Of Maps and Models

The sun was shining and the birds were chirping in the blossoming trees as we walked along the path, trying to find the BBQ. I pushed the stroller around the bend, eyeing the large park map ahead, and glanced at my wife. Her face was set in an expression that told me she was hungry and losing patience. So was I.

We’d been trying to find this BBQ for the past 30 minutes. And now our 4-month old daughter was screaming because she kept inadvertently pulling the pacifier out of her mouth. We approached the map and I helped my daughter find the pacifier while my wife tried to figure out where we were going. Suddenly, despite the tense situation, my inner neuroscientist perked up. I couldn’t help but notice the uncanny similarity between my daughter flailing for her pacifier and our attempts to navigate with the park map.

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The Institutional Road to Maternity Leave for Carnegie Mellon University

CMU's "Walking to the Sky"

CMU’s “Walking to the Sky”

In July 2014, Megan Leitch, a civil engineering doctoral candidate at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), met with her adviser to negotiate a leave of absence. At the time, CMU allowed graduate students time off during official university holidays, and had a policy for unpaid leave if more than a week was desired. But Megan was interested in a type of leave that was not addressed: maternity leave.

“Even though I knew he would be OK with it, I still was nervous to tell [my adviser] I was pregnant,” says Megan. “I ended up just walking into his office and blurting it out.”
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The experiment that taught us what “left” really means

Left and right street arrows

Do the laws of physics know their left from their right? (Image adapted from Dean Hochman)

Can you tell your left from your right?

When I was three years old, I took significant pride in the fact that I could – particularly the day I discovered that many of my fellow preschoolers had not yet achieved this feat. Of course, as the years wore on and my classmates got the hang of it, I came to take the distinction for granted. It was so…pedestrian. Trivial, even.

And then a college professor showed up and left me so confused about left and right that I couldn’t fathom how anyone could rightly know which was which. Continue reading

The Mysterious Death of the Dinosaurs

Image from the 1940 Disney animated film, Fantasia.

Image from the 1940 Disney animated film, Fantasia.

Remember when you first learned about the land of the dinosaurs? For me, it was the Disney movie Fantasia that first introduced this wondrous prehistoric world. Huge beasts roamed the earth, squashing ferns the size of full-grown trees. These kings of the earth ruled millions of years ago. Suddenly, there’s a terrible flash of light as an asteroid crashes on to the surface, wiping dinosaurs off the face of the Earth. How wondrous. How terrifying.

To this day, most children are taught about the asteroid that killed these magnificent creatures called dinosaurs. This single asteroid event is still studied by top scientists, and we can now hypothesize specifics of this event, such as the date (66.24 Million years ago), temperature of the earth after the collision (20,000 degrees Celsius!) and what the dinosaurs would see right before the collision (literally a black gaping hole in the sky).1 It’s pretty much understood that this asteroid was what caused the extinction of dinosaurs, right?
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Trash to Gas: A Solution to Half Our Problems?

In Robert Zemeckis' "Back to the Future," Doc can toss garbage straight into the engine to power his car.

In Robert Zemeckis’ “Back to the Future,” Doc can toss garbage straight into the engine to power his car.

“New innovation from scientists,” read the subject line from my Mom’s email. Attached was a link to a Youtube clip of a male scientist balling plastic bags, sealing them in a steel vessel, and pushing a button. After a couple of hours, the eager scientist cracked open the vessel, and poured out a dark, ominous looking fluid. “People don’t know that garbage can be made into gasoline” the scientist beamed. Apparently after some refining, this scientist had converted plastic bags into gasoline.

My response was immediate: “Don’t go investing your money just yet. Plastic bags are a by-product of gasoline production. It would take a lot of energy to turn plastic bags back into gasoline, probably more energy than you would make.” I had put the thought out of my head, until one day when I was breezing through a fashion magazine (yes, some scientists read those too) and there was a short article about another woman who was also claiming she could turn plastic bags into gasoline. The idea was obviously gaining momentum. Could my opinion on trash-to-gas be jaded?
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How cold is it really?

It’s that time of the year here in Pittsburgh, when I start cursing the first human who moved north of the tropic of Cancer from the bottom of my heart. For, once again, it takes me 10 minutes from when I’m “ready to leave” to when I actually leave the house after putting on many layers of socks, boots, half a dozen sweaters and coats, a couple of scarves, a hat and, of course, two pairs of gloves. (Whew! It was exhausting just typing all that!)

pit winter

It’s not the actual below-freezing temperatures which get to me, mind you. It’s the wind – the terrible wind which whistles through the little holes in your hat and freezes your ears, finds the little spot of skin that you forgot to cover up and turns it into ice as you wait for the bus in the morning. Continue reading

Seeing Isn’t Believing

Quick – which of these lines is longer?

If you're reading this, you're taking too long to answer the question.

If you’re reading this, you’re taking too long to answer the question.

If you said the one on the right, congratulations! You’re wrong, of course, but your brain is working perfectly well. This is an example of an optical illusion, an image specifically created to trick your brain. You probably saw a lot of these as a kid, and you may have even thought they were fun. I know I did. I remember finding optical illusions in books, learning about the trick, and then quizzing classmates about them (I was a strange kid). I got satisfaction from knowing the trick to the picture, especially when others couldn’t see the illusion.

Once I got through graduate school, though, I realized that there are a lot of times where knowing the trick just brings up more questions. For example, let’s look at those lines again:

If you're reading this, you're taking too long to answer the question.

Yup, still lines.

The right one still looks longer, right? But we absolutely know that these lines are the same length! That’s why, to me, the big question is this:

Why does the illusion still work, even after we know the trick?

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