Monday, December 31, 2012

20% of Scientists are Crooks

At university in both "Introduction to Criminology" and the "Senior Seminar in Criminolgy", our professor, Liqun Cao,  liked to cite an easy claim of “twenty percent.”  For instance: 20% of goods on the market have no clear title.  The exact numbers did not matter and neither did the specific study or survey.  The teaching point was that criminality is not unusual.  Heinous crimes are rare.  Daily harms are all too frequent – and we all engage in one or another of them whether speeding or padding expense accounts.  So, too, in science is it important to realize that fraud and misconduct in research are not rare.
Book cover FALSE PROPHETS by Alexander KohnFalse Prophets: Fraud and Error in Science and Medicine by Alexander Kohn (Oxford: Basil Blackwell: 1986), is a classic work that remains important. It sets a baseline for understanding fraud and misconduct in research.  Kohn repeats famous cases such as Margaret Mead, Robert Millikan, and Trofim D. Lysenko.  He also tells of N-rays, the Allison Effect, the Davis and Barnes Effect,, and polywater. From there, Kohn focuses on his special interest, clinical research.  The book closes with chapters on broad and deep issues in ethics and science. Kohn offers no solutions.  He does say that whistleblowers should not be fired. He also quotes a university ethicist who cautions scientists not to engage in any research activity that they would not commit as laity.  That is largely unsatisfactory, especially as this philosopher (Prof. Michael Riese, then of the University of Guelph) calls ethics “a shared illusion of the human race.” I believe that a more objective standard is required.

Marshall Thomsen of Eastern Michigan University has been teaching “Ethical Issues in Physics” for over twenty years.  A search of “ethics physics” and similar items will return citations to Dr. Thomsen’s work at websites from the Illinois Institute of Technology, the University of Illinois, the University of Massachusetts, and Physics Today, among many more. When I had the class, he was on sabbatical and our professor was Patrick Koehn.  The class also has been taught by Prof. Mary Elizabeth Kubitskey. Dr. Kubitskey’s master’s thesis was Teaching Ethics in a High School Physics Class.

The Office of Research Integrity of the US Department of Health and Human Services investigates and acts on cases of fraud in research when federal grant money is involved.  You can find Case Summaries, ethics tutorials, an interactive video “The Lab”, and much more here.

What remedies are available when private money rather than public funds are at stake?  I believe that revocation of the university degree can be appropriate.  See my paper here.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

From Texas to the Moon with John Leonard Riddell

John Leonard Riddell was the first working scientist to publish a science fiction story, Orrin Lindsay’s Plan of Aerial Navigation, with a Narrative of His Explorations in the Higher Regions of the Atmosphere, and His Wonderful Voyage Round the Moon! (Rea's Power Press, New Orleans, 1847). The story was based on a presentation to the People's Lyceum of that city on April 30.

Riddell catalogued plants. He served as chief melter and refiner at the New Orleans Mint from 1838 to 1849. He was a medical doctor, completing two different degrees, one of which he renounced. He advocated for the germ theory of disease at time when the miasma theory was more widely accepted.

While teaching at the Louisiana Medical College (now Tulane University), Riddell invented the binocular microscope. He carried out two geographical and botanical surveys of Texas.
Portrait of John Leonard Riddell from the Herbarium of Tulane University
Tulane Herbarium Portrait
of John Leonard Riddell

Born in Leyden, Massachusetts, February 20, 1807, he was the oldest of ten, After completing a bachelor of arts degree in 1829 at Rensselaer School (now Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), Riddell taught in his own grammar school. But it was not for him. Moving to Ohio, he completed his first medical doctorate at the Ohio Reformed Medical College in Worthington (March 31, 1834). He then earned a second at the Medical College of Ohio in Cincinnati, March 5, 1836, and discarded the first, calling the curriculum useless. 

