And That Meant Comfort
Image: Flickr

At a 1994 conference on indoor air temperature standards, participant M.A. Humphreys considered the thermal environments of hobbits. If we wanted to prepare a hole for some visiting halflings, we could study the physics and physiology of their current living arrangements, hoping to find a scientifically optimal solution, but it might be wiser simply to give them the means to adjust the conditions themselves, according to their own changing preferences. In that case:

  1. We did not need to know anything at all about the thermal physiology of Hobbits, such as the diurnal cycle of their body-temperature, the metabolic heat production of their various activities, whether they could sweat or shiver or pant, or whether the Dubois relation between height, weight and skin surface-area held good for Hobbits;
  2. we did not need to know anything about the heat exchange between Hobbit-skin and the hole, such as the surface heat-transfer coefficients by convection or by radiation, the mean skin temperature and at what sites it is best measured, the thermal insulation of their colorful clothing-ensembles, or the vapour permeability of their clothing materials.

“It would be fascinating to know about these things, and thermal comfort researchers whose original education was, like mine, in the physical sciences would only with great difficulty be able to restrain their curiosity. Such knowledge would help to explain quantitatively the thermal balance of Hobbits, and would give us a theoretical explanation of their comfort conditions, and might be useful in identifying potentially dangerous environments, but it would not be needed to enable us to provide comfortable apartments for our Hobbits. This is not surprising if we recall that achieving thermal comfort pre-dates by thousands of years the development of the theory of heat exchange.”

(M.A. Humphreys, “Thermal Comfort Temperatures and the Habits of Hobbits,” in Standards for Thermal Comfort: Indoor Air Temperature Standards for the 21st Century, 1995, 3-13.)

A Good Eye
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Australian minister Robert Evans holds an unusual record: He’s discovered 42 supernovae by eye. Using a staggeringly retentive memory, he’s memorized the appearance of more than a thousand galaxies and can spot changes in them simply by looking at them through a telescope.

This preternatural ability has made him a sort of John Henry: He began hunting supernovae in 1955, and it was only in the 1990s that automated telescopes began to scan the sky with comparable quickness and accuracy. He kept up with them for a time, but they’ve now outpaced any single person.

“There’s something satisfying, I think, about the idea of light travelling for millions of years through space and just at the right moment as it reaches Earth someone looks at the right bit of sky and sees it,” he’s said. “It just seems right that an event of that magnitude should be witnessed.”

(Thanks, Jon.)

Misc Physics

1. An object’s motion can be described by derivatives and integrals of displacement. The first few derivatives — position, velocity, and acceleration — are familiar, but the succeeding ones have pleasing names: jerk, jounce (also known as snap), crackle, pop, lock, and drop.

The integrals of displacement are absement, absity, abseleration, abserk, and absounce. More here. (Thanks, Colin.)

2. The quarks now known as “bottom” and “top” were sometimes referred to initially as “beauty” and “truth.” Collider experiments designed to produce large numbers of B mesons are sometimes called “beauty factories.” (Thanks, Jackson.)

3. Reader Nick Ortenzio found this unexpectedly poignant quote in the Wikipedia article on false vacuum, from a paper in which Sidney Coleman and Frank De Luccia consider the prospect that our universe exists in an unstable bubble that might wink into a new state and annihilate us:

The possibility that we are living in a false vacuum has never been a cheering one to contemplate. Vacuum decay is the ultimate ecological catastrophe; in the new vacuum there are new constants of nature; after vacuum decay, not only is life as we know it impossible, so is chemistry as we know it. However, one could always draw stoic comfort from the possibility that perhaps in the course of time the new vacuum would sustain, if not life as we know it, at least some structures capable of knowing joy. This possibility has now been eliminated.

Words to Remember

Designed by a multidisciplinary team at Melbourne’s RMIT University, Sans Forgetica is a typeface that’s intended to reduce legibility, on the theory that the “desirable difficulty” of reading it will result in deeper processing and, ultimately, better retention.

The back-slanted, incomplete letters form a “simple puzzle” for the reader, RMIT lecturer Stephen Banham told the Washington Post last October. “It should be difficult to read but not too difficult. In demanding this additional act, memory is more likely to be triggered.”

The team say they’ve tested the font on university students and found that “Sans Forgetica broke just enough design principles without becoming too illegible and aided memory retention.” You can try it yourself — they’re offering a free download and a Chrome extension.


In On the Origin of Species, Darwin wrote that bumblebees are the only pollinators of red clover.

In 1862 he discovered that this is wrong — honeybees do it as well.

He wrote to his friend John Lubbock, “I hate myself, I hate clover, and I hate bees.”

A Wine Slide Rule
Image: Science Museum Group

Revenue agents in 18th-century London faced a curious challenge: how to calculate the excise tax on a barrel that was partially full of liquor. The answer was an “ullage slide rule” — this gauging rod was dipped into the barrel, some brass sliding pieces were adjusted to reflect the height of the surface, and a mathematical calculation would tell how much liquid the barrel contained.

The Science Museum says, “The calculations were very complicated.” A correspondent to the Mathematical Gazette wrote in 1990, “I well remember puzzling, unsuccessfully, over graphs and calculations of measurements until I wrote to the makers whose name was stamped on the rule and who still existed [in 1966] at the same address in London Bridge. At that time they were still making a modern equivalent for the same use by revenue officers.” More at the link below.

(Tom Martin, “Gauging: The Art Behind the Slide Rule,” Brewery History 133 [2009], 69-86.)

Malfatti Circles

What’s the best way to squeeze three circles into a triangle so that the area of the circles is maximized? In 1803 Italian mathematician Gian Francesco Malfatti decided that the best course was to place each circle tangent to the other two and to two sides of the triangle (left) — he thought that some instance of this arrangement would give the best solution.

But that’s not actually so: In an equilateral triangle, Malfatti’s circles occupy less area than the solution on the right, found by Lob and Richmond in 1930 — their suggestion is to inscribe the largest possible circle in the triangle, then fit the second circle into one of the triangle’s three corners, and then fit the third circle into one of the five spaces now available, taking the largest available option in each case.

In the case of an equilateral triangle, Lob and Richmond’s solution is only about 1% larger than Malfatti’s. But in 1946 Howard Eves pointed out that for a long, narrow isosceles triangle (below), simply stacking three circles can cover nearly twice the area of the Malfatti circles.

Subsequent studies have borne this out — it turns out that Malfatti’s plan is never best. We now know that Lob and Richmond’s procedure will always find three area-maximizing circles — but whether their approach will work for more than three circles is an open question.

(Thanks, Larry.)
Image: Wikimedia Commons


Reader Eliot Morrison, a protein biochemist, has been looking for the longest English word found in the human proteome — the full set of proteins that can be expressed by the human body. Proteins are chains composed of amino acids, and the most common 20 are represented by the letters A, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, K, L, M, N, P, Q, R, S, T, V, W, and Y. “These amino acids have different chemical properties,” Eliot writes, “and the sequence influences how the whole chain folds in three dimensions, which in turn determines the structural and functional properties of the protein.”

The longest English word he’s found is TARGETEER, at nine letters, in the uncharacterized protein C12orf42. The whole sequence of C12orf42 is:


And there are more: “There are also a number of eight-letters words found: ASPARKLE (Uniprot code: Q86UW7), DATELESS (Q9ULP0-3), GALAGALA (Q86VD7), GRISETTE (Q969Y0), MISSPEAK (Q8WXH0), REELRALL (Q96FL8), RELASTER (Q8IVB5), REVERSAL (Q5TZA2), and SLAVERER (Q2TAC2).” I wonder if there’s a sentence in us somewhere.

(Thanks, Eliot.)