Tuesday, August 30, 2005

A Couple News Bits That Caught My Eye

Argh!! A new report on scientific literacy in America shows some disturbing results. The study was reported in the NY Times, and was done by Northwestern University political scientist Jon Miller. He reports that only 20-25% of American adults are considered to be scientifically literate (and this is up from past years). For instance, American adults do not understand what molecules are (other than they are really small). Less than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity (how can one make an informed decision about stem cell research without this knowledge?) and 10 percent know what radiation is. Miller attributes much of the nation’s collective scientific ignorance to poor education, particularly in high schools.

For a short article outlining how storms are tracked and measured, check this out.

Finally, a new survey finds more than two-thirds of American adults do not believe a single test fairly assesses how well a school is performing. In addition, 90% believe it is vital that the achievement gap between white students and students of color needs to be closed. Nearly 60% believe it is the responsibility of the public schools to close the gap. There is an interesting discussion that recently took place on Zenpundit's blog, and check out an old entry of one quick fix to testing that could be made to No Child Left Behind, that in my mind would make it more reasonable (assuming we are forced to stay with a test-only assessment model).

Friday, August 26, 2005

The Physics of Societal and Cultural Change

Many politicians and policy makers have grand plans to drive through certain changes within a given society. But many fall into the trap of believing the change will work its way through a society or culture within brief periods of time. More often than not, policy shifts and major initiatives take much longer and require much more effort than initially planned. As examples, think of things like pushing through any changes for social security, a new government in Iraq, changes in the intelligence sector, tax code overhauls, health care reform, and almost any other policy initiative you can think of. Why?

As a physicist, I tend to think in terms of a lesson in an introductory physics course about momentum and impulse. One can think of ‘inertia,’ or a property of an object that is responsible for a resistance to a change in the object’s motion. Momentum is in many ways the inertia of a moving object, and is defined as the product of mass and velocity. Practically we can say an object that is moving wants to keep moving in a straight line at the same speed, thus keeping its momentum constant. In other words, objects want to stay the course and maintain whatever state of motion it is currently in. So how does change come about? A force is required to change the state of motion of an object. One can change direction, speed, or both, and that is a change in momentum. The magnitude of the change in momentum is called impulse. All of this can be wrapped up in Newton’s 3 laws of motion. What is most useful is Newton’s 2nd law of motion, which mathematically relates the magnitude of a force to the resulting impulse. The other factor that comes into play in the 2nd law is time. We can write it down in shorthand as (Impulse) = (Force) x (time of interaction). In other words, if we consider a constant magnitude of impulse, a large force acting on the object for a short period of time is equivalent to a small force acting on the same object for a long period of time. Keep in mind that the 3rd law of motion is summed up by the famous phrase, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

In a social context, think about an event like 9/11. This hit the American society (and even the global society) in a very short period of time. Our society changed literally in a few hours, because the force of that one tragic event was unbelievably huge. Such a large change of societal momentum (action) allowed the U.S. to invade Afghanistan with a large amount of force that dislodged the Taliban and al Qaeda in a short period of time (reaction).

What is different about something like Social Security reform? It is an important issue for our society. However, neither the administration and Republican Congress nor the Democrats have produced a plan that has placed a ‘force’ on society great enough to swing the momentum shift in either direction. The political divide in our society is so even that two essentially equal strength forces (i.e. competing philosophies and plans for fixing Social Security) which are acting in opposite political directions have resulted in a state of equilibrium. This is no different to a physical analogue of two equally strong tug-of-war teams pulling with all their might, but in opposite directions; equilibrium results and there is no impulse, i.e. no winner. Someone on either side would need to develop a plan that is radically different that will cause a sensation in society to create a large shift in policy direction, or some event would have to occur that produces an external force on society (depression, collapse of the existing system, etc) that is large enough to create a large impulse.

Continuing this series of analogies to Iraq, the “shock and awe” campaign during the U.S. invasion allowed our military to cause a rapid shift in momentum in Iraqi society, and in that phase, even though there was a small time interval involved, the size of the force was large enough for a large enough impulse (i.e. overthrow of the Baathist regime). The mistake, though, was in the second phase. To stabilize the society immediately in the post-Saddam era in a short period of time requires another large force acting on a society where, almost instantaneously, there was a political vacuum. The U.S. war planners (i.e. Rumsfeld) had a relatively small force available to maintain security. To cause a large enough change in momentum to swing the Iraqis more completely to our side with a smaller force requires a longer period of time. Obviously this is overly simplistic, for there are essentially three societies in Iraq (Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish), making it very much a complex system, but in my mind the general concept seems to make sense. As time dragged on, there were other competing forces in a variety of directions that prevented a momentum shift in the direction we wanted from occurring.

I would be very interested in feedback from those with expertise in economics and military strategy about the concept of societal and cultural momentum and impulse. Economists, for example, speak in terms of equilibrium. Forces such as supply and demand would create the changes in market equilibrium (perhaps we can call this market impulse). Do real market analyses quantify the state of a market with similar analogues to Newton’s 2nd law? Is there a way of quantifying (in both cases it would be presumably be based on statistics & probabilities) military strategies with analogues to impulse, time and force? Can these concepts be used to help devise both winning and exit strategies for Iraq? At this point, I would think not because Iraq has moved beyond the point where equilibrium conditions can be easily reached. The physical analogue seems to be something like a double pendulum that has gone from a state with normal modes to a chaotic state, where the motion is random and unpredictable. Making it even more chaotic are external agents (insurgents) producing perturbing forces on the system. The U.S. entirely missed the brief time window for maintaining an equilibrium state with a smaller occupying force than many outside the administration thought we needed.

