Monday, December 12, 2011

Thoughts of my Lungs and 2-Cycles

Two things are on my mind every time I bike up Observatory Drive, the lakes-hore road that brings you directly to the UW Madison campus, "Will this ever end? and "Why are mopeds so dirty?"

As I struggle for oxygen near the peak, I recognize that breathing would be a lot easier if I weren't also inhaling carbon-monoxide and unburned exhaust gasses from the screaming mopeds that are lurching by me.

Recall that there are two types of engines we use in the everyday, modern world, 2-strokes and 4-strokes. They are alternatively referred to as 2-cycle and 4-cycle. The difference between the two is how they work inside and also, that one is cleaner than the other.

Passenger vehicles such as this have a 4-cycle engine and are comparatively cleaner than 2-cycles. 

"The big transition to four stroke engines was because of emissions," says Professor Foster, Director of Engine Research Center at UW Madison. "It was more expensive to buy that engine but less polluting by the standpoint of the gasses coming out."

Professor Foster attributes the cleaner emissions of 4-stroke engines due to simple technological innovation. He also comments that 2-strokes can be just as clean as 4-strokes, but the tradeoff is cost.

So why is there still a mixture of 2-stroke and  4-stroke engines? Mopeds generally have 2-strokes, so do many boat motors. All four-wheeled passenger vehicles use 4-strokes as a result of regulatory pressures to clean their emissions. The continued mixture exists due to power outputs and namely, 2-cycles produce more of it. They have more "bang for their buck,"  so to say, but the tradeoff is a less-efficient combustion, meaning dirtier exhaust.

For a comparison between 2-strokes and 4-strokes, check out here and here.

2-stroke engines are still commonly used today for things such as mopeds and outboard boat motors and tug-boat engines. However, outboard motors, due to increased awareness of water pollution, have also made the transition to a 4-cycle platform.

Overall, Observatory Drive will remain temporarily clogged with the unburned, blue exhaust from passing mopeds, although 4-stroke designs have also been around for some time. On the plus side however, mopeds remain as an fuel efficient mode of transportation, averaging anywhere between 50-100 mpg.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Using Evolution as a Measure of the "Healthy" Diet

The fad of diets are seemingly just that, fads. They come and they go, but for as often as we see news clips about dieting trends, the question remains: What is the best diet for us?

It's the carbs that are bad, no wait, it's the fats, the sugars? As seen in the last post about diet, the dietary science world doesn't know exactly what constitutes the best meal, and certainly there is no one-size-fits-all kind.

One diet however, known as Paleolithic, bases its eating habits around our natural human evolution.

"One should eat only whole foods, focus on evolutionarily-raised (think grass-fed beef) animal meat and fats, and stay away from foods that are relatively new to our evolutionary history, such as dairy, grains, and legumes," wrote Derek Nedveck, BS in Biochemistry, who follows a paleolithic diet.

Nedveck added that the definition of Paleo is not subscribed to just one definition, but at the core it is based around the history of what humans ate as they lived, and evolved.

The Paleolithic diet argues against the consumption of grains due to the crops limited time in our 'evolutionary diet.
Image: Golden Sun by Antonio Quesada M

This natural layout of the diet is also based on a broader, whole foods approach.

"One of the other main ways of thinking about human nutrition is “nutritionism,” which is a focus on the individual parts of foods, and how they contribute to human health. From nutritionism we get fiber, omega-3, vitamin and mineral enriched foods, with the thought being that single components of a food can be added to others to achieve the same benefit, wrote Nedveck. "Paleo on the other hand values whole foods, partly due to the fact that we don't know everything that happens when we eat a food, and how the fiber in a sweet potato is digested in the presence of all the other things that make up the sweet potato. Moral of the story, nutritionism is reductionist, and paleo is more holistic."

Determining the ideal diet is difficult. To get an appreciable scientific answer would require long-term tests with a large sample group of people. A diet can be just one factor attributing to the overall health of a person, making the health effects of foods difficult to determine.

However, as for practical advice about diets, Nedveck comments "Try it out for a week, or better yet a month, and see how you feel."

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The World's Most Studied Lake

To learn about the world's most studied Lake, check out the video below:

According to emeritus Professor J. Magnuson of the UW Limnology department, Lake Mendota has historical research data going as far back as 1850. A snapshot of this history can be found here.

