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 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.
Maxwell, 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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
There aren’t many books I read that I would recommend that everyone read. But Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow would be one.
We all want to think we are rational agents, that we actively deliberate when we make a decision, that we think about the things we hear with a critical mind. In fact, much of so-called “classical” economics is built on just such an assumption of rational people. Kahneman, a Nobel prize winning economist known for his pioneering work on behavioral economics, demonstrates with example after example that we are far from such rational beings.
Even worse, our brains essentially trick us into thinking we are rational. The decisions we make, the way we process information we see and hear, and our reactions to the world are all influenced much more than we realize by our subconscious mind. In fact, many decisions are made at the subconscious level and, only after the fact, does our conscious mind make up reasons for those decisions. That is, we create our own narratives that make our thinking self-consistent, that make our world view and our internal world make sense.
Kahneman has lead or been part of numerous studies that demonstrate how our brains process information and how we reach decisions and he describes some truly eye-opening and mind-opening examples. I won’t go into any of them here, for fear of getting them wrong, but needless to say they make one question exactly how rational and how in control of our own minds we really are. Do our thoughts and beliefs come from well-thought out origins, or are they the reaction of some deep part of our minds that we aren’t even aware of? How much do we really know ourselves?
Lest one think that these are esoteric questions, Kahneman’s examples are real-world, showing how these kinds of subconscious mental processes influence pretty much every decision we make. He includes examples of how judges make decisions, how military training is conducted, and how we do simple things like how we interpret the world around us.
The book is dense with a lot of concepts that Kahneman tries to dumb down for the average reader, but even so, some of these ideas take a few readings to absorb. I’ve only gone through the book once, but I certainly intend to revisit this book, probably multiple times.
I would highly recommend this book to any and everyone. I think that it is with this kind of insight that we can build better economic and political systems that aren’t based on fallacious assumptions about the nature of human behavior. Once we all recognize how we really do think, we can maybe make an active choice to try to, in the end, be a bit more rational.
Each year, John Brockman and Edge.org ask a group of renowned scientists and thinkers a thought provoking question to stimulate discussion about important topics. In 2011, he asked “What scientific concept will improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” Something like 150 people contributed short essays with their answer to the question. They range from profound to rather silly (at least, in my opinion). But they all provide new ways of thinking about the world around us.
For example, P. Z. Meyrs discusses the “mediocrity principle”. Simply put, it means that you, or me, or any of us, aren’t special. We aren’t the center of the universe. Things don’t happen to us for a reason. The universe isn’t out there to either help us or hurt us. It just is, and we are just a part of it. Sean Carroll follows up on this, by stating “Humans… like to insist that there are reasons why things happen… [that things] must be explained in terms of the workings of a hidden plan” but, in the end, there is no such plan. In a twist to this idea, Samuel Barondes points out that, while each of us is ordinary, we are also each one of a kind.
Jonah Lehrer discusses research on willpower with an example of 4-year-old kids. These kids were sat down in a tiny room and presented with treats. They could either eat one now, or if they could way for a few minutes alone in the room, they could have two treats when the time was up. Some kids waited and some did not. In the end, it wasn’t a matter of kids having more or less willpower, but the kids who could wait for the two treats were better able to distract themselves, focusing on something else rather than the treats. The most important result: the kids who could wait, who could distract themselves from the most immediate reward, scored 210 points (on average) on SAT tests in high school compared to those who didn’t last 30 seconds before grabbing a treat. As Lehrer states, “these correlations demonstrate the importance of learning to strategically allocate our attention.” If we can learn to focus on things other than the immediate reward, we can improve our overall lot in life.
Another theme that is explored by multiple authors is the human brain’s inability to really assess risk. We inordinately fear things that have an extremely low probability of happening while we don’t give a second thought to things that actually are relatively likely. Garrett Lisi summarizes this paradox nicely: “The startling implication is that the risk of being bitten and killed by a spider is less than the risk that being afraid of spiders will kill you because of the increased stress.” That is, the stress of being afraid of spiders is more deadly than the spiders themselves.
One last example is by Jason Zweig. I like it because, in an ideal world, I would try to implement this in my own life. He focuses on serendipity, and how to nurture the creative process that lead to those Eureka! moments. In particular, he says that research shows that serendipity is a consequence of abrupt shifts in the focus of our brain activity. It is when the brain completely shifts gears. To facilitate this, he personally tries to read one scientific paper each week that is not in his field and to read it in a completely different place. The idea is to break his routine, to force his brain into new circumstances, with the goal of promoting shifts in the focus of the brain. I like the idea; I just need to find some time to do it.
There are a lot of other essays that are very interesting, going into various aspects of the scientific method, or principles from economics, or the role of randomness in our lives. Like the other books in this series, I highly recommend it, if for no other reason than to provide food for thought about how both our brains and the universe they find themselves in work.
In a series of books, one each year, John Brockman asks the contributors and members of Edge.org a question. The goal is to foster exchange, to provoke thinking, and to stir debate. I thought I’d give my own answers to each question.
I’ve touched on this before. One of the defining tenants of American society is that anyone can make it, can be a success, if only they work hard. I have serious doubts that hard work is the most important criterion for success in American (with inheritance, skill, perseverance, and dumb luck likely all being more important), but let’s set that aside for the moment. Let’s assume that hard work, and hard work alone, will get you to the top. It’s a nice thought, and a nice ideal, but it simply can’t be true. There isn’t enough room at the top for everyone. Someone has to do those jobs near the bottom of the economic ladder, those jobs no one chooses to do, but must be done for society and the economy to function. Jobs that don’t pay well. The bottom rungs of the economic ladder must be occupied by someone, regardless of how hard everyone works. That is, even if everyone worked hard, the vast majority have to fail for the system to work. The top need the bottom to exist. Thus, the system has to be rigged to ensure that the bottom exists.
As a consequence, it simply can’t be true that all one needs is to work hard. Sure, some will work hard and rise above their “humble beginnings,” but we all can’t. Most of us won’t, regardless of how hard we work. If the majority of us are able to move up the ladder, we must bring in new people who are willing to exist at the bottom, for whatever reason.
The only way I can see that the American Dream can be a reality for the vast majority of Americans is for us to develop the technology to automate all of those jobs at the lowest economic rungs. Possibly then, we won’t need people to do them and the system will have the freedom to allow most or maybe even all of us to move up and realize the American Dream. But, until that happens, I fear that most of will have to settle for the hope of the American Dream for their children.
Behavior can be Predicted and Controlled.
It seems that, as we learn more about how the brain functions, we are learning more and more that many behaviors are a consequence of the structure and chemistry of the brain. Much of what defines each of us is based on genetic factors and our predilections are often a function of how our brains are wired, out of our direct control. If true, this has enormous implications for our place in society.
Imagine if each of our brains can be mapped to such a degree that we can place high probabilities of us behaving in certain ways. And imagine if this could be done when we are infants. That is, consider a world in which an infant, not long in this world, can have his or her brain mapped and the propensity for unsocial behavior determined. Behavior, for example, such as tendency to be violent or a psychopath or a sociopath. What should we do with such capabilities and knowledge? Should we use it to determine the likelihood of each and every individual’s probability to be a damaging member of society? And, if we can, what should we do to those people? Should we continuously monitor them in the hope of preventing them from harming anyone? Should we abscond them away to ensure they don’t?
Now imagine we take the scenario a bit further. Imagine we have the ability to change behavior, through chemistry. We do this already to some extent, with ADHD and other behaviors deemed undesirable. What if we could use chemicals, possibly forcibly given, to turn off that part of the brain that drives pedophiles? Or murders? What if we could alter the brain chemistry of individuals determined to be a danger to society to remove that danger? That is, what if we could stop these people from doing any harm, by changing them before they were ever able to do any harm? If we could identify the Jeffery Dahmers and Adolf Hitlers of the world long before they became those monsters, should we? And what should we do about it?
There are many ethical questions that arise from such a scenario, including the right of society to so drastically interfere with the rights of any given individual who has done nothing wrong, but has a brain that strongly indicates they will. Further, there will be those who want to use such power for more nefarious purposes, such as eliminating people with behaviors that aren’t dangerous but are deemed unacceptable (for example, homosexuality) or maybe dangerous to the regime (such as a proclivity to question authority).
I think we will soon have the ability to both determine who might be prone to dangerous behavior and then modify them so they don’t. We will soon have to answer questions about what we do with that ability.