Discussion of Resilience and Consilience in Social Networks

Earlier this month Zenpundit posted an interesting article on socal networks, with a focus on resilience and consilience. Below is his entry, followed by my comments that he graciously posted on his blog.


A while back, Dr. Barnett and Critt Jarvis entered in to a "strategic alliance" between The New Rule-Sets Project and Enterra Solutions, which is the baby of Stephen F. DeAngelis to develop " Enterprise Resilience Management"(TM). It would seem to be at once a concept, a service and a systemic software tool for organizations to efficiently manage dynamic changes in regulations, security, information flow and market environment. From Enterra's website:"Resilient organizations turn security, compliance, information integration and business process management from non-strategic cost items into the strategic components of a sustainable competitive advantage. The positive benefits of Enterprise Resilience Management™ range from increased valuation, marketability and corporate responsibility to a lower cost of insurance and lower total cost of ownership. Additionally, ERM assists in lowering potential damage to an organization's reputation and critical assets. This helps to create internal controls and solutions that protect senior executives and organizations from legal liability."The target demographic are corporations, government agencies and militaries. I'm not qualified or familiar enough to discuss the software aspect but I find the focus on " Resilience" to be very important conceptually.

DeAngelis has written about his ideas on cultivating organizational resilience here and here. Like Tom, DeAngelis is a visionary writer so his pieces tilt toward shifting your perspective on old worldviews and like Dr. Barnett he understands that freely evolving complexity in systems has significant ripple effects - hence his making " resilience" the core of his philosophy.Why is this important ? " Resilience" in free scale networks refers to how resistant the network is removal of its nodes ( removing a node lowers the efficiency of the network by increasing the distance between nodes or disconnecting them entirely). Corporations, government agencies - all groups in fact - are networks. Because most formal organizations in American society still carry the structural and cultural legacy of the industrial revolution they tend to be hierarchical, vertically-organized, culturally-rigid and are less than resilient. Take out key actors - the " nodes" -and institutional paralysis ensues. Possibly collapse.

So the Enterra-NRSP partnership is really selling network efficiency and survivability. In PNM terms, engineering a robust defensive capability against System Perturbations that would allow an organization reeling from cascading effects to " bounce back" from an attack. As I said earlier, resilience a key concept and quality in terms of importance. But what about...offense ? Or expansion of the network or the network's radius of influence ? What about structuring an organizational network to gear its behavior, culture and strategic thinking in terms of
"Consilience " as well?

Consilience was a term rescued from obscurity by Edward O. Wilson, the famous sociobiologist in his book of the same name that means a " jumping together" or unity of knowledge. Consilient thinkers look for the common underlying Rule-sets in disparate phenomena ( all phenomena at their most ambitious) - like Horizontal thinkers they are seeing connections across domains but the interests of Consilient thinkers are directed at the root level - the fundamental laws, principles and axioms applicable to all domains. In Wilson's words:"The trend cannot be reversed by force-feeding students with some of this and some of that across the branches of learning; true reform will aim at the consilience of science with the social sciences and the humanities in scholarship and teaching "You can't get a whole lot more horizontal than that ! What would be the advantages of building " Consilience" in to a network's structure, system and culture ?

Survivability: Like resilience, a high degree of consilience in a network would be likely to improve the network's longitudinal prospects by adapting efficient non-zero sum Rule-sets.

Influence: By adapting principles, practices and concepts that other networks find analogous to their own, the message of the network has more memetic appeal by virtue of being more readily comprehensible.

Compatibility: As with communication and influence, common Rule-sets make potential cooperation, alliances and mergers with other networks more likely as well as more harmonious.
Adaptability: Members of networks with a consciously consilient culture are more apt to themselves become better horizontal and creative thinkers. Their
OODA cycle may be faster because they are all - collectively and individually - seeing farther and to wider horizon.

How consilience would be designed in terms of software applicatons is something far beyond my ken but it would seem to be a fruitful conceptual field to explore."

My comments:

"The idea of 'resiliency' is important in scale-free networks. While there are many nodes in any sort of complex network, whether social, business, electronic (i.e. Internet), biological (food webs, metabolic processes, etc.), or other, what makes a network scale-free is that some small number of the nodes have many more links than the vast majority of nodes (which only have a few links). These highly linked nodes are the hubs of the network, and in some sense are responsible for holding the network together.

From the standpoint of software, perhaps the biggest fear is the computer virus wiping out a company's computer network. Of course, the obvious choice is to hit the network servers and routers, which are the hubs. And these hubs are the most obvious parts of the network to protect. But what one cannot forget is that if nodes on the periphery are infected, it is very difficult to kill the virus completely.

Now add in Wilson's idea of 'consiliency.' How can a network make use of fundamental principles from a variety of fields to enhance the performance of the entire network? In everyday terms, to me this almost sounds like multitasking. One needs to have members of the network who have studied and are trained in multiple fields, or small numbers of individuals who know something about a lot of different fields...research shows this multitasking tends to *reduce* productivity if you take the individual route. I may be a bit off on this, but in network theory, there is a hierarchical structure to some real networks that was discovered in ~2002. There are naturally forming, self-emergent networks within networks. There is still a scale-free mathematical structure to the more complex networks, and they are now called modular networks. A large company does this by having different departments, which by themselves are networks of workers. But the hubs, department managers, perhaps, are the links between the departments (modules) to form an ever more complex structure. The Internet and biological cell are naturally occurring modular networks, and the more people look, the more this structure is found in real networks.

Modularity makes use of a variety of local information for the global success of the overall network. The fact that this occurs naturally through the evolution of many types of networks is intriguing. Perhaps this is what Wilson's intuition was telling him. If I were a manager, I suppose I would encourage interaction between my department and others, to cross-feed each other with our knowledge and find out how to push the boundaries of our business.

This is one thing I wish happened more in schools, as Wilson also suggests in education, because teaching techniques and methodologies can be used across disciplines and subject areas...this seems to be an efficient and effective way of promoting horizontal thinking, because teachers can break away from 'standard' ways of teaching our own subject and learn some new ways of teaching from someone else in a different department. We need to take advantage of the departmentalized, intellectually specialized modules in such networks in order to help find new insights and breakthroughs. "

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Why all the fuss about gas prices, Mr. WIll?

Ah, everyone's favorite columnist, George Will, cannot comprehend what all the fuss is about gas prices of nearly $3 a gallon. He was on TV this past Sunday and wrote his column in Newsweek in this week's issue about how the economy is doing so beautifully and everyone should be happy with the current situation. And, gas prices are not a problem when looked at historically. Perhaps he neglected one piece of information (besides the fact that he is wealthy and wouldn't notice any differences if gas cost $10 or more per gallon). Since Bush took office the cost of crude oil has gone from the mid $20 per barrel to the mid $60 per barrel, or an increase of about 250%, causing gas prices at the pump to increase substantially by ~50% or more. From late 2000 to 2003, for instance, the median U.S. household income decreased over 3%. He also forgets to point out that prices of other necessities, such as groceries, has also been steadily increasing, in part because of higher transportation and distribution costs because of gas prices. Needless to say, when average, middle-class folk are earning less and paying more, we don't really care about other numbers economists and politicians and pundits throw at us to try and convince us we should be smiling and bowing to them for dong a great job. The most important number that matters in real, everyday life is what the balance is in the checkbook. Perhaps that is why the vast majority of people I know are not celebrating Mr. Will's or Mr. Bush's gleeful testimony about the state of the economy. This is a prime, concrete example of wealthy elites being out of touch with us ordinary folk.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Original Einstein paper found

An original handwritten paper was just found at the University of Leyden. It deals with Einstein's work in 1925 that led to his prediction of Bose-Einstein condensation, where certain tpes of particles and nuclei (bosons) can occupy the same quantum state at very low temperatures. I just thought it was neat!

Now if only Bush would go see...

Climate change in Alaska

Several prominent senators were recently in Alaska to talk with local residents about the effects of climate change. From an article at

Fresh from a trip to Barrow, America's northernmost city, McCain said anecdotes from Alaskans and residents of the Yukon Territory confirm scientific evidence of global warming.
"We are convinced that the overwhelming scientific evidence indicated that climate change is taking place and human activities play a very large role," McCain said.

McCain, accompanied by Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., spoke to villagers in Canada whose spruce trees are being attacked by the northward spread of spruce beetles. On Alaska's northern coast, they met Native Alaskans dealing with melting permafrost and coastal erosion.

Sen. Graham, for example, has been one who in the past has doubted some of the scientific conclusions about the extent of global warming and its consequences, as well as if it is natural or caused by humans. He has resisted any type of legislation that deals with greenhouse emissions, but after his trip he states: "If you can go to the Native people and listen to their stories and walk away with any doubt that something's going on, I just think you're not listening." McCain and Sen. Lieberman are co-sponsoring a new bill that will put some new restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions for industry (this will be, of course, independent of the Kyoto Protocol that much of the world has signed). Even if humans are responsible for a small percentage of the global climate change (and there are mountains of studies and evidence that show we are at least partly to blame), it is vital to actually do something about it while we can have an impact on the problem.

It is encouraging to see some leading Republicans finally step out and look at real situations and direct evidence of what is happening in many parts of the world, and begin hinting that they will break from the traditional position of following industry's every demand and hoping that a volunteer environmental policy will magically work...it obviously has not.

Friday, August 19, 2005

It's a dimension thing...

Many have heard of 'string theory,' which then turned into 'superstring theory' after supersymmetry was added, and now that has changed names and is called 'M theory.' Whichever name you know it by, it is weird, wild stuff for the imagination. These are theories that are trying to identify the connection between te forces of nature - electromagnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces (strong binds quarks together and holds the nucleus together, weak is responsible for radoactivity), and gravity. Tying in gravity is the hard part, it turns out. In order to do it, many theorists believe there must be extra dimensions besides the four-dimensional world Einstein taught us about. I won't go into all that here since there are many sites dedicated to it already (click here for an outstanding one!), but if interested check out this description from my old Fermilab experiment about how experimental tests are being conducted that search for extra dimensions.

Lightning research

Here is one that just shows some cool research...

It has long been suspected that the cause of lightning relies on friction between ice particles suspended in enormous storm clouds. The mechanism is no different than rubbing balloons to stick them on walls or make your hair stand up with plastic combs, or rub your socked feet on a carpet and touch a doorknob. All of these are the same, electrostatic in nature, and require rubbing things together. Well, nowadays scientists track lightning strikes with satellites and can identify relatively small ice balls in clouds with radar systems, and the first convincing correlation between the two has been established.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Just to think about...

I'm not even sure how the subject came up, but as I was out on the driveway talking with neighbors a female neighbor mentioned how frustrating it was in college when a minority woman was given an academic scholarship instead of her, when my neighbor had a slightly better GPA in similar classes. Because of her personal experience, my neighbor is not a strong supporter of affirmative action. A little later in the conversation, the Roberts nomination to the Supreme Court came up, and I asked my neighbor what she thought. She said without hesitation she was so disappointed that Bush did not choose a woman to replace O'Connor. I asked if she thought there was a better qualified woman she new of over Roberts, or if it was important in other ways just to have a woman. She said it would be nice if the Court had female role models for young girls like her daughter (to prove that there are other career opportunities than being half-naked pop/movie stars) and that the Court as well as Congress should be more representative of the fact women make up a majority of the population.

My neighbor just answered her own question about why the minority woman may have been given the scholarship. We all know life at times is unfair, and that it can never be ideal. If for any other reason, everyone has in their own mind what 'ideal' means, and in the end there is only one reality. Is there a critical mass of women in high positions of government, science, business, and all other fields, that is needed to satisfy most people? And now ask the same question for all subgroups? Is the 'best qualified for the job' the absolute best way to go for a mixed, complex society? Is that the most fair way to approach life? Perhaps, and I think most whites (especially white males) may agree with this. Perhaps not, if you are, say, a black male who has as role models professional athletes or rappers, and you cannot walk into certain stores without being followed by security or walk down a street without a white woman moving to the other side of the street...is life being played on an level playing field for you? What does 'right' mean in these complex discussions on affirmative action, race relations, job opportunities, who gets the scholarship, and all that comes with it?

Of course, I am convinced there is no 'right' answer because it all depends on your own situation and circumstances. It is a relative term. I tend to think that the 'best qualified' for the job or scholarship is absolutely the goal, but I am not convinced it is absolutely 'right' until there is a level playing field. This is something to think about for sure. It would be great to hear any and all thoughts on this one!

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Some thoughts on Physics First in high schools

The traditional high school science sequence is biology, chemistry, and then, maybe, physics. Logically this is backwards. We start students off with the science of complexity, biology, without a foundation of fundamental physical principles, physics. We don’t build buildings starting off with the roof and lifting the house superstructure to put it all on the foundation, so why do we try to build science education like this?

Nobel Prize winning physicist Leon Lederman took the lead some years back to begin a national campaign called Physics First (or Physics Phirst, as many like to spell it). Start freshman (or even 8th graders) off with a class that focuses on physics, then do chemistry after students know something about energy, forces, collisions, electric charge, and all that makes chemistry work, and then finally get to biology after chemical reactions, molecular structure, atomic theory, and so on have been studied so students may have a better chance of actually making sense of living cells, which are essentially small chemical plants.

After being asked by several others recently to give my personal take on Physics First, here goes. I absolutely agree with this curriculum shift from a philosophical point of view. If our goal is to actually have students learn some biology, rather than memorize it for the test and then forget it because it really makes no sense without some other knowledge, then yes, creating a logical progression of studies is almost a no brainer. The trouble comes in as far as how schools actually can do this logistically. There are key problems most districts will face if they want to even try this at the level of a pilot program.

- if all freshman are to take physics, schools will need significantly more physics teachers. There are large shortages now, with maybe only a third of students ever taking physics, and many of those teachers are not physics majors (rather, converted math or chemistry teachers, etc.).

- many physics teachers worry about the lack of math that would be involved in a freshman physics class. A freshman class would almost certainly have to be a conceptual physics class, which many teachers I personally know are opposed to at some level. I don’t have a problem with it at all, because even with calculus-based physics classes, in my mind conceptual understanding is most important…getting an answer through mathematical manipulation is one thing, knowing what the answer means is another (and that is the physics part anyhow).

- Science departments will need to revamp lab space, hardware, software and textbook inventories at a time most schools are in the red. It could be an expensive endeavor in many cases.

- Believe it or not, I know too many veteran physics teachers who admit they do not want to work with freshman in required classes. They are used to junior and senior students who want to be there in an elective class. In my mind this is a lame excuse, but it is out there (and administrators would have to say, “Tough.”).

The most glaring concern is the first. A lack of teachers will presently mean most districts and schools will not be able to establish a full curriculum shift even if they wanted to, at least not to the point where the program would be as strong as it could or should. There are ways around the other problems, but if a school cannot find qualified teachers, the change won’t be possible. I am not aware of large data sets yet from the few schools that have made the switch as to how well this approach makes in science education.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Pure Science versus Applied Science

A summer science research course I teach always has many good discussions about analysis techniques, the scientific method, and specific areas of research. A topic that always makes an appearance is the debate over what type of research is more valuable, pure or applied. In particular, the class debate peaks when we travel out to Fermilab to visit some of the facilities and labs. Prior to that visit, classes are normally close to split over which is more vital to the progress of science and the U.S. lead world research.

