Playing Cops & Robots and Touching Faults, Pt. 1

There’s nothing quite like the end of the month, which is always paperwork crunch time, for new and interesting opportunities to crop up. Despite knowing the certain long hours they will demand in make up time, you just can’t…say…no. Two of those happened this week, I got to enter into UC Berkeley’s Lawson Adit (definition: an adit is the entrance to nearly horizontal mine) and I got to give a crash course in radiation detection using bomb squad robots to the local police departments (this part of the adventure may be found in Part 2).

Lawson Adit Gate

UC Berkeley’s Lawson Adit Gate

First, the questions everyone asks: why does UC Berkeley have a mine and how long has it been there?

Before UC Berkeley had a Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, it was known as the School of Mines and operated out of what is now known as Hearst Memorial Mining Building. Created by a grant by Pheobe Hearst in 1902 from the vast wealth her husband George had realized during the various gold and silver strikes during the late 1800s, Pheobe Hearst wanted to try to educate a new generation of competent mining engineers in George’s memory to work all the vermiculated placer bearing lands of the American West, rather than drag them over from the east coast or depend upon finding them among the flood of immigrants from Europe.

In 1918, it was decided that they’d have students dig & blast a mine in the hard rock of the hills behind the Hearst Memorial Mining Building. The result was the Lawson Adit. Upon discovery of the Hayward Fault running through there, they decided to dig that mine juuuuuust a little bit deeper so that they could actually cross the fault. You know, because it was there…in the name of Science…for More Awesome. Also, it had a special side gallery that was just for storing the student dynamite. Education used to be much more hands on and exciting once upon a time.

By the late 1950s, the excitement for mining had died down and having a mine bisected by an active (and often creeping) fault seemed a Bad Idea. There were numerous collapses in the adit, primarily where the fault crossed, that made the mine too dangerous to work with anymore. The decision was made to seal it up and then, several years later, seal it up much more thoroughly to prevent the homeless from camping in it and frat boys from getting up to shenanigans.

Lawson Adi Spike

Lawson Adit – This Is Why You Wear Hardhats

My entry was done in the interest of making sure that no one had done anything silly and tried to store/discard radioactive materials down there. It was unlikely, but I have made a career for myself in having a very dim view of the common sense and forward thinking of others and I thought it prudent to check, just in case. The first thing you see on entry into the adit is a giant goddamn spike hanging down from the ceiling, as shown in the picture to the right.

No, I don’t know why it was put there but it is definitely very educational. Unless you’re shorter than 4 foot tall, you probably only get to learn the “Wear A Hardhat In A Mine” lesson once from this spike.

Baby Stalactites - Aww, Aren't They Precious?

Baby Stalactites – Aww, Aren’t They Precious?

Rockfalls litter the floor and have dammed up the trickling groundwater, so it is a soggy stroll in the tunnel. Roots hang down from above, with that awful hairy appearance they have for sucking water from dank, moist air. Of course, where you have groundwater seeping through limestone, you get cave formations. This may be a man-made cave, but the natural processes are still going, trying to make some new stalactites on the concrete reinforcing of the side cut entry.

Are You Sure Building A Tunnel Through A Fault Is A Good Idea?

Lawson Adit – Are You Sure Building A Tunnel Through A Fault Is A Good Idea?

At the end of the tunnel, is the collapse that indicates where the Hayward Fault crosses. Lest a rather large hunk of limestone drop and make My Lovely Assistant get very upset with my corpse, I didn’t actually scramble over the debris pile to poke the fault fracture proper.

With the tunnel cleared for radioactive materials and nothing found,  they can now do installation of new seismographs before they lock it down good and tight for the foreseeable future.

Next time: Herr Direktor Funranium puts the UC and Berkeley PD bomb squads, and their robots, through their paces.

Fundamentals Q&A

“We really shook the pillars of heaven, didn’t we, Wang?” -Big Jack Burton, Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Some interesting bits that have come my way asking very basic questions about why I do things the way I do. I often find questioning the basic assumptions and things so common that they’re invisible reveals interesting information.

Question 1: Why do you ship BBotE in glass bottles and risk them breaking? Wouldn’t it be easier and cheaper to do it in plastic? – Marie of Ypsilanti, MI

Answer 1: A better question might be “why don’t you ship it in bags like box wine?” The reason why is flavor. I use glass because it is inert; typical bottle plastic I’ve discovered leaches into the BBotE and shifts the flavor, nevermind the eww factor. The plastic bottles are also rather difficult to clean and reuse. Glass can be cleaned for a refill and honor accumulation, but the plastic is stained forever. I’d like to encourage reuse of the bottles, and plastic runs counter to that.

Stainless steel has potential, but the vessels only get cost effective such that they don’t eclipse the BBotE itself at ridiculous volumes. Despite two particularly vocal and repeated calls (Test Subjects Misha and Sangre) we are still a long way off from the Keg O’ Caffeination. The Jug O’ Madness, a mere 4L vessel permitting musical ambitions after you’ve finished off your BBotE, is in the works.

Question 2: Do the Steins of Science have to have the worm gears on the strapping? They look clunky. – Several people, but most recently Marten of Bethesda, MD

Answer 2: When you figure out a better method to securely attach a handle that doesn’t destroy the dewar and satisfies your desire for a less clunky appearance, please let me know. Don’t get me wrong, I see your point of view and have been looking in order to satisfy the delicate aesthetic sensibilities of others, though not very hard. “Why?” you might ask. Because I rather like the look as it is.

One of the reasons I know this style of mounting works for the handle is that it also works for securing dewars in place as condensors/cold traps for big and impressive distillation setups. The Steins of Science look close to how I’m used to seeing dewars in use out in the wild.

