Saturday, May 28, 2011

Discovering Feynman

-- contributed by Lily

When I take the kids to the library, I often stroll into the non-fiction section trying to find some easy-to-read books on science and nature for the kids. That’s where I encountered Mr. Feynman the other day. Sandwiched among all the big brick-like, formidable physics books, there stood a novel-looking regular paperback, entitled “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!” Not knowing who Feynman was, I turned to the back cover of the book. Richard Feynman was a theoretical physicist who won the Nobel in 1965 for his work on quantum electrodynamics. In this book he recounted his adventures in life, science, and work in a collection of short stories. He is praised as a storyteller in the tradition of Mark Twain, and the book is a New York Times bestseller. All of these sounded enticing enough for me.

But the reviews didn’t quite prepare me for what I would discover inside the book. Once I started reading, Mr. Feynman jumped right out of the pages as such a hilarious person with such a brilliant mind that I couldn’t help applauding and laughing out loud. Of course the kids discovered the book right away and it became a fight among us before bed times.

There’s really not much physics in the book. Rather Mr. Feynman told stories of his life time that intertwined his learning, discovery, his experiences, and his philosophy toward life. Mr. Feynman challenged the conventional wisdoms in every stretch of your imagination and dared to prove it in his ingenious ways. Simple questions, silly things, such as whether urine just comes out by gravity, can you take aspirin and coke at the same time, or do bloodhounds really have better sense of smell than humans. You can tell he was always thinking, exploring, and applying what he learned actively. Once he became interested in something, he had the patience to be better and better at it. From fixing radios in his teens to picking locks and cracking safe codes at Los Alamos, he would tweak and practice until he perfected his skills.

What struck me most about Feynman is that his curiosity toward nature and his methodical ways of discovering nature. How could a person be a great theoretical scientist and an excellent experimentalist? But he is BOTH! As the single chemist in his friend’s company, he developed a silver- plating process, and beaten out a company equipped with a large chemistry department. He studied ants in his apartment and figured out how ants find food and their way home. If these don’t impress you, take this one. While he was at Caltech, Feynman spent his sabbatical in a biology lab and did research work on phage replication. At the end his big moment came as he was invited by James Watson to give a seminar in the biology department at Harvard! I wish Feynman was a biologist, but as he put it “I love physics and I love to go back to it.”

It came as no surprise that Feynman was a strong advocate for quality science education. He challenged his peers, his students, and even educators in other countries to truly understand what they learned, to learn through hands-on experiences and applications rather than rote. Of course, he himself was a great educator and had written excellent textbooks in physics!

It is very entertaining reading Feynman. Watching the kids giggle and laugh while reading the book is a joy. I hope they not only get the jokes but also the way of approaching questions and problems in life.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Sagrada Familia

The full name of Sagrada Familia is "The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família", which means Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family. It is located in the center of Barcelona, Spain. I was exposed to Sagrada Familia via the December 2010 issue of National Geographic, which dubbed it the natural wonder of Barcelona. I was amazed by the temple's forest like architecture and intrigued by its seemingly perpetual construction.

Last week I went to Barcelona for a conference and thus got a chance to see Sagrada Familia in person - how exciting it was to visit an intriguing place just a few months after I read about it!

I arrived at Barcelona Sunday afternoon. Despite jet lag, I set out to walk to Sagrada Familia with a conference buddy, after an hour or so rest. Reading the tour map wrong - we assumed "up" was north, instead of walking to Sagrada Familia, we eventually climbed a small mountain - Mountjuic. When I looked toward city center from the mountain top, I saw brownish forest like structures under the smoggy sky, towering the surrounding buildings. Zoomed in on it with my camera, Sagrada Familia was clearly in sight, just like National Geographic described, minus the main tower -which is to be built by 2025.

Late Thursday morning, the last day of the conference, we took Barcelona Bus Touristic to have a quick tour of the city, and then we went to Sagrada Familia around 4pm - a local secret time to visit the temple without waiting in long lines, but have plenty time to see it - the church closes at 8pm.

As the tour bus approaching Sagrada Familia, the towers of the church, along with tall cranes were finally in sight - a clear indication that the 120+ year construction of Antoni Gaudi's dream design is still in progress. Referring to its extrem long construction, Gaudi, the architect once said: "my client is not in a hurry". As a matter of fact the church was only 25% complete when Gaudi died in 1926.

I purchased audio guide in addition to admissions to have a better understanding of the stories and histories behind the magnificent church.

The church 's outside structure has three facades Nativity, Passion and Glory - each depicts an period of Jesus life. I only saw Nativity and Passion, the Glory facade is to be built.

Nativity facade represents the birth of Jesus Christ - it faces the east where the Sun rises - symbolizing hope, joy and promise. This side was built first and looked its age. It has many sculptures, the center piece is Joseph and Marry holding the young Christ.

Passion facade tells the story of crucifixion of Jesus Christ - from the last dinner to him being crucified. This facade faces west where the Sun sets. Not knowing a lot of biblical history, I had a hard time to follow the stories the audio guide told.

In addition to the obvious symbolism in its orientation, there are a few symbols that are hidden in the architecture - such as this number puzzle (picture on the right, click on the picture to see the puzzel) or the alpha and omega symbol above the entrance. Embedded in the number puzzle is the age when Christ was crucified; alpha and omega represents from first to last (or beginning to end) - like A to Z in English. The tallest tower, the Jesus Christ tower will be at the height of 170meters when completed, one metre less than that of Montjuïc Hill in Barcelona because Gaudi believed that human creation should not surpass that of God.

