Blinded by Science

How eNotes’ Math and Science intern overcame his trouble with the sciences and learned to love his Biochemistry major.

Science: the subject that many find so difficult to understand (and so boring to even attempt to understand) that they just dread learning about it, dread having to sit in class and listen to the teacher ramble on about atoms and cells and forces of nature. In high school, I used to be the type of student who wanted to ditch my chemistry and biology class. Seriously, who wants to hang around periodic tables and posters of cellular structures all day, and then have to study so hard just to learn on the test that you understood almost nothing? However, when I started college and began studying for my biochemistry degree (being Asian, I was heavily influenced to become a doctor), I began to realize why so many of us perform poorly in and, for some, even fear science. A 3rd year into my studies now, let me share with you my experience of overcoming the negative attitude and eventually growing to love this subject.

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“Why do I need to learn this? When am I ever going to use this information in my lifetime?” These are questions that we’ve all asked at some point in our scientific studies. In fact, the professor of my public speaking course raised this question just 2 days ago, referring to the sciences. This is one of the many reasons that science classes may seem so difficult and scary. It seems so arbitrary and foreign to us, like learning a whole new language that we will never use, and school fails in making it seem less frightening, in making it more familiar. Instead, we are driven away by how test-oriented the material is and the amount of memorization that is required.

My love for the sciences began in my first physics and chemistry courses. We were learning about exothermic (release of heat) chemical reactions and kinetic energy. Sure, I understand that when favorable chemical reactions naturally occur spontaneously go towards products and release energy as heat, but what does this mean and why do I care? Out of frustration in how poorly I was doing in the class, I decided to approach learning science through another method. I began to explore where these concepts occur in my everyday world and that’s when I stumbled across explosions. Those beautiful explosions seen in fireworks and those awesomely crazy explosions seen in action movies can all be fundamentally explained by the basic concept of exothermic reactions. All that force, heat/light, and fire that we see as a result of an explosion is all due to a chemical reaction that releases a lot of heat, causing the rapid expansion of air molecules. How cool is that?! All that insanity due simply to a sudden, quick expansion of air molecules that help transfer heat! I’d never thought something so simple can be responsible for what we see in fireworks and explosions. This is when I realized that I can make science a lot easier and a lot more interesting to understand.

Over the last few years, I stumbled across more interesting applications of the concepts I was learning in class. In quantum mechanics, I learned that teleportation is possible and that scientists have already teleported incredibly small particles from one island to another (shout out to all those Star Trek fans who fantasize about traveling from one place to another in a matter of seconds). In physics and chemistry, I discovered the most efficient way to drive a car, meaning I can now consistently get above 40 miles per gallon in my 1996 Honda Civic, which is incredible considering that a lot of fuel efficient cars these days average about only 32 miles per gallon.

The main point I’m trying to get at is learn how the science can be applied and try to relate it to a phenomenon that you find fascinating, especially if you are someone who is currently struggling in your science courses as I did (my GPA actually dropped below a 3.0 when I started college). Explore the internet and answer that question your little voice keeps asking in your head, “When am I ever going to use this?” It’s what led me to finding better and easier ways to perform simple tasks, such as driving, cooking, and fixing broken appliances. Although it may be true that science comes more naturally for those who are left brain dominant, all you need to do is be creative and find some way to connect that scientific concept to something that really interests you, and you don’t need to be an Einstein to make that happen. In fact, that’s how most of us learn in other subjects, but science just seems so foreign at first that it’s hard to take that first, eye-opening step. Once you take that step, though, you’ll begin to realize all beautiful ideas and revolutionary technology arise from surprisingly simple concepts with a bit of imagination and experimentation. It’s what allows for the possibility of teleportation, the possibility of substituting electricity with quantum particles to make computing millions of times faster, the possibility of finding cures for life-threatening diseases, and the possibility of traveling through space and time. That’s pretty awesome if you ask me.

So, as Jesse Pinkman expresses it in Breaking Bad, “Yeah, science!”


Are You Right or Left Brained?

Ah, the secret life of the human brain. It’s hard to imagine that something that exists inside of each of us, that governs our every waking moment (and every sleeping moment for that matter), can be too complex for us to completely understand–more mysterious than the depths of the deepest ocean. In just one second, for instance, our brains can form one million new connections. One million. To keep up with everything your brain does, well, you’d need another brain.

One aspect of the brain that has always perplexed me is the concept of the left vs right brain. There is a persistent idea that the world is divided into left-brained and right-brained people–the former latching onto logic and analytical thinking, the latter made up of loosey-goosey, emotionally intuitive types. Throughout our lives, many of us purport to be either one or the other–an identity that is forged and enforced in school. Students proficient in Math and Science will adopt the idea that they are left-brainers, while those most skilled in Arts will identify themselves as right-brainers.

