Science Borealis

Science Borealis
Science Borealis

Monday, 16 December 2013

The challange of understanding

I consider myself as an educator. Someone who teaches others, thereby bestowing knowledge upon them. For as long as I can remember, I always enjoyed explaining things to others. The biggest joy I get from the experience is the feeling that the more I explain things, the more I understand them.

You see, when we sit down and learn something new, we usually start with remembering it. This can be done through repetition. If I sing the A,B,C enough times, I am sure to remember them. The problem is that just because I can remember something, doesn't mean I understand it. To understand, I need to be able to apply what it is I can remember.  But even applying the knowledge can sometimes amount to nothing more than a technical skill.

However, when you try to explain it to someone else, that's when your knowledge is really put to the test. When you are being asked "why is it like this?" or "why can't you do it another way?" is when you have to critically examine the extent of your understanding.

Science can be hard to understand. Like any field of knowledge, science can be understood in many levels, and the higher you go, the more complicated it becomes. And the more complicated it becomes, the more assumptions you make, or take things as is, to allow you to understand the even more complex ideas.


Here's an example.
We now know today that all matter is made up of atoms.
But what is an atom?
Is is a particle made up of smaller particles. The nucleus, positively charged, and electrons around it, negatively charged.
The nucleus is actually made up of protons, positively charged, and (except for Hydrogen) neutrons, without any charge.
We can go on and on, dissecting the particles even further, BUT, even before scientists discovered the existence of the electrons, the concept of atoms was still being used to explain what is matter. It was just assumed that there is this basic element called "atom" which has so and so characteristics, and with this assumption knowledge was formulated. Once electrons and protons were discovered, they became the fundamental elements used to explain, and so on and so forth.

In today's complex scientific world, the depth of knowledge is so great that scientists sometime forget that there's a huge canyon between the general public and the specialists. Which is why I find "The Flame Challenge" to be such a great effort to bring science back to the ground.

Flame from a Burning Candle

In a nutshell, the idea is this - you think you understand something really well? now try to put it in simple language so even an 11 year old can understand.
The first challenge was to explain what flame is. The second, what is time. The current challenge - what is color.

The challenge is not an easy one, because as we become more and more informed, more and more specialized, more and more knowledgeable, we tend to take a lot of concepts for granted, forgetting that most people either don't understand them or don't even know about them. We take our point of view as the obvious one, which may or may not be what other people might think.

Let's take color as an example. Without going into what color is, lets explore the various ways we can think of color.

Color is something we see. Objects appear in different colors. We may explore the property of matter, and why different things have different color.
Color is something we experience. We can explore how we perceive color. How does our eye register color and how does our brain interpret the signal coming from the eye.
Color is a form of energy. We can explore the meaning of color from a pure physical point of view.

There are probably more ways to think about color, and I didn't even start to explain any of them.

So what do you think? can you explain what is color to an 11 year old? 

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Damme, I broke the laws of Physics again!

Are you one of the 60 millions (!!!) of people who watched Volvo's "Epic Split" ad featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme?

If not, here it is, with its majestic feel:

It is a beautiful ad. Very elegant, extremely impressive performance, and above all, amazing engineering by Volvo to allow such high precision steering of their trucks.

But, one thing it is not - defying the laws of physics.

I'm sorry to be a stickler for details, but with all due respect to Jean-Claude Van Damme (and much respect I do have for his mastering of the body and mind), physics is not the least surprised by this ad.

Which "laws of physics" did the screenwriters think of when they wrote this line?

Were they thinking of Newton's law of universal gravitation
Are we to expect that Jean-Claude Van Damme should fall to the ground due to gravity, and surprisingly he does not? of course he does not fall, his legs are resting on the trucks' side mirrors.

Were they thinking of friction ?
Were we expecting Jean-Claude Van Damme's feet to slide off the side mirrors? obviously, he chose proper shoes which provide enough friction, as well as being able to control his balance such that he doesn't looses his foot hold.

