Sunday, September 23, 2012

OBJECT #17: Little black magnifier

    I actually used this object just two days ago.  I was too lazy to get out my large stereo-microscope (which itself qualifies as junk in my basement because it’s just a secondhand scope from ebay) so I grabbed one of these.  I wanted to look at the tiny flowers on a plantain weed.  The weed has a fuzzy spire that I was pretty sure had to be flower spire in botanical terms.  I reasoned that the flowers must be so small that you could hardly see them without a magnifier.  So I grabbed one of these, switched on the light, and held the plantain under it.  I was amazed to see tiny purple and yellow flowers hanging at the ends of impossibly thin stalks.  One of the many examples of the amazing biology that we take for granted every day, often even unaware of its existence.

    If you’ve looked at these inexpensive magnifiers in a catalog and wondered if they are worth the 12-15 dollar price tag, the answer is “yes,” they actually give pretty good magnification.  You can get up to 30x magnification with them, which is way beyond your standard hand lens (3x to 8x).  If you can’t afford a large stereo-microscope (even a cheap one is over $100) then this is a great little alternative.  I would not recommend them for kids under 8 or 9, however, because it takes a bit of coordination to get things lined up and in focus.  I had to be a bit patient with my plantain flowers.  The only drawback with these is that the viewing area is pretty small.  But if you want to look at a sand grain or an insect eye or a miniature plantain flower, these will let you see some of the beautiful of creation you would miss otherwise.

Plantain Flower

Sunday, September 16, 2012

OBJECT #16: Moiré cards (Mwah-ray)

    These cards have been lurking in various places in my basement for the better part of twenty years.  They’ve moved from drawer to drawer, with cards lost in some inexplicable way during each move.  (Children under the age of 10 might have had something to do with the missing cards, but then again, perhaps not.)  The battered box finally ended up in my big brown curiosity cupboard (which in and of itself is a notable piece of junk in my basement — one of those things you pick up cheap at a garage sale when you are just starting out in life and can’t afford to buy anything decent, and then years later there it is, still with out, such a permanent fixture in the house that it doesn’t even cross your mind to get rid of it.)

    The name moiré  is most recently from French, though the word has a complex etymology and was borrowed back and forth between French and English over several centuries.  Linguists speculate that the word originally came from Arabic, “mukhayyar,” meaning “chosen.”  What was chosen was the very best wool threads from an angora goat.  These hairs were woven and pressed into a fabric that the Europeans later perfected into a textile they called “watered silk.”  The hairs were aligned into a grid, then pressed into place, perhaps something akin to making felt.  The finished effect was a textile that caught the light strangely as it moved, making shimmering patterns.  (I guess if you couldn’t attract the gentlemen’s eyes naturally, you could always wear watered silk and make your yourself visually irresistible!)

    The moiré effect is now considered to be part of the world of physics, not fashion.  The most common place you’ll see this phenomenon is on a tv screen.  If someone is wearing clothing that has a strong grid-like pattern of some kind, the pattern will interact in a strange way with the physics of putting the image onto your screen, causing an effect that can be either fascinating or irksome, depending on how long you have to sit and watch it.  I’ve seen shirts and ties do spectacular moiré performances.  They produce shimmering and shifting patterns that are so eye-catching you can hardly concentrate on anything else on the screen.
    The moiré  effect is extremely simple.  It’s just two patterns, even as simple as two basic grids, laid on top of each other.  The top one must be transparent so the bottom one shows through.  As you slide one of the grids back and forth, you can see the lines of the grids shifting their positions relative to one another.  For a fraction of a second, the grids might be perfectly aligned, then a split second later, some of the lines shift to the right or left or even diagonally.  Your eye records these constant changes, and perceives it as an optical illusion of shimmering movement.

    I have a sheer white curtain on one of my windows that does a moiré  effect once in a while when the folds overlap.  I stumbled across a piece of fabric at a store a few years ago that had such a strong moiré  effect that I decided to turn it into a simple science exhibit for my traveling summer science museum.  I used replacement screen panels and put this fabric into them.  The two moiré  screens hang back to back and the visitor can move them back and forth to create stunning visual effects.

