Macro Oddities

The Bikini and the Beast

Nuclear means much more than atomic power. Since World War II it has inspired thoughts of Utopia and destruction, but most of all in trying to link objects with the ideas around the atom, popular culture around the world has produced icons.

The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was enough to have Japan surrender before even a 3rd bomb could be dropped. Within a week the Smyth Report was released by the United States government, explaining the basics of the Manhattan project, and 3 days later Japan signed the final documents of its surrender. To those on the opposing side, bombs brought peace.

It was then, in 1945 that ‘nuclear’ entered the common tongue. The idea of nuclear and the post war relief led to an explosion of products and ideas that found ways to link themselves to the nuclear ideal. The most famous of these was probably some Parisian swimwear.I made this, and it's public domain, so feel free to use it.

Small and Devastating

Another marketing ploy, the entire bikini can fit into the matchbox in her left hand.

Micheline in the first Bikini | Hulton Archive

The first nuclear bomb to be dropped after the war was ‘Able’ on 1 July 1946, in the remote Pacific area known as Bikini Atoll. Previously unknown, the tests made the area famous, and 4 days after the first test the Bikini was born.

“like the bomb, the bikini is small and devastating” – Louis Réard

5 July, the Bikini was first revealed to the world at Piscine Molitor, Paris. The 2 piece swimwear was so shocking that its designer, Louis Réard couldn’t convince any models to wear it. The only new feature was that it left the bellybutton uncovered, but it was enough that in the end he had to employ a naked dancer to do model it. It was not a mild mannered event.

Louis Réard named it after Bikini atoll with the idea that it would blow away all who saw it, and usher the fashion world into a new era – and it certainly made an impact. Micheline Bernadini, the stripper who modelled it received 50,000 pieces of fan mail, and fashion magazines widely reported on it – helped by Reárd’s provocative claims.

It wasn’t entirely new though, either in design or theme. Only a few months before another French designer had introduced the Atome (Atom) swimsuit, then labelled the ‘World’s Smallest Swimsuit’ – a nod to the size of atoms. The Bikini was slightly smaller, leaving the belly button uncovered and cheekily marketed as ‘smaller than the world’s smallest swimsuit’.

Despite the Vatican claiming it as sinful, and being banned from the beaches of many European countries the Bikini eventually became commonplace and outgrew its link with nuclear cheer, though to this day it draws controversy in many countries.

8 years later, in a turn of events Bikini Atoll helped inspire new creations, this time made in fear. Read more

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Music, Mathematics and the First Vegetarians: Rise of the Pythagoreans

The Pythagoreans celebrating at sunrise

The Pythagoreans celebrating at sunrise

Pythagoras, mathematician and philosopher, returned from Egypt and Babylon a changed man. At the Greek colony of Croton, he set down roots and brought thinkers to his cause. From its foundation in 530BCE the Pythagorean school was devoted to mysticism, mathematics and music. Their inspiration from Eastern religions set them apart from the world in which they lived, and eventually they set about slowly changing the world. Their beliefs were simple – All is number.

Maths And Soul Beans
Mathematics and religion were intertwined, just like Hinduism and Buddhism. Pythagoreans also brought in a belief in immortal souls and reincarnation. As scientific as searching for numbers may sound, make no mistake, they were a group of mystics. They were also the first vegetarians in Europe.

Pythagorean life was simple, no feasts at their celebrations, just normal meals of fruits and vegetables. Vegetarianism is one of their most lasting legacies. The consumption of souls was taboo because they feared it would cause them harm in the form of a bad reincarnation. To avoid that they not only avoided meat, but beans as well. Beans were so avoided that Pythagoreans were not even allowed to touch beans.

Bean fear was simple, they believed that beans held the souls of the dead, those who had yet to be reincarnated. So they were vegetarians without beans, but of course ‘vegetarian’ was a word that didn’t exist in Europe then. The first time it came into the English language was in1842, with the creation of the British Vegetarian Society. Any time before 1842, people in English-speaking countries were said to be on a ‘Pythagorean Diet.’ The whole diet was another import from Eastern spirituality, the greater legacy is their music.

