Saturday, December 31, 2005

Top Science Stories from Scientific American

Check out the summaries of Scientific American's top 25 science stories for 2005. Some interesting material, ranging from the possibility of global climate change leading to more ferocious hurricanes like we saw this past year to the discovery of gamma ray burst sources (colliding neutron stars, for example) to figuring out the genome of chimps, which puts humans and chimps at 98.8% genetically the same. We also have a tenth planet that is three times farther from the Sun than Pluto, and it has its own moon; evidence for a quark-gluon plasma (a new state of matter that theoretically existed just after the Big Bang) that behaves more like a liquid; soft tissue preserved from a 70-million yer old T. Rex; and the ongoing debate of intelligent design being taught in science classrooms. And always, a rich year in science across all disciplines, and look for more and more multi-/interdisciplinary discoveries as time goes on.

A Happy and Healthy New Year to all!!

Thursday, December 29, 2005

U.S. Debt - Up, up and Away.....

On the evening of President Bush's victory speech when he won re-election in 2004, the Treasury Department sent a letter to members of the House and Senate requesting that the debt ceiling be increased by $800 Billion, to an astonishing $8.184 Trillion. The debt ceiling is legally something that Congress needs to set in order for the federal government to not default on its financial obligations, because it is needed for the government to continue to borrow (largely from overseas governments like Japan, China, India, and so on). Guess what? Secretary Snow of the Treasury has just sent a letter to Congress requesting that they quickly raise the debt ceiling again, because we will have burned through that additional $800 billion from last year by February, 2006. I would have to think this will push the ceiling to nearly $9 trillion (Snow did not include a number in his letter...yet...but these are usually fairly large numbers).

With all of this going on, in order to have "debt reduction," Congress has passed legislation that will cut nearly $40 billion from programs that involve little, insignificant things like food stamps, college loans, and Medicaid (used to pay for health care costs for low-income Americans). Of course, this will be washed out and then some when Congress will likely pass $70 billion in tax cuts (almost all for wealthy Americans) when they return from recess, so their plan is to take from the poor and in order to recduce debt, but then actually add a net gain in debt by giving to the wealthy. And then, to continue borrowing hundreds of billions more that will add on to the trillions in debt our kids and grandkids will have to worry about. Notice they did not cut any of their pet projects in the transportation bill or energy bill, which they use to bribe us for their votes in next year's midterm elections.

How about this; pass this along to your friends. Let's spread the word and vote out all the assh*#@%s in the House who went along with this nonsense and try to do what is right for a change, and get the country back on the path of economic stability and sanity. Who's with me?!?!

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Importance of Variety in the Classroom

It has always been my philosophy that, when teaching a classroom full of students, perhaps the only way to reach all students is to have a variety of ways of presenting the course material. This always seemed logical because in a typical class there is a variety of ability among the students as well as a variety of ways each student best learns. It wasn’t until recently, though, that I tested my intuition with data. The data came from a survey given to a number of physics classes at the three levels we have at our high school: regular, honors and advanced placement (AP). The information below summarizes the results of the survey, along with the main conclusion that, without question, it is absolutely essential to teach in a variety of ways in order for all students to have a chance of learning at their highest level.

The Survey
The survey that was passed out to physics classes consisted of a ranking system for sixteen (16) different activities/methods teachers may employ in their physics classes. While this was done only for physics classes, the survey should be relevant for any science discipline. The sixteen activities/methods were: Lecture, Research Papers, Small Group Discussions, Whole Class Discussions, Teacher Demonstrations, Quiz/Exam Prep by students, Homework, Laboratory Activities, Study Groups Outside Class, Reading the Textbook/Articles, Computer Simulations/Activities, Tutoring/Being Tutored, Projects, Field Trips, Review Sessions for Exams, and Videos/PowerPoint Presentations. Although this is not an exhaustive list of what a teacher may do in a science class, it gives a reasonable range of activities
Students were asked to rate each of these teaching techniques/activities on a scale from 1 to 5, where 5 represented an activity that students feel is “most helpful” in their learning of course material, and a 1 represented an activity that the student felt is not effective in their learning.

The Data
Surveys were distributed to physics students in regular, honors, and AP classes. We received 117 returned surveys from regular classes (57 males, 60 females), 61 surveys from honors classes (27 males, 34 females), and 86 surveys from AP classes (64 males, 22 females). Table 1 below shows the percentage of students in each level of physics who rated the activity as a 5 (still trying to get a table formatted properly...anyone know how to do this in Blogger?). The first observation that stood out in the data is that every one of the activities on the survey had multiple students rate it as being something they thought was very important in their learning of physics. Several activities also stick out, with the top three being Teacher Demonstrations, Review Sessions, and Field Trips (not entirely surprising). Teacher Demonstrations and Review Sessions were the only two activities that had an overall average of above 4 on the rating scale. The three least beneficial activities according to the survey were Research Papers, Computer Activities, and Projects. These were the only three activities that had an overall average below 2.7 on the scale.

Activity Regular(M) Regular(F) Honors(M) Honors(F) AP(M) AP(F)
Lecture 5 10 18 23 33 27
Research Papers 7 3 11 9 9 5
Small Group Work 7 13 18 9 25 27
Demonstrations 49 47 41 59 41 36
Class Discussions 21 32 33 35 20 23
Quiz/Exam Prep 12 27 35 32 28 32
Homework 5 15 11 20 19 59
Laboratory Activity 14 25 13 18 11 23
Study Groups 3 3 8 18 17 14
Reading Text 7 8 11 9 11 5
Computer Activities 5 3 0 0 3 0
Tutoring/Tutored 21 15 15 18 23 23
Projects 7 2 8 9 6 9
Field Trips 38
Review Sessions 28 48 22 47 45 50
Videos/PowerPoint 16 17 4 15 5 9

Table 1: Responses of 5 (Most Helpful to Learning) by male and female students in regular, honors and AP physics classes. Numbers refer to percentage of students who rated the activity as a 5. There were 57 regular male students, 60 regular female students, 27 honors male students, 34 honors male students, 64 AP male students, and 22 AP female students who responded.

Another interesting aspect of the data lies in the ability to statistically compare different groups of students. For example, the ratings on a particular activity can be compared between male and female students, and they can be compared between white and African-American students. Evanston Township High School has a student population that is roughly half white and half minority (about 40% African-American), and in our case it is important to identify if there are significant differences in how different groups of students learn (or at least perceive how they think they best learn).

Two-sample t-tests were performed between different groups, where the average values of the group’s rating for a specific activity was compared to another group. A t-test of this sort determines the probability that there is a statistical difference between the rating values, and therefore a difference in how groups believe they best learn. I had groups of my AP Physics students who were also in AP Statistics perform the t-tests. Several interesting results were found. For instance, it was discovered that male students feel they learn better than female students when lectures are given. Another example is that there is a large statistical difference between how white and African-American students believe they learn from lectures, with white students being more comfortable within a lecture environment. African-American students, on the other hand, believe they learn significantly better from laboratory activities than white students. Apparently African-American students seem to feel they learn best when actively involved in hands-on, interactive activities. It should be noted that physics courses at our school are quite segregated by race, with the majority of African-American physics students taking regular physics, while the AP classes are almost entirely white. Honors sections also have an under-represented fraction of African-American students. As one progresses from regular to AP physics, the percentage of lecture time in class increases because of the nature of AP exams, where problem-solving is emphasized more than laboratory skills. The data seem to suggest one possible contribution to the very low percentage of minority enrollment in AP Physics has to due with the growing emphasis on an activity that is more ineffective for their learning of physics. This is something that should be looked at carefully by teachers and investigated further.

Other activities white students preferred significantly more than African-American students, as given through the t-tests, were research papers, small group work, study groups outside of school, and tutoring. African-American students reported that doing laboratory exercises, having class discussions, and viewing videos are some of the best ways they learn, and that they prefer over white students. These data have shed some light and have given us some things to think about as we approach classroom planning and activities.

I encourage other science teachers to give similar surveys at their schools. I was not surprised by the fact that variety in a classroom is a primary goal for all teachers, but the data did suggest that how we approach classes with different groups represented may need to focus more on some teaching options than others. While the results for physics classes in Evanston show several differences in how students believe they best learn, it is likely other differences would show up at other schools and in other science courses. Local surveys and analysis could lead to useful and interesting results that may help improve our ability to most effectively reach every student in our classes.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Effect of Smaller Class Sizes

Anyone who has ever taught knows that smaller class sizes typically mean better results for the students in that class. It disturbs me when I hear other adults who rip on teachers who push for smaller class sizes as being lazy or wanting to make the job easier, rather than placing the focus on students and what is best for them. A few days ago I overheard a parent speaking in a negative manner about a local school that was trying to get more money in order to help reduce class sizes by a couple students. The classic complaints that schools already have too much funding and have incompetent teachers made it into his argument. I could not help but ask him if his kids ever had difficulty in a class, to which he replied "Yes." I asked what he did for them and he mentioned that a tutor helped to get them back on track in school and they ended up doing fine. He soon realized he shot a hole larger than the one in the ozone layer in his argument about what the schools wanted, and agreed that if the ultimate 'small class' of one with a tutor made the difference for his own child, then he could understand why teachers want to have slightly smaller classes, in order to spend more one-on-one or small group time with students who are having difficulty learning and growing.

