Tag Archives: science

Pixar, the Space Shuttle, and Kids’ Museum Memories

Went with the family to see Space Shuttle Endeavour and a Pixar-themed exhibit on computer animation at the California Science Center.

The 6YO loved the Pixar exhibit, which broke down all the steps to creating a computer-animated movie into separate hands-on centers where you could do things like…

  • Apply different textures and bump maps to an object.
  • Rig a character for movement.
  • Change the lighting of a scene (real or virtual).
  • Define a shape in a 3D grid and watching the computer rotate it (way too much time on this one).
  • Create your own stop-motion animation by moving an actual desk lamp.

The only way we got him out was to point out that the museum was closing, and we only had 10 minutes left to get to the touch pools he’d said he wanted to visit. As it turned out, the pools shut down about two minutes before we got there, but staff was willing to let him look at the starfish. And we did catch the last desert flash flood simulation of the day.

As for the shuttle…he wasn’t impressed. He insisted on taking the simulator ride, but the real thing? I guess it’s old news when the whole fleet’s already been shut down by the time you start hanging onto long-term memories. 🤷

Admittedly, a big aluminum hut isn’t as suitable a viewing area for Endeavour as open space in broad daylight, surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd. Though that might have been the fact that it was my first time getting up close. On the other hand, this time I could see both sides. Heck, I could walk under it!

There is a new building in the works, where they’ll be displaying it with one of the external tanks in launch position. I’m sure it will lead to plenty of cartoons and movies where someone goes to the museum, breaks into the shuttle and blasts off.

I couldn’t make the building line up with my memories of visits when I was younger, back when it was the Museum of Science and Industry. The only thing I could match up at all were the wall facing the Exposition Park rose garden, and some of the buildings by the parking lot (a sunken structure now, but I remember it being flat).

Then again, what I remember are specific exhibits more than the layout: a big math/physics exhibit, a chicken incubator, and a multi-screen cartoon about energy sources and engine types called “The Water Engine.” (Each screen has a character talking up internal combustion, flywheels, mag-lev, electric, etc. I still quote the Peter Lorre-inspired fuel-cell scientist saying “And then…we burn the hydrogen!”)

It turns out there’s a good reason nothing fit my memory: They tore down the whole building in the late 1990s, preserving only that one wall!

Science vs Magic–I Mean, Sufficiently-Advanced Technology

An odd contradiction: People are turning away from science as a way to understand the world, even though we keep using more and more advanced technology which is invented using that scientific knowledge.

What if it’s that, in terms of Clarke’s Third Law, the technology we use is sufficiently advanced that it might as well be magic?

It’s easy to understand how a toaster works. Electricity goes in and heats up the wires. Or an incandescent light bulb, or an internal combustion engine. Anything that’s primarily mechanical, you can understand intuitively: “Oh, this part moves that part, which moves that part, and then I kind of get lost, but eventually it gets to the wheels.”

But a computer chip? GPS navigation? Downloading and playing a game on a mobile phone? These things might as well be magic to most people who use it. At the consumer level, GPS is a black box that tells you where you are and how to get where you’re going. But underneath that, it’s satellites, relativity, radio transmitters, radio receivers, computer software, circuitry, mathematics, rockets, data transmission, traffic detection, mapping software…so many pieces that take some degree of studying to really understand.

If our technology is “magic,” it ceases to be a reminder that science works, and may even encourage belief in things that don’t have clear mechanisms and supporting evidence. The very success of science at making possible the technology we use everywhere could, ironically, be discouraging people from believing in it.

*I wrote this three years ago. I’m not sure why I didn’t post it at the time. All I had to do was tighten up the wording a little bit. And sadly, the situation hasn’t improved.

Wi-Fi Sprouter (The Seeds Are All Right)

You’ve probably seen the story about how a group of teenagers showed that plants won’t grow next to a WiFi router. We did our own experiment, but first some things to consider about the story making the rounds:

  • They tested whether cress seeds would germinate near a wi-fi router.
  • The seeds by the router DID grow, just not as well as the control group.
  • The photos accompanying the news articles I saw don’t match the photos that appear in the report. They actually look like a before and after set.
  • It was done a year ago, in spring 2013.
  • It was a school science project. That’s not a knock, they did some good things like sending traffic through the router to make sure it was actually transmitting, and mixing seeds from multiple packets together to eliminate differences between batches.
  • As with all science, the results need to be repeated in more experiments with rigorous controls to be sure they accounted for all variables.
  • I couldn’t find a followup study in all the blind repostings of the original OMGWIFI claims, though I did find a discussion at JREF. If you can read past the annoyingly dismissive comments, you’ll also find some insightful remarks and links to the actual presentation (in Danish, so it’s tricky to read, but they have charts and photos)…and a few anecdotal stories by people who use the heat from their wireless routers to HELP germinate seeds!

