Tag Archives: science

Stories from a Race Called Humans

by Shane L. Larson

On a forgotten autumn day long ago, I sat amidst hundreds of strangers in the far-away ballroom of a convention center in Oregon. I was younger than I am now, younger than most of those who were sitting around me. Yet somehow, I had been chosen. I had been waiting. I had rolled that singular moment of time around in my head, over and over again. Out of all the hundreds of hands in the air, mine was chosen, and I stood to ask a question.

My palms were sweaty, my heart raced. I took the microphone, and thankfully didn’t drop it. In those days, I had yet to ever speak in front of more than a small group of my friends in class, but here I was, and damnit I was going to ask my question!  Five hundred pairs of eyes stared right at me, and from the stage, the cool gaze of our guest, encouraging and expectant. I’m sure I squeaked; I must have squeaked. But out came my question: “What is the responsibility of science fiction to bring plausible visions of the future to us?

shatnerThe person I had directed my inquiry to was William Shatner, who had been regaling the crowd of Trekkers with tales of life in the Big Chair, and answering questions about how to properly act out a Star Trek Fight Scene, whether he really thought Kirk should have let the Gorn survive, and whether Spock ever just burst out laughing on set.  And then I stood up to ask my question.

What is the responsibility of science fiction to bring plausible visions of the future to us?

For all the ribbing that Shatner takes for being Shatner, I think he responded in a way that might surprise many people. He smiled, he didn’t laugh. He looked me straight in the eye and told me this: “Science fiction is like all art — it is a medium for telling stories about our humanity. Visions of the future are just stories about us.”  It was a brilliant and thoughtful answer, and I’ve always remembered it.

Now, many years later, I practice science.  I still watch a lot of Star Trek, and I absorb a lot of science fiction, and every time I reach the end of a novel or movie, I know Bill was right — the best stories are the ones that use the future as a backdrop to tell human stories.

lear

Larry Yando as the titular character in the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s 2014 production of King Lear.

That’s a very interesting thought when I drape it across the tapestry of art, literature, and theatre. All forms of art are explorations of what it means to be human, attempts to understand on a very deep level who we are. Just this past weekend, sitting in the darkened theatre of the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, I was bludgeoned by that simple fact once again watching King Lear. Though the story is set long ago, and though the language is not all together our own, we sat there enraptured. The tale is full of intrigue and betrayal, but at the core is the King. Watching the play reflected the dark pools of shadowed eyes, you could see an audience tearfully and painfully aware that the tragedy unfolding from the King’s descent into madness was an all too relevant tale for those of us who have suffered the loss of elderly friends and relatives to the ravages of age.  Our humanity was laid out, naked and bare on the stage, in a tale written more than 400 years ago. The core message is as relevant and pertinent today as it was when the Bard penned it those long centuries ago.

The exploration of the nature of the human spirit has long been the purview of all forms of art, especially performance. The whole point in acting out stories is to tell stories about people.  Even when the characters aren’t people, they still talk and act like people, anthropomorphized by their actions, their thoughts, and their words in the tapestry of story on the stage or screen.  And so I suppose it should not have surprised me that Shatner did not think of tales from the far future any differently — the stories are still stories about us. They still are stories about our triumphs, our tragedies, our frailties, and our fallacies.

But that younger version of myself carried a particular conceit — I wasn’t clear about it then, but I still harbor it today: I fundamentally believe that art and science have exactly the same purpose — to discover the stories of who we are, and what our place in the Cosmos is. The truth of this is hidden in every science book and every textbook you have ever picked up and thumbed through.  How?  Very seldom is science explained without the context, the wrapper, of the human story around it.

Newton witnessed the falling of an apple when visiting his mother's farm, inspiring him to think about gravity. It almost certain is apocryphal that it hit him on the head! But art gives the story a certain reality!

Newton witnessed the falling of an apple when visiting his mother’s farm, inspiring him to think about gravity. It is almost certainly apocryphal that it hit him on the head! But art gives the story a certain reality!

When we are first taught about the Universal Law of Gravitation, very seldom are you simply told the equation that relates mass and distance to gravitational force. Instead, we cast our minds back to a late summer day in the 17th Century. On a warm evening after dinner, Isaac Newton was sitting in his mother’s garden, on her farm in Lincolnshire and was witness to an ordinary event: an apple falling to the ground. A simple, ordinary event, part of a tree’s ever-repeating cycle of reproduction. But witnessing the event sparked a thought in Newton’s mind that ultimately blossomed into the first modern Law of Nature. The tale inspires a deep sense of awe in us. How many everyday events have we witnessed, but never taken the time to heed? How many secrets of Nature have passed us by, because we never connected the dots the Cosmos so patiently lays out before us?

Marie Curie in her laboratory.

Marie Curie in her laboratory.

When we first learn about the discovery of radioactivity, very seldom are we only told the mass of polonium and the half-life of uranium.  Instead, we relive the discovery of radioactive decay alongside Marie Curie, who unaware of the dangers of radiation, handled samples with her bare hands and carried test tubes full of the stuff around in her pockets. We know that she developed the first mobile x-ray units, used in World War I, a brilliant realization of mobile medical technology at the dawn of our modern age. But we also know that Curie perished from aplastic anemia, brought on by radiation exposure. Today, her notebooks and her belongings are still radioactive and unsafe to be around for long periods of time. Curie’s death is a tragic tale of how the road to discovery is fraught with unknown dangers. While we mourn her loss we celebrate also the wonder that our species has such brilliant minds as Marie Skłodowska-Curie, the only person ever to win TWO Nobel Prizes in different sciences (Chemistry and Physics)

Alexander Fleming in his lab.

Alexander Fleming in his lab.

When we learn about antibiotics, seldom do we begin in the lab with petri dishes full of agar. Instead, we are taught the value of serendipity through the tale of Alexander Fleming. In late September of 1928 he returned to the laboratory to find that he had accidentally left a bacterial culture plate uncovered and it had developed a mold growth. You can imagine a visceral emotional reaction — anger! Another days-long experiment ruined! By sheer carelessness! It happens to all of us every day when we burn a carefully prepared dinner, or break a favorite coffee mug, or accidentally drop a smartphone down an elevator shaft. But through the haze of aggravation, Fleming noticed something subtle and peculiar — there were no bacterial growths in the small halo around the mold. The mold, known as Penicillium rubens, could stop a bacteria in its tracks. That single moment of clarity launched the development of antibiotics, so crucial in modern medical care. What world would we inhabit today, if Fleming had thrown that petri dish away in disgust, without a second glance? Surely a tragedy of world-girdling proportions.

All of these stories illustrate a subtle but singular truth about our species: we are different from all the other lifeforms on our planet.  Not in sciencey ways — we have the same biochemical machinery as sunflowers, opossums and earthworms — but in less tangible abstract ways.  What separates us from all the other plants and animals is the way we respond to the neurological signals from our brains. Our brains are wired to do two interesting things: they imagine and they create. The truth is we don’t fully understand how our brains do these things, or why there is an apparent biological imperative to do either. But the result of those combined traits is an insatiable curiosity to know and understand ourselves and the world around us, and an uncontrollable urge to express what we discover.

Sometimes those expressions burst out of us in moments of creation that lead to lightbulbs, intermittent windshield wipers, kidney dialysis machines, and iPads. Sometimes those same expressions burst out of us in moments of creation that lead to Jean van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, or Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss, or Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapine Agile,” or Ridley Scott’s desolate future in “Blade Runner.”

(Top L) Jean van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait; (Top R) Rodin's The Kiss; (Bottom) The urban dystopia of the future in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner.

