Emeritus Faculty Association #119 November 2006
Last Meeting, Friday October 6
Friday, November 3, at 10.30 a.m. in the Javits Room, 2nd floor, Melville Library. After our customary informal half hour over coffee, fruit and pastries, courtesy of the Provost's Office, Jeffrey Levinton, Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Evolution, will discuss "Rapid Evolution and Devolution in Response to Pollution and Environmental Restoration". The extreme conditions of contaminated environments may cause rapid evolution of animal populations' resistance to toxic substances. In his talk, Professor Levinton will discuss this problem, focusing on a case study in the Hudson River, one of the most contaminated environments in the world.
Jeffrey Levinton has done research on a wide variety of topics, all in the general area of marine ecology. His major interest is in relating feeding biology of marine bottom animals to population and community-level processes. He has also done research on rate of evolution in the fossil record and maintains a strong interest in paleobiology. Levinton has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a Fulbright Senior Scholar, and is the author of a major text in marine biology and a monograph on macroevolution. He has served as an editor for The American Naturalist, Ecology, and Ecological Applications, and headed the Hudson River Fund Panel of the Hudson River Foundation. He is now an editorial advisor for Global Ecology and for The Journal of the Marine Biological Association. Come with your own questions for Jeffrey, and bring your brown bag lunch to continue the conversation after his talk.
Announcement: Judith Wishnia assured us that although the enrollment period for the dental and vision programs were officially over for this year, exceptions would be readily made.
For information contact Anne Marine, (click on retirement benefits on right of our website main page).
The speaker was introduced by EFA board member Linwood Lee who described the long career and accomplishments of Cliff Swartz. Most of these were listed in the bio, for which see our September issue (click on newletter archive). To which Lin added the forthcoming
Melba Phillips award of the American Association of Physics Teachers.
Cliff started his talk by confessing that although he retired 11 years ago at the age of 70, he had been an irregular attendee at our meetings. This was partly psychological, as his mother remarked when she discontinued the seniors center in St James because "You know there are a lot of elderly people there".
One of the earliest reforms of teaching methodology occured in the mid 19th cent. when Joseph Henry (of inductance fame) passed through West Point on his way to his position at the college of NJ (later Princeton).
There he observed the extra level of interaction that occured when the individual slate boards the students habitually used at that time were replaced by a large one up front. This
later came to be called a "blackboard". Later reforms we shall speak of turned out to be not as long lasting. Such as the reforms in which Cliff was involved in the early 60's. These got motivated in part when influential MIT physics prof Jerrold Zacharias saw the textbook used by his daughter and was appalled. Another cause was the launching of Sputnik. A great ferment ensued as Zacharias and some others formed the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC) which facilitated new approaches based on questioning and experiment. Funds were obtained to devise a whole new program with new books, labs, and films all written by experts, as well as workshops where teachers could mix with working scientists. Here at BNL and Stony Brook, Cliff was a leader of this movement. Similar projects were formed by the chemists with our own Francis Bonner taking part, and in biology led by Bentley Glass and Frank Erk. When Cliff brought the manuscript of his first elementary school science text to his publishers, they told him that he was their first professor who wrote his own material (see * note below). Soon 1/5 of the nation's students were taking the PSSC course. This led to problems in that the new curriculum often did not meet state requirements. There were also claims that the students did not do as well (of course they were tested using exams based on the old curriculum). Eventually however the revolutionary materials of the 1960's and 1970's largely disappeared, and science education reverted to its traditional, didactic, rote-learning approach. The "back to the lab" reform movement was supplanted by the establishment of schools of education, and later a series of fads and cults. These included for example "radical constructivism" which evolved from the developmental theories of Jean Piaget (1896-1980). Another was the so called "conceptual physics" which included very little mathematics. This had a parallel in the "new math" just now being once again discredited.
Cliff ended his lecture by performing some of the cheap, easily set up experiments that were at the heart of the PSSC reform movement. One was a vertical filament lamp. When viewed through two upheld fingers the pressure between them can be adjusted until the vertical gap is comparable to the wavelength of light. Then the waves emerging from one side interfere with those of the other to create the striations characteristic of diffraction.
(This seems incredible, but your editor can vouch that it worked!). Another dimension comparable to the wavelength of light is that between the inner and outer surfaces of a bubble. So Cliff spent what remained of the hour attempting to blow soap bubbles through a pipe improvised from rolled paper. A last piece of apparatus was a Rube-Goldberg-like set-up of suspended disks interconnected by strings. Cliff demonstrated that when it was disturbed it got into aggravated motion, but when you went away it subsided once more into inactivity (metaphor for physics education).
Appreciation: The EFA wishes to express its gratitude to the T.A. for the experiments, Malcolm Bowman, who at short notice interrupted his extremely busy schedule to act here in that capacity, most memorably in unreeling a linear 'map' of the solar system, which carried him out of the room.
* ed note: This publishing practice is still alive and well: An article on the front page of the NY Times of 13 July 2006, "Schoolbooks Are Given F's on Originality" by Diana Jean Schemo, describes how the named authors of elementary school texts indeed almost never write their own material. At higher grade levels, textbooks are mostly corporate-driven collaborative efforts, in which some named authors have not even gotten to see the revisions, even though they, or their estates, receive a royalty of 10-15 percent of net sales. Maybe those disks in Cliff's last experiment also represent money?
Website of the month, doing our bit for America
We learned about the organization Math for America from Irwin Kra, and at last meeting, a kind of "Physics for America " from Cliff Swartz. Now an organization Scientists and Engineers for America has just been formed:
To increase its clout, the new organization is seeking a wide membership. In its first month, the new organization has enrolled 6000 scientists and engineers, including 15 Nobel laureates.
Unlike the previous two efforts whose purpose was to improve high school education, SEFORA has been set up to advocate responsible use of science and to protect scientists and engineers and their work from misuse. Its 8 point Bill of Rights for Scientists and Engineers, aimed at candidates for public office, starts off as follows:
1. Federal policy shall be made using the best available science and analysis both from within the government and from the rest of society.
2. The federal government shall never intentionally publish false or misleading scientific information nor post such material on federal websites.
3. Scientists conducting research or analysis with federal funding shall be free to discuss and publish the results of unclassified research after a reasonable period of review without fear of intimidation or adverse personnel action.
Most of us might have assumed that all of this was a given, but apparently in the brave new world this kind of lobbying has become very necessary. Perhaps at one of our future meetings, when the current presidential science advisor's tour of duty is over and he returns to Stony Brook, he will tell us all about it.