CPVC. The C stands for clarinet, or chalumeau… (part 5)

So here’s the goal: An instrument with eight holes (for left thumb and fingers 1–3, right fingers 1–4), preferably sounding the following notes:

Hole Note Freq (Hz)
LT B♭2 117
L1 A♭2 104
L2 G2 98.0
L3 F2 87.3
R1 E♭2 77.8
R2 D2 73.4
R3 C2 65.4
R4 B♭1 58.3
End A♭1 51.9

or, if that isn’t feasible, a probably easier fallback:

Hole Note Freq (Hz)
LT B♭2 117
L1 A2 110
L2 G2 98.0
L3 F2 87.3
R1 E2 82.4
R2 D2 73.4
R3 C2 65.4
R4 B♭1 58.3
End A1 55.0

The first of these is the pitches produced by the finger tone holes (and one of the R4 levers) on a contra-alto clarinet. The second shifts the semitones from L1/L2 to LT/L1 and R1/R2 to L3/R1, where they’d be easier to obtain, and changes R4/End to a semitone to keep the End note in the scale. But I think the “standard clarinet” option is worth a try.

I’ll work from bottom to top, because adding a tone hole above an existing one hardly changes the note produced at the latter, while adding a hole below an existing one makes it flatter. Start with smaller holes and enlarge them if needed. Probably best to start with a “lower joint” made of elbows but just let a straight pipe stand in for the “upper joint” at first. Once that’s in good shape perhaps glue the “lower joint” together, unless it seems feasible to leave it dry-fit, then build and tune the upper joint.

First things first, though, which is: given the mouthpiece effect noted before, I need to decide what mouthpiece I’m going to use. Tone holes set up for one mouthpiece will be wrong for another. I have several B♭ soprano clarinet mouthpieces, as well as one each for E♭, alto, and bass clarinets… and a baritone sax mouthpiece I picked up cheap back in 2005, just in case I had a use for it. Theoretically you don’t want a big mismatch between the diameters of the mouthpiece and the instrument, and even the E♭ mouthpiece is wider than the tubing I’m using. But that little soprano reed really struggles and it’s hard to force enough air through the small mouthpieces for such low notes. The alto works better. The bari sax mouthpiece has an inner diameter similar to the alto and also works okay; I think I like the alto’s sound a little better, though. But what I’m happiest with is the bass clarinet mouthpiece. I took a 1/2″ CPVC coupler, put about 3 wraps of electrical tape around it, stuck it on a tube, and pushed it up into the mouthpiece. That way the air column really “sees” rather little of the mouthpiece’s volume and diameter; that can’t hurt. IMG_3659It looks crazy but it blows easily and sounds good. Part of that might be the reed. On the other mouthpieces I have old cane reeds, long neglected and not exactly in peak condition. On the bass I have a Legére plastic reed, which you can sit on top of for a year and it’ll still work just as well the moment you try to use it again. I know from experience. (It had slipped down under a cushion.) I thought I had a Legére soprano reed, too, but I haven’t found it. I should check the sofa. But anyway, I think the cane vs. plastic aspect is not the main factor here.

Bass clarinet mouthpiece it is, then.


Speed of sound, Or, No, it’s not freezing in here

I was thinking about my frequency measurements and how I kept getting best fit slopes corresponding to very low values of the speed of sound. I’d hypothesized this might have something to do with the mouthpieces I was using, and I found some possible corroboration in Arthur H. Benade’s book Horns, Strings, and Harmony: “To be sure, an enlarged mouthpiece cavity can lower the pitch of the vibrational modes, but they are lowered equally, except for the highest ones.” A little too vague to make it clear whether the effect looks like a lowered slope, though.

Edit: But yes, it has to. The enlarged cavity should matter less for a long tube than for a short one (since in the latter case it’s a relatively large deviation from a perfect cylinder, while in the former case it’s relatively small.) That means f will be lowered by more for a short tube than for a long one, or in other words the variation in f with L_{eff} will be less than expected; equivalently, the variation in L_{eff} with 1/f will be less than expected — that is, the slope will correspond to a lower speed of sound.

Then I realized these tubes are just about the same diameter (inside) as an earbud.

