Thursday, December 29, 2016

What does E = mc^2 mean? What are the consequences?

In my classes, when we are going through the usual classical physics portions of energy and work, I also throw in a couple days of modern theories of energy, including special relativity and some basic quantum mechanical ideas. After we see one way of deriving E = mc^2, and Einstein's energy equation in special relativity, I want to make a point that this is a truly large breakthrough in our thinking of the physical world. I like to use E = mc^2 as a stepping stone to better understand the following:
The discovery of E = mc2 basically sets up the discovery of quantum  mechanics, and the weirdness we see with particles.
            Energy = matter, is effectively what this tells us.

These are two forms of the same stuff, like steam (energy) and ice (matter)  are two forms of the same H2O molecule.

     Whatever properties energy (waves) can have, then matter (particles)  has those properties.
     Whatever properties matter (particles) can have, then energy (waves)  has those properties.

If waves have wavelengths, then so must particles
If particles have momentum, then so must waves (light/photons)
If matter is affected by gravity, then so must waves (light/photons)

This equation also re-defines conservation of mass and conservation of energy. In nuclear reactions, conservation of mass is violated, since products weigh less than reactants.
         Conservation of mass-energy is now more correct!

  • This equation changed the course of history, as we entered the age of nuclear power and weapons.
  • It allows us to understand how stars form and 'burn,' and their life cycles
  • It allows us to understand how heavier elements are formed through thermonuclear fusion (nucleosynthesis; we are made of star dust!!)
  • It allows us to understand how the universe can form from a burst of pure energy (Big Bang), as we have phase transitions from energy to matter or vice versa.
  • The unification of space and time allows us to understand what causes gravity (warps in space-time)
  • It allows us to understand how to make particle accelerators and explore the basic question, "What are we made of?"
  • It led to the prediction of antimatter 
  • It allows us to think in terms of multiple dimensions, giving rise to things like string theories
  • It allows us to begin to understand radioactive processes, and nuclear physics
  • The theory of photons allowed Einstein to understand photoelectricity (solar energy), for which he won the Nobel Prize
  • This also helped lead to his discovery of 'stimulated emission,' the process that makes lasers possible
  • It predicts 'matter waves' or the wave-particle duality, which is the heart and soul of quantum mechanics

Not bad for something that seems so simple and innocent!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Science Modeling: Example, Climate models

Because this was an election year, I think there was an increased interest among many about climate change, and whether or not humans have any impact on climate and global warming. For full disclosure, I am a PhD physicist and know several experts on climate science, and there is no question in my mind that humans have something, and likely most, to do with climate change...the multiple, independent studies and evidence for this is too great, and experts who study this don't even question whether this is still a question.

But what the vast majority of non-scientists do not understand and tend to ask me, is how in the world can any scientist make a prediction about what could happen 100 years in the future? Especially when weather forecasts on the evening news cannot even get the weather correct one week from now? A valid, and important, question. The answer is very sophisticated climate models and computer simulations.

"Huh??" is a typical reaction when someone hears this for the first time. Computer simulations involve taking a mathematical model, and in this case, for a global climate system, the sets of mathematical equations relevant to the system are crazy hard to solve...nonlinear, partial differential equations for a huge number of different phenomena, all interacting with each other to lead to what we observe in nature. So difficult is the math that no one can possibly solve these with pencil and paper, and worse yet no one can possibly run these crazy hard equations through time by hand. But with powerful, crazy fast computers that can do trillions of calculations per second (i.e. supercomputing systems), one can code up the equations and figure out solutions to them. The result is a prediction over time of what the world may look like given an initial set of conditions to start the calculations.

How does a scientist have any confidence that results spewing from the computer are at all realistic? How do we know if anything about the simulation is believable or reliable? Well, one can look at past climates and events that affected climate, and put those conditions into the computer model and simulation. Run the simulations for past events and conditions, and compare the simulated predictions to real data and results that are measured - if the real data and simulated results overlap, then one has some confidence that the simulation is working properly. Do this for a large number of past events, and if all of them are showing good overlap with actual data, then confidence grows.

One can then make predictions with the simulations, even for past data and climates. One can change the parameter values for all sorts of things, leaving others fixed in value, to see if the changed values can make significant changes in climate by themselves. When one does this with natural parameters one does not get the increases in temperatures that are measured over the past century (especially since the 1970s). However, when one changes the greenhouse gas parameters, that alone creates the increase in temperatures we observe. Computer simulations are one avenue to show that human contributions to increased greenhouse gases has caused the increase in global temperatures.

For an excellent example of all this in action, check our the TED talk by Gavin Schmidt. He shows the process of making the models, and shows predictions for the future, having gone through the calibration and verification process described above.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Getting students active outside of the classroom

Here is a link I was fortunate to have published on the Varkey Foundation blog. It deals with having as a teaching goal to get each student to try something, no matter how big or small, outside of the classroom, and not as a grade or extra credit, but just because they are hooked on something and want to do it on their own! It is a challenge, for sure, but can be done. And if teachers have this mindset, it helps them to encourage applications of the material taught in class, as well as promote creativity and curiosity in students. I think these life skills are generally more important than much of the content we teach in just about any course. The link is here. Note that there are other important blog posts from other Global Teacher Prize finalists on the Varkey site - we can all learn from some of the very best teachers on the planet!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Educate Illinois School Districts about State Charter Schools and Support HB2660

Charter schools have gained much attention over the past decade, as many seem to think they could be a ‘silver bullet’ in education and make an enormous difference for children and families.  Certainly there are some outstanding charter schools, but at the same time there are also mostly average charters, relative to public schools, and some charters that under-perform compared to public schools. 

In Illinois, the normal process for creating a charter school includes a group presenting their proposal to a local School Board, and then allowing the School Board to vote either for or against allowing the charter school into the district.  If it is a yes vote, then the district works with the charter to arrange the finances for the charter school.  If it is a no vote, the charter group may take their proposal to other districts.  

However, over a decade ago, when a charter school was denied in Woodland School District 50 and Fremont District 79 (in the Gurnee area), a new law allowed the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) to overturn the local School Board’s decision.  Not only did Woodland and Fremont have to allow Prairie Crossing Charter School (PCCS) to run in the district, but the financing formula stated that Woodland and Fremont had to fully pay for the charter school, using its general state aid (GSA) at a per capita cost.  

Today, some twelve years later, Woodland receives about $3.5 million in GSA for some 6600 K-8 students.  But it must then proceed to give $3.1 million to PCCS for only 330 students.  This is over $3 million that any other school district in the state of Illinois gets to keep for its annual budget, but that Woodland must somehow make up.  In the time PCCS has existed, Woodland has lost some $27 million! 

About a year and a half ago, more new legislation created the State Charter Commission, which has seven members appointed by the governor.  The ISBE used to have control of what I’ll call ‘state charter schools’ such as PCCS, but now the new commission has control.  The commission has said in the next decade, it would like to see as many as 100 of these charter schools across the state, where they have sole power to induce on any local school district if it sees fit.  This process has no oversight or control from local School Boards, the ISBE, or the state legislature! 

A second state charter school has been put into the Rich Township District 227 about two years ago, costing #227 multiple millions of dollars already.

Suppose your district spends $10,000 per student total in its budget.  For every 100 students that would attend a state charter school, that is $1 million your district would lose to the charter, and would have to make up.  In an era of already tight budgets, this is devastating to the educational budget of a local district.  

More are certainly on the way.  The issue is not necessarily whether or not one likes charter schools, because for some families this is beneficial, and that is great.  The issue is to change the funding formula so that it does not decimate local school district budgets! 
Hence Woodland, Fremont District 79, and Rich Township have a proposed bill in the Illinois House, HB2660, that changes funding from a per capita cost to the district, and instead take the percentage of state funds (revenue) that a district has in its budget and multiply that percentage by the number of students going to the charter school.  That will determine the amount of money the district would pay the charter school.  The rest would need to be paid by the state, through the GSA funding mechanism, since this new school was in fact created by the state – the state should have some ‘skin in the game’  to fund a school it alone is responsible for.

The two State charter schools that have been created in Illinois have already caused 3 districts to lose a combined $40 million dollars is General State Aid.  These funds are diverted to the state charter without your school district’s consent or ability to deny.
Woodland as well as the other two schools with State Charters located within their boundaries (Fremont Elementary District #79 and Rich Township #227) have fought the good fight expending thousands in legal fees to change how the charters are funded to no avail.  We have been advised by the ISBE (Illinois School Board of Education) that this issue requires a legislative solution. 

This is a crucial time to gain support for a change in how these charters are funded.  We believe HB 2660 may be a solution. 

The knowledge that the new State Charter Commission can add charters at will with absolutely no authority of the State legislature, Illinois School Board of Education or the Local Districts to deny the charter or control the funding is a ticking time bomb.  This opens up the door to anything from Virtual Charters to Home School Charters to drain what little State funding public schools receive.  With forecasts of 82% funding levels for General State Aid and 19% for State Transportation in FY14, the affected 3 districts will soon have no state funds left.

