Stories tagged heroes

Sep
17
2009

A memorial statue of Alan Turing
A memorial statue of Alan TuringCourtesy Kurt Seebauer
This has been in the news recently, but it didn’t occur to me until just now that it really has a place on Science Buzz.

Alan Turing was an English mathematician, and one of the fathers of computer science. He developed some of the earliest computers, and created the very first designs for a “stored-program” computer (a computer that keeps data and instructions inside of it, as opposed to one that required the operator to input every step.)

He was also interested in artificial intelligence, and proposed an experiment called the Turing test, meant to determine if a machine was truly intelligent. (Basically, a computer that could fool a human into thinking that he or she was talking with another person would pass the Turing test.)

Turing was also a code breaker, which is where the “war hero” part comes in. The day after the United Kingdom entered World War 2, Alan Turing went to work for the Government Code and Cypher School, an organization meant to break enemy codes. At GCCS, Turing and his colleagues developed automatic code breaking machines to decipher the elaborately encrypted messages of the Axis forces.

Turing’s work in collecting German military secrets through code breaking has been said to have shortened WWII by as much as two years, saving thousands of lives.

Alan Turing was also gay, and when he admitted this to the police after his home was broken into, he was charged with “gross indecency,” a law that essentially made homosexuality a criminal offense. Turing was given the choice of going to prison or accepting probation on the condition that he undergo chemical castration. Chemical castration involves the administration of drugs that change the subject’s hormone balance. This can cause the loss of sexual drive, as well as loss of hair, and muscle and bone density.

Two years after his conviction, Alan Turing killed himself.

It was a pretty awful way to treat someone who had contributed so much to the peace and safety of the world, as well as to the revolutionary discipline of computer science. This month the British government finally issued an apology to Alan Turing, acknowledging the scientist’s great contributions to humankind, as well as the shameful way he had been treated by his own government.

So there you go. Let’s not let it happen again.

Dec
13
2008

A night vision fox?: The perfect weapon.
A night vision fox?: The perfect weapon.Courtesy Josh Russell
Weariness toward the younger generations is usually more Gene’s territory than my own, but I couldn’t pass this up.

Not that Gene himself is necessarily weary of younger people… I don’t want to put words in your mouth, Gene, it’s just that I came across this story of a local gentleman taking “stay off my lawn” to glorious new heights.

It seems that a 50-year-old man from Willmar, Minnesota, was fed up with the repeated toilet-papering of his house by young nogoodniks, and decided to take matters into his own hands on the nearby high school’s most recent homecoming night. (And before y’all get all up-in-arms—you know who else took matters into his own hands? John Rambo. And, like, George Washington. We don’t hold it against them, do we?)

Anyway, this modern day Michael Douglas, who we’ll call “Scott Edward Wagar,” wasn’t content to hide behind the bushes with the garden hose. Instead, he got all high-tech—using night-vision goggles, Scott Edward Wagar ambushed a group of teens approaching his house, and sprayed them with a supersoaker squirt gun filled with… fox urine!

Oh, man… not since The Boy Who Could Fly

After the urine dousing, things got pretty confusing. There was something about a struggle and a hurt finger… the events aren’t totally clear to me. The next day, however, Scott found a dropped cell phone on his property and held it for ransom, and there was some yelling and screaming involved. I’ll try not to think about that part too much—Wagar was probably drunk on the heady brew of victory at the time.

So what does this have to do with science? Not a whole lot, really, but we could go over Wagars arsenal in a sciencey sort of way.

So… night vision goggles. Human’s natural night vision relies on the maximum dilation of the pupil (to allow as much light into the eye as possible), and a molecule in the eye called rhodopsin. Rhodopsin in our retinas is extremely sensitive to light—according to Wikipedia, at least, it’s responsible for more effective light capture in the rod cells of the eye, or for more efficient light-to-electrical energy conversion. Either way, it takes about half an hour in the dark for rhdopsin to build up to maximum levels. The instant that rhodopsin is exposed to white light, however, it bleaches and loses all night vision enhancing properties.

What are we poor, night-blind humans supposed to do? Night vision goggles! We’re all familiar with night vision technology, thanks to our rad action movies, but it turns out that there are multiple kinds of night vision goggles. “Active infrared” night vision works by emitting infrared light, which is invisible to human eyes but can be picked up by the goggles and converted to visible light. The thing is, active infrared can be seen by other night vision goggles like someone waving a flashlight around, so if any of those kids had infrared vision, the gig would have been up for Scott Wagar. That’s why there’s also…

Themal vision goggles, which we also know about thanks to our rad video games, work by making tiny temperature differences visible—the heat emitted by a living body (or any object that isn’t totally frozen) is, again, represented in visible light by the goggles. And because the goggles use the radiation emitted from other objects, instead of shining radiation (i.e. the infrared light used by active infrared goggles) on other objects.

