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Dumb questions with smart answers #23: Why is space dark?

Save those little specks of light up there, space is awfully dark. It's such a fundamental assumption, I never thought to ask why. But as someone on the sci.astro Google group recently wondered, given that there are billions upon billions of stars in the night sky, most brighter than our own sun, shouldn't they light up the night like a Fourth of July fireworks display? Actually, there's already a name for this question -- Olbers' Paradox, after German astronomer Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers who described it in 1823 -- but it was also asked, perhaps most elegantly, by Edgar Allen Poe (of all people) in his 1848 essay Eureka:

"Were the succession of stars endless, then the background of the sky would present us a uniform luminosity, like that displayed by the Galaxy "“since there could be absolutely no point, in all that background, at which would not exist a star. The only mode, therefore, in which, under such a state of affairs, we could comprehend the voids which our telescopes find in innumerable directions, would be by supposing the distance of the invisible background so immense that no ray from it has yet been able to reach us at all."

Well, Edgar, it seems that the complete answer involves quite a bit of math ("Nevermore!" quoth I after completing pre-calculus in the 11th grade), but the short answer is mathless, fascinating, and a two-parter:

1) The universe is not infinite, and neither is the speed at which light travels. If they were, then the night sky would be as bright as the surface of the sun. As it happens (according to prevailing theories, at least), the universe Banged itself into existence about 13.7 billion years ago (give or take a few hundred million years), so that's all the time light has had to travel from distant stars to our neck of the woods. It would hold, then, that while finite, the universe is considerably more than 13.7 billion light years across, which would help explain why the night sky isn't blinding, and why even our most powerful telescopes can still find patches of nothingness in the Heavens.

2) The universe is expanding, and with that expansion comes a phenomenon known as redshift -- kind of like a visual Doppler effect. Starlight is moving away from us, which shifts its frequency higher, sometimes right out of the visual spectrum and into the microwave spectrum. So huge portions of what would otherwise be potentially blinding starlight has become a steady, cosmic microwave background radiation.

Pretty cool, huh?

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How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?
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iStock

Here’s something else to stress about for Thanksgiving: where to put the stress in the word Thanksgiving.

If you’re from California, Iowa, or Delaware, you probably say ThanksGIVing, with the primary stress on the second syllable. If you’re from Georgia, Tennessee, or the Texas Panhandle, you probably say THANKSgiving, with the primary stress on the first syllable.

This north-south divide on syllable stress is found for other words like umbrella, guitar, insurance, and pecan. However, those words are borrowed from other languages (Italian, Spanish, French). Sometimes, in the borrowing process, competing stress patterns settle into regional differences. Just as some borrowed words get first syllable stress in the South and second syllable stress in the North, French words like garage and ballet get first syllable stress in the UK and second syllable stress in the U.S.

Thanksgiving, however, is an English word through and through. And if it behaved like a normal English word, it would have stress on the first syllable. Consider other words with the same noun-gerund structure just like it: SEAfaring, BAbysitting, HANDwriting, BULLfighting, BIRDwatching, HOMEcoming, ALMSgiving. The stress is always up front, on the noun. Why, in Thanksgiving alone, would stress shift to the GIVE?

The shift to the ThanksGIVing pronunciation is a bit of a mystery. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that the loss of the stress on thanks has to do with a change in our concept of the holiday, that we “don’t truly think about Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore.” This kind of thing can happen when a word takes on a new, more abstract sense. When we use outgoing for mail that is literally going out, we are likely to stress the OUT. When we use it as a description of someone’s personality ("She's so outgoing!"), the stress might show up on the GO. Stress can shift with meaning.

But the stress shift might not be solely connected to the entrenchment of our turkey-eating rituals. The thanksGIVing stress pattern seems to have pre-dated the institution of the American holiday, according to an analysis of the meter of English poems by Mark Liberman at Language Log. ThanksGIVing has been around at least since the 17th century. However you say it, there is precedent to back you up. And room enough to focus on both the thanks and the giving.

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Watch Boris Karloff's 1966 Coffee Commercial
TAKWest, Youtube
TAKWest, Youtube

Horror legend Boris Karloff is famous for playing mummies, mad scientists, and of course, Frankenstein’s creation. In 1930, Karloff cemented the modern image of the monster—with its rectangular forehead, bolted neck, and enormous boots (allegedly weighing in at 11 pounds each)—in the minds of audiences.

But the horror icon, who was born 130 years ago today, also had a sense of humor. The actor appeared in numerous comedies, and even famously played a Boris Karloff look-alike (who’s offended when he’s mistaken for Karloff) in the original Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace

In the ’60s, Karloff also put his comedic chops to work in a commercial for Butter-Nut Coffee. The strange commercial, set in a spooky mansion, plays out like a movie scene, in which Karloff and the viewer are co-stars. Subtitles on the bottom of the screen feed the viewer lines, and Karloff responds accordingly. 

Watch the commercial below to see the British star selling coffee—and read your lines aloud to feel like you’re “acting” alongside Karloff. 

[h/t: Retroist]

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