Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Science Class I Wish I Had

I recently read a book called The Science Class You Wish You Had to get motivated and inspired for the new school semester.  It is authored by two brothers, David and Arnold Brody; the former is a science historian, and the latter a professor of pathology.  The book, written in 1997, describes the seven most important scientific discoveries of all time, and gives insights into the lives of the scientists who made them.

According to the authors, the top seven scientific discoveries in history are:

  •  Gravity and the basic laws of physics (Newton)
  • The principle of relativity (Einstein)
  •  The big bang and the formation of the universe (Hubble)
  • The structure of the atom (Rutherford and Bohr) 
  • Evolution and the principle of natural selection (Darwin)
  • The cell and genetics (Flemming and Mendel)
  • The structure of the DNA molecule (Watson and Crick)

In the list above, we have one discovery in chemistry sandwiched between three in physics and three in biology.  In each case, the story behind how the discovery was made is as interesting as the discovery itself.  Noticeably absent from the list is quantum physics, but it would be hard to knock anything off this list.  The importance of quantum physics has become more apparent over the past fifteen years (when the book was published) – today’s list of top discoveries should perhaps be extended to eight.

The vast majority of man’s science discoveries have taken place in the twentieth century.  With the exception of Newtonian physics, all six of the others listed came to fruition in the 1900s.  It appears that the most exciting period of time to be a scientist was between 1850 and 1950.  The explosion of scientific knowledge that occurred during that period will probably never be matched.  Although our current tools and sheer numbers allow us to drive science forward at a greater pace than ever before, today’s science attempts to push boundaries, whereas yesterday’s science discovered what those boundaries were.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Returning to School

A few days ago, I posted the question, "Who is more anxious about returning to school, the teachers or the students?" A friend of mine commented, "The parents."

Getting back into the school schedule is a challenge for all involved, but in the first week, standing in front of my first class, I was reminded of how much I enjoy being there.  Meeting new young people, with their own unique perspectives on life, on science, is so refreshing for me.

I can't say that I am looking forward to all of the course prep and piles of correcting that await me - I am teaching three college physics courses this semester.  But, these sacrifices are worth it, because the payoff is the time spent in class discussing physics.  A learning environment is a truly fortunate place to find oneself in.

I can appreciate the nerves from the students' perspectives.  Being a full-time student is hard these days.  Many of them work over twenty hours per week during the semester.  Some do it to pay for luxuries like cars and cell phones, but many do it to pay for their schooling as well as their bills at home.

Remarkably, some of these eighteen-year-old full-time students are living on their own, paying their own way.  I have a tremendous amount of respect, but also some sympathy for students in this situation.  I never had it so hard, and I can't imagine being able to enjoy my college years if I were placed in such trying circumstances.

Finding a life balance is a hard task for anyone.  Students and teachers alike need to plan their schedules carefully to maintain their mental health - to at the very least, survive, and in the best case, thrive.

I am looking at my busy schedule, wondering if it will be feasible for me to undertake some volunteer work with the Robotics Club at Vanier College.  As I struggle with this somewhat trivial decision, I remain humbled by students that I pass by in the halls, many of whom face far more daunting decisions than I.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

An Analytical Mind is Hard to Turn Off

Yesterday, as I watched my two-year-old daughter run along in the playground, I observed her pony-tail as it bobbed up and down.  Before I knew it, I was analyzing the motion of her hair as a function of time.  My mind raced through vibration textbooks and dynamics courses.  I decided that her pony-tail was similar to a one-degree-of-freedom system with base excitation, kind of like the chassis of a car as it drives along a bumpy road.

Considering the science behind a given situation is a regular occurrence for me, as I suppose it is for many scientists and engineers.  Once one has spent enough hours mastering a certain domain, that domain seems to find a special place in one’s brain, where it giddily awaits to be called upon.  Scientific thoughts appear in my mind at unexpected moments, and even turn up in my dreams – I can’t help it.

At a glance, this lack of control over my own thoughts can appear somewhat psychotic, but it is actually a common thing.  For example, try to hold the image of one simple thing in your mind, like for example, a grilled cheese sandwich.  Hold it there, and do not let anything else enter the picture you hold in your head.  OK, how long did you last, 5 seconds?  Less?

Total control of one’s thoughts is a tricky business, and is actually a skill that those who meditate try to develop.  I suppose it would be a necessary skill for a Jedi to master; how can one expect to control the thoughts of others if they cannot fully control those within their own minds?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The 2011 Space Elevator Conference

It is that time of the year again.  Over the course of this weekend (Aug 12 - 14), space elevator enthusiasts will gather in Redmond, Washington to present new research on what may well be the most exciting engineering project of the 21st century.  Those with little or no knowledge about the space elevator may wish to check out my space elevator page (link above) before reading on.

The space elevator topic is the focus of three annual conferences; the two other conferences are held in Japan and Europe, respectively, while this weekend's event is the North American edition.  I had the opportunity to attend and speak at the 2009 Space Elevator Conference, and have kept in contact with the small but growing space elevator community in North America.

Although I will not be attending the conference this year, I am on the judging panel for the Pearson and Artsutanov prizes, which are awarded to the best papers.  This year, the theme for these papers is research that will lead towards a material suitable for the construction of the space elevator ribbon.  The material challenge remains the most daunting technological one for the overall project.  In a way, this is a very good thing, because it is not an isolated challenge - stronger and lighter materials are being developed continuously for non-space related use as well.

The entity that organizes the Space Elevator Conference in North America is called ISEC (International Space Elevator Consortium).  ISEC seeks to aid in making the space elevator a reality sooner than later, and has taken a bold step this year by creating the journal, Climb: it is the first scientific journal specific to the space elevator topic.  The journal will help to centralize the state of the art for the space elevator project, and will be particularly important for space elevator academics that cannot attend the conferences.  Those interested in the space elevator project should consider joining ISEC, as the very reasonable membership fee includes a copy of Climb.

For those attending the conference this year, I hope that you enjoy it.  The space elevator project needs a community, and the conference helps to grow and strengthen it.  For more information regarding this weekend's conference, please click on this link.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Man's Gift Also His Curse

As I walked through a quiet nature trail in Vancouver’s beautiful Stanley Park, I noticed a sign indicating that a few foreign plants were spreading within the nature reserve.  These plants threatened to overtake the park, and perhaps replace certain species of the plant life over the coming decades.

The signs were written as a kind of warning not to introduce new plants into the park, but it prompted me to consider the following question: What is wrong with a little bit of biological competition?  If one species of plant should dominate another, is it not simply survival of the fittest?  By trying to control the local plant life, I feel as though mankind is overstepping its boundaries.

Life at all levels is in a constant struggle for survival, and it is through this struggle that it adapts or dies out.  Natural selection is merely nature’s “tough love”.

If survival were easy for hominids, perhaps Homo sapiens would never have evolved – these big brains of ours, which allow us to both understand and shape the world, would not have been required.  But man did evolve, and, the high intelligence that we have inherited through millennia of adaptation has placed us in a unique, privileged, but I would also argue, overwhelmed situation.