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Students showcase summer research

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This past week the Swarthmore national scientific research organization, Sigma Xi, showcased student summer research in the Science Center Commons Lounge. Each student researcher had a chance to exhibit their research to interested passersby.

For many of the student researchers, getting involved in research was just a matter of reaching out and talking to professors. In some cases, a student can inadvertently get introduced to research, through just a casual conversation with their professor. Such was the case for Miranda Amilcar ’20, who did research with the biology department.

“I developed a pretty close relationship with Mrs. Val, first semester, because she was my lab instructor for Bio 1. And just in a really general conversation, she was asking me what I was going to do over the summer and I told her that I didn’t really have any idea yet. So she basically hurries me to look into research, and potentially [do] research with her. And once I looked into what she was doing, I saw that I was interested in it. And I … wrote a proposal, got the acceptance, and that’s how I got into it,” said Amilcar.

It is not uncommon for students to be more direct with their professors when talking about research opportunities.

“The professors are pretty friendly, so it makes it fairly easy to go up and talk to them. Not all of them can do research with each person, but it’s not too hard to find someone,” said Sam Sokota ’18.

According to the students interviewed, professors are welcoming and deeply interested in their field of academia.

“You can just go talk to the professors. Obviously they love talking about their own research. They will be very happy to talk to you about anything, so just be proactive on that,” said Bill Huang ’19.

One salient concern for students navigating research opportunities is finding a professor with matching interests. According to Huang, a good place to start is the departmental panels, where professors showcase their ongoing research or research interests.

“Each department has these set dates [for] panels, where they have professors and people who have done research to talk about their experience … you can attend one of those panels, and then email or go talk to the professor afterward, and then see if you are actually interested in the research and what kind of requirements you might want to have,” said Huang, “Essentially, the application process is pretty straightforward — it’s just go talk to the professors. Usually it’s very personalized. Usually a professor will say, ‘Okay, write me a paragraph or two about why you want to attend.’”

Student research is also available from other organizations; it does not necessarily have to be conducted at or sponsored by Swarthmore. Jennifer Lin ’18 pursued this method.

“The way I got into it was not very traditional. I pretty much got into the medical school at the University of Rochester on their early program, and they were like, ‘If you are interested in doing this research internship this summer, just let us know,’” Lin said.

The student researchers at the showcase were enthusiastic about the expertise and guidance of the professors. Sokota spoke about his research experience under the guidance of computer science professor Bryce Wiedenbeck.

“His primary field is computational game theory, which is very much related to deviation payoff, which is a term he actually coined … it is definitely something he has got a lot of experience,” Sokota said.

The sentiment is shared by Huang, who was doing research in neural networks.

“Our professor was super helpful. This is his field: theoretical neuroscience. We had countless difficulties along the way when we were modeling this, when we were doing simulations and all that. And he basically knows everything… It’s not like he solved [our problem], obviously he doesn’t know the answer before we do things, but he can kind of foresee where things might go wrong,” said Huang.

Having a professor’s help, however, does not mean research is an easy task. According to Huang, some students will often have to do background research before starting their project. For others, a degree of motivation is needed to push through the work.

“I think you definitely … have to be self motivated … to just kind of push yourself. [Because] a lot of days are just you alone in a room, trying to build some stuff. So sometimes it can be rough when things aren’t going well. It is really rewarding when they do,” said engineering student Kira Emmons ’20.

Research is hard work and a relatively big time commitment. The experience is, however, accessible for students who want to take up the task.

A nerd goes to Washington

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

The rain pounded us and we slipped in the mud.  When I held up the protest sign, the cold water poured down my sleeve and ran all the way down to my socks.  I nibbled on a soggy sandwich and asked myself why the heck I was standing here.  Why did I spend the last two months planning and organizing buses to take students and Swarthmore community members to the March for Science?  Why was I standing in the rain in a distant city with a plastic sign scrawled in Sharpie? The answer, for me, was fear and hope.


I’m scared.  I just lectured in Bio 2 (our introductory biology course) on extinction rates and global warming.  I went to the scientific literature, preparing to write my lecture for Bio 2 from scratch with an open mind.  Even without global warming, the outlook is bleak as a result of environmental destruction.  Add in global warming, and we really are on the precipice of a sixth mass extinction, one that could surpass the extinction that killed the dinosaurs.  Let that sink in for a moment. Humans are killing off species at a faster rate than the extinction triggered by a six-mile-wide asteroid.

And yet, we can’t even get the people in power to listen to facts.  Climate change is a problem, vaccines save lives and do not cause autism; these are facts that are scientifically verified, tested, retested, and yet the current administration and many in Congress act as if these are debatable and subjective ideas. The solutions are complicated and we need people of all perspectives working on smart answers that solve the biological problems while also doing it in a fair and socially just manner.  The political conversation should be about how to deal with these problems, not about the fundamental scientific facts.  For me, one of the main messages of the March was a plea for rational, fact-based decision-making from our government.