Pythagoreans were some of the first people to believe the Earth went around the Sun.

Pythagoreans were some of the first people to believe the Earth went around the Sun.

The Sound Of Our Stars
Imagine a length of string held tight. Pluck it and it produces a note. Now, if you cut the string in half and plucked it again, you would get the same note, but an octave higher. Play both at the same time and they sound pleasant, this is called a harmony. Further exploration found thirds and fifths, divine harmonies that the Pythagoreans saw as a sonic expression of mathematics.

Pythagoreans were the first people to investigate the chords and ratios of music. These discoveries and others related to mathematics elevated their status in society. Not only that, but they soon began to see music in the sky.

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On The Origin Of Zero

Nothing hereSomething, to deliberately show nothing – that is the odd irony at the heart of zero – it is almost unbelievably useful. It makes algebra, computing and Pixar films possible, or at least easier than they would otherwise be. Think of the number 2013, that zero tells us where the other numbers are, and therefore that the 2 means 2 thousands, not 2 hundreds or 2 millions. It sounds simple, but it was such an elusive idea that European Mathematics never invented it, zero was imported.

Egyptian and Greek mathematics was all about measurement and calculation of what existed. Volumes of spheres, areas of land, heights of buildings and pointiness of pyramids. Geometry and measurement ruled. With such a tight link between maths and reality, the question of ‘nothing’ never came into it.

Over 1000 years of mathematics extending back from medieval Europe to the Egyptians didn’t uncover it, but zero came. Once introduced, the Christian Church and Governments fought to keep zero and the new numbers in check for over 100 years. Zero came in with the numbers and decimal system we use today, the ‘Arabic’ numerals. They came from India.

The Home Of ‘Nothing’

Heere be Bodhisattva

India soon mastered multiplication.

Mathematics and religion are entwined in India’s religious life. Hinduism, Jainism and other ancient Indian religions treat numbers as a part of religion, and so needed versatile numbers. How many stars in the sky? How many grains of sand on a beach? Astronomy has a long history in India, and it was but one of the reasons for needing large numbers. In response to the need, the decimal system emerged, and large numbers were described in almost excruciating detail.

There are long religious passages in which Buddha describes the numbers up to 10421, a number larger than the total estimated number of atoms in the universe (1080). In fact it is a number so large that it cannot be applied to anything that exists. Jainism, a sister religion to Hinduism, has its own unit called a palya. A palya is the time it takes to empty a cube 10km across, filled with wool, if one strand is removed every century. There was more than just grasping at colossal numbers, nothingness had its own focus as well.

Jainism believes that the ultimate aim of being is to remove any wants, desires, and urges to alter the workings of the Universe.To not affect, to let it be. The aim is to become nothing. Similar ideas of restraint and asceticism define many Indian religions.

The focus on nothing and numbers meant that zero appeared, inevitably. In 628AD the rules for dealing with zero were laid down by the Astronomer Brahmagupta, and we still use them to this day.

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Ivy Mike: How the H-bomb Vaporised an Island

No man is an island. Now there is no island.

In 1952, Ivy Mike created the then largest man-made fireball.

5km across, the fireball erupted from the island of Elugelab and engulfed the sky. The shock wave vaporised everything within 5km, and scraped the neighbouring islands clean, no buildings or plants remained. 2 hours later some helicopters flew over what used to be Elugelab. The island was gone. In its place was a dark blue welt in the ocean, 2km across, and deep enough to hold a 17 story building. The island had been vaporised. It was 1952, and the largest bomb in the world had just been detonated.

The United States made the bomb because it was afraid. In late 1949 the Soviet Union had created and detonated ‘First Lightning’ – a nuclear bomb just like those dropped at the end of World War II. The United States was no longer the only nuclear superpower. Tensions escalated, and they needed something new. They were going to need a bigger bomb.

