Monday, July 24, 2006

Total Perspective

In his comment about Uranus, Pete refers to a book by Carl Sagan called Pale Blue Dot; apparently this was inspired by a picture taken from Voyager 1 looking back at the Earth from 4 billion miles away.

Officionados of the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy will remember the
Total Perspective Vortex which shows its victim the entire unimaginable infinity of the universe with a very tiny marker that says "You Are Here" which points to a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot.

Let's get things into perspective by considering the ratio 1:1,000,000:
- an average adult (1.7m) is about a million times bigger than a large bacterium (upto 2 microns);
- a 5-storey building (17m) is about a million times bigger than the width of the finest human hair (17 microns);
- the height of Big Ben or the length of a football pitch (about 100m) is a million times the thickness of paper (0.1mm);
- 2km is a million times wider than a grain of rice (2mm).

If I were as tall:
... as Mount Everest (8848m), then an adult would be as tall as the thickness of 3 pieces of paper;
... as the Earth is wide (12,756km), then Mount Everest would be smaller than a grain of rice;
... as the distance from the Earth to the Sun (150 million km), then the Earth would be a little bigger than the thickness of paper;
... as the distance from the Sun to the nearest star (4.22 light years), then the distance from the Earth to the Sun would be about the size of 3 large bacteria side by side;
... as the Galaxy is wide (100,000 light years), then the distance from the Sun to the nearest star would be less than the thickness of a piece of paper;
... as the Universe is wide (20 billion light years) then, the Galaxy would be half the thickness of the thinnest human hair.

Orders of Magnitude and Physics Factbook]

Sunday, July 23, 2006


Further into my investigations about the relative sizes and distances of celestial bodies, I realised that if you were as tall as the distance from the Sun to the planet Pluto, i.e. if you had the Sun on your head and Pluto at your feet, then Uranus would be right by your bottom, which seems quite appropriate.

Neptune would be at your knees, Saturn at your nipples, Jupiter on your chin and Mars at the level of your eyebrows; the Earth would be in the middle of your forehead. Of course, on that scale the Sun would be smaller than a grain of rice (about 1/5th of the width) and the Earth would be much smaller than the width of a human hair.

Friday, July 21, 2006


I was looking up the diameter of the Earth (as one does) in the Wikipedia and was horrified to see that the article had been vandalised:
"The Earth was created by God 10,000 years ago and its largest natural satellite, the Moon, was orbiting it shortly thereafter, around 10,000 years ago."

Which just goes to show that you can't rely on it as a authoritative source of information. Some people believe in a god who you could only describe as a trickster (or perhaps a joker), knocking together a planet just a few thousand years ago but making it look billions of years old; how we laughed.

You can get an idea of the relative sizes of the Earth and Moon quite easily: hold your arm out so the shoulder to the elbow is horizontal and the elbow to fingers is vertical. If you were as tall as the Earth is wide then the Moon would be as wide as from your elbow to the tip of your longest finger.

Now you just need to make your upper arm ten times longer and you'll have got the relative distance, although it would then be quite hard to pick up a cup of tea.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


With temperatures in Liverpool set to reach 34C today, it was already hot and humid by the time I drove out of the Mersey tunnel this morning and then I saw two Chinese girls walking along arm in arm beneath an umbrella; which seemed surprising at the time but now seems less so.

Monday, July 17, 2006


I saw this in the What's New section of the Skeptic's Dictionary: Rumpology, the arcane science of predicting the future by examining someone's rear end. I thought that it might be a joke, especially as the essay Rumpology for Dummies shows how ridiculous the whole prediction industry is, but take a look at Sylvester Stallone's mum's website.

Whilst rumpology looks like a case of the extremely gullible being parted from their money, this BBC news
item about Malaria is more tragic: people have been taking homeopathic remedies instead of anti-malarial drugs whilst travelling and consequently catching malaria.

The basic idea behind Homeopathy is that, if someone is ill, you should find a substance that produces similar symptoms and then dilute it so much that none of the original substance is left - and that's your medicine. In other words it is utterly stupid.

Real medicine can be shown to work by placebo-controlled double-blind testing - patients are given either the medicine or a placebo (e.g. chalk) but neither the patient nor the doctor knows which as it is randomly determined by someone else - this gets rid of the many effects that obscure whether or not the medicine works especially the placebo effect but also confirmation bias (giving greater weight to evidence that supports your belief than contrary evidence).

