Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Watchers of the skies

Watchers of All! Clearly, I would have chosen a different soundtrack, but it's an amazing video nonetheless. Telescopes busy chasing a sky spinning with wonders.

I like the modern design and integrated ventilation control/temperature equilibrating systems.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Don't mess with... Grand Rapids?

I suppose it's only natural for those toiling away in a dying medium to want to point a finger at something else and say, "Hey, that's dying, too!" But when the once-proud print journalism outlet, Newsweek, called my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan a dying city, they invited some blowback.

Grand Rapidians put together some time, talent, energy, and a relatively wee budget to produce a video that rivals OK Go's "This Too Shall Pass" or Feist's "1234" in planning and execution. And it set a record for "lip dub" videos.

Take a look.

No snark. No hate. No Newsweek-bashing. Just enthusiasm and joy. And orchestration, timing, steady-cam dolly work and blocking!

The video went live and was forwarded to Newsweek's Facebook page early and often by dwellers of the dead city. Newsweek retreated:

"we want you to know [the list of dying cities] was done by a website called mainstreet.com--not by Newsweek (it was unfortunately picked up on the Newsweek web site as part of a content sharing deal)--and it uses a methodology that our current editorial team doesn't endorse and wouldn't have employed. It certainly doesn't reflect our view of Grand Rapids.

Nice work, Grand Rapids! 

Friday, May 27, 2011

Egg Toss - Texas style!

Physics teacher Jean Gifford found our "Egg Toss" activity deep in The Book of Phyz and thought it might be worth a try at Taylor High School in the Lone Star State.

When we scramble our eggs in late October here in Sacramento, the temperature on Grass Omelet Field sometimes exceeds 80°F.

Mid-January in Central Texas is a different story, as the photos indicate.

But Mrs. Giffords assures me that Taylor's physics students had a great time and learned their impact-time-reduces-impact-force lessons well.

Thanks to Jean Gifford and her talented students for sharing the experience. (And apologies for the magnitude of the interval between your sharing and my posting.) Go Ducks!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Fringe of Optics - a new PhET activity

The geometry and trigonometry of interference patterns is non-intutive to students. I think it's non-intutive to most of us. Doing real lab work in this area is recommended. But the equipment and time requirements can be daunting.

This sim can be used in conjunction with a lab activity, or in place of one (in a pinch). Its intent is to develop the basic relationship governing the geometry of a two-slit interference pattern, and then to work with that relationship.

The activity uses the PhET sim, Wave Interference.

The Fringe of Optics (PhET page).

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bending Light - a new PhET sim

The good people at PhET have launched a new physics simulation into the world.

Bending Light. It's a robust refraction sim with many tools and options. PhET says:
Explore bending of light between two mediums with different indices of refraction. See how changing from air to water to glass changes the bending angle. Play with prisms of different shapes and make rainbows.
PhET sims now have an "embed" feature (very groovy). So click on the screen shot below to launch the sim, itself!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Entertaining equilibrium

If this guy's not a Libra, I shall renounce my faith in Zodiacal Astrology.

Wait: I have no faith in Zodiacal Astrology. Durn.

But what a lesson in balanced torques! And a nice soundtrack, too. The Hebrew of the video's title translates to "Amazing Performance and Power Balance," according to Google Translate.

Your assignment: make a clever number puzzle (standard physics numerical problem) out of this.

Hat tip: Marion Gribskov (my distinguished Rio Phyz predecessor).

Monday, May 23, 2011

Radioactive Speed Dating - a new PhET activity

PhET's "Radioactive Dating Game" sim has a fun game-like element to it.

Too much for me to resist, and why would I? So I wrote an activity to exploit the competition potential of the sim. Since time was of the essence in this competition, the title wrote itself.

Radioactive Speed Dating

Saturday, May 21, 2011


Saturday, May 21, 2011.

Sunday, Mat 22, 2011.

Rest in peace, $100M Family Radio media empire... 

Go gentle into that good night... 

Let not the door of history hit the backside of your foolishness upon your hurried exeunt...

May 21 really was Judgment Day, and you (Harold Camping/Family Radio) were found wanting...

Fifteen minutes with your "Prophesy" were as 15,000 hours...

OK, I'll stop. But if you saw my Scientist Valentines, you know I could go on. And on.

Friday, May 20, 2011

See for yourself why the GOP fears Goodwin Liu

Rio alum's court nomination exposes GOP hypocrisy

Goodwin Liu (Rio '87) was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve on the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals. I wrote about Professor Liu before, and about his nomination. While Liu was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, frightened Republicans prevented an up or down vote on Liu's nomination. So the President renominated Liu. The Senate continued to dither, so the President renominated Liu again.

Liu is a brilliant legal mind. He is a prize-winning scholar who clerked for Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Rio Americano, Stanford, Oxford, and Yale Law can claim this Rhodes Scholar as one of their own.

