Archive | October, 2011

World Series baseball. God Bless Texas.

25 Oct

Game 4 of the 2011 World Series. Rangers down 2-1 in the series the night after a blowout loss. Needless to say there was pressure, and it could be felt in every seat in the stadium.

And what better way to bounce back from that beating than a 4-0 shutout! I can now mark the Texas Rangers World Series game off of my bucket list.

Dissolve My Nobel Prize! Fast! (A True Story)

19 Oct


Dissolve My Nobel Prize! Fast! (A True Story)




It’s 1940. The Nazis have taken Copenhagen. They are literally marching through the streets, and physicist Niels Bohr has just hours, maybe minutes, to make two Nobel Prize medals disappear.

These medals are made of 23-karat gold. They are heavy to handle, and being shiny and inscribed, they are noticeable. The Nazis have declared no gold shall leave Germany, but two Nobel laureates, one of Jewish descent, the other an opponent of the National Socialists, have quietly sent their medals to Bohr’s Institute of Theoretical Physics, for protection. Their act is probably a capital offense — if the Gestapo can find the evidence.


Inconveniently, that evidence was now sitting in Bohr’s building, clearly inscribed “Von Laue” (for Max von Laue, winner of the 1914 Prize for Physics) and “Franck” (for James Franck, the physics winner in 1925) — like two death warrants. Bohr’s institute had attracted and protected Jewish scientists for years. The Nazis knew that, and Niels Bohr knew (now that Denmark was suddenly part of the Reich) that he was a target. He had no idea what to do.

How To Get Rid of A Nobel Prize Medal

On the day the Nazis came to Copenhagen, a Hungarian chemist named Georgy de Hevesy (he would one day win a Nobel of his own) was working in Bohr’s lab. He wrote later, “I suggested that we should bury the medal(s),” but Bohr thought no, the Germans would dig up the grounds, the garden, search everywhere in the building. Too dangerous.

So Hevesy’s thoughts turned to chemistry. Maybe he could make the medals disappear. He took the first one, he says, and “I decided to dissolve it. While the invading forces marched in the streets of Copenhagen, I was busy dissolving Laue’s and also James Franck’s medals.”

This was not an obvious solution, since gold is a very stable element, doesn’t tarnish, doesn’t mix, and doesn’t dissolve in anything — except for one particular chemical emulsifier, called “aqua regia,” a mixture of three parts hydrochloric acid and one part nitric acid.

As you can see in this video from the University of Nottingham, dissolving gold is a slow business. The narrator (who looks like he was cast by Mel Brooks, but is presumably, the real deal) explains that nitric acid loosens the gold atoms, after which hydrochloric acid moves in, using its chloride ions to surround and transform the gold. While the video shows the reaction in sped-up form, remember, in 1940, they weren’t dissolving little bits of gold. Hevesy’s beaker contained two hulking gold medals …


It must have been an excruciating afternoon. De Hevesy, in his autobiography, says because gold is “exceedingly unreactive and difficult to dissolve,” it was slow going, but as the minutes ticked down, both medals were reduced to a colorless solution that turned faintly peach and then bright orange. By the time the Nazis arrived, both awards had liquefied inside a flask that was then stashed on a high laboratory shelf. Then, says science writer (and Radiolab contributor) Sam Kean, in his book The Disappearing Spoon:

…When the Nazis ransacked Bohr’s institute, they scoured the building for loot or evidence of wrongdoing but left the beaker of orange aqua regia untouched. Hevesy was forced to flee to Stockholm in 1943, but when he returned to his battered laboratory after V-E Day, he found the innocuous beaker undisturbed on a shelf.

Georgy de Hevesy


Back in Denmark, de Hevesy did a remarkable thing. He reversed the chemistry, precipitated out the gold and then, around January, 1950, sent the raw metal back to the Swedish Academy in Stockholm. The Nobel Foundation then recast the prizes using the original gold and re-presented them to Mr. Laue and Mr. Franck in 1952. Professor Frank, we know, got his re-coined medal at a ceremony at the University of Chicago, on January 31, 1952.