In January 1950, President Truman announced that the United States would develop a new bomb, superior to the A-bomb. A hydrogen bomb that would push the United States into the Thermonuclear era. Unfortunately nobody knew how to make the H-bomb.

H-bombs are thermonuclear, meaning nuclear fusion. They make heat in the same way the sun, and billions of others stars make their energy. Two small atoms like hydrogen hit each other and combine to make a larger atom, at the same time they release large amounts of energy. The problem is that fusion needs immense heat and pressure. That difficulty is why it was happening easily in the sun, but not so much on Earth.

In 1951 Stanislaw Ulam and Edward Teller overcame that barrier. With their combined ideas, thermonuclear bombs were possible – in theory. To test the theory, they needed an experiment. Project Ivy was started, and it was the perfect opportunity to test.

The Building Bomb

Project Ivy was aimed at improving U.S. nuclear weapons in two ways. The first was the H-bomb, the other was making a larger, A-bomb. The H-bomb was Ivy Mike, at its construction it was the largest, heaviest and most powerful bomb in existence. I say bomb, it was closer to a factory-sized nuclear fridge.

Mike was not a bomb ready to be dropped from a plane, it was designed purely as an experiment, so it looked like an aircraft hangar or factory. It was assembled in the Pacific proving grounds, on Elugelab, a small island on Enewetak atoll. The main bomb assembly was over 6 metres tall and 2 metres wide. Covered in metal case 30cm thick, it was very large, shiny and cold. They nicknamed it “Sausage.” Sausage weighed a dainty 56 metric tonnes. Read more

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Line to Nowhere: The Life and Death of a Mojave Phone Booth

Deserted in the desert

Two dusty tracks cross in the sun-blasted Mojave Desert; there, perched on the edge of nowhere are concrete blocks where a famous phone booth used to stand. It was there for miners in the 1960s with its hand-cranked convenience, in the 1970s it was upgraded to the newfangled touch-tone technology and it was there for no-one. The area around was abandoned by all but dust, and the phone booth waited. The phone booth was shot, no-one knows when. After the unfortunate incident it began to live a full life, going from a lone watcher to an obsession and a small icon.

Phone Found

Decades passed it by uneventfully until 1997, a map, and a character known only as ‘Mr N’ decided to meet. The anonymous Los Angeles resident was absently scanning a map of the nearby area when he noticed an anomaly – a blemish, a dot in the Mojave. Printed next to it, the word ‘telephone’.

Taking the discovery as a call to action Mr N set off in a Jeep and in pursuit, wearing a fine pair of wingtip shoes. He navigated to the nearest bit of tarmac, 15 miles away, then turned off into the dust, following the faint track and the mark on a map. Surprisingly enough he found the thing and decided to test it.

‘It works’

Eventually he returned home and wrote about the discovery in a letter to a small underground magazine he subscribed to. He finished by writing ‘it works’ and included the number so that anyone could call the desert. The number was (760) 733-9969. In spite of all chances the phone company had left the thing connected despite the minuscule number of people it could service. Fortunately for the phone company a lot more people started to use it. Some used it more than others.

26th May 1997, Godfrey Daniels read the letter and became fixated upon it. His house slowly gathered notes to remind him. “Did you remember to call the Mojave Desert today?” blared the note stuck to his mirror. He had the equipment he needed to tape ever single call. Recording him repeating the time and date of the call while the phone rang out over an empty desert. He made every visitor to his house call the booth at least once, and he said he was ‘prepared to call for years.’ Years were not necessary, the desert sent some ears.

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Voskhod 2: The Cursed Peak of Soviet Space

Alexei Leonov on his spacewalk.

Voskhod 2 was a deadly mission. It was the final space race victory for Soviet Russia before NASA finally claimed its lead and ultimately won with the lunar endgame of 1969. This peak of the Soviet Federal Space Program nearly killed its two cosmonauts but was ultimately successful – it began on the 18th March 1965 when Alexei Leonov and Pavel Belyayev were launched.

