Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 Year in Review

As I usually do at the end of a year, this post summarizes some of the exciting science and engineering stories of 2013 and provides a quick status of this blog, The Engineer's Pulse.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Learning is Not Fun

I had coffee with a professor of engineering this week and the subject of teaching came up.  The man across from me, with far more experience in education than I, said something that stopped me in my tracks: "Learning is not fun."  From his point of view, I must have looked like a deer in headlights.  After careful consideration though, I now agree with this simple statement.

Interestingly, when children enter the education system, we tell them just the opposite.  Experts in education proudly chant, "Learning is fun!"  But, it's a lie.

Learning is a lot of things.  It is empowering.  It is possibly the greatest investment one can make in oneself.  But when someone tells you that learning is fun, they do not speak for the majority of people.

Consider a person who wishes to play the drums.  They think, "It would be fun to play the drums at a high level."  While this is true, the process one must undertake to transform oneself into a professional musician is arduous.  One must focus for countless hours to train the body and mind through repetitive exercises.  Learning is hard work, and hard work is not enjoyable for most people.  In this context, the joy of life may well be the destination and not the journey.

This is a hard pill for me to swallow.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Five Senses and Robotics

"If you had to choose, would you rather be deaf or blind?"  This was a fairly common question that kids asked each other when I was growing up.  I think my answer was "deaf", and I think it still is today.

When we have all of our senses, we often take them for granted, forgetting that there would be absolutely no way to perceive reality without them.  The least important senses in the modern world are probably a tie between smell and taste.  Although, I can imagine a time when these were necessary to correctly judge whether or not something was safe to eat.

I would argue that the single most important sense, however, is touch.  This one is probably taken for granted more than the others, and it actually encompasses so much of our interaction with the world.  Unlike the other four senses, which are local, this sense is global.  We have countless receptors all over our body sending information to our brains.  In particular, these receptors measure temperature and pressure: two critical inputs to safely navigate life.

In truth, sense of touch is not really an appropriate term.  We never actually touch anything.  The electrons at the tips of our fingers repel those of adjacent surfaces.  It is for this reason that a "push force" is actually an electromagnetic force.  When we press our fingertips against something we cannot see, we judge it to be soft or firm based not on what it does, but rather what it does to us.  A given force per unit area at the contact causes our fingertips to deform slightly (to strain), and our internal pressure sensors inform us about what we are "touching".

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Future of Speeding Tickets

Radar guns work by way of the Doppler Effect principle.  A signal is sent from the radar gun to the moving vehicle.  The signal reflects off of the vehicle and strikes the radar gun where it originated from.  The radar gun compares the received signal to the one it sent, and then, based on the frequency shift, computes the speed of the moving vehicle.  This very same principle is invoked to determine the relative velocity of distant stars based on the frequency shift of the light they emit.

When I first learned about the Doppler Effect and its application to handing out speeding tickets, I wondered why policeman were always stationary while using it.  After all, the devices measure relative velocity, so if the motion for the radar gun itself were accounted for, it could still compute the absolute speed of moving cars with sufficient accuracy.  For example, a radar gun could be mounted onto a police car, and have the vehicle's speedometer as an input - the device could then fire radio signals to cars behind and in front, receive the echo, compute the relative velocity, and then the absolute speed.  When I mention this to my students, they sometimes respond with, "Don't give the cops any ideas."

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Halloween: A Celebration of Fear

Halloween was always one of my favourite days of the year as a child.  Even as an adult, I get a small rush as the last day of October approaches; I even get to relive the experience through the eyes of my own kids - one will be Spider-man, the other a kitten.  I love it all, from the costumes to the pumpkins and candy.  But what fascinates me most about Halloween is the spookiness that goes along with it.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Q-Ray and Critical Thinking

Advertisements for the "Q-Ray" have me shaking my head again.  You've no doubt seen an ad for the metal bracelet that can improve your life in every conceivable way.  How can these metal bands help its wearer navigate life's obstacles, you ask?  Well, they are positively charged you see, and this charge will seep into the wrist it sits on, and then consume the body of the individual.  A better question might be, "How many illicit drugs were the makers of these 'devices' on when they thought people would be dense enough to believe this nonsense?"

