Saturday, January 28, 2012

To Infinity and Beyond: Documentation as a cause for Discovery

I was thinking about what caused the renaissance to occur. Think about it, society and everything just stagnated or went backwards for the medieval times. Shiny armor, but a little tarnished when it comes to learning and accepting new ideas.

What made the big difference then? In class we talked about the creation of the printing press and the spread of information, and Humanism was formulating itself. But when I looked at several timelines of the reniassance I noticed that there was not a lot of scientific discovery in the 16th century, most of the big names like Kepler and Gallileo, Leevenhoek and Lavoisier were in the 17th century, not the 16th.

But then I realized that before there is progress you have to start observing your surroundings...

I can't imagine being there when Columbus discovered an entire continent that no one had ever even seen before in the western world. The world wasn't flat anymore, and many of the scientists were making breakthroughs that turned thoughts on end. Vesalius was stealing corpses from graveyards and documenting what really makes bodies work, drawing with intricate detail the delicate nerves and sinews. William Gilbert and Aaron Dowling were documenting their experiments on loadestones that would eventually lead to their book in 1600 "De Magneye, Magneticisque Corporibus, et de Magno Magnete Tellure" postulating that the entire earth was a magnet, just like the needles of their compasses. Tycho Brache was taking observational astronomy to the next level and documenting aberrations in the movement of the planets that eventually led to Kepler to formulate his theories of planetary motion.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Kindle or Kindling

As I have been reading some books on a kindle reading platform I noted some interesting things that make the kindel format not very conducive to using it as a basis for reading a text that you would like to reference. My irritations are :
  1. No Page Numbers
    1. Which makes it rather hard to reference the text in a writing format (like a blogpost)
    2. Makes it hard to find your place if the program crashes unexpectedly in the middle of reading.
  2. View seems to be subjective...
    1. After three pages of nothing but figures that the text was referencing to I had to put the program "to sleep" before I got really frustrated with it
    2. While it's nice to be able to change to sepia or black on white or white on black, it seems bizarre to play with print as much
  3. It just doesn't act like a book.
    1. Pretending to flip pages is not the same as actually flipping them
    2. Reading for prolonged periods of time leave your vision slightly pink
While I do enjoy reading online texts on sources like, the kindel's format just frustrates me. However I do recognize that the switch from scrolls to books may have had a similar reaction from the initial consumers. I imagine their reactions being along the lines of you can't store it as tightly or the scripting looks all wrong.

What are all of your reactions with the kindle?

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Internet Food Chain

Today in my ecology class we we talking about trophic levels... which talk about how energy is transferred between organisms in an ecosystem. (Most people call it the "food chain" but we biologists have a pathological need for obfuscation in all that we do) Naturally, it got me thinking about the trophic levels of information on the internet... only instead of energy the internet feeds off of information.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Re-inventing the Future

What will tomorrow bring?

As we were talking in class about the 19th century it brought me back to my middle school years, when my favorite ride was 20000 leagues under the sea and traveling to the center of the earth was a spare time hobby. Imagine at the time there was a lot of growth in the sciences. Planets were being discovered, disease was being categorized and cured, atoms were being discovered and these artists tried to foresee what human innovation could accomplish. Art is an amazing thing because it takes us out of consumer culture and puts us into a position to interact with our surroundings. Science fiction has always been one of my favorite interactions because it helps us see where we want the world to go.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

An encounter with a Freelancer

This past weekend I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a wedding reception for one of my best friends... the food was great, the music fun, but I met one of the most interesting people I've met in my life: a real-life actual freelance biologist.

When I think of freelance I think of some of my favorite composers from the 19th century... Ludwig van Beethoven skipped out of the school that he was attending to teach lessons and compose for a less classical audience. Why perform just for the nobility? They would teach lessons and receive a commission for their compositions every now and again. A lot of the romantic composers did this, for example Hector Berlioz was a medical student turned composer.

I also think of the plethora of ghost writers and photographers who want to take pictures and write articles that are not requested. For writers and artists the creation of things without a need seems normal. A scientist doing it, however, is a bit of a shift in paradigm.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Interesting clip on Micro-loans

Africa's own Solutions One of my good friends showed me this interesting link on how to work with a group of people to help them work and help others help themselves.

It seems that one way to distribute malaria nets was to have the people see them as a status symbol, caring for their own Children. Interesting how using people's ideas can create new solutions to old problems. Openness like this really does enable creativity to flourish, especially when you give people the tools to solve their own problems then feeding them the answers. And when creativity flourishes... the things created tend to be so much better than we could ever plan.

For those of you not familiar with micro loans... they are small loans that enable people in developing countries start their own businesses... which they then repay. They are called micro because typically they are not larger than 200 US dollars.

