International Pi Day

It would be highly remiss of me if I were not to make note of the mathematical importance of tomorrow (and not ignoring that today, 3/13, is the second of three such Fridays this year). At 9:26:53 tomorrow, you should pause for just a brief moment and note that it is International Pi Day (Π = 3.141592653).


Further Thoughts On Academic Freedom

As noted in the title, the purpose of this piece is to offer some additional thoughts on the idea of academic freedom. This was prompted by a recent piece on the Retraction Watch blog, “Yes, we are seeing more attacks on academic freedom: guest post by historian of science and medicine”

But this requires a few thoughts about the nature of education in this country first. There is, in my own mind at least, a subtle attack being played on the educational system in this country. It is a subtle attack because, as so many attacks do, it is cleverly disguised as reform and improvement. Now, this is not going to be a diatribe or rant about Common Core because 1) I happened to believe that there is a common set of information everyone should have and 2) my disagreement with the Common Core Curriculum is with its implementation and not its content.

I think that most parents have problems with it because they don’t understand what’s going on and they do not want to take the time to visit with their children’s teachers and find out what they, the parents, need to do. In one sense, that’s nothing new; for the most part, parents have never really been involved in the children’s learning process, other than to complain when their children are failing educationally and then it is all the teacher’s fault. I suppose I could go with this topic but I will save it for another time.

The second problem is that Common Core is trying (or at least I think it is trying) to bring back certain aspects of the learning process that have been kicked out, namely the process of thinking and analyzing. It is one thing to remember information; it is an entirely different thing to think about the information and analyze what it means and what one can do with it.

I have said this before and I will say it again. If all we do is teach our children how to answer the questions on a test, they will be unable to solve the problems that haven’t arisen yet. But if we teach our children how to think and analyze, then no problem is unsolvable.

Second, the purpose of teaching should never be to prepare a student for the next year of study (though that has to be the dominant thought in the early years of education). One must teach the skills necessary for a student to learn on their own and to continue learning after formal education is completed. Right now, it appears that we are doing quite well in the first area but doing very little in the second.

And I am coming to believe that there is a cadre of individuals who would rather our children be an army of mindless robots, unable to question authority, so as to insure that they remain in power and have the ability to name their successors. I cannot help but think that this cadre of individuals would much rather return to the days of royalty and the divine-right of kings with the ability to choose who shall lead this country instead of accepting the ideas and ideals that made this country.

There are many aspects to the idea of academic freedom. I will accept the notion that, having been educated in how to teach chemistry as well as the actual field of chemistry, I should be given the freedom to teach it in a way that helps my students learn the material that is designated by the curriculum and prepares them for future learning.

And I will admit I have received in the years that I taught at the high school and college level much grief when I wouldn’t teach the answers on the test.

Now, as I pointed out in “Continuing Thoughts On Academic Freedom”, academic freedom, it can also mean allowing thoughts which you may not accept to be presented. But one has to understand the difference between an academic discussion of an idea and the presentation of information on what is essentially a “my way or the highway” approach.

What I think bothers to many people is that the purpose of education is to provide the skills necessary for the development of free thinking. And free thinking, while not always the greatest, is the greatest single challenge to totalitarianism one could ever imagine. For me, it would be a violation of my own academic freedom for any group to dictate what I can say in the classroom (and perhaps, also in the pulpit).

For me, the greatest attack on academic freedom has to be in the area of thought about the creation of this universe, this solar system, and the life on this particular planet.

As a lay speaker, my focus is on the Gospel and its application to life. As such, I very seldom find the opportunity to introduce science ideas. Having said that, having a science background helps to critically analyze the Scripture readings. In doing so, it makes it easier to show the truth of the Gospels.

Now, it might be different in the chemistry classroom. At the beginning of an introductory chemistry course, I spend some time with theory development. There are opportunities to suggest the difference between science and faith. But when one teaches in a public school, one has to be very careful not to emphasize one over the other.

A few years ago we were discussing 1/2-lives. For some of my students, this presented a quandary. As conservative Jews, the implications of this idea created a problem with their religion and its view of the world. Now, because these particular students were going into emergency medical response professions, this was, for me, not a problem. These students knew how to work the problems they would encounter and this would allow them to pass the course. In after class discussions, I pointed out that they had to resolve the problem created by the two situations.

I don’t think it is my job to challenge a student’s faith but I have to suggest ways to resolve the conflicts they are likely to encounter between science and their faith.

I think that at one time I had been required to memorize the poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “The Charge Of The Light Brigade.” But I have probably forgotten most of it. But I do remember some verses of it, most notably, “Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.” If that is all that our education system will do, we have a problem.


Southernisms: Knee High to a Grasshopper

For those who come to my blog, Micah is a southern-style evangelist and that happens to be a good thing. While he writes about things Southerns say, this is more about what we all should do. Good job, Micah!


I’m watching my nephew this weekend, which reminded me to post this goody from last year.

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Southernisms: Knee High to aGrasshopper


We regularly do a hashtag game centered around a southernism. A southernism is either a southern phrase or a cultural tradition in the south. We invite people to think of an example of that phrase, practice, or institution connected to our weekly theme and write it out with a hashtag attached to it.

Our most recent Southernism is “knee-high to a grasshopper”, a description often used to describe little children. Many a time I remember seeing an aunt or uncle, or family friend who I could not remember tell stories about me as a wee thing, saying, “I ain’t seen you since you was knee-high to a grasshopper”.

