Category Archives: Science & Engineering

Green Burials, Ancient Chinese Style: Buddha Statue Holds Mummified Remains of Monk

A Chinese Buddha statue that dates from approximately the 11th or 12th century was found to have a mummified monk inside of it as well as even older pieces of rolled textile carpet, covered in Chinese text.  (Story from

The Buddha statue itself is made of gold-plated papier-mâché and, according to the carbon dating performed on it, was created around the eleventh or twelfth century. The monk inside of the statue may have performed self-mummification, wherein he slowly starved himself to death in a way that would promote mummification and reduce decay.  His body was then placed in a lotus position inside of the statue.

It’s interesting that we think of this as a mummified monk who was surprisingly found inside of a Buddha statue, rather than viewing the statue itself as a part of the mummification.  Here is the CT scan of the mummy:

Given that the Buddha statue seems to have so precisely matched the contours of the monk’s remains, it appears to be an artistic, elaborate coffin, rather than a statue that just happens to have a corpse hidden inside of it.  (Just bear in mind that my study of the classics was limited to Greece, Rome, and a smidge of Egypt, and ended sometime around 400 AD.)


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Shadow Selfies from Space

The Rosetta spacecraft inadvertently took a picture of its own shadow when it snapped a high-resolution image of Comet 67P.  (Story.)  Because this is the twenty-first century, wherein spacecraft take their own pictures on comets, the European Space Agency tweeted thus:

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#DeflateGate? #BallGate? #ColtsAreSoreLosersGate?

After the Patriots shellacked the Colts last night, 45-7, allegations surfaced that the Patriots cheated to win by… [drumroll]  deflating the footballs.  As a deflated football is easier to handle in the rain and 40-mph wind, the Patriots gave themselves an advantage by deflating the ball.  (The Colts did not reap any benefit from said deflated football, because they never actually managed to hang onto the ball for more than a millisecond.)  The allegations came because the referees were seen weighing the football.  Thus was born this bit of awesomeness:


Now that we have the lowbrow humour out of the way, let’s examine this whole premise of weighing a football to determine its internal pressure.

A football holds approximately 4.237 L of air and that air has a mass of approximately 10 grams.  The football itself weights approximately 400 grams.  The football is inflated to a pressure of between 12.5 and 13.5 psi. The referees inspect about three dozen footballs before the game to determine if they meet regulations.  What the #DeflateGate supporters allege, essentially, is that the footballs were underinflated because instead of having a mass of approximately 410 grams, plus/minus 5 grams, the football had a mass of, perhaps, 408 grams.

(I’ll let that one sink in.)

You don’t measure inflation by weight, especially not when that something is wet and has been bouncing around in the mud.  You measure inflation of a football the same way you measure the air pressure in your tires: with one of those nifty gauges that tells you the pressure.

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If it makes you feel better, gents, they don’t like us, either

“They” are radical feminists; “us” are female nerds.  Glenn Reynolds linked to an interesting piece about how lefty feminists treat nerd men.  (Short version: very badly.  Somewhat longer version: the women like reminding the men that they were dorks in high school and do their best to forever keep reminding those nerdy men that they aren’t good enough.)

Thing is, these women don’t like us, either.  I remember putting in eighty or hundred-hour weeks studying chemical engineering.  Far from making me a darling of the “feminist” Left, they screamed about how “unfair” it was that I was going to make more money than, say, a social worker or a writer. (It has not gone unnoticed that their tax policies hurt professional women in the private sector.)  Life didn’t get better as I got older; all I ever heard from “feminists” was that being a lady engineer wasn’t “feminist,” didn’t make me a “feminist,” or didn’t make me understand the plight of women in STEM.  Also in the “#@&$Q# I can’t make up” category is a games journalist who condescendingly implied that I can’t do math and that my space elevator work isn’t real engineering. They tell me that I’m “anti-science” because I don’t ignore every embryology textbook out there that explains why human life begins at conception.

This isn’t just me. All of two days ago, a woman at a NYE party described feminists as “for the most part, c-nts” who try to cut other women down.

I don’t know what it is – perhaps jealousy, perhaps the fact that a woman’s success undermines the ‘narrative’ of women as victims – but “feminists” aren’t that much kinder to nerdy women than they are to nerdy men. Sure, they bleat about “women in STEM!!!,” but it mostly seems like they want men to stop doing STEM, not to have more women kick butt in the field.

That’s not feminism; that’s just pathetic.

