30 May 2008

Evolution of a Clock

I believe this is from the same guy who did the white and black evolution demo. In this one, he takes the strawman argument of the "blind watchmaker" and turns it around: the argument is a flawed analogy, as there is no driving force or limiting factors in actual watchmaking the way there is in evolution - random mutations, and natural selection. The author introduces these to factors into a pile of gears and hands, and watches what happens.

As you watch this nearly 10 minute long video, it may help to hover your mouse near the pause button, as some of the text goes by quickly.

26 May 2008

European Fuel Economy

Now this's interesting. I'd always heard that European cars in general get higher fuel efficiency than US cars, so I looked it up briefly. Wikipedia, for example, says that a typical European car gets 47 mpg highway, 36 mpg city [Wikipedia: Gas mileage]. But then I checked the Smart Fortwo specifically, since it's got such horrible gas mileage. The exact same model of car the EU rates as 50 mpg while the US rates it as 36 mpg [Wikipedia: Smart Fortwo].

This makes me question our testing methods, and whether European cars really do get better gas mileage than ours. I mean, if we don't test things the same way, it's comparing apples and oranges. Anyone know more about this?

16 May 2008

Science questions

On another blog a few interesting questions were asked of scientists by a school board member. My responses are below. I'd love to see others' thoughts, whether responses to the original questions, or what you think of mine.

1. What or who sparked your interest in science?
If I had to say a person, it'd be my Dad - an electrical engineer who encouraged me to take VCRs apart and always told me I could do anything I wanted to do. If I had to say an event, it was going to an observatory in CT (I grew up in NYC) at age 12 and seeing Saturn through a telescope.

But more realistically, it was a process that took years throughout high school in which I realized that I enjoyed it and was good at it. I also enjoyed Latin and Art, but I wasn't as good at them (and there's no money in the fields). I was also good at Math but didn't enjoy it. It was when I took Physics that every thing clicked - I finally understood why Math had been invented.

2. What does the word "science" mean to you?
a) A process of inquiry in which one asks questions and gathers physical evidence to attempt to find an answer based in physical reality. Sometimes the Scientific Method is used, but while it is the most famous description of the process, it is not the only one.
b) A set of "facts" about the physical universe, which are frequently updated as humanity learns more.

3. What scientific skills do you most often use in your work?
In the spirit of full disclosure, I am currently a community college faculty member, not a research scientist, however these skills come to me through my scientific background. The most important skill I have is to take a set of isolated facts, internalize and process them, and recombine them into a coherent picture of reality that I can then communicate to others. Communication skills are high on my list - I have often been praised for my writing ability and my attention to detail, in addition to oral communication (of course, as a teacher).

4. What do you think makes a good science teacher?
Nowadays K-12 science teachers need to have excellent critical thinking skills and be able to distinguish between pseudoscience (such as astrology, creationism/ID, mercury/autism, Moon Hoax conspiracy theory) and actual science (the real things being astronomy, evolution, vaccinations, space exploration).

5. Do you think children have enough science preparation for today's world?
No. Science standards are being continually eroded through the introduction of deceptive "teach the controversy" rules (when there isn't any controversy at all in the scientific subject). Students are encouraged to have poor critical thinking skills, and to alternately fear and mock science and scientific thought. I especially worry about the fate of girls in science - middle school is where we tend to lose them to social pressures.

6. If there was one science concept that you could ensure all children learn, what would it be?
Content: Evolution. (And I'm a physicist.) Without understanding evolution, there's no way they can understand humanity, let alone medicine.
Process: Critical Thinking.
Second choice on content would be alternative energy sources and conservationism in general - and that's also interdisciplinary.

7. What are some of teh science trends you predict for the future?
* International sanctions against the US for our carbon emissions - oops, that's political!
* The continued decoding of the genome will lead to leaps and bounds in medicine.
* The definition of "planet" will be revised yet again when the International Astronomical Union meets next in 2009. The New Horizons mission to Pluto and other Kuiper Belt Objects will reach Pluto in 2015 and I'm not sure when after that it will get to other Kuiper Belt Objects. Expect Pluto and the definition of planet to stay in the news until at least 2020.