The Education Testing Service (ETS) recently found that the percentage of high school graduates peaked in 1969 at 77%. By 2001, graduation rates slipped to 69%. This percentage eaked up into the low 70s in 2002 and 2003. It is disturbing enough when some 30% of all high school students around the nation do not get their diplomas. It is more disturbing when one considers that for African-American and Hispanic students, graduation rates are typically around 50%...half of the students in these minority groups (who tend to be low income) do not get their diplomas. This is a staggering statistic, but from my days in the Chicago Public Schools I know it is true. There are all sorts of reasons for the dropout students, and the reason varies tremendously from one individual to the next. What I also know to be true from personal experience is that city schools, which tend to have large numbers of low income, minority students (who are most at risk for dropping out), also tend to be overcrowded and have large class sizes, often over 30 students per class.

A study of Tennessee schools back in the 1980s found that students in smaller classes (13-17 students) were 11% more likely to graduate than students who were in classes with 22-26 students. This was a statistically significant result that has been cnofirmed in follow-up studies. What's more, low-income children were nearly twice as likely to graduate if they had small classes in primary school. Smaller class sizes allow more access to teachers by students who are struggling. Smaller class sizes allow teachers to know their students better, and have a better grasp of individual learning styles, strengths and weaknesses. Small classes tend to have fewer discipline problems, which means more time can be devoted to learning.

This is not rocket science, but there are still those who believe educators are simply looking to make life easier on themselves when they ask for more money to hire more (overpaid) teachers to reduce class sizes. The data do not support the conclusion that small class size do not help, nor does anedotal evidence from teachers. If anything, we can keep reminding opponents of small class sizes that if their kids ever had tutoring that helped improve performance, they should seriously reconsider their views and complaints about smaller class size. To extend on this topic, we should remind proponents of vouchers and No Child Left Behind that taking money away from a public school (which has a good chance of being overcrowded) in order to send students to private schools (which likely limit enrollment in classes to keep the numbers manageable for teachers) only makes matters worse for all those students who remain at the public school.

Leadership: The Essentials Across All Domains

What is leadership? Are there characteristics that recognized exceptional leaders share? These are questions that are, of course, debatable, but which I found interesting in Howard Gardner’s book “Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership.”

Gardner concludes after studying acknowledged leaders in a variety of fields that there are six common traits that they share. The list of people he chose to base his research on include George Marshall, Martin Luther King, Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Mead, Jean Monnet, Margaret Thatcher, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Mahatma Gandhi, Pope John Paul XXIII, Alfred Sloan, and J. Robert Oppenheimer.

A simple Webster’s definition of “lead” is ‘to show the way to, or direct the course of; to guide, or cause to follow.’ In order to do this, a leader must be able to interact with a specific audience that he/she wants to inspire in order to achieve some common goal(s). Gardner develops six constants of leadership that he identified from his pool of individuals, constants that are independent of the domain in which a person has achieved leadership status since they were common in the areas of politics, scientific and technological institutions, business, and education.

The six constants of leadership are:

Leaders must have an identifiable story or message to tell. The story must address the sense of individual and group identity (differentiate between “we” and “they”), and typically not only provide background information relevant to a cause, but also outline future options in terms of action and how the group can go about trying to attain specific goals. Preferably, leaders try to develop stories that are most often inclusionary, so individuals feel as if they are part of something worthwhile and the movement or institution the leaders are in charge of can expand. But there is a fine balance effective leaders are able to reach because if one is interested in making connections with larger and larger groups, then certain subgroups may develop that feel they are entitled to some form of special status, and if they are not recognized as such, they may challenge the leader for power, influence and/or control. This problem with trying to develop an inclusonary story is readily observed in poltical parties, where conflicts arise frequently between various subgroups and individuals, all of whom want to have raised status and a voice in the party.

Consideration of the audience is a second constant of leadership. The relationship between a leader and an audience is interactive and complex, to say the least. But if there is no audience to lead, there is no need for a leader. A movement of any sort requires a dynamic interplay between the needs, concerns, and desires of the audience and the contours of the leader’s story. Effective leaders must develop a fresh story to fit the audience’s initial needs and not only say some things the audience wants to hear, but then convince the audience that he/she has a plan of action that will take the audience to wherever it is they want to go. Some times a leader needs to define where that place is that the audience needs to get to (perhaps where a nation needs to go in order to rebound from hard times, such as Marshall needed to do), and some times that place is well defined and a leader needs to outline the steps and organize multiple subgroups within the audience in order to achieve a common goal (much like Oppenheimer had to do with the Manhattan Project). Leaders of homogenous audiences tend to have an easier time making changes than leaders of heterogeneous groups. Effective leaders also must be able to take their original story and tweak it rapidly in response to the mood of the audience if they are to maintain control, and often this skill is the type that cannot be taught, but is rather an innate characteristic of a leader (and one of the reasons why effective leaders are hard to find in any realm).

A third constant of leadership is the development of an institutional or organizational foundation. Leaders can speak directly to the audience on given occasions, but without organizational structure enduring leadership is unlikely, in not impossible. Perhaps the organization already exists and a leader works his/her way up through the organization. This is the case the majority of the time in groups like churches, businesses, political parties, educational institutions, and so on. It is not as common to bring in outsiders for well established organizations, unless there are individuals who have had success in other, similar organizations and another group is looking for some dynamic individual to turn things around. Other organizations need to be built from scratch. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Oppenheimer, however, are examples of leaders who had to build up organizations, and this requires leaders to have stories that are inspiring, logical, and also lay down a path of getting to a certain point that appears to be doable to the audience. If the story is too complex or confusing, or the leader does not appear to be passionate or charismatic enough about the cause, it is likely the audience will not respond or develop into the organization that the leader is trying to build. This connects to the next constant of leadership.

A fourth constant of leadership is the embodiment of the story by the leader. No person is perfect, and normally an audience is not looking for or is expecting perfection. However, someone who steps in and wants to lead needs to appear legitimate. They need to not only have a good, effective story, but their lives and actions need to suggest that the story is relevant in that person’s own life. If someone appears to be hypocritical, or if there appears to be a contradiction between the story and the facts of the person’s existence, an audience is unlikely to respond in a positive way. Leaders need to appear to be authentic, and not just someone who is looking for a position of power and will say anything they think the audience wants to hear. As Gardner reminds us, Abraham Lincoln once said, “One cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”

A fifth constant of leadership is the interplay between direct and indirect leadership. There is the possibility of indirect leadership in creative fields such as art, music, literature, and other creative fields through the symbolic products certain individuals have developed. Entire artistic movements develop from influential leaders without those leaders necessarily directly addressing the audience. Often indirect leadership of this sort takes longer periods of time to develop, and the leaders who attempt to stay out of the spotlight tend to have more time to reflect and consider their next contributions without too much of a rush. There are also indirect leaders in politics and business, who do not seek to directly address a larger audience (such as running directly for public office), but prefer to affect change and influence behind the scenes. Much of what a president or CEO does, for instance, is largely ceremonial and requires a direct leader to be in the public’s eye, whereas a chief of staff works behind the scenes in order to get the policymaking done. On the other hand, direct leadership is more risky and up-tempo. Direct leaders need to be able to take the audience’s pulse and may have little time to reflect on how best to tweak how things are going. Leading in this manner generally requires a different skill set than in indirect leadership, and in the end leaders must determine how to make the biggest impact, either within a specific domain or with a wider society.

A sixth and final constant of leadership is the issue of expertise. In nearly every domain of experience today, some leaders will lack important technical knowledge, and the same can be true of some audiences. This situation becomes more relevant for those who want to lead directly over a larger society than for those who want to lead indirectly. In many specialized organizations, say a university or corporation, leaders may emerge who are not the top experts of the domain, but rather have better technical expertise and skills in management. This needs to be considered by leaders and those who seek leadership roles. At times this requires intimate knowledge or a ‘feel’ for the audience. Political leaders face this in a general campaign, for example. The audience, which is the general public, tends to be nonexpert on most issues. The details of the health care system, foreign relationships, economic principles, race relations, educational policy, tax codes, and so on, are all very complicated and technical areas of study, and those who wish to be political leaders need to be aware of the lack of technical expertise of those who they are often addressing, especially on the stump. The story often becomes generalized, and details are often overlooked as a dumb-downed outline of specific plans or policies is presented. This is where ‘people skills’ and the perception of personality becomes so vital for want-to-be leaders. A good example of this comes in the last two presidential campaigns. I don’t think anyone will disagree that Al Gore and John Kerry had the upper-hand when it came to technical expertise on issues and policy compared to George W. Bush. But because the audience of voters quickly becomes lost when details are presented, the Gore and Kerry stories did not have the same impact on the audience that the Bush story did, who kept it to character traits and a simple, consistent message. Especially in the current environment, the information age, this aspect of leadership has become much more important for individuals to consider than ever before. Add to this the range and use of technology in a leadership role, and one can better appreciate why leaders today often need to have established personal organizations that include consultants of all types.

