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I am going to argue that the Zimmerman verdict (for the shooting of Trayvon Martin) was the correct one.  You will either agree with me or you will not.  And then I will argue that either way, it doesn’t matter in the slightest to most people’s lives.

Let me just say, before you dismiss this post entirely because of some preconceived notion about my politics, then I am very liberal on social issues.  (As I’ve mentioned in the past, I literally don’t have an opinion on many complicated economic issues.)  I’m strongly supportive of privacy rights, voting rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and animal rights.  I think the idea of building a giant wall to keep out every illegal alien is absurd.  I am for the legalization of marijuana and for the decriminalization of other drug use in general.  I think man-made global warming is a self-evident fact.  I think big monolithic corporations, in the long term, have a negative effect on the happiness of the masses because they operate as entities without conscience, self-awareness, or humanity.

But when the Zimmerman verdict came back on July 13 as not guilty, I wasn’t surprised.  I wasn’t even outraged.  I just sort of shrugged and moved on.

Granted: there is still racism in this country.  I will even argue that there are often two disparate systems of justice in the U.S.: one for whites, and one for non-whites.  But still…what does that have to do with the Zimmerman verdict?

Scenario 1.  Let’s suppose the George Zimmerman is a total card-carrying KKK racist.  He may be, he may not be…I don’t have any evidence one way or another.  And most of you don’t, either.  But let’s just suppose he is.  Let’s say he follows Trayvon Martin looking for trouble; hoping for a confrontation; hoping to scare the boy.  A scuffle ensues and Martin is shot.

Is that murder?

I’m not a lawyer, but it doesn’t sound like murder.  Manslaughter seems a better fit.

Scenario 2.  Let’s be more realistic.  Let’s assume Zimmerman is a racist, but not the frothing-at-the-mouth kind.  He just feels uncomfortable having a black guy in his neighborhood.  However, if you asked him, he’d claim to not be a racist, claim to have black friends, and try to seem like a reasonable guy.

He follows Martin, hoping to scare him off, but not actively hoping for a fight; he genuinely wants to keep the peace.  If Martin gets scared, well that’s OK: he’s got no business being in this part of town.  A scuffle ensues and Martin is shot.

Is that murder, or even manslaughter?

Again, I don’t think so.  In this case, if Zimmerman is guilty of something, it’s…I don’t know…reckless endangerment?  Putting himself and another in a situation where only bad things could happen?

I didn’t follow the trial all that closely, but I will say that some people who followed the trial even less than I did were outraged at the verdict.  I can understand this, on some level; if a travesty occurs (the shooting of Trayvon Martin was certainly a travesty) then people want justice; they may even want revenge.  If Zimmerman wasn’t to blame, then who is?  Saying “the system” or “society” or “endemic racial profiling” are the root causes of Martin’s death isn’t satisfying, because you can’t put those nouns behind bars and throw away the key and feel good about yourself.  If no one gets blamed, then how does Trayvon Martin get justice?

Here are four ways Trayvon Martin could have gotten justice, or may still get justice:

  1. Florida’s inane stand-your-ground law gets repealed.  That would be justice.
  2. Community watch volunteers stop carrying guns and instead call trained police professionals if they see suspicious behavior.  That would be justice.
  3. Politicians stop listening to NRA lobbyists, and start listening to common sense: that would be justice.
  4. Zimmerman admits what he did was horribly bad judgment; pleads guilty to reckless endangerment; then performs 300 hours of community service as a sort of penance.  (In the long run this outcome would have been better for Zimmerman than the not guilty verdict, because I suspect Zimmerman may be a pariah for the rest of his life.  A little bit of remorse would have gone a long way.)

Anyway, all things considered, I think the jury did what 99% of juries would have done in this case, which was let Zimmerman go free.  The prosecution did not succeed in proving their case.  In retrospect, I think that going for a murder charge was ill-advised and entirely political; they should have aimed a little lower.  Going for manslaughter from the start had a much better chance of success.  Putting Zimmerman away for life on a murder rap isn’t justice; it’s revenge.

OK then.  Feel free to agree, or rabidly disagree.

It doesn’t matter.

The Zimmerman case was just one case.  One case, out of thousands of criminal cases in the U.S. every year.  That is, the Zimmerman trial was just one data point.

I’ve talked about this before.  You can’t really draw any conclusions about anything from one data point.  And yet, people do it all the time.  It’s a fallacy that probably has a name, but the name eludes me.  But to most people, it’s not a fallacy.  It has the weight of proof.

“I don’t believe in global warming.”  [Katrina devastates New Orleans]  “Wait, now I do!”

“I don’t think M. Night Shyamalan is a good director.”  [Watches The Sixth Sense] “Wait, now I do!”

“I don’t think racial profiling is a real thing.”  [Martin gets shot and his Skittles spill to the ground]  “Wait, now I do!”

I hope all three of these arguments is equally absurd to you.  If not, I think you lack the scientific mindset.  Now, don’t get me wrong: I think global warming is real, and I think racial profiling is real.  It’s just that you can’t make the case for those things with only one data point.  (Indeed, the case of M. Night Shyamalan shows that one data point can lead you horribly astray: after the wonderful The Sixth Sense Shyamalan has directed six turkeys in a row.)

I do think that racism still pervades the country.  I do think that whites get a different kind of justice than non-whites in our judicial system.  I do think that our country is obsessed…in an unhealthy way…with small metal devices whose sole purpose is to kill other human beings.  But I don’t believe any of these things solely because of a single data point.  You have to look at the big picture, look at the data in aggregate.  A preponderance of evidence is required to separate fact from fiction, truth from rumor, knowledge from urban legend.  As much as politicians love to bring up pithy examples, tell symbolic anecdotes, those examples and anecdotes are really rather meaningless.  Give me the data or go home.

And that is why the Zimmerman verdict is really rather meaningless.  Not to the family of Trayvon Martin, of course; I feel for them and am very sorry for their loss.  But as to what the trial says, in a larger context, about our society in general?  It says nothing.  A single data point says nothing.  It cannot say anything; that’s a simple mathematical fact.  It takes at least two points to make a line.

If you want to know how prevalent racism is, or how two “separate-but-equal” judicial systems pervade the U.S., or even whether putting guns in the hands of rent-a-cops endangers citizens, look at the data.  Data, plural.  Give Nate Silver a call.  Don’t argue by colorful anecdote.  And if you don’t have the hard data, at least have the courage to admit to yourself that what you believe is based on nothing.

That’s what I believe.  And yes, it’s really just based on nothing.  But I’m OK with that, because somewhere, hunched over a desk, Nate Silver is crunching all the numbers, and he’s still not a witch.

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thinker

I’ve had the following conversation at least a few dozen times:

“So where do you work?”

Me: “I’m a professor over at the university.”

“What do you teach?”

“Physics.”

“Physics?  Yikes!  Physics is hard.”

Mathematics and chemistry folks that I know get similar responses.  The unspoken assumption is, why would you want to study something so difficult?

Well, why wouldn’t you?

This leads me to my main point.  When asked why I decided to study physics in the first place, my response is usually “Because physics is hard.”  To me, that’s a sufficient reason.  Not necessary, but sufficient.  I can’t imagine having a job that wasn’t mentally challenging.  Well, unless they paid me enough.

My first exposure to physics (not just science but physics) was in high school, 10th grade I think, when I read a copy of The Dancing Wu Li Masters.  Today I know this book is full of new age nonsense, Deepak Chopra-esque mumbo jumbo, but of course I couldn’t know that at the time.  All I could see at the age of 15 was this great bizarre world of quantum weirdness, and what’s more people were still investigating it.  There was work to be done.  Any copy of Bullfinch’s mythology, or any religious text for that matter, was full of similar bizarre weirdness, but those fields of study seemed static and dead.  But quantum mechanics?  You mean people get paid to think about this shit, and study it in a laboratory?  Count me in!

I was lucky enough to recognize at the time that I didn’t yet have the toolkit for thinking about these kinds of things.  Without a working understanding of calculus, without following the trajectory of physics history into the early 20th century, without seeing the careful, subtle arguments of the physics greats, one can’t really get a handle on quantum mechanics at all.  I wish I had a dollar for every time I met someone who claimed to know “all about” quantum mechanics because they watched a Nova episode about Schrödinger’s cat.  But sorry, quantum mechanics is primarily (arguably entirely) a mathematical theory and as such there are no shortcuts to understanding.  Read as many Brian Greene books as you like…read my book, while you’re at it…but all that can really do is whet your appetite for more advanced study.

That’s what happened to me.  I read a new age book filled with nonsense, but that had enough physics to get me interested.  I wanted to learn more than the author; I wanted to be able to tell him where he was wrong.  (I can certainly do this now.)  And I stuck with physics because it’s maddeningly difficult.

Don’t be afraid of learning difficult things.  Study physics.  Take up quilting.  Learn to play the violin.  Learn how to fix a boat.  Read a book about the Crimean war.  Invent a recipe for Baked Alaska.

If it’s not difficult, then why are you bothering with it?

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asteroid

CNN recently posted a story about how the Feb. 15 asteroid/meteor event was very, very unlikely: a 1 in 100,000,000 coincidence.  I disagreed.  I was all ready to blog about how CNN, yet again, got a non-scientist to write about science…and my indignation was already half out of the bottle.

Then I saw who wrote the article: Meg Urry, a highly respected Yale astrophysicist.

So, I sat on my hands for a second and re-evaluated the article.  It does not contain any errors as far as I can tell.  But I still contend that the article is misleading: saying that the asteroid/meteor event was a 1 in 100,000,000 coincidence is the wrong way to look at it.

I agree that if you multiply 1 in 3,650 days times 1 in 36,500 days you get something close to 1 in 100,000,000.  But all you’ve proven is that for any given random day, there is only a 1 in 100,000,000 chance of such a coincidence occurring.

However, we now live in a post-Nate Silver, post Bayesian controversy world, right?  We’ve known about asteroid DA14 for exactly a year (as of today).  So the right question to ask, before it flew by last week, was: what is the chance that a human-injuring meteor will fly by on the same day?  Well, given that an asteroid will already pass that day, the chance of a once-in-a-decade meteor flying by that same day is just 1 in 3,650 (that is, once in a decade).

I have the utmost respect for Dr. Urry.  I suspect that the hyperbole-filled title of her CNN post was written by a CNN webmaster, not her.  I still agree that the coincidence was unlikely, but given that DA14 was already expected to fly by, the Chelyabinsk meteor hitting on the same day does not sink into the realm of unbelievability.

[Trivia note: Chelyabinsk is the birthplace of Evgeny Sveshnikov, the chess grandmaster for whom the Sveshnikov variation of the Sicilian defense is named.  And I do know that, as much as I like the Sveshnikov defense, I tend to go down in flames like a meteor whenever I play it.]

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maser

CNN has no love for the room-temperature maser.

It’s almost a new year, which of course is the time that everyone writes retrospectives of the year before.  I don’t really want to write a retrospective; I’d rather start a new tradition: criticizing someone else’s retrospective.  So to begin: I draw your attention to CNN’s Top 10 science stories of 2012.

Let me start by emphasizing that this list was not written by a scientist.  It was written by the CNN Health beat reporter.  So maybe I shouldn’t be so critical: maybe I should give that reporter a pass.  But come on, shouldn’t we expect at least half of the “top 10 science stories” to actually be science?  Is that so much to ask for?  Ideally, such a list should be written by several scientists, or at the very least one scientist.  Having the CNN Health reporter compile a list of the top 10 science stories is a kind of near miss—like having Bob Vila comment on the top 10 advances in mechanical engineering, or having Tiger Woods list the best Cricket players in Australia (be sure to mention Michael Clarke, Tiger).

I am a scientist, so I feel qualified to comment on CNN’s list.  Therefore, in the spirit of new year snarkiness, let’s evaluate each “top 10 science story” for import, for scientific value, and for “wow” factor.  And let’s see how the health reporter did.  Remember, that reporter got paid for their work (and I am not getting paid).  Go figure.

1. Curiosity lands, performs science on Mars

OK, this is cool, and maybe some science will be done eventually—I am not aware of any actual results published yet in a peer-reviewed journal.  But the Curiosity landing on Mars is in itself not science; it’s a remarkable feat of technology and engineering.  So it shouldn’t be on the list.

2. Higgs boson — it’s real

I don’t have a problem with this being on the list.  This is big, and important, and exciting to most physicists.  The one thing it is not is surprising: most physicists had faith in the Standard Model, and most expected the Higgs to be found in the 125 GeV/c2 range.  Now the real work begins: determining all the properties of the Higgs, and all the interactions that it might participate in.

3. James Cameron’s deep dive

Seriously?  How is this science?  Avatar-boy goes on a vanity jaunt to the heart of the ocean, and we pay attention why?

4. Felix Baumgartner’s record-breaking jump

This is an even more embarrassing entry than the previous one.  An idiot pushes the envelope, and we call it science?  Does the CNN Health reporter even know what science is?

5. Planet with four suns

Planethunters.org discovered a quadruple star system with a planet in a (somehow) stable orbit.  This is an interesting discovery and an impressive feat by an amateur collective.  Maybe someone will get a journal article out of this someday, but that’s it.  A bigger story is how many extrasolar planets have been discovered so far—854 by Dec. 24, 2012.

6. Nearby star has a planet

So Alpha Centauri B has a planet.  That’s nice.  But didn’t we already cover extrasolar planets in the previous entry in the list?  A good list should vary its entries: if you were listing your top 10 favorite comfort foods, and if #5 were pepperoni pizza, would #6 be sausage pizza?  I didn’t think so.

7. Vesta becomes a ‘protoplanet’

Sigh.  What’s with all the space stuff?  Hey CNN Health reporter: only a small percentage of physicists are astronomers, you know, and there are many other branches of science than just physics.  Did you consider asking a chemist what’s hot in chemistry?  Did you think of calling a geologist, or a neuroscientist, or a paleontologist, or a solid-state physicist?  I didn’t think so.

mayim

Hey CNN? Why didn’t you call Dr. Mayim Bialik?

8. Bye-bye, space shuttles

Again?  More space?  And this isn’t even remotely science.  This is about the retirement of a vehicle.  Good riddance, I say: imagine all the real science that could have been done if the space shuttle money had instead been used to send out hundreds of unmanned probes, to Europa, Titan, Callisto, Ganymede…

9. SpaceX gets to the space station, and back

And still more space?

Dear lord, you’d think from this list that space exploration is the only kind of science that anyone does.  And again: not a science story.  It’s a technology story.  Look up the difference, CNN.

10. Baby’s DNA constructed [sic] before birth

“For the first time, researchers at the University of Washington were able to construct a near-total genome sequence of a fetus, using a blood sample from the mother and saliva from the father.  The study suggested this method could be used to detect thousands of genetic diseases in children while they are still in the fetal stage.”

This is interesting, and may be important, but I have an issue with the list item as the CNN Health reporter wrote it.  The baby’s DNA wasn’t constructed before birth.  The DNA was present before birth, sure; fetuses do have DNA.  The baby’s genome was sequenced before birth, which is a completely different thing.  You’d think a health reporter would know better.

Final Score

So what’s the final tally?  By my count, only of 6 of the items on the list are science, and that’s being very generous.  Of those 6, the fields of science represented are astronomy, particle physics, astronomy, astronomy, astronomy, and biology/medicine.  Nice, balanced list there.  Way to go.

So what stories did deserve to be on the list?  I don’t know.  I am a (mostly) solid-state physicist, and I could mention that researchers successfully used neutrinos to communicate, built a room-temperature maser, and found Majorana fermions.  I’ll stop there, and let chemists, neuroscientists (that means you, Mayim), and geologists add items of their own.

Happy New Year, everyone!

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mcdonalds-McRib-

I actually like this sandwich.

It’s time for McDonald’s to retire its slogan “i’m lovin’ it.”

