Friday, July 22, 2011

A Physics Playground

Fridays are the best days. That is a well known fact. But it is especially true here at Penn. This weeks class field trip was to the Franklin Institute, and I never thought I would say this about a museum, but it was probably even more enjoyable than the roller coasters. Or, at least it was a close second.

Most of the displays were designed for children, and by that I do not mean that they demonstrated simple concepts or not advanced ideas,but rather that all of the displays were very hands-on. The exhibits reminded me of Bill's lectures in that they each had many very creative ways of explaining complex ideas with simple demonstrations that were both fun and interesting. It made me really happy to see all the young children around me truly excited about physics. In many instances I found myself wishing that I had had the opportunity to visit the museum when I was younger, but even at my age I learned a lot and had fun doing it.

The first exhibit we visited was a giant Foucault pendulum, the first experiment that proved the rotation of the Earth. It was really pretty amazing watching this gigantic mass swing back and forth. There was a plaque that showed the calculations for how long it took for the pendulum direction to shift a full 360 degrees at that particular place on Earth. At the end of the day, we visited it again, and sure enough, there were a few extra chess pieces that had been knocked down because of the shift in the pendulums path.

The next exhibit we went to was more biology oriented, but as we learned before from our pair of lectures on the brain, the two subjects are not disconnected. In this case, the subject is of interest to everyone. We all have a heart and, as it turns out it is quite important that we take care of it. This pointed was stressed to us all when we watched a video of an open heart surgery and got to look at some of the tools the surgeons used. It was both fascinating and horrifying. In addition to this, we spent some time in the famous model heart that is available and large enough to walk through (or at least large enough for a child to walk through; it was a tight fit for Brian).

There was another really cool exhibit on electricity where one could give and receive some fairly high voltage shocks. We also held hands to complete a circuit and light up a light bulb and spent a fair amount of time with out cell phones in front of the light up screen that detects radio waves. My favorite was the machine that detected the electricity that flows through your nerves when you flexed the muscles in your arm.

After that, we ventured up to the roof to withstand the sweltering heat just long enough to peer through a high-powered telescope with special lenses that allowed us to get a clear view of the sun. It was amazing. There were even a few sun spots visible.

We also spent some time in "Issac's Loft" which was an area with a collection of interactive demonstrations about simple machines such as levers and pulleys, the conservation of momentum, and transfers of energy. It was comparable to an educational playground. I raced Brian in a nifty contraption where you can sit in a seat and raise yourself with a pulley.

One of my favorite exhibits was one about engineering and inventions. It was really an interactive explanation of how things worked on the simplest levels. They had cases that contained everyday items such as windshield wipers, vacuum cleaners, and combination locks that had been disassembled in such a way that their inner workings were made clear. There were also stations where one could mess around with gears and pulleys to make simple machines. It was very entertaining.

There was also an entire exhibit on optics and optical illusions that was kind of trippy. They also ad some long exposure light pictures up, which got me really excited because I had just finished making a similar picture the night before. One of the most mind-blowing optical tricks was the one of the dragon whose face was build in a box that was going away from the view but painted in such a way that if one blurred their eyes, it appeared to be coming towards them, and then if they were to walk around the room, follow them wherever they went.

After lunch, we went as a group the the planetarium where we watched a movie on a dome-shaped screen called "A Journey Into a Black Hole" or something along those lines. There were some amazing images of space, and seeing the stars and galaxies all around our heads was pretty cool. Even cooler was the feeling that we knew exactly what the narrator was talking about when he discussed the bending of light and space-time that occurs around black holes. It was a really good way to end an extremely exciting day of "class".

When I returned to the quad, I had the intention of playing squash with a group of people who were interested, however the courts were closed due to excessive heat, which was probably for the best because instead, we sat in an air conditioned cafe sipping on some refreshing smoothies.

