Gold to Green and the Quantum Mechanics In Between

Tuesday, 26 June 2018 07:54 by The Lunatic

 

I love gold. Do you love gold? I think everyone loves gold!

It is common enough for everyone to have a little bit of it, but rare enough to hold its intrinsic value. Gold doesn’t tarnish, oxidize, or interact much with other elements at all; it is very stable. In fact, Gold is the heaviest known ‘monoisotopic’ element, meaning that 100% of all naturally occurring gold comes in just one form: the perfectly stable Au-197 isotope. That’s the main reason why I love gold!

Stable elements, such as Gold (Au-197), are those which have no tendency to "decay", i.e., change into another element.

Unstable elements, on the other hand, have isotopes that decay from one state to another – and this is the basis of radioactivity.

The dictionary definition of radioactivity is “The emission of ionizing radiation or particles caused by the spontaneous disintegration of unstable atomic nuclei.”

Ok, that’s quite a mouthful. But note that wording which says “spontaneous disintegration” of the atomic nuclei. Spontaneous disintegration happens instantly. At one point in time, there is an atom – and then suddenly you have a different atom (or a different isotope) and an emission of ionizing radiation (i.e., the “radio activity”).

The point in time for any disintegration is completely indeterminate. We can never know exactly when any individual atom will decay. However, we can absolutely say, from a statistical standpoint, how many atoms will decay in a specific time period, and that time period is called the “Half-Life” of the element.

The half-life is the time that it takes for half the atoms in any given sample to decay. It doesn’t matter if you have just a few hundred atoms, or trillions upon trillions … half of them will decay in the period of that element’s half-life.

In Figure 1 below, let’s assume each “X” and “O” represents a billion atoms. Half of the remaining “unstable atoms” will decay in the passing of each half-life:

Half Life Example

Figure 1

Interestingly, some elements have a half-life of just a few billionths of a second and some have a half-life in the billions of years.

While it’s true that we have absolutely no way of knowing when any one individual atom will spontaneously decay, the measurement of “exactly half the atoms will decay in ‘x’ period of time” is exceedingly accurate and very consistent. The half-life of any isotope can be calculated from the atomic structure, and the measurement of the half-life matches the calculated values to within many parts per billion. In fact, it’s turned out to be far more accurate than the resolution tolerance of our best measurement devices – so by default, quantum decay has now become our new standard for measuring time.

The atomic Master Clock at the United States Naval Observatory in Washington DC (which uses cesium and rubidium as the decay elements, and hydrogen masers for measuring the decay) has an accuracy of 0.000 000 000 000 000 007 seconds. This is the clock that satellites use for ensuring a stable orbit around the Earth, and what your GPS uses for determining its location based on radio signals triangulated from the satellites’ exact position. Without such precise and accurate clocks, these systems would not function.

In my previous article “The Quantum Quandary”, I talked about the quantum effect of electrons pushing against the junction of a transistor – without the absolute precision of quantum mechanics, the microprocessor you are using right now to read this article (which probably has some 6 billion transistors turning on and off at a rate of some 3 billion times a second) would not run for more than a few seconds without crashing.

There is no doubt that the intricate equations that define the physics of quantum mechanics are highly accurate.

By measuring the ratio of the original element and the resulting element from radioactive decay, you can calculate the age of things like rocks and fossils. The concept is simple enough but let’s take a closer look at the steps it takes to get there.

Organic material, as the simplest example, can be dated using “radiocarbon” techniques. This is based on an unstable isotope, Carbon-14, which decays into a stable isotope of Nitrogen – specifically Nitrogen-14. There are three naturally occurring isotopes of carbon on Earth: Carbon-12 and Carbon-13 (both are stable elements), and then Carbon-14 (which is only found in very small trace amounts as described below).

