Getting my daily dose of science

From the time I began college up until my relocation to suburbia about a year ago, science was my bread and butter: I was a physics major, then a high school physics teacher, then a science textbook editor. Now that I work as a math tutor and humor website moderator, I have to get all of my science cravings fulfilled on my own time.

Since science really is all around us, coming up with Ideas for Doing Science isn’t difficult at all. Sometimes I look at the neighborhood pool across the street and want to mix in a large quantity of cornstarch. A lesson in non-Newtonian fluids and an absolute blast to run across, but such large-scale Random Acts of Science are often bad ideas (unless you’re a Mythbuster, which is pretty much my dream job). So I have to get my geek on in more manageable ways.

It doesn’t get much more manageable than a slinky. Slinkys move the way they do because of the interaction between two forces: gravity and the restoring (“springy”) force of the spring. When you push a slinky down a flight of stairs, gravity causes one end to fall to the next step. This stretches the spring out. The restoring force pulls the other end down to restore the spring to its natural, unstretched state. However, while the spring is restoring to its natural state, gravity is still acting. Gravity pulls the slinky down to the next step and the cycle repeats.

What if we add a third force to this system: the buoyant (“floaty”) force? In other words, how does a Slinky move underwater?

Good thing I have that pool across the street. I’ll report my findings in a future post.


Twenty-Seven Revolutions

The first thing I’m accomplishing on my  birthday is publishing this post. Since I’ve been born, the Earth has revolved around the Sun twenty-seven times and rotated on its axis 9,862 times (including leap years).

The terms revolving and rotating are frequently used interchangeably, but technically there’s a difference: rotating is motion around an internal axis, while revolving is motion around an external point. Spinning in place is rotation. Walking in a circle is revolution. While I haven’t really considered this point before just now, it means that “revolving” doors would more accurately be called “rotating” doors.

Demonstrating rotation and revolution for my physics students was fun. I’d spin in place to show rotation, then walk around a stool to show revolution. Then I’d spin while walking around the stool to illustrate the motion of the Earth around the Sun. There’s nothing like watching your teacher make herself dizzy to help you remember a concept.

One of the things I love about teaching and learning science is the a-ha moment you get when something clicks, and those moments happen so much more often when you’re seeing or doing something as opposed to just reading or hearing about it. I could’ve just recited definitions for my kids, but it was so much more effective to make myself look silly for a minute. Thousands of books and websites will tell you how electric charges move and interact. Reading all of them won’t replicate the experience of rubbing a balloon on your hair, then sticking the balloon to a wall. I’m going to conduct (see what I did there?) that activity at the next kid’s birthday party I attend.

Or maybe I’ll get some balloons for my own party. You’re only as old as you feel.