Pure science research is that work which is done in the pursuit of new knowledge. Scientists working in this type of research don’t necessarily have any ideas in mind about applications of their work. They may be testing an existing theory, they may have a new experimental technique they want to try, or they may literally stumble accidentally into a new area of discovery (many of the great discoveries in history occurred by accident, such as X-rays and penicillin). Encompassed in this realm is a good deal of theoretical research, such as those who are working on quantum mechanics, superstrings, theoretical cosmology, and many others.
Applied science research is that which is geared towards applications of knowledge and concrete results that are useful for specific purposes. Engineering is certainly an application of knowledge for finding practical solutions to specific problems. Research into instrumentation, new inventions, and new processes that may improve productivity in industry, as well as medical research geared towards the production of new drugs, are obvious examples of this type of research.

Fermilab, for example, is a mammoth device that is used almost entirely for pure research in particle physics. Scientists look for new forms of matter, study fundamental forces between particles, test theories such as the Standard Model, and test new types of instrumentation. As an ideal example of ‘big’ science, students are wide-eyed when told the power bill is something like $10,000 per hour and that operating budgets, paid for by taxpayer dollars, run in the hundreds of millions (not to mention the billions of dollars that have been spent over the years to build the facility and the main experiments). My question for them is: Is it worth it?
On the surface, most people can think of better uses of billions of dollars. I’ve been asked countless times how scientists can justify the costs of facilities like Fermilab or the price-tag associated with sending another space probe to Mars. What about cures for cancer? New energy sources? Better sources of food that can be grown and used by the third-world? Are these not more important areas of study, especially when the answer to the question, “What good is a top quark?” is “I cannot think of a single application.” Certainly politicians are faced with such questions, and rightly so. We absolutely need to ask these questions and find priorities for limited resources and funding.

Politicians, of course, prefer applied science research. They would love to be able to go to their constituents with news of a new invention or discovery that will make life better, and, gee, since I supported the funding of the research I deserve to be re-elected. While applied science almost always wins out in a class vote of which is more important, as I argue in my last posting that thinking in terms of absolutes can limit progress, my conclusion is BOTH are absolutely essential for the progress of science as well as maintaining our status as a superpower.

Pure science keeps new ideas and discoveries flowing. Progress in almost any field, be it industry, business, or medicine, depends on the amount of knowledge one has access to. Continuing wit Fermilab as our working example, it is true that a discovery such as a top quark almost certainly cannot yield a direct, beneficial application for mankind. But, in order to make that discovery, and what is not obvious to the general public, requires new technologies and breakthroughs that can often lead to spin-offs that revolutionize everyday life. The world of fast computation, massive data storage, and fast electronics has been built on the work that needed to be done to build Fermilab and discover the top quark. Applications of superconductivity took this phenomenon from a fascinating quantum state we can produce in the lab to the world of high-strength magnets necessary for steering particles at the speed of light. Little did anyone originally know that eventually someone would figure out that these same superconducting magnets can be used to create internal images of the body, now called MRI technology. This blog site is possible because of the pioneering computer network (both hardware and software) created by high energy physicists, who found it necessary to share data between experiments in the U.S. and Europe. And most people are unaware of the Cancer Treatment Center at Fermilab, that uses neutron beams created by the main accelerators. There are only four such centers in the U.S., and thousands of patients have been treated over the years.

The point is that pure science is absolutely essential. This type of science ensures that we keep pushing the envelope and continue our quest of deciphering Nature’s puzzles. It leads to the fringe and cutting edge science in all disciplines. While primary work may or may not be useful for the general public in the form of a physical device or process, history shows convincingly that whatever investment is made will usually be paid back (often many times over) in the form of spin-offs. I, for one, have no complaints of some of my tax money going towards a national lab such as Fermilab, or any other facility that promotes pure science research.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

If you have a couple spare minutes....

Try the survey at www.politicalcompass.org. It shows where you fall on the political spectrum (based largely on economic and social views), and takes only a quick few minutes. If anything, it is entertaining. Thanks to James for pointing this out. FYI, I landed right where their point is for Gandhi. Enjoy. :-)

Monday, August 08, 2005

Thank you, John Marburger

Below is a portion of an email released by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), the largest professional organization in the country for science teachers, of which I am a proud member. It is addressing President Bush's recent statement and endorsement that Intelligent Design should be taught along with evolution in science classrooms. Of course, it is easy to dismiss this statement from a man whose administration simply ignores science when evidence and facts get in the way of its agenda, but on the other hand it is another slap in the face of science and science education. It gives credibilty to ID as a scientific theory to many Americans who are not following the story; ID is simply NOT a scientific concept. I was thrilled to learn that John Marburger, the President's science advisor, later followed the Bush statement with a clarifying statement that ID is not scientifically valid and does not belong in science classrooms. I only hope Marburger is not taken out back for a whooping by Rove, et. al. For more of my own thoughts, see previous posts from May. Here is the NSTA statement, with links to replies from numerous other science organizations that were sent out immediately after the Bush statement.

