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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: Science, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 1,105
1. Fuzzy Mud: Review Haiku

Ecoterrorism
with benign intent.
Scarily plausible.

Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar. Delacorte, 2015 192 pages.

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2. Eating Your Homework is as Easy as Pi!


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Humdrum or delicious? When students eat their homework, the classroom suddenly turns from tedious to oh-so-tasty. Get ready to serve up some yummy new fun—while discovering and learning about math and science.

Psst, did you remember that Pi Day is March 14? It’s time to divvy up some Variable Pizza Pi. Look up the recipe for this constant crowd-pleaser in Eat Your Math Homework, and get set for variable excitement—quite a lot . . . or mega.


Never mind the constants (the crust and the sauce), here’s your chance to add your own variables: toppings such as pepperoni, green pepper, or pineapple chunks. And we’re not done yet! Measure the circumference and determine the diameter of the pizza. This will help you pinpoint pi, that amazingly endless decimal number that starts 3.1415926 . . . (pi = circumference divided by diameter)

What about in the classroom? How about switching things up a bit with this yummy classroom adaptation? Share circle shaped cookies (Yes, the cookie itself and the icing are the constants). Have students decorate each cookie with variables such as chocolate chips, raisins, or colored marshmallows. Figure out the circumference and diameter of one cookie (Hint: To measure the circumference, use a piece of string. Place the string around the rim of the cookie. Cut or mark the string to match the size of the cookie’s circumference. Straighten this measured string and find its length using a ruler).

When students find the circumference divided by the diameter, it’s easy as pie to calculate pi. Was the answer close to 3.14? Why wasn’t it exact? What else can you find out about pi?


And now here’s another tasty tidbit. Let’s face it, all science lessons are not created equal. Neither are rocks. In fact, there are three basic categories of rocks: metamorphic, igneous, and sedimentary. Heat and pressure cause metamorphic rocks to morph, or change form. Igneous rocks form from cooled liquid rock beneath the earth’s surface. And sedimentary, well, think of a lasagna—when layers of sediment press against each other, the layers meld together.

Speaking of lasagna, check out the recipe for Sedimentary Pizza Lasagna from Eat Your Science Homework . . . Yum!


. . . Or whip up some classroom friendly Sedimentary Sandwiches instead. Use 3 or 4 layers of bread (or crackers) and your favorite sandwich fixings to build a rock solid masterpiece. Bite in—and don’t worry about chipping a tooth!

For more on how to turn your classroom into a banquet of learning, please check out Eat Your Science Homework and Eat Your Math Homework from Charlesbridge Publishing.


Your constant math and science pals, 


Ann and Leeza




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3. Snailwatch

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4. On Immunity

Between the measles outbreak that began at Disneyland a few weeks ago and it recently being entered into my medical records that I am moderately allergic to the tetanus vaccine (fever, body aches, fatigue and injection site pain far above and beyond a mere sore arm), I was primed to On Immunity by Eula Biss. I fully believe in the importance of vaccinations and have a hard time understanding the whole anti-vaccination movement. I mean, small pox no longer exists because of vaccination and polio is nonexistent in the United States and very close to being wiped out in the rest of the world. Yes, there is always a small risk — allergy, severe illness, death — but the risk is so small in comparison to the benefit that it seems more than worth it. Yet, so many are eager to believe that the measles vaccine causes autism (it doesn’t), or that the government and/or pharmaceutical companies are purposely poisoning children (they aren’t), or any other number of strange reasons having to do with government control, conspiracies, science experiments and invasion of privacy.

Biss is pro-vaccination. She is well-educated and her father is a doctor. Yet, when she became a mother even she had qualms about vaccinating her son. It is through this lens that she examines the fears and beliefs of those who refuse to have their children vaccinated. Along the way we get a cultural and scientific history of vaccination.

We fear a good many things these days and if you have children, the fear is intensified because it is your job to keep them safe. What do you do when you hear about all the chemicals in food and BPA in plastics? Or toxins in the air and water? It is hard to enough to protect a child from the threats you can see, how can you keep them safe from the ones you can’t see, and worse, don’t even know about? We hear that a particular vaccine might have mercury in it used as a preservative. We know mercury is poisonous, therefore the vaccine is poisonous too. We blow the tiny risk factors far out of proportion because here is something we can do to protect our children.

The thing is, the human body is already “contaminated.” We are porous creatures and our defenses from outside organisms were breached long ago. We have pieces of virus DNA in our genes. And here is a fascinating bit of information:

The cells that form the outer layer of the placenta for a human fetus bind to each other using a gene that originated, long ago, from a virus. Though many viruses could not reproduce without us, we ourselves could not reproduce without what we have taken from them.

Some might wonder then what the big deal about not vaccinating is if viruses are so important to our very being. Besides being useful in some circumstances, viruses also kill and disable and it is those viruses we vaccinate against.

Those who do not vaccinate rely on the protection of all the people who do. You can only have children who are not vaccinated against measles never get the disease because the child is surrounded by people who have been vaccinated. Biss points out over and over that we think vaccination is an individual choice that has no effects on anyone else, but we are wrong. Because in order for vaccinations to be most effective, most people in the population need to be vaccinated. Immunity to disease is a communal undertaking.

Here I have to admit that in spite of believing whole-heartedly in vaccines, I have never gotten a flu vaccination. My reasoning has always been that I don’t get the flu. And truly, it has been so long since I have had the flu I can’t remember when it was — fifteen years at least. But Bookman dutifully gets a flu shot every year. He has to because he has multiple sclerosis and therefore his immune system is compromised. Now after reading Biss’s argument about vaccination being a communal thing I realize that perhaps one reason I have not gotten the flu is because nearly everyone I know gets a flu shot. In addition, it is possible for me to get the flu and then give it to someone who, for whatever reason, could not be vaccinated and then they could get really sick or possibly die. Because people do die from the flu. Did I ever get a big dose of guilt realizing that. So now next year when the email goes out at the University where I work that free flu shots are being given, I will go an roll up my sleeve.

