Professor Shakhashiri is a frequent guest of the Larry Meiller Show
on the Ideas Network of Wisconsin Public Radio.
some information about past shows.
Show Archive: 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005,
2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, 1997
- Larry began by asking Professor Shakhashiri about his upcoming Christmas Lecture, which will be the 40th anniversary of “Once Upon a Christmas Cheery in the Lab of Shakhashiri.” Professor Shakhashiri began his Christmas Lectures to carry on the tradition of the great British chemist Michael Faraday who, in the early 1800s, gave very popular Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution in London. The 40th Anniversary Christmas Lecture will be offered four times; twice on December 5 and twice on December 6, in Professor Shakhashiri’s chemistry lecture hall (capacity 360). The shows are recorded by Wisconsin Public Television which shows them during the holiday season and provides a version for use by all public television stations in the U.S. at any time. Professor Shakhashiri said anniversaries are times to reflect, and giving the Christmas Lectures has been a great privilege, “my holiday gift to a wonderful community.” Professor Shakhashiri also noted the passing of a colleague, Dr. Glen Dirreen, at age 75. For many years Dr. Dirreen was involved in the Christmas Lecture and was director of General Chemistry Labs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and associate director of the Institute for Chemical Education when Professor Shakhashiri was director.
- President Obama visited Madison earlier in the week and spoke at a charter school. Professor Shakhashiri said it was remarkable that he visited Madison (the first presidential visit to the city in nearly 60 years) and he commended the President for his leadership in education. President Obama made four points concerning education:
1. Transforming the lowest-performing schools. Professor Shakhashiri said Wisconsin has some excellent schools, but also some troubled ones, including the largest, Milwaukee.
2. Use timely information to improve teaching. Professor Shakhashiri said research has shown better ways to teach.
3. Support outstanding teachers and principals. Professor Shakhashiri said local governments and school districts as well as the federal government should reward good teachers.
4. Enact higher standards and better assessments to prepare students.
Professor Shakhashiri said he agrees with all four. While good teachers should be highly valued, he said salaries should not be measured by grades. Testing is needed, he continued, but too much reliance on standardized testing can lead to teaching to the test. Test scores are a telltale of academic progress, but they are not everything, he continued—what’s important is to have an environment conducive to learning. Professor Shakhashiri is hopeful that society can respond to the President’s call, but he can’t do it alone. Reform must be backed by everyone, including colleges and universities as well as businesses, Professor Shakhashiri continued. “Education is the key to success,” he said. “Ignorance is our worst enemy and high quality education is the solution.” Professor Shakhashiri said he’s greatly encouraged by the President’s visit to Madison and hopes it inspires all of us to do more than we are doing now.
- Larry asked about the National Science Foundation. NSF is a federal agency which has been the largest source of research money for universities, but its percentage of the costs is dropping. Professor Shakhashiri noted that the University of Wisconsin-Madison is the highest ranking public university (and third overall in the latest report) in getting federal money for research, and he said that’s a tribute to the faculty and the students. The federal government has a major role in funding research, he continued, but there is also a lot of support from corporations and private foundations. Support for all levels of education should be sustained from all sources, he said.
- A caller said holding school year-round should be considered. The caller asserted that public schools effectively shut down in mid May in anticipation of summer vacation, and that the first month back, September, is devoted to getting students back to the level they left off in May, resulting in a four to five month gap in learning. He said schools are paying fixed costs the whole time. Professor Shakhashiri noted that we have public school only 180 days a year (that’s the law in Wisconsin, and it’s similar in other states.) This is a vestige of an agrarian economy, he continued, and all classroom programs and schedules should be re-examined. “Learning takes place everywhere,” he continued, “but in classrooms, students should learn how to learn—they should learn critical thinking and how to enjoy learning.” Most people learn most of what they know outside the classroom, Professor Shakhashiri said, but school is needed to acquire good learning skills and to become enlightened. He said there’s nothing magic about the 180-day school year, or college and university calendars which typically have two semesters and a summer school. He added that there’s also value in having a break to allow for other experiences, but that we should think seriously about possible changes.
- Another caller refuted the assertion that schools effectively shut down in mid-May. The caller identified himself as having been a teacher for 15 years and a school administrator for 15 more. “Shutting down in May couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said. Teachers feel they do not have enough time to cover all the material as it is, and the last thing they want is a room full of students with nothing to do, he continued. The caller asserted that people say whatever they want without any knowledge or data, and is up to everyone to challenge false assumptions. Professor Shakhashiri said this call shows how we educate each other with discussions. Free speech is good, he said, but we should be informed about what we say. He noted that in his freshman lecture section of 360 students, each semester ends in a crescendo rather than fading out.
- Another caller wondered why we don’t try education as it was provided in the 1930s and 40s when education was successful. She said education takes almost half of tax dollars and she thinks it’s spent with no return. Professor Shakhashiri said the biggest factor is in society’s attitudes, which are different today. He said Wisconsin, which has only an average population and income, has no business providing a university that’s as good as it is, but it reflects an attitude that education is important. Professor Shakhashiri said we should ask some basic questions: why do we provide support, and what’s the point of education? “I don’t know what the right amount of money for education is,” he continued, “but you make a good point.”
[Comments added after the live broadcast: Education was definitely not better in the 1930s and 40s. A much smaller portion of the population went to school. Some children did not go at all, many stopped at eighth grade and many more did not finish high school. The legally segregated black schools in the South often had 80 students in a classroom with only a few outdated textbooks. Far fewer people went to college. Today schools face challenges of a far larger and more diverse student population and are required and expected to teach much more than the "3 R's". Nostalgia for a past golden age that never existed is one of the biggest problems in getting changes in society.]
The caller continued, saying that every time education is mentioned, it goes back to more money, and the more money we spend, the worse it gets. Professor Shakhashiri said student performance is what it’s all about, not performance on a test but long-term performance in life. He agreed that throwing money at the problem won’t solve it, but said we must understand what the problem is to begin with, and that solving it is the responsibility of everyone. Professor Shakhashiri continued to advocate for parental involvement in education and said there’s a lot of research that shows that some teaching methods are better than others and that educational progress will be influenced by the research.
- A caller said her daughter is attending an on-line charter school, the I.Q. Academy. The caller said learning is self-paced--more like a real job and more like reality. The curriculum includes some live classes, she said, and her daughter gets more help and individual attention than she would get in a traditional school. Professor Shakhashiri said the school sounds good, and the caller’s report is in line with what he knows about such schools. But he said while electronic communication is helpful, it’s not a substitute for personal interaction. The caller said her daughter feels more connected than she would at a brick and mortar school, has more time to volunteer in the community, and does many other things.
- Another caller said she does not know how to help her children with school work, and urged more school interaction with parents, suggesting regular meetings between parents and teachers to discuss course content and education. She said schools don’t engage in enough activity with parents, but should be partners with parents. Professor Shakhashiri agreed, and asked the caller if she’s discussing her concerns with friends and neighbors. The caller said she hadn’t thought about that. Professor Shakhashiri encouraged her to enlist others to pursue her goals, noting that she took the first step by calling in.
- Another caller said polls concerning the apparent ignorance of the American public are causing him to lose hope. Recent polls have shown the number of people concerned about global climate change is declining while half the population doesn’t know that the Earth goes around the sun once a year. He asked if there’s any reason to believe that education, and particularly science education, is moving forward. Professor Shakhashiri urged him not to despair because without hope there’s no chance for improvement. He asked the caller to focus on a few things he can do. “It’s deplorable that so many people lack basic knowledge,” he said, “but it’s not their fault, it’s ours. Education is the responsibility of a whole community, not just schools.”
- Larry began by noting an important anniversary for Professor Shakhashiri, the 52nd anniversary of his arrival in the U.S. from his native Lebanon. His father, a public health physician, came to Harvard as a visiting professor and expected to stay just one year. Professor Shakhashiri said it was a day of nostalgia, and that he’s grateful for the hospitality and great opportunities offered by the U.S. “Every time I return from an overseas trip,” he said, “I fall on my knees and give thanks for being in the United States.” The U.S. is a great county, he continued -- not perfect, but with a great environment that promotes learning. The University of Wisconsin-Madison is a citadel of learning, he added, respected worldwide. To celebrate his anniversary, Professor Shakhashiri provided cake the day before to all 360 students in his beginning chemistry course. Professor Shakhashiri has taught introductory level chemistry and other courses during his 40 years at UW-Madison.
- The new academic year has just begun at UW and Professor Shakhashiri is giving the first exam of the semester at the end of the third week of the semester. He’s now giving five exams a semester instead of three to help students focus on their work and make the transition from high school -- 80 percent of his students are freshmen. Professor Shakhashiri publishes an extensive guide and syllabus for the course, which can be found on this web site, to help students prepare for every lecture, discussion and lab session. He encourages students to study in co-operative learning groups of four or five, and to devote two hours of study for every hour spent in class. He also asks students to take an hour every weekend to reflect on what they learned during the week, write down their reflections, just one page or so, and send them to him. He said that the week before, more than 200 students sent him their reflections.
- Professor Shakhashiri said that, over the years, many students have told him that their parents have put undue pressure on them to get good grades. He said that as a parent he understands the desire for excellence, but that grades, while important, are not everything. He called on parents to be more comprehensive in their expectations and not berate students when they don’t receive an A in every course. The purpose of a course is to learn the material, and to learn how to learn, he said, and he urged parents to be compassionate and promote learning.
- Larry asked about the need for more public school teachers, noting a news report that the Baltimore school district has hired some 600 teachers from the Philippines. Professor Shakhashiri said America is the land of opportunity, and the reliance on overseas teachers indicates that native-born Americans are not going into teaching in sufficient numbers to meet national demands. Other districts have also looked overseas for teachers, he said, and there’s a need to develop teachers within our own society. There are more than three million teachers in the U.S. and the turnover is high due to retirements and people changing careers. We need good teachers at ever level, he continued, who are committed to their profession and to the subject matter. Professor Shakhashiri noted a proposal he made last spring (see the first bullet point on page 3) to recruit and maintain 200 teachers a year to go into the Milwaukee Public School district which, like many large city districts, has a high dropout rate and poor student test scores. The teachers would get scholarships for their education and then have a five-year obligation to teach in the Milwaukee schools. Professor Shakhashiri challenged all leaders of society to care about inner city schools. This is not to say there’s no need in rural areas, he continued, but inner city schools need help the most.
