Friday, June 15, 2012

Our Humanity

The last 150 years have not been a good for Homo sapiens. We are a proud (if insecure) bunch. We relish in highlighting distinctions that separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom. We are especially sensitive to features that we believe distinguish us from closely related primates, both extant and extinct. When the first hominid fossils were discovered in the mid 1800’s, they revealed an organism with a brain the same size, or bigger, than ours. These fossils (later identified as Neanderthals) were first thought to be us; to be human. What else could we think? Our large brains clearly distinguish us from the great apes. Our brains were responsible for those uniquely human qualities such as language or art. It was the seat of our intellect, our morality. It made us human. So, that first hominid fossil had to be a human, albeit slightly deformed with a protruding face and large brow.

Over the last 150 years we’ve come to discover a lot about our origins, and even more about Neanderthals. And, our discoveries have systematically knocked down each and every feature and characteristic we cherished as uniquely human. Neanderthals actually had larger brains, used language, wore clothes, manufactured and used complex tools, controlled fire, coordinated and hunted in groups, built shelters, and ritually buried their dead. But they are not us. They are not Homo sapiens. They are not even our ancestors. We did not come from Neanderthals.

This was a relief for some; a problem for many. How could a non-human hominid embody so many human characteristics? How could anything, other than human, speak to each other, plan for the future, live in complex social hierarchies, and hope for an afterlife? There had to be something that was all ours. There had to be something that clearly distinguished our humanity. We thought there was.

Neanderthals never made art.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Hero Dog

When I was 12 years old, my parents got me a pet snake. I use to pick it up and let it snake over my arms and hands. It didn’t take long to recognize that it had a preference for my neck and would often stop moving and remain coiled there. It also didn’t take long for me to explain that behavior by anthropomorphosis. The snake was coiled, motionless around my neck as a sign of affection. It had grown comfortable with me, in a trusting sort-of-way, and found a place to snuggle. We were friends.

At 12, this explanation was the best I could come up with. Now I understand the better explanation is that my neck is warm and snakes move towards warmth.

So, what are we to make of a dog that apparently sacrifices itsown safety, maybe its own life, to save the life of its owner? Well, we could say just that, it was a “sacrifice”, and bring into the dog's world the notion of the lesser value of its life relative to the greater value of its owners. We can call the dog a “hero”, a title given to few humans (in fact, we are so guarded against use of the word “hero” for humans that we have created an entirely new category of “true hero” just for clarity).

But, is the dog a hero? Did it sacrifice? Dose it understand the concepts of force and momentum to perceive the train as a threat? Does it understand the human condition of “loss of consciousness” to realize that its owner wasn’t going to move on her own? Probably not. So, how do we explain such behavior? By remembering that dogs are predators and scavengers. After a kill or a find, many predator/scavengers will drag the kill to a safe location before eating; a “drag away” behavior. This is done to minimize the chance of losing your hard-earned kill to another predator/scavenger. It’s a behavior molded over millennia of natural selection; If you ate in the open, you were more likely to fight to keep your kill, if you dragged it away, you got more to eat. The “drag away” predator/scavengers left behind lots of “drag away” offspring, from which dogs are descended.

Lilly was probably exhibiting a simple behavior pattern, similar to the patterns that make them chase and return a stick, tug on a rope, or burry a bone. Lilly probably thought her lifeless owner was food, and was simply trying to drag her away, to eat in relative safety, but was too slow.

So, cheers to you Lilly, for exhibiting typical predator/scavenger behavior. You are a role model for dogs everywhere and a worthy ambassador of your rich and long ancestry. Oh, and thanks for trying to drag that hunk of food to a safer eating place. Good dog.

Copyright 2012 theBIOguy

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Why We Need To Understand Science

Copyright ©1989 by Carl Sagan

As I got off the plane, he was waiting for me, holding up a sign with my name on it. I was on my way to a conference of scientists and television broadcasters, and the organizers had kindly sent a driver.

“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” he said as we waited for my bag. “Isn’t it confusing to have the same name as that science guy?” It took me a moment to understand. Was he pulling my leg? “I am that science guy,” I said. He smiled. “Sorry. That’s my problem. I thought it was yours too.” He put out his hand. “My name is William F. Buckley.” (Well, his name wasn’t exactly William F. Buckley, but he did have the name of a contentious television interviewer, for which he doubtless took a lot of good-natured ribbing.)