I’m a nerd, and perhaps I’ve read too much dystopian science fiction, but my inner Orwell tells me to be very worried.  I shouldn’t have been surprised when the current administration put a gag order on our scientific agencies, but I still reeled from the news. When governments hide the truth, it is never a good sign.  Government scientists dedicate their careers to serving our country through their knowledge and expertise of the natural world.  We need to know what they are discovering and how it could impact our country.  Our tax dollars pay their salaries and now they aren’t even allowed to tell us what they are finding. The recent proposed budget cuts to scientific agencies are also terrifying. Cutting the budget of the National Institutes of Health by 18 percent will slow the development of the cure for cancer.  Gutting the EPA will keep us from understanding the effects of fracking on drinking water.  How can we stop global warming if the Department of Energy’s research into alternative fuels is cut by 44 percent?  How are the science students I’m training going to find jobs if research is no longer a national priority?

And so, I asked the local chapter of Sigma Xi for funding, emailed bus companies, bought all the rain ponchos at Target, hung up posters, and stood in the mud because I am afraid of the future of science and of our democracy.


I love science.  I love the nerdy facts, the awkward people, and the goofy fun that happens when people spend hours and hours to help each other add one more number to a spreadsheet just to answer a rudimentary question.  I love the excitement people get when they discover something new, no matter how small.  I love that scientists gasp out loud when beautifully elegant results are unveiled at a conference.  I have hope that if we are smart enough and loud enough and if scientists can effectively share our love of discovery with the public, we can actually save the world.

I hope that the energy generated by the March for Science and similar acts of resistance inspires students to spend their lives making a lasting impact.  Swarthmore students go on to do great things.  One of the speakers at the podium was Christiana Figueres, an architect of the 2015 Paris Agreement and the previous Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. She was also a Swarthmore anthropology major who graduated in 1979.

I hope that the March for Science gets more Swarthmore students to vote.  In the 2012 Presidential election only 46.7% of Swarthmore students voted, less than the average of similar schools.  If there is one thing that should motivate Swarthmore students, it should be avoiding getting an F, even for voter turnout.  Come on! The issues surrounding the March for Science are important. They require everyone to pay attention and make informed choices about who is granted power. And it’s not enough to show up only for national races; we should be packing the polling stations for local elections too.

I hope that once finals are over (or maybe during reading week), students call or write to their local leaders.  I hope they can find common ground with those with whom they usually disagree.  Perhaps enough letters will convince a senator that science is good for jobs, good for democracy, and good for our health.  This weekend (while writing my final) I am going to write Senator Toomey and lay out why funding the NIH is important for the economy of Philadelphia.  This is not because the economy is necessarily my most pressing concern, but because I think it is a subject where there is common ground between us.

I also Marched for Science because I am hopeful we can make science into the universal enterprise it should be.  At the March, there were signs that read “science is universal” and “science is for everyone.” Although this should be true, science is hardly universal; billions of people don’t have access to the findings of science, its beneficial products, or even the chance to get a basic education in science.  We still have serious biases in our hiring and publishing practices. Systems of privilege and differences in economic opportunities to continue make success in science an uphill battle for many.  When the March for Science was announced, these problems came to the fore and forced the community to publicly address them.  The March organizers drafted principles of diversity, acknowledging that science is struggling with its own internal troubles even as we protest against science deniers. And there were hints of change at the March that gave me hope that we will make science better. Many people carried signs celebrating the contributions of scientists who have been ignored because of their identity, others proudly claimed their own identities on shirts and signs, and conversations on Twitter and Facebook coalesced around solutions for greater inclusion and outreach to the underserved.

This is not to say we won’t be discouraged. Even small acts, like organizing buses for a march can wear you down.  Many more people signed up for the buses than showed up at 6 am on the rainy day of the march.  I began to get discouraged, and then I tripped over a small child.  One of the faculty and her partner had brought their son, a self-reported 5 and 1/3 year old. I asked him why he was here.  He replied, “I want to be a biolologist when I grow up.” That did it.  I packed away my frustration and decided to be hopeful.  Hopeful that we can make the world a place where there are enough species left for him to study, hopeful that his findings won’t be censored, hopeful that his leaders will make fact-based policies, hopeful that science will be well funded, and hopeful that when he is a biolologist, science will be an inclusive enterprise where everyone is welcome.


