Back in early August, I had the pleasure of interviewing John Mainstone, the man who has taken care of the Pitch Drop Experiment at Australia's University of Queensland since 1961. The experiment has been running since 1927, when Professor Thomas Parnell set out to show his students that coal-tar pitch can behave as both a solid and a liquid. Despite being hard enough to break with a hammer, the pitch also drips ... sliding very, very slowly down the neck of a funnel into a beaker.
In Mainstone's years as custodian, the drops have dripped five times. He never got a chance to watch any of them, either in person, or on video. The first falling drop he ever saw came this earlier this summer, when a different pitch drop experiment in Ireland managed to catch the event on camera.
Mainstone's pitch is predicted to drop later this fall, but he won't be around to see it. Last week, I received an email from his daughter Julia, confirming that Mainstone had died of a stroke on August 23rd. He was 78. You didn't have to talk to Mainstone for very long to get a sense of the passion he had for the pitch drop project. I'm glad I got a chance to speak with him before he died and, in a couple of weeks, we'll be running a feature story here at BoingBoing based, in part, on those interviews.
In the meantime, the Pitch Drop Experiment has a new custodian, Andrew White, a physics professor and former student of Mainstone.
Between 1980 and 2000, a complicated war raged in Peru, pitting the country’s government against at least two political guerilla organizations, and forcing average people to band together into armed self-defense committees.Read the rest
Information designer Jess Bachman created Wikipedia Remembers 2012, an interactive feature about the top 100 public figures who died in 2012 as ranked by the number of words in their Wikipedia entries. There are probably more accurate ways to measure the value of a person's life, but hey, that's a matter for another debate. Jess explains:
I think its a great way to explore and remember the lesser known heroes and is an interesting measure of ones life. Phyllis Diller and Michael Clarke Duncan were 101 and 102 so they didn't make the list, while others like #4, Tale Ognenovski is a lessor known Macedonian clarinetist, but for some reason has a incredibly documented wiki page! So many interesting people here.Check it out.
It should be noted that I did remove notorious people and those who were solely involved in news events, so there is some editorial by me here. The number one person was actually Treyvon Martin, and there were plenty of serial killers, terrorists, and other folk I didn't think were worth remembering.
We all know that people do sometimes die while attempting to climb Mt. Everest. But it's easy to overlook what happens to those people after they've died. You can't bring a body down from the mountain. In fact, many of the people who have died there had to be abandoned before they were dead because they couldn't walk and no one could carry them safely back to a place they could get medical care. And that means Mt. Everest is littered with dead bodies.
Between 1922 and 2010, 219 people died on the mountain. In death, many of these bodies have become famous — some even serving as landmarks that help climbers gauge where they are and how far they have to go.
Smithsonian.com has a fascinating short piece about the lives and afterlives of the dead on Mt. Everest. This excerpt is about the body whose boots are pictured above:
The body of “Green Boots,” an Indian climber who died in 1996 and is believed to be Tsewang Paljor, lies near a cave that all climbers must pass on their way to the peak. Green Boots now serves as a waypoint marker that climbers use to gauge how near they are to the summit. Green Boots met his end after becoming separated from his party. He sought refuge in a mountain overhang, but to no avail. He sat there shivering in the cold until he died.
Over the past few years, multiple people have died in Thailand from what appears to be exposure to some kind of poison. Most of these people have been tourists. And most of them have been young women. The deaths have happened in clusters. Five or so on the island vacation hotspot of Kho Phi Phi. Another group of six at Chiang Mai's Downtown Inn.
Lots of possible explanations have been suggested — ranging from serial killers, to hallucinogenic beach drinks, to overuse of banned insecticides in hotel rooms. But, so far, none of the specific poisons proposed as the culprit totally makes sense in relation to the deaths. And, to make things worse, it seems like Thai authorities are doing their best to make it difficult to actually investigate what has happened in individual cases, and figure out whether the cases are linked or not. At this point, it's hard to even know whether all the people who have died exhibited the same symptoms.
Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer-winning journalist who has done a lot of reporting on poisons and true crime has been following this story and just published another piece on the still-unfolding mess.
Your daughter died.
Your daughter died thousands of miles from home. In a hotel where no one came to help. In a hospital where she struggled to keep breathing and just couldn’t. In a room where her heart – and somehow you still don’t really believe this – just stuttered to a stop. In a country, where authorities have failed for months, years even, to tell you how or why your daughter died.
Your daughter, you’ve come to realize, died in a pattern that links too many other young women, a chain of suspected poisonings over the last few years. Jill St. Onge, 27, of Seattle, Washington, and Julie Bergheim, 22, of Drammen, Norway, who both died in May 2009 on the southern island of Koh Phi Phi. Sherifa Khalid, 24, of Kuwait, who died 12 hours she spent a day on the same island in July of the same year.
