Monday June 17, 2013
Over the last couple of years, I've gotten rid of cable and watch most of my television online. In addition to traditional television through streaming sites like Amazon Instant Video and Hulu, I watch a lot of my programming - especially non-fiction and science - through YouTube.
Most of the science programming on YouTube - or at least the science programming that I come across - is focused on the nuts and bolts of a scientific demonstration or explaining a specific scientific idea. As the parent of a science fair-age child (not the one shown in the picture, but you get the idea), I deeply appreciate the accessibility of these sorts of videos. You can really find a wide range of science programming. For example, there's a video with author James Kakalios discussing the science behind how Thor's hammer Mjolnir works, as I discussed in a recent blog post ... but then there's also this guy, who used a Tesla coil to create a replica of Mjolnir that actually generates electrical energy!
Still, though, I feel like there's a real lack of higher-level science programming which focuses on explaining the context of scientific developments. Now I'm aiming to fix that. Here's the low-down:
Felicia Day's popular Geek & Sundry channel has become one of my favorite sources for great YouTube programming. But while I enjoy Wil Wheaton's Tabletop series on board games, and some great storytelling shows like The Story Board and Written by a Kid, I've been extremely surprised that the channel lacks any science shows. I mean, really, how can you have a geek channel that doesn't have a science show?
Then the Geek & Sundry folks created a new vlog channel and put out a call for new shows. I'm really hoping that they pick at least one show with a science theme. So, with that in mind, I went ahead and created a show of my own, with the hope of gaining a spot on their line-up. And if that doesn't work out, then I'm going to continue with the series as best I can, doing new segments on my own ... often probably linked in with new material we have on the site.
The first episode is just basically an "audition" video, focusing mostly on introducing myself and talking about why I like science in very broad terms. Big plug for evidence-based testing, a slight dig at Aristotle, and a somewhat gratuitous quote from Richard Feynman. (Speaking of Feynman ... if you're interested in him, I highly recommend this great documentary Richard Feynman - No Ordinary Genius which is available on YouTube.)
The goal of the vlog will be, as I indicated, to focus on the conceptual aspects of physics, because the nuts-and-bolts of "how things work" seems to be well covered in existing videos on YouTube. We won't be blowing stuff up, but instead talking about how awesome it is when scientists blow things up. My ultimate goal will be to bring on scientists whose work is worthy of discussion and more in-depth analysis, and possibly even branching outside the realm of physics a bit into other disciplines of science. It should be exciting to see where this new venture ultimately leads!
And of course there is always the About.com YouTube channel, which features not only science videos but instructional videos from across all of the About.com subject areas. As of this writing, the most recent posts appear to be a series about basketball techniques, for example.
What's your favorite science show or channel on YouTube? What subjects would you most like to see covered in upcoming episodes of a science show?
Image Source: Brand X Pictures
Monday June 10, 2013
Sometimes, even the fantastic world of comic books takes heed of real-world scientific discoveries.
When the Thor film came out a couple of years ago, I posted about how impressed I was by their attempt to make this fantasy story about Norse gods into something that was at least somewhat tractable within our modern scientific worldview. The trailer for the upcoming sequel, Thor: The Dark World, seems to hint at the idea that they'll continue with this trend, as it addresses the question of what existed before our universe. (The answer, it seems, is darkness ... and evil, ugly elves.)
In Indestructible Hulk #8, there's a discussion of the physics related to Thor's hammer, Mjolnir. On an episode of Virtually Speaking Science, James Kakalios (author of The Physics of Superheroes) explained his theory about why Thor could pick up Mjolnir, as has Captain America (who is, apparently, worthy), but neither Juggernaut nor Hulk have ever been able to move it. This has long been a point of debate among comic book fans, and even made its way into an episode of The Big Bang Theory last season. The explanation presented by Kakalios, as laid out in Indestructible Hulk #8 is:
Physicist James Kakalios advanced my favorite science-based theory. That uru metal, forged uniquely by the dwarf Eitri, can emit graviton particles--
--most likely in response to an external stimulus provided by something within the hammer akin to our nanotechnology.
