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Random thoughts about Science and the World

Time is the fourth dimension. Now we just have to find the other seven...

Book review: The Magic of Reality
This is a first, and I don't normally take the time to review the books I read, even if the majority of them are science-related in some shape or form. Don't get me wrong; I'm more than happy to recommend books to those who are interested, but since there are usually a great number of other people reviewing such books, many of which have a lot more clout when it comes to the various areas of science than I do, I've generally felt that my comments would be somewhat superfluous. The reason I am making an exception in this case is because for once I might have a perspective that it is possible that not too many of the other reviewers have, seeing as I am both a science-enthusiast and an educator. And it is for that reason that I am reviewing Richard Dawkins' latest publication; 'The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True'.

Let's begin with the book itself: it's absolutely beautiful. Choosing none other than Dave McKean to illustrate the book must have been a stroke of genius, and it is certainly one that has payed off. In adding his perspective McKean has contributed images that are at the same time clever, informative and absolutely wonderful to look at. This man never ceases to amaze me with his skills and his imagination. Here's to hoping he will never retire. Combined with Dawkins' elegant grasp of the English language, this book is a pleasure to read, and it seems as if this is a match made in the proverbial heaven. Dawkins, as always, is eloquent to point of prose, and as an educator I have learned a lot from this man when it comes to explaining difficult subjects in a clear and understandable manner. This book is no exception.

The content leaves very little left to be desired, covering questions like 'Why are there so many different animals?', 'What are things made of?' and 'When and how did everything begin?'. These are difficult questions, and while the answers themselves might not be new to those who enjoy science literature, the explanations are exquisite, accurate and presented in a language that should be accessible to children and young adults alike. One of the main points of the book is to give an introduction to science and the scientific method, and to compare Dawkins starts the chapters off with the retelling of myths and legends that were used by a wide variety of cultures to explain things like earthquakes, seasons and rainbows before we had access to science. When the book came out Dawkins was unsurprisingly accused by Bill O'Reilly for 'mocking God', but after reading it I can attest that the vast majority of the myths presented are from other cultures and traditions, and the only reason I can see that Bill'O would be miffed is that the Christian myths are treated no differently than any of the others. To Dawkins, and to science, they are all equally un-scientific, and in many cases, provably wrong. This is not a new 'God Delusion'. This is a book about the beauty and magic of science, and thus a contrast is made between the kind of supernatural magic that these myths represent and what is scientifically true. And for those setting out to learn about science, that is a contrast worth making.

The difference is made clear already in the first chapter titled 'What is reality? What is magic?' in which Dawkins rightly argues that the magic of reality can be just as, if not more, enchanting and wonderful than any myth or legend. Here he explains the modes of thought and methodology that lies at the core of science, and how it can help us determine what's really going on around us. The next chapter is devoted to the age-old question of 'Who was the first person?', in which Dawkins spends some time explaining why the question might not make as much sense as it first appears before entering into another one of his excellent thought-experiments to show how humans have evolved through a very slow gradual process. The book continues along these lines and it is all the while laced with references to the methods used by scientists to obtain the evidence that lies at the core of every scientific exploration. Knowing his audience and also his own shortcomings he is careful to limit the explanations to what one might expect 10-15 year olds would be able to grasp, for instance, when explaining what atoms are, stopping short of going into the strange world of quantum physics. This is probably wise as these are subjects that even relatively well-read adults have problems grasping, your's truly being no exception. But the information that is presented is more than adequate and inspires the reader to find out more and to continue exploring on their own.
Which, after all, is exactly what any educator should strive to accomplish.

All in all this is a book that I will be recommending to both friends and pupils for years to come. It is a book you would want to keep in your bookshelf, not only for its content, but also for its beauty, and it is a book I will be lending shamelessly from when teaching these concepts to my own pupils. In short, this is the best introduction to science I have seen, and I encourage everyone to go out and buy it.