Riddell was an herbalist. He collected rare plants for many reasons but always in search of those that heal and prevent sickness. Perhaps the best validation of his scientific acumen is that fact that he sold his collections by subscription: people paid him to find flowers.  In fact, his work in Ohio in the 1830s is still considered significant today. Ohio was a state by 1803. The frontier was fast retreating. Riddell sought, gathered, and identified plants that were disappearing as civilization erased untamed wilderness. In addition to pressing plants, Riddell created accurate portraits of them. Riddell’s status as a scientist is known to botanists. Several species are named for him. His work is still the basis for new examinations in our time.
Riddell's microscope. Another device made later 
for someone else is incorrectly cited in
two biographies.
Riddell then moved to New Orleans.  An active Democrat, he won an appointment as chief melter of the New Orleans Mint. He published A Monograph on the Silver Dollar, Good or Bad (E. Shepard, 1845; and Soxiedad Numismatica de Mexico, 1969.)  The reprint is based on the fact that in 1845,the “silver dollar” was the Mexican peso; US federal dollars were rare patterns and low mintages. Mexican silver circulated as legal tender in the USA until 1857. While at the Mint, he improved on the machineries; his rotary ingot machine was in use as late as 1904.

 In 1839, Riddell came to Texas.  He published Observations on the Geology of the Trinity Country, Texas in the American Journal of Science and Arts, November 1839.  Riddell’s diary was republished as A Long Ride in Texas: The Explorations of John Leonard Riddell by Jo Breeden, editor, (Texas A&M University Press, College Station, Texas: 1994).

John Leonard Riddell was acknowledged as brilliant – even without peer – among his contemporaries, for instance by Edward H. Barton, then also of the University of Louisiana, who debated against him on the germ theory of disease. Though given to no end of professional quarrels – even convicted of assault while at the Mint – Riddell was a favorite with his chemistry students. Riddell was uncompromising, flamboyant, even violent. His debates in the pages of newspapers wore out at least one editor. 

Riddell rejected the “miasma” theory of disease, the claim that unhealthy vapors cause sickness; and believed firmly that diseases are caused by “animiculae” or “germs.”  (Although microscopic “animiculae” were known from 1670, they were thought to be a consequence of the illness. Most people, including doctors, believed that sickness is caused by a miasma, hence "malaria" or "bad air.") In arguing for this theory, he engaged every tool and trick known to rhetoric and debate.

Cover of booklet titled "On the Nature of Miasma and Contagion" by John Leonard Riddell, Cincinnati, 1836 explaining that diseases are caused by germs, not by vapors.
On the Nature of Miasm and Contagion
by John Leonard Riddell, 1836
On the evening of April 30, 1847, Riddell delivered to the People’s Lyceum of New Orleans, a story of aerial navigation.  On May 8, from the Branch Mint, Riddell answered a note sent by nine of those present asking him to publish the adventure.  He agreed to bring out Orrin Lindsay’s Plan of Aerial Navigation with a Narrative of his Explorations in the Higher Regions of the Atmosphere and his Wonderful Voyage Round the Moon! (New Orleans: Rea’s Power Press Office, 55 Magazine Street; 1847).  I found this lost work archived in the microforms at the University of Texas LibraryThe full text runs 33 pages. Being Riddell presenting Lindsay’s story, it begins with several pages of background, including his own disclaimers and endorsements. 

Orrin Lindsay was a student of natural science whom Riddell knew in Cincinnati where Riddell taught chemistry.  Lindsay invented a means of screening out gravity.  Like a space opera of the 1950s, Riddell goes into detail on the theory, though remaining vague on the material of the screen.  Even Newton did not theorize about what gravity “is” and Riddell’s questions suggest the thinking of modern physicists.  Gravity cannot be itself a material substance. (We would say that no graviton particle exists.) Gravity cannot be “pure motion.”  It cannot be “quiet and inherent in matter” because any body would use up or give up all of its inherent gravity.  In short, Orrin Lindsay’s better understanding of gravity’s true nature allowed his invention.

Lindsay created a screen from “well prepared steel, after being superficially amalgamated with quicksilver, and then strongly magnetized.”  Lindsay carefully experimented with models to determine that he could build a spherical “balloon,” outfit it with suitable supplies, and journey to the Moon.  The wonderful material prevented gravitational attraction.  Where the material was not, attraction occurred.  Thus, by opening a view port in the direction of the Moon, Lindsay traveled there – but not before carefully testing the device in a trial ascent.

