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.