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.