Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

In memory

Monday, February 6th, 2012


It’s been a long time since I’ve posted, but I needed to acknowledge the passing of Susan Niebur, otherwise known as WhyMommy.  She fought breast cancer and its metastases, hard, for nearly five years, while parenting and blogging and doing science and friending with more passion and love and fierceness than many fit into much longer lives.  I’ve written about her before, here and here, but I don’t think I had realized just how many lives she had touched until I read the love fest that her friends made for her on Facebook.  I’ve been reading people’s comments on her page and her blog and her twitter feed, and the only consolation is that she knew how beloved on the earth she was.

If you want to support breast cancer research and you’re still pissed at Komen (and I am), you might consider giving to one of these organizations:

  • Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation (IBC is what Susan had.  Short version — not all breast cancer produces lumps.  If you have a change in the skin texture, or a bruise that doesn’t go away, get it checked out.)
  • Lucy Fund for Metastatic Breast Cancer Research.  The majority of people who die of breast cancer in the US die of metastatic breast cancer.  And yet, as Susan pointed out repeatedly, only 3 percent of breast cancer research funding goes to research on metastatic cancer.  It’s worth hassling the big funders (e.g. Komen) about this, but also giving to dedicated research funds.

And go look at the moon tonight.  It’s beautiful.


For WhyMommy

Friday, January 28th, 2011

So, I’m a little behind the gang, but I’ve added the “No Princess Fights Alone”  button to the sidebar, in honor of the incomparable Susan (WhyMommy) of Toddler Planet.  Like many of the the others who posted this, I’ll donate to Crickett’s Answer for each comment on this post, say, by the end of February.  Because even as Susan has learned that her cancer has recurred yet again, she’s busy helping others.

It’s not fair that she has to deal with this.  But I was reminded today of Harlan Ellison’s introduction to Angry Candy, where he quotes Norman Spinrad as saying at his lover’s funeral “There is no justice inherent in the universe… except what we put there.  All the justice that exists, is what we make.  So let us show compassion and sense and courage, in Emily’s name.'”

I’m also thinking of Susan today because it’s the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, and I love the passion with which she writes about her work for NASA and blogs about Women in Planetary Science.  I wrote my college admissions essay about coming to terms with the fact that I wasn’t actually going to be an astronaut, but I still have the Annie Leibovitz poster of Eileen Collins on my office wall.

Happy Moonday!

Monday, July 20th, 2009

I'm too young to have been alive for the moon landing 40 years ago, but I've been really getting a kick out of following the Apollo 11 mission on  My kids are sort of humoring me by watching with me, but I'm enthralled by it.  Intellectually, I think manned spaceflight is too ridiculously expensive to justify, and it crowds out huge amounts of unmanned exploration, but emotionally it's hard to resist.

I heard an interview with Buzz Aldrin this morning, about how his life sort of came adrift after the Apollo mission, when he didn't have clear goals.  I think the same is probably true about much of our space program.

WBR: Intelligence and How to Get It

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

As promised, here's a review of Richard Nisbett's Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count.  it's the book that Nicholas Kristof's column a couple of weeks ago was based on.  The book jacket describes this book as "the authoritative anti-Bell Curve" and indeed, much of the book is  a full-out attack on the claim that intelligence is primarily determined by genetics and that any attempts to improve outcomes for members of disadvantaged groups are doomed.

To be honest, the "how to get it" part was the least interesting part of the book for me, because it covered ground that I already know about — Perry Preschool, KIPP, Carol Dweck's work on the "mindset" that effort matters more than inherent ability.  That said, Nisbett does a good job of writing about these issues in a non-technical manner, and I'm hopeful that he will influence public opinion.

The "intelligence" part of the book was far more interesting, because Nisbett is implicitly arguing with both the strong hereditarians who believe that intelligence is overwhelmingly genetic and that environment (including parenting) doesn't matter much, and with the liberals who aren't sure exactly what is meant by "intelligence," and are pretty skeptical that intelligence tests are picking up underlying ability rather than leaning.  The first two chapters (and a more technical appendix) are aimed squarely at these issues, and should be mandatory reading for anyone who wants to talk about intelligence.