The setting was the gulf of space, the event was a secret. Soviet policy was that no-one outside of the space program and government knew the flight was taking place, so as to spare any shame and guilt after any mistakes. Even the families of those involved didn’t know the mission existed; at least until it was broadcast nationwide on television and radio. Fortunately the mission began well, and so ends the good news.

Voskhod 2 was ambitious, it was the first mission to attempt EVA (Extravehicular activity) in recorded history. EVA means a space walk. 30-year-old first-time cosmonaut Alexei twisted and turned in his stiff, customised space-suit before climbing into the ships first-of-a-kind inflatable airlock. Pavel lowered the airlock pressure and Alexei met the vacuum of space – it was not a pleasant meeting. Back at ground control they judged the mission was going well, so the camera feeds were sent out across Soviet Russia, and Alexei’s family found out that he was floating around outside of his spaceship. His young daughter reacted immediately:

“What is he doing? What is he doing? Please tell Daddy to get back inside.”

The purpose of the mission, other than annoying Americans, was to show that humans could survive independently in space, outside of a craft, given an appropriate suit. This escaped the notice of his father who was far more concerned with Alexei’s safety than scientific progress:

“Why is he acting like a juvenile delinquent?” he shouted in frustration. “Everyone else can complete their mission properly, inside the spacecraft. What is he doing clambering about outside? Somebody must tell him to get back inside immediately. He must be punished for this.”

Suddenly a new voice was heard through the televisions and radios of Russia. A message of congratulations from President Leonid Brezhnev: “We members of the Politburo are here sitting and watching what you are doing. We are proud of you,” Brezhnev said. “We wish you success. Take care. We await your safe arrival on Earth.” Both cosmonauts, and Alexei Leonov’s father, were cheered by the message. It was the last piece of good news for the entire mission.

10 minutes had passed, 10 minutes of entirely unknown experience; it was time to return. The Earth span beneath them, filling the void between themselves and the sun. Time was of the essence, they needed to flee humanity’s shadow.

Alexei reluctantly retreated from space and wandered to the airlock which was filled with trouble. The emptiness of space means there are few particles to hit surfaces and exert pressure upon them. Alexei’s spacesuit was filled with air, and so the internal pressure had caused the whole thing to expand and become near immovable at the joints. He had 40 minutes of oxygen left and he couldn’t fit into the airlock. The radio and television transmissions were cut by mission control and replaced with Mozart’s Requiem playing on loop. Nobody knew anything.

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How You Are A Hive Mind

You make decisions. How good you are at doing so is irrelevant, what matters is that you make them. Now, you are smarter than a bee, at least you should be, yet bees make complex decisions in exactly the same way as you do, they use each other to form a literal hive mind. Meanwhile you, human lump of brain and bones, are a hive mind all of your own.

Decision making has been fine-tuned by evolution to the point that anything with a decently large brain uses the same method, it is simple debate. Neurons zip around the brain, collecting information and forming plans, ideas to be considered. Then the neurons gather together, each with their own opinion. What happens next is you ‘thinking’. If you’ve ever felt that you were in two minds about making a decision,you had good reason for believing as such, because that’s exactly what happens.

Neurons find those sharing the same idea and send positive signals to each other, which is nice of them. Then they find those who disagree with them and send inhibiting signals, the equivalent of telling someone to shut up. As time passes the numbers supporting each decision vary, smaller, less considered ideas are removed and slowly the best decisions grow in popularity. Once a large enough percentage of neurons has decided on a course of action the process stops. Congratulations, you’ve made a decision.

As was previously mentioned this is a technique that we use because it works, in fact every creature with a complex brain uses it. Bees do not have complex brains, they are fuzzy little balls that fly into flowers and build hexagons; yet they use the same technique. They form the hive mind.

