Saturday, April 6, 2024

Totally Stoked for Totality!

For readers far away from the path of totality for the upcoming solar eclipse, my apologies, but as a Montrealer, I will be getting one minute in the full shade of the sun on Monday, April 8.  It is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I am excited to the point of losing sleep.  It inspired me to write this extended piece in the Montreal Gazette: Totally Stoked About Totality.

Totality will occur at 3:27 p.m. for Montrealers.  But as we are on the northern edge, it will be shorter than those along the middle of the path by a couple of minutes.  Still, one moment would be sufficient to sear the event in my memory.

I was inspired to write the piece by a colleague of mine and my feeling that the average person is not as psyched as they ought to be.  The one message I want to convey to anyone that has an easy opportunity to enter totality is this: DO IT!  The worst case scenario is that this few minute commitment does not rock your world, but in all likelihood, it will be unforgettable, and more so if you experience it with loved ones.

*** Remember to protect your eyes.  Wear eclipse viewing glasses whenever looking directly at the sun, with one exception: the brief minute of totality.  You must remove them during the big moment or you'll miss it.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

My Fall Mechanics Class - thanks for the escape!

Oftentimes, as the end of year draws near, I take a moment to reflect on its high points.  For me, there were several, most notably, the publication of my first book (Getting Physics: Nature's Laws as a Guide to Life, link on the right side of the page, makes a great Christmas gift, wink wink).  But, this year has been a rough one for me, particularly the past couple of months, for many reasons I will not elaborate on, but if I must list a theme, let's go with 'targeted attacks on minority communities'.

Of course, I am not alone.  In these difficult moments, we need to try extra hard to be in the moment, and escape the weight of this general malaise.  The classroom is a setting that can offer such an escape.  Many students feel that the classroom is a place they would like to escape from, but consider this...

Many years ago, a student of mine was in crisis.  I could see on their face that something was not right, and we had a chat.  They said something that stuck with me: "The classroom is an escape, a brief respite from my troubles."  I totally get that, particularly with physics, because physics does not care about the day we are having or whether there is peace in the Middle East.  The laws of nature exist outside and above all of our troubles.

In a recent bout with COVID, I was watching too much Netflix, as one does (mostly movies I have already seen cause that's how I roll).  I rewatched Jurassic World.  There are two brothers who enter a theme park with dinosaurs.  One's glee boils over, while the other stares at his phone.  How can one not be completely in awe?  That is how I feel when students get bored in physics class... Not that they all do, but of course, some do.  Maybe most do some of the time?  How can I know for sure?

At the front of the class, I get immersed in physics, and I get to spend time with a fun bunch of young adults.  I get to escape things that exist outside the classroom.  I want all of my students to experience the same feeling.  I have spent my whole career figuring out how to do that while also maximizing their academic growth - and I still have much to learn.

Normally, I say goodbye to my students at the end of the year and inherit new groups in the Winter semester, and try again.  But for my Mechanics class, there was a last-minute reshuffling, and no one could take this group of honours students of mine for their next course (Waves, Optics, and Modern Physics).  In the shuffle, the course fell to me.  

I now have this opportunity (has only happened twice before in my career) to teach the same body of students another course.  I hope they will be happy to hear this news.  My take on it, in general, is that it should be avoided.  Students should see a discipline from many angles.  Also, too much familiarity can be a problem.  For example, students might think it is okay to break lab equipment cause "He's a nice guy, and he knows us," etc.  Anyway, as I said, they are a fun bunch of young adults and I look forward to trying again.  A second chance to get to know the Universe and escape our Earthly troubles in the process.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

In the Light of Other Suns

The Eighth Interstellar Symposium, entitled "In the Light of Other Suns" is underway this week at my alma mater, McGill University, in Montreal, Quebec.  Hosted by the Interstellar Research Group and Professor Andrew Higgins, the space conference includes studies of various challenges associated with interstellar flight... and there are many!

Last night, I was fortunate enough to be in a sold out auditorium for a panel discussion amongst experts with varying backgrounds.  The six hundred in attendance sat attentively as a wide range of questions were addressed, from "How much might the transit depicted in Avatar 2 cost?" to "Is it ethical to have a child on a planet that is not Earth, virtually guaranteeing that they will never set foot on their species' origin planet?"  The answer to the former is on the order of petadollars (billions of billions of dollars), and the answer to the second is "We don't know."

