Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Snow Dragon Phenology

I'm choosing to ignore the weather forecast right now. It's a balmy 70° F outside, but the chance for a wintry mix exists for tomorrow night through Friday. It appears winter is in for at least one more encore. Which is irritating, but since the semester is winding down, I've got plenty of work to keep me busy before I start up another Dispatch from the Dirt Lab or Kelly McCullough and I work on our next "Seekrit Projekt." Hint: think "Fruit Ninja."

I just finished editing together all 4,000 time-lapse camera frames from our Snow Dragon hijinks from last month. It was the longest time-lapse movie I've ever done: nearly 6 weeks total. I ended up editing out much of the night time images, because there wasn't much to see. But if you watch the movie, you'll see no less than four distinct April snow events. Plus, there's lots of good melting and sublimation.

If you missed it the first time, here's the first movie wherein we actually build the entire dragon and take some silly pictures:
Building the Snow Dragon from Matt Kuchta on Vimeo.
Time lapse sequence of our 5-day snow sculpting project. For more dragon-y stuff and info about this and other projects, visit kellymccullough.com.

And here's the finished project:
From Flake to Lake: The Birth, Life, and inevitable Death of a Snow Dragon from Matt Kuchta on Vimeo.
We built a giant snow dragon. It took us five days. Then we let it melt. That took five weeks. A time lapse view of the entire process (about 4,000 separate pictures) compresses six weeks into just 3.5 minutes. For more about this and other shenanigans, visit www.kellymccullough.com.

Creative Commons License: cc by-sa

Monday, April 29, 2013

Revisiting the Snow Dragon Birth, Life, Death

Some of you may be aware that Kelly McCullough and I built a giant snow dragon in Neil Gaiman's backyard a few weeks ago. We set up a camera to capture time-lapse images of the entire process. Then we left the camera running to capture it as it melted away. We ended up getting to decent snowstorms in the time it took for the dragon to disappear...

I'm stitching the images together - but there are almost 4,000 frames, so it's taking a little bit of time (even though I'm doing batch processing in photoshop).

Friday, April 26, 2013

How strong were those Sandcastles?

Well, I have some quantitative data for those super sandcastles. My soil mechanics students were charged with making the strongest sandcastle they could. I gathered all the class data, added some measurements of sandcastles reinforced with just one or two sheets of window screen and then plotted them all together.

The picture above shows the "Castle Crusher 3500," which was just a Vernier force plate and a lever made out of some ring stands and a 2x4. Putting the sandcastle under the lever allowed the students to measure the force required to cause a "failure" in the sandcastle. In this case, we defined failure as 40% strain (a change in height of about 5 cm). In the future, I'm going to try and rig up a strain gauge so we can measure deformation concurrently with the applied force. Stress AND strain!

Here's the data gathered so far. The plain sandcastles supported about 15 Newtons (about 3 pounds).Testing four sheets maxed out our gauge - one group's castle managed to support over 2,300 Newtons of force: that's more than 500 pounds! Given the size of the sandcastles, that was a stress of more than 4.5 TONS per square foot.

The trendline was fit to the maximum force required for each particular number of reinforcing sheets of "geofabric" (fiberglass window screen) and clearly demonstrates how much influence adding just a few pieces of tensile material has on the overall structural stability.

Let me put this another way: Assume I built a sandcastle the same way as before, but made it one foot wide, one foot long, and 6 inches tall (I don't exactly know how strength would scale vertically). That sandcastle could support an adult African Elephant (either a female, or smallish male).

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Going Viral with Sandcastles

Well, it seems my Sandcastle video has also managed to get picked up by Boing Boing and then Gizmodo, and now Digg.com. That's after it was mentioned by Earth magazine and some other cool bloggers. I tried not to read all the comments, but it seems that some people just want the quick and dirty "cool part" of the science, while others appreciate the overall narrative a bit more.

This is worth exploring in the future - because as a science educator, it's all about tying the cool little details into the larger narrative. But from an "advocacy" or (to be perfectly honest about the venue/medium) "entertainment" perspective, too much explaining can get in the way. I managed to make the sandcastle video about 2 minutes shorter than the one about dry quicksand, but I still think 5 minutes is a good target length, unless I have some really sweet high speed video to show off.

For those of you who have stumbled upon this site via one of the above sites, welcome. Feel free to browse around and leave a comment if you care to. For those of you who already have been reading, you're one of those who knew about it "before it was cool." Not to say I think the recent attention makes the blog cool - the fun science makes it cool. I just try not to get in the way and give you a little more perspective on the topic.

And who doesn't love a little gratuitous high speed video now and then?

Kyle Stabs a Beer from Matt Kuchta on Vimeo.
WIth @dillhero's special Pirate Knife, Kyle stabs a beer. Don't try this at home, kids!

That's the awesome Kyle Cassidy, doing a little SCIENCE!