It was easy to get me to change my mind about flu vaccination, but what about all those people who refuse more important vaccinations for their children? Studies show that forcing science down the throats of anti-vaxxers does no good whatsoever. Biss is unable to offer any suggestions other than insisting on the communal nature of vaccination. It worked for me but it won’t work for all those parents who still believe vaccines cause autism or that the HPV vaccine will make girls more likely to have sex. Clearly for those parents there are many factors that need to be addressed. It is a complex issue and sadly, government is not very good at solving those sorts of things.

On Immunity is a well-written, non-judgmental look at the issues in the vaccination debates. It could not have been more timely if it tried. If you’d like a little insight into the anti-vaccination movement, then I highly recommend this book.


Filed under: Books, Nonfiction, Reviews, Science

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5. Exorcising the Past: A Reading & Talk

Marie Mockett's childhood notebook

On March 5, Marie Mutsuki Mockett and I will be reading and talking about exorcising the past (all meanings of exorcise possible) at McNally Jackson at 6 p.m.

Marie’s wonderful new book, Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye, is about death and grief and family and ghosts and so much more. She’ll read from it, and I’ll read from the working introduction to my book on the science and superstition of ancestry, and then we’ll talk about all of that and take questions and comments from you. Hope to see you there!

This image is from one of Marie’s childhood notebooks; she shared it with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop when they visited her writing studio.

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6. Threads

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7. Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos - a review

Sisson, Stephanie Roth. 2014. Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the mysteries of the cosmos. New York: Roaring Brook.


In simple text augmented by word bubbles, thought bubbles, and sketches, Stephanie Roth Sisson gives us the highlights of Carl Sagan's lifebut more importantly, she offers a sense of his wondrous enthusiasm for the cosmos,

It gave Carl goose bumps to think about what he had learned about the stars, planets, and the beginnings of life.  He wanted everyone to understand so that they could feel like a part of the stars as he did.
So he went on television.


This is the first book that Stephanie Roth Sisson has both written and illustrated.  The fact that she is enthralled with her subject is apparent in the artwork. Painted cartoon images (often in panels with word bubbles), depict a happy Sagan, wide-eyed and curious.  While some pages are like panel comics, others are full-bleed, double spreads depicting the vastness of the darkened skies, dotted by planets or stars.  One foldout opens vertically, reminding us of our infinitesimal existence in the cosmos.  We are so small, yet we are reminded,

The Earth and every living thing are made of star stuff.
Star Stuff is a 2015 NCTE Orbis Pictus Award Honor book for "outstanding nonfiction for children."

Substantial back matter includes Author's Note, Notes, Bibliography and Sources, Special Thanks, and Source Notes.

Preview the first eight pages of Star Stuff on the publisher's website.

Note: 
Carl Sagan graduated from Rahway High School in Rahway, NJ.  As far as I can tell, he's not mentioned anywhere on the school's website. Pity.


It's STEM Friday! (STEM is Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics)
See all of today's STEM-related posts at the STEM Friday blog.

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8. The King’s genes

On 25th March 2015, 530 years after his death, King Richard III of England will be interred in Leicester Cathedral. This remarkable ceremony is only taking place because of the success of DNA analysis in identifying his skeletal remains. So what sort of genes might a king be expected to have? Or, more prosaically, how do you identify a long dead corpse from its DNA? Several methods were used, and in particular the deduction of the skeleton’s probable hair and eye colour raises some interesting questions about future trends in forensic DNA analysis.

Richard III is one of England’s best known kings, largely due to the famous play of William Shakespeare in which he is portrayed as an evil villain. He only reigned for two years and was killed at the age of 32 at the battle of Bosworth in 1485. According to the historical records he was unceremoniously buried at Greyfriars Friary in Leicester. At some stage knowledge of the exact location of Richard’s burial was lost. But in 2012 excavations under a car park at the probable site of the former friary yielded “skeleton 1″. Suspicion of his royal identity was excited by the fact that the skeleton had a severely bent spine causing the right shoulder to be higher than the left. This well-known deformity of Richard was mentioned in a contemporary source, as well as by Shakespeare. Furthermore, the skeleton was male, the age was about right, it had evidently been killed in battle, and the radiocarbon date was consistent with death in 1485.

This was all very suggestive, but it was the DNA analysis that really proved the case. The work was led by a team at the University of Leicester, with participation by many other UK and European centres. It is important to note that this was not the normal type of forensic DNA identification, which relies on comparing a set of highly variable DNA markers to a database. Such analysis is fine so long as your suspect is in the database, but it is no use for identifying a long dead individual who is not in any database.

By far the best evidence for the identity of Richard III comes from the analysis of his mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondria are bodies found in every cell, responsible for the production of energy. They have their own DNA which is passed down the generations only through the female line. Barring the occasional new mutation, the DNA sequence of mitochondrial DNA should be identical from mother to daughter down a particular female line of descent. Like their sisters, males also carry the mitochondrial DNA of their mothers, but they do not pass it down to their own offspring.

Richard will have shared mitochondrial DNA with his sister, Anne of York. Two complete female lines of descent were traced back to Anne of York, one of 17 generations down to Michael Ibsen, a resident of London, and the other of 19 generations down to Wendy Duldig, formerly of New Zealand. Complete sequencing of their mitochondrial DNA showed a 100% match between skeleton 1 and of Michael Ibsen, and a single base change compared to Wendy Duldig. One change over this period of time is quite likely to be a new mutation. The sequence family (haplogroup) to which the mitochondrial DNA sequence belongs is a fairly rare one, so few other people in England in 1485 would have shared it and in fact the team has systematically ruled out all the other males of the period who might have shared it because of a common female lineage with Richard III. So this match is highly significant and is the best piece of evidence that the “skeleton 1″ is indeed King Richard.

By Bdna. gif: Spiffistan derivative work: Jahobr (Bdna.gif). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Also applied was a newer method which is a technique for predicting the hair and eye colour of someone from their DNA. The most important variants affecting hair colour are mutations of a gene called MC1R, which encodes a cell surface receptor for a hormone. Individuals carrying variants of the MC1R gene with reduced function are likely to have red or blond hair rather than the normal dark hair. The pigmentation of the iris of the eye depends significantly on a gene called OCA2, encoding a protein which transports tyrosine into cells. Again variants of reduced function give less pigmented eyes, meaning that the colour is blueish rather than brownish. Recently a Dutch group created a forensic test based on variants at 24 genetic loci, of which 11 are in the MC2R gene and the rest in 12 other positions including the OCA2 gene. Identification of these 24 variants yields a fairly accurate prediction of hair and eye colour, and in the case of skeleton 1 the prediction was for blue eyes and blond hair. The existing portraits of Richard III all date from some time after his death but the older ones do indeed show light-coloured eyes and reddish-brown hair, an appearance which is consistent with the prediction.

These two types of analysis indicate two rather different senses in which we use the word “gene”. The sequence variants of the mitochondrial DNA, like those used in normal forensic identification, do not, in general, affect the characteristics of the individuals carrying them. The DNA changes often lie outside actual genes, in the regions of DNA between genes. They are better described as “markers” than as “genes”. But the hair and eye colour analysis is based at least partly on actual gene variants that might be expected to generate those visible characteristics.

How much further might this kind of analysis be pushed? Could the height, facial features or skin colour of a crime suspect be deduced from their DNA? The essential issue is the number of gene variants in the population that affect a feature. If it is relatively small, as with hair and eye colour, then prediction is possible. If it is very large, as for height, then it is not possible, because most of the variants affecting height have too small effects to be detectable. Most of the human characteristics that have been studied in this way have turned out to depend on a very large number of variants of small effect. So, contrary to popular perception, there are real limits to what is possible in terms of prediction of bodily features from DNA data. There will doubtless be some other features that are predictable, and these may eventually include skin colour. But unless a completely new approach is invented, it is unlikely that we shall ever see an identikit picture of a suspect generated from DNA at the crime scene.

Featured image credit: Stained glass, by VeteranMP. CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The post The King’s genes appeared first on OUPblog.

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9. Did you say millions of genomes?

Watching the field of genomics evolve over the past 20 years, it is intriguing to notice the word ‘genome’ cozying up to the word ‘million’. Genomics is moving beyond 1k, 10k and 100k genome projects. A new courtship is blossoming.

The Obama Administration has just announced a Million Genomes Project – and it’s not even the first.

Now both Craig Venter and Francis Collins, leads of the private and public versions of the Human Genome Project, are working on their million-omes.

The company 23andMe might be the first ‘million-ome-aire’. By 2014, the company founded by Ann Wojcicki processed upwards of 800,000 customer samples. Pundit Eric Topol suggests in his article “Who Owns Your DNA” that without the skirmish with the FDA, 23andMe would already have millions.

In 2011, China’s BGI, the world’s largest genomics research company, boldly announced a million human genomes project. Building on projects like the panda genome and the 3000 Rice Genomes project, the BGI is building new next-generation sequencing technologies to support its flagship project.

Also in 2011, the United States Veterans Affairs (VA) Research and Development program launched its Million Veteran Program (MVP) aiming to build the world’s largest database of genetic, military exposure, lifestyle, and health information. The “large, diverse, and altruistic patient population” of the VA puts it ahead of the others in collecting samples.

Venter’s path will be through his non-profit Human Longevity, Inc (HLI), launched in San Diego, California in 2014 with $70 million in investor funding. To support the company’s tagline — “It’s not just a long life we’re striving for, but one which is worth living” — Venter aims to sequence a million genomes by 2020.

At a price tag of $1000 dollars per genome, one million genomes could cost a billion US dollars. The original human genome project cost $3 billion only 13 years ago, but produced 1 trillion US dollars in economic impact.

The Collins’ ‘million-ome’ will pull together new and existing genomes, with an initial budget of $215 million dollars. This includes genomes from the MVP, which has already enrolled 300,000 veterans and sequenced 200,000. The focus will initially be on cancer but subjects will be healthy and ill, men and women, old and young; it is the foundation of a Precision Medicine Initiative.

3D DNA, © digitalgenetics, via iStock Photo.
3D DNA, © digitalgenetics, via iStock.

In addition to these projects we will have millions anyway. ARC Investment Analysis suggested we could see 4 to 34 billion human genomes by 2024 at historical rates of sequencing – if current trends in dropping costs and demand continue.

How could we have more genomes than humans living on earth? Cancer genomics is in ‘gold rush’ phase. Steve Jobs was famously one of the first 20 people to have his genome sequenced. He paid $100k but did so to also have the genome of the cancer that killed him sequenced. He left a personal genomics legacy to the world, but his investment in DNA sequencing also serves as a reminder that a genome is not the same as a cure. Hopes are high, though, especially for cancer diagnostics. The International Cancer Genomics Consortium is already backed with a billion dollar budget and the field continues to explode.

