29 July 2010

Scientific spectating

The peculiar subject line is to introduce a new series of posts I'll be making -- scientific spectating.  My idea is that there is too much science in the universe for us (any of us) to be expert about all of it.  On the other hand, same as there are too many sports to be expert at doing them all, we can all learn to be good spectators.  And being an informed spectator is its own kind of rewarding activity. 

It can be helpful to keep Science Jabberwocky in mind.  Individual terms can be pretty mystifying, but it can be obvious that certain ones are important -- CCR5 means nothing to me directly, but I know that it has something or other to do with plague and partial resistance that some Europeans have towards AIDS.  In a similar vein, you can know that Shaquille O'Neal is a center, without knowing exactly what a basketball center does.  On the other hand, you will find it easier to follow basketball if you know that he is a center.  Knowing that, you can watch what he does, and what other centers do.  After some time of that, you can appreciate watching the game much more.

It was in this vein that I appreciated some papers and comments in the late 1990s and early 2000s, regarding the expansion of the universe.  The expansion of the universe (the 'toves') had been expected to be slowing ('slithy').  After all, gravity was pulling everything together.  But then there were some observations presented which said that the toves were not slithy after all (that the expansion of the universe was not slowing).  It turned out that the expansion of the universe looked to be accelerating (mimsy).  In terms of doing the science myself, it may as well have been Jabberwocky.  But I could spectate -- clearly there was a conflict between the expected slithy-ness and the newly-observed mimsy-ness. 

As a spectator, I knew to start looking for papers defending the slithy-ness of the toves, or attacking the claimed observations of the mimsy-ness, or both.  That, or even newer papers supporting the recently new claims of the mimsy-ness of the toves (er, accelerating expansion of the universe).  And I saw just that.  As it worked out, the papers supporting the mimsy-ness of the toves were stronger, and held the field.  I was able to watch and appreciate that much.  In the same vein, I can appreciate watching a college basketball game -- seeing one team take up a zone defense, and the other break the zone by feeding the ball to their excellent outside shooter, or fail in their attempt to do so.  As a spectator, I know that the offensive team has to do something to counter the zone defense, and look for it.

It is this that the series will attempt to do -- help educate readers in how to be good spectators of science.  A related point being, most of the best spectators of sports are people who love playing the game themselves (whatever the game is).  You may not be professional level, any more than I am at basketball (or any other sport!).  But it can be more fun to spectate when you play the game sometimes yourself.  To that end, see my 'project folder' links, and keep asking questions.

Since I like a conversational approach to blogging, I'll invite comments, questions, suggestions at this point as to how you'd like to see this series go, whether you think it can be useful (and how), and so forth.


Michael Hauber said...

So you suggest using 'toves' for expansion and 'slithy' for slowing to suggest that us non cosmologists don't really understand as much about what is really happening as we might think if we call it expansion and slowing and think of the universe as a balloon that is expanding and this expansion slows?

If we think of 'expansion' then common sense suggests that it has to slow down, because that is what happens with expansion, unless something external acts to increase the expansion rate, and what could be external to the universe?

But if its 'toves', then who knows whether that will 'slithy' or not unless we look at the science and avoid letting our common sense guide us into a predetermined outcome....

jg said...

For science spectating, I'll share my usual bias that such topics should have graphical summaries -- big pictures, overviews -- that stay on top. Blogs tend to bury information in time.

A previous blog entry--now buried and I don't feel like hunting for it:)--addressed scientific literacy. Your concept of scientific spectating is comparable to my concept of a layperson's scientific literacy. I've used my definition of scientific literacy less since that discussion.

Your blog's description "writing to be inclusive of students in middle school and jr. high,..." tells more, I think, than introducing a new series entitled "spectating", but I'll wait to see your posts on the topic before I hold to that opinion.

Looking forward to your spectating posts,


Robert Grumbine said...

I hadn't thought about that when I was writing, but I will claim the idea now.

There are many words that have common language meanings, that have different meanings in science. 'expansion', if it's a cosmologist speaking, is one of those. Some others are:
rapid (a particularly variable one)

By using more abstract terms, the slithy toves, for instance, in our reading, we can protect against using our common language definitions in places where the science has developed specialized meanings for the words.

maybe you are thinking of my post
scientific literacy and the preceding open discussion?

As to the graphic summary, or, I'm thinking, index ... I agree with you that it would be good. The labels don't really work for the purpose, though they're better than nothing. What would probably be better is a good graphic that was image-mapped to a set of what blogger calls 'pages'. Blogger limits to 10 of those. On the other hand, my personal web site has no such limit. The image map could then lead to narrative guides to the set of articles within a given area. So ... how do you feel about working on the graphic? And can I beg some help testing out the html coding? (I do have some minor skill there, but code is better for having more people try it.)

jg said...

I would enjoy assisting on the illustration and testing. Let me know when you have something I can start on.