I’m not sure what I thought of the slogan back in 2003, when it was first unveiled.  I’m sure I ignored it at the time; it seems innocuous enough, if a little too hip.  But as the years go by—and it has been over 9 years now, mind you—the slogan grates on my nerves more and more.  Maybe it’s the uncapitalized “i’m”, which is so reminiscent these days of lazy Facebook posts and lazy text messages (we can’t be bothered to capitalize!)  Maybe it’s the apostrophe after the “n”, as if McDonald’s customers are too busy eating McBeef sandwiches to pronounce a velar nasal.  Maybe it’s the totally slangy, scornful-of-correct grammar attitude that the slogan implies. Maybe it’s all of the above.   I’m sick of it.

It’s not hard to deconstruct the slogan, to get to the intentions of the Mad Men at Heye & Partner, the agency who came up with the slogan.  In fact, through the magic of “fiction”, I recreate their brainstorming session for you here:

BEAN COUNTER #1: We need a new slogan for McDonald’s.

BEAN COUNTER #2: Any ideas?

BEAN COUNTER #1: How about “You will love our food”?

BEAN COUNTER #2: Too formal.  Use a contraction.  They are hipper.

BEAN COUNTER #1: OK, “You’ll love our food”?

BEAN COUNTER #2: No, it sounds like someone is trying to convince you.  Someone is telling you that you’ll like it.  But as they always tell aspiring authors, show, don’t tell.

BEAN COUNTER #1: Meaning?

BEAN COUNTER #2: Meaning that it’s more convincing to see someone enjoy something, rather than have them tell you that you’ll enjoy it.

BEAN COUNTER #1: Well, we could say “I love our food,” something like that.

BEAN COUNTER #2: Too stiff.

BEAN COUNTER #1: “I love it.”

BEAN COUNTER #2: Better.  Still not hip enough.

BEAN COUNTER #1: “I’m loving it.”

BEAN COUNTER #2: Good, good.

BEAN COUNTER #1: You know, of course, that “I’m loving it” is really poor grammar.  It’s only used in the most informal English contexts.

BEAN COUNTER #2: All for the better.  It says McDonald’s is cool, iconoclastic.  It will hook the young people.  It says, “We’re not your parents’ McDonald’s.  We can’t be bothered with rules, with good English.  Yo, have a cheeseburger.”

BEAN COUNTER #1: Genius.

BEAN COUNTER #2: But we can go further.  Make “loving” a contraction.

BEAN COUNTER #1: “Lovin’”?

BEAN COUNTER #2: Yes!

BEAN COUNTER #1: “I’m lovin’ it.”

BEAN COUNTER #2: Perfect.

BEAN COUNTER #1: And you know, we can “dumb it down” further by not even capitalizing the “I”.

BEAN COUNTER #2: Oh, nice.  “i’m lovin it.”  Great.

BEAN COUNTER #1: I’ll write up a prospectus.  How much should we charge McDonald’s?

BEAN COUNTER #2: I’m thinking, $20,000,000?

BEAN COUNTER #1: i’m lovin’ it.

Photo credit: http://www.mcdonalds.com/us/en/food/product_nutrition.sandwiches.292.mcrib-.html

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Tony Montana

Tony Montana

I know, I know.  I said no more political blog posts until 2016…but in the wake of the Sandy Hook mass murder, I’d feel obligated to comment on the gun control “debate” in the United States.

I could cite data: I could arrange the proofs and figures in columns before me, and make an argument.  For example, this Washington Post article has done just that, much better than I ever could, and even resists the temptation to draw (many) conclusions.  The article simply lets the data speak for itself—a rhetorical device seldom employed these days.  But I won’t do this, in part because so many have already done this, and I don’t have much to add.

I could mention how the 2nd Amendment doesn’t say that citizens have a right to bear arms.  It says that citizens have the right to bear arms as part of a well-regulated militia.  But this leads to a debate about language, and what the founders intended.  And if you read the 2nd Amendment in its entirety, you can only conclude that the founders weren’t good writers.  The 2nd Amendment may be the most vague, poorly written sentence in all of jurisprudence.  But I don’t want to discuss this, because again this is well-trodden ground.

