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Nerd Fight - And We All Benefit

by Eric Hall

July 19, 2013

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Donate In case you missed it - Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Cox had a brief twitter exchange regarding light sabers this week. These type of discussions are always exciting, because they are great opportunities to discuss science in a way that relates to popular culture. It can really help spread the message of science and of what is possible with knowledge.

Mental exercises surrounding scenarios, even unlikely ones such as creating a light saber, create massive learning and discovery opportunities. While not an easy thing to study long-term, there is some merit to the idea of having "thinking" time to work out new science or to even "figure out" established science in one's own mind. Educational theory certainly supports the idea of having time to "process" ideas to make them more a part of a person's thoughts. Stephen Hawking mentions being in thought on the way to bed when it occured to him that black holes have edges. Einstein is said to have been able to work out the theory of relativity because of the ample time he had left over in the patent office.

Not only is thinking time important, but working on things s a group that are a bit fantastic can bring bout new ways off thinking. It seems every group of physics students I have ever been a part of will go through various scenarios seen in culture and try to make sense of them using science. Lawrence Krauss wrote an entire book on the physics of Star Trek. James Kakalios has written about the physics of superheroes. While to some this may seem like silly nonsense - these are important exercises of discovery whether done as a group or as an individual.

When Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Cox exchanged just a few tweets, I was excited to see a demonstration of how science can be fun, and always present in one's mind. It all started when Neil Tyson tweeted:

Brian Cox responded:

A couple hours later, Neil Tyson accepted Brian Cox's explanation, but then pointed out a second shortcoming of these high energy photons:

Brian Cox has spent some time thinking about this already, as his response would indicate:

Neil Tyson also thought more about it and tweeted (2 tweets):

How awesome is it that they both thought about containing the particles!

Brian Cox then added this gem:

Physicists discussing how a light saber could possibly work. Awesome.

Earlier in the week, Brian Cox was on Conan. Conan asked Professor Cox about teleportation and time travel. Conan was surprised to hear small particles have been teleported (in a sense). While we may never be able to teleport people, which would be an awesome application, just thinking about the concept and making it work has applications for the real world. Quantum teleportation could lead to faster communications and more secure computing.

My physics friends and I love discussing scenarios from culture in much the same way as Tyson and Cox did this week. I think it is a common activity of many scientists and science students. While it may seem silly or even frivolous, it has many benefits. It brings science and pop culture together, which increases the awareness of science. It can spark new ideas and new ways of thinking. It also simply gives scientists the time to think in a more relaxed manner, which appears to often be when some of the major breakthroughs in science have happened. I for one encourage and applaud such thinking. is sometimes just fun!

by Eric Hall

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