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

Thursday, December 20, 2018

My Unforgettable Mechanics Class: Fall 2018

I have just finished grading their final exams, and I am stunned.  I am overjoyed.  Let me tell you the story of an educational experience that 41 students and this teacher shared and will never forget.

I want to first describe the students making up this 2018 Honours Science Cohort at Vanier College as individuals.  They are polite, respectful, and sincere.  Some are loud, like very loud.  Only a few of them were 'good at Mechanics' when I met them, but nearly all of them would climb Mount Everest if they would be granted Mastery of the subject upon arrival (or a grade that is sufficient for admission to Medical School... Or whatever their motivation is - I really cannot tell anymore).

More importantly, let me describe them as a group.  They are louder.  They are crazy.  They are a mob.  They breathe so much energy into a room that the walls begin to oscillate.

My view from the front of the classroom is as follows: Take 41 eighteen-year-olds, and ask them to eat nothing but chocolate covered espresso beans for an entire day, and avoid sleep for an entire week.  They were a combination of awake and asleep, standing while falling... They were completely insane and, at times, brought me to the cusp of my own sanity.

Instead of going entirely nuts myself, I managed to be an adult, and to just be inspired by them.  More than anything, the fact that the median grade on their first college physics exam was 82% (15% higher than many groups taking the same exam) gives me hope that smart kids who try hard will find their footing in life.  There were lessons along the way, though.  Lots of them.

Lesson (1): Sleep.  Each night, 6 hours is a minimum amount to function for any reasonable amount of days.  This would have helped the small subset of students who actually forgot to answer some questions on the final exam (this happened way more often with this group than normal... I attribute this to a lack of sleep).  I know that they did not run out of time, because some of them had time to talk to themselves during the exam, while another managed to compose a poem about the semester.

Lesson (2): Study effectively.  Not hours of random internet videos... Review notes, quizzes, labs.  Think about the course material, and ask questions in class or visit the teacher's office whenever it might be useful.

Lesson (3): Making mistakes can be a part of learning.  The reason these students achieved something unprecedented in my nearly one decade of teaching fundamental physics (no class of mine had ever reached a median of 76% before on a first college final exam, and this class blew past that record) is because they asked a lot of questions, performed somewhat poorly on some quizzes, and eventually, righted their own ship.

The most critical lesson is one they will hopefully learn soon: they need not make one thousand mistakes in terms of study habits and time management to achieve these remarkable results again.  They just need to apply themselves, and act with the confidence that they have earned the right to possess.  A less frenetic semester can still be successful, and can leave time for non-academic activities, which is actually very important.

This is a story of a bunch of crazy science students who took ownership of their education both as individuals, and as a collective.  I hope their parents read this, because I do not shower people with compliments when they are not merited.

I will not say I was asleep when I met this group of students just 17 weeks ago, but I was not the same person.  They have had a hand in changing me - hopefully for the better.  I just need to sleep for about a week, then I'll be good.  I will be ready to face them again in January - turns out I will have the opportunity be their teacher again (teaching the same cohort of students a second course will be a first for me).

When I meet this group again in 2019, I will try to employ some of the lessons that I learned while watching them have the most important, and most exhausting semester of their lives.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Loneliness in a Year of Miracles

What follows is a completely fictitious letter from Albert Einstein to his mother translated from German to English.

December 31, 1905

Dear Mother,

It feels like it has been a big year, so why do I feel so lonely?

Hans turned one this year, and I received my PhD also; on these, everyone seems to agree.  However, none of my prominent peers in Physics seem to agree with any of my deepest held convictions, which I have had the opportunity to publish this year.

In June, I published a paper stating that light is not merely a wave, but a particle too, as the nature of its interactions occur at one point, and one at a time.  These one-off interactions may be referred to as quanta.  Anyway, I had a dream that this will spin into something neat called quantum physics and that this paper, which describes the photoelectric effect, is central to the whole thing.

In September, I published another paper that just has to be right, because it so beautiful.  This paper states that time is not absolute.  It should probably be referred to as special relativity on the grounds that it is not so general as to include accelerating reference frames, but the name works also because it just feels very special to me - but it seems, at times, only to me.  I had a dream that God is laughing at me.  I am just trying to make sense of His universe.

