Schrodinger’s Menagerie

In the bizarre world of quantum physics, “Schrodinger’s cat” is the stuff of legend.

In the 1930s, as concepts of quantum mechanics were being developed and articulated, physicist Erwin Schrodinger devised a thought experiment to illustrate issues related to the quantum concept of superpositioning, in which quantum particles maintain multiple states at the same time and only collapse to a final state upon interaction with other particles. In Schrodinger’s thought experiment, a cat is placed in a sealed box with a small radioactive substance, a Geiger counter, and some poison sufficient to kill the cat. If the radioactive substance decays, it triggers the Geiger counter that releases the poison and kills the cat. The decay of the radioactive substance is governed by quantum mechanics, which means the atoms are simultaneously in the states of “going to decay” and “not going to decay” — and which means that, as a matter of quantum physics, after a while the cat is simultaneously both alive and dead. Add in the concept of an observer opening the box to determine the cat’s status, and the notion of whether the actions of the observer can affect the cat’s status, and you’ve got a classic quantum mechanics mindbender.

Trying to get your head wrapped around quantum mechanics in the morning is tough sledding, but the key point here is that people found the concept of Schrodinger’s cat being both alive and dead at the same time extremely intriguing. His thought experiment not only took the world of physics by storm, it ultimately expanded outside the world of the white lab coats into the world at large — where the idea that something can be two things at the same time has been found to be a very useful concept.

Now we’ve got “Schrodinger’s smiley” — :): — to be used by someone who is both happy and sad at the same time. And there’s “Schrodinger’s douchebag,” defined as a guy who says offensive things and then decides whether he was joking based on the reaction of people around him. And why stop there? “Schrodinger’s politician” would be a politician who varies his position on the issues depending on the inclination of the group the politician happens to be speaking to at the time. “Schrodinger’s dog” would be that dog that comes charging up at you ready to either bite your hand or wag its tail. And “Schrodinger’s referee” would be the football official who decides whether to throw a flag based on crowd reaction and the acting job of the player seeking a penalty.

The possibilities are virtually endless, and the limits of Schrodinger’s menagerie are defined only by the limits of the human imagination and human experience. And to think that it all started with a simple living and dead cat in a sealed box.

The Why Of Spillage

Every morning, my first task is to make a pot of fresh coffee. And on the vast majority of mornings, after I fill the pot with water from the faucet, as I am pouring the water from the pot into the coffee maker some water drips from the spout and runs down the side of the pot to the counter. There might be a rare day, once in a great while, when my combination of morning alertness and careful pouring technique prevents any spillage, but 99.9% of the time I’ll need a dish towel to mop up the water.

What causes this annoying event? Your sixth-grade science teacher would tell you it is the so-called “capillary effect” of water, which involves elements of cohesion, adhesion, and surface tension. Basically, water molecules like to stick together, and like to stick to almost anything — including the sides of coffee pots. Once the first water molecule decides to tumble over the spout of the coffee pot and stick to the side — rather than obediently falling into the coffee maker, like a good water molecule should — other water molecules will follow.

This is a common problem, and you’ll see all kinds of tips about how to address it. As for me, I think the best approach is to try to pour the water into the coffee maker very slowly, so there is no chance that the first rogue water molecule will make its break for freedom over the spout and down the side of the pot. But normally the urge to drink some hot coffee is too strong, the pour passes the tipping point, the first bad boy molecule leads the way, more inevitably follow, and it’s time to get the dish towel off the rack again.

This can be annoying, to be sure, but as the U.S. Department of Interior “water science school” website teaches us, capillary action is essential to the health of trees, shrubs, flowers, and other plants — because capillary action is a big part of how they get water from their roots up to their branches, leaves, and flowers. Capillary action also has been a real boon for paper towel makers, because that’s why water creeps up a paper towel that touches a water spill, thereby ensuring that Rosie the lunch counter lady can demonstrate that Bounty is the quicker picker-upper.

So that’s the capillary effect for you — helping trees and Rosie, while adding an inevitable extra step to the morning coffee making process. The morning spill might be irritating, but if that’s the price to pay for flowers and green leaves, I’ll gladly pay it.

The Pleasures Of Paper

Earlier this week I went to the office. I was working on comparing and organizing and incorporating the contents of two different documents, and I decided that would be easier and more efficient if I would print them out, bring them home, and do the comparison and organization work on paper, where I could lay the documents out side by side.

