Category Archives: Science

They All Fall Down

I found this on You Tube yesterday – got to it from one of my favorite science blogs.

This is amazing to me for a couple of reasons. First off, it’s not just the work of laying out all the dominoes.  You don’t just come in one morning and start randomly setting up dominoes.  Something of this complexity needs to be mapped out ahead of time and I means seriously mapped out.  You have to know exactly how much space you need, you need to know how much time it takes for domino trails to fall, you need to know how many of each color, you need to know how to set them up so you know what they’ll look like when they fall down… a pretty long list.

But I think one of the most amazing things is that you don’t really get to test this. It took a team of 19 individuals from around the world a week to get it all set up.  There is no test-run.  You pull the first string and then you hold your breath for the 12 minutes it takes.  You really have to have confidence in your abilities to take part in something like this.  I’m not sure I have enough obsession or emotional strength for it!

What feat of engineering do you admire?


Making Predictions

I was happy to wake up on September 24 and find that the world hadn’t ended as David Meade, biblical numerologist, had predicted. I believe he recalculated after he found things were still the same on the 24th as they were on the 23rd, and predicted another date for our demise  on  October 15th.  The rogue planet Nibiru, violating all physics principles, is predicted to collide with earth and set in motion all sorts of rannygazoo.   We shall have to see what happens. I believe that is the date of  Blevin’s book club.  At least you will all be together.

It isn’t easy to make accurate predictions.  Our world is so random that people search for certainty and cling to the idea that we can make sense of the universe. Consider poor Harold Camping,  the evangelist and radio host who made multiple predictions of the Earth’s end in 2011,  and who finally admitted in 2012 that he was sinful for even trying to make such predictions, falling back on Matthew 24:36 “of that day and hour knoweth no man”.

I am often asked as part of my work to make predictions regarding human behavior.  Psychologists have a myriad of tests and ways of making such predictions, but it is never completely 100% accurate. I know that people who score certain ways on tests of cognition and memory probably have dementia.  I know that people who score in certain ways on tests of emotions and personality probably have certain  mental health diagnoses.  I feel pretty certain predicting that parents with drug and alcohol use disorders  who previously neglected and abused their children will probably do the same thing if they continue to abuse substances.   I can  predict, however, with almost 100%  certainty, that if people are allowed to purchase machine guns, those guns will fired off.  That is probably the easiest thing to predict, and you don’t need an advanced graduate degree to do so.

When have you been able to say “I told you so”?

Cause and Effect

I have been greatly interested recently by pronouncements by certain individuals in the press attributing our recent weather disasters to homosexuality, gay marriage, Mitt Romney, Obama, and/or loose morals in New Orleans.  The capacity of the human mind to find causal relationships between totally unrelated things or concepts is fascinating.

According to Wikipedia  “In statistics, a spurious correlation[1][2] is a mathematical relationship in which two or more events or variables are not causally related to each other, yet it may be wrongly inferred that they are, due to either coincidence or the presence of a certain third, unseen factor (referred to as a “common response variable”, “confounding factor”, or “lurking variable“).”

There is a web site devoted to such correlations ( where you can choose the variables to see how they may be statistically related.  I always knew that there was a strong, positive correlation between the price of Jamaican rum and the average salary of Methodist ministers. Did you know, however, that there is a strong positive correlation between:

The divorce rate in Maine and per capita consumption of margarine

The age of Miss America and number of murders by steam, hot vapours, and hot objects.

Per capita cheese consumption and the number of people who died by being tangled in their bed sheets.

Total revenue generated by arcades and the number of computer science doctorates awarded in the US.

What alarms me is that some people will believe anything and will try to find relationships between things that can’t possibly be related, just to support their beliefs or prejudices.  I, personally, try to remain rational and sceptical. I think I will go now and eat some bread crusts. I am trying to make my hair curly.

Come up with your own spurious correlations.