The story is remarkable for its scientific accuracy.  Not only is it footnoted with laborious algebra to prove its points, but Riddell possessed the ability to imagine the physical consequences of space travel. “An indescribable sensation seized me.  I could not tell up from down.  I had lost all bodily weight. … The slightest springing effort, sent me slowly from one side of the balloon to the opposite.”  He accurately described a candle flame in zero-g: “The flame of the taper became globular and less luminous; -- the heated air from it, seemingly not knowing which way to rise, diffused itself slowly in every direction.”
Interior of Lindsay's space "balloon"
by Brad W. Foster for this presentation

Instruments based on air pressure showed his altitude as he rose.  He grew uncomfortably colder, the same experience well known to private pilots in small craft in our time.  Also known by experience in our time is this description of the sky: “The higher I ascended, the deeper became the blue of the sky until at my greatest altitude, it became almost black… My breathing became quick and laborious from the rarified condition of the air. … I resolved to commence my descent. For this purpose, I increased the lower opening, and looking down, far below me, I beheld a mass of fleecy, sun-light clouds, of pure white appearance, like giant locks of the finest cotton.” 

Before the second ascent, the balloon was made air-tight with sheets of lead and rubber.  Better prepared with insulation, tanks of compressed oxygen, and chemicals for cleaning the air, Lindsay and his companion – Abner Jossilin of Cincinnati, a maker of “philosophical instruments” – took off for the Moon.  (The recycling of air and water was another prescient feature of this story and the calculations are provided for the reader.)  They saw meteors in the upper atmosphere, to corroborate the theory that these are indeed bits of interplanetary stone attracted to the Earth and glowing by friction with the atmosphere.

At 100 miles above the Moon, their orbit took “one hour, 54 minutes and 17 seconds. … We were everywhere presented with the evidences of former volcanic action.”  On the dark side of the Moon, they saw an active volcano.  “Respecting the appearance of the earth before starting from the moon, it is proper to relate that she looked like a new moon but fifteen times larger.” As they traveled back to Earth, the view changed. “She looked like an enormous moon, almost in her first quarter. …A delicate blue ring mottled with flakes of white… The prevailing green of fertile islands and continents, the pale sands of arid deserts, the naked rocks of mountain ranges, the glistening ramifications of rivers, and the polished convexity of the oceans all were clearly to be discriminated. … Brilliant beyond description were the icy regions about the South Pole, illuminated as they were by the sun.”

The balloon entered the atmosphere and the description could have come from The Right Stuff.  “We felt a slight shock, and perceived a flash of light as we passed through the aerial billow; the friction of the balloon upon the air being sufficient to produce that effect.  In a few moments our meteoric light ceased … and again the light reappeared accompanied by another slight shock… These singular phenomena, I presume were produced by the balloon’s rebounding from the aerial billows, just a cannon ball will ricochet along the surface of the water.”

After circumnavigating the Earth they land back at the launch site and the story ends.

Like other scientists from Thomas Huxley to Isaac Asimov and Rudy Rucker, Riddell wrote science fiction.  Unlike anyone else, however, he was the first.
His uncompromising forensics finally felled him. President Buchanen appointed him post master before secession (August 1860); and he exercised his duties even during the war. With the Union army in the city, Riddell arranged for his election as governor of the state, a sham that did stand up.  At a caucus on October 2, 1865, he berated his Democratic Party compatriots on the folly of secession. Hounded from the hall, he retreated to his library to write his rebuttal, but he suffered a heart attack and died on October 7.

In all, using JSTOR, Google Scholar, Gale Cengage, and other databases, I compiled over seventy separate references and citations to Riddell and his scientific work, primarily in botany.  These four substantiate the modern acceptance of his contributions.
·        Walp, Russell Lee, "Riddell's Notice of Vegetable Productions Growing Spontaneously in Washington County, Ohio," The Ohio Journal of Science 51(6): 320, November, 1951.
·        Dorr, Laurence J., "The Identity of Riddelia Raf. and Remarks on Corchorus L. (Tiliaceae), " Taxon, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Feb., 1992), pp. 80-83.
·        Wilbur, Robert L. and Margaret K. Whitson, "The Identity of Riddell's Seven Validly Published but Over-looked Pteridophytic Binomials" American Fern Journal, Oct 2005 95(4), pp. 160-170.
·        Wilbur, Robert L. and Maggie K. Whitson. “Taxonomic Assessment of the North American Taxa Published by John L. Riddell in 1853,” Rhodora, 109:938, (2007) pp. 161-186.

See also: Bleiler, Everett F., “John Leonard Riddell, Pioneer,” Science Fiction Studies, #108, Vol. 36, No. 2 (July 2009), pp. 284-299.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Fantastic Voyages: Teaching Science with Science Fiction

Fantastic Voyages: Learning Science Through Science Fiction Films, Leroy Dubeck, Suzanne E. Moshier, Judith E. Boss, (Springer, AIP Press, 1994,. 2004).  This is a general science textbook. Science fiction movies provide examples of principles and applications of theories.  The focus is science, not cinema: ten chapters of physics are followed by six chapters of biology. 

The authors point out when the fiction exceeds the science.  (In the eponymous Fantastic Voyage, in which a submarine and its crew are shrunk to be injected into the bloodstream of a patient, small as they may become, what happens to their mass?) The second edition brings the work from the VCR to the DVD, from the Internet to the Worldwide Web, from ST:OS “The Arena” to Jurassic Park. 
Cover: Fantastic Voyages by Dubeck, Moshier, Boss. Second edition.

As a textbook, this could serve a general science class for bright middle schoolers, or even a community college general survey for non-majors. The writing is clear, though compact and condensed.  The instructor will need to supplement the terse text with “chalk talk” to explain the derivations or discoveries, as well as the consequences.  This book might be a good criticism review for a student in cinema now who wants to avoid later having their work be cited by science teachers as a bad example.  However, it will not help in a positive way to craft good science into a science fiction movie from the viewpoint of the screenwriter or director.

This book is perhaps a “third time charm.” The professors previously collaborated for Science in Cinema: Teaching Science Fact Through Science Fiction Films (Teachers College Press, 1988).  Leroy W. Dubeck is a (full) professor of physics at Temple University.  (He is rated as easy (3.8), but not helpful (2.4) on  Suzanne E. Moshier is (full) professor emerita for biology at the University of Nebraska Omaha. (She pursues fleas and ticks. Her students give her the best mark for Clarity, a mere 2.0; and 1.8 for Helpfulness and Easiness.)  Dubeck and Moshier also collaborated on Threats to Humanity (Ishi Press, 2008) about asteroids, global warming, and such.  Judith E. Boss is a (full) professor emerita at the University of Nebraska Omaha where she taught English. Her interests range from computer applications (see Project Gutenberg) to Willa Cather. (As a teacher, she was a considered fair to middling: 2.7 with a 3.0 for Helpfulness.)

Monsters from the Id
Where all the Children are Above Average
World Peace  Through Massive Retaliation
Teaching Ethics to Engineering Students
She's Such a Geek!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Merry Newtonmas 2012

Sir Isaac Newton was born on December 25, 1642.  Sworn as a justice of the peace, while Master and Warden of the Mint, Sir Isaac Newton circulated in disguise among criminals to pursue counterfeiters. 

The English crown turned to him to save the Royal Mint. Even when they were not corrupt - which they usually were - the Mint officials were unable to solve the basic problem of creating and maintaining a system of money that worked. A stern Protestant, deeply religious, and moralistic in the extreme, Newton cleared out the criminal element and gave England a reliable monetary system.

Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist by Thomas Levenson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009) is intended for a general readership, yet rests on an extraordinary foundation of careful scholarship.  Thomas Levenson teaches science journalism at MIT.  He has been granted several awards for his PBS documentaries. Levenson delivers to print the videographer’s impact of sight and sound.  You walk down the alleys and into the pubs where Isaac Newton investigated crimes against the Mint of which he served as warden and later master.

