Sunday, June 24, 2012


Chowchilla 'Busnapper' Wins Release From Prison

The headline took me back to 1996 or so. We used to hang around a beer garden/bar named Zott's up in the hills behind Stanford University. The bar was an amusing diversion and was still filled with Ken Kesey types.  One of the guys we met at Zott's was sort of a permanent house sitter for one of the three guys in prison for the Chowchilla incident. He lived in an apartment above the detached garage/converted stables of the convicted busnapper ringleader parent's estate. The old main house sat on several prime acres of Portola Valley real estate. The name of the guy in prison is in the public record but I don't know if the story of the house/estate is. Apparently all the heirs but him are now dead. So there it sat in 1996, empty. Power and lights had long been shut off.

One Halloween (must have been '96 or '97) we got invited to a party up at the caretaker's. After much consumption of alcohol he took us on a flashlight tour of the old house which was amazing because it had been abandoned completely furnished. This apparently had long been an annual thing--a guided flashlight tour of the "haunted house." Just imagine a scaled down "Downton Abbey" with cobwebs. The coolest thing I remember was a bedroom upstairs--completely furnished--on the wall was a pennant from the 1936 Berlin Olympics showing all the nation's flags--including the Nazi flag. The place was like a time capsule. I'm also pretty sure that that's where the arrests occurred for the kidnappings.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Two Disparate Songs In Common

In euchre, bauers trump aces, kings and queens.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Posh, Posh Traveling Life For Me!

My kids are very close in age (16 months apart). When they were little, they were small enough to fit together inside a wicker laundry basket and we'd always play a little game together before bedtime. I'd hoist them in the basket high up in the air over my head and give them a "balloon ride" and sing that Lionel Jeffries song from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  They knew the song because that movie was on a seemingly endless loop at our house.  Kids love routines--especially when they're so little. It was just all part of the safe little bubble that fathers create in families. My dad did similar things. He had a white canvas mail sack with a rope closure. My brother and I would fit inside (one-at-a time) and he'd whirl us around outside in the yard before he went off to work at night. When we got too big for the sack, he'd hold us by one arm and leg and spin us around so we could pretend we were airplanes. It was something moms wouldn't do then--not because it took physical strength--but because what if you banged into a tree with a kid or something?

Today, I'm flying the kids back to Wisconsin to visit my mom in Madison and my brother who lives up near La Crosse. I had a whole slew of half-finished things to post here but they'll have to wait. I'm working on some new sketches too.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Frederick (1979)

Parable Of The Gas Explained

A while back I wrote The Parable Of The Gas without explanation:
Consider a spherical, sealed glass container of gas. Further suppose that the gas inside is all the same -like helium in a balloon. Room temperature and stable. Everything equal inside...but it's not. The individual gas atoms in the container have unequal energies because there's a range--a statistical distribution--of energies present: Some atoms move more slowly than others, some more quickly, some much more quickly.

How can we make things fair? How can we make it such that each individual (atom) has the same energy as its next nearest neighbor? We cannot. The only way to approach that state is to remove energy from the entire system. Cool the economy. Everything slows. Eventually, approaching zero Kelvin, all motion stops. Of course catastrophic things like condensation (downsizing from gas to liquid) and solidification (loss of liquidity) occur along the way. But the goal is achieved: every atom is finally the same (or nearly the same) energy wise.
Here is what I was picturing:

The figure shows how at higher temperatures the average speed increases but so does the spread (inequality). The range narrows at lower temperatures which is what some policymakers seem to want. But what they want is also unnatural and contrived. An Austrian physicist named Ludwig Boltzmann first came up with the mathematical model behind all this in 1877. He based his derivation on entropy--arguing that a situation where all members of a group have identically the same velocity is highly improbable--as improbable as all the gas molecules being located on just one side of the vessel. It's much more probable (favorable) to allow each member of the group to experience a range of velocities and not to constrain them into one single energy or spatial configuration.

