Thursday, September 29, 2005

Go, SOX!!

The White Sox are finding their groove again as the playoffs start next week. Too bad the Cubs cannot join us (not meant as a dig...sort of). Let's see what they can do!

Thursday, September 22, 2005


Not too long ago I tried to make the argument that physical principles may be useful in the analysis of human behavior, as well as societal and cultural phenomena. Well-known physics concepts such as inertia, momentum, force and impulse seem to have analogs in the social and behavioral sciences. There are other reasons that suggest a deeper connection between the physical realm and social realm, as seen in the fields of network theory and complexity. Common mathematical relationships and structures have been discovered over a remarkable range of systems, from the Internet to social networks to business networks, and even in food webs and metabolic chemical networks.

Further evidence of deep links between physical systems and economic models have also been discovered. In the September issue of Physics Today, an article entitled “Is Economics the Next Physical Science?” is featured. Yale professor Martin Shubik and Santa Fe Institute researchers Doyne Farmer and Eric Smith have been working on econophysics, where well-established mathematical methods used by physicists over many years have been used to establish better dynamical economic models. For example, the study of chaotic systems in physical systems as economic analogs in the sense that an economic market can follow very different paths if there are relatively minor changes in the initial conditions of the market. The mathematics used in this type of analysis follows techniques used in physics. The observation of numerous power laws in physical systems and networks (i.e. scale-free networks) over a number of years has led to more refined analysis tools, which are now being used to understand newly discovered power laws in economic theory. These power laws include analysis of price movement in stocks over short periods of time as well as income distributions in capitalistic economies. Production and distribution networks of large corporations have been shown to follow characteristic power laws associated with scale-free networks. What may seem like random trading patterns in the stock market that lead to market swings and patterns may be analogous to random motions of many-body systems that show emergent behavior. Statistical mechanics relationships are being used to study various types of economic models (since probability distribution functions rule).

While standard physics analyses may provide some leads into the deeper understanding of economics, there is still the difficulty of including human beings into the mix. It is not clear that we will be able to model human responses that are based not on logic or deterministic physical laws, but rather raw emotion and the possibility of random response decisions to evolving market conditions that are built around strategies that may or may not be well thought out. We are not yet at the point of creating a Foundation like Harry Seldon did in Isaac Asimov’s classic ‘Foundation Trilogy,’ but this is a fascinating new way of thinking about the possible universality of physical and social sciences.

Is There a Gap in Wealth in the US?

The nature of capitalism is to have winners and losers, i.e. social Darwinism. Just a few numbers, and I'll let you decide if our capitalistic economy is working in this manner:

- The latest Forbes list of the richest Americans is out, and the wealthiest billionaires increased their wealth by $125 billion in the past year. The top 400 are worth $1.13 trillion.

- In 2003, the income ratio of CEO to worker was 301:1. In 2004, that ratio increased to an astounding 431:1.

- Average worker salaries essentially remain flat with inflation.

My take is that our capitalistic economy remains strong.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Nobel Laureates Contact Kansas State Board of Ed.

Thirty-eight Nobel prize winning scientists and other notables have contacted the Kansas State Board of Education to request that they reject science standards that include intelligent design. The reason is simple: a model for the development of life that has, as its foundation, the involvement of a supernatural designer or planner (i.e. some sort of creator), cannot be tested by known scientific means. By definition, this type of model is not a scientific model.

Science deals with the physical universe, and its realm includes the study of natural processes. Proposed supernatural processes or entities is outside this realm, making it difficult to justify its inclusion in any science curriculum.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Site for Displaced Teachers, Students, Researchers

I just got this from the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT). My guess is other professional and community groups around the country are or will be doing the same thing. Please pass along the information to anyone who may need it due to Katrina. My guess is online bulletin boards and job posts will become an invaluable tool for displaced residents who are trying to find work or schools to attend.

"Hurricane Katrina has affected thousands of members of the physics and astronomy community. Physics students in the afflicted areas, fromundergrads to post-docs, are unable to go to their colleges. Physics and astronomy educators at all levels have lost their jobs, their paychecks, and their homes. Displaced students need to get back into classes to continue their educations. Faculty members, post-docs, and high-school teachers need teaching and research jobs.

