Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Intelligent Design vs. Evolution – Get ready to laugh

I originally posted this at my other blog but, since it deals with biology and school, I thought I’d republish it here.

I’ve tried to avoid blogging about this, but I just can’t bite my tongue any more. It’s too sore as it is. This whole “intelligent design” thing is just too funny. The Dover PA school district doesn’t think so, but maybe they’ve just lost their sense of humor.

Let me start out my saying that I am a person of faith. I believe in God, and most people would consider me a Christian. I’m also studying biology in college. While I don’t think that evolutionary theory is complete and correct, I’m not above talking about in a science class because it’s one of the core themes of biology. It’s only uniformed religious bigots that like to try and use it to prove that God doesn’t exist. In fact, there are a lot of biologists who don’t see a conflict between evolution and their faith in God.

I also don’t support the idea of teaching intelligent design in schools. It’s not science; it’s metaphysics. Save that for the philosophy and religion classes, please.

These quote from the Dover PA trial just made me shake my head, though. The star witness for the defense is Kenneth Miller, a Brown University biologist. Get a load of this:
The statement read to Dover students states in part, "Because Darwin's theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered." Miller said the words are "tremendously damaging," falsely undermining the scientific status of evolution.
"What that tells students is that science can't be relied upon and certainly is not the kind of profession you want to go into," he said.
"There is no controversy within science over the core proposition of evolutionary theory," he added.

Cough . . . choke . . . sputter. What? Since when? First off, it may be damaging to Darwin’s theory, but it’s not damaging to kids thinking about biological sciences as a career choice. And since when is there no controversy in biology over evolution? Saying there’s no controversy is like saying Swiss cheese doesn’t have holes.
The double talk gets thicker, though.
During his cross-examination of Miller, Robert Muise, another attorney for the law center, repeatedly asked whether he questioned the completeness of Darwin's theory.
"Would you agree that Darwin's theory is not the absolute truth?" Muise said.
"We don't regard any scientific theory as the absolute truth," Miller responded.

Okay. Let me get this straight. We want to teach science, but we don’t regard science as truth? We don’t want to question the validity of evolutionary theory, even though science is all about questioning what we know, and don’t know? That sounds like religious dogma to me. Don’t question Darwin, but go ahead and question God? Isn’t that a double standard? I think Mr. Miller is just having a tough time explaining it because for him, and may others proponents of evolutionary theory (whether they wants to admit it or not), evolution is a matter of faith.
Go put that in your pipe and smoke it for a while.

Ever have one of those days?

This last weekend was a stressful one. I’d been very worried about a biology test that I had coming up, and so I was taking every free moment I could find to study. When I’d get tired and need to take a break, I studied my chemistry instead. (I had my second chemistry test this morning.) When my brain started to bleed I’d take a break, and mess around with my kids until they either got tired of me, or the bleeding stopped. Once I was ready to resume it was back to biology.

Monday morning went pretty well. I got up at a reasonable time, had breakfast at home (instead of in the car on the way to class) and generally had a good day. We had a review in chemistry for the upcoming test, and things seemed to go well. I wasn’t too worried about the chemistry test because I’d done well the last time. Frankly, I was too busy worrying about my biology test to worry about anything else.

The day went pretty well, too. I was able to sneak some more study and review for biology in during the day, and the test was relatively stress-free. There was only one question I raised my eyebrows on and that was because I had neglected to study that particular topic. That was okay, though, it was only a small part of an essay question so I’ll still get some points for the rest of. Feeling pretty good about my biology test I went home, screwed around with my two oldest kids (who hadn’t gone to bed yet) and then reviewed a bit of chemistry, watched a bit of TV to wind down, and went to bed. A good day was had.

This morning the universe decided I’d had enough good days, I think. I got up late, rushed to get out the door. Tried to cobble together some breakfast and ended up spilling vegetable juice on my shirt. After changing shirts I couldn’t find a clean glass that I could take in the car, and ending up spilling more stuff on my second shirt. Not having any other clean shirts I could wear, I cleaned this spill up (thank goodness it wasn’t bad), and headed out the door without breakfast. A glass of orange juice, a half a glass of vegetable juice, and my blood pressure medication would have to do.

