Archive for the 'science' Category

Infographic: The world without us

Posted by mikedaum on August 30th, 2007

Came across this in a post from a very depressed New Orleanian.  The site wonders what would become of the earth after we leave it.  This infographic shows a timeline which is beautiful, and somehow peaceful, of exactly when the different things we do will be erased without our constant maintenance.  In the end, our final remnant will be the light of our broadcasts humming through space.  Fitting.

Global Warming Solved !

Posted by mikedaum on June 27th, 2007


Turns out while all of us have been sitting on our hands and fretting about climate change, somebody’s actually gone out and found a solution. That’s right, the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers’ Association has been working overtime on this problem and has come up with a groundbreaking plan. It seems that everything is going to be alright if we just BUY MORE CARS. That’s right. It’s the old cars which pollute…the new ones are squeaky clean! So if you love the planet, you need a shiny new car.

On the CVMA website you can read “Driving for Clean Air”, where you’ll learn that “a vehicle produced today is 12 times cleaner than one produced in 1993, and 37 times cleaner than one produced in 1983”. A look under the hood (sorry) shows, however, that what is being compared are not emissions, but the legal emissions standards….which of course are more lax for cars which have been on the road for 14 and 24 years than for new cars.

The website also features plan details under the heading “An Auto Green Plan”. The bold strategy laid out here features:

  • New Green Technologies

    (hybrids, fuel cells, government grants for R&D

  • Cleaner Fuel Choices For Canadians

    (mainly ethanol — shores up the Western support I suppose)

  • Getting old polluting vehicles off the road

    (sweet, sweet profit)

  • Greening the Government Fleets

    (delicious new public sector contracts)

  • Changing Our Own Driving Behaviour

    (This one is really the best one. I can’t really do it justice, so I beg you to go read it yourself. Suffice it to say that less driving is not part of the plan. Think “accelerate more slowly” and “maintain correct tire pressure”)

As the CVMA says: “Believe or not, we can reduce emissions with every new car.”

Stephen Colbert’s tribute to Mr. Wizard

Posted by mikedaum on June 23rd, 2007

Last night Colbert performed a hilarious experiment in honour of Mr. Wizard’s passing. He sucked an egg into a bottle by first putting a piece of burning newspaper inside. Colbert explains that the smoke rises to heaven to alert god about the fire, who subsequently forces the egg inside to put it out.

read more | digg story

Study says New Orleans still at risk

Posted by mikedaum on June 21st, 2007


The Army Corps of Engineers have just released a study on flooding risks in NOLA due to hypothetical hurricanes.  As it is summarized in the New York Times, the study shows that the risk today is basically equivalent to the pre-Katrina risk — though some areas had improved while others had deteriorated.

The article and study make for interesting perusal, but I have to say I’m a bit dubious.  Firstly, though the jury is still out, the concept of a “1 in 100 year storm” &c may be a rapidly moving target due to global warming, making a Katrina-strength storm much more likely in the future than it was in the past.  The science isn’t there for us to know how climate change will effect hurricanes, but I’m afraid that by the time we have a conclusive model it will be far too late.  This is especially relevant as much of the improvement in flood protection seems targeted at the 1-in-100 storms, leaving the 1-in-400 flood risks more or less unchanged.

I’m also skeptical about the accuracy of this elevation-based flood modeling, which more or less assumes that water will be spread over the city in nice even layers.  If we learned anything from Katrina, it was that things fail in unpredictable, uneven ways.

My only hope then from this study is that because the insurers will certainly pay attention to it, it has the potential to affect rebuilding patterns.  To date it seems that so many balls have been dropped, and so many opportunities have been missed, that it’s hard to hope that anything sensible will emerge.  Nonetheless, money talks, and if insurers stop funding development in the flood zones there will be some pressure to do the right thing, which is to build sustainable communities on the natural high ground.

General Science Knowledge in Canada vs. U.S.

