Friday, January 22, 2010

The Scientist and Society

I have politics on the brain, with the state of the union address coming up, and as such have been lead back to what Cassidy's "Uncertainty" started: The interplay between science, scientists, and politics.

On the face of things it seems that the best a scientific minded individual to do is affect apolitical attitudes. This is what scientific organizations tend towards, and I think it's a good thing. We want our society to make decisions based upon the world we live in, so the best way to have this political influence is to not discuss or make statements about standard political questions. In some sense this is problematic, as we currently see debates on religion in public education, or we have a single political party that primarily speaks against global warming, but in these cases there are firm scientific reasons for taking a position: 1) Religion ain't science. 2) Data and the mainstream interpretation of that Data. In short, the success of the scientific method.

I can't agree more than with this position for scientific societies. It is in this way that they can best help society, in general. However, I wonder if this attitude is best for the scientific individual. Given I live in the United States, I would infer that the usual reply would be "No. The individual can express whatever they wish, so long as they, personally, take credit for said comment, and do not speak in the name of X organization". But, as it is in this way that scientific communities can better help direct their communities, if said individual is attached to such-and-such a cause in popular culture, it could put political question on any scientific pronouncement said individual has. In conflict with this is the premise that, as individuals, we ought to have the freedom to express our political affiliations outside of any other affiliations that we may harbor. However, people don't operate in said manner. They can attempt to separate the individual from their various affiliations, and even make a good faith effort to do so -- but we still retain knowledge of an individuals full social affiliations. And if we do, indeed, wish to effect society in the most positive way that a scientist can, it may be the case that we ought to forgo public political opinions in favor of public scientific pronouncements.

I don't pretend to have an answer to the question, I am only raising it as a question to be thought and ranted about. The converse of this position is, of course, the life of Werner Heisenberg. He's an extreme case, however, and we do not currently live in quite as extreme a time as he did, so I do not think his life example is a good example to base current opinions off of. However, I think most will agree that his example definitively states that there is, in the case where one accepts keeping quiet about political opinions, a point (line, plane?) somewhere when that person should stop playing the apolitic become publicly political. But under what circumstances is that the case, and can one even determine those circumstances during the times that those circumstances exist?

I wish there was a journal or forum for ethical discussions amongst the scientific community -- though that may violate the "Objective"-ness of the scientist on the political landscape.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

K-INBRE Symposium

I just got back from a weekend conference hosting individuals to present their research in speech format. I've gone to one symposium before, but in this one I actually had a poster to present. And... it was not anywhere near as bad as I had thought it would be. I used to do performance art, so perhaps I shouldn't have been nervous, but the subject matter was different. In performance art you have a role to play, to entertain people. With a poster... I thought it would be different. But then I ended up just telling jokes and playing the role of "elucidator of research" -- sort of in the same fashion that I try and tutor people. All of the people who looked at the poster probably had a better knowledge of biochemistry than I, as I've just been learning biochemical terms specifically related to my organism and I'm a chemistry undergraduate who has yet to take biochem, but everyone seemed pretty generous and forgiving. If they asked a specific question, sometimes I would and sometimes I would not know, and I would be blunt and let them know if it were the case that I was ignorant. They nodded and let me finish the "shpiel" I prepared in explaining the poster, and some of them even taught me things. It was a very positive experience, and hopefully next year I'll have a better working knowledge of biochem and, please oh please may this year yield presentable results. 

Friday, January 15, 2010

Significant Figures

Oi! Well, the winter break is over (which is my excuse for Winter mute-ness), and I've hit the ground running again. As the Cake is a Lie, Syllabus Day is a myth.

Today I heard the best formulation for what significant figures are:

The mathematical method for keeping track of the least accurate measurement.

From this least accurate measurement in a series of measurements, you can tell just how well you know the "true" value of a given measurement. I don't know if this just went over my head in early chemistry classes, but I'll remember it now because it solidified all the abstruse rules I've been utilizing to no purpose aside from it being something... necessary... because, like, yeah...

It's not as if the rules are terribly difficult, unto themselves, but I don't recall ever knowing why I was using them. Obviously they were significant (harhar), but to what end... eh. However, this helps me understand why the addition of significant figures only depends upon the number with the least decimal places. If you add what you measure to be 2.5 Liters to a measured .0532 Liters, the relatively large uncertainty in the first measurement will "wash out" the relatively finer accuracy in the second measurement, giving you "'bout 2.6 Liters".

This leads perfectly into Uncertainty in measurements, which is related but something we utilize in the more formal sense in our everyday life. If you're getting off the clock in 16.3 minutes, you'll likely think of it as "15 minutes". And, for the purposes at hand (having a feeling for when you're going to get off), that level of accuracy is perfectly acceptable. If, then, someone asks you to stay for 5, you'll probably realize they don't mean "5.00 minutes", but rather there is some variance (or whatever it might mean in your particular social context). This is us utilizing the uncertainty in their measurement (their feeling for how long it will take until an extra task is done) that can be modeled mathematically: This could take plus or minus such-and-such an amount of time. "5 minutes" doesn't mean " 5.00 minutes", but maybe 5.0 plus or minus .5 minutes (or whatever). While you know from the clock that you have 16.3 minutes, the most number of significant figures you can keep is determined by their measurement of 5.0 minutes plus or minus .5 minutes, so you add the two measurements together and obtain that you could be on the clock from 21 minutes to 22 minutes after rounding off with significant figures. Perhaps a better model of conversation and on the fly estimates would actually use 5 plus or minus 4 minutes. From this you could conclude that you could be on the clock between 20 to 30 minutes, because then you would only have 1 significant figure. I mean, sure we don't actually go through the step-by-step analysis, but we tend to have a "feeling" for these things in conversation despite not knowing how we can conclude that our "feeling" may or may not be correct. I think the above expressed well what I always intuited about significant figures but never concretely expressed.