Friday, February 25, 2011

Straight from the Horse's Mouth

Budget cuts, the two words orbiting around so many debates. For the most part, it seems like a NIMBY case. Not In My Backyard. Yes, they are happening but it seems to never have landed near me. Well, this time it has.

For almost the last two years I have called UW Madison's Synchrotron Radiation Center (SRC) my home. And now it is set for termination. The SRC is a small particle accelerator laboratory that uses light to uncover the underlying properties of matter.

The SRC houses a machine that accelerates electrons near the speed of light around a baseball diamond sized track. This produces a broad spectrum of light frequencies scientists can use (like a microscope) to study matter.

"A person looks a lot different to an X-ray than with visible light. The same is true for other materials," said SRC physicist Cliff Olson.

The reality is what it is. There are a number of things involved in all of the politics that simply don't add up for a termination, it's just simply the "politics" word that we all like to blame. I will comment on one thing though.

The last line states that there are more powerful and capable facilities that surpass the SRC. This is true, the SRC accelerator is considered a 2nd generation light source and the standard today is the 3rd generation. We have designs for the 4th.

The accelerator, named Aladdin, housed at the SRC in Stoughton, WI during construction 1984

Most upsetting though is that a response like this is what sells the termination. An argument like this is a misconception, something that we internally believe: Bigger = Better. Much like how we say we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, we still do.

Saying that the SRC has been outdone by bigger laboratories is equivalent to saying that using a tennis racket in table tennis is much better because you can hit the ball harder.

Every mechanic, carpenter and builder knows the right tool is always essential. The SRC is being shut down and the official statement is not based on merited facts. I am continually reminded of why I do what I do to better communicate the idea of science.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Black Box We All See

Shifting gears a bit. As a continuation off the first post about how science is not just done by scientists, is the fact that we are immersed in the resultants of scientific progress, every day.

It's not always easy to foresee the immediate benefits from scientific research. To demonstrate the significance of basic scientific research is to look at something we see nearly everywhere: The MP3 player

This is just one example of the many things we take for granted everyday. However, it should never be assumed that science just progresses as if it were a mechanical clock. Behind every single innovation was someone who sat down with a pen and paper and started drawing, inventing and creating.

Do you know how your cell phone really works? Someone created it by challenging common knowledge. Thankfully, people are not black boxes.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Bicycles and the City: A list guide for survival and sanity

Included in almost every car advertisement is a blurb about the car’s fuel efficiency. Measured in miles per gallon, this tells us how far we get with a measured amount of fuel. Despite the continually increasing “mpg’s” we see, cars are horrible wasters of gas. Check out this chart of fuel efficiencies:

Bicycles are a model of efficiency. Wikipedia says they range from 80-99% efficient. A lot of the juice we put into the pedals comes out favorably as forward motion. Bikes are great.  Exercise, a breeze in your hair, no traffic jams, and some feel goods about not wasting money.

In no place is the bike best suited than a bustling city. All of these benefits are sure to follow so long as you don’t contend face-to-face with that 2-ton inefficient monster known as an automobile.

This is a seemingly obvious list to help you keep things sane. 

1) Helmets: Whereas it was uncool to wear a helmet in our younger years, today it says a lot about the head its protecting. I think of it as someone expressing humility, recognition of mortality. Simply put--your body can take a beating, your head cannot.
2) Best offense is a good defense? As far as the totem pole goes for city commuting, bikers are on the lowest end. Think of it as a glorified and unfair game of rock paper scissors. Car beats all, but cars can be trumped by pedestrians and the following lawsuits. It’s best to assume that bikes  lose no matter what you throw. There are many of cases where bicyclists are involved in an accident and inherit all of the blame and fines, despite having to go to the E.R.

3) Buses…There is one rule only. Don’t mess with them, period. Do not: go around them, in front of them, or behind them (for the sake of breathing.) They are cumbersome and unforgiving.

We can use physics for an absurd example:

Physics has a formula to measure how much Oommph or force a moving object has. If we calculate it out, a bus driving 25 m.p.h. has 768,350 Newtons and a bicyclist driving the same speed has about 3,932 Newtons.

What is a Newton? It’s a unit of force similar to how  we use pounds to measure weight. 1 newton is about 1/5 of a pound, so say a nice sized apple.
Take the bus’s apples and subtract them from the bicyclist's:
768,350 – 3,932 = 764,418 (more apples than you had) This means the bus stole all your thunder and continued to give you all of its remaining thunder in the form of pain.

Ok, so no one needs an equation to know that a bus will destroy a bike, it’s not a bad idea though to look at it from another viewpoint to drive it home. Keep your distance.

4) Blinky lights: As nighttime falls a bicyclists turns into a phantom. Scooting silently through the street canals masked within the periphery of an automobiles limited headlights. For these midnight hours there are many products out there built to obnoxiously announce that there is another being sharing the road. Quickly flashing LED lights keep you safe.
5) The Moment of Truth: The psychology of being knocked off your bike by an automobile is a perturbing event, to put it lightly. 

What happens: You are on your way to your destination and through a blinding mix of probabilities, a car is on a one-way course to ruin your day. Your mind will be at peace as you soar in slow-motion through the air. After a quick inversion from going over the handlebars you will land with the shocking force of everything reality has to offer. 

After realizing a few seconds later that you’re okay, just bleeding, you will notice the automobile driver still there, stopped with no expression. They remain in their fortified cocoon sealed off from all pandemonium in and around you. The car has not a scratch, it didn’t move one bit. You have repairs, a limp and the most unsettling feeling in your gut, you are so fragile and vulnerable with few to empathize or even sympathize.

Moving forward:

Number 5 is no good. So stay away from it, use your head and protect it. You'll be okay on a bicycle. Alternatively, just ride a bus and have an apple--both are financially smart and healthy things to do.