30 October 2007

Polaris and me

Guest posted by Lakshmi.

I was going to review Polaris, a science fiction novel by Jack McDevitt. I’ve also been asked to write about what has happened to me since I reviewed Sunstorm as well. They have a lot to do with each other and I don’t think I can do them separately. So am doing them both together, and I hope it makes sense.

Before my English teacher recommended Sunstorm I was not interested in maths or science at all. In this essay I am going to save a lot of explanation by just using bold type to show things and ideas which are new to me since I started reading Sunstorm. I am glad that I was told to use a pen name, because if my friends knew I was writing this I would be socially dead forever.

After I reviewed Sunstorm, I read Donna’s review of Seeker. The thing that I liked most about Sunstorm was the idea of a planet being fired across space to hit a sun, like a stone being fired at a target with a catapult. Then my maths teacher showed me how to model this on a computer, and I realised that it’s actually more like firing the stone from a catapult in London and hitting a melon in Australia or somewhere. Anyway, Donna’s review mentioned that something similar happened in Seeker, so I read that as well.

I found that Seeker is the last book in a set of three about the same characters (the first is A Talent for War and Polaris is in the middle). So then I read the other two as well. All of the books have the same pattern: there is a mystery, the main characters discover it through something to do with the antiques trade, historical research gets them close to solving the mystery, and the mathematics of moving bodies finally gives them the answer. The mysteries are all different, and make you want to read to the end, but I won’t spoil them by describing them here - and anyway, it’s the maths bits that interest me (I never thought that I would hear myself say that). The historical research interests me too.

In Seeker the maths was about how a stellar system is affected by a brown dwarf star passing close by. In A Talent for War, it’s where a spaceship would be after two hundred years. And in Polaris it’s sort of like a cross between Sunstorm and Seeker because a small but super dense star called a white dwarf hits an ordinary G class star like our sun (not deliberately, it just happens) and goes straight through it and out the other side and destroys it.

I have got totally into this moving bodies stuff. I find the ideas exciting. My maths teacher has shown me how to find information about it and I have done a lot of reading. He has also shown me how to use a spreadsheet and a program called Autograph to set up and investigate my own models. I have learnt a learnt a lot but the the biggest thing I’ve learnt is that I have gone as far as I can without learning some pretty scary maths.

I have started studying some AS maths modules on my own. Well not really on my own because my maths teacher is helping me before school and my uncle is helping me at home but I mean not in a class or anything. I have completed module M1, which is the first mechanics module, and started on M2. Mechanics is what they call the sort of maths that will eventually let me cover orbits and trajectories and stuff (M1 and M2 don’t get that far, but I need to understand the basics). To understand some of the mechanics I need other maths, called pure maths, which doesn’t have anything necessarily to do with mechanics but you use it as a sort of way to describe things - my English teacher pointed out that it’s like I can only enjoy poetry if I can already read. So I’ve done quite a bit of P1 as well (that’s the first pure maths module).

I am using some software called Derive to help me with understanding the maths I am doing. There’s a lot of other software as well and none of it would be so exciting without the models which they let you build to try things out.

I’ve done a little bit of calculus with my maths teacher and my uncle. Calculus is when you imagine very small bits of a problem so you can get your head round it, then imagine that small bit happening over and over again, forever, to make it back into the big problem again but now you understand it. I haven’t explained that very well, but it’s important and it works. Its how you can start with the velocity of something, and the gravity of a star pulling it, and see where it will go, or the other way round.

By September I think I will have finished all three AS modules. My uncle says I could take the AS exam, even though I won’t have done my GCSE yet. But that would totally blow my cover and everyone would think I was a geek. My teacher says he’ll see if I can take it somewhere else that nobody knows me. I don’t know. I’ll see.

Doing all this other stuff has made me better in ordinary school maths and science too. I used to be rubbish at algebra, but now it seems easy. I know now that when you do experiments you do them lots of times and then look at all the results, not just one, and now the handling data part of maths makes sense too (but I don’t want to do the S1 statistics module cos that looks really scary).

My maths teacher has set up some experiments for me, like rolling a marble across a rubber sheet on a frame. You can poke your finger into the rubber, or put a lead weight on it, and pretend the dent is a gravity well and see what happens when the marble (which is supposed to be a lump of rock in space) passes near it at different speeds. And we tried firing an air gun through an egg in front of a video camera to see what might happen when the white dwarf goes through the G type star in Polaris, which is a physical model instead of the mathematical models which you do with pen and paper or with software.

I’ve started to think about what I want to do in my life. I am still most interested in literature and drama but I’m interested in other things too. I’ve been doing paintings and models from the shapes that all the trajectory models make, and imagined using them for stage sets - weird or what? I just tell my friends they’re abstracts. Because of these novels by Jack McDevitt I’ve got really into history as well, and I’ve seen the same sort of graph shapes in history books as in mechanics, like the way population grows looks like the way a rocket’s height changes as it takes off.

It would be nice to do everything, but I’m not sure you can. People seem to do one thing or the other. Mr Grant who organises this site and asked me to write about this stuff says he did literature as well as maths and sciences when he did his A levels but he’s quite old and I think things have changed since his day. He says that people who write books like Sunstorm and Seeker need to understand the maths and science as well as being able to write, and Jack McDevitt must understand history too, and I suppose that’s true. But A levels are a long way yet. I don’t even start my GCSE subjects until September.

Well, that’s a little bit about Polaris and quite a lot about what’s happened to me since I read Sunstorm. I hope it wasn’t too boring. And I hope nobody I know ever realises who I am.

  • McDevitt, J., A talent for war. 1989, Sphere. 0747403333.
  • McDevitt, J., Polaris. 2004, New York, Ace Books. 0441012027.
  • McDevitt, J., Seeker. 2005, New York, Ace Books. 0441013295.
  • Arthur C Clarke and Stephen Baxter, Sunstorm: A time odyssey. 2006, London: Gollancz. 0575078014


[originally posted on Scientific Computing World's education pages]

1 comment:

Mel said...

(Copied from original SCW Education posting)

i am a theoretical physics undergraduate and i was so please to read your review because you have such an enthusiasm for maths and science… heh your freinds who would call you a geek - what will they matter when you win the nobel prize!

it sounds to me like you are a little bit of a protege and i am so glad your maths teacher has recognised this and encouraged you.

it sounds like you will go far!

for a good book about a maths/science genius who was NOT a geek in the slighest read Richard P Feynman’s "surely youre joking mr feyman!"

i wish you well on your journey