Thursday, June 30, 2011

How Stuff Works- 10 Scientific theories you need to know

How Stuff Works, has recently published a piece outlining the top 10 scientific theories/laws that every human being should know.

I weigh in on the relevance of each of these to everyday life, and I'll add some of my own that they seem to have missed.

10) The Big Bang
9) Hubble's Law of Cosmic Expansion
For these two, see my post on Wilslson and Penzias's discovery of cosmic background microwave radiation in 1965: These are very important theories to understand in everyday life because they have profound implications on one's spiritual beliefs and belief of a God, or gods. Firstly, the universe did not appear out of nothing, and secondly, the universe has evolved by expanding over time. The concept that the universe started somewhere and sometime implies that before the Universe there had to be space and time- two concepts that were once thought to be static, and are now believed to be quite malleable. These are two important theories that should be incorporated into one's theological/spiritual beliefs, regardless of the extent. I caution: God can still exist if these two theories hold true...who do you think created the space and the time?

8) Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion
This one is actually three laws: a) law of orbits- planets orbit the sun elliptically, b) law of areas- the area between the sun and the earth as the earth moves over a predetermined length of time is always equal, and c) the law of periods- basically that planets orbit the sun in proportion to their distance from the sun.
This third law is probably the most important, in my mind. This sets the groundwork for our understanding that different planets have different year-lengths, and is an important variable in our quest for intelligent life in the universe.

7) Universal Law of Gravitation- this one is quite obvious. As anyone living near the coast can easily see, the tides rise and fall because of the gravitational attraction to the moon.

6) Newton's Laws of Motion- these are probably the most useful of this list in everyday life. I believe that learning these three laws should be a prerequisite to graduating high school- they are integral to understand. Very simply stated:
First Law- objects will maintain a constant velocity (0 can be considered to be constant) unless acted upon by an external force
Second Law- force=mass x acceleration, basically a heavier object will require more force to put into motion at a given acceleration
Third Law- Action-reaction- to every force, there is counter-force (think of a see-saw).

5) Laws of Thermodynamics- These too, are incredibly useful in everyday life. This is the basis of the mantra "calories in=calories out". Basically this refers to the first law, that matter and energy are both conserved and to get one you must expend the other (E=mc^2)

4) Archimedes Buoyancy Principle- The force acting on a submerged, or floating, object is equal to the force of the displacement of water. Thus, if you fill your swimming pool to the top and expect to be able to fit 30-40 people in it...expect to lose quite a bit of water by the time you're done. If you've ever intend on being in a boat, make sure to review this one. As long as the mass of the volume inside the boat is less than (or, in theory, equal to) the mass of the volume of water that could be in the boat, you'll float :)

3) Evolution and Natural Selection- this theory always gets branded as the "humans came from monkeys" theory and is incorrectly positioned counter to the concept of God and Divine creation. It's more than just monkeys and humans, it refers to the change over time in one or more inherited traits within a population. In other words evolution describes the expected change in a gene pool over time given a host of external, and internal, factors (population, predation, environmental aspects, etc). The fact is, it's been used in some way, shape, or form since the late 19th century to describe why there are differences in inheritance between different subpopulations of the same species.
This is also a theory that you should incorporate into your spiritual beliefs- no has ever, reasonably, suggested evolution cannot be the work of God himself. In fact, a popular movement has recently arisen among young Christian scientists that God, in order to preserve his divine creations, would provide a system where they could adapt to changes in the natural world.

2) Theory of general relativity
Ever wonder why commercial airplanes travel in semi-elliptical flight patterns, and not in straight lines? It's because when they take off, the Earth is still moving beneath (called the Coliolis Effect- stay posted for an upcoming piece on this one). This is kind of the same idea- objects in space bend the very fabric of space-time in proportion to their mass and thus appear to orbit each other.
Why is this important to you? This work has led to explanations of black holes (by Stephen Hawking) and the understanding that light from far away stars can be bent by gravitational fields, thus improving our methods of understanding our solar system, galaxy, and universe.

1) Heisenberg's Uncertainty Princple- I don't really see how this is relevent to everyday life, but here goes.
It is impossible to know, with any degree of certainty, both the position and momentum of a particle because of the wave-particle duality: basically, particles can, and do, behave as both a particle and a wave simultaneously. Thus, when we measure the position of a particle, we are treating it as a particle, and when we measure the momentum of a particle, we are treating it as a wave. This understanding has led to, directly or indirectly, major booms in chemisty, physics, high-tech, and nano-tech in the past(at least) 30-40 years.

The theores that How Stuff Works missed:

1) Plate Tectonics- I personally believe that it is much more relvent to everday, ordinary people, to know how Earthquakes, volanoes, and tsunamis work, and to use this information to avoid areas where said events tend to occur periodically, instead of knowing that a particle exists as both a particle and wave...but that's just me.

2) Doppler Effect- see my post on this: Wouldn't it be nice to know that when a fire truck's siren sharply increases in frequency, you should probably get out of the way? Seems pretty useful to me!