I simply want to put the discussion in as stark terms as possible.  As I see it, the gun control debate is just a debate as to wear to draw the line.

That there should be a line somewhere is indisputable.  Suppose someone invented a hand-held device that fired nuclear missiles.  Should we ban such a device?  In a way, it doesn’t really matter, because if such devices were widely available, civilization would collapse within hours.  What about flame throwers?  Rocket launchers?  I don’t think any reasonable person would be opposed to the (civilian) ban of such things.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are (say) knives.  A knife can be used as a weapon; a knife can even be used to commit multiple homicide (case in point: the Simpson case).  Does anyone want to ban knives?  Probably; but let’s say that most reasonable people are in favor of the right to bear knives.  After all, Chopped is such a fun show to watch.

So we have weapons or tools that can be used as weapons, some of which should be banned, some of which should not be.  Put all such weapons on a spectrum with knives at one side and flame throwers on the other.  There has to be a line somewhere.  (This follows, surprisingly, from the Squeeze Theorem of calculus).

Let’s just decide where to put the line.

The rest of this post is personal.  I will suggest a reasonable way to draw the line.  You may disagree.  But wherever you want to draw the line, you must admit that there has to be a line, and I hope you have logical, balanced, well-reasoned criteria for whatever you decide.  If you’re not logical, balanced, or well-reasoned, then honestly I don’t really want to talk to you.

So.  What line-drawing criteria should we use?  I would suggest that people have the right to hunt game animals (there are reasonable arguments against this, I will admit), and the right to reasonably defend themselves.  But I would say that any device that makes it easy to rapidly kill many, many people should be off limits to ordinary citizens.

Machine guns?  Automatic weapons?  Assault rifles?  Ban them all.  No one hunts with them, and no one needs them for protection.  If you need a machine gun to defend your house, then you’re either Tony Montana, or the zombie apocalypse has started.

On the other hand, keep your (non-automatic) pistol.  Keep your shotgun.  Enjoy that hunting trip.  Have fun (trying) to shoot that burglar.  (I could argue that an 80-year-old with a gun is more likely to have the gun pulled from his hand and be pistol-whipped with it, rather than use the gun successfully—but I won’t.)  I have drawn a line, and the line has a logical basis (the number of people that can easily be killed by the device).  You may disagree with my line.

Where would you put it?

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220px-Clomipramine.svg

The next time someone sneezes, don’t bless them. Take this instead.

[Note: I plagiarized this post.  From myself.  Over two years ago I “started” a blog and gave up a day later.  But that first post was OK, so here it is, with slight modifications.]

It’s the 21st century: science has successfully explained almost every aspect of the physical world (except that missing sock), and new successes are appearing every day. We have computers, cell phones, hand-held GPS devices, the Wii, velcro, and 8-track tape players. And instant pudding.

So why do people still cross their fingers for luck? Why is anyone still tossing spilled salt over their shoulder? Why do athletes still wear their “lucky” shorts? (See this for a list of the saddest athletes you’ve ever heard of.)

It boggles the mind.

Let this post be a rallying call to everyone that still has a shred of intellectual integrity. Let’s all agree to cast out the pernicious demon of superstition from our lives. Let’s all agree that there’s no such thing as your lucky number, that breaking a mirror won’t have any harmful effects (unless you break it with your bare hand), that Friday the 13th is nothing more than a bad movie franchise, and that crossing your fingers has about as much effect on the universe as taking a dump and wishing it were pancakes.

The next time you say “tomorrow’s going to be a good day”, refrain from knocking on wood.  Just don’t do it.  I mean, come on.  It’s silly.  Don’t do it.

Please.

Don’t do it.

And let’s not tolerate such bizarre, 13th century behavior in others: if someone is wearing their lucky Cubs jersey before the big game, call them on it. Say, “Hey Bob, you think wearing that will help? That’s ridiculous and frankly embarrassing. If you want to wear the jersey to support your team, then fine. But please, don’t tell me that wearing that shirt will have any effect on the outcome of the game.” And speaking of the Cubs, let’s all say it together: there is no such thing as a curse. The Cubs just haven’t been all that good in the past 100 years or so.