Yesterday, though, the Senate voted to filibuster Liu's nomination rather than allow an up or down vote. A cloture vote was lost as 43 votes against outweighed 52 votes in favor. The vote exposed many among the GOP as pure hypocrites.

Senator John Cornyn of Texas wrote in a 2004 law review article: "Wasteful and unnecessary delay in the process of selecting judges hurts our justice system and harms all Americans. It is intolerable no matter who occupies the White House and no matter which party is the majority party in the Senate... Filibusters are by far the most virulent form of delay imaginable."

But Cornyn was good to go with the Liu filibuster.

Senator Lamar Alexander said in the Congressional Chronicle in 2005: "I pledged, then and there, I would never filibuster any President's judicial nominee, period. I might vote against them, but I will always see they came to a vote."

But Alexander was good to go with the Liu filibuster.

And Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia said in 2005: "I will vote to support a vote, up or down, on every nominee. Understanding that, were I in the minority party and the issues reversed, I would take exactly the same position because this document, our Constitution, does not equivocate."

But Isakson was good to go with the Liu filibuster.

And Senator Orrin Hatch in a Senate floor statement in 2007: "We may not use our role of advise and consent to undermine the President's authority to appoint judges... It is wrong to use the filibuster to defeat judicial nominees who have majority support, who would be confirmed if only we could vote up or down. That is why I have never voted against cloture on a judicial nomination."

But Hatch was OK with the Liu filibuster.

So much fear and loathing directed toward a highly-qualified nominee with bipartisan support from left, right, and center. I understand the fear among far-right extremists. Liu is a brilliant left-of-center legal mind. He is Supreme Court material.

The fact that he has the support of Kenneth Starr and Richard Painter might worry liberals. And his support of charter schools and government-funded vouchers for private schools hardly aligns Liu with the Left!

Fortunately, Liu is young. Time is on his side. His star is on the rise.

The GOP also shot itself in the foot as far as Asian voters are concerned. Some are angrier than others.

I am very proud of Goodwin Liu. And I know his story doesn't end here.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Wednesday's power outage at school...

was a bit of a disappointment, actually. Power cuts at school typically happen in the late morning or early afternoon in conjunction with wild, windy, stormy weather. Wednesday, the power was off at the beginning of the day.

No worries. I deployed Operation: PowerOn!

I'm lucky enough to have permanent access to a lab set of MacBooks: 10 laptops on a charging cart (a lasting legacy of Digital High School). The school purchased The Mechanical Universe High School Adaptation on VHS circa 1990, and repurchased the set on DVD a few years ago. I was able to rip each episode (via Handbrake and VLC), turn them into QuickTime files, and load them onto each laptop. (This also comes in handy when a student misses the in-class presentation and needs to make it up at lunch or after school.)

We have a class set of headphones and signal splitters for use during computer-based sound wave labs. Three splitters will turn one stereo jack into four, so four students can watch one laptop screen and listen to their presentation without being distracted by the other computers' audio programs.

It worked flawlessly: the class spent the first 20 minutes of class watching "The Wave Nature of Light" and answering questions from the video sheets I give out when we watch this episode in class under normal circumstances.

In truth, the power came on about 10 minutes in and I could have aborted Operation: PowerOn. But sometimes the return of power is fleeting and uncertain: it's up, then it's down, and back up. I didn't see any need to take a chance when the contingency plan was going so well.

Operation: PowerOn successfully negotiates the power cut conditions: No AC means no projecting and no surfing the Interwebs. The room is dark, illuminated by whatever light comes in through the windows. But charged laptops can last for hours.

Had the power remained out, we had a PhET activity lined up, and since I loaded the full PhET installation on each laptop, no Internet connection was needed.

I'd be lying if I didn't admit to some sense of smug satisfaction that comes from being prepared for such an outage. But I hate feeling powerless when the power goes out or surrendering the time to waste. And my students were great about it; no complaints of having to do a physics lesson when the lights were out. They jumped on it and completed the lesson like pros.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Corner Refractor - "Figuring Physics" in the May TPT

Paul Hewitt (author, Conceptual Physics) contributes a "Hewitt Drewitt" physics cartoon puzzle to each issue of the American Association of Physics Teachers magazine/journal, the aptly titled The Physics Teacher.

This month's "Figuring Physics" a refraction puzzle that came to me last year while retooling an interactive classroom lesson.

Corner Refractor (PDF)

Hewitt would implore you to wait before getting to the solution. And all the "Figuring Physics" puzzles are intended as "Next Time Questions," meaning you give them to students one day, and don't provide answers until next time, no matter how compellingly students beg.

Corner Refractor - Solution (PDF)

I'm delighted whenever I can conjure something good enough for Paul Hewitt to use in the column. "Figuring Physics" requires the right balance of trickiness and accessibility, novelty and familiarity. They're not easy to write.

If you've got one, send it in! He's always keen to have more.

Need some inspiration? Or just looking for more where this one came from?

