All posts by Chad

Thermodynamics of Football at The Conversation

I wrote a short piece on the “Deflategate” controversy for the US edition of The Conversation, and whether physics could explain the underinflated footballs used by the New England Patriots:

News reports say that 11 of the 12 game balls used by the New England Patriots in their AFC championship game against the Indianapolis Colts were deflated, showing about 2 pounds per square inch (psi) less pressure than the 13 psi required by the rules, so it seems that the most bizarre sports scandal of recent memory is real. But there are still plenty of questions: why would a team deflate footballs? Could there be another explanation? And most importantly, what does physics tell us about all this?

As part of the story, I did an experiment, putting a couple of footballs in the freezer and measuring the change in pressure. I described that in more detail on my blog.

Where’s Waldo Goes to Outer Space

There’s a long excerpt from Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist posted at Medium. This is taken from Chapter 4, and discusses pattern-matching games, astronomy, and citizen science:

While such books may seem like merely an amusing diversion for children, the mental process involved in finding Waldo and his friends in Handford’s elaborate drawings is remarkably sophisticated.
There are multiple web sites and academic papers devoted to computer algorithms for locating Waldo within Handford’s drawings, using a variety of software packages, and these are impressively complex, running to hundreds of lines of code and invoking sophisticated image-processing tools. Child’s play, this is not.

The essential element of these books is pattern matching, looking for a particular arrangement of colors and shapes in the midst of a distracting field. There are numerous more “adult” variations on this game, some of them obvious, like the image-based “hidden object” puzzle games Kate sometimes plays for relaxation, or the classic video game Myst. Other classes of games may not seem directly connected, but use the same pattern-finding tricks, such as solitaire card games like Free Cell (my own go-to time-waster) or colored-blob-matching games like the massively popular Candy Crush. In all of these, the key to the game is spotting a useful pattern within a large collection of visual data. This is a task at which human brains excel, and millions of people do it for fun and relaxation.

The unmatched ability of humans to spot meaningful patterns in visual data is the basis for many scientific discoveries, in all sorts of different fields.

Probably no field has benefitted more from pattern-matching than astronomy, though, with many of the field’s most important and unusual discoveries having their origin in the spotting of an odd pattern.

(This is my favorite of the published excerpts, because I did the edit myself…)

Eureka in APS News

There’s an excerpt from Eureka: discovering Your Inner Scientist in the American Physical Society’s monthly newsletter for December. This takes off from Ernest Rutherford’s (in)famous line deviding science between physics and stamp collecting:

Like a lot of kids, I had a stamp collection for a while. I never collected anything particularly notable, but going through old letters and boxes of stamps from relatives who had had collections was enjoyable in a quiet way. And putting the individual stamps together to make a larger picture was fascinating. I remember an intimidatingly large three-ring binder with spots for every US stamp that had been issued to that point, and the satisfaction of completing a page. My hobby also gave a sense of history outside the collection — for example, seeing all the stamps of the 1893 Columbian Issue commemorating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ famous voyages showed me there was a good deal more to the story than I had heard in grade school.

Beyond the immediate pleasures of building a collection, though, the impulse to collect can be a starting point for science. The most obvious product of collecting hobbies is an array of physical objects, but collecting is also a mental state. Serious collectors develop habits of mind particular to their hobbies — a sort of constant low-level awareness of possible sources of stamps, an ability to spot new specimens, and close observation and knowledge of the fine gradations that separate valuable stamps from worthless bits of colored paper. These habits of mind also serve well in science; the simple act of collecting a diverse array of interesting objects or observations also serves as the starting point for most sciences.

This is drawn from Chapter 1, and the same basic argument is presented in this video:

Eureka at the Big Idea

An essay for John Scalzi’s Big Idea series:

It seems very appropriate to be writing about the new book in a feature called “The Big Idea,” because I can say without hyperbole that it’s a book about the biggest idea in the history of humanity.

OK, maybe there’s a trace of hyperbole there, but just a little. Eureka is about an idea that is radically transformative on every level from individuals to the entire human species. It’s not an Internet technology, or a particular fact, but a process:

You look at the world around you,

You think about why it might work the way it does,

You test your theory with experiments and further observations, and

You tell everyone you know the results.

This four-step process is the essential core of all of science. More than that, it’s central to just about everything we do. Science leads directly to all the technologies that have allowed a not especially threatening species of hairless plains apes to thoroughly dominate the surface of the planet (for good or ill). More than that, science is central to activities that we do just for fun.

Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, Powell’s, and anywhere else books are sold.

Eureka Excerpt at the Science of Us

New York Magazine’s blog The Science of Us has an excerpt from the Introduction of Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist, Scientists Are Not That Smart:

The popular image of scientists is of a tiny, elite (and possibly deranged) minority of people engaged in esoteric pursuits. One of the three most common responses when I tell somebody I’m a physicist is, “You must be really smart. I could never do that.” (The other responses are, “I hated that when I took it in high school/college,” and, “Can you explain string theory to me?” This goes a long way toward explaining why physicists have a reputation as lousy conversationalists.)

While the idea that scientists are uniquely smart and capable is flattering to the vanity of nerds like me, it’s a compliment with an edge. There’s a distracting effect to being called “really smart” in this sense — it sets scientists off as people who think in a way that’s qualitatively different from “normal” people. We’re set off even from other highly educated academics — my faculty colleagues in arts, literature, and social science don’t hear that same “You must be really smart” despite the fact that they’ve generally spent at least as much time acquiring academic credentials as I have. The sort of scholarship they do is seen as just an extension of normal activities, whereas science is seen as alien and incomprehensible.

Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, Powell’s, and anywhere else books are sold.