Canada’s Greatest Know It All Episode Six: Potato Gun Justice

The good, the bad, and the ugly. You choose.

The good, the bad, and the ugly. You choose.

You know, it’s a shame that something as lovely as having Canada’s Wonderland to ourselves was wasted on everyone but Laura. I think she’s the only one who was excited about the rides. Though, to be fair it’s not like we were let loose and told to enjoy ourselves. We were herded to a selection of rides chosen to make us puke, which we narrowly avoided. I was notably absent from all the roller coaster shots, because I had what I like to call I f%&* it moment. One of those times where you just look at the people around you and say, screw this, I’ve had it. I loathe roller coasters. I find them excruciating – they actually hurt on the inside of my ears. Even swings hurt my ears. I only did the sky diving because I was told that it wouldn’t feel like a roller coaster, and it didn’t. I accept that “roller coasters hurt my ears” is an obscure and bizarre excuse, right up there with the dog ate my homework and as God as my witness I thought turkeys could fly, but I am sticking with it. I was also well aware of the fact that my refusal to do the rides could land my in elimination if we lost, but I was willing to take that chance too.

That night, as the remaining KIAs drank toasts to scenic downtown Hamilton, Andrew and I conducted a decidedly unscientific poll amongst fellow patrons at a downtown bar. Turns out 3/4 Hamiltonians agree: roller coasters are fun. Laura had managed to snag the picture taken from the top of the Leviathan, and this picture may be the best of the whole show. She says that it’s something she looks at when she’s had a bad day. The best part is that Owen looks like the Bride of Frankenstein, according to Allan, the editor.

I shoot like a girl. Which is to say, with a shoulder mounted bazooka, hitting the target the first time.

I shoot like a girl. Which is to say, with a shoulder mounted bazooka, hitting the target the first time.


The next day I found considerably more interesting – we got to make potato guns! I have never made one, and neither had Owen, so we really did struggle. At one point one of the safety staff stopped us and made us rebuild a section, saying it would explode. BUT, Owen did have the genius insight of making the combustion chamber large, which gave us a more consistent gun. AND, I shoot like a girl. Which is to say, with a shoulder mounted bazooka, hitting the target, first time.

The rest of the challenge really did come down to the age old scientific dilemma of whether to trust one’s calculations, or gut. This is actually a not a trite question and in some ways represents a firm distinction between physics and the rest of science. In ecology, we sometimes have to estimate forest cover by eye, or be satisfied with practiced guesses at numbers that are too large to count. In some disciplines there’s not even a strong inclination to use math at all, and in fact in grad school my committee meetings were often dominated by biochemists arguing with physicists about the uselessness of using mathematical models for biochemistry. In the last cannonball challenges, we saw how mine and Owen’s gut instincts gave better shots (incidentally, Owen and I played catch with leftover potatoes while the other team calculated) but had the gun been more precise, perhaps by rifling the barrel, that situation could have easily been different. There’s a place for math and modelling, and not just in calculating projectile motion. The application of physics principles to biology has revolutionized our understanding of the innermost workings of cells. The intersection of the clarity and precision offered by physics and the details and mess offered by biology is a very active area of research called systems biology. It turns out that there’s a certain type of magic that comes from being able to look at the world in both ways. The hard part is that it takes experience to know when to trust your gut and when to trust your math, and that experience is hard won.

2 Responses to “Canada’s Greatest Know It All Episode Six: Potato Gun Justice”

  1. Dougley Moore February 23, 2013 12:07 am
    #

    But you guys made a big wind-powered potato gun a little over a week earlier.

    So were you supplied with the right tools to rifle a PVC gun barrel accurately?

    • Carla February 23, 2013 1:18 pm
      #

      Nope – no rifling on the potato guns – it was on the big gun that it would have helped.