I guess the joke's on me, because the Q-Ray, also known as the second dumbest product after 'Head-on', is back.  So profitable are these magic bracelets that they are again being sold, even after suffering a verdict that should have spelled the end of Q-Ray.  As reported by Consumer Affairs, "In November 2006, the court required the defendants to turn over a minimum of $22.5 million in net profits and up to $87 million in refunds to consumers who bought the bracelets between January 1, 2000 and June 30, 2003, when the bracelet was advertised on infomercials and Internet Web sites, and at trade shows."

According to the ruling at that time, Q-Ray was misleading consumers into believing that the bracelets actually did something.  Apparently, this multi-million-dollar slap on the wrist was not sufficient to deter the makers of Q-Ray (they must have been wearing a Q-Ray bracelet at the time the decision was handed down - apparently, Q-Rays heighten one's persistence).

Monday, September 30, 2013

Montreal's Revamped Planetarium Worth a Visit

Just because your dad teaches physics and writes science articles as a hobby doesn't necessarily mean that he will take you on a field trip to a planetarium - but it certainly does increase the odds.  I took my four-year-old to Montreal's relocated Planetarium this past weekend and would recommend it to others.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Chief Technical Editor of Climb

When I look at other fellow engineers, there is one trait that we tend to share besides the obvious ones (affinity for Star Wars, unwarranted big egos, etc): lots of extra-curricular activities.  Most engineers that I know play in a sports league and are involved in multiple projects outside of their actual profession.

I play on a soccer team, drum in bands from time to time, and manage this blog.  Well, I now do something else - this week I was asked to be the new Chief Technical Editor of Climb, the Space Elevator Journal affiliated with ISEC (the International Space Elevator Consortium).

Cover shot of Climb, Vol. 1 (courtesy of

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Orienteering is all About Finding Your Way

As a thirty-one-year old, it is refreshing to do something for the first time.  Such was the case last weekend when I went orienteering with my family at a large green space near my home.

For the uninitiated, orienteering is a sport whereby individuals or teams locate 'x' number of checkpoints in a specific order in an open space in as little time as possible equipped with only a map and a compass.

Groups of people of all levels of experience showed up last week: there were four levels of maps and corresponding checkpoints ranging from 'first-timers' to 'advanced'.  Much like the 'spice level' I that I tend to select at an Indian restaurant, we chose level 1.  It was easy to identify the level 4 orienteers - they were the ones popping in and out of thick forest as though the trees and bushes were not there (they were also the ones sweating).

If you want to be a bad-ass orienteer, you need a bad-ass hat

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Homogeneity is Overrated: the PQ can Keep Their Charter

I am so sick and tired of the elected leaders of this province I live in called Quebec.  Today, the leaders of the Parti Quebecois (PQ) have put forth a Charter of Secularism which, among other things, forbids public servants from wearing religious garb while performing their duties.  As an educator at the college level, I am a public servant, and though I almost never wear a kippa in my day to day life, I don't see what business it is of this provincial government if I should decide to do so one day.

The minister in charge of what I would call the charter of division, Bernard Drainville, defends the proposed changes to civil servant dress code as follows: "If the state is neutral, those working for the state should be equally neutral in their image."

When one sports a religious symbol, one's capacity to perform one's duties is undiminished.  If the population is so offended by workers wearing such symbols, then what they need is a lesson in tolerance; they do not need legislation that reinforces such xenophobia.

When I look at the richness of the matter that is around us, I see heterogeneity.  I see hundreds of different kinds of atoms that intermingle in countless ways, forming compounds, each exhibiting unique properties.  The diversity of matter can serve as a model for society.  It saddens me that Pauline Marois, Quebec's Premier, sees multiculturalism as a threat to her Quebecois ether.

I want to live in a society where one's belief system is outside state jurisdiction.  Those behind this charter would likely deem it to be progressive, but it is clearly regressive.  It's aim is unmistakable: to make those whose heritage is not Quebec feel unwelcome.