These are the six constants of leadership as identified by Gardner. In general, I found his examination and conclusions to be thorough, and I encourage others to add their two cents to the list. The list of six constants seems to me, at least, to be valid, reasonable and essential for all leaders in all domains to consider. Different individuals have their own personalities and flaws, strengths and weaknesses, and styles of leadership they are comfortable with. But in the end, they do need a story, regardless of the domain they wish to lead in. They need to consider the audience, and how they think the audience will best respond to a story. Individuals need to be seen as authentic. They may be able to lead indirectly, under the appropriate conditions, or they may need to get in front of a crowd and directly address the audience’s concerns. And for long-lasting influence, an organization is essential.

This analysis, as recognized by Gardner, does not address many other aspects of leadership, such as leaders as moral authorities, how leaders should develop and shape policy, and so on, because that is the next level of leadership that is specific to the domain and to the individual, and the variation on those aspects of leadership is cast and cannot be modeled in a general way.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Big Brother is Here

As the eavesdropping story unfolds, new information is rapidly coming out, and none of it is encouraging. President Bush has admitted that he has allowed the National Security Agency (NSA) to spy on people within U.S. borders who have known links to al Qaeda or other terrorist groups. This was all done outside of existing law, which requires the NSA or other groups to get a warrant from a secret court located in Washington, DC. He has claimed that he has the legal authority to do so without consulting with Congress or any other federal court because of the law Congress signed just after the 9/11 attacks authorizing him to use whatever force he deemed necessary to fight terrorists. There are a number of problems with this defense, however, and this entire process is screaming out for investigations to determine how far the president has taken his supposed power for domestic spying.

According to Tom Daschle, who at the time the original congressional vote to give Bush power to fight the war on terror was the leading Democrat in the Senate, the original language Bush wanted included taking the fight within U.S. borders. Daschle did not allow this because of trouble with possible trampling of our civil liberties. He claims that things like domestic wiretapping and eavesdropping was not discussed and the focus was on foreign/international terror groups and the nations that harbored them. And within the Patriot Act itself, a separate piece of legislation, Bush and the Department of Justice has wanted congressional approval for things like widespread wiretaps and access to library records, etc., which have been resisted by members of both parties because of the potential for abuse of our civil liberties. The permanent extension of the Patriot Act has been delayed by the Senate because of these issues and the language that the administration wants for certain domestic concerns.

As the New York Times has just posted on its web site, it appears that what Bush has admitted to is incorrect. In fact, the spying that has taken place within U.S. borders appears to be much more widespread. The NYT has multiple, unnamed current and former government officials and telecommunications personnel who have gone on record stating that the NSA has been receiving large volumes of various international phone records from our telecommnications companies and monitoring Internet usage of private citizens, looking for patterns that could hint at terrorist activity. These records apparently cover a wide range of citizens and other people living in the U.S., and goes well beyond the Bush claim that only individuals with known (or possibly highly suspected) links to terror groups have been targeted. All of this has been done without any oversight or a single warrant from any court to justify the action!! Does this not sound like one of those reasons we had problems with the former Soviet Union and others like Saddam, who spied on their own people? The entire reason we have the existing law that requires warrants from a court is to have at least a minimal amount of protection for civil liberty and a minimal amount of oversight to prevent abuse of executive power. Any level of trust in the president is quickly fading away as this story progresses.

There is the argument from the adminstration that speed is essential, meaning the NSA and other law enforcement agencies like the FBI need to be able to set up wiretaps and monitor telecommunications activity at a moment's notice, and that warrants delay the process. This is especially true with new technologies that allow instant global communcation that are available to anyone. With the technology that now exists, the administration argues the 1978 law is out of date and not relevant with the current environment. All true. The trouble is, it is still the law on the books and still requires warrants! But, what I don't understand, is that in the existing law the government can go ahead and eavesdrop at a moment's notice, wthout a warrant, as long as they go back and get the court issued warrant retroactively within 72 hours. Bush can have the NSA and other agencies do their surveillance work within U.S. borders, on the fly and in real time, without delay, and then go back to get the warrant that gives us some level of protection for our rights and some assurance that the surveillance is just of suspected bad guys and not randomly affecting any old citizen. No problem. It is all fine within existing law. Bush has admittedly broken this law, and with the latest NYT revelation of widespread eavesdropping and Internet monitoring, we may have our answer as to why Bush is going around the law. Perhaps he and the administration believe some of the spying being done is questionable in a legal context and they do not believe warrants would be allowed. We must find out if this is the case.

This has become a very disturbing story indeed. It screams for Congressional and independent investigations to find the true scope of domestic spying. If the latest claims by the NYT are confirmed and there is indeed widespread monitoring of law abiding U.S. citizens who have no suspected terror links, one of the countless questions becomes: is this an impeachable offense? If Clinton can be impeached for lying about sex, should a president be impeached for possibly lying about and covering up widespread spying on Americans that is outside of existing law, with total disregard to any checks and balance or oversight protection for our civil liberties? We simply cannot have a president with, dare I say, near dictatorial power to do whatever he wants outside of the law. Contact your congressional representatives and demand that we discover what the true extent of domestic spying is.

For an excellent post on this with numerous links to relevant sites and details, read Zenpundit.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Federal Judge Makes Decision About ID in Dover Case

A Federal judge decided that "intelligent design" (ID) cannot be taught in Dover public school science classes. This is a big win for science education, for the inclusion of a 'theory' whose premise rests with an unidentified intelligent designer, aka supernatural creator, would diminish the integrity of science itself.

Eight of the nine school Board members who voted for the addition of ID to the science curriculum were voted out of their positions back in November, before this decision was reached, and replaced by new members who are against the teaching of ID in science classes. Said Judge John E. Jones, "It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy." Such attempts to include a modified form of creationism in public school science curricula was clearly identified by the public and led to the removal of the Board members who promoted the policy. This was absolutely the correct decision, and a new precedent has been set for other cases that are sure to arise in other areas around the country that are centered on ID being taught in science classes.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Persons of the Year

Time magazine has named Bill and Melinda Gates, as well as U2 singer Bono, as persons of the yar for their charitable work around the world. The Gates Foundation has an endowment in the range of $29 billion, easily the largest in the world that I am aware of, and they have targeted several areas of concern, ranging from education, making medications for AIDs and other diseases available in the poorest nations of the world, and addressing extreme poverty and hunger around the world. Bono, who is genuinely concerned about AIDs and poverty, has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize on several occasions for his efforts to convince world leaders to forgive debt owed by the poorest nations in the world. He has been associated with up to $40 billion in debt relief, as he has met with numerous world leaders over the last several years.

Time went on to name former presidents Bush (senior) and Clinton Partners of the Year, for their efforts to raise disaster relief funds for the tsunami, earthquake (Pakistan) and hurricanes in the U.S.

In my opinion, these are fine choices. I appreciate how they made sure to honor those who have directly tried to fix some of the world's worst problems by taking action, and who have gotten away from all the rhetoric that so many leaders put out there about how terrible poverty and the spread of disease are, but then go about business as usual. I'd be interested in other candidates you have in mind, who are deserving but not recognized by Time. Who is your Person of the Year?

Friday, December 16, 2005

The Coming of Big Brother

One cannot go anywhere without surveillance cameras watching you. In public places, I can go along with that. But with the breaking story from the New York Times that the president allowed the NSA to eavesdrop, without warrants, on possibly thousands of people within the U.S. is going too far. Normally the NSA would have to get a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secret court in Washington that deals with national security matters, before it can tap lines or intercept emails and other correspondence. Warrants issued by the courts is our best defense from being spied upon by our own government. Taking this out of the process is playing with fire, and in principle can allow NSA members to spy on anyone they want whenever they want. The White House has been avoiding the questions all day today, and even ranking Republican members of Congress and the Senate are publicly criticizing this decision by the president and calling for investigations (not quite what Republicans need going into an election year, with all the other scandals and problems that have come up in the past year). I would imagine the president will see another negative bump in the polls with this one, as he should.

