The structure was small but, despite the amazing view, there was only one small window. A curtain was kept out sunlight. A cluster of electric cables connected the building to the cable car building a thousand feet distant. Twelve is an age when most of us are still at curiosity and society lets us get away with it. I knocked on the door.
My family spent a few weeks each Summer anywhere from the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area in Montana up to Jasper in Alberta. That year it was Banff. We had taken the Sulphur Mountain cable car to the viewing platform. On a clear day the view was nearly a hundred miles. The observation deck was crowded to capacity with tourists from all over the world. My parents and sister were talking to a couple from England when I left for the unusual building along the mountain's North ridge.
Physicists have a primal need to explain things as deeply as time and their audience's patience and curiosity permit. Almost immediately I was learning a bit about cosmic rays, muon showers, scintillators, photomultiplier tubes and so on until my father showed up. He had been looking for me for a few hours and happy wouldn't be the right word to describe his mood.
The ride down the mountain and then back to our camp was quiet - I knew better than to say anything. That didn't seem to matter at the time. I was completely engaged in what I had seem. Most of it was over my head, but seeing the existence of the remnants of a cosmic ray shower on a simple detector someone put together solely to explain what they were doing hit me deeply. I saw the beginnings of how people ask questions of nature and it had nothing to do with looking up things in a book. By the time Lyra was overhead I feel asleep knowing I would be either a physicist or an astronomer. It was a calling.
A month later I tagged along with my father on a trip to Los Angeles. He was taking a ten day workshop for a certification and I was seeing California for the first time. Friends and family recommended trips to Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm, Hollywood, the beach and other things kids are supposed to see in Southern California. I wasn't interested and probably to my father's dismay managed to get my way. I visited JPL, and earthquake observatory, the planetarium at Griffith Park , and the La Brea Tar Pits.
Years later in grad school I came across a survey by the American Physical Society of recent graduates . A large majority of US born recent Ph.D.s, over 80%, had been raised in rural areas or near a natural history museum. This wasn't true of undergrad declared majors who mostly changed majors along the way but those who made it to the end were predisposed to have been in areas where some contact with Nature was likely.
Perhaps some areas are richer in sparks than others.
Some say kids are natural scientists. I disagree. Kids are wonderfully curious, but science isn't a grown-up version of child-like curiosity. Doing science requires learning and practicing abstract skills that are often not intuitive. Older students who have problems in something like a college chemistry class haven't unlearned an earlier ability, but rather
A few kids manage to get struck by a spark and dive in seeing the learning and work as play. This teenage dedication is far from unique to science. Music, sports, mechanics, art ... many kids spend their time picking up and honing basic skills that allow them to progress. These skills can be picked up at any time, but there are some kids who have a great head start - it isn't native intelligence as much as it is learning deeply.
There are two gaps that need to be jumped. First the initial spark, the calling for some, and then a longer gap that makes it possible to enjoy developing a somewhat different type of thinking than they're getting in school. This longer spark is a form of play.
The best day of the year at the old Bell Laboratories was the 24th of December. Employees brought their families and kids would wander around and see some real research often with some enthusiastic guides. Some departments went all out preparing demonstrations for the kids. After a few years kids became bored. They had home computer games were more interesting than anything at the labs. By the mid 90s kids weren't coming unless their parents dragged them along. Bell Labs had become a mostly spark-free environment. Where do you find events with spark potential these days?
Thinking about this earlier today I remembered the Lexus Hover Board ad...
The ad is real without digital special effects. It took me back to my first course in statistical mechanics. The professor was a low temperature theorist. We had been studying some of the oddities of liquid helium and he showed up with a dewar, a large beaker, a strip of metal and a magnet. The metal went into the beaker and was covered by the expensive liquid helium near absolute zero. He dropped in the magnet and we watched it levitate skittering around over the superconductor almost without friction. In the helium the metal had become a superconductor. The superconductor allows current to flow without resistance. When a material becomes a superconductor it excludes magnetic fields.
The field of the magnet induces current loops in the superconductor that exactly cancel the magnet's field. The magnet 'sees' a mirror image of itself and levitates. Its called the Meissner Effect.
Demonstrations like this fill your mind with questions and are entirely worth the cost of a bit of helium (there were only a eight students in the class). After Back to the Future II showed the Mattel Hover Board it was common to ask students to calculate what it would take to build such a device.
It gets even better...
Improvements in superconductors made it possible to levitate with (almost) dirt-cheap liquid nitrogen. In addition to the Meissner Effect there is something closely related called quantum flux trapping or flux pinning. I won't get into the details, but where the Meissner Effect shields the superconductor from the magnetic field, flux from the magnet enters tiny sites and is effectively pinned in place. With a bit of care you can fix the height and orientation of levitation and move objects along almost without friction.
Once you get a handle on flux pinning the Hover Board is just a matter of money.
These days there are any number of interesting YouTube videos. PhysicsGirl is doing terrific work that should inspire teenagers - particularly girls - much more than expensive produced television like Cosmos. That said I believe there is a need to see things for yourself and then begin to explore them on your own using real Nature rather than just watching videos or playing with simulations. This is partly broken, but perhaps we're seeing the start of it return. It is this hands-on component that encourages the hard work and experimentation necessary to move from the curiosity of a child to that of a scientist. Of course sparks for many things can come at any age - most of us are too busy to follow up, but every now and again something dramatic happens.
An end of Summer salad. There are so many ways to go, but here's tonight's with sweet potatoes, apple and corn
° 1 medium sized sweet potato chopped into inchish pieces
° 1 large gala apple (or equivalent - a honey crisp would be good) chopped
° 3/4 cup cherry tomatoes sliced in half
° 1 ear fresh horn - husked
° some olive oil
° a couple of handfuls of arugula
° a quarter cup toasted nut pieces
° sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
° 1 tbl extra-virgin olive oil
° 2 tsp chipotle paste (I had some around - you could use powder)
° 2 tsp cider vinegar
° 1/4 tsp honey or maple syrup (I love maple syrup)
° salt and pepper
° heat oven to 375° F
° toss sweet potatoes, apple and tomato on a baking sheet with olive oil drizzle and pinch of salt and pepper. Roast for abut 30 minutes turning halfway through
° wrap the ear of corn in foil and put it in the oven for about 20 minutes
° whisk the olive oil, chipotle, vinegar, honey and salt and pepper to make a dressing.
° put arugula in a bowl along with the roasted pan contents. Slice the kernels from the corn and add. Toss the salad. Season to taste.