Saturday, December 15, 2012

Slinky Physics

This is a perfect demonstration of where to look for Physics. Anywhere!
A simple question of “What if…” has led to a ‘front page’ article in the American Journal of Physics. I love it.
This is great for introducing the idea of cognitive dissonance. A student in a lecture or classroom will have misconceptions, show them this and that will flip their head around so that those misconceptions can no longer exist in their brains.
We can go further than this. After proving that all masses fall to the ground at the same acceleration, (think Galileo) demonstrating that it’s not like that in all cases by dropping a mass next to a slinky shows it’s not as simple as that. They’ll hit the ground at different times.*
What really gets me about this is that it holds true even if your drop a 10 foot pole. The top falls while the bottom of the pole waits for the information to get there before it moves. It just happens a lot fastest with a pole that a slinky.
*providing you are not dropping the mass from the same height as the centre of mass of the slinky.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Physics hobbies part 1

Ranting about Physics ads 

Above roads around the place I have seen this ad. It claims that the New Lancer Whatever, can defy physics, or you yourself can defy physics when you drive it. Wow!

 This is a big call. Physics, a subsection of a larger field of research we call science, deals with the laws of the natural world. Let me mention a few of them here.

  1. Laws of Motion (Newton and Kepler) 
  2. Law of Gravity 
  3. Law of thermodynamics 
  4. Conservation of mass and energy (E=mc2) 
  5. Conservation of momentum 
  6. Photoelectric effect 

I would like to concentrate on the first one especially, as it is quite central to the whole idea of driving a car. The law of motion by that famous old alchemist (and general nut job!) Isaac Newton. Newton came up with three pretty revolutionary (at the time) ideas that changed the way we thought about the natural world and how things behaved in it. His three laws in brief were as follows.

  1. An object at rest, will continue to stay at rest until acted upon by an external unbalanced force. And, an object in motion will continue to stay in motion until acted upon by an external unbalanced force 
  2. F=ma 
  3. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction 

Pretty simple. Short and sweet. They seem obvious, but he was the first guy to write them down, and it changed everything. You can demonstrate Newtons three laws with any object you can find.

My coffee mug for example, is not moving, there is no external unbalanced force acting upon it, so it stays still. Until I pick it up. If it fell off the table, it would continue to fall off the table until something like the ground stops it from falling. (Newtons first law) When it is full, it is heavier, therefore, a little bit harder to move, the mass of the mug is bigger so the force I have to apply to it to move it os also bigger (Newtons second law). And when I punch something due to the fact that this ad defies nothing else but logic, my fist hurts as well (Newtons third law).

Even if you want to consider theories, not laws, Physics has some pretty well thought out theories. Quantum mechanics, special relativity, big bang etc .

It seems strange to me that the ad would want to champion the fact that the Lancer can defy physics. Which part of physics does it defy? Is it the thermodynamics part, cos that isn’t really relevant, same with Kepler’s laws, or Quantum mechanics. I can only assume they mean that you can defy the motion part, which seems very silly to me. Why would we want to go and defy all the good work that Newton did. 

Lets not go too far with defying all this physics anyway. Without Newtons three laws, this car would not have even be made. let alone having this so called amazing performance. We wouldn’t be dealing things like friction for example, accelerating wouldn’t make an sense and…aaaarrrrrrgh this friggin car wouldn’t have even been able to be assembled!

In conclusion, crap ad. Don’t buy this car, because its ad is ill informed. Why can’t it just say, this car drives good, or people will think your bits are huge if you drive this car, but don’t use physics cos you think it sounds smarter, that is poor form.

 If the car company can’t even get a simple physics slogan right, what kind of complex engineering vehicle can they possibly make? There are so many examples of bad ads that use Physics and Science poorly. This one is a particularly good example! What are your favourite bad ads?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Antarctica 2012

On my trip to Antarctica in February 2012. I was surprised about how impressed I was with eco-tourism. Mainly due to the fact that the research suggests that eco-tourism has a smaller impact on the pristine environment than research does

Even though we were all there as tourists, we were also being made aware of some nice science. The program was fantastic from a science awareness point of view. There were talks on the different types of animals and places we’d see, we visited research station (including the one where the Ozon layer was discovered, Vernadsky station)

I even got a chance to try my hand at some Antarctic Physics communication. On a few occasions I got out the Galileoscope that I’d borrowed from a colleague, as well as my ham radio. I got a few weird looks and ‘please explain’s, but I was simply not going to pass up the opportunity to try and see some stars from Antarctica, or try and talk to some nearby research stations. 

The whole deal was a semi Science Communication exercise, without really trying to be, which is the best kind!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Science represents!

Science Vs Politics series.

As a scientist, I view the world with science eyes. I see political decisions get made and it sometimes depresses me, sometimes makes me laugh, and sometimes makes me proud. It got me thinking, if our politicians represent us, who amongst them represents our passion for science.

I thought it would be interesting to see who of our political representatives has a science/engineering background. This is almost a 'litmus test' of our politicians to see who among them are scientifically literate. Granted, you don’t have to have a science degree to be scientifically literate, but I think in this sort of office, there really is a lot to be said for formal science training. I’ll start with the House of Representatives; this is not the full story.

If you want to find out more about any of these yourself, just go to the Parliament of Australia website like I did. There is a ‘Bio’ link on each of the members, and where that info wasn’t enough, I went to their personal home pages, also linked on the members’ page.

The list in alphabetical order is:

Karen Andrews - Liberal - McPherson (Qld) - Mechanical Engineering
Darren Cheeseman - Labour - Corangamite (Vic) - Applied Science( Geology)
Greg Combet - Labour - Charlton (NSW) - Engineering (Mining)
John Forrest - National - Mallee (Vic) - Science and Engineering
Harry Jenkins - Labour - Scullin (Vic) - Science
Dennis Jensen - Liberal - Tangney (WA) - Applied Science (PhD)
Richard Marles - Labour - Corio (Vic) - Science
Scott Morrison - Liberal - Cook (NSW) - Applied Science (Geology)
Laura Smythe - Labour - La trobe (Vic) - Science

This list consists of 9 people amongst 150 elected members have some formal university training in science or engineering. The majority of the other university qualifications seemed to be either law, arts or commerce. There were a few farmers, journalists and teachers, and one who has zero university qualifications, as he has barely left high school!

Disclaimer: I’m not trying to suggest that politicians that don’t have a university qualification in science are not as capable or intelligent as others. I'm sure our representatives are all very intelligent and work hard for our nation. Also, I'm sure their advisors and officers employ people with science backgrounds.

While I think that politicians are experts at being politicians, I also think that only 6% of our representatives have some formal science qualifications, is a little low. What is the point? this is simply for information and a discussion point and I hope it is successful in that aim.

I will also trawl through the senators' information and make another list of the scientists in the upper house next time. I intend to make a list of all politicians state and federal, upper and lower house that have formal scientific qualifications, just for information...but not just yet!

My solution is to raise awareness of science in places where I see a need. I see a need in our political system to have a greater understanding of science and a greater respect for its worth and value.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

IAMA Scientist

Science Vs Politics series.

I am a scientist, and I’m proud.

I recently had a long conversation with a scientist that I respect, about the state of science research, policy, funding, interest in Australia, Based on the discussion, Mal and I agreed that he would never read this article and I openly told him that I would probably use a lot of what he has to say in a blog post about the topics we covered. This is that post.

The conversation started when I asked….actually I don’t know where it started, but it did. At some point in our conversation I mentioned that I think all the latest cuts to science amount to something of a tragedy for science and science education in our country, along with the resignation of our chief scientist for reasons that imply a less than inclusive government. It is my opinion that we are viewing science in this country in a skewed way.

Mal asked me, “Why should we treat science differently, why do we need places like Questacon, and science week, and countless other programs that push science down our throats.” I feel in a way he was being slightly argumentative, but his point was well made. It begs the question, why do we not have National Law week, or the Australian Taxi Drivers Festival or something.

Scientists are incredibly proud of their jobs, we are excited about what we might discover in the lab, we even want to tell others about it. We have these programs because enough of us think that it is important enough to communicate. Science is the persuit of knowledge. It's about asking the question why, discovery, finding out about the world we live in. Why shouldn't we blow our own trumpets and try and excite people about this very noble and human endeavor?

