Travis’s Tuesday Tidbit

Back in ’69, Neil Armstrong and the crew of Apollo 11 landed on the Moon to the applause of the world and the relief of NASA. The race to the Moon had lasted nearly a decade and was an non-violent outpouring for all the aggression and tension between the USA and the USSR. Many people lost their lives in accidents on both sides, and the total cost for the two nations was between 27 and 33 billion dollars (roughly 132 to 161 billion in 2012 dollars). Despite the race lasting as long as it did and the huge number of people involved, many people believe the entire spectacle was a hoax. While the Moon landing did happen, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a conspiracy: it lasted less than a week and was perpetrated by the USSR.

First a little history: the year is 1961 and the USSR has successfully launched Sputnik in 1957 and launched Yuri Gagarin into space on April 12th of this year. The space race, insofar as it is a race to space, has been won and John F. Kennedy doesn’t want to admit defeat. Instead, he consults with NASA Administrator James Webb and other officials and learns that the US might be able to beat the USSR to the Moon, though it will take about a decade to do so. He announces this intention to Congress on May 25th of the same year, before telling the world that the USA chooses to go to the Moon in his famous speech more than a year later.

To make the Moon mission a reality, NASA reveals the Gemini program which would serve as an intermediary step before the Apollo missions. The USSR has ambitious plans to go to Mars by 1970, but their technology is behind their reach. With the Gemini announcement, they quickly turn to achieving as many firsts in space as they can while simultaneously trying to design a spacecraft that could go to the Moon, all with 20%-44% of NASA’s budget. As recounted on Wikipedia, they cut corners to reach goals such as the first multi-person spacecraft and shirt-sleeve flight, both of which were accomplished on the same flight by not giving the cosmonauts spacesuits and thus posing a significant risk to them if something went wrong. Their other tactic was achieving relatively easy goals like the first woman and civilian in space, a feat that was only done for the propaganda value.

Jumping ahead to 1968, the space race was tight with the USA slightly ahead. The USA was on track to land on the Moon before the decade was out while the USSR had a setback in its heavy lifting rocket, meaning that they could launch something into the Moon’s orbit, but nothing heavy enough to land on the Moon and take off again. Knowing that the US was planning on launching a manned mission to orbit the Moon in January 1969, and that they would only win the race if the USA faltered, the USSR came up with a plan.

On September 15, 1968, the USSR launched Zond 5 which took off, communicated back to the ground, traveled to the Moon over three days, orbited it on the 18th, and successfully splashed down on September 22nd with all inhabitants successfully recovered. This greatly panicked everyone at NASA because they weren’t ready for such a flight for at least three months, putting the USSR squarely in the lead in the space race. However, they slowly realized something was amiss when they noticed that transmissions between the spacecraft and the ground only happened on the way to the Moon and not on the return voyage. It turned out that the flight was automated and the primary creatures aboard the ship were two Russian tortoises pictured above.

In the end, the USSR was unable to get their rocket to work, Apollo 8 successfully orbited the Moon on December 24, 1968 with a crew of three, and the USA was the first nation to land on the Moon on July 20, 1969.

Today’s Tangent: What’s the difference between a turtle and a tortoise? They both have a similar evolutionary history, but tortoises live on the land and turtles live in the water. Turtles have webbed feet and long claws which they use for swimming and digging out holes to lay eggs, while tortoises have shorter and sturdier legs. The other main difference is their shells, with turtles have light-weight and flatter shells while tortoises have rounded and heavier shells, often with bumps on top.

Imagine this for a teaser for CSI: The camera opens on a lake with a single party boat on the warm, summer waters. The fifty people on board are having a good time, drinks are being poured, and then a fight breaks out. Everyone gathers around as two guys trade blows while a girl begs them to stop. Suddenly, both the guys start gasping for air, then everyone else starts feeling lightheaded. Before too long, all the party-goers have suffocated. Slowly, the camera zooms out to show how isolated the boat is, the only one on the lake, and then the theme song kicks in.

Think it’s just TV? Think again. On August 21, 1986, approximately 1700 people died in a similar manner.

Shown above via Wikipedia, Lake Nyos is a crater lake in Cameroon, Central Africa. It’s located on the flank of an inactive volcano and below it lies a pocket of magma. This magma continuously leaks carbon dioxide that then dissolves in the lake, creating carbonic acid. The lake serves as a reservoir for the carbon dioxide and also mediates the carbon dioxide’s release, letting it out in a fairly even stream. On that fateful night in 1986, probably because of a landslide, that stream became a torrent.

