No, I’d rather not be a physicist

9 07 2007

David Ng has put up a new post on the recent topic of biologists secretly wanting to be physicists or some other kind of scientist, only they never pursued physics because they were not particularly skilled at math. While I certainly don’t have physics envy (it’s more of a physics avoidance type of behavior), I do think those in certain fields of biology have more fun than chemists, physicists, microbiologists, etc. Of course I have a pretty big bias in this area, but I would much rather travel the world dressed up as a moose and study predator avoidance behavior, work on fossil sites, etc. than spend most of my time in a genetics/physics/chemistry lab. Perhaps if I was more adept at math I would have done better in the elementary physics and chemistry classes and I would have received more encouragement, but I certainly have no regrets about my current scientific interests.

While I wouldn’t count myself as a real scientist yet, I thought I would answer the little 3 question meme David put up anyhow, and you can check out PZ’s response as well.

1. What’s your current scientific specialty?

That’s probably the most difficult question out of the three; I don’t suppose I actually have one. While my major is Ecology & Evolution (and I’m minoring in Geology), what I enjoy learning about primarily falls under the general term of “Zoology.” Behavior, evolutionary history, ecology, physiology, anatomy, and paleontology all fascinate me, and I don’t think I’m particularly skilled in any one area enough to say it’s my “specialty.” If I really had to pick, I suppose I’m more interested in ecological evolution (especially extinctions), but that doesn’t seem to be easily distinguishable from what I just mentioned. I’ve been told over and over again by professors that I’m going to have to specialize if I want to have any sort of career in science, but regardless of what I may have to decide professionally what I love studying can best be embraced as Zoology.

2. Were you originally pursuing a different academic course? If so, what was it?

I’ve changed majors a few times, for varying reasons and with varying success. I initially entered Rutgers Cook College as a marine science major, but my math skills were nonexistent and I got placed into “Elementary Algebra.” This meant I had to wait a year to take Biology 101 and even longer before Physics and Chemistry (which were required for most of the marine science courses I had to take), and after I received an academic dismissal for my poor performance I gave up on marine science. I wanted to study sharks, whales, reef ecosystems, etc., but most of the courses focused on geology, chemistry, and physics of the ocean, and most of the professors/advisers I ran into in the department weren’t especially friendly. When I’d say “I want to study sharks” they’d reply “What are you ever going to do with that? No one studies sharks.” Telling them that such a response was exactly why I thought it was important didn’t help much.

After working in a Target warehouse for a semester, I decided to go back to Rutgers in the Environmental Policies, Institutions, and Bureaucracies major, being that it would allow me to study environmental science but without having to worry about a math requirement (plus, I knew someone in this major who never went to class, was rather daft, and had a better GPA than I did, and so I foolishly though I could do it). Much to my dismay, however, most of the courses were about government, law, bureaucracy, and learning how to work in an office building rather than any kind of field work (converse to what I had been told by an adviser), and so my lack of interest translated into poor performance and I was dismissed once again.

At this point I made it my goal to really figure out what I wanted to do and resolved to get back into Rutgers, no matter what (it’s rare to be admitted to the same college three times as an undergraduate, but I knew I could do it). In a year and a half I got my associates degree in 4-12 education from Union County College (at this point paying for college myself, working full time in addition to coursework) and was admitted back into Cook College. I had picked the Conservation Ecology option under the Ecology & Evolution major, but even once I knew what I wanted to do I faced discouragement. Visiting the woman who was to become my (temporary) adviser, I was told that I simply did not have the math skills to do well in science and I should consider EPIB instead if I want to be involved with ecology. Another meeting with the professor of the Honors program and assistant dean of academic programs gave me reason to hope, however; she said that it sounded like I had finally found the right major for me and had little doubt that I would be able to succeed at Rutgers. Her support was crucial, especially since encouragement from many of my professors and advisers past and present has been essentially nonexistent.

