Archive for: November, 2011

Reading Diary: Feynman by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick

Nov 21 2011 Published by under book review, culture of science, physics, science books

I like to think I'm developing a little niche here on Confessions of a Science Librarian, at least as far as some of my book reviews. And I like to think that niche is reviewing science-oriented graphic novels. And I've reviewed a few over the past couple of years. Logicomix (review), Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth (review) and The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA (review).

And now the amazing new graphic novel Feynman, written by Jim Ottaviani and art by Leland Myrick. (Colours by Hilary Sycamore).

Now when I first heard about this new biography of Richard Feynman in the media, I was quite interested in it. However, some of the early reviews I saw complained about it being a little too dry, a bit boring even, maybe with a bit too much science content. So I hesitated. Then an opportunity presented itself to get a copy for review from the publisher and I seized it. What the heck, how bad could it be?

Not bad at all, really, in fact it is quite terrific. The early reviewers were actually pretty off base with this one.

Now I was pretty familiar already with the details of Feynman's life, having read James Gleick's bio and a collection of Feynman's short essays. Raised in New York, worked on the Manhattan project during WWII, his time at Princeton and then Caltech, the Challenger inquiry, the Nobel Prize. Not to mention the personal quirks and oddities.

So perhaps the more you know about Feynman's life the better you'll like this particular biography. It does cover the basic biographical details quite well, if a bit superficially.

But what I really liked about this graphic novel isn't its attention to biographical minutiae, it's the way it captures Feynman's personality very well by using Feynman's own voice, his own words to tell the story. It's in those words that we find his vitality, his verve, his humour, his irreverence. And his seriousness about science and his insane and quite remarkable creativity. And there's a good bibliography at the end, to boot. The librarian in me always loves one of those.

And speaking of science and personality, there are a couple of quotes that really showcase Feynman's personality and his approach to science.

On page 202 he says to a lecture audience,

The thing that's exciting about this is that nature is strange...

I'm not going to simplify it. I'm going to tell you what it really is like and I hope you accept nature as she is -- absurd.

You don't like it? Go find another universe!

And on page 127-128, to Freeman Dyson,

The power of mathematics is terrifying and too many physicists give up trying to understand their equations. Well, I want to understand them. We claim they're simple, but you can't explain the fundamental laws of nature to a high school student. In what sense are they simple -- because we can write them in one line of math? But Ph.D. or no Ph.D., it took you and me a lotta years of college to understand the symbols.

So, are there any simple ideas?

...And I say nature does whatever it likes.

Like I said, great book. Feynman's life is a great story and it's told here with great wit and personality. I recommend this book without hesitation to every reader interested in science or the history of science. It would make a great gift.

As for libraries, it would fit great in any middle school or high school library as well as any public library of any size. Academic libraries that collect graphic novels should acquire it and probably any that tries to collect in the history of science or physics, although perhaps the book isn't academic or analytical enough for those types of collections.

So, publishers out there, if you have a sciencey graphic novel you're coming out with, drop me a line at jdupuis at yorku dot ca.

And by the way, my son Sam reviewed the book as well here.

Ottaviani, Jim and Leland Meyrick. Feynman. New York: First Second, 2011. 272pp. ISBN-13: 978-1596432598

(Copy supplied by publisher)

(And one more thing, something that drives me crazy in advertising, movies, comics and tv shows. You know how they always use chess-playing characters as a sign of intelligence and then have the chessboard they're playing set up wrong? You know, white square on the right and all that. Yeah, on page 7 the artist has the chessboard set up wrong, with the black square on the right of the players. Sigh. Really, I think Feynman knew how to set up a chessboard.)

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Friday Fun: 5 True Stories That Prove You Shouldn't Piss Off The IT Guy

Nov 18 2011 Published by under friday fun

Yeah, I'm sorta an IT guy, or at least I used to be a real IT guy. I guess now I'm a former fake has-been IT guy.

In any case, this one from Cracked really tickled my cyborg funny bone: 5 True Stories That Prove You Shouldn't Piss Off The IT Guy.

