Sunday, January 31, 2010

Measuring the Mass of a Penny (without measuring a single one)

In teaching chemistry this semester, the first topic I hit was the structure of the atom. One of my philosophies in teaching science is that we shouldn't simply state something as fact. We should present how we know it. So instead of simply stating "There's an atom with protons, neutrons, and electrons", I've been going through the history of their discovery.

Last week, I hit Millikan's oil drop experiment. In this experiment, Millikan sprayed tiny drops of oil into a chamber between parallel, charged plates. The oil drops had stray electrons on them (from him passing X-rays through the air), and since they became charged, he could use the electric field between the plates to control the fall rate of the oil drops. The strength of the electric field times the charge of the electrons times the number of electrons on the oil drop would create an upward force that would balance the downward force of gravity.

In other words, mg = nqE.

The problem with this was that Millikan couldn't be absolutely sure how many electrons were attaching to the oil drop. Thus, not only was q (the charge of an electron) unknown, but the number (n), was too. This left two unknowns for one equation.

What Millikan realized, however, is that n had to be an integer value. With that, Millikan was able to try out several divisors and find the common base unit that all trials showed.

As I explained this, I had a student that just wouldn't accept this was possible and refused to drop the point. So this weekend I came up with an analogy to demonstrate how this would work. I'm going to try it as a lab tomorrow and see how it goes.

Here's the way it works.:

1) I give students an opaque bag with a random number of pennies (1 - 50 roughly, all post 1981 when the composition of pennies changed).

2) Without counting, they weigh the bag, subtract out the weight of the bag, and then start dividing the total weight (minus the weight of the bag) by integer values (preferably in Excel to make things go faster although making them do all the math one at a time would be a joyous bit of Schadenfreude).

3) They repeat this numerous times and find what common factor they all share (making sure to get some prime number values in there so there's no accidents with additional common factors).

4)This common factor should be the mass of a single penny.

I'll let everyone know how this works out and if my student is satisfied.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Candle in the Darkness

With all the bad news from the anti-vaccination front (see numerous posts on the topic over at Bad Astronomy), one person is making a large contribution to make sure vaccination research continues.

Over the next 10 years, the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation will donate 10 billion to vaccine research.

Go Bill!

More things that don't exist

A recent expedition to the Gobi desert has turned up a new transitional fossil along the dinosaur -> bird line.
Haplocheirus is a transitional fossil, because it shows an early evolutionary step in how the bizarre hands of later alvarezsaurs evolved from earlier predatory dinosaurs.... The fossil also confirms our predictions that Alvarezsauridae should have been evolving in the Late Jurassic time period. (Emphasis added)
An intermediate stage discovered as predicted by evolutionary science? Holy explanatory power, Batman!

And this from the Gobi desert too. Not exactly the place I'd like to go for a vacation, but it's what we have to do to get real science done. And what do Creationists do? Oh, that's right. They sit in their delusional museums, payed for by fleecing the flock, and misinterpret real science.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Another Exorcism, Another 2 Dead

Every time I see one of these stories, it amazes me that we're in the 21st century and we still have exorcisms taking place that kill people.

In this instance, a husband and wife were beaten to death by their son and nephew.

According to the son, he had, "had no control over [himself] and it was as though [he] was under a spell."

Indeed he was. It's called religion. And it's a spell that needs to be broken so these things don't happen for such worthless reasons.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Spinning Harder than an Electron

Remember that article I wrote on about differences in the primordial abundances of radioactive isotopes being different that what was anticipated and changing the derived age of the solar system by about two tenths of a percent? The one in which I said "Creationists are still wrong".


They didn't get the message.

I'm not sure what message they are getting in fact. Because their summary of the article is, well.... wrong.

Their entire summary crows about how decay rates aren't constant. They get this from.... Well, not the original paper. That's for sure. The paper was about the primordial abundances being off. The Creationists conveniently leave that out of the summary.

They even go so far as to say
These discordant dates should not be evident if the assumption of rate constancy—which underlies radioisotope dating of igneous materials and is used to support the “billions of years” age for the solar system—is accurate.


The article doesn't underscore the “billions of years” age. Even with the corrections applied, it still gave an age of 4.566 billion years.

