Archive for March, 2009

Environment vs. Human Achievement?

As you may have heard, many individuals and municipalities will be observing Earth Hour tonight at 8:30 pm, your local time.  The idea is to raise awareness about the importance of energy conservation in combating global climate change.

The success that is reported in actual energy savings varies greatly, and it’s unclear how much of an impact this might have on the environment overall.  Several cities reported reductions in consumption between 1-10% during Earth Hour 2008, although some cities increased consumption, possibly because of the weather increasing the need for heating.  This is a savings of in the neighborhood of 100 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

So, is a small decrease in consumption for one hour out out of the year really something to make a big fuss out of?  Not if that energy saving is all that comes out of it.  If you sit with the lights off for an hour, then go out and drag race your Hummer to the lake and dump toxic sludge in it, of course you’re not doing much good.  But if Earth Hour increases awareness of environmental concerns, and shows that participating governments are truly serious about enacting green policies, then a lot of good can come out of the Earth Hour project.

Of course, there’s been some criticism of Earth Hour, and a competing event scheduled for the same time called Human Achievement Hour.  The idea is to celebrate human achievements, one of the greatest of which is the ability to generate, control, and harness energy, all of which has been necessary for our modern human achievements.  I guess we’re supposed to celebrate this by doing what we normally do and leave the lights on.  Or maybe we should turn on lots of unnecessary lights?  Really, this “celebration” doesn’t seem like a true counter to Earth Hour, but simply a mockery.

But the real point here is that human achievement and environmentalism are in no way in opposition to one another.  If we enjoy all our modern conveniences without concern, and end up making our planet unlivable, that’s not really a human achievement, is it?

But if we can figure out how to keep those conveniences, all while preserving our environment?  Talk about a human achievement to be proud of.


St. Patrick’s Day

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh!

That’s Irish for “Happy St. Patrick’s Day!”

In celebration, let’s take a look at a list of famous Irish physicists:

  • Robert Boyle, discoverer of Boyle’s Law, the relationship between pressure and volume in an ideal gas.
  • William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, one of the founding fathers of thermodynamics, and the namesake of the Kelvin temperature scale.
  • William Hamilton, best known for reforming classical mechanics in the formalism know known as the Hamiltonian.  This approach is now essential in classical mechanics as well as quantum mechanics.
  • George Stokes, who made important contributions to the study of fluid dynamics and mathematical physics, including the Navier-Stokes Equations and Stokes’ Theorem.
  • Joseph Larmor, discoverer of Larmor precession, and the Lorentz Transformations, ostensibly before Lorentz himself discovered them, although only in the context of orbiting electrons.
  • Erwin Schrödinger, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, and developer of Schrodinger’s Equation.  Yes, I know the name doesn’t seem Irish, and he was indeed born in Austria.  However, he founded the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies on the request of the Irish Prime Minister, and became a naturalized Irish citizen during his 17 years in Dublin.

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Teaching Journal Week 5 and 6

Once again, a little behind on the update of the teaching journal.  This week’s excuses: tests in E&M and my introductory particle physics class, in addition to grading the first round of lab reports plus the re-writes.  We’re definitely in the thick of the semester now, but at least I have spring break to look forward to in a week.  Of course, I have to make it through my quantum midterm before then, but that’s a different story.

Now, on to the Teaching Journal:

Week 5

Coming up with a good problem for this type of discussion is difficult.  You want to make it doable, but not too simple.  You want to encourage critical thinking, but you have to give the students enough to grasp onto, or they will freeze up, and look to the TA to tell them what to do.  It’s a tough balance.  That’s why I’m glad that writing these problems is not my responsibility.

I bring this up, because the problem for this week straddled a lot of these lines.  The thing that I liked best about it is also the thing that the students hated the most: it was an open-ended problem, with no set answer.  There were many assumptions that the students had to make, and there were several quantities that they could examine to help decide if the situation presented (involving a superhero, naturally) was realistic or not.

I like this type of problem, because it shows how a physicist has to think.  They are not canned problems, with an answer that you can check in the back of the book.  You can’t even look at the title of the chapter to see what concepts might be involved.  It’s just you, your toolbox of concepts and equations, and your creative approach.

The students hate this.  They ask me what assumptions they need to make, what concepts or quantities I want them to look at, or, worst of all, they ask what equations to use.  I tell them as little as I can, but if I’m too mysterious, I get blank looks, and the students just sit there, telling me they don’t get it.  As a result, I end up directing them down a path more than I would like.  The problem with this is that it perpetuates the idea that there’s a certain way to solve the problem that they need to figure out, and the mysterious cues that lead to my approach can remain obscure.

I wonder if these types of problems would go over better with students who are more intersted in physics for its own sake.

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The First Excited Tweet

Yes, The First Excited State now has a Twitter account!  That means I’m just as hip as John McCain!  (Although I don’t spend as much time mocking support for science research and community centers.)

I have long resisted the pull of Twitter.  Even as it gained mainstream notoriety, I didn’t see any point in getting an account.  I was fine with facebook as my only source of online social networking.

But then one of my favorite basketball blogs got a twitter account, and I saw a way that I could use twitter to expand my semi-psuedonymous physics presence on the internet.

So come follow me on twitter!

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“Kids These Days,” a Reductio ad Absurdum by Induction

Choose an arbitrary Generation N.  Then let Generation N-1 be the next-older generation.

Generation N-1 says of Generation N:

“What’s wrong with Generation N?  They aren’t as smart, they don’t work as hard.  They have terrible manners, their clothes look stupid.  Have you heard their music?  Have you seen the way they dance?  Terrible.  They can’t speak properly to save their lives…

“Look at all that we’ve done for them, and they’re squandering it.  All of it.  I fear for the future of our society.”

So, Generation N < Generation N-1.

By a similar logic, we establish our base case: Generation 1 > Generation 2.

We can therefore conclude that human society peaked when Generation 1 came down from the trees, and has been monotonically decreasing in worth ever since.  There has been no progress, ever, and our society’s eventual destruction is ensured.