Controlling gravitons, of course, is equivalent to being able to change an object's mass.
If a person whom the dwarven 'nanotech' has determined to be 'unworthy' attempts to lift the hammer--
-- the uru metal will increase the rate of graviton emission to where it can't be budged. That's one theory.
This is in contrast to my earlier proposal that this had something to do with the hammer being forged from the substance from a neutron star.
Wednesday May 29, 2013
Last month, I posted about the release of Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe by Lee Smolin. While I found the book extremely enjoyable, I also felt that Smolin was far from making an airtight case about his central thesis: that physics needs to transform into treating time as "real" in order to resolve the "crisis" in which physical cosmology finds itself. The book concludes without it being clear that there really is a crisis, let alone that Smolin's course would resolve the crisis if it did exist.
Now some real physicists have weighed in on the issue, with far deeper insights than I personally can offer:
These reviews and commentaries all have some really good points. I especially liked the following bit from the Sean Carroll commentary:
Smolin seems quite content to draw sweeping conclusions from essentially philosophical arguments, which is not how science traditionally works. There are no necessary hypotheses; there are only those that work, and those that fail.[...] Use philosophical considerations all you want to inspire you to come up with new and better ideas; but it's reality that ultimately judges them.
This was my biggest issue with the arguments put forth in Time Reborn. I minored in philosophy in college, so fully respect the role philosophy plays in the sciences. That role is primarily in making sure that science is asking the right questions, as Carroll indicates. However, Smolin often goes beyond that, suggesting that well-documented conclusions about the nature of time should be revised, seemingly based upon philosophical principles that he'd like to keep intact, rather than a direct failure of the time understanding.
How, then, can I have such a favorable opinion of the book? The Back Reaction book review sums it up nicely:
Oddly enough however, I enjoyed reading the book. Not despite, but because I had something to complain about on every page. It made me question my opinions, and though I came out holding on to them, I learned quite something on the way.
I do really hope, however, that the ideas in Smolin's book are explored more deeply by a wider group of physicists, including the precise formulation of any falsifiable hypotheses that could come out of Smolin's predictions about the time-evolving nature of scientific laws. As someone who has a healthy respect for the underdog rebel, I find myself hoping that Smolin's fascinating speculations actually achieve their goal of transforming our understanding of physics. Unfortunately, he's been beating drums of this sort for quite a few years without much traction, and I don't anticipate that it will change radically with this book.
Sunday May 26, 2013
In the recent film Star Trek Into Darkness, the crew of the Enterprise uses a warp engine to move faster than the speed of light. This would normally not be allowed by the laws of physics, specifically Einstein's theory of relativity. However, as I've discussed before in our article "Can Anything Move Faster Than the Speed of Light?", the limitations from the theory of relativity make it impossible to accelerate past the speed of light limit, but there do exist some intriguing workarounds (in theory, at least).
One possibility is the Alcubierre drive, which was conceptualized in 1994 as an attempt to create a realistic model for creation of a warp drive. There are now suggestions that NASA may be moving forward to create just such an engine. Dr. Harold White, the NASA physicist who explored Alcubierre's over the last couple of years has come to believe that it was feasible, says that any results that show proof of concept will help push more research in this area. He uses an example he calls the "Chicago Pile" from the middle of the last century:
"In late 1942, humanity activated the first nuclear reactor in Chicago generating a whopping half Watt -- not enough to power a light bulb," he said. "However, just under one year later, we activated a ~4MW reactor which is enough to power a small town. Existence proof is important."
Overall, this does fall in the "I'll believe it when I see it" category ... but I'll confess, this is one radical (and likely over-hyped) scientific announcement that I'd love to be proven wrong on!