Sunday, 19 May 2013
This weekend the baby in our house managed to figure out the mysteries of crawling. Can’t say that it has been easy. On the contrary, and there is still some way to go before the technique is perfected. At the moment it is mostly one move forwards and a couple backwards, but...
For the parents this means that we need to pay unexpected attention. The little person no longer stays where you put her down, and she is suddenly able to reach all sorts of unsuitable things. As soon as you turn your back on her. Put her down on a blanket outside and before you know it she is off the reservation... Eating grass. Good for the digestive system, I’m sure.
Watching the stubborn repetition is both entertaining and frustrating. The little crawler may get frustrated but at the same time she is absolutely determined to get there. And eventually she does.
Tells you quite a lot about the importance of persistence.
You also find out a few things about learning. As humans, we learn partly by repetition and partly by making mistakes. Mistakes teach us how not to do things, sometimes in a very painful way. This is important. Repetition leads to perfection in whatever the pursuit may be.
For small children this comes natural. The older you get, the harder it becomes to pick up new skills. There are many reasons for this. One may be lack of patience. While a crawling baby keeps getting up after falling over hundreds of times in a row, a grown-up often gives up after the first few attempts. Usually with some feeble excuse like “no more time for this nonsense, more important things to do...”
Is this the way of the world, or is there something you can do about it? Is there some way that a grown-up can emulate the child? Not by throwing tantrums, but by sticking at tasks that seem impossible until they are mastered.
What is the key to this?
Now that I think about it, I recognize that the answer could have to do with stupidity. Not being stupid, but rather not being afraid to look stupid. This never bothered any baby, but it holds back most adults.
If you want to make progress on something challenging, where mistakes are inevitable, then you must allow yourself to look, and likely feel, stupid.
You also need to be modest enough to ask for help when you need it. I know that the next step (no pun intended) for our baby will be walking. This will involve the poor parents breaking their backs by propping up a staggering pre-toddler for hours on end. We will look stupid, but see if the baby cares. She’s got walking to master, so can’t be bothered about how we feel about it.As a grown-up there are situations where you need similar support. This is true even for the best of us. In the world of science you see it all the time. Famously, Einstein needed someone to tell him about tensor calculus when he was trying to figure out his new theory of gravity. The trick is to find someone that is able to help, but also to be modest enough to accept that help is needed in the first place. And not be afraid to look stupid...
So there we are.
The road to success passes through both repetition and stupidity.
At least that’s what I keep telling myself...
Monday, 13 May 2013
Absolute zero temperature, at 273 or so degrees below freezing, is supposed to be where things cease to happen. Basically, the temperature of any object is linked to the motion of the atoms of which is made. When averaged over to a larger scale, the energy of atom’s jiggling about becomes the object’s temperature. Absolute zero then, is when all the jiggling stops and pretty much nothing happens.
It has long been the case that some of the most exciting physics experiments are done at extremely low temperatures. In many cases the laboratory reaches far below the freezing conditions of outer space, which has a temperature of around three degrees above absolute zero due to remnant radiation from the Big Bang explosion that created the Universe.
At low temperatures funky things happen. Basically, Nature is left with two choices. Either a material freezes to form a solid, like water becoming ice. Or one ends up with a superfluid.
The classic example of a superfluid is Helium, which undergoes this transition at a temperature not too different from that of outer space. Experiments on this funky liquid have taught us a lot about quantum physics. The reason for this is that a superfluid can be thought of as a large scale quantum system. Usually the quantum regime is relevant on minute scales that are hard to probe, but in the case of a superfluid quantum aspects play a role at scales that can sometimes be seen by the human eye. Now that’s pretty cool.
In the last couple of decades many other superfluid systems have been discovered. Particularly exciting are the different cold atom gases, involving clouds of a few hundred atoms or so at fantastically low temperatures, where experiments with incredible precision can be carried out. This allows something that was never going to be possible in Helium; studies of much smaller systems where the quantum aspects can be much better resolved. Now that is seriously cool.
Talking about seriously cool, what says that you can’t go below absolute zero? Could it be that this is an artificial limit we (or rather, very clever people that came before us) have introduced, but in reality Nature does something else at that point? My inclination would be to say no. The notion of absolute zero is just that. Absolute. Perhaps the value we have set for it is wrong, for some reason, but the idea is difficult to argue with. If the temperature is associated with the motion of individual atoms then the zero point ought to be reached when all the motion stops. How can you possibly go beyond that?
Nevertheless, it was recently reported in the popular science press that experimenters had in fact gone beyond this point. Now, that would have been beyond cool...
In reality, closer inspection of the work involved shows that the experimenters never claimed such a breakthrough. It was just a typical mis-representation, probably because it sounded cool. It is still an interesting story, and highlights something you may not have thought about. We are all familiar with the feeling of hot and cold. Yet, our understanding of temperature is far from perfect. This is a cool problem to work on!
Monday, 22 April 2013
In these days of austerity, with the next budget cut more severe than the previous one, it seems that everything that does not have an immediate impact on “the economy” stands the risk of being trimmed. The short-term thinking associated with this is terrifying in many ways. It may take generations to build a decent society, but it appears that things can be demolished at a surprising rate.
I am not going to rant about basic social values and how it is the responsibility of those that are well off to help those that are less fortunate. There should be no need for that, since the morality ought to be obvious (although... many of today’s politicians still seem incapable of understanding). What I want to raise are a few simple points concerning the value of basic science, where progress is often slow and where the tangible products may be few and far between.
If it is the case that research needs to have immediate and measurable impact outside the hallowed halls of the Academy in order to be worthy of support, then most blue sky thinking and “simple” furthering of knowledge will surely starve. Entire disciplines will have to be abandoned.
