company of three, black peppermint tea

Tag: science

knowledge is perspective

by cloudier

How to think about science and becoming a scientist

A lot of what is frustrating and off-putting about science at first, including working in the research lab, is the same thing that’s frustrating and off-putting about math: to really enter the conversation you have to have the vocabulary, so there’s a lot of memorizing when you start. Which is just obnoxious. But it doesn’t take too long, and if you start interning in a lab early, then the memorizing feels justifiable and pertinent, even if you feel initially more frustrated at a) not knowing the information and b) not knowing how to apply it. If you don’t get into a lab, however, it’s just hard and pointlessly so (even though it isn’t).

(Virtually all fields have this learning curve, whether you realize it or not; one of Jake’s pet books is Daniel T. Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom, which describes how people move from no knowledge to shallow knowledge to deep knowledge. It’s bewildering and disorienting to start with no knowledge on a subject, but you have to endure and transcend that state if you’re going to move to deep knowledge. He says that he’s climbed that mountain with regard to writing, which makes writing way more rewarding than it used to be.)

Once you have the language and are able to think about, say, protein folding, the way you would a paragraph of prose, or the rhythm in a popular song, science takes on a whole new life, like Frankenstein’s Monster but without the self-loathing or murder. You start to think about what questions you can ask, what you can build, and what you can do—as opposed to what you can regurgitate. The questions you pose to people in your lab will lead to larger conversations. Feeling like an insider is nice, not only because it’s nice to belong, but because you’ll realize that even being a small part of the conversation means you’re still part of the larger discussion.

This is really important. Knowledge about a particular subject is mostly learning the vocabulary because this entails an understanding of how the major concepts in a subject link together.1 Jargon is unavoidable in most subjects because plain language is often too inefficient for communicating ideas. It is unfortunately a massive barrier that prevents laypeople from comprehending the ideas presented in new research – let alone understanding its implications – that can also alienate them in the same way that slang alienates people.2 These two factors, in addition to the media,3 is probably what leads to the entitlement and anti-intellectualism4 that fuels climate skepticism and the idea that autism is linked to a vaccine.

The willful ignorance that results from the lack of comprehension of how much a person doesn’t know and the emotional investment they make in their ideas prevents these people from acquiring the skills to assess their own beliefs simply because it’s emotionally painful.5 This is why I believe that it’s important to increase both the breadth of one’s knowledge as well as the depth required for financial sustenance. It’s also why I don’t particularly like it when people say ‘jack of all trades, master of none’: this implies that when I’m learning about a subject that comes under ‘breadth’, it’s displacing the time I spend learning about my field of specialisation.6 This isn’t necessarily true since I don’t spend the entirety of my waking hours learning.

An almost irrelevant comment on the aphorism ‘Knowledge is power’: No it’s not. Power usually means social or economic influence. Sure, you can acquire that influence with leveraged knowledge, but you can also acquire it by, say, being born in the right place at the right time. Let me propose an alternative: ‘Knowledge is perspective’. There are always things that people of a certain profession know that most people don’t, and it is attached to a certain way of looking at life – a perspective which involves focusing on certain aspects of the world we live in that all end up affecting the way we live. For example, immunology focuses on the microscopic immune system, which has effects that spill into macroscopic life, whereas macroeconomics focuses on the behaviour of national and global economies, with effects that again spill into everyday life. The idea that every field is reducible to maths might be true,7 but it’s a bit silly since there are important and relevant patterns that emerge with each level of magnification.8

If you’re logged into WordPress, I think that black bar at the top is going to make all the links for the notes hit one line too low.

