The Grape and the Football Field
The other night we were feeling sleepy and it was too late to drive to the Dr. Seuss movie. Pamelia and I chose the obvious entertainment alternative: a Great Courses DVD series on particle physics.
O.K., we didn’t make it through all 24 lectures. But over time we will. University of Colorado professor Steven Pollock, worthy of his status as a Pew/Carnegie National Teaching Scholar, carefully guided us as we zoomed in on the so-called microcosmos—the realm of atoms and of particles even smaller than atoms.
This is the world stripped to its basics. Particle physics dismantles objects into their most minute component parts, going from, say, a stick of butter to its molecules to the atoms that compose those molecules to the sub-atomic particles that make up the atoms. You would think that this would be a process of simplification, like sorting your dark socks from your light socks or paring an apple until you end up with one little seed in your hand. It is not. The laws of classical physics that apply to bigger structures don’t apply to nano-particles. The wacky laws of quantum mechanics do, and they are a DVD set in themselves. And then some.
The enthusiastic Professor Pollock steered us clear of the details of quantum mechanics but, before we dozed off, left us with some vivid images of size and scale. I know I’m always talking about size and scale. I really don’t mean to bring the subject up so often, but it’s hard to fully understand how the universe and the Earth evolved and how the world works without at least trying to grasp how long 13.7 billion years is or how far it is to the next galaxy or how tiny some of the most important pieces of the world are.
So let’s think small. All atoms are roughly the same size (though not the same mass), according to Professor Pollock. They are one ten-billionth of a meter across. How small is that? In size, an atom is to an apple as an apple is to planet Earth. Pause. The circumference of an apple is several inches. The circumference of the Earth is 25,000 miles. Wow.
But let’s think even smaller. An atom is made of a nucleus that has electrons revolving around it—sort of (but not really) like planets circling the Sun. Now imagine that the nucleus is a grape sitting on the 50-yard line of a football field. The electrons (which are too small to even measure) would be circling out near the end zones. That is a startling image. It means that atoms, the building blocks of our world, are made up almost entirely of empty space. That in turn means that your seemingly rock solid body, your six-pack abs and your buns of steel are airier than Swiss cheese and donut holes. And that is where today’s particle physics session ends.
With the right animation and some zany particle-character names, this might just be a cool topic for a future Dr. Seuss movie.
Birds and Worms
We’re seeing more goldfinches, nuthatches, robins and other species as we move closer to spring. On a walk early this morning we passed a tree full of cedar waxwings. Here are a couple of photos from this week.
Upon seeing the robins, I wondered where the earthworms are. The answer is that many of them are as much as six feet underground, below the frost line, waiting for the soil to warm up. They burrowed down there last fall, formed a protective, slimy ball around themselves and hunkered in. Some types of worms produce a non-toxic antifreeze that keeps them alive all winter. Others lay eggs in cocoons in the soil (these look like little pearls) in late fall and then die; the eggs hatch when the ground is warm enough.
The One-Sentence Challenge
Back to physics for a moment. One of the greatest and most creative physicists ever was Richard Feynman, who made major contributions to quantum mechanics, worked on the Manhattan Project, and was the scientist who figured out that a faulty O ring caused the Challenger disaster. As a professor he was known for trying hard to describe even the most complex concepts in comprehensible terms. He believed that if a subject couldn’t be explained so that a college freshman could grasp it, scientists didn’t adequately understand the subject themselves.
Here’s a thought-provoking question Feynman once asked: “If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?”
That is an intriguing question to ask not only about science but also any other field. What would that sentence be if it had to convey all of our collective knowledge about art? Or baseball? Or music? What one sentence, if passed on to a future generation, would best describe and explain you personally? I’d love to hear any suggestions you have—a single sentence on any topic.
For the record, here is Feynman’s one science sentence: “All things are made of atoms, little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.”
One More Thing…
In his talk on the tininess of atoms and sub-atomic particles, Professor Pollock passed on this poem from Jonathan Swift, the Irish writer better known for Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal:
So, naturalists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite ‘em
And so proceed ad infinitum.
Actor Alan Alda is a science geek. He is a founding member of the Stony Brook University Center for Communicating Science. This week he published an essay in the journal Science challenging scientists to more clearly explain their theories and findings. He launched a month-long contest in which the challenge is to answer the question “What is a flame?” so than an 11-year-old can understand it. A panel of 11-year-olds will choose the winner. Entries can be in the form of writing, video or graphics and can be submitted to the website: http://www.flamechallenge.org/
Alda notes that kids often ask seemingly simple questions that are tricky to answer. But those sorts of questions help all of us understand concepts more clearly. In a recent survey in the United Kingdom asking parents what science-related questions their children posed, these were the five most common ones:
1) Why is the Moon sometimes out in the day?
2) Why is the sky blue?
3) Will we ever discover aliens?
4) How much does the Earth weigh?
5) How do airplanes stay up?
No one ever said being a parent was easy.
Food for Thought
This month’s bulletin from MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, one of the oldest and strongest such state organizations in the country) listed a showing of the documentary Two Angry Moms. I hadn’t heard of the film, but I did some research and found that (along a similar line as Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution) it focuses on the dismal state of school lunch programs and why those programs serve so much high-fat, high-sugar, low-nutrition food. Here is a lengthy trailer for the movie if you’re interested:
Three years ago this month we were preparing for the first season of The Naturalist’s Notebook. The building in Seal Harbor was undergoing a massive renovation, a pair of young collaborators, Pat Johnson and Anne Mittnacht, had just moved in with us, and on a warm March day we went down to the water’s edge at low tide to tear woolen fabric into strips to make what some of you have come to know as the Notebook’s unique and colorful braided rugs.
1) Unscramble these words from science, nature and art:
2) This is a riddle borrowed from the Braingle.com website (http://www.braingle.com/Science.html), where you can find lots of fun brainteasers:
A man in a restaurant asked a waiter for a juice glass, a dinner plate, water, a match, and a lemon wedge. The man poured enough water onto the plate to cover it.
“If you can get the water on the plate into this glass without touching or moving this plate, I will give you $100,” the man said. “You can use the match and lemon to do this.”
A few minutes later, the waiter walked away with $100 in his pocket. How did the waiter get the water into the glass?