So I shoved an earbud in one end and listened to the other while using this site to play a calibrated variable frequency tone. I could indeed hear the resonances. I couldn’t pin down resonant frequencies with precision better than several hertz, I think, but using several tubes and tube combinations I got enough points for a reasonably accurate fit to a line. After discarding one blatant outlier (yeah, I could be more rigorous, but really, it was an outlier) I got a sound speed at around 19°C of 340.9 m/s — it should be about 342.7. sosMuch closer agreement. I also got an effective length for the “mouthpiece” of –3.5 mm. Negative? Sure, because the earbud was pushed into the tube. By more than 3.5 mm, of course, but I’m sure the error bars on that value are large enough to cover that.

Granted, I did this in the slightly warmer bedroom rather than the chillier basement, but there’s no way the low sound speeds I’d been getting were entirely temperature related. It’s not below freezing down there! So I think it really has to be a mouthpiece effect.

CPVC. The C stands for clarinet, or chalumeau… (part 4)

Experimentation continues, this time with 1/2″ CTS CPVC tubing and elbows.

Step one, of course, is to figure out how to get a mouthpiece on. I have a 3/4″ to 1/2″ reducer and if the 3/4″ end were reamed out a little I could fit a soprano clarinet mouthpiece into it. And I might try that at some point, but for now I found something easier was to put a few wraps of electrical tape around a tube, and then it fit inside the tenon of an alto clarinet mouthpiece. Which I have one of. Yeah, yeah, laugh it up.

So then I started measuring frequencies using various combinations of four lengths of tubing. As before, I found a linear relationship between 1/f and L, but with a coefficient corresponding to a very low speed of sound — 322 m/s. Again, I don’t understand the cause of that.

Next I compared frequencies for a tube with and without 13 street elbows added, and came up with a figure of about 33 mm for the elbow bore length.

Now, the configuration I showed in a drawing in the previous post has holes separated by about two elbows for half steps and four elbows for whole steps — about 66 and 132 mm respectively. Given that Pollak’s Mr Curly, which is in the contrabass clarinet range, uses about 145 mm for a whole step, 132 mm might be too long for a whole step in the contra-alto clarinet range. But I’ve been messing around with these elbows and I think I can get configurations without too much stretch having smaller bore separations than that, based on planar and right angle serpentine geometries, and switching over to helical geometry at the lower end. In fact I might not have to have my half steps in the positions I mentioned before, between holes 1 and 2 and holes 4 and 5; I might be able to put them at holes 2/3 and 5/6, like on a standard clarinet.IMG_3650

So I tested that. The all-fingers-down note (one of them, that is) of a contra-alto clarinet is written F, sounding A♭1, about 51.9 Hz. Fortuitously, putting all four tubing pieces plus two ells together gives me about 54 Hz, pretty close.

So I drilled holes in four elbows — 10 mm diameter in two and 6 mm in the other two. Putting pairs of them in the appropriate spot between tubes gives a frequency of around 100 Hz with both holes open — close to the all-fingers-up note on a contra-alto. Now the question is, how many elbow lengths between holes are needed to produce semitones and whole tones? If I need spacings smaller than the minimum you can get, I’ll have to abandon the contra-alto idea and aim for making a lower pitched instrument instead. If I can handle the spacings at the top end, on the other hand, the ones further down should be manageable.


So for various combinations of elbow-with-hole, n elbows-without-holes, elbow-with-hole, I measured the frequencies with both holes open and top hole closed, bottom hole open.

One surprising finding was that if the top hole is 6 mm, I can play a note on that, but if the bottom hole is 6 mm and the top hole is closed, it refuses to sound a note in the bottom register. That’s true whether there are three, two, one, or zero elbows in between. Evidently the small hole is acting like a register hole, but only in positions past the first elbow!  A 10 mm hole in those positions works fine, though — until you half-hole it, and it overblows. Presumably once you get far enough down the bore a 6 mm hole will work again, but I haven’t verified that yet. Lesson: holes much smaller than 10 mm may or may not work, depending on where they are.

