Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Break From Studied Foolishness

A sensible response to yesterday's school attack by Chris Rock. (language warning, in case you had not already guessed)

Via The Other McCain

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Uranium is a metal

And this particular piece is weapons-grade.

Moving to Mars?

If you are 5-20 years old, in 20 years, you'll be 25-40: just about the right age to start up a new life on Mars. Elon Musk, who made a fortune on Paypal has been building SpaceX, a private space exploration agency. Now he says his goal is to start a colony on mars. He says he'll charge about $500,000. More detail here.

Jan'16: Here are more details - or at least speculation - on the Musk plan, including a Mars-Earth ferrying spaceship, deep sleep for the colonists to reduce consumption during the flight and terraforming assisted by thermonuclear detonations at the poles.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Want to travel at the speed of light?

OK, previous post notwithstanding, you can't. But MIT has a game out where you can see what it would be like to walk at nearly the speed of light. They don't make you walk really fast; instead they make light go really slowly. Popular Science has a description here.

MIT wants people to go beyond. What they are making is the game engine. That is, they do the hard work of the relativistic effects. You can then program your own game in their relativistic world.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Education and Careers

University professors often wax eloquent about the glories of education for education's sake: a noble, but expensive luxury. Students and their parents usually think about education as career training. Here is a list of traditional university majors with a lousy track record for landing jobs.

I notice two things about the list: they are fields people take for the pure love of education and they don't include the women's studies, environmental studies, African-american studies &c. that are the usual butt of career jokes.

OTOH - Good jobs w/o degrees - maybe a good way to follow up that philosophy degree.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Scientist with the Greatest Legacy?

The greatest impact on the world of science would have to go to Newton, possibly Bacon or Aristotle. The greatest benefit to mankind from scientific work? I guess that would be Norman Borlaug.


Borlaug was a farmer and a researcher into farming practices. His main idea was to adapt the best practices of the western farmer to the third world: first Mexico, then Pakistan and India. His most famous work was to breed a "semi-dwarf" wheat that could be grown strong and full without growing too tall, then falling over and rotting.

In doing so, he allowed millions of people to live who would have starved to death, probably hundreds of millions. He may have saved more lives than were taken by Mao, Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot, combined. In the early 70's, the smart set had agreed that mass starvation was a fact of life that could only get worse. Intellectual discussions were how to manage the suffering.

Even as they published, Borlaug had already proven the technology and was implementing the green revolution.

Norman Borlaug passed away three years ago, today. He was 95.

(Or this video has a little more technical content)

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Spacing Out-My Intellectual Superpower

Apparently spacing out for a while can boost your brainpower

At least that is the story in the popular media. The study actually shows that people who are left alone after learning something remember better than people who immediately move on to the next thing. (So, no phones/games/electronics in class.) It's my own experience that tells me if I start daydreaming about an idea I'll understand it better

Friday, August 24, 2012

What is Your Science Fair Project?

I never entered a science fair but I have judged a few. Some of my favorites were the boy who tested various batteries to see which lasted longest or the boy who measured the performance of a motor at various loads, voltages and currents.

How about designing a computer program to diagnose breast cancer? Brittany Wenger programmed a neural network to consider nine different pieces of information and make a diagnosis of breast cancer. That won her the international Google Science Fair.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Watching Light Travel

If you thought this was fast...

Professor Ramesh Raskar of MIT has been taking video at a trillion frames per second. (Normal video is 30 fps.) The video from his camera of the bullet passing through the picture above would take a year to watch...just fast enough to see light travel. It turns out that if you can watch light travel, you can see the ripeness of fruit, see around corners and observe relativity.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Of Subprime Loans and University Degrees

Are you thinking about going to university? Beware the higher education bubble!

(US data. I'd guess Canada's is less dramatic but I haven't checked.)

In your great-grandparents' day, you took what life had to offer. Only a few would dream clearly, work hard and be lucky enough to get the education to pursue a dream. If it wasn't exactly your dream, well...close enough. In your parents' day, education was easier. Lots of kids got some extra education whether they had the dream or not. The world needed educated people and it was bound to work out. That degree in Psychology was handy to have even if you ended up selling real estate.

In your day the guarantee is gone. University is more expensive; lots of people have generic degrees and degrees are less rigorous/less respected. University still makes sense but only if you know why. Trade school makes sense if you know why. starting a business makes sense if you know why. Any one of those could put a big, expensive hole in your life if you don't know why. More than ever, you need to dream clearly.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Teens Who Will be Happy

Nearly every movie or TV show I see aimed at the teen (or worse, pre-teen) audience sends the message that teens are sullen, moody, pouty, self-centered, narcissistic, disrespectful and rude. Worse: they send the message that this is healthy and proper. Any kid who is not narcissistic and disrespectful is a suck, a goody-two-shoes or some sort of deviant.

