Vulgar Fractions

Distorted Circles, Jim Wilcox, 1982

Lord Tennyson, the poet, once received a letter and a fraction of shade from Charles Babbage, the mathematician, which read:

In your otherwise beautiful poem, Vision of Sin, there is a verse that reads:

Every moment dies a man,
Every moment one is born.

It must be manifest that were this true, the population of the world would be at a standstill. In truth the rate of birth is slightly in excess of death. I would suggest that the next edition of your poem you have it read:

Every moment dies a man,
Every moment 1 ⅙ is born.

Strictly speaking this is not correct. The actual figure is a decimal so long that I cannot get it in on one line, but I believe 1 ⅙ will be sufficiently accurate for poetry…

Vulgar fractions is a term used to designate common fractions. Unicode that!

Particle Mirror

Mark and Anne – The Video Game

The Particle Mirror is part virtual mirror and part interact computer simulation. Created in 2017 by Karl Sims, it is on display at the Boston Science Museum. This playful exhibit allows visitors to interact with virtual particles by moving. It creates a video image on a large wall, which is augmented with special effects to give the impression that you are in the same room as the particles. A sensor detects people in front of the display so they can push the particles around with their movements. The exhibit cycles through various modes with different visual effects. This display is naturally located in the Wicked Smart Gallery.

A physics simulation determines the behavior of each particle. Gravity, swirling motions, collision avoidance forces, and air friction are combined with people’s interactions. These forces allow your motions to push the particles. The results can resemble bouncing balls, fireflies, falling snowflakes, sparkling glitter, foamy bubbles, or even molecules. Pictured are bouncy balls that repel each other and tend to spread out so they are evenly spaced. We played with this exhibit as it cycled through its different modes until some kids showed up and we felt compelled to share.

Many Shocking Developments

Theater of Electricity

As we set out for the day, Curio, a coffee shop that Dave recommended was our first stop. Good coffee and Liege waffles wrapped in wax paper to help keep the fingers from getting too sticky. Seating was tight, but that probably doesn’t bother Dave much, since he usually hits the place on his way to the T and work.

We eschewed the T and walked the one-stop distance across the Charles to the Boston Science Center. I’m usually leery of science centers. They’re generally too kid friendly and science lite for my tastes. But I was pleasantly surprised with Boston’s. I visited it about thirty years ago, when I worked in town for a summer at MIT. I remembered the science center’s electricity show and it didn’t disappoint. The twin tower Van De Graf generator was built at MIT for atom splitting. Paired with Tesla coils that were pulsed to create the show’s music, it was as good as I remembered. Having learned a lot more about electromagnetics in the interim certainly didn’t hurt. 

After the museum, it was one o’clock and by this point and I was feeling a wee bit peckish. After a few false starts, we ended up lunching at the Red Hat. This 100+ year-old bar is way more authentic than that Cheers stand-in. We each ordered a bread bowl of chow-dah, as our Southie waitress would say.

We headed uphill to the Statehouse and toured the capitol building. Then it was downhill into the Boston Commons, which without hundreds of Red Sox fans is a rather pleasant park. Another sinking spell led me to Starbucks and Anne to an adjoining needlepoint store. The proprietor was a very kind woman. She gave us quite a few tips of things to see and do in Boston. We walked by Trinity Church and into the main branch of the public library, which has a nice reading room.

Our tour of the Back Bay would not be complete without window shopping on Newbury. When that became too intense, we dropped down to Commonwealth and strolled down the center of that boulevard. We crossed the Charles on the Massachusetts bridge. Fireflies from the MIT sailing classes were tilting at the wind, while Harvard crew boats raced up river. We did a walk-by of MIT and visited a yarn store for Anne, dinner with Dave and then called it a night. 

The Modern Prometheus

Creature Awakes and Victor Flees

This year is the 200th anniversary of the first publishing of Mary Shelley’s novel, “Frankenstein”. It was first published anonymously, but gave clues to her identity, with a preface written by her husband and her father’s dedication. In 1823, the second edition openly acknowledged Mary as the author. It has been in continuous publication ever since. The engraving to the right was the frontispiece of the 1831 edition. It depicts the moment when the creature awakens and Victor flees in horror.

