The Steampunk Satyricon

Sunday, June 13, 2010

F*ck Baseball

For the past week or so, folks in the Washington, DC area have been going gaga over the Nationals' new pitching phenom, Stephen Strasburg (not the gratuitous beefcake pictured above). Needless to say, the fawning, the adulation, the level of attention given to this baseball player has been making me ill. He's a baseball player! HE'S JUST A DAMN BASEBALL PLAYER!!!

A couple of days after Strasburg's big league debut, I received a copy of the University of Maryland's alumni magazine which (much too briefly) mentioned the work of chemists Sang Bok Lee and Gary Rubloff. Lee's research group is working on the creation of nanotube structures -- made of various materials -- and how those structures might be used, including their use in electrical energy storage systems. For me, this was an OMG moment.

I realize we all have our own enthusiasms, our personal list of things that excite and interest us, but imagine circuit components that are several times smaller and lighter than the smallest and lightest components we have now. Imagine batteries for computers and other electronic devices that are half the size, a third of the weight and last many times longer than the ones we currently use. Imagine being able to drive cross-country in an electric car with a battery that's so efficient, you'll be able to leave New York, speed down the highway at 65 mph and reach Vegas before you need to recharge. These things won't happen tomorrow, but it's where scientists like Dr. Lee are taking us. This is the future he and his research team are helping to build one nanotube at a time. TOP THAT, STRASBURG, YA BALL PLAYIN' FUCK!!

I mean, really... priorities, people!

Proof: Be Not Afraid

"For years, mainstream thinking about math anxiety assumed that people fear math because they are bad at it. However, a growing body of research shows a much more complicated relationship between math ability and anxiety."
From "A real fear: it's more than stage fright..." by Paul Ruffins, published in Diverse Issues in Higher Education, March 8, 2007
Too many people feel distanced from science because of one thing: Math. Or, more precisely, their math anxiety. It's fine to talk about theories and experiments and genius discoveries, but none of it means dick until some math is attached to it; the nasty, intimidating, complicated kind of math with lots of Greek letters and odd symbols and practically no actual numbers. Science is grounded in math, and math has as its foundation THE PROOF.

Even if you take math classes every semester in high school (shockingly, many people don't -- you know who you are), very little time is spent in class specifically discussing the nature of mathematical proofs. Teachers show them to students all the time and expect students to learn them, but while showing proofs is often a big part of math and science classes, teachers often seem to skip over the whole "What is a proof?" thing. Nobody tells you that most of science and pretty much all of math is about proofs. It's an incredibly important subject that educators hope you'll just sort of pick up as you go along.

There are basically three parts to any proof: The hypothesis (the thing we are trying to prove is true), the arguments (the relevant ideas we will stack like bricks to see if they support the truth of the hypothesis) and the conclusion (where we learn whether or not the arguments show the hypothesis to be true or false).

The arguments are things we know to be true because they have already been proven. Bad arguments ruin good proofs. Consider this proof that penguins can fly from Antonella Cupillari's book The Nuts and Bolts of Proofs:
  • Penguins are birds.
  • All birds are able to fly.
  • Therefore penguins are able to fly.
The hypothesis is false, but, based on an invalid argument, we are led to believe that it's true. Consider an actual news event that recently occurred in the UK:
  • A girl died.
  • The girl had recently been given a vaccine.
  • Conclusion: The vaccine is fatal.
A minor panic ensued in England because of people employing this proof who never once considered whether or not the argument was valid (i.e. represented a direct causal link between an event that occurred previously and a subsequent event). It was not valid. They were idiots.

Like any other proof, a math proof is a logical progression of steps, but to say that no intuition or insight is involved is wrong. There's a reason some people are better at it than others. It's why we are in awe of geniuses like Russian mathematician Grigory Perelman who solved the Poincaré conjecture which, according to the Clay Math Institute, is one of the millennium's seven most difficult math hypotheses.

It's about understanding that facing real science means facing math, facing proofs and doing it fearlessly. Genius is NOT a prerequisite. I'll prove it.

The Greek Alphabet: Math Without Numbers (kind of)

This is the sort of thing that drives people away from science:

It's a formula for the magnitude of an electric field as a function of time in an unmagnetized plasma. It's math, but you don't see any numbers. There are numbers there, but they're hidden behind the letters and those mysterious symbols. For the layperson, it makes no sense, even when you realize that most of those "mysterious symbols" are just Greek letters.

Blame Diophantus of Alexandria (c. 200 A.D., but reports of the exact dates of his lifespan vary widely). Before this Greek mathematician came along, equations were simply expressed as sentences written out in words. Diophantus is credited as being the first to use symbols to stand in for the numbers that change (the variables) and the numbers that are used repeatedly (the constants) in different equations. For many centuries after Diophantus, lessons in Latin and Greek were a common part of any aspiring scholar's education, and using Greek letters as symbols in mathematical equations was just the tradition and no big deal.

These days, Greek letters are more commonly associated with fraternities and sororities (at least for the less-than 30% of Americans who have college degrees). One reason equations like the one at the beginning of the post seem so intimidating is because they look so freakin' strange, very much like another language. Check that... mathematics is another language. If you're going to learn it, and stop being intimidated by it, it is helpful to recognize the letters of the Greek alphabet:
If the equation is being presented properly, it should be apparent what the author means for each symbol to represent. A mark's meaning can change depending on which branch of science you're dealing with, but I've never seen the character pi represent anything other than 3.14159,blah,blah,blah. There are other freaky non-Greek symbols to learn, but that's for another post. Download this PDF (127 K) containing a Greek alphabet cheat sheet.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Cooking is Chemistry

Tab Hunter and Roddy McDowall

Chemistry and Biology. Admit it, that's all it boils down to (and boiling is the lowest form of cooking). Romantic images in your head of grandma stirring a pot of some great smelling something in her rustic kitchen with an old, hand-bound book with yellowing pages full of recipes handed down through generations close to hand... forget 'em. The too-slick celebrity chef with the tall hat and the lab-coatish coat and the foreign accent and the imperious bearing... that's a bit closer to the new reality. I'm tempted to make this a full-blown post on molecular gastronomy and food science, but for now, just an appetizer...
The Vilcek Foundation

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The New Blog Rules

Okay, time to get serious here. Until now, Science Kick has mostly been about what other people are writing. While I will continue to post links to intriguing science articles and assorted ephemera, it's time for me to add more of my own contributions to the foggy bloggy cloud of science on the internet. To that end, I will be instituting some new policies. To wit:

Post Classifications
To make it easier for people to find just the sort of thing they're looking for, I'll have a system for classifying posts that will, I hope, make it easier for you to find only the sorts of items you like:
  • Basics: Simple lessons on things everyone ought to know as well as things you will need to know if you're going to understand more advanced topics.
  • Beyond Basic: Just what the name implies; things that might be taught in an advanced high school science class or perhaps in the first year or so of college.
  • Advanced: Typically things involving heavy duty math and seriously advanced abstract thinking. Not for the faint of heart.
  • Op-Ed: Another category that should be self-evident. I am simply reserving the right to shoot my mouth off about science, right or wrong.
  • OPP: Other People's Posts. Links to other science articles and blogs on the web that the thinking classes should be aware of.
  • News: Straightforward reportage that is (mostly) free of opinion, or just a link to a news article.
  • Tangent: An item that I felt like sharing that may or may not be related to science. (Most likely not... expect lots of stuff on comic books.)
  • Random Acts: Catch-all for anything that doesn't quite fit into one of the other categories. But new categories will be added as I feel they are warranted.
One of these terms will always appear in the tags to help you search for the things you're interested in.
    Corrections to factual inaccuracies are welcomed and encouraged! All I ask is that you cite one (or preferably two) offline sources that anyone might find in a decent university science library. I really, really, really do not trust Wikipedia and don't consider it a reliable source. I look at it like everybody does, but, generally, I prefer professionally edited and/or peer-reviewed stuff.

    Salty Language
    When I encounter an individual whose language is fairly saturated with profanity, I sometimes conclude that I am dealing with someone whose home training and socialization were truly lacking... a low-born, uncouth person who is not to be taken seriously and whose capacity for elevated intellectual discourse must be called into question. But this is my blog, and I reserve the right to resort to gutter lingo whenever I jolly well want to. If you don't like it, the cybersphere is blessed with a plethora of fine writers posting their work to their own blogs, leaving you free to abandon my efforts and flee to one more suited to your sensibilities. Fuck you.

    Now, about the half-naked men...
    Some people will think it's stupid, some people might even be offended, but I have them there for only one reason: I like looking at them. It's not a gimmick or a lure, it's purely a self-indulgence. Most of the photos are random internet finds, but every effort will be made to get permission to use all of the photos I post here. If, however, you have a legitimate claim as the owner of an image and you want it taken down, save yourself a call to a lawyer for a cease and desist. Just send me an e-mail and the pic will be gone from the site. Speaking of sending me stuff...

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