Archive for September, 2008


How many physicists live in New Mexico?

In honor of Nobel prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi (born on this day in 1901), we take a look at the famous “Fermi Problem.” Fermi loved making students think while teaching them the value of approximation when searching for answers. He did this through what came to be known as “Fermi Problems” — outrageous problems to solve immediately, but for which you don’t have enough — or any — data to solve normally. Instead of gathering data and analyzing it, Fermi wanted you to make a series of observations and assumptions, and then build your solution from those. He felt that any incorrect assumptions you made in one part of the problem would balance themselves out with incorrect assumptions in another part of the problem, leaving your solution very close to the actual number. (Frighteningly, this logic often works.)

A classic Fermi problem (usually attributed to Fermi himself) is “How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?” Wikipedia walks through the solution to the problem, complete with the various assumptions made along the way.


A great day for the arts

Naturally artsy couples must really enjoy snuggling in the Winter, because today’s a great day for arts-oriented birthdays!
Poet T. S. Eliot was born today in 1888, composer George Gershwin was born in 1898, and pop singer Olivia Newton-John was born in 1948.

And, on a completely different note, fitness guru Jack LaLanne turns 94 today. He plans to will perform 94 push-ups with the Washington Monument strapped to his back or something like that. (I’m beginning to suspect that he’s an alien.)


The court goes co-ed

It took a long time, but on this day in 1981, the United States Supreme Court welcomes its first female judge, Sandra Day O’Conner. She retired from the court in 2005.

President Ronald Reagan pledged to appoint the first woman to the court during his 1980 campaign. He wrote in his diary on July 6, 1981, “Called Judge O’Conner and told her she was my nominee for supreme court. Already the flak is starting and from my own supporters. Right to Life people say she is pro abortion. She says abortion is personally repugnant to her. I think she’ll make a good justice.”

Among her observations over the years:

  • “My hope is that 10 years from now, after I’ve been across the street at work for a while, they’ll all be glad they gave me that wonderful vote.”
  • “The power I exert on the court depends on the power of my arguments, not on my gender.”
  • “The more education a woman has, the wider the gap between men’s and women’s earnings for the same work.”
  • “A moment of silence is not inherently religious.”
  • “It is difficult to discern a serious threat to religious liberty from a room of silent, thoughtful schoolchildren.”

To boldly go where many ships have gone before

The world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), launched today in 1960. She’s the eighth ship in the US Navy to bear the name.

The launch happened six years before the TV show “Star Trek” took her name into space, so Captain Kirk and the rest of the crew didn’t attend. (Although they ultimately visited the ship during after time-traveling back to 1986 Earth in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.


A great day for music, science, and history

Wow — it’s a big day all the way around! Here’s a quick overview of today in history:

  • In higher education, Harvard College in Cambridge, Mass., held its first commencement ceremony today in 1642. No word on what the graduates received as starting salaries.
  • On the music scene, today’s the birthday of jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane (born 1926) and musician Ray Charles (born 1930. On a sad note, famed choreographer and director Bob Fosse died in 1987, at age 60.
  • Turning to military history, today’s the reported anniversary of American commander John Paul Jones declaration, “I have not yet begun to fight!” in 1779.
  • In science, the Martians enjoyed an impromptu fireworks show courtesy of NASA when the Mars Climate Observer apparently burned to a crisp as it attempted to go into orbit in 1999.

Chess adds up for Idaho schools

The first time that my teaching-degreed, homeschooling wife explained how games related to education, I felt amazed.

The conversation started when she mentioned the educational value of two board games that the kids enjoyed playing. I recognized broad educational value in them (critical thinking, strategy, and planning). She agreed that they built those values, but then she put on her “teacher” hat and started rattling off over twenty other specifics — things like sequencing, pattern matching, counting, following instructions, taking turns, and goodness only knows what else. Who knew games could do so much? And why didn’t I know about this?

Continue reading ‘Chess adds up for Idaho schools’


The horse wins the battle, but loses the war

As every computer geek (and especially Bill Gates) knows, when you’re demonstrating new technology, something usually goes wrong at exactly the worst moment.

The good news? Problems like that don’t just happen to computer people. On this day in 1830, the first U.S.-builte steam engine, Tom Thumb, performed beautifully on the first half of a dlemonstration trip. The little engine pulled a car full of 40 officials, dignitaries, and society stars from Baltimore to Ellicott Mills in about an hour.

But technology trouble awaited the engine on the return trip…

Continue reading ‘The horse wins the battle, but loses the war’