We Don't Talk About What We Know, We Talk About What We Don't Know

Stuart Firestein: The pursuit of ignorance

I really liked this talk. The post title is from his discussion of what scientists do at the end of the day at a conference, when they get together for a beer — they ask questions, and discuss the unknown.

Another paraphrase — Knowing a lot of stuff doesn’t make you a scientist. The purpose of knowing stuff is so you can ask questions. IOW, the whole purpose of learning a body of knowledge is to be able to define what isn’t known. Then you can go off and investigate that.

I also liked that even though he’s in a different field, the talk addressed general issues. There was nothing specific to neuroscience or the life sciences; even though he used examples from neuroscience, the concepts applied to physics (and, I imagine, chemistry). That doesn’t always happen

I Believe This is a Good Point

Why I don’t believe in science…and students shouldn’t either

There are plenty of other scientists out there that don’t like the use of the word “believe.” Kevin Padian, of the University of California, Berkeley, wrote an open-access article about science and evolution, entitled “Correcting some common misrepresentations of evolution in textbooks and the media.” He states:

“Saying that scientists ‘believe’ their results suggests, falsely, that their acceptance is not based on evidence, but is based somehow on faith.”

Should You Go For It?

Advice: Should you get your PhD?

Lots of good advice and insight. I can add this: a PhD (in physics, at least) generally allows you an opportunity to work on more interesting problems. As Ethan notes, glory and money are not usually the outcome of the degree. One should also note that you still spend 80% (or more) of the time doing mundane things. It’s the remaining 20% that has to be worthwhile to you.

Scientific Illiteracy

Scientific Illiteracy

There is certainly a problem, but when it reaches the level of elected officials it has gone beyond a problem of literacy. I’d venture to say that Paul Broun being Chairman of the US House Committee on Science, Space and Technology is not so much illiteracy as bordering on the abdication of responsibility on the part of the GOP. That someone like this could be elected is surely a symptom of the illiteracy in the US, but brings with it a whole new level of problems.

When elected officials, the very people we ask to lead our country, are ignorant of how the world works, how can our country be expected to survive much longer?

Also, I can’t help but think that if meteor impacts had been brought up as a point of discussion a few weeks ago, there would have been a backlash of anti-science opposition, attacking the science and scientists involved and accusations of fear-mongoring. (Now, of course, there’s a possibility of an overreaction and advocation of programs that will be nothing but safety theater.) There seems to be a tendency to deny there is any problem until it has reached a crisis level.

Misconception or Approximation?

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For the second time in the past month, Minute Physics is making a statement about what gets taught in introductory physics. It is consistent, but I still disagree. I have had too many interactions with people who want to discuss relativity (or quantum mechanics) and are either very confused or think its wrong, and this is exacerbated because they have no familiarity with classical physics.

I have no problem with telling students that what they are going to learn in introductory physics is an approximation, but the claim that presenting Newton’s gravitation equation is akin to telling students that the earth is flat is an exaggeration. If you go down that path, then what of all the other approximations that we make in physics? Speaking of a flat vs curved earth, do you really want to force students to solve trajectory problems on a curved surface rather than flat one? Is a frictionless surface a lie, or is it a convenient approximation to simplify a problem? And, on the topic of friction, should we really delve into the morass that is friction, rather than just say that it’s proportional to the normal force and try and get the big picture across?

I think the objections are wrong in a few different ways — One of the principles you learn in solving problems is how to ignore complications that do not affect the answer to the question. Also, learning physics through to relativity and other advanced topics takes years of study. Introductory classes carry with them the need to prune the information to fit, and convey the material that is most important to the students’ needs. Most of them don’t need to learn about relativity, which is why it’s not part of the introductory classes.

Old Physics isn't Obsolete Physics

Why Are Physics Classes Full of Old Stuff?

Chad does a nice job of addressing the issue raised in a Minute-Physics video. Frankly, I thought the video was uncharacteristically naive about this particular subject.

The fact that these courses are service courses first and foremost constrains what we can teach. And much as we might wish it were otherwise, the engineering and chemistry departments don’t particular want us to teach the cool modern stuff. They want us to teach old physics from 1865, because that serves as the foundation for some of their courses. We have to teach classical mechanics first because that’s what the departments that provide most of our students want us to teach.

And, of course, foundational for more physics, as well. It’s tough to talk about things like energy and momentum in advanced discussions if the students don’t know about energy and momentum. Can you discuss what a laser is and does at 8 O’clock on day one of an introductory physics class? It’d be fun to talk about how one might do that, but I’m not seeing how we get there. It’s almost like saying “let’s go read some neat books, because that’s fun, but let’s skip over all that boring vocabulary that we spend years developing”. Like most interesting books, quantum mechanics requires more than a third-grade level of reading ability.

The thing is, I see this same issue quite a bit on the science discussion board that hosts this blog — Science Forums (dot net). People show up wanting to discuss neat new things they’ve heard about, or even propose some new model of how things work, but have no clue about the basics — meaning they don’t understand what’s going on in the article, or why their proposal won’t work, and don’t get the objections people raise.

This Just In: Kids Are Awesome

Ethiopian kids hack OLPCs in 5 months with zero instruction

“We left the boxes in the village. Closed. Taped shut. No instruction, no human being. I thought, the kids will play with the boxes! Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, but found the on/off switch. He’d never seen an on/off switch. He powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs [in English] in the village. And within five months, they had hacked Android. Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera! And they figured out it had a camera, and they hacked Android.”

That is such a great story.

Be Choosey

It’s the time of year for the Donors Choose fundraiser drive, a charity I support. As I’ve done in the past, here are some links from fellow physics/astronomy blogs.

Cosmic Variance is promoting the donation page for Empirical Zeal blog.

At Uncertain Principles you might win a signed copy of Chad’s book if you donate

Bad Astronomy also has a donors page.

You can pick a project or simply donate and let Donors Choose pick one.

This is Not Okay

Hey, Physics & Astronomy Professors? THIS IS NOT OKAY!

I recognized long ago that it’s important to have a full life that includes a lot more than just my scientific interests for my physical and mental health and well-being. Which is why I’m absolutely livid over this letter, circulated in a top astronomy department (which — I cannot prove — but I believe I once worked at), reproduced in its entirety, with my commentary, below.

I routinely worked >60-hour weeks in grad school, or at least I was at school for at least 60 hours a week — there was always some late-night decompression (hall golf or some game on the computer). In at 11 and leave for home after midnight was routine for the lab, with breaks for meals, and then additional time the weekends. (I did a few 80+ hour stints as a postdoc at TRIUMF, because when you have beam time, you run the experiment 24/7.) I also got the “this isn’t a 40-hour a week job” lecture once, during a rough patch when I was “only” putting in about that amount. But I also got time to myself to have a little bit of a life — limited to what you might have on a grad student stipend. This letter is over the line, unless the purpose is to drive people entirely from the field.