24 December 2009

An Apology for All Equations (and my addiction to them)

My father pointed out that in my last post I went on and on about the virtues of presenting science as accessible, and then included in my postscript the derivation of a rather formidable looking thermodynamics equation. Am I a hypocrite? Maybe a little bit. I'm definitely guilty of having used the word "nerdy," which associates an interest in science with images of pocket protectors, skinny white boys and all things "uncool."

As for the equation, don't be intimidated. Rho is density,a is radius, c is heat capacity and kappa is thermal conductivity. If this is unfamiliar, that's probably because it is presented in the specialized lingo of the discipline of thermodynamics. But basically, the equation relates specific qualities of the egg, such as temperature and size, to how long you need to cook it for. Lingo and symbols can make smart people fear physics principles that are deceptively simple. My favorite example is F=ma: Newton's second law. As I see it, F=ma is basically just a brilliant restatement of the obvious. It's a giant DUH: when you make something move, it moves. That's it. A force (F) is something that makes something move, the mass (m) is the something, and the acceleration (a) is the moving.

My definition of moving, by the way, does not include traveling at a constant speed in the same direction. An object will do that on its own, no force required.

Anyhow, the point is that we need equations in order to make doing science a lot easier, but that doesn't mean that when an equation is involved the concept should be lost. Behind every physics equation is something real, something physical. That's what makes it physics.

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