Shakhashiri is a frequent guest of the Larry Meiller Show
on the Ideas Network of Wisconsin Public Radio.
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|December 20, 2005, Larry Meiller Show
The December 20 Larry Meiller Show included the following topics in response to questions from Larry and from listeners.
- Professor Shakhashiri recently returned from a trip to Singapore where he delivered the keynote address at the 4th biennial Singapore International Chemistry Conference. He also made presentations at the Singapore Science Center and the Singapore American School. International exchanges are part of the Wisconsin Idea which calls for sharing knowledge not only throughout the state but throughout the world. Professor Shakhashiri said students at the pre-college level in Singapore excel, with a disciplined and demanding curriculum. The Singapore American School is the largest outside the U.S. with an enrollment of over 3000 and its curriculum is more like that of American and British schools. Professor Shakhashiri said Singapore is very serious about education and predicted the city-state of four million will become a world leader in science and technology. He said there is no debate in Singapore about government funding of stem cell research–they are just doing it. He also found out that people in Singapore look at this web site, including these summaries of the Larry Meiller Show.
- A caller asked what people in Singapore think of the debate in the U.S. over evolution and "intelligent design." Professor Shakhashiri said it is not an issue in Singapore and Europe and people asked why it’s an issue in the U.S. He said it’s cultural, reflecting the relationship of personal beliefs and science, and people in other developed countries are puzzled over why the issue is being debated in the U.S. Professor Shakhashiri made his own view clear–intelligent design is a belief, not a scientific theory, and does not belong in science classes. A federal judge today ruled that intelligent design cannot be taught in biology classes in Dover, Pennsylvania [http://www.pamd.uscourts.gov/kitzmiller/kitzmiller_342.pdf]. For more about evolution please visit [http://evolution.berkeley.edu/].
- A caller asked about claims that hot water placed in a freezer in ice trays will freeze faster than cold water. The caller also wondered if, when putting out water for animals, hot water would remain liquid longer before freezing. (The temperature in Wisconsin at the time of the call was approximately 20 degrees Fahrenheit.) This question has come up before on the Larry Meiller Show [see When Pipes Freeze]. Professor Shakhashiri asked the caller if she had tried the experiment, and urged her to do so. Rather than giving an answer, Professor Shakhashiri said he didn’t want to rob the listener of the joy of discovery. The caller objected that the experiment would get steam into the refrigerator. Professor Shakhashiri then promised to put the answer on this web site, but the caller said she did not have internet access, so he asked the producer to keep her phone number and promised to call her after the show. A later caller congratulated Professor Shakhashiri for not giving the answer, saying that people have become too demanding of instant gratification and instant answers. The claim of hot water freezing faster than cold water has been around for a while. There are reports (some not reliable) that attempt to explain why the so-called "Mpemba Effect" might happen under certain circumstances [http://www.physics.adelaide.edu.au/~dkoks/Faq/General/hot_water.html].
- Another caller asked how alcohol, as an additive, takes water out of gasoline. It doesn’t really remove the water, but water and alcohol are "miscible," mutually soluble. Alcohol is also miscible with gasoline. Alcohol increases the solubility of the water in gasoline, so water mixes with the gasoline, rather than separating into small puddles of water that can freeze and block the fuel line. Another caller asked if there is an additive that would increase the freezing point of water to facilitate the creation of outdoor ice rinks. Professor Shakhashiri said there is no such additive, but the caller then wondered why water placed in a refrigerator, above the freezing point of water, still freezes. Professor Shakhashiri said it’s just might happen at the surface when a very thin surface freezes, a surface phenomenon in liquids.
- Larry asked about a report from the National Academy of Sciences laying out steps to improve science education and research. The report was requested by two U.S. Senators and was put together by a panel of leaders from many walks of life. The report is RISING ABOVE THE GATHERING STORM: ENERGIZING AND EMPLOYING AMERICA FOR A BRIGHTER ECONOMIC FUTURE [http://books.nap.edu/catalog/11463.html]. The report concluded that the U.S. is losing it’s lead in science and technology and made recommendations including more training for science teachers, recruiting ten thousand additional science teachers per year, granting more undergraduate scholarships, increasing grants for young researchers and making it easier for foreign students to come to the U.S. Professor Shakhashiri said the recommendations have bi-partisan support in congress and he hopes the president will make at least some of them part of his next budget. Professor Shakhashiri said not enough students are going into science and technology and laws are hindering foreign students coming to the U.S. He said the country needs to rise to the challenge of demands for excellence in science and technology, but also said other education, including the promotion of citizenship and human development, should not be neglected. While the level of international competition is growing, and the nation needs more emphasis on science and technology to retain its pre-eminence, Professor Shakhashiri noted that science knows no international boundaries and that advances benefit everyone in the world.
- Larry asked about a bill introduced in the Wisconsin Legislature which would increase the math and science required for high school graduation from two years each to three years each. Professor Shakhashiri said the state should do more to promote math and science education, and the bill is a good starting point for a discussion, but he noted that the bill would require schools to hire more teachers and spend more money, and he said that similar requirements in other states have resulted in taking the content of two years of study and spreading it over three years.
- Another caller noted that chemistry his changed greatly in the last 50 years and the Bohr model of the atom, for which Niels Bohr received a Nobel Prize, is no longer taught. Professor Shakhashiri said the Bohr model is still taught and is still useful within limitations, but that more is needed to keep up with new discoveries. College students now also learn other things such as the quantum theory and the molecular orbital theory. Professor Shakhashiri said he tells his students that the level of understanding required for college work is greater than high school, and while the terminology may be familiar, the work is much more demanding–and rewarding.
|November 3, 2005, Larry Meiller Show
The November 3, 2005 Larry Meiller Show included the following topics in response to questions from Larry and from listeners.
- Larry began by asking Professor Shakhashiri about his annual Christmas Lecture which will be presented December 3 and 4. For details on the show and how to order tickets click here. This will be the 36th annual "ONCE UPON A CHRISTMAS CHEERY IN THE LAB OF SHAKHASHIRI". The Christmas Lecture continues a tradition started by the great British chemist and physicist Michael Faraday more than 180 years ago at the Royal Institution in London. Faraday did the Christmas Lecture for 19 years, so Professor Shakhashiri, who calls the show his holiday gift to the community, has far surpassed that record and says he would like to double it.
- A caller told of seeing a TV documentary which claimed that direct solar power could easily supply all of humanities electrical needs. Professor Shakhashiri said solar power has been explored for many years–one pioneer was the late chemistry professor Farrington Daniels at the UW-Madison. Professor Shakhashiri said developing solar power is a an economic as well as a scientific question and developing it further will require public interest and support.
- Another caller was concerned about global warming and asked why the U.S. has not signed the Kyoto agreement to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Professor Shakhashiri said there are economic reasons for the U.S. not to sign, though he thinks that’s a mistake and we should sign. He said the evidence is now sufficiently clear that the temperature of the planet is increasing due to human activity but so far the political will to address the problem has been lacking.
- Another caller said she can’t understand why the U.S. doesn’t want to save the planet. Professor Shakhashiri said the government reflects what people want and the public, if informed, can put pressure on elected representatives. He said environmental issues are of vital concern and was delighted that callers expressed interest in the environment.
- The next caller said people are concerned about the environment but that the government is controlled by corporate interests which spend big money denying global warming. The caller said it irks him that Professor Shakhashiri does not recognize this. Professor Shakhashiri didn’t accept the implication that there’s collusion between researchers and corporations, but acknowledged that one reason the Kyoto accord his not been signed is pressure on legislators. He said this is how democracy works–it’s not perfect but more public debate and action is needed.
- The next caller identified himself as a proponent of nuclear energy, saying solar energy is not enough, that nuclear power is the only alternative to fossil fuel, and that clean fusion energy is only a decade away. Professor Shakhashiri said fusion is not a decade away but will take far longer. While society should look at nuclear energy, disposing of the highly radioactive waste from power plants is still a huge and unsolved problem. He said we must deal with energy questions as a society. Not all questions are scientific but we should understand their scientific basis.
|September 29, 2005, Larry Meiller Show
The September 29, 2005 Larry Meiller Show included the following topics in response to questions from Larry and from callers.
- Professor Shakhashiri made one of his regular appearances on the program, followed by author and chemist Robert Wolke who gave a talk on campus the next day sponsored by WISL and the Chemistry Department. Wolke is the author of four books and a regular column, “Food 101" in the Washington Post.
- Professor Shakhashiri just returned from trips to Saint Louis University, where he gave the Convocation Address to new students and their parents, the American Chemical Society fall meeting in Washington, D.C., where he received the ACS Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach, and a week-long science festival in Perugia, Italy. He said the festival in Perugia was a great experience. All his presentations were in English, which most people understand, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison is well known there–in fact, some young people wanted to know how to apply for admission.
- Larry asked about a report that in federal fiscal year 2003, the UW-Madison received 721 million dollars worth of federal research grants, the most of any University. Professor Shakhashiri said that is a tribute to the quality of the faculty, students and citizens of Wisconsin who continue to support the University. The money not only contributes to the economy of the area but to the education of future scientists and engineers. He said the University needs continued support from the governor and the legislature to sustain the University’s high quality, and added that he’s proud of the University.
- Larry also asked about a poll in which a majority of high school students said they would work harder if schools had higher expectations. Professor Shakhahsiri said schools should instill high standards to help students achieve. The University is in business to develop talent, and that goes beyond the campus. According to the corporation which administers the ACT test, only a quarter of high school graduates are prepared for college science and math courses. Professor Shakhashiri said it’s not a matter of assessing blame–society at large is responsible for education and changes are needed at all levels.
- A caller said students should be separated in middle school into two groups, those who are interested in school and those who are not. Professor Shakhashiri opposes tracking students at an early age–he says that locks them up an ensures that they will not change. He does favor special programs for the gifted and talented, but is concerned about the quality of education for the general student. Noting that some students are late bloomers, he said schools should help those who are not yet motivated and not lock them out of options.
- Another caller expressed concern about budget cuts in other areas while most research money goes to the sciences and engineering. Professor Shakhashiri said he works for a University, not a technical school, and he’s concerned about support for the arts and humanities. Part of the mission of WISL is to promote cooperation and understanding between science, the arts and humanities because students should not only be technically competent but should also develop as human beings. He noted an upcoming collaboration in which WISL and the University School of Music are co-sponsoring the appearance of a visiting pianist Lise Keiter-Brotzman (“Music by Women Composers 1760-1977", Friday, October 7 at 8 PM at Morphy Hall of the Mosse Humanities Building, free and open to the public.)
