links for 2009-06-05

  • "Ignoring that weâre working in English units, which scientists donât really do very much, the big thing that pops out to the budding, fully-bloomed, or dying scientist is the misuse of significant digits. Do we really believe the estimate of the houseâs weight is exact? No, itâs probably good to 2 digits, at best â the house could easily weigh several thousand pounds more or less than the estimated value. So the answer is that it takes 1,500,000 cubic feet of Helium to fill the balloons. You canât specify it any better than that. The same mistake propagates through the calculation of the number of balloons."
  • "Mr. Jonesâ angle on the historic encounter is vastly different from four other versions shot that day, taken at eye level moments before the tanks stopped at the feet of the lone protester. Wildly chaotic, a man ducks in the foreground, reacting from gunfire coming from the tanks. Another flashes a near-smile. Another pedals his bike, seemingly passive as the tanks rumble towards confrontation.

    The photograph encourages the viewer to reevaluate the famous encounter. Unlike the other four versions, we are given a sense of what it was like on the ground as the tanks heaved forward, the manâs act of defiance escalated by the flight of others. "

  • "Some day -- maybe within the next 20 years, maybe longer, but some day for sure -- this picture will hang where pictures of Chairman Mao hang today.

    And some day, there will be a statue, life-size and bronze, on or near that very spot, and schoolchildren will line up to marvel at it and to hear again the story that they all already know by heart because the tanks didn't crush the story but rather, unwittingly as always, helped to write it."

  • Because everybody loves a train wreck on the Internet.
  • "Teachers should be able to do this kind of science, and many would love to, but cannot because of the fear of what would happen if there were ever an accident. A student suffering even a relatively minor injury from a dangerous chemical would be front page news anywhere in the U.S., even if the same student spending a week in the hospital due to a sports injury would go completely unnoticed (unless perhaps he's the star quarterback).

    The science teacher would likely lose their job, while the coach would be offered condolences on the loss of their star player."

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I dig on Theodore Gray and periodic table tables, but I'm not a fan of that article. The highlighted comparison between injuries in chemistry and football seems pretty off to me, for starters. The obvious reason why is that football is not compulsory, and students who choose to play football (and the parents who grant them permission) are well aware of the risk of injury but decide to go ahead anyway. Forcing that upon everybody would indeed be worthy of question. Beyond that, I'm unconvinced that the glaring defect in our science education is a lack of firsthand experience with things that blow up in chemistry class. (I'd also prefer the term demonstration to experiment but that is a pretty nitty quibble.)