After dinner, we watched the final Harry Potter movie, which honestly surpassed my expectations and then returned to our dorms for some Friday night card games before bed.

Great Start to the Weekend

Today, we took another field trip. This was a fine way to end the week, especially considering the intense work that we had to do this week. We traveled to the Franklin Institute via school bus this morning at 9:30, which allowed us to sleep in an hour later. The Franklin Institute is a very diverse place so it is difficult to give it a description that covers all of its bases. At its core, the Franklin Institute is a center for scientific learning for all ages, akin to the Exploratorium in the Bay Area. Although there are definitely aspects of the institute that are geared towards the youth, a good majority of it is dedicated to the principle ideas of science. For instance, there is a large section of the third floor that is used for displaying Newtonian ideas of motion, called Sir Isaac’s Loft. All of the displays in the loft are accessible to children, but all of them have detailed plaques that describe the physics behind each display. There were also live demonstrations that occurred throughout the day in the main atrium. The idea of the Franklin Institute is great because it takes even some of the more difficult principles of science and makes it easy for a person of any age or scientific background to engage in learning and walk away with more knowledge than when they entered.

The US's version of Big Ben

I did a lot of things while in the institute today. We began by taking a group shot of the class in front of a massive statue of Ben Franklin (which looks shockingly similar to the Lincoln Memorial) and then observing a giant pendulum in the main stairwell. The purpose of the pendulum is to show that the Earth rotates upon an axis. The pendulum is hung in such a way that it continues the same path of motion while passing through a ring of chess pieces that, as the day passes, will be knocked over by the pendulum. After that, we were basically on our own until 12:30, which is when we would meet for lunch. I spent most of my time touring the museum with Mike, while occasionally joining, leaving, and re-joining Brian and Julia. As we walked around the institute, I realized how much I have learned in my science classes these past couple of years. I remember visiting places similar to the Franklin Institute and only being interested in the fascinating displays. However, as we toured the institute, I was easily able to identify what scientific principles were at work, from concepts such as mechanical advantage as well as laws relating to gas and pressure.

Taking the phrase "worked to the bone" a bit too seriously...

The highlight of today’s learning came after lunch, when our class gathered in the planetarium for a show about black holes. I was able to apply what we had learned in our lectures on relativity. I even recognized some of the demonstrations that we did in class to represent what actually happens when a black hole is formed. Basically, a black hole is the result of a massive star that goes supernova and leaves a deformation in space-time, from which nothing, not even light, can escape. This is why black holes were given their name. They absorb all light which leaves the area devoid of any light whatsoever, resulting in total darkness. Black holes actually have a point of no return called the event horizon. The demonstration was fascinating and helped me put my previous lessons about relativity into a better perspective. After the show, we were once again allowed to roam the institution. I chose to use some of this time in the gift shop, where I bought some souvenir t-shirts and gifts for my family.

The rest of the day was just spent relaxing. Upon our return from the Franklin Institute, I promptly made my way up to my dorm so I could sit in the air conditioning for a while (it was one-hundred and two degrees at one point this afternoon!). We only had a couple of hours between when we arrived and when we would have to meet for our weekly movie. I decided to hang out in the dorm with Onur, Brian, and Fred until dinner. We met with our peers (at least one-hundred of them) in the quad at about 7:00 to go see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, Part Two. I’ve never been a big fan of the Harry Potter films (the novels are a different story though), but there was something special about watching the finale to a series that has been popular for a good portion of my adolescence. It was interesting to watch people react to the end of this era because there were some die-hard Potter fans in the audience. I was even shushed by someone sitting in front of me within the first two minutes of the movie because I asked Brian (who was sitting right next to me) who a certain character was. Pop culture can be very interesting sometimes…

Today was an excellent way to kick off the weekend. We will be going back to Center City tomorrow to walk around the city without being rushed. We will also revisit Love Square so we can buy some souvenirs. This will be my last weekend with my Philly family, so I am sad about that. However, we are all aware of this and intent on making our final weekend together as memorable as possible.