Current administration puts a gag order on scientific agencies


Proposed Budget cuts to scientific agencies


Principles for diversity at the Science March


The Value of Science

in Columns/Opinions/The Fan Letter by

The historic March for Science, a worldwide protest led by scientists and activists in support of the value of scientific inquiry and evidence-based policymaking, took place this past Saturday. One of the signs at the March read “I have faith in facts,” alluding to Kellyanne Conway’s notorious “alternative facts” remark. Other signs highlighted the benefits of modern technology, or the urgency of climate change and environmental degradation. While I agree with the overall message of the march, we must not unconditionally extol the benefits of “scientific progress.” Focusing on the end product of science distracts us from what makes science and its methods intrinsically valuable and meaningful.

A quick survey of the history of science shows that science is not always beneficial. Newtonian mechanics and gunpowder significantly improved the power and accuracy of artillery and made them more deadly. Atomic science and nuclear physics contributed to the development of atomic bombs that killed hundreds of thousands people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today, countries are using artificial intelligence technology to develop Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS), or “robot killers” that can track and kill human targets with minimal human supervision.

Science is responsible for racial eugenics, and the remnants of “scientific racism” persist in the ideology of white supremacy. Science is responsible for the Industrial Revolution, which led to child labor, poorer working conditions, as well as surging income inequality. Science is responsible for the creation of engines, cars, and power plants, but science is also responsible for their emission of greenhouse gases and for climate change.

It is hypocritical to focus only on the benefits of science and ignore all its harms. Science is a powerful tool that can be used or abused, and any application of science is a political act, whether it is the development of new technologies or the use of scientific knowledge for society.  I believe a stronger case can be made that science is valuable for its own sake, rather than for any extrinsic reason. Only talking about what benefits science can bring risks politicizing the subject; science itself  is and must be free from political and partisan interests.

The purest of sciences, maybe paradoxically, should be useless. Pure science is about discovering eternal truths of nature, rather than improving quality of life. Albert Einstein never intended his theory of relativity to be anything other than an exposition of the fundamental laws of nature. He dedicated his life to finding a Theory of Everything, the Holy Grail of theoretical physics. The avant-garde of physics, or string theory, is a more extreme example. There seems to be no way to experimentally confirm whether the theory is correct or not. In other words, whether string theory is correct has no effect on our everyday life.

In this idealized realm of the purest sciences, scientific theory inextricably merges with the beauty of mathematics. G. H. Hardy, the famous author of the now classic text “A Mathematician’s Apology,” counted Maxwell and Einstein among “real mathematicians,” a high praise he reserved only for those who work in areas that have “little practical value … for ordinary men.” His remark was unfortunate; five years after his book was first published, the world saw the creation of atomic bombs, the possibility of which was first indicated by Einstein’s famous mass-energy equivalence equation. But the point remains. The beauty of science owes much to the beauty of the mathematical language in which it is expressed, and mathematics is (or should be) innocent and harmless. While it was perhaps a little premature for Hardy to deride the ugliness of “useful science” and contend that Einstein’s and Maxwell’s theories were perfectly useless, string theory, with its mathematical success, has the potential to claim the throne of theoretical science.

I suspect that the argument that science is beautiful is not terribly convincing to the more practical-minded of the readers. For these readers, I shall argue that the scientific method is our best tool to dispel myths and ideologies. This is not to say scientific knowledge should always be revered and unconditionally accepted. To make this claim is to argue that scientific knowledge is absolute truth, a claim even the scientists themselves cannot rationally support. Scientific progress is impossible if new generations of scientists uncritically accepts everything that has been said in the past. Imagine if a student of evolutionary biology now still believes in the discredited theory of eugenics.  He or she is not only a morally bankrupt racist, but also a terrible scientist at best.

But as the example of eugenics has made clear, science often is influenced, if not controlled, by some ideological agenda. To some extent, this problem is perhaps unavoidable. As philosopher of science Karl Popper makes clear, scientific observations cannot be purely objective, since our interests and expectations tend to affect what we see. But Popper also argues that the scientific spirit of critical rationalism is the best tool we have for creating knowledge. The standard of rigorous critical thinking employed in science allows us to conclusively refute false theories in the past, and hopefully our knowledge system is made better as a result.

As Popper correctly points out, there is no reason why the methods of science cannot be used in other areas of our society as well. Dogmatic ideologies must be rejected because they resist the test of evidence and criticism (Popper is himself fiercely anti-Marxist because of this). It is better instead to keep an open mind and critically debate each issue on the basis of facts and evidence rather than blindly endorse any particular ideology that is most popular at a time.

The large turnout at Saturday’s march is uplifting given the dark time in which we live. But if we fail to appreciate science for its own sake, the March for Science is just going to be another case where political actors take advantage of science and the independence of scientists from political interests gets undermined. The least we can do is to start a conversation about what really makes science so wonderful.

Students embrace a liberal arts approach to the pre-med track

in Campus Journal by

The college’s approach to a pre-medical track for undergraduates is clear from a statement on the Health Sciences Office’s page of the website.


