Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Weter Lecture Video

Allright, now it's out for real: the Weter Lecture video has been edited and placed on iTunesU.

Here's the link. At the bottom of the page you should see "The Chemical Constraints on Creation."

The history of the universe in 90 minutes. For free. What a bargain.

Now, the one drawback to this version is that they had to edit out my musical introductions to each song (blasted copyright law ... ). But you probably have them in your head already! Here they are:

Song One: Opening CRASH and Theme of Star Wars
Song Two: Richard Wagner's "Fire" motif from the Ring Cycle
Song Three: "Come Together" by the Beatles
Song Four: "The Aquarium" by Camille Saen-Saens
Song Five: "I'm working on a building for my Lord" old standard by Mike Roe and the 77's
Song Six: "Breathe, breathe in the air" by Pink Floyd from Dark Side of the Moon
Song Seven: "I can hear music, sweet, sweet music" by the Beach Boys

Now they can't copyright the music in your head!

Anyway, if you listen, let me know what you think.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Evaluating Professors

It's been more than a week since the shootings at University of Alabama -- Huntsville in which one biology professor killed three others and wounded more. In the interim I've been trying to wade through the mountain of comments to glean some truth from among the mean-spiritedness, militant nihilism, and snark. It takes me a while because after reading just a few blog posts or articles it's advisable to take a break for your own sanity.

A few points need constant re-emphasis and are often lost in the pile:
-- When evaluating Amy Bishop's work, effectiveness, genius, etc., you have to keep in mind her context. At least half of what's out there doesn't even try to add context. A lot of people assume that because she was a professor she was a near-genius, a lot of comments talk about the line between genius and insanity. You know, that's not really it. She was a rather ordinary professor, who knew a lot about biology and came up with a rather pedestrian invention that, who knows, could have sold some but was basically a robotic cell culture machine. There are some signs recently that she was pushing the envelope when it comes to publication: especially the "vanity press" article that appears to list her children as co-authors. But I have yet to see an actual evaluation of the content of that article, and she has about a dozen other papers that at the very least made it through peer review. It's weird that she's not last author, but it's funny how many people stop there and evaluate her as a simple crank. I just can't evaluate her yet, whether she deserved tenure at her institution or not, because her case looks borderline. I find it surprising how many people want to jump one way or the other because of preconceived notions of academia or the nature of the UAH campus.

-- The one reporter who tried to give context is the New York Times' Gina Kolata, but she seems to have called up a professor at Columbia, who flat-out remarked that Bishop would not be qualified for tenure there. Well, of course, I could see that by counting papers, but Columbia is a top research school and UAH is a different kind of school -- UAH is probably closer to the normal liberal-arts college than it is to Columbia. It's not an open-and-shut case either way. From the evidence I would say she probably doesn't deserve tenure, but you know, that's why there's a process with lots of people and lots of time. There's no evidence of politics or injustice on the surface at least. Again: borderline.

-- Bishop got an NIH AREA grant from 2008-2011. I know that mechanism well! They don't give those grants to big research institutions. They give them to primarily undergraduate institutions and similar schools. That right there shows you she could compete for some money, but also that she was out of the loop for big money. Not a genius: just a professor like the rest of us.

-- I read that the department chair (the first one shot...) was supporting Bishop's tenure bid. This can't be just about "I didn't get tenure so I'm going to shoot people." It was a contributing factor, perhaps the most significant one, but there must be other factors as well.

-- And of course the most depressing part is how everyone mines Bishop's past to come up with stereotypes whether positive or negative, to ride their favorite political hobbyhorse: Obama, gun control (pro and con!), the political nature of the tenure process, and even an Intelligent Design blog that points out (rather crudely) how she was listed as a resource for "Evolution Weekend" in which churches were encouraged to talk about Darwin from the pulpit. (And I probably have a whole post in me about that one, but not now!) Stop using her. Just stop. Look, I'm not going to stop going to pancake houses because Bishop had an altercation there, and I'm not going to stop teaching the citric acid cycle because Bishop taught it in class (presumably). The fact that she couldn't control her rage has nothing to do with "Evolution Weekend." Let's talk about pressure in academia instead, that's the big factor here.