Niels Bohr also had a Nobel medal, but he’d put his up for auction on March 12, 1940, to raise money for Finnish Relief. The winning bid was anonymous, but later, Mr. Anonymous gave Bohr’s medal to the Danish Historical Museum of Fredrikborg, where it can be seen today.

Three winners, three medals — each of them sold or dissolved, then replaced. In wartime, it seems, Nobel medals get around



The Man Who Rode the Thunder

17 Oct

Shamelessly re-posting from Damn Interesting:


I’d have shit my pants loooooong before getting to the ground.


Rider on the Storm

Posted by Alan Bellows on 06 October 2011

In the summer of 1959, a pair of F-8 Crusader combat jets were on a routine flight to Beaufort, North Carolina with no particular designs on making history. The late afternoon sunlight glinted from the silver and orange fuselages as the US Marine Corps pilots flew high above the Carolina coast at near the speed of sound. The lead jet was piloted by 39-year-old Lt Col William Rankin, a veteran of both World War 2 and the Korean War. He was accompanied by his wingman, Lt Herbert Nolan. The pilots were cruising at 47,000 feet to stay above a large, surly-looking column of cumulonimbus cloud which was amassing about a half mile below them, threatening to moisten the officers upon their arrival at the air field.

Mere minutes before they were scheduled to begin their descent towards Beaufort, William Rankin heard a decreasingly reassuring series of grinding sounds coming from his aircraft’s engine. The airframe shuddered, and most of the indicator needles on his array of cockpit instruments flopped into their fluorescent orange “something is horribly wrong” regions. The engine had stopped cold. As the unpowered aircraft dipped earthward, Lt Col Rankin switched on his Crusader’s emergency generator to electrify his radio. “Power failure,” Rankin transmitted matter-of-factly to Nolan. “May have to eject.”

Unable to restart his engine, and struggling to keep his craft from entering a near-supersonic nose dive, Rankin grasped the two emergency eject handles. He was mindful of his extreme altitude, and of the serious discomfort that would accompany the sudden decompression of an ejection; but although he lacked a pressure suit, he knew that his oxygen mask should keep him breathing in the rarefied atmosphere nine miles up. He was also wary of the ominous gray soup of a storm that lurked below; but having previously experienced a bail out amidst enemy fire in Korea, a bit of inclement weather didn’t seem all that off-putting. At approximately 6:00 pm, Lt Col Rankin concluded that his aircraft was unrecoverable and pulled hard on his eject handles. An explosive charge propelled him from the cockpit into the atmosphere with sufficient force to rip his left glove from his hand, scattering his canopy, pilot seat, and other plane-related debris into the sky. Bill Rankin had spent a fair amount of time skydiving in his career—both premeditated and otherwise—but this particular dive would be unlike any that he or any living person had experienced before.

As Rankin plunged toward the earth, licks of lightning darted through the massive, writhing storm cloud below him. Rankin had little attention to spare, however, given the disconcerting circumstances. The extreme cold in the upper atmosphere chilled his extremities, and the sudden change in air pressure had caused a vigorous nosebleed and an agonizing swelling in his abdomen. The discomfort was so extreme that he wondered whether the decompression effects would kill him before he reached the ground.

As the wind roared in his ears, he gasped up oxygen from his emergency breathing apparatus while resisting the urge to pull his parachute’s rip cord; its built-in barometer was designed to auto-deploy the parachute at a safe breathing altitude, and his supply of emergency oxygen was limited. Opening the chute early would prolong his descent and might result in death due to asphyxiation or hypothermia. Under normal circumstances one would expect about three and a half minutes of free-fall to reach the breathable altitude of 10,000 feet. The circumstances, however, were not normal. After falling for a mere 10 seconds, Bill Rankin penetrated the top of the anvil-shaped storm. The dense gray cloud smothered out the summer sun, and the temperature dropped rapidly. In less than a minute the extreme cold and wind began to inflict Rankin’s extremities with frostbite; particularly his gloveless left hand. The wind was a cacophony inside his flight helmet. Freezing, injured, and unable to see more than a few feet in the murky cloud, the Lieutenant Colonel mustered all of his will to keep his hand far from the rip cord.

