Friday, September 30, 2011

Rethinking further education!

The argument in favor of government funding of education, is that an educated population is for the general benefit of the citizenry.
The argument in favor of doing this via a loan provision rather than by direct subsidy is that this provides a handle whereby market mechanisms can dictate subject choices.
The idea of a liberal education is a worthy one, and one of relevance to me where some of my adult courses are offered to the long term unemployed via a back to education initiative. 
On this program we have been instructed that it is no longer considered appropriate to enroll post retirement individuals, as they are unlikely to re-enter the workforce.
This restriction arises because the money comes from the European Social Fund which was set up to reduce differences in prosperity and living standards across the EU and is devoted to promoting employment.
The model here is clearly two fold.
 1) Education impacts on society primarily by increasing the amount and quality of employment. This argument is suspect when you consider the high levels of education and unemployment in some of the countries involved in the Arab spring.
2) Differences in prosperity in the EU can be reduced by making Germany pay for the rest of us. This may work, but may not have been what the politicians were thinking of when they framed the legislation. 
It may be time to rethink this program as EU funding is getting tight.
it may now be the right time to give all such students a good background in the Stioc philosophy, rather than waving the chimera of "wonderful hi tech jobs waiting" in front of them.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Relativity and how we do science: Some first thoughts.

Last Friday, I heard the tail end of a news item indicating that scientists had observed particles travelling faster than light.  This refutes Einstein’s theory of special relativity, and is not the first time that one or other piece of scientific work has come out punching holes in this classic reformulation of how the universe works.  The last time I read such claims it was Al Kelly, who published something in an Irish engineering journal, and the time before that I think it was someone who had two box shaped areas deep underground in Greenland where it was predicted to fail for about three milliseconds twice a year.
As someone claiming to be a scientist, we are used to such things, and treat them with the same sense of intelligent enquiry with which we approach a stage magician. We look carefully and try to work out what the trick is.
This is part of our natural defences. Our belief in science builds in filters which allow to concentrate on the significant changes which move theory forward and filer out all the noise of magnets purifying water, anti gravity and alien visitations.
Later that morning I heard that it was scientist from CERN, and that they had seen something like 15,000 such particles.
This moves it from being a silly season story to something that needs more attention.  I now started chasing up more information, read the preprint and noted that the author list seemed to have around 100 scientists, who are operating within their field, and all of whom have a lot to lose if they have got this wrong. (Scientists are classily good at getting things wrong once they get away from their speciality, Pons and Fleischmann and Pauling on mega doses of vitamin C being examples of this.) I go back and chase up what I know of superluminal activity. Cherenkoff radiation happens when particles exceed the speed of light in a medium, Loci i.e. non material things such as the point where a rotating light beam hits a wall if far enough away from it, or the scan point of the electron beam hitting an oscilloscope screen can travel faster than the speed of light too. And there is a whole theory of faster than light particles, Tachyons, which come out of second solution set to the equations, and which can be imagined as slowing down as you add energy to them.
I’m not going to comment on the truth or otherwise of the claims. My physics is not sharp enough to punch holes in the paper as presented. What interests me is how I evaluate the claims.  My initial reaction was a time worn and healthy scientific scepticism.
When the evidence was re presented with a powerful ad hominum argument (CERN) I then go to evaluate the argument on its internal consistency by examining the paper, and look to my network of knowledge to see where this new piece of evidence fits in.
This is, I think, how most of us do science.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Starting into a new MOOC I was pleased to encounter an old friend, who I never met, now dead, Richard Feynman.

I’ve signed up for a MOOC on creativity or maybe connectionism (actually Creativity and Multicultural Communication) and one of the readings for this week was a memoir by Daniel Hill on Richard Feynman and The Connection Machine.
Richard Feynman is one of my greats.
 In this memoir we see him in what has to be his greatest role, as a communicator.  Feynman diagrams for physicists are a way of making some very complicated mathematics seem simple. This was Richards great gift: to communicate across cultural divides and explore strange areas of science, often showing the natives things they were unaware of.  In exploring other territories he sometimes found the obvious, but he also often saw things that local practitioners were to close to see, such as the reduction of risk assessments as they went up the NASA management chain in the challenger crash, where he was a key player in discovering the cause of the disaster.

I think this is probably why this reading was included, as an example of a practitioner of multicultural communication.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Education is not science!

This piece evolved from a comment on a blog piece here 

As some one moving from a background as a computational chemist into education there has been a very significant culture change.
Within science, we are used to a solution space with one of a few optimal solutions. We believe in the concept of an objective truth which can, in priciple, for the most part, be established by a series of reproducable experimental tests.
Education is different, its like art:  There is no best picture, there are a load of different pictures, some of which need a lot of theory to make them work, some of which just look good.  No picture appeals to every one, though some of them can be condemned by just about every one as being a load of crap.  And, at the high end there's a specialized group of art critics and artists who practice in little specialized bubbles where they play glass bead games with each other. 

Its not a science, and we don't have educational engineering as a specialty yet.