The experts have no illusions that people will be travelling to Alpha Centauri in the coming decades.  They anticipate microsatellites being propelled at relativistic speeds (>0.1c) to take pictures of exoplanets in that timeframe.  Starships with people might be a hundred years away.  So, why are distinguished professors studying them today?

The economic answer is that long term projects overcome incremental hurdles that enable spinoff technologies in the present.  But there are so many more reasons, like the plain fact that we are an aspirational species.  NASA technologist Les Johnson, irked by the question of economic returns associated with interstellar flight, posited that humans wanting to know things is reason enough (a comment that elicited enthusiastic applause).

Current engineering studies examine photonic propulsion and the highly reflective surfaces required to reach dizzying speeds.  Others look at the stability of a tiny satellite's trajectory while being bombarded with photons or collisions with space dust when moving at some fraction of c.

I was expecting to hear more about Breakthrough Starshot, the aforementioned mission to snap photos of exoplanets and send them back to Earth.  It seems that the interstellar community is becoming less focused on this one particular mission, instead looking at energy propulsion in a broader sense.  The possibility of a one month transit to Mars was discussed; the spaceship would use a 1g acceleration for the first half of the trip (lasers pushing it from Earth) followed by a 1g deceleration during the second half (lasers pushing it from Mars).  So ya, it would require laser arrays deployed on the Martian surface, but don't worry, studies have looked into the feasibility of that too.

Is it a space symposium for dreamers?  Absolutely.  But power to them (the photonic kind).  A technical engineering conference that can fill a large auditorium is doing something right.      

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

My first TV appearance!

I'm excited to announce that I will be interviewed by Mutsumi Takahashi on CTV's Montreal noon newscast this coming Tuesday, March 28.  We will discuss my book, Getting Physics, and how I use it to help make physics relatable for students.

I have done radio interviews before, but TV is a new thing for me.  Looking forward to it!

Saturday, March 4, 2023

A Thought About Teaching

If we are born a seed, then when I meet students in college, they are plants with deep roots.  On my best day, I can be a star that shines light on the garden before me, inspiring a direction in which to sprout.  If that is not a good reason to get dressed in the morning and go to work, then I don't know what is.

Thursday, March 2, 2023

My first book launch

Next Thursday, March 3, 5:00 pm, I will be having my first book launch event at Vanier College (in the STEM Centre, D-301) for Getting Physics: Nature's Laws as a Guide to Life.  I would love to see science enthusiasts there, particularly current and former students of mine. 

I am thinking about how the event should run.  I have been to book signings before and they always include some readings from the newly published book.  My hope is that some of my current and former students could share some of the reading duties with me.  After all, this book was written with them in mind.  The schedule I envision is:

5:00 - 5:30 pm: hors d'ouevres and schmooze

5:30 - 6:00 pm: speeches and short readings from book

6:00 - 6:30 pm: book purchase and signing

My college issued a press release yesterday, so I am also hoping to make the rounds with local Montreal media.

It will be my pleasure to share this moment with readers of this blog who happen to live in my city.  There will be no book tour, so I am contemplating ways to reach a wider audience.  For now, I am starting with my stomping grounds, and seeing where it goes from there.

Friday, January 20, 2023

"Getting Physics" NOW AVAILABLE!

 After years of work, my first book, Getting Physics: Nature's Laws as a Guide to Life, is finally available.  I will almost certainly never devote more time to any single project than I did this one.  It is a labour of love, and I am so happy to share it with readers all around the world.

The link to purchase it through Amazon is here: GETTING PHYSICS.

I am not sure what else to write in this post.  This blog is the place where I learned how to write about physics.  Some of the contents of this book include paragraphs I wrote in 2010, the year The Engineer's Pulse was launched.  I am feeling incredibly nostalgic right about now.  The only thing that makes sense to me is to simply copy/paste the acknowledgement section of Getting Physics here:


Momentum for the manuscript began when eleven Vanier College students volunteered to read through a chapter or two and provide detailed comments.  I want to thank Bastienne D.C., Peter D., Kamil C., Maria-Sara F., Quassandra D., Daniel M., Carolynn B., Will E., Alin B., Aashiha B., and Myriam L., because their feedback improved the book immensely. 

