Failure is the Best Medicine

BUSINESS Frustration and failure fuel Dyson’s success In this terrific interview, Sir James Dyson explains how his innovative designs—the bagless vacuum cleaner made him a billionaire—only succeeded because of his past failures. Discussion ideas: Watch this short video (“Turning Failure into Nobel Gold“), in which chemist Martin Chalfie describes “the real way science is done.” Chalfie’s colleague Osamu Shimomura conducted experiment after experiment where “Nothing worked!” … Continue reading Failure is the Best Medicine

Papua New Guinea Blog 5: Fire Dance

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Jane Fajans is a professor of Anthropology at Cornell University. She
was invited to join the James Cameron expedition during their time in
Papua New Guinea and share her insights into the culture of the Baining
people. Jane conducted fieldwork with the Baining on the island of Papua
New Guinea, near the Mariana Trench in the South Pacific.

On Tuesday, March 6, we drove up to Gaulim to make arrangements for the Baining Fire Dance. This is a traditional dance that is performed at night. The dancers wear big masks and dance around a big fire. From time to time one of the dancers will run into the fire and start kicking logs and embers and sending sparks flying across the area. The dancers are accompanied by a male chorus. The members of this chorus sing in a rapid staccato style and pound a piece of bamboo tubing on top of a large piece of wood. The music is very energetic and the dancers also move energetically–and sometimes frantically–around the dance ground. The shadows of the mask, the sparks of the fire, and the pounding music make this a very dramatic performance.

The village is about an hour from Kokopo, the capital of East New Britain. The road to the village goes up into the mountains and then about halfway down the backside of one mountain. The road is good until about 6 km (3.7 miles) before the village, and then turns into a very rutted track. On Tuesday, the road was dry so we could bump along it up to the edge of the village, but on Friday, when we went back for the actual dance, the road was all mud due to a recent rain.

Because we had called ahead and said we were coming, there were a number of people (men, women, and children) waiting for us in the village. Normally, everyone would be out in the gardens at this time of day. Having cell phones and cell phone coverage is a recent, and very welcome, change in this region. As I found out later, coverage is not available in other parts of the Baining territory.

On the way up to the village, we stopped at a small roadside stand to buy betel nut, the fruit of the areca palm that is widely chewed in Papua New Guinea (and elsewhere in the Pacific and Southeast Asia), and often combined with the fruit of a pepper plant and powdered lime. When mixed together, these three components turn bright red in the mouth and give a slight burst of energy, or buzz. Betel nut is used as a form of greeting among the Baining. Instead of a handshake, people exchange betel nut with one another, and if they have time, chew it together. People say that conversation goes better with betel nut (called “buai” in tok pisin, the local lingua franca). You should not swallow the betel nut, so people spit the red juice that collects in their mouths out on the ground. In many places in town there are signs forbidding the spitting of betel nut, but in the rural areas where the ground is dirt or grass, people just spit wherever they want. When you see people with very red mouths like bright lipstick, it is because of the betel nut.

We came up to the village and James and I (James was our driver) exchanged betel nut with the people in the picture below. The Australians with us did not understand this custom until they saw us do it. When I chewed betel nut with the residents of Gaulim, everyone laughed and the children ran around telling others. It is not common for non-Papua New Guineans to chew it.


villagers outside one house.  Photo by
Jane Fajans.

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Papua New Guinea Blog 4: On Board the Mermaid Sapphire

Jane Fajans is a professor of Anthropology at Cornell
She was
invited to join the James Cameron expedition during their time in Papua
New Guinea and share her insights into the culture of the Baining people.
Jane conducted fieldwork with the Baining on the island of Papua New
near the Mariana Trench in the South Pacific.

On Monday morning I woke up to find a major change in plans: We had expected that the ship would be delayed down at Jacquinot Bay for a few more days while the dives continued [the preliminary test-dives of James Cameron’s DEEPSEA CHALLENGER submarine], but learned that the ship would be heading into Rabaul and would dock in a few hours. They were looking to re-provision the ship and change crews, since the new crew had just arrived in Rabaul (several of the new crew were the friends I had climbed the volcano with). The ship (actually two ships since the main ship, the Mermaid Sapphire, is accompanied by a second ship) would be in the harbor in a few hours. 

