How a molecular biophysicist gets hyped for a solar eclipse

(1) Not well. Not well at all. I’m only posting one pre-eclipse post, and it’s less than 24 hours until peak eclipse in Greeneville, Tennessee.

(2) Of course, I might not even be making this post at all if I wasn’t teaching a physical science course to non-majors, and if I wasn’t making some early ideas on astronomy wasn’t a key part of the thing. Shout-out to #nsci105. I don’t even know if the youth says “shout-out” anymore.

(3) Of course, I kind of wanted to make such an eclipse post to be some sort of hot take about the pointlessness of eclipse glasses, and Lifehacker just straight-up stole that hot take from me.

I was in middle school the last time a major solar eclipse passed over my hometown. Some teachers supplied us with glasses and others helped us build viewers from cereal boxes, and we went outside for the big moment. It was okay, I guess. But when I got home, my mother told me how she saw the eclipse.

She told me that she stepped outside with her co-workers, and ended up sitting by a tree. And she noticed the shadow of its leaves on the ground. Everywhere there was a little gap between the leaves, each spot of light was in the same crescent shape as the eclipsed sun.

Curses to Gizmodo Media! Curses to them!

But dang it, everybody’s going to be having video of the Sun before the event happens in Tennessee AND after the event happens in Tennessee. There is one moon. There is one sun.

There are a ton of different trees around, and a ton of different shadow patterns possible. Diffraction of light with such a faraway light source that is being obstructed so completely will make for some wild shadows.

And uniqueness in the shadows EVERYWHERE.

Get you some pinhole camera action going and have some fun.

My favorite guide to pinhole camera construction is Emily Lakdawalla’s blogging for the Planetary Society, and CaLisa Lee’s video does the job super well too. Yeah, it’s targeted for kids. But I’ll do the same stuff too.

There are other sources for eclipse projection from the American Astronomical Society, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and good friends at the Upper Cumberland Regional Science Initiative. The Capital Weather Gang at the Washington Post wrote about this, too.

(Late addition: the alpha physics blogger, Chad Orzel of Union College in New York, also wrote a low-tech pinhole camera optics explainer. I’ll always link when Orzel explains something, even if I have to edit the post after the fact to do it.)

I’ve been joking that I’m going to go without eclipse glasses; that’s a lie, I’ll totally have a pair on me. But I am going to have a ton of small cards for pinhole cameras, and I’m going to have at least one surface for watching the shadows come through them.

(4) In addition, NASA has a little smartphone app I’m just learning about called Globe Explorer (part of “an international citizen science initiative to understand our global environment”), and they’re wanting data tomorrow during the eclipse. It can be as simple as taking pictures of clouds to recording reliable temperatures. But it’s accessible to all. If the idea of being a citizen data-recorder appeals to you, download the thing and join in.

(5) I’m not trying to get on the road and travel through eclipse traffic (however eclipse traffic proves to be) while my teaching load is slightly nutty. I’m staying in Greeneville, even though I’m not going to get 100% totality. I have dear friends at Pellissippi State (one dean in particular) who will be Tailgating in Totality, and my old colleagues at Tennessee Tech are throwing a full Totality Awesome Eclipse Fest. (Click through that page and you can see explanations from my department chair at Tech, Steve Robinson, who’s way better explaining this stuff than I am.)

I’m disappointing all my friends equally by staying put, which is maximum fairness for all concerned.

(6) But I am the Eclipse Expert for the Tusculum event (sponsored by the United Way of Greene County, thanks you guys) at Pioneer Stadium, starting at 2:00 PM. And, if NBC News is to be believed…

…I am personally contributing to, and even leading, a mass loss of productivity at Tusculum College.

If you’re in the neighborhood (and not driving pell-mell to reach totality), come be unproductive with me.



Why thinkpieces on STEM education are dangerous

So, I got this stupid piece on STEM education shared several hundred times on my timelines this weekend, and while it was something of a respite from the seventeen gazillion hot takes on religious liberty, it’s still an elite thinker decrying our national emphasis on STEM and saluting the liberal arts and I needed it like the proverbial hole in the head.