There are two more experienced authors that helped point me in the right direction early on as I navigated the journey that is ‘publishing a book’.  Thank you, Alex Rosenblatt and Brahm Canzer.

I must also thank Kristie Stuckey, whose keen eye and countless iterations led to the lovely figures contained herein.

Pearl Levine provided a round of editing that was much appreciated (she also bakes amazing brownies).  Stef Caron used a fine comb and did a final, skillful pass through.

I have more colleagues at Vanier College to thank for their feedback and moral support along the way than I can fit here.  I want to give a shout out to the Vanier College Physics Department, whose combined wisdom helped refine the lens through which I see physics.  I also wish to thank Nicholas Park, Jean-François Brière, and Sameer Bhatnagar for reviewing portions of the book.  Similarly, I have been encouraged to write about physics by many friends, like Jon, Corey, Lorne, Peter, Tom, Rob, Jer, Christian, and Jeff to name a few.

I have had the honor of teaching more than 1,500 students.  My interactions with them helped shape me as an educator.  Their curiosity and resilience through adversity inspired me to keep pushing forward in my career.

I would have little connection to academic content, nor any practical skills without the teacher interactions I had as a student.  My fundamentals in math were solidified in college thanks to Denis Sevee and Frank Lovasco. Professor Andrew Higgins served as a model for how to communicate physics with gusto.  Gerard Carrier and Alpha Ross showed me the ropes in the space industry, upping my technical engineering game.  Finally, my mentor, Professor Arun Misra, taught me most of what I know about physics and engineering.  He introduced me to orbital mechanics, space elevators, space conferences, and how to write technical papers; most importantly, he personified how to approach one’s career and human interactions with integrity.  He has been my Mr. Miyagi.

Before any of this could happen, Mom, Dad, Jamie, you gave me a foundation upon which to build a life.  I was brought up in this nurturing family, even though my mother is not exactly sure where her science author son emerged from.

Val.  We were kids and then we grew into ourselves side by side.  You are my anchor in this life.  At this point, I suppose you get physics whether you like it or not.

Friday, November 25, 2022

Published in Scientific American!

This morning marks a big moment in my career.  I have long wished to be a popularizer of science, and there are few better venues for this than Scientific American.  I had originally submitted a very technical article about space elevators to them, but they asked for something more 'fun', so I rewrote it.  I am so pleased with the result: Space Elevators are Less Sci-Fi than you Think.  I feel quite elated on this November morning.

Friday, August 5, 2022

The Journey that is 'Publishing a Book'

Have you ever tried to publish a book?  If yes, I wonder if your experience tested your might the way mine has.  I have nearly crossed the finish line, but what a long and arduous road it has been (the publishing part, not the writing part).  If you are thinking about publishing a book, perhaps the following bits of wisdom gleaned throughout my soul-crushing journey will be of some benefit to you.

There are two main avenues to publication: to work with a publishing house or to go about it independently.  In the case of my forthcoming book, Getting Physics, I experienced both.  That, in and of itself, is an indicator that things did not go smoothly...

My first mistake: Writing the book before choosing the avenue for publication

If you intend to publish with a publishing house, it is far more efficient to make a book proposal, which includes a synopsis, proposed table of contents, marketing ideas, and perhaps two chapters, before completing a manuscript.  It turns out that even if you decide to publish independently, a book proposal is an excellent idea.  If you will be your own boss, you ought to provide yourself with a roadmap that considers the big picture.

Having written the book first, I backtracked and prepared a book proposal, and this process led me to modify my manuscript.  Armed with my book proposal, I now wished to find a publisher that was interested in my book.

I did some research, and found that the best way to get a good publisher is to get a literary agent.  They work on your behalf, meeting with established publishers, many of whom only consider works that arrive via such an agent.  It turns out that enticing a literary agent is about as hard as enticing a good publisher.

My second mistake: Having pride

I diligently prepared a list of literary agents that fit my work (non-fiction, popular science), got their contact info, and noted the package they wished to receive (usually a book proposal or a query, which is a much shorter synopsis of the project).  I sent in five tailored packages and waited for a response.  And waited.  I checked my email and junk mail more often than I care to admit.  Nothing.