Before you say to me “I’ve never seen a dewar mounted like that in a lab” I would ask if you’ve seen one shatter when knocked off a bench? If no, then your lab has probably gotten lucky and never broken one yet, destroying the science in progress, and scaring the bejeezus out of your fellow researchers. The learning curve is seems to be pretty steep as it is an expensive mistake you don’t want to make more than once.

Question 3: Why are the the shields on the FMJ Steins of Science aluminum and not steel or copper? Copper is sweet and a one of those with a brass handle would be hardcore Steampunk. – Paul of Oakland, CA

Answer 3: The lazy answer is that’s they way they’re manufactured and the shield is epoxied onto the glass, couldn’t change it even if I wanted to. It’s the lazy answer because it doesn’t answer the actual WHY, which is a bit more tricky.

It comes down to a matter of a trade off between protecting the dewar flask, the glass bit with a vacuum inside the metal jacket, ease of manufacturing process, and the overall weight of the completed dewar. Aluminum is quite ductile, even at the 1/16 thickness of the “rugged” style dewar; it flexes and you can easily wrap it around the glass without too much effort. Go grab a piece of sheet steel and see how easily that works (be sure to wear gloves so you don’t slice yourself to ribbons in the process). Steel is also quite a bit denser than aluminum, increasing the overall dewar weight and making survival less likely when you drop a glass vessel.

NOTE: There are dewar vessels out there made entirely out of stainless steel. They tend to be the larger transport dewars as steel is easier to work with at this size. The little stainless steel guys, by which I mean 2L, cost an arm and a leg for one that could potentially be used for a drinking vessel. The 4L ones make fantastic lemonade transports for picnics though. I’m just saying.

Native Copper - It's a long way from being a penny

Native Copper - It's a long way from being a penny

Copper, on the other hand, is quite ductile and would work just fine in place of aluminum, but it has the drawbacks of high metals cost, high density and very noticeable corrosion. But I have to admit, Paul is right, a copper jacketed stein would look boss. Can’t actually change the jacket, but I might be able to electroplate it without screwing up the dewar. Discussions about doing this are in progress but actual results may not happen for many months.

Right, time to get down to the post office and send you people the things you desperately desire.


Great Honor Through Caffeination + GLORY

Are you desirous of BBotE but would like more than mere coffee for you money? I have an opportunity for you.

Because I love the PDXYar kids so, I have put a case of BBotE at their disposal to give out as rewards. So, if you decide to back them at the $150 level, you will get a 750ml bottle of BBotE, a PDXYar t-shirt, a photo of El Tiburon when it is completed, a 1L glass mug, a shotglass, and 10cl graduated cylinder all etched with the PDXYar logo. That is rather substantial amount of swag.

Oh, and it comes with GLORY. As we learned from Team America World Police, Freedom costs a buck o’ five, but GLORY can be had for merely a dollar.

By all means, feel free to back or donate more than that. So far they only have one person at the top level and that is yours truly, Commodore Herr Direktor Funranium. It’s lonely at the top, so please feel free to join me.

DISCLAIMER: The BBotE Pimpstress of PDX, Greta, is a member of PDXYar. Actually, this isn’t a disclaimer at all. This is a point of pride.

A New Coupon For Upcoming Adventure

Very soon Scientific Drinking Tour 2011 will be taking yours truly and his Lovely Assistant to around this fair nation of ours do places north of the Mason-Dixon line that we have never been. Yes, we freely admit that our mutual failure to go to the Smithsonian is simply unacceptable and we aim to remedy that.

It is not, however, free and my MacArthur Genius Grant has somehow not arrived yet.

In the interest of defraying the cost of our trip to the Capital Wasteland, along with Fairbanks, AK and NYC, a new 10% off coupon code has been created! From now until May 31st, type “JOHNHENRYEDEN” when checking out and reap the rewards that will have us knee deep in Science and Adventure.

And oh yes, there shall be tales of Adventure. Have no doubt.

Playa Grade & Rugged Steins Of Science

665ml Rugged Style FMJ Stein of Science

665ml Rugged Style FMJ Stein of Science, with standard reference soda

So, I think I’ve taken the hint that you guys like the silicone sheathed dewars for your steins based upon my inability to maintain any stock of them. The reason I bring this up is because I normally quote a three week production window on the steins from the time of order until it ships. Typically, turn-around time runs much faster, usually within 72hrs…but not so for the Rugged 665ml FMJ & Playa Grade. Some terrible, bad, no good, unknown thing happened in January (based upon my Frustration Angry STABSTABSTAB Tracking Chart) that has the slowed the supply chain on these style of dewars to a trickle. I’ve managed to get roughly two of them a month and they go out the door again as quick as they arrive, leaving folks grumpy. So, if you are interested in claiming one of these Steins of Science I’ve got two recommendations for you:

  1. Go check the Steins Available RIGHT NOW to see if I actually have any on hand. Don’t be surprised if there aren’t any listed (which is part of why I’m making this announcement).
  2. If you really, really want one, drop me a line to call dibs. Better yet, place an order, be patient, and I’ll keep you informed what the supply chain is looking like. If I’m feeling particularly guilty about how long things are taking there is a fair to middling chance I’ll apologize in the form of BBotE.

If you’re ordering a gift for a birthday, Mother or Father’s Day, upcoming BBQ season, Coachella*, Burning Man, etc. and want one of these, don’t dawdle. I have high hopes the supply spigot will open up, but I have to prepare as if it won’t and let you folks know appropriately.

*:Actually, for Coachella, you’re already too late I reckon.