Posted by mikedaum on June 19th, 2007

After reading my posts on the startlingly low occurrence of heliocentrism in the U.S., several folks have asked me what the corresponding numbers are in Canada.  I’ve done a bit of searching, and have so far unable to find a Canadian data set which directly addresses this question.  My sense though, was that the spirit of the question does not demand a direct answer as such, but is rather intended to knock this admittedly smug Canada-dweller off his high horse (otherwise, they could have asked me about Italy, or the Sudan).

Accordingly, I searched for studies which featured direct comparisons of different types of literacy between countries.  The best I’ve found so far is the “Findings from the Condition of Education 2006: U.S. Student and Adult Performance on International Assessments of Educational Achievement“, a roundup prepared by the U.S. Department of Education which summarizes results from a great number of international literacy comparisons.  Anyone who’s interested in this topic should have a look at the document…it’s a great read.

The two studies quoted are the TIMSS and PISA.  TIMSS is a great series of studies which were run in 1995, 1999 and 2003 which looked at cross-country scientific knowledge.  Unfortunately, Canada did not participate in the 2003 run, so I won’t include the data here.  TIMSS 2007 is currently underway, so we’ll have to wait until December 2008 to see what the results are.  TIMSS 1999 featured a comparison of math and science literacy in 8th graders in which Canada scored 531 — “significantly higher” than the U.S. score of 515.

Table 9 in the FCE document shows the results of the science literacy data gathered as part of PISA 2003.  Here Canada scores 519 — “measurably higher” than the U.S. score of 491.  This data quantifies the scientific knowledge of 15 year olds.

The FCE’s Table 10 shows a very interesting summary of the results.  Looking at Math and Science, it seems that the U.S. remains competitive through the 8th grade, and more or less collapses thereafter.

So the nutshell answer seems to be yes, Canadians know more about science than people in the U.S.  We also have Universal health care and don’t start wars.

Heliocentrism Revisited

Posted by mikedaum on June 18th, 2007

One of the best parts about being back in school is that I have full access to UofT’s extensive digital library. After I posted on the 2006 GSS, and how it showed that only 73.6% of surveyed U.S. adults knew that the Earth goes around the Sun, I figured I might like to have a closer look. So I googled the GSS, and was informed by the website that thanks to an agreement they have with UofT, I would enjoy full access to the data. Wow!

Well, turns out the full dataset is 300Mb, and in a format which is designed to be read by high end statistics packages (which I sadly do not have access to yet). So it took me a little while to write some software to begin to look at this data.

Once that was done, I thought I’d start simply — using the earth/sun question which had originally intrigued me so. In the above graph, you can see the % of correct responses to the question plotted against the highest grade level completed by the respondent (5 for 5th grade, 16 for four years of college, &c). The results are both expected and unexpected. The dominant trend of the graph shows a strong and pleasing (at least to those of us who have left comfortable jobs for difficult slogs as born-again students…and who also think it’s important to know who revolves around who) correlation between answering correctly and being educated longer.

Strangely though, the group with only 2nd grade education scored extremely high…as high in fact as those who completed 3 years of college. This group consisted of only 9 people, so it’s easy to write it off as a low-statistics anomaly. But both the 5th grade and the 7th grade groups were smaller, and fit nicely into the correlated trend. Furthermore, it’s easy to see from the error bars that despite the sample’s small size, the high marks were above the linear fit in a statistically significant sense. Sadly, the sample group did not contain any 3rd or 4th grade dropouts, so we can’t see how the data behaves in that gap.

The chart more or less speaks for itself. The good news is that education seems to correlate with heliocentrism. The bad news is that if you continued in school past the 2nd grade in the U.S., you won’t have better than a 50% chance of knowing that the earth revolves around the sun until your Sophomore year of high school.

