Sunday, December 30, 2007

Calling All (Future) Scientists...Can You Please Solve These?

As we are fast approaching the year 2008, I cannot help but think about where we are headed and the role science will play in not so distant future. This takes on a new weight when considering it is about to become a presidential election year. When one thinks about the variety of problems we face as both a national and global society, it becomes clear that science will be looked to to develop answers and solutions to many of these problems. It is also clear that we need to think of this as science in the broadest sense, as all areas and disciplines will need to contribute. This goes to the heart of the definition of consilience, as numerous areas of knowledge and expertise will need to mix together if we are to make solid progress in finding effective solutions.

To get the ball rolling, consider the following broad issues/problems. All of these will require contributions from a variety of scientific and technical areas of study...multidisciplinary tasks galore:
  • Quality of air and water
  • Fresh water supplies for much of the west and southwest
  • Disposal of solid wastes (everyday garbage)
  • Modernization and maintenance of national power grid
  • New energy sources, better energy efficiency and conservation
  • Climate change (both at an understanding level as well as preparing for consequences)
  • Improved electronic encryption algorithms as we digitize everything (medical, financial records, etc)
  • Transportation infrastructure
  • Telecommunications networks, both development and maintenance
  • Continued improvement and progress in computing technologies
  • Mass electronic data storage
  • Medical treatments for the disease of your choice. This includes stem cell issues, genetic engineering, drug R&D, and so on.
  • Military related technologies
  • Improved search technologies for earth-crossing asteroids (something I have yet to hear policymakers talk about publicly, but there are literally many thousands of sizeable objects that cross earth's orbit we should try to identify and monitor)
  • Food supplies and quality control
  • Disposal of nuclear wastes, nuclear proliferation issues
  • Nanotechnology in general
  • Security technology of all types
  • Robotics
  • Implementation of educational strategies and structures based on brain research and learning theory to best prepare the next generation of workers
  • Continued development of network theory, game theory, etc., and progress in our understanding of complex systems for physical and social applications
  • Materials science and development

I encourage comments with additional major issues that are technical in nature and subject to progress via scientific avenues; this is not at all a complete list. What we cannot forget is that further inclusion of other areas of study are intimately connected with just about everything on the above list, such as ethics, state/national/international law, economics, political science, sociology, public policy, military concerns, all areas of engineering, business/industry, job creation, international relations, anthropology, and countless subfields that fall under these larger areas of specialization.

The quicker we as a society recognize and realize the complexity, multidisciplinarity, and difficulty level of finding both short-term and long-term solutions to problems found in any of these areas, the better off we will be. The next president will need to address all of these during the course of an administration, as will every other prominent political figure in every nation across the globe. We will not be able to ignore any of them, and these loom as multi-generational issues that need to be solved. This will require leaders who are able to connect with the masses and communicate the seriousness of the issues, as well as move his or her nation toward a mindset of long-term planning and policy, something we seem to not be very good at.

We need to find and create massive numbers of people who are trained in the all of the sciences, mathematics, engineering and technology, and all the other fields mentioned above to remain competitive in a global marketplace, as well as the maintain and improve the quality of life for future generations. It is challenging work, but do we have any other choice but to address the challenges? Does our consumption-based and entertainment-driven society have the backbone and means to deal with these issues? Will we leave the world in better condition for our kids and grandkids than what we inherited?

Friday, December 21, 2007

Fun with Tesla coils

Check out the video at sure to have your speakers on. Thanks to Mr. DuBrow for the link.

The Physics of Santa

I am unsure who the author is (I would love to give credit where credit is certainly due), but here is the classic Physics of Santa...enjoy.

A consultant report about Santa ...

There are approximately two billion children (persons under 18)in the world. However, since Santa does not visit children of Muslim, Hindu, Jewish or Buddhist religions, this reduces the workload for Christmas night to 15% of the total, or 378 million. Santa has about 108 million homes to visit and 31 hours of Christmas to work with, thanks to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth, assuming he travels east to west. This works out to 967.7 visits per second. This is to say that for each Christian household with a good child, Santa has around 1/1000th of a second to park the sleigh, hop out, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left for him, get back up the chimney, jump into the sleigh and get on to the next house. Assuming that each of these 108 million stops is evenly distributed around the earth, we are now talking about 0.78 miles per household; a total trip of 75.5 million miles.

This means Santa's sleigh is moving at 650 miles per second. The payload of the sleigh adds another interesting element. Assuming that each child gets nothing more than a medium sized Lego set weighing two pounds, the sleigh is carrying over 500 thousand tons, not counting Santa himself. On land, a conventional reindeer can pull no more than 300 pounds.

Even granting that the "flying" reindeer could pull ten times the normal amount, the job can't be done with eight or even nine of them --- Santa would need 360,000 of them. This increases the payload, not counting the weight of the sleigh, another 54,000 tons, or roughly seven times the weight of the QE2 (the ship, not the monarch). 600,000 tons traveling at 650 miles per second creates enormous air resistance --- this would heat up the reindeer in the same fashion as a spacecraft re-entering the earth's atmosphere. The lead pair of reindeer would absorb 14.3 quintillion joules of energy per second each. In short, they would burst into flames almost instantaneously, exposing the reindeer behind them and creating deafening sonic booms in their wake.

