Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Imagining the Universe with Kitty Litter

If you imagine the universe, instead of as what exists beyond the the thin layer of elements that separate us from everything, but as an endless expanse of darkness with droplets of stars floating in determined circles around massive all-consuming, all-absorbing black holes, you'll discover that this is impossible. No matter how hard I know that the universe is thirteen billion years old, that stars are so massive it could take 1100 years to fly around one (a big one) in a jet plane, that millions and billions of these objects inhabit the rest of the dark, vast expanse of everything--in my head the looming rent bill still seems bigger.

When I see this picture-- 

--the biggest thing I can imagine is a dust storm blowing over cities and farms and continents. But this picture represents the birthing process of stars: the Orion Nebula having babies as big as or bigger than our sun, far bigger than our Earth, and incomprehensibly larger than me.

I'm a girl. Sometimes I feel fat. Well. Here's the thing:

Watch this. 

I'm not fat.

I like to imagine the universe. I spend hours and days and months and eventually years trying to picture it, to capture it with words or pictures or simply with thought, but I never will. I also don't care. Despite the immense impossibility of ever understanding the whole thing, it still fills me with wonder (which is a great feeling), reminds me that there's so much more to find and see than the little things that sit in front of me everyday, and it makes even the most mundane seem valuable.

Our magnificent universe, working and working without ever stopping, building and destroying, thinking and innovating; our magnificent universe, functioning in perfect rhythm, ignoring tiny little me who so admires its beauty and grace but still creating the perfect conditions for my existence; our magnificent universe filled with massive stars and planets, made of every element imaginable, filled with black holes and galaxies, life and death and existence, is swirling around itself, dying and breathing and living, and I am lucky enough to be allowed to change the kitty litter.

For more cool things about the size of the universe, check this!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Forecast calls for Moonquakes and Light Wishful Thinking

The problem with planetary science or astronomy is that the word "recent" doesn't mean anything to the average human being. Here's why.

1. First imagine one egg. (Not the yolkless kind.)

2. Now imagine 12 eggs.

3. Now imagine 12 million eggs.

I got lost imagining at about 12 eggs. The reason is because we group things. I substituted 12 eggs for a dozen. If you said to me, "Guess what! I have 50 trillion cells in my body!" I wouldn't imagine 50 trillion cells, I would imagine one body. So when I see an article titled "Moon's Scarred Crust Hints at Recent Activity", I get excited and then I get disappointed. Because the "recent" earthquake was 50 million years ago.

I thought for a moment that maybe, just maybe, the Moon was still barely warm enough to have tectonic activity. It's not. It's dead. But it did have earthquakes! 50 million years ago, that is.

The thing is, I want them to say "The moon had an Earthquake YESTERDAY!" Now that would be news. Not 27 pound lobster news. Not $4/gallon for gas  news or $5000 and a trip to Hawaii if you eat astronaut food for 4 months news or Google making Smartphone glasses news. But it would definitely EPIC SPACE NEWS.

Soon, I hope, there will be less of "we found a planet 100 million light years away! With water!" and more of "OMG Dinosaurs on Titan!"

For now, however, I guess I will just have to be satisfied with 50 million year old moon quakes.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Ariele's Ode to Scotland

Scotland is a great place to visit. On one side of the road you have sheep...

...and on the other side of the road you have giant houses.

And if you keep going, it doesn't take too long before you can
 find an even bigger house.
With spikes.

Scottish people are great, too. They know what they want. 
Apparently the girls just want you to remember things.
Like their names.

They seem to be very concerned with safety.

And this guy just wants the sun to come out so 
he can play his solar powered guitar.

There are all sorts of places to visit in Scotland. 
Like this statue with a traffic cone on its head.

Or Hogwarts, for example.

And if they think they are missing a bit of history, they just borrow it.
The Parthenon...

...or the Pyramids...

...and that rock over there in the corner. To the left of the tree.

It's from Norway.

I don't think they have enough buses in Scotland.

And they like to keep their best writers in cages.
I'm not a fan of that.
(Sir Walter Scott).

But they do have some very cute boys.

So. The question is: are you going, or not?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Last Minute Valentine's Day Post

Oh crap, Valentine's Day is this week. 

Actually, this isn't really last minute. You still have over twenty four hours to prepare. I, however, don't care about Valentine's Day at all, so instead I'm going to talk about cockroaches.

I used to live in this tiny house. It had one room upstairs, with a porch and set of stairs leading up to it. Inside this house was a very narrow closet, a bathroom with a toilet and a shower that was slightly larger than I was (every so often the sewage would back up into it and the only time I bothered to call the landlady, she was on vacation on Puerto Rico), a fridge about the size of glove compartment, the tiniest stove I have ever seen in my life, and a sink.

I slept on an air mattress on the floor, with a very short stool next to it which acted as a night stand. I also had a chair. The first night I lived there, I had no electricity. I lit tea candles and placed them all over the counter and the floor. It was quite Bohemian, in fact.