As we settled into the car for the long drive, he told me he was glad I was “that science guy”—he had so many questions to ask about science. Would I mind? And so we got to talking. But not about science. He wanted to discuss UFOs, “channeling” (a way to hear what’s on the minds of dead people—not much it turns out), crystals, astrology. . . . He introduced each subject with real enthusiasm, and each time I had to disappoint him: “The evidence is crummy,” I kept saying. “There’s a much simpler explanation.” As we drove on through the rain, I could see him getting glummer. I was attacking not just pseudoscience but also a facet of his inner life.

And yet there is so much in real science that’s equally exciting, more mysterious, a greater intellectual challenge—as well as being a lot closer to the truth.

Monday, April 16, 2012


Impossible is a word that comes up a lot in my class, especially during discussions of physical or chemical properties. For example, electrons are often described as occupying a region (called an orbital) around an atom’s nucleus. However, these orbitals are only representations of the space where the electrons probably are. (Sort of like saying your child is probably at the mall; you can’t say exactly where, but you are pretty sure of the boundaries where they could be.) But that is not the true behavior of an electron. Electrons (like kids) don’t have to be in their orbital at all. They can be anywhere. It’s just very unlikely that they will be. In fact, it’s very, very, very, very, very, very, unlikely that they will be anywhere else other than their orbital, but it's not impossible. We say, there is a non-zero probability of finding the electron anywhere in the Universe.

The same rules apply to you. Since you are made of particles, and all your particles have a non-zero probability of being anywhere in the Universe, it is possible that you could instantly wind up on the other side of the Earth. For this to happen, all of your particles would have to simultaneously cash in their non-zero probabilities of being anywhere and simultaneously cash in their other non-zero probabilities for a new location. Unlikely, but technically not impossible.

When I mention this to my class, I am usually met with a healthy skepticism and general agreement that this will never happen. But there is always one student that insists on grabbing hold of the notion that it could happen. This is a seminal moment for those students. They are presented with a clear choice to either allow the meaning of words to be plastic; subtlety affected by the nuanced context in which they are used, or adhere to rigid definitions, unaltered by context. Impossible either is or it is not. It is not subject to interpretation.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Living in fear, of everything

Lisa Belkin (One More Terrifying Thing Parents Haven't Thought Of) warns parents of the dangers of inhaling helium. But, helium is not dangerous. To suggest otherwise is irresponsible at best, and fear mongering at worst. There is a greater (and calculable) risk due to latex allergies than to asphyxiation by helium (which was not the cause of death to Ashley Long). Helium is inert, and non bioactive. It does nothing, except prevent oxygen from reaching hemoglobin, which is very different than competing for hemoglobin. (Wait a minute! Did you just say prevent oxygen from reaching hemoglobin?! That’s dangerous, right?) What she fails to inform her readers is that we all prevent oxygen from reaching hemoglobin every day. Talking, laughing, swallowing, brushing your teach, washing your face, blowing a bubble, singing, orgasms, etc., all interrupt normal breathing and are biologically equivalent to inhaling helium. (But they use helium in suicide kits, so it must be dangerous!) Wrong. Contemplating suicide is where the danger is, not the helium. If you are ready to kill yourself by asphyxiation, there are hundreds of methods. (So why the helium then?) Because, it helps to prevent the panic response that occurs with asphyxiation. Nitrogen gas does the same thing. So does breathing into a carbon dioxide scrubber ( Or taking sleeping pills and then tying a garbage bag around your head. (So, what’s the difference?) If you are NOT trying to kill yourself, AND you manage to asphyxiate with helium to the point of unconsciousness (nearly impossible), you will stop breathing the helium and start breathing oxygen normally. You will not die, but you may have a headache. Ashley was killed by pressure, not concentration (they are different) and certainly not helium. Lisa Belkin's article to parents should have been educate them about the real dangers of asphyxiation such as sitting in the garage with the car engine running or using a kerosene space heater in their dorm room. And to encourage parents to do everything they can to get their kids to experience and enjoy life. Parents can live, or they can live in fear. Which one is she promoting?

Copyright 2012 theBIOguy

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a candle in the dark.

A quote from Carl Sagan's 1995 book.

