☛ So-called “Scientist” bets against science; loses

This is from the BBC:

A German biologist who offered €100,000 (£71,350; $106,300) to anyone who could prove that measles is a virus has been ordered by a court to pay up.

Stefan Lanka, who believes the illness is psychosomatic, made the pledge four years ago on his website.

The reward was later claimed by German doctor David Barden, who gathered evidence from various medical studies. Mr Lanka dismissed the findings.

The guy is a biologist? I can understand a non-scientist being deeply skeptical of journal articles and medical findings… but a biologist?

The institution that gave him his degree(s) should consider rescinding whatever degree(s) he has, because:

(a) he clearly cannot review scientific literature and gain an understanding of a subject by himself.

(b) he clearly cannot follow a trail of logic and scientific understanding through published medical research even when it is presented to him by someone else.

Here’s how human society works — we all have our own specializations, and it’s part of our responsibility as specialists to help out others who aren’t knowledgeable in, and cannot tell good from bad, or even have an understanding of, our area of expertise. This isn’t just for “scientists”, of course, but for everyone.

Imagine how little we in general know about the inner workings of our automobiles compared to the expert (mechanic) who’s in charge of fixing them. Now imagine a person who calls himself a mechanic, but (a) doesn’t understand how a certain system in the car works, and (b) cannot follow the logic, and doesn’t believe it when another mechanic shows it to him! Would you ever go solicit this person’s expertise again?

This ‘biologist’ is like our hypothetical mechanic.

☛ Elementary school dumps homework; parents are ‘outraged’

From dnainfo.com:

A public elementary school is abolishing traditional homework assignments and telling kids to play instead — outraging parents who say they may pull their kids out of the school.

Teachers at P.S. 116 on East 33rd Street have stopped assigning take-home math worksheets and essays, and are instead encouraging students to read books and spend time with their family, according to a letter the school’s principal, Jane Hsu, sent to parents last month.

This is excellent on the part of the school. Allowing kids the time and the encouragement to do other things is, I think, a crucial part of a child’s development that we as a society have forgotten to focus on. We’ve become so enamored with the idea of “learning” that we’ve forgotten that “education” isn’t just found in schools. A well-rounded character and an indepedent mind are just as important, and non-school activities can be crucial in developing those aspects.

From a parent:

“They’ve decided that giving homework to younger ages [elementary school students] isn’t viable. I don’t necessarily agree. I think they should have homework — some of it is about discipline. I want [my daughter] to have fun, but I also want her to be working towards a goal.”

Take everything in that statement, only take out the word “homework” from it. Yes, kids should learn. Yes, discipline is part of it. But why should learning feel like “work”? Find them activities, and teach them discipline, and the ideas of working towards a goal, with something other than school activity.

Parents — please don’t freak out. This is good for your kids. Let the schools decide how they want to impart the education that they need to impart. Meanwhile, your kids having more free time is a good thing (even if it sometimes means more headache on you!). They can use this time productively, and it’s up to you help them be productive. Find them books; introduce them to hobbies; open them up to music and sport and writing and painting — and whatever else your kids may find interesting!

Other schools — please consider similar measures! While some homework is okay, there’s often too much of it, and tends to sap much of the fun and sense of fulfilment that an education can be.

When we think about shaping the development of our next generation, we might do well to re-evaluate our childhood with the added clarity of hindsight. What did we love, and what did we hate; what things helped us, and what things were a disadvantage? How must things be different for a generation that’s removed from ours by an entire generation? We experienced childhood a certain way, and even if our childhood was the best possible, that doesn’t mean that it remains the best way for a future generation.

Thoughts on Interstellar, the movie (spoilers!)

This post contains spoilers. Please go watch the movie, and then read this. Seriously, go watch. This is an all-time movie, and I have a feeling this will stand the test of time and gain even more popularity as time goes on. This one is that good.

I just had to jot down some thoughts about the movie — and particularly the science therein. One, I’m interested in this stuff, and can’t help it. But also, two, I heard people pooh-poohing it away, and I didn’t like that at all. So here goes.

In summary: I loved it. This is what science-fiction is supposed to look like — a combination of adventure and extrapolation of real science into the unknown. I’ve been reading and hearing some of the negative ‘reviews’, and it seems to me that most of it revolves around “hey, that’s not science, it’d never work that way!” The great thing about this movie is most of the ‘extrapolations’ are in directions that are truly unknown, and until science does cover those areas, your, mine, and the Nolans’ imagination is as good as anyone’s.

  • I loved the scientific accuracy. I usually hate it when films get their premises wrong. This one got the science right — mostly. (We’ll go into details soon.)
  • I loved that a wormhole near Saturn wouldn’t just appear out of thin vacuum. I loved that they didn’t create some bunkum theory for man to create a wormhole, and just went with “we don’t know”.
  • I loved that tidal wave on the first planet. That wasn’t just there as a plot point — being near a black hole is supposed to cause that. Giant tidal forces should be a norm near a black hole, and it was.
  • I did NOT like the fact that a planet could exist so near to a black hole. I think they showed the planet to be basically situated right near the ‘edge’ of the black hole, and at that distance, with a planetary mass, the tidal forces should work on the solids too, and basically tear the planet apart. Crucially, it’s not impossible, though. (Here again, they’re stretching the limits of the science, at most. Lovely.)
  • I did NOT like the fact that 23 years elapsed on the spaceship in orbit, when only a few (three?) hours elapsed on the surface of the first planet.

