Category Archives: Science

Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn by Amanda Gefter

This book is thought-provoking.

When she was fifteen, Amanda Gefter’s father, while out to dinner at their favorite Chinese restaurant, asked her “How would you define nothing?” Her father had been thinking about the nature of reality and he had come to the conclusion that it was nothing. Or better said, Nothing. This question led Amanda on a journey, both of personal development and to understand the true nature of reality. She delved deep into what physics said about reality. Along the way, in her mind masquerading as a journalist, she interviewed and discussed physics with leading physicists. She delved deep into what the cutting edge of science said about the nature of reality. And, along the way, she discovered her own voice, writing a book detailing her journey.

Gefter’s knowledge and insight about the nature of reality, and the excitement she conveys as she learns it, is simply inspiring. As she tries to uncover what physics says objective reality truly is, she slowly finds, step by step, that nothing is objective. Beginning with relativity that said that time and gravity are relative, and through quantum mechanics, that tells us that even measurements are relative, she examines what we know, what the gaps in our knowledge are, and what that uncompromisingly leads us to conclude about reality. There is no objective reality. Every observer essentially has their own reality, their own definition of the universe.

She jumps into how that means a universe could arise out of literally nothing. As no observer can know everything about the universe, as our views are limited and finite, it puts bounds on the information we can each collect. That bound essentially leads to the formation of the universe, a shadow that arises out of nothingness. I don’t completely understand it, and not sure I buy it all, but the steps by which she gets there are all based on what our science tells us.

In any case, her examination of the science itself is fascinating. I was unaware of what the most recent developments in cosmology, string theory, and quantum mechanics were concluding. Her excitement in discovery each new twist and turn is infectious. And, along the way, she gives great perspectives of the leading thinkers in this area.

This book is humbling.

Gefter has no formal science training. Her father, though a medical doctor, is not a physicist. But, these two delve so deep into questions regarding the nature of reality, it is simply humbling for someone like me who has studied physics. Granted, I went in a different direction, focusing on the properties of atoms and materials, but still, that these two have the curiosity, the drive, and the deep intuition to really delve into these questions is inspiring. I’m inspired to try to delve deeper into my own fields, beyond the every day drivers of doing practical science. We’ll see if I’m able to follow through.

The ideas that Gefter explores, that she describes, are hard concepts  and I admit that I struggle with many of them. Most of them arise from simply considerations, typically from seeming paradoxes where some assumption leads to contradictions about how reality must be. In each case, those assumptions must be abandoned and soon we are left with very few. The chain of reasoning and evidence that leads to the final picture is well described, but they ideas are challenging. To fully grasp them, I know I will need to read further.

This book is touching.

Gefter is set on her quest by her father’s question and his own ruminations on the nature of reality. She is both accompanied and followed by her father on this quest as she makes it her own. But, the way Gefter and her father conspire as this journey unfolds, the way they discuss their most recent insights, the way they work together to delve into these deepest of questions, is, in some sense, maybe what all parents dream of. Gefter’s father inspires his daughter to undertake the quest of a lifetime. And she takes it beyond what he could have ever done on his own. The deep intellectual relationship between the two, the shared vision, is something that I could only dream of passing along to my own daughter.

This book is awesome.

The way Gefter explores the nature of reality, the way she starts on her quest knowing literally nothing about the physics of cosmology, quantum mechanics, and relativity, and reaches into the deepest understanding we have, is a great way to convey what we know about reality. She systematically crosses off elements of what might comprise reality and delves deeper and deeper into the seeming paradoxes that arise as our science progresses. I certainly learned a great deal, and the ideas presented are thought provoking in a way that is rare in such books. As opposed to other books on cosmology and string theory, this one doesn’t necessarily take a side or advocate for a certain perspective. Instead, Gefter is really trying to understand what we know and what science tells us about reality. And, in doing so, she produces one of the most entertaining and educational forays into modern physics I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

The ideas that arise from modern physics are mind bending. They push the limits of our ability to understand the world around us. They are beyond our wildest imagination. Science is often criticized for its lack of creativity, but modern physics has created a view of the world and reality that could never have simply been imagined, never dreamed up.

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.

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!

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Thinking,_Fast_and_SlowThere 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.


This Will Make You Smarter edited by John Brockman

thiswillmakeyousmarterEach year, John Brockman and 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.