Cap'n Refsmmat

An Interview with Cap'n Refsmmat

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I'm now Internet-famous! I was recently approached for an interview by a blogger publishing interviews of science and technology related people, and it's now published:

 

http://thefastperfectionist.blogspot.com/2011/11/interview-with-admin-of-science-forums.html

 

On that note, I'll open this thread up for questions. Want to know about SFN's history or how it's run? Fire away.

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Woo Hoo fame at last!

 

I knew one day I would find out where that strange handle came from without asking a direct question!

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I'm now Internet-famous!

Someone finally post that video from your honeymoon?

 

I was recently approached for an interview by a blogger publishing interviews of science and technology related people, and it's now published

Oh. Just that, then.

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Who do you admire most in the world of science or who inspires you?

I can't really pin it down to one person. As a physics student, I'd naturally say that Richard Feynman is inspiring -- but not simply because he's a Nobel-winning physicist who was popular with the ladies. No, Feynman had a gift for communicating his ideas (in writing and in speech) that is inspiring. He seems to have so much fun doing it:

 

 

But really, the inspiring people aren't famous scientists. They're people like SFN's resident experts, who constantly amaze me with their depth of knowledge, and regular scientists who make interesting discoveries or write lucid explanations. And as a hobby programmer, I can be inspired by anyone -- the proliferation of open-source software means it's not uncommon to find a particularly clever piece of work written by a bored Canadian during his days off from work.

 

It's not just the famous people that are inspiring. It's the people who do clever things and interesting work on their own initiative, and who know how to communicate their results to a wide audience.

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Surely you're joking

 

He would have been known as a great man and recognised as a famous raconteur even if he wasn't one of the greatest theoretical physicists of the 20th c

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I like seeing brilliance that's still human.

 

 

I respect him off the bat for his use of an analogy. That method works... Some people overlook the importance in an analogy because it comes across as simple.... but the use of an analogy signifies a genius to me! (mainly because I'm a Layman and I glorify the hand that feeds me).

Edited by Appolinaria

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Cap'n, I know you are into Science education, as am I. However, do you favour the establishment of specialist Science colleges for students who love the subject and can spend all day studying it, or do you think we can turn out educated, critical thinking future members of the public from our current educational systems in the US and the UK?

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I have a few question too!

 

1. What do you plan to do with your physics degree? (I think we talked about this, but things changed somewhat so I'm curious)

 

2. Do you think your experience in SFN -- as an admin but also as a moderator and as a participant in the discussions -- helped you in whatever you're going to do in the future? And how?

3. Related to the above question -- You once told me that you grew up a lot since you joined (at age 12), and I assume you didn't just mean the numerical age ;) -- do you think SFN had a part in that growth? How much did participating here affected your way of thinking, or your goals, etc?

 

 

 

~mooey

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What's been your best and worst experiences on sfn?

Hard to say. I don't think there's one specific experience I can point to as the best or worst. However, there've been a few times where I've been discouraged by crackpots. Generally, people with ludicrous theories (and I mean truly ludicrous I-think-all-of-science-is-wrong theories, not just speculating laymen) are simply amusing, but some are so clearly misinformed and opposed to learning science that it's annoying. My warped sense of humor helps most of the time, but sometimes it's just frustrating.

 

Cap'n, I know you are into Science education, as am I. However, do you favour the establishment of specialist Science colleges for students who love the subject and can spend all day studying it, or do you think we can turn out educated, critical thinking future members of the public from our current educational systems in the US and the UK?

That's hard for me to say. I've benefited from a university with more than just science courses; so far, I've taken courses in the philosophy of religion, ethics, the New Testament, the early history of Christianity, and American foreign policy. It's all been fascinating, and I wouldn't want to deny that opportunity to science students who'd like to diversify.

 

On the other hand, I'm an assistant for a physics course this semester, and it's clear to me that many students -- even physics and engineering majors -- arrive at school with subpar mathematics and science instruction. (A few weeks ago I had a student write that 2×10-20=20-20, which is quite a few orders of magnitude off.) I'm eager to see middle schools and high schools actually teach what their curriculum says: basic algebra, precalculus, and perhaps calculus. Sure, students are passing those courses and graduating, but they have not mastered the subjects, and they are absolutely essential if you want to take college courses.

 

I think quite a few college physics classes would be substantially easier for students if they only understood their algebra and basic calculus better.

