QotD: Darwin on why hypotheses matter

October 30, 2007

I sat in on a grad seminar the other day that presented lots of data, and whose “Goals” slide started with the words “To find out if….”. Much of the resulting input from the audience was of the sort: “Could your data suggest that..?”.

Reminds me of a story. A critic said that Darwin, in writing Origin, should have just “put his facts before us and let them rest”.

Darwin replied

“About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorize, and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!”

The best science is communicated as a narrative, a voyage of discovery, that presents your data in the light of different cool hypotheses.

That’s three parts to communicating science.

Data and hypothesis without a narrative ignores the fact that humans learn from stories.

Data and narrative without hypotheses is like watching a slide show from a stranger’s cross-country trip (“Where is this going fercryin’ out loud!?”).

Hypotheses and narrative without data is like an evening listening to free verse.

h/t Michael Shermer, Scientific American, October 2007


Happy Friday

October 26, 2007


big, big h/t to Sam Watterson and Calvin and Hobbes

The Power of the Personal Letter

October 26, 2007

typist_reporter_scribe_small.jpgIt’s funny. In the rush to be more productive, to squeeze more stuff into every day, we often times forget the importance of the personal touch.

Consider the email revolution.

Email has so supplanted postal mail as the primary form of written communication that a trip to the mailbox for most academics is a twice-a-week drudgery to empty the junk mail, pick up journals that are still not available online, unwrap (and give away) another complementary textbook, and notice what paper the administration deems important to send your way.

So it was with some surprise and intense curiosity yesterday that I found myself in front of my mailbox yesterday on the way out the door.

For you see, there was a letter. Not a bill. A letter, that, when opened, included a sheet of good paper with printed words on it that closed with a signature. It was so unexpected, it was special.

You can bet I answered it this morning.

So in this email world, consider the fact that postal mail now has a new, rather special function. It’s a form of “boutique” communication, just as special as a Fex Ex envelope.

And it gets noticed.

See also Your Personal Brand

QotD: Walter Kirn on Multitasking

October 24, 2007

Walter Kirn“This is the great irony of multitasking–that its overall goal, getting more done in less time, turns out to be chimerical. In reality, multitasking slows our thinking. It forces us to chop competing tasks into pieces, set them in different piles, then hunt for the pile we are interested in, pick up its pieces, review the rules for putting the pieces back together, and then attempt to do so, often quite awkwardly. ”

From Atlantic Monthly, November 2007

Q: Best portrayal of a graduate student in fiction?

October 21, 2007

question-mark.jpgWhen you think about it, graduate students should be great material for fiction.

Here are folks that are dropping everything in pursuit of knowledge (think “Razor’s Edge”); often living in abject poverty, willingly, for long periods toward achieving some higher goal (think “Ghandi“), well into the age when their friends are earning an honest living (think “Wall Street“).

Yet as I wrack my brain I can think of only a handful of depictions–in books or film–of the grad student life (concept album, anyone?). And most of these are bad, bad, bad.

But there is at least one that is good, good, good. My vote for the best portrayal of a graduate student ever. And the guy’s a field biologist no less!

Here’s your chance to set me straight, by the way. In the comments, tell me about your favorite fictional graduate student. Or, if you’re having as much trouble as I am, tell me a film that might as well be about grad school. In other words, just change the name of the workplace, switch the Muzak to Radiohead, and, presto, grad school!

OK, my vote for the best, most accurate portray of a grad student, below the fold.

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Bunch your obligations-earn yourself a “Big Idea Day”

October 19, 2007

OklahomaSunsetWe are big here on the notion that there are some activities, like reading and writing, you want to do every day. This kind of repeated attention builds good habits, allows you to get big projects done by breaking them down into little chunks, and keeps those projects in the forebrain, where you can cogitate about them.

But there is a case to be made that certain more mind-numbing activities should be allowed to accrue until you have a day’s worth of emails to return, forms to fill out, and papers to grade. This is the argument made by Cal Newport in a nifty discussion of “best practices” by professors and graduate students.

The gem here is the notion of carving out one day a week (or one more likely, one morning or afternoon) for “Administrative Nonsense Day“. This can be anything from doing your monthly bills to updating your web pages. The point is you want to maximize your creative time, uninterrupted by the (oft seductive) siren call of the piddly stuff. If you know that stuff will get done soon, it’s off your radar screen and allows you to concentrate on the stuff that matters long-term.

This leads to the doppleganger of “Administrative Nonsense Day” your “Big Idea Day” (sound of harp glissandos and angels singing). This is the day that you don’t answer your phone, hide at home and give yourself the luxury of a 15 hours of reading and sketching out the next paper, grant, or project. Nothing replaces large chunks of time to think. Nothing. You deserve them.

There is one more tactic that you may want to consider if you are one of the many grad students paying your way by being a Teaching Assistant. Say you are required to teach two (or, three) lab sections a week. Try to schedule them all on the same day. That’s right, the 9:00-12:00, the 1:00-4:00, and the 6:00-9:00 night lab. There is a good chance you will teach better (and be damned relaxed by the night lab) if you focus all your attentions on a subject in one day. If you maintain your proper balance of caffeine, water, Gatorade, and Cliff Bars, you will sail through.

Having done this myself at the ole UofA, the bonus comes with that gorgeous feeling of walking out into the cool desert air at 9:30PM, knowing that you have Big Idea Day waiting for you tomorrow and no teaching for six whole days.


A new feature: reading lists

October 19, 2007

Reading lists are the mix tapes of academia.

On occasion I will add to the reading list page above when I can think of five books that bear reading by graduate students in the sciences. Check out the first list: Five that Will Inspire You to Write Better.

QotD-Regina Spektor

October 16, 2007

Regina Spektor Begin to HopeThis is how it works
You’re young until you’re not
You love until you don’t
You try until you can’t
You laugh until you cry
You cry until you laugh
And everyone must breathe
Until their dying breath

No, this is how it works
You peer inside yourself
You take the things you like
And try to love the things you took
And then you take that love you made
And stick it into some
Someone else’s heart
Pumping someone else’s blood
And walking arm in arm
You hope it don’t get harmed
But even if it does
You’ll just do it all again

from On the Radio, by Regina Spektor

5 essentials for that committee meeting

October 4, 2007


Congratulations. You now have five academics that have agreed to mentor you as work toward your degree. Although not usually the most socially adept barnacles on the rock, academics expect to occasionally find themselves dragged from their lab benches, their desks, and their comfy “thinking-chairs”, to work with you, as a group, to advise you on your path. Here are a few tips to make the meeting go smoothly.

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