To help them get back on their feet we have created a physics community bulletin board to advertise immediate, temporary positions for students, teachers, and faculty members. Providers of help will post details; those who need help can apply directly. There also will be some other helpful links. If you know someone from the affected area who is needing to relocate,please refer them to If you know of positions at your institution, in your school district, in your state, please list them on the website. Whatever help we can provide those impacted by Hurricane Katrina will be very much appreciated."

Sunday, September 11, 2005

A Recommendation for Science Teaching: Break Down Barriers Presented by Textbook Chapters

There is something that truly bugs me about science textbooks – chapters. In my previous post, I argue that the way we teach science, particularly in middle school and high school, can be misleading to students in the sense that science is made up by a bunch of segregated, unrelated set of disciplines such as biology, chemistry, and physics. While it is undoubtedly important to learn fundamental concepts and principles within a single discipline, rarely do students become acquainted with how science is now done in the real world, which is more and more frequently collaborations consisting of experts from a variety of technical fields where the focus is on the overlap and connections between disciplines. A related problem comes about within a single discipline itself. That problem is the lack of connection and continuity between concepts and principles as presented in traditional textbook chapters.

In a 2002 article I had published in The Science Teacher (December issue, pages 44-47, entitled “Chapterless Science”), the main high school journal published through the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), I begin:

“When I began teaching high school physics seven years ago, I thought I had some idea of what I was doing. After all, with a doctorate in physics I was confident I knew the material. The textbook, course syllabus, and accompanying laboratory and test bank books outlined exact chapters to teach and labs to perform. However, by the end of the first semester students were not getting the most from the course.

Students were not connecting concepts that were clearly related but presented in different chapters. Students seemed to memorize terms and equations for the chapter tests. When we got to a section of a new chapter in which students had to recall ideas from a previous chapter, many had already forgotten what they had memorized for the short term.

After questioning students about why they were taking this approach, they said they assumed material from each chapter was a separate piece of physics. Because the books separated the material, students were not connecting chapters together to form a single, coherent picture of physics.”

The feedback from students was a sort of epiphany for me when it comes to teaching science. Just as many students get the impression that there are no connections between science disciplines because of the way we completely separate them by courses, within an individual course there is a common impression that a discipline is made up of a series of disconnected set of ideas and topics, because they are separated by chapters. Many students go through their schooling thinking that they need to ‘learn’ a subject by memorizing single ideas from single chapters, without attaining a level of fundamental understanding we want to see where fundamental principles can allow one to make connections between a wide variety of topics (i.e. chapters).

For instance, in a physics class, as students are studying the effects of force in general, I include discussions of all types of forces. We consider springs, friction, centripetal force, gravity, electric forces, and magnetic forces, all within the first few weeks of class. All these topics typically have their own chapters well into the textbook. (For example, one textbook has friction in chapter 4, centripetal force in chapter 5, gravity in chapter 12, springs in chapter 13, electric force in chapter 22, and magnetic forces in chapter 28.)

Although I do not go into great detail with all of the examples of force when they are initially introduced (but this also provides a preview of things to come), students learn that connections exist between many different types of forces relevant to a wide variety of phenomena. The consequences, behaviors, and descriptions of the different forces all can be fundamentally understood with the same basic rules. Even though the appearances of various forces can be dramatically different, students learn that they can begin to understand nature at a new, more fundamental level. In addition, students begin to develop the mentality of scientists, looking for patterns to make connections to different situations to make sense of the world, making predictions, and solving problems using fundamental principles. This technique is a powerful way to begin building critical-thinking skills in students.

