Science

Launch of Loon balloon

Announcing the Loon Collection

[Originally posted to LinkedIn on 10/4/2021, migrated to DocBug 2/10/2022.] When we started Loon we had no idea whether delivering wireless internet via long-lived high-altitude balloons was even possible, much less as a sustainable business model. No one had ever done it before, and there was no road map or guide book. So we consulted …

Announcing the Loon Collection Read More »

Lake Wobegon dice

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Two of my coworkers, David Stork and Jorge Moraleda, have recently worked out the mathematics for what they call Lake Wobegon Dice. According to their paper (currently submitted for publication), Lake Wobegon Dice are

a set of n non-standard dice that have the following paradoxical property: on every (random) roll of a set, each die is more likely to roll greater than the set average than less than the set average; in a specific statistical sense, then, each die is “better than the set average.”

The name, of course, comes from Garrison Keillor’s famous tag-line about his fictional boyhood town where “all of the women are strong, all of the men are good looking, and all of the children are above average.”

As an example, say I offered to play you in a game using three six-sided dice that have been specially manufactured to have the following number of pips on their faces:

Blue Red Yellow
1 4 6
1 4 6
7 4 6
7 7 6
7 7 6
7 7 6

The rules of the game are as follows: you pick one die which I must roll, and you roll the other two. If my die rolls higher than the average of your two dice (or equivalently, if my die rolls higher than the average of all three dice) then I win. Otherwise, you win.

With the faces chosen as above, there are only four unique ways the dice can fall:

Blue Red Yellow Probability Average I win with
1 4 6 1 in 6 3 ⅔ Red, Yellow
1 7 6 1 in 6 3 Red, Yellow
7 4 6 1 in 3 5 ⅔ Blue, Yellow
7 7 6 1 in 3 6 ⅔ Blue, Red

As should be clear from the table, I have a two-in-three chance of winning the game, regardless of which die you make me roll.

Their paper presents a proof that there exist such a set of dice for every n ≥ 3, so long as you are free to choose the number of sides on each die and the number of pips on each side, and also provide a method for finding the optimal set. They also show that for any set of n dice it is possible to choose a number of faces and pips for each die such that only one die will ever roll below the mean on any given roll, and each die is equally likely to be the low die. This means in the game described above, for any set of n dice I have a probability of (n-1)/n of winning.

If you want to use similarly-sided dice then for more than three dice the number of sides required gets large very quickly. The optimal set for n=4 requires 12 sides per die, but for n=5 and n=6 you need 60 sides. That’s because their construction method splits each die two groups, each group having a probability of 1-in-1, 1-in-2, 1-in-3, etc. up to 1-in-n. It’s much easier if you allow heterogeneous dice, e.g. for n=6 you could use a combination of six-sided dice and a ten-sided die — a good excuse to break out your old collection of D&D dice.

Colored Bubbles!

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Back in 2005 I posted about Zubbles — colored soap bubbles that don’t stain your clothing. Well, three and a half years later they’re finally shipping product! (Currently available as a two-pack of Presto Pink and Blazing Blue.)

Blue eyes have a common ancestor

From PhysOrg, via Fairyshaman:

Blue-eyed humans have a single, common ancestor

New research shows that people with blue eyes have a single, common ancestor. A team at the University of Copenhagen have tracked down a genetic mutation which took place 6-10,000 years ago and is the cause of the eye colour of all blue-eyed humans alive on the planet today.

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A pill for everything

From an article on a study that shows women display increased hormone levels when exposed to chemicals found in male sweat:

One implication of the finding is that there may be better ways to raise cortisol levels in patients with diseases such as Addison’s disease, which is characterized by low cortisol. Instead of giving the hormone in pill form, which has side effects such as ulcers and weight gain, “a potential therapeutic mechanism whereby merely smelling synthesized or purified human chemosignals may be used to modify endocrine balance,” the authors wrote.

How distinctly American, distilling sex into pill form so we can have the benefits without all the messy side effects… (thanks to Janie for the link.)

Accidental discovery of magnetic organic molecules

From a SciAm article on the discovery of new magnetic organic molecules:

The discovery was partly accidental. The researchers were mixing organic nitrogen-rich compounds with nickel atoms and water. Normally during s uch reactions, multiple organic molecules will attach to each metal ion, so a relatively small amount of nickel should have been needed. But Hicks says his postdoc, Rajsapan Jain, noticed that the chemicals were not completely used up in the reaction, so they kept adding nickel to see what would happen. They ended up with a mudlike powder in their test tubes.

To quote Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I found it!) but ‘That’s funny …'”

Best science blog posts of 2006

After going through hundreds of nominations and reviews, Bora Coturnix has collected a list of the top 50 science blog posts of 2006 (also to be published in an ink-on-dead-trees anthology). Great summaries of the latest science translated for the layman — check it out! (And thanks to Janie for the link!)