So I got results only for two 10 mm holes, and for 6 mm above 10 mm. At a distance of 1 elbow the two notes are about 65 and 45 cents apart, respectively (where 100 cents is a semitone). Not too surprisingly, at a separation of 2 elbows the intervals are about twice that, 126 and 87 cents: too wide and too narrow for a semitone, but clearly you can move the tuning around by tens of cents by changing the hole diameter a little (8 mm might be safe) or by moving it a fraction of an elbow length. A 3 elbow separation gives 186 and 120 cents, and 4 elbows, 249 and 169 cents. In those cases I can probably correct a too-short bore separation with short inserts of tubing without affecting the stretch. Further down the instrument the needed separations will get larger, and those too can be accomplished with tubing inserts, I think.

So this seems encouraging. Not that getting a good set of hole positions and sizes is going to be trivial, but these results suggest it may well be possible! And the good thing about building with elbows is, if you have a hole that’s too big or in the wrong place, you can just yank out that elbow and try again. Big advantage over grenadilla logs there!


CPVC. The C stands for clarinet, or chalumeau… (part 3)

The problem with large woodwinds in a straight form factor is to get the bore spacing — the distance between holes measured along the bore — large enough to produce notes the right distance apart, without making the stretch — the distance between holes “as the crow flies” — so large your fingers can’t reach them all at the same time.

Here’s a tenor, alto, and soprano recorder (and my old PVC clarinet):2015-03-26 09.02.57You can see the tenor, which is a little shorter than a soprano clarinet, needs one key to bring the bottom hole within reach.

Hence the Papalini bass clarinet, with its serpentine bore, that inspired my contra-alto chalumeau project. It turns out, though, that if you’re making an instrument mostly out of CPVC elbows, you have the opposite problem: getting the bore spacing short enough. Of course if you want two holes at a bore spacing of a couple centimeters that’s no problem, just use a straight section of tube and put them as close together as you want. But once you resort to elbows to bring larger spacings within reach, you start to run up against minimum spacings.

You can make a planar serpentine arrangement like this:2015-03-261The red dots show possible tone hole positions. Of course (for all but the thumb hole) they need to be more or less in a line on one side of the instrument. With this geometry the holes are about two elbows apart measured along the bore, around 100 mm with 3/4″ CTS CPVC. The stretch between holes is about 50 mm, which is too large to be comfortable though maybe isn’t unthinkable for a couple of holes. But the holes can’t go any closer together without moving them out of line. If you want a bore spacing of 70 mm, you’re hosed.

If you want something a little longer than 100 mm, you can extend a zigzag sideways with a couple short pieces of tubing. That’s fine for the zigzags that go away from the hand, but going toward the hand just makes an uncomfortable grip worse.

Another geometry is a right angle serpentine:2015-03-262The stretch here is again about 50 mm, and now you can extend the zigzags in either direction without running into the hand. That’s good, but now the holes are placed three elbows apart for a minimum bore spacing of about 150 mm.

Geometry number three is a helix:2015-03-26

Here the good news is the stretch is a lot smaller, more like 25 mm. Pretty playable. And the loops can be stretched, again without colliding with the hand. But the holes are now four elbows apart. That’s a minimum bore spacing of 200 mm. There’s the irony: to get shorter stretch, you have to have longer bore spacing!

There are three places where you can easily make the hole spacing smaller (but not too small). One is between the top (left thumb) hole and the next (left first finger) hole: put them on opposite sides of a 3/4″ CPVC helix and they’re at a 100 mm spacing. Another is between the last left hand finger and the first right hand finger, where you don’t have to worry about stretching from one to the other. That’t be the fourth and fifth holes if you follow the standard woodwind convention of not giving the left little finger a hole to cover (but give one to the right little finger, as in recorders and kinderklarinettes and ancient clarinets/chalumeaus.) The third is between the last finger hole and the foot of the instrument. If those hole pairs correspond to semitones, and the others to tones, then starting say on E (8 holes closed) you’d get (bottom to top)

semi – whole – whole – whole – semi – whole – whole – semi

e.g. F♯ – G – A – B – C♯ – D – E – F♯ – G

which happily corresponds to the notes of a D major or B minor scale. Unfortunately clarinetists are used to

(depends on which little finger lever) – whole – semi – whole – whole – whole – semi – whole

e.g. F – G – A – B♭ – C – D – E – F – G

but I may be stuck with an alien arrangement. I’ll live.

