Messy Tangled Cables

April 10, 2012

The nuisance:

You stuff your headphone cables into your pocket, and mere seconds later, they form a knot of epic proportions you yourself could not have tied even if you tried. Does that sound familiar? How about this:

Tangled cables

Gordium called: They want their string back. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This seems to happen everywhere. The cables connected to your computer, bits of string in your household drawers, your hair, unless…

Telly Savalas

Who loves ya, baby? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The science:

There is apparently a mathematical discipline that specializes entirely on this: mathematical knot theory. Basically, it says that in long, flexible, thin objects above a certain critical length, there are more possible knotted states than untangled ones, and even only a little motion makes those states catastrophically accumulate.
They even proved that experimentally, which was probably preceded by the following exchange:
Scientist X: “Hey, look at my latest experiment!”
Scientist Y: “Not now, I’m writing a grant proposal!”
X: “But it explains knots!”
Y: *sighs* “Oh well…”
X: “Look, I’ve got this shoe box, and now I put this piece of string in it…”
Y: “Fascinating.”
X: “Yeah, and now I shake it! Look!”
Y: “Whoa!”
X: *beaming* “What do you say!”
Y: “Cool, let’s call it… let’s call it… Ah! Spontaneous knotting of an agitated string
X: “Ka-ching!”

They do. The theory also predicts that a 100% chance of knotting cannot be reached unless the string is very long and extremely flexible… like… this. (image via wikimedia commons)

And here is the winner of the “applied mathematical knot theory”-contest:

Dreadfully long

Dreadfully long (Photo credit: the MaGe)

Fraggle bones

February 14, 2012

Anybody remember that psychedelic muppet-show called “Fraggle Rock“? It had betailed, underground-dwelling, hyperactive, musical, troll-like creatures and… umm… other stuff

Marjory, The Trash Heap

Image via Wikipedia

…like a talking trash heap, of all things.

It was also a great analogy for what happens inside the human bone.

Yep, goes like this:
In the underground caves where the Fraggles live, there are also the ant-like doozers, little creatures that build intricate scaffolds all day long.  And the fraggles have nothing better to do than eating the stuff, which means that the doozer’s construction jobs never get finished… and yet, they have never come up with the idea of attacking the fraggles in numbers during their sleep and strangling them.
One day, Mokey, the resident fraggle tree-hugger, decides that scaffold-eating is doozer cruelty and talks the others into quitting their habit.


Pictured: Mokey the tree hugger

…or, in this underground setting, probably mushroom-hugger, that would explain quite a lot, actually.

Predictably, this does not end well: almost smothered by ungodly masses of scaffolding, they eventually break free by eating themselves out of their pickle.

And that’s exactly what our bones do, too:

English: Compact bone & spongy bone Details av...

Image via Wikipedia

Osteocytes, the building cells of the bone, come in two varieties: there are those that constantly add new material (osteoblasts/doozers) and those that do nothing but raze what the builders built (osteoclasts/fraggles). If there were no osteoclasts, the bones would become heavy and massive during body growth as more and more material is added to the outer tunic, so they have to be hollowed out. But if the fraggles get the upper hand in that never ending game (for instance because of calcium-deficiency), the bones eventually become so brittle that they break under one’s own body weight. This goes on even after growth is completed.

Here is one of the cellular fraggles at work: Click! (Omnomnom-sound recording not included)

So, don’t forget to provide your inner doozers with ample building material.
(This entry was sponsored by Cheesy McMilk Corp. Co.)


February 13, 2012

I live in the Rhinelands, Germany, and next week, as always in February, there will be the beginning of  “Strassenkarneval”. People will dress up in silly costumes, visit parades on Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) where they throw confetti and sweets and also, most importantly, get absolutely shit-faced in public.

During the parades, there’ll be bands marching in mock French uniforms carrying flowers in their wooden guns. Every once in a while, they’ll stop,  pair up, stick their butts out as far as humanly possible and then rub against each other. To music. That’s what Stippefoettche means: sticking out the naked butt, aka mooning.

Stippeföttche, Karneval-Tanz, Briefmarke herau...

Image via Wikipedia

Just like that

It’s a pretty blunt parody of French military, dating back to the occupation of the Rhinelands which did not sit well with the people living there, who pretty much had a reputation of being fun loving slackers. There’s an anecdote that mirrors this attitude quite well:

During the bombardment of the city walls of Cologne, defenders purportedly yelled: “”Wat schiesst ihr he rum? He stonn doch lück!” – “Why are you shooting? Can’t you see there’s people standing up here?”