3) The germ theory- how about the idea that disease can often be caused by infectious microorganisms, and not simply by curse or miasma (see Italian explanation for bubonic plague circa ~1200-1300 C.E.). This seems like an important theory to understand when one is prescribed antibiotics with a bacterial infection.

4) Herd Immunity- this refers to the idea that once a significant proportion of a population is vaccinated against an infection disease there is certain level of of protection inferred upon those who possess no immunity. Ie/ in theory, if everyone in your neighborhood is vaccinated against the flu except you, and your neighborhood is a static community where no one enters or exits, you will not get the flu. The point: get your flu shot, you'll be helping society more than you know.

5) Ideal Gas law
6) Cell theory

And the list goes on, and on, and on. The point of the How Stuff Works articles is that non-scientists should educate themselves in scientific theory to an extent, which will ultimately help them understand the world around them.


Thursday, June 16, 2011

Mikepedia Fact #6 - The sonicboom

A sonicboom is the sound created by an object (generally an aircraft) which breaks the sound barrier, or mach 1, approximately 1,225 km/h (761 mph) at sea level and 20 °C (68 °F). This flight is termed 'supersonic' flight, or speed.

This is caused by the compression of pressure waves (sound waves) behind, and in front of, the object. When the object (in most cases, an aircraft) is travelling at sub-sonic speed, the sound waves are able to propagate ahead of the aircraft, as they are moving faster. But when the aircraft begins to travel at a speed greater than the maximum speed of these sound waves (the speed of sound) the waves are forced to compress together, forming one large pressure wave. The boom is created by the waves that would normally propagate ahead of the aircraft being compressed together while the aircraft flies past them.

Interestingly enough, the crack of a whip is actually a mini-sonic boom, as the tip of the whip moves faster than the speed of sound- no wonder it hurts to get hit with it!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Media misconception- western societal gender roles

I've noticed recently, coincidentally or otherwise, an increase in the number of television or movie scenes which confront typical male gander roles with modern 'metrosexual' conceptions of what it means to be a man. The debate is initiated, there is some talk (on either side) about whether or not metrosexualism is 'right', and the confrontation usually ends with the supporter of metrosexualism, or of a person exuding said characteristics, posing the question "do you feel threatened by this?" to the supporter of the more traditional Western male gender role. On television, and in movies, the latter supporter normally responds with anger, defensiveness, and aggression- some of the classics of traditional male hubris.

I want to comment on the basis of this question, as it may be misinterpreted, generally, by the audience due to the central/main character status that the respondent tends to hold. To discuss this, and to most sociologist's diapproval, I will have to use both modern conflict theory and structural functionalism- lets start with some lay definitions.

Modern conflict theory, the father of which is Charles Wright Mills, argues that social structures are created out of conflict- that is, a constant unequal distribution of resources between groups/individuals in society who have different interests creates unequal power distribution, and thus, creates structures like class systems, such as the old English class system of 1st class, 2nd class, and 3rd class citizens, or the North American (U.S.) system of upper, middle, working, and lower class. Conflict theory forms the basis for most class conflict theories, such as traditional feminism- the notion that men have more resources, thus have more power, and thus create, deliberately or otherwise, a class system where men tend to hold power, directly or indirectly, over women.

Structural functionalism deals with just that- the function of structures in society. This theory defines society as a series of inter-related and artificially created 'structures' and attempts to understand the function of their constituents, such as values, norms, traditions, customs, etc. To put this into context (as difficult as this may be), where conflict theory will suggest that the upper 'class', or richer groups of people, wear expensive clothing to reinforce to subordinate groups that they have more power, structural functionalism may point out that clothing is simply a structure within society that has a traditional basis in attracting a mate, or protecting oneself from the environment. Structural functionalism may also suggest that people wear clothing to uphold the social norm of not walking around naked...simple, too bad the theory isn't really used anymore...


The idea of being threatened by metrosexualism has nothing to do with physical threatening- people surely don't believe that they will be beat up by the idea of metrosexualism. The idea of the threat comes from the conflict between the two structures, or constructs (a gender role is a structure as defined by structural functionalism). If the construct of metrosexualism replaces the traditional gender role as the dominant gender structure in society, this would mean that the traditional male gender role would no longer be the dominant construct of the two (as judged by popular belief). A new norm that challenges an old norm almost always makes those who follow the old norm feel threatened. If the metrosexual construct becomes the dominant of the two, this re-defines the meaning of what it means to be a man in society, as the traditional gender role would no longer be accepted as dominant. This is the threat- if this new norm becomes the dominant of the two, the traditional male will no longer be defined as a male within society.

The point is, it is all about how a man defines himself as a man- it has nothing to do with the hatred of metrosexualism (or homosexualism for that matter). It has nothing to do with homophobia, which, by the way, is another misinterpreted concept- a phobia is a genuine fear of something based on the belief that this 'thing' can harm the person who fears it, either physically or emotionally, simply by experiencing a sensation related to this thing, ie/ touch, taste, smell, etc. A phobia is not simply a dislike, disgust for, or preference against something, it is a genuine fear. The threat is nothing more than a desire to have one's own definition fit the societal definition of what it means to be a man.