Friday, April 23, 2010

Cartesian Hopscotch

I enjoy thinking about ways to enlighten children about the joys of math and science. Sometimes I’ll extrapolate from memories of my own childhood to create new ideas. I’m happy to report that I came up with an idea for a cool new variation of the popular outdoor children’s game hopscotch - all the kids enjoyed hopscotch around my neighborhood when I was growing up. My idea is to morph hopscotch into a mathematical learning game. I envision something I call Cartesian Hopscotch . Unlike the ubiquitous double-cross squares of traditional hopscotch, the new version is based on Cartesian coordinates graphed for two (or possibly more) simple algebraic equations. (see SLB's new assistant Astrid from Austria hard at work making a Cartesian Hopscotch creation at a local children's playground).

The idea is for children to become acquainted with simple algebra and function graphing using Cartesian coordinates (X-Y plots). Math savvy parents can get them started. Let’s say we start with the following two simple equations:

  y = x^2 + 1
  x = 2

All you do is plot the two equations on a large X-Y graph carefully drawn on the ground and the resulting points become the new squares of the Cartesian Hopscotch court. Of course the process may require some trial and error in the beginning to come up with viable hopscotch configurations, but it will be a valuable learning experience for the child nevertheless. One good thing about Cartesian Hopscotch is that it offers the kids the opportunity to play on a new court whenever desired, just pick new equations.

For convenience, I envision a large permanently painted area with an empty X-Y graph on a concrete area in the backyard (maybe you can get your local school playground to do the same). Then the kids can use some large outdoor colored chalk to plot the equations. It’s also a fun family activity, parents included, to come up with interesting plots and twister-like hopping gyrations for the kids to enjoy. Imagine what your neighbors will say once the word gets out that your house has this exotic new game for all the kids to enjoy!

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Mt. Wilson Pilgrimage

This past weekend I treated myself to a science sojourn to pay a long overdue visit to the Mt. Wilson Observatory, the famed observatory here in Southern California that changed the face of astronomy early in the 20th century. This is the place with the Hooker 100-inch telescope that was, at the time, the largest aperture telescope in the world. It was there that Edwin Hubble discovered the universe was expanding. During my visit I saw some very old photos of Albert Einstein walking across the small bridge leading to the 100-inch and atop the solar tower. There was even a shot of Stephen Hawking from 1990. From a historical point of view, Mt. Wilson will always hold a very important place in the hearts of astronomers around the world.

Although I had never been up to Mt. Wilson, I decided to visit because of some exciting new science being done on the mountain with the CHARA array (Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy) run by Georgia State University. In the April 8, 2010 issue of Nature, the CHARA science team reported new observations of a very cool eclipsing binary star system called Epsilon Aurigae some 625 parsecs (around 1,900 light years) from Earth. The system has been well known since 1821, but astronomers have struggled for decades to figure out what was causing the eclipses. The new results indicate a low-mass (2.2-3.3 solar masses) F-type star, with an opaque disk that enshrouds a single B5V-type star as the eclipsing body –some pretty exotic stuff. The CHARA array is an “interferometer” consisting of six distinct 1-meter telescopes (see inset photo) arranged in a Y configuration on Mt. Wilson. The light from each telescope is then combined with a device called a MIRC to establish a baseline 331 meters which makes it the largest optical telescope in the world.

I showed up before the 1pm scheduled time for the free guided tour and enjoyed a leisurely lunch in the Pavilion overlooking the Inland Empire far below (Mt. Wilson is at an elevation of 5,715 ft). I was promptly assaulted by hoards of small annoying flies that I later found out were a signature characteristic of springtime on Mt. Wilson. By 1pm a group of eight astronomy enthusiasts had gathered to take in the sights. The 2 hour tours are conducted by volunteer docents. Our guide was Don Nicholson, a long time Mt. Wilson supporter and son of Seth Nicholson who spent years as a Mt. Wilson astronomer specializing in solar phenomena, and also discovered four moons of Jupiter (the same number discovered by Galileo).

