My Love of Science

I thought I had an original idea to write a post about my love of science, but Andrea, The Little Red Reviewer, beat me to it. But I’m still going to do it anyway!

Science is my cocaine. Very rarely, I come across an idea so astounding, so fascinating, so clever, so original, so unexpected, so new, so wonderful that my brain just goes all fizzy. And I keep inhaling more science in the hopes of recreating that experience. Off the top of my head, I can think of two occasions that this happened to me and once that I was able to induce that feeling in someone else. Let me share with you those moments so maybe you can understand why I love science so much.

Death of the Dinosaurs

The last time this happened to me was only a few years ago. I am a huge fan of Radiolab, so when they went on tour, Maria and I went with a few of my friends to see the show. Their first story was on the meteorite impact that probably killed the dinosaurs. An expert on impacts walks the hosts through the impact of the meteorite and its effects. Trust me, it’s WAY cooler than you think. Like, fire raining down from the sky everywhere on earth cool. I’d actually prefer you spend an hour of your time to watch so you can experience it rather than me trying (poorly and unsuccessfully) to recreate it.

While sitting in the live show, I was in such a state of shock at the realities of the aftermath of the impact that I lost track of what was happening onstage for like five minutes. The horror and wonder of it was … transcendental.

The One Where the Quantum Theory Shut a Motormouth Up

I was in the Boy Scouts for a long time, through high school and much of college. As there often is in any group of kids, there was a boy, we’ll call him Frank, who just never … stopped … talking. Ever. Until one time, I got him to shut up for like half an hour by blowing his mind … with SCIENCE!

I recall this day pretty well. We were wasting some time at summer camp, hanging out during our afternoon free time. He asked me to tell him something cool about science since he knew I loved science and he thought it was really boring. So, I decided to tell him about something I was just learning about at the time: the many worlds interpretation of quantum theory. The tl;dr version is that each moment might branch off into infinite other universes based on different outcomes of events. So, there’s a universe where Hitler didn’t kill himself and there’s a universe entirely identical to this one except a single blade of grass got bent slightly differently when a lawnmower passed over it, and there are universes in between. In the Schrödinger’s cat example, there’s a universe where the cat is alive and a different universe where the cat is dead.

MWI Schrodingers cat

This blew Frank’s top right off of his head. He sat quietly for about half an hour, working through the implications of this. It was a small miracle. I was able to stop him from talking longer than anyone else ever had and I did it with quantum physics.

Pre-Algebra Opens My Mind

You ever have one of those moments so ingrained in your mind that you can recall many more details than you otherwise would? This particular memory comes from my middle school pre-algebra class and is the first time I recall having my mind blown open by science. I remember that I was sitting in the second seat from the front of either the second or third row away from the window. I remember my teacher telling us that she was introducing us to a completely new concept. We’d spent a ton of time learning other pre-algebra topics like factoring, order of operations and other stuff like that.

That’s when she wrote a big “x” on the board. And said that was a number. What number, we didn’t know. But it represented a number. It was called a “variable”, and it could be used in equations to represent numbers we didn’t know. And just like that, all the math I had learned in my life up until that point suddenly clicked into place. We had been learning all this stuff seemingly pointlessly. But if we were able to use variables in the equations, just imagine the endless possibilities math could introduce.

Imagine that you lived in one room all your life. Then, one day, someone removed a wall, revealing a much larger world outside that room. That’s what it felt like. I realized that there was so much more than I had seen before. And I was hooked.

Rain vs Snow: the Spring Showdown

It’s spring, which, in Michigan, means lots of rain. Maria and I were driving home in the rain earlier this week when she asked me a question I’d not really thought about: “How much snow would this rain be if it were much colder?” My answer was about 3 inches, but I couldn’t remember why that was my guess. So I started looking, which led me down a rabbit hole of snowfall predictions.