Maybe this is right and proper? Who needs these areas of research anyway? If they don’t contribute, get rid of them! Tradition? What kind of argument is that?
Let’s try to put value on a couple of things that we might consider giving up. How about Astronomy? Do we really need to understand our place in the Universe? Does it matter if we don’t know how stars are born, evolve and die? Who cares about black holes and such crazy things, anyway? Uh... Quite a lot of people, it seems. Astronomy research may not contribute much to economic prosperity, but... it certainly provides “entertainment” and stimulates debate and discussion among experts and excited amateurs. I personally think that, if you were to ask a typical person in the street if issues involving space are worth exploring then you would likely get an answer in the affirmative. If you consider the wow factor, then surely the spectacular images from the Hubble space telescope (and other missions) have immense value.
In a related area, let’s consider an example from history; Albert Einstein and his wonky-space theory of gravity from 1915. Completely useless, right? Exciting and thought provoking, but contributing to the economy? You must be having a laugh! Certainly, the impact of Einstein’s theory of relativity was rather less than immediate. But... and I think this is a really big but, it has been considerable. You may not need to worry about the details, but... if it were not for the corrections from general relativity then the Global Positioning System (GPS) would quickly lose accuracy. In today’s world of automatic navigation this could lead to chaos. It may have taken almost a century for this impact to be realized but it cannot be ignored today. Of course, if he had been assessed according to today’s rules then poor Albert would probably not have been given the chance to complete his theory.
Let’s see… another example of scientific blue sky thinking and playing around without particular thought of impact... The internet. Now... What’s the actual monetary value of that?
I could go on with this, but let’s consider a contrasting case instead. Why not take a look at some science that has had obvious and immediate impact on society? How about the economy work that politicians like to use as motivation for the current climate of austerity? The main idea is that you can get an economy back on track by cutting back, a bit like you give the trees in an orchard renewed life by a severe trim every now and then. Surely, this work was worth supporting? Indeed, it had immense impact on society (I can see it in my bank account!), and a pretty direct one at that. Funny thing though; It may be that this piece of work was flawed. Apparently the two economists made a basic error in a spreadsheet, which meant that they did not consider all the relevant data. If you fix this, then the conclusions could point in a slightly different direction. So there we are. I’m not sure what the take home message is. Perhaps we learn that research not having direct impact on society could be a good thing?
At the end of the day, we need to worry about what we are doing to the next generation(s). If we teach them that efforts are only useful if they lead to an immediate return, what kind of society are they going to build (for us to retire in)? We must allow our kids to dream and think big (sometimes wild and a bit crazy), not necessarily be realistic and down to Earth all the time. This is a perfect job for science. We need to keep looking beyond what happens tomorrow. Otherwise tomorrow might never come.
Saturday, 6 April 2013
Had an opportunity to introduce the 7-year old to a piece of ancient technology the other day. A typewriter. Manual, of course. For fun, we started writing a story about vampires. Had to xxx out a few words when we went wrong, but it generally went quite well. In fact, we had a great time. The comforting clatter of the letters as they hit the page, the joyful bing at the end of each line, and the simple fact that you had to apply a bit of force with each stroke. Not touch-typing exactly... you certainly get some exercise!
The mechanics of writing have changed beyond recognition in the last couple of decades. And with this the creative process. It used to be that you had to think through things very carefully before committing anything to paper. Otherwise you ended up having to do tedious and time-consuming rewrites of page after page. There was of course the original cut-and-paste, involving scissors and glue, but this was a sticky exercise and in the end you had to retype everything anyway. Writing may have been much slower in that era, but after numerous revisions the final product tended to be well crafted.
I am old enough to remember the transition to WYSIWYG, when computers were first able to show the writing on the screen exactly as it would appear on the printed paper. What a breakthrough! At the same time, this was the first subtle step away from the focus on the words. You suddenly had to worry about the font, the layout and other aspects that had been the typesetter's job in the olden days. This speeded up the step from writing to publishing enormously, and the ability to move swathes of text around at will certainly removed some of the agony of the creative process. No more messy rewrites. Of course, you had to remember to do regular backups on those funny floppy disks. I guess I still have some of those in a drawer somewhere... Not sure what to do with them now.
Fast forward another 20 years or so and you find yourself in the brave new era of the internet, facebook, twitter and mobile texting. The way we communicate has changed completely. Instant gratification is the order of the day. If I can't have it immediately, then I can't be bothered. Carefully crafted hand-written letters have been replaced by emails, often without either proper greeting or polite goodbye. Grammar is old hat and who can be bothered to edit? It’s all gone in an instant, anyway. The next status update is more important.
This is liberating and frustrating at the same time. Anyone can write and publish just about anything, and people can access it wherever they may be in the world more or less immediately. Great! But what happened to the craft? Proper story telling? Once you get used to life in 140 characters or less, why would you bother with War and Peace? I know I should not complain because I find much of this entertaining, but at the same time...
The weeds in the internet garden are growing rapidly and it is getting harder for the more interesting and unique plants to get any daylight. I’m not suggesting it is time for censorship or even selective weeding. It should be up to the individual to carry out the proper quality control. The problem is that this does not seem to happen at the moment. Hopefully, normal services will be resumed before too long.
In the meantime, you can have a laugh at my expense and perhaps the hypocrisy of this rant. My “epic masterpiece” Professor Kompressor is free from Amazon until 8 April. The book is aimed at kids of all ages and I think it is quite funny. Well worth the current price, at least!
Here's the download link:
Have to stop now, because I’ve been told to get back to work on the vampire story. On the typewriter, of course. How else would we do it?