“Swarthmore students are not “premeds” or “prevets” in the conventional sense,” it reads. There is no premed major, minor, or concentration at the college, and this is not a decision made lightly.  The website’s explanation continues, “[The college] offers instead an exceptionally strong science program with first-hand laboratory experience and close faculty/student interaction — which, in fact, has trained four Nobel laureates and many National Science Foundation award recipients.”


The tone of college marketing is apparent here, but the sentiment is echoed by many among the college’s faculty and its pre-med students (for lack of a better, less conventional label).


Health Sciences Advisor Gigi Simeone, who has worked at Swarthmore since 1996, said that the absence of a pre-med major is one of the benefits of coming to Swarthmore if you intend to continue to medical school.


“People can really do whatever they want academically,” she commented.  In fact, around a third of the college’s pre-med students are humanities or social science majors.


Professor of Chemistry Paul Rablen, who teaches two of the required pre-med courses, agreed that not having a distinct pre-med track has a positive impact on students’ education.  At some colleges, he noted, science courses are divided into different tracks for pre-med students, biology majors, and other groups.  Though the intention in these cases is to provide a course more targeted at students specific interests, Rablen said this does not always come to be.


“In reality, when they try to do that they end up with something that doesn’t have the intellectual coherence [of a course designed for chemistry majors],” Rablen said.


Professor of Biology and Department Chair Amy Vollmer thoroughly rebuffed the notion that “pre-med” is a valuable label for a student.


“Are you pre-citizen?  Are you pre-parent?  Are you pre-consumer?” she asked.


Abigail Dove ’16, a neuroscience major, who formerly intended to minor in chemistry, appreciates the absence of pre-med major for her own reasons.  Due to her academic interests, Dove fulfilled most of the pre-med requirements incidentally, before she ever decided that medical school might be in her future.


“I couldn’t have been pre-med if it had been the major you choose,” Dove pointed out.  Because she didn’t plan to be pre-med until after she declared her major, she is grateful that the two tracks are distinct.


Most of the biology and chemistry professors interviewed for this piece said they rarely tailor their courses towards medical applications of the science, apart from an occasional in class example. The courses are also not specifically geared towards preparing the students to take the MCAT exams, which students study for separately.


Professor of Chemistry Bob Paley pointed out that at Haverford, they have recently restructured their curriculum to be more aligned with what the medical school application committees want to see. He says this is not a strategy his department will be adopting any time soon.


“We as a department don’t teach [to the MCAT] … We’re teaching science,” said Paley. Vallen has a similar attitude, and added that the type of learning that the science departments strive for will benefit any student, including those who go on to medical careers.


“We are teaching students how to think about biological problems and systems, and that will serve them well as physicians,” she noted.


Daniel Lai ’17 counts himself among pre-med students, but has used his time at Swarthmore to immerse himself in a variety of subject areas. Lai started out as an intended engineering major, but shifted his track after a summer internship at a hospital. He is now an Honors Biology major with a minor in Sociology/Anthropology.  He does not consider “pre-med” to be the defining part of his academic trajectory.


“I don’t really consider myself hard-core pre-med,” Lai said. “I’m more interested in health as a social science.”


In contrast, Misha Mubashar ’19 entered Swarthmore knowing that she ultimately wanted to go to medical school and become a surgeon.  Mubashar grew up and was educated in Pakistan, where there students apply for medical school straight out of high school without an undergraduate experience in between.  Because of this, students who want to be doctors generally have to make that decision around the age of 14, and fulfill a set of requirements while in high school.


In navigating a new set of requirements, Mubashar has found faculty, upperclassmen, and Simeone all to be valuable resources. She noted that upperclassmen who are pre-med have given helpful advice, as have upperclassmen who were originally pre-med but changed their mind at some point while at Swarthmore.


Lizzy Stant ’19, an intended neuroscience major and pre-med student, has also found Simeone and faculty members to be vital resources in pre-med advising, and added Career Services to that list.


Stant also noted that, though she has met a number of other pre-med freshmen in her classes, she hasn’t found much of a pre-med community at Swarthmore.  She said she would’ve appreciated a club or monthly meeting for pre-med students to convene and swap advice.  A student club with this aim did start meeting this semester, and will hopefully grow to fill the gap Stant noted.

Lai, for his part, has downplayed his pre-med status for a number of reasons. It is partially because he has not been sure of his path and is still slightly indecisive about, but he also noted a sense that being pre-med can affect social life at Swarthmore.


“You’re on this track that’s sort of unique, and that sort of carries with it certain perceptions of expectations,” Lai said. Though Lai said he often hangs out with other pre-med students, and turns to them for advice, he doesn’t like the idea that it might be an exclusive social group.


While students have varying experiences of how a pre-med identity interacts with social life at Swarthmore, professors who encounter a lot of pre-med students say, for the most part, that they rarely even know which students are, or are considering, pre-med.