After falling through damp darkness for an interminable time, Rankin began to grow concerned that the automatic switch on his parachute had malfunctioned. He felt certain that he had been descending for several minutes, though he was aware that one’s sense of time is a fickle thing under such distracting circumstances. He fingered the rip cord anxiously, wondering whether to give it a yank. He’d lost all feeling in his left hand, and his other limbs weren’t faring much better. It was then that he felt a sharp and familiar upward tug on his harness–his parachute had deployed. It was too dark to see the chute’s canopy above him, but he tugged on the risers and concluded that it had indeed inflated properly. This was a welcome reprieve from the wet-and-windy free-fall.

Unfortunately for the impaired pilot, he was nowhere near the 10,000 foot altitude he expected. Strong updrafts in the cell had decreased his terminal velocity substantially, and the volatile storm had triggered his barometric parachute switch prematurely. Bill Rankin was still far from the earth, and he was now dangling helplessly in the belly of an oblivious monstrosity.


“I’d see lightning,” Rankin would later muse, “Boy, do I remember that lightning. I never exactly heard the thunder; I felt it.” Amidst the electrical spectacle, the storm’s capricious winds pressed Rankin downward until he encountered the powerful updrafts—the same updrafts that keep hailstones aloft as they accumulate ice–which dragged him and his chute thousands of feet back up into the storm. This dangerous effect is familiar to paragliding enthusiasts, who unaffectionately refer to it as cloud suck. At the apex Rankin caught up with his parachute, causing it to drape over him like a wet blanket and stir worries that he would become entangled with it and drop from the sky at a truly terminal velocity. Again he fell, and again the updrafts yanked him skyward in the darkness. He lost count of how many times this up-and-down cycle repeated. “At one point I got seasick and heaved,” he once retold.

At times the air was so saturated with suspended water that an intake of breath caused him to sputter and choke. He began to worry about the very strange—but very real–possibility of drowning in the sky. He began to feel his body being peppered by hailstones that were germinating in the pregnant storm cell, adding yet another concern: that the icy shrapnel might shred his fragile silk canopy.

Lt Col Rankin was uncertain how long he had been absorbing abuse when he began to notice that the violence of his undulations was ebbing. He was also beginning to regain some sensation in his numb limbs, indicating that temperatures were warming. And the rain—which had previously been splashing him from every conceivable direction—was now only falling from above.

Moments later the moist Marine emerged from the underside of the cumulonimbus cloud amidst a warm summer rain. Below was a flat expanse of North Carolina backcountry, with no immediate signs of civilization. But Rankin’s parachute was still functional, and he was just a few hundred feet from the ground, so all seemed relatively well. But the storm had one last parting gift. As Rankin neared the ground a sudden gust of wind whisked him into a thicket. Helpless, he was pushed into the branches of a tree where his parachute became ensnared, and his momentum caused him to plow headfirst into the trunk. Fortunately his flight helmet kept his brain box from taking any serious damage.


Bill Rankin removed himself from the troublesome tree and assessed his situation. The time was 6:40 pm. Bill’s brutalized body had spent around forty minutes bobbing around the area of atmosphere which mountaineers refer to unfondly as the Death Zone. Applying his Marine training, Rankin started walking in a search pattern until he located a backroad. He stood at the roadside and attempted to flag down the automobiles that occasionally passed, but it took some time to find a passerby bold enough to brake for a soggy, bleeding, bruised, frost-bitten, and vomit-encrusted pilot. Finally an obliging stranger stopped and drove Rankin back to a country store in the nearby town of Ahoskie, NC where he used the phone to summon an ambulance. While he awaited its arrival he took the luxury of slumping to the floor for some much-needed rest.

In the aftermath of his ordeal Lt Col William Rankin spent several weeks recovering in the hospital. His injuries were surprisingly minor, however, consisting of superficial frostbite and a touch of decompression shock. He eventually returned to duty, and the following year he chronicled his perilous adventures in a now out-of-print book entitled The Man Who Rode the Thunder.

No human before or since Bill Rankin is known to have parachuted through a cumulonimbus tower and lived to tell about it. Lt Col William Henry Rankin passed away on 06 July 2009, almost exactly 50 years after his harrowing and history-making ride on the storm. Cue epic organ solo.

