Peace of the Pi

Friday, June 17, 2011

Spectators watch as a Buddhist calculates
the 3080th digit of pi
We all know that pi is irrational, meaning that there's no pattern to its digits. So how is it that we can calculate it to the thousandth decimal place and beyond?

As with all transcendental numbers, the answer lies in the secretive religion of Zen Buddhism. To compute each digit of pi, a Yogi will enter a deep trance and request the digit from the spectral plane. The monk must then continue meditating while waiting for the answer to come. In some cases, the guru will learn the digit in mere seconds, while in other cases, monks have been known to sit for weeks in patient anticipation before receiving a reply.

Of course, the answer must then be checked carefully to make sure that the swami's concentration didn't slip, resulting in a foul-up. Standard practice is have twenty shamen (or shawomen) check each digit before it can be officially recognized as correct.

This sort of technique, known as "Vedic math", tends to stick in the craw of Western mathematicians who prefer "rigorous" methods like algebra and calculus. Personally, I say go with whatever works!

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Smug as a Bug in a Rug

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Closeup of L. psittacus
Photo by Joi Ito (CC BY 2.0)
The critically endangered Tunisian parrot beetle (Leptinotarsa psittacus) is the only species of insect capable of imitating human speech. It uses this talent to scare off predators, which universally fear humans.

The beetle's extra-precise antennae can pick up sound waves from up to ten yards away or more. After picking up a suitable sound, it spins a cocoon where it will hibernate for three weeks, processing the audio data. Once it has emerged from its cocoon, it can use the tymbals on its hind legs to reproduce the sound.

But here's the crazy part: the parrot beetle can only play back a sound once! After that, it must begin the recording and processing steps all over again. A single parrot beetle can use more than 500 sounds in its lifetime!

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A Wing and a Prayer

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Ever notice how the wings on a jet can often look like they're in pretty bad shape? Fact is, jets don't need wings at all. They are held aloft by their eponymous turbojets, much like the space shuttle, which is why the wings don't flap except in emergencies. They are only there so that people on the ground do not mistake them for Incoming Bomb Missiles (ICBMs).

Prop planes, on the other hand, need wings to keep them from spinning in the opposite direction of their propellers. Just like a helicopter!

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Force of a different color

Thursday, June 09, 2011

We've all heard scientists talk about "fundamental forces", but what are they really yammering on about? There are five fundamental forces:
  1. The "weak force". This force is commonly known as "force of will".

  2. The "strong force", popularized by the movie Star Wars.

  3. The "electronica force", or "force of habit".

  4. The "gravitational force", or "force of nature".

  5. The "centrifugal force", also known as the "blunt force", which is the force you feel if you try to push two magnets together.
Where can you see all of these forces working together at the same time? The Mexican jumping bean!

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Not to put too wine a point on it

Monday, June 06, 2011

Photo by TheCulinaryGeek (CC)
In a pinch, you can make red wine out of red wine vinegar simply by adding one part sugar for every two parts vinegar, and zapping the mixture in the microwave. The reaction takes about ten minutes per liter, and if high quality vinegar is used, most people won't notice that anything is up. Add a little grape juice, and you'll have even the most discerning connoisseurs fooled.

In fact, most low to mid grade red wines are stored and shipped as vinegar before being reconstituted at the bottling plant. This allows wineries to legally evade the hefty tariffs leveed against spirits. When Grover Cleveland infamously tried to close this loophole by taxing vinegar imports, he started the Spanish American War. The tax was repealed, and no US president has since been willing to touch the issue with a ten foot pole.

The "just add sugar" technique does not work with white vinegar, which is simply a mixture of salt and vodka (one of the first known methods for denaturing alcohol), or with so-called apple "vinegar", which is a mixture of salt, sugar, and bourbon cured in apple wood casks.

You can, of course, use this technique to turn balsamic vinegar into balsam wine, but since balsam wine contains wood alcohol, I wouldn't recommend it.

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Nazo Fast!

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Adolph Hitler, King of the Nazis
Why do we call things of incredible value "priceless"? To find the answer, we must turn the clock back to the first world war. In 1915, the Nazis invaded and occupied London, and as usual, the first order of business was to send the Gestapo around to every house to collect any valuables to add to Germany's coffers.

Of course, with so many houses to search, it was impractical to appraise every single item, so instead, the Nazis would simply ask each house's residents how much each item was worth. It became common for the British to try to fool the Germans into thinking that their most valuable possessions had no worth. Even after the war ended, "priceless" was used with a sense of bitter irony to describe such objects.

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Neutrino Cappuccino

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Photo by Roger Price via Flickr
(per Creative Commons)
Decaffeinated coffee is just fantastic for those of us who like to start off the morning with a hot beverage but dislike the idea of using drugs (recent studies prove that caffeine is nearly as addictive as crack cocaine). But how do they separate the delicious parts of coffee beans from the dangerous narcotics they contain? Amazingly, the answer involves nuclear power!

When a nuclear reactor goes supercritical, it charges up any carbon dioxide in the area, giving it astounding properties. One of the amazing qualities of this supercritical CO2 is that it turns caffeine into harmless decaffeine.

This process was discovered by none other than Albert Einstein. The math virtuoso was working one morning in his garage, putting the finishing touches on the first nuclear reactor. He set his cup of coffee down next to the reactor, near where he happened to have left a small amount of dry ice from an unrelated experiment. When he flipped the switch, the reactor worked exactly as he had calculated, but to Einstein's surprise, he found that his coffee no longer gave him the "jolt" he expected. He ended up patenting both the nuclear reactor and his process for decaffeinating coffee on the same day.

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