Thursday, October 25, 2012

Accidentally on purpose or vice versa

photo courtesy of the Discovery Channel

Earlier this month the Discovery Channel presented "Plane Crash," which was about, you guessed it, a plane crash.

But this wasn't a real plane crash, but a controlled demonstration plane crash. An old Boeing 727 was equipped with surprisingly primitive radio controls and directed into a Mexican desert.  The point, then, was not to determine why the plane went down, but to see what happens inside a plane when it collides with the ground "accidentally."

The plane was packed with some crash-test mannequins, many cameras, and other recording devices. Engineers, test pilots, and other specialists were on hand to set up the event and then analyze the results.   Eventually the data will purportedly be presented to the public so that aircraft designers and scientists can glean information about how to improve crash safety.

The show, "Curiosity," paid an undisclosed amount of money to arrange and film the event. It was promoted as a scientific first and goldmine of information, ranking somewhere between discovery of the Higgs boson and seeing what happens when you mix vinegar and baking soda to make sodium acetate and bubbles of carbon dioxide.

(This reaction is actually more interesting than a full scale test of Newtonian physics. )

Aside from the improvisational air of the show -- the 727 was flown with a model airplane controller -- the event was  surprisingly not surprising.  After the crew parachuted out of the plane's rear exist the plane was guided to the ground at a gentle glide and low speed so that the onboard instruments would not be destroyed. The team also wanted to avoid a fire after the crash.

The show was entertaining, but the odds of an American dying in a domestic air crash are somewhere between 1 in 6 million to 11 million.  In other words, dying in an aviation disaster should be close to the bottom of your risk list. 

Experimentally, what happened was pretty much exactly what you would expect. The front landing gear crumpled, which pulled the nose under the fuselage,  the other two wheels detached as designed and "dummies" in the plane who weren't wearing seat belts were subject to greater forces that those belted in.

The one anomaly was that the engines continued to operate after the crash, which is kind of odd. But it was not pursued. 

Otherwise, most of the results seem as if they could be obtained through first principles. That is, if you know the mass and speed of an object, then calculating its momentum is a simple matter of multiplication.

Likewise, if you have information about the plane's design, predicting what would happen after it exceeded its envelope should also not be too difficult. 

Moreover, there are unfortunately many real plane crashes to study. What Curiosity demonstrated was what damage would result from intentionally crashing a perfectly operating plane into an unpopulated desert.

Which is kind of cool to watch over and over, but of what value is that?  Also, if the experimenters did not want a fire, they could have limited the amount of jet fuel.  Otherwise, they discovered that overhead wiring comes loose impeding rapid exit, and that sitting in a brace position wearing a seat belt is safest. 

That's one data point. And an unusual one at that. The chances of this recurring seem remote.

 To be more useful, a large number of identical  planes would have to be crashed at the same place at the same speed and rate of descent. However, what would be the point? Why not crash scale models, or use computer simulations?

Because those would be relatively dull to watch.

 And this crash was for entertainment more than science. Just like the vinegar and baking soda "volcanoes" that appear frequently at science fairs.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Attach brida A to soporte B and Good Luck with that


Clear instructions are an unexpected casualty of the Internet.

The problem is also a result of global marketing and the desire of manufacturers to print the minimum amount of directions for power tools and accessories. They often tell you to look at their websites, which usually are not very helpful.

The next place to look is You Tube. Good luck with that.

First, instructions about how to work appliances, power tools, and so on, where printed on paper in English. Unfortunately for me, I am only fluent in English, so that was OK. Not so good if you speak Spanish.

Now instructions for everything from box fans to power saws, to paint to solvents, are written in several Indo-European languages, including Spanish, and sometimes French, German,and  Dutch and some non-IE ones like Polish, Mandarin, and Swedish.

Your only option is to search for guidance on the World Wide Web. Some videos are more useful than others, but generally they are full of sound and imagery signifying nothing.  (Why am I buying power tools that I am unfamiliar with? Long story.)