For William Chaloner, counterfeiting coins was only one craft in a wider enterprise.  In the language of the day, Chaloner called his swindles “funning.” He funned the Mint with counterfeit coins and the Bank of England with fake paper.  When his counterfeit notes were discovered, he turned informant, not only avoiding prosecution and prison, but being granted £200 in reward. 

Whether Newton’s career as a detective and prosecutor is “unknown” is putative.  His work at the British Royal Mint is less often taught.  Biographer Isaiah Berlinksi called the last thirty years of Newton’s life “uninteresting.” Numismatists feel differently; and Levenson acknowledges the works of Sir John Craig who published 50 years ago. Craig’s articles draw on the same sources as Levenson’s book: Newton’s papers, the biography of Chaloner, Chaloner’s own petitions and letters.  It can be no other way.  Facts are immutable. 

However, Levenson is a television writer. He lays out a lively series of establishing shots, and pan-and-zoom vignettes that sketch and detail the events spotlighting the intellectual and emotional development of the man easily nominated as both the greatest scientist and the last sorcerer.  This combination of unflinching pursuit of difficult truths bulwarked by a stellar disregard for other people made Newton the perfect prosecutor.

Clearly Newton’s opposite, the counterfeiter William Chaloner erroneously considered himself Newton’s equal.  A runaway apprentice whose first lawful skill was making nails, Chaloner found in London a quantum mechanical probabilistic cloud of moral relativity whose potentials suited his self-indulgence. 

For the modern legalist, the salient question is the propriety of Chaloner’s trial and conviction.  No London grand jury would issue an indictment.  So, Newton went to Middlesex, a different jurisdiction, like going to Baltimore for a crime committed in Atlanta.  (Newton went jurisdiction shopping on at least one other occasion.) Levenson admits that much of Newton’s evidence would not stand in court today.  Our modern experience with wrongful convictions throws a harsh light on legality of the conviction. 

Supporting the prosecution’s claims, we have only the confessions and accusations that Newton compiled. Yet, those folios are decidedly incomplete, as we know that many were burned.  Levenson leaves the main narrative to establish a historical context for the use of torture in interrogation, a subject of some immediacy to us.  Newton could not resort to such extreme methods, but the actual tactics of Isaac Newton’s interrogations are lost because the documents were burned.


Friday, December 7, 2012

Open Secrets

A popular TED Talks from Johanna Blakley (view here), showed that revenues in the fashion industry where intellectual property rights are weak are three orders of magnitude greater than in sectors with strong intellectual property rights.  In "Bourgeois Virtue (link here)" Deirdre McCloskey cited Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice as one of many examples of the importance of discourse to commerce: "I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following...  What news on the Rialto?"  Modern insurance and modern banking both have origins in the coffeehouses of London. The great value in urban culture is that communication is profitable.  

Openness brings risk.  We all take the keys from the car and lock the doors when we leave it parked. But for 100 years collectivists right and left declared that our open society would be easy to infiltrate and destroy. We're here. The Nazis and Communists are gone. Today, the open society, the agora, is attacked by new enemies who fear knowledge.  While the need to secure our infrastructure is clear, it is more important to maintain, reward and enhance the creation and  transmission of information, money, goods, services, and people.

In Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics Jane Jacobs identified the dichotomy between the commercial ethos and the guardian way. Secrecy is important to police forces, armies, charities, and socialist economies.  On the other hand, scientists, farmers, and merchants depend on open communication.

Your computer is the result of a completely open and unregulated market in cybernetics.  No government agency defines what a computer is, who can build one, who can own a computer or who is qualified to program one.   The USSR excelled in theoretical mathematics and chess because the people of the mind, the initiators, the doers, the contrarians had no other outlet.  Politics was forbidden and economics did not exist. Meanwhile, in America, personal enterprise continued to blossom and bear fruit.

In 1991, I was a delegate from the Michigan patron community to the White House Conference on Libraries and Information Services (WHCLIS-2).  Among the guest speakers was Newt Gingrich.  As a result of that, I sent a check to GOPAC and benefited from being on their mailing list for audio tapes.  At some $100-a-plate dinner Dr. Gingrich said that at a previous dinner, someone asked him if he did not think that it was horrible that welfare recipients sell their food stamps for 75 cents on the dollar to buy booze and cigarettes.  The professor said, "Of course not."  These people are Americans, he said.  "You cannot give an American a negotiable instrument and then complain when they negotiate it for something they want."