The frontispiece is part of a rare books exhibit at Washington University, called “Making a Monster” and serves as preamble to this month’s Science on Tap lecture, “Medical Ethics and Frankenstein’s Monster” by Ira Kodner, MD. Dr. Kodner explained that the origin of the “Frankenstein” novel dates from a visit to Lord Byron’s Italian castle that Shelley made. On this visit a thunderstorm (It was a dark and stormy night…) led Byron to propose a writing contest to his guests. The first draft of “Frankenstein” was Mary’s submission.

The creature began life as an adult. He had no family, had no memories, he was all alone. This terrible loneliness soon turned to anger and a desire to seek revenge and commit murder. Shelley’s novel explores serious themes, such as the danger of exercising science on life, but most people are only familiar with the popular caricature of this story. The 1931 Universal movie by the same name and starring Boris Karloff is the prototype for this cartoonish view and not the modern Prometheus that Shelley had created. 

Genetic Triangulation

Binary Sequences

Anne has been researching her ancestry. Using the website Ancestry she has been searching through public records, working her way backwards, looking for her origins. My Aunt Betsy devoted years to this type of research and I have inherited the several volumes of family history that she had compiled. I have a copy of my family genealogy that extends backwards hundreds of years. Most of Betsy’s work was performed before more modern methods were available, like the Internet or DNA testing. Anne is utilizing the Internet, but has not tried any genetic testing. Ancestry is one of this industry’s leaders in this application of DNA testing and has amassed a genetic database of millions of Americans. This is a database of sufficient size to almost guarantee a match, at least on the second or third cousin level, of every person in America.

This fact has not gone unnoticed by another big consumer of genetic testing, law enforcement. Last month, after an investigation that spanned over forty years, a suspect identified as the Golden State killer was arrested. DNA samples taken at crime scenes were entered into a genetic database and using a technique called genetic triangulation, matches were made with relatives of the murder suspect. Detectives used public ancestry records to fill in their family tree and identify the suspect. This approach is being used in other cases, like the Zodiac killer.

DNA testing is still a relatively new technology, but in its brief history, it has made tremendous advances. Even further progress should be expected. We are at a moment similar to the advent of fingerprints in crime fighting. People shed DNA everywhere they go. Unlike fingerprinting, which can be circumvented by simply wearing gloves, it would take a very conspicuous bunny suit to ensure that no DNA is left at a crime scene. Imagine a progression that allows the police to sweep a crime scene for DNA, like they now dust for fingerprints. Capital crimes are the likely first candidate for the expansion of this technology, but as it becomes cheaper to use, its use will become more pervasive. I wonder how all of this will affect American society in the years to come?

Bird Bonds


We attended another Science on Tap lecture at the Kirkwood Station Brewery. This talk was entitled Bird Bonds or how people connect to birds and how birds connect us to each other. It was given by Joseph T. Steensma. Sort of a birder’s dream come true. Dr. Steensma has spent the last 20+ winters in the Bahamas, good work, if you can find it. His vocation at Washington University is in the fields of Practice, Public Health and Social Entrepreneurship. For him and his family, birding is simply an avocation. Almost all of his slides were pictures of birds that either he or his children had taken. At the beginning of his talk, he offered up a dichotomy about bird watching: A father who goes bird watching without his kids is a bad dad. While, a father who goes bird watching with his kids is a great dad. Family found a home throughout his lecture. His wife and two of his children attended the night’s event.

I said that this is none of your falcon business.

The thrust of his talk was towards conservation. Many of the birds shown in the Caribbean, summer in the Saint Louis area. He praised the Riverlands for the treasure that it is. Throughout his talk, his humor prevented his entreaties from becoming too preachy. Did you know that Peregrine falcons can see into the UV where mouse piss glows? That’s like one dangerous leak for a rodent to take.