The Whippet #119: Lurking in the mouths of rivers

Good morning!

In the absence of any kind of intro, I will tell you about some graffiti I saw in the women’s toilets at a uni pub. This isn’t a joke or anything, there’s no punchline, it’s just a real piece of graffiti I saw.

Someone had written Declan is hot. This is very much standard for the genre. You might expect someone to add Declan is an asshole or Zoe is hotter! or something like that.

The actual reply, written underneath it, was: Declan works for Maurice Blackburn and his dad is a magistrate.

[Maurice Blackburn is a very famous/prestigious Australian law firm. A magistrate is a judge.]

Some questions: Did the second person actually know a (or the) Declan? Does Declan really work at Maurice Blackburn? Are those statements meant to be compliments or criticisms? Is the second woman warning the first woman away from Declan, or adding that, not only is he hot, but he has a good career? Is it weirder if they’re true things, or weirder if they’re made up?

Please tell me about your favourite piece of graffiti:

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The first glasses were reading stones

They’re convex lenses, you run them across the text as you’re reading to make the words bigger. The Visby Lenses (on the right) are a group of lenses* found in several Viking graves on the island of Gotland in Sweden. They date back to the 11th or 12th century, and are thought to be reading stones or firestarters.

* If I were an archaeologist instead of a newsletter writer, I’d be obligated to call them “lens-shaped objects” — to avoid falling into the trap of thinking I know what purpose the objects were created for. It’s very easy to project your own knowledge and motivations onto people in the past, especially if you have a lens.

This page intentionally left blank (because a cat peed on it)

This page is from a manuscript written by a medieval monk in around 1420. You can see he’s drawn a picture of a cat, little hands pointing to the stains, and written an explanatory note:

Hic non defectus est, sed cattus minxit desuper nocte quadam. Confundatur pessimus cattus qui minxit super librum istum in nocte Daventrie, et consimiliter omnes alii propter illum. Et cavendum valde ne permittantur libri aperti per noctem ubi cattie venire possunt.

Here is nothing missing, but a cat urinated on this during a certain night. Cursed be the pesty cat that urinated over this book during the night in Deventer and because of it many other cats too. And beware well not to leave open books at night where cats can come.

I can’t tell if he means that other cats peed on it because the first one did, or he curses all cats because the one cat peed on his manuscript. [Source]

The sheer terror of working with chlorine trifluoride

Chlorine trifluoride, or CTF, is an almost perfect fuel for rockets, with a very big almost:

It is, of course, extremely toxic, but that's the least of the problem. It is hypergolic with every known fuel [hpergolic with = spontaneously catches fire upon contact], and so rapidly hypergolic that no ignition delay has ever been measured. It is also hypergolic with such things as cloth, wood, and test engineers, not to mention asbestos, sand, and water—with which it reacts explosively.

It can be kept in some of the ordinary structural metals—steel, copper, aluminum, etc.—because of the formation of a thin film of insoluble metal fluoride that protects the bulk of the metal, just as the invisible coat of oxide on aluminum keeps it from burning up in the atmosphere. If, however, this coat is melted or scrubbed off, and has no chance to reform, the operator is confronted with the problem of coping with a metal-fluorine fire. For dealing with this situation, I have always recommended a good pair of running shoes.

In one recorded spillage, CTF set fire to the concrete floor, burning through a foot of solid concrete and then three more feet of gravel underneath it before it flamed out.

But let’s assume you manage to actually handle it safely and get it into a rocket:

Ignition was beautiful—so smooth that it was like turning on a hose. Performance was high—very close to theoretical. And the reaction was so fast that you could burn it in a surprisingly small chamber. But. If your hardware was dirty, and there was a smear of oil or grease somewhere inside a feed line, said feed line would ignite and cleverly reduce itself to ashes.

Gaskets and O-rings generally had to be of metal; no organic material could be restrained from ignition. Teflon would stand up under static conditions, but if the CTF flowed over it with any speed at all, it would erode away like so much sugar in hot water, even if it didn't ignite.

(Both quotes from John Drury Clark’s 1972 book, Ignition! An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants [PDF] via @klezmerstyle on twitter.)

The many-step, arduous process of how to get it safely into the feed lines is similarly delightful, I cut it out of respect for your time, but it’s a fun read. After explaining the arduous, multistep process of safely getting it into the feed lines, the next paragraph begins: “It was when the stuff got into the motor that the real difficulties began…”

Herman Melville has nothing but contempt for dugongs

“I am aware that down to the present time, the fish styled Lamatins and Dugongs (Pig-fish and Sow-fish of the Coffins of Nantucket) are included by many naturalists among the whales. But as these pig-fish are a noisy, contemptible set, mostly lurking in the mouths of rivers, and feeding on wet hay, and especially as they do not spout, I deny their credentials as whales; and have presented them with their passports to quit the Kingdom of Cetology.”

(Moby Dick, ch. 32)

I have a deep love for petty resentments and cutting insults, but since I’m basically a nice person, I only ever feel comfortable enjoying them when they’re directed at things that can’t understand they’re being insulted, like dugongs, dangerous chemicals, enzymes* and pterosaurs.**

If you know of any other examples of researchers insulting their (non-human) research subjects, please tell me about them! (reply to this email or tag me on twitter)

* Rubisco, “nearly the world’s worst, most incompetent enzyme” — Whippet #74

** One pterosaur researcher used the words ridiculous, stupid, and “giant flying murder heads” — Whippet #92

Still my favourite inspirational tweet

The best thing about this tweet, is now every time I see the very annoying original phrase, I think “…but you won’t miss” and feel secretly delighted instead of annoyed.

Unsolicited Advice: The best way to reheat pizza

Easiest method that is still very good:

Get a cookie sheet. Put baking paper on it so the pizza won’t stick to it. Put cold slices on tray. Completely cover the cookie sheet in alfoil (tin foil, whatever you call it). Put in cold oven. Turn oven on to about full, 220°C or 430°F. Leave for about 20 minutes (depends how many slices you’re putting in and how quickly your oven heats up, check at 15 minutes or earlier.)

Complicated method for optimisers:

I haven’t tried this because if I’m eating re-heated pizza, I’m not in an “optimise cooking” mode. But it’s r/pizza’s official recommended method, and reddit is usually good for finding the optimal method for something. It’s where I get all my skincare advice from.

Fastest method:

Chlorine trifluoride seems pretty effective?

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