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There’s not just altitude sickness; there’s altitude mental illness

Utah is both the happiest state and the state with the highest suicide rate.  It’s a place with the shortest workweek, a lot of church goers, and gorgeous scenery.  However, the altitude may be responsible for the depression that many people in the “suicide belt,” i.e. the Rocky Mountains, feel:

But there’s another side to Utah that isn’t shown in surveys. Despite ranking as America’s happiest state, Utah has disproportionately high rates of suicide and associated mood disorders compared to the rest of the country. In fact, it’s the No. 1 state for antidepressant use. These polarized feelings of despondency and delight underlie a confusing phenomenon that Perry Renshaw, a neuroscientist at the University of Utah investigating the strange juxtaposition, calls the “Utah paradox.”

High altitude results in lower oxygen in the bloodstream, which reduces serotonin levels and increases dopamine levels.  Renshaw theorises that people with preexisting problems will feel worse at high altitudes, and those with more normal brain chemistry will feel happier. The correlation between altitude and suicide rate is striking:

Screen Shot 2014-11-13 at 2.17.58 PM

I wonder if psychologists and psychiatrists in the Rockies would ever counsel their clients to consider moving to a lower elevation.

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Thoughts on #ShirtStorm

This blog post should have been about the amazing human achievement of landing a space probe on a comet that moves at 40,000 mph and is located hundreds of millions of mils away from earth. Instead, it is about a nasty woman named Rose Eveleth, a woman who got her panties in a wad when Matt Taylor, an astrophysicist who was part of the team that landed Philae on the comet, wore a T-shirt that was made by one of his friends.

In a nutshell: a brilliant scientist wore a T-shirt made by his friend (a woman, for the record) when he was taped on the biggest night of his life.  It’s a Hawaiian-themed shirt with ’50s-style cartoons of women in bustiers who are shooting guns.  It’s fun and lighthearted, although not exactly professional.  But hey, when you land a rocket on a comet, you can wear whatever you damn well please.

Not all see it this way.  Science journalist Rose Eveleth tweeted out comments about how the T-shirt makes women unwelcome in STEM and “ruined the comet landing” for her, thus turning the EDS achievement into a Rose-Eveleth pity party. Matt Taylor was forced to make a tearful, blubbering apology, which wrecked the greatest week of his life. (It is worth noting that Eveleth is a science writer precisely because she sucks at doing actual science.  In an interview with Scientific American, she said, “It really wasn’t until college when I was studying abroad and doing research that I realized I’m just not a very good scientist. I didn’t really care as much about the data as I did about the stories I could tell about it. “) Feminism doesn’t have to be this way, kids.

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Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick

As #GamerGate and the associated scandals enter their second (third? fourth? this is what I get for working insane hours all summer) month, the commentary from all sides continues.   I found this post by Serious Pony, a feminist in gaming, to be particularly interesting.  She describes online threats, harassment, and an environment that is unusually toxic to women.  (Hat tip.)

As a former R&D engineer, now attorney, I’m no stranger to the plight of women in high-powered and male-dominated professions. Unfortunately, neither am I a stranger to sexual harassment.  (Description of my career path: I needed a lawyer, not to become a lawyer.)  My stepmom, who was the highest-ranking woman in her division of a multi-national bank before she retired from banking, is no stranger to sexist crap.  I have friends who are engineers, PhDs, and private equity rock stars, all of whom face sexism in their industries. Yet what is described by Serious Pony completely eclipses the problems they’ve had.

As one of my former colleagues said about being a woman engineer, “When you’re in college, all the men think you only got there because of affirmative action.  But once you make it through, they know that you’re capable and often respect you even more for doing it despite the hurdles women face.”  With the exception of a few people (although what doozies they were), that is a completely accurate description of my experience when I was in STEM.

A woman in STEM.  As Serious Pony, aka Kathy Sierra, wrote,

There is only one reliably useful weapon for the trolls to stop the danger you pose and/or to get max lulz: discredit you. The disinformation follows a pattern so predictable today it’s almost dull: first, you obviously “fucked” your way into whatever role enabled your undeserved visibility. I mean..duh. A woman. In tech. Not that there aren’t a few deserving women and why can’t you be more like THEM but no, you are NOT one of them.

“A woman. In tech.”

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Hey, #ThankAFeminist peeps, stop trying to take credit for my life

There is now a #ThankAFeminist hashtag that encourages people to thank a feminist for whatever has gone right in their lives. Apparently, I’m supposed to thank Amanda Marcotte and Jessica Valenti, who partied and slept their way through college, for my engineering degree. According to this hashtag, I owe a big thanks for my car-repair skills to women who can’t tell the difference between a fuel pump relay and a timing belt.  My law degree? Some co-ed with a  twitter handle made that happen.

Really, ladies, stop trying to take credit for my life.

