Adventures in Science

Archive for the ‘Book’ Category

Video

Adventures in Thought with Paradoxes

Hey, it’s April Fool’s Day! Let’s mess with our brains a little by tripping them up with some wicked paradoxes.

The great thinkers of history have come across a few puzzling ideas that looked good on paper but just didn’t jive with common sense. These contradictory or ambiguous ideas are known as paradoxes. This video quickly highlights some of the most well-known paradoxes. There are many others.

For more in-depth explanations of paradoxical fun check out Jim Al Khalili’s book, Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Physics. This book includes a brilliant explanation of the dreaded Monty Hall paradox.

Here is a fun introduction to Monty Hall presented by mathematician, Marcus du Sautoy:

Janine Benyus–Problem Solving the Natural Way

MadLT Lily_impeller

Impeller designed by Jay Harman of PaxScientific.com. The impeller’s design was inspired by “freezing a whirlpool”. Variations on the same natural algorithm are used by many organisms such as cala lilies as seen above, and sea shells.

Homo sapiens has been around for about 200,000 years, give or take. We’re well adapted to hunting and scavenging and socializing and getting by as humans. However, a lot of other living creatures can do very clever things better than us. Take flying for example. For millenia humans saw birds take to the air and longed to join them. After centuries of trial and error we finally learned their secret and soared like eagles. What else can we learn from the natural world that can help us do what other organisms have already mastered?

Using an adaptation from a living organism for our own use is known as biomimicry. Biomimicry inspired something else that you may use every day, Velcro. Inventor, George de Mestral, saw the burrs attached to his dog’s fur after a walk. He studied the burr bristles under a microscope and noticed that the little hooks on the end were snagging his dogs fur and his clothing. From this he developed a material with tiny hook-like structures that became the reusable fasteners that we know so well.

The pictures below show how the hook parts of a piece of Velcro are similar in shape to the hooks at the end of each organic burr bristle.

velcro

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Burdock Burr 2

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Janine Beyrus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, is considered the pioneer of the philosophy of asking nature the best way to do things. Her ideas have influenced scores of  inventors, researchers, engineers, designers, and programmers. Here is her TED Talk from 2009 in which she convinces us how much nature has to teach us:

 

Janine Beyrus mentions asknature.org in her TED Talk. I hope you will go check it out and use it to get inspired to make, solve, or improve something the way nature intended.

SuperVelcroSuit

Awesome Hero–The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

William Kamkwamba, Awesome Hero

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William Kamkwamba was born to a farming family in Malawi in Africa in 1987. His home and the homes of his neighbors didn’t have electricity or running water. The family’s crops depended on the amount rainfall that they received because their farm had no irrigation. When he was 14, a horrible drought struck Malawi  and the crops failed. Many Malawians died of starvation. William and his family survived but suffered horrific deprivation. His father was deep in debt from buying food for the family so couldn’t afford tuition. William had to drop out of school.

After surviving the famine, William was inspired by a textbook he borrowed from his local library called Using Energy to build a windmill to make electricity and eventually pump ground water from a well to irrigate the family’s farm. He was determined to give his family a more secure food supply with two maize harvests a year as well as an irrigated garden for a variety of vegetables.

William Kamkwamba slowly built his windmill from salvaged and modified scrap material. He describes how he did it in his autobiography The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. The ingenuity involved in the design and construction of his windmill is astounding. This book is *highly* recommended to all young people over the age of 12. Read it. Listen to it. Do it.

There is also a picture book version of William Kamkwamba’s story for younger children because it is *that* good.

Day of Doctorow

Cory Doctorow

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On February 9, 2012 Northern Illinois University’s STEM Outreach program hosted an exciting STEMfest for high school students themed around the book Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.

First, here is a brief review of the book to set the theme.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is a young adult science fiction book that follows the exploits of an ingenious teen hacker named Marcus. The story opens with the shock of a horrendous terrorist attack in San Francisco. Marcus and his innocent group of friends are secretly rounded up and detained at a paramilitary gulag by the Department of Homeland Security. There, they are unjustly detained and inhumanely interrogated. Once he is finally released, Marcus, along with a growing network of outraged young adults, uses his creative understanding of technology and the internet to galvanize a resistance movement against the reactionary and increasingly authoritarian control of the Department of Homeland Security.

Doctorow set his novel in a parallel time line or near future to ours and illustrates a set of possible abuses of power and invasions of privacy made possible by real life technology. It demonstrates how we have allowed ourselves to trade a lifestyle of electronic conveniences in exchange for having our movements and behaviors tracked for questionably benign reasons like marketing data or to serve over-hyped hysteria in the name of high school security. Little Brother points out that all of that otherwise benign data could easily be tapped to discredit, implicate, or even detain you.

