Friday, March 31, 2006

Science nerds, unite!

I got an email this morning saying my first issue of Astronomy is in the mail!
My new reading material
Woo! "When Black Holes Collide" - could I have joined at a more perfect issue?? I used to get this mag back in the day, but have somehow let all my subscriptions die over the past couple of years.

So I was reading the other day and found out this little fascinating piece of information. It seems that the effects of relativity (as in, Einstein's Theory of), are what give gold its unusual color. Bear with me; I'm going to explain it to you because it's kind of awesome that the hard-core and often elusive concepts that describe the space-time continuum are involved in making that shiny ring you're wearing, but I'll try to keep the jargon to a minimum. (Though if you're into that kind of thing, I found a good explanation here.)

Most metals have a silvery-grey appearance, right? So it should seem strange that gold is a shiny yellow instead. See, gold is a very heavy atom (Au - 79), much heavier than, say, nickel, iron, or silver. We have to discuss how atoms work, so let's use an analogy first - the solar system. Earth, for example, has to orbit the sun at a certain speed. If it slows down, it won't have enough orbital velocity to keep from resisting the sun's massive gravitational force and spiraling down into it. (Now, if you know anything about particle physics, you know that's not a perfect analogy to describe the movements inside an atom, but for our purposes, it'll do.)

So inside an atom, the electrons must orbit the nucleus at a certain speed, lest they fall into the center. The more massive the nucleus, the faster the electron must orbit to have enough momentum to 'counter-act' the higher gravitational force pulling in. Make sense? So in a heavy atom like gold, the electrons in a particular orbit level are moving with much greater speed than those in a lighter atom like silver.

What's the point? Well, when the electrons start moving at the kind of speeds required for a gold atom, they are traveling at an appreciable percentage of the speed of light - over half, actually. Relativistic effects - where velocity and mass become intertwined - come into play and mean that the orbiting electron actually becomes heavier. The greater mass affects the radius (and thus, the energy level) of its orbit, which will become important in a second.

Now we have to jump over to quantum mechanics for a minute (don't leave yet!). Materials get their color when the electrons in each atom absorb light. This absorption gives the electrons energy, which makes them jump to new orbits. But because orbits only exist at certain energy levels (and not in between), electrons are very picky about what they absorb. When light hits a silver atom, the electrons only accept the energy at a particular point in the spectrum - in silver's case, this exists around the UV point. So the electrons in silver don't absorb any visible light; therefore, it's all reflected, giving it that colorless appearance.

But in gold, remember, the relativistic effects have made the electrons heavier and, thus, changed the location (energy) of its orbit levels. The electrons in gold, then, are going to absorb light at a different part of the spectrum, which happens to be in the blue-green part of visible light. That means it reflects the yellow, reddish light, giving gold it's golden color! Were it not for these relativistic effects, gold would look just like silver!

I think there are a few unanswered questions here - like why mercury, which is right next to gold on the periodic table, is just as silvery colored as silver. And what's up with white gold? But I suppose these answers are probably beyond the scope of our conversation here.

Maybe you're not as fascinated by this as I am, but think about it - look at some piece of gold jewelry you have and realize that the tiny, tiny particles inside are moving over half the speed of light! The theory of relativity says that, at this speed, the time that those particles exist in is passing by slower than the time that's passing by the tick of the clock on your wall. The electrons hanging out on your finger are aging more slowly than you!

Your ring that's worth so much because of its shiny golden gleam, exists in a different kind of space-time than you do! Well, parts of it are anyway, and that's freaking awesome.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Someone forgot to tell me it's Women Are Better Than Men Day

Right after I published that last rah-rah-women post, I got an email from my little sister (not regarding the post). She recently got back from a one-year stint in Kosovo with the Army and is rediscovering her love for the email forward:

Subject: Thought you might like this.

Eleven people were hanging on a rope under a helicopter, ten men and one woman. The rope was not strong enough to carry them all, so they decided that one had to leave, because otherwise they were all going to fall. They weren't able to pick anyone; then the woman gave a very touching speech.

She said that she would voluntarily let go of the rope, because, as a woman, she was used to giving up everything for her husband and kids or for men in general, and was used to always making sacrifices with little in return. As soon as she finished the speech, all the men started clapping.

She's right, I did like it.

I think I love you, too, Michelle!

