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All articles with the Introductory-Science tag


May include diagrams and arithmetic, but no algebra or trigonometry.

Are women really the fairer sex?

26 Comments
Posted January 6th, 2009 in Psychology. Tags: , , .

As a young boy, I was often intimidated by beautiful women. I only began to conquer this social anxiety when I concluded that the situation was symmetrical; women probably thought the same thing about handsome men. Later, I began to notice that many women don’t agree with my early conclusion. As evidence, here’s a conversation from Seinfeld:

Elaine: “Whoa! Walking around naked? Ahh… that is not a good look for a man.”
George: “Why not? It’s a good look for a woman.”
Elaine: “Well, the female body is a… work of art. The male body is utilitarian, it’s for gettin’ around, like a jeep.”
Jerry: “So you don’t think it’s attractive?”
Elaine: “It’s hideous. The hair, the… the lumpiness. It’s simian.”
George: “Well, some women like it.”
Elaine: “Hmm. Sickies.”

(more…)

Cold weather really can make you sick

120 Comments
Posted December 5th, 2008 in Biology. Tags: , , .

My mother always tells me to bundle up before I go outside during the winter, because otherwise I’ll “catch a cold.” When I first learned about the germ theory of disease, I thought she was wrong. Cold doesn’t make you sick, I thought. Germs make you sick.

Recently, it’s become obvious that I was wrong and she was right. (more…)

Crash course on climate change

41 Comments
Posted February 9th, 2013 in Science. Tags: , , , , , , .

Before the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere was about 280 parts per million (ppm). This means that for every million molecules in the atmosphere, about 280 of them were CO2.

However, climate.nasa.gov shows that we’ve burned so much coal and oil that atmospheric CO2 is now approaching 400 ppm. It hasn’t been this high for millions of years. The last time Earth’s atmosphere had this much CO2, our species (and many others) hadn’t yet evolved. (more…)

Farewell, Dr. Mandelbrot

3 Comments
Posted October 17th, 2010 in Math. Tags: , , , .

Dr. Benoît B. Mandelbrot passed away last Thursday at the age of 85. He’s best known for coining the term “fractal,” so it might be appropriate to remember him by looking at some pictures of the Mandelbrot set. He discovered this hauntingly beautiful fractal shape while exploring the mathematics of imaginary numbers. His discovery inspired generations of scientists and mathematicians, some of whom have recently found a 3D version that they call a Mandelbulb. (more…)

Fundamental flaws in general physics education

31 Comments
Posted October 21st, 2008 in Physics. Tags: , , , , .

After years of serving as a physics teaching assistant at several public American universities, I’ve come to an alarming conclusion: students in today’s general physics courses (i.e. courses that don’t require calculus, intended for non-physicists) aren’t being taught physics. They might be learning how to mechanically calculate answers, but they’re learning very little about the actual scientific process of inquiring about the nature of reality. They aren’t learning how these physical laws were deduced in the first place– which is far more important than the intricate details of those laws. I think this educational deficiency contributes to widespread misconceptions such as the belief that the Earth’s seasons are caused by variations in the distance from the Sun, and the curious notion that toilets flush in opposite directions on different sides of the equator. (more…)

Stereogram puzzles

5 Comments
Posted November 11th, 2008 in Math. Tags: , , , .

I’ve found stereograms entrancing ever since I first managed to “see” one. If you can’t see them, try viewing these images on one of those shiny new LCD monitors and focus on your own reflection. Be sure the monitor is perfectly level, and your head is perfectly vertical. Then use your peripheral vision to search the image for a hint of 3D structure but keep your face in focus. With any luck the image should simply pop into view. (Unless your eyes point in slightly different directions… right?).

These images fascinate me because they’re essentially tricking my binocular vision into hallucinating objects when I look “through” a pattern of (almost) random noise. I used to make my own stereograms using (more…)

The Moon wobbles

44 Comments
Posted December 4th, 2008 in Astronomy. Tags: , , , , , .
Lunar wobbling animation

This is what you get if you take a photo of the Moon every night for a month, then make a movie out of those pictures. The Moon’s phases aren’t surprising, but the Moon also appears to grow and shrink as it orbits the Earth. This happens because the Moon’s orbit is slightly elliptical; its distance to the Earth varies by about 10%.

Also, the Moon appears to “wobble” from left to right. That’s because the Earth’s gravity pulls harder on the Moon the closer it is to the Earth, so the Moon travels faster in its orbit when it’s closer to the Earth. The Moon’s rotation rate matches its average orbital speed (which is why we only see one face of the Moon), but its orbital speed varies during the orbit while its rotation rate remains fixed, so the Moon appears to wobble from left to right.

2009-08-10 Update: I’ve noticed that many people arrive at this article by googling moon wobbles. All the other sites on the first page claim that “moon wobbles” are responsible for explosions, mass-murder, earthquakes, terrorism, etc. Sadly, I need to emphasize that the wobbling I’m describing can’t possibly result in these kinds of ludicrous effects.

What causes motion sickness?

6 Comments
Posted February 19th, 2009 in Biology. Tags: , , .

I used to go scuba diving, but I routinely got seasick on the boat. Since I had nothing better to do while leaning over the water, I wondered why I had to go through this wretched experience. I understood the origins of physical pain– an animal that didn’t realize it had sprained an ankle would likely hurt itself even more rather than waiting for it to heal. But why should I feel nauseous when on a boat? I wasn’t being hurt by the waves, so this incapacitating condition wouldn’t have provided any advantage to my ancestors and therefore shouldn’t have been favored by natural selection. (more…)

Why do pigeons bob their heads?

19 Comments
Posted November 23rd, 2008 in Biology. Tags: , , .

Recently, I’ve started to wonder why pigeons bob their heads in such a violent manner when they walk. This habit seems like it consumes a lot of calories… don’t they need every bit of energy in order to fly? I don’t understand why natural selection hasn’t bred pigeons that walk without bobbing their heads. Wouldn’t they be more efficient and therefore more fit?

Here are some hypotheses I’m toying with to explain this behavior (more…)

You called your website WHAT?

8 Comments
Posted December 31st, 2011 in Psychology. Tags: , , .

When I mention Dumb Scientist, a common reaction is “Wait… you called your website WHAT?” I usually deflect this question by joking that irony is all the rage these days, but the truth is that I chose this pseudonym because I think many people accidentally imply that intelligence is fixed at birth. For instance, many parents praise their children by saying they’re smart, but this tactic backfires:

Since Thomas could walk, he has heard constantly that he’s smart. … as Thomas has progressed through school, this self-awareness that he’s smart hasn’t always translated into fearless confidence when attacking his schoolwork. In fact, Thomas’s father noticed just the opposite. “Thomas didn’t want to try things he wouldn’t be successful at,” his father says. “Some things came very quickly to him, but when they didn’t, he gave up almost immediately, concluding, ‘I’m not good at this.'” With no more than a glance, Thomas was dividing the world into two- things he was naturally good at and things he wasn’t. [The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids]

My early education was similar to Thomas’s, and it seems we’re not alone: (more…)

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