Friday, December 30, 2011

The Engineer's Pulse 2011 Year in Review

As the year winds down, it is an appropriate time to reflect on it, and also to plan for 2012.  At this time last year, I set some goals for my blog in 2011, and although not all were reached, the most important one was: I wrote articles consistently throughout the entire year.

The lesson that I take from this is that an ambitious goal may be reached by setting many small achievable ones.  In 2011, I posted 61 articles.  While some might call these posts, my readers will defend me when I say that my written pieces are not typical "posts" just as this site is not a typical "blog".  My articles are usually about 1,000 words, but sometimes 2,000 words.  If the average post is 1,200 words, then I wrote over 73,000 words on various topics within the realm of science and engineering over the course of this year.

It would seem daunting to commit to the goal of writing 73,000 words in a year, particularly if it were done on the side, like a hobby, as is the case for me.  I mean, this many words could easily fill a full fledged book.  I instead committed myself to write about one article per week.  As each article represents a very reasonable task on its own, the final result, while it appears grandiose when surveyed as a whole, was arrived at without much stress or concern.

I am happy to report that the audience for my blog grew steadily throughout the year.  To be sure, my articles have not gone viral - I remain jealous of the viewership of YouTube videos of cats rolling around in vomit, which easily generate millions of hits just days upon their uploading.  I suppose my site is more like a slowly growing bacteria; I like to think that my blog is going bacterial.

During the month of January 2011, I had just over 400 hits.  Over the last three months of this year, the blog averaged 3,000 hits.  While these numbers are not huge by any measure, I am still excited that thousands of people around the world are taking the time to read my words, which include some fairly in-depth discussions of reasonably complex content.  There are no cute cats on my site, nor is there anything gross or shocking.  Visitors to my blog have a head on their shoulders, and in general, have an earnest desire to be informed about new technologies and scientific discoveries.  I would describe my current audience as small but mighty.

All this being said, never before 2011 could I state that thousands of people have taken the time to consume anything that I produced.  And, although the comments board is not as busy as I'd hoped it would be this year, there have been many interesting and thoughtful comments posted by many.  Thanks to all who have taken the time to continue the discussions that I try to stimulate within my articles.  The nice thing about receiving just a few comments every week is that I can easily keep up with them, and post responses.  Please, keep them coming.

This year, I posted about topics ranging from aerospace to quantum physics to God.  And, despite all of the deep, existential discussions, which seem to me to be the most intriguing, the most read article of mine this year, was "Why Don't Airplanes Flap Their Wings?" which was read by 860 people.  This tells me that people want to know how every day technologies work.  I will continue to discuss technologies that we take for granted in 2012, and if a few more people understand the basic principles behind the tools with which they interact through a quick read on my site, then I am happy for it.

In the month of March, I had Aerospace Month.  As this was a relative success, I plan on having one or more themed months in 2012 - I am leaning towards an "Energy Month".

One other important addition in 2011 was the "For Physics Students" page, which I have been building.  In truth, "The Engineer's Pulse" has become much more student-centered than I had originally planned for.  Many of my favourite articles to write are inspired from content that I teach, and writing the articles empowers me to give clearer and more compelling lectures.  The truth is that even if this blog never becomes very 'popular', it will not have been a wasted effort, as it has proven itself to be an extremely useful teaching tool for me.

That being said, please do not hesitate to pass my articles along via whatever means (Facebook, Twitter, etc) to anyone whom you know that may find them interesting.  Do you know any science-minded students or tech-savvy adults?  Send them my way.