Oh snap.

The Creationists conveniently left that bit out too!

Just goes back to the old joke:
Q: How can you tell a Creationist is lying?
A: His lips are moving.

Thanks to Ted for pointing this out to me.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Friday Night Math

I’ve always been a nerd. My Friday nights have long been evidence of this. I’ve never been part of the “party people” and have always had nerdy hobbies that took my weekend evenings.

One of my most beloved hobbies, was a collectible card game I played through all of junior high and half of high school. Every Friday night, I’d head to a local comics and games store at 7 pm, and play with nerds of all ages until usually 1 am.

You may not be immediately familiar with collectible card games (CCGs). Although it doesn’t spring to many people’s minds immediately, most people have at least heard of one: Pokemon. Parents probably heard about this one because these collectible game cards became a problem at schools because they became so popular, they became a distraction at schools and kids would fight over them and steal from one another.
Not all CCGs inspire such fervor. My game of choice was the Star Wars CCG, made by Decipher. In 1999, at the age of 15 I won my way to an invitation at the regional championships. This was no small feat. The game had a steep learning curve and was dominated by college students and older. To go so far at such a young age was rare.

As odd as it may seem, my success also came from my nerdy tendencies; I used my skills in math to build a killer deck.

I loved this game not only because it brought my favorite movie series of all time into a playable game, but because of the subtly elegant design of the game. Unlike many other CCGs, which use dice to determine outcomes, beads or pennies to mark certain cards and track currency, side pencil and paper to keep track of health, etc…, the Star Wars CCG did all of this with just the cards themselves.

In all CCGs, at some point, a random number is necessary to determine the outcome of an event. As mentioned, this of often done with a die. In Star Wars, it was done by drawing a card off the top of your deck. Each card had a “destiny” number that would be used for this purpose. In general, high numbers were better. If you wanted to try to hit someone with a lightsaber, you’d draw a card, look at its destiny number, and if it was higher than your target’s defense value, they’d become one with the Force.

You can probably expect that since you choose what cards go in your deck, this would mean you could just fill your deck with cards that had high destinies and be cutting off more arms than Obi-Wan in a Cantina. This is true, but there’s another problem: More powerful cards tended to have very low destiny values. All of the main characters were a measly 1. Thus, part of the strategy of deck building was to find a balance between these powerful characters and high destiny cards that would help you be cooler than Mace Windu on Geonosis.

However, my strategy moved away from this. Instead of using the powerful Jedi, I built my deck around characters no one else would ever glance at and found ways to make them stronger. The nice thing about these guys was that they had a nice destiny value of 4 (7 was the highest any card had).

Being able to keep so many high destiny cards in my deck was a serious advantage. It was made all the more powerful by using strategies that centered on high destiny values (whereas many other strategies just used it on occasion).

Thus, my task to build the deck was to carefully tune my overall destiny numbers as high as I could, without sacrificing the power of my deck. Here’s where the math comes in.

The most obvious way to analyze the destiny value of the deck was to see what the average was. With my deck, it ended up at 4.3. A typical deck had an average of 2 – 3. This was nice to know. It definitely meant I had some high destiny cards in my deck which would help my overall strategy, but it’s not the whole picture. After all, if 50 percent of my deck was a destiny of 1, and 50 percent was a 7, it would average out to around 4 as well. But I’d still be drawing those 1’s a lot when it counted. So averages are nice, but what I really needed was an understanding of how often different values would come up.

To learn this, I made what’s known as a histogram. Histograms are bar graphs that show the number of something occurring for a given value or range of values. These are useful in many circumstances. In doing my undergraduate research, I made a histogram of the number of stars in an area of sky for a star cluster, fit an equation to it, and found the maxima of that equation to determine the star cluster’s center. For the purposes of my deck, I counted up the number of cards for each destiny value (0 through 7). By looking at ratio of each of these to the total number of cards in the deck, I could determine the probability of each one coming up and assure myself that I was as likely as possible to get what I wanted when it counted.

