I just read this lovely discussion of how a more open scientific culture (think open-access science) could improve the collective memory of science. This was on the Back Page of APS News (subscribers only) and here is the author Michael Nielsen’s blog post about the topic too, with some additional information. His basic premise is that we don’t exchange scientific information freely, in a sort of public scientific marketplace, because there’s a lack of trust like there is in the consumer marketplace. He writes:

In science, we’re so used to this situation that we take it for granted. But let’s compare to the apparently very different problem of buying shoes. Alice walks into a shoestore, with some money. Alice wants shoes more than she wants to keep her money, but Bob the shoestore owner wants the money more than he wants the shoes. As a result, Bob hands over the shoes, Alice hands over the money, and everyone walks away happier after just ten minutes. This rapid transaction takes place because there is a trust infrastructure of laws and enforcement in place that ensures that if either party cheats, they are likely to be caught and punished.

If shoestores operated like scientists trading ideas, first Alice and Bob would need to get to know one another, maybe go for a few beers in a nearby bar. Only then would Alice finally say “you know, I’m looking for some shoes”. After a pause, and a few more beers, Bob would say “You know what, I just happen to have some shoes I’m looking to sell”. Every working scientist recognizes this dance; I know scientists who worry less about selling their house than they do about exchanging scientific information.

I just loved this analogy. It’s absurd, yet understandable, how hard it is for scientists to collaborate. But there’s a ton of stuff being written now about open access and what it can do for science, on my blog and others.

I just found out about a neat free service for science educators.  It’s mostly for those in Colorado, but those outside Colorado are welcome to use it as well.  It’s a free email servicer for teachers to ask questions directly of a science education expert, who will go out and find the answer for you.  How fabulous!

It’s called MAST WebConnect.

Here is some text from their site:

The Problem
Obviously the problem is not that the Internet does not contain enough math and science education resources, but finding quality resources can be an overwhelming task for teachers and students alike. Teachers often do not have the time to do a quality web search or seek experts in the field.

The Solution
MAST WebConnect will answer your questions and find high-quality web-based Internet resources personally for you! Supported by the MAST Institute and the University of Northern Colorado, WebConnect is staffed by math and science educators and professors with access to these resources and references.

How it works.
The idea is simple. We know that the Internet provides a wealth of information, but sorting through and filtering that information to find quality materials can be an overwhelming task.
That is where we come in. Contact MAST WebConnect with any mathematics or science question, and our coordinators will find the information either by contacting experts in the field, or finding high-quality Internet sites.
MAST WebConnect has a pool of available volunteer mathematics and science experts to help with more difficult inquiries. These include college professors and working scientists within Northern Colorado.

tt_icon_170Despite my better judgment, I invite TI staff educator Eric Muller to do one more set of activities on my Teaching Tips podcast —several things you can do with soda straws.  Listen to the episode – The Last Straw.

Holding Charge activity (PDF)
More of Eric Muller’s activities

Just got this from Bob Park’s What’s New column. Looks like Gingko has failed a double-blind study to see if it really improves memory. I’ve been taking it for a while, in hopes that it would defuzz my neuronal connections (I’m not that old, but my memory took a real hit ever since I was on crazy antimalarial drugs in Peace Corps 10 years ago).

This reminds me of when a friend told me that there’s no reason why Airborne would improve your immune system. I was really angry at him for telling me this. Airborne definitely seems to keep my colds from getting too severe. If that’s due to a placebo effect, then hearing scientific reasoning that it shouldn’t work will destroy my placebo effect. Especially since my belief structures are particularly sensitive to scientific evidence.

Here is what Bob Parks wrote. I’m a bit perturbed by what he writes at the end, that all these other remedies have failed double-blind tests. It sounds to me as if he expected this to happen, because herbal remedies are by their very nature “unscientific” or something. I don’t see why some of these “natural” remedies couldn’t have something to them. After all, we take Zinc to help our immune system. That’s just a mineral. What makes a mineral less “woo woo” than a plant (like Echinacea)?