The dating process is based on the following assumptions:
•     Carbon-14 is a radioactive isotope that is created in plants during photosynthesis. It not known to be formed by any other means.
•     Carbon-14 is ingested by animals when they eat the plants. When both plants and animals die, some amount of Carbon-14 stays in the cells.
•     Carbon-14 decays into Nitrogen-14 with a half-life of 180,701,003,776 seconds (5,729.991 years).
•     Nitrogen-14 does not occur naturally, the only way it gets created is through the radioactive decay of Carbon-14.
•     Nitrogen-14 is a stable isotope that does not decay further into yet another atomic form.
•     We can collect enough Carbon-14 and Nitrogen-14 to precisely measure the amount of both elements in a sample.
•     The age of the sample can be calculated with a standard formula: Age = half-life * log (amount of Carbon-14 / amount of Nitrogen-14) / log 2

Obviously, if any of these points turn out to be incorrect, we will get incorrect results. However, each step has been independently studied and verified, and the entire process stands up to full scientific rigor and scrutiny. Admittedly, the collection and measurements of the sample is subject to ‘human error’.

There is an upper limit to the age that can be measured using this technique. As you can see in Figure 1 above, there comes a point in time when there is just not enough of the original element left to get an accurate measurement. For Carbon-14 dating, the upper limit is about 60,000 years (just a little over ten half-lives). Remember that there are only “trace amounts” of Carbon-14 produced during photosynthesis to begin with, and my sixth bullet point states that we need to collect a large enough sample of BOTH Carbon-14 and Nitrogen-14 to get an accurate measurement.

The process for determining the age of inorganic materials (rocks, etc.) is based on similar logic – but instead of Carbon-14, other radioactive decay chains are used (Uranium–Lead, Samarium–neodymium, Potassium–argon, Rubidium–strontium, etc.). Most of these have longer half-lives and the elements are more abundant – which provide accurate measurements at longer timescales than we can get with Carbon-14. However, some of these interactions are more complicated as the initial element does not decay directly to a stable element, so there are ‘intermediate’ elements and secondary decay chains that need to be considered.

An unstable element is said to be “Radioactive”, because as the element decays, it emits energy in the form of radiation (typically alpha particles, beta particles, neutrinos, or gamma rays). Some of these forms of radiation can be quite dangerous, even with moderate exposure.

So, here’s a simple question: when an atom ‘decays’, is the resulting atom heavier or lighter than the original one?

As you may have already surmised, the resulting element will always be lighter than the original. Radioactive decay converts mass into energy; since mass is ‘lost’ in this conversion process, the resulting atom is lighter.

The energy that is released can be very precisely calculated by taking the DIFFERENCE between the atomic weight of the original atom and the resulting atom, and multiplying it by the speed of light squared … or put another way, E (energy) equals m (difference in mass) time c2 (speed of light squared).

You should be familiar with the famous equation, E=mc2; radioactive decay is just one practical example of how it can be applied to the real world.

The equation E=mc2 is a ‘ratio’ of the mass to energy and is stated without any specific units; mass and speed of light can be in in either metric or English (or other) units. The ‘ratio’ will still apply – but typically E (Energy) is in Joules, m (mass, typically written lower case) is in kilograms, and c (Speed of Light, also notated in lower case) is meters per second. (be careful, as physicists will sometimes use shortcut units that need further conversion – it’s like saying “Olympia is an hour south of Seattle” when we all know that an hour is not a unit of distance).

In particle physics, the ‘mass’ is equivalent to the molecular weight of an atom. So, while the mass of an individual atom is quite small (a hydrogen atom weighs just 1.67 x 10-24 grams) to get the total ‘potential energy’ of the atom you multiply that by the speed of light, squared. In metric units the speed of light is 299,792,458 meters per second … and when that value is squared, you get an impressively large number: 89,875,517,873,681,764.

You might be thinking that a single kilogram of Uranium-235 (the element most often used for nuclear power) would produce 89,875,517,873,681,764 joules of energy then, right? After all, Energy (in Joules) = 1 (mass in kg) times 89,875,517,873,681,764. Converting from Joules, this would be 24.97 TRILLION Watt-hours. That means we can just about satisfy humanity’s annual energy consumption with just one kg of U-235!

