Category Archives: Uncategorized

Guild of Scientific Troubadours

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything.  The ongoing quarter and my travel schedule have interfered with posting.  

I just discovered a super cool organization known as the Guild of Scientific Troubadours.  In order to become a member of the Guild, you must pledge  “to write, record and submit one song per month based on a story in one of a number of scientific publications.”  The basic idea is that songwriters write catchy pop songs about current scientific discoveries.  Can’t wait until someone writes a little ditty about epidemic thresholds in two-sex network models.

Regaining a Science and Technology Edge

Here’s a crazy idea from venture capitalist John Doerr: Don’t kick foreign students whom we have trained in science and engineering at our elite universities out of the country after they graduate.  Let them work in the United States where their education has almost certainly been subsidized in some way by the government and, ultimately, American taxpayers — “staple a green card to the diploma” as it were. This guy is nuts.  That is way too sensible…

On Productive Stupidity

This essay by UVA cell biologist, Martin Schwartz, pretty much encapsulates the way I feel about the practice of science.  If I perfectly understand everything I’m doing at any given moment, something is wrong.  I want to be uncomfortable in my understanding of any given question I am asking or method that I am employing.  Otherwise, I don’t think that I would be growing as either a scientist and humanist.

Scientific perspectives in Anthropology are increasingly rare. This past year, I sat on our department’s graduate admissions committee and I was struck by a theme that emerged in the personal statements prospective students made.  They really had it all figured out.  A typical essay would have the form “At Stanford I will expand on topic X and show Y.”  Sure, they’d learn probably some rhetorical tricks and gather some social capital along the way, but what more did they really need to know about the world around them? My perspective on this was how can you know what you will show if you haven’t even designed your study or collected data?  It would be so refreshing to read a personal statement that took the form “Isn’t it funny the way X does Y?  I wonder why that is.” The Jerry Seinfeld approach to science, I suppose. Quoting Schwartz’s essay,

Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice. Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. No doubt, this can be difficult for students who are accustomed to getting the answers right. No doubt, reasonable levels of confidence and emotional resilience help, but I think scientific education might do more to ease what is a very big transition: from learning what other people once discovered to making your own discoveries. The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.

Perhaps we can foster a future generation of productively stupid anthropologists here in the Ecology and Environment program within the Anthropology department.  Fostering stupidity in a world too full or arrogant certitude may be one of the greatest challenges facing the academy of the twenty-first century.  Here’s to bumbling…

Trying out the LaTeX Plugin

This is an experiment to see how the WordPress \LaTeX plugin works.  What better equation to try out than the Euler-Lotka equation:

 1 = \int_{\alpha}^{\beta} e^{-ra} l(a)m(a) da

where \alpha is age at first reproduction, \beta is age at last reproduction, r is the intrinsic rate of population increase, l(a) is the proportion surviving to exact age a, and m(a) is the fertility rate of women age a.

Top Five Sports I Didn't See on the NBC Olympic Coverage

OK, this isn’t really about population, infectious disease or human ecology, but I’ve been thinking about it this morning:

  1. Team handball
  2. Fencing
  3. Table Tennis
  4. Badminton
  5. Women’s Pole Vault

I like beach volleyball as much as anyone, but the Olympics are really the only chance the average viewer has to watch any of these other cool sports.   May and Walsh were awesome, but there are other sports besides beach volleball, swimming, track & field, and gymnastics.  It’s a shame that what we see on Olympic coverage comes down to the fact that Kerri Walsh’s teeny-weeny bikini sells more Budweiser than watching May Mangkalakiri and Eva Lee thwack a shuttlecock. 

It's Not Just Crumbling Bridges...

Infrastructure is a major problem for moving forward into any sort of vision of a new green economy.  This article in the New York Times is a little depressing.  The electrical transmission infrastructure simply isn’t there to allow us to take full advantage of green energy generation technologies (e.g., wind farms or large solar arrays in deserts).  Let’s hope that we can get serious about the substantial investments that need to be made to turn this country (and our world) around.  It might help if we could stop hemorrhaging money from ill-conceived wars.