Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Anime Mythbusters 2010 on YouTube

Naka Kon was just over two months ago now and I finally got the video DVD that included my panel. I ripped it and the panel is now available on YouTube! This time, it has the real footage instead of the audio with just the slides.

Watch, rate, and comment!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sia - Academia

This song's lyrics are cutely geeky. I approve:

Monday, April 19, 2010

Millikan's Pennies

Now that my school finally got a balance, I was able to perform my lab on measuring the mass of a penny, without measuring a single one.

The idea of the lab was to reflect the way in which Millikan was able to determine the mass of an electron by measuring the electromagnetic force required to levitate an oil drop. The force would be proportional to the number of electrons and the charge of each one.

However, both of those were unknowns, making the entire problem somewhat challenging.

The genius of Millikan's solution was that he made the wild and crazy assumption that there was some fundamental charge that was indivisible. In other words, that electrons had a fixed charge. By taking lots of measurements and dividing by integer numbers, it would be possible to find a common number between them all.

It occurred to me this principle would work for anything with a fundamental quantity and an unknown number. Weight (mass) was a convenient way to go.

So I sealed up pennies in 7 different envelopes, had students weigh an empty envelope, subtract that, and determine the mass of the unknown number of pennies in each one.

From there, the easy way would have been to toss the raw data in excel and have it to all the division.

Sadly, the computer lab was taken. Which meant they had to do all the math by hand. Poor kids.

A few of them figured out that I'd given them a hint by telling them that each envelope had somewhere between about 3 and 20 pennies (in reality, the envelope with the least had 4 and the most was 17). From this, they deduced that they didn't have to divide the lightest of the envelopes all the way up to 20 since they would only contain a few pennies.

This saved the smarter students a considerable amount of effort.

Ultimately every group was able to find a fundamental number common to every envelope. The range in that number varied by about .1 grams which is more than I expected, but I made absolutely no effort to find pennies that were all equally free of dirt and uncorroded (although I did find only pennies from the last 25 years as to ensure the same ratio of copper and zinc which would significantly change the weight). This was intentional because I wanted to better simulate real data and give them the opportunity to consider that a significant source of error in their discussion. Sadly, only one of the five groups (two students per group) figured that out.

The rest of the groups seemed pretty clueless on what I meant by "discuss significant sources of error." Many of them put things like, "Follow the instructions" and "Round correctly".

Overall this lab went fantastically well considering it was something I'd came up with out of the blue. It needs some revision. After watching this video, I feel like I should challenge the students to try to develop the methodology more themselves (I made it pretty cookie cutter), but for my students, it would likely be little more than an exercise in frustration.

Additionally, I think there should be a way to graphically represent the data that might help it be more easily approachable, but I haven't worked it out yet.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Dumbest thing I've heard from a Creationist in awhile

I hang out on quite a few message boards discussing evolution.

Today, I got a new comment from a Creationist that required me go find some medicine for the headache the stupid caused. And because I don't want to suffer alone, I'm sharing it with you:
Natural selection has to have been "inherited", so it must be genetic.
Right. Natural processes must be inherited.

No wonder we can't figure out Dark Matter. We didn't realize gravity had a genetic component.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Book Review - Only a Theory

I seem to deal with Ken Miller on an unusually frequent basis. I saw him when he visited KU in 2006 (1, 2, 3, 4), I read and reviewed his book Finding Darwin's God, and I'm teaching my Bio II course using his textbook.

It's a good thing I tend to like the guy.

So when he published Only a Theory, it was only a matter of time before I got around to reading it too.

As I see it, the book is divided into three sections: 1) The Introduction, 2) The Case Against Design, and 3) The Danger of Design. I'll break the book down this way.

Miller is a very good speaker and an even better writer. His prose is vivid and well constructed, often drawing on personal experience to make it more interesting. So although the introduction is light on real content, it's still an excellent read. This consists of the first two chapters. The first sets the stage for the whole "debate" and the second explains the argument for design (in many respects better than its own proponents, so I expect to see it quote mined in the near future).

Chapters 3 - 6 take the arguments just developed and deconstruct them in great detail. If you've followed the ID movement at all or visited talkorigins, then the vast majority of the material is old hat. However, Miller did show some new arguments including more instances of novel mutations adding new information and allowing bacteria to digest pentachlorophenol (PCP, a pesticide) and even explosive agents used by the US Air Force (p 84).

Another excellent feature Miller included in this section was something I'd seen before, but had since forgotten about that revealed that even Creationists can't agree which side of a gap transitional fossils are. Some Creationists call it an ape. Some call it a human. Yet as much as it spans they gap, they refuse to admit it's transitional (he referred to this chart to illustrate the point).

There's also a segment on humans inability to produce vitamin C on our own which is suspiciously shared with our closest relatives. Miller goes on about just how unsatisfying the design hypothesis is to explain this, and other such important facts.

Echoing much of the work in Shubin's Your Inner Fish, Miller also goes though how embryology reveals the workings of evolution as well making an exceptional point that many of our "macro"evolutionary features are controlled by the genes that control our development during our embryonic grown which are controlled on a decidedly "macro"evolutionary scale. I've never seen the micro/macro distinction treated this way before, but it's an amazingly well made point. Shame the only thing Creationists seem to ever know about embryology is "OMG! Haeckel faked his drawing!!1eleven!*drool*!1". I suppose the point would be lost on them anyway.

As good as this part is, it's mostly new cover on what's long been a closed book; ID/Creationism fails utterly. It's nice to have some new points to hammer this home with, but if the ones I was already familiar with weren't sufficient, nothing short of a thunderbolt from a Pikachu up their asses would convince them.

Where the book was best, in my opinion was the last chapter or two in which Miller makes the case of why ID/Creationism isn't just wrong, but dangerous. This isn't an argument that's new to me. I've been having to try to justify to friends and family alike why I spend so much time arguing the topic. They seem to think it's just some anti-religious crusade.

The actual answer that I've been pushing for a few years now is that ID/Creationism is dangerous because it's not just out to attack one topic. If it was, that would be pretty significant given that topic is the pillar on which an entire discipline has come to rest. But ID/Creationism goes beyond that. Most forms of Creationism attack not just biology, but astronomy, physics, geology, and every other field they can distort.

But it doesn't stop there.

As Miller points out, the neo-Creationists under the guise of ID aren't out to just pick out pieces of certain fields; They're out to undermine all of science. I've been attempting to show this by three main pieces of evidence:

1) The Wedge Document explicitly states its goal is to overthrow the methodological naturalism on which all of science operates.

2) When the Creationists got a hold of the Kansas School Board in 2005, they redefined science so that natural explanations were no longer required.

3) Behe admitted on the stand at Dover, that under a definition of science that would include ID, Astrology would have to be included too.

Miller tackles the first two points, yet is oddly silent on the third. Perhaps this is because a large number of Americans think that Astrology is legit and he didn't want to have to take the time to demolish that as well.

These points have worked well for me in making my point, but it's nice to be able to point to this book now and show that the position is held by a serious biologist who most certainly doesn't have any anti-religious agenda.

Meanwhile, Miller ties all of this to a deeper point that is what gives the book its subtitle: This goes beyond a battle about science; It's a battle for America's Soul.

Miller makes the case that the reason science has flourished in the US, despite our educational system being poorer than many other countries, is that science fits perfectly with the American spirit in which legitimacy isn't based on authority, but on taking a long hard look at things and really working through them. He refers to a book called The Closing of the American Mind in which the author (Bloom) claims that the academic system is so infested with cultural relativism that it has become worthless.

The only field Bloom still had hope for was the sciences which were preserved by their requirement for hard facts and evidence. Yet Creationists are trying to destroy that too by forcing relativism into science as well (think about the frequent claims that Creationism is the same facts, but different "interpretations". I'm amazed Miller didn't reference this). Should this happen, Miller argues, it would destroy the last safe haven of the American spirit in which we insist that value is decided by works. I really like this point and will likely add it to my own discussions.

