September 16, 2011

Science tourism: transit of Venus

Venus doesn't pass between the Earth and the sun very often.
Transits in 1761 and 1769 -- they occur in widely-spaced pairs -- were used to make the first accurate estimates of the size of the solar system.

If you missed it in 2004, June 5 of 2012 is your last chance, unless you expect to be alive in 2117.
Here's some useful information, if you want to plan to see it.

February 19, 2010

Science fairs versus real scientific meetings

"But there's an invitation to read my paper before the Academy of Science." -- John Steinbeck, Sweet Thursday
This is part of a series on science fairs; click "science fairs" at right for more.

If you're a kid interested in science, people may encourage you to do a science project and enter it in a science fair. I agree with the "science project" part, but I'm not so sure about the "science fair" part. The thing I don't like about science fairs is the idea that someone wins and everyone else loses. That's very different from the way real science works.

We scientists do like to get together and tell other scientists about our projects. Some of us give talks, to audiences of a few other scientists or hundreds. Others put up "poster presentations", which are pretty similar to the displays at science fairs. The posters are typically up for at least a day, as part of a meeting lasting several days, but there are specific times scheduled when scientists will be at their poster to answer questions.

But, with a few exceptions, nobody is in charge of "judging" talks or posters. People ask questions and sometimes make positive or negative comments, but a student can criticize a Nobel-prize winner; there aren't any "judges."

When I was in high school in Oregon, the Oregon Junior Academy of Science put on real scientific meetings like this, where high-school students presented their work and discussed it with other young scientists. If there was any judging going on, it wasn't emphasized enough for me to remember it. It was an honor just to have your talk accepted for presentation, like it was for "Doc", the character (based on real-world scientist Ed Ricketts) speaking in the quote above. Most US states still have a Junior Academy of Science, but I get the impression that many are now infected by judging. Too bad. There's also a national American Junior Academy of Sciences, which meets alongside the grownup version, the American Association for the Advancement of Science or AAAS. Meetings of the AAAS always look interesting; I should go to one some year, but I usually end up spending my meeting-travel budget on more specialized meetings.

Although the Oregon Junior Academy of Science talks weren't judged, the rewards sometimes went beyond the satisfaction of interesting discussions. One year, six of us were offered an expense-paid trip to the national Junior Science and Humanities Symposium. There were only two catches. We had to give our talk at the state symposium, which was easy and fun. And... the state and local symposia are sponsored by the military.

This was the height of the Vietnam War, for which men about our age were being drafted to die propping up a South Vietnamese government that didn't seem to be any more democratic than the rebels -- I guess we would call them "terrorists" now -- trying to overthrow them. Lots of Vietnamese civilians were being killed, too, and the National Guard had just shot several students at Kent State. Nobody in the Oregon group was very enthusiastic about the military, but we agreed to go, anyway....

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March 20, 2009

No butterflies were harmed by this research

With a species using cryptic resemblance [camouflage] for its protection, the very existence of neighbours involves a danger to the individual, since the discovery of one by a predator will be a step in teaching it to recognize the crypsis. With an aposematic [bad-tasting, warning-coloration] species, on the other hand, the existence of neighbours is an asset, since they may well serve to teach an inexperienced predator the warning pattern. -- William Hamilton, 1964
This week's paper describes research that could have been a winning science fair project. "Does colour polymorphism enhance survival of prey populations?", published online by Lena Wennersten and Anders Forsman in Proceedings of the Royal Society, helps answer an interesting evolutionary question, using materials available in many kitchens.

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March 3, 2009

Science Fair Secrets 4: start early, work hard

This is a series (copyright R Ford Denison) on the secrets of winning science fair projects. Click "science fairs" under Categories (at right) for more.

Two high school students who did projects in our lab (Kyra Underbakke and Tiffanie Stone) have now won trips to the International Science Fair. Is there something magic about our lab? Both students had excellent mentoring, from my grad students Will Ratcliff and Ryoko Oono. So that's one Science Fair Secret: look for a smart mentor who's willing to spend some time helping you explore ideas and methods. The evolutionary focus in our lab may have helped the students ask more scientifically interesting questions, but we aren't curing cancer or saving cute endangered species (with the possible exception of organic farmers!).