A new study says otherwise. The most important indicator of how happy and healthy you will be in life is not money, intelligence, grades, image or even popularity. It is connectedness: can you find people nearby to talk to, to help, to enjoy? Do you join clubs? sports are fine and so is the chess club, church youth group or volunteering group. (Even the video games or anime circles work as long as you are talking, not just gaming.) Don't forget mom and dad. It matters.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Great Leap for the "Quite Poor"

A while back I blogged about a wood stove that promised great benefits for the world's poorest. Today's revolutionary gizmo targets a less poor demographic, though I expect a lot of overlap.

Do you hear people talking about "washing day"? That's because in my grandmother's time, washing took most of a day. That situation is still reality in some places. Worse, drying on a line in humid climates can take weeks and lead to mildew in your clothes and on your children's skin. What can we do about it?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

green or Green?

Fires are burning all over Colorado just as they recently were in BC. Ironically, this environmental devastation is an unintended consequence of forestry practices that we adopted in the name of the environment.

Clearing underbrush for example, once a common practice, is often discouraged. Instead rotting, decaying wood is encouraged as a habitat for various forest critters. Unfortunately, it provides a source of fuel to promote forest fires and make them hotter. It also allows the pine beetle to spread, destroying vast forests. Darn those unintended consequences!
A mild pine beetle infestation

Monday, June 11, 2012

Forbidden History of Unpopular People

Talk of a scientific consensus always gives me a moment of unease. This entertaining video tells of Ignaz Semmelweis, who had some funny ideas that were contrary to the scientific consensus and insulting to his peers.

Contrast with the news last September that an experiment has measured neutrinos traveling faster than light. To do so would violate Einsein's special relativity (E=mc2),The reaction among scientists was anything but hostile. Most people assumed there was a mistake, but couldn't find the mistake. Discussions of what the mistake might be were open and good-natured. In the meantime, the physics community lit up with speculation of what it might mean if it were true. 

Yes, there are ideas in science that are commonly accepted. Call it "consensus" if you like. But science needs to remain receptive to falsifying evidence. If, for whatever reason, a set of principles is not open to challenge from empirical evidence or alternate explanations, we shouldn't call it "science". Instead, we should use the older, broader term: "natural philosophy".

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Who Smells Better: Old Men or Teens?

Did you know that people smell different as they age. What's more, people are surprisingly good at distinguishing between old person smell and young person smell. Guess who smells better.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Why I Wish We Taught More Statistics

Ed Yong explains what it means to say that something causes 16% of cancers.
It doesn't mean:
  • He can name the cancer victim
  • He is certain it causes cancer
  • His 16% is higher than someone else's 15%
  • 84% of cancer is caused by something else (100-16=84)
I'd like to live in a world where this makes perfect sense to everyone who has finished high-school math.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Shaping Silicon on the Nano-Scale

Shaping silicon on the nano-scale promises a way to make a battery that stores lots of energy and lasts for many charges.

This remind me of the story of Thomas Edison's first long lasting light bulb filament. He took a bit of cotton thread, shaped as he liked and then baked it until all that was left was carbon. If he put a thin carbon wire in a vacuum, he had a reasonably long-lasting light bulb. Ingenuity never grows old.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Things You Find in Your Basement

Making a nuclear bomb is pretty easy, if only you can get the weapons-grade uranium. Apparently Kodak had 3.5 pounds of weapons-grade uranium sitting in a lab in the basement from 1974 to 2006. It is not enough for a bomb, but enough to make the Department of Defense awfully nervous.

 They used it to check chemicals for impurities.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Looking for a Backup Earth

There has been ever more exciting news of late in looking for a a hospitable, earth-like planet. Thanks to a new orbiting telescope, the news is coming faster.

Most of the best looking planets are bigger and closer to their sun that earth. that is bad news because they will probably be too hot. If it is true that earth-like planets are normally too close to a sun, maybe we should be looking near a cooler red dwarf star to find a habitable planet.
Of course, the very idea does bring this to mind.

Plus, recent progress in how we might get there.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

"Visualizing" Earthquakes

Have you ever wondered what an earthquake would sound like? Well, it wouldn't sound like anything because earthquake frequencies are in the 0.01 - 100 Hz range and we humans can't hear anything below 20 Hz.

But if you were to speed up the frequency, it would sound like this. (Note: in speeding up the frequency, they speed up the recording so what you hear in a minute, took an hour in real life.)
Look at all the other things we can listen for.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

This Seed Grew 30,000 Years Ago...

And now a Pleistocene-era plant is once again growing on earth.
Our thanks go out to the hero of science who made this all possible: 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Big One

We keep hearing about the big earthquake that may happen off the coast of Vancouver Island. A new paper says that Japan's latest quake makes our next quake more likely. Estimates put the likelihood between 10-35% that we will get one in the next 50 years. Oh did I mention it was a 9.0.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Sunshine: It's Good For You Again

Are you tired of the nanny state telling you to wear your sunblock? Vindication at last! For some months, I have been hearing murmurs that sunlight does more good than harm. It is one of those subjects where a bunch of evidence exists that goes against accepted science and government recommendations. This is not yet accepted as fact in the mainstream, so treat it as such. Even so, I guess it is time to write a post.