It’s the first time I’ve actually worked with paper in months, rather than editing and moving things around and cutting and pasting from one document to another on my laptop. When I was working from the office before the shutdown occurred, I was paper-oriented, although I was trying mightily to become more electronic, so as to minimize the need for paper files and storage boxes. But when the shutdown occurred, working on paper really was not an option, so I went full electronic of necessity.

Working with physical documents made me realize that I miss paper. Creating and editing documents on a computer is fine, of course, but there is a tactile element involved in working with paper that you just don’t get with a computer. Writing on the paper, drawing brackets and arrows to shuffle content around, crossing out duplicative sections with a definitive flourish, using an actual highlighter with that unique freshly opened highlighter smell, and then crumpling up and discarding the paper with a set shot at the recycling container when the work is done — each act has its own little satisfactions. If I had a spindle, I’m sure I would enjoy folding, spindling, and mutilating, too.

I suppose that, at heart, I’m a Dunder-Mifflin guy.

My return to paper was enjoyable, but it will be brief. The reality is that paper, for all of its pleasures, is just too bulky for remote work, and it’s easier, cheaper, less wasteful, and more environmentally friendly to do everything on the computer screen. But I did enjoy my brief return to the paper days.

Walk/Don’t Walk

According to the trusty weather app, the prolonged frigid spell that has had Columbus in its icy grip is finally supposed to break this week. Today, for example, the temperature is supposed to briefly reach a point above freezing for the first time in weeks.

But this is no time to let down your guard, because we’re now entering the most treacherous period of all: when the snow and ice will melt, somewhat, during the day, but then freeze again overnight. The result of the melt/refreeze/melt/refreeze process is sidewalks that look like this one that I encountered on Third Street, on my way back from my morning walk around Schiller Park today. Try to navigate the icy patches, and you’re basically cruising for a (rear end) bruising in a fall. A good rule of thumb is to avoid stepping on any translucent area, and stick instead to the packed snow-covered segments. But soon, thanks to the melting and freezing, there won’t be any of those safety zones, and pedestrians will have to entrust their fates to the capricious whimsy of the winter gods.

If all of this weren’t difficult enough for the walkers among us, the weather app reports that we’re supposed to get freezing rain tomorrow. The mind reels at what a dose of freezing rain will do to patches like the one shown above.

Fortunately, the temperature is supposed to shoot up to around 50 degrees on Wednesday, which should take care of most of the ice. It can’t get here soon enough.

A Ramen Story

I’ve been eating a lot of ramen noodle lunches during this COVID shutdown period. I cook up the noodles, toss the unopened, too-salty-for-my-tastes flavor packet into the trash, and then add various items to the noodles and water, like chopped hard-boiled egg, tofu, spinach, tuna fish, chopped onion, or other leftovers from the refrigerator, and always some sriracha sauce, mustard, and horseradish to give the concoction an extra spicy kick. It makes for a hot, satisfying lunch that’s a nice break from sandwiches.

The other day I was waiting for the water to boil and noticed that the back of the noodle packet included a short tribute to the founder of the Nissin Top Ramen brand that is shown in the above photograph. You don’t see tributes to founders on food packets much anymore — in fact, you really don’t see them at all. This one says that the founder, Momofuku Ando, invented instant ramen in Japan and brought it to America in 1970, includes a sketch of his head, and describes him as a “legendary inventor and humanitarian.” The packet also directs you to the Nissin Foods website for more information.

Well, why not learn more about a legendary figure? You can find the referenced website here. It says that Mr. Ando invented instant ramen to deal with food shortages in post-WWII Japan and also invented instant noodles in a cup after noticing Americans eating noodles from cups. It includes photographs of Mr. Ando, including one with him in a lab coat posing with a microscope that sure makes him look like an inventor. The photos indicate that the sketch on the packet is a pretty good likeness, by the way. As for his humanitarian status, the website includes some of Mr. Ando’s sayings that are claimed to still inspire the company, like “be meticulous, yet bold.” Some of Mr. Ando’s other quotes are “always look around you with a great deal of curiosity,” “food is a peace industry,” and “when you cast away greed in adversity, you can find unexpected strength.”

It’s nice to know a little bit more about this person who came up with the idea of instant noodles, which have helped to make my personal shutdown period a bit more tolerable. And, in his honor, I will strive to always “be meticulous, yet bold” in chopping up leftovers and adding inventive combinations to my ramen creations.

Driving Reflexes

Last night Kish and I went out for dinner for Valentine’s Day. Our restaurant destination was within walking distance, but given that many of the sidewalks along the way are still snow- and ice-covered, and the fact that it would be dark by the time we walked home, we decided driving was the safer approach.

As I got into the car, I realized with a start that it was the first time I’ve been behind the wheel of the car for . . . well, I don’t know exactly how long. Weeks, for sure, and maybe a full month. There has been no period in my adult life where I have gone for such a long period without driving. And the reason is: there’s just been no reason to drive anywhere. Kish has been out, but I’ve limited my movement to walking around our neighborhood, walking to work on a few occasions, walking to get a haircut, and walking to restaurants. It actually felt weird to slide into the driver’s seat.

We use the car so infrequently, and for such short trips, that we couldn’t even remember the last time we filled the tank. When was the last time you ever wondered about that? Gas prices are going up, apparently, but we certainly aren’t contributing any pressure to the demand side of the pricing equation.

Although it felt strange to drive, the deeply ingrained driving reflexes and motor memory came back with a rush. Driving again was like riding the proverbial bicycle. Still, the experience did make me think that I should take the car out every once in a while, just to keep the reflexes sharp. Put me down for a Drivers’ Ed refresher course.

A New Blue

As a kid, I figured that the spectrum of colors was pretty much fixed, defined by the different hues in the rainbow, and in the natural world, and in the Crayola 64 collection of crayons with the crayon sharpener built into the back of the box where the crayon your kid sister was trying to sharpen broke off and you could never use the sharpener again.

Then, as I grew older, I realized that new colors were being developed virtually every day, primarily for the purpose of requiring mystified husbands to go into paint stores and try to distinguish between tiny gradations shown on tiny paint sample squares, when their wives were trying to figure out which color to paint the dining room. I question, for example, whether “sea foam” was actually a color until some paint mixologist at Sherwin Williams or Benjamin Moore chuckled with evil glee and decided that tantalizing people with “sea foam” would make the home redecoration choices even more difficult.

But blue colors are different. Shades of blue tend to fade easily, and often contain toxic elements. That’s why it’s noteworthy that recently, for the first time in two centuries, a new blue pigment that is stable and doesn’t fade has become commercially available. It’s called YInMn, which is short for some of the chemical components of the color — Yttrium, Indium, and Manganese — and it was discovered accidentally by scientists at Oregon State University who were testing materials for use in electronics applications. They applied extreme heat to the compound, and the vivid, eye-popping blue shown above emerged. You can read about the discovery of the pigment and the chemistry behind it here.

The people are the paint stores are already smiling about it, and putting the YInMn paint squares out there in the sample case, right next to cobalt, lapis, and azure, ready to trap the next unwary husband asked to express an opinion about which one he prefers and then forced to explain why he likes that one better than the rest.

An Abominable Snow Man

I don’t particularly want to be reminded of the abominable pandemic during a walk around the neighborhood, but I had to applaud the Calvinesque creativity of whoever came up with this googly eyed, mask-wearing, mop-wielding, disinfectant-brandishing snowman. I got a laugh out of it, and the German helmet is a distinctive touch for a German Village snow creation.

Scarfed Up

It’s been cold here recently. So cold, in fact, that some Good Samaritan put a colorful scarf around the neck of the seated lady statue in the Peace Park at St. Mary’s church in our neighborhood.

Don’t be surprised if the statue gets some more donated winter garb this week, because the temperature is supposed to drop even farther in the next few days. February tends to be the bleakest month of the winter, but it is also frequently the coldest. It’s the month where you root around in your closet for the fur-lined Mad Bomber hat that would be too hot to wear when the temperature is in the 20s, and the ugly, bulky, scratchy scarves knitted for you years ago by your great aunt Gertrude, and every other layer you can add to protect against the chill. In February, fashion goes out the window. For the hardy Midwesterner, it’s all about holding on to every scrap of warmth and covering as much exposed skin as possible.

Bundle up, folks! We’re heading down to the teens and single digits.

Vacci Nation

In the history of modern medicine, there probably have never been as many people talking about vaccination, or as many news stories about vaccination plans, or as many charts and updates on the number of vaccinations, as is happening in America right now. When I was a kid and regularly went to our family doctor to get the next vaccination on my personal vaccination card, for example, I don’t remember there being much talk about it. You needed to get vaccinated, you went to the doctor and got your shot, and that was all there is to it.

