Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Scientific Method, Puzzles and Dinosaurs

One of the most misunderstood concepts in science is the scientific method, or “the process by which scientists, collectively and over time, endeavor to construct an accurate (that is, reliable, consistent and non-arbitrary) representation of the world.” The biggest misunderstanding is that it is only used by scientists. This is not the case.

The scientific method is simply a process by which questions are explored and their potential answers tested for validity. There are few restrictions for what these questions can be, as long as they focus on acquiring new understandings of the world through their answers.

Let’s look at the simple example of a jigsaw puzzle, illustrated here:

I use [a jigsaw] puzzle as an example of how science works. I use those cheap 100 piece kid puzzles that you can buy at WalMart, [which have] an identical cut out pattern with different pictures.

The first thing that we do is turn over the pieces and I try and get the students to think about the problem. Just looking at the pieces, can they come to some sort of idea of what the picture is? Unless you have some type of super genius that can assemble the pieces in their mind the students can only come up with vague ideas of what the picture might be. We do this in science all the time. Even the assumption that it will make a picture that they can make sense of should be pointed out to them. Try and get them to think about what they are doing.

When they start to assemble the puzzle ask them what they are doing. None of the students I've had have tried the random assembly of just putting any two pieces together. Get them to understand that they are hypothesis testing by grouping the pieces by whatever character that they are using (color, pattern, shape). Ask them why their hypotheses fail so often. Get them to understand the problem that science deals with when you make assumptions based in incomplete data. If they were able to take all the characteristics of each piece and make a perfect analysis they would never be wrong in their choice of which pieces fit where, but using the mark I eyeball and only a limited set of characters you often make mistakes. You have to expect to be wrong quite often in science. You have to be able to test your hypotheses.

Completing a puzzle surprisingly involves myriad questions and gives further insight into this logical process, as I will expand upon below.

Let’s say we come across a pile of cardboard pieces on a table. With no one nearby to inquire with, we start to wonder what exactly the pieces are doing there. The first question we ask might be, “What are these colorful shapes used for?” Here, we are performing the first steps of the scientific method, by OBSERVING the surroundings (noticing that there are cardboard pieces on an unattended table), and by IDENTIFYING a question we want to answer.

What could a pile of shapes, colors and patterns possibly be doing on the table? How could we go about answering this? For many of us, our childhood memories are interspersed with jigsaw puzzles filling a problem-solving niche in our early development. Past experiences with puzzles give us an idea for the purpose of curvy, colorful cardboard pieces: they might be interlocking parts of a larger picture.

Using a priori knowledge like this is one method of HYPOTHESIS FORMULATION, the next step in the scientific method. One may use past experiences, induction, or a little ingenuity to come up with hypotheses, since a hypothesis is simply one possible answer to a problem. And there are always more we can consider.

What other hypotheses can we come up with? Perhaps these pieces are the leftovers of an arts-and-crafts project. Perhaps they are excrements of mutant termites. Perhaps they were left by a hostile species of aliens as target coordinates for an impending onslaught of nuclear weaponry. We seem to be approaching the limits of absurdity as we go on, but these ideas can still be considered. Let’s stick with the first and most likely guess: they are puzzle pieces.

Our next step is to PREDICT what should happen if our hypothesis is true. If these pieces are indeed parts of a puzzle, they should then fit together in a logical pattern of colors to form a picture.

The most fun is had by scientists in the following phase: EXPERIMENTATION. Despite any stigmas attached to the word, one does not need to be working with radioactive carcinogens distilled from puppy blood for it to be called an experiment; an experiment is purely a way to determine if test results support predictions. In this case, an experiment would merely be taking two pieces and fitting them together. Any child old enough to play with puzzles can, by definition, perform experiments.

Picking up the first two pieces we see and attempting to fit them together might not work. That is, through our experiment we find that our results do not support our predictions. It happens. In science, it happens quite frequently. Hypothesis testing invariably involves many failures before success. If two pieces do not fit together, we try again with other pieces.

We continue to fit together pieces and after a few correct connections, we ask ourselves why we are successful at times and not at others. We recognize that we are not just picking up random pieces and experimenting, but instead we are using some logic during successful experiments. Through testing our initial hypothesis that these pieces of cardboard make up a jigsaw puzzle, we actually formulate a new subset of hypotheses: “These two pieces will fit together because….” They could fit together because they have the same color, or the same pattern, or the same shape, or any other type of similarity. Logic tells us that two interlocking pieces will look somewhat the same, and so we experiment by picking up two pieces with similar traits (color, pattern, or shape, depending on our hypothesis) and determining if they connect.

After each experiment, successful or not, we advance to the last step of the scientific method, or REVISION & REPETITION:

Let’s say that we begin our experimentation by picking up two random pieces and attempting to fit them together. Failure is afoot and the pieces do not fit together although we predicted they should. We then reexamine our hypothesis, that these pieces are part of a jigsaw puzzle. Through this last step of the scientific method, we determine if our hypothesis can be revised to fit experimental results. Seeing as how there are many pieces, it is possible that we simply did not pick up neighboring pieces, and so our hypothesis is still valid. We can repeat the experiment with different pieces and continue the thought process, hoping to find pieces that are neighbors and therefore that link together.

Revision takes place through making the hypothesis more precise—that is, by including the idea of similar characteristics for neighboring, interlocking pieces. We attempt to repeat experiments by looking for pieces with matching colors. If we were to still encounter failure, we could continue with matching colors to link pieces and hope repetition nets us eventual success, or we could further revise our hypothesis and instead experiment with pieces of matching shapes, perhaps by looking for pieces that have a straight edge on one side. The process continues. After successfully matching all pieces with their interlocking neighbors, we see a beautiful picture of the Aurora Borealis, and have proven that our hypothesis is correct.

The steps we’ve taken to answer the question about the unknown cardboard cutouts — Observation, Identification, Hypothesis Formulation, Prediction, Experimentation, and Revision & Repetition — all form the foundation for the scientific method.

Let’s now briefly jump from jigsaw puzzles to another non-sciencey example:

Cyanide and Happiness, a daily webcomic
(Cyanide & Happiness @

Assume that this comic detailed a hypothesis for why dinosaurs became extinct: God threw rocks at them, shouting “oh shit oh shit oh shit”.

While hypotheses are only guesses to the riddles of life, there is a distinction between good and bad guesses. One of these distinctions refers to FALSIFIABILITY, or the capacity to eliminate plausible alternatives. A good guess is completely at the mercy of the scientific method, meaning it allows for experimentation and is subject to being disproved and revised. Our initial hypothesis related to our puzzle is falsifiable: for example, if we were unable to form a picture with our potential puzzle pieces, we would eliminate the possibility that we have a single picture made up of interlocking pieces; they might actually be pieces from more than one puzzle, or perhaps they are not puzzle pieces at all.

Any hypothesis involving religion or god, by nature of logic and methodology, is a bad one. One cannot prove or disprove god just as one cannot prove or disprove god’s aversion to reptiles. There is no way we can logically carry out such an experiment to test this guess, and thus we can never hope to revise it for the better, other than eliminating it completely. Our time is better spent not even making this guess since it will never be more than a random, illogical thought with no basis for truth.

We have now gone over two common items, puzzles and comics, in examining the usefulness of the scientific method. Consider how you approach and solve other problems in your daily lives, and see how closely your approach mirrors the steps outlined here.


Sorry for the lack of posts, but I think I'm getting back on track now. I've kept myself sane by watching Robot Chicken, over and over and over again:

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Daily Cal and (another) Intro

Welcome to all 7 of you who found this blog from the Daily Cal article "Blogging Berkeley". Yes, please read on in good health and humor and feel free to leave comments and feedback, although I must caution that all of you simply must control your raging Firefox browsers, as bandwidth doesn't grow on trees, y'know. Hippies, yes. Bandwidth: no no no.

I had thought being plugged in a newspaper would feel somewhat more momentous then it does now. But I shan't complain. I'll instead give some background for this blog and this author's ideation.

I started "The Catalytic Triad" in July 2006 as a response to what I've experienced in blogging communities both here in Berkeley and afar, and as a chance for personal growth. Blogging offers an open forum for folks to circulate different perspectives regarding all kinds of issues, and reading these can be as educational as it is enjoyable; there is a wealth of good writing that can be found within many blogs, offering insightful analysis, witty humor, and a powerful voice.

I’m fond of the different perspectives and styles I’ve read from bloggers whom I admire, and so I thought I’d also contribute my voice and perspective to the forum. Writing has also been a great way to sort my thoughts and stances on various issues, and to push myself into being more informed of issues that interest me.

The title of my blog espouses some of my motivations for writing: I believe that science, education, and progressive policy will most effectively promote the formation of a technologically-sound, socially-just, free-thinking society, one that isn't afraid to address questions of where we came from, nor one that acts myopically in its treatment of different cultures and norms. As a student, I choose to act on these by first educating myself, and then by educating others. My blog is one venue for that. My job on Hall Staff is another.

And in the nearby future, Teach For America will also be one. After graduation, I’ll be beginning my summer training to become a teacher, since I will be teaching secondary biology come this September. By that point there will be a million more ideas that I will want to write about. Consequently, this blog has taken up permanent residence for the foreseeable future.

One of my favorite memories of blogging is also one of my worst, because it involves a news story that broke my heart—the tragic story of Melinda Duckett. Writing of her account and the media pundits that disgraced her was a cathartic experience for me: writing gave me a way to express my grief, while the power of blogs allowed my thoughts to reach out and persuade others. The whole experience reinforced the importance of having a persuasive voice in a public forum, and of taking an ardent stand on subjects one feels strongly for.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Why Teach?

One of my most memorable teachers, Mr. Tieche, taught my peers and me the nuances of diction and structure way back in my 12th grade years of AP English. I happened upon his blog through the conjury known as Google, and wanted to link to an article he wrote a while back, entitled "Why Teach?":

Here’s my point. The seeds we plant might not be visible now. And it might take years for those suckers to pop through the soil. And it might not happen for every kid. But we have the power of life and death in our words, and in our classrooms. We have a bunch of kids captive for an hour of their lives every day, which – sadly- in some cases, is more time than they have with their real mom or dad. A lot can happen in an hour.

My mom –who was a kindergarten teacher for 32 years – told me something once that I don’t know is true or not, but it should be. She told me that in the 50s, in the USSR, some of the highest paid professionals were professors and teachers because the Russian government knew that the future of the country rested in the hands of teachers. She said that is why she taught.

I think, in part, it’s why all of us have chosen to do this. So thanks. Thanks for being a teacher. Thanks for being a history maker. Thanks for putting in the hours and caring and working and dealing with teenagers. And I guarantee, you might not be around to hear it, but some day, your students will thank you, too.

It's a warm feeling that I get, realizing that a favorite teacher of mine chose to teach for nearly the same reasons as why I savor hall staff life. I'm really going to enjoy this teaching gig.

Our teachers deserve some recognition. They take on a difficult job and get little appreciation for it, from their students and from our society (this ain't 1950 in the USSR). If you can think back to any past teachers that have made an indelible impression on you, why not let them know?

Friday, February 16, 2007

Survive the Oregon Trail, Part Two

*This week concludes with a wrap-up to the contest posted on Monday. No score submissions, but I finished another ridiculous physical chemistry midterm, so blogging will again continue*

There’s a lot of history behind the game, hailed as one of the greatest games of all time by some gaming websites, which says a lot for something educational. Whether you used to play it in elementary school or if you recently tried it out for the first time for an easy $40 some good ol'-fashioned fun, there are a few interesting ideas to ponder, such as:

Why is there such overwhelming systematic bias toward white males? You have the choice to do many things on your trails, but one choice preselected for you by the game developers is the fact that you, the player, are a white male. And as a white male, your job is to do the hunting, fixing, and bartering. Traditional female roles during the expedition are ignored and virtually non-existent, maybe because they weren’t entertaining enough to children? And why not?

Was it warranted by the developers to leave out details of the interactions with Native Americans during the migration? The game was definitely intended for younger audiences, but be honest: how much do you remember of the Oregon Trail from any social studies classes you took earlier in your life? If you hadn’t taken any classes on the subject recently at Cal, what would you remember most? Do you remember the “Indian Removal Act”? Buffalo extermination? Genocide? If pretty pictures make up our primary education system here, when then should children learn truth?

The power of social class on levels of opportunity. Let’s take our two professions, the Carpenter and the Farmer, as examples. The Carpenter and the Farmer, being the White Males that they are required to be at the onset, decide to take their boring and unnecessary families with them to Oregon City. They have choices. The Carpenter has the advantage of being a part of a wealthier family than the Farmer. He can thus afford to buy more clothes and oxen for his wagon than the Farmer. The Carpenter's family arrives in Oregon City faster and healthier than the Farmer’s family, and with more left-over money to boot. The Carpenter builds and starts his own restaurant, and succeeds in life.

The Farmer's family arrives later in the year, with little food and less money. With few options for survival, the Farmer works long, grueling hours at the Carpenter’s restaurant, and for very little pay. There is never improvement in the Farmer's family’s condition.