Further, an adult human body consists of 37 trillion genomes all working together (plus the 100 trillion genomes of the microbial cells in our microbiome). There is mounting evidence we are all genomic mosaics, meaning we all have more than one genome (e.g. from pre-cancerous cells, transplants, and mothers who carry the genomes of past live-born babies).

It is good to cultivate a healthy skepticism and not be drawn into the hype. Critics exist, as always. At the other end of the continuum, Ken Weiss of The Mermaid’s Tale blog, a geneticist himself, has outlined reasons to put valuable research dollars elsewhere than a million genomes project or precision medicine, but given than they will happen, he also contemplates what should be done with resulting data.

Eric Topol said in response to the rise of ‘million-ome’ projects, that there are now many 100k projects and he “might rather have 100,000 people with ‘pan-oromic definition’ than 1 million with just native DNA”. By high definition he means all the mapping (sensors, anatomy, environmental quantified, gut microbiome, etc.) that belongs to his vision of a “Google medical map”.

There are huge differences between “projections,” “announcements,” and “hard (published) data.” Big projects can fall by the way-side. 23andMe hit a barrier with the FDA decision. The BGI is still tooling up. Obama hasn’t yet secured a budget. Venter is giving himself time. Everyone is starting to think about genomes inside the systems in which they exist in (cells, organs, organisms, ecosystems).

Regardless of trajectory, it is a foregone conclusion that, counting all sources, the number of sequenced genomes will pass one million in 2015, if it hasn’t already.

Google is imagining the day when researchers compute over millions of genomes and is building the infrastructure to support it; Google Genomics has launched offering $25/year pricing to hold your genome in the Cloud.

Why stop at millions? Jong Bhak is calling for billions. He is suggesting that “the genomics era hasn’t even started.” Bhak, a leader of the Korean Personal Genomes Project, a project to sequence the genomes of all 50 million Koreans, has outlined a vision for a Billion Genome Project.

The first to talk of ‘a genome for everyone’ was perhaps George Church, technologist and founder of the Personal Genome Project. He wrote 2005 a paper entitled “The Personal Genome Project.” In it he recalled talking with Wally Gilbert that “Six billion base pairs for six billion people had a nice ring to it”—back in 1976, soon after Gilbert invented DNA sequencing, for which he won a Nobel Prize.

The fact that more voices in global science are debating the pros and cons of ‘millions and billions of genomes’ is evidence that 2015 marks a shift towards a Practical Genomics Revolution. It is becoming practical to think big(ger).

The post Did you say millions of genomes? appeared first on OUPblog.

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10. February is Black History Month

blackstarsFebruary is Black History Month. To commemorate the contributions of African-Americans to science and innovation, we offer this list of 12 books chronicling some of their many achievements: Black Inventors.

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11. Trains of thought: Zac

Tetralogue by Timothy Williamson is a philosophy book for the commuter age. In a tradition going back to Plato, Timothy Williamson uses a fictional conversation to explore questions about truth and falsity, knowledge and belief. Four people with radically different outlooks on the world meet on a train and start talking about what they believe. Their conversation varies from cool logical reasoning to heated personal confrontation. Each starts off convinced that he or she is right, but then doubts creep in. During February, we will be posting a series of extracts that cover the viewpoints of all four characters in Tetralogue. What follows is an extract exploring Zac’s perspective.

Zac wants everyone to be at peace with everyone else, whatever their differences. He tries to intervene and offer a solution to the conflicts that arise between the other characters, but often ends up getting dragged in himself.

Sarah: It’s pointless arguing with you. Nothing will shake your faith in witchcraft!

Bob: Will anything shake your faith in modern science?

Zac: Excuse me, folks, for butting in: sitting here, I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. You both seem to be getting quite upset. Perhaps I can help. If I may say so, each of you is taking the superior attitude ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ toward the other.

Sarah: But I am right and he is wrong.

Bob: No. I’m right and she’s wrong.

Zac: There, you see: deadlock. My guess is, it’s becom­ing obvious to both of you that neither of you can definitively prove the other wrong.

Sarah: Maybe not right here and now on this train, but just wait and see how science develops—people who try to put limits to what it can achieve usually end up with egg on their face.

Bob: Just you wait and see what it’s like to be the vic­tim of a spell. People who try to put limits to what witchcraft can do end up with much worse than egg on their face.

Zac: But isn’t each of you quite right, from your own point of view? What you—

Sarah: Sarah.

Zac: Pleased to meet you, Sarah. I’m Zac, by the way. What Sarah is saying makes perfect sense from the point of view of modern science. And what you—

Bob: Bob.

Zac: Pleased to meet you, Bob. What Bob is saying makes perfect sense from the point of view of traditional witchcraft. Modern science and traditional witch­craft are different points of view, but each of them is valid on its own terms. They are equally intelligible.

Sarah: They may be equally intelligible, but they aren’t equally true.

Zac: ‘True’: that’s a very dangerous word, Sarah. When you are enjoying the view of the lovely countryside through this window, do you insist that you are see­ing right, and people looking through the windows on the other side of the train are seeing wrong?

Sarah: Of course not, but it’s not a fair comparison.

Zac: Why not, Sarah?

Sarah: We see different things through the windows because we are looking in different directions. But modern science and traditional witchcraft ideas are looking at the same world and say incompatible things about it, for instance about what caused Bob’s wall to col­lapse. If one side is right, the other is wrong.

Zac: Sarah, it’s you who make them incompatible by insisting that someone must be right and some­one must be wrong. That sort of judgemental talk comes from the idea that we can adopt the point of view of a God, standing in judgement over every­one else. But we are all just human beings. We can’t make definitive judgements of right and wrong like that about each other.

Sarah: But aren’t you, Zac, saying that Bob and I were both wrong to assume there are right and wrong answers on modern science versus witchcraft, and that you are right to say there are no such right and wrong answers? In fact, aren’t you contradicting yourself?

