Getting to yes

A quick problem solving puzzle from the New York Times.

I got it right.  Click the button to read me talking about how I got there, but don’t do it till you’ve tried the puzzle yourself. Please.


The USA Science & Engineering Festival

Robots playing football

Boy watches the robots


Photo SharingVideo SharingPhoto Printing

Boy builds robots with Legos

Boy in front of the Washington Monument


Circles within circles

Earth under a magnifying glassGeneral disclaimer: I’m not a scientific expert and no reportage of fact I make should be repeated with authority.

There was a time when it was our understanding* that all the bodies we see in the sky–Moon, sun, planets, stars et cetera–orbited around the Earth. And if the Earth lay at the centre of the universe, it should have been a fairly simple thing to predict the orbits of all those celestial bodies making their way around and around us–indeed, it shouldn’t have been a matter of predicting the orbits so much as simple recording them and then watching each body repeat its orbit around us over and over again for evermore. So that’s exactly what they did–they took their star charts and drew a single arcing line to mark the path of each planet and comet across the sky.

Except, of course, that the next time each of these objects passed over us, they didn’t follow the same path they had last time, but rather, a subtly different one. This was very puzzling, and attempts were made to fit this observation into our preconceived notion of the Earth at the centre of the universe. A hypothesis was proposed–that these celestial bodies have “sub-orbits”, called epicycles, within their orbits; and so the orbital charts were redrawn, with smaller circles along the path of the larger, main arc.

Except of course that the next time the planets went by, they didn’t match either their initial orbits or their epicyclic orbits. And so even smaller epicycles were added to the original epicycles; and on their next pass, even smaller epicycles were added to those, until the sky charts began to look more and more like they’d been drawn with a Spirograph.

And then one day, someone–someone whose mind intuitively grasped the basic concept of science, that we make our hypotheses fit our observations, not the other way round–took a look at all these recorded orbits and said, “Well, what if they’re not orbiting the Earth? What if they’re orbiting the Sun–and so are we?” And suddenly it all fell into place–all those orbits made sense, because our observations matched perfectly with the idea of these planets following their orbits around the Sun, with each orbit looking slightly different to us only because of the differing relative positions of Earth and the other planets as we passed each other along our orbits.

When people complain about the scientific fantasy of things like warp drive in Star Trek or time travel and dimensional transcendance in Doctor Who, I laugh. In four hundred years (in the case of Star Trek) our understanding of all areas of science will have changed in ways we literally cannot even imagine, just like no human being in 1608 could have any idea of what we understand right now about, say, atomic structure or Bernouli’s principle or the internal combustion engine or the microchip; next to a society that’s lasted for millions of years (in the case of Doctor Who) we look like nematodes, and I don’t think that in that case it’s a matter of us not being able to guess what sort of scientific understanding they’d have so much as it’s a matter of us not being able to fathom even the smallest part of their understanding of the nature of existence itself.

Some of that new scientific understanding will come from straightforward progression in what we already understand. Some of it will see areas we thought we had pretty much sussed suddenly turn out to be much more complicated than we’d imagined, the way we nowadays have everything from M-theory to dark energy to explain why our observations of the universe don’t match up with how what we thought were the four universal forces should act upon it.

And some of it will come from someone looking at something we thought was incredibly complicated and as yet beyond our full understanding, and asking a question that suddenly makes it all fall into place, just like asking, “What if we’re all orbiting the Sun?

My bet for that last one is on the periodic table of elements. Seven rows and eighteen columns, and each row and each column has a very specific set of rules for all the elements it contains. So each element–representing a unique intersection between one row and one column–should have very predictable properties, right? Except, as anyone who’s passed a high school chemistry class in their life knows quite well, that’s bunkum. In each row of eighteen, or in each column of seven, you’ll probably find, on average, about one and a half elements following any given rule for that row or column. You almost wonder if whoever first came up with the periodic table had any familiarity at all with any of the elements.

This isn’t an irrelevance–it isn’t just that we happen to have chosen a nonsensical way to tabulate the elements. We (think we) understand the basic nature of the elements, constructed of the three basic subatomic particles–protons, neutrons and electrons. We understand that (all things being equal) you get one proton for every one electron,** we understand that electrons arrange themselves around the atomic nucleus in shells, with each shell being able to accomodate a specific number of electrons (two on the first shell, eight each on the next two, and eighteen on subsequent shells)**, and we understand that the best predictor of an element’s properties is how many proton-electron pairs it has.** An element’s row represents how many shells its electrons fill, and its column represents how full its top shell is, so the periodic table is essentially a picture of each element.*** So it’s very troubling that basically eighty per cent of what the periodic table predicts should be true simply isn’t.

But one day, somebody’s going to come along and posit a simple observation. It probably won’t be quite as simple as asking, “Well, what if we assume we’re all orbiting the Sun instead?” but to scientists who understand it, it’ll seem that simple. And we’ll all pause for a moment and look at the data, and we’ll say, “Whoa.”


*It’s of course much more complicated than saying, “We used to think the Earth was the centre of the universe, but now we know different,” and it’s also more complicated than, “The Greeks knew the Earth orbited the sun, but then we lost that knowledge during the Middle Ages, but then we rediscovered it.”

**To oversimplify.

***To illustrate our understanding of the periodic table: I asked Lisa–who has a chemistry degree–while writing this post, “My recollection is correct that an element’s row represents how many shells its electrons fill, right?” Her response? “The short answer is yes. The long answer is God, no!”

So we’re getting rid of VCRs and broken laptops

The Alexandria electronics recycling depot is open only to residents of the City of Alexandria.

Which seems to me to be somewhat missing the point of recycling.


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What I find most offensive about pretending Intelligent Design is science

Toshiko Sato (Naoko Mori)Evolution denialists are trying a new tack in Texas. This time, instead of attempting explicitly to insert a religious alternative to science in the form of Intelligent Design, they’re attempting to mandate the exploration of the “strengths and weaknesses” of the theory of evolution.

“Strengths and weaknesses” is a favourite phrase of those trying to undermine the teaching of evolution. Though in the article above they manage to avoid it, it’s generally accompanied by some variation of the assertion, “Evolution is just a theory.” Whenever anyone utters those words, that’s the point at which they have demonstrated that they have nothing valid to bring to the discussion and everyone would do better to stop listening to them, because they’re violating one of the core rules of fruitful intellectual debate: they’re using words whose meanings they don’t understand.

As anyone who passed sixth-grade science should understand, when we talk about the “theory of evolution” we’re not using theory in its casual sense of guess or hunch (when a much better word to use would be hypothesis, anyway). The theory of evolution is a scientific theory, a system of propositions and ideas explaining and predicting the behaviour of a natural mechanism or process–like the theory of gravity or atomic theory or Einstein’s special theory of relativity. A scientific theory collates all observations made about the phenomenon it describes and, critically in order to retain its validity, has never had a single observation that disagrees with its predictions.

If I held a raw egg over you and let go, would you think I was being reasonable if I said it might not drop onto your head because gravity is “just a theory”? If I came into your home with the flu and sneezed into the pot in which your soup was cooking, would you find me worth listening to if I said you could go ahead and eat your soup without worrying about getting sick, because germ theory is “just a theory”? Anyone who tells you evolution is “just a theory”, as the Kansas Board of Education, Pennsylvania’s Dover Board of Education and Georgia’s Cobb County Board of Education all essentially did when they attempted (with a lack of success–and in Dover’s case, a spectacular lack of success) to introduce various measures to undermine the teaching of science in science classes, deserves the same credibility that you would give to me in either of the above circumstances.

The just a theory and strengths and weaknesses positions are designed, of course, to create an aura around Intelligent Design apologists of simply seeking to have all viewpoints and competing, equally valid hypotheses heard. What could be fairer than that?

But the hypocrisy involved in such a position provokes in me a profound sense of outrage. Because while the ID apologists are busy painting themselves as just trying to subject evolutionary theory to the rigorous scrutiny they claim (falsely) that legitimate scientists fail to give it, it is of course a cornerstone of their philosophy that ID be subjected to no scrutiny whatsoever. Can’t immediately find a natural explanation for the Cambrian explosion or for whatever instance of irreducible complexity they think they’ve found this week? Then it must have been guided by a Creator! Move along, people, no need for further study or hypothesis here!

Which leads, inevitably, to what I promised in this post’s title, the part I find most offensive about pretending Intelligent Design could ever belong in a science classroom–the active discouragement of trying to understand our universe better. Quite apart from the fact that increasing our understanding should really only serve to increase our awe at how amazing Creation is (whether or not there was a Creator who had anything to do with it), imagine where we’d be if people like these had managed to get their claws into Louis Pasteur or the Wright brothers or Michael Faraday or Albert Einstein during their formative years.

Imagine a world where it takes two weeks to travel by ocean liner between Europe and the Americas because we never developed an understanding of aerodynamics and therefore never developed the aeroplane. Imagine only being able to communicate with loved ones who are thousands of miles away by pen and paper, and don’t get to hear their voices, because we never explored electromagnetic theory and therefore never developed the telephone. Imagine a loved one who’s younger than you–a sibling or cousin or offspring–and then imagine watching them die in infancy of smallpox or scarlet fever because we live in a society without a proper understanding of germ theory or vaccination.

That’s the sort of world Intelligent Design apologists want us to live in–one where we don’t question our surroundings or try to understand how the universe works anymore.


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"Man’s Reason"

Creation MuseumI read John Scalzi’s report of his field trip to the Creation Museum. Scalzi’s essay is amusing (though I don’t think his horseshit metaphor is really anything that others haven’t pointed out quite a few times before), but what I really found interesting was his photo tour of the museum.

One point did occur to me, though. Scalzi is quite right to point out the intellectual dishonesty as trying to slip in decades (in fact over a century) of rigorous scientific process and peer review as being just “man’s reason” and not really any different from the assertion of literal Biblical inerrancy as a starting point.

But there’s something else to point out here: the Creation Museum’s tacit acceptance, by attempting to draw this distincion between Creationism and Man’s Reason, that the scientific theory of Darwinian evolution is exactly what an observer should conclude if their “starting point” is one of “reason”. That is, that if our starting point is looking at the evidence and trying to come up with the most logical explanation based on our observations without having a pre-conceived agenda that we insist on making everything conform to, then we come up with natural evolution as our conclusion, and not, say, a pseudo-scientific fantasy masquerading as science, such as Intelligent Design.

Incidentally, while searching for a picture for this post, I came across this article from Scientific American, which I found really interesting.


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Oh, and like Pink Floyd points out, also Thought Control

Victoria Waterfield (Deborah Watling)I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about my beliefs, and have been kicking around the idea of trying to tie them together into some sort of cogent social philosophy, so that I’ll already have some groundwork completed when I start constructing my programme of reforms after the coming, inevitable Revolution sweeps me to power. (Note that I call it a social philosophy–as in “a philosophy of society”–and not a political philosophy.)

I’m also trying to decide if it would be at all beneficial to try to formulate a statement of my philosophy (a manifesto, some might call it), either to be written here or somewhere more private. Such a statement would probably be a pretty broad, longterm project, but right now I’m just going to be talking about the issue on which I usually feel the strongest in politics: public education.

This post might mark a bit of a departure from this blog’s usual tone. (Or, on the other hand, perhaps you’ll find it to be intellectual, introspective, condescending, grammatically correct, sarcastic and smugly elitist, and therefore exactly typical of what you usually associate with what I write here.) But if it’s a bit drier than you’re used to, I hope it’s also a bit more thought-provoking.

By education, I mean specifically secondary education, both because it’s (to me) the most important phase of education, and because I think it’s the phase we’re most prone to get wrong–because it’s the least straightforward. Primary education is basically about socialising children so that they’re capable of conducting themselves in groups, and about laying the academic basics that they’re going to be building their education on once they get to middle and high school; and post-secondary education (why don’t we call it tertiary education?) is something that gets tailored to each individual’s circumstance. But secondary education is where we’re supposed to be turning children into young men and women capable of functioning in our society.