“I feel like I would be doing everyone a disservice if I was paying attention to that,” Professor of Biology Liz Vallen commented.


Vollmer noted that while students may turn to professors they are fond of or work well with for both academic and career advice, it is a deliberate and meaningful choice, on the part of the college, that the designated pre-med advisor is a part of the Dean’s Office, not a member of the faculty.  Simeone’s office in Parrish, down the hall from Career Services but buildings away from any classrooms, is symbolic of the fact that pre-med is not an academic track.


Every student on the pre-med track has at least one faculty advisor, like any other student, and can also meet with Simeone any time (she keeps an appointment sign-up sheet on her door), or refer to her mass emails for information on relevant opportunities.


One senior, Natalie, who chose to remain anonymous, noted that there is a perception among some students that Simeone may talk students out of applying to medical school if they do not have great grades in their science classes or aren’t don’t seem to be on track in completing their requirements.


Natalie added, however, that this may not necessarily be a bad thing, and that Simeone may be advising students well and steering people away from medical school only when appropriate.


“She’s a great resource — you just have to use it wisely,” Natalie said. For her, that means that she will refrain from going to meet with Simeone again until she feels more confident about her plans, at which point she may ask for suggestions about which post-bac programs to apply to.


Vollmer similarly noted that Swarthmore’s high acceptance rate to medical schools (in 2014, 87 percent overall compared to the national average of 46 percent) is due in part to Simeone’s judicious advising.


Simeone herself said that she there is no GPA cut-off for applying to medical school, and that she hopes students do not write off the possibility because they believe their GPA is too low.  She will, however, be honest with students about what she believes their chances of acceptance are.


Simeone also said she often advises people to work through their required courses slowly, or to complete them in a post-baccalaureate pre-med program.


Many students choose to take this option.  According to Simeone, a large portion of the approximately 40 medical school applicants from Swarthmore each year are recent graduates.


Completing the pre-med requirements after graduation allows for more flexibility in scheduling while at Swarthmore, and makes space in a student’s time here to take more classes outside of of both their major and the pre-med courses.


Cecilia Paasche ’16, a neuroscience major, intends to complete a post-bac program to fulfill her four outstanding pre-med course requirements. She decided she wanted to go into medicine when she worked as a translator at Bellevue Hospital in the summer after her sophomore year.  Because she made this decision fairly late, and still wanted to study abroad, a post-bac program made the most sense for her.  The only pre-med courses she took while she was here were the ones within her major or that interested her personally.


“[Pre-med] wasn’t my priority with my time here,” Paasche concluded.


In contrast, Dove said that she would recommend taking the pre-med courses at Swarthmore, and that she believes students will learn the material more thoroughly and deeply if they do so.


She was encouraged and pleased by listening to a panel of Swarthmore alumni working in science fields, which was held over the summer for students doing research on campus.  Two doctors were on the panel, one who completed their pre-med requirements at Swarthmore, and one who attended a post-bac program.  Hearing about the professional success of people who had taken different academic paths was valuable to Paasche.


Vollmer, though she is excited by students interested in her own department, highlighted the value in majoring outside of the sciences.  She noted that the recent drop in humanities majors at Swarthmore is highly concerning, and that humanities majors can often make incredible doctors.  She recommends that students explore fields that they haven’t been exposed to before, take risks, and pursue a major that they are passionate about.


“It’s really the liberal arts training that’s going to make you a good doctor,” she said.

Science and history merge in alumni children’s book

in Campus Journal by

One of Swarthmore’s many attributes is its strong science department, but now two Swarthmore scientists and alumni are using their skills to write children’s books. Physicist Robert Tinker and psychologist Barbara Tinker, are both Swarthmore alumni and married at the Quaker Meeting House at 1964. They have teamed up with Pendred Noyce to author “The Cryptic Case of the Coded Fair,” a children’s book in the “Galactic Academy of Science” series, published by Tumblehome Learning. Each book in the “G.A.S.” series details the struggles of middle school students who have to solve a present-day problem using scientific or historical knowledge. The kids travel through time to obtain advice from scientists or other historical figures in order to solve the current problems they face.

In “The Cryptic Case of the Coded Fair,” middle school students must work to decode a cipher in order to save the International Science Fair. In keeping with the historical education theme, the plot features figures including Julius Caesar, Arab scholar al-Kindi, Renaissance scholars Alberti and Cardano, Thomas Jefferson, Alan Turing and Whitfield Diffie. The book also includes links to a website that exposes readers to the secret ciphers in the novel, allowing them to break the code or create their own.

Barbara Tinker, who wrote the historical sections of the book, traces her passion for history all the way back to high school, when she would read historical source documents. When she first began to take history courses early at Swarthmore, the readings “put [her] to sleep.” However, a course on India kept her interested in other times and cultures. She then went on to study Japanese religion and culture, but eventually moved to psychology at Swarthmore.

