Tag Archives: science

Science literacy

The Christian Science Monitor has a quiz going around that allows you to test your science literacy. The 50-question quiz was not a particularly easy one. It covered a wide range of sciences including biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, meteorology, and mathematics. I took the quiz and ended up answering 43 out of 50 questions correctly. Here are the 7 questions that I got wrong (I won’t tell you the correct answers in case you want to take the quiz yourself):

  • How many nanometers are there in a centimeter? (I was off by 1 order of magnitude.)
  • What is the heaviest noble gas? (I should have known this one.)
  • Named for the 19th century English physicist, what unit of measurement is defined as the energy exerted by the force of one newton acting to move an object through a distance of one meter. (I mistook the nationality of the scientist I selected.)
  • If you were to apply a net force of one Newton on a 200 gram object, what would be the acceleration of the object? (Forgot the formula.)
  • Geologists categorize rocks into three types: Igneous, sedimentary, and what? (Guessed.)
  • Over half the world’s supply of what element, which gets its name from the epithet of the Greek goddess Athena, is used in catalytic converters. (In hindsight, I should have known this based on the Greek epithet hint alone.)
  • In quantum mechanics, the physical constant used to describe the size of quanta–denoted as h–is named after what German physicist.

Overall, however, 43 out of 50 isn’t too bad for someone without a degree in a physical or biological science. It amounts to an 86%, or a solid B. That I could manage a solid B in science literacy without having majored in a science is due to three things, I think:

  1. A good science foundation in high school. I took AP biology and AP physics in high school. I took the standard chemistry course. That AP physics course was taught by an outstanding teacher, Dr. Goldman. It was my first introduction to physics and it left a real impression on me.
  2. Isaac Asimov’s science essays. After graduating from college, I gradually made my way through all 399 of Isaac Asimov’s science essays that he wrote for the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (F&SF)¬†from 1958 through his death in 1992. These essays taught me science in a way that I never learned it in high school or college–from a cumulative, historical perspective. This perspective made many of the concepts much easier to understand because you always started at the beginning, when nobody knew anything about a subject. You could also see the mistakes scientists made along the way and how they recognized them as such and corrected them. I was able to answer a good number of the questions on the quiz because I’d read Asimov’s essays.
  3. Keeping up with science through magazines like Scientific American, New Scientist, and Discover. Science is constantly evolving and there is no way for any one person to keep up with all of it. But my intent in reading these magazines (aside from the enjoyment I get from them) is to do my best to stay current with the trends and discoveries in all branches of science.

I wonder what the average score on the science literacy test is, but I am almost afraid to ask. I fear that an number I chose that seemed sufficiently low, would turn out to be not low enough.


Great opinion piece by Martin Robbins in the January 30 New Scientist, "Overdosing on nothing", which takes an intelligent, rational approach to the problem of homeopathy.  I agree with the argument put forth, which I think can be condensed to 3 salient points:

  1. The "logic" of homeopathic remedies is severely flawed.
  2. Double-blind studies of homeopathic remedies show they are no more effective than placebo.
  3. There is a danger in perpetuating the idea that homeopath is equivalent to modern medicine, especially when people delay seeking appropriate treatment.


I have recently completed my first year as a subscriber to NEW SCIENTIST.  I read every single one of the 51 issues cover-to-cover.  Sometimes I got behind a few issues, but I would always manage to catch up, and I always enjoyed every single issue.  At the same time, I have been a subscriber of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN for something like 15 years now.  I also read those issues cover-to-cover.  They are longer, but less frequent, coming monthly rather than weekly.  Between the two magazines, I feel like I have a good understanding of current scientific issues.

Having had a year to read through NEW SCIENTIST (NS), I here are a few thoughts on the differences between it and SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN (SA), beginning with a few obvious ones and moving to more subjective ones:

  • NS is a British publication while SA is American
  • NS is weekly, SA is monthly
  • NS typically runs about 50 pages, SA typically runs 80+
  • NS has shorter articles, but it more timely; NS articles are typically written by scientific journalists.  SA has longer, more in depth articles often written by the principal investigators themselves; they articles are less timely.
  • NS is stylistically lighter than SA.  Comments and commentary are often humorous.  SA is more serious (with the exception of the "Anti-Gravity" column.
  • NS has a stronger focus on climate change and global warming than SA.
  • SA has better regular columns (in my opinion) than NS.
  • NS has a better overall format than SA.  SA has recently changed editors and once again changed some of its internal format; I liked it better before the change.

Overall, I’d say I enjoy reading NS more than SA, although I look forward to reading both.  I think that by reading both, I get a balanced view of the world of science and the critical scientific issues of the day.

But I don’t just read them for fun or for improving my knowledge of science.  These magazines provide a wealth of ideas for stories and as a science fiction writer, that may be the most valuable service that they provide to me.

