Nerdy Notes: Supersonic After All

Despite their advantages, vactrains woul require rather unsightly tubes to be built between destinations. (source:

In the 1960s and ‘70s, the common assumption among the traveling public was that supersonic transportation would become a significant reality some day.  After all, it was only the next, logical step beyond ordinary, sub-sonic jetliners.  Aviation seemed to be advancing at an incredible rate.  The transition from propeller-driven aircraft to jetliners had only taken a few decades.  With the technology to travel above the speed of sound and the tremendous advantages of being able to cross the Atlantic, for example, in under three hours, few barriers seemed to stand in the way of flight above mach one.

Although that seems not to have taken place, that thinking may actually have been correct.  The technology does exist to travel faster than the speed of sound—much faster.  Unfortunately, developing that technology would work against the world of aviation, and it is likely that that is one reason for which it has not come about.  Ultimately, the fastest, most efficient, and—surprisingly—quietest methods of transport would be those without wings and which never left the ground.  The technology spoken of is the vacuum train.

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Nerdy Notes: Got Gemütlichkeit?


As you likely know, the English language is rife with words from other languages.  In fact, almost all of our words are derived, to one extent or another, from the various Indo-European languages, most of which sound nothing like English and often enough, little like one another.

While most of our words have segued rather smoothly from their old-world origins into modern, spoken English, there are a few which have stubbornly retained their original pronunciations.  You’ll notice that we don’t pronounce the ‘z’ or ‘s’ in rendezvous, for example.  The word being essentially the same in English as in French does not stop us from knowing quite well what it means.  We know this mostly because there is no distinct English word for rendezvous, nor need there be; the French word works just fine.

There are some far less well-known examples which we’ll visit today.  These are words essentially identical to their etymological ancestors which can be found in any quality English dictionary despite being, for all intents and purposes, not English.  In particular, we’ll focus on German’s contributions.  The value of these words is not really in their eccentricity relative to the rest of English, but in what they mean.  In each case, there is no English equivalent, making the words priceless.

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Nerdy Notes: Gruntled and Heveled


When you think about it—not that you do, but if you did—it seems that the word “extraordinary” makes no sense whatsoever.  After all, how can something be extra ordinary, and why would that be good?

The other day, my thoroughly ordinary best friend brought that up, and it got me to wondering about other misleading compound words in the English language.  It turns out, there are quite a few, and some of them quite interesting.

Take “cranberry”, for example.  We can see quite plainly where blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries get their names… but cranberries?  What is a cran?  And how about gooseberries?!

Of course, in addition to prefixes which don’t mean anything, there’s a regular plethora of those which do mean something… just not what we think.  And of course, many of these are part of words which have no independent root.  Take “disgruntled”, for example.  Anyone can be “disgruntled”, but can you be “gruntled”?  Presumably, that’s what you are most of the time, when you’re not disgruntled.

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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