Unfortunately, as mentioned above, you need to look at the DIFFERENCE between the original mass and the resulting mass – and in the case of fission reaction, the resulting mass is the nuclear waste which is produced. When we use equation E=mc2 we really have to apply it as E = (m1 – m2) * c2 (where m1 is the original mass and m2 is the resulting mass after the reaction). And we can never ‘capture’ 100% of the energy that was produced. So in practical terms, 1kg of U-235 provides about 8.64x10 13 joules, or 24 gigaWatt hours of energy. Still, that’s very impressive compared to 1kg of coal (which produces about 8 kWh of usable energy), or mineral oil (approximately 12 kWh from 1 kg).

There’s a key point here that you need to understand. Converting the entire mass of an atom into energy requires complete and total destruction of the atom – and the only known way to achieve this is with a matter/antimatter interaction, which results in “mutual annihilation”.

Antimatter, unfortunately, is exceedingly difficult to come by. Extremely small amounts are created within stars and it can be found in cosmic rays. Antimatter can be produced artificially – so far, about 20 nanograms (billionths of a gram) have been made by humans, and the individual molecules must be held in a “penning trap” … a container using magnetic fields in a perfect vacuum; this is to prevent the antimatter from touching air, since air is made of matter.

But E=mc2 is not only used for radioactive measurements … this formula applies any time that matter is converted to energy!

For example, if you burn a log in a fireplace, you are converting mass into energy. You may not realize it, but the total weight of the soot and smoke that is carried into the air is almost as heavy as the log was before it was burned! The total energy (light and heat) produced by burning the log can be calculated by measuring the difference in the weight of the log, and the weight of the remaining ashes, soot, smoke, non-combustible minerals, and water vapor emitted. You would be very surprised to find that the difference in weight is very small, almost immeasurable. According to FirewoodResource, a full cord of white oak weighing 1700 kg produces 24 million BTU’s of energy when burned. Per E=mc2, this released energy results in a material weight loss of just 0.000000272 kilograms.

This concept also applies to burning gasoline in cars – which is why reducing automobile pollution is such a difficult problem. Up until the early 1970’s, the exhaust from a car’s engine was directly expelled into the air. A typical car manufactured in the 1960’s (before pollution control devices) discharged 520 pounds of hydrocarbons, 1,700 pounds of carbon monoxide, and 90 pounds of nitrogen oxide for every 10,000 miles traveled. As with our example with the burning log, the total ‘weight’ of all that exhaust is very close to the weight of the gas that went into the car.

This is still the case today, but through exhaustive research (if you’ll pardon the pun) we’ve been able to create technologies that capture, filter, neutralize, and ‘convert’ (i.e., a catalytic converter) the emissions so that they have far less impact on our environment. We’ve gone to unleaded gas. We’ve developed more efficient engines that have better mileage, and made cars lighter so they need less energy to move – all these advancements mean we burn less gas and produce less automobile exhaust, which is toxic and highly damaging to our environment. We’ve made tremendous progress on reducing emissions per mile driven, but people are driving more miles on average now – so it’s still a huge problem.

If you think about it, you will see that wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, tidal, and all other ‘green’ energy sources really have just one thing in common: they convert one form of energy into another form of energy, rather than converting matter into energy. That’s it! You can convert sunlight, heat, kinetic motion, and pressure (all forms of energy) into electricity without creating any byproducts.

Extracting energy from coal, radioactive material, oil/gasoline, or firewood will always produce nearly the same amount of waste – pound for pound – as fuel consumed. The conversion itself is very efficient due to E=mc2, but only a minutely small amount of fuel actually gets converted into energy, the rest is converted to by-products, which are almost always toxic.

And note that while a gas engine directly converts fuel to kinetic energy (to move a car), a nuclear power plant converts matter to heat first and THEN converts the heat to pressure (in the form of boiling water) and then pressure to electricity like in a hydroelectric dam. It’s a multi-step process.

E=mc2 tells us that energy is matter and matter is energy; they are really two different forms of the same thing and can be converted back and forth. It doesn’t matter if the conversion is from an unstable element that naturally decays due to radioactivity, nuclear fuel forced into a fast chain reaction, or fossil fuel burned for heat. The difference between the original mass and the resulting mass will always tell us how much matter has been converted, and how much energy was produced. And E=mc2 even tells us how long ago the dinosaurs lived before they became the fossil fuel we are burning to run our cars.

Are we good now? I think we’re good as gold!

