March 18, 2009

Roger Bacon, the great English scholar and teacher of the thirteenth century, wrote that a person would need thirty to forty years of study to master mathematics as then understood. Today the math he was talking about—calculus hadn’t been invented—is taught routinely to millions of high school students. No one thinks anything of it, but consider what this means. The intellectual content of the material is the same, and people’s brains aren’t any different; seven hundred and some years isn’t nearly enough time for a broad upgrade in human brainpower. Instead, just as in sports, the standard of what we do with what we’ve got has simply risen tremendously.

– from Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin


The Lorenz Attractor

March 1, 2009


I don’t have to inclination to explain this right now. (The short version: the Lorenz equations are a system of differential equations that have something to with modeling weather [I’m sure Kenny could explain this way better than I can]. This is the numerical solution to those differential equations, using the Runge-Kutta 4th order method). But I’m kind of proud of the fact that I was able to write the code to solve and plot it. Even though the code isn’t all that impressive. But for some reason, I’m really impressed by this. It’s kind of one of those things that I always imagined I’d never ‘get’ when I was younger (like, say, 4 years ago). And here I am in college, finally learning about it and almost understanding it. It’s gives me hope that someday I might actually contribute something to science. Someday.

Anyway, yeah, I think I might start talking about some of the things I’ve been learning in classes lately. Because I finally feel like I’m learning stuff cool enough to mention. Go figure.

December 17, 2008

It is important to remember that differential equations have been studied by a great many people over the last 300 years, and during most of that time there were no TVs, no cell phones, and no Internet. Given 300 years with nothing else to do, you might get quite adept at changing variables.

– from Differential Equations by Paul Blanchard, Robert Devaney, and Glen Hall

Where does a lot of that earmark money end up anyway? […] You’ve heard about some of these pet projects they really don’t make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not. [Hearty laughter from the Real Americans in the background.]

– Potential Future Vice-President Sarah Palin

Oh Sarah, if only there wasn’t a non-zero possibility that you could be the next vice-president of the United States, your complete lack of understanding about basic science research would be funny.

No, now it’s just scary.

Basic science gets results. Even stuff that the ‘Real America’ can appreciate. Well, maybe not appreciate. I guess ‘use’ would be the right word. Science is too ‘hard’ for them to appreciate something as marvelous as a refrigerator (thermodynamics, anyone?). Or, say, a computer (electrical engineering… though it owes a lot to electromagnetism). Yeah, and that silly ‘fruit fly research,’ even (“genetics… what has that done for me lately…”).

Maybe God should stop blessing America and start putting a little more intelligence (or common sense) in our ‘Real’ counterparts.


Two more weeks!

Physics as Life

September 2, 2008

Simon Dedeo’s Nine “Physical Theories as Women.”
Maybe there’s a woman out there who inspires you to add a tenth theory of your own!

0. Newtonian gravity is your high-school girlfriend. As your first encounter with physics, she’s amazing. You will never forget Newtonian gravity, even if you’re not in touch very much anymore.

1. Electrodynamics is your college girlfriend. Pretty complex, you probably won’t date long enough to really understand her.

2. Special relativity is the girl you meet at the dorm party while you’re dating electrodynamics. You make out. It’s not really cheating because it’s not like you call her back. But you have a sneaking suspicion she knows electrodynamics and told her everything.

3. Quantum mechanics is the girl you meet at the poetry reading. Everyone thinks she’s really interesting and people you don’t know are obsessed about her. You go out. It turns out that she’s pretty complicated and has some issues. Later, after you’ve broken up, you wonder if her aura of mystery is actually just confusion.

4. General relativity is your high-school girlfriend all grown up. Man, she is amazing. You sort of regret not keeping in touch. She hates quantum mechanics for obscure reasons.

5. Quantum field theory is from overseas, but she doesn’t really have an accent. You fall deeply in love, but she treats you horribly. You are pretty sure she’s fooling around with half of your friends, but you don’t care. You know it will end badly.

6. Cosmology is the girl that doesn’t really date, but has lots of hot friends. Some people date cosmology just to hang out with her friends.

7. Analytical classical mechanics is a bit older, and knows stuff you don’t.

8. String theory is off in her own little world. She is either profound or insane. If you start dating, you never see your friends anymore. It’s just string theory, 24/7.

Hey, Mr. President!

July 3, 2008

Apparently the powers that be in the scientific community are trying to hold a science debate between the presidential hopefuls.

The last time they tried this, the debate didn’t pull through. Imagine that, politicians not wanting to answer questions a little outside their areas of expertise (that is, non-BS).

Hopefully Obama and McCain will both agree to attend this event. In my opinion, a debate like this could tell us more about how well-suited each candidate is for the office more than 20 ‘policy’ debates.

