I was just reading some of Ted Chiang’s excellent short story collection “Stories of Your Life and Others”, and was reminded of a story of his I read much earlier, Exhalation. This Hugo-winning short story didn’t just catch my imagination and sense of wonder (something that a good Sci-Fi writer can do extremely well in the short format) like Asimov’s Last Question, but also is a wonderful pedagogical tool for explaining thermodynamic concepts. I won’t blow any of the fascinating world that Chiang built, but I will tell you that the final revelation the protagonist faces is a perfect illustration of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This story is such a good way of explaining it to people, precisely because it is a story. Any skeptic or psychologist can tell you that the emotional connection a good story provides is among the most effective ways of compelling people (after all, what is mythology but a good collection of stories?). So, in other words, go read his story here:
So, the other week I got into a minor flame war (more of a potshot skirmish really) with an astrologer on twitter (full disclosure: I started it ;). It all started over the remarks Brian Cox (scientist, rock star, all-around cool dude) made on his most excellent Wonders of The Solar System television program. Clip after the jump.
So, in last weeks BMC post, I showed a number of probability distributions, one of which was the Fermi distribution. As you saw, at low temperatures, the Fermi distribution approached a step function. This itself was a bit weird, as it implied that there are particles in non-zero energy levels even when the temperature is zero. This distribution’s shape produces a number of bizarre properties, the great fun pop-science kind of things that makes physics popular among you, the unwashed masses (I kid, I love this stuff too).