So Miller ends the book. I've still got a few comments left that didn't fit anywhere else, but I'll make them now.

The first is a very odd quotation. See if you can guess where it's from:

"[w]e are literally made of stardust."

The quotations here are mine, quoting Miller who didn't have quotations, so I can only assume this wasn't meant to be a direct quotation, but rather a paraphrasing. Regardless, such a phrase brings to mind only one individual: Carl Sagan.

But that's not who Miller cites as the originator of the phrase.

Instead, he attributes it to the former Vatican astronomer George Coyne. I like Coyne. He's been pretty outspoken against Creationism, but citing him as opposed to one of the greatest popularizers of science of all time? Seriously? What were you thinking Kenny?

The last thing that bothered me about one of Miller's points is that I think it doesn't go far enough. If you read back through the history of this blog, you could possibly notice my stance of religion slowly shifting, from one of a mild annoyance with an overall respect for religion, to a more hard lined approach in which I have begun to call into question just how many positive effects religion really offers as opposed to just taking credit for.

The final point Miller makes is that ID/Creationism is dangerous because it calls for us to stop questioning and looking at honest evidence.

But isn't this precisely what religion does? Not in all cases certainly. But the entire foundation of religion is based on blind faith. Now tell me that doesn't spill. Obviously it does, which is why it's so frequently tied with blind zealotry in other aspects.

So yet again, I find myself liking Miller's overall point (ID/Creationism is dangerous), but have serious objections to serious points. Previously I criticized his claim that atheists were a significant cause of Creationism, and pointed out the logical inconsistency of chastising Creationists for using "God of the Gaps" argument and then turning around and creating his own gap through Quantum Mechanics.

Miller is a great proponent for evolution and is right on every point there. As others have pointed out, his theology has some pretty big holes in it. But that's fine. I wasn't looking to this book for any sort of theological arguments (although I certainly was with Finding Darwin's God). If you take this book as a review of the ID/Creationism movement, this is quite possibly one of the best books yet written on the topic.

I'm sorely tempted to get a few more copies and give them to my friends and family that scoffed at my persistence with this topic with a note attached telling them just to read chapters 7 and 8.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A New Hope

Back in junior high and high school, I used to be really into CCGs. Over the course of 6 years, I probably tried out near a dozen different games. Only one really ever stuck with me. It was the Star Wars CCG by Decipher.

Out of all the games I tried, this one was my favorite, largely because it wasn't a simple game. The learning curve was steep, which tended to keep away many of the immature people that CCGs can frequently attract. The detailed rules also made for a very deep strategy and games were always enjoyable.

Then suddenly, in 2002, at the height of popularity, when the Star Wars CCG was catching up to the CCG monsters, Magic: The Gathering, the company that produced the game lost the license. Decipher could no longer produce the game. Instead, the rights were given to Wizards of the Coast, the company that made games that while amusing for a few minutes, really consisted of little more than holofoil Pikachu's and feverishly releasing new editions without thoroughly play testing them, in order to suck as much money out of players as possible, without providing nearly as deep of a playing experience.

WotC was offered the chance to continue the fantastic game that Decipher had created (paying royalties on the game mechanics that Decipher had developed), but decided against it. Instead, they produced a Star Wars Trading Card Game (TCG) which amounted to little more than rolling dice. It was awful. Absolutely wretched.

Wizards did, however, make a miniatures game that was mildly successful and somewhat fun. But it never had a large player base like the Decipher CCG did.

So for the past 8 years, I've been waiting.

I've been waiting for Lucasfilm and WotC to realize they just fail at making a Star Wars game. I've been waiting for WotC to lose the license.

It's finally happened.

I've kept the three, 3" binders that hold my set collections. I've kept the 4 boxes of thousands of commons and uncommons. I've kept the stack of rares to trade and build my decks. I've kept the decks I worked tirelessly to build.

So now.... Decipher just needs to get the license back.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Chemical Christmas

Today was a good day at school.

I'd ordered some science supplies for all my classes and they arrived today. Well, not really today, but we've been on break, so I got them today.

The majority of them was Chemistry supplies, but there was some Bio stuff in there too (an electrophoresis kit and some frogs to dissect). Getting boxes full of SCIENCE is just fun. Especially since I've centered the vast majority of my demonstrations around the best type: Explosions.

My Chem class really isn't up to the proper section for reactions yet. We're still slogging out way through bonding, and I keep telling them we need to learn what bonds are before we start making and breaking them. We're getting there, but not quite yet.

However, I just couldn't help myself from doing a demonstration. One of the bits I'd gotten was calcium carbide which, when mixed with water, forms acetylene gas. The way I've seen this demonstration done previously was in a bottle into which a few small chunks were placed. They fizz and give off some gas, and then are ignited with a spark generator making a fantastic boom. All of my students jumped. This is all I did.

When I actually do the demonstration in the proper section, there's a further component to it: Instead of just dumping in a small amount, a heaping spoonful is tossed in. When the spark igniter is hit, absolutely nothing happens. The reason is that the acetylene gas pushes out all the air and without a proper stoichiometric balance, ignition can't take place. The students, meanwhile, are ducking under their desks.

I can't wait to get up to the proper sections to play with the rest of it.

Oh yeah, and I finally got a balance for my penny lab.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

The brain gap

Preceeding this year's Mid-American Regional Astrophyisics Conference, I decided to take a trip down to Springfield, MO to visit a few friends I have down there I haven't seen in 5 years. I forgot to put my CDs in the car this time so, for almost the entire drive, I was forced to listen to country radio stations. Within one hour, I found at least segments of programming that highlight some of my main issues with religion.

The first was a program for “Christian women” which was essentially a segment on anti-feminism; Be subservient to your husband kinda things. That alone is enough to irk me pretty well, but heaped on top of that, the host (a woman herself) then made comments about how, unless you followed Biblical rules and were such a woman, you weren't a “real” woman or a good woman. She claimed that, unless a woman did this, she could never be fulfilled and every endeavor of hers would be subject to failure.

Many people claim that religion is not falsifiable, but comments like this are easily testable. I think I know a few good women who are not “with Christ” that are fulfilled in ways the host will never be.

Another program was on a spiritual method of investigating how “God is acting in your life.” The way it works is a person will keep a journal, noting the high points and low points of their day. Then, after some time, they should look back over it and try to discover how God was helping them in their life.

Holy confirmation bias, Batman!

This is just the sort of sloppy thinking that pisses me off. Any other practice that would suggest throwing basic logic out the window and encouraged this sort of retroactive interpretation based on... oh, no evidence would just be laughed at outright. But in religion, it's considered deep and intelligent.

The last topic was on more of a conservative talk news. The big topic right now is Obama not unilaterally supporting Israel in their desire to do new building in contested territory.

I'm not going to pretend for an instant I'm knowledgeable enough to weigh in on the base situation. But for the way the argument was made on this program, I really don't need to, to realize there was something seriously insane about the approach the commentators were taking. The entire argument was that Israel is our ally, thus we must support them no.matter.what.


I don't know what's going on with the situation and openly admit that it needs a careful look to really decide whether it should be supported or not, but the point is, it needs a look. We don't blindly charge in with support without checking to make sure our allies are still acting in good faith and in manners of deserving to be our allies.

Instead of daring to question and actually analyze, the commentators simply said that “we should follow Israel no matter what because the Bible says so and any nation that's gone against them historically, hasn't fared too well.”

Really? We shouldn't choose our allies based on actual thinking and the good of international peace, but instead because God commands it.... when we're a secular nation?

Again, religious non-thinking is leaking into places that take religion out of the realm of being just silly and closer to being dangerous on an international level.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Young Stars in the Centers of Galaxies

ResearchBlogging.orgA long time ago, I trashed a Creationist article on Stellar Evolution. It was a fun time. I got one of the most ignorant trolls I've yet had on this site and even Phil Plait came over to gawk and point at the giant logical gaps. One of the claims that the author had made was that, because we shouldn't see young stars in very close quarters to black holes in the centers of galaxies (the nearest 1 parsec), and we do, that all of stellar evolution must be wrong and thus, God did it.

Mollishka from A Geocentric View (which sadly hasn't been updated in a year) pointed out that the only galaxies for which we could have sufficient resolution to even discuss the stellar populations of the innermost parsec, would be our own and Andromeda. So trying to draw grand conclusions from a tiny number of cases, as the Creationist was trying to do was just idiotic. Compile that with the completely unrelated conclusion that it meant that God did it, and you get normal Creationist mentality.

Meanwhile, the problem of young stars in the inner portions of galaxies was still an unsolved problem. But instead of tossing their hands up and declaring it impossible a la Behe1. But while Creationists buried their heads in the sand, real scientists continued to try to figure out what was going on.

A new paper looks to have some promising answers. The real trick in the whole problem is getting gas in close enough to the black hole to form young stars without chucking it in to be eaten.

The new paper ran simulations and found that due to gravitational instabilities that effected stars and gas differently, galaxies with supermassive black holes like M31's would form disks of each separately and tilted with respect to one another. The interplay between these disks allows the stellar disk to yank some of the gas out and send it towards the black hole. There, "[s]ome of the gas turns into stars, those stars are excited into the m = 1 mode, allowing the perturbation to efficiently propagate inwards to ~0.1pc."


New stars. Real science.

1 - "As scientists, we yearn to understand how this magnificent mechanism came to be, but the complexity of the system dooms all Darwinian explanations to frustration. Sisyphus himself would pity us."
~Michael Behe: Darwin's Black Box

Philip F. Hopkins, & Eliot Quataert (2010). The Nuclear Stellar Disk in Andromeda: A Fossil from the Era of Black Hole Growth MNRAS arXiv: 1002.1079v2

Book Review - Perfect Rigor

Typically when I head to the bookstore, I don't have a clear picture of what I intend to purchase. I have a mental list of things on my reading list, but it's in no particular order and occasionally, I can find other things that strike my interest. My last trip to Barnes & Nobles was a prime example of this. I'd already decided on a few books from my list when a book entitled Perfect Rigor by Masha Gessen caught my eye.

Flipping the book open to the description, it purported to be about Grigory Perelman, the Russian mathematician who solved the Poincare Conjecture and was thus eligible for the Millenium Prize of $1 million. But he turned it down and went into seculsion. It sounded like an interesting story, so I picked it up.

The story is mostly about Preleman's early life: His mother was a Jewish mathematician, his study with his math coach Rukshin, odd behaviors, oppression in the Soviet regime, graduate school, and eventual disillusionment with the mathematical community for not giving what the author suggested he thought was his due credit. However, since Perelman has gone into seclusion, the book had the be written entirely without interviewing him. Thus, it is told mainly from interviews with friends and colleagues.

I can't tell whether it's because of this (or perhaps the author's writing style or the difficultly I have with remembering names), but the majority of the book seems to be painfully disjointed. Although it is told chronologically, there seems to be little coherence and details are included with little to no justification for doing so. I suppose the idea was to build up a reason for all of Perelman's eccentricities, but exactly how things connect is so weakly fleshed out that I'm still not certain that all of it does.

The majority of the book is devoted to Perelman's childhood which is quite boring. Only in the last few chapters do we actually find Perelman working on the problem and responding to it. While I understand build up is important, it felt too tedious for too long with a sadly abbreviated climax.

Furthermore, the math is almost non-existent in the book. There's a few vague analogies here and there, but in general, it's completely absent. This seemed very odd for such a book, to not even attempt to explain how Perelman solved such a monumental problem aside from saying something to the effect of "he found a way around a few blocks someone else had come up against."

Overall, this book was a large disappointment.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Why are they bitching again?

I keep hearing conservatives bawwing that Obama isn't allowing for bi-partisanship by pushing through the health care bill. Of course, the Republicans aren't making anyone want to work with them after their temper tantrums.

Regardless, the new health bill has some serious ass-kissing to the right wingers. Apparently, it includes $250 million for abstinence only sex ed.