Saturday, January 31, 2009

The sciences and gender--Amherst query

The position of women in the science has been debated for some time...the most controversial being the then president of Harvard Lawrence Summers' inappropriate gender in the sciences comments. Below is a question and answer session with three women in the sciences at Amherst College conducted by Gina Rodriguez.

Under the Lens: Real Women Talk Science

"Amherst Science Majors Consider Their Futures"


Gina Rodriguez

October 22nd, 2008

Under the Microscope

Open any newspaper these days, and you'll likely find statistics breaking down how many women are entering the sciences or dropping out of the sciences. You can compare the numbers to those of the last year, the last decade, and the last century, but you can't grab a cup of coffee with a number.

As part of's mission to put faces, so to speak, to the stats and to ask real women for their two cents' worth on science, I recently conducted a virtual panel discussion with three women from one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country, Amherst College.

The panelists:

Maureen: A Chemistry major from L.A. who loves puzzles: "Crosswords, Sudoku, jigsaws, you name it." Since starting college, she has been on the crew, rugby, and equestrian teams.

Samantha: An Environmental Studies major from Pennsylvania who, besides working as a science T.A. and a Writing Tutor, plays in her Amherst music ensembles. A recent college science class highlight for her was learning how to make nylon in her Organic Chemistry class.

Wen: A Psychology major and pre-Med student interested in human rights. Of her international background, she says, "I like to say that I was born in China, raised in Canada, and educated in the U.S."

And now, on to my discussion with Maureen, Samantha, and Wen:

UTM: There has been much discussion and speculation about the disparity between men and women working in the sciences and the obstacles women face. Is this something that you are concerned about? Where do you think this disparity comes from?

Maureen: I don't consciously think about the male-female disparity in the sciences. But it's definitely true that there are more men currently in the field. Women are making advances - the numbers of women interested and entering science-related careers are on the rise - but it's not enough. In physics, engineering, and other more "hard" sciences, the numbers of men greatly outnumber women. Since this is the case, I'm concerned that women may not be treated seriously. This disparity probably arises from the fact that men are assumed to be more analytical and fact-oriented, while women are assumed to be more emotional and interested in the humanities.

Samantha: I don't know that I'm particularly concerned about the obvious disparity between men and women in the sciences, which I think stems mostly from the fact that for so long women did not have access to the same educational opportunities as men. There was just this mindset that women couldn't do the work, and they faced a lot of social and psychological barriers. But now I think we're seeing more and more women enter scientific fields as we gain access to universities, and as math and science education are opened up more for younger students. A large percentage of my science professors are female, and I'm sure that even ten years ago it was much, much smaller, so I think that we're making progress. Once younger people have those positive role models, I think that they're much more motivated to follow in their footsteps...

Wen: I think this disparity is an almost ingrained notion. Men are good at science, while women are good at emotional/connection stuff. It's a stereotyped thing. I do have to admit, that I do agree that maybe in general, there's a trend like that, but stereotypes shouldn't stand in the way of a woman in the sciences. However, though we hear about a disparity in the numbers, I haven't necessarily experienced any "overt" form of discrimination because I'm a woman. Most times, I think guys are little jealous of women nowadays (or maybe that's just because of the fact that Massachusetts is a pretty liberal state overall, especially in [terms of its] colleges). They think that we get it easier because we're women, and everyone sympathizes with us - which is true to a degree. I think equality has to start with people NOT thinking that women need to be babied... For equality to really happen, people need to be equal across the board, regardless of gender.

Probably because of "historical" gender biases, people feel like they need to make it now. But I don't think that it should work that way. Admit that what you did before was wrong, and try to be equal and fair in everything now.

UTM: Throughout your high school and college career, have you felt the need to see more female role models in the sciences? Are there any women working in your field who have inspired you? If yes, please explain. If no, why not?

Maureen: I have rarely encountered female role models in the sciences, so I have yet to meet a female chemist who has inspired me. Despite this lack of female role models, I am still very interested in the sciences. While it would be great to see more prominent females in the sciences, there is no problem as long as girls realize that they can excel in the sciences as much as anyone else.

Samantha: In high school and college, I have had a good number of female role models in the sciences. My biology teacher in high school and a good number of my chemistry and math professors in college were female. My mom is a math teacher. So I knew that there were women in these areas, and these were women I definitely looked up to. I thought what they did was awesome, and I think that their positive influence, especially in this tutorial role, has largely impacted my desire to teach this material to others. Certainly, I feel like overall there is still a gender disparity, especially in the hard sciences, but I know that this is changing.

Wen: Oh definitely. I've often felt the need to see more female role models. But what can you do? I mean most of the science "greats" we read about all fall under the category of: white, male, and dead. However, even if you can't change history, you can still carry forward. I don't really have any "inspirations" period, actually. Nope, can't say that I do. I feel awed by ANYONE working in a science or medicine field just because of all the work attached, but no one in particular.

UTM: What kinds of challenges have you faced in relation to your interest in science? Have any of them been gender-related?