A CO2 bubble formed in the south of the lake, rising rapidly from the bottom to the top before being expelled at 100 km per hour. The ensuing turbulence around the burst would have destabilized the rest of the lake, thereby releasing most of the stored gas. This runaway reaction released around 1 cubic kilometre of carbon dioxide (1 trillion litres or four hundred thousand Olympic swimming pools), and as CO2 is heavier than air, it flowed across the land and settled in nearby valleys. Unfortunately, many of these valleys contained villages.

How did people react? The rapid escape of CO2 probably started around 9:30 at night, so most people were asleep at the time and died without trauma. For those that were awake, they would have heard something like thunder in the distance when the landslide occurred, and then very little else. Carbon dioxide is colourless and odourless, though other gases released by the magma, such as hydrogen sulfide (the smell of rotten eggs) are not. This means they probably smelt the hydrogen sulfide as their breathing became worse and they gasped for air. One survivor, Joseph Nkwain recounts his experience:

I could not speak. I became unconscious. I could not open my mouth because then I smelled something terrible . . . I heard my daughter snoring in a terrible way, very abnormal . . . When crossing to my daughter’s bed . . . I collapsed and fell. I was there till nine o’clock in the (Friday) morning . . . until a friend of mine came and knocked at my door . . . I was surprised to see that my trousers were red, had some stains like honey. I saw some . . . starchy mess on my body. My arms had some wounds . . . I didn’t really know how I got these wounds . . .I opened the door . . . I wanted to speak, my breath would not come out . . . My daughter was already dead . . . I went into my daughter’s bed, thinking that she was still sleeping. I slept till it was 4:30 p.m. in the afternoon . . . on Friday. (Then) I managed to go over to my neighbors’ houses. They were all dead . . . I decided to leave . . . . (because) most of my family was in Wum . . . I got my motorcycle . . . A friend whose father had died left with me (for) Wum . . . As I rode . . . through Nyos I didn’t see any sign of any living thing . . . (When I got to Wum), I was unable to walk, even to talk . . . my body was completely weak.

To stop anything like this from happening again, a floating platform has been placed in the lake with a pipe extending downwards. The platform then pumps the water from the bottom of the lake (which has more dissolved CO2) to the surface where it’s sprayed out and the gas is released. This continual degassing of the lake should prevent any further tragedies.

Today’s Tangent: It’s not just carbonated lakes that can kill you; at least eight people were killed by a flood of beer. On October 17, 1814, a huge vat ruptured at the Meux and Company Brewery in St. Giles, London, England. The wave of beer that was released ruptured more tanks until they were all broken, unleashing around 1.5 million litres of beer upon the town. Nearby basements quickly flooded and many people were shoved against walls or buried under debris, leading to at least eight deaths.

Most people, while hitting the snooze button for the third time, wonder why they only get nine minutes of shut-eye instead of ten. Or eleven. Or why we even need alarms in the first place when the afternoon is a perfectly good time for breakfast.

Alarm clocks have been around for millennia, since time keeping devices of various sorts have been around for that long. Want to turn a sundial into an alarm clock at noon? Cut a slit at noon and put another circle with a similar slit below it, thus ensuring that light only gets through close to noon, then put a lens below this slit and a string below that. When noon comes around, the string will burn and snap, allowing numerous noise making devices to work, such a mallet hitting a gong. (Note that while no known alarm clocks of this sort exist, sundials we used before 1000 BC and a rudimentary lens has been found from 750 BC.)

Despite the fanciful nature of my previous story, water clocks were used to make more useful alarm clocks (more useful because they could be started at any time, and hence set for any time with ease). Water clocks are not as old as sundials but date back to 1600 BC in some regions. As Wikipedia expounds, water clocks were used by Plato to signal the start of his classes back around 400 – 350 BC. But it’s not until 529 AD that we have historical mention of a mechanical clock with hourly alarms, thus starting us down the path to an answer.

Jumping much further ahead, we come to 1847 when French inventor Antoine Redier patented the first adjustable alarm clock. It didn’t have a snooze button, but it set the ground work for a future where mechanical alarm clocks had them, before the creation of the digital alarm clock. When the first “snoozable” mechanical alarm clocks were being created, the engineers decided that they wanted a snooze interval around ten minutes. However, they couldn’t get the gears to mesh if it was exactly ten minutes, so they had to choose between slightly under ten minutes or slightly over, and went with the first option. This gave those clocks a snooze time of nine minutes and change.

