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Shakhashiri is a frequent guest of the Larry Meiller Show
on the Ideas Network of Wisconsin Public Radio.
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November 18, 2003 Larry Meiller Show
The discussion included the following topics in response to questions from Larry and from callers.
The 34th annual Holiday Lecture ONCE UPON A CHRISTMAS CHEERY IN THE LAB OF SHAKHASHIRI will be presented in on Saturday, November 6 and Sunday November 7 in Madison. For more information please visit http://scifun.chem.wisc.edu/xmaslect/xmascheery.htm The program will be shown on Wisconsin Public Television at 4:00 p.m., Thursday, December 25 and again at 8:00 a.m., Sunday, December 28. For time and date of telecast on PBS around the country please check your local televison listing.
During the second half of his show, Larry's guest was Dava Sobel, author of two best-selling books about science, Longitude and Galileo's Daughter, which is based on letters to Galileo from his daughter, who was a cloistered nun. (Both were made into programs for PBS' Nova series). Sobel said she was surprised to find that Galileo was a religious, observant Catholic and not an enemy of the church, as many people suppose. Because of his friendship with Pope Urban VIII, Galileo believed he could publish his findings proving that the earth is not the center of the solar system despite a ban on making that assertion. Though Galileo framed his belief as only a hypothesis and his book went through church censorship, it caused a furor, and the church made him recant. Sobel says Galileo was not trying to pick a fight with the Church but was worried that Protestants would pursue the issue, prove the sun-centered universe, and make the Church look ridiculous, which is what happened. Sobel also said the Church has not apologized for its treatment of Galileo. She says a papal commission's report got lost in bureaucracy and the church finally issued a statement which solved nothing and leaves the issue unsettled. Though she's not a Catholic, Sobel says her research gave her a better understanding of the Church and she considers Galileo's daughter a kindred spirit.
Larry asked whether scientists today are religious. Sobel said many are religious but some hide it for fear of being ostracized by colleagues. Sobel said Galileo believed the Bible is the word of God but not an astronomy textbook. She said scientific knowledge is in God's other book, the book of nature, and that understanding both books would end any confusion.
September 24, 2003 Larry Meiller Show
On the September 24th program, Larry's guest was Theodore Brown, emeritus chemistry professor at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign. Brown is the author of a new book, Making Truth: Metaphor in Science (for a review, click on Recommended Readings). Brown is the speaker at the September 26 colloquium.
Brown contends that metaphorical thinking is vital to science, contradicting a popular belief that science is a strictly objective and factual pursuit of the truth. Brown says that the human brain needs physical examples it can relate to in order to understand abstract concepts, such as thinking of a cell as a chemical factory. That's why the book is called Making Truth, not Finding Truth. For example, Brown says that when Einstein was formulating the theory of relativity he though about concrete examples, asking himself questions such as, "What sensations would the people on a falling elevator experience?" Brown contends that human thought processes are necessarily bound up with bodily understanding and that the use of metaphor seems to be a built-in trait. Brown says creativity in the arts is inherently metaphorical and science is no different, though it may appear different. Furthermore, Brown says each branch of science has its own metaphorical ideas and that interdisciplinary research often yields new insights as scientists discover each others vocabulary.
A caller who identified herself as a former special education teacher told of a student who was able to learn to read well but could not grasp the idea of metaphor and took every statement literally. Brown said this is consistent with the latest research in neurophysiology which indicates that the brain is hard-wired for language and the use of metaphor. That research indicates that people grasp metaphorical statements just as quickly as simple factual statements.
A caller asked how the book has been received by other scientists. Brown says it's too early to tell, though he has received little criticism so far and book reviews have been favorable.
September 4, 2003 Larry Meiller Show
On the September 4th program, the discussion included the following topics in response to questions from host Jim Packard, who was substituting for Larry Meiller, and calls from listeners:
Classes have started at the U.W.-Madison and Professor Shakhashiri is again teaching freshman chemistry. For the first class, the lecture hall was filled to capacity with more than 350 students. He says it's an exciting time for everyone with the students enthusiastic and eager to learn, and a good time for society to renew its commitment to education. Prof. Shakhashiri said teachers must be paid properly to make the profession attractive, and he said science should be taught with hands-on activities so students do science rather than just talk about it. Wisconsin's state education standards emphasize hands-on science teaching at every level, but Professor Shakhashiri cautioned that teachers must have the necessary laboratory facilities, materials and computers to support hands-on learning, and it must also be minds-on learning so students learn basic principles rather than merely how to do an experiment.
The U.W.-Madison got more than 600 million dollars in federal research money in 2001 with more than half coming from the National Institutes of Health. Wisconsin is doing very well in this area and Prof. Shakhashiri said it's not an accident but part of a great tradition. But he said the nation as a whole has to develop its capacity in science and technology, and noted that the U.W., like almost all other public institutions, took a major cut in state support because Wisconsin, like most other states, faces a big budget deficit. Prof. Shakhashiri said research grants don't make up for the budget cuts and expects the impact of the cuts to be severe.
Wisconsin students ranked number one in the country in the latest report of scores on the ACT test, but students in Wisconsin and nationally did not do as well in math and science as they did in other subjects. Prof. Shakhashiri said it's the absolute performance of students that matters, not the ranking of states, and that teaching strategies must be modified to make up deficiencies and inspire students.
A caller asked if students have changed over the last 30 years. Prof. Shakhashiri says some of their attitudes have changed. The nation's population and diversity are greater and society is more complex. Fewer students are interested in science and teaching careers and Prof. Shakhashiri said that's a problem because society depends on advances in science and technology. He called for greater efforts to recruit students into science and said the effort must start long before students reach college. Professor Shakhashiri says the National Science Foundation provides nearly a billion dollars a year for science and engineering education, including grants for programs for teachers.
A caller asked where propane comes from. It's refined from oil like gasoline and other petrochemicals. Propane is widely used for home heating and other applications in rural areas where natural gas from pipelines is not available. Propane gas is heavier than air and Prof. Shakhashiri said that poses a potential risk if the gas leaks. It tends to pool in low spots, where people could be suffocated, and there's a risk of explosion because it doesn't disperse rapidly. For more information on propane see the websites of the National Propane Gas Association, or the Propane Education and Research Council.
A caller asked if the obesity epidemic is due to lack of knowledge about food science and biochemistry. Prof. Shakhashiri said science literacy not only gives people an appreciation of science but the knowledge needed to act on information. We generally know what's bad for us but we need to have beneficial behavior reinforced--he said science can give us the facts and help us act on what we know.
Prof. Shakhaskiri outlined some of the programs being sponsored by WISL this school year including Conversations in Science for Teachers, the Creativity Forum and Science Saturdays. Information on these and other programs is available elsewhere on this website. Prof. Shakhashiri says these programs are intended to be models that could be duplicated anywhere in the state or in the nation.
Prof. Shakhashiri quoted Rice University Professor Richard Smalley, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996 for his discovery of new forms of carbon, nanotubes and "buckyballs". Prof. Smalley is now devoting his efforts to solving the world's energy problems and says, "Without a major resurgence of U.S. citizens' entering the physical sciences and engineering, the solution to the energy challenge will be too slow in coming. And when it does finally come, the core technology may very well be Asian." See Tuesday, September 2 in the New York Times Science Section.
July 31st, 2003 Larry Meiller Show
On the July 31st program, the discussion included the following topics in response to questions raised by host Larry Meiller and to calls from listeners:
Professor Shakhashiri began by describing his recent trip to Australia to talk to a convention of science teachers and lecture at the University of Sidney. (He also got in some sightseeing at Australia's rain forests and the Great Barrier Reef, and says he learned a lot). A performance at the Sydney Opera House, "Vienna, City of My Dreams", featured soprano Emily Whelan, who is a 1998 U.W.-Madison graduate. She's the daughter of U.W. Madison creative writing professor Ron Wallace. Prof. Shakhashiri says he finds U.W. graduates everywhere in the world and it's always a special joy to meet them. He also ran into a group of students from LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Regarding international education issues, Prof. Shakhashiri said Australia has a different system, with all public schools following the same cirriculum, but many of the issues are the same. One issue is a shortage of teachers, especially science teachers. He said teacher morale is similar to the U.S.--teachers want to do well but are over-worked and under-paid. Prof. Shakhashiri said the need for quality education is universal and involves recruiting, training and retaining teachers.
Concerning the federal budget, Prof. Shakhashiri said it looks OK for science education and research, but congress is still working on it and the final version won't be known until fall. He urged concerned citizens to contact their elected representatives. Concerning the state budget, Prof. Shakhashiri fears the cuts in the University budget will not be a one-time adjustment. Some effects of the cuts in the chemistry department will include a lack of space for basic chemistry courses, delay in the development of new experiments due to lack of staff, and classes being offered less often. The state of Wisconsin has a long tradition of support for education at all levels, but Prof. Shakhashiri said the state's budget problems send an alarming signal about sustaining that support. The amount of state tax money going to the University of Wisconsin System is only slightly greater than the amount going to the state prison system. The University has other sources of money including tuition ( which will go up substantially) and gifts and grants. Prof. Shakhashiri noted that the alumni of the U.W. system are more generous with their gifts than the alumni of the prison system.
Prof. Shakhashiri was asked about "Singapore math", a more demanding and rigorous system of teaching math based on the curriculum used in Singapore. It's a response to international comparisons in which students in many other countries do better than children in the U.S., especially in subjects like math. Experiments in the use of Singapore math are now going on at Wisconsin schools. Prof. Shakhashiri said it's a strength of the U.S. system that schools are able to experiment and that curriculum is not monolithic as it is in many countries, including Singapore. Prof. Shakhashiri said the key to excellence is to set expectations high and also to give students the tools to meet those expectations
Prof. Shakhashiri talked about expanded programs of the Wisconsin Intitiatve for Sceince Literacy. One is a series of talks on creativity to be offered this fall at Madison public libraries. It will feature two scientists, two faculty members from the arts and two from the humanities discussing the difference and the overlap between disciplines. The series is co-sponsored by the U.W. - Madison Center for the Humanities and the U.W.- Madison Art Institute. Sponsors hope the series will help bridge the perceived gap between the disciplines with the realization that all rely on a quality that's hard to pin down, creativity. The Initiative is also sponsoring appearances in Madison in November of well-known science writer Dava Sobel, author of the acclaimed novels Galileo's Daughter and Longitude. Prof. Shakhashiri and the Initiative are also training a corps of chemistry demonstrators who will be able to make presentations around the state. Prof. Shakhashiri does public chemistry demonstrations regularly, but can't fulfill the number of requests he gets. The corps of mostly undergraduate chemistry students will be able to take demonstrations to many more audiences. WISL is also expanding the Science Saturdays program, in which middle school students and their parents participate in hands-on science projects on three or four Saturday mornings, and expanding its role in the Universities People program, which is aimed at middle school students from innner city schools, bringing them to campus for intensive three week programs.
A caller said Wisconsin spends a lot of money on education only to have graduates leave the state for lack of appropriate jobs. Prof. Shakhashiri said graduates need more career options and the state needs more high-tech jobs. Some efforts are already under way including the Universities research park in Madison and annual economic summits sponsored by the University. Prof. Shakhashiri said science and technology are the engines that drive the economy and more should be done, but it's a matter of political will. He said Minnesota has ben relatively successful in developing a high-tech economy and Wisconsin might be able to learn some lessons.
In answer to a question from Larry about the lack of women in science, Prof. Shakhashiri the atmosphere has changed at universities and in business, but the full results have not been seen as yet. For many years the U.W.-Madison chemistry department had no women faculty, but now has four. Prof. Shakhashiri says they are excellent researchers and teachers and furnish much-needed role models. He says there's more left to do to make girls aware of the opportunities, but progress has been made.
May 15th, 2003 Larry Meiller Show
On the May 15th program, the discussion included the following topics in response to questions raised by host Larry Meiller and to calls from listeners:
Larry asked about gambling, which is a big issue in Wisconsin since the governor signed new compacts with Indian tribes which are permanent, with no expiration date, in exchange for additional payments to the state which will amount to more than 200 million dollars over the next two years and help solve the state's budget deficit. Professor Shakhashiri said it's a bad idea for the state to become dependant on gambling money and asked rhetorically whether the state should also raise money by legalizing and taxing drugs and prostitution. While some people see gambling as simply a form of recreation, and Professor Shakhashiri says people should have fun, some people become addicted to gambling and many do not understand the odds, a form of math illiteracy. A caller pointed out that casinos prominently display the level of payout of their games and machines but noted that none of them pay out more than 100 per cent of the money bet on them, and that people make a big mistake if they play to win. Professor Shakhashiri noted that the house always wins and wondered what has happened to the work ethic that made America great when many people pin their hopes on winning a lottery. Larry asked about former Education Secretary William Bennett who has become famous for writing and lecturing on the subject of virtue. Bennett has lost several million dollars playing casino slot machines and after initially defending his gambling, now says he's quitting. When he was in Washington as assistant director of the National Science Foundation, Professor Shakhashiri knew Bennett. Professor Shakhashiri said Bennett seems to be a gambling addict and asked whether we want to promote that kind of behavior or acting responsibly with our assets. Another caller said a lot of people bet on the stock market during the high-tech bubble and didn't know what they were getting into. Professor Shakhashiri said people should be able to perform accurate risk assessment, including the risks to society. For more information about mathematcal literacy (numeracy) please visit the home page of Professor John Allen Paulos.
