Archive for the 'Science in everyday life' category

SPSP 2013 Plenary session #1: Ian Hacking

SPSP 2013 Plenary session #1: Ian Hacking

Tweeted from the 4th biennial conference of the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on June 27, 2013

  1. Getting ready for 1st plenary session of #SPSP2013 "Some roles of mathematics in some scientific practices" by Ian Hacking
  2. Getting ready for 1st plenary session of #SPSP2013Toronto "Some roles of mathematics in some scientific practices" by Ian Hacking #BetterTag
  3. Actual title of Ian Hacking's talk: "Some roles of some mathematics in some scientific practices" (Maybe some summing?) #SPSP2013Toronto

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Chem Coach: a career outside of science with more chemistry than you might expect.

In honor of National Chemistry Week, See Arr Oh is spearheading the Chem Coach Carnival, which he describes as an "online repository of chemistry job success stories". The posts from the first two days make for interesting and inspiring reading.

Given that, by official reckoning, I leaked out of the science pipeline, it wasn't obvious to me that I had a chemistry job success story to share. But See Arr Oh asked me to share, and I love my job, and it turns out that chemistry has more than a little to do with how I do it. So, here we go:

My current job:
Associate professor of philosophy at a teaching-focused university, with my teaching and research focused on philosophy of science and ethics in science.

What I do in a standard "work day":
Let's skip over the parts that make it "work" (i.e., grading, committee meetings, getting swallowed up by bureaucracy) since I imagine those are pretty similar to what chemistry professors get to do. Instead, I'll tell you about the teaching and research.

In the classroom, I teach mostly upper division students (juniors and seniors, but with some masters students in the mix). About half of my teaching ends up being an "Ethics in Science" course (multiple sections each year) that is required of our chemistry majored, heavily enrolled by other science majors, but also taken by a good handful of non-scientists who are curious about what's involved in doing good science, and in scientists and non-scientists successfully sharing a world. You can peek at the current syllabus to get a feel for the sweep of the topics we discuss. The other half of my teaching assignment is usually "Philosophy of Science" (again, multiple sections each year), a straight-ahead intro to the subject with the usual philosophical discussions of how the scientific knowledge gets built, whether we have good grounds for believing the scientific method can deliver on its promises, what attitude we should take towards our best scientific theories (approaching literally true, or merely empirically adequate), and so forth. The interesting twist is that a lot of the population taking "Philosophy of Science" is there to fulfill the upper division general education science requirement. (Yeah, I know.) So, basically, this is an opportunity to take a whole bunch of people who are kind of scared of science and get them a basic understanding of where scientific knowledge comes from.

The research I do focuses a lot on the different conceptual and methodological toolboxes different scientific disciplines use to build science (philosophers of science of yore loved physics but really neglected chemistry), and on saying useful things about how to understand "ethical practice of science" in the particular circumstances in which scientists and scientific trainees find themselves in our world.

What kind of schooling / training / experience helped me get there?:
As an undergraduate, I double-majored in chemistry and philosophy. Then I got my Ph.D. in chemistry because I kind of thought I'd just read philosophy at home after work. Well ... it didn't turn out that way. The philosophical questions about science kept squeaking for my attention, and when I recognized that pursuing those was probably what would make me happy, I got another Ph.D. in philosophy, with a focus on the history and philosophy of science.

I should tell you that I got my chemistry Ph.D. relatively quickly (4.25 years), which made re-upping for another Ph.D.-length stint in grad school far more palatable than it would have been otherwise. If I had taken more like 8 years to get the first Ph.D., I think I would have been more likely just to get an M.A. in philosophy, or to do a "Ph.D. minor" in philosophy (that was an option my graduate institution had that I didn't find out about until I was well into the second Ph.D.).

How does chemistry inform my work?
In my research (in philosophy, this looks an awful lot like reading and writing!), my experience with chemical methodology and the "forms of life" of scientists who do chemistry ends up being really useful when I read someone making sweeping generalizations on how all good science must work based on a close examination of physics. Chemistry differs from physics in interesting ways, which means a careful philosopher of science needs to build a model of science that can accommodate chemical practice too -- or else dismiss chemistry as an "immature" science or some hogwash like that. Indeed, philosophers have been working on developing an interesting subfield in philosophy of chemistry.

The ethical practice of science part of my research is more informed by the types of human interactions in knowledge-building that I observed during my misspent scientific youth, but some of the issues that are especially important to chemists (like safety, so the knowledge-building doesn't kill you) are of special interest to me.

You can probably guess how that misspent scientific youth is important in providing examples for discussion with my "Ethics in Science" students. It also helps me frame discussions of strategies for being ethical in situations where one is decidedly on the low end of the community power gradient. In my "Philosophy of Science" class, of course, I sneak in examples from chemistry whenever I can!

A unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about my career: 
I've been on conference panels a couple times with a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, but only after I started doing philosophy. (Once was at a philosophy of science meeting, the other was at a chemistry meeting.)

* * * * *

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The Thanksgiving feast and sleepiness: let's crowdsource some data!

A few years ago, we talked about the role turkey consumption might (or might not) play in post-Thanksgiving-feast fatigue. The oft-heard hypothesis is that the tryptophan in turkey gives you the yawns, but there was the suggestion that carbohydrates from starchy and sweet side dishes were an accomplice -- and that eating additional protein might counteract the tryptophan's soporific effects. Also, the amount you eat may be involved in how your body prioritizes consciousness relative to digestion.

It gets complicated pretty fast when we don't eat standardized lab chow.

Also, in passing, let me note that for all its association with tryptophan, turkey doesn't even crack the top 50 in this list of tryptophan-rich foods. (Number one: stellar sea lion kidney.)

Bora has a nice discussion of what tryptophan is up to in your body. Myself, I'm interested in working out observable patterns in Thanksgiving dining-and-yawning experience. Once we know what the patterns are, then we know what we need to explain with a biochemical mechanism.

To this ends, let's conduct some citizen science (and, come Friday, to collect some reports from the field).

Here is a form for data collection (*.doc format).

Ideally, we'd all want to sit down to the same Thanksgiving meal together (having all gotten a good night's sleep the day before, etc., etc.). Sadly, that's not going to happen. However, maybe you can rope those with whom you are dining on Thursday into participating.

Depending on the vibe at your Thanksgiving table, you can either ask the diners to keep track of what kinds of foods they eat, or you can assign your guests particular consumption objectives. Then, before dessert, have everyone do a quick assessment of his or her energy level.

With luck, we'll get data for the following variations:

  • High-tryptophan food (like turkey), high carbohydrate intake. (Prediction: sleepy)
  • High-tryptophan food, low carbohydrate intake. (Prediction: not sleepy)
  • Skip the high-tryptophan food, high carbohydrate intake. (Prediction: sleepy)
  • Skip the high-tryptophan food, low carbohydrate intake. (Prediction: not sleepy)
  • High-tryptophan food, high carbohydrate intake, extra protein. (Prediction: not sleepy)
  • High-tryptophan food, low carbohydrate intake, extra protein. (Prediction: energetic)
  • Skip the high-tryptophan food, high carbohydrate intake, extra protein. (Prediction: not sleepy)
  • Skip the high-tryptophan food, low carbohydrate intake, extra protein. (Prediction: frighteningly energetic)

Of course, if you track participant input a bit more precisely, maybe we'll stumble upon some other factor that turns out to be important, like vitamin A or sage.

If you use my form, you can return your results to me (as a *.doc or scanned into a PDF) by email: dr - dot - freeride - at - gmail - dot - com. I'll compile the responses and we'll see if we can make sense of the data.

See you back here on Friday morning with your results!

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Friday Sprog Blogging: How Well Does Mold Form in Different Conditions? (A science fair project)

The science fair happened, and the younger Free-Ride offspring's project board is now home. (The teachers are still judging and grading the sixth grade projects, which means that the elder Free-Ride offspring's project board is still at school.)

Here, in pictures, are the highlights of the younger Free-Ride offspring's project:

A straightforward descriptive title. (The kid may have a future writing scientific journal articles.)

Gotta have hypotheses to test.

The equipment was not terribly fancy. Then again, except for the bread, it was stuff we already had on hand, which is a plus.

Maybe it's just me, but I always like it when science fair results depart from initial expectations. It makes it feel more like real science, I guess.

The science fair instructions from the school were emphatic that kids should not bring in potentially biohazardous specimens with their projects (and mold was among the things specifically mentioned in the "NO!" list), so the younger Free-Ride offspring took pictures. It may have been smelly, but the range of colors of mold that grew is actually kind of impressive.

