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…
Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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

Continue reading

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
Continue reading

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

Uncommon Knowledge

by James Morris

On the first anniversary of this blog, I thought it would be interesting to look at what we know, what we think we know, and what we don’t know. Enjoy.

We walk around with all kinds of knowledge. Most of us can name the first president – George Washington. Around New England, and certainly elsewhere, we all know that Boston is the capital of Massachusetts. Most of us realize that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet.

And then there are shared, common sayings: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Everyone knows that. Or, “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” Whatever that means.

Most of us probably know that DNA is the “blueprint of life.” Its structure is iconic – a double helix, like a spiral staircase. Those of us who recall high school biology might even be able to remember DNA’s four bases – A, C, T, and G.

That’s all common knowledge.

Continue reading

Speed Limit

by James Morris

Infinity is a hard concept to wrap our heads around. It’s difficult to imagine anything stretching on forever and ever. And yet, when we think about common aspects of our world – time, space, temperature – there is a general thought that these go on and on, that there are no real limits in nature. We might create all kinds of boundaries – fences, walls, borders – but nature, it seems, does not.

But that’s not the case. Nature is full of limits and boundaries, in places where we might not expect them. Continue reading