 

1. What do you plan to do with your physics degree? (I think we talked about this, but things changed somewhat so I'm curious)

I'm not sure. As I said, I'm a hobby programmer, and I'd like to learn more about formal computer science, along with numerical analysis, since simulations and computational physics are hugely interesting fields, and very few physicists are also trained programmers.

 

On the other hand, I enjoy teaching, since it presents its own unique challenges: how do you reduce a complicated concept into something approachable? Which topics need to be introduced first? How do you make students understand the material, instead of memorizing it? I certainly see the need for better science education, and I'd like to contribute.

 

I also enjoy writing, and I somewhat envy Donald Knuth, whose job (in retirement) is essentially to write a series of books summarizing everything he knows about computer science. I'd like to be paid to learn everything about a topic and then write it back down again, condensed. That's like paying me to go to college, except I have to find better ways of explaining everything the professors say.

 

2. Do you think your experience in SFN -- as an admin but also as a moderator and as a participant in the discussions -- helped you in whatever you're going to do in the future? And how?

Definitely.

 

I have learned a lot about teaching, writing, and debating from participating on SFN. The asynchronous nature of forums means that debaters have time to carefully and patiently pick apart every detail in your posts, so you must be sure to make coherent, concise, and pointed posts. Irrelevant details will merely serve as points for others to attack, even if they're not important for your main point.

 

SFN has forced me to be a better writer and a better explainer. It's very difficult to criticize someone's argument, craft an explanation of your own position, and cite examples without being confrontational enough to make your opponent defensive -- because as soon as that happens, you've lost, since they'll search for ways to prove you wrong instead of listening to what you have to say.

 

SFN's also taught me how important clear communication in science can be, given how many crackpots and physics deniers we've seen.

 

3. Related to the above question -- You once told me that you grew up a lot since you joined (at age 12), and I assume you didn't just mean the numerical age ;) -- do you think SFN had a part in that growth? How much did participating here affected your way of thinking, or your goals, etc?

A lot of this goes back to the previous question, but also, my oldest posts make it clear that I thought I knew nearly everything. I recall once responding to a post saying "The Moon doesn't technically orbit around the Earth -- it orbits around the barycenter of the system, which isn't quite at the center of the Earth" with "But do you have PROOF?!?!" like it was some kind of radical crackpot statement, when it's in fact a basic statement of Newtonian mechanics. That taught me a lesson about being too self-confident, I suppose...

 

The responsibility of moderating discussions also led me to develop a sort of philosophy of discussion, which has influenced how I go about arguing. I outlined it in a couple of blog posts. I still catch myself on a couple of those points, such as "never be confrontational": I've had people attack my posts, and I immediately start thinking of witty retorts and counterarguments and holes in their argument, before realizing that I haven't actually considered the possibility that they're right. I think more people need to have that feeling, once in a while.

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If you could have sex with anybody you wanted, who would it be?

 

If limited to star trek characters, which would it be? Captain Janeway due to similar rank, Tasha Yar, Counselor Troy, Uhura? (and, if you say Uhura, be sure to specify which).

Edited by iNow

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I'm not sure. As I said, I'm a hobby programmer, and I'd like to learn more about formal computer science, along with numerical analysis, since simulations and computational physics are hugely interesting fields, and very few physicists are also trained programmers.

That is very close to a very dangerous assumption: Do not fall for the fallacy that a good programming background was very helpful for a career in computational physics. Good programming knowledge is very helpful to get positions up to post-docs - every group leader likes members who shut up, work on the project they are being given, and don't need constant supervision. But beyond that level, programming skills (beyond those that everyone in the field has anyways) are of little help, in my opinion (*). Professor positions in physics are not given for being a good programmer, they are given for being a good physicist. Also, irrespective of prior programming experience, I have never encountered a physics PhD student who was seriously limited by his programming skills. People are limited by not knowing enough physics, math, experimental techniques, and current development in their field.

There is of course nothing wrong with being more competent in computer science - just don't expect it to give you a real edge.

 

(*): I recently encountered someone who disagreed with that and claimed that technical details like the order of loops in your code are important in computational physics. It is not in what I do, but obviously cannot speak for all of computational physics. Ironically, that someone works in finance because he couldn't get a position in academia.