Robert Tinker also began his collegiate academic career at Swarthmore. He loved the school, while also finding it challenging. His favorite part was the Honors Program because he could “learn a whole area with the help of fellow students and faculty.” After Swarthmore, he went to Stanford for a year with the goal of earning his PhD, but left in 1964 to join the Civil Rights Movement, teaching physics and math at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala. It was at this point that he decided to pursue a career in education.

“Learning how it was possible to bring out students’ talents,” he said, “I vowed to devote myself to education.”

Tinker then went on to earn a PhD in physics at MIT under John King. After this, he taught college and later began to teach in STEM full-time. After partly retiring in 2013, Tinker felt that “it was natural to continue educating through fantasy books,” leading him to become involved in “The Cryptic Case of the Coded Fair.”

Robert Tinker wrote most of the codes in the story, making the book mathematically precise. He hopes that the book will be able “to ignite some youngster’s imagination.” The Tinkers are currently working on another book by the same publisher, about discoveries in light.

The Tinkers’ past educational experiences and interests definitely motivated them to apply their talents to writing this children’s book. As Barbara Tinker states, “This book was a return to old loves, play for us, and great fun.”

When Star Trek metaphors fall short in explanation

in Columns/Nothing to Declare/Opinions by

Atheism has always been criticized for its supposedly lackluster view of the world. I say “supposedly” here because most of the people who make claims about how sad and fruitless it is to be nonreligious tend fall into the religious camp themselves. A recent NPR article by Alva Noë titled “Why Atheists Need Captain Kirk”  compared atheists to Spock and his Vulcan logic as a means of criticizing the atheist community for being too analytical and therefore unappealing, compared to the more intangible worldview of religiosity. I think that’s false.

The author — rightfully so — criticizes the atheist community for indulging in scientism. Atheists, of course, aren’t the only ones who do that, but an idealized view of science as a perfectly rational system untouched by human error or bias is something you come across fairly often in those circles. Swarthmore, in all of its liberal arts glory, is no exception. It was a legitimate point to make, but it’s somewhat ruined by the idea that scientism is bad — not because it is an unrealistic view of the world, but because science has sometimes done scary things. I could just as easily make the same claim about religion — that it has all the idealized positive traits that religious people ascribe to it — except for when it doesn’t. It’s not much of an argument, and the idea that atheists blindly see science as infallible without realizing that science is what created the atom bomb is not an accurate depiction of the situation.

There is a reason that people resonate with the character of Spock, though. I can’t definitively say that scientists and atheists do — some kind of poll would have to be done — but I would understand if that turned out to be the case. Spock values logic and analytical discourse in coming to conclusions about the world.  He’s an extreme, but using “Kirkian” philosophy to counter that simply because Kirk is Spock’s polar opposite makes no sense. Spock is an extreme, and Kirk is too: are we to simply trade out one extreme for the other? At this point, it seems to be more of a case of differing values than one side of the argument being overtly more flawed than the other, as this author would suggest.

I struggled while reading this article to determine whether or not I would be considered a “Spockian” atheist. I suppose I would, but only because this article then delves into extremes and doesn’t come back. It latches onto one very flawed, stereotypical idea of what an atheist is and runs with it. It makes the mistake of prescribing the mathematician’s view of the world to “Spockian” atheists such as myself. The mathematician’s point of view is the notion that someone who prefersthe more concrete and logical aspects of life must be wholly incapable of thinking in the abstract or the romantic. But if one makes that flawed assumption, of course “people might come to think,” As Noë suggests, “that the inner life of a scientist would be barren.”

The Spockian world is “the denial of meaning and value” which cannot be reconciled with the idea that atheists can still experience the more ephemeral aspects of life. What’s the point if everything is just twirling atoms in an empty void, after all? All I can say is that this article takes the term “Spockian” far too literally, as if atheists are actually alien creatures physically incapable of comprehending human emotion. Knowing about the inner workings of something does not take away the human appreciation of it. Knowing that emotions are just biochemical processes in the brain doesn’t lessen the impact they have when you feel them. Knowing the science behind a sunset doesn’t mean I don’t think sunsets are beautiful — which I do.

The article mentions in passing that religion and religious people are guilty of the same over-idealizing blunders as science and overzealous scientists. However, it so clearly stacks the odds against the very idea of being nonreligious that any objectivity is lost in the void of stereotyped misinformation. I can’t help but think this person has never actually talked to an atheist or watched any interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is very clearly in awe of the world not in spite of his in-depth scientific understanding — that should apparently mar all worldly beauty beyond any hope of rescue — but because of his understanding.