After the eventual defeat of Napoleon, fleeing French troops left their uniforms behind, which were gleefully used in the traditional mummer’s dances of the season. The butt-rubbing dance they do there may be even older than that, and has ancient roots in –demon extermination?

German anthropologist Dr. Gisela Asmus (cited here on a German site) claims that the oldest depictions of the dance date back to the rock carvings of Fossum, Sweden, 1800 B.C. It was supposedly a ritual act to scare demons away. Now who would have thought that?

Rock carving area from the bronze age in the p...

Image via Wikipedia

A Giant Hogweed flower in close-up. Do not touch!

Image via Wikipedia

Heracleum mantegazzianum, the giant hoogweed

Now look at that, how pretty: that vibrant green colour, those bright white tufts of blossoms at the top… no wonder that 19th century gardeners were all over it, especially since that pretty plant had a tendency to grow gigantic in size:

Velky bolsevnik

Image via Wikipedia

What could possibly go wrong introducing that Caucasian beauty to the west? (I mean the plant, not the lady next to it)
Well, if you look at the picture above, you see that the woman is reaching up to a specimen that has been dead for quite a while. The thing is, if it were still alive, she’d not be smiling… in fact, she’d be running and screaming in pain.

Well, it figured that the mean green momma really really hates people who go out into the sun, as anybody who has the misfortune of even slightly touching the leaves will instantly know.

English: Burn (allergic reaction induced by sk...

Image via Wikipedia


As you can see in the picture above, the stems and the underside of the leaves are covered in tiny hairs that are actually miniature daggers pricking the skin so the sap can get into the tiny open wounds and destroy the skin’s ability to deal with UV-rays, causing massive sunburn that can even lead to the skin coming off like from 3rd degree burns…

…which leads me to the assumption that the whole gardening fad was a cunning plan hatched by the vampire overlords of Transylvania to conquer the world.

עברית: בסיס רוטב עגבניות (לתבשיל חציל)

The nuisance:

Please indulge me and imagine this situation: You’re past the restaurant stage of dating and have invited the object of your desire to dinner in your own home, which can turn even the messiest slob into a temporary Stepford wife. Everything is neat and clean and the bedroom smells like roses, so now is the time to proceed to the kitchen to actually cook something. Oh dear, cooking. Well, the simplest dish would be a nice bowl of pasta for each with a spicy tomato sauce on top. What can possibly go wrong making this? Well… boiling the sauce, you’ll most likely end up with a kitchen that looks like they just filmed Chain saw massacre XII – the Splattering in there.

La Tomatina (25.08.2010) - Spain, Buñol 23

…well, either that, or a tomato-themed orgy

Why, oh why on earth does tomato sauce do this when all other sauces are so tame and benign by comparison? It almost seems like the delicious red vegetable was specifically designed to lament its passing by marking the murderer with smears of its innards. Actually… that’s not so far off.

The explanation:

Cohesion and viscoelasticity. Where the hot metal at the bottom of the pot meets liquid, gas will be expelled and starts pushing upwards, but the more the molecules of the fluid above stick together, the harder it is to push through, until the gas bubble at the bottom finally gets big enough to break free, rocketing upwards and taking a bunch of sauce with it. Now, tomatoes contain pectin, which is a very large, branched molecule that stabilizes the cell walls. During ripening, two enzymes break down those walls, making the tomato soft and squishy.

18th century illustration of perjurer John Wal...

….and therefore, ideal people pelting material

Those broken down pectins act like an emulsifier making a thick gel out of the tomato pulp. Because of this, the cohesion of the sauce keeps the bubble trapped for a longer time than comparable fluids that don’t bond together as much, and also form bigger splatters that also tend to stick on every surface they meet.

The solution?

Constant, quick stirring provides an outlet for the gas bubbles. This means investing some elbow grease in the cooking process, but it still beats slaving away while cleaning. At any rate, your date will probably impressed if you use rocket science and chemistry to explain the mess in your kitchen. Or you could take them out to a restaurant.

Welcome to the Odditorium!

February 13, 2012

White tern 1

Gygis alba, white tern (Sparrman 1786)

Do you know that there are cells in your body that when left unchecked, would go ahead and break your bones? Are you able to address a slightly squished bug on your windshield by its proper binomial appellation, but can’t remember the names of your neighbors? Do you know that the weird dance they do at the German Oktoberfest where they slap their thighs and shoes is mimicking the mating ritual of an alpine bird? Do you also constantly forget how to access video text on your TV with your remote control, or how to record the message for your answering machine? Do you love to play around with geek gadgets like Apophysis*?


Well, congratulations, you’re one very weird person.

You’re also possibly me.

*that’s what made the picture in my header, just in case the answer is no