Some stark reality: academia and otherwise

This is from College Misery and discusses the lament of someone teaching an astronomy course to, well, less than talented and less than motivated students:

Each semester, I usually teach a large section of general-ed astronomy for non-majors. I also teach a large section of physics for engineers and scientists.

I also teach a smaller, upper-level theoretical astrophysics course for physics majors and grad students. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? We’re supposed to be delving into the secrets of the Universe.

Well, THIS semester’s astrophysics class has convinced me that American university education is without question in its death spiral.

The large, general-ed astronomy class is packed with freshpersons. Sniveling, patently unprofessional, childish behavior is common. I hate it, but it’s like the smell you get living near a slaughterhouse: you get used to it.

Similar childish behavior is rarer in the physics class for engineers. This is because it’s more advanced, with at least three other prerequisite classes. When childish behavior does raise its ugly head there, it hurts.

This semester, for the first time, I am encountering childish behavior from most of the upper-level astrophysics class, and it REALLY HURTS. More than once I have reminded them that astrophysics isn’t an immediately commercially applicable subject: people do it mainly because it’s interesting.

So WHY do these students treat the wonders of the Universe as such a dreadful CHORE? Probably because even the simplest wonders are quite beyond them. Most of the grad students don’t understand significant digits, despite my TRYING to explain what they should have learned on their FIRST DAY of college. If they think they are going to GET A JOB doing this, they’ll be going up against people from Caltech and MIT, ALL of whom funnily enough DO understand significant digits.

I think that we are seeing “regression to the mean” effects: we are sending higher percentages of people to college. So: this means more jobs for professors at “teaching oriented” institutions but also…a less talented student body. None of the lament surprises me at all.

We even see this in the humanities:

I recently left a teaching position in a master of fine arts creative-writing program. I had a handful of students whose work changed my life. The vast majority of my students were hardworking, thoughtful people devoted to improving their craft despite having nothing interesting to express and no interesting way to express it. My hope for them was that they would become better readers. And then there were students whose work was so awful that it literally put me to sleep. Here are some things I learned from these experiences.

Writers are born with talent.

Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don’t. Some people have more talent than others. That’s not to say that someone with minimal talent can’t work her ass off and maximize it and write something great, or that a writer born with great talent can’t squander it. It’s simply that writers are not all born equal. The MFA student who is the Real Deal is exceedingly rare, and nothing excites a faculty adviser more than discovering one. I can count my Real Deal students on one hand, with fingers to spare.

There is more in the article. But yeah, what is said there counters many popular but hare brained ideas:

1. “You can do anything you want to do if you want to do it badly enough.” Anyone who believes this has never accomplished anything of significance.

2. “It is never too late to start”. Wrong. It is probably not to late to learn something new, but if you start from scratch late in life, you are all but guaranteed to not be good at it (there are isolated exceptions, of course). And by “good at it” I mean “good compared to the stronger people in the profession”, not good compared to “the other average old geezers”.

As you get older, it becomes more difficult to pick up brand new material, though if one is still active in an area one can often compensate by having a broader perspective and by having a larger tool box of knowledge to draw from (just from learning for so long).

Extrapolation from the local
Yes, it may have been cold where you live…but:

Screen shot 2015-03-21 at 3.03.17 PM

Yes, I live in the dark blue area.

Being certain…even if the facts are against you. Zealots are very good at doing this:

The Times has an interesting headline here: Richard Fisher, Often Wrong but Seldom Boring, Leaves the Fed. Because entertainment value is what we want from central bankers, right? I mean, Janet Yellen is such a drag — she just keeps being right about the economy, and that gets old really fast, you know?

OK, never mind. What is remarkable is Fisher’s complete confidence in his own wisdom despite an awesome track record of error. What’s even more remarkable is that his unshaken certainty is the norm among inflationistas and anti-Keynesians in general. So wrong for so long — and the other side has been right, again and again — yet not a hint of self-doubt.

And check out this anti-new atheist article.

This is supposed to come from a “sophisticated believer”, but never once does he even make the case that the existence of any deity of any kind is even a reasonable conjecture, much less a belief in their deity of choice.

Really. We live in one average galaxy and orbit one of billions of stars in said galaxies ….among billions of other galaxies. And somehow, the scribblings of profoundly ignorant groups of humans made are supposed to be taken seriously as a guide to knowledge of how things work now? Oh boy…if the old blue hair says so… 🙂

What is comical is that these sort of writers expect to be taken seriously.

March 21, 2015 Posted by | astronomy, atheism, economics, education, religion, social/political | , | Leave a comment

Putting a probe on a comet ..and a contrast…

There is an excellent account of the probe Philae landing on a comet. Some photos of the comet:



This is pretty amazing, huh? Yes, those who did the science, engineering and mathematics to make this happen ARE amazing; but they are outliers among us.

