Tuesday, July 27, 2010

20 Things You Didn't Know About Light

1. God commanded, “Let there be light,” but it didn’t happen for nearly half a million years. That’s how long after the Big Bang the universe took to expand enough to allow photons (light particles) to travel freely.

2. Those photons are still running loose, detectable as the cosmic microwave background, a microwave glow from all parts of the sky.

3. Light moves along at full “light speed”—186,282.4 miles per second—only in a vacuum. In the dense matrix of a diamond, it slows to just 77,500 miles per second.

4. Diamonds are the Afghan­istan of gemstones: Any entering photon quickly gets bogged down. It takes a lot of pinging back and forth in a thicket of carbon atoms to find an exit. This action is what gives diamonds their dazzling sparkle.

5. Eyeglasses can correct vision because light changes speed when it passes from air to a glass or plastic lens; this causes the rays to bend.

6. Plato fancied that we see by shooting light rays from our eyes.

7. The Greek philosopher was not completely wrong. Like all living things, humans are bio­luminescent: We glow. We are brightest during the afternoon, around our lips and cheeks. The cause may be chemical reactions involving molecular fragments known as free radicals.

8. Bioluminescence is the largest source of light in the oceans; 90 percent of all creatures who live below about 1,500 feet are luminous.

9. World War II aviators used to spot ships by the bio­luminescence in their wakes. In 1954 Jim Lovell (later the pilot of Apollo 13) used this trick to find his darkened aircraft carrier.

10. Incandescent bulbs convert only 10 percent of the energy they draw into light, which is why Europe will outlaw them by 2012. Most of the electricity turns into unwanted heat.

11. In the confined space of an Easy-Bake oven, a 100-watt bulb can create a temperature of 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

12. Light has no mass, but it does have momentum. Later this year the Planetary Society will launch LightSail-1, attempting to capture the pressure of sunlight the way a boat’s sail gathers the wind.

13. Laser beams bounced off mirrors left behind by Apollo astronauts show that the moon is moving 1.5 inches farther from Earth each year.

14. Visible light makes up less than one ten-billionth of the electromagnetic spectrum, which stretches from radio waves to gamma rays.

15. Goldfish can see infrared radiation that is invisible to us. Bees, birds, and lizards have eyes that pick up ultraviolet.

16. Photography means “writing with light.” English astronomer John Herschel, whose father discovered infrared, coined the term.

17. Shoot now: The “golden hour,” just after sunrise and before sunset, produces the prettiest shadows and colors for photographs.

18. Day and night are everywhere the same length on the vernal equinox, which occurs this year on March 20.

19. Auroras light up the night sky when solar wind particles excite atoms in the upper atmosphere. Oxygen mostly shines green; nitrogen contributes blue and red.

20. But to the Inuits, auroras are spirits of the dead kicking around the head of a walrus.

[Via Discover Magazine]

Why Does Texas Rank Last in High School Diplomas?

How can Texas rank last in the nation — 51st — in the percentage of adults with high school diplomas, and simultaneously rank 22nd in the percentage attending at least some college?

The complicated answer involves more than the quality of the K-12 education system. The figures, based on the percentage of adults over 25 years old with various levels of education, come from a review of 2008 census bureau data by the Brookings Institution, which put data on education attainment from every state into this nifty web widget. It came as part of a larger study called the State of Metropolitan America, released in May (which includes some other interesting data on Texas cities).

In a ranking of the 50 states plus Washington, D.C. in educational attainment, Texas was all over the map: 51st in high school (79.6 percent); 22nd in some college (22.6 percent); 44th in associate’s degrees (6.3 percent); 31st in bachelor’s degrees (25.3 percent); and 36th in graduate degrees (8.3 percent). The leading factor driving down the state’s rankings has little to do with the quality of public schools and everything to do with the rapid rate of immigration, said Alan Berube, senior fellow and research director at Brookings, a left-leaning policy think-tank.

Many Mexican and Latin American immigrants “came to Texas as adults. They didn’t come there to finish high school. They came there to work. So that depresses the indicator,” Berube says. Further, the wide gap between high school and college attainment indicates a relatively large percentage of Texans who do complete high school go on to college, with many graduating, he says.

The same trends can be seen in California — the other huge state with rapid growth in immigration — with an even more severe spread between high school and college attainment. The sunshine state ranked 49th in high school attainment, yet 15th and 16th, respectively, in the percentage of adults with bachelor’s and graduate degrees.

In addition, the rankings can be deceiving because almost every state in the nation is clustered between 80 and 90 percent, so the state ranking last isn’t necessarily so far behind others ranking much higher. “But somebody’s got to be 51st,” Berube said, “and it turns out that’s Texas.”

At the same time, Houston, Austin and Dallas are three among only nine cities in America with the rare combination of fast growth, high levels of ethnic diversity and high educational attainment, Berube said. San Antonio, El Paso and McAllen, unfortunately, have the fast growth and diversity — but low educational attainment.

