Sunday 15 November 2009

Science Wow

Zero G Lindy Hop will continue. As you have no doubt noticed, the going has been a bit slow. I apologize. It's taking me longer than anticipated to fully plant my head inside this plot, and my attempts to do so have been thwarted by demands from my day job. The good news is they've finally hired me an assistant, and he starts next Monday. With luck, this will serve to mitigate my ball-bustingly insane workload.

In the meantime, I promised to try to keep things entertaining around here when the wait for new chapters is long. That's what this post is all about. If you're in the fiction-only crowd, feel free to skip this one. But if you enjoy the behind-the-scenes stuff (DVD extras, biographies, things written in washroom stalls), stick around for your bonus slice of Brownadelia.

Some of you may recall that I live in an old schoolhouse. Our steeple is the highest point in the village, as a matter of fact, as the church has no bell. And while it isn't uncommon for retired rural schoolhouses to become residences, ours is also a functional school of sorts. My wife -- as charming and sassy a milf as you'll ever meet -- teaches singing classes to local children, and our own two kids are homeschooled here by her, by me, and by their grandfather.

Among my responsibilities is science, primarily because of my personal passion for the subject rather my expertise, per se. My wife is the neurolinguist in the family, after all -- I'm just an art college dropout. But, at least at this point in the children's educations, it is my zeal that's key.

Do you remember the first time science blew your mind, and made the world feel bigger? I sure do.

I'm six years old, at the library with my mommy, and because I get to choose one of the books we borrow I choose I book with stars on the front because I'm sure this means it somehow concerns Star Wars. It doesn't, obviously, but in order to live down the fuss I've made insisting it is a book for kids like me I am determined to read it from stem to stern. I try. I fail. This is not a book for kids. I give up on the body text and focus instead on trying to decipher only the picture captions.

Through this I manage to glean only a single fact. Just one. But it's a doozy.

I grok that the sun is a star, and that all the other stars in the sky are, in a way, distant suns. "Holy smokes!"

Who wouldn't be impressed? I was so impressed that I remember it still, decades later, despite my inability to remember my social insurance number or even where I've parked the car when I go into a shop. I forget like nobody's business, but I'll never lose being six and recognizing that my view of the world had just been irreversibly embiggened by a book.

Anyway, since then I've pretty much felt that science is a gateway drug for mind-expanding wonder. I've always associated books with those epiphanous moments, so I suppose it's natural that I've arrived at science-fiction: stories where some of the plot-wow or character-wow is fuelled directly by science-wow.

At our homeschool, I head up the science-wow effort. With my daughter we've worked up to designing experiments to test our hypotheses (our current research project involves predicting the sequence in which different species of tree gain or lose their leaves) but with my boy we're still just trying to arrange those basic "holy smokes!" moments for him: that matter is composed of atoms, that the Earth has a place in the wider geography of the Milky Way galaxy, that space is stupendously big and time is stupendously long, that the intricacies of living systems are marvellous beyond imagination, et cetera.

Carl Sagan's justly renowned PBS series Cosmos had a profound impact for me as a kid, but my own children are still too young to get much from it. The ultimate damnation came from my daughter who, while watching the first installment, told me I wouldn't need to pause it while she went to the washroom. That's her version of the kiss of death.

In stark contrast is a new album called called Here Comes Science from the always creative American music combo They Might Be Giants. My boy (3) and girl (6) can't get enough of it. Each of the eighteen tracks is accompanied by its own animated video illustrating basic ideas about astronomy, palaeontology, the periodic table, the scientific method, photosynthesis, solar fusion, and so on. I highly recommend this for any parents whose kids think investigating the world is interesting and cool. The video/album set cost me $15 here in Ontario.

Finally, to close out a theme, I'd like to draw your attention to an interesting post on Darren Naish's Tetrapod Zoology blog. The headline article itself concerns the old scifi idea of dinosaurs evolving into sentient bipedal beings with technology (like Harry Harrison's Yilané) but the subsequent discussion in the comments section ranges more widely to the hypothetical morphologies of extra-terrestrials, a subject close to the heart of many readers here. Myself, I love seeing these kinds of scifi ideas bounced around by actual working scientists (as some of the commenters in this case are). Food for thought, and fodder for future stories.