I got to chemistry on time, thank goodness, and got everything ready to take the test. The test started out quite well. Nothing too fancy and I was prepared for it. Or so I thought. The last question was to identify ten elements according to a graph showing their atomic number vs. their atomic radius. No problem, thought I. Then it hit me that the ten elements he wanted us to identify weren’t on listed on the graph. The graph was there, but which ten? Fortunately I wasn’t the only student to figure this out and someone got up to ask the professor about it. He explained which ten he wanted, apologized for screwing up the test question, and I proceeded to fill everything out.

My lab partner (Lab boy) finished about the same time I did, so as we left class we chatted about the test.

“That went better than I expected,” I said.

“Yeah, I was surprised. I know I got a few wrong though.” LB replied.

“Oh? Which ones?” I asked.

“The one where you had to determine the unknown elements charge, considering it was bonded to two sulfur ions with an ionic charge of 2- each. I forgot to consider the number of sulfur ions and put 2+, instead of 4+.”

“The only one I had trouble with was the last one.”

“Yeah. I didn’t think it was too bad, though. I remembered that the noble gasses have the smallest atomic radii.”

“What?” I exclaimed. “I thought it was the other way around.”

“I’m not sure.” LB said. “It might be. We’ll have to look it up.”

And look it up I did.  Crap and nonsense! LB was right, and I had screwed the pooch. The question was worth quite a few points, too, and there was no way I could get partial credit. I really did screw it up that bad. What else did I mess up, I wonder? Here I was obsessing over my biology exam and I mucked up my chemistry test instead. I hope this isn’t a portend of finals.

Why has it gotten suddenly warm, and what am I doing in a hand-basket? I just hope the rest of the day is better.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Mad Scientist

This last weekend was a rough one for me. I ran out of gas on the way home from school, my wife’s grandfather died, and just about everyone on the roads decided they were going to act like jerks. In spite of those, and other problems, I still got to have some fun in my science labs.

Biology was great. We learned about how to use a light microscope, and a spectrographic one. Most of it was just getting used to using one, but finally we got to do a wet slide prep of some kind of water plant (I forget the name of it) and check it out. It was cool! Even under the spectrographic scope we could see real cell structures along the leaves of this plant.

Chemistry was even more fun. Not from any grand, “look at me I’m doing real science” kind of way. More in an “I’m still a kid again and pretending to be a mad scientist” sort of way.


Anyway, we got to mix up a bunch of chemicals in test tubes and then figure out if they were undergoing physical or chemical changes. It was fun to mix clear chemicals and get cool colors, or mix other substances and watch them bubble and boil, and make all kinds of cool smoke!

It was a good break in the action. Now I have to go prepare for my next round of tests. Oh, well. Back to the student grind, I guess.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Test Results

I got my results back from my first chemistry test. I did pretty well. 95%. You may remember that I blogged about one of the questions here a bit ago, where I was asking about units and significant figures being screwed up. Well, it turns out that I was right. The professor had screwed up the answer. He’d actually messed up a couple of questions and, because a few of us caught him, he’s giving us extra points. Yup. He said, ‘the test was a little hard, so I’m going to give each of you an additional 5%.” Cool news for me. Can’t beat 100%.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Science Blasphemy

I’m about to commit a blasphemy against science. I’m going to uncover the truth behind a secret plot perpetrated by school teachers everywhere. I’m going to get flamed for this, I just know it. I don’t care. The truth must be told! Bring on your Bunsen burners and beakers you filthy scientists!

Okay, I’m getting carried away here. It’s interesting how perceptions and knowledge change, though. This morning during chemistry class I became disillusioned about scientists. Okay, not really disillusioned, it was just driven home to me that scientists are people, and that people are imperfect, even scientists. I knew that before. Today was just a great example of it.

Of course, you’d never hear such a thing in a high school science class. Theses folk always say, “This is the way it works! Science only gives us correct answers because it’s self-regulating! Scientists are the new gods!” Sorry, gentle readers, this is simply not true. In fact, scientists can’t agree on what science is, what terms mean what, what is real or not, and so on. More importantly, they can’t figure out how much of it to teach you.

There are some pretty good reasons for this. Science students would become terribly overwhelmed if we tried to teach them everything we know, or don’t know, about any given subject. Instead of learning anything they could apply, they’d walk around in a mental daze, unable to function on any meaningful level. They’d become unemployed because they’d question the existence and meaning of everything. In the end they’d just starve to death. It’s kind of like what philosophy majors do.