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Nail House and Nunchuks

Chongqing Nail House in 2007 prior to demolitionIn 2004 a group of developers had found the perfect site for a shopping complex in the Chinese municipality of Chongqing; all they had to do was remove the people living there. In 2004 they set to task, buying the land from the government and evicting everyone from the houses with nothing more than thugs and a small cash consolation. 280 home owners were removed, but one pair of ‘stubborn nails’ remained, Wu Ping and her husband Yang Wu. Then the battle began.

Instead of leaving with the petty cash they stayed, settling into the house while the land around was picked clean by the excavating vehicles. The ground around the house slowly disappeared but the couple stayed. Slowly the house appeared to rise on its earthen plinth until it sat raised, 10 metres above the ground below. Then water and electricity were cut. The developers were far from pleased.

A pair of thugs were sent up to intimidate the couple but Yang Wu, a local martial-arts champion, was not threatened. Over the three years things escalated and news spread. The towering two-storey house was a showcase for the struggle between citizens and rich developers in an aggressively growing China. A China that didn’t protect its citizens. As Wu Ping said:

“I’m not stubborn or unruly, I’m just trying to protect my personal rights as a citizen.”

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By the Skin of his Body: The Death of Big Nose George

George Parrott PortraitAugust 1878, United States of America; a Union Pacific train was screaming through large, and largely empty, rural Wyoming. The day was warm and the steam train chugged along streaming billowing water vapour lazily through the air. George Parrott or Big Nose George as he was also known, was waiting by the tracks in Carbon County. His outlaw gang and he were ready to move from small pickings and into the big leagues. A simple plan; derail train; rob train; leave train.

As a group they had loosened a few sections of track the day before, moving them enough to destabilise the train, then they lay in wait. Unfortunately for the fellows some section hands had wandered across the damage and immediately repaired it. The train was safe. The train moved past them and wasn’t derailed and so they aborted the robbery, but they weren’t clear.

The section hands immediately reported the tampering to the authorities. Two men set out to investigate, Sheriff Robert Widdowfield and Special Railroad Detective Harry ‘Tip’ Vincent. The gang fled to a temporary camp in the nearby ‘Rattlesnake Canyon’ but the investigators were hot on their tracks and discovered them within days. Upon entering the camp they found a pile of embers. When blown upon they glowed, they were still hot.

The gang was lying in wait, then they leaped out. Anything up to twenty shots rang out through the canyon and the two investigators lay dead. Shot by Parrott’s cruel collective.

The group partially buried the bodies and then split, but while they fought the law, the law won. Surveyors near the canyon reported hearing the sounds of gunshots rebounding off the rock faces and 20 men were assembled to handle the incident when they realised the two men weren’t coming back. So off they went, to find the bandits and bring about justice.

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The Great Space Elevator

Powered, as all good things are, by lasers.

In 2009 a helicopter hovered 900m above the Mojave Desert, Andrew Petro was watching. Dangling from the helicopter was a tethered steel cable and a tripod-mounted laser. As Mr Petro watched a small, square robotic device rose upwards, powered by the laser; its ascension was smooth and rapid along the cable, 600 metres up it slowed and stopped. On behalf of NASA, Andrew Petro handed the semi-successful team behind the robotic square a cheque for $900,000 – they had just won a competition about the future of space travel.

Getting to space is expensive, but it becomes a lot cheaper when you don’t use rocket fuel. How to escape the planet without using rocket fuel has been a bit of a conundrum though, but we are approaching the answer steadily. The answer involves a powerful laser, a cable long enough to wrap around earth 8 times, a large steel ball and finally a very big metal box.

First described in 1895 as a ‘celestial castle’ attached to earth by a tether on the top of something like the Eiffel tower. It was more accurately presented in 1979 by Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘The Fountains of Paradise.’ The answer is a Space Elevator.

The competition was the 2009 Space Elevator Games, a NASA-run competition to encourage innovation into prototype space elevators. The reasons for the sudden interest and investment from NASA are two-fold. Firstly in 1990 the first carbon nanotubes were successfully manufactured; and secondly, high-strength lasers are rapidly increasing in power. The thing is becoming possible. So now, it seems, the space elevator concept could finally be getting off the ground.

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