Sharpstown High, 1978-79

I recently discovered the high school I spent my sophomore year is slated to be demolished early 2018 when a new building is completed.  Sharpstown was an odd amalgam of Texas conservatism and 1970’s permissiveness.  Built in the late 1960’s, the building featured outdoor terraces and a courtyard allowing students to taste the outdoors between classes.  Sharpstown served as a bridge during the 1978-79 school year before my third and final high school.  That, along with Houston’s late 70’s oil boom, gave an ephemeral feel to my year there.

Although I teach at the college level, there are always a handful of students from local high schools in class.  It never hurts to take a look back and recall what it was like during those years.  I spent my freshman year at a small Catholic school of less than 400 students.  The teachers and administrative staff knew all the students.  Sharpstown had close to 2,000 students and only included grades 10-12.  The influx of new residents severely taxed Houston’s infrastructure, and the schools were no exception.  I never had any interaction with the principals, and I got the impression they were flying by the seat of their pants to put all the pieces together.  The burgeoning enrollment necessitated the use of temporary wooden classrooms built on blocks outside the main building,  The shacks as I used to call it.  The surrounding neighborhood was also different in ways I was not accustomed to.

I came from an older, denser, urban neighborhood in Buffalo built before the advent of the automobile.  Within a 10-15 minute walk were many shops, bars, supermarkets, bowling alleys, churches, and schools.  In fact, there were both three Catholic and public grade schools within walking distance.  If I wanted to go downtown, I could hop on a bus less than a five-minute walk away.  I had a great deal of independence that vanished in Houston.  If you didn’t have a car, you were skunked.  And at age 15, I didn’t have a car.  Turns out I would not have a bus ride to school either, for reasons known only to the school staff, a bus was not run out to my neighborhood.  So, like many a middle age guy, I can say I walked one and half miles to school.  Not uphill both ways though.  Seated upon the Gulf Coastal Plain, Houston is flat as flat can be.

That walk was uneventful, and once the temperatures cooled down in late October, not bad at all.  For the most part, the scenery was a nondescript mix of apartment complexes, fast food joints, and strip malls.  Two notable exceptions was the maze of baseball diamonds at Bayland Park used to film one of the Bad News Bears movies, the other was the corner of Bissonnet and Fondren.  The business on that corner, whose nature I’ve long forgotten, stunk to high heaven all day and night.  If nothing else, that smell served as a marker the school day was about to commence.

After homeroom, I was introduced to the Texas concept of gym class every day.  In New York, gym had always been a once a week deal.  In my experience, there is very little instruction in gym class.  If someone is struggling in basketball, why not instruct how to shoot rather than throwing them to the wolves?  A thought experiment that could be used would be to visualize oneself traveling with the basketball on the way to the hoop.  Imagine two scenarios, one shot with a high arc and the other with a lower arc.  Which will see more area inside the rim to enter?  That’s the high arc shot and a technique Robert Parish, then with Golden State and later with the Celtics, used with great effectiveness.  That lesson could be coordinated with a geometry section on conics to provide a link between concrete knowledge and abstract concepts for students.

It was in gym where I had my first run in with the school staff.  Having run cross-country and track the prior year, I approached a coach, described my times and goals along with a desire to try out.  He waved me off, said I wasn’t the type of person he wanted on the team.  An odd statement as it was my first day there.  Being fifteen and hugely annoyed, I unplugged myself from the extracurricular aspects of Sharpstown, to the extent where I have no memory of the sports teams there of any sort.  In my teaching, I make it a point to welcome every student in my class.  I work on the assumption each student has something to contribute to the class.

Something else to consider when dealing with high school students, and it’s a recent discovery, the brain continues to develop until age 25.  Teenagers tend to process their decisions in the part of the brain known as the amygdala as opposed to adults who use the prefrontal cortex.  Decisions made from the amygdala are emotional whereas the prefrontal cortex processes information rationally.  When discussing a controversial topic in class, I endeavor to keep the emotional temperature cool.  Passion is fine, but in class, you want to discuss these things with clear thinking.  We also have to be cognizant of the differences between now and then and how a teenager’s lack of impulse control can lead to consequences we didn’t have to contend with.  During high school, I was part of an aspiring punk rock bank.  Let’s just say I am happy not to have that effort for the world to see on YouTube.

Class sizes were large at Sharpstown, some teachers struggled with it, whereas my 2nd period biology teacher did not.  Ms. Buch ran a tight ship, treated you fairly, and pushed the curriculum to challenge you.  Resources were scarce, we only had one lab per semester rather than the weekly session I had been accustomed to.  Still, it’s hard to imagine a teacher doing a better job under the circumstances.  A’s had to be earned and my main competitor made it a challenge.  I had to match her score to get an A, but it was competition in a productive way, bringing out my best as a student.  In later years, when I heard the stereotype that women do not excel in science, I would remember this class and think it’s such bulls..t.  And it is.

Third period, out in the shacks, was something else all together.

My English teacher was eccentric.  He would pop pills in front of the class.  I don’t know what those pills were except they weren’t Tic Tacs.  Being 1979, we just laughed it off.  During the year we read The Catcher in the Rye.  Sitting in a windowless classroom, my only connection to the outside world being the hum of an air conditioner siphoning out the Texas heat, I just wasn’t feeling it.  Set in the 1950’s, the same decade my father left high school to work in a coal yard, I couldn’t identify with the endless complaints on prep school life by Holden Caulfield.  I thought Caulfield required a couple of weeks working at a Jack-in-the-Box to set him straight.