View Lake Mendota Research Madison, WI in a larger map
All images, audio and video done by Eric Verbeten, with the exception of those labeled otherwise

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Search for the Unknown (yet Visible) Clouds of the Universe

Below is a short sound slide featuring UW Madison graduate student Mark Stockett and his research project to understand what distant clouds in outer space are made of.

The composition of the universe is a fairly well-understood mixture of different substances. Standing out, however from the usual hydrogen, helium and rock structures found in the universe, are large solar system sized clouds called diffuse interstellar bands (DIBs) or interstellar clouds.

Mark Stockett is a UW Madison physicist is trying to understand exactly what these clouds are made of. And to do this he must recreate the same conditions found in outer space on Earth. The laboratory is located at the Synchrotron Radiation Center in Madison, WI. There, Stockett has access to a synchrotron which acts as a mock Sun. The outer space experiment consists of a vacuum chamber in the shape of a tube which is used to house various sample molecules.

“The important thing in doing an experiment like this is that you need the molecules to be in a similar state as they are in the interstellar clouds. So these molecules need to be very cold, because space is very cold,” said Stockett. “In the tube there is a large liquid nitrogen reservoir that cools the gas [molecules] inside to 200° Celsius below zero.”

Once the sample molecules are in a similar state to those that would be found in outer space, Stockett shines the synchrotron radiation onto the sample and takes a spectroscopic measurement to be later compared to the observed interstellar clouds spectrum seen in outer space.

Getting the conditions exactly right is difficult due to the extreme nature of outer space. Stockett and the project’s P.I. Jim Lawler, physics professor at UW Madison, have had problems with getting the conditions exact. The team has been dealing with problems with the sample molecules clumping together and not dispersing into the more uniform gas, as observed in outer space.
Stockett and Lawler plan to continue crafting the vacuum chamber with the goal to eventually have the ability to quickly canvas a wide-variety of sample molecules. This wide-sample range will ultimately create an index to compare against the complex spectrum observed in space, revealing the interstellar cloud’s true makeup.

Dilemma with Diet

Diets that come and go are like any other fad. However, the one aspect of each of those diets remains a constant, balanced mix of foods and regular exercise.

What constitutes the balanced mix of foods however, is still mysterious. The American diet has taken on a stigma to fats, the supposed heart disease causing agent. Recent articles have shed some interesting light onto this once, thought to be understood aspect of diet:

What if It's All Been a Big Fat Lie? -An article in the New York Times that details some of the controversy around the Atkin's diet and the still uncertain state of dietary science.

Another author, Gary Taubes's wrote: The Soft Science of Dietary Fat, which outlines a history of how the American diet came to criticize fats. He points to a few zealous congressmen who helped push the trend, despite the medical profession's admitted lack of certainty.

The U.S. Government Food Pyramid has undergone significant modifications in the last ten years (image: Wikipedia)

The diet issue, as noted in the two stories above, remains elusive at best. The last ten years has brought compelling stories about the typically, unthought-of food industry that is a daily part of our lives. From the documentary Super Size Me to Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food , and its catch phrase "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants," have brought at times shocking insight into our understandings of "how the sausage is made."

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Yo-Ho A Sailor's Life for Me

Stepping aside from the usual posts about science in the everyday world, I present a short clip about sailing and the intriguing vocabulary that comes with it when on the seas ( or lakes)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Science Shows Deceiving?

Science shows on Discovery or the Science Channel have always been a part of my daily-knowledge-diet. After several years however, they began to repeat themselves and could no longer compete with my increasing factual knowledge as a result of my university training.

Television program where they investigate a wide-variety of man-made events and objects (image: Science Channel)
A recent talk by John Rennie, who served as editor-in-chief at Scientific American from '94-2009, speaks of the problems with the media's methods in regards to reporting science. Rennie points out that much of the news we receive about science are the things that were recently published in scientific journals and other forms. The problem with this system is that it can lead to confusion for readers.

A report on a scientific study that says: "Researchers have linked X with Y," can deceive a reader into feeling that these studies are the cutting-edge of our scientific knowledge. The more acceptable perspective is that these new studies are merely another piece of a puzzle, and that they are not entirely indicative of a solved mystery.

