New Science and Math Standards

Education has always been important to me, and I don’t just mean my own education. My parents both started their careers as science teachers and I have been involved in science education education professionally for the past 10 years. In a country where 1 in 4 adults believe that the sun orbits the earth, it’s no secret that we have some serious work to do to improve our education. I could make this entire post about the state of scientific literacy in the United States, but I want to go in another direction. One way we can improve our education is by changing the way we teach. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which covers only science, and the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which covers only math and english, are the latest attempt to do just that. The political fallout associated with these standards are very interesting, as they have been attacked for various reasons from people on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Some conservatives believe, for example, that these standards are just another case of government overreach, whereas some liberals believe that the standards are just a way to prioritize corporate profits over the education of our children. Various celebrities have come out against these standards, including Louis CK and Stephen Colbert. However, given that they are neither teachers nor education experts, I care about their opinion on the Common Core about as much as I care about Jenny McCarthy’s opinion about vaccines. I want to know what experts think.

Back in June, I started at C2ST as a volunteer. One of my first tasks was to research potential speakers for a public panel discussion on the NGSS and CCSS-M (the math standards within the common core), which Illinois had just adopted. Not knowing much about these standards myself, I wanted to learn about them as much as everyone else did. My first stop was finding people who knew the most about education. I quickly found researchers who study how people learn math and science.

But I also wanted to know what teachers actually thought — there is sometimes a difference between research and practice, and I didn’t want to get lost in that space. I had heard various opinions from my teacher friends, but none of them actually had any experience in applying the standards. I reached out to some professional organizations for teachers, and they put me in touch with a math teacher and a science teacher who both had experience with the new standards.

The panel still needed a moderator. I wanted to have someone who had very broad experience, who could understand the viewpoints of each of the panelists. We found a guy who had just the experience we needed — he had been a teacher, an administrator, worked for the US Department of Education, and directed an educational institute at a university.

Then in mid-August I was hired as the Director of Programming at C2ST, and I was given the helm on this project. I spoke with each of the people on my list, and I was impressed by how much they all knew about their respective subjects. Collectively, they had the expertise to present the education standards to the public. And we made sure they knew what we wanted: we wanted the truth. We didn’t have an agenda for or against these standards, and we only wanted the best possible information to be given to the public.

I would tell you about each of the panelists, but here they are doing it for themselves. I did not film any of these videos, but I am next to the camera asking questions to the panelists:

And here is the complete program. I don’t care what your opinion is of the new education standards. What I care is that everyone has quality information so that they can decide for themselves.

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What Does It Mean To Be Supernatural?

Image from clipartpanda.com

Halloween is coming up, and popular culture is being filled its annual dose of references to the supernatural (including the recent season premier of the show Supernatural, which is probably not a coincidence). Ghosts, monsters, black magic, vampires, witches, and others all fall under this umbrella of “the supernatural.”

But what does it mean to be supernatural?

My dictionary defines “supernatural” as “(of a manifestation or event) attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature.”

Being beyond scientific understanding is actually very mundane. Most of the way the brain works is beyond our current scientific understanding, but no serious researcher is throwing up his or her arms and declaring it supernatural. The relationship between mass and energy was beyond scientific understanding until Albert Einstein figured it out. The origin of mitochondria and chloroplasts were beyond scientific understanding until Lynn Margulis figured it out. Every issue of every scientific journal is filled with things that were beyond the understanding of science just a year or so prior. This is not what people mean when they say that something is supernatural. They mean the second thing — beyond the laws of nature. The word supernatural literally means “above nature,” or, more figuratively, outside or separate from nature.

But what is nature and what are its laws?

Consulting my dictionary once again, “nature” is defined as “the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations.” And once again, my dictionary fails to provide a completely cogent or useful definition. If humans and our creations are not natural, does that mean that the computer I’m writing on is supernatural? Again, no one would reasonably make this claim. The first part of this definition, “the phenomena of the physical world collectively,” is actually pretty good as it is. Nature, or the physical world, is made up of two things: matter and energy, which Einstein showed us are the same thing. Nature is everything that exists. It is all of the animals, plants, fungi, bacteria and all of the rest of life. It is all of the rocks and minerals and water and air. Even humans, which are animals, are part of nature. Everything beyond our planet is part of the natural world, as well. All of the undiscovered types and forms of matter and energy are part of nature. Every answer to an empirical question is part of nature, and it is the job of scientists to discover nature as it exists.

Are ghosts real? This is an empirical question because the answer is not subject to ideology or personal preference. It’s not possible for ghosts to be real for me but not real for someone else, any more than  the statement “the earth’s atmosphere is 78% nitrogen” can be real for me but not real for someone else. Correct answers to empirical questions are correct whether you like it or not. Likewise, either ghosts are real or they are not. If they are real, they are part of nature, and are therefore natural phenomenon. It may come as a surprise to people that, if ghosts are real, it will be scientists who discover them. This is true of everything else that is commonly labeled as “supernatural.” If everything that exists is part of nature, then what does that mean? If something is truly supernatural, it doesn’t exist.

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Meeting Nick Bostrom

I got to meet Dr. Nick Bostrom a couple of weeks ago. He stopped in Chicago on his way to speak for Google, Microsoft and Berkeley, and he gave a talk for C2ST, where I work.

Dr. Bostrom is a professor of philosophy at Oxford University, and the founding director of the Future of Humanity Institute. He is probably best known for advancing the hypothesis that the universe we experience is really a computer simulation. He was on tour promoting his new book, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, which discusses the possibility of humans facing an existential risk from an artificial intelligence that is smarter than us. He also cites one of my papers in it.

Page 311 of Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. My paper is at the top of the page.

Page 311 of Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. My paper is at the top of the page.

I could go on, but I’ll let Dr. Bostrom give you the short version in this clip. I am off camera asking him the questions that he is answering.

And here is his full talk:

I got to speak with him after his talk. He’s very interested in helping people, and helping humanity move forward in a healthy and safe way. Humans certainly have no shortage of problems, and I’m glad we have smart people working on them.

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Biomechanics

Sorry I haven’t written a new post in the last few weeks. I recently got a new job working for a nonprofit organization that educates the public about current science. I’ve spent most of the last year trying to get a job like this, and all of my work has paid off. Unfortunately, this upheaval in my schedule has made it very difficult to do any writing. I will continue writing here as often as I can, but I may be on a different posting schedule than before. Thanks for reading and for being patient.

In the mean time, I have something a little bit different for you. The organization I work for hosted a lecture a couple of weeks ago on the biomechanics of running. This was the first program they put on while I was working there, and I was given the opportunity to introduce the speaker. (Most of my opening remarks were edited out of the final version, but this isn’t about me.) Dr. Steven McCaw gave a great talk that I hope some of you will find interesting:

Update: Fixed link


Sex With Aliens

Science fiction is full of humans interbreeding with intelligent aliens from all over the galaxy.

In the original Star Trek series, Captain Kirk mates with a wide variety of aliens, although he never fathers any children with them that we know of. Spock is half Human, half Vulcan. There are several characters in Star Trek: The Next Generation who are the result of alien-human mixing, as well. Worf is 100% Klingon, but his wife, K’Ehleyr, is half Klingon and half Human. Their son, Alexander, is therefore one quarter Human and three quarters Klingon. Deanna Troi is half Human, half Betazoid. The list goes on and is certainly not limited to Star Trek.

Star Trek’s Spock is half Human and half Vulcan. Image from wikipedia.org

I hope I’m not ruining anyone’s fantasy by pointing out up front that this is not even remotely plausible.

Imagine a human trying to produce offspring with an insect or a tree. Once you’ve stopped laughing, imagine trying to do the same with a bacterium, which is as distantly related from humans as you can get on Earth. Now consider that reproducing with a life form from another planet is far less likely to work out than trying to reproduce with a bacterium from Earth.

