Sunday, March 25, 2012

Ender's Game, The Movie

You know that uncomfortable feeling that you get upon learning that your absolute favourite novel will be spun into a Hollywood film?  I am currently dealing with such a feeling in regard to my favourite sci-fi novel, Ender's Game, which will hit the big screens in the spring of 2013.  On the one hand, I am excited to experience this wonderful story through a new medium, but on the other, I fear that the movie will not live up to the book. 

It is strange for one to have such strong feelings for a story that one takes offense to a lacklustre portrayal of it.  After all, I am not Orson Scott Card, the author of the Ender's Game series of novels, of which Ender's Game was the original publication.  But, that is what is special about a novel: the reader has the freedom to make the story their own, and in so doing, develops a much more intimate relationship with it than can be established through film.

I first read Ender's Game (I have read it twice since) in 1999, as part of a college English class.  The 1985 novel may be summarized as follows: Star Wars meets Harry Potter without the hocus pocus.  The story examines two advanced species, mankind and formics (commonly referred to as "buggers"), for whom this neighbourhood of the universe is not big enough.  The story unfolds almost entirely on a military base in space, where young boys and girls are trained in space war.  Harry Potter fans will draw comparisons between this training facility, known as Battle School, and Hogwarts, but to be fair, J. K. Rowling's fictional world was created after Card's.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Art of Presenting

As part of my physics courses, my students are usually required to perform a powerpoint presentation about a course-related topic that they find interesting.  As harmless as it sounds, the very idea of speaking in public induces fear in many of my students.  While I do sympathize with them, these presentations remain a part of my courses because (1) oral communication is an important skill, and (2) I feel that if you cannot communicate what you have learned, you have not learned it.

Jerry Seinfeld once observed that the number one fear of most people is public speaking, while number two is death.  He went on to muse that, at a funeral, the majority of people would rather be inside the casket than giving the eulogy. 

What is it about giving a presentation that is so scary?

Friday, March 2, 2012

Engineering Firms Can be a Drag

I had the great privilege of taking in a 45 minute long keynote speech by Canadian astronaut, Dr. Robert Thirsk, at a teacher's workshop last month.  The speech was about inspiring students to pursue the sciences, and also included an inside look at the incredible career that Dr. Thirsk has enjoyed.  To be clear, the overall message was not "Inspire young students in science and math and they will all become astronauts."  While the presentation did include awe-inspiring visuals of Dr. Thirsk floating in low Earth orbit, the take home message was grounded in reality: science is interesting and can lead to a wide spectrum of promising careers.

But, let's be honest.  No engineering career stacks up against what Dr. Thirsk and his handful of colleagues do. Not more than two years ago, the man at the microphone took part in forty unique science experiments over a six month period aboard the International Space Station.  He ate space food and exercised on specialized zero-g cardiovascular machines for two hours per day (to minimize bone density loss).  For every engineer that can boast about a work experience as rich as this, there are literally thousands who spend their days deciding whether to use three bolts or four bolts to connect parts at interfacing flanges.

What, in the first place, draws engineers to pursue a career in engineering?  Usually, possessing strong math skills and having a comfortable understanding of physics can sway a young student towards the direction of engineering.  However, the desire to work on ground-breaking projects - the first lunar mission, the first nuclear reactor - this is what budding engineers envision for themselves.  Engineers want to have a hand in shaping the technological landscape of the future.  The sad reality is that only so many hands have the opportunity to take part in such shaping.