Education on the value of free speech and the other freedoms reserved by the Bill of Rights, about what happens when you don’t have them, and about how to exercise and protect them, should be an essential prerequisite for being an American citizen — or indeed a citizen of any nation, the more so to the degree that such rights remain unprotected. If we can't think for ourselves, if we're unwilling to question authority, then we're just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Redos and Retakes Done Wrong

Rick Wormeli (Redos and Retakes Done Right. Effective Grading Practices, November 2011, Volume 69, number 3argues that setting deadlines is arbitrary and creates a system that punishes students for failing to achieve a certain level of competency within a certain amount of time. He further argues, that this system is counterproductive and not modeled in the working world. He claims that professionals thrive in an environment where and when redos are allowed and encouraged. His examples include an Olympic runner, surgeons, musicians, and pilots (among others). The argument is that all of these professionals achieved their level of competency only after years of redos, and further, are not judged by the aggregated compilation of all their past redos, just on their present level of achievement. He chides teachers that adhere to deadlines and a work-place readiness philosophy.

Here is why he is wrong.

Unless there is an assumption of universal improvement; a notion that all students can achieve competency if only given the chance (and time) to do so; allowing a redo simply creates another arbitrary deadline. Redos cannot be given indefinitely. At some point, someone is going to say enough is enough. In such a case, the deadline will be imposed from outside; the end of the marking period, the end of the school year, or graduation day, for example. To suggest that deadlines don't reflect the real world has never missed a credit card payment, or a mortgage payment, or a doctor’s appointment without consequences.

Let us consider the professionals Wormeli offers as evidence of the value of redos. He claims the Olympic runner is past the redo phase and is in the proficient-runner stage. But this misapplies the notion of redos. It wasn't the redo phase that got the runner to a level of proficiency. It was practice. The only reason why the runner has achieved an Olympic level of proficiency is because they survived the CUT phase. The proper analogy would be to suggest that the runner was allowed to re-run a losing race. The problem is, races have deadlines.

And many professions, with high levels of achievement and proficiency, DO aggregate their past redos in forming the final assessment. The first place team is in first because of their season's performance, the good and the bad. Not because of the result of their last game. The most improved team in baseball can still finish in last place, especially if that improvement came too close to the deadline.

Wormeli suggests that musicians get better by playing a lot. He's right. But his point is that "applying expectations for a high level of proficiency to students who are in the process of coming to know content is counterproductive, even harmful". But no one was suggesting that the intermediate expectation is the same as the final one. A first-week guitarist should know how to tune the instrument. If they can't master that, all future learning is affected. It is not counterproductive to "drop" a guitar student that can't learn how to tune. Not everyone can be a musician. The real harm comes from suggesting that they can. (Just watch American Idol).

Redos have their place, but to suggest that the LACK of redos is a problem is false.

Copyright 2012 theBIOguy

Education Articles

Critical Thinking is Neither Thinking Nor Critical
By Bruce Deitrick Price

Critical Thinking is a glorious thing. That’s what our public schools are telling kids and parents.
Critical Thinking is said to be synonymous with fairness, impartiality, science, logic, maturity, rationality, and enlightenment. If you read some of the literature on Critical Thinking, you will have the sense that you are being welcomed into a new religion. 

In truth, that is a fairly accurate description of this highly popular and much promoted pedagogy.

Now, let’s start looking at Critical Thinking as if we, in fact, are critical thinkers.

The first thing that would need to be stated is that Critical Thinking, after all is said and done, in merely endorsing the age-old values of being open-minded and willing to consider all the evidence.  
But nobody disputes those virtues. So what are all the high-level educators going on about? When supposedly smart, enlightened people carry on as if they are tipsy on something, you should be on guard.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Science Literacy in the 21st Century

Recent polls on American competitiveness foretell of a future America losing its position as a global leader in scientific research and development, and in its production of science and engineering graduates. This should be no surprise.  Nearly 20% of people polled feel that science classes were irrelevant to students not pursuing science as a career, and more than 50% avoiding science as a career because they felt it would be too difficult or uninteresting. Is there a relationship between the failure of science education to capture our collective imagination and sense of wonder, and our loss of global competitiveness? If so, does it mean that imbibing students with a dose of scientific literacy will positively impact our social science-collective and affect our global competitiveness? Are the two even related?

I am skeptical of aspirations of science literacy. I don’t believe our decision makers, media and businesses want a scientifically literate populous. The benefits from a science-illiterate populous are too great. When opposing political talking heads present conflicting sides of a scientific argument—global warming for example—a scientifically-literate populous would never tolerate the charade of “equal weight”. Consider the recent eye-health vitamins offered by Bausch & Lomb. They have decided that independent, scientific support for the purported claims of their product is no longer necessary. They have weighed short-term corporate profit against the potential long-term damaged from a loss of scientific credibility and decided it’s worth the gamble.