"President Bush ignited a media firestorm last week when he voiced his support for “Intelligent Design.” When asked by reporters whether he believed both evolution and intelligent design should be taught in schools, Bush replied that he did “so that people can understand what the debate is about.” The response from the scientific and education communities was immediate and fierce. Statements by NSTA, the American Physical Society (APS), American Geophysical Union (AGU), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU), American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS), and others helped to shape the controversy for millions nationwide. A statement was also issued by the National Congress on Science Education (NCSE), which is comprised of representatives from NSTA Chapters and Associated Groups.

In a statement released on August 3, NSTA indicated that it was “stunned and disappointed” that President Bush is endorsing intelligent design—effectively opening the door for nonscientific ideas to be taught in the nation’s K-12 science classrooms.
"It is simply not fair to present pseudoscience to students in the science classroom," said NSTA President Mike Padilla. "Nonscientific viewpoints have little value in increasing students' knowledge of the natural world."

To read the NSTA statement, go to http://www.nsta.org/pressroom&news_story_ID=50794.
To read statements issued by other organizations, go to the following links:
To view the statement by the NCSE, visit

NSTA also contributed to numerous news articles, including the cover story in this week's issue of TIME magazine. To read a few of the many news articles generated from Bush’s comments, go to the NSTA News Digest at http://www.nsta.org/main/news/stories/education_story.php?news_story_ID=50796."

Confirmation of Predictions of Global Warming Models and Theory

Below is an abstract of a new article appearing in the recent edition of the scientific journal Nature (vol. 436, pages 686-688). MIT researcher Kerry Emanuel reports on the increasing destructiveness of tropical cyclones over the past 30 years, which has been predicted by meteorological theory and gobal warming computer models.

Theory and modelling predict that hurricane intensity should increase with increasing global mean temperatures, but work on the detection of trends in hurricane activity has focused mostly on their frequency and shows no trend. Here I define an index of the potential destructiveness of hurricanes based on the total dissipation of power, integrated over the lifetime of the cyclone, and show that this index has increased markedly since the mid-1970s. This trend is due to both longer storm lifetimes and greater storm intensities. I find that the record of net hurricane power dissipation is highly correlated with tropical sea surface temperature, reflecting well-documented climate signals, including multi-decadal oscillations in the North Atlantic and North Pacific, and global warming. My results suggest that future warming may lead to an upward trend in tropical cyclone destructive potential, and—taking into account an increasing coastal population—a substantial increase in hurricane-related losses in the twenty-first century.

Coincidentally, this goes along with my last post as far as confining one's belief's and arguments to just 'one or the other' views within a particular field. More often than not, in complex problems, there is no single correct solution or theory, but rather combinations from multiple perspectives and ways of thinking together provide a better way of understanding what is going on. Here, the author suggests that both natural oscillations in tropical sea surface temperatures and global warming, which nearly everyone agrees humans play at least a small role, are creating more destructive cyclones and hurricanes. There are no easy, absolute answers with complex systems, be it global weather or what social/societal structure is best for our children.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Frustrated with Intellectual Absolutism and Isolationism

“It Takes a Village!” No, “It Takes a Family!”

“We must use Phonics!” “No, don’t be a fool, Whole Language!”

“Global warming is natural, so leave my Hummer out of it!” “You damn SUV drivers are the Devil himself!”

“It’s your diet, duh!” “All you need is exercise, so get off your lazy ass!”

“Pepsi!” “No, Coke!” OK, I won’t even go there.

I need to vent some frustration after reaching a breaking point with the publication of Senator Rick Santorum’s book, “It Takes a Family.” No, I have not read it yet but have seen excerpts and have heard bits of interviews with this right-wing nut. I also have read comments from many true conservatives, including one of my very best friends Zenpundit, who has taken a stance that has hit me harder than shock and awe: he is willing to support Santorum’s Democratic opponent.

Like Rick Santorum who exists apparently to provide evidence for Leftists everywhere that membership in the Republican Party is not incompatible with complete intellectual incoherence and a fascistic mindset. You sir, represent a weird, right-wing bizarro world version of everything I categorically reject in Left-wing authoritarianism.In the next election cycle I will do something I have never done before which is cross party lines and donate to Santorum's opponent ( naturally, I'm sure the Democrats will take the opportunity to nominate a true extremist kook of their own to make this decision as unpalatable as is humanly possible).”

That is how bad off our world is. The stars must not be aligned correctly or something like that (I haven’t seen my astrologer recently). It is easy (and sort of fun) to use Santorum as the poster-boy of, for lack of a better phrase, intellectual absolutism, but it exists everywhere and in all fields. Partisan politics, of course, is a power game that is played for keeps, regardless of who is correct and what is best for most citizens. It is also the most familiar example of seeing extremism and absolutism in action because we get to watch it every day on the news.

Hillary Clinton’s book, “It Takes a Village,” is a dissertation of her take on society. She puts her opinions out there, she backs much of it up with research studies, and she concludes sometimes parents need assistance with their children. She really does state that ideally and primarily, family is the core to a child’s well-being, so after I read her book I agreed with many, but certainly not all, of her conclusions. The ‘village’ is not a substitute for government necessarily, because she does conclude schools, churches, community organizations, and so on, are vitally important in our society, and she praises all of them. Government can play a role as well, to help those who cannot be helped by community services and so on, but of course there are huge limitations that need to be considered. Thinking of your own situation, which of the following excerpts make more sense to your life:

“After decades of assault upon what made America great, upon supposedly obsolete values, what have we reaped, what have we created, what do we have? What we have, in the opinion of millions of Americans, is crime, drugs, illegitimacy, abortion, the abdication of duty, and the abandonment of children.