In one sense I can see the temptation for a move like this, because one wants to do whatever it takes (within the law) to try and catch terrorists before they perform their missions. However, are our enemies not winning when we start tearing down our own freedoms and civil liberties because of the threat they impose on us?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

One of the great Nuts of the world

What motivates someone in a position of power like Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to shoot off his mouth with fiery rhetoric? By 'fiery' I mean his comment yesterday that the Holocaust is a myth, a "fabricated legend" made up by Jews. It was only in October that he said Israel should be "wiped off the map." Why would he say these things, right when the world is lined up against Iran because of their nuclear program and potential weapons ambitions? Fortunately he does not have the same type of power as an American president carries, but this type of fanning the fire of resentment and near fanaticism is not what this region of the world needs right now. What we need to figure out is how strong and deep are these types of feelings in terms of the public and religious leaders within Iran.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

150 Nations to Further Discuss What to do About Climate Change - Minus the U.S., Of Course

On Friday 150 nations agreed to meet to further discuss what we can do to alter the rate of global climate change. The U.S. will not participate in these discussions and negotiations. Rather, the Bush administration has apparently accepted to meet in watered-down "exploratory dialogue" sessions about what to do about global warming, greenhouse emissions (of which we contribute 25% of the world's total, with only 5% of the population), and climate change. I actually agree that the Kyoto Protocol is not the best plan that should be implemented, but without the U.S. taking part in negotiations how will anything worthwhile ever happen?

This is, of course, no surprise, since the administration rejects the science behind climate change studies and simply says it needs another study (it is not happy with the other studies it commissioned, which conclude there really is something to human contributions to climate change). Bush is committed to big business and big oil, so naturally his administration will do nothing that may affect the bottom-line of various industries, even though some of those same industries are seeing record profits and continued tax breaks. The administration has in the past actually admitted that humans do have some affect on global warming (forgive me, at the moment I cannot find the reference), although it refuses to take any real action. As more data has been collected and computer simulations become more detailed and reliable, predictions of what the consequences of continued global warming are continue to suggest some action must be taken, now. Putting in new pollution standards, making investments into existing technologies such as new filtering systems for various pollutants (for factories and power plants, for example), investing in renewable energy sources and more fuel efficient vehicles, and so on, will, in the long-term, be much more cost effective than waiting for higher ocean levels that will begin (actually, has begun) to cover high-priced coastlines, the spread of diseases into regions that have not been exposed to them before, drought, changes in water supplies, air quality, stronger storms (is this past hurricane season going to become the norm?), and altered agricultural production, to name a few.

Climate change, of course, happens naturally, and the warming trend we are seeing now is almost certainly due to natural causes. I don't think many people would likely disagree with this statement. However, the science absolutely suggests the changes are not entirely natural, but to some extent due to humans. No one can put a percentage on our contribution at this point, but if there are steps we know we can take to help limit the extent of climate change, then we need to step up and do it. The scenarios that could take place just in the next few decades are not what we should wish for for our children to have to deal with. The military has supposedly already begun to develop contingencies and strategies for international conflicts that may develop due to consequences involving climate change, particularly in those regions of the world where water supplies may be greatly disturbed. Is this what we want? Should we not do something, anything, that may help reduce the effects if it is within our power to do so? Perhaps in two years when someone else is in the White House, but I'm not holding my breath until then.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

High level Business and Political Involvement Needed to Turn Around Science and Math Education

The note below came from the NSTA recently. In my mind it will take initiatives like this to begin to dent the potential problems the U.S. may face in the not-so-distant future if we do not get more talented students majoring in the hard sciences, mathematics, and engineering to replace the large numbers of science and engineering babyboomers who will be retiring over the next 10-15 years (and as the rate of foreign students and scientists who leave the U.S. continues to rise). As many nations across the globe begin to narrow the technology lead the U.S. has built since World War II, continued commitments to research are essential to our economy, natonal security, and role as superpower. Business leaders who commonly complain about the lack of American prospects for technically trained employees need to help out with their influence with polticians as well as their deep pockets. Now, we only need to see results from meetings such as described below.

"On December 6, CEOs nationwide will come to Washington, DC, for a high-level meeting with top administration officials to press for greater funding for research and development and a greater focus on science and mathematics education.

During the summit, which is being hosted by the U.S. Department of Commerce, CEOs will discuss the competitiveness challenges their companies face and hold private meetings with cabinet officers to discuss specific policy options to address those challenges. Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA) initiated this summit. Participants will include Congressman Sherwood Boehlert, (R-NY), chairman, House Science Committee; Congressman Vernon Ehlers, (R-MI), chairman, House Environment, Technology and Standards Subcommittee; Richard K. Templeton, President and CEO, Texas Instruments; James G. Berges, Retired President and Senior Advisor, Emerson; David Sampson, deputy secretary of commerce; Gov. John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers; and Dana Mead, retired CEO of Tenneco and chairman of the MIT Board of Trustees. Samuel Bodman, secretary of energy; Elaine Cho, secretary of labor; Carlos Gutierrez, secretary of commerce; and Arden Bement, director, National Science Foundation, will participate in the private sessions.

The event is hosted by the American Electronics Association (AeA), Business Roundtable, Council on Competitiveness, National Association of Manufacturers, Northern Virginia Technology Council, and George Mason University."

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

A Step Towards Quantum Computing

In the latest edition of the scientific journal Nature, researchers at Georgia Tech have demonstrated a key step in the pursuit of quantum computing. Here is the abstract:

"Nature 438, 833-836 (8 December 2005) doi:10.1038/nature04315

Storage and retrieval of single photons transmitted between remote quantum memories
T. Chanelière1, D. N. Matsukevich1, S. D. Jenkins1, S.-Y. Lan1, T. A. B. Kennedy1 and A. Kuzmich1

An elementary quantum network operation involves storing a qubit state in an atomic quantum memory node, and then retrieving and transporting the information through a single photon excitation to a remote quantum memory node for further storage or analysis. Implementations of quantum network operations are thus conditioned on the ability to realize matter-to-light and/or light-to-matter quantum state mappings. Here we report the generation, transmission, storage and retrieval of single quanta using two remote atomic ensembles. A single photon is generated from a cold atomic ensemble at one site 1, and is directed to another site through 100 metres of optical fibre. The photon is then converted into a single collective atomic excitation using a dark-state polariton approach2. After a programmable storage time, the atomic excitation is converted back into a single photon. This is demonstrated experimentally, for a storage time of 0.5 microseconds, by measurement of an anti-correlation parameter. Storage times exceeding ten microseconds are observed by intensity cross-correlation measurements. This storage period is two orders of magnitude longer than the time required to achieve conversion between photonic and atomic quanta. The controlled transfer of single quanta between remote quantum memories constitutes an important step towards distributed quantum networks."

Quantum computing takes advantage of things like quantum spin states, which are only allowed to have very specific values, in order to create qubits, which play the role of normal bits (binary digits) in computer coding (strings of 1's and 0's). One problem has been trying to reproduce and store the same information in a network, which appears to have been solved by this group. Quantum computing, encryption, and other technologies that utilize quantum mechanical systems have long been sought, and I suspect it is a matter of time before the next big step in computational technology becomes a reality.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

How fortunate we are...

Zenpundit had a post yesterday that puts many things in perspective. No matter how bad we think we have it in the U.S., we cannot EVER forget what has happened in other types of governments and regimes. Here is Zen's entry in full:


RJ Rummel, the noted scholar of genocide and murder by government, has retabulated the totals for democide for The People's Republic of China under " The Geat Helmsman" Mao ZeDong: 77, 000,000 Dead

This total is twice as large as all combat deaths for the Russian and Mexican Revolutions,WWII, Korean and Vietnam wars combined. It may exceed all combat deaths in the 20th century and puts the maniacally genocidal exertions of Hitler ( 20,946,000) and Stalin (61,911,000) in the shade. (All figures here are Professor Rummel's). Only Pol Pot, in the percentage of population category, approaches Mao in sheer savagery and bloodlust. As Professor Rummel commented:"Now, my overall totals for world democide 1900-1999 must also be changed. I have estimated it to be 174,000,000 murdered, of which communist regimes murdered about 148,000,000. Also, compare this to combat dead. Communists overall have murdered four times those killed in combat, while globally the democide toll was over six times that number. Let freedom ring. "

Somewhere, Mao's academic and journalistic apologists in the West are enjoying a comfortable retirement."

Indeed, let freedom ring, ultimately for every person on the planet.

When you consider that most other nations on earth are considerably less heterogeneous than the U.S. (most diverse nation in history, I would have to think), freedom is the key to peace and prosperity. The fact that we allow anyone of any faith, creed, nationality, and so on, to live life largely as they please means individuals are allowed to keep a sense of identity to one's culture and heritage. This allows us to live mostly in harmony. Yes, there are rivalries, bigotry and racism, but because we are allowed to have the opportunity to go off and be ourselves prevents large-scale violence as is seen in other countries, where there are much greater levels of homogeneity. If there are ethnic and religious rivalries, but with a brutal dictator and/or no individual freedoms, the 20th century shows us what happens instead. How fortunate we are...