- A caller said her son attends the UW-Madison and has a teaching assistant who is abusive to students. She asked what training T.A.s get. Professor Shakhashiri said he has eight teaching assistants for his lecture of 360 students and that he meets with them every week. In addition, incoming graduate student assistants get an intensive one week orientation session before the first semester which includes mock discussion and lab sessions. “We are dependent on graduate students,” he continued, “and it’s a great system because the graduate students are not much older than the undergraduate students and can understand their problems.” Professor Shakhashiri said the training focuses on improving interaction and developing more patience among the assistants. The system is not 100 percent successful, he continued, and he welcomes comments from parents and students. However, he noted that it’s up to the student to take advantage of the University’s resources by seeking advice and counsel.
- Another caller noted reports that some international organizations won’t hold conventions and other meetings in the U.S. because of problems with members getting visas. Professor Shakhashiri said some organizations he belongs to, including the American Chemical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science are concerned, and have their own international activities offices to deal with the U.S. State Department to help visitors. This is a situation that won’t go away, he continued. Scientists from all over the world have been denied visas, and this is contrary to what our country is all about. It takes a lot of effort to get visitors approved in time, he said, but the organizations have had some success. “Openness is vital to science,” he said.
- Another caller, identifying herself as a 1974 U.W. graduate in nursing with advanced degrees, said that when employees reach the top of their pay scales, hospitals fire them and hire new nurses from the Philippines and Thailand, which is a double loss, for both the home country and the U.S. Professor Shakhashiri said he wants to leave the door open for legal (not illegal) immigration because immigrants enrich us. It’s important to be open and hospitable, he continued, but not at the expense of ourselves or others.
- Another caller, identifying himself as a retired professor, noted that when he was an undergraduate, all of the teaching assistants were native English speakers, but that now many T.A.s have a language problem. He said students have often reported problems with understanding T.A.s and that there seems to be no training or selection process. Professor Shakhashiri said the profile of students has changed with many fewer now that are native-born. He said there are screening processes and that his own T.A.s know the subject matter well and are willing to listen to advice, such as to speak more slowly. “By and large, we are successful,” he said, “but there have been cases where T.A.s have not been fluent enough and changes have been made.” He urged students to take responsibility for their education and talk to their T.A.s or professors during their office hours.
- Another caller identified himself as a nuclear engineering major who took Professor Shakhashiri’s chemistry course six years ago. He said that during his undergraduate engineering career, about 90 percent of T.A.s were foreign born, and that half the time he had a lot of trouble understanding them. This was a real hindrance to his education, he continued, and he had to learn on his own. The caller added that he would have liked to go to graduate school, but that the competition is so intense he had no chance of getting in. Professor Shakhashiri said he is always glad to hear from a former student, and agreed that there has been an increase in foreign born graduate students. This is a good thing in one sense, he continued, because science is international, but that schools should be concerned about the overall quality of undergraduate education. He also noted that T.A.s are assistants, not the main teacher, and that students should seek all sources of help in learning.
- Larry noted that the WISL corps of undergraduate student chemistry demonstrators will be providing a hands-on exploration station at Villager Mall in Madison every third Saturday, starting this week (some of the undergraduate Science is Fun demonstrators are foreign-born). And Larry noted that WISL sponsored a lecture that evening (September 17) on Science and Religion, featuring UW-Madison philosophy professor Seven Nadler. WISL is sponsoring several programs on science, religion and ethics. Professor Shakhashiri said science and religion are the two strongest forces in society and their interaction needs to be explored.
- Larry began by
noting that the next Sunday is Father’s Day in the U.S.
and also June 21, the first day of summer in the northern
hemisphere. Professor Shakhashiri wished all fathers and grandfathers
a happy Father's Day, and wondered if people know why we have
four seasons in the temperate zone. Learning about natural
events, he said, is part of being science literate. Professor
Shakhashiri often asks people what causes the seasons and
he asked listeners to call in with their answers.
- Larry also noted
that the biggest fireworks display in the Midwest will be
Saturday, June 27, called Rhythm and Booms, and fireworks
are displays of chemical reactions. Prior to the fireworks
show, Professor Shakhashiri will present demonstrations and
discuss the science of fireworks at the Memorial Union Terrace,
from which spectators can see the fireworks display across
Lake Mendota from the Union.
Click here for a photo from a previous Science of Fireworks presentation,
which shows a thermite reaction, and here for a photo from this presentation, which shows what happens
when you ignite a gas-filled balloon.
- Professor Shakhashiri
said fireworks generate three forms of energy -- sound, heat
and light, with the colors of the light produced by heating
metal salts. Each element emits a characteristic color when
excited by heat, and preparing fireworks shows is both an
art and a science. For example, strontium and lithium, in
salts like carbonates or chlorides, produce a red color. Calcium
produces orange, sodium makes yellow, barium makes green,
copper makes blue and purple is created by a mixture of strontium
or lithium and copper (blue plus red is seen as purple). Silvery
effects are created by burning metals such as aluminum, titanium
or magnesium. Professor Shakhashiri emphasized that safety
should be paramount. He said fireworks should be set off by
professionals with the rest of us sitting at a safe distance
and watching. He also noted that the fireworks are really
a celebration of American independence. The official name
of the holiday is Independence Day, not the Fourth of July,
and he reminded listeners of what it's really about, urging
them to read the Declaration of Independence.
