Magnets – how do they work?

During TAM London 2010, the infamous Insane Clown Posse Miracles video was given as an example of an anti science manifesto. The catchphrase about magnets became quite popular among the conference delegates, as an example of stupidity.  However, I didn’t think that the phrase, or rather, the question itself is stupid.  We know that magnets repel or attract each other by the means of “magnetic forces”, but the explanation usually stops at the magnetic field, which is explained as “magnetic field means that if certain objects are placed within the magnetic field, there’s a force exerted on them”.  To my liking, that’s hardly satisfying.

It turns out, that the topic of magnetic force and ways of explaining it has already been discussed by Richard Feynman in an interview.

Feynman asks the interviewer “What do you mean when you ask ‘why?'”, and proceeds talking about various kinds of explanation that can be given.  Explanations need to be given using terms that the audience either already understands, or accepts as a satisfying without actual understanding.  The framework which allows to answer the “How do magnets work?” question, is utterly unfamiliar to lay audience, and cannot be used.  Analogies could potentially help, but there’s a problem.  Concepts within that framework are so different from anything that the audience is familiar with, that invoking analogies will be more confusing and misleading than helpful.

The question about workings of magnets is not as easy to answer as it seems.

Olimpic lecture from The Teaching Company

TTC, The Teaching Company, produces courses on various topics. I’ve purchased several courses, all of them were excellent. I’m currently listening to Philosophy of Science course, which begins with a simple question “what makes science science?”, then turns to definition of definition and later on pursues the meaning of meaning. If it sounds crazy, it’s because it is. But it turns out that you really need to understand this kind of stuff if you want to know why science works and why do scientists get their grants.

I also watched a bit of human anatomy course, but hearing about all the things that can go wrong in heart basically make me faint, so I’m progressing rather slowly. But it’s nevertheless a fascinating course. It would have helped me a great deal if I watched it before writing my thesis.

Here’s today’s perk. In celebration of the 2008 Olympic Games in in Bejing, The Teaching Company makes a lecture about the history of olympic games available for free download. Lectures are available until the 4th of September 2008.

Supernatural for Linux users

 I bet you guys have a hard time figuring out how it works with woo-woos. Here you have it black on white. If a woo-woo would be a sysadmin, they would do more or less:

$ dd if=/dev/urandom of=i-believe bs=1 count=$RANDOM
18676+0 records in
18676+0 records out
18676 bytes (19 kB) copied, 0.172968 s, 108 kB/s
$ chmod 755 i-believe
$ ./i-believe

And voila! All the work is done!