I was a bit too rough on Caulfield.  While prep schools offer outstanding academic preparation, on the East Coast they are usually the launching pad into the Ivy League, some can be very insular.  Phonies and incompetent people are not endemic to prep school, but can thrive anywhere when the social structure has ossified to a point where they are not held accountable.  I’ve seen it in public schools and the private sector.  The key is to build your own social network where such people cannot impart their incompetence upon you.  Caulfield needed a more diverse life experience, which he attempts to pursue in the novel.

After English, it was back into the main building for French.  I have long forgotten most of the French learned in that class.  I do recall gaining an appreciation for not having to know if words in English have a feminine or masculine case.  What I’ve discovered since, it’s easier to remember a language if you are situated where it is spoken.  Otherwise, if you don’t use it, you lose it.  It’s also where I learned a bit of Texan dialect.  Someone asked me if the bell was fixin’ to ring for lunch and I’m thinking, I didn’t know the bell was broken.

Typically you’re confined to the cafeteria during lunch but Sharpstown was an open campus, meaning you were free to explore the premises or leave the campus.  One might head to the west end of the second floor terrace smoking section for students.  The Mad Men sensibility had infiltrated high school.  One student would spend his lunch hour throwing a frisbee at one end of a stairwell, then casually walk twenty feet to the other side catching it at the end of its trip as it rolled along the semicircled brick wall.  Sometimes I opted to go to a friend’s house across the street.  We’d joke about avoiding Rubber Biscuits in the cafeteria.   It was all good as long as you were back before the end of the lunch period.

High school culture is pretty tribal and the students were organized among musical tastes.  There were still some of the old 70’s standbys. The Who opened the school year with their final Keith Moon album and Led Zeppelin closed out the following summer with their last effort.  Disco, while on its last legs, still had a bit of steam going (Donna Summer spent 10 weeks out of 52 atop the singles charts from September 1978 to August 1979). Although punk and new wave was making serious inroads, it didn’t get much airplay in Texas.  In the pre-internet era, it took quite an effort to hear what The Clash was up to.  However, Bob Marley started to get some airplay along with new talents such as Ricki Lee Jones.  One sizable contingent among the students were the Kikkers, named after the country radio station KIKK.  I plead ignorance as to what was happening in the 1979 country scene, as I said, high school is pretty tribal.

Now that I am on the teaching side, I endeavor to break down tribal barriers in class.  In retrospect, I can recall some teachers amplifying those differences.  That’s a mistake.  You want your students pushing out from their social comfort zones.  One way to do this is to throttle up on the subject content to the point so students have a greater sense of urgency to succeed in the course more so than expressing their social self-identity.  It’s not a coincidence gym class is where high school tribalism reached its peak.  With no instruction and only a requirement to put on your gym shorts to pass, it allows students to slide back on their worst instincts.  While tribalism in high school can be pretty silly, beyond that it can have dire consequences.

In November 1978, over 900 members of the Jim Jones cult committed suicide by drinking the now infamous Kool-Aid.  Actually, it was Flavor Aid, which was to Kool-Aid what Mr. Pibb was to Dr. Pepper.  Besides being quite insane, Jones was quite cheap.  That’s an outlier, thankfully,  However, tribalism can lead to dysfunctional workplaces and politics.  America is a more tribal, less goal oriented society now then in 1979.

My summer job in 1981 was at Ashland Exploration in the Houston Center downtown.  Down the block was James Coney Island where I would eat lunch along with oil execs, geologists, drafters, and administrators.  All of us jammed in school desks the restaurant used to seat its customers.  We’d talk politics and I’ll never forget one chemical engineer, who was conservative by nature but told me, always better to deal with moderates on the other side than extremists on your own side.  He also said you obtain political goals by seeking the golden mean.  Try having that discussion today and your likely to hear the latest from the conspiracy-industrial complex.

While I can’t change that on a national scale, I can at least demonstrate to my students that excessive tribalism, to paraphrase that fictional educator Dean Wormer, is no way to go through life.  Lack of self-reflection on the group affiliations in your life can lead you down a rabbit hole you don’t want to go.

Given my outsider status, I was not plugged into the Sharpstown culture as I had been at my prior high school, but Sharpstown was large enough and the social structure pliable enough to find a groove to navigate on.  The transient nature of the place gave me a set of friends from all regions of the country and internationally, including Cuba.  This was quite different from Buffalo where most families had resided there for several generations.  You don’t learn everything from a book, and having this diversity of experience was an added bonus.

It was a good crew.

Perhaps too good, and too rambunctious, we went though several history teachers before one was found that could manage us.  While I have been teaching, I’ve learned that each class has its own dynamic.  The dynamic in history was quite boisterous.  To be honest, I rather enjoyed it and looked forward to this class each day.  However, this was a difficult class for any teacher to handle and I don’t envy the task they had.  Taking control of a class after the year has started and the student behavior already ingrained is among the more difficult jobs a teacher will have to face.  Kudos to Ms. Newman for getting a handle on that situation.

From there it was back out to the shacks for geometry, except the hum of the air conditioner was often overwhelmed by the claustrophobic pounding of raindrops from the torrential afternoon thunderstorms that often hit Houston.  I don’t remember much about this class, only that the teacher was very unhappy to be there, making me very happy when the bell was fixin’ to ring and I could get out of there.

Then I would make the trek back home.  One student I met had to walk all the way towards Meyerland by the 610 Loop when he stayed with his father, a two-hour walk.  Guess I didn’t have it so bad.

My last memory of Sharpstown was bumming a ride home after the English final in May.  That final was difficult, not in a challenging way but in a ridiculous way.  Half of the exam consisted of obscure passages from novels we read throughout the semester and asked what chapter it came from.  How on Earth would I know that?  Nobody in the class memorized these things verbatim.  I left the shacks for the last time in a pretty foul mood, wondering what the hell that was all about.  I would find out in a few years.

