Author: Alan Bellows

Alan Bellows is the founder/designer/head writer/managing editor of Damn Interesting.

Aluminum Illuminated

The apex of the Washington Monument
The apex of the Washington Monument

Shortly after aluminum was first discovered in the early 19th century it was counted among the most precious metals on Earth owing how difficult it was to obtain the pure metal. At $1,200 per kilogram, it was worth more by weight than gold or platinum.

By 1884 the price had fallen a little, but it was still valuable enough that the US government commissioned a pyramid of the metal to use as the apex of the US Washington Monument. At 100 ounces it was the largest single piece of aluminum ever cast at that time. Before engineers affixed it to the top of the new tower in an elaborate ceremony, the pyramid spent two days in the window of Tiffany’s in New York City, gawked at by passers-by.

Later in the 1880s, however, researchers found a new method to extract aluminum from common bauxite. The price plummeted to $0.60 per kilogram by the early 1900s. Scientists now know that aluminum is the most abundant metal on Earth.

Although the element’s discoverer Humphry Davy originally named it “aluminum”, a name which follows the -um pattern established by similar elements (platinum, molybdenum, etc), the metal is known as aluminium in most places outside of the United States. This is due to an anonymous contributor to the British journal Quarterly Review in 1813 who felt “aluminum” was not sufficiently ostentatious, and insisted with inexplicable success that chemists insert the superfluous vowel.

When the Wright brothers needed a lightweight engine for their heavier-than-air flying machines, they used aluminum, but painted it black to throw their competitors off the scent. Still, aluminum proved too malleable to be a common aircraft building material until 1901, when German scientist Alfred Wilm accidentally discovered that an aluminum alloy with about 4% copper, heated to high temperatures and then left to slowly cool, was considerably stronger than aluminum alone, or any alloy cooled with the rapid “quench hardening” used for other metals. This slow-cooled alloy is an integral part of airplanes and architecture even today.

Although it is not the best conductor of electricity, aluminum is used almost exclusively in main overhead power lines due to its light weight. If a better conductor such as copper were used, many more poles and pylons would be necessary to keep the lines aloft.

Of Meteors and Men

In the early 1960s, General Electric proposed a system whereby an astronaut in a space emergency might abandon ship and return to the Earth. The system was originally proposed under the acronym M.O.O.S.E. (Man Out Of Space Easiest), but later replaced with the backronym Manned Orbital Operations Safety Equipment.

The compact design was roughly 200 pounds, and about the size of a suitcase. The endangered astronaut would don their space suit and exit the spacecraft with MOOSE in hand. Upon unpacking the MOOSE, the astronaut would strap a parachute to their chest, clamber into a polyester bag (while in a space suit, in microgravity), and activate a dispenser to inflate the bag with expanding polyurethane foam. Once fully entombed in hardened foam, the astronaut would use a hand-held retrorocket to orient the bowl-shaped escape pod, then engage a small rocket to propel themselves toward the Earth. An ablative heat shield would prevent the bag (and its occupant) from burning up on re-entry1, a radio would provide communication with ground-based stations, a manually-deployed parachute would ensure a survivable landing speed, and the foam underside would serve as a cushion for landing (or as a flotation device for a water-based landing). The polyurethane was formulated such that the astronaut could break their way our of the foamy cocoon upon landing, with easy access to a survival kit while awaiting rescue.

Despite the feasibility of this emergency escape pod, and an encouraging series of ground-based proving tests, neither the US Air Force nor NASA was interested. General Electric quietly shelved the project.

1 Contrary to common belief, when an object enters a planet’s atmosphere, the fiery heat that engulfs it is not due to friction with the air. At the supersonic speeds involved with atmospheric entry, much of the air cannot move aside fast enough, and the air trapped in front of the craft becomes extremely compressed. When a gas is compressed, its temperature increases proportionately, enough to cause combustion in the case of re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. Friction is a factor, but not a significant one.

National Treasure

Inside America’s Mount Rushmore National Monument there is a “secret” chamber known as the Hidden Hall of Records. Therein, under a 1,200 pound granite capstone, which is atop a titanium vault, which encloses a teakwood box, lie sixteen porcelain enamel panels with the texts of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights etched upon them. It also houses a biography of Gutzon Borglum—the supervising sculptor of Mount Rushmore—and the story of the presidents. The builders’ intent was to preserve copies of these documents for the far future. Just outside the vault is an inscription reading:

“…let we place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and the rain alone shall wear them away.”

—Gutzon Borglum, Sculptor

The Hidden Hall of Records is tucked amidst the cliffs on the backside of the mountain, and is not accessible to the public.

Relatedly, the carved heads are 80 times larger than an average human head. Originally Thomas Jefferson’s face was carved on Washington’s right, but the sculptors decided the rock there was too weak, so they blasted the face away and started again on Washington’s left. The original design of Mt. Rushmore included torsos, but funds ran short and builders stopped while they were a head.

