A Study in Studying

Alexa Harrington, “Educated Nation”, has a pointer blot this morning on “How to Study”, [Link] that took me back to considering how studying used to be back when I was an undergraduate.

I should comment that back when I was in public shul nobody thought it important to try to teach us how to study. Evidently this was supposed to be innately obvious, or, at worst, our parents were supposed to know this and teach it to us in the privacy of our homes, in lieu of anything about sex other than ‘don’t’ and “carry a condom in your wallet.’ Apparently the existence of separate guides on this are necessary today because (a) there still isn’t universal sex education, (b) parents have no idea of how to study and hence don’t tell us about that either, and (c) public shuls don’t teach students how to study because that isn’t material tested as part of the “Every Child Left Behind” program.

I should also comment that when I went to college they didn’t tell us how to study, but they did tell us we had to. The learning how was left to us, which pretty well put it in the same category as sex education again in that we learned it either from senior classmates, or on our own. That isn’t a good way and so even though I have had to learn how to study to get where I am I have never learned any of the theory of study, other than what I have developed on my own. I am, after all, a physicist, and we do that – develop theory.

I have been exposed to a few pieces of theory of study along the way. Alexa’s blog is a platinum mine of such and I have already blogged about pieces such as Chad Orzel, “Uncertain Principles”, distinction between course you study for before lecture and those you study for after lecture. I have come to the hypothesis that this distinction is pretty strongly along Capellan lines. That is, courses that fall into the traditional Capellan disciplines tend to require studying before lecture while non-Capellan, technical, legal, medical stuff, you study after lecture. At least I know that for technical courses and have been told similar for the others.

But what I want to posit today is that what you need to study in technical courses is a lot easier to figure out than for Capellan courses. I found this out when I was an undergraduate since every non-technical course had different things that you had to know to pass exams and such, but for technical courses it was always the same thing – work problems. You had to have the terms and tools down pat to work the problems and you got the techniques and thoughts from working the problems. So if you worked problems you got it and it didn’t matter whether it was physics or chemistry. Maths were a bit of in between because you never quite knew which proofs you had to memorize but there were problems, at least in the applied courses.

So in this one area nerds have it easier since all they really have to do is work problems. And somehow get through those non-nerd courses they have to have to graduate. And, of course, knowing you have to work problems is easy, working problems usually isn’t, even if it is easier than figuring out what to study for the non-nerd courses.

Klingon Kognition

Tuesday is usually a nice day at gym. Low density of educationalists and weight bouncers, science podcast episodes to listen to, and now the heat has abated a bit so my glasses don’t steam up when I walk out of the gym after my Yankee government ‘mandated’ 76 minutes of ‘moderate’ exercise. Although the glasses steaming up does give me a nice model of the “Every Child Left Behind’ program, at least in effect.

One of the things I really dislike about science, or any form of, but especially science, journalism is that journalists tend to interview each other rather than primary sources – scientists. I usually only grumble about this and mutter at the podcast episode when the journalist doing the interviewing or the journalist being interviewed make some egregious fumble of the subject matter under discussion, but this morning I got to thinking about an article I read yesterday in New Yawk Times.

This article [Link] resurrects Whorf’s theory that language shapes what we can think about and how we think about things. I emphasize the shapes here since this is an influence and not a determiner. The article goes off on a ramble discussing research on how directions are given in either body fixed or locality fixed coordinates, the sort of stuff that one gets immersed, or used to, in Freshman physics, and piled on from there but evidently its hot stuff to linguists and psychologists and ripe for mangling by journalists.

I was especially taken by one of their statements,

“Eventually, Whorf’s theory crash-landed on hard facts and solid common sense, when it transpired that there had never actually been any evidence to support his fantastic claims.”

that raised the question of who came to this conclusion – social engineering politicians? Back when I first ran into this theory, as an undergraduate, I could never find anyone, and I heard it from everyone from furrin language professors to anthropologists, who claimed it was bunk or whacked. Quite the opposite, and the more I learned about furrin language, the more valid it seemed to me.