We teach students five core subjects in secondary school: Math, Science, English, History and Foreign Language. But too often, I think, we think of these subjects as–well, as nouns, is the best way I can think of to put it. As set bodies of knowledge, to be learnt and memorised by the student, and for that knowledge to then be regurgitated in tests to prove that he or she has learnt it.

Now, this body-of-knowledge aspect of each subject is certainly important. I’d definitely expect someone who’s taken three or four years of Spanish to be capable of emailing hotels in Patagonia so that they can find one with plumbing in every room or which serves breakfast in the mornings. And I’d expect any high school graduate to be able to tell me what three things are defined by any group of three nonlinear points, how you mix acid and water, what we know about Shakespeare’s characters based on whether they speak in iambic pentameter or in blank verse, and why Great Britain, after spending three hundred years allying with the German states to continually frustrate French expansionism in Central Europe, suddenly made a volte face after 1871 and spent the ensuing century instead siding with France against the Germans.

But there’s something else that each of these subjects should be imparting to our children–something that most people overlook, but that is to me far more important than the conventional notion of the classroom being a place to learn hard facts. If the conventional idea of each subject is its “nounlike” aspect–the body of knowledge that just is, sitting there waiting to be learnt–then this other aspect is the subject as verb: each of these five core subjects is also a skill, a way of approaching the world and of seeing it from a different perspective. It’s vital both for our children and for the society they’ll inherit that they pick up these skills during their adolescence.

Maths. (Or math to my American friends.) This is probably the easiest to see as a skill rather than a book of facts–none of us have a problem with the concept of learning to “do maths.” Mathematics teaches logical reasoning, induction and a whole host of other critical thinking concepts.

Science. Fundamentally, all science begins with observation of natural phenomena. From those observations scientists make generalisations about how they think the world works–hypotheses–and then they test those generalisations and see if their test results are consistent with what their hypotheses predict. And if they’re not consistent, then they throw out the hypothesis, not the test result. What I’m describing is, of course, the Scientific Method.

And that’s the single most important thing we can hope for a student to take out of a Science classroom–the idea that you don’t know something, truly know it, until you’ve seen it for yourself, and examined it enough to test it and poke holes in it.

Which is of course why introducing religion, in the form of intelligent design, into the Science classroom is a blow aimed at the fundamental principle on which all rational scientific discovery is built. It’s an attempt to base the curriculum around an article of unobservable, untestable religious faith (that evolution is guided by a Higher Power)–and faith, being a belief that we hold regardless of the absence of independently verifiable evidence (or even despite evidence to the contrary), is absolutely anathaemic to science by definition.

(Please note that I’m not saying it’s impossible for a person to be both faithful and rational. It’s just that they deal with totally different areas. Faith is there for the why, while science is there for the how–though both sides of the debate sometimes forget that distinction. What I think a lot of the faithful–the sort of faithful, at least, who think intelligent design should be taught in our schools–often find so threatening is that when people are able to better understand the how through science, many of them no longer seem to need the why that faith is there to provide.)

English. By high school, English has become a literature class, not a grammar class. It’s (hopefully) where our children learn to look at subtext–to know that the writer (or the speaker) can be creating an atmosphere, and manipulating our reaction, beneath the surface of their words. Anyone who’s colour-marked should know what I’m talking about. It’s where they learn to pick the text apart–to understand even the things that aren’t being said. It’s where they learn how language itself can be used to manipulate their perception, so that they understand what’s being done when politicians refer to President Bush’s immigration reform proposal as “amnesty”, or when the commercials I’ve recently heard airing on the radio refer to an American withdrawal from Iraq as “surrender”.

Foreign Language. One of the things I often find frustrating about living in a foreign country is the way people just assume that everyone else in the world thinks like them. It’s also, I think, at the root of a lot of the ill will the United States seems to have generated for itself through its foreign policy over the last five years–the preconception that, given the same set of circumstances, most of the peoples would react the same way Americans would in a given situation.