- A caller who transferred from a two year campus to the UW-Madison said professors at the University are so research-minded they are no good in the classroom. He said lecturers are so focused on research and publishing they are not interested in teaching. Professor Shakhashiri said the University is not perfect and there are examples where more attention should be given to teaching and more coordination is needed between campuses to make transitions easier. He said the caller’s point is taken seriously and the University is demanding better teaching.
- A caller said she was a teaching assistant in zoology and many students were disappointed that exams were not all multiple choice. She said no one had taught them study skills and students who got As in high school were stunned that they had to do more than just show up. She said she tried to help them with study skills and offered to meet them outside of class. Professor Shakhashiri said he gave an exam to his freshman level chemistry class this semester (which included some multiple choice questions) after only three weeks of classes to serve notice on the students that they are in college, and his lecture the next day focused on study skills. He noted that the class syllabus includes a section on study skills.
- A caller said the essence of science it truth, but asserted that the Bush administration is waging a war on science and has been criticized by many scientific publications and organizations. Professor Shakhashiri said scientists have not yet reached a stage of effectively participating in politics because science itself is about asking questions and is not inherently political. But he said politics gets mixed in, and rightly so in a democratic society, which is why it’s important for all citizens to become science literate in order to make better personal and political decisions. This is the main goal of WISL.
- A caller said state support of the University is declining and the outlook for research is not good. The caller said he’s a Professor at UW-Superior and has to spend most of his time doing paper work instead of researching and teaching. Professor Shakhashiri said while state support is declining as a percentage of the total University budget, money for research is increasing with more from outside the state. He said Wisconsin has traditionally provided more support for higher education than other states with similar populations. He said citizens must conitnue to support the University needs and communicate their concerns to the governor and the legislature.
- Larry’s guest following Professor Shakhashiri was Robert L. Wolke, Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh. Professor Wolke gave a talk on campus the next day entitled, “Chemical Abuse in the Kitchen”, sponsored by WISL and the UW-Madison Chemistry Department. Since retiring from the University of Pittsburgh, Professor Wolke has written four books, What Einstein Didn’t Know, What Einstein Told His Barber, What Einstein Told His Cook and What Einstein Told His Cook, the Sequel.” He also writes column, “Food 101", for the Washington Post.
- The first caller asked whether microwaving destroys nutrients in food. Professor Wolke said cooking in general changes the molecular form of food–for example, vitamin C is broken down by heat, no matter how it’s cooked. He said the source of heat doesn’t matter.
- Another caller put unripe pears in a microwave oven to try to soften them up and said they emitted sparks. Professor Wolke said pear skins are not permeable and that under heat, steam can build up inside and explode them. In addition, microwaves are electromagnetic energy which is attracted by sharp points, the principle behind lightening rods. Tiny raised points on the surface can emit sparks, and he said the same thing can happen with carrots. He added that if a microwave oven is run empty, the energy can bounce around inside the oven and harm its generators.
- Another caller asked about induction cooking, which is popular in some parts of the world. Induction cooking uses a rapidly oscillating magnetic field to generate heat in magnetic substances. It works with iron and steel utensils, which are magnetic, but not with copper and aluminum utensils, which are not magnetic. The pan itself is heated but, unlike a regular stove, the surface below in not heated. Professor Wolke said induction cooking is very expensive because it requires a lot of heavy duty electronics and manufacturers are not geared up for mass production. In answer to another caller, he said the induction field is not a health concern to people–MRI and CAT scan imaging expose people to far stronger fields.
- Larry asked how Professor Wolke got into writing for the general public. He said he has always been fascinated by both science and language and has always done free-lance writing, but decided on a career in science after getting a chemistry set at age 12.
- A caller asked whether plastics in microwave ovens emit carcinogens. Professor Wolke said “microwave safe” means that the material won’t melt from the heat of the food inside and won’t absorb heat itself. He said plastic wrap made from PVC (poly vinyl chloride) can transfer some toxic “plasticizer” to food when heated, but plastic wrap is no longer made from PCV and carcinogens from plastic are not a problem.
- A caller asked whether canning tomatoes using the open kettle method is safe, since some tomatoes today are not as acidic as earlier varieties (the acid helps retard the growth of bacteria). Professor Wolke said he wasn’t aware of any decrease in tomato acidity, but later a U.W.-Extension food specialist called in to say that some varieties are lower in acid and that Extension offers a new pamphlet on canning tomatoes. Extension says acid should be added to all tomatoes when canning. More information is available on the Extension web side, www.uwex.edu.
- Larry asked whether a box of baking soda in the refrigerator really eliminates odors. Professor Wolke said he followed the practice for years of putting an open box of baking soda in the refrigerator but is very skeptical that it works. While baking soda is an omnivorous chemical and reacts strongly with acids and some bases as well, he wonders how air in the refrigerator can come in contact with the baking soda through the small surface area in the box
|August 18, 2005, Larry Meiller Show
The Larry Meiller Show included the following topics in response to questions from Larry and from guests.
