Saturday, May 3, 2014
Thursday, June 20, 2013
Saturday, August 4, 2012
Saturday, June 16, 2012
But you are conscious, only there is no way you can tell the world. You listen to conversations around you -it's an election year, it appears-, you agree, you disagree, you strongly disagree.
You know your family is grieving. You'd like to let them know you are there, but you are locked in, as if in a different plane of existence, in a parallel universe.
One day one of the voices you spend your life listening to to pass the... time?... addresses you.
"Can you hear me?" it says, incongruously. The owner of the voice knows that, whatever the answer is, you will not answer. However, it is clear that the owner of the voice thinks that the answer is yes.
The voice says something odd.
"Imagine you are playing tennis."
You do. You have never played, but you have no trouble imagining the sequence of movements needed to hit the ball. While you're at it, and just for the heck of it, you imagine the sun on your face.
"Now imagine you are walking around your house. Show us around."
You go upstairs to your room. "This is my room," you'd say. Then down to the yard.
Elation in the other universe.
They make you repeat the tasks. It has been so long since anyone asked you to do things. Your family talks to you, but they never ask you to perform tasks. They do not really believe you can hear them. Now someone is requiring you to actually do things. How do they know you are responding? You tell yourself they probably have you hooked to some kind of brain scanning machine.
You wait for more instructions, but the voice just wants you to perform these two tasks over and over. Are you dreaming? What does dreaming mean in your universe?
Then you understand.
"I'm going to ask you some questions", the voice says. "I want you to imagine you're playing tennis if the answer is yes and imagine you're walking around your house if the answer is no, ok?"
Clever, you think (how does that thought show on the brain scanner?)
"Is your father's name Thomas?"
You go around your house.
"Is it Bob?"
"Do you have brothers?"
Whack! You hit the tennis ball with all your might and mark a point. Yes! Yes!
"Do you have sisters?"
A quiet walk from the yard to the living room. You don't have sisters.
"That is correct," says the voice, barely containing its elation after several more questions. You are elated too.
They have found you.
Time passes, you don't know how much. Time means little to you in your locked-in universe. The voice comes back. You can sense the hesitation when it says:
"This is something your family wants to know. I don't know how else to put it. Should we discontinue life support?"
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
One of these players is a professional violinist, the other a particle physicist. Can you tell which is which? How can you tell?
Friday, July 2, 2010
People strolling around downtown Mexico City in 1875 might have come across countless “pulquerías” with odd names (pulque is a beverage made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant, Wikipedia dixit). But for weirdness of denomination none beat the latest addition to the long list of hangouts for the brothers in pulque: ”El tránsito de Venus.” The name was no allusion to Roman mythology, but the pulque fraternity´s way of celebrating a major scientific event that took place in 1874.
That was the year a Mexican expedition traveled to Japan to observe the transit of the planet Venus across the sun´s disk. Venus transits occur in pairs, the second transit in a pair coming eight years after the first. Consecutive pairs of transits happen at intervals of more than one hundred years. The transit of 1874 was the first in a pair, the previous one having taken place on June 3, 1769.
Venus transits are interesting because they allow scientists to measure “solar parallax” --a quantity from which the earth-sun distance can be accurately computed. The Mexican team was part of an international effort to determine solar parallax. Enthusiastic about the project, President Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada chose Francisco Díaz Covarrubias, a geographer from the Colegio de Minería, as head of the expedition. There were, at the time, no secure roads between Mexico City and the Pacific, so Díaz Covarrubias and his team took a train to Veracruz, stopping in Orizaba for several days after learning that an epidemic of black vomit was ravaging the port. From Veracruz they traveled to Havana and Philadelphia, then on to New York, where they inquired about ships leaving San Francisco for Japan. (No, I don´t know why they took such a roundabout route.) They then crossed the United States, arrived in San Francisco, and on October 19, sailed aboard the steamer Vasco de Gama. The Mexican expedition made landfall in Yokohama on November 9, 1874, precisely one month before the transit.
Díaz Covarrubias intended to build two observation stations on Japanese soil, but he needed permits. Unfortunately, they had reached Japan at the time of a national holiday, and Díaz Covarrubias had to wait for several days before he got an answer from the Japanese government. During this time he hired a Chinese carpenter who understood some English to assemble the stations. When the government finally responded, it did so handsomely. They even provided a special telegraph line for the Mexicans to communicate with their American and French counterparts, in Kobe and Nagasaki. The transit was duly observed on December 8-9, 1874.
Díaz Covarrubias and his men sailed home via the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Suez canal, the Mediterranean, and Paris, where they published their results. They then crossed the Atlantic to Veracruz. On November 19, 1875, the train carrying the Mexican expedition rolled into the Buenavista station. The men were given a hero’s welcome, recounted the following day in the daily El siglo diecinueve .
I wonder if the event stirred the patrons of “El tránsito de Venus.” Did they discuss it? Did the pulquería take pride in making the news that day? Did a chorus of pulque-besotted voices toast the men who had sailed around the world to witness the event celebrated in their saloon´s strange name?
Whatever the reaction of the pulquería´s clients, the following year Porfirio Díaz, the new president (and future dictator), signed a decree whereby Mexico was officially given a National Observatory.