For two different species to be reproductively compatible, they cannot have very much evolutionary distance between them. Zebras (Equus zebra), horses (Equus ferus) and donkeys (Equus africanus) can all reproduce with one another. Lions (Panthera leo) and tigers (Panthera tigris) can sometimes produce offspring. The common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) and the bonobo (Pan paniscus) can produce offspring. (As is typical of cross-species hybrids, the offspring of these pairs are not fertile themselves.) I hope you noticed a commonality among all of these matches: they are all in the same genus. Lions and tigers are both in the same genus (Panthera) and they can sometimes reproduce together, but neither the lion nor the tiger can reproduce with a chimpanzee or a zebra because they are not closely related. This is not a hard and fast rule, though. Many species that are in the same genus cannot reproduce together, and occasionally species that are not in the same genus can reproduce together.

The liger is a hybrid between a tiger (Panthera tigris) and a lion (Panthera leo). Image from wikipedia.org

Life on Earth began somewhere between 3 and 4 billion years ago. Since then, life has evolved and diversified to produce the wide range of species that we see today. Another planet with life would have had its own origin and its own evolution to produce whatever diversity that planet has in whatever amount of time it took. An intelligent species on another planet would be unable to reproduce with most of the other species on its planet, just as most species on Earth cannot reproduce with one another. Humans are not able to reproduce with any other species on our planet. Even chimpanzees and bonobos, which are our closest evolutionary relatives, cannot produce offspring with humans (though it is not for a lack of trying). We share almost 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees, and are physically capable of mating, and yet we cannot reproduce with them. So what are the chances of being able to reproduce with a species that evolved from a completely separate origin of life? In this particular case, the likelihood is roughly equal to the percent of our DNA that we share: 0%.

 

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Mutations in Movies

With the remake of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles coming up, I thought I’d talk about the way mutations are depicted in movies vs how they are in real life. Again, this is not to diminish anyone’s appreciation for these movies, but to understand where the science stops and the fiction begins.
Many movies, especially superhero movies, describe some sort of mutagenic event as the cause for the hero’s superhuman abilities. In the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the four turtles and one rat were given human size and intelligence through exposure to “radioactive ooze.” It also seems to have removed two of their fingers — turtles, like humans, have five fingers rather than the three they are depicted with in the movies.

Real turtles have five fingers and five toes. Teenage mutant ninja turtles only have three. Image from collecltions.countway.harvard.edu

In the X-Men franchise, “mutants” are caused by inheriting mutant alleles. In The Incredible Hulk, one of Dr. Bruce Banner’s experiments goes wrong and he is accidentally exposed to gamma radiation. In The Fantastic Four, the astronauts are exposed to cosmic rays. In Daredevil, Matt Murdock is exposed to radioactive waste as a child.

The Incredible Hulk gained his abilities through unspecified mutations. Image from screenrant.com

In Spiderman, Peter Parker is bitten by an irradiated spider, not exposed to radiation himself. Presumably this resulted in the transfer of some of the spider’s genes into Peter Parker’s genome, making this an event of “horizontal gene transfer,” rather than a typical mutation. I plan to discuss this at some point in the future.

Now, everyone knows that exposure to radiation or toxic waste will not give anyone super powers. But what do mutations look like in real life? In short, a mutation is any time there is a change to the sequence of the DNA of an individual or cell.

An organism’s genome can be compared to a book. The book is broken down into chapters, called chromosomes, and made up of letters called “nucleotides” (A, G, T, and C). Genes can be compared to sentences, and are made up of three-letter words called “codons.” Codons are always three letters.

In English, the three-letter word “cat” refers to a group of predatory mammals with long claws. In a sentence, “I keep two cats as pets.” In the language of DNA, the three-letter word “CAT” means the amino acid “valine.” A sentence of three letter words makes up the sequence of amino acids that build a protein. The function of a protein is created by the exact sequence of amino acids that make it up, just as the meaning of a sentence in English is created by the exact sequence of words that make it up.
The DNA sentence “TACCATAAACGGGTGACT” means “Methionine, valine, phenylalanine, histidine, alanine, [stop].” The codon “ACT” is one of three “stop codons,” which act like periods in English. It means the sequence of amino acids has come to an end. Proteins are usually thousands of amino acids long.
In most written languages, minor changes in the words or punctuation can drastically change the meaning of the sentence. A change of one letter can change “I keep two cats as pets” to “I keep two bats as pets.”
Similarly, changing one letter of a genetic code can change the meaning of a sentence. Changing “TTC” to “TTA” will change phenylalanine into leucine. These two amino acids have different properties, and will result in slightly different proteins being made. This protein might work basically the same, despite the minor difference. It also might work very poorly. There is also a small chance that the different protein will work better. The first two options are overwhelmingly the most likely of the three possibilities.
A change in punctuation can change “let’s eat, grandma” to “let’s eat grandma.” The same is true in genetics. If a stop codon gets put into a gene too early, part of the protein will not be built. This may result in a complete failure of the protein to do its job. It is very easy for a mutation to cause a stop codon very early in the sequence. CAG codes for glutamine; change the C to a T and it becomes the stop codon TAG. AGA codes for arginine; change the first A to a T and it becomes the stop codon TGA.
Having one protein that is missing or incorrectly built may not seem like a big deal — after all, the human body contains tens of thousands of different proteins. But the human body is a marvelously complex machine that requires the coordination of many different pieces. Taking one piece out of the human body is like taking one piece out of a Swiss watch. There are many genetic conditions that are caused by single mutations, such as Marfan syndrome, achondroplasia and paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria.
But mutations are not always bad. Blue eyes, for example, are a relatively new trait that first originated in eastern Europe only a few thousand years ago. There is no major advantage or disadvantage to survival in people with blue eyes. Beneficial mutations are what natural selection operates on to produces complex traits over millions of years. 

Mutations can be caused by exposure to radiation, certain toxic substances or just random chance. This is something that the movies get right.

Mutations that are inherited will be present in every cell of a person’s body. Everyone began as a single cell. If that first cell contained a mutation, then every cell that comes from that cell will also contain that mutation. Mutations that are acquired later in life will only be present in a few cells. If a person is exposed to radiation, the radiation will cause random mutations in whatever cells it interacts with. It may only cause mutations in a couple of cells, or it may cause mutation in many cells. Each mutation is random, so the likelihood of two different cells having the same mutation is vanishingly small. It is even vanishingly smaller for the same mutation to occur in more than two cells. For every additional cell and for every additional mutation, the likelihood of the same thing set of mutations happening gets astronomically smaller. For a person to acquire superhuman abilities through exposure to radiation, two things would need to happen. First, a complex mutation would have to occur. A single mutation is very unlikely to produce the type of complex, new trait that superheroes have. Second, the same suite of mutations would either have to occur in the entire body, or at the very least in the organ system that the trait operates on.

Taken together, this things only become less likely. A collection of random mutations that builds a complex, beneficial trait AND occurs simultaneously in billions of cells? Consider the following scenario for comparison: you are transcribing notes you took by hand into a computer file. Through a series of accidental typographical errors, your economics notes turn into The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. This is analogous to a series of random mutations producing a complex, beneficial trait in a single cell. Now imagine that everyone in your economics class accidentally and independently wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner when trying to copy their notes. This is analogous to Bruce Banner’s exposure to gamma radiation turning him into the Incredible Hulk. Now imagine that not only did everyone in your economics class accidentally write The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but everyone in your history class accidentally writing The Song of Hiawatha, everyone in your math class accidentally writing Where the Sidewalk Ends, and everyone in your biology class accidentally writing Beowolf. This is approximately the likelihood of Reed Richards, Susan Storm, Johnny Storm, and Ben Grimm (The Fantastic Four) all being transformed into superheroes through exposure to cosmic rays.

The Fantastic Four all got their powers through exposure to cosmic rays. Image from static.comicvine.com

The original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which came out in 1990, was one of my favorite movies growing up, and I am cautiously optimistic about the remake, which comes out on August 8. I encourage everyone to enjoy some superhero movies this summer, but don’t be fooled by bad science.

