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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Puppy Love

It's been a long week in many ways, the most irritating of which was a near fight at the intramural basketball game Thursday night. I was pretty down about the whole thing when I got home, but this is why we have a dog.

I sat on the living-room floor (I didn't want to sweat on the couch), and took off the shirt and socks I'd worn in the game. These immediately attracted her attention, and evidently met with her approval. The glowing green eyes mean she's happy.

She may not be the brightest dog in the world, but she does love me.

Posted at 7:42 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Stop. Just... Stop.

We interrupt our inside-baseball academic navel gazing for a little football commentary. Or, rather, meta-football meta-commentary, because I'm commenting on non-football comments made by a football commentator.

The writer in question is Gregg Easterbrook, who many wrongly persist in thinking of as a general-purpose public intellectual. "He's a senior editor of The New Republic," these people say, "How can you belittle him as merely a football commentator?"

The answer is simple: his football commentary is excellent. But every time he puts fingers to keyboard to write about any other subject that I know anything about, he reveals himself to be a complete and utter chowderhead. Thus, I feel that I'm not belittling him by referring to him as a football commentator, but rather pointing out his strengths.

Sadly, he insists on working non-football topics into even his football commentary, such as his Super Bowl column, which contains this summary of recent results from the ATRAP collaboartion at CERN:

Ed DeJesus of Norwood, Mass., reports that the CERN research accelerator in Switzerland has just created anti-hydrogen in extremely small quantities. Anti-hydrogen is the antimatter mirror image of hydrogen. If an anti-hydrogen atom met a hydrogen atom, each would release all its energy in a total-annihilation reaction far more potent than the nuclear fusion that powers the sun and thermonuclear bombs. Anti-protons previously made in accelerators have been isolated by elaborate magnetic fields to keep them from contacting normal matter and annihilating; CERN's achievement is to create entire anti-atoms and hold them in a stable condition using pressure from lasers. "The ultimate goal is to make a goodly supply of anti-atoms, store them and then probe their internal structure," CERN reports.

This appears to have been generated from this press release. Or, rather, by having a ten-year-old with ADD read that press release, and summarize it for him. This isn't even a physics problem, so much as a reading comprehension problem: any literate adult reading the press release for themselves would surely notice that this is not the first experiment to produce antihydrogen (there are at least two references to prior work, starting with the third sentence of the release), and that the lasers are not used to trap the atoms, but as part of the production reaction (in fact, nothing in the release suggests that the atoms are trapped at all after they are created-- I'll have to check the paper when I'm at work).

Of course, it doesn't really matter to Easterbrook that he's mangled the description of the experiment, as it's really just a springboard for some Luddite windbaggery about antimatter bombs. "In theory an antimatter bomb the size of a baseball could obliterate a city." Sure, and when we've worked out how to make 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times as many antihydrogen atoms as we've made to date (at the rate of a couple thousand a year, last I heard), this will be a real dilemma. Of course, the clone armies will have taken over by then, so it's not that big a deal.

Of course, that's not even close to the levels of fatuousness he achieves when he attempts to talk about cosmology:

Both the donut and soccer-ball camps hold that when astronomers scan deep space, the infinity they think they see is an illusion. In some doughnut-shaped or soccer-inspired or bagel-sliced way, the cosmos appears much larger than it is. Cosmologists estimate there are at least 100 billion galaxies; actually, these researchers contend, what we observe is reflections of a much smaller number of galaxies: a traveler moving at super-speed straight out into the universe would eventually end up back at the starting point, not continue forever. The universe is an illusion? Well, this seems easier to swallow than the idea that all material for the entire cosmos popped out of a single point with no content, as Big Bang theory maintains.

Just... stop. You're hurting America. Take your cue from John Madden, and just disappear until August.

Posted at 8:44 AM | link | follow-ups | 21 comments

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Clarifying the Unclear

A couple of comments on the comments to the previous post. I'm elevating this to a new post because, well, I don't want this to get lost in the many other comments. I should also note additional comments at Word Munger and Eclexys.

Starting with the most specific miscommunication of the my original post, I should note that when I think of GenEd science classes, I'm not usually thinking of the classic "Physics for Poets" survey class, that starts with Newtonian mechanics and tries to cover all the basic laws of physics without doing any math. We don't actually teach any of those classes, and I don't know that anybody really thinks they're a good idea.

