Archive for January, 2012

You’ve heard of deep-fried Twinkies and deep-fried Mars bars?

Well, that’s nothing. How about… Deep Fried Planets!?

Once again, the geeks and nerdlings over at ScienceDaily.com have failed to disappoint.

As they reported last month, “Two Earth-sized planets have been discovered around a dying star that has passed the red giant stage. Because of their close orbits, the planets must have been engulfed by their star while it swelled up to many times its original size.”

Yeah, that’s mighty toasty, for sure.

So hot, in fact, that researchers believed that this unimaginable inferno would make short work of any planet caught in it — until now.

It seems that the two newfound Earth-size planets (named KOI 55.01 and KOI 55.02) are probably the charred survivors of a near-death encounter with their fading parent star, scientists say. They evidently not only survived being engulfed by their parent star, but also may have helped to strip the star of most of its fiery envelope in the process. The team was led by Stephane Charpinet, an astronomer at the Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie, Université de Toulouse-CNRS, in France.

As reported last month in NationalGeographic.com, the planetary pair are about 0.76 and 0.87 times Earth’s radius, making the alien worlds the smallest planets detected so far around an active star, other than our sun. But the planets didn’t start small—astronomers think the worlds were once gas giants, kind of like our Jupiter or Saturn, that were stripped down after being swallowed by their swollen, aging parent.

(Helix Nebula: Gaseous Envelope Expelled by a Dying Star)

The new planets orbit a Subdwarf B star called KIC 02697388, which lies about 4,000 light-years away in the direction of the constellation Cygnus. Subdwarf B stars are hot, blue stars that fall between red giants and white dwarfs – the final stage in the life cycles of stars like our sun. When a sunlike star has depleted most of its fuel, it will swell up to become a red giant many hundreds of times its original size. As the red giant star balloons, any planets closest to the star are completely vaporized in the inferno.

Wait a minute. Stars like our sun? Vaporized?? If it could happen way out in the celestial boonies, what’s to stop it from happening a bit closer to home? Like… in our solar system?

Well… nothing, really.

(Cat’s Eye Nebula… a dying star)

“When our sun swells up to become a red giant, it will engulf the Earth,” said Elizabeth ‘Betsy’ Green, an associate astronomer at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, who participated in the research. “If a tiny planet like the Earth spends 1 billion years in an environment like that, it will just evaporate. Only planets with masses very much larger than the Earth, like Jupiter or Saturn, could possibly survive.”

However… The Upcoming Solar Apocalypse is still a bit far down the road (about 5 billion years, give or take) so you don’t need to start stocking up on the sunscreen quite yet.

And that’s a reassuring thought.


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My beloved SG and I were having a discussion the other day about the fact that I am always right. Well, almost always, anyway.

She asked me to tell her about a time when I was totally, incredibly, unbelievably wrong.

I immediately mentioned Las Vegas, 1985.

Long ago, when I was very much younger… “Like before I was born?” SG pipes in (my beloved gets a big kick out of pointing out the disparity in our ages)… my second spouse (aka WHN) [1] and I were talking about where to go on our honeymoon. Naturally, I said we should go to New York City.

Thinking I’d just set the land-speed record for settling honeymoon discussions, I was prepared to move on to the next topic. Oddly, WHN suggested we go to California instead. I was somewhat taken aback. It never occurred to me that anyone would actually want to go to California. But, being the amiable sort and wanting to start the marriage off on the right foot, I immediately agreed that San Francisco was a marvellous alternative to a real-live city like New York. WHN said she was actually thinking of something a bit further south… a grubby, gawdforsaken, horrible little town called Los Angeles.

After my laughter subsided and I realized WHN was not joking, we eventually hit on a compromise. Four days in San Francisco, followed by a few days driving down the Pacific Coast highway (stopping off at Monterey, Carmel, the Hearst Castle, Solvang, Santa Barbara, etc.) before hitting that cultural Chernobyl known as L.A.

So far, so good. Compromise. Respect. The blending of ideas both good and staggeringly ill-conceived.

Then came the bombshell.

“And we’re spending a few days in Vegas, too!”

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“We’re spending a few days in Las Vegas. It’ll be fun. You’ll love it!”

I could tell she was already picturing herself on a deck chair near the pool, sipping a mai-tai or whatever people drink while waiting for the melanoma to kick in.

“I absolutely will not love it,” I said. “In fact, I can pretty much guarantee you that I am going to hate it. I hate it already and I’ve never even been there.”

“If you’ve never been there, how do you know you’d hate it?” she parried.

“I’ve never been near a natural disaster either but I don’t have to experience one first-hand to know I’d hate it.”

“You’re being silly. You’re going to adore Vegas!”

“I am not going to do anything of the kind because I am not going anywhere near Las Vegas. The very thought of it gives me the hives. I’m not going!”

OK, so I’m at the Vegas airport with WHN waiting for our luggage. Don’t even ask why our luggage from L.A. to Las Vegas was put on a different flight than the one we took. Already, I was getting a headache and we’d only been there for 15 minutes.

And then… my face lights up. Coming down the hallway, all smiles and sweat… was James Brown and his entourage.

I gently tap WHN’s arm.

“It’s James Brown!” I whisper.

“Who?” she asks, looking around.

“James Brown. The Godfather of Soul!”

“Where?” she asks as Brown and his crew, not 10 feet in front of us, are greeted by a group from whatever casino at which he will be headlining.

Brown smiles even wider and whiter, shakes hands with the group and says, “You’re beautiful, baby. Beautiful!”

“Standing right in front of you!” I say, more urgently.

“Where?” she says, looking off to one side.

“Right there. He’s there. Right over there! James Brown. The guy walking away. Him!”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she mutters, then continues to read a pamphlet about Elvis wedding chapels.

This was not an auspicious beginning to my time in Las Vegas.

Our luggage arrived. We got into a cab. It dropped us off at the now long-gone and long-since forgotten Sahara Hotel & Casino.

And from the moment I stepped out of that cab and into the night air…


I was 120% wrong in everything I thought about that city. WHN was absolutely right. I ADORED it. The crowds. The lights. The shows. The casino lobbies. The hustle and bustle on the streets. Watching little old ladies putting coins in slot machines. Phyllis Diller and Dianne Carroll at the MGM Grand. Les Folies Bergère. You name it, I ate it up. I couldn’t get enough of the place. The next day, I walked outside the hotel for 15 minutes and got a brutal sunburn on my neck. I could not have cared less. I was having such a good time.

To me, Las Vegas is like the whales. It’s OK to go whale watching. Once. Whales are big and gross and you might not want to get all that close to one… but it’s nice knowing that somewhere out there, there is something that goes that far, that big, that out of control.

My 3-day stint in Vegas was fabulous. I almost… ALMOST… regretted getting onto the plane to go to San Francisco.

And this is PRECISELY the point I wanted to make with my beloved SG. It’s not that I think I am right all the time. It’s not that I love being right. In actual fact, I LOVE being proven wrong. I love thinking something is going to be a disaster and it turns out great. I think it’s fantastic when I know for sure something is not going to work and miraculously, it does! Being pleasantly surprised is the highlight of my day.


I am right approximately 98.73% of the time. For example, on that same trip, I said I was going to love San Francisco (I was right), I would love travelling down the Pacific Coast highway (I was right) and checking out the towns along the way (I was right), I would love Disneyland (right again) and that I would love the Ambassador Hotel and Beverly Hills (I was right on both counts).

I also said I would loathe, detest and despise Los Angeles. And I was right.

It is just that it’s so tiring having to go through one useless exercise in futility after another just to prove to someone that I am right. And I’m never the one who wants it proven. I know I’m right. I don’t have to prove it to myself.

“You never know ’til you try!”

“What’s there to lose?”

“Just humour me, ok?”

These words chill me to the bone. Along with my all time favourite…

“Well, now you know for sure that you were right!”

I knew BEFORE that I was right!! I didn’t have to prove it to myself. I’m not happy that I was right. I am not happy that I just wasted a half hour to prove something I already knew.

I want to be wrong. But I am always right.

Well, almost always, anyway.

* (With apologies to Martin Mull)


[1] When I was a young rōnin, I was for several years in a relationship and living with an even younger partner. While I did not fully appreciate it at the time, we were in a common-law marriage. That person is, therefore, my ‘first spouse’ [‘SA’], as opposed to the person I legally married (then legally divorced) many years later [‘WHN’]. My children, Exhibits One and Two, were tendered into evidence during the second marriage.

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For all of you scoffers and nay-sayers out there who kvetch about archaeology never producing anything truly noteworthy and relevant…

Ancient Popcorn Discovered in Peru!

As the tireless geeks and nerdlings at ScienceDaily.com reported earlier this month, “People living along the coast of Peru were eating popcorn 1,000 years earlier than previously reported and before ceramic pottery was used there, according to a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences co-authored by Dolores Piperno, curator of New World archaeology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and emeritus staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

(Ancient maize cobs)

Scientists discovered some of the oldest known corn cobs, husks, stalks and tassels (dating from 6,700 to 3,000 years ago) at Paredones and Huaca Prieta, two mound sites on Peru’s arid northern coast.  The researchers say the cobs indicate that the sites’ ancient inhabitants ate corn several ways, including popcorn and flour corn

(Detailed popcorn progression map – 9,000 to 6000 years ago)

ScienceNewsBlog.com quotes Ms. Piperno as saying, “Corn was first domesticated in Mexico nearly 9,000 years ago from a wild grass called teosinte. Our results show that only a few thousand years later corn arrived in South America where its evolution into different varieties that are now common in the Andean region began. This evidence further indicates that in many areas corn arrived before pots did and that early experimentation with corn as a food was not dependent on the presence of pottery.” 

How about that, sneerers!? Take your derisive laughter and pop it!

It’s good to strike a blow for archaeology and relevant, practical science knowledge!

Go, Geeks, Go!


According to WordPress, this is my 111th post! I’m having so much fun writing these articles. I hope you enjoy reading them!

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I have to confess to a question that has been much on my mind of late… one that has been weighing heavily upon my soul.

Could a ‘Death Star’ really destroy a planet? Is it even physically and scientifically possible? Could a small moon-sized battle station generate enough energy to destroy an Earth-sized planet? I mean, really?

(That’s no moon. It’s a space station)

Luckily, or maybe not, the physics geeks over at PhysOrg.com have looked into this profound and troubling question and have come to a disturbing conclusion.

As I discovered in a recent article,  a paper by David Boulderston (University of Leicester) sets out to answer that very question and it seems the answer is… YES!

Well, isn’t that just lovely.

First, for the uninitiated and/or those who have been hiding in a cave for the last 35 years, here’s Death Star-101

According to Star Wars lore, the DS-1 Orbital Battle Station, or Death Star, is a moon-sized battle station designed to spread fear throughout the galaxy. The image above shows the Death Star as it appeared in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977). The Death Star’s main weapon is depicted as a superlaser capable of destroying planets with a single blast.

(Plan of DS-1 Orbital Battle Station)

Boulderston claims that it is possible to estimate how much energy the Death Star would need in order to destroy a planet with its superlaser. Taking into account a whole lot of assumptions in order to come up with the energy requirement (e.g. assuming Alderaan [the target planet in Star Wars IV] did not have any sort of planetary “deflector” shield and that the planet is a solid body of uniform density, using the idealized sphere model based on Earth’s mass and diameter, etc.),  it was possible to determine the gravitational binding energy of Alderaan, using a simple equation of:

U= 3GMp2

Where G is the Gravitational Constant (6.673×10-11), Mp is planet mass, and Rp is the planet’s radius. Using Earth’s mass and radius, the required energy comes out to 2.25 x 1032 Joules. Using Jupiter’s data, the energy required goes up to 2 x 1036 Joules.

Piece of cake, no?

(I find your lack of faith… disturbing)

According to Star Wars lore, the Death Star is powered by a ‘hypermatter’ reactor, possessing the energy output of several main-sequence stars. Boulderston asserts that, given that the power output of our Sun is about 3 x 1026 Joules per second, it’s a reasonable assumption the Death Star’s reactor could power the superlaser.

Put another way, since the Death Star’s main power reactor has the energy output equal to several main-sequence stars, even if Earth’s exact composition were used in the equation above, the required energy to destroy a planet would only be affected by a few orders of magnitude – well within the Death Star’s power budget.

So… the bottom line, according to Boulderston, is that wiping out a planet like Earth is no sweat… but if the Death Star wanted to take on a planet like Jupiter, that would be a much taller order but ultimately do-able.

Can’t wait for the Evil Empire to come up with their next nifty gadget, the Sun-Buster 3000!

May the Force with you… always!

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This great dish is one of my favourites. It can be easily tweaked, depending on one’s tastes and preferences (see notes below). It is largely based on Martin Yan’s ‘Chicken and Potato Yellow Curry’ recipe in his Quick & Easy cookbook.

N.B.: The recipe as set down below is the original treyf (not kosher) version. Check the Kosher Korner notes below on how to make this dish kosher!


