Archive for January 2019

Aerial view of the Athabasca sand dunes

Saskatchewan’s shifting sands

Picture of a part of the world covered with enormous sand dunes. You may be thinking of a desert in Africa, Asia, or the southwestern United States. But there’s another place, above the 49th parallel, where you can find such sand dunes—Saskatchewan, Canada. Many people associate Saskatchewan with its prairie landscape, but although the southern half of the province—where you’ll find major cities such as Regina and Saskatoon—is mostly prairie grasslands, the northern half is a wild expanse of rivers, lakes, and coniferous forests. In its south-central region it even has a salt lake with a salinity that is half that of the Dead Sea, Little Manitou Lake (Cree for “Lake of Good Spirit”). And Cypress Hills, in the southeastern corner of the province, is the highest point in Canada between Labrador and the Rockies. This diversity is not so surprising when you consider that Saskatchewan is twice the size of Italy and almost as big as Texas.

Located in the far northwest corner of Saskatchewan, almost at the border with the Northwest Territories, the province’s largest lake, Lake Athabasca, is accessible only by floatplane, there being no roads that go that far north. On the south side of the lake is a natural geological formation that is unique and surprising to find at this northern latitude—the Athabasca Sand Dunes. In places 30 meters (98 feet) high, and stretching 100 km (62 miles) along the shore of Lake Athabasca, the Athabasca Sand Dunes are the world’s largest area of active sand dunes north of 58 degrees latitude.

Don’t Desert Me

Although we often associate sand dunes with deserts, in the case of the Athabasca Sand Dunes, this doesn’t hold true. For one thing, deserts are identified by their lack of water, and not only do these dunes border 7,850 square kilometers (3,030 square miles) of water, they also contain significant patches of water in places, percolating up from the shallow water table below. Another feature of deserts—limited plant and animal life—does not hold true for these sand dunes either. In fact, of the 300 plant species that grow in the dunes, there are 10 species that are endemic (found nowhere else in the world), and another 42 species that are considered rare in the province. Not that the dunes are entirely welcoming to the local flora. Because the dunes are active, shifted by wind and eroded by water, they are constantly on the move. Visitors to the region tell of seeing entire stands of skeletal trees emerging from the sand—once above ground and flourishing, these trees were slowly buried by the shifting sand, and now are revealed by further dune movements.

So, if these sand dunes are not a desert ecosystem, created by extreme drought and aridity, how were they formed? The short answer is: the glaciers did it. The sand dunes are the product of the Athabasca sandstone formation, originally a delta in a freshwater lake created out of materials eroded from ancient mountain ranges by glaciers and rivers one billion years ago. These materials were eventually compressed into sandstone, and later still, eroded by wind, water, and glaciers to create the sand dunes that exist today. Of course, I also find the native Dene legend about the dunes’ creation interesting—that a giant man speared a giant beaver, which thrashed and ground the earth with its tail, making soil into sand.

Sand by Me

The dunes are now protected as part of the Athabasca Sand Dunes Provincial Park, but there is little infrastructure to welcome visitors. Aside from lack of accessibility (via floatplane only), there are no services available at the site. You need to be well versed in outdoor survival skills, or sign up for a guided tour. For the armchair traveler, you can see stunning photographs of the dunes on the Photo Journeys blog of photographers Robin and Arlene Karpan.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on July 3, 2004.

Image credit: Tim Beckett [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

A thesaurus

If you’re looking for a synonym for the word “thesaurus,” forget about consulting the Merriam-Webster online thesaurus: it says there isn’t one. But of course Thesaurus Day honors Peter Mark Roget, eponym of Roget’s Thesaurus, who was born on this date in 1779. The Roget’s online thesaurus also lists no single-word synonyms for “thesaurus,” though it does suggest “storehouse of words” and “treasury of words.” To celebrate Thesaurus Day, go learn some new words! (You can start with eponym if you don’t already know what it means.)

Image credit: Ray MacLean [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

The Tactile Dome

Getting the feel of the Exploratorium

San Francisco’s Exploratorium is an immense (and immensely popular) hands-on science museum. Exhibits cover the usual range of subjects—electricity, physics, optics, biology, and so on—but with a degree of interactive friendliness that’s rare even in the best science museums (and I’ve seen quite a few). Almost everything is designed to be touched, played with, and experimented on—even by young children, whose destructive impulses know no bounds.

