Thursday, November 18, 2010

It'll make you laugh; it'll make you cry. It's...Science!!!

It's okay to be entertained by science. Really, it is. And when it comes to physics especially, science can be very entertaining. Just think about the Discovery Channel and the Science Channel. Think National Geographic , Popular Science, How It Works and Discover Magazine. All are about science. All are entertaining.



A friend once told me that she never watches the Discovery Channel because she feels some sort of obligation to pay attention and retain the information being presented. I can see where she's coming from; science can be intimidating. But my message is simple: It's okay to watch scientific programming simply to be entertained. Just enjoy. I bet, without even knowing it, you'll learn something new without even trying.

Entertaining science is all around and accessible in forms to suit you, your mom and dad, and even your grandma. Take A Short History of Nearly Everything, a book by Bill Bryson. Here's an excerpt from the beginning of his book. Tell me it doesn't suck you in:
No matter how hard you try you will never be able to grasp just how tiny, how spatially unassuming, is a proton. It is just way too small.

A proton is an infinitesimal part of an atom, which is itself of course an insubstantial thing. Protons are so small that a little dib of ink like the dot on this i can hold something in the region of 500,000,000,000 of them, rather more than the number of seconds contained in half a million years. So protons are exceedingly microscopic, to say the very least.

Now imagine if you can (and of course you can’t) shrinking one of those protons down to a billionth of its normal size into a space so small that it would make a proton look enormous. Now pack into that into tiny, tiny space about an ounce of matter. Excellent. You are ready to start a universe.
Here, Bryson is tackling a tricky subject: The Big Bang. His writing is enthralling. It's insulting. And it's deliciously digestible. How about that for a trick? He's entertaining us while serving up a big slice of science. And we don't even care. We're just having fun.

Here's a selection from another older piece from The New Yorker magazine called 'The Mountains of Pi'. It's about two brothers hunting for the last digit of Pi using their home-built supercomputer:
Gregory Volfovich Chudnovsky recently built a supercomputer in his apartment from mail-order parts. Gregory Chudnovsky is a number theorist. His apartment is situated near the top floor of a run-down building on the West Side of Manhattan, in a neighborhood near Columbia University. Not long ago, a human corpse was found dumped at the end of the block. The world’s most powerful supercomputers include the Cray Y-MP C90, the Thinking Machines CM-5, the Hitachi S-820/80, the nCube, the Fujitsu parallel machine, the Kendall Square Research parallel machine, the SX-3, the Touchstone Delta, and Gregory Chudnovsky’s apartment.
I'll warn you, it's a long article, but when I first read it, I couldn't put it down.

If you're not so into the written word, there's always the array of scientific television programming. For example, video from the Discovery Channel show MythBusters - the show that helped to make geek the new chic:




Here's a clip about a physics conundrum that happened in real life during NASA's Apollo 13 moon mission. It's from the incredibly accurate and detailed film Apollo 13 directed by Ron Howard which gained a 97% 'Certified Fresh' rating from Rotten Tomatoes - no mean feat.



And of course, there's the classic YouTube video gone viral (with over 12 million views now):



So there you have it. Try a new TV show. Pick up a new book. Surf the YouTube Science & Technology section. Read a magazine. And enjoy.

2 comments:

  1. It's also, unfortunately, wrong. I enjoyed the book very much, so don't take this as a criticism of the whole thing, but...

    half a million years = 183,000 days
    183,000 days = 4,380,000,000 hours
    4,380,000,000 hours = 263,000,000,000 minutes
    263,000,000,000 minutes = 15,800,000,000,000 seconds

    500,000,000,000 is not "rather more" than the number of seconds in half a million years. 500,000,000,000 is more than 30 times less than the number seconds in half a million years.

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  2. Hmmm. Thanks for doing the math. I guess copy editors don't check orders of magnitude along with correcting "teh" and making sure you use the right their/there/they're.

    (You have the wrong number of days listed above, BTW. It should be 183,000,000 days in .5 Megayear, but the numbers are correct after that.)

    Best,

    Buzz

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