You see this at our university; in my advanced class I have some students who will look at the computer code (for a numerical method to solve a differential equation) and make some suggestions. But on the other level, you see attitudes like this one:


And to think: this young woman was displaying her ignorance via sophisticated technology that was created by, well, geniuses.

That is how it is right now: the smartest among us (does NOT include me by any stretch of the imagination) is further from the average than it has ever been, and the spread will continue to get wider.

November 13, 2014 Posted by | astronomy, science, space, technology | | Leave a comment

Illusions, drought images, space images, GMO’s on the organic aisle…

This is an interesting optical illusion: the lines are actually straight and parallel.


This is what is going on.

California drought: get a load of these “active” before/after photos. Use the slider to change the “normal” to “drought conditions” photos.

Enjoy these incredible astronomy photos, many from our solar system.

GMO: yes, stuff that is now labeled “organic” really is GMO.

September 11, 2014 Posted by | astronomy, nature, science | , , , | Leave a comment

Why Theism makes no sense to me, in one simple picture


September 5, 2014 Posted by | astronomy, cosmology, religion, science | , | Leave a comment

Some interesting science stuff: elephants, washers, exploding stars, sea mushrooms

The remnants of a relatively young star are still seen expanding. What is of special interest is that we are seeing some of the light directly and other parts of the light after it has been reflected off of dust…and due to the longer path, the reflected light from the same event is reaching us later than the direct light!

Bulletin of concerned scientists: wonder if the US should consider calling for a testing ban on “hypersonic” missiles (slower than the ICBMs but fast enough to react quickly). The article is worth reading if only to learn about the technology.

Job discrimination: an applicant changed his first name from Jose to Joe…and ended up getting call backs that he didn’t get earlier.

Life sciences After almost 30 years, scientists were able to place a type of sea mushroom (not quite a fungus, not quite a fish) into a place on the tree of life.

Elephants: we really shouldn’t hunt these creatures; they are too smart and can take pleasure in play:

Technology and vibrations: watch the consequences of an unbalanced load and subsequent vibrations:

September 4, 2014 Posted by | astronomy, evolution, racism, science, social/political | , , , | Leave a comment

Still think that there is a deity interested in humans?

Hmmm, we are supposed to take some ancient, regional stories about deities seriously?

Let’s look at how the writers of the Bible understood science: (Genesis 30)

25 After Rachel gave birth to Joseph, Jacob said to Laban, “Send me on my way so I can go back to my own homeland. 26 Give me my wives and children, for whom I have served you, and I will be on my way. You know how much work I’ve done for you.”

27 But Laban said to him, “If I have found favor in your eyes, please stay. I have learned by divination that the Lord has blessed me because of you.” 28 He added, “Name your wages, and I will pay them.”

29 Jacob said to him, “You know how I have worked for you and how your livestock has fared under my care. 30 The little you had before I came has increased greatly, and the Lord has blessed you wherever I have been. But now, when may I do something for my own household?”

31 “What shall I give you?” he asked.

“Don’t give me anything,” Jacob replied. “But if you will do this one thing for me, I will go on tending your flocks and watching over them: 32 Let me go through all your flocks today and remove from them every speckled or spotted sheep, every dark-colored lamb and every spotted or speckled goat. They will be my wages. 33 And my honesty will testify for me in the future, whenever you check on the wages you have paid me. Any goat in my possession that is not speckled or spotted, or any lamb that is not dark-colored, will be considered stolen.”

34 “Agreed,” said Laban. “Let it be as you have said.” 35 That same day he removed all the male goats that were streaked or spotted, and all the speckled or spotted female goats (all that had white on them) and all the dark-colored lambs, and he placed them in the care of his sons. 36 Then he put a three-day journey between himself and Jacob, while Jacob continued to tend the rest of Laban’s flocks.

37 Jacob, however, took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peeling the bark and exposing the white inner wood of the branches. 38 Then he placed the peeled branches in all the watering troughs, so that they would be directly in front of the flocks when they came to drink. When the flocks were in heat and came to drink, 39 they mated in front of the branches. And they bore young that were streaked or speckled or spotted. 40 Jacob set apart the young of the flock by themselves, but made the rest face the streaked and dark-colored animals that belonged to Laban. Thus he made separate flocks for himself and did not put them with Laban’s animals. 41 Whenever the stronger females were in heat, Jacob would place the branches in the troughs in front of the animals so they would mate near the branches, 42 but if the animals were weak, he would not place them there. So the weak animals went to Laban and the strong ones to Jacob. 43 In this way the man grew exceedingly prosperous and came to own large flocks, and female and male servants, and camels and donkeys.