But your deck of cards isn’t a static thing. You are constantly drawing cards from it to put into play, and returning cards to it through various methods. This means that the average and histogram are constantly changing! To really know how my deck was going to perform, I did one final mathematical analysis. I played dozens of games against myself in which, after every time I took cards from or returned cards to the deck, I re-did my histogram. With this, I was able to track how these values were changing as games would progress. This type of analysis is known as a Monte-Carlo Simulation. In this, you run a scenario numerous times, and see how some quantity changes. It can be affected by various random fluctuations (like the deck being shuffled before the game so the order of cards isn’t the same) so looking at the specific points isn’t helpful, but looking at the averaged trend is telling.

One of the things I learned from this is that I tended to get most of my low destiny cards out of the deck within about 7 turns. That meant that, before that, relying on destiny draws wasn’t entirely safe because those low cards still straggling in my deck, were bringing down my average. But once they were out of the deck and into play, I was almost guaranteed to have a draw of 4 or higher. I ended up with about a 5% chance of anything lower after that point. Those are odds I’d bet on.

So going into the qualification tournament, I had a deep mathematical understanding of how my deck would perform. But there was one more mathematical trick up my sleeve. In the game, it’s possible to return cards to the bottom of your deck from your hand. This meant you could return the highest destiny cards if you didn’t need them at the time and know exactly where they were. All you had to do with use subtraction to keep track of how far down they were in the deck. A simple trick to be sure, but by doing this, my scraggly band of nobodies took down Darth Vader, time and time again.

In that tournament, I took 3rd place out of over 40 players. I suffered one loss, and it was at the hands of the player that would become that year’s world champion. So the moral of this story is that an understanding of some math tricks can make you a Jedi Master, if only on Friday nights.

And remember; May the F = ma be with you. Always.

(This post was originally written for another source relating math to every day experiences, but I decided to post it here.)

Monday, January 18, 2010

I Kissed a Nerd

HT @ Laney

Obama hates matches?

I've been searching for strike-anywhere matches for an experiment I'm doing for my upcoming Anime Mythbusters panel and can't find them anywhere. Naturally, I turned to the internet. Sure enough, they're for sale on Ebay.

And good thing I checked there. According to the seller:

These matches are getting Harder and Harder to find, and with the New Obama Administration They are subject to be banned anytime. (10 Years Ago) You could buy these match in almost any store including Walmart now try and find them in anystore!
Oh shit! Obama hates matches because..... Um.... I don't know.


I suspect that it has something to do with the fact that Obama apparently also hates guns, which means he hates hunters, which means he hates outdoors types, which means he hates campers, and campers sometimes use these matches....


Meanwhile, in reality world, I think it has nothing to do with Obama, but more likely that strike-anywhere matches were declared a Hazardous Material awhile back.

Gee. I wonder why.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Men More Evolved?

Of all the dumb questions Creationists ask, one of the dumbest is "Why are there still monkeys?"

This shows a misunderstanding of two key points of evolution:

1) We didn't evolve from monkeys; We share a common ancestor.
2) Not everything is trying to evolve to become human.

This self gratifying assumption that everything has the exact same evolutionary "goal" is based on the notion of the great chain of being that Creationists seem to think Evolutionists (whatever the hell that means) say everything is trying to climb, towards the same goal.

This misunderstanding is prolific and extends well beyond Creationists (although Creationists love to take advantage of it). So much that it's slapped across the title of an article on ABC's website which proclaims: "Men More Evolved? Y Chromosome Study Stirs Debate".


Unless you apply stupid concepts like the great chain, "more" and "less" evolved are completely meaningless. What the title should say is that the Y chromosome is accumulating genetic mutations more quickly. That doesn't imply that it's a good thing. Remember, most mutations are neutral and wouldn't have an effect on the evolution unless selected for.

Very little of this really comes through even reading the article.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Astronomers Humor: Part 1

Scientists are often portrayed as not having much of a sense of humor and being very dry. So I'm going to start up another series of blog posts highlighting amusing tidbits I've seen in journal articles.

The first one is a LotR reference: A journal article begins the title with, "One Simulation to Fit Them All".

The second for today is a computer code meant for analyzing stellar evolution written by Lesaffre et al. (2006). Its name is "FLASH_THE_TORTOISE".

