Sunday, July 29, 2012

Archiving: Not just for Librarians anymore

Scenario 1: You’re 12 years old, and you’ve just discovered a juicy new piece of gossip. You want to be the first to share it with your friends. Unfortunately, you’re stuck in the 1960s so all you can do is try to be the first one at school. Alas, a classmate has beaten you to it!

Flash forward to now. Instead of running to school, you can post the news on Twitter or Facebook. It’s even time-stamped so nobody can dispute that you were the first to know the news.

Scenario 2: You’re a poor struggling graduate student doing research. You have an amazing new discovery that would allow you to graduate once published. You rush to submit your article to a journal.

Disaster strikes! You’ve been scooped! (Someone has published the same result before you.) Three years of your life wasted. If only you could have published your research first. (http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=794)

Solution: The arXiv (http://arxiv.org/)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Erdős, the Kevin Bacon of the Math world

If you hang out with math nerds for an extended period of time, they will inevitably bring up Erdős numbers.

So what is an Erdős number? And what does this have to do with Kevin Bacon?

Most of us are familiar with “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”. In this game, you try to connect any actor or actress with Kevin Bacon in the fewest number of steps.

For example, Tilda Swinton was in “Constantine” with Pruitt Taylor Vince who was in “Trapped” with Kevin Bacon. Thus, Tilda Swinton is separated from Bacon by two degrees.
(To play this game online, go to http://oracleofbacon.org. It’s actually quite hard to get a high number).

Back to our friend, Paul Erdős (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Erd%C5%91s). He was a famous Hungarian mathematician known for publishing the most papers (~1525) of any mathematician (among other things).

 A photo of Paul Erdős (from Wikipedia)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Breaking down a research article

Everyone does it. It’s almost never formally taught. It’s hard to master, especially at the beginning. Some people struggle with it their whole lives.

Did you guess what I’m talking about?

Reading a research article! (If you were thinking of something else, you’re probably at the wrong blog.)

Reading research articles is an integral part of being a scientist. However, there is rarely a formal instruction for this vital skill.

Fortunately, some educators are working to remedy this problem. A trio of scientists/education researchers developed the CREATE method for reading papers: Consider, Read, Elucidate the hypotheses, Analyze and interpret the data, and Think of the next Experiment. (http://www.teachcreate.org/ )

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Lab Reports for Grown-Ups

Grid notebooks, hand-written graphs, switching the carbon paper every time you turned a page. Such are the memories aroused by the mere mention of lab reports.*

To this day, I still remember the strict guidelines of high school lab reports: Hypothesis, Introduction, Materials, Methods, Data/Results, Analysis, and Conclusion.

Scientists write articles instead of lab reports. Articles are reminiscent of lab reports, but the formatting is slightly different, as we explore below.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Five hidden facets of numbers

We live in a world flooded with numbers. News stories, nutrition labels, results from research studies, and even sports highlights are riddled with numbers! Numbers are comforting; they seem solid and dependable.

“The numbers don’t lie.” But what if they do? Numbers can be manipulated to tell contradictory stories. Here are five things to think about next time you see a reported number.

1. Error Margin
2. Sample Size
3. Sample Bias
4. Replication
5. Rounding Errors