- A caller who identified
himself as working in the fireworks industry for 25 years
said he always listens to Professor Shakhashiri, uses the
Science is Fun Web site and thanked Professor Shakhashiri
for his work. The caller urged Professor Shakhashiri to join
the Pyrotechnics Guild International which is holding its next convention in Wisconsin. The caller
asked about a report in the London Times about a
study from Edinburgh University. In a survey of scientists,
one out of seven said they knew of another scientist who fudged
data, and that almost half engaged in questionable practices
(only a few admitted to cheating themselves). The caller said
people should be skeptical about what scientists say.
- Professor Shakhashiri
thanked the caller for the compliments and the information
about fireworks. There's an
article about fireworks on this web site under "Chemical
of the Week" and Professor Shakhashiri said if it's mistaken,
he wants to learn about it. As for scientific ethics, Professor
Shakhashiri said ethics should be at the highest level and
that it's unconscionable to fake data or misrepresent results.
Being skeptical is the way we make advances in science, he
said, and findings must be validated.
- Another caller
said the description of the study seemed to indicate that
it was the opinion of scientists that others cheat, but opinions
are not hard data. The study seemed to paint scientists as
less than honest, but he said that conclusion is not valid
from the study. Professor Shakhashiri said he would
have to read the report to find out what it actually says,
but noted that there have been well-publicized cases of fraud
in science. These were publicized because they were discovered
by other scientists, and he said science is good at catching
misbehavior through peer review.
- A caller answered
the question of what causes the seasons. He said the tilt
of the earth's axis means that more sunlight hits the hemisphere
that is tilted toward the sun. Professor Shakhashiri said
the caller was correct. For more on this topic, see the June
22nd entry here.
Professor Shakhashiri said he asked the question because of
a study that's been going on for more than 20 years asking
people who attend graduation ceremonies at Harvard University
for an explanation of the seasons. The question is asked of
faculty and alumni as well as graduating seniors, and the
results are disappointing. In one year, 21 of 23 people asked
could not furnish an adequate answer. Here is a link to the project related to this topic.
- A caller asked
how sunlight can shine on the north side of his house after
sunrise and before sunset around the time of the summer solstice.
Professor Shakhashiri said the question would be better asked
of Jim Lattis of the Astronomy Department. Dr. Lattis has
provided a drawing and the following
"The sun rises due east and sets due west on only
two days a year: the spring equinox (around March 20) and
the autumn equinox (around September 20). During the remainder
of the year, the point along the horizon of the sun's rising
and setting moves north of the east-west line in the spring
and summer and south of it during the autumn and winter. In
Madison, for example, on the day of the summer solstice, the
sun rises nearly 34 degrees north of due east, and it will
set that far north of due west on that day. Anytime that the
sun has an "azimuth" (location measured along the
horizon, like a compass bearing) north of the east-west line,
it will illuminate a north-facing wall. This will be most
noticeable around the time of the summer solstice (around
June 21). So the ascending (morning) sun will illuminate a
north-facing wall until it rises far enough to reach due east,
at which point the wall falls into shadow. In the afternoon,
after the descending (afternoon) sun reaches due west, sunlight
will again illuminate the wall. The period of morning and
evening illumination of the north-facing wall will decrease
gradually, then disappear at the autumnal equinox in September,
not to reappear until the spring equinox in March. All this
discussion assumes a perfectly flat eastern and western horizon,
which is rarely the case except at sea. But unless the north-facing
wall we are discussing is located in a deep valley, it will
probably receive morning or evening sunlight for some weeks
around the summer solstice."
- A caller asked
whether science is going in a better direction under President
Obama. Professor Shakhashiri said there's a big difference
and he's overwhelmed by the freshness of what the President
is saying. But he added that while Presidential statements
are important, the real hard work must be done by citizens.
Professor Shakhashiri said the trajectory is good and the
different tone from Washington is good, but it's too early
to tell whether the result will be better. He noted a
report from the National Research Council released June
15 which said that 10 percent of the energy used in the U.S.
will be from renewable sources by 2020. If that happens, he
said, it will be a sign that things are better.
- A caller asked
what evolutionary advantage butterflies get from their bright
colors. Professor Shakhashiri said that's a good question.
An explanation will be posted here at a later date.
- Larry asked about
President Obama's call for a commitment by students to spend
one more year in school. Larry noted that 7 of 10 high school
students now graduate in four years. Professor Shakhashiri
said it's a desirable goal and can be realistic if we work
on it. He noted that in 1996, 66 percent of students graduated
from high school in four years in the U.S., while the percentage
in Wisconsin was 77 percent. In 2006, it was 77 percent nationally
and 82 percent in Wisconsin (one of the highest states). He
said President Obama's call for everyone to complete four
years of college is realistic since we have the schools, and
more graduates are needed since society is so dependent on
science and technology. He urged Congress and the states to
make it a national goal to increase college graduation and
provide money to accomplish it.
- A listener sent a question by e mail: What
do you think of cold fusion? Professor Shakhashiri said it
has not been shown to be real. Since the first claim more
than 20 years ago of attaining cold fusion in the laboratory,
efforts to replicate it have failed. The sun's energy comes
from fusion of hydrogen into helium, uniting the nuclei of
hydrogen atoms, but the sun does it at tremendous temperatures
and pressures. The claim that it has been accomplished at
room temperature is unproven. Professor Shakhashiri says he's
open minded on the subject -- someone may prove it's possible
and, if so, it would be of tremendous benefit, providing clean
and almost unlimited energy.