But that’s not the way things work in the world these days. Between the extraodinary impact that the coronavirus has had on the world, and the hope that the vaccine will not only protect against the vaccinated individual getting COVID, but also finally move us to achieving “herd immunity” and getting back to normal — whatever that might be right now — people can’t help but talk about vaccination. And, thanks to social media, we’re being treated to lots of pictures of masked people getting their shots in real time or proudly displaying their upper arm punctures. The social media frenzy is so great that some people are actually posting “selfies” of their COVID-19 vaccination cards — leading the Federal Trade Commission to warn people that doing that isn’t a very good idea, because fraudsters could take the information from the cards and use it to achieve identity theft.

I had a virtual happy hour with some friends from the firm on Friday, where the conversation is typically limited to office chatter, sports, bad attempts at humor, and general bitching about the world. But on Friday, vaccination crept into the conversation, too. It’s safe to say that it is the first time this group has ever talked seriously about vaccination. What’s next on the agenda — the importance of dietary fiber?

It’s understandable that people are talking about the vaccine, and when they will be getting their shots. But for me, we’ll know that we’ve really returned to normal when people have stopped talking or posting selfies about getting vaccinated — or COVID-19, period.

Galileo And Me

Scientific legend has it that a young Galileo Galilei conducted an experiment that helped to define some of the properties of gravity. In order to test Aristotle’s notion that objects fall at different rates according to their weight, Galileo is reputed to have taken two balls with materially different weights to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and dropped them simultaneously. According to the story, the balls fell to the ground below at the same rate of acceleration and landed at the same time — thereby showing that Aristotle was wrong and the invisible force of gravity acts equally on objects with different masses. Galileo’s findings still hold up — even when modern-day scientists test the effects of gravitational acceleration at the atomic level.

I conducted my own impromptu experiment with gravity yesterday morning, and can attest that gravity is still out there, working the same way it always has.

I was just starting my morning walk. We had been subjected to the dreaded “wintry mix” overnight, and the footing was treacherous. The parking lot at the corner had been cleared of snow and looked to be dry and safe, so I decided to take a short cut through the parking lot. As I proceeded with a jaunty step across the lot, my right foot hit a patch of black ice, my feet shot out to the left, and I landed hard on the asphalt surface on my right side. I gingerly picked myself up, checked to make sure that I was in one piece, then carefully made my way back to our house, figuring that the wise course would be to skip any further icy adventures that day. Fortunately, I had on several layers as well as my own more than ample personal padding, no bones were broken, and I’m sore, but not badly bruised.

It’s the first time I’ve fallen to the ground in a while, and it got me to thinking how amazing gravity is. I probably fell no more than a few feet, but I struck the pavement with breathtaking (literally) force, as if one of the Ohio State linebackers had hit me at full speed and laid a crushing blow on my right side. The experience made me think that I need to be a lot more judicious about walking during the winter, because gravity is always out there, brooding and ready to yank you down.

I’m just grateful I wasn’t falling from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Answering The “Kid Questions”

Every parent has had to field their fair share of “kid questions”: those innocent, wide-eyed inquiries that presuppose that Mom and Dad know everything there is to know in the world and can explain it, besides. The classic “kid question,” of course, is “why is the sky blue”?

“Why does food stick to what is supposed to be a no-stick pan?” is another good example of a kid question. And depending upon a parent’s mood at the time, and whether the parent is trying to use a spatula to lift a stuck egg from a frying pan without splitting the yolk, answers might range from some quasi-scientific-sounding mumbo-jumbo that you figure will satisfy the kid and cause him or her to stop asking those infernal questions to an honest answer that will give the kid more information than they bargained for, like: “Well, Tommy, sometimes in life things don’t work like they are supposed to, and you’re just going to have to get used to it, okay?”

It’s nice when science lends beleaguered parents a hand and provides information that will allow them to answer those tough questions. Researchers at the Czech Academy of Sciences have done just that by carefully examining the no-stick pan issue and publishing their research in the Physics of Fluids journal. The scientists found that dry spots can form even on oiled, “no-stick” pans, and that’s where the food sticks. The dry spots are created by a process called thermocapillary convection, in which oil moves from the hot center of the pan to the cooler edges, and the thin coating of oil in the center of the pan becomes destabilized and eventually ruptures — leaving that dreaded dry spot that threatens to ruin your otherwise perfectly cooked egg. (And if you don’t want thermocapillary convection in your kitchen, the scientists helpfully note: “To avoid unwanted dry spots, the following set of measures should be applied: increasing the oil film thickness, moderate heating, completely wetting the surface of the pan with oil, using a pan with a thick bottom or stirring food regularly during cooking.”).

So there you have it: thermocapillary convection is the right answer. And the great thing about that answer is that once you start talking about thermocapillary convection, capillary length, and oil destabilization, your kid will probably lose interest and stop asking those questions. It turns out they probably didn’t really want an actual answer, they just wanted to reassure themselves that Mom and Dad do know everything there is to know.

