Sunday, November 27, 2005

Fill In the Blank

I am reviewing some chapters for non-majors biology textbooks.

It is making me grumpy.

One of the books appears to have been written directly in response to needs that I and other Professors perceive and complain about to book companies. Biology, medicine, health, and ecology are becoming increasingly important to understand as an informed citizen. College Biology classes for non-majors should provide scientific literacy, an understanding of what science is, and useful, practical information.

Here and there, through my extensive education in the biological sciences, I have unearthed some tidbit of immediate practical import. I have understood for years the problems with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, over-use and incorrect use of antibiotics, the fact that cervical cancer is primarily a sexually transmitted disease, that eating a lot of meat is hard on the world’s resources, that goose-bumps are an evolutionary remnant of the reflex that allows other mammals to fluff their coats in response to cold or fear.

These and many other useful and/or interesting bits of knowledge do not really require a Ph.D. to comprehend. In turn they can be instructive on the basic processes of biology. Why not write a non-majors biology text packed with these useful tidbits used as examples of categories of biological processes?

So, this author has aimed to do just that.


But, the text is often convoluted and impenetrable. To make matters worse, throughout the book are question for students to answer to monitor their progress. A great idea, yes? But the questions are fill in the blank, which can be ok, but are too often bad. If the question is a repetition of a sentence in the text, with a key word or two missing then the student simply needs to find the sentence and dutifully copy the word. This does not require any understanding of the concept or process discussed. It does not require understanding the definition of the word. It does not even require an understanding of the English language. It only requires pattern recognition. Furthermore it encourages plagiarism, copying being correct.

I have students in my classes at my university who have had many such “tests” and they are great at pattern recognition. The ones with high grades are often great memorizers in general. They often understand little. They resent me for using different wording on my test questions than I used on my slides in lecture, or that they read in the book. They think I ask too much in requiring them to understand something.

Who would write such questions? What do they think they are teaching? Grrrr.

Friday, November 25, 2005


Champion Ti Shebi’s Orange Julius of Synergy

March 2000 – November 2005

I first saw Julius at a showhall. He was a bright-eyed bright orange little thing of about 5 months old, he had no stripes at all and a bright white undercoat. A true red smoke. The color so rare I had never seen it before. I wanted him. After some negotiating, his breeder, a friend, entrusted him with me.

He was a sweet and silly boy. He started out with a newly neutered older ex-stud, Robinhood, as a companion in Diana’s bedroom. The ten year old and the kitten were soon fast friends, and competed in goofyness, purring, wanting belly-rubs and playing with anything available. One of Julius’s favorite toys was a scrap of paper.

His personality never changed from kittenhood through being a stud to being a neuter and around the house pet.

He had the attention span of a gnat and loved toys. This made him endlessly amusing. He would trot across the room (he rarely walked) and spot a toy.

“A toy!” his expression indicated. “The coolest toy!” He’d grab it, toss it high in the air, bounce high himself, thunk down with it and kick it, leap up and toss again. Then at some point he’d toss it over his shoulder and lose track of it. He’d stop, looking both excited and confused.

“What? What what? What was happening? .... Oh well” and trot on. Then coming back around he’d spot it.

“A toy!” “The coolest toy!” and up in the air it would fly.

Julius also loved strangers. He would greet visitors at the door and often fly unexpected onto their shoulders. He purred hard,kneeded his long monkey toes on the human's shoulders and chest, bonked his head against them, enjoying contact, then wiggle-squirm to get down and run around, only to come back. The littlest thing would have him purring and quivering in excitement.

He fathered one litter of kittens and was then neutered. He helped raise his babies, sleeping with them, cleaning them, playing with them, and looking confused when they sucked on his belly.

He was never a wonderfully healthy cat. His whole litter had been ill when they were little. I think perhaps his health was compromised then, though there was no way for me or his breeder to know that. He was lithe and muscular, but prone to dropping weight. Julius had perpetual problems with his sinuses, then he had an attack of pancreatitis, then others. Finally he became deathly ill in July. It turned out it was potassium deficiency, brought on by kidney problems, that seemed at first to be not very severe. Potassium levels restored he recovered some, only to level off after a couple of months, then slide slowly down. At the end he was just skin and bones, perpetually dehydrated in spite of fluid therapy and medication. He mainly slept in a warm pile of his buddies, including his daughter and little grandchildren. He got up mainly to drink, or pee, but he still had to move at a trot, no strolling for Julius.

At his last visit to the vet, he cheered up considerably on seeing his doctor. He always liked him. He purred, he head bonked, he hopped into his lap as we talked of failed kidneys. He thought about hopping down and trotting around the exam room. His doctor held onto him though, stroking his bony back with gentle hands. Julius then got to see the technicians, he always loved to see new people. For him, it was a good way to go.

On Wednesday afternoon, as the seasons first snow fell softly, I buried him beside an old fashioned climbing rose, on the other side of the trellis from his buddy Robinhood. I planted scented daffodils on top of him. It seemed appropriate for the sweet, silly, sunny boy.

That night was very cold. It is cold still.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Beauty Under the Microscope

Somehow I had missed that the 2005 Nikon Small World awards were out. These images always astonish me. Alien architecture, intricate patterns, beautiful symmetries, abstract art, kaleidoscopes of color, all seen through the lens of a microscope. They should make screen savers for Macs though.