- Professor Shakhashiri began by talking about Science magazine’s list of the 125 most compelling puzzles and questions in science today, part of a celebration of the 125th anniversary of the magazine( http://www.sciencemag.org/sciext/125th/.) . It’s a daunting list and Professor Shakhashiri said formulating questions is one of the most important thing scientists do. The list ranges from specific problems like combating HIV and global warming to profound questions like, “What is the universe made of?”, “What is the basis of human consciousness and do animals have it?”, “Why do humans have so few genes?”, and “How much can the human life span be increased?” Larry remarked that science has solved many problems, but in some cases that has led to a whole new set of questions. Professor Shakhashiri said the more we know, the more we realize the extent of what we don’t know, which is one of the reasons for the list. Other questions are, “How does the interior of the Earth work?”, “Are we alone in the universe?”, “How and when did life on Earth arise?” and “What genetic changes made us uniquely human.”
- A caller said the most important question is whether humans will destroy the Earth through nuclear war or environmental disaster, calling humans the worst thing that ever happened to the planet. Professor Shakhashiri said he is an optimist and believes society will marshal all the talent necessary to deal with difficult questions. While advances in science and technology have made it possible for us to destroy the planet, he said deciding how to use discoveries is just as important as making them and society must remain positive and look forward.
- Another caller asserted that science is a belief system and doesn’t seem to appeal to the human imagination any more. He said the ancient Greek Democritus came up with atomic theory and not even Einstein’s equations make such a leap. Professor Shakhashiri respectfully disagreed, saying there’s a lot of imagination in science today. Science is a process that seeks explanations and makes predictions based on experimentation and verification and is very different from a belief system. There can be a clash between science and belief–for example, Galileo’s discovery that the Earth revolves around the sun contradicted the religious beliefs of his time. The Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy seeks to promote an understanding of science and communicate it to the general public, which Professor Shakhashiri remarked has apparently failed with the caller.
- Another caller said scientists lack the ability to communicate with the rest of the public and as a result there’s confusion between scientific theories and belief systems. Professor Shakhashiri said scientists have done a lousy job of communicating with the public, and that it’s part of the responsibility of scientist to communicate with the public, not just with other scientists. However, he noted that communication is a two way street and that the public must also ask questions and want answers.
- Another caller said there’s a difference between intelligent design and natural design.”Intelligent design” insists that structures such as the human eye are much too complicated to have arisen by accident through evolution and that there must be a designer. The caller said a watch, which is certainly a result of intelligent design, is simple, in that it has no unnecessary parts and is designed for specific tasks, while he said natural life forms are far more complicated than they have to be, indicating a random process. Professor Shakhashiri said most people believe in intelligent design and it’s taught every day in history, literature and religion classes.. However, Professor Shakhashiri said it doesn’t belong in science classes. Scientific theories must be subject to scrutiny and be provable or disprovable and intelligent design is not–therefore it is a belief, not a scientific theory. He called it a clever attempt to manipulate schools to include it in science classes where it doesn’t belong. People have many needs including a need for beliefs, but he said that’s not the same as a scientific theory.
- Another caller asked whether anti-matter is being made and whether it could be used as a weapon. One of Science magazine’s questions is, “Why is there more matter than anti-mater in the universe?” The study of anti-matter is in its infancy and Professor Shakhashiri said that as far as he knows there’s no program to develop it as a weapon.
- The new school year is about to start and will be Professor Shakhashiri’s 36th year of teaching beginning chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He will teach approximately 350 students. Professor Shakhashiri said the students are eager to learn and he’s just as excited and energized as he was the first time he taught the class, though he also taught the parents of some of today’s students (and he expects that grandchildren will soon be showing up.)
|June 29, 2005, Larry Meiller Show
The Larry Meiller Show included the following topics in response to questions from Jim Packard, sitting in for Larry, and from callers.
- Professor Shakhashiri was joined on the program by a special guest, Karen Strier, Professor of Anthropology and Affiliate Professor of Zoology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Strier was recently elected to the National Academy of Science, which Professor Shakhashiri calls “the highest tribute an American scientist can get”, and has also received the University’s Hilldale Award for excellence in teaching, research and public service. Professor Strier has spent much of the last 23 years studying muriqui monkeys in the wild in the Atlantic coast forest of Brazil. Muriquis are somewhat like spider monkeys but much larger, reaching five feet in length and 15 to 20 pounds. Like many other South American monkeys, they have prehensile tails. Muriquis are critically endangered because much of their rain forest habitat has been destroyed and they were hunted for meat. The monkeys reproduce slowly, reaching maturity at 7 years, reproducing only every 3 years, and living 30 to 35 years. Professor Strier said muriquis might have something to teach people. They live in a peaceful, egalitarian society, with no hierarchy and little conflict. They have small canine teeth and do not engage in threatening behavior such as showing their teeth, a typical behavior in many other species. There is little difference in size between males and females, another indicator of a peaceful social structure–males are not able to harass and dominate females. Their principal social interaction is hugging. Professor Strier said, “Models of how to live in peace are good to learn from.”