By the bye: yes, there will be a child-appropriate scifi Christmas story this year, with no hubba-hubba and no dirty swears. I promise to make up the deficit of hubba-hubba and dirty swears elsewhere.


Orick of Toronto said...

happy Sunday eveving and congrats on the assistant, you lucky bastard. I am sure we can all use an assistant at work but it's the rare person that gets one. Actually, I want a robot butler at home more than an assistant at work. That and my flying car.

My big science moment at age 7 -

"so the universe has a limit and just ends somewhere?"


"what's after that?"


"you mean empty like space."

"no, not even space. Just nothing."

- head explode

Simon said...

I remember a time at the local space and sciences centre, trailing behind my mother's apron strings and staring with more ennui than interest at the various scientific displays.

Then there was one that drew my eye because of the light, and I wandered over with a slight pique of intrigue. It was nothing more than a slender beam of white light, but it was focused onto a triangular prism of some sort -- of what material I had no idea for it being behind a display case.

But where white light entered the prism, the entire spectrum of coloured light exited the far side. All of a sudden, there it was:

BAM!! Rainbows explained.

Refraction rocked my world and I've thought that science was the bee's knees ever since. You sure have your priorities straight, Mr. B.

(Other than your penchant for washing expensive gadgets in your pants.)

Teddy said...

My dad was big into computers, and my mom was a teacher. When I started reading a bit earlier than the other kids, they just fed me anything with english print on it, cause I'd read it. Meanwhile, I was the kid on the playground who looked up when a plane flew over, was obsessed with the stars, space, etcetera, you get the picture. I can't recall any of those "whoa" moments when I was young because so much of the "whoa" stuff I just absorbed like "okay, new thing about the universe. Makes sense."

Lately, though, some of my assumptions have been challenged and miseducations have been corrected. The biggest one was only a couple years ago in an aerodynamics class. They explained the thickness of the pressure layer on top of a wing that pulls it upwards (or, depending on your point of view, allows the higher pressure below the wing to push it upwards?) and I realized the best measure of that layer was millimeters (somewhere between 10 and 20, likely).

That was a big "WHOA" moment for me, but not that the universe could hold such awesomeness, but that man could play around with the laws of physics and make such subtle machines that they could lift a hundred tons of metal and cargo and people and fuel.

I find myself looking at the moon a lot lately, studying it's surface and thinking how wacky it is that we've BEEN there! And with less computational power than is contained within my laptop! The things we DO with science are my "holy cow" moments.


Mark said...

I don't remember a light switch event, but one of my favorite childhood science moments was when I made a compass by magnetizing a sewing needle and setting it afloat on top of a piece of Styrofoam in a bowl of water. At least, I think I remember that it worked.

I also recall the first time someone shone a flashlight on a spherical object in the dark, and my subsequent viewing of the (not whole) moon. From then on, I'm not sure I actually see the moon's outline in the shadow, or whether my mind is adding it, but I can't help looking up at it to check.

Like Teddy, I'm still blown away by the moon landing and other things humans do with science.

Simon said...

Is now a good time for a topical XKCD quote?

"Science: it works, bitches!"

Orick of Toronto said...

Mark, did you really need the styrofoam? I vaguely remember put the needle right on water and have it float due to surface tension.

Sheik Yerbouti said...

I wonder if what we commonly call Science wouldn't be better named Discovery, or a subset therein. Either way, yes. Wows are good.

Orick, what's the latest hypothesizing on the end of the universe (you know, the spatial end as opposed to the chronological "restaurant" end)? I haven't heard much lately regarding what led up to the "limit" and "nothing" conclusion.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go play with some corn starch and water on a subwoofer.

Teddy said...

@Simon: the best part of that quote for me is the accompanying graph. The COBE Experiments (Cosmic Background Explorer) are one of the best examples of the scientific method making some serious win by essentially proving the big bang theory RIGHT. They had an idea of what it the background noise in the microwave spectrum should look like, what it would graph to, and the actual data collected fit the estimation graph so well that the margin of error cannot be expressed in significant digits.

Thus, the quote. We made a hypothesis to a facet of the nature of the universe, extrapolated to how our universe would look if we were right, measured, and were vindicated. Science: It works, bitches!


Mark said...