    Remember, it’s not the gravity of the planet that’s causing the time-dilation, but the nearby black hole. So the premise is that they ‘parked’ the orbiting space craft at such a distance that time dilation effects were negligible, when compared to that at the planet surface.

    Now remember that they took 8 months to travel to Mars, and 2 years to travel to Saturn. Granted, they were using gravity assists and not direct thrust, so the interplanetary voyage took longer. But it gives an idea of the orders of magnitude involved here. Let’s say that using direct thrust of the smaller craft they can travel the distance between Earth and Saturn in 3 hours. Fair? (If I’m doing the math right, Earth-Saturn is about 1.5 light-hrs, so light would take 1.5hrs to get there.)

    There’s no way that that distance causes a relative time-dilation of 23 years in the vicinity of a black hole, and does not pulverize the planet itself. That right there was all wrong. - I did NOT like that Coop is thrown back into 3D space through the same wormhole that they originally went through. A wormhole is supposed to be like a tunnel. You go in one end; you come out another end. They went in one end (Saturn), and came out somewhere in the vicinity of the black hole, but not out of the black hole itself.

    If so, why would another wormhole originating inside the black hole lead back to an opening to a separate wormhole near Saturn?! That did not sit well with me. - I loved the black hole and event horizon sequences and visualizations. I’ll trust Dr. Kip Thorne and Cornell University grad students that they got the details right. It all looked amazing. - I loved the treatment of time as “just another dimension to travel through”. Seriously, we don’t really know what happens inside black holes, and one possibility is indeed that 4-dimensional spacetime can be mashed together. Beyond that, as I mentioned earlier, it’s an artist’s realm, and I liked what they did with it. It was convenient, of course, that the particular area of spacetime that Coop confronted from within the black hole was precisely the spacetime that he needed to confront, but we can allow that much cinematic coincidence, can’t we? - I did NOT like the idea of conveying through Morse code, via the seconds hand of a wrist watch, no less, experimental data regarding quantum mechanics and relatively. (What other ‘data’ would the robot ‘collect’ from within a black hole?!) I wish they could find a more ingenious way to achieve this. - I am okay with the idea that they only needed experimental data from within the black hole to complete their theory of quantam gravity. Perhaps they had a bunch of ‘general solutions’ and the experimental data allowed them to arrive at ‘particular solutions’. Not beyond the imagination, by any stretch. - Hans Zimmer, take a bow. Such a brilliant score! - I have to watch the movie again. I don’t think I’ve taken it all in, in one sitting. Christopher Nolan, keep making movies.

On avoiding plagiarism

I’ve been a student panelist at the Virginia Tech Graduate Honor System (GHS) for a few years now, and by far the most frequent infractions students are accused of involve some form of plagiarism. In some cases, alas, the students seem perfectly aware of what they’re upto, but very often, it seems that they just didn’t realize that what they were doing was anything wrong, or indeed, anything out of the ordinary.

Unfortunately, whether you knew and understood or not, if you did it, well, you did it. On that note, here are some pointers on avoiding plagiarism.

Let me focus on writing in particular, even though this applies equally well to any other creative task. If I had to summarize the concept in one sentence, I’d put it this way: when you’re writing something, there should be no ambiguity in the reader’s mind as to who actually composed the words in different portions of your document. If the document header contains your name, the assumption is that you wrote it, unless you specify otherwise. You’re perfectly fine using material from other sources and authors—as long you make it explicitly clear as to the authorship of that material.

Let’s say you’re referring to Wikipedia to understand a particular terminology or concept to include in a paper. You have one of two options:

  • Cite Wikipedia as a source, and use the words from Wikipedia within quotation marks.
  • Or, read and understand the material (but don’t memorize it word-for-word), and then close the webpage. Now try writing about the concept that you just read about. Or better yet, come back in an hour and write about it. Chances are the words you write are your own words and your own understanding, even though you read about it on Wikipedia. You should still cite Wikipedia as the source of your information, of course.

    If, while writing, you find yourself having to refer to the Wikipedia article to “refresh” your memory of the language used, you’d better cite the article and include the relevant portions verbatim, and within quotation marks.

The quotation marks are important in addition to including citations. This is because, as I mentioned above, citations are a must as sources of information, even if the words and compositions are your very own. If you don’t use quotation marks, it appears, of course, that the words are your own. If they aren’t, guess what you’re guilty of!

Also, remember to be sparing in using material verbatim from sources. A couple of sentences at most, and in rare occasions, perhaps a paragraph or two. If you’re using a paragraph, enclose the entire paragraph in quotation marks, and/or consider italicizing or indenting the paragraph to distinguish from your other paragraphs. Remember, your article is your own, and should almost entirely comprise your sentences. (This seems like a no-brainer, but I’ve seen instances where almost the entirety of a write-up has been “compiled” from various sources.)

There are some excellent resource on the internet about avoiding plagiarism. Here’s one: http://www.plagiarism.org/plagiarism-101/what-is-plagiarism.

To repeat once again, there should be no ambiguity as to the authorship of any portion of your work. Make it clear and cite the source, and you’ll be fine. Please, don’t get caught in embarrassing situations only because you didn’t know better. :)