Saturday, May 21, 2011

NFPA 704

If you've spent any time around a chemical laboratory, you're familiar with these colorful diamonds. Even if you haven't, you've probably seen them where ever potentially dangerous chemicals are stored. The National Fire Protection Association designed the chemical hazard label (here by me) to be a quick indicator of the presence of dangerous substances.

This symbol is found on individual chemical containers, and also on the doors to rooms containing these chemicals. The blue box indicates health hazards ranging from 0 (no hazard, no precautions needed) to 4 (potential to cause serious harm or death upon short exposure). The red box is for flammability, from 0 (inflammable) to 4 (forms an extremely flammable vapor at normal pressure and temperature). The yellow box notes reactivity, again ranging from 0 (completely stable) to 4 (capable of detonation or explosive decomposition). The white box is reserved for special hazards. The NFPA standard only recognizes OX for oxidizing agents, and a W with a slash for those substances that react with water. Informally, people often add other hazards to this box, such as the symbol for radioactivity, or the word ACID, etc. One thing to note, you have to include the highest level hazard on the sign, so if you saw the NFPA label below on the door to my lab, it tells you that there is at least one substance in the room with a health hazard of 3, another substance that has the flammability of 4, perhaps still another with a reactivity of 3, and something else that reacts with water, not necessarily any one chemical with all of those properties. The idea is that someone entering the room (particularly an emergency responder) would know what possible hazards are there and what protective gear they need to wear.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Haleakala Observatories

MorsLEGO made a tiny model of the Haleakala Observatories on Maui. The location (altitude, weather and lack of light pollution) makes this an ideal site. These observatories contain several telescopes and other instruments devoted to a wide variety of missions, such as tracking the movements of the earth's tectonic plates by bouncing a laser off the moon, tracking asteroids, a military project to track enemy satellites, and a telescope devoted to educational projects that teachers can apply to participate in.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Shinkai 6500

No other manned research submarine can dive deeper than the Shinkai 6500, a vessel operated by JAMSTEC, the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology. This year, LEGO offered set 21100 based on this sub exclusively in Japan. Ocean-Storm shows the Shinkai 6500 here investigating a hydrothermal vent. Superheated water issues from these cracks in volcanically active areas, often including high levels of sulfur. The energy and minerals available from these vents can give rise to very unique life forms, such as the giant tube worms seen here.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Breaking Bad

Chemistry is the study of change. Electrons change their energy levels, Molecules change their bonds, elements combine and change into compounds. It is all of life: the constant, the cycle. Solution, dissolution, over and over and over. Growth, then decay, then transformation. It is fascinating. Really.

That's what Walter White tells his students in the pilot of Breaking Bad. When his life begins to fall apart, he starts synthesizing metamphetamine. The chemistry there is actually pretty simple (let's face it, there are a lot of people making meth out there who ain't the sharpest knives in the place where they keep the knives), but I don't know if I feel comfortable going into it here. Instead let's get into something much more kid-friendly: how to make poison gas. ;) When confronted by two other drug dealers who want to kill Walter and his partner Jesse, he throws some chemicals together and suddenly the bad guys (the badder guys?) are choking on the floor. He tells Jesse "red phosphorus in the presence of moisture and accelerated by heat yields phosphorus hydride, phosphine gas." Actually, not quite, according to Dr. Jonathan Hare. He probably should have used white phosphorus, a different allotrope of phosphorus. Allotropes are different ways of arranging atoms of just one element. For instance, both graphite and diamond are allotropes of carbon. White phosphorus consists of four atoms arranged at the points of a tetrahedron. When this is heated over 250 degrees Celsius, it transforms into red phosphorus, which is an amorphous network of phosphorus atoms. You probably know red phosphorus best from wooden matches. Anyway, when white phosphorus is heated with water at basic pH, phosphine gas is indeed produced.

P4 + 3 NaOH + 3 H2O ? 3N aH2PO2 + PH3

Orion Pax made this awesome rendition of Walter's RV

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Saturn V

Matt Wagner rendered this great version of the Saturn V, the rocket that sent the Apollo missions to the moon, based on set 7468, Saturn Moon Mission.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Arecibo message

On November 16, 1974, a 1679 digit message was broadcast into space from the Arecibo Telescope. The stream of 0's and 1's was created by shifting the frequencies, or, here in LEGO form by Chris Doyle.

