Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Genius -- necessary for scientists or a rare perk?

Today I am thinking about genius, what it really is, how we may recognize it in others, and whether it is essential to work as a scientist.

My biology professors, over the years, have expressed repeatedly that biologists don't need to be geniuses to be good at their jobs, just smart, persistent, and able to write well enough to publish. From what I can tell, these men are geniuses, so I could either believe these genius professors or I could suppose that they are just wrong, being too humble or too ignorant of their own intellects to judge correctly. They seem pretty honest, so I am going to reject the other possibility that they are just lying to non-genius me to encourage me in a pointless effort at a scientific career.

Biologists enjoy wallowing in humility, I think. We are the commoners of science, with our dirt and our blood and our need for experimentation, and we relish this proletarian role. We are, alas, also prone to emulating dirty hippies. Science itself is an ego-buster. Trying the same experiment, over and over, only to have it fail repeatedly due to impure chemicals, electrical failures, old equipment, grad student foolishness, or biological impossibility starts to feel like you are bashing a brick wall in with your head. Problem-solving is so much fun, but the really great problems require a high level of pain tolerance. Or masochism. Whatever. Even the tiny problems have hidden difficulties. I told my parents once that my thesis is 20 steps long, and I was stuck fiddling with step 3 for 5 months.

Anyone who works in any field of science knows this struggle and how hard it is, and so may discount the role of genius. What is genius? Is it simply extremely high intelligence? In the popular imagination, I think it is more. We have the figures of genius in our mind's eye when we speak of science or art or music. They were more than just smart men or prodigies, but had something special, some profound and world-changing insight that put them high above all the rest. Pasteur, pictured above, is one of my favorite scientists because of his varied and important contributions to chemistry and microbiology. I visited the Pasteur Institute and was amazed, seeing the displays of all of his microbiological experiments together, that this had all been the work of one man. He had also painted the skilled Pasteur family portraits hanging in his house. Amazing. I also learned that the French do an impressive job honoring their dead scientists. Alternatively, one could say that anyone in the top 1% IQ of a population (or 0.1% or 0.01% if the test can actually tell those apart) counts as a genius, and that's who scientists should be. Mensa takes the top 2%. If that's all you need, maybe everyone in science is a genius. I don't know because I don't think they know their scores.

How can we recognize genius in other people? I am not all that interested in getting into the IQ testing arguments, so let's say that the IQ test actually can identify geniuses. Even if it can, few adults actually know their IQ. The Facebook test designed by a 6th grader doesn't count and actual IQ testing costs money. Standardized tests like the SAT or GRE might tell you something, but I have to say the math portion of the GRE is kind of a joke -- high school algebra and geometry. No trig, no calculus -- that would require a calculator. So easy it hurt. I do feel sorry for the humanities majors who thought they had seen the last of those problems 4 years prior and had to try to relearn the formula for a cylinder's volume. That test won't find a math genius because the math problems are too easy.

Something else is needed, and that's where the resume or CV comes in. Lots of publications that are cited many times indicates the ability to deliver exactly what a university wants from its faculty: lots of publications that are cited many times. They don't care if a prof is a genius, as long as he is prolific. Producing results and being able to communicate those results are two different things. Genius might help with either, but biology is such a plodding sort of field most of the time that I think you probably don't need much more than high intelligence to succeed -- the same high intelligence required in law or business, but with a different kind of analytical focus.

Good communications skills are a different thing than experimental design or scientific insight, and they are so important that they can actually compensate for relatively poor scientific abilities. Writing a clear paper means people will actually read it closely enough to cite it. I have heard, repeatedly and to my chagrin, that the most important for success in academic science is writing frequently and well.


If genius were the main requirement, I could always hold out hope that I Sekritly Am One and everyone else is just too mundane to see it or too jealous to acknowledge it.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

15 minutes of my life have been wasted...

thanks to Aelianus. It's been bothering me for a while, ever since his anti-scientist rant a few weeks ago.

His rant was rather funny, and the only annoying thing about it was the little jab about scientists holed up watching "Red Dwarf" DVD's. I thought, if it's good enough for English scientists, it must be good enough for me. Netflix happened to have the series on Instant View, so I started watching. I turned off the pilot after 15 minutes that I will never get back.

One of my favorite movies is "The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." I agreed with the movie's conclusion that even painful memories are worth keeping. I have changed my mind. If memory-wiping technology is ever invented, I will pay to use it to have all remaining vestiges of the first 15 minutes of the "Red Dwarf" pilot erased from my mind. I have been trying to shove it down into the recesses of my subconscious, but fear it may now begin to haunt my dreams.

It is a terrible show. It has a laugh-track, or at least I hope it does. If it was filmed in front of a live studio audience, I can only explain the incessant laughter in 2 ways.

Option 1) The audience was high, either because the studio handed out marijuana to its audience members or let them bring their own. The studio must have been fairly cheap; they can't have paid the set designers or writers very well, so I would vote for the BYOW option.

Option 2) the live studio was in a psych ward. It would have to have been in a non-violent psych ward, or the inanity of the show would have led to the deaths of all cast and crew.