The question made me try and search for a justification for why science is important, then I realised, that I shouldn't need any justification. If there are enough scientists who want to add to the discussion, to educate the public, to get enthusiastic about their job, then let them. If accountants don't want to get the word out about their chosen profession, then will not force them. So in a way my answer to the question of what is so special about science, is the special people that do it.

I hope that politicians understand this but fear that they dont. Representation and exploration are two very different ideas. Politics and science are not the same language, so when a scientist talks about their chosen field, it isn't necessarily because they are after funding or because they think they are special, it is probably because they're human.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

One giant leap for Yuri, two steps back for mankind.

Science Vs Politics series.

April 12th, known as Yuri’s night, is a time when we celebrate the birth of manned spaceflight and exploration. And this one was a particularly special one, 50 years since Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, the first man to orbit the Earth, and the first hero of many young kids who grew up wanting to be Astro/Cosmonauts.

Since Yuri’s triumph we have also dome some pretty spectacular things, we went to the moon…6 times, we have explored our solar system and the universe with satellites like Hubble and Cassini-Huygens, we have had an almost constant human presence in space with space stations like Mir, Skylab, International Space Station, Space Shuttle etc.

But why have we stopped there? The answer…money.

There is no scientific barrier, stopping us from returning to the Moon, or going to Mars. Money, therefore politics, is the thing holding us on this planet. Although not a new idea, in the absence of massive government support, you need cost-effectiveness. At the moment, space exploration is not cost-effective, so what we have to rely on is massive government support, which we don’t have.

As the deciders of where public money is spent, our political representatives should have a better appreciation for space exploration and what it can do for us, etc. I think the main problem is that a space program will take time, maybe 10-15 years to complete and that’s a too long in politics world. Any political decision has direct consequences in at most 4 years, so understandably, funding a 15 year manned space exploration program is simply out of the question.

We are really good at exploring, it’s what humans do. Throughout history, no matter what political or societal issues of the time have been, we still explore, I believe it is the greatest of all human and scientific endeavours. In fact I see it as our responsibility. We are the only living being that we know of with the intelligence to explore space, yet it is made impossible to do so by our governments.

My solution/suggestion is in principle fairly simple. Get off the planet! We need to send colonisers to Mars and in addition I suggest the Moon, Venus, and Titan and by the time we have been there, we will probably have found other places to go.

I can offer the following political incentives:
  • A space faring nation is a powerful and educated nation
  • With research into space exploration comes innovation
  • Space exploration is a multi-disciplinary effort
  • Political drive will push public interest, which in turn pushes funding
  • There are countless types and amounts of natural resources out there
And the following thoughts that I think are scary:
  • When we think of aliens, we think iof interplanetary beings possibly coming to our planet for some sort of exploitation. To them, we are the aliens.
  • What chance do we have if finding intelligent life on other worlds if we wont even venture off our own?
  • if we continue to mess up our planet like we are to the point where we make ourselves extinct...that is it, no more humanity.
Granted, sending people on a one way trip to Mars or back to the Moon would be a hard political move to make, risky for sure, but it worked for J.F.K.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The rules

Science Vs Politics series.

Science is a game, with rules. The rules are simple and you can’t break them. People try and cheat, but that never ends well.
  • Research. Find out if people have done this before. If they have, maybe you can learn something from their hard work.
  • Record. Observation is nothing without data to back it up. or as Edwin Hubble put it “Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure, science”
  • Repeat. Your results must be repeatable, not just by you, by others as well.
  • Consult widely. Once you've lost the community's trust, you'll never get it back.'
  • Always try quiet diplomacy first. Once you're in a public dispute, you've already lost.'
  • Follow-through is paramount.'
  • Keep your sense of humour. It makes all other rules possible.

There are a number of laws in science, such as Newtons laws of gravity, the Laws of thermodynamics etc, and the one rule here is, you must obey these laws. but I want to go a little bit more broad with the rules of science. When we do science, what rules do we follow? I have identified the following rules of the game we call science.
Politics is also a game, sometimes it seems like a very immature game of schoolyard name calling, but what are the rules here? and what happens if you break them?