Link: http://www.amazon.com/Magic-Reality-Know-Whats-Really/dp/1439192812

Learning to Think
From an early age I’ve been intrigued by discussions and debates. The exchanges of intellectual blows have always fascinated me, and I’ve thus far participated in a fair number of these battles of knowledge and wit. The very fact that some measure of truth can be achieved through a sort of cognitive purgatory is both encouraging and, it seems, to some people, frightening. If we accept its premise, that might ultimately mean that we will have to let go of ideas and opinions we old dear, now exposed for the delusions they actually are. Since I was a teenager it has become somewhat of a mission for me to organize my thoughts according to the laws of logic and reason, and whenever I find a flaw in my reasoning I do my best to purge it. This, I rather think, is a personal responsibility that should ideally be undertaken by everyone, but in order to do so, one needs the proper tools for the job.

And this is where learning how to think comes in.

When I tell my pupils that I am going to teach them how to think, I usually get some questions along the lines of “But aren’t I already thinking?” and “Isn’t that something you just do?”. And this is where my background as a martial artist comes in handy, in this case as a useful analogy. Most adults know how to walk, right? And everyone knows how to push and pull, and maybe even punch if that is what it takes, isn’t that so? And in some sense, that is correct. We do know how to do these things, only, without practice, and perchance, instruction, we just don’t know how to do them very well. The thing is that during my years as a Shotokan practitioner I learned about the shifts of weight, balance, angle of impact, speed and timing that is required to -actually- punch or kick someone. And after I started practicing Aikido I changed the way I walked to better control my centre of gravity and I learned how to use an opponent’s angular momentum against him, something which has enabled me to put to the ground people much stronger and larger than myself.

These are, perhaps, things I might have figured out on my own through trial and error, if I had thought of doing so, but it was certainly much more efficient to learn it from someone who already knew.
And that is why we have teachers.

Your brain is your most important weapon, and unlike martial skills, it is a weapon we employ every day, so it makes sense to learn how to use it properly. This is in fact a skill that has been studied and practiced for hundreds, if not thousands of years, hailing back at least to the time of the ancient Greek philosophers, generally thought to be the founders of the discipline we call Logic. And concerning that subject it is important to note that Logic is not so much invented as it is discovered, meaning that through argumentative positions and conditions it is determined what -must- be true. In this sense it is not unlike mathematics, born as they are of the same source.

This does not mean that all logical arguments are automatically a truthful reflection of reality. In Holberg’s famous play ‘Rasmus Montanus’ an argument is made on the premise that since both a stone and a human cannot fly, they must therefore both be stones. But as should be obvious to all, this is faulty logic because while the premise is not inaccurate, it is too narrow to justify the conclusion derived from it. This is something we must watch for when dissecting the arguments posed to us. But while a logically sound argument does not -have- to be a correct representation of reality, it can be said that an argument that is not logically sound is -always- incorrect. Therefore it is of utmost importance that we employ this tool to check both our own conclusions as well as those presented to us from various sources, be they politicians, parents, teachers or random people on the internet.

In its simplest form a logical argument can be set up like this:
“If A is larger than B, and B is larger than C, then C cannot be larger than A.”
This is a logical consequence of the premises we have chosen to use, and while it may seem banal, it is important to understand the unrelenting mechanism that clicks into place like clockwork, and it reveals the lack of relevance our own personal opinions about something has regarding whether something is true or not. This may seem uncompromising, and I’ve encountered more than one debater who in disbelief has expressed annoyance at my utter disregard for their opinions on a matter. But that is how it is: in the quest for truth your opinion is of no consequence, and unless you can back your opinion up with logical argumentation grounded in relevant facts it will be summarily dismissed.


Your only defence is to learn how to use your brain better, because if you don’t you are not only going to be subject to having your arguments picked apart and thrown on the ground by those who have learned to use logic properly, but you are, more importantly, going to obtain any number of faulty opinions and notions about the world around you. Thinking is a skill like any other, and it is perhaps the most important skill you are ever going to learn. For me it has been a journey that has at times been hard and sometimes painful, but it has always been interesting. And for those of us who care more about what is true than about what is comfortable, it is not only worth doing, but it is, plainly and simply, a necessity.

So go to and hone this, your greatest weapon, and with all your might shun those who would rather teach you -what- to think than -how- to think.

Because they are legion.