Larry asked about nano technology--the House has voted to fund 2.4 billion dollars for nano technology research. Professor Shakhashiri is pleased that the proposal has passed the House, but it must still pass the Senate and be signed by the President. He said nano technology is the next big thing (even though nano means "small".) There are already many research efforts underway on nano technology and a lot of inter-agency effort. There will be a nano technology conference at the University of Wisconsin-Madison which will include a public program on the engineering campus May 31 which will include exhibitions, workshops and demonstrations. For more information on that visit the Expo on Nanotechnology website.
A caller asked about light emitting diodes (LEDs), how they work and whether they are environmentally friendly. Professor Shakhashiri said they are comparatively "green". For an explanation of how they work, visit the LED pages of the How Stuff Works web site.
A caller asked what would happen if an atomic (fission) bomb were exploded deep in the ocean--would it create new elements? Professor Shakhashiri said it would not (though it would create a tidal wave, lots of steam and troublesome radiation). Even a hydrogen (fusion) bomb explosion would not create new elements, though it would cause a much larger explosion. A fusion bomb would briefly generate extreme heat, but would not create the pressure needed to create new elements. Stars, which run on the fusion of hydrogen into helium and other elements, create new elements through the immense pressures generated by the extreme gravitational forces their massive sizes produce. In fact, all elements except hydrogen, the lightest, were created by stars, which means our bodies are composed mostly of star stuff. Research attempting to harness the power of fusion was been going on for many years without success so far. Fusion would create tremendous amounts of energy without the long-lived radioactive by-products produced by fission. For more information about fusion, visit the U.S. Fusion Energy Science Program web pages. The University of Wisconsin-Madison has a large fusion plasma physics program operated in collaboration among the departments of nuclear engineering, engineering physics, physics, electrical and computer engineering. For more information about this and other research on fusion, go to Professor Sprott's Web pages on fusion.
Larry asked about a new book about the late Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, Feynman's Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and Life. Professor Shakhashiri said there is a great deal of art in scientific research and the perceived divisions between science, arts and humanities are largely artificial--they share one characteristic, creativity. He said the elegance of good research can be artistic and the tools and media used by many of the arts are derived from science and technology. Along with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Art Institute and Center for the Humanities, the Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy which is directed by Professor Shakhashiri is sponsoring a series of talks called Conversations on Creativity. The six talks, which will start in Fall, will feature two scientists, two artists and two humanists. The sessions will be held in branches of the Madison Public Library system, but dates have not been set. We will announce the times and dates on this website as soon as they are determined.
Larry asked whether, 20 years after the report on education called "A Nation at Risk", the nation is still at risk. Professor Shakhashiri said the answer is yes, the nation still faces enormous challenges to improve science and technology education. He says one problem is a lack of qualified teachers, who are not paid enough, and that teaching is at risk of becoming a blue collar occupation in terms of pay. He said all is not gloom and doom--there are pockets of excellence, but the quality of education is not uniform, with problems especially in the nation's inner cities. Professor Shakhashiri says science and technology are engines that drive the economy, but educating citizens is also a quality of life issue. Here is a link to a program heard last month on NPR and another to the editor of book of education reform since "A Nation at Risk."