I moved on from getting representation and began reaching out directly to publishers.  Again, I researched publishing houses with non-fiction pop-sci experience.  This time, I had a list of fifteen.  I sent out packages in groups of three.  I sometimes did get a reply, but it was never the green light I wanted.  There were some helpful back and forth exchanges, including brief explanations of why my book was not the right fit.  The main issue was that it was too lay to be a textbook, but too technical to be a lay book.  Well, that is exactly what I was going for: a book that would be challenging but accessible for a physics novice, and a light, enjoyable read for seasoned physicists.  I wrote it because that type of book did not exist, and it was the kind of thing my students needed; but the fact that it did not exist made publishers hesitant to sign a contract with a first-time science author not named Bill Nye.

With my pride swallowed and humble pie consumed, I remained committed to the project, and to working with a publishing house.  This set me up for my biggest mistake.

My third mistake: Signing on with an unestablished publisher

A colleague told me about her friend who had recently published with a new publishing house who shall go nameless.  I sent them a package and received a contract offer shortly thereafter.  I examined the contract and sent it to an author friend, who saw no major red flags.  I contacted one of the publisher's authors who spoke highly of his experience (his book was in sociology, not a natural science, but still, this gave me confidence to move forward).  I signed the contract, and celebrated my victory.

I completed a bunch of paperwork and tailored my manuscript to the publisher's standards within a month.  I recorded a promo video per their request.  Then, I waited months with little contact.  Eventually, they admitted that they could not find a content editor for science!  In the meantime, they decided to copy-edit (format) the book, and worry about finding a content editor afterwards.  The formatting process went on for months.  The final look of the book was not bad, but getting there required so much input from me (they clearly did not know what they were doing).  Months later, they still did not have a content editor for me, and I decided to part ways with them.  Both the publisher and I wasted nearly 18 months that felt like 36 in this process that almost caused me to give up on the book entirely.

The only good thing to come out of all of this is that the publisher's ineptitude forced me to learn a lot about publishing books.  This positioned me well to take on my latest (and, knock on wood, final) avenue for publication: KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing), which is run by Amazon.  The support at KDL via both online tools and actual humans you can call and who call you back within minutes or hours, was incredible (feedback with publishers happens on timescales of weeks and months).  Within weeks, the paperback was completed, and as I write, a proof hardcopy is on its way to my home by way of, well, Amazon.

I am not saying that all small publishers are bad, or that established ones only deal with established authors.  Everyone's publication journey is unique, and not all are fiascos like the one I have detailed here.  Still, I hope that some of this information will benefit another budding author on their road to publication.

My book has been a labor of love along a dirt road littered with shards of broken glass.  I hope that many will enjoy it once it becomes available.

Friday, January 7, 2022

David Suzuki's 'The Sacred Balance'

Like many, I have seen an uptick in my reading quota over the past couple of years.  My diet has included about 25% fiction, 25% biography, and 50% science non-fiction.  My favourite fiction was Matt Haig's The Midnight Library and my favourite non-fiction was probably David Suzuki's The Sacred Balance.  I had never read any of Suzuki's work, and although this one is more than a decade old, it seemed to be his defining work, so I went with it.

Suzuki is a prominent figure in Canada; he has been a leader in the sustainability movement for most of my life.  While my personal interest is in space exploration, there is no question that sustainability is the most pressing issue of our time.

The premise of the book is quite simple: while science is a powerful tool and a culmination of our collective creativity and curiosity, it has a tendency to be fragmented, failing to view ecosystems as a whole.  The findings of science has led to short-term increases in standard of living, increasing lifespan and comfort, but it has come at a major cost to the prosperity of our species in the long-term.  We are simply not thoughtful enough to use science conservatively; our economic system is based on unsustainable growth, and all political systems, thus far, have failed to prioritize the long-term.  Science, when perverted by runaway capitalism, is nothing short of a slowly burning fire on the global scale with nothing to put it out.  So, you know, this was a fun read in the midst of a global pandemic.

