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Weekend Diversion: Thanksgiving Turducken!

November 29, 2008 on 1:00 am | In Random Stuff | 7 Comments

We hosted Thanksgiving this year, and our menu included both alcohol:

  • Jameson’s Irish Whiskey
  • Tanqueray Gin
  • Newcastle Brown Ale
  • Fat Tire Amber Ale
  • Sierra Nevada Christmas Ale
  • PBR

As well as some amazing food:

  • Mashed sweet potatoes and yams
  • Cranberry relish with strawberries and pineapple
  • Green bean casserole
  • Oven baked dinner rolls
  • White chocolate chip and craisin cookies
  • Key lime pie
  • Carrot Cake from scratch

and the featured item:


But that is not my Turducken, that’s the kind you see in dreams and movies. But I sure did want one that looked like that. So what did we do? Let’s show you, because it was fun and awesome and I recommend that everyone do it at least once! Here’s how:

Get a fresh turducken from a butcher/market. You do not want to mess around with either deboning your own chickens/ducks/turkeys or with thawing a pre-frozen meat cube. Both those things are pains to do and getting a fresh turducken saves you all that trouble. If you don’t mind having a smaller turducken (about 10 lbs. total or less) you can pick yours up the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, but if you want a bigger one (15 lbs.+) you should really go on the Monday before to get it.

Put the Turducken, breast up, in a roasting pan on top of a wire rack. The wire rack is really important, since your Turducken will not cook evenly if it’s down on the floor of the roasting pan; it needs a space of air between it and the pan. Preheat your oven to 225 degrees Fahrenheit, and be aware that it’ll probably take around 8 hours to fully cook. You’ve got to cook it that slowly because you need to both cook the center and not have the outside dry out. Just do this in the morning when you wake up on Thanksgiving.

Baste the Turducken in chicken broth and its own drippings. It’s important to do this really often. People always complain that the outer layer of the Turducken, the turkey, dries out. This is why you need to cook it at such a low temperature, and also why you need to continuously baste it. I did it every half-hour for eight hours, and that was pretty good, but probably every 20 minutes would’ve been better. You’ll need 3-4 cans of chicken broth to get you through the whole Turducken; put them in one at a time when the bottom of the pan dries out and basting becomes difficult. Also, remember to take the thermometer out of the center of the bird or it burns up and stops working.

Take the Turducken out of the oven when the internal (center-of-the-bird) temperature reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit. We waited about eight hours and the inside of the bird wouldn’t go up past 155. We turned up the oven a little bit at the end (to 275 F) to finish the bird off. It has to cool for at least 30 minutes, so this is a great time to throw any last-minute dishes (like, oh, the potatoes, the green bean casserole, the carrot cake, etc.) into the oven.

Carve the Turducken in slices across the body of the bird. This way you get slices of all the different meats inside of every slice. I’m not a gravy fan, so I didn’t sweat it, but you can totally make gravy from the drippings if you like. And when you’re all done?

Save the delicious leftovers. The turkey is still the best part of the Turducken, but the other meats are definitely interesting and totally add to the feast.

Thanksgiving’s also the anniversary of when my wife Jamie and I met, so this was an extra special holiday for me; it makes me really thankful and appreciative of all the good things life has to offer. I hope you enjoy the ones you have this Thanksgiving weekend.

Is Ice-Nine Possible?

November 28, 2008 on 6:13 pm | In Physics | 13 Comments

Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite authors. He comes up with lots of interesting science-fiction scenarios, like instantaneous travel through space in Sirens of Titan, humans causing their own extinction by making the whole populace sterile in Galapagos, and perhaps most famously, freezing all the water on the planet in Cat’s Cradle.

How did he propose to do it? With ice-nine, a hypothetical new phase of water. Vonnegut tells us that this new phase of ice is unusually stable, and it forms ice crystals that are more stable than normal ice crystals, at a temperature of 44 Celcius (109 Fahrenheit). Since it’s a more stable molecular configuration for water to be in the ice-nine form, though, you can drop it into a glass of water, or a lake, or anything, and it will cause all the water to form into the more stable, crystalline form of ice-nine. (Of course, this could also be used to freeze the entire Earth’s oceans, and that’s what happens in Vonnegut’s novel.) It would look just like normal freezing, except it would happen at room temperature instead of at the normal freezing point. Now, we know that there are other crystalline forms of ice that exist, and are stable at low temperatures. For example, check out this picture:

In reality, though, the other phases of ice that are real are all less stable than the plain old ice that we know. That’s why we form the ice that we do, and that’s why when you take ice in the other phases and add heat, it becomes our familiar forms and crystals of ice.