This ties into science programming after I saw a Science Channel episode of:

How Do They Do it?
"Super Cars" Building and designing the most advanced super cars in the world.

The problem arose from a segment on ethanol fuel cars. The show features a stylish, concept-style car driving around town while the narrator mentions facts about the cleanliness and fuel efficiencies of ethanol based automobiles. Although the show is meant to give glimpses of new technologies, the tone and enthusiasm behind the idea of ethanol was misleading.

Automobile capable of using ethanol fuel (image: luftfahrad - Wikipedia)

The show, in my mind, hyped the scale of ethanol's usage, making it seem like it corn-based fuel pumps were more common than they are.

This is not a criticism of "How Do They Do It," they have a target audience like any journalist. But by focusing only on the highlights, the information can deceive by painting an ideal picture that seems larger than it is, rather than showing one more piece of the puzzle.

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Highly Controllable Magnetic Substance with Potential Uses in Ultra-Fast Computers

Below is a press release I wrote while working at Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin, a synchrotron laboratory where researchers use various flavors of light frequencies to study matter. Click on the images for larger text.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Root of all Juice

We're going to play a game. It's called, find the power source. Ready go:

Okay, maybe that one was little much, try this:
The answer we're looking for here is the 3V Battery. 

So what does this have to do with anything? Anyone who has ever have used an electronic device has encountered it. It's where it all begins, simply put, the supply of power. Whether it's a AA battery or a cord that channels the juice from the wall outlet. This symbol is the most important.

The electronics schematic symbol for a cell

It's the source of that jumbled mess up top, but it's also in every electronic device you'd come across. Ipods to plasma screens all run on that simple electron (electricity) producing source. The point of all this is that someone sat down with a pen and paper and started with that symbol and worked their way forward, manipulating the electric juice as it flows through the wires. 

Using a slew of odd looking components like resistors and integrated circuits, the electrical engineer is the master creator of all things modern.

An integrated circuit-not a 21st century centipede
Classic resistor
Objects like these are in charge of doing one thing, altering the electrical signal that passes through them. In the end, electronics are nothing more than tons of well-manipulated signals that are either ON or OFF. Imagine how a computer comes of that?

Sadly, the knowledge of electronics seems to be slipping away. It is fair to say we are riding on the backs of a small percentage of the population's intrepid electrical engineers who can take electrons flowing from a battery and turn it into music with a picture of the album.

Going Further:

While the symbol for a cell is the simple drawing of vertical and horizontal lines, there are other sources of power than just a battery (which actually is a combination of several cells).

Others include DC power supplies:

A representation of DC power-- what comes out of a AA battery

Or AC power supplies:

The power that comes out of the outlets

 Both are two different creatures and their behaviors are much different as far handling them in the circuitry. The symbols are not universal, but the idea is consistent throughout schematic drawings. For example look at the first image and notice that its power supply says: " +9 to 12VDC." It just means the juice ranges from 9 volts to 12 volts direct current (DC).

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Why Corporations Still...

"Hey thanks for calling today, we'll definitely get your information off to someone and they'll be in touch soon." said Budweiser and MillerCoors PR departments.

It could be the typical journalism woes but it makes me wonder. Are Budweiser and MillerCoors beer brewing companies, or just a companies that happens to brew beer?

There is no doubt that they are the power house of the beer brewing industry in this country and that they are the kings of consistency. Brewers around the world highly respect these companies for what they do. What do they do that's so special? Aside from making a popular pilsner style beer they make a lot of it.

Brewing beer is a labor intensive process but the hardest part comes at the end. The final ingredient, yeast, are one of the most temperamental critters out there. Brewers must constantly pamper their yeast like rockstars. One mistake, no matter how minor could throw the entire brew off-balance. Miller and Budweiser have figured out how to do this and it's nothing shy of a scientific and technological wonder.

Copper kettles for the boiling portion of beer brewing.

Yeast laboratories and Ph.Ds in microbiology and physiology are what it takes to understand this deceptively simple single-celled organism that could. With all this success though comes the infrastructure to manage it all, the corporation.