Ghoulish Acts & Dastardly Deeds

On 29 March 1951, shortly after 5 p.m., a hand-grenade-sized pipe bomb exploded in the landmark Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Ordinarily, the detonation of a pipe bomb in a busy commuter terminal at rush hour would be cause for grave public concern, yet the local news media barely acknowledged the event.

It had been a hectic news day. In one of the shrillest moments in America’s infamous anti-communism “red scare,” husband and wife Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were both found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage. News from the ongoing war in Korea dominated the space below the fold. By comparison, the small explosion from the homemade pipe bomb at Grand Central didn’t hurt anyone; it merely startled passers-by and damaged a cigarette urn outside the Oyster Bar. Police dismissed the event as the work of “boys or pranksters.” The New York Times reported the event in the following day’s issue, though only with a three-paragraph brief at the bottom of page 24.

About four weeks later, another small bomb exploded inside a phone booth in the basement of the New York Public Library. Again, no one was injured, though the explosion damaged the booth—as well as the composure of a security guard leaning against the booth at the time. The NYPD bomb squad found fragments very similar to the Grand Central device; both were lengths of well-machined pipe with a cap on each end. Inside, a .25 caliber shell detonated a reservoir of explosive gunpowder packed with nuts and bolts. The alleged “boys or pranksters” had evidently reprised their prank—and they were far from finished.

Well-Rounded

The most perfectly spherical object ever observed by mankind is the electron. In a series of experiments led by physicist Jony Hudson at Imperial College London, electrons were anchored to a molecule of ytterbium fluoride and measured 25 million times with a laser beam. These data showed that the negatively charged subatomic particles are a perfect sphere to within one billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimeter. To illustrate this fantastic sphericity, the research team said that if one were to scale up an electron to the size of our solar system—about 12 billion kilometers wide—any deviation from its roundness would be smaller than the width of a human hair.

The researchers were disappointed at this outcome—they were hoping to find some irregularity in the shape of the electron to help explain why our universe has more matter than antimatter.

Fluid Identity

When a caterpillar enters the chrysalis stage, it is not merely sprouting wings to become a moth or butterfly. Enzymes inside the chrysalis completely dissolve the entire caterpillar—brain, organs, and all—into a nutrient-rich slurry of protein. Only a few cells remain alive. Once the caterpillar has self-digested, an alternate section of DNA inside the few remaining living cells is expressed, and the cells use the nutrient soup to multiply and develop the new organism. In essence the animal is a chimera; the caterpillar lives and dies, and an entirely new organism emerges from its remains.

Astonishingly, in spite of the radical liquefication of the original organism and its entire nervous system, some memories survive the transition. Researchers at Georgetown University have found that they can train caterpillars to avoid particular odors by associating them with a mild electric shock. After these trained caterpillars metamorphosized into moths they continued to avoid the shock-associated odors, demonstrating some kind of as-yet-inexplicable memory retention from the larval stage.

The Voyager Golden Record Experience

Happy Halloween! This has nothing to do with Halloween.

In 1977, in response to a fortuitous alignment of the outer planets of our solar system, NASA launched space probes Voyager 1 and 2 to tour the outer planets and transmit photographs back to Earth. In that capacity the Voyagers were spectacularly successful, sending tens of thousands of images of planets and moons back to Earth via radio. Both probes passed beyond the orbit of Pluto in the late 1980s, and they continue on toward interstellar space traveling at approximately 37,000 mph (almost 60,000 kph). They continue to transmit data back to Earth, and are expected to do so until around 2025, when their radioisotope thermoelectric generators will be exhausted, and unable to power any instruments.

In 40,000 years or so, Voyager 1 will pass within 1.6 light-years of the star Gliese 445, and at around the same time Voyager 2 will be within 1.7 light-years of the star Ross 248. If either of these systems happen to be home to an advanced alien civilization, there’s a chance they will detect and retrieve one of our plucky nuclear space robots.

In anticipation of the possibility of such proxy contact, NASA mission designers affixed a message from humanity to the side of each probe in the form of a phonograph record. These gold-plated copper records each contain an identical compilation of sounds and music from all over the Earth, as well as analog-encoded images. In the event that one of the probes is ever discovered by an intelligent alien species, the included instructions will hopefully allow them to decode the sounds and sights of our civilization.

We at Damn Interesting have put together an online simulation of what an alien civilization might see and hear upon decoding one of the records, assuming that their seeing and hearing abilities are similar to our own. For the best experience, a laptop or desktop screen size is recommended. We share these sounds and images under the “fair use” exception to copyright law due to the historical significance of the media. You can launch the interactive now, or read on for more background and technical detail.

LAUNCH INTERACTIVE →

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