I could rant on and on about this, but I need to prepare a lecture on mixtures.  As a civil servant, I will fulfill my duty, and focus only on homogeneous ones.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Wright Brothers Stood on Cayley's Shoulders

Sir Isaac Newton famously expressed that in order to make his numerous contributions to science, he stood on the shoulders of giants.  This seems to be a modest claim given the huge individual leaps of intellect he made.  A book that I recently read, "The Man who Discovered Flight: George Cayley and the First Airplane," by Richard Dee, had me thinking about the notion of how we are always continuing the work of our predecessors.

When any of us think about the first airplane, we invariably think of the Wright Brothers and their historic achievement; few have ever even heard of George Cayley.  Cayley's contributions to aviation were numerous, but they preceded the Wright Brothers' flight by about a century.  Consider this excerpt from Dee's book:

"Within the course of six scribbled pages in his notebook, Cayley had shown that man-made flight by wing was a theoretical possibility, but practically, with engineering constraints as they were at the time, it was a non-starter.  So having discovered that it could happen and then almost immediately proving that it couldn't happen yet, what next?"

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Elon Musk's Hyperloop is Bold and Ambitious

Perhaps you've heard of the recently proposed revolutionary transportation system dubbed the Hyperloop.  No?  Google it.  The vast majority of posts on the topic that I have read go beyond mere skepticism and describe the project as just short of impossible.  What is it about dreamers that brings out the haters?

The Hyperloop was described by its inventor, Elon Musk, as "a cross between a Concord, a rail gun and an air hockey table."  Picture those hollow tubes that shuttle documents through offices by way of air pressure (in movies - I've never actually seen one in real life, but I assume they exist).  Now enlarge the diameter of the tube, replace the tiny capsules with pods containing passengers, and have the ends connect two distant cities, and you begin to grasp Musk's intriguing mass-transit system.

The initial proposal calls for a train that links Los Angeles and San Francisco - the specs call for a thirty-five minute shuttle time each way.  The distance between the two cities is about 600 km.  Is this beginning to sound like a high-school mechanics problem?  Let's spice it up a bit and stipulate a 0.2 g acceleration from rest to cruise and 0.2 g deceleration from cruise to rest.  Try to calculate the cruise speed...

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Why Has the Ozone Layer Continued to Deplete?

I've taken an eight-week break from blogging.  It's been the first long break since I began the blog in 2010.  The absence is owed not to having little to write about, but rather to having so little time to write it in.

Today, I'd like to write about an often misunderstood phenomenon: ozone layer depletion.

In my experience, the public at large believes that climate change and ozone layer depletion are very much connected, when in fact, the two are independent threats to life as we know it on Earth. 

Climate change, a.k.a. global warming, is a gradual increase in the average temperature of Earth's atmosphere brought about by the greenhouse effect, whereby certain gases, like carbon dioxide and methane, trap heat in the atmosphere.  Global warming is a much larger problem than ozone layer depletion as it can set off a multitude of other changes to our biosphere and it will be far more difficult to avoid.  It is in many ways the grim story of the 20th century that will inevitably haunt the 21st.

The fact that ozone layer depletion will not haunt us too badly in the 21st century and beyond is truly a success story.  It is a rare example where mankind acted responsibly as a species for our own preservation.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Polarization in Light and Politics

The essence of an electromagnetic (EM) wave is defined by two key parameters: its frequency and the strength (amplitude) of its electric field (E).  The strength of the magnetic field (B) is not a 'free variable' - it is given by E/c, where c is the speed of light.  Light is just one variety of EM wave.  It, like all others, is self-sustaining because the oscillating electric field produces an oscillating magnetic field and vice versa.  The relationship between the orientations of these fields and the direction of wave travel is shown below:

Figure 1: EM Wave Field Orientations (courtesy of:

Here, the wave propagates in the x-direction, the electric field oscillates in the z-direction, and the magnetic field oscillates in the y-direction.  The electric and magnetic field vectors are always perpendicular to one another and exist in a plane that is itself perpendicular to the direction of travel of the light wave.  If the light wave is headed towards you, then you can be sure that the magnetic field vector is pointing 90 degrees counter-clockwise from that of the electric field.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Wikipedia, a Surprisingly Reliable Science Resource

At first, an active encyclopedia written by and large on a volunteer basis sounds like an ill-conceived plan.  Considering that so much content on the internet is incorrect, the Wikipedia experiment was bound to fail.  But then, something strange happened: it actually worked.

