5 Reasons We'll Miss Arthur C. Clarke

The late Sir Arthur C. Clarke was loved by nerds and normals alike for his contributions to literature, film, and technology. Here's a rundown of the five biggest reasons we'll miss him.

1. Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World

Clarke kept extensive files on mysterious events, objects, and locations throughout the world. Starting in the early 1980's, he mined these files to bring us Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World, a thirteen-part TV series covering topics ranging from UFOs to crystal skulls. The show told fascinating stories and Clarke classified them according to his three categories of mystery (dubbed, simply enough, the first, second, and third kinds) depending on how well they're currently understood.

While the show is very dated (and a few of the "mysteries" have since been definitively explained as hoaxes), it's great fun, and Clarke's sober introductions to each story are fascinating to watch. I remember watching the show after school when I was growing up, and it brings back memories -- the series gave me a sense of wonder, and introduced me to notions of scientific skepticism which have served me well. Today you can watch bits of Mysterious World on YouTube. Here's a clip from one episode, in which Clarke narrates a solar eclipse (a "mystery of the first kind" -- one that was a mystery to our ancestors, but is understood now):

In 1985, Clarke returned with Arthur C. Clarke's World of Strange Powers featuring another thirteen episodes on strange topics, and again in 1994 with Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious Universe, his final series on the weird.

2. 2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke teamed up with director Stanley Kubrick to write 2001: A Space Odyssey, a landmark film released in 1968. The film was originally based on a previous short story of Clarke's, but the collaboration with Kubrick significantly expanded the narrative. During development, Clarke kept an amusing diary detailing his work with Kubrick. Here's a selection:

July 9. Spent much of afternoon teaching Stanley how to use the slide rule -- he's fascinated.

July 11. Joined Stanley to discuss plot development, but spent almost all the time arguing about Cantor's Theory of Transfinite Groups. Stanley tries to refute the "part equals the whole" paradox by arguing that a perfect square is not necessarily identical with the integer of the same value. I decide that he is a latent mathematical genius.

July 12. Now have everything -- except the plot.

Read more of the diary for lots of great 2001 trivia. Warning: if you haven't seen the film, the diary is full of spoilers! 2001 is also an excellent book (released shortly after the film, and with a bit more backstory about why certain things are happening), and sci-fi fans should also check out 2010, 2061, and 3001. (Although I'll admit, the latter two volumes are a little corny around the edges.)

3. The Communications Satellite

Clarke is widely credited with dreaming up the idea of geostationary satellites -- orbiting satellites that enable worldwide communications networks. He published his ideas in a 1945 article entitled Extra-Terrestrial Relays - Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?

Clarke didn't patent the idea and thus didn't profit from it, leading to a 1965 article entitled: "A Short Pre-History of Comsats; or How I Lost a Billion Dollars in My Spare Time." Other inventors came up with similar ideas around the same time, and there's some disagreement as to whose idea it was first. Regardless, Clarke is already remembered as the originator of this particularly great idea.

4. Clarke's Laws

Clarke's interest in science, the future, and famous mysteries led him to formulate three laws on the nature of prediction. The third law has become famous, and is reprinted widely -- it even appeared on my father's office door when I was growing up. The three laws are listed below (with emphasis added to my favorite):

1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

5. His Sense of Humor

Throughout his endeavors, Clarke maintained his quiet, good-natured sense of humor. In 2006, WIRED magazine invited him to contribute to a series of Very Short Stories which were supposed to consist of only six words, after Hemingway's famous example. Clarke, true to his lifelong practice of writing long, multi-volume fiction, insisted on writing ten words instead:

God said, 'Cancel Program GENESIS.' The universe ceased to exist.

Please share your memories of Arthur C. Clarke's life and work in the comments.

