Wednesday, November 13, 2013

What Science can know about creating storms.

Natural phenomena are what science is all about. Science aims to create a theory about natural phenomena. A  scientific theory is an explanation and not just any explanation, it is an explanation based on observations and data and not on a mere conjecture or assumption, or something taken on faith or authority. Because it is based on observation and data linked with the observations, then it is empirical and objective.

Scientific principles are based on the “objectivity of logical relations” as philosophers would call it. For us non-philosophers this would mean certain events have a cause and that cause can be logically established. In the process of doing science, where we propose a hypothesis to a scientific question, the hypothesis has a logical relation with the evidence,what we can call a cause and effect. A hypothesis is an answer to the scientific question. At first it is a guess but with evidence it could be right or wrong.

Nature is a complex phenomenon and the challenge for scientists is to make sense of this complexity to come with a simple explanation of nature. Science has contributed to human society’s advancement for that principle alone. For example we know that the human body is complex.Diseases may have complex origins. But we have lifesaving medicines and medical procedures today that cure or prevent many of these diseases. Doctors over the centuries have logically come to the conclusion that certain medical procedures that are supported by evidence can heal the patient better than those that are not.  Thus no responsible doctor today would prescribe a drug where the evidence that it can contribute to a patient’s health is weak. Doctors do not take the outcomes of their prescriptions on faith, but on science and that is why it takes more than 15 years of systematic study to become a good doctor.

The natural phenomenon of climate and weather is another complex system. Unlike the human body that has been systematically observed and studied for more than 1000 years, climate and weather have only been studied by observation and experiment only for the last 200 years.  Our scientific understanding of anthropogenic climate change only began in 1896 when the chemist Svante Arrenhius proposed the hypothesis that carbon dioxide can affect the temperature of the atmosphere.  Climate and weather science is young and we have not fully understood the complexity of the nature of the atmosphere. But this does not mean that we should accept explanations for this complexity that are not supported by evidence. The fact is that we should be challenged to look for the logical connection between evidence and hypothesis and come up with theory.

The evidence should be empirical and repeatable. In doing so we have to rule out chance in linking evidence and hypothesis. Chance may makeit appear that the two are linked but fails to prove cause and effect. A scientific theory cannot be built on chance. This is where the hypothesis that microwave bursts may have CAUSED the formation of supertyphoon Haiyan epically fails. The proponent has this argument; there is a system of microwave transmitters along the Pacific Ocean operated by the US military. These send microwave transmissions and in using a technique used by navigators, a triangulation, they intersect at the points where Haiyan formed. Now is this evidence that the transmissions caused the typhoon? Or is it due to chance or coincidence?

To propose a logical answer to this we have to go back to the principle that nature is complex and that science knows how and why by coming up with a simple explanation. Also we have to realize that science builds upon basic theories and even more simple explanations that you may have learned in grade and high school. Your high school physics or chemistry teacher most likely taught you the kinetic molecular theory (KMT) which says that molecules move when there is sufficient energy to keep start them moving. If there is enough energy, let us say that these are water molecules, the water molecules will lose their attraction to each other and water becomes a gas. Now this is the same reason why you can boil a cup of water in a microwave. But this requires a lot of energy.  In the case of microwaves, the molecules spin in opposite directions thus generating heat and when heated they move in random directions since the magnetic field in a microwave oven changes in its orientation.  This is what physicists call as dielectric heating.

Put some coffee and cream in the cup, heat it in the microwave and you come up with a cyclone since there is convection in your coffee, and the microwave turntable is spinning. You can notice this if you observe closely.

But does what happens in a coffee cup is the same thing that happens in an ocean basin? Yes. But the planet is not a microwave oven. All weather and climate process are driven by the Sun’s energy. This is a huge amount of energy. Here we come to the reality of scale. Scale is another property of the complexity of natural processes. And while the same processes may operate in a coffee cup, we have to find a cause and effect that can be logically scaled up. And in this case involves scaling up the energy needed to create a Haiyan scale cyclone from the amount of energy needed for Typhoon Coffee! So aside from the KMT and dielectric heating,  there needs to be logical links to evidence and scaling theory to even consider the microwave transmission hypothesis plausible.