I wish all of you a prosperous 2012.  Oh, and by the way, I have seen the future, and I am glad to report that the world does not end.  On the downside, Donald Trump gets elected as the President of the United States.  Hmm, maybe that is the end that the Mayans were referring to all along.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Goldilocks Planets No Fairy Tale

Throughout the twentieth century, it was not all that uncommon to hear of graduate physics students running down the halls calling out, "We found a new one!"  Such a claim usually meant that a new elementary particle had been observed in the lab, be it the muon or gluon.  The count for such particles has remained at sixteen for some time.  The large hadron collider may soon allow the long theorized but ever evasive Higgs Boson to be observed, thereby raising the tally to seventeen.  This discovery would complete the list theorized by what is commonly referred to as the standard model.

These days, when physicists are found doing their celebratory dances, it is usually because a new planet has been discovered.  And, if that planet happens to be a Goldilocks planet, they really bust a move.

Goldilocks planets lie a distance from their star such that the surface temperature can allow for water in liquid form.  Like the porridge in the famous fairy tale, the surface temperature of such planets are not too hot or too cold; they are just right.  Planets in the "Goldilocks Zone" for a given star may be conducive for the evolution of life.  And, if other conditions are met, it is possible that other communicable societies currently call the surfaces of such planets their home.  However improbable this may be, the fact that it is not impossible is one reason why the discovery of such planets is cause for celebration among physicists and astronomers, and why it is thought-provoking for us all.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Reliable Sources: Peter Hadfield Exposes McExperts

"McExpert" is perhaps my favourite word that I have learned this year.  The term, which seems to have been coined by former New Scientist journalist Peter Hadfield, describes a person who speaks authoritatively on subjects for which they have no expertise.  More specifically, it describes someone like, say, Glen Beck, who applies a fast-food approach to his own learning and then disseminates it to his disciples.

It might be reasonable to fault Beck's followers for being so gullible and for considering him a credible source, but to focus criticism on them rather than Beck would be like faulting misbehaving children rather than their neglectful parents.

Indeed, Beck is a classic McExpert; he is endowed with a super-sized ego, but is completely devoid of any reason or integrity.  The label is just so fitting - ten minutes listening to him is akin to downing a fast-food combo, which is calorie rich and nutrient deficient.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Slow Death of Creationism

Creationism, the notion that all life on Earth was created at one instant around five thousand years ago and has not evolved since, is one of many baseless concepts in society that just refuses to die.

I recently came across a talk discussing the current status of creationism being taught in the classroom.  It appears that in the United States of America, creationism is alive and well in many states.  But, I must say, I do not know just how long this silliness can endure.

The very idea of teaching creationism in a science class is contradictory.  Science is an evidence-based field of study, and there is no evidence on which one can base the theory of intelligent design (another name for creationism).

Monday, December 5, 2011

Students in Crisis

In the few years that I have been teaching physics at college, I have never come across a greater number of distraught students than I have this semester, the Fall of 2011.  Of the seventy students I have taught or mentored, no less than fifteen have experienced a personal crisis at some point in the past four months - that translates to over 20%.

Though I am not a professor of sociology, I am well aware that this case study is in no way thorough.  An actual case study would involve a much larger group of students, pooling several class sections across many different educational institutions.  Also, my students did not fill out a survey.  I suppose the last weakness in my statistical assessment is that the situations that may constitute a crisis are defined subjectively here by me.

Placing these shortcomings aside, there is no denying that more than 20% of the students that I have encountered this semester have brought personal concerns to my attention that I deem to be severe for any adult to deal with, but particularly severe for a young adult between 17 and 20 years old (the typical age group of my students).  It is worth noting that there may be some students in my small sample group who experienced a crisis, but were not tallied in my count, as they did not decide to inform me of their problems.  So, the 20% figure is likely a low estimate.

Members of society who view collegiate students as unthoughtful, pot-smoking, lazy teenagers ought to revisit this unfair stereotype.  My sense is that for every student that is coasting through life with a sense of entitlement, there is at least one with his or her back against the wall.  Today's young adult student has bills, demanding jobs, and too often, family problems.  In my view, adults should consider a more empathetic view when framing college students.  Many of these eighteen-year-olds are not experiencing the prime of their lives.