Monday, October 30, 2006

Something we just never hear about - world hunger

I just wanted to make note of a study done by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization about world hunger. Nearly 860 million people, mostly in developing nations, are severely undernourished. In 1996, a world summit on hunger set the goal that the number of undernourished people would be halved by 2015, but so far it is estimated that only 3 million have been served...this is such a small percentage that it is not statistically significant. The world is richer, there is more food, there is better agricultural technology, and there are better communications and distributions networks and technologies, but virtually no progress has been made when it comes to hunger (and I would like to know the percentage of this group who are children, essentially with no future in life). It is heartbreaking to think of these staggering numbers.

Check out Zenpundit - Super-Empowered Individuals

A thought-provoking entry has led to a wide discussion on super-empowerment, or how an individual can single handedly have enormous influence on some given system, over on Zenpundit. More comments can be found here. My own comment that I emailed to Zen was:

"This post is one of the natural extensions of what we have been discussing. I don't think there is any doubt that it is inevitable. I suppose the 'when' depends on what system is perturbed/attacked. It will be done as our understanding of network theory and complexity advance; to have, say, an individual do tremendous damage, that person will need the means of mapping out and understanding the levels of connectivity inherent to the system, whether that system is social, electronic, environmental, industrial, etc. Even with a lack of understanding of the system's multi-dimensional topology in whatever relevant phase space, I can imagine someone developing and using one of these newer adaptive genetic computer algorithms...this type of program can 'learn' as it crunches data, and can adapt itself to the system. It is along the lines of the programming being tried for intelligent robots, etc. That is probably the scariest scenario to me."

My thinking is that at some point, as these types of algorithms and technology further develop and become more widespread, cheaper, and user-friendly, it will no longer take an expert in the relevant fields to do damage to different systems of concern...some amateur hacker type can just unleash a virus built around such software and the software will be 'intelligent' enough to do damage on its own. As all aspects of life become computerized at some level, this form of super-empowerment is, in my mind at least, the single greatest technology security issue that faces us in the future (and is on a level near that or arguably equivalent to nuclear and biological terrorism...while it may not cause immediate death and physical destruction, the potential to adversely affect countless millions of people is there). Resilience in all computer systems and networks is absolutely essential.

Zen, good job as always, my friend.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

A Nice Example of How Science Works - The Case of the Pentaquark

It is clear that most people do not have a good grasp of the fundamental nature of science. I think the fact that a large number of Americans believe that things like creationism/intelligent design should be taught in high school biology classes is evidence of this conclusion. Ths si why, as a science educator, I am always on the lookout for examples that give a clear snapshot of how science works. A recent example is the case of the pentaquark. A nice, understandable article regarding the pentaquark can be found in Symmetry Magazine, a joint publication from the Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC) and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (FNAL, or simply Fermilab).

In a nutshell, quantum chromodynamics (QCD), which is the current quantum field theory that describes the strong nuclear force (responsible for binding quarks into observed particles, as well as holding the nuclei of atoms together), allows for particles that are combinations of five quarks, hence the name pentaquarks. This is very different than the particles that we observe normally, which are baryons (3-quark combos, such as protons and neutrons) and mesons (2-quark combos). When the possibility of pentaquarks was first theoretically predicted in 1997, experimentalists at a variety of labs around the world began looking for evidence of this potentially strange breed of particle. In 2003, the first announcement that there was some evidence for pentaquarks was made.

This doesn't seem like much right now. A well-established theory predicts something, and when it is looked for it is found. However, that is just the beginning in science. What many people don't understand about the nature and process of science is that just because one person or one group say they found evidence for something, that doesn't mean we should believe it. Rather, the opposite is true. When new discoveries are announced, the scientific community takes on the role of skeptic. The articles announcing the discovery are looked at with a fine-tooth comb, at least this is how it is supposed to work. Other scientists in that particular field think about the analysis and methodolgies used in the research. Statistical standards must be met within the field in order to announce discovery. The article was peer-reviewed before even being published. The whole community is supposed to try and find flaws in the work. In the case of the pentaquark, the concept of reproducibility took place, where independent groups at different labs try and reproduce the results.

As other groups designed and ran experiments specifically to look for pentaquark signatures and collected greater volumes of data, better statistical results were determined, and the new conclusion from several independent groups was that there was actually no reliable evidence for pentaquarks. The original studies suggesting there could be this new type of particle were isputed by better experiments and data sets. Does this mean the original experimentalists fabricated their data or did not know what they were doing? Not at all. There could have been a variety of reasons why they reached their conclusions, such as statistical fluctuations in the data, high background rates, detector issues, low statistics, unknown systematic errors, and so on.

The point is, science is always evolving. As technology improves, as new knowledge is developed, and as old, accepted ideas are re-examined under new points of view and studies, if there is evidence that suggests old, accepted theories or ideas are incorrect and need to be modified, then the appropriate changes based on the best new information are made. Perhaps the most impressive example is when young Albert Einstein, with a new, fresh point of view, came out and said that the bedrock foundation of physics, Newton's laws, were fundamentally flawed and simply did not work when objects moved at a substantial fraction of the speed of light. He presented a new theory, the special theory of relativity, which did a better job of describing Nature.

Science is self-correcting. It is skeptical. It challenges us to not accept something the way it may appear at first glance, but rather what it is after exhaustive study. Science bases its conclusions on observation, reality and evidence, rather than on common sense and logic. If at all possible, scientific conclusions and discoveries should be re-tested independently and either confirmed or disputed. It can be a slow process at times, but this is simply the nature of this realm of human thought and productivity.

Philosophy differs from science in that logic dominates the process. This does not necessarily allow us to accurately describe the world, though, as we found out when heavy objects don't fall faster than lighter objects, as Aristotle argued based on logic/common sense, but rather at the same rate. We also see a complete loss of comon sense and logic in something like quantum mechanics...but all physical tests of the many bizarre predictions of the theory have confirmed the theory. Religion also differs in its process of understanding the world around us, as religious texts lay down down exactly what should be believed. There is little to no room for skepticism in religion, for one either accepts the word of the Creator or not, and typically it is left at that. And religion lacks physical tests or evidence to prove a Creator exists; rather one's faith in the Creator is necessary for one's religious development.

Do pentaquarks exist? The best evidence suggests we have not found them. Does this mean we accept this and never look again? Definitely not. Perhaps in a future experiment there will be some strange signal that appears and we get one of the 'accidental' discoveries that are comon in science (such as penicillin or X-rays). Perhaps the calculations that led to the prediction were not done accurately and pentaquarks are in reality heavier than first thought, and it will take a new facility to produce them. Who knows? But this is what continues to drive science forward as it tries to figure out how the physical world around us works. And it is a very different approach than what is done in philosophy and religion.

An Amusing Quote...Not

The president is out on the campaign trail in a last gasp effort to help some GOP congressman hold their seats. One of his main points is that Democrats cannot be trusted to have control of Congress "because they don't know how to win in Iraq." I guess I have been blinded by reality, having been under the impression that the administration's handlng of Iraq is as close to an overall disaster as one can imagine...clearly Bush has the answers of how to win in Iraq (how silly of me to use the evidence of reality on which I base my own conclusions). I want to say that Bush's stump speeches are laughable, but unfortunately things are too serious for our troops to just be sarcastic.

For three long years the GOP-controlled Congress has allowed this president to get us into this mess without any serious objections, oversight, demands for accountability, or suggestions to at least rethink strategy because of the poor results and steady deterioration of conditions on the ground. Only when the polls turned did one see the consistent GOP calls to "stay the course" fade away. Many Republicans who have consistently backed Bush on the war now hope to be seen as independents, including my congressman (Mark Kirk), because they now call for changes in strategy and suggest that timelines, benchmarks, and redeployment need to be considered...the same conclusions reached by most Democrats a year or more ago. They are running for cover, trying to distance themselves from their multiple years' worth of support for Bush's policies on Iraq (and we cannot forget that the Taliban is essentially in control of several regions in Afghanistan, to the point where the top NATO commander said that things need to significantly improve in the next 6 months or else we will lose the Afghan people to the Taliban). Democrats who demanded that we do the job right in Afghanistan, against those who were actually responsible for killing 3000 Americans, before going into Iraq were chastised, and simply dismissed as 'unpatriotic' for daring to question Bush. And the standard line Republican candidates still use against Democrats who want some sort of change in Iraq policy and strategy is "cutting and running," even as the Republicans suddenly say the same thing as the Democrats have been saying. This is ridiculous and infuriating, and as both sides resort to what is likely the most negative campaigning in our history, it is the troops who will continue to suffer because of a lack of leadership from Washington.

I am fairly certain that there is absolutely no person on the planet right now who knows how to achieve true victory in Iraq, largely because I honestly do not know what victory means, and I have not heard anyone give a convincing argument/definition of what victory is. I cannot grasp in my mind (and I have tried) how anyone can listen to Bush's latest speeches and regard them as believable or credible, as if the president knows what victory in Iraq looks like.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Report Slams Teacher Education Programs

This is a report I have been waiting for. When you talk with teachers about the quality and relevance of their courses and programs that prepared them to teach and become certified, chances are most will say that, by and large, the coursework and preparation was largely not helpful or relevant to what goes on in the classroom. In my own experience, I cannot think of too many things that prepared me for my first teaching job in a Chicago public high school, where over 60 languages were spoken, 75% of my students had English as a second language, and 95% of the 1800 students were from low-income families. I was decidedly unprepared in terms of what to expect and strategies to use in the actual classes I was teaching, and instead had to very quickly learn on the fly. This is from the NSTA Express:

"Despite some examples of success, the majority of today's teacher-education programs are engaged in a "pursuit of irrelevance," having failed to keep pace with substantial changes in technology, student demographics, and global competition, according to a new report from the non-partisan Education Schools Project. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education said it welcomed the report and agreed with some, though not all, of its recommendations. To read the eSchool News article, visit To read more about the report Educating School Teachers, visit"

If you are a teacher, it is worth a read. Real reform and improvement in student achievement on a large scale will not be possible unless teacher training and education is improved on a large scale. Quality teacher preparation and training in reformed teacher education colleges/programs needs to be a central pillar to any future education policy, without question.

It is time to get some balance back in the federal government

As you might suspect, I tend to agree more with the Democrats compared to the Republicans. Not on all issues to be sure, but a good majority of them.

But as I look at where the country is headed and the major problems looming in the distance, I can't help but think back to what happened in 1994. In that year's midterm election, President Clinton was brought back to the middle after the Republicans took control of the House. Clinton was being pulled to the left since Democrats had control of the government from 1992 to 1994. Most memorable was the national healthcare proposal that Hillary Clinton and her committee developed, and which became a symbol for big government and a bureaucratic nightmare.

In my opinion, the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994 was the best thing that could have happened during the Clinton presidency, as far as the country was concerned. It forced Clinton back to the center, which is where I think he wanted to be anyhow (the far left has just as many nuts as the far right). It brought back policymaking to the middle, which is where most Americans are. Surely, there is gridlock, and bickering, and partisan maneuvering, but at the end of the day we had checks and balances back in place that forced both sides to non-extreme policies and governing.

We are at a point where we desperately need a similar changing of the guard in Congress. The single best thing for the country is undoubtedly for the Democrats to take back at least the House. The far right has helped pull our policy away from center, and the fact that the GOP has had full control of the government for the last 6 years has created some real problems. Perhaps the biggest problem of all is the lack of checks and balances, with the executive having a nearly free reign over foreign policy. There is a near complete lack of accountability and oversight of the White House. Having such a large degree of power has led to extensive and ever expanding corruption and scandal among GOP lawmakers (and today Bob Ney has indeed submitted a guilty plea of accepting bribes, etc.). I do hope that the polling data is accurate, and that there is a legitimate chance (and some would say likely) for the Dems to win back the House, and an outside chance of winning the Senate.

US Sweeps Science Nobels

For the first time since 1983, the medicine, physics and chemistry Nobel Prizes all went to five American scientists. An American also won the economics Nobel Prize. There is a good deal of information on the Nobel Prizes here.

As might be expected, American science educators are thrilled by this development, but one should not forget that while our top level students and scientists are typically the best in the world, and that the U.S. has by far the largest monetary commitment to research, the science education the average American student receives does not compare well with the rest of the developed world. USA Today has a nice summary article.