Hi. My name is Kat, and I am a self- confessed nerd. I have a batman bath towel, a sonic screwdriver, cosplay regularly, and still play pokemon, umpteen years after it first crossed the ocean to Australia. However, I also have a science degree… and an imagination. So, today let’s look at…

Distorted Darth

Picture if you will.

1977, the world is introduced to the menacingly evil and dastardly Darth Vader, creating an iconic vision of evil that has persisted for over forty years, and probably will for at least forty more. His jet black suit, with the hard bodybuilder physique of David Prowse,  is made even more imposing by the deep, dulcet tones of James Earl Jones emanating from behind that iconic mask.

Image by Andres Rueda. Used under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution Licence

Fast forward to 2005, and the character of Anakin Skywalker (the man who becomes Dath Vader) is an angsty 20-something with a mullet, a leather fetish and an annoyingly whiny voice. How on earth does this metamorphosis occur?

Image by popculturegeek.com. Used under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution Licence

According to the movie canon, the trick to turning from emo and sad to kickass and bad is to have your former BFF and teacher cut off all your limbs and leave you to burn near a river of molten lava. Then, get your new master to give you some new robotic arms and legs along with a wicked new suit, and your voice will suddenly drop several octaves into the sexy tones we know and love.

Most of us don’t have the money (or force ability) to follow this procedure. So, without a vocal chord transplant from James Earl Jones, how can we, ourselves,  sound as cool as everyone’s favourite Darth?

In order to achieve this, we’ll need to understand how sound works- if you are unsure or have forgotten, have a look at the brief explanation that I gave way back here.


In summary, sound is made by vibrations which travel through the air around us and hits our sound receptors- the ears. Now, we can apply this to the human voice. Within our throat, we have vocal cords (aka. vocal folds), which vibrate very quickly when we produce a sound- according to wikipedia, they oscillate 440 times per second when singing A above middle C. The higher pitched the sound, the faster these cords need to vibrate. The length of our vocal cords also contributes to the resultant sound.

So, how did Anakin the high-and-whiney become Vader, the smooth-and-seductive? And more importantly, how can we copy it?

One answer is simple to achieve, although temporary in nature. Many people would be aware of the effects of breathing in Helium gas: your voice takes a leap into the stratosphere, and the higher pitch is guaranteed to leave somebody laughing at you.  This effect is due to the fact that Helium gas is six times less dense than normal air. This doesn’t mean that there any any fewer molecules in the way- it’s just that a molecule of Helium is lighter than the molecules of Oxygen or Nitrogen that would otherwise be encountered. These lighter molecules have little inertia, and allow the sound waves to propogate much, much faster than we are used to. This increase in the soundwave speed also increases its pitch, something we call the Doppler Effect, and describes how a racecar sounds high pitched when it’s heading towards you, but lower when it heads away.

So to get this effect in reverse to deepen the pitch of your voice, you’d need to use a gas that’s much denser than air – something like Sulphur Hexaflouride ( SF6 ). Now SF6 is six times denser than the normal air we breathe so the Doppler Effect applies in reverse – the sound waves travel much slower and drop in pitch accordingly, providing us with beautifully deep Darth depths.

To see exactly how both helium and sulphur hexaflouride work on the human voice, check out this video starring Redbeard the Savage (AKA Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame):

Whilst this is only a temporary measure, we now know one way to sound like Darth Vader. *Note* Sulphur Hexaflouride is both difficult to obtain and potentially dangerous to breathe in overly large amounts, so Scikat does not recommend trying this method!! Nor does she recommend turning to the dark side, but that’s your choice, we suppose.

As always, leave a comment and let us know your take on the situation!

*Thanks to Sun-Tsu for enthusiastic debate over the intricacies of this topic*

Simply Sonic

Jack:       Who has a sonic screwdriver?
Doctor:  I do!
Jack:       Who looks at a screwdriver and thinks, Ooh this could be a little more sonic?
Doctor:  What, you’ve never been bored? Never had a long night? Never had a lot of cabinets to put up?

