February 6, 2014 by libroshombre
Sunny dispositions are hard to maintain as I slip further behind contemporary culture and the New York Times crosswords grow more difficult. Who’s that new band, TV show, movie star, etc.? Haven’t the foggiest. Fortunately, I do have a great public library that manages to drag me along a few years behind culture’s forefront. Lately, I’ve been binging on the library’s DVD collection of “Big Bang Theory.” The mathematical and scientific humor and allusions abound, leading to my heightened interest in science.
With the library’s 10-day borrowing period I can watch several episodes a night with no worries. Real TV bingers can watch particularly compelling series around the clock, but us retirees prefer extending the pleasure. However, most people must work, and forty-six percent of American workers claim to need coffee to be productive.
According to a survey conducted by Dunkin’ Donuts, scientists and lab technicians rank first as a profession in coffee consumption. They’re followed by marketing and PR professionals, educational administrators, editors and writers. What’s more, those editors and writers, along with government workers and teachers, are more likely to add flavoring to their coffee, while judges, attorneys, and hotel workers are more likely to take theirs black.
I may not know the name of the kid who pranced around at the super bowl halftime, but I do know how much shadows weigh, thanks to one of my favorite reference sources: StraightDope.com, purveyor of “education and condescension” since 1973. The main brain there is Cecil Adams, the man who “knows everything” and “is never wrong.” More importantly, he cites his sources. When weird questions need seriously good answers, and if humorously sarcastic answers are OK, StraightDope.com’s the place to start.
“How much do shadows weigh?” may seem a dumb question, and Cecil agrees in a 2011 posting. However, he demurs, saying “it’s dumb but interesting, a rarer and more prized breed.” You know about “catching some rays,” well, since they represent the sunlight our bodies block, “you could say our shadows actually weigh less than nothing.” Cecil notes that “James Clerk Maxwell formulated equations predicting the pressure of light, a value confirmed experimentally in 1903.” Admittedly, “the pressure we receive from sunlight is incredibly small: less than a billionth of a pound per square inch at the Earth’s surface … it would take several million humanshadows to account for one blocked pound of light force.”
Nevertheless, “incredibly small doesn’t mean inconsequential.” Cecil points out that Japan’s Hayabusa space probe that landed on an asteroid had to account for light pressure equal to one percent of its thruster engines. The Japanese also realized an old science fiction dream of building a space vehicle powered by sails pushed by light pressure and solar wind. Named IKAROS (Inter-planetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun) propelled by a square, ultrathin sail measuring sixty-six feet on the diagonal pushed by .0002 pounds of solar force.
The Australians, not to be outdone, are funding their National University’s research into using light to “heave tiny particles and have them land at a precise point 20 inches away … which may not seem like much. However, if the tiny particle is a deadly virus, living cell, or gas molecule that can’t be moved any other way … you get the picture.”
A sun-related article from SmithsonianMag.com, titled “Barns Are Painted Red Because of the Physics of Dying Stars” also aroused my Big Bang Theory-heightened interest. Here’s the nutshell version: Stars are big because of the fusion reactions powering them. They shrink when their power levels drop, causing their internal pressures and temperatures to rise until temperatures are achieved that set off the next fusion reaction. Each reaction causes heavier elements to form, progressively moving up the periodic chart as the nucleons, the accumulated protons and neutrons, increase. The reactions stop at 56 neutrons and protons, which is iron, but makes lots of it. Iron’s plentiful, making for the cheapest red paint.
“Twinkle, twinkle little star, now I know just what you are,” as the astronomer’s version of the old poem by Pietro Calogero says. “Fusing spheres of plasma mass, wrapped in iridescent gas; Twinkle, twinkle little star, super-hot that’s what you are.”