The idea is pretty simple, language develops in an environment that is a mixture of social and natural, and the language reflects what people do in that environment and what the environment does to people. It may ignore taboo topics of the latter but that is as characteristic as inclusion. And people who grow up in the language or learn it well, think in that language and that ‘shapes’ how and what they think. The classic example of this, which I was presented in Freshman survey of anthropology, are Eskimos who have umpteen words for snow while European settlers have to make do with three or four adjectives modifying one noun. The manipulations that you can do in head are obvious, as are the differences between the two.

But what gets ignored often is variants on language. If you study a science, as in a college major or a practitioner of the discipline, you acquire language components that other people who speak (and think) the same base language don’t have, and those components make your thoughts different from their’s. So it’s not just a matter of having different languages, it’s also a matter of having different variants. And if you think different thought from other people, you are going to communicate differently as well because you have different words to use in forming information.

What struck me is that this is at the root of scientists having problems communicating with bogs (and bogs understanding scientists, assuming they even try, which is a BIG assumption these days!) It is popular these days for the social engineering progressives and other fuzzy thinkers to bash scientists for not working hard enough at communicating with bogs. Most scientists either ignore this or try harder, but the more cognate ones tend to respond that communication is a two way process and the bogs have to do their part of the process or THEY are at fault.

And Whorf’s theory substantiates that view. The fact is that when two folks who think in different languages try to communicate, both have to work hard to make the communication work. And if the languages are French and German nothing untoward is thought of this. But if the languages are (e.g.,) chemistry American English and bog American English, the burden is all on the chemist.

Unless the chemist English is being spoken – inaccurately – by a journalist and then the listener is irrelevant. Why is that?

So the next time you have to speak jargon to a bog, demand some mutual effort. Communication is not consumerist.

Late Crazy Season Blooming

The pre-shabat bath, manifest in the Sowth as Saturday bath because most christianists observe sabbath on Sundae morning, has now been explained, academically at least. It seems that a research performed by a psychologist at Northwestern U [Link] indicates that

“people feel morally cleansed when they are physically clean, and as such are more inclined to judge others more harshly.”

Gee, doesn’t that sound like something straight out of the Holy Bible? But if this type of behavior is ‘wired’ (gened?) into humans, how can that be some revelation of the deity?

Or is it just a matter that after getting unnecessarily clean and abusing someone for being different, our conscience pains us and we need some transference of guilt?

On a related azimuth, there is research from U York indicating that seniors are not ambivalent about climate change. [Link] The quote on this one is

“The engagement and participation of older people in climate change issues are important as older people can be seen as potential contributors to, and casualties of, climate change as well as potential campaigners to tackle the problem.”

What is surprising here is the yawning chasm of obviousness. Seniors have different priorities; they are not asentient. So is it only an academic who could conceive that seniors are unaware and uninterested in climate change such that this propaganda has to be emitted?

Of course, the other surprise is the denial of a state of attitude. According to this seniors can be either concerned about the effects of climate change or apathetic, but the state of questioning, even denying, climate change is excluded. So the question arises is this an English thing or an academic thing?

From my experience in dealing with seniors, given their political conservatism, the excluded state is the most common. So have these erstwhile academic done anything to actually survey the senior population or did they just invent this whole thing over tea and crumpets, or as a reaction to cucumber sandwiches, notorious for causing gas attacks?

Which, in turn, leads us to the question of how cleanliness and climate change are related.

Feast with Savages

Sundae again, and for once I have great thankfulness. Last weekend was the date of a reunion of my high shul class, and FD SCP and I chose not to attend. Now the photographs from that bash have been posted and I am profoundly thankful that we did not attend.

FD SCP and I are both introverts and dislike any form of social contact with large numbers of people, and people we do not know. Throughout our working lives we have had to attend social functions that violated both of those restrictions and we did so because it was part of the job. But now that we are retired we don’t have to put up with that stercus tauri and so we don’t go to social gathering that aren’t small and populated with people we know.

Anyway, I reviewed the photographs on-line and recognized only a small number of people, less than 0.01 of the people shown, and over half of them were people I really didn’t want to see, folks who made a nastiness in my life and while I don’t hold any grudge I would as soon avoid those folks lest my studied ambivalence be transformed into active hatred. So based on that I am happy I didn’t have to attend.

Another reason for being thankful is that reunions are banal and nasty boring. The music is populist from the era and not at all to my taste, and while I have never been a dancer, nor enjoyed assaying it, in my old age I prefer to drink alone and in moderation and I follow a strict diet under orders of medicalists. So I am unable to participate in the three major activities of reunions: dancing foolishly; gluttony; and drunkenness. And not being subjected to either the denial of myself or the exhibitions of others is something to be thankful for.

One of the great pains of being an ORF is the pain of conversation. Back when I was young our conversations were of technical things and were spiced with the enthusiasm of accomplishing something positive. Now conversations are non-technical, often personal or familial, and usually lacking in either enthusiasm or positiveness, if not both. Much as I hate to say this having grandmothers show me photographs of grandchildren is gagging and listening to golf and fishing stories stifling. Not that I want these people to stop, I just want them to stop wasting their time on me with these stories. There are other people out there who will happily listen to them, either to pass the time waiting to die or to get their turn to tell their own stories, so please excuse me from the group. Of course, the children stories would be different, are different, if they’re from people I know, grandparent and child, because then they have some context. And when you know 3 out of 500 people, the probability of not knowing is overwhelming O(1).

So while I am on the subject of old things, I noted [Link] that archaeologists from U Witwatersrand have found projectile points that push the bow and arrow back to 64 KYA! And pray do not make comments about I should have attended reunion with a bow and arrows. I prefer to practice Mr. Jefferson’s advice – slightly modified – that if they will not burden me with their interests, I shall not trouble them with mine. Just how many former cheerleaders and business types can endure a spirited discourse on continuous index renewal processes and their relationship to Brownian motion? Heck, most of those people passed college algebra by sweating bodily fluids.

And researchers from Arizona State U have pushed back the age of Sol system to 4568 MYA, an age increase of 2 MY. [Link] Also not something that can be discussed at a high shul reunion, nor matters of the standard model – the reunion’s is ’60’s R&R, hotel food, and bar drinks – or the Big Bang and stellar and planetary formation. Not that I do much research along those lines, but you have to try for some accommodation when you are in a public gathering. And yes, that is what I consider to be small talk.

So in retrospect, I suspect that all the folks who did attend the reunion and enjoyed it can be thankful that I didn’t attend.

Jeering and Jerkiness

Back when television was transitioning from monochrome to polychrome, and the descendants of dinosaurs were still individually discorporated by butchers, albeit in supermarkets, and SCP was an undergraduate, one of the things I had to learn about the transition period from the “old complacency” to “modern physics” was measurement of the gravitational constant.

In those days, the marvels of relativity and quantum mechanics were modern and elaborate efforts to measure the fundamental (?) coefficient of gravity were considered the equivalent of medieval monks arguing the number of angels that could gambol on the head of a straight pen. Now, however, I see that we are arguing about the same thing again. [Link] Seems that several groups have measured “G” and gotten rather widely differing results that do not agree with previous measurements. Differences in measurement apparatus cannot be discounted as part of the cause. But in the meantime, I am rather enjoying thinking what my professors, who scoffed at the futility of measuring ‘ one mode decimal place!’ would think of this.

Along the same lines, and at about the same time, I can recall nerds – engineer and scientist students and faculty being jeered for wearing sandals. After all, in those days, only women in America (or those men of aberrant sexual proclivity) wore sandals. Later on, once the wearing of sandals by men had been accepted the same type of folks – engineers and scientists – were jeered for wearing sandals with socks. Now, [Link] I am told, by the English media, that the Romans did this as demonstrated by remains unearthed by archaeologists.

I have never been much of a sandal wearer. In my educational days I spent a lot of time in laboratories and sandals were a health hazard. In fact, they were forbidden in chemistry labs in those days. Students arriving wearing sandals had to change to foot covering shoes or be denied admission, which was equivalent to a session fail since make-ups were almost unheard of in those days. And SCP was among the clumsiest of the lot. I always wore pigskin Hush Puppies and these had to be replaced about annually because of holes burned (eaten?) into the tops by strong acids and bases. And the matter was no better in physics laboratory where I was often dropping things and needed protection from that hazard.

And while we’re about ancientness, I note that a team of archaeologists have uncovered what they believe is the palace of wily Odysseus. [Link] I have to admit to being somewhat divided on this, partly because of being required to read the Odyssey in college and finding it thoroughly overdone. There are some things that are better presented as comic book condensations or Cliff’s Notes, and this is one of them. To say nothing of relieving oneself of the pain of dragging about a classical Greek to English dictionary. Not that I want to deny anyone the right to read it, I just don’t want it imposed as a requirement. I recognize it was supposed to broaden my mind but I am of the opinion today that the effort was a resounding failure, leaving me with a dislike for aristocratic tyranny and multi-theism.

Lastly, I note courtesy of a survey by the Nielsen company, [Link] that women, African-Americans, and hispanics use cellular telephones more widely than caucasian males. This could, of course, be nothing more than an indication of how much these demographics have to say? Or should we be sexist/groupist/racist/something-ist and note that this mirrors the statistics on computer usage? I would prefer not to take that path given that its contemporary usage is one to avoid having meaningful discussion. If you don’t want to discuss something with someone these days, you just accuse them of racism and get out of the way of the progressives and their rocks.

To first order, I really don’t care how much you talk on a cellular phone as long as (1) it’s not where I can hear, and (2) not while an automobile is being driven. Because quite frankly, what you are talking about is tripe and blather and I really don’t want to overhear it, and you have enough trouble not getting into automobile collisions with undivided attention without making it worse. But for gosh sake, feel free to talk all you want in the privacy of your home.

Hurts Like a Pun

OK, We are officially to end of the (work) week day, sometimes called Punday by the followers of the philosophy of Spider Robinson. I am unsure of how well I can uphold that tradition, good puns are hard work and I am long past my prime in such. Nonetheless there are several articles that have accumulated in the tabs that have a downright humorous aspect to them.

First, is an article [Link] relating how psychologists at Arizona State U have revamped Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and motivations. This is usually expressed as a pyramid, a not always constructive visual conceit. The new version is

and the old version is

Now I have problems with this, having spent twenty years as a manager and supervisor and using Maslow’s Hierarchy continuously as a management tool. The key to this is that you try to motivate people by understanding where they are on the hierarchy – stress tends to push them down, success tends to push them up. And I can tell you that I never had anyone being motivated by appealing to their parenting or mate relations feelings. Self-actuation, yes, and consistently, but parenting? Forget it! May fit the psychology model but mot my observational data.

Part of the reason for this may be a rather whacked sample population for observation and experiment. [Link] Turns out that most psychological theory and experiment is academic – no surprise there! – and that a majority of the study population is college students. And the question immediately emerges of just how warped, statistically, this is. Yes, I realize they’re handy, and after attorneys the least wept over class of experimental subjects, but representative? Are you also trying to get me to purchase a bridge in New Yawk City?

And lastly, I note [Link] that Alibam has ranked dead last in the Yankee government’s ‘Race to the Top’ educational (?) competition. Given the nature of the beast I have to say that for once I am decidedy proud of the state. From what I can tell the competition was whacked from the get-go. First, it was a competition to reward the folks who were doing well on some criteria that have not been shown to improve individual education, if anything, to degenerate it. So the contest doubly reflects poorly on the Yankee government for not helping those who need help – so much for the claims of social justice through social engineering, now once more demonstrated as bogus concepts – and for using criteria that have zero to negative effect on the wellbeing of the nation and its citizenry. Tell me again what is good about this whole thing?

I was rather taken by the Alibam political response to this

“Reviewers all scored Alabama low for a lack of charter or other innovative schools, a lack of alternative pathways to becoming a teacher or school principal, a lack of common core curriculum standards and a lack of support from the teachers’ union for a proposed plan. “

The first point is patently accurate on both parts. The aversion to charter shuls is well founded as they have not been shown to do anything positive for actual education, just behavior problems. But at the same time there is an equal aversion to any form of creativity or innovation on the part of either educationalists or students. All that matters is good scores on Yankee government mandated standardized tests and the cash flow that results from such. The lack of alternate pathways is telling, especially with so many retiring Baby Boomers who have real subject matter education but lack educationalist certification and are thus incompetent to teach prima facie. This is all part of the problem with the educationalist union which is more concerned with assuring educationalist certificants with subway car firemen jobs and assured pensions. And I won;t even touch the whacked idea of standardized curriculum – reminds me too much of nineteenth century college curricula – everyone takes exactly the same courses and hence can read Virgil and Ovid but do no maths.


Typical Wednesday so far. The educationalists were back in moderate numbers seemingly indicating both their MWF pattern and their it-gets-harder-to-gym-as-the-week-progresses, which is not unique to educationalists but most prominently demonstrated by them. Wednesday is normally “Quirks and Quarks” podcast episode day at gym and it was today except the episode was a repeat because of the vacation schedule. What is it with socialists and their holiday extremes?

I was told it was a repeat. And I listened to  it anyway. And while it was good and there was some minor reinforcement, nothing reached out and snagged the attention span. But after the episode, with about 10-15 minutes of gym to go I changed modes to listening to Future Tense. [Link] This is a technology podcast, 4-5 episodes per week of about 4-5 minutes each. They recently – a couple of months ago – changed readers and the new guy has some decidedly different filters than the old guy did. Not better, maybe not worse, but different.

I run behind on these so I just started August this morning and the subject of this episode was search, in particular the social nature of search that has developed. In a way its not really search but more like shopping decision advice, or similar. Now when I search I do look for goods to purchase sometimes, but usually I am looking for information, so the tenor of this podcast episode was only slightly resonant. For example, while I do the FaceBook thing sometimes, I don’t solicit advice on FaceBook, mostly because the majority of content I see is so banal and vapid that I wouldn’t trust any advice I got.

But then there was “an accidental juxtaposition of ether waves in the void” and I recalled an article I had read in WIRED periodical. The article was on an ‘advice’ web site named “Hunch”. [Link] You subscribe to this web site, go and answer a slew of questions, and then get to ask for advice, mostly on acquisition decisions.

And yes, I do read WIRED. I find it sort of the modern equivalent of what Popular Science was in my youth, except not as good. But then I didn’t know nearly as much in those days and wasn’t very cynical so anything was better. And yes, I do know WIRED is whacked in a very geekish way, but then so was Popular Science and so is Scientific American today. And it takes me a whole month to read the thing because it is so whacked and silly and frequently, disgusting. But that’s all geekishness. And its content is like FaceBook, but at least I can get enough information to know whether to drop or dive. And I dove on the “Hunch” web site.

I got an account and spent several hours answering questions, almost a thousand in fact, and taking notes. The questions are multiple choice and a lot of them, 0.38 by my sums and assessment, are bad. That is, none of the offered answers is a good fit. In most of these instances I could find a least worst answer but in almost 0.1 of the total I had to skip the question because all of the answers were pathologically wrong. I suspect this is the exclusion of nerd thing.

And then I asked for advice. Started out asking for recommendations on a new cellular telephone. It gave me a prioritized list of 15 phones and I rejected every one as unsuitable. Then I did two more distinct solicitations. And again got stercus for choices. Hypothesis based on all of the above: “Hunch” doesn’t work for nerds.

I intend to continue the research. This week I bought two things on-line and in the process I went to “Hunch” answered ten minutes worth of questions to buy mana points, and solicited advice. In both cases I bought items not offered by “Hunch” as suggestions. Still unsure what this tells me about social networking.

In Search of the Feral Gibble

A delightful morning so far, despite a rather rough arising. The educationalists seem to continue to use a MWF schedule so the gym was adorned this morning with the absence of them and their stridency. And for once the Science podcast episodes flowed rather well if not particularly mind sticking. Not that they were not informative but none were attention riveting.

I was however, on the way home, searching for keys in pocket when I came to consider the term “gibble.” My experience with the term, which is not, per se, in the OED, seems to follow from “gibble gabble”, which is in the OED, and means ‘senseless chatter’, in that gabble means chatter so gibble must mean senseless. Whether that means senseless in the sense of absence of sense or absence of sensation is unclear.

The focus I was considering was what is known as pocket gibble, which is the stuff one accumulates in one’s pockets, not necessarily with any remembered purpose other than forgotten expediency. In similar sense one has desk gibble, drawer gibble, and automobile gibble, even house gibble. In this particular case I suppose one may even refer to podcast gibble although that may be so transient as to be meaningless since gibble implies some unwanted permanence rather than some undesired transience.

There is also, as I have commented frequently, browser gibble (and software gibble and computer gibble, obviously) that is frequently the source of the mastications that turn into blots. For example, I noted yesterday, on Lifehacker, [Link] an article about how to make one’s Linux desktop have the appearance of MegaHard’s Windows 7. These things seem to abound as people are offered ways of making their desktop look like some one of the other OS. At one level it is nothing more that the tenor of eye candy, which itself is as old as graphical displays (as opposed to teletype displays.) Certainly back in the DOS days there were all sorts of things to change background and foreground color, display a wallpaper or some frivolous screen-saver and these things continue today.

I have heard it argued, mostly by OS fanatics, that such Ovidian metamorphoses are an expression of OS envy. I also consider these arguments to have some basis but mostly in the reverse of what the pundit intended. Half of all instances of desktop are organizational and making self-woo with eye is nothing more than safe rebellion against tyranny. But in the other half of the cases I suspect it is nothing more than being happy with one’s OS but also liking the eye candy of another OS, after all, the philosophy of each of the big three is different in this arena.

The other piece I noticed was an article in the student newspaper of the campus of the Boneyard [Link] considering whether students should imbibe spirits in drinking establishments near campus – students pubs – or in establishments away from campus that catered to permanent residents, a clear instance of the old town or gown division. What was compelling about the piece was not the argument but my own memories of student days.

Yes, there was student drinking on the campus of the Black Warrior when I was an undergraduate. This could hardly be argued given its notoriety even then as a party shul. And I drank on occasion, even when I was underage. But my consumption was in moderation compared to that of the bogs. Indeed, I usually had the role of designated driver. But the thing that sticks out was that in my undergraduate days I never once consumed spirits in a drinking establishment. And I am in a bit of wonder that any undergraduate does, since I never did. And that advice on such would be dispensed in student newspapers. Why in my day they didn’t even talk about contraception or pledge hazing, even when the kid was crippled for life.

So there has to be mind gibble as well, doesn’t there? Which brings us to the rather more complicated question of what does one do when one encounters gibble? Is it to be left alone, rather like sport fishing where one releases one’s catch? Or is it the focus of some episode of Puritan rage against disorder, implying religious disease, necessitating eradication that is probably not only folly but harmful and/or negative? Which gives rise to the nerdish question of whether gibble is an accumulating state or can it be transformed into a state of value?

If it were not for nerdery humanity would have exploded from self-satisfaction millennia ago.

Uneducational Toys

Some time ago IO9 had a bit about chemistry sets. [Link] I thought about this for a while, then wrote most of a blot on the subject, and CHROME ate the blot before I could post it. So I spent a while sulking and being micturated at CHROME and Gooey before reinforcing my opinion that CHROME was OK for recreational browsing but for serious stuff FireFox was the safe choice. And that’s not the development version, it’s the stable one. And after a further period of consideration, I am now assaying another attempt at a blot on chemistry sets.

If you believe the popular folklore of the children of the ’50’s, at least the boys, there is a short list of stuff you should want for birthday and Christmas (Hanukkah?) holiday presents: sports equipment; bicycle; BB gun; and chemistry set. The chemistry set is kind of nerdy and is often poo-pooed on the macho lists. Not so for me. My list started with chemistry set, followed distantly by bicycle and BB gun, and I suspect those two are more a matter of peer pressure and parental pushing than my own actual interest.

Sad to relate, I got the bicycle first, and then not until I was old enough to need a full size bike. Yes, I never had one of those dinky learning bicycles. The neighborhood we lived in bordered a divided multi-lane highway so there wasn’t much of where I could ride but once they built an elementary shul in the neighborhood, my parents rationalized I could ride bicycle to shul rather than my mother participate in a car pool.[1] So after learning – sorta – how to ride – many scrapes and much bleeding in the process – I was allowed to walk the bicycle across the highway but ride on either side. But frankly, I was never a comfortable, natural rider and was very glad when I left that shul and once more had to motor to class.

Next I got the BB gun. Evidently even with the shooting one’s eye out, my parents considered this less dangerous than a chemistry set. It turned out to be a big zip. Muzzle velocity was so low, and the barrel so much bigger than the pellets that accuracy in the far field was nonexistent. So after a couple of tries at backyard shooting it grew dust until given away to someone. I don’t recall who but do recall it was a non-matter.

Then finally I got the chemistry set. I poured over it and discovered it was an enormous fake. What could be done with it was almost nothing especially lacking any basic education in atomic and molecular structure or stoichiometry or reactivity or thermodynamics and that was not forthcoming from the manufacturers. The pictures they showed

were largely fake. Chemistry sets were vastly overblown. In fact, in later years I wondered why the combination of chemistry set with microscope? I got them separately and thoroughly got use of the microscope because I was using it to do biological stuff. But chemistry stuff and microscope don’t got together except maybe in bog parents’ minds? Geology and chemistry do but that’s a different kind of microscope. And what parents in their right mind let you wear Sunday shirts to play with chemistry set? And what chemistry set comes with a pharmacist’s graduate? Chemical graduated cylinders are cylinders, pharmacists used the graduated conical beakers as shown, and to my experience the two never met.

So aside from the microscope, which wasn’t even on the list, everything was a bust, except the bicycle which turned out to be OK to get to and from shul but not fun because after all, I was a nerd with my face in books and not some bog out breaking bones playing football at 12.

And then I got the American Basic Science Club kits,

and that was it! I was hooked. No longer just a nerd, now a nerd who would become a scientist. Ayeh my mother still wanted me to become a physician and my father wanted me to go to business shul, but ultimately it would be physics because understanding was more important than making work.

And years later, after a few college degrees, including one in chemistry, I realized that the worries my parents had over safety were totally misplaced. The chemicals in that chemistry set were harmless. The only thing dangerous in it was an alcohol lamp which was so shoddily made that it wouldn’t work most of the time. But what was dangerous was the household chemicals – like bleach and cleaning ammonium hydroxide – and chemicals you could buy at the drug store. If you had a little knowledge. But that knowledge didn’t come across till college by which time I had found a lot more dangerous stuff to do.

That’s what I found out, that the stuff in the educational toys usually aren’t dangerous, and usually aren’t very educational at all. But what’s just easily found in the house or the stores can be, if you know what you’re about.

Another reason I’m glad I’m not young and wouldn’t want to be. Bad as the toys were back then they were at least some fun and you could do things that today would get you counseling and your parents in jail.

[1]  This was when Huntsville was growing with rocket and missile folks and the nearest shul, Lincoln which finally closed this spring, was a good fifteen minutes drive away.

How Many

Earlier this week I ran across a blot [Link] by Chad Orzel, “Uncertain Principles”, entitled “How Many Physics Professors Does It Take?”, referring to an undergraduate physics degree, and it rather stuck in my head. His answer is a value of about six, with some variation in the comments, so I though I should review my own undergraduate experience:

  • Freshman introductory physics, 2 courses, memorable professor, unforgettable TA;
  • Sophomore modern physics, 1 course, unmemorable professor;
  • Sophomore modern physics laboratory, 1 course, unmemorable TA;
  • Sophomore classical mechanics, 2 courses, one forgettable, one memorable professor;
  • Junior electricity and magnetism, 2 courses, unforgettable professor;
  • Junior electronics, 1 course, semi-memorable professor;
  • Senior quantum mechanics, 2 courses, unforgettable professor (same as Junior E&M);
  • Senior nuclear physics, 1 course, unmemorable professor.

which sums to 12 courses, most 3 semester hours, one 1 semester hours, and two 4 semester hours. Culling among the faculty we get 2 memorable and one unforgettable professor, and one unforgettable TA. But we need to bear in mind that this was a small department. My year cohort produced five physics majors; I was the odd man out in physics being my second major.

If I consider my other majors, chemistry:

  • Freshman introductory chemistry, 1 course, semi-memorable instructor;
  • Freshman quantitative analysis, 1 course, unforgettable but unwhelming professor;
  • Sophomore organic chemist, 2 courses, forgettable professor;
  • Junior physical chemistry, 2 courses, whelming professor;
  • Senior math methods and molecular structure, 2 courses, memorable professor;
  • Senior nuclear chemistry, 1 course, forgettable professor;
  • Senior inorganic chemistry, 1 course, memorable professor;
  • Senior analytical chemistry, 1 course, 1 forgettable professor.

which sums to 11 courses, most four or five semester hours, one whelming and two memorable professors. To this has to be added two whelming TAs. And in maths:

  • Freshman calculus, 2 courses, whelming TA;
  • Sophomore calculus, 1 course, adequate TA;
  • Sophomore differential equations, 1 course, utterly forgettable professor;
  • Junior linear algebra, 1 course, unforgettable but barely adequate professor;
  • Junior numerical methods, 1 course, entertaining but adequate professor;
  • Senior complex variables, 1 course, unforgettable professor;
  • Senior vector and tensor analysis, 1 course, forgettable professor;
  • Senior series and special functions, 1 course, utterly forgettable professor.

which sums to 9 courses, most three semester hours, one whelming TA and one unforgettable professor. Both of these were quite large departments but a poorer showing. But what this shows is a definite influence from graduate students.

Then I went a bit further in my consideration and thought about my whole experience as an undergraduate. I didn’t have a minor – with three majors it seemed rather too much even for what was sometimes an antediluvian administration at the campus of the Black Warrior but I had a lot of electives. My foreign language lecturer was unforgettable but not particularly shaping. My syntax and literature instructors were all forgettable except the first who was a TA and memorable for helping bridge the gap between high shul and college. My new world archaeology professor was memorable and whelming, almost enough to convert me to a major except for an attack of good sense. My biology professor was memorable and shaping. I took a few courses in the engineering shul, FORTRAN programming and a couple of applied maths courses but those professors were all eminently forgettable.

So that sums to about ten professors and half that number of graduate students, especially if I include those who didn’t teach any labs or courses but taught me something anyway.

But I wonder what the stats would be if we collected this kind of data from a lot of people? And how would it change over time?