During the summer, the Iranian Revolution caused block long gas lines and the massive Woodway Apartment fire gave pause to those who thought wooden roof shingles in Houston was a good idea. The ambient background noise included Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps, My Sharona by the Knack, Children of the Sun by Billy Thorpe, and Supertramp’s Breakfast in America, Sharpstown started to fade in my rear view mirror.  On deck was a new high school, where the KKK held a cross burning just a few years before.

That’s a story for another time.

By 1981, I had moved back to Buffalo for college when Sharpstown appeared in the local newspaper by surprise.  My English teacher had been arrested for extorting sex with students for passing grades.  That bizarre final made sense, most likely designed to flunk students making them vulnerable to this predatory behavior.  Beyond the original article, I know nothing else of what happened.  Only that it was extensive and had gone on for a period of time.  I don’t know what assistance was provided by the district for the victims, but knowing what other victims of this type of abuse experience, it’s safe to say many are still suffering from the effects to this day.

A few years back, I heard a lecture by a neurologist on the physical effects imparted on the brain by repeated high stress episodes.  The doctor noted that modern brain scans on patients with PTSD are difficult to differentiate from those who experienced a concussive injury.  In other words, a traumatic event can physically injure and/or hinder development of the brain and can cascade into a life long pattern of depression, drug abuse, and sometimes, suicide.  This stresses the need for schools to coordinate professional counseling and medical attention for abuse victims as soon as possible.  That may seem like common sense, but as we saw with the Catholic church and more recently Penn State, these situations are often met with a determined wall of silence.

And this also highlights how inadequate the recent attempts to “teach grit” to students who are under duress are.  An analogy, grit is great to have if diagnosed with cancer, but it’s not a substitute for chemotherapy.  I find the arguments for teaching grit more of an excuse for resource deprivation towards schools in high need districts.  And grit will not be enough for the victims of sexual abuse.  If the district did not provide resources for those students at Sharpstown then, it should do so now.

As grotesque as the events described in that 1981 news piece was, I don’t think it would be fair to let it dominate my memory of Sharpstown.  There were some 2,000 students and they, especially those who rose above the high school culture, along with the teachers who did their best, deserve that prominent spot in my mind.

Sharpstown High has had a turbulent existence since I left.  The aspects of the building which made it the most distinctive of the three high schools I attended, the courtyard, the stairwell/frisbee courts, the shacks, also make it very difficult to monitor what is going on inside.  The new building, a rectangle with a commons in the middle and the classes around the perimeter seems to be designed to address that need.  It’s understandable, especially getting rid of the shacks, but still, I’ll be sorry to see the old building go.

Social Media in the Classroom

Social media, like all things on the internet, can provide great benefits or be a total cesspool depending how it is managed.  On the plus side, a teacher can funnel new discoveries directly to students.  This is much preferable to waiting a few years for that to be published in textbooks.  On the downside there are the usual trolls waiting for you.  And obviously, we don’t want the classroom to resemble a website comments section.  For this post, I’ll focus on Twitter and Facebook.

I was reluctant to sign up on Twitter with its 140 character limitations.  However, I teach astronomy, and NASA is a Twitter machine.  This is particularity true with ongoing missions. Once a mission has ended, but the data is still being processed, NASA seems to prefer Facebook to make those announcements.  In Twitter culture, there is an emphasis on acquiring large amounts of followers.  Unless you work in mass media, I would recommend looking for high quality of interaction over quantity.  The Twitter landscape is populated by trolls and bot accounts.  Target certain accounts that are subject related and be quick to use the block feature to prevent an interloper from ruining the experience.  If Twitter is being used in a class, using a private account may be a good option.

Twitter is at its best when researchers are disseminating and reviewing results.  At times, you may get to see the scientific process at work when scientists debate their results.  In the class, this can be a demonstration of the dynamics of scientific discovery.  Sometimes it’s messy!  It can be used to display professionalism when researches volley back and forth over the meaning of their data.  It can also be used to demonstrate that even professionals can stumble and personalize their arguments.  In science, its the argument, not the person, that wins the day.  Used wisely, Twitter can be a useful mechanism to bring current research results into the class.

Facebook is a different animal.  With greater privacy settings, it is easier to contain the trolling element without going completely private.  Once a mission has ended, NASA’s twitter accounts tend to go silent while further discoveries are announced on their Facebook accounts.  For example, after the Messenger mission ended, the discovery that Mercury was shrinking was released on Facebook but not on Twitter.  For astronomy, this makes Facebook a key supplement to Twitter.  Unlike Twitter, Facebook does not have a character limit allowing for more descriptive posts.  Also unlike Twitter, you are not likely to see scientific debates on Facebook.  However, Facebook has a higher quality interface for images which is especially helpful for astronomy.  To start off, below are some links.

For Twitter, you do not need an account to access a public Twitter feed.  The blue check marks next to an account name verifies this is a legit feed.


NASA Earth

Hubble Space Telescope

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

NASA Climate

NASA Astrobiology Journal

NASA Solar System

NASA Sun & Space

Keck Observatory

James Webb Space Telescope

European Southern Observatory

Of course, as you explore various Twitter accounts you’ll find others that strike your fancy.  Like Twitter, Facebook allows accounts to verify themselves as legit with a blue check mark.  Facebook requires an account to view other feeds.  Some good Facebook feeds to start with:


NASA Earth

Hubble Space Telescope

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

NASA Climate Change

NASA Solar System Exploration

Curiosity Mars Rover

NASA Sun Science

Keck Observatory

James Webb Space Telescope

European Southern Observatory

Over a thousand years ago, the Silk Road served to transport knowledge and ideas between Central Asia, China, India, and Western Europe.  The internet serves the same purpose today and social media is a key component.  With a little experience and time to manage it, social media can play a constructive role in the classroom.