But if you’re not certain yet as to whether you are right or left brained, well, there’s an infographic for that:

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It’s interesting how this infographic ties in to information that is already quite commonplace. The idea, for example, that left-handed people possess greater creativity (given the fact that the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body). I had thought this idea was simply an old-wives’ tale. It turns out, this is only slightly the case…

“Right-Brain, Left-Brain Theory” was actually formed as a result of neuropsychologist Roger W. Sperry’s work with epileptic patients. His treatment for epilepsy involved severing the corpus collosum (the membrane that separates the halves of the brain). This effectively reduced a patient’s number of seizures, but drastically affected other aspects of their lives:

Many split-brain patients found themselves unable to name objects that were processed by the right side of the brain, but were able to name objects that were processed by the left-side of the brain. Based on this information, Sperry suggested that language was controlled by the left-side of the brain. (Source)

So, it is true that each side of the brain is better able to handle certain tasks. It is simply the theory itself that is over-generalized when speaking of individuals. While the right brain may be better suited to expressing and reading emotions, recognizing faces, and creativity, and the left may focus more on language, logic, and numbers, it is really how the halves of your brain work in unison that makes up the type of learner and thinker that you are. All Mathies are not entirely left-brained, and all creative types are not completely right-brained–something that may make you feel better when you find, like I did, that your apparently dominant side doesn’t describe what you feel you are truly best at. (Numbers? Who, me??)

That being said, there is some use for dominance theory in curating good study habits.

Understanding your strengths and weaknesses in certain areas can help you develop better ways to learn and study. For example, students who have a difficult time following verbal instructions (often cited as a right-brain characteristic) can benefit from writing down directions and developing better organizational skills.

In particular, I can recall a mnemonic that worked well for me all the way back when I was preparing for my AP Psychology exam–a rhyme centering around numbers that helped me to memorize Erikson’s eight stages of development. Maybe I have always been numbers-oriented after all?

So, after identifying from the graphic above whether you are  left or right brained, here are some tips to help you learn and study most efficiently:

Left Brain Dominant:

  • To Do lists will work well for you, and you’re probably already an expert at them!
  • You might find that you’re more partial to non-fiction reading
  • You probably work better alone than in a group. If you must be in a group, volunteer as leader
  • Take advantage of your organizational skills in taking notes and scheduling
  • Push yourself to take risks! They can pay off

Right Brain Dominant:

  • You’ll excel in essays, more so than on factual, T/F-type questions
  • You probably don’t always read directions carefully–make that a priority
  • Use images and charts in your studies
  • Use your imagination and creativity to its fullest on all projects
  • Organize your thoughts by getting them down on paper

Are you left brain or right brain dominant? Take the test to find out! And if you have any study tips to help others with your learning type, we’d love to hear them in a comment!


Stuff that Keeps Smart People Awake at Night

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I don’t know about you, but when go to bed at night, my brain goes into Super Worry Overdrive. I worry about my bills, my kids, my  first drafts (like Anne Lamott, I am afraid someone will find my unedited work and will assume I have committed suicide when I realized my talent was gone).

One of my favorite Tumblr’s,  This Isn’t Happiness,  recently posted a list of things very intelligent people worry about.  Spoiler Alert: Whether they can continue to continue paying for HBO is not on the list. I had to look up some of the things they worry about. Suddenly, whether my cats need therapy or not (they do) is not as pressing. Apparently, I, and you, have more troubling things to keep us on edge:

  1. The proliferation of Chinese eugenics. – Geoffrey Miller, evolutionary psychologist.
  2. Black swan events, and the fact that we continue to rely on models that have been proven fraudulent. – Nassem Nicholas Taleb
  3. That we will be unable to defeat viruses by learning to push them beyond the error catastrophe threshold. – William McEwan, molecular biology researcher
  4. That pseudoscience will gain ground. – Helena Cronin, author, philospher
  5. That the age of accelerating technology will overwhelm us with opportunities to be worried. – Dan Sperber, social and cognitive scientist
  6. Genuine apocalyptic events. The growing number of low-probability events that could lead to the total devastation of human society. – Martin Rees, former president of the Royal Society
  7. The decline in science coverage in newspapers. – Barbara Strauch, New York Times science editor
  8. Exploding stars, the eventual collapse of the Sun, and the problems with the human id that prevent us from dealing with them. — John Tooby, founder of the field of evolutionary psychology
  9. That the internet is ruining writing. – David Gelernter, Yale computer scientist
  10. That smart people—like those who contribute to Edge—won’t do politics. –Brian Eno, musician
  11. That there will be another supernova-like financial disaster. –Seth Lloyd, professor of Quantum Mechanical Engineering at MIT
  12. That search engines will become arbiters of truth. —W. Daniel Hillis,

Scientists Determine Publication Date of “The Iliad”

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Homer’s ‘Iliad’ codex from approximately the late 5th-early 6th century A.D. Image: Public Domain

Evolutionary theorist Mark Pagel (University of Reading) and his colleagues, geneticist Eric Altschuler (Univ. of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey) and linguist Andreea Calude (also of Reading as well as  the Sante Fe Institute in New Mexico) have dated  one of literature’s most ancient works, The Iliadto 762 B.C. “give or take fifty years.”

