All posts for the month July, 2012

When it comes to big lights and glitz, few places out do Las Vegas. With it’s current population less than 600,000, over 37 million people visiting every year, and the Las Vegas McCarran Airport ranked the 8th busiest in the world, Las Vegas is definitely a tourist hot spot. But in 1992, 80% of the Las Vegas casinos were on the Las Vegas Strip, outside of city’s core where it all began. In an effort to bring tourists back to the centre and revitalize the core, the city of Las Vegas started a contest for big ideas. One of them was a life-sized version of the Starship Enterprise, submitted by the Goddard Group.

The Starship Enterprise, as envisioned in the original Star Trek series, was 288 meters long, 72 meters high, and 127 meters wide. To put that in perspective, the ship would need an area of roughly nine US football fields arranged in a 3×3 square and would have been just over half the height of the tallest building in Las Vegas at the time. One big issue was how to support the huge saucer section, but that was quick solved by putting the ship in “dry dock”, thereby giving the engineers an elegant way to support it from below.

With the basic design done, the Goddard Group set about getting every reference shot they could from the television series, determining how the fictional ship actually looked inside, and trying to fit it in with the Las Vegas motif. The contest required that the building add to the core and not take money from the already starving casinos, so they settled on having tours of the ship, some dining areas, and even some rides. After they put it all together they came to a price tag for what they called “The 8th Wonder of the World”: $150 million ($193 million today).

They met with the Las Vegas downtown redevelopment committee and Mayor Jan Jones, and were told that their Enterprise design had won the contest and would be approved if they could get Paramount, the holders of the Star Trek copyright, to sign off on the project. After contacting the studio and negotiating a basic deal with the president of licensing, all that remained was getting the approval of Paramount’s CEO, Stanley Jaffe. With the mayor, redevelopment committee, Paramount’s licensing department, and everyone else loving the idea, this final meeting seemed like a formality. And with that, the mayor and redevlopment committee boarded a private jet out to Hollywood.

The presentation went well and while everyone in the room was excited, Stanley Jaffe was not. At the end of the meeting, he said that while he liked the idea, he could not endorse it because if it failed, it would be too damaging to Paramount. With that decision, five months of work was discarded and the committee went with the second-place design. And that’s how the Fremont Street Experience, a 460 meter long display of lights canopying Fremont Street, was built in Las Vegas.

Today’s Tangent: When NASA was creating the first Space Shuttle, they had chosen the name Constitution before then President Ford declared would be called Enterprise, perhaps due to the large number of letters he received from Star Trek fans. On September 17, 1976, most of the original Star Trek cast and creator Gene Roddenberry were present when the Space Shuttle Enterprise had its dedication ceremony. Even though Enterprise never went into orbit, it did prove the Space Shuttle concept and spawned Columbia and four other shuttles that would be used over the next 30+ years.

Jump ahead to 2003: Star Trek is now in its fifth series and the Space Shuttle Columbia is re-entering the atmosphere on February 1st. Unfortunately, Columbia broke up on re-entry and the seven astronauts on-board were lost. It was a sad time for the space program, and the writers of Star Trek: Enterprise set out to do something about it. They gave the Starship Enterprise a sister ship and called her Columbia, reminiscent of how Columbia was the Space Shuttle made after Enterprise. Characters of the new ship also got a patch with seven stars on it, one for each of the astronauts lost in the tragedy.

When it comes to senses, we often hear that humans have five: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. This list is at least as old as Aristotle, who mentioned those same five senses in his “On Sense and the Sensible“. Despite the 2000+ years behind the list, it’s actually incomplete as humans have between nine and twenty-two.

First, we can split touch into three separate parts: tactile, temperature, and pain sensations. How can we tell that these are different senses? One way is by when we can sense these things: we don’t have to touch a fire to know it’s hot, but we would have to touch a burning log to know its texture. As explained at How Stuff Works, scientists found that we have separate nerve receptors for each of those senses, which is another reason they’re counted as three instead of one.

Next we can add in equilibrioception which is our sense of balance and gravity caused by the fluid in our inner ear. Now close your eyes and touch your nose. Your ability to know where your limbs are without sight is called proprioception and brings our list of senses to nine.

But how many senses are there total? This is where it gets more tricky as certain senses can be split further. Sight is actually caused by four distinct types of receptors: blue cones, green cones, red cones, and rods. The cones account for our colour perception while rods give us night vision, so depending on how you count it, sight is either one, two, or four senses. We can also split temperature perception into heat receptors and cold receptors, and pain should also be split into pain and itch detection.

What about our digestive system? We sense when we’re thirsty or hungry, and when we have to urinate or our intestines are full. Taste could also be broken down into five sub-senses (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami) as we have separate taste buds for each one. (Note that spicy is not a taste as capsaicin directly stimulates the pain and temperature receptors in the tongue.)

After all that we’re at twenty-two. But the list doesn’t have to stop there, as humans can sense the passage of time, or at least guess how much time has passed within a few percent. And even though we can sense acceleration, such as when a car speeds up, that’s probably just an extension of how our inner ear measures gravity. Regardless of how you count it, humans certainly have more senses than five.

Today’s Tangent: Magnetoception is the ability to detect magnetic fields, which birds and some other migratory animals have so they travel large distances using the Earth’s magentic field as a guide. Deep in the ocean, animals like sharks and rays use electroreception to navigate their surroundings and also detect the Earth’s magnetic fields. As for humans, there are magnetic bones in our nose that might allow us to detect magnetic fields. Interestingly, when subjects had a magnet attached to their head, blindfolded, and then rotated, they couldn’t tell which way they were facing better than randomly guessing. In some cases the magnet actually disoriented humans making it harder to detect directions, which means that we might be able to detect magnetic fields after all.

When it comes to marriage, three things hold true: the man proposes, the wedding is the bride’s day, and the bachelor party is a controversial affair. However, this year men should beware, especially if you’re living in Britain or Ireland. On leap years like this one, a woman is allowed to propose and is entitled to compensation if the man declines.

The tradition seems to have started before the 17th century, as Eric Felten from The Wall Street Journal relays:

A play from the turn of the 17th century, “The Maydes Metamorphosis,” has it that “this is leape year/women wear breeches.” A few hundred years later, breeches wouldn’t do at all: Women looking to take advantage of their opportunity to pitch woo were expected to wear a scarlet petticoat — fair warning, if you will.

There is some disagreement as to when the tradition started though, as one folktale says Saint Patrick created the law in the 5th Century after Saint Bridget complained about women not being able to ask the men they fancied to marry. Another attests that in 1288, Queen Margaret of Scotland created a law requiring that if the man refuse such a proposal, he give a pair of leather gloves, a single pose, one pound, and a kiss; interestingly she was five at the time and no record of this law remains, so it’s unlikely to say the least.

We do know that as of 1908, the tradition was popular enough to appear on postcards like the one pictured above. Most of the images involve maidens either waiting for the leap year to come or getting there traps ready to use on unsuspecting men. But by 1972 the women’s liberation movement was gaining significant ground and women were beginning to propose without restriction. Without the need for the ritual, it fell into disuse.

Today’s Tangent: The leap day was seen as unusual because it only came every four years (more accurately, 97 years out of 400), and was considered a middle state between February 28th and March 1st. Such inbetween states were said to have strange properties, such as the state of being betrothed — the couple was neither single nor married but in the middle. Given this, it was bad luck to get photographed because it jinxed the relationship; by flaunting their togetherness in a picture, they were risking it not happening.