Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Water Pollution (Part I): Domestic Water Waste in Portland

The senior elective Environmental Science and Policy class were given the task of producing a piece of work that highlighted a specific aspect of water pollution. I will publish each of these projects in the coming weeks, and we are starting with Jordan and Zanny's film on water pollution in Portland. Enjoy.

Science Says you Can be Happier

Go fly a kite, Barabra Ehreneich. Your new book, Bright Sided, on how to be miserable in America is incorrect. It's true, you have the power to make yourself happy, science says that the power of positive thinking can make you gleeful. Now they are some pretty simple guidelines, but I am sure if you follow them you will feel a little spring in your step and you might even enjoy doing homework, or find happiness in an audition for the 8th grade musical!

"The billion-dollar question is, is it possible to become happier?" said psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside. "Despite the finding that happiness is partially genetically determined, and despite the finding that life situations have a smaller influence on our happiness than we think they do, we argue that still a large portion of happiness is in our power to change." Sonja asserts that there a few simple things we can do to boost or happiness, the full results can be found in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Here is what Clara Moskowitz, LiveScience Senior Writer, has to say about happiness. Follow these five simple rules to a scientifically chipper existence.

1. Be grateful Some study participants were asked to write letters of gratitude to people who had helped them in some way. The study found that these people reported a lasting increase in happiness – over weeks and even months – after implementing the habit. What's even more surprising: Sending the letter is not necessary. Even when people wrote letters but never delivered them to the addressee, they still reported feeling better afterwards.

2. Be optimistic – Another practice that seems to help is optimistic thinking. Study participants were asked to visualize an ideal future – for example, living with a loving and supportive partner, or finding a job that was fulfilling – and describe the image in a journal entry. After doing this for a few weeks, these people too reported increased feelings of well-being.

3. Count your blessings – People who practice writing down three good things that have happened to them every week show significant boosts in happiness, studies have found. It seems the act of focusing on the positive helps people remember reasons to be glad.

4. Use your strengths – Another study asked people to identify their greatest strengths, and then to try to use these strengths in new ways. For example, someone who says they have a good sense of humor could try telling jokes to lighten up business meetings or cheer up sad friends. This habit, too, seems to heighten happiness.

5. Commit acts of kindness – It turns out helping others also helps ourselves. People who donate time or money to charity, or who altruistically assist people in need, report improvements in their own happiness.
Lyubomirsky has also created a free iPhone application, called Live Happy, to help people boost their well-being.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Science In the Movies: Hall of Shame

The BBC website reports today on a physicist from Emory University who has called on Hollywood studios to limit their scientific inaccuracies to one per film and generally obey the laws of science. They have nominated three films that are the worst offenders (Deep Blue Sea would definitely make my list in this category). Do you agree?
My personal favorites in this category are "Mission to Mars" (click for a list of all their goofs - "That DNA looks human (looks at a single double helix) - no, it's missing the last 2 chromosomes...." being particularly memorable (youtube video here - jump to 2 mins in) and "Spiderman" (left hand DNA helix, transformation from boy to spiderman with the insertion of a couple of base pairs, and individual bases labeled as the source of jumping and spideryness....). I can forgive Spiderman, because after all, it's Spiderman and Uncle Ben Parker delivers one of the great moral messages of the 21st century that we can all take note of (particularly as scientists): "Remember, with great power comes great responsibility....."

Friday, February 19, 2010

Science In the Sunshine

Not so much a news story or an insightful comment on teaching and learning, rather an uplifting picture of the coming of spring. As inevitable as night following day, the appearance of the sunshine after a long Oregon winter invariably brings out the question "Can we have class outside?". Yesterday, the answer was yes - we needed the extra space to build the longest protein model we could in a block period, then combined the efforts of two BPC III classes. Those of you with good eyesight can check that they are indeed all structurally correct with impeccable peptide bonds linking each amino acid. I'll be particularly impressed if anyone can tell me which amino acid is on the far right of the chain........

Friday, February 12, 2010

Are you a Skeptic or an Obstructionist?

Working with a team or in a group involves lots of decisions in order to complete a task, hit a goal or to keep moving froward in a positive manner. In the sciences we have been trained to ask questions, ferret the weasels and point out the misses instead of selecting hits. Carl Sagan, scientist, author and host of Cosmos, the television program that inspired a generation to think outside of this world, authored "The Demon Haunted World" a book to inspire lay people to be critical thinkers. Below is a great interview and an excert from the chapter, "The Fine Art of Baloney Detection"

In addition to teaching us what to do when evaluating a claim to knowledge, any good baloney detection kit must also teach us what not to do. It helps us recognize the most common and perilous fallacies of logic and rhetoric. Many good examples can be found in religion and politics, because their practitioners are so often obliged to justify two contradictory propositions. Among these fallacies are:
  • ad hominem -- Latin for "to the man," attacking the arguer and not the argument (e.g., The Reverend Dr. Smith is a known Biblical fundamentalist, so her objections to evolution need not be taken seriously);
  • argument from authority (e.g., President Richard Nixon should be re-elected because he has a secret plan to end the war in Southeast Asia -- but because it was secret, there was no way for the electorate to evaluate it on its merits; the argument amounted to trusting him because he was President: a mistake, as it turned out);
  • argument from adverse consequences (e.g., A God meting out punishment and reward must exist, because if He didn't, society would be much more lawless and dangerous -- perhaps even ungovernable.* Or: The defendant in a widely publicized murder trial must be found guilty; otherwise, it will be an encouragement for other men to murder their wives);

    Graphic Rule
    * NOTE: A more cynical formulation by the Roman historian Polybius:

    Since the masses of the people are inconstant, full of unruly desires, passionate, and reckless of consequences, they must be filled with fears to keep them in order. The ancients did well, therefore, to invent gods, and the belief in punishment after death.
    Graphic Rule

  • appeal to ignorance -- the claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true, and vice versa (e.g., There is no compelling evidence that UFOs are not visiting the Earth; therefore UFOs exist -- and there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe. Or: There may be seventy kazillion other worlds, but not one is known to have the moral advancement of the Earth, so we're still central to the Universe.) This impatience with ambiguity can be criticized in the phrase: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
  • special pleading, often to rescue a proposition in deep rhetorical trouble (e.g., How can a merciful God condemn future generations to torment because, against orders, one woman induced one man to eat an apple? Special plead: you don't understand the subtle Doctrine of Free Will. Or: How can there be an equally godlike Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in the same Person? Special plead: You don't understand the Divine Mystery of the Trinity. Or: How could God permit the followers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- each in their own way enjoined to heroic measures of loving kindness and compassion -- to have perpetrated so much cruelty for so long? Special plead: You don't understand Free Will again. And anyway, God moves in mysterious ways.)
  • begging the question, also called assuming the answer (e.g., We must institute the death penalty to discourage violent crime. But does the violent crime rate in fact fall when the death penalty is imposed? Or: The stock market fell yesterday because of a technical adjustment and profit-taking by investors -- but is there any independent evidence for the causal role of "adjustment" and profit-taking; have we learned anything at all from this purported explanation?);
  • observational selection, also called the enumeration of favorable circumstances, or as the philosopher Francis Bacon described it, counting the hits and forgetting the misses* (e.g., A state boasts of the Presidents it has produced, but is silent on its serial killers);

    Graphic Rule
    * NOTE: My favorite example is this story, told about the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, newly arrived on American shores, enlisted in the Manhattan nuclear weapons Project, and brought face-to-face in the midst of World War II with U.S. flag officers:

    So-and-so is a great general, he was told.
    What is the definition of a great general? Fermi characteristically asked.
    I guess it's a general who's won many consecutive battles.
    How many?
    After some back and forth, they settled on five.
    What fraction of American generals are great?
    After some more back and forth, they settled on a few percent.

    But imagine, Fermi rejoined, that there is no such thing as a great general, that all armies are equally matched, and that winning a battle is purely a matter of chance. Then the chance of winning one battle is one out of two, or 1/2, two battles 1/4, three 1/8, four 1/16, and five consecutive battles 1/32 -- which is about 3 percent. You would expect a few percent of American generals to win five consecutive battles -- purely by chance. Now, has any of them won ten consecutive battles ...?
    Graphic Rule

  • statistics of small numbers -- a close relative of observational selection (e.g., "They say 1 out of every 5 people is Chinese. How is this possible? I know hundreds of people, and none of them is Chinese. Yours truly." Or: "I've thrown three sevens in a row. Tonight I can't lose.");
  • misunderstanding of the nature of statistics (e.g., President Dwight Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average intelligence);
  • inconsistency (e.g., Prudently plan for the worst of which a potential military adversary is capable, but thriftily ignore scientific projections on environmental dangers because they're not "proved." Or: Attribute the declining life expectancy in the former Soviet Union to the failures of communism many years ago, but never attribute the high infant mortality rate in the United States (now highest of the major industrial nations) to the failures of capitalism. Or: Consider it reasonable for the Universe to continue to exist forever into the future, but judge absurd the possibility that it has infinite duration into the past);
  • non sequitur -- Latin for "It doesn't follow" (e.g., Our nation will prevail because God is great. But nearly every nation pretends this to be true; the German formulation was "Gott mit uns"). Often those falling into the non sequitur fallacy have simply failed to recognize alternative possibilities;
  • post hoc, ergo propter hoc -- Latin for "It happened after, so it was caused by" (e.g., Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila: "I know of ... a 26-year-old who looks 60 because she takes [contraceptive] pills." Or: Before women got the vote, there were no nuclear weapons);
  • meaningless question (e.g., What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? But if there is such a thing as an irresistible force there can be no immovable objects, and vice versa);
  • excluded middle, or false dichotomy -- considering only the two extremes in a continuum of intermediate possibilities (e.g., "Sure, take his side; my husband's perfect; I'm always wrong." Or: "Either you love your country or you hate it." Or: "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem");
  • short-term vs. long-term -- a subset of the excluded middle, but so important I've pulled it out for special attention (e.g., We can't afford programs to feed malnourished children and educate pre-school kids. We need to urgently deal with crime on the streets. Or: Why explore space or pursue fundamental science when we have so huge a budget deficit?);
  • slippery slope, related to excluded middle (e.g., If we allow abortion in the first weeks of pregnancy, it will be impossible to prevent the killing of a full-term infant. Or, conversely: If the state prohibits abortion even in the ninth month, it will soon be telling us what to do with our bodies around the time of conception);
  • confusion of correlation and causation (e.g., A survey shows that more college graduates are homosexual than those with lesser education; therefore education makes people gay. Or: Andean earthquakes are correlated with closest approaches of the planet Uranus; therefore -- despite the absence of any such correlation for the nearer, more massive planet Jupiter -- the latter causes the former*);

    Graphic Rule
    * NOTE: Children who watch violent TV programs tend to be more violent when they grow up. But did the TV cause the violence, or do violent children preferentially enjoy watching violent programs? Very likely both are true. Commercial defenders of TV violence argue that anyone can distinguish between television and reality. But Saturday morning children's programs now average 25 acts of violence per hour. At the very least this desensitizes young children to aggression and random cruelty. And if impressionable adults can have false memories implanted in their brains, what are we implanting in our children when we expose them to some 100,000 acts of violence before they graduate from elementary school?
    Graphic Rule

  • straw man -- caricaturing a position to make it easier to attack (e.g., Scientists suppose that living things simply fell together by chance -- a formulation that willfully ignores the central Darwinian insight, that Nature ratchets up by saving what works and discarding what doesn't. Or -- this is also a short-term/long-term fallacy -- environmentalists care more for snail darters and spotted owls than they do for people);
  • suppressed evidence, or half-truths (e.g., An amazingly accurate and widely quoted "prophecy" of the assassination attempt on President Reagan is shown on television; but -- an important detail -- was it recorded before or after the event? Or: These government abuses demand revolution, even if you can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs. Yes, but is this likely to be a revolution in which far more people are killed than under the previous regime? What does the experience of other revolutions suggest? Are all revolutions against oppressive regimes desirable and in the interests of the people?);
  • weasel words (e.g., The separation of powers of the U.S. Constitution specifies that the United States may not conduct a war without a declaration by Congress. On the other hand, Presidents are given control of foreign policy and the conduct of wars, which are potentially powerful tools for getting themselves re-elected. Presidents of either political party may therefore be tempted to arrange wars while waving the flag and calling the wars something else -- "police actions," "armed incursions," "protective reaction strikes," "pacification," "safeguarding American interests," and a wide variety of "operations," such as "Operation Just Cause." Euphemisms for war are one of a broad class of reinventions of language for political purposes. Talleyrand said, "An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the public").

Knowing the existence of such logical and rhetorical fallacies rounds out our toolkit. Like all tools, the baloney detection kit can be misused, applied out of context, or even employed as a rote alternative to thinking. But applied judiciously, it can make all the difference in the world -- not least in evaluating our own arguments before we present them to others.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Communicating with the unconscious

Expanding upon Mr D's post last week (click here for the story), the New York Times have posted a video that explores this idea further.

Physics of the Winter Olympics

The New York Times has a series of great videos analyzing the physics of Winter Olympics events such as ski jumping and ice skating. Ever wonder how a ski jumper launches into a "double full full full" rotation before landing? By manipulating his or her center of gravity and rotational momentum during each second of airtime, of course. Click for classical mechanics in action.

Image originally posted to Flickr as Lysgårdsbakkene Ski Jumping Arena. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Geothermal Energy - what's it all about?

Sitting as we do on a number of volcanoes and hot springs, the potential for geothermal energy in Oregon seems to be pretty high. The map on the left shows the potential for harvesting geothermal energy in the U.S.A. Klamath Falls, for example, uses geothermal energy for heating buildings, de-icing roads and heating swimming pools. As part of their Environmental Science and Policy class, groups had to prepare presentations on various forms of alternative renewable energy sources. Zanny and Ingrid drew geothermal energy, and thought they would see what a cross-section of the Catlin Gabel community knew about the topic. The results were mixed.....

Monday, February 8, 2010

Baking Soda Projects

Never underestimate the utility of letting students design and execute open ended baking soda labs. Not only are they fun and can result in a batch of cookies or bang, but students learn how to ask an empirical question, design an experiment and they learn how to evaluate their data in relation to their initial question. Today, students presented their weekend projects to the class. What I learned today, is that there is an inherent desire to compare. Students created a "control" without having been instructed. There were some great projects and some great experiments. Below is an example of an answer to the question, how high can I get this thing into the air.

I love 8th Grade Science!

Great start to 2010 for Catlin Gabel Science

2010 has already been a remarkable year for Catlin Gabel science students already. Two of our seniors have been named finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search - this is the first time in the history of the school for us to have one finalist, let alone two. They are the only students from Oregon and two of only 40 nationwide. This achievement was covered by several local news outlets, and links to all the stories can be found here A list of distinguished alumni of this competition (Nobel prize winners, Fields Medal winners) can be found here

Yesterday, a team of students took second place in the Regional Science Bowl. This is the best ever performance by a Catlin team, beating 59 other teams from Oregon and SW Washington for a place in the final. Details of their fantastic performance can be found here

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Happy Birthday, Mendeleev!

The periodic table is pretty incredible, no? Such an elegant design principle, so orderly and logical, a true marvel. Its creator, Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev, was born on February 8, 1834. One wonders if Dmitri ever realized the legacy he was leaving for generations of science students, ever grateful for the veritable cheat sheet hanging on the wall of every chemistry classroom far and wide.

Mendeleev arranged the known elements into columns based on their chemical properties and rows based on their atomic weights and based on his system, even predicted the properties of as-yet undiscovered elements. Quite impressive!

On Monday, Feb 8th, celebrate Dmitri 's 176th birthday by stopping by US Science 3, named for Mendeleev, to join in the trivia, treats, and for a rousing chorus of The Elements song!

Dmitri Mendeleev in 1897
photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Friday, February 5, 2010

Iffy Science: Another Reason Parenting is Hard

Submitted by Art Leo, Upper School English teacher (and closet scientist) this morning. Click on the hyperlinks within the post for more details of the various aspects of this story.....

Parents face many difficult decisions, among the most difficult of which is what to name those hungry little blobs. Decisions about whether or not to vaccinate your children against disease have become complicated in recent years by scientific studies about the potential dangers of inoculation. In 1998, physician Andrew Wakefield published a study in Britain’s leading medical journal, The Lancet, claiming a connection between the Measles Mumps Rubella vaccine (MMR) and the onset of autism in children. Some parents in Great Britain panicked, leading to a rise in Measles cases, especially in Wales, where cases rose by 36% in 2008.

Some critics quickly pointed out problems with the study. Bad Science columnist Ben Goldacre, led the charge, gleefully attacking those responsible for the panic.
This week, The Lancet formally retracted Wakefield’s MMR research. Scott Hensley of NPR summarizes the story.
(Because I’m an English teacher, I highly recommend that you check out Matthew Herper’s complaint (“The Lancet's Incomprehensible Autism Retraction”) about the obfuscatory and misleading language employed in the retraction.)

Think tennis for yes, home for no: how doctors helped man in vegetative state

The following story was in today's Guardian newspaper:

For seven years the man lay in a hospital bed, showing no signs of consciousness since sustaining a traumatic brain injury in a car accident. His doctors were ­convinced he was in a vegetative state. Until now.

To the astonishment of his ­medical team, the patient has been able to ­communicate with the outside world after scientists worked out, in effect, a way to read his thoughts.

They devised a technique to enable the man, now 29, to answer yes and no to ­simple questions through the use of a hi-tech scanner, monitoring his brain ­activity.

To answer yes, he was told to think of playing tennis, a motor activity. To answer no, he was told to think of wandering from room to room in his home, visualising everything he would expect to see there, creating activity in the part of the brain governing spatial awareness.

His doctors were amazed when the patient gave the correct answers to a series of questions about his family. The ­experiment will fuel the controversy of when a patient should have life support removed.

It also raises the prospect of some form of communication with those who have been shut off from life, perhaps for years. To read the rest of the story, click here

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Reducing Catlin Gabel's environmental impact

The word "sustainable" has become one of the most frequently used words in the last few years, and it seems that in many cases it can be used in any context to give a green tinge to whatever is being presented - it has become a favorite of many a corporation trying to improve their environmental image.

At Catlin Gabel,however, we are definitely trying to "walk the walk" (or is it walk the talk? I never get that right....). Led by the efforts of the Facilities Director, Eric Shawn, there are a whole host of initiatives to reduce and even eliminate the environmental impact of our activities on campus. The ideas of reducing consumption, minimizing waste and pollution and conserving energy (which are central to the true definition of sustainability: meeting the needs of the present without compromising the future) are taught in several different classes from K-12. Eric has put together a Moodle site on InsideCatlin that summarizes what the school is doing at every level. You need an InsideCatlin login to access this page, but all students can access this page and I believe that you can get a username and password if you are a parent or alum. Click here to access the page. It is also available on the school website here.

As a shameless promotional plug for the Environmental Science and Policy class, there will be two wonderful pieces of writing on sustainability from a couple of our incredibly talented Seniors featured on this site that are well worth a read.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Here is a blog from the New York Times that speculates as to why the animals on the Galapagos are so fearless.
Marine iguanas
Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
Marine iguanas huddled together for warmth on volcanic rock on Tintoreras island in the Galápagos in 2009.

Time Warp - Discovery Channel - Soap Bubbles Science - Submitted by Mark Pritchard - Music Teacher

A really cool submission from Mark Pritchard - Music Teacher. Bubble science. I had no idea the US Government would funs a bubble magic show r+d department.

Israel: Leading the World in Water Technology

Submitted by Paul Monheimer - Middle School Faculty member

Water seems to becoming a scarce resource for some parts of the planet. Population, Pollution and climate all have strong and effects on the water cycle. Science and technology have joined forces to make desalination plants more efficient and more cost effective. A great video, two things to look for: they made the water so pure that in the end they have to add something to make it palatable and it piqued my interest when on of the engineers stated that the desalination industry is going to boom because of the Asian market. Find out why.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

When a Bad Idea is a Bad Idea- Submitted by Owen Hart - 7th grade

I would like to submit the exploding whale video. If you don't know what that is, in Florence, Oregon 1970, workers blew up a beached whale weighing a couple tons. the results didn't turn out to hot. -Owen

Monday, February 1, 2010

Chemical Party

The EU does a great job at demonstrating single replacement reactions.

Tragedy of the Commons

Recently the MS faculty have been bandying about the phrase "the tragedy of the commons" and how middle school students don't treat our public spaces very well. The term has a nice ring to it and since it was initially coined has become dilute. When it's used today, it does not reflect the gravity intended by the author, Garrett Hardin, in the article he wrote for Science in 1968. It's not about dishes in the sink. It's about humanity leading itself to ruin,with some suggestions for recourse. It's a powerful article, read and along with "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair, forced me and some of my friends into vegetarianism for a long while. But that's another post.

Here is a link to the article, I hope you enjoy.

The Tragedy of the Commons

by Garrett Hardin, 1968

Published in Science, December 13, 1968

My go-to websites

I'm sure you have a pretty exclusive list of websites that you visit regularly for your science news. I have put a couple of RSS feeds on this site that give the latest headlines from the New York Times, the BBC website and the New Scientist. Below are a couple more that I check regularly (apologies for the British slant to some of these sites, but old habits are hard to break):

Bad Science: A critical look at the world of science (the book mentioned on the site is available in the Catlin Gabel library). Ben Goldacre has annoyed many politicians and celebrities by publicly challenging their pseudoscience, which makes him alright with me.

TED lectures: online lectures by a variety of interesting people (my personal favorite at the moment is this one on clever crows)

The Week in Science: articles and podcasts about the latest (and often strangest) scientific ideas and breakthroughs from KDVS, the UC Davis radio station.

This list is by no means exhaustive - what are your favorite sites? Let us know and we'll share them here.

Welcome to the new Catlin Gabel Science Dept blog!

After a meeting of all K-12 science teachers at Catlin Gabel, we decided we wanted to share both the exciting science-based events that are happening regularly at school and also the interesting stuff we stumble across on the internet and in the news. If you find anything interesting out there that you think is worth sharing, let us know and we'll put it up here. We would love to hear from alumni, letting us know what they are up to in the world of science, and current students who want to share their interests with a wider audience.