Snow Drifts

The amount of snow that an equivalent amount of rain would produce depends mostly on the temperature. The National Weather Service actually has a chart showing these exact ratios. And here it is in all its boring, monotype glory:

Snow to Liquid Ratios

So, around freezing, the amount of snow would be about ten times the amount of rain. At 0º F, it’s about 40x. That’s crazy! The Detroit area received about 1.5 inches of rain on March 24, 2016. That would have been about 15 inches of snow at freezing, or about 30 inches of snow at 17º F. WOW.

I had no idea that the amount of water in an inch of snow was so little. I mean, it makes sense when you remember that snow crystals are mostly air and it’s not like they lay flat on top of each other. They’re all jumbled up. It also makes sense that the colder it is, the fluffier the snow, and the more inches of snow you get for an equivalent amount of water.

Thinking about that crazy amount of snow you’d get from the equivalent of 1.5 inches of rain got me thinking about just how often snow forecasts are wildly inaccurate. Like, when it rains, it doesn’t make a huge difference to your average person if you get 1 inch of rain or 1.5 inches of rain. But for those same amount of water, you can get a 5 inch difference in the amount of snow. Weather forecasting is hard enough as it is, but the snow amounts greatly magnify any errors that the forecaster makes. There are other reasons besides temperature and the amount of moisture for the difficulty in predicting the amount of snow, but it seems that these two are the most important.

On a sort-of-related note, actually measuring snowfall once it is on the ground is a really complicated process in and of itself. Just look at this set up the Grand Rapids, MI National Weather Service office has for its pilot project for automated measuring of snow.

Snow Radar Pilot Project

7 Fun Things About Time

Time is a funny thing. It is one of the most important commodities we have, and has been so since the industrial age began (at the very least). Yet, somehow, it seems so malleable, fluid, ungraspable. And so, I wanted to share with you some fun aspects of time that intrigue me, in no particular order.

The Incan Empire

When you learn about history, it’s often broken up geographically, so it’s hard to really tie two areas together. Like, the Incan Empire. It’s often seen as an ancient civilization. I mean, look at Machu Picchu. It looks like it’s at least a thousand years old.

Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu, Martin St-Amant – Wikipedia – CC-BY-SA-3.0

But it’s not. It was built around 1450, making it 560 or so years old. The Incan Empire is only a little bit older.

There’s another institution that was founded well before then that is still alive and healthy today.


Yup, Oxford University. Apparently, the foundation date of Oxford is lost in the mists of time, but they have been educating there since at least 1096. That’s almost 400 years older than the Incan Empire. Really puts the “ancient” Machu Picchu in perspective.

Time Passing Faster as You Get Older

Now that I’m in my thirties, I have been noticing that the years are seeming to go by faster and faster every year. It’s kind of fascinating to think about the brain working like that. After all, it’s not like the time is actually moving any faster for us here on the Earth’s surface. So why does time seem to fly by quicker and quicker every year?

There’s no certain answer yet, but the Scientific American Mind blog has a great post that summarizes the current theories:

  1. There are less memorable events day-to-day in some periods of your life rather than others, so those periods seem to have taken longer (like 4 years at college versus 4 years of your daily career)
  2. A year to a child seems longer because it is a much larger portion of that child’s life than a year is to someone in their 40’s
  3. Our biological clocks slow down as we get older
  4.  The passage of days gets less attention as you age. After all, we’re not all counting down the days till Christmas with nearly the level of attention that a 6 year old does.
  5. Stress makes time seem to be in short supply and we are more stressed as we get older. So, since we’re more stressed, there seems to be less time the older you get.

Time Capsules … IN SPACE!

I listened to an audiobook recently called Cryoburn, which involves a lot of cryogenic freezing. The book is great (it’s written by Lois McMaster Bujold and is part of her Vorkosigan Saga, if you’ve heard of it), but it got me curious about cryonic freezing. With current technology, people can be cryonically frozen in the hopes of being reanimated later, usually to cure whatever killed them in the first place. However, no one has figured out how to reanimate a full animal from cryonic sleep, let alone that we haven’t made major advances in curing the medical conditions that motivate someone to use cryonics in the first place.