Science requires not mere citing of theories and linking them to each other. The links should by logically consistent and this is where cyclogenesis “expert” Dutchsinse epically fails again. The use of illogical links between theories to make them appear consistent is a sure sign of pseudoscience. Pseudoscientists use science as a front for a political or ideological agenda. They are easily identified for they usually have no training in science; they cherry pick data and theories to fit preconceived beliefs and blog or post vlogs (YouTube) about it. And if they are debunked they usually go ad hominem in their response.

In summary, we have to think logically if we value what science has contributed to human culture.  While science cannot answer all our concerns or provide all solutions to our most pressing problems, the fact is that it has advanced our understanding of nature and from this we can hope that we can surmount many problems.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Proving Dr Einstein, God, Science and the Pinoy

I believe I met Dr Reinabelle Reyes in  Ateneo science dean  Dr Toby Dayrit's office around 7 years ago before she left for the US to do a PhD in astrophysics. Now she's back to present her work on confirming that Einstein's Theory of General Relativity works throughout the cosmos and not just in our solar system. Einstein's theory was first confirmed during a solar eclipse when starlight passing through the sun's gravitational field was "bent". It appears that this happens throughout the cosmos as "gravity lenses" and presupposes the existence but still unobserved "dark matter" which is believed to consist 83% of the universe's mass.

Reyes' research has focused on "dark energy" which is hypothesized to accelerate the expansion of the cosmos. According to general relativity, the evolution of the expansion rate can be parameterized by the cosmological equation of state. But while current theory predicts a slowdown, the rate appears to be increasing. If the increasing rate can be empirically tested, then we need to modify Dr Einstein's theory. Reyes has published quite a number of scientific papers on the subject of gravitational lenses.

Popular media has described this as proving Dr Einstein wrong. While that may be more understandable to the public, in science we don't prove something is wrong but rather falsify usually by modifying aspects of a theory. Scientists usually build on existing theory rather than completely overturn it. However there are times when in light of new evidence an old theory has to be overturned.

However this is not what made Pinoy netizens comment. As notes the whole science thingy about dark energy and dark matter was forgotten for the Bright Side of the Force! Personally as a scientist I would just focus on dark energy since it is part of the cosmos and yet unobserved but predicted by cosmological theory. Scientists go agog about things theory predicts but still hasn't been observed. As a biogeographer, I have had those moments!

The Bright Side however has to be taken on faith. No predictive modeling here!

Reyes appears to understand this though she doesn't believe in a personal God. In March installment "the God Issue" of NewScientist, the latest research on the evolutionary and cognitive aspects of religious belief are presented and it appears that natural selection has primed the human brain for religious belief. Religious belief is a product of various cognitive systems some of which are unrelated but with strong forcing factors had to work hand in hand. In classical Darwinism this would be the logical result as the population has to have fitness. Children are primed to accept the supernatural perhaps as a guarantee for survival in an unforgiving environment.

And much of the Pinoy debate has focused on Einstein's God. But Einstein may have taken the sedate route where he believed that there is an illimitable spirit which our limited minds cannot fathom. It supports the Darwinian view of God. Our cognitive faculties will not be able to completely fathom the constructs the mind has created as a response to changing natural selection forces.

But this is not the Delusion that Freethinkers assume. Perhaps the Ateneo has done good in pushing the idea that there is a need to differentiate Theology from Religion and Science from both of them. Science and Theology have more in common since they stem from the same philosophical tradition. Cognitively they are extremely similar. When the institutional Roman Church teaches why RH is wrong, there is a logical basis why it does so. It is similar when science teaches that Evolution is a fact. There is a logical basis why it does so. However religion does not need consistent logical support for success although in the Roman Church, religious beliefs may have strong theological underpinnings. But when the liberal Catholics, Sola Scriptura Protestants and the Freethinking atheists go into knots understanding the Black Nazarene procession in Manila, they fail to understand the Darwinian underpinnings of such religious devotion that gives one population of the faithful some degree of fitness.

