A science toolkit for beginners

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eclecticv
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A science toolkit for beginners

Postby eclecticv » Thu Apr 02, 2015 8:01 pm UTC

I've been reading Randall's "What If?" and have been thoroughly entertained, informed, and amused by it. So it just got me wondering, an average person who doesn't have a deep background in science simply lacks the skills to approach things the way someone trained in the methods of science does.

Is there a way to bridge this gap somewhat? What are some of the basic science skills a person should have under his belt... whether it be in maths, physics, chemistry, or life sciences... that may help them to view questions in a manner that a science graduate would be able to?

Of course, we're talking bare minimum stuff here. So for instance the toolkit could have:

(1) Calculus and its applications
(2) Basics of fluid mechanics
(3) Algorithms and how they work
(4) The chemistry of neural networks

These are just examples. What else?

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clockworkmonk
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Re: A science toolkit for beginners

Postby clockworkmonk » Sun Apr 05, 2015 3:23 am UTC

It seems to me that The Demon-Haunted World, by Carl Sagan has what you are looking for. It isn't particularly technical, but covers several of the core concepts of science, such as falsifiability and how to identify a few common fallacies.
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Autolykos
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Re: A science toolkit for beginners

Postby Autolykos » Thu Apr 09, 2015 10:16 am UTC

Dude, don't forget the philosophical basis for science (i.e. The Scientific Method). It's more important than every single skill (except, maybe math - that one is pretty much ubiquitous), but at least where I live not taught in school or even university (if you study science; philosophers might hear about it).

The best places to get you started are (IMHO) the Less Wrong Sequences:
http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Sequences

Or if you prefer something less dry you can read or listen to in your spare time,
Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality:
http://hpmor.com/ or http://www.hpmorpodcast.com/

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Neil_Boekend
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Re: A science toolkit for beginners

Postby Neil_Boekend » Thu Apr 09, 2015 10:35 am UTC

This day and age I'd say some Wikipedia wandering in various science subjects, coupled with some experience in searching effectively. Scientific Wikipedia pages are quite good and simple Wikipedia is getting better.
I'd be surprised if Randall had all the required knowledge for the What-if scenarios before he started them. In fact, he has made a comic about Wikipedia use and once said (can't find a quote) that part of the reason for the much quoted the radiation dose chart is that he wanted to figure it out for himself.
Point is that most of the physics stuff can be found with some search-fu and Wikipedia access. Don't get bummed out if you posed yourself a question you can't answer. Instead, post it on the science or fictional science subforums. Most forumites love to figure out weird and odd questions. Reading how it is answered gives you clues how to attack such problems.

Basic skills:
1. Math: being able to work with formulas is a key skill Converting F=m*a to a = F/m shouldn't be a problem.
2. Searching. Many people don't search for search terms before they do the final search. Often a loosely worded question will lead to hints at better search terms and those better search terms lead to the final result. Always check the Wikipedia page for search terms found in this fashion, to verify that it is what you mean.
3. Wolfram alpha. Learn how to use it and what it's limits are.
4. Splitting a main question into sub questions.
5. Perseverance. If you don't know how to form the search because you don't know the correct keywords the weeding through half a million very loosely related and unrelated search results can be frustrating. See 2 for a solution.

To answer questions at the what-if level requires years of formal education and Wikipedia wandering or even more years of Wikipedia wandering if there is no formal education. Time spend on Wikipedia wandering builds the knowledge to ask the right questions.
For example, what the problems are when you start digging downwards. I'd attack that question in the following sequence:
  1. Check pressure increase with depth for air. Some wikipdia search would lead me to this page
  2. Check diving forums and safety guides and such to find when pressure gets dangerous.
  3. Store the depth at which this becomes dangerous. Probably I'd make a depth chart and mark the interesting depths on it.
  4. Think about what else could be interesting. Hmm, the earth gets hotter when you go down.
  5. Search for something akin to "ground temperature depth"
  6. Get distracted by gorgeous pictures like this
  7. Find this picture:
    Spoiler:
    jPG4gjF.gif
  8. Figure out interesting depths. At what enviromental temperature does a human get in trouble? At rest 100°C is no problem, but is this person at rest?
  9. Make a note of the energy expended to lift the material out of the hole because that is an interesting vector.
  10. etc
Note: this excludes the hours of "OOOH, that looks cool", *click* and "Hmm interesting" *click* Wikipedia wandering.

