So That’s Where All The Woolly Mammoth’s Went…

As a kid I was fascinated by the fact that back in the day there used to be woolly mammoths, sabertooth tigers, milodons, etc. roaming across the plains.  I mean, what sort of six year old boy couldn’t love something like this:

For the uninitiated, that’s a sabertooth tiger a.k.a. a Smilodon taking down a sloth while a woolly mammoth looks on.

I’d always wondered what happened to all these animals.  I’d read that the Younger Dryas ice age came along and killed most of them off and the remaining few were killed off by early man.

But now there’s a new theory!  Apparently not only was there an ice age, but then a comet came and slammed into Earth at the same time (talk about bad luck; glad I wasn’t around then).  The good news was that diamonds rained from the sky.  The bad news was that the impact of the comet set everything on fire, even the air and definitely anybody within a couple of thousand kilometers of the impact site.  Oh yeah, and there were likely floods caused by the sudden melting of glaciers.

Quebec: No Love from Map-Makers

For some reason, I keep coming across maps that seem to misplace Quebec. This Aer Lingus map showed upstate New York in up-province Quebec.  Now today I came across this map in Wired:

It’s a game of Risk from 2027 and the world has a new group of nations that didn’t exist a mere 20 years before (West Arabia seems to anchor the Islamic Bloc).  Sadly, Canada has split into Alberta (no more GST!), Quebec (finally got that independence), some sort of Northern Territory – and we’ve merged some of our provinces with America.

There’s no more BC – it’s part of some coastal alliance with Washington, Oregon and California (looks like Cascadia has finally come).  In an unseen political move, New Britain has risen out of the Maritimes and New England…and Quebec.

Yup, that’s where the whole map falls apart (just like Canada is proposed to in the game).  Seems like no one actually took a look at where Quebec really is and instead the entire province has migrated to the other side of the Hudson Bay to make the map work:

Fireworks & Rooftops

Last night’s fireworks were a bit of a disappointment for those in Manhattan.  A combination of rain and wind conspired to blow all the smoke from the detonations towards us – and obscured the fireworks.  However, there was one amazing sight: the image of hundreds of people on their rooftops holding umbrellas as they strained to see the explosions.  Here’s what it looked like (click the image to enlarge it):

The Challenge of an Original Thought

Over the past few days I’ve been reading through a stack of Wired magazines that have accumulated in my apartment over the past few months.  As I was reading through an article Eureka! (a photo essay on where inspiration comes from), I came across the following image:

It’s the Cornell cafeteria where in 1946 Richard Feynman watched some students spin plates in the air.  Improbably, these plates would lead to a Nobel Prize:

Within a week I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in the air. As the plate went up in the air, I saw it wobble, and I noticed the red medallion of Cornell on the plate going around. It was pretty obvious to me that the medallion went around faster than the wobbling.

I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate. I discover that when the angle is very slight, the medallion rotates twice as fast as the wobble rate — two to one. It came out of a complicated equation! Then I thought, “Is there some way I can see in a more fundamental way, by looking at the forces or the dynamics, why it’s two to one?”

I don’t remember how I did it, but I ultimately worked out what the motion of the mass particles is, and how all the accelerations balance to make it come out two to one.

I still remember going to Hans Bethe [1967 physics Nobel Laureate twelve years Feynman’s senior] and saying, “Hay, Hans! I noticed something interesting. Here the plate goes around so and the reason it’s two to one is …” and I showed him the accelerations.

He says, “Feynman, that’s pretty interesting, but what’s the importance of it? Why are you doing it?”

“Hah!” I say. “There’s no importance whatsoever. I’m just doing it for the fun of it.” His reaction didn’t discourage me; I had made up my mind I was going to enjoy physics and do whatever I liked.

I went on to work out equations of wobbles. Then I thought about how electron orbits start to move in relativity. Then there’s the Dirac Equation [Paul Dirac, 1933 physics Nobel Laureate] in electrodynamics. And then the quantum electrodynamics. And before I knew it (it was a very short time) I was “playing” — working, really — with the same old problem that I loved so much, that I stopped working on when I went to Los Alamos: my thesis-type problems [at Princeton]; all those old-fashioned, wonderful things.

It was effortless. It was easy to play with these things. It was like uncorking a bottle: Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it! There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams [Feynman diagrams] and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.  (Source)

When Feynman looked back to his Nobel Prize-winning work, he wrote:

It was the first time, and only time, in my career that I knew a law of nature that nobody else knew.  The other things I had done before were to take somebody else’s theory and improve the method….I thought of Dirac, who had his equation [of 1928] for a while – a new equation which told him how an electron behaved – and I had this new equation for beta decay, which wasn’t as vital as the Dirac equation, but it was good.  It’s the only time I ever discovered a new law.  (Source)

Why do I share this?  Three reasons:

  1. It’s hard to have an original thought: Feynman is considered one of the greatest minds of the 20th century yet he concedes that in his entire career he only had one truly original discovery
  2. Since it’s so hard to have an original thought, make sure you’re having fun.  It’s a long road so you’d better be enjoying the ride
  3. Be curious about the world – you never know where or how inspiration is going to strike