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.
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.