 

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The Required Component For A Viable Cryptocurrency

Tuesday, 6 March 2018 21:23 by The Lunatic

 

There is no doubt that the ‘blockchain’, Bitcoin’s amazingly successful distributed ledger, is one of the most ingenious concepts ever invented.

Blockchain's importance, and potential scope of influence, could eventually rival RSA public key/private key encryption (the algorithm developed in 1978 that all modern-day financial transactions rely on - including, ironically enough, blockchain transactions). It really is spectacular.

So … am I investing in Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies?

Absolutely not!

My reasoning is simple: the function of a currency is to be an intermediate thing that holds value temporarily, so you can easily trade for something of real value. There is no reason to ever ‘invest’ in any currency. That is not its purpose.

You may, however, want to avoid a currency. Let’s say you live in Mexico and own a business, and that business generates nice profits. You take your profits, and decide to hold that value in cash while you look for something else to invest in, or maybe you're saving up for a nice yacht.

However, if you expect that the Mexican Peso will fall in value, you can convert your holdings to U.S. Dollars in the meantime. You are not ‘investing’ in dollars – you are avoiding Pesos in favor of a currency with greater stability!

The goal of any government backed currency is to be as stable as possible. While consumer spending is mostly based on cash transactions, the majority of business transactions are on ‘terms’ … payment in the future for the trading of good or services that occurs today.

If you hold cash in a transaction (“I will pay you for the goods in 90 days”) or if you hold debt (“you can pay me for this in 90 days”) – both parties expect the ‘value’ of the currency to be the same at the end of the transaction. It doesn’t matter which direction it moves; if the currency goes up or down, one party will suffer.

Here’s a true story: about six months ago, More...

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Space, Time, and the search for "Little Green Men"

Sunday, 9 April 2017 07:44 by The Lunatic

 

Given the number of stars in the universe, how arrogant to think ours is the only sun with a planet that supports life, and that it's the only solar system with intelligent life.
— Edward J. Weiler, NASA Director (Washington Post newspaper, 20 July 2008)

While I can’t disagree with the sentiment of Mr. Weiler’s statement, the bigger question remains – how likely is it that we will ever find evidence of other life in the universe, or be able to communicate with them if they do exist?

We tend to imagine that if there is alien life somewhere out there in the vast universe, they could be receiving our television broadcasts, and will eventually respond back to us. This was the premise of “Contact”, the blockbuster sci-fi movie written by Carl Sagan.

In the movie, Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) is heading up a SETI team (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence), and they detect a signal coming from a far-away star system. They quickly realize that the signal is one of our own TV programs, which is being re-broadcast back to us – and interleaved in between the frames of video are instructions from an alien civilization on how to make a spaceship to go visit them.

I really did enjoy this wonderful movie, but the realities of aliens receiving our TV signals isn’t quite as simple as it was portrayed.

Television broadcasts can be “terrestrial” (the traditional antenna tower constructed behind most TV stations, or high on a hill overlooking the city), or via satellite. Modern satellite systems are marvelous things. You just go to the store and buy a “dish”, which is about 20 inches in diameter, and point it up in the sky. Then you align it to the right satellite, and you have TV reception in glorious high definition!

The signal that the dish receives is not very powerful – somewhere in the range of a micro-watt of power (one millionth of a watt). However, you need to remember that you can put the antenna anywhere … in your front yard, in the back yard, on your roof; the network of satellites that broadcasts the signal to your house isn’t beaming a microwatt of power directly to your dish, it is putting out a microwatt of power for every 20-inch circular area across the entire United States! Only a very miniscule amount of the power transmitted More...

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A Study in Cyberpunk Economic Philosophy

Saturday, 11 February 2017 09:11 by The Lunatic

 

How many times have you read a book, or saw a movie, with a monopolistic “mega corporporation” as a primary plot element - a giant company run by a powerful, brilliant, egocentric, multi-gazillionaire?

It’s usually a male character at the helm, either the company founder or the founder's son, and he ruthlessly destroys every competitor and government agency that gets in the way of his quest to own it all and rule the world; It's a common theme in cyberpunk fiction stories.