Learning a second language is a great way to show people that that’s not true. It shows that the structure of the language itself shapes how our thoughts work–everything from grammatical sentence structure to idioms. It lets a child realise that a foreign language is more than just an alien vocabulary being substituted in for our own words–and by the same token, that a foreign citizen is something other than just an American speaking a funny language and wearing funny clothes. They’re a product of their culture, shaped by that culture’s language and history and values–and hopefully, it also lets them realise that we have been wholly shaped by our own unique culture.

History. We’re taught that history is what’s happened in the past, but of course it’s not. History is what our sources tell us happened in the past. And that’s something that can be hard to understand–that everything we’re told in a history book is something that’s been filtered through someone else’s interpretation. History itself is interpretation–there’s no such thing as “objective history”. A student of history learns to question each piece of information they’re given–to examine it and to evaluate its source, to decide for themselves whether it should be trusted rather than simply accepting it without question.

And there we have it. There’s a lot of overlap in these skills, but that’s as it should be–they give our children a way of looking at the world. A way of seeing beneath the surface, of questioning everything, of examining their experiences and hopefully seeing through to what’s going on between the lines.

So … who can tell me what three things are defined by any set of three nonlinear points?


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It’s time to move on

Why is everybody so kerfluffled because Pluto is no longer a planet? Seriously folks, what’s the big deal? They called the first two or three asteroids they discovered “planets” as well, till they realised there’s a ring of millions of them encircling the Sun between Mars and Jupiter. Same principle at work here–there’s countless (literally countless, since we haven’t charted more than a fraction of them yet) objects floating around beyond Neptune that look just like Pluto and Charon and Sedda, and even the same sort of whacky orbit that the Pluto-Charon system has. Astronomers goofed, and now they’ve corrected it. The new definition of planet should be considered a victory for science, and as such should be making science fiction-type folks happy, not prompting them to petulantly proclaim, “I’ll die with nine planets!” Seriously, this is the same sort of attitude that led to people being burnt at the stake for suggesting that maybe it’s not the Sun revolving around the Earth.

Still thinking about buying that T-shirt, though.


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They stole Pluto

Our solar system now has only eight planets. Pluto has been shown the door.

At first glance it seems pretty odd–why all this need to redefine planet so that Pluto is no longer included? What does the profession of astronomy have to gain by confusing the public over something that everyone under the age of eighty has been taught the very definition of our solar system is–nine planets orbiting the Sun?

But then as I looked deeper, I realised the issue is not that we’re redefining planet, even though that’s how every article on it I’ve seen describes it, in both the general and the scientific press. What we’re instead doing is defining the word planet for the first time. Pluto only snuck into the planet group to begin with because we didn’t have an adequate litmus test for excluding it at the time–and because we thought some things about Pluto and about our solar system that turned out not to be quite accurate.

Apparently, there’s been at least some academic debate about whether Pluto really belongs in the club pretty much ever since it was discovered in 1930. But that debate has got a lot stronger over the past several decades, particularly since we realised in the late 1990s that there are likely to be dozens–or hundreds–of objects Pluto’s size or larger orbiting the Sun beyond Neptune, the eighth planet. So something had to be done.

Originally, the attempts to define planet focused on keeping Pluto in the group. But any definition that included Pluto would have had to include at least three other solar objects (Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt; Charon, Pluto’s moon; and an object discovered a couple of years ago in a similar orbit to Pluto’s, nicknamed Xena), and possibly many more–including, at one point, our Moon, as well as the object proclaimed “the tenth planet” in the world’s press when it was discovered in 2003, Sedda.

From that initial liberal position, however, the astronomical community seem to have swung toward a stance of making the definition as stringent and exclusive as possible–so in order to keep out the moons and the asteroids, we also have to expel Pluto.

I already have my high school social studies textbook to show my son some day, where the map of “Europe Today” includes two Germanies, one Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union (yes, yes, it was already horribly out of date when I was in high school); now I’m going to have astronomy books from when I was a kid that say we have an extra planet!


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What I do when I should be working

So this is how we got here. Scientists in a lab.

Well then, somebody find me that umbilical wormhole, cuz I want out to the real universe.

Found this on Diane Duane’s blog.


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