To bring the world into the 21st century, to promote a scientific and rational mindset, to remain skeptical in the face of irrational and pseudo-scientific claims—to do all these things requires your help. It all starts with you.

Seriously, you.

You can fire off a cannon shot in the superstition culture wars by just not being superstitious yourself. Continue the fight by making fun of people who are superstitious. (Shame: it’s a powerful weapon.) Start peer-pressuring people into being a little more rational. It’ll be good for them. They need to grow up. They can handle it; you know they can.

If not, there’s always clomipramine.

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’til is not a word

romeo

For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night…

’til is not a word.

Please, use either until, or till.  Some people think that ’til is an abbreviation of until, but this is folk etymology.  “Till” is the older word by far, going back to at least Shakespeare’s day.  For example:

John 21:22 (KJV)     Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what to thee?  Follow thou me.

Romeo and Juliet: I, v     For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.

Also note that “Till death us depart”, from the marriage liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer, dates back to 1549!  It became “Till death us do part” in 1662.

Seeing advertisements for the old Fox show ’til Death always grated on me like fingernails on a blackboard.  Luckily, like most Fox sitcoms, that show departed quite a while ago.

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As a physics professor, I have certain pet peeves.  For example, I cringe when someone says that “gravity” is 9.8 m/s2 when they mean the acceleration due to gravity.  I’m annoyed if someone says that an object “weighs” 7 kg.  And I stifle a laugh if someone says that a roller coaster is exciting because it goes so “fast”—humans can only detect acceleration, not speed, which is why we don’t notice that we’re traveling something like 67,000 mph right now in our orbit around the sun.

goose

“I feel the need for acceleration!”

But my biggest pet peeve may be students doing algebra with numbers.

Fellow physics professors will know exactly what I’m talking about, but for the uninitiated, here’s an example:

If you drop an object from a height of 20 m, how long will it take to hit the ground?

A student knows that a kinematics equation is needed, hits upon the correct one, Δyvi Δt + (1/2) a Δt2, and then correctly identifies Δy = –20 m, a = –9.8 m/s2, and vi = 0.  So far, so good.  They’ve studied their physics, right?  What happens next is sheer madness:

algebra_with_numbers

Sigh.

Over and over again I tell students, “don’t plug numbers in until the end.”  But students love plugging in numbers.  They feel they’re actually getting closer to the answer if they’re manipulating numbers.  On some level, they still feel uncomfortable with letters—as if manipulating letters isn’t really “math”.

How does this problem look in my answer key?  Like this:

algebra 2

You can now plug in values if you like…and get Δt = √[2(-20)/-9.8] = 2.02 s.

Which of these approaches is more beautiful, more powerful?  The approach you pick indicates whether you “get” algebra or not.  If you do algebra with numbers, the answer you get is very narrow and very specific, even if you do it correctly.  That hypothetical student could have gotten 2 seconds as an answer, and I would have given them full credit.  But their answer would have been ugly.

The second approach is beautiful, because it is completely general and applicable to multiple situations.  I try to tell students “Look!  You found the time to fall a certain distance.  You now know the answer no matter what the height is, and even no matter what planet you’re on, since g doesn’t have to be 9.8 m/s2.”  This is usually followed by a blank open-mouthed stare, much like Kristen Stewart in a Twilight movie.

There is a more practical reason to avoid doing algebra with numbers.  It’s simply that when you do algebra with numbers, other people cannot follow your work as easily.  And then, if you make a mistake, it’s harder for someone else to spot.  Quick: what algebra error did the student make above?  It takes a while to find the mistake.

My ultimate point is that students need experience seeing the power of algebra.  It’s all well and good that algebra classes stress real-world applications—else, why teach algebra in the first place?  But real-world doesn’t only mean with numbersE=mc2 is certainly a real-world application of algebra, and it’s a lot more elegant than saying that 378,000,000,000,000 Joules is released when a teaspoon of sugar with mass 4.2 grams  is converted to pure energy, given that the speed of light is 300,000,000 m/s.  The hard part, for us physics professors, is to help this spoonful of algebra go down.