Saturday, December 03, 2005

U.S. Executes its 1000th Person - Not Something We Should Celebrate

On Friday, the 1000th person was put to death since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977. Is this something we should be proud of? Is this really 'justice,' or is it an act of revenge? While 76 countries allow state sponsored death penalties, most of those nations do not execute criminals with any regularity, and 97% of all known executions from 2004 happened in China, Iran, Vietnam, and, sadly, the U.S. Is this really the company we want to keep?

Polls show a majority of Americans support the death penalty. I wonder why this is in a mostly Christian nation. Many will quote scripture, saying an "eye for an eye." Is it convenient to forget "vengeance is mine (the Lord)" or "Thou shalt not murder"? Or to forget that everything Jesus preached goes against bringing harm to anyone, even an enemy? Why do I know so many who are "pro-life" but also "pro-death penalty?" I'm simply confused by all this, so forgive me for bringing this up.

Many will say that the death penalty is a deterrent for violent crime. Where is the evidence to support that? We have had record years of murders since 1977, so that argument is not much of one. If someone is so enraged that he or she is capable of taking someone's life, it is more likely that they are not thinking clearly about anything, including the consequences of their actions. Will a drug lord or gang-banger really be deterred by the possibility of a death penalty, when they live each day with the possibility of much worse suffering at the hands of rivals?

Then there is the 'what if' response. What if my wife was murdered...would I want to see the murderer put to death? My reaction if that were to happen would certainly be, "Yes, and I'll do it myself!" But if I were to do that, I would also expect to go to jail for I, too, would have just murdered someone, and I would then be no better than them. This sort of action would just be an act of revenge. In fact, when I think about which is worse punishment, I would rather be put to death than have to serve life with no chance of ever seeing daylight again, where one would go day to day for years and realizing your life is absolutely meaningless at that point...I, for one, would lose my mind in that situation, and it would be unbearable.

Is it still right for us to lecture other nations (such as China) about human rights issues, as the president recently did when he was in Asia, when we practice some of the same things as thsoe nations do? We lose some of our moral authority and standing in the world as we continue to put people to death, and I do not enjoy seeing the U.S. in this position.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Challenging Young Students in Schools

Eideneurolearning found an article about a school district that has been accelerating larger numbers of middle school students to take high school level algebra, after relaxing the entry criteria from only those who scored in the 90th percentile on exams to allowing students who scored in the 70th percentile or better. This increased enrollment by three times, while only 5% did not meet standards on a state achievement exam. There is also evidence that brains of younger children at the middle school level are better suited to learn mathematics such as algebra better than adult brains.

At some point when I have more time, I will write a good deal more about what I believe is absolutely essential for public education to take the next step in dealing with numerous issues (especially with trying to close the minority achievement gap), and which deals with long-term commitments and collaborations between all levels of schooling, including universities. In addition, the article referred to above also hits on the need to provide intellectual challenges for students. This can take the form of more challenging classes as well as extracurricular activities and competitions.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Einstein's 'Blunder' Looking Better With New Data

Prior to the late 1920s the view of the universe was that it was static, or stars we could see seemed to be in fixed relative positions. As Albert Einstein developed his General Theory of Relativity around 1915, which is still our best description of gravity and the development of the universe, he accounted for the static state of the universe with a term in his field equations called the cosmological constant. Essentially, this was equivalent to a type of anti-gravity force that balanced the mutual gravitational attraction between objects in the universe and held everything fixed. However, the observation by Edwin Hubble that galaxies were rushing away from each other led to Big Bang models of the universe and required Einstein to remove his cosmological constant, leading to his famous quote that the constant was his "biggest blunder."

Several years ago, two independent observations of distant supernovae showed that some objects seem to be speeding up as they rush away from us. In other words, it seems as if there is a repulsive force stronger than the gravitational attraction on these objects, acting like an 'anti-gravity' force should. The term 'dark energy' has entered the scientific literature, almost sounding like it was stolen from Star Wars.

Since those preliminary data were published, more groups of researchers have looked at many more supernovae, and the results appear to resemble Einstein's original cosmological constant. Einstein asumed a value of -1.0, and data place the value at something less than -0.85. This acceleration appears to be a real phenomenon, and it does not appear to vary with distance. These new data will help reduce the number of theoretical models attempting to describe what dark energy is and how it behaves, and it shows that Einstein may have been on the right track after all...why does that not seem all so surprising?!

Saturday, November 26, 2005

New Possibilities for Nuclear Power Production

An article in the December issue of Scientific American describes some new technologies that have developed that will make conventional nuclear power plants safer and more environmentally sound than what we currently have. This is a timely article since there has been a call for more widespread use of nuclear power in the national energy plan that has been pushed through by the Bush administration and Congress.

In this day and age of terrorism (possibility of dirty bombs and sabotage of nuclear power plants), oil dependency from the Mideast, and tons of spent nuclear fuel that is dangerous, toxic waste that will be around for millennia, it is no wonder that one’s reaction to more nuclear plants is one of disbelief and fear. There is no question that nuclear power is an attractive energy source because there is little in the way of gaseous emissions that can cause illness and contribute to global climate change as we get from conventional gas and coal burning power plants. There is a supply of uranium that will last long after our oil and gas reserves are spent (if we maximize its use), and it is an efficient energy source. It has been the public and political fear factor after Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl that has prevented the U.S. from building new plants over the past thirty years.

However, I read with much interest the new technologies that may allow the re-birth of this industry in the next decade. The first innovation involves using a high-temperature method (pyrometallurgical processing) of recycling normal reactor waste products from fission reactions into new forms that can then themselves be burned in a modified type of reactor called an advanced fast-neutron reactor. The trouble with present-day thermal, slow-neutron reactors is that, while efficient in terms of electricity generation, they cannot minimize the output of radioactive waste. In addition, something I wasn’t aware of, when reactor technicians remove and replace the uranium fuel in reactors, only 5% by weight of the ore has actually been used in energy production. The remaining 95% is unused uranium-235 or waste products, including transuranic elements. With other nations increasing their numbers of nuclear reactors, and likely the U.S. will start building more within the next ten years, the world’s uranium supply may only last fifty years. A new way of harnessing the electricity potential of uranium ore needs to be employed if nuclear power from fission is a viable long-term alternative energy source.

The fast-neutron reactor, though, in conjunction with new recycling methods used on nuclear waste products, have been shown to solve many of the traditional problems with nuclear power. Fast reactors (which have been around since the late 1960s) already exist in France, Japan, Russia, the U.K. and two plants in the U.S. Using full recycling on wastes from thermal reactors, for instance, can lead to about a 1% amount of wasted energy potential from uranium ore, versus the 95% wasted energy potential we now have. The relatively small amount of waste products only contain trace amounts of transuranic elements such as plutonium (needed for weapons) and americium; these are some of the wastes that currently are troublesome since their half-lives are tens of thousands of years or more, depending on the isotope, and the question is what to do with all that toxic waste. The storage issue as well as black-markets selling weapons materials to rogue nations or terrorist organizations requires us to minimize the amounts available, meaning the new recycling methods may help significantly reduce the problem. What little waste is left from fast reactors typically is a problem for 500 years, still a long time, but much better than tens of thousands of years and much smaller quantities to store in a facility like the proposed Yucca Mountain site. A third consideration is the lack of greenhouse emissions from nuclear facilities, which means such reactors would not contribute to global warming.

While there would still be a waste issue with fast reactor and recycling technologies, they would be minimized for fission-based reactors. Weapons materials would not be produced in any significant amounts, toxic waste would only be produced in small amounts which would need to be stored for far shorter periods of time than what wastes we now have, and there would be no climate change contributions. The global uranium supply lifetime would be extended well beyond what it would be with thermal reactors, and far beyond what is projected for oil and gas reserves. These new technologies seem to make fission-based nuclear power much more attractive than only a few years ago, and may be worth pursuing. While I would want much more research before doing this on a large scale, it seems as if the fast reactors that already exist are working well, and large-scale recycling facilities would need to be built in unison.

Of course, this is not the only option for power production. Wind power is the fastest growing type of energy production, and I would like to see significant increases into funding for the R&D of new solar technologies (these need to be made more efficient for widespread use, and new storage techniques need to be developed for cloud days/nights). There are good possibilities with geothermal power as well as harnessing the endless energy of ocean waves, the tides, and ocean currents. Then, of course, there is the possibility of hydrogen-based power, such as fuel cells.

Either way, nuclear power will almost certainly be a part of future energy strategies for the U.S. and numerous nations around the world, as planning for the end of the oil era must begin now. This is not the sort of thing we can wait for because every aspect of our society now revolves around energy, and economic disaster (as well as potential environmental and security disasters) awaits those who do not have viable plans and massive amounts of new energy infrastructure developed over the next few decades. We must get serious now about our energy use and sources of energy production because of the enormous amount of infrastructure construction that will be needed.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving!

