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“I’m a little tea pot / Short and stout”*…

The original Utah teapot, currently on display at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.

The fascinating story of the “Utah teapot,” the ur-object in the development of computer graphics…

This unassuming object—the “Utah teapot,” as it’s affectionately known—has had an enormous influence on the history of computing, dating back to 1974, when computer scientist Martin Newell was a Ph.D. student at the University of Utah.

The U of U was a powerhouse of computer graphics research then, and Newell had some novel ideas for algorithms that could realistically display 3D shapes—rendering complex effects like shadows, reflective textures, or rotations that reveal obscured surfaces. But, to his chagrin, he struggled to find a digitized object worthy of his methods. Objects that were typically used for simulating reflections, like a chess pawn, a donut, and an urn, were too simple.

One day over tea, Newell told his wife Sandra that he needed more interesting models. Sandra suggested that he digitize the shapes of the tea service they were using, a simple Melitta set from a local department store. It was an auspicious choice: The curves, handle, lid, and spout of the teapot all conspired to make it an ideal object for graphical experiment. Unlike other objects, the teapot could, for instance, cast a shadow on itself in several places. Newell grabbed some graph paper and a pencil, and sketched it.

Back in his lab, he entered the sketched coordinates—called Bézier control points, first used in the design of automobile bodies—on a Tektronix storage tube, an early text and graphics computer terminal. The result was a lovely virtual teapot, more versatile (and probably cuter) than any 3D model to date.

The new model was particularly appealing to Newell’s colleague, Jim Blinn [of whom Ivan Sutherland, the head of the program at Utah and a computer graphics pioneer said, “There are about a dozen great computer graphics people and Jim Blinn is six of them”]. One day, demonstrating how his software could adjust an object’s height, Blinn flattened the teapot a bit, and decided he liked the look of that version better. The distinctive Utah teapot was born.

The computer model proved useful for Newell’s own research, featuring prominently in his next few publications. But he and Blinn also took the important step of sharing their model publicly. As it turned out, other researchers were also starved for interesting 3D models, and the digital teapot was exactly the experimental test bed they needed. At the same time, the shape was simple enough for Newell to input and for computers to process. (Rumor has it some researchers even had the data points memorized!) And unlike many household items, like furniture or fruit-in-a-bowl, the teapot’s simulated surface looked realistic without superimposing an artificial, textured pattern.

The teapot quickly became a beloved staple of the graphics community. Teapot after teapot graced the pages and covers of computer graphics journals.  “Anyone with a new idea about rendering and lighting would announce it by first trying it out on a teapot,” writes animator Tom Sito in Moving Innovation...

These days, the Utah teapot has achieved legendary status. It’s a built-in shape in many 3D graphics software packages used for testing, benchmarking, and demonstration. Graphics geeks like to sneak it into scenes and games as an in-joke, an homage to their countless hours of rendering teapots; hence its appearances in Windows, Toy Story, and The Simpsons

Over the past few years, the teapot has been 3D printed back into the physical world, both as a trinket and as actual china. Pixar even made its own music video in honor of the teapot, titled “This Teapot’s Made for Walking,” and a teapot wind-up toy as a promotion for its Renderman software.

Newell has jokingly lamented that, despite all his algorithmic innovations, he’ll be remembered primarily for “that damned teapot.” But as much as computer scientists try to prove their chops by inventing clever algorithms, test beds for experimentation often leave a bigger mark. Newell essentially designed the model organism of computer graphics: to graphics researchers as lab mice are to biologists.

For the rest of us the humble teapot serves as a reminder that, in the right hands, something simple can become an icon of creativity and hidden potential…

How a humble serving piece shaped a technological domain: “The Most Important Object In Computer Graphics History Is This Teapot,” from Jesse Dunietz (@jdunietz)

* from “I’m a Little Tea Pot,” a 1939 novelty song by George Harold Sanders and Clarence Z. Kelley


As we muse on models, we might send foundational birthday greetings to Michael Faraday; he was born on this date in 1791. One of the great experimental scientists of all time, Faraday made huge contributions to the study of electromagnetism and electrochemistry.

Although Faraday received little formal education, he was one of the most influential scientists in history. It was by his research on the magnetic field around a conductor carrying a direct current that Faraday established the basis for the concept of the electromagnetic field in physics. Faraday also established that magnetism could affect rays of light and that there was an underlying relationship between the two phenomena. He similarly discovered the principles of electromagnetic induction and diamagnetism, and the laws of electrolysis. His inventions of electromagnetic rotary devices formed the foundation of electric motor technology, and it was largely due to his efforts that electricity became practical for use in technology [including, of course, computing and computer graphics].

As a chemist, Faraday discovered benzene, investigated the clathrate hydrate of chlorine, invented an early form of the Bunsen burner and the system of oxidation numbers, and popularised terminology such as “anode“, “cathode“, “electrode” and “ion“. Faraday ultimately became the first and foremost Fullerian Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution, a lifetime position.

Faraday was an excellent experimentalist who conveyed his ideas in clear and simple language; his mathematical abilities, however, did not extend as far as trigonometry and were limited to the simplest algebra. James Clerk Maxwell took the work of Faraday and others and summarized it in a set of equations which is accepted as the basis of all modern theories of electromagnetic phenomena. On Faraday’s uses of lines of force, Maxwell wrote that they show Faraday “to have been in reality a mathematician of a very high order – one from whom the mathematicians of the future may derive valuable and fertile methods.”…

Albert Einstein kept a picture of Faraday on his study wall, alongside pictures of Arthur Schopenhauer and James Clerk Maxwell. Physicist Ernest Rutherford stated, “When we consider the magnitude and extent of his discoveries and their influence on the progress of science and of industry, there is no honour too great to pay to the memory of Faraday, one of the greatest scientific discoverers of all time.”



