Friday, December 9, 2016

The Marvelous Museum of Science and Industry

When I was 7 years old, my parents took my brother and me up to Chicago for a short visit -- it's one of my most vivid childhood memories. We visited all of the Chicago museums, but the one that made the deepest impression on me was the Museum of Science and Industry. I can't honestly claim that this was the single experience that set me on my path to a career in science, but it was certainly a major influence. We don't always appreciate the huge impact that apparently trivial experiences have on young children.

What was exhibited at the museum back in 1966? We walked through the German WWII submarine, but I didn't particularly like it. My favorite was a nuclear physics exhibit sponsored by the Atomic Energy Commission. It included a large push-button map that allowed you to "prospect" for uranium, a mock-up of a "hot cell" manipulator for handling radioactive materials, and screen with a dial for producing images of atoms with various numbers of electrons. (The last of these must have made a deep impression -- I later authored a textbook on quantum mechanics). A dive through Google determined that this exhibit was called "Atomsville, USA," and it was presented first at the 1964 New York World's Fair, and then made a brief stop in Chicago for a few months in 1966. Remarkably, you can see a video of it (in its World's Fair incarnation) here.

And what else was at the museum 50 years ago? I vividly remember the "World of Hardwoods," which included the giant face of Paul Bunyan staring back through a window, and a push-button board under a gigantic light-up globe: you could push each button to see where in the world a particular hardwood tree could be found. The AT&T exhibit had three phone booths, from which you could call someone in another booth or talk to a cartoon character. AT&T also sponsored a video phone linked to the science museum in Philadelphia -- my brother and I were too shy to use it.  (It took 50 years for this technology to become a computer-aided everyday reality). There was the famous walk-through heart, and a bizarre theater with mechanical parts of a cell (or were they molecules?) sliding in and lighting up. An internet search revealed that this exhibit was called "Chemical Man."

What has become of these old exhibits?

Monday, December 5, 2016

Worst. Airline. Ever.

I've been flying for 40 years, and after all this time I've finally discovered the worst airline out there. What's more, I'm confident that most of you will agree with me.

I probably should have suspected a problem when I saw the new signage over the entrance at Midway Airport: "Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here." I was due to fly out of Chicago on Sunday afternoon. But my flight was cancelled, and I didn't make it back home until 1:00 am. In the end, it turned out to be for the best -- the unexpected layover let me take my daughter to the Museum of Science and Industry, which is one of the world's best science museums. I'll have more to say about the museum in my next post.

So the worst airline ever? That's easy -- it's whichever one you flew on most recently.

Update: My disparaging comment about Midway Airport was, of course, a joke. Midway is not at all like hell. It more closely resembles purgatory -- hordes of people sitting around, with no idea when they are going to get out. Then every so often an angel appears and takes away a large crowd of them into the sky. Definitely purgatory.

Friday, December 2, 2016

A Quantum Limit on How Fast You Can Talk

Is there a fundamental upper limit on how fast we can communicate? If you're like me, that limit is set by your despised cable provider (in my case, Comcast, which avoids being the most disliked company in America only by virtue of being ranked ahead of Time-Warner in most of those surveys).

But recently, Raphael Bousso at the University of California has proposed that quantum mechanics sets an absolute upper limit on how fast information can be transmitted. The limit he proposes in his paper is not all that interesting, but the reason for the limit is rather astonishing.