Project Euler

I saw this talk on youtube by Randall Munroe, author of the webcomic xkcd, and he mentioned a site called Project Euler, where mathematical problems of varying difficulty levels are presented, usually meant to be solved with the help of a computer program. It's a great way to develop programming skills in the language of your choice, and a great way for me to pass the time before I go back to USC for bowl week. Check it out!


One Small Step, II

That last post was getting a little long, so I'm splitting it into two parts. I was talking about how curiosity and a sense of wonder is a very good thing to have. My next example was going to be this clip, from The View, that I keep thinking about.

If you can't watch it, this is the part that really kind of scares me:
Whoopi: Is the world flat?
Sherri: Is the world flat? I don't know.
W: What do you think?
S: I never thought about it, Whoopi. Is the world flat? I never thought about it.
For me, it's almost worse that she said "I've never thought about it," rather than "Yes, I believe it is flat." She is ignorant of something, and ignorance can be fixed. Granted, this is an extreme example of "ignorance," but if she were willing to listen, someone could explain to her about gravity and spheres and such. But, like Seven of Nine in the Voyager episode I was talking about, she is only interested in completing her mission, exactly as stated, (in this case, raising a child) and has no desire to learn anything along the way that seems "irrelevant." This is worse than ignorance, a lack of knowledge; this is a lack of curiosity.

When I went to find the video I came across a clip from The View, a day or two later, when they gave Sherri a chance to defend herself after she was being mocked all over youtube and elsewhere. Fast forward to about halfway through:

Sherri claims it was a "little hard for her because she never had to defend her religious beliefs in public." They were talking about God and evolution before, but then she seems to imply that not knowing whether the earth is flat is a religious belief. Anyway, her new position demonstrates another point I was making: Science is extremely scary for many people.
Sherri: You asked, Whoopi, did I know if the earth was round or flat, and Barbara asked if I knew if the earth was round or flat, and I was so nervous, all I heard was, "How many triglycerides does it take to make Pluto when the Robitussin comes, and the earth..." So when they asked me, I was like "I don't know!"
She sounded very clear-headed on the first clip, so I don't know how many people will be satisfied with this explanation. In any case, this is the question I really want to ask:

Is there a word for a lack of curiosity, in the way that "ignorance" refers to a lack of knowledge? If not, what should the word be?

One Small Step, I

There are only a few TV shows that I watch regularly, and most of them aren't showing new episodes right now, due to the writers' strike, or other reasons. So I've been watching some other things instead, including Star Trek: Voyager, because Spike TV shows it at a time when there's not much else on. The episode I watched today ("One Small Step") was about the natural desire to explore.

Quick summary: The crew encounters a strange and dangerous "spatial anomaly" which simply appears out of subspace. They realize the anomaly is probably the same one that caused the mysterious disappearance of the Ares IV ship and its commander, John Kelly, way back in 2032, during one of the Mars missions. They send the Delta Flyer inside the anomaly, where they find the entire Ares IV, basically intact, along with the debris of many other ships that have been swallowed up over the centuries. Everyone wants to go get the Ares IV, because it's such an important part of history, except Seven of Nine, who repeatedly insists that "History is irrelevant" and the mission is too dangerous. In the end, Seven herself ends up beaming aboard the ancient ship, and finding a wealth of data and video logs, recorded by John Kelly, from inside the anomaly, which have never been seen before by anyone. The entire crew, discovers that John Kelly, like themselves, was willing to risk his life in the name of collecting data and learning more about the universe. Seven discovers her own humanity as well, and begins to recognize the value of history, and of exploration for the sake of exploration.

Typing it out like that makes it sound a little corny, I admit. But the episode is basically about the natural human urge to explore the world, to seek out new civilizations, to boldy... well, you get the idea. At the risk of reading into it a little too much, the title is obviously meant to remind readers of a time not too far back in our own history, when the public's desire for space exploration was greater than it is now. (Or in 1999 when the episode was aired.)

Of course, there are good reasons for opposing space exploration, but I think the desire to explore is definitely lacking. And this isn't just about space. Any time you take a class, or even talk to a new person, it's an opportunity to explore something new, and many people don't see classes that way. Classes, it seems, are about getting good grades, rather than being an opportunity to inspire a sense of wonder in yourself.

Professor Bickers likes to inject a little of the history of physics into his lectures. You might call it a digression, and sometimes it is (Super-Professor! Able to leap from Coulomb's Law to the Grand Unified Theory, to Bose-Einstein Condensates, in a single aside), but I think it also gives you an appreciation for the process of science, and what you can achieve with two simple words: "I wonder..."

For example, this last semester, in Physics 162, he made a big deal about what he likes to call "the punchline of the course" how the Maxwell equations predict the propagation of electromagnetic waves, and how the speed of light "pops out" of the equations automatically. Sure, not everyone is going to be excited by that, or even have any desire to understand it. But the point is that Maxwell figured out there was a single missing term in one equation, and in doing so, he answered a very fundamental question about the universe: What is light?

It makes you wonder. Perhaps there's some equation now that's taken to be true, and is reprinted in textbooks all over the world, but anyone who's curious enough could come across it, and notice that it's not quite right, and develop a whole new theory. If your goal is just to memorize things and get a 4.0, this probably won't happen.

Presidential Debate on Science

Now that I've got this blog set up, one of the first things I want to talk about is "Science Debate 2008," a movement calling for a presidential debate on scientific issues, including global warming, stem cell research, science education, space exploration, and so on. I think that for most people, when they hear the word "science," they think of people in lab coats, speaking incomprehensibly about subjects they will never begin to understand; or of a class they barely passed in high school and learned nothing from; or of a set of strange and unlikely assertions that contradict their own strange and unlikely beliefs. Perhaps if this debate does happen, people will begin to think differently.

In any case, count me as another supporter of this movement.

Entering the blogosphere...

I've recently started using Google Reader and reading a lot of blogs, mostly about science or programming, and I thought I'd try to start my own and see where I can go with it. I hope to post fairly often, and perhaps even establish a base of regular readers.

These first posts are boring, so I'll try to keep it short.

I am Tyler, better known to some as TJ. I'm a sophomore at the University of Southern California, majoring in Physics and Computer Science, unless of course I change my mind at some point down the line. I play alto sax in the Trojan Marching Band. After college, I'm not sure what I'm going to do. Keep reading and you'll find out, I guess.

Please feel free to leave comments, links you think I'd enjoy, or anything else that comes to mind, or to link to posts on this blog.

Fight on!