Science of the week

In no particular order, here is a list (with brief summaries) of science related articles I enjoyed the past week. Some of these could be older, doesn’t matter though.

  1. A lifespan is a billion heartbeats. Remarkably, there exist simple scaling laws relating animal metabolism to body mass. Larger animals live longer; but they also metabolize slower, as manifested in slower heart rates. These effects cancel out, so that animals from shrews to blue whales have lifespans with just about equal number of heartbeats — about one and a half billion, if you simply must be precise. In that very real sense, all animal species experience “the same amount of time.” – Ten Things Everyone Must Know About Time
  2. Damascus steel rules. Nanotechnology in ancient craft. In 2006, however, researchers at the Institut fur Strukturphysik at the Technische Universität Dresden…obtained a small sample of a Damascus sabre from the Berne Historical Museum in Switzerland, and inspected it using high-resolution transmission electron microscopy.  Anelectron microscope, which uses electrons rather than light particles (photons), can resolve images of objects that are smaller than a nanometer (a billionth of a meter). Remarkably, they found the presence of so-called carbon nanotubes, a material that is on the cutting edge of nanotechnology! Carbon nanotubes possess unusual electrical properties, similar to graphene, and have many potential applications in electronics.  It is their mechanical properties that really stand out, however — multi-walled carbon nanotubes (tubes within tubes) can have a tensile strength roughly fifty times greater than steel, at a much lower density and with significant flexibility. – Ancient swords, modern nanotechnology
  3. Why Michael Douglas went on a killing spree. In 1998, a physicist named Boris Kerner with the Daimler Benz Research Institute in Stuttgart, Germany…classified traffic into three basic categories: freely flowing, jammed (solid state), and a bizarre intermediate state called synchronized flow, in which densely packed “car molecules” move in unison, like members of a marching band. When this happens — when all the cars are traveling at close to the same average speed because of the vehicle density on the roadway — they become highly dependent on one another. Highly correlated traffic means that a tiny perturbation — a butterfly flapping its wings, or a single driver braking unexpectedly  — will send little ripples of corresponding slowdowns through the entire chain of cars behind him/her. That’s one reason why slowdowns and traffic jams occur most commonly at merge points, especially exit and entrance ramps, or when lanes are closed due to road construction. A state of steady synchronized flow, punctuated by these tiny ripple effects (“narrow jams”) can persist indefinitely, but the balance is delicate and highly unstable. If the volume of cars continues to increase, the density continues to increase, and eventually you get a “pinch effect” — that frustrating “stop and go” phenomenon, in which you escape one narrow jam only to encounter another a little further down toe road, until they all converge into a single wide jam. Traffic comes to a standstill. Collective road rage may ensue, and the next thing you know, Michael Douglas is on a shotgun-toting rampage. – Crosstown Traffic

Strategies for terrorism

Danger Room has an interesting take on how to win against terrorism. The crux is this:

  1. Don’t panic and get into a fortress mentality. if you do, they have already won.
  2. Work the odds; statistically, some events are bound to happen. as long as they are not extreme events (nuclear terrorism), learn to live with the risk.
  3. Focus heavily on eliminating chances of extreme events.

The point seems to be that current US response in battening down the storm hatches and huddling in fear is unjustified and counter productive.

So why do they persist with this approach?

The answer appears not only plausible but at some level depressing as well.

Look at the charts that our own Lena Groeger compiled. She tallies $6.6 trillion in defense spending after 9/11. There is nothing that al-Qaida could possibly do to justify such a monster expenditure. Why did it happen?

Former White House counterterrorism chief. Richard Clarke has an answer. “There’s going to be a terrorist strike some day,” Clarke told Frontline for its “Top Secret America” documentary this week. “And when there is, if you’ve reduced the terrorism budget, the other party, whoever the other party is at the time, is going to say that you were responsible for the terrorist strike because you cut back the budget.  And so it’s a very, very risky thing to do.”

In other words, the same fear of limited, near term, pusillanimous political interests seem to outweigh larger national or global interests. At some level, we see similar behavior from Indian politicians on India-Pakistan issues.

The post on Danger Room seems to be down. In case you can catch it, read the whole thing. Insightful and thought provoking.

28 times to 158 times in 35 years

WaPo is running a series of  reports on growing gap in earnings between the richest 0.1% and the rest of US. The largest gain is in executive compensation.

In 1970, average executive pay at the nation’s top companies was 28 times the average worker income, according to the Frydman-Molloy data and numbers provided by Emmanuel Saez at the University of California at Berkeley. By 2005, executive pay had jumped to 158 times that of the average worker.


Since revealing these growing disparities would be embarrassing to all and sundry, there is some serious lobbying going on to ensure that executive compensation would not be released into public domain.

A group backed by 81 major companies — including McDonald’s, Lowe’s, General Dynamics, American Airlines, IBM and General Mills — is lobbying against new rules that would force disclosure of that comparison.

The companies and their Republican allies in Congress call comparisons between the chief and everyone else in the company “useless.”

Yeah, that’s the ticket.

The greatest shoe never made

is now made!
For all you middle aged folks who remember Michael J Fox in Back to Future series.
The Nike Air Mag is the shoe Michael brings back from the future. Since then paeans have been written by people hoping the shoe will be made.
Now it is.
Equally importantly, Nike will make only 1500 pairs ( I think) and auction them off. All proceeds go to research on Parkinson disease cure.

The 2011 NIKE MAG from Inside The Sneakerbox on Vimeo.