On science, smartphones and nerds

I gave a presentation based on the 4 texts about Imagination and Mathematics during Senior Space Camp 2015 at Andøya Space Center and NAROM. After the presentation a participant approached me and expressed the opinion that the actual everyday use of mathematics should be discussed in school – and with the youngest pupils already – in terms of how powerful a tool it really is. The children would then have the best possible starting point to decide for themselves what to build up with that tool.

There is no doubt in my mind that one should discuss this with young kids already. The question to me would be how to do this in the best manner possible.

Sometimes, when I talk to people, I get the impression that many have rather strong opinions on what they need of mathematics in their lives. Those would be things that are not really mathematics like 1 + 1 = 2. If you know how to do that and master some multiplication you will understand your insurances or your cell phone contract. Strangely, it does not seem to help to point out that neither houses nor cars can be raised or produced just on the basis of 1 + 1 = 2, or that there is so much more to do with mathematics than you would think[1].

The same holds true for all of science, actually.

«Sierpinski Carpet». An antenna of this geometry can communicate at several different frequencies. Source: http://www.rupert.id.au/fractals/lesson/uses.php.
«Sierpinski Carpet». An antenna of this geometry can communicate at several different frequencies. Source: http://www.rupert.id.au/fractals/lesson/uses.php.

Just look at your smartphone. You use it every day. What a great little device it is! It has a touchscreen, which means that your body is full of electric charge and, in fact, conducts electricity. Your phone has an antenna (read: satellite communication system, see the image) which is constructed on the principles of fractal geometry, which in itself is part of nothing less crazy than Chaos Theory[2]. It contains microphones and loudspeakers, custom-developed materials in its surfaces, somewhat interesting batteries and many, many other fantastic little bits and bites nobody ever talks about.

Still, there are not all that many people today who are fascinated by the inner workings of a smartphone. Why? Because it is nothing special to have one, it “just works” or you “have seen it before”. Whenever I hear someone talk like that, I want to ask straight back: “You have seen UHF radio waves?”

I do not answer like that. At the end of the day, I do not really have a problem with somebody just accepting that they do not know something. I am like that, too. Apart from not even beginning to understand what superstring-theoreticians really talk about, I cannot clean windows without them looking dirtier than before. Ask my wife. I am hopeless at cleaning windows (and string “theory”).

No, the problem starts, at least in my eyes, when a public person like, for example, Norway’s prime minister more than hints towards finding science “mystifying” [in Norwegian] or worse, when people think it is nerdy or weird “to do stuff like that”, to spend your time with books and films about the universe, quantum physics or aerodynamics. I am not prepared to venture a guess as to why science makes people react in such a strong manner. I do not know. What I do know is that it is one thing to say you cannot do one thing or the other. It is another, but still not really all that bad thing to say that you are not interested. It is something else to draw a line in the sand and hide behind condescending words like “weird” or “nerd”.

I once witnessed a conversation about the technology behind smartphones, which developed in the comment section of a social network. After a short while there came a sweeping generalization of rather rude character, directed at what was called the “collected nerd-dom”. And no, I did not just make up this rather awkward word. Here comes the unabridged answer:

“You do tell me that you’re proud to not know what all this means? You do tell me that you look down on those who know all of this? You do tell me they are nerds? Thank you, I say, because I am one, a nerd – and I am just a tiny little bit proud of it, too. Fortunately, I do not stand alone. If not into yours excactly, it still begins to find its way into people’s heads who [my highlighting] it is that develops all these fine things the rest of the world – including you – like so much to play with. Click on this link. Come on! It’s underlined text, it’s blue text. Just click on it!

Call me a nerd if you want to, but don’t expect me to cry. I won’t throw a tantrum. I’ll just get sad. And what is worse, you have no idea what you are missing out on!”

The last sentence there resonates with me. Watch this video. This is Richard Feynman, a nobel prize winner and one of the greatest science communicators in modern times, who talks about flowers and beauty. To me, he seems a little desperate about most people not knowing half of the wonders of nature.

That is unfortunate. For even though science can be difficult, it does not need to be mystifying, unless, of course, the patience to learn is one of the challenges you face in your life.

Now read this: Mighty butterfly

[1] Computers, ironically, reduce everything to 1 + 1 = 2 (or rather 1 + 1 = 0b10). In addition, medieval architects needed only the most rudimentary of mathematical knowledge, the way we understand that expression today. But you will stay with me and what I want to express myself here, right?

[2] If you want to know more about how the antenna in the image works, click here.

11692568_786977204756800_3044591635946855095_nAlexander is a physicist, teacher and storyteller. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s