Chris Higgins is the author of The Blogger Abides and writes for This American Life, The Atlantic, Breakfast on Mars, and The Magazine. You can follow him at chrishiggins.com.
I love The Secret Life of Machines, a late-1980s series about how everyday machines work. Presented primarily by engineer/cartoonist/artist Tim Hunkin, it's understated, funny, and deeply smart -- a gently curious investigation of how things go. Hunkin wrote about the first series:
The two sides of my life - researching stuff in books for the cartoon strip and making things, had made me realise just how much clever human activity in the world can not be explained in words or suit the format of a... READ ON
File this under Seems Like a Hoax, But Isn't.... READ ON
Today's math/science nerd party: George Hart demonstrates how a set of magnetized square shapes will self-organize into a cube, when placed inside a plastic bag and shaken. This behavior arises because the magnets themselves (due to their polarity and configuration) trend towards cube-ness. I think I just learned kung fu.
Bonus points: George Hart is Vi Hart's dad. A family of awesome math video... READ ON
This 25-minute film explores what we've learned about Saturn's various moons via space probes. The data comes primarily from NASA's Cassini, though some is from the Voyager and Galileo missions. Nitrogen geysers, bizarre surface ridges, and real atmospheres are all par for the course -- though no big creepy monoliths have been found. Here's a snippet from the film's description:
Flying by Europa, Voyager documented a complex network of criss-crossing grooves and ridges. In the 1990s, the Galileo... READ ON
In just three weeks, NASA's Curiosity rover will land on Mars...except that the "landing" is more like controlled crashing. In this dramatic video, engineers explain how the landing is supposed to go. It involves a supersonic parachute, last-minute radar measurements, and rocket motors. You can bet that come August 5, we'll be freaking out until we get the first "I'm alive" ping from the rover.
You can follow @MarsCuriosity on Twitter. And if you're curious about what the rover actually does,... READ ON
In this supercut, we are treated to dozens of people (including Batman) claiming to be Batman. Are you Batman? Am I Batman? I am pretty sure I'm Batman. The more people say the word "Batman," the weirder it sounds.
Best of the YouTube comments, from user "clownmonkey":
I? used to work at a mental hospital, and there was one patient who used to slink around the halls, hiding in niches and doorways. Then she would leap out and glare into your face and growl, "I'm Batman." Best line reading ever.... READ ON
Alex Dainis has grapheme to color synesthesia, meaning that within her brain, numbers have strong associations with colors -- "each number has its own color, or personality," she explains. We've covered synesthesia previously, but this is the first time I've seen a synesthete sit down and describe concretely, in a non-artsy-fartsy way, what's going on in her brain.
It's really interesting how Dainis tries to explain the logic behind the number-coloring. This logic isn't entirely consistent, it just... READ ON
The Replacements' classic album Pleased to Meet Me turned 25 this week. It debuted on July 7, 1987, and featured two of my favorite songs of all time: "Can't Hardly Wait" and "Alex Chilton." The rest of the album isn't bad either.
The song "Can't Hardly Wait" has stuck with me all these years, partly because of its ultra-sweet sound, largely attributable to its lovely guitar line performed by Big Star's Alex Chilton (in case you couldn't tell, Chilton was a big influence on Replacements... READ ON
NASA has been waking up astronauts using music since the Apollo Program. Sometimes those wakeup calls get pretty weird.
1. STS-111 - "I Got You Babe" from Groundhog Day
On June 19, 2002, the crew of the Space Shuttle Endeavour awoke to a tinny rendition of "I Got You Babe" by Sonny and Cher, taken from the Groundhog Day soundtrack. This song was chosen because the crew, much like Bill Murray's character in Groundhog Day, was caught in a loop, repeating the previous day's deorbit activities,... READ ON
Vi Hart makes videos primarily about math (we've written about her before). But how does she make the videos? The typical Vi Hart video involves a lot of drawing, ultra-fast narration, quick cuts, and fast-motion video. Finally, after years of making videos, Vi Hart has made a video about making videos. But making that video entails making a script for that video, which means that within the script, the future is the present referring to itself as the past, so the video gets a little...meta. So... READ ON
When the Chrysler Building was completed in 1930, it was the tallest building in the world -- for 11 months. (The Chrysler Building did retain the slightly dubious distinction of being the tallest brick building in the world, although the brick is not structural.) Although the Chrysler Building was beaten by the Empire State Building, Chrysler's signature 185-foot steel spire remains its key architectural feature -- and it was a surprise to rivals trying to outbuild it at the time.