Another physicist named Max Planck extended Boltzmann's ideas and also changed the world by extending statistical mechanics to heat and light thus introducing quantum mechanics.  Einstein ran even further with Planck's ideas.  Both men would have their doubts--"God doesn't roll dice" and all that--but neither man denied reality.

Added:  When I liken the economics of wealth and poverty to a gas, it's important to remember that "rich" and "poor" may interconvert: link

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Rumford, Soddy, and The Crash

Frederick Soddy (1877-1956)
Despite years of formal education in chemistry, I'd never really heard of Frederick Soddy until I started reading about the early days of radioactivity. He wrote a book called The Interpretation Of Radium (1909) which is available free online here.  The book so influenced H.G. Wells that he dedicated his book, The World Set Free (1914), to Soddy.

Soddy seems to have had two careers--first as an accomplished physical scientist (Chemistry Nobel in 1921) and then as a sort of social scientist, but more accurately as a social activist during the Great Depression. In this way he was a prototype Linus Pauling, who won both a Chemistry Nobel and a Peace Nobel for his activism.

Soddy was a chemist by training but today he'd be called a radiochemist. He must have seen or heard firsthand many of the key discoveries in nuclear physics in the late 19th and early 20th century, first at Oxford and then as graduate student with Lord Rayleigh. Afterwards, Soddy moved to Canada around the same time Ernest Rutherford did and the two joined forces. Together they discovered the natural transmutation of elements. Soddy's Nobel Prize citation reads:
for his contributions to our knowledge of the chemistry of radioactive substances and his investigations into the origin and nature of isotopes.
His isotope work came later.

Recall that Count Rumford first paid attention to the heat given off boring cannon and thereby converted our notions of energy.  Like Rumford, Soddy first realized how much heat and energy radioactive decay gave off--orders of magnitude more energy than burning fossil fuels did and it was also seemingly inexhaustible. Soddy was so prescient regarding how much energy was locked inside uranium, radium, and thorium that he warned Britain's government about the dangers of "atomic" bombs during the First World War.

The notion of cheap and abundant atomic energy crested in 1954 with Lewis Strauss' famous too cheap to meter statement, though it appears that he was referring to hypothetical hydrogen fusion reactors.

Soddy died in 1956 in relative obscurity. This (from the Wiki bio) is intriguing:
In four books written from 1921 to 1934, Soddy carried on a 'quixotic campaign for a radical restructuring of global monetary relationships', offering a perspective on economics rooted in physics—the laws of thermodynamics, in particular—and was 'roundly dismissed as a crank'. While most of his proposals - 'to abandon the gold standard, let international exchange rates float, use federal surpluses and deficits as macroeconomic policy tools that could counter cyclical trends, and establish bureaus of economic statistics (including a consumer price index) in order to facilitate this effort' - are now conventional practice, his critique of fractional-reserve banking still 'remains outside the bounds of conventional wisdom'. Soddy wrote that financial debts grew exponentially at compound interest but the real economy was based on exhaustible stocks of fossil fuels. Energy obtained from the fossil fuels could not be used again. This criticism of economic growth is echoed by his intellectual heirs in the now emergent field of ecological economics.

England Swings Like A Pendulum Do

A pendulum endlessly interconverts potential (a) and kinetic energy (v)--at the high point of each upswing, the weight is motionless as it reverses course-at that moment all its energy is potential, given by the weight. As the weight swings downward in an arc, that potential converts to pure kinetic energy as it swings through the midpoint.  Back and forth it goes, slowed only by friction in air or of the pivot point.

Soothing harmonics blogged to make a point later.

Ouroboros For Our Times

Frederick Soddy was fascinated with circles but also with alchemy; he related circles to his discovery of the natural transmutation of elements. Link

Through alchemy, Soddy became familiar with Οὐροβόρος ouroboros, the mythological symbol of the serpent eating its own tail. Ouroboros was also August Kekulé's inspiration for the structure of benzene, a generation before Soddy:

I may have been thinking similar thoughts when I tried to describe the circularity of political extremes and the chemical elements here. Whatever. Consider the following sketch an explicit update--ouroboros for our times--showing the demographic bulge of wealth and talent that must somehow transfer to the next generation (I should make it into an animated flip book).