In April 2009, I attended a presentation by former KGB agent Boris Yuzhin. (See New York Times story "Graying Double Agent" here.  Visit his Wikipedia biography here. Read the ZoomInfo sketch here.)

As he told it, trained in computer architecture, he was recruited by the KGB to come to American and find others to work for the USSR. The KGB heard that there were a lot of "communists" at Berkeley, so they sent him there. Not only did none of the comrades want to talk to him, when they did, it was a debate -- and he lost. He could not win a debate on Marxism because in the USSR they could not read all of the theoretical works which we in the USA can. So, he got a carrel at the library and began studying Marxism in the USA.  That convinced him of the strength of an open society. He defected to our side.

Engines of Creation
The Genius of Design
Venture Capital

Monday, December 3, 2012

Redshirts: Expendable in Fiction and Fact

As a security guard, I found Redshirts by John Scalzi (Tom Doherty Association, 2012), at once intriguing, humorous, insightful, and disappointing.  Marketed in book format, the story is a novella typeset with extra leading, and to which is appended another story in another format.  The thesis is obvious from the title.  If you know the Star Trek universe, then you have seen the expendable, disposable security force on the away teams. The redshirts die to tell the audience that the main characters are in danger. 

In fact, the trope is known in other genres.  In the Fox-TV series 24, the government’s elite “Counter-Terrorism Unit” is protected by unarmed security guards who take the first salvo every time that the CTU is attacked.  Perhaps the first to be formally dubbed “expendable” in popular media were the American PT boat crews serving in the Philippines when Japan attacked the USA to enter World War II.  (William Lindsay White’s novel, They Were Expendable, archived on Google Books here and  Life magazine story archived on Google Books here.)  Of course the stories of Samson, the 300 Spartans, and the Alamo speak to the same tradition.

Scalzi’s work is at once a parody and a tribute.  Just as Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is a Gothic novel about a girl deluded by Gothic novels, so, too, does Redshirts incorporate all the important elements of classic Star Trek.  The characters who cannot die are the Captain, the Science Officer, the Engineer, the Astrogator, and the Medical Officer.  Also, characters who have backstories are more durable.  These are our viewpoint hero, Ensign Andrew Dahl, and the new friends he makes at the spaceport bar: Maia Duvall (who earned her officer’s commission coming up from the ranks of the infantry), Jimmy Hanson (James Albert Henson IV heir to the galaxy’s greatest fortune but a real regular guy), Finn (a drug dealer) and Hester (his hapless accomplice).  Possessing a backstory is critical to surviving; otherwise the writers will kill you off sooner.

Ensign Andrew Dahl eventually discovers that their universe is affected and ultimately controlled by the mediocre writers of a TV show from 2010 thinly based on Star Trek from 1967.  The solution is to slingshot around a blackhole, achieve time travel, get to 2012, and cancel the show so they can enjoy and finish out normal lives in their own universe, instead of dying in grisly encounters with killer robots, hostile aliens, exobiologic plagues, and other dramatic effects.  In fact, the need for such drama is one clue.

“The Narrative” is the commanding presence that makes people do things they never would (rushing in to mortal danger) and lets them know things they previously did not (piloting a shuttle).  The Narrative is why the Captain is given to rhetorical soliloquy, followed by silence… so the commercial can interrupt the action.  The Narrative is why the Captain never engages countermeasures until after the first enemy salvo hits decks 6 through 12, and why only three out of four incoming missiles are neutralized.  

Interestingly, in the Star Trek: Original Series Omnibus (IDW Publishing, 2010), in the “Fourth Year” story Spock tells Kirk: “In the time that I have served as your first officer, an indigenous population has attacked the Enterprise 33 times.  Of those attacks, 84% occurred after you failed to make scheduled check-ins from the surface.”  Such regularities are difficult to miss, especially when it is your friends being ground up by crazed robots. 

To explain the Redshirts, I showed my wife the ST:OS season two episode “The Apple” in which four redshirts met plants that spewed poisonous darts, rocks that exploded, random lightening, and angry villagers. 

For more on Redshirts, see the Star Trek fan site Memory Alpha here.

Real life redshirts include the private contractors who supplemented US military forces in Iraq during the Second Gulf War.  That story is harder to tell because nothing about it is amusing.

Private Security in the 21st Century
Shifting the Paradigm of Private Security
Active Defense and Passive Aggression, Part 1.
Active Defense and Passive Aggression, Part 2.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

BioBash Austin Winter 2012

Dr. Matt Winkler
Dr. Paul Lammers
The Austin Chamber’s BioAustin Winter BioBash was held on November 28 at the Driskill Hotel.  About 150 of us celebrated the history of life sciences here in Central Texas with a keynote address from Dr. Matt Winkler, the chairman and CEO of Asuragen.  He was followed by Dr. Paul Lammers chairman and CEO at Mirna Therapeutics.  Mirna (from “micro RNA”), founded by Winkler, is a third-generation daughter of Ambion which Winkler created in 1989 while at the University of Texas and sold in 2005 to the Applied Biosystems Group of Applera and is now a Life Technologies label.

I first met Kyle Schulz of the Round Rock Chamber. He was there on behalf of Austin Community College, seeking to place their biotechnology students in internships with companies.  He found Maggie Bishop for me.  Maggie is with the Austin Chamber and is active on the Austin Biotech group on LinkedIn. She was the emcee for the event. (She is also on the committee to coordinate the creation of the new medical center here.)

UT researcher Scott Rynbrandt with Dr. Simona Perra.
Perra's expertise is the legal regulation of medical devices.
Standing together at a table, were Gail Darling of Gail Darling Staffing who brought her experience in federal contracting, and Nancy Goedeke whose MedMarComm provides marketing and communication services, Jason Choyce of DPR Construction, which specializes in complex projects for advanced technologies, and Kevin Fincher, a tax partner with Padgett Strateman.

Later, Gail introduced me to Stephen Frayser, the new executive director of Texas State University’s STAR Park. The 38-acre Science Technology and Advanced Research Park opened officially on November 9 to provide secure wet labs, clean rooms, and office space.

Not everyone we met had business cards.  (I ran out quickly.  After the Technical Writer cards, I was down to the Criminologist introductions.  I even gave out my Capital City Coin Club Vice President cards.)  And we met a lot of graduate and post graduate students working in university and private labs. 

Our last contacts were a trio from the Austin Technology Incubutor: Mike A. Sandoval of the IC2 Institute, Dr. Lydia V. McClure, an Accenture Venture Partner with Texas Venture Labs at the McCombs School of Business, and Michael R. Pierce also an Accenture Venture Partner.  Earlier this year, the ATI announced the launch of two companies, Savara Pharmaceuticals, and Terapio, which markets the RPLI76 protein as a countermeasure to radiation exposure and chemical threats.  About 30 companies are now in the incubator, including Alafair Bioscience, Integrated Medical Systems, Inc., Admittance Technologies, and Xeris which makes ultra-low volume biopharmaceuticals in auto-injection pens.


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Where All the Children are Above Average: Advocating for the Gifted

If the Flynn Effect is valid, then public education as we have known it must change – and probably changed already. Identifying the problem (if it exists) and then marketing solutions requires the selfsame creative thinking for which the gifted have been identified.  The first challenge is that the definition of “gifted” is highly nuanced and might be intractable.  Creating a collective concept for a wide assortment of very many unusual individual cases might be counterproductive.  Two recent books demonstrate that experts who study gifted children find the results they seek. In other words, when it comes to social prejudices, scientific research is just confirmation bias supporting the attribution fallacy.