Let's take a quick peek at number 5:

#5. Omar Ramos-Lopez Remotely Shuts Down 100 Cars

If we told you that a young computer whiz disabled more than 100 cars from his computer, you'd probably think "Man, this Hackers remake is gonna suck." That's the sort of wildly impossible feat that could only come from Hollywood's ridiculous conception of technology ("Oh no, the hackers have taken over our cars using their cache matrix nodes!") And yet, it happened. And here's the guy who did it:

Twenty-year-old Omar Ramos-Lopez was an employee for an Austin-based car dealership until February of 2010, when he was let go from the company and his passwords were revoked. His former coworker's passwords, however, were not. This was a problem for the customers of the Texas Auto Center.

You see, part of Ramos-Lopez's job involved using a system a called WebTeckPlus to remotely turn off the cars whose owners were late on payments -- basically, there's a little box installed inside every car that, upon receiving a wireless signal, can disable the ignition system. You can see where this is going.

Using someone else's password, Ramos-Lopez logged in to the system and shut down the cars of more than 100 random unsuspecting customers, who then proceeded to flood his former employer's office with angry calls since, you know, they weren't actually behind on their payments at all. Some of them even reported horns going off incessantly in the middle of the night, which was also within Ramos-Lopez's newfound powers and could only be stopped by going out and removing the car's battery. We're guessing that most of these people weren't even aware that something like this existed (we sure didn't) and assumed some sort of demonic possession was involved.

This caused a variety of problems. While the system can't shut down cars that are already in movement, anyone who was driving to work and stopped to buy a falafel suddenly found themselves stranded in the middle of the street. It took two days for Texas Auto Center to figure out what was causing this -- in the meantime, people missed work, missed school and had to spend money on tow trucks because of a jobless IT guy with too much time on his hands........

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Best Science Books 2011: Editors

Nov 18 2011 Published by under best science books 2011, science books

It is time. The season of lists begins!

Every year for the last bunch of years I've been linking to and posting about all the "year's best sciencey books" lists that appear in various media outlets and shining a bit of light on the best of the year.

From the beginning it's been a pretty popular service so I'm happy to continue it.

For my purposes, I define science books pretty broadly to include science, engineering, computing, history & philosophy of science & technology, environment, social aspects of science and even business books about technology trends or technology innovation. Deciding what is and isn't a science book is squishy at best, especially at the margins, but in the end I pick books that seem broadly about science and technology rather than something else completely. Lists of business, history or nature books are among the tricky ones.

Last year's runaway winner, the book that got by far the most mentions of any book, was Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I wonder if the Walter Isaacson bio of Steve Jobs will take the prize for this year? Only time will tell!

In any case, the summary post for 2010 books is here and all the posts for 2010 can be found here.

First up is the Editors' lists. I'm cobbling together the following lists for my master list: Biography & Memoir, Business & Investing, History, Nonfiction, Outdoors & Nature and Science.

  • Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
  • In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy
  • A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor
  • Radioactivity: A History of a Mysterious Science by Marjorie Caroline Malley
  • Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard
  • Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer
  • Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks by Ken Jennings
  • The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick
  • Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid by Wendy Williams
  • Stolen World: A Tale of Reptiles, Smugglers, and Skulduggery by Jennie Erin Smith
  • The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water by Charles Fishman
  • The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, Our Call to Defend Them by Wayne Pacelle
  • Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms by Eugenia Bone
  • Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  • The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson
  • Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman
  • The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker
  • Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku
  • The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos by Brian Greene
  • The Crash Course: The Unsustainable Future Of Our Economy, Energy, And Environment by Chris Martenson

I'm always looking for recommendations and notifications of book lists as they appear in various media outlets. If you see one that I haven't covered, please let me know at jdupuis at yorku dot ca or in the comments.

I am picking up a lot of lists from Largehearted Boy.

And if you wish to support my humble list-making efforts, run on over to Amazon, take a look at Steve Jobs and consider picking that one up or something else from the lists.

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Best. Tweet. Ever. Or, library people at Science Online 2012

It all started with this innocent little tweet from @seelix:

In going through the twitter list, I believe that half the #scio12 people are either a librarian, a marine scientist or named Emily.

To which I responded:

@seelix is there a marine science librarian named Emily? #scio12

@BoraZ had to chime in as well:

The holotype #scio12-er RT @dupuisj: @seelix is there a marine science librarian named Emily? #scio12

With @seelix getting the last word:

Found my new career path! RT @BoraZ The holotype #scio12-er RT @dupuisj: @seelix is there a marine science librarian named Emily? #scio12

Over the years, there have been few Twitter exchanges that have made me as happy as that one. And not because it's funny in its own right.

It's because it reflects the significant presence at Science Online over the years of librarians and other library people. It reflects our efforts to establish ourselves within the community, to get it know what roles we can play and what we have to offer.

Librarians are making a place for themselves in science online by being part of Science Online.

Anyways, the webpage is here, the preliminary program is here and the full public registration list is here.

And from that public registration list, here is the list of library people I was able to find:

I note that a few of the librarians listed above are not on Twitter or G+. The rest of us shall have to do something about that ­čśë

And of course, please let me know if I missed anyone!

It's a good showing this year for sure, even with a couple of regulars are missing this year. Molly Keener has a speaking engagement elsewhere and Christina Pikas seems to have other things on her schedule as well. (Congrats, Christina!)

I'll have a post a bit later on that will profile the sessions that have librarians, library people or libraryish content.

And finally, the previous library people at Science Online lists: 2008, 2010, 2011.

Update 2012.01.11. Added Abigail Potter.

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Around the Web: Why scitech majors change their minds, An open Internet of things, Access or ownership and more

Nov 12 2011 Published by under around the web, culture of science, education

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Friday Fun: Agronomy Lab Calls Flesh-Eating Plants "A Mistake"

Nov 11 2011 Published by under friday fun

It's not everyday that The Cronk News has a science-themed article but when they do, I'm all over it!

Today it's Agronomy Lab Calls Flesh-Eating Plants "A Mistake."

"Yes, we admit our mistake," says Blackheart. "Of course this doesn't lessen the university's commitment to sound agricultural policy and responsible research. Nor does it reflect negatively in any way on the integrity of our technicians."

When pressed on this point one of the labs' senior researchers, Dr. Seymour Krellburn, admitted that the release was "probably unintended...Actually, someone just accidently dumped the wrong packet of seed into the manure bin. It could have happened anywhere."

According to Nostradamus's Community Relations department, the Agronomy Labs and

Mondiablo are already at work to prevent the weed from becoming a national crisis. The plan is to develop of a highly selective herbicide, provisionally named "Agent Green," that can be spread by earthworms and possibly by ants--to be introduced via the plant's roots.

"Frankly, this had better work," said Krellburn. "If it doesn't, we'll all be manure."

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Interview with Michael Nielsen, author of Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science

Welcome to the latest installment in my very occasional series of interviews with people in the scitech world. This time around the subject is Michael Nielsen, author of the recently published Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science and prolific speaker on the Open Science lecture circuit. A recent example of his public speaking is his TEDxWaterloo talk on Open Science.

You can follow his blog here and read his recent Wall Street Journal article, The New Einsteins Will Be Scientists Who Share.

I'd like to thank Michael for his provocative and insightful responses. Enjoy!

Q0. Hi Michael, would you mind telling us a little about yourself and how you ended up writing and speaking about open science?

My original training is as a theoretical physicist --- I worked on quantum computing and related topics full time for about 13 years, and part time for a few years prior to that.

But at the same time as I was working on quantum computing, I was also following closely all the amazing things happening online -- things like the development of Google, Wikipedia, open source software, and so on. And as I watched it came to seem to me that these tools have begun (though far from concluded!) a revolution in the way we construct knowledge.

For a long time I expected that tools like this would also revolutionize how science is done. And we've certainly seen some exciting developments along those lines. But overall scientists have been very conservative in how they've adopted new online tools, in large part because of cultural barriers in science, barriers that mean scientists don't get a whole lot of credit for sharing knowledge in new ways.

I found this conservatism frustrating, and wanted to work to help change the culture of science. So in 2007 I decided to leave my tenured position as an academic to work full time on open science.

Q1. Your new book is Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science. Briefly, what is it about and what is the intended audience?

It's about the potential of the network to transform the way scientific discoveries are made. I think the day-to-day process of science will dramatically shift over the next few decades, speeding up the rate at which discoveries are made, and making possible whole new ways of attacking problems. But that will only happen if the culture of science becomes much more open -- to reach its potential networked science must also be open science. And so the book is also a manifesto for open science.

Q2. A significant percentage of the people doing science out there are academics. It's easy to see how open science integrates into the research part of their jobs but how about into their teaching and service requirements?

There are many things academics can do to integrate open science into teaching and service. Here's just a few ideas:

  1. Contribute to projects like Wikipedia and Citizendium, perhaps by giving students projects to improve articles in particular areas.
  2. Academics can potentially combine research, teaching and outreach through projects such as Zooniverse, which is becoming a general purpose platform for connecting scientists to the general public, so the public can make real contributions to scientific research projects. Zooniverse are probably best known for Galaxy Zoo, a very successful project to crowdsource galaxy classifications, but they also run many other citizen science projects.
  3. Academics can upload some of their teaching materials online, where they can be used by others. Aside from the intrinsic worthiness of doing this, it can certainly help improve teaching. YouTube, for example, gives detailed analytics -- you actually get a graph showing how much attention people pay to different parts of your video. From painful personal experience I can say that sometimes that graph plummets, as people leave your video in droves. Usually that's a great diagnostic that you're messing something up in your explanation, and need to improve.

Once you start looking into these and other similar possibilities, you realize that there are a multitude of ways to incorporate open science into the classroom and into service. Many of these ways are free or inexpensive, with the main limit being imagination.

Q3. It seems to me that the key to changing the way science is done is changing the incentive structures for working scientists. What could a new incentive structure look like that would encourage more openness? Are there some practical steps that can move things forward?

This is a question that an entire book could easily be written about. With that said, here's a few things that can be done:

  1. Individual scientists can make a point of citing non-traditional research contributions, like open data sets, code, and videos. Eventually we'll see journals that make it possible to publish data, code and video as first-class research objects in their own right, with the same status as conventional paper publication. Some efforts in this direction include GigaScience, Open Research Computation and the Journal of Visualised Experiments. Citations to those contributions will then show up in conventional measures of academic productivity --- things like citation count --- and so give people an incentive to contribute in new ways.
  2. People can build tools to measure the impact of non-traditional research contributions. The SPIRES service helped drive the adoption of preprint culture in physics, by providing a way of measuring the impact of preprints. There's no reason similar services shouldn't be set up for contributions to blogs, wikis, question and answer sites like MathOverflow, and so on. Indeed, MathOverflow already has a tool like this built in --- a measure of reputation for users. And there's other ideas exploring this space, like altmetrics and total impact. Do these replace conventional measures, like total number of citations? No, of course not. But people are often surprisingly aware of such reputation measures, and they will gradually enter the mainstream, show up on people's CVs, and so on.
  3. People who work at grant agencies or in senior positions in academia can help legitimize new forms of contribution. Simply inviting scientists to submit non-traditional evidence of impact would be a good start.

These are all small but significant steps, and it's through such steps that a change to a more open scientific culture will gradually come about.

Q4. Or perhaps the key is to get them young: how do we need to change the training and mentoring of scientists get to encourage them to be more open?

I don't think there's anything terribly complicated required here. Just getting students involved in open science projects is a big help. People like Steve Koch have mentored students like Andy Maloney, who've done much of their work in the open. Those students then go off and carry those techniques elsewhere, slowly changing the overall culture of science.

Q5. Perhaps the classic example you use in your talks is the Polymath project -- an experiment in massively collaborative mathematics. Do you see a future for this type of project and do you think the model is generalizable beyond mathematics?

Yes, I see a big future for this kind of project, although I think that Polymath and similar projects will morph into other forms. The original Polymath Project was done using off-the-shelf tools -- WordPress and Mediawiki -- that definitely aren't designed for massively collaborative mathematics. And so I think that we can develop much better tools, and also better social norms, that will make it possible to go much, much further.

To some extent this is already happening with the question and answer site Mathoverflow, which has attracted a strong and growing community of mathematicians. It's not uncommon to see a challenging technical question posted to Mathoverflow and then answered within minutes or hours.

As to whether this model is generalizable beyond mathematics, it certainly is, although with some qualifications. It depends on where the bottlenecks are in doing research. If the major bottlenecks are (say) construction of an experimental device, or taking samples, then obviously the net only helps a little. But if the bottlenecks are data analysis, or something more conceptual -- and I don't just mean theory, the bottlenecks in doing experiments are often conceptual -- then there is the potential for a networked approach to really help. What gets me excited is the fact that we're still in the very early days of this; there's a lot of room for people with imagination to go much, much further.

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Charleston Conference Presentation: Keeping Up with the Things That Matter

I was at The Charleston Conference last week, thanks to Mike Diaz of Proquest who invited me to be on a panel that he moderated, along with Karen Downing and Clifford Lynch. The topic of the panel was Keeping Up with the Things That Matter: Current Awareness Tools and Strategies for Academic Libraries. Karen, Cliff and I came up with different takes on the subject but overall the panel was quite well attended and I think useful and interesting for audience members.

Not surprisingly, my take was a bit on the "stealthy librarian" side of things:

I enjoyed being a bit provocative and think that it went over well.

Overall, I have to say the conference was amazing. I really enjoyed myself and the presentations and keynotes were of uniformly high quality. There's a nice Storify here. I also met a lot of really great librarians and connected with colleagues from all over.

One of the nicest things about the conference was meeting in person so many people I'd only known online, such as Michael Porter, Eric Hellman and especially Wayne Bivens-Tatum of Academic Librarian fame.

And finally, a big thanks to Mike Diaz for inviting to speak on the panel and giving me the opportunity to enjoy Charleston!

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The York University Lassonde School of Engineering: Announcement followup & Storify

Before heading off to the Charleston Conference last week, I blogged about the big announcement of Pierre Lassonde's big $25 million donation to York to found the Lassonde School of Engineering.

I attended the announcement and livetweeted it quite extensively: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here.

I also created a Storify story of a fair bit of the quite extensive twitter traffic of the annoucement and that is here. I've embedded the Story at the end of this post. It's mostly tweeting form the day of the announcement but I have added quite a few more since then.

Also, some of the internal press release, bloggy and other coverage:

[View the story "York University Engineering Expansion Annoucement" on Storify]

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Friday Fun: 4 Things You Are Regretting On The Day After Halloween

Nov 04 2011 Published by under friday fun

OK, the Friday after Halloween. But at least I'm typing this the day after Halloween!

And what might be some of the things you'll regret the day after Halloween?

Ages 45+: Shot a Kid

And every Halloween, teenagers will come around and shit on your stuff. Sometimes figuratively, but also sometimes not. This will, for lack of a strong enough word, make you unhappy.

So one Halloween, you'll find yourself lurking in the bushes in front of your house, armed with a garden hose, waiting to douse young punks with righteous, chilly justice. This is fine and normal, and except for the fact that the children will spot you and fire roman candles at you until you cry, is a pretty good plan. Where the plan falls apart is when you rush back in to the house to retrieve your grandfather's old service pistol, the one he bequeathed to you with the promise that you not do anything stupid with it. You've broken that promise once, naming the gun Eleanor, and that night you'll break it again, when your warning shot successfully warns several children by clipping one of them.

Yep, they're categorized by age range. The other categories are Ages 17+: Halloween Party Fouls, Ages 12+: Low On Digits and Ages 3+: Ate Too Much Candy.


(If anyone cares, the reason I'm typing this on Tuesday and scheduling for Friday is because I'm at the Charleston Conference right now.)

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