The game disclaimer states that, with respect to picking professions, “The harder you have to try, the more points you deserve!” Most of us would agree with that statement, because as Americans we value equality of opportunity and the freedom to advance based on perseverance. But is that the case in real life? In the game, the Farmer had to try harder to get his family safely across America, with less money to be used for necessities for survival. Extrapolating from that, did he have the same opportunities available to him as the Carpenter did when he reached Oregon?

I think you saw it coming, but now pull back your perspective and look at life today: which family would be more likely to succeed in moving to Oregon? Which family has more options when it comes to housing, clothing, transportation, etc.? Which family has more opportunities for career advancement, for educational advancement, for a less stressful life? Which family “deserves more points” but is still fated to succeed less?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Survive the Oregon Trail, Part One

*This week is turning out to be a stressful one, so expect fresh content no earlier than this weekend. In the meantime, I'd like to let readers try their hands at a little contest I offered my residents last year. There were cash prizes involved when I last attempted this, but I can't really subsidize blog doings, so winners will instead receive my sincerest gratitude. I'll post any results readers have submitted plus a follow-up piece I wrote last year on Thursday/Friday.*

The Oregon Trail, a popular computer game during the 1980’s and early 90’s about 19th century American pioneer life, is a relic of childhood to many of our generation who grew up here. In it, players take the role of a party of people, of a selected profession, and attempt to survive the long, dangerous trip from Independence, Missouri to Oregon City.

Herein lies the challenge: I want to see how many of you can survive the trip in the game, and with the most points (translating to how healthy your party is, and how many possessions you still have). There are 3 professions that start off with the highest to the lowest amount of cash (Banker, Carpenter, and Farmer, respectively).

Simple, yes? Download the programs using the below protocol:

1.) First, download the emulator
2.) Then extract it and run "APPLEWIN"
3.) Finally, download the game

After this you’re ready to play the game! When (or if..) you make it to Oregon City, and the results screen is displayed with the tally of your points (this results screen is absolutely necessary), just copy the screen, make it an image file, and send it to me via email.

Happy Trails,

Friday, February 09, 2007

Why I Joined Teach For America

My life has seen many changes in the past month. I researched my options with Teach For America and conversed with alumni about the program. I accepted an offer to teach secondary science in Los Angeles. I lost further interest in graduate school and research. I enrolled in “The Achievement Gap: Causes and Solutions” DeCal. I elected to be reassigned to teaching secondary biology in the South Bay Area, and I have been allowed to do so. In preparation for my approaching future, my recent past has oft been spent thinking critically about this next step in my life. I’ve never detailed the whys publicly, however.

Consider this a primer on my newly found desire for teaching in low-income public schools. I hope to persuade you to also consider committing 2 years of your life after college to joining the TFA corps.

Any standard Teach For America essay is required by imaginary laws of nature to start off with the following introduction:

“In America today, educational inequity persists along socioeconomic and racial lines.

Nine-year-olds growing up in low-income communities are already three grade levels behind their peers in high-income communities.

Half of them won't graduate from high school.

Those who do graduate will, on average, read and do math at the level of eighth graders in high-income communities.

These disparities severely limit the life prospects of the 13 million children growing up in poverty today. And, because African-American and Latino/Hispanic children are three times as likely to grow up in a low-income area, these disparities also prevent many children of color from truly having equal opportunities in life.”

These statistics constitute what is commonly called the Achievement Gap, or the discrepancy in successes of children from varying backgrounds. Studies show that the financial stability of a family is a direct determinant of the opportunities available to their children. Here are a few more figures that flesh out the disturbing realities of the Achievement Gap:

Children growing up in low-income areas are seven times less likely to graduate from college than children in high-income areas. (Source: Education Trust, 2002.)

While children from families making over $90,000 have a one in two chance of graduating from college by age 24, that number plummets to one in 17 for children from families making less than $35,000. (Source: Education Trust, 2004.)

In 2000, Caucasian students had a national public high school graduation rate of 78%. The graduation rate for African-American students during the same year was 56%, and for Latino/Hispanic students was 54%. (Source: The Manhattan Institute, 2001.)

Before they even begin school, kids in these areas are already fighting an uphill battle to ever be able to match the successes of students from more affluent areas. Reason number one for my interest in this program logically follows:

I Believe in Equality of Opportunity

America idealizes concepts of equal opportunity and liberty of outcome, yet we do not have that today. Racism, sexism, and similar isms detriment our society by favoring certain folks over others for reasons that preclude choice. We cannot choose our parents or our culture just as we cannot alter the way gravity works, yet characteristics like these still largely impact our daily lives. For example, being white privileges me in many ways that others do not experience. And that’s not right.