While some of the data should give policymakers concerns, none of it should be interpreted as solely a failure of the Texas education system, Berube said. Many Texas adults grew up elsewhere, and fast growth in Texas cities speaks for itself — people who live elsewhere want to move here. As for education levels, the real demographic shift will come when today’s second- and third-graders — who are Hispanic and low-income in higher percentages than today’s Texas teenagers — get into high school. In 2008, the Hispanic population represented 36 percent of all Texans, but 46 percent of births, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. The latest enrollment report from the Texas Education Agency, from the 2008-09 school year, shows that Hispanic students now account for 48 percent of public school enrollment — and 65 percent of pre-kindergarten enrollment.

How Texas public schools perform in educating these students — many from Spanish-speaking families without a history of high school and college graduation — largely will determine the future prosperity of the state. The current levels of educational attainment are “certainly something to be concerned about,” Berube said. “But the focus should be more properly on how the schools are doing with the children of these immigrants.”

[Via Texas Tribune]

Monday, July 26, 2010

Brewery's Nanny State Beer Swipe

A brewery has launched a low alcohol beer called Nanny State after being branded irresponsible for creating the UK's "strongest beer".

Scottish brewer BrewDog, of Fraserburgh, was criticised for Tokyo* which has an alcohol content of 18.2%.

Campaigners welcomed the 1.1% alcohol Nanny State but said the name showed a lack of appreciation of the problem

The 3,000 limited edition bottles of Tokyo* contained six units of alcohol - twice the recommended daily limit.

The company had insisted the £9.99 high strength beer would help tackle the country's binge-drinking culture, because customers would drink it in smaller quantities.

But Alcohol Focus Scotland had branded that argument "deluded".

BrewDog founder James Watt explained on his blog: "Anyone who knows BrewDog, knows beer, or anyone has more common sense than a common (or garden) gnome will know that the scathing and unrelenting criticism we faced was pretty unjustified.

"If logic serves the same people who witch-hunted and publicly slated us should now offer us heartfelt support and public congratulations.

"However I fear that this, unfortunately, is an arena devoid of logic and reason."

Nanny State is described as a "mild imperial ale containing more hops per barrel than any other beer ever brewed in the UK".

It is being made available in limited quantities online for £2.49.

Jack Law, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said of the new Nanny State beer: "This is a positive move which proves that low strength doesn't compromise quality.

"However the name of the beer proves that once again this company is failing to acknowledge the seriousness of the alcohol problem facing Scotland."

BrewDog previously ran into controversy when drinks industry watchdog the Portman Group said its Speedball drink should be withdrawn from sale until its marketing was changed.

Speedballing is the name given to combining heroin and cocaine.

[Via BBC News]

Professional Vodka Tasters Keep Polish Tipple Pure

POZNAN, Poland (AFP) – For Poland's army of vodka tasters, the rules are strict: no smoking, no coffee, and no perfume, not to mention to the 6 am starts.

While in France cellar masters ensure the quality of fine wines, in Poland professional vodka tasters keep the potent tipple, first distilled in the region in mediaeval times, smooth and pure.

Krystyna Gbiorczyk, in charge of quality and taste control at a distillery in Poznan, western Poland, has for many years used her keen sense of taste and smell to safeguard the reputation of a top-selling brand name.

Samples of crystal clear vodka made using rye are heated and poured into covered glasses to capture all their aroma, she says.

The vodka is then closely observed, shaken, tasted and then evaluated on the basis of its strength, taste and smell.

"The regular tastings allow us to detect any significant differences between different batches of vodka and correct them to the standard we seek," adds Danuta Maranda, a quality control expert.

Last year the distillery launched an internal recruitment drive to find talented new tasters. Candidates had to discern between sweet, salty, acid or metallic-tasting vodkas and classify them according to the degree of alcohol content.

Among the new recruits was Malgorzata Novak, who landed a spot on the quality control team. Now she samples more than 20 bottles over an eight hour shift with her first sip of vodka at 6 am.

"I check for clarity, consistency and taste, of course. I do similar checks about every hour," she explains. If her taste buds give the all clear, bottling goes ahead.

When they're not tasting, the distillery's experts concoct the vodkas of tomorrow. Recently, Maranda received an order to create a vodka using red fruit.

Just as if she were creating a new perfume, she lines up a dozen vials of various natural fruity syrups and aromas ranging from the sweet flavour of cherry pits to the acidic smell of plums.

Pondering caramel-based colouring, like a modern-day alchemist, she seeks perfection over a period of three months.

"Its a difficult task to find harmony between the different elements, to get the right amounts and marry them well in the vodka we produce, like making a fine wine," she explains.

The unique sensibilities of the distillery's tasters are sometimes also solicited by the police to distinguish between authentic brands and black market counterfeit vodka.

"Counterfeit alcohol is often composed of products which give a similar taste to the original vodka, but large doses can be very dangerous," says Katarzyna Gbiorczyk. "The problem is that people who want to save money are risking their health."

In 2009, around 250 million litres (66 million US gallons) of vodka were sold in Poland, making the spirit second only in popularity to beer.