ScienceWise - Winter 2011

The Editor's corner

Fiddly little details

When I first began to learn science I knew a mass of facts and formulae. In fact as a teenager I knew and remembered far more formulae than I do today. But I think today I have a far better overall understanding of how the big picture of science hangs together. I don’t see physics as hundreds of separate laws and equations, it’s more like just a few principles that come together to create the entire universe as we see it.

It might sound for a moment like I’m suggesting that the formulae one learns at school are in some way irrelevant, but nothing could be further from the truth. Learning science is like learning music. You have to really understand what notes are, how they form into chords, what timing is. As a human that’s the most effective learning path. Details then the big picture.

Indeed, sometimes it can be knowing all those formulae that directly leads to the higher understanding. Seeing the similarity in the mathematics is what helps you see the similarity in the underlying principle.

For example electricity and hydraulics may seem quite unrelated but both are really exercises in fluids. Pressure or voltage forcing electrons, oil molecules, turnips, whatever, through a resistance in which turbulence and friction create heating.  Physics is cool like that, it’s sort of a language of logic that can be applied to numerous situations.

We’re running a story in this edition about a group of scientists who for the first time have been able to observe speckle in a coherent beam of matter rather than light. It’s one of those nice results that illustrates how sound the physical theories that underlie our models of the universe really are.

Even though we may still have an awful lot to learn, it’s encouraging to get the occasional confirmation that we’re basically on the right track. And every paving stone on that track, is one of those fiddly little details you had to learn at school!

Final confirmation of the matter laser
Improving communications in the last great wilderness
How bees use features in the landscape to navigate home
New research suggests that subduction may be much more complex than once thought
Plasma physics finds novel applications in medicine
Lessons learned from a genetic disease might provide the solution to obesity and malnutrition
Explaining apparent altruism in the purple-crowned fairy wren
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