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Netflix streaming coming to the Wii

I've had Netflix for a little over a year now and have absolutely loved it. It's introduced me to some great new movies I'd never heard of and is fantastically convenient.

I've been jealous that the XBox and PS3 have streaming capabilities while the Wii gets left out. I don't have either of those systems and don't have any reason to get them as there's no games I really want for them. But Netflix streaming that's not tied to my computer would be fantastic.

Which is why I'm happy to hear Wiis are getting the feature this spring. It will apparently require users to have a free disk inserted into the system to use, but a disk that allows users to access thousands of movies and shows?

I've already reserved mine.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Note on Dimensional Analysis

Paying attention to your units is important. And I almost screwed it up while preparing my lecture for this years Science of Anime panel.

I was working with some densities and apparently suddenly switched from kg/km3 to kg/m3 without converting. Not sure how I did that, but it's the little things like that that put you off by a factor of a billion.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Religion and Free Speech

There's two articles in the media right now pertaining to religion and free speech. As you might suspect, each is incredibly stupid in their own way.

The first about a Muslim group fire bombing Christian Churches because a Catholic newspaper used the word "Allah" as a generic term for God. It is. It's extremely sad and pathetic for someone to get so worked up about people using words properly. Imagine what would have happened if someone declared a fatwa against comma splices....

The second story is about a court upholding the right of free-speech, even when it includes insulting of a religion (Islam in this case). While I think it's absolutely wonderful that the freedom of speech is being upheld over religious whining, it does strike me as an odd double standard: If someone insults Islam, it's perfectly protected under free speech, but how many times have we seem similar insults lobbed at Christians reframed as "hate speech"?

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Even When Scientists are Wrong, Creationists Still Aren't Right

ResearchBlogging.orgNew evidence has shown the most commonly given age of the solar system is wrong.

The equations used to derive the age of it from radiometric dating of numerous isotopes was fundamentally flawed because it assumed that the ratio of certain isotopes was the same. Detailed new measurements have shown it's not.

This "implies substantial uncertainties in the ages previously determined by Pb-Pb dating". So astronomers have had to recalculate the age of the solar system given this new information.

The old age: 4.6 billion years.
The new age: 4.6 billion years.

Oh wait.... let me zoom in a bit and add a few more significant digits.

Old: 4.567 billion years.
New: 4.566 billion years.

See! See! Scientists got it wrong!

But wait.... how it that "substantial"? It still doesn't mean that the Earth is 6,000 years old and Jesus rode around on a dinosaur.

In the full geological history of the Earth, that ~1 million years isn't that important. But on the timescales in which solar system formation takes place, it's a decent chunk of time and we need a good understanding of timescales to put into models to make them as accurate as possible.

This won't mean a rewrite of any high school textbooks since the significant digits are rounded off before this change is even noticed, but this is yet another example of how science is self correcting and is constantly challenging its own assumptions.
Brennecka, G., Weyer, S., Wadhwa, M., Janney, P., Zipfel, J., & Anbar, A. (2009). 238U/235U Variations in Meteorites: Extant 247Cm and Implications for Pb-Pb Dating Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1180871

YouTube vs. Copyright

Apparently Square/Enix had a problem with my using a 55 second clip of Advent Children in my Science of Anime panel last year and had that portion of the panel blocked on YouTube. I've contested this with YouTube arguing my use of it falls under Fair Use laws, but YouTube's default policy is one of "guilty until proven innocent... if we ever review the case."

Below is a video summary of why my work should be protected and the problem with YouTube's copyright policy.

Monday, January 04, 2010

UT Posts: 12/12 - 1/4

Here's what's been going on in astronomy news that I've covered at UT:

Reexamining a Cataclysm - A reexamination of impact basins on the moon using only ones that have absolute dates known from Apollo missions shows a different frequency size of impactors than that of Main Belt Asteroids as previously suggested.

New Results from the CDMS II Experiment - Did the Cryogenic Dark Matter Survey detect dark matter?

Can the Recurrent Novae RS Oph become a Type Ia Supernova? - Looking at the accumulation of mass on RS Oph vs. mass lost in the novae.

