Sunday, February 5th, 2012

What do you call that empty space at the top of a beer bottle? There’s already a word for it that goes back centuries, but I don’t think I heard anyone use one word consistently for it until the last five or ten years when I started hanging around beer brewers, who usually call it headspace.

The traditional name for it, going back a few centuries, is ullage. I wanted to find out where the term came from, so I looked it up in a two-volume Funk and Wagnall’s dictionary I snagged at Saint Vinnie’s a couple weeks ago for three bucks, a purchase I am still feeling well chuffed about. I have in my possession, ah, let us say, more than two dictionaries, but I digress. Ullage comes from a French word and, I have to assume, so does the clunky definition in my old dictionary:

ullage: the amount that a container lacks of being full.

“Lacks of being full?” What kind of incomprehensibly uptight way is that to describe a concept as simple as “the empty space above the liquid?” It left such a bad taste in my mouth that I looked it up in a modern edition of Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary that I have long regarded as the non plus ultra of desk dictionaries. It had the same goofy definition, word for word, as if they’d plagiarized it from Funk and Wagnall’s. I’m not saying they did, but it’s weird that Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate described ullage using the exact same, nearly opaque wording that Funk and Wagnall’s did nearly forty years earlier. And so did Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate. What the hell?

Descending to my basement lair, I consulted Volume Two of The New Century Dictionary of the English Language (pock-mark to zy-mur-gy, and supplements) to see if they spoke in this stuffy, backwards-assed manner in the 1920s. Well, duh. Of course they did. Verbatim. Almost as if an Intelligent Designer decreed many moons ago that ullage would for all time be known as “the amount that a container lacks of being full,” no matter how much it makes anyone sound like a complete doof.

Speaking of sounding like a complete doof, I might never have heard of this word if I didn’t incessantly read about the moon landings. Rocket fuel floats around in the tanks that hold it, just like astronauts float around inside their space ships, but like the gas tank in your car there’s only one way for the fuel to get out: through a pipe running from the bottom of the tank. To make sure the fuel is down there to feed the rocket, astronauts give the ship a little jog forward with the maneuvering thrusters just before firing the main engine, which they report to the ground by saying, “Ullage.”

Too bad the landings didn’t take place forty years later, when they could have said, “Headspace.”

ullage | 2:41 pm CST
Category: hobby | Tags: , ,
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Friday, July 22nd, 2011

image of space shuttle Atlantis' re-entryI know our problems down here on earth are so very huge that it seems nobody has the enthusiasm left over to care about what’s going on it orbit or on the moon or even on Mars, but take a gander for just a moment, won’t you, at this awesome freaking photograph. (If you click on it, you’ll get a mind-blowing 1.8 MB enlargement to peruse at length.) It was taken by one of the crew members aboard the International Space Station who was looking out the window when the space shuttle Atlantis streaked by underneath, heading for a landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

This is what photographers call a night shot. The face of the earth is in shadow, so the guy with the camera took a very long exposure, maybe ten seconds, maybe thirty or more, to get enough light to fall through his camera lens so he could record this moment.

The length of the exposure is the reason the earth looks a little blurry. The space station is hustling along at about twenty thousand miles per hour, so it moved far enough in ten seconds (or whatever) to make it impossible to get a clear shot of the cloudcover. But the long exposure made it possible to record Atlantis’ re-entry as a long, fiery streak which, now that I think of it, might have been there even if they had taken a shorter exposure. The streak is ionized gas, a visible trail of the enormous amount of energy the shuttle sheds by crashing into the atmosphere. It’s hitting the atmosphere so hard that the gasses that make up the air are not merely set on fire by the friction, their electrons have been excited to the point that they’re emitting visible radiation. This is the kind of fire that alien invaders will use to roast us like ants when they finally arrive to harvest the earth on their journey toward total galactic domination. Gunpowder and bullets are sticks and stones compared to setting the atmosphere on fire at the atomic level.

Air isn’t something you normally think of as a solid object but, at the speed the shuttle is moving, it is. You can see the boundary of the atmosphere in the photograph as a thin, green line that astronauts call “airglow.” The sun (or the moon, not sure) is illuminating it from behind, so you get to see it here as a shell around the planet. * It’s about sixty miles thick, which seems like a lot until you learn that the breathable stuff is a layer barely a mile and a half thick. That’s why airplanes have to power dive and those comical-looking plastic masks drop out of the ceiling if a window blows out. The rest of what is considered atmosphere is just dead weight holding the breathable stuff against the surface of the planet, and – here’s the part that should interest you – it’s slowly diffusing into space. The breathable stuff has to be replenished by the activity of the plants and animals here on the surface, and that’s why rock stars, tree huggers and biologists keep yapping about carbon emissions. The carbon they’re talking about is, basically, aerial shit. We’re shitting into the breathable stuff. Plants and animals are not made to breathe shit.

If I seem to have wandered from the topic, I humbly submit that you are mistaken. If you’ll just look at this photo, you can see why it’s important to explore other worlds, or just to go into orbit where we can look back at our own home planet. Even if you don’t know about the ions and the carbon and gas diffusion, you can see them in action in this photo. It’s photographs like this, and other ways of gathering information, that give us a source of data to work out the puzzle of how the universe works.

Also, it’s cool. Really cool.

*I’ve learned since I posted this drivel that airglow is not just the light of the sun or the moon being diffused through the atmosphere. The air around our planet actually glows.

glow | 7:50 am CST
Category: current events | Tags: , ,
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Sunday, October 10th, 2010

image of starship Enterprise

I’ve been gaping at this in slack-jawed wonder for two days now and I’ve only just now regained the self-composure needed to reel my tongue all the way back in. This is the coolest fan art I’ve ever seen. Ever. (The thumbnail doesn’t do it justice; click on the image to gargantu-size.)

This image should be next to “labor of love” in the dictionary, if they still print dictionaries with pictures. It’s the work of douglas e. graves, who styles himself deg, and you can find more eye-poppingly amazing images of the Enterprise at his web site on the “TOS.5 Enterprise” pages.

Deg says he’s been in love with The Big E since the day in 1966 he first laid eyes on it. “She is pure genius painted upon the canvas of space,” he rhapsodizes. “Beauty and strength combined like none before her, or since. A literal ship of dreams …” Being a graphic designer, deg felt a growing need to lend his artistic ability to clarify her appearance, while keeping “her lines and profile … 100% intact, and only refit her detailing with hopefully a more realistic industrial design and feel.”

And that he most certainly did. Deg’s images of the Enterprise look so much more like high-quality photos of a full-sized, inhabitable space craft. The secret appears to be in the details. I thought I was a nerd for this kind of thing, but deg appears to have way more time to tease out the details of every little bump and hull marking than I ever did. The spirit of the wooden model used to film the television series is still there, but in deg’s images Enterprise now looks like a ship you might actually see, if we had space stations and star ships which, sadly, we don’t, dammit. Dammit dammit DAMMIT!

The Big E | 11:01 am CST
Category: entertainment | Tags: ,
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