A DIALOGUE WITH SARAH, AGED 3: IN WHICH IT IS SHOWN THAT IF YOUR DAD IS A CHEMISTRY PROFESSOR, ASKING “WHY” CAN BE DANGEROUS By Stephen McNeil
SARAH:Daddy, were you in the shower?
DAD:Yes, I was in the shower.
DAD:I was dirty. The shower gets me clean.
DAD:Why does the shower get me clean?
DAD:Because the water washes the dirt away when I use soap.
DAD:Why do I use soap?
DAD:Because the soap grabs the dirt and lets the water wash it off.
DAD:Why does the soap grab the dirt?
DAD:Because soap is a surfactant.
DAD:Why is soap a surfactant?
DAD:That is an EXCELLENT question. Soap is a surfactant because it forms water-soluble micelles that trap the otherwise insoluble dirt and oil particles.
DAD:Why does soap form micelles?
DAD:Soap molecules are long chains with a polar, hydrophilic head and a non-polar, hydrophobic tail. Can you say ‘hydrophilic’?
DAD:And can you say ‘hydrophobic’?
DAD:Excellent! The word ‘hydrophobic’ means that it avoids water.
DAD:Why does it mean that?
DAD:It’s Greek! ‘Hydro’ means water and ‘phobic’ means ‘fear of’. ‘Phobos’ is fear. So ‘hydrophobic’ means ‘afraid of water’.
SARAH:Like a monster?
DAD:You mean, like being afraid of a monster?
DAD:A scary monster, sure. If you were afraid of a monster, a Greek person would say you were gorgophobic.
SARAH:(rolls her eyes) I thought we were talking about soap.
DAD:We are talking about soap.
DAD:Why do the molecules have a hydrophilic head and a hydrophobic tail?
DAD:Because the C-O bonds in the head are highly polar, and the C-H bonds in the tail are effectively non-polar.
DAD:Because while carbon and hydrogen have almost the same electronegativity, oxygen is far more electronegative, thereby polarizing the C-O bonds.
DAD:Why is oxygen more electronegative than carbon and hydrogen?
DAD:That’s complicated. There are different answers to that question, depending on whether you’re talking about the Pauling or Mulliken electronegativity scales. The Pauling scale is based on homo- versus heteronuclear bond strength differences, while the Mulliken scale is based on the atomic properties of electron affinity and ionization energy. But it really all comes down to effective nuclear charge. The valence electrons in an oxygen atom have a lower energy than those of a carbon atom, and electrons shared between them are held more tightly to the oxygen, because electrons in an oxygen atom experience a greater nuclear charge and therefore a stronger attraction to the atomic nucleus! Cool, huh?
Two fossil skeletons of early humans appear to mark a halfway stage between primitive “ape-men” and our direct ancestors. A year of detailed study has revealed that the skeletons are a hodgepodge of anatomical features: some bones look almost human while others are chimpanzee-like.
The February Vanity Fair is out, and in the feature well is a look at the JFK inaugural, 50 years later. (Justin Bieber’s youthful mug adorns the cover, not Jack’s.) It seems like, oh, just last month, the mag excerpted Greg Lawrence’s Jackie as Editor. Because VF and the Kennedys go…
Believer: There is also something specific about your work: it is very closely linked to contemporary art and artists. Maybe you can say a word about this, because it doesn’t happen that often that writers are interested in contemporary art, and reciprocally. I wouldn’t know how to present…
“Eagleman has collected hundreds of stories like his, and they almost all share the same quality: in life-threatening situations, time seems to slow down. He remembers the feeling clearly, he says. His body stumbles forward as the tar paper tears free at his feet. His hands stretch toward the ledge, but it’s out of reach. The brick floor floats upward—some shiny nails are scattered across it—as his body rotates weightlessly above the ground. It’s a moment of absolute calm and eerie mental acuity. But the thing he remembers best is the thought that struck him in midair: this must be how Alice felt when she was tumbling down the rabbit hole.”
-How the mind experiences time in different contexts and the work of David Eagleman
In the late 1980s, Paul Goldstein was consulting for the Recording Industry Association of America when an executive began to wax about a “celestial jukebox”: a satellite in low-earth orbit, packed with every version of every song ever performed, ready to drop at the hour of need to the ears bent skyward of anyone who asked. This, all for a very real nickel. Goldstein included it in the title of a book about copyright in 1994. It’s such a pleasant idea that it’s since been attributed to several people, among them Edgar Bronfman Jr., now head of Warner Music Group, and David Bowie. Goldstein can’t remember who said it. He has since asked around, and no one can tell him who thought of it first. The celestial jukebox sprang, evidently, from the fondest, innermost wish of the recording industry.
In 2005, Siva Vaidhyanathan declared that the celestial jukebox had arisen. Vaidhyanathan, a well-respected specialist on Internet law who now teaches at the University of Virginia, said that counter to Goldstein’s book, listeners would not have to cede control entirely to the record labels. The Internet, he said, is the celestial jukebox. If he was right, Spotify has a problem: Something free is a perennial threat to something paid for.
But theft, in life and online, carries a time cost. It takes time to learn how to use file sharing programs such as Bittorrent. Search results are inconsistent. The sites that quasi-legally share music files regularly disappear. These costs may seem minor, particularly for the young, for whom time is a currency freely given, but time costs increase with age. And even the young are sensitive to them.
For Universal in Sweden, Bon Jovi’s Greatest Hits sold 25 physical or digital albums for every album-length play on Spotify. For Lady Gaga’s latest recording, that ratio drops to three sales for every Spotify play. For Taio Cruz, the Bon Jovi ratio has inverted: 4.5 Spotify album plays for every album sold. (“I showed this to the manager of Taio,” says Sundin. “He loved this.”) If you don’t know who Taio Cruz is, that’s precisely the point: It’s the kids, formerly the most likely to steal, who are most likely to use Spotify. It brought them in from the cold.
Google is where we go for answers. People used to go elsewhere or, more likely, stagger along not knowing. Nowadays you can’t have a long dinner-table argument about who won the Oscar for that Neil Simon movie where she plays an actress who doesn’t win an Oscar; at any moment someone will pull out a pocket device and Google it. If you need the art-history meaning of “picturesque,” you could find it in The Book of Answers, compiled two decades ago by the New York Public Library’s reference desk, but you won’t. Part of Google’s mission is to make the books of answers redundant (and the reference librarians, too). “A hamadryad is a wood-nymph, also a poisonous snake in India, and an Abyssinian baboon,” says the narrator of John Banville’s 2009 novel, The Infinities. “It takes a god to know a thing like that.” Not anymore.
The business of finding facts has been an important gear in the workings of human knowledge, and the technology has just been upgraded from rubber band to nuclear reactor. No wonder there’s some confusion about Google’s exact role in that—along with increasing fear about its power and its intentions.