Billions of yeast cells all go into making every batch of brew

This is what makes me now wonder, after having talked with so many in the brewing world. Are Miller and Budweiser about the craft of brewing? After many repeated attempts to get a brief interview from either, I never received a reply.

Budweiser's PR department though did want me to know that

"We use beer brewer's yeast, not baker's yeast."

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Making Sense

The nuclear crisis in Japan is scary, a lot of potential for disaster. The fury of media coverage has been nice and I feel for the most part, they are showing a good deal of useful information to explain the situation. Yesterday I sat in on a session led by two nuclear engineers and medical physics expert who gave a no frills assessment.

Surprisingly, the scientific level of these media coverages is pretty intense, lots of jargon. I thought I'd do my part and briefly explain some key elements to nuclear reactors.

What is a nuclear plant?

Power plants using nuclear fuel are just a reinvention of the mousetrap. All power plants do one thing, make steam to drive a turbine. That spinning turbine makes electricity and the means to do that though varies. In reality, all power plants carry the risk of explosion because they all handle high-pressure steam.

Firstly, nuclear reactor plants do not explode on account of their nuclear fuel. There just isn't enough percentage of radioactive substance to trigger the massive explosions we're familiar with.

How do they work?

Nuclear reactors work by using a small yet critical amount of radioactive material that creates a chain reaction. When all of the variable line up the reaction produces heat, which can be used to boil water.

Nuclear power plant cooling towers. These are just big tubes where the steam is recycled. There is a perpetual rain shower inside due to the steam climbing, cooling, and then raining back down. The plant then re-heats the water and makes electricity once more.

Fuel Rods: These are the main source of energy and contain the primary radioactive materials used to create the heat. They are triggered by neutrons. When neutrons are flying around the fuel rods, a lot of energy is being released.

-More info about the entire fission process as a result of neutrons HERE Someone has already said it better than I could.

Control Rods: These are neutron absorbing rods that can be inserted into the chamber where the fuel rods are producing heat. The control rods help stop the bombardment of neutrons and can stop the reaction in the fuel rods all together.

A simple diagram showing the basics of nuclear plant designs

The bottom line: Japan's reactors are in danger due to power failures. The plant's main power supply was damaged as a result of the earthquake and tsunami. The facility did have backup battery power but those eventually ran out. Without the electricity they were not able to keep the water pumps running.

These water pumps are essential in keeping a continuous supply of cool water to absorb the heat and keep things at a manageable temperature. If they cannot be cooled, steam builds and so does the pressure inside the reactor core and housing. The engineers are able to release some of the steam but that is risky because it's a direct release of radioactive materials into the atmosphere.

Some tech'ier stuff:

The Fukushima Daiichi plant reported that once they detected seismic activity they began the fission shutdown process. Inserting the control rods successfully stopped the primary fission process in all 6 reactors. Within the fuel rods though are highly-radioactive elements that continue decaying and radiating large amounts of heat.

There is also the issue of hydrogen gas buildup as a result of water oxidizing with the metals in the reactor. Hydrogen gas is very flammable and can be cause for more troubles.

Something unclear? Science need a little tweaking? Let me know in the comments.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Two of a Kind Deaths

1967 and Wisconsin lost the race. The bid for the United States National Accelerator Laboratory, more commonly known as Fermilab, went to Illinois. Construction of the 3.9 mile in circumference proton smashing particle accelerator marked the opening of one door and the closing of another.


MURA-The Midwestern University Research Association disbands and leaves a legacy that would continue until present day. The Synchrotron Radiation Center-a successor to Tantalus.

MURA's mission after the 1950's was to bring a high-energy physics presence to the midwest. Through a consortium of around 20 universities the physicists were able to land Fermilab near Chicago. This marked the end of MURA as an organized group. Many of the MURA physicists, based in Madison, left in numbers to build our nation's biggest particle accelerator.

One of the early MURA tinkerings with particle accelerators in Madison 1957

A few stayed behind and started a new breed of accelerators and through several serendipitous events, they too marked a place in history. Known as Tantalus, the physicists created the first light producing accelerator dedicated for researchers using light to study matter in 1968.

Particle Collider vs. Light Source

The word particle accelerator has come to take on a dual personality. While the machines that we've heard of such as CERN or Fermilab do accelerate particles, they are of a different and extravagant breed of machines.

