Teaching: the perfect two minute lesson

December 7, 2011

1Veritasium pulls it off in this little video,  asking “how far apart are the moon and the earth?”. Along the way he sends a message about some pretty complicated subjects–the concept of scale, the size of the universe, and why it is difficult to use images alone to capture the reality of distance.

The recipe starts with “man on the street” interviews. These set up the misconception and in the process send the viewer the empathic message, “hey, you’re not the only one.”  This is followed by a simple demonstration, using the long focus of the camera as an ally. Then simple graphics expand the idea and its implications. Finally, a 10 s summary: “The universe is truly bigger than we can imagine, and certainly bigger than we can draw to scale”.

Imagine a similar suite of videos on any difficult subject: enzymes, global warming, evolution. Imagine producing a suite of five or so on a science topic that interests you, posting them on your own Youtube channel. With your smiling face introducing each one. That’s one way to get noticed and to do a real service.  As a debunker of myths. As teacher of science.

Any great, short, science videos out there you want to bring to a wider audience?



Ernst Haeckel: high on biodiversity

December 3, 2011

Ernst Haeckel was a seminal biologist and one of the first theoreticians in evolutionary biology. He was also a crazy good artist, and his 100 plates highlighting invertebrate diversity are available for download. The files are big enough to turn into small posters. Three of my favorites below the fold.  Read the rest of this entry »

Presentations: Steve Jobs vs Bill Gates

December 3, 2011

A cold and rainy Saturday here in the heartland, and I’m plowing through my notes, compiling websites I think are particularly useful for the beginning academic, broken down by category (e.g., GTD techniques, technology, writing…).

If you have any such sites that you find indispensable, by all means leave a comment.

In the process, I stumbled upon this oldie but goodie from Garr Reynolds at Presentation Zen. Reynolds advocates the Zen approach to presentations:

The Zen aesthetic values include (but are not limited to):

  • Simplicity
  • Subtlety
  • Elegance
  • Suggestive rather than the descriptive or obvious
  • Naturalness (i.e., nothing artificial or forced),
  • Empty space (or negative space)
  • Stillness, Tranquility
  • Eliminating the non-essential

But, in an inspired bit of teaching, he advances his thesis by comparing the style of Bill Gates

with the late Steve Jobs.

Now, I am not advocating that you present your work backed up a dark screen (though I suspect you’d learn a lot by trying). However, anyone interested in communicating science can learn from  Steve Jobs and Garr Reynolds.

Know your brain: how to debunk a myth

December 1, 2011

Nowadays, scientists increasingly recognize the need to step up as teachers in the public sphere. However, many scientists labor under the delusion that if we make a good argument–airtight, logical, full of verified facts–then our job is done. If the recipient of our spiel doesn’t get it, then it’s on them (poor ignorant fool) we’ve done our part.

But convincing someone, especially when it means dissuading them of what they think they know, is far more complicated. The folks at Skeptical Science have a great resource–a downloadable PDF called the Debunking Handbook–that lays out the science and sociology of debunking myths. A bit of summary below the fold. Read the rest of this entry »

QOTD: Marc Maron

November 30, 2011













“I’m going to bleed on the page and laugh at the blood. ”


Creative types could do worse than to check out the podcasts of Marc Maron. The struggle to do something original, to have your voice heard, to make a difference. This is something we all share. Maron reveals the joys and neuroses of the creative life like no-one else.

Do it.


Using Google search–a few tips

November 29, 2011

A nice mashup here. As one who just types in a scree of words and hits “return”, I realize now I could probably do better. Here is their take on our old friend, Google Scholar.

Oh, what a piercing chill I feel…

November 29, 2011

Just when you think things couldn’t get worse. You’re already living at -1C, with urchins and starfish for neighbors.

Ahh great. A brinicle.

5 tips from Leonardo on fostering your creativity

November 27, 2011

Robert Krulwich (co-host of the Greatest Science Podcast Ever: RadioLab) writes in his NPR blog of a new book by Toby Lester on the life of Leonardo da Vinci. It never hurts to study the live’s of the great thinkers. All it takes is one good idea, one new habit, to change your life, incrementally, for the better. Here are a few things to think about.


Read the rest of this entry »

More Vonnegut on the art of writing

November 25, 2011

I mean, a lot of critics think I’m stupid because my sentences are so simple and my method is so direct: they think these are defects. No. The point is to write as much as you know as quickly as possible.

ht Christopher Buckley writing for the New York Times

See also On writing better–Kurt Vonnegut

Farewell Lynn Margulis

November 25, 2011

Lynn Margulis passed away last Tuesday 22 November 2011.

Margulis is best known for her serial endosymbiosis hypothesis: that eukaryotes are collections of co-evolved bacteria; that our mitochondria  were once free-living creatures that served up their ATPs to a host cell in exchange for free room and board.

It is a measure of a scientist’s life the number of hypotheses that go from heresy to dogma. Often one only really notices this when teaching undergrads. I used to enjoy, years ago, trying to blow the minds of freshman and sophomores by spinning stories of ancient collaborations in briny seas; how life “self assembled” in a cooperative framework. I’ll never forget the one year in Principles of Ecology, in the middle of waxing on about this great evolutionary milestone, when I caught the looks on the faces staring back. Distinctly bored; more than a little impatient.

“Errmm, so you know about this stuff?” I think I asked. “Doesn’t everybody?” said a pre-med.

This was Oklahoma. Margulis had won.

I end with a quote from the NYT obituary, linked above.

“More than 99.99 percent of the species that have ever existed have become extinct,” Dr. Margulis and Dorion Sagan wrote in “Microcosmos,” a 1986 book that traced, in readable language, the history of evolution over four billion years, “but the planetary patina, with its army of cells, has continued for more than three billion years. And the basis of the patina, past, present and future, is the microcosm — trillions of communicating, evolving microbes.”