(Top L) Jean van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait; (Top R) Rodin’s The Kiss; (Bottom) The urban dystopia of the future in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

Art is like science. Imagination expressed through long hours of practice, many instances of trial and error, and moments of elation that punctuate the long drudgery of trying to create something new.  Science is like art. Trying to understand the world by constantly bringing some new creative approach to the lab bench in an attempt to do something no one else has ever done before.

Both science and art are acts of creation with one express goal: to tell our stories. Both require deep reservoirs of creativity. Both require vast amounts of imagination. Both require great risks to be taken. But in the end, the scientist/artist creates something new that changes who we are and how we fit into the world. And wrapped all around them are all-together human tales of the struggles encountered along the road to discovery.

It is not entirely the way we are taught to think about scientists and artists. Isaac Asimov famously noted this in his 1983 book Roving Mind: “How often people speak of art and science as though they were two entirely different things, with no interconnection. An artist is emotional, they think, and uses only his intuition; he sees all at once and has no need of reason. A scientist is cold, they think, and uses only his reason; he argues carefully step by step, and needs no imagination. That is all wrong. The true artist is quite rational as well as imaginative and knows what he is doing; if he does not, his art suffers. The true scientist is quite imaginative as well as rational, and sometimes leaps to solutions where reason can follow only slowly; if he does not, his science suffers.” An interesting thought to ruminate on the next time you are preparing DNA samples or soldering stained glass mosaics.

I have to go now. The crew of the Enterprise have some moments of humanity to show me. See you in an hour.

Advertisements

Days of Summer

by Shane L. Larson

As a father, I watch my daughter scoot off to summer camp with a vaguely unsettled sense of longing for those by-gone days of my youth. As grown-ups, we don’t go to “summer camp” any more. Instead, we sometimes have “vacation,” but vacation never has quite the same care-free, no-holds barred, reckless sense of fun, adventure and freedom that summer camp always had. There’s just too much of the trappings of being a grown-up tied up in “vacation.”  Too much “enjoying the morning paper by the pool” instead of “dodge-ball.”  Too much “eating a salad with this fancy dinner” instead of “let’s blow every last penny I have in this candy store.”  Too much “looking for the Museum of Historical Art” instead of “standing on our heads to find the Zowie Rock so our cabin wins the giant popsicle tonight!

kayak

But sometimes I find myself in a kayak on a still mountain lake, my phone forgotten (or dropped overboard), and nothing on my mind except that serene fugue state of thought that whispers, “if you keep paddling, there is no telling what’s on the other shore…

As a scientist, I have the immense good fortune of doing something I love every day — probing the mysteries of the Cosmos, mentoring young (and old!) minds on their own voyages of self-discovery, and adding to the collective knowledge of our species. But a job as a scientist is still just like every job, and it has its share of interruptions and stresses. There is always another telecon to be on; there is always another deadline for book orders and class website requests; there is always a student who needs some career advice; there is always another midterm exam to write or grade; there is always another grant you should write a proposal for to support your next student on their path to knowledge. Like every job, there are good days and bad days, and many days that make you long for those by-gone days of summer camp!

aspenPhysics

This year I was able to spend three weeks in a workshop at the Aspen Center for Physics. Founded in 1962 by George Stranahan and Michael Cohen, the Aspen Center for Physics is located on a small, 3 building campus in Aspen, Colorado. It shares this idyllic setting with two other world-renowned intellectual organizations: the Aspen Institute, and the Aspen Music Festival and School. The idea of the Aspen Center for Physics is simple — bring scientists together, away from the demands of every day life, and give them freedom and opportunity to think and interact. Isolation combined with creative intellectual colleagues can and will spawn remarkable and ingenious moments of progress at the forefronts of science.

Let me tell you some tales about my few, short weeks at the Aspen Center for Physics.  If my third grade teacher (Mimi Martin) is out there reading this, you might call this my “What I Did This Summer” essay!

My office at the Aspen Center for Physics

My office at the Aspen Center for Physics

The Setting: The Aspen Center for Physics is set on a small campus with three buildings that are, for the most part, comprised entirely of offices for scientists, and small meeting “alcoves” where groups of us can gather to hash out mysteries and plot to win Nobel Prizes.  We share offices, kind of like when we were students, usually with a complete stranger, and often with someone who is not in our same discipline. This mixing of minds is an essential part of the Aspen Center for Physics’ recipe for success — exposure to new ideas and learning new things about other subjects always generates new and interesting approaches to science (I’ve written about that before).

The campus itself is pastoral and idyllic, replete with gathering spaces and benches conducive to quiet contemplation and speculation about the inner workings of the Cosmos. Again, the setting is purposeful — intended to produce an isolated and minimally distracting environment, free of the normal trappings of everyday life, in an effort to allow the mind the freedom to explore new ideas and discover new approaches to science.  All things being equal, it is a model that has succeeded admirably — over 10,000 physicists have visited the Aspen Center for Physics since its founding, including 52 Nobel Laureates. Over the years, more than 10,000 scientific publications have emerged as a result of time spent at the Center.

Campus of the Aspen Center for Physics.

Campus of the Aspen Center for Physics.

The Workshop: The workshop I came to the Center for was about “ultra-compact binary star systems.” That’s a mouthful — the kind of thing you like to tell your mother you work on because it sounds important. Whatever does it mean? Most stars you see in the sky, possibly as many as 50%, have a companion star that orbits them, like the planets orbit our Sun. We call these systems “binary stars.”

binarySystem

When stars reach the ends of their lives, they typically evolve into one of three different kinds of skeletons that mass as much as the Sun or more. These three stellar skeletons are called white dwarfs (something about the size of the Earth, made by low mass stars), neutron stars (something the size of a small city, made by medium mass stars), or a black hole (also about the size of a city, but made by much more massive stars).  Given the menu of stellar skeletons, you can imagine that long after binary stars are born, you can (and do!) end up with a binary made up of TWO stellar skeletons!

Evolutionary pathways from stellar life into the graveyard after stellar death. The three end states are white dwarfs, neutron stars, or white dwarfs, depending on the mass of the star in its life. [Image by NASA/CXC/M.Weiss]

Evolutionary pathways from stellar life into the graveyard after stellar death. The three end states are white dwarfs, neutron stars, or black holes, depending on the mass of the star in its life. [Image by NASA/CXC/M.Weiss]

Over time, the orbits of these skeletal star systems shrink smaller and smaller and smaller, until the stars are so close together they orbit at phenomenal speeds. For a pair of white dwarfs that orbit once every 15 minutes, they are separated by about half the Earth-Moon distance, and are travelling at a speed of 1 million meters per second (about 2.4 million miles per hour)!  These are “ultra-compact binary star systems.”

Ultra-compact binary systems have stellar mass objects, like two white dwarfs, orbiting in extremely small, short period orbits at extreme speeds.

Ultra-compact binary systems have stellar mass objects, like two white dwarfs, orbiting in extremely small, short period orbits at extreme speeds.

My office chalkboard after just a couple of days at the Aspen Center for Physics.

My office chalkboard after just a couple of days at the Aspen Center for Physics.

What Happens: We talk. A LOT. There are chalkboards all over the Center — in the offices, in the hallways, and outside on the patios.  There are always clusters of physicists around them — debating, deriving, teaching, learning. I know it sounds funny, but this is where a lot of science is born.

For instance, my graduate student and I have been working on a project where we need to know something about the number of neutron stars in the galaxy.  We need to know how many there might be, because we are thinking about an interesting way to observe them. If there aren’t very many neutron stars, we should abandon the idea, but if there are a lot of neutron stars, it could be important. I promised her that I would ask around at the workshop to see if anyone knew anything that could help us out.