  1. Becoming a professional, however, also involves acquiring relevant skills.
  2. As usual with slang, the special vocabulary of hackers helps hold places in the community and expresses shared values and experiences. Also as usual, not knowing the slang (or using it inappropriately) defines one as an outsider, a mundane, or (worst of all in hackish vocabulary) possibly even a suit. All human cultures use slang in this threefold way — as a tool of communication, and of inclusion, and of exclusion.
  3. Seriously, anyone who reports anything related to science in the media should be forced to get a degree before they publish one word. This kind of fuckery costs lives.
  4. Intellectual Humility: Having a consciousness of the limits of one’s knowledge, including a sensitivity to circumstances in which one’s native egocentrism is likely to function self-deceptively; sensitivity to bias, prejudice and limitations of one’s viewpoint. Intellectual humility depends on recognizing that one should not claim more than one actually knows. It does not imply spinelessness or submissiveness. It implies the lack of intellectual pretentiousness, boastfulness, or conceit, combined with insight into the logical foundations, or lack of such foundations, of one’s beliefs.
  5. I don’t mean to say that all professionals should be trusted, always. They’re human so they will make mistakes and sometimes people without any training will be able to find gaping holes in their ideas. However, these are people who spend a much larger proportion of their life thinking about the topic at hand – it is still most likely that they’ll know better than a layperson.
  6. Which, er, doesn’t exist yet. Biology might come close since it’s the only subject where I’ve really gotten a hold on that basic vocabulary. Speaking of which, the HSC does a shitty job of teaching that; NQE training is much better.
  7. xkcd is still awesome.
  8. I think this is the idea behind the name ‘Patterns in Nature’.

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by cloudier

I’m trying to find my neighbour’s lost cat, but he hasn’t told me what it looks like. After a couple hours of looking, I’m pretty sure his cat isn’t white, because if it was white I would have found it by now. It’s also possible that his cat got eaten by a cougar and isn’t here at all, but I really hope that isn’t the case. I heard some noises in the corner of my back yard, so I think his cat might be somewhere over there, but it’s possible that all I heard was the wind blowing leaves around.

The “everything you need to know about the Higgs boson” thread


by cloudier

Nuclear Engineer:

Nuclear energy is one of, if not, the safest sources of energy available.

As such, I hate the yellow media that essentially makes up stories to get more ratings, and misinforms the general populace.

Every time I meet someone, I have to spend at least 30 mins explaining that the knowledge I gained in five years of university study, far out weighs the intern who misquoted an official and filled the rest of the article with factless speculation

You know what would happen if we just took our waste from nuclear reactors and dumped it, unprotected, into the ocean in deep water? The answer is absolutely nothing because salt water is very good at disapating radiation. The ocean water and sea floor surrounding the Bikini Atoll 1 year following the underwater and above ground nuclear tests were completely clear of radiation. Now the Atoll itself was horribly contaminated and what did they do about that, they bulldozed the contaminated top soil into the ocean, again the radiation disapated very quickly and caused no damage.

The biggest risk in nuclear material storage comes from keeping. It on land. If we were smart we would put it in solid containers and drop it into the marianas and forget about it forever, absolutely no worry about damage, especially considering the very small amount of waste produced by breeder and TRISO reactors, which both reuse waste material and produce a tiny amount of unusable waste.

A person’s food preferences, like his or her personality, are formed during the first few years of life, through a process of socialization. Babies innately prefer sweet tastes and reject bitter ones; toddlers can learn to enjoy hot and spicy food, bland health food, or fast food, depending on what the people around them eat.
When I suggested that IFF’s policy of secrecy and discretion was out of step with our mass-marketing, brand-conscious, self-promoting age, and that the company should put its own logo on the countless products that bear its flavors, instead of allowing other companies to enjoy the consumer loyalty and affection inspired by those flavors, Grainger politely disagreed, assuring me that such a thing would never be done. In the absence of public credit or acclaim, the small and secretive fraternity of flavor chemists praise one another’s work. By analyzing the flavor formula of a product, Grainger can often tell which of his counterparts at a rival firm devised it. Whenever he walks down a supermarket aisle, he takes a quiet pleasure in seeing the well-known foods that contain his flavors.

