Thursday, November 19, 2020

The Smoke of Wildfires Travels to Canada

The 2020 wildfires in California have devastated parts of that state, but they also serve as a symbol for the socio-political fire that is consuming America. One clear similarity between the two scenarios is that the current environmental conditions favour devastation. The likelihood of the physical fires increases as the globe warms, and high winds paired with low precipitation spurn it onward. The socio-political fire that rages on in the United States is a direct result of a tribalistic political environment, which threatens to overthrow democracy in that country.

There are, of course, some important differences between how these fires are being handled. The physical fires are combatted by waterbombers and firefighters. Fire chiefs have done everything in their power to prevent its spread. The divisions in the United States – the deep discord among its citizens – has been and continues to be exacerbated by the outgoing President. The fire chief is stoking the fire as he contemplates his next move. We are witnessing the fall of Rome.

As Canadians, I may consider myself a passive observer of the 24/7 drama channels, like CNN. But I have good reason for staying tuned, despite its obvious negative effects on my mental health. There are serious existential risks to our species that we must face, from the aforementioned climate change, to the current (and next) pandemic. Neither of these threats lead to our extinction in the short term, but they require our serious attention to limit their harmful effects in the long term.

Various branches of government must work alongside scientists to combat these fires from spreading. But instead of that, the leader (did I mention outgoing?) of the American government is questioning the expertise of the scientists, and even worse, causing his mob of supporters to doubt scientists. That is like halting efforts to stop the fires in California because we distrust that water molecules consist of two atoms of Hydrogen and one of Oxygen (I can actually imagine President Trump arguing that the Oxygen atom helps the fire breath as his minions nod their heads). Worse still, the smoke that blows from his mouth travels around the world, infecting non-Americans as well.

Assuming that President-elect Joe Biden is indeed sworn into office in January, the next question becomes: Can America reassert its place in the world, become a voice of reason, and help us homo sapiens become responsible custodians of Earth?

Perhaps Canadians can instead ask themselves: "What can we do to help make this possible?" I have a few suggestions. Let's:

1) Be our best selves. We need not enter into Facebook yelling contests with conspiracy theorists. Let the FBI worry about them. Just act kindly - be respectful and act with integrity.

2) Promote the virtues of democracy and show up to vote when it is our turn. We can also encourage our leaders to be their best selves.

3) Clean our own house. Canada is great but it is far from perfect. We must lead by example and do what is undeniably right. We must continue to strive for equality across race and gender.

4) Act responsibly towards the environment as individuals and ask our leaders to hold corporations and institutions to this same standard.

Who knows? The age of reason and enlightenment may not be out of reach. Getting there, however, will mean fighting back against the many fires that threaten to consume us. It means trusting the experts who have earned such distinction. It means electing officials who serve our best interests. Most of all, it means thinking locally and globally; it is not and has never been a choice between one or the other. A fire anywhere on this planet is a fire everywhere on this planet; we have just one planet.

I fear that Americans may be so divided that no leader can sew the country back together in four or even eight years. I mitigate this fear by turning off CNN and going for a walk.

Monday, November 2, 2020

The Benefits of a Decade Blogging

 I founded this blog in October, 2010, which feels like an eternity ago.

After ten years of blogging, I can speak to the positive impacts it has had on my career.  Though I originally started the blog as an outlet for my ideas on science and engineering, it quickly evolved into a space where I write for my students; after all, I became a physics professor at Vanier College in 2010 also.

Blogging has:

(1) Helped me consolidate my own ideas

(2) Made me a better teacher

(3) Given me a bank of topical content at the right level to pass on to my students (incidentally, this has become a cornerstone of my teaching approach, whereby new content is introduced before class, conceptually - students then write their reflections and submit them - and I then assign their best questions back to them so they may discuss them in groups)

(4) Been a launchpad to some speaking and radio gigs

(5) Made me a better writer

This last benefit has enabled me to produce a manuscript for my first book about the fundamentals of physics.  A couple of publishers have shown some interest in it recently.  I am hopeful to sign a publishing deal sometime in 2021.