Presently, there is a group, Virtual Learning Solutions in St. Charles, that wants to set up a virtual school district, and may take 18 districts in the Fox Valley area to the State Charter Commission, trying to force the virtual school on these districts.  They would like to start this in the fall of 2013.  This means 18 more districts are at risk to lose large portions of their GSA to a charter district they do not want.  This will continue to affect potentially any public district in the state of Illinois. 

We need to educate school districts about this, and get them to ask local state representatives and state senators to support the HB2660 legislation that does not punish the local district alone when a charter school is created and forced on a local district by the State of Illinois.  With only 3 affected out of over 850 districts in the state, this is NOT on anyone's radar - but it needs to be.

Let your district school board and superintendent know about this issue.  If they agree it could be a financial impediment to the district budget, should a state charter school be forced on them, then ask them to contact the state rep and senator.  

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Check out Flatland 2: Sphereland, now on DVD

Many of us have likely seen the movie Flatland and/or read the book back in high school. This is a classic book that tells the story of flatlanders, who live on a two-dimensional world, only to be visited by SPherius, who shows two mathematicians of Flatland the 3rd dimension.  It is such a creative way to present the concept of dimension to math students, and the movie has been shown to millions of students around the world.

A sequel to Flatland is now out, with Kristen Bell once again being the voice for the main character, Hex.  It continues the story to where flatlanders want to explore their 2-D universe, but a young mathematician's measurements show something strange - straight lines that are not straight, and triangles whose three angles add up to more than 180-degrees.  This is the basis to the geometry on 3-D surfaces, and this story provides a very good extension on the concepts used in the original Flatland movie.  The notion of a 4th and higher dimensions is brought up in Sphereland, which coincides with modern physics ideas of general relativity and string theory.  In addition, the idea of multiple universes (the so-called multiverse) is used in the story.  Again, this provides a very creative way to add visuals and a story to get students to think about these really strange, abstract ideas in math and physics.  There are also worksheets for many of the math and physics concepts on the Sphereland DVD (yours truly helped out with these).  Check out the Sphereland Facebook site for more news on this project.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Thoughts on What it Takes to be Successful

The most recent book by Malcolm Gladwell, “Outliers: The Storyof Success,” has some interesting findings about those who reach levels of success that are out of the ordinary. 

One of the ideas I found most interesting is that we typically view successful people as those who have a ‘natural ability’ or talent within their field, and that they have achieved success and greatness because of that talent.   We say that about great singers and musicians, athletes, businessmen, scientists, and so on.  But when this is studied, an interesting conclusion is reached.  Almost never is there a case of someone who is considered an expert or master within their field who got there solely based on talent or ability.  Instead, it takes years of plain old hard work to reach great levels of success in just about any field.  What’s more, there is a threshold that is really prevalent in just about any field – 10,000 hours.  That is, it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to master something and reach a level of success that is considered to be ‘outlier’ status.  The Beatles, Mozart, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Jordan, and countless others did not simply arrive one day as one of the greatest in their respective fields.  Instead, the Beatles used to play 7 or 8 hours every night in clubs before anyone knew them as THE Beatles.  Mozart, although a child prodigy, did not compose anything of recognized greatness until he was in his late teens, with countless hours of playing and composing behind him.  Bill Gates and Steve Jobs had about 10,000 hours of programming practice before they made their breakthroughs.  There are many ‘natural,’ gresat athletes, some of whom are better athletes than Jordan.  But no one worked harder or put more time in the gym than Jordan because he simply wanted it more than anyone else. 

But there is something that comes along with the 10,000 hours.  In many instances, such as Gates and Jobs, timing (i.e. pure luck of the draw) cannot be overlooked.  Gates and Jobs, if they were born a few years earlier, would have likely been in technology, but so far into a career that it would have been difficult to find the time or have the freedom to make the changes they had in mind.  Had they been born later, they would have missed the period of just 3-5 years where personal computing breakthroughs and access became a hot fad and everyone had to have one.  In other words, society has to be at a point where it is ready for your idea or product; otherwise, it will not have a chance to take off. 

Studies of IQ show that those who are of ‘genius’ stature on paper are not automatically guaranteed success in life.  And what is the biggest factor rather than the IQ value?  It is cultural upbringing and what the parents did for careers!  Now, these are highly correlated factors for anyone to attain success, but it also shows up for genius level IQs, too.