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Should we pledge to enact sanctions against ancient Carthage?

It’s time to start marginalizing Grover Norquist.

Haven’t heard of him?  That’s because he hasn’t really done anything noteworthy.  Sure, he got an M.B.A. from Harvard, and he did write speeches for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for one year in the 1980’s, but other than that he’s done nothing except be a lobbyist.  He’s never had an elected position.  His reputation is based on lobbying.

Have I said he’s just a lobbyist?

Now, to the guy’s credit, he’s good at his job, and he wields power through his personal instrument Americans for Tax Reform.  That’s the lobbying group he founded.  Its only purpose is to advocate for Norquist’s world view.  Part of that world view is to lower tax rates in America, and I won’t comment on whether that’s a good idea or not…that’s a problem for economists to sort out.  But part of that world view is getting politicians (by scare tactics and intimidation) to commit to a “no tax raises” pledge.

I can’t think of anything sillier than a politician making such a pledge.  What is this, the days of Hamilton and Burr at Weehawken?

First of all, tactically, it’s always better to have options than to not have options.  If you pledge to never raise taxes, ever, then you’re a fool, plain and simple.  You’re locking yourself into a position that might make no sense at some point in the future.  When taking such a pledge, you’re saying, basically, the following: “I don’t think raising taxes is a good idea.  In fact, I feel strongly that it’s a bad idea.  But I am also convinced that I will never change my mind; I will never let new data change my mind; even if the circumstances change, it is logically inconceivable that I will ever change my mind; and even if I want to change my mind I won’t be able to because I am locked into a pledge.”  By taking a pledge, you are thumbing your nose at a future self (and potential wiser self) and forcing them down a path they might not agree with.

[Of course, there’s another reason to take such a pledge: you may not agree with it, but you take the pledge anyway in order to get elected.  Anyone who falls into that category is beneath contempt.]

What if scientists took pledges?  Newtonian physics was on very firm footing in 1904.  What if every physicist signed a pledge saying that Newtonian physics was 100% correct and was never to be doubted ever again?  What, then, would have happened with patent clerk Einstein in 1905?

Suppose everyone in Congress took the Norquist pledge.  And then suppose that aliens visited Earth, and offered to give us an unlimited source of clean energy.  The catch is, we have to raise taxes on upper incomes by, say, 1%, in order to pay for distribution costs.  I guess we’d have to say, “Sorry, we all took a ‘pledge’ so we can’t do it.  Fealty to Grover Norquist and his 18th century ‘pledge’ takes precedence over the country, over science, over common sense, and over anything else you can think of.  Have fun with your infinite energy, rest of the world.”

My point has nothing to do with the merits (or lack thereof) of the pledge.  I have a problem with the idea of such a pledge itself.  A pledge is indicative of an anti-science mentality; a tendency towards dogmatism; a lack of mental flexibility—and those are not traits I want to see in our country’s leaders.  Leaders need to keep everything on the table.  You have to decide based on current data what the best course for the country is.  You cannot let a decision made 20 years ago affect your thinking today.  I’m sure that 2200 years ago I might have been in favor of sanctions against Carthage; I may have even signed a pledge to that effect.  Today, though, that pledge wouldn’t mean very much…

Let’s all agree to never mention Grover Norquist again.  He’s irrelevant.  He’s a lobbyist, and his only purpose is to push his own agenda.  His tax foundation doesn’t do scientific research, doesn’t create jobs, doesn’t build things, doesn’t design things, doesn’t contribute to science, or culture, or human knowledge, or service, or humanity.  Norquist himself is not a super villain.  He’s just a random dude with a loud megaphone.  Luckily, we have the ability to ignore him if we like.  Maybe then he’ll just go away.

Then again, probably not.  After all, he is a lobbyist.

(Photo credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:CarthageElectrumCoin250BCE.jpg)

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