The Death of a Hero
This morning I woke up to find that one of my greatest heroes had died.
Christopher Hitchens, the author, the journalist, the most intelligent, uncompromising and sharp witted debater I have ever seen, passed today at the age of 62.
Whether you agreed or disagreed with the stances he took, no-one, not even his fiercest opponents can deny the elegance and skill that saturated his arguments, nor his encyclopaedic knowledge about almost anything written anywhere.

As one of the strongest voices for freedom of speech, he will be sorely missed.

Energy is Not a ‘Thing’
A couple of days ago I had a conversation with someone who expressed that she thought certain places have a ‘positive’ or a ‘negative energy’, and while she soon accepted that this was just a semantic trick and a figure of speech, it got me thinking that this may be a common misunderstanding. So to clear matters up let’s talk a little about what energy really is, and more importantly, what it consequently is not.

To explain this in a way that people can easily grasp, let’s think of the colour red. Now red is, of course, a colour, just like blue, green and any number of colours, but it is not a thing in and of itself. The sentence; “That is a red.” doesn’t make sense on any level. Rather, we use ‘red’ to describe the property of something else. “That is a red car” or “she was wearing a red dress” for instance makes perfect logical and linguistic sense.
And in the same way, energy is not a thing in and of itself; it is a property that something else has to some degree or another. There are several ways of describing this in scientific terms.

For instance, you have the ‘potential energy’ that is the result of everything seeking* as low an energy state as possible, and is best illustrated by, say, a ball lying on a shelf. Now, if you push that ball over the edge, the fact that it falls to the floor is the equivalent of the release of that potential energy. Potential energy is all about the effects of gravity which means that the ball in question would have less potential energy if, for some reason, it was placed on a shelf on the Moon where gravity is about one sixth of what it is on Earth. Conversely a heavier ball would have more potential energy, as would one placed on a higher shelf.

Another type of energy is what we call ‘chemical energy’ which basically comes down to any type of chemical reaction that releases a surplus of energy that can be transferred to something else. Gasoline possesses chemical energy and so does the food that you eat every day, and in both cases, through the interaction with oxygen, you get the ‘burning’ of certain chemicals which in their transition to other compounds release energy that can be put to work. In the body that chemical energy is stored in carbohydrates (including sugars), lipids (fat), and proteins of various kinds.

Often we also consider ‘nuclear energy’ as a type of energy of its own, and while every atom in the universe possesses nuclear energy, the most well known example of this is the process we call fission. Fission is what we do in nuclear plants and it works best on fairly instable atoms called isotopes, usually Uranium 235 or Plutonium 239. The splitting of these atoms releases that nuclear energy into other forms of energy that is again possessed by various mediums around it.

Then there is ‘kinetic energy’ or as it is sometimes called; ‘motion energy’. When you kick a football you are transferring kinetic energy to the ball that makes it fly across the field. Due to friction that kinetic energy is again transferred to the air around it, and unless you kick it hard enough to achieve escape velocity, it is going to fall down on the ground, where it again transfers kinetic energy to the grass until it comes to a full stop. Anything that moves has kinetic energy, be it bullets, cars, footballs and even light.

Some of you may have noticed that I haven’t talked about ‘heat energy’ yet, and there is a good reason for that. Heat, warmth, temperature or what you wish to call it, is in fact the same as kinetic energy. When we heat something up, say a kettle full of water, what we in essence are doing is that we’re making the water molecules move around faster. And as it gets hotter, some of these molecules will attain enough momentum so that they will be released from the weak bonds that hold them together with the other water molecules, and they will take off in the form of steam. This also explains why chemical reactions generally work faster at higher temperatures; the molecules are moving around at a more frantic pace and thus they are more likely to come into contact with each other to facilitate the reaction, and it also explains why there is such a thing as absolute zero. Absolute zero, defined respectively as 0 degrees Kelvin, minus 273.15 degrees Celsius or minus 459.67 degrees Fahrenheit, is the point in which no molecular movement takes place, which means that the molecules possess no kinetic energy.