But I’d like to take a slightly different approach to the idea of the giant company that we’ll just call ... megacorp.

In my scenario, the corporate merger mania that exists today continues unabated, as companies strive for higher efficiencies and economy of scale. Coke and Pepsi merge. Nestle and Tyson Foods do the same. Google and Microsoft and Facebook. Ford and GM and Tesla. FedEx and UPS. Novartis and Pfizer. United and American and Delta airlines. Then slowly they all start merging together. Berkshire Hathaway gets swallowed up along the way.

In the process, the large shareholders of the initial companies end up with smaller and smaller chunks of the combined entities, so the total number of smaller shareholders goes up but no one person owns a significant share. After a few mergers, a previous “majority” shareholder might end up with 5%. They merge again and that shareholder now owns 2.5%. The incredibly large number of individual shareholders suddenly have all the power.

Eventually, the individual shareholders of all these companies realize that the widely distributed ownership structure is actually beneficial, so they vote to put shareholder limits in place: no one person can own more than 1% of the company, with an annual decrease over ten years down to .1% - and then it goes even lower as more mergers take place.

In the end, they all finally merge together to form the almighty, invincible, unstoppable “megacorp”.

But instead of the popularized evil empire, I envision a different outcome: nearly everyone works for megacorp, More...

The Arbitrary Nature of Rules and Regulations

Thursday, 11 August 2016 18:24 by The Lunatic

Here’s a question to ponder: Why do we set our kid’s bedtime at a nice round number like 9:30 pm, rather than 9:15 or 9:45? How about 9:41, or 9:22, or some other equally arbitrary time? And is that the time your kids actually have to be in bed with the lights turned off – or the time that they need to start getting ready?

If you think about it, every “rule” has a bit of an arbitrary aspect to it. You have to draw a line in the sand somewhere, but where should that line be? How wide is the “grey area” between being too lenient (an 11:30 bedtime?) or too stringent (how about 8pm sharp)? Both these extremes are arguably out of the question, so the reasonable “grey area” is probably narrower than that. Somewhere between those reasonable limits, however, you need to pick a bedtime for your kids – and 9:30 seems to be a good compromise. But once the rule has been set, how strictly should you enforce it?

How often have we seen this: The kids know as well as you do that 10pm is still within the “reasonable” window … so a little delay here, a little delay there … and after a few weeks, the kids are going to bed at 10pm on a regular basis. But the official rule of the house is still bedtime at 9:30!

I’ve always been fascinated with the arbitrary nature of the actual boundary – how and where the limit is set – for any rule; this is a deep-rooted problem that has vexed humanity for centuries, in every culture and on every continent.

In the USA, our society has determined that kids can’t drink alcohol until they are 21 years old. At that magic day in your life, you are suddenly free to drink as much as you like. There is no “Slop” in that rule, as far as the legal enforcement goes. No “grey area” at all to work with.

On the other hand, the speed limit on a highway might be 65 miles per hour – yet everyone knows that you usually won’t get a ticket unless you are going at least ten miles per hour over the limit. So in our minds we don’t think we are speeding till we get to 75.

Sometimes you may have to ask why a rule was enacted in the first place. One small town in Iowa for example, has an ordinance on the books that proclaims “The Ice Cream Man and his truck are banned”. So I’m wondering, what DID the Ice Cream man do to deserve such a harsh penalty? It must have been quite drastic in order to justify banning EVERY Ice Cream Man (and their trucks) from the town forever!

Of course, we have to have rules. More...

The Etymology Of A Scandalous Suffix

Tuesday, 2 February 2016 00:00 by The Lunatic

Along the western edge of Washington DC, parallel to the Potomac River, runs the historic C&O shipping canal. Stop at Fletcher’s Boathouse, just north of Georgetown, and you can rent kayaks or canoes for a relaxing time on the water – or just enjoy the nice biking/jogging path that accompanies the canal. The water in the C&O is calm and peaceful, you can traverse it without having to battle the strong currents and wild turbulence of the mighty Potomac just a few hundred feet away.