The entire reindeer team would be vaporized within 4.26 thousandths of a second, or right about the time Santa reached the fifth house on his trip. Not that it matters, however, since Santa, as a result of accelerating from a dead stop to 650 m.p.s. in .001 seconds, would be subjected to inertial forces of 17,500 g's. A 250 pound Santa (which seems ludicrously slim) would be pinned to the back of the sleigh by 4,315,015 pounds of force, instantly crushing his bones and organs and reducing him to a quivering blob of pink goo. Therefore, if Santa did exist, he's dead now. Sorry....

Friday, December 14, 2007

Plumpy'Nut In The Field

If you saw the 60 Minutes episode featuring a relatively new peanut-based paste of vitamins and other simple foods, you'll recognize that plumpy'nut is likely to be one of those rare products that will save millions of lives, particularly severely malnourished children. Already, countless numbers of starving children in Africa have been given plumpy'nut. See the Plumpy'Nut In The Field website for updated news and projects in Africa, southern Asia, and South America. The cost for a 2-week supply is only $20, and donations are being accepted for this expanding, worldwide effort to save malnourished children.

Bioelectricity Examples

As some of my classes study electricity, we do not have the time to get into the role electricity (and more broadly, electromagnetism) plays within cells and living organisms. I'm looking for help in finding a large number of examples of bioelectricity, so please add some examples through comments to this post or email me and I can include them in the comments. A couple sentence description is fine (like an abstract), and add in URLs for links to good sources so others can learn more about it. Thanks!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Arctic Melting

As many of the world's nations are presently talking about how to combat global climate change in Bali, Indonesia, new data from this past summer (the 2nd warmest on record, behind 2005) indicate record melting of the summer ice sheets in the Arctic Circle. Scientists who study climate and climate change tend to rely on advanced computer modeling in order to make predictions based on earlier years and measurements, and in the past many skeptics have often mentioned that computer models were unreliable and tended to overestimate the long-term effects of climate change, to the point that some have stated humans play no role at all in what is happening to our global climate. Unfortunately, those skeptics are correct - 'over-estimates' of the models are not accurate. Instead, they were under-estimates based on this year's data. The melting is now taking place at staggering rates, so much so that some have estimated that if this rate remains the norm, the summer ice will be gone by 2012! This is only 5 years away. Previous estimates had the ice gone in a few decades.

Regrettably, the U.S. and some other nations are remaining stubborn at the Bali talks. Al Gore has publicly stated the U.S. is blocking any progress at these talks, and the Europeans are threatening to leave the talks. Bureaucrats are bickering about whether or not certain emissions targets are acceptable or not, all the while the climate continues to change. We are flirting with a level of change that may soon become irreversible, and future generations will be forced to deal with the consequences. Let's hope that someone steps up now to get nations agreeable to some plan NOW, and not years later when the Arctic summer ice is entirely gone.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Interesting Post about the Child Prodigy

The Drs. Eide have an interesting post titled 'Is Prodigy a Myth?' They make a point that individual children, and I'll add all people, learn at different rates, and I would indeed have to argue that there are "late bloomers" who do not reach their learning stride until later years in school. I don't think prodigy necessarily shows its face at very young ages, but can in some cases begin in later years, meaning middle or high school years. Is this a product of practice, or is there innate ability that develops in the appropriate environment? I think we'd be wise to consider both...the brain is a complicated creature, and there is a broad range of possible outcomes and developments for individuals.

This also falls back to an argument I have made in the past about the American education system, and why I wish we'd not fall into a type of testing fixation (i.e. a test meritocracy) as our definition of learning or academic success...we need variety in schools, and we need to expose children to all subject areas over their entire schooling career so they can find what interests them and provide choices for what to take on and study in later years. I suspect giftedness and prodigy will continue to be debated forever, but my experience leads me to conclude that we must continue to allow individuals to have choice and the ability to 'play the field' of academic areas of study in order to find their own place in society, and where they want to focus their energy and effort. And we should resist the notion that every individual will find that area of study or interest at an early age, and allow those who do happen to develop in the high-age tail of the distribution a chance to do so. I've had students who did not flourish intellectually until late in high school or even in college (and their achievement prior to that on standardized tests as well as school grades suggested average or below average ability), and they ended up excelling once their intellectual skills, interest and motivation caught up with their age. I should metion that this notion is supported by brain research. For example, the highest IQ children tend to fully develop the prefrontal cortex of the brain at later ages (~11 years of age) than average IQ children. This tends to lead to more immature behavior, which may in turn mean they do not perform (or be allowed to perform, if classified as ADD or something similar) in class as a high-IQ individual until they are older. So biologically, some high-IQ kids are late bloomers. We need to be aware of this.

