Category Archives: PB&J

Class Test 3, 2013

Well, slightly better than last time. Thirty five students got an A, including 25 who got 100% (though no one got everything right). The remaining grades break down as A-, 17; B+, 15; B, 16; B-, 17; C+, 12; C, 10; D, 24; Fails, 23, including 10 no-shows. Average score ignoring the no-shows: 81%.

This time there were very few questions which most of the class got wrong, so that’s good. Tests are good for identifying things that I am not teaching well. I learned from this test that I need to go back over the file drawer problem. That problem does not affect the conclusions of published studies reporting positive results. It affects the conclusions of meta analyses which survey the literature to look for general patterns. If negative results are not being reported, it is hard to properly assess whether the positive results are real — or just flukes.
I also asked about Dean Larson’s discussion of the recent estimate of the number of earth-sized planets in the Universe. In his slides, he gives the figure of 17 billion in our Galaxy. He and I discussed this in class – if there are 100 billion galaxies, then that means 17 billion x 100 billion earth-size planets in the Universe.  

keppler planet.jpg

One of my post-docs said it was unfair to ask about numbers, but in this case I think it really matters. There are evidently a staggering number of earth-size planets in the Milky Way, and a staggering number of galaxies. The chance that life exists elsewhere is going up and up the more we learn. It’s a very fast evolving area of science with profound implications for the way we think ourselves in the universe. Just how special are we?
In fact it’s such a fast moving area of science, the Dean’s figure (from March of this year) is now apparently outdated. The latest estimates, released yesterday, are of 40 billion habitable earth-sized planets in the Milky Way (= 40 billion x 100 billion in the Universe). So the best estimates of the chance that we are alone became even smaller – during the time this class has been running.

Nobel gold

Peter Agre, Nobel Prize Chemistry 2003, came to talk to the class. 

As a fellow scientist, it was really inspiring.
Peter 2.jpg
As a teacher, it was phenomenal. Look at the smiles.
Peter + class.jpg
(Peter assured me he was having a good time).
Why do Nobel prize winners come to talk to my class (2010, 2011)? Because they, like me, know it does not get more important than the students in my class. Few science students will run the world: they are geeks. But SC200 students will. These folk will become leaders in business, media, politics…  these people matter. 
I have no trouble persuading Nobel laureates of this. But how can I make the students realize that is why the class matters?
Thanks so much to the Eberly College of Science and the Huck Institute for the Life Sciences for sponsoring Peter’s visit. And to Peter, for his enthusiasm in the face of health challenges. Tremendous good was done.

Peter + whole class.jpg
Peter + class 6.jpg
Peter + class 8.jpg
Peter + class 9.jpg
The secret to winning a Nobel, according to Peter? Marry well.

Calming chickens

I spent the morning on chicken farms. We have an EEID grant to look for Marek’s disease virus in Pennsylvania. MDV has evolved to become seriously nasty. We’re working on the possibility that vaccines made it so. To me, it’s a fascinating question (although I have no deep understanding of why). And the context is fabulous. The efficiency of the poultry industry is mind blowing. It is incredible what smart people and market forces can achieve. Chickens used to be more expensive than oysters. Now…  If humans can make chickens dirt cheap, and go to the moon, how come we can’t do simple things, like Middle East peace?

Even better though, think about the scene from the virus’ perspective. Broiler chickens (the ones we eat) exist for 6-7 weeks, with maybe 30,000 birds of identical genotype and phenotype all in a single room. No wonder merry evolutionary hell is let loose.

Aviagen Trip 043.JPGBut today, none of that coolness mattered. It was just really nice to be out with proper scientists Patty and Dave in a relaxed setting. And the nature of the work – sampling dust – is lovely. After a few hours, things are done, targets reached, and everyone is happy. It is never like that when you are teaching or running a research group. Always there is something you could do better, faster, more efficiently. Its enough to drive you mad.

The Responsibility

This is the time in semester when I still have the energy and enthusiasm to really feel the burden of this course.  The students are busy writing their introductory blog entries, where they have to explain why they are not science majors, and why they are doing my course. The main goal of the exercise is to make sure they can work the blog, but what gets revealed are woeful tales of the failure of K-12 science education (some particularly disturbing examples: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

The burden to rectify this falls to me. I do worry whether I am up to the task. I need to get the students to really appreciate the passion, the joy and the beauty.  And as importantly, I need to get them to appreciate the power: why science reveals so many incredible things that other wise elude humanity. I also need to encourage the students (give them permission?) to start using the scientific process in their everyday lives. Rational skepticism is the key to critical thinking, and making their world and mine better.


I am more than normally worried about this responsibility because I am reading This Will Make You Smarter, edited by John Brockman of Brockman asked some of the leading scientific communicators of the age to answer the question: What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit? I got the book to mine it for material for the course, but it turns out that I already cover everything. The really sobering thing is that the book makes the course seem more important than even I imagined. The extraordinarily eloquent contributors are screaming out: empower non-scientists.
Up to the task Read?


We roll into Thanksgiving week, and then there are just two weeks left. Hard not to ruminate on course failings. Did we do poorly on transmitting the Passion, Beauty and Joy? Damn. Might be the most important.