This short video... READ ON
NASA's Space Shuttle program (formally known as the "Space Transportation System" or STS) saw 135 launches, beginning in 1982. After the final STS mission in 2011, artist McLean Fahnestock completed his assembly of "Grand Finale," a video showing footage of every STS launch, arranged in chronological order, including sound. Those of us who remember STS-51-L (the final Challenger mission and the twenty-fifth Shuttle launch) can't help looking for it.
Grand Finale 2010-11 from McLean Fahnestock on... READ ON
This is the time of year when I trot out the time-honored tradition of complaining about my neighbors' late-night disposal of leftover fireworks. The neighborhood dogs howl along with me, forming our own little complaint choir. But there is a level of awesomeness achievable by a fireworks display, even one using only firecrackers, that's rarely imagined in my neighborhood.
In 2006, in Appleton, Wisconsin, a fireworks convention was host to a completely insane feat of firecracker combustion -- over 10... READ ON
Want to be surrounded by real live sharks all day? Virtually? I thought so. To celebrate the 25th annual Shark Week, Discovery has a crazy 360-degree Shark Cam streaming from the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. You can click and drag within the video window to see sharks and other sea creatures lazily swimming around you...all around you...you cannot escape...must close browser window...without...angering...sharks....
There are also some special events inside the Shark Cam tank coming up next week:... READ ON
To celebrate Independence Day in the US, I've collected fireworks displays from around the world. Can't find a good fireworks show in your neighborhood? Just make these fullscreen and crank up the speakers.
New Year's Day 2012 - London
BBC One's coverage of the fireworks display in London for New Year's 2012, complete with an over-the-top musical medley. Now you know what Big Ben looks like spouting rockets. Set this one to HD and be amazed.
Disney's Crazy Star Wars Fireworks Display... READ ON
Researchers at CERN have announced a major finding that, while they're being cautious and cagey because they're conservative people, is clearly the first observation of the Higgs boson, popularly known as the "God particle." This is what the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) was built to find, and apparently it worked. The press release reads, in part:
“We observe in our data clear signs of a new particle, at the level of 5 sigma, in the mass region around 126 GeV. The outstanding performance of the LHC... READ ON
Remember Pigs in Space? It was a series of sketches on The Muppet Show parodying Star Trek (and other 60s/70s space-themed TV shows), featuring the adventures of a crew of pigs aboard the Swinetrek. Pigs in Space became so popular that it was used to wake up actual astronauts on the Space Shuttle Columbia during its second mission. Muppet Wiki tells the story:
The height of pop-culture awareness for the crew of the Swinetrek occurred in 1981. As part of NASA's morning wake-up call tradition, by... READ ON
Now let's watch what happens when you take a blob of mercury and subject it to different audio frequencies. Spoiler alert: the mercury forms geometric shapes and appears to dance. This is slow-motion footage (with music added, not the tones the mercury is reacting to -- we'll get to those original tones in a moment):
Okay, so what happened there?! I spoke to photographer Nick Moore about how this was filmed. (My suspicion was that he might be building a T-1000.) He wrote:
The mercury is... READ ON
In this eight-minute video, MythBuster Adam Savage describes the construction of a replica Indiana Jones bullwhip. Savage made his first bullwhip in the early 90s, then got some advice from master whip maker David Morgan -- so Savage bought a piece of kangaroo hide (apparently kangaroo leather is exceedingly strong) and proceeded to make another whip, an 11.5-foot long one. (For the record, that's way longer than normal, making Savage's whip both dangerous and awesome.)
The video is full of geeky whip... READ ON
(Modern Scantron test sheet; photo by Josh Davis, used under CC license.)
We learned this week that Michael Sokolski, a soldier, engineer, and inventor of the Scantron, died on June 13. Sokolski was an immigrant to the US from Poland, and later an engineer and inventor best known for his work with Scantron. Today, we dig into some Scantron trivia -- please make sure your trivia bubbles are completely filled or the machine may not give you credit.
How Does the Scantron Work?
