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Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Female Bill Nye

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Who’s the female version of Bill Nye?

Oh, come on… you know one…

Don’t you? I mean, there must be one out there somewhere. Right?

Apparently, there’s not. Dr. Sten Odenwald on HuffPo says there aren’t any female science promoters. And then he looks for significant women in history.

I think that’s the wrong comparison.

The women he mentions, including Rachel Carson and Jane Goodall, didn’t seek fame: they were doing research that they wanted to be popular, trying to promote particular agendas that were acceptable to the public. They were not necessarily the greatest minds of the day or even of their time, however important their research. And Albert Einstein, perhaps the best scientific mind ever, was not a science promoter. When you think of the-next-Einstein, you don’t think of Neil deGrasse Tyson. The current best science promoter may, however, be Dr. Tyson. This title of science promoter… it’s not about intellect. I mean, PhDs sure don’t grow on trees, and I fully respect the people who have earned the title of Doctor. But their fame has to do with the particular fields these people are known for. Carson will be known for Silent Spring, Goodall for chimpanzees, Einstein will be associated with relativity, and Dr. Tyson will be associated with killing off Pluto and harassing Jon Stewart over the direction of The Daily Show’s turning planet.

There are a lot of female science promoters out there, if you know where to look. Besides I F*ing Love Science by Elise Andrew and Brain Pickings by Maria Popova, there’s The Brain Scoop by Emily Graslie. Ms. Graslie gives, what I think is a pretty good reason for not having many female popularizers in Where My Ladies At?, where she describes the marginalization of her videos’ content by commenters who apparently only care about her looks and denial of her skills and knowledge:


(I’ve written of my lunch-date-love for Ms. Graslie already.) I think that’s also why a number of women who do write about science choose to not have their own names associated with their channels/handles/columns. It’s a desire to be taken seriously. It’s, frankly, one of the reasons I chose a non-gendered title for my own handle.

But the problem lies more in this: the idea that online and in real life, women aren’t taken as seriously as men, especially in business and STEM-related fields. A few days ago, the NYTimes just posted an advice for how women should negotiate for a raise in the workplace. Even hiring women in the first place isn’t so easy. I, sadly, don’t have many women in my own science/math lists, but a decent number in the education lists. What that says about gender ratios in those fields, or who I read, or whether I also (unconsciously) prefer, I’m not entirely sure.

And why do we need another Bill Nye anyway? Absolutely nothing against Bill Nye, but I’m going to guess that whoever fills those fantastic kid-enthralling-shoes is going to want his/her own legacy.

Thinking Out Loud: Soda Pop

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Okay, science peeps, help me out. I want to do a gas laws lab, and this xkcd strip got me thinking about the 2.2 grams of CO2. It isn’t cited, as Mr. Munroe is usually so careful to do, so I don’t know where it comes from. I want to know how much CO2 is in a can of pop.

Here’s the train of thought:

Part I:
I’m thinking we can use Boyle’s Law (P1V1 = P2V2) to find the pressure inside the can. Open can, catch all gas, fill space in can with water.
P1Vfill-defizzed-pop-can-with-water = PatmosphereVcatch-escaping-gas-somehow-measure-it

Part II:
Take newly generated P and calculated V, use with Ideal Gas Law:
PcalcVinside-can = (n)(R)Tmeasured


How is this idea? Is it double-dipping on data? Doable? Feedback, please!

Sources of error will probably be fun, but I’m okay with students finding those.

Wonder if we’ll get something close to 2 grams.

Could compare can to plastic bottle, different kinds of pop…

Balancing Dyslexic Equations

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I have a dyslexic student (several, actually). One’s pretty bad, though. Although she has some pretty good coping skills to compensate, balancing chemical equations, where numbers and letters are supposed to be mixed up is really, really hard. So, I took the writing part out:

20140313-144121.jpg

Some common ions on 3×5″ index cards cut in half.


Let’s make calcium carbonate. Normally, my students look up calcium on the periodic table and figure out its charge (Ca2+), and find carbonate on the ion list (CO32-). For my dyslexic student, she has to find the cards:

20140313-144137.jpg

Calcium and carbonate, the charges are in the upper-right corners.


Next, check the charges and make sure they balance each other out in the compounds (or use multiple ions to get to neutral charge):

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These charges are equal. Fold over the corners so the numbers don’t show.


Calcium nitrate (Ca2+ and NO31-) need a little more work.20140313-144311.jpg


Do similar things to make whole equations. For example, calcium carbonate breaks down into calcium oxide and carbon dioxide (note: carbon dioxide gets its own card; it’s not ionic):

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This equation is balanced as-is. Colored Post-Its are a good visual for distinguishing operations vs. chemicals.


How about aluminum plus copper(II) chloride producing copper and aluminum chloride?

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Small yellow numbers needed to balance charges in ionic compounds. But the overall equation isn’t balanced…


20140313-144237.jpg

Ahhhhh… that’s better.


Advantages:

  • Far harder for students to mix up letters and numbers (at least, until they try to copy them down on their own paper).
  • Harder for kids to mess with the subscripts in polyatomic ions.
  • Really nice with practicing single and double replacements.
  • Easy to remind kids that when making ionic compounds, they can only use small yellow numbers, and when balancing whole equations, they can only use large green numbers.
  • Manipulatives get more kids (dyslexic or not) involved.

Disadvantages:

  • There’s a lot of cards and bits of colored paper operators to mix up and lose.
  • Takes up a lot of table-space.