Built in the mid-1800’s, the C&O (which stands for Chesapeake and Ohio) was used to transport much needed goods from northern Maryland and Pennsylvania into Washington D.C. Initially intended to go all the way to Pittsburgh, the C&O canal was only completed up to Cumberland, Maryland – still an impressive 184 miles in total length.

The primary freight that was shipped via the C&O was coal from the Allegheny Mountains, but the canal was also used for transporting building materials (lumber, paving stones, sand and gravel) and foodstuff (pork, wheat, corn, oats – and even whiskey). This was an alternative to shipping goods via railroad – and for a time before it closed, the canal was actually owned by the B&O (Baltimore and Ohio) Railroad Company. The canal was a vital part of Washington DC’s rapid growth following the civil war, and all the way into the early 1920’s.

Initially, the C&O canal was built with 74 locks, used to keep the flow of water stable and to raise and lower barges from one section to the next. The very last of these locks emptied the C&O canal into the Potomac river; it was there, in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington DC, that all the freight was unloaded from the barges and distributed throughout the city.

There really was never any particular name for this last lock which separated the canal from the river, but in 1942 (18 years after the canal was closed to shipping and the C&O Canal Company went into receivership) a restaurant opened directly across the street – and the restaurant was named “The Water Gate Inn”.

Another 18 years went by. In 1960, The Water Gate Inn closed its doors and sold out to an Italian real estate developer, Società Generale Immobiliare (known simply as “SGI”). SGI didn’t just buy out the restaurant – they purchased the entire ten acres of land that was owned by the remaining vestiges of the C&O Canal Company. SGI outlined their plans for a major real estate development, and named the proposed building complex after the little restaurant that had been on the corner of the property; thus was born “The Watergate”.

Right from the start, SGI had grand plans and a big budget for The Watergate. It was to be a mixed use complex More...

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The Quantum Quandary

Wednesday, 4 February 2015 00:46 by The Lunatic

I’ve discussed “The Immutable Laws of Physics” a few times in previous articles. Every shred of evidence we have indicates that the interactions between matter, energy, time, and space, are themselves the very nature of the universe, and nothing we (or anything/anyone else) can do will ever change these interactions. Whenever we’ve observed or discovered something new that we don’t understand, it reminds us that we have incomplete understanding of the laws of physics – but the physical world is still immutable.

Quantum mechanics is a “relatively new” branch of physics that was discovered roughly 100 years ago, and it has certainly enhanced our understanding of these physical interactions. It has also made things quite a bit more complicated, as quantum mechanics embodies concepts which are quite difficult to grasp. The concepts are not as elegant as the pure logic behind classical “Newtonian physics”, or the mind-bending beauty of Einstein’s discovery of relativity.

One of the problems is that quantum mechanics have a large component that has to do with randomness. Changes in quantum states are thought to be the only truly random physical interactions in the whole universe!

One question that often comes up is this: how do we account for the randomness of quantum mechanics if the fundamental laws of physics are so perfect and so immutable? Why don’t our traditional laws of physics clash with the crazy and unpredictable nature of this randomness, the particle/wave duality, and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle? And while we’re at it, what do we feed to Schrödinger’s much maligned cat?

Quantum mathematics are somewhat abstract, yet exceedingly precise. The math has been verified experimentally to within one part in many billions; the measured data agrees with the theoretical equations to the limits of our measurement technology. This is a very key point. 

As a practical example, every time a transistor switches on and off in a computer, there is a “quantum band gap” that each electron goes through. If we could somehow “see” each electron that is pushed up against the junction of a transistor, we would not be able to tell which specific electrons would make it through the gap and which ones wouldn’t. The quantum state of each individual electron is completely random. However, we can say – very, very precisely – how many in total will go through and at what energy levels.

Advancements in manufacturing technologies, resulting in less impurities (i.e. stray molecules of unwanted substances) in the silicon junction, More...

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An Overview of the U.S. Patent System

Thursday, 31 July 2014 01:07 by The Lunatic

(Note: This was a term paper I wrote for an MBA class in 2012. I recently ran across it in my files and thought it would be a good addition to my blog. Enjoy!)

