Happy Birthday to The Science Guy Tuesday, Sep 10 2013 

On 10 July 1917, Donald Herbert Kemske (later known as Donald Jeffry Herbert) was born in Waconia, Minnesota. Back when university educations were a bit more about education and a bit less about establishing vocation, Donald studied general science and English at La Crosse State Normal College (which is now the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse). But Donald liked drama, and he became an actor. When World War II broke out, Donald joined the US Air Force, flying over 50 missions as a bomber pilot.

After the war, Donald began to act in children’s programs at a radio station in Chicago. Perhaps it was because of his love of children’s education, perhaps it was the sudden visibility of the power of science, as evidenced by the nuclear bomb, or perhaps something else – but Donald had an idea for a tv show based around general science experiments. And so Watch Mr. Wizard was born on 3 March 1951 on NBC. (When I think about it, I’m surprised at how early this was in the life of television programming). Each week, a young boy or a girl would join Mr. Wizard (played by Donald) on a live tv show, where they would be shown interesting and easily-reproducible science experiments.

Watch Mr. Wizard was the first such tv program, and one might argue that its effects are still felt today. A total of 547 episodes of Watch Mr. Wizard aired. By 1956, over 5000 local Mr. Wizard science clubs had been started around the country; by 1965, when the show was cancelled by NBC, there were more than 50000. In fact, my parents have told me of Mr. Wizard and his fascinating programs. Such was the love and reach of Mr. Wizard that on the first Late Night Show with David Letterman, the guests were Bill Murray, Steve Fessler, and Mr. Wizard. He’s also mentioned in the song Walkin’ On the Sun by Smash Mouth. Were it possible for me to credit the many scientists that certainly owe their

I mention this because the legacy of Mr. Wizard was passed down. Don Herbert passed away on June 12, 2007. In an obituary published a few days later, Bill Nye writes that “Herbert’s techniques and performances helped create the United States’ first generation of homegrown rocket scientists just in time to respond to Sputnik. He sent us to the moon. He changed the world.” Reading the obituary, you cannot help but think that Bill Nye was also inspired to start his show by Mr. Wizard.

In fact, 20 years ago today, on 10 September 1993, the first episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy aired on PBS. It’s much more likely that readers of this blog have heard of Bill Nye; even though production of the show halted in 1998, PBS still airs reruns, and it’s commonly used in schools (did you know it won an incredible 19 Emmys?). I, for one, loved Bill Nye the Science Guy, and I still follow him to this day. I think it is impossible to narrow down the source of my initial interest in science, but I can certainly say that Bill Nye furthered my interest in science and experiments. He made science seem cool and powerful. To be clear, I know science is still cool and powerful, but I’m not so sure that’s the popular opinion. (As an aside: I also think math would really benefit from having our own Bill Nye).

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Ghostwritten Word Friday, Dec 2 2011 

I’ve just learned of the concept of ghostwriting, and I’m stunned.

A friend and fellow grad student of mine cannot believe that I’ve made it this far without imagining it to be possible. I asked around, and I realized that I was one of the few who wasn’t familiar with ghostwriting.

Before I go on, I should specify exactly what I mean. By ‘ghostwriting,’ I don’t mean situations where the President or another statesman gives a speech that they didn’t write themselves, but that was instead written by a ghostwriter. That makes a lot of sense to me. I refer to the cases where a student goes to a person or service, gives them their assignment, and pays for it to be completed. And by assignment, I don’t just mean 20 optimization problems in one variable calculus. I mean things like 20 page term papers on the parallels between the Meichi Revolution and American Occupation in Japan, or 50 page theses, or (so it’s claimed by some) doctoral dissertations.

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Daily Math in Zagreb Tuesday, May 24 2011 

So I’m in Zagreb now, and naturally this means that I’ve not updated this blog in a while. But this is not to say that I haven’t been doing math! In fact, I’ve been doing lots, even little things to impress the girl. ‘Math to i-impress the g-girl?’ you might stutter, a little insalubriously. Yes! Math to impress the girl!

