Author Archives: Jessamyn Fairfield

You Are Here

It’s one of the biggest questions there is: how the universe came to be here, and how we came to be here in it. A beautiful radio documentary, You Are Here, answers these questions on a short walk through Dublin, talking to astrophysicists, geologists, and geneticists to tell us how we came to be where we are. The story is mesmerizing and very well told, and best of all you can listen online:

Color and the Size of Light

What is color, and what does it mean for an object to have a specific color? Well, color comes from the fact that light can have different sizes, the way objects reflect that light, and the way our eyes can see it.

Light is made up of these tiny packets of energy, photons, which travel as waves that can move through air or space. And there’s a distance between the peaks of the waves, the same way there would be for waves in water, which is the size of the light. Light can have a whole range of different sizes, so the microwaves that you use to cook food or the radio waves that carry sound through the air are both different sizes of light. But there’s a special range of light, the visible range, which contains the sizes of light that our eyes can detect.

wavelength_size

So in the visible range, we have shorter lengths of light, which our eyes see as more blue, and longer lengths of light, which our eyes see as more red. In between, you have the full rainbow, which has all the colors we can see. The sun shines light on us with the whole range of sizes, but different objects will reflect different sizes or colors back at us. So an orange is absorbing most visible light but reflecting orange light, and then our eye detects that light and our brain tells us it’s orange.

But we need special cells in our eyes to detect color. Most people have three kinds of color-detecting cells, called cones, that pick up blue, green, or yellow light. From these three colors, our brain puts together the rest of the rainbow, like an artist does when mixing paint. People who have fewer or more kinds of cones will perceive color differently, maybe being color-blind or seeing even more colors than average, even though the light itself is the same!

If you want to know more, we have some nice posts in the archives about visible light and why the sky is blue.

Bright Club Dublin

Awhile back I was over in London, to give a talk at the Institute of Physics and to give a monologue about science for a Project2 improv show. At both places I found myself chatting to audience members afterward about my passion for comedy as well as physics, and in both places people said, ‘So you know about Bright Club, right?’

I had never heard of it before, but as soon as I learned about the format—academic researchers give stand-up comedy style sets about their work, alongside comedians and musicians—I knew I wanted to bring it to Dublin. It sounded like a really fun type of variety night to put on, entertaining and thought-provoking and dipping in to all sorts of interesting ideas. Plus for the academics, I loved the idea of public engagement that uses humour, and they receive training to develop a set with real jokes that may be massively different from anything they’ve done before. To paraphrase Richard Feynman, everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough, but everything is funny if you look at it the right way. So I wrote to Steve Cross, who came up with the idea and ran it in London, and he kindly gave his advice and his blessing for me to start a Bright Club in Dublin.

Before the first event, I will admit that I had some difficulty getting people to agree to do Bright Club. Academics would say, “wait, I have to be funny?” Comedians would say, “wait, is the audience going to be all academics?” We sat down to do the speaker training, and an alarming fraction of the room gave their reason for being there as “Jessamyn twisted my arm!” And I had a nagging fear that I was designing the perfect variety night for me, but maybe other people would want something different… I wanted people from across physical science, social science, and humanities, but maybe an audience would prefer strictly science or strictly art, so was anyone else actually going to turn up? Fortunately they did, the first event was a splendid success, and it got a lot easier to fill lineups for Bright Club once I could point to past shows, and past speakers who’d had a great time. While I could still reach out to my networks in academia and comedy, people were now coming to me to ask to be in Bright Club!

Photo courtesy Sandra Duffy.

I was also fortunate that the outreach office of the institute I work in, AMBER, agreed to help fund the early events. They took a chance on a crazy idea I brought to them, and it helped the thing get off the ground. Soon conferences like Sci:Com and the Society for Applied Microbiology were asking for Bright Clubs with their events. And now, I am delighted to have Science Foundation Ireland onboard as a sponsor alongside AMBER, which has enabled me to broaden the team of people involved in making Bright Club great.

