Recommended reads #60


First things first: I’d like to share that I just launched a new podcast series, Not Just Scientists. It’s not associated with this site at all, though we might occasionally discuss a topic I link to here. I’m doing this with HK Choi, a buddy in my department. I’m pretty excited about it. It’s a conversation between HK and myself about things happening in science, and in not-science, and we have plans to interview guests who are doing interesting stuff. New episodes will launch every two weeks – the first one is up. It involves the discovery of Homo naledi, the biology and biogeography of lice, what you say at parties when people ask what you do for a living, and more. It’s not a high-production affair (like, say, Radiolab), but we’re in this for the long haul and we will be getting even better as we continue. Feel free to join us at the start, and if you like it, please spread word.

Bringing back a forest. How we are bringing the American Chestnut back after Chestnut Blight did them in. This is beautifully written and goes into great detail. Here’s hoping that we’ll see recoveries of the American Elm and the American Ash. Or maybe we should stop giving trees the common name “American [tree].” and that won’t tempt invasive pathogens into taking them away from us.

Are College Lectures Unfair?

Teaching is not exactly brain surgery, is it?

A professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland is refusing to wear a transmitter to help one of her hearing-impaired students. Her reason? Religion. She apparently made a deal with the university twenty years earlier so that she could be exempted from using these devices.

Just a heads up, if you report academic misconduct of your collaborators on federally funded research, you may not qualify for federal protection as a whistleblower, and retaliation at work can come swift and hard without recompense.

Fathers who serve as the “primary parent.”

The five second rule is bunk. In microbiological terms, it’s much better to eat food off of a carpet than a wood floor or tile.

“Audubon painted a bunch of birds that no one has seen since. We explore the most likely options behind the mystery birds.”

The HMS Erebus and a sister ship left England in 1845 to find the Northwest Passage. They were never seen again — until a team of Canadian searchers discovered the wreckage in the Arctic last year. What followed was a dispute over the facts of, and credit for, the historic find.”

Did I mention that Not Just Scientists is free on the iTunes store?

Is teaching an art or science? For that matter, what about the practice of medicine nowadays?

HK Choi, my podcast pal, writes in his blog about the History of Molecular Biology:

Few would argue the position that The Double Helix holds in the history of [molecular biology]. Its influence cannot be overstated. Every biologist, chemist and physicist I have ever met – and many others besides – has read the it (it doesn’t hurt that it is a short, breezy read). Entire books have been written to defend those it besmirches. Scientific lives and careers have been colored by its often unfair and grotesque characterizations. The history of molecular biology – or should I say more accurately, the manner in which molecular biologists view the history of their own field, has been framed by its narrative – the thesis that the elucidation of the physical structure of DNA formed the culminating, climactic moment of a nascent science – Griffith, Avery, Chargaff mere preamble; Hershey and Chase, Meselson and Stahl the supporting evidence; recombinant DNA, the Human Genome Project, biomedicine in general and the history of humankind the consequence. Watson’s book is testament to the power of narrative. The relentlessness of story gobbles everything in its path; and protestations and contrary evidence and mitigating circumstances become mere handwaving, as ineffectual as it is pathetic. Some have argued that the book is as great an accomplishment as the discovery itself.

Just in case you want to learn about the Campaign Against Sex Robots. Really.

This is just brilliance from McSweeney’s: An Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar.

Did you hear, I started a podcast! A PODCAST! Not Just Scientists.

A drum that’s worth beating continuously: There is no excuse for how universities treat adjuncts.

From Talking Heads to Talking Students: Driving the paradigm shift in science education. If you can overlook the use of the phrase “paradigm shift” then this can be useful.

How to be a URM grad student. It’s written for physics/astro, but works far more broadly, and goes far beyond the boilerplate stuff that you tend to see on the topic. It’s written by
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, who is also worth a follow on twitter.

Rethinking the University Classroom: Ban the podium-style lecture, not the laptop.

My long journey to student-centered learning.

Time versus debt: why these students chose community college.

From R1 to CC: 3 Things I Wish I Had Known About Community College Careers

Exploring the advantages of rubrics. Why is it that some people just reflexively hear ‘rubric’ and think that they’re bad or dumb or not constructive or a waste of time? All of the arguments that I hear against them are never student-centered. Okay, fine, let’s say a rubric doesn’t help you grade better or more fairly. (I find that hard to be believe, and the research says it’s not true, but okay, fine, I’l accede that point.) What a rubric does more than anything else is help students write better. It gives students a very clear indication of the things that matter to you. Do you want your students to write more clearly, makes sure that they use topic sentences, don’t have typos, follow length guidelines, make clear logical arguments, have enough background research, cite material appropriately? Do you want students to think originally? Is there something else you want from your students? If so, then put it in the rubric and then they’ll do it because their grade depends on it. (For context, what I wrote about rubrics earlier.)