The City and the Classroom

“A metropolitan economy, if it is working well, is constantly transforming many poor people into middle-class people, many illiterates into skilled people, many greenhorns into competent citizens.” – Jane Jacobs

During the 1960’s, an urban dispute broke out between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses.  Nominally, the quarrel originated from Moses’s desire to build high speed expressways and master planned communities wiping out existing neighborhoods.  However, it was really an age old debate on how to build communities.  Moses favored a top-down process while Jacobs felt cities were best served by allowing neighborhoods to develop from the bottom up.  While watching the documentary Citizen Jane which explored this era, it occurred to me this topic is universal in nature and applies just as well in education.  If cities, as Jacobs said, transform illiterates into skilled people, certainly schools do the same.  What can we learn from this era?

The challenge Moses faced was how to integrate a new technology (automobiles) into cities and relieve overcrowding.  Urban renewal was not a new phenomena.  The streets of Paris were widened and many older, medieval neighborhoods cleared out by Georges-Eugene Haussmann between 1853-70.  Modern Paris largely owes its appearance to Haussmann’s efforts.  Moses’ efforts were less successful integrating the automobile into the existing city and along with his master planned communities broke down crucial social connections.  As the saying goes, bridges, not walls, build cities.  Moses’ work effectively built walls in the city.

Cross Bronx Expressway dividing north and south Bronx. Credit: NYCEDC

Things came to a head when Moses proposed to build a highway through the SoHo and Little Italy neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan.  A grassroots resistance effort led by Jane Jacobs put a stop to this plan and began the downfall of Robert Moses as a major power broker.  Jacobs was opposed to master planning and felt cities become great organically by problem solving decisions made on the street level.  As a result, there has been a tendency to view this as a you’re with us or you’re against us kind of debate.  The truth is, you need central planning to provide a framework for individuals to make those uncoordinated decisions to complete a city.

Moses left his imprint all across New York State and Buffalo was no exception.  Like New York City, neighborhoods were divided by the Kensington Expressway and waterfront access blocked by the Niagara Thruway.  An expressway was constructed across Delaware Park that was designated as vacant land on the planning maps.  Does this prove planning inherently to be a bad idea?  Not when you consider the parkway system destroyed was master planned by Frederick Law Olmstead in the 1800’s.  The highly successful existing street plan had been designed by Joseph Ellicott based on the same blueprint his brother used for Washington D.C.  What differentiates good planing from bad planing and what can we take from that from building communities in classrooms?

Olmsted park and parkway system (green) complimented, rather than disrupted, the exiting city plan. This map of Buffalo is from 1896.

Infrastructure should not be viewed only as a means of moving material, but transporting and exchanging ideas as well.  This was Moses’ key mistake.  Interstates can move tens of thousands of cars in and out of a city, but unlike city streets, are not places for people to exchange ideas or build social connections.  When that aspect of a community is taken away, the community begins to decay.  When attempting to integrate new technology into the classroom, it has to be more than just delivering content, there has to be a mechanism in place to allow the class to exchange thoughts on the content delivered.  Many students I have talked to have felt alienated, especially in online classes, by the lack of interaction made available.

Ideological arguments often take the form of all or nothing stances.  In this case, whether discussing cities or the classrooms, we can’t look at it as all top down micromanagement vs. total freedom on the ground level.  It’s like saying you only need air or gasoline in an automobile engine.  One without the other will not make the engine work.  You need the right mixture for optimal performance and the same is true for planning vs. ground level innovation.  In education, the framework should be as follows:

A master curriculum for the course to cover, but allow the instructor the freedom to decide how to address it.  The instructor will know the students needs and abilities much more than the bureaucracy above.

Within the framework of the class, students should be allowed to explore their own interests within each topic after a minimum proficiency is proven.  In my course, this takes the form of discussion segments where students are allowed to present findings on a subject they have selected.  Students have to be allowed to breathe and choose how they delve deeper into the subject.

Going back to the city analogy, without an overall plan to provide a framework, the result is a free for all situation.  This would be reminiscent of when I lived in Houston during the late 1970’s when the city had no zoning laws.  You ended up with adult book stores, strip joints, and message parlors located next to schools, an obviously undesirable situation.  On the other hand, too much planning leaves neighborhoods devoid of any sort of vibrancy.  This was seen in the high-rise projects all across the nation that were eventually imploded.

When something implemented does not work out as planned, adaptability, rather than doubling down on a poor idea, is desired.  The aforementioned high rise projects looked great on paper, offering green space and play areas for children.  In fact, Jane Jacobs herself originally thought these would be great for city life.  Once the reality failed to match expectations, Jacobs reevaluated her position whereas Robert Moses did not.  The same is true for a lesson plan that looks great on paper but fails to light a spark in the class.  Keep what works, change what does not.

When introducing new technology into an existing classroom, it should compliment and enhance the current course structure.  While I teach online, I am wary of high-tech evangelicals who view the internet as a cure all for what ails education.  Technology can be a helpful tool. but the rush to “disrupt” the education sector can have the same results building highways in residential neighborhoods and parks did.  That’s not disruption, it was destruction.  We want to think in terms of improving the student experience, not to destroy it.

Come to think of it, that’s the approach to take in any community endeavor.

The Great Chicago Fire

Awhile back, I stumbled across the 1976 TV movie Time Travelers.  Originally intended as a series pilot, it did not sell and was broadcast as a stand alone movie with a story developed by Rod Serling in what was one of his last writing credits.  The plot involved two scientists going back in time to 1871 on the eve of the Great Chicago Fire to track down a doctor who mysteriously had been able to cure a fatal disease.  For a TV sci-fi movie, it had a solid plot but as one would expect, the special effects do not hold up well after four decades.  Still, it got me thinking how different history could be taught now as compared to the pre-internet era when I originally saw the movie while I was in grade school.  Also, if sci-fi can inspire students to study science, why not history as well?

