Life according to Marks

An email from Marks & Spencer on 4 May 2017 said: “Life’s short. Let’s spend it well. Life’s too short for hesitations.” I wanted to argue; but they were right on one point . . .

If life is so short, what’s the best way to spend it?
Has shopping in Marks got a lot to commend it?
Should we take up the company’s kind invitation
To buy all we want, without hesitation?

No. Life isn’t ‘short’. From the time you begin it,
For day after day, you can cram a lot in it.
To spend your last hours in an M&S store
Would be wasting your time, and a terrible bore.

“Don’t wait for a special occasion,” they say,
“To dress up or eat well.” Well, I do, in my way.
And “Life is a special occasion”? Well, yes!
You’re spot on with that one, I’d say, M&S!

[Image: Wikimedia]
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Hic, hic . . .

Next time you’re afflicted with hiccups, try this. It worked for me.

If hiccups afflicts you and you can’t endure it,
Here is a quick way – perhaps– that will cure it:
Just squeeze your thumb hard*. You really should try it:
Your hiccups, you’ll find, will soon go quite quiet!

Such distraction, you see, puts your brain in a spin:
“Give priority to pain” is a trait that’s built-in.
“Stop multi-tasking, make this pain go away,”
Says the brain – and stops hiccupping. Hic, hic . . . hooray!

* Across the width of the nail, for a minute or so.

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Give it time

The laws formulated by Newton and Einstein imply that things can’t happen all at once. The quantities called ‘mass’ and ‘inertia’ are measures of a thing’s resistance to having its state of rest, or motion, changed. Stuff take time to happen. But supposing it didn’t . . .


Stuff cannot change location
When going from A to E
Without a smooth transition
Through b and c and d.

And we perceive this process:
“Time’s passing,” we declare.
We’re used to something taking
Time to get to here from there.

But if stuff had no inertia
And could miss out bcd,
Than everything would happen

“That cannot be,” says Einstein,
“You’d need an infinite force!
And nothing can go faster
Than the speed of light, of course.”

And life needs time to happen,
Or we’d be born and die
Without the time to say:
“Well, Hello, world. Goodbye”.

It seems we must be patient.
The message of this rhyme
Is this: to live a life at all,
You have to give it time.

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Romantic for some, but not for the trees it grows on.

The other day, I saw a show of parasitic mistletoe.
It sucks the juices from the wood, which does not do it any good.
Birds eat its seeds1, which go right through and stick on to a branch in poo,
Or get spat out (just for the thrill), or maybe wiped off from their bill.

Christmas picking does no good: once mistletoe’s invaded wood,
Its hypocotyls2 get a grip and add haustoria3 at their tip.
The poor host plant is out of luck: those darned haustoria can suck
Its nutrients; and, as you know, they’ll help the mistletoe to grow.

To rid a plant of mistletoe, all affected wood must go.
Or, if you like, it would be fine to harvest it at Christmas-time
And sell it – you can charge a lot. Say, “This is good for you-know-what:
Just hold it up above her head and soon the pair of you’ll be wed!

1. Actually, drupes, because each has a ‘stone’ inside; the actual seed is inside the ‘stone’. But no-one uses ‘drupes’ in ordinary conversation.
2. The part of the stem of an embryo plant beneath the stalks of the seed leaves (cotyledons) and directly above the root.
3. A haustorium is a special organ of parasitic plants, which invades host tissues and serves as the structural and physiological bridge that allows the parasites to withdraw water and nutrients from the conductive systems of living host plants.

[Image: Wikimedia Commons]
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Percy Verance

Sometimes, you just can’t get something to work. But here’s a fellow who might help:

If at first you don’t succeed,
Just send for Percy Verance.
Not once, not twice, but many times
Till he makes his appearance.

And when he does, then you will find
The thing you couldn’t do
Can now be done quite easily
’Cos Percy’s worked for you.

[Images: Davidson College; Tiverton Academy]
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Travelling light

In the 1990s, the Hipparcos satellite enabled scientists to use triangulation techniques to calculate the distance of the Pole Star, Polaris, from Earth. Their answer was 434 light-years (a light-year is a tad under 6 trillion miles). But in 2012, astronomer David Turner analysed the spectrum of its light and concluded that the star was ‘only’ 323 light-years away. Polaris fluctuates in brightness, however, and the Hipparcos team think that Turner might not have taken this adequately into account, using a higher value which would have made the star appear closer. Someone has set out to decide who’s right:

I am a light ray, and I’m well on my way
From Polaris towards your blue planet.
I have used the ‘straight’ lines that space-time defines
On my journey, since first I began it.

When shall I arrive? Well, I’d better contrive
To work out the timings involved:
I’m travelling at c1 on my trajectory –
But one problem still has to be solved.

I need your assistance to find out the distance
From Polaris to Earth: but oh dear!
It seems you’re not sure what it is any more,
And the error’s not  just a light-year.

The problem’s Polaris, for this sort of star is
The sort whose brightness keeps changing.
If you measure it wrong, it’ll not be too long
Till your sums will all need rearranging.

If Dave Turner’s correct, well then I’d expect
To arrive a whole century sooner.
But I trust Hipparcos2 to measure my star, ’cos
It’s been such a great cosmos-tuner:

It’s clocked the positions, with milliarcsec3 precisions
(And motions and parallaxes, too),
Of 60K-score of our galaxy’s store
Of stars (which leaves billions to do!)4

If Hipparcos is right, and the time of my flight
Is four-three-four years, it’ll show
That Dave Turner was wrong (as I guessed all along).
If you doubt it, ask me – I should know!

1 ‘c’ is the usual symbol for the speed of light in a vacuum, which is about 670,616,629 mph.
3 A very precise measure of angle: there are 3.6 billion milliarcseconds in just 1 degree!
4 Wikipedia reckons the estimated total number of stars in our Milky Way galaxy to be “between 200 and 400 billion”

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Probing Popo

Volcanic eruptions are notoriously unpredictable. But analysis of thin sections of crystals in lava from Mexico’s Popocatépetl has enabled researchers to probe the subterranean travels of magma as it flows from one chamber to another on its convoluted journey to the vent. It’s too late, though, to be of any help to the early inhabitants of nearby Tetimpa, who migrated to a new settlement further north, leaving remains that were found by archaeologists nearly two millennia later.

Though Popocatépetl looks like a boiling kettle,
With steam escaping from its open spout,
You must be on your mettle, or Popocatépetl
Will do its level best to catch you out.

(Tetimpa’s folk knew well that it wasn’t wise to dwell
When old Popo was about to blow his top:
For they had learned to tell when to stay or run like hell
And sacrifice to Popo their corn crop*.)

Now researchers are learning what keeps old Popo churning:
Using petrographic microscopes, they’ve found
That a greyer crystal section means a rapid, hot injection
Of magma hit a chamber underground;

And each crystal’s grey-scale banding provides some understanding
Of mineral diffusion rates, which show
How long the magma took (you can read it like a book!)
To travel through the labyrinth below.

Of course, diffusion stops when old Popo’s crater pops
And magma hits the cooler outside air–
That’s how you can assess how long (well, more or less)
The magma had remained entombed in there.

Some six and forty years is the answer, it appears*,
Which suggests eruptions here, my source reports,
Will not be quite as bad as what killed Young Pliny’s dad –
A ‘Plinian’ eruption – fame of sorts!

* See papers by Plunkett & Uruñuela, on Tetimpa, and Petroni et al, on timing pre-eruptive magmatic processes

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