It comes down to this: how does one fairly evaluate a professor? When someone doesn't get tenure, how can we make it so they're still useful and not at a dead end in life? If it's such a selective process, let's make sure we take care of those selected out rather than just the winners. And I'm hoping someday the Internet will grow up but I'm not counting on it happening any time soon.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Chemical Hope

It's important never to place too much stock in preliminary results. But sometimes a preliminary result comes along that's pretty darn exciting. Here it's been reported that the copper-containing catalyst shown above, if plugged into a bit of electricity, can grab CO2 from the air and stitch it together into two-carbon oxalate. (That would be the two black "H"'s with red tips in the figure above.) The real neat part of this is that it can do so even in the presence of oxygen (and air tends to have a lot of oxygen around ... ). Could this "vacuum" up carbon dioxide and split out liquid carbon-containing stuff that then we could even use for fuel, or making stuff, etc. etc.?
I've always felt that CO2 levels in the air are a chemical problem. A difficult chemical problem, no doubt, because it's hard to grab air and because oxygen is so much more reactive than the rest of air -- but a chemical problem that might very well have a chemical solution. No idea on how scaleable this process is, but it turns out it works better than expected so far. Let's keep trying.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Book Review: Resounding Truth

This book links music with theology, in deep ways relating to the very structure and nature of music, and in practical ways for those who use music in church. Jeremy Begbie is a theologian from across the Atlantic who is also a pianist and (apparently) avid music fan. Nearly every page of my copy is marked; it's a slow reader because it's so good and surprising on each page. Even the "historical background" is well done, usually a slow point. Looking forward very much to his next book in which he describes how to critique music based on the theology of music presented in this one. For all its accomplishments, it's also very easy to read ... can't say I've ever encountered a book quite like this, but I've always hoped something like it was out there. Now I've got a new author to read the back-catalogue of.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What Does Vibrating Cornstarch Have in Common with Acid-Base Neutralization?

I'm sure you didn't wake up this morning with that question on your mind but it turns out that both of them make these bizarre undulating "finger" structures that look unnervingly alive.

Here's the cornstarch movie where you can see the "fingers" in motion.

And what was just found out is that if a less-dense acid reacts with a more dense base -- no shaking, no heating, just a humdrum chemical reaction between two phases -- then the same kind of "fingers" form. Here's a picture [piclink including video]:

Friday, February 5, 2010

Weter Lecture PDF Online

Here's a link to the PDF of the Weter Lecture.

I also have an audio file from the audience and a copy of the Powerpoint slides available upon request.

The video will take a few weeks to get put together/edited and posted on iTunes. I'll let you know ...

Monday, February 1, 2010

Weter Lecture Countdown

Since the lecture's tomorrow at 7:30pm I decided to run through the whole lecture today, in my office, talking to the wall. Time came out to be 65 minutes (and 20 seconds). I think that'll work. I recorded it so if I suddenly get stage fright I can just press play on the recording, right? Now just for last-minute tweaks.

On Saturday (really at the last minute) I remembered a speech I made in college for my parachurch group in which I played snippets of songs to reinforce points. Once that thought entered my mind I knew I had to do the same for the Weter Lecture: the seven stages are even CALLED the "Seven Songs" fer Pete's sake. So we have John Williams, Wagner, the Beatles, Sans-Saens, Mike Roe doing an old spiritual, Pink Floyd, and the Beach Boys to introduce each step.

When this is over it's back to normal, I guess, to take care of all the "normal" stuff I'm putting off right now. At first I was worried about getting done in time when the lecture was moved back to February -- but now I'm glad because it means it's done, and it's only February!