Saturday, January 29, 2011

Interesting Take on China's advance - Why and how are they different from West/

Here is an interesting talk about China, and how a recent projection, as a post-western economic recession world status, has the Chinese economy matching and surpassing the U.S. economy by 2020 - just one decade away.

Martin Jacques goes over some key differences between China and the West, and how they have been able to grow so rapidly, often befuddling western analysts who think in western ways. We should not be thinking of China as a nation-state, but rather a civilization-state, as Jacques argues. Very fascinating and important topic.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Looking for Feedback - If you have kids, especially...Can this story help learn some science?

I am looking for feedback. I have a children's story that tries to get the concept of atoms and ultimately quarks across to children. I see kids in the age range of 4-8 or so as the target group.

If you have kids and want to read it, or if you have any comments of your own as to what you think about it, please let me know! If you have any experience with children's books, also let me know as I have a number of questions for you. I can see some interesting illustrations that could be produced for the story. Thanks.

Here goes:

Little Sue and the Rock
By Mark Vondracek, Ph.D.

It was after school, and Little Sue was walking down the street,
when she noticed a pretty little rock down by her feet.
She picked it up, looked at it, and wondered what was inside,
when all of a sudden she was going on an amazing ride.

Little Sue began to shrink,
and she did not know what to think.
Was she really getting smaller,
or was the rock just getting taller?

Whatever the case, she quickly began to see,
sparkling crystals appear, like when the sun shines on the sea.
And while these crystals were simply amazing,
little Sue knew this was only the surface of the rock she was grazing.

Ever smaller did little Sue grow,
before she was in a world she did not know.
Those beautiful crystals disappeared,
into a number of balls forming patterns, that much was clear.

The balls were bound together, which to little Sue was very cool,
when she realized she was seeing objects her teacher called molecules.
But she also wondered what was with those once little balls,
which seemed to be getting bigger as her size continued to get small.

Even though little Sue’s height was still decreasing,
she could not help but think this new world was pretty pleasing.
She kept approaching those balls, and it was becoming a little cloudy,
and the balls seemed to be shaking, and even seemed a little rowdy.

“Those balls must be atoms!” exclaimed little Sue to herself,
she knew this because she had read that science book on her shelf.
As she shrunk into one of the clouds it seemed a little fuzzy,
and as she struggled to see, smaller specks flew by and sounded a little buzzy.

Little Sue was checking out the electrons flying by,
moving very fast, so fast she could not even say “Hi.”
And before long little Sue shrunk into a place,
where the electrons were now gone and all she saw was empty space.

It seemed like forever that little Sue kept on shrinking,
seeing nothing around caused her to start thinking.
“Is there nothing else around here that will stop my fall?”
when suddenly in the distance she could see another little ball.

Atoms have a second part, little Sue seemed to remember,
with electrons whizzing and circling the outside, and a nucleus in the center.
Little Sue kept shrinking and suddenly was able to see,
a bunch of smaller balls in the nucleus, glued together so perfectly .

“Wow, these little balls are protons and neutrons! This is really cool!”
as little Sue was remembering that science lesson from school.
She was now seeing the smallest pieces of that rock she had been holding,
at least this is what she thought before she got a little scolding.

Little Sue heard voices complaining as she shrank a little more,
falling inside one of those protons that were at the atom’s core.
Even smaller balls were inside and finally had a chance to make their mark,
by introducing themselves to little Sue, saying, “Hello, we are the quarks!”

For little Sue this was unexpected and really quite the surprise,
as she began to look around and rub her wide-open eyes.
“Quarks,” she said, “were not mentioned in my science book.”
and she closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them for a second look.

The quarks explained to little Sue they aren’t very well known,
but they do exist and are real, with identities all their own.
“Our names are Up and Down,” they said to little Sue,
“but the protons and neutrons are more popular, so what can we do?”

Just then little Sue realized she was no longer shrinking,
for now she had reached the smallest piece of the rock, and she was left thinking –
I have seen the smallest piece of the rock….or have I not?
could there be something smaller than the quarks, as small as a dot?

For now, little Sue will need to wonder about that question,
but as she grows back up in size I leave her this suggestion.
For little Sue, as well as all her little school friends,
if you don’t know the answer to your questions do not leave that as the end.

Keep asking your questions, and don’t leave any of them to silence;
look around, try to find an answer – and before you know it, you will be doing science.
It doesn’t matter what it is, from the smallest atom to outer space,
because you will find questions that still need answers all over the place.