What I usually think of is the sort of thing that a number of commenters have mentioned, both in this thread and the older one that got me thinking about this. What we actually teach in physics GenEd classes are more topic-specific classes: studying the physics of some specific area, such as light and vision, or sound and music (though the latter has ended up being very mathematical in its current incarnation).

That view of things makes the analogy I suggested work better in my mind than for people who are thinking of a very different sort of class. When I talk about taking math out of these classes, it's more like asking a humanities professor to remove all theory references from a class on their area of specialization, than stripping them out of an intro survey class.

On a more general level, though, the discussion has drifted a little in a direction that I didn't really intend. This is probably inevitable with any argument by analogy-- eventually, you find yourself arguing about the analogy, rather than using it as a sort of gedankenexperiment to illuminate whatever it is you were supposed to be talking about.

Anyway, the point of the analogy is not that there's a strict one-to-one correspondance between mathematical skills and critical theory, and I don't really want to attempt to stretch it very far. It's intended merely as an exercise to get people to think a little bit about the unequal treatment of math/science and humanities skills in education, and in how we think and talk about the process of education. I find that I'm really bothered by the way that science and math topics are sort of casually dismissed in a lot of the discussions we've had about what we should expect students to learn and know, and I think that a lot of humanities types don't see that as a serious problem. The analogy is intended as a way to make those people think about the treatment of different disciplines, by casting it in more familiar terms.

And that brings us around to Devin Ganger's comment, which sneaked in while I was writing a comment of my own, but deserves greater prominence:

I think that a large portion of the problem you're talking about is introduced years before college. Most public primary education (at least in the U.S.) does not give the same weight to math that it does to humanities.


Look at the science courses in grade school. No quantitative treatments whatsoever; it's all about bugs and dinosaurs and *humanities-based* approaches to the topic. If they were teaching the basic levels of math and reinforcing them in their science classes at this level, the vast majority of kids who went to college would be ready for intro science classes that actually had some real math in them.

I definitely agree that the problem goes beyond the college years, and I suspect that Devin may be on to something here. The attitude toward science that troubles me extends well beyond the academy (though I find its existence in academia particularly troubling).

The fundamental problem here is that, as a society, we tend to view science as something obscure and difficult and mysterious, the exclusive province of really smart people (read: nerds). And that's wrong-- real science is not a collection of facts and figures, but a mindset and a systematic approach to the world. Birds and chimpanzees manage it without the benefit of any education at all, so it should never be beyond the capabilities of any functioning human being. And yet, we insist on treating math and science (which are inextricably linked) as something especially difficult and almost alien.

Again, if someone reads only with difficulty, that's considered a serious disability, and we scurry around to make accomodations. If someone adds only with difficulty, people laugh it off. Math, after all, is Hard. I know, because Barbie told me.

I'm not ready to elevate innumeracy above illiteracy as an educational crisis-- reading is still more important than math-- but treating it as totally insignificant is deeply wrong. No educated person should have a fear of math or science, and yet there are thousands of people with college degrees who will happily brag about how they managed to avoid taking any classes requiring more than addition. That's just wrong.

Devin is right that the problem starts much earlier than college. I'm talking about it at the college level, because that's where I encounter it in my daily life, but real reform would have to start earlier. I'm not sure I'd be willing to be the one teaching algebra to nine-year-olds, but it may be an idea that's worth talking about.

Posted at 8:18 AM | link | follow-ups | 18 comments

Monday, February 07, 2005

Poetry for Physicists

The comments to my post about making physics more attractive raised the issue of science courses for non-majors, and how to make them more interesting. We're currently in the process of considering revisions to the General Education curriculum at work, so this is a topic that's been on my mind a lot.

I find that I'm deeply ambivalent about GenEd science classes (here defined as anything aimed primarily at non-science majors, from the "Physics for Poets" conceptual survey classes to more narrowly defined classes that treat a single topic in a conceptual manner). On the one hand, I do believe, as I said earlier, that reaching out to the general public, and trying to make science more accessible is an important thing to do. It's part of why I started this blog, and part of why I have the job that I do. I sought work at a liberal arts college that emphasizes teaching as well as research because I think that teaching physics is at least as important as pushing the frontiers of research.

The problem is, I'm bothered by the whole concept of GenEd science classes, which, in physics at least, generally means science without math. On some level, I think these classes perpetuate the very problem they're meant to address-- they reinforce the impression that Science is mysterious and arcane, and beyond the ability of the average citizen. Only super-smart nerds take "real" science classes, while English majors need special dumbed-down versions in order to understand anything.

