Monday, July 12, 2010

Even God Can't Go Faster Than The Speed Of Light

The end is so close I can taste it. It tastes like Summer Rolls from Bangkok Chef. Fresh and cleansing. Sure, once the number I eat starts to reach the double digits, I get sick and can't stand the taste of them anymore, but for now it's what I'm craving. My palate is clean, and I'm ravenous. Cease this incessant teasing and titillation and just give it to me already. Let's finish this job, shall we?

I woke up today having very little idea what to do with my kids. I had hoped to do a Mythbusters type experiment with the older kids, but their lack of creativity, and complete failure to grasp what a "myth" was depressed me, and I decided to 86 the project. That, however, left me with a big gap in my lesson plans.

I had previously budgeted in a unit on light and optics, but it had been taken out to ensure time for electricity and sound. It was a simple solution to reincorporate that unit, but there was one problem. I had removed the unit long enough ago that I hadn't made detailed lessons and experimental plans. So after much mid morning scrambling, I came across a simple experiment that involved using the differences in the indexes of refraction between air and water to make a magic penny appear.

It works like this: Take a pan or some sort of shallow dish. Put a penny or some other flat object in the pan. Lower your head just until the point where the penny disappears below the rim of the pan. If you keep your head there, and add water to the pan, the penny will magically appear. I thought this was pretty cool, and so did most of the kids. A lot of them initially told me that it was because the penny was floating on the water, but then I asked the kids to look at the penny, and saw that it was not. I enjoy moments like these when I can get a kid to reevaluate an assumption, and come to a completely different outlook on the state of nature.

But sometimes I can't. So I wanted them to grasp how incredibly fast light is. So I gave them some numbers. The speed humans can run (I told them 10mph, which I have no idea if it's right. It's feasible), how fast cars drive around the school (25 mph), how fast I actually drive around the school (35 mph. Hey, I'm teaching kids not to play in the street and selecting for fast reflexes and agility in the human population.), as well as some other examples. I gave them the speed of sound (343 m/s which I calculate as about 730 mph, though don't quote me on that). Then I hit them with the big one. The Speed of Light in a Vacuum. Big 'Ole Mr. "C". And as any good scientist, I quoted as many significant figures as I could find. I come up with 299,792,458 m/s which comes out to something like 670,616,628.6 mph. This blew them away. Still blows me away too. It's fun to rediscover the wonders of science.

So as part of impressing them with this number, I stressed that this is the fastest thing out there. That nothing could go faster, or even come close to going as fast as light. Then someone chimed in with "God can!". This made me quiver a bit. For a few seconds I wrestled with the idea of whether or not I should bother with this. On one hand, they're dead wrong. In oh so many ways. But I thought it's not my place to interfere with how parents raise their children and what moral and belief structure they build. I mean, I have no problem with religion, and would not wish for a world without it. I just personally don't subscribe to all the bullsh*t. Then I thought of all the Social Darwinists throughout history, the failed attempt at Eugenics (which unfortunately hasn't completely died out yet) and other tales of misguided science and pseudoscience (I have a whole book on it. Try do research on homeopathy and the load of baloney that stuff is. Every gen chem student knows what dilution does. It certainly doesn't make medicine stronger). I decided I would fight, try to steer them the way of logic and reasoning, even if it meant crushing their belief in a bearded man in the sky. So I fought.

I told them "no, even God isn't as fast as light", and other variations. But they were adamant. I've never been in a room with so many fiery Christians before. At some point I thought, screw religious tolerance, and slipped in "okay, let's only talk about things that a real and aren't made up". I've dealt with many religious nuts before, to varying levels of success. But these kids were tough. I failed. They still believe in God*. I eventually gave up and moved on.
Hokum 1, Science 0.

There were some good points to day. I have one kid, G----, who I have a hard time dealing with. He's unmotivated and disruptive, which is a horrible combination. If I were a weaker man, I'd say he's mean to me. His favorite past time is telling me my drawings suck. Because I have to explain what's going on in things like circuits or sound waves, I've had to draw a lot. And G---- has always told me I've sucked at it. He says "you're drawings are so baaaaad. You should go to art school..." But today, oh glorious day of days, he told me my drawing of an eye looking into the pan for the refraction experiment was actually good:

I've found the kids like puzzles and problem solving type things. It started because while I'm waiting with them to be picked up by their parents (who always come late), they're restless and aimless. I want them to sit quietly and wait for their parents, but that's hard to do when kids have free time. So started giving them tasks. The first ones arose out of annoyance, so many kids were told to count the number of lines in the concrete (judging by the average response, the sidewalk has on average "many" cracks), or how many leaves there are on the tree in the courtyard (judging by the average response, there are roughly "I don't want to play this game anymore, Mr. Science" leaves on the tree). But after a while I started giving them actual thinking puzzles, figuring it was a good way to exercise their minds. One of my favorites is the 3x3 grid of dots and you're told to connect all 9 dots with only 4 connecting lines, which is the origin of the "think outside the box" phrase. I've done others.

This week, I made it formal, and gave them a puzzle at the end of their class. The challenge? Balance twelve nails on a 13th one. Nails can only touch other nails (other than the 13th one).

The people who encounter this puzzle are usually split into two groups: those who know the answer, and those who have no idea in hell what to do. Considering this is a well known puzzle (I think my dad showed it to me when I was little. Hi, dad, I know you're reading), there were a fair number of the junior leaders who knew what to do. But all the kids fell into the latter group. They tried their hardest, vainly stacking one nail atop the 13th one, but to little avail. I gave them hints along the way, but none could solve it. I couldn't solve it when I first saw it, so I didn't expect them to either.

For those of you who haven't seen this puzzle before, the solution will blow your mind. It looks like this:

Still one of my favorite puzzles because of the huge "ah ha" moment once you see how it's done.

Sorry for missing my shirt pocket on Friday. My shirt had no pocket and I was ashamed to let my readership know. Just kidding, my shirt looked awesome and made me look awesome. Definitely bringing it to school with me.

Here's this week shirt pocket:

: My ID, a base for the 12 nail puzzle, 24 nails (very heavy), two dry erase pens, a sharpie, a pencil, a pen, a sheet containing an email of a man I was supposed to send pictures to (not those kind of pictures), a newsletter for this program, a few Starlight mints, and my sanity.

Tomorrow is unofficially my last day teaching, since Wednesday there's a carnival type thing for the kids when I would normally be teaching. I'll have more time to ponder and reflect in the coming days, but for now, I would like to prepare for my teaching swan song. Still not sure what to do on this final day, but I'm going to make sure it leaves a lasting impression. Maybe a scar or two. For the Love of Science.

*'s ability to go faster than the speed of light

1 comment:

  1. I hope the lasting impression you make on your final day is as magical as Man of La Mancha was.