After we read up on this, Katie decided to do a simple experiment herself. She put seeds next to our router, on top of our refrigerator, next to the TV, and for a control, outside. She found that the seeds placed next to our router did just fine — considerably better than those left outside, and slightly better than those placed elsewhere around the house.

Each bag contained one kidney bean, one black-eyed pea, and one seed from the red bell pepper I cut up for dinner. I put a section of select-a-size paper towel, folded twice, in each and set the seeds inside the second fold. Each bag got 15 mL of Brita filtered water and the air was squeezed out before sealing. Then I left them around the apartment for several days to see if they’d sprout. This is a picture of what resulted.

I wonder if the seeds in the school experiment just dried out. Katie sealed her seeds in plastic bags, which allowed radiation to pass through, but trapped moisture. As I understand it, the students watered their seeds throughout the experiment, but it’s possible the trays dried out overnight. Comparing moisture content/retention would be an interesting follow-up.

Obviously, this isn’t any more rigorous than the original experiment. But it shows that the results they found are the beginning of the process, not the last word. More importantly, it’s something you can easily test yourself if you’re so inclined. Next time you see a startling claim that’s something you can test without too much trouble, try checking it out for yourself.

Incidentally: We planted the seeds in our patio yesterday. With any luck, they’ll do as well as our tomatoes (and better than our poor carrots) this year!

Dosage Matters: The Car Analogy

It’s clear that many people online don’t understand the concept of dosage or concentration when it comes to substances of any sort (food, drugs, additives, environmental factors, chemicals*, radioactive isotopes): Something can be harmless or even beneficial in small amounts, but dangerous in large amounts.

Trivial examples:

  • You need salt for neural function, but if you drink sea water you’ll get sick.
  • Vinegar is dilute acetic acid. It’s useful for cooking and great on salads. Highly-concentrated acetic acid is corrosive.

Think of it like turning the steering wheel on your car (or the handlebars on your bike, if you prefer):

  • Turn it too far, and you go off the road, lose control, spin out, or otherwise crash.
  • Turn it just right, and you change lanes, avoid an obstacle, or go down a different road.

Also, most things will have multiple effects, some positive and some negative. (Consider aspirin: pain relief, fever reducer, blood thinner, but high doses can cause ulcers.) The balance of how strong each effect is will change with dosage, so you might have a strong positive and mild negative at one dosage, and a mild positive and strong negative effect at a higher one, and at an even higher dose even the positive effects would become negative as described above.

So the next time you see a warning about how hazardous something is in high concentrations…think about whether that has anything to do with the level at which people are actually exposed to it in the typical case.

*Remember: Everything is made of chemicals, including raw organically grown food.

Lessons from Radioactive Kitty Litter

In February, a 55-gallon drum of radioactive waste burst at a storage facility in New Mexico. The investigation has pinned it on a surprising culprit: Kitty litter.

It turns out that the clay is perfect for stabilizing volatile compounds, so they use it when storing radioactive waste. But somewhere along the line, someone switched to organic kitty litter, which was plant-based…and chemicals in the litter reacted with the chemicals being stored, causing it to heat up and expand.

The off-the-wall nature of the story appeals to me, but it also nicely illustrates several points:

  1. Just because something has a scary industrial use, that doesn’t make it harmful for more mundane uses, like lining the cat box. (See also: cleaning with baking soda and vinegar.)
  2. Everything has chemicals in it, even totally green organic products. That’s what complex materials are made of!
  3. Organic/natural is not always better. It depends on what you’re using it for. (Though to be fair, clay is natural too.)
  4. Swapping out ingredients might be fine sometimes, but not always. Write clear specs if you’re designing, and follow them if you’re building/procuring. (See also: Substituting a common allergen for a rare one, and “I chose X because of Y.”)
  5. We still don’t have a real solution for disposing of radioactive waste, only storing it.