Monthly Archives: April 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and the spirit of invention

I saw the Amazing Spiderman 2 over the weekend, and besides the great chemistry of the leads and thrilling soundtrack there was one thing I particularly liked and that was the home-grown science, which I thought was a great representation of engagement with science as a useful skill.

Peter Parker is a smart kid, there’s no doubt about that. He makes his costume and web-shooters in his basement, in secret, and it’s those as much as his spidey sense that make him a great crimefighter. When he goes up against a new supercharged villain named Electro he soon finds out that his web-shooters aren’t up to handling the massive electric charges: they fizzle and pop and become pretty useless – a problem when you really need to get anywhere in NYC faster than a speeding cab.

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So, what does he do? Goes home and pulls up a popular science video “Batteries, the Pluses and Minuses” by Dr Jallings, Science Investigator. Armed with this newfound knowledge, a scuba mask, and varying sizes of batteries he tries his best to adapt his shooters to handle larger and larger currents, with predictably explosive results. He doesn’t actually solve the problem until his sharp-minded girlfiend Gwen Stacy (who presumably stayed awake in that particular science lecture) reminds him that he needs to magnetise them, which they do with the help of a cop and some jumper cables, and from then on Electro doesn’t stand a chance.

So what do I love so much about this? It’s not the science itself – I’m no electrical engineer and wouldn’t have been able to solve the problem if my life depended on it. No, what I love is the fact that they have consistently taken time to show on-screen Peter’s curiosity and exploration and the benefits it brings him. What better hero to look up to than one who plays with things in his own basement, looking up science videos and flipping through books? Batman may have Morgan Freeman to provide him with whatever fancy tech he needs, but when it comes to superheroes give me a teenage geek every time.

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Quantum Worldview

I have always loved the kind of science fiction where you think about a world that is largely like our own, but in some fundamental way different. What if we all lived underwater, or if the force of gravity was lower, or if the sun were a weaker star? To me, that’s what the world of quantum physics is like: in a lot of ways it’s similar to our own world, in fact it’s the basis of our world! But it’s also crazy and strange. So what would it be like if we were quantum creatures, if we could actually see how everything around us is quantized?

Well first, there’s what it means to be quantum. A quantum of anything is a piece that can’t be subdivided any further, the smallest possible unit. But this implies a sort of graininess, where rather than a continuous stream of, say, light, we start to see at the small scale that light is actually composed of little chunks, quanta of light. Imagine being able to see how everything around you is made of discrete pieces, from light to sound to matter. When the sun came up, you’d see it getting lighter in jumps. When you turn up your music, you’d hear each step of higher volume. And as your hair grew, you’d see it lengthening in little blips.

And at the quantum scale, the wave nature of everything becomes indisputably clear. We normally think of waves as something that emerges from a lot of individual objects acting together, like the water molecules in the sea, or people in a crowd. But if you look at quanta, you actually find that those indivisible packets of light or sound or matter are also waves, waves in different fields of reality. That’s hard to get your head around, but think of it this way: as a quantum wave, if you passed right by a corner, you could actually bend around the back of it a little the way that ripples going around a rock in water do. Things like electrons and photons of light actually do this, so for example the pattern below is made by light going through a circular hole, and the wave diffraction is clearly visible.

Amazingly, as a wave, you could actually have a slight overlap with the person next to you. This gets at something that’s key to quantumness: the probabilistic nature of it. Say I thought you were nearby, and I wanted to measure your position somehow to see how close you were to me. I’d need to get a quantum of something else to interact with you, but because it would be a similar size to you, it would slightly change your position, or your speed. We don’t notice the recoil when sound waves bounce off us in the macroscale world, but if we were very small we would! So there is actually a built in uncertainty when dealing with quantum objects, but we can say there’s a probability that they are in one place or another. So as a quantum creature, you can think of yourself as a little wave of probability, that collapses to a point when measured but then expands out again after. When I’m not measuring you, where are you really? Well I can’t say physically, and this is why you can have a little wave overlap with your neighbour without violating the principle that you can’t both be in the same place at the same time.

And imagine that you’re next to a wall. As a wave you may have a little overlap of probability with that wall. And if the wall is thin enough, as a quantum object there is actually some chance that you’ll pass through the wall entirely! This is called quantum tunnelling, and actually it’s happening all the time in the electronics inside your phone. Modern microelectronics work in part because we can use effects from the quantum world in our own, larger world!

It’s difficult to imagine a world where everything happens in discrete chunks, where I can see myself as a wave, where I don’t know where I am until someone else interacts with me. But this is the world at the quantum scale, and it’s not science fiction!

A Rough Guide to Spotting Bad Science

Over at Compound Interest they’ve put together a handy Rough Guide to critically reading science reporting.

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Might have to invest in a poster for the wall of my office!

Top Ten Popular Science Books

I recently got a request to recommend some popular science books that don’t assume any scientific knowledge on the part of the reader. I was surprised at how hard it was to think of books, because to be honest, most pop science books do seem to assume that you have some fluency in science ideas or jargon, if at a lesser level than a scientist would. I’ve read some very popular books about biological topics that I found dry or hard to get through, because even though I’m a scientist I don’t know very much biology. But I came up with the following ten books, which explore different aspects of science in strongly accessible ways:

These books will give a nice overview of some of the great stuff that’s out there in popular science reading. (Note: the links above are affiliate links, just something we’re trying out!) Of course, I’m always interested in other people’s recommendations too, so have at it in comments if you like!

A chocolate conundrum

The British Science Association (BSA) has posted two ‘spring experiments’ for young people to try at home or in school on their website. One, involving eggs, has a small explanation about why the observed results are occurring but the other, about measuring the speed of light using chocolate, has no explanation and several seemingly random maths figures included on the sidebar.

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I originally clicked on the link because I was interested in seeing how they would explain the relationship between microwaves, light, and the way it can be measured using household materials. (Also I remembered Jessamyn’s excellent post on the polymorphism of chocolate and had a craving for more!) The experiment guide walks you through the steps for producing the right measurement with the necessary safety precautions but nowhere in the guide does it actually tell you what is happening! This raises far more questions than it answers, including:

  • What does the melting have to do with light?
  • What are microwaves and why are we using one to explore light?
  • What if I don’t get the ‘expected’ results?

Certainly there are more ways to learn than just instructively – indeed, for many people it’s  doing that nurtures true understanding. In order to truly grasp the workings of what you’re doing, however, it is important to provide the necessary background knowledge so that your results can be interpreted correctly. Merely plugging some measurements into an equation does nothing to lead people towards understanding and does everything to enforce the idea of science as a dry, incomprehensible topic – even with chocolate.

While creative exploration of science topics is to be commended, we need to make sure we always ground our exploration in good information and good procedure. I would be keen to see the BSA publish additional guidance for the experiment to tie in the relevant material so that young scientists can develop their knowledge as well as their chocolate melting skills.

Now if you excuse me, I’m off to fulfil a craving…