The internet community, which can always be counted on for lewd YouTube comments dripping of ignorance and disrespect, somehow came together to compile a mass of information that is almost always factual (obviously, different parts of the community are at play here).  Yes, some donor money goes to pay tens of employees to overlook things, and do some fact-checking, but Wikipedia remains a database composed by tens of thousands of anonymous members of our global village, and is perhaps one of the best things to come out of the internet age.

Written mostly by amateurs, who have free time to spare, the volume of information grows at a staggering rate: thousands of pages per hour.  This kind of productivity at no cost, but reasonable quality, helps to explain why Wikipedia has flourished and the Encyclopedia Britannica has become all but irrelevant; oh, and did I mention it's free?

But here is the million-dollar question: "Do I encourage my science students to use Wikipedia?"

Thursday, May 9, 2013

What Kind of Star are you?

Despite constituting the vast majority of the matter in the universe, stars are surprisingly simplistic.  A star spends nearly all of its life in hydrostatic equilibrium, whereby gravity pulls it inward as thermal pressure pushes it outward.  This state is known as the main sequence, during which countless Hydrogen atoms fuse to form Helium ones, and release energy in the process.

OK, that might not seem simple.  But, a star is simplistic in the sense that its entire future is quite predictable given its mass when this thermonuclear fusion process begins.  We can predict how long this steady radiation will endure based on this mass.  One might think that more massive stars have more fuel to burn, and will burn for longer as a result.  Though more mass does mean more fuel, it also means higher temperature and pressure, which means a greater fusion rate.  Massive stars actually live a far shorter life than less massive ones - lifetime is roughly proportional to M^(-2.5), where M is mass.

In the graph shown below, the approximate time a star spends in its main sequence is shown as a function of its mass ratio to the Sun.


Monday, April 29, 2013

What if There Were no Moon?

On one late drive home last week, I looked up at the full moon in the early night sky, and just marveled at its beauty.  And I asked myself the question, "How much different would life on Earth be if there were no moon orbiting around us?"

This may sound like an arbitrary question, but it is a very legitimate one.  Trying to imagine life without the Sun would be a rather pointless exercise, because without a star to govern our orbit and act as a steady energy source, there would be no life.  The same cannot be said for the one celestial body that orbits around the Earth.   

For all of its beauty, the Moon, our singular natural satellite that orbits us roughly once per month, is, for lack of a better word, unnecessary.  Some planets have no moons, some have many (the other night, I looked at Jupiter through a telescope and beheld its four moons) - a moon is, in a way, a planetary afterthought.  If the Moon were to mysteriously disappear tomorrow, the resulting physical changes on Earth would be minimal.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Keeping our Heads in the Face of Tragedy

My heart is filled with sadness.  Yesterday's Boston Marathon Bombing is at the front of my mind as it is no doubt for you and everyone you know.  I don't know anyone killed or injured on a personal level, but it is the kind of event that breaks the heart of humanity, and for this reason I feel the need to mourn.

When ugliness becomes so apparent in the world, we feel the need to make sense of it.  I imagine a work of art, so carefully painted by an artist over the course of days or weeks.  The beautiful result can be destroyed in seconds by a vandal with a can of spray paint.  It is so much easier to undo something than to do it.  It is a manifestation of the second law of thermodynamics.  Chaos has a tendency to increase.

When an event that aims to lift the spirits of a city is marked by the sinister act of one or a few rogue individuals, some feel as though we should just give up.  It seems there will always be these bad seeds.  We must remember that such cowards form the tiniest portion of humanity, and in no way represent us.  They succeed in wreaking havoc because it is vastly easier to rain on a parade than to assemble one.

In this dark hour, let us keep our heads, mourn the individuals directly affected, and honour them with our persistence.  We must keep celebrating life despite such acts.  In many ways, life is like a marathon; we must keep running, even when the terrain is so terribly unforgiving.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Unraveling the Mechanics of Spider-Man's Web

My three-year-old has an obsession with Spider-Man.  She has been putting bad guys in jail for the past week with the help of her Spider-Man action figure.  So, being who I am, I could only resist conducting a mechanical assessment of the fictitious hero's web for so long.

