The news from Russia

Today, we see a story from Russia (i.e. the Florida of the Eastern hemisphere) regarding some side work that a couple of chemistry teachers took on.  Though these teachers may not be the best people around, one can hardly argue that they’ve got real-life chemistry experience to share with the kids.


Our story today comes from Visalia, CA, where a teacher apparently had two mental breakdowns this week.  The nature of the first was not entirely clear from reports, but the second saw her declaring that it was “hair cut day”, running around with scissors and cutting students’ hair while singing the Star Spangled Banner.  The story is here.  It’s obvious that this behavior cannot be permitted, but it does bring up another question:  What do we do when teachers have a nervous breakdown?

Most people I know have a story from their primary education of a teacher who “lost it” and did something strange.  One friend of mine tells of a teacher who ran out of the classroom crying and never returned, while there were rumors that a fourth grade teacher at my school threatened a student and left teaching shortly thereafter.  Though there’s no way of knowing which of these stories actually happened, it’s clear from the anecdotal evidence that it’s not all that uncommon for people to have a teacher at their school suffer a nervous breakdown on the job.

So, what do we do when something like this happens?  As with so many things, we’re stuck reacting to the situation and making the best of it.  In the case of the haircutting woman, the students fled the room and sought help at the school office.  Given that this teacher had a mental breakdown, but wasn’t dangerous, this seems fine.

More importantly, what can we do to stop this from happening in the first place?  To me, the answer is “not much.”  Though teaching is a stressful job, I don’t think that there’s any way that we can make it less so without making everybody’s workload much less.  Until this happens, we can only hope that we’re not the next one to do this.

I’ve published an important paper!

As is my way, I’ve been wondering about strange and unusual topics.  In this particular case, I’ve been wondering about the human element in putting stuff into a blender.  Because there has been no scientific approach to studying this phenomenon, I figured I’d do my own experiment.

This experiment has been published as An Examination of the Effect of Prior Experience, Age, and Gender in Non-Food Blending Predictions.  Though this title sounds pretty scientific, it just refers to an experiment I did with putting rubber balls in a blender to see what happens.  If you want to skip past the science talk, you can download the same thing in human readable form as Which People Are Best at Predicting Whether Something Will Blend?  And if you don’t understand how the statistics in either paper works, you might want to also have a look at the About Statistics document.  I’d like to give special thanks to Tom Dickson for inspiring this work with his own studies.

I’d appreciate it if you’d let me know what you think, and if you find any methodological, typographical, grammatical, or otherwise ridiculous errors, email me at  And feel free to nominate me for an important prize if you’d like.

Has Physics Been Stagnating?

I just read an interesting article in Nautilus titled “The Present Phase of Stagnation in the Foundations of Physics is Not Normal.”  This is an incredibly thought-provoking article and I highly recommend it.

The basic premise of this article is that nothing new has happened in our basic understanding of physics since the 1970’s.  Essentially, physics has gone from a field that comes up with better understandings about how the world works to a field that is more interested in dotting each i and crossing each t.  As opposed to changes in the early/mid 20th century, experimentalists are now “poking in the dark” because there are no new predictions to test.  Sure, we’ve got the concept of dark matter, but as the author states, this is just a placeholder for a phenomenon we don’t understand.  Her assertion that physics involves a lot of “blathering about naturalness and multiverses” seems to make sense, based on what little we’ve heard from the world of physics lately.

I think there’s a lot of truth to what Dr. Hossenfelder says in her article.  I’ve heard about experiments with the Large Hadron Collider and we still hear predictions of doom from the late Stephen Hawking, but they haven’t really told us much that’s new.  I like new particles as much as everybody else, but I’m not sure they’re doing anything but keeping particle physicists out of the unemployment lines.

There are, in my mind, three main points that we should consider.  And all of them lead to a hopefulness that’s not present in this article.

  1.  We’ve heard this before.  Michelson famously said in 1894 that there was nothing left in physics to discover.  As a species, we’d pretty much figured out everything that classical physics had to tell us.  We were dotting each i and crossing each t as we are now.  Of course, this turned out not to be true.  Not only were quantum mechanics and relativity on the horizon, but Michelson himself had performed a famous experiment disproving the aether seven years before he made his famous comment! Clearly, physics was getting ready to do something.
  2. Innovation isn’t constant.  There have been large blocks of time in which no really innovative stuff has been discovered.  This is true not only for physics, but for all sciences and areas of study.  The reason is this:  The world’s supply of genius isn’t constant.  Sometimes we get a whole bunch of geniuses like Rutherford, Bohr, Einstein, and the Curie family, but in other periods we end up with less awesome intellects.  Sure, every age has brilliant people, but most brilliant people don’t have the insight to invent truly new ideas.  Hence we get Dr. Hawking’s nonsensical rantings about space aliens and God alongside his brilliant astrophysics work.
  3. We don’t know what to ask.  We can only solve problems that we know actually exist, and at this point we don’t have any of those.  Consider the classic book Flatland, which posits a world of two-dimensions.  Even if the inhabitants of this 2-D world see weird stuff happening, there’s no way for them to imagine what a world of three dimensions is like.  We’re living in a similarly limited universe, and to imagine something fundamentally different will require an imagination and creativity that we haven’t seen in a long time.  We’ll have to wait.