Accelerators such as CERN whirl protons in opposite directions around a race-track near the speed of light. The scientists and builders aim to witness a cosmic collision of forces. Why?

If you wanted to know how a watch works, you could smash two of them together and see what parts and pieces come flying out. The same is true for small constituent parts of matter, such as protons. These efforts attempts to scratch our itch to better understand what our world is really made of.

A microscopic colossal collision. Two protons smashing head-on and their resultant splatter

Light sources are of a more practical breed. Instead of smashing, they whirl particles around the racetrack. Not nearly as exciting as an epic collision but quite useful. Every time something like an electron goes around a corner at fast speeds, it emits light. This light is used to study matter, like a microscope. Scroll down a few posts until you see the ipod. Most of those technologies came from light source research.

'til Death do them 'part

Fermilab-the proton smasher and Tantalus-the electron whirling, light-producing extraordinaire were born at the same time. Coincidentally, they are set both set for shutdown this year.

Given the recent political atmosphere and governmental budgetary belt tightening, some science is taking a hit. Fermilab and Tantalus' successor, the Synchrotron Radiation Center have been set for termination as a result of their old age--so says their funding agencies.

Despite the bleak outlook, there is something very poetic about the turn of events and their timeliness.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Mile or Two

This duo has been with me since 2004, I'm impressed. A simple pair of slip-on shoes that have traveled two continents and countless miles. I hate to think of the day when they won't be by my side, or underfoot that is.

These slip-ons recently accompanied me on my first journey to our nation's capital, Washington D.C. where they put on the miles as I journeyed (as I believe all should) to see the monuments. As I went the distance around the city I was reminded of the progress we've somehow managed to create in every aspect of our lives. With that, let's take a stroll down the history of how rubber transforms from goopy tree product to slip-on shoe that becomes a part of you throughout the years.

Action shot

A full description of both natural and synthetic rubber can be found conveniently at this Wikipedia site. But for all with just the passing intrigue. These are the highlights:

Rubber, known more organically as latex was first  found naturally in plants. Much like how syrup comes naturally from trees, a simple tap jammed into the trunk will strike a vein and drain the plant's harvest. This latex though, is pretty weak and flimsy with little structural integrity.

A tree being tapped for its latex

Vulcanization: One of the cooler scientific process names out there.
Through the use of chemistry, latex rubber from plants is combined with various compounds such as sulfur. These additives bind chemically with the rubber molecules to make it stronger. This sort of process is similar to how engineers add carbon atoms and other elements into iron to produce a much stronger form of metal, steel.

Today, much of the rubber we encounter is artificially made in some form or another from petroleum. This process can be more useful as it excludes some of the impurities found naturally in tree latex.

Not surprisingly, artificial rubber comes in some way from fossil fuels . For good measure, here's a page from the 2009 How the Energy Industry Works-an Insider's Guide 

A quick blurb about what 1 barrel of crude gets us

I'm not certain whether my enduring duo is made from vulcanized latex or synthetic rubber. I would guess it is synthetic since they've endured so much. I'm appreciative though that someone figured this stuff out. Used daily, thought of rarely.

Useful as they may be, shoes aren't all good

Friday, February 25, 2011

Straight from the Horse's Mouth

Budget cuts, the two words orbiting around so many debates. For the most part, it seems like a NIMBY case. Not In My Backyard. Yes, they are happening but it seems to never have landed near me. Well, this time it has.

For almost the last two years I have called UW Madison's Synchrotron Radiation Center (SRC) my home. And now it is set for termination. The SRC is a small particle accelerator laboratory that uses light to uncover the underlying properties of matter.

The SRC houses a machine that accelerates electrons near the speed of light around a baseball diamond sized track. This produces a broad spectrum of light frequencies scientists can use (like a microscope) to study matter.

"A person looks a lot different to an X-ray than with visible light. The same is true for other materials," said SRC physicist Cliff Olson.

The reality is what it is. There are a number of things involved in all of the politics that simply don't add up for a termination, it's just simply the "politics" word that we all like to blame. I will comment on one thing though.

The last line states that there are more powerful and capable facilities that surpass the SRC. This is true, the SRC accelerator is considered a 2nd generation light source and the standard today is the 3rd generation. We have designs for the 4th.