The afternoon was a fact-filled adventure as we walked across the mountaintop – inside the solar telescope tower, the museum, then past the 60-inch telescope, in the CHARA array visitor center, and finally up in the viewing room for the 100-inch telescope. Along the way, tour guide Nicholson added many fascinating Mt. Wilson anecdotes and was able to ably answer each of the many questions posed to him by the members of the group. His knowledge of the facility was obviously very broad indeed.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Mt. Wilson and I learned a lot. I fully intend to visit again, but probably not until the road is repaired from La Canada (JPL) because the alternate route is way too long and winding, and much of the way was through a featureless burned out landscape courtesy of last year’s Station Fire. I definitely recommend a visit to Mt. Wilson as a day trip for the entire family.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Science Comedy – Hilarious!

There are many genres of comedy – political, sports, workplace; the list is long with what makes people laugh, but science comedy? I didn’t even know that genre existed until lately, but there is actually a guy who specializes in it (see inset Youtube sample). His name is Tim Lee, a scientist-turned-comedian, who has a Ph.D. in Biology and spent years developing simulation and analytics models of population dynamics. He calls himself the “PowerPoint Comedian” because his main prop is a computer displaying PowerPoint slides. Watching his act is like attending a science lecture with graphs and charts, the only difference is that his material is hilarious – especially to a Physics Groupie like me! Try it, you’ll like it.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Cool Science at the Huntington Library

I recently “rediscovered” a wonderful local venue for science here in So Cal – the Huntington Library in beautiful San Marino. The Huntington library is a very elegant location that includes a vast botanical garden, tea house, art gallery and some pretty amazing free evening lectures. I remember attending some lectures there in the past, and the other night I was reminded just how much I used to enjoy visiting the Huntington Library for an evening of science. The Huntington Library is only about a mile from the Caltech campus in Pasadena.

The lecture I attended was called “Tiny but Powerful” and was presented by Carnegie-Princeton Fellow Jenny Greene. The talk was an insightful overview of Dr. Greene’s research into locating the smallest supermassive black holes – on the order of 100,000 solar masses, puny by the standards of the black holes lurking in the center of galaxies. The lecture was very well attended, and afterward Greene was swamped with all sorts of questions by black hole enthusiasts including some very bright kids.

Next week’s lecture, on April 19, is going to be one of a kind. Famed astronomer, Vera Rubin (see inset photos) will be giving a talk on dark matter. In case you don’t know, Dr. Rubin first stated the Galactic Rotation Problem that questioned the discrepancy between predicted and observed galaxy rotation curves. Rubin’s work led to the theory of dark matter which arguably remains one of biggest mysteries of the universe. Vera Rubin, 82, is an icon in the field of astronomy and I am very much looking forward to this unique opportunity to hear her views on the cosmos.

I would recommend checking out the Huntington Library calendar of public events to find out about other intriguing science lectures.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Connectivity vs. Creativity

You’ve all seen it. You see it every day just walking down the street. In fact, it is very hard to avoid. I’m talking about people – usually younger people – talking on cell phones, or texting, or Twittering, or Facebooking, or fiddling with their iPods. Sometimes the perpetrator will be solo, walking, running, on the bus, yes evening driving. More and more I see these unabashed multitaskers in small groups like the three young men I saw the other day basking in each other’s company walking on a sidewalk while each was texting someone else. A pet peeve of mine is a couple obviously on a date where one (almost always the female) is rudely chatting or texting with someone else. Dudes wake up! Grow a pair and just stand up and walk out on all that.

I find it all very exhausting. And yes I know all about multitasking when warranted. By the way, for those of you technophiles out there, the term “multitasking” refers to a feature common in most computer operating systems (all except the new Apple iPad OS) to be able to process concurrent tasks. As a computer scientist, I can multitask with the best of ‘em. But enough is enough!

I don’t take exception to the rise in excessive connectedness for the negative social and interpersonal ramifications. On the contrary, I’m one of the most reclusive people I know. What I object to is the divergence in the level of creativity that results from over stimulation by an unparalleled abundance of devices that serve to distract you from just THINKING.