Pollak’s Mr Curly’s holes are spaced around 145 to 150 mm apart (and I’m surprised uniformly sized holes so uniformly spaced work out, but he says they do. One note is a quarter tone below G, the others, he says, are okay — not a diatonic scale, though; it goes E♭– F – G half flat – A♭ – B♭ – C – D – E – F.) It’s in contrabass clarinet range. For a helical instrument with minimum bore spacing of about 200 mm you’d have to make something more like an octocontra-alto clarinet:

have put a (soprano!) mouthpiece on a ten foot piece of tubing and played ridiculously low notes with it, and that’s fun, but I’d like to build something closer to contra-alto territory:

So I’m thinking a 3/4″ CPVC helix just isn’t going to work.

But how about the right angle serpentine? The problem there is the long stretch. How bad is that? Well, let’s experiment.

I marked four places my fingers could reach on a right angle serpentine, drilled holes with the drill I happened to have chucked already in the drill press, stuck on t1 and t2 and t3 in some order using a couple other fittings and added a reducer for a pretty much nonfunctional bell. Behold, the instrument I built in about ten minutes:

IMG_3647Considering the tuning of the available notes was purely random, it’s not that bad sounding. The second note from the bottom is stuffy, probably because it has only one tone hole plus the distant foot to vent through. The rest sound better. The bottom note is pretty close to C2 (around 65 Hz), just below the bottom end of my bass clarinet (which goes to E♭2 written, D♭2 concert — some bass clarinets go to B♭1 concert).

The stretch, well, it’s a stretch, but it can be done… as far as it goes here. A fifth hole 50 mm below the fourth would probably not be reachable. I could consider a hybrid serpentine/helix geometry: Serpentine at the top (for the left hand), where I want shorter bore spacings and don’t need to accommodate the little finger, and helical below (the right hand) where the longer spacing would be okay and I want four fingers to reach their holes. But I’d presumably wind up in contrabass, rather than contra-alto, range. Which isn’t the end of the world.

Or I could try 1/2″ CPVC. It has an OD of 0.625″ (16 mm), vs. 0.875″ (22 mm) for 3/4″ CPVC. Presumably that means the bore length of an elbow should be about 36 mm instead of 50 mm, making about 144 mm spacing in the helix geometry — almost identical to the spacing in Mr Curly. So a helical contrabass clarinet range instrument looks within reach. Furthermore the serpentine geometries would have a stretch of about 36 mm, a good deal easier than 50 mm, so a serpentine/helix hybrid might work just fine for a contra-alto range chalumeau. The bore diameter would be 0.485″ (12 mm), pretty narrow for that length but a good deal larger than Mr Curly’s 8 mm.

I went into SketchUp to draw up an idea of what this might look like. Just wild guessing on the relative lengths of things and so on, and I didn’t draw in tone holes because that’s hard. I went looking into the SketchUp 3D Library and stumbled across… can you believe it? … a carrot clarinet. With a link to Linsey Pollak’s page. Sheesh! So I included that in the drawing. It may not be to scale. Screen Shot 2015-03-27 at 12.46.54 AM

Anyway, here’s a tune.

CPVC. The C stands for clarinet, or chalumeau… (part 2)

So let’s measure the speed of sound. And one other thing.

I took some 3/4″ CTS CPVC and cut off three arbitrary lengths, later measured at (piece designated t1) 141, (t2) 265, and (t3) 366 mm. I also have a couple of couplers (hah) to join these pieces together, each adding about 4 mm to the length of the combination.

