Posts filed under ‘Education’

The Flame Challenge

Last week I was reading Science and I came across a touching editorial by Alan Alda – the actor.

His concern is a basic one that nearly all of us share: how do we connect in a fundamentally human way to non-scientists, especially children, about science?

If a child asks you: What is a candle flame? You can’t tell her “oxidation” or “self-sustaining combustion” because those words mean nothing to her, they drain the question-answer experience of warmth, and ultimately discourage further such questions.

So, how would you answer the child in a way that avoids those pitfalls?

This is the question posed by Alda, and in fact the starting point of a serious exercise to connect scientists with schoolchildren in a way that promotes the beauty of Nature and an interest in science. There is an outreach program and a contest and an opportunity to make suggestions and provide feedback. Go to to get involved.

Any ideas?


March 21, 2012 at 8:44 pm 2 comments

Earthquake Resource

I think it is time to learn something about earthquakes, given the terrible tragedy in Haiti and more recent event in Chile.

The United States Geological Service hosts an excellent web site at There are quasi-interactive maps allowing you to see where recent earthquakes are occurring. Here is a map of South America showing many after-shocks in Chile within the past 24 hours:

earthquakes in South America

recent earthquakes in South America (USGS)

From the brief summary of the Chile earthquake, one learns that Chile has a lot of earthquakes – 13 events of magnitude 7.0 or greater since 1973! No wonder President Michelle Bachelet is able to handle such a terrible event with calm determination. In 1960 there was an earthquake of magnitude 9.5 – the worst one in 200 years – which spawned a tsunami that engulfed the entire Pacific Ocean. In 2007 there was an earthquake of magnitude 7.7, in 2005 one of magnitude 7.8, and in 1995 and 1985 two of magnitude 8.0.

Chile has an “extravagant” geology, fringed by the Pacific Ocean and the Andes. It rests on the Nazca Plate which moves eastward about 10 cm per year, and forces itself under the continental plate of South America proper. One consequence of this movement is the formation of the Peru-Chile Trench, which is 150 km wide and 5 km deep. Basically, Chile rests on top of a giant precipice, covered from view by the ocean. Another consequence is the formation of the Andes mountains, including many volcanoes. The movements of the Nazca Plate is responsible for the high incidence of earthquakes. (Source: country studies)

Scientists are able to fit the data to a model of the movement of the plates. They need some knowledge of the geometry and geology of the region, which they refine each time earthquakes are recorded. Fits to the data indicate a depth of 35 km and a “strike-slip” fracture. The USGS web site has a wonderful glossary with an animation. Here is the rate of energy released as a function of time – the numbers are astronomical:

earthquake moment rate

rate of moment release, ie, the energy radiated as a function of time

Here is the predicted travel times around the globe, in minutes:

earthquake travel times

predicted travel times in minutes

From what I can gather, a fault generates an acoustic wave which is transmitted in a channel defined by the surface of the earth and a deeper level with higher density in which the wave can propagate fast. Refraction plays a major role. See some nice animations at Jeffrey Barker’s web pages (SUNY Binghamton). Another source of animations and elementary explanations is the web site for the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology.

Despite the experience Chileans have with earthquakes, the situation there is very bad. According to an article in the New York Times, two million people are displaced, with several hundred killed. This earthquake is about 1000 times stronger than the one in Haiti, but because earthquakes are far more common in Chile, buildings and infrastructure are much better designed, and emergency services are much better prepared.

Update: Apparently the earth’s rotation has been measurably changed by this earthquake, shortening the day by a bit more than a microsecond. For more information, see The Reference Frame.

February 28, 2010 at 4:57 pm Leave a comment

Proposal: A Video “Periodic Table” of Elementary Particles

Yesterday, ZapperZ (Physics and Physicists) posted a note about a Period Table of Videos. Check it out – it is a lot of fun!

elementary particles in the standard model

elementary particles in the standard model

So maybe the particle physics community could set up something like that for the elementary particles, including intermediate vector bosons and the Higgs boson. Maybe we could have well-known, interesting people record short explanations and stories about each of the particles, for example:

  • bottom quark: Leon Lederman
  • charm quark: 50% Burt Richter and 50% Sam Ting
  • W boson: Carlo Rubbia
  • Z boson: Steven Weinberg
  • gluon: Sau Lan Wu
  • top quark: a carefully chosen panel from D0 and CDF…
  • Higgs boson: Peter Higgs, of course!
  • others, who?

I’ll bet that most of these people would be happy to support an uncomplicated educational exercise like this one. 🙂

Alternatively, the videos could feature distinguished young people at early stages of their careers, such as those who have recently won national or international awards. It would be interesting to view the videos twenty or thirty years hence… Or perhaps all of the videos could be recorded by women, in an effort to foster the participation of young women in the sciences.

We could also have a kind of “side bar” with discussions of crucial phenomena, such as neutrino oscillations, CP violations, spontaneous symmetry breaking, confinement, partonic structure of nucleons, jets and fragmentation, electric dipole moments of pointlike particles, muon anomalous magnetic moment, etc. Clearly there are plenty of topics even if we stay strictly within the Standard Model and eschew all extensions.

