Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Energy is Nature's Currency and Work is how it gets Exchanged

December began with an article that related a healthy lifestyle to the first law of thermodynamics.  The first law says that the quantity of energy contained within a system must be conserved – never created or destroyed.  In relation to dieting, the lesson we may draw from this is that the amount of energy that we consume should be kept in check with respect to the amount of energy we output.  Short of bariatric surgery, we must output more than we input for our body to lose weight.

Let us now take a closer look at the first law of thermodynamics.  The conservation of energy principle has more to teach us than merely how to balance energy.  The law also establishes the concept of mechanical work.  Before getting into the physical definition of work, let us examine the traditional kind of work that we are all familiar with, like jobs and chores.
Have you ever heard a tough and hardened individual say, “You could learn a lot from a hard day’s work?”  We get more out of life when we put more into it.  As we will see, the benefits of working hard are actually predicted by the first law of thermodynamics.

Friday, December 24, 2010

God's Role in the Universe

Let me begin by saying that no one alive today can offer a complete proof as to whether or not God exists.  I was once at a talk where a philosophy professor proved the existence of a higher power.  Of course, his proof was based on a number of assumptions.
Who is God, and what role does He play in this Universe?  It is a philosophical question, and one well worth pondering.  As with most other thought-provoking questions to which there are no clear answers, the answer most parents would provide for their children is based on faith.  Many parents today will give an equally truthful response: “I don’t know.”
Still, man’s ability to observe the Universe, and make deductions based on what he finds, places him in a unique position.  Above all else, it is this unique skill combined with our insatiable curiosity that sets us apart from other animals.  Well, that, and we use rolls of soft tissue to clean our butts when we poop.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Video Game Technology

The holiday season is upon us, and we sometimes associate this period of time with gifts.  As a kid, the gift I received with the highest frequency was probably video games.

I remember my sixth birthday fairly well.  Nintendo had released its first gaming console at some point that year: “The Nintendo Entertainment System”.  I was lucky enough to get one for my birthday, along with the first edition of “Mario Bros”.  Two Italian plumbers took turns eating mushrooms, battling goombas, travelling through pipes, and leaping over crevices, all to the soundtrack of some of the most psychedelic music ever produced to date.  I would love to have been in the boardroom when the makers of this first adventure video game were proposing their vision for it.  They must have been very creative and very high.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Physicist's Guide to Surviving a Montreal Winter

In the sixties, a band called “The Zombies” sang: “It’s the time of the season for loving.”  Now that December has rolled around, it’s the time of the season for freezing if you live north of the equator, and reasonably far from it.  Those of us who actually experience four distinct seasons usually agree that it is good for the soul to see our environment change.  Still, as we dump cat litter under our snow tires before giving the car yet another push, many of us would like to skip over winter.  We curse its arrival every year, and even vacation far from it when the opportunity presents itself.
Winter is very particular.  You can examine a picture of downtown Montreal in mid-February, and know with absolute certainty that you are looking at the winter season.  Snow is the symbol of winter, and after a quarter of a metre of the stuff got dumped on my walkway and driveway last week, I set out at 6:30 am to displace it.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Toddler at Night as Predicted by Material Science

A few days ago, at around 8:00 pm, my 17-month-old daughter was standing in the living room, when she suddenly began to spin herself in circles in an effort to induce dizziness and fall down.  She seemed to enjoy it a lot.  After a few nice, relatively harmless tumbles, she eventually made herself so dizzy, that she fell, smacking her face directly onto the hardwood floor.  At that moment, the “witching hour” ended with a brief fit of crying, and it was time for bed.

As a parent of a toddler, I am beginning to see the importance of recognizing toddler fatigue.  The witching hour is an unofficial domain of time where an otherwise normal child goes bananas.  Imagine how a prison inmate gradually loses his mind in isolation over a period of months, and condense that experience into one hour, and you begin to depict the decline of a toddler in the evening.  For my daughter, this strange yet entertaining timeframe seems to occur between the end of dinner and bedtime.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The First Law of Dieting

*** Disclaimer: While the laws of thermodynamics apply unconditionally to everyone, I am no dietician, and so my proposed law of dieting is based on opinion, and may not apply to all dieters. ***
The holiday season is upon us, and there are two things we can expect with certainty once December is complete: (1) 2010 will become 2011, and (2) in the month of January, we will be inundated with new dieting suggestions. 
A quasi-doctor with nice teeth and salon-fresh hair will push her new-age plant diet, which involves eating anything in your home that grows from soil.  A very muscular chiropractor who graduated from I-Wish-I-Was-A-Dr. University will counter this ad with his “Nothing but Brownie” diet, which promises to make each of your bowel movements smell like Parisian baked goods.   

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Education Corporation

I have work experience in both the private and public sector, and have noticed a fair bit of commonality between the two.  This is not surprising, as no matter what kind of work you are involved in, no matter where the funding is coming from, there is a job to be done. 
I worked at a space engineering corporation in the private sector for a few years.  Like any corporation, the whole point of its existence is to make money, and thus the whole function of the worker at the end of the day is to contribute to that cause.  This is the fundamental reason why I could not stay in the private sector; the capital driven corporate culture does not propel me out of bed in the morning.  My reaction was not extreme disgust, but rather, apathy for the cause.  How much does money drive corporations?  It is illegal for a CEO of an American corporation to make a decision that could reduce its shareholder’s share value.  Illegal! 

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Slaves to our Bodies

Life can be going along swimmingly one day only to turn utterly miserable the next, and the change can be solely attributed to a change in health.  The human body is a wonderful transport vessel for our respective journeys through life, but damage to the haul, engine failure, or a computer virus wreaking havoc with the operating system can make the trip a bumpy one.  The vessel’s state of well-being can turn ugly due to mismanagement, making it prone to trouble, by choosing to smoke on deck or drink way too much while on duty.  Most of the time, however, when the ship takes a turn for the worse, it is simply a case of bad luck: Unavoidable bad weather, an iceberg that appeared out of nowhere, or just the fatigue failure of an old part.  These are sometimes referred to as acts of God.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Human-Centric Mentality

Galileo Galilei was an italian physicist, mathematician, astronomer and philosopher, and is often referred to as the father of modern science.  In the year 1610, his research led him to believe that the Earth revolved around the Sun.  He was warned by the Catholic Church to abandon this view as it was “false and contrary to Scripture”.  In 1632, Galilei was placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life, as he continued to support the heliocentric view.  These primitive minds, which could accept that the world was not flat (after some convincing), were very uncomfortable with the idea that the Universe did not revolve around them.  When it was later discovered that these orbits were elliptical in general, and not circular, the religious leaders of the day objected yet again, because God would only draw perfect shapes (who are we to define what a perfect shape is?).  Mankind has since, to a certain extent, accepted its place in the Universe.  However, its feelings of self-importance in this Universe have not changed all that much.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Relativity of Religion

On June 30, 1905, Albert Einstein proposed that the Universe worked much different than the way anyone alive had supposed it did.  In short, Einstein’s theory of special relativity claims that space and time are not absolute quantities, but are rather malleable, relative scales of measurement.  This astonishing statement, which has not been disproven in the 105 years that have passed since its inception, should boggle your mind unless you have been aware of it for some time.  As I tell my Modern Physics students, if special relativity does not disturb you to the core the first time you hear it, it is because you did not really hear it.  The theory, which has attained law status, goes against everything we observe in our day to day lives.  For this reason, special relativity, which shows that classical physics only applies perfectly to relatively stationary objects, went unnoticed for so long. 
It should be noted that Einstein did not notice that time dilates for two objects moving at relative speeds, he just had a strange intuition that light was special, and wished to understand it better.  His journey towards this understanding required a certain leap of faith.  When Einstein was on this historic path of discovery, he told his friends that he wanted to get inside the head of God, to which they replied, “Could you tell him to pick my 6/49 numbers?"

Thursday, November 11, 2010

We Must Always Question Science

I am currently taking my Physics students through a quick synopsis of modern physics.  I have to catch myself on occasion from stating any relatively recent science developments as though they are factual.  The stories behind modern scientific discoveries are factual, but we must not be too quick to dub any finding a scientific law.

What in the scientific realm can we say we are completely certain of?  A scientific law is a rule that, in the eyes of the scientific community, has not yet been broken.  In science, we begin with a hypothesis or an observation, and devise an experiment that will test it.  Eventually, a theory becomes a law if it appears to stand the test of time.  It is easy to disprove a law; it just takes one example.  It is nearly impossible to prove a law to be true.  Mathematics is a relatively pure and exact discipline, and is borrowed by the science community on a regular basis.  Science is not a pure discipline in the sense that there is always human error associated with it.  By error, I do not mean calculation error, although there are plenty of those too. 

Fundamental scientific errors are made when the experiments are devised as a means of proving something.  This process is very difficult, as it requires a particular setup, and, inevitably, certain assumptions must be made.  Essentially, all experiments require that the scope of what is being tested be narrowed.  Although tempting, it is dangerous to expand the experiment’s results as applicable to other test setups.  A scientist’s greatest desire is to generalize a concept, but it is a leap that must be based on further experimentation, not a hunch.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Obama Backlash Defies Science

In recent weeks, I have heard far too many unfounded, outrageous complaints about the work of President Obama.  There has been a backlash against the democrats in the United States, which has resulted in a right-sided victory in the 2010 midterm elections.  As the republicans march on with smirks on their faces, I feel that Americans have been unfair in their analysis of Obama.  Worse, I believe they are, on average, ignorant and/or misinformed, and easily swayed by the media, whose representatives appear to also be ignorant and/or misinformed.  You know there is something wrong with the mainstream news in America, when the voice of reason, the only rational pundit on television, is Jon Stewart, whose Daily Show airs on Comedy Central.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Stephen Hawking, Rock Star Physicist

There are not that many parallels one can draw between Keith Richards and Stephen Hawking.  They are both British, they are both in their sixties, and, uh, they are both from England.  One is a theoretical physicist, and the other uses his body as an ongoing experiment, in a cause and effect sort of way.  Keith Richards is a legendary rhythm guitar player, while Stephen Hawking is today’s leading Physicist, in terms of accomplishment and reputation.  Though you could not find two more different specimens, I would argue that both are rock stars.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Good Vibrations

The vibrations that the Beach Boys were singing about were probably the kind felt emotionally for something or someone else.  Vibrations, however, exist in many forms.  Engineers are often concerned with the mechanical kind, which manifest in all kinds of structures, such as bridges and tall buildings.  These vibrations are caused by an external excitation, such as an earthquake or high winds.  Musicians are interested in transmitting sound waves, and causing vibrations in their listeners’ ear drums.  In the most general sense, a vibration can be thought of as something that moves back and forth repetitively, such as a buoy bopping up and down in a lake, a stock price during the course of a week, or a person’s mood during the course of a day.
Vibrations occur around a specific ‘average value’.  In science, this value is known as equilibrium.  If left untouched, all mechanical items find and stay in their equilibrium positions.  If a spectator at a Tennis match is twisting his head back and forth to follow the ball, his equilibrium position occurs when he is looking straight ahead.   The vibration from side to side can be thought of as the search for equilibrium. 

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Large Hadron Collider

In the Waves Physics course that I teach, the students regularly enter the lab to perform a fairly rudimentary experiment that aims to prove a certain law introduced during a lecture.  Today, for example, the students will be playing with thin, converging lenses, and proving that the image of an object may be real or virtual, depending on whether the object is located inside or outside the focal length of the lens.  This simple Optics experiment involves light, but it surprises my students to learn that man, even today, with all its fancy gadgets, does not know the true nature of light. 

We know a lot more about light than our ancestors did two hundred years ago.  We know that it behaves like an electromagnetic wave, travelling through the void of space at about 300,000 km/s.  Light was Albert Einstein’s lifetime muse, and led to his most important discoveries: special relativity, E = mc2, and general relativity.  Einstein was disturbed by quantum physics, and wished to quantify light without it.  Today, physicists are struggling to connect Einstein’s general relativity to the accepted, but incomplete study of quantum physics.  They wish to develop a “Unified Theory,” or, one equation for everything.  In order to do so, they need to find and determine the behaviour of all of the elementary particles that make up the matter in the Universe.

