Devolution in Texas

Texas School Board Set to Vote on Challenge to Evolution

The Texas Board of Education will vote this week on a new science curriculum designed to challenge the guiding principle of evolution, a step that could influence what is taught in biology classes across the nation.

The proposed curriculum change would prompt teachers to raise doubts that all life on Earth is descended from common ancestry. Texas is such a huge textbook market that many publishers write to the states standards, then market those books nationwide.

“This is the most specific assault Ive seen against evolution and modern science,” said Steven Newton, a project director at the National Center for Science Education, which promotes teaching of evolution.

Living with Parkinson’s

The Frontline series on PBS recently ran a program produced by Dave Iverson. He’s a reporter and Friday host of Forum on KQED, San Francisco’s public radio station.

The documentary, My Father, My Brother, and Me, is all about Parkinson’s Disease, but from a very personal perspective. Dave’s father died of Parkinson’s, his brother contracted the disease, and Dave himself was diagnosed with Parkinson’s a few years ago. It seems that Dave’s family is one of the minority of Parkinson’s patients with a hereditary form of the disease.

In the documentary, he explores the latest research on the disease, its environmental and genetic links. He talks about some promising treatments, as well as the political controversy around stem cell research. And he shows the positive benefits of exercise and dance for those coping with the disease.

You can watch the entire program on Frontline’s website, which also links to PD resources on the web.

Dave was also interviewed about the documentary by Michael Krasny on KQED’s Forum radio show, and by Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

A new look for 8.01

The NYT reports how  at M.I.T., Large Lectures Are Going the Way of the Blackboard.

The physics department has replaced the traditional large introductory lecture with smaller classes that emphasize hands-on, interactive, collaborative learning. Last fall, after years of experimentation and debate and resistance from students, who initially petitioned against it, the department made the change permanent. Already, attendance is up and the failure rate has dropped by more than 50 percent.

Seems like this course change has been a great success. Still, it’s not clear how many introductory classes could eliminate their big lectures. After all, MIT is a research institution, and it’s already hard to find enough faculty to lead those classes. And as long as junior faculty get tenure based on research instead of teaching, that’s not likely to change.

Overheard at CERN

Large Hadron Collider Switch-on Fears Are Completely Unfounded

“Each collision of a pair of protons in the LHC will release an amount of energy comparable to that of two colliding mosquitoes, so any black hole produced would be much smaller than those known to astrophysicists.” They conclude that such microscopic black holes could not grow dangerously.

Wait a minute. Crossing proton streams. End of the world scenarios…
Haven’t we heard this one before?

Dr. Egon Spengler: Don’t cross the streams.
Dr. Peter Venkman: Why?
Spengler: It would be bad.
Venkman: I’m fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing. What do you mean, “bad”?
Spengler: Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.
Dr. Ray Stantz: Total protonic reversal.
Venkman: Right. That’s bad. Okay. All right. Important safety tip. Thanks, Egon.


Spengler: I have a radical idea. The door swings both ways, we could reverse the particle flow through the gate.
Venkman: How?
Spengler: [hesitates] We’ll cross the streams.
Venkman: ‘Scuse me Egon? You said crossing the streams was bad!
Stantz: Cross the streams…
Venkman: You’re gonna endanger us, you’re gonna endanger our client – the nice lady, who paid us in advance, before she became a dog…
Spengler: Not necessarily. There’s definitely a *very slim* chance we’ll survive.
[pause while they consider this]
Venkman: [slaps Ray] I love this plan! I’m excited to be a part of it! LET’S DO IT!

The science of doping

I heard an interesting interview on NPR with biostatitian Donald A. Berry. He argues that current drug tests for athletes have not passed scientific muster. Here is his article in Nature: The science of doping.

In my opinion, close scrutiny of quantitative evidence used in Landis’s case show it to be non-informative. This says nothing about Landis’s guilt or innocence. It rather reveals that the evidence and inferential procedures used to judge guilt in such cases dont address the question correctly. The situation in drug-testing labs worldwide must be remedied. Cheaters evade detection, innocents are falsely accused and sport is ultimately suffering.

