HKU to cancel Astronomy and Maths-Physics Majors

The University of Hong Kong (HKU) is planning to cross out two majors from its list in Faculty of Science: Astronomy and Mathematics-Physics, starting from the academic year 2018/19. (Source)

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One of my colleagues shared this news to me through an HK Podcast (Cantonese). As a Physics graduate, I could empathise what the students and alumni shared in the interviews. Based on what reasons should these two majors be cancelled? What would happen to the only Astronomy major offered in the whole Hong Kong?

HKU’s Dean of Science Matthew Evans explained to the students that “[they] are not choosing to enroll on these majors.” The low enrollment rate is the main reason cited. He also said that the efficient use of resources and academic time prompted the action. Such decision upset the students and alumni.

Lam Chiu-ying was one of the graduates from the HKU’s mathematics-physics major in 1971. He was also the former director of the Hong Kong Observatory. He thinks that a good university should not be chasing after fleeting trends and only focusing on subjects that brings in students. He likens such phenomenon to a supermarket – a place only offering popular items.

It kind of reflects how cut throat the competition in Hong Kong is. It is not unusual for a university to close unpopular courses, but HKU has a unique position: it is the only Hong Kong university that runs an astronomy major. According to Scival, University of Hong Kong has strong scholarly output in the field of Physics and Astronomy. The publications is increasing over the years, for example about 2,000 publications in the last 5 years. 20.6% of the works are in the top 10% most cited worldwide, and 37.0% of the publications are published in the top 10% journals worldwide as well.

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We need to relook at the role of university. It is supposed to be the center of scholarly research and innovation, and at the same time the place where future generation gets advanced education. I think that HKU should put more thoughts in getting more students interested in such subjects instead of simply closing them down. By working with high schools and government authorities, the university can give more exposure to the astronomy and physics and ignite the passion among Hong Kong young generation.

Scientific American: What is “anti-science”?

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Source: Science

Being “anti-science” does not mean that denying the benefits of scientific research or the validity of scientific methods. We can’t do anything but feel helpless or ruined to see Trump’s government’s recent policy changes in science (e.g. cut of EPA and NASA budget, anti-vaccine stance, downplaying of climate change). People in United States started a March for Science movement to “call for science that upholds the common good and for policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest.

In light of such sentiment, we can’t emphasis enough the importance of upholding the integrity and value of scientific research, especially when it comes to policy making process which affects the lives of millions. We need, however, to revisit the definition of “anti-science”.

As highlighted in a recent Scientific American article, the attitudes towards science cannot be divided clearly to two opposing sides “pro-” and “anti-science”. Human behaviour is more nuanced. It is more appropriate to address anti-science as denial of certain scientific issues. One that agrees with vaccination may deny the evidences of climate change. Psychologists call it motivated biased, which means we treat facts to reinforce our beliefs instead of convincing ourselves the otherwise is true. In short, we like to twist facts.

As the information is getting more accessible and easily retrieved and shared, people are likely susceptible to form “echo chamber”, be it on Facebook, Twitter or other social media. We seek out information that supports ourselves, and refuse or outright deny evidences that oppose to our beliefs. As called “motivated reasoning“, we are all tribal creatures.

Another interesting point brought up by the article is that people do not deny the scientific facts themselves, but the implication of solutions to the problems unsurfaced by the facts. Let’s say climate change. If the climate change is true, the implied solutions are to reduce the reliance on fossil fuel, to cut down the consumption of diary products and to invest in renewable energy industry. When confronted with a change of habit, human are very unlikely to change. It is called solution aversion.

So for us who wants to make a change, please keep an open mind. Understand the different backgrounds of the audience, and try to motivate them from the root cause.

Conquer

“So tell me, what’s the whole point of doing this?”

I sat down quietly on the metal chair. I wished the cold sensation could wake me up from this nightmarish reality.

“I have told you our intention. We’ve done our part, and now it’s your turn to decide. As the best person Earth could offer, I have a great faith in you to make the optimal decision.”