So, is innovation in physics gone?  Right now, yes.  I’ll agree wholeheartedly with the author that nothing much is happening and that lots of money is being spent on pointless papers.  However, it only takes one of these physicists to think in a wildly different direction to spark the next revolution.  I hope it happens in my lifetime.

Should you really vote?

Today we’ll be discussing a question that comes up a lot during election time:  Is it worth my time to vote?  Before heading to the polls, each of us asks ourselves this question at least once.

My wise answer:  Maybe.  That ought to rile you guys up.

As with anything else in life, it’s important to consider the pros and cons of voting before deciding whether it’s worth our time.  So, instead of using the usual “it’s your civic duty” terms we usually see, let’s examine whether it’s really a good idea.

Reasons to vote:

  • You like a candidate’s views and want them made into policy.  There’s no better reason to vote than this because you’re using your vote to push for changes you believe in.
  • You belong to a political party and want to support that party.  In my mind, this reason is a little less awesome because it doesn’t take into account the actual person running for office.  However, if you really support the platform of one party versus another, this is a perfectly reasonable reason to vote.
  • You and your family have always voted for some particular party.  To me, not a great reason.  Instead of falling back on tradition, take a look at the candidates and the parties and see if you believe what they’re saying.  If you do, then vote for them.  If not, maybe you’ll change your vote.  An informed decision is always better than a traditional decision.
  • Your demographic group will get more attention.  If the only people voting are white elderly people, you can be sure that the people in office will tailor their policies to better serve them.  Even if you know your demographic group won’t carry the election, they’ll be more likely to take you seriously.  Here’s an interesting story about demographics: LINK.
  • You support the idea of a third party and want to give them a boost.  Voting like this is a vote to change the system rather than a vote for any particular person/party.  However, this is arguably a good reason to make your voice heard.
  • It’s your right, so you need to do it.  This is a pretty bad argument.  After all, I have the right to worship Satan, hold a rally for the KKK, and (in my state) cover myself with pistols and wander around in front of a school.  Yes, these are my rights, but just because I have them doesn’t mean I have to use them.
  • You have a responsibility to participate in the administration of our government.  Though you wouldn’t know it by looking at our lawmakers, in our country their power is derived from the people.  If the people ignore this responsibility, we just give them free reign to do whatever they want.

Reasons not to vote:

  • You honestly don’t care who wins.  What if you look at all of the candidates and the party platforms and decide that you honestly don’t care who wins?  It seems stranger that you should choose one at random and vote for them.  If you honestly don’t care which person wins, and if there are no other issues on the ballot that you care about, then it makes sense not to vote.
  • Voting is a pain in the butt.  Yes, going to the polling station and voting is a pain in the butt.  However, if you feel that one candidate is better than another, this pain in the butt shouldn’t keep you from voting.  Is it really that hard?  Plus, absentee ballots are a thing.
  • Your vote won’t make a difference.  This is true in almost every electionWith almost being the key term.  If you care about who wins, maybe yours will come up.  Admittedly, however, this isn’t the most compelling reason to vote.
  • You want to make the statement that the people are disenfranchised from their government.  Though it’s clear from the number of people voting that this is the case, it’s not clear why any governmental officials should care about this.  After all, your outrage isn’t going to get them elected, so why should they care?  If you want to show that you’re outraged, vote for the candidate you like the most and then send him/her letters to express how you feel.

So, using the pros and cons above, should you vote?  I don’t know.  Look at these reasons and determine for yourself whether you think it’s a good idea.  It’s your right as a citizen to vote, but also your right not to vote.  How you use your right is up to you.

Mastery learning (?)

If you’ve been in education lately, you’ve undoubtedly heard of either mastery learning or differentiated instruction.  For those of you who haven’t heard these terms, the basic idea behind both is that education should focus on mastering a topic before moving to the next one.  This sort of mastery is achieved by assessing the skills of each student and then assisting him/her until the skills reach the 80-90% level.

This idea is the one that Salman Khan (founder of the Khan Academy) uses in his resources.  By providing lessons in small bits with ample practice, students can lead themselves through the material and learn at their own pace.  (For that matter, I started doing the same thing nearly a decade before he did, so give me a MacArthur genius grant already.)  Most online tutorials essentially use this model to help students brush up on whatever they’re having problems with.

It’s obvious what the problem with this sort of learning is:  There aren’t enough teachers or enough money to make it happen.  In order to make this work perfectly, the teacher needs to individually assess and come up with a learning plan for each and every student in their class.  There’s not enough time in the day to do this.  Perhaps if five or ten teachers were allowed in a classroom of 30 kids it would be doable, but no school in the world has resources like that to draw from.

However, this isn’t to say that the idea of mastery learning is a bad one, even if it’s not something that can be easily implemented in its entirety.  Let’s look at some strategies that can be used to help students to address their weaknesses in understanding.  I’ll use chemistry as a reference point because it’s what I understand and what most of you probably already teach:

  • Teach and reteach.  Whenever teaching a new topic, find out during the course of this instruction whether anybody has problems with the background information needed for it.  For example, when teaching about Lewis structures it might be handy to ask ahead of time if anybody needs a refresher on naming covalent compounds.  By addressing it in these terms, students won’t feel as if they’re being singled out as being dumb for not knowing the material.
  • Do homework right:  Homework often gets a bad rap because it’s seen as a repetitive waste of time.  And you know what, it usually is.  By giving too many questions of the same sort, we teach students to memorize a standardized way of solving one particular kind of problem.  This is handy for teaching to a standardized test, but not so good for teaching students how to creatively solve problems.  When giving homework, give a problem or two of each type you want them to learn and incorporate previous learning into the questions.  Example:  In a Lewis structure worksheet, add three questions about naming covalent compounds at the beginning.  If a student has problems with this, it’s a simple matter to reexplain.
  • Be willing to teach less material:  With standardized tests, we’re often left with the choice between teaching all of the material and teaching a smaller amount of material well.  I encourage each of you to do the latter – to make sure students know the basics before learning the more complicated stuff.  My reasoning is this:  If all of the students understand the basics, many of them will be able to extrapolate what they know to the material they don’t.  The students that can’t will at least have a solid basis of material that they’re comfortable with, which will improve their scores, too.  And let’s be honest:  When’s the last time a high schooler really needed to understand electrochemistry anyway?

In short, mastery learning is just the natural way that we probably all want to teach.  Teaching to a test is stressful work and leads to teacher burnout and incomplete mastery of material.  However, when teachers use their freedom in the classroom to do things they find interesting and exciting, the students learn better and we have more fun.  When when we have more fun, we do an even better job.

Many readers of this post will rightly state that their administrators will be upset with them for failing to teach to the test.  My answer is this:  So what?  If your students end the school year with a deeper understanding of the subject and the feeling that science is fun, that’s worth far more than an extra ten points on a standardized test.  Most administrators will respond positively to success like this.  And for those that won’t, well, it’s hard to find a replacement chemistry teacher anyway.

Have fun and teach.  Your students will master the material more effectively, and you’ll have more fun.  The rest will take care of itself.



I’m better than you

I’ve been feeling pretty bad about myself lately.  I used to think that the problems in my life and my personal shortcomings were pretty normal, but on the news I hear nothing but people who have never done anything wrong in their entire lives and have nothing to apologize for.  I first thought this was limited to one party, or one group of people, but I’ve since found that politicians on both sides, celebrities, and other people never do anything wrong, ever.  That’s why I feel bad.

Fortunately, when I took some time to think about my life, I realized that I’m not a bad guy.  In fact, I’m better than all of you!  To demonstrate my awesomeness, I’d like to submit the following information:

  • I drive an electric car.  Yes, I know there’s a lot of “information” about there about the waste that making cars produces, and the emissions from the power plants that generate their electricity.  Fake news.  The truth is that electric cars are created by God ex nihilo in a cave at the peak of Mt. Fuji, totally devoid of waste.  The electricity I use to power my car clearly has no emissions associated with it because who’s ever heard of an electrical plug giving off smoke?  Yep, makes me pretty special.
  • I didn’t vote for Trump.  Since Trump Is Bad, I must be better than the electoral majority that voted for him, right?
  • I use open source software.  I don’t pay Microsoft or Apple for my software.  Nope, I use Linux stuff because I’m awesome and anti-corporate.  Plus Google stuff, but since I heard their motto is “Don’t be evil”, that doesn’t count.
  • I don’t have Facebook.  Just as hipsters in the 90’s and 00’s were better than all of us for not having TV sets, I’m better than the rest of you because I don’t have Facebook.  I’m not sure why this is, but I count it as a win.
  • I like Rick and Morty.  If you don’t get Rick and Morty, there must be something wrong with you!  Wubba lubba dub dub!
  • I don’t wear socks with sandals.  I don’t even own sandals, for that matter!  Yeah!
  • I recycle cans!  That one time when my wife was watching.
  • I take mass transit!  That one time when I went downtown during a festival or something.

Yep, I’m a pretty special guy!  Better than all of you, for that matter!