Where the world is headed - An Economic Phase Transition from Hyperconsumtion to Collaborative Consumption

I found this TED talk very interesting. One can certainly see a change in how people interact with each other due to the Internet and global wireless communications, and I think Rachel Botsman presents a strong argument for a phase transition from a hyperconsumption economy (I believe this term comes from Thomas Friedman) to a collaborative consumption model.

Multi-disciplinarity and The Birth Of America

Back in July I read an interesting book entitled The Science of Liberty by Timothy Ferris. I posted on how the birth of modern science developed within the same mindset and intellectual framework as the first modern democracy, the United States. In fact, this book argues the U.S. would not have formed had it not been for the birth of modern science. Building off that theme, a second book, Steven Johnson's The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution and The Birth of America, examines the life and work of Joseph Priestley, and his deep friendships with Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and his influence on those two Founding Fathers as well as John Adams.

Priestley began as one of the leading and first modern chemists, whose main contemporary scientific rival was Antoine Lavoisier. Priestley had numerous discoveries, including providing key evidence for the existence of oxygen and its role in combustion and life itself, but what was new for me was his deep friendship with Benjamin Franklin. Franklin and Priestley met and corresponded with each other about science for many years prior to the American Revolution, and influenced each other greatly as far as the development of experiments, analysis and interpretation of data. Their letters show how they were onto the conceptual understanding of the cycling of oxygen and carbon dioxide for all of life, and how ecosystems work in terms of the flow and transformation of different energy types from one to another. These concepts were decades ahead of their time.

However, as Franklin became embedded in politics and the Revolution, the time he had to commit to science was limited at best. It was Priestley who kept him updated on scientific progress, and Franklin's influence on Priestley began to turn Priestley's attention more towards politics. In addition to the politics, Priestley also began writing about religion. His attention and publication of his views on Christianity, most notably History of Corruptions of Christianity, where he argues against the more mystical aspects within the Bible (dismissing the Trinity, miracles, and contradictory concepts in doctrine), actually led to riots among Christians and a mob that burned his house, lab, and called for his death. Priestley ended up in exile, and moved to America. It did not take long before he met and befriended Thomas Jefferson. Even before becoming friends with Jefferson, he knew and befriended John Adams when Adams was Vice President.

Priestley was a deep thinking man who believed in complete openness and sharing of information and data with as many people as possible. He wrote everything down, in exhaustive detail, especially with his experimental procedures and data. Had he the technology, he likely would have developed the Internet. Why was he this way? Priestley and Franklin agreed in their correspondence that by publishing everything in the sciences allowed them to "excite the attentions of the ingenius." Great ideas develop by people brainstorming and sharing thoughts. If one person is on a path but cannot quite see the answer, someone else might, and that is good for progress. This mindset is at the heart and soul of all modern science disciplines, as well as academia in general. This is what 'connectivity' and the Internet is all about, or at least the Internet provides the appropriate platform for sharing and exciting the attentions of the ingenius. Check out my post from another of Johnson's books about how ideas form.

Providing information to the masses is a necessity for democracy. Priestley's preaching and practice of sharing information was a key influence on the development of the vision of Franklin, Jefferson and Adams as they were helping invent America. Priestley also resisted just having a single focus. The practice of the day was for science, religion, philosophy, politics, and other fields of study from overlapping. Priestley helped break this mold, as he was a firm believer in multidisciplinary approaches to topics. He and Franklin in particular discussed this concept, as if they were forming the modern field of complex systems. Having and using a multi-disciplinary mindset allowed some of our Founding Fathers to be great visionaries that were needed to make the American experiment to work. In fact, after Priestley died and Jefferson and Adams began their decade-long, legendary exchange of letters up until they died (on July 4th, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence), whose name appeared more frequently than Franklin's, Washington's or Madison's? It was Priestley.

The key players who gave birth to America were geniuses. They were scientists at heart, and this mindset and experience were key to the development of the American concept. But they were also willing to share ideas, try new things, and collaborate to solve major, complex, and multi-disciplinary problems. And the big three of Franklin, Adams and Jefferson had a common thread of Joseph Priestley to help guide them over decades worth of time. He showed how science, religion and politics were inter-related and all had to be 'on the table' simultaneously when developing new ideas. It is a fascinating story, involving fascinating individuals. These are the same themes and issues we talk about today, whether it involves current problems the nation and world face, as well as with reforming our education system as we try to prepare kids for the 21st century. These men from the 18th and early 19th centuries have much to teach us still, and I think they deserve their say!