My favorite part of the younger Free-Ride offspring's project is the data visualization. For each of the specimens that grew mold in each set of experimental conditions, the kid measured the mold spots (in square centimeters) and added up the total molded area on each data-collection day. Data was collected until each bread sample was totally molded over.

To generate these graphs, the younger Free-Ride offspring calculated the mean mold area for each given type of bread in a particular set of conditions on a particular day. Since each of the bread samples was 4 x 5 centimeters, the younger Free-Ride offspring drew a 4 x 5 rectangle to represent the bread sample and then plotted the average mold growth by filling in the appropriate number of squares. You can see as you go across the plots from left to right that ady by more and more squares get filled in until all 20 are filled, representing complete mold coverage.

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Friday Sprog Blogging: comfort food.

We had to fetch the younger Free-Ride offspring from school yesterday midday on account of an unscheduled bout of vomiting.* Because, you know, the microbes and immune systems tend not to take account of things like our work schedules. ("Or whether we have a science test," the younger Free-Ride offspring chimes in.)

Anyway, since experience has established me as the puke-parent** in the Free-Ride household (the one upon whom a child will vomit in instances where someone is vomited upon), I now have something of a procedure when I get home with a pukey kid. We cover the head of the bed, the pillow, and the floor area adjacent to the child's bed with towels (since, in case of puke, it's easier to remove and replace a towel or two than to strip the whole bed and change the sheets). We provide a nice big aluminum bowl next to the bed ... just in case.

And we don't even think about putting food into that tummy until the tummy shows no signs of erupting.

But then, what to put in the tummy -- what counts as a "gentle" food for a kid recovering from a stomach bug -- is a source of some controversy at Casa Free-Ride.

In the household in which I grew up, flat ginger ale and saltines were the canonical first foods after an upchuck. If they stayed down, maybe 24 hours later you'd get to try some baked custard, the eventually "real" food.

Sadly, we hardly ever have ginger ale in the house, and the Free-Ride offspring have declared saltines strange and disgusting. What this means is that I don't have a well-established safe food with which to test tummy stability.

Indeed, as I was laying down towels, right before I was going to make a batch of baked custard, the younger Free-Ride offspring mentioned that a teacher at the after school program had said that eggs (an ingredient of baked custard) are not a good food for your tummy after vomiting.

This suggests to us that what people consider as the right kind of food to give a kid who's been throwing up must be pretty strongly shaped by what kind of food they were given as kids trying to get better from crummy tummies. Also, it suggests that there is no clear unified theory of the optimal macronutrient composition for these foods -- at least not one upon which a clear majority of grown-ups taking care of these kids agree.

My strategy, drawn from my childhood, has been: fluids with a little flavor (because water tastes funny when you're sick), then carbohydrates with negligible fiber (the dreaded saltines), then some not-too-wobbly protein, and none of it very far from a flavor range it would be fair to describe as "bland". Probably a banana somewhere in there, too.

But, see, now the younger Free-Ride offspring and I are wondering if this strategy is bunkum.***

So, because the younger Free-Ride offspring tells me that a PubMed search would not be a relaxing way to spend a sick day, we're appealing to those more likely to have an actual evidence base here (Pal? Pascale? Other medical/nutrition types?) to tell us whether there is any informed-by-science consensus on what a kid ought to be fed (and in what sequence) once the puking subsides.

* No, we don't have scheduled vomiting. It's just that these stomach bugs hardly ever happen on a day when we had nothing else to do.

** The companion role to "puke-parent" is "poop-parent". My better-half assumed that role, but hasn't gotten any action in it since the sprogs were in diapers.

*** My current favorite alternate theory on why to eat bland foods in the wake of a stomach-bug: You don't want to eat foods with more interesting flavors and textures, especially foods you really like, and then throw them up (if you've tested the tummy too soon) lest you develop a long-lasting aversion to those foods. It took me maybe a decade to get over my aversion to spaghetti and other long pastas served with tomato-based sauces ... because of a stomach flu when I was about 11. On the other hand, if you develop an aversion to saltines, it doesn't really impact your quality of life in quite the same way.

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Repost: The solstice (in a two-sphere cosmos).