America lost a great Maker last week. Stanford R. Ovshinsky was a self-taught engineer and inventor who held more than 400 patents when he died on October 17th at the age of 90. The name may not be familiar to you, but his work is. Ovshinsky is credited with inventing key technologies behind flat-panel liquid crystal displays that we use to watch TV, work on the Internet, or play with our phones.
He was also the inventor of the nickel-metal hydride battery — a rechargeable battery that now powers everything from laptops to the Prius. Ovshinsky (along with his wife, Iris, who held a Ph.D. in biochemistry and was his research partner for much of his life), began working on improved versions of batteries, solar cells, and other energy technologies beginning in the early 1960s. More than a decade before climate change became a well-established fact, Ovshinsky was concerned about the pollution and political instability that went along with fossil fuels. He spent the rest of his life developing better alternatives.
For a good introduction to how truly groundbreaking Ovshinsky's ideas were, check out a 1978 article from Popular Science, all about his invention of amorphous silicon semiconductors — a technology that today forms the basis behind both thin-film solar panels and smart phone displays. At the time though, it made Ovshinky a controversial figure.
• Michigan Public Radio's obituary
• A good explanation of the inner workings of nickel-metal hydride batteries
• Popular Science's obit (with a link to the 1978 story)
Thanks to Art Myatt for the heads up on this!
His son Alec Lom told the Associated Press that his dad "died peacefully in his sleep at home in London."
A two-part series of clips on YouTube:
Back in May, I posted about how the Smithsonian National Zoo took another shot at inseminating Mei Xiang, a female giant panda. Female pandas are only fertile once a year, for 24-72 hours, and the zoo had already tried unsuccessfully to get Mei Xang pregnant for eight years in a row. This year, though, they pulled it off, and Mei Xiang gave birth just a little over a week ago. The bad news, which you may have already heard, is that the baby died last weekend. Nobody really knows why just yet.
Reading the stories about the baby panda's death, I noticed that zookeepers had tried to revive the baby using CPR. And that got me curious. Just how, exactly, do you give a panda CPR. At Slate, L.V. Anderson tackles this question. Turns out, the process isn't all that different from resuscitating a human.
CPR is appropriate when a patient’s heart has stopped (whether or not the patient is human), and the goal is to maximize the amount of blood flowing out of the patient’s heart into other vital organs and to get some air into the patient’s lungs so the patient’s blood will be oxygenated. Some animals, including humans and baby pandas, have bodies shaped in such a way that the best way to pump the heart is to directly compress the chest. Other animals, Iike most dogs and cats, have much rounder chests, which makes it harder to directly compress the heart. With these animals, vets recommend compressing the chest from the side, which puts secondary pressure on the heart.
As anyone who’s recently taken a human CPR course knows, the rate of compression recommended for humans is about 100 beats per minute. (Doctors recommend pumping the chest to the beat of the Bee Gees song “Stayin’ Alive.”) The same rate of compression is recommended for animals; even though dogs and cats have a higher resting heart rate than humans do, the rate of 100 compressions per minute gives the heart a chance to refill with blood between compressions.
Via Laura Helmuth
Back in May, we linked you to the reporting of Outside's Grayson Schaffer, who was stationed in the base camps of Mount Everest, watching as the mountain's third deadliest spring in recorded history unfolded. Ten climbers died during April and May. But the question is, why?
From a technological standpoint, as Schaffer points out in a follow up piece, Everest ought to be safer these days. Since 1996 — the mountain's deadliest year, documented in John Krakauer's Into Thin Air — weather forecasts have improved (allowing climbers to avoid storms like the one responsible for many of the 1996 deaths), and new helicopters can reach stranded climbers at higher altitudes. But those things, Schaffer argues, are about reducing deaths related to disasters. This year, he writes, the deaths that happened on Everest weren't about freak occurrences of bad luck. It wasn't storms or avalanches that took those people down. It wasn't, in other words, about the random risks of nature.
This matters because it points to a new status quo on Everest: the routinization of high-altitude death. By and large, the people running the show these days on the south side of Everest—the professional guides, climbing Sherpas, and Nepali officials who control permits—do an excellent job of getting climbers to the top and down again. Indeed, a week after this year’s blowup, another hundred people summited on a single bluebird day, without a single death or serious injury.
But that doesn’t mean Everest is being run rationally. There are no prerequisites for how much experience would-be climbers must have and no rules to say who can be an outfitter. Many of the best alpinists in the world still show up in Base Camp every spring. But, increasingly, so do untrained, unfit people who’ve decided to try their hand at climbing and believe that Everest is the most exciting place to start. And while some of the more established outfitters might turn them away, novices are actively courted by cut-rate start-up companies that aren’t about to refuse the cash.
It’s a recipe that doesn’t require a storm to kill people. In this regard, things are much different now than in the past: they’re worse.