Maureen: No, and I hope it stays that way. In my high school, the numbers of girls in science classes always outnumbered the numbers of boys. My parents and teachers encouraged my interest in science without regard for my gender.

Samantha: The challenges I've faced I think have mostly been related to the atmosphere of my science education... I was always the only girl in my math and science classes, and I certainly felt that fact. I often felt isolated. And the teachers would always bring it up, in some way or another. Sure, I felt good that I was the only girl, I guess, but it made me angry that the boys would always be "better." I think that this had more to do with the sense that a lot of teachers throughout elementary, middle, and high school had, that boys were good at math and science, and a girl who was good at math and science was an anomaly. I always felt like I wasn't as good as the boys, and felt like I wasn't as smart as them and couldn't do the work as well as them, and really had to fight against the grain. I don't get that sense so much now, in college, which is encouraging.

Wen: Well I do think it's intimidating if you're walking into a class, and like most of the people there are males. For women especially, it makes us feel better if we have other girls around. Well or maybe that's just me. But being a room full of guys does give me the creeps. I mean, who would want to take a class like that?

UTM: What sort of community exists among students interested in the sciences in your college? Do you believe that community accurately reflects what you will have to face outside of college? What kinds of challenges do you think you will encounter, and what are you looking forward to?

Maureen: ...Those who come here and choose science are generally very excited about the subject matter. By senior year, it seem like most science majors know each other from having taken the same classes and attending departmental meetings together. The science community here is very willing to share their studies and interests. I'm sure that the environment here is more nurturing and less harsh than in the real world. But I think the science community, in general, will welcome interested new scientists.

Samantha: ...Even though I don't really perceive many gender inequalities in college, that's not the case in the world outside of school. No matter what people say, I still think that there is gender bias and sexual discrimination. There is still this patriarchal condescension against women in our society, as well as a negative reaction against feminism that just won't go away. I can't count the number of times that I've disagreed with people who think that gender discrimination is a problem just in other parts of the world, and that we have no right to complain about our experiences here in the U.S.

Wen: Our college is a pretty liberal and equality driven place. Women are definitely encouraged here for the most part... When I came here, I was definitely like, "Wow, the people here are so nice and incredibly non judgmental." I'm looking forward to telling men I may meet in my future workplace that I'm not their stereotypical woman. I'm loud, opinionated and pretty assertive when I want to get my point across. So don't expect me to just back down!

UTM: Do you have any advice for other young women who intend to pursue science in college?

Maureen: Don't be afraid to try out classes that you didn't enjoy or do so well in high school. Perhaps you had a bad teacher. Classes in college can be completely different from those in high school. You'll delve deeper into topics that were only skimmed over in high school, and you may find yourself really enjoying the material.

Samantha: Don't let anyone intimidate you. There are a lot of smart women and men out there who might make you feel like you're not good, smart, or fast enough. But you just have to persevere and keep working at it. If it doesn't come quickly to begin with, that's okay. For example, the first time I learned about Chemistry, I had the hardest time comprehending the concept of an atom. Now I help other students learn the material and run review sessions. It's immensely satisfying.

Wen: GO FOR IT! I want to read about "Ms. So-So" who discovered "Such and Such" and have it named after her. I mean honestly, all the units we have are named after men and all the discoveries have mostly been by men as well. GO FEMALES! WOOT!

National Science Bowl

Here is something quite worthy from the Department of Energy...the National Science Bowl coming April 30th to May 5th with the contest being held in Washington D.C.

National Science Bowl

"Academic Earth"--lectures online

Billed as "Thousands of video lectures from the world's top scholars." The subjects cover astronomy, biology, chemistry, computer science, economics, engineering, English, entrepreneurship, history, law, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, physics, political science, psychology, and religion--a little something for all. I have watched a few and can say that they are quite good. Understand that these are not slick productions but classroom lectures and rather primitive.

Academic Earth

Thanks to stringer Tim.

"Lewis Carroll in Numberland: His Fantastical Mathematical Logical Life"

A new book is out discussing the mathematics of Lewis Carroll...Lewis Carroll in Numberland: His Fantastical Mathematical Logical Life by Robin Wilson.

"How to Measure a Cheshire Grin?"


John Allen Paulos

February 1st, 2009

The New York Times

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, was a mathematician at Oxford University for most of his life. His fanciful "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" are quite familiar to us, as, to a lesser extent, are his photographs of young children. In "Lewis Carroll in Numberland," the distinguished British mathematician Robin Wilson has filled a perceived gap in the writings about Carroll by describing in a straightforward, jabberwocky-free fashion the author's mathematical accomplishments, both professional and popular.

Wilson begins this fine mathematical biography with an account of Dodgson's idyllic North England childhood. Born in 1832, the eldest son in a large family, Dodgson was mathematically gifted like his clergyman father. He read widely, wrote amusing pamphlets for his siblings and dazzled his teachers. As Wilson documents, some of Dodgson's later concerns with logic, time and puzzles were already apparent in his pamphlets and letters.

