Curiosity-Colored Glasses

Looking at life's little mysteries through the same lens that killed the cat, and living to tell the tale.

The measure of a mountain

Guest post by 

Hannity O'Lemon

I remember learning that Mauna Kea, a volcano that forms one of the Hawai'ian islands, was actually "taller" than Mt Everest, when comparing the height from their respective bases to their peaks. This got me to thinking about how mountains are measured. It turns out the height of a mountain as listed on a map is simply the peak's altitude above sea level. It seemed strange to me that the measurement of land formations would be so dependent on a sea measurement. Perhaps most perplexing was the question then of how mountains on other planets, like Mars' Olympus Mons, were measured? Where was the "base" of a mountain determined to begin without a sea to compare it against?  Read more

How does carbonless copy paper work?

by Lia Prins

Carbonless copy paper is a type of coated paper designed to transfer information written on the front onto sheets beneath. It was developed by chemists Lowell Schleicher and Barry Green, as an alternative to carbon paper and is sometimes misidentified as such. Instead of inserting a special sheet in between the original and the intended copy, carbonless copy paper has micro-encapsulated dye or ink on the back side of the top sheet, and a clay coating on the front side of the bottom sheet. When pressure is applied (from writing or impact printing), the dye capsules rupture and react with the clay to form a permanent mark duplicating the markings made to the top sheet. Intermediary sheets, with clay on the front and dye capsules on the back, can be used to create multiple copies; this may be referred to as multipart stationery.  Read more

Do indoor trees have growth rings?

Guest post by 

Sheriff of Chopping­ham (looks like a wolf)

When Andrew Ellicott Douglas, director of the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory, published his fascinating chronicle of discovery in National Geographic nearly seven decades ago, it was clear to him that he had found a long-overlooked "key to prehistoric chronology." Perhaps even more startling, was his sense that one day the concentric rings of wood laid down by trees as they grew would be a barometer for measuring future climate: "When a real theory of climate has been developed and we can predict drought and flood over a period of years, this Arizona story in tree rings will have played a creditable part in developing that climatic foresight which is perhaps the most valuable economic advantage yet lying beyond our reach."  Read more

Helium harvest

by Lia Prins

One of the most abundant elements in the universe is getting harder to come by. Helium goes into a lot more than balloons. Because the gas is inert and has extreme melting and boiling points—both near absolute zero—scientists use it in cryogenics, high-energy accelerators, arc welding, and silicon wafer manufacturing. A severe reduction in the availability of helium could force hospitals to replace costly MRI magnets or restrict patient access to them. Let's see what's going on.  Read more

Testing Forrest Gump’s chocolate box credo: do you really never know what you’re gonna get?

by Lia Prins

Forrest Gump was wrong. There is a way to know what you’re going to get in a box of chocolates — mostly. This time of year, at least in the US, the gift packages and treats come flying in (sometimes literally) from vendors and customers. People are saying “thank you” or “hey, how about sending some more business our way” — and they’re doing it the international language of business: food.  Read more

Fluorescence and phosphorescence

Guest post by 

Sheriff of Chopping­ham (looks like a wolf)

The production of light from heat, or incandescence, is familiar to everyone. But other processes can also yield light – without ever using heat. The term photoluminescence describes a process that produces light using light energy. Two forms of photoluminescence: fluorescence and phosphorescence, are defined by the length of time the emitted light continues to glow. Fluorescence refers to the immediate release of light, where light is emitted within a fraction of a second after excitation. Phosphorescence refers to the release of light that lasts longer – sec­onds or even hours after the excitation has stopped. Phosphorescence is a longer-lasting process than fluorescence because of the structure of the molecules at the quantum level. The energy transitions from excited, higher energy states to stable ground states are “forbidden” by quantum rules. In real terms, they do in fact occur, but at such low probabilities that these energy transitions last a very long time.  Read more

License plate logic and secret codes

by Lia Prins

Formats for license plate numbers may be consistent within the state. For example, Delaware and Rhode Island were formerly able to use six-digit all-numeric serials due to their low respective populations. Several populous states use seven-character formats of three letters and four numbers, including 1ABC234 in California and ABC1234, ABC 1234, or ABC-1234 in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and Washington. Other formats include Florida, which uses ABC-D12; Connecticut, which uses AB-12345; Illinois, which uses AB 12345; and Maryland, which uses 1AB2345. However, many states, such as Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, and Wisconsin, use a 3-letter, 3-number format in the format ABC-123, 123-ABC, or some variant thereof.  Read more

Penmanship dialects of the Roman alphabet

by Lia Prins

Believe it or not, the way in which we form our letters can often help identify our culture of origin and even our mother tongue. Although we may achieve a high level of fluency in another language, it’s surprisingly hard to abandon the style of penmanship that we were first taught. Whether it’s the length of our pen strokes or where we place a cross bar, our handwriting retains our cultural identity through all the languages we learn to write in. The order in which we make strokes when writing letters is just one example of our handwriting ‘accent’.  Read more

Myth busting mosquito bites

Guest post by 

Off, with 100% real Deet

You’re trying your best to enjoy an evening cookout, but a constant swarm of mosquitoes follows you from grill to poolside. The threat? A pierce to your skin, leaving behind an itchy red welt and possibly even a serious illness. As you swat madly at the pests, you notice that others seem completely unfazed. Could it be that mosquitoes prefer to bite some people over others?  Read more