- Muriquis are coming back from the edge of extinction. The band Professor Strier watches has grown from 22 individuals to 80 since 1982, and four bands live in the 1000 hectare patch of rain forest which has been saved from development. Three other monkey species live in the same forest and predators are also staging a comeback. While that means that some juvenile monkeys are eaten, Professor Strier says the presence of predators is a good thing, indicating that the entire ecological system is recovering. Professor Strier’s Brazilian students now watch the monkeys year around. The observation is entirely non-invasive. The researchers never touch or feed the monkeys. The monkeys are vegetarian and eat a wide variety of plants. Professor Strier says observing their diet may indicate what sort of environment can support them and other species and help guide the restoration of habitat. While muriquis are now legally protected and their numbers are growing, Professor Strier says it’s much too early to declare victory–continued protection and habitat conservation is necessary. She said conservation is a pressing global issue because extinction is forever.
- A caller asked if there has been any effort to clone the monkeys to increase their number. Professor Strier said there has been no such effort and there won’t be. She said preserving their natural habitat is the best solution, showing some success, and she hopes that technological intervention will not be necessary. Because they are endangered, there are no muriquis in any zoos outside Brazil. http://www.sandiegozoo.org/animalbytes/t-monkey.html
- Professor Strier said she has always been interested in science, nature and animals and the opportunity to do field work in Kenya as an undergraduate confirmed her choice of career. Professor Strier said teaching is a great privilege and her students, both in Brazil and in Wisconsin, are bright and attentive. She said many of her students have done great work around the world.
- For more information about Professor Strier please visit her website.
- During the second half of the program, Professor Shakhashiri talked about the science of fireworks. He and Dr. Rodney Schreiner will demonstrate the science of fireworks at the Wisconsin Memorial Union Terrace at 7:30 PM Saturday, July 2. The large “Rhythm and Booms” fireworks display from across Lake Mendota will be visible from the Union Terrace at about 9:30. The colors in fireworks come from various chemicals, combinations of metal salts and an oxidizing material. Red is produced by lithium and strontium, yellow by sodium salts (yes, ordinary table salt burns with a yellow color), orange from calcium salts, green from barium salts and blue from copper salts, usually copper chloride. The explosion caused by reaction with the oxidizing material excites the electrons in the elements, which move to a higher energy state. As they cool and move back to a lower energy state, they emit light in their characteristic colors. http://scifun.chem.wisc.edu/CHEMWEEK/fireworks/fireworks.htm
- Professor Shakhashiri urged caution in using fireworks. They release huge amounts of energy and people are seriously injured and even killed every year through careless use of fireworks. The best advice–leave setting off fireworks to the professionals.
- Professor Shakhashiri also urged everyone to remember what the celebration of Independence Day is all about. He recommended reading the Declaration of Independence and reflecting on what freedom and democracy mean. John Adams, one of the authors of the Declaration and the Constitution, urged Americans to celebrate the Fourth with fireworks, and Professor Shakhashiri urged everyone to remember what we’re really celebrating.
- A caller asked about oxygen in the air and whether its concentration has been affected by pollution. Professor Shakhashiri the amount of gaseous oxygen is fairly constant, but that it wasn’t always there.
Please visit this link for more info
- Professor Shakhashiri was recently elected a fellow of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters. Professor Shakhashiri said the election is a great honor which gives him an additional platform to promote science literacy. He said the Academy has already lined up Science is Fun presentations for him to do in North Central Wisconsin next Spring.
|May 19, 2005, Larry Meiller Show
The discussion on the Larry Meiller Show included the following topics in response to questions from Larry and from guests.
- Professor Shakhashiri reflected on mixed feelings with the end of another school year. He noted that graduation is called commencement because students are commencing the rest of their lives, when their knowledge and values will be tested. Students know a lot more than they did when they entered the University, but Professor Shakhashiri said what they do with the knowledge is more important. At the end of the year, he always gives the students copies of a booklet “American Trilogy”: The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, The Bill of Rights (Madison, 2004, Parallel Press, University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries.) Students need this perspective and an awareness of the uniqueness of our great society, he said, to understand the meaning of freedom, liberty, and democracy and use their knowledge to the fullest.
- Professor Shakhashiri was joined on the program by Mathematics Professor Ken Ono, the Solle P. and Margaret Manasse Professor of Letters and Science at UW-Madison, who talked about his graduate student, Karl Mahlburg, who solved part of a math puzzle that has stumped experts for decades. Professor Ono said he worked on the problem during his entire career, but a 25 year old graduate student solved it in a year and a half. The problem has to do with NumberTheory, which studies the properties of numbers. The problem is counting the numbers of ways there are to add up to a certain number–these are called partition numbers. For example, there are 3 partitions of three: 1+1+1, 2+1 and 3+0. There are 5 partitions of 4, and so on. Ono said Mahlburg’s solution for all numbers showed remarkable symmetries in higher numbers. Professor Ono said learning something fundamentally new showed that there are still some simple things that we don’t know about. As for practical applications, Professor Ono said number theory is the basis for the electronic security of ATM machines and the like. Users never think about this security, but it depends on the difficulty in solving problems to break the code. People in the industry search for a good source for random numbers that are hard to duplicate, but Professor Ono said Mahlburg’s solution shows that partition numbers are not a good choice.