And after the virtual devastation of the American family, the rock upon which this country was founded, we are told that it takes a village -- that is, the collective, and thus, the state -- to raise a child.

The state is now more involved than it has ever been in the raising of children, and children are now more neglected, abused, and mistreated than they have been in our time.
This is not a coincidence, and, with all due respect, I am here to tell you: it does not take a village to raise a child.

It takes a family. (Sound familiar - my addition)

If I could by magic restore to every child who lacks a father or a mother, that father or that mother, I would.

And though I cannot, I would never turn my back on them, and I shall, as president, promote measures that keep families whole.

I am here to tell you that permissive and destructive behavior must be opposed, that honor and liberty must be restored, and that individual accountability must replace collective excuse. I am here to say to America, do not abandon the great traditions that stretch to the dawn of our history, do not topple the pillars of those below.”


“I want to talk about what matters most in our lives and in our nation—children and families. I wish — I wish we could be sitting around a kitchen table, just us, talking about our hopes and fears, about our children’s futures. For Bill and me, family has been the center of our lives.
But we also know that our family, like your family, is part of a larger community that can help or hurt our best efforts to raise our child.

Right now, in our biggest cities and our smallest towns, there are boys and girls being tucked gently into bed, and there are boys and girls who have no one to call mom or dad, and no place to call home.

Right now there are mothers and fathers just finishing a long day’s work. And there are mothers and fathers just going to work, some to their second or third jobs of the day.

Right now there are parents worrying: “What if the baby sitter is sick tomorrow?” Or: “How can we pay for college this fall?” And right now there are parents despairing about gang members and drug pushers on the corners in their neighborhoods.

Right now there are parents questioning a popular culture that glamorizes sex and violence, smoking and drinking, and teaches children that the logos on their clothes are more valued than the generosity in their hearts.

But also right now there are dedicated teachers preparing their lessons for the new school year. There are volunteers tutoring and coaching children. There are doctors and nurses caring for sick children, police officers working to help kids stay out of trouble and off drugs.
Of course, parents, first and foremost, are responsible for their children.”

The first was from Bob Dole’s acceptance speech at the 1996 Republican National Convention, the second from Hillary Clinton’s speech at the 1996 Democratic National Convention. Who is correct? Well, at the core they are saying the same thing. Family is (or at least should be in an ideal world) the most important part of a child’s life. Dole is correct that our society is lacking individual responsibility in many instances, and this is in part responsible for our ‘take you to court,’ make excuses-happy culture. But with complete families now in the minority, obviously this is an ideal view that is disconnected from reality. Many on the Right talk about faith-based everything, but now you are talking in Hillary-speak, are you not?! Ouch, that has got to hurt and I’ll likely hear about it from certain people.

As part of the Right’s grand plans to bring back traditional family values, “promote measures that keep families whole” (hey, Bob is talking about doing this through, gulp, government policy), etc, they are in Hillary’s worldview but cannot and will not realize it and/or admit it. After all, on paper two parents are better than one for a child. Without thinking about it, I agree. But simplistic, absolute answers have trouble when one considers complexity of real life. Let me modify the two parent concept like this: Two parents who give a damn about the child are better than one. (Just like two heads are better than one for solving, say, social problems….unless one of those heads belongs to a Hitler or Stalin) I just cannot help but think too many on the Right don’t think in these terms, such as a Dole or Santorum, and yet they go on to constantly contradict their own arguments by talking about government incentives to promote family and get faith-based, community service organizations involved in helping with education, the drug war, and countless other aspects of a child’s life. It is also hard to be lectured on what’s best for my kids by rich white guys whose children were likely raised in part by the nanny…

My guess is most people will relate with the everyday situations described by Hillary. Any parent asks these same questions. To say absolutely that the family unit can survive on its own and that a child is only affected by his or her family is, of course, ridiculous because we all are influenced by society. To say absolutely that government can solve all family and social ills through policy and regulation is, of course, ridiculous because no policy or regulation exists that will work for all individuals, let alone be constitutional or American, where freedom is king. This is what I mean by ‘intellectual absolutism.’ It is the lack of ability to recognize complexity and that real, working solutions are combinations of the extreme views. Is the Left correct? Is the Right correct? Both are correct, both are wrong. Partisanship within the two party system is in theory a good thing, and having some small number of extremists on each side is a good thing because it broadens the spectrum of ideas. But having said that, the danger lies in the inability of leaders to listen to each other and argue about things simply for the sake of partisanship, rather than solving real problems. In addition, getting personal is currently a problem of such great magnitude that it clouds rational, logical debate with emotion, and we all know how well human beings think when caught up in emotion. I’ve seen the same thing countless times in teacher meetings when discussing teaching methodologies or theories of learning. Certain individuals become consumed absolutely with Piaget, others absolutely with Skinner, to the point where they cannot identify that there are some good points from each theory, so why not take pieces of each. It seems our culture is more consumed with the notion of absolutes more than I can ever remember, and I, for one, am frustrated with so many walking around and arguing with blinders on. So, going back to the beginning:

“It Takes a Village!” “It Takes a Family!” Hey, it takes both!

“Phonics!” “Whole Language!” Hey, each has its strengths, so we need both!