From my old PVC clarinet I have another CPVC coupler, one I reamed out slightly to accommodate the tenon of a soprano clarinet mouthpiece. So I can put the mouthpiece on the end of a tubing piece, or pieces, and play a note. I have an Android app that’s marketed as a guitar tuner, but it has the feature that it shows the frequency it measures. Here’s what I found, averaging a few measurements for each case:

ID L (mm) f (Hz)
t1 141 399
t2 265 252
t3 366 192
t1+t2 410 176
t1+t3 510 144
t2+t3 635 119
t1+t2+t3 782 98

Now, for a perfect cylindrical bore, stopped at one end, there’s a formula for the resonant frequencies as a function of length. Loosely it’s f = v/4L, where v is the speed of sound and L is the tube length. But there are complications. Actually it’s not L in the formula but L_{eff}, the effective length, which is about equal to L+0.6r; here r is the radius of the bore. For 3/4″ PVC the bore diameter is 0.713″, but there’s another complication: we don’t exactly have a cylinder here, because there’s a mouthpiece on one end. So L_{eff} = L+0.6r + L_{eff}^M, where L_{eff}^M is the effective length of the mouthpiece — and there’s no formula for that. It has to be measured.

I didn’t check the temperature in the basement where I was working but it was probably around 16°C, and at that temperature v is about 340.7 m/s. Using the length and frequency for each combination of tubes, solving for L_{eff}^M gives values from 67 to 82 mm. Not very high precision, but there you are.

But we don’t need to use the book value for the speed of sound; we can measure it! The spreadsheet software I’m using can do a least squares fit of the data, the result of which is v = 333.0 m/s — roughly 2% below the book number — and L_{eff}^M = 61 mm. It certainly was not below 5°C in the basement, so that v is too low, and presumably so is L_{eff}^M. Is this just due to experimental errors? I don’t know. None of the points looks like an outlier. It really seems like the slope is 2% too low. Odd. Maybe an effect of the non-cylindrical mouthpiece?

I got out my bass clarinet mouthpiece, too, and found it would slip loosely over the tubing, but then the bore taper inside the mouthpiece gave a good enough seal that I could play notes with that, too. I figured I’d try to determine L_{eff}^M for that mouthpiece as well. It gave slightly higher frequencies, implying a slightly smaller L_{eff}^M, closer to 60 mm (using the book value for the speed of sound), but only using the shortest tube combinations. For the longer ones I get L_{eff}^M closer to 70 mm again. Or  if I use the least squares method, I get a really low value for the speed of sound, and L_{eff}^M = 47 mm. Ridiculous. Again, I don’t know why, but given how fat the bass clarinet mouthpiece is, the idea that there’s a mouthpiece effect being ignored here would seem to be strengthened.

Still, good enough for the moment. Fairly cool that you can measure the speed of sound even at this level of accuracy just by blowing notes on a tube.

CPVC. The C stands for clarinet, or chalumeau… (part 1)

A video by Linsey Pollak went somewhat viral a few years back. If you’re not responsible for one of the just under 2 million views to date, watch as he takes an ordinary carrot, drills some holes in it, sticks an alto sax mouthpiece in the end, and plays a better solo than some clarinetists could manage with a $6000 Buffet Prestige R13.

Yeah, it’s a clarinet — in the general sense of a single reed wind instrument with a cylindrical bore. Or probably a better term for it would be chalumeau. That refers to a single reed wind instrument with a cylindrical bore that is played only, or predominantly, in the lower register. Chalumeaux were popular in classical music in the early part of the 18th century, and they slightly preceded the first clarinets, which were made to be played only, or predominantly, in the second register. Getting the two registers in tune with each other was the problem. Eventually that was solved, and instruments — still called clarinets — capable of being used in both registers gradually supplanted the single-register clarinets and chalumeaux. (But clarinetists still call the lower register the chalumeau register sometimes.)

(Here’s an 18th century chalumeau, photo by René Oswald:)Chalumeau_2Klappen

Pollak’s carrot is played only in the low register, presumably for at least three reasons. One, the upper register is probably woefully out of tune with the lower. Two, to overblow into the upper register you need a register hole with associated key, which isn’t present on the carrot. And three, since a stopped cylindrical tube such as a clarinet overblows at the twelfth (rather than the octave, like flutes, oboes, bassoons, and saxophones), there’s a gap between the two registers unless there are enough holes and keys to provide a full twelfth’s worth of scale. And if there are no keys, you’re limited to about eight holes or so, giving you only about an octave plus a note of scale.