Excuse me sir, you seem to be double parked...

Good to know??

Cool People on a Hot Day

Everyone loves Friday because it’s the end of the working week and the beginning of some time for a bit of relaxation. I look forward to Fridays here at UPenn because every Friday we go on a class field trip to various locations in Pennsylvania. Today, after some breakfast and a shower, we all boarded a yellow school bus just as the temperature was getting to be unbearably hot. The ride was extremely hot, but mercifully it was a short trip to our destination – the Franklin Institute-. The Franklin Institute was founded in Philadelphia where Franklin did most of his work to commemorate the achievements of Ben Franklin and to share an interest in science with younger people. Once we arrived, Bill handed out admissions tickets and lunch vouchers and soon enough we were all of exploring the museum’s many exhibits.

The first exhibit that I explored in depth was the biology exhibit about the heart. One of the most interesting parts of this exhibit was a large revolving display that had models of the hearts of many animals, from hamsters to huge whales. Even more impressive than this was the massive walk-through model of the human heart. This heart was scaled up large enough that it would be the right size for the Statue of Liberty. No matter how many books I have read about biology and how many times I’ve been told how the heart works, walking around as if I was a blood cell getting pumped through the heart was a great way to learn about the heart.

Another neat exhibit I visited was the so called ‘Isaac’s loft’ exhibit. As you might guess, the exhibit was centered on the discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton. The first things that I tried out were the exhibits that displayed the concept of work. Because work is a measure of force times distance, you can do the same amount of work by applying a small amount of force over a long time as applying a large force over a small time. The way this was displayed was a large lever that you could use to pull a large pile of bricks that weighed 150 pounds. By pulling on ropes at different distances from the weight, you could do the same amount of work but over different distance and with different forces. Another cool example of work was the next display that I visited which let you pull yourself up in a chair. The chairs were suspended from the ceiling by a pulley, but the two chairs had different types of pulleys so on one of them you had to apply a force equal to one fifth of your weight, but you therefore had to apply the force for five times as much rope as usual. The other chair was the same idea, but you applied a force equal to one third of your weight for three times the distance. These displays were very effective at getting across the idea that you can do the same work in different ways.

Next, I visited the flight exhibit downstairs from the ‘Isaac’s Loft’ Exhibit. The first few displays I tried were exhibiting Bernoulli’s Principle in simple ways. One display challenged you to float a water bottle in the air using a fan. It wasn’t obvious at first how to do it because the fan was not strong enough to lift the bottle straight up. Instead, you had to line up the fan and bottle so that the fan accelerated the air on one side of the bottle. Just as the Bernoulli Principle says, moving air exerts less force, so the static air on the bottom of the bottle pushed harder than the moving top air and the bottle floated. While I’ve said it already, I again enjoyed the benefit of experimenting with these ideas instead of reading them in a book and vaguely understanding them. Finally, we all went together to a planetarium show about black holes that I found awesome, but several people next to me fell asleep during. I can’t really blame them because the 100 degree weather outside made me pretty sleepy too.

After the Franklin Institute trip, the temperature truly was over 100 degrees, so I decided to get my long overdue haircut. I went to a barbershop just down the street from our dorms and I got a nice haircut. Afterwards, my hair literally felt lighter and I felt much cooler (figuratively and literally). The evening continued to get better when we left to see the final movie of the Harry Potter series. I read the books avidly as a kid and have always felt my imagination was better than the films, but I still enjoyed seeing the action on the big screen. Even better than the movie, afterwards we stopped at Ben and Jerry’s for some ice cream. I got a ‘small’ (500 calorie plus) scoop of chocolate chip cookie dough that will be fueling my next dozen trips to the gym. The sugar’s wearing off and it’s been a long week, so goodnight for now.

Also, Alex thinks he's too cool for Harry Potter, what a dork.