The Quantum Angler
He never gets Bohred of fishing.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Smile Moulds

After spending the past half hour procrastinating by reading about slime moulds, I now feel compelled to spend a further half hour blogging about them, for you see slime moulds are cool. Really cool.

As anyone who's read the relevant Bill Bryson book will attest, slime moulds are curious things. They live most of their lives as individual single-celled organisms, but when the time is right they join forces to form one giant macroscopic 'slug' which oozes through the undergrowth at speeds of up to 2cm per minute. After devouring enough bacteria and leaving a wake of goo, the communal blob then grows a stalk, terminating in a fruiting body which spews forth spores (the slime world's equivalent of hanky panky).

The fascinating thing about these guys, despite the sheer disgusting gooeyness of it all, is how the individual cells, which start off as completely autonomous organisms, come to form one collective, erm... thing. I suppose the question of whether the slug they form can be considered an organism in itself is academic, as these guys are really just a load of chemical reactions taking place, as opposed to fully conscious beings (some may argue there is no clear distinction here, but that's beyond the scope of this blog!). Nevertheless you have to marvel at how simple chemical processes can produce such complex behaviour.

Some vital slime mould facts:
  • Some slime moulds can reach over a metre in diameter.
  • Slime moulds can occasionally be found venturing into gardens on rainy nights.
  • A species of beetle which feeds on slime moulds had been named after President George W. Bush
  • Slime is an anagram of smile, which is what I do when I think of slime moulds.
  • In the outtakes of This is Spinal Tap, singer David St. Hubbins expounds the wonders of slime moulds.

I hope this post will encourage some of you to take up this fine hobby of reading about slime moulds instead of doind work.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Rant of the week: People with sets of annoying functions named after them

I'd like this week to talk about some guys I really hate. Two of them are French and the other German, and thankfully they're all dead. What do they have in common? They've all invented bastard sets of mathematical expressions that aren't useful at all (although you know they probably are in some weird way). Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I'm talking about Legendre, Laguerre and Bessel.

Adrien-Marie Legendre was a mathematician of the utmost depravity. Born in the cauldrons of Hell in 1752, he made his fortune selling amphetamines to school children. Some sources say he was born with a long red forked tail, which he was later forced to have amputated before he could receive his mathematics PhD. His Legendre polynomials were an astonishing achievement, describing for the first time the dynamics of evil in a homogeneous field of Satan.

Debate currently rages amongst mathematicians over whose polynomials are cooler, Legendre's or Laguerre's. It is a well-known fact that Laguerre polynomials don't mean anything and are completely pointless and arbitrary, yet since 1902 it has been a legal requirement for all optics papers to mention them in order to make them harder to read. Legend has it Laguerre wrote his polynomials whilst in solitary confinement at a high-security insane asylum in Mexico.

While the functions of Laguerre and Legendre are credited with annoying countless physicists throughout the centuries, few can rival Bessel's for sheer craziness. One of the most complicated Bessel functions is so complicated it even introduces a new type of number, neither real or imaginary, and greater than infinity. Only 12 men (including Bessel himself) can ever claim to have written down a Bessel function. Of the few who have gained sufficient mathematical understanding to do so, most have simply not lived long enough to finish physically writing one down.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Hair chronicles VI

It's been a while since I've blogged about my hair, so I feel I should update you with the latest instalment of my epic coiffural saga.

Since episode V my hair has finally felt the civilising influence of scissors. Prior to this, the do was a tangled mess off undesired curls and frizz. My patience exhausted, I headed off to the nearest salon, and sat down in the chair. "Erm, I'll just have to go and fetch someone" said the woman, so I waited.

The deafening roar of a rusty chainsaw chilled my spine, and before I could look round I felt myself held to the chair by metal clamps at my wrists. "I'm sorry, but this is the only way" explained the burly black man in dark sunglasses wielding the chainsaw, "now sit still and don't move!". As the saw ploughed its way mercilessly through my hair, locks and curls flew off in all directions. People ran for cover and babies cried...

Ok, so it wasn't quite that bad, but at least now it's under control and far more manageable. Time will tell if having long hair will make me a better scientist, but at least I should look the part!