Tongues are all atwitter over the arrest of Al Gore III (or as Jen-Luc calls him, Al 3.0) for possession of contraband substances while speeding... in a Prius. In fact, people are a lot more intrigued by the impressive speed clocked by the plucky little hybrid -- 103 MPH! Go, daddy, go! -- than they are by the all-too-familiar site of a child of the rich and famous misbehaving in public. More celebrity spawn heading for rehab? Yawn. What else is new? But a hybrid whizzing along the highway at more than 100 MPH pretty much shatters our stereotypical assumptions about "green vehicles." I mean, the Prius is the car of choice for uber-liberal, tofu-and sprout-munching, Birkenstock-sporting aging hippies, right? And "greenies" poke along roads at or below the speed limit, irritating the hell out of other drivers, because they're waaay too relaxed from all that meditation in yoga class, right? Not that they'd have any choice, because those limp hybrid engines couldn't possibly match the tumescent gas-guzzling power of a top-notch V-8 engine. Or whatever.
Hah! The joke's on you! Thanks to Al 3.0, we Prius owners can bask in the proud knowledge that our little cars are not just efficient -- they're damned fast, too! Talk about a major paradigm shift in one's public image: the Prius is now a macho muscle car. Chalk it up to things like low-friction rubber tires and killer aerodynamic design -- because, as a Toyota spokesman told the LA Times: "Efficiency is just another word for performance." Damn straight. The only reason I haven't let my little red Prius go full throttle yet is because, well, traffic sucks in Los Angeles, and I'm thrilled when the roads are clear enough to actually be able to drive the speed limit, never mind pretend I'm on the Autobahn.
That said, I did make pretty good time driving to San Francisco yesterday, even if I never topped 75 MPH. (The drive was mostly notable for the staggering 35-degree drop in temperature in a 20-minute time frame as I progressed into the Bay Area. Brrr!) This afternoon I ventured forth into the streets of San Francisco -- on foot -- and found my way to the Exploratorium, one of my favoritest science museums evah in the whole wide world. These folks produce some of the best hands-on science demonstrations out there, and you only need to look around at all the enthusiastic participants -- of all ages -- to know that the Exploratorium's crew of exhibit designers are the Grand Masters when it comes to engaging the hearts and minds of the general public.
Here's just a small sampling of the offerings: a permanent exhibit of the strobe light photography of Harold Edgerton, who was the first to capture moments in time -- moments like a bullet passing through an apple, and other phenomena previously too fast to be seen with the naked eye, or even captured on film with a regular camera. (Rumor has it that Edgerton's technique might even be able to capture a speeding Prius on film, but hey -- it's just a rumor.) There's the notorious drinking fountain constructed out of a toilet, designed to point out how emotion plays a bigger role than reason when it comes to human behavior -- because even though the toilet has never been used for, um, excremental purposes, and the water is clean, and it's the exact same water that pumps through the other public drinking fountain 100 feet or so away, I still felt a slight frisson of disgust at the thought of drinking from it. (I did, but only because some little kid dared me, and I couldn't be shown up by a five-year-old.) Oh, and did I mention the open prototype workshop right there on the premises where workers play around with designing the next round of science demonstrations? It's like getting a ringside seat to watch the master chef at work in your favorite restaurant.
Since I'm about to start writing a third book, on acoustics (that's the plan, at least), I was pleased to find that there's a new exhibit on sound and listening that plays with things like the science of "whispering galleries," sound sculptures, a gigantic echo-tube, and a gas-filled balloon that served as a sonic lens, bending sound the way a glass lens bends light. There are acoustic microscopes being used in research labs around the world that exploit the same basic principle. I especially liked the exhibit demonstrating bone conduction (participants bite down on a metal rod that is vibrating in response to piped-in music), and the giant pan-pipe thingie, in which each pipe of different length captures a specific frequency in the museum's ambient sound.
