Despite a three-day ice storm that left us in dire straits during the first week of classes, we are up and running here at OU, and that means I have the privilege of welcoming a new group of students to hsci 1133 -- "Science and Popular Culture" -- for spring '07! When the class is in session for the spring semester, "petri dish" is a blog that tracks along with the syllabus, more or less (sometimes more, sometimes less!) with the topics we'll be covering in class. (In the off-season it tends to wander around a bit more idiosyncratically.) I'll post around once a week or so, and you'll find links to aspects of the class that we may have just finished or that may be coming up, along with commentary and additional coverage -- that way you can dip in a bit more fully to those parts of our work that you find particularly interesting. Also feel free to use petri dish as a kind of incubator for ideas for your individual projects . . . it may help you discover possibilities you wouldn't have run across otherwise. And please, feel free to leave comments whenever the spirit moves you!
We've started off with some cartoon images of science and scientists -- first an episode from Felix the Cat in 1959 featuring "Poindexter" the child genius scientist nerd. Poindexter, surrounded by a massive amount of laboratory hardware, shrinks Felix down to pipette size, siphons him up and squirts him under a microscope, from whence mayhem ensues, mad-scientist style, until Poindexter manages one explosion too many, propelling himself into the bulbous end of a retort (rather like putting the scientific-genie-run-amok back into the bottle). In fact, the name "Poindexter" was used to taunt scientific nerds in the aftermath of the 1950s Felix cartoons, and was picked up later as well. [You can launch the episode -- "Felix Baby-sits" -- on the beta site for google video.] Skipping a generation or so we'll compare a 1996 episode of Pinky and the Brain ("Leave it to Beavers") to see what's old or new in the evil genius scientist genre for children's viewing pleasure. "The Brain" doesn't have a white lab coat like Poindexter, but then he's a white laboratory rat (that's been 'genetically spliced'!), so that ups the ante in the scientific icon sweepstakes, I would think :-) Pinky and the Brain reside in a cage at ACME labs, an offshoot of the Acme products featured in my favorite Loony Tunes cartoon, the Roadrunner. (Now Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner aren't strictly relevant to the matter at hand, although there is a whole interesting scipop realm to explore in terms of the cartoon laws of physics. The Coyote often exemplified the 1st law: "Any body suspended in space will remain in space until made aware of its situation." You can find out more here.]
In honor of our local frosty weather conditions, I'll leave you with a scientific puzzler (another genre of pop science), brought to you via NewScientist's Short Sharp Science Blog. The entry for January 17th, "Do Try This At Home...," explores the mystery of the "hot chocolate effect". Here's the deal:
[try] tapping a teaspoon against the bottom of a mug containing freshly-stirred hot chocolate. What’s so startling is that the tapping sound rises in pitch by nearly three octaves.
So, why does this happen? Sad to say, I didn't come up with the correct answer. Although it turns out that pop culture columnist Cecil Adams (in "The Straight Dope") shared the answer back in 1985. So whip up some hot cocoa and amaze your friends with your scientific savvy -- but don't be surprised if they think you're a real Poindexter!
For more: Felix the Cat goes back to the era of silent movies, and there's more history -- with Felix at the dawn of television in 1928 -- on the official website for the later cartoons. For another interesting sci fi-themed Felix episode, take a look at the one introducing "The Master Cylinder" -- a strange disembodied brain [there's that brain thing again] within a giant steel cylinder that is one nefarious piece of technology: Like the episode mentioned above, "The Master Cylinder -- King of the Moon" can also can be launched at the google video beta site. For a bit of Pinky and the Brain, youtube has the theme song and a short bit where the mousely duo sing the parts of the brain and demonstrate the locations via an old-fashioned pointer and slides in the somewhat-catchy tune, "Brainstem." You can get a bit more of their backstory and other tidbits at the DVD website for P&tB from Warner Bros.
Images: The steaming beverage at top left is from the wikipedia page for hot chocolate. Poindexter is from the "Felix's Friends" page of the official website at http://www.felixthecat.com/friends-poindexter.htm.The Pinky and the Brain picture is from the vhs box for the episode "Cosmic Attractions.".