Let me back up to last night, and my Biology class. We were talking about the basics of the chemistry of life. More specifically we were talking about atomic structures, molecular bonding, and measurements so that we could eventually talk about the chemistry of life.

So we were learning all kinds of fun stuff like how to measure atomic weight through daltons, what a mole is, and so on. Not the furry ground animal, mind you. This mole is Avogadro’s number in molecules. In case you were wondering, Avogadro’s number is 6.02 x 1023. Its’ kind of like eggs being sold by the dozen. Molecules get sold by the mole.

This morning in Chemistry we start talking about the same things. (Good. I can always use a review.) The trouble is we don’t use the same terms. Instead of a dalton, my Chemistry Professor (Chem-Man) starts talking about Atomic Mass Units (amu). It turns out they’re equivalent. They’re both equal to 1/12 the mass of a carbon atom.

Why don’t they use the same terms? Was there a coup? Did all the older “pro-daltonites” and the newer “pro-amu-ers” duke it out with urinometers or something?

And they don’t give the same answers, either. My biology professor (Bio-Man) said, “The mass of a proton and a neutron are the same.” Chem-Man says, “The mass of a proton and a neutron are slightly different.” Bio-Man says, “Electrons have virtually no mass, so we don’t bother with counting them.” Chem-Man said roughly the same thing, except he added that the weight of an electron was 9.109 x 10-28 grams. Apparently someone has bothered counting them.

The whole atomic mass vs. atomic weight thing is weird, too. Atomic weight is “the average mass of an atom of an element, usually expressed relative to the mass of carbon 12, which is assigned 12 atomic mass units.” Atomic mass is “The mass of an atom, usually expressed in atomic mass units.” It also seems that the atomic mass is the same, regardless of the number of neutrons in an isotope of a given elements, but the atomic weight is different, because it takes into account all those extra neutrons in isotopes.

Wait a minute . . . (or is that weight a minute?) We just got done being told that weight is linked to gravity and so scientists measure things in mass, which is independent of gravity. Something has got to be done about this misleading terminology!

Anyway, it’s just one example of how scientists can’t agree with each other. It’s as bad as putting rabid atheists and Christian apologists together in the same room.

In other words, scientists are people, and science is a social pursuit. They’re not perfect, and so science isn’t either. Get used to it. It's the best we can do. Some scientists several hundred years ago thought the Earth was the center of the universe, too. Now we know better.

If someone tells you, “This is a scientific fact,” just remember, what used to be a scientific fact, is now a history lesson. Chances are, everything we hold to be true will become history in a few hundred years, as well.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Test Bad! Answers Good?

Well, I got back from my first Chemistry exam just a few hours ago. I think I did okay, but it was a little weird. I know I screwed up on the last answer a bit. We had to circle which elements were metals, non-metals, and metalloids, on the periodic table. I got most of that down pat, but I think I screwed up on some of the metalloids. I remembered they made a diagonal pattern between the metals and non-metals, but it’s not a perfect diagonal. It’s more like a diagonal with exceptions (does that make it an exceptional diagonal?). It’s too bad, too. That question was worth more than any of the others.

There were two questions that threw me, though. Not because they were hard, but because what I think are the correct answers weren’t available. One was determining the specific gravity of a substance. They listed the mass and volume, so I could figure out the density, and then the specific gravity. The problem is that with specific gravity all of the units cancel, and so you’re left with just a number. No units. The mass and gravity were given with three significant figures. The correct number, with three significant figures, had units listed by it (g/ml), and specific gravity doesn’t have units. There was another answer that had no units, but not the correct number of significant figures. So which was right? I called my professor over and asked him about, but all he said was “If you think that’s the right answer, don’t worry about the significant figures.” That’s sort of like saying, “One of us screwed this up, but I’m not going to tell you which one.”

The other question that threw me was when we were asked to show the function of certain trace elements in regards to human health. It was a sort of “mach the element with the function” kind of thing. Trouble is he gave one element that didn’t have a matching correct answer, and one answer that didn’t have a corresponding element. I crossed off all the functions as I matched them up with the elements, and I was left with the element Molybdenum and the function “essential element found in body fluids that supports nerve function.” According to my crib sheet, Molybdenum is useful in enzyme metabolism. Potassium supports nerve function. I made a note of it at the bottom of the sheet, but I’m worried I may just have annoyed my professor. Either that or I got it wrong, and I don’t think I’m wrong.