According to this phrase is at least 200 years old, since we find a form of it…

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“What Is Fracking?”

I don’t know about you but up here in New York there is a lot of discussion about “fracking” and how this will increase our supplies of crude oil and reduce our need for foreign supplies. But along side this discussion is also a discussion about how this process is not very environmentally friendly and, as a secondary topic, how we need to be looking for alternative energy resources instead of continuing our reliance on fossil fuels.

So what is “fracking”? The proper name for this procedure is hydraulic fracturing and it is a technique for increasing the flow of crude oil out of bedrock. It and variants on the technique have been around probably since we first started drilling for oil.

To explain what it is, we need to have a better picture of how crude oil is taken out of the ground. I think that the most common conception of an oil well is a large pool of oil in a large cavity in the rock several thousand feet below the surface. In part, this is true but the cavities in which the oil is imbedded are very small and there is no large pool of oil.

When an oil well is set up, the pipe reaches the oil bearing rock strata, it cracks those micro-cavities and, because there is a pressure differential, the oil “flows” out of the rock strata and up to the surface. After the well is established, a pump jack is set on the wellhead to pump the oil out of the rock.

At some point in time, the pressure differential becomes to low for the pump jack to work and, in the past, the well is shut down. This is where “fracking” comes into play.

The process of “fracking” involves pumping water and other liquids under pressure back into the oil-bearing rock strata. This causes the strata to fracture and open up other pathways for the oil to flow out of the well. One benefit of this process is that it allows the extraction of oil from other oil-bearing strata normally not considered in oil production.

And that brings us to the downside of hydraulic fracturing. If all that was being pumped back into the ground was water (and I think that was the case many years ago), there might not be any problems. However, along with the water that is injected into these wells, other solvents, mostly hydrocarbons and essentially insoluble in water, are also being used.

These solvents are used to dissolve the oil and make it easier to extract but left behind in the bedrock, they end up in the water table and pollute the water. It also appears that the injection of this mixture of various solvents, under pressure, has increased the frequency of earthquakes in the area of the wells. Neither of these outcomes can be categorized as welcome and/or safe.

There are going to be those who say that the downside of “fracking” is minimal in terms of the oil that is produced from the process. Those who support this process would say that producing more domestic oil removes the need for the importation of oil from other localities. But is it worth it? Is the pollution and what would be the destruction of an underground water table worth the reduction of foreign oil?

Once upon a time, I began a science methods class by pointing out the two most important liquids in society were water and oil and that one could easily construct a curriculum based on that notion. There is no doubt that there is a limited supply of crude oil (fossil fuels are notoriously nonrenewable) but there is also a limited supply of clean drinking water. And having all the oil in the world won’t matter much if there is no water to drink. (A side note – there is plenty of water on this planet but the majority of it is undrinkable.)

Second, a focus on a process with so many downsides to it takes us away from seeking alternative energy sources, such as solar or wind. And we need to find other ways to utilize what limited resources of the fossil fuels that we do have, possibly through the use of fuel cells which would use the fossil fuels but not produce the carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide associated with the combustion of the same fossil fuels.

There are probably countless technical details that I have overlooked but I hope this has provided some insight into this issue that seems to be a dominant part of the energy discussion in our country today. The reader will clearly know my bias but I hope I have left it there for them to decide on their own what their opinion will be and what action to take.


They Are At It Again!

This falls under the category of scam artist at work.

Ann posted some items to sale on Craig’s List the other day (if you are interested in what they were, please contact us) and actually got a response with an offer to buy one of the items. Then the fun began!

She got one e-mail expressing interest followed by two e-mails asking for forgiveness in not quickly sending the payment. Today she got the check, delivered Priority Mail Express no less, and a fourth e-mail explaining that there had been a mix-up with the banker and that we needed to cash the check and keep the sale price plus a little something for our trouble. We were then to get a Western Union money order and send the rest back to the buyer. If we had done this, the buyer would have received something on the order of four figures.

Now, each of the e-mails that we received were very poorly written and this was the first of many alarms to go off. The fourth e-mail contained an address not related to the sender of the e-mails or the address on the check. At this point, can you say Nigeria?

Okay, now this check looks real. I mentioned because this isn’t the first time we have received such checks (the first time, it was even a good copy). As it happens, the bank and the company on which the check we received today are real companies but the check is hacked. When I called the company on whose account it was drawn and mentioned what we had, the company representative knew immediately what had happened and told me that whoever sent us this check had stolen the routing number and account number.

In speaking with the company representative, she noted that ours was not the first attempt to perpetrate this fraud. You could her in her voice a certain degree of sadness as to the number of people who have lost money because they were victims.

It is an old, old saying that if something is too good to be true, it probably isn’t. And in this case, that is certainly the case.

Let’s just say that from the beginning of this little episode, Ann and I were expecting a fraud. When you send an e-mail that is poorly constructed, that’s the first tip-off. And then when you get an amount of money that is way out of line, that’s the winner.

The moral of this story, to borrow from a second cliché, is seller beware.

For other scams, look at “Couldn’t They Have Been A Bit More Subtle?” and “There’s A Sermon In Here Somewhere But First A Warning!”

And addendum – We contacted the company whose address was on the return label and were told that they had several of these letters.  It isn’t just a scam but postal fraud now.