Proceeding linearly through Dodgson's life, Wilson pays particular attention to his early career at Oxford, including the sometimes tedious details of exams, classes and the tutoring of fellow students. But even at the beginning of his career, Dodgson demonstrated a playful approach to mathematics, frequently injecting little puzzles into his lessons. (One of his classics: A cup contains 50 spoonfuls of brandy, and another contains 50 spoonfuls of water. A spoonful of brandy is taken from the first cup and mixed into the second cup. Then a spoonful of the mixture is taken from the second cup and mixed into the first. Is there more or less brandy in the second cup than there is water in the first cup?)

During these early years, Dodgson developed what would become a lifelong fascination with geometry, an interest that led to his many explications and pedagogical enhancements of Euclid’s "Elements." Wilson explains these clearly for those without mathematical background, as well as Dodgson’s later work on algebraic determinants and his idiosyncratic techniques for evaluating them to solve systems of linear equations.

Dodgson's mathematical career — and perhaps even his literary career — would not have been possible without the Rev. Henry Liddell. In 1855, Liddell became dean of Christ Church and the following year appointed Dodgson a lecturer in mathematics. Liddell had four children, including one little girl named Alice. Wilson briskly dismisses the argument that Dodgson's photographs of Alice and other girls, sometimes nude or semi-nude, show he was a pedophile. "In common with many of his generation, he regarded young children as the embodiment of purity and he delighted in their innocence," Wilson writes, adding that Dodgson's vows of celibacy, which he took in 1861 (though he never became a priest), "would have outlawed any inappropriate behavior, and there has never been a shred of evidence of anything untoward."

Despite his voluminous output, Dodgson, who never married, remains inscrutable as a person, at least to me. A religiously, politically and personally conservative man, he revealed no unseemly visceral urges, but he did have an interest in politics. Through it he came to investigate voting and apportionment systems; he pointed out the possible faults of majority rule, runoffs, eliminations and other procedures, and proposed various alternative arrangements, which also had shortcomings. These insights foreshadowed Kenneth Arrow’s 1951 theorem showing that any voting framework satisfying certain minimum conditions sometimes produces unfair results.

Wilson also discusses Dodgson's proposals for ciphers and codes, his suggestions for improvements in sports and tournament scoring, and his logic diagrams, which in some ways better elucidate the conclusions of syllogisms than the more familiar Venn diagrams. But the variety of his endeavors aside, Dodgson's mathematics has not proved influential or enduring. More long lasting have been his geometrical, arithmetical and logical puzzles, well-chosen examples of which Wilson strews throughout the book, along with excerpts from some of his often teasing letters.

Wilson's aim is to concentrate on Dodgson's scholarly work rather than on the whimsical "Alice" books, but when pushed too hard the dichotomy between them breaks down. Even Dodgson’s mathematical work contained wordplay and humorously literal interpretations. Contrariwise, his popular work, always under the pseudo­nym Lewis Carroll, refers obliquely to serious mathematical and philosophical issues.

Wilson doesn't mention it, but this unwarranted bifurcation brings to mind the philosopher George Pitcher's 1965 essay "Wittgenstein, Nonsense, and Lewis Carroll," which highlights telling similarities between the philosophical writings of Wittgenstein and the popular work of Carroll. Both men were concerned with nonsense, logical confusion and language puzzles. But while Wittgenstein was tortured by these things, Carroll was, or at least appeared to be, delighted by them. The relation between the two is similar in this respect to that between, say, Soren Kierkegaard and Woody Allen.

Finally, in case you're wondering, there’s exactly as much brandy in the water as there is water in the brandy. Most frabjous!

[John Allen Paulos is a professor of mathematics at Temple University. His most recent book is "Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up."]

Lewis Carroll in Numberland: His Fantastical Mathematical Logical Life


Robin Wilson

ISBN-10: 0713997575
ISBN-13: 978-0713997576

Lewis Carroll fun

Mr. Klein and Mr. Möbius

Newton's Rings

Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington--poetic tribute

Friday, January 30, 2009

Surf Canyon--enhanced Web search

Stringer Tim brought this to my attention...Surf Canyon plugin for the common browsers that can potentially search deeper into the Web. I have not tried it. If you have, offer your opinion and its strengths and weaknesses.

"Digging Deeper in Web Search"

A personalization search tool reveals links buried deep within page results.


Kate Greene

January 29th, 2009

Technology Review [MIT]

One of the hottest frontiers in Web search is finding ways to improve results based on the searchers' preferences. Already, when you log in to Google, the search engine tries to personalize results by mining your search history: for an eighth grader who has performed lots of searches on marine life, a search for "dolphins" might provide more results for the animal than for the football team.

Now Surf Canyon, a startup based in Oakland, CA, is adding its own spin on personalization. Its software, which can be downloaded and installed into Firefox and Internet Explorer Web browsers, enhances individual searches on major search engines by evaluating which links you click on, and then instantly giving you revised search returns--including three sites that relate in some way to the site you clicked on. "We have invented real-time personalization," says Mark Cramer, CEO of the company.