A Spockian worldview gives atheists the task of explaining “how you get meaning and value” out of quarks. But the notion that “meaning” or “value” are essential components to the conversation is a false and ultimately unnecessary paradigm best left to first-year philosophy seminars. It’s an understandable conclusion to come to with this author’s version of “Spockian atheism” that leaves no room for anything other than hard, cold logic and strictly detached scientific understanding. If one assumes that atheists see no meaning and give no value to anything, it’s easy to say that that is a quandary. It’s an inherently flawed idea, though — one not made to build an argument on simply because the atheist wandering around outside measuring flowers with a protractor, baffled at the very concept of something being considered pretty is an atheist from a cartoon, not any atheist in reality.

Atheism does not need an alternative to Spockism — at least not this article’s greatly flawed version of it that probably doesn’t even exist. Even if it did, living by the tenets of Captain Kirk wouldn’t be any better. Scientism is not a problem confined to the atheist community and shouldn’t be treated like one: it’s a mindset that even liberal arts colleges that actively try to place value on courses of study other than STEM sometimes fall into. Even though that’s the case, I’m sure most Swarthmore students would agree that the problem can’t be fixed by speeding off into the exact opposite direction. Can’t we just all meet in the middle and be McCoy?

The overwhelming unknown of marine biology

in Campus Journal/Columns/Sciwrite by

anemone battle strike sm copy

From algorithms to explain gravity’s place in the universe, to characterizing battles of anemones, research at Swat teaches us about the complexity of something as “big” as gravity to as physically small as an individual A. elegentissima anemone – that’s where Mark Levine-Weinberg comes in. Last summer, he conducted research at Friday Harbor labs off the coast of Seattle.

Levine-Weinberg developed his own research project pertaining to marine biology and the ecology of the island where he conducted his research. His decision was inspired by a place. “My favorite field site was a place called Cattle Point. I guess I was most dumbfounded by this place because the tide is particularly rough, and there are lots of jagged rocks and anemones. So I knew I wanted to study something there.” With this specific location as a starting point, and a little help from his advisor Rachel Merz, Levine-Weinberg set out to study the dispersion of anemones in the island’s inter-tidal zone. The intertidal zone is a region of the ocean that is covered during high tide and exposed during low tide.

With excitement in his voice, he explained an epiphany moment: “I noticed that these patterns of distribution were different between lower intertidal and higher intertidal, and so that got me thinking about energetic tradeoffs for living at either level.”

In the lower intertidal zone, anemones were exposed to more predators, like sea stars. Since there were more anemones at this region, there was also more competition for space. At higher intertidal, these burdens are very different. The anemones are dealing with the incoming and outgoing tide, so they are in a constantly changing environment. When the tide is in, they are submerged in water and so are in a colder environment, and when it goes out, there is less water, causing the water to heat up faster in the sun. Additionally, because they are intermittently living in this shallow-water environment, rain really affects the anemones, and they have to deal with the change in salinity brought on by the rain.

This results in changes in the anemones behavior. And this is where the battles come into play. The way A. elegentissima compete for space is by fighting each other with their given weapons—their tentacles, called, dauntingly, acrorhagi.

“My hypothesis was that because they have to spend more energy in the higher intertidal to osmoregulate and thermogregulate, [deal with the changing salinity and changing temperatures] they would devote less energy to aggressive behavior.”

To test this hypothesis, Levine-Weinberg set up battles between anemones from the high intertidal and the low intertidal and recorded which one won each battle. He also scored different aggressive behaviors that were displayed during these battles. He found that there was no difference between number of battles won for high intertidal and low intertidal anemones. But, anemones from the high intertidal (more changing environment) have fewer acrorhagi, suggesting that they spend less energy growing these arcrorhagi to devote this energy to other things. He also noticed, “anemone personality. I did some correlations and found that anemones with more acrorhagi move more during battle and also tend to leave their battles more quickly. ”

When asked about his personal experience of conducting this research this summer, Levine-Weinberg talked a lot about the excitement of starting from pure curiosity and exploration and developing this into a focused investigation. “All I knew was where I was going, and I had read up on the habitat and the species of this island. I found the landscape overwhelming, because I grew up on the east coast and  had never been on a rocky intertidal.”

He continued, describing the habitat, “And I found out that there’s so many different places for organisms to live. They’re living in crevices, and in rocks, and on top of each other, and in anenomes, and there’s algae on top of them, and you can pick up a leaf of algae and find a starfish underneath.”

Levine-Weinberg was also inspired by the collaborative nature of Friday Harbor. He said, “[Initially] I was worried about being on this island, I thought I would feel so cut off from civilization. But there were grad students, undergrads, and twelve other REU students. The REU students were inseparable. And what was also great was that there wasn’t really a hierarchy for scientific conversations to occur. Everyone there, about 150 people, eats in the same dining hall, so even the most senior researchers who have published landmark papers will sit down with you and talk to you about what you’re investigating. I even got to meet the woman who published the landmark paper on sea anemone aggression. I was so star-struck, and so excited that she was interested in what I was studying.”