    I hope the little video here can give you an idea of amazing this effect can be when made to be large scale.  Someday when I have a permanent facility, I’ll have a huge moiré  of these that can entertain visitor on a large scale.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

OBJECT #15: Hans Christian Andersen scissors

    I call these my “Hans Christian Andersen scissors.”  Everyone knows that Andersen wrote fairy tales.  His complete collection of fairy tales is on my bookshelf, but I have to confess I have not yet read the book from cover to cover.  It’s a huge book and includes many classics such as “The Little Mermaid,” “The Ugly Duckling,” “Thumbelina,” “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” “The Princess and the Pea,” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”  What most people don’t know is that Andersen was also a master paper cutter.  Andersen never explained in any of his writings how he became so skilled at paper cutting.  In fact, he rarely mentions his cuttings at all.

    Andersen grew up as the only son of a poor shoemaker.  He lived in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Denmark in the early 1800s.  His father was intelligent and imaginative, however, and provided Hans a childhood full of folk tales and paper puppets.  A few times they saved enough money to be able to take Hans to a theatre to see a play.  Hans and his father would then come home and make a paper stage, paper puppets and a paper costume wardrobe.  Making this paper puppets was Andersen’s first experience with paper cutting art.

    After a trying to become an actor during his early teen years, he was told he did not have enough talent to make it in show business and he should be a writer instead.  A very generous patron volunteered to provide funds to further his education, and at age 17 he went back to school.  He went on to college, and during that time began his writing career. He began by writing plays and poetry.  Then he tried his hand at re-writing some traditional folks tales and had enough success to make him brave enough to try writing some of this own tales.

    One of the first tales we wrote was called “Little Ida’s Flowers.” A little girl named Ida had asked him what had happened to her bouquet of flowers overnight.  They had been so beautiful the day before and now they were wilted.  So Andersen make up a story about the flowers had been out dancing all night and tired themselves out.  In this story, one of the characters makes a paper cutting to amuse the little girl.

    Though Andersen’s dream of being a professional actor never came true, he found an even better outlet for his creative entertaining talent.  He would give private performances for small audiences, and would make a paper cutting while he told a tale.  He would chop away at a folded piece of paper using an enormous pair of scissors the entire time he was telling the story.  Then, at the end of the story, he would open the paper and show his audience the design he had created.  A Danish woman wrote this of her childhood memory of Andersend doing his paper cutting:  “He would always cut with an enormous pair of scissors.  It was a mystery to me how he could cut out such dainty things with his big hands and those enormous scissors!”

    Andersen’s reputation as an amazing entertainer reached the ears of those in high society.  Soon he was getting invitations to the homes of barons and dukes.  Eventually there was hardly a night when he didn’t have an invitation somewhere.  This was fortunate because though Andersen loved children, he never married and therefore never had any children of his own.  He would sit for hours telling stories and cutting paper designs for the children of his well-born friends.  (He even stayed with Charles Dickens in England for five weeks.  The language barrier was a problem, but Andersen used his paper cuttings as a bridge that didn’t need words.)  Some  guests’ homes made Andersen feel especially comfortable and he always referred to these homes as “good cutting-out places.”

    Andersen never sketched out his figures first.  He would just fold the paper and start cutting.  Most of his works are simple pieces of symmetry, where he folded the paper just once.  Occasionally he would fold the paper twice and make a four-fold pattern.

    I got my Andersen scissors at a garage sale quite a few years ago.  I believe them to be a relic from the days of cut-and-paste editing.  If you’ve got a job that requires a lot of cutting, you can’t waste time with a medium-sized pair of scissors.  These blades let you slice a sheet of paper in half almost in one snip.  Though old, these scissors qualify under the category of “they don’t make them like they used to,” and, accordingly, they have not become dull as quickly as the other scissors I own.  (Hmm... I’ll have to try making a paper cutting with them some time.)

Monday, September 3, 2012

OBJECT #14: Potato Animal Head


    This piece of junk wasn’t in my basement very long, for obvious reasons.  It sat on display for a few days, then I snapped a picture before returning it to the pantry.

     I’m a big fan of the book “Play With Your Food” by Joost Elffers.  The book consists of whimsical photos of food items posed to look like animals.  There’s a banana octopus, a mad-face orange, a yam mole, a confused pumpkin face, and garlic clove ducks.  My potato deer isn’t quite up to Elffers quality, but it made me laugh when I pulled it out of the bag.  I just couldn’t bring myself to ignore the deer/bear/whatever, and just toss the potato into the pot.  It needed to receive its due and be admired for a few days.