They Saved Hitler’s Hair

I very much want to ask Timothy W. Ryback what he did with the hair he found in the Library of Congress basement:

In the spring of 2001, when I first opened Osborn’s Berlin in the subdued atmosphere of the Rare Book Reading Room, with the muffled sounds of midday traffic, I discovered, tucked in the crease between pages 160 and 161, a wiry inch-long black hair that appears to be from a moustache  An extension of the Benjamanian conceit–the collector preserved within his books, literally.

I have not yet finished Hitler’s Private Library, and it may be that, by the end of it, I will learn the fate of What Might Be Hitler’s Hair, but somehow I rather doubt it.  Rybeck, a skilled humanities scholar whose talents are evident throughout the book, clearly understands the historical gravitas of discovering the hair, but so far gives no indication of having understood that the hair is more than just a symbol or a curiosity, but, like the book that contained it and the library to which that book belongs, an interesting opportunity for further historical scholarship.

Although there have certainly been dubious claims before, Rybeck seems to have at least an outside chance of having discovered an authentic sample of Adolf Hitler’s DNA.  If genuine, the hair would be over 60 years old, but preserved, like the book that contained it, in a dry temperature-controlled environment for all that time.  Does it have an attached follicle, one wonders?  If genetic material can be recovered from the hair, the resulting analysis might provide strong evidence about whether it truly belonged to “Mr. H” himself.  And if the markers are right, there is no telling what else we might learn, including, perhaps, a more authoritative answer to the question—presently hypothesized from saliva samples of a set of Hitler’s surviving relatives—of Hitler’s Jewish ancestry.

DIY projector paint test results

My DIY projector paint experimental test surfaces, labelled.

DIY glass bead screen test surfaces. All ratios are volumetric 80 grit glass sandblasting medium:liquid carrier. Left board carrier is flat white interior latex paint. Middle board carrier is clear satin latex glaze. Right board has no carrier per se. Left two boards are 3-ply cardboard painted with two coats flat white latex paint. Right board is unpainted white melamine shelf section.

Movie theater and other high quality screens are often surfaced with tiny glass beads to provide high “screen gain,” which is a measure of the screen’s reflectivity versus a reference surface. It occurred to me it might be possible to DIY this effect using 80-grit glass bead sandblasting media from Harbor Freight. I bought 25 lbs and ran some tests.

The title image shows my twenty-three test samples against a blank white projected screen. The unlabeled white image, as well as red, green, and blue screens, are available in the gallery at the bottom of this post.

  1. Bare 3-ply cardboard. Same material used for middle board.
  2. 1 coat white paint, unsanded.
  3. 1 coat white paint, sanded.
  4. 2 coats white paint, unsanded.
  5. 2 coats white paint, sanded.
  6. 1:15 beads:paint, unsanded.
  7. 1:15 beads:paint,  sanded.
  8. 1:7 beads:paint, unsanded.
  9. 1:7 beads:paint, sanded.
  10. 1:3 beads:paint, unsanded.
  11. 1:3 beads:paint, sanded.
  12. 1:2 beads:paint, unsanded.
  13. 1:2 beads:paint, sanded.
  14. 1:1 beads:paint, unsanded.
  15. 1:1 beads:paint, sanded.
  16. Beads sprinkled over 2nd coat wet paint, excess blown off when paint dry.
  17. Beads sprinkled over 2nd coat wet paint, excess blown and brushed off when paint dry.
  18. 1:7 beads:glaze.
  19. 1:5 beads:glaze.
  20. 1:3 beads:glaze.
  21. 1:2 beads:glaze.
  22. 1:1 beads:glaze.
  23. White melamine shelf section, sprayed with  adhesive, sprinkled with beads, blown and brushed off when adhesive dry.

Bead/carrier mixtures were prepared (volumetrically) in disposable plastic cups and stirred for 1 minute each with a popsicle stick before application.  Sanding was performed with a wooden block covered in 100 grit dry-use garnet abrasive paper.  All carriers and bead/carrier mixtures were applied with 1″ disposable foam brushes.  A fresh cup, brush, and stirrer was used for each mixture.  Paint was “Kilz Casual Colors Ultra Bright White Flat,” clear glaze was “Valspar Signature Colors Clear Faux Protector Satin,” and spray adhesive was “3M Super77.”

