sleeping alone and starting out early

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Archive for the ‘science’ Category

Time Lords walk among us

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on April 2, 2010

There are, it appears, Time Lords living among us.

According to this recent New Scientist article, up to 2 percent of the population is gifted with what’s called “time-space synaesthesia,” or the ability to see time as a spatial construct.

Here’s how the article describes this gift:

“In general, these individuals perceive months of the year in circular shapes, usually just as an image inside their mind’s eye,” says David Brang of the department of psychology at the University of California, San Diego.
“These calendars occur in almost any possible shape, and many of the synaesthetes actually experience the calendar projected out into the real world.”
One of Brang’s subjects was able to see the year as a circular ring surrounding her body. The “ring” rotated clockwise throughout the year so that the current month was always inside her chest with the previous month right in front of her chest.

For reasons I can’t understand, this article was accompanied by a photo of Matt Smith, the actor who will be portraying the 11th iteration of The Doctor, when it’s clear that a more accurate summary of this research would be accompanied by a photo of the real doctor, played by David Tennant.

There’s also no word yet on whether time-space synaesthetes are capable of absorbing radiation and expelling it through their shoe, outsmarting the Slitheen, the Daleks, and the Cybermen, or showing us all a better way to live our lives.

Doctor Who fanvid by seduff.

Posted in awesome, Doctor Who, science | Leave a Comment »

making edible play dough is hegemonic

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on October 7, 2009

Science education that enables students to make sense of their world without empowering them to transform it doesn’t go far enough.

You guys, I have to cop to a general apathy about science education. It’s not really my thing, after all, and any time I find myself in a conversation about science pedagogy I basically check out until it’s time to talk Language Arts.

But look: There are serious social justice implications to how we think about and teach science, and anybody who tells you otherwise–anybody who tries to argue that science is somehow “pure” or immune from the issues of rhetoric, marginalizing, and silencing that are so commonly explored among language ed researchers–is some combination of well-intentioned, stupid, uninformed, or mean.

Before I launch in to an explanation of why, I just want to make a short disclaimer: I’m new to thinking about science pedagogy and am therefore less well read on this topic than I would like. (And by the way, if you’re looking for someone to blame for this post, blame Joshua Danish, who blew my mind with a handful of science ed readings and thereby offered me the grist for this particular mill.)

Science education, argues Angela Calabrese Barton in her 1998 piece “Teaching Science with Homeless Children: Pedagogy, Representation, and Identity,” is key in thinking about education’s role in reifying equity and power relations. She writes that

knowledge construction about science and self-within-science occur within and are shaped by the relational space of the social, historical, and political. It is from this perspective that questions of representation in science (what science is made to be) and identity in science (who we think we must be to engage in that science) become central.

What I guess didn’t occur to me is that teaching science is more than teaching the scientific method or the basic features of DNA. Indeed, the deeper issues of research into how and what we teach in science classrooms are linked to the deeper questions of our underlying social structures: Who gets to decide what counts as legitimate participation in the field? What counts as valid, what counts as true? What are the standards by which we decide what and who are allowed in, and who benefits most from the answers to these questions?

Science education is not, after all, just about how best to teach the scientific method; it’s also about reflecting on how the scientific method became the dominant method and on how we decide who measures up, and why, to the standards inherent in our chosen scientific approach.

Calabrese Barton explores this through a feminist approach to science education for homeless urban youth. She considers tactics for addressing the “hegemonic practices” in science that “have resulted in an unarticulated, yet highly active caste system.” In her view, science can serve an important function for the highly disenfranchised young people in the shelter she visits twice a week for two years; she argues that the purpose of her visits

was not simply to help the children do science, but rather to do that which grows out of their questions and experiences. It was not to fit their experiences into science; it was to fit exploration of the natural world, questioning, and critique into their experiences. This distinction is important because it makes the borders of science fuzzy in two ways. First, it removes the binary distinction from doing science or not doing science and being in science or being out of science. Second, it allows connections between students’ life worlds and science to be made more easily. This is significant because, as the feminist arguments remind us, much of the culture, discourse, and content of science is reflective of masculine, Western, and middle-class values (Harding, 1986).

Calabrese Barton’s science lessons embrace the everyday experiences and needs surrounding these children: Exploration of the pollution in their neighborhood, food-based experiments in an environment where children often go hungry or exist in anxiety over whether they will get enough to eat.

Wolff-Michael Roth and Stuart Lee have a similar take on science education in their 2003 piece “Science Education as/for Participation in the Community.” As they argue, ignoring the role of cultural power struggles in determining what “science” is and aligning science education to scientists’ definitions of what it means to ‘do science’ means that, as Shamos (1995) and others have argued, “the needs of diverse groups of people–except white middle-class males–have not been met, leading to, by and large, their exclusion from science. Despite tremendous efforts expended, educational reforms have for the most part failed to produce scientifically literate citizens.”