Similarly, for our children experiencing the world through the methodical journeys of education in the classroom, there are some choices already indefinitely made for them, like if they qualify for school subsidized free lunches. Or if their schools can afford books.

I’m dedicated to the ideas of social justice because I believe that folks all deserve the same chances in life to succeed and grow. Younger folks in our public schools are entitled to that same American ideal of equal opportunity. Being an engaged and motivated teacher in these neighborhoods will give kids the educational opportunities hitherto withheld from them.

Along with strong American ideals of opportunities for all, you may be surprised when I say

I Believe in Service to my Country and Global Community

Of course, there’s really no need to be all that surprised, for the word service entails more than just conscription. There are myriad paths available to the citizen looking to better his community and strengthen his country: He may enlist in the Marines to protect our borders and interests abroad; He may join the Peace Corps to safeguard human rights for all; He may become a Big Brother and mentor teenagers in a nearby district. Any one of these commitments would have a marked impact on our country and the community at large. Service to our communities means simply giving back to the society that made us who we are, to recognize its merits and to fix its faults.

Teach For America is an opportunity to do that, to recognize the merits of a publicly-funded and readily-accessible education, and to strive to improve this education for those it neglects. Expanding educational opportunities? Just think of the impact one can have on society by doing this. Educated and motivated youths mature into a talented and inspired work force and return the favor for the next generation. Children are our most important investment and thus service toward their education needs to be our priority.

And hey, why not reinstitute the draft and incorporate this definition of service? I’d wager that a mandatory 2-year service stint for adults 18-25 years of age would bring about a major improvement in our urban and rural communities and in our international relations, not to mention empower the young generation with the skills to become successful leaders in any work sector they enter.

We approach a third and final self truth:

I Believe in Personal Betterment through Service

Many college students are opposed to this. Ask a Berkeley undergraduate to defer the working world for an additional 2 years upon graduation and you might be regarded as joking. Or flirtatious if you happen to be a cute girl and he an engineer.

Service should not be seen as an obstacle to professional development, but as another avenue for it. Service to my residents over the past 2 years has empowered me with the administrative and interpersonal skills necessary to be a leader in any future career. Service to my students over the next 2 years will continue to shape me in this regard, by setting educational goals and working diligently to achieve those goals through exciting and creative ways to teach and inspire.

Aside from further refinement of leadership skills, Teach For America offers a chance for college graduates to give back to society through service and dedication. The Achievement Gap is our generation’s civil rights movement, and Teach For America a channel through which we can create necessary change in our communities. I am teaching after college because I am proud of the ideal of equal opportunities for all that this nation is built on, and because I want to help make it a reality.

Do the same. The final deadline to apply for the 2007 corps is Sunday, February 18. Visit the website for application information.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Male sweat arouses women

Science to the rescue:

"Just a few whiffs of a chemical found in male sweat is enough to raise levels of the stress hormone cortisol in heterosexual women, according to a new study by University of California, Berkeley, scientists.


Compared to their response when sniffing a control odor (yeast), the women who sniffed androstadienone reported an improved mood and significantly higher sexual arousal, while their physiological response, including blood pressure, heart rate and breathing, also increased. This was consistent with previous studies."

Valentine's Day is coming up, gentlemen. Tireless research at this university suggests that a romantic stroll during the day might be a good idea. Also consider dressing extra-warmly, playing the Wii, or worrying yourself up into a nervous, sweaty mess before your date arrives!

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Quick Update

I utilized the new labeling feature of blogger and organized everything I've written here thus far. Check out Topics of Interest in the links section to sift through these.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Thursday, February 01, 2007

A New Generation

The Online NewsHour has an interesting report on my generation's entrance into the workplace (video and transcript available):

STAN SMITH, Next Generation Initiatives, Deloitte: Basically, it's baby boomers, Gen X and Gen Y. And the differences, I think, are well-known in some cases.

I put it this way: The baby boomers are "work, work, work." It's a very important part of their live. Gen X is "work, work, I want to work some more, let's talk about it." And Gen Y is "work, work, you want me to work even more? How lame. I think I'll I.M. my friends and tell them how lame you are, asking me to work even more."

On the one hand, we do have a heightened sense of entitlement that demands flexible schedules, early rewards, and a freedom for creativity from our employers. However, we feel we deserve these because of our vaulting ambition to succeed. We're constantly pushing boundaries and thinking outside of the box. Bosses would do well to give us what we want in exchange for our devoted service (while we multi-task and text message our friends about that one party where we drank too much).