Nerdy Notes: About Time


Ironically (where blogging is concerned) I was unable to connect to the Internet while writing today’s blog post.  As a result, I had to write about something I already knew.

In searching the depths of my mind for things both nerdy and interesting, I came across time travel.  To make a very long story short, time travel is—in fact—possible.  We, the human race, in our present stage of astrophysical knowledge and understanding, know how to move a person forward in time.  We do not know how to move a person backward in time.  Sorry; visiting the dinosaurs or your dead relatives are out.

Going forward in time (that is, going farther forward in time than time itself advances, with the understanding that in the ordinary sense, everyone goes forward in time, as betrayed by our wrinkling epidermises) is actually fantastically simple.  You simply have to go.  Move.  Get on with it.

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Nerdy Notes: This Week, a Guest

Edgar A. Guest (C) Life Magazine

In Internet speak, IMHO means “In My Humble Opinion”.  This week, I thought I’d take a bit of a break from the particularly nerdy side of Nerdy Notes and throw together a somewhat more heartfelt post.

There is a reason for this, but it is kind of a geeky thing (rather than nerdy, you see).  Everyone appreciates true beauty (or at least, I think they do).  There’s something that really speaks to all of us, or catches our eye.  Granted, there’s quite some variety in that area, but few are without some aesthetic preferences of one sort or another.

So, you don’t necessarily have to “like painting” to find a particular painting fascinating, and I think most people aren’t musicians but still enjoy music.  Likewise, while poetry may not be the particular cup of tea from which most people would like to sip, I have to believe that from time to time, there is a poem that hits the nail on the head and catches, absolutely perfectly, a sensation with which a great many of us can relate.

Years ago, I read a poem by Edgar Guest.  At the time, I remember thinking that it was just about the best darn poem I’d ever read.  Since then, a lot of things have changed.

But not my opinion of that poem.  It is so simple and straightforward, yet it carries with it such an incredibly true and poignant tone of nostalgia and longing, and of letting go, the loss of innocence.  It truly is the best poem of looking back I’ve ever read.  Published in 1916, this poem is just as valid and applicable today as it was nearly a century ago.

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Nerdy Notes: The Caldera

Hollywood's interpretation of the Yellowstone Caldera erupting. The actual eruption would likely appear more like the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, consisting primarily of towering flows of ash and dust. (C)2010 Centropolis Entertainment

In 2010, Columbia Pictures released the movie 2012, which told the tale of the world’s near total destruction owing to natural—or supernatural—phenomena.  Among the elements of the chaos was the eruption of a supervolcano beneath Yellowstone National Park, interpreted by the filmmakers as a nuclear-esque explosion followed by a shower of earthen meteors.  For all its computer-graphics glory and thrilling action, most of us probably assumed that the filmmakers were just being dramatic.

In actuality, there is a supervolcano welling beneath Yellowstone National Park, and its eruption would be far worse than suggested in 2012.  Perhaps more concerning is that just such an eruption seems about due.  The only unknown in the equation is when the eruption will take place; geologists universally agree that one will happen.  (Incidentally, the scientific community does not have a proper definition for “supervolcano”, as the term seems to refer more to an event than a structure.  As explained below, supervolcanoes are part of calderas, which is how the scientific community identifies such entities.)

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Nerdy Notes: Small Matters

Dr. Alan Wade, of Rice University, explains how nanotechnology can be used to destroy cancer cells. The blue object at far right is a very large scale model of a carbon nanotube, the sort of structure used in very-lightweight engineering and nano-filters.

Having dealt with the grandiose for a couple of weeks, it seems appropriate to look to the other end of the size spectrum.  The world of nano-technology, hidden by being too small to be seen, is making some incredible strides towards solving some of humanity’s biggest problems.  Much of the research on these technologies is being conducted by renowned universities across the United States and the world.