From the perspective of a computer scientist:

Even the tiniest things you do on a computer, the tiniest nudge of a mouse or a single key-press have so much computation involved (whether directly or indirectly) that it will make your head explode if you try to narrow it all down. As such, whenever I see coworkers at the office fanatically shake their mice and mash their keyboard when their outlook isn’t opening “fast enough” it makes me palmface. To give you an idea of what may be involved:

  • You move the mouse a tiny bit
  • The mouse senses movement via the laser/ball and sends the information to the USB port on your computer
  • The USB controller processes the signal and sends a signal to the CPU to stop what it’s doing and process the USB data that just came in
  • The computer saves all the things (ie. register data) it was currently doing in the CPU to return to after it has processed the data from the mouse
  • The OS has to go through various levels of abstraction from generic USB drivers to specific drivers for your crazy 20-button world of warcraft gaming mouse to actually even know that the cursor on the screen is supposed to move at all
  • The OS moves the cursor and then processes what should happen upon reaching its new position (i.e. have you hovered over a new window? should an action be taken?)
  • etc. etc. etc. etc.

Note that this list is incredibly simplified and each of those steps involves quite an assload of computation in itself. Computers certainly don’t run on magic, but it is amazing how much processing they do and a lot of people take it for granted.

More like, just because you got your PhD doesn’t mean you’re particularly clever or knowledgeable in any area that’s slightly outside your area of expertise. It’s an endurance thing, not a talent thing. I had an advisor whose dissertation was essentially based on drunk people having lowered inhibitions. Very “duh” stuff. Also, the BPA thing is very much like the asbestos scare or DDT scare—it becomes politically powerful and the real science falls by the wayside. DDT killed birds, but it saved and continues to save human lives by reducing mosquito populations. Asbestos is safe in certain applications, and when using certain types of asbestos it’s no more dangerous than fiberglass (which is more dangerous than people think, but still legal). If the World Trade Center towers had been finished before the asbestos scare, they’d still be upright and 100s of thousands of people might still be alive. Aluminum doesn’t cause alzheimers, but people still say it does. Lactic acid doesn’t cause a muscle to be sore, but people still say it does. Etc. Scientists are still people.
One thing physics has taught me is that unless you have a heat pump or something all electric heating is the same efficiency: virtually all the electrical energy is converted directly to heat. This is true whether you’re talking a space heater or a computer or a guitar amplifier. It’s funny, someone was asking online about “efficient” space heaters – they don’t exist.

One of the fun projects microbiology students do is to swab and culture a common surface (desk, counter, doorknob, etc) and find all the fun growies that are around us all the time, and that we rub our hands on.

So your hands are teeming with random diseases from god knows where. Then you go to the bathroom and put these hands near your urethra (open mucus membrane) and anus.

Washing your hands after you go really is to protect other people from your germs. Washing your hands before you go protects you from other people’s germs.

American culture is organized primarily around three edicts. The first is, roughly, “Let me do it myself.” This sets Americans apart from the many European countries I’ve experienced in which people are generally quite happy to let the government take care of things. The French, for example, see the government as the rough embodiment of the collective French brain – of course it would know best, as its the Frenchest thing around.

Americans, in stark contrast, are far more likely to see the government as the enemy, infringing upon their autonomy. This leads to a great deal of misunderstanding, particularly from people who are used to seeing solutions flowing from a centralized authority. Americans, rather, would prefer to leave matters such as charitable giving in the hands of the individual. [1] In 1995 (the most recent year for which data are available), Americans gave, per capita, three and a half times as much to causes and charities as the French, seven times as much as the Germans, and 14 times as much as the Italians. Similarly, in 1998, Americans were 15 percent more likely to volunteer their time than the Dutch, 21 percent more likely than the Swiss, and 32 percent more likely than the Germans.. This alone, of course, does not mean that any one side of culture is more “compassionate” than the other – rather, that such compassion is filtered through different culture attitudes.

Another good example of that contrast occurred when Bill Gates and Warren Buffet received a remarkably chilly reception when they exhorted German ultra-wealthy to give more of their money away. The reaction, with some justification, was primarily one of “why should I give more money to do things that the state, funded by high tax rates, is expected to take care of?” You can come down on this one of two ways – one is that it’s more efficient to leave such things to an organized central body, another is that such a system distances and de-humanizes people in needy situations, and that more efficient solutions are arrived at through direct, hands-on involvement by a multitude of private citizens. Again, my intent is not so much to pick one side as to explain the rather more poorly understood American approach.

Re: apply to all

by cloudier

This is a reply to Jeff’s post on how science is based on a belief system. I thought it would be too long to properly explain everything in a comment (in my typically long-winded manner at least) so I decided to write a blogpost.

Science is a human construct: it is a extensive framework of explanations (or hypotheses) of natural phenomena. This natural phenomena includes things like the fact that things fall when they are lifted into the air, the fact that if you burn certain materials in a flame they’ll emit coloured light. These things can occur without science or humans existing but science cannot exist without it. As you probably know after 4 years of junior high school science, these explanations are constructed through experimentation and analysis of the results of experimentation. If subsequent experiments prove these explanations wrong, new ones are formed or current explanations are modified. It’s alright if the current ones don’t explain everything! We can make a new or modified explanation that does. (That’s why scientists still get paid. You’re taught these so that maybe you can figure out what the better explanation is.)

(Personally I think the evidence-based nature of science puts it above religious beliefs, which are often based on the inaccurately translated words of random people from thousands of years ago and are subject to much more subjectivity.)

Basically the purpose of science is to use an explanation which is as simple as possible to explain everything.

This leads to Occam’s razor. (The following information is basically pulled from Wikipedia.) Occam’s razor is merely a principle or heuristic, although it is sometimes misleadingly called the ‘law of parsimony’, etc.. Scientists use Occam’s razor when picking between different hypotheses while they are planning an experiment: you should pick the hypothesis that makes the fewest assumptions between hypotheses of equal explaining power. If one theory is more complex but explains more, Occam’s razor recommends picking this theory over another theory that is simpler but explains less. You can’t use Occam’s razor to say the atomic theory doesn’t explain something properly therefore it is wrong forever. You can, however, say that the atomic theory is very incomplete because it doesn’t adequately explain several things. Again, this is fine; scientists paid to figure out why there are holes in our understanding of the universe.

And the “laws” of physics are rather arrogant. How can we possibly prove that the laws of physics apply in outer space? Most (if not all) the experiments regarding mechanics have been conducted on Earth. And I know for sure all mechanics experiments have been conducted within our solar system. Just because it APPEARS to work for the greater universe (ie bending of light due to gravity and what not), we can’t be sure it’s true, simply because we can’t test it.
The rest of the universe could have massively messed up physics, and gravity doesn’t exist, etc etc. How could we tell?

Why isn’t the bending of light due to gravity etc. enough evidence? How else would you explain it? Is it probable that the laws of physics are wildly different to those in the solar system? How would you explain this? Additionally, /invokes Occam’s razor/ would these explanations be more complex than the current explanations while explaining the same amount of results? Right now, there’s no reason to assume that the laws of physics don’t apply in outer space (and further complicate our models – Occam’s razor again!) since we can explain our observations of outer space using current models.

Nevertheless, I think that eventually people will shoot things into space that can test this stuff more accurately.

Conventional current. Do I have to say any more? I mean everyone knows that it’s the electrons from the “negative” terminal flowing towards the positive, as you can clearly see in a CRO. Yet plenty of calculations involve seeing it as electricity flowing from positive to negative. Including freaking voltage. And the force on a wire due to electromagnetic interactions. Everything’s so counterintuitive, and you need to think twice before going “so current flows THIS way in this question…”

Yeah I agree; it’s stupid to use these historical conventions.

And in the event of aliens approaching Earth, are we going to classify them as “alive”? What if they’re not made of cells, but are capable of moving and intelligent thought? Do we just call that super-slime and refuse to give them the title of being “alive”?
Though I guess apart from cells defining life, biology seems very Earth-based, and everything is relative to our own Earth. Not like we can go classifying organisms from anywhere else anyway :L

Lots of definitions in biology are nebulous. That doesn’t mean ‘cell’ is not a useful term though – saying cells is shorthand for an idea: some kind of membrane-bound bit of cytoplasm. The study of organisms using these badly defined words gave us things that we could use, like penicillin, Strepsils and vaccines. Using ill-defined terms also won’t prevent biologists from studying aliens that don’t fit into the definition of ‘life’, so I don’t think it should matter. (Personally I like the entropy definition of life: a system which decreases its own entropy at the expense of the entropy of its surroundings. Plus it sounds and looks cool! 8D)

I realise that I am repeating a lot of what Anonymous said, (by the way, I am not that person,) but I hope that clears up some stuff. (:

Edit: ‘Bending of light’ is evidence; ‘gravity’ is a hypothesis.

Butterfly Sex

by Squido~

at about 5:45 i went outside to out hills hoist to put up the second batch of my washing and take down the first. as i began pegging my clothes up, i noticed a butterfly on the underside of my new sports bra. upon closer inspection, i discovered two. they were mating. on the underside of the elastic band of my brand new bright orange sports bra. i watched them for a bit. one had the end of its thorax inside the other’s. they were facing away from each other, both seemingly oblivious to the fact that i was there. i told them both that i would take the bra down last and if they were still there by then, i was going to have to evict them.

so i hung my washing and took down the dried clothes for about 15 minutes. they were there the entire time. when i had finished, i went back to the butterflies. i don’t think they moved at all. the wind was blowing quite violently and the bra had been moving quite vigorously with it, but the two had maintained their positions, notwithstanding.

i poked them once and they ignored me. i reached out to poke them again but the one facing me began edging away from my finger before i could touch it. the other one moved with it. i chased them in a small circle with my finger on the inside of the elastic band of my bright orange sports bra. i gave up.

took the pegs off, took the bra down, went to a nearby tree trunk and scraped the two butterfly lovers off with the aid of the rough peeling bark. and they stayed in the same position the entire time. i noticed they hadn’t left a trace on my bra.

that process took at least 15 minutes, and who knows how long they were on there before it? so what i wonder is this: is it intrinsically embedded in the nature of (those two) butterflies that mating, and thus maintaining the survival of their species, outweighs the importance of the survival of the individual creature? know that i wasn’t intending any harm in observing so closely, or even poking them, but were i in their position i would feel threatened and instinctively try to flee. but on the other hand, the butterfly’s most prevalent features are bright, striking patterned wings, undoubtedly to help them attract mates (Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, i think). they are easily prey for birds, bats, spiders, whatever eats them (i don’t really know). i’m not even sure if the two insects i was observing were butterflies or not, but they were black-bodied, had black wings with translucent orange spots and a furry thorax that ended in a yellow-oramge tip (female, as far as i could tell).
one more question bugging me (haha) – why my bright orange sports bra? was it because it was new, orange, or because it provided a convenient shelter? Amongst the washing there, there was also bright blue, fading yellows and reds, white and black, and some colours in between. can butterflies differentiate between colours? are they attracted to some more than others? could they tell that the bra was opened at one end and sense that it was more stable? i think they do perceive colour; why else would some flowers be so bright and colourful? however, i don’t know if they see the same way humans do.

i don’t plan to look into any of this and make a huge scientific research project out of it or anything, but i will leave this topic open to opinions, facts and discussion. contributions are welcome :) (yes, i’m being lazy).