The Steampunk Satyricon

Monday, September 12, 2011

Mathematics: Gateway to the Merry Land of Science... So deal with your math anxiety and quit being such a big, damn wuss about it, you effing coward!!!

Photo: From Colby Keller's Big Shoe Diaries blog.
Submitted as part of the Fearless photo project.

If you want to know what the takeaway is for this piece on math anxiety, you don't even have to read past this opening paragraph, I'll give it to you up front: "Fashionable innumeracy" -- the idea that it's perfectly acceptable to be a mathematical moron -- ends here. Right now. From this moment forward, it is no longer okay to say you're bad at math. It's totally fine if you're not a genius, just quit acting like a math-shy half-wit. If you're faced with a math problem on the job, or in any situation, you can say, "Math is a little tricky for me," or, "I'll need a little help with this," or, even better, "I've got to work on my math." But fleeing in terror and declaring, "I'm bad at math!" while expecting to be given a sympathetic pass for your cowardice ends now. I mean it! Continue to shamelessly avoid math and you will be stripped of your citizenship and deported. Maybe not today, but it's something I'm working on. Seriously. I've written letters.

If you'd like to stall a bit before finally facing your fears, do feel free to read on...

Somewhere in America, there's a hairy, leather-clad biker dude who spends his days dealing drugs and doing math. That's "math" not "meth" -- although he might be doing that as well. Throughout his workday, he's probably doing arithmetic, fractions, even some simple algebra. He's probably even calculating odds in his head using basic statistics. And yet, for however long he was in school before he dropped out, he was probably one of those students who said, "Why I gotta study this [EXPLETIVE]? I ain't never gonna use this [EXPLETIVE]!" It's a classic dodge employed by people who claim they'd rather not "waste" time studying math. The truth, of course, is that math scares the [EXPLETIVE] out of them.

Math anxiety is real, but it isn't the same as test anxiety and it must also be distinguished from other more general anxiety disorders. Math anxiety is almost like a straight-up case of failure anxiety, but not quite... and, honestly, you probably don't have it. At least, not a serious case of it. Put a timed math test in front of some people and they'll get the shakes, the sweats, cry a little, then vomit. For most people, it simply isn't that bad, but the flood of feelings math anxiety induces is unique and unmistakable. It's that moment in class when the word problems, the geometric proofs and the almost unbearable pressure that comes with trying to solve for "x" make you feel as if you've just been dropped into a foreign country where you can't read or speak the language and you really, really need to find a bathroom. Or, as Sheila Tobias says in Overcoming Math Anxiety, "The first thing people remember about failing at math is that it felt like sudden death."

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Certain Book

A little while ago, I noticed a book cover that had a major problem. The book was the UK edition of Dr. Chad Orzel's How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog, which sports a couple of scientific formulas on its cover... and one of them didn't look right.

"Ah-Ha!" I said in an accusatory manner to the imaginary publisher sitting in front of me. "Did you think your mistake would go unnoticed? Ghosting the equation back to a 30% gray has failed to mask your egregious error, you cretinous lackwit!"

But before transmitting a scathing missive to the real publisher like an annoying little know-it-all douche, I decided to check and make sure I was remembering things correctly. As a reflective, self-aware, highly insecure individual, I felt it was important to make sure *I* wasn't the one who was "Wrong, wrong, wrong!"

The equation in question was for the position-momentum form of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. It's named after Werner Karl Heisenberg who developed the theory in the late 1920s/early 1930s. I've said it before and I'll say it again: When your peers are naming stuff after you, you know you're good. Heisenberg died in 1976 with a Nobel Prize on his shelf and a place in history for helping invent the field of quantum mechanics.

In retrospect, the uncertainty principle seems pretty obvious: Light is energy and we need light to see things, but at the subatomic level, you can't shine a light on something without giving it energy thus changing the nature of the subatomic thing you're trying to look at. One way of expressing this idea is with the equation "delta-x times delta-p greater-than-or-equal-to h divided by two pi", or

This equation describes what we think is probably happening to some subatomic particle we're interested in. Delta-x and Delta-p can be thought of as measures of probability. Delta-x represents how sure we are a particle is in a certain position. Delta-p represents how sure we are about a particle's momentum. But momentum (p) is equal to mass (m) times velocity (v), typically written as p = mv. So, since the mass of the particle doesn't change, you can say that Δp is really a measure of how sure we are about a particle's velocity.

That "h" is Planck's constant, a number related to the energy and frequency with which a particle oscillates. It was discovered by Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck around 1900. (When people start naming stuff after you...) In the uncertainty equation,

h = 6.626 x 10-34 Js

The units for Planck's constant are "Joule-seconds" (sometimes I will willingly stress over detailed explanations of what the units mean, but not today). The quantity [h/(2π)] turns up so often in physics that it was given a special symbol (called h-bar) which is why you sometimes see the uncertainty relation written as
Since the quantity [(h)/(2π)] is always the same and multiplying Δx by Δp always gives you something greater than or equal to [(h)/(2π)], if Δx increases then Δp must decrease. In other words, the more certain we are about where a particle is, the less certain we are about how fast it's moving and vice versa.