- Professor Shakhashiri noted that Professor Ono has just been honored by the National Science Foundation with its Director’s Distinguished Teaching Scholar Award, to recognize both teaching and research. A caller noted that Professor Ono addressed a workshop for high school students during which he communicated his enthusiasm for the subject as well as content, and said it’s important for scientists to reach out and motivate young people, especially in view of worldwide economic competition. Professor Shakhashiri said it’s vital to take advantage of the talent at the University to encourage young people to pursue careers in science and engineering, and that all faculty should devote a some portion of their time to this endeavor. He said University faculty do not live in an ivory tower but are members of society and must reach out to and beyond the immediate University community.
- Professor Ono noted that the UW-Madison Math Department conducts a year-long Wisconsin Mathematics Talent Search for K-12 students. The search consists of a series of tests and the best students earn prizes including a full four year scholarship to the UW-Madison. For more information please visit http://www.math.wisc.edu/talent/
- A caller said that average citizens should know more about science and technology because it’s related to many political questions, but few students take science courses. Professor Ono noted that the University is now offering many interdisciplinary and cross-listed courses and is responding to this need.
- A caller said science can work for evil as well as good, asserting that the implications of the use of new technology are the emergence of a militarized police state, with electronic, computerized surveillance and militarization of space, a world most people would not want to live in. Science has a huge potential to liberate or destroy humanity, the caller said, but technology is moving so fast that people have no idea what’s going on. Professor Shakhashiri said scientific advances will be made–what’s important is what we do with them, and decisions can be beneficial or catastrophic. He said society as a whole must think about how to use new technology.
- Professor Ono said there have been cases in which he has decided not to participate in a particular program. At a recent meeting in Washington of the American Mathematics Society, Professor Ono said he found many politicians and scientists who share the caller’s concerns. He said he doesn’t pursue his work with any goal in mind such as improving the nation’s defense–he just tries to advance knowledge. While applications in the real world are still far off, Professor Ono said his research in Number Theory could result in solving many problems, not just in math but in other sciences as well. Professor Ono said his work is a passion and that he wakes up each morning wondering, “What am I going to learn today?” He compared his attitude to an artist who wakes up eager to work on the latest project.
- A teacher called and said one of her students is relentlessly teased because of an interest in science, and asked Professor Shakhashiri to bring his “Science is Fun” presentation to northern Wisconsin. Professor Shakhashiri promised to do so, and said schools and parents must create an environment in which students can pursue whatever learning they want.
- Another caller asked about resources for continuing education for adults. Professor Shakhashiri recommended publications like Scientific American, radio and televison programs (carefully selected), public presentations at the University, and reading. He mentioned four books. One, The World is Flat, concerns the influence of technology in making the world more connected. The other three are all reviewed on scifun.org –Electric Universe, Bright Earth and Out of Gas.
Larry mentioned two books whose authors will appear on his program in the near future, The Secret Life of Lobsters and Reading the Rocks. Professor Shakhashiri noted that Electric Universe, about the development of the use and theoretical understanding of electricity, has a puzzling omission–there’s no mention of Nikola Tesla, one of the most important figures in developing electricity. A caller asked for a recommendation for a book on Tesla. Professor Shakhashiri recommends Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla : Biography of a Genius (Citadel Press Book) by Marc J. Seifer, Marc Seifer (Paperback, 1998.) (The author of Electric Universe told Professor Shakhashiri in an e-mail message that he wrote a chapter on Tesla but had to cut it when the publisher insisted on a shorter book.)
- Larry asked about teaching “intelligent design” in science classes, after the Kansas board of education held a hearing on the subject the previous week. Professor Shakhashiri said this type of discussion must go on in a democratic society, but that most scientists boycotted the Kansas hearing because it was not an open discussion–the board had already made up its mind. While many scientists have strong religious beliefs, and religious studies should have a place in schools, Professor Shakhashiri said intelligent design does not belong in a science classroom. He said science is skeptical, accepting only what is provable or disprovable in the physical universe, and requiring the teaching of intelligent design in science classes would be a bad mistake. A caller asked for sources for discussion and refutation of intelligent design. Professor Shakhashiri recommends the following sources:
Washington Post, May 15, 2005 article:
Larry asked if Professor Shakhashiri would have gone to the Kansas hearing if he were asked. Professor Shakhashiri said he would have, but was not asked.
|April 7, 2005, Larry Meiller Show
The discussion on the Larry Meiller Show included the following topics in response to questions from Larry and from listeners:
- Professor Shakhashiri told listeners about the Women of Science program Saturday, April 9 at the Chemistry building on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. A symposium in the morning will be introduced by Chancellor John Wiley and features five women faculty discussing their latest research and their personal involvement in science. Eight laboratory workshops of hands on activities will be offered in the afternoon. All students from middle school through college are welcome. In addition, a traveling exhibit on women in chemistry, created by the Chemical Heritage Foundation, is on display through the end of April in west atrium of the chemistry building (corner of Johnson and Charter Streets.) Professor Shakhashiri says science is a human endeavor for both women and men and contributions of women must be recognized and encouraged by all. . He said women have made enormous contributions to science and anyone inclined toward science should be encouraged to make it a career. [For more information, click here.]
- Larry asked about the new SAT test, which has an essay component. Professor Shakhashiri said he welcomes the inclusion of an essay because students need to enhance their writing skills and, while there’s nothing wrong with multiple choice questions per se, they do not by themselves provide enough information about students. Many colleges and universities are re-thinking their use of the SAT and similar tests.
