Category : Science and Math

Never mind the roses

I’m deep into my class, dealing with science and technology, and the cultural changes they bring about. As usual, questions of technology and lifestyle come up among my students. Here are some common memes, complaints, observations. Depending on where you stand on the spectrum — how much technology is too much?

1. I don’t have time anymore to smell the roses, says one student.

My question: how much time does it take to smell roses to get the full benefit of the scent? One good long inhalation should do it. And the rest of the time, we can be doing something useful, something that might even benefit our fellows/sisters next door.

Lovely decoration; not worth more than one smell

2. Math skills are going away — a clerk doesn’t even have to “make change” anymore!

My response: So what? Is that what we aspire to for our kids, to be whizzes at arithmetic? Or do we want them to dream up new software or perhaps new medical devices, or write brilliant novels? Horse riding skills are going away also, now that we have planes, trains, and automobiles. Do we lament that as well?

3. Penmanship, too, has suffered – no more cursive!

Another so what? Hasn’t it always been easier to print? Isn’t that why forms usually state PLEASE PRINT? Because it’s hard to read a cursive? Isn’t there something more creative to do than write a beautiful letter A? Monks did this, but they didn’t have much else to do.

The Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux, Queen of France, ca. 1324–28, Grisaille, tempera, and ink on vellum, the Cloisters

Maybe we leave it to today’s artists to create more fonts or illustrate manuscripts.

We’re not necessarily dumber because we don’t need certain outdated skills. Neither are we more stressed if we don’t “stop to appreciate the beauty of life,” as so many memes remind us.

Some of us, in fact, become very stressed when we don’t have enough to do. For me, panic sets in when I have fewer than 7 projects underway.

Finally, it’s not the Internet’s fault that we’re distracted (from what? the roses?) We use cars instead of horses; therefore we can go more places, educate ourselves on the way. Yes, FB and other Internet attractions can grab us and  “waste” time, but that’s our choice, and I feel — for me — if I didn’t have the Internet to distract me, something else would!

It’s my personality/temperament that’s to blame, not the technology in front of me.

You?

I Never Met a Problem I Didn’t Like

I think of September as Enrico Fermi’s month. His birthday is 9/29/1901. It’s a little early to sing, but I thought I’d introduce my own favorite aspect of Fermi’s contribution to science—his problem solving technique.

Renoir's "Two Young Girls at the Piano"

The problem:

How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?

This is the legendary problem presented to his classes by the Nobel Prize winning Italian-American physicist. It’s the original of a category of problems called “Fermi problems,” meant to be solved by putting together reasonable estimates for each step of the solution.

At first glance, Fermi problems seem to be impossible to solve without research. The technique is to break them down into manageable parts, and answer each part with logic and common sense, rather than reference books or, these days, the Internet. By doing this systematically, we arrive at an answer that comes remarkably close to the exact answer. By the end of this calculation, we also see what advantages it has over looking up the answer on Google.

Here’s the way Fermi taught his students to solve the piano tuner problem:

1) Assume that Chicago doesn’t have more piano tuners than it can keep busy tuning pianos.

2) Estimate the total population of Chicago.

At that time, there were about 3,000,000 people in Chicago.

3) Estimate how many families that population represents.

The average family consisted of four members, so the number of families was approximately 750,000.

4) Assume that about one third of all families owns a piano.

That gives us 250,000 pianos in Chicago.

5) Assume that each piano should be tuned about every 10 years.

That gives us about 25,000 tunings per year in the city.

6) Assume that each piano tuner can service four pianos per day, and works about 250 days a year.

Each piano tuner would perform 1,000 tunings per year.

Summary: In any given year, pianos in Chicago need 25,000 tunings; each tuner can do 1,000 tunings, therefore we need 25 piano tuners.

The answer was within a few of being the number in the yellow pages of the time.

Why not just count the listings in the yellow pages in the first place? A good idea, until we remember that “solving a problem” is an exciting, challenging word to people like Fermi and to scientists in general. Difficult problems are even better opportunities to test their minds and their ability to calculate.