I have deconstructed the physics of superheroes before.  My approach is to ignore the mutation aspect - to accept the background story that gave the hero his or her powers.  My concern is instead, given such powers, is the rest reasonable?  For Spider-Man, I'd like to focus on the web that he shoots from his wrist to the buildings of New York City as a principal means of transportation.  Can a thin web realistically sustain the tension that manifests within it when Spider-Man swings through the city?

Consider the awesome illustration below (mad 'Paint' skills) that shows the famous web-slinger swinging from the top of a building using web length 'R'.

If Spider-Man is initially at rest (at 1), then a simple energy conversion analysis (gravitational potential energy converts to kinetic energy) shows that at the bottom of his swing (at 2), his speed v is given by (2gR)^0.5, where g is the surface gravity.  Here, aerodynamic effects were ignored as were any elastic or visco-elastic effects associated with the web.  A free body diagram for Spider-Man is drawn in the figure at the instant the web is vertical (at 2).  The tension in the web points up while the gravitational force points downward.  Applying Newton's Second Law in the normal (n) direction gives the following (note that there is an upward acceleration associated with this circular path):

Ft - Fg = ma
where m is Spider-Man's mass.  This becomes:
Ft = m(g + v^2/R) = m(g + 2g) = 3mg

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Do we Really Improve with Age?

There is no debate as to whether a person's physical well-being improves with age: it does not.  When I was ten years old, and I got a cut or a bruise, it was gone without a trace within days.  Now, at the age of thirty-one, small bumps and bruises linger for weeks, even months.  It is as though my physiology has stopped trying.

When adults confront this reality, they may look on the bright side: as we grow older, we gain experience, and get smarter.  But, is there any evidence of this?  I am beginning to notice that the longer we are around, the more resistant we become to change.  And, if this is so, then our age actually becomes a deterrent for self-improvement.  A relative of mine recently pointed out that as adults age, they simply become more exaggerated versions of themselves.  Think of the seniors in your family - you may find that there is much truth to this statement.

Why do we become set in our ways?  Many reasons.  For one, the effort to improve has a smaller return on investment as we age, as there is simply less time remaining.  Another reason is that change implies we have been doing it wrong, and, the longer we have been around, the harder it becomes to face such a reality.  But, the bottom line is that change is hard because learning is hard.  Seeing the world in a new way - accepting that something is not how you always thought it was - is daunting.  It is something that students are asked to do every day, and it is so clear to me which ones wish to accept this challenge and which do not.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A Talk About the Future

This Thursday, March 14, 2013, I will be giving a talk at Vanier College in the auditorium (room A103) entitled "Robo Sapiens" at 2:30 pm.  The one hour presentation is about the reasonably near-term future of mankind: the next three decades.  It deals specifically with physiological enhancement by way of robotics and biomedical engineering as well as artificial intelligence and the technological singularity.

As most of my readers will not be in attendance, I will briefly discuss some of the content below.

In particular, I want to address the very notion of predicting the future.  Perhaps you have heard the term 'futurist' or 'futurologist' - such a designation befits a person whose predictions for the future are sought by industry, world leaders, and members of society.  It is a sweet gig: state what you think is going to happen in the world of technology, the economy, societies, and our civilization at large some time from now, and no one will fault you if you turn out to be wrong.  Who will bother to look it up?  Rather than dwell on the past, people will still wish for insight into the future.

What process does one use to predict the future anyway?  One usually examines historical trends, takes a close look at the current state of things and the directions in which they are currently headed, and then extrapolates forward.  The result is a guess, but an educated one.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Staying in 'Contact' with Carl Sagan

Though one of my personal heroes has been deceased for many years, he still touches base with me every so often through the amazing body of work that he left behind.  Carl Sagan, science guru extraordinaire, penned some tremendous science non-fiction, from Cosmos to Demon-Haunted World, but also a fair bit of science fiction.  I just finished reading Contact (1985), his first novel, which would eventually become a feature film (1997, the year after he passed) that I have yet to see.