Perhaps the greatest medical dream of recent generations has been to find a cure for cancer.  All kinds of treatments have been cooked up, and many meet with relative success.  Tumors can be surgically removed, radiation can be employed—there are even ingestible medicines which show promise.  But often, cancer occurs in areas where none of these solutions work.  When removal isn’t possible, chemotherapy is too destructive, and chemical solutions fail, cancer is often—as most of us know—fatal.

Recently, researchers at Rice University, in Houston, Texas, proposed a solution to these problems.  Continue reading

Nerdy Notes: Manmade Marvels

Today's largest cruise ship - Oasis of the Seas - practically dwarfs the famously-large RMS Titanic. (source:

Editor’s Note: This post was written by Mark Jacobs, an editor at The Jet Fuel Review.

Last week’s Nerdy Note regarded unusually large natural things, so it only seemed fit this week to take a look at some gargantuan manmade things, many of which represent the heights of human engineering achievement.

For starters, let’s take a look at something classically considered “big” – that ill-fated ship named Titanic.  Most of us have seen movies or documentaries about the doomed steamer, and most of those have emphasized just how big the ocean liner was.  By modern standards, however, the Titanic was a relatively small ship.

Today, a distinction is typically made between “cruise ships” and “ocean liners”, where the former are used for luxuriating and drifting between tropical islands.  Ocean liners, by comparison, are used for transportation – and are therefore very rare, any more, since airplanes do most of the transoceanic work of moving people.  Nonetheless, if you wanted to sail across the Atlantic instead of flying, you could do so aboard the RMS Queen Mary 2, one of the few purpose-built ocean liners of the 21st century.  The QM2, as she is called, weighs in at 151,400 tons.  That’s about three times the size of the Titanic, as the graphic below illustrates.  Titanic, despite all the fame she achieved for size, was a mere 46,000 tons.  Today, very few ocean-going vessels are that small.

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Nerdy Notes: BIG!

The largest living organism on Earth is a forest of quaking aspens, like these, which in fact is a single tree with tens of thousands of stems shooting up from a single root system. (Wikipedia)

We have a tendency to judge things based on a very human scale – whales are huge, ants are small.  That said, some things exist in their own realms.  Lest we should get big headed, as it were, we take a moment now to reflect on some of the truly, stupendously, amazingly big things in our universe.

Often, we fathom big, living things, we make comparisons with blue whales.  Granted, blue whales are big, but they’re not the biggest of living things – not by a long shot.  A blue whale can weigh up to 190 tons, and grow to just over 100 feet long.  But the largest living organism we know of on Earth today is much, much larger.  It – or he, rather – goes by the name of Pando.

Pando is a collection of trees.  Sort of.  Actually, it’s all one big tree.  The definition gets a little complicated, because it is hard to say what, exactly, “a tree” is.  Suppose you plant one tree, and its roots grow and grow and it pops up above the soil in three or four places, making three or four “trees”, each of which are, in fact, all part of the same organism.  Like conjoined human twins, you could identify two or more separate “beings”, but they’re part of one living entity.  That is the case with Pando.  An absolutely astonishing 80,000 years old and weighing in at more than thirteen­-million pounds, Pando is one single, living organism covering 107 acres.  He (Pando is a male) is a stand of Quaking Aspen trees – the sort of tree with white bark and shimmering leaves.  Pando lives in Utah, where a single, complicated route structure feeds 47,000 stems (“trees”, as it were).  No other single living thing comes close to this size.  That said, the organism’s reign as the largest living thing may be in danger.  Scientists now think there may be other, similar growths of trees which have sprung up over and over from a single root system, some perhaps a million years old and perhaps twice the size of Pando.

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Nerdy Notes: World Trade Center Update

The original World Trade Center, with buildings numbered. 1 and 2 were the prominent "twin towers", while 3, 4, 5, and 6 were much smaller. 7, at left, was known for its red coloring. (Wikipedia)

It has been just shy of a decade since an orchestrated series of terrorist attacks destroyed a complex of buildings in New York City known as the World Trade Center.  Today, ten years later and after an enormous degree of wrangling, arguing, and controversy, the Center is well into the process of being rebuilt.  On the eve of the opening of the new Trade Center’s memorial for its old self, we take a moment to reflect on the stranger-than-fiction history of “ground zero”.

