Sunday, December 28, 2008

What's that analemma for, anyway?

If you're lucky, you live in a house with an analemma.

It's not a pet, but an interesting feature printed on certain globes. It looks like a stretched out figure eight, and is where the sun would be in the sky if you took a photo of it at the same time every day for a year.

Those who live on the equator would see the sun move east and west, while someone at the North Pole...What would he see?

Believe it or not, the sun does trace this stretched out 8.

 The sun is at its lowest point in the 8 on or around the winter solstice and at the top of the 8 on the summer solstice. (In the Southern hemisphere the analemma is upside down.)

Two factors produce this oddity. The first is that Earth is tilted at about 25.4 degrees to the plane of its orbit.  That accounts for the east to west to east to west movement. The north to south apparent motion is a consequence of the Earth's orbit.

This should not come as a surprise, but the orbit it an ellipse.  Consequently, the planet speeds up when it is nearest the sun, in January, and slows down when it's farthest away, in July.  The difference in speeds is confounding, because our clocks are designed as if the orbit were a circle. 

Practically, this means that your watch is ahead for six months and then behind for six months,
compared to where the sun should be in the sky. This difference is called the Equation of Time. We never hear about this for some mysterious reason. We just keep following our watches and clocks, and let the sun do its own thing. 

What if you want to construct your own analemma? You could do it with a stationary camera, but it gets complicated. Either all of the exposures must be on one piece of film, or all of the frames must be assembled and superimposed at the end. 

Or, make one of those contraptions for viewing solar eclipses: a box with a pinhole at one end and a piece of paper at the opposite end. Now, all you have to to is keep the box in the exact same spot for a year, and at the same time every day, look inside, see where the sun is projected on the paper, and put a dot there. 

After a year, you should have an elongated figure eight shape. This still leaves some questions. For starters, the sun is obscured by clouds on many days in New England. More puzzling, is what does "the exact same time" mean?  

Given the Equation of Time business, should we use the actual "sun time" or our oscillating piece of quartz time?  Perhaps you could make two sets of dots, one for solar time, the other for man-made time. 

Also, since the box is going to be outside for a year, use something durable. Do not use cardboard.

Finally, you may have to explain to a neighbor or two what you're doing. If he or she asks why you're outside with your head in a box, just say, "I'm looking for my analemma."

Pretty soon everyone will leave you alone.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

There's this new stuff called papyrus...

Perhaps 10 or 20 years from now, someone similar to Steve Jobs will have a breathtaking idea.

Paper! It's cheap (compared to a computer or a Kindle), it is preservable forever, you can cut it apart and stick some in your pocket, make copies, fold it, and then do all sorts of other things with it before it's recycled. Oh, yes, it's recyclable, too.

Moreover,  you no longer have to plow through the Internet looking for relevant news, it's all printed there, selected, edited, and lovingly laid out, just for you.

But you can't surf the net with a bunch of printed paper, can you?

No, but that's what computers are for. The two are not mutually exclusive. Some egghead-types, or just people who want to know what's going on, could read words printed on paper and
look at the net. 

Yes, it's possible. A lot of people used to do that. Doesn't require great skill or a large amount of time.

And now that wood pulp trees can be grown in a day (this is in the future, remember), paper is made by robots in a clean factory using solar energy. It goes for, like, a penny a ton.

Yes! Those things in the rare book bunker at Yale? You can have modern versions of them!

But, hey, keep reading the digital kind. Moby Dick and Infinite Jest will always be the same. News is always different (in a all-the-same kind of a way). 

 Instead of everyone buying a computer for $100 to read the news, one company could buy a printing press, a computerized one, for $5,000, and then serve everyone for a nickel. Or a Yen. 

This could happen, right after people realize that nuclear power is actually safe, cheap, and less polluting than any other technology.

But that's another story.

One more thing...

This is self-serving, sort of like soft ice cream, but if any of the two or three people who read this know of any jobs out there, please let me know. 