The accelerator, named Aladdin, housed at the SRC in Stoughton, WI during construction 1984

Most upsetting though is that a response like this is what sells the termination. An argument like this is a misconception, something that we internally believe: Bigger = Better. Much like how we say we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, we still do.

Saying that the SRC has been outdone by bigger laboratories is equivalent to saying that using a tennis racket in table tennis is much better because you can hit the ball harder.

Every mechanic, carpenter and builder knows the right tool is always essential. The SRC is being shut down and the official statement is not based on merited facts. I am continually reminded of why I do what I do to better communicate the idea of science.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Black Box We All See

Shifting gears a bit. As a continuation off the first post about how science is not just done by scientists, is the fact that we are immersed in the resultants of scientific progress, every day.

It's not always easy to foresee the immediate benefits from scientific research. To demonstrate the significance of basic scientific research is to look at something we see nearly everywhere: The MP3 player

This is just one example of the many things we take for granted everyday. However, it should never be assumed that science just progresses as if it were a mechanical clock. Behind every single innovation was someone who sat down with a pen and paper and started drawing, inventing and creating.

Do you know how your cell phone really works? Someone created it by challenging common knowledge. Thankfully, people are not black boxes.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Bicycles and the City: A list guide for survival and sanity

Included in almost every car advertisement is a blurb about the car’s fuel efficiency. Measured in miles per gallon, this tells us how far we get with a measured amount of fuel. Despite the continually increasing “mpg’s” we see, cars are horrible wasters of gas. Check out this chart of fuel efficiencies:

Bicycles are a model of efficiency. Wikipedia says they range from 80-99% efficient. A lot of the juice we put into the pedals comes out favorably as forward motion. Bikes are great.  Exercise, a breeze in your hair, no traffic jams, and some feel goods about not wasting money.

In no place is the bike best suited than a bustling city. All of these benefits are sure to follow so long as you don’t contend face-to-face with that 2-ton inefficient monster known as an automobile.

This is a seemingly obvious list to help you keep things sane. 

1) Helmets: Whereas it was uncool to wear a helmet in our younger years, today it says a lot about the head its protecting. I think of it as someone expressing humility, recognition of mortality. Simply put--your body can take a beating, your head cannot.
2) Best offense is a good defense? As far as the totem pole goes for city commuting, bikers are on the lowest end. Think of it as a glorified and unfair game of rock paper scissors. Car beats all, but cars can be trumped by pedestrians and the following lawsuits. It’s best to assume that bikes  lose no matter what you throw. There are many of cases where bicyclists are involved in an accident and inherit all of the blame and fines, despite having to go to the E.R.

3) Buses…There is one rule only. Don’t mess with them, period. Do not: go around them, in front of them, or behind them (for the sake of breathing.) They are cumbersome and unforgiving.

We can use physics for an absurd example:

Physics has a formula to measure how much Oommph or force a moving object has. If we calculate it out, a bus driving 25 m.p.h. has 768,350 Newtons and a bicyclist driving the same speed has about 3,932 Newtons.

What is a Newton? It’s a unit of force similar to how  we use pounds to measure weight. 1 newton is about 1/5 of a pound, so say a nice sized apple.
Take the bus’s apples and subtract them from the bicyclist's:
768,350 – 3,932 = 764,418 (more apples than you had) This means the bus stole all your thunder and continued to give you all of its remaining thunder in the form of pain.

Ok, so no one needs an equation to know that a bus will destroy a bike, it’s not a bad idea though to look at it from another viewpoint to drive it home. Keep your distance.

4) Blinky lights: As nighttime falls a bicyclists turns into a phantom. Scooting silently through the street canals masked within the periphery of an automobiles limited headlights. For these midnight hours there are many products out there built to obnoxiously announce that there is another being sharing the road. Quickly flashing LED lights keep you safe.
5) The Moment of Truth: The psychology of being knocked off your bike by an automobile is a perturbing event, to put it lightly. 

What happens: You are on your way to your destination and through a blinding mix of probabilities, a car is on a one-way course to ruin your day. Your mind will be at peace as you soar in slow-motion through the air. After a quick inversion from going over the handlebars you will land with the shocking force of everything reality has to offer. 