Roth and Lee, working with seventh graders in a Canadian community, design a science curriculum as a set of social practices that bring together learners and older community members in a project to clean up and protect the local (polluted) river. The interactions between community members of various levels of expertise, the authors argue, allows for an authentic apprenticeship model of science education to emerge. In this model, it’s not just that authentic interactions between adults and children allow genuine, if largely unstructured, learning to occur, but that the interactions themselves represent the genuine social practices of science.

Fine, fine, I’m on board with many of the arguments identified by these authors. You know me: I’m a dyed-in-the-wool liberal with liberal accessories and liberal highlights in my hair. I certainly don’t disagree with any argument about the hegemonic nature of the “hard” sciences, and I buy wholeheartedly the assertion that most science education only serves as a continued source of oppression for lots of disenfranchised groups.

What I can’t bear, though, is the hint of soft bigotry. It’s not okay to start an argument by declaring that “science is hegemonic” and to end the argument with “…and so we will not force oppressed groups to engage with it.” Calabrese Barton, for example, tailors “science education” to the direct experiences of the homeless children: In exploring their neighborhood, in experimenting with food, they are certainly engaging in science-y activities, but apparently without any contextualization. These children, it can be assumed, are generally not aware either that they’re doing (some version of) science or that the science they’re doing is a kind of political act, set up in opposition to traditional notions of science education. They are not introduced to the Discourse that serves to oppress, if not them, then other members of their community; they’re not, at least within the confines of this particular description, offered tools for countering that oppression.

The children described by Roth and Lee are in a similar situation. Though the activities are linked to their (presumably) school-endorsed science class, the activities stand in fairly stark opposition to the typical approach of seventh grade science. One child, for example, chooses not to conduct experiments or work with materials directly; he films the experiments of his classmates instead. Another student, at a school science fair, shows off a colorimeter to an adult. The conversation looks like this:

Miles: What is this?

Jodie: A calori . . . meter. It measures the clarity of the water.

Miles: Ah! A calori . . . a colorimeter?

Jodie: You take the clear water and you put it in this glass and then here [puts it into instrument] (Pushes a few buttons.) and you take the standard, which is like the best there is. And then you switch this (takes different bottle) and put the one with the water from the creek. (Covers sample.) And then you scan the sample. And then you see what the thing floating in the water is.

Miles: Over-range, what does that mean?

Jodie: (Pushes a number of buttons.)

Miles: Oh, it is when it is over the range, I see.

Jodie: First I have to do the standard again. (Does standard.) Then I take the creek water. (Enters bottle into instrument. Pushes buttons.)

Miles: Oh, I see. This is really neat.

None of these activities are science class as we tend to think of it; none of these students are forced to engage with the hegemonic aspects of an oppressive Discourse. But as far as I can tell, the students are also not introduced to the notion that science is, by its nature, hegemonic. They are not shown how it oppresses.

If students are not made to question the colonizing effects of a Discourse, then, what is the point of finding alternate routes into the domain? Seventh grade science probably went pretty well for Roth & Lee’s students; but eighth grade science was probably hell.

Again, I haven’t read other work by these authors, but it seems to me that the strategies identified in these particular publications stop short of the most important pedagogical work: empowering learners to shape their world. The authors’ approaches may very well enable students to think critically about the information that enters their community, but I wonder about the extent to which it empowers them to reshape the scientific conversation, both inside of and outside of their physical environment.

There’s no other way to say this: When we stop short of empowerment and choose instead to merely enable, we are engaging in a soft bigotry of the most insidious sort. We’re telling those learners that participating in domain transformation is not for them, that they should leave that work to those students with the higher grades or the different skin color, that all they need is the basic skills to get by in their everyday lives. We’re telling them they’re separate but equal, but we don’t really mean that they’re equal at all.

Posted in bigotry, culture, education, human rights, science, social justice | 4 Comments »

"noses were made to wear spectacles; and so we have spectacles"

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 22, 2009

My friend Clement showed me this video describing irrefutable proof of the existence of a higher power, starring Ray Comfort and our very own Kirk Cameron.

Best of all possible worlds, indeed.

Posted in awesome, lame, religion, science | 3 Comments »

america is the weirdest country in the world

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 13, 2009

I got this via the awesome blog Things You Wouldn’t Know If We Didn’t Blog Incessantly (tywkiwdbi for short).

Acceptance of Evolution in Western Countries:

According to the National Geographic story that accompanies the image, only 14 percent of Americans polled believed that evolution is “definitely true,” and Americans are actually three times more likely to be undecided about evolution than they were 20 years ago, up from 7 percent of those polled to 21 percent.

Also, this study indicated that fewer than half of Americans could offer even a minimal, informal definition of “DNA.” Okay, if anyone asks, you tell them this:

DNA is the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms.

