Monday, December 31, 2007

Eye Candy

The Book

The Book, by Alan Watts
$9.56 at Amazon.com
ISBN: 0679723005
The complete title is The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. The late Alan Watts (pictured below) was a British philosopher who made Eastern philosophy accessible to people from the western world. Those interested in learning about Buddhism and Hinduism but uncertain how to begin will find this is the perfect choice. It's a great way to expand your spiritual horizons.
As an added bonus, philosophy books tend to be very dry and repetitive; but this one is lively and actually quite funny at times.
It begins with one of what we would consider one of the "big questions": what is the meaning of life and why are we here? Is it just to take in food and poop it out again until we expire? This is a process whose origins began with the first microscopic life on Earth. Over time the organisms have grown more complex, and intelligent, finally reaching the apogee in humanity. But what is the point to the whole thing? What are we meant to be doing here on Earth?
Watts explains that we often see ourselves as living outside and separated from the rest of the Universe. He goes on to say that individuality is actually all an illusion. The idea that we are each souls imprisoned in a bag of skin, confronting a world which is 
alien to us and stupid, is what prevents us from achieving true peace and happiness. It keeps us from understanding who we really are.
The Book has been one of my own beloved favorites for years. I've given it as a gift to several people and they've all enjoyed it. This is the sort of book which can change your life. It takes a real genius to delve into the mysteries of existence, but in a way which is accessible and even enjoyable for someone who knows nothing of eastern philosophy.
Christians, even the more traditional ones, will be able to read the Book without feeling that their own religion is being 
threatened. It's an ideal gift for anyone who's experiencing an identity crisis.
There is a basic unity between ourselves and all other individuals in the Universe. We just don't realize it because our minds have become too narrow. Watts teaches his readers to expand their minds beyond simply what he calls our "conscious attention", and to see all existence as an endless game between two sides, neither of which will ever win or lose for good.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Eye Candy

The Elements

For those of you just joining us, I post on a variety of subjects: Dinosaurs, Astronomy, History... Things that have a sort of universal interest. I've been moving through the Periodic Table, posting on each element. The atoms described here make up our entire universe.
Previously, they've all been on chemicals most people have heard of. Tonight, with Scandium, we begin seeing chemicals I knew nothing at all about until researching them for Hansisgreat. Therefore, consider:

Potassium:
Atomic Symbol: K
Atomic Number: 19
The name is derived from the English word potash. The chemical symbol K comes from kalium, the latin for potash. Potassium is an essential element for almost all living things, except possibly a few bacteria.  Because one of its commonly occurring isotopes is radioactive, it has been suggesting that potassium may be responsible for natural genetic mutations in plant and animals.
Around 2500 potassium atoms disintegrate in the human body each second.
It is not generally appreciated that the need for potassium in the diet is much greater than that for sodium salts. Eating one banana per day greatly increases life expectancy, and would save billions of dollars per year in health care costs associated with high blood-pressure.

Calcium:
Atomic Symbol: Ca
Atomic Number: 20
Calcium is also essential to practically all living things. As calcium carbonate, it provides the skeleton for most marine creatures and the lens in the eye; as calcium phosphate, it is found in the bones and teeth of land-based animals.
We tend to think of bone as somehow different from the other cells that make up our body. It is more like a mineral than living flesh, but it is just as "alive" in that it is endlessly changing, being constructed and broken down at millions of sites throughout the skeleton by cells called osteoclasts.
Lime (calcium oxide, CaO) has been used since ancient times to make mortar for building. Cement is made by mixing limestone and clay in a kiln and heating it. When it is mixed in water, cement undergoes a complex series of reactions which have only recently been understood.

Scandium:
Atomic Symbol: Sc
Atomic Number: 21
When the periodic table of elements was developed by Dimitri Mendeleyev in 1869, he noticed that there was a large difference in the atomic weights between calcium (40) and titanium (48). He therefore predicted that there should be another element of intermediate atomic weight.
Scandium was discovered 10 years later, in 1879, by Lars Frederick Nilson of Uppsala, Sweden. He extracted it from euxenite, a complex material containing the ores of eight metals. He believed it could only be found in Scandinavia, and therefore called the newly discovered metal scandium.
Industrial uses are similar to those of aluminum, but scandium is much more costly. It's used in baseball bats to give them added striking power, and in racing bicycle frames since it's strong and lightweight.

If you'd like to see my posts on the previous elements, click here.