Really, I’d love to have an engineer as president (can you imagine having someone with the applied know how and critical thinking skills of an engineer as president of the US?), but I guess this is the next best thing.

Hurrah, science!!!

So this is a pretty old article (almost a month!), but I thought I’d share it with you because it’s pretty neat.

The title is 10 Audacious Ideas to Save the Planet, and the ideas range the gamut from crazy to scary to brilliant. Like a man-made tornado power station. Or making bioplastics from pig urine. You’ll have to read the story to learn about the rest.

What an interesting time to be alive. We might just accomplish some pretty neat things if we don’t blow ourselves up first…

Why is Mercury a Metal?

June 26, 2008

I’ve been working with a mercury pressure gauge these past few weeks, which has lead to the inevitable question: why is mercury, of all the metals, a liquid at room temperature? Instead of passing the buck or shrugging my shoulders, I decided to find out. It should be noted that this topic has been covered before and in better detail here and here.

The simple (and surprising answer) is that it’s all about relativity. As you may know, relativity tells us that as the velocity of an object increases, the mass increases by

Clearly, for small velocities, the mass increase will be insubstantial. That’s why you don’t notice such changes in the real world: if you go out for a run, you don’t expect your mass to increase (that would totally be negate the point!). But for very fast things, this relativistic effect can be substantial.

Atoms are such ‘fast things.’ The average radial velocity of a 1s electron for a given atom is

Where Z is the atomic number (basically, the number of protons). So, if you get out your handy dandy periodic table and look up mercury, you’ll see that it has an atomic number of 80. Plug that into the above equation and you end up traveling at 58.4% the speed of light. That’s pretty fast, and you’ll start to notice some effects. Such as the fact that the relativistic mass of the electron is 1.27 times larger than the rest mass. Now take Bohr’s equation for the radius of a hydrogen atom (which is analogous to finding radius of the 1s orbital of any atom)

The only part we’re concerned with here is the me, the mass of the electron. As you can see, because the mass is in the denominator, increasing the mass will decrease the radius. So you have a substantial contraction of the 1s orbital. Because all the s orbitals must be orthogonal (you’ll have to take quantum chem to learn the reasoning behind that one), the 2s, 3s, …, 6s orbitals also contract. So, the bonding orbital of Hg, the 6s orbital, is much smaller than would be classically expected, and therefore less available for bonding. Add to that the fact that the orbital is completely filled, and Hg doesn’t have much of a reason to be making bonds at all. Therefore, the major forces holding the Hg together are van der Waals forces (the result of the dynamic polarization of atoms and the concurrent electric attraction). These forces are exceedingly weak. Weak force yields weak bonds yields lower heat of fusion yields liquid mercury.

Who would have thought that such a simple question could yield such deep science? I know I wouldn’t have.


What a day. Today was ‘career day’ at our little REU world. Except the only careers represented were professorship and oil company-ing. Wow, what a plethora of options we PhD chemists have!

Even though the careers were few, actually talking with the chemists was kind of cool. The one ‘huh?’ moment for me was when I asked the question, “During grad school, did you ever become bored with your research and if so, what did you do to make it exciting again?” That received a blank stare from all involved. If not outright outrage from a great deal of the panelists. It’s like I’d said something that you’re not even allowed to THINK: that, possibly, the research could get dull.

I don’t know if this means that they really, honestly have found something that they absolutely love. If so, more power to them. Maybe it’s just not in my personality type to work on a single isolated problem for 5 years. Or maybe I just haven’t found that problem that I could focus on for 5 years straight.

Though one thing does seem sure for me: I don’t think ‘chemistry’ is my thing. The way their eyes lit up when they talked about synthesizing some new compound, or determining it’s structure, etc. I just don’t see it. I guess I’d rather think about a compound than actually go out and make it. In science, as in life, I’d much rather be a spectator than an active participant.

Overall, the career day was an eye-opening experience. It really made me think long and hard about what sort of career I might want in science. Which I guess was the point in the end.

Now I just have to hope I can become something other than an academic or an oil chemist. Here’s to hopin’! 

Some people say they don’t like the idea of factory farming, tall buildings … but it’s not so bad if it’s next door. You can see it; it’s a glass building, like the Apple store on Fifth Avenue. And if you really want to see the advantage, look at the opposite direction. Now we can let trees grow back on the farms. The water gets pure, the air gets cleaner.

– from Vertical Farming: Apple Store Meets Greenhouse Meets Skyscraper

A very ‘engineer-y’ idea. I like it. I like it allot.

Of course, this is assuming the farms are for fruits and vegetables. :)