The practice of science by scientists in society requires elaborate social and governance systems not unlike what is in the Roman Catholic Church. This is not surprising, Science is a child of Roman Catholicism. While Science is hard to do, Theology is also. Ask Pope Ratzinger, Charles Darwin or Richard Dawkins!

And Dr Reyes statement on her beliefs

"I don't personally believe in God. I think science does make one more critical of religion, but I also understand faith. It's just that I don't have any, at least not in a higher Being"

is something that a scientist will understand. It is quintessentially Atenean! But personally I am not critical of religion since I look at it using the lens of Darwinian theory

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

What does a doctorate mean?

The Royal and Pontifical University of Santo Tomas (UST) defended its decision to confer a PhD summa cum laude in Civil Law to impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona. While the Constitution of the Philippines and tradition upholds the academic freedom of universities to confer doctorates, it leaves us asking a question on what does a doctorate mean?

The PhD which is from the Latin Philosophiae Doctor is the highest earned academic degree in many universities. In Commonwealth and European continental universities, a higher doctorate may be awarded in the faculties of medicine, science, theology, divinity, law, arts and letters and of course philosophy. The faculty of natural sciences which became independent of philosophy only after the medieval period, began awarding a Scientia Doctor or Doctor of Science (DSc) much later on.  In awarding these higher doctorates, the faculty of the University has to look into the portfolio of research work that is beyond the PhD. It may be said that the PhD is a junior doctorate in which the candidate just has to prove to the satisfaction of the faculty that he/she is capable of doing original and independent research beyond what is expected of the Magister (Masters) degree.

The PhD is therefore the start of a career in advancing knowledge and not the summit of a career. Thus it is no wonder that new PhDs are appointed as assistant professors and not as associate or even full professors. And certainly a new PhD cannot be appointed Dean of a faculty or college. In Germany, the equivalent are a Dr Phil (in philosophy) Dr Rerum Naturalium (Doctor of the all that is about Nature), Dr Rerum Politicarum (Doctor of all that concerns human societies), Dr rerum Oeconimus (Doctor of things that concern economics) etc. This doctorate does not qualify the holder to teach in university but may qualify him/her to assist the professor as a teaching assistant (which in the US system is done by doctoral students with a Masters) or to do  research in the lab of the senior professor. The higher doctorate in Germany and many European countries is the Habilitation. Most people who get the higher doctorates are at the end of their careers.

The higher doctorates, Doctor of Theology, Doctor of Divinity, Doctor of Medicine, Doctor of Laws, Doctor of Letters, Doctor of Arts, Doctor of Science and Doctor of Music may qualify the holder to be a full professor. In the US System these higher doctorates were translated into mainly honorary doctorates honoris causa which is Latin for the sake of honour. The university recognizes the great work that the candidate has done or his/her philantrophic efforts. In many cases, the university that does not grant a higher doctorate essentially recognizes the high quality of research or creative work done by the individual by conferring the honorary one. The University of the Philippines has conferred honorary doctorates on Nobel Prize winners in the sciences and on great writers. However in many cases also, the honorary doctorate is awarded due to blatant political accommodation!

The Doctor of Medicine (MD) used to be a higher doctorate in medicine, with the holders permitted to wear the Doctor's Red gown. However as the profession developed, it became a professional doctorate.  In professional doctorates, the holder is qualified to practice his/her profession (subject to accreditation exams of course by professional regulation agencies). It is a first professional degree in many countries. Examples of professional doctorates are in law (JD), dental surgery (DDS/DDM), veterinary medicine (DVM), optometry (DO), education (DEd) etc. These doctorates are not equivalent to the PhD since the research component does not form a majority of the plan of study. Holders of professional doctorates are entitled to be addressed as "doctor".

In some European countries the MD remains a higher doctorate for the profession, somewhat equivalent to a PhD since it is more research based and the candidate has to defend a thesis/dissertation. The most famous Filipino who finished his MD dissertation and submitted it but never defended it is Dr Jose Rizal. Dr Rizal is by convention addressed as "Doctor" since it is a privilege extended by the medieval universities to all practicing physicians even if they do not have an MD. Physicians who have an MD are addressed as "Professors of Medicine" which means they teach in medical school (the orthopedic surgeon who treated me in Australia when I was a PhD student was a Professor Muggeridge). Strictly speaking a physician who does not practice medicine cannot be called a "doctor" but that is moot since almost all physicians have a professional MD from medical school! In the Commonwealth and in Europe the first professional degree for doctors is a MBBS (Bachelor of Medicine/Bachelor of Surgery) or a Licentiate in Medicine and Surgery (which Dr Rizal had). The two qualifications may be equivalent to a Masters degree.

