Thursday, May 19, 2011

Science education sucks

I don't entirely understand quite why, but I find the commercials featuring vacuum cleaner pioneer and self-proclaimed genius inventor James Dyson particularly irritating. Is it the plummy, unctuous tone of smug, self-satisfaction? Or is it that he is now one of England's richest people by virtue of having made a vacuum cleaner, albeit a fancy techy one. I try to reassure myself that, if I was that well-endowed in the genius department, I would want to leave my mark on something more substantial than a few carpets: a cure for cancer, a solution to the energy crisis, or a new superfood perhaps. I have never driven a Dyson; and I have never been so dissatisfied with the pre-Dysonian era of vacuuming technology to have been motivated to make the major investment in the magic ball; can cleaning carpets really be worth $500? Never has one of Dyson's famous balls graced my shag, and nor will it ever likely do so. Skeptics might be wondering at this stage if this is all a moot point since I never do any vacuuming, but I can assure those doubters that I have wrestled with the process on countless occasions in an ongoing campaign to prove I am more than just a befuddled college professor. My least favourite aspects are the cleaning of the filter (shades of Lady Macbeth - I never knew the old thing had so much dust in it), and the moving of furniture. Evidently I must be in a minority in the Dyson-hating business, since he is awash in loot and, like other genius inventors before him, is now apparently on a mission to save science education.

It has been amply documented that science education in America supposedly sorely lags behind much of the rest of the world. The data show that, although children enter the middle school era in America at least as adept as their foreign competition, by the time they graduate high school they have lagged far behind other countries (and not even advanced ones necessarily) in the key STEM disciplines. It is a source of concern to many in the sciences that the once (and arguably still) technological leader of the world is flunking in the training of its future scientists. Since the future prosperity of the nation depends on invention and technological development, so the story goes, we must do a better job of developing scientists. Although this seems like a no-brainer, as an aside, it is notable the lack of appreciation for and understanding of science prevalent among the nation's political leaders, particularly on the GOP side. Another aside: it has not escaped my observation that many in the science business who trumpet concerns about education stand to profit mightily from the situation.

I have learned that Mr. Dyson wants to change all that, not with laptops or iPods, as others before him have proposed, but with vacuum cleaner parts. Evidently students will be provided with a Dyson kit that they can disassemble and then rebuild into robots and other high-tech gismos. I am reminded of my visit to Tommy Bartlett's Robot World, a can't-miss emporium of technological wizardry, where to my untrained eye it appeared as though the exhibits were all constructed from late 1970's Hoovers. The hypothesis is, I gather, that tinkering with a few Dyson balls will inspire bright young minds to pursue a technical education, thereby saving America from ultimate slavery to the Chinese. Forgive me for being a little skeptical.

Many a tax-payer dollar has been spent in the attempt to improve science education. Most of these efforts, many supported by institutions like the National Science Foundation, have focused on throwing technology at the problem. To date it appears that no significant gains have been made for all the chest thumpings, grandiose schemes, clever widgets and huge expenditures. In the bad old days, our textbooks were dull-looking tomes with only a few line drawings for illustration; our blackboards were black and there was only chalk; the only high technology was a slide-rule; on the other hand our laboratory experiences were probably better since less was known about the tiresome inconvenience of chemical toxicity and proper disposal.

Every chemistry textbook these days has a preface several pages long that explains in depth all the various "pedagogical features" that are going to make students better chemists. I rarely read them. When the textbook vendors ask me what I like (or dislike) about their book compared with others, I struggle desperately to come up with some kind of cogent, objective response. I normally fail. To some degree, at least at the introductory level, paraphrasing the old commercial, chemistry is chemistry. Do we really think that some "unique problem-solving strategy" will make the slightest difference?

I wonder I might have been improved if my textbook had fancy color diagrams and photos and three-column problem-solving sections; if I had access to websites, videos, 3-d graphics, interactive games or even vacuum cleaner parts. Perhaps the problem with science education, if indeed there really is one, lies elsewhere. Maybe all these efforts have been largely in vain, although I have no fundamental objection to making the experience more entertaining, even if that entertainment really has little impact on knowledge or ability.

While the state of education in this country is bemoaned, international students flock to American universities to develop their talents. On that evidence there is little wrong with the product at the top level. Maybe we should take a more laissez-faire approach and be content with the numbers of scientists the system is currently producing, rather than thrashing away trying to craft a silk purse from a sow's ear by converting people into scientists who ultimately won't find positions in the workplace.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

What lies beneath

The savvy cyber professor has been inattentive to his blog of late - like the past twelve months or more - a reflection perhaps of the gradually dawning realization that he really has nothing interesting to say; but there again, nor do most others that litter the internet with their streams of poorly crafted opinions, so why should that stop me?

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago I found myself in Anaheim for the March meeting of the American Chemical Society. As an aside I recall it was about four years ago that I started this little endeavour around about the time of the ACS meeting, then in Chicago, with a post about cold fusion making the news (again), which resulted in some interesting and lively comments forthcoming. This time around, cold fusion once again returned to the quiet, dusty, dark shelves of forgotten science.

Green chemistry was one of the theme's of this year's conference, and supposedly the Anaheim Convention Center stakes some claims for environmental awareness and energy efficiency, though a casual observer would be skeptical of just how green given the mountains of brochures, programs, and daily updates that were destined to be occupying a recycling bin somewhere in the vicinity. How soon the paperless conference?

I thought it my moral duty to attend at least one session so as to justify the enormous expense of the caper(thank you taxpayers for your contributions to the National Science Foundation, for without you the SSCP would be confined to the barracks of COD forever; every penny is duly appreciated), so I chose a session focusing on the business aspects, or lack thereof perhaps, in alternative energy sources. Rather depressingly, one of the speakers, who had analyzed the attractiveness of these things from the perspective of the venture capitalist, concluded that none of them was a worthwhile investment apart from smart grid technology. In other words, if you are looking to make money from investing in "green energy," forget it. I pointed out to the speaker that, if the only thing worth investing in was a method to distribute existing energy more efficiently, rather than ways of producing additional energy, then we were in trouble. On a side note, the City of Naperville has rather boldly ventured into the smart grid; a move that has met with considerable opposition from citizens who fear that it represents some kind of invasion of privacy.

This is all a bit of a labored bridge-in to the main point (there is one), and that is a talk presented by some young well-dressed (not a scientist) chap from a company called Green Fire Energy, which is a start-up whose mission is to develop large-scale geothermal energy projects based on carbon dioxide. This approach represents a massive extension of a well-established process: sucking heat out of the earth - an environmentally benigh energy source.

The field of alternative energy is really dominated by three approaches: solar, wind and biomass. The geothermal barely rates a look in; and yet, according to Green Fire, within the bowels of the earth, some 3 - 10 kilometers beneath the surface, just two percent of the energy will supply twentyfive hundred times the annual energy use of America. It is just a question of extracting it. Green Fire's proposal is to use carbon dioxide as the fluid that carries the energy from deep below, through an exchanger, then sending the now-cooled carbon dioxide back down to collect more energy; basically a fridge running in reverse.

While everyone knows the earth is really hot inside, I had not appreciated previously that there are vast oceans of carbon dioxide trapped in various regions deep within the crust - domes in the trade. There is one such region near the Arizona - New Mexico border. This is where Green Fire proposes to put its idea to the test. The carbon dioxide required to transfer the energy is already captive in the ground. They still need to prove that this approach is viable; the concept is simple, but needs to be reduced to practice. This is where the financial world appears to be baulking; investors are yet to be convinced that it will work, and the cost of the proof of principle is very high. It's a bit like prospecting for oil; you drill a well and see what happens. Folks are happy with the odds in well drilling; but in this entirely new technology, while the odds may be similar, the perception is different. So far, Green Fire, despite excellent relationships with the Department of Energy and other institutions, has only raised a few million dollars, way short of what is required to get it off the ground.

The ficklness of investors is well documented. Not so long ago, money was pouring into biomass-based energy. Soon, the investors were complaining that things were not progressing quickly enough, as if commercial processes should be springing up overnight. With the current GOP-driven obsession for reduced government spending, particularly in areas like basic research, and reticence to invest from the private sector, one wonders what is the way ahead for alternative energy sources in this country. Or are we destined to let the entrenched fossil-fuel cartels denude the landscape and foul the air, all because the system is currently designed to favour them?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Beer pairings

The craft beer revolution is sweeping across America as my faithful reader(s) are all too aware. Dulcie and Aylwin have been in the van of this seismic cultural shift, as evidenced by our first tentative steps at Dark Lord Day (back in those happy times when it was unnecessary to buy blackmarket tickets at Stubhub at $350 per). Indeed, we even starred as the enthusiastic but hapless nubes in a posting on Beer Advocate by some hard-core but very friendly beer geek. A couple of years on the first of our Big Beer Adventures was undertaken to Beervana (aka Portland). Now we are central figures in the Chicago beer scene - in our own minds of course.

