Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category
I’ve been reading The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, and lately it’s gotten me thinking about the role of morality in education. If education is a garden, morality is the soil. What implicit moralities best cultivate learning? What keeps thirty students itching for A’s from cornering the teacher in his/her office and demanding that grade?
That’s a little far-fetched, but you see where I’m going. The classroom is bound by certain ethical principles, but what keeps students (or instructors) from violating them? Part of that can be explained by student self-interest: “this content will improve me, so I have incentive to follow the rules,” or “I want the grade, so I’ll go along with what the instructor says.” But there’s good reason to believe that’s not the whole story. For example, many instructors take an arbitrary approach to assigning grades, and for these teachers doing that is in their self-interest: it keeps students off their backs and frees up more time for [writing grants|lab work|time with family|anything else]. Of course, the best instructors know better. They understand that arbitrary grades (e.g. curves) are demotivating and encourage cutthroat behavior in students. They know that students must have a reason to buy into the morality of education, and that many practices in the classroom undercut education’s lofty foundations. What’s the core reason to buy into education, and what practices have evolved to promote that buying in? Consider an evolutionary perspective. Read the rest of this entry »
I recently discovered Miguel Alonso’s The Art of Problem Solving in Organic Chemistry among my research group’s collection. This book makes a great companion to Grossman’s The Art of Writing Reasonable Organic Reaction Mechanisms, which is more exhaustive but, in my opinion, less compelling in the problems it presents. Alonso’s book is chock full of compelling mechanism problems, which will require even the most astute organic chemist to bust out paper and pencil and start drawing molecules. Perhaps the only downside of the book is its misleading title, which suggests generalized organic chemistry problem solving—the book is limited to mechanism problems, so don’t look to it for other subjects. It’s also a shame that this book hasn’t seen an update since the late 80′s…organometallic and radical chemistry are hard to find in its pages.
School has been crazy recently. I promised a post on chemoinformatics in education, and I will deliver soon…just not today I’ll leave you with an interesting problem from Alonso’s book, inspired by a recent post on MasterOrganicChemistry.com. Can you provide mechanisms that explain the formation of all observed products in the reaction below?
Here’s an interesting fact: there is a character named Peter Beak in David Foster Wallace’s epic novel Infinite Jest. DFW was from east-central Illinois. Given the amount of organic chemistry in the novel (relatively speaking, a lot), this is almost certainly a reference to this guy. Small world!
New post coming soon…
I record public domain audiobooks of works that are out of copyright for the website Librivox. My most recent project is a section of John Phin’s The Seven Follies of Science, a collection of bogus inventions, ideas, etc. based on seven impossible “scientific” ideas. Although Phin is most famous as a theist, this book shows that he was very well versed in science and mathematics. For something written in 1906, the modern scientist will find it quite readable.
My section in particular deals with perpetual motion machines. Phin divides these up in a section on “absurd” devices into a few core classes:
I. “Directed Momentum” Machines
These machines use weights placed at strategic positions, either in channels or attached via rope or rigid rods, around a central spinning wheel. The (fallacious) idea is that the weights will counterbalance one another perfectly to prevent the wheel from slowing down or stopping. See below for a few examples from the book.
II. “Hydraulic” Machines
The idea of these machines is that the weight of water in a large container has the ability to push a smaller, deeper quantity of water through a connected tube and back into the top of the container. This is physically impossible because the water in the large container can only exert enough force to push deeper water to its own level—no higher.
III. Liquid Conveyors
The most interesting of these uses an Archimedean screw to convey water upwards, which falls back down to power the screw. It’s not tough to see that the force of the falling water will not be sufficient to turn the screw, despite the drawing below. Phin debunks a similar idea that employed mercury in place of water (because, you know, mercury doesn’t stick to stuff).
IV. Capillary Action Machines
Interesting idea here—can capillary action result in perpetual motion? Unfortunately the answer is decidedly no; however, Sir William Congreve of Congreve rocket fame did his damnedest to build such a machine (and before Congreve, even Robert Boyle speculated about the possibility of such a machine). The machine looks creepily like tank treads!
V. Magnetic Machines
It’s invisible, it’s funky…and a lot of people believed it could facilitate perpetual motion. However, machines incorporating magnets, such as the one below, are also shown bogus.
I honestly think the best romance novels don’t look a thing like romance novels. The moment I’m reading a book and I say to myself, “damn, I’m reading a romance novel,” is the moment that book gets permanently shelved. But oftentimes I’ll get through a book, and after finishing it it’ll hit me like a rampaging bulldozer: “hey, I just read a romance novel cover to cover and didn’t even notice!” This happened to me recently with The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.
It’s kind of a gimmicky book, in that “time travel” is in the title. And gimmickiness always increases my expectations of a story. After all, Audrey’s not the first person to write about time travel, and she certainly won’t be the last. But her approach to the subject is unique, in that the main character’s journeys through time are involuntary, random (more or less), extremely inconvenient, and the result of a genetic disorder. Henry DeTamble first meets his future wife Clare when she is just starting grade school–and he’s in his forties, time-traveling from the future. He visits her randomly through time travel until they finally meet in the “present” at Chicago’s Newberry Library. The usual lovey-dovey stuff ensues, but here’s the catch: because of his “disorder,” Henry is gone for sometimes days at a time, off involuntarily experiencing some other time period, which leaves Clare alone and worried. Causality holds tenuous ground throughout this book, as Henry experiences events in his middle age that Clare has already experienced during her childhood. That, to me, was the most fascinating aspect of the book, that although the events of Clare’s childhood had already happened when Henry left the present to visit her, nothing in the present changed despite the fact that Clare already knew the way things were “supposed” to go. It’s as if a fatalistic hand held together the past, present, and future throughout the story.
I guess love’s supposed to be something like that? Love transcends time maybe? I dunno. Regardless, this is a great read for fans of time travel, the Windy City, and yes (sigh), romance novels.