Survey: Teachable Controversies

Today, John Timmer posted on the ‘tubes a brief summary of current debates in evolutionary biology, as unfolded at a recent Rockefeller University symposium. Timmer takes the position, and PZ Myers agrees, that these controversies don’t belong in the high-school curriculum. They require too much background knowledge to understand, and if the students haven’t spent time learning the basic principles, they’ll be sunk. On these specific points, I’d tend to agree; however, other debates might provide “teachable moments.” If trying to build lesson plans around the questions currently rocking the symposia is going too far, what about the problems which have been wrapped up in the last ten years or so? For example, in a post-Bullet Cluster world, a high-school physics class could well include some talk of dark matter.
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Quantum Mechanics in Your Face

Via Imaginary Potential comes Sidney Coleman’s lecture on how quantum mechanics differs from classical and what that whole “collapsing the wave function” business is all about. The lecture is geared to those who have a working familiarity with first-term quantum physics: the Schrödinger Equation, spin operators and such.

The video quality is not always quite good enough to capture what’s written on the transparencies, but the audio makes up for it.

EDIT TO ADD: I don’t actually agree with the final thesis of Coleman’s lecture (I’ve gone too far in my reading of Appleby, Barnum, Caves, Fuchs, Kent, Leifer, Peres, Schack, Spekkens, Unruh, Zeilinger and so on to make that retreat). However, I would say that (a) the GHZ story is easier to remember than the Bell story, and (b) “vernacular” quantum mechanics is a good term to have on hand, as the mishmash we get from several generations of skipping-past-the-weird-bits shouldn’t necessarily be called a “school of thought” in its own right.

Open Access Terminology

Peter Suber and Stevan Harnad have been trying to clarify the different meanings of the term “Open Access.” Recently, these two advocates of the OA cause issued a joint statement which began as follows:

The term “open access” is now widely used in at least two senses. For some, “OA” literature is digital, online, and free of charge. It removes price barriers but not permission barriers. For others, “OA” literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of unnecessary copyright and licensing restrictions. It removes both price barriers and permission barriers. It allows reuse rights which exceed fair use.

Suber and Harnad proposed using “weak OA” to describe the former kind, literature which is “price-barrier-free,” and “strong OA” for the latter, “permission-barrier-free” variety. Shortly thereafter, however, people got flustered and pointed out that “weak OA” is unnecessarily pejorative. After all, even lowering price barriers is a good thing, and there’s no reason to make life harder for the people trying to do that. Better terminology is needed. This is a chance for all you aspiring wordanistas to lead your very own revolution! (Given the audience which finds OA issues of interest, your revolution will be well-blogged, but not televised.) Can you come up with a better alternative than the current options like “Basic OA” versus “Full OA”?

Hopefully, whatever terms we end up using to denote these gradations in scale will be more illuminating than the ones employed by the US Post Office. Every time I walk in to post something, I find myself befuddled by Express, Priority and First-Class designations: which one is actually the fastest and the most expensive? When each term is tarted up to sound as exciting as possible, their ability to indicate a scale of any kind is ruined.

Sunday Afternoon Blaggregation

What? You mean I can fill up a blog post without any content of my own?

T. Ryan Gregory has a typically excellent essay on his first experience doing scientific research. Students must learn important lessons about how science actually gets done, and probably the most important of those is, as he says, “whatever they try to do in the lab will not work the first time.” Now, if only that had been explained to me when I made my first bumbling measurements of junction magnetoresistance, during that summer program so many years ago. . . .

Elsewhere on the Network, Jeff Medkeff finds that in the free market of credibility, the Libertarian National Convention has been out-competed. Meanwhile, Steve Novella, after smacking down Michael Egnor for the Nth time, takes a break and debunks the wishful thinking known as “Brain Gym.”

Finally, on a more somber note, Ron Brown at The Frame Problem has done yeoman service putting together the first CarnivUL of The fraudless, documenting the first great Stand Alone Complex of our time.

Currently Reading

Juan A. Bonachela, Haye Hinrichsen, Miguel A. Munoz, “Entropy estimates of small data sets” J. Phys. A: Math. Theor. 41 (2008). arXiv: 0804.4561.

Estimating entropies from limited data series is known to be a non-trivial task. Naive estimations are plagued with both systematic (bias) and statistical errors. Here, we present a new “balanced estimator” for entropy functionals (Shannon, Rényi and Tsallis) specially devised to provide a compromise between low bias and small statistical errors, for short data series. This new estimator out-performs other currently available ones when the data sets are small and the probabilities of the possible outputs of the random variable are not close to zero. Otherwise, other well-known estimators remain a better choice. The potential range of applicability of this estimator is quite broad specially for biological and digital data series.

As an exercise, discuss the relation of this approach to the coincidence-based methods of Ma, Bialas et al.

Rites of May

No doubt they rose up early to observe
The rite of May, and hearing our intent,
Came here in grace our solemnity. […]
Good morrow, friends. Saint Valentine is past:
Begin these wood-birds but to couple now?

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (IV, 1)

Today is the first day of May. On this day, Americans join together like good Communists from other countries to affirm their commitment to an ideology of Authority. Gaelic pagans of old (and wiki-pagans of the modern age) celebrate the day as Beltane, and indeed, the attitude of begging personal intercession from nature spirits intimately concerned with human reproductive business has not entirely left the occasion.

It is a day for scratching a spiritual itch.

And what could be more spiritual or more sublime than geeking out with a crowd of like- but not identical-minded folk about the difference between book and film, the interplay of text and subtext, about science fiction as art? It’s a fitting time to explore, with Jeremy Bruno, why Jurassic Park is not a pro-science movie. How better to sharpen the joy of æsthetic contemplation than to indulge our primate appetites and join together against a common enemy? We are gyptians, meeting in the hall of the Gyptian King — otherwise known as a blog comment thread — to test the weaknesses of the Magisterium, who stand against freedom and reason, and who are played in this episode by Michael Crichton.

Come, join us!