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Matt: My solar-powered calculator. How long will it last? Is it a perpetual-motion machine that will go on calculating into the next millennium? Does it have any parts that will die off like any ordinary battery-powered calculator? — Luvthesun, via email

Unfortunately, the sun giveth, the sun taketh away. As usual. Just when you think you’ve got the final solution, something appears to screw things up. It’s a safe bet that your calculator contains amorphous silicon in its collector-converter strips. Cheap to produce, easy to work with, good solar collector, perfect for consumer products and some larger devices.

Photovoltaic cells generate an electrical current by sandwiching two differently treated strips of silicon around a middle strip. UV rays enter the device, and atoms in the strips whiz around and swap electrons left and right. Any unswapped electrons end up in a stream between the strips and thus become an electrical current. Scientists have tweaked the strips to maximize the free electrons available for current so the photovoltaic cell can produce more power. Amorphous silicon (non-crystalline silicon, atoms unanchored by a crystal structure) has built-in electron imbalances and so is a perfect calculator candidate.

One good feature of amorphous silicon is also its downfall: efficient absorption of UV rays — evil UV that wrinkles our skin, fades our rugs, and slowly degrades the inner workings of our solar calculators. Scientists are busy looking for the ultimate cause and cure for the problem. But in the meantime, consider that the same UV will more rapidly degrade the plastic, wiring, and electrical connections in your calculator, so in the long run you will probably end up with a grainy pile of electrotrash surrounding a still-operating photovoltaic cell. Some estimates of the life expectancy of a calculator cell range from 10 to 20 years. No question that in the meantime you will have lost your calculator, had it stolen, dropped it on concrete, or thrown it out in favor of some more sparkly model, making solar cell life a moot point. On the other hand, you might consider making provisions for it in your will.

Whazzup, Matt? I have a question for your word nerds. What is the difference between being a killer, murderer, and an assassin? Is it the number of people you cause to die, the notarioty [sic] of the victim[s], or the method you use to cause death? By association, how wealthy, famous, or politically connected do you have to be to be assassinated instead of murdered or just plain killed? After all, I don’t recall a headline about teens being assassinated in a gang-related drive-by. So, what gives? — Thom Hogan, Just Curious, Not a Killer

Death has many fine points, apparently. The nerd squad flipped through their various dictionaries and came up with this: A killer is someone or something that deprives someone or something of life. A cat kills a mouse. A heavy rain kills plants. A man kills another man. Pretty straightforward stuff. One comprehensive definition says, “To deprive of life, animal or vegetable, in any manner by any means.” A murderer, on the other hand, falls into the realm of legalese. Dictionary consensus calls murder the crime of the unlawful killing of one person by another. It’s a crime, not a simple deprivation of life. So, you can’t say the cat murdered the mouse unless maybe you’re a mouse fanatic and want to make some point about the viciousness of house cats.

An assassin? Much more complicated. Hard to put together a comprehensive definition, but most say to assassinate is to murder, especially a prominent person, by sudden or secret attack, often for political reasons — or ideological, military, financial, revenge, recognition, or mental illness. But how big a big shot do you have to be to be prominent? The dictionaries are silent. Could it be the town mayor? The town drunk? Britney Spears? Dev Patel? And if we have to tell you that Dev Patel is the hero in Slumdog Millionaire, is he really that prominent? If Mom and Dad tell the kids that there’s no Santa Claus, is that ideological assassination? Santa sure beats Dev Patel in the prominence department. You go figure.

Slippery Slopes

Several weeks ago, Mark of Carlsbad sent in some question about rain measurements and rain gauges. We put together our usual half-witted answer couched in believable prose, and we got it past everybody but Oceanside Joe. He immediately wrote in to remind us that the higher level of water in his wheelbarrow is due to the barrow’s sloping sides. The narrower bottom squeezes the rainwater up. So, the barrow stats aren’t comparable to official straight-sided rain-gauge stats. I believe I was heading for that explanation before the elves distracted me with a squirt-gun fight and everything fell apart. So, if you’re thinking of using that old mismatched martini glass as a makeshift rain gauge, ixnay, eeplepay. Of course, if we never again have any rain, it won’t make much difference, will it?

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John Mann Oct. 5, 2009 @ 6:52 a.m.

Matt:

Note the following article about an issue to be considered soon by the U.S. Supreme Court. Seems identical to San Diego's Mount Soledad issue. Will the Supreme Court's decision obtain to Soledad?

John Mann

Salazar v. Buono

At issue: Whether the government can permit the display of a crucifix on public land as per the Establishment Clause.

An 8-ft.-tall crucifix has stood on an outcrop called Sunrise Rock on the Mojave National Preserve since 1934, but in one of the court's earliest arguments of the term, the Justices will be asked to consider whether it should be removed. The battle has been brewing for a while - the cross, erected without government approval, was slated for removal by the U.S. National Park Service after a request from Buddhists to create their own memorial near the site was denied. But in 2000, Congress hastily passed a law prohibiting the use of public funds to remove the cross, in essence tying the National Park Service's hands. Congress declared the cross a National Memorial in 2002, and in 2003 it gave the small parcel of land to the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) - the group that constructed the original cross. (See TIME's photo-essay "Sonia Sotomayor, the Making of a Judge.")

The removal of the cross brings up the Establishment Clause, that long-debated line separating church and state that takes its name from the First Amendment (which begins, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion"). This case has been in the court system since early 2000, before Congress's involvement. The National Park Service's attempt to transfer the land to the VFW, per the 2003 congressional order, has been viewed by the lower courts as an illegal way of circumventing repeated rulings compelling it to remove the cross. (Once the land is considered private property, the Establishment Clause no longer applies.) The Supreme Court will be asked to sort out the issue - and ownership of Sunrise Rock - once and for all.

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Matthew_Alice Oct. 6, 2009 @ 1:10 p.m.

Need to check with the Legal Eagles wing of Alice HQ for this one. The Mojave NP story certainly sounds familiar. My guess -- Supreme Court decisions would apply country-wide. But as luck would have it, I'm not a lawyer.

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