Archive for December, 2009

This is a somewhat random post on a few things I’ve been working on the past two weeks. Now that the NSF grant is submitted, I can return to editing episodes in preparation for finally setting up an iTunes site. I’ve been working on transcribing Dr. Eric Scerri’s interview so that I can edit it and send him a “good parts” version along with the complete interview. (By the way, I saw Theo Gray’s new book on the elements in Barnes & Noble the other day, and its beautifully photographed and engagingly written. Check it out!) In between, I’m creating some drawings of Greek philosophers for the segments on Greek matter theories. I’ve completed the line art versions of Heraclitus, Parmenides, Zeno, and Plato. They were drawn with pencil, then inked in and scanned, then cleaned up in Adobe Photoshop. I still have to add color. Here are samples:

Drawing of Heraclitus


Heraclitus was the philosopher who said that you can’t step in the same river twice, because both the river and you have changed. Parmenides and Zeno were of the Eleatic school that argued logically that change and motion were impossible. Zeno’s famous Achilles and the Tortoise paradox is still a difficult test for students of logic. And of course we all know about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Each of them affected subsequent matter theories, including Aristotle and Democritus, and therefore influenced modern atomic theory as well.

Zeno drawing

Zeno of Elea

Plato drawing

Plato of Athens

I’ve also gone through all my electronic files scattered over several hard drives just to take inventory and see what’s already done so that I don’t re-create files and duplicate effort. One piece of work I came across was a script for part of an episode of a mini-series that I proposed to the Sloan Foundation and to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting back in 2007-08. Sloan responded negatively without even taking the time to read the proposal. CPB at least looked it over, said the idea had merit, but declined due to having plenty of material related to the elements already in the pipeline. It was at that point that I reinvented this project as a series of podcast episodes; I wouldn’t have to worry about the limited airtimes and economics of scarcity of broadcast channels, but could put the finished material where anyone could access it for free. If you want to learn more about these issues, there are two great books I heartily recommend: First, read Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, which talks about the flattening of the global economy and many of the issues that have become so huge lately. Then, after you’ve gotten the general background, read Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail, which discusses the new economics of abundance that the Internet provides. Both books figure heavily in my grant application. I’ve even created animations and graphics to show how their ideas apply to science education.

Boson the Clown

Boson the Clown, the Quantum Quipster

The script I came across was meant to be part of an hour-long segment on the history of atomic theory and was a section on subatomic particles and their interactions, one of the most difficult subjects to teach. Several years ago, while teaching chemistry at Provo Canyon School, we came to the unit on atomic theory and I took my students through the Standard Model of Particles and Interactions, one of the great iconic models of science that ranks up there with the Periodic Table of the Elements. The terminology of that model is rather hard and strange (literally – most people have never heard of strange quarks, but there they are) and so when we finished the unit and it came time for the test, I decided as an extra credit question to have the students come up with some type of pun or joke based on subatomic physics. They wound up spending more time on that question than the rest of the test combined, and the results were pretty good. Here’s an example: “A pion took a trip down under and walked in front of a kangaroo. Do you know what happened? He got lepton!” or an equally bad groaner: “A neutron walks into a bar and asks the bartender, ‘How much for a drink?’ The bartender says, ‘For you, there’s no charge!’ ”

Storyboard of Boson the Clown

Boson the Clown storyboard frame

Yes, I know, they’re bad. But it brought me to an interesting idea that wouldn’t go away. I envisioned a subatomic particle telling these jokes as a stand-up routine, and suddenly the whole thing popped into my head fully formed. The particle’s name is Boson the Clown, and he’s telling these jokes to an audience of electrons in an atom and as he does so, he throws photon balls at them which makes them vibrate and get excited until they jump up to higher balconies of the comedy club – they quantum leap – and that this would make a good illustration (if with a somewhat warped sense of humor) of how bosons work to aid energy interactions between particles. The name of the club is the Atomic Comic Club, and I’ve written an entire script of the scene which I hope to animate in 3D at some point. I’ve done some sample models over the years just to try to visualize what he’d look like, riding a unicycle on a wavy path in a Feynman diagram tossing photon balls at electrons. I’m including the script of the scene here, just in case you’d like to read it and make comments or tell me I’ve finally flipped.


Eventually perhaps the footage that we’ve taken for The Elements Unearthed can be re-edited into a mini-series for PBS as I originally planned (as well as a book, games, on-line materials, lesson plans, posters, etc.) but that will be after we’ve completed the first several phases of the project and have about 100 episodes posted. For now, I’ve got to get back to my editing so that you can finally see what I’ve been talking about all this time.

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