Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Eye Candy

The Elements

All matter in the Universe is made of atoms: tiny particles of different varieties that combine to form all the complicated materials in our bodies, the planet, and outer space.
The different types of atoms (there are 92) are called Elements, and are the subject of a regular column here at Hansisgreat. Many of the elements are familiar: oxygen, aluminum, silver and gold are known to us all. Some of the others are a bit more mysterious, or even virtually unknown.
Today we focus on three which are pretty obscure...

Zirconium:
Atomic Symbol: Zr
Atomic Number: 40
Zirconium is abundant in certain types of stars, called S-type stars. Meteorites contain zirconium, as do samples of rock brought back from the Moon.
Gems that contain zirconium were known in ancient times, and are mentioned in the Bible as hyacinth, jacinth, jargon, and zircon. The element was isolated in 1789 Berlin by Martin Heinrich Klaproth, who discovered uranium the same year. This coincidental link was echoed 150 years later, when both elements were used in the nuclear power industry.
Today it is used to make fake diamonds, often for somewhat gaudy jewelry. It is also used in ultra-strong ceramics. The US Army uses zirconium in tanks engines, not made of metal so they do not need lubrication or cooling systems.

Niobium:
Atomic Symbol: Nb
Atomic Number: 41
Originally named "columbium", after the poetic name for America and the ore from which it was extracted; it was rechristened niobium in 1844, although it is still called columbium in the engineering trade.
Small amounts of niobium impart greater strength to other metals, especially if it is to be welded or exposed to very low temperatures. An alloy with zirconium is particularly resistant to corrosive chemical attack. It is used in surgical implants, because it does not react with human tissue. Jewelry and sculptures made with niobium have a lustrous surface, shimmering with various iridescent colors.

Molybdenum:
Atomic Symbol: Mo
Atomic Number: 42
Although it is essential in trace amounts to all living things, larger does are extremely toxic. Experiments have shown that too much molybdenum causes fetal deformities.
The blades of certain Japanese samurai swords of the fourteenth century contained a surprising amount of molybdenum, giving them added strength and corrosion resistance; yet it was not recognized as a metal until the eighteenth century, and not widely used until the twentieth. Some anonymous Japanese blacksmith must have stumbled upon the benefits of adding molybdenum to iron, but kept the secret to himself so that it died with him.

For my posts on the previous 39 elements, click here.

There's a terrific book of reference on the subject, called Nature's Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements, by John Emsley. It's a must read for any chemistry enthusiast.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Eye Candy

Encyclopedia of Snakes

The New Encyclopedia of Snakes, by Chris Mattison
$23.10 in the Hansisgreat Gift Shop
ISBN: 069113295x
I have a selection of coffee table books in my apartment, and have noticed that this is the one that seems to attract the most attention. Snakes are simply irresistible, and since most people find looking at photos of them more enjoyable than encountering them in real life, this book is a terrific choice.
There are almost 3,000 different varieties of snakes, which live on every continent except Antarctica. People have a deeply ingrained mistrust of snakes: drivers who would swerve to avoid hitting animals on the highway will often go out of their way to crush a snake, often reversing the car to back over it again, making sure that it's really dead.
This reaction is fueled by ignorance: most snakes are harmless and beautiful to look at. This book has over 200 breathtaking, full color photos which are a lot of fun to flip through. 
My favorites show snakes devouring their prey. There are some good ones of snakes eating frogs, bats, and small rodents. I didn't show these photos here, for fear of grossing my readers out. They're definitely worth checking out, though.
Because they have long, slender bodies, snakes are masters at hiding in tiny crevices. Whenever a house is demolished or boulders are excavated, thousands of snakes flee the scene. Hiding is usually their best defense, but they have a dazzling assortment of poisons and camouflages in case they're disturbed. Some of them, like the anacondas and pythons, are massive enough to be intimidating to almost any predator. 
My favorite, the King Cobra (shown left), can spit venom, causing blindness or paralysis. You don't want to mess with a creature like that.
Included is a good chapter on snake reproduction (seeing them give birth is really creepy), and another on what they like to eat. He's even included a lot of helpful information on keeping snakes as pets, for those who are interested. He doesn't mention every single species in the world, but the most common and interesting varieties are all here. 
Mattison is a very good writer. Usually books like this are a bit dry to read, but he's created a work of non-fiction that the most casual admirer can read and understand. There are a lot of "snippets", which are fascinating, completely self-contained, and can be enjoyed in under five minutes, making this the ideal book to idly flip through, almost like  magazine. It's a bit pricey, but the thorough research and shockingly beautiful photos make it worth the investment.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Eye Candy

Galaxy

There's a lot more matter in the Universe than just stars and planets. Space is filled with dust, which is the raw material from which everything else is formed.