Can I tell you what I’m sick and tired of? I’m sick and tired of people telling me that I have to make a choice between work-ready STEM education and deep, reflective humanities learning. [1]

I have a novel proposal: why not both?

Why not serious, intense learning in mathematics and physical science HAND IN HAND with reading both the “great books” AND great books from other cultures? Why not promote better numerical literacy AND historical literacy (and, dare I say it, religious literacy) among the populace? Why not get our engineers better education in sociology? Why not get our writers better education in physical science?

My own undergraduate education was at what we’d call now a STEM-centered institution. But a funny thing was written into the academic requirements at Rose-Hulman: ten courses in the humanities and social sciences, what we derisively called “hummers” back in the day. And one of those “hummers” had to be in a “non-Western” discipline, so we wouldn’t stay locked into cultures that were our own.

Here’s the thing that I didn’t expect when I started my education: that I would wind up with a history minor despite myself. I took Western Civ with Bill Myers because I had to fill up that first-term schedule, and even before I had my first cut at Lit & Writ (the required freshman comp course at Rose), here’s this historian taking my writing and telling me it was good writing on the one hand but it had no specific examples and was terribly weak on the other. And then I had the moment of realizing that it was because in skimming all the books I was assigned, I wasn’t actually READING them and getting those specifics that Myers needed in the first place.

I thought I’d beat that “non-Western” requirement by taking Russia in the 20th Century, because of course I’d been taught about the Red Menace in high school and I could totally ace that one. But William Pickett at once captured us with the reality of the day’s headlines (this was ’91, remember, the end of the Soviet Union was very real) and at the same time drove us to explore how the history set up the present, and not to just read facts but to explore causes and debate interpretations.

(Hey VI honors students – when you got a question in class that started “affirm or deny”? That was all Pickett. I am nothing if not unoriginal.)

And all of this was happening at an engineering school where I was getting one whale of an education in physics. And every time I work to explain an idea like freefall or magnetism or the structure of the atom, and I lapse into a story about the imagination of men to see the workings of the universe that others couldn’t see, I’m drawing on the challenges that Myers and Pickett put in front of me when I was an undergraduate myself.

To give in to the lie that STEM education puts the liberal arts under threat is to give in to low expectations. Using a thinkpiece like Zakaria’s as a bludgeon to try to rally one more effort to save all that was good, right and 60’s in education is missing the point.

We treat the term “liberal arts” as if it’s MERELY the humanities, maybe with sociology thrown in for balance. We NEVER address the natural sciences or mathematics as if THEY are liberal arts as well, that the study of the foundations of STEM are ALSO necessary for the living of a balanced, whole life. And by so doing, we create conflict where no conflict is necessary; we create an excuse to dial back one form of education or another.

We need better education, across the board. We need better math education. We need better social science education. We need better engineering education. We need better fine arts education. We need better biology education. We need better humanities education. And yes, of course, we need better physical science education.

We need more impact, more effective communication, more outreach, more of everything, across the board.

The short-sighted among us will continue to remind us that money is limited, and resources is limited, and we have to conserve everything. Bluntly, they have decided that their money isn’t worth spending on doing better by those they consider to be unworthy. We need to tell a different story – that this time in history demands an increase of investment, not a decrease, and to keep our wallets in our pockets while people put false choices in front of us is to submit to our decline.

I’m not ready for decline. If you are, get out of my way.

[1] Okay, Zakaria probably doesn’t believe in that false choice either, and I’m potentially knocking down a straw man. But let me be plain: the headline set up the straw man, and the way this thing got shared on social media enhanced it. And in the times we live in, where everybody is searching for every last excuse to cut funding from every last educational practice, for my money, enabling the straw man is sin enough.

Throwback Thursday, starring a couple of photosynthesis researchers

"Yes, Nicole, I know what you did there."

I don’t play Throwback Thursday often, but apparently, when I do, Nicole supplies me with the picture.

