Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field by Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon

41P0iwFCz0L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Sometimes science advances because of the constant but relatively small contributions of many scientists focused on a field. However, revolutionary advances are often the child of special individuals who see the world in a different way than their contemporaries. Such is the case for electromagnetism and the two people who took it out of the shadows and laid a solid foundation for how electricity and magnetism work. These two scientists were Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell, two of the preeminent scientists of their day. And their story is wonderfully captured by Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon in Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field.

Faraday-Millikan-Gale-1913Faraday came from a poor family and was not formally schooled in science. However, his insights and dedication to empirical experimentation provided the foundation for our modern society, discovering not only how the electromagnetic field behaved (even proposing the field in the first place) but using that insight to invent the dynamo and the electric motor. All without any resort to a mathematical description of these effects.

James_Clerk_MaxwellMaxwell, on the other hand, came from a family that could provide for a solid education. Even so, Maxwell stood apart from his peers. Inspired by Faraday’s writings, Maxwell provided the mathematical foundation to Faraday’s observations that led to our ability to really exploit Faraday’s discoveries and subsequently to a myriad of technologies we take for granted today.

This book not only recounts the development of the theories of electromagnetism, from the state of the field when Faraday began his experiments to the researchers who followed in Faraday and Maxwell’s steps, but also is a fascinating expose on how science is done and what motivates science. I was fascinated to learn that Faraday had no particular application in mind when he performed his experiments. Even when he invented the dynamo and electric motor, he couldn’t conceive of an application. The electromagnetic field that Maxwell codified in his famous equations, likewise, did not appear to have any immediate application. It wasn’t until later that other researchers exploited these discoveries, inventing the radio, and using the electric motor and dynamo to create our cities that are powered by electricity. This story highlights the extreme benefit to society of science for science’s sake. Not all science has a clear application and often it is that science that seems most esoteric that transforms our lives the most.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone that has any interest in science or science history. This story captures the wonder that motivates so many people to pursue science in the first place and places the scientific endeavor in the broader context of its role in human development and society as a whole. Simply, this is one of the best books I’ve read and I think every budding scientist would do well to read it.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

the-golem-and-the-jinniA jinni and a golem meet in New York… almost sounds like the set up for a bad joke. But, Helene Wecker’s novel The Golem and the Jinni is certainly no joke. It is an exciting story about two mythological creatures who happen to find themselves in the same part of New York City during the late 1800s. These two creatures have very different dispositions: the jinni is a fiery hothead while the golem struggles to keep her emotions buried deep within.

Neither creature is fully in control of their fate. Golems, by nature, are created to serve a master while the jinni, as is often the case, has been imprisoned against his will to serve others. By using these two creatures and how they interact both with one another and with the humans around them, Wecker touches on themes of free will and purpose in life that, because of the combined historical/fantastical setting, occurs organically. The story focuses on the fate of these two magical creatures and the people they interact with, but the messages of the novel are much deeper than a fantasy story implies.

Science Booth 2014

Every year, around Halloween, my daughter’s school does their “Fall Festival”, which consists of various booths and activities for the kids to do, mostly created by the kids, based on what they are learning that year. This year, for example, my daughter’s class is learning about the prehistoric peoples of the New Mexico area and so they had an activity in which people threw spears at a Mammoth, to hunt for the clan.

Last year, I did a science booth. It is a bit different than a normal demo, in which one might have a specific routine. Rather, here, the kids come up randomly, like they would any fair, and I tried to do something “on demand” to capture their attention. Ideally, they learn a bit of science too, but it is a bit too hectic to teach much. More, I’m simply hoping to show them cool things that kindle their interest in science.

I did the booth again this year. Overall, it went well, though I think it was a bit better last year, except for maybe the finale. I’m still trying to find the right set of experiments and am finding that the ideal experiments are hands-on, ones the kids can not only watch, but directly participate.

Elephant toothpase. My daughter was a banana slug for Halloween. Photo credit: Lisa Van De Graaff.

Like last year, I did Elephant Toothpaste. Basically, you mix hy drogen peroxide and yeast in a bottle and it reacts. Add some dish soap and food coloring and you get a nice foaming mess. The reaction didn’t go quite as fast as last year, I think because the hydrogen peroxide (a stronger 6% solution that you can get at hair salons) was thicker, so it didn’t mix with the yeast as fast. My water, used to activate the yeast, was also not as warm as it should have been, so the yeast wasn’t as active as it could have been. We still got an oozing foam, but it wasn’t quite as dramatic as last year.