A Mystery

Today’s post comes from billinmpls.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed the sign you see in the header photo planted on a street corner near my house. A commonplace, innocuous sign, one I might have not noticed at all except for two things:

1. Except for the picture, which looks a little impersonal- like the sort of photo that comes when you buy a picture frame, there’s no information about the dog. Nothing about the breed or his name or the neighborhood he usually calls home.

2. That curious statement, “Do not approach or chase”. Did that mean that the dog was dangerous in some way to approach?

I would likely have forgotten about the sign except that, recently, I saw the same sign in a completely different part of Minneapolis, three or four miles from where I saw the first sign. Usually when a pet is missing, you see a few signs posted  on telephone poles around the neighborhood. They’re not generally as elaborate as the two signs I had seen and they don’t usually blanket the city.

And then, when I was driving in a fairly distant northern exurb—Blaine or Coon Rapids—and I saw almost the same sign. It had a different dog photo and a different phone number, but the same layout and the same exhortation: DO NOT CHASE!

The thought struck me, “What if the signs are not about lost dogs at all?  What if they are some sort of anonymous signal to someone or some group, hiding in plain sight? After all, nobody who doesn’t recognize the sign as a signal is going to call the number if there is, in fact, no lost dog.

I had decided to keep my eyes peeled for more of these “Do Not Chase” signs and to try to discern some sort of pattern in their placement and then tried searching online to see if anyone else had noticed these curious signs. And that’s when I came across an article in a minor paper that purports to explain the mystery. It turns out that there is an organization of volunteers who make it their mission to help people recover lost pets. They call themselves “The Retrievers” and they have established a protocol for how they proceed. One thing they do is to put up signs over a very wide area. Lost dogs sometimes travel surprisingly far from their home, apparently. Another distinctive feature of their protocol is that they always urge informants not to chase the dog if they spot it. Lost dogs are stressed as a rule and in survival mode. Chasing them exacerbates that and can make them harder to find and coax into confinement.

My mystery turned out not to be especially mysterious after all. That is, unless the article in the little local paper was just a red herring to throw us off the trail. But there are other unsolved mysteries around us, mysteries that beg an explanation. Like that business that never seems to have any customers and yet has been there for years. Is it a front for something? What about that house where you’ve never seen anyone come or go? That guy you’re always seeing. Doesn’t he have to be somewhere? What’s he up to?

I was walking the dog one morning and passed by an unremarkable house. A pickup truck was in the driveway of the garage and the hood was open. One of the truck’s doors was open and the radio was on and playing an Ernest Tubb song. The back door of the house opened and an older man came out and walked toward the truck. He had on a seed cap of some sort, baggy jeans, a heavy plaid wool shirt. And red high heels. I thought to myself, “I’ll bet there’s a story there…”

Noticed anything unusual lately?

Verily’s Geek Adventure

There hasn’t been a total solar eclipse anywhere near my location since before my birth and the geek inside me was thrilled to realize that I would be driving distance from the epicenter of the eclipse path this week. I started making my plans about 3 months back when I was arranging my summer schedule.  Although folks knew I was going, I resisted any “hints” that maybe I needed a travel companion.  I also resisted a concerned neighbor who thought I would be safer if his adult son (who was also traveling to see the eclipse) went along with me.

I headed out on Sunday morning with directions, a cooler full of food and drink, several books, two GPS systems and two eclipse apps on my phone. I35W was its normally fun summer mess of road work with no work happening, but I eventually made it to Osceola where I roomed for the night.  Relaxation, reading and an early bedtime were the only things on my agenda.

My alarm went off at 4 a.m. – not knowing what traffic into St. Joseph would be like, I didn’t want to take any chances. Was on the road by 4:15 and made it to the East Hills Mall at about 6:30 a.m.  I chose that location as it was right in the middle of the epicenter as well as being on the edge of the city (hoped that would help with traffic after the eclipse).  There were people already parked in the lot, but not too many.  As the morning wore on, more and more people showed up and vendors got their tents all set up.  There was music inside the mall and most of the stores were having eclipse discounts. Parked near me there was a family from Sioux Falls who had painted their van, a guy from Jordan with a SERIOUS camera, a young couple from Texas who played cards while waiting, a woman who had flown in from California the day before and an older gentleman from Iowa wearing his safari hat.

