Feb 7, 2011
A Physics Metaphor
Posted in: Academics & Research
Physics demos at MIT are pretty high on the list of awesome things in life. Last semester's demos in 8.022 (Electricity and Magnetism, with theory) ranged from rubbing dead cats on sticks to pouring super-cold liquid oxygen over a magnet to playing a physics guitar. That class was cool enough to make me continue in the physics track, so I showed up for 8.03 (Waves and Vibrations) with high expectations.
I was not disappointed. Our professor explained as he fired up the demo how electromagnetic waves traveled through the wires to create mechanical waves in the speaker, producing acoustic waves which propagated towards the waiting wine glass. Then he upped the intensity-- and in true traditional style, we started out the semester by breaking a glass.
A lot of people compare at MIT education to drinking from a firehose. I'd like to go out on a limb and compare it to that physics demo. The institute is the speaker, sending waves of material towards us at all different frequencies and intensities, and we are the wine glass, ready to resonate in tune.
When the speaker is tuned to the right frequency, it can make the wine glass really sing. I've always felt this resonance with math, but I think I'm starting to feel it with physics, too. There must be some reason I made room in my schedule to take a physics course! But the metaphor holds for so many MIT students I've met. Get them talking about the right subject and they virtually sing, showing their passion for what they do. It's part of the insatiable thirst of us wine glasses that we can't get enough of the music.
But turn up the intensity too high, and * crack * – we're left in pieces. There's no denying that MIT is hard, and I'd be lying if I tried to hide the fact that some people don't make it. I know several people who went before the Committee on Academic Performance after the fall term, and two of my friends were asked to take a one-year leave of the institute. That got me thinking. MIT students are in general used to a history of success... just look at the high standards in the admissions office. The idea that someone who was doing so well academically could turn around and get hit with something they couldn't handle, that the wine glass which was just singing is now in shards on the table, speaks to how difficult the curriculum at MIT really is (not to mention how much I need to study!)
So I guess the wine in the wine glass represents our brains, filling up with knowledge. And when the glass breaks and the wine spills all over the speaker, it's like... our brains, flying out of our heads and smashing all over the institute? No, that can't be right... Well, it's not a perfect metaphor. Best stick with the firehose.
But while I'm on the topic of physics (sort of... actually not really anymore), I can't restrain myself from reposting the following scholarly article by prospective student Ike S., ('15???), as an excellent example of applying scientific methodology to the present situation of SO MUCH SNOW!
Optimization of adolescent arrangement on plastic sleds in February: a novel approach of quantum methods that might cure cancer
Colloquially known as "Snowmageddon" or "Snowpocalypse," the blizzard conditions that existed at the start of February in the year of 2011 are rare in the suburbs of Chicago. They brought vortex-like winds and tumults of snow to the courts and circles of Naperville. Such an awesome natural occurrence was seen as both a curse, by stranded motorists, and a blessing, by overexcited schoolchildren.
Sledding is a popular activity among said schoolchildren. However, the question of how to best distribute bodily mass on sleds is a frequently-ignored conundrum. Foolish critics may dismiss this as "trivial," but it has far-reaching consequences. In this analysis, we present a novel method for optimization of arrangements. We also discuss its quantum nature and applications in the field of cancer research.
Methods and Materials
A group of seven subjects were used to conduct this experiment. Each subject contributed some sleds. The exact matching of sled to contributor was not recorded and is not relevant. The experiment was conducted in a sloped field in a residential neighborhood.
Some environmental hazards may impact the results. A second group of subjects was unexpectedly present during the experiment. Though there was little interaction between the two groups, contamination is possible. However, we have done our best to correct for any possible errors.
The group tested various arrangements through a process of trial-and-error. However, before an arrangement was tested, safety procedures were conducted. These were usually prompted by the male subject who wore jeans and leather gloves, and the male subject in ski gear. Risk factors such as tendency to break bones were considered. Some arrangements, especially those involving hurtling down the sloped hill head-first in groups, were ruled out. However, head-first hurtling occurred on an individual basis. But those anecdotes are not relevant to this paper.
These safety precautions contribute to the novel nature of the procedure. Rarely do adolescents, especially adolescent males, perform a full-scale risk analysis for an action so adventurous as descending a snowy slope in a plastic box.
Once an arrangement was theorized, the group determined if it was possible to complete an arrangement. If so, the group completed the arrangement and proceeded down the slope.
From the point when the group left the top of the slope to the point where they arrived at the bottom of the slope, quantum effects occurred. These include:
The group took all possible paths.
The groups final position was undetermined until they were observed.
Color charge conservation was not observed. The group was red much more often than it was any other color.
The sled veered off in random directions. This was obviously the result of quantum fluctuations.
The optimal position was determined to be the following arrangement:
Two red sleds sitting parallel, each with their front facing down the slope. Two adolescents sat in one of the sleds and two in the other. They placed their feet in the sled in which they did not sit. They also alternated, one sitting in one sled and the adjacent adolescent sitting in the other. Then the other three adolescents laid across the legs of the sitting adolescents. This caused minimal pain that lasted only until the adolescents moved into more sensible and comfortable positions.
This result has been named the "4-3,di-parallel-multidiagonal FSHZLTT arrangement."
The documented arrangement has implications for the future of snow merry-making for adolescents. This position was found to be the optimal position for seven people, and, given the equipment provide, two sleds. However, many more combinations are possible. How would varying the number and people affect the optimality? How would varying the angle (theta, of course) of the slope, or the time of day, or the density of the snow, impact the results? We leave these questions open to future experimenters.
The applications to the field of cancer research immediately become apparent. It may be possible to use packing arrangements similar to the most optimal setup found in the "Results" section to package biological molecules for infiltration into cancer cells. Taming biological molecules is certainly easier than taming male adolescent human beings, so coaxing the molecules into such a complex formation should be, as the colloquialism goes, "a piece of cake."
A snowy afternoon was the perfect time to conduct an experiment involving adolescent humans, plastic sleds, and fluffy white snow. The weather catalyzed a reaction which produced various arrangements. Using a novel method, the arrangements were tested for safety, attempted, conducted, and analyzed. The optimal arrangement was found and dubbed the 4-3,di-parallel-multidiagonal FSHZLTT arrangement. During the experiment, quantum effects were observed, and the results point to possible breakthroughs in the area of cancer research.
Well, some wine glasses resonate with physics, others resonate with sledding. To each his own.