austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

Tinkerbell's mind is a crazy machine at the best

While we daily make use of the ground, the surprising fact is until recently it was just a charming theory. Its existence, subject to philosophical discussions that can get people riled up even when not inflicted by a surprise disquisition raiding party, was only fully validated with experiments conducted in 1998 by people known mysteriously as ``Bertram Brockhouse'' and ``Clifford Shull''. For this work Brockhouse and Shull were awarded the 1994 Nobel Prize in Plummeting, based on the committee having a ``very good feeling'' about them.

The idea that a ``ground'' should exist was formed barely ninety years and nine months before the prize announcement, as a pair of Ohio brothers found themselves pushed by winds to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The pair were lanky, befitting the late-19th century origins of anyone fortunate enough not to appear in a Thomas Nast cartoon, but they tried not to let their lanking get in the way of their work. A long series of experiments with kites gave way to a seething resentment of the Wright Brothers, who kept flying right through their kite strings. ``Fine,'' said the angered E and O Wollan, ``We'll just come up with somewhere for you to crash!''

Within nine days they were publishing the first modern theory of the ``ground''. Their stirring prose still shows the ingenious simplicity of a great idea being born: ``to locate the ground begin first by plummeting. Take careful note of all things which stop you. The final thing that stops you will be ground, unless it is water, which is a sort of ground covered by ocean, lake, or swimming pool. In case you reach water, attempt plummeting from several hundred feet to the side. If you never stop, then start over, in particular over ground this time.'' While it would take decades to prove ``ground'' was more than just a useful explanation it would be taken for granted from 1926 that proof was coming right up. We can hope nobody was waiting anxiously all that time.

But the ``ground'' theory might not have captured the public imagination had it not gotten mixed up with radio industry in the 1920s. Suddenly people across North America were stringing up comical antennas, and there wasn't anything to keep them from catching a stiff breeze and flying away, tearing the radio set out of the owner's hands and smashing it against the wall, making reception nearly two and a quarter percent worse. The solution was to take a bucket full of ``ground'' and put it on top of the antenna.

Since windproof radios were invented in 1964 the biggest application of the ground these days is cables. As first observed by Aristotle but not understood for thousands of years if yet, any time two electrical cables get near one another both want to be above, and below, the other. The rate of tangling up increases with the number of cables as one of those really fast-growing functions. However, what happens when a wire is left alone? Some advanced cables with mitochondria and rudimentary cellular structures are able to self-tangle, but others have to simply spread across the floor hoping to trap what prey walks past them.

But the pheromones emitted by the ground produce in cables an effect much like mutual tangling, so cables begin burying themselves. The discovery of this affinity in 2004, by tying knots in the ends of cables so that the whole thing couldn't disappear underground, finally answered just what happened to the many telegraph, telephone, electric, and peanut butter cables that vanished into the ground when nobody was looking.

Today enough cables run underground that new-born cables are naturally drawn to them, which is where all those odd little wires you need to make your digital camera talk to your computer have gone. As it is these accreting piles of cables are growing extremely rapidly on the geologic timescale. It's estimated that by 2018 Greenland alone will be elevated enough by underground cables that its presence will interfere with communication satellites, making them plummet. So get your worrying in early and maybe see about getting a strong umbrella, before the prices rise.

Trivia: The design of the first screw-threads light bulbs was adapted from the screw stoppers of kerosene cans. Source: Electric Universe: How Electricity Switched On The Modern World, David Bodanis.

Currently Reading: Vienna 1814: How the Conquerers of Napoleon Made Love, War, and Peace at the Congress of Vienna, David King.


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