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Saturday, May 8, 2010

Using 2012 in the Science Classroom

Students tend to ask whether movies can happen. When a student asked about 2012 (wiki)--since I do not get out to movies often--I had not anticipated that a Mayan 2012 prophecy (government scientist debunks a number of these) would lead to a movie using science as fodder to explain this doomsday scenario.

Like Roger Ebert, I enjoyed the movie for what it was--a science-fantasy lark (if a few too many one-damn-thing-after-anothers). The source of all the trouble is neutrinos, which for some reason stokes up the fires in the earth's core. Neutrinos normally pass through the earth without hitting anything. The movie does some hand-waving and says these neutrinos are behaving abnormally. That's good enough for me; however, most audiences may not pick up on the sleight-of-hand, which no doubt ruffles a few scientists' feathers. But as I see it, crazy science gets people asking questions, which allows scientists--such as those who wrote the blog column just linked--to correct misunderstanding and disseminate science to those who might not have looked it up, otherwise.

If in the sun were to have a larger than normal solar flares, one would have bigger problems than neutrinos, but mostly with our satellites and electrical appliances, which many countries have grown a stronger and stronger dependence upon. Another problem, depending on how much radiation penetrates the atmosphere, might be an increase in cancer.

But back to neutrinos, this brings us to two critical points that we can drum up in our Physics and Physical science classes: 1) momentum (mv) & kinetic energy (1/2mv^2) are dependent upon mass, 2) average kinetic energy of particles translates to its temperature.

If neutrinos are already extremely hard to detect when you're trying hard to locate them--no doubt due to their electrical neutrality and their minuscule but nonzero mass--it seems improbable that even a hundred-fold increase could cause much concern. Also, thanks to its low mass, it is unlikely that matter that doesn't have a desire to interact with matter due to mass and neutrality would raise temperatures. If a dust particle strikes you, it's unlikely to move you. Even a thousand particles should cause you little alarm. Why? (Students should be able to answer this intuitively.) Because their mass compared to yours is insignificant.

If you see any science here that needs correcting, please let me know in the comments. If you have another link or other science you'd like to comment on, please do so.

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