Finally, there are “image intensifier” goggles. These work by detecting tiny amounts of ambient light (it’s rare that you’d be in a situation that is absolutely dark) and intensifying it. When photons (light) enter the goggles, they hit a detector plate, and each photon causes an electron to be released from the plate. These electrons are accelerated by a magnetic field in the goggles, and hit another plate, causing a whole bunch of electrons to be emitted, which then hit a phosphor screen to make an image (this is the same way older TVs make images—through electrons hitting a phosphor screen. The image that is displayed by the goggles to the wearer is in monochrome (one color), because the detector plates in the goggles don’t distinguish between the wavelengths of the photons hitting them—that is, all colors of light entering the goggles are just detected as light, not colored light. We know about this kind of night vision though rad movies also—you know when some guy with a gun and night vision goggles walks into a room, and then some other guy with a gun and probably no night vision goggles flips on the lights, and the first guy gets all blind because there are so many more photons hitting the detector plate in his goggles, and more electrons are being released, and the phosphor screen gets really bright in his eyes, and then he probably gets shot or knocked on the head with something by the second guy. It makes more sense now, doesn’t it?

I’m guess Wagar had some sort of image intensifying goggles.

As for fox urine… Well, I hear that it’s super stinky. I was going to get more into what makes it super stinky, but this whole post has taken me way longer to write than I had originally intended. If you’re really into animal pee, though, and foxes in particular, there are plenty of resources out there for you to examine. Like this. Or this. Or this, I guess.

Scott Edward Wagar, you have amazed us all. And, kids, when someone gives you the old “And stay off my lawn,” maybe you should take it seriously. (Or you could start carrying bright strobe lights, rain jackets, and water balloons full of something worse than fox pee when you plan on TPing someone’s house.)

Jul
05
2007

Or, I think… I think the world wins, actually.
The Field of Dreams: Heroes are made here. And hot dogs are eaten. And hot dogs are eaten. And hot dogs are eaten. (photo by wallyg on Flickr)
The Field of Dreams: Heroes are made here. And hot dogs are eaten. And hot dogs are eaten. And hot dogs are eaten. (photo by wallyg on Flickr)

At any rate, the American Joey Chestnut has finally toppled the Godzilla of Gluttony, Takeru Kobayashi of Japan, from the greasy throne of the world-champion competitive hot dog eater.

Kobayashi has dominated this sport of kings since 2001, until a qualifying match last month, when San Jose native Joey Chestnut downed 59.5 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes, solidly topping Kobayashi’s previous record of 53.75.

After several weeks during which Kobayashi’s website claimed that the athlete was suffering from a recently-extracted wisdom tooth, the contenders have now met at “Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest” in Coney Island. While Chestnut pulled out to an early lead, he was never more than three hot dogs ahead of Kobayashi, and in the last several minutes of the race Kobayashi made a valiant effort to finish in a tie. After 12 minutes, both contestants appeared to have eaten 63 hot dogs, but after comparing scraps left on the plate, and food still in the mouth (and able to be swallowed) at the buzzer, it was determined that Joey Chestnut had eaten… 66 hot dogs. Whoa.
Here’s some perspective on 66 hot dogs:

    66 Hot Dogs (minus buns)

  • 396 inches of hot dog
  • 3.43 kg, or 7.54 lbs
  • Contains meat from:
    1. cows
    2. pigs
    3. chickens
    4. other hot dogs
  • Exactly 66 times greasier than a single hot dog
  • More hot dogs than the entire state of Idaho will eat all year

And, again, this is all without the buns. The buns (66) alone could have been used to construct a very awesome fort. Now that fort is in Joey Chestnut’s tummy. I would live in that fort.

The Body of a Competitive Eater

Takeru Kobayashi began his career in sports as a 5’ 7”, 110-pounder. He is currently hovering around 196 pounds (although his height has remained the same), and claims to be under 10 percent body fat. According to some, slender men and women often make excellent competitive eaters due to a lack of a “fat belt,” which restricts the elasticity of the stomach. Joey Chestnut is 6’ 3” tall, and around 220 pounds, and apparently controls the elasticity of his stomach through pure will power.

Stomach elasticity is credited as the key to dominance in competitive eating, and “competitors commonly train by drinking large amounts of water over a short time to stretch out the stomach.” The International Federation of Competitive Eating - and I - strongly discourage this method. Because it can kill you. In fact, the International Federation of Competitive Eating discourages training of any sorts.

Why competitive eating is only for professionals like Chestnut and Kobayashi

Like many of our more glorious sports (e.g. NASCAR, lawn darts, snake-handling, etc.), competitive eating is certainly not without its risks. Obesity and diabetes are, of course, associated with chronic overeating (although restricting caloric intake while not competing may allow competitors to remain healthy in this respect). Also, many physicians worry that stretching the stomach can reduce its ability to function. Vomiting –a disqualifying action, which it, you know, sometimes just happens – can lead to esophageal tearing and infection, and, obviously, simple choking is a serious consideration.

So, people, always remember to eat safely and responsibly. And, this Fourth of July weekend, take a moment to think of one of our country’s newest heroes: Joey Chestnut.

PS – Civilizations of the future are going to think we were so cool.

”The majors”

Some things to learn about hot dogs. Nutritionally.

Competitive eating

The straight story