Ouroboros For Our Times (click to enlarge)
Ball Point Pen on 8 1/2" x 11" white copier paper

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Kiss Precise

The Kiss Precise by Frederick Soddy

For pairs of lips to kiss maybe
Involves no trigonometry.
'Tis not so when four circles kiss
Each one the other three.
To bring this off the four must be
As three in one or one in three.
If one in three, beyond a doubt
Each gets three kisses from without.
If three in one, then is that one
Thrice kissed internally.

Four circles to the kissing come.
The smaller are the benter.
The bend is just the inverse of
The distance from the center.
Though their intrigue left Euclid dumb
There's now no need for rule of thumb.
Since zero bend's a dead straight line
And concave bends have minus sign,
The sum of the squares of all four bends
Is half the square of their sum.

To spy out spherical affairs
An oscular surveyor
Might find the task laborious,
The sphere is much the gayer,
And now besides the pair of pairs
A fifth sphere in the kissing shares.
Yet, signs and zero as before,
For each to kiss the other four
The square of the sum of all five bends
Is thrice the sum of their squares.

Published in Nature, June 20, 1936

Monday, June 4, 2012

Sunday, June 3, 2012

More "I, Pig"

Jack Muller was a Chicago cop and detective from 1946 until his retirement in the 1980's. I already wrote about his take on the 1968 Democratic Convention riots here.  He worked the 1952 Republican and Democratic Conventions (both were in Chicago that year) and was assigned to Douglas MacArthur at the former.  Muller describes the General as grim earnest and his Party as overly serious if anything. He ascribed it to their having been out of power for so many years.

Muller goes on to describe some debauchery at the subsequent Democratic Convention in August, 1952 and then concludes:
Of course, there was so much of this at the Democratic Convention, I could make a whole book out of it alone. And I'm not against men having their fun. It's just that you'd think nominating a candidate for President would be a little more serious, without being the gun-to-the-head affair it was with the Republicans. What a lot of kids are doing these days against the Establishment bugs me, but if they'd known the kind of 'pigs' who were running and trying to run the country in '52, they'd have started twenty years earlier. I know--it's the cops the kids call pigs. But we only do what we're told--by the Establishment, an Establishment whose rule of thumb is: 'No matter what the laws are, we're above them.' It really shows when they nominate a President.

My dad passed through Chicago almost 60 years ago and saw a parade for Robert Taft, a Republican nominee that year. link  He must have gotten within a few blocks of Muller. It's funny how real-life people and their stories can intersect in the past. But I digress.

Friday, June 1, 2012

A New Periodic Paradigm

Before vanishing from the blogosphere, commenter Ritmo wrote back here:
I remember coming up with an improved periodic table while daydreaming during the inorganic chemistry course I took in college. When we were learning about d and f orbitals it occurred to me that a 2-dimensional table is flawed. Ultimately it should loop around as a cylinder, with the lanthanides and actinides poking out in a raised, textural format. For the life of me I can't remember how I worked it out in perfect detail, but it avoided the unnecessary breaks between groups I and II and reflected the fact that s and p orbitals underlie any expanded orbitals. Putting the transition metals smack dab in the middle of the non-metals and group II just didn't make any sense. And starting over again between the noble gases and group I instead of looping them around to the next orbital seemed an arbitrary convention, like hitting the return key or banging whatever that part was named on a typewriter as you finished a line and needed to move on to the next.

That is absolutely brilliant. It's like a revelation or a prophecy. It's not 100% original, but then few insights are. I will say more about that later. This revelation vexed me off and on for some time and I tried to sketch it until I realized that I needed to sit down like Richard Dreyfuss did in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and build the vision:

So sitting at the kitchen table, I started playing around with a flat periodic table, cutting it up and rearranging and I came up with this:

Cylindrical Periodic Table

Cylindrical Periodic Table

I'll be writing lots more on this in future posts. Lots more!