In contrast to Rizal not having defended his doctoral thesis,  Antonio Luna did, with accolades, and he got his Doctor of Pharmacy (DPharm) from the University of Madrid. The DPharm used to be considered as a higher doctorate (it is now a professional doctorate) and so Dr Antonio Luna was qualified to be the Dean of Pharmacy of the Universidad Literaria de Filipinas. General Aguinaldo appointed him but the university functioned only for less an academic year. But as history has it, Luna became a General of the Revolution having studied tactics also.

With short review of what a doctorate is all about, let us summarize some important points. A doctorate requires

  1. demonstrated original contribution to knowledge (PhD and other equivalent research doctorates)
  2. demonstrated excellent contribution to knowledge advancing a discipline (the higher doctorates)
  3. demonstrated honing of professional skills beyond what is expected of a professional first degree (professional doctorates)

These doctorates require research training at different levels. But what about UST conferring a PhD on Chief Justice Corona? The UST says that Justice Corona fulfilled all the requirements of the PhD in Civil Law and that his paper (which was eventually published in a journal) was equivalent to a doctoral dissertation. I do not question that. But what determines the academic impact of a doctorate  is whether the dissertation/thesis has a life after it is defended. Like many PhDs, my doctoral thesis is in the "morgue" called the library (and the National Museum!) and the two published papers that came from it it are cited a few times. And so that is the academic impact of my PhD. What is important and has more impact are things I have published after my PhD.

The most famous low impact PhD of them all is none other than Dr Karl Marx, whose doctoral thesis submitted in 1841 "The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature "hardly anyone remembers today. We remember Marx today not for that thesis but for "Capital" that he published in 1867 and which changed human society and history forever.

Another notable low impact PhD is Dr Karol Wojtyla whose doctoral dissertations in theology, and philosophy divinity are hardly remembered except by specialists. Wojtyla became a Pope, John Paul II and those scholarly encyclicals and books which he wrote as Pope changed much of late 20th century history. For that he received higher academic accolades and he is on his way to becoming a Roman Catholic saint.

And so history will judge the Royal and Pontifical University of Santo Tomas on what will happen to its controversial PhD candidate Dr Renato Corona, AFTER the PhD had been conferred. It sure to be interesting to see!

PS: The UST should not fish for Red Herrings on Ms Marites Vitug!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Latin passes from the sciences: Botany finally goes vernacular!

Carolus Linnaeus

The Latin language is experiencing a revival in the Roman Catholic Church under Pope Benedict XVI. The Pope issued a motu propio authorizing the celebration of the Latin Mass anywhere and at all times.  The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s allowed for major reforms in how Catholics worship. Perhaps the most significant reform is the use of the vernacular language at Mass. While the council really said that the vernacular was the exception and the Latin was the norm, it was up to the local bishops to implement how this was to be done and most of them opted for the vernacular Mass. And so almost all that is Latin from the Gregorian chants, the canon and the prayers were lost in order to be replaced by pop choirs and guitars!

The science of botany remained an anachronism in all of these. And so 42 years after the Roman Catholic Church "caught up" with the times, Botany finally does so by dispensing with the requirement which was formalized by Linnaeus that new species descriptions should be in Latin. The reason is that "there is a need to name plants before they disappear".

But this also represents that classical education has long passed and that the teaching of Latin whether this be botanical or classical is almost gone that few scientists are able to use the language.

Latin however assures exactness of meaning since it is a "dead" language. In malacology,  "lirae" means only "grooves" in the shell of gastropods and nothing else. It is for a similar reason that the Vatican when it issues important documents that deal with Church doctrine, always has the Latin text as the "Editio Typica". Official translations will be issued in English, French, Spanish, Russian, German, Chinese etc but the Latin remains the definitive one. The Church cannot afford to be unclear in meaning especially when it deals with it's flock's souls! In the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum coetibus which allowed for former Anglican priests to function as Catholic priests even when married, there was a real need to be extremely clear in meaning lest misinterpretations happen.

