Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Cochon de Lait and Scientific Notation

The "Cochon de Lait" bill is signed and we all have to live with it.

I used it to demonstrate the practical application of Scientific Notation to the 6th grader.

Problem Statement:
Divide the cost of the Stimulus Bill by the population of the United States.

See, it's much easier if you don't have to worry about all those zeros.

I then gave a Civics class by taking the Grandsons for ice cream and showing them just what you could buy with the tax cut we were getting. But even the 1st Grader understood the stupidity of voting for something you hadn't read.

Laissez le Bon Temp Rouler

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

More Submarines

The fact that Germany had a midget submarine program in WW II is not well known. The most likely reason is, like the Japanese midget submarines, they were not a factor in the outcome of any major battles. In Germany’s case, many simply vanished while on patrol. No record of any Allied action involving them exists so it is assumed that they were lost to weather and the elements with nothing to show for it.

Germany had 4 classes of midget submarines. They were mostly designed for 1 man operation and carried torpedoes outside the hull. One of the most active classes was the “Biber” (Beaver). One of them is in the Imperial War Museum in London and is the one in the picture. This particular midget sub was found off of Dover and taken in tow. The operator had made an error in ventilating the boat and died of carbon monoxide poisoning from the gasoline engine fumes. Another Biber was recently refurbished by the BBC and is the only functional WW II midget submarine in captivity. In all, 324 of these little subs were built.

An excellent source for U-Boat information is the web site

For a summary of the BBC project, go here.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Louisiana’s Mystery Submarine

For years there was a small submarine sitting in Jackson Square in New Orleans. It looked vaguely like it came from the Civil War era but there was very little information about it. It was recovered by dredging crew working near Bayou St. John in 1878. For years it lay neglected on the bank of Bayou St. John until 1908 when it was put on display at the Camp Nicholls Confederate Home. Finally, in 1942 the Louisiana State Museum aquired it and it was moved to Jackson Square.

For decades, the identity of the submarine eluded researchers. Some thought it was the “Pioneer”, a submarine built by the same folks that later built the “CSS Hunley”. However, subsequent drawings found in the National Archives proved that it is not the “Pioneer”.

There were some other clues, however. A letter from Fleet Engineer Shock to Assistant Secretary of the US Navy Gustavas Fox said:

“Some few weeks since I had some duty calling me to a place down at the New Basin where I discovered a submarine machine. I embraced the first favorable opportunity and examined it, got its history and had a drawing made of it, a tracing of which I send you as a curiosity.

The history of the machine seems is simply this, in the early part of Admiral Farragut’s operations here (
New Orleans fell on May 1, 1862) the gunboat New London was a perfect terror to the Rebels in the lake (Lake Pontchartrain), so it occurred to them if they could get a machine that would move underwater they could succeed in securing a torpedo to the bottom of the ship, move off, touch the wires, and thus terminate their existence. They finally got the thing done, made a good job of it, got it overboard, and put two men in it; they were smothered to death.”

The “Pioneer” was never involved in a similar incident so it is believed that this action was by a different vessel and possibly the Mystery Sub.

Also, in June 1861, New Yorker E. P. Doer travelled to New Orleans and heard a story. He related that story to the Navy in Washington.

“…… the Rebels in New Orleans are constructing an infernal vessel to destroy the “Brooklyn”, or any vessel blockading the mouth of the Mississippi; from her description she is to be used as a projectile with a sharp iron or steel pointed brow to perforate the bottom of the vessel and then explode. She says that it is being constructed by competent engineers. I put implicit reliance in the correctness of this information.”

If this letter refers to the Mystery Submarine, it would be the earliest example of a Civil War submarine.

The Mystery Submarine was removed from Jackson Square and taken to Baton Rouge for preservation work. It can be seen today at the Louisiana State Museum there. For more information, follow this link.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Joseph Black, Scotch Whiskey and Thermodynamics

I was impressed recently to learn the Combination of Rothes Distillers, Ltd. is planning to build a 7.2 megawatt power generating facility that will use the distillery waste as a fuel. This may seem innovative,, but they are merely keeping up a long standing Scotch tradition for frugality. In fact, if it wasn’t for Scotch Whiskey and frugal Scotsmen, we might not have discovered an important thermodynamic property.

Pour yourself a wee dram and learn about Joseph Black.

Joseph Black was a Scottish physician and chemist. He was a contemporary and friend of James Watt. He went to medical school in Glasgow and Edinburgh. He is known for several scientific discoveries including the fact that carbon dioxide can kill you and that phase transformations take place at constant temperature regardless of heat input. But, on to the Scotch bit.

It seems some local distillers, being frugal Scotsmen, wanted to know the minimum amount of fuel needed to distill whiskey. From his experiments, he discovered the thermodynamic property of Specific Heat. This property has caused dismay to engineering students ever since.

Now you know what engineering owes to the art of distilling whiskey. So the next time you lift a glass of Scotland’s Finest, remember Joseph Black, the frugal distillers and how they advanced the science of thermodynamics.