I've often joked that to balance things out, we ought to have a "Poetry for Physicists" class, studying only simple poems that rhyme, and have straightforward interpretations. Lots of Robert Frost, and that sort of thing. If you want to get really daring, you could maybe do some William Carlos Williams in the last week or so, but it wouldn't be on the exam. If we're going to make special accomodations for math-phobic English majors, then surely we can do something to make life easy for the emotionally stunted science nerds.

I'm exaggerating, of course-- there's no real reason why science nerds can't handle regular literature classes. Sean Carroll provides proof, posting the occasional poem, and talking sensibly about poetry.

But I do think there is an imbalance here, and it bothers me. If a student were to come in and say "You know, I just can't handle literature classes. I'm no good at reading, and I'm not comfortable with it, so I don't want to take any English classes," most faculty would think that there's something wrong with that person. And yet, I hear functionally equivalent statements about math every time I bring this subject up. Bright people will say "I think science is really neat, but I just can't handle math," and see nothing wrong with that.

If a student professed a distaste for reading as frankly as some express their distaste for math, we'd think that they were intellectually stunted. Illiteracy is a sign of a learning disability, while innumeracy is shrugged off as just one of those things. And that really bothers me, because at its most basic level, science is mathematical, and I don't think it's really beyond the capabilities of the average person (I don't even think of myself as particularly good at math, to be honest).

Dave Munger's qualified defense of literary theory points to another possible definition of a "Poetry for Physicists" class, and one that I think may prove useful in future discussions with people from the other side of campus. He notes, correctly, that:

[C]ontemporary literature study demands an understanding of critical theory, not just close reading. You won’t get anywhere in grad school – let alone as a professor – without an ability to apply critical theory.

I tend to agree with that statement, at least based on my conversations with faculty in the humanities. And that's the key to what "Poetry for Physicists" would be: literature without critical theory. No Marxism, no feminism, no post-anything-ism: just the course recommended by Salman Rushdie (as quoted by Dave): "Rushdie thinks students should be taught to simply read texts, 'one sentence after another,' and afterwards, to 'try to piece together what those sentences mean.'"

You could argue that this would be doing a disservice to students, that it is impossible to claim to have a meaningful understanding of modern literary scholarship without having at least some acquaintance with critical theory. And you'd be right. But that's exactly the sort of class that scientists are regularly asked to provide. At least in physics, it is impossible to claim to have a meaningful understanding of the subject without using mathematics. It's extremely difficult to even provide a rough and qualitative idea of the subject without some math.

You could also argue that humanities departments already have to do this sort of thing, in their introductory classes. I can't really say what they're doing in introductory classes these days (or even back in my day-- I tested out of English 101, and met my humanities requirements by being buried under an avalanche of critical theory in 400-level classes), but I'm skeptical. At a meeting last year, a colleague in the humanities suggested, to many approving nods, that every freshman at the college should be required to read The Theory Toolbox by Jeffrey Nealon and Susan Searls Giroux. I haven't read it, but you can get some idea from the table of contents, and the one-sentence summary: "A textbook for an undergraduate course introducing theory anywhere but the natural sciences." If they think that every freshmman should read that, they probably want critical theory in the intro classes.

But try to imagine the response if a scientist were to suggest that all freshmen be required to read Div, Grad, Curl, and All That: An Informal Text on Vector Calculus. I can't see my colleagues going for that, even though it would be precisely as useful to their students as The Theory Toolbox would be to mine (and potentially as useful to my students as The Theory Toolbox is to theirs).

So, am I suggesting that we eliminate all GenEd science classes, and force everybody to suffer through calculus-based introductory physics? No. That would do more harm than good-- too many students already view science as a miserable slog.

I would, however, like for people in the humanities to have a greater appreciation of exactly what's being asked of science departments when it comes to GenEd classes. Separating the math from science classes in order to accomodate humanities majors with a fear of equations is not a trivial task, and is pretty much comparable to trying to discuss modern literary scholarship without any reference to theory. I don't think people really understand what's involved, here, and thinking about "Poetry for Physicists" is an exercise that might help make it clearer.

