The Physics of the Familiar

Neat article in Harvard magazine this month:

“[J]ust because something is familiar doesn’t mean you understand it. That is the common fallacy that all adults make—and no child ever does,’ says Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan, England de Valpine professor of applied mathematics. Mahadevan enjoys explaining mathematically the phenomena of everyday life: practicing the old-fashioned method of scientific inquiry called natural philosophy, where one wonders about everything.

He has compared instability in nanotubes to the wrinkling of an elephant’s trunk, and explained, together with his students and postdocs, how the leaves of the Venus flytrap can buckle shut fast enough to trap a fly. [*See ‘Leaves That Lunch,’ May-June 2005, page 14. The work was done together with his student Jan Skotheim (now a postdoctoral fellow at Rockefeller University) and postdocs Yoel Forterre (now an assistant professor of physics at Marseilles) and Jacques Dumais (now an assistant professor of biology at Harvard).] With former postdoctoral fellow Enrique Cerda, now a physics professor in Chile, he has devised equations to describe how fabric drapes on a clothed figure or from a table. Inspiration is everywhere. ‘Look around the room,’ he tells his students. ‘Look out of the window.’ Mahadevan sees trees lifting water from roots to crown, or perhaps a drop of paint drying in the sun, and wants to understand in a deep sense what is happening right before his eyes.”

Read the rest here.

(Thanks to Ann Fontaine for the pointer)

Author: Nick Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...