Ah, 2010 was long ago indeed.  The blog has aged with me, but also my children - my eldest had just turned one when I wrote my first post, which was fittingly entitled "My Daughter the Physicist".  Reminiscing further, humanity seemed in better shape then.  Two years into President Obama's first term, there was reason for optimism.  I still remain hopeful that we can right the fragile ship on which we sail, but along with many of you, I am growing worried of the future (like, two days in the future, when a racist, misogynistic, reason-defying narcissist is hoping to see his time in the White House extended by four more years).

I pray that in 2030, humanity will have found its stride, and have become responsible custodians of this planet.  It is within our capability.  Until then, I will continue to write, for there is indeed a sixth benefit to doing so: it is so much fun.

Friday, October 2, 2020

How do I Feel About This?

Humans on this planet woke up to the very not fake news that the sitting President of the United States has contracted the COVID-19 virus.

Like anyone with a reasonable amount of education and any semblance of a moral compass, I have no desire to witness, albeit from across a border, four more years of lies, deceit and fear-mongering.  Let me also clearly state that I sincerely hope the President recovers from this illness.  What is more, I do not even think he deserved to get the virus - no one deserves it.  Some might invoke karma, because after all, this is a man who hid the dangers of the disease from those he claims to represent.  In my head, I am not really going there.  My thoughts this morning are moving in a completely other direction...

Obviously, this only hurts his re-election campaign.  Even if his symptoms are mild, his supporters will have a hard time calling this a total hoax (it was announced by his highness on his royal twitter platform).  One way or another, his diagnosis gives the optics of weakness - his perceived strength and bravado is the one thing some might say he had 'going for him'.  Of course, if his health suffers for a couple of weeks or more, then it seems to me that the election is a moot point (though we have all been proven wrong by this man in the past).

If indeed, this virus spells the end of the sitting President's reign, that is, without question, a good thing from the point of view of the vast majority of humans on this planet.  But as this particular human sits typing away this morning, he cannot help but feel strangely about it.

I, along with most Canadians that I know, felt a great deal of anxiety over the next four weeks leading up to the U.S. election - these feelings are independent of the fact that the world seems to be on fire, sometimes in a literal sense.  If the chances that Joe Biden will be the President in 2021, instead of the alternative, increased dramatically overnight, that is undoubtedly a good thing, and it does provide me with a certain sense of relief, or even, dare I say, cautious optimism.  But the prevailing thought I am overcome with is that I would have preferred it not happen this way.

I would like to have seen sensible Americans do the right thing in massive numbers based on the information before them.  I wanted my faith in my neighbours to the South restored.  I wanted the overwhelming majority of Americans to choose the reasonable human instead of the bully, the ignorant fool, the small-minded racist, the petty mysoginist... Need I go on?

Alas, the scale may have tipped over last night.  Biden may just win this thing by default.  The right thing might happen, but for the wrong reason.  It reminds me of a completely analogous situation - an even more serious one that also affects us on a global scale: climate change.

I have no doubt that humans will eventually move away from fossil fuels to power their lives.  All powerplants will be solar, all combustion engines will convert to electric, and most food consumption will go vegan.  Sadly, these changes will happen for the wrong reasons.

These grandiose modifications, so necessary for the viability of life as we know it on this planet, will be made not because they are the right thing to do.  They will happen because they are economically preferable.  The cost of vegan will be cheaper than raising cattle only to kill and distribute their parts.  The cost of solar energy production will become far less than that obtained by the burning of coal (it is comparable today).

The fight against climate change may be a victory one day (that is, it may not be a runaway train with no end in sight, and be limited to a minor global catastrophe), yes, but it will reflect that our species cares deeply about our world economy and not our world.  It will leave me shaking my head at our backwardness.

As a hopeful person, I yearn to see my fellow humans step up to the plate, and make the noble choice.  The President's contraction of COVID may have, in a sense, denied Americans that opportunity.  The outcome may well be positive, because the more suitable candidate may win, but it may not be a victory that Americans can be truly proud of.