So here I am, nearly two years later, hopefully about to finish my bachelor’s degree, going on to do who-knows-what next. Most of my trouble in the past was following what I thought was right for me on the advice of others when I wasn’t sure; if I had merely waited a year or two, or got my associates degree first, I might have had a less troublesome time in college. It’s also sad to say it, but I have learned far more through my own studies than I have in the various courses I’ve taken over the past six years; I feel more like I’m merely meeting arbitrary collegiate requirements than doing anything actually productive.

3. Do you happen to wish you were involved in another scientific field? If so, what one?

Although I wouldn’t say I’m actually involved in any field yet, there is little out there that I wish I did not know something more about. Even in my attempt to gain a broader knowledge of how organisms work, it certainly would be enlightened by a better understanding of physics, chemistry, genetics, cell biology, etc. The problem is that such topics often do not hold my attention, and if I am to gain even a cursory grasp of any it is going to be a long, uphill struggle. I can empathize with Charles Darwin when he wrote;

I attempted mathematics, and even went during the summer of 1828 with a private tutor (a very dull man) to Barmouth, but I got on very slowly. The work was repugnant to me, chiefly from my not being able to see any meaning in the early steps in algebra. This impatience was very foolish, and in after years I have deeply regretted that I did not proceed far enough at least to understand something of the great leading principles of mathematics, for men thus endowed seem to have an extra sense. But I do not believe that I should ever have succeeded beyond a very low grade.

Indeed, at this point I have almost entirely convinced myself that I do not (and cannot) understand mathematics, and I can only imagine the horrors that will befall me when I have to take Precalculus this fall, as well as a year of physics and another semester of chemistry.

Creation Science 101 offered at MPCC

7 05 2007

Chris at Interrogating Nature has the scoop about a creationism course being offered at a community college. The man teaching the course, Jim Garretson, claims that;

I’m not going to attack Evolutionists and I’m not going to try and convert people to the Creationist view, I just want offer a different viewpoint.

A creationist who isn’t going to speak ill of evolutionary scientists and not try to convert anyone to his point of view? That’s funny. I somehow doubt that Garretson will be impersonal and objective as he pontificates about how dinosaurs lived in the Garden of Eden and were brought aboard Noah’s Ark, and I would find it interesting to see if he rails against people like Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett given the recent spate of atheist literature available. I had a look at the website for McCook but I could not find any class schedule or course catalog available to me, so I can’t say whether the course will be count towards science credit, although I would not be surprised if it did. You can contact the MPCC board of governors about this intellectual fumble via

Update the 1st: I did manage to find a MPCC course catalog for 07-08 but Physics 2990 is not listed anywhere. The catalog does mention, however, that a course marked as 2990 is;

A course, seminar, or workshop within a subject area or at a subject level not available in regular catalog courses.

Such a course is reported to give students from 0.5-3 credits depending on course hours (I assume it’s 3 for the creationism course), but I have yet to find anything suggesting that students can receive actual science credit for taking the course (although it is being reported as such by Chris and PZ) outside of it being listed as a Physics course. I too am surprised that such a course would fall under “Physics”, but I assume that this is tacking it on to a particular area of study rather than an accurate description (the summary given in the initial news report made it seem like it was a general seminar dealing with various creationist claims rather than specifically looking at physics, biology, history, or anything that would require the instructor actually opening up a book on such subjects).

But wait, there’s more! In doing some digging I was able to find some editorials about the course, one blasting the course and another supporting it, via the McCook Daily Gazette. The first, written by Dr. Robert I. Price of the University of Nebraska at Kearney, is to the point and even a bit nasty, once again (perhaps) reinforcing the idea that scientists are a bunch of cranky men with doctorates. He writes;

Clearly, no one would ever propose teaching the above-mentioned Chemistry 2990, so why is Mr. Jim Garretson proposing to teach Physics 2990 as described? Perhaps I should conclude, he does not understand what constitutes science. I would be very distressed to learn that he actually does understand what constitutes science. Because, if he actually does understand what constitutes science, then I must conclude that he is guilty of exceptional academic dishonesty! If the first conclusion is true, then he should be supervised by a more competent individual. If the second conclusion is true, then?Mr. Jim Garretson should be relieved of his teaching duties.