Point is; each of those questions is broken up in different subquestions. For going down that is "when does the pressure itself get dangerous?" and "when does the temperature get dangerous?". As you go into a subquestion other subquestions may form, like "how much heat is generated by the digging if you do it by hand?". Much of the key in answering what-if like questions is in wisely forming the subquestions. The string of subquestions forms your answer.
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Autolykos
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Re: A science toolkit for beginners

Postby Autolykos » Thu Apr 09, 2015 12:50 pm UTC

You're making an excellent point. I didn't even think of Google-Fu (or Wolfram Alpha) as a skill. But it is, and for the specific task of answering weird questions, it is probably even more useful than math or rationality. Learning how to search Google Scholar is also quite useful once you're used to parsing scientific papers.

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Re: A science toolkit for beginners

Postby Izawwlgood » Thu Apr 09, 2015 1:57 pm UTC

eclecticv wrote:(1) Calculus and its applications
(2) Basics of fluid mechanics
(3) Algorithms and how they work
(4) The chemistry of neural networks
These are not in any way shape or form 'basic'.
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leady
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Re: A science toolkit for beginners

Postby leady » Thu Apr 09, 2015 2:07 pm UTC

Ah come on, everyone should be able to solve that insane fluid dynamic equation that's only solvable for superfluids :)

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Mokele
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Re: A science toolkit for beginners

Postby Mokele » Thu Apr 09, 2015 2:55 pm UTC

How about my favorite:

Go Outside.

Whether you're catching bugs under logs, looking at the night sky, birdwatching, examining rock formations, fishing, or chasing tornados, observing the natural world is vital, especially for the life sciences. There's much more to nature than gels and mice and PCRs and Drosophila.
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Twistar
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Re: A science toolkit for beginners

Postby Twistar » Fri Apr 10, 2015 4:30 am UTC

The ability to use orders of magnitude (when looking at data or making estimates) to distinguish the relative importance of different factors. For example, if the entire land area of the US was covered with a giant solar panel would it provide enough energy to run the country?

See Fermi Problems

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Re: A science toolkit for beginners

Postby jseah » Wed Apr 22, 2015 5:01 am UTC

Autolykos wrote:You're making an excellent point. I didn't even think of Google-Fu (or Wolfram Alpha) as a skill. But it is, and for the specific task of answering weird questions, it is probably even more useful than math or rationality. Learning how to search Google Scholar is also quite useful once you're used to parsing scientific papers.

hpmor wrote:To-do 0: Check out what sort of information-search-and-retrieval spells exist, if any. Library magic isn't as ultimately important as mind magic but it has a much higher priority.

Google might as well be magic of course.
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44 stone lions
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Re: A science toolkit for beginners

Postby 44 stone lions » Sat Jun 06, 2015 1:37 pm UTC

A book such as Stroud's Engineering Mathematics would be a great aid, when I was starting out getting a book that took me systematically from the number line and arithmetic of fractions to linear algebra, calculus and beyond was immensely helpful. It's a lot easier to approach more difficult areas of science when you're not completely intimidated by the mathematical definitions, due to having a very solid foundation in maths.

Also some ability with coding and programming is helpful, its great being able to create program's that can perform analysis for you instead of having to rely on hoping that a suitable open source program exists or upon proprietary scientific software that is almost always out of everyone's price range.

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Azrael
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Re: A science toolkit for beginners

Postby Azrael » Sat Jun 06, 2015 3:28 pm UTC

The Flying Circus of Physics would be a good next step. It's a cross of content similar to The Way Things Work but for adults. Honestly, it's what "What If?" would be if it were written without the hypothetical and by a physics professor. Has chapters about real questions regarding fluids, motion, sound, E&M, thermal, optics...

It sounds and looks a little (a lot) cheesy, but the content is really quite good.

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almach
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Re: A science toolkit for beginners

Postby almach » Wed Jun 10, 2015 11:39 am UTC

Wow, very high bar for scientific literacy. I think some people have tunnel vision about their own interests -- "gee, I think fluid dynamics is important, so why wouldn't the scientifically literate layman?" I'm also sensing some of the old superstition that micro is more scientific than macro, physics more than biology, etc.

For the record I think an elementary understanding of statistics and probability is far more important to thinking like a scientist than is calculus.

44 stone lions
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Re: A science toolkit for beginners

Postby 44 stone lions » Wed Jun 10, 2015 12:58 pm UTC

That's because biology and stats suck! :P

Jokes obviously, although to be honest they're not my favourite subjects..

