Last week's Curios covered a one-house town in Alaska, the ill-fated NHL glow puck, and how marketers got us to love diamonds.
Curio No. 1046 | How the world got in tune
Do, re, mi. If you play an A key on a piano and compare it to an A string on a guitar, they should sound the same--assuming the instruments have been tuned correctly. But it wasn't always this way. Prior to the 16th century, one man's A was another man's C#. It wasn't until composers like Mozart started to write music with a specific pitch in mind that the need for standard tuning became apparent. Singers complained of straining their voice for orchestras that tuned high. Snapped violin strings were another casualty of over tuning. Finally, in 1859, the French government stepped in. They decreed that the A above middle C on a piano, called A4, should be at a frequency of 435 Hz... keep reading.
Curio No. 1045 | Live with thy neighbor
Talk about a close community. In the town of Whittier, Alaska, virtually all 200 residents live under the same roof. The town's "house," called Begich Towers, is a giant structure built in 1957 as a military outpost on the frontier of the Cold War. Its 14 stories house ¾ of the full-time residents of Whittier, as well as many of their town's amenities. The first floor holds the city hall, police station, laundromat and post office. Then there's the grocery store, quite useful for a midnight snack. The Towers also contains its own church and health clinic. Having everything under one roof explains why residents are often seen throughout the day in their pajamas and slippers... keep reading.
Curio No. 1044 | A caterpillar that freezes itself to live
The Arctic woolly bear moth (Gynaephora groenlandica) can live up to 20 years--one of the longest known lifespans for an insect--in the Arctic. To be fair, it spends its life frozen and inactive, except for one month each summer. How it manages to survive the Arctic winters has interested scientists for decades. Here's how. It stays a caterpillar for its first fourteen years. During that time, the insect is able to survive temperatures as low as -70°C. In the month of June, the caterpillar takes in as much heat as possible to push its body temperature to 25°C above the actual temperature... keep reading.
Curio No. 1043 | Advertising is forever
Are diamonds really forever? Last year, a 12.03-carat diamond sold at auction for $48.4 million--making it the most expensive diamond by weight ever sold. How did a tiny piece of crystallized carbon become worth so much? The same way an Andy Warhol painting of a soup can did: marketing. It began in 1938 at the New York City offices of the N.W. Ayer ad agency. Ernest Oppenheimer--then the head of De Beers, the largest diamond corporation in the world--had called a meeting with the president of N.W. Ayer to discuss falling price of diamonds. The value of diamonds had been flat ever since the 1870s, when a giant influx of South African diamonds destroyed the illusion that diamonds were rare... keep reading.
Curio No. 1042 | The father of traffic jam science
"Yay traffic!" said no one, ever. If you are one of the 38 million Americans on the road this Memorial Day weekend, you are probably choosing a different word than "Yay." So here's some leisure reading about how traffic really works. (But please no Curio-reading behind the wheel!) The father of traffic science was Bruce Greenshields, a civil engineer born in a small Kansas town (the same one as my grandfather!) at the turn of the 20th century. He developed the fundamental diagram of traffic flow as a graduate student at the University of Michigan in the 1930's. It was simply illustrated, with three charts predicting the relationship between traffic flow, traffic density, and the resulting traffic velocity... keep reading.
Curio No. 1041 | Wood you can see through
Move over glass, there's a new see-through material in town. Wood? Two groups of scientists have independently established a process for removing the pigment from wood to make it transparent. First, the wood is soaked in a chemical bath. This removes the lignin--a type of naturally-occurring polymer that gives wood its tan color. Then, a colorless polymer is added to replace the lignin and keep the wood strong. The applications for transparent wood are endless... keep reading.
Curio No. 1040 | The icy tragedy of NHL's glowing puck
Follow the puck. When Fox Sports bought the TV rights to the NHL in 1994, they realized they had a problem. Hockey had a dedicated following of fans. But its TV appeal was low. Executives theorized people didn't like watching hockey on TV because they couldn't see the puck. So they allocated $2M and a team of engineers to make the puck more visible on TV. Their solution was one of the biggest failed experiments in televised sports history. Called the FoxTrax puck, or the "glow puck," it was a custom-built puck containing 20 LED bulbs. The bulbs were detected by infrared sensors placed in the rafters of each arena... keep reading.