Monthly Archives: April 2009

Learn Physics At Home

i-300e609f666a874368dea419981a4078-head_first_physics.jpgHead First Physics: A learner’s companion to mechanics and practical physics I have been watching these Heads Up guides for some time now, mainly in the context of computer software and development. I have not tried any of these guides in IT because, so far, I’ve felt that while they may be excellent learning resources, they were not ideal reference books, and that is usually what I am looking for. I may be a bit unusual in this regard, but I’m pretty happy reading a reference book from beginning to end, then using later … as a reference book. In fact, I’d say my ideal combination of books for learning a new aspect of IT is something like an Idiot’s guide or some other very basic tutorial together with a biblical, comprehensive reference. By picking from both ends of the spectrum of detail and intensity, I can have a quick overview and the kind of orientation one writes for a total bobo1 such as my self, and a full reference for when I need the skinny on some esoteric or detailed aspect of the topic.

However, Head First Physics plays a very different role as it is for learning in a field of science. Head First Physics provides the material that is normally included in AP Physics B, focusing on mechanics. The purpose of this book is NOT to give the average Joe or Maria a basic idea of what Physics is about. That would be fairly easy and could be done in a much less ambitious work. Rather, this book is explicitly designed to be equivalent to the Advanced Placement course. It isn’t really equivalent, of course, in that a real AP phyiscs course will have elaborate labs and opportunities for discussion with someone who actually knows what they are doing. But this book does provide labs and it does a good job of anticipating those areas where such discussions might take place.

A student heading to Physics, a home schooler, or someone interested in the topic but unable for some reason to take the Intro college physics class or the HS AP class will probably find this book serves them well.

The reason Head First Physics (and presumably other Head First books) works is because almost every element … at the smallest scale … is designed to be a splash of cold water on the student’s face. “Well, so is water-boarding” you may say. And rightly so. The true geek who could enjoy any technical review of any hard science may not want to mess with the “Keep ’em interested” approach of this book. But for the average student, or more so for the student who is turned off by this sort of material, this book might work well.

1“Bobo” is Kinande for “Moron.”

Can Quantum Ghosts Cheat Heisenberg?

ResearchBlogging.orgIt is theoretically impossible to observe all of the different aspects of state of matter at the subatomic “quantum” level. This means that at the tiniest level of spacetime, bits and pieces of stuff and action can only be vaguely known, and therefore, if you wanted to build a quantum computer you would have some interesting challenges.

A solution to this problem would be a key step in quantum engineerig. According to Anthony Lang, of Bristol Universtiy, “Apart from providing insight into the fundamentals of quantum physics, [such] work may be crucial for future quantum technologies. How else could a future quantum engineer build a quantum computer if they can’t tell which circuits they have?”

A paper in Physical Review Letters that came out a few days ago pruports to use entanglement and a few other tricks to overcome this limitation.

Continue reading Can Quantum Ghosts Cheat Heisenberg?

Grapefruit juice might boost cancer drug’s effects


photograph of some grapefruit
Grapefruit juice contains enzymes that break down common types of compounds of which pharmaceuticals are made. This means that if you drink grapefruit juice along with some drugs, the effect of the drug will be enhanced.

(That was a slight oversimplification.)

So great, you say, why not just take all drugs with a glass of grapefruit juice? Well, I can think of two reasons. One, grapefruit juice tastes like ape-piss, so why would you ever drink it. Two, drug experts feel that they have more control over your dosage if you just leave the grapefruit juice out of the equation.

But, not always.
Continue reading Grapefruit juice might boost cancer drug’s effects

1970s Swine Flu Training Video

The swine flu maneno in the 1970s was actually a key moment in the history of epidemiology politics. It also relates to the history of anti-vaccine activism in important and interesting ways. I should probably write a whole post about it. For now, suffice it to say that the government reaction to the sudden appearance of swine flu on the scene was somewhat bungled, it is probably true that the wrong people got screwed, and the swine flu itself turned out to be a false start. But please also note that the epidemiology of the present swine flu is very different from what we had then. And, we have a Democrat in the White House so the government won’t screw it up as badly.

There is (probably) Swine Flu in Minnesota; One death elsewhere in US.

The Minnesota cases are not confirmed but health officials are saying they likely will be. There will be a press conference on this at 9:00 AM Wed.

A child in Texas has died of the flu.

Which brings us to the relative severity, or more exactly, the mortality rate. It has seemed to some a mystery that many have died in Mexico but not elsewhere. However, it is also thought that thousands were ill in Mexico (no reliable estimate exists). So dozens out of thousands have died in Mexico, and now one out of dozens in the US. There simply are not enough data to assess overall mortality and especially to compare Mexico vs. Not Mexico cases.

In a bit of Politics as Usual, in Israel, one official decided to drop the name Swine Flu because Swine is an abomination (see Bible). Mexicans objected. A higher level Israeli official then claimed that the first official was “only joking.” Palestinian officials have said that they don’t care that it is called swine flu, let’s just fix the problem, and the Egyptians are killing all the pigs.

Source of all the above: Your friendly neighborhood public radio show.

Sbling Sandy Has ID’d ‘Source’ of Swine Flu


Dr. Sandra Porter of Discovering Biology in a Digital World provides evidence that “the California outbreak might be the same strain that caused an outbreak in 2007 at an Ohio country fair.”

What a nice piece of research and blogging.

UPDATED: There is some interesting discussion on Sandy’s blog about the validity and meaning of this finding, and Tara Smith has further discussion here.