The failed hot ice experiment. Seems like the kids were still impressed, but I was pretty disappointed. Photo credit: Lisa Van De Graaff.

Probably the biggest bust was the hot ice. Last year, I had ordered, but not received, sodium acetate to make hot ice, the same stuff that is in those hand warms. If you make it right (essentially just cooking the sodium acetate in hot water to make a supersaturated solution that you then cool to make it supercooled as well) and pour it out, it will instantly solidify, making a growing crystal. Mine solidified as I poured it, actually clogging my bottle, but it solidified into a big glob, not a cool crystal tower. Actually, a test at home worked better in which I just poured it all in a bowl, tapped it to seed the nucleation, and lots of thin crystals grew out. Not quite sure what I did wrong here…

The water tornado! We had just seen a much fancier version of this at the Explora! museum in Albuquerque. Photo credit: Lisa Van De Graaff.

Two other experiments that were new this time were the water tornado and the magnet down the copper tube. In the water tornado, you just connect two 2-liter bottles with a special adapter, one of which is filled with water. If you flip it over and give it a swish, a tornado falls. For the magnet, you simply have to drop a strong magnet down a copper tube, which is not magnetic, but the electrical currents generated by the magnet in the tube slow the magnet down so it takes many seconds to fall through. I couldn’t quite tell if the kids got into these. It almost felt like the adults liked them better, especially the magnet.

The kids loved the Oobleck! Photo credit: Lisa Van De Graaff.

As I mentioned, hands-on turned out to be the best and most popular. I made Oobleck again (simply a 2-1 mixture of corn starch and water). Oobleck is a non-Newtonian fluid, meaning it acts differently depending on how hard you hit it. If you hit it hard, it resists like a solid. If you push slowly, your fingers go in slowly like a liquid. It’s just like quicksand, and the kids loved to play with it, even the older ones.

Especially the younger kids like mixing the colors in the milk. Photo credit: Lisa Van De Graaff.

For the younger kids, I redid the milk+soap experiment. If you start with a small plate of milk, add some drops of food coloring for visual appeal, then touch the milk with a Q-tip dipped in liquid dish soap, because the soap is polar, meaning one of the soap molecules love water and the other end hates it, the soap rushes around the milk, trying to find the fat molecules in the milk to attach their hydrophobic (water-hating) end to the fat, while pushing everything around. The food coloring shows how things just zip around. You get some very pretty patterns. I think if done in a more controlled way, the kids could use this to “paint”. We’d just need to figure out how to take pictures of the final designs.

It’s hard to see, but here we are all preparing rockets. Fortunately, no one got hit in the eye, though we did interfere with the booth next door to us as rockets came raining down on her… Photo credit: Lisa Van De Graaff.

The other new experiment involved little rockets. If you take an old film canister, fill it just a bit with water (the less the better), and add half an Alka-Seltzer tablet, you get a rocket. Close the canister, place it lid down on the ground, and step back. Some of the kids were getting their rockets to go easily 15-20 feet into the air. I couldn’t supply Alka-Seltzer tablets fast enough. The second they got a rocket launched, they were right back asking for more. This appealed to both girls and boys, though not the oldest kids. It was a huge hit, though, and one that will definitely have to be repeated.

Incidentally, I couldn’t quite figure out why less water would help it go higher. Another scientist was there watching, and he figured that the pressure build-up has to be the same (that is when the rocket pops), so it is the different amount of gas that is the key. More gas means more energy. I’m not sure that fully makes sense to me, I need to think about it a bit more. But, it shows how even a simple experiment like this can be turned into a real science effort by systematically testing these kinds of parameters.

The not-quite oozing pumpkin. Photo credit: Lisa Van De Graaff.

Finally, I tried to go out with a bang. I carved the school’s initials into a pumpkin and my intention was to put dry ice in a mixture of water, soap and red food coloring to have it foam out of the carved face. It didn’t quite go. I started with a container that was too big and it only foamed out the top as I couldn’t close the pumpkin well. And when I finally got it to go, at least a bit, it wasn’t red. So, it wasn’t quite as appealing and dramatic as I hoped. It was still cool, but not awesome.

Overall, though, I had fun and I think the kids had fun. Even some of the parents had fun. If I was able to inspire even a couple of kids to think about science a bit more, then it was all worth it.

If anyone has any other good ideas for hands-on experiments, or nice visual experiments that can be easily repeated through an afternoon, please let me know!

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

dog-stars.hellerAt first, The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller, is a difficult read. Heller eschews traditional sentence and paragraph structure. Instead of complete sentences, often the narrator of the novel “talks” in incomplete phrases, partial thoughts, and stream of conscious ramblings. Dialog is not distinguished from the narrator’s own internal voice. However, once you get by this odd composition, behind it is a story that is both touching and harrowing and certainly worth the effort.

The Dog Stars takes place in Colorado, in an America, a world, that has been decimated by a plague of unknown origin (though at one point, Livermore is blamed…). Whatever the origin, the current reality is that very few people are left and those that are either roam the countryside looking for supplies to scavenge and loot or have holed up in various compounds that they then defend against the roaming tribes. It is in exactly this situation that the protagonist, Hig, finds himself in. Hig and another man, Bangley, have taken residence in a neighborhood near an airport — Hig is a pilot — which, thanks to Bangley’s meticulous planning and military mindset, they have successfully defended against numerous attacks. However, having a creepy gun obsessed guy as his only “friend” starts to wear on Hig. Hig is lonely. Hig misses his wife. Hig wants more than to fight off a never ending hoard of invaders.

The novel follows Hig’s journey, both internal and external, of self-discovery, of finding what exactly he wants out of life in this new world. Along the way, we learn what it takes to survive in such a place, where all infrastructure is gone, people survive on their wits, and no one trusts anyone. How does Hig find purpose in a world where everything has been destroyed? Isn’t there more to life than simply defending his house, his dog, and his plane? Hig’s journey takes us along a path where he learns what it means to be human again in a world that humanity seems to have abandoned.

If you can make it through the odd compositional structure, the novel weaves a rich tapestry and has enough twists and turns to keep you turning the page. However, it certainly isn’t for everyone, as the structure may be too strange to digest for some. But, if you get by that, the novel rewards you with a story that certainly is heartfelt and gratifying.

Artful by Peter David

artful.davidIt seems the vampire and zombie thing is being done to death and Artful, by renowned comic book writer Peter David, is yet another entry into the mix. Focusing on vampires, it takes place in Oliver Twist’s world, shortly after the end of Dicken’s novel. Thus, already, it makes for a somewhat novel take on the whole vampire schtick. And, as the introduction makes clear, this isn’t a world full of emo vampires, struggling with their humanity. As the narrator states:

Watch some television programs, or read some books in which vampyres are heroic and charming and sparkle in the daylight, and then return here and brace yourself for a return to a time that vampyres were things that went bump in the night.

These vampires here are down right evil, with the goal of subjugating the human race, or at least grabbing a good share of power.

Peter David is known in the comic book world for taking characters that have been cast aside and breathing new life into them. Here, he does something similar to the Artful Dodger, the hero of this novel, though certainly not of Dicken’s original take. Artful finds himself in a world of vampires and intrigue where what he once took for granted is no longer what it seems. Artful befriends a young woman, lost on the streets, and their adventure into the world of the vampires begins. Along the way, the son of vampire hunter Van Helsing, a young boy who is very mature for his age, joins the adventure and even Oliver himself makes an appearance.

David’s penchant for dialog shines, which some memorable lines such as:

— bloodsucking monsters known as tax collectors already existed

— Only in death do worthless people have worth.

— the average person, of whom there is an insufferable number in the world

— lack of attention from God is not necessarily a bad thing, as the former residents of Sodom, Gomorrah, and the entirety of the Earth prior to Noah’s construction of an ark would have been able to attest.

— [regarding prostitutes] With how much respect do people treat slabs of beef? Beef is pounded, sates the appetite, and is extended no particular consideration beyond that. The sad truth is that oftentimes the ladies are seen as similar objects in that they are pounded in a variety of ways for the purpose of satisfying certain appetites, albeit unwholesome ones, and the remains are left behind for someone else to worry about.

There is a lot of commentary on society and politics sprinkled through out the novel, mostly from the point of view of a street urchin like Artful.

The novel is great fun, traipsing through Victorian London with numerous references to other literature set in the same time. Artful encounters the Baker Street Boys and even some more historical characters from the time. The action is fast paced, the characterization vibrant, and the plot has enough twists and turns to keep you engaged.

Blah, blah, blah… I've got the blahs.

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