Tag Archives: science

We Need More Practical Lessons

While reading Walter Isaacson’s new book, The Code Breaker, I was particularly struck by some seemingly minor details. The book is a fascinating look into the modern process of scientific discovery, and there was some discussion of how a discovery written in a lab book and then signed by witnesses in order to document the dates of the discovery. When do scientists learn to do this?

I took AP biology, and AP physics in high school, as well as physics, chemistry and organic chemistry in college and no one every taught me how to properly use a lab book. Indeed, what was implied, at least at that level, was that what the teaching assistants and grad students who led the labs really wanted was nice, neat copy in our lab books with clear results that were easy to grade. I remember many of my fellow students had two lab books: the one they worked stuff out in, and the one they turned in after everything was cleaned up. I couldn’t spend the money on two lab books, so mine were messy.

It seems to me that the mechanics of a lab book–its true purpose and how it is used the real world–is a practical lesson that any burgeoning scientist should learn. But who teaches this? Are there upper division chemistry classes that focus on this? Certainly o-chem didn’t.

This got me thinking about other practical lessons that I would have benefited from, but was never formally taught. How to read a newspaper is one example that I’ve written about before. What about keeping a diary or journal? I don’t ever remember this being taught in school. I don’t ever remember a class in which the pros and cons of journals were discussed. I would have found these things very useful. Instead, I learned how to keep a journal by following (initially) the example Isaac Asimov described for himself in his autobiography.

Lab books are useful tools outside of the laboratory. For the first half of my career, I didn’t keep any kind of notes about the code I was writing. If I had to recreate something, therefore, it was often hard work. At some point, it occurred to me to keep notes as I worked. When I do something particularly complicated, I often list it out in my notes in high level steps, and then fill in the details as I work. I keep one simple idea in mind: a person new to the organization should be able to take my notes and reproduce my work. Technical debt is a big problem in I.T. People come and go and leave behind lots of undocumented code in their wake. You’d think lessons in keeping good notes would be part of the training process, but I’ve never seen it.

For that matter, how about something as simple as keeping a to-do list? I was never taught this in any of my classes.

There was one class I had–a 7th grade science class–in which our teacher spent quite a bit of time teaching us how to organize our work. We learned how to keep our science folder, and how to keep our notes and assignments organized in the folder. It was practical information that served me well through the rest of my pre-college schooling. Beyond that, most of the practical things I learned from books.

I can’t remember a teacher teaching how to take notes: how to identify the important points, and highlight them; what to leave in and what to exclude from the notes; tricks of shorthand to capture information more succinctly. All of this I had to figure out on my own. I read a book between my sophomore and junior years in college, and one chapter was all about note-taking. It changed the way I take notes and I use that method to this day.

I try to pass on some of these practical lessons to my kids. The Little Miss keeps a journal and I encourage that, and allow her to look at my journals in order to take ideas, but mainly so that she understands she can make it whatever she wants it to be. The Little Man could benefit from a daily to-do list, and I’ve tried on a couple of occasions to suggest it, even offering to help him get started by reviewing it together. He resists it, but he is at the age where he doesn’t think he needs it. (He does.)

It seems to me that in addition to classes in science and math and reading and English and history and art and physical education, there should be some practical classes on topics like these. Better yet, practical lessons could be merged into the existing classes.

  • In science, you could learn how to keep a lab book while you do your experiments. The lessons would be about the purpose–not to show you got the right answer, but to be able to reproduce your results, whatever they were.
  • In English, there could be a section on the literature of diaries and journals. There are plenty to choose from: John Adams, Samuel Pepys, Henry David Thoreau, Anne Frank just to name a few. Discussions could ensue about why to keep a journal, the practical value, and the literature can provide examples of what other people have done.
  • In home room, you might learn how to better organize your day, keep track of your work, and manage stress.

We need more practical lessons. I certainly would have benefited from them earlier than I did.

A Journey Back to the Beginning of My Reading List

My copy of From Earth to Heaven by Isaac Asimov

I started keeping a list of books I read back in January 1996, over twenty-five years ago. As of today, there are 1,063 books on the list. I have a simple rule for how a book gets on the list: I have to finish it. If I re-read a book, which I occasionally do, it gets on the list a second (or third) time with a new number. I do re-read books sometimes, although not as often as I used to. Of the 1,063 book on the list, there are about 888 unique titles, meaning that over the course of 25 years, 175 of those 1,063 books were re-reads.

One book I had never re-read was the book that started it all, book #1 on the list, From Earth to Heaven by Isaac Asimov. Until now, that is. On Sunday I finished a book and had a small gap to fill on Monday. I didn’t want to start a lengthy book because today, the new Stephen King book, Later comes out and I’m eager to read it. So I needed something relatively short, and as I had been reading collections of essays, I figured I’d stick with the theme. I’d go back to the beginning and re-read that first book on the list.

More than 25 years, and 1,062 books intervened between the two readings, but it was a pleasure to read. From Earth to Heaven is a collection of 17 of Isaac Asimov’s science essays that used to appear monthly in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction–a series that continued for over thirty years and spanned 399 essays. These essays were collected in books in batches of 17. I eventually read all of them, and when I wrote, more than 10 years ago, that almost everything I learned about science I learned from Isaac Asimov, it was to these essays that I was specifically referring.

One of the nice things about these collections is that they are eclectic. You jump from one area of science to another. They are colloquial in tone, amusing, and educational. They also fill in many of the historical gaps that there just isn’t time for in high school and college science classes.

This particular collection covers essays that appeared February 1965 and June 1966. You can imagine, then, that some of the science was dated, but even this has its useful qualities. It is a great example of how science works, that it is progressive, builds upon itself, and is self-correcting: when new information comes to light, it is incorporated into the body of knowledge. Some of these essays refer to neutrinos and gravity waves, neither of which had been detected at the time the essays were written. Still, they provide the historical context for the subsequent discoveries.

The last time I’d read Asimov’s nonfiction was back in the spring of 2005, so I was a bit nervous approaching it more than 15 years later. Would his style hold up to what I remembered, or would it seem dated compared to more contemporary writers of science. Almost at once, my fears were allayed. Asimov’s colloquial style in these essays were just as how I remembered them, as if he was sitting across a restaurant table from me, talking directly to me about a variety of scientific topics.

It didn’t take me long to finish the book, but it was a lot of fun to read, and I’m glad I decided to go back to that book. It reminded me how much I enjoyed those essay collections. They are all still there on my shelves, read for the re-read whensoever the desire take me. That is a comforting feeling.

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.

Homeopath-etic

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.

NEW SCIENTIST vs. SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN

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