Although I visited the Exploratorium a number of times during the years I lived in San Francisco, there was one exhibit I’d never experienced but always been curious about: something called the Tactile Dome. This is an exhibit for which you must make an advance reservation (and pay extra), and I had never had the foresight to call ahead before visiting the museum to see if there was an open slot. But on one visit when a same-day opening came up, I immediately signed up—after listening to a short speech on all the medical and psychological conditions that would preclude a safe visit and consenting to the non-refundability of the ticket.

A Touching Experience

The Tactile Dome is a smallish geodesic dome within the museum whose stated purpose is to explore the sense of touch—taking the “hands-on” principle to its logical extreme. Inside the dome is a series of oddly shaped chambers lined with a variety of materials. The chambers are completely dark, so visitors must navigate through them—climbing, crawling, sliding, and squeezing—using only the sense of touch for guidance. In an anteroom the eight or so people who have reservations at a given time remove their shoes and any objects that might fall out of pockets and get lost. (They are quite strict about their “no-extraneous-stuff” policy; I wasn’t even allowed to take a ballpoint pen in with me, even though it was capped and sealed in a zippered pocket behind a Velcro flap. I thought that prohibition was a bit silly, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.) Then, in smaller groups (in my case, a group of one), you proceed into the dark chambers.

A complete trip through the dome takes anywhere from five to ten minutes, and guests are spaced far enough apart that they won’t run into each other. The inside of the dome is not a maze; every chamber has just one entrance and one exit. An attendant in the anteroom monitors your progress by listening to the sounds picked up by microphones positioned throughout the dome. If a visitor gets stuck or panicked, a verbal request for help is all that’s needed; every spot in the dome is immediately reachable by hidden access doors. The intercom (which the other visitors waiting in the anteroom can also hear) serves another purpose, too: to discourage, shall we say, extracurricular activities that the dark and solitary environment might suggest. Each group gets to go through the dome several times during their visit.

As I made my way through the dome, I found that even though sight was not available, it was not a purely tactile experience. Each time I entered a new chamber, I could tell something about its size and shape from the sounds I heard, along with the combination of temperature and airflow I could feel. Even smell played a part—the characteristic scents of carpet, wood, plastics, and the smelly socks of the person who crawled through the dome before me all contributed to a mental image. And that effect was a bit eerie—even though I couldn’t see anything, I had the distinct sensation of visual images of the rooms constructed from the other sensory data I was gathering. That impression alone made the experience worthwhile for me.

Copp-ing a Feel

The Tactile Dome was designed by Dr. August F. Coppola (brother of director Francis Ford Coppola) in 1971 and has been in use ever since. Not only in the choices of materials in the dome, but in its overall design and marketing, it’s definitely showing its age—or perhaps I should say, “revealing” its age. (Note that the photo above is from the early 2000s; the dome is now a more stylish black and has better signs, though the basic design is still the same.) By an interesting coincidence, the Tactile Dome is not the only dome-shaped, building-within-a-building attraction in San Francisco that was constructed in the 1970s and designed to be experienced in total darkness. Audium, located across town, shares all these attributes but was designed to explore the sense of hearing rather than touch. If there’s also a Smell-O-Dome lurking somewhere in the city, I’d just as soon not know.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on June 1, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on July 5, 2004.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Duplessis

Benjamin Franklin was born on this day in 1706. He was, among many other things, a scientist, an inventor, an author, and a diplomat. He led a fascinating life, full of discovery and profound thought, and is certainly among my heroes. (Like all heroes, he was also flawed, but by today’s standards he was practically a saint.) Today, as I take my child to Benjamin Franklin Elementary School (no kidding), I’ll be thinking about the accomplishments and insights of this beloved figure from American history.

Image credit: After Joseph Duplessis [Public domain]

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Figures from U.S. patent #4,680,856

3D audio with just two speakers

I’m old enough to remember when the term high fidelity still meant something—it set apart audio equipment that had been deliberately engineered for faithful sound reproduction and a high signal-to-noise ratio from cheaper, cruder devices. At a certain point, though, pretty much everything was considered “Hi-Fi”; the new buzzword was stereo. Having equipment and recordings with two discrete channels of audio—conveniently matching the average number of human ears—was seen as the new sign of audio competence. Then there was the shift from the analog world of tubes, tapes, and vinyl to digital—a new standard of audio quality. A few years later, yet another phase: an increasing number of carefully positioned speakers and subwoofers to simulate the 360° audio field of the cinema. And now we’re using sophisticated digital signal processing to get better results with fewer speakers, but most people still seem to think two is too few.

