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The definitive host: May 2011

The definitive host

de·fin·i·tive host (duh-fin'eh-tiv) n. 1) An organism where a parasite undergoes the adult and sexual stages of its reproductive cycle 2) Someone you go to for interesting stories and/or facts, and puts on one hell of a dinner party 3) This blog, devoted to science and other geeky subjects

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Perfection Isn't Perfect

We may make jokes that we are the perfect versions of ourselves, but realistically, who can say that? I’m a good person and friend, and yet mistakes are inevitable. Mistakes are how we learn and grow into better people.

You may know not to touch the red-hot coils on an electric stove, and have been told not to repeatedly by your parents, siblings and friends. But, you may not remember the lessons until you accidentally do just that. The pain is what you will remember, not the warnings. And even then, you will still use that stove, and the moment you forget that painful lesson, you get burned.

After all, everyone needs a reminder now and then, even those we place on a pedestal, even superheroes that are considered the best of the best. Of course, I am talking about Steve Rogers, who is also known as Captain America.

For those unfamiliar with the comic book lore, Steve Rogers was a young man who wanted nothing more than to be in the army during World War II. But, he was too small for his age, weak and sickly looking. The army disregarded him, despite his pleas.

That was, until he got the opportunity to enroll in a program entitled Operation: Rebirth, designed to help soldiers reach peak physical perfection. He was the first candidate to receive the treatment under the supervision of Professor Abraham Erksine, and the last, as Nazis killed Erksine and destroyed all his research shortly after Rogers received the treatment.

But, the “Super Soldier Serum” had already worked its magic on young Rogers. He became taller, possessed enhanced musculature and reflexes, and became the symbol for the war effort. He became Captain America.

Captain America, or “Cap,” rapidly became known throughout the world as an amazing hero and patriot. His iconic costume was based on his own design, modeled after the American flag, and his trademark shield was made of an indestructible alloy that he can toss like a Frisbee. He fought his nemesis the Red Skull numerous times, as well as other villains, including an infamous cover of him punching Hitler in the jaw.

But, throughout all of that, one thing stayed the same in the Marvel comic universe. Even when surrounded by other superheroes with fantastic skills and abilities, the writers kept Rogers a man. He was an extraordinary man with skills superior to that of any Olympic athlete, of course, but still a mortal man with limits.

But what is perfection?

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines it as the quality or state of being perfect or an exemplification of supreme excellence. But what is excellence?

To me, the key thing to note is that, like beauty, perfection is in the eye of the beholder. The attributes you ascribe to your “perfect” self are different than mine, which are different than those of the Emperor of Japan.

Just remember that nobody is perfect, and if someone says they are, they are lying. In fact, if anyone calls you “less than perfect,” take it as a compliment. If everyone was perfect, there would be nothing to strive for!

The upcoming Marvel film appears to address that head-on, by painting Rogers (played by Chris Evans) as a man with something to prove, not just to himself, but everyone around him. The trailer, embedded below, has a very poignant quote said by Dr. Erksine on why Rogers was chosen for the program: “Because a weak man knows the value of strength."

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Ups and Downs of Physics

It has been an interesting week!

On May 2nd, I went to the university where I did my undergraduate degree, and held a workshop on science communication (as I mentioned in my last post). I also had a new post pop up on Scientific American entitled "A True Duck Hunt - Interview with Donovan Hohn," and I was going to write about both of them, until I went to a popular amusement park on May 7th and experienced something that had never happened to me before.

But for you to understand it, I’ll have to back up a little.

Approximately seven or eight years ago, I worked at that exact amusement park for two spring/summer’s in the merchandise section. I had been to that park many times throughout my life, and had long enjoyed the samplings of roller coasters and other rides that were present. I hadn’t been scared of a roller coaster for a long time, not since I was a child, and believed that it would be fun to work there.

As all employees did, I started out as a cashier in a store, and rapidly got promoted to cash lead within that first year and really enjoyed the job! The second year, I was promoted to a manager, but I did not have as good a time, and stopped after that summer. But, due to a variety of situations, I hadn’t been back since.

So, I was looking forward to heading back and seeing what had changed and go on the new rides that had popped up the last number of years. And, it was a blast! Had a great time with the friends I went with, and went on tons of rides.

But then, at around 3:30pm, we went on a wooden roller coaster and just as we were about to go down the first hill … it stopped. We just sat there in the car, at around a 45-50 degree angle; all the while a voice kept stating over the loud speaker that there was a “delay” and a “technical issue.”

Where my friends and I were stuck, right near the very top of the first hill.
 Really makes you wonder about the faith you put in the hands of the engineers and ride operators, doesn’t it?

During this stop, I spoke with my friends about what it means, how long we were going to spend up there, and then the ride started again (total elapsed time was only about 5 minutes).

Now, I do not know if I was more conscious of the ride, but it was much bumpier than usual, even leading into the flat stretch leading to the platform. That was, until it stopped AGAIN.

This time, after three minutes, the ride attendants manually released our harnesses and had us venture along a rickety wooden walkway to the platform. I spoke to the manager there, and our compensation was a “front of the line” treatment of any coaster of our choice. After a brief discussion with my friends, we decided on the one close-by.

As we made our way up to the next ride, we were told that we would be seated at the very back on the next car. But, to our surprise, THAT ride broke as well. So, the manager told us we were now able to receive two “front of the line” treatments, but not before my friend asked if we could get a free ice cream sandwich in lieu of that. I proposed cash, but he rejected both.

We then made our way to the first of our new set of coasters, and were understandably nervous. After all, two rides had broken, and we were not feeling confident on the third time being the charm.

But, to all our surprise, the ride went off without a hitch. The ride was thrilling and totally alleviated any and all stress we might have had regarding the safety and maintenance of roller coasters at an amusement park.

The second of the “front of the line” coasters was one of the busiest in the park, and we had visited it much earlier in the day. This time, sitting in the back, we all strapped in and made jokes until the ride started up the first hill.

You could tell that all of us were thinking he exact same thing: Please don’t break! And it didn’t.

But what did happen was just as interesting.

As we went up the first hill, the drop following was a nail-biting 75 degrees and the cars quickly accelerated to approximately 125 km/hour (or 77 mph) for over 3 minutes, according to the ride’s website. Quite a ride!

Watch out for that first step .... it's a DOOZY
 The first time I had gone on it earlier that day, it was an exciting ride. But this time, seated at the very back, it was much more intense. For a brief moment, as I came out of the first drop, black spots appeared in my vision from the intense G forces.

It was a thrilling and adrenaline-pumping ride, which afterward left my friends and I utterly exhausted. It was just that draining.

But, it got me thinking about the physics of it all.

When the car is pulled up the hill on the track, it slowly builds up potential energy (stored energy) that will be converted to kinetic energy (motion) once it falls [see point W on the picture below]. Therefore, when the car reaches the top of the hill and begins its descent, all that stored energy is converted into the energy of motion, helped along by our old friend gravity [point X].

A roller coaster at the top of the hill (W) has an abundance of potential energy, but no kinetic. But, after the first drop at point X, all the stored (potential) energy is converted into the energy of motion (kinetic). Approaching point Y, potential energy is regained as kinetic is lost, which then is switched at point Z.
Basically, each loss in height corresponds to a gain of speed (potential to kinetic), and each gain in height corresponds to a lack of speed (kinetic to potential).

As you begin to fall, that momentary sensation where you are lifted out of your seat is known as negative G forces (or negative Earth’s gravity), where you experience the sensation of feeling like you weigh less than usual. In contrast, when you come out of the dive and go up the next hill, you experience positive G forces (or increased Earth’s gravity) and feel you weigh more than normal.

The best way to think about it, at least for me, is by using the example of NASA”s infamous “Vomit Comet,” which trains astronauts how to handle zero G situations, such as being in space.

What they do is fly in a series of parabolic arcs, similar to those that a roller coaster experiences. The only difference is that it is much, much faster, and so the G forces you feel are more pronounced and sustained.

But, for every yin there is a yang, and when the plane goes up, you experience the proportional positive G’s.

For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, and go up on the vomit comet, on a stable and level flight, you would weigh 1G (or Earth’s gravity), or 150 pounds.
When you begin to go up the arc, you will experience 2G (or double the Earth’s gravity) and it will feel like you weigh 300 pounds.
But, when you approach the top of the arc and begin to go down, you will experience 0G (known as weightlessness) and will weigh 0 pounds.
And then the whole process begins again.

Provided by: SpaceTravellers
 There are other forces acting upon you during a roller coaster ride as well, such as centripetal and centrifugal forces, which help you stay in your seat instead of falling out during a loop-de-loop.

Centrifugal forces are pushing you to the outside of the loop (this is what you feel when you go around a sharp turn and your body is thrust away from the direction of the turn), while centripetal forces are balancing those outward forces and keeping you in your seat throughout the loop … even if your stomach may be left on the starting platform.

In fact, most rides that have loops would be safe without restraining devices, based on the physics alone. Luckily for us, there are laws against that, so engineers and designers of coasters need to have them equipped on all rides to keep everyone safe in the event that something does go wrong.

So, the next time you are screaming your lungs out as you plummet to the Earth on a steel or wooden track, give a quick shout out to physics for making it all possible.

I would like to thank the lovely and talented Summer Ash, an astrophysicist (who can be found here on Twitter). She was invaluable in helping me remember my Grade 12 physics, and made sure the science and explanations made perfect sense.

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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Preparing For The Presentation

Back when I used to perform in plays (musicals mostly), I would always feel the nervous butterfly sensation I am feeling now. It is not unpleasant, but still rather irksome and unsettling.

I didn't matter if I had one line to say, or a whole song to sing, the nerves were always there. It wasn't about not knowing my lines or the choreography, as I had memorized them both weeks before, but more the stress of not being what the audience expected.

The same is true when you are giving a public talk.

Thanks to my acting experience, I had a lot of exposure to talking, singing and just making a fool of myself in front of a large group. That came in handy back in Grade Six, when I won a public speaking contest at school, and the prize was presenting it to the whole school at an assembly. The topic, of course, was the life and times of Albert Einstein.

I've come a long way since then, but the nerves are always there. Whether it is waiting for the curtain to rise in my elementary school gym or walking into a lecture hall to give a talk, you are always nervous.

And that is what I am doing on Monday May 2nd.

I am heading on out to the university where I spent my undergraduate education, and speaking to a room of graduate students and professors on the basics (and how to improve) science communication. If anyone would like the details, please email me, and I will send you all the details.

I would now like to thank each and every person who helped me put this presentation together:

My family and friends for all their support and feedback
Tanya Noel for her boundless support and enthusiasm
Nancy Parmalee for her watchful eye
Carin Bondar for her amazing friendship and attitude
Elisa Tersigni for helping me flush out the idea

And everyone who I spoke to for help and advice, as well as those individuals who were happy to take the time out of their busy day and give their advice. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the following people (all of whom I've met through social media):

The infectiously awesome Maryn McKenna
The hilariously scientific Brian Malow
The "yes it is really him and he actually knows who I am," the amazing Carl Zimmer
The intelligent beauty that is Joanne Monaster
The queen on multi-tasking Arikia Millikan
The Tennille to my Captain, Nancy Parmalee
The incredibly amazing Carin Bondar
And lastly, THE Ed Yong.

And as a little treat to those who have read this long, and suffered through my thank you's, here is the title card of my presentation (which I designed myself).

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