Monday, May 26, 2014

Why "God" Is a Poor Explanation

I may be coming back to the blog with a seemingly controversial topic, but it's been on my mind lately and this specific topic isn't quite as controversial as it might at first seem. I'd like to preface this post by saying that I have few quibbles with religion. In fact, this post is not about religion but rather about inquiry and lazy thinking that is sometimes derived from religion (but not always! - You could easily replace "God" with "Because that's how it is".).

Science and religion are not opposed to each other, as many people would like you to believe. They are sold as enemies because today's society likes drama and conflict provides bucket-fulls of it. But, it wasn't always that way. Even though there are fewer religious scientists nowadays (and I know some of them), centuries ago most people, including most scientists, were religious. Go far enough back and you'll find no scientists but rather natural philosophers. The influence of this is still felt today in the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree that is the highest level degree awarded to both scientists and non-scientists.

"Philosophers", in the vaguest sense, are people whose curiosity gets the best of them. Their inquiry and questioning of any and all aspects of the world are what drives innovation and increases knowledge. The only limits that philosophers have are their abilities to logically argue for an explanation, generally relying on any of the various types of evidence and reasoning.

Scientific explanations go one step further - they must make testable predictions. For example, take Einstein's Theory of General Relativity. This theory essentially made Newton's Theory of Gravity more widely applicable. It added more detail and gave more precise results. Not only could General Relativity explain observations that Newtonian Gravity could not (e.g. no instantaneous influences), it also made predictions (e.g. the sun bends light from distant stars) that were later observed and confirmed to be true. This requirement ensures that scientific explanations can always be confirmed or re-evaluated and either tossed out or revised. The end result is explanations that are always improving.

Now, this brings us back to the initial point of the post: why "God" is a poor explanation. The problem with using "God" as an explanation for things is that it removes all of the things previously mentioned -  inquiry and curiosity, reasoning and evidence. Even religious philosophers, like those who study the holy books, use these 4 main ingredients, if you will, of good argument. Let's consider what happens when the most important of those elements, inquiry, is removed.

Isaac Newton was a religious man, like most people of his time. That, however, never stopped him from asking questions (inquiry) and finding answers, not only about the physical world but also about the spiritual/religious one.

Everyone knows the story of Newton and the apple tree. Upon sitting under one on a sunny day, an apple fell from the tree and hit his head. This is what led him to his theory of gravity. But, what if instead of thinking more deeply about why apples fall from trees, he simply answered "because God makes them fall"? For him, this could have been a perfectly acceptable answer, but it wasn't satisfactory and doesn't require any further thought. If he had stuck with that answer, there might not be a theory of gravity, or at least, the theory would have come later by someone else.

So why does that matter? Apples will fall regardless of whether or not we have an explanation for why they do so. Remember before when I said that General Relativity expanded on Newtonian Gravity? If everyone used the "God" explanation, then there would be no theory of gravity or General Relativity. This also might not seem like a big deal, until you realize that one big application of General Relativity is GPS. Without knowledge of the effects described by General Relativity, GPS would likely be much, much less effective, if it even existed at all.

This game can be played with most "explanations" of our world, from physics to marketing. We have current society because there were philosophers who weren't afraid to follow their curiosity and ask questions, regardless of their religious ideology. Does that mean that "God" can never be an answer? Absolutely not. Sometimes, we just don't know enough to come to a satisfactory explanation. At this point, perhaps we can say "because God" - at least until someone smarter comes along. And, perhaps, there are some questions that will always remain in the "hands of God".

References and Further Reading (For inquiry!)
General Relativity by Harrison Prosper
Relativity and the Cosmos by Alan Lightman
Isaac Newton's Life by Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences
Einstein's Relativity and Everyday Life by Clifford M. Will

Monday, July 29, 2013


I apologize for not writing much lately. I've spent the past 2 weeks traveling to/from and attending a volcano conference and acoustics workshop. I have some great pictures with some great science, so hopefully I'll be able to find the time to start posting more regularly again. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

How Do Animals Dry Themselves by Shaking?

