Thursday, August 20, 2009

Sir... you're gonna need to keep the noise down!!!!

As cities grow, their governments and citizens need to start worrying about their environmental effects. Everyone is familiar with air or water pollution and it is indisputable when it exists. There is however, a different but just as important pollution type, that not many people are aware of: noise pollution.

I started to think about this for two reasons, 1) the research group I work in can be loud, no I mean really loud and 2) I have an infant son who's woken up when the fucking neighbor and his motorcycle arrive or leave. It is amazing the possible negative health effects that noise pollution can have (from Wikipedia: annoyance and aggression, hypertension, high stress levels, tinnitus, hearing loss, sleep disturbances). Not fun at all. And that is only in humans. Animal environments suffer probably even more when noise is introduced into their area.

One big problem when it comes to regulating noise pollution is that a general agreement as to what sounds constitute pollution is not easy to be reached. I suspect my neighbor reeeeeeeeeeally likes his bike when it annoys me big time. Here's an area where scientists can really make an impact on society. By performing all kinds of studies and making those results available we could, maybe, change people's understanding of noise and its detrimental effect.

Thanks to Gabriel Iglesias for the title.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

How can no one complain?

Well, it is because they probably aren't aware of the problem. I don't know about you, but I find a bit funny and at the same time confusing the rules for college grading the US.

First of all, how can anyone guarantee that translating a number into a letter grade will be done uniformly across disciplines and also professors. As much as people claim that Chemistry is harder than History, or that Physics is harder than anything else, :P , an A in one class should mean the same in another: that the student has learned everything (or most, since the A-grade represents a range) that was expected. For all I can tell, getting an A means being in the ~10% of your class, even if the top student only has a max numeric grade of 80-85. I don't think I will ever understand this idea of curving, but if everyone plays by the same rules then I can see not many people complaining and having a more or less fair process. Maybe not representative of the true learning done by the students but at least fair.

There is, however, another issue that only came to my attention after I was on the other side of the line, not as a student but as TA and that really, really troubles me: If my final letter grade will depend on how everyone else does in the class, I better fucking know how everyone else in the class did.

Case in point: One student, who didn't show up for class in a regular basis, gets a final numeric grade of 77. Another student, who religiously attended lecture gets a 74. According to the letter grade breaks, both of them got a B but since the professor knew the 74 student and thought this person put enough effort, he bumped the student's grade up to an A (which given that semester's distribution was a 79 and above).

This, unfair actions in my opinion, will continue to happen because students are not allowed to know the other students grades. The B student might just think he/she was too far away from an A and leave it at that. I know I would be bothered by the idea that someone else who did by the quantifiable standards worse than I did got a better grade because the professor thought better of them than he did of me. I'd like to complain, but if I can't see that someone who did worse than me got a better grade then I have no proof and will always lose the battle.

I really don't know how often this type of situation happens but I have the feeling that it occurs way more often than I think it should. Plus, it just doesn't make sense that in a highly subjective grading scheme showing all the data (in this case grades) is forbidden by law.

I get it that some people might feel bad if their peers find out they got a failing, or barely passing, grade and they need some sort of "protection". But I am sure no one intended having these privacy laws to abuse the system.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Why Science?

There is no one in my family nor high school friends that has studied any scientific major. Some friends are engineers yes, but not scientists. No one has gone to grad school to pursue a PhD degree either. As such, every time I go back home and meet with them I always get questions about what I do. I try to explain in layman terms my research and I think I do a good job at painting the big picture.

The last time I went home, I was asked a different question: Why do you (as in Charro, not any person) study science? I gave a standard answer: because it is really important for the future of the human race to keep make scientific discoveries and given that my research could have some relevance in the medical field I might (directly or indirectly) save a few lives, who knows. A few hours later I thought about the question again and I couldn't come up with an honest, awesome reason.

I could've say that it is because I can't see myself doing anything else, but that is a lie. Although I like doing science, I actually enjoy other activities to the point were I could've majored on those fields. So, ultimate passion is not the reason. I could say that I do it for the money, but anyone in science can tell you that average science salaries are not that high. You can definitely make more money in some of those other areas that I like. Money is out too. I kept thinking and came up with few other "potential" reasons but at the end they also didn't really make sense to me.

After several days of putting thought into it, I think I found the answer. It is not convincing for many people nor is it a cool answer but it seems to be the truth. I do science because I knew nothing else when I was growing up. No I was/am not a genius and knew science facts since I was a kid, on the contrary my "knowledge" was purely empirical but somehow discovery and experimentation were always present during my childhood. I owe this to my grandpa. As I mentioned already, no one in my family has any science, or engineering, education but my grandfather was a poor farm boy that had to learn how to fix whatever stuff broke at home. This taught him many tricks of course, but I think even more importantly it taught him not to be afraid about a problem, but to get your hands on it as soon as you can and look for the solution.

When I was a kid both of my parents worked and my grandparents took care of me during the day. I had the opportunity to learn from my grandpa how to fix stuff around the house. I am sure many people have opportunities like this, but what (probably) made the difference in my case was that whenever we had a "project" he would show me a way to go about fixing the problem but always ended by saying: This is not the best way to do it, why don't you think about it and try to come up with a better solution.

Thinking about how to fix things better somehow made me think about the factors that mattered the most: use a longer lever to unscrew a stuck screw, use the ground friction to loosen up a tire's screws before lifting it up, unplug the oven before touching the wires (just kidding), etc... you get the point. All of it was empirical, I couldn't explain that the reason why it was better was the torque increases with the lever arm for example. I guess when I had the opportunity to go to college there was only one thing I could do: Physics. It just made sense. Now I can explain all of those tricks I learned when I was a kid. I can even draw fancy diagrams and intimidating (for my family) equations explaining different phenomena.

That is why I do science. Although my grandpa is not with me anymore, I keep trying to come up with better ways to solve problems (I can't let him down, right?). But it doesn't have to be the only reason why someone goes into science. Maybe sometimes I wish I had absolute passion, it might make the journey more enjoyable. Anyways, even though I could have done many things with my life I do not regret the experiences I've had in science. Plus, I save a lot of money fixing everything at home.

So... next time someone asks I'll have an honest answer