Yikes; not only is a bit of a personal attack, but all the “I concludes” make Price’s point harder to reach than anything else. Is this the kind of representation science needs? I’m not suggesting that Garretson’s class should not be questioned and fought against, but I think we can do a lot better than what was offered up by Price.

By contrast, a reply written to Price’s editorial was quite different, and while I disagree with the conclusions of the writer I can see how his style might appeal more to those who are unfamiliar with the debate. Here’s a snippet from the response by Father Lawrence Ejiofo, who essentially says (science – wonder = nothing, therefore wonder + religion = science);

We simply need the Creation Science to help us get answers to many of our scientific questions. Though Creation Science has much to do with religion, it should not be automatically discounted. After all, religion has always been a part of the sciences. Many scientific laws, observations and norms have arisen from religion. Newton’s third law of motion, which states that, action and reaction are equal and opposite, developed from religion, the law of karma, the law of retributive justice. Even Einstein, the renowned scientist of our time is quoted to have said, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” Science, Philosophy and Religion: a Symposium (1941) ch. 13

Ugh; Father Ejiofo clearly has not been paying attention to the history of science and how it has developed. Indeed, science and religion were once inseparable under the banner of “natural theology”, but such a system was more of a hindrance than a help. If scientists weren’t so concerned with trying to make geology, paleontology, and other fields fit into biblical framework, perhaps they could have developed even more advanced ideas than were actually put forth. I wouldn’t suggest that saying fossils are essentially commemorative medallions God struck to mark each age of Creation (as in Gideon Mantell’s Medals of Creation) was a huge advancement in scientific thought. Should we recognize the contributions that faithful scientists have made? Certainly, but we are not obligated to honor their religious leanings (I don’t see Ejiofo suggesting that we look at the work of Muslim scholars and recognize the way their religion and science intermingled).

I’m sure the news about this course is going to proliferate through the blogosphere today, but I am a little concerned about knee-jerk reactions to it. According to what I’ve seen, instructors are allowed to hold courses like these for two years, at which time the course is considered for adoption, but we’re 3 semesters short of that review. It’s likely, being a Physics course, that students may get science credit for taking the class but that is not a definite and I have not seen it marked anywhere as such; it might only count as a topics or colloquium course or elective. Should we be writing letters to the school and board of governors? Certainly, but I think we would do well not to repeat Dr. Price’s mistakes that I pointed out above. We should take the most of this opportunity to bring evolution to the forefront in Nebraska (and perhaps elsewhere) but likewise we should be sympathetic to the religious leaning of who were’ talking to, otherwise we’ll likely come off as a bunch of rabid science-nuts who want nothing less than the destruction of religion rather than the responsible science education.

Update the 2nd: Chris O’Brien scooped us all on this story; he posted about it on March 28th. Just goes to show that just because you post something important doesn’t mean it’s going to get the attention it deserves.

Update the 3rd: I just received an e-mail from a student advisor from MPCC who has clarified things a bit. I asked if the course, Physics 2990, could be used for science credit. I received a reply with the title Physics 2990 Creation Science (so perhaps it has not been moved to philosophy) and the advisor notified me that it is a special topics course, and therefore not eligible for science credit. It was noted that the course could count as elective credit if in the proper area of study (i.e. it wouldn’t count towards a business degree), and so it does not appear that this course is as significant as originally thought. Should we still care about this and e-mail the school? Certainly, but I think it’s important to keep in mind how much weight such a course is being given.

Updates, or lack thereof

4 05 2007

Sorry for the lack of updates today everyone; I had two finals (Behavioral Biology [or as I like to call it, “Anecdotes about birds and not much else”] and Biology 102) so I spent most of the day making a feeble attempt at studying. At least the Bio 102 exam had 85+ questions out of 150 on ecology and evolution, so that was easy (I’m just hoping I didn’t bomb the physiology/neurology/development sections). To relieve my poor brain I’ll be going out to see Spider-Man 3 with my wife tonight, kicking off what is to be the first of many nights spent at the cinema this summer, so whether I’ll have any tasty-tidbits up tonight is anyone’s guess.