So far, it’s actually working pretty well. I’ve even had a kid take a test using this method. Maybe I should patent it…

The Battles (But Not Yet the War)

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It’s headlines like How Fox, Seth MacFarlane and Neil deGrasse Tyson Are Making Science Cool that show just how ingrained the idea is. Clearly, science =/= cool. Even worse is that the headline is from a major news/business organization.

It’s an uphill battle, for sure. I mean, that Forbes article compares science to broccoli and apples. Healthy food. The kind of stuff you’re supposed to eat, but aren’t supposed to want to eat. (I wonder what an organic or a GMO science show would look like… I wonder if there’s a correlation between healthy eaters and science-media consumption…)

And then.

And THEN you see headlines like To Clean Drinking Water, All You Need is a Stick and Giant Active 30,000 Year Old Virus Resurrected From Siberian Permafrost and Silk Screws Used to Repair Fractures, and I wonder how people are immune to the wonder that science has to offer. Part of me wants to avoid the word “science” so as to not scare anyone away; I’ll just mention “an article” I read or something I heard on the radio (note to self: may also want to avoid the words “study”, “math”, and “NPR” if I want person to keep listening).

But it’s the adults that we, as science-interested people, need to work on. Dr. Tyson says that kids are naturally curious and scientific, and adults have tuned out. He has a good reason to reboot Cosmos. I need to embrace the fact that the new Cosmos will be on a tv network that isn’t known for its science content. And it’s for that reason, that indescribable beauty and amazing scope of everything that Cosmos needs to be presented to that audience.

Hopefully, this is another battle in the war (although, not really a war; more like a friendly elbow-nudge… right? got it? good).

BPA musings

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Someone posted a link to a new article decrying the horrors of BPA. Again. I started writing a response, and realized it was far too long for Facebook, so here it is (and I kinda extended it, because… links).

This is kinda a rant and (hopefully also sorta) informative.

It’s not exactly news. I found this article from NPR (a pretty good summary of the Mother Jones article), published a year ago. FWIW, I think this a less inflammatory article from the ACS (American Chemical Society, a professional society of chemists, which is not the same as the original post’s American Chemical Council, which seems to be a lobbyist group in DC). This article is pretty good too, although kinda old. I’m having trouble finding recent studies.

I have a personal beef about people using the word “chemical.” Just doesn’t make sense to demonize a word when all it describes is most matter on the planet. Similar issue for me is with “organic” and “natural,” both of which describe amino acids as well as snake venom. Neither word means that it’s inherently good or healthy or that you should eat it.

BPA (or its analogs) is in a lot of hard plastics. If you truly want to get rid of BPA, you should be prepared to also dump your keyboards, Nalgene bottles, all canned food (which is lined with plastic to prevent botulism and extend shelf life), all heat-printed papers like receipts, and glasses lenses (probably the frames, too).

If you want to get rid of all plastics, you still have sandwich baggies, juice boxes (lined like canned foods), most packaging (like the bags inside cereal boxes and yogurt cups and glass-bottled juices with plastic-lined metal lids), pharmaceutical and shampoo containers, your toothbrush and toothpaste tubes, the toys your kids chew on, not to mention synthetic clothing and fabrics, nail polishes and some make up, probably coatings on diapers and paper products, your city’s and your house’s water lines (which may have PVC pipes or junctions), and nearly anything else that may possibly come in contact with liquids on a daily basis.

With that…

There does seem to be clear evidence that BPA can act as an estrogen (actually, estradiol) mimic, and yes, that can mess with biology and development, especially in kids/babies (I think it’s safe to say that any contaminant or drug or food will mess with little guys more, just because of the size of the “dose” compared to their bodily size). This is why most safety tests are done on a g/kg body weight scale. But just because you eat it, doesn’t mean it actually gets into your system to do damage. This NYTimes article talks about how, although BPA exposure might be higher than thought, most of it is disassembled by the liver and doesn’t get into the bloodstream.

The FDA’s job is to evaluate whether chemicals are safe for human consumption (note: not whether the food/drug does what they say it does, like vitamins… a whole separate topic), and it has found that BPA is okay. Also, the European Food Safety Authority (generally more strict than the FDA) is also okay with BPA at current — pretty low — doses. A lot of the scare-articles will say that 90-something-% of people have BPA in their urine or stool. Just because it’s detected, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily in large amounts or doing harm to you (think of blood-alcohol levels: small amounts are generally not harmful for most people, but the alcohol can still be detected). Plus, BPA has been used since the 1960’s (i.e., we all grew up with it, so if it’s really nasty and mutating away at our genes, we’d already have the genetic mutations and be passing them on to our kids). Comforting, huh?

So the question really is about the dose you (or your littles) get.

This is also not (entirely) a defense of the FDA. In general, I think the FDA gets it correct most of the time. Sometimes they don’t (actually, they got part of that one right).

If you minimize your food’s contact with plastics, you’ll have less BPA (or whatever else leeches from plastics) in your diet. Instead, you’ll probably have other things leeching from whatever you put it in (by the way, metal containers also leech metals into your foods, too… that’s why they say to cook on cast-iron if you’re anemic). If you use plastics, don’t heat them, as heat often degrades the integrity of the plastic and allows more stuff to leech out. Plus, old or degraded plastics are great harbors for bacteria, which can also be harmful or deadly.

These news articles also expose the danger of letting the public dictate what’s safe and what’s not. Most of us aren’t experts in biochemistry and pharmacology. It’s the same kind of hysteria that lets people think that it’s okay to not vaccinate their kids. News articles are designed to upset you so that you read them. Here’s a good article on how to read science articles and figure out which to take with a grain of salt.