Science Borealis

Science Borealis
Science Borealis

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

To be or not to be ... a university student ?

It seems that there's a lot of heated debate going on about the state of university students in Canada, their (over)qualification and their (under)employment status.

If you read Yasmin Jaswal's account :
you may get the impression that young people should not go to university at all. Its a waste of time, since you're not likely to get a job.


If you read what Statistics Canada has to say :
you see that university graduates are actually much better off than the rest of the labor market, since "the 2008 unemployment rates of individuals with university (4.1%) or college (4.9%) credentials with the unemployment rates of those with high-school graduation (6.6%) or less (12.0%)"

So what's going on? is a university degree (or a college one for that matter) is a good thing to have? or not?

The truth, it appears, lies between the numbers. More accurately, it seems that in the process of averaging everyone together, we are loosing the higher resolution of the situation. That is, the short answer is (as it usually the case) "it depends".

If you read through CIBC's report on the labor mismatch
you see that while some professions are facing a labor surplus (meaning, less hiring, stagnating salaries), there are many professions which are experiencing a labor shortage.

With the risk of oversimplifying reality, I will conclude with this:

Q: To be or not to be ... a university student ?
A: It depends on what profession you are considering.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Again! do it again!

Have you ever had an event that made you wonder about an idea which up to that point was so obvious you never stopped to think about its true meaning?

Well, it happened to me today.

I attended a great talk by Dr. Effie Sauer, who teaches at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus. She was telling us how they provide their undergraduate chemistry students with "real scientific research" experience. Which brings up the question (which were eloquently presented today as part of the talk) , what are the objectives of such a course? What are students suppose to learn from such a course?
The answer (of which I'm only bringing up only a small portion, with my apologies to Dr. Sauer) is :

In real science, things don't always work. In fact, they usually don't work the first time around (and mostly not even the second time around).

The problem with undergraduate chemistry teaching in universities (and correct me if your university is an exception) is that students are usually given experiments which work. They've been tested for years all across the globe, and everyone knows they work, which is great, since the students get a sense of accomplishment (if it works), and everyone is happy.
Real science doesn't work like that. Actual research is about not knowing what you get, and more often than not, you don't even know why it didn't work.

And then it hit me - why do we call it "Re - Search" ?

Looking up the etymological background, I've found that the "Re" implies repetition, performing a tack intensively. The "Search" is the seeking part.

So what do we get ? Seeking! Again! and Again! and Again!

 Why do we do it again? because it didn't work!!!!

And to think that I've been doing research for so many years, and not thinking about this obvious use of the term "Research"!

(I should point out that when I was doing my undergraduate degree in Chemistry, during the organic labs, some reactions did actually fail. At that we would confront our instructor and say "hey, this doesn't work!" as which we were told "yeh, it never did". My fellow students and I felt deceived. They knew it didn't work and made us do all this work for nothing. Peh. - shows you how little appreciation I had for failure at that stage)

Monday, 8 April 2013

Earth shaking science

When people think chemistry, they think BOOM!!! cool explosions, loud noises. Ever wonder why is that?

Here's a great perspective from a chemist's view on the excessive use of explosions to 'sell' chemistry. Yes, science does sometimes have explosions, but for the most part, science exploration is not earth shaking in that sense.

Working with children in the past few years, I have learned that there are many really cool and exciting experiments one can do with children, which are safe, yet entertaining, and yes, you can still learn a lot from them.

(Image source:

Thursday, 4 April 2013

A chemical to reckon with indeed

I came across a classic April fools' hoax (thanks Dorea):

In a nut shell - 2 radio hosts of a local Florida country radio station told listeners that DIHYDROGEN MONOXIDE is in their water system.

Lets spell it out DI - HYDROGEN = 2 hydrogens, and MONO - OXIDE = 1 oxygen, so the chemical formula would be H2O. Looks familiar? Of course, this is plain old WATER.

Now, it is not my intent to ridicule the majority of the population who are not chemical-savvy, and would rightfully say : "if people expect 'water' and don't expect 'dihysrogen monoxide' they would naturally be caught off guard and would expect the worst. This is the whole point of media bullets - to alert people"
And this is why the prank works so well. Relying on human nature of habit - knowing that news bullets alert us of an issue of importance, but also, if we are used to a certain terminology, anything new will confuse us.
Just imagine how people would react if news will alert people of highly-luminescent radiation-emitting resistive device which can cause sever burning and damage your eye sight if looked directly at?
People would start wondering what it is and how can we avoid it! Would they understand it means 'light bulbs'? maybe, maybe not.

Back to the H2O story, though, it is interesting to note that this prank is by far not a new one. Apparently, it is more than 20 years old

And even more amazing is that there is a website dedicated to the idea, called listing all the bad stuff water can cause (all of which is true, by the way - for example, it is the main component of acid rain!)

The moral lesson of the story is that we should always exercise critical thinking about what we hear in the media, however scientific it may sound. I don't mean you should never believe anyone, since when we are unfamiliar with a field of study, we have to rely on the specialists for knowledge. But we should always remember that facts can be presented in many ways, leading you to different conclusions.
Science is about examining the world as objectively as possible (and believe me, there are many stories of scientists who failed to do just that, on which I will probably elaborate in the future...), but as soon as we take a few facts, and make a decision on how to present them (order, choice of words, etc.) they become subjective.