Episode 18: Projects

episode-18-projectsKen sat fiddling with the gears on his hoverchair arm as he waited for Jaxon to come out of Mrs McKinsey’s workroom. It wasn’t long before he walked unsteadily out.

“So, how are the new specs?”

“Whoa.” Jaxon held up his hand at arm’s length. “I can see my fingerprint ridges. It’s like somebody turned the resolution of everything way up.” He looked around the corridor. “And everything’s much closer than it should be. It’s a bit weird.”

Ken glanced at the wood-panelled walls and dark floorboards. “What do you mean, it’s closer than it should be?” Everything looked perfectly mundane to him.

“I guess I don’t expect to see this much detail unless things are right in front of my face,” Jaxon said. “I’ll get used to it. Come on, Nieminen is going to blow a fuse if we arrive late, after the war the girls have started.”

Ken frowned and started his hoverchair moving forward. “Yeah, I dunno how someone always manages to be late.”

“Because they don’t run when they have” — Jaxon consulted his watch — “four minutes to get from a lunchtime meeting to the lab.” He didn’t quite run, but the pace he set was fast enough that they arrived at the lab before Mathematician Nieminen did. “Made it on time!”

“Well done, goody two shoes,” Kelly Jean said. Ken figured she was still unhappy about the dressing down she’d received for being late the day before.

“And with glasses, huh?” Kelly Jean’s eyebrows shot up. “I suppose copying other people’s notes didn’t fit the new image.”

Jaxon screwed up his face in confusion and turned to Ken. “What?”

“You copied from her notes because you couldn’t read the board once, remember? Which is why you sit  next to me now, since I don’t mind if you copy my notes.”

“Oh, yeah. Wow, this is going to be great!” Jaxon flung his arms wide open, encompassing the rows of empty lab benches throughout the room. “I can see the board from anywhere! I can sit right at the back by myself if I want.”

Ken was relieved that he’d avoided the argument.

“Although I wouldn’t recommend that if you want to hear anything,” Melinda said. “It’s nice if you’re trying to work on a problem set, but when we’re getting a new project like today, it’s pretty annoying.” She dumped her bag onto one of the lab benches at the front and started redoing her ponytail.

“I forgot we were getting a new project today. This is von Rejk’s one, right?” Ken glid into place across the bench from Melinda.

Melinda stared at him. “How in the asteroids did you forget when we’ve all been frantically trying to get the measurement report finished for today?”

“Oh.” Ken shrugged. “I handed it in a couple of days ago.” He hadn’t expected the awkward feeling of being the only person ahead of the deadline to follow him to the Academy. He felt the blood rising to his face. “Probably I should have held onto it in case I missed something.”

“I shouldn’t even be surprised.” Melinda transferred a handful of pens from her bag into her lab coat pocket. “And there’s no way you left something out. You’re probably the most pedantic person I’ve ever met. No, hang on. What’s the word I mean?” Melinda asked Jaxon, who had joined them at the lab bench.

“If you think Ken’s anything like pedantic, you’ve never seen his sock drawer,” Jaxon said seriously.

Melinda burst into laughter.

“Hey, that’s not fair,” Ken protested, but he was grateful for the change of topic.

Bryony rushed in, braids swinging and sat down next to Melinda. “What’s so funny?” she demanded.

Melinda gestured towards the boys helplessly.

“She was up late last night, wasn’t she?” Ken asked Bryony. “It’s really not all that funny.”

“I was making fun of Ken’s sock drawer,” Jaxon said.

Melinda gulped down air. “Sorry,” she said, stifling a giggle. “I just had this image of Ken as one of those stereotypical Old Earthers with colour coded socks and a personal organiser thingy and–” She gulped again.

“Yeah, I don’t think she got enough sleep.” Bryony yawned. “Did anyone?”

“Ken handed in days ago, because he’s a machine,” Jaxon said.

Ken blushed.