In Germany, there was even a Heisenberg stamp with the equation on it, fer chrissakes! So that's what I thought the uncertainty equation was, meaning the equation I saw on the book cover was wrong. Except it wasn't.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Placenta is Awesome!

A few weeks ago, I picked up a free copy of what has to be one of the world's geekiest newsletters: Fields Notes, a magazine-style publication about the mathematical research and activities at the Fields Institute in Toronto. One small article caught my eye -- a short blurb about something called the Placenta Modeling Group. In a couple of paragraphs, one of the group members (all students, supervised by a mathematics professor) described how human placenta was being used to study something called "Murray's law" (not to be confused with Murphy's law) and how it was involved in creating mathematical models for blood flow and vascular branching -- basically, how blood vessels grow and spread throughout an organ. I admit, I had never imagined connecting placenta and math, but it made so much sense. Here's an organ, perfectly healthy in most cases, that is simply "ejected" by a woman at the end of her pregnancy, typically without a whole lot of fuss -- why not use it for research? It's not like anyone was planning on doing anything with it, right? I became so curious about the "placenta + math" concept that I had to look into it further.

I'd heard the terms "placenta" and "afterbirth" tossed around, but when they show a baby being born on television, usually the most you ever see is part of the umbilical chord and no one ever seems to talk specifically about the placenta. And since I have no interest in being a father or getting anyone pregnant, learning more hasn't exactly been on my "To Do" list. But I'm here t' tell ya:

Placenta is awesome!

Do you have any idea how *awesome* placenta is?? Why does no one ever talk about how awesome placenta is? Is it one of those things where men who aren't doctors dismiss it as unimportant because they don't have to deal with it directly? Or maybe it's because placentas look like bloody, disgusting raw liver when they come out a few minutes after the baby. Or maybe it's kind of like the Opening Act Syndrome: people only care about the headliner (the baby) and are off buying t-shirts when the opener is on stage (in the case of the placenta, I guess it would be Closing Act Syndrome).

And, as I'm sure you've heard, there really are people who eat it. More on that later.

The placenta is formed by the trophoblast, a layer of tissue that surrounds the fertilized embryo and also forms the outer membrane that the baby sits in. Lots of proteins working at the molecular level interact to dig into mom's uterine wall and anchor the little parasite into place. Tiny tendrils called microvilli reach out like tree roots and hook the fetus into the mothers plumbing. But the placenta does way more than just hold the fetus in place. If pregnancy were a car, the baby would be in the passenger seat... the placenta would be the driver.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Fluid on the Brain

Some science demonstrations are such classics that it's hard to improve upon them. Which is why it's unfortunate that not every high school, or even every college, has the equipment on hand to allow students to see important scientific principles demonstrated in dramatic, vivid and memorable ways. At least we live in the age of YouTube and now everyone can see roses shattered after a quick freeze in liquid nitrogen, students spinning on swivel chairs to demonstrate the principle of angular momentum, electrodes separating water into hydrogen and oxygen gasses, and this classic demo of laminar vs. turbulent flow (courtesy of the mechanical engineering students at Georgia Tech)...

Which can only be followed up with a demonstration of metabolic activity and kinetic energy

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Filler Up!

No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no! It is UNACCEPTABLE to let an entire month pass without a blog post!! That will not happen!

But, since the *real* posts are still in the works, here is some filler:

First, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle presented as this go-round's gratuitous equation (more on this is forthcoming):

Next, a gratuitous science-related link that's both fascinating and icky.

Next, samples of the kind of gratuitous beefcake photos you will almost never see here:

No underwear-Speedo-jockstrap pics. 
Always better to leave something to the imagination!

No cell-phone-in-mirror pics. 
Learn to use a camera with a timer!

And finally, back to the subject of uncertainty with an entirely-too-relevant quote from philosopher, mathematician and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell (1872-1970):

"The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Never Not Funny

You know how hilarity immediately ensues when, after enjoying a Chinese take-out meal, you crack open the fortune cookies, read the fortune and add the words "in bed" to whatever is on the little slip of paper? I've discovered a similar effect can be achieved simply by adding the words "The Musical!" to the end of the title of any scientific paper. Witness...
  • Vacuum stability and the Cholesky decomposition: The Musical!

  • Analytical Study of Object Components for Distributed
    and Ubiquitous Computing Environment: The Musical!

You see? You see?!? THAT IS NEVER NOT FUNNY!!!!

Not sure it works the other way, though...

Saturday, January 1, 2011

In with the New

Just some bits of business, links an' stuff...

But first, a gratuitous, scary-looking equation concerning the conductivity of graphene:
  • Don't forget the t-shirts!