Thursday, December 17, 2009

Light Up the Holiday Science Round Up

I don't know about you, but I love this time of year - the snow, the cold, the decorations, the songs. Plus I don't have to do a lot of shopping (being poor has its benefits!) so I think I get to enjoy it a bit more than some.

It's also a time of year to nerd-out, as our other bloggers have shown. In addition to books and t-shirts for that special geek in your life, try sending out Hubble Holiday cards featuring images from the newly revamped Hubble Space Telescope. And what a better subject for a Christmas card? I mean, have you ever seen a more tremendous lighting display than this:That's one of the newest images to come from Hubble since it was equipped with the Wide Field Camera 3 in May of this year. By August, the telescope was sending back the deepest images ever taken in the near infrared range. No one has ever seen this far out into the Universe in this wavelength before. What is stunning about this image is both how many galaxies and stars appear (though most are galaxies, as stars at this distance would be very difficult to see) and secondly, how small a portion of the sky this image takes up. This is only the area of 1/15 of the full moon! So multiply this image by a few million and you'd have a full view of the near-infrared sky.

Another great thing about this time of year is of course the cooking. Fresh turkey baked right has long been considered an art form in my family, but maybe it's really a science. Former director and founding member of SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory WKH "Pief" Panofsky, quite an amazing guy in many respects, found the old knowledge that one should cook a turkey "30 minutes per pound" insufficient (although really I think any cookbook has some different specifics on that). Anyway, Pief developed his own equation for Turkey cooking:
t = W(2/3)/1.5
Where t is the time to cook the turkey in hours and W is the weight. The constant of 1.5 was apparently gathered empirically.


Swinging back to Christmas lighting - if you are in the Baltimore area this season, be sure to stop by the 700 block of 34th St., between Keswick Rd. and Chestnut St. in Hampden. It is the holiday capitol of cheesy Christmas lighting decorations. I grew up in the Western US and for some reason, plastic light-up yard ornaments never caught on the way they did out East. But whatever your taste for your own yard, this street will make you want to go home and dress the house up Griswold style. There are also some artist who make Christmas decor out of such items as bike wheels and hubcaps.

But even Clark Griswold can't stand up to the guy who not only timed his Christmas light display to rock and roll songs, but also hooked it up to a Wii to make the holiday rocking interactive.

If you do get that kind of seasonal motivation, you could try making this the year that you switch to LED Christmas lights. Apparently they've been flying off the shelves. LED's promise around 50,000 hours of burn time, which would last an average household more than a 15 years, plus they use up to 90% less energy of traditional lights. Plus, for the benefit of Christmas trees, LED's don't heat up like traditional bulbs, reducing the risk of fire. Although, as shown in some controlled and fascinating studies by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, most Christmas tree fires can be avoided simply by keeping your tree watered. Here's a video of what it took to get a non-watered tree to start burning. Though it's a bit of a downer to think of such holiday accidents, watching how quickly these things go up in flames is fascinating, and will hopefully serve as a reminder to keep yours watered.


That said, while LED's low-level heating may be desirable for reducing tree fire risk, it has also caused problems for traffic lights because the LED's don't melt snow. Thus, during storms they become obscured, and this can cause accidents. If you see an obscured traffic light, treat it as a stop sign.


For those who prefer a different kind of holiday light and want them to be more energy efficient, here's a wind-powered Menorah. Students of Yeshiva University realized that the wind tunnels dividing buildings on campus could be used to power some sort of device. 'But what?' they wondered. Nice choice.

From the NYTimes blog article:

Mr. Stauber said he saw symbolism in the project. “In the miracle of the menorah, they got back to the temple and there was only enough oil for one night, but they made it last eight days,” he said. “I see an analogy with the world’s fight for sustainable energy, to take that and make it last as long as we’re going to need it.”
Oh, and the world's tiniest snow-man:

For that you can thank the UK's National Physics Laboratory. The snowman is 10 micrometers across, or 1/5 the width of a human hair.

Happy Holidays!

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