My first concept, represented by the board to left, was to apply various mixtures of glass beads in common white interior latex paint, and then expose the embedded beads if necessary, by sanding.  I prepared one too many cardboard blanks and, as an afterthought, decided I would see how well the process worked if I just sprinkled beads onto the wet paint instead of mixing them in beforehand.  As a trained scientist, I should know better than to be surprised by the serendipitous results this method gave.  As is evident, the bead/white paint mixtures show little if any increase in screen gain with increasing bead content, and little if any improvement over plain white paint, whether they are sanded or not.

However, the sprinkled-on beads of sample Q show a dramatic screen gain over all other samples.  When the paint under the sprinkled-on beads was dry, the completely loose beads were easily removed by inversion of the surface, blowing, and light tapping.  The beads that remained were not well fixed to the surface, but would not fall or blow off, either.  Very light rubbing with the sanding block (or with a fingertip, as evident in sample P), was enough to remove these lightly-persistent beads and expose a thin layer of tightly-bound glass beads with the texture of sandpaper.    This was the most effective surface I tested.

The middle board represents my attempt to achieve the effect of surface Q without the “sprinkling” contrivance.  A clear liquid carrier was used this time.  These samples R-V do show some noticeable screen gain over the opaque-carrier samples to left, but still do not really compare to sample Q.  My tentative conclusion was that a thin “monolayer” of beads over a white surface is required for the high-gain effect, and sample W represents my attempt to test that hypothesis.

However, even though the spray adhesive is translucent and the underlying surface is bright white, the screen gain seen in sample W is still noticeably lacking compared to Q.  My best hypothesis, at this point, is that a monolayer of glass beads each partially embedded in a white reflective medium is crucial to achieving the high-gain effect:  Light enters each approximately-spherical bead from the viewing direction, and because the back of the bead is surrounded by a reflective white medium, bounces around and is reflected back out towards the viewer.  In the absence of the reflective white medium surrounding the back half of each sphere, light from the viewing direction can exit the back of the bead and be trapped behind it.

A slightly disappointing result, because I was hoping to achieve a single formulation that could be painted directly on the wall.  Still, a method in which an inexpensive, lightweight screen (perhaps masonite) is laid horizontally on a plastic drop cloth, painted white, and sprinkled with glass sandblasting medium while the paint is still wet, would probably work.  The plastic drop cloth would allow collection and recovery of the loose glass beads recovered after the paint dried, and the resulting screen could be mounted on the wall easily enough, and would cost very little compared to commercial screens with comparable gain.

Maybe older really is wiser

I have long been terrified by age-related mental decline. Biology uses the word “senescence” to describe the aging of an organism after it has reached its adult form, and among scientists, the general consensus seems to be that this type of aging is simply a defect in the system. As a person who was, at the very least, rigorously trained as a scientist, I have tended to take that view by default and believe that the usual popular banter about the alleged benefits of aging—that one acquires “wisdom,” or “perspective,” or “maturity,” or what-have-you—is just so much cloud-lining.

But even at the relatively young age of 35, I can’t really lie to myself about the naked empirical facts: I do not remember names, dates, or places as well as I used to. I make spelling errors that I would not have made a decade ago, and I find it noticeably harder to do complex mathematical reasoning than I did at 25. I am more prone to distraction, and my propositional memory seems to be falling off just a bit—the ubiquitous why-the-hell-did-I-come-in-this-room syndrome is becoming more commonplace (although, in fairness, I remember doing that as early as 12 or 13).

But a happy thought occurred to me, today: While I can’t deny that my daily problem-solving abilities have probably declined, slightly, who says daily problem-solving is really what’s important in a deep, philosophical sense? Maybe there is such a thing as wisdom, and maybe what I perceive as a decline in horsepower is really my brain adopting a deeper perspective: Those things that you once thought were so important are not, really. Look deeper.