Simulating the universe in a lab

Physicists seem to be constantly simulating the universe in the lab. As a software developer who has written some basic simulations, I wonder how the heck they do this. As a layperson in physics, I wonder what they heck this looks like.

For instance in a NEW SCIENTIST article called "From Big Bang to Big Bounce", we have the following:

He was watchinga simulation of the universe rewind towards the big bang. Mostly the universe behaved as expected, becoming smaller and denser as the galaxies converged.

What does this really mean?  What was this guy really seeing?  Was it simply columns of numbers flying by, giving an array of values corresponding to time intervals?  Was there a graphical aspect to this?  I read about these kind of simulations fairly frequently.  Being able to "simulate the universe" seems like a remarkable feat, but given the size and complexity of the universe, I have a hard time imagining what a simulation would look like.

But I’m genuinely curious.  Does anyone out there know?

Einstein was right

According to French physicists, Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2 is correct after all.  An article in SCIENCE details how they confirmed this.  Apparently, it’s the first time the theory has ever been confirmed, which is funny.  I always thought it was confirmed on July 16, 1945.

Question about “magnitude”

There is something that has always bugged me about the evolution of the measurement of the brightness of a star, also know as it’s apparent magnitude. I understand, in principle, the notion of both apparent and absolute magnitude. What troubles me is the evolution of the idea. As I understand it, Hipparchus was the first to attempt to catalog stars by their relative brightness. He looked for the twenty brightest stars and called the “first magnitude”; then he took another grouping of dimmer stars and those became “second magnitude”, and on and on until he had the dimmest stars, just barely visible cataloged as “sixth magnitude”.

In the mid-1800s, Norman Robert Pogson made this quantifiable by showing that the average first magnitude star was 100 times brighter than the average sixth magnitude star. This means that ratio for 1 magnitude of brightness is 2.512, or that a magnitude 1 star is 2.512 x 2.512 brighter than a magnitude 3 star.

So my question: how does one measure the brightness of a star in order to put it into a given magnitude. When I look at the sky, sometimes the difference in brightness is obvious, but other times it isn’t. I can see doing it the way Hipparchus did it, by grouping, but in the mid 1850s, how did Pogson do it? What was the measurement of brightness (lumens?)? How is the brightness measured today? In other words, is there a range of brightness that qualifies for first magnitude?

Catching up on science

I’m three months behind on my SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN reading, but that’s not really news, it’s status quo these days. On the train ride home this afternoon, I tried to correct that, working back from most recent with the May 2008 issue. A few items to note:

Page 36 has an in memorium for Sir Arthur C. Clarke. The brief item reminds us of Clarke’s scientific optimism and recalls the most famous of his three “laws”, that “a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But it concludes with what I feel is an even more touching and positive sentiment:

An asteroid, an orbit, a species of dinosaur and several prizes have been named after him. Many scientists, astronauts and writers have credited him with inspiring them in starting their careers. His impact, you might say, was indistinguishable from magic.

I was rather dismayed by the forum opinion column by Mark Alpert, titled, “The Mad Scientist Myth” with the subtitle “Readers need more novels about real science”. The article criticizes novels by the likes of H.G. Wells and Ian Fleming for their portrayal of “mad scientists”, and points to Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith, which won the 1926 Pulitzer Prize as an early example of a novel that does a good job at portraying scientists. He goes on to mention a few other novels that achieve this goal, with authors like John Updike and Allergra Goodman. He concludes:

A good work of fiction can convey the smell of a laboratory, the colors of a dissected heart, the anxieties of a chemist and the joys of an astronomer… Novels such as Intuition, with their fully fleshed out characters and messy conflicts, can erase the sinister Dr. No cartoons. And most important, these books can inspire readers to become scientists themselves.

When I read this I was thunderstruck. Did this guy grow up on an island? John W. Campbell, who took over as editor of Astounding Science Fiction in 1938 and was at the helm until his death in 1971, did exactly this: he insisted that scientists in fiction be real people, with real problems to solve; he turned away from the action/adventure/mad scientist and by doing so, appealed to a generation of writers that gave birth to the Golden Age of science fiction. Readers need more novels about real science, Alpert says. Has he never read a book by Arthur C. Clarke? Or Isaac Asimov? Or Hal Clement? How about a book by Robert Silverberg? Or Robert Heinlein? Present day writers who write novels about real science are too many to count. Glancing at the titles and authors on my bookshelves, I see novels about science by Greg Bear and Gregory Benford; by Joe Haldeman; by Robert J. Sawyer. Walk into any Barnes & Noble or Borders and the science fiction section is filled with more novels about science than the science and nature section is filled with science books. Furthermore, ask a scientist what inspired him or her to become a scientists and odds are that he or she will tell you that part of it had to do with reading science fiction as a kid. I agree we need more novels about real science. But I don’t think you have to look very far to find a whole lot of good ones already out there.

