Happy Birthday, Rube Goldberg

July 4, 2010

Today is Independence Day in the United States; it is also the anniversary of the birth, in 1883, of the cartoonist Rube Goldberg.  Although he was a newspaper political cartoonist, and won a Pulitzer Prize for this work, he is most widely remembered for his cartoons of “Rube Goldberg Machines” that used a convoluted, chain reaction process to carry out a simple task.  In honor of Goldberg’s birthday, and of Independence Day, Google has a Rube Goldberg version of their logo, on the main search page.    Click on the “Stars and Stripes” arrow at the left to see how the skyrocket is launched.

First Official State Microbe

April 19, 2010

It’s official.  For many years, there have been official state flowers, state birds, state songs, and so on.  Now the New York Times is reporting that Wisconsin is the first to have an official state bacterium.   The recipient of this unique honor was Lactococcus lactis, the organism used to make several kinds of cheese.  (Wisconsin produces more cheese than any other state.  Another bill is pending to make cheese the official state snack.)  As the Times article points out, there are numerous other official state things: Texas has a state vehicle, and Pennsylvania a state toy.  One wonders where this all might end.

The New Scientist also has a report on this development on its “Short, Sharp Science” blog.  In case this becomes the next big thing, they have suggestions for appropriate microbes for different states.  My personal favorites: for California, Clostridium botulinum, the organism responsible for botulism and BoTox; for Kansas, in honor of its continued efforts to  resist the teaching of evolution, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus [MRSA].

Springtime: Spaghetti from Farm to Table

April 1, 2010

Since it is April 1, I can’t fail to mention one of the best all-time April Fool gags, the BBC’s 1957 Panorama broadcast on the spaghetti harvest in the Ticino area of Switzerland, narrated by the very distinguished and golden-voiced Richard Dimbleby, CBE.   They reported a bumper crop, owing to the mild winter and the effective control of the pasta weevil. As Dimbleby explained, spaghetti growing in Switzerland was mostly a family affair, not carried out on such a vast scale as in Italy. “Many of you, I’m sure, will have seen pictures of the vast spaghetti plantations in the Po valley.”

It generated a flood of calls and letters to the BBC; a few were from habitually cranky people who couldn’t get it, but the majority were from people who wanted to know where they could get their own spaghetti bushes. (The English have always been avid gardeners.) As the BBC notes in its account, “Spaghetti is not a widely-eaten food in the UK and is considered by many as an exotic delicacy.” (Remember this is in 1957.)

The BBC’s page about the program is here. It has a video link, but it requires either Windows Media Player or RealPlayer. Fortunately, there is a version on YouTube.  The whole thing is carried off with amazing panache.  I’ve seen it dozens of times, and I still find it very funny.   (That probably explains a lot.)

There is something about this kind of gag that touches something in the English sense of humour.   I remember a front page story from the Times of London on one April 1, when I was living there, talking about a creative new traffic plan that had been worked out for the perennially congested M25, the motorway “ring road” around London.  (Those familiar with the Washington DC area can think of I-495, the Capital Beltway.  Boston area readers can think of Route 128.)  The article reported that, instead of having 3-4 lanes in both directions, all lanes would be used in a clockwise direction on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and in an anti-clockwise direction Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.  (Sunday would revert to two-way operation.)   I will admit that the article was written with enough skill that it took me a couple of minutes to be sure it was a joke.  (That British politicians are not, on the whole, more sensible than American ones did give me pause.)

The funniest part, though, was that, when I got to the office, one of the staff (I’ll call him Will; he is English) came up to me, obviously very concerned, and saying that this scheme was crazy — it could never work, because with one-way operation, half of the slip roads (what we would call the on- and off-ramps in the US) would be pointed in the wrong direction.  I told Will that probably that had been worked out, and recommended that he check the date on his calendar.

Ig® Nobel Prizes Announced

October 2, 2009

Yesterday, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Journal of Improbable  Research announced the 2009 winners of the Ig® Nobel Prize, “For achievements that first make people LAUGH, then make them THINK”.   There are summaries of the prizes awarded this year by both the New Scientist and Ars Technica; here are a couple of my favorites:

  • PEACE PRIZE: Stephan Bolliger, Steffen Ross, Lars Oesterhelweg, Michael Thali and Beat Kneubuehl of the University of Bern, Switzerland, for determining — by experiment — whether it is better to be smashed over the head with a full bottle of beer or with an empty bottle.
  • CHEMISTRY PRIZE: Javier Morales, Miguel Apátiga, and Victor M. Castaño of Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, for creating diamonds from liquid — specifically from tequila.
  • BIOLOGY PRIZE: Fumiaki Taguchi, Song Guofu, and Zhang Guanglei of Kitasato University Graduate School of Medical Sciences in Sagamihara, Japan, for demonstrating that kitchen refuse can be reduced more than 90% in mass by using bacteria extracted from the feces of giant pandas.

Incidentally, there is real, although perhaps odd, research behind these; the citations are at the Improbable Research site.  But there are two prizes that, to me, really stand out.

The Mathematics prize went to Gideon Gono, Governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, for helping everyday people understand and relate to a huge range of numbers, “by having his bank print bank notes with denominations ranging from one cent ($.01) to one hundred trillion dollars ($100,000,000,000,000)”.  Of course, part of the credit must be given to Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe, whose vicious, lunatic kleptocracy has reduced one of wealthiest countries in Africa to penury.

Last, but by no means least, the Literature prize was awarded to the Irish National Police service (An Garda Siochana) for issuing more than fifty traffic citations to a Polish driver whose address they could never find: Prawo Jazdy — which, translated from the Polish, means “driving license”.

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