 

 

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For All Mankind

Today we celebrate one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments. On July 20, 1969 — 45 years ago today — Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the moon. It was the height of the cold war, and the United States poured a huge amount of effort into space exploration as a way of competing with the Soviet Union. The Soviets beat us at many milestones, but the success of our human missions to the moon won the space race soundly for the United States.

Although Armstrong and Aldrin were sent to the moon to beat the Soviets, the plaque they left behind reads, “We came in peace for all mankind.”

The Apollo 11 lunar plaque. Image from nasa.gov

“We came in peace for all mankind.”

It could have read, “We claim this land for the United States of America.”

Given the times, it could have read, “Screw you, commies.”

But it said “we came in peace for all mankind.” This was an accomplishment for the men who personally walked on the moon, but it was not just for those men. It was an accomplishment for the United States, but it was not just for the United States. It was an accomplishment for the human race. Though these men and the country they represented were raised up by this accomplishment, they raised up every human being along side them.

Earlier that year, on April 17, 1969, Dr. Robert Wilson (1914-2000), a nuclear scientist, appeared in front of a congressional committee to ask for money to build the “linac” particle accelerator at the National Accelerator Laboratory (now known as Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois. Senator John Pastore (D-RI) asked him, “Is there anything connected in the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of the country?” Dr. Wilson responded that,

“It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with these things… Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about…It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.” [emphasis added]

Scientific discovery is not just a tool we use to invent products that improve our lives. The knowledge and discovery and exploration themselves improve our lives. Most people think that science can make us great through the technology that it leads to. It isn’t that this is untrue, but this is only part of the picture. Science makes us great because it is a great achievement of humans. The accomplishments of science enrich our lives in the same way that we are enriched by the accomplishments of great poets, great composers and great artists. We share in the pride of the accomplishments of our scientists and we appreciate the beauty and wonder of their works. Science can indeed help us build planes and bombs and rockets that allow us to defend our country, but the fact that we carry out scientific research is a part of what makes us great and worth defending.

In 1972, during the Apollo 17 mission — the last time anyone sent live people to the moon — astronauts took a picture of the Earth from orbit. Known as “The Blue Marble,” this is one of the most famous photographs ever taken.

The Blue Marble. Photo taken by the Apollo 17 crew. Image from wikipedia.org

In 1990, the Voyager 1 spacecraft  photographed the Earth from 3.7 billion miles away — 40 times the average distance between the Earth and our Sun. The Earth is visible only as a tiny dot. This photograph became known as “The Pale Blue Dot” and inspired a book by Carl Sagan of the same title.

Photograph of earth taken from the Voyager 1 spaceprobe. Image from wikipedia.org

On July 19, 2013, the Cassini spacecraft took a picture of Earth through the rings of Saturn. At the time of the photo, the people of Earth were encouraged to contemplate their place in the universe and smile for the camera. People all over the world took part.

 

Photograph from the Casini spaceprobe. Earth can be seen as a blue speck in the center right of the photograph, in between the rings of saturn. Image from wikipedia.org

These photographs and events represent to us the collective accomplishments of the human species. Why would people in all corners of the Earth look up and smile for a photograph being taken too far away for their faces to be seen? Because they felt connected. These photographs do not particularly serve any scientific purpose, and they were not the point of these missions, but the photographs allow people to feel connected to the accomplishments that the photographs represent.

Consider if we discover an intelligent alien civilization at some point in the future. We might exchange some technology with them, and that might improve our lives. But to think of it only in terms of technology is missing the point. The discovery that we as intelligent life are not alone in the universe would profoundly change us. It would be the greatest discovery in all of human history.

Neil Armstrong died two years ago, so he is not able to share in today’s celebration, but his surviving family recommends a way to celebrate him:

“For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”

I encourage you to go outside tonight and wink at the moon. Remember the accomplishments of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin 45 years ago, but also think of the collective scientific achievements of all humans throughout time.

 

 

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