News from Chile, oft described 'most conservative country in South America,' after the swearing-in of the first directly elected female president in the country's history:

Yet the emotion shown by thousands who gathered in the streets of Valparaiso and Santiago on Saturday showed that a lot of people want to believe Bachelet's election represents a turning point. Women sobbed as they watched her wave from a convertible, men screamed, "We love you, Michelle," at her inauguration ceremony and schoolgirls leaned over barrier ropes to get a closer look at their new leader.

"I'm sensing in the street a sort of revolution, and I'm sorry that I didn't do a poll to measure it," said Marta Lagos, head of the polling firm, Mori Chile. "I was at a restaurant recently with my husband, and the waitress gave me the check -- she said it 'wasn't his anymore.' That might seem like a trivial thing, but you have to wonder if these are the kinds of things that make important changes in a society."

-Washington Post

I'm off to the Chilean Embassy in a few hours to see "Once upon a Painting - Chapter 1: Seeds," a painting exhibit by three artists. The show is a three-parter, meant to show the artist's reactions to each other's work. In this first show, none of them have seen the other's paintings. The second chapter will show their responses to the first chapter, and so on. I'm not sure what I think of the whole idea yet, but it could be interesting. All three artists, by the way, are women.

For those of you who don't know, I studied abroad in Chile after my first year in law school (in fact, it's the only reason I went to the god forsaken school that I did, because they had this program). I'm interested to see the Embassy here. Maybe I can compare it to the U.S. Embassy in Santiago after umpteen hours I spent there when I lost my passport on a plane. Good times.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

That's Option Four

My roommate's boyfriend is, once again, forcing him to watch bad tv. This time, it's the horrors of American Idol.

Ryan Seacrest: "Now if you want to vote for Beyonce Wannnabe, just text option 3 at the end of the show."

My Roommate: "I want all these people to die in a violent bus fire...is there an option for that??"

The Very Model of a Modern Urban Gentleman

Okay, maybe not a gentleman. I was on my way to work this morning when I saw this middle aged man on an expensive bike, dressed in high-end racing gear. He had a briefcase strapped to the back, a grande Starbucks latte in his right hand while steering with his left, and was repeatedly honked and yelled at as he dashed in front of traffic that was moving much faster than he was.

And I thought, "Wow, if that isn't a DC commuter, I don't know what is."

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Dear Dirt In My Backyard,

I'm sorry, but it's over between us. I tried really hard to make it work. When we met last fall, it was wonderful. We spent every weekend together. Sometimes, I'd come home from work, run upstairs to change clothes and meet you right away. We sat outside and watched sunsets and grilled burgers together.

You had a rough past, Dirt, I understand. Someone didn't treat you right and you needed someone to love you properly. So I cleaned you up, but it was sketchy at first. All that rubbish you were carrying came up to the surface, over and over. At first I thought I could ignore it and consider it part of your charm. So I turned my head at the broken glass, the coffee lids, the cigarette butts, and - strangely - the marbles. But there was more. Partly decomposed children's shoes, slabs of plaster. It got weird. I did my best to clean you up and make a real yard out of you. We even built that patio together, remember? Good times.

By winter, things cooled down a little. We didn't have time to see each other as much, but I knew it wasn't over. We were just waiting until the time was right. A few weeks ago, things started to heat up again. The weekends were clear and warm, so I bought you some flowers. You know, a little romance to start the spring off right.

But then things started to get bad again. Dirt, you know what I'm talking about. Maybe I tried to change you too much. A little tweaking was fine, but I suppose I wanted more from you. I didn't just want a clean, well-groomed yard, I wanted a place for my seedlings to grow. So I started nit-picking again. Spent afternoons with you, teaching you how to be a good yard.

Eventually, you rebeled. And yesterday, I reached my breaking point. A lovely Saturday afternoon with you, ruined, as I was cultivating the side strip, getting you ready for some delicious strawberry plants. You answered me loud and clear:

Knife

Yes, Dirt, it's all fun and games until SOMEONE GETS THEIR FINGER SLICED OFF BY AN EXACTO KNIFE. So I get it. You like being the way you are and will revolt against all efforts to change you. I suppose you're right - no one likes to be told they're not good enough. But I've had it, and I deserve better. You get the rest of the week to pack your bags. Actually, why don't I just do it for you.

Dear Dirt,

I'm moving on. I've already met someone else. As soon as I saw Top Soil, I knew the kind of yard I was meant to have. Top Soil is rich. Top Soil looks great and is ready for a real commitment. He'll take care of my baby plants like a real yard.

So that's it, Dirt. Have a nice life.

Sincerely,
Heather

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