2022-01-31 6 min read


Notes, 2022-01-31.

As the world has watched the James Webb Space Telescope unfold its 18 mirrors within a precision range of 10 nanometers, millions of miles away at L2, we have been promised images of the universe unparalleled to anything we’ve seen before. The telescope’s cycle 1 experiments are already planned, from studying the first flickers of stellar activity after the Big Bang to searching for solar systems able to support life.

Webb’s imaging systems complement Hubble’s, looking outwards into the universe rather than back at Earth. While the pictures it sends us are likely to be awe inspiring, they will likely evoke different feelings than the first images of Earth. The Blue Marble photo for instance, which was taken by the crew of Apollo 17 in 1972 and is now one of the most reproduced space images of all time, shows our planet in a place of unity, fragility, and togetherness. By contrast, the Pale Blue Dot image, which Voyager 1 took in 1977 as it blasted out of our solar system, shows our tiny planet, as Carl Sagan said, "on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."

When seen from space, the Earth is said to cause a sense of awe, enlightenment, and wonder - at least according to Frank White, who coined the term “overview effect” to describe the phenomenon in 1987. The overview effect is said to have inspired many astronauts to engage in humanitarian missions upon their return - including Jeff Bezos and William Shatner, who reported a renewed sense of togetherness after their jaunt beyond Earth's atmosphere. While White argues that the overview effect happens as a direct effect of being in space, some maintain it is a cultural phenomenon rather than a natural one. And still others, including Buzz Aldrin, have experienced the opposite: sadness and depression after space missions.

Apollo 17 and Voyager’s images gave us an opportunity to reflect on how we view ourselves, and Hubble’s images let us see our surroundings. JWST promises us images of our early universe, and a chance to examine our place in the grand continuum of space and time. I’m excited to see what that ends up looking like!

- lee wilkins

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~12% of opens) was a video of ski lifts being installed, but if you're at all interested in it then you should go check out the rabbit hole it led to (an unusual helicopter design, an unexpected material choice, and a couple factoids about the market for Sitka spruce). This week, The Prepared's Members' Reading Group is starting Saul Griffith's Electrify - which probably means lots of chatter about heat pumps, EVs, and induction ranges.

Planning & Strategy.

  • In 1959, the US Air Force Special Weapons Center published a classified document titled A Study of Lunar Research Flights that summarized then ongoing research into the implications of a potential nuclear war in space. The study, also known as Project A119, aimed to detonate a relatively small W25 warhead on the moon’s surface, but was canceled - leaving the mantle of “largest nuclear test conducted in outer space” to a project called Starfish Prime.

    Over the past decade or two, hundreds of videos and scores of documents on US nuclear tests were declassified. This incredible footage of Starfish Prime, for instance, shows how the nuclear missiles launched from Johnston Atoll were visible 1450 km away in Hawaii. This video uses data from the same declassified documents to envision what might happen if a 100-megaton thermonuclear device – twice as powerful as Tsar Bomba – was detonated on the moon’s surface. Not only would there be no mushroom cloud, but anyone able to see the explosion would likely get a fatal dose of ionizing radiation.

Making & Manufacturing.

  • The Panasonic RK-P400C Penwriter is pretty remarkable. Part typewriter and part plotter, it has a built-in RS-232 port, 4 KB of memory, and can be programmed via a computer. This typewriter looks like a real hybrid machine, using Alps plate spring switches for the keys and tiny ballpoint pens to draw.

    It’s hard to remember now, but there were lots of interesting typewriter variations before the rise of desktop computers. Index typewriters didn’t have keyboards at all; instead, one hand operates a pointer that selects a letter (or symbol) while the other hand presses a lever that moves the type to the paper. This Toshiba typewriter is a beautiful example of how index typewriters can be used to write Japanese kanji.

    In The Chinese Typewriter, Tim Mullaney explores how QWERTY technologies have been baked into typewriter technologies since the 1910s, when all typewriters started looking more or less the same. Within this hegemonic design paradigm a bias became embedded: typewriters adopted auto spacing, preventing letters from connecting to one another and locking them in static relative positions. Mullaney’s long and compelling argument highlights an important intersection between culture and technology.
  • I’ve been on a mission to make electronic components from household items. I started by rewatching Jeri Ellsworth’s homemade transistor series, which shows how to produce semiconductor transistors without any fancy equipment - but I’m not sure I’d call silicon wafers and hydrochloric acid household items. I got some great suggestions through a twitter thread about taking the relay route by using a saw blade and magnet, or replicating razor-blade crystal “foxhole” radios built by soldiers in WW2. Some of the best suggestions came from the book Instruments of Amplification, which explores all kinds of DIY transistors, amplifiers, and vacuum tubes. There are also techniques for making homemade lighting components, such as this DIY electroluminescent paint which uses PEDOT:PSS, a clear conductive polymer, and electroluminescent phosphor. But a brilliantly simple way to produce light is to make an LED similar to the one H.J. Round made in 1907, by applying a voltage directly to a hunk of silicon carbide rock.
  • A video teardown of a Soviet era telephone autodialer, which uses rope core memory to program in the number to be dialed; the schematics for the autodialer are here. Somewhat related, here's a teardown of a rotary phone dial showing how its mechanism goes together.
  • I love both this video of a modern bakery, in which a mille-feuille is cut with a water jet, and this video of Victorian style candy making, which uses a cooling table, metal hook and a candy press.

Maintenance, Repair & Operations.

  • Researchers at China University of Mining and Technology are building an artificial moon. Measuring 60 cm in diameter and made of regolith-like rocks and dust, the moon is suspended in a vacuum chamber using magnetic levitation.
  • I always wondered why resistors have seemingly random values. It is because of the E series of preferred numbers, which are spaced so the top of the tolerance band of one value and the bottom of the tolerance band of the next one do not overlap. Although the E series is used for resistors, capacitors, inductors, and zener diodes, the Renard series is used for current ratings on electrical fuses and voltage ratings of capacitors.
  • From Disney Research, a detailed video of the design and fabrication of wire characters and sculptures. It shows how specific characters come to life through movements produced from bending patterns in wire.

Distribution & Logistics.

  • This Canadaland Commons series on mining is a very clear and useful way to understand how systemic oppression in Canada is shaped by the mining industry. From the Klondike gold rush to diamond mines in Attawapiskat, the series really helped me understand how deeply embedded the mining industry is in Canada’s culture.

Inspection, Testing & Analysis.


  • Every unicode arrow.
  • A website that generates a fake horse from a neural net.
  • The smell you might associate with coins, nails, or handling metallic surfaces is not actually from the metal itself. As metals do not release any odor, the smell is produced by a catalyzing reaction from the oils on our skin and the surface of some metals. This video explains how that works, and how to synthesize the chemical for your own metal perfume.

Earth Triptych, from NASA's Juno Spacecraft.

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