For Those Who Have Ears to Hear…

While the number of speakers in the typical living room has increased since the days of my youth, the number of ears on the typical head has not. Humans somehow have the ability to locate the source of a sound spatially with only two inputs; even with a single ear, most people can pinpoint the direction a sound is coming from. Crucially, this sound-locating ability is not restricted to a single plane; we can also determine if a sound is coming from above, below, or anywhere in between (not to mention in front and behind). No home audio system I’ve ever seen (or heard) addresses the Z axis (up and down)—and neither, for the most part, do cinemas; for the most part, the only way to experience truly 3D sound artificially is to go into a special environment such as San Francisco’s Audium where speakers are physically placed above, below, and all around you.

If humans can determine the location of a sound anywhere around them with just two ears, it’s reasonable to imagine there must be some way of reproducing spatially accurate sound with just two speakers. But what’s the trick? What can ears and brains do that microphones and speakers can’t?

The Ears Have It

A large part of what enables people to identify the position of a sound is attributable to the hardware—the unique shape of the ear folds and ear canal. Because sounds coming from one direction will be reflected and channeled into the ear canal with slightly different characteristics than sounds coming from another direction, the brain is able to use these subtle clues to unconsciously create a mental picture of where the sound must have originated. While digital signal processing equipment can add depth and spatial separation to a stereo signal, there’s a much different and older approach to solving the problem: a method of recording known as binaural audio. A binaural recording is made with two microphones and a two-track recorder, just as a stereo recording would be. The difference is that the microphones are placed inside a dummy head—shaped just like a human head, complete with rubbery ears, sinus cavities, and so on. The microphones are right where the eardrums would be, so the signal they pick up is much closer to what ears would hear. The resulting recording—always most effective when heard through headphones—produces a vastly more accurate spatial rendition than would be achieved by using a pair of conventional microphones.

A well-executed binaural recording can sound shockingly realistic, even if the sound quality itself is not pristine. But binaural recording is appropriate only for live recordings; it’s also inconvenient, expensive (some pro-quality dummy heads retail for over US$8,000), and, frankly, just plain weird—all of which, along with the fact that you need to listen through headphones for maximum impact, helps to explain why you don’t encounter such recordings very often.

Hooked on Holophonics

But there’s a clever, patented variation on binaural recording that claims to go far beyond the simple microphones-in-the-dummy-head approach. It’s called holophonic recording, and the realism it produces, especially in the up/down dimension, is uncanny, eerie…even—as a friend of mine likes to say—freakadelic.

Ordinary holograms are produced by mixing reflected laser light with a second beam hitting an object from another angle; the resulting interference pattern of the two waves is what’s actually recorded on film. Expose the film to the same wavelength of light again, and a 3D image emerges from the interference pattern. Italian inventor Hugo Zuccarelli wondered whether a similar process could be used to record sounds, since after all, sound waves can form interference patterns with each other just as light waves can. His holophonic process starts with a type of binaural dummy head, but it reportedly records the interference pattern formed by mixing the sound with an inaudible, digitally superimposed reference signal. Zuccarelli believes that the human auditory apparatus, when listening to sounds, adds the same signal to the input, effectively decoding the interference patterns previously recorded. All that may sound like a bunch of mumbo-jumbo—and Zuccarelli certainly has detractors who claim “holophonic” sound is nothing more than binaural with maybe a few bells and whistles. All I can say is: hearing is believing. The holophonic recordings I’ve heard are simply remarkable—much more impressive than conventional binaural recordings—but I encourage you to listen for yourself (remember, use headphones!) and form your own opinion.

There is, of course, a little snag. As with all binaural recordings, holophonic sounds lose most of their spatial characteristics when played through ordinary speakers (though Zuccarelli has designed a special speaker system that enables holophonic sounds to be appreciated even outdoors by a large audience). As things stand now, you won’t be able to enjoy a holophonic soundtrack on your home theater system—no matter how many speakers it has—unless you and everyone else watching the film wear headphones. Nevertheless, a number of recording artists, including Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and Pink Floyd, have employed holophonic technology in recordings or concerts, and it has also been featured in both films and commercials. Holophonic sound may be slow to catch on as a mainstream technology, but it’ll make your Surround Sound system sit up and go “Wow.”

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on July 17, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on October 12, 2004.

Image credit: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day