- Larry began by remarking that he taught his last class of the semester yesterday, May 6 (Larry is a Professor of Communication Arts in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences). Professor Shakhashiri said he always has mixed feelings about the end of a semester, because it’s the last time he sees each class as a group, though he often runs into former students in his travels around the globe. He reported that some students this year are concerned about the job market, some will do public service and some will take time off before joining the job market. Professor Shakhashiri reminded everyone, parents, students and teachers, that learning does not happen only in the classroom. We learn all the time and he urged everyone to do something over the summer, some reading, going to zoos, gardens or arboretums or enjoying music–there are many educational and recreational activities that we learn from.
- Larry said he got a blog from a former student who graduated last year. The student is now bicycling from South Africa to Cairo.
- Professor Shakhashiri noted that he has taught approximately 25,000 students in his 39 years of teaching at the UW-Madison, including doctors who have treated him as a patient. There are many other notable alumni of Shakhashiri classes including Patricia McConnell, an animal psychologist who has her own program on National Public Radio, “Calling All Pets”, with Larry as co-host, and Phil Pellitteri, a nationally known expert on insects who often appears on Larry’s call-in program. Professor Shakhashiri announced that he is planning 40 public events, starting June first, to commemorate his 40th year as a faculty at the UW-Madison.
- Larry asked about changes over the years in students’ attitudes and motivations. Professor Shakhashiri noted that there have been many changes in society, including the development of new technology. Students today use a lot of new technology including cell phones, I pods, and instant text messaging, but Professor Shakhashiri is not sure how useful this is for education. He said many of the messages are not in good English and he’s concerned about the quality of what is communicated. Students today are bright and eager, he continued, but seem less engaged in political activities than in previous years. He said students should try to find ways to focus on issues beyond using technological toys (which are the result of a lot of scientific and engineering research) because it’s up to everyone to use technology to enhance the quality of life and benefit society.
- Larry noted that President Obama has promised to restore science to its rightful place in government and society. Professor Shakhashiri welcomes that promise, calling it the kind of political leadership that will benefit the country, setting a tone urging everyone, not just scientists and politicians, to put science in its proper role, with open and free inquiry and academic freedom. Science should be respected and the results put to good use, he continued, on the two most important issues facing society today, energy and human rights. Concerning energy, Professor Shakhashiri pointed out that with a growing world population, energy demands are huge, and have resulted in massive production of greenhouse gases, with political and social ramifications. Concerning human rights, Professor Shakhashiri said the quality of life in poor societies is a great concern, and that everyone deserves a legal and political framework to be able to enjoy the benefits of technology. Professor Shakhashiri said science and religion are the two strongest forces in the world and are not really at odds, as some believe. While there’s conflict, some religiously based, over issues like abortion, embryonic stem cell research and end of life issues, the interests of science and religion overlap. Professor Shakhashiri does not expect full agreement between science and religion, but called for respectful conversations on issues, since both sides have the same goal of making society sustainable and fair.
- A caller said that science has a responsibility to reveal all the costs of new technology including societal costs. Professor Shakhashiri agreed, saying that everyone involved has a duty to point out the huge benefits that can accrue from science and technology as well as the potential hazards.
- Another caller said decisions should be made on the basis of hard data, noting that anyone can put anything on the web and that important decisions are sometimes made that are contrary to the best available information. Professor Shakhashiri agreed that it’s important to use data properly, but also noted that not all societal problems can be solved in the way we do science.
- Another caller deplored a recent decision by the University of Wisconsin-Madison to provide late-term abortions at a University clinic. She said, “Killing unborn babies breaks my heart.” Professor Shakhashiri thanked the caller for raising the point and called for a healthy dialogue on the issue. Issues like abortion have not been discussed as well as they should be, he said, and there are strong emotions on all sides. He called for discussions in which people are respected even if they do not respect each other’s positions.
- An e mailer asked about mercury in some types of lighting fixtures, asking what happens to the mercury when they break. Does it do into the atmosphere or stay in the pieces? Noting that mercury vapor is poisonous, he referred the e mailer to the Chemical of the Week feature on this web site, which includes an article on Mercury.
- Another e mailer said water should be considered an important worldwide issue equal to energy. Professor Shakhashiri agreed, saying he meant to include it under the heading of energy, since the two are related. Water is a huge concern, he said, and referred the
e-mailer to a brand new Chemical of the Week article on Water.
- A caller who identified herself as a math teacher said education should try to create meaningfulness and connections as an answer to those who question the value of teaching mathematics, saying they will never use it. Professor Shakhashiri said it’s true that mathematics is the language of science, but added that writing and reading skills are also important to understand science. Everyone should learn some math in school, he continued, making the concepts clear and showing how it’s used. Not everyone can make practical use of higher math, he said, but can learn its connections to applications.
- Another caller said science is usually taught for its practicality and usefulness, not for its beauty. She noted that English literature is not taught as a practical subject, but attempts to use great ideas to experience beauty. Professor Shakhashiri said he likes that observation. In some places, science it taught from an entirely practical perspective, he agreed, but he added that sharing the joy of doing science and the beauty of appreciating science is a liberal art which deals with deep questions that don’t immediately connect to a practical application. Doing research into the origins of life may not have immediate practical application, he continued, but can tell us a lot about ourselves and help answer deep philosophical questions. And, he continued, there’s no way to tell what will result from basic research. For example, during the development of radar, no one could have anticipated that it would lead to magnetic resonance imaging machines that diagnose disease. Good teachers instill an appreciation of science, he concluded.