But the truth is, I did not live here alone.

In fact, my roommates were quite numerous, and rather unscrupulous, when it came down to it. If I locked the doors, they slid underneath. If I tried to poison them, they got tougher. Yes. My roommates were cockroaches.

One night, I woke up thirsty. As I took my two steps across the floor to get to the sink, I stepped on something that moved. If you have not had this experience, I recommend trying it once (just to get it out of your system) and then never doing it again. It's quite unnerving. I never understood why a creature that could see in the dark would just let itself get smashed by my foot. Of course it didn't die. So I turned the light on, caught it in a glass jar, and dumped it into a pot of boiling water--a very quick and painless way to die (I hope). Also it doesn't smear bug guts everywhere. Then I dumped it and the water off my porch.

But this isn't the most terrifying incident.

One evening, I arrived home late. I turned on my light before stepping into the room (a safety precaution which I learned quite rapidly after moving in) and glanced around. I saw, to my dismay, two of these nasty little creatures. The first was an easy hunt and kill. It only took about two minutes. But by the time I was ready to stalk the second, it had already climbed 3/4 of the way up the wall. Gross. But no problem.

I grabbed a chair and climbed up with my jar in hand. I almost had it, and then it jumped. I ducked, but would you believe it--that nasty little sucker flew! It sprouted wings! And then it landed on my back!!!

This was the first (and hopefully the last) time I ever screamed for a bug. Admittedly, it was more of a loud squeak, followed by flailing arms and swatting hands, but I promise, I took a very long shower afterwards. Oh, I caught it, by the way. Eventually. With a lot of stalking and jumping backwards. It was with ever so much pleasure that I watched it slide into the boiling water.

But you know what I will always remember? I will always remember the shape of its wings as it flew at my face. They were in the shape of a heart.

So if you're in need of a last minute Valentine's Day gift, just run outside, catch a cockroach, and give it to your favourite person in the world. If you're smart, you'll even dip in chocolate. Or gold. Or boiling water. 

Won't Dave be surprised. ;)

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Backpack Across the Universe

The other day, I was thinking about Scotland. It's full of castles and sheep. I wish I could take Rutherford there--maybe then he could find himself a girlfriend.

While in Scotland, Leslie and I rode on trains. I was inordinately excited about this, because I had never been on a train before (except for that time in third grade which I don't remember) and because trains are a rather weird form of transportation. Basically, somebody takes a bunch of boxes, hooks them together, and drags them across the countryside on really, really long metal rods. And people sit in them and eat and read and play bridge. I spent a lot of time looking out the window. I saw castles and sheep and a few beehives.

I fully believe that humans will go to space, one day, and build colonies and eat weird tasting potatoes grown in an artificial environment or eat weird tasting potatoes that aren't actually potatoes because they are native to Caprica, not Earth. All the common theories of space travel tend to lean towards space ships: big ones, small ones, ones with sails and nuclear engines and jump drives that allow them to skip over massive chunks of space or fly faster than the speed of light (a very useful trick, considering the size of the universe).

But what I want is a space train--a number of boxes run together in a chain and dragged from here to there by a massive engine harnessing the power of a star.

It makes sense: each car would explode away from Earth separately, and they would then be assembled while in orbit. Once assembled, the engine would leave orbit dragging a number of boxes and people behind it. Then, if one car exploded while taking off, only a few people would die, but the whole train wouldn't be ruined. If it were a big enough train, entire colonies could start out, ready and willing to colonize New Scotland and New China and New New England.

And when they look out the window of this train--the space train--instead of sheep and castles and beehives, they would see stars and spaceships and gravity whales, and on their way to New Scotland, they could make a stop at New New York and visit the black statue of liberty that sings when the wind whistles through her teeth, or visit the Big Apple which is actually the original, red spaceship that brought everyone to this planet.

New Scotland would be a planet of rolling hills and sparkling crags, with boiling water in Equatorial Ocean, and massive spheres of ice in the North, home to a particularly ornery species of furry dinosaurs. They would keep their royal crown, scepter, and stone in a sacred box hidden in a secret spot on the highest mountain in the world, and Great Britain would not rule over her any more. Then children would learn how their ancestors escaped from the rule of the Queen of England by traversing a billion miles across the universe and settling here, on the beautiful blue-green planet of New Scotland.

So if we could maybe hurry our technological advancement up a bit, then maybe someday, instead of backpacking across Scotland, I could backpack across the universe.

And for your entertainment, I have included this video about the Scottish boy in the Scottish McDonalds. 

Administrative Note: posting schedule will be changing, but I don't yet know to what. Thanks.

Monday, February 6, 2012

How to Wing the Superbowl

A few days ago I experienced a crisis of massive proportions. We are talking crisis on the level of the sun going nova, or an asteroid killing all the dinosaurs. Imagine every volcano on Earth exploding simultaneously or the tectonic plates suddenly deciding to go swimming in molten lava: that kind of serious. The 'a basilisk ate Obama and the Queen' kind of serious.