March 25, 2003 Larry Meiller Show
On the March 25th, program, the discussion included the following topics in response to questions raised by host Larry Meiller and to calls from listeners:
Professor Shakhashiri was joined via telephone by Carl Djerassi, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Stanford University and co-author of the play "Oxygen" which will be presented by University Theatre this weekend along with other events celebrating the element oxygen. The play deals with the question of who should get credit for the discovery of oxygen in the 1770s. Three experimenters vie for credit--Antoine Lavoisier of France, Joseph Priestley of Britain and Carl Scheele of Sweden. The play reveals the feelings and ambitions of the scientists. In conjunction with the play, WISL is sponsoring a symposium this Saturday on oxygen, the source of life and death. The Symposium will consist of eight talks including the history of oxygen's discovery, its role in the aging process and its potential to facilitate cleaner industrial processes. In addition, the UW Memorial Library has exhibits of original works by the three discoverers of oxygen and works by Djerassi and his co-author, Nobel Prize wining chemist Roald Hoffmann of Cornell University. Hoffmann has published books of poetry and Djerassi has published several novels and plays. Djerassi calls his works "science in fiction"--his avowed intention is to smuggle science to the public in the form of fiction. Djerassi has won the National Medal of Science for synthesizing the birth control pill, and the National Medal of Technology for discovering new approaches to insect control. Djerassi's non-fiction books include This Man's Pill:Reflections on the 50th Birthday of the Pill and The Politics of Contraception. His novels include Cantor's Dilemma, The Bourbaki Gambit, Marx, Deceased and Menachem's Seed. For more information, see Djerassi's website.>
Prof. Shakhashiri answered several questions about oxygen:Do anti-oxidants such as vitamin A and vitamin C slow the aging process? Some experts think so but it's not proven. The only proven technique seems to be restricting food intake to the bare minimum needed for survival. This has greatly increased the life spans of laboratory animals but has not been proven in humans. Prof. Shakashiri says severe caloric restriction might only make life seem longer. One thing people can do is limit their exposure to free radicals, single oxygen atoms that react with anything they come in contact with. Cellular metabolism creates free radicals. The body has defenses against free radicals but some last long enough to damage tissues. The damage is cumulative and contributes to aging. Radiation such as x-rays and nuclear fallout cause damage to tissues by creating free radicals from the water in the body. Cigarette smoke is a major source of free radicals--one puff is estimated to contain one million billion free radicals which can react with any tissue they come in contact with.
Has life on earth always depended on oxygen? No. The original atmosphere contained little oxygen and life was limited to anerobic microorganisms. The oxygen in the atmosphere was created by green plants and algae through photosynthesis. Large animals like humans could not exist without the efficient reactions of oxygen, so we owe our existence to green plants and oxygen.
Will you be performing chemical demonstrations at the symposium? Yes, between the presentations of the speakers I and colleagues from WISL will be preseneting spectecular demonstarions to show the coomon and not so common properties of oxygen.
Prof. Shakhashiri also talked about Science Expeditions 2003, a series of free events in April on the Madison campus. The kickoff is Saturday, April 5th with Prof. Shakhashiri and other staff from WISL and Physics Professor Clint Sprott who does physics demonstrations under the title "The Wonders of Physics". There will be a day for kids and parents April 22nd and a family science night at the Biotechnology Center April 25th see details here.
March 6, 2003 Larry Meiller Show
On the March 6th program, the discussion included the following topics in response to questions raised by host Larry Meiller and to calls from listeners:
Professor Shakhashiri paid tribute to his former student Laurel Clark, one of the astronauts killed in the loss of the space shuttle Challenger. He described Clark, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as an outstanding and dedicated student. While exploration is a basic human characteristic, Professor Shakhashiri said loss of the Challenger has lead to a healthy discussion about the desirability of sending people into space, and the benefits should be weighed against the risks. A caller suggested putting a covering over the shuttle's heat-dissipating tiles, perhaps a film of some kind, to protect them during launch. The covering could then burn off harmlessly on re-entry. Professor Shakhashiri said it's important to raise questions and suggest options.
January 16, 2003 Larry Meiller Show
On the January 16th program, the discussion included the following topics in response to questions raised by host Larry Meiller and to calls from listeners:
Professor Shakhashiri talked about the upcoming symposium on oxygen March 29th., in conjunction with the play Oxygen being produced by the University Theatre. Details are available here on the Science Is Fun Web site .
Science Saturdays will start the new season March 8th. There will be three sessions designed for children and their parents. More information is available here on the Science Is Fun Web site.
There was a public meeting in Washington this week on the topic of national security and scientific openness. There's a concern that information in scientific journals, especially about biological sciences, might be of use to terrorists. Professor Shakhashiri says scientific research should be as open as possible because science is based on full reporting so others can examine and criticize the results, but scientists should also be responsible in their reporting in order to prevent misuse of information. This is an important question which involves freedom of speech as well as the effectiveness of science, and the public should be involved in the decisions. In answer to a caller who was concerned about restrictions on proprietary research done for commercial organizations, Professor Shakhashiri said the University does not accept grants which would restrict disclosure of the results. See the article that follows.
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