(You could also argue, as Dave Munger does, that some theory-free non-major literature classes would be in the best interests of English departments. I think I probably agree with that, for the same reason that quality GenEd classes are in the best interests of science departments, but this is way too long already. Also, this whole post can easily be modified to apply to disciplines other than literature (I don't really mean to just pick on literature professors), but that will have to be left as an exercise for the reader.)

(Of course, I'm ranting to the wrong people here, based on what I know of my readership, which seems to be mostly sci-tech types. I should probably strip out the bloggy references, and send it to the Chronicle of Higher Education. In my copious free time.)

Posted at 8:28 AM | link | follow-ups | 42 comments

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Sports Questions

Tonight's Super Bowl has made Kate a happy Kate, but raises a few interesting questions:

1) The Patriots have won three Super Bowls in four years, by a total of nine points. Has there ever been another sports dynasty founded on just barely squeaking through every championship game they played?

2) Donovan McNabb always made it look remarkably easy to play quarterback when he was at Syracuse. He'd sort of stroll up to the line, wave casually at his linemen and receivers, and take the snap just as the play clock expired. He kind of got carried away with the whole "look casual" thing tonight, though. What was up with that? That had to be just about the worst clock management I've ever seen.

3) Do they have gigantic chemical plants in Jacksonville pumping idiot gas into the air, or something? Or was everybody involved with the post-game show just drunk? Actually, this might provide the answer to #2, as well.

Game commentary: The MVP apparently went to Deion Branch, though you could barely tell from the rushed trophy presentation. It should've gone to Terrell Owens, even though he is a dick, and his team did lose. He was about the best thing the Eagles had going. Or, if you wanted to give it to somebody on the winning team, Rodney Harrison. But defensive players get no love when you let idiots with cell phones do most of the voting.

Halftime commentary: I left it on while I made dinner (Kate was walking the dog), and Paul McCartney was competently boring. But hey, at least he didn't embarass himself by trying to seem relevant-- he came out, played a bunch of Beatles tunes, and got out of the way. That's what you want in a halftime show: not actively irritating to watch, but nothing you'll be sorry to miss if you need to go flip the burgers.

Posted at 10:40 PM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

Many Fauceted Scarlet Emerald

Aaron Bergman made a comment a little while ago referring to "Gevers-like levels of bad writing." I didn't immediately realize what he meant, as I usually skim Nick Gevers's short fiction reviews in Locus (I don't read any of the SF magazines, so I never really see any of the stories he talks about). Their "Recommended Reading" list issue includes "year in review" pieces from all of their reviewers, and his is, as they say, a doozy, including this monster sentence:

I was enormously impressed with Sean McMullen's Glass Dragons, second in the Moonworlds series, a ruthless, audacious incursion of outlaw Australian humor and martial-arts farce into the territory of High Fantasy, where preposterous hierarchies, unchivalrous aristocrats, and bumbling sorcerous conspiracies were little match, in the end, for the author's coterie of cunning, conflicted, picaresque warriors; with a whimsical savage authority, McMullen is making the niche once occupied by L. Sprague de Camp and Jack Vance his own.

Wow. That's all I can say: wow.

Other gems include:

decorous yet transgressive
an entire nest of uchronias
dazzling metaphysical choreography
penetratingly precise prose
desiccated mutant future

and, finally, Luciius Shepard's Trujillo is evidently:

[A] massive, brooding volume of novellas which anatomized the human present in terms fuliginous, hallucinated, ferociously moral.

(I've deleted a parenthetical remark at the end of the sentence, but that's it. I think it's missing an "and," or something, but that's not my fault.)

Now, I can't really lay claim to much of the Moral High Ground on the subject of adjective abuse, but this is really an amazing piece of work. It's rare to find a noun modified by fewer than two adjectives or adverbs, and those few that are relatively unadorned are usually buried in the middle of huge tangles of clauses.

I am speechless. And now, I really must stop reading this.

Posted at 1:40 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

One of These Things Is Not Like The Others

This year will mark the fifth time that Kate and I have gone to Boskone, and she suggested that I should volunteer to do some science-type panels. So I did, and sent them some information about what I do, and what sorts of things I read.

I got email last night with the very preliminary list of panels that I'll be on (I'll post more specifics when the final version is available), including this one:

Sun10:00 am: The Joy of Space Opera
David G. Hartwell
Chad Orzel
Frederik Pohl
Allen M. Steele

Jack Williamson must be busy that day.

Posted at 1:26 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

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