Learn a little bit each day

Apr 3, 2017

I've discovered a fun hobby.  I take a subject that I know almost nothing about. Maybe a subject that I missed in high school because I was daydreaming in class.   Back then I could decide quickly that a subject like Chemistry wasn't my kind of thing.   That was lucky, because there's a special joy in learning about a subject fresh as an adult.  And the less attentive you were in class, the fresher and more exciting it is to learn about now.

So, with my morning coffee I open up this Chemistry Book, and I'll read just a page or two; sometimes half a page.  But if you do that - or anything else - every morning, a page a day adds up to getting through a textbook in a year.  Even in three months, you have a feel for the topic.

When I decided to learn something about Chemistry, I Googled "BEST INTRODUCTORY CHEMISTRY TEXTBOOK" and soon I had a list of the 5 or so textbooks that were often described as "very good'.  And I chose one that was, sure enough, very good.

What is it like teaching and doing research at a university?

Mar 14, 2017

I told the students in my class Mind, Brain, and Experience that we don't really know most things about neuroscience. That really the feeling of being a scientist isn't the feeling of knowing lots of stuff. It's the feeling of not knowing something that you're interested in. Kind of like not understanding a new relationship with someone who's important to you. It's the feeling of scratching your head and saying 'I wonder how this works', and saying to your grad student 'How do you think it works?', and doing an experiment that probably doesn't reveal the answer completely, but maybe reveals a little bit about the shape of the thing.

When I was in college, the professors I had all seemed to know so much. They seemed to be looking out from a high peak at the landscape below. But that's not the feeling at all. At least for neuroscientists, maybe all scientists. It's more the feeling of looking up at a huge waterfall, and not being able to see the top of it. You don't know where the water's coming from, and you're not sure how to get to the top so you can see where it's coming from. Is there a road that you can drive and get high enough to find out? There's no map. You don't even see a road, just a lot of vegetation all around. Someday someone might find a way to get to the top, but probably not in your lifetime. And instead of discovering the origin of the waterfall you'd like to discover something important about the brain and the mind, like how neural activity gives rise to thoughts, or even how the brain allows us to form habits that we can carry out almost without awareness.

You spend part of your work hours sharing what you know about the field with the undergraduates taking your class (and i love my CCNY students). Then you go back to thinking about pieces of experimental research findings that don't fit together well, and wonder how you might find out more about the waterfall.

Why Do They Say Obama's a Muslim?

Mar 7, 2017

J.D. Vance writes about the perspective of the folks in Middletown, Ohio, where he grew up. Like many others in his community, his relatives came from the hills of Kentucky for good-paying jobs at a factory in Middletown. Like many U.S. towns, Middletown fell into economic ruin after the factory closed.

"I regularly hear from acquaintances or distant family members that Obama has ties to Islamic extremists, or is a traitor, or was born in some far-flung corner of the world.

Many of my new friends blame racism for this perception of the president. But the president feels like an alien to many Middletonians for reasons that have nothing to do with skin color. Recall that not a single one of my high school classmates attended an Ivy League school. Barack Obama attended two of them and excelled at both. He is brilliant, wealthy, and speaks like a constitutional law professor - which, of course, he is. Nothing about him bears any resemblance to the people I admired growing up: His accent - clean, perfect, neutral - is foreign; his credentials are so impressive that they're frightening; he made his life in Chicago, a dense metropolis; and he conducts himself with a confidence that comes from knowing that the modern American meritocracy was built for him. Of course, Obama overcame adversity in his own right -adversity familiar to many of us - but that that was long before any of us knew him.

President Obama came on the scene right as so many people in my community began to believe that the modern American meritocracy was not built for them. We know we're not doing well. We see it every day: in the obituaries for teenage kids that conspicuously omit the cause of death (reading between the lines: overdose), in the deadbeats we watch our daughters waste their time with. Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities. He is a good father while many of us aren't. He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls, if we're lucky enough to have a job at all. His wife tells us that we shouldn't be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it - not because we think she's wrong but because we know she's right.

Many try to blame the anger and cynicism of working-class whites on misinformation. Admittedly there is an industry of conspiracy-mongers and fringe lunatics writing about all manner of idiocy, from Obama's alleged religious leanings to his ancestry. But every major news organization, even the oft-maligned Fox News, has always told the truth about Obama's citizenship status and religious views. The people I know are well aware of what the major news organizations have to say about the issue; they simply don't believe them."

This is from Vance's Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis