Buffaloes, Electrons, and Metaphor in Science

In There Are No Electrons, Kenn Amdahl’s revisits the basic concepts that allow us to understand electricity – voltage, current, resistance, circuit – through a variety of stories that, at first glance, have little to do with electricity. Yet, once we move away from the images Amdahl puts in our mind, we can see how the technical concepts of voltage or current are no more than a way of condensing long, rich stories about a group of ants’ voyage around a fence into a single word. His tales about party-hard Greenies, restless buffaloes and drunk fishermen are stories of characters moving from one point to another, as well as accounts of the mechanisms make these characters go from A to B in a particular way. And what is the foundation of our understanding of electricity if not the idea that electrons (the dull shortcut for Greenies, or buffaloes) move from one place to another? Add some information about what makes them move, and about the things that make it easier or more difficult for them to do so, and you have the whole picture.

Beyond being a user-friendly and inventive exploration of electricity, Amdahl’s book also raises questions about the role of representation in science. Are all scientific concepts metaphors? Why do we prefer some metaphors over others? Why are we quick to let go of some, but it takes us so much time to embrace others? To what extent do we allow these metaphors to be ambiguous? Unfortunately, I do not have the answers to these questions. However, I think they are become more interesting as we move on to discuss schematics and the way we represent electrical concepts in a seemingly unambiguous, universally understood fashion. At this point, and as a little food for thought, I will go as far as to just propose yet another image:

The image above was inspired by the introduction to Kenn Amdahl’s There Are No Electrons and by René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images.

No-Hands Switch Project — “Pedal” Switch

While brainstorming about what type of switch to create for this assignment, I thought of many ideas: I considered using everything from earrings to my permanent retainers as conductors, and even thought about how to make aluminium foil false eyelashes to make a switch that would turn on simply by blinking. However, I tend towards the practical, so instead of thinking about what interesting materials or body motions I could use, I started thinking about what function my switch could, and should, serve.

This function-focused line of thinking led me to consider what types of switches would be good for a situation in which individuals are unable to use their hands, whether in an emergency or as a result of a disability*. Thus, I thought of creating a simple pedal-like switch, by which individuals could turn on a light by moving their foot, whether seated or standing. Continue reading…

“Electronics for Earthlings” Response

As a pre-law student with little background in science, I am thrilled to say that Kenn Amdahl more than accomplished his goal of writing a book that makes scientific concepts interesting and easily comprehensible. Evidence for this lies in the fact that a) I laughed, smiled, and forgot I was reading an assigned text multiple times, and b) I later found myself googling whether or not electrons really exist and spending time on Quora reading answers to this question. Interestingly, the many answers/responses I found were far more abstract and philosophical than the scientific, nitty-gritty answers I expected to find.

In regards to understanding electricity and circuits, I will admit I found myself a little lost in the first class – I was struggling to recall the most basic concepts from my high school science classes. After this reading, however, I understand the fundamentals once again. I could now explain to a friend the basic idea of (or process involved in) all of the subjects covered in the text: static electricity, the electron theory, elements/molecules/atoms, protons/neutrons/electrons, the chain-reactions involved in atomic explosions, voltage, current, and resistance, and circuits and switches. (I started to summarize these all in this response, but realized that it would be rather time-consuming and lengthy, and that the reader(s) of this response will in no way find such a summary useful.)

The one thing I found to be the most interesting in the text (besides the author’s begrudging attitude towards the electron theory and his inclusion of various interesting stories, dreams, and anecdotes) was the author’s emphasis on understanding scientific models as just that – models. He explained that models are not reality: models typically only highlight one aspect of what they are trying to represent and should not be conflated or made equivalent to the phenomena they portray. This is really helpful to me: in past science classes I had never been fully satisfied with the models we used, for I felt they left me with far too many questions. Understanding models as what they are – imperfect and incomplete, though helpful and enlightening tools to understand scientific phenomena – undoubtedly will help me as I continue the learning process in this class.

Lastly, in case anyone would like them, I’m attaching the notes I took while reading this text below.













[Response to There Are No Electrons: Electronics for Earthlings, Kenn Amdahl, © 1991]

Resources 1st Class

Labs reviewing some of the material we went over today in a little more depth: