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!
Edge is a collection of people, leaders in fields from physics to biology and successful business people and musicians. People we’ve all heard of, like Alan Alda, Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker, and Richard Dawkins, along with a lot of other people that aren’t yet household names, but are leaders in their respective fields. The goal of Edge is to simply get people — intellectual leaders of all sorts — and have them talk. Have them ask questions to one another, have them discuss important topics and push the frontiers of what we, collectively, know. As they summarize their purpose:
To arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.
As part of this goal to ask and answer questions, each year the Edge contributors propose and vote on a question that they then each try to answer. This has been going on for a few years now and each year the answers are collected into a book, edited each year by John Brockman. The latest book, which is also the first one I read, is called This Explains Everything and collects the answers to the question: What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?
The book collects about 150 answers from a large variety of people. Each answer is 1-10 pages and vary from choosing Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection, to Maxwell’s Equations (what I personally would have chosen if I were part of this), to more modern cutting edge science that, to be honest, is sometimes a bit hard to follow. And it isn’t all science, there are poets and musicians who also contribute their answers.
For me, the best thing about this book isn’t necessarily knowing what Jared Diamond’s favorite explanation is, but rather to get different views on well established science, such as Darwin, as well as become exposed to new ideas that, as a scientist working in a very narrow field, I don’t come across in my daily work. Some of the ideas are simply weird — Aubrey De Grey suggests that it won’t be long until monogamy is a thing of the past, essentially equating sharing sexual partners to sharing chess partners. I’m not sure I buy that one. But, there are a lot of other great ideas which I was very happy to learn about. A couple of my favorites:
Scott Atran: “reason itself is primarily aimed at social victory and political persuasion rather than philosophical or scientific truth”
Joel Gold: “Aristotle defined man as a rational animal. Contradictions like these [described earlier] show that we are not.”
Paul Steinhardt, in describing the discovery of quasi-crystals: “While elegance and simplicity are often useful criteria for judging theories, they can sometimes mislead us into thinking we are right when we are actually infinitely wrong.”
Frank Wilczek: “In theoretical physics, we try to summarize the results of a vast number of observations and experiments in terms of a few powerful laws. We strive, in other words, to produce the shortest possible program that outputs the world. In that precise sense, theoretical physics is a quest for simplicity.”
Gerd Gigerenzer: “Illusions are a necessary consequence of intelligence. Cognition requires going beyond the information given, to make bets and therefore to risk errors.”
Anton Zeilinger: “without occasionally taking a risk, even in the most exact science no real innovation can be introduced.”
Andre Linde: “mathematicians and physicists can live only in those universes that are comprehensible and where the laws of mathematics are efficient.”
Gino Segre: “I have spent a good part of my career searching for an explanation of the masses of the so-called elementary particles. But perhaps the reason it has eluded us is a proposal that is increasingly gaining credence — namely, that our visible universe is only a random example of an essentially infinite number of universes, all of which contain quarks and leptons with masses taking different values.”
Andrian Kreye: “In Europe, the present is perceived as the endpoint of history. In America, the present is perceived as the beginning of the future.”
Helena Cronin: “And thus environments, far from being separate from biology, autonomous and independent, are themselves in part fashioned by biology.”
John Tooby: “Natural selection is the only known counterweight to the tendency of physical systems to lose rather than grow functional organization — the only natural process that pushes populations of organisms uphill (sometimes) into higher degrees of functional order.” and “Entropy makes things fall, but life ingeniously rigs the game so that when they do, they often fall into place.”
Peter Atkins: “We, too, are local abatements of chaos driven into being by the generation of disorder elsewhere.”
Elizabeth Dunn, on why we feel pressed for time: “They argue that as time becomes worth more and more money, time is seen as scarcer.”
Seth Lloyd: “The true symmetry of space is not rotation by 360 degrees but by 720 degrees.”
Tim O’Reilly: “Climate change really is a modern version of Pascal’s wager. On one side, the worst outcome is that we’ve built a more robust economy. On the other, the worst outcome really is Hell. In short, we do better if we believe in climate change and act on that belief, even if we turn out to be wrong.”
Alvy Ray Smith, on Pixar’s development of animation: “Motion blur was the crucial breakthrough. In effect, motion blur shows your brain the path a movement is taking and also its magnitude.”
Albert-Laszlo Barabasi: “North America and Western European cuisine show a strong tendency to combine ingredients that share chemicals… East Asian cuisine thrives by avoiding ingredients that share flavor chemicals.”
Lawrence Krauss, on the unification of electricity and magnetism and Maxwell’s equations: “It represents to me all that is best about science: It combined surprising empirical discoveries with a convoluted path to a remarkably simple and elegant mathematical framework, which explained far more than was ever bargained for and in the process produced the technology that powers modern civilization.”
Robert Kurzban: “The idea is that when people intervene in systems with a lot of moving parts — especially ecologies and economies — the intervention, because of the complex interrelationships among the system’s parts, will have effects beyond those intended, including many that were unforeseen or unforeseeable.”
Samuel Barondes: “personality differences are greatly influenced by chance events.”
Stanislas Dehaene: “Our brain makes decisions by accumulating the available statistical evidence and committing to a decision whenever the total exceeds a threshold.”
Andy Clark: “Language thus behaves a bit like an organism adapting to an environmental niche. We are that niche.”
Nicholas Carr: “The shape of existence is the shape of failure.”
(Ok, my list is a little long… but it serves to illustrate some of the very interesting ideas and concepts that were discussed in this book.)
As I mentioned, the best thing about this book was just being exposed to ideas beyond what I encounter in my daily work. Not all of them are things I can personally use in my work, but they show some of the cutting edge work being done in other fields.
I greatly enjoyed the book and have already downloaded my next one from this group, This Will Change Everything.
I’m not a Lostie. I didn’t watch any of the first season. But my wife got into it and eventually I started watching to, catching maybe half of the remaining episodes, enjoying them enough that I was into the characters and the storyline. Maybe not as much as some who watched from the beginning, but enough to look forward to the episodes I could catch.
I understand that the writers, from what they’ve said, view Lost as a character-driven show. And there were characters I enjoyed, most of all Daniel Faraday, Sayid, and John Locke. The writers emphasize this because they know that those who are into the show because of the mythology were going to be disappointed.
And, I, being one of those that was more interested in the mythology, was disappointed by Lost’s end. The final episode was all about the characters and not at all about the mythology. Not a single new insight was revealed. The writers state that the mythology doesn’t matter, that the show was always about the characters. I don’t buy it. The mythology — the mystery of the island — was the hook that gave Lost that unique spin at the beginning. The characters were extremely important, but so too was the island itself. And nothing was revealed about what the island was. Based on what Jack’s dad said, we can infer that the island was a real place. And the fact that characters came to the island and left again for the outside world also implies that the island was a real place in the real world. However, how does a place with the strange properties of the island exist in the real world? What does it represent? Where did it come from? How does it have the properties it does? Whether pseudo-science or magic, the island was not something of the normal world. What was it exactly?
The more I’ve dwelt on it, the more I wondering if there was no real rhyme or reason to the island. Things were just random. Strangeness comes and goes with no explanation. The time travel was central for a while, but then it was dropped, especially the whole time-works-differently meme that Faraday explored. I missed the polar bear, but that seems to have never come up again. The temple seems to be another example of this. It almost feels that the island was one big Duex Ex Machina who’s only purpose was to throw obstacles into the characters’ ways, to cause confrontation. I’ve seen others wonder the same. I don’t mind that random things happen to the characters. That’s the way life is. But, there has to be order to what can happen. Lost didn’t have that.
In my opinion, the mythology of the show is just not self-consistent or fleshed out, probably not even to the writers. If you create a world for your characters to play in, it should be the first rule that you make the rules of the world consistent, that they have some logic and reason behind them. They don’t have to have anything to do with our world, and can involve magic or super-science, but they have to have order to them. The mythology of the island doesn’t seem to. Why was it so bad for the Man in Black to leave the island? What would happen? What would happen if the island had been destroyed? These fundamental questions to the show’s premise were never even touched upon.
I’m also annoyed, as I was with Battlestar Galactica, that, in the end, the struggle between faith — embodied by John Locke — and science/reason — personified by Jack Shephard — ended with faith essentially winning out. Jack embraces the mystical of the island, embraces the destiny that John had always told him was there, and becomes the protector of the island, on faith. And the last scene is nothing except a homage to faith and an afterlife. Reason loses out, just as it did in Battlestar Galactica.
Overall, what I did watch about Lost I enjoyed. I especially liked the story-telling devices: the flashbacks, the flash-forwards, and the flash-sideways. I liked that there was no black and white, that even the most despised characters — Linus and the Man in Black — were nuanced characters with motivation (though the Man in Black became pretty one-dimensional at the end). There was a lot of positive to the show. But, there was enough negative that left me overall disappointed with the end result.
Maybe the writers do have a coherent idea of what the mythology of their world is. If they do, I didn’t see it.