Colored Stars

It has been a clear day all day, and now into the night, clear, clear.

My eyes are succumbing to age. I went to a real eye doctor for the first time on Thursday morning. My right eye has been going from bad to worse. It is astigmatism as it turns out. As one ages astigmatism gets worse. My left eye is no longer perfect either so, I am getting glasses.

Tonight however, the stars seem clear and sharp. The edges of the moon are perfect with only a bit of double image angling up due to the astigmatism. What will they look like with glasses when they arrive?

It is an unusual night. Something in our lowland air has intensified the colors of the stars. Betelgeuse in the shoulder of Orion and Aldebaran half way from there to Mars are both red coals, while at Orion’s foot Rigel shines blue. Above them Capella is yellow-white. Mars itself is so bright and orange, and the Moon waxing, close to full sheds blue-white light, drenching the landscape in cool dreaminess.

I am always amazed that some don’t see the color in the stars I am also amazed that some don’t see color in their dreams. In fact many see no clear images at all in their dreams. My dreams are as vivid and full sensory as real life, perhaps even more so. Sometimes I confuse the two.

Tonight I have a fire in my fireplace, a half of a bottle of a nice red wine awaits. Jazz plays cool and warm on my stereo. A late, yet heavily scented rose blooms from a bottle that once held pear cognac brought from Paris.

It is now, here, officially my birthday.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

By the Corporation, For the Corporation

The government of the U.S.A. is steadily becoming a government of the corporation, by the corporation, for the corporation. The goal is to increase profits, earning for CEOs and stock-holders. To that end we focus on immediate returns, research becomes that which is fast and produces immediate profit. Workers are an expense to be kept as productive and inexpensive as possible. Funding for programs that don’t have immediate payback on the bottom line are trimmed, those that increase profits are expanded.

This leads to all kinds of interesting fallout. Long term thinking is risky, as a corporation’s yearly profits determine it’s returns and ratings. Education is one of many things that requires long term goals. A child entering school now will not be a productive worker for ten to twenty years. That is just too far away if you are watching only this year’s bottom line, perhaps next year’s too if you are thinking ahead.

Much of our success as a country has come from our inventiveness and our education. Our pre-eminence in this area is fading rapidly and may already be lost. An article in today’s New York Times ( on inventors and what they have to say about the current state of invention and research is disheartening, but not at all surprising to me. As a science professor at a pubic University I see a dramatic change in both the quality and expectations of students and in our support from our government. Less and less are students motivated to actually learn and gain skills, and less and less is our state government willing to support us.

Thomas Jefferson foresaw some of the problems we see now in corporate America. The gap between the rich and the poor grows and grows. Speculation and profits drive up housing costs in most parts of the country until the average family cannot afford to own. Though fortunately that is not true here, one of the cheapest real-estate markets in the country.

“If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their money, first by inflation and then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around them, will deprive the people of their property until their children will wake up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered”.
-Thomas Jefferson

What can I do? How do I instill a love of learning, an interest in innovation, a pleasure in personal skills gained through work? How can people be convinced that more money does not equal more happiness but personal achievement can?

Are there many of us who think, as I do, that our country and our public education institutions should not be run by MBA’s interested primarily in the bottom line and corporate profit, but by those who want to give something to the people?

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Intelligent Design

Science teachers at all levels should be able to distinguish science from belief. Science is the process of testing hypotheses to see whether they are supported or not with the aim to find natural explanations for the world and universe around us. A hypothesis is a scientific statement that must be testable and subject to being disproved.

Science is independent of faith. Whether one believes in God or not has no bearing on the scientific process. What is important in a science teacher is that they understand what the scientific process is, and can teach it to their students.

Intelligent Design is not testable and is therefore not scientific. It should not be taught as if it was scientific. To do so will further deteriorate our students’ understanding of what science is. Already we Americans are slipping in science, an area that we used to be the best in the world.

Intelligent Design is a perfectly acceptable, even lovely, belief. We can look at the world around us, see its beauty and complexity and consider that an affirmation of the hand and eye of a greater power if we are so inclined. We can neither prove nor disprove that belief.

There are many things we do not yet know or understand. A true scientist develops hypotheses about how or why these things happen and collects data to see if their ideas are supported or not. Many hypotheses are disproved by the facts. That is the nature of science. We learn from this process. On the other hand, a person who relies on faith instead of science to explain the natural world may choose to see a mystery as evidence of a higher power and refrain from trying to solve its puzzle. Such a person may condemn others who do look for solutions, interpreting it as an attack on their faith. This is not necessary. When scientists do piece together the hows and whys of one process, there will always be other unknowns for those who see God in knowledge gaps.

For most scientists, including Darwin who was a man of faith, testing hypotheses to work out the processes by which things happen is not incompatible with faith. After all, who are we to know the mind and methods of God?

Truth and Beauty

"The mathematician Hermann Weyl was quoted as having said not long before he died, "My work always tried to unite the true with the beautiful, but when I had to choose one or the other, I usually chose the beautiful."

Mathematicians, artists and writers may choose beauty over truth. Scientists can only hope that we do not have to make the choice."

-Lawrence M. Krauss, Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Case Western Reserve University
New York Times, Essay "Science and Religion Share Fascination in Things Unseen": November 8, 2005