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.