- Killer Class: Better Than a Bird's-Eye View of Falconry in the Middle Ages
- The Science of Soap Bubbles
There is a hawk living somewhere high above campus, and it has recently been seen devouring a few of Susquehanna’s fabled squirrels. Part of nature, yes, but not a nice highlight for campus tours. So why would an English professor want to bring more birds of prey to campus?
“Falconry was part of the aristocratic culture of 15th century England,” says Professor Karen Mura, who worked with her department to bring in a falconer for her class on Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (The Death of Arthur). “But it’s something modern-day students have had very little exposure to. I thought it would be an interesting angle.”
So, on a sunny autumn day, students lounge on the lawn in front of Bogar Hall while international expert and licensed falconer Mike Dupuy speaks about the art of falconry with the help of three lovely assistants—one human and two birds.
Dupuy touches on falconry’s significance in art and literature, as well as its evolution from a hunting technique to a sport of the elite in the Middle Ages.
“There was even a caste system of who could own what,” Dupuy explains. “For example, a prince could own a peregrine, but a knave could only own a kestrel.”
While he speaks, Dupuy weaves through the group, letting each student get an up-close look at the powerful birds. Meanwhile, the small gathering grows as passing students and staff stop to observe and listen to his amusing anecdotes.
Students have a good laugh about one story involving Dupuy feebly trying to fend off a mother falcon on camera while clinging to a tree. They suddenly have a new appreciation for the centuries-old story of Lancelot going up a tree to rescue a falcon.
“It was definitely a conversation starter,” says Mallory Naill, a senior English and creative writing major. “It was something different, and it really got everyone interested.”
All in all, the visit accomplishes Mura’s goal of bringing her subject to life for students. Thankfully, no squirrels are harmed in the process.
How do you go from a fascination with soap bubbles to having a hand in research that would guide construction of the Olympic Water Cube in Beijing, or saving broadcasters $60 million by extending the service life of two communications satellites? You build a really great computer program!
Kenneth Brakke, professor of mathematical science, did just that. Originally used to model soap bubbles, his Surface Evolver program can be used to study virtually any liquidlike surface that is shaped by surface tension and other energies. Guinness (yes, the beer manufacturer) has sponsored a foam research group in Ireland using the Evolver. In France, the program was used to model red blood cells. Architects have used it to model curved buildings. Other uses have included simulating crystal grain growth in metals, modeling the shape of liquid solder on microcircuits and even studying high-altitude balloons, which, like soap bubbles and other liquid surfaces, have elastic film that stretches.
Last year, researchers from Purdue University and Lockheed Martin Corp. based their new technique for gauging and equalizing the amount of propellant in satellites’ fuel tanks on mathematical modeling created by the Surface Evolver. As Brakke says, “It’s a lot easier than sending a rocket into space to test a tank design.”
More recently, The New York Times cited Brakke’s program for the role it played in the foam research of the Irish group that ultimately led to construction of the new Beijing National Aquatics Center, or Water Cube as it was called during the 2008 Olympics.
In the late 1980s when Brakke began developing the Evolver, few could have imagined the practical applications of modeling soap bubbles. Even today, Brakke is among a select few mathematicians in the world studying such phenomena. But why soap bubbles? The answer is simple, Brakke says: “The very existence of soap bubbles is wildly unexpected. Soap films are only a couple molecules thick, but they can be inches or even feet wide, and they don’t instantly pop. Their urge to shrink to the smallest area is a very simple idea that can lead to a lot of complex behaviors.”
Soaps bubbles aren’t Brakke’s only scholarly pursuit. His academic hobbies also include time machines and aliens. In fact, in 1998, he created a Web page titled The Statistics of Space Aliens. By modeling the random evolution of technological civilizations, Brakke computed that the first civilization to appear in the galaxy would have plenty of time to colonize it before a second technologically advanced civilization would arise. Based on the nondetection of infrared radiation from Dyson spheres surrounding stars, he concluded that Earth is the first technological civilization in the visible universe, and we’re going to have it to ourselves for a long time.
Contributing writers to The 'Grove section are Stephanie Beazley '10, Evan Dresser '02 and Victoria Kidd, editor.
Back To Top