Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Wing Walking Woman Wikified

A few months ago (April 2008) I completed my first significant Wikipedia contribution, a page about the wing walker Lillian Boyer.

I've been meaning to let you, my faithful blog readers, know about this (all three of you) since it represents an interesting slice of U.S. history and the life of a woman who was regularly performing amazing feats way back, when the grandmothers of the extreme sports enthusiasts of today were still in diapers.

What really compelled Lillian Boyer to start hanging off of airplane wings, I can't really say, but I imagine this was her way of expressing herself in an early era of woman's liberation akin to what the flappers were doing, with her own take on the unconventional.

Here's a short history of how her Wikipedia page came to be, in case you're interested:

As I was glancing randomly through a library book brought home by my son Russell when he was in Kindergarten (2006-2007), I happened across a page with an old photograph showing a woman hanging off an airplane wing (can't remember the title of the book, but I think the photo was this one).

It was very useful that Lillian arranged to have her full name plastered in a large, readable font across the body of her stunt plan, since the descriptive text in the book didn't mention her by name at all. It was only by reading her name on the airplane in the photograph that I was able to research her.

I eventually discovered photos of her at The Henry Ford's Heroes of the Sky online exhibit. Googling around the web for "Lillian Boyer" didn't reveal much, and I felt her spirit deserved better recognition. So I created Lillian's initial Wikipedia page (early Jan 2008) with just a little text and some pointers to The Henry Ford site. The article was quickly flagged by Wikipedia as not being sufficiently notable and in danger of getting axed.

So I decided to see if I could get the photos from The Henry Ford into Wikipedia directly. The Henry Ford graciously donated the seven images I requested, and after lots of further research into how exactly to submit them into Wikipedia, the images are now in place and the notability notice on Lillian's page has been removed.

It was quite a learning experience about all the various licenses that can cover different kinds of media in Wikipedia. Initially, I began submitting the photos as public domain by adding them to Wikimedia Commons, since they were taken before 1923. However, since there is some uncertainty in the date of the photos and since The Henry Ford still claims to control copyright on them, I removed them from Wikimedia Commons and submitted to Wikipedia directly under a more appropriate Non-Free/Fair Use license.

The Wikipedia page is quite sparse on her biographical information (compared to another early woman aviator Bessie Coleman, whose life is very well documented). If anyone has more biographical information about the (late?) great Ms. Boyer, please either contribute to her Wikipedia page directly, or let me know and I'll do it.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Man-made back hole could eat Earth this May August October 21st (2008) November 2009

That's when physicists will perform the first high-energy particle collisions with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. Actually, the chances of anything untoward happening is extremely unlikely. This is according to physics types, who were correct in predicting that the detonation of an atomic bomb would not in fact set fire to the Earth's atmosphere, as some had theorized at the time.

The threat of a planetary-scale disaster has certainly added to the air of excitement concerning the LHC. Sure, charting new territory into our understanding of matter and the Universe is exciting in a general, abstract sort of way. But the modicum of doubt about whether or not we could really obliterate the Earth in a single experiment injects a degree of tangibility that anyone can grasp, and has a way of inspiring awe in our technological prowess, notwithstanding the unlikeliness of such an outcome.

But just how unlikely is it? I'm not a physicist, but after browsing the web a bit, I wouldn't recommend cashing in your retirement account just yet. Here's my understanding of the situation: The micro black holes that might be created by high-energy collisions in the collider would be very, very tiny. They're so tiny, they would make a proton look ginormous. If there was a black hole the size of a proton, it would weigh 2 billion metric tons, or about 10^12 kg, but the micro black holes would weigh on the order of 10^-24 kg, so the micro black holes are around 36 orders of magnitude smaller than a proton. These micro black holes are expected to be ephemeral and dissipate almost as soon as they are created by something called Hawking radiation, though there's some speculation about whether Hawking radiation actually occurs.

Even if the micro black holes hung around for some time, they would consume matter at an exceedingly slow rate: about 1 iron atom every 3 hours. At this rate, it would take about 10^46 years to consume the Earth. So these quantum-scale black holes are really not much of a threat, and could teach us something.

The only risk is if billions of the micro black holes could persist long enough to coalesce into a larger black hole, which requires some other conditions being just right (the accretion occurring exactly at the center of mass of the collision; short-range gravitational forces being stronger than expected; not getting zapped by Hawking radiation; etc.). If all these things fall into place, the accreted man-made black hole would get pulled toward the Earth's core, sucking in matter along the way and rapidly growing ever denser until all matter on Earth gets compressed into a nugget about the size of a chunk of kitty litter.

Another danger unrelated to micro black holes that has been raised concerning the LHC is the potential generation of strangelets. But this threat seems even more remote than that from micro black holes (which is pretty darn remote). Still, if things start getting "strange" in May, well, it's been good to know you!

Regardless of what happens after the LHC goes into business (new discoveries about fundamental physics or world annihilation), my only regret is that it's not happening in the U.S.

Here are some additional links about the LHC buzz:

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Serendipitous mashup humor

There was an interesting convergence of unrelated AP news stories and Slashdot posts at ~4:20pm PST on 3/18/08, which made for this serendipitous yet seemingly insightful juxtaposition within my Yahoo main page.

I take it as a sign of political commentary by the collective intelligence of the Internet.

Here are links to the stories: