Music theory and quantum mechanics

In high school science class, you probably saw a picture of an atom that looked like this:

Stylized Bohr atom

The picture shows a stylized nucleus with red protons and blue neutrons, surrounded by three grey electrons. It’s an attractive and iconic image. It makes a nice logo. Unfortunately, it’s also totally wrong. There’s an extent to which subatomic particles are like little marbles, but it’s a limited extent. Electrons do move around the nucleus, but they don’t do it in elliptical paths as if they’re little moons orbiting a planet. The true nature of electrons in atoms is way weirder and cooler.

Pictures are a terrible way to understand the nature of quantum particles. Music theory is much better.

Continue reading

Here comes the sun

Today in the NY Times there’s an article about NASA’s new Solar Dynamics Observatory. Check out this amazing video of the sun in action.

The sun was on my mind today anyway, it being so nice and cloudless outside. But days like today also cause me anxiety. I’m a fair-haired sunburn-prone type, and my dad died from skin cancer, a combination of Scandinavian genes and long hours as a young guy on a ladder helping Grandpa paint houses, plus many more hours on boats and beaches with no sunblock. I stick to the shade, wear hats and generally play it very safe, but still, I feel some dread about the amount of radiation I’m getting from the great thermonuclear reactor in the sky.

My dread does have an upside. It’s fueled a lot of fascination. The sun is a bottomless source of interest if you’re a science geek like me. Continue reading

So what is the big deal with Einstein?

I’m a humanities guy, but I’ve never lost my childhood love of math and science. I’m looking forward to the Large Hadron Collider being fired up next year the way normal male Americans look forward to the NBA playoffs. I like to be an informed fan, and since Einstein is the Michael Jordan of scientists, I wanted to know what it is exactly that he figured out, and why it’s so important. Beyond the physics, I wanted to know what put Einstein into the pop pantheon alongside Bob Marley and John Lennon. You never see dorm room posters of Henry Clerk Maxwell or Neils Bohr. The only other scientist who comes remotely close in pop stature is Darwin, but aside from his dramatic beard, Darwin the person doesn’t register much beyond his theories. Why is Einstein such a rock star? Continue reading

How transistors think

The parts of the computer that do the “thinking” are mostly made of little electronic switches called transistors. If you connect two wires to a transistor, you can use the voltage on one wire to control the voltage on the other. What’s especially handy for engineering purposes is that the presence or absence of a small voltage on one wire can control a wide range of voltages on the other wire. When voltage on the control wire changes, the transistor opens or closes the other wire to the flow of electricity in much the same way that a faucet controls the flow of water in a pipe.

Continue reading