light + light = dark???: quirks, quarks, and the strangeness of everyday life


I’m ditching my initial designs for this space. Initially, I thought that keeping the blog solely as a catalog of interesting facts. But science is more than a catalog of interesting facts, and to reinforce this, I’m doing away with my initial intentions, and opening this page for personal anecdotes so I can more easily share more personal impacts of my science education.

To kick this off, I couldn’t resist sharing the diffraction (?) pattern (seen right) that I discovered on my wall the other night, which is the cooperation of a table lamp and the silhouette of a flimsy plastic dorm-chair. I spent an the evening investigating the pattern, pushing the chair across the floor, dark pupils in a bright spot expanding disappearing and reappearing. Yay! Amazing quirk of nature!

Had I no scientific training, I might have been deprived this and countless similar satisfactions. Prior to studying optics and learning that light acts as a wave and can destructively interfere with itself (light + light = darkness was unintuitive to me until I had this picture!), this joyous and strange experience could easily have been lost to casual dismissal, or I maybe I wouldn’t have noticed it at all. But science strives to sense and to understand  and to directly engage. This is only one in many cases of how of the natural sciences can spill over into our relationship with our immediate environment.

The study of “fundamental matter”–quarks, gluons, muons is a great example of how, even if you’re studying something invisible in our daily lives, one can still have the satisfaction of knowing there is something deeper and “subtextual” going on all around us.

This is a feature of my science education that has had immediate impact on the quality of my life. Class is a constant reminder of all the details of my environment that either I had never noticed, or was unable to form a definite, articulate thought about because I lacked a language to formulate my impressions with.

To steal a term from Nabokov, studying the natural sciences is like participating in a process of “beauty assimilation”: we are developing a rich vocabulary for describing our environment in terms that include and extend beyond sensory experience. With this new language, we also now have the power to relate to our environment beyond our material perception of it.

Nature, unfailingly, delivers wonder. How often does this poignant theme crop up in your own life, and when was the last time you experienced this?

10/12/15 Addendum: I was thinking the other day: are the chair holes really capable of collimating light to the extent of generating a diffraction pattern? They measure about 0.75 cm in diameter, and the light source (just a table lamp) is 3 feet away. Is there another phenomenon at play? I will repost a hypothesis if I come up with a new one. Message me if you think you have a guess!


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