As with so many alternative medicines, its adherents claim that homeopathy can't be tested in this way (see last quote in this BBC item); in other words its effects are so subtle that they can't be seen. You'll note that other medicines that actually work, such as Asprin or the anti-malarial drug Lariam, can be tested in this way - and that this methodology also allows us to look for side-effects attributable to the drugs.
Pharmaceutical companies make big profits on their main cash cow drugs, they also pay for the science and technology required to do the research ad testing that underpins the development of new drugs and techniques; Homeopathy has none of the costs (see the Horizon test which showed that homeopathic medicine was indistinguishable from pure water) but has plenty of profits going into the back pockets of its practitioners.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

What's that Bird?

These two birds have been appearing in our back garden for a number of years now. Given my very limited knowledge of birds, I would say they look like very large pigeons, but what species are they?

For comparison the moulded plastic garden chair you can see is the normal size for fitting a comfortable western bottom:
two birds, yesterday

...and here's a close up:
one bird, possibly called Harold

Drain of Wasps

There's still a few wasps flying around near the top of the drain pipe despite the fact that the drain is very full of them (see comparison with the previous killing spree below). Some of them were still writhing about so I poured a load of ant poison over them.

drain full of wasps after the first massacredrain full of wasps after the second massacre

Monday, July 10, 2006

And Yet More Wasps

a wasp
So the wasp man came back, after a few squirts he concluded that the nest must actually be within the down pipe from the gutter.

It was at this point that the dishwasher repairmen arrived, they were going "oh, it's a Bosch" and telling me that it wasn't worth fixing (they didn't charge me anything, so that's alright) - don't get one with a digital display the steam corrodes the solder connections, apparently.

Meanwhile, the squirty man squirted more stuff up the drain pipe and then down the pipe (see picture). This lead to thousands of wasps tumbling out of the bottom of the pipe and the drain is now heaving with them.
the wasp man's big squirter going in to the top of the drain pipe
The man hung around chatting again, endlessly, and when he did finally leave, he was back within seconds because his car battery was flat - fortunately I have jump leads, so was soon able to get him on his way. It was a little bit like going back in time to the 1970s to talk to a Daily Mail reader (he actually gave me the business section!?): the country's going to the dogs; there's too much immigration and Australia's the best place to live.

More Wasps

Alas, the wasp saga is not over. There are still wasps buzzing around the entrance to the nest and there's still the odd one crawling about in the drain. I went into the loft last night to look for a suitcase and there was a wasp buzzing around the light; I took a picture of the queen's winter residence (see below, the stuff at the bottom is insulation); the wasp-killer man had picked up a wasp from the ground that was twice the size of the others and told me that it was the queen.

This is a little bigger than a ping-pong ball

When I went outside to look at the nest, I saw two wasps flying together with one on top of the other and I thought "oh no, their mating!"; then the uppermost one dropped the other one on my head - so I guess those wasps that are still alive are removing the bodies of their fallen comrades. I await the return of the wasp-finder general.

Sunday, July 09, 2006


A huge nest of wasps has been growing in the soffit of our roof.

the entrance to the nest is immediately above the downpipe from the gutter

So we called in a pest control company to get rid of it. This consisted of a very talkative old fellow squiting poison into the nest from inside our loft. Apparently the poison they use is in tiny balls that are coated in a substance that humans can't break down but that the pheromones of wasps do break down; it then gets into the wasp through glands at the back of its head which the wasp rubs continually to make sure it has the right smell to be accepted into the nest.

dead wasps

We stood in the driveway chatting as the wasps spiralled down out of the sky; then we noticed a tremendous buzzing noise coming from nearby and realised that the wasps were coming out of their nest and then falling immediately down the drain pipe and collecting in big heap of dying wasps.

many, many wasps

The man said that there would have been something like 18,000 wasps in the nest and that they look for food more than 2 hours flight away, so it would take a couple of hours or more for them all to come back to the nest and be poisoned. He said that a nest doubles in size every 7 days and it used to be very unusual to get such big nests before the end of summer (September), but the weather is so mad nowadays that the season for wasps is starting earlier and lasting longer. He showed me a ping-pong ball sized nest in the loft in which he said the queen had hibernated during the winter.