Tag Archives: science

How superstition grows out of science

Priests in Ancient Egypt could predict eclipses and the floods of the Nile by observing the stars and the Moon and recording their previous positions when the events of interest happened. The rest was calculation, nothing magical. Ordinary people saw the priests looking at the stars and predicting events in the future, and thought that the stars magically told priests things and that the prediction ability extended to all future events (births, deaths, outcomes of battles). The priests encouraged this belief, because it gave them more power. This is one way astrology could have developed – by distorting and exaggerating the science of astronomy. Another way is via navigators telling the latitude of a ship using the stars or the sun. People would have thought that if heavenly bodies could tell a navigator his location on the open sea, then why not other secrets?
Engineers in Ancient Rome calculated the strength of bridges and aqueducts, and estimated the amount of material needed for these works. Ordinary people saw the engineers playing with numbers and predicting the amount of stones needed for a house or a fort. Numbers “magically” told engineers about the future, and ordinary people thought this prediction ability extended to all future events. Thus the belief in numerology could have been born.
When certain plants were discovered to have medicinal properties against certain diseases, then swindlers imitated doctors by claiming that other natural substances were powerful cures against whatever diseases. The charlatans and snake oil salesmen distorted and exaggerated medicine.
Doctors diagnosed diseases by physical examination before laboratory tests were invented. Thus a doctor could look at parts of a person’s body, tell what diseases the person had, and predict the symptoms that the person would experience in the future. Exaggerating this, palm readers claimed to predict a person’s future life course by looking at the skin of their palm.
In the 20th century, some medicines were discovered to be equally effective at somewhat lower doses than previously thought. Then homeopathy exaggerated this by claiming that medicines are effective when diluted so much that on average not a single molecule of the drug remains in the water given to the patient.
In all these cases, superstition only adds bias and noise to scientific results. Science does not know everything, but it is a sufficient statistic (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sufficient_statistic) for superstitious beliefs, in the sense that any true information contained in superstition is also contained in science. Nothing additional can be learned from superstition once the scientific results are known.

Scientific thinking coordination game

If most people in a society use the scientific method for decision-making, then telling stories will not persuade them – they will demand evidence. In that case, bullshit artists and storytellers will not have much influence. It is then profitable to learn to provide evidence, which is positively correlated with learning to understand and use evidence. If young people respond to incentives and want to become influential in society (get a high income and social status), then young people will learn and use the scientific method, which reinforces the demand for evidence and reduces the demand for narratives.
If most people are not scientifically minded, but believe stories, then it is profitable to learn to tell stories. The skilled storytellers will be able to manipulate people, thus will gain wealth and power. Young people who want to climb the social and income ladder will then gravitate towards narrative fields of study. They will not learn to understand and use evidence, which reinforces the low demand for evidence.
Both the scientific and the narrative society are self-reinforcing, thus there is a coordination game of people choosing to become evidence-users or storytellers. Note that using the scientific method does not mean being a scientist. Most researchers who I have met do not use science in their everyday decisions, but believe the stories they read in the media or hear from their friends. I have met Yale PhD-s in STEM fields who held beliefs that most people in the world would agree to be false.
One signal of not thinking scientifically is asking people what the weather is like in some place one has not visited (I don’t mean asking in order to make small talk, but asking to gain information). Weather statistics for most places in the world are available online and are much more accurate than acquaintances’ opinions of the weather. This is because weather statistics are based on a much longer time series and on physically measured temperature, rainfall, wind, etc, not on a person’s guess of these variables.