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That is very close to a very dangerous assumption: Do not fall for the fallacy that a good programming background was very helpful for a career in computational physics. Good programming knowledge is very helpful to get positions up to post-docs - every group leader likes members who shut up, work on the project they are being given, and don't need constant supervision. But beyond that level, programming skills (beyond those that everyone in the field has anyways) are of little help, in my opinion (*). Professor positions in physics are not given for being a good programmer, they are given for being a good physicist. Also, irrespective of prior programming experience, I have never encountered a physics PhD student who was seriously limited by his programming skills. People are limited by not knowing enough physics, math, experimental techniques, and current development in their field.

There is of course nothing wrong with being more competent in computer science - just don't expect it to give you a real edge.

 

(*): I recently encountered someone who disagreed with that and claimed that technical details like the order of loops in your code are important in computational physics. It is not in what I do, but obviously cannot speak for all of computational physics. Ironically, that someone works in finance because he couldn't get a position in academia.

 

I think I have a demonstrative example of your sentiment here.

 

The lab I work in collaborates with a computational physicists (We make materials with tuned dielectric properties). I was recently talking to one of our collaborators about how much programming he knew and he informed me that they have one guy who is a full fledged computer scientist and the rest of the team knows little programming.

 

Thats not to say that extensive programing knowledge isn't useful. I think the labs of the future, in all disciplines, are becoming increasingly digital and will require scientists to become increasingly computer savy.

 

If I knew more programing I feel like I could more efficiently operate some of the finer points of some of the spectroscopy units we have. I've seen people dial in specialized NMR experiments before straight from code.

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If you could have sex with anybody you wanted, who would it be?

 

If limited to star trek characters, which would it be? Captain Janeway due to similar rank, Tasha Yar, Counselor Troy, Uhura? (and, if you say Uhura, be sure to specify which).

If we're picking Star Trek characters, I'd have to pick one of the alien women Kirk seduces. Somehow they're always similar enough to humans to be seduced by Kirk, but they'd give you an interesting story to tell for the rest of your life.

 

Cap'n, are you really 19 years old?

Yes. Although that will be inaccurate in about two weeks.

 

That is very close to a very dangerous assumption: Do not fall for the fallacy that a good programming background was very helpful for a career in computational physics. Good programming knowledge is very helpful to get positions up to post-docs - every group leader likes members who shut up, work on the project they are being given, and don't need constant supervision. But beyond that level, programming skills (beyond those that everyone in the field has anyways) are of little help, in my opinion (*). Professor positions in physics are not given for being a good programmer, they are given for being a good physicist. Also, irrespective of prior programming experience, I have never encountered a physics PhD student who was seriously limited by his programming skills. People are limited by not knowing enough physics, math, experimental techniques, and current development in their field.

There is of course nothing wrong with being more competent in computer science - just don't expect it to give you a real edge.

 

(*): I recently encountered someone who disagreed with that and claimed that technical details like the order of loops in your code are important in computational physics. It is not in what I do, but obviously cannot speak for all of computational physics. Ironically, that someone works in finance because he couldn't get a position in academia.

Well, I don't mean to learn theoretical computer science. I intend to take courses in numerical analysis and perhaps algorithms, so I at least understand how to estimate solutions to integrals and differential equations, and interesting data structures for storing complicated data.

 

Other than that, I figure the most important advantage is to just get some experience. Practice will tell me what's important and what's not.

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(...) On the other hand, I'm an assistant for a physics course this semester, (...)

On the other hand, I enjoy teaching, (...)

I have learned a lot about teaching, (...)

 

I don't understand the above.

What do you call an "assistant"?

Is it "Assistant Professor"? Don't you need a PhD for such a position?

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I don't understand the above.

What do you call an "assistant"?

Is it "Assistant Professor"? Don't you need a PhD for such a position?

My title is "learning assistant." There are several of us, along with two graduate TAs, assigned to work with a full professor in the course. The professor is responsible for the actual teaching, while we do homework help sessions, help out in class, guide students through their projects, and so on.

 

It's a relatively new program, and it's become fairly popular in the physics department. Many of the introductory courses have several learning assistants who, by virtue of only having learned the material a few years ago, can answer questions and explain concepts much better than the professor can.

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In the mathematics for physicists course I've taught in the last few years to mostly 18 and 19 year olds we're supposed to encourage peer learning, this seems to take that a step further.

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Sorry but i still don't get it.

In my times at 19 I was considered as a beginner who knew nothing.

We've taken the course before, so we know slightly more than the students we help. It's really all we need. Professors who have understood the material for thirty years often find it difficult to convey it to students who have never heard of it before, ever, so we have a slight advantage.

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