Food for Thought…

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The Enquiring Mind: A Species on the Brink of Extinction

I feel quite precious about my BSc degree. I studied three long hard years to earn that rolled up piece of paper with its gold badge and blue stripe. And I did it all by wading through knee-buckling and mind-bending numbers of equations, published journals, scientific textbooks, physics lab sessions and titration kits. Every day, I was convinced by my subject matter that I was too stupid to study science and would, whilst walking between lectures, enviously glance over at the drama, film and media students playing guitar on the lawns outside the Arts Building on UCT’s Upper Campus. Look at them sipping R6 coffee, letting the fierce Cape Town sun burn off their whiskey hangovers; all of them looking super skinny and wearing clothing that was considered hip in the 60’s.

Typical habitat of the UCT hipster. Social structure: gregarious. Diet: yes. Activities: avoiding trends, political inactivism, bowl haircuts and wearing non-prescription eye-glasses (when it’s hot, without lenses)

Scientists Say: “Sciencey, Sciencey, Science, Science…”

Most of what the layperson knows about science has been hand delivered to them by the media. By the very people that wore non-prescription eye-glasses at university and smoked pipes (the Sherlock Holmes variety), while plucking thoughtfully at the braces redundantly holding their excessively tight-fitting skinny jeans up. I am mercifully stereotyping here, I know that. So let’s get serious… the headlines you read are almost always written by people who studied sociology, psychology, literature, journalism, film and media. Not the people that spent three, four, six or more years becoming trained in the ways of rigorous scientific study and reporting. This isn’t necessarily a BAD thing…

ANYONE can understand science. Science shouldn’t BE this intangible and untouchable fortress of knowledge that only the highly educated elite are allowed to enter. Science is the study of all the observable, measurable and physical things around us. It explains why the sky is blue, how diamonds are made, where babies come from and what the aurora borealis is. All it really takes to become a practitioner of science is an enquiring mind and a strict adherence to the scientific method, which is essentially the set of rules governing how you go about proving something… anything, really.

Now the two points I have made above may seem to stand in stark contrast with each other. Surely, if we should all actively try to understand and engage with science, the media should be more than encouraged to report on it. But this is actually where the problem arises. It’s in the delivery of messages that are geared to impress, shock, attention-grab and intimidate. Large black-and-white statistics that no one REALLY understands, but sound impressive anyway, thrust their way visually at us from news and magazine stands. A thumb-sucked example would be:

72% of ALL South Africans Have Herpes!

I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember answering any national surveys about my HPV-status, which immediately makes that statistic redundant. If you haven’t tested every single South African, then you can’t say that 72% of ALL South Africans have The Herp. You may go as far as saying that surveys of 1,000 university students reveal that the vast majority are clearly showing no discrimination in who they play tonsil hockey with.

You have to be so careful when publishing the results of controlled scientific trials, studies and research. More importantly, YOU – the reader – have to be so careful when reading what the media has to say about these studies. In an effort to craft headlines that sell, the media takes the results of years of careful measurement and data analysis and interprets them in a way that will sell their product. There are two fundamental problems with this:

1. The true findings of the scientific study and their greater application to our knowledge base is almost always lost in translation

2. It creates a massive divide between the layperson and the entire discipline of science.

Reporters throw around big, impressive and authoritative words and phrases, such as “results of a scientific study”, “scientists say”, “scientists prove”, “according to scientific evidence”, etc. And the result is that our enquiring minds have been left on the very brink of extinction.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

It’s such a pity that people feel so disconnected from science and from an understanding of the world around us. What is even more of a pity is that we just accept the statistical fodder thrust at us. “Whoa! I’d better start eating more avocados! According to the health section in the You Magazine, it reduces varicose veins by 69%!

Side note: I’m totally thumb-sucking here, but in the past, You Magazine has used the health section to provide some wild-sounding statistics relating to food and nutrition. They seem to have cleaned up their act as far as science reporting is concerned.

By the way, I ONLY buy You Magazine for the crossword puzzles!

…and maybe to collect pictures of Justin Bieber. What?

Do yourself a favour. The next time someone says: “According to scientists” or “Scientists say” ask them: “Oh? In which peer-reviewed journal was that published? And what methodology was followed when they tested the efficacy of avocado in reducing the appearance of varicose veins?”

Be a little more critical of the ‘sciencey’ information people, companies and brand names use to convince you to subscribe to their beliefs, products or services. Find out the facts for yourself. Ask why? How? Revive your enquiring mind! Bring it screaming back from the edge of the gaping chasm of blind acceptance. Not only will it make you sound incredibly intelligent, but you will actually BE more intelligent.

Although that may not go down well with your hipster friends.

Newton’s Laws of Motion and the Pedestrians of Woodstock Main Road

Science education in this country is appalling. Clearly, from the lay person’s complete contempt for the fundamental work of Sir Isaac Newton, mechanical physicist extraordinaire. But before I drop any bigger and more incomprehensible words like ‘incomprehensible,’ let’s shut our eyes and take a visual journey down Woodstock Main Road.