Posted in lame, obnoxious, science | 2 Comments »

NYTimes headline: When Stars Twitter, a Ghost May Be Lurking

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 28, 2009

I was feeling low and out of gas when I saw the above headline in the New York Times online. My hopes were high when I clicked on it. The actual article, about celebrities whose assistants manage their Twitter accounts for them, disappointed me deeply. Here’s how I wish the article had read.

When Stars Twitter, a Ghost May be Lurking

Published: March 28, 2009

For centuries, stargazers have been fascinated by the sight of celestial bodies twinkling and sparkling in the night sky. At various points in scientific history, astronomers have attributed the random blinking of stars to weaknesses of human vision or the shivering movements or dimming and brightening of the stars themselves. Since the early 18th Century, however, scientists have agreed that this phenomenon is the result of earthly atmospheric gases momentarily obscuring visibility.

Now one researcher is taking issue with this stance, arguing that a definitive link has been established between the seemingly random blinkings of stars and a complicated communication system, the details of which are still being worked out.

Andreu Matthiessen, a Finnish scientist whose previous research has focused on establishing a link between astrology and string theory, mapping visible stars to projected geographical formations of the European Union, and theorizing about the possibility of building a literal stairway to heaven, has now turned his attention to twinkling stars, formally known as stellar scintillation. Isaac Newton is credited with uncovering the true cause of twinkling stars when he argued that atmospheric turbulence caused the phenomenon. In 1704, Newton wrote:

“If the Theory of making Telescopes could at length be fully brought into Practice, yet there would be certain Bounds beyond which Telescopes could not perform. For the Air through which we look upon the Stars, is in a perpetual Tremor; as may be seen by the tremulous Motion of Shadows cast from high Towers, and by the twinkling of the fix’d Stars.”

Yet Matthiessen, with funding from the International Federation of Astrologo-Astronomers, has spent the last two decades of his career taking issue with this widely accepted analysis. He and forty to fifty graduate students have been tracking scintillation by stationing themselves around the world and keeping at least three pairs of steady eyes on the night sky at all times. Now Matthiessen believes he has uncovered a pattern: One that indicates the stars themselves are attempting to communicate with us via short bursts of information.

“Much like in Twitter,” Matthiessen, 73, said as he printed his most recent data for a reporter. “Information always comes in no more than 150 characters.” (Twitter accounts are limited, in fact, to 140 characters at a time.)

Even Matthiessen admits that the data he has collected so far is largely unintelligible; he has been unable to make sense of the information streams that get sent to him from his worldwide research network. Yet he and his lead researcher, Andrea Figuero, are convinced that once they come upon the right permutation of number-letter decoding system, the reams of research will fall into place as a long communication. Asked to speculate on what the stars may be communicating to us, both Matthiessen and Figuero were eager to volunteer their opinions.

“I don’t believe in God,” said Figuero, an American who abandoned graduate work in astrophysics at MIT in 2003 to work with Matthiessen, “but I believe the planets, the stars, everything that’s out there, makes up a single uniform body with its own level of awareness.”

“It is not what you might imagine,” Matthiessen agreed. “It does not communicate like this God and does not want to.”

It doesn’t want to direct our actions or guide humans? Then why bother trying to communicate?

“It is human, like us,” Matthiessen answered.

“Not human,” Figuero interjected. “But a body of awareness…maybe…. Well, I said I don’t believe in God, but what if God did exist once and the stars are like the ghost of what God was?”

“Like a ghost,” Matthiessen affirmed. “And when we break this code, we will know what this God was saying to his people centuries ago.”

Posted in astronomy, collective intelligence, creativity, fiction, science, Twitter | 1 Comment »

About sleeping alone and starting out early

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on February 9, 2009

Scientific Breakthrough

The snow whipped around so fast last night
it outashed ash. A dry stew shuttled over
rough-edged brick and rattled the window
until this morning dark rain tamped it
and all the riot down to the ground.

There were long grassy evenings but the light
slants blue lately and my only strategy
entails sleeping alone and starting out early.
My hands are red nested birds for now
and preliminary tests indicate only that I may
be fine. Soon noses will tumble out
on rumpled leashes and then and then and then.

They will never find their task
completed. They will never name it.

They have pressed too hard on the hood
and then paced indifferently away.
They have stepped wrong
against someone’s ankle,

snapping it twice. (The eaves
lean gracelessly toward the road,
revealing too much.) They want
to learn the meaning of each gesture.

They live elevated lives. They live
elevated lives. They adhere to a list.

In the park, a legion of ancient
women sprint shouting and
splashing for the slide. They screech
and crumple across a hidden swath
of ice, thin hair ribboning across gray
snow and mud, primary mittens
clutching for branch or hand.
A tinny wail lifts across the surface
and slides over the rise.

Someone has volunteered
to recall every bird and try again.
What happens next does not depend.

© 2009 Jenna McWilliams

Posted in cloning, creativity, poetry, science, zombies | 2 Comments »