Tag Archives: education

Consulting about physics over Skype

My callers fall into two very different categories. Some of them cherish the opportunity to talk to a physicist because one-to-one conversation is simply more efficient than Google. They can shoot up to 20 questions a minute, everything from: ‘How do we know quarks exist?’ to ‘Can atoms contain tiny universes?’ They’re normally young or middle-aged men who want to understand all the nerdy stuff but have no time to lose. That’s the minority.

The majority of my callers are the ones who seek advice for an idea they’ve tried to formalise, unsuccessfully, often for a long time. Many of them are retired or near retirement, typically with a background in engineering or a related industry. All of them are men. Many base their theories on images, downloaded or drawn by hand, embedded in long pamphlets. A few use basic equations. Some add videos or applets. Some work with 3D models of Styrofoam, cardboard or wires. The variety of their ideas is bewildering, but these callers have two things in common: they spend an extraordinary amount of time on their theories, and they are frustrated that nobody is interested.

Source: What I learned as a hired consultant to autodidact physicists | Aeon Ideas

What happens when an out of work theoretical physicist starts a business where anyone can call him on skype and ask questions for $50 / 20 minutes? Some really fascinating stuff. Mostly about how people absorb, or mis absorb, popular science.

We often forget that abstractions and models, are just that. Like maps, you file off all the interesting details to get a big picture. But a map of the US tells you very little about the stream in your back yard. The wildlife along it. When it floods. What vegetation grows because of that. The story is always deeper, more complicated, and more interesting the closer you look.

Is Algebra Necessary? Yes!

From time to time an academic makes an argument about how math isn't all that important. Like this one in the NYTimes:

A TYPICAL American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with algebra. In both high school and college, all too many students are expected to fail. Why do we subject American students to this ordeal? I’ve found myself moving toward the strong view that we shouldn’t.

The article is a series of randomly thrown out and disconnected statements about how math might not be so important. The kind of non logical arguments you might expect from someone without a good grasp on math and logic. 🙂

It is true that I rarely use my math in my job as a software engineer. Where I use the math I learned in high school most often is on one of my hobbies, wood working. The moment you get beyond 90 degree angles on things, all that algebra and trig comes into play. A few years ago I created a set of built in shelves that had to deal with a 73 degree corner in my house, and have a sheet of pencil scribbles and trig functions to figure out all the cuts and sizes of pieces I'd need. I've got a host of custom built furniture in my house, all of which required algebra and trig to get right. And don't even get me started on my deck.

The math you learn in high school is actually the math of carpenters and farmers. It's a foundation for high math, but it's real use is in much more concrete things. And that's the reason why "Our civilization would collapse without mathematics."

So the next time someone starts going on about how math is unimportant, look them in the eye and say: you've never built anything with your hands, have you?

Maybe it shouldn't be Computer Science

I had an interesting conversation at lunch yesterday when I met a CS professor at a local college. He's got nearly 15 years industry experience, in addition to a decade being in academia, so exposure on both sides of the fence. During the course of the conversation I asked him what triggered the transition. His response was that he didn't really enjoy programming.

There's nothing wrong with that answer. I'm always jarred by it when I hear it from folks, because programming is what I love. But everyone's different, an there is a lot more to computer science than just programming.

Over the course of the day that statement kept coming back to me, and I realized I'd heard it a lot of times in the past. The vast majority of CS profs I had during my graduate degree were in the same camp. Friends that are in CS academia, tend to lean the same way.

Art and music programs in liberal arts schools are a combination of practitioners and theorists, attempting to build a well rounded art student on both fronts. So why is CS still mostly theory in these environments?

The theory parts of CS wouldn't have been my thing as an undergraduate either. Much like calculus being pretty boring in high school, but becoming down right compelling in my college physics classes when it was a tool to solve a problem, and not just theory that stood on it's own. Without a body of work that's tangible, the theory is much less relevant.

So maybe it's time to call it something other than Computer Science. Software Engineering has the no no of the word Engineering, which doesn't go over well at liberal arts schools. Apparently, Informatics is the monkier in much of Europe, and given the rise of data analysis, that's probably as good an idea as anything else.

Colbert and Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of my favorite speakers. I've gone on Tyson binges on youtube before, watching one video after another of talks that he's given. You only end up smarter for doing so. And now there is a brand new, long form, talk to add to the list.

Stephen Colbert does a long form, over an hour, interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson on stage. There are bits you've heard other places (like his Titanic story), but lots of new perspectives as well. Treat your brain, and take the time to watch this.

NYTimes on Bard's Citizen Science

The 480 students have studied under two dozen scientists recruited from across the country for the program. Using lab equipment, computer modeling and classroom discussions, they have explored all aspects of disease, including detecting germs and managing pandemics.

“There are mixed opinions, from total apathy — ‘Why am I here? This isn’t why I came to Bard’ — to total enthusiasm,” Ms. Batkin said of her classmates. “I decided to take it 100 percent seriously; otherwise I knew I wouldn’t get anything out of it. I definitely find myself becoming more critical of the science articles I read.”