The rules of politics are as follows:

Here’s a clear cut example of how the rules of science and politics differ:
Our Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy, had a great idea to enforce a server level Internet filter. This means, that there are certain websites that are blocked from us visiting them. It puts the responsibility of who accesses what onto the server, not the consumer.
This is great, right up until the point where it doesn’t work! Many examples were shown of how this Internet filter does not work, Wikileaks had a whole number of leaks to do with the fact that the filter is useless. During the Internet filter trial, I found a whole heap of instructional videos from teenagers, showing us how to get around it. The ABC program ‘Hungry Beast’ also gave a quick in principle guide about how to bypass the filter. Further, the filter has managed to block sites that are clearly not dangerous. Sites like personal home pages with innocent content and businesses such as a Queensand dentists page. Added to all of that, the government refuses to publish the blacklisted websites.

Here’s where science and politics differ. In science, if your experiment doesn’t work, you have to change your hypothesis. In this case, Stephon Conroy just stuck to his message. Also not only does the experiment have to be repeatable, it has to be be repeated by your peers, It is called peer review, and it is one of the of the backbones of science research. In this case, your peers Senator Conroy, (13 year old school kids) have proven that your results can not be repeated.
This was a fail for politics, and by my reckoning, a fail for science too, due to the fact that the political arguments were accepted, despite ALL scientific evidence against the decision. It begs the question, “who wins?”
All the rules of science have been adhered to, as I said before, you actually can’t break them or, by definition, you are not doing science. Whereas at least 3 of the four identified rules of politics have been been broken.And it seems as though the punishment for breaking these political rules, is lots of funding and waste of public money on a technology that doesn't work.
I can see and agree with the principles of the idea. Protecting children, I'm all for that. But the clear disregard for evidence and common sense annoys me. True, we are not doing scientific research, but a little application of some of the principles of scientific processes would surely strengthen your argument or even help you to get a better policy.
I’m a big advocate of strong social policies, but I would also like to see some scientific common sense and awareness on discussions like this. 
I guess the same could be said for the climate change debate, but I might leave that for another time.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Learn from mistakes

Science Vs Politics series.

There are some things we know, and other things we don’t know. And as a scientist, this really excites me. I love the fact that we have no idea about some things. In fact there are very few things in science that we can be certain about.

It’s actually very simple to find the limit of what we know in science. Simple questions such as, what happened before the big bang? Is there life on other planets? If I’m in a car travelling at the speed of light and I switch my lights on, what happens? These are very simple questions that have no good answer.

A good scientist will say “we don’t know”, then go into an explanation of what we think may be the case. This explanation will be accompanied with lots of hand waving, the true sign that whatever the scientist is saying at the time is being made up! A poor scientist will go straight into the explanation, complete with hand waving.

Science prides itself on being wrong, it is how science works. We make a theory, then when it is wrong, change the theory to fit our new observations. It is really the only way that science progresses. In fact it is the only way that anything progresses. This is where the phrase “we learn from our mistakes” comes from.

A scientist aims to have their results published in scientific journals. To get published the report must go through a process called peer review where other scientists check over the work, comment and make changes. The peers in this case are not always of the opinion, in fact sometimes in direct opposition. It’s all out in the open and an integral part of science.

So why can’t we learn from our political mistakes? How often does a politician make a statement and back it up with facts? How often do you hear a politician say “I was wrong?” How many productive peer discussions are there between the government and the opposition?

I want more scientific logic in our political discussions. This means more actual discussion, and less name calling. It means, if you are wrong, that you have learnt something, and gained a chance to make your policy better, not that you are a liar and an economy destroyer. It means the people that vote for you will understand your policies better.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

There's an error in the uncertainty of your measurements

Science vs Politics series.

This title can be interpreted in two very different ways. And the differences highlight the challenge of talking science to politicians and politics to scientists. It is very interesting and I think a little bit misunderstood. That is to say, more awareness of these differences will foster better communication between these two groups in society. It is a little bit scary to me that only one of these groups gets to make the decisions about our society. I think both (in fact all, of societies vast range of groups) should get a say.

The three words in particular in this title are instrument, uncertainty and error. These three words are very different concepts depending on who you’re talking to.

An instrument, to a scientist, is the thing that you observe with. It could be a microscope, a telescope, a seismometer, a scale etc. To a politician, an instrument is a piece of paper that can be used in court as evidence, or in parliament as a law.