As I'm still barricaded in the Cave of Grading, and as the Winter Solstice may be upon us before I can emerge, victorious, here's a seasonal post from last December:

Here in the Northern Hemisphere (of Earth), today marks the Winter Solstice. Most people have some understanding that this means today is the day of minimum sunlight, or the longest night of the year. Fewer people, I think, have a good astronomical sense of why that is the case.

So, in honor of the solstice, let's do some old school astronomy. Really old school.

Let's consider the two-sphere cosmos:


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Practical chemical engineering.

It's day two of my training course, and as I contemplate my mug of decaf, I am suddenly flashing back to a question that was rumored to be part of the chemical engineering qualifying exam in my chemistry graduate program. As it's an intriguing problem, I thought I'd share it here:

In the dead of winter, a professor sends his grad student out into the cold to fetch him a hot beverage from the cafe. "Coffee with two creams, and make sure it's HOT when it gets to me!" the professor barks.

Shivering from fear as much as cold, the grad student procures a 12-ounce styrofoam cup of hot coffee and two little containers (maybe 20 mL each) of half and half at the cafe. To maximize the temperature of the coffee when it is delivered to the prof, should he add the half and half to the coffee before he walks it through the cold or after?

Feel free to work together on this problem, and please show your work in the comments.

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#scio10 aftermath: some thoughts on "Science and Entertainment: Beyond Blogging".

Here are some of the thoughts and questions that stayed with me from this session. (Here are my tweets from the session and the session's wiki page.)
This was sort of an odd session for me -- not so much because of the topics taken up by session leaders Tamara Krinsky and Jennifer Ouellette, but because of my own sense of ambivalence about a lot of "entertainment" these days.
The session itself had lots of interesting glimpses of the work scientists are doing to help support filmmakers (and television producers, and game designers, and producers of other kinds of entertainment) who want to get the science right in the stories they're trying to tell. We heard about the efforts of the Science & Entertainment Exchange to connect makers of entertainment with scientists and engineers "to help bring the reality of cutting-edge science to creative and engaging storylines". We saw the Routes website, produced in association with the Wellcome Trust, which included "a set of minigames, a documentary and a murder mystery which explore the fascinating world of genetics." (In one of those minigames, you get to be the virus and move to the next level by infecting the target proportion of potential carriers -- but you get just one sneeze per level to make that happen!) We learned that the drive to add "extras" when movies are released on DVD is creating something like a demand for real science content to complement science fiction.
In other words, it sounded like producers of entertainment were aware that a science-y angle can hold appeal for the audiences they are trying to reach, and were generally enthusiastic about (or at least open to) the idea of drawing on the expertise of actual scientists.
Of course, there were caveats.

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#scio10 aftermath: my tweets from "Writing for more than glory: Proposals and Pitches that Pay".

Session description: What is a sellable idea? How do you develop one? Is your idea enough for a book, is there more you can do to develop it, or should it just be a magazine article or series of blog posts? This will be a hands-on nuts and bolts workshop: Come with ideas to pitch. Better yet, bring a short (1 page or less) written proposal to read and workshop. This workshop will provide handouts on proposal writing as well as sample proposals you can use to help develop your own in the future. Useful for anyone hoping to someday write for print or online publications.
The session was led by Rebecca Skloot (@RebeccaSkloot), who enlisted the assistance of David Dobbs (@David_Dobbs), Ivan Oransky (@ivanoransky), and Cliff Wiens (@CliftonWiens).
Here's the session wiki page.

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#scio10 aftermath: my tweets from "Science and Entertainment: Beyond Blogging".

Session description: Over the past several years, the Internet has tangibly changed the way that movies and TV shows are produced and marketed. Blogs will call out ridiculous scientific errors found in stories and the critique can go viral very quickly; therefore, science advising is on the rise in an attempt to add some semblance of plausibility to your favorite flicks. As tools on the web continue to evolve, filmmakers and television creators are finding new ways to connect with and market to their viewers. For some shows, this has meant tapping into the science featured in their content, ranging from an exploration of the roots of the science that has been fictionalized to the expansion of a scientific topic explored in a documentary. In this session, we'll look at how online video and social networking tools are playing a part in connecting science, Hollywood and its fans.
The session was led by Tamara Krinsky (@tamarakrinsky) and Jennifer Ouellette.
Here's the session wiki page.

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