But he calls it a clarinet, and my spelling checker complains about “chalumeaux”, so okay, whatever.

So like I said, that video went viral some years ago and I provided a few of those 2 million views. I recall also watching this one in which Linsey Pollak, Ric Halstead, Brendan Hook play a trio on clarinets made out of bicycle seats.

I’ve never made a clarinet out of a carrot, or a bicycle seat, but just under ten years ago — back in my LiveJournal days — I made one out of PVC tubing. And it wasn’t entirely awful — I even used it in a recording. Next I tried making a Bohlen-Pierce clarinet, the first attempt at which was not very satisfactory. And I started experimenting with making a contra-alto chalumeau. The old chalumeaux (oh shut up, spelling checker) came in a family of sizes — soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, and there may have been a contrabass corresponding approximately to the bassoon in its range. The problem with making low pitched woodwind instruments in those days was figuring out a way to have holes that give the proper notes without having them so far apart your fingers can’t reach them. By the mid 19th century that was no problem, because key and pad technology had advanced to the point where it was feasible to put the holes where they worked best acoustically and provide keys to open and close them with a finger that didn’t need to be anywhere near the hole. But before that other approaches were tried, including this remarkable one by Papalini which bends the bore back and forth to bring the tone holes close enough together for the fingers to reach them. I had an idea to build something similar, out of CPVC tubing and fittings (lots of elbows); no keys, though, so it’d be a chalumeau, and I convinced myself a bass clarinet range instrument (which would be lower than a bass chalumeau) wouldn’t be feasible but a contra-alto clarinet range instrument might. I did some messing around in my shop in the garage until the weather got too cold, and never got back to the project (or the BP clarinet) again. I think the CPVC fittings I was using are around here somewhere, but who knows where.

And then the other day I discovered, about five years after the fact, that Linsey Pollak had made an instrument much like that! It’s apparently more like contrabass clarinet range, and instead of CPVC he used flexible tubing wrapped around a cylinder. He calls it Mr Curly and he plays it here.

On top of that he has a book available called Make Your Own Mr Curly & Other ClarinetsNaturally I bought a copy, as well as his music album Mrs Curly and the Norwegian Smoking Pipe

And I went and bought some more CPVC fittings…

.@Anagramatron classics V

More from Anagramatron:

  • I’m done with this sewer rat = She’s irritated with me now
  • There’s two things I can do = That’s the wrong decision
  • Why is there a flamingo = Are they filming a show
  • We’re all a nerd of something = I see the world from an angle
  • I’m not ready to walk outside = Take your time and do it slow

Comics. Of some kind.

Hmm, some comics developments. Web and otherwise. It’s been less than six months but it seems time for an update (also need to kick this blog to keep it breathing). Changes in comics I was following last August:

  • Atomic Robo, by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener. Big news: flying in the face of the web-to-print comics trend, this one’s going from print to web. All nine print volumes are being posted now, and once they’re up, they’ll start with the new stories, online and free!
  • Cleopatra in Spaaaace! by Mike Maihack. Book 2 is available for preorder.
  • The Creepy Casefiles of Margo Maloo, by Drew Weing. No updates since November, despite promises.
  • The Dreadful, by Matt Speroni. I’ve finally given up on this one. Speroni keeps throwing in more and more new characters (and shuffling old ones offstage), new monsters, new hints to an underlying plot that’s never really materialized, and the result just seems to meander without building anything. It’s a shame. Had he taken the interesting concept he started with, and the handful of good characters introduced in the first couple of chapters, and proceeded to tell a story with just those characters whose arc could be contained in half a dozen chapters or so, focused on the titular gun, it could’ve been a fine start to an ongoing comic. And then the other ideas he’s brought in could have seeded another half dozen more stories… if he’d stuck with them and developed them before jumping on to something else. I kept reading for far too long, I guess, hoping against hope the initial high promise would eventually be paid off, but no.
  • Dresden Codak, by Aaron Diaz. Still good. Updating much more frequently these days, partly I guess because of Patreon funding. Which is a good thing; I just found out we’re only about 1/3 of the way through the “Dark Science” story and at the rate he was going, it would’ve taken until about 2030 to finish.
  • Drive, by Dave Kellett. Also updating more regularly the past few weeks, also apparently due to Patreon. Let’s see if he sustains it…
  • Girls with Slingshots, by Danielle Corsetto. Sadly going to end in the near future.
  • The Non-Adventures of Wonderella, by Justin Pierce. On hiatus. Supposedly will be back someday.
  • Woo Hoo! by Molly “Jakface” Němeček and J.R. Boos. Another one that hasn’t updated since last year, with no word on when it’ll return.