What other 'Laws of Physics' could they have been thinking of?
Under "Major Laws of Physics" we can find a few others:

- E = m c2
(clearly Jean-Claude Van Damme does not transforms into energy)

- Conservation of momentum
(not colliding into anything, and with the trucks not breaking, momentum doesn't change anyways)

- Laws of thermodynamics
(its hard to say what is happening to Jean-Claude Van Damme's internal energy or his entropy, so I cannot comment on these ones)

- Electrostatic laws
(having no wires connected to him, nor a light bulb, I don't think Jean-Claude Van Damme is generating an electrostatic field)

- Theory of relativity
(the trucks are traveling at a speed far slower than the speed of light, so this can't be the right one)

- Quantum mechanics
(with a body mass of a human being, Quantum mechanics are just as accurate as classical mechanics)

So, to sum things up, do I think this is an amazing ad? YES!
Would I have thought it was an amazing ad without having the "defy the laws of physics" in it? YES!

Would you have felt any different of the ad if 'laws of physics' were not "defied"? I'm guessing no.

(Dear commercial copywriters, I know you are being paid to deliver super drama. But seriously, if the theme is not science fiction, don't insult people by stating over dramatizing empty claims.) 


Tuesday, 3 December 2013

My Brush with Art

A lot of universities have a Faculty called "Arts and Science".

If the faculty segments its disciplines into "Arts" and "Science" does that imply that arts and sciences don't mix? are they mutually exclusive? or is there some overlap?

Such fundamental questions as "what makes something Art?" or "Can Science be considered as Art?" came to my mind as I was organizing a public event for Pueblo Science which was to be part of Culture Days weekend, held on September 28th 2013 weekend across Canada. I named the activity : "Painting with Science".

Luckily for me, I happen to have a friend who is an art curator, and who is better qualified to help me in my quest to understand where Art and Science meet, or whether they don't, than an art curator?

The short answer I got was: "it is art if you say so."
 Well that's easy then, I just say my science demonstration is art, therefor it must be art.

But will people believe me just because I said so?

So I kept on questioning, "but will people believe me? why should they?"

And here lies the profound boundary (at least based on my interpretation):

ART provokes your subjective FEELINGS
SCIENCE provokes your objective REASONING

In other words, art presents you with something to explore with your emotions, to think about how you feel about it, to like it or dislike it, or perhaps to be indifferent, and in either way, ponder about why is it that you feel the way you feel, and then perhaps change your mind, feel something else. You may feel differently every time you experience it. And every person may feel differently about the same art.

Science, on the other hand, is about understanding why things are the way they are, why things behave the way they do. Your emotions are not part of it. Like it or not, gravity will pull you down when you loose your balance. Love it or not, but a drop of food colouring falling on a piece of fabric will soak and spread. Science is about articulating an explanation (and later testing the boundaries and limitations of that explanation). Finding a 'general rule' which will allow you to predict how the world will behave based on how it was observed to behave until now. And it doesn't matter who is the observer, the science is always the same.

Wait, so does that mean art and science can or cannot mix?

My feelings about this is that they can overlap if you let them.
If you ALLOW yourself to both FEEL as well as REASON, you can enjoy both ART and SCIENCE.

Look at this painting we had both adults and children paint at the event:

You can clearly see a canvas. You can also see different drawings, using different colors, pink and green. You can think about how the drawings make you feel. What do they remind you of. How the collection of different drawings produced by different people combine or clash. It is art produced by random people who were presented with a fabric, paint brushes and paint, and the opportunity to draw anything they felt like on a nice sunny morning in Toronto.

Oh, and one last thing you can't see from the image. The paint they were given were all colorless, transparent liquids!!! Yes, that's right. Our painters used solutions which looked exactly the same, but produced different colors when they touched the fabric. What a surprise. Now another feeling comes into play, that of surprise. Amazement.

And now, once you've let yourself soak the feeling of marvel, you may ask "Why does this happen?"
And we can now search for an explanation. Are the liquids the same or are they different? Is it the paint, the fabric, or their combination which produces the different colors?

We've stepped from an artistic experience into a scientific experience.
And once we understand why things happen, does that diminish our feelings? or maybe it enhances them? personally, I prefer to think of it in a non-competitive way. Our feelings are different with the knowledge we gained, but feelings are still feelings, no right ones no wrong ones. No better, no worse.

Think of how your feelings change when you learn how a magic trick was performed. The first time you see it, you are amazed. Once you learn how it was done, you may feel admiration towards the magician who has mastered the trick so well. Instead of replacing one feeling for another, cherish them both. Both add up to make you who you are.

So, as I explore my personal feelings about the who event, I conclude that I've learned that I can appreciate the artistic merit of my science activity. And I liked it.