So, to sum up, in science the term energy is, like the colour red, not a thing in and of itself. Rather it is a property that something else possesses, and which is used to describe the state in which something finds itself. As you may or may not have recognized, this is all a part of the fifth grade science curriculum, but I suspect that many people either didn’t get a good enough explanation for how it actually works, or that they’ve simply forgotten it over time.

In either case I hope that when some new-age bullshit peddler tells you that the crystals he is selling has a “positive energy” you will know exactly why what he is telling you is pure and utter nonsense.

Energy is not a 'thing' that you can pick up and handle.

*'Seeking' in this case does not mean that it acts with conscious intent. It is merely an analogous way of describing the physical properties of something.

A Night On the Town...
Nice evening out on the town with a close friend of mine.
Dinner and drinks.
Met up with friend of my friend and his friend (which makes him a friend of a friend of a friend I guess).
FFF had recently gotten his mind blown by the knowledge that most of the biomass on the planet consists of bacteria.

Explained some of the fundamentals of Quantum Physics to him.
Mind blown again.

He will probably not sleep well tonight.

On the bus home, converted sixty year old man to listen to Tool.

Mission accomplished.


Subatomic Submarine
The short journey I am about to take you on could never take place in reality. The sights I am about to describe could never be truly seen. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t use our imagination and imagine how, if we allow ourselves this flight of fancy, it might look if we could dive in, deep down, all the way, deeper than anyone has ever gone before.

What would we see?
Let’s find out.

Imagine that you have been recruited as crew on special kind of mission. In deepest secret an unknown government agency has developed something called an Atomic Compressor, a one of a kind machine that will allow for the shrinkage of a special kind of ship to travel where no living being has ever been; to the insides of a single atom. Before this mission you would have had to be trained in the piloting of the vessel, a compact submarine-like craft that utilizes pulse-polarity to navigate, and that will be your vantage point from which to see what no-one has ever seen before. The ship would have to contain all the necessary air and supplies that you’d need because they must be shrunk with you. At the scale you are going down to, a single Oxygen atom would be larger than a skyscraper and would be of no use to your miniaturized lungs.

The day is finally here and you are being led through an airlock to the sealed room that makes up the Atomic Compressor, and you see large tubes protruding like the barrels of strange looking cannons from every angle of the most perfect sphere ever constructed. Every muzzle the exit-point of a particle accelerator designed to give the painfully accurate compression needed to push on every piece of matter in both you and in the ship. Matter itself is about to be shrunk!* The ship itself is a spherical black ball with eight dark grey metallic circles positioned where, on a cube, the corners would be. These are the Pulse-Polarity engines that will push and pull on the magnetic forces of electrons and protons. As you enter you see that the ship only has room for one, so this is a journey that you will have to make alone. But this has all been a part of your training, so as you get strapped in your fingers routinely run across the controls, initiating safety procedures and checking the system for faults. The hatch closes over your head and you hear the magnetic locks click into place. In your earplug a voice announces;
“Prepare for Anti-Higgs Field procedure.”**
You hear a rumbling noise as from a thunderstorm far away and a blinding green light emanates from the entire room forcing you to close your eyes as every atom of the ship and you is being penetrated with negative Higgs particles counteracting the force of gravity. You can feel yourself getting lighter and lighter and you notice that the ship is no longer standing on the floor of the room but is floating in mid air, held in place by powerful electromagnets.
“Anti-Higgs Field procedure complete.”
“Prepare for Atomic Compression.”
The rumbling noise, stronger this time, seems to come from all around you and a single sharp blue light hits every particle of your being filling you with a feeling of nausea.
And then you see nothing.