I also want to be more specific about one thing: When I say the word “Source” of Swine Flu in the head line, I mean “phylogenetic source” … the actual source of a person’s case of swine flu is another person (or swine) and the ultimate source is the evolution of viruses. I could have switched this to “origin” but that would be even more geographically meaningful (without meaning for that to be the case) and I could have used the word “ancestor” but that is misleading because of the way viuruses “evolve.” So I’m leaving it as source, and I refer you to this question about geography, which I have asked and which I’m sure will be answered soon enough.

Birding Binoculars

I am not an expert on binoculars, but that is not going to stop me from giving you some excellent advice.

Wildlife watching requires binoculars, and although I’m focusing on birding here, everything we’re talking about applies generally. So this advice may be useful for your Safari to Africa where birds will be only one component of your viewing.

Here are a few guidelines that I’ve found to be useful. I’d love to see people add comments.

1) The person in the store knows crap.

2) Bigger binoculars will always be optically better all else being equal. In other words, whatever you are looking for optically will be more easily achieved if the designers do not have to make it all happen in a miniature binocular. Or, putting it yet another way, similar optical results can be achieved for less money with a larger pair of binoculars. Bigger is better.

3a) Big binoculars are a pain to carry around, won’t fit in your carry on as easily, and in general are less convenient. Small is better.

3b) Almost all small highly portable binoculars under $150.00 are unsatisfactory, even if they carry a famous name brand. They might seem OK when you try them out, but once you use actually good binoculars you won’t like them so much.

4) You need to have one pair of binoculars per person, so if you are a couple, get two.

5) A really nice compromise between size, quality, and price is the Orion Savannah 8×32 Phase-Coated Waterproof Binoculars or one that is like it. This is what we use and we have a hard time switching to anything else. We only have one, and our other binoculars are small Nikons that are very nice. There are also some large klunky unknown name brand sets that work OK but you would not want to be seen in public with them.

For our second pair, I think we are going back to the Orions.

My final piece of advice: 7) Use the binoculars. Spend time looking at the creature. After you’ve had it in view long enough to get the distinguishing marks down, and to know what you are looking at and what it is doing, keep looking for a while longer. Interesting things sometimes happen.

A Tale of Two Trips

When I contacted Steve Kelley’s campaign director to arrange a meeting with Steve and Sophie Kelley, I suggested Tuesday. She responded that they had arranged their schedule to meet me on Wednesday. When I read her response, the part that I saw was, “They had arranged their schedule to meet with you at Pizza Nea, 306 Hennepin Ave…” The part that I missed was, “…Wednesday at 7.”…

I hate when that happens… Read the rest here at Quiche Moraine.

Grasping the function of the human penis

Gallup has taken on the task of explaining, in ultimate terms, the evolutionarily designed features of the human penis. He works this as an engineering problem from the perspective of evolutionary psychology, which is always a little bit dangerious, but gallup isn’t quite the arm waiver that a lot of other EP’s are, so he may be doing it right.

Gallup’s work is written up an an all-too-sophomoric Scientific American article by Jesse Bering which just barely falls short of explaining this important biological phenomenon in terms of a pair of headlights, a flashlight, and a little red waagon.

Here’s the money quote:

Magnetic imaging studies of heterosexual couples having sex reveal that, during coitus, the typical penis completely expands and occupies the vaginal tract, and with full penetration can even reach the woman’s cervix and lift her uterus. This combined with the fact that human ejaculate is expelled with great force and considerable distance (up to two feet if not contained), suggests that men are designed to release sperm into the uppermost portion of the vagina possible. Thus… “A longer penis would not only have been an advantage for leaving semen in a less accessible part of the vagina, but by filling and expanding the vagina it also would aid and abet the displacement of semen left by other males as a means of maximizing the likelihood of paternity.”

The other component of the work is the intriguing possibility that penises have evolved to carry semen previously left in one female’s vagina from another male to be deposited hours later in the vagina of a second female. Which I suppose could be called facilitated cuckoldry.

I’ve not read the original paper yet. I’m not quite up to it. But if I do, I’ll let you know if it is truly a seminal work, or if Gallup is just jerking us around.

The writeup is here.

The basic North American bird book

You’ll notice that I’m reviewing bird books. (Don’t worry, not all will be US based.) Please feel free to chime in with your suggestions and comments.

The ultimate bird book for North America has always been two books: both Peterson’s field guides, one for the East, one for the West. Now, the new Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America (Peterson Field Guide Series) combines the two. I do not own a copy, and therefore can not review it for you. (Note: I don’t normally review books that publishers are unwilling to send me, and Houghton Mifflin has not been a good partner lately.)

Anyway, even though I find myself not liking the publisher too much, the book is a standard and you need to have one.

The Young Birder’s Guide: A Bird Book for the Middle Schooler

This is a repost of an earlier review.


Bill Thompson’s Young Birder’s Guide
The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America (Peterson Field Guides) is a book that I highly recommend for kids around seven to 14 years of age. (The publishers suggest a narrower age range but I respectfully disagree.)

This is a new offering written by Bill Thompson III and published by the same people who give us the Peterson Field Guide to the Birds and many other fine titles. The book includes excellent illustrations by Julie Zickefoose.

A birder since childhood, Thompson says he would have loved a book like this one when he was just getting interested in birds. Now a father of two, he spent many hours over a two-year period with his now eleven-year-old daughter’s class getting their advice on what to include in the book.

Bill Thompson III is the editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest, a bimonthly magazine with 70,000 subscribers and the author of Identify Yourself: The 50 Most Common Birding Identification Challenges. He lives with his wife, author and illustrator Julie Zickefoose and their two children on eighty birdy acres in Ohio.

Continue reading The Young Birder’s Guide: A Bird Book for the Middle Schooler