Back in the 1970’s, studying history was basically a static exercise reading a history book.  With the internet, many historical archives are at your fingertips and can make history a more interactive subject.  Going back to the movie, when the scientists arrive in 1871 Chicago, one mentions they must have arrived in the Summer and not in October as it was too hot.  His partner replies that Chicago endured a heat wave in October, 1871.  Is that right?  President Grant established the National Weather Service the same year, so daily records are a bit sparse, but the answer can be found online.

What you’ll discover is that the temperature in Chicago on the day of the fire soared to a summer-like 79 degrees with winds gusting from the Southwest at 22 mph.  Also, precipitation the month leading up to the fire had been sparse, making the conditions ripe for the disaster.  So, the movie was spot on about the weather conditions that day.  By delving into old newspaper archives, we can find out more.

Back in the day, if you wanted to look at historical newspaper accounts, you went to the library and headed towards the microfilm machines.  Today, many newspapers have digitized their archives.  In the case of the New York Times, the online archive goes back to 1851.  Looking into the Times account of the fire, I found a few surprises.

On October 7th, there had been a sizable six block fire in Chicago that served as a prelude to the main event.  That fire raged until the morning of October 8th and was reported in the Times as the worst fire in Chicago history up to that point.

Credit: New York Times

On October 8th came in a report of a second fire now raging in Chicago even greater than the first.  The progression of events in this article is not unlike the What’s Happened So Far features you now see in online formats today.

Credit: New York Times

October 10th would bring full front page coverage of the fire including a map of Chicago where the damaged occurred.  The graphic is very unusual for papers of that era.  The article, titled A City in Ruins, would go on to describe the damage as 12,000 buildings lost and 100,000 homeless, and remember, there was no FEMA back then.  The cause was still being investigated.  In fact, the Times made no mention of the infamous O’Leary cow until November 29th.  A Chicago reporter later admitted making up the story, saying it made better copy.  Unfortunately, fake news is nothing new.  When O’Leary died in 1895, the obituary in the Times still repeated the fake story.

Credit: New York Times

The Times even repeated the story for O’Leary’s son’s obituary in 1925.  This, despite the Times publishing an article four years earlier exonerating O’Leary’s cow, proving the stubborn power of a false myth.

Credit: New York Times

The fire did start near the O’Leary residence at 137 De Koven St.  You can locate this spot using Google Maps but you’ll need the current address of 558 W. De Koven St.  What you’ll find there is, not by coincidence, the Chicago Fire Training Academy.  Switching to 3-D gives this overview:

558 W. DeKoven St lower left. The Chicago river to the east failed to act as a fire break as hoped when flames moved across river bridges towards downtown. Credit: Google Maps.

As noted before, there was a strong wind from the SW the day of the fire and you can see from the image how that would have swept the flames into the heart of downtown Chicago inflicting maximum damage on the city’s residents.  The fire had economic effects beyond Chicago.  The price of stocks dropped 10% the days after the fire.  This was a prelude to the economic crisis of 1873 which prompted a depression lasting until 1879.  Chicago, then and now, is the United States’s largest railroad center and the fire had a disruptive effect throughout the nation.  And that is probably what led to my biggest surprise on this project.

The Chicago fire was not the most deadly fire in the United States that day.  The drought conditions that led to the Chicago fire sparked forest fires throughout the Upper Midwest.  The worst of which was north of Green Bay and engulfed the town of Pishtego, WI killing over 1,200, four times more than in Chicago.  The first and only article on this event appeared in the Times on October 15th and soon faded into obscurity.

Credit: New York Times

I hate to admit it, but this was the first time I had heard of the Pishtego fire.  It deserves a more prominent place in grade school history books and provides a greater understanding of the Chicago fire as part of an overall regional disaster.

I would be remiss in pointing out that as great as it is to have these internet resources at our fingertips, there are still some historical items not available online and it never hurts to check out your local library, especially the closed stacks, to see what might be there.  You’ll never know what surprises are in store.

Returning to the movie that started me on this topic, while travel back in time is allowed in general relativity, it is not remotely doable with current technology.  One solution is to have an infinitely long, rotating cylindrical tube that can drag and distort space-time to the point where you travel back in time.  Good luck finding one of those lying around.  Another solution allows for backward time travel but only until your time machine became operational.  In the case of the movie, you could only travel back in time to 1976, but not before.  However, the engineering involved would be much, much more advanced than what we now have at our disposal.  In fact, a civilization would require the ability to harness the energy of an entire galaxy to attempt this.

As long as you are careful to discern fact from fiction, time travel stories can be an entertaining way to explore history.  In the case of Time Travelers, other concepts besides the fire touched upon includes the traumatic impact of Civil War deaths on the civilian population, and the romantic idea of traveling to the past would be diminished greatly if you had to use the medical facilities at the time.  Unlike in 1976, when I first saw the movie, technical improvements today make it possible to examine historical documents of the Great Chicago Fire at home or in the classroom.  I must admit, I would jump at the opportunity to travel into the past, but I also realize there are lots of things about life in 2017 that are really great.

*Image atop post is a Currier & Ives lithograph of the Great Chicago Fire.

Richard Feynman and the Alibi Room

During the late 1940’s, a Cornell physics professor was asked to give a series of lectures at the university’s aeronautics laboratory in Buffalo.  The professor would later recount his adventures four decades later in his autobiography, including some unusual (for a physics professor) adventures in a downtown bar called the Alibi Room.  That professor was Richard Feynman, who won the Nobel Prize in 1965.