For example, a Google search for "thermoelectric cooler" using Firefox with Surf Canyon installed provides 10 standard results. In my case, the eighth result, from, a chip maker, seemed promising. I clicked on it, scanned the page, and then hit the "back" button. When I subsequently looked at the results page, three new suggestions appeared directly under the result. Surf Canyon had elevated these links from the earlier 100 pages of results because its algorithm determined that these recommendations related to the information on, including technical explanations of how thermoelectric coolers work.

Crucially, these new results are cleverly slipped into the search results so that the original results page doesn't look drastically different when a user navigates back. It would be off-putting to users, Cramer says, if they had seen a link in the original results that they wanted to click on but, when they went back to the results, found it missing. Therefore, recommended results only appear automatically below the link that was clicked on. "We don't want to jar the users," Cramer says. "[Surf Canyon is] specifically engineered to be as unobtrusive as possible."

Behind the scenes, an algorithm makes the personalization possible. Among other things, the algorithm analyzes which results are clicked, which are ignored, and how much time a user spends looking at the page. Importantly, says Cramer, the algorithm semantically deconstructs a page to determine what it means and how similar it is to others in the results. The results are cumulative: after a couple of clicks, the algorithm can determine if you're most interested in a Canon camera, an SLR camera, or, specifically, a Canon SLR, Cramer says.

Marti Hearst, a professor at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, says that Surf Canyon succeeds in presenting the reordered links in a clear, useful, and unobtrusive way. It doesn't require people to do any extra work, as does Google's WikiSearch, a feature that lets users personalize their results by voting them up or down.

However, in her test cases, Hearst found that the algorithm's re-ranked results weren't completely useful. "Where personalization works is where queries are ambiguous," she says, but queries have become increasingly longer over the years, and they tend to provide clues that help the engine disambiguate the results on its own. Additionally, in Hearst's tests of Surf Canyon, she found that it only untangled the different meanings of the acronym ACL (which could mean both anterior cruciate ligament and Association for Computational Linguistics) to a certain point: it kept including mixed results even when she felt that her clicking choices had made it clear that she was interested in the linguistics group.

Cramer and his team say that they have gotten more positive results. In a study they performed, some participants saw a second page of search results that were reordered according to Surf Canyon's algorithm, while others saw a second page with standard results. The researchers found that the participants who had access to reordered results clicked on them 30 to 40 percent more frequently.

Surf Canyon

In remembrance...our space travelers

"When you look at the stars and the galaxy, you feel that you are not just from any particular piece of land, but from the solar system."

Kalpana Chawla

Columbia STS-107

Apollo 1 - January 27th, 1967
Edward White II, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Roger Chaffee

Challenger STS-51L - January 28th, 1986
[front] Michael Smith, Francis Scobee, Ronald McNair
[rear] Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik

Columbia STS-107 - January 16th to February 1st, 2003
[front)]Rick Husband, Kalpana Chawla, William McCool
[rear] David Brown, Laurel Clark, Michael Anderson, Ilan Roman

Soyuz 1 - April 23rd to April 24th, 1967
Vladimir Komarov [right]
Yuri Gagarin [left], the first man in space, was later killed in a jet plane crash.

Soyuz 11 - June 6th to June 30th, 1971
Georgi Dobrovolsky, Viktor Patsayev, Vladislav Volkov

And all the non-human travelers...


Thursday, January 29, 2009

Pluto not fitting definition

As I have said before, Pluto can remain on the current planetary list for ordinary consideration and would probably be reclassified as a non-planet to suit the efficacy of an astronomical definition. The guy/gal on the street need not bother about the scientific classification of's still a part of our astronomical heritage and rightly so. I ran into this article from UNIVERSE TODAY by Fraser Cain "Why Pluto is No Longer a Planet" .

Tyson, Weintraub, Tombaugh & Pluto


It has been said "Researchers say that left-handed people excel in music, arts, and math; but lack ability in language and speech." Barack Obama is left handed. Will he fit into the generality stated above?

"Ancient Lefties: The History of Obama's Handedness"


Heather Whipps

January 29th, 2009


Something sinister is going on, and newly-inaugurated President Obama is behind it.

From the Latin for left, "sinistra," southpaw Obama is another notch for the column of left-handed presidents, now totaling eight — a proportion (out of all 43 men who have been POTUS) that is well above their representation in the total population, which hovers around 10 percent.

(Let's count James A. Garfield as a lefty, although some say he was ambidextrous and others say he was a lefty; many ambis are lefties who learn to do some tasks with their right hands.)

In fact, every president since 1974 with the exception of Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush has been left-handed, as is Obama's former Republican opponent Sen. John McCain. Al Gore is too.

Is it just a coincidence, or is there something about being left-handed that can make for a more presidential demeanor?

Some evolutionary advantage, whether overall greater intelligence or language skills, has kept a stable group of lefties for at least the past 200,000 years, said Chris McManus, professor of psychology and medical education at University College London.

