Sunday, April 30, 2006

Finally, a jet-powered VW Bug

I'd always wondered why none of our local Silicon Valley techies had gotten around to customizing a Volkswagen with a jet engine. Well, at long last one has: Ron Patrick, owner of ECM, a Sunnyvale-based automotive technology firm, has put a quarter-million dollars into attaching a General Electric T58-8F jet engine developing 1450 horsepower to a 2000 VW Beetle. The SF Chronicle provides in-depth coverage of his engineering feat, and I think I smell a Pulitzer in their future - or maybe it's just jet fuel.

While it's illegal to power up the jet engine on California's highways, Patrick admits to having done so on occasion and hasn't been pulled over for it yet. (And I have to wonder if a cop would be able to catch him anyway if he really opened up the throttle.) In addition to the intoxicating speed, he mentions that the deafening sound is a big part of the experience: "Just starting it up, it's like a (Boeing) 747 landing in your front yard."

As to why he did it, the motives are straightforward and most excellent: "The purpose of this car is to have fun and be stupid...This is entertainment. It's a toy, a toy for silly boys."

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Quantum effects in biology: enzymes use quantum tunneling to speed chemical reactions

For those who, like me, are curious how the strange behavior of particles on a subatomic level affects the biological processes that make life possible and keep us walking around everyday, some fascinating new research has come out in the journal Science on how quantum phenomena help enzymes speed biochemical reactions. Indeed, without such quantum help, it seems unlikely we'd be here at all.

"While classical theory states that enzymes speed up the reaction by lowering the energy barrier, quantum tunneling allows the reaction to occur by tunneling through the barrier," explains one of scientists involved, David Leys of the University of Manchester. "As such, the reaction can occur at greater speeds than if the particle would have to reach energies high enough to surmount the barrier."

You can read more about the enzyme research in the April 14 edition of Science as well as in this article from Seed Magazine entitled "The Quantum Shortcut". Some interesting questions this raises are how the unusual quantum effects of nonlocality and entanglement addressed by Bell's Theorem might impinge on reactions that rely on quantum phenomena.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Giant chunks of ice falling mysteriously from the sky? Just another day in Oakland...

It's been raining for weeks and weeks here in the Bay Area, and lately the precipitation has taken a rather disturbing turn. It seems a large chunk of ice recently fell to earth in Oakland's scenic Bushrod Park, less than a mile from my house. By large, I mean over 200 pounds. No ordinary hail, to say the least. According to this Oakland Tribune story, such mysterious ice falls have been recorded the world over. Some ostensible experts claim that pieces of ice on this scale form on aircraft, and tend to break off as they're preparing to land. So that's one possibility, especially since the Oakland airport isn't too far from where the marauding cube dug its two-foot wide crater. Though the article also helpfully notes that similar impacts were being recorded well before the invention of aircraft.

Just for speculative kicks, one can't help but wonder what else might it be...a miniature comet, spillage from a celestial cocktail hour, debris from a secretive, high-impact version of curling? Beyond the eminently sensible and equally dull aircraft hypothesis, the scientific community doesn't seem to have many answers. "I don't like to claim that anything is absolutely impossible, but this comes awfully close," one expert on hail told Science magazine.

Reassuring words indeed. While our nation's scientists continue to seek the source of our enigmatic frozen adversary, I'm going to go price some titanium roofing.

Ice Update, April 14:

It seems that disconcertingly large pieces of ice continue to plummet earthwards here in California, with another chunk landing on the gymnasium of Loma Linda University in San Bernardino County, way down there in SoCal. Read all about it...if you dare. Of course you dare.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Ever wonder how you'd go about eating the snails in your garden? Well wonder no more...

After discovering hordes of cute but voracious little snails overrunning my garden, I got to wondering, as I often do about living things that cross my path, whether they're edible. I had a plateful of escargot long ago at Chez Jean in Cambridge, MA (now Chez Henri's) and I kinda liked the flavor -- the flavor being primarily butter and garlic and salt and also more butter. So I did some research on the handy Interweb and discovered that the snails colonizing my garden here in the Bay Area are the very same species that populate the plates of French gourmands. Apparently a French entrepreneur imported them to the region during the Gold Rush in the hopes of satisfying the palates of sophisticated miners. It turned out there weren't many miners matching that description, so he ended up dumping his inventory, bequeathing us the legions of pesky escargot who defoliate our gardens today.

If you like combining your pest control efforts with culinary experimentation, you can learn how to serve up the slimy yet savory suckers in this SF Chronicle interview with Berkeley horticulturist and snail aficionado Victor Yool. The key steps are:

  • Obtain a supply of snails by perusing various outdoor plants. Calla lilies are apparently one likely locale.

  • Rid the snails of any impurities, such as snail poison set out by less enterprising gardeners. This can be accomplished by feeding them corn meal or tasty greens or some other mild vegetarian diet for a couple weeks. Yes, a couple weeks. I never said this would be fun. You'll also need a secure place to keep your snails; some sort of large plastic bin with a top to prevent escape should do the trick.

  • Next, toss them all in a pot of boiling water and skim off the vast quantities of nasty scum that will apparently arise as a result. In fact, you may need to change the water, such are the quantities. Again, never said this would be fun. After all the scum's gone, your snails are ready for eating.

  • Since snails don't taste like much (though one ungenerous soul mentioned in the interview likened them to burned rubber bands) you should now douse them in some combination of butter, salt, pepper, garlic, and any other spices that come to mind. Or if nothing in particular comes to mind, here are some escargot recipes to help things along.

    Incidentally, I also once ate a plate of grasshoppers. Or perhaps they were locusts. Definitely not katydids, though. In flavor, they combined the subtle charms of shrimp and corn nuts. In appearance, they resembled a car windshield after a high-speed crossing of the Great Plains. One of these days I'll track down some recipes for those tasty critters as well.