Chewing gum, barcodes and conspiracies

It’s 26 June, and it was on this day 39 years ago that an inconspicuous little pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum hit the spotlight, to become perhaps the most famous packet of chewing gum in modern history – it became the first barcoded product to be scanned in a supermarket, fundamentally changing the way we shop.

A testbed barcode system was installed in a supermarket in Troy, Ohio (near the factory producing the barcode scanning equipment), and at 8:01 on the morning of 26 June 1974, an unsuspecting shopper, Clyde Dawson, presented a packet of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum to the supermarket teller, Sharon Buchanan, who successfully scanned the product’s Universal Product Code (UPC). Sadly for Dawson, he never got to eat his chewing gum – the pack of gum, together with its receipt, is now on display in the Smithsonian Institute, representing the first commercial appearance of the UPC. (I can only assume he was well compensated for this special little item.)

A barcoded pack of chewing gum - it may be a common sight today, but in 1974 it was special enough to end up in the Smithsonian Institute. (© All Rights Reserved)
A barcoded pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum – it may be a common sight today, but in 1974 it was special enough to end up in the Smithsonian Institute.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The introduction of barcode scanning at the supermarket checkout introduced a number of benefits – it simplified the job of the teller, who no longer had to key in the price of each item, it reduced human input errors, and it captured a lot more sales information for the shop, thus allowing them to to achieve greater responsiveness to customer needs and buying trends. Barcodes on products have also significantly reduced the price tag swapping technique of shoplifting.

Shops in the US converted consistently over time, and by the early 80’s, 8000 stores per year were adopting the UPC. Adoption soon spread internationally, causing a fair amount of consternation among conspiracy theorists, who considered the barcode a visible and intrusive example of ‘big brother’ watching and monitoring their personal shopping habits.

From the retail sector the use of barcodes has spread to a wide range of application domains – healthcare centres and hospitals use it for patient identification and medication management. Postal services use it to track and trace mail. It is used as part of ticketing at events and transportation services. Barcodes have even appeared in art, for example Scott Blake’s Barcode Jesus.

It is certainly impossible to imagine modern life without the familiar little striped strip that appears on almost everything we deal with in our daily life, except perhaps for fresh produce. But times change, and slowly but surely so do the barcodes we see around us. These days more and more products are appearing carrying so-called Quick Response (QR) codes – probably the most popular 2D (or matrix) barcode – which can represent more data per unit area.

But that, as they say in the classics, is a story for another day…

Scaling the Varsity Heights

Varsity Heights

This road sign, part of my daily jogging route, catches my eye every time I run past.

You have to wonder about the subliminal message it conveys – is tertiary education a dead-end street, or is a life in academia so fascinating and satisfying that you would never want to leave? In the case of New Zealand, tertiary education is clearly not considered a dead-end street – according to the publication ‘Profile and Trends 2011: New Zealand’s Tertiary Education Sector’, more than 450 000 students were enrolled in formal study programmes in 2011. The number of young people taking on higher-level tertiary qualifications is also increasing, as is the number of international students enrolling in tertiary education in New Zealand.

Given that the current population of New Zealand is just under 4.5 million, the above numbers suggest that about 10% of the population is currently enrolled in tertiary studies. That’s a pretty impressive statistic. Not surprisingly, then, that most ranking systems place the country in the top ten in the world in terms of educational performance, along with other high-performing countries like Finland, Denmark, Australia, Cuba, Korea, Japan, China, Singapore and Canada.

Varsity Heights, indeed. And surely no dead-end street!

Celebrating the out-of-this-world photography from the Hubble Space Telescope

Today, 20 May back in 1990, people on earth got their first glimpse at a photograph from arguably the most expensive camera in the world – or at least using the most expensive lens in the world. Today celebrates the day that the first photographic image (an image of a double star 1,260 light years away) was sent to earth from the Hubble Space Telescope (HST).

NASA image release date April 17, 2012 This region resembles a coral reef, but the gas has been eroded by the hefty stars in R136, situated above it. Cloaked in gas at the top of this rugged, gaseous terrain are nascent stars that cannot be seen. Dense columns of gas, several light-years long, protrude from the undulating landscape. These gaseous columns are incubators for developing stars. By NASA Goddard Photo and Video (Space Flickr photograph. Some Rights Reserved.) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
NASA image release date April 17, 2012
This region resembles a coral reef, but the gas has been eroded by the hefty stars in R136, situated above it. Cloaked in gas at the top of this rugged, gaseous terrain are nascent stars that cannot be seen. Dense columns of gas, several light-years long, protrude from the undulating landscape. These gaseous columns are incubators for developing stars.
By NASA Goddard Photo and Video (Space Flickr photograph. Some Rights Reserved.) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The HST was carried into orbit by a Space Shuttle in 1990, and remains in operation until today. In it’s 20+ years of operation, it has dazzled us with some truly mind-blowing images. The fact that it’s orbit lies outside the distortion of the earth’s atmosphere means that it can capture amazingly sharp images, with practically no background light, providing scientists with a detailed view into deep space and time. The instruments on the telescope observes light in the near-ultraviolet, visible and near-infrared ranges.