** Apologies on not posting for a while. I hadn't noticed how long it's been! **

This is not a photo (!) but a video that I came across a couple years ago. The authors from Georgia Institute of Technology applied some basic physics to determine how quickly an animal has to shake in order to dry itself. Here's their website where you can find a more detailed description of their study, including the resulting published paper. Being a fan of applied physics, I really enjoyed this, especially because it is simple enough for an introductory physics student to understand.

The basic idea is to look at the forces acting on the water droplets in an animal's fur. The force exerted by air pressure and water tension work to hold the droplets in the fur. By shaking, the animal produces a force that acts to move the water droplets outward. This is called the centripetal force. When you are next in a car, notice how you move when the car makes a turn, especially if it's a quick turn. You should feel your body moving away from the pivot point. In other words, a right turn will cause you to move toward the left side of the car. This is also the centripetal force at work, and it occurs whenever a body is rotating.

The centripetal force produced is proportional to the angular frequency, or speed, of the rotation as well as the distance from the pivot point to the object that is rotating. For our rotating mammals, the pivot point is the center of the body and the object, the water/fur. Therefore, the distance is just the radius (or half the thickness) of the mammal's body. The conclusion that smaller animals must shake faster makes sense because of this proportionality.

Let's introduce the actual equation for rotational motion and centripetal force: Fc = m*r*w^2, where Fc is the force, m is the mass of the water droplet, r is the radius of the animal, and w is the angular frequency with which it shakes. Assume we want to keep Fc constant - that water droplets always require the same amount of force to remove them. Since a smaller animal has a smaller radius r, it will require a larger rotating speed w to compensate for the smaller r. Larger animals with larger radii, can shake more slowly to produce the same centripetal force as their smaller companions.

Here's a challenge: Next time you're at the beach or get out of the shower, try to shake yourself dry. Can you do it? If so, what do you think your shaking speed (oscillations per second) is? If not, what makes you different from the mammals that do dry by shaking?


Wet mammals shake at tuned frequencies to dry by Andrew Dickerson, Georgia Tech

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Why Does the Moon Have Phases?

** My apologies on the lateness - it's been a busy month. **

Full moon. Crescent moon. New moon. There's no doubt you've previously heard these or even talked about them. Perhaps you even know the less common or more specific phases of the moon. Yet, there still seem to be misconceptions about the moon's appearance. I've already covered why the full moon can seem so large and why the moon can appear orange when it's on the horizon. Here's some more information about the moon's appearance:

The Moon's Orbit & Apparent Size
Let's start with some important background knowledge. The moon orbits the Earth on a nearly, but not perfectly, circular path. As a consequence, there are two points where the moon will be at its closest (perigee) and farthest (apogee) distance from the Earth with every other point somewhere in between. The difference in distance between the two extremes is enough to be noticeable, at least with pictures. It might be a bit difficult to see the difference by just going outside and taking a look. Another neat thing about the moon is that it's tidally locked in its orbit. For every one orbit around the Earth, it will rotate exactly one time. The result is that someone on the Earth can only ever see one side of the moon. If you compare the two pictures above, you'll notice that the dark lunar mare near the bottom right corner of the crescent moon is the same as that on the right side of the gibbous moon. On the flip side, there is one side of the moon that we can never see from the Earth. This is where the "dark side" of the moon comes from. The dark side of the moon isn't dark in the true sense of the word. There are times when the sun shines on it. However, it's considered "dark" because people were never able to see it until lunar orbiter spacecraft were built and sent into space.

Moon Phases
Unlike the sun, the moon does not emit light on its own - we only see it because of the sunlight that it reflects. Like the Earth, the moon will only have sunlight illuminating half of it at a time. The half that is illuminated is not always that half of the moon that faces the Earth, which leads to the phases. I'll be a bit more specific with a few examples to help clear up any confusion. When the moon is full, the half that is illuminated is also the half that faces the Earth. The moon is on the opposite side of the Earth than the sun, so the sunlight illuminates the half that faces us. The opposite of this is the new moon. In this case, the moon and sun are on the same side of the Earth, so the half that is illuminated is the "dark" side of the moon. 

This case also brings up another interesting point: the new moon should be located close to the sun in the sky. In other words, we see the new moon during the day rather than at night. It doesn't disappear from the sky or become dark. Instead, it is just visible at a different time of day. 

Let's leave this little detour and get back to the phases. The last example that I'll give is the half moon. To see a half moon in the sky, the moon would be 90 degrees from the sun. If you have trouble visualizing that, picture it this way: if the Earth is a clock, the sun will appear near the 12 and the moon will appear near the 3. For this phase, half of the "dark" side is illuminated and half of the side that we see is illuminated. To get the rest of the phases, we can just rotate the moon around the Earth. The farther it gets from the sun, the closer it will get to a full moon. As it moves from full to new, a smaller and smaller section (visible to us) will be illuminated. If you need some extra visualization, you check out this chart or try the activity listed below.

I'm sure most people are well aware of solar eclipses, but did you know that the moon can be eclipsed, too? A lunar eclipse happens when all of the moon, Earth, and sun are aligned with the Earth in between the other two. As the moon passes behind the Earth, it moves into the Earth's shadow. Since the moon appears lit due to reflected sunlight, being in a shadow will make the moon appear darker. At the start of the lunar eclipse, a growing fraction of the moon will appear blacked out. As more and more of the moon moves into the Earth's shadow, it starts to turn a dark orange color. The next total lunar eclipse visible for the Americas will be on October 8, 2014, so get your binoculars ready.

Try It at Home
You can see for yourself how this process works with just a (solid) ball and a flashlight. Begin by placing the ball on a table with the flashlight pointed at it from a couple or so feet away. Walk around the table with the surface at eye level and watch the appearance of the ball. When you're opposite the flashlight (sun), the ball (moon) appears as a dark, "new moon" phase. Go around to the same side as the flashlight, and you'll see a full moon (or rather full ball?). As you walk around, you'll see the phases of the ball changing just like the moon. However, the moon orbits the Earth, not the other way around. For a more realistic demo, place a larger ball (or globe if you have one on hand) a few feet from the flashlight. You can simulate the moon and its phases by moving the small ball around the large one. Place a "person" on the large ball. How does the small ball's phase change from your person's point of view as it moves around in its orbit?

Keep in mind that the moon's orbit is slightly tilted. This means that the moon and Earth rarely appear directly between the sun and the other. By aligning all three, you are creating a solar (moon in middle) or lunar (Earth in middle) eclipse.

References & Further Reading
Volcanism on the Moon - by Robert Wickman
The Lunar Orbiter Program - by Lunar and Planetary Institute (NASA)

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Water Waves

Chances are you've been to a beach before, and it's quite likely that there were waves whether you were at the ocean, a lake, or some other sizeable body of water. If you've ever watched the waves for a while, you might have noticed that they tend to arrive parallel, or nearly so, to the shoreline. Even if they are at angle when they are far away, they still reach the shoreline nearly parallel. Why? Another thing noticeable to anyone who has watches waves, and is visible in the above photo, is the crashing and "breaking" of waves as them come towards the shoreline. How does that happen?

The first question can be answered by fluid dynamics. In shallow water, that is at a depth which is smaller than the wavelength (measure of distance between wave crests), the speed of the waves depends on the water depth and gravity only. Specifically, the speed is equal to the square root of gravity times depth. This tells us that waves will move slowest in the shallowest water. Let's assume that there is a nice downward slope as you move away from the shoreline. Start by imagining a wave that begins parallel to the shore. As it moves closer, the shallower water will cause it to slow down. Now, what happens if the wave is rotated so that it starts at an angle to the shoreline?

If you think of the wave crest as a straight line, one end will be closer to shore than the other if it's at an angle. The far end is in deeper water and will travel faster than the shallow end. This causes the wave crest to turn until both ends are at the same depth or it hits the shore (whichever comes first). If you're having trouble imagining this scenario, try thinking about an axle with a wheel on each end. If you move both wheels at the same speed, the axle will move in a straight line. What happens if you hold one wheel stationary (more or less) and move the other? The moving wheel will rotate around the other one. Now, allow both wheels to turn but move one a little faster than the other. The axle will move forward while also gradually turning. This is analogous to our wave scenario.

That's one question answered, so on to the next one: what causes waves topple over? It may seem strange but this answer relies on the same principle as the first one. In this case, we can no longer treat the wave crest as just a line; it does have a finite width, after all. Since the back of the wave is in deeper water than the front, the back will travel faster and eventually catch the front. The water particles will accumulate behind the crest until it reaches a point when the added water forces the wave to topple over. If the wave is large enough, you may notice how the top rolls over the bottom. As water piles up behind the wave, the water becomes even deeper than the water in front. Consequently, the water in back moves even faster, particularly that on the surface. This helps the top of the wave crest to roll as the wave topples over. Keep in mind, however, that this is only valid for waves in shallow water. It's not often that you see breaking waves in the middle of a lake, partly for this reason. When you do see them, the wind is generally very strong and helps force them to topple over.

Fortunately, these are easy things to go see for yourself, so get out and enjoy the coming summer. Maybe the next time you find yourself at a beach, you'll pay a little more attention to the waves.

Waves in Fluids (video) by National Committee for Fluid Mechanics Films (1960s; more here)

Sunday, April 14, 2013


I believe the credit for this one goes to my lab partner.

At first sight, those three little pin-pricks of light may not seem very spectacular. However, the phenomenon that creates them (sonoluminescence) is really quite interesting. Some scientists once believed that the light was created by the ever elusive nuclear fusion, although this idea has since been almost completely rejected. We can get to the basic idea by breaking apart the name, sonoluminescence. The "sono" refers to sound, while "luminescence" is the glow. In essence, the lights are created by sound.

In the experiment above, we start with a rectangle container filled with purified water. The metal cylinder at the top that sticks into the water is a transducer; in other words, it will create the sound for us. Sound is a pressure wave; when it travels through the water (in this case), it causes the water molecules to oscillate back-and-forth causing regions of compression, where molecules are pushed together, and rarefaction, where particles are pulled away. The sound that we used was a higher pitch than humans can hear, known as ultrasound. If the frequency of the sound (that is, how many times it oscillates per second) is chosen correctly, a standing wave will form in the water. If you and a friend each hold one side of a rope and shake it in sync with one another, a standing wave will form. You'll know when one forms because there will be at least one point on the rope that doesn't seem to move. The stationary point is called a node. Between each node is an anti-node, the point that has the most motion. The anti-node is what we're interested in.

The next step is to make a very small bubble very near the anti-node. It is a difficult task, but if done correctly, the bubble move into the anti-node and get trapped there. Because the anti-node is where the wave motion varies the most, this point will rapidly oscillate between a high pressure state (compression) and a low pressure state (rarefaction). During the high pressure state, the air in the bubble will be squeezed into a smaller volume. The opposite happens during the low pressure state; that is, bubble's volume grows and the air inside can spread out more. This should help to explain why it is so difficult to trap a bubble. If you squeeze or stretch it just a little too much, the bubble will pop forcing you to start over.

So, we have a bubble in water that is changing volume due to being trapped in an anti-node of a sound wave. Now that the experiment is set-up, we can move to our initial question: why does the bubble light up? This is a difficult question to answer and, frankly, the exact answer remains a mystery of physics. However, we can make measurements that give us some insights into the process and allow us to speculate on what it could be. The light is emitted when the bubble is squeezed. At this point, the volume that air molecules have is very small. When the bubble is squeezed, the air molecules heat up. In essence, this heat causes the molecules to emit light. What isn't known is the process through which the light is emitted. The most accepted idea is that the heat energy pulls the molecules apart. When the molecules re-form, they emit light. However, this does not explain the spectrum (or variety) of light emitted. As the experiments continue, scientists hope to one day find the answer.

While this is a very neat experiment, it might not have much practical use. However, sonoluminescence does occur in nature. Have you ever heard of the beautiful mantis shrimp? Perhaps you've seen the comic about it that's been getting passed around lately. The mantis shrimp can close its claw so quickly that it creates a high enough pressure wave to form a cavitation bubble that can glow by sonoluminescence. Just be careful if you go looking for one. Not only do they create a large enough pressure wave to kill their prey, but it is even strong enough to break through the glass of an aquarium.

References and Further Reading
The Sonoluminescence Process by the American Institute of Physics
Sound is a Pressure Wave by The Physics Classroom
Sonoluminescence: Sound into Light (Scientific American article) by Seth Putterman
Mantis Shrimp by Chesapeake Bay Program
Why the Mantis Shrimp is my new favorite animal by The Oatmeal