In November, I published yet another paper that I feel is important; it is too soon to say whether any of my contemporaries will agree.  It argues that mass m and energy E are equivalent entities, tied together by the simplest of equations, "'E' equals 'm''c' squared," where c is the speed of light.  I had yet another dream, where this became the most famous equation on planet Earth.

Earth... You know mother, something seems wrong about gravity.  Newton's gravity just does not work on a number of levels.  Just last night, I had a dream that some years from now, I will crack that one, and call it general relativity.

Sorry if I am boring you.  At a time when so few hold my ideas in high regard, I needed to vent a bit.  Also, the food sucks.  Same stuff all the time.  OK, mother, I feel better now.

With love, your tired 26-year-old son, Albert.


As it turns out, Einstein's relative loneliness in the physics world would persist for some time.  The first prominent physicist to support Einstein's Annus Mirabilis (Year of Miracles, as it is often referred to) papers was Max Planck.  Still, information moved slowly at that time, and it took a few years before Einstein and his ground-breaking work was embraced by the physics community at large.

He became a household name in 1919, when news came that his three-year-old general relativity theory had been validated experimentally.  In 1921, Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize for his contribution to quantum physics via his theoretical depiction of the photoelectric effect.

Looking back at 1905, it is remarkable, though not at all inconceivable, that Einstein's outlandish claims were largely ignored.  Today, some scientists with wild ideas that appear to contradict the status quo are labelled quacks by the scientific community.  Sometimes, the term is merited, and other times, it is not.

The top lesson I retain from Einstein's lonely year of miracles is this: it is fine, even admirable, to remain steadfast in our convictions, even when those around us remain unconvinced.  A secondary, though no less valuable lesson, is that having a mentor in your corner like Max Planck is never a bad thing.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

A Final Exam Blessing

To those not studying, this may seem odd, but it has happened more than once that a student has asked me for a blessing just before the start of a three-hour final exam I am about to invigilate.  The post-secondary teacher/student relationship has changed since I was a student.  I look them in their eyes, and offer a few words of encouragement.

After giving more thought to the appropriate words to give, I want to lay them out here.  I am calling it:

A Final Exam Blessing (the long version)

Here you are and how far you have come.  There is fear in your eyes and worry in your heart, but it is all misplaced.  Let me explain.

If you are worried today, it is probably true that you have been worried all semester.  That worry, so long as it is measured and not disproportionate, has served you well.  It has pushed you to master content to the best of your ability given the constraints of time, life, and your effectiveness as a student.

If this is you, then you need not fear today.  Take your fear and transform it into confidence.  You need not worry either.  Worry is for yesterday.  On the day of the exam, take your worry and transpose it to alertness and focus.  Dark chocolate will help you to do this.

If the above does not describe you, and you do indeed have what to fear because you are indeed under-prepared, much of the same applies.  You are, and probably have been for some time, in what may be referred to as 'damage control mode'.  It is a hard place to function for extended periods of time.  The good news is it will be over soon, as next semester is a new one, and you are free to transform from the start, and alter your functioning such that the patterns that did not serve you this semester are replaced by patterns that do.

I want to tell you about one student I had some years ago.  She may be unaware of this to this day, but she actually smiles from ear to ear while taking exams.  I never told her about it, because I did not want her to be self-conscious about it.  From my point of view, I had to restrain myself from laughing during examinations. There were forty students sitting in front of me; thirty-nine of them looked mildly panicked, and one is simply beaming.  In another context, this could be the setup to an exceptional horror film.

I am not suggesting that you should smile while writing exams.  What I am suggesting is that the confidence you have rightfully earned should allow you to smile on the inside while you maintain your serious exterior.

Be alert.  Remain focused.  Hundreds of hours have been invested on your part - your worry is now over.  It is actually possible to enjoy the moment, and celebrate how far you have come.

A Final Exam Blessing (the short version)

Here you are and how far you have come

There is fear in your eyes and worry in your heart, but it is all misplaced

You need not fear - take your fear and transform it into confidence
You need not worry either - worry is for yesterday
On the day of exam, take your worry and transpose it to alertness and focus

 In this moment, celebrate how far you have come.