Maybe I’m just becoming arrogant. I guess I’ll find out tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

My First Exam

I’ve got my first test coming up tomorrow. It’s in my Chemistry class (Chem 1110), and I’m not sure how I feel about it. I’m a little nervous, and a little not. On the one hand, I think I’ve done a fair amount of study and prep work. An additional benefit is that the professor is letting us use a single 3x5 index card as a crib sheet. We can write whatever we want on it. He’s not going to tell us what to write, and it has to be handwritten. On the other hand, this is the first college level exam I’ve had to take in years. I’m a bit out of practice.

This test is going to be on basic chemical issues such as the states of matter and its classifications, chemical reactions, chemical elements and symbols, and the periodic table. It’s also going to cover basic factors in the measurements of chemical properties and the math behind them. Because this is a class primarily for health science students, it’s also going to cover some basic functions of the various elements essential to life: the major four (Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, and Nitrogen) as well as 21 different trace elements.

It’s that last bit that has me worried, so you can guess what kinds of things I’ve scribbled on my crib sheet!

I’m also crappy and remembering conversion rates, like Celsius to Fahrenheit and pounds to kilograms as such. Metric and SI units are so much easier to deal with than Standard Imperial units. It makes me wish I was studying in Europe so I wouldn’t have to deal with the conversions.

It’s ironic, though. I thought the test was today, so I had all this planned in advance. It turns out that we had a review today, instead. Good thing, too. I hadn’t thought to include the functions of the various trace elements as part of my crib sheet. To be honest, I didn’t think we’d be tested on them. Turned out I was wrong. Of course all that does is leave me an extra day to stress over the test.

As long as there are tests, there will be prayer in schools. Wish me luck!

Thursday, September 01, 2005

First Impressions

I’ve just finished my first week back in college, and my first impressions are that it’s going to be a good experience. I had some doubts (still do), but I think I’m going to be okay.

This semester I’m taking a beginning biology class, and a beginning chemistry class, along with the labs. There’s no way I can go full time. I have to work full time. These classes are interesting in that they are specially designed to emphasize how these subjects impact health care. Most of my fellow classmates are enrolled in the nursing program, with a smattering of others (like me). On the one hand that’s nice. I get to hang out with a number of very bright young people, including a lot of young woman that are rather pleasing to the eye (and the spirit of an older fart like me). On the other hand, there are relatively few who are my age, except for the professors.

It’s not completely true that I’m the only “mature” person their. Talk to my wife and you’ll wonder how I can get away with use the word “mature” to describe myself at all, but that’s another story. There are a few others closer to my age, and life experience, and I’ve hit it off with a few people already. My lab partner (Lab-boy, or LB) is at least 15 years younger than me, but he’s a great guy and I think it’s going to be good working with him.

Last Saturday, when I was waiting for my first Chemistry Lab class to start, I met a woman my age who is also returning to school (the Enjoyable Matron, or EM). The EM and I started chatting, and swapping stories. I told her I was worried about coming back after so many years. I had taken some chemistry and biology classes years ago when I first went to school, back when I was still stupid, and didn’t do very well.

“You weren’t stupid,” EM replied. “Just young.”

I said, “I’m not sure there’s much difference at that age.”

Of course this got the attention of a younger man waiting with us. This was my first meeting with LB. Even though we were bashing his age group a bit, we did eventually hook up and become lab partners anyway.

Inevitably the conversation turned to our teacher for the course. “I’ve hear she’s really not very nice,” EM said.

“I don’t know. I’ve found that if you just meet them on their terms, it usually turns out okay.” I replied.

I’m not sure I was right in this case

The teacher (Weird-Woman or WW) seems a little strict, but not too bad while she was introducing the class, but this next bit was a little weird.

She asked, “What other resources do you have when you need help with something?”

EM said, “You are.”

WW’s eyes got wide, and she said very seriously, “Noooooo! I’m not available. I don’t even have office hours. Don’t ask me for help.”

It was then that I knew that, at least for this instructor, I was wrong. The class was in deep, deep trouble.