The Year in Cool

I apologize – you’ve been misled. The title of this post is not The Year in Cool; it’s actually (in the spirit of Christmas) The Twelve Days of Physics.

But if I’d said that up front, one or two of you wouldn’t have even stopped by. So, a little subterfuge for the greater good? When the good is this great – heck, yeah.

Here are 12 of the coolest things that captured my attention this year and I promise – you won’t break a sweat or a nail, reading about them. (Click the embedded links for more information on each topic.)

Learn something new! Impress your friends! Get ready to have your world rocked, baby.

1. NANO GUITAR

This guitar was created (way back) in 1997, but I just read about it this year. So I hope you’re not relying on me for all your breaking science news. Anyway, apparently, while I’ve been busy baking cookies and checking my email, scientists have been busy making things out of atoms. As in, manipulating atoms and crafting things out of them, like an atomic abacus or, I don’t know, a six-string guitar that is the size of a red blood cell.

Wanna see how small that is? Check out this killer link, which shows lots of tiny items in proportion to even tinier items. (Please note: even the original view has been magnified.) You can’t see the red blood cell from here. You have to zoom way, way in (using the slider right underneath the graphics) to get to the red blood cell.

That’s the size of this guitar they’ve made. And yes, it can be played. But no, not by your fat fingers. Continue reading

Off With Her Head

This post has absolutely nothing to do with pilgrims or turkey or Indian corn or any other traditional Thanksgiving topics. In fact, this is probably a completely inappropriate subject for this time of year. I do apologize.

It all started right before Halloween, when a friend asked a question on Facebook: “What’s the first scary movie you ever saw?”

I automatically replied. “Some movie I saw in church when I was ten years old. ‘A Thief in the Night’ or something.” And then I thought for a minute. And then BAM! Just like that, my internal Rubik’s Cube clicked into place.

I finally realized the origins of my worst phobia, one that has plagued me for as far back as I can remember. Or, as it happens, since the age of ten. Continue reading

The Mountain

On the third Saturday of May, in 1980. a thirty-year-old scientist named David Johnston headed up the gorgeous Toutle River Valley in Washington State, one of the prettiest places on God’s green earth. Johnston, who worked for the United States Geological Survey, had agreed to fill in that weekend for a colleague, manning an observation camp on Coldwater Ridge in the Cascade Mountains.

Although Johnston had earned his PhD just two years previously, his short career had already taken him around the country, and he was already considered an expert in his field. For the last two months, he’d been based in the Pacific Northwest, monitoring a troubling series of earthquakes and phreatic activity. He and his co-workers had been so alarmed by what they’d seen, in fact, they’d successfully lobbied to close the large, tourist-heavy Toutle River area to the public (a move that did not sit well with local authorities.)

After “making the rounds” that day, Johnston settled into his “home” for the next 24 hours – a small, well-worn camper parked on top of a mess of rocks, surrounded by piles of broken tree branches. Not a luxurious setting by any means…unless you factored in the location.

Spread out at Johnston’s feet was the kind of view that eats million-dollar views for breakfast. As far as the eye could see (and that happened to be mile after mile, from here), there was not a single man-made object.  Below his feet, the ground dropped away into a wide valley that was ringed by towering, snow-capped peaks. Everything sparkled in the sun like jewels: the silvery river threading its way down the center of the valley; the deep emerald-colored evergreens blanketing every square inch of flowing mountainside; the nearly sapphire-blue sky.

Although Coldwater Ridge was at an elevation of more than 3000 feet, and it was only the middle of May, the day was postcard-pretty – so warm that Johnston was dressed in his shirtsleeves and a pair of jeans. Continue reading

Needing Truth – ATCL

It is no secret, to my faithful readers, that I love learning, and information. Perhaps a little more than is strictly appropriate.

Actually, “love” might not quite be a strong enough word.

Nevertheless, there are many times, especially when the bad news of the world gets me down, when I crave something much deeper than information. I want Truth – that elusive thing that is at once delicate and as strong as steel.

This post was originally published on All The Church Ladies, a website which has closed. I am in the process of moving all my ATCL posts back over here.

Objects in the Mirror…

It goes far beyond the familiar warning about objects in our rearview mirrors, by now. I hate to tell you this, but all sorts of objects, everywhere, might not be anything like they appear.

I’ve been reading a book that my friend Ron recommended, called The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, by Leonard Mlodinow. By a few pages in, I loved it so much, I wanted to weep. Give me a book about geeky-fascinating, blow-your-mind science stuff, and I’m a goner.

The book is about (and do NOT run away here – I’m getting ready to tell you some funky-cool things) probability theory, chance, and how psychological illusions cause us to misjudge the world around us – not because we are stupid or gullible, but because these illusions are so powerful.

I think of it this way: our complex psychological and emotional makeup constantly interferes with our ability to analyze data and use pure reasoning. But also, we exist in both a microscopic world and a macro universe, the scopes of which are virtually impossible for most of us to grasp.

Our elegant brains are simply hard-wired to misinterpret data. Here are a few examples.

Our perceptions of probability and cause & effect are skewed.