Honestly, though, the thing I found most fascinating was the cloud chamber. Yeah, yeah, I know it's old technology (hey kids! build your own!), dating back to the 1918 or so, and I know all about how Carl Anderson used one to study cosmic rays and inadvertently discovered the positron in the 1930s. But this was the first time I -- not being a scientist -- had the chance to see a cloud chamber up close and personal, and watch the telltale wispy little white lines -- a.k.a., cosmic ray tracks, or trails of ions -- flash in and out of existence (much, much faster than a speeding Prius), looking for all the world like tiny jet contrails. I stared at the darn thing for a good 15 minutes solid, sufficiently rapt at the intricate subatomic ballet playing out before my eyes, that a few people joined me out of curiosity, before shrugging and moving on to something a bit showier. Finally, one guy asked me what the hell was so fascinating. And I said it was like a tiny window onto the subatomic world, concrete evidence that while we can't see such things with the naked eye, nonetheless, our universe, at this itsy-bitsy size scale, is teeming with activity. It was quantum poetry in motion.
But the real purpose of my visit was to check out this week's Iron Science Teacher competition, hosted by Linda Shore, an astrophysicist and director of the Exploratorium Teacher Institute. It's loosely based on the Japanese cult TV classic, Iron Chef, in which five-star chefs compete to create the most tantalizing meal using a "secret ingredient" that isn't unveiled until right before the competition starts -- and they have to do it in a single hour.
In the case of the Iron Science Teachers, the contestants are all -- you guessed it -- science teachers with varying specialties, culled from the Teacher Institute. There's a weekly "secret ingredient" -- mirrors, or soda cans, for example -- and the contestants have 5-10 minutes to build some sort of demonstration of a scientific principle using that secret ingredient. Then they explain what they've done to the assembled audience, and the winner is determined by the (highly unscientific) "Clap-o-Meter" -- audience applause. Apparently, the competition started out as a joke back in 1997, but was so popular with museum-goers, it became part of the regular program. In the ensuing years, they've learned to make full use of Internet technology, too, via live Webcasting of the weekly competition. (You can find the archived Webcasts here -- they're well worth checking out!)
Sometimes there are special themes. For example, one Christmas, the secret ingredient was fruitcakes, and included a re-enactment of Galileo's apocryphal Leaning Tower of Pisa experiment (dropping different sized fruitcakes from a height), a model of the digestive system dramatizing constipation, and the winning entry, in which the teacher sat on a fruitcake and then drowned it in a bowl of water to show how density affects buoyancy. (Jen-Luc Piquant thinks an excellent math/statistical approach to fruitcake could be to determine the "re-gifting" frequency of this most dreaded of holiday staples. But it would be tough to do in the one-hour time limit.) This week, the "secret ingredient" was chosen in honor of next week's All-Star baseball game that will be played in San Francisco. Okay, technically it was secret ingredients (plural): baseball equipment, collectively, including bats, mitts and baseballs.
First up to bat in the competition was a woman in the mathematics institute. (I don't recall her name; it would be helpful if the Exploratorium handed out flyers with the day's contestants listed on it.) She wasted a bit of breath talking about all the things she could have addressed using the secret ingredients -- but didn't. But when she finally got to the point she was full of fascinating trivial, particularly to a non-baseball fan like myself. (For instance, baseballs aren't very rugged; the major leagues go through 600,000 balls every year.) She deconstructed the baseball, taking one apart into its constituent bits, and sawing a second ball in half so we could all see the various layers.
Things I learned about the anatomy of a baseball: there are 108 double stitches used to sew the leather covering, and it's done entirely by hand. Under the leather is a layer of white poly-cotton ply, then a bunch of blue-gray wool yarn tightly compacted around the center "pill." The "pill" is basically a rubber core, and it provides most of the "bounce" in a baseball; an audience volunteer demonstrated the level of bounce (moderate) aided by a ruler, and the "data" was then depicted on a charted graph in magic marker. She then compared the baseball to a softball, which is mostly cork, and therefore bounced a bit higher than the baseball. Ditto for the basketball.
