Comic Sans and the aesthetics of science

You know what is always very pretty? Autumn in Ontario. Last Saturday, it was gorgeous out, and I went for a hike with a few of my friends in the Forks of the Credit Provincial Park, which is located in Caledon. The Bruce Trail runs through there, and though it wasn’t yet peak colour in that region, it was still beautiful:

VLUU L210 / Samsung L210

That story was a lead-in to my next question: you know what isn’t always pretty? The visual presentation of science. And to that, I say, is that really so bad…?

I’m not saying science shouldn’t be presented in a visually appealing way, or that emphasis on visual appeal is wrong. I’m not saying that. Visuals are important, of course. But can we all admit that it has gotten a bit crazy when the fuss is more about the non-science than it is about the science? Case in point: the hatred of Comic Sans. When the scientists working at CERN gave their presentation about the Higgs boson, it seemed that the media (and especially the social media) were more focused on the font in their PowerPoint presentation than on their science. It made me feel deflated. Yes, okay, fine: Comic Sans probably shouldn’t have been used. But it was. Not every person has an artistic eye, nor do all people have the same taste. Nor should they. Leave it be. Do we have to be jerks about it? We can choose not to be.

It also makes me feel a bit deflated when I hear talk of how science should be presented; that we should think of our presentation of scientific data as if it were marketing or advertising. Doesn’t that seem strange? Advertising is about convincing, persuading, manipulating an audience. While that might arguably be a good strategy, I don’t think it’s something one should do necessarily. I say this as a person who does spend hours and hours and days and days fixing slides and posters. I’ve gotten much better over the years, and when I see presentations now, I can’t help but notice when things aren’t aligned, when there are extra spaces between words, when weird colours and fonts are used, and when images are pixelated. But I also think that that these things are secondary to the science. I try not to be distracted by them, and I envy those whose attention is not mercilessly seized by these aesthetic details — details which, I think, we should actively try not to pay too much attention to. “Too much attention” I would define as the level at which attention must be taken away from the science — in one’s own thoughts, in conversation with others, whatever.

To me, a science presentation is like a painting. Should we stand here and criticize the painter’s technique, the choice of colour, and the quality of the paint? We could easily do that, sure. But shouldn’t we try to see what artist has tried to convey, through his or her painting? The message in the painting is the important thing. We need to forget about the Comic Sans. It’s not easy, but, for the message, I think it’s worth trying our best. Plus, we wouldn’t be jerks, and that’s a good thing, too, because the world has enough of those.

Karma, intuition, and the impotence of science

Karma, destiny, and related ideas aren’t things that I have thought a whole lot about in my time spent being alive. For most of my life, I’ve held a scientific worldview — one in which ideas like karma don’t really have a place, due to a lack of observable evidence (to me). I think it is generally accepted that these ideas are outside the domain of science;  because these ideas are not falsifiable, science cannot not address them. I would even go as far as to say that science is powerless to address them. That seems like a better description, because science — the scientific method that many of us use to understand the universe and our place in the universe — fails us when it comes to the metaphysical. And there are many important metaphysical questions that all of us think about.

I recently came back from a trip to Asia. Among the places I visited was Vietnam, where my parents are from. I had visited Vietnam once before, in the mid-’90s, but I was too young to truly appreciate my experiences. A little before, a lot during, and now after this trip, I am starting to really ponder ideas like karma. I started thinking about karma because my mother holds Bhuddhist beliefs, and during our trip, she took time to make donations to a village elementary school, and also to give out rice and medicine to the poor:


My mom, Luyen, standing under a banner, holding a plaque for her donation to a Vietnamese elementary school.


My mom purchased hundreds of kilograms of rice to give away.


My mom giving away rice and medicine.

In my head and in my day-to-day life, I think that there is no such thing as karma or other similar ideas. But to my self, upon reflection, somehow that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s not only that the emptiness is unsatisfying in an existential way; it’s also that it feels intuitively inadequate in a way that is difficult to describe. As someone who considers themself scientific, I feel distrustful of this kind of intuiting (even when it is done by me), but there is much “intuiting” done (read: instinct behaviour) by creatures on earth that is powerful and that plays an important role in the existence of said creatures in their place in the universe. Isn’t that true? Then intuition, even about “wild” ideas, shouldn’t be entirely disregarded… should it?