I have been enchanted with dead and dying stars since I was six years old. I still am because they are TEH GRAETIEST. Nice try, England. I know you were all jealous about the lunar landings, and I guess this was your convoluted form of revenge (*cough* a dish you apparently think best served tepid), but not even your televised lunacy can destroy the wonders of the night sky. You took 15 minutes of my life, but you can't take that away from me.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Evolution and Religion -- Problems and Panels

I am an evolutionary biologist. Well, I'm a grad student, but still. To warn you up front, this post is long, and there is no apparent point. I am just making some observations, and then end with some questions. I am trying to think of how to be a good teacher in the future, and I have noticed some problems with how evolution and religion are either discussed or avoided in college.

When other Christians find out what my field is, they are often intrigued to meet a "neo-Darwinist" who is, like them, a committed Christian. I have had so many great conversations with these guys about science, and I have always found that they really want to learn whether I think evolution is real and why. These other Christians are generally not scientists themselves, and may have only taken one required science class in college, if that. Reading the numerous books for and against evolution only confuses them, because they know they don't have the scientific background to really evaluate the arguments. Intelligent design author says: evolution is bogus, and here's the science saying why! Evolution author says: evolution is great and here's the science saying why! Some Christians I knew in college just threw up their hands and went with whatever their pastor said. The pastor sounded like a reasonable guy, and he was much more trustworthy and had more in common with them than the science professors did.

What happens for Catholics is a little different, and they haven't made up their mind in college, they may just go on indefinitely fence-sitting. They know it isn't going against our faith to "believe" evolution, but of course evolution is also not an article of faith. The Catholics (and many other Christian groups) say they can see it's possible evolution is what God used to create the universe. However, they aren't sure they can trust evolutionary biologists fully because biologists have a reputation of rabid atheism. Even if all evidence pointed against evolution, they think, the scientists would refuse to recognize it will do not ever want to have to recognize a higher power.

I am always impressed by how much people want these discussions and to actually learn the truth, and I'm also a little sad they didn't get this at college themselves. I wish I could say that my colleagues ask as many interesting questions about religion as my fellow Christians ask about science, but that's another topic altogether. These conversations, though, make me wonder about how "Evolution and Religion" questions are addressed in college -- or just how evolution is taught to the better public, and how we can do a better job as science educators.

Scientists are quite aware that Americans are not too impressed with our field. Statistics on the numbers of Americans not "believing in evolution" are printed fairly frequently, especially whenever a state school board restricts the teaching of evolution in schools -- or demands that Intelligent Design theory be taught alongside it. To give you some of these stats, and how they are reported, I googled and went to one of the first sites, from the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. They compile a fairly full list of polls taken in the US over the last several years.

To me, the most interesting were the views of college students from the 1991 Gallup poll:

Creationism 25%
Theistic evolution 54%
Naturalistic evolution 16.5%

and those of scientists:

Creationism 5%
Theistic evolution 40%
Naturalistic evolution 55%

Theistic evolution, the idea that evolution has occurred but that God had something to do with it, is the most popular among college graduates. In the general US population, Creationism has been the most popular for the 20+ years of the polling span, polling consistently at 44-47% and followed closely by theistic evolution at 37-40%.

At my university in the mid-west, where creationism and evangelical Christianity is very popular, one or two of my numerous biology professors addressed views about God and evolution on the first day of class. They explained the range of beliefs about God's role in our origins, and that there was a whole spectrum on which students could fall. Further, they made it clear that they personally did not mind whatever students "believed" but only wanted to teach them scientific findings and principles. I thought this was a good move, especially in large classes. I had heard students occasionally grumble that professors want to brainwash you into agreeing with all their pet ideas, and the evolution professors just want to undermine Christianity. Unfortunately, this didn't really happen in my actual evolution class, which was my least favorite science class in college. The professor was not a very good teacher, and he also used religious examples to teach evolution and to mock Catholicism at the same time, in the most foolish and ignorant ways. The students loathed him, and a friend of mine and I actually made up a "Buzzword Bingo" to play in his class because he repeated his favorite lines so often. Who knows how many students came into that class with open minds and left thinking evolutionary biologists were, after all, the prejudiced cranks their pastor had always warned them to avoid? I learned a lot about evolution from my other biology classes and swore one day I would finally get to study all the cool things I'd been cheated out of learning in that stupid class.

Scientists don't generally want to be that professor. In fact, I think most of the atheist/agnostic profs want to avoid religious discussion (with religious people anyway), or if it is discussed, they want to be respectful. The most they want to do is the first lecture disclaimer and maybe discuss it later in office hours if students are that desperate to bring it up. But students? They want to talk about nothing else.