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking life is difficult and the world is about to end. But relativity exists and in the end, chances are things aren't so bad compared to what a lot of other people have to deal with. If you have a job, a house, enough food, good health, and a family and friends who care about you, in the end life is pretty good and there is an awful lot to be thankful for. Have a wonderful holiday.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Bush may have wanted to bomb Al-Jazeera

In a story reported by the Associated Press out of London, memos have been leaked that suggest President Bush wanted to bomb the main Qatar headquarters of Al-Jazeera, the major Arab news outlet. British Prime Minister Tony Blair supposedly convinced him this would be a political and public relations disaster. If this is true, thank you Mr. Blair for saving us from another colossal mistake by Bush and his administration's handling of the war.

What could be a worse signal to the Arab world than when someone who claims they want to establish democracy and promote the freedoms a real democracy is supposed to enjoy goes ahead and blows up one of the few establishments of free speech in the Arab world, just because of disagreement of the coverage? Could the president really have considered this as a serious option? What little respect we still carry in the region would have likely gone up in smoke, just like the headquarters would have.

Now, I don't read Al-Jazeera's web site, and I am aware of the claims that their stories often try to spin issues towards the Arab perspective. This upsets the administration, who would like to see more photos of the good things that exist for Iraqis, rather than photos of dead Iraqi civilians. But I'm sure Arabs familiar with American news coverage would like to see more photos of dead Iraqi civilians and fewer shots of the president on aircraft carriers saying how well things are going, in order to try and show American viewers the plight of some Arabs. It is a matter of perspective, but it is also part of what you get with free speech. Wars are, in part, won with propoganda as well as what happens on the battlefield, and governments try to spin information in the press to fit their agenda as much as possible. The press may also try to slant things ever so slightly as well. Is that ideal journalism? No. But it is reality. The right complains about our liberal press and all the bias that is unfair to the right's causes. But we don't blow them up. I think we would be upset if Arabs came and bombed Fox News headquarters because of their positive (biased) coverage of Bush and company, which doesn't help the Arab cause.

The current administration has set up a culture where they attack those who disagree with their policy. It is one thing to attack verbally and try to sway public opinion, it is quite another to consider physically destroying those who speak out against you when the goal is to promote democratic principles. Again, if this story is in fact true, thank you Tony Blair.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Iran Parliament Votes to Keep IAEA Out

In a story just released, Iran's parliament has voted to keep the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) out of Iran and block any inspections of its nuclear facilities. This, of course, is troublesome because Iran consistently claims it is building facilities and enriching uranium solely for power production and peaceful purposes. The Iranian leaders also consistently whine that the world is against them (i.e. being a member of the axis of evil), and wrongly accuse Iran of trying to develop a full nuclear weapons capability. Of course, it doesn't help their cause when the Iranian president states publicly that Israel should be wiped off the face of the earth. Nor will actions such as the one just taken by the parliament.

When a nation has consistently lied about their intentions and has tried to get away with hiding facts (such as state support of terror groups) in the past, it would seem logical that if they want to gain world acceptance and respect and become a legitimate player in the MidEast they would want to show a sign of good faith. This is not the way to do it. How else can we interpret their defiance of allowing inspections except to conclude Iran is trying to hide a weapons program?

Iran has had essentially a two-year grace period since the U.S. invaded Iraq to do whatever they want, since the U.S. did not keep pressure on Iran as I think we should have. Saddam was contained and we had UN inspectors on the ground in Iraq (and they were discovering that our intelligence was not accurate), and during that time I think we made a mistake by not focusing on the larger threats of Iran and North Korea. Has Iran made progress towards a nuclear weapons program during the past two years, as North Korea supposedly has? It may be the price we pay for going into Iraq, and it is absolutely essential we figure out a way to get inspectors into Iran to make sure. It will be difficult to believe our intelligence after the disastrous failures in Iraq, so we need to get direct, on the ground evidence to be absolutely sure about Iran.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Thinking Out Loud About Emergent Behavior...Those Power Laws

I’ve addressed the idea of emergence, emergent behavior, network structures, and so on a number of times in the not so distant past, and a new result by a student of mine has me thinking about these topics again. There is an ever-growing list of complex systems in all areas of science, economics, social science, and technology that have been described or categorized as ‘emergent systems.’ Related to these types of systems are things like networks and self-organized systems, where structure/organization arises from what initially is a disorganized system of individual components. In addition, what we commonly call phase transitions can also be grouped in with the mix.

A common problem with all this is understanding what the fundamental organizational principles are that are responsible for the transition from disorganized/chaotic state to an organized state. In other words, we see what the initial state is, we observe what comes out as a final state, but the actual emergent process is typically not well understood. I began wondering if there may be some type of system that is well understood, shows some sort of transition with a signature of emergent behavior, and could be used to give new clues to organizational principles that may be useful in other, different areas of research. One place to look is in the most fundamental system possible, subatomic particles.

A common signature that is linked to emergent behavior, phase transitions, network structure (specifically scale-free networks), across all fields is the presence of power laws relating various quantities relevant to a specific system. Do power laws exist in analyses of subatomic particles that are along the same lines as other emergence studies? Inspired by a study that looked at what ends up being a scale-free network structure in cellular metabolic chemical systems, where power laws result when one counts the number of chemical reactions within the metabolic process particular molecules participate in, we looked at baryons and the number of decay modes they have, as well as the number of times they appear in other particle decays. It was not obvious going into this what to expect, because each type of baryon has specific numbers of allowed decay modes, each with their own branching ratios (i.e. probabilities of occurring), and having a limited number of particles that exist within the quark model. The results were…power laws.

The interesting aspect of this is that the decay of particles is described in detail by the Standard Model (SM). The SM predicts what type of particles may exist (there is a finite set of possibilities because of three families of six quarks, and the quarks only combine in pairs, mesons, or triplet states, baryons), it predicts what they are allowed to decay into, and it predicts the branching ratios. What we observe in experiments fits the predictions beautifully in all cases. The SM bases its predictions on conservation laws and selection rules of certain quantum numbers, similar to the way quantum mechanics predicts allowed electron configurations (i.e. the entire periodic table of the elements) from simple selection rules of electron quantum numbers in bound states.

The questions in my mind now are: Why are power laws found in so many systems that have nothing to do with each other? Why are power laws signatures for emergent behavior? Now that we see power laws in a fundamental system such as baryons, is there a deeper meaning we can gather from the results? That is, are there possible analogs to conservation laws and quantum numbers (specific quantities that can only have certain values) in other systems that haven’t been thought of that could be the organizational principles, and responsible for the observed power laws?

In some sense this is my take on what is being tried in a field such as econophysics, where analysis methods and techniques that have been perfected in describing physical systems is leading to new insights and new ways of thinking in economic models. Could the baryon analysis be used to cue into a new way of thinking about other systems? I have no idea what the answers to these questions are or if these are nonsense questions to ask...I am only thinking out loud at the moment.

Life's Molecules Abundant in Space

It has been established for a number of years that amino acids, the building blocks of proteins (proteins are long chains of amino acids), which in turn are the building blocks of life as we know it, are abundant throughout the solar system. They are found in meteorites that land on earth as well as other objects in orbit around the Sun. I remember reading about the discovery of amino acids in far reaches of space in the Milky Way, well outside of the solar system, and I finally remembered to find a reference to it.

In 2003, a collaboration of researchers from NASA, Taiwan, and Poland discovered the spectral lines of glycine, the simplest of the 20 amino acids needed to create life. These molecules were found not only in our solar system, but in systems of hot gas clouds (in the early portion of active star formation) tens of thousands of light years away. Presumably, this could have occurred when our solar system was forming some five billion years ago. As astronomers and astrobiologists look around, they find more evidence that such organic molecules are prevalent in numerous locations of the Milky Way. There is no reason not to assume that if these molecules form in our galaxy, they likely form in many other galaxies. One open question, as far as I am aware, is through what chemical processes do these organic molecules and precursors of organic life form? I’m sure it is an active area of research, and keeps alive the question that originated some forty years ago: Did life on earth come from outer space?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

21st Century Research: How to Handle Massive Amounts of Data

Think about this: In about two years, if all goes according to plan, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will be commissioned and running out at CERN, the European particle physics facility near Geneva. One of the experiments, the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), will be able to collect 225 MB of data each second, and will run for the equivalent of 115 full days in 2008. This adds up to 2 petabytes of data (enough to be stored on 1.4 million CDs!). So goes 21st century scientific research. The question, of course, is where and how does one store such massive amounts of data, let alone distribute it to hundreds or even thousands of scientists, postdocs, and graduate students who need the data for their individual projects?