Some other examples from my classroom include studying the many similar motions that have common connections. For instance, when we study circular motion, a common demonstration and lab includes twirling an object tied to a string over our heads. The concept of centripetal force is then introduced. Typically, other examples in the chapter covering centripetal force include loops in roller coasters, curved roads, and perhaps airplanes diving into circular paths. But I’ll also include orbiting satellites, electrons orbiting around a nucleus, electric charges moving in circles in magnetic fields, pendulum motion, and so on—all of which are spread throughout the textbook in many different chapters. The students pick up the information quickly because earlier they were introduced to the relevant forces and principles for all these examples. The case of circular motion simply reinforces deeper connections and similarities between all these seemingly different phenomena. Even if we do not cover specific problems or experiments dealing with the topics in later chapters of the book, at least the ideas and principles have been introduced.

As with science disciplines seemingly being unrelated to most students because of artificial barriers we place on them by having them taught in separate courses, we end to do the same thing within single disciplines by using traditional chapter-based texts and chapter-based curricula. The interconnectedness of seemingly different phenomena and principles can be lost to students unless we help break down such boundaries and barriers.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

The nature of science today

When we went through high school, I would have to guess that when we were asked the question “What is science?” we would have answered, depending on the year we were in school and what class we were taking at the moment, biology, chemistry, or physics. Maybe a few of us would have answered earth science. This is how I used to think about science, at least, because of the way it is normally presented in our schooling. Starting in middle school, science is presented as a bunch of disjointed disciplines and we almost never, if ever, hear our teachers talk about how biology is related to chemistry, or how physics and chemistry are related, and so on. Biology is biology, chemistry is chemistry, and physics is physics.

It was not until I actually began doing science later in my undergraduate years and into grad school that I finally learned what science really is. In actual scientific research, the pursuit for finding and understanding the truths of Nature break down the artificial isolation and barriers placed on scientific disciplines we tend to see in high school, and instead modern research labs and collaborations typically include a mix of talent and expertise from across the spectrum of fields. A group run by a professor with a degree in chemical engineering, for instance, includes chemists, a biologist, a geneticist, a computer scientist, a physicist, and other engineering majors. A medical research lab with a focus on cancer research has computer specialists, biophysicists, chemists, microbiologists, and biochemical engineers. These groups also have formed collaborations with engineers and product development specialists in industry, and the research labs also work with others in the college administration on patents and grant writing. My old experimental group, CDF out at Fermilab, had over 400 physicists who helped build and maintain one of the most sophisticated experiments on the planet, but it would not have ever worked had it not been for the steel workers, technicians, computer scientists, electrical engineers, accelerator physicists, administrators, and others in a variety of fields.

The point is, the way most textbooks still present science is best suited for the 19th and early 20th centuries, when most research was in a single discipline. One might say that the ‘easy’ stuff that is pure biology, chemistry or physics has been done, and more modern, cutting-edge research is found in the gray areas that are the overlaps between the major disciplines. Science is not a series of separate subject areas with intellectual boundaries that cut each other off from one another, but rather a continuum or ocean of unknown concepts, principles, and phenomena waiting to be discovered. Some of the broad scientific areas that will dominate future research this century, such as complexity, nanoscience, molecular biology, cosmology, quantum science, research into the brain, social science and economics (via network theory), astrobiology, and even continued searches for the TOE (theory of everything), all will make progress not just from experts in major disciplines, but rather through continued expansion of multi-field and multi-talent collaborations. I personally feel that the training of the next generation of scientists, doctors, social scientists, engineers, and anyone else in technical fields, needs to include and feature such notions about the true nature of science at least by the high school level of their education, because the approach one takes to prepare for such intellectual collaboration requires an awareness of not only the basics of a particular skill set within a discipline, but also limitations within a discipline that need to be filled by others. It is sort of like ‘it takes a village,’ the science way.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Having Respect for Nature

I personally cannot get over Nature. Just on earth, we are witnesses to the awe-inspiring variety of life, the beauty of everything from rainbows to cloud formations, to the Grand Canyon and scenic beauty of the Alaskan wilderness. We have seen the awesome power of Nature last week in the Gulf and with the tsunami, and we will see such fury unleashed again some day.