I suppose that the deity of the Bible didn’t understand genetics. 🙂

But a few years later….well…let’s see some of the universe…the very universe in which some deity performs magic tricks for the benefit of those that suck up to it:

From here:


Those points of light are entire galaxies each filled with billions of stars. Still think that we are oh so special? 🙂

Oh well…after all, we really are just a type of chimp, so what can we expect.

June 25, 2014 Posted by | astronomy, religion, science | Leave a comment

The Sun from other planets…


Pretty fun, huh?

April 11, 2014 Posted by | astronomy, science | Leave a comment

Exploding Stars and Heads….

Supernova in a nearby galaxy… M82, “only” 12 million light years away. We might get some neutrinos.

Now some of the wealthy in New York are upset that their area…well, wasn’t plowed first. 🙂

That’s no way to treat the JOB CREATORS!!!!!!

(psst: the less wealthy neighborhoods might have more people per square mile….so it might make more sense to get those streets first?)

January 22, 2014 Posted by | astronomy, science, social/political | Leave a comment

Objections to Copernicus: some were valid science objections.

This short article in Scientific American is very interesting (it is behind a paywall).

But this is the idea: it took science a long, long time to accept Copernicus’ heliocentric astronomy. True, Galileo saw the phases of Venus and the moons around Jupiter which blew conventional geocentric astronomy out of the water, but there was a “every planet except the earth orbits the sun” model which kept earth fixed.

Why the fixation on keeping the earth fixed? Yes, there were religious objections, but there were scientific objections as well:

1. The earth was known to be massive and scientists at the time knew that it was difficult to move heavy objects. What in the world could move something as massive as the earth?

2. Instruments of the time couldn’t detect stellar parallax. This meant that the stars were a huge distance away. But notice that the stars appear to have a measurable width to them; in fact they should be a “point” of light but that light is smeared out into a disk. At the time, this effect was NOT understood. Hence, a star that was so absurdly far away (as to not show parallax) that appeared to be that wide would have to be absurdly huge, even when compared to our sun.

How do you resolve these two “facts”: great distance and huge size?

Even when heliocentric astronomy became accepted, scientists admitted that there were other problems that cropped up; these problems were not to be resolved until much later.

So, the push-back against Copernican astronomy was NOT entirely religious; scientists of the day had reasonable objections to the theory, and defenders of the then-new theory resorted to….well…appeals to the supernatural and to philosophy to explain away the difficulties.


I admit that I cringed when I saw the title of the article and started to read it. Yes, it was a well written, very intelligent article. And yes, I’ll gladly recommend it to my smarter, more scientifically minded and interested friends. But….there is this…..

“SEE, Science is wrong all of the time!”

(uh, on the whole, science eventually gets it right….you are seeing this on a computer, aren’t you? )

“Hey, they laughed at Einstein”

(uh, as a unknown graduate student, Einstein got his work published in a top flight peer reviewed physics journal; in fact he got 4 of them. Where are your peer reviewed publications? Besides those who came up with the big new ideas are intellectual outliers who completely understood science and the then current theories. You are not one of those, and no, having a good SAT score, passing an undergraduate course or even getting a Ph. D. doesn’t make you that sort of outlier.)

“My ideas are new and radical”

(yes, and most non-mainstream ideas are completely wrong; it is just that we never hear about the vast majority of the wrong ones. What reason have you given for anyone to take the time to listen to you?).

Bottom line: established scientific ideas are sometimes overthrown or superseded or modified, but only rarely and only after a LOT of difficult checking and cross checking by a LOT of smart people ….and they find the new idea promising enough to give in a thorough examination.

January 7, 2014 Posted by | astronomy, physics, science | | 1 Comment

A bit of science for a chilly day…

Is science a type of faith? Jerry Coyne says “no!” and I agree with him. Read his piece in Slate. Remember that ideas get abandoned when they have been shown to either not work or to not be useful.

Traffic jams: I don’t like them either, but some of these can be modeled by using the principles of fluid dynamics. Upshot: proper speed changes can avert SOME of these.

Some fluids change their viscosity and can turn into a solid, albeit briefly.

Evolution in action
This insect has evolved “ant” mimics on its wings to deter predators.


Galaxies can take several shapes; this article is about “ring” galaxies.

Classical Mechanics
Here is a demonstration of angular momentum.

It is a non-intuitive concept; Mano Singham (physicist) explains it here.

November 15, 2013 Posted by | astronomy, biology, evolution, physics, science | , | Leave a comment