Have you got something you want to say to Zac? Do you agree or disagree with him? Tetralogue author Timothy Williamson will be getting into character and answering questions from Zac’s perspective via @TetralogueBook on Friday 13th March from 2-3pm GMT. Tweet your questions to him and wait for Zac’s response!

The post Trains of thought: Zac appeared first on OUPblog.

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12. Crazy for Science with Carmelo the Science Fellow by Carmelo Piazza and James Buckley, Jr., illustrated by Chad Geran, RL: 4

Crazy for Science with Carmelo the Science Fellow by Carmelo Piazza and James Buckley Jr with illustrations by Chad Geran (be sure to check out Chad's board book, Oh, Baby!) is by far the BEST science experiment book for kids I have seen in my two decades of children's book selling and parenting. Visually, Crazy for Science with Carmelo the Science Fellow is infinitely more engaging

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13. Trains of thought: Bob

Tetralogue by Timothy Williamson is a philosophy book for the commuter age. In a tradition going back to Plato, Timothy Williamson uses a fictional conversation to explore questions about truth and falsity, knowledge and belief. Four people with radically different outlooks on the world meet on a train and start talking about what they believe. Their conversation varies from cool logical reasoning to heated personal confrontation. Each starts off convinced that he or she is right, but then doubts creep in. During February, we will be posting a series of extracts that cover the viewpoints of all four characters in Tetralogue. What follows is an extract exploring Bob’s perspective.

Bob is just an ordinary guy who happens to be scared of witches. His beliefs are strongly rooted in personal experience, and this approach brings him to blows with the unyelidingly scientific Sarah.

Sarah: That’s unfair! You don’t expect all the scientific resources of the Western world to be concentrated on explaining why your garden wall collapsed, do you? I’m not being dogmatic, there’s just no reason to doubt that a scientific explanation could in prin­ciple be given.

Bob: You expect me to take that on faith? You don’t always know best, you know. I’m actually giv­ing you an explanation. (Mustn’t talk too loud.) My neighbour’s a witch. She always hated me. Bewitched my wall, cast a spell on it to collapse next time I was right beside it. It was no coinci­dence. Even if you had your precious scientific explanation with all its atoms and molecules, it would only be technical details. It would give no reason why the two things happened at just the same time. The only explanation that makes real sense of it is witchcraft.

Sarah: You haven’t explained how your neighbour’s mutter­ing some words could possibly make the wall collapse.

Bob: Who knows how witchcraft works? Whatever it does, that old hag’s malice explains why the wall collapsed just when I was right beside it. Anyway, I bet you can’t explain how deciding in my own mind to plant some bulbs made my legs actually move so I walked out into the garden.

Sarah: It’s only a matter of time before scientists can explain things like that. Neuroscience has made enormous progress over the last few years, discov­ering how the brain and nervous system work.

Bob: So you say, with your faith in modern science. I bet expert witches can already explain how spells work. They wouldn’t share their knowledge around. Too dangerous. Why should I trust modern science more than witchcraft?

Sarah: Think of all the evidence for modern science. It can explain so much. What evidence is there that witch­craft works?

Bob: My garden wall, for a start.

Sarah: No, I mean proper evidence, statistically significant results of controlled experiments and other forms of reliable data, which science provides.

Bob: You know how witches were persecuted, or rightly punished, in the past. Lots of them were tortured and burnt. It could happen again, if they made their powers too obvious, doing things that could be proved in court. Do you expect them to let them­selves be trapped like that again? Anyway, witch­craft is so unfashionable in scientific circles, how many scientists would risk their academic reputa­tions taking it seriously enough to research on it, testing whether it works?

Sarah: Modern science has put men on the moon. What has witchcraft done remotely comparable to that?

Bob: For all we know, that alleged film of men on the moon was done in a studio on earth. The money saved was spent on the military. Anyway, who says witchcraft hasn’t put women on the moon? Isn’t assuming it hasn’t what educated folk call ‘begging the question’?

Sarah: I can’t believe I’m having this conversation. Do you seriously deny that scientific journals are full of evi­dence for modern scientific theories? Isn’t all of that evidence against witchcraft?

Bob: How do we know how much of that so-called evi­dence is genuine? There have been lots of scandals recently about scientists faking their results. For all we know, the ones who get caught are only the tip of the iceberg.

Sarah: Well, if you prefer, look at all the successful tech­nology around you. You’re sitting on a train, and I notice you have a laptop and a mobile phone. Think of all the science that went into them. You’re not telling me they work by witchcraft, are you?

Bob: Lots of modern science and technology is fine in its own way. I went to hospital by ambulance, not broom, thank goodness. None of that means mod­ern science can explain everything.

Have you got something you want to say to Bob? Do you agree or disagree with him? Tetralogue author Timothy Williamson will be getting into character and answering questions from Bob’s perspective via @TetralogueBook on Friday 6th March from 2-3pm GMT. Tweet your questions to him and wait for Bob’s response!

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14. Wollstonecraft: The Case of the Kickstarter Project

JORDAN STRATFORD is a producer, author, and screenwriter. Stratford launched the idea for the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency series on Kickstarter, where the response was overwhelming enthusiasm.

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15. 2015 Mock Newbery discussions at Emerson, part 7: OUR WINNERS! + GIVEAWAY!!!

It's been an exciting journey with our students, reading and discussing what they think the most distinguished books for children have been in 2014. My students know their voices and opinions are valued--and that's made a huge difference to them. But even more than that, they've had a great time sharing their ideas with each other.

As a special celebration, I'm hosting a giveaway of one of these titles of your choosing. Please see below for full details!