Hewitt's Next-Time Question Archive at Arbor Scientific.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Pixel Peeping - a new PhET activity

PTSOS colleague, Dan Burns, has his students look at pixels through a small, powerful magnifier. Five years after he shared this idea at a PTSOS workshop, I finally figured out a way to make this work for my own students. (I'm kinda slow.)

It involves the use of PhET's Color Vision sim in addition to a magnifier.

Having run a few early drafts in class, I will warn you that you'll hear many involuntary expletives of amazement while students undertake this investigation. They've been looking at displays all their lives. And they never knew what was going on at the microscopic level.

I'm always a fan of activities that get even the most jaded, "been there, done that" high school teenager to revert to the sense of wonder they had in elementary school. Even if only for a few moments. So I can recommend this one without hesitation.

Pixel Peeping at PhET

Monday, May 09, 2011

Zombie Marie Curie is here!

and well-intentioned marginalizers gonna have some 'splainin' to do.

Dig in! (Click the first panel to get the rest of the story.)

Saturday, May 07, 2011

TAM 9 From Outer Space

This is your friendly reminder to get it in gear if you want to go to this year's premiere celebration of science, skepticism, and critical thinking. The Amaz!ng Meeting 2011 (TAM 9) will be held July 14-17 at the South Point Hotel, Casino, and Spa in Las Vegas.

The luminaries scheduled to appear include Bill Nye (The Science Guy), Mythbuster Adam Savage, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, Phil Plait, PZ Myers, magicians Penn & Teller and Banachek, Skepics' Guide to the Universe and Skepticality talents, awesome Aussies Karen Stollznow and Richard Saunders, Brit-wit Richard Wiseman, entertainer George Hrab, and many, many, many more.

It's difficult to describe this conference beyond the term, "Amazing." I will say that I've been to TAMs 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8, and that I intend to go as long as
a. they are held and
b. I am alive.

For what it's worth, I do not make that claim regarding any other conference or meeting series that I attend other than TAM.

The attendance for TAM has grown every year (and throughout the Great Recession) because if you're anything like me, you get hooked at your first TAM and never miss another. Best. Addiction. Ever.

The Amaz!ng Meeting 2011: TAM 9 From Outer Space!

Shine a Light

The good people at PhET have produced a sim called "Photoelectric Effect." As they describe it, "See how light knocks electrons off a metal target, and recreate the experiment that spawned the field of quantum mechanics."

I wrote an activity to go with it. In honor of Paul Hewitt's affection for The Rolling Stones (and because it's the right title for the activity), I called it "Shine a Light."

As of this post, I haven't uploaded the instructor's notes and answers to questions. But for the adventurous among you, I think you'll find the activity very straight forward.

Shine a Light PhET activity page.

The end of the world is coming (again)

Excuse me while I don't stifle a yawn.

Harold Camping has pegged May 21, 2011, as the day that good Christians will be raptured and Judgment will begin. "It is going to happen, There is no Plan B," he says. Camping is the 89-year old founder of Family Radio, a $100,000,000 media network. Family Radio's financial situation improves as Camping's followers surrender their personal wealth to his empire. He assures them money will have no value on May 22.

Camping, like pretty much anyone else who predicts the end of the world these days, is
1. a self-styled "Christian" who has personally cracked the Bible's secret code to learn the date of The End.
2. confident that he'll be afloat during the Rapture.
3. a veteran of at least one End of the World prediction that failed.

Oh yes, he wrote not one, but two voluminous tomes (1994? and Are You Ready?) declaring that the Rapture and Judgment would commence in 1994. In conceding the obvious, he confessed to not looking into the Book of Jeremiah, which is apparently a very important source of end-times data. Last time he was wrong; this time he'll be right. No really!

The Family Radio army is on the march, spreading "The Word." What should we expect on Judgment Day? Camping's followers say that "starting in the Pacific Rim at around the 6 p.m. local time hour, in each time zone, there will be a great earthquake, such as has never been in the history of the Earth." Sounds frightening.

I decided this is teachable moment. There is no end-of-the-world theory so wacky that hoards of followers won't climb on board. But I'm not keen to have any of my students jump on those bandwagons.

So I prepared a poster listing some of the most prominent end-of-the-world. About 50 of them, on a 17" x 22" poster. (This kind of thing happens when you can make 17" x 22" prints. Anyway, I think it looks pretty good. I'll post it for the May 21 End of the World. I'll post it again for the December 21, 2012 End of the World. And I'll post it for any other Ends of the World that happen between or beyond those dates.

I worried that taking on Camping and Family Radio would give offense to my Christian students, but was assured (from all corners) that it would not. He ranks up there with the Westboro Baptists for giving Christians a bad image. Delusional nut cases who profit by spreading fear do not qualify for "tolerance." They qualify for scrutiny and example-making. Which is not to say derision and mockery are off the table.

THE END OF THE WORLD! ...has happened before (many times). (PDF, native at 17" x 22")

National Public Radio's story on the May 21, 2011 end of the world story.

Harold Camping's Family Radio.com