Climate denier lies with charts

Posted by mikedaum on June 14th, 2007

Faulty climate curve

RealClimate has a beautiful explication of the above curve, which was presented by climate change denier E.G. Beck. The intention of the curve is to show that the current rise in global mean temperature is explainable as part of a naturally occurring sequence of cycles having a period of approximately 1500 years ( the Dansgaard-Oeschger cycles). From the picture, it seems that we should be currently near the peak of the most recent cycle. But if one tries to extrapolate from the leftmost cycle, one finds the peak should not occur until the year 2700 or so. The curve is smooth and beautiful…seems a good fit. So what gives?

But wait — let’s have a look at the key at the bottom. Seems there’s been a break inserted between 400AD and 1200AD, deleting 400 years from the record! So is there a corresponding discontinuity in the wiggly temperature curve? No way. He simply shrunk the x-axis down in order to make his data fit. Lovely.

At what point can we move on from this ludicrous debate and start trying to live in a way which isn’t destroying our home?

Mr. Wizard is no longer

Posted by mikedaum on June 13th, 2007

Mr. Wizard

I read on BoingBoing this morning that my old pal Mr. Wizard has passed away. Jer and I used to watch Mr. Wizard quite often, and it was just a great show. The experiments were always exciting, but the thing that made the show different from anything I’ve seen since were the descriptions he gave to the kids. Nothing was ever glitzed up or oversimplified; all questions were answered with straight, correct talk. When Jacob asks me science questions, I often find myself patterning my answers similarly, sometimes even stopping to think “What would Mr. Wizard say?”. It’s sad that he died, but even more sad for me that his show is not in syndication, and that none of the current kids’ science offerings come close to this level of quality.

Link to the BoingBoing post

Link to the L.A. Times obituary

Update: Wired is running Mr. Wizard’s last interview 

Heliocentrism in the U.S.

Posted by mikedaum on June 8th, 2007

Copernicus' UniverseSo my head is still ringing from the blow it was truth it was dealt during the first Republican debate when three of the candidates went on record as not believing in evolution.  Now Inherit the Wind was written 52 years ago.  The play chronicles the famous Scopes monkey trial, one of the landmark cases in the U.S. evolution debate.  Here’s the rub: the trial itself took place in 1925 when creationism was still a going concern.  The idea of a live, kicking controversy about evolution in the schools was inconceivable to the play’s authors.  For them, it was used merely as a foil for their criticism of McCarthyism, which was indeed the burning issue of the day.  For this literary trick to be effective, the whoever was playing the part of the McCarthyites had to be made to look extremely foolish, and the authors chose the (in hindsight) outlandish Creationists to fill the role.

All of this I find kind of depressing, but definitely worth trying to understand.  And my basic understanding of the resurgence of creationism tied the trend to the rise of the religious right, and the so called “culture war” which we all hear so much about.   Unfortunately, there’s really quite a lot of evidence that there’s no such thing.

There is, however, quite a lot of evidence of another potential cause.  As simple and obvious as it may seem, I’m starting to think that I’ve been overlooking the role of ignorance in all of this (It’s true what they say about the ivory tower).  I read a post recently on Cosmic Variance which compared U.S. attitudes on interracial dating to scientific knowledge there.  The source for the science data talked about a giant opinion study in the U.S. called the GSS which is run periodically to guage the status of social norms.  Last year for the first time the GSS included a science module.  Among other things, respondents were asked:

 Now, does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?

Shockingly only 73.6% of respondents got the question correct!  These lucky winners were asked a followup question:

How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun: one day, one month, or one year?

This question was answered correctly only 71.2% of the time.  As high as this number sounds, it’s important to remember that this follow-up was only posed to correct answerers of the first question.  So the number of folks who knew that the earth revolves around the sun once per year was actually 52.4% — just over half.

When I first read these data, I laughed out loud.  Jacob came running over demanding to find out what was so funny.  I explained the matter to him, and after answering both questions correctly, he laughed in sympathy for the kids in the U.S.  So I explained it to him that it wasn’t the kids they were asking, but the grownups, and he more or less fell on the floor.