I am not an "English only" Tea Party lunatic, and the more languages the merrier. However, all of those non-English instructions consume space on a limited piece of paper.

 Try to pick up a can of Drano and try to quickly find the dangerous ingredients. Not so easy. However, I have learned the words for "danger" and "warning" in Spanish, if the occasion ever arises.

Instructions for power tools are ridiculously incomplete and difficult to follow. These are products able to severely injure or kill you, and operating instructions (in English) are crammed into a small space, or printed in microscopic type, or both. Typically, sparse English instructions are repeated in one or two other languages. 

Instead, if you're lucky, you may receive a DVD with the product. If you purchase a Rockwell Blade Runner, for example, you receive a Rockwell DVD with a menu that promises to be complete: "for best results...miter gauge and rip fence...trouble shooting and a few other preliminaries. But, if you play "trouble shooting" just to see the contents of the DVD, the video man tells you to read the instructions.

Adjust the stop using hex wrench, making sure the spacer under the template is parallel to the board and does not extend to the bit measuring screw, or something like that. Refer to drawings on another page.  Several additional pages that could be used to clarify, are instead, in equally, one presumes, confusing Spanish.

It might cost a few extra cents, but how about different manuals for English-speaking and Spanish-speaking countries? 

By the way, try to find instructions on how to use the Porter Cable 4216 dovetail jig. Check he web and You Tube. What's there is intended for people who already understand how the apparatus operates.   Dovetail and related wood joinery is complicated.

That could explain the relative rarity of cabinet makers. And perhaps the number of people missing pieces of their fingers.

Peligro! Advertencia!

Monday, October 8, 2012

The other you you hope to find

Are you fantastically successful in another universe? 

Somehow this seems to be an increasingly popular idea, especially among New Age types and people who misconstrue quantum mechanics. 

Let's pose some questions to Brian Greene, author of popular books on physics and cosmology, and professor at Columbia University. He's one of the latest to explicate the multiple-you idea. Greene's reasoning is logical, well thought out, and he's probably no slouch on quantum mechanics, either. 

Greene posits an infinite universe, filled with an infinite number of sub-universes. Our universe is just one of many.

How often would you expect to run into a universe similar to ours, with an Earth similar to this planet? If you take every proton, neutron and electron in our universe and combine them in every combination and permutation, the number is 1 followed by 10 to the 122nd power of zeroes. There isn't enough space in the universe to write this number.

For simplicity we will call this unimaginably large number "1 zillion."

Moving out into the multi-verse, you could expect a universe like this one about once every 1 zillion miles, or meters, (doesn't really matter). 

Because the multi-verse of universes is infinite, at some point you would find an Earth-like planet  with a person just like you, Greene asserts.  Really?

Instead of universes, we'll consider sets of numbers, because it seems much simpler.  A set of even integers is definitely infinite, but you would never find a single odd integer.  Likewise, a set of all positive numbers is infinite, but it excludes the equally infinite set of negative numbers. 

So in an infinite universe, would you necessarily find a duplicate of Earth? Maybe our and other  universes have a property corresponding to positive, negative, rational or irrational. If what extends to infinity is "negative" universes, do not expect to ever encounter our "positive" one. 

But wouldn't there also be a "positive" infinity of universes? Maybe. But isn't it possible that the positive infinity of universes follows the negative one? In that case, no matter how far you travel, you'd never find one.

 Or perhaps the cosmos somehow limits the number of ways that elementary particles can combine. Could there be an as yet unknown law of nature that constricts universes so that no two are exactly alike?  Maybe only 1 percent of universes can be identical. Who knows? 

Moreover, odds are that if a universe identical to ours is out there somewhere, it's probably exceedingly far away.  Since superluminal (faster than the speed of light)  travel is impossible, it could take longer than the age of universe to get there, billions, trillions or quadrillions of light years away.

The bottom line here is that if there is another "you" in the universe of universes, you will find her or him, unless your lifespan could somehow be increased to 1,000 billion trillion quadrillion years.