She is working on finishing her last undergrad thesis right now, which is what brings us to Croatia (she works, I play – the basis for a strong relationship, I think… but I’m on my way to becoming a mathematician, which isn’t really so different to play). After a few ‘average’ days of thesis writing, she has one above and beyond successful day. This is good, because she is very happy on successful days and gets dissatisfied if she has a bad writing day. So what does a knowledgeable and thoughtful mathematician do? It’s time for a mathematical interlude –

Gambling and Regression to the Mean

There is a very well-known fallacy known as the Gambler’s Fallacy, which is best explained through examples. This is the part of our intuition that sees a Roulette table spin red 10 times in a row and thinks, ‘I bet it will spin black now, to ‘catch up.’ ‘ Or someone tosses heads 10 times in a row, and we might start to bet that it’s more likely than before to toss tails now. Of course, this is fallacious thinking – neither roulette nor coins has any memory. They don’t ‘remember’ that they’re on some sort of streak, and they have the same odds from one toss to another (which we assume to be even – conceivably the coin is double-sided, or the Roulette wheel is flat and needs air, or something).

The facts that flipping a coin always has about even odds and that the odds of Roulette being equally against the gambler are what allow casinos to expect to make money. It also distinguishes them from games with ‘memory,’ such as blackjack (I happen to think that Bringing Down the House is a fun read). But that’s another story.

But the related concept of ‘Regression to the Mean’ holds more truth – this says that the means of various sets of outcomes should eventually approximate the expected mean (perhaps called the ‘actual mean’ – flipping a coin should have about half heads and half tails, for instance). So if someone flips a coin 20 times and gets heads all 20 times, we would expect them to get fewer than 20 heads in the next 20 throws, Note, I didn’t say that tails are more likely than heads!

Back to the Girl

So how does this relate? I anticipated that the next day of writing would not be as good as the previous, and that she might accordingly be a bit disappointed with herself for it. And, the next day – she was! But alas, I came prepared with sour cherry juice (if you’ve never had it, you’re missing out), and we picked up some strawberries. Every day is better if it includes sour cherry juice and strawberries.

A Bag’s Journey in Search of its Owner Tuesday, Mar 29 2011 

This is the story of a bag,
who lost its owner and trav’led the whole world!
And though it left with lots o’ tags attached,
She absolutely lost it, when she flied.

How many days would it be?
She arrived with hope, but found only tears.
The bag just disappeared,
so she flew in without any gear.
But she gets a call the next morning,
“Where are you, your bag is right here!”
Thousands of miles afar.
When she looks in the mirror so how does she choose?
The same clothes worn day after day.
When travelling homeward bound,
her bag seems never to be found.

This is the story of a bag,
who lost its owner and trav’led the whole world!
And though it left with lots o’ tags attached,
She absolutely lost it, when she flied.

[loosely to “Story of a Girl”]

This is one of those strange stories – girl gets ready for flight from Atlanta to New York to Prague, girl ends up going Atlanta to Norfolk to New York to Prague, but bag ends up going Atlanta to New York to Atlanta to New York to Prague to New York to Atlanta to a warehouse to Atlanta to New York to Prague to Krakow… you know, the typical story. To be fair, the flight change through Norfolk as opposed to a direct to New York was last minute, and it makes sense for the bag to have been detained in New York. Perhaps it would make it on a later flight to Prague – such is life.

But nothing so simple occurred. The bag makes it to Prague, and when the girl notes that the bag should be sent to her home, one might expect the story to end. Instead, the bag ends up back in New York, then back in Atlanta. Of course, girl doesn’t know this – it’s all a big mystery (as she borrows friends’ clothing, of course). Fortunately, a Delta worker named Carl (I think) finds this bag and its tag in this warehouse, looks it up and calls girl. Girl asks for it to be shipped to her – no problem, he says. Carl is very good at his job, I think, and I commend him. Unfortunately, the bag gets to Prague again and somehow whatever instructions were once somehow connected to the bag are lost. So now someone at Prague calls up girl – what do you want to do with this bag? So the bag goes to Krakow, but that’s okay. That’s where the girl found the bag.

A very logical route, one might say.