The woman on the left, Elizabeth Gross, is the reason I have a PhD. In her role as chair of the Biophysics Program at Ohio State, she took a chance on a punk from Rose-Hulman who bugged the mess out of her (and even drove to Columbus on something of a lark on a Saturday to see what was there, and what could have been a 30-minute interview-type thing turned into a 3-hour conversation), and then, the moment the words “Brownian dynamics” were mentioned in casual conversation, bugged her some more during his first year until she let him into the lab, with no funding and a wild concept of a project. And patiently, through every conceivable TA appointment imaginable while the research was going on, she kept letting me bug her, and even started to bug me back a bit as she got seriously interested in the modeling herself. We worked out how plastocyanin and cytochrome f get together to do electron transfer, basically by taking every computer package written to model proteins and other macromolecules and forcing them to do what WE wanted to do, whether that was what they were designed to do or not. She had that “feeling for the organism” that Barbara McClintock wrote about – she understood how chloroplasts worked, and had a gut feeling for how proteins did chemistry, and 99% of the time, she was right.

And that’s before we get into her metaphors that were simply brain-bending. Those who live in tin houses should not throw can openers, though, so I won’t touch that with a 12-foot Norweigan.

The woman on the right, Nicole Vanderbush, was in my first group of students at Shorter. She was loudmouthed, obnoxious, kind of a punk herself – and insanely passionate about whatever she was passionate about at the moment. I have no idea what drew her to me, and I honestly wonder why I had confidence in her in those first days myself. All I know is, I have never had a student trust me so much, and who latched on to an idea so tightly. She took that very same Brownian dynamics problem and ran with it, got interested enough in the proteins to turn out a research project that could actually be presented somewhere (the only student I’ve ever had to take those steps, and I’ve been at this now for nearly a decade and a half), and landed at an REU at the University of Arkansas – as fate would have it, working for Dr. Gross’ first grad student, Dan Davis. That REU turned into her own PhD project, and Nicole became a better experimentalist than I could have ever dreamed of being. Now she’s at Shorter – and carries the title of Assistant Professor, the thought of which blows my mind daily.

The place where they are standing is the office space at Ohio State where I spent the better part of six years of my life. It is, I believe, cleaner in this picture than it ever was when I studied there.

One of the biggest regrets of my life is that there is not a picture of these two women, together with me. They represent two of the most important stages of my life.

And yes, if you knew these sweet people’s personalities, it is thoroughly appropriate that Nicole has broken out the bunny ears on Liz, and Liz just keeps grinning as if to say “yes, Nicole, I know what you did there.”


One other thing that it’s important to note.

These two, the two most important people in my career in science, are both women.

There are not many guys who can say that bit.

It is a bit of a quirk of fate (or providence?), when you think about it. The right person to guide me through the PhD, and the right first student for me to start through that path.

I don’t know what to make of that, except that I’ve found myself uncommonly sensitive to issues of women’s success in science, in the physical sciences especially, over the course of my life. It registered very early on that there were many people who had talents who simply let those talents go because there wasn’t someone there who would affirm those talents, and who would talk about the path to doing science as a profession being available to them.

Part of the conflict within me over the current state of academia, the current dearth of jobs out there for people with PhD’s even in the sciences, is that we still need to address the gender imbalance in those professions, and take maximum advantage of the talent available, instead of losing people on the path. That needs to happen even as the jobs available is dwindling and the political will to support academic science goes from slim to none.

I’ve become very passionate about health professions advising, because that’s another way to nurture those talents and put them to good societal use, and the jobs are there for those who complete those paths successfully (even as those paths involve residencies and other sorts of credentialing hoops). But that’s not a substitute for our best thinkers applying their thinking to basic science problems, trusting that the benefits to them personally will prove over the long run to be benefits to society as a whole. And it’s not a substitute for ensuring that our best thinkers are a diverse group, with diverse experiences that turn into diverse means of solving big problems.

I have no answers, but I have a set of values that I find important, and I have a host of people in my life who have informed those values. And at key points along that path, those people have been women.

I am incredibly, incredibly grateful for what I’ve inherited, and I need to be a good steward of that inheritance.

This is why I do what I do.

University System of Georgia to STEM education: Drop dead

I wish I had the time to write out a detailed and patient analysis about the latest round of University System of Georgia pig-headedness, also known as the decision to fold Southern Polytechnic State University into Kennesaw State and, for all practical purposes, end Southern Poly’s independent existence. I’m afraid I’m only going to rant about it instead.