You know it, you love it. It’s the Doctor’s faithful sonic screwdriver in all its different versions, with all its different eccentricities- rather like the Doctor himself. And like the doctor, it seems to defy expanation- but we’re going to put that one to the test.

So what is ‘Sonic’, to start with? If we go with the dictionary.com definition, it’s something that relates to or uses sound waves.

Sound waves describe how sound works. If something is making a sound- your fan whirring, your house mate practicing their opera singing, your teacher scraping their fingernails down a blackboard- there are at least three things happening.

The first thing that happens is that the source of the sound- i.e. the fan, house mate, or fingernail – is vibrating, or oscillating. These vibrations are probably far too small for you to be able to see, but you can feel them- to do this, put your hand on your neck over  your voicebox, and start making a noise. Whether you sing, speak, or yodel is up to you, but you should be able to feel the vibrations in your throat from your vocal cords.

The second thing that happens is that this vibration from the sound source propagates through the air. In other words, the little teensy tiny air molecules all around us are right next to something that’s vibrating- so they start to vibrate too. Then the air molecule next to that one starts to vibrate, then the next one, then the next one, until these lines of vibrations stretch all the way through the air in what we call ‘sound waves’.

The third and final thing is that the reciever (in this case, your ear) recieves the sound. Inside your ear, you have teensy tiny little hairs that bend as the sound waves hit them. This movement then sends a nerve signal to your brain, which decodes this signal to work out exactly what those particular vibrations sound like. Obviously, this is a rather simplified model, but it’s workable.

So, sound is the combination of a vibrating source, the propagation of these vibrations, and something that recieves the vibrations. And knowing this, we can make a few guesses about exactly what it is that a sonic screwdriver does!

Image by teletran, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Sonic screwdriver =  sound based tool? Sound waves can go far beyond what the human ear can register, so who knows? Let’s have a look at some of the uses the sonic screwdriver has been put to!

Uses listed at http://tardis.wikia.com/wiki/Sonic_screwdriver

Beware- mostly pseudo-science and fun guesses only beyond this point!!!

1) Operating electronic machinery- doors, locks, every alien console under the sun, the TARDIS, etc.

Using precisely-timed pulses of vibration outside of the human range of hearing, it seems not implausible that it would be possible to send signals to a control panel in whatever operating code it may be using. Possibly the reason the Doctor sometimes has to try more than one setting on the screwdriver is that each setting is a different type of override code. This may also explain the large number of electronic devices sent to the graveyard after meeting the glowy end of the Doctor’s favoured tool, as he hasn’t selected a setting that will work the device without destroying it.

2) Cutting through substances

We mere humans are currently able to use water under high pressure to cut cleanly through metals, wood, rock and other substances. Why can’t Time Lords use air? If the Doctor could produce a coherent sound wave- one with every single air molecule acting EXACTLY the same- then that concentrated oscillation might just be enough to cut through something with a high power, low duration ‘air jet’. Mind you, this would only work against very thin objects, as he’d be there for a very long time if he tried to cut granite.

3) Reversing the polarity of the neutron flow

A dearly beloved phrase, but complete gobbledegook. Neutrons have no charge: a polarity requires a positive and negative region of something, whatever that something may be. However, since it IS gobbledegook, we don’t need to figure out how the screwdriver might do it!

However, while reversing polarity of neutron flow is out, there is nothing stopping reversing the direction of a neutron flow! If there was ever a pipe designed to specifically move neutrons (perhaps in some sort of super-futuristic nuclear reactor), then it would be totally possibly to reverse the flow direction. Just not the polarity.

4) Control dogs, from Space Hounds through to the more normal Earth varieties

Okay, it’s dog whistle time! Dogs have a much better hearing range than humans, which is why they can hear the incredibly high pitched whistles that sound completely silent to us. High pitched whine = totally within the capabilities of the sonic screwdriver.

5) As a soldering iron

When the Doctor needs a soldering iron, he doesn’t need to head down to his local hardware store- he just reaches for, as always, his trusty sonic screwdriver. In this case, we’re looking at states of matter- turning a metal from a solid to a liquid form. From a molecular point of view, this makes a good deal of sense.

