2013 in review

I hope you enjoyed Nontrivial Problems in 2013 and I hope to have even cooler stuff here over the course of 2014. Thanks for reading!

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,400 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 23 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

NaBloPoMo, try 2

Once again, it’s November. Which means, once again, people with loftier authorial goals than myself are attempting to write a novel for National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo). I’m settling for National Blog Posting Month (or NaBloPoMo). The goal: write a blog post daily. I realize I’m already a bit behind, but life happens. And hopefully the giant list of blog drafts I’ve started and sporadically filled in for the last six months will come of use here. It also means I may temporarily become a food blog because sometimes I really like what I make for dinner and want to share it.

Happy First Birthday!

Today is the first birthday/anniversary/blogoversary of nontrivial problems! And it just recently got over 500 views (today or yesterday, I’m a bit unsure)! Thank you everyone for reading, following, and commenting.  I’d probably still be working this attempt at outreach even by myself, but it’s nice to know other people read what I write.

I also want to take this moment to plug one of my favorite posts from the first month of the blog, before I got most of my followers and views. It was about a study on the “Pioneer effect”. It also kind of best represents the type of work I would like to produce. It’s based on news stories from other sites, but I also did some research on my own to help synthesize the information together and go a bit deeper. As time goes on, I hope my blogging skills mature and I’ll be able to produce work like that more often. But I’m also glad people read (and hopefully enjoy?) posts where I just try to break down new research findings or just rant about cultural perceptions of science and technology.

New Page at the Top!

So there’s been something I’ve been wanting to start for a while, but waited until I learned more about how WordPress works (I am clearly not a web designer yet). You’ll notice a new link at the top titled “Trivial Explanations” (and also a new blog category with that name). In addition to posts where I look at science or its applications in the news, I also want to start giving some explanations of the concepts that are commonly referred to in science/tech journalism stories without much explanation. For instance, in the post on masers, many of the articles I linked to mentioned that masers could be good amplifiers for cell phones but didn’t explain why, while I briefly mentioned the relevant property was stimulated emission (the SE in LASER or MASER). I also plan on explaining things that might not be relevant to further off applications, but just appear in lots of papers anyway, to build up your background in seeing how things might be related (for example many materials are “doped”, but that is almost never explained in news pieces because it’s a basic step in the process). If you follow XKCD, think of it as a more practical (or less awesome) version of What If?

With that in mind, I need things to explain! So if you can think of anything you hear about in the news or in your life that you don’t understand, please send me your requests for desired explanations. For now, leave a comment on this post. I’ll try to come up with a better system in the future. (I’m a bit paranoid about linking my email)

NaBloPoMo 2012

What is that terrible acronym?  Why it’s National Blog Posting Month, the quirky cousin of the relatively more formal (and well-known) National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.  For NaNoWriMo, participants are supposed to write about 5000 words a day for what will hopefully be a novel by the end of the month (or I suppose more accurately, something more like the uncut diamond of a novel, as actual revising and editing don’t need to take place during November).  NaBloPoMo, is not nearly as intense, but still a good idea for someone who struggles with blogging like I do.  Instead of basically churning out a book chapter a day, I just need to have a blog post a day.  Which seems totally reasonable.  At least, as long as I keep getting things to report on (or I suppose I could just rant).  So pleeeeeeease post things in the comments that you think I should look at.

And to have something of actual merit, I offer you this game someone pointed out to me.  No, really.  MIT’s Game Lab has made a first-person… something that shows you relativity.  But instead of flinging you off at warp speed, they have light slow down to approach a speed a human might actually get close to.  And this leads to lots of cool effects.  Unfortunately, I can’t get the game to work on my laptop, so I’ll just have to take people’s word for it.

Where Are You

So I said a while back I would explain where I am.  I don’t even remember when I said that, but I WILL explain why I’m so randomly busy.  I just started graduate school this August.  I’m at the University of Virginia, studying for a Ph.D in materials science and engineering.  Being a new student in a new city, I always find myself caught up in several other things as I adjust and work to establish myself, academically and socially.  But I love it here so far, and I’ve found that UVA has so many great resources that I didn’t even know about when I accepted their offer.  The career center tries really hard to be helpful for grad students.  There’s a Teaching Resource Center that offers advice for both faculty and grad student TAs (and they’ll even help you with lesson plans and critique you!).  And there’s a Science, Technology, and Society Department I hope to stalk will offer something for grad students.

Hello world!

Yes, this is how WordPress titles your first post anyway. But I thought “Hello world!”, the first command that people commonly learn when picking up a programming language, was an apt intro for a blog that wants to look at science, technology, and how society uses and understands these things.

Why call it “nontrivialproblems”?  Well, I did want there to be a space between “trivial” and “problems”, but that’s what I get for making a blog before understanding how to customize a theme.  But more seriously, “nontrivial” is a term that carries a lot of weight in science, math, and engineering.  The “trivial solution” to a calculation is the solution where all terms are zero.  So, yeah, that probably leads to a mathematically true answer for many equations, but it’s not really interesting from a theoretical or practical point of view.  But trivial  also goes beyond that.  Something immediately obvious or deductible from a proof or theorem can be considered “trivial”. Richard Feynman once joked that mathematicians consider any theorem “trivial” once it has a proof.

So what is nontrivial? The stuff we don’t really understand. String theory is nontrivial, in both a mathematical and cultural sense. Predicting weather. Epigenetics and proteomics can be considered nontrivial.  Any area where we still don’t understand a lot of the rules that govern systems is “nontrivial”.

There’s a flip side to that understanding of nontrivial work, though.  A lot of science and engineering work that isn’t at the cutting edge of theory is considered “trivial” by some researchers.  The thing is, a lot of this work is also the work that’s about ready to hit the real world and affect lay people’s lives.  How carbon nanotubes grow is pretty well-settled, and we can make lots of cool devices with them (computer transistors, low-resistance wires, drug delivery systems, and more), but we still haven’t found a way to get most of these technologies efficiently to market. We have drugs for West Nile and malaria, but not ways to make them cheap enough to prevent outbreaks in developing countries.

Feynman said, “No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.” And so that’s what we’ll be working with.  Whether we’re looking at particle physicists finding the Higgs boson, chemists trying to understand the large-scale order of water molecules, or an engineer hoping to crank out a few more watts from a solar cell, it’s all fascinating in its own way.