I wonder how many things could be solved more simply if we had the people involved come up with the solution? Imagine having teachers fixing the school system instead of bureaucrats.... One of my friends from my Mission was extoling the benefits of having your children being schooled in Finland for some of the same reasons that things like micro loans work... if you help the people find solutions to their own problems, then you're not stuck solving them for the rest of their lives.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Understanding as a barrier to openness

One of the things that holds people back from having understanding is not necessarily a lack of information... It's a lack of understanding the information. There are people who have plenty of access to the information located in scientific journals and in websites that record about processes and procedures, however that access means nothing because they do not have enough understanding of the topic to use the information that they receive.

The same thing happened before the Renaissance... imagine all the knowledge locked up in the libraries of the Arabs... but with no access there was no growth, no understanding no progression. But once knowledge is disseminated throughout the world, the next step to openness is to enable people to understand what is being shared. Open forums and talks about new discoveries enabled people to understand and question ideas. Forward thinkers didn't always fare well on these forums though. Semmelweis (who encouraged aseptic or clean environments to decrease disease spreading in hospitals) If only the people who had turned him down would have taken time to learn the basic facts. Or imagine if the scientific community had read anything about Gregor Mendel's research on pea plants and genetic transmission of traits... it would have helped Darwin immensely to have that background... but because his superiors in Austria didn't understand, it never got anywhere.

However this problem is not only the problem of the public... Sometimes we scientists forget that it is not enough to do the research and explain it to our fellow scientists... it is just as important to enable the public to realize that just because collagen increases the skin's elasticity dosen't mean that rubbing it on your face does you any good. And while vaccinnations for most diseases can be good, vaccinnations for HIV would be a decidedly bad move for the continued success of the human race. Minor details, but major effects.

How do we try and resolve this problem of scientific illiteracy? Some encourage programming from places like NOVA or Discover... some have myriads of public outreach programs that enable people to learn the basics of their research. Another project that excites me as a biologist is the Bio Visions program that Harvard is running where professors and graphic imagers have worked together to help improve the visualization of complex biological processes in a series of little movies. My favorite is: Inner Life of a Cell. Being able to visualize things enables the openness of scientific data to mean something... means that people can be literate in more things than just your average novel or news article. Openness of data is only as good as the people who internalize and consume it. Without the educated public, it will never become a force that can cause good change instead of people who misrepresent facts and throw out a decent article because they don't fully understand what it means.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Hacking my own Education

For some reason society has decided to be content with putting labels on majors that people take. For example a microbiologist is expected to take classes in the slated system... virology, immunology, Chemistry... however if you add a class like Calculus or *gasp* creative writing the status quo has been interrupted and your professor says that you're wasting your wonderfully linear education with superfluous classes that will keep you from graduating and getting into medical school or graduate school.  Never mind the fact the the greatest scientists were decidedly not classically trained. (van Leeuwenhoek, the father of  microbiology was a draper by trade) That dosen't stop society from requiring a certain linear path to a certain end.

To be honest education in any form is going to have to be slightly systematic... sometimes to an extreme (for my high school in Florida it was virtually impossible to calculus unless you had decided on that "track "in the 5th grade) It makes sense, knowledge builds upon itself... it is really hard to understand complex integrations if you cannot do any algebra and virtually impossible to know much about bacterial pathogenesis without a basic understanding of Chemistry. However, taken to extremes you get regurgitators rather than learners.

However, this means that the fun and lifeforce is taken from learning. Some worry about cheating in medschools.... we should really be worried about what those students just regurgitate for the exams. They go for the profit, and miss out on the fun of knowing how the human body functions. That is the best part of learning, when we're able to learn the answer to questions that you've had since you were a little kid and apply them to modern situations. There is a movement that started to help people understand the limitations of a traditional education called Uncollege. 

Now, that dosen't mean that are no merits to a traditional linear education... it merely means that we need to look outside the box and recognize that if you're in one of the top business universities in the world that it wouldn't hurt to audit a couple of business classes for the sake of learning from the best while you have access to them... even if your professor asks you "You're in What?!"

Thursday, January 5, 2012

How Digitally Civilized am I?

Digitally civilized.

What does that mean? Civilized is defined as "characteristic of a state of civilization ; especially : characterized by taste, refinement, or restraint"(Webster's Dictionary) Digital can refer to many different things from fingers to calculations to a certain type of data entry. Together, however, it refers to the phenomena that happened when computers and digital information became ubiquitous.

That phemonina brought about more information than a society knew what to do with... with wikis and webcomics and blogs galore. Some information was useful, some amusing, and others purposefully spreading false information. But never the less, it has become increasingly important to be in the new digital civilization that seems to have cropped up overnight.

For me, I've dabbled in the digital world. From a quirky lovable grandfather who loves to have the latest and greatest gadgets (you should hear the arguments he has with Siri) to an uncle that networks computers (we had lan parties at Thanksgiving)for a living. Learning how to navigate in the digital world has been a family affair. Using the increasing number of tools available is amazing. From video editing to spreadsheet generation to teaching online, where there is a connection you are connected and I thrive on that electronic pulse.

One touch, one command and bingo! There is a multiverse of data that I can gather for projects, or entertainment, even religious enlightenment. The possibilities are endless, and despite my illiteracy in the Computer's own dialect, I would consider myself someone who is fairly digitally civilized,