Saturday, May 25, 2013

Things I've been pondering lately

For most of my life, my brain has been able to puzzle through things I'm interested in learning without too much trouble.  If I had something academic I was pondering, it was usually humanities-based or macro-science based (health, general biology, etc), and I could figure out the answers or find them in an easily-digested format. I guess I was (and am) interested in gathering information but otherwise not a particularly curious person. And not particularly interested in working hard to understand things or gather knowledge. I just like to know a lot about a lot. I don't want to work hard to learn it. Usually. I guess I'm what you might call a lazy learner, even though I'm a hungry learner.

Because of that, one subject that has always hung me up is energy.

Learning about energy drives me nuts. The quantum physics section of AP Chemistry nearly did me in in high school, and I refused to take any physics classes at all. See, I got as far as, "The ball wants to fall..." or "The object at rest wants to stay at rest..." and I would throw my hands up and give up. A ball can't want anything. Nor can any object. They have no will, and therefore no desires. We spend so much time explaining chemistry, molecular biology, physics, and like sciences in terms of wants and needs, but the subjects at hand can't "want" or "need" anything, so the explanations simply confused me then and confuse me now.  (Once a teacher explained a biological process all the way down to the atoms--the positive and negative charges--and I was so thrilled. I finally understood how it worked and why! About ten years later, though, I started asking myself, "But why do the positive and negative charges 'want' to come together and the like charges 'want' to repel each other?" and I was back at square one.)

I thought, at the time, that I must be dumb in science because everyone around me seemed to get it and be perfectly content that the electrons 'want' to move to a certain quantum level in the atoms (or whatever else the teacher was explaining) and I really couldn't grasp that (how and why? Electrons can't want!). But now as an adult, I find I really enjoy reading about science--more than about the humanities, which was always my field--so I'm wondering if maybe I'm not dumb at science, but simply needed more or different.

Mostly, I needed to know how to ask my questions (the one time I tried, "Uh, teacher? I don't think the sodium and the potassium can want to trade places," he either didn't understand my question or else didn't want to confuse the rest of the class, who seemed to be getting it even though I wasn't, because he said, "They just do."). And I needed time to think of them. Often, I understood perfectly in class what the teacher had presented, and it wasn't until later--sometimes much later--that I realized there was something more I wanted to know about. Anyway, by the time I reached high school and college, I wasn't used to having to ask questions. I didn't know how to formulate questions or pursue them until I found answers--I knew how to extract information from teachers and texts, solve the kinds of problems they modeled, and pass tests. I'd never had a real question before! School, for me, was about learning ideas as they were presented, not exploring them as they exist in the wide, wild world. I learned how to find and absorb information, but not how to create new questions that forced me to find new information that wasn't on the syllabus. It's like being able to copy any painted masterwork in any museum but not being able to create your own original composition even on a rudimentary level.

So, back to energy. Energy is always described as "the ability to do work." But then we talk about energy as though it's an object, not an ability. You cannot substitute the definition given for the word and have the sentences make sense. I could never "get" what they meant, exactly, by ability and by work. And what exactly were they measuring when measuring energy? The ability or the amount of work? And it wasn't until the last 5 years or so that I realized that potential energy means just that--not real energy, but energy that might exist in the future--Potentially. And that people like to try to measure this, but they're actually measuring something that doesn't exist yet (whoa). And that kinetic energy is activity. I figured that out after watching kinetic sculptures and understanding that kinetic sculptures are sculptures that move, so maybe kinetic energy is movement? Energy that's doing something?  But when someone says, "If I raise this ball above my head, it has _____ much potential energy," I still start to panic--what does that mean? So much potential ability to do work? But what work is bouncing? And how can it lose energy as it bounces lower and lower? It can do less work bouncing lower? Where did the lost energy go? Into the floor, you say? How did that work? How did it transfer--on a molecular level? But the floor has no more potential to do work than it did before, so surely you are lying that it took that energy and "absorbed" it because that indicates it's total energy increased, so it should be able to do more work.....

You see? I just don't get it. It's so confusing. And I usually handle confusing things by refusing to think about them, not by working at it until I get it.

I also just don't get forces, which are related to energy somehow. (You mean to tell me the floor is pushing up on the chair with a force equal to the chair pushing down on the floor, or else the chair would fall through the floor....and when I sit on the chair, increasing the amount of force pushing down, the floor somehow magically conjurs up more force to push up against me and the chair? What the what? I no speak-a your language.)

But thinking about all that last month, I realized I wanted to know how, on a molecular level, bouncing works. I understand material's compression and tension and its 'desire' (there we go again!) to return to its natural shape...but why?! Why does the rubber molecule act that way? And why only when it impacts certain surfaces? It has to hit a surface that distorts its shape in order to bounce (a pillow distorts instead of the ball distorting, so no bounce.)  Why do the molecules act like that? What makes them 'want' to go back to their natural shape when they are forced to distort in a bounce? How do they distort when some objects break instead? How does elasticity work? (All of this came up because someone said on a kids' science show that pingpong balls have a superior bounce because of their superior elasticity, but celluloid, the material ping pong balls are made of, is not particularly something else had to be responsible for making them bounce. And they don't bounce well when they have a hole in them, so that's curious, isn't it? And suddenly I needed to know how non-elastic things can display traditionally elastic qualities--like bouncing when they are non-elastic, brittle substances, for example. Like why does a glass bowl sometimes bounce and sometimes shatter?)

I told Tim all that, and he (Brilliant soul that he is) thought about it for a minute and then explained it to me. I was satisfied. I can't remember all of his explanation now, though. I guess I would get this stuff better if my retention was better. (Maybe I "get" humanities so well because my retention there is fantastic.

But I'm not done thinking about materials.

I read about the history of the word 'diaper' and how the fabric used to be for elite clothing, and then for table cloths, but the weave of the cotton was discovered to be superior in both softness and absorbency, so now the same fabric is used for diapers. I totally know how that transition worked--homemakers would cut up their old, worn out or stained tablecloths and use the "rags" to diaper babies, and it worked so well they started making diaper fabric into baby bum-cloths up front, without going through the tablecloth-rag cycle. And now ironically, moms often say that the best rags are made from old cloth diapers....and that the best new-fangled diapers are made of that micro-whatever-fabric that grabs at your fingers that people use as cleaning fascinating how things evolve, especially in the domestic sphere. Anyway, the humanities portion I just get.

But the science? Now I'm wondering about the nature of wetness, on a molecular level.

How does cotton absorb water--on a molecular level? Why do certain cotton weaves absorb more or less than other weaves of the same material, and also why do identical weaves of other fabrics absorb less (or absorb more)? Why (molecularly) is an identical weave of hemp so thirsty, cotton sorta thirsty, and nylon so water-repellant? Why does natural fabric absorb water but not bond to the water--it lets it go again and gets dry and returns to the way it was before/ And why does the process not change the nature of the material (fabric, and also skin and hair, actually), when it does change the nature of other materials, like paper a little bit, and other materials, like whatever they make cell phones out of, apparently a lot, and other materials, like flour, dramatically.

And, since I'm just learning how to ask these kinds of questions, how do I find the answers--and find them in  a format I can understand and remember? Slow and easy, with enough background initially to make up for the fact that I never took the right classes for questions like this, and deep enough that in the end I'm satisfied?

Can anyone explain wetness to me? Molecularly....

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