It rained twice before the first stage of the eclipse happened and both times everybody scrambled to get their camp chairs and equipment back into their cars. In between the showers the sun came out, making the humidity jump.  When C1 began (when the moon begins its trip in front of the sun), the clouds were still breaking up a bit so we could see the progress.  It looked like a big cookie with a bite taken out of it.  Due to the clouds (and me just using the camera on my phone), I never got a good photo.

Then about 25 minutes before totality, the clouds closed up and it started to rain again. Just like folks who can’t wait until the end of the 9th inning, folks started to pack up their stuff and head out.  By the time of totality, it had stopped raining, but was still cloudy, so while we didn’t see the total eclipse, it did get very dark and cool.  Then, like a little miracle, about 2 minutes after totality, the clouds broke up for a minute and those of use remaining got to see the sun covered 90% – just a little bitty sliver of light.

I had said several times that I would be skedaddling back home after the eclipse but the non-construction zones on 35W with the extra traffic made the 6 hour drive into a brutal 10½ hour drive. I tried to get either of my GPS systems to re-route me, but nothing worked out.

Even though the driving wasn’t great and the weather wasn’t great – I had a great time! I’m glad I got to see what I got to see and if I’m still around in 2024, I’ll try to get to Indiana or the boot heel of Missouri.

What makes it an adventure for you?


Today’s post comes from Barbara in Rivertown.

[I figured we should have a little astronomy before Monday.]

Just a few blocks from our house in Winona, there is a spit of land beyond the levee that juts out into the Mississippi. Boat trailers can be driven down to put in (and pull out) their boats. Even farther out are chunks of concrete that you can climb over, and once you get all the way out there, you feel like you’re right in the river. It’s a great place to watch ducks and other water birds, and the barges being pushed by the (ironically-named) tugboats.

During the warmer months, on the evenings of the full moon, we go there at sunset, climb out and look West until the sun goes down behind (in this case) the hills in an island in the river. Then we turn ourselves 180 degrees to the East, and wait for the moon to come up. It’s tricky to predict exactly where it will rise * – and the orb is hard to see because it’s still quite light out. But finally it appears:  a big golden- orange roundness edging up into the sky, and it’s thrilling each time we do this.

Before I met Husband, he lived in the country up on the ridge, where he was able to see lots of sunsets. Because of the tilt of Earth’s axis and its rotation, each night the sun goes down (* and the moon comes up) at a little different spot on the horizon. These photos were taken on the July 9 full moon by my friend Angela. In August the sun went down considerably to the left of that hill you see, and the moon also came up left of what’s pictured.

Tell about a memorable solar, lunar, or stellar event in your past.

Any baboons traveling to see the solar eclipse?


One-Way Market

On my trip to Madison last weekend, I went to the Dane County Farmers’ Market on Saturday morning. It is a four-block affair that rims the capital building.  You can enter the market from any of the incoming streets but my friends explained early on that you can only go one way at the market.

As we were there pretty early (6:30 a.m.) and it wasn’t very crowded I didn’t understand the rule about one-way. And it’s not a posted rule either, so that made me want to turn and go the other way very badly.

But after about an hour of very leisurely looking, tasting and shopping, it had gotten very crowded; that’s when I realized the intelligence of the one-way rule. At that point it would have been very awkward (and inefficient) to try to go against the crowd.  My friends told me that in another hour, it would be even worse!

It was a great market – all local folks, no re-sellers. I ended up with a purple cauliflower, a chili-cheese bread, a little tiny apple pie, cherry tomatoes that taste out of this world, squeaky cheese curds, another cheese w/ Kalamata olives and some multi-colored potatoes.  A real score!

When have you gone against the grain?