Undergraduate Research

2 05 2007

Bora has a great run-down of how undergraduate research has benefited various students and helped them get some invaluable experience in various fields. Being that I’m (still) an undergraduate myself, I thought I would throw in my 2 cents about it and why we certainly need more of it.

I’m sure I’m not going to shock anyone by saying that my college experience hasn’t exactly been pleasant, but I do wish that I had found out about undergraduate research opportunities earlier. In fact, I wish I had found out about my chosen major (ecology & evolution) earlier, being that I bounced from marine science to EPIB (environmental politics, institutions, and bureaucracies) to e&e. Be that as it may, just about everyone is required to have some sort of experienced-based education at some point in their college career, often taking the form of an hourly position in a lab at the college or other internship. These postings usually go out through the various departments (although often they’re not as widely publicized as they should be) and in fact that’s how I got my current job, but I’ve never heard anything about opportunities for undergraduate research. Perhaps such opportunities have to get “made” by the student going out of their way to come up with an idea or by a professor wanting to start a student on a project, but to tell you the truth I had no idea that undergrads could even do research at my university until this past semester when I met someone who has done some work in taphonomy.

Part of the problem may also be that I approached the wrong people about some research opportunities. Last year I was desperate to do some actual research or get some hands-on experience so I e-mailed my ex-advisor when I was a marine science major for some suggestions. She said I should forward my resume to a particular secretary and if my qualifications/interests caught the attention of any of the staff someone would be in touch with me. No one did. Despite this I decided to ask one of my professors (who essentially was the head-honcho at a marine research station) if there was any way I could get involved with work on sharks. I’ve loved sharks since I was a kid and no one seemed to be doing anything with them off New Jersey; How many where there? Where are they going? How big are they? What’s the species diversity like? No one seemed to have an answer (and I didn’t have my own boat to go shark tagging nor the funds to charter any trips). When I explained this to my professor he merely said “What are you going to do with sharks?”, explaining that there’s really no future in such areas of study.

I ran into further bad luck when I took paleontology last semester, being that even though the professor and I would chat about evolution, dinosaurs, taphonomy, etc. after almost every class, the institution he was affiliated with was closed for updates/repairs and there was no opportunity for me to even start volunteering there. I’ve contemplated trying to become a fossil preparator at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, but I’m too far away for that to work. Just as well, I don’t have enough money for train fare to volunteer or work at the American Museum of Natural History either, so it seems that I’m so close but too far from many institutions.

At this point I’m about a year away from graduating and most of my courses are ones that I have no interest in taking but must complete to get my degree (i.e. a year of physics, a semester of chemistry, precalculus, statistics, soils & society, etc.) and when I’m not in class I have to be at work to make sure the lights stay on. The fact that I’m married and the need to pay the rent prevent me from going off into the field for a month or two as well, so I don’t really have flexibility to devote to research. I’m hoping to track down some urban coyotes this summer and record what they’re doing in New Brunswick as well as find some fossils in Big Brook and other areas, but whether I’ll be able to cobble any kind of poster or paper together is anyone’s guess.

The moral of the story; I think colleges (or at least my college) need to do a better job of encouraging interested undergrads to do research and gain scientific experience outside the classroom setting. Not everyone will jump at the chance but I’m sure there are other undergrads like me who didn’t even know such opportunities existed. To any other undergrads, I would highly suggest talking to your adviser and getting involved wherever you can; it’s a lot more fun than just sitting in class and maybe it’ll even fill some requirements.

Update: Rutgers recently hosted the 3rd annual Aresty Undergraduate Research Symposium. The story, via the Rutgers home page, can be found here.

Thoughts on college

27 04 2007

On the Larry Moran and PZ have recently commented on this article, discussing the lack of critical thinking/science home-schooled creationist students get exposed to. Being that such homeschool programs lack scientific content, create mistrust of scientists, and intellectually shortchange the kids through a lack of critical thinking in the lesson plans, I have no problem saying that such courses shouldn’t be accepted for credit and those students should have to take remedial-level science courses. If they don’t like it, there’s always Liberty University, right?