Although the Universe is composed of the elements in the periodic table, these elements are not elementary particles.  An elementary particle, by definition, is not composed of smaller building blocks.  All atoms are composed of protons, neutrons and electrons.  Scientists today believe that electrons are elementary particles, but do not believe that protons or neutrons are.  Today, thirty-eight countries and three thousand scientists are working together, wishing to study the dozens of theoretical elementary particles, like those that may comprise a proton, by means of the most expensive Physics experiment ever developed: The Large Hadron Collider (LHC). 

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Search for Intelligent Life

The title of this article does not mean to imply that humans are not intelligent.  It refers to the ongoing search in the Universe for intelligent life other than human beings, and some other animals here on Earth.  I should point out that humans have proven themselves to be unintelligent on many occasions.  One of the best comic strips I have ever seen has two aliens discussing the homo-sapiens they recently discovered on this planet called Earth.  One says to the other: “The Earthlings have placed weapons of mass destruction in orbit around their planet”.  To which the second alien asks, “An emerging intelligence?”  The first alien responds, “They have the weapons ... pointed at ... themselves.”  The two aliens then stare at each other in a very confused state.  Frankly, given the frequency with which our species attacks itself, it is amazing we’ve made it this far; but that is the subject for another article.
As of late, there have been an increased number of UFO sightings.  I am skeptical of these for many reasons.  From my point of view, these light shows in the sky have been planted by groups of people as a hoax, similar to the teams of attention-seekers who have been making crop circles in the backyards of defenseless farmers for decades.  With improved technology, these folks have taken their shows to the skies.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

We Know Too Much

In some ways, life was so much simpler a thousand years ago.  If you were an adult living at this time, chances are, you knew just about everything there was to know.  You were informed on the best agriculture techniques of the day, the best hunting methods, and the appropriate medicines for any ailments.  You, and all adults in your community, knew that a wheel rolled, that a lever was useful for lifting heavy things, that sharp things were good for cutting, and that a wound could heal quicker if pressure were applied to it.  You knew everything you needed to know to survive, and a little more.  You believed, wrongly, that the Sun revolved around the Earth; but, to your credit, so did your neighbour.
A lot has changed in the ensuing years.  The quantity of knowledge amassed by man during these years is truly astonishing; particularly in the past one hundred years.  If we consider our current net volume of knowledge, we may literally blow our minds.  To avoid scraping our brain bits from the walls, we tend to set limits on what we are willing to learn.  A scientifically inclined individual like me will tend not to read textbooks on Politics, and most politicians do not know the second law of thermodynamics. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Power of Robotics

What kid doesn’t like robots?  I remember dressing up like one as a child.  It was a suggestion from my “Big Book of Fun.”  In hindsight, the fact that my seven-year-old self worked his way through that book makes the scientific career path I’ve taken seem somewhat predictable.  I suppose I have always had a strong affinity for robots.  My eyes widened when, as a preteen, I was completely immersed in the film, “Terminator 2: Judgement Day,” which revolved around two robots sent back in time.  Robotics and time-travel!  My developing nerd senses must have been tingling.

Monday, October 11, 2010

What is an Engineer?

To pin-point exactly what it is that an engineer does is not an easy task.  In essence, an engineer is a problem-solver.  However, the engineer of today applies his or her skills to such a vast array of scientific fields and performs such a wide variety of tasks – today’s engineer does more than solve problems.  To engineer something is to create it, modify it, upgrade it and/or test it.  To be an engineer, one must often do much more than that. 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

My Daughter, the Physicist

I recall a time when my young daughter could not form a sentence yet, but I recall thinking that she totally gets Newtonian Mechanics.  As a proud father, I was inclined to believe that she was a gifted 15-month-old, but I'd observed other toddlers, and must admit that they too demonstrate a solid understanding of Mechanics, the oldest branch of Physics.  To be clear, these thumb-sucking individuals would struggle mightily in my Mechanics course, let alone get through the three-hour final without wetting themselves.  

 Without basic linguistic or mathematical skills, a baby cannot be expected to understand or express the laws studied in the course or solve computational problems (their unrefined motor skills lead to calculation errors).  However, these diaper-clad kiddies perform experimental studies in classical physics on a daily basis.  Every day, as they learn to exist within their environment, they make observations on the laws that govern it.  Through experience, they discover how to thrive within these universal constraints.