5 September 2012
The center I left last week was quiet. We were still moving at summer speed, preparing for the new term. A few of our visitors had arrived and they were occupied with things here and there. The summer calm lingered.
The Center I found on Tuesday morning after Labor Day was a very different Center. All our visitors have now arrived. Karen was fully engaged in orienting them. There were lots of forms and signatures. People were moving through the halls, in and out of offices, going to and coming from classes and figuring out how to track down this or that faculty member.
Each year has its own dynamics and I wondered which I would find this year. It is already clear. This is a self-organizing group. Before I had opened my door and dropped my bag I found Kyle, sitting in the Center lounge tapping at his computer. I mentioned the plan to meet the next day.
"We need to get to know each other," I said.
"It has already happened," he told me.
Many of them had gone out the night before. He didn't elaborate on the form of revelry, but I was not too concerned for their safety. We professors of philosophy of science think passionate argumentation is wicked fun.
Then, a little while later, Maria was bouncing up and down the halls declaring "I'm really hungry. Let's get some lunch." In no time, she had assembled everyone who was moveable and the halls went quiet for a little while as they headed off.
The calm did not last. Jim Woodward had wandered through a few moments before, looking for Kyle and their promised lunch. Kyle is now back in his office. As I sit here writing, I can hear Kyle in a long, animated exchange in his office with a graduate student. I'll pop out for a moment with my camera to show you...
A little while earlier, I ran into Serife in the lounge. She had brought some Turkish Delight from Turkey and it had been left out on the table for everyone. Just one small, sticky cube was left and lot of white powder. That white powder is what stopped the cubes in the tray from sticking. What is it? Flour? Sugar? The question had remained unanswered for too long.
Serife picked up the box and started reading the ingredients. Well down the list came "corn starch." This seemed something that could be checked. So we started spooning the white powder into a paper cup and judiciously adding water.
Corn starch and water, in the right proportions, has the curious property of being a non-Newtonian fluid. In this case, that means that it has low viscosity ("it's runny") as long as the shear rate is low. But if you shear it quickly by, say, running the spoon through it in a fast jabbing motion, it locks up and is momentarily even quite elastic ("it's bouncy"). We both peered into the paper cup and poked and prodded. Sure enough, there was the non-Newtonian behavior. It's corn starch.
When I was photographing the cup and box for this page, Bob Batterman drifted in. He was watching my contortions with a camera with curiosity, while making conference arrangements with Joyce. I explained what Serife and I had been doing. He chuckled and remarked:
"And who says that philosophers of science don't do experiments?!"
John D. Norton