Remembering your training you turn on the external lights, specially made torches spewing forth powerful beams of gamma rays, the only electromagnetic waves that will do on this scale.***
Around you hundreds of bluish white spheres appear, each and every one the size of a football stadium. Helium atoms, chosen for their inability to react with other elements, have been pumped into the chamber by the millions, making sure you can take your pick of which to examine. You’ll have to act fast though since the ship only has power for a few short minutes, and so you engage the pulse-polarity engines to get your bearings. The onboard supercomputer quickly calculates the proximity of the surrounding atoms, pushing gently at them with the ship’s electromagnets, stabilizing the ship. Feeling more confident you start to manoeuvre closer to one of the gigantic blue spheres, and as you get closer you see that the sphere isn’t solid at all, but is made up of blue flashes of light popping in and out of existence almost too fast for your eyes to register, creating not so much the image of a blue marble, but rather that of a frantic cloud of blue energy. You are grateful that Helium only has two electrons shifting about its shell otherwise you wouldn’t be able to see them pulsing at all.**** As you manoeuvre the ship closer to one of the bright blue atoms it towers above you like an oversized blimp, and you can’t help thinking about the stellar origins of this amazing construction, cooked together in the core of a star not entirely unlike our own sun. And now you get a chance to peek inside and to see what is really going on in the things that all other things are made up of.

Calculating the forces of the electrons you gently push through the pulsating blue field. It’s a rocky ride and the ship shakes as it is being shoved by the electrons, but it seems to be holding. Good thing these mathematicians know what they are doing. As you emerge on the other side you find yourself in a vast blue pulsating sphere that at first sight appears to be empty. Then, in the very middle of the enormous sphere you see what appears to be a ball of bluish-green lightning. This must be the gluon field that contains the core of the helium atom! You move the ship closer and as you approach it becomes clear that the field contains no less than three collections of strange lights, constantly swirling about each other and changing places at a frantic pace. At first sight all three appear to be purplish in colour, but as you look closer you see that one of them is slightly more towards the red end of the spectrum than the others. A neutron! That must mean that the other two are the protons. You activate the image enhancing instruments to capture exactly what these lights are made up of and after a few moments of processing the screens show that each light consists of three points of energy, with the protons having two blue and one red and the neutron having two red and one blue point. These can only be the quarks, those elusive fundamental particles that have never before been observed on their own. Amazing!

“Warning! Thirty seconds to Atomic Decompression!”
Red lights flash on the screens of the vessel and you realize you must hurry to get clear before they start cleansing the chamber. Push the throttle all the way you let the Pulse Polarity engines pull you out through the shimmering blue field and away from the Hydrogen atom. As the ship locks on to the central coordinates and enters autopilot you lean back in wonder at the sights you have witnessed, unlike anything any human being has seen before; the wonders of the subatomic world.

* As far as we know, this is, in fact, impossible to do. Even in theory. While you can compress matter, you cannot actually shrink it.
** The Higgs particle or Higgs Boson is a subatomic particle theorized to be the carrier of the force of mass, and therefore gravity, in matter. These particles, it is theorized, permeate the entire universe and are responsible for the Higgs Field, the interaction of with results in what we think of as gravity. It has never been observed and it is not in any way certain that it even exists. One of the reasons for building the LHC is to find out if there really is such a thing. The reason for the Anti-Higgs procedure in the story is that something smaller than an atom and yet possessing the mass of a small submarine would have gone beyond its own Event Horizon and would therefore become a mini-black hole, imploding and burning out in seconds.
*** Gamma rays, having wavelengths down to 0.0000000000001 meters could, in theory, be reflected of objects as small as an atom’s nucleus. I have taken some liberties concerning colour though, seeing as visible colour has wavelengths far longer than an atom, not to mention subatomic particles. Gamma rays are also on the Very High Energy Content end of the electromagnetic spectrum so one would assume that the ship would have to be heavily shielded against radiation.
**** You wouldn’t be able to anyway. In reality the shifts would take place in less than a nanosecond, way way way too fast for the human eye to see. Again, I am taking liberties.

PS: There is of course much much more that can be said about the subatomic world, but consider this an attempt to visualize and make come to life some of the elements we often find difficult to come to terms with. The Quantum world is so strange as to defy imagination, and as Richard Feyman stated, it is hard, if not impossible to explain in terms of analogies because there really aren't any 'normal' world examples that measure up if you wish to maintain any level of accuracy. I have, however, given it a try. I'll let you be the judge as to whether I've succeeded or not. :)

No Judgement Day... Again.