It occurred to me that there’s another way to achieve the same objective, but requires only physics and engineering rather than insanely complex biology: relativistic space travel. One consequence of the law of Special Relativity formulated by Einstein is that time goes slower as your speed increases. It’s not really noticeable at slow speeds, but if you get up to like 80% the speed of light, time moves one-third slower (2 seconds pass for every 3 seconds on Earth). If you are at 90%, time moves at half-speed (1 second for every 2 seconds on Earth). And so on. If you can get fast enough, rather than freezing people, you could just throw them into a space ship, send it out for what would seem like a year on the ship and come back many, many years later, hopefully to a cure to what ails them. And no freezing!

Time as a Part of the Space-Time Continuum

Physics is, in a word, strange. As a species, we’re still working on our understanding of the universe, but one of our best theories on the nature of the universe is Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. General Relativity has an interesting premise: space and time are two parts of the same thing. They are unified and inseparable. And every test we’ve thrown at this theory confirms it over and over again.

Created by User:Johnstone using a 3D CAD software package and an image of planet earth from NASA's Galileo spacecraft. CC-BY-SA-3.0

Under General Relativity, the gravity of a planet warps space so that things fall toward it. But, because space and time are one and the same, the gravity of the planet also affects time the closer you get to it. The stronger the gravitational pull, the faster time goes. The gravity of black holes is so strong that, if you were falling into one and looked up away from the black hole, you could watch the entire life of the universe as time for you would have sped up so much.

Time Zones

Such an integral part of our lives as time zones would seem to be as old as the country itself. Well, if you thought that, you’d be wrong.

Nope, the United States did not have standardized time zones until March 19, 1918. That’s just eight months shy of the end of World War I and it hasn’t even been 100 years since then. These babies are practically brand new on the world stage.

Granted, railroads did have their own time zones set up as early as 1847 in England and the early 1870’s in the United States. But those weren’t standardized even among the railroads for long periods of time.

The Weirdness that is Daylight Savings Time

Ahhh, spring forward, fall back. I do hate losing that hour of sleep in the spring, but it sure is nice to have that extra hour of sleep in the fall.

Daylight Savings time shift

Daylight savings time started in the US at the same time standardized time zones did, in 1918. The initial justification for it is that it provides more daylight at the end of the day which benefits retailers and allows for more exercise outdoors, etc. Other justifications include increased energy savings, reduced car crashes, and health benefits. But almost every single one of these justifications is either debatable or offset by a myriad of other problems caused by daylight savings time, including adverse economic effects on farmers and several other industries, disruption to the lives of those who live by the sun, increased risk of heart attacks and decreased sleep.

The Timing of Communications

The time lag of communications has been a problem throughout history, really only starting to be overcome in the past hundred years or so with the development of radio, telephone and the internet. For all the lives of me, my parents and my grandparents, nearly instantaneous communication across the oceans has been rather accessible. But in the 1800’s, a message had to be sailed across the ocean, which could take a couple months. Heck, even in the US itself, a piece of mail might take several months to get from one side of the country to the other. This is an almost unthinkable amount of time delay in communications now.

Sometimes, the reverse situation is true, though. I keep thinking of an episode of Hardcore History by Dan Carlin, but I cannot remember which one, where he talks about an ancient invasion, most likely a barbarian invasion of Rome. Because of how difficult it was to move armies and how slow moving they could be, you could learn about an oncoming invasion well in advance of the army itself arriving. Imagine how paranoid and bad things could get in a city when you knew an army was coming for you, but might not arrive for months. That would be insane. Hell, it’s bad enough nowadays when people learn that a winter storm is coming.

My Love of Podcasts

Back in the day, I used to watch The Learning Channel (back when it had real content, not loads and loads of “reality TV”) and then the Discovery and Science Channels. Since I cut the cable a couple years ago, a new medium has filled that void: podcasts. I consume podcasts voraciously.

My friend Jon introduced me to podcasts with an episode of Radiolab a couple years ago and I’ve been addicted ever since. I wanted to share my love of podcasts with you to spread the word about programs I love. Or, if you haven’t gotten into podcasts, you can learn about some of the great things you are missing out on.

