Tuesday, July 14, 2009

How long is forever, Daddy?

I remember asking my father this over and over again when I was a youngster; one of many such questions which, whilst being but a small child with little emotional and intellectual capacity, I knew instinctively were the source of grating annoyance to all adults.

Other such examples which I personally delighted in, were "Are we there yet?" and "Caniva [insert whatever you like - ice cream, lollypop, balloon, t-bone steak...]?".

But, "how long is forever?" was one that Dad seemed to pause upon, ever-so-slightly, before offering his usually, entirely unsatisfactory (and perhaps, like a seasoned sparring partner, deliberately, equally abrasive) reply, "Go and ask your mother".

Interestingly, the particularly unusual pause before answering seemed to signal that some truthful answer existed somewhere deep within him, and the fact that it remained unspoken perhaps hinted at some regretful, or even shameful element. Perhaps it was that which kept me asking ... or perhaps it was just that I was an annoying brat.

Outwardly, however, the question remained, for me, unanswered ... until recently, when faced with the responsibility of raising Little Hambones. I can assure you now, after experiencing it on a number of occasions in the last four months, that infantile sleep apnea has finally answered that often repeated question. I can now confidently assure you that the time taken for your baby's next, sleeping breath can seem like forever, and forever can be a very, very, very long time.

Maybe not Hawaii – more like the back-seat of the Kingswood on family holidays. My parent-given nick-name seems to have moved up in the world. Pic: www.myspace.com/kingofhawaii808

Friday, July 10, 2009

Space travel just got a whole lot easier

There was a big push in the 1980s to try to explain and demonstrate scientific principles to kids using everyday, household objects and activities.

Probably the main protagonist here was Paul G. Hewitt; very much the darling of my high school physics teacher, who himself was the kind of guy who clearly had spent most of his university years developing complex mathematical formulas to determine the probability of whether he was likely to ever get a root while at college (and not of the squared kind !). Anyway, this asexual nit-wit was enamoured with Hewitt’s quirky, avant guarde approach to teaching high-school physics, which regularly saw him smashing household furniture or blowing-up kitchen appliances, and as a result, we students were forced to sit through 24-episodes of Hewitt’s irritating, a-tonal, New York drawl on scratchy, BETA video tapes, hoping that someone would one day produce an axe in class with which we could demonstrate the concept of inertia on Mr Austin’s bland skull.

But while I wasn’t that taken with the US-style learning, I did develop an appreciation for the very Australian, The Curiosity Show, on which two nerdy, washed-up hippies from the 70s “made science fun” by encouraging us to make various toys and gadgets with bits and pieces found in and around our homes, and through this, demonstrated scientific principles.

I remember learning that if I set a tea-bag alight, I could watch it rocket towards the sky, and that I could make a cotton-bud fly across a room towards a target thanks to a crossbow constructed of a clothes peg and a rubber band.

On reflection, this was clearly a pretty good way to get kids to show initiative and to develop the skills of invention, but whether a result of a thirst to learn more, or simply a limited attention span, I was prone to upping-the-ante a little, which usually got me into trouble. For instance, there’s only so much one can learn from burning all the tea bags in the house, but what I really wanted to know, was whether the same technique could launch a cat into space. Poor old Fluffy definitely copped the brunt of it, and eventually Dad refused to pay the vet bills to have all the cotton-buds surgically removed from the cat’s arse. Not surprisingly, he also decreed that The Curiosity Show was to be permanently switched-off in our household.

Without the nerdy, TV hippies to help me understand my surroundings, I soon learned to develop my own techniques for demonstrating scientific principles in the home. Foremost amongst these was the method I devised to understand the speed of light. At school, we’d been taught that light moves really fast, but the figures they gave us to demonstrate just how fast, with all those zeros hanging off the end, were just too conceptual for my Donkey-sized brain to process. They also told us that planets etc are so far away, that it takes many, many years for the light from them to reach Earth. It was all too difficult to fathom, and without The Curiosity Show to put me straight, I was in danger of becoming completely ignorant.

Instead, I sought answers through rigorous experimentation under strict, scientific conditions, and I came to the conclusion that the speed of light was slightly faster than the time it took for me to reach my bed from the light switch – and, I can assure you, given an extreme fear of the dark, that was pretty fast. Thanks to my experiments, I now understood a concept which I later discovered takes astro-physicists many years of research to master, and through that knowledge, I came to understand other concepts, like why space travellers in movies always had to be put to sleep for years and years while journeying through the cosmos.

But now, after all these years, I can feel the ground shifting beneath me, thanks to breakthroughs in technology which are causing me to re-evaluate the laws of physics. The technology of which I speak entered our home a couple of weeks ago, thanks to a ridiculous loophole in international economic and environmental policy.

We received a visit to our home from a local business man who, for absolutely no charge, replaced all of our standard light bulbs with expensive, energy-efficient bulbs. The carbon credits his business accrues through this free service are sold (for a considerable fortune) to energy inefficient corporations, in order that they can claim carbon neutrality.

As ridiculous as this sounds, rather than global authorities forcing high-volume polluters to reduce their carbon emission, they instead endorse this ludicrous, highly involved process, and somehow everyone (except dolphins, whales, penguins and Pacific Islanders) is happy; the unethical, polluting corporations can pretend they are saving the planet, the business man can sit pretty on a great, big pile of cash, and even the Donkeys are saving some money on their electricity bill … completely ridiculous, really, but it’s that kind of world.

But despite the cheaper power bills, these new light bulbs are challenging the very basis of my scientific beliefs. Since their installation in our home, I can flick a light switch on my way through a doorway, and be well inside the room before darkness is expelled.

It appears that man-made technology is getting the jump on nature and the turning of the universe, and the speed of light is slowing down. This has major implications on what we know to be true, and more than likely, should this trend continue, we may no longer need to be put to sleep when we head out to explore that final frontier. Good for space exploration, perhaps, but not so great for young teenage boys trying to get a glimpse of a buff, alien-killing Sigourney Weaver in nothing but panties and a crop-top. I never did trust technology.

Energy-saver light bulbs - taking the thrill out of adolescence. Pic: http://www.comicbookmovie.com