Archive | September, 2010

Going Beyond the Chicken and the Egg – Paradoxes to Ponder

27 Sep

Photo: Ruben Alexander

Almost everyone has heard the paradox “which came first, the chick or the egg?” That was so 2nd grade. Here are some others for you to think about:

Zeno’s paradox: “In a race, the quickest runner can never overtake the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach the point whence the pursued started, so that the slower must always hold a lead.” This is also known as Achilles and the Tortoise. If Achilles (fast) is racing a tortoise (slow), but the tortoise is given a mile head start, by the time Achilles has reached where the tortoise has begun, the tortoise has advanced a measurable distance X. In the time it takes Achilles to cover the distance X to where the tortoise currently is, the tortoise will have gone another measurable distance Y. This will go on infinitely so that Achilles will come close, but never actually pass the tortoise.

Mpemba paradox: “Hot water can, under certain conditions, freeze faster than cold water, even though it must pass the lower temperature on the way to freezing.” If you have two cups of water – one at 95 degrees and one at 45 – and place them in the freezer, shockingly the hotter cup will freeze first. Check out the link for insight into why and the story of the high school kid it was named after.

The Pinocchio paradox: “What would happen if Pinocchio said ‘My nose will be growing’?” An awesome version of the classic “This sentence is false” paradox.

Drinker paradox: “In any pub there is a customer such that, if he or she drinks, everybody in the pub drinks.” Either everyone in the pub is drinking , or at least one person in the pub isn’t drinking. On the one hand, suppose everyone is drinking. For any particular person, it can’t be wrong to say that if that particular person is drinking, then everyone in the pub is drinking — because everyone is drinking. Suppose, on the other hand, at least one person isn’t drinking. For that particular person, it still can’t be wrong to say that if that particular person is drinking, then everyone in the pub is drinking — because that person is, in fact, not drinking. Either way, there is someone in the pub such that, if they are drinking, everyone in the pub is drinking. Something to talk about next time you are in a pub not drinking.

Go on to Part Deux for more.


This post comes at you all the way from Berlin, Germany. I’m having a great time and will return home with plenty of stories one week from today.

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Exploding Lakes! – The Worlds Deadliest Lake

17 Sep

Photo: Jack Lockwood

I incorrectly had lakes on my list of things that don’t explode. (Yes, I do have lists like this on long rolls of parchment.) Well turns out I’m wrong – there are three exploding lakes on our crazy planet.

Lake Nyos in Cameroon is the second largest at about 390 acres, but more importantly it is the deadliest lake according to The Guinness Book of World Records (people that actually do keep track of that stuff). One would think that a deadly lake would be one that drowns a lot of people. Maybe some rip tides or something. Nope. Exploding lakes are much deadlier.

So how do lakes explode? Hot magma under Lake Nyos leaks carbon dioxide into the water, saturating it with an estimated 90 million tonnes of CO2 (a tonne is a metric ton or, equal to 2205 lbs). Most of the time this is not an issue – the CO2 sits in the water quite peacefully. But over time the water because supersaturated and a change in the environment can lead to large amounts of CO2 splurging out of the water.

And this is exactly what happened on one unlucky day in 1986. A volcanic eruption or landslide forced over 80 million cubic meters of CO2 into the air at once. This is the equivalent of 80,000 Americans’ CO2 emissions for an entire year entering the atmosphere at once. It was so forceful it knocked down the nearby trees and caused a tital wave over 80 feet high. From the Washington post:

The effect was similar to rapidly uncapping an agitated bottle of beer. Only in this case, the bottle was a mile and a quarter long, three-quarters of a mile wide and 610 feet deep, with five times as much carbonation.

The gas spilled over the lip of the lake into the valley below, displacing all the air surrounding air on the way. Since CO2 is roughly 1.5 times thicker than air, it hugged the earth and suffocated anyone unlucky enough to be sleeping in the low points within 16 miles of the lake. A 50 meter high cloud of CO2 traveled through the night silently killing 1,700 people and 3,500 livestock.

Rather than leaving you on that depressing note, you will be glad to hear that they are taking measures to make sure this doesn’t happen again. There have been pipes installed to bring some of the deepest water up to the surface – the goal being to agitate the water enough so that it never again becomes supersaturated with CO2.

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Flipper Committed Suicide – Not the Only Take Away From “The Cove”

12 Sep

Photo: Pug Father

The Academy Award winner for last year’s best documentary was The Cove. I recommend it to each and every one of my readers – it is a combination of a government conspiracy theory, undercover espionage, and educational-activist-type documentary. The film focuses on a small fishing village in Japan that kills over 20,000 dolphins a year.

I won’t give much away, but I wanted to write a little bit about the films main character, Ric O’Barry. Ric was the person that made dolphins famous back in the 1960′s – he was the trainer for the 5 dolphins used on the TV show Flipper. He also went on to become the most outspoken critic of dolphin captivity.

Why the change of heart? In 1970, the main dolphin used in Flipper committed suicide. Wait… what? Ric O’Barry was very close to the dolphins he trained and maintains he could tell their emotions through body language. The dolphin swam up to Ric that fateful day, looked him in the eye, and took her last breath, deciding not to take another. He believes the dolphin committed suicide because of its depression living in captivity.

How likely is this? Keep in mind we are not talking about humans who breathe unconsciously. Dolphins don’t always have access to air to breathe – they spend most of their time under water, unable to take in oxygen. They must consciously return to the surface to breathe. Thus, this is certainly plausible and I am inclined to give Ric the benefit of the doubt.


If dolphins (and whales for that matter) have to consciously tell themselves to take a breath when they are out of air, how do they sleep? My guess would be that they would draw in a large breath and take a quick nap before returning back to the top for more air. But how what if they don’t wake up in time? DEAD! Turns out they have a “semi-sleeping” state where they effectively shut off half of their brain at a time. They are still conscious enough to rise to the surface for a breath, but asleep enough to rest. Dolphins spend roughly 8 hours a day in this state.

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Worst Parents in the World? – Two Year Old Goes to Rehab to Quit Smoking

8 Sep

The youngest person ever has finished rehab – what a great success story! After 3 months in rehab, a two year old Indonesian boy has successfully kicked his smoking habit. Allegedly, he began smoking at 11 months old when his father gave him a cigarette to help ease a headache. By the time he was 2 years of age, he was smoking 2 packs a day!

Ok, maybe under these special circumstances, completing rehab with flying colors is not a success story. What an epic failure of parents! How can they be such morons? You parents out there that give into your babies anytime a tear is shed – I hope you are strong enough to hold out if your kid was begging for a cigarette. It’s hard to believe anyone can be the perfect combination of a pushover and ignoramus, let alone both parents!

If the family could continue to afford 2 packs a day and the Indonesian government hadn’t step in, I’m sure this kid would still be puffing away. But this story also delivers a great deal of hope. Hope because we now live in a world where it is no longer a possibility to be the worst parent – unless you actively try to do worse than these two Indonesians, I am quite sure you will surpass their low bar.

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