Thursday, October 6, 2011

"Hypothesis" is not a big word

Our daily routine consists of Lori leaving for work early and me and Benjamin hanging out at home for an hour after she leaves until it's time for him to go to daycare. During this time, we eat breakfast and then usually end up watching the morning kids' show on TV ("Bolibompa"). It doesn't take very long for this routine to be so firmly set that I know every program that they show and in which order. And let me tell you, the coolest one by far is Dinosaur Train. Basically, it's a cartoon about a family of dinosaurs who travel around on the dinosaur train to various place (and time periods) to visit other dinosaurs and learn about them.

What's really cool about it, though, is that in each episode the young dinosaurs - as they learn about the places they are about to visit from the train's conductor - form hypotheses, and even say so explicitly! "Then I have an hypothesis! I'm guessing that ALL insects lay eggs by the water!" and then the conductor usually says something along the lines of, "well, you'll get a chance to test that hypothesis when you get there!"

How cool is that?

And, what's even better, it's not always that their hypotheses hold up - and the show makes a point of this being quite alright. You can't be right all the time, the important thing is that you form an idea based on what you know, test it, and then adjust it when the evidence tells you differently.

So very awesome.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Nontroversy over Steinman's Nobel prize

On Monday, the Nobel foundation announced that this year's laureates for physiology and medicine includes Ralph Steinman for his work on the immune system. Only, it turns out, Ralph Steinman died Friday, three days before the announcement. This has caused a small media storm in Sweden for reasons I fail to discern.

Yes, the bylaws of the foundation state that the Nobel prize cannot be awarded posthumously. Yes, Ralph Steinman was in fact dead when he was announced as a laureate. No, the board who made the decision was not aware that he had just passed away - and as far as I can tell, the decision was made before he was dead (he just happened to pass away between the decision and the announcement).

This stumped the Nobel committee who now have to decide what to do with it. Recind the Nobel prize from a recently deceased person? Break the bylaws? After a couple of hours of deliberation they decided to keep Steinman on the list. So this "controversy" lasted all of a few hours of meetings.

And this is labelled - in Swedish newspapers anyway - a "controversy." Why? I'm not even sure it could be considered a "mistake," and even less so a "controversy." Should they have checked whether he was alive? When? A final phonecall a minute before entering the stage to make the announcement? Have a doctor in the room with all prospecive laureates who can press a big red button in case one of them happen to die just before their names are called out?

I honestly don't see what the big deal is. Yes, the prize is supposed to go to living scientists but it was no-one's intent to give it posthumously and I feel that they handled everything the way one can reasonably expect them to. The only feeling I come away with from this is sympathy with Steinman; I wish he could have learned about it before he died.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Mark Forster on reading books

I wanted to share this (I think) phenomenal advice for people like me: Book lovers who sort books into two kinds:

  1. Books I want to read, and
  2. Books I want to have read.
Why even have the second category? Because there are books that have something to teach me but that for various reasons might not be exactly what I enjoy reading the most. Honestly, if it was just a matter of instant gratification, I'd probably stick with Terry Pratchett books and only occasionally throw in some non-fiction. Non-fiction - especially science and philosophy - requires a lot more attention, a lot more focus and a lot more work after you put the book down to absorb the stuff in it. But I want to learn, and sometimes I have to force myself to leave The Fifth Elephant on the night stand and instead work through a chapter of Dan Dennett's Elbow Room. And the best way to accomplish this I've found is to use Mark Forster's technique of having a rotating stack of five books:
 I chose five books as my "active" books and put them in a pile. Then I take the top book from the pile and read as much as I want to in one session. At the end of the session, it goes at the bottom of the pile. Then for my next reading session, I take the next book in the pile, read as much as I want to of that, and put it at the bottom of the pile. The two most important rules are:
1) I don't allow myself to read any book that's not in the pile. If a new book arrives it has to wait until one of the others is finished.
2) I don't allow myself to keep a book on top of the pile for more than one session. Once I've put it down, it has to go at the bottom of the pile.
This works like magic because the variety keeps my interest going. 
Honestly, works like a charm. It keeps my interest fresh in the books I'm reading, I don't find myself "skimming" through chapters just to get it over with when my interest wanes (if I can no longer focus on it, it just goes to the bottom of the pile) and it lets me read a varied range of books. Wholeheartedly recommended if you're anything like me.

Downside is you need to keep five bookmarks on hand. Quite the first-world problem.