I’m sure most of you know what podcasts are and how to listen to them, but just in case, I’ll give you this video from Ira Glass and his old friend explaining it.

Ira references the Apple Podcasts app for iPhone and Stitcher for Android (which is also available for iOS), both of which are free. My personal preferences are Downcast for iOS/Mac and DoggCatcher for Android. They cost a few bucks, but offer more features that I like. I have been meaning to try out Pocket Casts, which is cross platform and gets good reviews, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.

Some of My Favorite Podcasts


radiolabRadiolab is a radio show produced by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. They cover pretty much anything that intrigues them, often science-related. I love Radiolab mainly because it is the most well-produced radio show I have ever heard. Jad is an absolute master of putting together sounds to convey the story crisply, wonderfully and uniquely. My favorite episode is Apocalyptical because it features dinosaurs. You can see a video recording of Apocalyptical from one of their tour stops at that link, as well.

Hardcore History

DC_HH_iTunesHardcore History is a podcast about, duh, history. Dan Carlin has a unique style all his own. He is a compelling storyteller that takes an unflinching look at every aspect of the events and puts you in the mindset of those participating in the events. He has some one-off episodes, but most of his episodes are multi-part, multi-hour series covering major events in humanity’s history: the Mongol Invasions, the end of the Roman Republic and beginning of the Roman Empire, and, currently, World War One.

This American Life

logo-v5If you listen to public radio at all, you have probably heard of This American Life. Ira Glass’s show is the juggernaut of public broadcasting and of podcasts. They cover everything from the mundane, like two days at a highway rest stop or stories about babysitting, to ground-breaking journalism detailing the controversial inner workings of the New York Federal Reserve Bank and its uncomfortable coziness with the bankers it is supposed to regulate. This podcast also happens to be Maria’s favorite, though she and I like it for completely different reasons. Maria loves This American Life for the personal stories, while I like it for its journalism, especially the co-productions they do with the next podcasters on my list. This American Life has done two live shows, which were simultaneously beamed to theaters around the country. Return to the Scene of the Crime tells stories about criminals returning to the scene of the crime (obvi) and Invisible Made Visible is a bit more of a variety show with stories about things unseen or normally behind the scenes. Not only did This American Life do those two live shows, they also had a TV show on Showtime that aired for two seasons.

Planet Money

icon_510289Planet Money started as a co-production between This American Life and NPR. Their very first episode was scheduled to first be released in September of 2008. And then … the Great Recession happened. Adam Davidson, one of the producers of Planet Money, had to scrap all the work they had done, and record a whole new episode on his laptop at home. And they went on to explain the Great Recession, its causes and ramifications, in plain English. Listening to this podcast from the beginning is almost like reliving the recession all over again. Now that the recession is (technically) over, they have moved on to other topics and are still going strong. If you have any interest in how our economy works, this is a fantastic way to learn about it. The Planet Money and This American Life co-produced episodes about the Great Recession are astounding works that explain why the recession happened in a human and understandable way.

99% Invisible

99invisible-logo-itunes-badgeRoman Mars (what a name) created this wonderful podcast all about design. You would not believe the amount of design that goes into the world around you; hence, the name of the podcast. The stories often have an architectural bent, but there are plenty of other topics, including sound design in sports on television, cow tunnels (you’ll just have to hear it to get it), and the parentheses around area codes in a phone number (a design choice with a shocking amount of thought behind it).

Stuff You Should Know

og_imageStuff You Should Know is another very popular podcast. The hosts give you a basic rundown of how the topic for the episode works. This show is one of my staples because of the chemistry of the hosts. Josh and Chuck feel like friends having a normal conversation about random stuff (which also happens to be informational). They cover all kinds of topics, like How Redheads Work, Capgras Syndrome (a rare psychological condition where you think your loved ones have been replaced with imposters) and Who Owns the Oceans?

