Category Archives: Science

Mundane Monday: Pendulum

s-l300The last class I taught was about pendulums, those mundane things that swing back and forth. My favorite illustration of how a pendulum works is the old-fashioned metronome. I still own one like this, somewhere. The lower on the stick you position the weight, the faster the tempo it marks. The one in the picture would be ticking so fast it would be hard to keep up.

This phenomenon illustrates the fundamental principle behind pendulums: that the period of a pendulum (that is, the time it takes for it to swing back and forth) depends on its length, not on the weight or on the angle at which it is released (for small angles). When you move the weight up and down the stick of the metronome, you change the length of the pendulum, and thereby change its period and the tempo it is providing. Nowadays, with metronome apps changing the tempo at the push of a virtual button on your phone, this concept is going to be harder for young musicians to intuit.

Our students made their own pendulums and varied each of the three parameters (length, weight, and angle) to figure out which made a difference in the period of the pendulum. There were brightly-colored chains, with weights hanging on them, attached to protractors and hooks all around the classroom.

ClassroomPendulum

One type of pendulum that many students were already familiar with was a kind that you often see in science museums, called a Foucault’s Pendulum. This pendulum, hung on a fixed pivot that does not rotate, was first used to observe and measure the rotation of the earth. This video provides a good explanation of how that is done:

 

Only a week later, I found myself at Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles, and they have a Foucault’s Pendulum in the lobby there. This picture was taken looking down on the pendulum bob as it swings. The bob itself is lighted, as is the circle around it that enables observers to see the change in the pendulum’s position throughout the day as the Earth rotates.

 

For the Mundane Monday Challenge #131.

Astronomers
The Astronomers at Griffith Park Observatory
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Gravity Wells

I haven’t blogged for a while because I’ve been busy with work, family and other writing projects. I’m trying to write a 5,000 word short story for a contest. (It is hard for me to write “short,” even though I have 4,000 more words to work with than for the last short story I wrote for a contest.)

But now that my school year has started and I am settling into a routine, I want to get back to more regular blogging again. I also want to include more science posts in this blog, so with today’s post I want to combine two concepts and make a Mundane Monday post about gravity. In fact, what could be more mundane than gravity? All of us earth-dwellers experience it every day. We can’t get away from it–literally! Continue reading Gravity Wells

Science Stories for #WATWB

WATWIC-Bright-TuqBlkThe last Friday of the month is the day for my post for the We are the World Blogfest. This blogfest was born out of a desire to change the tone on social media to one of positivity, peace, and connection. Participants come from all around the world.

Continue reading Science Stories for #WATWB

Thursday Doors: Stanford Medical Center

The last time I lived in the SF Bay area, I was a PhD student at Stanford University. I graduated from the Neurosciences Program, an interdisciplinary program for studying the brain that includes faculty from both the School of Humanities and Sciences and the School of Medicine. Even back then, in the early 1990s, brain science seemed to me to be the field of the future, an exciting time full of promise to understand both the world and ourselves. I thought, rightly, that you could spend an entire career, an entire lifetime, studying the brain, and never get bored or tired of it. The tagline for this blog, The Brain–Is Wider Than The Sky, is taken from Emily Dickinson’s poem with that first line.  Continue reading Thursday Doors: Stanford Medical Center

Communicating Science Through Art

WATWIC-Bright-TuqBlkThis is my first post for the “We are the World” Blogfest. (It’s a day late, just like yesterday’s Thursday Doors post on Friday. Time doesn’t always move in a linear fashion in my world.) To participate in this blogfest, join us on the last Friday of each month. As the co-hosts say, “no story is too big or small, as long as it goes beyond religion and politics, into the core of humanity.”

Continue reading Communicating Science Through Art

Book Review: The Moon by Whale Light, by Diane Ackerman

The Moon by Whale Light and Other Adventures Among Bats, Penguins, Crocodilians and WhalesThe Moon by Whale Light and Other Adventures Among Bats, Penguins, Crocodilians and Whales by Diane Ackerman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is an appealing, attractively packaged collection of four essays on animal behavior, all of which originally appeared in the New Yorker. While the subject matter is interesting and entertaining, reading this book can be even more educational if attention is paid to what it reveals about current perceptions of scientists and issues of “animal rights” in the general media.

Continue reading Book Review: The Moon by Whale Light, by Diane Ackerman

Book Review: They’re Not Dumb, They’re Different by Shiela Tobias

This review was first written in 1992, and I wonder how much has changed. The projected shortfall in scientists has not come to pass. It is more difficult than ever for PhDs to get jobs in science. But the challenge of public scientific literacy remains.

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They're Not Dumb, They're Different: Stalking the Second TierThey’re Not Dumb, They’re Different: Stalking the Second Tier by Sheila Tobias

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This independently funded book, called an “occasional paper,” probably isn’t available in the local bookstore. I came across a largely favorable review of it in Science magazine, and sent for a copy. It addresses the question “what turns people off science?”

Continue reading Book Review: They’re Not Dumb, They’re Different by Shiela Tobias

Book Review: Bully for Brontosaurus by Stephen Jay Gould

Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural HistoryBully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I recently unearthed some book reviews that I wrote when I was in Neurosciences graduate school at Stanford in the early 1990s. There I was the editor of a student newsletter called the “Neuron Free Press,” and we published book reviews about Neuroscience topics. 

This newsletter was published while the internet was coming into its own, before blogs. The dead tree versions of these reviews that I found at the back of an old file cabinet may be the only copies still in existence.  The books are no longer new but I think each one has retained its relevance and stood the test of time.

The first book covered is Bully for Brontosaurus, reviewed back in Autumn 1991 when its author, the great evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, was still alive and writing. I think it’s especially appropriate for Darwin Day.

Continue reading Book Review: Bully for Brontosaurus by Stephen Jay Gould