Left-handed tools chipped 500,000 years ago

There have been lefties for as long as there have humans, historians agree.

Some of the oldest evidence of left-handedness comes from Kenya, where of a 500,000 year-old cache of 54 stone tools made by one of our pre-human ancestors, six (or about 11 percent) were chipped using the left hand. Similarly, Neanderthals working with meat and stone tools more than 150,000 years ago left marks on their teeth at left and right angles – indicating opposite hand use – in almost perfect proportion with today's 9:1 ratio.

Paleolithic cave paintings from France and Spain also hint that lefties walked among our ancestors about 30,000 years ago. Studying a collection of so-called negative hand drawings on the cave walls – similar to tracing one hand with the other – scientists found that individuals drew their left hand much more frequently than the right.

The laundry list of lefties goes on through history, with records telling us that a number of famous ancient figures probably favored their southpaw as well, from Alexander the Great to Charlemagne, Holy Roman emperor.

Though ancient sample sizes are small and poor estimates of the exact proportion of lefties, the existence of left-handedness is clear even hundreds of thousands of years ago, McManus said.

Left tied to language

Despite its long history, left-handedness is a uniquely human trait. Chimpanzees and gorillas, with whom we share an ancestor and a number of common physical attributes, don't seem to favor one hand over the other.

Instead, left-handedness may have developed along with another characteristic known just to humans – language.

Most people process language in the left side of their brain, the hemisphere that also controls the right side of the body, and have done so presumably since humans started chatting a few hundred thousand years ago. Whichever gene made the left side of our brains responsible for language also played a role in making our right side dominant, experts such as McManus believe.

Though a specific left-handed gene has yet to be found, the trait to choose one hand over the other is likely inherited, agree scientists. Left-handed parents are far more likely to produce left-handed children, and those children appear to begin favoring that hand in the womb, according to a 2004 study on 10-week-old fetuses.

More recent research suggests that, while developing, the two sides of the brain actually "fight" for specialized control of certain functions, such as handedness, with the left side (which controls the right — are you following?) more often coming out on top.

Interestingly, even when the right side wins, the left brain often shares some of the duties, studies have shown. So while right-handed people usually process language exclusively in the left side of their brain, lefties process language mostly in the right but partly on the left as well.

That preferential wiring may make lefties more adept at certain skills required for leadership according to McManus, who wrote about his theories in his book "Right Hand, Left Hand" (Harvard University Press; 2002).

But what about "left-handedness" and the sciences?

That would be an interesting correlation between human activity. Statistics on this would be like what is the depression rate of physicists. And I am not sure what sort of results would be gathered other than curiosity. How bizarre to discover that there is a positive correlation between "left-handed" people and the sciences. Would there be a cultural community of people developed whereby left-handed people only did science. Is such a situation true in all cases? What about those that retired the left hand usage and switched to right-handedness? Or those that are ambidextrous? One would certainly not draw the conclusion that such a situation is categorical for if a right-handed person lost the use of that appendage and was forced to use the left arm that would not necessarily means a sudden interest in science. For me, I was left-handed until six or seven and switched. The world did little to accommodate left-handed children then. Those early days did not prodivde individual desks designed for the left-handed. They were never positioned in seating arrangements that would prevent passing by individuals from bumping into them. Special tools? There are some specialized tools for wood crafts and my left-handed friend has scissors especially designed for her. I don't imagine that there are many industries that are geared especially for left-handed products. Sometimes social stigmas develop in that the function of a society is favoring the majority. Frankly, it doesn't make any difference: Left, right, both. But the correlation between specific brain functions and being left or right-handed is interesting. In the long run such a correlation would be like saying that there is a relationship between scientists and scientists having a fondness for peanut butter or oatmeal. It is interesting though. It may well have something due to the physical structure and activity of the brain.

I seriously doubt that one will find a correlation between "left-handedness" and the sciences and I am not sure of its relevancy. However, there is quite a bit of history involving the dominance of one hand over the other. Through out history the stance and social significance of a dominating hand is interesting for there has been not to long ago a stigma placed on left-handedness and a long, long time ago there was a premium placed on left-handedness. It is interesting to note that all primates except man are ambidextrous, namely orangutans, chimpanzees, and apes will use either hand while man is the only one making a selection. Many very early forms of writing were written left-handed, reading from right to left. And it wasn't until Greek times did things switch the other way. A curious illustration is in early cave paintings where figures were facing right indicating a left-handed artist. Warfare would favor, in situations of one-on-one combat, a right-handed person inflicting wounds/death while the left hand was busy protecting a vital organ--the heart. Mortality among left-handed warriors must have been high and were soon converted or put in charge of logistics or to become scribes. Data for correlations of dominate hands [or eyes or feet] to science oriented people are zip and subject to much speculation. The unlucky to lucky position of hand dominance will probably shift again and again. Interesting to note that Beethoven, Goethe, Michelangelo were left-handed and that I doubt that gender plays any significant role.