(L to R) Me with my colleagues, Matt Benacquista and Melvyn Davies.

(L to R) Me with my colleagues, Matt Benacquista and Melvyn Davies.

So one day I was talking about this to my colleagues, Melvyn Davies (Lund University, Sweden) and Matt Benacquista (University of Texas-Brownsville) — they’re both experts in this sort of thing. They told me some very useful stuff, which I’ve passed on to my student. But at one point Melvyn asked me from how far away we could detect the gravitational waves from systems with a neutron star and a white dwarf together. I sketched out a quick calculation that suggested this was a very interesting idea to think about, and soon the three of us will publish a paper about how to study these systems with gravity, not light. It’s perhaps surprising that no one has thought about this before, but it’s a big Cosmos — there is a lot to think about! This is what the Aspen Center for Physics was designed to do — put scientists together, and let their brains roam free to make new discoveries.

And it’s not just at the Center that this stuff goes on. We are together all the time, which means we are always thinking and talking about science, usually intermixed with other enjoyable life activities.  We segue in and out of science and life the way you often segue in and out of sports and life or weather and life.  For instance, on any given evening if you are in Aspen, hanging out, eating dinner at the famous Hickory House, you might find us sitting next to you. You might be engaged in pleasant conversation about a nice hike you took earlier that day; we of course were hiking earlier that day too, but are still debating the question that occupied us on that hike, namely whether or not star systems with highly elliptical (oval shaped) orbits can be detected farther away in the Universe by LIGO than star systems with circular orbits.

When two stars orbit one another, the orbits can be perfect circles, or they can be elongated ellipses; we say these orbits are "eccentric."

When two stars orbit one another, the orbits can be perfect circles, or they can be elongated ellipses; we say these orbits are “eccentric.”

Fun and Games. While it is all science all the time, it’s not all high-brow esoteric research. Physicists, as a rule, love to talk about what they do, as most of you who have a physicist neighbor or relative know. The Aspen Center for Physics hosts a regular public lecture series, intended to explain for a popular audience what physics is all about, and why and how we do physics. This summer I had the good fortune to hear K.C. Huang from Stanford talk about the evolutionary life cycles of bacterial cells and colonies, and also a talk about the dark energy in the Universe from my colleague, Bob Kirshner of Harvard (Bob has written a very nice book on this topic).

Bob Kirshner (Harvard) during his 2014 Heinz Pagels Public Lecture about Dark Energy and the Accelerating Universe.

Bob Kirshner (Harvard) during his 2014 Heinz Pagels Public Lecture about Dark Energy and the Accelerating Universe.

I also got to put my public game on, when I was asked if I could do a half-hour chat at the “Physics for Kids” picnic, hosted by the Aspen Science Center at the Center for Physics. This was a crowd of about 20 or 30 9-10 year olds and their parents, so I decided to talk to them about energy, which is and will continue to be a crucial topic of conversation during their lives.  So we talked a bit about how scientists think about energy, and then I did three demonstrations. First, we made craters in a tray of flour, showing how the size of the crater depends on the energy of the impactor — the biggest crater was made with a hollow shell shot from a paint-ball gun.

Impact crater made by a paintball shell from a distance of about 1.5 meters. Typical speed for a paintball shell is about 90 m/s (~200 mph!). Crater size is about 7 cm across.

Impact crater made by a paintball shell from a distance of about 1.5 meters. Typical speed for a paintball shell is about 90 m/s (~200 mph!). Crater size is about 7 cm across. (Click to enlarge!)

Second, we showed how energy is stored and converted using the famous “Bowling Ball of Doom” demo. You mount a bowling ball to a long cable, then hold it against your chin. When you release it, the bowling ball swings out across the room, then comes right back at your head but stops at the precise point you released it! It really looks like it is going to smash you in your face, but that is an impossibility because that would require it to obtain some energy from nowhere.

First person views of the Bowling Ball of Doom Demo. (L) The bowling ball is initially held touching your chin. (C) After release, the bowling ball swings away, then right back at you! (R) If you tie a camera to the bowling ball, you see it is moving pretty fast (about 3.5 m/s, or 8 mph!).

First person views of the Bowling Ball of Doom Demo. (L) The bowling ball is initially held touching your chin. (C) After release, the bowling ball swings away, then right back at you! (R) If you tie a camera to the bowling ball, you see it is moving pretty fast (about 3.5 m/s, or 8 mph!). (Click to enlarge!)

The last demo, as any of my students can tell you, is the Number One Physics Demo of All Time: the Bed of Nails. I lay on a bed of nails. A second bed of nails is laid on my chest. A cinder block is placed on top of that. A volunteer (in this case, my colleague, Stephan Rosswog, from Stockholm University) takes a 10 pound sledgehammer and smashes the cinder block. Obviously I survive (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this blog!). How? The cinder block dissipates the energy of the hammer by breaking, thus sparing my life. You can see some videos of this demo: slow motion view; low, ground level view; first person head-mounted GoPro view.

(L) My Bed of Nails hammer weilder, Stephan "Thor" Rosswog (C) Matt Benacquista makes sure the GoPro is ready to capture the action! (R) Stephan works out some of the day's frustrations... :-)

(L) My Bed of Nails hammer weilder, Stephan “Thor” Rosswog (C) Matt Benacquista makes sure the GoPro is ready to capture the action! (R) Stephan works out some of the day’s frustrations… 🙂 (Click to enlarge!)

Me and J. Craig Wheeler. He's one of the reasons you're reading this blog right now!

Me and J. Craig Wheeler. He’s one of the reasons you’re reading this blog right now!

But probably the most important thing that happened this summer at Aspen, was I closed a loop in my career. When I was a young man, just starting out in college at Oregon State University, I was a mechanical engineering major. The reason for this was I was going to be an astronaut, and the way to become an astronaut (during the shuttle era) was to become a mission specialist, and one way to become a mission specialist was to design experiments that flew on the shuttle. At Oregon State during this time, there was a general science class taught called “Rocks and Stars,” and during my first year there they brought to campus a guest speaker: Dr. J. Craig Wheeler, from the University of Texas at Austin. Wheeler gave a great public lecture about black holes, which made me start seriously thinking about this whole astronomy business. This, of course, ultimately culminated in me becoming a physicist (a story I have written about before). As it turns out, he was at the Aspen Center for Physics this summer. We got to chat and hang out, I got to tell him the story that I just told you, and got a selfie of the two of us. 🙂

My colleague, Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, a professor in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of California – Santa Cruz, summarized a sojourn at the Aspen Center for Physics very succinctly: “It’s like summer camp for physicists.

And so it is. It clears the mind, it rejuvenates the soul, it connects you with people of like mind and like spirit. We argue, we debate, we eat, we laugh, we play, and we try to push science a little bit farther forward.  And like those summer camps from our youth, it is over far too soon. But you go home with new friends, with new ambitions, and a burning desire to come back again soon.

sunsetACP

 

—————————————————-

This post was written during, and after, a summer residency at the Aspen Center for Physics.

Days of Pi and Wonder

by Shane L. Larson

My watch on Pi-day, 2012. The time makes the 4th through 8th digits of Pi: 3.14 15926!

My watch on Pi-day, 2012. The time makes the 4th through 8th digits of Pi: 3.14 15926!

Each year when Pi Day (March 14, or 3-14) rolls around, geeks around the world rejoice. Everyone seems to get their geek on, and that makes me walk around with a grin on my face.  People do all kinds of things, like make pies shaped like the Greek letter Pi, or making square pies because they are punny (“pie are square,” which is a pun for Pi*r2, the area of a circle). Or they take pictures of their watches at exactly a moment to write out the digits of Pi.