Image via Outside and photographer Rob Sobecki
In his lifetime, Vidal received the National Book Award, wrote many novels, short stories, plays and essays. He was a political activist, and received the most votes of any Democrat in more than 50 years when he ran as a Democratic candidate for Congress in upstate New York. Vidal's The City and the Pillar was one of the first American novels to present homosexuality in a direct manner, and outraged many at the time.
Four years ago, Jana Mackey, one of my college roommates at The University of Kansas, was killed by her ex-boyfriend. When I lived with Jana, I knew her as a music major and a really fun person. But she had a serious side that came to the forefront over the next few years. Jana went to law school, got involved in domestic violence activism, and became a lobbyist at the Kansas State Legislature trying to bring attention to women's health and safety.
Her work made her death tragically ironic, but it also drives home a point. Domestic violence (whether physical or emotional) isn't just something that happens to the naive, or the weak. It's not something you can write off as "somebody else's problem."
There's a picture going around Facebook right now, of a young woman holding a sign that says, "Society teaches, 'Don't get raped' when it should teach 'Don't rape.'" I think the same thing is true here. There's too much focus on finding reasons to criticize or distance ourselves from women who have been abused, and not enough of a focus on preventing abuse from happening—by teaching kids how to have healthy relationships, by encouraging family and friends to step in when they see someone they know being abusive, and by making sure cops and courts take domestic violence seriously.
Jana's family is trying to rectify this through a nonprofit called Jana's Campaign. The Campaign put out this video last winter. On the anniversary of Jana's death, I wanted to share it with you. There's a message here. Take it to heart. Together, we can stop asking people, "Why did you let that happen to yourself?" and, instead, find ways to change the social values and incentives that allow abusers to go unchallenged, untreated, and unpunished.
A long line of climbers follow each other up Mt. Everest. Image: Ralf Dujmovits.
1996 was the deadliest year in the history of modern climbing on Mt. Everest. In one May weekend, eight people died when they were caught on the mountain in a storm. Over the course of the year, the death toll climbed to 15 total.
In the wake of that year, people tried to make sense of what had happened—particularly when it came to the May 10/11 deaths. All the reporting brought some internal mountaineering debates into the public eye in a big way for the first time. Is it really a good idea to treat Mt. Everest as an adventure-minded tourist attraction, suitable for anyone with a little climbing experience and enough money? What are the risks of having lots of inexperienced, guided trekkers up on the mountain at the same time? Do those climbers have enough climbing instincts to make the right decisions about going on or turning back when they're exhausted and under the influence of a low-oxygen environment? What can their guides do, under those circumstances, to force a right decision? Remember: This isn't a place where help is readily available if you get into trouble. Helicopters can only go so high up the mountain. And if you collapse, the chances of somebody else being able to carry you down are pretty slim.
These questions are likely to come back into the spotlight now. Between May 18th and 20th—last weekend—four people died on Mt. Everest. One is still missing. This time, there was no storm. Instead, the problems seem to be a combination of human error, "everyday" harsh conditions, and the fact that 300 people were trying to summit the mountain all at the same time.
Grayson Schaffer, an editor for Outside has been in the Everest Base Camp for the better part of a month. He's not attempting to climb up the mountain, himself. His story on the deaths is very much worth reading.
"THIS IS THE FIRST TIME I've seen it like this," says Onzchhu Sherpa, 31. Starting on the night of May 18 and going through the 20th, roughly 300 climbers, guides, and Sherpas crowded onto the upper slopes of Everest's Southeast Ridge. From the 19,000-foot shoulder of a neighboring peak, where I was watching, Everest appeared to be lit up like a Christmas tree with the headlamps of climbers converging from the mountain's north and south sides.
... What I can tell you is that the mood at Base Camp has been overridingly gloomy since the news of the mishaps first began trickling down the mountain. On the 19th the air may have been filled with the customary bell ringing that that signifies a team member has just radioed in from the summit, but later in the evening I heard loud sobs coming from the direction of the Korean camp. Even now, two days after the chaotic events, the details are foggy. That's because of inherently poor communications and the fact that many climbers are so exhausted and woozy from their efforts at altitude that they have a hard time even remembering what happened during their own climbs, let alone those of their teammates and strangers. With radio communications further hampered by geology and an endless stream of information that’s difficult to verify, it would be easier to report on a moon landing.
Journalist, pundit, author, and gentleman philosopher Christopher Hitchens has died at 62, after a long battle with esophegeal cancer.
Photo: For the release of his memoir "Hitch 22," Hitchens poses for a portrait outside his hotel in New York, June 7, 2010. (REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)
Via writer Ned Sublette, who profiled him in this 2008 Bomb article, comes the sad news that New Orleans hoodoo bluesman Coco Robicheaux has died. He is said to have suffered a massive heart attack while sitting at the bar. He was 64 years old.