This isn’t to say children in public schools are doing better, science taking a back seat to the most important topics on standardized tests (language skills and math). The only standardized test I ever took with a section devoted to science was the ACT, and I scored a 95% in that section (much better than in math, let me tell you). When I was in high school the standardized testing blitz was just becoming more apparent, weeks out of the school year taken out to devote to not only the actual tests but prototype versions of tests that would be taken in years to come, and as far as I can recall there was no major difference between any of them. PZ recognizes this as well and states;

In my perfect world where colleges are not facing a painful lack of support from their state governments and were we aren’t scrabbling for students to keep our funding up, I’d tighten up admission standards across the board: you don’t get into any college unless you can read and write grammatically correct English, unless you know the elements of trigonometry, unless you’ve had at least a year’s instruction in a foreign language, and you’ve been exposed to at least algebra-based physics and have had a good lab course in chemistry.

No problem with the English part of it; I placed out of both semesters of “Expository Writing” because of my AP scores (to tell you the truth, I never even read Hamlet but I still nailed the essay). The math part though, that’s a different story. Math and I don’t get along, and I typically do whatever I can to avoid it (which is now impossible; I have to take precalculus and statistics before I graduate next year). I’ve never done well in that subject and likely never will, and if my admission to college depending on knowing basic trig and algebra-based physics, I probably wouldn’t be in college. Granted, math education is important and I’m not about to say “Math, who needs it?” but I think it’s also important to note that not every student is the same. In my case, I did exceptionally well in english classes but passed by the skin of my teeth (if that) in my math classes, yet I showed an aptitude for science; what am I to do?

Perhaps it’s the college I’m in an the courses that I’ve taken, but I have to say that I feel the college professors I’ve come in touch with generally haven’t done a good job at education either. Huge lectures where ppt slides go whizzing by and the students are told to buy a $100 book that is never referred to or used don’t exactly strike me as the pinnacle of higher education. Even in some of the smaller classes a lecture is merely a place for a professor to stroke their own ego for an hour, and overall I can’t say I’ve really learned much of anything during my years at college. Perhaps it’s my fault; I have changed majors a few times and haven’t always been the best when it comes to class attendance, but I’ve learned far more in one year of private study than I have in nearly 6 years of college. Sure, there might be some vestiges of understanding here and there, but I generally feel like I’m just paying to get a degree because that’s what I have to do; I don’t feel like I’ve been prepared for any type of career, profession, or to be any kind of scientist.

I’m sure the story is different elsewhere and other people have had more pleasant experiences, but I think the American education system is fraught with problems from top to bottom. Hopefully I’ll be able to escape the education system for a time (although graduate school is going to be necessary), but for the amount of money I’ve spent on tuition I would have much rather kept the money and educated myself.

What possible comfort could I give?

18 04 2007

The day the Virginia Tech. shootings occurred, I began a lengthy blog post on my opinions about the massacre, but I decided not to publish it. After thinking about it for a few days, I’ve decided to delete it because I don’t think it was appropriate at the time (nor is it now). I’ve never been to the school, nor do I know anyone there, but rather than go on a tieraid about the school’s responsibilities, gun control, or related topics I think it’s best merely to offer my condolences and sympathy to the friends and family who lost loved ones in the tragedy. I can seemingly do nothing else by offer my support and prayers to the VT community in the aftermath of such unconscionable actions, anything else would merely be taking advantage of someone else’s misfortune to give credence to my own opinions. Will I write about my thoughts on gun control and other such matters eventually? Surely, after something like this silence would be an injustice, but for my own part I don’t feel like this is the right time to start pontificating, using a recent event as a springboard when the problems leading up to this event are not new.

In fact, I am a bit disgusted by the way so many people have seized on this event to promote their own personal views, either liberal or conservative. We live in a wired world where information changes second by second and we can have our own opinions heard just a few moments after news breaks, and wether well-intentioned or not I can’t say I’m particularly comfortable with so many people using such recent and horrific events to promote their personal views. Even the recent release of photos and video sent to NBC; why the hell did they show it? That’s exactly what the killer wanted, and now the psychopath who committed these killings is all over the internet and mass media sputtering out his manifesto. I don’t believe that’s appropriate at all, especially when many are still coping with their losses.