Another of Fermi’s motivations in giving this problem was to illustrate properties of statistics and the law of probabilities. He used the lesson to teach something about errors made in estimating, and how they tend to cancel each other out.

If you assumed that pianos are tuned every five years, for example, you might also have assumed that every sixth family owns a piano instead of every third. Your errors would then balance and cancel each other out. It’s statistically improbable that all your errors would be in the same direction (either all overestimates or all underestimates), so the final results will always lean towards the right number.

Fermi, present at the time, was able to get a preliminary estimate of the amount of energy released by the atomic bomb—he sprinkled small pieces of paper in the air and observed what happened when the shock wave reached them.

A whole cult has been built up around “Fermi questions:”

A container of pop corn in my office? It's for purely experimental purposes.

• how much popcorn would it take to fill your family room?

• how many pencils would you use up if you drew a line around the earth at the equator?

• how many rejection letters would it take to wallpaper a writer’s office? (oops, too personal?)

For Fermi, there was great reward in independent discoveries and inventions.

Many contemporary scientists and engineers respond the same way. Looking up an answer or letting someone else find it impoverishes them, robbing them of a creative experience that boosts self-confidence and enhances their mental life.

Could this also be why they don’t ask for directions when they’re lost?

The barometer

The start of school for many of us inspires me to drag out the famous (to some of us) story of The Barometer.

Miniature barometer next to miniature physics book. Pen for scale.

As the story goes, a physics teacher posed this question on an exam and got surprising results.

Show how it’s possible to determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer.

One student answered this way:

“Take the barometer to the top of the building and attach a long piece of rope to it. Lower the barometer until it hits the sidewalk, then pull it up and measure the length of the rope, which will give you the height of the building.”

What? The teacher expected a different answer, using the standard equation involving the difference in pressure at the top and bottom of the building.

When challenged to come up with “the right answer,” the student gave several more. Among them:

1. Take the barometer out on a sunny day and measure the height of the barometer, the length of its shadow, and the length of the shadow of the building. Using simple proportion, determine the height of the building.

2. Take the barometer and begin to walk up the stairs. As you climb the stairs, you mark off the length of the barometer along the wall. You then count the number of marks, and this will give you the height of the building in barometer units.

And so on.

My favorite remains this one:

“Take the barometer to the basement and knock on the superintendent’s door. When the superintendent answers, say: ‘Mr. Superintendent, if you will tell me the height of this building, I will give you this barometer.’”

How would you grade this student?

** Legend has it that the student was Niels Bohr (1885-1962, Nobel Prize in physics, 1922), but then a legend can say anything and get away with it.

Science in the news

November 9 – a great day in science?

Well, not earth shattering, but notable.

Element 110 was born on 11/9/1994: DARMSTADTIUM, detected in Darmstadt, Germany, and named in 2003. Symbol Ds.

Perhaps more exciting, it’s the anniversary of Carl Sagan’s birth in 1934. Have some cake.

Quote of the week, from Sagan:

“We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

(Let’s think about that for a minute.)

Great Women in Science

I’m preparing for a class on Saturday, November 4 — “Great Women in Science.”*

Where to start? If I had time, I’d pop in a video of the movie “Hidden Figures” and go from there. Or maybe I’d hand out copies of my screenplay on Marie Curie’s life. (Digression – options are available if anyone has a production company. (smile))

A great resource is Rachel Ignotofsky’s WOMEN IN SCIENCE: 50 FEARLESS PIONEERS WHO CHANGED THE WORLD.

My challenge is to choose 8 or 10, to fit into a 3-hour discussion that will include such exciting information as Percent of Physics Masters and Doctorates Earned by Women.

I think I’ll start with an actress: Hedy Lamar. Lamarr was also an engineer, with a patent on technology that’s the foundation for today’s advanced wireless networks.

She set a high bar for herself:  Jack Kennedy always said to me, Hedy, get involved. That’s the secret of life. Try everything. Join everything. Meet everybody.

Who’s your favorite woman scientist? Send me your vote before Saturday morning and I’ll add to my class.

*Details on my website www.minichino.com . If you’re in the SF Bay Area, stop by!