Not to be left behind, it seems that Jewel-Osco wants to cash in on the burgeoning beer scene judging by some beer pairing notes posted in the paper that Dulcie brought to my attention. So, for my foodie followers try and determine what beer is being described in each pairing (answers at bottom).

"With its perfect balance of hops and malt, along with a crisp, dry finish, nothing beats a ____________ teamed with cheddar cheese."

"An ice cold ____________ with full hoppy flavors stands up well with a spicy pepper jack cheese."

"______________ sweet caramel notes, citrus aromas and smooth finish pair perfectly with a slice of smoked gouda."

"Pronounced hops and bitterness, along with a refreshing finish, contrast well with peppered goat cheese on a baguette."

With that sort of hyperbole one would be thinking Dreadnaught, Pliny the Elder, The Abyss, Dark Lord, Surly Furious to name a few. Would that Jewel would be offering such jewels; but alack that will only happen in another life (though I note that Tesco offers a very persuasive Imperial IPA brewed by Brew Dog in Scotland - enlightened indeed).

No, alas, these poetic excesses instead are assigned to the following (in order);
Budweiser (hops?), Rolling Rock (hoppy?), Michelob Ultra Amber (no comment) and Stella Artois (hops?). We can take hope here in that the beer revolution has led the Jewel PR folks to discover the word "hops." Progress is indeed being made.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Deja vu all over again - borrowing a phrase

Chicago is not the only place where candidate shenanigans are happening. April 2011 sees the latest election for the College of DuPage Board of Trustees, which means for the second time in recent years, candidates’ petitions were subject to challenges from their opponents. Last Wednesday, retired professor Gino Impellizzeri, whose name originally occupied the favorable top billing on the ballot, was toppled for the apparent want of a paper clip. Objecting attorney Kory Atkinson, himself a former trustee and familiar to many from the 2009 election’s numerous contentious challenges, successfully argued to the Board Election Committee that Impellizzeri’s packet did not conform to election law because it was not “bound” upon delivery.

Whatever the precise legal meaning of bound, and one notes that the instructions to candidates do not actually give directions as to the manner of the binding, this case gives one to question the point of having laws in the first place. It would be nice to think that they existed to establish a safe, just and orderly functioning of society. However, when it is seen, instead, that laws can be manipulated to ensnare and entrap, and in so doing divert the just operation of society, then it may reasonably be said that the law is an ass.

It would have been nice to think that a majority of the trustees comprising the Board Election Committee could have seen beyond the legalistic gamesmanship at work here, and taken a bold stand for reason and common sense, and, by so doing, would ensure that honest citizens were not deprived from offering their services and residents of District 502 were not denied a reasonable choice of candidates. Regrettably, much like the rich young ruler in Matthew’s parable, they turned away sad.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Hand of God II

While most of America spent last week worrying about trivia like health care reform and the stuttering economy, Europe was embroiled in a furore over a football match; France had pushed Ireland out of the World Cup by virtue of a goal resulting from a clear handball by Thierry Henri, aging French legend formerly of Arsenal fame. Not for the first time in recent memory had a French star tainted his legacy on the big stage - Zidane's nutting of the Italian at a crucial moment in the last final for supposedly insulting his mother being a more significant moment.

For us English of course any mention of "Hand of God" instantly summons up memories of Azteca stadium 1986 where England succumbed to bitter rival Argentina (remember the Falklands) at the hand, literally, of Diego Maradona in the quarter finals of the World Cup. In that match the first of two goals by Maradona went in off his hand, quite obvious in replays, but apparently obvious to the ref who allowed it. Maradona dissembled afterwards about the goal being assisted by the hand of God. The racist tendencies of the average Caucasian to view Latin footballers as villains and cheats, with one or two exceptions like Pele, were only reinforced by that moment.

There are some in the old country who cannot forgive Maradona for that sleight of hand and believe his legacy is ruined as a result. I do not hold with that view; in fact I bear no grudge against Maradona despite it costing England their opportunity of winning the World Cup once more; we still have to live on the memories of 1966, and frankly that is getting rather old. The critics want to wail cheat, cheat, cheat. Yet they are silent on the dozens of fouls that defenders meted out to skillful players like Maradona to neutralize them. The rules protecting players are much better today, though far from perfect, and the overall skill level is far higher than back then, when thuggery tended to rule the day. In 1966 the naive Brazilians came to England thinking that footballing skill was all that was required. They were kicked out of the cup in part by the Portuguese, who themselves had a sublime player in Eusebio.

