Evolution & Student-centered Teaching Practices

Why does education "work"? How should we think about its best practices as a whole?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. Continue reading →

An Unsung Classic

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?

Grignard reagents and propargyl chlorides

Timeless Scientific Follies, Courtesy of 1906

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.

Hydraulics gone wrong!

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).

A miller's dream (but physically impossible!)

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!

A machine for perpetual motion via capillary action

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.

Perpetual motion via magnetism?!

The chapter contains all kinds of other ridiculous stories, and several additional classes of “perpetual motion machines.” A good read! Here’s a link to my audiobook chapter.

Book Review: The Time Traveler’s Wife

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.


I’ve read very few books twice. Unless a book is so jam-packed with neatness that every read is sure to introduce something new, I figure it’s not worth the time. One book that is worth the time every time, however, is Richard Feynman’s QED. I just finished my second run through this book, and it was absolutely 100% worth it.

QED reduces nearly all physical phenomena to the movement and interactions of electrons and photons. Starting from the most common of phenomena (light reflecting from glass, light bouncing off a mirror, lenses), this book is literally a fascinating journey into the mysterious character of light. Feynman adopts the role of a specialist teaching the layreader the neat, intuitive way to solve physics problems, and describes the bizarre character of light with delightful whimsy.

The first half of the book is an exposition of the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics as it applies to light. The probability that light does a certain thing is represented by the square of the length of a vector that corresponds to the event. Movement of the light and reflection cause turning and shrinking of the “unit arrow” until a final arrow for the event in question is reached. Summing all the arrows for the way an event can happen gives a final arrow for the event. Although there are an infinite number of ways any event can happen, the ways close to the path of minimum time reinforce each other, while those that take longer cancel each other out. This is the principle of least action at work!

After going through several simplified problems, Feynman reduces all events to combination of three simple steps: a photon goes from A to B, an electron goes from A to B, and an electron emits or absorbs a photon. The arrow-length formulas for the first two events are functions of the distance traveled and the time the travel takes (photons don’t have to travel at c, as it turns out). Fascinatingly, the arrow-length formula for emission and absorption is just a constant…the charge of the particle! Everything from optics to atoms can be analyzed using combinations of these three simple events.

I don’t want to spoil the rest of the book, but it is chock full of amazing observations like this. Teaser: an antiparticle is just a particle traveling backwards in time!

New Layout and Book Review

So I’ve switched up the look of MGW…what do you think?

It’s been a while since I reviewed a book, mainly because it’s been a while since I’ve read one! Death in Venice is a collection of stories by Thomas Mann, an early twentieth-century German author known for exploring the artist’s psyche. The writing is dense–it’s definitely one of those books that makes you think you’re not reading on the level you should–but if you can get beyond the dense style, the stories are fairly engaging. The title story is about an aged, accomplished writer who vacations in Venice and develops a secret at the same time as the city itself. Honestly, if you do pick this book up, read the second story, “Tonio Kroger,” first. It’s much quicker to get going than “Death in Venice.” If you have no interest in either early twentieth century Europe or the psychology of the artist, however, I’d steer clear. Reading it feels like pushing a boulder up a hill at times.