Back around 1999, physicists and computer scientists began developing prototype systems known as 'grid computing' in order to handle large datasets. Single labs or universities almost certainly will not have the capability to store and efficiently make use of datasets mentioned above for CMS, so it is necessary to expand on collaborative efforts of the past for analyses of all kinds. Grid computing is named because it is analogus to an electrical grid. When you turn on a light in your house, you don't really have any idea from where on the grid the power is coming from, just as long as you get it. The grid is a sort of black box, an enormous network of wires, transformers, power stations, and so on the collectively feeds power when needed on a large scale. Data and information grid computing networks act in a similar manner.

In a sense this means that there will be virtual organizations and collaborations. Members of a particular grid network will enter the information they need at any time on their own computer, and whatever it is they requested from the grid will be accessed from wherever that information is stored on the grid. All members of the grid network will have such capabilities. Large datasets can presumably be broken up and stored at any number of sites all over the world, and the grid architecture and software will be able to quickly grab any files that are requested, regardless of what local computer network has that file. Such a system of virtual organizations is essential because of the size and cost of many scientific projects that are either in existence or are planned for the future. To put it in perspective, Microsoft's Tony Hey said, "It's no exaggeration to say that we'll collect more data in the next five years than we have in all of human history."

The data being collected comes as both data from physical experiments such as CMS or other experiments at the Fermilab national lab outside Chicago, as well as simulation data from computer-based experiments. Many of the complicated and dense simulation data comes from programs being run on modern supercomputers and other parallel-processing networks. Presently large databases can be accessed on the traditional Internet, such as protein databases and other information from the Human Genome Project, and these and similar databases are only expected to grow over time. Large national and international collaborations that share data are not new, and from my own experience at Fermilab, certain types of science cannot be done without such efforts. Grid computing is the natural extension and solution to ever-increasing information from such collaborations.

An interesting extension of collaborative work comes in the form of increasing amounts of multidisciplinary research. More research areas are overlapping, and with grid computing there is an expectation that biologists, chemists, geologists, physicists, astronomers, theorists, and so on will be able to access each other's data and tools, as well as share research methods and models to enable new breakthroughs. With growing work being done on complex systems and emergent behavior, for instance, such sharing will likely be necessary to expand the field.

How grid computing works depends on four layers of the network. The foundation is the physical network that links all the members and resources, which are considered the second layer, on the grid. Each successive layer depends on the lower layers. On top of the resources sits the middleware, which refers to the software that makes the grid work, as well as hides the complexity of the grid from users. The top layer is then the applications software that users actually see and access on their computers. This is like the application icons one has on your computer desktop; click on it, and software that you don't see and take for granted does its thing to open up the program or application you want. The big difference from your current computer is that a computer that is a member of the grid will have icons for applications or data that, when you need them and click on them, will not grab the program off your hard-drive, but rather pull it from whatever computer on the grid that has it...and that computer may be on the other side of the world. This all happens automatically.

As people gain experience with the relatively small grid networks that currently exist, larger and more complex grids will naturally form. It will be an Internet on steroids, and as always with technology, we cannot imagine the ways in which it will be used. One potential problem, of course, is security of enormous datasets, so development of new types of encryption and anti-virs software will likely be developed as well to maintain the integrity of a grid where members change frequently and new information is added daily to the grid, much like what already happens on the traditional Internet.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Update from the House

The House leadership had to delay the vote on what budget cuts would be made because moderate Republicans have broken ranks. In part because of the harshness of the cuts to the poor, and in part because of the overwhelming negative feedback they are receiving for drilling in ANWAR. I heard an interview with a Republican congressman (I'm blanking n his name) who received in the last 2 days 1600 calls and emails asking him not to vote for the proposed bill because of ANWAR. Interesting. We'll have to wait and see how much armtwisting the leadership puts on the moderates to try and get the votes next week. They are likely nervous if they cannot get their additional tax cuts...

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Once Again, a Call to Arms

As was the case about two weeks ago, try to contact your Representative before a likely vote tomorrow that will cut $50 billion from education, food stamps, college aid, and aid for the elderly and poor. The House leadership is claiming this is to pay for hurricane relief and to reduce the deficit (when is the last time you heard the leadership worrying about the deficit...give me a break). However, doubting Thomases like me believe the real reason is a new round of $70 billion in tax cuts, which the rumor-mill says is likely to come up later this month (I guess this would make for a pleasant Thanksgiving for the well-to-do). How much of these tax cuts do you think you will see? Let's make sure those who struggle to put food on the table can during the holidays.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Speaking of Copernicus....

In a previous post today, Nicholas Copernicus came up. Copernicus is, of course, the Polish 'revolutionary' cleric who is given credit for the heliocentric model of the solar system. I just came across a story where Polish archaeologists believe they have found the remains of Copernicus, who lived in the 16th century. An interesting coincidence...

The heliocentric model changed our entire picture of the heavens, where the earth is not the center of the universe, but rather just one of many objects in orbit around the Sun. In Copernicus's lifetime, the Church dominated all aspects of life, and 'science' did not truly exist. Copernicus did not want to go public with his beliefs for fear of persecution by the Church, and it was Galileo who took the torch and promoted the heliocentric model. Galileo, in turn, found himself in conflict with the Church. We should be grateful to these two men, who were largely responsible for the birth of what we now call science (particularly Galileo, who promoted experimentation and observation as the basis for one's conclusions; Isaac Newton was Galileo's successor and gave birth to rigorous mathematical science).

Note to Commenters

Because of spamming in 'comments' sections of my posts, I have activated word verification if you want to post comments. Comments are too important since I learn a great deal from them, and good, honest discussons and debate are vital for intellectual development and understanding. I apologize for the added inconvenience, but I also want to keep the random crap and advertisements out of my blog. Thanks to Zenpundit for pointing out this option!

Vatican Cardinal Suggests Faithful Should Listen to Scientists

Cardinal Paul Poupard, who heads the Pontifical Council for Culture, said Friday that it is important for the faithful to pay attention to what science has to offer on various issues, because religion risks turning into 'fundamentalism' if it ignores scientific reasoning. He then went further than Pope John Paul did with comments on evolution. In 1996, the Pope said "evolution is more than a hypothesis," and this followed a 1992 declaration that the church's 17th-century denunciation of Galileo was an error resulting from "tragic mutual incomprehension." Galileo was condemned for supporting Nicolaus Copernicus' discovery that the Earth revolved around the sun; church teaching at the time placed Earth at the center of the universe.

"The permanent lesson that the Galileo case represents pushes us to keep alive the dialogue between the various disciplines, and in particular between theology and the natural sciences, if we want to prevent similar episodes from repeating themselves in the future," Poupard said.

I could not agree more. In addtion, I do think that science needs to pay attention to and respect what religion has to offer. Good examples come in the form of what are guiding principles for science ethics, as I addressed in my last post, or where does morality fit into science research. Religion can help keep good debates going in areas like nuclear weaponry research, cloning, limits on medical research on humans, and so on. Without a moral compass, science can go extreme, as evidenced by Nazi 'medical research' back in the 1930s and 1940s.

Most humans practice some sort of religion, so science cannot ignore this. As for the intelligent design debate, Poupard expanded on John Paul's comment and stated evolution is supported by physical evidence, and that this evidence is constantly growing. This is why evolution should be and is the overwhelming, dominant scientific model for how life evolved. Keep in mind that evolution does not state how the first life began, but rather describes how more complex life evolves from simpler life forms. It describes the process by which we now have such amazing variety of life. Cardinal Poupard suggests, as I also believe, that religion and science do not have to be mutually exclusive in this debate. To be honest, I prefer and believe the intelligent design model, which has as its premise a supernatural entity called the 'designer' as the designer of such a complex system as a human being. But I realize my belief in this 'theory' only comes from my personal religious faith and the way I was raised, since I am a Christian. I absolutely do not support, however, including intelligent design in science curricula because I do not, nor anyone else, have any physical evidence for a 'supernatural entity' (so ID supporters out there, let's cut to the chase and say the designer is God). ID is not a scientific theory, but rather a theological and philosophical model.

I get the impression that Cardinal Poupard is saying the same thing, and I am glad to see he understands that both science and religion are important and should have mutual respect, but there are also boundaries that keep these two different realms of thought and practice, and that is OK! The same can be said for philosophy. There is a place for creationism and a grand 'designer' of life, but that should be in religious and philosophical venues where one can accept ideas that may not have physical support. I would not want to advocate or mandate the teaching of evolution in such a venue, because that is not its proper place. Likewise, science has a mandate that requires it to find the physical reasons for why the universe works the way we observe, and nonphysical models are not appropriate in the teaching of science.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The Need for Ethical Science

A couple months ago the results of a study published in the journal Nature showed that about 1 of 3 scientists doing research admitted to poor ethics, which typically means they fudged data at some point in their studies. The study surveyed over one thousand researchers.

