Physics Education, in a Bit More than a Minute

MinutePhysics, an extremely popular YouTube channel that explains physics topics (though typically in a bit more than a minute), posted an “open letter to President Obama” about reforming high school physics.  Here’s the video, and my thoughts are below.

I actually have conflicting feelings about this. First, I would point out we do cover some of that, but not in physics. In my district, the Big Bang and astronomy were covered in an “integrated science” class on Earth and space science and some basic physics. And for some weird historical reason, we’ve decided that atomic structure is a chemistry topic until you get to college (I calculated the energy of nuclear mass defects in my first high school chemistry class, and that is straight-up E=mc^2) while high school physics is just elementary mechanics and E&M, probably out of some combination of bureaucratic inertia and a view of what was considered “practical” when these curricula were standardized. 

I honestly think the way we teach physics and chemistry in high school now prevents us from adequately covering modern physics. Quantum mechanics doesn’t really have any conceptual overlap with mechanics at this basic level and so it’s hard to integrate into the physics curriculum. This is also the view of some of advocates of a so called “Physics First” curriculum; the standard curricular divisions of high school biology, chemistry, and physics don’t really make sense given the way modern science works. One group advocated just really trying to integrate all three subjects and just have a three-year science sequence that isn’t separated as much by field. That would help remove any potential turf war between what parts of atoms are physics or chemistry and what biochemistry is biology or chemistry.

As an aside, relativity actually seems like it would be doable in high school. Or at least the only bit we cover in undergrad physics.  The Lorentz transformation is just algebra, and honestly that’s enough to help you understand a lot of its relevance to life (GPS correction, length contraction, etc). If I could propose one dramatic change to how we approach high school physics, I would honestly be okay with less emphasis on modern physics and more on just the general idea of energy. Physics (and really all of nature) is about minimizing energy.

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BANG! POW! Straight to the Moon(s)

The Economist had two great piecees last week about why moons may be the next big thing in the search for life.  The articles are wonderful, and I highly recommend that you read both of them.  And also highly recommend The Economist as a place for science news.  They are one of the few general newspapers/news magazines  where I think nearly all their science and technology articles are well written.  My only complaint is they don’t always have articles I find interesting.

The one thing I’d like to expand on a bit is our poor (or at least, I think so) definition of the “habitable zone”, or if you watched Battleship this summer, you might also be familiar with the other name for of “Goldilocks planet“.  Currently, if you hear someone talking about a habitable zone, they probably mean one thing:  the region where a planet can orbit a star and maintain liquid water.  But that actually is a really vague definition.  A lot of this also depends on the planet you’re looking at.  How much light a planet reflects is a big factor in how much heat it can keep.  (In fact, Ice Ages are feedback loops because of this – the ice caps are really shiny compared to dirty and water and can reflect off a lot of heat and prevent their melting, leading to more ice and less heat)  And we need to consider the composition of the planet.  Without the greenhouse effect of carbon and the salt content of our oceans, Earth’s water would freeze over a lot more often.  Of course, there are still ways to control for this.  People typically define the properties of a hypothetical planet they look at when calculating habitable zones.  And generally, there is a limit to where you can put something a certain star and expect liquid water (Mercury’s position would be a no-go, unless you were dealing with some particularly crazy atmospheres I think).

But that’s not what bothers me.  It’s that while some form of habitable zone/Goldilocks planet has gone on to permeate the broader culture, we’ve also kind of forgot to explain how this is an oversimplification.  Like the first article mentions, we expect water on lots of moons on planets outside the habitable zone because of tidal or magnetic heating.  And we could probably use better explanations of why NASA’s focus for astrobiology is to “follow the water”.  Even though I do worry about “carbon chauvinism“, there are good reasons people expect life to use water and carbon instead of other biochemistries.

The Future Is Now, If We Speak Slowly

So Microsoft has just announced a pretty awesome speech recognition/speech translation program.  More on this later, but the video is really cool.  If you want to skip to the translation bit, jump ahead to 7 minutes in and you’ll see English to Chinese text, and then later it goes to Chinese audio (I assume it’s Mandarin?).

There are a few obvious limitations – You can definitely tell he is speaking slower than normal.   A few times he gets really excited and you can see the English speech recognition accuracy really drop.  And even speaking slowly, it’s not perfect.  But it’s pretty good overall (I can’t comment on the translation, since I know no Chinese).  Also, they say his voice was used for the Chinese audio, and I believe it, but it doesn’t sound incredibly “unique”.  To me, it just sounds like it’s about his pitch, but that’s it.

Update: So what makes this different than other translators?  You may have noticed he described previous work as using “hidden Markov modeling” and this is a “deep neural network”.  Markov chains are basically networks of probabilities.  For instance, we can use a Markov chain to describe your lunch behavior if you’re really ritualistic.  Let’s say you and I are co-workers. We’re in separate wings and are good acquaintances, but maybe not super close friends, so if we run into each other, we’ll eat together, but otherwise we won’t.  There’s a 60% chance our morning meetings end such that we run into each other right before lunch.  If you eat by yourself, there’s a 30% chance you grab pre-made sushi from the cafeteria and eat at your desk, a 50% chance you eat something from the grill in the cafeteria, a 10% chance you go out and get barbecue for lunch and finally a 10% chance you go to the Mexican restaurant.  If you meet me, there’s a 10% chance we eat take-out sushi from the cafeteria, a 30% chance you we go to the cafeteria grill, a 20% chance we go get barbecue , and a 40% chance we go to the Mexican place.

Someone who knew all of this could figure out how often you’re likely to eat at each thing.  The equivalent of a hidden Markov model in this case might be a co-worker who always see your leftovers at your desk and then tries to work backwards to figure out the probabilities of these events happening.  As the above XKCD points out, sometimes the most probable thing following doesn’t always happen.  And that’s the big limit to a Markov model.  You can only work with the most recent state.

Is Everyone Anti-Science?

The libertarian magazine reason (I think that’s how they like you to write their name) recently posted an interview with Alex Berezow about anti-scientific views of the left/progressives.  If you’re not familiar with Alex Berezow (I’m not), he’s the editor for RealClearScience, which seems to be a sibling of RealClearPolitics, and he has a PhD in microbiology.  His interview is mostly about his book on the same subject, Science Left Behindwhich he co-wrote with Hank Campbell, founder of the Science2.0 blog (which claims to be like the Web 2.0 of science).  Amazon reviews of the book seem mixed on whether they’re Republican/corporate hacks (not that these terms are disconnected in some liberal circles), right on, or perhaps engaging in false equivalence.  (You can find false equivalence on Wikipedia, but I recommend checking out The Atlantic’s James Fallows’ blog instead)

Based on the interview, I’m going with the third option.  It’s true that some degree of anti-science sentiment exists in practically every political group.  New agers concerned about “natural” products are certainly more common on the left than the right.  But a lot of the skeptic/atheist community is also on the left side of the political spectrum, and they tend to attack dubious claims like homeopathy, alternative medicine, and vaccine denialism.  And while vaccine skepticism may have started on the left (I’m honestly not sure, but I’d buy that scratch that, I’m honestly not sure and I don’t want to do an hour of research for like one line of a post), but it’s definitely started moving over to conservative Christian circles (see: Michele Bachmann during the Republican primaries) and honestly, it seems to be more a middle-class movement than an ideological one.

Here’s a breakdown of other  biases mentioned in the interview or book

  • Electromagnetic radiation and health – I honestly can’t find anyone seriously concerned about this in contemporary political culture.
  • Anti-nuclear movement – that’s a bit harder to argue with, but I would say there’s still a valid complaint about the United States not having a large-scale permanent nuclear waste storage facility.  The rejection of nuclear at all by environmentalists is less defensible.
  • Fracking and natural gas – While fracking isn’t the most intrusive extraction process developed, the recent increase in fracking activity has led to more observations of water contamination that suggest further study is still needed.  I’m also not sure there’s  an opposition to natural gas by itself (it IS cleaner than coal), but that environmentalists tend to prefer renewables.  Granted, the idea that we need to use an energy source we haven’t fully developed yet does seem to go against the idea that we must do things now to stop carbon emissions.
  • “Natural is better” – Less rational yes.  But this isn’t really a policy goal of most progressives I know, aside from pushes for labeling standards.  And organics just seem popular with people willing to spend more on food.
  • PETA – They are not at all close to being a major influence in the progressive movement in my mind.  The only thing I’m really aware of is San Francisco’s attempt to ban pets in the name of animal welfare.  Which failed.
  • Differences between sexes and genders – This one isn’t really developed in the Amazon summary or even mentioned in the interview.  There is a bit of a “gasp” reaction if anyone tends to mention these things, but let’s be honest and admit we developed that because it usually prefaces an actual racist or sexist statement.  Also, gender and sexual norms vary a lot between cultures, so it’s important to realize biology isn’t destiny (in Lysistrata, part of the drama of the sex strike is that women were considered too lustful in Greek culture at the time; compare that to modern American views of female sexuality).  Or from a statistical point of view, while there may be a difference in the “average” man and woman, the variance in individuals of each gender is too large to generalize it to everyone.

Here’s also where I’ll admit I haven’t read any of the book (I just found out about it).  If someone were to cite statistics showing these views are taken more seriously than I’m guessing, I would believe and be willing to revise my views.  But the fact is, none of the reviews mention any and neither does the interview.  More importantly, this just seems like false equivalence because the whole point of most talk of the “Republican War on Science” points out that many of these views come from actual policymakers or people of influence in the movement.  To say a school board member who wants to put “Warning” stickers on a biology text that talks about evolution is the same as a New Ager trying to sell kali carbonica on HuffPo seems to be ignoring how these people are treated in their movements.

I do like one of the points Dr. Berezow makes in the interview.  That is that science policy isn’t just a purely scientific issue, and he brings up the example of funding for nuclear fusion.  This is definitely true, and I feel like it’s something that gets oversimplified when people just say “science policy should be left to scientists”.  In a democracy (especially one that gives so much money to its scientists), it’s definitely important for non-scientists to make sure they can feel comfortable supporting science.

Should Science Majors Cost Less?

The Atlantic has just published an interesting article: should public universities charge less for majors the state considers to be economically important?  The idea is a proposal from a Florida higher education task force.  The article brings up some immediate problems that come to mind, namely that it can be hard to predict specific majors that will be important over long periods of time and that this system and that students aren’t equally good at all majors.

I can also think of some other problems.  First, science and engineering majors actually require big capital investments from colleges.  They require lots of equipment and materials for labs.  Lowering the “cost” of these majors to students puts more of the cost needed for education on the university.  I could also see this system becoming gamed by smaller schools.  The actual proposal doesn’t just refer to STEM majors, it’s about any major the state considers important to its industries.  According to the Atlantic article, the Florida government has already designated the STEM disciplines, some education specialties, health fields, emergency and security services, and “globalization” as “strategic areas of emphasis”.  It’s not stated, but I would assume the state would help schools make up the difference between normal tuition and the price for discounted majors.  But what’s to stop a school from choosing to focus on say education and foreign affairs to get extra money from the state, and have a bare-bones science program so the extra money can go to other expenses?  Or who’s to say a school won’t try to encourage as many kids as possible from joining full or extra price majors to get more money, especially if an influx of STEM students on discounted tuition were to severely affect finances for labs?

On a less practical note, I would also worry this might homogenize the schools.  There’s a lot to learn from meeting people of different majors in college, or just meeting people who are really passionate about their field.  If a lot of friends are just majoring in mechanical engineering because “it’s cheap”, I wonder how effective they would be.  And what ideas they might never have if they never run into a philosophy or music major.

A “scientist” by any other name

I’ve just started reading “The Essential Engineer“, a somewhat belated college graduation gift I bought for myself as I switch from being a “science” student as undergrad to an “engineering” student in grad school.  And just the preface has already made me start screaming yes (in my head).  Evidently one of the points the author, Henry Petroski, hopes to drive home is the difference between science and engineering.  And this strikes me as something fairly important, especially because you see it pop up ALL. THE. TIME.  Petroski writes about a story in The New York Times about the arrest of a worker at Los Alamos National Lab that switches between calling the accused a “scientist” and an “engineer”.  Or the near-universal American description of aerospace engineering as “rocket science”.  It’s also interesting, because it seems like a kind of weird conflation, given that engineering has only become heavily dependent on science in the last century.  To me, it seems kind of like calling the person who operates on you and the person who manages your medication both “doctors”, though maybe this example falls flat because people do tend to run into surgeons and pharmacists a lot.

One could claim that this is nitpicking, and to be fair, it kind of is.  But I feel like conflating two entire general professions might actually harm them.  For example, my undergrad institution’s student newspaper recently published an editorial about the career fair being too “science-focused”, but then went on to only talk about how most companies wanted engineers.  That’s certainly a legitimate complaint, but it ignores the fact that my undergrad university had very few companies recruit students in non-engineering science majors (which would be considered the ACTUAL science majors).  For some reason a lot of advisors viewed the science majors as not being in the “liberal arts” either, and while I could understand not viewing something like biology as being equivalent to art history, that doesn’t really fit the traditional view of liberal arts in my mind.  It also put science majors in this weird Twilight Zone between “practical” engineering and “useless” liberal arts fields.  Or there’s the fact that a lot of “STEM reform” seems really engineering-focused.  To use my own life as an example, I didn’t really know what engineering was until college when I was exposed to it.  I kept thinking I would do physics even though I knew I didn’t want to do theoretical physics.

Of course, there’s also some rationale for the science/engineering confusion.  If you’re in physics or chemistry and aren’t involved in fundamental theory, the distinction between science and engineering can be kind of blurred.  (Aside: ecology and the various disciplines of the Earth and space sciences don’t have this problem as much)  The research project I worked on at Rice on polymer membranes could very easily have fallen into a chemical engineering or materials science department, but I worked for a chemist.  Honestly, the main reason it might not have been engineering was how far away the research was from practical application at this stage.  But my roommate in Virginia is a biomedical engineer, and his work is a very basic science project that is also years away from practical application.  If you’re in industry, I’m not sure if there really is a clear division between, say, a chemist and a chemical engineer.  On the other end, some engineering research in academia can be very fundamental.  At one of my summer jobs in an engineering lab, one of the other students (an applied physics grad student) was working on developing a model to describe why carbon nanotubes bend during growth.  While that would be useful for manufacturing longer nanotubes, to be honest, there was a lot of mechanics he was considering in his model that we don’t understand yet.

The seemingly growing popularity of engineering science programs also blurs the distinction.  And of course, my new field also has a confusing name.  I’m in a “materials science and engineering” department, but you can also find departments labelled only as “materials science” or “materials engineering”.  Purdue has an amusing anecdote that their department is just “materials engineering” because the natural science departments objected to the engineering college using “science”.  But that’s actually one of the reasons I do find the field very attractive.  There is a very strong engineering, “practical” side of it, but also a side focused on understanding the science of how materials work.

So I realize this was kind of a rant, but I hope someone finds this interesting, because I do.

NaBloPoMo 2012

What is that terrible acronym?  Why it’s National Blog Posting Month, the quirky cousin of the relatively more formal (and well-known) National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.  For NaNoWriMo, participants are supposed to write about 5000 words a day for what will hopefully be a novel by the end of the month (or I suppose more accurately, something more like the uncut diamond of a novel, as actual revising and editing don’t need to take place during November).  NaBloPoMo, is not nearly as intense, but still a good idea for someone who struggles with blogging like I do.  Instead of basically churning out a book chapter a day, I just need to have a blog post a day.  Which seems totally reasonable.  At least, as long as I keep getting things to report on (or I suppose I could just rant).  So pleeeeeeease post things in the comments that you think I should look at.

And to have something of actual merit, I offer you this game someone pointed out to me.  No, really.  MIT’s Game Lab has made a first-person… something that shows you relativity.  But instead of flinging you off at warp speed, they have light slow down to approach a speed a human might actually get close to.  And this leads to lots of cool effects.  Unfortunately, I can’t get the game to work on my laptop, so I’ll just have to take people’s word for it.