Ideas for popular science experiments

There are many science fair experiment ideas online. The following may be repetitions.
A windmill connected to an electric generator, which is connected to a lightbulb (small dimmable is best). Blow on the windmill to turn the light on. A separate generator similar to the one attached to the windmill, which can be cranked by hand to turn on the lightbulb. An electric fan that can blow on the windmill, with power consumption at the fan and power production at the windmill measured and displayed. This explains efficiency losses in power generation.
Pressure of light. A piece of paper attached vertically on a platform that can rotate at low friction. On one side of the rotation axis, the paper is painted black, on the other, it is white. Reversed on the opposite side of the paper. Transparent dome over the setup to prevent air currents interfering. Shining a light on the paper makes it rotate, because the pressure on one side is greater. The rotating platform can be a polystyrene disk floating in water.
Pulleys and gear ratios. A bicycle with gears, rear wheel removed, but axle in place. Rope attached to axle, weight to rope. Rotating the pedals lifts the weight. Different gears require different number of rotations to lift the weight to a given height, but the more rotations needed, the less force needed for the rotation. Explain why low gears on a bike should be used when starting and on uphills, but high gears on downhills.
Moving pulleys: the distance the rope has to be pulled becomes longer, but the force required to pull becomes smaller to lift a given weight a given distance.
Friction in braking. Several bicycle wheels with brakes attached. Some rims are dry, some wet, some oiled. Feel the braking force required to stop each. To provide the force that the brakes must counter, a weight can be attached to each wheel. Rotate the weight away from the lowest point of the wheel and try to use the brakes to prevent the weight from sinking to the bottom again.
Friction in accelerating. Old bicycle. Rotate the pedals to accelerate the rear wheel to a given speed (measured with a bicycle speedometer) when the chain is dry, or oiled, or sand is poured on the chain. Feel the different difficulty depending on the condition of the chain. Several bikes is better, so the chains in different condition can be compared.
Friction and heat: a fire drill. Rotate a sharp stick in a hole in a piece of wood – the hole blackens and starts to smoke.
Ball bearings. Stack two blocks, put weight on the top one, try to rotate the bottom one. Now the same blocks with two ball bearings, one between the ground and the bottom bearing and the other between the two blocks. Much easier to rotate the bottom block. Explain how rolling friction is smaller than dragging friction. Friction proportional to pressure. Friction related to surface area.
Tire pressure and friction. Bicycle wheels (preferably with identical rims, hubs and spokes) with different width tires on them. Measure the friction of the tires by the force required to rotate them at a given speed on some surface, with the tire bearing weight. A stationary bicycle trainer can be used. Which tire width gives the lowest friction? Research shows that 22-23 mm tires have the lowest friction under the weight of an adult cyclist. Deflate the tire, measure the friction. Inflate, measure the friction. Which inflation pressure gives the lowest friction? Research shows that it is not the maximal pressure, unless the surface on which the wheel rotates is very smooth.
Mining and ores. Different rock samples of various ores. Panning for “gold”: try to find a shiny grain hidden in a quantity of mud or sand.
Solvents. Pebbles or small toys mixed in sugar paste or syrup, which is then dried into blocks. Use water to dissolve the sugar and discover what is inside the blocks.
Leidenfrost effect. Air hockey table with air being pumped under the hockey puck. Compare to droplets of liquid nitrogen rolling on a warm surface. Compare to pancakes riding on the steam bubbles under them on a hot pan.
Bridge of spaghetti. Dry spaghetti can be attached to each other with small balls of dough (flour mixed with water). Then bake the spaghetti-and-dough construction to harden the dough. Check how much weight the bridge can carry. Compare the breaking weight for a bridge (triangularly connected spaghetti that look like high-voltage power line towers) to the breaking weight for a bunch of horizontal spaghetti. The bridge can also be made by glueing matches or toothpicks.
Detergents. Lightly grease some cloth that normally absorbs water. Put water on top of that cloth – droplets form and nothing leaks through. Put water in a cloth bag and show that it does not leak. Compare to ungreased cloth that lets water through. Add detergent to the water on the greasy cloth. With the right coarseness of cloth, amount of grease and detergent, the water should start leaking through.
A burner under a thin paper box filled with water. The paper does not burn and does not become soggy, so the water does not leak through.
Absorption and radiation. Heat lamp shining on a black and white rock. Which becomes warm first? Now heat the rocks by contact, e.g. in warm water. Which rock cools down first? Infrared laser thermometer may help confirm temperatures. Or an ordinary thermometer inserted in a hole drilled in the rock.
Hot air rises. A nonflammable parachute rises above a candle. The parachute could be of thin tinfoil. It should have a light weight attached below the canopy to keep it upright. A tinfoil pinwheel can be held above the candle – it starts to rotate in the updraft of hot air.
3D printing by hand. Mud dripped from a hand onto sand or another surface that lets water through easily. The water soaks out of the droplets of mud that hit the surface, leaving a series of solid bumps of mud. Drop another droplet of mud on top of the bumps – water soaks out again, the bumps are now higher. Use this technique to build walls, castles etc.
Internal combustion engine. A rotating shaft with two pistons attached (can be made of wood or some other cheap, light, strong enough material). A balloon under each piston. If two people rapidly inflate and let deflate the balloons in the right sequence, then the shaft starts to rotate. Also a great party game – which couple gets their motor running fastest? The balloons can also be inflated by a hand pump, but fast and well-timed deflation is then a problem. One end of a long snakelike balloon can be under the piston, the other end squeezed and released by hand. The right sequence of squeeze and release can make the shaft rotate. One person can hold two long balloons, so can rotate the engine alone. A single piston is enough to rotate a wheel if attached to the rim – this is the arrangement in some old steam locomotives and foot-pedalled Singer sewing machines.
Steam power. Electric kettle boiling water, with a small windmill above the spout. The steam rising from the kettle rotates the windmill. Measure the power generated by the windmill and compare to the electricity required to heat the kettle.
Electric motor. Hand generator produces electricity, which is led by wires to an electric motor, which starts to rotate. Or the electricity is led to a coil with a permanent magnet inside. The magnet starts to move when the hand generator is cranked. With the right speed of cranking, an alternating current can make the magnet rotate.
Water mill. Pour the water at the top of a halfpipe. A waterwheel in the halfpipe starts to rotate in the flow. The rotation can drive a small generator which lights up a tiny lightbulb.
Archimedes’ screw. A helix in a pipe that is slightly tilted from horizontal can be rotated to pump water up the pipe.
Connected vessels. Two cups of water at different heights linked by a bent drinking straw. Suck the bottom of the straw to get water over the hump in the straw. Then water will start to flow from the top cup to the bottom, initially going uphill in the straw.
A bit of charcoal dropped in a vial of pure oxygen spontaneously catches fire. The oxygen can be generated at the bottom of the vial using hydrogen peroxide and a drop of blood. Steel wire in a pure oxygen environment rusts rapidly enough to be observed in a single experiment.
Bimetal thermostat. Two strips of different metals glued, soldered or riveted together at the ends. Heat the joined strip with a hair dryer – it bends to one side. The bent strip can touch a contact and switch something on or off, for example the hair dryer. A feedback loop can be constructed: if the joined metal strip gets cold enough, then it switches on the hair dryer, which heats the strip, which then switches off the hair dryer.
Tracks vs wheels. Tracked and wheeled model vehicles driving in a sandbox and on a smooth surface. The vehicles are the same weight, have the same motor and battery. Compare performance going up a sandhill vs racing on a smooth surface.
A spinning top to illustrate gyroscopes and self-stabilising.
Degrees of freedom of movement. Mechanical devices that illustrate the 3 translation and 3 rotation possibilities by allowing some of them, but not others. For example the serial gimbal, 3-axis gimbal, origami for thick materials (Science 24 Jul 2015: Vol. 349, Issue 6246, pp. 396-400, DOI: 10.1126/science.aab2870), bicycle front fork with shock absorbers, shopping trolley wheel or office chair wheel. For fun, rotate a person on an office chair a few dozen turns, then ask them to walk in a straight line.
Origami: Miura fold, hexaflexagon. Cutting and gluing mathematical objects, e.g. a Mobius strip, a Klein bottle. Math drawing with compass and ruler, e.g. a flower made from 7 interlinked circles of the same diameter. Sierpinsky carpet. Inscribing circles in squares and vice versa.
Boil amaranth in a transparent vessel. The grains dance on the bottom, then form columns, then a goo with large breaking and splattering bubbles.
Water volcano. A small bottle of warm coloured water is dropped in a large transparent vessel containing clear cold water. The coloured water will rise to the top and spread out, like a volcanic ash plume rises in the atmosphere and spreads in a layer.
Twinkling stars and heat mirages. A transparent rectangular vessel of water with points of light behind it. Look through the water: the points do not move. Now heat the water from the bottom: the points of light start to wobble, because warm water currents are rising up and bending the light passing through them.
Refractive index measurement. Water and cooking oil in transparent vessels. One person puts a straight stick at an angle into the liquid – the stick seems to bend at the immersion point. The person points out where they perceive the bottom end of the stick to be. Another person at the side of the vessel measures the angle between the perceived and actual sticks. The difference in angles is different for water than for oil.
Muscles and joints. Ask a person to relax their hand on a table, palm up. Press on the inside forearm and pull it toward the elbow – the 3 smallest fingers bend. Pull the palm towards the wrist – the fingers bend. An excavator’s scoop is moved by pistons like human limbs are moved by muscles – by pulling on the joint on one side or another.
Centrifuge to separate liquids, or solids from a liquid. The low-cost whirligig centrifuge (paperfuge) is described in Nature Biomedical Engineering 1, Article number: 0009 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41551-016-0009 and http://www.nature.com/news/spinning-toy-reinvented-as-low-tech-centrifuge-1.21273 Animal blood or some mixture of liquids and solid flakes can be separated into component liquids and solids by spinning it.
Solar-powered distillation. The 1 square metre device made of polystyrene, paper and charcoal distils about 1 litre of water per hour, as described in http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/02/sunlight-powered-purifier-could-clean-water-impoverished Explain capillary action, evaporation and condensation, black material absorbing heat radiation faster.
Passive cooling. Glass beads 8 micrometres in diameter embedded in a polymethylpentene film backed with a thin silver film. The film conducts heat from the surface it sits on and radiates it away in in the other direction. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/02/cheap-plastic-film-cools-whatever-it-touches-10-c
Oil- and water-repellent coating of glass. Cannot be prepared on the spot, but previously fabricated coatings can be demonstrated. Deposit candle soot on glass, then coat with a 25 nanometre silica film by putting the glass in a desiccator with open vessels of tetraethoxysilane and ammonia for 24 hours. Heat to 600C in air for 2 hours. Put in a desiccator with open beaker of semifluorinated silane for 3 hours. Xu Deng et al. “Candle Soot as a Template for a Transparent Robust Superamphiphobic Coating” http://science.sciencemag.org/content/sci/335/6064/67.full.pdf?sid=ca40c018-0715-4d3b-8e36-58c329dea347