What is all this Pi business? Fundamentally, it is the number you get by dividing the distance around the outside of a circle by its diameter.  Not just any circle — every circle. It is one of the great wonders of the fabric of the Cosmos that it works for every circle. It’s the kind of thing that keeps me up late at night!

Pi is a natural number that appears from Nature. It is the ratio of the circumference around a circle to the diameter.  It is the same for EVERY circle!

Pi is a number that appears from Nature. It is the ratio of the circumference around a circle to the diameter. It is the same for EVERY circle!

Pi is an irrational number, meaning it cannot be written as a fraction. It has an infinite number of digits that go on and on and on and on.  The first 200 digits are: 

3.14159265358979323846264338327950288419716939937
5105820974944592307816406286208998628034825342117
0679821480865132823066470938446095505822317253594
0812848111745028410270193852110555964462294895493
038196...

You can see a million digits here, and here. There are even more digits (in case you want to memorize them in an effort to attract a date 🙂 ).

Wikipedia lists a LOT of things that happened on Pi Day in history, but I want to focus on a warm spring day in 1879, in the city of Ulm on the banks of the River Danube. On that day Hermann and Pauline Einstein welcomed their son, Albert, into the world.

Albert Einstein is one of the most easily recognized figures in our culture, so much so that he is recognized in imaginary fantasies, like this one of Albert being a master of the electric guitar in my band ("MC Squared and the Relatives"). In reality, his colleague Robert Oppenheimer noted that Einstein was "almost wholly without sophistication and wholly without worldliness ... There was always with him a wonderful purity at once childlike and profoundly stubborn."

Albert Einstein is one of the most easily recognized figures in our culture, so much so that he is recognized in imaginary fantasies, like this one of Albert being a master of the electric guitar in my band (“MC Squared and the Relatives”). In reality, his colleague Robert Oppenheimer noted that Einstein was “almost wholly without sophistication and wholly without worldliness … There was always with him a wonderful purity at once childlike and profoundly stubborn.”

There is perhaps no figure in the world, historical or otherwise, more recognizable than Albert Einstein. His Facebook page has 8.7 million likes (!), even though he died in 1955 (Einstein passed from this Cosmos on April 18, 1955, almost exactly 34 years before the birth of Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg).  He is widely regarded as one of the towering geniuses of the human race, and was named the Person of the Century in the 20th Century for the impact his scientific findings had on our modern lives. While most of us know about Big Al, do you know how his work filters into your every day life?  Let me tell you a few stories of how it does.

Einstein in 1905 in his famous "patent clerk" jacket. I always imagined it to be green!

Einstein in 1905 in his famous “patent clerk” jacket. I always imagined it to be green!

Let’s go back to 1905. Einstein had finished his doctorate at the University of Zurich, but unable to find an academic position had taken up work as a patent clerk in Bern. Now in those days, there was no evening reality television, no new episodes of Cosmos, so Einstein continued to work on physics “in his spare time.” This is the sort of thing scientists do when we’re between jobs, with the hope that by still being productive we will become attractive candidates for an academic position in the future. As it turns out, Einstein was very productive in 1905. The Latin phrase “annus mirabilis” (“year of wonders”) has in modern science become synonymous with Einstein’s published works in 1905. There were four seminal papers: (1) a paper explaining the molecular origin of Brownian motion; (2) a paper explaining the photoelectric effect by revitalizing the photon theory of light; (3) a paper describing special relativity, and proposing the ultimate speed limit in the Universe; (4) a paper describing the equivalence of mass and energy, captured by the famous formula E = mc2.  These four papers laid the foundations for our understanding of much of what we call “modern physics,” fundamentally altering the way we think about energy, space, and time.  What are these concepts, and what do they have to do with your life?

Brownian motion was named after botanist Robert Brown, who in the early 1800s was using a microscope to observe pollen grains suspended in water. Inexplicably, the grains appeared to move around at random, with no discernible cause. Brown tried in vain to discover the cause of the motion, but could not explain it. He then dutifully did what scientists do, he reported his observations to his peers and the phenomena passed into the scientific memory. Nearly a hundred years later, Einstein showed that the observed motion could be explained by the constant buffeting of the large grains by the motion of the much smaller particles of water that it was suspended in, what we today call molecules. There are many applications for the use of Brownian motion once you understand it. For instance, in modern pharmaceutical manufacturing, medicines delivered through pills are created from a suspension of the active drugs with inactive ingredients that comprise the entire pill; this controls the delivery of the drug on ingestion. Brownian motion is used to control the suspension in the mixing stages, to insure the proper distribution of the active drug throughout the pill.

Mixing pharmaceutical molecules is like mixing marbles. The active ingredients (white marbles) need to be mixed evenly with the inactive ingredients (green marbles). Brownian motion can be exploited for this mixing.

Mixing pharmaceutical molecules is like mixing marbles. The active ingredients (white marbles) need to be mixed evenly with the inactive ingredients (green marbles). Brownian motion can be exploited for this mixing.

The nature of light has always been a matter of intense scrutiny for physicists. In the early 1700’s, Newton famously championed the “particle theory” of light, but these ideas fell into disfavor when a particle approach could not explain effects like diffraction and interference; this gave way to the “wave theory” of light. In 1900, Max Planck proposed his “quantum hypothesis” to explain how objects like red-hot pokers and lightbulb filaments emit energy — in discrete packets called “quanta.” Einstein adopted the quantum hypothesis, and revitalized the particle  idea to explain how some materials eject electrons when you shine light on them: electric particles (electrons) are ejected when illuminated with light (photons) — the “photoelectric effect.”  The number of applications of this effect in modern technology are numerous, including solar cells, the imaging sensors in the digital camera in your smartphone, and remote controls.

Your TV remote emits infrared light (which you eye cannot see). When the sensor on your TV is hit by the light, the photoelectric effect generates an electrical signal that activates the control circuit in the TV.  The image on the right was taken by pulling the infrared filter off of an ordinary digital camera (most digital cameras can see infrared, but that light is blocked so your pictures don't look weird).

Your TV remote emits infrared light (which your eye cannot see). When the sensor on your TV is hit by the light, the photoelectric effect generates an electrical signal that activates the control circuit in the TV. The image on the right was taken by pulling the infrared filter off of an ordinary digital camera (most digital cameras can see infrared, but that light is blocked so your pictures don’t look weird).

Special relativity is one of the most profound and important discoveries about Nature that humans have ever made, and its veracity has been borne out, literally, by billions of experiments since its inception in 1905. Einstein’s insight that there is an Ultimate Speed Limit in the Universe (the speed of light) has profound consequences for how we think about motion and dynamics at high speeds, and challenges our old-fashioned notions about the distinguishability of space from time. Most of us have heard all kinds of special relativity stories about how it changes the nature of measurements of distances and times, and the resulting perception of paradoxes — length contraction, time dilation, old and young twins. It blows your mind and is vaguely unsettling because it seems far from our everyday lives, and as a result our everyday intuition built around watching baseballs, Volkswagens and chipmunks doesn’t seem to apply.

Calvin's father doesn't quite understand relativity. [From Calivn & Hobbes, by Bill Watterson]

Calvin’s father doesn’t quite understand relativity. [From Calivn & Hobbes, by Bill Watterson]

But special relativity explains why we see cosmic ray muons from space when they should have decayed before they hit ground; it is demonstrated by every one of the 115 billion protons the LHC bashed together at a time; and we have discovered that if our engineering is up to it, we can use special relativity to travel to the stars.  Mass-energy equivalence (E = mc2) is usually mixed into our thinking about relativity, and most prominently impacts the world through its application ot nuclear weapons and nuclear energy.  Deep in the heart of the Sun, the nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium converts some of the mass of hydrogen into energy, which you and I eventually feel as the warm dapple of sunlight during a lazy afternoon picnic.

