ExtremeLearners


Learning is awesome.

The general attitude among students towards learning is an attitude of dread. Lectures are usually boring and so are many of the textbooks. Very few students actively want to learn. Given the choice, most of them will prefer spending all their time playing games or watching TV instead of doing their homeworks.

It’s not completely their fault though. Most lectures, textbooks and homeworks are, in fact, just too boring!

On the other hand, Hogwarts—the magic school from the Harry Potter novels—seems to excite the kids a lot. If asked to redesign their school so that it becomes more enjoyable, they might just make it more like Hogwarts.

This is also quite understandable. Hogwarts is a magic school, for god’s sake! They teach you to do magic in there! If you learn a course properly, you can show off your skills by turning your friend into a rat! The skills you learn at a magic school are immediately applicable to your daily life—the things you really care about. Stuck in traffic? Just take out your broom and fly over it. Want to know what someone is thinking? Just use the spell you learned in Mind Reading 101 and read their mind. Want to listen to some private conversation? Just wear your invisibility cloak and stand right next to where the conversation is happening.

On the other hand, the things you learned in your school seem to be applicable only in getting a good score in the finals. When was the last time that you asked someone their age and all they told you was, “Five years from now, my age will be double your age.”?

But here’s the thing. Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke has famously said, “A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Over the last few decades, technology has been advancing in the power boost mode. Things are invented every day that were unimaginable a few decades ago. Thus learning new things in the school is a lot like learning to do magic. Let me give you some examples.

Invisibility

What we see around us depends completely on the way light from our surroundings enters our eyes. Thus if I had complete control over light, I could make you see anything I wanted. Indeed, very simple objects such as mirrors and lenses can already make you see things that are not there.

Now imagine an object that neither absorbs nor reflects light, but simply bends it around it. When a light ray hits the object, it travels along the surface until it reaches the diametrically opposite point and then continues in the same straight line it was in before the impact. If the object does this with all the light rays, it will be invisible to any observer! When you look in the direction of the object, you will only see the things behind it and thus it will appear invisible to you.

Scientists have been trying to use this idea to design invisible objects. Recently, a group succeeded in making a small cylindrical shaped object disappear. All they needed was a very good understanding of optics and the way electromagnetic waves behave, both of which are perhaps chapters in your textbook.

Flight

Thanks to the Wright brothers and the human understanding of fluid dynamics, we can now fly. It’s old news now.

Flying on a broomstick though, is still not possible. Thus, if stuck in traffic, you can’t just decide to fly over it. You will have to reach the airport first, which you can’t, because of the traffic. Even if you do reach the airport, you will still have to buy the tickets and stand in long lines.

However, scientists are working on jet packs and several reasonably good models have already been built. A jet pack is a device that you wear on your back and it enables you to fly. For example, a company called Jetpack International has built a model that can, in one stretch, fly for around 9 minutes, which is the time it takes for the fuel to run out.

Turning into a rat

Current technology is lagging behind in this area. Turning a living being into a different species is probably going to be difficult for a very long time, but as far as changing physical features of various living organisms is concerned, a lot has been done. For example, if you have a rabbit, you can make its skin glow green using some genetic engineering. You can also do similar things with fish. In fact, if you have some money to spare, you can buy commercially available fish that has been genetically modified to glow in the dark.

This is done by exploiting a protein called the Green Fluorescent Protein, which has the property of glowing in the dark. Some species that live very deep under the ocean have naturally evolved genes for this protein, in order to be able to see in the dark.

Such manipulation of living organisms would not have been possible without a thorough understanding of chemistry. Proteins are essentially large organic molecules found in living bodies. A lot of their properties can be understood using the same principles of organic chemistry that are used for understanding compounds such as methane (the fuel), chloroform (the anaesthetic) and naphthalene (the primary ingredient in mothballs).

Growing an extra arm

In 2008, a person lost a portion of his finger in the propeller of a model airplane. Later, doctors used modern medical technology to regrow it.

This used to happen only in fantasy novels. Now it’s a reality. The way to do it is to spray the severed region of the body with something called ‘pixie dust’. This magic material helps the cells grow back. The resemblance to magic potions is fascinating.

Predicting future

Nate Silver is a 35 year old statistician who lives in the United States of America. Statistics is a field of math that uses probabilities—which you might have seen as a chapter in your Math textbook—to draw meaningful conclusions from large tables of data. Nate Silver likes using statistical techniques to predict the future.

In the 2012 presidential elections in the USA, he predicted the winner correctly. Now, that’s not a big deal. There were only two potential candidates for the position of the president and thus even a wild guess would have a 50% chance of being correct. Thus if everyone in your class made a wild guess about the winner, around half of them would be correct.

But here is the amazing part. There are fifty states in the United States. Each state elects an individual winner. The candidate who wins most of the (important) states is made the president of the country. Nate Silver not only predicted the overall winner, but correctly predicted the winner of each of the fifty states! To put it in perspective, if everyone in your class made wild guesses, none of them would get all fifty states correct. In fact, if everyone on earth made wild guesses, even then no one would get all fifty states correct. We won’t have much luck even if we multiply the earth’s population a hundred or a thousand times. We will have to multiply it a billion times to have a decent chance of one person getting it all correct!

Humanity has reached a state where it can do things that look a lot like magic. And who are the people responsible for it? These are the people who learned their subjects really well. May be not all the subjects. But they picked a few subjects that they enjoyed a lot and became extremely good at them.

Therefore your normal school is already a lot like Hogwarts. If you pick some subjects that you enjoy and become extremely good at them, a few years from now, you may be the one who invents a life-size invisibility cloak. Your algebra homeworks may not immediately enable you to turn your friend into a rat, but if you ever want to invent a technology to do that, you will need to be good at algebra.

Your present curriculum is a stepping stone for doing the kinds of things that you expect to learn at Hogwarts. It might be easy to lose sight and forget about the big picture once in a while. But you should remember that the skills you are learning right now are a part of the skill-sets that real world magicians like the ones mentioned in this article use to do their magic.

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013. Written by Vinayak Pathak. No comments.



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