Women in Science, continued

Most exciting book I’ve read this year: WOMEN IN SCIENCE – 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World, by Rachel Ignotofsky.

Here’s a sample — not that you can read the text, but to show the fun illustrations. This page spread is for RITA LEVI-MONTALCINI, Italian neurologist and senator.

The biographies are detailed enough to whet your appetite; the side bars give you a glimpse into these amazing lives. Montalcini, for example, in spite of being treated badly by the Italian government during WWII, persevered in her lab work and won a Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine. She worked until her death at 103 years old.

I Love STEM

Emmy Noether (1882-1935)  German mathematician known for her landmark contributions to abstract algebra and theoretical physics.

Bear with me. Only two more Thursdays after this one, in Women’s History Month.

Today, I’m going to resurrect an anti Women’s History blog, or at least an anti Women in STEM blog, featuring the otherwise wonderful Angelina Jolie.

The movie was a long time ago — “Salt,” 2010. I’d like to think this scene would have a different ending today. Here it is:

A great action scene: Evelyn Salt (Jolie) is on the run from the bad guys. She’s crawling along the side of a building, several stories up, holding on for dear life. In her backpack is an adorable little dog. She slips, she recovers, she enters a window and crashes into a room where a little girl is doing her homework. She asks the little girl to take care of her dog.

What a heroine! The little girl is in awe of this wonder woman. Salt has only a few moments to spare for the child, who tells Salt that she’s having trouble with her math homework. The little girl looks at Salt adoringly, waiting for a word. We know she’ll remember the next words for the rest of her life. What an  opportunity for Salt.

What message does Salt leave the little girl with? I held my own breath, waiting.

“I hate math,” Salt says.

What? Not “Let me show you. Math is fun.” or “Do your math and you’ll be like me when you grow up.” Not cool, apparently.

It’s not just Angelina. How many times have you heard the same thing — “I hate math” or “I hate physics” from the mouths of movie and TV stars?  Did every screenwriter in Hollywood flunk algebra? Is this the revenge of the C student as many physicists cried out when the Superconducting Supercollider was scrapped by Congress?

Maybe we need an I Love STEM postcard campaign.

Women in Space

While we’re focusing on women’s history—

Valentina in 2004. She was 25 at the time of her flight.

Earlier this week we celebrated the birthday (March 6, 1937) of Soviet Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who was the first woman to travel into space. (What you missed it?)

Valentina was launched in Vostok 6 on June, 16, 1963. After 48 orbits and 71 hours, she returned to earth, having spent more time in space than all U.S. astronauts combined to that date. She was honored with the title Hero of the Soviet Union. She went into space two decades before America’s first woman astronaut, Sally Ride. She earned a doctorate in engineering and continues to work for world peace.

Once you are at this faraway distance, you realize the significance of what it is that unites us. Let us work together to overcome our differences. – Valentina Tereshkova

Here’s a list of other women in space, and a tour of a space ship.


CryptoWeek

A clue to the cryptoquote

In keeping with my proclamation of February as mathematics and puzzle month, here’s a cryptoquote for your solving pleasure.

As usual, there’s a prize for the first 3 correct answers emailed to camille@minichino.com

AHUDMVUAVA BIDPF PQJLV BJUMC CIDPV VTUMCA; DMCUMDDIA BJ VTDF.

– EPFDA FUHTDMDI

Brainteaser Day

Here’s a second chance to win a copy of one of the Professor Sophie Knowles mysteries. You may remember that Sophie, who teaches math at a small New England college, loves to solve puzzles and to create them.

Try this one:

A woman is stuck on an island. The island is surrounded by man-eating sharks and a single bridge is the only option to return to the mainland. Halfway across the bridge there’s a guard. The guard won’t let anyone from the mainland to the island, or anyone from the island to the mainland. If the guard catches someone, he sends him or her back. All day and night the guard sleeps for 30 seconds and then is awake for 5 minutes. It takes 1 minute to cross the bridge.

The woman thinks of a way to get across. How does she cross the bridge without getting caught?

The first three to email me with the/a correct answer will get a copy of a Sophie book.