To counteract these potential problems, you first need to make yourself aware of them. After that, it’s a good idea to develop a technical understanding of how these systems work. Cory Doctorow provides his readers with a good bibliography to pursue more information in the back of the novel. Knowledge is power to resist abuses of power.

But this is not a dystopian book. This is dystopia averted and overcome. His thrilling and creative command of technology empowers Marcus, his friends, and family. Marcus is always the master of his computers, programs, and the internet. He’s no slave to his devices or the companies that produce them. He has learned to manipulate technology in creative ways and has the mad skills to survive and be free.

It was a really fun book to read. Now I can tell you about the STEMfest!

The Day of Doctorow event at Northern Illinois University started with a variety of science and technology workshops. I asked a group of students from the Rock Valley College Upward Bound college prep program which of the workshops they liked the best. Yanely, 15, enjoyed the fiber optics presentation. Jose, 14, thought the Faraday cage workshop was awesome. Cynthia, 15, really liked the cell phone workshop.

I went to check these workshops out. From the hallway the laser workshop was dark and flashing with glints of multicolored moving light. Inside, the students were having fun fiddling with the different laser exhibits. They flashed laser pointer beams through a large water-filled cylinder to understand fiber optics. They saw how an iPod could beam music to a speaker by laser with a SpectraSound kit.  The students also manipulated beam splitters on laser mazes to see what they could get the beams to do. The working demo of a helium neon (HeNe) laser showing the internal components of the laser intrigued me. Jeremy Benson, STEM Outreach and Engagement Associate for NIU kindly explained the HeNe laser to me. In addition to doing STEM outreach events at the university, he visits different elementary and middle schools doing science talks. He designed many of the demonstrations that the students saw that day and that he takes on the road.

The next workshop was Virtual Worlds. This was a computer lab set up with 12 stations of Apple laptops and the instructor’s computing stand with a projection onto a large media screen. The teens were in the process of changing the appearance of their avatars in OpenSimulator, an open source simulation program and virtual world. OpenSim is free. You can download the program and customize and sim to your hearts’ content. Aline Click, Director of Digital Convergence Labs was the presenter for this workshop. She said that OpenSim is good for middle school and high school students.

The Video Game Design workshop was in the adjacent room. When I walked in, there were two students standing and waving their arms around in front of a large flat panel TV as if they were playing Wii. There was also a projection of the game onto a media screen at the front of the room. The teens took turns playing the game. At first glance, they looked like they were playing a chemistry game because of the periodic table style graphics with element abbreviations. These graphics were flashing on and off at the top of the screen while little scorpion guys ran around gathering up colored balls. Eric Russell, the presenter, was calling play-by-play, “She needs to get another electron. You’re missing a neutron; get it!” When the workshop ended, I asked one of the presenters some questions about what I had just witnessed. He said the kids were playing a brand new kinesthetic physics-based video game. I told them that this surprised me, and told them I saw the periodic table graphics and assumed I was seeing a chemistry game. The presenter, Jason Underwood, acknowledged that it was a kind of fuzzy area for most people and the distinction is, in this game, the users are building the components of the atoms–which is physics–and not causing reactions between atoms–which would be chemistry. The game called Picodroid uses Microsoft’s Xbox 360 Kinect interactive controller technology and is still in beta. Patty Sievert, STEM Outreach Coordinator, commissioned the game. Picodroid was entirely designed and developed by students.

I heard that the Faraday cage workshop was getting raves. I headed upstairs so I wouldn’t miss out. Unfortunately, I had missed it, and the presenters were packing up. They took pity on me and showed me what the students learned that morning. Presenter and senior physics major, Gregory Maj, pulled the Tesla coil back out of the box and plugged it in. He unwrapped a fluorescent tube and showed me how the Tesla coil could transfer a charge to the tube and light it up. Then he wrapped a piece of wire mesh around the entire length of the tube and brought the tube and mesh within range of the charge of the Tesla coil again. The tube did not light up this time. He explained that the students experimented with several materials as possible insulators around the fluorescent tube and determined that the wire mesh was the best, followed by the aluminum foil. Maj and Andrew Moser, electrical engineering major, also gave examples of Faraday cages that we use in our everyday lives like microwaves, cars, and coaxial cables.

