Feedback is our weekly column of bizarre stories, implausible advertising claims, confusing instructions and more
24 March 2021
Units of experience
“Imagine an adult African male elephant suspended from a rope that’s the same diameter as a table tennis ball.” Yes, we’re trying very hard to imagine this scenario as we read this passage from an article in The Wall Street Journal sent in by Peabody Bradford. Sadly, the effort is failing to help us grasp much meaning from what follows, that the “tension in that imaginary rope is about equal to the tension at the center of a typical piece of tempered glass”. Our mental imaging software is busy elsewhere. How exactly is the elephant suspended? Is he entirely happy? Should we be worried?
Feedback has had much cause in recent weeks to muse on the enduring popularity of measurement units such as the Burj Khalifa (20 March) or the massed ranks of the northern hemisphere blue whale (30 January). Now, what we might term “experiential” units seem to be emerging as a distinct journalistic sub-genre.
The key to a good experiential unit is that it should be rooted in an experience that no one could ever be reasonably assumed to have had. Ideally, an excess of detail should make it a very exact unrelatable experience: not for nothing are the sex and life stage of the elephant clearly stated.
As highlighted by many of you, various UK media had clearly got the memo when they reported that a fatberg “with the same weight as a small bungalow” had been cleared from a sewer in the east of London. Clearly, this is a hefty weight – although for those of us who have felt the crushing load of a medium-sized semi-detached bearing down on us, it’s not quite as much as that.
Or there is the “Beware of the Rhino” campaign run by Newcastle Transport in New South Wales, Australia, sent in by Ian Dawes. A brief rootle in our piling system reveals that this is an iteration of similar campaigns run in recent years in Australian cities blessed with light rail transit systems, but not necessarily rhinocerotids.
“Did you know a Newcastle tram is as hard to stop as a herd of thirty rhino?”, it asks. Never – 20 at the most! Further examples of units from outside your own experience to the usual address.
Rhinos on rails
Slightly puzzlingly, Newcastle Transport’s website also states that “[S]imilar to a herd of charging rhinos, trams can’t divert from the tracks to avoid an obstacle”.
We recall this esteemed magazine asking “Why don’t wildebeest have wheels?” not too long ago (19/26 December 2020). The better, perhaps, to dart out of the path of the fearsome steel-wheeled rhino-tram hybrids our mind’s eye now sees careering across the savannah of New South Wales – a majestic and awe-inspiring sight indeed.
Deer oh deer
Never mind the rhinos, “How Can Suburbs Control Deer Populations?”, Smithsonian Magazine asks on behalf of its readers (“You’ve got questions. We’ve got experts”). We agree with our reader Jane Monroe from Arcata, California – which looks beautifully non-suburban on Route 101 – that the answer “Scientists have developed contraceptive darts for areas densely populated with humans” doesn’t make it as clear as we might like who the darts are being aimed at. Beware people lurking behind hedges with clipboards and tranquiliser guns when next out in the ‘burbs.
“‘Blastoids’ – Scientists form human cell clumps that act like early-stage embryos”, read a headline on The Guardian website, in a further entry to the suboptimal phrasing of the week competition. (You will find our write up of this study on page 19 of this very issue.) Reader David Marsh asks whether this is referring to “the half-forgotten days when we could gather at conferences”.
It might not be quite what you had in mind, David, but Feedback was privileged once in the Before Times to have attended a conference of the American Physical Society when, thanks to a triumphant miscalculation, it was held in New Orleans during Spring Break. Some sort of clumping mechanism was very much in evidence as laptop-clutching physicists braved the mass of hula-hooping humanity in the streets of the French Quarter.
Rather than blastoids, it reminded us of the sardine run, when massed migrating fish leaving their spawning waters off the coasts of South Africa form tight defensive bait balls as they run the gamut of their predators. Nature very much in the raw.
Of which, Twitter has recently been crawling with the rediscovery of a paper from unconventional computing researchers Yukio-Pegio Gunji, Yuta Nishiyama and Andrew Adamatzky. In “Robust Soldier Crab Ball Gate” from 2012, the team showed that, in a constrained environment, swarms of soldier crabs formed compact propagating groups that, guided by “intimidation plates” mimicking the shadows of aerial predators, can be made to operate mechanical logic circuits.
From the starting point of 80 soldier crabs to operate a logic gate, eight logic gate operations per byte and an average data consumption of about a kilobyte, Twitter user Ethan Mollick now calculates it would take an army of about 640,000 crabs to curate one tweet.
Impressive, if slightly unnerving, stuff. We’d like to know how many clumping physicists it takes to operate a logic gate.
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