Today's Wine Glasses Are Almost Seven Times Larger Than They Were in 1700

Holiday party season (a.k.a. hangover season) is in full swing. While you likely have no one to blame but yourself for drinking that second (or third) pour at the office soiree, your glassware isn't doing you any favors—especially if you live in the UK. Vino vessels in England are nearly seven times larger today than they were in 1700, according to a new study spotted by Live Science. These findings were recently published in the English medical journal The BMJ.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge measured more than 400 wineglasses from the past three centuries to gauge whether glass size affects how much we drink. They dug deep into the history of parties past, perusing both the collections of the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford and the Royal Household's assemblage of glassware (a new set is commissioned for each monarch). They also scoured a vintage catalog, a modern department store, and eBay for examples.

After measuring these cups, researchers concluded that the average wineglass in 1700 held just 2.2 fluid ounces. For comparison's sake, that's the size of a double shot at a bar. Glasses today hold an average of 15.2 fluid ounces, even though a standard single serving size of wine is just 5 ounces.

BMJ infographic detailing increases in wine glass size from 1700 to 2017
BMJ Publishing group Ltd.

Advances in technology and manufacturing are partly to blame for this increase, as is the wine industry. Marketing campaigns promoted the beverage as it increasingly became more affordable and available for purchase, which in turn prompted aficionados to opt for larger pours. Perhaps not surprisingly, this bigger-is-better mindset was also compounded by American drinking habits: Extra-large wineglasses became popular in the U.S. in the 1990s, prompting overseas manufacturers to follow suit.

Wine consumption in both England and America has risen dramatically since the 1960s [PDF]. Cambridge researchers noted that their study doesn't necessarily prove that the rise of super-sized glassware has led to this increase. But their findings do fit a larger trend: previous studies have found that larger plate size can increase food consumption. This might be because they skew our sense of perception, making us think we're consuming less than we actually are. And in the case of wine, in particular, oversized glasses could also heighten our sensory enjoyment, as they might release more of the drink's aroma.

“We cannot infer that the increase in glass size and the rise in wine consumption in England are causally linked,” the study's authors wrote. “Nor can we infer that reducing glass size would cut drinking. Our observation of increasing size does, however, draw attention to wine glass size as an area to investigate further in the context of population health.”

[h/t Live Science]

Researchers Pore Over the Physics Behind the Layered Latte

The layered latte isn't the most widely known espresso drink on coffee-shop menus, but it is a scientific curiosity. Instead of a traditional latte, where steamed milk is poured into a shot (or several) of espresso, the layered latte is made by pouring the espresso into a glass of hot milk. The result is an Instagram-friendly drink that features a gradient of milky coffee colors from pure white on the bottom to dark brown on the top. The effect is odd enough that Princeton University researchers decided to explore the fluid dynamics that make it happen, as The New York Times reports.

In a new study in Nature Communications, Princeton engineering professor Howard Stone and his team explore just what creates the distinct horizontal layers pattern of layered latte. To find out, they injected warm, dyed water into a tank filled with warm salt water, mimicking the process of pouring low-density espresso into higher-density steamed milk.

Four different images of a latte forming layers over time
Xue et al., Nature Communications (2017)

According to the study, the layered look of the latte forms over the course of minutes, and can last for "tens of minutes, or even several hours" if the drink isn't stirred. When the espresso-like dyed water was injected into the salt brine, the downward jet of the dyed water floated up to the top of the tank, because the buoyant force of the low-density liquid encountering the higher-density brine forced it upward. The layers become more visible when the hot drink cools down.

The New York Times explains it succinctly:

When the liquids try to mix, layered patterns form as gradients in temperature cause a portion of the liquid to heat up, become lighter and rise, while another, denser portion sinks. This gives rise to convection cells that trap mixtures of similar densities within layers.

This structure can withstand gentle movement, such as a light stirring or sipping, and can stay stable for as long as a day or more. The layers don't disappear until the liquids cool down to room temperature.

But before you go trying to experiment with layering your own lattes, know that it can be trickier than the study—which refers to the process as "haphazardly pouring espresso into a glass of warm milk"—makes it sound. You may need to experiment several times with the speed and height of your pour and the ratio of espresso to milk before you get the look just right.

[h/t The New York Times]


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