- Larry asked about the high percentage of Wisconsin high school students taking advanced placement courses. In 2002, 58 per cent of Wisconsin high school students took advanced placement math classes and 36 per cent took AP science courses, both well above the national average. Professor Shakhashiri said advanced placement can be good in helping place students in higher level courses, but that students should be able to interact academically and socially with other students on campus and not be in separate advanced placement classes. He said there’s no indication that advanced placement classes are lowering academic standards, but that schools should watch out for that possibility.
- A caller said that students in advanced placement follow a very strict curriculum designed to pass exams, a curriculum which students find boring. Professor Shakhashiri said the purpose of a course should be more than just passing and that learning should be exciting and rewarding. Students should also learn and understand what’s been done before, which he admitted can be boring if not presented properly, but he said the teacher is the key to developing an atmosphere for learning. This is true of all classes, not just advanced placement.
- Larry asked about an experiment involving the UW-Madison, trying to detect neutrinos, sub-atomic particles that were not discovered until 1931 and are very hard to detect. Neutrinos pass through almost all matter (thousands pass through our bodies every second) and rarely collide with any other particles. Scientists are trying to create and observe these rare collisions by beaming neutrinos from an accelerator at the Fermi Lab in Batavia, Illinois through Wisconsin to a detector in an underground mine in Soudan, Minnesota. It takes the neutrinos less than three thousandths of a second to pass through Wisconsin. Professor Shakhashiri said this is the kind of research that advances knowledge of what the universe and the world are made of and that discovery of the fascinating invisible world of sub atomic particles is a tribute to human ingenuity.
|March 28, 2005, Philip Ball on the Larry Meiller Show
Science writer Philip Ball is contributing editor of Nature magazine and author of several books including Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Colour and his latest, Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another. Ball was a Visiting Fellow of the Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy visiting with science, art, humanities, and engineering faculty and staff. He presented a free public lecture, “Bright Earth: A Look at the use of Colour in Western Art Through the Eyes of a Scientist”, co-sponsored by WISL, The Center for the Humanities, and the College of Engineering. This lecture will be telecast repeatedly on Madison’s Cable 10.
The discussion on the Larry Meiller Show included the following topics in response to questions from Larry and from listeners,.
- Dr. Ball said that today we take colors for granted and may forget that earlier artists were restricted in their range of colors. Renaissance artists had about a dozen colors, which restricted the ways in which they could depict the world, and they had to mix the colors themselves. Their intimate knowledge of the pigments effected the way they were used. The story of how Western art developed–where the materials came from and how they were developed-- is not generally taught in art history courses. The artists were chemists, interweaving art and science in a way that no longer happens. Ceramics artists still need to know some chemistry, but that’s not so for painters who simply buy their pigments.
- The science and history of color provides a window on art, providing context such as how artists got their paints, who paid for them and the relationship of artist and patron. For example, during the early Renaissance, ultramarine blue was a very prized and expensive pigment, costing more than gold. The mineral it was made from was imported from Afghanistan and it required a lengthy process to make. At the time, much of the art was religious, and the more expensive materials were considered a more precious offering to God. Therefore, the Virgin Mary is often the only figure depicted wearing clothes of ultramarine.
- Larry asked whether there are still links between art and science. It was hard to see any distinction between the two when artists had to be technologists. Dr. Ball said that the Impressionists in the 19th. Century were interested in the theory of light, trying to investigate light just as scientists were doing. As the science became more complex, interest by artists waned, though the link between art and science has been a consistent theme throughout history. Artists are now getting inspiration from science but it’s not a one-way street–it was the demand for colors that drove chemistry, and science has benefitted from the demands of art and society in general.
- A caller asked about the color theories of Georges Seurat, a French painter of the 19th. Century. Seurat was a neo-impressionist who tried to create colors optically by painting dots rather then mixing paints. This is the same principle as television, which recreates all colors by using tiny pixels of just three colors. The eye can’t distinguish the individual pixels, so the brain blends the impression of neighboring pixels together to give the effect of a mixed color. Dr. Ball said Seurat unfortunately did not understand color theory and was not consistent in the size of the dots he used. Therefore, Seurat did not achieve the shimmering effect that he wanted and was disappointed with his experiments. His colors seem to disappear in a pearly grey which is greatly appreciated today.
- A caller asked why there are never clashing colors in nature. The caller said clashing colors are often seen in human-made objects like clothing, but asserted that he had never seen clashing colors in nature and that it is impossible to make the colors of flowers clash. A later caller disagreed, saying that clashing colors can often be found among flowers in gardens. Dr. Ball said impressions of color are always subjective, with individual and cultural differences influencing the effect of color. A third caller suggested that nature sometimes uses clashing colors for effect, such as the very bright colors of poisonous creatures, warning predators away.
- While in Madison, Dr. Ball also taped a segment for the radio program “To the Best of Our Knowledge”, which is recorded at Wisconsin Public Radio and syndicated nationally and worldwide by Public Radio International. His final lecture “The Most Beautiful Experiments in Chemistry” in Professor Shakhashiri’s first-year chemistry class will be telecast repeatedly on Madison’s Cable 10.