Finally, there is a fascinating article on “Science 2.0”, or the notion of using social networking as an added tool to peer review in science. The premise is, in essence, to publish everything online, to make the web each and every scientists’ notebook, one in which other scientists could comment, and provide immediate feedback. The discussion of pros and cons is a fascinating insight into the world of peer review, tenure tracks, publishing, where the science seems to get lost in a process that rewards priority and secrecy. Publishing mistakes can be as useful as publishing successes. Those of us who’ve taken science courses know that this is why our teachers told us never to erase things. We need to learn from that. And in a social networking environment, we can learn from more than just ourselves. For those interested, the article happens to be freely available on the Scientific American website.

Leap day

Today is my ninth leap day (1972 was a leap year, but I was born after February 29 so I don’t count that one. Leap day always makes me think of the history of leap day, which in turn gets me thinking about the intricacies of calendars and of keeping time in general. Man, the hoops we’ve jumped through to keep the calendar in line with the seasons!

Boskone, day 1

Almost midnight and I’m back from my first day (well, evening really) as Boskone. It’s been a lot of fun. I attended two panels. The first was “Selling What You Write” and it was interesting, but I realized that it was probably not something that I needed to attend, having made one sale already. This was basic stuff, but it was still fun to listen to the questions that people asked. The second panel was called “Tracking History” and was centered on a discussion by authors of long series of books on how they keep the internal histories straight. David Weber was the big star on the panel and it was also an interesting discussion.

Later, I had a beer and then wandered over to the Con Suite. Now, I didn’t know what a Con Suite was, but it looked like a VIP suite. (Turns out it’s not.) However, I saw mabfan there (along with gnomi and so I went over to say hello. One thing led to another and we ended up talking for a couple of hours. Michael was great. He introduced me to a lot of people, telling them I was a new writing and where my story had been published. So, for example, he introduced me to Allen M. Steele, who talked about his first experience winning a Hugo Award, and who proceeded to give me advice on my acceptance speech, should the day ever come when I win one. I got to tell Allen how he once lost me a story sale.

Short version: Sheila Williams at ASIMOV’S really liked my story, “Wake Me When We Get There”, however, there was one fatal flaw to the story, which she pointed out, Allen Steele had handled much better in a similar story that he did.

He introduced me to Daniel Kimmel, a film critic in the Boston area, and the three of us stood around talking for quite a while. Daniel and Michael are very funny together.

He introduced me to author Sarah Beth Durst, who has been nominated for the Norton Award this year, and who stood around with us chatting for a while, too.

And he also introduced me to writer Bruce Coville who is the special guest at Boskone this year, and who stopped by to chat with us for a while as well. Michael and Bruce are also very funny together.

Naturally, I was overwhelmed by all of this. It’s such a cool feeling to talk face-to-face with these writers. I mean, I was chatting about Hugo Award speeches with Allen Steele, the guy who wrote “Hunting Wabbit”, which amused me so much when it appeared in SCIENCE FICTION AGE. There are nearly two full days left to the conference and now, I can’t wait for more! Thanks again, mabfan!

He bends spoons with his bare mind!

I can’t believe I haven’t posted about this yet but I’ve been so busy with life that it keeps slipping my mind.

Warning: lots of skepticism within

If I could go back in time, I’d sleep in later this morning…

This evening, I will start reading Joe Haldeman’s new book, The Accidental Time Machine. Time travel has been a staple of science fiction since H.G. Wells The Time Machine and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Now some scientists think that building a time machine might be plausible in the distant future.

Up From Dragons

I finished Up From Dragons by John Skoyles and Dorian Sagan, on Wednesday night, but haven’t had time to say a few words about it. It was one of those books that really surprised me. I had started to read it five years ago, but only got through a dozen pages or so before I moved onto other things. Even so, I recall those first dozen pages as being interesting.

I turns out that this is one of the better science books that I have read. My memory of The Dragons of Eden is just fuzzy enough to prevent me from making a fair comparison between the two of them. However, I remember loving The Dragons of Eden and I loved Up From Dragons as well.

Up From Dragons was a more technically difficult read than Eden. Without being mathematical, the book discusses the most complex object in the universe–the human brain–and I found myself at times at the limit of my comprehension, reading and re-reading passages. Nevertheless, I came away with a good understanding of what the book was trying to say, and a better understanding of the human brain, consciousness, and the evolution thereof than I have ever had before.

The book was well written, and moved in a logic order. In fact, it presented its arguments in such a way, that a chapter would conclude with a seemingly logical conundrum that would be resolved in the next chapter. I haven’t seen this kind of science writing since Isaac Asimov and I appreciate it. It makes the reading more fun. You feel like you are unraveling these mysteries along the way.

For anyone interested in human intelligence, and the evolution of the human brain, I definitely recommend this book. It’s a winner.