Annual sales of the herbal remedy Ginkgo biloba in the US are at $249
million. It is alleged to prevent memory loss. It doesn’t. In its
first large trial, half of 3,069 volunteers 75 and older were given of
Ginkgo biloba daily, while the other half were given a placebo. They were
assessed for signs of dementia every six months for 6 years. Neither the
patients nor the doctors doing the assessment knew which group patients
were in. The group getting the placebo actually did slightly better,
although the difference was not statistically significant. France is
planning an even larger study. Ginkgo has a lot of company. One after
another, the most popular herbal supplements, ephedra, Echinacea, St.
John’s Wort, have failed in double-blind, placebo controlled studies.

This is from the Exploratorium — several opportunities to connect your classrooms with polar science, including via live webcast three times a week!

Ice Stories: Dispatches from Polar Scientists
Webcasts at 1:00 p.m. PST
December 7, 2008–January 4, 2009
Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays
Connect Live with Antarctica!
E-mail polar@exploratorium.edu or call (415) 561-0359
You’re invited to chat live with an Antarctic scientist during one of
our Webcasts! Contact us to arrange a connection online or by phone.
Or be part of our Webcast studio audience at the Exploratorium.

Watch Webcasts
In celebration of the International Polar Year, we begin a new Ice
Stories Webcast season from Antarctica on December 7. Visit explo.tv
for a schedule of upcoming shows and to watch archived Webcasts on

Follow Dispatches

We gave polar scientists cameras and blogging tools and asked them to
document their fieldwork. Follow along on their adventures and see
what it’s like to be a research scientist in an extreme environment.
Questions and comments for the scientists are invited!

tt_icon_1701I just posted a new episode of my Science Teaching Tips podcast on Mini Labs. Give it a listen!  “Zeke” Kossover is a teacher in the bay area, and he’s always posting wonderful tips about teaching — from great organizational tips to the best places to find cheap electronic components to astute tips for teaching physics.  In this podcast I got him to talk about an idea he’s used in his classroom and taught to many other science teachers — Mini Labs.  The idea is to take a science concept and write a very focussed, brief lab activity around it.  He has some concrete tips for making these labs successful and why they can be a useful addition to your class, without taking the amount of time and equipment that full lab experiences can require.

I love this… from GraphJam.


Pie I Have Eaten: http://graphjam.com

I wrote a post a week or so ago about a study that showed what Monet’s and Degas’ artwork would have looked like through their respectively failing eyesights, which may account for particular deteriorations of their art in later years.

I just managed to get a copy of the original paper, and have just updated that post with the actual images of how their art would have looked through their eyes. So, go check out the updated post!

Money - Woman with a Parasol - 1875

Money - Woman with a Parasol - 1875

I’ve been making up for my prolific posting during the National Association of Science Writers conference by not posting for days on end. Life is busy for geekgirls nowadays, what can I say? But this tidbit just came across my desk — a new website for young women interested in science that sounds really neat. It’ll have lots of links related to women and science, social networking, a blog, and more.  A lot of the site is still being populated with content, but this could be a great resource in the future.  The question for women scientists to answer this week is “What got you hooked on science?”  Soon there will be a wealth of great stories on this site, a really nice resource for girls interested in science.  When you register, you’re able to make connections with others on the site — sort of a LinkedIn for women in science.utm_headerleft

Here is the press release on the site:

The Women Writing Science project, a multi-faceted initiative to involve young women in science and to encourage them to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), announces the launch of the website Underthemicroscope.com

Sponsored by and developed with IBM, Underthemicroscope.com offers a wealth of continually updated information, including input from visitors to the web site. Currently the site provides the opportunity to post personal stories, feature and guest blogging, news about science, and links to related resources. Within the year the site will include more social networking opportunities, tips on careers, tips for parents, expanded links to science-related sites, and mentoring. Ultimately the site will provide information about internships and scholarships as well as serialized chapters of Women Writing Science publications that can be downloaded free of charge and an online book club.

“Underthemicroscope.com with IBM’s help combines new technology, like social networking, with traditional publishing to better communicate with young women in science, develop new content for stories and serve as a place of learning and inspiration,” said Gloria Jacobs, Executive Director of the Feminist Press.