Doing research over the summer offered Levine-Weinberg the opportunity to meet renowned scientists and to contribute to their work with his studies. But research was more than a scientific endeavour. While learning about the natural world, Levine-Weinberg discovered not only new information, but a whole new world between the tides.

Summer research defies gravity

in Campus Journal/Sciwrite by

When you ask a friend “What are you doing this summer?” you’ve probably heard the casual reply, “I’m doing research over the summer.”

It turns out that there is a lot more to this answer than just a lab coat and a few extra months on campus. In fact, the real answers to this question are incredibly interesting from the view of someone interested in science and are enlightening to just about anyone interested in learning about the world from a different point of view.

I wanted to find out how professors and students here at Swat are helping to shape this view. In a series of interviews, I got to learn how research here at Swat contributes to the greater scientific community, why the topics studied are important, and how the research experience varies depending on the field and on the individual conducting the research.

This week I talked with Ariel Rock ’16, who spent his summer conducting theoretical physics research. The best part of learning about this research was realizing how much we don’t know. I remember being taught gravity in terms of apples and Newton at an early age. But it turns out that we really can’t explain it effectively this way. Gravity doesn’t actually doesn’t “fit in” with the models of how physicists explain the world.

The following interview is the story of a physicist teaching a non-physicist that the truth is rarely pure and never simple.


Physics is freaky

SF: As you mentioned before, physics can be explained with relativity and quantum physics. Can you explain this a little more?

AR: Relativity is the study of gravity, something that everyone’s familiar with, I hope, unless you’re magic, and then I want to talk to you. So, there are other forces, the strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force, electromagnetic force. This is how we understand everything that happens. Quantum field theory is interactions at a small scale: strong, weak, and electromagnetic forces. And then there’s gravity and gravity’s just there, and we don’t know how it fits in with the other forces.

SF: Why does it not fit in?

AR: The other three forces I just named can be described using particles. Gravity can’t be explained using what we call the standard model. The SM is the combination of all the particles we know, and their interactions, and the predictions they give us. And like I said, gravity is there, and we are freaked out by that … Basically, physics is freaky.


Testing out the Standard Model Extension

SF: So, what is being done to make physics less freaky?

AR: You can extend the standard model into the standard model extension. We need to figure out how to take gravity and put it in the SM. So, we need to test out the standard model extension, and that’s what I do.

SF: First of all, what does the SME state?

AR: Put very simply, the SME predicts breakdown in symmetry. And symmetry is a really fundamental part of physics. The ‘Lorentz Invariance’ principle is saying that physics is symmetric, whereas Lorentz Invariance violations are the breakdown of symmetry. (An example of this breakdown in symmetry would be detecting differences in the speed of light. This is unsettling, because most models of the universe say that the speed of light is supposed to be constant.)

SF: So, how did you study whether the SME is true, and whether Lorentz Invariance violations exist?

AR: We don’t know if this theory is true, but mathematically it makes sense. But science says that it’s useless unless we have data. So we’re asking, if we had data, would we be able to tell if this theory were true? And we’re asking, given data that had the signals we’re looking for, would we be able to extract what we need? We’re assuming the data we have answers the question, but we don’t know how to get the answer out of the data. So what I did was work out different algorithms to detect vacuum dispersion of photons (the algorithms will detect whether the photons change speed — in other words, whether the speed of light varies).

SF: Can you give an example of what you’re trying to find out from the data?

AR: Say that you have a bunch of photons of high energy, and some of them may slow down or speed up based on their energy. I’m trying to find out how we detect whether they have slowed down or sped up based on that energy.


The experience of research: Flailing Around

SF: How did the research experience differ from what you thought it would be?

AR: A lot of this summer was me flailing around … I mean, I was a freshman. And it was a lot more applied than I thought it would be. Because I thought it was just ‘theoretical physics! Pen and paper and not doing much!’ But it was a lot of going onto websites and looking at people’s algorithms and adapting them. And it was lot more coding than I thought.

SF: What was your favorite part of doing this research?

AR: I really like the feeling that you’re doing something interesting. I also like being with other people who were doing research. I worked in one of the teaching labs just set up at a computer, but I got to eat lunch with professors and students here and talk about their research.

SF: How is this different from learning in the classroom?

AR: There aren’t any lectures, you have to teach yourself everything. You just feel like you’re drowning a lot.


Swat and Beyond

Rock continued to explain his work, saying that “the big thing in theoretical physics right now is unifying quantum theory with gravity. This is one way to do it. Another way is string theory, and there are others. So I’m testing out whether this particular theory is true.”

Rock’s research experience shows how fragile our understanding of the world really is. Regarding the theory he tested this summer, he says, “Either this one is true, or one of the others, or none of them and then we have to start rethinking everything.”

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