When clock makers went digital, they snooze feature did as well. General Instruments created a snooze chip (the MM5370) and set it with a time of nine minutes; this chip was then used and copied to other alarm clocks without modifying the nine minutes interval. Why nine minutes? It seems that in the transition from analog to digital, the clock makers just copied what their predecessors did and rounded down to nine minutes. And that’s the storied past of nine extra minutes of sleep.

Today’s Tangent: Why do we have 60 minutes and 60 seconds, but only 24 hours? This dates back to the Egyptians who counted in base 12, not our common base 10. They devised a time system involving 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night, giving us the 24 hours we have today. As for minutes, most people simply divided the hour into halves, thirds, quarters, fifths, and even twelve sections. It wasn’t until mechanical clocks in the 16th century that minutes were commonly introduced, and they were 60 of them to fit with all the previous divisions. Since geography already had each line of latitude divided into 60 minutes, and each of those minutes divided into 60 seconds, it seemed logical to extend time in the same manner.

When an actor takes to the stage, you’re supposed to say “Break a leg!” It’s commonly held that this wish of bad luck is actually good luck, and that wishing someone well in the theatre is actually jinxing the event. While the performing arts are known for their superstitious nature, this may not be the whole truth. After all, it could be a linguistic misinterpretation, come from a different language, have to do with a one-legged actress, or even been a tribute to the memorable evening when President Lincoln was shot in a theatre.

One interpretation of the word break means “to deviate from a straight line”, which has a similar meaning to the word bend. In this way, “break a leg” could simply mean to bend your leg at the knee thereby breaking the straight line your leg was making. In essence, wishing this upon a performer was saying “I hope your performance is so great that you’ll have to bow at the end, thus bending your leg in acceptance of praise.”

Another theatre interpretation comes from the leg or wing curtains, those curtains off to the side when the main ones are drawn back. Coming from Vaudeville, an act wouldn’t make any money unless they made in on stage, hence breaking the audience’s line-of-sight with the leg curtain. A different interpretation involves understudies wishing ill on the main cast, such as breaking a leg, so they could get on stage and earn some money.

Of course the phrase might not be English to begin with. In Greece it was customary to stomp instead of applaud, so only the best performances would lead to someone breaking their leg in appreciation. In Elizabethan times, audience members were instead stomp their chairs and break those legs instead. In Ancient Rome, gladiators may have heard “break a leg” indicating that they shouldn’t kill their opponent but only maim them which was still a victory. Or the phrase could be of German origin, as fighter pilots in World War I were said to wish each other “Hals- und Beinbruch” or “neck and leg fractures” before each flight, perhaps in tune with “Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing.” Yet that might be complete hogwash as the German phrase sounds similar to the Yiddish “Hatsloche un Broche” meaning “success and blessing”, perhaps accounting for the strange association between physical injury and good luck.

Maybe the phrase has a real association with previous incidents. One story revolves around Sarah Bernhardt, a famous French actress who had her leg amputated in 1915. She continued performing afterwards, so this saying could be in memory of her. Or it could be in memory of David Richard Garrick who became famous during the 18th century for his performances of Shakespeare’s Richard III. On one such performance he supposedly suffered a fracture yet was so caught up in acting that he didn’t notice it until later.

Yet another story brings this phrase to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Apparently, when John Wilkes Booth shot the President, he then jumped onto the stage and broke his leg. This makes the phrase not one to incite killings, but wishing that the night be one worthy of remembrance.

All of these other stories smack of implausibility though. What do we know for certain? There is anecdotal evidence from memoirs and letters that the phrase was used in a theatre setting from as early as the 1920s, making the assassination story (occurring in  1865), gladiator tale, and Elizabethan origin all questionable. Tying it to theatre more directly doesn’t come until 1948 in The Theatre Handbook and Digest of Plays where author Bernard Sobel notes the phrase in its present day use. In 1921, an article on horse racing was published explaining that wishing someone luck was unlucky, so “You should say something insulting such as, ‘May you break your leg!'”

With all of these different theories we may never find the true origin. However, there is one final theory: the phrase means to put such energy into a performance that you might break your leg during it. So in honour of this, may you break your leg trying to find the origin of the phrase.

Today’s Tangent: Think “break a leg” is a little gruesome before going on stage? That’s nothing compared to professional dancers. They’ll often say “merde” (French for “shit”) before a performance, which has now lead to actors also shouting this before plays.

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.