Comics I was following last August and am still following now and not much more to say than that:

New on my plate:

  • Alice Grove, by Jeph Jacques. As if he wasn’t working hard enough putting out Questionable Content five days a week, now Jacques has a second, twice a week comic. Someone described it as Pratchett witch in a science fiction setting, and that seems apt so far. I look forward to seeing what happens.
  • Anna Galactic, by Christopher Baldwin. This one’s just getting started, and I mean just: Page 2 went up tonight. I enjoyed his Spacetrawler but his next project, One Way, didn’t engage my interest. So far I like the tone of this one better, but obviously it’s too soon to be sure I’ll want to read it; I’m giving it a try though.
  • Back, by Anthony Clark and KC Green. A rather weird story about a zombie cowgirl. Just started up recently. Following with interest.
  • It’s Walky!, by David M. Willis. One of Willis’s previous comics, now being re-posted one strip per day. Science fiction mayhem. His skills have gotten better since he did this, but I’m enjoying it enough, thanks.
  • Iverly, by Jeffrey J. Rowland. All about the animals, and the lizard men, who live inside the hollow Earth. Got off to a good start, then abruptly ceased updates a few weeks ago and the site says: “IVERLY WILL BE BACK! JEFFREY JUST HAS TO FIGURE OUT WHERE IT’S GOING FIRST”. Hmm.
  • Ms Marvel, written by G. Willow Wilson. I don’t follow superhero comics. I follow Ms Marvel. I subscribe to Ms Marvel. Pretty bold of Marvel to give us an Islamic-American teenager as a superhero, and Wilson does a superb job writing her.
  • Sufficiently Remarkable, by Maki Naro. Updates twice a week, so hasn’t built up too massive an archive since its start in late 2013. A comic comic about a young artist in New York City. Certainly quite different from Girls With Slingshots (via whose author I learned about it) but might do as a replacement nonethess.
  • Yontengu, by Christopher Baldwin and Don Ahé. Another new Baldwin project, though not as new as Anna Galactic. Science fiction tale of two species at war, except in a place where they’re not. Not sure yet whether I’ll go the distance with it.

Not really in any of the above categories:

  • The Meek, by Der-shing Helmer. I was following this one back in 2012 until it went on indefinite hiatus. I figured it was dead until recently word came along it is supposed to resume this summer. Meanwhile Helmer’s doing what apparently is a short duration science fiction comic called Mare Internum. Once burned, twice shy: I’ll wait until that one’s over before I get into reading it, and then I’ll see about following The Meek again. I hope to, I did enjoy it. Though it’s been so long, my memory of it’s kind of hazy, so I probably shouldn’t try to summarize it.

Universe Song, quantitatively evaluated

Something reminded me recently of the Universe Song from the 1983 Monty Python movie, The Meaning of Life. You’ve seen that clip, right?

It’s a funny song and a funny sketch. It also is, unlike certain science fiction TV shows, reasonably accurate with its facts and numbers. You quite literally could use nothing but your knowledge of this song to stand a good chance of passing an Astronomy 101 final exam. Shall we fact check?

… a planet that’s evolving
And revolving at nine hundred miles an hour,

Not only is Earth evolving — it’s still cooling, for one thing, and the continents are drifting around, and the magnetic field flips every once in a while — but it is rotating (“revolving” refers to its motion around the Sun, but I quibble), and while one usually uses angular velocity measures such as radians per second or hours per revolution or something, one certainly can observe that the Earth’s circumference at the Equator is 24,873.6 miles (source) and that relative to the fixed stars, Earth rotates once in 23.934 hours (same source). So the speed at which Earth’s surface moves at the equator is 1039 miles per hour. The song’s value is low by 13%. Not too shabby, though “a thousand miles an hour” would have scanned just as well and been more accurate.