Many of us lose track of what happens outside of the earth. I was just reminded of this after reading a short article from Scientific American. Astronomers have directly measured a pulsar (i.e. neutron star, a superdense ball of neutrons that just missed becoming a black hole, and one teaspoon of this creature would weigh multiple tons on earth!) that is moving at over 1000 kilometers per second. Talk about impressive. To put this in perspective, human-made space probes, the fastest devices we have built, may cruise through space at several tens of kilometers per second. We have a long way to go to catch up with Nature!

FEMA Predictions from 2001

At a 2001 FEMA meeting that discussed the most likely disaster scenarios in the U.S., the top three that were discussed were a terrorist attack in New York, a flood of New Orleans, and a major earthquake in California. How is also absolutely vital that everyone learns from Katrina so the response to the next disaster is speedy and includes as strong a security presence as possible. Without security, everything else ends in chaos (as we also learned in Iraq) and takes many times longer to accomplish than it should. In this case, I do agree with George Will's latest commentary in Newsweek. Another insightful commentary can be found on Zenpundit.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Theory of 'Intelligent Gravity'

If you like "The Onion," check out the latest report on the Intelligent Design community's efforts on gravity. Many thanks to Mike at Teach and Learn for finding the link! It'll make you giggle.

Looking for advice, recommendations for school reform

As students are heading back to college, I have noticed an increase in readers from the universities. I know some are former students, so 'Hello' to all of you!! I need a favor from you, as well as anyone else who is interested in posting a comment. Now that you have been out of the public school system for one or more years, thinking back, what would the top one or two (or more) things you could have changed be, that in your mind would have made the experience better? If you don't want to leave a comment, feel free to email any suggestions/recommendations you come up with. I think this could start a very interesting and important conversation, as well as many ideas to expand on. Thanks!!

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Recommended reading: Lessons to be learned from Katrina

Kudos to Zenpundit, who has a post today about the lessons to be learned from Katrina. I tend to agree with all his points, including his recommendation that FEMA and other disaster agencies be run by leaders with a military background. Even with the countless billions spent on Homeland Security since 9/11, I think most would say it is obvious we are still staggeringly unprepared for large disasters of any kind that occur within the U.S. It is worth a read...

The Need to Seriously Think Through What to do With Gulf Coast

As countless people who have lived along the Gulf Coast still try to recover from hurricane Katrina, each evening we see leaders and residents alike talk about not letting Mother Nature win, and the need to rebuild New Orleans and other destroyed communities. I love to see such resiliency and determination, but in the heat of the moment there is a strong emotional element that is involved when these statements are made. In the long run, cooler heads need to seriously consider whether such massive investments are the wise thing to do.

On August 8, I wrote about how research showed a key prediction from global warming models has been confirmed. It only took three weeks before we had more supporting evidence with Katrina. The prediction is that with global warming comes warmer surface water temperature, and a consequence of this is not more frequent hurricanes, but rather more intense and destructive hurricanes. I have heard that Katrina was the strongest hurricane ever recorded via air pressure measurements. This was predicted and expected according to scientists who study global weather patterns and models, and the Nature article concluded with the prophetical prediction that

"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."

Our leaders need to consider the science and increasing evidence that such ferocious storms will likely happen again before rebuilding begins. Obviously there are serious consequences, and it is time to weigh in hard data before emotional responses are acted upon.

If you can afford to donate for relief efforts, here is a direct link to the Red Cross.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

A Scientific "Dream" Panel

Zenpundit has an interesting entry concerning ‘dream symposium’ panels. I thought I’d offer one for the topic “First Principles in Science.” Imagine the premise being a discussion about what the fundamental principles are in Nature and how they connect with each other. Such a discussion would presumably help influence where a good portion of science research goes, particularly for understanding complexity.

‘Dream’ panel members (because this is a dream team, not everyone is alive):

Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Murray Gell-Mann, Charles Darwin, Edward Witten, John Pople, Richard Feynman, Michael Faraday, Christian de Duve

Obviously there are many brilliant scientists and scholars who could be placed on such lists (who are/were masters of the fundamentals in their fields and how they relate to the bigger picture), so I welcome and encourage other suggestions…it is fun to think about! In addition, I’ve included some of the all-time greats (only three on the list are still alive). Who should be on the list if we wanted to gather the panel next week?