The winner for the 2015 Mock Newbery at Emerson School is The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander. 

Students passionately argued that The Crossover was not just a book they loved, but the writing distinguished and distinctive. They shared examples about the characters, the plot and the language. Students from all sorts of different backgrounds connected to the themes and language in The Crossover. This is not just a sports book, but rather a book that operates on a multitude of levels. I think most of all, they responded Kwame Alexander's voice, in the way he both riffed on rap style but also wove deeper issues that made kids pause and think.

We celebrated three honor books that all received more votes than the rest of the titles. The three honor books for 2015 Mock Newbery at Emerson are:
The Swap, by Megan Shull -- a book that resonated emotionally with many students, because it captured some of the inner and social pressures kids feel today. The followed the complex plot, and found the voices clear and consistent. I especially appreciated the nuanced gender roles -- some typical for boys and girls, some less expected.
The Snicker of Magic, by Natalie Lloyd -- students responded to the lovely language, the heartfelt themes and the magical fantasy in Lloyd's debut novel. They understood how hard it was for Felicity to move every time things started to get tough for her mom. They could feel how important words were to Felicity. And they could see Felicity growing throughout the story.
The Fourteenth Goldfish, by Jennifer L. Holm -- it was wonderful to see how students responded to the layers of science, fantasy and family. There was just the right amount of depth to draw students in, but never overwhelm them. That balance takes incredible skill; Holm creates thought-provoking situations without making readers feel like they're being led into a discussion. Our readers responded to the humor, the heart and the love in this story.

Will any of these win the 2015 Newbery Medal? We'll all find out on Monday, February 2nd when the winners are announced in Chicago at the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting. You can follow the live webcast here early Monday morning.

I'll be spending the weekend with my library "book friends", talking about favorite books we've read and new books we're looking forward reading this year. These four special books will certainly be ones I'll be sharing--because my students' excitement is contagious!

GIVEAWAY: As a special celebration, I would like to send one of these titles to a classroom or school library as a way to share a love of books. Please fill out the Rafflecopter below. Giveaway rulles are simple:
  1. Giveaway ends Thursday 2/5 at 12am Pacific.
  2. Winners must be to the United States shipping address.
  3. Kids & parents may enter, and present the gift to a teacher or school library.
a Rafflecopter giveaway


I want to give a special thanks to all the publishers who supported our book club by sending review copies. It made our small adventure possible. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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16. Are the mysterious cycles of sunspots dangerous for us?

Galileo and some of his contemporaries left careful records of their telescopic observations of sunspots – dark patches on the surface of the sun, the largest of which can be larger than the whole earth. Then in 1844 a German apothecary reported the unexpected discovery that the number of sunspots seen on the sun waxes and wanes with a period of about 11 years.

Initially nobody considered sunspots as anything more than an odd curiosity. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, scientists started gathering more and more data that sunspots affect us in strange ways that seemed to defy all known laws of physics. In 1859 Richard Carrington, while watching a sunspot, accidentally saw a powerful explosion above it, which was followed a few hours later by a geomagnetic storm – a sudden change in the earth’s magnetic field. Such explosions – known as solar flares – occur more often around the peak of the sunspot cycle when there are many sunspots. One of the benign effects of a large flare is the beautiful aurora seen around the earth’s poles. However, flares can have other disastrous consequences. A large flare in 1989 caused a major electrical blackout in Quebec affecting six million people.

Interestingly, Carrington’s flare of 1859, the first flare observed by any human being, has remained the most powerful flare so far observed by anybody. It is estimated that this flare was three times as powerful as the 1989 flare that caused the Quebec blackout. The world was technologically a much less developed place in 1859. If a flare of the same strength as Carrington’s 1859 flare unleashes its full fury on the earth today, it will simply cause havoc – disrupting electrical networks, radio transmission, high-altitude air flights and satellites, various communication channels – with damages running into many billions of dollars.

There are two natural cycles – the day-night cycle and the cycle of seasons – around which many human activities are organized. As our society becomes technologically more advanced, the 11-year cycle of sunspots is emerging as the third most important cycle affecting our lives, although we have been aware of its existence for less than two centuries. We have more solar disturbances when this cycle is at its peak. For about a century after its discovery, the 11-year sunspot cycle was a complete mystery to scientists. Nobody had any clue as to why the sun has spots and why spots have this cycle of 11 years.

A first breakthrough came in 1908 when Hale found that sunspots are regions of strong magnetic field – about 5000 times stronger than the magnetic field around the earth’s magnetic poles. Incidentally, this was the first discovery of a magnetic field in an astronomical object and was eventually to revolutionize astronomy, with subsequent discoveries that nearly all astronomical objects have magnetic fields.  Hale’s discovery also made it clear that the 11-year sunspot cycle is the sun’s magnetic cycle.

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Sunspot 1-20-11, by Jason Major. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Matter inside the sun exists in the plasma state – often called the fourth state of matter – in which electrons break out of atoms. Major developments in plasma physics within the last few decades at last enabled us to systematically address the questions of why sunspots exist and what causes their 11-year cycle. In 1955 Eugene Parker theoretically proposed a plasma process known as the dynamo process capable of generating magnetic fields within astronomical objects. Parker also came up with the first theoretical model of the 11-year cycle. It is only within the last 10 years or so that it has been possible to build sufficiently realistic and detailed theoretical dynamo models of the 11-year sunspot cycle.