Nisbett argues that the high estimates for the genetic component of intelligence are overwhelmingly based on twin studies, and especially adoptive studies, and these don't haver nearly as much variation in environments as there exists between families overall.  He also notes that overall IQ levels have risen steadily over time, far too quickly to be accounted for by natural selection (if you look at the raw scores, rather than the normed ones which are forced to have a constant mean of 100).  Addressing the question of racial differences in IQ specifically, he points out that the black-white gap has also decreased significantly in the past decades, and that African-Americans with a higher percentage of European genes do not have higher IQs than African-Americans with fewer European genes.

I'm going to end this review where Nisbett begins the book, on the question of what is intelligence.  Even after reading the book, I find it hard to define.  Nisbett is clear that he believes that schooling does increase intelligence, and that scores on even the most abstract and supposedly culture-free components of the IQ test (such as the Raven progressive matrices*) improve markedly with practice.  So he doesn't agree with the opening quote from Cyril Burt that intelligence is "inborn, all-around intellectual ability.. inherited, not due to teaching or training… uninfluenced by industry or zeal."  But he also thinks it's a real characteristic, distinct from specific knowledge of a subject.  In some ways, he almost seems to define intelligence as that which is measured by IQ tests, which is a strong predictor of academic and career sucess although not the only factor in either (with effort, emotional skills, self-discipline, and motivation being the strongest non-intelligence factors in these).

* For what it's worth, I would have chosen a different answer than the "correct" one on the sample problem given in the book, and still think that my answer is equally plausible.

We have got to try this

Friday, July 11th, 2008

I don’t think I ever posted about the "science share" at D’s school in the spring.  He really wanted to participate, so we looked in our kid science books for something easy, and decided to bring in a big bowl of oobleck, which is just cornstarch suspended in water.  It’s got some really weird properties — if you apply pressure to it, it acts like a solid, but if you just hold it in your hand, it acts like a liquid.

As it turns out, it was a huge hit.  Pretty much every kid who walked by wanted to feel it, and half the adults were asking us "what is that stuff?"  It was pretty chaotic, because between trying to watch N, stop kids getting oobleck all over the place, and racing to the bathrooms for more paper towels, we clearly needed at least one more adult than we had.  But it was also a ton of fun.

Today, gizmodo had a link to a video of what happens when you mix oobleck, a metal pan, and a loud subwoofer.  We have got to try this.

NASA Kids’ Club

Saturday, May 31st, 2008

We had some very impressive thunderstorms this afternoon, and the picnic we were going to attend to was canceled.  N had a party to attend, so I let D spend extra time playing on my computer.

I had promised to look on NASA’s web site for pictures from the new Mars lander, and we did find some fine images, but the hit of the day was the NASA Kids’ Club.  Lots of games with a space theme, some more overtly educational than others, organized by difficulty level.  You can send your name to the Moon.  And, new today, Buzz Lightyear travels with the shuttle to visit the space station.

I also signed D up for his own Galaxy Zoo account, and he passed the qualifying test with ease, but didn’t have patience to classify more than half a dozen or so objects.

Plastic bags

Thursday, February 7th, 2008

One of the sections of The World Without Us that caught my attention is the description of the gigantic collection of plastic trash in the middle of the Pacific ocean.  It was running around in the back of my head last week when I read the NY Times article about how Ireland has essentially stopped using disposable shopping bags, driven in large part by a 33 cent per bag tax.  Meanwhile, D has been learning about recycling at school, and I’ve been trying to use that as a starting point for a broader lesson about the environment (and turning off lights when you leave the room, please).

So we’ve decided to see if we can break the plastic bag habit.  We’ll keep track of how many we take in each month, and see how low we can get the number.

I understand that giving up plastic grocery bags isn’t going to save the world.  And there are plenty of things that involve plastics that I have no intention of giving up.  But it strikes me that using disposable plastic bags in no way improves my quality of life.  It’s just a habit.  And one that we can choose to break.

We’ve got some canvas bags already, and I went ahead and ordered some folding ones that I can keep in my purse so I always have one with me.  We’ll see how it goes.


So far, so good.  We’ve had some slip-ups, but have been using them more often than not (and often forgoing the plastic bag even when we didn’t bring the grocery bags).

Jo(e) has a great post up about reusable bags.  She argues that the problem is that they’re so convenient that they get used for everything BUT groceries.  But if you buy enough of them, they become ubiquitous, and you stop having to worry about what you did with them.