Uncertainty in science gives a level of confidence that a measurement lies within a prescribed range. It tells you that no matter how well you make your measurement, you can not be spot on. For example, the temperature today is 15 ˚C ± 0.5 ˚C. Where 0.5 ˚C is the uncertainty, or the range where the temperature actually is. The temperature in this case could be anywhere between 14.5 ˚C to 15.5 ˚C. In politics, if you use the word uncertainty, it means you are not sure, a dangerous thing to admit.

Error, the last and is probably most volatile of these three concepts. In science, error is the difference between your measurement and the actual value of the thing you are measuring. There will always be error in measurement. Error in politics simply means you are wrong. In science, you need to understand and discuss the error, you are not being a good scientist of you don’t. In politics, you avoid it.

Here is a political translation of a scientific statement:

”The error and uncertainty of the instrument were known” = “Not only where there mistakes and things you weren’t sure about in the policy document, but you knew about it and didn’t tell anyone, shame.”

I’d like to see the day where politicians can use these words with confidence in parliament, without being harangued for being wrong and unsure. I’d love to hear the opposition ask the government in questions time “what was the uncertainty of your measurement?” or “Could you characterise your errors?”, rather than “You are wrong, why are you lying to us?”

I’m uncertain that I’ll ever see this happen, hopefully that's my fault!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

How not to ask a scientific question

Science Vs Politics series.

There is a real skill when it comes to asking questions. Science has nailed it, in fact the entire method behind science is based on asking good questions. Politicians however, still have some room for improvement.

There are many ways to ask a question. My 2 year old daughter asks a lot of questions, all the time. This is her way of learning about the world. Her questions are great questions for their purpose but wouldn't hold up in a microbiology lab or in question time. "Mr. Speaker, What you doing?"

Indigenous Australians asked question, only when they were ready to do so. This method of questioning works very well for them. It is how they get most of their information. If you don't know something, there is probably a good reason for it, so wait until you are told!

Here is a great example of a skeptics opinion of what a great question is. PZ Meyers in this case, writes an open letter to a 9-year old girl in order to prepare her better for asking good questions. In short, his advice is this. Don't ask questions you know the answer to, ask a question where you will learn something!

As mentioned before, most scientists, are pretty flash at this. Think Julius Sumner Miller, and his great catch phrase. "Why is it so?" Perfect, this is a great question, and almost unlimited to how much you can learn with this question. Jump to question time in the lower house now, and the situation is very different. From what I have seen, and what is reported to us, none of these questions follow any good definition of a good question.

I have characterised the questions I see in question time into a few groups:
  • Provocative
  • Loaded
  • Unanswerable
  • 9-year old question
Provocative question wil not get an answer but a response. Remember back in the day when you would purposely annoy your brother oir sister in order to get a response, you weren't looking for an intelligent answer, you just wanted them to snap! "Why does the Govermnent refuse to...blah, blah, blah?" falls into this category.

Loaded questions really have nothing in them except for emotion and bias. A loaded question will never get a satisfactory response, it will leave the responder feel like they have dodged a bullet and the questioner feel like their question has not been answered. for example, "When will the minister stop deceiving and lying to the Australian people and blah, blah, blah...?

Unanswerable questions, are designed to be unanswerable in order to make the responder look silly either by a pathetic response or no response at all. "Can the government guarantee that no jobs will be lost in the blah, blah blah?" This questions can simply not be answered, so when an answer is given, it is not an answer to the question asked. In this case the questioner can use the favourite line, "The government doesn't know what they are talking about." It is best for all involved if no answer is given. Both sides win. No stupid answer is given, therefore no misinterpretation or embarrassment, and the questioner can use their other favourite, loaded, line " The Government refused to comment" and getting some cheap points.

The 9-year old question is similar to the one asked in the article referred to earlier. They are kids questions asked by adults who know better. Things like "What was the government thinking when blah, blah blah..."

If we could only install some good questioning techniques into the so-called question time. I'd love to see some thoughtful, well placed, questions that can actually be classed as questions, rather than insults or cheap points scoring. A question is not to make a point, a question is to learn something. I haven't learn that much recently from question time!