NIU physics student, Gregory Maj, demonstrates a Faraday cage

During the workshops the presenters made a point of mentioning their summer camp programs. The array of science, technology and engineering camps NIU STEM Outreach offers is impressive. They have very sophisticated programs for middle and high school students available in programming (including PIC 10F development for iPad, iPhone and Android), video game design, and roller coaster engineering to name just a few.

STEMfest workshops focused on do-it-yourself tech like open source programs, video game programming, cell phone tech, and the ability to creatively modify commercial devices such as the iPod with a SpectraSound kit. These were all great ways to introduce students to the kind of technical ingenuity that Cory Doctorow’s lead character displays in Little Brother.

After the workshops, Cory Doctorow gave an hour-long presentation. After that. there was a panel discussion with a few professors from Northern Illinois University. It’s an eye-opening two hours. You can watch that here.

“Frequent travel may be required”

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“WANTED: Astronaut candidates”

*sigh*

The heading of the want ad of your dreams right? Many of us can’t think of a more prestigious job. Adventure! Exploration! Guts! Glory!

NASA recently posted just such a want ad for astronaut candidates as seen here. Even though you may not qualify (yet) and the open period to apply ended on midnight EST Friday January 27, 2012, do not despair. NASA will need to train another group of new astronauts every so often. You are bound to see a listing like this again in the future. Until that time, this is your golden opportunity to check out what NASA is looking for in an International Space Station crew member and tailor your study and career goals toward working in space.

WHO MAY BE CONSIDERED:

This announcement is open to all qualified U.S. citizens.

Okay, if you want to work for NASA in this job you have to be a U.S. citizen. However, many other countries have space programs and now there are increasing numbers of commercial space companies that will need astronauts and cosmonauts as well. Having many of the qualifications listed below for the NASA Astronaut Candidate Program will help give you the skills necessary to become an astronaut for a country other than the U.S. or as a commercial astronaut.

This guy could be your astroboss. Vrooooom, Mr. Branson, sir. Vrooooom!

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JOB SUMMARY:

NASA, the world’s leader in space and aeronautics is always seeking outstanding scientists, engineers, and other talented professionals to carry forward the great discovery process that its mission demands. Creativity. Ambition. Teamwork. A sense of daring. And a probing mind. That’s what it takes to join NASA, one of the best places to work in the Federal Government.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has a need for Astronaut Candidates to support the International Space Station (ISS) Program and future deep space exploration activities.

Active duty military personnel are eligible to apply for this position. In addition to applying through USAJobs, active duty military personnel must also submit their application through their respective military service. Military points of contacts can be found at Astronaut Candidate Program.

NASA says they are looking for talented professional people like engineers and scientists. You will need to study science, engineering, and mathematics in school and consider specializing in something in those fields that will be useful as an astronaut. Astrophysics, space medicine, exobiology/astrobiology, and engineering with a specialty in manned space flight are all good suggestions of careers that will make you a desirable astronaut candidate.

Military a plus, but not required. There has been a long tradition of astronauts coming from the military especially the Air Force. Military astronauts have already undergone training to endure and perform under extreme conditions like the ones they will experience as astronauts. Many have flown as high-performance aviators and have worked with cutting-edge technology during their time in the military.

DUTIES:

Astronauts are involved in all aspects of assembly and on-orbit operations of the ISS. This includes extravehicular activities (EVA), robotics operations using the remote manipulator system, experiment operations, and onboard maintenance tasks. Astronauts are required to have a detailed knowledge of the ISS systems, as well as detailed knowledge of the operational characteristics, mission requirements and objectives, and supporting systems and equipment for each experiment on their assigned missions.

In brief, you will be using special equipment to perform experiments and gather scientific data. You need to know how to operate and keep that equipment in good working order. You will know how to maintain *everything* inside and outside the space station that keeps it running normally. (or die)

Long-duration missions aboard the ISS generally last from 3 to 6 months. Training for long duration missions is very arduous and takes approximately 2 to 3 years. This training requires extensive travel, including long periods away in other countries training with our international partners. Travel to and from the ISS will be aboard the Russian Soyuz vehicle. Consequently, astronauts must meet the Soyuz size requirements, as indicated below. Additional information about the position can be found at Astronaut Candidate Program.

Frequent travel may be required. Astronauts are away from home a lot. It can be a drag.

Home

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The book Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach relates the many reasons that being in space is stressful physically, mentally, and socially on astronauts. It’s an eye-opening book that convinced me that I would have made a terrible astronaut. (Let’s just say that I’m easily annoyed.)

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You have to be in good health and in top physical shape to be an astronaut. Our bodies did not evolve to live for months in weightlessness. All of your muscles, including your heart, will atrophy in zero gravity. It’s important to blast off in peak condition. Be prepared to have to work out all of the time for your job.

QUALIFICATIONS REQUIRED:

Applicants must meet the following minimum requirements before submitting an application.

1. Bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution in engineering, biological science, physical science, or mathematics. Quality of academic preparation is important.

Notes on Academic Requirements:
Applicants for the Astronaut Candidate Program must meet the basic education requirements for NASA engineering and scientific positions, specifically: successful completion of standard professional curriculum in an accredited college or university leading to at least a bachelor’s degree with major study in an appropriate field of engineering, biological science, physical science, or mathematics.

The following degree fields are not considered qualifying:
–Degrees in Technology (Engineering Technology, Aviation Technology, Medical Technology, etc.)
–Degrees in Psychology (except for Clinical Psychology, Physiological Psychology, or Experimental Psychology, which are qualifying)
–Degrees in Nursing
–Degrees in Exercise Physiology or similar fields
–Degrees in Social Sciences (Geography, Anthropology, Archaeology, etc.)
–Degrees in Aviation, Aviation Management, or similar fields”

It is great that they included a list of degree fields that they DON’T want. Don’t waste your time with these if your goal is to be a NASA astronaut.

DENIED

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“2. Degree followed by at least 3 years of related, progressively responsible, professional experience OR at least 1,000 hours pilot-in-command time in jet aircraft. An advanced degree is desirable and may be substituted for experience as follows: master’s degree = 1 year of experience, doctoral degree = 3 years of experience. Teaching experience, including experience at the K – 12 levels, is considered to be qualifying experience for the Astronaut Candidate position; therefore, educators are encouraged to apply.

Over and above the 4-year bachelor degree in the right kind of science, engineering, or mathematics from #1 you must have an additional 3 years of solid professional work in your scientific, engineering, or mathematics field OR have over 1,000 hours experience in piloting jets. In other words, it would be a good plan to get a degree from a good university and then join the air force and fly advanced aircraft. Do you think you can swing that?

You can also continue your education by getting a master’s degree or PhD. However, you are only given credit for 1 year’s worth of experience for a master’s degree. Most people do their masters degree in about 2 years. If after your masters degree you go on to get a doctorate you only get 3 years in experience points. NASA appears to value practical professional success and 1,000 hours of piloting jets over advanced academic degrees.

It looks like if you are a teacher with at least 3 years of teaching kids or teenagers you qualify. However, I’d make sure that you rate in some of the other areas, as well.

IDK...piloting a jet maybe?

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From the above list of criteria it sounds like the impossibly perfect candidate would be a successful engineering entrepreneur with college diploma who sold her company to fly jet fighters for the military for a while, and now teaches high school mathematics.

3. Ability to pass the NASA long-duration space flight physical, which includes the following specific requirements:

Distant and near visual acuity: Must be correctable to 20/20, each eye

The refractive surgical procedures of the eye, PRK and LASIK, are allowed, providing at least 1 year has passed since the date of the procedure with no permanent adverse after effects. For those applicants under final consideration, an operative report on the surgical procedure will be requested.

Blood pressure not to exceed 140/90 measured in a sitting position

Standing height between 62 and 75 inches.

Notes on Space Flight Physical Requirements:
Since all crew members will be expected to fly aboard the Soyuz vehicle and perform Extravehicular Activities (space walks), applicants must meet the anthropometric requirements for both the Soyuz vehicle and the extravehicular activity mobility unit (space suit). Applicants brought in for interview will be evaluated to ensure they meet the anthropometric requirements.

In addition to being an accomplished scientifically-minded professional who is also a jet pilot, you need to be healthy and have good vision. You can’t be shorter than five feet and two inches or taller than six feet and three inches. The Soyuz spacecraft will take someone as short 4’11” per the table  at spaceref.com, so I’m assuming that the minimum of five feet and two inches requirement is necessary to wear a space suit.

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Other criteria from the USAJobs listing are:

  • You will have to pass a swimming test during the first month of training.
  • You must pass periodic drug tests.
  • You must pass a background check.
  • Evaluation and training will take about 2 years before you are an astronaut.
  • If you are male, make sure you register for the draft.

If you still want to be an astronaut after reading NASA’s job listing, I strongly recommend again that you read Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach. The book cuts through the glamor and glory of space exploration to give the reader the day-to-day challenges of the astronaut experience. It’s not all moonwalks and zero gravity hijinks. If you are one of the lucky astronauts ever chosen for a space mission, a good day will be exhausting, dirty, smelly, cramped, dangerous, and sickening. But…you, YOU will be exploring space and it will all be worth it.