The word “merger” is completely inappropriate to apply to this. Mergers take two old things and make them into one new thing. Mergers blend communities. At the very least, you might expect both institutions to have participated in the discussions on how the merger would move forward, and on how the merger would benefit both institutions.

You would NOT expect this news to emerge:

Rossbacher, who was been president since 1998, stood in the sunshine and repeatedly told students, “there are a lot of things we don’t know.”

When the two schools merge, the president of KSU, Dan Papp, will be taking over as president of the school, a decision Rossbacher said surprised her.

“I was not consulted on this, I found out yesterday,” she said.

(And, by the way: a full rant would reserve a special disdain, possibly expletive-laden, concerning the state of higher education journalism in America broadly, and Georgia in particular. It is crystal clear that the ledes of EVERY article have been pulled from the spin of the Board of Regents; those quotes from Southern’s president are from the middle of a secondary article on the “merger” from the MARIETTA DAILY JOURNAL. The supposed flagship newspaper in Georgia, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has been nowhere on this as far as actual reporting is concerned. You have two institutions coming together, and one of the presidents – who has served her institution for fourteen years – isn’t consulted on the details of the merger? This isn’t a major part of the reporting why? If what Lisa Rossbacher is saying is true – and politically, I have no reason to doubt it – what confidence should ANYBODY working for Southern Poly have about what’s next for them?)

Southern Polytechinic State University has a unique culture. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s because it’s been small and student-focused for a very long time, and it’s not been focused on constructing a brand. Other institutions in the state have been concerned with growth and public profile. Southern Poly has simply been educating students, frequently students who can’t access or don’t want the “elite” levels of education offered by the name-brand institutions in the state, and preparing them for serious technological, engineering, and scientific work. They’ve done it in an environment where students can be engaged with their professors.

I’ve taught a great many students who either transferred to Southern Poly deliberately to complete their undergraduate education or went to Southern Poly to get a graduate degree. I’ve never heard a single complaint about what they do.  Let me repeat that: I’ve never had a single student I’ve taught, who moved to Southern Polytechnic State University afterwards, complain about anything Southern Poly does. I’ve only heard affirmation of the welcoming environment, as opposed to the competitive environment that an elite science and engineering education can be.  As prone as students are to complaint, that’s something in and of itself.

That’s why Kennesaw State’s takeover of Southern Poly feels like a kick in the teeth. For me, it’s not a condemnation of Kennesaw State or its role in and of itself. There is a place for a large, regional state university in the climate of higher education. There are students who do well in such places, and there is a cost-effectiveness to what they do.

But in the STEM fields, where there is still a massive amount of inequity and where there is a genuine need for MORE student-centered institutions like Southern Poly, for the University System of Georgia to strip Southern Poly of its very identity is a crystal-clear message. An individual campus mission does not matter. Student-centered education does not matter. Effective student service does not matter. The brand names of the institutions are the only thing, and if your brand is not sufficiently strong, we’ll slap somebody else’s brand on you and make you fit.

The University System has already alienated darn near the entire city of Augusta through the process of merging the Medical College of Georgia/Georgia Health Sciences University with Augusta State University, choosing the self-congratulatory name Georgia Regents University over a name that affirms Augusta’s identity. It’s still anybody’s guess how well that merger will pan out. This “merger” is potentially even worse, in how it takes a institution with an important role to play and strips it of its identity.

There is a petition process underway. I wish I had a lick of confidence that anyone would listen to it. Ultimately, this is a process being driven by money – or, more accurately, the state of Georgia’s lack of willingness to give its higher education institutions any. That’s a political situation, and it only gets corrected when elected officials decide to stop the continuous bleeding of funding away from public institutions and stop forcing them to behave like bottom-line centered businesses instead of behaving in the broadest possible public interest. And since there is a substantial population that isn’t willing to pay a dime more in taxes and doesn’t think that public funding has been cut enough (and since the University System’s chancellor was formerly a member of a legislative majority that championed such things, and continues to champion them), it’s safe to assume that smaller state colleges will continue to be targeted for these “mergers”.

