Spin your phone in the air around these three axes. Can you get a few full turns in without allowing the side that faces you to change?

The Mysterious Phone Tumble

Physics is full of outlandish scenarios where our basic intuitions break down. Quantum mechanics, relativity, nanoparticles…so many phenomena seem counter-intuitive, or even impossible, that it’s almost not surprising when we hear of another in some remote domain. But sometimes, physics surprises can be found right in our hands.

My favorite counter-intuitive motion can be demonstrated with an object that you likely have near you right now: a smartphone. To see it, hold your phone with the screen facing towards you and give it a light toss into the air, spinning it so the screen stays facing towards you. Make sure that if you drop it, it falls in your lap or somewhere soft.* Watch how the phone rotates in the air. Continue reading

Eden Hall: An Immersion in Sustainability

An Eden Hall student garden (for a wide range of experiments) sits next to a rolling meadow.

An Eden Hall student garden (for a wide range of experiments) sits next to a rolling meadow.

Dr. Peter Walker pointed to a grassy hillside, where he plans to keep the goats with a protective llama. “It acts as kind of a guard dog against the coyotes,” he explains. The backdrop of the grassy hillside is woodlands, where oyster mushrooms are cultivated. A neat garden sits alongside, with crops such as perennials, hops, even rye for Wigle Whiskey.

“We’ve had many students interested in the Wigle project,” comments Dr. Walker.

In addition to the goats and llama, the property will one day be capable of hosting 1,500 students, with 64 residents in the first dorm. The campus is Eden Hall, home to the Chatham University Falk School of Sustainability, of which Dr. Walker is Dean. Located just 30 minutes north of Pittsburgh, Eden Hall is a fully sustainable, almost off-the-grid campus, where students spend more time experimenting in the nearby woodlands and meadows than in the classroom. “I really don’t want people in classrooms too much,” says Dr. Walker. “You learn by doing. You learn by experiments.”

For future students that dream to learn about sustainability by “doing,” Eden Hall is a rare campus that is built from the bottom up with sustainability in mind. A simple walk through the campus demonstrates that full sustainability takes more than the occasional solar panel and heat-efficient windows. Eden Hall incorporates a remarkable array of technologies that unite to make a self-sufficient campus. What went into consideration when designing a campus completely around sustainability?
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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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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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Measuring the Worth of One’s Salt

The crowd milling around the salt boutique is a mix of young bohemians and bourgeois baby boomers, all looking to add some flavor to their lives. The description of every product is written in transcendent prose that describes how each salt formed in a distinct, yet ‘natural’ environment, free of human interference. This salt was then harvested, often times with wooden tools, and transported thousands of miles for your purchasing pleasure. These specialty salts come in a variety of colors and have distinctive names representing their proud origins. For these distinctive salts, you can expect to spend about fifty times more per ounce than you would pay for your average table salt at a supermarket.


From left to right: Specialty salts Himalayan Pink Mineral Salt and Kala Namak Black Indian Salt, and generic table salt

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On Mathematics, Mandelbrot, and Beauty

I have a confession to make. I suck at math. I always have, and maybe always will. Despite possessing two engineering degrees and being very close to completing a third, I can’t say that I am comfortable with math. So you might be surprised if you ever drop by my office on a Sunday afternoon. You’ll find me with a broad smile on my face, leafing through a big fat book titled something like ‘Advanced Engineering Mathematics’. I read it because I want to, and I read it because it is fun.

“But math is hard!”, you say. I agree, but great difficulty does not always breed contempt. On the contrary, years of struggling with math have actually pushed me to a level where I have started to see the beauty in it.

To the uninitiated, the very notion of finding beauty in numbers and rigid logic might seem absurd. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Case in point – the pictures below:

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When Do I Start Knowing What I’m Doing?

xkcd #451: Imposter

Nah, we’re all too busy worrying about whether we’re experts in our field. (Source: xkcd)

When my advisor informed her assembled advisees that I was the group’s “machine learning expert,” I nearly choked. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what expertise looked like. An expert possesses a deep, intuitive understanding of his or her subject. An expert exudes confidence in his or her abilities and reputation. An expert fields detailed questions without batting an eyelid. What an expert most certainly does not look like, I thought, is a clueless amateur of a Ph.D. student.

My lofty image of expertise was not my own invention – our society has an unhealthy tendency to fetishize experts. We see the degree of knowledge possessed by professors and analysts and TED speakers as almost mystical. We speak in awed whispers of their brilliance and intuition. And of course, the praise is often well-deserved; I don’t mean to suggest that there is no such thing as expertise. But the way we idolize experts does great damage to experts and novices alike. Continue reading