The equivalent of a "money shot" in her presentation, though, was when she placed the baseball on top of the basketball and dropped them together to see the effect on the bounce. The kid who was volunteering was pretty smart: he correctly predicted that the baseball would bounce higher because it would be bouncing off the basketball. He thought the basketball would bounce the same -- and was promptly disproved. It barely bounced at all, having transferred the bulk of its energy to the baseball's additional bounce. Maybe you think it was unfair to put the kid on the spot, but that's what the scientific method is: you postulate a experiment, make predictions, then test them, and revise your hypothesis accordingly. It was a good performance, even if it had more to do with physics than with math.
In fact, the physicists were kind of intrinsically favored, given the nature of the secret ingredient. The biology science teachers -- Amy Guzman and a fellow local Bay Area biology teacher (whose name I didn't quite catch) -- were totally the underdogs in this particular competition, but they gamely made the best of it. They used the baseball equipment to construct a model of the anatomy of a flower, and used it to demonstrate the process of pollination, the ultimate source of all our food -- including the hot dogs, buns and peanuts one consumes at the baseball stadium. This is a family competition, of course, so things were worded rather delicately -- we're talking about flower sex, after all. But there's really no tasteful way to model the male part of the flower, the stamen: they used the bat and taped two baseballs to the top, and it looked for all the world like two testicles and a (very impressive, length-wise) penis. The host had to intervene at one point when Guzman innocently asked the audience what they thought it was: "Wait -- don't go there! This is a family Webcast!" But the saucy seed was already planted in the minds of the adults, at least. When the two child volunteers dutifully ripped the
testicles baseballs off the penis bat and tossed them into the mitt (serving as the female portion of the flower), I swear I saw a few men in the audience wince in imagined pain.
The two physics teachers were both named Matt, distinguishable by the fact that one (Matt O'Brien) was Australian. The Matt From Oz used a baseball to build a simple pendulum device -- i.e., a fixed mass at the end of a string -- and showed how changing the length of the string led to an observable change in the speed of the swing rate as it moved back and forth. The most obvious application of this is a pendulum clock, but the Aussie wasn't content to just build a clock contraption: he constructed an elaborate Rube Goldberg device, in which the bat served as a pendulum, suspended by twine. Setting the pendulum in motion turned a crank, which (a) marked off time, and (b) eventually released a baseball, which traveled down a makeshift shoot to simulate a "pitch." Ideally, the ball would be released just in time to make contact with the bat. Alas, Aussie Matt struck out -- the ball failed to meet the bat on all three attempts, partly because the twine used is fairly elastic and stretches, affecting the timing of the bat/pendulum's swings. Still, it's a rare science experiment that works perfectly on the first try, and understanding what went wrong often leads to the critical breakthrough or insight that advances any given subfield.
The other Matt was surnamed McHugh (sp? How I would have loved a program!), and he talked about the science behind pitching, specifically, rising fast balls and "sinkers." He, too, had managed to construct not one, but three experimental contraptions, the first two of which he found unsatisfactory ("A lot of science is failure," he explained, which is also true of baseball: batters fail to hit the ball 70% of the time to rack up a .300 batting average), although the third worked very well indeed at simulating the physics of the fastball. Unfortunately, Local Matt was totally upstaged by his audience volunteer, a young boy named Sam who knew absolutely everything there is to know about pitching, and couldn't wait to share that knowledge with the assembled audience. He ended up being added as a last-minute official "contestant," and per the all-powerful "Clap-o-Meter," Sam won the Iron Science Teacher competition hands down -- a first in the event's 10-year history. I overheard his father chatting with audience members afterwards: it was Sam's first visit to the Exploratorium, even though they live nearby: "I was just waiting for him to be old enough."
Were I to pick a winner, Aussie Matt would have carried the day -- I'm a sucker for Rube Goldberg contraptions -- but he was up against Cute Child Syndrome. The Cute Child always wins. Still, who knows? Maybe, once the grown-up Sam retires from his stellar career as a major league baseball player, he'll become a science teacher.