Okay, what the heck? This entire post is highlighted... weird. I've set the highlight color to black, so at least you can read the text.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Dispatches from the Dirt Lab #2: Building Better Sandcastles

It's getting toward the end of April - and while it's still snowing around here, summer (and time at the beach) is drawing close. In this episode, I talk about why sandcastles stand up in the first place, and how you can make them even stronger.

Here's a direct link for you.
Dispatches from the Dirt Lab #2: Building Better Sandcastles from Matt Kuchta on Vimeo.

The idea of reinforcing sandcastles occurred to me while I was teaching about "geotextiles." These materials are used to add strength to soils for geo-engineering projects like roads, embankments, and retaining walls.

And I have a question sent to me by a visitor. It involves robots, basements, and digging. I'm looking forward to putting an answer together.

UPDATE: The video has been picked up by a few people - and while I try not to read comments on big aggregator sites, a few people have made some good suggestions:

  • You should definitely remove anything you bring to the beach when you're done building the sandcastles. Pack out what you pack in.

  • If you are interested in a more biodegradable option, dry grasses woven together, or seaweed would have a similar effect. Ancient builders used woven grass mats to hold their mud brick structures together, so it's not like this hasn't been done before.

  • If you are building your sandcastles this way, you are indeed "cheating" in the sense that a "true" sandcastle is only held together by sand and water. But I see no ethical dilemma in using this technique if you are going for strength and showing off. If you are competing with others, it's probably against the rules.

  • Thursday, April 18, 2013

    Working on the next Dispatch episode

    I've been working on a new Dirt Lab Dispatch. Here's a sneak peek:

    Yes, that's a bowling ball being held up by a sand castle. If you're curious to see how you can make a super-strong sand castle, be sure to check out the next episode - I should have it done by the weekend.

    Tuesday, April 16, 2013


    (Note: I'm going to try and avoid any obvious traumatic stress triggers, but I do point out something that hasn't been explicitly stated in the news yet, but is - for me - quite telling of what was intended by this act.)

    I was going to finish up and post another Dispatch from the Dirt Lab today. But as I was putting some of the shots together, my Twitter feed erupted in a flurry of outrage, sadness, and confusion about the bombing at the Boston Marathon. I won't repeat words of sadness, or wisdom, but suffice to say there are many people saying and doing good things in the wake of unspeakable tragedy (in Boston, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere).

    Neither will I speculate on who could do something like that. But one thing is abundantly clear to me. This was intended to hurt people. Lots of people. Here's a screenshot from marathonguide.com from last year's race:
    And I'll link to the picture from the Boston Globe showing the race clock at the moment of the second explosion (there are enough images all over the web, I won't needlessly force people to see it again).

    The time on the clock reads 4:09:56. The average time for the 2012 Boston Marathon was 4:18:27, the greatest number of finishers crossed the line at around the four hour mark. Regardless of whether the desired goal included anger and fear, this was intended to hurt as many people as possible. Average people. It makes me sick to think that someone (singular or plural) was able to view these numbers not as people, but as means to an end.

    In times like this (of which there have been far too many around the world) I find solace in knowing there are real people doing good things.

    Okay, enough about horrible things for now. I'm going to go work on some beautiful science and share it with others.

    UPDATE: According to one of my friends who lives in Massachusetts, this idea was mentioned on the news there. Also, some runners were pointing out that last year's marathon was unusually hot. If you look through previous results, the average time ends up being a bit closer to 3hrs 50min, but the mode time, still peaks at around 4 hours.

    Saturday, April 13, 2013

    Tiny Dinosaur

    I went out to fill the "dinosaur feeders" in our front yard today. The late season snow cover is keeping the birds close to the easy sources of food. Under one of the shrubs was a white skull. I don't know if it died by flying into our window, or if it was a casualty of the annoying neighbor cats (keep your felines indoors, folks!)

    What's cool is that you can see two key adaptations of a seed-eater. One is the thick beak - at least in comparison to the size of the bird. Cracking the hulls requires quite a bit of strength - the thicker beak helps crack those shells open. The other is the flexible "hinge" connecting the beak to the rest of the skull. This "kinetic skull" (specifically a process called prokinesis) allows the bird to pick up and manipulate irregularly-shaped seeds.

    Here's a short slow-motion movie (shot with a Casio Exilim camera at 240fps).
    Feeding Finch from Matt Kuchta on Vimeo.
    Finch demonstrating its talent at cracking open seeds.

    Based on the size of the skull and shape of the beak, I suspect it's a House Finch - and in deference to the Migratory Bird Act - I put the skull back under the bush.

    I like the idea of having "dinosaur feeders" in my yard though. I think I'll have to keep that name.