As a solid gains heat, it turns into a liquid. But ‘heat’, on this level, is measured by the movement of the molecules. The molecules in a solid hardly move at all and have little energy- but in a liquid, the molecules have a great deal more energy, and move around quite a bit. So with a soldering iron we add heat, and get molecular vibration. But with the sonic screwdriver, we add vibration… and get heat. Oh yeeeaaah.

One minor caveat, unless sonic screwdrivers use a more energy-carrying form of sound, is that this would take a lot longer than a normal soldering iron. Just as an example, if you wanted to shout your way to a hot coffee, you’d have to shout at it continuously at 80 decibels (pretty loud) for over a year and a half. The exact figure, and how to reach it using more physics than I care to go into can be found here: http://www.physicscentral.com/explore/poster-coffee.cfm

For those aspiring Time Lords who can do this anyway in a normal amount of time, the correct way to explain it to us mere mortals is: “It’s a sort of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey… thing. Look, ask again later, let’s focus on the giant monsters trying to suck out the Prime Minister’s brain, shall we?”

These are but a very few of the many uses of the sonic screwdriver, and in summary show that we humans need to hurry up and evolve so that we too can have one of these awesome gadgets. Got a favourite we didn’t cover? Leave a comment and let us know!

The cutesy Curta

Steampunk fans, get ready to hold your top hats and secure your monocles… because today’s post is going to blow your minds. For those of us who aren’t so knowledgable about the steampunk craze, let’s summarise by saying that they like anything technical that works using an excessive number of gears – in other words, they eschew electricity in favour of the mechanical aesthetic.

Now that we’re all on the same page, allow me to introduce…

The Curta Calculator.

Image by Rama, used under Creative Commons Attribution Share- Alike licence.

This beautiful little fellow is a completely mechanical, adorably complicated, and fully functional calculator. It can add, subtract, multiply and divide using numbers up to 8 digits long, and provide up to an 11 digit output for the mark I. It’s the perfect size to hold in your hand, suprisingly light, and sadly for everyone who just fell in love with it, no longer in production.  Indeed, according to their creator, Curt Herzstark, the last one was manufactured in 1972- although if you do  have the good fortune to locate one that’s been hidden away (like me) you’ll probably find that it still works as smoothly as it ever did.

image kindly provided by Rick Furr over at http://www.vcalc.net/disassy/index.html

Look at all those tiny little pieces!!!!

Now the Curta works by the user inputting their initial number by sliding those levers along the side of the cylinder to show the digits desired. The top of the curta can then be rotated to a number of different stops- this dictates whether it is multiplying by a factor of 10, 100, 1000 etc. The top crank is then rotated to make the calculation occur. Whilst this sounds complicated, it’s actually a lot more intuitive to use than to describe- and its popularity with people who lived their lives by calculations  is testament to this.

The inventor of the Curta, Curt Herzstark had a most eventful life, and the transcription of an interview with him can be found here:


In summary however, he was born in Vienna in 1902, where his parents owned a factory where they made calculating machines. However, Curt decided that he wanted to develop a small hand-held calculating machine, holding a similar place in the mathematical toolkit as the slide rule. He began by developing this concept from the outside in, figuring out what he wanted it to look like first, then establishing what would be needed to make this a reality. By 1937 he had a small proof of concept model working to perform addition and multiplication. However, that’s when things started to change.

Curt’s father had been a Jewish man- not a good ancestry to possess during the rise of the Nazi movement in that part of the world. Despite this his factory was contracted to make precision gauges for the German army until 1943, however all their production of calculating machines was stopped.

In 1943, Curt was arrested on charges of aggravation, supporting Jews, and having an erotic relationship with an Aryan woman- all fabricated. Sent to Buchenwald concentration camp, he feared for his life, but because of his mechanical prowess he was moved to Gustloff- werk, a mechanics factory attached to the camp. Within this factory Curt built up some influence and attempted to shelter some of his fellow prisoners where he could- although afraid of potential consequences, he was fortunate enough that the officers never discovered his actions.