Oooooh, she’s bendy!

8 Oct

Boeing 787 during a stress test. There’s ~25 ft of deflection at the wingtips.

That’s some seriously badass engineering.

Larger version here:

Wing ultimate load test complete on 787
Posted by Guy Norris at 3/29/2010 2:27 AM CDT

Boeing completed the ultimate limit-load test on the static test 787 airframe, ZY997, at Everett on March 28. The test – officially dubbed Condition 18b – evaluates the ability of the wing-body structure to sustain loads equal to 150% design limit load – or the most extreme forces ever expected to be seen in service, and its clearance marks the passing of a significant hurdle on the way to FAA certification.

During the test, which occurred with 14.9 psi fuselage pressure, the wingtips deflected upwards by approximately 25 ft. The test, which did not continue until the wings failed, was also a key evaluation of the strengthened side-of-body modification which in June last year caused a six-month delay to the start of 787 flight tests. The deflection of the higher-aspect ratio composite wing was greater than that of the metallic 777 wing, the last major primary structure to undergo “wing ultimate up-bending” tests in Boeing’s sprawling Everett site more than 15 years ago. The 777 wing failed at 154%, having deflected 24 ft.

Internally Boeing is hailing the test as a major success, though externally the company is sounding a note of caution. “The initial results of the ultimate-load test are positive. More extensive analysis and review are required before the test can be deemed a success,” says Boeing.

Chaparral Racecars

7 Oct

Some shots from my many visits to the Chaparral Museum in Midland, TX.

Chaparral 2

Chaparral 2D

Chaparral 2E

Chaparral 2F

Chaparral 2H

Chaparral 2J

“If I can come up with a better mousetrap that is within the regulations, I ought to be allowed to use it”
– Jim Hall, October 1970

Chaparral 2K

And finally… me in a 2E 😎
BTW, the brake pedal was still hooked to the wing actuator.

Oh, and for a while now I’ve been collecting automotive art for my home office (as soon as I buy a house). So of course I came home with something today 😮

#391 of 500. Signed BY Phil Hill (Phil and Jim took 1 and 2 at the ’66 Laguna Seca Can-Am in the 2E’s.) and Jim Hall himself 😎

Here’s some fun 2E stuff.

The guy in the videos is Jim Musser. Jim was an R&D engineer at Chevrolet working on the Monza GT when he met Jim Hall…

After Elkhart Lake conversations continued between Hall, Hap Sharp (Jim’s partner in Chaparral Cars), Winchell and Musser. Recognizing the limitations of the Corvair powered Monza GT, Chevrolet R&D wanted to develop a transaxle for their more powerful V8 that could become the basis of a mid-engined Corvette. They also wanted to study vehicle dynamics at the limits of control. What better approach was there then involvement in a program with Hall? Chaparral’s facility included a skidpad and 7 turn, 2-mile test track. In January 1964 a track rental agreement between Chaparral and R&D was signed that began the program.”
2E history: ]

I think Musser is now a co-owner of Chaparral Cars LLC.

We got there pretty close to closing time… and the staff (two guys in their 70s) let us in free.

So I dropped some decent coin on the signed print… and then bought a shirt since I didn’t pay admission

Funny story relayed by one of the old-timers:
Apparently when the 2J (the fan car) was running (only one racing season in ’70 before being outlawed) the competitors weren’t too happy. One (or maybe a few) approached Jim and told him that the fans were throwing rocks and dirt on their cars. His response… “If you don’t like it, maybe you should get in front of me.”

And a little while later…


Got to meet Jim Hall today and watch him take the Chaparral 2A out for a spin.

(Jim is in the red shirt)


Jim Hall on the way out

Having some fun

Hot rods, scotch, guns – This is how you do engagement pics

2 Oct

I’ve never had any part in a photoshoot before, much less be the subject, but this weekend all that went out the window. A friend brought his ’30 A coupe down from Duncan, OK and we loaded up the car with clothes, guns, whisky, tools, etc and headed out to meet our photographer.

Big thanks to Tony Valadez of Flashbox Photography, Miguel, and Charley.

More pics later but here are some teaser shots. Tony is amazing at what he does.