“Global warming is natural!” “We are causing global warming!” Hey, there is evidence for both
(so it would help if we did try to do something about the portion we can control).

“It’s your diet!” “All you need is exercise!” Hey, it is both, so eat less and, yes, get your lazy ass off the couch.

“Pepsi!” “No, Coke!” OK, I still won’t go there (but just so you know, it absolutely is Pepsi).

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

A Disturbing Observation

When at a large department store one night, I observed a small group of white teens who came in and walked past a security guard, who sat there without noticing. They were dressed in baggy jeans and had baseball caps on backward, and were a bit on the loud side. An African-American man came in shortly after and went to look at some merchandise. He was likely in his twenties and was dressed in casual business attire. I could not help but note that the security guard got up and followed him around the store, while ignoring the white teens who were roaming the store.

This scenario is something every minority student I have worked with can identify with firsthand. Is there really an even playing field out there, as those who want an end to all affirmative action/race-based programs like to claim? The actual evidence suggests there is not. It is probably better than the last generation had it, but there is obviously still racism, stereotyping, and so on in the real world. When someone suggests to me that any and all ‘preferential treatment’ towards minorities who are working hard is wrong, I typically respond that this is an ideal reality we need to shoot for…but until ‘preferential treatment’ for someone like George W. Bush, who was accepted into Yale with an academic record that is normally laughed at by their admissions office (and this happens on occasion for the children of the wealthy and powerful), I’ve got no problem with responsibly run programs trying to even society’s playing field.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

A tough political position to be in.....

I have recently heard many comments about the way freshman Congresswoman Melissa Bean (Democrat, Illinois 8th District) voted on CAFTA. She was one of the few Dems in the House to vote for it, and the only Dem from Illinois to vote for it, as it passed by the narrowest of margins 216-214.

It is unfair to suggest she alone caused it to pass (as I have heard some say), as about 30 other Dems voted for it. But this provides an interesting example of how a representative can be torn on how to vote. Rep. Bean is a career small businesswoman, and went on to defeat the powerful, long-time incumbent Phil Crane in a “David vs Goliath” campaign in 2004. She is more of a fiscal conservative with some more liberal social views who ran in a strong Republican district. Now, almost half of her campaign funds came from unions, who of course were overwhelmingly against CAFTA. However, the two largest employers (I believe) in the 8th District are Motorola and Abbot Labs, who were strongly for CAFTA. A majority of her constituents were for the trade agreement, and it is almost a certainty that she is on top of Karl Rove’s hit-list for the 2006 midterm elections.

This is as close to a win-lose position as a representative will get. Vote against it, and she shows party loyalty and rewards some of her top contributors, but then face the wrath of the national GOP as well as many of her constituents in 2006. Vote for it, and break the confidence from loyal supporters as well as the DNC, but do what most of your constituents want as well as win likely corporate support and contributions (and perhaps Rove and company take it a bit easier on her in 2006). As a supporter of Bean when I lived in the 8th District, I was admittedly disappointed with her vote, but I can understand how much pressure both sides must have put on her and why she voted that way. It will be interesting to see how this affects the 2006 campaign, and it is an interesting example of what many public servants go through in tight, controversial votes.

Business Helping Out With STEM Education

After a bit of an absence for many, many reasons, I wanted to throw out there a headline from an NSTA brief:

15 Leading Business Groups Launch Action Plan To Improve Science and Math Education; Call for Doubling of STEM Graduates in 10 Years
15 major business groups representing business of every size and from every sector of the economy—led by the CEO members of the Business Roundtable—last week called for doubling the number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduates by the year 2015 and issued an action plan to do this by:
Launching an awareness campaign to make improvements in STEM fields a national priority;
Motivating students and adults to study and enter careers in these disciplines;
Upgrading elementary and secondary teaching in math and science;
Reforming visa and immigration policies to enable the U.S. to attract and retain top STEM students; and
Boosting and sustaining funding for basic research.
In a press statement Business Roundtable President John Castellani says the business community would “take the lead in building public awareness and support for greater interest, investment, and performance in science, technology, engineering, and math by:
Expanding the successful State Scholars program that encourages students to take rigorous courses in high school;
Offering more opportunities for company employees to serve as role models and mentors in these fields;
Providing teachers with materials that will show students the importance of math and science in a wide range of careers;
Funding scholarships for students and professional development for math and science teachers;
Working with education groups, the media, and the entertainment industry on messages showing how math and science learning leads to a wide range of interesting careers; and
Meeting with and lobbying Governors and Members of Congress to carry out the report's recommendations.

This is, in my opinion, a positive bit of news. Too often one reads about the complaints of the industrial and business sectors about the lack of qualified candidates for technical jobs. The level of lobbying and influence business groups like this have is substantial, and if they follow through on the rhetoric some positive things are likely in the world of science and technology education. Especially important for classroom teachers is a call for providing materials to help show students the importance and relevance of math and science in everyday life as well as in longer timeframes, i.e. careers. It is my experience that making a subject relevant to students’ lives is perhaps the single biggest thing any teacher can do, and achieving this level of presentation in a classroom is as close to a guarantee of engaging students there is…and engaged students tend to learn and accomplish much more than those who are not. I hope this action influences other business leaders to join in on a wide scale, and we will see where efforts like this can lead.