- Filling in for
Larry Meiller, Jim Packard asked about how the federal economic
stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment
Act will affect science. The National Institutes of Health
will receive 10 billion dollars and other agencies will receive
billions as well. Professor Shakhashiri said this is a very
excellent situation for the science community since many good
research proposals have already been received by federal agencies.
Specifically, the National Science Foundation will get an
additional three billion dollars, two billion of which will
fund proposals which the agency has already received, peer-reviewed
and approved. Scientists
realize that this additional money is a one-time deal, Professor
Shakhashiri said, and much of the money will go toward research
on new technology such as alternative energy. He warned that
research takes a long time and practical applications might
not be found immediately, but he also noted that the stimulus
money will create jobs. The remaining one billion dollars
for NSF will provide new equipment and instruments, and improvements
in infrastructure, including renovating and replacing buildings,
many of which are old. This will create jobs, including blue
collar jobs, making the instruments and in new construction.
Professor Shakhashiri said he’s optimistic that the science
community will rise to the occasion. As far as overall economic
recovery is concerned, he said, “As a scientist, I take a
wait-and-see attitude.” He noted that everyone, in business
and science and at all levels of government must cooperate
to promote recovery.
- Jim asked about
prospects for Wisconsin scientists and institutions to get
recovery money. Professor Shakhashiri said it’s very likely
that Wisconsin will get considerable money since there are
many proposals from Wisconsin scientists already awaiting
funding by government agencies.
- Jim asked about
Professor Shakhashiri’s article in the current edition of
Wisconsin People and Ideas, the magazine of the Wisconsin
Academy of Science, Arts and Letters, which contains several
specific proposals for improving science education.
The article notes the huge gap worldwide between rich
and poor, with at least one billion people currently living
on less than one dollar a day. Professor Shakhashiri called
the gap “astonishing”, asking, “How can we as custodians of
technological advances tolerate having so many others living
in such poverty?” He called the gap both heartbreaking and
highly detrimental to preserving the environment worldwide.
Our knowledge and technology must be shared worldwide, he
said, to make everyone part of a successful society with better
education and less disease.
- Jim asked if
the poorest people are refugees. Professor Shakhashiri said
most are not; they are living in their home countries where
poverty impairs productivity because people have no access
to clean water or the information necessary to prevent the
spread of disease. He called the situation “dire” and added
that we in the wealthy world can improve the lives of those
in poverty as well as our own lives.
- The article also
deals with moral issues, such as the use of technology to
create powerful new weapons and environmental destruction.
Professor Shakhashiri again promoted the concept of science
literacy for everyone. This is not necessarily expertise in
any particular area of science, but an appreciation of science,
what it can do, what it can’t do, and the potential risks.
Science literacy is necessary for a democratic society, he
continued, so that citizens are enabled to make informed choices
and reject scams and quackery. Education is the key in all
societies, he continued, to give people the skills to succeed
in all types of endeavors. Education occurs not only in schools,
he said, but is always going on in all settings if people
develop their inborn curiosity.
- A caller asked
about diet, asserting that Americans have become addicted
to high fructose corn syrup and other high-sugar, high-calorie
foods, leading to an epidemic of obesity and type two diabetes.
Professor Shakhashiri said nutritional science has made many
advances but that most of us do not take advantage of the
knowledge because we are not well enough educated. He noted
that Wisconsin is famous for its cultural preference for beer,
brats (bratwurst sausages, for those who are not familiar
with American Midwestern culture) and brandy (Wisconsin leads
the nation in per-capita brandy consumption). He called these
the three Bs and said that if citizens learned more and accepted
scientific findings, this might make a dent in the problems
of obesity and drug abuse. For general information about nutrition
please visit Susan
Nitzke’s Web site. For information about fructose and
diabetes please visit this
- A caller said
that as long as money controls scientific research, the result
will be new weapons and quick profits. The caller said the
current economic system amounts to “phoney capitalism, with
socialism for the corporations and a dog-eat-dog world for
everyone else”, and said scientists should stop going with
the flow and put people above money. Professor Shakhashiri
noted, as he often does, that advances in science and technology
can be accompanied by detrimental consequences. He said most
advances are beneficial and that most scientists are not motivated
primarily by money, but because they like to ask questions
and explore. For some, this is an end in itself, but others
hope to benefit society. It’s up to everyone to help make
the decisions on how technology is used, he continued, so
it’s important for citizens to be educated and informed.
