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Soft Matters With Carl Franck

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Lasers vs. Clones

Subatomic Particles vs. Super Bugs

Time Travel vs. Extraterrestrial Life

That's right. It's the age old clash between physics and biology. Both sides claim the right to some really cool science, but for cultural (and mathematical) reasons they just can't seem to get along.

Well, that's how the story typically goes anyway.

Turns out, this isn't the only narrative in town. If you get past the petty turf war, you find contemporary biophysics is a growing and vibrant field. Yes, biologists and physicists speak different languages and ask different questions, but when they learn from each other, some really amazing science comes out of it.

This week on Soft Matters, Katie sat down with Prof. Carl Franck, a biophysicist studying the physics of social behavior in cells. To get an idea of what it's all about, watch these two videos -- the first is an introduction to the type of cells Prof. Carl works with, Dictyostelium discoideum (affectionately known as "Dicty"), the second is a vivid demonstration of what can happen when these cells communicate and work together (you'll see it about 30 sec in):

Prof. Carl also has a love and enthusiasm for amateur radio. After you watch the video, check below for a do-it-yourself video on how to build a crystal radio from "junk."

Science-to-English Dictionary:

Amateur radio and building home electronics
Most of today's electronic devices are bought online or in a store. Without a doubt, consumer technology is cheap, effective, and it gets the job done. But if you're looking for something more (a hobby? science fair project? weekend project?), there's an endless number of things you can do at home, mostly with junk, and for super-cheap. Rimstar has a number of YouTube tutorial videos that are particularly good at this. And who knows - if you like it enough, you might end up getting hooked for life, just like Prof. Carl!

Crystal radios
These little devices have no batteries or power plugs, and yet, you can still listen to local radio stations! Follow these step-by-step directions to build one yourself.

Fire escape as an antenna
In the video, there was a comment about using a fire escape as an antenna for a radio. Yes, this is doable, and if you'd like some more ideas, check here and here.

E&M101
"Electricity and Magnetism," otherwise known as "E&M," is one of the core tenants of physics. A standard course covers everything from electromagnetic fields to transmission lines, to basic circuits and (sometimes) special relativity.

Transmission lines (also, Tesla and Edison Epic Rap Battle)
When you're driving down the road and see those polls that carry power from building to building - those cables are called transmission lines. Turns out there's a great (true) story here pitting Nikola Tesla against Thomas Edison. Read about it on Wikipedia, or watch the Epic Rap Battle reenactment.

Radiation resistance
From the point of view of circuits, antennas look like electrical resistors. That resistance has two parts: one that comes from the choice of material (e.g. copper wires), and another that comes from the shape the antenna's bent into (e.g. a loop, "rabbit ears," etc.). The latter part is called the radiation resistance.

Critical phenomena
This is the collective term for "critical points." A critical point is when the conditions are just right so the distinctions between states of matter no longer exist. Weird, right? Turns out fluids can go even further and become supercritical. Want to see what it looks like? Here's a clip (without much explanation) of the transition to supercriticality.

Chemistry of decorated surfaces
It's a fancy way of saying that there's small molecules spread out on a flat surface.

"They live this horrible life where everything matters"
To me, this is one of the most interesting statements of the conversation. What Prof. Carl is pointing out is that biology is a science of complexity. Part of the biologist's job is to work out the specific details of how living organisms work. Why is this horrible? Well, when you have so many interacting pieces, so many moving gears, it's a bit like cracking open a computer and trying to figure out how it works just by looking at all the individual pieces. In other words, it's really freaking hard! Physicists, on the other hand, are trained to make complicated things simpler and to reduce complexity down to basic laws. So when physicists try to do biology, a common mistake is to remove too many of the details, and arrive at scientific results that are no longer useful. The lesson ends up being about how to strike a balance between complexity, simplicity, relevance, and exploration - no small task, if I say so myself!

Relevant
Abstruse Goose on biophysics
Visit Prof. Carl's homepage here