Orick, I had forgot that part! At one point we did tip the Styrofoam (my brother and I both were sticking our fingers in the bowl), and the water's surface tension did support the needle. I'm sure it sounds made up now, but it's just that my memory is not great and it took your jogging to bring it back.

SaintPeter said...

@Simon: LOL - I was thinking of exactly the same quote when I read this.


I don't recall any Science specific "wow" moments, but I did have a similar experience in Computer Science.

The first time I programmed a Z80 microprocessor "by hand", calculating jumps and entering the op-codes manually I suddenly really "got it" - where the hardware meets the software. Nowadays they just write their own CPUs in an FPGA, but at the time it was pretty mindblowing.

There is something to be said for being able to understand a system from the basic transistor level all the way up to high level APIs. Crazy stuff. Not sure how many kids would be "wowed" by it, though. I was in Junior College at the time.

Tolomea said...


They explained the thickness of the pressure layer on top of a wing that pulls it upwards (or, depending on your point of view, allows the higher pressure below the wing to push it upwards?)

I have recently found that my misconceptions about aerodynamics run somewhat deeper than I had imagined. The relevant wiki page makes for some interesting (if complex) reading.

Orick of Toronto said...

@Sheik, jury is still out on whether the universe is open, closed, or flat. But the distance from earth to the edge of visible universe is thought to be about 46 billion light years only.

If the universe is open, then it would indeed expand forever and be limitless. If the universe is closed, then there will be an ultimate limit to the expansion. Regardless, the universe will either end in heat death or a big crunch. So all good things, indeed, come to an end.

On the bright side, Mark, I did win a bet from my cousin when we were little by proving I can make solid metal float using the needle. That's why I remembered it. Don't remember what I won though.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Orick,

Ever since our first conversations about cosmology my daughter has been very taken with questions about the bounds of the universe. It seems like a very natural place for curiosity to flow to: if you're telling me we live within Container X, what contains the container?

I think this kind of reasoning by analogy is deeply intuitive. I see it as a stepping stone stage we all have to climb through before we can reason about things that lie beyond a human being's instinctive grasp. To imagine the unimaginable, we begin by comparing the unknown to the known, feeling out blindly for a grip.

How does one explain a container that has no edges? Our foundamental notions of "boundaries" are rooted in a sensory-limited, human concept of spatial relationships.

Myself, I'm not sure I would tell a child that "nothing" lies outside of the universe. Rather, I have explained that the universe isn't so much a place as an information barrier -- we define it not primarily by its extent or shape but rather by its interactibility. Anything we can interact with or have information about is "the universe" and everything we can't...well, isn't.

My daughter firmly believes that one day a human being, or a descendant of one, will figure out a way to gain information from outside of the universe. In answer to this I reply that anything is possible on long enough timescales.

Dear Simon,

On the subject of colour, I recently overheard my daughter (6) explaining to my son (3) that "really everything is black, but we just see colour because that's what our brains do with the energy."

I was so proud.

On the subject of laundering handheld computers: yeah, I went full-retard on that one. It was a company phone, too, so I had to shell out out of pocket for the replacement.

The stupid, it burns.

Dear Teddy,

I've always wondered why aero/fluid-dynamics is a field of learning so plagued by misconceptions, ones often held by people whose livelihood is directly connected with understanding such things. For example, I have a shelf full of old sailing theory manuals that are rife with basic errors about pressure, velocity, and Bernoulli's principle.

I'm with on applied science. If that turns your crank, you're really going to like the serial that I have slated to run after Zero G Lindy Hop. It's all about a downtrodden people with no technology raising themselves by their bootstraps after a little dose of knowledge and a big helping of gumption. (Working title We the Dregs.)

Dear Mark,

Rock on! The needle experiment is a great one and I haven't done it with my kids yet, so thanks for reminding me. I have, though, done the flashlight-on-a-ball demonstration to explain celestial crescents to my offspring. The girl gets it, but she has a very well developed sense of the "geography" of our star system -- the boy is still on the ignorant side of the cusp so far as grokking planets and orbits. But he'll get there.

I think my own big "ah ha" moment about applied science came when I started to learn about how microprocessors are built and how the code interacts with the physical object to produce results. As Orick would say: [Head explodes.]


Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Sheik,

I don't think your recasting those moments as discovery is off-base at all, though for me the epiphanies are connected directly to science because of their two-part nature. The first part is the wow of discovery ("Fact X, startling as it may be, is in fact so!") and the second part is the recognition of how a statement like that can be made ("And we know this because of Y specific framework of theory coupled with Z sets of data from observation!").

After all, there are plenty of people willing to make remarkable statements about the world. Many of them are interesting or enlightening or profound or important, but there is a special and unique thrill of finding out that some remarkable things don't have to be believed on their face or trusted due to the source or accepted on penalty of disgrace -- instead, they are effectively "open source" because any diligent person can trace the progress of the model from first principles to experimental verification.

That's what excites my daughter -- the idea that she could reproduce the experiments herself, and see first hand. Don't believe it? Let's test it! It's an empowering perspective.

Discovery is definitely awesome, but verification is a special high.

Dear SaintPeter,

I should've scrolled down -- you've anticipated my example about microprocessors and assembly languages and all that. Of course, I am not a programmer (I don't have the head for it) but I think I may have experienced a wow akin to yours when I set up my first Linux box at home and had the experience of encountering problems and solving them by simply reading shell scripts and configuration files to suss out the chain of events that was going awry. After years of using a Mac, it was empowering to finally get my hands on the guts of the machine directly.

Dear Tolomea,

Again I've been preempted on my crack about aerodynamic misunderstandings. So it isn't my imagination, is it? There's a lot of fluid hooey flying around.


Sheik Yerbouti said...


Fluid Hooey would be a great band name. Also, I get what you mean about personal verification (it does, however, amuse me when folks apply the term "Science" to unverifiable, unrepeatable circumstances).

Forgive my immaturity, but a giggle escaped me when I learned that you had been preempted on your crack.

Also, yay for new stories, whenever they come!


SaintPeter said...

I may have experienced a wow akin to yours when I set up my first Linux box at home and had the experience of encountering problems and solving them by simply reading shell scripts and configuration files to suss out the chain of events that was going awry.

It totally blew me away when I realized that a lot of Linux's "low level" type boot activity was actually just a bunch of text file scripts. I have to say, though, this excitement does tend to pale when you have to constantly wade through it every time you want make a change to the system. Thus, despite my hardcore computer geekiness, I am a Windows man.

Teddy said...

@Cheeseburger Brown: Einstein theorized that Light could be affected by Gravity. He tested this by looking for Mercury as it passed behind the sun (which is a couple times a year, so fairly reproducible). The theory was that Mercury should be visible slightly before it is actually out from behind the sun because the light bends around the sun in the sun's gravity well, making "line of sight" actually a bit bendy across that much space and yes, allowing us to see around corners.

If it was me in your shoes, I'd get me a telescope and recreate this with the kids, although I'm not sure how much you want to completely blow their minds by forcing them to start thinking of it as a particle and an energy wave.


Sheik Yerbouti said...

Not to mention the whole "staring at the Sun through a telescope" problem (filters, schmilters).

SaintPeter: ditto on the amazement, ditto on the slowly-dawning "not again" mentality :D

fooburger said...

One wow moment I liked was 'fun-with-liquid-nitrogen'. So many wonderful things you can do with it to develop an intuition for the reality of energy and temperature. Most startling was the demonstration of the man putting his finger into the dewar and then breaking it with a hammer... oh wait.. that was a hotdog he slipped in there not his finger! From there on, I paid careful attention to what people told me about cold stuff. :)

My grandfather was a physicist... and once when I was young, he told me that magnets and magnetic fields could all be thought of as artificial.. ie just the effect of motion of electric charges and looking at it in different ways (finite times for propagation and what not). That was mind blowing for me, as I started thinking about it fairly obsessively.

But this general discussion is of interest. Nobel physicist Wieman is a major advocate of getting rid of all physics labs in course work, particularly at the college level. His studies on science education show that demonstrations educate better than 'do it yourself' lab work. Well.. not just better... way better. I would guess this may be subject to some caveats, like perhaps labs are less likely to impart knowledge to a general range of people but more likely to generate real science geeks? I dunno. But it's interesting. Not sure how far down the age category that goes.

Also... the book 'Flatland' was inspirational in a science-ish sort of way...

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