Otherwise it'll be me and my wife living in a refrigerator box. (minus the refrigerator). 


The End. Je Suis Fini.

The previous post was written a few days before I was laid off from the New Haven Register.

In a city whose businesses and industry revolve around health and science, the Register deemed my job, unfortunately called "Science Editor," to be superfluous. An unaffordable luxury.

But apparently, through some strange cuber quirk or Google-glitch, I can still post here.  I have another blog, Abram Katz, created out of a sense of deranged egotism and passive aggressive pain.

Anyway, that's why I'm not writing the Health/Science page, or any other stories for the Register, anymore. I wish I were. 

But that's the way the asbestos crumbles. 


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Is Everybody Happy?

Speaking of ridiculous nonsense -- and why not? -- we have Harvard scientists concluding that  happiness depends on the contentment of friends of friends, or neighbors you may not even know.

This may apply to some people, but it is demonstrably false for the vast majority. If it were true, after all, as long as one person on Earth is happy, so should everybody. The happy fellow is friends with another, who is friends with another, and so on, ad absurdum.

Besides, how can you possibly characterize someone as happy or unhappy? Some people are unhappy most of the time, and others are in as good mood most of the time, but no one is joyful at all times. 

Part of adulthood is learning how to keep these emotions private. If you found a $100 dollar bill, would you walk around with a broad smile and tell everyone you pass on the sidewalk? Would you call up your friends?

Perhaps $100 isn't sufficient to cause elation. Suppose instead that you won $50 million in a lottery. You're ecstatic. Is this going to make all of your friends jolly?

Some of them, sure. Most of the others will curse their luck, feel sorry for themselves, and/or ask you for money, since you now have an endless supply. Decline any of these requests and you've made an enemy for a long time.

Moreover, most people don't appear to be happy. At best they're able to maintain a guarded equilibrium. Next time you're at a store look around. See many smiling faces? No. 

And finally, what kind of society aspires to be happy all of the time? 

Only one in which people are losing their jobs left and right, banks are collapsing, businesses are failing, auto companies are on the brink of bankruptcy, newspaper chains are going under,  and people are afraid to spend money.

Good times. Happy people. 

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Hey! Spread Out!

An oil company recently took out a full-page ad in the New York Times pointing out that the sunlight hitting Earth in one second could provide humans with enough energy to last many years.

And that, in a nutshell, is the whole problem.

There's no efficient way to capture the energy of the sunlight, or to convert the energy into work.  Instead what the sunlight does is increase entropy. That is, it turns liquid water into water vapor, or ice into water. 
Entropy is a complicated concept with a technical meaning. To simplify, entropy is the amount of energy "lost" in a system doing work.  For example, gasoline is burned in a cylinder to make a car move. Some of the energy is translated into motion (work) while much is released as heat. 

The heat is absorbed by air, and other objects, and cannot be recaptured.  Almost everything humans do increases entropy: generating and transmitting energy, extracting and burning fossil fuels, cooking, blowing things up, heating our homes, going shopping.

Another way of thinking about entropy is the tendency of system to evolve from order into disorder.  Which brings us back to sunshine.

Some things on Earth progress from disorder to order. That list includes giving birth, making chocolate, growing watermelons, and evolution. All of these activities that seem to be making order from disorder, are doing so at the expense of the sun.

The sun, and other stars, ultimately provide the energy that drives everything, either directly or through creation of  heavy elements like uranium, which are cast off in supernovae and incorporated into planets.

The furiously turns order into chaos as it converts hydrogen into helium, sending radiation in every direction.  No matter how we harness sunlight, the disorder of the sun increases. In fact, the disorder of this entire universe is also decreasing, as new stars are born and burn out.

Burning fossil fuels, fissioning uranium, or finding alternate energy sources are our  relatively puny way of interrupting the grand flow of entropy. 

Current cosmology suggests that the universe will ultimately turn into a cold, dark empty place. But that won't happen for a long, long time.

Still, it's something to look forward to.