Monthly Archives: June 2012

On Science Literacy, or, Why I’m a Physicist and Not a Biologist

It’s clear from the purpose of this blog that science literacy is something I’m passionate about, and so I’m glad that it’s one of those topics that every so often bounces around the internet. While I have what I think is a clear idea of what constitutes science literacy, the science community as a whole doesn’t seem to have any consensus. Considering how poorly science education is approached at an institutional level in some jurisdictions (to wit, the hoopla around teaching evolution in some parts of the US), it’s hardly surprising that there’s no organized, vocal push for better science literacy education. Of course science literacy comes along for the ride, to some extent, with good, well-rounded science education, but it’s not necessarily a principle focus.

A surprising number of people seem to think that science literacy comes down to knowing lists of facts, as in this quiz from the Christian Science Monitor. I know it’s just a goofy internet quiz meant to generate clicks, but this is antithetical to what I think science literacy is. Rather than a measure of how many factoids and lists of data one knows, I think scientific literacy is the framework for understanding and analysing context and conclusions. Science, when boiled down to it’s essential nature, is about making connections between observations, equations and mathematics, and ideas to make conclusions. Some branches of science (say, theoretical physics) rely on equations and math to the exclusion of observations, and some rely much more heavily on observations than math. But the key component of that is “making connections.” Science literacy, then, is the ability and knowledge to be able to take a series of observations, equations, and ideas, and be able to understand how they fit together. This isn’t to say that scientific literacy is only equivalent to being an expert in all area of science, because no such person exists. But a person doesn’t need to be an expert to be able to understand basic scientific concepts, and so by extension a person doesn’t need to be an expert to be able to grasp and understand contexts and connections between concepts and facts. The trivia facts like those in the quiz are important, to be sure, but they aren’t at the kernel of understanding. They can be memorized, but memorization is not the same as comprehension.

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No Matter How You Slice It, Printing Objects is Really Nifty

3D printers are revolutionizing the way we make things. The technology is fairly new — most of the technology has been designed and built in the last ten years, though the first 3D printer was built in the mid 1980’s — and is still in it’s infancy. While it’s not generally cost effective to use a 3D printer to make many ordinary items, the technology is very useful for repeatably creating very precise objects, like machine parts. Due to the 3D printer’s flexibility, it may be able to replace a variety of machining tools needed to create parts to maintain industrial machines.

3D printers work much the same way that ordinary printers work: they take digital information of a pattern to be printed, and deposit material on a surface in that pattern. Conventional printers take text and image information and deposit ink on a page, while 3D printers have an extra step. They take a three dimensional digital rendering of the object to be printed (via a computer-assisted design, or CAD, software program), slice it very thinly into parallel sheets, and reproduce the full design sheet by sheet. 3D printers typically use one of two methods: either a thin tube of polymer is used as an ink, or a powdered medium is fused together with a glue that’s distributed like an ink.

The “tube of polymer” method was the first type of 3D printer to be developed, and the analogy between it and 2D printers is very clear. Instead of a liquid ink deposited on a page in thin rows, a nozzle pipes a very thin wire of polymer across the printing bin in parallel rows. The polymer is hot, so it fuses together, creating a three dimensional object.

Schematic of a vertical cross section of a 3D printer output.

A vertical cross section of a 3D printer in action. The green nozzle head moves into (or out of) the page, piping pinkish-red material in lines. The piped material stacks on top of each other, creating a complex shape.

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The Flame Challenge Revisited

Since the winner of the Flame Challenge has been announced (congratulations to Ben Ames with his animated video!), I thought I’d, for the sake of some potential feedback, publish my humble entry and comment a bit on the challenge itself. For those of you who’re not sure what I’m talking about, the Flame Challenge was an initiative spearheaded by Alan Alda which sought an answer to a seemingly simple question: what is a flame?

A flaming matchstick.

What is this?

When Alda was 11, he’d asked this of his science teacher, and the teacher replied simply “it’s oxidation,” which is a thoroughly unsatisfying answer. In an effort to get people thinking about how to make science accessible to young people, Alda challenged the science community (and anyone else who was interested) to explain what a flame was in a way that an 11-year-old could understand it. Classes of 11-year-olds all over the US judged the entries, and the challenge will now become an annual initiative (though with a different question each year).

Here’s a few short paragraphs that I submitted.

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Some Scattered Thoughts on Outreach Work

There’s been a flurry of discussion recently about the nature, value, and workload or or related to outreach work, and as a fledgling blog writer with grand ambitions, I have a few cents I’d like to toss into the ring. The flurry got kicked off by Scicurious’s and Kate Clancy’s excellent posts, and Cedar Riener weighed in on it shortly afterward, but there’s lots going on on Twitter too. Miriam Goldstein’s flowchart is worth a look too (and has some great resources at the end).

In my (admittedly limited) experience, outreach work is seen as icing flourishes on a cake: nice to see, can make an otherwise tasty cake stand out amongst its bretheren, but not really necessary, and occasionally a bit too flashy. I’ve not seen any academics be especially bothered by a lack of outreach work, though I have seen the presence of it help make an already highly regarded candidate for a position stand out a little more (and some people suppress an eyeroll when it comes up). However, I’ve never seen it outweigh more directly academic factors on a scientist’s CV, and I don’t expect it ever would. So of course, given the dizzying array of Things That Academics Must or Should Do To Be Good Scientists, it’s natural that outreach is often very low or entirely absent from that list, because there’s a dozen other things that are more pressing.

I understand why academics don’t prioritize outreach in their own work, but the dismissal that other academics sometimes (often?) show for other people’s outreach work is a bit baffling to me. I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but is it considered a waste of time? A waste of knowledge? A waste of effort? Or are they threatened by the idea of Top Secret Scientific Knowledge escaping from the pristine ivory tower? I think this is all nonsense — I think communicating our scientific progress to the public is extremely important, and while it’s not something that can be dashed off in an hour while you wait for your code to finish running, it’s certainly not an impossible task. (Apparently I still have some vestigial idealism clinging to my pant hems from my undergrad days!)

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