This is disturbing. Science has as a goal to find the truths in Nature. When scientists submit articles for publications in the top journals of their respective fields, it is assumed the primary research was completed with honor and respect for the truth, no matter if what was measured and observed fits in with preconceived ideas/attitudes/beliefs or not. While articles submitted to the major journals are peer-reviewed and go through a series of re-edits, it is impossible for the reviewers to be one hundred percent sure of whether an honest effort was made or not. If a dishonest paper makes it through the process, it may be years before that dishonesty is discovered, most likely through other independent checks of the experiments that lead to opposing or conflicting results and/or conclusions.

One trend that has developed in fields such as biochemistry, genetics, biomedical engineering, and so on, is large numbers of researchers going off and developing private companies that try to develop a new drug, procedure, or technology for specific needs, in addition to their university research. Private enterprise springs the ultimate motive to slightly tweak data or develop overly optmistic conclusions - of course, I mean monetary profit. In fact, when I was talking with acquaintances who are in the administration at the medical research facility of a major university hospital, I was shocked by the lack of collaboration and sharing of information on cancer research between their labs and another nearby major university facility. The reason given was largely because of the race to get patents and private funding from pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms. With potential billions of dollars in such areas of research for the next wonderdrug or life-saving procedure, of course some may weaken under the stress to win the race and miss something in the data or be a tad sloppy with analysis, or feel the need to make results just a tad better than they really are in order to get a piece of the money pie. Such actions not only go against the science code of ethics, but also can conceivably delay the process that can mean unnecessary deaths or progress in an entire field. It is likely that real collaboration and sharing of knowledge between the two university facilities could lead to breakthroughs in a more timely manner than the two working in secrecy, but the need for money and glory get in the way, and weaken all of science in the process when unethical behavior enters the fray.

Friday, October 28, 2005

House GOP Completely Out of Touch

Here's one for you. A House committee passed, on a straight party-line vote of 24-20, a proposal to cut $844 million dollars from the food stamp program. This will take food stamps away from some 300,000 Americans who struggle to buy food (how many kids would be affected by this?). I want to know how these absolute fools, for lack of a better word, can sleep at night. They are trying to cut spending on food stamps in order to do things like pay for permanent tax cuts, such as the estate tax, for the wealthiest of Americans, as well as thousands of other pork-barrel projects that were contained in the transportation/highway bill, as well as $100 billion in tax breaks and incentives to oil companies that make up our wonderful national energy bill. Oh, by the way, Exxon reported yesterday a profit of $9.9 BILLION, a new record for any American company. Oh, how big oil is struggling, and needs a hand-out...fuck the poor, they don't need to eat anyhow.

How can any voter justify voting these people back into office next year? If you are as infuriated as I am, start emailing and calling your representatives in order to force them to stop this lunacy! Fortunately, a similar Senate bill does not contain cuts to food stamps, so we need to make sure the House does not win this one.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

A Developing Rival to NATO

"It's very important that regional powers are showing the will to resolve Eurasian problems without the intrusion of the US," says Alexander Dugin, chair of the International Eurasian Movement. "Step by step we are building a new world order that is not based on the unipolar hegemony of the United States."

In an article outlining a developing coalition of Eurasian states, it is suggested that Russia, and China may be building a rival alliance of nations determined to dominate Asian affairs and diminish the U.S. sphere of influence in the region. It is suggested that other nations, such as nuclear powers India and Pakistan, and Iran, which, of course, is a wannabe nuclear state and part of the 'axis of evil,' may be interested in joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The SCO formed in 2001 and was largely ignored by Washington, but now there is both rhetoric and action suggesting more intense security and military alliances may be a possibility with one goal being a deterrent against NATO. For instance, last August Russian bombers, submarines, and paratroopers staged mock invasions of a destabilized region with Chinese troops, and the Russian Defense Minister has just suggested te first of a series of Indian-Russian-Chinese war games.

Clearly Russia still wants to maintain its position as a major world player, and it needs to keep its presence strong in its own backyard. China is projected as the next superpower, and to do so appears to be following the U.S. model by building up its military. It needs to build its presence in Asia in order to continue to become a more dominant player that can compete both economically with the likes of the U.S. and Japan, as well as militarily with the U.S. India and Pakistan have, in the last few years, been mre friendly with the U.S., but may find it advantageous to become members of the SCO because they, too, need to try and be more dominant in their part of the world.

What will be of interest to the U.S. are the possible scenarios if strong military relationships ever do develop out of the SCO. What would the implications be regarding Taiwan? What would the implications be in the MidEast for Iraq, if Iran suddenly has formal military, trade, and/or economic relationships with the likes of Russia and China? It is no secret that Iran has been trying to influence the Shia coalitions in Iraq. Russia continues to support building nuclear reactors for Iran, and the U.S. treatment of Russia in the past few years may only encourage them to move in this direction as the once 9/11 support for the U.S. has all but disintegrated. Will the complete disregard of world opinion and military aggression by the Bush administration since 9/11 help these nations decide to move ahead with a large military alliance throughout both Asia and the Middle East? How will this affect trade and economic development in the area? Would China ever get involved with Russia, which has large oil reserves, to help with its need and thirst for oil? What will the U.S. and NATO reaction be to such an alliance? Will Japan feel the need, as is already being debated, to rebuild its military and possibly become a nuclear power to offset China's rapid military build-up (I can only imagine they both will be competing to be the dominant influence in Asia)? It will be interesting to see how this one develops, to say the least. I'd love to hear other, more expert, views on this one.

New Nukes Finally Dumped

For the past few years, the Bush administration has tried to keep a military R&D program as much in the background as possible. There was serious planning on the next generation of nuclear weapons, known as 'bunker busters,' that would be based on miniature nuclear explosions after a missile or bomb penetrated into the ground. As long as there was research being done on such weapons, many scientific organizations jumped in arguing that there were serious consequences to the use of such weapons, as well as serious diplomatic and political ramifications such as possible cold wars reappearing with other nations, such as China. Some of the consequences on the battlefield included the large amounts of radioactive debrs that would go airborne after the explosion, and wind-shifts could in fact expose our own troops to the fallout. In addition, computer simulations showed that if such explosions occurred near cities, potentially tens of thousands of civilians would be exposed to cancer-causing agents.

Fortunately, Congress finally got the message and is set to stop the funding of this program. Kudos to them for this move, which I have argued for in letters and online for a couple years.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Fear of Pandemic: An example of the process of evolution

Why are government health officials in the process of frantically putting together a national response plan to a possible, even though unlikely, pandemic of the bird flu? In a word, the answer is evolution.

What Darwin's theory addresses is not the origin of life, but rather describes the process of how life forms can change and even develop into new species, over time intervals that cover numerous generations of the organism in question. Seeing evolution in action is routine when it comes to single-celled organisms, including bacteria and viruses. The reason for this is that certain tpes of bacteria, for example, reproduce at incredible rates, with new generations forming perhaps every hour. In relatively short periods of time one can see the characteristics of dozens of generations. In addition, the way new types/species of bacteria or organism arise is through random mutations of the DNA and/or RNA insie the cell. Mutations can arise via random mistakes made during the transcription of DNA molecules, or it may occur from bombardment of the DNA with different types of chemicals or radiation. Whatever the mechanism, a genetic mutation, even to single genes, can in fact lead to a different type of offspring when compared to the parent. This is commonplace with single-celled critters. How often have you heard people saying that the use of antibacterial soaps has had an unintended consequence of helping lead to a new stran of the original baceria that is resistant to the soap? Or to medications? It happens all the time, to the point where each year the mix of flu vaccines we can get in the U.S. vary since the flu strains each year are a bit different. Evolution is absolutely a fact because we see it all the time in these systems. New offspring that have a genetic makeup that provides characteristics that are more conducive to survival in a particular environment allow that organism to in fact survive, while organisms with the original genetic akeup may in fact die off. Nature selects the better-suited organisms for survival over poorly-suited strains.

This is precisely the fear with the Asian bird flu. As the present strains reproduce and mutate, it is possible that a new offspring develops that can be transmitted from human to human, rather than the more likely (at least for now) bird to human through close contact or consumption. The main processes that are included in evolution, which include speciation and natural selection, take time (over many generations), which is why we won't likely see the process for multicelled organisms in the lab. This process has, however, mountains of hard evidence in the fossil record, comparative anatomy of all sorts of animals and plants, computer simulations, and by lookng at polymorphisms in the genetic code (is it simply chance that humans and chimps are something like 99% the same genetically? Probably not...). The processes involved in evolution are observed everyday in various situations, which is why scientists have almost universally agreed that the theory of evolution is actually fact (even Pope John Paul agreed that the physical evidence supports evolution as the correct model for understanding the development and variety of life), and it is evolution that has once again made the possibility of a pandemic real.