The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, by Salvador Dali. We have a vague and unsettled feeling, especially when confronted by relativity, that we do not understand the fabric of space and time.

The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, by Salvador Dali. We have a vague and unsettled feeling, especially when confronted by relativity, that we do not understand the fabric of space and time.

Perhaps the most important way that special relativity changed our lives is that it made us realize that all the laws of physics had to obey special relativity, which led Einstein to think about gravity. It took about 10 years, but he was the first person to understand how gravity and special relativity worked together, and the result was called “general relativity.” Today, general relativity has transformed the world because the Global Positioning System (GPS) would be impossible without it. General relativity (and special relativity) tells us that if you have two clocks that are moving differently, and experiencing gravity differently, then you will think they are ticking at different speeds when you compare them.  What does that have to do with GPS?  

Fundamentally, GPS works by broadcasting a clock signal from satellites. On the ground, your smartphone receives those signals and triangulates your position from the clock signals.  Suppose there are two GPS satellites, one is 100 km away from you, and the other is 200 km away from you. At the same moment, they broadcast their current time, say 2:00pm.  The 2pm clock signal from the satellite closest to you arrives first; the 2pm signal from the distant satellite arrives later. By comparing the arrival times of those two signals, you know exactly where you stand between the two satellites.  Where does relativity fit into this picture?  If you don’t include relativity, the clock signals from the satellites, compared to clocks on the ground (in your smartphone) are different by 38 microseconds — 38 millionths of a second!  That is so tiny!  Does it matter?  Sure it does, because the radio signal from the satellite is a kind of light, which travels 11.4 kilometers (7 miles!) in 38 microseconds!  If you didn’t have a little bit of relativity working inside your phone, your GPS would not be useful for navigation!  11.4 km is a HUGE distance when you’re trying to find a Dairy Queen, the Lego store, a hospital, or your kids’ baseball game.

GPS triangulates your location by comparing the received time from multiple satellites.

GPS triangulates your location by comparing the received time from multiple satellites.

Of course, Einstein’s work did not end with the annus mirabilis. In fact, he had a long and influential career after that, as most scientists do.  Let’s end with a story about a little paper he wrote in 1917. That year, Einstein explained the idea of stimulated emission –– light can cause an atom to emit an identical particle of light, and the two photons can travel along together exactly in synch. Okay, that sounds cool, but so what? You may shrug your shoulders, but what this leads to is the LASER. In fact, “laser” is an acronym built from Einstein’s idea — “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.”  Einstein was the person who predicted the possibility of building a LASER, though it took until the 1950s for us to develop enough technology that one could actually be built. Today our world is literally filled with lasers — CD and Blu-Ray players, laser pointers, lasers for cutting industrial materials, lasers used to resculpt the lens of your eyes, and a whole host of medical applications.

Einstein is just one example of one scientist who changed our lives with his passion for uncovering Nature’s secrets. There are many examples of other scientists who have had similar influence on us, in ways that you and I don’t often think about nor quite possibly even know. But it is all there in our every day lives, from our trucks and carburetors, to our antibiotics and heart stents, to our smartphones and MP3 players, to our aerobees and yoga tights. It all comes from clever insights, accidental observations, random musings, and delight in something as simple as a round shape called a circle. Enjoy your Pi Day, and enjoy your pie!

Cosmos 13: Who Speaks for Earth?

by Shane L. Larson

Let me tell you a story about me that many people don’t know. When I was in junior high school, I was a small, exceptionally nerdy child who loved Star Trek, science, games of all sorts (provided they didn’t involve “teams” or “athletics”), and learning. My very best friend of the day was a similarly minded young gentleman, who introduced me to computer gaming (“Colossal Cave”, which we played on the mainframe at Ball Aerospace, where his father worked), World War II aircraft, and car mechanicing. He also had epilepsy. It was frightening when he would have seizures, because he would go blank and suddenly it was like he didn’t know me or anything about the world around him. I don’t recall how long these episodes would last, but what I do remember is his father would swoop in, and sit with him for time, and eventually my friend would be back, and we’d be off to explore the world again.

A scar on the orbit of my left eye; stitches in my 7th grade year. The scar has faded slowly over the years, but is still obviously there if you know to look for it.

A scar on the orbit of my left eye; stitches in my 7th grade year. The scar has faded slowly over the years, but is still obviously there if you know to look for it.

Now, as was often the case in the cruel world of middle-school aged children, we were the target of bullies. My locker neighbors reveled in shutting my locker each time I opened it, or knocking all my books on the ground so I was tardy to next period. Once they took my prized possession of the day, the Collected Novels of H.G. Wells; when I decided that day to fight back, I was bodily thrown across the room into a metal chair, gouging myself on the orbit of my left eye, requiring 7 stitches and leaving a scar I still have today. My best friend was a similar target, with more serious consequences because the physical bullying would often trigger a seizure. The school administration took an all too common viewpoint on these matters: no one saw it, so it is your word against theirs. An odd viewpoint in light of the amount of blood streaming down my face (I don’t know what the bully had told them, but to be fair I had bit him when he had me in a headlock).

Me and my family, in my high school years. My mom and dad instilled in all three of us boys a robust sense of justice.

Me and my family, in my high school years. My mom and dad instilled in all three of us boys a robust sense of justice.

Now my parents are the most moral, upstanding people I know, and taught me a deep personal philosophy about justice. Now, in the wisdom of my adulthood, I like to hang quotes from Gahndi on it, like “It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence.”  But really, what I remember are words from my Pa: “Bullies are really just cowards, so knock them down. And make sure the bastards don’t get back up.”  The matter all came to a head on a late winter day during my 7th grade year. My best friend had his head bashed against a locker, which triggered a bad seizure. No teacher saw it happen, but I resolved it was going to stop.  At the end of lunch period that day, I bought an extra milk, and opened the carton on both sides. I remember one of my other nerdy-friends standing next to me saying, “Aw, how are you going to drink that now?” I didn’t answer; I was standing behind the locker-basher, who was sitting at a table. I upended the carton of milk over his head, and beat the tar out of him. The event instigated one of the largest food fights the junior high school had ever seen, and I was awarded a 2-week suspension, which I took without argument.

One of the most often reproduced Apollo images; Jim Irwin on the plain at Hadley, in front of the Lunar Module Falcon and Lunar Rover. [NASA Image AS15-88-11866]

One of the most often reproduced Apollo images; Jim Irwin on the plain at Hadley, in front of the Lunar Module Falcon and Lunar Rover. [NASA Image AS15-88-11866]

The aftermath was the most important. My friend and I were never the target of these particular bullies again; nor were we the target of a somewhat wider group of bullies who had always circled on the fringes of our lives. This kind of mayhem was far outside the boundaries of what was expected from me. The event somehow incited some people to ask what really happened, and to pay attention. After a long discussion with the faculty advisor about the event and the reasons behind it, my National Junior Honor Society membership was maintained. My suspension was lifted a week early, so my friend and I both could attend a school assembly featuring Apollo 15 astronaut Jim Irwin, whom we met and talked with! But most importantly, my science teacher docked my term project about the anatomy and life cycles of frogs from a 100% to an 80%, dropping me a letter grade in the class. It blemished an otherwise admirable middle-school academic record. She never said a word, and just kept right on treating me like the scientist she seemed to know I was going to become. She reinforced a lesson my parents had already touted — there are always consequences, even when you are doing the right thing, but it shouldn’t stop you from doing the right thing.