We tend to think, in our own lives and in the world at large, that an event is either more or less likely to occur because it has (or has not) happened recently. (We think: “Her luck has run out…” “He is due…”) This is the same reasoning behind the hiring and firing of CEO’s or studio heads, when they’ve had a run of several good or bad years/movies.

We – and executive boards, and recruiting agents, and on and on – reason that results are based on performance…isn’t this what we’ve been taught, all our lives? But, as has been mathematically proven (and the book goes into great detail on this), much of what happens in the world is the result of randomness – the result of what is called “Bernoulli’s theorem” (after a 17th-century mathematician) or “the law of large numbers.”

Of course, Kobe Bryant’s talent allows him to perform much better in the NBA than, say, my neighbor Sandra would. But Kobe’s individual performance from game to game, or season to season, or throughout his career, is due almost exclusively to chance, and not to fluctuations in his abilities. This might sound like hooey, but it’s a scientific fact.

Success, as it turns out, really is most often a matter of repetition. Bad news for the exceptionally talented of this world. Fantastic news for the exceptionally dogged.

Our perceptions of relevance, and our interpretation of statistics, are skewed.

During the O.J. Simpson murder trial, it was an accepted fact that Nicole Brown had been previously battered by O.J. So one of the arguments that the defense team pulled out was this: Of the 4 million women who are domestically battered each year, only about 1 in 2,500 are killed by their partners.

This was a true fact. It was a very convincing argument, to the jury. And on an intuitive level, it appeared to be completely and totally relevant to the O.J. case.

But it wasn’t.

Why not? Well, the previous statistic dealt with women who are NOT killed – and Nicole most definitely had been killed. The relevant statistic (and one the prosecution failed to bring up) was this: of all the battered women in the U.S. who are killed (and Nicole was part of this category), 90 percent of them are killed by their abuser.

The first (irrelevant) statistic created such a powerful illusion, it helped convince the jury to acquit a double-murder defendant.

Our perception of logic is skewed.

Here’s a fun example of the way our brains resist reality, from The Drunkard’s Walk.

Let’s say you know that someone has twins, and you wish to determine the likelihood that both children are girls. If you don’t know the gender of either child, then the chance that they are both girls is 1 in 4. Sounds logical, right?

Moving along, let’s say you find out that at least one of the children is a girl. Now the chance of them both being girls increases to 1 in 3. (Still sounds right.)

However, if you are told that one of the children is a girl named Florida (!), then the chances of them both being girls increases to 1 in 2.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, back that train up.

How can this be? How can one girl’s strange-sounding name affect the odds on the gender of the other child?

And yet, as Mlodinow painstakingly proves over a few pages, this outlandish statement is an absolute fact. In this example (and in so many others, throughout the book), my own instincts for mathematical reasoning completely failed me.

Moving away from The Drunkard’s Walk

Our perceptions of space and time are skewed.

As we’ve all heard, we (and everything else in the universe) are not moving in a linear way through space and time, from point A to point B; instead we are moving through four dimensional space-time, a concept that even Stephen Hawking calls “impossible to visualize.”

When we look at the sun, we are seeing it in the past, as it existed eight minutes ago – but since everything we perceive comes to us via signals (which require time to travel), even as you read these words, you are looking at your computer screen as it existed in the past (infinitesimally so, of course.)

We’re not just “lost in space,” peeps – we’re lost in time.

Our perception of reality might even be skewed!

The more you start thinking about all these problems with perception, the more widespread you realize they are. Indeed, this recent article from Discover Magazine suggests that our entire universe might be – are you ready for this? – a giant hologram.

This theory will never be proved in our lifetime, of course, but it certainly dovetails nicely with the Christian belief that this world is but a pale twin of another dimension, the “real” reality that is our eternal destination.

(And may I humbly submit: if you are someone who rejects the concept of God and/or Christian beliefs because they seem too far-fetched, too “hocus-pocus” for practical people, then you haven’t been paying attention to the world of science in the last decade. From space exploration to theoretical physics and everything in between, the physical laws of this universe are far wackier than anyone ever imagined. You can still have personal objections to Faith, if you like – but you really can no longer reject it on intellectual grounds.)

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I’ve barely scratched the surface here – but it sure would be nice if this information made us think twice, the next time we want to dig in our heels about our points of view on something. Because chances are very good that our perception is flawed – that there are factors we haven’t considered, or aren’t even aware of.

If mankind understood this concept, it would deliver a death sentence to arrogance of every sort – intellectual, spiritual, societal.

And that would be a very, very good thing.

Into the (Not So) Deep

Hollywood has a long and fruitful history of making disaster movies that feature large quantities of humans being wiped out by “off-planet” forces: asteroids, solar flares, aliens, and so forth. From Armageddon to Deep Impact to War of the Worlds to Independence Day, we eat this stuff up like candy.

So how many people in history have been killed by space matter or aliens?

None. (Well, there was a dog that was allegedly killed by a meteorite in Egypt in 1911. But the single eyewitness account was pretty sketchy, so the story is considered to be the Egyptian version of crop circles, or Bigfoot.)

How about people being killed by events originating from this volatile, molten planet we live on? Well, last year alone, the figure was over 250,000.

You’d think we would have examined this place a little more closely. Continue reading