 In a classic project by Lewis Terman, he selected a pool of some 1400 childhood geniuses (called the 'Termites') based on IQ, using the assumption that high IQs was the driving factor for success.  But Terman then followed these students over many years, all the way through college and into their careers.  The findings for their success split almost exactly along the split of families that were middle class on up and low income families.  In middle and high income families, parents practice what Annette Larens calls ‘concerted cultivation.’  This is where parents are actively involved in their children’s lives and education, the homes are filled with books, a sense of entitlement is picked up by their children, and talents and interests of the children are pursued.  In lower income families, there is a different way of raising children she refers to as ‘natural growth.’  Parents provide basic needs of the children (food, clothing and shelter) but are largely absent from their children’s education and interests, there are few books, and parents rely on others to focus on specifics of their children’s needs – teachers are responsible for teaching, doctors are responsible for their health, and so on.  So the child is largely on their own as far as growth and finding their way in the world.  This is a feature of low income families, regardless of race.

This leads to an interesting suggestion for education.  What the findings in this book suggest is that it requires a full community to help low income children.  And, most importantly, THIS NEEDS TO BEGIN AT AS YOUNG AN AGE AS POSSIBLE.  The attitude of success, a sense of entitlement, being read to and having access to books, ensuring that students and parents are aware how the education system works and what opportunities are available, and so on, need to be part of the education system for young, poor children.  Parents are not doing this for most children who fall into this demographic, so the system must – if this does not happen, then we already know the results, which is effective failure for academic success of these kids.  To me, this sounds so similar to Hillary Clinton’s ‘It Takes a Village,” and in my experience it is true.  I have seen this work for Excite children where I work, and I have seen kids who make it to high school without any support – they are beaten emotionally, are far behind academically, see no chance of success that is related to anything academic, and are just putting in their required hours in school, with no opportunities as part of the picture.  It is largely too late for many teens, which is why we need to be doing this on a regular, massive basis in elementary schools.

There will be more to come on some of this.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Semantics of the ‘Did you or Did you not Create your Business’ Debate

The silliness of the presidential campaign season is in full gear.  Not much substance in August, as the two campaigns need to do anything in their power to focus on negatives of the other side.  One of the topics under debate, if you want to call it a true debate – probably a war of words is more accurate – is built around a comment made by Pres. Obama, to the effect that someone who has a successful business did not do it entirely by themselves.  Gov. Romney and his surrogates make it a point at any speech or interview to make the comment that the Republicans DO think that that same business owner did create his or her business on their own. 

Both sides are correct, but of course cannot simply go on to provide the details that show both are correct because both want the issue. 

Did Bill Gates come up with Microsoft on his own?   Well, in the sense that he co-founder Paul Allen developed the idea for a software company that would have a graphics-based operating system to do the same and much more than the old DOS system, absolutely.  It was their ideas that led to the formation of the concept of the company.  Romney and the Republicans have a check in their column.

However, I believe the point the President is trying to make, and he and his surrogates make this point at all their speeches, is that forming a company that is successful absolutely takes the countless hours of hard work from the founder, but is not at all possible without help along the way.  Gates, for instance, would not be where he is without the teachers at his school that allowed him to use one of the few personal computers available in the vicinity for countless hours.  To get a company going almost always involves the assistance of the banks to get the loans and seed money, or family and friends to help put pieces in place.  One can get extremely detailed with the ‘village’ view, where it takes all the public infrastructure like roads and bridges and airports and shipping services to get your product to market, and the public school system that allows an educated work force from which to hire your employees, and all the other companies and stores and employers of the world that provide jobs to the masses so you have customers to be able to afford your product, and so on.  It truly does require a community with MANY parts in order for any business to start up and succeed over time.

In the end, ideas and concepts for products and services aredeveloped in many different ways, by individuals and small groups of individuals.  It does take that willingness to take on often truly staggering risks for an individual to put everything on the line and invest the time, effort, money and other capital into the project of developing a company.  Many do have wonderful ideas, but cannot take that step into a risk of losing possibly everything, so kudos galore to those who can and do take that giant step into the unknown!  They deserve to reap the benefits should that idea and company take off…capitalism at its finest.  But there is also truth to the fact that one cannot sell a product or service if there are no potential customers or ways of getting the product to those potential customers.  This is where the ‘it takes a village or community’ mindset comes in.  This is the ‘big picture’ view of success. 

So BOTH are right!  Can we please just move on and get to the main issues that Americans are worrying about???