The World Without Us

Wednesday, February 6th, 2008

Last night I was far too distracted to write a book review, but I do want to get back into the habit of writing them.  This week’s book is The World Without Us, by Alan Weissman.  As suggested by the title, the book explores what would happen to the Earth if humans simply disappeared one day (whether abducted by aliens, taken in the rapture, or killed by a highly specific virus that left everything else on earth alone).  How long would our creations last?  Would the damage that we’ve done to the environment be healed, or would our chemical and nuclear facilities wreak even more havoc left untended?

Weissman uses these questions as launching points to explore a range of phenomena, from the Korean DMZ as wildlife refuge, to vast underground cities in Turkey, to the dead zone at Chernobyl, to the question of why there are almost no mega-fauna left anyplace on earth but Africa.  (Weissman’s answer is that African megafauna learned early to be wary of humans, while the great animals in other parts of the world were taken by surprise by the dangerousness of these apparently helpless primates.  As I write this, I’m not sure why Asian elephants and tigers are an exception to that rule.)

The wide range of topics in the book are both a strength and a weakness.  Weissman’s conclusion is that almost all traces of humans (except for bronze statues and radioactivity) will be erased, given enough time.  But because he jumps from issue to issue, having read the book, I still don’t have a specific sense of what the world would look like in 5 years, 50 years, 100 years, 1000 years.

It’s hard to read the book, and not be horrified by some of the things that we’re doing to the earth — driving species to extinction, filling the oceans with plastic, changing the very climate.  But it doesn’t point to obvious solutions, and can leave you with a sense that nothing we do at this point can fix things very much.

Health and parenting

Thursday, January 18th, 2007

I was intrigued by this story in the Washington Post on Monday, reporting on a study that examined the cost of childbearing on parental health. The researchers took advantage of the huge amount of geneological data collected by the Mormon church, and studied the effects of family size on both parental and child health.

As you’d expect, the odds of dying in childbirth or immediately thereafter rose for women the more children they had borne.  But the odds of dying in the next year rose significantly for women even after the first few months, and for men as well.  In an online Q and A, the reporter said that the findings held across imputed socioeconomic status, which suggests that it’s not just a matter of having too many mouths to feed.  The article suggests that the findings may be a sign of the health impacts of stress.  Children in large families were also more likely to die than those in small families, possibly due to inadequate supervision.

I wasn’t surprised to see that children were more likely to die in childhood if one of their parents died before they reached age 5.  I was surprised that this finding was so much stronger for maternal death than paternal death.  I can see how maternal death would be a disaster for an infant, but my stereotypical image of pioneer families makes me think that loss of a father would be a greater disaster for older children.  But there may have been more social support for widows and their children than I imagine.  (I also think there may be some bias introduced by the sample design, which is limited to couples who were each married only once; my impression is that both widows and widowers tended to remarry out of simple economic necessity.)

Given both smaller family sizes today and better medical care, I’m not sure if this study has any practical implications today, but I thought it was interesting.

Conservatives and evolution

Sunday, July 10th, 2005

Ben Adler at the New Republic interviewed a bunch of conservatives about their opinions of evolution, intelligent design, and what should be taught in public schools. It’s quite a fascinating read.

I was particularly struck by James Taranto’s casual reference to public schools as "government schools" — a subtle echo of Grover Norquist’s more agressive statement that "The real problem here is that you shouldn’t have government-run schools." 

I was also dumbfounded by David Frum’s statement — after saying that he does believe in evolution — that "I don’t believe that anything that offends nine-tenths of the American public should be taught in public schools. … Christianity is the faith of nine-tenths of the American public. … I don’t believe that public schools should embark on teaching anything that offends Christian principle."

Ok, but does that mean that he thinks teaching evolution offends most Christians?  I think the vast majority of Christians agree with the theory of evolution and have no problems with it being taught in schools.  Interestingly, I argued the same point last week over at Raising WEG, in response to Mia C’s question "But will any of the religious parents be discussing evolution and atheism with their children?"


Updated: Via Right Magazine (found by following my inbound traffic), I’ve learned that Frum says he was misquoted.  He writes: "I have no idea what proportion of Americans object to the teaching of evolution, but I very much doubt that it’s 90% or even 50%."

That’s a relief.