Try putting down that cell phone for just a minute and try to have an original thought. When it comes to mathematics and science, some quiet time provides an environment conducive for problem solving, and creativity. We might not have General Relativity if Einstein was constantly surfing the net while listening to an iPod and texting his co-workers at the patent office. There’s a place for everything, and modern devices are truly amazing, but can’t there be a limit to our dependence on them? Many people are significantly addicted to this constant stimulation. A 15-year old Bronx eighth grader who uses his smart phone to surf the web, watch videos, listen to music, and send or receive about 500 text a day says “I feel like my days would be boring without it.” Gasp! This is not good.

Social research studies have started to catch up with the rapid pace of electronic distractions and the trends are scary. Young people ages 8 to 18 spend more than 9 hours a day with such devices, compared with less than 6.5 hours five years ago. There’s also a correlation between screen time and obesity. In one study, the heaviest media users – those who consumed at least 16 hours a day – had mostly C’s or lower in school. It was these same people who reported that they were bored or sad, or that they got into trouble, and did not get along well with their parents and were not happy at school.

Parents really need to take a more assertive role in combating this effect, or our future Einstein’s may never materialize. The next time you’re out with the kids at a restaurant, and they are clicking away at something under the table, lay down the law and strike up a good science topic, please!

[Note: inset photo is the classic IBM “Think” slogan from the 60s that still has relevance today.]

Monday, April 5, 2010

My Telescope Shopping Trip

Today I treated myself to a long awaited excursion over to my local Scope City showroom in beautiful and arguably rural Simi Valley, Calif. I headed over in the morning in order to arrive just after the store opened at 10am. I was the only one there, but that was my plan. My goal was to see my new telescope-of-desire up close and personal – the new Meade ETX-LS LightSwitch (LS) telescope. Meade is the first amateur telescope company to offer this long awaited feature – just flip on the power switch and the telescope uses GPS technology to automatically align itself so you can just sit back and start observing. Alignment is a tiresome job, especially when you’re anxious to start observing.

Scope City is an amazing place if you’re an astronomy nut like me. I met a very nice and knowledgeable salesman named “Tyler” who stepped me through all of the advantages of LS technology, and compared the new Advanced Coma-Free (ACF) optics with the tried and proven Schmidt-Cassegrain option.

The new ETX-LS scopes come in two aperture sizes: 6 and 8-inch. I’m going for the larger size. They didn’t have an 8-inch version of the scope in the showroom, but I thoroughly examined the 6-inch model from top to bottom. I liked what I saw. I found out that the tripod is the same for both models, as well as the mount. The only thing that’s different between the models is the scope itself, and more importantly, the price – my scope will set me back around $2,000, really a bargain when you consider what you’re buying. Tyler said they had just sold their last 8-inch the previous weekend, so recession-be-damned, enthusiasts are still buying telescopes.

I plan to use a computer software controller with the scope – SkyTools 3 from Skyhound. Coupled with my excellent Canon DSLR camera, I’ll have a very nice rig for doing some cool astrophotography work – do I see an exoplanet in my future?

Friday, April 2, 2010

Stand and Deliver – RIP

I’ve always been fascinated by the story behind the 1988 movie “Stand Deliver” starring Edward James Olmos. The film is a true story based on the life of Jaime Escalante, a math teacher who transformed a tough East Los Angeles school by motivating struggling students to excel at advanced math and science. The school, Garfield High School, had more advanced placement calculus students than all but three other public high schools in the country.

Sadly, Escalante died Tuesday, March 30, 2010 in Reno, Nev. where he was undergoing treatment for bladder cancer. He was 79.

An immigrant from Bolivia, Escalante exposed an unfounded myth that inner city students can’t be expected to perform at the highest levels. At first he was discouraged by Garfield’s culture of low expectations, gang activity and administrative apathy. Gradually, he overhauled the school’s math curriculum, requiring all students to take algebra while enabling those who were previously considered unteachable to master math and pass the advanced placement calculus test. He believed in his students and built their confidence.

I’ve been meaning to watch the movie for years, and I finally bought a copy at Fry’s recently when I stopped in to buy a 2-terabyte external hard drive (can you imagine that much storage for only $139!). I know this movie will become one my favorites. I plan to watch it whenever I need to feel motivated.