First you should know that I don't cook. My mother would rush to inject here that she made sure my brothers and I knew how to cook before we left the house, as well as how to do our laundry, and how to sew. This is true. For me, not cooking is a personal choice. This choice stems mostly from my hatred of doing dishes.

Yesterday I decided to boil an egg. Not a difficult task, you say, but let me remind you: I don't cook. My goal was to boil three eggs. The first egg- no problem. The second egg- fine. But the third egg, as I began to slide it into the water, slipped out of my fingers and cracked on the bottom of the pot. HORROR! Egg began to emerge from its encasement! White slimy stuff sneaking out into the water, like a Trojan horse wheeling its way sneakily into Troy. The water started to bubble and foam until it had reached the edges of the pot and threatened to leap out and consume the world.

So I did what I always do during momentous crises--I called my mom. She said it was fine. She told me to turn down the heat. She also said I could eat it, even though it looked like a deformed alien trying to pre-escape its egg, or like Earth leaking gravity through the hole in the ozone layer (I didn't eat it, actually--it creeped me out too much).

There is another reason to be concerned about eggs. I'm sure you've seen a double-yolk or a spot of blood inside an egg. But have you ever seen an egg without a yolk? I hope not. These eggs are laid by roosters. If they hatch, a terrible creature comes out: a two-legged dragon with wings and the head of a rooster--a cockatrice. There are only two ways it can die: by hearing the crow of a rooster, or by seeing itself in a mirror. If it looks at you, you turn to stone.

The trick to prevention is to throw the cockatrice egg over your house so it smashes on the other side without touching the roof. As the best chicken catcher in my family, I'm sure I could manage to take down a cockatrice--so if you see one, feel free to call me. 

But if you believe that avoidance is the best method, move to Toronto. Otherwise you're bound to be tormented by giant rooster-dragons staring you into stone and gobbling up all your children.

On the other hand, a cockatrice could be quite useful, if utilized carefully. If you're very clever, you could wrangle that rooster-dragon and use it as a weapon against the Giants (if you live in New England)  or the Patriots (if you live elsewhere), so that your team would win; and if you were really smart, you would have done it last week, so the game would have been a shutout. Or, if you were really, really smart, you would have brought the rooster-dragon onto the football field during the game, so instead of tossing around a small not-round kicking toy, the players would have been engaged in an epic battle against the Cockatrice: it would have been the football game of the century.

Here is the moral of the story: pay close attention to your eggs, and you could be the decider of the next Superbowl.


Thursday, February 2, 2012


Recently, I have been spending a lot of time with my cat. Goblin is her name, and she is a beautiful, long-haired calico. You probably remember her from Rutherford the Unicorn-Sheep's play date. She makes funny faces sometimes.

The thing about Goblin that is different than any other cat I've ever had, is that she talks constantly. If I get up at 4am to go to work, she starts meowing. If I get home from work at noon, she starts meowing. Usually if I'm working at the computer or cleaning she either sleeps or hides, but if I'm not paying enough attention to her, she meows.

Whenever I am in the kitchen she meows. Like this:

My favourite thing about Goblin is not how she sleeps on my head every night, or how she scratches the back of the couch when she thinks I'm not looking, or how she licks plastic bags: it's how she attacks the little tiny white feathers that come out of pillows. They're so small that they are almost invisible, so it looks like she's attacking the air or the rug or nothing at all.

The thing about cats is that they're completely insane and yet so awesome. The first time my parents' cat, Spidercat, came into the house, she was so afraid of the dog that she leaped six feet in the air and crawled her way up the wall, ruining mom's wallpaper. Just yesterday, Mom caught her, not walking across the top of the cupboard, but balancing on the teapots sitting on top of the cupboard.

My deceased cat, Ginger, used to catch rabbits and bring them to me as a gift. Or something.

The most amazing cat I've ever heard of is Schrodinger's cat. In Quantum Mechanics there exists something called a superposition of states. This idea suggests that an electron exists in its theoretical states simultaneously until it is measured--then it decides where it is. Schrodinger thought this was silly. He proposed this thought experiment:

Put a cat in a steel box with food and a vial of radioactive poison. If any of the poison decays during the time the cat is in the box, then the vial is smashed and the food filled with poison. But, since we can't see or measure the cat in any way, then according to Quantum Superposition we would be forced to believe that the cat is both dead and alive simultaneously, until we open the box and the cat becomes one or the other.

 Nowadays I think PETA would object to putting cats in steel boxes and feeding them poison, but imagine it: a cat that can both exist and not exist simultaneously. I think we can now understand why they jerk their eyes and heads around like they're watching things that aren't there: it's because they are there. Cats can see electrons in superposition. Because they're smart. And manipulative. I have proof right here:

 Moral of the story: Go get a cat.