Blog Archives

2013 Ig Nobel Prizes

ig nobel mascot

Science is serious business, but it is also a giant playground for comedy and drama. The annual Ig Nobel Prizes epitomize this playful nature of science, rewarding scientists for research that makes people laugh and then makes them think. Past winners have won the Ig Nobel Peace Prize for figuring out how to convert old Russian ammunition into new diamonds, and the Ig Nobel Biology Prize for explaining the bizarre mating behavior of certain Australian beetles.

The awards ceremony will be broadcast live today at 5:30 pm EDT. For those who are in Cambridge, MA on Saturday, the Ig Nobel laureates will present informal lectures explaining their research. More details are available here.

How Transistors Work

Suppose you learned that transistors are a fundamental building block of modern electronics, and you decided to learn about how they function. If you looked at the first result in a google search you would see this Wikipedia article filled with technical details, but not that much beginner-friendly clarity. As with many such important concepts, explaining it at just the right level of detail to be both technical and accessible is a serious challenge.

To the rescue comes Derek Muller, creator of the Veritasium Youtube channel, who demystifies the idea behind transistors. His video features just the right type of animations and visual props to make a point without getting lost in technical details that would only be relevant to graduate students or scientists. If you’re interested in electronics, this six minute video is as good a starting point as any textbook or lecture.

A Short Animated Introduction to Reading Music (And a Bit of Bach)

Although numerous studies have shown the importance of music education in schools, few students learn the basics of music theory as part of core curriculum requirements. Apart from the obvious reasons, this is unfortunate because music is so intertwined with math and science and has been a source of inspirations for many great mathematicians and scientists. In fact, Albert Einstein once said that “the theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition. My parents had me study the violin from the time I was six. My new discovery is the result of musical perception.”

If you have never learned how to read music, the following animation by Tim Hansen does a good job of conveying the essentials. After you watch it, listen to some Bach (i.e. mandatory music for mathematicians) and watch an incredible visual representation of music that is rich in mathematical structure. Enjoy!


10 Science Tricks for Entertainment and Further Exploration

In the era of iPhones and iPads, magic tricks involving everyday items may not be as exciting as they once were, but in a classroom they are still an effective teaching tool. Richard Wiseman has created a video featuring ten science-based stunts which are an excellent demonstrations of various principles of physics. Some of these tricks were once popularized by the great Martin Gardner and you can learn more about the science behind them in his books. Our favorite stunt, which is more mathematical than the others, involves cutting a hole in a small postcard so that a person can climb through it. Watch the video and start your next science conversation or class with one of the tricks in it. Any science knowledge gained from it is sure to be more memorable than a boring science textbook.

Vacuum Cleaners, Cannons, and the Quantum Mechanics of Empty Space

The force exerted by air molecules is something that we take for granted every day, but it is a surprisingly powerful force with equally surprising applications. For example, a vacuum cleaner “sucks” dirt in by creating a partial vacuum that allows the air outside the vacuum cleaner to push dirt into it. Similar reasoning can be used to create a vacuum cannon that relies on air pressure to eject a projectile at great (even supersonic) velocity. The following video from the Sixty Symbols Youtube channel illustrates this and provides further technical details.

If you’re interested in learning more about vacuums, Sixty Symbols has a follow up video that reveals their surprising quantum mechanical nature. You may be surprised to learn that a complete vacuum cannot really exist and that empty space actually contains energy. The conversational nature of the video doesn’t allow for a rigorous treatment of the subject, but instead offers an enticing glimpse into the exciting world that research scientists get to explore.

A Collection of Natural Science Demonstrations from Harvard

Science often feels like a magic show and that aspect makes it particularly appealing to science education. Great communicators of science like Walter Lewin can enchant any audience by turning ordinary physical phenomena into captivating demonstrations that violate intuition and tickle imaginations. In this tradition, Harvard University has created a collection of science demonstrations and simulations covering chemistry, physics, and astronomy. Some of these demonstrations are hard to replicate at home or even in a regular school classroom because of the complex equipment requirements, which is why putting them online is so beneficial. Below is an example of one of the demonstrations that features Chladni plates. More videos are available on the Harvard Natural Sciences Demonstrations Youtube channel.