A Chilling Effect

by James Morris

Recently, I attended a conference on Digital Education at the Google Headquarters in New York. Ironically, one of the lessons I took away from the conference was not digital at all. And this lesson seems particularly fitting at this time of year, with winter storm Jonas battering the east coast and leaving mountains of snow in its wake…
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Biology’s Sherlock Holmes

by Andrew Berry
Guest contributor

This month, Andrew Berry, evolutionary biologist and historian of science in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, shares with us the strange case of the evolutionist and the highest mountain in the world.

In 1875, Captain J. A. Lawson published Wanderings in New Guinea detailing his journeys through one of the least known parts of the planet. Setting off from the south coast, Lawson crossed New Guinea at its widest part, coming to within 25 miles of the north coast before retracing his steps. Of the five local men who accompanied him, only two survived.

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Point of View

by James Morris

In Dead Poet’s Society, the late Robin Williams urged his students to stand on their desks to look at the world in a different way. This is a fitting message for this week, as November 24, 2015 marks the 156th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. This book challenged us all to do just that.

Photo credit: Ella Daniels-Koch

Photo credit: Ella Daniels-Koch

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How Science Really Works

by Daniel Hartl
Guest contributor

This month, Dan Hartl, the Higgins Professor of Biology at Harvard University, shares his thoughts on the scientific method, explaining how it is more complex (and more interesting) than it is commonly portrayed.

The “scientific method” taught in most textbooks begins with observations carried out in the real world, the formulation of an explanatory hypothesis to explain these observations, and the deduction of ideally unique predictions from ErlenmeyerFlasksthis hypothesis. The predictions are tested by experiments or further observations, and the outcomes of these activities either validate the predictions or else falsify them. Validation affords evidence favoring the hypothesis, and falsification causes the hypothesis to be modified or rejected.

This modern description of the scientific method is often credited to Charles Sanders Peirce (1878) and Karl Popper (1935). The approach itself is exemplified in the work of some of the greatest scientists in history, including Galileo, Newton, Priestly, Lavoisier, Mendel, and Darwin. The progression from observation to hypothesis to prediction to experiment is logical and yet simple enough that we can teach it to sixth graders.

We also teach the scientific method in high school and college, but at this level we should be more realistic about how science works. Scientists are human beings with the same foibles and failings as everyone else. Ideally scientists ought to be objective and ignore their own personal feelings and preferences, but true objectivity is about as rare as an ivory-billed woodpecker. Continue reading

Moon River

by James Morris

Last night, many of us viewed a rare spectacle – a total eclipse of a “supermoon.” And this morning, Facebook was abuzz as we woke up to friends and family sharing photos of the fully eclipsed, blood-red moon.

From the time I was 12, I have been trying to capture something a little different – the moon slowly going into eclipse, getting smaller and smaller, dimmer and dimmer.

Last night gave me one more try:

SuperMoonEclipse15
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A False Start

by James Morris

This week was the start of the semester at Brandeis and many other colleges. On the first day of a class on evolution, I began by asking the students a series of questions to try to get them curious about what we will be studying together. Then I shifted gears and asked the students to close their notebooks, take out a pencil and sheet of paper, and answer seven true-false questions about evolution.

This had a chilling effect in the classroom – a pop-quiz on the first day? But I had something entirely else in mind. Continue reading