Friday, October 17, 2014

There's An Equation For That

If you are a discerning television watcher and you don’t have Netflix or Hulu or some other service that allows you watch what you want to watch when you want to watch it, you should.  I actually have both and as a result, I have all but completely wrested control of my viewing content away from the various program managers.  I’ve only recently come to realize a hidden power in that freedom.  Before I explain, I’d like to return for a moment to a long ago time when I was a pre-teen with zero content control.

Back then, one of my favorite TV shows was a cartoon called Fat Albert.  It was created by Bill Cosby.  At the beginning of each show during “the come on”, as we called it, Mr. Cosby would look at the screen and say, “This is Bill Cosby coming at you with music and fun and if you’re not careful, you might learn something before it’s done”.  After his opening statement and the first of three or four painful commercial breaks, Mr. Cosby would introduce the story.  Then after a few more commercials, the story would play.  Finally, just after another set of commercials, he would relate the moral of the story, after which the Cosby kids (the main characters in the story) would sing a song reinforcing the moral of the story, while playing instruments fashioned mostly from junkyard materials.  It was great television.  My Saturdays were planned around Fat Albert, which came on at 12 PM on channel 12.  It was followed by Tarzan, which I also watched faithfully but not with near the enthusiasm or expectation level I attached to Fat Albert.  One day, without warning, both shows stopped coming on.  I’m not sure what replaced them, but I am sure I didn’t watch.  I’m also sure I would have kept the 12 to 1 PM line up intact had I been in charge of content all those years ago.

To my knowledge, the series has never aired again since its original airing all those years ago, which is a shame because Bill Cosby was right, I did learn something before it was done.  I suspect lots of others did too.

Anyway, I’m much older now, so cartoons don’t hold the same appeal as they once did.  But content control does, so I’ve been emboldened by the power Netflix has afforded me from an entertainment perspective.  Recently though, I’ve been excited and intrigued by the educational possibilities that exist with those kinds of services. 

When I was a college undergrad, I bought an album called Edutainment.  The title conveys everything you need to know about the music group’s intentions. That word now encapsulates the new appeal of Netflix to me as a result of one of recent my viewing experiences, which I’ll try to summarize below.

I’ve always been fascinated by science although I’ve never been good with the nuts and bolts (equations and such) that underpin it all.  Still, my fascination was stoked a few weeks ago by a documentary I watched on Netflix called Particle Fever.  It was about a collection of theoretical and experimental physicists from around the world who have been working to prove the existence of a theorized atomic particle called the Higgs-Boson.  The experiment, which was literally thirty years in the making, was designed to produce the collision of two protons.   A proton is one of the three most well known atomic particles.  The other two are neutrons and electrons.  The collision would be accomplished using two electronic beams (particle accelerators) which would send the protons in opposite directions around a seventeen mile “track” at ever increasing speeds until they both reached the speed desired for the collision.  The resultant collision would supposedly reveal the existence of the H-B particle which would in turn further either one of two theories, based on the particle’s weight (measured in gigaelectrovolts, GeVs).   If the particle was actually evident and came in at a weight around 115 GeV, the theory of super symmetry, which holds that ours is the only universe and it is made up of a standard set of atomic particles which are laid out in an elaborate and infinite symmetrical pattern, would prevail.  At 140 GeV the multiverse theory would prevail.  It holds that ours is only one of many universes and that it is only habitable by a completely random unfolding of events.

On experiment day, which was actually a few years ago, the existence of the particle was proven.  However, the weight came in at 126, which didn’t lend itself to either theory.  None of the scientists were deterred.  In fact they were all rather excited about the opportunity to develop new theories and conduct new experiments.  One of the scientists went so far to say something like, ‘…being able to go from failure to failure without losing any enthusiasm is the essence of science and life.’  Another statement made by one of the physicists struck me as well.  He said, ‘The laws of nature are completely describable and mathematics is the language we use to describe them.’  In essence, for everything that goes on around you, there’s an equation for that.

There were other technical points that I didn’t describe above, but did grasp as they were being explained.  The point of sharing the few details that I did is this:  I didn’t refer once to the internet or back to the documentary while writing this.  I watched the documentary for three consecutive nights about two weeks ago and it stuck.  I'm not saying I'm ready to write any papers or put forth any new theories on the subject, but I've actually started “speaking physics”, at least in a rudimentary way.  Of course it took a few viewings and lots of pausing rewinding and reflecting, but I got it.  The idea that it's possible for me to reach a knowledge level on par with, and perhaps even ahead of, someone who might pay tens or even hundreds of thousands for the same supposed knowledge- for the price of my cable bill- is not so far fetched and makes me consider shutting up once and for all about the monthly fee.

So much for the idea of TV as a mind dulling pursuit. In hindsight, I took a three night physics class on Netflix without signing up for it and without really intending to do so.   If Bill Cosby had done the intro to the documentary, which didn’t have any commercials by the way, I imagine something like the following would have been appropriate: “This is Bill Cosby coming at you with science and fun and if you’re interested, you will most definitely learn something before it’s done”.
Theoretical physicist Peter Higgs and the Higgs-Boson

I have no idea why I was so interested in the Higgs-Boson particle, but I was.  And I’m sure that my interest was the cause of my learning.  Discovering, fostering, and holding prospective student’s interest seems to me to be the order of the day in education.  I’m not saying we should have kids watch Fat Albert or Particle Fever.  But I’m not saying we shouldn’t either.



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