An Overview of the U.S. Patent System
David M. H. Workman

Introduction

A Patent is a form of legal protection for an invention, allowing the patent holder to have exclusive rights to make, use, or sell the invention for a specific period of time (typically either 14 or 20 years in the U.S., depending on the type of patent).

To secure a patent, a Patent Application is submitted to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO); the application consists of two major elements: a description of the invention, and certain claims (which define the scope of protections desired under the patent application). The USPTO may grant the patent for the invention, but allow or disallow each of the claims individually. “Broad” claims mean that the applicant is asking for the invention to be protected in a wide range of uses, and are more likely to be rejected (and if allowed, are more likely to be challenged by competitors). “Narrow” claims mean that the invention has very focused and well defined commercial applications, which are less likely to be challenged.

For a patent application to be approved, it must meet a certain bar for (1) Novelty, (2) Non-Obviousness, and (3) either Utility, Distinctiveness, or Ornamentality (depending on whether it is a “Utility”, “Plant”, or “Design” patent, respectively). The USPTO reviews the patent application to ensure that the patent, and each of the claims, meets the bar for each criterion.

During the application process, the patent may be rejected if “prior art” (i.e. any published diagrams or descriptions which show that the invention is not original) is found by the USPTO, or if any aspect of the invention was publicly disclosed by the inventor before the filing date. Even after the patent has been granted, others may challenge the validity of the patent (or any of the individual claims) if prior art is presented which is proven to have been publicly available before the application date.

Patents cover an amazingly diverse range of ideas – from describing the optimal radius of the bend in a wire paper clip, to More...


Categories:   Economics | Miscellaneous
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I Believe That Belief Is Irrelevant

Tuesday, 15 April 2014 16:44 by The Lunatic


In a previous article titled I’m a believer!, I proposed we should swap the traditional definition of who’s a believer and who isn’t – I suggested that a believer is someone who believes that the laws of physics are immutable and a non-believer is someone who doesn’t.

In this post, I’ll take a little different approach. I’ll go on record and say that what people believe in is irrelevant. I don’t care what you believe in. Heck, I don’t even care about what I believe in myself! Simply having a belief in something does not make it true.

What if I go around the world and convince everyone that the universe is governed by a Grand Orange Duck. And what the Grand Orange Duck really wants is for everyone to donate their ear wax to the famed Diamond Crucible. I know it sounds crazy, but hear me out ... I really believe this is the truth! Once we have ear wax from every person on Earth, and the Diamond Crucible is full to the brim, the Grand Orange Duck will reveal himself to us and we will be allowed to marvel at his magnificent wings. It will be a glorious day indeed!

Even if I can get everyone to believe in the Grand Orange Duck (let’s just call it “GOD” for short), and convince every single person on Earth that they need to contribute some ear wax to the Diamond Crucible, that still doesn’t make it the truth.

Is this scenario really that far-fetched? How about this: The Mormons are very good at getting people to believe that there were white people on Earth before black people (Mormon scripture says that Cain, who killed his brother Abel, was so evil that God "cursed" him with black skin), and that More...


The Lunatic’s take on Daylight Savings Time

Sunday, 4 November 2012 08:24 by The Lunatic

Twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall, we move our clocks either forwards or backwards to accommodate the change in Daylight Savings Time.

And twice a year, there are the requisite news articles written about Daylight Savings Time, explaining to everyone why we go through all this hassle. Then there are the cutesy and often misguided Facebook posts with statements like: “only the government would believe that you could cut a foot off the top of a blanket, sew it to the bottom, and have a longer blanket.” (which is what prompted me to write this particular article in the first place!)

So let’s get to the bottom of what Daylight Savings really is. First of all, however, we have to understand what midnight is. That’s right: midnight, the time that we’ve decided each day should start.

Technically, midnight is the time that is halfway between sunset and sunrise. It’s simple enough, but that definition needs some clarification. As the Earth revolves around the Sun, the Earth’s tilt causes daylight hours to shift with the seasons.

A better definition is that midnight is the time that is halfway between sunset and sunrise, at the equator, on either the fall or spring equinox (the only two days of the year when the sun is directly overhead at the equator).

Now we’re getting somewhere, but there’s one more wrinkle in this definition.

You see, the Earth is just over 24,000 miles around and More...