There's an excellent book called Nature's Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements, by John Emsley. A necessity for the casual chemistry enthusiast.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Eye Candy




Home from the Vinyl Cafe

Home From the Vinyl Cafe, by Stuart McLean
$11.20 at Amazon.com
ISBN: 978-1-59448-274-8
This is a delightful novel with a Christmas holiday slant. Fans of David Sedaris might especially enjoy it, since it's very funny. Also anyone who liked High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby.
Dave and Morley are a Canadian, suburban couple in their mid-forties. A lot of the book's humor comes from their "keeping up with the Jonses" mentality, and it's a real riot. In the first chapter, Dave frantically tries to convince a swank hotel's concierge to cook his family's Christmas turkey, an odd-lot bird that's badly mutilated. He does this because Morley insists their family must have an idyllic, Norman Rockwell-style holiday which she's been planning for since July.
She began by making her own, hand-printed gift wrap paper. 
Later, she dips oak leaves in gold pain, and makes her own rubber Christmas stamps. By the time the holiday arrives, her planning has gotten manically out of hand, and he nearly ruins it all by forgetting to buy the Christmas turkey.
Dave owns a record store, and in one chapter he buys a refrigerator carton full of the plastic disks used to adapt 45 rpm records. This is long after the age when most people had record 
players in their homes. 
What he does with the disks is quite clever, and how he manages to use up the entire carton of disks will astonish you.
The couple coaxes their children into taking unwanted music lessons, and unloads a troublesome niece named Margot at a Summer Camp for aspiring child thespians. They terrify a slumber party of nine-year-olds with a Zombie horror movie. The scenes with the kids are funniest of all.
In my favorite chapter, friends ask Dave to feed a sourdough bread culture. Apparently, like yeast or yogurt, sourdough culture is alive and needs to be fed. Some cultures are kept alive for many years to 
preserve a family recipe. While on vacation, a neighbor asks our hero to put a teaspoon of flour in their precious culture's mason jar each day. He unwittingly substitutes drywall compound. Hilarity ensues.
Breezy and enjoyable, this book is all about the daily foibles and pratfalls of modern life. It'd be a treat as a holiday gift, but could just as easily be enjoyed any time of the year. It made me laugh aloud at times, and smile on every page.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Eye Candy

Exploring the Solar System

In 150 AD, an obscure author named Lucian of Sanosata wrote his True History, the story of a ship which sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar to be caught up in water spout and hurled into the air. The ship traveled for seven days and nights before it landed on the surface of the moon.

During the twentieth century, people began considering the idea of exploring space as a realistic project. There were many concerns: What would be the effects of weightlessness? Of living without air? What of the effects of cosmic radiation, usually broken up in the high atmosphere? 
The Space Age began October 4, 1957. Russia successfully launched Sputnik 1 into space. In 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first astronaut, completing a circuit of the Earth's orbit in one hour, 48 minutes. Less than a month after Gagarin, NASA launched the Mercury 3, which hops into space with astronaut Alan Shepard for a little over 15 minutes, before splashing down 300 miles from Cape Canaveral.

The side of the moon facing Earth was already very well mapped by the time the Space Age began, but scientists wondered if it was firm enough to support astronauts or spacecraft. Many feared that any craft unfortunate enough to reach the moon's surface would sink in a layer of soft, treacherous dust. Others believed that the moon had "lopsided gravity" which pulled the air and water to the back side, and even wondered if the dark side of the moon might be inhabited.

On October 3, 1959, Luna 3 circled the moon, confirming that the far hemisphere is just as barren and lifeless as our side. The Ranger probes (1961-1965) crash-landed on the moon, sending back photos in their last few moments before impact. Finally, on July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 transported Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon's surface. They spent 195 hours in space. Armstrong noted that the great curvature of the moon's surface (four times greater than that of Earth) exaggerated the closeness of the horizon, making it difficult to tell how far away objects were.

Venus presents unique dilemmas for exploration, since we cannot see its surface through the thick clouds in its atmosphere. At its nearest, Venus is 24 million miles from Earth, about 100 times the distance to the moon.
Russia's unmanned probe, Venera 7, was the first to land on Venus, December 15, 1970. It transmitted information back to Earth for 23 minutes before succumbing to the planet's extremely hostile environment. Our most current information comes from Europe's Venus Express, launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan in 2005. It spent 500 Earth days circling the planet, a total of two Venus years.

It's surprising that Russian space missions had no luck with Mars, considering they had such good results with Venus. The astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli mapped the surface of Mars using telescopes in 1888. His drawings of the channels on Mars' surface created the debate that the surface hosted "canals," and possibly liquid water.
NASA's Mariner 4 flew past Mars in 1964 and sent back images which showed that the "canals" are just optical illusions, and confirmed that the air on the surface is too thin to breathe. In 1972, Mariner 9 orbited the planet for one year, sending back over 7000 images. Mankind got their first glimpse of Mars' gorges, dry river beds, and volcanoes (including Olympus Mons, 15 miles tall and three times higher than Mount Everest).

If you're interested in outer space, click here for my previous posts.

There are lots of kick-ass photos from outer space, taken by the Hubble Telescope, here.

If you're really interested, there's an awesome book called Astronomy: A Visual Guide, by Mark A. Garlick.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Eye Candy