Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Summer That Changed Everything

This will be remembered as the summer that the Universe changed. I mean really this must have been what it was like to live in the first half of the 20th century when all the fundamental laws, constants and particles were being sorted out prompting Kelvin to say, somewhat famously that experimental science would no longer be involved in discovery but changing the numbers in the fourth decimal point of known values (for an entertaining spin on this read Horgan's "End of Science").

Why do I say that? Well, there is this attitude that we have in Science, especially Physical Science that we sort of have all the important stuff nailed down and we tend to communicate that as our first message to our students.

I started out in chemistry until I discovered that they were obsessed with something they called “The Right Answer” so I switched to psychology where you basically write whatever you want, and chances are you get a B.
Jon Stewart "The Daily Show".

Then a summer like this one comes along. Earlier this summer they discovered that our values for the size of the proton were wrong ... by more than five deviations. What? How is that even possible? And this a fundamental value that is one of the corner stones of physical science. So just what are the differences?

Holy improbable Batman, how could we have balanced our equations with this kind of error?

Now, on the other hand, just yesterday a startling observation was published. We all teach kinetics to first year students and they only lift their faces from their drool puddles when we digress and tell them that nuclear decay is a first order process and you can radio date objects by determining isotopic ratios AND ASSUMING THAT RADIOACTIVE DECAY IS CONSTANT. Yeah, like we couldn't get that wrong could we ... well until someone actually checked at least. It would appear ... well, let's let the professionals say what they mean:

"On Dec 13, 2006, the sun itself provided a crucial clue, when a solar flare sent a stream of particles and radiation toward Earth. Purdue nuclear engineer Jere Jenkins, while measuring the decay rate of manganese-54, a short-lived isotope used in medical diagnostics, noticed that the rate dropped slightly during the flare, a decrease that started about a day and a half before the flare." [link]

"Everyone thought it must be due to experimental mistakes, because we're all brought up to believe that decay rates are constant," Sturrock said. [Peter Sturrock, Stanford professor emeritus of applied physics ][link]

"It doesn't make sense according to conventional ideas," Fischbach said. Jenkins whimsically added, "What we're suggesting is that something that doesn't really interact with anything is changing something that can't be changed." [Ephraim Fischbach, a physics professor at Purdue and Purdue nuclear engineer Jere Jenkins] [link]

So in three months two fundamental laws and a fundamental principle that we teach first year chemistry students has changed dramatically. Makes you think doesn't it? I can hear textbooks being re-written already. But at least we are living in a time of discovery.

Quote that has nothing to do with this post but it made me laugh ... and I needed to laugh.

"It is rare to find learned men who are clean, do not stink and have a sense of humour."
Montesquieu (1689—1755) about Leibniz (1646—1716)

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About Me

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For a while it was all about research and then it was all about teaching and now it's all about trying to find a balance while teaching at a small liberal arts and science university.