8. What can teachers do to encourage more women/minorities to consider science careers?
* Bring in women scientists to give speeches
* Hang posters of women scientists in classrooms/halls
* Feature women scientists in class, such as Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin, and the Harvard College Observatory women.
* Start after school activities targeting girls in science - many colleges and universities run these programs partnering with area K-12 schools, and organizations such as the NSF and NIH offer grants to both K-12 schools and higher ed organizations for them.
* Hire and support teachers and administrators who will aggressively pursue and follow through such grants and collaborations.
* Hire teachers with both education and science backgrounds - either without the other won't do as much good as having both.

12 May 2008

The Wage Gap in the Sciences

According to the 2004 US Census, women in the US earned on average 76.5¢ for every dollar that men earned. (Wikipedia) This statistic, however, is misleading as it fails to take into account issues such as choice in career (CEO pays more than cashier), education, delay of career due to childcare, or even full/part time employment status (correct me if I'm wrong on this last one). While the statistic of 76.5¢ on the dollar is quite depressing, it would be much more useful to compare like jobs and like education levels.

Well, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has a series of statistics that help us to examine exactly this! If you look at the overall situation, then it's worse than in non-science fields: Women in the sciences earn $49k on average, while men earn $70k, putting women at 70¢ on the dollar ("Median annual salary of scientists and engineers employed full time, by highest degree, broad occupation, age group, and sex: 2003", Table H-16). But once you start to control things better, the situation isn't quite as dire. For people with a Master's degree such as myself, women earn 80¢ on the man's dollar ("Primary education/employment status and median salary of 2001 and 2002 S&E master's degree recipients, by field, sex, race/ethnicity, and disability status: 2003", Table H-14).

It varies by field and age as well. Women in Biological/Life sciences can expect 88¢, while women in Math average out at 71¢ (lower than the national average!). My field, physical science, is nearly as bad at 73¢ - however young women (under age 29) can expect to make $1.14 to every dollar that a man makes! How's that for breaking the curve! Unless she's got a doctorate too, then it's back down to 72¢.

07 May 2008

The Eye's Evolution

Latest from the National Center for Science Education is a video about the evolution of eye. This video is a very simple explanation of why the irreducible complexity argument for the eye is flawed. The answer: it isn't irreducibly complex!

06 May 2008

More poor science in the news

My goodness, is this CNN video misleading. The person who wrote this video is trying to make the point that older cars get better gas mileage than newer cars, when in fact the reality is that he's just supporting the known fact that smaller cars get better gas mileage than bigger cars. In both cases the person interviewed traded down in car size when they went to the older car - one guy went from an SUV to a smaller pickup truck, the other from a pickup truck to a sedan. Whoever wrote this article needs to go back to college and take a science course where they teaching about controlling the variables.

05 May 2008

Newest New Moon!

If I'm understanding this correctly, the newest New Moon ever has been photographed - it's a new record!

04 May 2008

Kepler College

Thanks to Matt for the link - I didn't even know that there was a whole college on astrological studies, Kepler College. Thankfully they're non-accredited, though they are authorized by the state of Washington to award degrees.

This means that (1) thankfully we don't have to waste time trying to get them unaccredited since they already are, and (2) I have to do more research to understand the distinction between accreditation and authorization. I suspect that the former means an independent national board of experts essentially peer-reviews the school, while the latter is just a small legal issue having to do primarily with paperwork but also with state educational boards voting (though not necessarily using any expert witnesses and detailed review).

Oh and, anyone else get a chuckle out of the school being named "Kepler"?

03 May 2008

Sexism against women physicists

Anyone have access to this article? It looks to be an interesting read, but I can't access it from home.

02 May 2008

New Template

So I got bored of the old layout and am trying a new one. Let me know what you think!