Initiated by The Feminist Press at The City University of New York with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Women Writing Science will publish books of biography, fiction, history, career profiles, and how-to-survive guides presenting women as both scientists and as writers about science. Women Writing Science will also provide free teacher guides describing lesson plans and strategies for using the books in science curricula. These materials will be easily downloaded from Underthemicroscope.com .

[CASW New Horizons: Michael Marmor, Professor of Opthamology, Stanford]

This was a very interesting little talk by an opthamologist and art collector about what happened to two particular artists as they lost their vision — Degas and Monet.  Here is a link to the original article, with pictures.

Degas suffered from maculopathy, where his vision gradually deteriorated over a period of years. The fine detail of his work disappeared, the shading lines grew coarse and far apart instead of fine and close together, and features (like faces) because poorly delineated. Early work shows a lot of fine detail, but the later work is expressive only in its general posture.  Click here to see pictures of the evolution of Degas’ work over time.

Degas - The Tub - 1886

Degas - The Tub - 1886

Degas - After the Bath - 1896

Degas - After the Bath - 1896

He showed us examples from early, middle, and late work, and you can clearly see the degeneration in his work. Below are examples, but his later work (which I couldn’t find examples of) is almost grotesque. Faces look frightening and postures are awkward. His friends and colleagues also told him that his work was not quite, shall we say, up to snuff. Dr. Marmor simulated for us what the paintings probably looked like to Degas, considering the state of his vision, and you can see that the course shading lines and awkward expressions disappear. He probably couldn’t appreciate how others saw his work in those years, because his poor vision erased the flaws in his own work in his eyes. Dr. Marmor looked at a variety of data (his handwriting, comments of friends, the spacing of shading lines) and reconstructed a relatively linear pattern of the decline of Degas’ vision over time. He eventually stopped producting work shortly before he died.

Monet suffered from cataracts, in which the lens hardens and yellows. The lens in our eye naturally gets more dense and yellow as we get old, but cataracts are an extreme example of this natural aging process. In about 1912 Monet complained of vision loss, and by 1922 he was legally blind.

Money - Woman with a Parasol - 1875

Money - Woman with a Parasol - 1875

As an impressionist, Monet dealt with light and shadow, not detail, and so he was able to continue to produce work for quite some time despite his declining sight. However, cataracts affect your color vision, and this affected the quality of his work. He usually produced work with delicate colors and light, but examples of his later work showed almost garish use of orange and green, which was most likely his attempt to actually see the color on the canvas. In the years before he finally submitted to cataract surgery, he was painting almost entirely from memory, because he could no longer distinguish blues and greens, or reds and purples. Again, Dr. Marmor showed us simulations of what Monet’s work probably looked like to him, and the strong colors faded into muddiness. Click here to see images showing how Monet’s later water lily paintings would have appeared through a moderate cataract. The forms also became indistinguishable. Dr. Marmor showed us a late Monet painting and asked us to identify it. To me, it was a mass of blobs of color with a few blurry lines. It turned out that it was the bridge in Monet’s japanese garden. It was completely unrecognizeable to me.  Take a look at that picture here, as well as how it would have appeared to Monet through his now-severe cataracts.

Monet - Water Lily Pond and Weeping Willow - 1916-1918

Monet - Water Lily Pond and Weeping Willow - 1916-1918

He argued that the change in style wasn’t due to artistic changes, because Monet’s work returned to its former style after he underwent surgery.

One interesting tidbit that I liked, since I think perception is just so cool, was that in Soleil Levant, below, the reason that the rising sun against the blue sky is so striking is because the blue and the orange are of the same intensity. This makes it hard for our brain to place the sun clearly in space because we don’t have the contrast we usually rely upon to make boundaries between objects.

Monet - Soleil Levant - 1872[Monet – Soleil Levant]

It turns out that there is a Society of Blind Artists nowadays. Many of them, not surprisingly, are photographers, since the film will faithfully capture what they are unable to see clearly.