Monday, February 12, 2018

Soft Matter, Hard Science, and How to Teach It






Fragile Objects: Soft Matter, Hard Science, & The Thrill of Discovery – Pierre Gilles de Gennes, Jacques Badoz (1996)

            It is rare that a book starts off due to a great idea and then the author is able to match it with the actual content found within.  That is what I have found in this great and highly informative book by the French scientist and educator, Pierre Gille de Dennes.  Because of his involvement in education he was asked to speak to the advanced science classes at many French secondary schools regarding science itself, the pursuit of a career in science, and the methods by which science is best elucidated and taught to students.  Before writing this book, Mr. Gilles de Gennes visited and spoke at over 150 different French schools, both on the continent and in various French-system schools throughout the world.  He sought to teach the students about his field, the study of soft matter and its properties, but wound up learning just as much from the questions posed to him by the many students he met along the way.
            This book is constructed in this manner, where the author discusses a specific science story that illustrates a point he is making about the properties of a soft matter such as rubber, then he details certain audience responses and/or questions that came up often during his trips.  He first describes what he studies, which are long, chain molecules called polymers.  Polymers are naturally all around us, from the keratin in our fingernails and hair, to the collagen in our ligaments and skin, to the snot created by our mucus glands.  The author focuses on one type per chapter. In the first chapter, he tells the students how the native people of South America would use a certain tree’s latex to coat their feet and ankles.  After an hour or so, this liquid latex turned into a solid material, natural rubber.  The native people did not know why this occurred, or why, after about a day, their rubber coatings would begin to fall apart and become unusable.  He then explains to the students that the latex combined with the free oxygen in our atmosphere.  These oxygen atoms would bond with the latex at various points and change the properties of the latex from a liquid to those of a solid.  The reason that the rubber “boots” would disintegrate is that nothing stopped the oxygen from continuing its reactions, so eventually so many oxygen atoms bond with the latex that the bonds between the latex are broken, causing the disintegration of the natural rubber.  It was not until Mr. Goodyear experimented with adding trace amounts of sulfur to cooking latex that an actually durable rubber was created.  We call this vulcanized rubber, because of the added sulfur, and it is still in use in every single vehicle tire around, not to mention a host of other uses. 
While this is a neat story in and of itself, the author seeks to also prod the students into pursuing their ideas by describing how it took another hundred plus years after Mr. Goodyear vulcanized rubber, to actually begin to understand the physical and chemical reasons for the valuable reaction.  Why did not one seek to follow up on it?  Who knows, but it is the spirit of curiosity that is most alive in those that seek to become scientists.
Other chapters deal with soft matter such as soap bubbles, liquid crystals, wetting and de-wetting, India ink, and many other of the everyday items around us that are touched by the science of “soft matter.”  For instance, one of the interesting things is that a minute quantity of a substance can greatly change the properties of something else.  Ink, for instance.  Most ink is just minute particles of carbon floating in water.  The issue with keeping ink for any length of time is that the particles will all coalesce and sink to the bottom of the container, essentially separating the two components of the ink.  Back in human history, someone figured out that a tiny amount of gum Arabic (sap from a Mediterranean tree) added to the ink kept it from separating and would last over a year.  This is what we call India ink.  The addition of Gum Arabic helped coat each of the individual carbon particles with a one atom thick layer of gum, keeping the particles from collecting and settling down to the bottom.  Now, it took hundreds of years for someone to figure out WHY it worked (in terms of physics), but it is amazing that it was actually discovered!
            The author also describes his personal scientific quest, as he proceeded to leave behind scientific disciplines in favor of new fields ripe for exploration.  Sometimes it is the only option for a scientist.  Certain fields stagnate, whether due to lack of funding or due to a bottleneck in technological ability.  The author went from studying surfactants (molecules with two separate ends each with different chemical properties) which are used throughout human industry, the most familiar ones being the varieties of soaps we have access to, to studying adhesives and their properties.  Each time he made a change he had to spend years learning the foundational ideas of the new field.  This is something that he made a very good point of sharing with his students.  It is very difficult to pick a new field of research and be successful in it.  It takes teamwork, patience, and the true love and desire to learn something new.  Many people, even top scientists, do not have such fortitude.
I would recommend this book to any secondary school educators out there, for it is a great study and critique of the methods used in the author’s home of France to teach children.  He describes the French over-reliance on teaching theory as opposed to practical applied science and engineering.  He describes the triumphs and challenges faced by American school systems and the methods used to foster academic excellence in the USA.  It is all very interesting and will give me much to think about for a long time to come.