After realizing a few seconds later that you’re okay, just bleeding, you will notice the automobile driver still there, stopped with no expression. They remain in their fortified cocoon sealed off from all pandemonium in and around you. The car has not a scratch, it didn’t move one bit. You have repairs, a limp and the most unsettling feeling in your gut, you are so fragile and vulnerable with few to empathize or even sympathize.

Moving forward:

Number 5 is no good. So stay away from it, use your head and protect it. You'll be okay on a bicycle. Alternatively, just ride a bus and have an apple--both are financially smart and healthy things to do.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Science of Rock 'n' Roll

Rock 'n' Roll can be studied to death but no academic analysis will ever reveal what makes it simply ROCK. From drum lines to guitar riffs, from the gritty to the outrageous, rock 'n' roll is something we just recognize. Forget nailing it down with words, we know it when we hear it.

However, if anyone has ever turned on a rock radio station in the last 40 years they've heard the most transcendent sound in the genre, distortion.

Distortion is the gritty sound we hear from a combination of the guitar, its amp and some other gadgetry. It's omnipotent presence in rock makes it at times unnoticeable, part of the background foundation of sonic chaos that makes up music

To get a few things straight. This demo shows the difference between a guitar that has no distortion and then shortly after, what that same guitar sounds like with a distorted sound.

But what exactly is distortion? What gives it that sound? To answer this, we need to take a trip to the sonic world of sound waves. From vibrating guitar string to our ears, this is the journey.

To start, an electric guitar uses magnets to translate physical vibrating strings into electronic signals. When recorded, the sound wave looks like this:

     A pure musical note. Imagine humming "oooo." Or listening to a single vibrating guitar string. Listen here

This is what's called a sine wave and this is what your ear is hearing. For the rest of this post, remember that the images you are seeing are actual representations of the sound pressure air waves you're eardrum is experiencing.

Distortion is exactly how it sounds, the original signal gets shaped, shifted, squished, stretched and overall, distorted:

    The same pure musical note after being "distorted." This change in the shape is picked up by our eardrum as being slightly gritty and more aggressive. Listen here

Distortion is a naturally occurring event in electronics. Typically, distortion in electronics is not a good thing because it muddles the original signal and the accuracy of the contained information is skewed. For example, distortion in a computer is not a good thing. Rather, pure signals like the first image are preferable.

However, for our intrepid interpreting eardrums, this results in an entirely new perception of the sound, attributing to perhaps a different mood.

Pushing the distortion further will increase the sound to a harsher and more intense sound:

   This is an intense amount of distortion. Notice the straight vertical drops. Listening to the example shows that this case of distortion has a hard, bleating sound, almost like a buzz saw. Remember that this wave coming out of a speaker is the exact wave that is hitting your eardrum. Your eardrum is being smacked by blunt sound waves. Listen here

The rabbit hole doesn't stop there. Any number of mixes of distortion can be achieved. Some intense sounds can look like this:

    It's hard to imagine, but speakers make waves in these shapes. When you hear this, the air pressure waves are actually shaped like this. Listen here

That's all, this is one of the gremlins behind rock 'n' roll.

A few housekeeping details and clarifications:

In this day and age, when science is being broken down into simpler components, the author always wants to say "in general, to roughly depict, this is a crude approximation of." Our science knowledge delves deep and within, is a quite complex world. This post is no different and it is safe to assume that whenever a general physics lesson like this is presented, there is a netherworld of items complicating the picture. Rest assured though, the fundamental principles remain.

For example. The very first image we saw earlier:

This is not what a vibrating guitar string signal looks like. This is a computer generated sine wave at 180 Hz.

A guitar string looks more like this:

    This is a vibrating A string on a guitar, not so "siney" looking.

Tech Notes:
For all images:
X-axis: Time
Y-axis: Voltage

Where did the images of the graphs come from:

Using my computer and some common guitar distortion making devices known as pedals:

The black box is the distortion pedal that controls the amount of distortion for the outgoing signal. 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Seeing the Unseen: A Recently Completed Scientific Instrument Allows Scientists to See Deeper and Clearer into Materials

Appearing in Wisconsin Week, an article I wrote about a new imaging device that utilizes infrared light to help researchers peer into all types of biological forms. Click on the image for larger text: