Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Watching history unfold

November 3, 2008

“This is the first thing you need to understand about this country: nobody with this color skin will ever be president”
(My African American neighbor in Tallahassee (FL), his finger pointing to his own skin, as we were discussing the US democratic primary, in 1988 — I had lived in the US for one year, at that time)

I still cannot believe this is happening, and here I am, witnessing it. Maybe I am just getting old, but there is something truly extraordinary about this election, regardless of its final outcome. I cannot recall feeling so excited about an election. Nervous, shocked, angry, flabbergasted, desperate, many times. But this excited, never.
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Emphasizing concepts: Memorization is one of them

October 27, 2008

I know there is an algebra requirement for this course, but, how much/which algebra do I need ?
(Question asked of me by a number of students enrolling in introductory college physics)

Of course it’s not just about memorization. Of course memorizing formulae will not help, if one does not know when and how to apply them. But the fact that it is not all about memorization does not mean that no memorization should be required. One cannot learn physics without memorizing anything at all. Anyone who claims to be able to teach physics (or anything else) without any memorization is almost certainly a quack.
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Lame Postdiction

October 15, 2008

The difference between theorists and experimentalists can be summed up as follows:
experimentalists observe what nobody can explain, theorists explain what nobody can observe

(Some experimentalist)

My prediction that in the newly elected Canadian House of Commons there would be no difference greater than ten seats for any of the four major parties missed the mark. Oh, well.
According to unofficial results, the Conservative Party has gained 19 seats (going from 124 to 143) with respect to the last general election, whereas the Liberals lost 27 (from 103 to 76). My predictions were accurate for the New Democratic Party (NDP), which posted an 8-seat gain (from 29 to 37), for the Bloc Québécois (from 51 to 50) and for the Green Party, which, predictably, did not elect a single representative, much like in 2006.

What lesson should be drawn ? That Canada is indeed ideologically drifting to the right, as alleged a few weeks ago by Conservative leader Stephen Harper, widely expected to retain his position of Prime Minister ? That the Liberal Party is bleeding consensus to the benefit of the Conservatives on the right, and to a lesser extent of the NDP on the left ?
I am not convinced by the above arguments. By looking at the numbers, and by comparing them with those from 2006, besides the obvious fact that the Liberals are struggling at the present time, I see more than one reason for both Stephen Harper and NDP leader Jack Layton to be worried about yesterday’s results. It is actually far from clear whether the country has moved anywhere over the past two years. This is scarcely surprising, in many respects, and suggests that this election may well be remembered, above all, for its untimeliness.
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Bold prediction

October 13, 2008

“Only those who have the guts to make predictions, make the wrong ones sometimes”
(Legendary Italian football commentator Gianni Brera, notorious for his consistently off-target score predictions)

What outcome do I expect for tomorrow’s federal election ? Most polls concur in that the Conservative Party of outgoing Prime Minister Stephen Harper will retain the relative majority of seats in the Canadian House of Commons, but will fall short of garnering an outright majority thereof. Indeed, it is quite plausible that the next House, in terms of seat assignments, will be very similar to the one in place until the end of Summer.
Such a scenario would suggest that Canada will be governed by another (the same ?) minority cabinet, headed by Stephen Harper. If that were the case, in many respects one could argue that it would be as if this election had not been held at all, in a sense confirming the doubts that many of us have harbored all along about both the motives and the wisdom of calling an election at this time (I suspect that Mr. Harper himself is going to wish, in the end, that he could turn the clock back and act differently).
There are reasons, however, that lead me to believe that the “obvious” scenario will not take place.
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PhD thesis ? No, thanks…

October 5, 2008

Why would we change our way of doing this ? After all, we have done it this way for years…
(haven’t we all heard these words many times ?)

The writing of the dissertation is traditionally a culminating moment for a doctoral candidate. After completing a number of demanding courses, writing exams and, over the course of a few years, building a research portfolio and having matured as a scholar in a specific field, a PhD candidate is expected to “put it all together”. His/her thesis will be examined by the advisors and the committee members, and defended by the candidate him/herself at the doctoral exam.
Writing a thesis is a challenging task; one need only look at the number of blogs devoted to the very tribulations experienced by PhD candidates during the process. To be sure, it has also served a valuable purpose for many years, as a worthwhile intellectual exercise, for a number of different reasons.
However, I think that the circumstances in academia have evolved over the past few decades, to the point where in some fields, e.g., in the sciences, I am no longer sure that there is a real need, or even a point, for students to spend a significant portion of their last year in school writing a comprehensive recount of their graduate work.
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On teaching large freshman classes

September 28, 2008

Arlenna has a post on the physical and mental challenges that teaching poses to instructors.
I can easily relate to what she writes. My own teaching schedule is fairly demanding this term, including both a graduate course as well as a large introductory physics class for life science majors (200 registered students). One of the things that frustrate many a college professor is the lack of appreciation for the effort required to teach a large freshmen course, not only on the part of those who themselves have never taught, but also of university administrators and even of faculty colleagues (typically those who are most skillful at avoiding the most onerous teaching duties).
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Bimodal distributions of student achievement

September 14, 2008

“There is nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos”
Jim Hightower

There used to be a time, not so long ago, when exam scores of students taking college physics were distributed on a curve resembling the usual Normal distribution. This was almost invariably the case in large introductory physics classes, but the same observation also applied to advanced senior courses, typically attended by relatively few (e.g., ten or less) students per year (as one could ascertain by lumping together data from a few consecutive years).
This meant that the bulk of the students would perform comparably, as one would intuitively expect. In turn, this allowed an instructor to gauge the level of the material covered in class, as well as the presentation thereof, based on how well most of the students seemed to assimilate it (and rendered grading much easier too).
Increasingly, however, over the past decade I have been observing Bimodal distributions of student achievement, in the classes that I have taught, including at the graduate level.
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Too much center

September 7, 2008

“Reasonable people adapt themselves to surrounding conditions…
Unreasonable people try to adapt surrounding conditions to themselves…
Thus, all progress depends on unreasonable people.”

George Bernard Shaw

My adoptive country is headed toward a general election, in little over a month. For me, it is not only the first time in over 21 years that I get to vote in a general election, it will also be the first time in a country other than the one where I was born (and whose football team I continue to support in spite of recurring disappointments… OK, let’s not go there today).
I am rather interested in politics, and have watched fairly closely the Canadian political scene since I first moved here, six years ago. I am reasonably familiar with the ideological landscape and with the choices before electors. As it turns out, due to the electoral system currently in vigor in Canada (as in many other western countries), I, as well as many another voter, shall likely opt to cast a “strategic” vote, instead of expressing a preference most closely reflecting my political leanings.
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In defense of whining postdocs

August 20, 2008


Taken from Indexed

Incoherent Ponderer expresses his feelings about whiners in a recent post, inspired by this blog entry at Indexed.
The one thing that annoys me the most about whining is that it often works. My personal life observation is that the squeaky wheel will indeed get the grease, while the wheel next to it, perhaps in equally bad if not worse shape, but doing its job without producing any annoying sound, will be ignored (until it too starts squeaking).
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Cold enough for you ?

August 13, 2008


It’s the Netherlands, I have to have a picture of windmills…

Left Amsterdam two days ago. A very pleasant stay it was, although the weather has not been cooperating much (rained almost non stop over the past five days). Things are no better in Egham (UK), where I am staying until next week. Not only is it raining here too (not surprising an occurrence in England, I suppose), it is actually quite chilly…
Altogether, I am attending four different conferences during this European trip (the other three in Wroclaw, Egham and Trieste). The meeting that I attended in Amsterdam is a decent size one by physics standards (approximately 1300 delegates), with presentations and posters spanning different areas of experimental and theoretical research, mostly in condensed matter and atomic physics. Actually, though, all four are centered around the same general broad theme, namely low temperature physics.
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