You might be surprised to learn that scientists have applied the same techniques used to track how genes mutate to dating the codex. “Languages behave just extraordinarily like genes,” Pagel says. “It is directly analogous. We tried to document the regularities in linguistic evolution and study Homer’s vocabulary as a way of seeing if language evolves the way we think it does.”

Pagel and his team explained to Inside Science how the process worked:

“[We] used a linguistic tool called the Swadesh word list, put together in the 1940s and 1950s by American linguist Morris Swadesh. The list contains approximately 200 concepts that have words apparently in every language and every culture, Pagel says. These are usually words for body parts, colors and necessary relationships like “father” and “mother.”

[Then we] looked for Swadesh words in the Iliad and found 173 of them. Then, [we} measured how they changed.

[We] took the language of the Hittites, a people that existed during the time the war may have been fought, and modern Greek, and traced the changes in the words from Hittite to Homeric to modern. It is precisely how [we] measure the genetic history of humans, going back and seeing how and when genes alter over time.”

The other thing that researchers have determined is that a single person named “Homer” is unlikely to have existed.  Brian Rose, professor of classical studies and curator of the Mediterranean section at the Univ. of Pennsylvania Museum, says “it is clear the Iliad is a compilation of oral tradition going back to the 13th century B.C.”  Rose contends that The Iliad is an “amalgam of lots of stories” — about Helen, Odysseus, Agamemnon, Ajax, and others — that “focused on conflicts in one particular area of northwestern Turkey.”

While researchers are unsure about the authorship of The Iliad, they are relatively certain that the city of Troy actually existed and think they know where it was located, thanks to the nineteenth century work of two archaeologists, Heinrich Schliemann and the Frank Calvert, who excavated the Citadel of Troy and found evidence of a battle. Schliemann and Calvert dated the conflict to the twelfth century b.c. but whether the artifacts are from the epic war described in The Iliad or are the remnants of a civil war remains unclear.


The Beginnings of a Sea Change

In an area of Nigeria that is “as densely populated as Paris” but contains only one primary school, innovative architecture aims to make education available to all.

In the water community of Makoko just off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria, an exciting new project attempts to turn the tide of limited education and unstable infrastructure. Though the Makoko’s population is soaring, a lack of well-constructed buildings means that the community  houses only one primary school to serve its approx. 86,000 residents.

Why the lack or solid infrastructure? It’s because the islands of Lagos amongst which the fishing village resides are vastly covered in water. Residents of Makoko have for years built their homes atop stilts embedded deep in the seabed. Now a team of architects led by native Nigerian Kunle Adayemi will update that idea in order to build schools that will not only withstand the rigors of West Africa’s current climate, but hopefully also for many years to come.

As pictured above, the increase in rainfall and rising sea levels Lagos has experienced over time, due to global climate change, renders the local Makoko housing unsuitable. Adayemi’s solution is to create a completely free-floating building—one unchanged by any rise or fall in water levels. He and his team have also worked to make sure the new schoolhouses will be eco-friendly and space efficient to boot:

Adayemi is hopeful that the design will help more than just the people of Makoko: “The building can be adapted for other uses, such as homes or hospitals. Ultimately, it’s a vision that can be used to sustainably develop [African] coastal communities.” But of course, such an inspirational story is inevitably accompanied by typical political woes; the government of Lagos is reluctant to encourage the expansion of a water-based community. Just in July of last year, “Nigerian government officials destroyed dozens of residences after giving residents 72 hours’ notice of eviction,” an act that resulted in the death of one Makoko resident. The reality Adayemi faces—one greater than the threat posed by natural disasters—is that this mere slum (for lack of a better description) occupies prime waterfront, a commodity the politicians of Lagos won’t readily relinquish.

Thus the project, while furthering the possibilities of architecture, science, and education, faces its biggest opposition in near-sighted bureaucracy: a reminder that advancing education in Africa is never as simple a task it seems on its glass-like surface.

For more on this amazing project, head to the Guardian. Its article contains an interesting video that provides a bit of visual insight into life on the waters of Makoko.


Shakespeare? It’s in the DNA

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Are you old enough to remember when floppy disks were actually floppy? Or maybe when disks were 3″ wide? (Yes, kids, that’s what that little icon to “save” your work to your hard drives and flash drives represents, a hard little disk that held approximately two Word files or a half a dozen pictures (but not at the same time).

Maybe you think data storage has reached its pinnacle. It is rather startling to realize you carry more technology in your pocket on your smart phone than was available for the moon landing (but with considerably less LOL cats).  But when you understand that there is now over one trillion gigabytes of information in the world, not even the iPhone 204 can keep up with that pace. (Here’s what 10 trillion gigabytes looks like in numbers: 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000…. ten plus twenty one zeroes).

Every method of storage we have thus far employed has had long-term storage problems. CDs and DVDs scratch and wear out, as do magnetic tapes. But what about DNA, nature’s storage system? DNA is compact and durable. We can extract DNA information from bones that are millions of years old.

It sounds like science fiction, but it’s actually science-in-action. Nick Goldman heads up a research team at European Bioinformatics Institute in the U.K. Goldman and his fellow scientists are studying DNA data storage and Goldman has written a paper on the process which appeared  in the journal Nature last week.

In an interview with Ira Flatow on NPR’s “Science Friday,” Goldman explains that DNA utilizes a storage system much like computers use ones and zeroes so “[w]e wrote a computer program that embodied a code that would convert the zeros and ones from a hard disk drive into the letters that we use to represent DNA, and then we – our collaborators in California  – were able to actually synthesize physical DNA.”

Once the scientists realized this was possible, they decided what they would first try to encode and store:

[W]e chose a photograph of our own institute because we’re sort of self-publicists at heart, I guess, and an excerpt from Martin Luther King’s speech “I Have a Dream,” all of Shakespeare’s sonnets and a PDF that contained in fact the paper, the scientific paper by Watson and Crick that first described the structure of DNA itself.

All of this information, Golman says, is saved  on the equivalent of a speck of dust. How large of an area would contain all 10 trillion gigabytes of the world’s information? It would “fit in the back of a station wagon.”


Catcher in the Rye To Be Dropped from Curriculum? Puh-lease

New Common Core Standards drop classic novels in favor of “informational texts.”

The US school system will undergo some big changes within the next two years, chiefly due to a decision to remove a good deal of classic novels from the curriculum, or so the recent media reports would have you think.

The idea behind discouraging or reducing the teaching of old favorites like The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird is to make room for non-fiction “informational texts” in the curriculum. These should be approved by the Common Core Standards of each state. Suggested texts include, “Recommended Levels of Insulation by the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the Invasive Plant Inventory, by California’s Invasive Plant Council,” among others.

Mmmm, I just love me a good read on insulation levels while I soak in the tub.

So, the idea behind this is that children who pass through such a school system will be better prepared for the workplace, their brains packed with useful, practical knowledge rather than brimming with literary fluff (my personal summation). It has the backing of the National Governors’ Association, the Council of Chief of State School Officers, and even the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which partially funded the directive.

But is that estimate correct? Will reading more non-fiction in favor of fiction breed better writing, or more informed graduates? The discussion is extremely divided. One Arkansas teacher wrote in this Telegraph article,

In the end, education has to be about more than simply ensuring that kids can get a job. Isn’t it supposed to be about making well-rounded citizens?

Meanwhile, another reader weighed in for the pros of teaching more scientific texts:

I don’t understand how adding non-fiction books to reading lists REDUCES imagination.  Hard science is all about imagination–the “what ifs” of nature and the universe… I am sick of English professors acting like English Literature is the only bastion of imagination/critical thinking/culture.

When I first read that article stating that The Catcher in the Rye and other novels specifically would be gone from curriculums nation-wide, I was alarmed and frightened, though I now know it was needlessly so. The reactions of protesters are a tad hyperbolic, given that the two soporific texts I named above are found amongst a long list of alternate suggestions in various subjects, for instance Circumference: Eratosthenes and the Ancient Quest to Measure the Globe by Nicholas Nicastro, and The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story by Richard Preston, interesting and well-written books in their own right. English Literature classes will not be barred from teaching certain classic novels, as some of the reports would have you believe, though they may have more limited time to teach them than before. Yes, the school system will be changed and possibly not for the better, but Salinger and Lee aren’t going anywhere.

All in all, the arguments for both sides make overblown assumptions: on the one, that students will miraculously be better prepared for the job market, on the other, that all imagination and creativity will be drained from impressionable young adults. So, which side do you stand on, if either? Is the teaching of informational texts merited, or best left to vocational studies? Tell us in a comment below!


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