From: Total Man: An Evolutionary Theory of Personality, by Stan Gooch:

Early man, certainly agrarian man, could be tolerant of left-handedness or ambidexterity. Even as hunters left-handers would possibly be socially acceptable, However, there would probably tend to be more fatal accidents amongst them in the course of hunting, so that already there would be a tendency for the incidence of left-handedness to reduce in the general population. But under conditions of severe competition or in war two things would happen: (a) “consistently” more left-handers would be killed in battle and therefore gradually ‘bred out’ and (b) left-handers would be “perceived” to be less effective fighters.

Here is what he said about the position of the heart:

Applied to human beings, this proposal receives strong support from two additional considerations: (1) the heart is biased to the left of centre, i.e. in the rearward and hence most protected position when the right hand is in actual use and (2) by reason of the crossing of motor and sensory fibbers to the opposite hemisphere of the cerebrum the dominate hemisphere is therefore "also" to the rearward and in the most protected position when the right hand is in use.

So, it could well be an evolutionary phenomena on a very short scale of evolution. And, other than the combat situation mentioned above there are surly sociological reasons too.

The ambidextrous feature is interesting and I have read some rather unusual hypotheses regarding why there is favoritism of left or right-handedness. It is believed that all humans are born ambidextrous and through sociological favoritism [a cultural posture fostered by popular determinism], human sense of balance [the human body may be off centered favoring a particular stance], brain functions, external physical forces--who knows why. Told ya, some of the above are bizarre. Interesting to note that the majority of animals are ambidextrous though some species [certain primates] may favor the right hand. It probably doesn't matter much to the squirrel gathering fall’s fruit of black walnuts--they can snatch the nut with either paw with alacrity. However, it may well be advantageous for humans to be ambidextrous. Sometimes, certain situations may require a clever non-dominate hand for assistance.

Does all of this make any difference whether one is left-handed, right-handed, ambidextrous--right or left foot dominate or right or left eye dominate? Perhaps a quirk of nature. In any case things can be performed with alacrity and deft skill in any case, granting ambidexterity having the edge.

Here's a quote by Ambrose Bierce:

Ambidextrous, adj.: Able to pick with equal skill a right-hand pocket or a left.

And remember...

It is always convenient to select anomalies and groom data to support any hypothesis or obscure detail of an individual or group. Motivations are numerous: To perpetuate myths, degrade/humiliate, or the scapegoat mentality. It makes no difference if one is talking about left or right-handedness, race, culture, or intelligence for someone or some group will be singled out for ulterior motives. As far as hand dominance is concerned, even though there are some curious historical examples and plausible explanations, the net result is rather insignificant and in the long run assist only those that desire to profit from lefties with specialized products.


Jacques Steinberg's esaay on DTV switch

"Digital TV Beckons, but Many Miss the Call"


Jacques Steinberg

January 29th, 2009

The New York Times

HOUSTON — Vesta Clemmons, who is 77 and lives alone, relies on the battered Zenith television in her tiny apartment here as more than just a lifeline to the outside world.

"It's like a friend," she said in her living room, which is also her dining room and bedroom. "I would feel very isolated without it. I get lonesome anyway."

So Ms. Clemmons was concerned to learn from a public-service campaign that after Feb. 17 the rooftop antenna connected to her television would no longer function properly, and thus neither would her TV — unless she bought and installed an adaptor. On that day the country's broadcast stations have long been scheduled to shut down the old-fashioned, analog signals that have carried their programming since the days of Milton Berle, and replace them with high-definition digital signals that offer a clearer picture, among other benefits.

But less than a month before the Feb. 17 deadline, so many American households have yet to take the necessary steps to continue to watch over-the-air television — more than 6.5 million, according to Nielsen Media Research — that Congress has considered giving them more time.

On Monday night the Senate passed a bill, supported by President Obama, that would extend the deadline until June 12. The House of Representatives took up the same measure on Wednesday but failed to muster the two-thirds majority needed for it to pass on a fast-track procedural vote. Its fate is now unclear.

Regardless of when the switchover takes place, viewers with cable or satellite systems, and many others with digital televisions purchased after 2004, need not do anything in anticipation of the deadline, nor will they notice much of a change afterward. But for those older and low-income viewers like Ms. Clemmons who still use set-top rabbit ears or rooftop antennas to pull in images of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" or "The Young and the Restless," the switchover to digital television has often proven a bewildering and cumbersome burden.

That so many viewers here and around the country risk losing something as basic as a free television signal is a function, at least in part, of the government’s failure to anticipate that those most affected would be among the nation’s most frail and vulnerable. Further aggravating the confusion and uncertainty has been that a coupon program established by Congress to defray the cost of converter boxes — each American household is entitled to two $40 vouchers, which cover most, if not all, of the cost of the adaptors — ran out of money in early January, leaving hundreds of thousands of applicants to languish on a waiting list. (The program has already issued more than $1 billion worth of coupons.)

Ms. Clemmons, a woman whose slight frame and white mane belie her taste in music — Pink Floyd, Ozzy Osbourne and Nine-Inch Nails are her favorites — said she had made several attempts to call the government’s toll-free number in recent days to request a coupon and had not been able to get through.