But even in this climate, there is a right way and a wrong way to proceed. There is a way to genuinely merge administrative functions at two nearby schools and maintain both schools’ identities, and to ensure that the public good is maintained. There is a way to promote the importance of this:

Through a fusion of technology with the liberal arts and sciences, we create a learning community that encourages thoughtful inquiry, diverse perspectives, and strong preparation of our graduates to be leaders in an increasingly technological world.

The university – faculty, staff, students, and graduates – aspires to be the best in the world at finding creative, practical, and sustainable solutions to real-world problems and improving the quality of life for people around the globe.

I haven’t heard a single word of respect given to that vision in the aftermath of this whole “merger.” Practical STEM education that serves to lift up individuals to positions of leadership is something that should be at the forefront of the public discussion of education, not administrative efficiencies, regional identity, or optimal institutional enrollment characteristics.

But all the talking points come from a political document for consolidation of institutions, not from the actual vision for the STEM institution targeted for consolidation.

It’s as if the University System doesn’t believe in the mission of Southern Polytechnic State University at all. And if that’s true, this action makes perfect sense.

Edited on 4 November to add the link to the University System’s “Principles for Consolidation of Institutions.”

In the case of Kiera Wilmot

Originally posted on Facebook on May 2, 2013.

Okay. I’m going to write this up and try to be even-handed with it, both from the perspective of being something of a science advocate and from the perspective for someone who’s essentially responsible for chemical safety and has been educated far better than he wants to be on what the lawyers can do given a little space.

What I’m providing a link to is a police report, published in The Ledger of Lakeland, Florida on April 23rd, concerning a small “explosion” and arrest of a student on the grounds of Bartow High School:

No one was hurt in the morning explosion, nor was school property damaged, said Principal Ron Pritchard.

Kiera Roslyn Wilmot, of *address redacted*, was charged with making, possessing or discharging a destructive device and with possessing or discharging weapons on school grounds. Both charges are felonies.

The girl told authorities she was conducting a science experiment, according to Bartow police, but science teachers at the school said they knew nothing about it. She also said she thought the materials would produce only smoke, not an explosion, police said.

Pritchard said he was standing nearby when the student left the drink bottle behind the cafeteria, near the lake on the school’s east side.

“It was next to the gazebo by the lake,” he said. “I wasn’t standing too far away when it happened. I just heard the pop, and I turned around. I thought it was a firecracker at first.”

Household materials were used to create the explosion, said Bartow police Lt. Gary McLin. He declined to say what those materials were, but said the information is available through the Internet.

Pritchard said the girl didn’t leave the area after the bottle exploded.

“She left it on the ground, and she stayed there,” he said. “We went over to where she was. She saw that we saw her, so she didn’t take off.”

He said she was taken to the school’s office, where police took her into custody.

Now, let’s be plain: it was published as a police report, so that’s why an address appears in the piece in the newspaper; that’s standard operating procedure, and we can bicker about how proper that procedure is another time. This also bears noting: no further articles were published about this event in either the local Lakeland paper immediately, or in the three major newspapers in the cities surrounding Bartow (the Orlando Sentinel, the Tampa Tribune, and the Tampa Bay Times).

As near as I can tell, the thing that actually moved the story was a news report on WTSP-TV yesterday at the midday (the publish time is 12:32 PM, May 1), where the principal was almost concilatory about the circumstances (“she has never been in trouble before, ever”) but where the school district made very clear that it was holding the line on calling for discipline (“Anytime a student makes a bad choice it is disappointing to us. Unfortunately, the incident that occurred at Bartow High School yesterday was a serious breach of conduct. In order to maintain a safe and orderly learning environment, we simply must uphold our code of conduct rules”). A blogger at CNET got a hold of the story with appropriately snarky commentary, and congratulations, we’re off to the viral-story races, with most of the commentary coming from scientific and liberal media of the “America hates science” variety (not hyperbole, the actual headline slapped on a Scientific American reprint).