Let’s be more frank with colleagues and students: Being head of undergraduate studies was an eye-opener for Stephen Curry”

Here’s a non-paywalled article from the Chronicle: When it comes to startup for biomedical researchers, women get totally screwed over. If you ever wondered how negotiations can be gendered, here you go. Wow.

The problem in American education is not dumb teachers. The problem is dumb teacher training.”

This is an entertaining light read, “How I used science to fight back and [defeat] my insurance company.”

On the moral qualities of teaching and pedagogical content knowledge. What’s the difference between the knowledge in your discipline, and “pedagogical content knowledge”? This is one piece of of edu-jargon that in my opinion is connected to a useful idea, and this is a good place to start. Pedagogical content knowledge is, in short and probably badly put, the information about teaching about a  topic. Someone can be brilliant in (say) immunology, and be highly versed in teaching, but still know bupkis about how to teach immunology.

A teacher gets inside the mind of a serial cheater—and is dismayed by what she learns.” I’ve said this before, I’ll keep saying it, and people keep denying it even thought the science is very clear. Cheating is rampant, even in our own classes. Cheating is the norm. That’s a fact we have to own.

From the desk of an intolerant nincompoop: “All scientists should be militant atheists.” Actually, despite the odious title, the contents of the piece aren’t so bad, basically arguing that scientists need to argue for the use of evidence with respect to everything. I guess this guy can’t accept the fact that people aren’t inherently rational.

Here’s the thing. Almost all the time, the answer is in the box. That’s why the box is there: we found the good ideas, and put the box around them

Economic diversity is within the power of any top university. The question is whether the university’s leaders decide it’s a priority.” This is in the context of what reads like PR piece for the University of California system in the New York Times. These campuses half the fraction of first-generation college students at the California State University, and they cost more than twice as much. But they rate higher in ‘college access’ rankings because their graduation rates are a lot higher. Most of the students in the CSUs don’t even have UCs on their radar because they didn’t have access to a high school that would prepare them to get in, or they can’t come close to affording it – the CSU is still too expensive for most of our students. The UCs definitely are an engine lifting up incomes, but it’s not so much serving the people in poverty as the people in families struggling above the edge of poverty, in a state that is expensive to live in. For context, I almost went to a UC myself 26 years ago, but it was too expensive for my (lower middle class) family and the need-based financial aid from a private small liberal arts college was cheaper and required us to borrow less money. Let’s be clear — the UCs are not for California’s low income students — but they still do play a role in class mobility.

More numbers about which colleges enroll first-generation students. Who looks good in this? Me! Well, my university, which is second-highest among public universities in the nation. The top five in that category are all Cal State universities.

Is it time to tax the endowments of extraordinarily rich universities? This article starts with the quip that Harvard is a Hedge Fund with a university as a tax shelter. By the time you’re done reading this, you might well agree.

The Atlantic has always been a solid outfit, I mean always because they’ve been around for so long. And now they’re doing science right. Read this and tell me you’re not inspired to love the vision.

Creativity, play, and science.

…and even more from Stephen Heard, about why he’d rather teach non-majors.

The lab decalogue. (If you’re unfamiliar with western religion, that’s the ten commandments. But there actually are eleven here.)

Walter White apparently made the ugly Pontiac Aztek cool again. I mean for the first time.

How do you handle sharing and educating about environmental change when conditions are often so devastating?

This is hilarious. An Australian rugby player covers an American football game.

This is the most epic humblebrag about being 4.0 student.

The cost of private colleges isn’t skyrocketing. It’s just that the sticker price is getting inflated, and then you get a discount from the dealer. I suppose this is one way that income inequality is playing out in a less-than-horrible way, that obscenely wealthy people are subsidizing people who need discounts. But come talk to me in five years as my kid is preparing to go to college. (I can’t even begin to get my head around that idea about that idea now.)

Elizabeth Kolbert explains what it will look like if we burn all of the world’s fossil fuels.

Does the Anthropocene have to be a fatal vision?

We aim to counterbalance current dystopic visions of the future that may be inhibiting our ability to move towards a positive future for the Earth and humanity.  We will do this by soliciting, exploring, and developing a suite of alternative, plausible “Good Anthropocenes” – positive visions of futures that are socially and ecologically desirable, just, and sustainable.  We expect that any “Good Anthropocene” that emerges will be radically different from the world as people know it today. Yet we also know that these futures will be composed of many elements already in existence, which we call “seeds’, which could combine in unique and surprising ways to create an almost unimaginable future.