Maria Wilhelm, James Cameron’s business strategist and all-around adviser, sent word that I should come aboard. I was very excited and drove to Rabaul with Rob MacCallum, the local coordinator. First, we stopped at the heliport to pick up some groceries that were scheduled to be flown down to the ship, but could now be loaded right onto it. Second, we stopped at a supermarket and ordered lots more groceries. Third, we stopped at a pharmacy (called a “chemist” in Australian and Papua New Guinean dialect) and ordered other supplies. We arrived in Rabaul just as the ship lowered its gangway to allow us to board.

The ship the Mermaid Sapphire.  Photo by Jane Fajans.

mermaid sapphire.jpg

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Olly Olly Oxen Free

Doug Levin is the Associate Director for the Center for
Environment and Society at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland,
and is an expert in underwater exploration technology, as well as
designing fun programs that teach complex engineering concepts.

I’ve been peppered with questions about the safety regarding the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER sub’s return to the sea surface. My colleague and fellow blogger Jim Chiles wonders why the Mermaid Sapphire moved so far from the sub’s launch point where it waited for the sub’s return and subsequent recovery. My basic answer is I don’t know the specifics. But then I got to thinking about it. I’ll do what I do with my students and answer this with a question and experiment.  

Mr. Cameron’s sub was down 36,000ft (and change) when it started its semi-controlled ascent.

Question: How do you predict where on the ocean surface she’ll reappear, and how do you make sure that “Murphy’s Law” (what can go wrong, will go wrong) doesn’t strike and cause her to rise up directly underneath the Mermaid?

Experiment: Let’s gather fishing bobbers of different shapes, like those presented in the accompanying photograph.  Now, grab a 5-gallon bucket and roll up your sleeve (yeah, you only need one arm). In this exercise, you’ll bring each of the bobbers to the bottom of the water-filled bucket and do two things: 1) Release it and watch it as it makes its way to the surface, and 2) try to predict exactly where at the water surface it will breach.

 A Variety of fishing bobbers presented on
Which of these shapes most resembles the sub?  I say the one all the way to the right.

Before you start, make a list of the bobbers and write next to them how you think they’ll behave when floating to the surface. Will it be a straight shot? Or, will they waffle or waggle (technical speak) on the way up? Make a “map” of the water surface and where you think each bobber will breach.

After you make your predictions, its time to test them!  Release each bobber from the bottom of the bucket.  For each one, before you release, point to the water surface in the bucket and see whether the bobber hits your mark.

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Imagining the Journey

Shannon Switzer is an award-winning photographer, published
writer, and National Geographic Young Explorer whose work focuses on
ocean conservation.

Diving down in a sub to the Challenger Deep, which James Cameron successfully accomplished Sunday, is pretty incredible. But my dream is to free dive to the bottom and walk along it, exploring with my own two feet and hands, instead of via a machine.

It’s crazy talk, but often the craziest ideas are the most fun to imagine.

Shannon_Jellyfish.jpgTry this with your class: Have them envision a trip seven miles down to the bottom of the ocean at Challenger Deep. Ask them to describe how they would get down there and what they think they might discover, both as they descend and once they’ve reached the bottom. Have them pay attention to specific sensory details in their narrative: the temperature of the water as they go deeper, the colors they see, if they taste anything, and how things feel when they touch them. Encourage them to think about and elaborate on the way they use each of their five senses as they interact with the environment in their story.

To help get their creative juices flowing, conduct a short lesson on deep-sea life that has been documented, showing them photos or illustrations of deep-sea creatures. Encourage them to be as creative and out-of-the-box as they so desire. For example, perhaps they feel like having a conversation with a dumbo octopus at six miles down–great! This is a unique way for them to practice constructing dialogue.

In addition, the exercise provides an opportunity to discuss concepts such as “show, don’t tell,” by encouraging them to use literary devices like similes, metaphors, personification, imagery, and sensory description to create a scene. Write one yourself and share it with the class. Push your students to get as far-out as they like. The more creative they are, the more exciting of a mind journey it will be.

Now let’s go!

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