After the fact, the Miami New Times got feedback from the district and the Bartow police on the event, and pretty much gets a standard party line along with the full details of the police report. Clearly the kid wasn’t trying to hurt anybody. But the “common household chemicals” she mixed, and sealing off the plastic bottle, created an explosive device. It’s a clear violation of the district’s student code of conduct. There is only one penalty for that violation, and that’s expulsion.

Now, given my position (the sole guy responsible for chemistry laboratories at a small college, who was quite happy to be a grunt teacher/theory jock and ignore all the reality about being responsible for laboratories in a previous existence), I am probably just a bit more sensitive to the reality of Bartow High School’s situation than the average bear, and I am CERTAINLY more sensitive than I was two years ago. And I just went to hideous pains above this to make sure I had the facts – both of the event AND of the reporting – so that I was certain I wasn’t coming out of left field with this take.

But: given the realities of 2013, I cannot blame anybody at Bartow High School or the police for doing what they have done thus far.

I have to say up front that not only am I not a lawyer, actual lawyers laugh up-front at anything I say. But put yourself in the principal’s shoes. Loud “POP” goes off on school grounds. Your first thought is “oh, dear God, it’s happened here, and now I have to find out how many student casualties I have.” When you find the explosive, you find it’s a classic metal-and-acid experiment, and the student confesses “I only thought it would smoke, I didn’t know it would explode” – she wasn’t aware of the risk of the “experiment” she had done.

Oh, what she’s done – only make hydrogen gas, in a closed container, under high pressure. There was pretty clear risk of somebody, most likely that student, getting hurt.

So that relief that you felt when you discovered it wasn’t malicious turns into “oh crap – if anybody had been hurt, this was done on school grounds – we’re the liable party.” That’s why ANY proper laboratory agreement a student enters into when that student starts taking ANY chemistry laboratory at ANY school forbids them from doing experiments that the instructor doesn’t know about – if something goes wrong, even if it’s a rogue experiment, the instructor STILL takes on duty of care, and the instructor (and the institution – that means you, Mr. Principal) see the lawyers first.

Therefore the moment this happens, not only to be fair and evenhanded, but to ACTIVELY play defense against any lawsuit that somebody might file in the future if something goes wrong, you have to demonstrate that you’re following your policies concerning possession and discharge of a destructive device on school property, and you have to do that now. What do the policies say? Explusion. Oh, and we have to refer this to the police to ensure they take action. That’s it. That’s all you can do. Sorry, Ms. Wilmot. I know it was just a bad decision. But rules are rules.

This is how a litigious society turns completely stupid. Again: Ron Pritchard, the principal of Bartow High School, did his job, and I would daresay he did his job well. He has done what is necessary to protect his school and the Polk County School District from future liability. That does not change the fact that the task he had to carry out was absolutely moronic, that the moment he saw the circumstances and the individual impacted he should have had the capacity to administer mercy, and that given the substantial social obstacles already facing a black woman with any curiosity whatsoever, to slap the words “felony charges” next to the name of Kiera Wilmot for this is a caliber of injustice I just can’t quite deal with.

(Yeah, the racial angle. The moment you actually read any of the stories about this, the fact that this is a young black woman smacks you upside the head. It sucks beyond belief that in 2013, a person even needs to mention this. However, please understand that the moment I read this story, I got this little knot in my stomach and it will not go away – and I can’t imagine that I don’t have more than a few colleagues for whom the same thing happened. I love all my students, and I want them all to succeed – but I also see the track records, and I see too few minority students get through ANY science major, and I see too few of THEM actually pursue science as a vocation. And I’ve also heard too many tales of the confident white guys who blow things up for fun, and too few consequences from far more dangerous behavior than this. For the central character of this story to be a young black woman DEVASTATES ME. Seeing the video of her young friends being so confused and upset by the response is HORRIBLE. I hope there aren’t a ton of black kids who take this as confirmation that the people in charge don’t want them to learn stuff. But I worry.)

This is what I believe: We don’t live in a society that hates science, or education, or anything of that sort. We live in a society that hates risk, of any sort, and will ruthlessly punish anyone who creates risk for anyone else, and if science and education are collateral damage then so be it but please understand it’s the risk we oppose – especially if that risk even raises half a chance of lawyers on our tail chasing after millions of dollars from us that we don’t have anyway.