I sincerely hope that us fickle humans come to our senses - that we become responsible custodians of this planet.  I want it to happen so much, that I would accept almost any avenue required to get there.  But I would prefer that our path to responsibility, accountability and sustainability be paved by the good will of humans rather than their obsession with the almighty dollar.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Back to School in the Post-COVID World

Somewhere across the spectrum of difficulties our society faces in the post-COVID world lies the education of our children.  As a parent and a teacher, I am currently operating under the assumption that, come the Fall, Secondary V and lower will be attending classes in person, while the majority of those in CEGEP and higher will be resuming their studies online.  Given what we know about COVID-19, it appears that the socio-economic fallout associated with keeping children home is the worse of two evils when compared to the health risks attached to attending classes in person.

My primary concern with the resumption of learning activities that await our students in a matter of weeks is that the already wide chasm that exists between so-called strong and weak students will widen, perhaps dramatically.

In my ten years of CEGEP teaching, I have observed the following: our best students get better every year, and our struggling students struggle more.  Anecdotally, I attribute these changes to increased access to technology.  Where a strong student might use Wikipedia to examine the link between black holes and general relativity, a less motivated student might spend an afternoon on Instagram.

Indeed, the resources available to our children are mind-boggling.  Self-directed learners (there are a handful in every class) could arguably work their way through elementary and high school on their own armed with only a list of content, a tablet, and an internet connection.  In this thought experiment, such students suffer socially, but may emerge unscathed academically.

My fear is that going forward, our students’ academic diet will be dominated by screen learning.  While this is evident for online learning, our younger students who sit in classrooms by day could experience a similar, though less dramatic shift.  Consider a teacher who is mandated to bring their students to a hand-washing station once per hour.  This process eats up fifteen minutes each time.  Where is this lost hour per day recouped?  Kahn Academy YouTube videos from home?  Flashy learning Apps that utilize Smart Gaming?

The motivated student whose parent can spend time alongside them may well eat this content up.  But what of her classmate, who would, quite understandably, prefer to play street hockey or watch an entire season of Friends, and whose parents arrive home exhausted around dinner time?  Scenarios such as this make it clear that the educational landscape, which already favours wealthier families, is about to stratify even further. 

Oh, and what about the teachers?

A common word that echoes through school administrations is equity.  Equity across a given course means that regardless of which section of say, a Mechanics class that a student is registered in, they will experience a similar degree of difficulty, cover roughly the same content to the same depth, and ultimately have an equal chance of passing.  Many departments succeed in this by meeting regularly in curriculum committees and sharing teaching materials. 

However, this does not ensure that the learning experience is equal across different sections in all courses. Academic freedom means that each teacher is free to select their preferred pedagogical approaches for the courses they teach.  This freedom is crucial to the teaching profession, as it allows a teacher to tailor the learning experience to their own unique strengths.  There is, however, a downside to this necessary freedom.

Back in March, when education abruptly moved online, the learning experience became, for lack of a better term, the Wild West.  Some teachers threw massive streams of video content at their students, some gave their students regular feedback, and some teachers, I can only assume, replaced their morning coffee with gin and held wildly entertaining Zoom sessions.

Fortunately, us teachers have had more time to prepare for this Fall (although it must be said that, with weeks to go, there has been little flow of information from the provincial government thus far).  Many educators will adapt to the new boundaries inherent to teaching in 2020 and beyond.  My hope is that our students, regardless of their socio-economic class, can adapt along with us. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Things Must not Return 'Back to Normal'

I had written a short post regarding the return to somewhat normal life after three months of quarantine.  As I was about to post it here on my blog, I decided it would benefit from a larger audience, and so I sent it as an op-ed to the Montreal Gazette.  They decided to publish it (it is in the June 25, 2020, print edition); the online link is here.

In summary, my hope is that as certain aspects of life get back to normal, I sincerely hope that some key lessons learned on our three month long quarantine reflection will endure.  Things must not go back to how they were.  Black Lives Matter, buying local, minimal commuting... These positive movements were inevitable, but COVID-19 accelerated them.  The hurt brought upon by the pandemic cannot be undone, but it can stand for something if we maintain the positive changes that it has brought about.

I extend my best wishes to you and your families and friends.  I remain hopeful that our species can learn to live justly among ourselves and sustainably atop this beautiful planet.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Meet S.E.R.G.