Feel free to use “thermocapillary convection” to answer other kid questions, including the “why is the sky blue” head-scratcher. It will serve until your children reach the teenage years, when the questions stop and parents suddenly become far less knowledgeable than friends. 

Drinking Like The Colonials Did

Are Americans drinking more as the pandemic continues and many people remain largely shut into their homes? Although we can’t say for sure because no authoritative studies have been done, and people probably wouldn’t tell the truth anyway, the magic 8-ball would tell us that “all signs point to yes.” But it’s also true that modern Americans would need to drink a lot more — in fact, more than double their consumption of spirits — to even come close to the daily intake of our colonial forebears.

Colonial Americans consumed amazing amounts of alcohol. The accepted estimate is that, on an annual basis, they quaffed more than twice the amount of alcohol we enjoy — guzzling somewhere between five and six gallons of pure alcohol every year. The neighborhood tavern was a huge part of colonial culture, so much so that entire books have been written about taverns and drinking in early America. And the people who frequented the taverns weren’t just plotting revolutionary activities, either; they were slamming down prodigious amounts as they fumed about the tea tax, the stamp act, and the other depredations of the British Empire.

Historians believe that the Americans of that era drank more than Americans of any other era. As one historian put it: “Revolutionary War era persons drank a phenomenal amount. We have here an account of a gentleman’s average consumption: ‘Given cider and punch for lunch; rum and brandy before dinner; punch, Madeira, port and sherry at dinner; punch and liqueurs with the ladies; and wine, spirit and punch till bedtime, all in punchbowls big enough for a goose to swim in.'” 

A few years ago, a blogger decided to try to keep pace with the daily intake of the colonials and wrote about his experience. He survived, and his account of his well-lubricated quasi-colonial day is worth the read, but I wouldn’t recommend trying to duplicate the experiment.

People obviously should be mindful of what they are drinking and how much, but at least there may be some comfort in the fact that what is happening in the boozing department now doesn’t really hold a candle to our Revolutionary War-era ancestors. At the same time, we also should recognize that those dawn-to-dusk drinkers produced the Declaration of Independence, organized the Boston Tea Party, convinced the French to support their cause, and ultimately defeated the most powerful nation on Earth. It should make us admire the “founding fathers” all the more.

Comic Relief

In the midst of a cold, dreary winter and a continuing pandemic and quasi-lockdown, I really enjoy a good laugh now and then. So lately I’ve been trying to use Facebook to join groups where the posts are likely to give me a smile.

My two favorite comic strips, ever, are The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes. That opinion apparently is shared by many people out there in social media land, because there are lots of Facebook groups just for fans of those classics from days gone by, where the participants can post favorite selections from those legendary strips. By joining the groups, I now get a regular feed of Gary Larson’s takes on cows and dogs and insects and scientists, and Bill Watterson’s treatment of Calvin’s Mom and Dad and disgusted friend Suzy again. And a recent post made me remember how much I enjoyed the Calvin snowmen strips like the one above — which seems apt, right now, with those of us in Columbus being in the middle of a frigid, snowy period.

Social media obviously has some pluses, and just as obviously has a lot of minuses, too. I figure it makes sense to reorient and exert some personal control and direction over the whole Facebook experience, mix some humor in with the politics and the ads, and try to put the social media world to better use.

The Shovelton Workout

We got a lot of snow overnight — by Columbus standards, at least — and walking was impracticable, so this morning’s exercise consisted of shoveling our front steps, the sidewalk, and the brick walkway to our backyard.

I’d be in much better shape if I had to shovel snow every day, although I’m certainly glad I don’t need to do so. It involves just about every form of exercise you can think of — bending, scraping, lifting, and then turning to hurl the snow from the shovel to your snow mound. And at our house you get your steps in, too, because there is only one plausible snow mound area and you end up lifting the snow on the shovel and carefully carrying it to that one accumulation point to be tossed onto the pile.

Why hasn’t somebody invented an exercise device that approximates shoveling snow? You could call it the Shovelton. Workout participants would don their winter coats, hats, and gloves, grab the Shovelton shovel, and shovel away. The screen could add urgency by showing an approaching garbage truck, requiring you to quickly clear a path to roll out your recycling bin, and you could up your workout by choosing the “plowed street” option, in which the snowplow has deposited huge mounds of snow and cinders that block your sidewalk and driveway and must be cleared away so you can get to work on time.