    Friday, April 12, 2013

    Whoa, that was pretty cool

    As I mentioned before, my dry quicksand video was picked up by Boing Boing, plus it got a few other re-tweets. Of course now I'm working on a follow-up. Here's what I'm working on next:

    Tuesday, April 09, 2013

    Boing Boinged Again

    My video about dry quicksand was picked up by Boing Boing this morning. That marks the third year in a row one of my demos has gone just a wee bit viral. Last year it was the Liquid Nitrogen Volcano, the year before it was the Earthquake Machine. All in all, a pretty good track record.

    I try not to read internet comments, but I saw one of the comments on the dry quicksand video that, while it used more than its share of hyperbole, did have a thoughtful point behind it. Brevity and clarity. While I've always worked towards clarity, brevity is not always my strong suit. I don't know if brevity is over-celebrated, considering that whenever I introduce a new idea in the classroom, I make sure I repeat the idea three times: at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. It's a good plan for conference talks, too.

    So, being a scientist, I'll try an experiment. My next video is in the works (well, the demo equipment is in the planning/construction phase, anyway) and I'll try to be as concise as I can. And we'll see what happens.

    Monday, April 08, 2013

    Geomorphology from the Cockpit

    Last fall I had the opportunity to fly around in an airplane. I've been meaning to do this in western Wisconsin for years - some of the best geology can be done from a few hundred feet above the ground. I'm still deciding on how many pictures to post on my flickr site, but I finally got around to editing the video footage together into a movie: (link for the embed-less)

    Chippewa Valley Flyover from Matt Kuchta on Vimeo.
    Clips of my Fall 2012 airplane ride over the Chippewa Valley, looking at the Mississippi, Chippewa, and Red Cedar Rivers

    Sunday, April 07, 2013

    Science is Hard.

    Science is Hard.

    Digging out the stuck vehicle, Wasatch Mts, Utah.

    Science is hard. There's no way around it. If you want to find out how the world works, you gotta go and look. And sometimes that means getting in a car or truck and driving out into the middle of nowhere, or spending hours in a lab with carefully crafted experiments. Spring is finally on its way here in my neck of the woods. For a geologist, this often means field work is just around the corner. And no matter how carefully you plan, venturing into the unknown means you get to deal with unknown outcomes.

    If you're lucky, the problems are minor and may only cost you a few hours of your time. Having done my share of field work, I always factor in for the possibility of setbacks. By default, for every week in the field, I set aside an extra day to account for weather, equipment, and vehicle problems. If I'm lucky, I get to use that day to gather extra data.

    Vehicles are particularly troublesome. They break down, get stuck, or run out of gas at the worst possible times. I went through two sets of rear brake pads, six oil changes with my first car while working on my dissertation. On one of the last days to head into the field and get some site photos, the timing chain broke - so in a way, my dissertation killed my car.

    All of this data that we drag out of the field (sometimes on the back of a tow truck) gets sifted and sorted, processed, analyzed and summarized. Then we fit those observations into an interpretive framework that is often built from the contributions of many other scientists - scientists who have dragged their own data out of the field via similar paths.

    This interpretive framework is what bridges the gaps of ignorance - these bridges are continuously maintained, repainted, and rebuilt. But without the hard, grungy fieldwork there would be nothing to support these bridges. So the next time you're at the museum, or you read about new ideas that shape how we view our world, remember - these bridges weren't cut from whole cloth. They were pieced together using the dirtiest, ugliest, hardest-to-obtain data out there. Science is hard. But it beats ignorance.

    (This may or may not have been inspired by my wife's recent adventures while out collecting data.)

    Saturday, April 06, 2013

    Dispatch from the Dirt Lab: Dry Quicksand

    I finally put together the demo video about dry quicksand. It's been a longer process than I had anticipated. In part it's because I didn't like either versions I shot on wednesday or thursday, so I reshot the entire thing on friday. Maybe it's the aloha shirt. Maybe it's the content of my talking points. In any case, here's my little explanation and demo for dry quicksand. (Link for those who can't see the embed)

    Dispatches from the Dirt Lab: Dry Quicksand from Matt Kuchta on Vimeo.
    Wherein I explain the mechanics of dry quicksand.

    This video also contains an idea that I've had before - soliciting interesting questions from the audience. I've got material that I'm shooting to use in my classes, but if there's another topic that people who aren't in my class might find interesting I'd like to hear about it. Especially since I interact with many other geologists on the web, I know what they find interesting - but I don't want to just reach out to that group. Most people aren't geologists, so I would like to think that there are other questions our there that haven't occurred to me yet.

    Crossing a milestone

    According to my Blogger statistics, the 100,000th visitor came to the blog yesterday morning. Cool! I don't know exactly when the Blogger stats begin, but I think it was sometime in 2009. Hopefully I can entertain/enlighten another 100K in less than 3 years.

    Monday, April 01, 2013

    Dry Quicksand

    I revisited the "dry quicksand" and used the good high speed camera:

    DryQuicksand from Matt Kuchta on Vimeo.
    A sphere dropped into very loose sand and silt forms a cavity, which then collapses and forms a large jet.