- A caller asserted
that a plan by Wisconsin Energy Corporation to build a new
three billion dollar coal-fired power plant in Southeastern
Wisconsin is an example of the public being bamboozled. The
caller said the plant is not needed because energy could be
stored during times when less electricity is being used and
then used during peak times. He suggested using off-peak electricity
to make ice for cooling buildings the next day or storing
compressed air in unused mines and caves to run turbines when
needed. Professor Shakhashiri said one of the joys of appearing
on Wisconsin Public Radio is to hear the variety of views
expressed by listeners. He said such decisions should involve
everyone because they are not just scientific decisions but
also social and economic. He added that science must be in
the forefront in decision making and that energy is one of
the most important current issues. The Industrial Revolution
resulted in massive use of fossil fuels. Now we know more
because we’ve done more research, he continued, and these
are important issues. For information about storing energy
please visit this
- Jim asked about
some specific proposals in Professor Shakhashiri’s article,
including more teachers for the Milwaukee school system and
“Science and Engineering on the Road.” Like many big city
school systems, Milwaukee has a high dropout rate and many
students who do poorly on assessments. In his article, Professor
Shakhashiri proposes a system of full scholarships for students
in teacher training at all Wisconsin colleges. In exchange,
they would work for at least five years in the Milwaukee school
system upon graduation, and he hopes for 200 new teachers
a year under the program. Professor Shakhashiri said this
is not intended to be a criticism of current teachers in Milwaukee
— “my hat is off to them”, he said — but a new infusion of
talent is needed. He also proposes a continuing development
program for teachers after graduation, and called for empowering
teachers and putting them in an environment where they can
succeed and stay.
- Another initiative
Professor Shakhashiri proposes, Science on the Road, would
involve 25 science vans, equipped with the latest equipment
and learning tools, which would travel around the state. He
foresees the vans being donated by the private sector and
colleges and universities providing the staff, and says he
would be glad to talk with anyone about the details of starting
the program. This is not a new concept — more limited programs
are offered now in several places — but Professor Shakhashiri
sees Science and Engineering on the Road as being much more
extensive, with vans staying as long as a week in each location,
bringing equipment and opportunities which many school systems
- A caller said
his daughter is a former student of Professor Shakhashiri’s,
now studying for a master’s degree in teaching and aiming
for a career as a high school chemistry teacher. The caller
asked whether it would be worthwhile for her to go on for
a doctorate. Professor Shakhashiri said he’s always happy
to hear from former students and their parents — it’s one
of the rewards of teaching. He told the caller that getting
a doctorate would be helpful and that every teacher should
have some form of continuing education. He said the research
required for a doctorate helps students learn more about what
to teach and how to teach, and helps develop a more inquisitive
attitude. As for career opportunities, he urged the student
to contact the career placement office at her school.
- Another caller
said teachers are being discouraged from getting advanced
degrees because school boards don’t want to pay the scale
required for advanced degrees. Identifying himself as a retired
professor now doing substitute teaching, the caller said advanced
degrees would be fine for going into school administration,
but that a teacher with an advanced degree might be out of
a job. Professor Shakhashiri said some school boards appreciate
advanced degrees and are willing to pay for them. He agreed
that teachers in general are not well paid and said communities
should reward them financially and with the respect due to
important members of the community. Professor Shakhashiri
also commended the caller for continuing to contribute to
the community after retirement. He said retirees have a lot
to offer and urged others to share their knowledge and talent.
- Jim asked about
upcoming events and Professor Shakhashiri mentioned the March
27 lecture by former presidential advisor Neal
Lane and Science
Expeditions on April 4. On April 9 the Science, Religion,
and Ethics Program of WISL is sponsoring a lecture on Science
- Larry began by
asking Professor Shakhashiri what we can expect from the new
Obama administration, noting that President Obama has promised
to restore science to its rightful place and has also called
for transforming colleges and universities to meet the nation’s
challenges. Professor Shakhashiri said his reaction can be
summed up in one word--fabulous. “As a citizen, as a scientist,
and as a teacher, I say fabulous,” he continued. Obama is
striking a note of true leadership, he said, noting that science
and technology are the engines that drive the economy. Professor
Shakhashiri said the economy is in trouble due to what we
as a society have done with them. Obama’s call should be heeded
by everyone, he continued, and he asked listeners how they
feel. Professor Shakhashiri said the immediate and long term
welfare of society are at stake, not only in the U.S., but
in the entire world. What we do with technology is a measure
of our values, he continued, warning that science and technology
can have adverse effects depending on how they are used. For
example, the industrial revolution did a lot of good but also
had many negative consequences, including pollution.
- Larry asked if
President Obama can pull it off (restoring science to its
rightful place). “By himself, of course not,” Professor Shakhashiri
replied, “he will need the help of many others.” The current
economic problems are human problems, he continued, the result
of the failure of many people to act responsibly. Taking responsibility
requires action and learning from mistakes, he said.
- Larry noted that
Obama has already appointed several scientists to government
posts, including Steven Chu to head the Energy Department,
Jane Lubchenko to the Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, and John
Holdren as science advisor. Professor Shakhashiri said
he knows some of the appointees and they are outstanding scientists
who are also responsible citizens and open minded about issues.
He continued, “The question is whether they can be successful
in the political arena.” Professor Shakhashiri expects the
appointees to bring clear thinking to their posts, but it
remains to be seen how successful they will be in the political
- Larry asked what
the administration should do about science education..Professor
Shakhashiri said he’s optimistic that the new administration
will address the quality of school at all levels and put science
and technology in the right place, recognizing their limitations
as well as benefits. One possible initiative: revisiting the
idea of national science and math standards. Professor Shakhashiri
noted that Wisconsin Rep. David Obey, chair of the House Appropriations
Committee, has introduced a very large stimulus package aimed
partly at transforming the economy through science and technology
education. The bill, if approved, would provide an additional
three billion dollars for the National Science Foundation
on top of NSF’s current budget of $ 6 billion, with two billion
for expanding employment opportunities in science and engineering
to create new jobs and deal with energy and environmental
problems. That will require training more people to fill the
- A caller asked
about making hydrogen for fuel, noting that for more than
100 years scientists have been making hydrogen by reacting
sulfuric acid with iron, and wondered if that would a be feasible
way of making hydrogen. Professor Shakhashiri said that is
a classic way of making hydrogen, but that any method of making
hydrogen in large quantities must be economically feasible
and relatively free of pollution. The reaction between iron
and sulfuric acid is not economically viable. Professor Shakhashiri
noted that hydrogen has one great advantage as a fuel–the
only by-product of burning it is water–and there are many
research projects under way around the world to develop a
- A caller asked
about science diplomacy and whether there would be specific
international projects. Professor Shakhashiri said that if
the stimulus bill is passed in current form, there would be
wide latitude in using the NSF money. The three billion, for
the most part, is not earmarked and could be used for many
things. In practice it would be used to fund proposals received
from scientists and engineers. Professor Shakhashiri noted
that NSF has an office and programs for international activities
and the Secretary of State has a science advisor. Professor
Shakhashiri said he knows the last three science advisors
to the State Department, and they did the best they could.
Secretary Clinton has not yet appointed a science advisor
(she was just confirmed by the Senate earlier in the day),
but Professor Shakhashiri expressed confidence that science
and technology will be a vehicle to improve international
- A caller identifying
himself as a retired science teacher noted that in the late
1950s and 1960s, NSF funded continuing education for teachers.
The caller also asked why we didn’t do more years ago to harness
alternative energy. Professor Shakhashiri said the launch
of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 by the Soviet Union was not
only a shock to Americans who were confident of their supremacy
in science, it was perceived as a military threat, and that
resulted in improving the training of science and math teachers.
Professor Shakhashiri said we seem to need a threat to stimulate
action and most Americans see the economic downturn as a crisis,
so he’s optimistic that something similar will happen now.
He also noted that the expenditures on science and technology
in the 1950s and 60s triggered breathtaking advances, and
he hopes for the same today, but added a caution that the
money must be spent responsibly with the public knowing how
it’s used. Larry noted that he had a National Science Foundation
fellowship which helped with his education.
- A caller asked
if hydrogen fueled vehicles, with water as the only by-product,
would create a hazard by freezing on roads. Professor Shakhashiri
said it would not because the amount of water would be relatively
small. He noted that burning hydrocarbon fuel also creates
water as a by-product. Water vapor is a greenhouse gas, he
said, but the main goal should be reducing the production
of carbon dioxide, and water vapor is not the main problem.
- A caller e mailed
a question about superconductivity. 10 years ago, he said,
news stories claimed superconducting materials would save
the world. Professor Shakhashiri said superconducting materials
are still very promising and are in use in very limited circumstances,
namely mag-lev trains which are lifted by electromagnets and
do not touch the rails. But superconducting materials have
not penetrated society in general and the speed with which
they are adopted depends in part on how we travel. We are
conditioned to rely on cars, Professor Shakhashiri said, and
as individuals and as a society we must carefully examine
our style of life to find comfortable ways, and perhaps not
so comfortable ways, to reduce greenhouse gases.
- A caller protested
experimentation on animal subjects, calling it a hideous practice
and a shame. She asked what’s being done to stop it, suggesting
that there must be alternatives to what she called unnecessary
tests. Professor Shakhashiri said this is an important issue
and that animal experimentation should be open, transparent
and humane, but he added that the use of animals should continue.
“I also care about the treatment of animals,” he said, “and
being humane should be part of the value system of scientists,
but animal experiments and testing have produced tremendous
results including a long list of life-saving drugs. Progress
can be achieved only through experimentation.”
- The next caller,
who identified himself as a retired surgeon and also a pastor
and a former science teacher, said he was trained as a surgeon
by operating on animals. He said the subjects were dogs and
other animals which would have been euthanized, and that they
got tender care. “The care they get is not the gruesome thing
people think,” he said. The caller also identified himself
as a Republican, but said he supports Obama. The caller said
he was a teacher at the time of Sputnik and got money to build
a better science department. The caller also said that science
can foster international cooperation and unity. The caller
said he was in LaPaz, Bolivia when the U.S. sent its first
person into space, and he said there was a great celebration
and support of the U.S. He also said he was in China, at the
Great Wall, when China launched its first person into space.
He said he was approached by a group of Chinese soldiers who
wanted nothing more than to have their picture taken with
an American to celebrate the achievement. Professor Shakhashiri
thanked the caller and noted that scientific accomplishments
have no national boundaries (he also noted that pollution
has no national boundaries). He quoted the late physicist
Richard Feynman:"The world looks so different after learning
science. For example, trees are made of air, primarily. When
they are burned, they go back to air, and in the flaming heat
is released the flaming heat of the sun which was bound in
to convert the air into tree ? These things are beautiful
things, and the content of science is wonderfully full of
them. They are very inspiring, and they can be used to inspire
- An e mail correspondent
asked how to help a ten year old pursue scientific ideas.
One of the ideas was using lightening rods to collect electricity
and store it. The writer wondered if the idea was feasible
and asked about finding more information. Professor Shakhashiri
said the message was a great testament to the curiosity of
children and the wonderful support they can get from adults.
He also noted that Benjamin Franklin carried out an experiment
with lightening, proving that it is electricity. Professor
Shakhashiri recommended a book, “The Electric Universe” and
referred the writer to other recommended books for both children
and adults that can be found on this web
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