Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

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The things you learn

Posted by Arjendu on February 12, 2008

Yesterday was exciting: The first physics comps of the season for me (I don’t go unless I am invited or am on the committee) and the unveiling of the new curricular proposals.

So this was definitely one of those kick-ass comps presentations I was talking about earlier. She talked about biomimetic adhesives, that is, the attempt to reproduce the ‘stickiness’ of gecko feet.

The facts are amazing: a Tokay gecko can theoretically hold up 2 human beings with the adhesive forces of its feet, with a surface area slightly less than two dimes. And geckos do it without suction, and without exuding any sticky substance whatsoever, with the ability to go from adhesion to ‘running’ on demand. Move over Spiderman, I want to see Geckoman in action!

And the physics (at least, as understood so far) is that it involves van der Waals forces (for the non-physicists, the fact that neutral atoms can separate into positive and negative parts, induce neighboring atoms to separate as well, and therefore attract each other) and some interesting geometry. van der Waals forces only act at the nanometer scale and it turns out that the feet of the gecko are very very branched, such that it can offer this kind of close contact (and facilitate other good properties as well).

It was a great talk, everyone learned a lot, and she even finished with a report on results that came out 2 weeks ago, where a Stanford group has managed to get to approximately half the strength of gecko feet. Man. I can’t wait to read her paper — she promises, in addition, an equivalent discussion of certain butterfly wings that are structured so that they only let certain kinds of light through, so that the color comes from the structure, rather than the ingredients of the wings. Cool.

Right after this talk was the college-wide Faculty meeting, starring the unveiling of new curricular proposals — for graduation requirements, not fiddling with the major — from the team-leads. Things were a little more firmed up than the last look we had at the ECC, and despite the nervousness, all three did a good job (they were standing up there, telling us what *our* vision of liberal education was, and how to implement it. Tough audience!).

Gut reaction(s):

(1) Some of the new requirements are very prescriptive (as are some current ones) ; these will meet with the most resistance or alternatively will be hardest to implement.

(2) All the proposals shift resources around. For example, more first-year seminars might have to be offered, or different kinds of ‘distribution courses’ will be imagined by each Department and so on.

(3) All the proposals ease the weight on physics — yay (assuming we actually accept some version of these proposals)! That is, our Department is the only science that offers 3 or 4 large-enrollment courses a year that people typically take for distribution requirements. The science requirement in all three proposals is definitely decreased, whence …

(4) The pressure on the Arts and some other department is going to increase.

(5) As a member of the ECC, I will be consulted — that is, we get to do some slight nudging and questioning as the next stage evolves (discussion, modification, etc, until we have proposals that can be subjected to an up-or-down vote). But at this point, any faculty member has just as much of a say as any other. Let the discussions begin!

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One Response to “The things you learn”

  1. […] difficult it is to separate two intervowen phone-books. It’s kinda amazing. Same principle as a gecko: surface area increases friction […]

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