Feynman begins his tale with the travel arrangements from Ithaca to Buffalo.  He was spared the three hour drive by flying Robinson Airlines, with the plane piloted by Mr. Robinson himself.  This regional airline was one of the many that began service after the war and would supplant train travel over the next few decades.  Robinson Airlines eventually became Mohawk Airlines which was bought out by Allegheny Airlines in 1970.  Allegheny changed its name to US Air in 1979 and was folded into American Airlines in 2015.  A picture of a Robinson airplane along with Mr. Robinson can be found here.

Cornell gave Feynmen a $35 ($350 in 2017) stipend each week for his trouble.  At first, Feynmen considered saving the money, but Feynman being Feynman, decided to use the funds to look for some adventures while in Buffalo after his lectures at the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory.  The facility was originally operated by Curtiss-Wright, but as the war ended, the company downsized its production in Buffalo greatly and turned the lab over as a gift to Cornell.  During its run as a Cornell facility, the staff invented the crash test dummy, seat belts, and developed aircraft simulators.  Now privately operated, the facility is still located across the street from the airport and is known as Calspan.

Feynman was hired by Cornell after working at the Manhattan Project where he became known for his uncanny ability to quickly solve equations and for picking locks.  The latter was Feynman’s way of irking the powers that be at the project.  During the first atomic test at the Trinity site, Feynman threw off his eye protection gear so as to be one of the few to actually witness the blast.  However, Feynman eventually became melancholy over both the destructive nature of the atomic bomb and the death of his wife in June 1945 from tuberculosis.  This may have contributed to his slow career start at Cornell.

“I would see people building a bridge and I would say “they don’t understand.” I really believed that it was senseless to make anything because it would all be destroyed very soon anyway, but they didn’t understand that and I had this very strange view of any construction that I would see, I would always think how foolish they are to try to make something. So I was really in a kind of depressive condition.” – Richard Feynman from the documentary The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.

Nonetheless, when Feynman got to Buffalo, he asked a local cab driver, a man named Marcuso, driving cab No. 169, to take him to a bar “with lots of interesting things going on.”  The cabbie drove Feynman to the Alibi Room located at 8 W. Chippewa near the corner of Main St.  The late 40’s, at the start of the post-war boom but before the exodus to the suburbs starting in the ’50’s, was when downtown was in its peak.  The Alibi Room was situated in the heart of the theater district and the scene would have looked like this as Feynman’s cab approached the bar.

Main Street one block north of Chippewa, 1950, from a postcard of the era.

The Alibi Room itself was new, first appearing in the Buffalo Register in 1946.  Feynman described it as a place where, “The women were dressed in furs, everybody was friendly, and the phones were ringing all the time.”  As Feynman would later find out, the phones were ringing all the time as it was a local bookie joint, and the women in furs were ladies of the night.  This is confirmed by my discussions with those familiar with the Alibi Room.  Eventually, Feynman settled into a routine where he would order shots of Black and White scotch with chaser of water and close the place down at 2 AM – Buffalo’s current 4 AM closing time did not go into effect until the 1970’s.

This went on for the duration of the semester.  Sometimes, Feynman would end up at an after hours speakeasy.  Following his last lecture of the semester, Feynman found himself in a fight in the restroom at the Alibi Room.  Once the situation calmed down, Feynman downed a shot of scotch, started talking loud, almost caused hostilities to resume at the bar with three friends of the original antagonist.  Another regular at the bar, whom an appreciative Feynman later described as a first-rate expert in diffusing bar fights, interceded by pretending to be a friend of Feynman, then convinced Feynman to leave.  Returning to Cornell with a black eye, Feynman went to teach his class, looked at his students, shiner and all, toughened up his tone of voice and asked…

Any Questions?”

That was the end of Feynman’s adventures with Buffalo nightlife.  In 1951, Feynman moved on to Caltech where he developed a quantum theory of electromagnetism.  Referred to as quantum electrodynamics (QED), this theory incorporated relativity with quantum mechanics.  Merging the two fields is the holy grail of physics.  There are four basic forces of nature, electromagnetism, weak nuclear (released in radioactive decay), strong nuclear (released in nuclear explosions), and gravity.  The first three are explained by quantum mechanics, the physics of atomic scale.  Gravity is explained by relativity, the physics of large scale that we can see.  Finding a quantum theory of gravity would unify relativity and quantum mechanics into “the theory of everything.”

Interestingly enough, despite unifying electromagnetism into quantum mechanics, Feynman was ambivalent about finding the theory of everything…

“Are you looking for the ultimate laws of physics? No, I’m not, I’m just looking to find out more about the world and if it turns out there is a simple ultimate law which explains everything, so be it, that would be very nice to discover.  If it turns out it’s like an onion with millions of layers and we’re just sick and tired of looking at the layers, then that’s the way it is, but whatever way it comes out its nature is there and she’s going to come out the way she is, and therefore when we go to investigate it we shouldn’t pre-decide what it is we’re trying to do except to try to find out more about it.” – Richard Feynman from The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.

A decade later, around the time he was awarded the Nobel Prize, Feynman found himself in Buffalo once again and paid the Alibi Room a visit.  His former adversaries were nowhere to be found.  What would have happened if he had bumped into them again?  Knowing Buffalo, and that generation, they probably would have bought Feynman a beer (or a Black and White) and had a good laugh.

This time around Feynman found the scene different, describing the formally posh bar and neighborhood as seedy.  During the 1950’s, in Buffalo and across America, the middle-class fled the cities for the ranch houses and shopping malls in suburbia.  The downtown stores started to close and buildings became vacant.  Chippewa St. was on its way to becoming a red light district populated with flop houses, topless bars, and adult book stores.  The street reached its nadir in the 1970’s.