The Milky Way is a spiral galaxy, and our planet is in the remote outskirts of the Orion Arm. If we were located closer to the densely populated center, the entire night sky would be lit up as brightly as the day.
Our galaxy is believed two contain four major arms, called: Perseus, Norma, Scutum Crux, and Carina. 
The Norma Arm has at least two spurs, including the Orion Spur, which contains our own Solar System.

From our perspective, it's impossible to see most of the other stars in our galaxy because vast clouds of space dust block their visible light from reaching Earth.

Other forms of light do reach us, however. The discovery of radio telescopes allowed us to observe distant stars by magnifying their electromagnetic radiation, which is not blocked by dust. This has allowed us to map the otherwise invisible parts of the heavens, and speculate about the shape of our galaxy.

For example, the Clouds of Magellan, only faintly visible with the naked eye, appear brilliantly illuminated through radio telescope images. These clouds appear to be pieces broken off from the Milky Way, but are actually two small galaxies very close to our own. They were first observed by the Persian astronomer Al Sufi in 964, but were named by the explorer Ferdinand Magellan during his crew's 1519-1522 circumnavigation of the globe.
The Magellanic Clouds are about 200,000 light years from Earth, and contain the brightest super nova ever discovered.

There are at least 100 billion galaxies in the observable Universe (the yellow lights in the picture to the left are not stars, but entire galaxies seen from a distance). The Milky Way is typical: it is 100,000 light years in diameter, and contains approximately 200 billion stars.
Most galaxies appear to have a massive black hole at their center, around which the stars and planets seem to revolve.

For some terrific photos from deep space, check out the European Space Agency. There's also some exciting new video footage from the surface of Mars.

An outstanding coffee table book about space exploration is Astronomy: A Visual Guide, by Mark A. Garlick.

For my previous posts on astronomy, click here.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Eye Candy

Lost On Planet China

Lost On Planet China, by J. Maarten Troost
$13.77 in the Hansisgreat Gift Shop
ISBN: 978-0-7679-2200-5
This is a new and outstanding travel memoir by the charming and handsome author of Getting Stoned With Savages. He spent several months visiting one of the largest and least understood countries in the world, and reported back the experience.
China is home to 1.3 billion people, one fifth of the entire human population on Earth..
For most of us in the western world, knowledge of Chinese culture ends with Chairman Mao, who emerged in 1949 as the last man standing after a long and bitter civil war. At the time, China was a 
land of farmers still recovering from decades of poverty, and yet Mao believed that his country should rule the world. This period is often referred to as the Great Leap Forward, and it was somewhat a mixed blessing. Roughly 70 million people are believed to have perished during his reign.
On the positive side, it does seem to have prepared China for its role as a superpower. Today business, finance, and manufacturing all revolve around China, and for the first time in its history, an average citizen has the 
opportunity to get rich. Prosperity finally seems to be coming to people who've suffered long and horribly.
So what's been happening since then? Troost didn't know much more than anyone else when he set off to find out. On the plane, we find him frantically reading Chinese for Dummies, unable to make much sense out of it. There are thirteen main languages and hundreds of dialects, so it's of little use in any case.
He visits the Great Wall, which he says is like a jagged stone snake, impervious to all obstacles. No one really know how long the Great Wall is. Some say as much as 4,500 miles, others a more modest 1,500 miles. They are still finding parts of it, in 2002 another 360 mile section was excavated.
There are a lot of places I'd love to visit after reading about them here: the sacred mountain of Tai Shan sounds lovely, an arduous but picturesque 6,600 step climb past hundreds of ancient temples and pagodas. The Forbidden City (shown above) has always tempted me.
There's an awful lot about the terrible pollution: power plants, hydroelectric dams, chimneys with billowing plumes of smoke. China burns more coal than the United States, Japan, and Europe combined. Troost says the air is so rank and dense with pollutants that even a Republican would be hollering for clean air.
Overall, it sounds like a fun trip in a fascinating and diverse country. Especially timely with the Olympics only two weeks away, Lost On Planet China is a truly enjoyable introduction to this great nation you may know almost nothing about. 
Stories about one's travels are always fun, full of lost luggage and insane taxi drivers. The writer is funny and informative, and the destination mysterious and exotic. Highest marks to a surefire winner.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Eye Candy