According to Dr. Michael Holick, "Vitamin D deficiency is the most common medical condition in the world." It leads not just to rickets and osteoporosis, but hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and stroke, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, dementia, autoimmune diseases, and cancers including, surprisingly, skin cancer. See here for a summary.

It is still recommended to wear sunglasses and limit exposure of your hands and face. They already get plenty of sun.

Yes, Virginia There is Controlled Fusion

A student was asking me if humans had ever achieved controlled fusion. I was pretty sure the answer was yes, but couldn't think of any examples. (Note We have not achieved a controlled fusion reaction that released more energy than was input.) Well here is an example put together by a 14-yr-old who also dreamed up a practical near-term use.
Going for a walk...with my Geiger counter
Update (Jun'14):
Taylor is 19 now. Here is a NBC feature and a report on another guy doing fusion in his garage.
Finally, my old colleague, Michel Laberge gives a TED talk about his exploits in Fusion. General Fusion has a plausible shot at being the first company to produce practical fusion.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Hobbies Getting Out of Hand

Theodore Gray, the Mad Scientist of Popular Science speaks frankly while doing chemistry demos. Did you know that Pyrex is no longer pyrex? He shows why this matters at 28:00 (it involves a blow torch). He also makes salt(think about it!), a cutting torch out of bacon and appears on a Japanese game show. Don't you wish my classes were like this?
  Along the way, Gray has made the periodic table website, book and table; re-popularized the song (slower). He put all his columns into a book: Experiments You Can Do At Home--But Probably Shouldn't. He even praises the iPad for enabling the Harry Potter version of his book.

Full circle: Harry Potter sings the element song.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Wood Stove. Big Deal!

The four biggest killers of the world's poor are hunger, dirty water, indoor smoke and malaria which kill 7, 3, 3 and 2 people per minute (p.338). There are 500,000 minutes in a year.

Now consider the Envirofit G-3300 stove. "These stoves reduce smoke and harmful gases by up to 80 percent, reduce fuel use by up to 60 percent and reduce cooking time by up to 50 percent compared to traditional cooking fires and stoves."

the facts

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Operation Red Flag

48 min IMAX video of modern dogfight simulation.
Inspired? Flight Simulators: Flight Gear, YS Flight Simulator (works will on slower computers), Microsoft Flight Simulator X (Demo or paid versions), or X-Plane (the best?)

Sunday, January 29, 2012

For Our Friends in Social Studies

How to use Google better:
BTW, the advice on screen capturing is for a Mac. On a PC use the "print screen" button. You can crop the picture elsewhere. (Eg. On Word, crop the picture, then copy and paste to make to crop permanent.)

 From elsewhere on the same site: WWII as a Facebook feed.

Friday, January 27, 2012

World's Longest-Running Experiment

Is brittle coal pitch a liquid or solid?
85 year-long experiment continues.
You can watch it unfold live. The next drop
is expected around 2013.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Alternative Certification

Some people can learn from books. Some need a teacher. The downside of teachers is that we are expensive and not very responsive at 2:00 in the morning or whenever you might most like to learn. Either way, however, reliable, professional teachers are needed to provide grading: to assure that the student has learned.

Uh oh!

Update: Sept '14
It is only one study, possibly biased (the article says little about method and I am too lazy to research further.) but MIT says that online courses teach as well as classrooms. Uh oh!

A tricorder?*

Somewhere in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum there are terrahertz waves that can penetrate human bodies and react differently to different chemicals. We have large lab devices to make these. We may soon have small ones. Possibilities!

Repeat: there is serious talk of a handheld, non-contact device that can analyse the inside of a human.

*A tricorder is a gizmo from Star Trek. It is a handheld device that can analyse things without opening or even touching them.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Thinking Like a Neanderthal

Neanderthal man had bigger brains than we homo sapiens do but they didn't think the same way. New Scientist has some ideas on how they would have thought.

Matt Ridley (the Rational Optimist) thinks the most important difference was our eagerness to trade. By trading, we benefit from our own innovations as well as the other guys' innovations and the innovations of everyone he knows. We might not have been smart enough to think of connecting a sharp rock to a straight stick, but if we meet anyone who was, we get sharp spears too.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Different Approach to Global Warming

What if action on global warming focused on something other than CO2. What if it was more effective? A new study investigates how we could reduce warming by concentrating on methane and carbon black (soot).

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

On Goldilocks and Climate Change

So are we cooking under greenhouse gasses or on the verge of a new ice age? Or mightn't it be both?

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Aviation Photo Contest

Aviation Week and Space Technology is having its annual photo contest.  

Reader's choice - Defense (click for contest finalists)                                                     
 Best of the Best has a Canadian Perspective (click for artist's work)
Jason Pineau, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories De Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter rests under a thin band of aurora borealis on Point Lake, Northwest Territories.