Oddly enough, there was an optical lab located on Chippewa during the ’70’s.  How do I know this?  Before the age of one hour glasses, a repair job for broken glasses could take a week or more.  After breaking my glasses in 6th grade, my eye doctor suggested I take them directly to the lab on Chippewa for a quick repair.  I hopped on the No. 24 bus, got off at the foot of Chippewa, and headed for the Root Building where the lab was located.  This was intriguing as Chippewa was the focal point for much of our middle school humor, but my trip was uneventful.  I walked by the Alibi Room without taking note, unaware a Noble Prize physicist once hung out there.  Got my glasses back, walked back past the forlorn Chippewa storefronts, noting how much the street resembled the ones television detective Baretta worked.

By the late ’70’s, the Alibi Room changed owners and was now operated as the New Alibi Lounge.  I was not able to find any images of the original Alibi Room, given the going ons inside, I imagine photography would have been frowned upon.  One image does survive from 1980 which shows the overall decline of the area Feynman commented on.

New Alibi Lounge is red building in center.  The brown building to the left was once a Gutman’s store.  Credit: Buffalo Department of Community Development/The Public.

Within a few years, all the buildings, including the former Alibi Room, would be gone.  Cleared out in an urban renewal project, this block was an empty lot for most of the ’80’s when Feynman wrote Surely Your Joking, Mr. Feynman!  The book was a best seller and Feynman became even more well known to the public as a member of the commission to investigate the Challenger disaster. It was Feynman who demonstrated to the public how the O-rings in the shuttle’s solid booster would have become brittle during the cold weather conditions the Challenger launched in.

Feynman passed away in 1988.  At the same time, Fountain Plaza was rising on the former site of the Alibi Room.  Once home to local banking operations, Fountain Plaza is now the site of IBM’s Buffalo Innovation Center as part of the continuing transition of the local economy.

Fountain Plaza in 2016. The Alibi Room was on the corner where the North Tower sits in middle of picture. Credit: Gregory Pijanowski

Throughout the 1990’s, Chippewa and the surrounding Theater District experienced a renaissance.  Mark Goldman got the ball rolling with the Calumet Arts Cafe, also played a key role in the development of Canalside.  The Root Building is now home to Emerson Commons, part of Emerson High’s Culinary program.  Once again, Chippewa is an entertainment center in the city.

Beyond physics, Feynman’s legacy continues in education.  During a stint on California’s Curriculum Commission, Feynman was critical of common educational techniques.  For example, rather than emphasize memorization, Feynman pushed for comprehension of physical concepts.  Feynman also wanted children to understand there are a variety of ways to solve mathematical problems.  His reasoning is that scientists focus on getting the right answer, not a rote process.  This is the underpinning of common core curriculum.

Common core is part of an overhaul to move education away from being geared toward the old industrial economy to one more suited for the 21st Century.  During the early 1900’s, rural residents moved to cities as farming became mechanized, reducing the need for labor.  The educational system was geared to train students for life in the manufacturing economy.  Now, 100 years later, manufacturing is becoming more robotized, meaning labor has to switch over to a knowledge based economy.  Feynman’s insights from his stint evaluating textbooks in the 1960’s influences science education to this day.

Chippewa Street today. Credit: Gregory Pijanowski

Last summer, a friend visited Buffalo and arrived at a downtown hotel.  She asked the staff where was a good spot to eat.  Like Richard Feynman some 70 years earlier, was suggested to go to Chippewa St.  Upon arrival, she witnessed a bar brawl that had extended out onto the sidewalk.

The more things change…

*Image atop post is Richard Feynman giving a lecture on planetary orbits in 1964.  Credit:  United States Department of Energy/Wiki Commons.

Why Facts Matter

Imagine building a new home with a flimsy frame, then subjecting it to the rigors of winter.  As you might expect, the house would not stand up very well.  That is what making an argument without credible facts is like.  Governments generally try to spin the facts in their favor, but the new Trump administration has shown a propensity to discard facts all together.  The first week in, this has resulted in mostly silly arguments over the size of the inauguration crowd.  However, if government agencies such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) are politicized, important scientific and economic research can be compromised.

Most of us do not deal with economic statistics, or even think about calculating those figures.  I’ll start with another example.  Imagine being a baseball scout.  Well, most of us have never come close to employment in baseball either, but at least have pulled a George Costanza and pretended we were.  Lets consider the following scenario:

You are scouting a minor league prospect for a possible promotion to the majors.  The player’s batting average is a mediocre .250, but since you get a bonus for scouting a player that makes it to the majors, you decide to report the player hits a stellar .350.  Are you performing the service asked by your employer?  Will your employer benefit from this falsified data.  Is taking the money and running a good career move?  Sound unrealistic?  This is exactly what happened in the mortgage industry during the bubble years as substandard loans where classified as prime in quality.

Now consider this, you are employed by MLB to maintain and archive statistics.  Your boss, who is a Yankees fan, orders you to lower David Ortiz’s career home run total from 541 to 200.  Now imagine five years from now, when Ortiz is eligible for the hall of fame, your boss loudly proclaims via his Twitter account and media that Ortiz should not be considered for induction as his home run total of 200 does not merit it.  The fan reaction would be, regardless of whether they think Ortiz belongs in the hall or not, justified outrage.  As Bill Veeck once jokingly said, the baseball record book is cast in bronze, carved in marble and encased in cement.  And, exaggeration aside, there is a reason for that.

