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Continuing Ed

March 16, 2011

As if the dissertation isn’t enough, AJ has been making sure I keep my research skills up. Last night, he asked me two questions I couldn’t answer. At dinner he wanted to know why the tsunami in Japan went toward the epicenter and not away from it. It turned out that, in fact, it did go away from the epicenter. We’d just been mistaken as to where the epicenter was. At bedtime he asked a tougher one: if everything that travels faster than the speed of sound causes a sonic boom, then how come there’s no sonic boom when you flip on a lightswitch? I’d never given this much thought before. I, for one, am grateful that flipping on a light does not cause a sonic boom, otherwise I’d probably spend a lot more time sitting around in the dark. With a little research and the confirmation of an astrophysicist friend of mine, my suspicions proved to be true: Sonic booms are caused by an object moving pushing air aside creating a shock wave that piles up the traveling soundwaves. But because air is transparent, when light travels through it, it doesn’t have to push anything aside, so there is no shockwaves. However, theoretically it could cause a sonic boom if it were traveling through some other medium. Or rather, because it is light, it can cause a flash. This is known as Cherenkov radiation. And that’s about all I can tell you about that.

I was feeling kind of proud of myself for having figured this out when I told AJ about it at breakfast this morning. But he wasn’t satisfied. “But why does lightning make a sonic boom then?” Huh. Back to research for me. This question proved more complicated, mainly because there’s some conflicting information out there and I haven’t found a source that looks totally reliable. Maybe one of you can help me (teranika, are you out there?). The explanation that made the most sense to me suggested that what causes the boom is the thing that causes the light, not the light itself — a superheating of the molecules in the air that causes the waves to pile up in much the same way that a supersonic jet parting the air does.

But it wasn’t all science yesterday afternoon. I spent an hour or so sketching out a syllabus for a Model U.N. class for middle schoolers. And they took it. So I’m on the schedule at the local community college to teach the class in August, if anyone signs up to take it. This was one hundred percent AJ’s idea, but I have to say, I’m kind of looking forward to it.

One of the best things about having a kid, or at least a kid like AJ, is I am less inclined to stick close to my comfort zone. There are always new questions to answer, new topics to explore. If it weren’t for AJ, I certainly wouldn’t have done as much reading in math and science as I’ve done in the last year, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have revisited my Model U.N. days either. Sure, this is maybe not the most productive use of my research time in terms of my career, but it’s pretty interesting, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. freshhell permalink
    March 16, 2011 4:20 pm

    I feel the same way about Dusty except the things I’ve agreed to do are less brainy: do girl scout cookies and deal with lots of disparate people, go on multiple field trips, teach an art class, learn to sew.

  2. eleanorio permalink
    March 16, 2011 5:42 pm

    I was totally thrown by the title of this post. I thought to myself, “Who’s Ed, and where did he start and what’s he continuing?” Isn’t thunder itself a form of sonic boom? Sort of? The displacement of air caused by the super heating of the molecules? Or am I making that up?

  3. March 16, 2011 8:47 pm

    It is sort of a sonic boom, but the shockwave, apparently, works differently than the kind caused by an object moving faster than the speed of sound.

  4. March 17, 2011 8:43 am

    I definitely feel the same way about helping to direct the music for Olivia Twist. It’s way outside my comfort zone in some ways. It’s interesting to see that my teaching style, which has always been Socratic, doesn’t work very well in rehearsals, but that the two other directors (high school teachers) get results from telling them exactly how to do something and commanding them to try it that way.

  5. March 17, 2011 9:39 am

    That’s actually one of the things I like best about teaching in general — that your methods sometimes don’t work and you have to improvise something new on the spot. I notice this most in teaching private lessons and also in conducting. It comes up less in the lecture-style classes I teach, mainly, I think, because the size of the courses often means I have less feedback during the class on how I’m doing. It’s those moments of improvisation, when I’m fixed on a goal I’m trying to accomplish with a student and will pull in anything that works to make it happen, that launch me into that Csikszentmihalyian flow state. But I can also get there by trying something new that forces me to think about things differently. I was thinking about that in particular this morning when I was writing elsewhere about learning to play Irish fiddle after years as a classical violinist. It totally changed my relationship with my instrument — definitely for the better.

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