Contact is a tremendous novel by many standards, but one measure is the extent to which it has permeated my consciousness, and it has a great deal.  While reading this tale of a message from an alien civilization and an eventual visit, and in the weeks since, I have stared a bit longer at the stars at night, captivated by the scale of the universe.  I wonder if there are beings on another planet looking up in similar awe at a view not so different from mine.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Stuck in Traffic? Pass the Time with Physics

When I find myself stuck in traffic, my mind first turns to the shortcomings of public transit for my typical commute - a part of me wishes I still lived downtown.  The next place my mind often wanders to is physics; a surprising number of seemingly abstract scenarios actually describe the motion (or lack thereof) of one's car in a system of interconnected streets.

One such analogy is that of a system of interconnected springs and masses:

Imagine that you are the sixth car waiting, single file, at a red light.  The moment that the light turns green, the first car begins to accelerate, but you do not move.  Each car must wait for the car in front of them to displace in order to proceed forward.  It is the same for the system of masses.

If a force is imparted on the first mass, there will be a time delay before the effect of this force is felt by the tenth mass.  We can think of the springs like spaces between cars, and the masses as the cars themselves.  This analogy is far from perfect.  For one thing, cars are more independent than this model would suggest.  Car 1 is unaffected by all those behind it, whereas the motion of mass 1 is greatly affected by the motion of those behind it.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

I Predict a Space Elevator on Earth in my Lifetime

Most of my readers are aware of my research on and affinity for the space elevator project.  A whole page on this site is devoted to it.  Still, I try not to overload my blog with S.E. related content; is the place for S.E. devotees to stay up to date with the goings on, while is where one goes to get involved in the actual project.

Still, I could not help but give a brief response to George Dvorsky's article that was posted last week on the io9 blog entitled "Why we'll probably never build a space elevator."  In it, Dvorsky lists five problems, which is a strange choice of word to describe what engineers call challenges. While the challenges he discusses are mostly relevant and the discussion mostly accurate, the conclusions he draws from them are odd - it seems as though he arrives at them in order to satisfy the title of the article.

For example, the number one 'problem' with a space elevator is, as the author correctly states, producing a material with a sufficient strength to density ratio with which to construct the tether. Though his numbers on this are not entirely correct, it is true that material science is far from producing a substance rendering S.E. construction feasible.  However, the argument that the project is a dud because construction cannot begin today is absurd.  Over the past one hundred years, the field of material science has taken many leaps, each paving the way to new technologies.  The space elevator is not the first technology that needed to patiently await a strong enough and light enough material, and it will not be the last.

Furthermore, I take issue, personally, with his 'problem #3', about climber excitation, which happens to be one area I have researched extensively.  My research found the extent to which a climber excites the tether (it is proportional to lifted mass, distance climbed, and climber speed), and proposed some reasonable methods to mitigate such effects.  With respect to all of the big challenges associated with the space elevator, this one has been shown to be minor.

Friday, February 15, 2013

"Sir? Can I Just Hover and Let the Earth Turn Towards me?"

There is a prevalent misconception among introductory physics students (not to mention the general public) about flight within our atmosphere.  Admittedly, as a science student long ago, I wondered if I could travel half way around the world along a given latitude in 12 hours simply by hovering in place, say, in a helicopter.  After all, the Earth spins about the axis that extends from its geometric north to south pole once every 24 hours.  I was stunned that it could take more than 12 hours to fly somewhere on the same latitude by airplane.  Were the pilots dummies?  Just sit there and let your destination come to you!

Before addressing this misconception directly, let us investigate just how fast the ground on which you are currently stationed moves with respect to the rotational axis of the Earth.  Using simple kinematics, we can find this relative velocity at the equator, making use of the fact that the radius of the planet is 6,378 km.  The planet rotates through one circumference (40,074 km) in 24 hours, so the relative speed of the surface along the equator is (40,074 / 24 km/h) about 1,670 km/h, or, about twice as fast as a typical commercial airplane cruises.

But, most of us do not live directly along the equator.  We are some angular displacement (latitude) away from it.  If you want to determine the particular surface speed where you reside, multiply 1,670 km/h by the cosine of your particular latitude.  If you are standing in New York City, which is at a latitude of 40.7 degrees, then the land beneath you moves at 1,266 km/h (352 m/s) relative to the spin axis, in a direction perpendicular to it (Eastward).