Unlike its replacement, the original World Trade Center was not built as a single project.  Rather, the famed “twin towers” were built first, opening in 1970 and ’71.  It wasn’t until a decade later that the other, low-lying structures were added (unimaginatively named 3, 4, 5, and 6 World Trade Center).  Finally, in 1987, a seventh building was added – a reddish, stone-clad structure which would become the cornerstone of future conspiracy theories.  This seventh building was not on the same ground as the rest of the Center.  It was built directly over a large electrical substation.

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Nerdy Notes: Funky Beasts

Having spent the last few weeks blogging about bridges, space ships, and newborn nations, it seems that the time has come to explore things decidedly more natural for a moment.

Our world is replete with an incredible variety of funky beasts, some seeming to come straight out of science fiction or a geneticist’s laboratory.  Since most of us spend most of our lives in a relatively small bit of the world, and since those bits tend to be highly populated urban centers, we often miss out on these incredible – or at least, adorable – creatures.


We begin with the half-zebra – the okapi.  Okapi are like giraffes with short necks.  And without the splotches of color.  And with vibrant stripes along their legs.  In other words, they’re not like anything else on the Earth.  Although they look like a cross between a zebra, horse, and giraffe, they are not the product of any sort of crossbreeding.  Their unique appearance is the result of the same evolutionary processes as any other all-natural animal.  Their striped legs and monochromatic torsos make for a unique camouflage in the jungles they inhabit.  As they wander through the thick, African underbrush, predators are confused by the flashy legs cutting through the woods but apparently not attached to any comparable animal above.  Meanwhile, the dark torso seems to float along on thin air, as the legs are so dissimilar.  It is also believed that the brightly colored legs help young okapi to follow their parents through the dense underbrush.  Okapi have other unique physical attributes.  Take, for example, their tongues.  At well over a foot in length, an okapi’s tongue is long enough for it to clean its eyes and even ears.  As you can see in the image at right, its ears are enormous and require regular maintenance. Continue reading

Nerdy Notes: Aral Sea Syndrome

At the end of June, a Nerdy Note was presented regarding the new life which Lake Mead – the reservoir created by Hoover Dam – had apparently been granted, compliments of unusually heavy snowfall this past winter.  While it’s true that that particular body of water seems to be hanging in there for the time being, it was an oversight not to mention that such luck has not been seen elsewhere.  Indeed, across the Earth – from Eurasia to Africa to North America – catastrophic losses of fresh water bodies have been seen in the past half century.

Unlike Lake Mead, both the Aral Sea and Lake Chad are – or were – massive bodies of water central to the civilizations surrounding them.  Both were created by nature, not man, and were crucial to the local environment.  And both, in just half a century, have been almost completely removed from the surface of the Earth.

The next time you have a chance, take a stroll down to Lake Michigan and look out across its expanse; if you have a weekend free, take a driver around it – all the way up through Wisconsin, past Green Bay, into Michigan’s upper peninsula, across the Mackinac Bridge, all the way down through lower Michigan, through northwest Indiana, and back home.  Now, imagine a body of water slightly larger than all that – and imagine all of it disappearing.

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Nerdy Notes: Earth’s Newest Nation

July 4, 1776.  That was a good day.

Another good day: July 9, 2011.  And what happened that made July 9 so special?  That is when the world’s newest nation came into existence: South Sudan.  At 1:30 p.m. local time, the Right Honorable James Wani Igga read aloud the Declaration of Independence to an open parliamentary session.  At that moment, the central African land became its own nation.  Less than a week later, it was welcomed as a member of the United Nations.  South Sudan’s history has been extremely violent, but the future looks hopeful.  Landlocked in the Nile valley of central Africa, South Sudan faces many challenges, but has a lot going for it. Continue reading