Humour is a great way to engage with complex subjects—how many people watch The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight or Weekly Wipe instead of straight news shows? But the bottom line is, Bright Club is fun to be at and a joy to MC and run. If you’re in Dublin, you can swing by our next show on January 29th! And if you’re somewhere else, we’ll be putting videos online soon, or you can always follow us on facebook and twitter.

Ignite: Entropy

How would you explain a scientific concept in five minutes? Would it help to have slides? What if the slides automatically advance?

This is the concept behind Ignite talks, which are held at volunteer-organized events around the world. Explaining any concept clearly and simply is a challenge, but the strict timing of Ignite talks is especially tricky! I was fortunate enough to be asked to give one last year for the Science Gallery, and since they’ve now put video online I thought I would share it with you all here:

I spoke about entropy, which is an old favorite topic on this blog. And the Science Gallery has quite a few other Ignite talks online for you to peruse. But I think we’d all do well to try to follow the Ignite motto: “Enlighten us, but make it quick!”

Innovative Technologies

I work in nanoscience, and a lot of new materials and devices are developed where people ask, what is going to be the application of this? Can this displace an established technology (like silicon computer chips) or create a new market? And I was recently reminded of a great quote in response:

The principal applications of any sufficiently new and innovative technology always have been—and will continue to be—applications created by that technology.

That was said by Herbert Kroemer in his Nobel lecture, and it bears thinking about in many contexts both within science and in the broader world. When you’re doing something new, it may not fit neatly into the established hierarchies of technology, science, or industry. That can be good, and in fact it can be groundbreaking, like a present you didn’t know you wanted! Of course, it’s still important to think about how your work fits into the broader picture as it already is, but I think it’s always good to get a reminder to check your premises, that innovation can create its own new niches.

Sweat The Small Stuff

Let’s talk about science! Literally, here I am talking about science, the quantum world, scientists, and answering audience questions from a kindly bunch at Pint of Science this May in Dublin. There is also a bit of a surprise in the middle.

Flatland and Extra Dimensions

What would life be like if you lived in two dimensions instead of three?

Back when I posted about popular science books for non-scientists, one of the suggestions I got after the fact was Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, the 19th century classic by Edwin A. Abbott. Which is absolutely worth reading, and a great example of what I love in science writing (or science fiction): an idea that makes you change your whole perspective on the world and reimagine it from a different point of view.

The idea behind Flatland is this: what would it be like if the world we inhabited were flat instead of 3D? You can imagine it as living within a piece of paper, or on the surface of a table. The notion of up and down would be meaningless; we’d only have left and right, and front and back. So we’d be moving in two dimensions rather than three, and we’d also perceive everything around us to have only two dimensions. There wouldn’t be any going over a fence, or peeking under a door. If a thing blocked your way, it would block it completely, and everything behind it would be completely invisible. Of course, you wouldn’t be able to pass through things in Flatland, the same way you can’t in the real world. So if a person stopped directly in front of you, you’d have to pass to either side, or not at all.

There’s a lot of social commentary in Flatland as well, satire aimed at Victorian England that comments on gender divisions, class hierarchies, and dogmatism against new ideas. It’s worth a full read for that, though its examination of spatial dimensions is what’s kept it famous.

Life in Flatland may seem like an academic abstraction. But actually, while our world is three-dimensional, there are some things in it which effectively have only two dimensions, especially in the world of nanoscience. The touted wonder material graphene is effectively two-dimensional, because in the third dimension it’s only one atom thick. That means that electrons moving through graphene are effectively in a two-dimensional environment, a Flatland, and can’t use the third dimension to go around each other. More two-dimensional materials are being discovered every day, and taking one dimension of a material to the nanoscale while leaving the others large changes the physical laws in that material significantly!

And what if there were more dimensions to the world? What if instead of three dimensions to space, there were a fourth, or a fifth? In that case, life here in three dimensions would seem like Flatland, without the fourth dimension to move through. Some physicists studying string theory think there may in fact be additional spatial dimensions, but that they must be curled up within the three we know in order to be undetectable.

So the idea of Flatland, a world where there are only two dimensions instead of the usual three, isn’t just a science fiction classic, it’s also a valuable thought experiment that ties into both nanoscience and string theory!