You may want to open them again. You know, to read on…

Woodstock Main Road: A Visual Journey Through an Historic Suburb

Woodstock Main Road is a hubbub of activity. Furniture stores (of the used variety), clothing stores (of the hand-me-down variety), shoe shops (of the sweat-shop produced variety) and antique shops (of the I-got-screwed-in-my-grandmother’s-will variety) line both sides of this well-travelled route through one of Cape Town’s most historic suburbs. Woodstock is a fantastic place to live, if, of course, the lock on your gate on your 3-metre high industrial steel electrified fence is working. It has a real vibrancy about it, with its red brick-faced buildings, colourful graffiti, the pervasive smell of KFC, open air fruit and vegetable stands, incessant hooting and blood curdling cries of Caaype Teeeeeaaaawwwn!! If Cape Town was a flesh-and-blood organ, Woodstock Main Road would be a pulsating artery complete with white and black blood cells.

As with any congested roadway in Cape Town, your average code B licensed vehicle driver has quite a challenge on his or her hands. Taxis regularly risk people’s lives getting them to and from work every day, while bus drivers exploit the incredible size of their vehicles and low wage rage to literally intimidate other cars off the road. But it’s not the irresponsible bus drivers that make me want to pull a 12-guage shot gun out from under my car seat. It’s not the taxi drivers that make me wish I could explode their engines with bolts of pure energy from my eyes (okay, maybe a little…)

No. It’s the pedestrians of Woodstock Main Road and their sheer lack of respect for Newton’s Three Laws of Motion that really make me homicidal. Try it. I dare you. Try and drive the length of Woodstock Main Road without having at least three cardiac arrests. People… just… walk. They don’t care. They just walk across the road without looking. There have been at least 27 occasions that I have wanted to slam my foot down (oops officer, sorry, wrong pedal!) and mow down a pedestrian who, in a demonstration of complete faith reminiscent of Indiana Jones walking across that invisible bridge in The Last Crusade, just crosses the road without looking. And they don’t walk… they stroll. They epitomize the meaning of the word ‘perambulate’:

“Let’s take a leisurely perambulation across this busy road, Geraldine.”

“Why yes Ashwell, I think I could do with a leisurely perambulation across this busy road after that rather rich lunch of vis en slap tjips!”

South Africa: A Country Crying Out for Physics Education

As I said, there have been at least 27 occasions on which I’ve wanted to make chunky kibbles out of the special breed of idiot that perambulates across Woodstock Main Road. But then, on the 28th occasion, or 29th (who’s counting?), I came to a blinding realisation… a revelation of neutron star gravity.

Science education in this country sucks. Clearly.

These people know NOTHING of Newton’s Three Laws of Motion. Of course! Why didn’t I see this before? If they had any idea what a 1,000 kg body travelling at 60km/hr was capable of doing to an essentially stationary 80 kg body, they would probably look both ways before illegally strolling across the road. They would actually probably look left and then right AND THEN LEFT AGAIN, if they knew what kind of party those opposing forces would throw right there in the middle of the road. There would be doef-doef music. And red streamers.

So, in order to remedy this situation and to allow minibus taxis to regain the title of “Most Hateful Moving Object on the Road,” I have decided to explain to Cape Town exactly what Newton’s Three Laws of Motion are in a way that you all will most definitely understand.

Newton’s Three Laws of Motion Demystified

The Surprisingly Sexy Sir Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton was a physicist who pioneered the field of mechanical physics. He took the whole idea of motion, of movement, and put words and equations to it. And he did this by coming up with three iron-clad rules: three immutable laws that would forevermore govern motion, not just on this planet, but (insofar as we can tell) in the entire Universe. Wherever you are in the world, or indeed the galaxy, you can be sure that these rules will apply to you. If you don’t believe me, run in front of a bus in Italy. Repeat on Jupiter.

Sucks every time.

Newton’s First Law:

[In fancy speak: Every object continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a straight line, unless compelled to change that state by external forces acted upon it.]

In South African English: If I’m travelling down Woodstock Main road at a constant speed, I will continue to do so unless a taxi T-bones me (see Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Series of Scientific Diagrams Demonstrating Newton’s First Law of Motion

Newton’s Second Law:

[In fancy speak: The acceleration of a body (a) is directly proportional to the net force (F) acting on it and inversely proportional to the mass (m) of the body. I.e. F = m.a]

In South African English: The force (F) my car would exert upon you, the pedestrian, can be calculated by multiplying the mass of my car by my acceleration. Conversely, the acceleration of your body through the air when I hit you with my car can be calculated by dividing the force my car exerts on you by your mass (see image 2).

In plainer South African English: My car would bliksem you to pieces, broo!

Fig. 2: Series of Scientific Diagrams Demonstrating Newton’s Second Law of Motion

Newton’s Third Law

[In fancy speak: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.]

In South African English: If I hit you with my car, you will exert a force on my car just as my car would exert a force on you. But, according to Newton’s Second Law of Motion, my car would win (refer to image 2).

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

These are the three immutable laws of physical motion. Remember them well the next time you think a belligerent stare will be sufficient to slow down my car. Remember that the next time you make me burn rubber or swerve into oncoming traffic to avoid manslaughter charges.

Please people, let’s give the minibus taxi back its rightful title as “Most Hateful Moving Object on the Road” and look both ways next time you leisurely perambulate across a busy road.