That’s orbiting at nineteen miles a second, so it’s reckoned,

Likewise, Earth’s orbital circumference and sidereal revolution period are 584,019,311 miles and 365.26 days, for an orbital speed of 18.51 miles per second. Song is high by a mere 2.7%.

A sun that is the source of all our power.

Not quite true but close. Solar power comes from the Sun, of course; wind power comes from air circulation driven by the Sun (and Earth’s rotation); water power comes from water flowing downhill after solar evaporation lifted it up; fossil fuels come from ancient life that either photosynthesized using sunlight or fed on life that did. Nuclear and geothermal energy, though, does not have a solar origin. Not our Sun, anyway.

The sun and you and me and all the stars that we can see
Are moving at a million miles a day

The Solar System is about 28,000 light years from the center of the Milky Way, and it revolves around that center once in about 230 million years (source).  Doing the math, that comes out to 12.3 million miles per day.

But the song apparently isn’t referring to that speed, but the slower speed with which the Solar System is moving toward Lambda Herculis, in a reference frame in which the other stars are, on average, not moving: about 12 miles per second (source). In other units, that’s 1.0 million miles per day — exactly (to within stated accuracies) what the song says.

But the previous line’s wrong: that’s the Sun’s speed relative to the other stars, not the speed of “all the stars that we can see” relative to… something. Well, they’re moving a million miles a day relative to us, but that’s stretching the interpretation.

In an outer spiral arm, at forty thousand miles an hour,

I’d prefer to say “the outer part of a spiral arm”, but yes. And that’s just the same speed again in different units; 12 miles per second is 43,200 miles per hour. The song’s value is 7% lower.

Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars.

That’s the right order of magnitude (source). I’ve seen 200 to 400 billion claimed (source). Large uncertainties here due to the number of dwarf stars which are hard to detect.

It’s a hundred thousand light years side to side.

Also about right (source).

It bulges in the middle, sixteen thousand light years thick,
But out by us, it’s just three thousand light years wide.

And also the right order of magnitude, with this source giving about 10,000 light years for the thickness of the central bulge and 1000 light years for the main disk. There’s considerable uncertainty in these numbers — the Milky Way is harder to view than many other galaxies, because we’re in it and dust obscures a lot of it.

We’re thirty thousand light years from galactic central point.
We go ’round every two hundred million years,

We’ve covered those numbers already, quoting 28,000 light years and 230 million years. So they’re correct to within about 15%.

And our galaxy is only one of millions of billions

Another number that’s hard to estimate, but one source quotes 100 to 200 billion galaxies in the observable universe. “Millions of billions” is a whopper of an overestimate… except that the observable universe is likely only a small fraction of everything there is, the size of which we have no way to estimate with any precision, and it may well be infinite, in which case this is a whopper of an underestimate.

The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding

Well, yes.

As fast as it can go, at the speed of light, you know,

Well, no. Relative expansion velocities depend on distance and can be less or more than the speed of light. But the bounds of the observable Universe are governed by the speed of light: it’s the region in which light has had enough time to reach our eyes.

Twelve million miles a minute, and that’s the fastest speed there is.

It’s the fastest speed at which a particle or signal can propagate through space (according to present understanding); space itself, as I alluded to above, can expand faster. The speed of light in vacuum is defined to be exactly 299,792,458 m/s (source) (or in other words, the meter is defined to be 1/299,792,458 the distance light travels in a vacuum in a second). In other units, that’s 11,176,943.8 miles per minute. The song’s value is 7.4% too high. But “eleven million” wouldn’t have scanned.

And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space,
‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth.

This is correct (source).


.@Anagramatron classics IV

More from Anagramatron:

  • I’m going to be honest because I can = Me being so nice is about to change
  • Another math genius = He ain’t smart enough
  • I want to be an only child @santa = Wasn’t it only Cain and Abel tho?
  • Walked in the guys’ restroom = The drugs only make it worse
  • Again for the third time = I’m tired of hearing that


or, Wallpaper paste must be good for something

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