By Dr. B., Upper School Science
Einstein famously said, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it." I had the opportunity this month to spend a week at the nation's premier particle accelerator at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, before I headed out to the bigger European counterpart at CERN, Geneva, Switzerland. I'm excited to share in this blog my experience at Fermilab while also trying to explain a few basic particle physics concepts in the simplest terms with analogies. I don't want to dilute the profoundness of the actual science by using analogies but they are useful in helping to communicate phenomena.
Physicists are essentially trying to answer these two fundamental questions at Fermilab: what are the main building blocks of nature and what are their interactions? To find out the answers, the physicists collide tiny particles moving at almost the speed of light in highly sophisticated and huge machines—arguably the world's biggest—located 300 feet under ground.
Imagine two strawberries are put in a large circular chamber and given high speeds to travel in opposite directions—and then they collide head-on. Now imagine that collision creates bits and pieces of strawberries, as well as a few blueberries, acorns, grapes and even a watermelon. Sounds weird, right?
This is what makes particle physics experiments so interesting and full of mystery. Mother nature seems to play by different set of rules when size and mass get ridiculously small. A hydrogen atom for example is about a quarter of a billionth of the size of a golf ball and its nucleus is like the size of a mosquito on the field at a football stadium. Even smaller particles called quarks, leptons and bosons add on to the puzzle the physicists are trying to solve. On the atomic level at almost the speed of light, mass and energy become interchangeable. Hence, two fast particles can collide and produce more massive particles.
Scientists at Fermilab guide the products of these high-energy head-on collisions of particles (such as two protons) through many layers of a variety of detectors and analyze the data. The amount of data gathered by 40 million head-on collisions every second of two beams loaded with 100 billion protons produce thousands of "debris" particles. The role of the detectors is like a mixture of mulch, iron nails and salty water in a jar. To separate the contents of this mixture, you could use a magnet to pick up the nails, use a colander for the mulch and boil the water to evaporate the water to leave salt behind. It would be intuitive to realize that the order of these events would matter in your quest to separate the contents of this mixture.
How much data is gathered in these particle collisions? Imagine every person in the U.S. taking a picture every second for 10 hours every day with their cell phones and you are tasked to analyze these pictures for patterns and irregularities according to certain criteria. The data gathered in the particle accelerator labs are processed in huge "computer farms" and require incredible amounts of power. For example, CERN's yearly electric bill is $65 million. Most of the power is needed to guide the particles through the chambers via super conducting magnets that are 100,000 times more powerful than Earth's magnetic field through extremely cold temperatures (-400o F) and to run the super computers.
Overall, it was an incredible experience at a prestigious facility that opened up my eyes to the amazing world of particle physics. The level of science that is being conducted at this national laboratory is shaping the way we view the universe.
By Dr. B., Upper School Science
September 29, 2016
Every teacher has a few quirky favorite expressions that he or she uses in all kinds of situations. I recently came to the realization that I have accumulated a few of mine over the years. I use these expressions frequently in my conversations with students, colleagues and parents.
I think it's time that I made a list of these expressions and shared them with the broader community. I will let the readers decide when and where to use these quotes, but I can guarantee their effectiveness if they are handled well. I would recommend that you insert one of these quotes into the conversation at the dinner table and watch in amazement the awkward silence that ensues.
- Lefty loosy righty tighty
- Sometimes you've got to wear stretchy pants.
- Done is better than perfect.
- Once is luck, twice is coincidence and thrice is a pattern.
- Good talk, see you out there.
- Don't text and talk.
By Dr. B., Upper School Science
I am now 40 years old and that automatically puts me in the "old wise man in North Hall" category by my students. This category has a few perks such as having an audience when I tell true stories sprinkled with life-lessons. Some lessons are rather basic and obvious such as "both hands in your pockets when going down the stairs is not a good idea" or "coconut oil as a face lotion on a sunny snow-boarding day will cook your face."
I also love DC and Marvel comics super heroes and I have found them to be a useful and effective tool to relay subtle life lessons to my students. For example, let's talk about building grit and perseverance. We all want our students to have what it takes to recover from setbacks and get back out there to fight the good fight. But first, let's make sure we clear up some misconceptions.
- Building grit and perseverance does not happen overnight. While it may have worked for Spiderman when he was bitten by a radioactive spider, went to bed and woke up with great muscles and skills, it actually takes time. A very long time. Months and years, rather than hours and days. I wake up with arms and abs that are "soft and fluffy" (as my 5-year old puts it). Our lives are a bit more like Batman's, who became a superhero only after many years of preparation, a disciplined work ethic and dedication.
- Building grit and perseverance is not an "all or none" option, like with the Hulk. From a shy, quiet and weak persona, Hulk becomes extremely aggressive, dominant and loud. Never mind the drop in his IQ. Grit actually comes in a wide spectrum of intensity and at varying times to us all. We see many examples of the underdog beating the all-time favorite in all sorts of life events.It simply takes lots of patience, wear and tear and guidance to get there.
- Having grit and perseverance is not genetic. We all have what it takes. Grit and perseverance are acquired phenomena. They can be taught. They can be improved. They can be manipulated to perfection. They can be inspired. For example, consider Iron Man. Tony Stark has everything a person can ask for in terms of wealth, fame, good looks and intelligence, but not until he is in a dire situation with limited resources does he feel the urge to build the Iron Man prototype suit.It's just a matter of time and right environmental stimuli to discover the necessity to step up our game.
I want to end this post to recommend a children's picture book: Moe is the Best by Richard Torrey. Moe is a little boy who wants to be the best in everything he does. After discouraging experiences in a few activities, his siblings point out that he is actually the best at one important thing: Moe is best at trying!
Let's keep trying at it, whatever it is, whatever it takes.