The thesis of the book is that we will not be able to control our planet with science for the foreseeable future.  If we wish to have a foreseeable future, we need to model our behaviour after civilizations that have lived in harmony with the sustaining features of Earth for hundreds of years: namely, indigenous people.  This does not mean we must abandon science and technology.  It simply means we must refocus it.  We must rethink our socio-political and economic systems; they must have sustainability sewed into their fabric.  In a finite system, growth is madness.  Growth is suicide.

The first half of the book focuses on the science of our sustaining systems and their interconnections: air, water, soil, solar energy, and biodiversity.  It is in this latter chapter that the writing flourishes.  A strong case is made that decrease in biodiversity hurts all species in the long run - it is a precursor to mass extinction.  Biodiversity becomes a measure of the long-term prosperity of our species, like placing a stethoscope to our existence on this planet.

The second half of the book is where its strength lies.  It talks about love and spirituality, the joys of being alive, the vitality that we are granted once our requirements of air, water, food, and warmth are met.  The final chapter is about restoring balance, not with further attempts to engineer our planet, but by allowing the ecosystems of Earth time to fix themselves - by getting out of the way.  We will need engineering to allow comfortable lives for our roughly eight billion population.  But it must be long-term-focused.  It must get out of the way.  This final chapter is about how we can get there.  It highlights stories of individuals, who become grassroot movements, who have come to effect macroscopic change.  Their stories must become a beacon for us.  They are truly motivational.  This motivation will be crucial in the way forward.

Last semester, a colleague of mine taught a sustainability course.  The experience left him disheartened because the students in the course did not believe humanity had the wherewithal to change.  They lacked faith in our species, and who can blame them?  In their lifetimes, world leaders have only set us in the wrong course, and these leaders often reflect the wants of the societies they represent.  I understand my colleague's sadness.  As a teacher, the students' morale is our morale.  And frankly, if today's young people have thrown in the towel, we are indeed a lost species.

One shining light, from my point of view, has been some sweeping change that we have seen over the last couple of years, in our response to a very different existential crisis: COVID-19.  Damn it!  I almost completed an article without bringing it up!  Maybe next time... But seriously, we saw a threat, and pivoted.  It was not pretty, and not without hardship, but as a species confronting a dangerous threat, we tried to make changes to adapt to the situation.  

Perhaps you have heard of the frog-in-the-pot analogy... A pandemic, to us, is like a frog that is dropped into a pot of boiling water.  We are that frog, still trying to climb out, the hot droplets of water striking our tushies.  

Our present situation, where our finite resources are being exacerbated, represents a different threat.  In this one, we are a frog in slightly warm water that is continuously being warmed further.  It will eventually boil.  In this scenario, a frog would likely meet its demise.  It would not instinctively react and jump out of the pot.  But we have an advantage over the frog.  We have tools, like a thermometer, and we understand the reasons for the warming of the water.  We can forecast, with limited but reasonable accuracy, the rate of warming that will occur if conditions go unchanged.  Armed with this, we can be smarter than a frog.  We can evolve our thinking, act responsibly, and earn the right to wield the powerful tools that science has unleashed.

It is essential that we react to our biosphere crisis with the same resolve as we did the pandemic.  We can do it.  At the very least, we can try.  But a sweeping response will only happen if a critical mass of people at all levels of society truly understand the severity of the situation.  They need to embrace the obvious truth that this threat is every bit as serious as a pandemic.  Its solutions are less scientifically complex than engineering a vaccine.  We just need to learn to get out of the way.  We need to exist within nature rather than attempt to manipulate it.  It is less about new science than it is about smart design.

We all know that science and technology can be abused.  We usually focus on the upside: agriculture nourishes the masses, electricity gives us light, warmth and comfort, and modern medicine reduces suffering and extends life.  But these are the very things that have allowed our population to balloon.  This larger population then demands the same kind of comfort, which means more brut engineering.  While this ballooning sounds like the opposite of extinction, it has taken an unprecedented toll on our sustaining systems in the blink of an eye.  

One way or another, this graph will come down.  But how will that journey look?  Will the descent entail pain and hardship?  Will it end at zero?  Or will we allow Earth's natural mechanisms the time needed to stabilize itself?  Will we be here to see it happen?  Will today's children come to know a world whose sacred balance has been restored?  Countless humans today have not given up.  Please be one of them.