Rage against the stupidity of Bartow High School and the Polk County School District (and the whole stinkin’ state of Florida while you’re at it – I was raised there, I give you permission) if you must. But rage also at policies upon policies, inspired by decades of lawsuits upon lawsuits, that force educators to cover their rears at every last turn. And understand why so many of us in education hear a certain line Shakespeare wrote in Henry VI, about the first thing the revolutionaries must do, and we take sad pleasure from its speaking.

So, about this OpenStax thing.

Originally posted on Facebook on July 18, 2012.


First, thanks to the Facebook nerds for all the kind comments today concerning a press release that I apparently earned for editing two chapters of some new physics textbook over spring break. It WAS an intense spring break, not gonna lie, and in my employer’s infinite wisdom it’s something to be praised, so I will take it and work it up in the professional development materials that I need to submit at the end of the month. There’s no need to complain about this.

But it’s incredibly important to me that I emphasize the larger point. I didn’t edit a textbook in order to get the brownie points at work or so people can pat me on the back and tell me I’m smart. The cost of textbooks is a MASSIVE problem across education right now, one that the major publishers have not handled responsibly, one that those of us in higher education have helped create by not paying attention to how little quality we were getting for the rapidly rising prices.

I still remember being in the bookstore at Middle Georgia College when a group of young black women were purchasing their texts – one of them for my class – and were getting soaked for upwards of $200 or $300 – not for rigorous science and engineering texts, but for one general science text and English grammar guides and history readers. This was in 2001. I had a sense of how much money that was to at least one of those students, and I was horrified.

It’s not gotten any better in the past eleven years, to say the least.

There have been other efforts to bring free textbooks in front of the populace. I have been a long-time supporter of Benjamin Crowell’s Light and Matter project, which I’m pretty sure was the first Physics text to be published under the Creative Commons ShareAlike license. I am actively following the progress of efforts from FlatWorld Knowledge and the CK12 Foundation, and I am contemplating how I might use material from both projects.

But I am most excited about OpenStax by far, for a host of reasons. The backing that OpenStax has received is oustanding; it’s a project of Rice University, using an open education platform that is already well-established (that would be Connexions), and has already won the trust of some big wheels in higher ed funding (you may have heard of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – but I hadn’t heard of either the Twenty Million Minds Foundation or the Maxfield Foundation, and now I want to know more). The textbook I wound up working on was previously College Physics by Paul Peter Urone, published by Brooks-Cole – not a lightweight text, and – given that I teach for biology majors, and Urone was a text laden with health applications – one that I’ve had on my bookshelf for a decade. And the editing staff was small, but top-notch professionals. Jesse LaBuff was wonderful about bringing a newbie editor on board and bringing him up to speed, and I can’t say enough about how accessible the project’s editor-in-chief, David Harris, has been – from my first contact with him all the way to now.

The text that has been produced – OpenStax College Physics – is first-rate in every way, a text that is genuinely competitive with the best algebra/trig-based textbooks on the market. I will use it next year in my physics sequence at Virginia Intermont. And the text is free. If you really want to, you can actually purchase a hard copy of the text for the cost of printing – but if you wanted to get a .pdf file or an e-reader ready file, or if you just wanted to read the text on the web, you can do that right now.

The physics and sociology texts that OpenStax released at the beginning of the month are only the start. Three new texts – spanning biology (for majors and nonmajors) and anatomy and physiology – are due before this year’s end. There will be more to come. (I hope for the chance to work on an OpenStax College Chemistry text.)

Ultimately, those of us who say so much about the importance of the free exchange of knowledge have a responsibility to maintain the free exchange of knowledge, and to not contribute to a system that keeps knowledge out of the hands of those who can’t afford it. We need to help break this vicious cycle that drives the cost of books up. It’s not broken yet (and those of you taking Organic from me this semester, God bless you) but there are cracks. To have played this tiny little role in getting us to this point, to have edited the first text published by OpenStax, to be one of the first adopters of this text…it’s an honor, but it’s also a responsibility, and one I don’t take lightly.