To see more of the amazing imagery produced by the HST, have a look at the Hubble Space Telescope: the first 20 years in pictures collection in The Telegraph.

Celebrating a year of daily blog-posts!

It was today exactly one year ago, or perhaps I should say 365 days ago, in blog terms, that I made a blog post about the inaugural Fascination of Plants Day.

This rather inconspicuous event in the blogging universe, on the arbitrary date of 18 May 2012, was the kick-off of an idea I had to do a daily blog featuring some interesting fact (preferably with a science angle) related to the specific day, and illustrating it with one of my own photos. And here we are – 365 posts later, back to the 18th of May. 🙂

Jumping for joy at having achieved my goal of a year of daily science and photography blog-posts  (© All Rights Reserved)
Jumping for joy at having achieved my goal of a year of daily science and photography blog-posts
(© All Rights Reserved)

I don’t think I quite realised what I let myself in for – trying to find something interesting for each day proved quite a challenge, especially given the extra requirement of illustrating it with an original photograph of my own. This immediately took things like space travel, innovations at the atomic level, heart transplants etc out of the equation, sometimes leaving me blogging about some rather absurd esoteric topics like Yellow Pig Day and World Coconut Day. I discovered many interesting facts and stories I never knew – the story of Farkas Bolyai and his mathematical obsessions, Stanley Miller’s primordial soup experiments, how bubble wrap was invented, and the fact that there’s even such a thing as World Toilet Day, to name but a few.

I even learned how to make a needle float on water.

My original aim was to keep up the daily blog for a year. With that done, the question is whereto now. While I’m reluctant to commit to another year of the same level of blogging dedication, I have to admit I’ve been enjoying where the blog took me, so I don’t quite feel like calling it a day.

What I’ve decided for the moment (I may change my mind, who knows) is to commit to at least a weekly post on a subject related to the day (or week – there appears to be more than enough ‘International Week of…’ initiatives out there worth sharing a blog post about).

In between I may mix things up a bit with more blog posts related to what I do in real life, that is, being a science photographer. Posts about interesting events and developments in the fields of photography, visual science communication, science art collaborations, and more. Even some personal ramblings, who knows.

My sincere thanks to everyone following this blog, to all the likes, comments and support over the past year. I hope you will continue to share my journey.

Cheers to the next year.
Gerry

Celebrating our giant green friends on Love a Tree Day

According to various sources, today, 16 May, is Love a Tree Day. Not an officially sanctioned day like Arbor Day, for example, but any day drawing attention to trees has to be a good thing, right? Also, the problem with Arbor Day is that it’s a localised event, celebrated on different dates around the world, so there’s no single date for us all to get together and sing the praises of the mighty tree.

Until Love a Tree Day, that is.

So, this is a good time to again remind ourselves why we should all really go out every day and hug the trees around us; why we should feed & nurture them; and why we should not let an opportunity go by to plant a tree.

While today is a reminder to love all trees, let's also use it to celebrate the diversity of trees out there. And to remind ourselves of those trees that need particular protection from potential extinction. Pictured here is the beautiful Aloe dichotoma, or quiver tree (kokerboom), indigenous to Southern Africa. Different subspecies of the tree have been rated as 'vulnerable' (A. dichotoma), 'endangered' (A. ramossisima) and 'critically endangered' (A. pillansii) respectively on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. (© All Rights Reserved)
While today is a reminder to love all trees, let’s also use it to celebrate the diversity of trees out there. And to remind ourselves of those trees that need particular protection from potential extinction. Pictured here is the beautiful Aloe dichotoma, or quiver tree (kokerboom), indigenous to Southern Africa. Different subspecies of the tree have been rated as ‘vulnerable’ (A. dichotoma), ‘endangered’ (A. ramossisima) and ‘critically endangered’ (A. pillansii) respectively on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
(© All Rights Reserved)

I’m sure you don’t need convincing of the value of trees. They support life by producing oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide. They release groundwater into the air to help maintain a healthy ecosystem. They help reduce soil erosion and create a soil climate conducive to microorganism growth. Shade trees around buildings can greatly reduce air conditioning costs. Trees are a key provider of food products (fruit, nuts etc) supporting humans and animals. Thousands of products used in daily life are made from wood.

Trees also happen to include some of the oldest, and largest, living organisms on the planet. The giant sequoia tree (Sequoiadendron giganteum), for example, can weigh over 2000 tonnes and live to be older than 3000 years. That is pretty damn impressive, so say the least.

