Namo amitabha Buddhaya, y'all.
This here's a religious establishment. Act respectable.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Newton's First Law of Seat Belts

Meters swum today: None. Got home at half past midnight.
Playing in the background: Enya, "Shepherd Moons"

Last night I saw my second-favorite astrophysicist, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, speak at UT Arlington. Yes, I realize not everybody has a favorite astrophysicist, much less two. Yes, I admit that I like Michio Kaku one nano more than Tyson because he figure skates. Am I shallow? Maybe. But anyway: It was such a treat to see Dr. Tyson live - and in cowboy boots, no less! I've read a couple of his books, seen him on TV a number of times, and as Dr. Tyson himself points out, there's only one astrophysicist per million people on Earth, so go see one speak whenever you can. And ask lots of questions!

Dr. Tyson's presentation was a departure from astrophysics, kind of, into a rather more earthly dilemma. As Americans, we pride ourselves on being the world leaders in math and science. However, and this is a quote, "We Americans have a fundamental disconnect between the country we think we are and the country we actually are." During the 50s and 60s, with Russia as our enemy and innovation seen primarily as a way to win wars, America was indeed the world leader. Since then, however, we've been losing ground - or rather, standing still as other countries pass us by. Tyson presented an unsettling picture of the decisions we've made in this regard and their consequences. He hasn't written a book about this yet, but his good friend Carl Sagan has. It's called The Demon Haunted World. Go get it, read it, and then come back to this blog post. Done? Good. We move on.

First, for those who don't actually believe that Americans are falling behind in math and science, Tyson presented some compelling evidence. Best example: Buildings in America, millions of them, that don't have a 13th floor. We have somehow agreed with each other to mislabel elevator buttons and lie about the actual height of our buildings because some people, who have no credible reason for this, are afraid of the number 13. Second best example: Actual headlines from various newspapers with obvious math errors. "Half Of Schools In District Below Average, Study Says." "FAA: 80% Of Airplane Crash Survivors Read Safety Sheet." Well, the first one's obvious. The second one's just meaningless, unless you can also state with a certainty that a lesser percentage of crash non-survivors read the safety sheet. Which you can't because they're dead. Oh, and here's my favorite: Slightly less than half of Americans don't "believe" in evolution. Um, hello? If I don't believe in gravity, will I float away?

Second, Tyson presented some of the consequences of our decision to cede the math and science innovations to Europe and China. Hurricane Katrina destroying New Orleans, for example. News flash, the hurricane didn't destroy New Orleans. The hurricane was over and gone. The failure of the levees destroyed New Orleans. Bad engineering destroyed New Orleans. Another example: The bridge on I-35 falling into the river. Tyson had a slide of this disaster, and he said, "I look at this and ask myself what country I'm living in." Probably the most poignant example, though, is all the stuff we're losing as a result. The opportunity to name new things. The economic progress that comes from new technology (witness the explosion of jobs to manufacture, and work on, computers since the 1970s.) The ability to defend ourselves against technologically superior enemies. We could very well descience ourselves out of existence.

I think everybody was pretty impressed with his talk, though I was a bit disheartened at one of the questions during the Q&A session (he called it "voir dire"). She asked if we should be afraid of bad things happening in the year 2012 or was it all a hoax. He said, "It's all a hoax. Next question." In all seriousness, though, he pointed out that the dreaded alignment of the center of our galaxy, the moon and the earth that will happen on December 21, 2012, which is supposed to be very very bad, happens every frick'n year on December 21. Too bad nobody asked me the question; I'd have said, "Oh, yeah, it'll be just like the Y2K thing. You probably remember, civilization came to a screeching halt, all our technology failed us, there was rioting in the streets, people were starving and that's why we're all living in grass huts now." (But Dr. Tyson may be my sarcasm equal. He should surpass me now that I'm trying to dampen the snarkitude.)

As far as science for the public, though, I've never seen anybody get across complex principles as easily as Dr. Tyson. He explained Newton's First Law of Motion as it relates to seat belts. Most people who refuse to wear seat belts have never had a course in physics. If they had, they'd know that when the car hits a brick wall and stops dead, their bodies - which, without the seat belt, are not attached to the car - keep going forward until they smash through the windshield. Why? Because objects in motion tend to want to continue to be in motion. Until they're stopped by a brick wall. Or a windshield. Which hurts. Have you ever run your face into a brick wall? Probably not. The fastest a human being can run - an Olympic sprinter, say - is about 23 miles an hour. So what happens if you hit your face into a brick wall at, say, 35 miles an hour? It's not pretty. Physics may save lives, people. Glory be to particles!

1 comment:

Junkill said...

I’m often bemoaning the fact that, at one time, it was considered really “cool” to be smart, mostly because of the Cold War and the Space Race, admittedly, but scientists and smart folks were suddenly kind of hip. There was a downturn in the 70s, that got worse in the 80s and suddenly, the science guy wasn’t so cool anymore.

There’s a really superb book called “What do you Know” by Jaime O’Neill. He was a professor at a community college and saw a “60 Minutes” spot about how most kids couldn’t identify what decade the civil war occurred in…stuff like that. He thought, “That can’t be right” and made up some tests for his students. It was way worse than he thought. His book is a series of trivia challenges and also stories related to this phenomenon. It’s fun trivia goodness, and some serious reading as well. (I corresponded with the author for a year or so after I read the book...that's how much I loved it!)