Ultimately she received peace of mind from an unlikely source: Meals on Wheels. For several months now, drivers and volunteers for the Houston-area program have been delivering and installing digital converter boxes for its clients — as a side dish alongside the baked chicken and stewed peaches that are their usual fare. Ms. Clemmons's turn came last week.

In Houston, which is the nation's 10th-largest television market and whose flat topography makes it relatively easy to watch TV with only an antenna, the problem is particularly acute: 1 in 10 households remains out of compliance, by Nielsen's estimates, ranking it behind only Albuquerque and Dallas.

Mindful of the need for such efforts, Consumers Union, the nonprofit advocacy group and publisher of Consumer Reports, is among those that lobbied Congress to put off the Feb. 17 deadline by four months. It has estimated the cost of replenishing the coupon program alone at nearly $1 billion, said Gene Kimmelman, vice president for international affairs. To defray the cost of the efforts by Meals on Wheels here, Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, the social service organization that administers the program, appealed last year to congregants in churches and synagogues around the city to donate the converter coupons they may have already received; more than 1,500 people answered that call.

"After I heard about the process of what it would take for a person to get the coupon, and get the boxes, I was pretty livid," said Bridget Samuel, chief operating officer for Interfaith. "I still go out on the routes making deliveries. Most of them are sitting in front of their TVs. They’re watching 'Price Is Right.' They're watching 'Judge Judy.' That’s their company."

Meals on Wheels is hardly the only entity in Houston, or around the country, that has been trying to bring viewers' outdated equipment into compliance. The National Association of Broadcasters estimates that its stations and networks, have, collectively, allotted more than $1 billion worth of advertising time to raise public awareness.

The CBS affiliate here, KHOU-TV, ran a series of tests during its local newscasts in which viewers were told that the analog signal was about to be temporarily replaced by the digital one — and that if their screens go to a test pattern, they should call the phone number listed to learn how to get up to date.

When KHOU and several other local stations ran the tests one day in December, nearly 14,000 viewers called the hot line in response. When the test was rerun on Jan. 6, 8,000 more calls were logged.

KHOU also joined with a local grocery chain, H-E-B, for a series of promotional events at which thousands of customers lined up to apply for coupons, and, if they already had them, to buy converter boxes. Most were able to do so at no personal expense, with H-E-B having priced the boxes at $40, the value of the coupons. (Other electronics retailers have been charging as much as $100.)

Through surveys of its nearly 4,000 clients, Meals on Wheels identified Ms. Clemmons as among those needing assistance. And so, on Jan. 21, Samantha Greenwood, the program’s assessment coordinator, arrived to install her converter box.

As it turned out, Ms. Greenwood couldn't get the converter, which is about the size of a cable box and is connected to both the antenna and TV, to work, because of some wiring problems in the back of Ms. Clemmons's Zenith. But she vowed that her husband, an engineer, would return well before the Feb. 17 deadline to solve the problem.

Ms. Clemmons, who risks losing access to "World News with Charles Gibson," her favorite news program, said she would be waiting.

Earlier that morning Ms. Greenwood had fared better in the apartment of Ramona DeFore, a widow in the same building who is also 77. On her own Ms. DeFore had gotten a coupon and a box but had been baffled as to how to connect it to her Magnavox TV, a set so old she couldn’t remember when she had bought it.

After Ms. Greenwood made the connection successfully, Ms. DeFore was able to tune in Channel 2, the local NBC affiliate, for the first time in years. "I think Phil is on 2," she said, with obvious excitement, in reference to "Dr. Phil." "I've missed him. I wish I had him a few years back, when I had my husband."

The House negates digital delay

Digital TV switchover is postponed

Hubble pix a prize

Here is an opportunity to celebrate the Year of Astronomy and win a prize.

"NASA Wants You to Decide Where It Should Look Next"

January 29th, 2009


NASA wants the public to determine where in the universe it will next aim the powerful Hubble Space Telescope.

The space agency is encouraging Internet surfers to log onto the Hubble Web site and vote for one of a six astronomical objects for the renowned telescope to examine for the first time.

The options, none of which the Hubble telescope has not previously photographed, include four distant galaxies (two of which are colliding), two planetary nebulas and one star-forming dust cloud.

Voting will end March 1. After voting is tabulated, Hubble's powerful camera will snap a high-resolution image revealing new details about the object that receives the most votes.

The photograph will be released in early April during the International Year of Astronomy's "100 Hours of Astronomy."

Each voter will be entered into a random drawing to receive one of 100 copies of the Hubble photograph made of the winning celestial body.

You can vote here.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Chemistry sets...back?

Dangerous Book for Boys

A new British book and related science kits are on the market and proving to be very popular. Will it work? Well, it can't mirror the old chemistry sets of A. C. Gilbert or Porter. Furthermore, one wonders if this isn't a nostalgia trip for dad and it is undermining the gender issue. Back in my father's day there was The Boy Mechanic.

