Math Professor Lew Lefton Considers the Relativity of the Holidays

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By Lew Lefton
Dec 16, 2011 | Atlanta

Lew Lefton
Lew Lefton is a member of the faculty of the School of Mathematics, and their IT Director. He is also the Director of Information Technology for the College of Sciences.

The winter holidays are a time to look back and to look forward, a time to reconnect with friends and family and an opportunity to contemplate how you ended up with so many crazy dysfunctional relatives (CDRs). You know who I'm talking about, people like your weird uncle who always wants to show you pictures of the latest addition to his collection of anatomically correct penguin dolls. By the way, if you think you don't have any CDRs that may mean everyone else thinks it's you. This year, when I'm at the big family event, I'm taking the opportunity to apply some science. ...

I'll use biology since it explains that, although I am a close genetic relative and share many homologous traits with my cousin Dwight, I am also nearly genetically identical to Dwight's basset hound Pherdinand. This makes me feel a little better since I would much rather spend my holiday like Pherdinand, heavy on the napping and oblivious to personal hygiene, than like Dwight, trying to convince everyone that wind and solar power are a government conspiracy to destroy NASCAR.

I'll use earth and atmospheric science, since it gives me something to talk about with Aunt Gertrude. Unfortunately, Aunt Gertrude isn't really up to date on climate models, seismology, or oceanography, but she likes to repeat the same conversation that she has been having with me since the late 1990s. It goes like this:

AG: Sure seems like it's (colder/warmer) than it was this time last year.
Me: Sure does Aunt Gertie.
AG: The thing about the weather is that it keeps changing. It makes me very confused.
Me: Could be all those unstable equilibria in the laws of thermodynamics.
(Long Pause while Aunt Gertie glares at me)
AG: Sure is (cold/hot) out there now though ...

I, and many others, will certainly be doing some chemistry. It will involve one simple organic compound in which the hydroxyl functional group is bound to a carbon atom. Without a little C2H5OH, I suspect the CDRs would be even harder to bear. Of course, last year, my uncle Davey experimented with this particular substance a little too much. It's not a pretty sight when your 12-year old daughter and your 350-pound drunk uncle re-enact the entire third season of Glee.

Of course I'll use math. I've been working on a model based on nonlinear differential equations which are parameterized with slight randomness to add stability. The goal is to determine the optimal hourly consumption of alcohol, fats and simple carbohydrates over the course of the holiday so as to remain mentally alert and awake only during the four minutes of football games which are statistically most likely to be exciting.

Not a holiday season goes by when I don't apply some physiology, too. Usually, it's the integrative motor and organ physiological processes involved as my niece pulls on grandpa's finger.

Naturally, with a house full of CDRs I'll really need psychology. It helps me predict exactly when my sister and my mother will revert to the same argument they have been having since 1973, when Melissa was grounded, but snuck out the window to go see a David Cassidy concert anyway, and destroyed Mom's prize rosebushes trying to sneak back in. I would share the argument with you, but this is supposed to be a family-friendly publication.

Surely, one of the best things about family gatherings at the holidays is seeing all the kids. It inspires me to do some K-12 outreach like the folks in CEISMC, helping to foster a new generation of scientific thinkers. I hope my efforts don't backfire like they did last year, when my nephew somehow figured out how to control the family cat using a LEGO® robot.

But actually, the one science which I'll really apply this year is physics. Thanks to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, where every possible outcome is real, I can enjoy my real holiday celebration, with my real friends and family and be thankful that it is not possible for me to interact with the bizarre parallel universe described above. Except maybe the chemistry part...

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