Saturday, April 2, 2011

Murder most foul...Yawn

Why are so many television shows and books devoted to murder?

Collecting forensic evidence, looking for fibers, and unravelling complex subplots and meta-plots. Some homicides are fascinating. Serial killers are morbidly interesting, and occasionally someone does something really bizarre like puts his wife through a wood chipper.

But all of those twisting and turning plots and big surprises and shoot-outs? Life's not like that at all. You mean what we see on television is not perfectly accurate? Afraid not.

If a spouse turns up dead, the prime suspect is always the husband or wife. That's about as complicated as it gets. 

Most murders are solved through confessions, or by people who overhear other people talking about how they killed someone, or by people with information seeking to lessen their own prison time. 

Also, the ranks of police departments are not filled with beautiful women who wear low-cut plain clothes. Female detectives look like regular women. 

Moreover, there are so many more interesting topics than murder. But finding them is not as easy. Materials physics, quantum mechanics, robotics, fishing for crabs, logging, gun smithing, and history are all available on cable. Way more entertaining to see Bear Grylls eat insects or make himself a seal-skin vest, than one of the proliferating Murder She Wrote shows. 

How common objects are made, bridges are designed, ore mined, the Panama Canal widened, all more interesting than "murder."

Despite Agatha Christie and her ilk, murder is tawdry, mundane, messy, miserable, and kind of boring --  unless you're the murderer or the murdered.

Snow fools the eyes

Time to clear up some misconceptions.

We may not get any more snow now that April is here, but remember the big drifts of this past winter? The snow started out white and then after a few days, snow plowed to the side of the road turned gray and was dotted with pieces of dirt.

The typical explanation for the gray color is either "dirt" or "pollution" or dirt resulting from pollution.  However, if pollution were falling so fast that it could discolor snow in two or three days, we would notice it everywhere -- on cars, sides of houses, clothes, shoes, statues, and so on.  

Besides, the air pollution around here is tiny particulates (too small to see),  and ozone smog. Acid rain would not color snow, would it?

The drifts' gray appearance is optical. True, there are motes of dirt and assorted garbage in the snow, but the gray is the result of melting. Take a look at the ice cubes in your freezer. They are not snow white, they're gray. Snow that melts and refreezes is the same.

Snowflakes, incidentally, are clear, but very reflective. Catch a flake in your hand. It's not white. 

Ponder the color differences between rain clouds and fair weather clouds. The water-filled rain clouds are gray and the cumulus clouds are composed of zillions of clear droplets and appear white. 

Yale research has also found that some bird feathers and insect wings are colored not by pigments, but by refracted light. Same thing with snow. 

Now you know.