As the appointed Diplomat of the Earth, I was out of my wits for the first time. In my career spanning three decades, I have achieved the unachievables. I stopped Russia from invading the fringe countries with my diplomatic skills; I reconciled the long grudge between North and South Korea and disarmed the nukes by having a long overnight talk with the President Kim; and I witnessed the birth of Earth Federation unified under the same flag. I thought it was finally time to call it a day and had the chance to enjoy my retirement somewhere in Iceland, before they came to us.

“Well, Mr Frederick, we can’t resolve this if you don’t speak at all!” Another shrill. These strangers spoke with a focused, high pitched voice. The humanoid, roughly 8 feet tall, was tapping two appendages on his left arm. He was one of the many who came on the day. For an unknown reason, the alien fleet – dare I say alien while they spoke perfect English – just emerged on top of the stratosphere. Were they here to greet, to inquire, or to conquer? No one knew, and that’s the reason why I was sent here.

“I represent Earth Federation to welcome you and your friends, and …” I started my welcome speech before getting interrupted by another shrill.
“What’s the joy of unification? Why are you putting yourself in a risky, distasteful, restraining state in which you don’t grow at all?” He turned around and faced me. His eyes were of inquiry, of caring without any sense of anger. It’s like how an elder reproached his child.

I clenched my fists. “Thank you for your concern. The people on Earth realized that wars between nations and tribes don’t really advance the humanity as a race, and only under a peaceful condition we could make our lives better by devoting the resources to better uses.”

“I would say you were misguided and misinformed. Having a big, unified nation doesn’t really reap the benefits you just said. What science do the scientists should research? What machines do the engineers should build? What epics do the poets should compose? What anthems do the people should sing? Divided nations bring fire to the fight, and the people are motivated to fight for a better tomorrow. For an analogy, imagine a perfect lake: the water stays stagnant, lifeless if the water didn’t flow at all. Break the border a little, and the water will flow to form a river, bringing lives around.”

“Divided nations conquer each other. A united nation conquer itself from within. The difference is that one leads to prosperity, another complacency.” He cast a thoughtful stare with his single eye before locking the room.

That was the first meeting with these aliens. This memory was still replaying vividly in my head every night in my sleep. I have lost count of the days that have passed, but I could see, from my little room, that the electric lights on Earth was getting less and dimmer. Didn’t they figure out nuclear power or other energy sources before I came? I observed less and less launches of satellites or spaceships as if the Earth has closed the border to Space. What happened to the space policy? Don’t we want to explore beyond the Earth after we settled all the differences among us?

Without the spirit to conquer, humanity seemed to be conquered from within.

via Daily Prompt: Conquer

Science Busking at NUS Open Day 2017

Here are my juniors at NUS Open Day this year! Hurray!

A Bucket Full of Science

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Last Saturday students in our course* put up a wonderful performance during NUS Open day 2017, communicating science to public visitors in the form of busking!

Below is a short description and a mosaic of pictures to illustrate each busking activity.

Marshmallow Cannon

A marshmallow is in a hollow tube is ejected by one blowing into the tube. Participants are challenged to send the marshmallow flying as far as possible. Our science communicators then explain the physics of the moving marshmallow inside and outside the tube, and discuss the parameters affecting the distance traveled by the marshmallow (such as the dimensions of the tube and the angle of elevation).

Science of Coffee

The science behind a good cup of coffee is demonstrated by live brewing and coffee tasting. Visitors are invited to taste different samples of coffee made with different brewing parameters such as grind size and temperature, and…

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Swarm

He spun around his thrusters, speeding away from the disintegrated Sun. Although broken down into tiny globules of plasma matter, the collective mass of the remnants was still able to pull objects fairly easily, all thanks to gravity. He didn’t want to fall to the centre and get surrounded by the blazing glitters.

Under the slow yet deep hums of the ion engines, he flicked switches and pushed buttons frantically. The survival instinct had kicked in – he gotta run away from this menace. He has seen this exact scene before in the Aegean System where Perxians destroyed the stars one by one. Their grey fleets hovered in the dark void and sent out the silent killers – innumerable amount of tiny drones.