Electricity and water analogy. Pouring water down an inclined halfpipe to rotate a water wheel under the bottom of the halfpipe. The water wheel is connected to a winch that can lift a small weight. The height or angle of the halfpipe and the quantity of water can be changed, which lifts the weight at different speeds or can lift a larger weight. The height of the halfpipe is analogous to the potential difference (voltage) and the quantity of water per second to the current (amperage, electrons per second). The water wheel can also be connected to a generator that powers a small dimmable lightbulb. The brightness of the bulb changes with the speed of the water wheel.
Plastic beads in water poured down a halfpipe can demonstrate the measurement of flow per unit of time: the number of beads passing a given point per ten seconds for example.
Ship shape. Make model boat hulls out of some easily worked material, e.g. putty, model clay (hull must be thin to float), cut styrofoam, cardboard taped together and covered with cling film. The styrofoam needs extra weight, for example a piece of sheetmetal pushed through it in the middle to make a keel. The cardboard boat can carry some gravel as ballast. Then each boat gets a motor of equal power, e.g. a propeller powered by a wind-up spring from some toy. Weigh the boats and add ballast as needed to equalise weights. Race the boats to see which hull shape is fastest. To keep the racing boats straight, put them in parallel halfpipes of water, or create swimming pool lanes in a large tub by parallel strings drawn taut on the surface of the water.