Another example why the Latin remains important is in the speech of Pope John Paul II in 1996 to the Pontifical Academy of Science where he states the acceptance of the Catholic Church of evolution as a remarkable scientific theory in which independent lines of evidence supports. However, even if he said it in French, the English translation originally was evolution as "more than one hypothesis within the theory of evolution" which was rather a direct translation from the French. The Vatican issued a revised translation that aside from looking at the meaning in French (a Latin derived language to start with) also took into account of the Latin meaning of Pope Pius XII's Humani Generis which considered evolution as a hypothesis and from which John Paul II referenced his ideas.

While the naming of plants won't affect the salvation or damnation of Catholics, there is also a need for definitive meanings in describing why a certain species of plant remains unique. Botanical Latin allowed for that. But that now has changed. In Zoology, Latin descriptions were once de rigeur but was replaced by descriptions in the major European languages, starting with French and German and later replaced by English (which is now the dominant language to describe species) However even in the 21st century, species are still being described in German, Spanish, French, Latvian etc. I received a volume of new descriptions of snails in Latvian. In Europe, descriptions may be written in any of the EU's languages. In some books, there is an English description and a Latin description too.

Malacological and botanical databases still have descriptions in Latin and thus a knowledge of Latin is needed. But having studied Latin in order to understand biodiversity, I am very much aware that there is a need to know a little Latin and Greek for most of the scientific terms even in their Anglicized version have Latin or Greek roots.  Once you know what the roots mean, then it is much easier to understand the scientific concept especially in undergrad courses in anatomy, taxonomy and systematics.

In President Ferdinand Marcos' biography there was an anecdote retold by his biology high school professor at UP High about the young Marcos frustrations in having to learn Latin names, descriptions in a taxonomy class in the 1930s.

Marcos complained to his teacher "What do I need these Latin terms and taxonomy if I am to become a lawyer?" The teacher retorted "This will teach you discipline and sharpness of mind which you will need in law school"

Apparently the teacher was right since Marcos became a lawyer, savvy politician and president of the Philippines. Marcos when he was at the height of his powers as president, thanked this high school teacher before he passed away.

Marcos' high school teacher epitomizes why Latin was important in education. It is important then as now. Learning Latin sharpens the mind and as an added bonus allows for the easy learning of the European languages (even Japanese as one Latinist once testified!).

While botany and zoology have gone vernacular, much of the words used to describe new species have Latin origins, thus the need for a glossary of scientific terms and their Latin or Greek roots.

The late Emperor Hirohito of Japan who was also a renowned specialist in hydrozoans in the 1950s gave an audience to a Russian scientist who also was an expert in the same taxonomic group. Since there was no interpreter present, the two scientists understood each other in scientific Latin and were able to clarify the species status of a hydroid. Now I wonder that sounded!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Nationalist science and an invitation to readers

Dr Jose Rizal in his subversive Brindis speech honouring the Filipino painters Juan Luna and Felix Resurrecion Hidalgo in Madrid's Hotel Ingles started the nationalist agenda in advancing the highest expressions of Filipino art and science. Dr Rizal's point is that these expressions no longer belong the the land that nurtured them but to the world and for the good of the world. The highest achievements of the human species cannot be limited to one nation alone.

Perhaps the most famous line in this toast was "genius knows no country, genius blossoms everywhere, genius is light the light, the air, it is the heritage of all-cosmopolitan, like space, like life and like God". It has been long demonstrated that the arts can serve an ideological and nationalist purpose and yet be a major contribution to world culture. The world will be a poorer place without for instance Beethoven's 9th Symphony (which has been made the Anthem of Europe). The question is "Can Filipino science serve a nationalist agenda and yet be a major contribution to scientific excellence worldwide?"