They looked completely harmless at the first sight. In his scope, he could only see small dots creeping across the view, creeping on the small golden pie. It reminded him of his mother’s raspberry pie baked in a sunny afternoon. Black ants came and formed a trail to the pie, busily following each other’s pheromone to the food. Being a young boy, he could not fathom why the ants were so busy, nor where they came from – He only knew how to crush them using his thumbs. The ants remained unmoved, and he still remembered how the crushed ants smelled on his hand.

“Warning: Small unmanned drones approaching. Number: Unable to calculate.” He woke up from his reminiscence. Thousands of small dots started blinking on his starmap, forming a green trail from behind, at the starboard side. Like ants looking for their food, these tiny dots were on a steady course to its prey – his space capsule.

 

via Daily Prompt: Swarm

Glitter

“Not all that glitters is star, not all those who wander are lost…”

He mumbled the first two lines of a variation of Tolkien’s poem in Lord of the Rings. Looking out of his observatory deck, the view was indeed breathtaking. He was drifting in space while the ring systems of Saturn slowly crept into the view. That was roughly over one billion kilometres away from Earth, and the wanderer was finally close to his home.

“…The old that is strong does not wither, deep core is not reached by the frost…”

The rings, a great feature of the gas giant, formed a glittering halo around its mother planet. Billions of tiny pebbles and ice cubes reflected the sunlight to his capsule, not unlike a flowing river that sheen with Sun’s grace. Sun, the yellow star that is special to humanity yet is totally ordinary in the universe, was fine now. He thought to himself. At least, it still remained unharmed, untouched by those hunters from which he escaped.

“…From the stardust a fire shall be woken, a light from the shadows shall spring…”

He remembered what Mrs. Amy had taught in that breezy afternoon: Stars are born from the gravitational pull of the space dust, a gathering force so strong that the space dust starts to fuse and radiate heat and light. Most of them burn through their fuel and go off in a spectacular fashion, spewing out stardust in every possible direction. The cycle repeats and a new star is born again. He still remembered how the sunlight reflected off his crush’s glasses, and how beautiful her eyes looked under the autumn sun.

He stopped before the last couplet. The space capsule tumbled and stumbled, and he caught glimpses of a terrifying view every time the observation deck faced the Sun. It glittered, or in a better term, became glitters in the black backdrop of space. The sphere of hot plasma has disintegrated into thousands of small balls, like a big bubble breaking down into small ones in bathtub.

At that moment, he knew he was too late.

 

via Daily Prompt: Glitter

Endless energy generated by evaporating water on charcoal

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No, not this way! (source)

Minor corrections: It is not endless (the generation needs constant water supply), and by charcoal I mean nano-structured carbon layers. Still, it is impressive to see how a simple physics phenomenon could give rise to an important application: producing electrical energy. A group of scientists from China published a paper on the topic in Nature Nanotechnology Letter last month.

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Water molecule. (source)

Water is a molecule composed of 2 Hydrogen (H) and 1 Oxygen (O) atom, and collectively they behave slightly ionic – there are H+ and OH- ions in the system, for example a cup of water. When the water on the carbon surface evaporates, it will induce a force to pull water through the tiny channels in the carbon layers. An usual piece of carbon is hydrophobic, meaning it repels water and stops the action pretty much.

The scientists found out that by treating the carbon to heat and plasma, the surface will be a mixture of carbon and oxygen compounds, and turns into hydrophilic surface. That is, water-loving oxidised carbon. Hence, the water gets pulled through the channels and evaporates at the other end at a steady rate, provided the vapour pressures at both sides don’t change.

How does it produce electricity then? Remember we mentioned earlier: the water contains ions, and a stream of water in motion is a current, carrying minuscule but measurable electrical charge. Ta-da, we produced electricity!

The scientists further found out the voltage produced can reach up to 1 V (high enough to light up an LED), and can be turned on and off by opening and closing the box in which the experiment is contained. This cheap, controllable way of producing electricity from evaporation of water could lead to very practical uses in real life, such as power generation at rural areas or places with little sunlight.

Original Paper