During his time at Buchenwald, Curt worked on the design for his hand-held calculating machine  in an effort to prove his worth to the officers who held his life in their hands. By the time he witnessed the arrival of the American soldiers who liberated the camp, Curt had completed the entire design for the Curta calculator in pencil drawings. Although the designs were excellent, developing a new invention in war-ravaged Germany or Austria was no easy task. Eventually, the project was funded by the Prince of Leichtenstein, and production of the Curta calculator began!

Image used with kind permission from Rick Furr

If you’d like to find out more about the Curta, including seeing some truly brilliant shots of the mechanical interior, check out this site


And as always, leave us a comment to let us know what you think!!!

Earth Dragon

image from Jaci XIII's flickr stream under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic licence(CC BY-SA 2.0)

okay, so we’re talking about dragons. Charizard, from the Pokemon franchise, is a perfect example- flaming breath on demand, anytime, anywhere. But exactly what sort of anatomy would an animal have to possess to do this?

Fire needs three things to exist- fuel, oxygen, and heat. Oxygen is the easiest one to supply- it’s in the air all around us. Assuming that these dragon-type animals breathe in roughly the same manner as other mammals (and the debate about whether dragons would be a mammal or a reptile is a whole different kettle of fish!), the air that is drawn into the lungs is not totally depleted of oxygen when they exhale. In a normal healthy human, for instance, we inhale air with approximately 20.9% oxygen content, then exhale air with about 15.3% oxygen content. Obviously the lung capacity of a dragon will affect how much oxygen this actually is, but it seems to me that this would be sufficient to coax a flame out of the body until it reaches the outside world, where external oxygen can then fulfil this need.

But what about fuel? In flamethrowers, ancient to modern, it’s all about launching the burning fuel at the target. Oil, coal, gasoline- all of them have found use historically, but for something that is from an internal store within a dragon, it might seem more likely to have something that could be a biological product. So we get…. Flammable gasses!!!

When we humans breathe out, we exhale some carbon dioxide gas – CO2, if anyone wants to get technical. Now this is not a flammable gas: but we’re talking dragons here! A completely unknown creature to our human science! Isn’t it possible that instead of using carbon dioxide as their waste gas, they make something… with a little more burn? Maybe the dragon lung system contains certain bacteria that live there quite happily, eating scraps of dead dragon tissue and producing the very flammable methane (CH4) gas in exchange? Once the lungs are full of a methane and oxygen mix, a dragon could then propel this flammable concoction out of the lungs and through the mouth using their incredibly powerful diaphragm- that’s the muscle that makes your lungs take in and push out air, by the way. Alternatively, it has been suggested to scikat that maybe a dragon has an internal bladder which traps the  flammable gasses that are produced during the processes of digestion.

The heat to set our fuel and our oxygen on fire could be a result of an extraordinarily high internal body temperature, I suppose, but it would seem that such a feat would put these animals at risk of constant spontaneous combustion- not the best survival strategy for a species. An easier supply method would potentially be the introduction of a spark in the upper respiratory tract- possibly by a piezoelectric crystal, or specialised flint-like teeth that can create a spark when hit together.

For those of us who don’t know, a piezoelectric crystal is one that produces an electrical spark when placed under mechanical stress- i.e. squeeze it, get a spark! This spark could ignite the gaseous fuel/oxygen mix, and produce our flame. The crystal itself could be developed during the initial development of the embryonic dragon, or during its juvenile stages, within an insulating socket to ensure that a spark is made rather than just electrocuting the dragon itself. All it needs after that is an instinct in place to contract the socket and make the spark every time the dragon wishes to breathe fire!

Now, this is by no means an exhaustive analysis of the theoretical anatomy of a fire breathing dragon. I haven’t even mentioned hypergolic fluids – substances that spontaneously combust when brought into contact with each other. Maybe a dragon could have snake-like venom sacks that spit these fluids to make their flame? How does a dragon avoid scorching their respiratory tract- maybe a mucous lining (ewww!). There are still so many questions to ask- drop a line and tell us your take!

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