I although I haven't read every maths textbook in existence, I can't imagine there are many introductory, general texts on the subject that don't come with, at the very least, an elementary treatment of statistics. I'd also say that physics does a better job of handling big stuff than biology (the entirety of the known universe for example), and fluid mechanics can come in handy in biology too.

If biology is more your preferred flavour of science and you know of any good resources for the learning of it, please do share. I, for one, could use a refresher. :)

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Bad Hair Man
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Re: A science toolkit for beginners

Postby Bad Hair Man » Mon Jun 15, 2015 10:22 pm UTC

The bare minimum basic science skills a person should have? I like that question. But "The chemistry of neural networks" as an answer? Ha ha! Hilarious!

Science at its core is about using good (i.e. effective) epistemology to determine what is true and what isn't. The most basic science skills then are all about knowing how to differentiate truth from falsehood. Things like understanding the importance and benefits of reproducibility and verification, and the reasons not to trust things like hearsay and intuition. I really liked google-fu (i.e. search skills) as a basic science skill answer and I wish I had thought of it myself, but without the ability to distinguish good epistemological methods from poor ones, google will be equally happy to tell you "why creationism is true" as it will "why creationism is false".

People have mentioned math and computer programming, which are both ultimately applied logic in the same way that science is applied epistemological best-practices. And I would agree that an understanding of logic (in conjunction with epistemology) is among the basic science skills a person should have.

In fact, once you know a thing or two about epistemology and logic and can apply them on your own to come up with sound conclusions, you are ready to add one of the most important (and non-basic) basic science skills to your science skill toolkit: the ability to determine the trustworthyness of a given source of knowledge. This is important because a very great deal of the things you will learn about the universe, you will not learn because you made observations and performed the experiments to discover them yourself. No, someone else will supposedly have made such discoveries and then shared their findings. So when someone tries to sell you on something crazy sounding like quantum entanglement or the simultaneous four-day time cube, you can use your epistemological methods to evaluate what you know about their epistemological methods and make a judgment about their credibility.

To this end I would agree with what someone else said above, that learning a lot about common cognitive biases, fallacious argument forms, psychological tricks and sales tactics that con-artists, other frauds, magicians, and the self-deluded have and do use to successfully fool people into believing things that aren't true, should also be among one's basic science skills toolkit. One of the most important things I've learned from James Randi is that fooling people is a skill, and someone who's practiced those skills can fool just about anyone, especially someone (like a scientist) who is arrogant enough to believe that they're too smart to ever be fooled.
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Re: A science toolkit for beginners

Postby Sableagle » Tue Aug 04, 2015 6:01 pm UTC

44 stone lions wrote:That's because biology and stats suck! :P
The chemical gradients and protein flexing thresholds that produce the patterns in the scales are fascinating. The articulation of the scales varying longitudinally and ventral-dorsally to allow necessary flexibility in each direction while maximising protection is wonderful. The iridescence is beautiful. The fact you're studying a live king cobra and she's starting to get upset is crucial.

If biology is more your preferred flavour of science and you know of any good resources for the learning of it, please do share. I, for one, could use a refresher. :)
Molecular Biology Of The Cell, which can take you from 16+ exams to university degree level if you start at the beginning and read it through. A useful trick when you run into a long word and can't even pronounce it, let alone define it, is to file it in .gif format and ascribe information to it until you've got enough data about it to recognise it and get along with it when it crops up again, rather than trying to figure it out right away.

Microbiology, chapter 9 of which could give you a phobia of flies. I think that one ought to be compulsory reading for anyone writing about disease outbreaks in newspapers.
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Spleen
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Re: A science toolkit for beginners

Postby Spleen » Sat Aug 08, 2015 5:57 pm UTC

Even though I am well set for jumping on the biology suggestions here. I wont bite this time. :P

The methodology varies wildly depending on the field and scope of research.
(And when it come to actual science, I am one of those utterly mad scientists who claim that only "blue skies research" is the real thing that goes bing.)

Sadly there isn't a simple toolkit here, in many areas statistics is used, but even that isn't universal.
Instead I'll go with OP's question on how to get started, and that is to develop your own toolkit for whatever fancy your interest and that without getting bored to the core.
So why not start by simply reading anything if interest on http://www.sciencedaily.com/ most of their material are slightly edited (some simply paste and copy) press releases from various universities and take it from there.
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