Category : Science and Math

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.

Meme of the Month

For all the bashing it takes, Facebook is often the source of clever and intelligent memes.* Here’s one of my favorites.

You don’t have to be a scientist to “get” each one, though I confess to having to look up Borlaug. You may already know that Norman Borlaug (1914-2009) was a biologist and humanitarian, winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, and author of “Feeding a World of 10 Billion People.” He’s credited with extensive contributions to the Green Revolution, thus the stalk of wheat. So, FB can be educational.

I have a particular fondness for

• the apple/o falling from Newton’s name

• the magnet in Faraday’s y

• the Feynman diagram as his y

• the Bohr atom in his o

Each LOGO is a bit of science history. What’s not to like?

* Confirming the meaning and new usage –  meme: of Greek origin, meaning a humorous image, video, or piece of text that is copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by Internet users.

The Physics of Santa

It’s time to drag out the old physics-of-Christmas essays. In case you missed it in my newsletter, here’s my favorite version about how it’s impossible for Santa to get his job done:

There are about 2 billion children in the world and even at one toy each, we have something like 400,000 tons of sleigh, toys, and a hefty old man traveling at 650 miles per second to get around world in one night.

A simple calculation shows that Santa has 1/1000th of a second to

• pull up on a roof

• hop out

• climb down the chimney

• figure out who’s nice

• distribute the presents

• eat a snack

• say Ho, Ho, Ho

• go back up the chimney

• dust off his suit, and move on.

Not just exhausting, but physically impossible.

Or, he could just hail a cab.

Even though there’s not a lot of sleigh traffic up there, it’s not a feasible trip.

But now, I’m about to offer a rebuttal.

All we have to do is call on worm holes, those tricky features of space-time that allow a shortcut through the universe.

Imagine you’re standing in a long line at the post office. You’re at one end of the room and the clerk is at the other, lots of people-mass in between. Now imagine a piece of paper with a stick figure representing you at one corner, and a figure at the diagonally opposite corner to represent the clerk. Fold the paper so that your stick figure is on top of the clerk’s.

See? You’ve just taken a shortcut to the head of the line.

That’s what Santa can do. With a little math and a dash of relativity theory we can show that, in fact, with every stop, Santa can come out of the chimney before he gets in!

No problem making all those stops.

So, yes, Virginia, relatively speaking, Santa can do it!

Now if only I could find the right wormhole to get me through Bay Area freeways.

Every couple of years, I bring out the Fermi problem. Since today, 9/29, is his actual birthday (1901), I can’t resist posting it here. It’s my own favorite aspect of Fermi’s contribution to science—his problem solving technique.

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:”

• 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?

How much science is too much?

I always enjoy participating on panels, and the annual ThrillerFest panel I join every year is especially interesting.

Boyd Morrison (far left) moderates

The official title: Ghost Particles, Nanotechnology, or Bill Nye: Introducing science in thrillers. Panelists (l. to r.) Amy Rogers, Mark Alpert, Bev Irwin, Kent Lester, Kira Peikoff, Camille Minichino, Grand Hyatt, NYC, July 8, 2016.

You might call the panel a lovefest, in that most of us have been on this panel for several years and are in complete agreement as to what to offer readers: engaging characters and plots, free of technical information dumps. Only the slightest bump in the smooth interaction came when one panelist suggested no more than 2 pages in one shot for a scientific explanation. “2 paragraphs” said another; “2 lines” another.

I’m on the side of less is more, when it comes to technical information. While not strictly thrillers (global consequences), two of my series deal with STEM topics — the Periodic Table mysteries and the Professor Sophie Knowles series. I’ve tried to avoid the cliche device of dialogue between a lay person and a scientist:

Jill, Scientist: I’m going to charge up the laser, Bob.

Bob: What’s a laser, Jill?

Jill: Well, Bob, the word “laser” is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. The first one was built in 1960 by . . .

Reader: <snore>

What’s you threshold between interesting/informative and TMI?

One question, many answers

I just finished “teaching” a writing class.

The ” ” here are to indicate that a good teacher, which I hope I am, does as much learning as teaching. Sometimes teachers aren’t interested in learning, but in simply transferring information. Sad, I think. Students answers to questions can be more interesting and enlightening than what the teacher expects.

There’s a famous example of this in the annals of physics teaching. 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 using 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. 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. If you’d like more than a dozen more methods, click here.

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.’”

Thus, using a barometer (as a bartering tool) to determine the height of a building.

How would you grade this student?

** Legend has it that the student was Niels Bohr (1885-1962, Nobel Prize in physics, 1922), but then there might be other answers to this question.