To the extent that I owe people for my engineering career, that would be my parents, who paid the bills for university; my grandfather, who first floated the idea of engineering school; and my former manager, who got her PhD from MIT in the ’60s and is a great role model. I owe no thanks to the chickies with Women’s Studies degrees. They weren’t pulling all nighters studying quantum mechanics and differential equations so that I could get my beauty sleep; I was the one studying my arse off while they partied.

We owe particular feminists for the right to vote and own property, the 1963 equal pay laws, and the ability to get an education. But those feminists are long dead, and the proper way to thank them is to vote, work, and study hard.  There’s no reason for us to grovel at the feet of third-wave fauxminists who haven’t done a damn thing besides lobby Congress to force nuns to buy their birth control. (One particular female political figure did inspire me to get involved in politics, but we’ve all seen how modern feminists treat Sarah Barracuda.  #ThankAFeminist for destroying the most inspiring female politician in a generation…?!)

Am I getting worked up about this? Sure. But every high achieving person I know says that their successes have taken a lot out of them as people.  The long hours of work, lack of sleep, delay in starting a family, not seeing the kids, not spending time with friends, missing weddings, moving anywhere in the country for school or a job. They made the sacrifices, and it’s insane to imply that drunken Lena Dunham did the heavy lifting.

They deserve better. We all deserve better. #ThankAFeminist for disparaging every meaningful thing in your life.

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Girl Power: Car Repair Edition

A few weeks ago, my check engine light came on.  I got myself to Autozone, had the codes scanned, and found out that my upstream oxygen sensor is on the fritz. (The person at Autozone told me that it was “bank 1, sensor 1,” and that I have four oxygen sensors; however, extensive examination of my undercarriage revealed that I only have two oxygen sensors – one upstream, one downstream.)

Autozone wanted $313 or so for the sensor, but I found one on for less than $150. After some more research (thanks, Matthew’s Volvo site!), I found that the procedure for replacing an oxygen sensor is as follows:

  1. Put car up on car ramps;
  2. Once engine is cool, douse oxygen sensor in PB Blaster or WD-40 and wait about ten minutes;
  3. Using special oxygen sensor wrench, remove oxygen sensor;
  4. Unplug other end of oxygen sensor (note: in Volvo V70s, the upstream sensor has a black plug and the downstream sensor has a grey plug);
  5. Install new sensor.

Bizarrely, it was almost that easy. Mr. Velociraptor’s dad has car ramps and an oxygen sensor wrench, so we went to his place for the repair. (Confession time: when I described the exhaust system, I said something about the engine leading to a metal piece that is the ‘size and shape of a doughnut.’  Mr. Velociraptor and his father were entirely confused until the latter said, “You mean a flange?”  I also described the catalytic converter as ‘something that looks like a giant metal slug.’  For those trying this repair at home, the upstream sensor is right near the doughnut, and the downstream sensor is plugged right into the giant metal slug.)

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The dangers of semi-autonomous cars

About six or seven years ago, I was driving on a nearly empty stretch of I-95 in Connecticut around midnight when a car cut me off. The driver slammed on his brakes, and, with no room for me to safely get around him, I braked, too. He came to a stop in the middle lane of the highway, with me a half-car length behind him, panicked out of my mind. As cars came up behind us, most heard my beeping, saw the hazards, and steered around us.

My half-baked plan to not die if I got rear-ended by a car going 65 mph was to hit the accelerator, smash into the car in front of me, and, using basic laws of physics, have the hypothetical car behind me propel both our cars forward as a unit. The dual purpose of the plan was to ensure that by the time my car was hit, I had already overcome static friction and could be pushed ahead more easily (i.e. reducing the momentum change that kills you) and, if the car in front of me is already moving, would avoid breaking my neck when slammed forward by the hypothetical rear-ending car and then slammed to a stop by the car in front.  (Thankfully, I didn’t need to use that plan; the car in front of me suddenly drove off after about a minute, which was also coincidentally a mere ten seconds before a police cruiser drove up.  Insurance scam, anyone?)

Suffice to say, the idea of a semi-autonomous car that cannot be overridden scares the crap out of me.  I’m all for avoiding fender-benders, but the gross accidents that can kill you are the ones to be scared of – and are precisely the sort that are hard to prevent via semi-autonomous (read: half-brained) software.  What could have saved my life is exactly what that software doesn’t want you to do: slam down the accelerator and go plowing into the car in front of you. Software is good at keeping itself focused on tasks like “Don’t hit the car in front of you” or “beep when there is someone in the blind spot,” but is distinctly terrible at making value judgements, e.g. it is better to rear-end the car in front of you than be frozen in place when rear-ended at 65 mph, or it’s better to swerve off the road than be killed by a tractor trailer that is spinning out of control.

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