Posts filed under “Science & Nature”


Dear Dr. Boli: It used to be that, when I had to put laundry detergent in the wash, I took the cap off and poured detergent into the cap to measure it. Now all the detergent companies have redesigned their bottles so that I have to take off the larger cap, twist the smaller cap partway but not all the way off to vent the jug, turn the jug on its side, and hold it in that position while simultaneously holding down a button on the spout with my other hand to release the detergent. Since progress works in only one direction and everything constantly gets better and better, I know this system is an improvement over the old one. My question is this: How? —Sincerely, A Little Old Man Who Finds It Hard to Tilt Five Pounds of Detergent While Simultaneously Holding Down a Button with His Other Hand.

Dear Sir: Today’s detergent companies manufacture laundry detergent in convenient single-load capsules to spare you the slavish labor of measuring detergent into a cap. Selling these capsules is much more profitable for the detergent companies than selling detergent in liquid form. If you insist on buying your detergent as a liquid, the detergent companies will sell it to you, but they will not be happy about it. They will do all they can to remind you of the difficulties you could spare yourself if only you bought your detergent in convenient capsule form. Thus the newly engineered jugs are a great improvement over the old ones, which hardly discouraged you at all.


The eighth edition of Gray’s Manual of Botany, the final and most comprehensive edition of the foremost guide to the botany of the northeastern United States, is available at the Internet Archive—all 1686 pages. Although it was published in 1950, the librarian at the University of Florida appends this note: “Copyright status reviewed by UF staff – out of copyright.” Yes, you read correctly: the eighth edition of Gray (which is ridiculously expensive in the used-book trade) is out of copyright. It seems the copyright was never renewed. We have added this edition to the Botany page in our Eclectic Library, and we expect a stampede of botanically inclined readers in the direction of the Internet Archive.

Gray’s Manual of Botany. Eighth (Centennial) Edition—Illustrated. A Handbook of the Flowering Plants and Ferns of the Central and Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada. Largely rewritten and expanded by Merritt Lyndon Fernald. New York, etc.: American Book Company, 1950.


Our old friend Father Pitt provides us with this picture of St. Casimir’s on the South Side, now—like many large churches in the neighborhood—converted to luxury apartments. Architecturally, it’s worth discussing—a sort of American Polish Baroque. But what our correspondent found most interesting about the picture is not evident until you enlarge it. Note the two pedestrians on the sidewalk along the side of the building.

They are the same person. All unknowing, old Pa Pitt captured an instance of bilocation on 22nd Street at the intersection with Sarah Street. He has reported this to the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, but as the church building has been deconsecrated, the diocese disclaims all responsibility for instances of bilocation on profane ground. Apparently people are bilocating willy-nilly in the vicinity of old churches and nothing can be done about it.


Dear Dr. Boli: I bought a can of German beer, and on the label it says, “500 ml, 0.5 l, 50 cl.” So my question is this: How many deciliters is that? Math is hard. —Sincerely, Just Wondering.

Dear Sir or Madam: 4.71. One of the curious facts about beer as a physical substance is the property known to science as the non-conservation of deciliters. Because this property frequently confuses consumers and causes them to believe they are drinking less beer than is actually in the can, the Reinheitsgebot in Germany specifies that beer must be labeled in milliliters, liters, and centiliters, but not deciliters.


Here is an interesting fact from an article on open-source software in the United Kingdom:

“Researchers found a staggering 97% of the 273 UK businesses surveyed use some form of open source software.”

What does this mean?

Assuming that all 273 businesses are connected to the Web (even the uncompromisingly Victorian James Smith & Sons umbrella shop has a Web site these days), it means that 3% are still using Internet Explorer. All other Web browsers* are based on open-source rendering engines, so if you access the Web at all, you are using some form of open-source software.

Are you still staggered?

*It is technically possible for one or two of these companies to be using an ancient proprietary browser from the Paleolithic era of the Internet, but the possibility is remote.


Dear Dr. Boli: A bunch of people I work with said they were going out to a “gastropub” after work, and they invited me to go along. I said I had to go home and practice the ukulele, because I didn’t know what a gastropub was, and I wasn’t sure I liked the sound of it. What is a gastropub? —Sincerely, A Guy Who Just Wanted a Hamburger, That’s All.

Dear Sir: For a moment Dr. Boli thought of having a little fun at your expense and telling you that a gastropub was an establishment that catered to proctologists, gastroenterologists, and other members of the innards professions. But that would not have been kind, and Dr. Boli regrets even entertaining the idea. Actually, a gastropub is a pub in which gastropods are prepared and served. If you like snails, whelks, slugs, and whatnot, you will probably enjoy it.


Third Series.


Zebra.—Zoologists attempting to answer the age-old question of whether the zebra is a black animal with white stripes or a white animal with black stripes finally announced, after several years of work, the startling finding that the zebra is a green animal entirely covered in black and white stripes.


Dear Dr. Boli: My brother and I were talking about space stuff, and we were wondering: If we got into our limousine in Washington, D.C., and started driving now, how long would it take us to get to Mars? —Sincerely, Jeff Bezos.

Dear Sir: According to Google Maps, it would take 4 hours and 20 minutes to get from Kalorama in Washington to Mars, Pennsylvania, by the fastest route, under usual traffic conditions.

But since you mention space, Dr. Boli wonders whether you meant Mars the planet. Mars is some distance from the earth, and the roads are not kept in good repair. With Mars and the earth in their present positions, it would take you a very long time to get to Mars in your limousine. The best way to bring home the enormous distances involved is to say that you would have time to read À la recherche du temps perdu all the way through, and then read it again, before you got there. This assumes, of course, that your brother is driving. Dr. Boli does not recommend driving under the influence of Proust.