Maybe science won’t be so powerless in the end. Perhaps quantum physicists or cosmologists who study dark matter will be able to give us answers to our metaphysical questions eventually.

The bimodal distribution in undergraduate education

As I do more TAing (TA-ing? TAing? Neither? Is there an English major in the house?), I am seeing what professors, lecturers, and instructors have been seeing for years — I know this because I sometimes hear the lamentations. Ah, the biomodal distribution. What does it mean? What do we do?

I think we all know what it means. It means that there are two groups here: one group of relatively “strong” students and another group of relatively “weak” students (the cause of this “weakness” I touch on in the next paragraph). One question that arises is: should we expect that grade distributions be unimodal? I think there is reason to believe that they should be  — that is, that the powers that be should try to make it so —  simply because of the logistics of trying to educate a group of people who exhibit this learning behaviour. There is no good way to cater to this kind of two-group population. To “aim for the middle” would be to do a disfavour to both groups.

About the lagging hump: I am of the opinion that we need to stop telling kids that they should go to university. No, actually, not all kids need to go to university. Not all kids want to, not all kids are willing to try even if they don’t like it, and not all kids are good at it. That last category kills me. I mean, if you don’t want to do something, but you’re made to do it anyway, but you’re good at it, then fine. But if you don’t want to do something that you’re made to do, and you’re not good at it, all parties involved are miserable. People need to stop being told that there is one path to success. There isn’t. Miserable students have the potential to be happy, fulfilled, engaged, etc. doing something else. We could have a lot of happier people being awesome at other things. Sometimes, I think about a quote of Albert Einstein’s: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

What should we do about this problem, and why aren’t we doing it? It seems that universities have become businesses — “branding” themselves, supporting obscenely priced textbooks with ever more frequent edition changes, allowing bubbling enrollment numbers and lecture/tutorial sizes — and, as businesses, it is in their best interest to maximize profits. Because of this approach, there also seems to exist a disconnect between (a) the higher-up administration “running” the business and (b) the frustrated faculty, staff, and students who are forced to deal with the reality of treating university education like a business or service. I ponder how much the powers that be really care about the actual education of students. I don’t know if things can change any time soon, without some sort of bubble popping. One thing I do know is that we really need to fix the problem of the lagging hump — if we care at all about real people, that is… This is a depressing post. To forget about it, please watch this great TED talk about how school kills creativity (har, har):

The tragedy of the commons

Having worked in multiple molecular biology laboratories, it’s not hard to notice that science generates a lot of waste. Some labs are worse than others. I’m lucky to be in a lab in which, due to financial and environmental awareness on the part of both students and staff, we really try to reduce waste. We wash and re-use our weigh boats, plastic syringes, our glass culture tubes, sometimes even plastic conical tubes. Many labs don’t do this; many find this practice laughable. There is also the argument that it costs more in time to wash these things (or in money to pay someone to wash them), than it costs to simply buy more. Herein lies the tragedy of the commons… from the small laboratory to global environmental issues.

The paper The Tragedy of the Commons was published in Science by Garrett Hardin in 1968. I do not remember the exact context in which this piece was recommended to me, but only because it is so applicable to everything and I therefore think about it often. It is something that everyone should read. It discusses the population problem, and obvious related problems. I leave you with a rather long excerpt:


Where does the mind meet the heart?

I’m currently reading a book called, “The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality”, written by the 14th Dalai Lama. Increasingly, it seems that Bhuddism is the only (popular) religion that is compatible with science, and I am discovering that more and more people I know — who share my scientific worldview — also find some appeal in Bhuddism.


‘Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research’

I recently read an PLoS Biology Perspectives piece — about how ‘the granting system turns young scientists into bureaucrats and then betrays them’. I found it to be a very interesting read. Often, I look around myself and wonder how things got to be the way they are. I hear people saying that it’s ‘publish or perish’, and, understandably, I see them obsess about publications and publishing. It has always struck me as rather… unscientific.

The article criticizes the approach that granting agencies take in giving funding, and discusses the resulting negative effects. I wonder if anything can change — perhaps any time soon. The article ends with this statement: “…only false objectivity is offered by evaluating real people using unreal calculations with numbers of papers, citations, and journal impact factors. These calculations have not only demoralised and demotivated the scientific community, they have also redirected our research and vitiated its purpose.”