Yeah... That should cover it. ^_^
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Random Quote # 4
An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field.
- Niels Bohr (1885-1962)

About Child Prodigies and Why a Diverse Education is Important

Quickly answer, what does Rembrandt, Bach, Newton, Beethoven, Kant, and Da Vinci have in common?
They were all geniuses in their own ways?
They changed the perceptions of the world in their particular fields?
They enriched the lives of their fellow men and women?
All true.
But more interestingly, they were also all quite unremarkable as children.

Imagine a child who from an early age show immense talent in a certain field, be it sports, math, languages or what not. What are the odds that this particular child will excel as an adult in exactly that field? Well, that really depends on a lot of different factors. Take Malcolm Gladwell for instance, who has some personal experience in the matter. As a teenager he was a champion runner, and on the quite common assumption that creating future world-class athletes meant recognizing and nurturing youthful talent he was given special training along with other talented youths of his age. At the age of 15 he was...okay. As in, not exceptional. Fairly good, but not exactly Olympian material, and under the circumstances, somewhat disappointing.
But surely, you say, this is anecdotal. This proves nothing. And if the story ended here, you would be right.

A mid 1980s study called ‘Genius Revisited’ took it upon itself to find out exactly what was going on with these child geniuses and what eventually became of them. The study focused on students attending Hunter College Elementary School, with a prestigious teaching program that only admits children with an IQ of 155 and above. The program was founded in the 1920s to train the country’s future intellectual elite and as the study shows, 30 years down the road these child geniuses were simply doing ok. As in, they were still reasonably intelligent adults, most of whom had good jobs and graduate degrees, but nothing really exceptional. No Nobel prices. No Pulitzers. No national fame and glory. But that’s not how it was supposed to work, was it?

Based on his experiences Malcolm decided to investigate this matter further and found that the same pattern emerged when he examined his own cohort of elite teen runners in Ontario. Of the 15 nationally ranked runners in his age class at age 13 or 14, only one of that group had been a top runner in his running prime, at age 24. Additionally there have been several studies looking at it from the opposite angle; taking adult geniuses and comparing them to their childhood accomplishments, one of which found that of 200 highly accomplished adults just 34 percent had been considered in any way precocious as children. Wow... This is completely backwards.

What about Einstein and Mozart then? I mean, we all know that they were exceptionally gifted as children, right? Well, as it turns out, Mozart was probably gifted, although his father does seem to have padded the score somewhat, and in the case of Einstein there is no doubt that he had an aptitude for math and physics even in his youth. But these are the exceptions, not the rule. The question is; where does that leave us?

As it turns out, there is one thing that all who are exceptional have in common: dedication. There have been done several studies on this topic (Ericsson, 2000, Bolger, F., and G. Wright, 1992, Chase, W. G., and H. A. Simon, 1973 and Chi, M. T. H., R. Glaser, and M. J. Farr, eds., 1988, just to mention a few) that show that in order to become a top contender in a particular field you need some 10.000 hours of study and practice. Mozart would have reached that magic figure well before his 20th birthday, which goes some way towards explaining his early success, and we have to keep in mind that Einstein worked on the Theory of Relativity for more than ten years before publication, not taking into account the amount of study he would have had to do to even get to the level of starting to write it. It really seems that the old proverb about success, that it is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, actually has some truth to it.

So where does dedication come from? Well, that is a difficult one to pin down. It might be some subject that captured your interest early on, it might be that one inspirational teacher you had in elementary school that got you hooked, or it may just be something that you like doing. There is really no hard and fast answer to any of this, and as Ben Goldacre would have put it, I think you’ll find that it’s a lot more complicated than that, which leads me to the second part of my title. I have at times been asked why schools don’t spearhead exceptional students (they do to a certain degree) and why they should have to spend time doing this or that (in the minds of some people) “irrelevant” subject when they should be putting their efforts into the subjects that “matter”. The thing is, as we have seen you really can’t tell from an early age in which area your child is going to excel. It comes down to a large amount of factors, many of which are near impossible to control, which means that in our ever changing society being able to pick up information, discern which information is relevant, and how to put that information to good use is more vital than ever before. And it also means that teaching our children how to think and learn rather than what to think and learn, is more important than it has ever been.

Random Comment #1
As I told a former pupil during a conversation today:

"Excellent! You are making great progress dear padawan!"