New Observations of TRES-2b May Reveal New Exoplanet - Does a change in the timing of a known exoplanet hint at the presence of another in the same manner Neptune was revealed through its effects on Uranus?

Galactic Building Blocks - Analysis of the similarity to dwarf galaxies to our outer halo.

MN112 - A New LBV Found From Its Nebula? - Test case of finding Luminous Blue Variables from the characteristics of the nebulae they emit.

Do Eruptions of P Cyg Point To A Companion? - Do a series of eruptions in the 1600's on P Cyg fit the model for an undetected companion star?

New Studies on the Vela Star Forming Region - Summary of two new papers examining star formation in Vela.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Science of Anime 2.0 (Anime Mythbusters)

Last year at one of the conventions I hit annually (well, more like the only one), I presented a lecture I called Science of Anime (see last year's version here). Naka-Kon's coming up in just over a month and I'm starting to prepare my panel for this year.

I'm looking for new ideas on topics to cover but coming up short on ideas. I'm looking to replace ~5 of the topics with new ones. So far, I've got at least three topics I'm fairly certain will make the cut. I've only gone through the math on one to make sure it's sufficiently exciting to include in the panel which means I need at least two more.

So if any readers watch any anime and have seen something they figure just can't work and would like to know just how far off it is, let me know and I'll see if I can work it out and add it to the panel.

Keep in mind, I'm not looking for the things that are commonplace like there's no sound in space. Nor am I looking for things that actually work within reasonable parameters. I'm wanting things that are so bad that to make things actually happen the way they're depicted would require destroying at least a small city, if not the whole universe or worse, reality. Take a look at parts 4 and 5 of last year's version to see the best examples of what I want to keep and what I'm looking for more of.

(Oh, and I'm changing the name this year for reasons I stated in last year's panel.)

Thanks everyone!

Review: Dollhouse

I'm way behind the curve on this one, but I finally got around to seeing Joss Whedon's Dollhouse. When I first heard of it a few years ago, I was told it was going to be very different from Whedon's other series so I stayed away from it, but thanks to a Christmas gift certificate and a really nice sale on the whole first season, I went ahead and picked it up.

F*** me for not picking this up sooner.

It was true that this series was somewhat darker. It didn't have the casual silliness of Firefly or Dr. Horrible, but it didn't seem all that different in mood than the story lines of Buffy or Angel (although it's been 7 years since I watched either of those shows heavily so my memory may be skewed).

As is typical of Whedon's series, episodes often can be taken independently without requiring the viewer to have seen every episode. But taken in continuity, they all fit together to develop wonderful parts. Occasionally, one will feel that it could have been left out only to be referenced later to help build an overarching theme. The way all that works out is one of the magics Whedon has that makes me love everything he does.

And if the first 12 episodes weren't good enough, the extra episode (Epitaph One) made the series way better. It takes the story line that's been somewhat slow to develop into a larger story, and drops it into a post apocalyptic scenario leaving the viewer wondering how the two are connected. There's teasing ties that have fantastic hooks that make me wish I'd seen this earlier so I could have been watching the second season as it aired so I could see how this has played out.

I suppose it's time to try to find out if Season 2 is on Hulu....

If you're a fan of Whedon's other works and series that take a little more thought than the average muck on television, this is a series you might want to check out.

Friday, January 01, 2010

What a Cool Lab Project

One of my biggest gripes about high school labs is how rudimentary they are. They're often simplified to the point of barely teaching anything or so filled with unconstrained variables that the uncertainty is over 100%.

But a New York High School is apparently working with Rockefeller University to match the DNA of everyday items with a database of species. And they found lots of cool stuff:
  • Alleged sheep's milk cheese that was nothing but cow's milk

  • Purported dried shark meat that turned out to be Nile perch

  • Mississippi paddlefish eggs masquerading as Sturgeon caviar

  • Frozen Yellow catfish that proved to be Walking catfish, an invasive species in Florida
Perhaps the most interesting find was a potentially new species of cockroach.

I'm curious as to how much of the actual sequencing work the students are in on or if the actual science is a "black box" sort of thing, but either way, this sort of lab work is much more interesting and will probably stay with the students far longer than rolling rusty carts down inclined planes.