It seemed to have a pretty good kickoff, though I'm sure there will be detractors. Looking forward to how this program evolves over time.

Unlearn Something Wrong Today

Glass is not a high-viscosity liquid at room temperature: it is an amorphous solid, although it does have some chemical properties normally associated with liquids. Panes of stained glass windows often have thicker glass at the bottom than at the top, and this has been cited as an example of the slow flow of glass over centuries. However, this unevenness is due to the window manufacturing processes used in earlier eras, which produced glass panes that were unevenly thick at the time of their installation. It is common to find old windows which are thicker at the sides or the top.[114][115]

Wikipedia has a pretty good list of Common Misconceptions, with references explaining why they aren't true, and what the real story is.  Unlearning a wrong fact is one of the hardest things to do as a human being, so do yourself a favor and unlearn something wrong today.

Most Awesome Science Teacher ever

Last year, high school science teacher Ron Dantowitz of Brookline, Mass., played a clever trick on three of his best students. He asked them to plan a hypothetical mission to fly onboard a NASA DC-8 aircraft and observe a spacecraft disintegrate as it came screaming into Earth's atmosphere. How would they record the event? What could they learn?

For 6 months, they worked hard on their assignment, never suspecting the surprise Dantowitz had in store.

On March 12th, he stunned them with the news: "The mission is real, and you're going along for the ride."

The full write up, the video and spectrographs they got, are all up on NASA's website.

Teaching Engineering in Kindergarden

Glenn Rock, New Jersey did an inspired thing, and added Engineering into their kindergarden program:

They plan multiday projects, often built around classic and popular stories like the Three Little Pigs, and take students step by step through the engineering process: design, build, test, evaluate.

“They have to have the thinking skills of an engineer to keep up with all the innovation that’s constantly coming into their world,” Ms. Morrow said.

First graders were recently challenged with helping a farmer keep rabbits out of his garden.

In teams of four, they brainstormed about building fences with difficult-to-scale ladders instead of doors and setting out food decoys for the rabbits. They drew up blueprints and then brought them to life with plastic plates, paper cups, straws and foam paper.

Then they planned to test their ideas with pop-up plastic rabbits. If the fences were breached, they would be asked to improve the design.

“It gets your brain going,” said Elizabeth Crowley, 7, who wants to be an engineer when she grows up. “And I actually learn something when I’m doing a project — like you can work together to do something you couldn’t do before.”

I'm hoping the Race to the Top program spurs more of this kind of thing.

Bard's new Citizen Science Program

You can see it in the dust up over climate change or vaccines, most people just don't understand what science is, how it works, and how it's different from anecdotal evidence.  This translates to some very real world policy issues.

Bard College, in my backyard, is creating a new program to try to address this:

But to many of the college’s faculty, and to Leon Botstein, who has been the college’s president since 1975, there was still something missing: a true introduction to science and scientific thinking for the vast majority of Bard’s students. “People who graduate in fields other than science often do not understand science,” he says. “They do not know what the limits of science are and what science can do. It’s catastrophic.”

Next January, Bard’s science and math faculty – along with postdoctoral students and faculty from other institutions -- will try to change all that with the Citizen Science Program, three weeks of science learning modeled on the success of Language and Thinking. Also required of all 500 of the college’s freshmen, and ungraded, Botstein hopes it will become similarly entrenched as a landmark of students’ first year at Bard.

This is going to be 3 weeks of quite intensive education.  From the curriculum:

This program will merge three distinct, yet thematically interwoven week-long rotations, each designed to address the overarching question How can we reduce the global burden
of infectious disease?
In one rotation, you will focus on the concept of laboratory experimentation by exploring the question How can infections be treated? This rotation will be spent in the laboratories of the Gabrielle H. Reem and Herbert J. Kayden Center for Science and Computation. You will get hands-on experience exploring how antibiotic resistance develops in bacterial strains and how DNA is moved from bacterium to bacterium (similar to how antibiotic resistance in Staphylococcus aureus produced the “MRSA” strains so often reported in the news).

The second rotation will focus on the question What factor best explains a person’s probability of exposure to disease? The disease we will study is tuberculosis. You will look at a number of factors, including the science of Mycobacterium (the organism that causes tuberculosis), risk factors that can cause a tuberculosis infection to become worse (including HIV infection), and global locations where the tuberculosis burden is heavy and light. We will discuss what can be done to alter the number of infectious cases within these different environments.

The third rotation will focus on the spread of infection by exploring the question What intervention—such as vaccination, treatment, reduced exposure—is the most effective at reducing transmission of an infection? You will learn to use state-of-the-art computer simulations to help you understand and observe how an infectious disease can spread throughout a community, and how different treatment options can be effective in limiting disease.

I especially appreciate their focus on a real world problem, then using science to explore facets on how to address it.  It's an inspired approach, and I wish them the best of luck in implementing it.