Towards the end of 2018, I decided to try to form a small research team of college students to join in on my space elevator research.  I managed to recruit three such students.  This turned out to be the beginning of S.E.R.G. (Space Elevator Research Group), a lab that aims to study various mechanical aspects of the Space Elevator.

From left to right: Professor Arun Misra (McGill University),
Richard Ziegahn, Raffael Rinaldi, Tristan Vieira, and Stephen Cohen (Vanier College)

Over the course of the past four months, I have met with the three students every so often to help guide them through our research.  Besides learning some fundamentals associated with space elevator mechanics, their focus has been to write a code that will explore something new.  On my end, I have been delighted with how little support they have needed to get as far as they have.

Without getting into the details of our research, I just feel the need to express that they are doing the work I would be doing if I had the time to do it.  It is not unusual for students to aid researchers in this way; it is unusual that the students are 18-19 years old.  I was 24 when I published my first paper - these students will be published before they start university.  They will all begin undergraduate studies in various engineering disciplines later this year.

Last week, the three students shared their contributions to our research project at a tech/science fair.  Also in attendance, was my mentor-turned-collaborator, Professor Arun Misra.  Indeed, the five of us will be jointly published in the proceedings of the International Astronautical Congress that will be held in Washington D.C. this coming October.  Misra and I are sure to be there - the other three will join us, but only if they can cut classes for a few days.  This unique opportunity may actually justify doing so.

I must admit that I was initially unsure as to how much any college-level students could contribute to real-world research.  The 21st century seems to have equipped these resourceful students with enough tools to contribute a great deal.  I am encouraged by this, and am seeking funding that will allow me to grow and maintain S.E.R.G. for years to come.

Friday, February 1, 2019

How Powerful we Have Become

The bad news is:

1. Homosapiens are fallible
2. Our planet's stability is fragile
3. We have attained a significant level of technological maturity

Our technology is powerful enough to alter our biosphere.  It did not happen in one year - it took one century.  The most dramatic changes occurred over the past few decades.  Unquestionably, if we continue along, status quo, this planet will become both unstable, and unrecognizable in a few more decades.  We will render ourselves powerless to stop it.  We will reduce in population size, not by choice, but by attrition.

Bottom line: our social and ethical maturity has not kept pace with that of our technology.

The good news is:

1. The future is unwritten
2. We can learn from our mistakes
3. New technologies can actually help if they are tempered with reasonable behaviour

I have faith in this species to which I belong.  As individuals, we are, by and large, quite dignified in our actions most of the time.  As a collective, we can be better, though we are, at times, worse.  Even when 10% act horrifically, if some of them command significant sway, it takes the other 90% to simply hold them at bay.

Bottom line: we must allow civilization to mature from a sociological standpoint, and make the kinds of decisions that give us the right to deem ourselves an intelligent species.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

What Would Happen if the World's Most Powerful Nation Elected a Narcissist?

D. T.'s two-year journey into our collective consciousness may be described as a reality show where the bumbling star is a walking study of narcissistic personality disorder.

I have tried very hard not to allow T - - - P's name to grace this blog, which is where beautiful ideas of science and engineering are supposed to be explored, but I cannot write about general relativity and the standard model (that is what I was hoping to do today) without first getting this nonsense out of the way.  Once through, I hope to be able to emerge from this fog and think clearly.  Some Americans might identify with that last sentence, and deem it applicable to the past three years of their lives.

It seems that this sad man has infiltrated our minds to the point where otherwise reasonable people have developed CNN addictions, tuning in for hours every day to witness the "Gotcha!" moment.  They want to know as soon as possible that the bully's alleged criminal activity has caused him to be stripped of his powers, and left him somewhere that he can no longer harm the planet.

And harm the planet he has, in almost every conceivable way.

At first, I thought his worst long term offence would be to remove the United States from The Paris Agreement that was established at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  He has also attempted, and sometimes succeeded at tearing up other precautionary measures that seek to protect our fragile biosphere from us hominids.  Then, when he did all of that, it occurred to me that these would not be his most long term devastating affronts to the species.

This frightened tiger's legacy will likely be his battle against truth.  Any scientist with any care in the world should fear a future where regular people think facts are worthy of debate.  This man's presidency coincides with the introduction of the idea of the 'Alternative Fact'.  I still do not know what such a term means, but I do know what it attempts to accomplish.  This man who brags about his love for the uneducated has attempted to uneducate the educated, so he may love us all.

My message is simple: I care too much about myself, my family, my friends, and my students to let that happen.  D. T.'s time is short, and humanity's struggle to find its way is seemingly endless.  Our spirit is indefatigable.  Our collective efforts cannot be undermined by one narcissist and a few of his minions.  It is insulting for them to think that it might.

This brief but seemingly eternal fog will lift, and as an engineer, I cannot help but propose a solution for how it might end without violence.  I will close this rant by elucidating a potential solution...

The reason I refer to D. T. as a frightened tiger is because he is without critical thought, and he is presently cornered by his own absurdity.  What he has done thus far in such situations is to deny, deter and distract.  The only thing that might distract America sufficiently such that he may briefly escape this mess and go golfing is a far bigger mess he has the power to impose.

Here is how violence may be averted:

Someone must distract the frightened tiger, perhaps until Michael Cohen appears at the House Oversight Committee (currently set for February 7, get your popcorn ready), a day that may well lead to D. T.'s conviction.  It is essential that this event not be derailed by some horrific plot that intends to deter and distract.  I hope that some responsible adults who are not his minions have a close eye on him and his arsenal of weapons today and over the coming days.  Perhaps they can lie to him (it needs to be people he trusts, like right-wing media) that everything will be fine for him, so there is no need to do anything rash.

Then, when the dust settles, and D. T. possesses no power to speak of, a new leader must emerge.  He or she need not be bold, nor charismatic.  For all I care, he or she may be camera shy.  It is critical that the new leader be an adult who is committed to unity and has a steadfast determination to maintain civility during the transition from absolute chaos to more regular levels of chaos.

Perhaps, with some vision and leadership, the leaders of this world will help guide our species to an age of reason - this planet requires this of us if we are to inhabit it in such great numbers for an extended period of time.  Despite the many backwards steps we have all witnessed in recent years, and not just in America, I remain hopeful that this ship's course may be righted; all we need are some courageous captains, and a majority of willing passengers possessing critical thought and the resolve to visit voting stations when it counts.  Further, they need to keep a close eye on the captains they elect, and hold them accountable should they lack the resolve it takes to navigate this complex and delicate ocean.

I would like to fund a wall in the shape of a circle.  I propose that D. T. spend the remainder of his life inside the confines of this wall to protect the rest of us from him.  And while I am dreaming, can his new home block twitter access?


P. S. : I have already written two volumes out of a planned four in a Popular Science Book Series (in March, I intend to mail out a Book Proposal seeking a literary agent for representation), and I can proudly state that the only leaders I have referred to in any way in the text are people of true substance, like Carl Sagan.

Friday, January 11, 2019

The Unfathomable Power of Nuclear

Just months after publishing an article stating that space and time are relative quantities that depend on the speed of the observer, Einstein followed its trail of bread crumbs, which brought him to a realization that was equally spectacular: the rest (or intrinsic) mass and energy of any given thing is a fixed ratio.  What?  Did you get lost on the trail?  I did on my first pass, and I will only summarize why E0 = mc2 very briefly here (feel free to follow the trail on your own in most any modern physics textbook), and instead focus on what its consequences.

It is important to note that no one supported Einstein's special relativity, on which he based this new but equally controversial and perplexing notion.  In short, if special relativity was indeed correct, then in order for both momentum and energy conservation to hold in collisions, the rest energy of a given body when it is not moving (E0) must be equal to the rest mass of this body (m) multiplied by the square of the speed of light.  In short, he doubled down, stating that not only should you believe that the special relativity wild idea is true, it necessitates this other massively wild idea.

If the idea that a non-moving body has intrinsic energy is troubling, then I suppose you are equally troubled by a photon, which travels with great speed yet is itself a massless particle.  As that photon strikes another body, it actually transfers both energy and momentum to it (that is how solar sails in space work), increasing the body's total energy.  The now very slowly moving body retains its original rest energy, but added to that is its newly acquired kinetic energy.  Its newly gleaned momentum is achieved due to the change in the photon's momentum.