Rubik’s Cube Proof Cut To 25 Moves

The internet is abuzz over the latest mathematical proof by Tomas Rokicki, former HP Lab researcher.

This article posted to SlashDot provoked a huge response:

A scrambled Rubik’s cube can be solved in just 25 moves, regardless of the starting configuration. Tomas Rokicki, a Stanford-trained mathematician, has proven the new limit (down from 26 which was proved last year) using a neat piece of computer science. Rather than study individual moves, he’s used the symmetry of the cube to study its transformations in sets. This allows him to separate the ‘cube space’ into 2 billion sets each containing 20 billion elements. He then shows that a large number of these sets are essentially equivalent to other sets and so can be ignored. Even then, to crunch through the remaining sets, he needed a workstation with 8GB of memory and around 1500 hours of time on a Q6600 CPU running at 1.6GHz. Next up, 24 moves.

Good work Tom!
It figures though – you do cutting edge research for years at a top industrial lab, and nobody notices.
Prove how to solve Rubik’s cube, and now you’re a rock star.

Canadians in Space

The Space Shuttle Endeavour took off on August 8 for a two week mission to work on the International Space Station. It was a perfect liftoff for STS-118, to the relief of all of us watching.

Launch of STS-118

I have a special interest in this shuttle mission, since it carries Canadian astronaut Dave Williams on his second flight into space. Dr. Williams is a Mission Specialist on this flight, and will be making at least 3 space walks to work on the ISS. (A total of about 19 hours!) Dave first flew on shuttle Columbia in 1998, as flight surgeon.

Dave Williams

Dave Williams is also a home-town boy. I first met him at my high school reunion in 2004. Dave did not attend my school – but his wife Cathy did. And she and my sister have stayed friends since then. In fact, my sister and brother in law traveled down to Florida in 1998 to watch Dave’s liftoff.

Dave with my sisters

After seeing the Challenger explosion in 1986, and the Columbia crash in 2003, we all know that space flight is dangerous. Dave knows those risks all too well. He and his fellow astronauts helped recover remains of Columbia, and its crew, after the crash. Those people were their friends and colleagues, and as he described it, it was difficult to deal with their loss. But they all volunteered to help with the recovery. It was all they could do to honor the dead.

It’s now four years later, and NASA is still having problems with ice and foam at liftoff. They’ve tried to change the design of the external fuel tank, but it doesn’t seem to have stopped the problem. At least they know what to look for. Mission control is studying photographs of a couple of deep gouges on Endeavour’s belly, presumably caused by more falling ice.

Of course, I hope that the damage will be easy to repair, and that Dave and his fellow crew members make it back safely after a successful mission. We’ll be watching and waiting for the next few weeks, and cheering them on.

Friends don’t let friends orbit drunk

Aviation Week reports that NASA allowed at least 2 astronauts to fly after “heavy use of alcohol”. Even though flight surgeons warned that they were so drunk that they posed a flight risk.

Maybe we should cut them some slack. After all, if I knew I might spend the next 10 minutes as a pretty fireball across the country, I’d be tempted to down a few myself. Besides, what’s the chance that they’d get pulled over anyway?

Dreams of pulp scifi finally coming true

Another breakthough from MIT this week. Professor Dava Newman has developed a prototype skintight spacesuit for future Mars missions.

MIT Biosuit with 'Reclining Figure'

Instead of the traditional gas pressurized suit, Newman’s design relies on wrapping tight layers of material around the body. It’s much lighter and more flexible. And as modeled by Prof. Newman, it’s much more flattering too!

Biosuit - it shapes and controls

The suit is not yet ready for space travel, but the MIT researchers hope to have something usable in “about 10 years”. Maybe by then we’ll also have perfected ray guns and wise-cracking robots. And explorers will roam the solar system just like my boyhood hero, Col. Wilma Deering.

Erin Gray as Col Wilma Deering in 'Buck Rogers'