That's where "Science and Faith" and "Evolution and Religion" panels come in. You can hear a debate, or you can see a bunch of people of different views all sit together answering your burning questions. Maybe the school will even offer a class, just so people can discuss it. A friend of a friend taught such a class. She said it was the worst experience of her life, that she had made a huge mistake, and that she would never do it again. Of course, a broad class on Science and Faith could also touch on really electrifying issues, like abortion, stem cell research, sex, etc, so maybe evolution wasn't really her biggest problem. The students apparently were quite nasty and rude to each other and she, being a sweet person, did not thrive on the strife. Who will, even later in their careers, be drawn to sit on panels and ultimately end up as the teacher for these contentious classes? Probably contentious people. If the panels are stocked with nice, normal people who just want to showcase a range of views, I suspect the students tend to be a bit disappointed. I suspect students do not go to these panels only to learn things they could find in the library, but that they also want to see "their side" win in some sort of academic dogfight. That's why they often want to invite famous, contentious professors to hold "debates:" they want to see who can win. On the other hand, panels are nice because students can ask any question, whereas in biology class, asking about religion would be off-topic. The drawback of the panels is the limited philosophical and theological abilities of evolutionary biologists. We aren't trained in it, but as soon as they retire lots of science professors think they should write books about God. These books sell! If an annoying atheist writer comes to campus, what should Christians do to balance it? Should they have a panel? Hopefully after the famous guy leaves. Should they have a different speaker who is a religious scientist?

The wasteful thing, in my view, is that scientists can be really quite good at what we are trained to do, which is investigating and teaching nature. But our views on God, whether we believe or don't believe, are fairly mundane. I am a Catholic. My science plays a role in my faith, for sure, but I think few people would find it profound. I know a fair bit about Catholicism and the Bible, but not much more than the average well-read lay person. I took a course in symbolic logic to fulfill my philosophy requirement, and it was great fun because it was just math with words, but it didn't teach me who the heck Hegel was or why I should care. In grad school, I met some other Catholics who knew a huge amount about theology and philosophy, and I sometimes read books they recommended. I had to look up every other philosopher and write them on a stickynote to keep them straight, I really couldn't see the point of most of them after Aquinas, and sometimes I wanted to learn how to resurrect the dead just so I could punch some of them in the stomach. I kept feeling like Alice in the courtroom, wanting to shout "You're all a pack of cards!" but the philosophers were dead and couldn't hear me. I worried about getting carpal tunnel from all the fist-clenching and took to reading other things. Ahem. Anyway, I think I'd be fairly useless on a panel about theology. On the other hand, I know lots of neat things about science, but nothing really short and snappy that could make a fellow panelist look foolish. I could never crush Dawkins or Hitchens in debate because all I've really got is "I'm Catholic because [typical, boring, they're-not-really-interested, Chesterton-said-it-better reasons]..." and all they've really got is "I'm an atheist because... [typical, boring, I'm-not-really-interested, Shaw-said-it-better reasons]." How tiresome these conversations, repeated again and again by increasingly ignorant people can be, when we could be talking about fun science.

Someday I would like to be a biology professor. Someday I would like to actually, really be in charge of a classroom instead of just being a GTA and I will have to decide whether and how to approach the minefield of "Evolution and Religion." I am learning so much about how to teach science effectively, but I don't really know what is best when it comes to talking about culture. In the classroom, I like the approach my good professors took

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Iron Man is a Farmer!

Japan is now using robot suits so old people can farm.

This is great! It's a little sad that granny is the one doing the intensive manual labor, but now at least she has the power of robotics behind her. I want to see the elderly doing more, though, like dunking basketballs. Heck, I would like to dunk a basketball, but at 5'5" it is unlikely to ever happen. Dear Japan, please get to work on the power legs that would let me leap up to the rim.

I must say, cyborgs were far more exciting in science fiction books. Pulling turnips out of the ground with less effort is indeed amazing, but not as much as throwing bad guys through walls. I will take what I can get, though.

Sun tea

Sun tea is the only good way to make tea in the summer. It is sweltering today, and drinking hot tea is horrible idea. It dehydrates one when one drinks it by making one sweat even more and also making one cry from discomfort. Making iced tea by just icing hot tea is tricky because if it cools too quickly the vessel will crack from temperature shock. Ugh. Who wants to babysit tea? Why not just stick it out in the yard and neglect it for a while?

Last night I was up til 2 am helping a friend of mine pack for his move, and among the cool free stuff he gave me in his desperation to limit his load was a sun tea jar. Today the Newman Center did not have functioning air conditioning, so people soaked through their shirts while Father gave a snappy homily. I think Mass was done in 40 minutes. Anyway, when I got home I thought it was the perfect time to make sun tea.

It's fairly easy. You stick some water and teabags in the jar and set it out in the sun. Then you check it in an hour to see if it's dark enough. I followed the google recommendation and used 4 bags per quart, and it made tea dark enough in an hour. Next time I want to use fewer bags because I don't need to go through tea that fast, and I'll just set it out for longer.

There was a needless freak-out a few years back about bacteria in sun tea, and its popularity took a dive thanks to terrified reporters. I was just a kid at the time, but I think they may have shown the tea jar and then switched it to sinister black and white. Sun tea will not hurt you. It is a delicious treat on a hot day. Just don't make sun tea in a filthy jar! The healing power of the sun will not protect you. Clean the jar beforehand and you will be fine. Also, don't stir the tea with your filthy arm. Use a spoon to fish the bags out. Take the bags out so the tea doesn't steep too long and so they don't grow stuff on them.