Don’t harsh my placebo, man!

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Hooray! Science hasn’t figured everything out yet. There is more to discover and explore about the world. The funny thing is, though, that when we don’t have an explanation for something it can seem pretty spooky. For example, our minds and bodies can do something very mysterious. Sometimes our bodies can be fooled into getting better when we are sick or in pain without proven treatment or even real surgery. A fake remedy for a physical or mental complaint is known as a placebo and placebo effect is what happens when the fake remedy actually works to make someone feel better.

For example, imagine that someone who suffers from headaches is given a prescription for sugar pills (sugar isn’t a medicine (you knew that)). She takes the sugar pill like an aspirin for a headache and the headache goes away.

Placebo researchers aren’t sure why placebos work. It could be because the medical problem was almost over anyway or that people are used to having medical problems relieved by pills, so the very act of taking a pill or getting a shot causes it to go away. Other researchers say that it is the belief or expectation that the treatment is going to help that causes our bodies to trigger a cascade of processes related to being treated and cured. Others suggest that going through the motions of seeking a remedy to a complaint is responsible for some relief. The coolest thing about the placebo effect is that even though it is unexplained and mysterious at this time, it is real and well-documented.

This video shows a dramatic example of the placebo effect:

This is like getting scientific proof of the benefits of witch doctoring. The act of going through the motion of invasive knee surgery was enough to relieve this man’s agonizing knee pain.

Don’t worry, surgeons in most countries are not allowed to pretend to operate on you unless you give them permission.

The placebo effect works enough under certain conditions to make it a very intriguing field of study. Perhaps someday soon the placebo effect can be used to relieve a percentage of minor health complaints. Maybe it could save people money, minimize side effects and drug interactions.

I already use a placebo a few times a week. My personal pet placebo has NEVER, EVER* been trashed by science for it is the one-true-most-effective-placebo-of-all-time. There is lots of evidence to support that my one-true-most-effective-placebo-of-all-time contributes to optimal health. I exercise. Over and above the scientifically verified benefits of exercise, I might be AM DEFINITELY enjoying an extra placebo kick of well being. Yes. Plus, it gives me a youthful glow, don’t you think?

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Here is Ben Goldacre discussing the current findings of research into the placebo effect, as well as the ethics surrounding the use of placebos:

He also did a two-part radio program on placebos that you can find here.

I also recommend Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks by Ben Goldacre. It has a whole chapter on the placebo effect. This book is also a very good easy-to-read primer on using the scientific method to weed out bad solutions to health problems.

*If it has, be nice and don’t tell me.

Bad Astronomer is BADA55 or…

…How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Near Earth Objects

On November 8, 2011, you probably heard or read the news that an asteroid, 2005 YU55, flew between the Earth and the Moon. If you haven’t seen it yet, here is a little animation of images of the asteroid from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. These pictures were taken when the object was getting close to the Earth on November 7, 2011. 2005 YU55 is about the size of an aircraft carrier.

Asteroids and other near Earth objects or NEOs are a concern because when they hit the Earth they do a lot of damage. Sometimes they cause catastrophic damage. For example, a giant asteroid is theorized to have hit the Earth causing so much devastation that it caused many of the life forms on Earth at the time, including the dinosaurs, to become extinct as a result. 2005 YU55 is just one of thousands of known near earth objects or NEOs that NASA’s Near Earth Object Program and other groups are watching closely.

Did I just scare you? Sorry.

But never fear, young Earthlings, for Phil Plait the Bad Astronomer is here!

Drawing by Josh Armstrong. Color & design by Tom McKay Price

Dr. Phil Plait is an astronomer and author of Death from the Skies!: These Are The Ways The World Will End. In this book he pretty much lists many of the ways that the universe in which we live can kill us and the odds of these events happening. Fortunately, the odds of these things happening in our lifetime are fairly low. (phew) Unfortunately, there is still a chance. So it’s a good idea for us to find things like near Earth objects that might some day hit the Earth and figure out a way to prevent them from turning our planet into a lifeless, molten ball of fiery lava. (whimper)

Phil Plait comes to the rescue by outlining a plan for preventing asteroid impacts in his awesome Ted Talk here.

Thanks, Bad Astronomer! You’ve saved the day!

Phil Plait writes the Bad Astronomy blog here. Almost every day, he points out new wonders of astronomy including gorgeous images of the universe and planetary aspects of the Earth.

By the way, ted.com is a site that is full of great, cutting-edge ideas in science and many other topics from the most brilliant people in a variety of fields. I encourage everyone to browse TED and enjoy the videos for their progressive and inspiring messages.