If we accept that E = mc2, and since it is the most famous equation on the planet (adding the subscript 0 after the E makes it less catchy), I suppose we should, we can deal with the practical consequences, which are as mind-boggling as the concept itself.  Let's start with this:

The equation says that if just one kilogram of the rest mass of anything were to be entirely converted into energy (also referred to as "annihilated"), the nuclear reaction would produce 9*1016 Joules; this amount of energy could power a 100-Watt light bulb for 30,000,000 years, or meet the world energy demand for about one hour (using the chemical energy derived from burning coal powers the one light bulb a mere eight hours).  To meet the entire world demand for one full year would only require the complete annihilation of less than ten metric tons.  This means that if we had the means to safely annihilate entire substances, we could power the globe for decades using only what my father has stashed away in his garage.

It is probably for the best that our species does not yet know how to manipulate nuclear reactions to a greater extent than we already do.  After all, look at the devastating impact of atom bombs, which manage to annihilate just a tiny fraction of their mass upon reaction.  Similarly, nuclear reactors only begin to tap into the promise of E = mc2, as they convert roughly 0.002% (using enriched uranium) of their mass to viable energy.  Over time, should humanity figure a way to release all of the energy within the mass of a given spec of matter in a controlled fashion, it would represent a major shift for society. The notion of an energy crisis would be replaced by a bottomless pit of energy, and ever more need to defend ourselves from ourselves.  Sigh.

Why is nuclear power so much more efficient than coal power?  It has to do with the nature of the reaction.  Burning coal is a chemical reaction known as combustion.  A fission reactor houses nuclear reactions, which involves the division of atomic nuclei.  The process of nuclear vs chemical is more than 650,000 times as mass efficient.  I want to pause for a moment here.

When an engineer optimizes a design, by accomplishing the same thing with 10% less mass, he or she might receive praise.  What was effectively done was to reduce the mass by a factor of 1.1.  To do so by 650,000 would be like 1.1 to the power of about 140.  Therefore, it may be stated, using logic and math, that replacing a coal-burning plant with a nuclear one should receive praise to the power of one hundred forty.  Of course, that same logic means that replacing them with solar technology of any type should receive praise to the power of infinity, because those photons are massless (they also travel a distance of one Astronautical unit for free).  While we are on the topic, solar energy has no waste to dump anywhere, so it wins, and the sooner we initiate a process to replace all energy infrastructure with solar (combined with large-scale energy on-site storage solutions), the sooner we can begin to think of ourselves as an intelligent species.
Large-scale energy production is a dangerous practice, and regardless of the production method, strict safety standards must be adhered to.  What we must put ahead of anything else is the equilibrium of our biosphere.  Our fossil fuel energy production over the past century has had a global effect on the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere.  We must produce energy by an alternative means to fossil fuel burning, and while nuclear power can meet the demand, and do so efficiently, it is also a weapon, so it is best left in no one's hands.

If we are to become careful custodians of our planet, we must be more mindful of the reactions we initiate here on Earth, both chemical and nuclear.  Once Einstein realized the potential weaponry his famous equation could lend itself to, he was convinced it needed to be used by the 'right people'.  He regretted that this equation, so beautiful, could cause so much destruction.  But this was certainly not the only beautiful scientific discovery that has led to dangerous tech.  It is perhaps fortunate for us all that it is the most powerful one yet.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

A Poem for my Brothers and Sisters, with Whom I Share this Land

Failure Forgivable, Though not Indefinitely

Be grateful, for life affords us opportunities to fail
Success is born from failure
When failure is unforgivable, life is rendered a prison

Imagine success so success may become you
Embody success as you scale the mountaintop
Look back upon success with eyes that blink slowly

To expect failure is not to try
To accept failure is to abandon hope
To wallow in failure is the death of the spirit

This land has afforded us opportunities to fail
Failed her, abused her, we have
Let us forgive ourselves, and rekindle our spirit

May our shortcomings of yesterday seed tomorrow's harvest
  May today's onward push be fierce
May we rise out from this failure, and blink slowly again