Now, in my adulthood, I still carry that same overbearing, black and white opinion about justice, and an unfailing opinion that people who can stand up should stand up for those who can’t. It is something that I often think about as I push my way blindly forward in my career.  What do I do everyday, when I’m not writing this blog for you to read?  I’m a scientist; an astronomer. What does that have to do with bullies and childhood scraps? Everything in the modern world.

A white dwarf is the skeleton of a star like the Sun, long after it has died. It has about the mass of the Sun, but is the size of the Earth. [Image by STScI]

A white dwarf is the skeleton of a star like the Sun, long after it has died. It has about the mass of the Sun, but is the size of the Earth. [Image by STScI]

In my everyday life as a professional scientist, I spend my time thinking about astrophysics, exploring our understanding of how gravity influences the evolution and life of white dwarf stars, the ancient cooling skeletons of stars that lived their lives like the Sun. Some days, I teach intro science classes to young women and men bound for careers in business, medicine, law and management; people who may never take another science class in their lives, nor think all that much about science ever again. Every now and then, one of them asks me, “What is understanding white dwarfs good for?” There are a whole host of reasons related to how stars act as astrophysical laboratories, simulating conditions that are difficult and expensive to replicate on Earth, and how the knowledge has applications to technology, energy, and medicine.  But the real reasons, the important reasons are these:

(1) Astronomy, unlike bench science in a laboratory, in an exercise in looking, thinking, and understanding Nature from afar. The practice of astronomy teaches us how to think deeply about the Cosmos, how to unravel the secrets of Nature, and not fool ourselves into thinking something false. More than any other science, astronomy teaches us to be harshly critical of our reasoning, to be brutally honest about what we know and don’t know, and to be quite certain of our conclusions when we say them out loud.

secretCancer(2) Every person has a deep seated sense of wonder, waiting to be ignited and tapped. We cannot know who or what will inspire those who see the future for us, but we know it will happen, just as it has happened in the past to people named Steve Jobs, Temple Grandin, Dean Kamen, Rachel Carson, and a thousand others. We explore, learn, and teach the wonder of the Cosmos with the certainty that it can and will inspire someone someday to consider a life in science and technology, a life in service to our species and our planet. The consequences of not teaching people about the wonders of astronomy are almost too awful to contemplate. What if the next Newton never discovers science? What if the cure to cancer is hidden inside someone who is never inspired to continue their education?

(3) Lastly, in a world increasingly dependent on science and technology, science has become a weapon.  Not a a tangible device of destruction (though there are certainly plenty of examples of those), but a psychological bludgeon used to prey on those who have weakness or uncertainty in the realms of science and evidence based reasoning. The Earth faces an uncertain future in terms of its long term evolution, and the survivability and impact of our species on this planet. Special interests, driven by economics, politics, or ideology, have become the bullies of the modern world. Their tactic of choice is the subversion of knowledge and evidence-based wisdom, using modern media to sow uncertainty and discontent, holding the world hostage in a constant state of confusion and embittered debate. The weapon against those with shallow vision and self-serving interests is critical thinking, and common cause.  For the first time in all the history of the Earth, we have both. The practice of science is the human species’ profound realization of the process of critical thinking; it’s only goal, is to seek the truth with unflinching respect for the evidence and facts. Technology has given us the ability to communicate, directly and personally, with every person on the planet.

In a 1990 essay for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry Carl Sagan wrote, “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”  This is a trend that has not changed in the two decades since; if anything, it has become exacerbated as technology and mobile technology has interlinked our world and become enmeshed with our daily lives.

Smartphones and carburetors, two of the great mysteries of the modern world. Making sure everyone can explain their inner workings is not the goal of science literacy.

Smartphones and carburetors, two of the great mysteries of the modern world. Making sure everyone can explain their inner workings is not the goal of science literacy.

The danger is not that people don’t understand the workings of a smartphone touchscreen or the purpose of a carburetor.  No, the true danger lies with people being told what they should think about a complex and interconnected world, instead of being able to think critically about how trustworthy the information being passed to them is. The best way for the citizenry of the Earth to protect themselves from charlatans is to know how science works. The second best way is for scientists to put some more skin in the game.

Science cannot be limited to those who practice it; it cannot be an esoteric playground of wonder and imagination for the privilege of a few.  What scientists know must be explained and popularized for the citizens of the world; people must understand that the purpose of science is to improve their lives, and it has.  Modern medicine has erased crippling diseases, satellites girdle the world providing a never-ending stream of data about the weather and evolving state of the planet, and telecommunications technology has deprovincialized knowledge to build a global community. The world-spanning internet has made communications instantaneous and egalitarian, exposing a vast fraction of the world to the wisdom and art of our species, but also connecting all of us instantaneously to the abject horrors our race is capable of, and showing the implacable forces of Nature casually destroying human constructs. Science is all around us.  It is not perfect, but it has repeatedly demonstrated an unfailing ability to change the world.

There are plenty of vocal scientists and active science communicators.  Phil Plait (twitter: @BadAstronomer) is a robust opponent (among many other things) of the anti-vaccination lobby. James Hansen and Michael Mann (twitter: @MichaelEMann) are prominent faces in the battle against climate denialism. Jennifer Ouellette (twitter: @JenLucPiquant) writes and blogs tirelessly about science and mathematics.  But there need to be more — many more. It is estimated that only 5% of the labor force in the United States are practicing scientists or engineers. That is an extraordinarily tiny fraction, so there is a challenge for everyone.

Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman

On the part of the scientists, the challenge is to talk with your neighbors, talk with your friends, talk with anyone who will listen. There has been a slow and steady decline in the public percpetion of the value of scientists and academics in general.  This has been widely discussed recently in light of an excellent OpEd by Nicholas Kristof. Many academics have taken great affront to this article, but as I tell my 7-year old: how you act is up to you, but how people think you act is up to them. If you want people to change how they think of you, then you have to change how you act (especially when they are watching). In this case, many many decades of unremitting dedication to the urbane life of an academic, steeped in our own traditions and mindsets, have burned bridges that should never have been severed. Scientists are particularly bad at this, and we see the results — charlatans are slowly eroding public confidence in science to the point where despite overwhelming evidence, people don’t know what to think about the future of our planet or species. Richard Feynman always said, “Science is what we do to keep from lying to ourselves.”  Our job is to help people understand that.

George Bernard Shaw.

George Bernard Shaw.

On the part of everyone else, the challenge is learn to think critically, just as you do with everything else in your lives — you are the ones who are going to decide the future of our civilization, with your money, your actions, and your votes. Talk with your neighbors, talk with your friends, talk with your children.  Honor the wisdom of George Bernard Shaw, who admonished us to “Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.” We are being bullied, scarred for life, and we don’t even know it.  Forces within our society think they can play on our fears, for their own benefit, by encouraging us to doubt and deny our hard-fought ability to reason.  It’s time to fight back against these nebulous and callous forces, with the most powerful weapon we have: science. Denial of science is a denial of our birthright, an abandonment of a legacy of 40,000 generations of human beings who have walked before us.

With all the long future days of our planet and our race in front of us, there is but one task before us: preserving the lives of the citizens of the Earth, be they human or not, and ensuring the future habitability of this planet, the only place in the Cosmos we know, with certainty, where any form of life can and does survive.

We speak for Earth, you and I.  Our loyalties are to the species, and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive and fluorish is owed not just to us, but to the Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.

*******************************

Final Note: This closing quote, is the closing quote from Cosmos as well. Thank you, Carl, for a journey that defines much of what I think, say, and do every day of my life. From the stars we came, and to the stars we shall return, now and for all eternity.

————————————

This post is part of an ongoing series, celebrating the forthcoming science series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey by revisiting the themes of Carl Sagan’s classic series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.  The introductory post of the series, with links to all other posts may be found here:  http://wp.me/p19G0g-dE

The Teacher, the Law, and the Freshman

by Shane L. Larson

My mother has a theory — whatever your great passion is in the first grade, that is in all likelihood the best indicator of what you should do with your life. It’s what will make you the happiest.   For most of my years up through about fourth grade I wanted to be a scientist.  That changed to astronaut after the launch of the space shuttle Columbia in 1981.

The astronaut thing stuck for a long time, until I started college.  Growing up during the space shuttle era, I knew that to be an astronaut did not mean you had to be a pilot, because you could be a mission specialist — someone who did science on orbit.  At some point in the years leading up to college I had decided the thing that would maximize my chances of flying as a mission specialist was to be an engineer.  So the fall I went to college, my education did not start in science at all — it started in mechanical engineering.

Being an engineer was okay; we learned computer programming (in FORTRAN, unfortunately), we got to build balsa wood bridges and then crush them under a two ton load tester, and we got to peek under the hood of all kinds of devices and see how the world works when we’re not looking. I have a strong independent streak, and generally regard my destiny as my own to control. This caused a great deal of strife as a  young engineering student because I didn’t feel compelled to follow the list of courses that had been outlined for me. Unbeknownst to me, a battle was brewing over this fact.  I became suddenly aware of this near the end of my first winter quarter when the dean of engineering called me into his office.  My memory of the conversation is something like this:

  • DEAN: You are off track. You’re not taking the courses you are supposed to.
  • ME: So?
  • DEAN: You’re taking a random physics course. You can’t do that.
  • ME: Why? I want to take astronomy; I think it will be useful.
  • DEAN: The recommended courses are what is going to be useful.
  • ME: Well I’m going to take astronomy. I’ll get to those courses eventually.

In the end, I got to stay in the astronomy class, because spring quarter wasn’t too far away.  The dean did, however, make me sign a contract that said I would adhere to the recommended engineering schedule during all future quarters.

The late Dr. David Griffiths (Oregon State University, Department of Physics).

The astronomy course in question was Introductory Astronomy: Stars and Galaxies, taught by the late Dr. David Griffiths of Oregon State University (not to be confused with the other Dr. David Griffiths, at Reed College, of textbook fame).  Dr. Griffiths was one of the formative figures in my scientific youth, and is responsible for setting me on the path I am on today.  Three days after starting his astronomy course, I changed my major to physics (*).  While I gained some deep satisfaction from delivering my change of major paperwork to the College of Engineering, and even more satisfaction from tearing up the silly contract I had signed the quarter before, you must be wondering what it was that sparked such a drastic alteration in my destiny?  It was Dr. Griffiths.  And Johannes Kepler.

On the first day of astronomy class, I sat squirming in my seat, breathless with anticipation of learning about quasars, dark matter, and black holes. Dr. Griffiths strode into class, his salt-and-pepper curly black hair slightly wild and unkempt in a way that is typical for many scientists.  On that first day, he launched into a story about Johannes Kepler and the laws of planetary motion, which apply to all orbits not just to planets. This was a story I was familiar with from many long hours spent watching Cosmos (Ep. 3, “The Harmony of the Worlds”).  This wasn’t what I was exactly waiting for, but it was astronomy and so I enjoyed myself.

The story focused on Kepler’s Third Law, which tells us that the length of time a planet takes to complete an orbit is related to how big that orbit is.  This is called Kepler’s “Harmonic Law” and is usually stated as: “The square of a planet’s period (the time it takes to complete one orbit) is proportional to the cube (third power) of its semi-major axis (the radius of the orbit if it is circular).”  Mathematically, it is written as

P2 ~ a3

Kepler had deduced this result by studying careful observations of the positions of the planets made by his contemporary, Tycho Brahe.  This made perfect sense to me.  It was the way I had always been taught that science worked: you make observations, then deduce the Laws of Nature from those observations.

At this point in the story, Dr. Griffiths did something that changed my destiny forever.  He turned to us, and looking through glasses that had slipped to the end of his nose, said, “We could have figured that out even if we didn’t have any observations.”

I sat up in my chair a little straighter at this point. What?

Dr. Griffiths continued: “We can mathematically fit any data we want to — that’s what Kepler did. But whatever the fit is, it had better come from the fundamental Laws of Nature. We can derive Kepler’s Third Law from the basic rules of physics.”  Which he did.  With a deft hand, in white chalk, he completely blew my mind in just a few short lines.  That derivation is replicated below (in my own handwriting — this moment in my formative history is far too important to ever be reduced to mere typeset equations).  While it would be easy to include this just for the aficionados (and any engineers who think they may want to be physicists…), you should look closely at this.  This is the beauty of the Laws of Nature.  What makes the planets go, and why they move the way they do, was once one of the greatest mysteries of science, yet through sheer force of imagination we humans figured out how to explain it concisely enough that it can be written on a napkin and explained as a motivational exercise for students!

Derivation of Kepler’s Third Law from first principles.

This was a revelation to me.  It was the first time that I truly felt I had a glimpse into what the scientific enterprise was all about.  It was the first time that I had ever encountered the awesome power of science, and the first time I had ever been confronted by the sheer scope of what we could accomplish with our naked intellect.  But most importantly, in the span of those few minutes, as the scritch scritch of Dr. Griffiths chalk outlined the foundations of Kepler’s Third Law, I learned one of the most valuable lessons of my scientific career, which still guides me today: everything is connected, and knowing as much as possible about everything you possibly can will bear unexpected and beautiful fruit in the end.  Before that class was over, I had decided that if this is what physics was all about, then this was a profession for me.  I walked out that day and started figuring out how to change my major.

The Laws of Nature would exist whether you and I were sitting here talking about them or not.  Atoms would continue to bond together and make stuff, apples would continue to fall out of trees and to the ground, and stars would continue to burn and flood the Cosmos with light.  The fact that the Laws of Nature can be figured out is one of the great gifts of the Cosmos to its inhabitants.  We live in a world filled with predictable patterns.  Rocks that I throw up in the air always fall back to the ground. A cup of coffee on my counter always cools to the ambient temperature of the room.  The constellations rise in the east each night at dark, and slowly march across the sky westward over the course of the night.  These tantalizing patterns are clues that Nature provides us about the underlying order of things, breadcrumbs that lead us to science, the express goal of which is to understand the Laws of Nature that make all the wondrous order of the natural world.

Science is a unique creation of our species, the paramount expression of our ability to see the world around us, and imagine why it is the way it is.  The culmination of our creative ruminations are the Laws of Nature, written in the language of mathematics, another invention of our species. As we practice science today, it is a self-correcting framework.  At any given moment, it captures our imperfect understanding of what we have observed about the Cosmos. When we make new discoveries, we reexamine the Laws of Nature as we understand them, and expand our thinking to correctly explain what we have seen.   Johannes Kepler published his Harmonic Law in 1619.  It was perfectly adequate for explaining observations of the planets in the solar system.  But it was not until 1687 that Newton took that understanding and expanded it using the Universal Law of Gravitation.  I’m sure he didn’t imagine that the consequence of that simple expansion of human consciousness would be to create a scientist out of a university freshman 300 years later.

Dr. Griffiths passed away in early 2005, returned to the embrace of the Cosmos from whence we all came.  It is a great sadness to me that I never made it back to Oregon State to talk to him again after I graduated.  Teaching is an artform which requires immense amounts of patience and practice.  I think back on that day in Dr. Griffiths’ class often, deeply cognizant of the fact that that was the moment the changed my career forever.  Today, I teach my own classes, and I hope that I also occasionally stumble through moments of revelation for my students.  I don’t know what those moments might be, or when they might occur.  I just hope they happen.  But I take my cues from Dr. Griffiths: I always teach the derivation of Kepler’s Third Law, just like it was taught to me.  🙂

——————————————————————

(*) This is how I always tell this story, because that is the way I remember it in my head. However, having written it down and looking at it critically, it does seem the exact time that passed between events is not relayed accurately here. However, this is my story, and I’m sticking to it. 😉

Pigeons, the Internet, and the Meaning of Science

by Shane L. Larson

Albert Einstein famously remarked that the most incomprehensible thing about the Universe is that it is comprehensible.  The aperture through which we view the world around us and understand its workings is called “science.”  We make observations of the world, organize that empirical knowledge into patterns that seem logical and meaningful, then try to use those patterns to predict the future and explain the past.

There is, I think, an unfortunate tendency in today’s world to identify someone as a “scientist” only if they practice science as a profession.  This is as silly as only identifying a “cook” as someone who works in a restaurant downtown.  If you prepare food at home, for yourself or your family, out of necessity or simple joy, most of us would be perfectly happy calling you a “cook.”  But does the same candid use of the word “scientist” for everyone display a disingenuous labeling, a callous disregard for what we mean by “scientist?”  I’m sure some of my scientist colleagues, notorious for their rigid-mindedness and narrow world vision are bristling at this very moment.  But I’m okay with that, because I think it depends on what you mean by “scientist!”

The defining character of “science” is that it is an endeavour to understand the world.  The essential truth of this self-motivated journey of discovery is that it is, as far as we know, a uniquely human endeavour, driven solely by our curiosity, by our desire to understand.  Science is a manifestation of our desire to understand everything!  Where we came from, why water flows downhill, how a bug’s wings sometimes look clear and sometimes look irridescent, why we need to sleep, how our children can be so like us and so different, why trees don’t grow old and die like humans, how did octopi learn to spit ink, why are kumquats so delicious, how did there come to be rings around Saturn, why aren’t metals transparent, and an uncountable number of other questions.  By extension then, the defining character of a “scientist” is curiosity.  It has been my observation that everyone is curious about something, ergo, everyone is a scientist.

There are degrees to be sure, just like there are degrees of “cook.”  I’m not going to walk into Noma in Copenhagen and go toe-to-toe with Rene Redzepi, but I can still make a mean lasagne and entertain my dinner guests.  Similarly, many of you might not be comfortable debating the principles of Bose-Einstein condensation with Carl Wieman, but I bet you have still conducted an idle experiment with your microwave to understand the best possible conditions under which to nuke a chocolate chip muffin to perfection.

Flex your curiosity for a moment.  As an exercise, try Googling “draw a scientist.” Predictably, you get a dizzying array of mad scientists in lab coats with beakers, an ocassional Doofenshmirtz, and every now and then a hand drawn self portrait of a child labeled simply, “Me.”  Moreso than anyone else, even professional scientists, children know how to explore.  They constantly experiment, interpret, and reexperiment on the world.  Their entire lives are geared toward one thing: discovery and understanding and relenquishing all concerns to the overriding and insatiable curiosity that drives them from one activity to the next with passion, excitement and an uncrushable zest for new experiences.  Children are, by definition, young scientists.  They explore for no other reason than they want to know.  They collect empirical data, and change their notions of the world based on their observations.  Usually their explorations don’t gain them anything other than a deeper appreciation for the world around them, but sometimes they learn something they can use in the future, like leaving your sweater in the sun makes it deliciously warm when you put it on (as my daughter recently told me).

Let me tell you a story about another exploration that may not lead to anything, but has some important scientific lessons buried deep inside it.  I stumbled on this as a consequence of two apparently disjoint observations.  First, I live in rural Utah, nestled up against the Rocky Mountains in the southern end of Cache Valley.  My skies are dark because there is a lot of dirt between lightbulbs out here, but it means getting reliable broadband internet service is hard.  Second, I have a friend in Colorado who recently brought a homing pigegon to her house with her kids, then released it to fly back to its roost at the Denver Museum of Natural History.  About this time, you are scratching your head wondering “What do these two things have to do with each other?” and wondering whether or not it might be worthwhile to stop reading now and go see if you can find old episodes of “Sanford & Son” on YouTube.

The story about the homing pigeon caused me to initiate a common activity in the modern world: I went to the source of all knowledge and Wikipedia’d “homing pigeons.”  This predictably led to a random walk through the tree of knowledge (sometimes called “The Problem With Wikipedia”, http://xkcd.com/214/), until I stumbled upon something quite magnificent and awesome: the use of pigeons as an internet transfer protocol.  The “IP over Avian Carriers” is a defined protocol for communicating data between two points.  It began as a joke on April 1 in 1990, but as with many things, there is a deep kernel of truth for those willing to entertain the notion.  Imagine a pigeon carrying a micro-flash card, which by today’s standards is capable of holding 10 gigabytes of data or more.  A homing pigeon could cover roughly 30 miles in a hour, competing quite handily with most broadband connections!

To prove this point, in 2009 a South African telecom company hosted a pigeon race between their pet pigeon Winston and a local broadband provider.  Winston carried a 4 GB microSD card about 60 km in 2 hours, 6 minutes and 57 seconds, including upload and download of the card on both ends.  Winston won handily; the broadband transfer was only 4% complete when he finished.  Winston now enjoys the rockstar life of a tech and interent hero (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzsa4Byrso0).

What lessons can we take away from the “Pigeons are Better than Internet” experiment?  I think there are three.  First: The people who conducted this experiment are nerd heroes.  The should be everyone’s heroes for displaying unabashed curiosity and exemplary zest for life and knowledge.  Second: Nature is well adapted to many tasks, like transferring information from one place to another, and we are always going to be trying to catch up.  We should observe, mimic, and strive to attain the efficiency, simplicity and beauty of Nature’s solutions.  Third: the nerds who thought up the extremely cool experiment are scientists.  And so are you.  Everyone is a scientist.  On the surface, there was no real reason to test the speed of pigeons versus broadband internet, but someone had the audacity, the curiosity to try.  And in some small way, we learned something new, something that we should probably pay attention to.

Everytime you look at the sky and predict the weather based on past experience, you are solving a complex problem in climatology. Everytime you adjust the length of time you cook your muffins, you are conducting an experiment in thermodynamics.  Everytime you shim and adjust the door to your laundry room or bracket the shelves in your pantry you are engineering a better solution to the one that your housebuilder started with.  Does this mean you should be out designing new bridges or building particle colliders in Switzerland?  Maybe not — that takes years of training and skills you might not have yet.  But that doesn’t mean  you shouldn’t do science; that doesn’t mean you can’t discover something new, nor does it mean you shouldn’t be aware of the world around you.

Take a cue from your children.  Go out, explore, experiment, and understand the world around you!  Discover something new, build a backyard catapult (read “Backyard Ballistics” first, http://amzn.com/1556523750), invent the next must have accessory for everyday life (like Coffee Joulies, http://www.joulies.com/), or simply gaze into the deeps of the Cosmos with a pair of binoculars.  Above all else, remember that you are a part of the human voyage of exploration — a majestic, sweeping epic of self-discovery that has spanned thousands of years.  Take the next step, and share what you find with the rest of the world.  Be the scientist that I know is inside you.

For the moment then, I leave you.  I have an SD card, and somewhere around here, a cat…