That’s not to say that you aren’t special, too.  I encourage each of you to come up with a list of ways that you’re awesomer than everybody else and share it during family meals.  I think you’ll feel a lot better about yourself when you do!


At this writing, everybody is currently angry at the current nominee for the US Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh.  In case you haven’t heard of this guy, he’s a conservative jurist who has been accused of sexual battery against a girl at a party when he was in high school.  There’s also, last I heard, hints that there may be another victim.

You may think that I’m writing this post to either support Kavanaugh or to demand that his nomination be withdrawn.  Neither of these is correct.  I think that the current plan to investigate the matter to figure out the truth is a prudent one, and the action taken should depend on whatever the results are.

What I am writing about is an interesting article I read today entitled “One of Kavanaugh’s High School Teachers Did 6 Years in Jail for Child Pornography.”  This is, of course, awful.  It isn’t, however, relevant in any way to the Kavanaugh case.

Here’s the story:  Bernie Ward, the teacher in question, was ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic church in 1977.  He quit the priesthood two years later to marry and taught theology at a string of Catholic high schools for one year each during the early 1980’s.  In the mid-80’s he moved to San Francisco and started a religiously-themed Sunday morning talk show that ran until 2007.  He was fired from his job after it came to light that he had been dealing with child pornography from 2002-2004. In the time since he served his three year jail sentence, he’s kept a low profile.  This story is well-known to anybody who followed Bay Area news in the 2000’s.

To sum it up, this child porn sleazebag was Brett Kavanaugh’s teacher for one year in the early 1980’s.  There is no indication that he had any particular mentoring or abusive relationship with Kavanaugh – merely that he was Kavanaugh’s teacher.

My point with all of this is to say that it’s ridiculous how we, as a society, have taken it upon ourselves to make everybody in the public eye stink of failure and corruption.  I don’t know if Mr. Cavanaugh abused anybody when he was a teenager, but I’m quite certain that trying to associate him with a child pornographer is outrageous and brings nothing but sensationalism to the issue.  Hinting that Mr. Ward somehow influenced Mr. Cavanaugh based on the available knowledge is ridiculous.  By all means, if Mr. Kavanaugh is guilty of abusing women when he was in high school, it should be made known.  However, to hint that he’s a bad guy because he briefly had a bad guy for a teacher is out of line.



When I recently taught elementary school for three days (cut short due to funding issues), I used the following sentence in class:

If you make a mistake when doing science, does this mean you’re stupid?  Of course not!

The meaning being, of course, that there’s nothing wrong with making mistakes when doing science, and that scientists should never be discouraged by lack of success in their experiments.

When I said the word “stupid”, there was a weird energy that went through the class.  I asked what the trouble was and they told me that “stupid is a bad word.”  When conferring with other teachers afterward, I learned that this was, indeed, the case.

I’m not sure how to feel about this.

I can understand why students would be discouraged to use the word “stupid” when speaking of themselves or others.  After all, if the word reaches taboo status, then it will be harder for people to think of each other as being inherently stupid or smart.  Saying that somebody is stupid has the same impact as using the n-word to describe somebody black.

It seems to me that this doesn’t really address the problem.  The n-word is inherently different than the word “stupid”, and not only in the intensity of the emotional impact that it carries.  Here’s what I mean:

  • Words like the n-word describe two things:  The negative stereotypes associated with a group of people as well as a descriptor of this group.  The n-word carries hundreds of years of bigotry and racism with it, but also describes a group of people based on an easily-determined characteristic (i.e. skin color).  The reason that the n-word and other slurs have such power is that it can be used against everybody who has this characteristic.
  • Words like “stupid” describe only one thing:  A single stereotype that can be applied to any group of people.  Black and white people can both be referred to as stupid.  When I call somebody “stupid”, I’m making a comment about a particular person as opposed to a larger demographic group.

Put another way, the word “stupid” isn’t a slur in the same sense as derogatory terms for specific groups.  Instead, it’s the idea of stupidity that educators are bothered by – it’s wrong to label somebody as being stupid because it aims negative stereotypes to them.

I’m OK with this, but disagree with how it’s applied in the case I referred to earlier. My comment didn’t describe something that makes people stupid – it instead reassures people that mistakes don’t equal stupidity.  Instead of reinforcing the concept of stupidity, it lets students know that they behavior they may have thought of as stupid is not stupid.  This particular use of the word doesn’t reinforce the idea – it breaks it down.

So, will I use the word “stupid” when talking to elementary school crowds in the future?  No.  Whether I agree with the nature of how this word is used, the fact remains that students don’t agree with me, and as a teacher it’s my goal to reach the students where they are.  I suppose this is how language changes, with each generation of dinosaurs giving way to younger generations that use better and less charged words.  Which is why my grandfather used to refer to “darkies” and just thinking the word makes me cringe.

And why my grandchildren will one day cringe when I make a casual reference to somebody being stupid.