Transcriber: Joseph GeniReviewer: Joanna Pietrulewicz A friend called me a few weeks ago with bad news.
She dropped her cell phoneinto the toilet.
Anyone here done that before? (Laughter) So it was a bad situation.
You know, without getting into the detailsof exactly how that happened or how she got it out, let's just say it was a bad situation.
And she panicked because, like for many of us, her phone is one of the most usedand essential tools in her life.
But, on the other hand, she had no idea how to fix it, because it's a completelymysterious black box.
So think about it: what would you do? What do you really understandabout how your phone works? What are you willing to test or fix? For most people, the answer is, nothing.
In fact, one survey found that almost 80 percentof smartphone users in this country have never even replacedtheir phone batteries, and 25 percent didn't even knowthis was possible.
Now, I'm an experimental physicist, hence the toys.
I specialize in making new typesof nanoscale electronic devices to study their fundamentalquantum mechanical properties.
But even I wouldn't know where to startin terms of testing elements on my phone if it broke.
And phones are just one exampleof the many devices that we depend upon but can't test, take apart, or even fully understand.
Cars, electronics, even toysare now so complicated and advanced that we're scared to open and fix them.
So here's the problem: there's a disconnect between usand the technology that we use.
We're completely alienatedfrom the devices that we most depend upon, which can make us feel helpless and empty.
In fact, it's not surprising thenthat one study found that we are now more afraid of technology than we are of death.
(Laughter) But I think that we canreconnect to our devices, rehumanize them in a sense, by doing more hands-on experiments.
Why? Well, because an experimentis a procedure to test a hypothesis, demonstrate a fact.
It's the way that we use our senses, our hands, to connect the world and figure out how it works.
And that's the connectionthat we're missing.
So let me give you an example.
Here's an experiment that I did recently to think about how a touchscreen works.
It's just two metal plates, and I can put chargeon one of the plates from a battery.
And I can measure the charge separationwith this voltmeter here.
Now — let's make sure it's working.
So when I wave my hand near the plates, you can see that the voltage changes just like the touchscreenresponds to my hand.
But what is it about my hand?Now I need to do more experiments.
So I can, say, take a piece of wood and touch one of the platesand see that not much happens, but if I take a piece of metaland touch the plate, then the voltage changes dramatically.
So now I can do further experimentsto see what the difference is between the wood and the metal, and I should find outthat the wood is not conducting but the metal is conducting like my hand.
And, you see, I build up my understanding.
Like, now I can see why I can't usea touchscreen with gloves, because gloves aren't conducting.
But I've also broken downsome of the mystery behind the technology and built up my agency, my personal input and interactionswith the basis of my devices.
But experimenting is a stepbeyond just taking things apart.
It's testing and doinghands-on critical thinking.
And it doesn't really matter whetherI'm testing how a touchscreen works or if I'm measuring how conductingdifferent types of materials are, or even if I'm just using my handsto see how hard it is to break different thicknesses of materials.
In all cases, I'm gaining controland understanding of the basis of the things that I use.
And there's research behind this.
For one, I'm using my hands, which seem to promote well-being.
I'm also engaging in hands-on learning, which has been shownto improve understanding and retention, and even activatemore parts of your brain.
So hands-on thinking through experiments connects our understanding, even our sense of vitality, to the physical worldand the things that we use.
Looking things up on the internet does not have the same effect.
Now, for me this focus on experiments is also personal.
I didn't grow up doing experiments.
I didn't know what a physicist did.
I remember my sister had a chemistry setthat I always wanted to use but she never let me touch.
I felt mentally disconnectedfrom the world and didn't know why.
In fact, when I was nine years old, my grandmother called me a solipsist, which is something I had to look up.
It means that you thinkthat yourself is all that exists.
And at the time I was pretty offended, because whose grandmother calls them that? (Laughter) But I think that it was true.
And it wasn't until years later, when I was in collegeand studying basic physics, that I had a revelation that the world, at least the physical world, could be tested and understood, that I started to gaina completely different sense of how the world worked and what my place was in it.
And then later, when I was able my own testing and understanding through research, a big part of my connectionto the world was complete.
Now, I know that not everyone isan experimental physicist by profession, but I think that everyone couldbe doing more hands-on experiments.
And actually I think we sort of — I'll give you another example.
I was recently workingwith some middle school students, helping them learn about magnetism, and I gave thema Magna Doodle to take apart.
Remember one of these things? So at first, none of themwanted to touch it.
They'd been told for so longnot to break things that they're accustomedto just passive using.
But then I started asking them questions.
You know, how does it work?What parts are magnetic? Can you make a hypothesis and test it? But they still didn't wantto break it open.
They wanted to take ithome with them, really.
Until, one kid finally sliced it throughand found really cool stuff inside.
And so this is somethingwe can do here together.
They're pretty easy to take apart.
See, there's a magnet inside, and I can just cut this open.
Cut it open again, you can split it.
OK, so when I do that –I don't know if you can see this, but there is sort of — there it is, this oozy white stuff in here.
Now you can see it on my finger.
And when I drag the pen on it, you can see that these filamentsare attached to it.
So the kids saw this, and at this point they're like, this is really cool.
They got excited.
They all started ripping them openand taking them apart and yelling out the thingsthat they discovered, how these magnetic filamentsconnected to the magnetic pen and that's how it wrote.
Or, how the oozy white stuffkept things dispersed so it could write.
And as they were leaving the room, two of them turned to me and said, “We loved that.
Me and her are going home this weekendto do more experiments.
” (Laughter) Yeah, I know, the parentsin there are worried about it, but it's a good thing! Experimenting is good, and actuallyI found it extremely gratifying, and I think hopefully it wasvery life-enriching for them.
Because, even a basic magnet is something that wecan experiment with at home.
They're both simple and complexat the same time.
For example, you can ask yourself, how can the same materialboth attract and repel? If I take a magnet, is it useful if I can get one of them to rotate the other, for example? Or, you can takethis dollar bill over here, and I can take a set of magnets, and you can see that the dollar billgets lifted by the magnets.
There's magnetic ink hidden in herethat prevents counterfeiting.
Or, here I have somecrushed-up bran cereal.
OK? And that's also magnetic.
Right? That has iron in it.
(Laughter) And that can be good for you, right? OK, here's something else.
This thing over here is not magnetic.
I can't lift it up with the magnet.
But now I'm going to make it cold.
The same thing in here, cold, and when I make it cold, and put it on top of the magnet, so — (Applause) It's amazing.
That's not magnetic, but somehow it's interactingwith a magnet.
So clearly understanding thisis going to take many more experiments.
In fact, this is something that I've spentmuch of my career studying.
It's called a superconductor.
Now, superconductors can be complex, but even simple experimentscan connect us better to the world.
So now if I tell you that flash memoryworks by rotating small magnets, then you can imagine it.
You've seen it.
Or, if I say that MRI machines use magnetism to rotatemagnetic particles in your body, you've seen it done.
You've interacted with the technologyand understood the basis of these devices.
Now, I know that it's hardto add more things to our lives, especially experiments.
But I think thatthe challenge is worth it.
Think about how something works, then take it apart to test it.
Manipulate something and provesome physical principle to yourself.
Put the human back in the technology.
You'll be surprised atthe connections that you make.