Until about half a century ago, scientists believed that our solar system basically consisted of empty space around the sun through which planets were moving. The sun is surrounded by a million-degree hot corona – much hotter than the sun’s surface with a temperature of ‘only’ about 6000 K. Eugene Parker, in another of his seminal papers in 1958, showed that this corona will drive a wind of hot plasma from the sun – the solar wind – to blow through the entire solar system.  Since the earth is immersed in this solar wind – and not surrounded by empty space as suspected earlier – the sun can affect the earth in complicated ways. Magnetic fields created by the dynamo process inside the sun can float up above the sun’s surface, producing beautiful magnetic arcades. By applying the basic principles of plasma physics, scientists have figured out that violent explosions can occur within these arcades, hurling huge chunks of plasma from the sun that can be carried to the earth by the solar wind.

The 11-year sunspot cycle is only approximately cyclic. Some cycles are stronger and some are weaker. Some are slightly longer than 11 years and some are shorter.  During the seventeenth century, several sunspot cycles went missing and sunspots were not seen for about 70 years. There is evidence that Europe went through an unusually cold spell during this epoch. Was this a coincidence or did the missing sunspots have something to do with the cold climate? There is increasing evidence that sunspots affect the earth’s climate, though we do not yet understand how this happens.

Can we predict the strength of a sunspot cycle before its onset? The sunspot minimum around 2006–2009 was the first sunspot minimum when sufficiently sophisticated theoretical dynamo models of the sunspot cycle existed and whether these models could predict the upcoming cycle correctly became a challenge for these young theoretical models. We are now at the peak of the present sunspot cycle and its strength agrees remarkably with what my students and I predicted in 2007 from our dynamo model. This is the first such successful prediction from a theoretical model in the history of our subject. But is it merely a lucky accident that our prediction has been successful this time? If our methodology is used to predict more sunspot cycles in the future, will this success be repeated?

Headline image credit: A spectacular coronal mass ejection, by Steve Jurvetson. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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17. Freddy the Frogcaster and the Big Blizzard, by Janice Dean | Book Review

Freddy the Frogcaster and the Big Blizzard does an excellent job of creating a creative way to get kids interested in learning about the science of weather.

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18. The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats

The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats: A Scientific Mystery  by Sandra Markle Millbrook Press, 2015 ISBN: 9781467714631 Grades 4-7 Sandra Markle's third book in the Scientific Mystery series is just as engrossing as The Case of the Vanishing Golden Frogs and The Case of the Vanishing Honey Bees.  In The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats readers are introduced to a problem: bats are

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19. Are wolves endangered with extinction in Alaska?

Wolves in the panhandle of southeast Alaska are currently being considered as an endangered species by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in response to a petition by environmental groups. These groups are proposing that the Alexander Archipelago wolf (Canis lupus ligoni) subspecies that inhabits the entire region and a distinct population segment of wolves on Prince of Wales Island are threatened or endangered with extinction.

Whether or not these wolves are endangered with extinction was beyond the scope of our study. However our research quantified the genetic variation of these wolves in southeast Alaska which can contribute to assessing their status as a subspecies.

Because the US Endangered Species Act (ESA) defines species as “species, subspecies, and distinct population segments”, these categories are all considered “species” for the ESA. Although this definition is not consistent with the scientific definition of species it has become the legal definition of species for the ESA.

Therefore we have two questions to consider:

  • Are the wolves in southeast Alaska a subspecies?
  • Are the wolves on Prince of Wales Island a distinct population segment?

The literature on subspecies and distinct population segment designation is vast, but it is important to understand that subspecies is a taxonomic category, and basically refers to a group of populations that share an independent evolutionary history.

Taxonomy is the science of biological classification and is based on evolutionary history and common ancestry (called phylogeny). Species, subspecies, and higher-level groups (e.g, a genus such as Canis) are classified based on common ancestry. For example, wolves and foxes share common ancestry and are classified in the same family (Canidae), while bobcats and lions are classified in a different family (Felidae) because they share a common ancestry that is different from foxes and wolves.

Wolf in southeast Alaska.  Photo credit: Kristian Larson, the Alaska Dept of Fish and Game. Image used with permission.
Wolf in southeast Alaska. Photo credit: Kristian Larson, the Alaska Dept of Fish and Game (Wildlife Conservation Division, Region I). Image used with permission.

Subspecies designations are often subjective because of uncertainty about the relationships among populations of the same species. This leads many scientists to reject or ignore the subspecies category, but because the ESA is the most powerful environmental law in the United States the analysis of subspecies is of great practical importance.

Our results and other research showed that the wolves in Southeast Alaska differed in allele frequencies compared to wolves in other regions. Allele frequencies reflect the distribution of genetic variation within and among populations. However, the wolves in southeast Alaska do not comprise a homogeneous population, and there is as much genetic variation among the Game Management Units (GMU) in southeast Alaska as there is between southeast Alaska and other areas.

Our research data showed that the wolves in southeast Alaska are not a homogeneous group, but consist of multiple populations with different histories of colonization, isolation, and interbreeding. The genetic data also showed that the wolves on Prince of Wales Island are not particularly differentiated compared to the overall differentiation in Southeast Alaska and do not support designation as a distinct population segment.

The overall pattern for wolves in southeast Alaska is not one of long term isolation and evolutionary independence and does not support a subspecies designation. Other authors, including biologists with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, also do not designate wolves in southeast Alaska as a subspecies and there is general recognition that North America wolf subspecies designations have been arbitrary and are not supported by genetic data.

There is growing recognition in the scientific community of unwarranted taxonomic inflation of wildlife species and subspecies designations to achieve conservation goals. Because the very nature of subspecies is vague, wildlife management and conservation should focus on populations, including wolf populations. This allows all of the same management actions as proposed for subspecies, but with increased scientific rigor.

Headline image credit: Alaskan wolf, by Douglas Brown. CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

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20. Because Waiting Is So Boring

Parallelogram 4

I know I said Parallelogram 4 (Beyond the Parallel) wasn’t coming out until next Tuesday, January 20.

Weekends are for reading. It’s out now. Enjoy!

Kindle
Nook
iTunes
Kobo
Smashwords
Paperback

And the prices for the first 3 installments will still stay nice and low until next week, so if you haven’t read Parallelogram 1, 2, or 3 yet, you can scoop them up at a bargain!

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21. My Writing and Reading Life: Jess Keating, Author of How to Outswim a Shark Without a Snorkel

As an author and zoologist, Jess Keating has tickled a shark, lost a staring contest against an octopus, and been a victim to the dreaded paper cut. She lives in Ontario, Canada, where she spends most of her time writing books for adventurous and funny kids.

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22. Why causality now?

Head hits cause brain damage, but not always. Should we ban sport to protect athletes? Exposure to electromagnetic fields is strongly associated with cancer development. Should we ban mobile phones and encourage old-fashioned wired communication? The sciences are getting more and more specialized and it is difficult to judge whether, say, we should trust homeopathy, fund a mission to Mars, or install solar panels on our roofs. We are confronted with questions about causality on an everyday basis, as well as in science and in policy.

Causality has been a headache for scholars since ancient times. The oldest extensive writings may have been Aristotle, who made causality a central part of his worldview. Then we jump 2,000 years until causality again became a prominent topic with Hume, who was a skeptic, in the sense that he believed we cannot think of causal relationships as logically necessary, nor can we establish them with certainty.

The next major philosophical figure after Hume was probably David Lewis, who proposed quite a controversial account saying roughly that something was a cause of an effect in this world if, in other nearby possible worlds where that cause didn’t happen, the effect didn’t happen either. Currently, we come to work in computer science originated by Judea Pearl and by Spirtes, Glymour and Scheines and collaborators.

All of this is highly theoretical and formal. Can we reconstruct philosophical theorizing about causality in the sciences in simpler terms than this? Sure we can!

One way is to start from scientific practice. Even though scientists often don’t talk explicitly about causality, it is there. Causality is an integral part of the scientific enterprise. Scientists don’t worry too much about what causality is­ – a chiefly metaphysical question – but are instead concerned with a number of activities that, one way or another, bear on causal notions. These are what we call the five scientific problems of causality:

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Phrenology: causality, mirthfulness, and time. Photo by Stuart, CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0 via Flickr.
  • Inference: Does C cause E? To what extent?
  • Explanation: How does C cause or prevent E?
  • Prediction: What can we expect if C does (or does not) occur?
  • Control: What factors should we hold fixed to understand better the relation between C and E? More generally, how do we control the world or an experimental setting?
  • Reasoning: What considerations enter into establishing whether/how/to what extent C causes E?

This does not mean that metaphysical questions cease to be interesting. Quite the contrary! But by engaging with scientific practice, we can work towards a timely and solid philosophy of causality.

The traditional philosophical treatment of causality is to give a single conceptualization, an account of the concept of causality, which may also tell us what causality in the world is, and may then help us understand causal methods and scientific questions.

Our aim, instead, is to focus on the scientific questions, bearing in mind that there are five of them, and build a more pluralist view of causality, enriched by attention to the diversity of scientific practices. We think that many existing approaches to causality, such as mechanism, manipulationism, inferentialism, capacities and processes can be used together, as tiles in a causal mosaic that can be created to help you assess, develop, and criticize a scientific endeavour.

In this spirit we are attempting to develop, in collaboration, complementary ideas of causality as information (Illari) and variation (Russo). The idea is that we can conceptualize in general terms the causal linking or production of effect by the cause as the transmission of information between cause and effect (following Salmon); while variation is the most general conceptualization of the patterns of difference-making we can detect in populations where a cause is acting (following Mill). The thought is that we can use these complementary ideas to address the scientific problems.

For example, we can think about how we use complementary evidence in causal inference, tracking information transmission, and combining that with studies of variation in populations. Alternatively, we can think about how measuring variation may help us formulate policy decisions, as might seeking to block possible avenues of information transmission. Having both concepts available assists in describing this, and reasoning well – and they will also be combined with other concepts that have been made more precise in the philosophical literature, such as capacities and mechanisms.

Ultimately, the hope is that sharpening up the reasoning will assist in the conceptual enterprise that lies at the intersection of philosophy and science. And help decide whether to encourage sport, mobile phones, homeopathy and solar panels aboard the mission to Mars!

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23. Chernobyl's Wild Kingdom by Rebecca L. Johnson

Chernobyl’s Wild Kingdom: life in the Dead Zone By Rebecca L. Johnson Twenty-First Century Books. 2015 ISBN: 9781467711548 Grades 5-12 To review this book, I borrowed a copy from my local public library. On April 26, 1986, Reactor Number 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded sending extremely high levels of ionizing radiation into the atmosphere that would cover the area.

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24. 10 Math & Science Topic Choice Mentors + 10 Book Giveaways

Do you have students who are interested in math and science, but claim they hate writing or don't know what to write about in their writer’s notebooks? Here are 10 newer picture books to inspire them to write about their passion.

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25. Celebrating Women in STEM

It is becoming widely accepted that women have, historically, been underrepresented and often completely written out of work in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Explanations for the gender gap in STEM fields range from genetically-determined interests, structural and territorial segregation, discrimination, and historic stereotypes. As well as encouraging steps toward positive change, we would also like to retrospectively honour those women whose past works have been overlooked.

From astronomer Caroline Herschel to the first female winner of the Fields Medal, Maryam Mirzakhani, you can use our interactive timeline to learn more about the women whose works in STEM fields have changed our world.

With free Oxford University Press content, we tell the stories and share the research of both famous and forgotten women.

Featured image credit: Microscope. Public Domain via Pixabay.

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