Science Sunday 03-26-18

Arduino Is Cool!

Based on a casual comment by a colleague at a university where I currently teach, I decided to investigate the teaching potential of Arduino.

Arduino is an online community originally formed by a handful of Italian educators who hung out at a bar in Italy having the name Arduino, named after a king of Italy in the early 11th century.  They were trying to come up with an inexpensive method for teaching their students how to code microcontrollers in a fresh, entertaining and easy fashion.  Such a system would then teach their students science principles in an fun, interactive fashion.

At another school that I teach at, we’ve been doing this, and it has been a blast for me and the students.  We were able to show three projects at a Pi Day symposium on student research and creative projects, and the three projects were a hit.

One project showed the calculation of the number pi, using Leibniz’s infinite series for calculating same, another project demonstrated a so-called pseudo-theremin, or musical instrument played without touching it, and the third project was a fortune telling machine called “Zoltar the Magnificent”, based on the Tom Hanks’ movie “Big”.

The above video shows the Zoltar “machine”, which uses two ultrasonic sensors to detect the willing participant, a dot matrix display embedded in Zoltar’s crystal ball that says “I heart pi”, three servo motors to wave miniature flags to attract attention, a speaker to play some electronic music, assorted “eye candy” leds, and a backlit lcd display for Zoltar to give out his randomly selected fortunes.

Videos for the other two projects can be found here and here.




Pee Pie Poh Pum

Recently a student inquired whether the number pi “has physical significance”.  Should we treat pi like we do constants of nature?

Offhand, I would answer yes, with enthusiasm.  What really is the difference between the universal gravity constant, the charge on the electron, the speed of light in the vacuum, and pi?  They are all numbers that are embedded in the structure of our universe, and the laws of physics.

Numberphile to the rescue here.  I knew that Archimedes was first to accurately estimate pi, and his ingenious method is described here.  But did you know that you can also experimentally determine pi by scattering matchsticks on a specially marked off grid and count the number of matches that cross a line on that grid?  Click on the video above to see how!