BTW, does it get any better than some Balvenie 15 and a Baby Hemi powered A coupe???


2 Oct

Shot from our seats at Game 1 of the ALDS, Fri Sep 29, 2011…

Rangers v Phillies this year, Josh Hamilton MVP?


2 Oct

Just some scientific food for thought on a MLB playoff filled Sunday afternoon. This just struck me as a very thought provoking piece that is somehow introspective on a cosmological scale… as bipolar as that sounds.

This is the first part of the introduction to Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything


Welcome. And congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn’t easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize.

To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you. It’s an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, cooperative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally under-appreciated state known as existence.

Why atoms take this trouble is a bit of a puzzle. Being you is not a gratifying experience at the atomic level. For all their devoted attention, your atoms don’t actually are about you – indeed, don’t even know that you are there. They don’t even know that they are there. They are mindless particles, after all, and not even themselves alive. (It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.) Yet somehow for the period of your existence they will answer to a single overarching impulse: to keep you you.

The bad news is that atoms are fickle and their time of devotion is fleeting – fleeting indeed. Even a long human life adds up to only about 650,000 hours. And when that modest milestone flashes past, or at some other point thereabouts, for reasons unknown your atoms will shut you down, silently disassemble, and go off to be other things. And that’s it for you.

Still, you may rejoice that it happens at all. Generally speaking in the universe it doesn’t, so far as we can tell. This is decidedly odd because the atoms that so liberally and congenially flock together to form living things on Earth are exactly the same atoms that decline to do it elsewhere. Whatever else it may be, at the level of chemistry life it curiously mundane: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, a little calcium, a dash of sulfur, a light dusting of other very ordinary elements – nothing you wouldn’t find in any ordinary drugstore – and that’s all you need. The only thing special about the atoms that make you is that they make you. That is of course the miracle of life.

Whether or not atoms make life in other corners of the universe, they make plenty else; indeed they make everything else. Without them there would be no water or air or rocks, no stars and plants, no distant gassy clouds or swirling nebulae or any of the other things that make the universe so usefully material. Atoms are so numerous and necessary that we easily overlook that they needn’t actually exist at all. There is no law that requires the universe to fill itself with small particles of matter or to produce light and gravity and the other physical properties on which our existence hinges. There needn’t actually be a universe at all. For the longest time there wasn’t. There were no atoms and no universe for them to float about in. There was nothing – nothing at all anywhere.

So thank goodness for atoms. But the fact that you have atoms and they assemble in suck a willing manner is only part of what got you here. To be here now, alive in the twenty-first century and smart enough to know it, you also had to be the beneficiary of an extraordinary string of biological good fortune. Survival on Earth is a surprisingly tricky business. Of the billions and billions of species of living things that have existed wince the dawn of time, most – 99.9 percent – are no longer around. Life on Earth, you see, is not only brief but dismayingly tenuous. It is a curious feature of our existence that we come from a plane that is very good at producing life but even better at extinguishing it.

The average species on Earth lasts for only about four million years, so if you wish to be around for billions of years, you must be as fickle as the atoms that made you. You must be prepared to change everything about yourself – shape, size, color, species affiliation, everything – and to do so repeatedly. That’s much easier said than done, because the process of change is random. To get form “protoplasmal primordial atomic globule” (as Gilbert and Sullivan put it) to sentient upright modern human has required you to mutate new traits over and over in a precisely timely manner for an exceedingly long while. So at various periods over the last 3.8 billion years you have abhorred oxygen, then doted on it, grown fins and limbs and jaunty sails, laid eggs, flicked the air with a forked tongue, been sleek, been furry, lived underground, lived in trees, been as big as a deer, and as small as a mouse, and a million things more. The tiniest deviation from any of these evolutionary shifts, and you might now be licking algae from cave walls or lolling walruslike on some stony shore or disgorging air through a blowhole in the top of your head before diving sixty feet for a mouthful of sandworms.

Not only have you been lucky enough to be attached since time immemorial to a favored evolutionary line, but you have also been extremely – make that miraculously – fortunate in your personal ancestry. Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth’s mountains and rivers and oceans, everyone of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result – eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly – in you.


”The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming.”

– Freeman Dyson

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