14 September 2007

IF {green OR wriggles} THEN {=biology} ELSEIF {...}

I have left, for far too long, answering Dr C's further comments on data. I've tried hard to think of a good excuse, but could marshal only a messy handful of poor ones, so will just shuffle my feet and say nowt.

First there was the shrewd question of balance between hands on and machine mediated data handling. I use the word "balance" deliberately, because I believe it to be important: neither, on its own or in excess, encourages a healthy approach to science. Dr C wonders whether the hands on approach is taught any longer; it is, though in my opinion not with enough depth or passion.

This conversation is serendipitously coincident with others. In an article on data analysis in the field [link soon], I've reminisced about the birth of my own passion for scientific enquiry. The continuing fall in numbers of young people feeling the same love is a perennial topic for discussion in education circles. Conversations with a colleague, Eric Franklin, about his planned lecture on the future of a world increasingly split between producers and consumers of science, have prompted me to merged both topics. For I believe that we cannot learn to love what we do not handle.

Dr C talks about data collected from practical laboratory activities such as titration, and rightly comments that from such activities he and his cohort learned precision. (By way of encouragement I offer, on the right, a still from an excellent short film made by another colleague, Alan Wicks, in which A2 student Jenny Smith demonstrates how a good titration should be done.) They also, however, learned where data comes from. Ideas are important, and I have on many occasions argued (here, for example) that software tools liberate big scientific ideas from demotivating drudgery, but for most of us ideas must have a link to practical experience if they are to take root.

I learnt the fascination of chemistry through playing around under the guidance of books (such as Home chemistry experiments for Boys and Girls[1]) which encouraged me to set up a Bunsen burner on the kitchen table, make my own flasks by cutting the caps off defunct light bulbs, produce hydrogen by adding acid to granulated zinc, bleach tulips with home grown chlorine ... any one of these things would probably give most parents a fit of the vapours nowadays.

The first seeds of visceral awe at the depth and magnitude of the universe were planted during cold evenings staring at the icy glittering fire of the stars. A beggar later taught me to count them, and to wonder at their profusion; a girl showed me the Pleiades then obliterated them with my first kiss. The rise and set of the sun was a daily miracle part of life. An urban child today, thanks to light pollution, is lucky to see much more than Venus and Sirius, and a teenager recently told me that he had just seen the sun set for the first time in his life.

Many of my childhood sunrises and sunsets were seen while roaming with siblings or friends, unfettered by adult supervision, often watching bugs and small creatures with intense fascination. As an adult data analyst I know that stranger danger now is no greater than it was then (very low. in either time - most child abuse is by family or friends), but spurious fear has locked new generations into a smaller world. What Sally Palmer calls "toxic childhood"[3] has done away with caterpillar and tadpole along with the self confidence and self reliance. (See, by the way, Dr C's interesting metamorphic discovery regarding caterpillars.)

It's no wonder, then, that the popularity of science is in decline; how can it thrive, when the roots have been cut away?

I'm a great fan of automated or power assisted analysis; but not at the expense of any contact with the origins of the data being analysed. If I am using my powerful statistical software package to run a principle component analysis on a multimegabyte data set concerning survival rates in Moroccan reptiles then I would ideally like to have at some time in my life have done a similar analysis by hand on smaller data sets, have seen reptiles in a similar habitat, personally collected similar data. Like the parthenogenetic women of Sally Miller Gearhart's Wanderground[3], living within the city, I need to feel my toes curling in real leaves and dirt from time to time.

The other matter raised by Dr C was how statistics handles longitudinally developmental changes in data, rather than "snapshots". This, I have discovered, raises interesting philosophical undergrowth through which I have been rambling since he mentioned it. However, I'm feeling one degree under the weather today, and the hysterical tirade above has quite worn me out, so I shall leave it issue for another post.

Good night.

When darkness hovers and city lights take over
I am blinded to the words "I am alone".
It's useless to cry for a star in the sky,
For the city lights tell me there's none.
But - what to do?

1. H L Heys, Chemistry experiments at home for boys and girls. 1949, London, George G. Harrap & Co.

2. Palmer, S., Toxic childhood : how the modern world is damaging our children and what we can do about it. 2006, London, Orion.

3. Sally Miller Gearhart, The wanderground : stories of the hill women. 1979, Watertown/Mass, Persephone.

4. Melanie Safka, Please love me : "In the hour". 1972, New York, Buddha Records.

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