To go into detail about the value and importance of trees would go way beyond the scope of a humble little daily blog post. Suffice to say, they deserve your care, love and respect.

Support local tree planting initiatives. Support your local Arbor Day. Heck, make every day Love a Tree Day.

The science of the waltz

According to the website HistoryOrb.com, the 11th of May 1812 was the day that the waltz was first introduced into English ballrooms. Of course this date does not represent the first performance of the popular dance form known as the waltz – it originated much much earlier, around the 16th century, to be exact.

The waltz must be one of the most stylish and graceful of the classic ballroom dance styles. (© All Rights Reserved)
The waltz must be one of the most stylish and graceful of the classic ballroom dance styles.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Initially a vigorous peasant dance with wild, wide steps, the waltz became more ‘proper’ and elegant as it was introduced to higher society. The hopping action in the country waltzes became a sliding step, and the dance involved an elegant gliding rotation. Early waltzes were defined more by the gliding rotation than the 3/4 beat. Over time, however, the waltz became the dance we know and love today, based essentially on the Viennese waltzes of the late 18th century. In contemporary ballroom dancing, the fast version of the waltz is referred to as the ‘Viennese waltz’.

Being a dance based on a ‘closed’ dance position, the waltz was considered quite shocking and even immoral when it was first introduced. Hard to imagine when you consider how proper and subdued a waltz seems these days, compared to some modern dance forms – it isn’t exactly ‘dirty dancing’!

Now in case you’re wondering what the scientific significance of the waltz is, I’d have to concede I haven’t been able to find ‘the science of the waltz’. But, I did find information about a computer scientist called David Waltz, who posed some interesting theories about the increasing role that computers are playing in scientific experiments.

Waltz suggested that computers are not only useful in data collection, but may also start playing increasingly important roles in scientific evaluation and decision making. According to an article published in Science by Waltz and his colleague Bruce Buchanan, “the prospect of using automated systems as assistants holds vast promise as these assistants are becoming not only faster but much broader in their capabilities — more knowledgeable, more creative, and more self-reflective. Human-machine partnering systems that match the tasks to what each partner does best can potentially increase the rate of scientific progress dramatically, in the process revolutionizing the practice of science and changing what scientists need to know.”

Fascinating stuff, but admittedly a tenuous link to the Viennese waltz of a couple of hundred years ago. So for now, let’s just get back to the grace and style of the classic waltz – surely enough reason for celebration in itself.

Lighting a lucifer to celebrate the invention of the friction match

The 1st of May, besides being International Workers Day, is also the day in 1859 that the Englishman John Walker, inventor of friction matches, died.

Walker’s matches, developed in 1826, were small wooden sticks with the tip coated in sulphur with a mixture of potassium chlorate, antimony sulphide and sugar, bound together with gum arabic. He arrived at this mixture after several previous failed attempts. Walker, recognising the potential of his invention, started selling his matches, packaged in boxes of 50 together with a folded piece of sandpaper as a striking surface. Even though he never patented his invention, he managed to earn a good income through the sale of his matches.

Lighting a modern day safety match - much safer than lighting John Walker's 1826 friction matches!  (© All Rights Reserved)
Lighting a modern day safety match – much safer than lighting John Walker’s 1826 friction matches!
(© All Rights Reserved)

John Walker wasn’t the first guy to come up with the idea of friction matches – some 10 years earlier in 1816, Frenchman Francois Derosne attempted something similar, using sulphur-tipped sticks that had to be scraped inside a phosphorous-lined tube. Derosne was, however, unable to make his matches stable enough to be practically viable.

While Walker’s matches worked better than those of Derosne, they were still quite unstable and flammable, and sometimes flaming balls of the ignition mixture dripped from the lit match, burning holes in clothing, carpets etc. This led to them being banned in France and Germany.

Over the next few years, many improvements were introduced to Walker’s friction matches. Most early versions were still volatile, lighting with a strong chemical reaction, burning with unsteady flames, and casting sparks over quite a distance. These early matches came to be known as ‘lucifers’ – a term that persisted into the 20th century and is still used in some countries.

It took almost 20 years before the modern-day safety match was developed in 1844. The main innovation in the safety match lay in the striking surface rather than the match. By including red phosphorous in the striking surface, the ignition mixture on the match could be made less volatile. The safety match was perfected and commercialised by Swedish brothers Johan Edvard and Carl Frans Lundstrom, who sold around 12 million boxes of matches between 1851 and 1858.

Sweden remained the home of safety matches until the start of the 20th century, with the safety matches as we know it today, still being very similar to those developed in the 1850’s.

So next time you light a match, think about the fact that you’re using an invention that is almost 170 years old!