1679 is the product of 23 x 73. If some alien race receives the signal, and then breaks it down into 79 separate sets of 23, then can then assemble these into a picture.

The result would give them information about us - an indication of the elements used in our DNA makeup, an image of the double helix, an image of a human, and the composition of our Solar System.

This was really more of a proof of concept experiment than an actual attempt at communication with others in our universe. Given that the globular star cluster targeted by this message is 25000 light years away, any response would come in about the year 52000 AD.

BTW, Carl Sagan, who was a proponent of the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI), was a part of the composition of the message. If you read Contact (again, please, don't watch the horrible movie), he spends a great deal of time discussing how messages could be transmitted across the stars and subsequently decoded.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Freedom 7

Fifty years ago today, Alan Shepard became the first American (and the second person, after Yuri Gargarin) to enter space. The Mercury program was the first step (followed by the Gemini and Apollo programs) towards the moon landing. Those 16 minutes of going up and coming back down again are commemorated in this model by Dave and John Xandegar of briXwerX Studio.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Very Large Array

The Very Large Array is a multiple aperture radio telescope. That is, it is made up of 27 separate dishes that can be configured over a 22 mile radius to act as one huge radio telescope. Special carriers on railroad tracks allow the dishes to be arranged into different configurations. The VLA has been used to study such phenomena as ice on the surface of Mercury and cosmic jets of material expelled from distant galaxies. It's also showed up in popular culture, as in the final scenes of Contact. BTW, that's a really horrible movie, but the book is outstanding. If you read the book you learn about graduate school in the sciences, how research funding works, how radio antennae study distant galaxies, how we can encode and decode messages and international relations in the sciences. If you watch the movie you get to see Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey hook up.

BTW, David Wegmuller even built a wprking mechanism to move his VLA dish, above. Now he just needs to build 26 more of these and spread them out over a gymnasium floor.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Arecibo Observatory

An optical telescope gathers the light coming from a distant object, such as a star or planet. Visible light, though, is only a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum ranging from very low energy (long wavelength) to high energy (short wavelength). It's just the set of energies that happen to interact with our eyes. Stars and other astronomical objects produce energy over the whole range, and radio telescopes can gather information about these stars by looking at this energy. The Arecibo Observatory in Peurto Rico is the largest single aperture telescope around at 1000 feet in diameter, and it has led to such discoveries as the first binary pulsar, the first extrasolar planets, and prebiotic molecules in a distant galaxy. You may also recognize it from movies like Contact, where Jodie Foster first meets Matthew McConaughey. BTW, that movie ends at ... (hmm, guess you'll have to come back tomorrow) ...

Along with this, John Knight has done a number of other virtual LEGO models, including a highly detailed Space Shuttle, Vostok 1 and the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, among others. I hope he gets around to building these out of actual LEGO bricks. I know he has some, such as he used in his Hubble Telescope.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Great Scientific Theories - flat Earth

JETfri has started a project to illustrate great scientific theories, with a touch of humor. Let's start with the flat Earth theory. Contrary to what many believe, in western civilization a belief in a flat Earth was dispelled a few centuries BC. This was probably first noticed by sailors leaving port and seeing their point of origin drop below the horizon due to the curvature of the earth. As early as 240 BC Eratosthenes measured the circumference of the Earth by comparing the shadow cast by the sun in two different locations. From this point on all educated people knew that the Earth was round (uneducated people probably never considered the matter). For instance, if you read Dante's Divine Comedy, he travels down into the Earth through Hell, and climbs up a tunnel on the other side to find Mount Purgatory (he even describes the flip in the pull of gravity as he passes through the center of the Earth). When Columbus proposed to sail around the Earth to reach China, the objection was not that the Earth was flat and that he would sail over the edge, instead it was that the Earth was way too large and he would run out of supplies before ever reaching China. Indeed his detractors were correct - Columbus vastly underestimated the size of the Earth. It was only the placement of the Americas that saved his journey from disaster - If there were just ocean all the way from Spain to China his men would have died of thirst long before they made it there.