Monday, May 17, 2004

A Lesson from a Vase

For several years, I was a member of the Physics Van at UIUC, a group that goes around to area grade schools and does physics demos. Supposedly to get children interested in science, but mainly, I think, so the Van workers can have fun. Playing with liquid nitrogen and electricity and other fun physics demos, and skipping classes to do so, what more could one want?

There are a variety of fun demos, but the best one, my most favorite demo ever, is showing Newton's first law of motion, the law of inertia. The short version of this law is basically that "things keep doin' whatever they're doin'." So a set of dishes on the table is going to just sit on the table, even if the tablecloth is pulled out from beneath them (unless the tablecloth pulls on them enough to make a mess of broken dishware on the floor). So the second half of this demo is pulling the tablecloth out from under the dishes. But the _first_ half is the best part.

Take a vase, and set it on the table. Stare at it. Keep staring. Anything happen? No? Look closer. Anything happen yet? Of course not! It's a vase, it's just going to sit there. Now, imagine doing this demonstration in front of a couple hundred grade-schoolers. They're expecting something to be happening, they _know_ something interesting is going to happen, and they're waiting breathless for..anything. Yet, somehow they don't realize that the lack of anything, the fact that the vase just sits there, is pretty important itself. A vase can go through its entire existence, and not once have to lift a finger. Even if it had one to lift!

As people, we do so many things to try to improve our lives, spend so much time working, rushing around, thinking, all sorts of things that take so much effort. I'm going to take a lesson from a vase, though, and try to just keep doing whatever I'm doing. Tomorrow, I plan on spending all day in bed.

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