Book cover shows child looking at butterfly on tree limb with flowers
Growing Up Gifted (Seventh Edition) by Barbara Clark (Pearson 2008) is basically a textbook for teachers.  It also can serve parents, and perhaps gifteds, as an educated, intelligent mainstream guide.  The book opens with a section of five chapters on understanding gifted education and talent development.  The last two sections present existing educational processes in school and suggest models for creating and maintaining school programs.  Prof. Clark is widely recognized as an advocate for gifted education.  However, she also accepts the basic premises of public education.  Prof. Clark never questions the pseudo-science of Asperger’s Syndrome. Also, if a gifted child is an “underachiever” then the solution is to find ways to motivate them to do more and better of what others have decided is best. 

And that might be true in many cases.  But those are cases, not populations. 

The basic flaw in her thinking is confusing a taxonomy with a remedy.  Ultimately, she has many good ideas to explain her topic, for instance these presented to the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented.  But who will implement them? Even this association is for the gifted not of the gifted.  I believe that gifted and talented teachers are best able to provide for the exceptional or advanced learner. 

Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them by David Anderegg (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin 2007) slays an array of little dragons that plague nerds.  Dr. Anderegg obviously is an advocate. At the same time, though, he also seeks to deconstruct the concept of “nerd.”  Make no mistake: it is a schoolyard insult.  Whether it (and “geek”, etc.) can subsume other meanings is not clear.  So, the book is ambivalent, at once saluting nerds yet also denying that they exist.  Anderegg covers a lot of ground.  The book reads like transcribed lecture notes.  Unlike Clark, he does not buy into the theory of “Asperger’s Syndrome”. 
Book cover shows boy child of about five or sx wearing classes

Citing Richard Hofstadter, Anderegg ties the prejudice against nerds to the broad anti-intellectual streak in American culture perhaps born (if not conceived) in the Jackson-Adams presidential campaign of 1824, Emerson's "American Scholar" address and Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  Coming into the present, the boy mechanic who works on cars is not a nerd; the one who builds computers is.  The American male is man of action, not a man of thought. 
Picture shows adult man about 35 to 45 years of age wearing glasses
David Andergg, Ph.D
That reveals the autobiographical theme of this book, if the congruence between the cover and the picture of the author do not suggest this.  Anderegg’s work is about boys.  The Boy Scouts have four citations in the Index; the Cubs Scouts even get one. The Girls Scouts are mentioned once in passing (along with Boy Scouts); the Brownies do not appear. 

Anderegg does offer hope for change in the broader culture.  He cites the television shows NUMB3RS and The Beauty and the Geek. (Launched in 2007, The Big Bang Theory could not appear here.)  He also holds Harry Potter up as a paradigm.  Potter looks the part, of course; but Potter is an athlete.  His prowess at Quidditch is commanding.  (Anderegg ignores Potter’s contests against Voldemort and the forces of darkness.)

On CNN’s “Schools of Thought” blogs for November 14, 2012, Carolyn Coli presented “Ten Myths About Gifted Students and Programs for the Gifted.”  Her Myth #9: It never hurts gifted students to teach others what they already know. She pointed out correctly: “Most gifted students do not know how to tutor others. They often are frustrated that struggling students don’t understand what they perceive as easy.”  Among the replies was this two days later from Andrea Saylor:
“They wanted to test my daughter for "gifted" and I opted out. I didn't want her to be "different" from the other students. She was shy by nature. She tutored otther students and went on to be valedictorian of her graduating class. She went on to get her Masters in Psychology. She now tests students for "gifted" "special needs" "autism" etc. Funny how things turn out.”
That exchange is an example of the complexity of the issue.  Both writers were correct.  The overarching explanation is that we are all individuals and generalizations about us necessarily fail at some level.  With children who are especially talented, this is starkly apparent.  “One size fits all” is not the problem: one size may not even fit two.

As Carolyn Coli pointed out, contrary to myth not all children are gifted.  However, children do learn; and many will rise to an intellectual challenge.

What happens if you give a thousand Motorola Zoom tablet PCs to Ethiopian kids who have never even seen a printed word? Within five months, they'll start teaching themselves English while circumventing the security on your OS to customize settings and activate disabled hardware. Whoa. "Ethiopian kids hack OLPCs in 5 months with zero instruction" on Dv!ce here. 

 That story raises basic questions about the nature of public schooling in America, for gifteds or normals alike.