Note: The internal architecture is magnificent and impressive as well. I will write about it in next post.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

On the Road: Temporarily Stranded

Last Thursday I went to Houston for a meeting at customer's site. Everything went smoothly on the way to customer's huge skyscraper at downtown Houston. The meeting went well.

It was raining when we left the building around 4pm. I was prepared for it however, I had umbrella with me because weather forecast indicated rain that day. The traffic to Inter Continental Airport was jammed but not too bad, I was prepared for it as well. My return flight was at 7pm. I got to the airport around 5:15pm, checked in for my flight, then I went for dinner.

The Airline

When I was ready to take my plane, the flight was delayed by 20 minutes - not too bad, the earlier flight to DFW was cancelled. Many other flights were cancelled as well due to thunderstorms at Southeast U.S. - S. Carolina, Florida ...Terminal B was full of stranded passengers.

Then it was delayed to 8pm. I went to ask an agent at service center why there was such delay, no thunderstorm at Houston, no thunderstorm at Dallas. She told me that the plane to DFW would be the plane from a flight from S. Carolina. It was delayed due to weather condition there. In fact a chain reaction led to disruption of 100s of flights!

My flight was delayed again to 9:30pm. By 9;15pm, the airplane finally landed, the waiting passengers were very hopeful that we would be on our way home shortly. As the boarding time approaching, the departure time was delayed one more time!! Since I was sitting at a bench near the gate counter, I overheard the conversation between the gate agent and some resting flight attendants. The real reason for the delay this time was that the airline - United/Continental - could not locate the crew for my flight!!

While the Airline operation was trying to locate the crew for my flight, the departure time kept changing - little by little. Finally the flight attendant and the pilot showed up by 10:50pm, the gate agent was so relived and pleased - she hugged the attendant.

We boarded the airplane by 11pm, the plane took off by 11:15pm for its 39 minutes flight. I got home Friday morning 1am.


As departure times for various flights kept changing, the designated departure gates were changing constantly as well. I saw throng of people rush in, and out of the branch of terminal B. Not sure if it was a trick the airline play just to keep passengers hopeful and moving.

My flight's gate changed several time as well, mostly in the same branch of terminal B. It was changed once to another branch and then changed back. While walking in the long hallway of the concourse, I saw people sitting equal distance along the way - using the electric outlet to charge their cellphone, laptop, game console, Kindle ... surely a sign of the tech gadget time.

A guy sitting near me was so frustrated with the gradual delay of departure time, he asked the gate agent for assurance that the flight wouldn't be cancelled around 10pm, the gate agent could not make such guarantee, so he cancelled his flight on the spot.

There were light moments as well. When I was checking flight status by the flight monitors, I saw a young guy standing nearby, charging his cellphone, stopped a beautiful young women passing him - "are you so and so?" .... the young lady was startled a bit, but quickly recognized the young man ... apparently they were college classmates.

After thoughts

When chain of running cars are too close to each other, a collision between two cars can lead to chain collision of 10s to 100s of cars! The "super" efficient scheduling of airplanes and crews just like the chain of cars. With the ever more server weather, the airline should reconsider their scheduling paradigm.

I was stranded at the Houston airport for 4 hours. For that amount of time I would have got home if I were driving a car. For destinations of driving distance, it is better to drive.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Grand Canyon - River Rafting

During our trip to Grand Canyon a few years ago, we had a 15 mile smooth water river rafting near the North Rim of Grand Canyon, which started from Glenn Canyon Dam, near Page, Arizona.

To get to the rafters put-in site at Glen Canyon Dam, we first had to pass a homeland security check point in the desert. Then our bus drove through a mile long tunnel - which has no lights, but it was not too dark because there are a few small "side" tunnels which reached to the outside, and thus letting lights in. The bus stop at the other end of the tunnel is right at the foot of the Glenn Canyon Dam.

Getting off the bus we walked a paved parkway by the canyon cliff to the rafters. We had to wear hard hats because of the potential falling rock hazard.

The river right downstream Glenn Canyon is calm and smooth.

Once our rafter was driven to the middle of the river, we saw a beautiful vista of the dam and a bridge over it with the background of blue sky and clouds. When looking at certain angle from the cameras, it felt like that the bridge was leading to heaven.

Our guide had worked with this outfitter for a few years so he was very knowledgeable about the history of the section of canyon. Any significant feature of the rocky cliffs along the river had a story that amazed the passengers. He was also observant. During that year, the guide noticed that a pair of grey herons made a home at a tree on a rock slide area, and they had a baby heron just a few days before we arrived. Of course he purposely drove the rafter close to the tree to show us. We were lucky - when we got there, the herons were home. In fact, one was sitting by the nest, the other was flying around. (Click on the picture on the left to have a clear view)

As in many canyons, there were vultures and hawks flying by the edge of the cliffs. When we got to the horseshoe bend, we also saw "tiny" people by the edge of the cliff. We went to the top of the horseshoe bend the next day on our way to Grand Canyon North Rim. The only other wild life I saw was a lizard when our raft made a stop at an ancient cave, which has petroglyphs.

The ride on the rafter was pleasant. The view was gorgeous.