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“A little thrill in learning”

April 25, 2008

It’s the fun surprises you find on the Interwebs:

The big switchoff
Most people don’t think much about what’s inside a switch.  If you take one apart, you’ll see some kind of spring-loaded contacts, usually copper.  The plastic body hides a small spark that happens every time you throw the switch. Then there are self-operating switches; circuit breakers that switch off automatically when the load exceeds a preset number of amps, say ten or twenty. 
But what if the breaker has to break a circuit carrying a thousand or two thousand amps, and maybe ramp up the voltage to, say, 35,000 volts?  Then there’s the possibility of very rapid erosion or even explosive vaporization of the contacts. Cajun published a picture of one such breaker switch and I asked him “How does that thing work?”  His response was a fascinating post ‘You ask, we answer’.  Be sure to click through to the original post with the pictures too.  (Some innovative broom repair techniques thrown in at no extra charge) If you’ve ever stood looking through the fence at a power substation and tried to dope out how it all works you’ll enjoy it as much as I did. 
That thing you have seen all your life and always wondered about
Les at Stupid Evil Bastard says; “I always get a little thrill from learning the history of things like the Giant Tire. It’s been there my entire life and I never fail to think about it whenever I drive past it, but only after 40 years have I ever been in a spot to learn about it.”
Yes, a giant tire!  And by ‘giant’, I mean big enough to hold a ferris wheel inside.  See his post; So that’s what the Uniroyal giant tire once looked like! 

It’s my contention that what’s missing from our politically-correct, NCLB-driven schools today is pretty much any possibility at all of ‘a little thrill in learning’.  It happens, but good teachers have to wedge it into the cracks where they can.  Yesterday morning I was surprised by an article about math education and I’m still turning it over in my head.  Will post about it tomorrow morning after breakfast.

What kind of things do you look at in everyday life, and wonder about?

Categories: Science & Technology
  1. April 25, 2008 at 07:35 | #1

    I actually tend to wonder about everything. There are a lot of human creations I have no idea how they make, or how they work. I’m not even sure how it happens that water comes out of the tap when I turn it on. When it comes to nature, I’m even more clueless. I don’t mean by the above that I’m an absolute dummy, just that I (and any other one human) have a limited amount of time to explore the details of anything.

    But if you want me to narrow it down, I have this one area of wonder: Who put the “bop” in the “bop sha bop sha bop?”

  2. April 25, 2008 at 12:00 | #2

    Last weekend I worked as a volunteer at a R C Blood Drive.
    There is a machine which is used for pheresis and I have no idea how it operates, but someday hope to take the time.
    Whoever engineered its inner workings—ow, my own head hurts.

  3. April 25, 2008 at 15:28 | #3

    What kind of things do you look at in everyday life, and wonder about?

    For me that’s an endless question. Most of the items I’m interested include technology, science, medical, and how future things are going to work. Such as, how are robots going to get to the point where they can program a program? Just thinking about the code behind that hurts my brain.

  4. April 25, 2008 at 17:40 | #4

    Most likely the ‘code’ to make a code-writing computer (it need not be a robot specifically) will more likely be evolved by selective pressures using genetic programming techniques than intelligently designed.

  5. April 26, 2008 at 06:29 | #5

    Quantum physics.  I’m nearly completely math illiterate, so my understanding of it is ridiculously limited.  And every time I look at an equation, I wonder just how the heck human beings went from counting on fingers to calculus.

    It’s one of those things I’d ask Newton, given the chance.  Not that I’d necessarily understand the answer…. ;-)

  6. Lucas
    April 27, 2008 at 21:56 | #6

    Dana: Don’t feel bad about that one: I have to admit that despite a *lot* of math, I still have no idea how quantum physics works, and I’m actually not very good with physics in general.  As for calculus, I think Newton (and especially Liebnitz) took one huge conceptual jump, and that was considering “infinitely small” values, and working with them like they were numbers.  The formalism we use to day (in terms of epsilons and deltas which you might have learned in calculus) wasn’t developed until more than a hundred years later.  The notions of calculus were not too out there after the work of Fermat and Descartes (though of course it still took geniuses to find them). 

    Regarding DOF’s question: I wonder about language and the nature of communication.  Everything I’ve learned about linguistics indicates that our sentences are ridiculously ambiguous, and yet we parse them with enormous speed and accuracy.  The standard example here is the sentence “time flies like an arrow”, which has a huge number of different interpretations.

    On a more concrete level, I wonder about cooking.  Cooking in incredibly complex from a chemical point of view, and there are so many interesting flavors to combine.  I read a lot about “molecular gastronomy”.  Why does bread come out better of you let it rise twice?  How does cooking a steak actually work?  Why do beans cook so much more slowly after you add tomatoes?  Why does good whiskey taste better over ice?  Etc…

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