The Boy Mechanic Volume 1

The Boy Mechanic Volume 2

The Boy Mechanic Volume 3
"Chemistry sets could become best-selling toys"

Chemistry sets inspired by the best-selling Dangerous Book for Boys are expected to become one of the hits of the year with children, as the toy industry goes "back to basics" to fight the recession.


Harry Wallop

January 28th, 2009

A British company has signed a deal with authors Conn and Hal Iggulden to produce a selection of science kits, costing £4.99, and packaged within boxes that look like the book.

The book, which sold more than half a million copies, tried to inject a few more scrapes, a bit more mud and explosions into the spare time of young boys. The science kits allow young children to make their own battery, or manufacture a rubber ball, or test out gravity, all with the help of some cheap materials and simple instructions.

The battery kit, for instance, contains some tin foil, a piece of wire, some copper coins and vinegar and instructions.

They were just one example of the toy industry moving away from high-tech robots and battery-operated gizmos towards more traditional and nostalgic games. Industry figures said the collapse of Woolworths, the country's third biggest toy retailer, has shaken the market, forcing toy makers to "go back to basics" after toy sales fell by 2 per cent last year. The increasing success of video games has also caused problems for some toy manufacturers.

The kits were unveiled at Wednesday's Toy Fair in London, which showcases the gadgets, toys and games that will be on the shelves later this year.

Role playing kitchens for toddlers, a new Playmobil range and a Sylvanian Families Caravan were all highlighted as some of the top new toys for 2009 by the British Toy & Hobby Association, which organises the fair. One of the likely stars is also expected to be Lego's innovative move into the board game market with its range of construct-your-own board games.

Bob Paton, the product manager of Interplay, the Buckinghamshire-based company, which has signed the license deal with the Iggulden brothers, said: "These science kits will be wonderful for boys to bond with their fathers."

"There is a real feel-good factor about them and a world away from video games. It is our job to distract children away from video games into real toys."

The Dangerous Book for Boys


Conn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden

ISBN-10: 0061243582
ISBN-13: 978-0061243585

A. C. Gilbert "U-238 Atomic Energy Lab"

The home chemist...long gone

Mr. Wizard...missed mentor

Mr. Wizard--more

New Book..."Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments..."

Some fun...some science toys

"Watch Mr. Wizard"--1954 episode

The House negates digital delay

I missed this one. I wonder how many lobbyists are mopping their sweaty brows with a smile on their faces. I bet PBS was there twisting arms.

"House fails to pass DTV delay bill"


John Wallace

January 28th, 2009


WASHINGTON--The House of Representatives on Wednesday failed to pass a bill to delay the nationwide switch to digital television signals by about four months.

The bill needed two-thirds of the votes of the House under special rules adopted for the vote.

Efforts to delay the transition date to June 12 from February 17 has been fueled by worries that 20 million mostly poor, elderly and rural households are not ready for the congressionally mandated switch.

President Barack Obama supports a delay, and the Senate passed the bill seeking a delay earlier this week.

"House Defeats Bill to Delay Digital TV Switch"


Brian Stelter

January 28th, 2009

The New York Times

Two days after the Senate unanimously approved a four-month delay of the digital television transition, the House of Representatives did not pass the same proposal on Wednesday, "leaving the current Feb. 17 deadline intact for now," the Associated Press reports.

"The 258-168 vote failed to clear the two-thirds threshold needed for passage in a victory for GOP members," according to the AP.

The legislation's failure means that the nation's television stations will have to switch from analog to digital broadcasting by Feb. 17, unless Congress takes other steps to delay the transition.

House Democrats may bring the bill up for a regular floor vote next week. That vote would only require majority support to pass. "Wednesday’s vote took place under a special procedure that required two-thirds support for passage," the AP reported.

Earlier this month, calling the government funds to support the switch "woefully inadequate," the Obama administration called on Congress to delay the Feb. 17 date. The switch requires consumers without a digital-ready TV who rely on over-the-air signals to install converter boxes for their TV sets. The Nielsen Co. estimates that more than six million households are still unready for the switch.

Some lawmakers have argued that a delay would only exacerbate the confusion about the transition. And local stations have noted that they have already budgeted funds for next month's switch. Keeping their analog signals on the air for four more months would require more money for power and maintenance costs.

"In my opinion, we could do nothing worse than to delay this transition date," said Joe Barton of Texas, the top Republican on the House Commerce Committee. "The bill is a solution looking for a problem that exists mostly in the mind of the Obama administration."

In a statement Tuesday, the Senate Commerce Committee chairman, John D. Rockefeller IV, said he was deeply disappointed by the Republicans' move to block the transition.

"Instead of delaying the transition to ensure that the most vulnerable among us have the ability to prepare for the transition, they have made certain that far too many consumers across the country will wake up on February the 18th and find that their television sets have gone dark and access to news, information, and vital emergency alerts will be unavailable," he said. "It did not have to be this way — this situation was unnecessary and avoidable."

Digital TV switchover is postponed