Can you sense these high speeds?  No.  Organisms can only discern accelerations internally.  If the spin rate of the Earth were to change suddenly, all buildings would fall, oceans would displace, and it would be a really bad day for anyone not living on either geometric pole of the planet.  But, fret not, such an occurrence is extremely unlikely (for an analysis about the amount of energy required to cause the Earth to experience a large angular acceleration, here is a link to a different article).

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

George Carlin, Comedian and Linguist

If I ever find myself uninspired and in need of some kind of pick-me-up, taking in five minutes of George Carlin (1937 - 2008) usually does the trick.  Like many YouTube adventures, what was supposed to be five minutes often becomes twenty or more, but Carlin is great in whatever dose.  He is easily my favourite comedian, and I wish I could have seen him live. 

Part of his allure was that his routines tended to revolve around contraversial topics.  His goal was to disturb the audience from their comfort zone, usually, though not always, stopping just short of being terribly offensive.  Then, once drawn into the subject, he tried to bring members of the audience to his side of the argument (though most members of his audience tended to agree with his views already).

When I think of his act, I usually think of his amazing facial expressions and his brutal honesty.  But if there is one feature that sets him apart from other comedians, it is his mastery of the english language.  It is surprising just how much of his material involves a curiosity with words and expressions.  It was his fascination with 'dirty words' that gave his stand-up career a major boost in the seventies (see Seven Dirty Words circa 1972).  Now is probably a good time to mention that the links in this article contain foul language, which I try to refrain from in the articles on this site.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Antiquated Method of Learning by Repetition

Over the holiday break, I took notice of just how often I ask my three-year-old daughter to say "please" and "thank you".  I probably remind her to do so about ten times per day, while my wife might be closer to twenty.  This has probably gone on for the past year.  This means that my daughter has been reminded to be polite more than 10,000 times over the past year.  And, the truth is, it's just starting to pay off.  She probably remembers to be polite one third of the time these days.

This method of "teaching by repetition" is slow and can prove frustrating, but it does yield results - eventually.  A colleague ascribed it to a gradual rewiring of the brain: attempting to create a new normal.  I think of the process as inefficient hypnosis.

Friday, January 11, 2013

An Absolutely Chilling Start to 2013

The title of this article refers not to the temperature in my neck of the woods: Montreal, Canada.  The mild weather here (6 degrees Celsius) makes one question whether the season is winter.  Neither does the title refer to the average temperature on planet Earth, which continues to rise steadily.  This article is about exciting new research being conducted at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany, where Ulrich Schneider and others have brought the temperature of some Potassium atoms to sub-zero... Kelvin.

Like me, you were probably taught in some introductory science course that the minimum temperature for matter of any kind was zero Kelvin, a temperature called 'absolute zero' (corresponds to -273.15 degrees Celsius - slightly colder than a bad day in Winnipeg).  The Kelvin scale is based on this minimum measurement.

We often find in science that certain boundaries may be crossed.  What Schneider and his colleagues have done is helped coax a gas to sub-absolute-zero temperatures, if only for a short while.  As many 20th and 21st century science discoveries, this phenomenon centers around quantum physics, which correctly asserts that things are not quite as they seem.  Unlike Newtonian physics, which incorrectly assumes that the state of matter has one absolute value, quantum physics views matter in the way of probability functions.  Without getting too deep into that now, let us agree for the moment that quantum physics is bizarre and not intuitive 100% of the time.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Technology and Magic

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"

- Arthur C. Clarke    

My three-year-old examined a greeting card that had a song recorded in a tiny device that it played through a tiny speaker.  She opened and closed the card repeatedly, and the song played over and over again.  "Where is the man singing?" she asked.  It was difficult to explain to her that the man was not actually inside the card.  I first had to explain that Grandma is not actually inside the telephone when you talk with her, but that proved to be difficult as well.  

I would never fault a child for not knowing such things.  I encourage her inquisitiveness, and hope that it never leaves her as it does so many adults.  These days, an adult who is ignorant of technological progress and the science behind it will find oneself out of touch with the times in a hurry.

The rapid progression of technology may be the defining characteristic of modern times.  Man's capacity to keep pace with this progression in a socio-political sense continues to be overwhelmed.  What lags as far or even further behind is the general public's understanding of its own technological tools.