“Good for you,” Bryony said. “You have an impressive work ethic.”

Ken shrugged. He wasn’t sure that putting less time into this project than everyone else seemed to have was really impressive. Then again, he’d been surprised at how much people had left to do last night, so maybe things balanced out. He wasn’t sorry when Mathematician Nieminen began talking and moved his thoughts to other topics.

“I’m glad to see that all of you have made it to the laboratory unscathed today. Try to keep it that way.

“By now, you’ve also all handed in your reports on measurement. I’ll be marking them over the next several days and we’ll have a debriefing and a discussion of uncertainty in due course. In the meantime, you’ll be working on a new modelling project with Mathematician von Rejk, which he will explain shortly.

“I expect today’s session to be mostly theoretical, but please remember that this is a laboratory and you do need to keep your safety gear in place. Especially, please be careful not to disturb the crystallisation experiment that’s set up on the back bench. That’s all from me.”

Ken turned to look at the experiment on the back bench, as did most of the class. There wasn’t much to see, beyond a collection of trays and beakers. Ken turned back to see Mathematician von Rejk waiting for attention. He wasn’t wearing a lab coat, but Ken figured that the heavy workshop gear probably served the same purpose.

“Alright, alright, you’ll get to look at it in due course, but try to pay attention for three minutes while I explain the project. As you should expect by now, you’re going to be applying mathematics pragmatically to get a method of describing some complex phenomenon or system. You’re going to choose a system, set up some mathematical equations to describe it, and then tell me where your model fails and where it falls short. Simple enough, yes?”

Ken frowned. The project was simple to describe, but it didn’t sound so simple to carry out. He wasn’t sure where you’d even start with making a model for most systems.

“Alright, some more details. You can choose any system you like, but you must get me to okay it. I recommend choosing the simplest thing you can think of and then simplifying it some more. It doesn’t need to be original, but I do expect you to be using at least one of the library and the laboratory to get the information you need.

“You have this afternoon to think and talk and come and discuss with me. I’m not going to set a final deadline for hand-in until I see the sorts of projects you’re choosing and how the research is coming along, but you can expect to have a few weeks to work on it. Make sure you’ve spoken to me by the end of the afternoon.” With that, Mathematician von Rejk gestured at them to begin and made his way off the platform at the front of the laboratory.

“Huh.” Ken stretched thoughtfully. “That’s quite a project. I’m not even sure where to start.”

“I didn’t make a plan at the beginning last time and I regretted it,” Jaxon said. “So I’m doing that before I even speak to von Rejk.”

“You already have something to make a plan of?” Ken was surprised that he’d come up with something so quickly.

“I want to do circuit diagrams and how they compare to real circuits. Like, you know how the length of the wire is irrelevant in a circuit diagram, but it does have a small effect actually. And you ignore the position in the diagram too, but I don’t know if that does affect anything. It’ll be really cool to measure that sort of thing and see.”

“Wow, that’s completely different to how I was thinking about it. Completely reasonable, I think, but completely different. I was thinking more of figuring out how to derive some kind of model.”

Jaxon was digging in his backpack. “I’m sure you can do that too. It sounds like a pretty open ended project.” He pulled out his pen and notebook and started making sketches.

Ken sighed. The girls on the other side of the bench were already deeply engaged in conversation about their topics, which left him on his own trying to figure out where to begin. Well, von Rejk had suggested starting with something simple. The most basic scientific thing Ken could think of was an atom. There must be some way of modelling the nucleus and electrons. By analogy with Jaxon’s circuit diagram being a model, he realised that the nucleus and electrons might already be a kind of model — but he would think about that later. It seemed reasonable to model how things would move inside an atom. There would be some kind of equation for the force between them. If it was an electromagnetic force, he would expect the positive nucleus and the negative electron to just run into each other. That didn’t sound quite right, but he reckoned figuring out why would give him something to learn. He headed off to talk to Mathematician von Rejk.

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