(This book is available for purchase here:  http://www.springer.com/us/book/9781461275282 )

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Idea of Free Will and all its philosophical paradoxes are explored






Paradoxes of Free Will – Gunther S. Stent (2002)

            One of the biggest difficulties I have in reading works of philosophy is the nearly universal occurrence that philosophers critically analyze and explore an idea as far as they can, but seemingly fail to analyze and explore the assumptions they personally hold to be Truth.   Many philosophical works are actually re-phrasing and analysis of previous works, with what amounts to essentially a pamphlets-worth of data placed at the end of the book, detailing the writer’s tiny contribution.  I am not fond of reading those.  The glorious thing about Mr. Gunther Stent’s bad-ass book, Paradoxes of Free Will, is that it seeks to explore just one topic, and does so following the chronological history of human philosophical development.
            The topic at hand is one that each of us should have an opinion on, regardless of our educational level.  This topic is Free Will.  Going back thousands and thousands of years, Mr. Stent finds that the central issue to much religious/theological thought is the attempt to understand what humans perceive as Free Will.  Very ancient human civilizations did not have a concept of an individual free will.  Even until the time of Confucius, Lao Tze and the Buddha, the world these genius thinkers came from did not place any value on the individual or the individual’s right to decide the path of their life.  Confucius created a means by which society can guarantee good upstanding members, to the exclusion of actual individual desires.  Lao Tze tried to do the same, but with the goal of showing the people how to guarantee a good moral life, as opposed to a social life.  The idea of human Free Will really began to take shape after humanity crafted monotheistic religions.  Polytheistic religions posited that we humans were just parts of a much greater, eternal whole.  Monotheistic religions had to create some sort of special reason why humans are so “awesome,” so they began to perceive the entire material world as being created solely for humans (stupid, but what can you do?)
            The main argument between theologians, philosophers, and other thinkers goes like this.  If the Universe is created by an all-knowing, all-powerful, infallible creator being, and that creator being knows all that has come and will come, then why do humans feel like they are freely choosing their own paths in life?  If it is all pre-ordained, then to blame a human for a wrong action or an immoral choice is to blame the designs of an almighty god.  On the other hand, if humans have the ability to choose their actions for themselves, does that not deny the existence of an omnipotent creator?  This argument is further inflamed by the claim that some sort of pre-existing morality exists in humans, by which we are tested.  If we do good actions (god’s will) then we are good moral beings.  If we choose to do bad actions, we do so in spite of the morality we all know is in us.  At least that is one argument, and I have severely simplified it here.
            The book shows the early development of human thought on these matters.  From the idea of a Free Will comes the idea of a Soul.  From the idea of a Soul comes the battle to determine whether the soul is a part of our material existence (a result purely of biomechanical processes) or whether we have a duality in us, base matter being our physical self, and a divine, ever-lasting Soul which guides our true self.  This is called the Mind-Body Problem.  Does the mind/soul exist independently from the body/brain?  Is it all just the end-result of pure physical properties?  Many wars and terrors and traumas have been shoved down people’s throats by those who wish to force their ideas about this on the people at large.
            The existence (as most of us see it) of Free Will invites many other philosophical paradoxes that are explored in this great book.  One of the oldest is the Paradox of Moral Responsibility.  This can be explained in the following manner:

1)    Some of the world’s events are governed by determinism (the web of causation that we feel directly effects outcomes, such as a drought causing a forest fire).  All other events are random chance.
2)    People are only morally responsible for the action they will autonomously (many will say a person who is under orders to do an immoral act is NOT morally responsible, for instance.  A murder is an autonomous killing.  A soldier firing at an enemy is just following an order.)
3)    To the extent that a being performs an action is governed by determinism, it is predetermined.  Therefore people could not have chosen to exercise their free will in any other way from how they did do it.  The problem is that item one shows that if the action was not caused directly by another force, then it happened purely by chance, meaning no Free Will was involved at all.
4)    The conclusion of this argument is that a being is never morally responsible for their actions.  This for many is an obvious paradox.  How can an evil person not be morally responsible for their actions?

