PAIGI: Math, And How To Know What You Don’t Know

Blog Note: This might not seem completely all together, but I wanted to have this post out before the weekend and I didn’t want a half-finished draft to just disappear from view. I’m dealing with losing the family pet tonight so some things aren’t going to be smoothed out until later. My apologies for that.

This is in response to the Big Think video included below, which is less than four minutes long and is presented by Po-Shen Loh, associate professor of mathematics at Carnegie Mellon University.

Professor Loh starts out by saying, “I think that everyone in the world could be a math person if they wanted to,” which to my ears is a powerful statement. It is a statement that I want to believe in, because I am not a math person. I want to be one, but I currently am not one. And that is a problem.

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PAIGI: Resources For The Citizen Scientist

So in my last PAIGI (Physics As I See It) post, I mentioned a bad experience at my campus engineering library. I found that not every librarian in a STEM-specific library is trained to find field-specific resources. I took a question about Richard Feynman’s QED lectures to the reference desk and walked away unsatisfied but also curious about how that interaction could have gone differently. If she had, say, looked in a database or a STEM-specific resource instead of Googling, would we have found what I was looking for? Was training to blame, or a lack of intuitive knowledge about physics?

So instead of going in on this young lady who probably is not a library science student and probably never heard of Feynman in her life, I’ll share with everyone some of the resources I have used to find physics and STEM-related information. Most of them are online, since students often spend the majority of time in front of a computer. Some of it may seem obvious or just intuitive, but in the interest of transparency, I’ll be sharing them all.

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Image: A Photoshop of Isaac Newton's head imposed upon a man's body while riding in a moving bumper car.

PAIGI: Things That Going Bumper Car In The Night

In Monday’s reference class, we looked at a variety of virtual reference interactions, and one of the example queries immediately grabbed my attention — because, of course, it was about physics! Unfortunately, it was part of an example of a horrid reference interview, but it did have me wondering: could I have answered the question if I had been the librarian at the desk for that patron? Let’s find out! It’s PAIGI (Physics As I Get It) time!

Here is the question: “When you drive forward in a bumper car at high speed and you slam into the car in front of you, you find yourself thrown forward in your car. Which way is your car accelerating?”

I admit, I am not as far into my independent physics studies as I would like, but that’s okay. I’ve already read a good bit about acceleration and the mechanics of objects in motion, so I’ll try to tackle this question with what I know already and supplement the inevitable gaps with research online.

Note: all definitions and equations, unless cited otherwise, are paraphrased from the fifth edition of W. Thomas Griffith’s “The Physics of Everyday Phenomena”.

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A Map Of The Cat: Tell Me What You Really Want

Richard Feynman, before he revolutionized physics and became the leading figure in quantum electrodynamics, was just an average (well, maybe not average) college student the day he walked into his campus library and asked for one thing: a map of the cat.

The poor librarian working the biology section that day was aghast. “A map of the cat, sir?” One can imagine the horror in her voice, the absolutely shocked expression on her face.

She managed, however, to set young Feynman straight. She led him to the appropriate zoology materials and to the charts that he needed –  the “maps” of the cat he was asking for. This story can be read in full in his book, SURELY YOU’RE JOKING, MR. FEYNMAN! (which is an absolute gem of a read no matter what your field is), and Scientific America samples this charming anecdote in a great write-up as Feynman as biologist.

When I first read that story last year as an undergrad English student, I laughed at Feynman’s ineptitude and the naivety of a physics genius barging into the world of biology and attempting to conquer its vocabulary, only to stumble a bit at the starting line. Later, after spending a little time in the LIS program, studying reference work and the functions of the reference desk, I feel sorry for Little Richard. And I certainly do not feel sorry for the librarian!

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Science, Learning, and the Idea of PAIGI

This evening, I attended a panel discussion titled “What Does A Trump Administration Mean For Science?” and I can safely say that it could have benefited from a much larger room. I was lucky enough to get a seat, but there were people standing on the side of the room and sitting on the floor. People really wanted answers, regardless of it being a Friday evening when other things are going on.

From the hour-plus-long event, there were some key points that stood out to me:

  1. Students should be more involved in the process of scientific funding, research, and policy writing.
  2. Science should be spread out and shared in an accessible way to all people, not just STEM folks.
  3. Science literacy is more important now than it has been in years.

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