I don’t want to go on further; if I do this post could very well turn into precisely what I have tried to avoid. To those of Virginia Tech and their friends and families, I am filled with sadness and anger over the events of the past few days but hope for healing, recovery, and change so that these events are never repeated.

And the conservatives go “Wah wah wah”, all the way home

23 03 2007

I hadn’t heard about this documentary previously, but William Dembski’s endorsement immediately made me skeptical;

When I first saw the trailer I had to say that it piqued my interest, being that at least at my own university there seems to be a rather tenuous balance of moderate->liberal professors but an outward politically correct stance (i.e. you can criticize George Bush in class, but you can only use “damn” and “crap” if you feel the need to use expletives). To me, half of the college experience is wading through all the BS and varying viewpoints of various professors, especially since I’m in college and I’m expected to be a “big boy” and use my own brain. I’ve felt offended by certain teachers in the past, and I remember one encounter especially well;

I don’t remember the professors name, but I think it was “Smith” and he was a sociology professor at Richard Stockton College in Pomona, New Jersey. I had been sent there for 4 weeks as a junior in high school to take part in the NJ Governor’s School for the Environment, and every night we had a lecture from someone involved in ecology in our state, at least, every night but the first one. The first night this professor comes in and starts clapping, everyone joining in to the count of 21, which was supposed to stand for the number of times Amadu Diallo got shot by New York City police officers. Smith then proceeded to say how the students in the room were “special” in the same way Hitler’s SS were “special,” and that we steal all our ideas and creativity from the underclass, which we suppress. One brave (although some might say foolish, in the situation) student raised his hand to say “Doesn’t creativity come from inside? Some things might be transmitted through culture, but doesn’t creativity exist on a variety of levels?” The student was essentially shouted at and called out for wearing his hat backward, living proof that he had somehow exploited the poor of Harlem. The SS comment also brought a girl in the audience to tears as she had relatives killed in concentration camps, and she was not allowed to leave, one of the Resident Life assistants in the room tell us that Smith was trying to open our eyes (to how rotten we really were, apparently). Before that evening I didn’t know that I was a racist scumbag just because I was a young white male, but thankfully I didn’t take on the identity Smith told me I had to honestly own.

In the case of Indoctrinate U, I haven’t seen the film (although I most likely will if there’s a showing around here) but it seems to be getting a lot of “hurrah!”s from conservatives, and I expect that to be the focus; how conservative students are marginalized, censored, etc. in colleges. Perhaps some things in the documentary have merit, I don’t know, but I do wonder if the evolution issue is going to come into it at any point. I also have to wonder (although I find it unlikely) if the filmmakers visited Jerry Falwell’s horrid Liberty University or Christian Colleges and looked at the “intellectual diversity” in such places. The trailer also seems to have the filmmakers confronting school officials in the halls and being somewhat snotty about interviewing school officials over whatever events occurred, and while some might consider this “getting results,” to me it reflects an overall air of immaturity in an attempt to be like a real action news team, confronting the closet pervert about his despicable behavior in public.

What would have been more more interesting is if the filmmakers focused on what conservatives have been doing in the public school system, whether it’s telling students evolution is wrong and they’ll go to hell if they don’t accept Jesus in Kearny or global warming denial elsewhere. To me, that’s where the real story is; what is the public school teacher telling your kid about sound science? In college you have the option to go elsewhere, drop the course, etc., but in public schools attendance is compulsory and there are quite a few teachers who aren’t exactly ethical when it comes to imbuing their beliefs on students. Like I said, I have yet to see Indoctrinate U, but so far I’m pretty skeptical of its premise and overall point it’s trying to make. Just because my professor makes some comment about liking or not liking George Bush doesn’t mean that the whole biology/physics/math/english/whatever course is therefore compromised; when you’re admitted to college you’re expected to think, not cry a river when your professor makes it clear that they don’t share the same political affiliation as you.