Now, while that may sound nice and pat, it has been shot down countless times by other philosophers, who can all find ways that actions are morally valid or invalid, regardless of determinism or random chance.  For instance, some would argue that a soldier ordered to shoot someone does not have to actually shoot them.  They could reject the order or shoot in another direction, and in doing so could choose the moral path.  It is very complex.
            This book goes on to discuss scientific and religious developments that have shaped the various paradoxes that arise from the very idea of Free Will, with the quantum indeterminacy of the nano world being one of the latest to shock the status quo of philosophy as it relates to mind/body and free will.  I am glad I ran into this book at the Library.  It is a great exploration of a very specific and very central topic in the world of philosophy.

(This book can be purchased here:  https://www.amazon.com/Paradoxes-Transactions-American-Philosophical-Society/dp/0871699265 )

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

G. Brent Dalrymple Provides a Great Tool to Fight the "Young Earth Creationist" Idiots





The Age of the Earth – G. Brent Dalrymple (1991)

            Back in the late 1970’s there began a series of challenges to the scholastic curriculum of schools in Alabama.  Certain religious idiots wished to force the school boards to devalue the teaching of natural selection, geology, and other science topics, while pushing the “alternate theories” of christian creationist bullshit that states the Earth and the Universe were all created sometime around 5,000-6,000 years ago (even though the nation-state of Egypt has been around for at least twice that long….morons.)  During this time Mr. Dalrymple was asked by the state if he could testify on the behalf of the science.  Mr. Dalrymple, being an eminent geophysicist and geologist, spent the better part of 5 months preparing, only to have the case be thrown out before it reached the courtroom.  Sadly, even more proudly ignorant people tried to do the same in other states, so Mr. Dalrymple saw that a need existed for a book that could explain the very many methods by which scientists have determined not only the approximate age of our planet Earth, but also the age of the Solar System, our Galaxy, and the Universe as a whole.
            A big part of how ignorant fundamentalists of every religious stripe manage to continue their assaults on everything good and decent in the world is their reliance on the lack of substantial scientific knowledge in the general American population.  Most US public schools teach the very basics of science, much of it severely outdated and archaic, but still needed as a foundation for what actual science is doing currently.  The problem lies in that schools are never given the chance to teach everything we currently now in the realms of science, as this is the purview of the Universities and their researchers.  This makes it very easy to fool people.  Make your false statements sound like actual science, and most people will assume it is.  It gives the backwards troglodyte religious-fundamentalist “humans’ among us a lot of joy to keep everyone ignorant.  If they are dumb as rocks, it makes it easy to feed them the lies that keep religions rich.  Believe me, all the religious leaders at the top KNOW their followers are blind idiots, sucking up whatever ”theology” the leaders wish to make the sheep believe.  They sit in their massive, lavish, extravagantly outfitted homes and offices and laugh and laugh and laugh….
            So, Mr. Dalrymple goes into great length to describe every aspect of how we know the ages of things.  He details what radioactivity is, what a “half-life” is, the methods used to test radioactivity, how they function, how we know they function, and what type of radiocarbon dating is good for what type of rock.  Each chapter then explains in exhaustive detail, sufficient for a learned expert, but still graspable by the lay reader, topics such as the age of the Earth based on modern geophysics and geology, the age of our Moon based on the rocks that humans have brought back, and then the age of the Universe itself, focusing on the data gathered from meteorites and interstellar debris we have collected.  In the hands of an educated person, this book could wholly rebuff any asshole trying to use make-believe fairy tales to keep young students ignorant.  This fight never ends, for ignorant fundamentalists will never change their mind, and they will go on indoctrinating their poor children in their backwards, regressive, baseless beliefs.
            The greatest aspect of science, and most scientists, is that they willingly accept the vast quantities of unknown information, without suffering from desperation.  Scientists understand that unexpected answers may point to new truth, a new area of study, or they may point to an old false belief, correcting what could be centuries of ill-informed assumptions.  The last chapter of this book details the many things we do not yet know about the age of the Earth and the Universe, much to its credit.  Scientists are always willing to concede what they do NOT know. The greatest fault in religious fundamentalists lies in that they assume without question that everything in the parts of the holy book they like are invariably and divinely true, and anything else is false.  They are so brainwashed that the world “gospel” in English has come to mean undisputed, unvarnished truth. So pathetic. Every single person that seeks to curtail a young child’s learning or that seeks to teach them patently erroneous fantasy instead of accepted scientific fact should be fought against vigorously.  It is wonderful that Mr. Dalrymple has provided at least one excellent weapon against these morons.

(This book can be purchased here:  http://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=2550 )