Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Molecule Sandbox

Are your children already tired of their Christmas toys and games? Or would you like to see them play with something less violent and more educational?

Vi Hart’s math doodle games can provide countless hours of fun. But another option that you may want to try is the Molecular Dynamics Applet that I created three years ago. It was originally intended for college students, but I soon discovered that small children love it.

The MD Applet is a sandbox for playing with atoms and molecules. Make up to a thousand atoms, large or small, in your favorite color. Watch them jiggle around endlessly, attracting and repelling their neighbors. Add energy to make liquid droplets boil; remove energy to make a gas condense and then freeze into a solid crystal. Start with an orderly arrangement and watch entropy increase. Connect atoms together with bonds, and even build simulated nano-scale machinery.

I don’t spend much time around small children, but Christmas is often an exception. This year I found myself entertaining (and being entertained by) a delightful seven-year-old who kept coming back, asking to play some more with the MD Applet. She asked her deepest question almost immediately: Why don’t they all just fall down and stop?

And in between molecular dynamics sessions, she learned how to draw stars with seven, eight, and even ten points!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Math Doodles

If you haven’t seen them already, you must watch Vi Hart’s fantastic math doodle videos on stars, squiggles, fractals, and infinite elephants. Browse the rest of her web site too, and be awe-struck at how accomplished she is at having fun.

I’m not much of a doodler, but Hart’s masterpieces reminded me of this modest Escheresque MacPaint doodle that I made soon after buying my first (original!) Macintosh computer in 1985. That was during my first year of grad school, when I should have been putting every effort into those problem sets on quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, and solid state physics. Why are we most creative when we’re avoiding what we’re supposed to do?

(By the way, isn’t it cool that I can still open that MacPaint file in Preview? Thanks, Apple! Now please tell me how to open my old MacWrite files...)

Thanks to Charlie Trentelman for pointing me, via Facebook, to a blog post on Hart’s videos by NPR’s Robert Krulwich. And thanks to my old grad school friend Ned Gulley, whose venerable blog featured an entry last year about Hart’s Möbius music box. It’s become trendy to gripe about the Internet and Facebook, but this is the sort of thing I love about both.

Krulwich also quotes from Paul Lockhart’s magnificent tirade about math education, “A Mathematician’s Lament.” It’s not new, but I don’t think I’d ever seen it before. Read it and weep.