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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.

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!


An Animated Introduction to Ontology: Is a Copy the Same as the Original?

Questions of equality and equivalence are of fundamental importance in mathematics and computer science. In everyday use we are usually comfortable with a vague definition of equality, but in programming for example, two objects may be identical in one instance and different in another. This is usually a great source of confusion for inexperienced programmers. In mathematics, equality has multiple meanings and uses and even basic subjects like high school geometry introduce the notions of similarity and congruence that represent two different levels of equality.

Of course, equality and equivalence are also part of the branch of philosophy called ontology. In the following classic animation, John Weldon presents the topic as a fun thought experiment that asks the question: what does it mean to be? Watch it and be amazed by the philosophical nuances of existence.

A Comprehensive Introduction to Information Theory for Complete Beginners

The term ‘information age’ is a modern cliche, yet few realize that the word information has a precise mathematical meaning with far-reaching consequences. Information theory is one of the great developments of the twentieth century that spans multiple disciplines including mathematics, computer science, electrical engineering, and biology. Unfortunately, although some of the fundamental ideas of this subject are easy to convey to even the youngest students, it is completely absent from the school curriculum.

Luckily, the filmmaker, Brit Cruise has created “The Language of Coins,” a series of videos about information theory that is accessible to a general audience. The series begins with a close look at the way we communicate and continues on to more advanced topics like Markov chains, which is an important modern tool of applied mathematics. In all, there are sixteen videos; twelve are already available online and the remaining ones will be posted soon (the complete playlist is available on Youtube). You need to know about information theory and if you don’t, you should start with this excellent series.

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.

Wolfram Alpha: A Computational Knowledge Engine with Educational Applications

wolfram alpha logo

Sometimes one discovers a tool that is incredibly useful, yet surprisingly not as widely known as it should be. Wolfram Alpha, an intelligent search engine that responds to queries with answers as opposed to a list of links, has been around since 2009, but many teachers and students still haven’t heard of it.

This is surprising because there might not be another online tool that is as applicable in as many academic subjects as Wolfram Alpha. Because it is based on Mathematica, one of the top computational software packages used by scientists, mathematicians, and engineers all over the world, it is clearly extremely good at answering math questions. Beyond complex numeric computations, it can do symbolic computation (like factoring polynomials) that is much harder than simply crunching numbers. This computational power applies to mathematics and all of the sciences (is math a science?) but Wolfram Alpha is more than just a fancy online graphing calculator.

It is actually an intelligent system that taps into a myriad of online data sources that enable it to answer questions in almost any field. For example, suppose you wanted to know the identities of the characters in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A simple query would yield the answer and provide additional details. To give a sense of the scope of it’s knowledge engine, Wolfram has conveniently created a page of sample uses that covers a wide range of human activities. If you have never heard of Wolfram Alpha, you will be surprised when you first use it.

Two Minutes of Thermodynamics: Heat Versus Temperature

Sometimes a simple drawing or animation is all that it takes to understand a previously confusing idea. A good illustration of this principle is the following video by Henry Reich which does a good job of explaining the difference between heat and temperature. These two concepts are clearly related but students often erroneously equate them, especially when they first start thinking about them in science class.

A similar, but much older animation from the Eureka! Science series also addresses this thermodynamics issue, but from a slightly different perspective. If you have five minutes to spare, you won’t regret getting a better grasp of this fundamental area of physics.

A Possible Mathematical Theory Behind The Coming Cicada Infestation

The eastern United States is about to be overrun by billions of cicadas who will crawl out of the ground and create a deafening commotion. The interesting thing about their emergence is that they only come out every 17 years. Some scientists think that this is a coincidence, but the late Stephen Jay Gould, one of the major figures of evolutionary biology, postulated that the fact that this number is prime might not be an accident. He reasoned that if these periodical cicadas were to come out every, say, 12 years they would coincide with the emergence of predators whose life cycles are 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and 12 years. Because their life cycle is 17 years, only predators with life cycles of 1 and 17 years coincide with the cicadas and it is easier for them to survive. In other words, periodical cicadas evolved to minimize their exposure to predators. You can learn more about this possible connection between number theory and biology in this Nature article and in a more detailed math paper [PDF] from the Courant Institute at New York University. Even if questions remain about the validity of this particular theory, it is an important reminder that purely mathematical ideas can provide fertile ground for scientific theories in any discipline.

Jetpacks, Rocket Science, and Basic Physics for Beginners

Rocket science is usually a term associated with something too complicated for mere mortals to comprehend. In reality, the basic principles are fairly simple and involve basic middle school or high school physics. In this video, Derek Muller illustrates Newton’s laws of physics as they apply to rockets and jetpacks and mentions a few other interesting facts along the way. This is an attention-grabbing introduction to the foundations of classical mechanics and as usual with such videos, motivates a further more detail-focused exploration of the subject.