More than two centuries ago, Humboldt surveyed the vegetation on Chimborazo, a huge volcano is what is now called Ecuador. These folks went back and redid Humboldt’s survey and wrote about it in PNAS. And surprise, things are shifting upslope. It’s a very cool study.

Speaking of Humboldt, I just picked up a copy of Andrea Wulf’s brand new book, “The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World.” If you’re not familiar with Humboldt, he was a naturalist who travelled the world, back when it wasn’t so easy to do that kind of thing, and his work is at the foundation of so much that happened since his time. Foundational to what people often think of as the foundations for the study of nature. I can’t quite recommend the book yet, as I haven’t read it, but I’m excited to get to it. But I’m mentioning it now because I have a feeling I won’t get to it until the holidays roll around.

There are fewer black men heading to med school in the US now than there were 40 years ago. Not just a smaller percentage, a smaller absolute number.

Noam Ross just successfully defended his PhD thesis at UC Davis. And his exit talk had a gorgeous flyer:

Donald Trump is the new face of white supremacy,” says hate crime expert. “Before you think this article is ‘just one liberal’s opinion,’ let me briefly say I have dedicated my life to studying racism.” It’s a more worthwhile read than you normally would think. I almost didn’t click through when I saw this and I’m glad I did. It’s really educational. Considering I’m white and all, I realize I didn’t know much about how the white supremacy movement works in the US.

There was an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how the University of Georgia is throwing down millions of dollars to hire adjuncts in order to dramatically lower class sizes. But I’m not linking to it because it has a paywall. Yeah, I’ll link to some paywalled things, but not from the Chronicle. So there.

“It’s often said, for example, that contingent faculty are less valued because they are teachers rather than researchers and the academy privileges research. This is not true. The academy values neither teaching nor research when it is produced by the lower caste, and both (though to varying degrees) when it is produced by the higher caste. The teaching of all contingent faculty is often judged to be inferior simply because contingent faculty are contingent.”

The Hipster Bar Menu Generator. Actually it says Brooklyn bar but you get the idea.

Here’s an interesting “citizen science” project using people and their cell phones to measure air pollution. By the way, I put “citizen science” in quotes because I just think it’s not a good phrase. First, whether or not you’re a citizen shouldn’t be a barrier to joining this kind of project, if you have a green card or are on a visa or undocumented, you’re still wanted. In communities where “citizen science” projects are most needed is where this term is most likely to be marginalizing. What to use instead? I have no idea. The field of “informal education” has a similar problem. People just don’t know what it is. But what’s a better phrase to use? “Out of school time education?” Ugh, that’s worse.

I think the Smart Girls movement/organization by Amy Poehler is spectacular, especially celebrating that girls can be awesome by being themselves. But then there’s this video series that they’re sponsoring which is just, in one word, wrong. Katie McKissick, the artist behind Beatrice the Biologist, does a great job with the delicate matter of expressing reservations about this series. It’s interesting that some legitimate and otherwise not-subject-to-poor-judgement science educators have been involved. But I suppose work like this pays the bills. I’m not in a position in which I’ve been offered money to appear in a video series that glorifies drinking to preteen girls in the context of a science infotainment video, so I can’t say I’d do differently.

This visualization is worth five and half minutes:

If 12-year-olds Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser knew that the internet character they worshipped was a fantasy, why did they want to kill their friend for him? Save this for the weekend, brew a hot beverage and curl up with this one.

How did Ashley Madison hide the fact that they were scamming would-be-cheating men with female robots? Actually, they were horrible at hiding it. And some guys sought legal remedies. But of course most would just pay and slink away.

Have a great weekend.

And, oh, if I haven’t mentioned it yet, I started a podcast.

3 thoughts on “Recommended reads #60

  1. As usual, a rich collection of content, thank you! As for “citizen science” you are absolutely right, “citizen” is exclusionary, but the term has a lot of inertia because… well who knows, it sounds neat and has been widely used. The last major effort to rebrand it came up with “Public Participation in Scientific Research.” A valiant effort, but it obviously did not stick. I try to just use “science” as much as possible, because a major theme of the movement is the authentic use of scientific methods, just by people who are not paid to do so. As in sports, we don’t have to make a huge distinction between the pros and amateurs, we’re all just playing sports.

  2. I came back to this thought about “citizen” science after several days of Citizen Science at the White House ( where the loaded term can have more impact because of the political nature of government. My recent thought is that what we really mean is non-professional scientists, and the opposite of professional is amateur. Unfortunately, “amateur” is more closely related associated with lack of expertise instead of income source. The only synonyms I could find that weren’t pejorative are “dabbler” and “putterer.” Perhaps it’s not going to catch on, but I really do like the image that the term “Dabbling Scientist” invokes. Just tossing this into the ether…

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