Dr Rizal would have understood what I meant. As I have posited in other essays on Rizal and Science, Rizal's chapter "The Class in Physics" in El Filibusterismo, where he presents his philosophy of science in the characters of Placido Penitente and the friar-professor, Padre Millon. Rizal is definitely an empiricist valuing the use of experiment and analysis in explaining natural phenomena. But Rizal was prophetic in writing this chapter since almost everything he described on the state of science education in the late 19th century Spanish colonial Philippines remains largely true today. American colonization gave the nation a more secular and a formal science bureaucracy which could have powered us to national industrialization had the Japanese invasion in 1941 not destroyed much of the science infrastructure and killed many of the leading scientists. Ironically, Japanese imperialist emphasis on Asian nationalism saw a research oriented Filipino science policy whose aim was to alleviate the hardships brought upon by the war.

There is a need to do historical research on the development of Philippine science and this will help answer why despite the foundations provided by the Spanish Dominicans, Augustinian and Jesuit fathers, and American colonial government science infrastructure,  and billions of dollars and yen in science development aid by the Americans and the Japanese paying for war damage, we have never advanced despite promising starts. Historians will probably get a lot of documentary information from the American era Philippine Journal of Science. One may note the changes in science policy in the scientific papers published here from the early period of American sovereignty to the Commonwealth and then to independence and after. The PJS was one of the leading journals of its kind in Asia and in the world. The Commonwealth science policy focused on indigenous medical and agricultural technologies. That World War II severely affected Philippine science is that the first issue of PJS after the war carried death notices of Filipino scientists killed by the Japanese and one of them has a street named after him in UP Diliman. After World War II, the PJS reflected the newly independent republic's science policy which continued some of the Commonwealth's priorities but later replaced by science driven by Cold War geopolitical realities.

The postwar policies appeared to be less focused than that of the Commonwealth. We did not pursue research that would have given us the technological capacity to produce high value products since we did not invest in strengthening the basic sciences in partnership with the applied sciences. This is something defeated Japan did (under American encouragement) and by the 1960s, Japan was producing its first electronic gadgets and cars. Japan's aim was to build up its economy for national survival. But even in this period of economic recovery where applied science was given priority, the Japanese never neglected the basic sciences and even in this period Japan produced its Nobel laureates in the Sciences, one of which if I am not wrong, trained as a resident physician in the pre-war UP PGH!

This leads us to where Filipino science should go. The Arroyo administration to its credit had a focused science policy which is evidenced by its multi-billion peso investment in the National Science Complex in UP Diliman. However the infrastructure while needed in producing an enabling environment for the training of science students, will not be of much value if we have a lack of young scientists to aggressively mentor future scientists and to get them published. We should encourage them to stay like what President Manuel Quezon did when a UP science professor was kicked out of his department due to political infighting.

Quezon: What do you plan to do when you leave the university?
Prof: Your Excellency, I can always put up a barber shop. I've heard they were profitable.
Quezon: Puneta! A holder of a doctor of Philosophy and to become a barber! Eso es ridiculo!
Tell Bocobo [UP President] to see me!

The question is where to get published. They can get published in the so called ISI journals of high quality or in local journals. There is an impression that local journals are not credible, a charge that is not without basis. However this is really based on the poor state of our scientists who don't publish themselves. This is something Professor Flor Lacanilao has endlessly pontificated about!

The local journals must be supported and this is part of the nationalist agenda since the  journals published by foreign publishing houses now charge outrageous access and subscription fees leading  librarians to go on revolt by cutting subscriptions and favouring open access. But if a scientist has to publish in open access, he/she has to contribute a fee normally in the 500-1000 US dollar range. This is untenable in the Philippines where scientist/academic salaries are often less than the fee! Also if Filipino scientists expect their students to read scientific journals, they can only do it through university facilities but can the universities afford to shell out 65% of more of their annual operational budget on the best journal access subscriptions? This is where free access comes in and our local science journals should be funded for the time being to provide this important service with the proviso they are up to international standards.

Thus the first agenda for nationalist science is to ensure our young scientists are mentored well and published well. This will lead to more exposure and partnerships with other scientists all over the world. I will discuss the other aspects next time.

And nationalist science like Dr Rizal envisaged knows no country.

I would like to invite readers to attend the Rizal, our heroes and Science symposium on November 28, 2011, Monday from 1-4 PM at the National Science Complex in UP Diliman. Keep posted for details on this blog site.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Transcript of an interview

Where are you from (Introduction)?

I am Ben Vallejo. I am from Quezon City. I studied at the University of the Philippines Integrated School where my teachers encouraged us to study science. I studied Fisheries at the University of the Philippines Visayas, marine science at UP Diliman and my doctorate at James Cook University in Australia.

What do you think of science?

Science is a way of looking at nature and understanding it. It is an organized and systematic way of doing so. However the most important thing is to be curious about the world, especially about nature. Then we ask the questions and expect to get some answers. In most cases the answers generate more questions!

Do you think it’s important to kids and people of all ages?
Yes!  Because it allows people to know more about nature and develop their sense of wonder and curiosity.

What is your favorite field of science?
Biodiversity and biogeography

Who's your favorite scientist and why?

Galileo Galilei. It is because he started out as a young scientist awed by nature, the heavens and all their wonders. He then asked the scientific questions and tested by experiment or demonstration these questions and got answers. We honour Galileo as the first modern scientist. Of course we know now that the religious authorities of the day did not agree with him and placed him under house arrest, but personally as a scientist and as a religious person, he was able to be true to his vocation as a scientist while remaining faithful to his religious convictions. There is really no conflict between the two unlike what is often popularly assumed.

If you were to talk to kids on a field trip what would you tell them about science?

I will ask them about something in their environment and ask them the question, What do you think? Most likely they will answer with another question. To which I will say, “good answer”. The point is to continue asking your own questions! There are no final answers just more questions!

Do you think Filipinos are scared of science and why or why not?

Yes I do. It is because they think science is hard. But it is really not. We think scientifically all the time. Children are natural scientists because they start life as really curious persons who demand answers from their often stressed out parents! Not getting the answers most of the time, they figure the answers by themselves. My father was both mad and impressed at me when at age 4 I tested his water resistant camera in the bathtub! The camera was just water resistant and not waterproof!  I think key to becoming a good scientist is to have that childlike wonder of nature, all the time.

Friday, September 9, 2011

On flunking and publications

This is the right expression after flunking exams!
Some reflections just after I have marked students' midterm exams

I tell people that I belong to the same exclusive club as Albert Einstein! Not that I have two Nobel Prizes in Physics, but that I flunked my PhD exams twice!

Albert Einstein is the poster boy of Science and those who never did well in school and in their PhD studies.

His most famous line during these times (1904-1905) was this "The idea of the doctorate is beginning to bore me" (Which is what I and anyone who flunk PhD exams would say. ). Einstein eventually got his PhD with a thesis on Brownian motion from the University of Zurich which then was never considered as top rate in Physics as the universities in Germany such as Berlin. Einstein proved the physical existence of molecules via his description of Brownian motion. Before then, the idea of a molecule was a phenomenological construct.

But 1905 is Einstein's Annus Mirabilis in which he proposed in  5 publications, three in the Annalen der Physik the theory of special relativity.  In that year, Einstein did for science what Newton did for 20 years!  Also, where he wrote these papers was rather unconventional by today's standards. He wrote it while he was a Swiss patent clerk/examiner and not in a Physics department/institute where he won't be isolated from the general academic community. And this played a part when he submitted his PhD thesis for the first time and had to withdraw it because the examiners did not find it worth examining. After all he was just a patent clerk and his professors had nothing good to say about him.

But what can we learn from Einstein's career. First is that scientific publications are indeed important. If Einstein got rave reviews from his PhD committee and got the best PhD graduate award (which is only granted in the Philippines never in Europe) but never published right after, then he would have been a nobody and definitely not the most recognizable icon of science.

Also (and this is relevant to my PhD students who work in government agencies), one can write "big" papers outside academe. If Einstein did it, then why can't we?

So flunking your candidacy, dissertation etc exams doesn't mean the end of your world. What is required is hard work to make your science excellent. Einstein even as a patent clerk had to work hard and think hard when he was busy with examining patent applications. He found time to write up his results.

Remember, the PhD or MSc is just the start! Einstein rewrote his thesis, like I did and now we belong to the same elite club!