But there are materials that do this. They’re called disappearing polymorphs, and what happens is that, molecularly, a small, energetically stable solid configuration comes into contact with a large, liquid but less energetically stable sea of molecules. The molecules then fit themselves together in the configuration of the solid crystal. Here’s a series of molecular configurations before-and-after exposure to such a crystal “seed”:

But these actually have a practical application, since these reactions are typically exothermic: instant heat packs. Want to see one in action?

Too bad that water can’t do that. Even if such a crystalline phase did exist, it wouldn’t work, because the most stable configuration of water is (unusually enough) the liquid phase, at about +4 degrees Celcius. Which is really a good thing, because I can’t imagine the world not turning into a frozen wasteland if this got into the hands of governments. And seriously, which would you be more thankful for? This:

Or this?

Hope you’re all having a great Thanksgiving weekend! And if you’re in need of a little more space news, check out this week’s Carnival of Space, and thanks to Tracy for hosting it this week!

Random Remembrances: Thanksgiving

November 27, 2008 on 2:05 am | In Random Stuff | 17 Comments

When SNL was funny for more than Tina Fey’s cameos in an opening skit:

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! I’ll let you know how the turducken comes out…

Why is NASA a financial nightmare?

November 26, 2008 on 7:35 pm | In Astronomy, Politics | 14 Comments

And I don’t mean to single NASA out, either. (The National Science Foundation has the same problem.) But there’s something very, very wrong with the way that the business side of these endeavors are run. Let me explain.

As scientists, our job is to learn about the Universe. To understand what the rules are that govern it, to figure out why things are the way they are, how they got to be that way, and where they’re going to go in the future. It takes a lot of training and hard work, and at the end of it, we hope to push the frontiers of our knowledge. Sometimes, that means trying to learn what the tiniest subatomic particles are made of:

And sometimes we try to learn what happens on the largest scales in the entire Universe:

And most of the time, we’re searching somewhere in-between those two extremes, trying to puzzle out another little corner of our Universe’s (and our own) existence.

The problem is, we’re scientists, not businessmen, and yet we require extremely expensive tools to experimentally push the frontiers of our knowledge. To get to smaller and smaller scales, we need larger and more powerful accelerators:

And to get deeper, fainter, earlier and farther in the Universe, we need more powerful, specialized and more expensive telescopes and satellites, such as NASA’s Beyond Einstein project:

And all of these things cost a lot of money. In NASA’s case, there are many more good ideas and proposals than there is money to fund them. Here’s a little perspective: NASA’s annual budget is 17.3 billion dollars for the current fiscal year. The stuff I care most about, these missions I’ve been writing about, is part of the chunk at the bottom that gets lumped in with “other science activities” in the chart below:

Now, the former second-in-command of NASA resigned back in April, full of furor over NASA’s inability to manage their budget. Earlier this week, he finally spoke up about it, and there’s another excellent writeup of this story online. Why is Alan Stern so mad?

The same reason I am. There’s so little money to go around, that when you make a mission proposal, cost is a huge factor. You absolutely cannot exceed $1 billion in your proposal, or you won’t get selected. The problem comes when people make an unrealistic proposal, it gets accepted, then they get part-way through their project and through all of their money, and ask for more. There is no more, so other projects get squashed or set back to keep the large ones funded. Two of the most egregious examples (taken from the NYT article):

  • Mars Science Laboratory: current cost is now is over $2 billion, more than triple its proposed cost.
  • James Webb Space Telescope: Proposed cost ~ $1 billion; current cost is nearly $5 billion. (This is the successor telescope to the Hubble Space Telescope.)

In summary, he says that the differences in internal accounting (i.e., “proposed cost” in 2003 vs. how much money was actually spent in 2007) was $5 billion. That’s an entire year’s worth of “other science activities”.