For more about Dr. Ball’s work please www.philipball.com
|February 17, 2005, Larry Meiller Show
The discussion on the Larry Meiller show included the following topics in response to questions from Larry and from listeners.
- Professor Shakhashiri began by noting the announcement of prestigious awards to UW-Madison mathematics professor emeritus Carl De Boor and to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF.) Professor De Boor will receive the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest science award. Professor De Boor is an expert in numerical analysis who has published more than 150 papers and many books. His work has aided advances in many fields including motion picture special effects and the design of autos and aircraft. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation will receive the National Medal of Technology for expediting technology transfer for practical application. WARF was founded in 1925 using the proceeds of patents won by Professor Harry Steenbock for the synthesis of vitamin D and has been funding research ever since. WARF has since received the benefits of many other patents won by University researchers and is a unique asset of the UW-Madison. Professor Shakhashiri said Professor Steenbock had the foresight to extend the Wisconsin Idea to the application of technology. The nomination for the award was made by the American Chemical Society and is a tribute to the University community and its learning and research environment.
- Professor Shakhashiri also noted that UW-Madison researcher Hector DeLuca is stepping down as Chair of the Biochemistry Department. Professor DeLuca was Professor Steenbock’s last graduate student. He has received more than 150 patents for developments in vitamin synthesis and treating auto immune diseases and has supervised more than 160 doctoral candidates. In addition to his highly productive research, Professor DeLuca has served several terms as chair of the department during the past 35 years. Professor Shakhashiri said chairing a department is a thankless job in many ways but is also critical to providing leadership. Professor De Luca’s long service is a tribute to him and to the concept of faculty governance. Professor DeLuca will continue to do research and Larry noted that many older scientists in biochemistry are still going strong.
- Larry asked about the continuing controversy over math and science testing. In 1989 the first President Bush announced a national goal of making the U.S. number one in the world in science and math education by 2000. Today, the U.S. is in approximately the same place on international comparisons of standardized testing. Professor Shakhashiri said the quality of education in the U.S. has improved, but there is still a long way to go and the focus should not be on international comparisons but on improving the quality of teaching to ensure a science literate population. While the president’s target was not reached and artificial targets can be fads, Professor Shakhashiri says the effort was not a failure because it rallied support for education and resulted in National Science Education Standards. In Wisconsin, Governor James Doyle has proposed increasing high school graduation requirements to three years of math and three years of science. Professor Shakhashiri hopes that, if enacted, the requirement will not result in taking two years of course content and spreading it over three years, as has happened in some other states. But he said the governor’s proposal is a good step that makes a statement about the importance of math and science education and needs support and debate to ensure that it’s done properly.
- Several callers discussed education. The first said her grandson has been left behind–he’s in the sixth grade but tests at the second grade level–and wondered why teachers are not taught to motivate students. Professor Shakhashiri said the proper environment for learning must be a cooperative effort of teachers, parents, school administrators and counselors. While teachers are critical, he said their limits must also be recognized and parents must be involved in education. He also said that attention must be given to all including talented and gifted students.
- The next caller said students must take responsibility–that students today don’t care about school and there’s a lack of accountability. Professor Shakhashiri said that unlike many other countries, the U.S. does not have a monolithic education system, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage. He recently visited Singapore which has a rigorous curriculum and where students spend many more hours in school. He predicted that in coming years, Singapore will be the source of great advances in science and technology, but Professor Shakhashiri also defends and advocates for the American system. The U.S. has approximately 16,000 school districts which have the freedom to adopt concepts and ideas. Many are currently experimenting with Singapore math including Madison Country Day School. He said the goal should be to put the student in a motivating environment which includes not only the school but also the home, recreational activities, the kind of TV programs a student watches and visits to cultural and science centers like zoos and museums.
- The next caller, responding for the first caller, said the first five years of life are the most important, before students reach school, and whether children are talked to and read to makes a big difference. Professor Shakhashiri said children are naturally curious and need a supportive environment at home and at school.
- The next caller said people in other countries such as Japan admire the imagination shown by American students and wondered if anyone has studied this. Professor Shakhashiri said imagination plays a big role in education but to imagine, students need some basic knowledge. He said at the graduate school level our system produces excellent researchers and we do a lot of things right, but now are paying more attention to lower levels where we need to nurture a sense of wonder in children.
- Another caller said teachers have a tough job and that multiple tracks of classes work best. While main streaming all students in one classroom may be political correct, and it’s important to many parents, the caller said it wastes the time of most students. The same caller said her daughter spent her senior year in high school in Costa Rica, in a school in which there was no room at all for creativity. She said her daughter hated it and she gave American schools credit for allowing room for creativity and imagination. Professor Shakhashiri said schools must provide opportunities for everyone, but they should be different opportunities, not the same thing at the same time for everyone. He said that in discussing school with his own daughter he got little response to, “What did you do in school today?” and soon realized he got a better response to, “What did you learn today?”
- Another caller asked about the failure of the U.S. to ratify the Kyoto treaty on carbon dioxide emissions. Professor Shakhashiri hopes the U.S. will eventually ratify the treaty and pressure other nations to ratify it as well. He said we must consider energy consumption and its sources on a global basis and at some point must further consider the safe use of nuclear energy
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