I thoroughly enjoyed the entire performance, and can't imagine how this has been around for a decade without finding its way onto the Discovery Channel as a reality-based TV show. The possibilities are endless, although some changes would have to be made. First of all, in the Exploratorium's competitions, the "secret ingredient" is only a secret to the audience: the competitors know in advance, and plan their experiments accordingly. It's an understandable cheat, given the practical constraints they're working under, but for this to work for a TV audience, the "secret ingredient" has to be secret to the competitors as well. It could provide an opportunity to show the science teachers brainstorming about various approaches they could take with that week's ingredient -- actual scientific problem solving, designing an experiment or classroom activity in real (or pseudo-real) time. Then we could see them building their contraptions, demonstrating them (and all the unpredictable problems that happen along the way -- that, too, is a big part of science!), and explaining the underlying principles.
It'd be tough to do all of this in an hour, of course, but shoot -- Project Runway manages it. Give them more time to build the experiments, and condense the airtime into just the highlights, instead of doing the whole thing in real time. (Even Iron Chef condenses the competition.) This would also relieve the host from having to make sharp, savvy commentary on the fly, thanks to the miracle of post-production voice-overs. As for determining the winner, you could have a panel of judges (science educators), or you could go all American Idol and have people call in to vote, giving you an excuse for a separate "results show." Where will we get the contestants? Puh-leez. If the Exploratorium's been able to do this for 10 years running, there's clearly a lot of creative, talented, highly personable science teachers out there, just waiting for a chance at stardom. And they deserve some national recognition for once, don't you think?
After several hours of hands-on science and walking a good five or six miles up and down San Francisco's famed hilly streets, I had just enough time to check my email before heading out to an Asian fusion joint called Betelnut to meet Bora! and several other Bay Area bloggers. Bora! is, to my mind, the quintessential Serbian (very Tesla-esque): tall, thin, intense, personable, and so animated that from now on, I'm adding a permanent exclamation point to his name. These qualities render him an excellent dinner companion, despite the fact that he never seems to sleep (he literally blogs around the clock). Also on hand were Kristin Abkemaier (of the former Radioactive Banana blog), Justin Watt (Insomnia), plus a few others whose names and faces kind of got jumbled together in the restaurant's noisy ambience. A few candid photos were taken with my little digital camera; this is Bora! with yours truly (Jen-Luc is totally jealous!):
So it was a day of inquiry-based science, with some good food and bloggy chatter thrown in for good measure. Ironically, the cab driver who took me to Betelnut was rabidly right-wing -- unusual for San Francisco -- and was listening to a Rush Limbaugh broadcast. You know, just doing his part to proselytize those darn liberals with the gall to step into his taxi. I rarely listen to such nonsense, but I was struck by Limbaugh's proud, on-air confession that he only reads the first 2-3 paragraphs of any news article, because all the rest of it is just superfluous information -- things like background, context, and the like. He encouraged his listeners to do the same, insisting (without a trace of irony) that by doing so they'd be "better informed." Right. Because context and background information just ruins the magic formula, in which Limbaugh riffs on the random news item of the day, makes a bunch of completely unfounded assertions based on his political leanings, throws in a few snarky liberal-bashing comments, and moves on. No real thought, no real substance, and his listeners just eat it up. (Ann Coulter -- a.k.a., the "Coltergeist" -- employs a similar formulaic, "let's foster ignorance!" approach. Clearly, it has served them both well.)
It was the philosophical antithesis to my day at the Exploratorium, where everyone was encouraged to discover more about the topic at hand, pursue their own lines of inquiry, question assumptions and stereotypes (including their own ingrained biases, per that toilet drinking fountain), and test their theories in a hands-on fashion -- so that their opinions actually have some substantial basis in fact. We need more places like this in the world, to counter all the ignorance-is-bliss-and-science-is-suspect Neanderthals out there. So this is my love letter to the Exploratorium, and every other science museum laboring to bring the light of knowledge to the masses. Your efforts are appreciated.