t bother: you’re probably wrong anyway.
  • Do what you think is right, regardless of what others say.
  • The world is flat.
  • Don’t sail.
  • Don’t try to prove anything to anyone, including yourself.
  • Sometimes faith just isn’t enough.
  • Things often don’t work out like we expect them to.

Now you decide.

And yes, I know it would have to have been a very long time ago, as the idea that medieval explorers (which is probably what I was envisioning here) still thought the world was flat is a modern myth. But that is definitely not the moral of the story.

May 232010

It’s a rainy day here at Bill’s Head World Headquarters, where I’ve been working this morning on re-posting some old material. (If you’re reading this by RSS, you might want to peruse the Language and Word of the Day categories for these golden oldies, since they’re back-dated and therefore won’t appear in your feed.)

I posted the gruft entry, and the continuing rain theme made me think of “petrichor”, defined by the OED as “a pleasant, distinctive smell frequently accompanying the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather in certain regions.” It’s also the word for the mixture of organic compounds that collects on the ground and is believed to produce the smell.

I think I remember reading a really nice article about petrichor long ago, but I can’t find it now. The Word Detective has a brief discussion of petrichor here. Have I mentioned recently that you should be reading The Word Detective?

Want to know more about the sciencey details? You might care to read this “Genesis of petrichor” paper by I.J. Bear and R.G. Thomas:

Several possible mechanisms have been considered in connection with the origin of this odour. These include the synthesis of odorous compounds on the clay or rock surface by spontaneous catalysis of atmospheric gases, the sorption of organic compounds from the atmosphere, catalytic transformation of sorbed compounds and microbial activity. Evidence is presented which suggests the atmosphere contains, as general contaminants, lipids, terpenes, carotenoids and other volatile decomposition products from animal and vegetable matter. The sorption of these compounds, or their oxygenated derivatives, by rocks and clays is controlled by the properties of the sorbent and the partial water vapour pressure of the atmosphere, low relative humidities favouring maximum uptake. Oxidation and transformation of sorbates take place on the rock surface and are accelerated by warm to hot climatic conditions. The odorous and volatile products of these processes are subsequently displaced from the pores of the rock by moisture when the relative humidity of the atmosphere approaches saturation.The possibility of a relationship between petrichor and petroleum formation is discussed.

Or you could search around to find more information for free.