Why you should be rooting for The Martian come Oscar Sunday

The Martian, starring Matt Damon
The Martian, starring Matt Damon

I remember walking out of The Martian with my friends thrilled at the experience. Here was that rare warm, scientific film, one that trumpets the positive human characteristics of the actual doing of science. The central character Mark Watney deals with the inescapable fact that, to survive on Mars by himself, he needed to “science the shit out of this.” And that he does, by experimentation, teamwork, and creativity. His scientific training becomes a superpower that enables him to engineer solutions that keep him alive. The practice of science for him is not a robotic process, but rather an entertaining trip to the limits of his knowledge and capabilities. He no doubt had to think very deeply about plants when he pursued his graduate degree in botany, but the movie is more of a showcase of the lateral thinking that develops after having taken the time to try to get to the bottom of a question or an unexplained observation.

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A modest proposal for new journals

Three suggestions for journals with a different incentive structure than the current scientific publishing model.

ONCE

once

Assume that ONCE is an established scientific journal that publishes broadly in the areas of physics, chemistry, biology, astrophysics, computer science, social science and so on. The journal uses basic peer-review that keeps out total nonsense. But beyond a sanity check and technical soundness review, almost all manuscripts get in.

The thing is, you can only publish in ONCE, once.

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Minsky’s radical school of education

Minsky's Society of Mind
Excerpt from Marvin Minsky’s Society of Mind

Marvin Minsky, MIT professor and artificial intelligence pioneer, passed away last Sunday (January 24, 2016). Minsky is widely celebrated for his diverse scientific contributions to artificial intelligence, computer science, mathematics and even microscopy. Less well known are Minsky’s radical views on education.

Some mathematicians think that learning mathematics is about “reaching the summit and then swiftly burying the path.” Minsky didn’t. He was interested in why mathematics is hard for children to learn and what can be done about it. He thought that the difficulty was partly “caused by starting with the practice and drill of a bunch of skills called Arithmetic”. As a result, “instead of promoting inventiveness, we focus on preventing mistakes.” Some children, frustrated by this negativity, dismiss mathematics as repetitive, boring and punitive.

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