The original... READ ON
In today's "feel old again" news, the classic song "Come On Eileen" by Dexy's Midnight Runners turned 30 this week. The original single was released on June 26, 1982. The song begins with these lines:
Poor old Johnnie Ray
Sounded sad upon the radio
Moved a million hearts in mono
Our mothers cried, sang along
Who would blame them?
In case you missed the memo, Johnnie Ray was a crooner who performed wearing a hearing aid in his right ear -- he lost most of the hearing in that ear in a... READ ON
Big Think has interviewed a staggering array of smart people, and is posting micro-interviews on YouTube. For tonight's viewing, I thought I'd collect five favorites. Yes, they're short, and sometimes they're simple -- but these are smart sentiments.
"How is science education like comedy?" Bill Nye on the parallels between comedy and learning: it's all about making choices.
Neil deGrasse Tyson
On privatizing space exploration. Spoiler alert: he's not for it, except... READ ON
In this brief video, Minute Physics shows a visual proof demonstrating why ?R² gets you the area of a circle. By using various lengths of chain laid into a circular shape, you can make a triangle from the circle -- and from there it's a hop, skip, and a trigonometry jump to proof of your circle's area. Check it:
As Minute Physics explains in the YouTube video description, this video is based on a paper by Russell Jay Hendel of Dowling College: Proof Without Words: Area of a Disk is ?R² (PDF... READ ON
Aaron Sorkin is a fantastic writer of dialogue -- as long as you're okay with listening to Aaron Sorkin talking to Aaron Sorkin through the voices of miscellaneous actors. But really, I do love Sorkin, and I love listening to that endless echoing conversation; it's like Mamet except it actually sounds like people I hang out with. (Yes, I hang out with TV production staff at the Oval Office. All the time.)
In this amazing video, superfan Kevin Porter goes deep on "Sorkinisms," the repeating tropes,... READ ON
Photo circa 2008 courtesy of Joanna J., used by Creative Commons license.
In 1975, construction began on a high-rise building in the center of Kraków, Poland. The massive structure (planned to be 24 stories high) was to be the headquarters for the Polish Federation of Engineering Associations (aka Naczelna Organizacja Techniczna, or "NOT"). After the skeleton of the building was completed, political and economic unrest hit Poland and the project was halted. 37 years later, the unfinished shell still... READ ON
If you take regular sand and expose it to trimethylsilanol vapor (ahem, (CH3)3SiOH for the chemists in the crowd), the sand becomes hydrophobic -- literally meaning "water-fearing." The resulting "magic sand" does interesting stuff when exposed to water, as the sand repels the water. Here are two neat videos showing water interacting with water-fearing sand.
Water Drops on Hydrophobic Sand
A weirdly soothing video, this shows what happens as puddles form on top of the sand.
Hydrophobic... READ ON
33 years ago yesterday, The Muppet Movie made its silver screen debut. Over the opening credits, Kermit played his banjo in the swamp, singing the now-iconic theme song, "Rainbow Connection." The song was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Original Song, though it didn't win either; instead it reached #25 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, appeared in every subsequent Muppets film, and has been covered dozens of times. And it all started with Jim Henson's voice in a swamp.
Let's... READ ON
In this five-minute video, photographer Nick Moore shows us how to build and photograph your own micro-forest fire, using strike-anywhere matches in a workshop setting. While the building-the-rig portion may seem slow at first, it becomes fascinating when the camera shifts into slow-motion and fast-motion, as appropriate for the length of each task. By the 3-minute mark, we're eagerly anticipating the lighting of the matchstick forest, and it does not disappoint -- just before the 4-minute mark, we see... READ ON
A few weeks back I came across this surprising fact: the Beach Boys song "Wouldn't It Be Nice" featured two accordionists, two drummers, three bassists, and thirteen more musicians. The information in that post came from a YouTube documentary called Behind the Sounds, which is going through each song on the Beach Boys' seminal "Pet Sounds" record, using archival recordings, photographs, and independent research to tell the story of how each song came together. Tonight, enjoy all the songs covered by... READ ON
Blade Runner was famously shown in seven different versions: a workprint shown to test audiences, a sneak preview shown only once, a theatrical cut, an "international" cut for non-US audiences, a broadcast version for CBS, a Director's Cut that the director didn't really approve of, and a "Final Cut" (aka "25th Anniversary Edition") that is supposed to be the last word on the film. So it would seem we don't need any more versions of Blade Runner.
But now, painter Anders Ramsell has put together a... READ ON
Ever wonder how computer-animated films are made? It's a laborious process, involving an "animatic" (a form of pseudo-animated storyboarding), "layout" (rough positioning of 3D models), reference modeling (in which an actor moves around as the characters will, as a reference for animators), and various additional passes through the material to arrive at a realistic-looking animated scene. In this brief video, animator Jamaal Bradley shows us the making of one snippet of Disney's "Tangled." This is how... READ ON
In this five-minute video, Ze Frank posits a theory about why online comments are so overwhelmingly positive or negative. Ze is a guy who has done tons of work online (primarily video, but also interactive group projects), and is currently posting videos several times a week, many of which receive lots of feedback...and most of that feedback is hyper-polarized, loving or hating, to the point that one commenter recently suggested he'd like to punch Ze in the face because Ze's voice is so annoying. As a... READ ON
Do lemmings really jump off cliffs? Are "daddy longlegs" the deadliest spiders, but with fangs too small to hurt you? Do dogs only see in black-and-white? In this fun and educational video, truthwizard C.G.P Grey busts these and five other longstanding myths and misconceptions about our cuddly (and creepy-but-non-deadly) animal friends. Three and a half minutes, eight wrongnesses cleared up -- can't do much better than that. (Well, you could try via Wikipedia's list of common misconceptions, but it... READ ON
Bob Dylan's first national TV appearance came in March of 1963 on a program called "Folk Songs, and More Folk Songs!" He performed three songs, including "Man of Constant Sorrow," a folk tune from circa 1913, originally recorded by the partially blind fiddler Dick Burnett. Burnett, interviewed late in life, couldn't remember whether he had written the tune, saying: "No, I think I got that ballad from somebody. I dunno. It may be my song." Wikipedia comments on the uncertainty around the song's... READ ON
Havatec makes, among other things, massive industrial machinery for processing mushrooms. Now, the world of industrial mushroom processing may not seem that interesting, and I'll admit I'm glad it's not my day job, but it's impressive to see how much effort and thoughtful mechanical work has gone into sorting, trimming, and otherwise preparing mushrooms for sale. It's a complex process, and most of it is automated; human workers guide the process at key points, but for the most part this gigantic machine... READ ON
So Wil Wheaton has a YouTube show about boardgames, and it's awesome. It's called TableTop, and it's a long-form (about a half hour per episode) look at various good boardgames, including a basic explanation of how to play each -- plus an actual play session so you can actually get it. Whether you're a boardgame nerd or a "normal" person looking for a fun diversion for your next party, this is for you. I've collected five starter episodes for your enjoyment. The TableTop YouTube channel has tons of... READ ON
In this two-minute clip from The Muppet Show, two Whatnots sing a semi-tuneless ode to happiness. In a dusty room filled with cobwebs. Covered, themselves, with cobwebs. It's a pretty grim situation. They're pretty happy guys.
So does this song make you happy or sad? It makes me ridiculously happy.
My favorite line? "Sometimes he lies in the rain," sung by the pianist.
(Via... READ ON
Star Trek: The Next Generation had a habit of ending on a positive note, particularly in the first season before those pesky Borg showed up in Season 2. No matter what troubles the crew had seen during their adventure, the episodes generally ended with Picard specifying a new course and then saying "Engage" as music swelled. I recommend this practice the next time you take a road trip: strap everybody in, set a course for Isis III, then say "Engage!"
In this video montage, we see the last ten seconds... READ ON
Apple uses secret internal code names for many of its products before they're released. Over the years, they've come up with some really weird ones -- including one that led to multiple lawsuits.
1. "Carl Sagan"/"Butt-Head Astronomer" - Power Macintosh... READ ON
Jay Cheel's friends play Settlers of Catan. Soda is poured, chips prepared, the board laid out, and then...a ruckus ensues. In this documentary, Cheel reveals the fractured relationships within one group of friends who play, fight, and eat snacks.
Gerry: "I remember screaming, and I'm not sure if I was intelligible or what I was screaming. Yeah, I can't remember, but it has nothing to do with my losing my temper that I can't remember."
Zak: "I think he may have said that he... READ ON
The Beach Boys recorded "Wouldn't It Be Nice" as the opening track on their landmark album "Pet Sounds." It's my favorite Beach Boys song, but I never knew how insanely complex Brian Wilson's arrangement was: the recording includes two accordionists, two drummers, three bassists, three guitarists, four horn players, two pianists, and at least four singers. The main riff of the song is formed by the twin accordions (working together with a lovely walking bassline), though I would've been hard-pressed to... READ ON
Christoph Adami makes "artificial life," effectively self-replicating computer programs. If you've heard of Tierra*, that's the kind of thing Adami does. In this TED Talk, Adami discusses his work, including a brief discussion of how we define life on Earth -- which is lots of fun, as he describes a real-world organism that does not die. And no, we haven't been overrun by this monster (yet).
After the initial discussion of "what is life" (in the context of wanting to identify extraterrestrial life),... READ ON
Today we learned that we had lost Ray Bradbury. Tonight, let's listen to the author speak about his life and career. If you watch nothing else in this list, scroll down and pick one of the short clips from 1968 -- they're all terrific.
On Books, Literacy, and Fahrenheit 451
Bradbury interviewed in a short film for the National Endowment for the Arts. This is all about the library.
Sample quote: "We should learn from history about the destruction of books. When I was 15 years old, Hitler... READ ON
Ray Bradbury died yesterday at the age of 91. Best known for his novel Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury was a prolific writer and a tireless advocate for libraries. My favorite work of his is the short story The Veldt, which both scared and inspired me as a kid -- that story was one of the first that made me want to become a writer. You can listen to Stephen Colbert perform the story live in a stunning recording. To remember Bradbury, I'm setting aside an hour to re-watch his speech from 2001, presented at... READ ON
In the second installment of the "We Stopped Dreaming" series, Neil deGrasse Tyson puts forth a simple argument: that NASA's missions to the moon and beyond caused humans to focus attention on the Earth. He runs through the list of accomplishments in environmental policy that occurred while the Apollo missions were underway, and it is a compelling argument. Representative quote: "We found time to start thinking about Earth. That is space operating on our culture, and you cannot even put a price on... READ ON
In the first 30 seconds, this video takes us from Pong through a series of 1970s and early 1980s arcade games, then into NES versions of The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. In the remaining two and a half minutes, we're treated to a wild ride of bleeping, blooping, and spastic visuals, as the video's creators mash up popular console and arcade games from the past forty years.
While this isn't a complete history of video games (or even console games), it's insanely nostalgic for gamers of a... READ ON
I've grown up hearing Glenn Gould's two performances of Bach's Goldberg Variations. Gould's first landmark performance was released in 1955, and it was passionate, fast, and popular -- with a runtime of just over 38 minutes, Gould's first performance left out many of the repeats within the variations, plus he kept the tempo up. That 1955 recording was a blockbuster hit (as classical recordings go), and helped to put the Goldberg Variations on the cultural map; prior to that performance the Variations... READ ON
Before his success with the Muppets, Jim Henson made hundreds of commercials and short industrial films, often involving early Muppets. Here I've rounded up a few favorites.
Wilkins Coffee, 1956-1961
A pair of proto-Muppets (Wilkins and Wontkins) in a series of comically deadly scenarios. Pretty adorable, really -- I'd buy Wilkins Coffee, if it still existed, just to avoid violent death. The Muppet Wiki explains how these came about, and why they're so short (emphasis added):
In 1957, Jim... READ ON
Last Christmas, I received a curious gift: a tiny bag of white crystals labeled Fake Snow. "Just add water," it said. So I did. And the crazy stuff puffed up unbelievably, forming a white-ish snow-like substance. Even weirder, the bag indicated that the snow could be dried out and reused (!) -- I didn't try that part.
So what is fake snow? Apparently the powder I had was primarily sodium polyacrylate, a polymer that can absorb 200-300x its own mass in water. This polymer also shows up in diapers... READ ON
If you don't know Merlin Mann, you're in for a treat. In the most recent edition of his Bulk Bag Newsletter, Merlin ran down five of his favorite talks, all available in handy online video format. I have rearranged the videos in chronological order (Merlin put them in order of awesomeness), so you can get a better sense of Merlin's public progression from "tips and tricks guy" through "realizing the entire internet has somehow become a tips and tricks guy" to his current position of "heart-on-his-sleeve... READ ON
Michael Jackson wanted to do a Harry Potter musical. J.K. Rowling said no.