“In the landscape of extinction, precision is next to godliness”*…

There is a portion of the sky where no spacefarer wants to go. It causes Astronauts to see shooting stars in front of their eyes, sets off emergency sensors and renders satellites useless. This Bermuda Triangle of space isn’t just a cause for concern for our future of space exploration, it could be the sign of something far more deadly. This may herald an event that last happened 42,000 years ago, which wiped out our closest relative, the Neanderthals. Welcome to the terrifying world of the South Atlantic Anomaly.

In the 80s engineers noticed that most satellite errors happened over South America and the South Atlantic. These errors ranged from minor glitches, wiped data to full-blown crashed satellites. But they couldn’t quite pinpoint what was causing these troubling errors, they named this mysterious area the South Atlantic Anomaly (SAA).

We didn’t understand the dangers of this region for a long time. When the Hubble Space Telescope first turned on in 1990 they found that the computers kept crashing and data was corrupted almost every time it flew over the South Atlantic. Not wanting their billion-dollar telescope to crash to Earth, the engineers had no choice but to switch it off every time it passed over this deadly patch of sky, and still do today. Not ideal, but it saves the telescope from this mysteriously dangerous part of space.

So what makes the South Atlantic Anomaly so dangerous? It turns out it is all down to the Sun and a crack in Earths armour caused some very bizarre geophysics.

So what does struggling satellites means for us here on Earth? Well, quite a lot really. It could be a sign of something much more deadly, a geomagnetic reversal.

When we picture the Earth’s magnetic field we often think of it as unchanging. It is our eternal armour from deadly solar radiation as well as the guide for our sailors. Even some birds have evolved iron-rich cells in their eyes, enabling them to ‘see’ the magnetic field and navigate the globe. But the magnetic north pole hasn’t always been in the north.

The magnetic poles have flipped repeatedly over the millennia. The field weakens, disappears and then reappears in the opposite direction. We know this because iron-rich lava aligns to the magnetic field and then sets, so we can look at ancient rocks and see what direction magnetic north was when it formed.

We don’t have a complete understanding of how the magnetic field is generated and why it flips. We know that convection currents of iron-rich mantle create the field, but the interactions between these immense systems are complex and hidden from us. What’s more, there are no patterns to the past flipping events, so it is very hard to predict when one will happen.

But, models and simulations show that when the field gets weaker at the beginning of a magnetic flip, it seems to happen in a random area and then grows from there. The poles also start to drift quite dramatically and chaotically. This is worrying because not only does the South Atlantic Anomaly look like the weakening in a simulation, it is also growing, and the North pole is drifting further each year.

… So, it seems at least plausible that the South Atlantic Anomaly is the start of the next geomagnetic flip. If so, it could have enormous consequences for us!

The last time a flip happened was 42,000 years ago, but it was only a temporary event, and the poles returned to their previous locations, this is known as the Laschamps Excursion, and it lasted for about a thousand years. That meant Earth was without its essential protective shield for an awfully long time.

Now, 42,000 years ago is a significant time. This was when Neanderthals died out. We (Homo Sapiens) also started using caves, red ochre body paint, and the global craze of cave painting started. It was also when a lot of ice-age megafauna died out. All of which has been linked to the flipping of the poles during this period. This extinction event and Sapien revolution has been called the Adams Event (after Douglas Adams and the infamous 42).  

This theory suggests that when the poles flipped, the Earth had a thousand years without its protective layer, so the planet was bombarded with radiation. This depleted ozone, increased radiation on the surface, messed with weather patterns and caused abrupt climate change.

Scientist even suggests that this is why we suddenly took to living in caves and using red ochre. We had to hide from the deadly rays of the Sun, and if we ventured out, we needed a powerful suncream, like powdered red ochre. This is why red ochre hand paintings became so widespread around this time.

But these immense changes hit one species particularly hard. Neanderthals were likely red-headed, light-skinned and mostly dwelt in steppes (grassy plains) and woodlands. They probably got sunburnt a lot. Unlike Homo Sapiens, it seems as though Neanderthals didn’t use red ochre much at all! All of this means that cancers would have been a deadly problem for them.

To make all this even worse, the radiation increased the strength of electrical storms, changed the weather patterns and screwed up many ecosystems. So the food that the Neanderthals hunted my have been driven away or gone extinct. It seems Neanderthals died out because they starved to death while being baked by the Sun. Meanwhile, we Homo Sapiens hid from the Sun, used weird sunscreen and adapted to new foods…

These flipping events take hundreds or thousands of years to pass due to the amount of heavy magma that needs to shift to cause a flip (however it is hypothesised it could take as little as a month in extreme circumstances). So we aren’t in any danger of waking up to a new direction for North. But, over the next few decades or hundreds of years, we will see the South Atlantic Anomaly grow and potentially be joined by many other areas of weak magnetism. We may even see some local flips in a few hundred years.

So, it seems at least plausible that the South Atlantic Anomaly is the start of the next geomagnetic flip. If so, it could have enormous consequences for us!

The South Atlantic Anomaly: Earth’s deadly weakness: “Do Failing Satellites Foretell An Imminent Extinction?” From Will Lockett (@welockett).

* Samuel Beckett


As we search for true north, we might send charged birthday greetings to a man whose life work could be at risk if there’s a flip (or an intense solar storm), Elihu Thomson; he was born on this date in 1853. An engineer and inventor, he was instrumental in developing the practical applications of electricity, especially alternating current. He invented electric welding and other important advances in electric lighting and power (among his lifetime total of about 700 patents). Thomson was also a cofounder of the General Electric Company (in 1892, in a merger of his Thomson-Houston Electric Company with the Edison Company.


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