But the most obvious characteristic these two winners had in common was their willingness to put many (hundreds?) of hours into their projects, starting in spring and working through the summer and winter breaks, spending long hours in the lab when other students were off on vacation.

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May 1, 2008

Science fair secrets 3: The $250 science lab

This is part of a series (copyright R Ford Denison) on the secrets of winning science fair projects. Click "science fairs" under Categories (at right) for more.

It is quite possible to do good experimental science fair projects using only everyday materials (rulers, paper cups, etc.). However, a small investment in inexpensive scientific apparatus can greatly expand the range of feasible experiments. For a fraction of the cost of a desktop computer, you can measure weight (mass), volume, temperature, acidity (pH), and light, all with sufficient accuracy to generate useful data. Unlike a computer, this equipment won't be obsolete in two years, or in twenty. These prices are old, so it might be a $275 science lab by now. On the other hand, these are all new prices; used would be cheaper. Items earlier on the list are most widely useful. Add an inexpensive microscope and you'll be about as well-equipped as Darwin. Aside from the boat, gun, greenhouse, and assistants, of course.

Compare with this much more ambitious home lab. Before spending that kind of money, I would wait and see what direction my research was going.


Triple beam pan balance (600 g x 0.1 g).......$ 93.00
Graduated cylinders (100 mL).................2 for 11.00
Multitester (use with sensors below)..............24.99
Mini-hook adaptors for above.............................2.59
Thermistors, for temperature (2 @ 1.99)...........3.98
Photocell assortment, for light............................1.98
Red-fluid thermometers (2 @ $6.50)................13.00
Acid/base pH indicator paper...........................13.30
Range extension set for balance (2 kg) ........24.95

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February 22, 2008

Science Fair Secrets 2: Repeat Your Experiment

This is part of a series (copyright R Ford Denison) on the secrets of winning science fair projects. Click "science fairs" under Categories (at right) for more.

Like the first secret, this one is spelled out in the instructions to judges, but it seems to be a secret from the students. Don't tell anyone I let it out!

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February 16, 2008

Science Fair Secrets 1: Use Scientific Sources

This blog is usually about the latest research on evolution, but this is the first in a planned series on the secrets of winning science fair projects. Click "science fairs" under Categories (at right) for more on science fairs.

This week's "secret" isn't secret from the judges -- it's right in the judging instructions -- but students don't seem to know about it. The secret is to use scientific magazines and books (not just web pages) in designing and explaining your project. This will automatically raise your score a few points, in addition to improving the project itself.

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July 12, 2007

Rhizobia, pesticides, and peer review

I have some comments on a recent paper that's only tangentially related to evolution. Actually, it's more relevant to science fair projects, the topic of my last post.

One type of science fair project my fellow judges and I are really sick of is "The effect of X on plants", where X is mouthwash, vinegar, cola, etc. The obvious question, which we always ask, is "how often are plants in the field exposed to high concentrations of mouthwash?" Unfortunately, whoever reviewed this paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, claiming that "Pesticides reduce symbiotic efficiency of nitrogen-fixing rhizobia and host plants" apparently failed to ask this question.

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July 9, 2007

Gifted education and science fairs

I have linked to Terence Tao's blog for some time, because a surprising number of people come here from there. But, although I am more comfortable with math than some biologists, I don't have any idea what most of his posts are about. On the other hand, his career advice seems good and widely applicable. A recent post on gifted education seems like good advice both for parents and for any gifted students who might be reading this.

I've always been annoyed by the competitive aspect of science fairs. I worry that students who do a really good project are going to feel like they wasted their time if they don't win a particular prize. In Oregon, where I went to high school, there was an annual scientific meeting for high school students. It was considered an honor to have your talk or poster accepted for presentation, but it was an honor within the reach of any reasonably smart student who worked for it. It was great talking to other students about their projects, without worrying about winning or losing. Sure, a student thinking about grad school needs to know that competition for research faculty positions and grants is intense, but why kill the joy of science at an early age?