  • 3 or 4 new white potatoes, unpeeled and cut into bitesized chunks
  • 14 ounce (400 mL) can unsweetened coconut milk (the thicker kind for cooking, not drinking)
  • 3 tablespoons curry paste (yellow or green, if you can get it)
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 1 pound boneless skinless chicken breast or thigh meat
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 tablespoons fish sauce (nampla) [see kosher notes below!]
  • 1/4 cup fresh chopped cilantro
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch dissolved in 2 teaspoons water
  • Fresh cilantro leaves for garnish


  1. In a saucepan, cook potatoes in boiling water until tender (about 15 minutes), then drain.
  2. Pour 1/2 cup of the coconut milk into a saucepan and place over medium heat for about 30 seconds. Stir in curry paste and bring to a boil, stirring constantly until curry paste blends with coconut milk. Add remaining coconut milk and water and bring to a boil.
  3. Add chicken to boiling curry milk and cook, stirring occasionally, until chicken is no longer pink in the centre (about 4 minutes).
  4. Add sugar, fish sauce and potatoes. Bring to a boil and cook for 5 minutes.
  5. Add chopped cilantro and cornstarch solution.
  6. Cook, stirring, until sauce boils (about a minute or so).
  7. Transfer to serving plate, garnish with cilantro leaves.
  8. This dish can be served in a bowl, or with/on rice.

Additional Twists

  • When I make this recipe, I use a 19 oz (560 mL) can of coconut milk.
  • Add 2 or 3 fresh kaffir lime leaves to the curry-coconut milk mix before adding the chicken and potatoes.
  • To make the dish even quicker and easier, use canned white potato slices.
  • Some feel the recipe produces a soup or broth that is not thick enough. To thicken, try adding finely crumbled matzah in order to thicken dish into a stew, or cook extra potatoes and mash some of the cooked potato chunks to thicken the dish.
  • Try adding additional vegetables like carrots or onions.
  • Instead of cilantro for a garnish, try chives or thinly sliced green onion.

Kosher Korner

  • As indicated above, the recipe as set out above is not kosher as it contains nampla, a Thai fish sauce which is basically anchovy-flavoured salt water, in violation of the rabbinic prohibition of cooking meat and fish together. In order to get around this, you can leave out the fish sauce or, if you want a nice vegetarian dish, leave out the chicken and add cooked carrot slices/chunks. Some even add finely chopped cooked sweet onions.
  • If you want to go pareve or vegetarian, you can use the fish sauce and a pareve (non-meat) chicken since the flavour in this dish comes mostly from the curry, not the chicken. Try adding chunks of matzah as well, instead of chicken.
  • If you are going to use matzah, use the machine-made ‘square’ matzah. I like to use Manischewitz Egg Matzah. Hand-made shmurah matzah doesn’t soften/blend as well as machine-made matzah but this can be an advantage if you want the matzah pieces to retain their shape and consistency.
  • Warning: Be aware that some very observant people will not want to eat this dish, even if it is 100% kosher, because it LOOKS like it is violating the prohibition against cooking meat with milk. Obviously, coconut milk is not true milk (as from an animal) but many observant people do not want to eat anything that even appears to be treyf (not kosher). It is best to check with your guests in advance.

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In support of Wikipedia (and other free-content providers) and against the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act.

We will return Friday January 20, 2012.

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My beloved S.G. and I had the opportunity to spend Shabbes at the brand new (as of Rosh HaShana) Chabad House in St. Catharines. Formerly, Chabad was centred out of Niagara Falls, but the new location is much better on a lot of levels (bigger, closer to Brock University, closer to a larger Jewish population, etc.).

I’ve had the sincere pleasure of knowing R’ Zalman Zaltzman (the local Chabad Rabbi) and his wonderful wife, Perla, for about 5 years ever since they first came to the region. They are a wonderful dedicated couple who have devoted their lives to Jewish education, community and spreading the Rebbe‘s message and vision to as many Jews as they can.

(Perla and Zalman Zaltzman, the Chabad representatives in the Niagara Region)

While we originally thought it was going to be just a (relatively) small group of people, when I arrived at about 4:00 pm Friday afternoon, the place was already starting to fill up. The Rabbi and his wife invited about a half-dozen Brock University students to dinner Friday evening and a few members of the local Jewish community. Also attending were R’ Zaltzman’s parents and several of his brothers and sisters.

All in all, there were 25 of us that night! Shabbes dinner was so amazing (thank you Perla!) and the conversation inspiring and enlightening.

The next day, after morning prayers, I had the wonderful experience of talking/studying with a 13-year-old Chabad student who is a brilliant Torah scholar. It was incredible seeing such insight and depth of understanding in one so young. I was completely blown away.

(The Chabad Hanukah menorah erected each year as part of the Niagara Falls ‘Festival of Lights’)

Lunch was late (starting around 2:00 pm) and very leisurely with lots of uplifting stories and enjoyable conversation.

All too soon, it was time for havdalah, and before we knew it, Shabbes was over.

If you are Jewish and are in the Niagara Region of southern Ontario, do yourself a favour and contact Chabad Lubavitch Jewish Centre of Niagara. It will be an experience you will not soon forget.

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