Stuff You Missed in History Class

symhc-new-logo-1600x1600Stuff You Missed in History Class is a sister-show of SYSK. The show has had a number of hosts over the years, but the current hosts are Holly and Tracy and they have been around for quite a while now. As the title of the show implies, Stuff You Missed in History Class covers interesting stories from history that, while not important enough to often make it into history books, are still extraordinarily interesting. From mentally-ill royalty to serial killer H.H. Holmes and the Murder Castle in Chicago to loads of shipwrecks to Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, who posed a very real threat to the Roman Empire, there is a LOT of history out there that you may not have heard.

Freakonomics Radio

freakonomicsFreakonomics Radio started as a book by an economist and a reporter, who wanted to use economics to look at unexpected aspects of everyday life. Like, does a daycare center charging a fee for picking up children late actually increase late pick-ups? Or, does your name affect how well you do in life? The podcast is an extension of that theme. They have episodes on whether expensive wine tastes better than cheap wine, whether tipping in restaurants should be banned, and whether college is actually worth its cost.

The History of Rome

history_of_rome_logoThis podcast is the most self-explanatory of the bunch. Host Mike Duncan starts from the mythical founding of Rome and runs through right up until the fall of the Western Roman Empire. He covers everything: the civil war between Marius and Sulla, Julius Caesar, Augustus, all of the Emperors, the division of the Empire, and, of course, its fall. The audio quality starts off a little rough, but Mike got better equipment about ten episodes in and the audio quality jumped up dramatically. Since the story is linear, I recommend starting at the beginning. If you like the podcast, you can continue on to hear about the History of Byzantium (AKA, the Eastern Roman Empire), which picks up where Mike left off. Mike also started a new podcast called Revolutions where he reviews various revolutions throughout history, including the English Civil Wars, the American Revolution and the French Revolution.

The Infinite Monkey Cage

This is a podcast I only became aware of in the past couple years. Brian Cox should be fairly recognizable as the host of the Wonders of … series from the BBC. Robin Ince is a British stand-up comedian. The two of them host a panel of scientists and B-list celebrities to discuss a particular topic in science. The conversation is almost always highly entertaining; I particularly love the ongoing debate of at what point a strawberry can actually be considered dead.

Richard Feynman: Physicist, Widower

I’m never really sure how many people have heard of Richard Feynman. Pretty much anyone involved in science has heard of him, but he doesn’t seem very famous outside those circles anymore. I did want to talk about him on the blog eventually. The inspiration for me to write this post, though, came from a letter Dr. Feynman wrote to his first wife, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 25. He wrote her the letter about a year and a half after she died. You can find the entirety of the letter at Letters of Note – a blog that I highly recommend. Continue reading

Kardashian Index, Revisited

A couple weeks ago, I posted a quick blurb about the Kardashian Index, a tongue-in-cheek attempt to measure whether a scientist is more of a celebrity than a scientist. My friend Emily pointed out to me the vast array of reactions to the Kardashian Index in the scientific community, ranging from harsh criticism to arguing that the Index is sexist by nature to outright dismissal to lighthearted (or more heavy handed) ribbing. One scientist blogger took a different angle: the Kardashian Index ignores how Twitter and other social media platforms are tools for scientists to connect, collaborate, or just have lives outside of science. You know, like outside of a lab.

The whole idea of the Kardashian Index does raise a better question: how does one measure the effectiveness and impact of a scientist? Emily is “solidly on the side of” Tommaso Dorigo at Science 2.0, who espouses the Hirsch Index. In the Hirsch Index, the h-number is the number of papers a scientist has published that have received the same number of citations. For example, if your h-number is 2, you have published 2 papers, each of which has been cited at least 2 times in other scientific papers. The higher your number, the higher your impact as a scientist. There are drawbacks to the Hirsch Index, much as there are with any metrics (think batting average versus on-base percentage if you’re into baseball, or interceptions that aren’t the quarterback’s fault if you’re into football). And there are other ways to measure the impact of a scientist. Even Google made one.

Even if it didn’t solve anything, the Kardashian Index sure did create a lot of discussion.