Priming the pump. An interesting mechanical device is a piston pump for getting water out of the ground. A piston moves up and down in a vertical pipe open at the top. There is a hole in the side of the pipe from which water can come out. The piston passes above and below the hole as it moves. A dry piston doesn’t pump water up, but pouring some water on the piston (priming the pump) creates a temporary airtight seal around the piston, so pulling the piston up creates a slight vacuum under it, which draws the water up. The water flows out of the hole in the side of the pipe.
Spinning methods and yarn properties. Threads or wires can be spun into yarn by cone spinning, Fermat or dual-Archimedean spinning. With enough twist, the yarn starts to coil like a telephone cord. Folding twisted yarn in two makes the two halves twist around each other – this is how rope is made. Twisted but uncoiled yarn can be coiled in the opposite direction to the twist. Removing the core around which the coiling took place lets the twist and coil cancel – parallel threads result.

Economics to guide materials science

There are too many possible materials to test them all, or even simulate by computer. Materials scientists theorize what combinations of elements are likely to yield the desired properties, but still there are too many possibilities. One way to narrow the choice is to use economics.

If the goal of developing a material is to change the world or make money, the benefit of the invention must exceed the cost. The benefit comes from the improved characteristics of the material relative to existing alternatives. What the market is willing to pay for an improvement depends on its size. There may be a theoretical maximum for a property, or its historical rate of increase may be used to forecast the likely improvement. Once an approximate willingness to pay for a unit of the candidate invented material is known, this can be compared with its estimated cost.

Financial firms dealing in commodity futures forecast the prices of chemical elements over the likely commercialization time horizon. Only materials using a combination of elements that is cheap enough are commercially promising. Cheap enough means that the improved material must cost less per unit than the market is willing to pay for it. An expensive element can be used, but only in appropriately tiny quantity. The requirement that the bundle of elements cost less than some bound cuts down on the number of combinations that are worth testing. Similarly, the manufacturing method must be cheap enough, so some methods may be ignored.

The basic cost-benefit analysis is a simple idea, though the benefit estimation may be complicated in practice. Probably the companies producing various materials are already taking the potential cost and benefit of an innovation into account in their R&D, but academic materials scientists perhaps not. If the goal is to advance fundamental science and satisfy one’s curiosity, then the cost of the material may not be an issue. But for the world to use the material, it must be cheap enough.

A practical recommendation is for an application-oriented lab to put up a periodic table with the prices of the elements added. A spreadsheet with the prices of commodities can be used to calculate the cost of a candidate combination for a new material. Testing the candidates should proceed in the order of decreasing “profit” (benefit minus cost of the material). This profit is not necessarily the same as commercial profit, because the benefit may include its whole contribution to society, not just the revenue to the producer.

Why does humanity do science?

Individual scientists do science because it is fun and pays the bills. Why would society finance this? I think it is done to achieve prediction and control. Control over whatever can be controlled (physical things, people, abstract concepts) and prediction of what cannot be controlled (weather, earthquakes, evolution of the universe).
Control is something evolution has made people desire (control is commonly used to change the environment to improve people’s survival and reproduction). Prediction allows people to adjust themselves to aspects of the environment that they cannot change to suit themselves. Prediction is also part of learning to control: predict a response, take an action, observe if the response to the action is the one predicted.
If prediction and control are the goals humanity sets science, then scientists and fields of study should be evaluated based on their contribution to these goals. For example, studying history is useful if it helps predict or control future history.
A small contribution of science may be entertainment (popular science shows and news), which may justify financing interesting and entertaining science even if it does not contribute much in other respects.