The public is very interested in what we do, and that interest will only increase in the coming years, with the turn-on of the LHC, the results of Higgs searches from the Tevatron, and the strengthening of ties between particle physics and astrophysics including cosmology. Imagine how well brief, entertaining, uncomplicated videos would serve their interest..

January 6, 2009 at 8:40 am 3 comments

International Year of Astronomy: IYA2009



The International Astronomical Union and UNESCO have declared 2009 the International Year of Astronomy, or IYA2009 for short. There is an excellent web site,, with all kinds of interesting information and links to other excellent web sites.


These activities seem to be very well prepared. For example, the stated goals for IYA2009 are:

  1. Increase scientific awareness
  2. Promote widespread access to new knowledge and observing experiences.
  3. Empower astronomical communities in developing countries.
  4. Support and improve formal and informal education.
  5. Provide a modern image of science and scientists.
  6. Facilitate new networks and strengthen existing ones.
  7. Improve the gender-balanced representation of scientists at all levels and promote greater involvement by underrepresented minorities in scientific and engineering careers.
  8. Facilitate the preservation and protection of the world’s cultural and natural heritage of dark skies in places such as urban oases, national parks and astronomical sites.

(Personally, I particularly like goals 1-4.)

Some of the projects that caught my eye are:

  • The Galileoscope, which seeks to connect amateur astronomers with the general public in the hopes of having 10 million people looking at the sky;
  • The Cosmic Diary, a blog written by a couple dozen young people from all around the world (Serbia, Sudan, Spain, South Africa, etc.)
  • The Dark Skies Awareness Project, which seeks to preserve and protect dark skies in appropriate places, such as national parks and astronomical sites
  • Universe Awareness Program for young children, which offers an array of educational and entertaining materials on their web site
  • From Earth to the Universe, and odd name for an effort to bring stunning astronomical images to the general public.

There is even a calender of astronomical observations, listing for example the Quadrantid Meteor Shower that Tommaso Dorigo just wrote about.

This is exciting, impressive and very encouraging in light of our hopes that the public will come to support science more strongly in the future!

A couple enjoys watching the night sky

A couple enjoys watching the night sky

January 5, 2009 at 6:05 am 2 comments

Antidote for “No Sympathy for Physics Departments”

ZapperZ (blog: Physics and Physicists) provides the perfect antidote to the very negative comments written by the public in response to article about budget challenges to physics departments. His latest post today provides a link to a New York Times article Eleven Questions for Obama’s Science Team. The questions are really good! Number 3 (Can Science Get Respect?), Number 7 (Will You Make Science Cool?) and Number 9 (Boosting U.S. Brainpower) are particularly germane, and heartening.

What a nice first day of 2009!

January 1, 2009 at 8:55 pm Leave a comment

No Sympathy for Physics Departments

I followed a link provided at the Physics and Physicists blog to an article written by the head of the Department of Physics at the University of Tennessee. Tough Times for UT Physics Dept describes the impact of funding cuts on the department. The scenario resembles the one at Northwestern University, where I teach. The number of faculty and lecturers decreases steadily, the number of assistants faster, and the tenured faculty have responded by teaching more than they did in the past.

The posted comments are extremely negative, essentially lambasting the author of that article and academia in general for failing to face reality, and for living a cushy life. The contributors do not appear to be warped or irrational, or to bear special animus toward UT or physics. The basic message is stark, however, for example:

I recommend you tighten your belts and forego raises and take benefit cuts, and share the pain of the private sector.


Those of you who work at universities have long enjoyed a lifestyle most of us private-sector folk envy. Welcome to reality, its about time you joined us.

Or in a more pointed manner:

Who wants to support the Department of Perpetual Grievances? I’m sure such sentiment is unfair to science departments but there it is. Clean your academic house up or get increasingly screwed in the future. Academia is rotting from the core. And for the record I’ve got faculty experience and ten years of post HS degrees.

No one posted a single supportive or sympathetic comment.

To be honest, this scares me. The commentators appear to be well-educated people, yet they hold American universities in very low regard. Many of us at universities feel our research activities are in danger, due to falling federal support and the need to spend more time teaching and supporting our departments. If we took guidance from that segment of the American public, however, we would have to spend even less time on research!

It is often said that American education, especially graduate education, is the best in the world. It is supposed to be one of the great engines of technical innovation. Politicians, journalists and scientists in this country have sounded the alarm about declining support for research and the falling levels of interest of American students in graduate-level studies, as well as declining competence. There clearly is a gulf between them and the commentators whose sharp words I quoted above.

Who is right? Are we professors pampered, ripe for pay cuts and more coursework? Are American students avoiding physics and other difficult subjects because we do not do a good job teaching them? Is there too much scientific research in the United States?

You can probably guess my opinion. What’s yours?

December 28, 2008 at 10:11 pm 3 comments

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