So why begrudge Maradona his one little opportune moment to take revenge against the dozens of fouls that went quietly unnoticed. In any event, a few short minutes after the intervention of the "Hand of God." Maradona more than compensated with the finest individual goal I've ever seen (later rated as the FIFA Goal of the Century). Picking the ball up inside his own half he danced through the English defence (for such a talent he was a remarkably one-footed player) before sliding the ball behind Shilton at an improbably delicate angle.

Let's hope that England, having once again secured their date with destiny next summer, will not have to overcome the Almighty again; the likes of Germany, Brazil, and maybe even Argentina present enough challenges.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

High priests of denial

I was taking one the Fit in for its occasional service (I would like to say periodic but that would be an exaggeration; and maybe I could justify the long gaps between oil changes as doing our part to reduce consumption of precious fossil fuels) and had just turned on Moody Bible Radio (WMBI) only to hear the words "Lord Monckton." I almost parted with whatever remained of my Go Lean (but not lightly) breakfast, for I knew that could only mean trouble.

The timing was notable because just the other day I had been listening to a discussion about "Faith and the Environment" from one of my favourite programs, courtesy of BBC Radio Wales and iTunes, "All Things Considered" (not to be confused with the NPR program of that name). The program involved individuals from four faith groups discussing with our mellifluous host Roy Jenkins (who can heal all wounds with a single soft utterance) the importance of climate change on the eve of the big global meeting in Copenhagen. Roy asked each in turn where global warming registered for them on a scale of 1 - 10. While their faiths maybe diverse and perhaps irreconcilably different, their responses were remarkably unified in placing it around 10 or higher. There ensued a thoughtful, intelligent and informed discussion of the future and how people of faith should respond to it. It was particularly encouraging to hear that people primarily motivated by spiritual matters could recognize the importance of dealing with issues of such earthly consequence. I was left with the thought that two things in this show would be unlikely to be heard on a mainstream Christian radio station in America. One was actually having four different faith groups around the table in the first place; you might imagine having a Jew, the ancient connections after all, but Islam no way. Second, the mainstream Christian organizations in this country seem, for reasons yet to be fully understood, to be overwhelmingly aligned with the climate change skeptics, and so hearing church leaders in this country discussing the importance of dealing with global warming in passionate terms would be unlikely, even less likely than the Second Coming unfortunately.

And so this morning on WMBI it was QED; the discourse could not have been more diametrically opposed to All Things Considered. The utterer of the terrifying words "Lord Monckton" was one Dr. E. Calvin Beisner, National Spokesman for the Cornwall Alliance, an organization that describes itself as being "for the Stewardship of Creation." The rest of the spiel followed a depressingly predictable pattern, and the WMBI host was lapping it up like a thirsty hound. In short, according to Cornwall, The IPCC and its scientists are at best incompetent and at worst dishonest (more or less). The "true scientists," the thousands upon thousands we are told that know the real truth that this global warming business is all wrong, are denied a voice at conferences and meetings by the politically motivated IPCC and its cronies. Thus the truth is being suppressed. More than once "Lord" Monckton was referred to in almost messianic terms as being the voice of reason - the voice in the wilderness (but I think that is John the Baptist rather than the Messiah).

In discussing it with Dulcie (also an avid listener to WMBI) we were unable to explain the apparent coalescence of conservative Christianity and climate change denial. What is the motivation here? Can it be an extension of the anti-scientific attitude towards biologists and evolution? Are all mainstream scientists regarded as atheists, tools of Satan, and thus to be distrusted regardless of the issue? Whatever the cause, I find it dishonest that an influential radiostation like WMBI should be passing off propaganda in the guise of reasoned argument.

Americans seem to be particularly susceptible to the dubious charms of fake English gentry (I should know better than most), and the odious Monckton recently made an appearance at the "Free Market Alliance" in Minnesota. I imagine that Garrison Keillor would be having nightmares if he knew how many of his people were lining up to soak up the nutty Viscount's message. The performance is available on YouTube, and he comes across as a more intelligent latter-day Bertie Wooster. Yet, beneath the unctuous, dapper breeding, there is a venom, a nastiness, not to mention fraudulence and fakery. Regarding the banning of DDT, Monckton proclaims, "The left, the environmental left, the intolerant, communistic narrow minded faction that does not care how many children it kills it is campaigning once again for DDT to be banned. Because they do not want children to be born in the Third World. They want as much of humanity as possible, it sometimes seems to me, to be wiped off the face of the planet." Irony indeed that this self-proclaimed champion of the poor is campaigning against policies to limit global warming at a time when the first generation of climate change refugees in Africa are facing an uncertain future as their livelihoods have been wiped out by the very thing that Monckton and his ilk deny. Not exactly sure what Jesus would say about that.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Beware the anti-climate change alarmists

After sitting through a thoughtful, considered, authoritative exposition of the challenges involving energy facing society in the next few decades given by one of the directors at Oak Ridge National Laboratory on Sunday night (the price one has to pay for an expenses-paid trip to SERCh), it was more than doubly depressing to open the Tribune Tuesday morning still bleary from the exertions of the weekend. Dennis Byrne is urging us to beware the climate change "alarmists." Already one knows from the emotive language where this is going.

The director at Oak Ridge described energy as the "defining issue" of our time. It is not difficult to sustain the argument: demand is growing and supplies of the fossil-derived variety are peaking and at some time in the not-too-distant future will decline. That equation represents a terrifying prospect. Adding into the mix the consequences of increasing fossil fuel consumption on climate change presents an even greater need to take action. So why is there such entrenched opposition to the idea of change, particularly among those on the right, even to the point of adopting almost untenable positions in denying the reality of climate change? It boggles the mind, and drives one mad.

As a skeptic about most things myself I can rationalize why we should take action even without necessarily believing the worst prognostications. Ironically, Christian conservatives, many of whom are among the more ardent climate change deniers, might be familiar with the argument. I can apply Pascal's wager equally well to climate change as to faith. If I bet on it being right, but am eventually proved wrong, what have I lost? Nothing. By taking aggressive action to develop "green" sustainable alternative energy sources, the nation will be well-placed to profit when the fossil varieties run scarce. Why would we wish to be beholden, as we are now to largely disreputable oil-rich nations, to other countries for energy because we haven't bothered to invest in their development? On the other hand, as Pascal argued when considering the existence of God, if I bet on it being wrong, but was eventually proved wrong, then I have lost everything. The likes of Mr, Byrne and the rest of them seem satisfied, nay even proud, of taking that wager.

Further reading of Mr. Byrne's column turned up some familiar chestnuts. Firstly there is the sneering demeaning language, characterizing the thousands of hours of work by professional scientists as 'alleged "scientific" evidence...incomplete at best and...manipulated for political reasons'. Rarely, if ever, is scientific work complete as each discovery tends to bring forth new questions. Not even something as successful, long-standing and rock solid as the quantum theory is by any means complete or certain. So, are we to bide our time until "completeness" can be obtained? Of course not. While there are many uncertainties pertaining to the time scale and magnitude of the outcomes, I am satisfied that the consensus of there being a ninety percent probability of the connection between greenhouse gases and global warming being correct is sufficient to merit doing something.

I am further puzzled as to why the likes of Mr. Byrne and others are so convinced that evil politicians are gladly manipulating data for political reasons. Surely it is politically expedient to deny climate change and avoid taking action. Why would governments wish to take the politically unpopular but necessary steps of making changes that will have costs to their constituents?

I note that Al Gore is mentioned, implying that all scientists that are concerned about climate change are Al's disciples. This is just not so. Mr. Gore may have served some value in heightening awareness, but it does not mean that the real science is defective because his film was flawed. Don't tar everything with one brush.

Why was I not surprised to see the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change rear its ugly head in this article. I wouldn't be surprised if it had sent Mr. Byrne the script. In that author's eyes, the NIPCC contains the true scientists and all the rest are clueless nitwits. Mr. Byrne refers in adoring tones to the "two-inch thick volume" called "Climate Change Reconsidered."

The NIPCC is the faux authority ghosted by the Heartland Institute, regrettably based in Chicago that I have chronicled in these pages previously. Interestingly, while Mr. Byrne pours scorn on all the climate change alarmists (all scientists who have concern about the state of the climate), he pours lavish praise in equal measure on the NIPCC folks. He laments that people will not bother to obtain a copy to educate themselves. Really, why would one bother? There is real science and there is fake science. To admit the NIPCC into the same arena would be equivalent to admitting scientific creationists into a discussion about the origins of life; there is no point to it. You can dress nonsense up with fancy graphs and persuasive jargon but it is still nonsense. Who was it who said something about lipstick on a pig?

The tag line in Mr. Byrne's article warns us to beware of any science that claims to fully describe (hate the split infinitive) in single theory any phenomenon as complex as global climate change. Is this being done by the thousands of scientists working on this issue? I think not. Lots of models and lots of arguments are going on. There may be consensus on the overall picture, but I believe that there is very healthy debate about the details. It is the simple-minded that are prone to be conned by the mischievous members of the fake NIPCC.