By Gareth Edwards

Sunday 29 April 2012

Magneto, Margaret Thatcher and Robot Moths

More answers to your questions from the blog that sets out to explain everything in the universe, and other universes too if there’s time left over at the end.

@clangerfan1 asked: Can you explain the correct "hug greeting protocol" when meeting people for the first time?
It’s not really a question of protocol - what you are dealing with are the laws of physics. Two people meeting, like any two bodies with mass, will be drawn together. If unchecked this takes the form of a hug, or if it’s late at night in Glasgow Queen Street Station, a head butt. And yet many encounters result in neither outcome. In her efforts to explain this phenomenon the pioneering bio-physicist Irma Maskald-Fingermaus discovered the sub-atomic particles of awkwardness emitted by people on social occasions, particles which we know today as “hesitons”. Typically one person emitting a single hesiton is enough to delay but not prevent an embrace, but should the first hesiton induce the emission of a second hesiton in the other person, then the two hesitons will repel each other, and cause the emission of further particles creating what bio-physicists call a “negatively-charged atmosphere” containing enough awkwardness to prevent anything but the most stand-offish of handshakes.  A good example of just such a charged atmosphere would be all of Britain.

Jeffrey S. If Margaret Thatcher was the Iron Lady, could Magneto have defeated her?
Actually you are in luck because working in the tradition of that fine art-house classic Alien vs. Predator, I have just finished my screenplay for X-Men vs. Ex-PM. It features the power-crazed antics of the implacable supervillain locked in battle with Magneto, and culminates in a climactic sequence where Magneto throws the entirety of British heavy industry at Thatcher. She successfully destroys it in mid-air and is about to obliterate Magneto forever with a no-nonsense speech about how he doesn’t know the price of butter when Geoffrey Howe’s resignation triggers a leadership ballot and Thatcher implodes. Not suitable for miners.

Nance What is the best method for removing a red wine stain from a white cashmere sweater?
Use scissors to cut carefully around the edge of the stain and then whenever you wear the sweater mutter grumpily about giant robot moths.

@clangerfan1 Why do lightbulbs only burn out when you turn them on (making you jump with their little "bang") instead of dying quietly in the night?
This was a deliberate design feature of old-style lightbulbs and its intention was to increase national creativity by upping the number of lightbulb-related epiphanies, or "lightbulb moments". For example Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do not go gentle…” was inspired by the startled jump he did at the sudden burning-out of a bulb in the Swansea Public Library, causing him to spill his pint. There's concern in poetic circles that the modern shift to longer-lasting low-energy bulbs may reduce serendipitous verse output as it becomes harder and harder to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Grazlewacky Why does gravity seem to go in a generally downwards direction?

While gravity does indeed go straight down in Greenwich, London the further away you get from what is known as  “Greenwich Mean Down” the more gravity shifts, tilting sideways further and further until by the time you get to Australia gravity is going in exactly the opposite direction, and a dropped object will fall up, accelerating higher and higher until it hits the ground. This is because any dropped object falls directly towards the centre of the planet, an arrangement that was the result of a system devised by the Admiralty Board in 1758 to help Royal Navy sailors find where the Earth was during heavy nights out.

That’s all there’s internet for this week, but do keep the questions coming or there’s a danger some of the universe may never be explained.

Thursday 12 April 2012

How American Spelling Happened, and Gravity Meters

More answers to your questions from the blog that attempts to find meaning in the myriad complexities of human experience without the aid of a big bottle of gin. And sometimes with...

Nance Why do Americans drop the “u” when they spell words like neighbour, colour, and humour, but leave it in other words like contour and velour?

The American Declaration of Independence (or as it was known in Britain “Fine, See If We Care”) was followed by immensely difficult years for the newly-formed US government. Up to that point the erstwhile colonies had imported all letters of the alphabet from Britain, but in an attempt to undermine the prestige and name of the newly-formed USA in 1776 the British banned all trans-Atlantic trade in the letter U. The Americans were determined to keep the U in pride of place in their new nation’s name and so made sacrifices elsewhere, salvaging non-essential “u”s from words like “honour”, “harbour” and “elephaunt” (a usage that eventually became adopted back in Britain too) to keep the new national sobriquet intact.  As the blockade continued patriotic mums became “moms” and farmers exchanged their ploughs for plows while ukulele players took up the banjo. Eventually however the masses complained of this hand-to-moth existence, and there was even talk of a second revoltion so that by winter 1789 the Fonding Fathers had to face up to the possibility of becoming a Nited States of America. But as grim preparations were made tomake do without the letter U altogether and George Washington prepared a sombre State of the Onion address a French schooner, L’Ululation, carrying several tons of fresh letter “u”s wrapped in the finest contoured velour broke the British blockade of the ports.  The Americans fell on the vowel-rich cargo and the letter flooded back into the New World. But the years of shortage had left their scars and American spelling was never the same again.

Truf Why does my mother get hiccups from vodka, but doesn't get them from whisky?

It may be that your mother drinks vodka, but doesn’t drink whisky.

Nance What is the correct civic response to make when an alarm from a parked car in front of my house goes off at 2 am and lasts for more than 30 minutes?
As is so often the case, it’s all about boundaries. The car wants attention, but you also have to think about your needs. Try going out to the car and telling it gently but firmly that night time is a time for being quiet. By all means tell the car you love it, but don’t try to pick it up, just make sure it’s safe and go quietly back into the house. Do this every fifteen minutes or so and eventually the car will learn to settle itself or its battery will run out.

suk_pannu I'm paying hand over fist for my electricity, but I seem to be getting magnetism and gravity for free. Can you confirm the government has no plans to privatise other fundamental particles or forces?
In the name of our fragile planet, reconsider your attitude! Electricity charges are an essential way of controlling people’s consumption of a limited resource. If electricity were free it would be used inefficiently, it would be wasted, it would be squandered. And yet you seem perfectly content to help yourself to magnetism and gravity like there’s no tomorrow. Look around your home. There are hundreds of ways you could cut down on usage. Is your furniture just standing on the floor? Don’t waste gravity keeping it there. Strap it down! How is your shopping list fixed to your fridge? A magnet? BUY SOME GLUE! The sooner every home has gravity and magnetism meters the sooner people like you will get real about passing the forces of physics on unharmed to the next generation.

Do keep the questions coming. To question is to be human. Except during the important bit of expository dialogue in Homeland, when to question is to spoil it for people who are trying to concentrate.