No wonder he’s upset. He was pushing for holding these atrocious accounting practicioners accountable, and reforming the system that continues to dig them into a deeper hole. What happened? Let’s look at his own words:

As a scientist in charge of space sensors and entire space missions before I was at NASA, I myself was involved in projects that overran. But that’s no excuse for remaining silent about this growing problem, or failing to champion reform. And when I articulated this problem as the NASA executive in charge of its science program and consistently curtailed cost increases, I found myself eventually admonished and then neutered by still higher ups, precipitating my resignation earlier this year.

Endemic project cost increases at NASA begin when scientists and engineers (and sometimes Congress) burden missions with features beyond what is affordable in the stated budget. The problem continues with managers and contractors who accept or encourage such assignments, expecting to eventually be bailed out. It is worsened by managers who disguise the size of cost increases that missions incur. Finally, it culminates with scientists who won’t cut their costs and members of Congress who accept steep increases to protect local jobs.

The result? The costs of badly run NASA projects are paid for with cutbacks or delays in NASA projects that didn’t go over budget. Hence the guilty are rewarded and the innocent are punished.

And there’s very little we can do, short of changing the way that NASA, the NSF, and other organizations like this do business. How would I do it? The same way any business does it. You write your proposal, you do what you proposed, and if you don’t or you can’t, you get sued.

Keep something in mind as you read this. I’m a scientist. I need this funding for my work to continue. And yet, we need reform so badly that I’m willing to jettison even my favorite missions if they can’t meet their promises responsibly. Otherwise we’ll wind up like the superconducting supercollider, a $1.1 billion hole-in-the-ground, because their proposed budget ($4.4 billion in 1987) was so unrealistic that when the real cost was realized (at least $12 billion in 1993), the plug was pulled. Want the plug pulled on NASA and the NSF too? No? Then hold us accountable for our actions and our budgets.

Q & A: The Speed of Light

November 24, 2008 on 3:25 pm | In Physics, Q & A, relativity | 37 Comments

It’s 103 years after Einstein first formulated his Theory of Special Relativity, which explains what happens to objects near the speed of light. But SWAB reader Jacinth wants to do one better, and asks:

What will happen if we can actually travel at the speed of light?

It’s a great question, and provides a lot of learning opportunities. First off, let’s take a look at what happens to regular matter when we bring it close to the speed of light. There are three major things:

1. Lengths contract. This works for everyone. If I move close to the speed of light, then anyone who sees me sees that my length is smaller. But from my point of view, everything that I see is moving towards my rear close to the speed of light, and also looks like it has a smaller length.

2. Time slows down. We call this time dilation, and again, it works for everyone. It means that if I’m moving close to the speed of light, everyone who sees me sees that time is traveling more slowly for me: my clocks run slower, I age slower, my heart beats slower, etc. But I see the same thing: everyone else looks like their clocks are running slower, they’re aging slower, etc. But if I go away close to the speed of light and then come back to Earth at Earth’s speed, we find out that on my journey, although I’ve aged normally, much more time has passed on Earth. (Incidentally, this is what Paris Hilton was worried about.)

3. It takes more energy to accelerate your speed. Some of you who know a little physics know that the rest energy of a particle is E=mc2. Some of you also know that Kinetic Energy = 1/2 mv2. But when you get close to the speed of light, it takes more and more energy to move quickly. In the graph above, the purple line is the old formula for kinetic energy, but the red line is the real (relativistic) energy. Notice that you never quite get up to the speed of light, but that the energy it takes approaches infinity.

So that’s what happens when something made of normal matter approaches the speed of light: it sees lengths contract, times slow down, and it requires more energy to change its speed. Alternatively, things that have no mass (like photons, or perhaps gravitons), have to move at the speed of light.

But let’s say you had a spaceship, and decided to actually go at the speed of light, somehow. What would happen?

Well, if you used all the energy in the Universe for your spaceship, you could probably get up to speeds incredibly close to the speed of light. How close? The speed of light is exactly 299,792,458 meters/second. And you could get to within about 1 x 10-30 meters/second of that value — pretty good. If you got that fast, though, what would happen? First, the entire Universe would contract to appear to only be a few billion kilometers across — less than one light year! Second, time would slow down so much, that as you would only age a few seconds, the Universe would age literally trillions of years. Galaxies would merge, stars would be born and explode in the blink of an eye. And finally, you may get to see the fate of the Universe firsthand; if the Universe has an end, you would slow down time for yourself so much that you might not only see it, you might do it in just a few seconds.

So, in conclusion, not only can’t you move at the speed of light, there’s good reason not to!

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