And now you know why I don’t write press releases.

But you also know why this is such a big deal to me.

“The importance of stupidity in scientific research”

From the Moveable Type blog, February 24, 2009; edited to fix linkrot.

With a hat tip to Miz Richardson (who I’d link if she had web space to link to, apart from a Facebook page), an essay by Martin Schwarz in the Journal of Cell Science with one of the most impressive titles ever in academia.

And the article’s just as good, too. In fact, Nicole forwarded it along to me because we’d had so many conversations that plowed exactly the same ground. To wit:

For almost all of us, one of the reasons that we liked science in high school and college is that we were good at it. That can’t be the only reason – fascination with understanding the physical world and an emotional need to discover new things has to enter into it too. But high-school and college science means taking courses, and doing well in courses means getting the right answers on tests. If you know those answers, you do well and get to feel smart.

A Ph.D., in which you have to do a research project, is a whole different thing. For me, it was a daunting task. How could I possibly frame the questions that would lead to significant discoveries; design and interpret an experiment so that the conclusions were absolutely convincing; foresee difficulties and see ways around them, or, failing that, solve them when they occurred? My Ph.D. project was somewhat interdisciplinary and, for a while, whenever I ran into a problem, I pestered the faculty in my department who were experts in the various disciplines that I needed. I remember the day when Henry Taube (who won the Nobel Prize two years later) told me he didn’t know how to solve the problem I was having in his area. I was a third-year graduate student and I figured that Taube knew about 1000 times more than I did (conservative estimate). If he didn’t have the answer, nobody did.

That’s when it hit me: nobody did. That’s why it was a research problem. And being my research problem, it was up to me to solve. Once I faced that fact, I solved the problem in a couple of days. (It wasn’t really very hard; I just had to try a few things.) The crucial lesson was that the scope of things I didn’t know wasn’t merely vast; it was, for all practical purposes, infinite. That realization, instead of being discouraging, was liberating. If our ignorance is infinite, the only possible course of action is to muddle through as best we can.

I may be projecting, but I think one of the things that occurred to Nicole as she read that was an exchange I frequently have with students even now:

Student: Oh, my word, I completely should have known that. I feel so stupid.
Me: I had that feeling all time as a student. It was better when I figured out what that feeling really was.
Student: What was it?
Me: Learning.

I don’t know if it came from this, but there were also several times as I was yammering with Nicole that she was asking questions that I didn’t have good answers to. At a certain point when you do science, you recognize that there’s just ALL THOSE PAPERS IN THE UNIVERSE and there’s no way on God’s green earth that you are going to be able to read them all. So you get pretty comfortable shrugging your shoulders and saying “I don’t know, why don’t you read some stuff and get back to me?” I don’t do that to be a jerk; I do that because I’d really like to know myownself, and I don’t have time to read the relevant papers on my own.

(I’d like to, but professors get a bit more on their plate than just reading all day – even the guys who do research full time have to write the big-money grant proposals to earn their keep.)

Ultimately, when you do science, you hit that realization that, to paraphrase what David Suzuki once said, you are contributing little bits of knowledge to a vast well of science information. You are an expert on those little bits; nobody knows as much about those little bits as you. But others are going to use those little bits (interpreting what you supply in their own way, which may or may not have had anything to do with what you were thinking) to generate their own bits of knowledge, which they’ll contribute to that well. Everybody is building their explanations of how this world really works in their own way, and self-doubt can overwhelm you when you see how vast and intricate the world is; but you can get through that self-doubt by realizing that, in that small realm of knowledge, you really are an expert if you’ve read it and studied it deeply enough.

Partly, reading this was a affirmation that I’m telling my charges the right things about science.

Partly, this was a reminder of the excitement I have for a large fleet of my students, preparing to go off and start developing their own knowledge and taking part of this wonderful journey.

And then there’s the realization that I’m still at the front side of one of these back-and-forths with a new colleague in science…who just so happened to be one of my first students at Shorter. We’ve got a couple of decades of these back and forths ahead of us.

And then there are all the new colleagues to come.

I’m still starting what’s going to be an amazing career.