Here's to the Juniors - Voyager

Some of my classes have spent some time learning about what NASA does when it comes to launching spacecraft and sending probes around the solar system. One of the great modern technological miracles, at least in my mind, were the Voyager spacecraft launched back in 1977. These both made trips to Jupiter and Saturn, with one then going on via gravity assists to Uranus and Neptune. We are still receiving signals and data from those probes, after moving through billions of miles of space! In fact, a new discovery was made by this mission 30 years after it began, as the solar system is apparently a bit 'squashed.' This means that the solar wind is not circularly symmetric around the boundaries of the solar system, but rather there are 'dents' in the distribution due to varying magnetic fields in the heliosphere of the solar system.

Check out the Voyager project site, and I, for one, cannot get over the images from the mission; truly beautiful. I also highly recommend the Hubble Space Telescope page.

A Second Wind...Applied vs Pure Science

This is a post I had back in August of 2006. It is the post that has had the most hits over the last 1+ years, so I thought I would re-post it. This goes along with the fact that this blog is now dedicated to my students and classes I teach, as we can extend on discussions from class or start discussions that we do not have time for in class. Feedback is needed, and this will provide yet another means for students to be involved in the world of science and all that comes with it. Let's get going!

A summer science research course I used to teach always had many good discussions about analysis techniques, the scientific method, and specific areas of research. A topic that always made an appearance was the debate over what type of research is more valuable, pure or applied. In particular, the class debate peaked when we traveled out to Fermilab to visit some of the facilities and labs. Prior to that visit, classes are normally close to split over which is more vital to the progress of science and the U.S. lead world research.

Pure science research is that work which is done in the pursuit of new knowledge. Scientists working in this type of research don’t necessarily have any ideas in mind about applications of their work. They may be testing an existing theory, they may have a new experimental technique they want to try, or they may literally stumble accidentally into a new area of discovery (many of the great discoveries in history occurred by accident, such as X-rays and penicillin). Encompassed in this realm is a good deal of theoretical research, such as those who are working on quantum mechanics, superstrings, theoretical cosmology, and many others.

Applied science research is that which is geared towards applications of knowledge and concrete results that are useful for specific purposes. Engineering is certainly an application of knowledge for finding practical solutions to specific problems. Research into instrumentation, new inventions, and new processes that may improve productivity in industry, as well as medical research geared towards the production of new drugs, are obvious examples of this type of research.

Fermilab, for example, houses a mammoth device that is used almost entirely for pure research in particle physics. Scientists look for new forms of matter, study fundamental forces between particles, test theories such as the Standard Model, and test new types of instrumentation. As an ideal example of ‘big’ science, students are wide-eyed when told the power bill is something like $10,000 per hour and that operating budgets, paid for by taxpayer dollars, run in the hundreds of millions (not to mention the billions of dollars that have been spent over the years to build the facility and the main experiments). My question for them is: Is it worth it?

On the surface, most people can think of better uses of billions of dollars. I’ve been asked countless times how scientists can justify the costs of facilities like Fermilab or the price-tag associated with sending another space probe to Mars. What about cures for cancer? New energy sources? Better sources of food that can be grown and used by the third-world? Are these not more important areas of study, especially when the answer to the question, “What good is a top quark?” is “I cannot think of a single application!” Certainly politicians are faced with such questions, and rightly so. We absolutely need to ask these questions and find priorities for limited resources and funding.

Politicians, of course, prefer applied science research. They would love to be able to go to their constituents with news of a new invention or discovery that will make life better, and, gee, since I supported the funding of the research I deserve to be re-elected. While applied science almost always wins out in a class vote of which is more important, as I argue in my last posting that thinking in terms of absolutes can limit progress, my conclusion is BOTH are absolutely essential for the progress of science as well as maintaining our status as a superpower. Pure science keeps new ideas and discoveries flowing. Progress in almost any field, be it industry, business, or medicine, depends on the amount of knowledge one has access to.

Continuing with Fermilab as our working example, it is true that a discovery such as a top quark almost certainly cannot yield a direct, beneficial application for mankind. But, in order to make that discovery, and what is not obvious to the general public, requires new technologies and breakthroughs that can often lead to spin-offs that revolutionize everyday life. The world of fast computation, massive data storage, and fast electronics has been built on the work that needed to be done to build Fermilab and discover the top quark. Applications of superconductivity took this phenomenon from a fascinating quantum state we can produce in the lab to the world of high-strength magnets necessary for steering particles at the speed of light. Little did anyone originally know that eventually someone would figure out that these same superconducting magnets can be used to create internal images of the body, now called MRI technology. This blog site is possible because of the pioneering computer network (both hardware and software) created by high energy physicists, who found it necessary to share data between experiments in the U.S. and Europe. And most people are unaware of the Cancer Treatment Center at Fermilab, that uses neutron beams created by the main accelerators. There are only four such centers in the U.S., and thousands of patients have been treated over the years.

The point is that pure science is absolutely essential. This type of science ensures that we keep pushing the envelope and continue our quest of deciphering Nature’s puzzles. It leads to the fringe and cutting edge science in all disciplines. While primary work may or may not be useful for the general public in the form of a physical device or process, history shows convincingly that whatever investment is made will usually be paid back (often many times over) in the form of spin-offs. I, for one, have no complaints of some of my tax money going towards a national lab such as Fermilab, or any other facility that promotes pure science research.