It’s simply a matter of integrity of the game.  When you want to find out what Ted Williams career on base percentage was, then see the staggering figure of .482, you want assurance that is a legitimate stat and not just something a Red Sox fan entered to puff up Williams reputation.  You can argue who was better, Williams or DiMaggio, but you can’t argue Williams did not reach base 48% of the time.  If the record book was not reliable, you really couldn’t have the who was better argument at all.

Now I want to ask is this, why should we place a higher standard on the baseball record book than government research?  Nobody (except the players) would be harmed if baseball records were tampered with.  That is not the case with government work.  Economic policy is difficult enough with reliable data, almost impossible with tampered data.  Considering suicides increase with unemployment, faulty policy due to rigged data would put lives at risk.  It is imperative that the BLS is not politicized.  The same holds true for government climate studies.  If policy is not informed by reliable data, you can rest assured there will be a body count associated with that.

How can you tell the data is reliable?  Replication of results is a good metric.  The famous hockey stick graph indicating a climb in global temperatures over the past century has been replicated by independent sources.  The same is true with the government inflation rate which has matched MIT’s Billion Price Index.  One data set that was not replicated?  Andrew Wakefield’s claim that vaccines cause autism.  As it turned out, every one of Wakefield’s child subjects had their medical records falsified.  The result?  As the public received false data, vaccination rates fell in the U.K. and U.S., causing needless outbreaks of preventable diseases.

If we are going to treat politics as sport, the least we can do is demand the same honesty in government record keeping.  The public will not be able to argue the pros or cons of policy without reliable data to go by.  If we do not maintain the validity of government data, besides endangering lives, we endanger the integrity of our democracy.

Open Educational Resources

During the next year I will be making the switch in my astronomy course from the standard textbook (Explorations/Arny) I have been using for ten years to an open source text.  Not an easy decision to make.  The text I have been using always got great feedback from my students and in a pedagogical sense, was quite excellent in relating astronomy to phenomena we see in our daily lives.  When I designed the course back in 2005, the text, smartly sequenced, served as the backbone to organizing the course.

When I started teaching, the text ran from $75-$110 (used/new) and included the Starry Night planetarium software.  Starry Night runs about $50 if buying separately so the students got an excellent value here.  Around 2010, the publisher discontinued including Starry Night but I was able to replace that in the course with the freeware Stellarium.  Still, the cost of the text (along with all other texts) continued to skyrocket.  Currently, the new edition goes for $240 placing a financial hardship on the students.  Too many students were delaying or avoiding all together buying the text and the change simply had to be made.  For all the great attributes of that text, none of it is any good if the students are unable to purchase it.

Switching to the OpenStax Astronomy text has some definite advantages.  The online versions has links for each section that can be embedded in the course web platform.  The big plus is its free, meaning the students will have access to it as soon as the course opens up for the semester.  The text was designed for a two semester sequence and as my course is one semester, it does require some significant planning to pull out which sections to use and which ones not to.  Obviously, I can’t expect my students to read 1,100 pages for a three credit hour course.

Given the current inability of traditional publishers to provide affordable textbooks, this does appear to be the future.  When it comes to change, it’s better to be ahead of the curve rather than behind.

That being said, the original text book has become almost like an old friend.  Even though it will cease to be used in the course, it will always have a prominent place on my bookshelf as a reminder of the over 1,000 students I have taught with it.

Earth and Space

We tend to think of the Earth as apart from the rest of the universe.  That is natural as astronomy is the science of looking away from our home planet.  While there are many things in space we do not experience in our daily lives such as relativistic effects and black holes, there are other phenomena in space that are closely related to our day-to-day lives.  Some introductory astronomy texts lump the Earth and Moon in a chapter with all the other inner planets.  I think this is a mistake.  A separate section should be dedicated to the Earth and Moon as a starting point to understanding space.

There are many Earth to space examples to pick from and below I’ll describe a few.

I’ll start on the ground level.  The Earth experiences plate tectonics along with resultant earthquake and volcanic activity.  Lets take a look at shield volcanoes.  These volcanoes vent liquid lava rather than explosive pyroclastic material we typically associate with such events as the Mount St. Helens eruption in 1981.  Shield volcanoes are gently sloping (Hence, they resemble shields) as liquid lave runs downhill quickly preventing the buildup of steep slopes.  A prominent example are the Hawaiian Island chain situated above the Hawaii hot spot.  Why is there a chain rather than just one island?  As the Earth’s tectonic plate slides over the hot spot, a chain of islands are formed.

Shield volcano of Mauna Kea in Hawaii where the Keck Observatory sits at the summit. Credit: Wiki Commons.
Shield volcano of Mauna Kea in Hawaii where the Keck Observatory sits at the summit. Credit: Wiki Commons.

The largest shield volcano in the Solar System is Olympus Mons on Mars.  This volcano stands 16 miles high (Mt. Everest is 5.5 miles high) and has a base the size of Arizona.  The low gravity of Mars, a third that of Earth, allows for the extreme height of Olympus Mons.  And why is Olympus Mons a single volcano rather than a chain like Hawaii?  Mars does not have plate tectonics as Earth does.  Hence, the crust of Mars never slid across the hot spot as the Hawaiian Islands did on Earth.  Understanding the nature of shield volcanoes on Earth can be integrated into an comprehension that Mars has smaller mass, thus, smaller gravity than Earth and no plate tectonic activity either.  Land features are not the only place to find planetary similarities.

Computer generated image of Olympus Mons using data from Mars Global Surveyor laser altimeter. Credit: NASA/MOLA Science Team/ O. de Goursac, Adrian Lark.
Computer generated image of Olympus Mons using data from Mars Global Surveyor laser altimeter. Credit: NASA/MOLA Science Team/ O. de Goursac, Adrian Lark.

The rotation of Earth affects air circulation via the Coriolis effect.  In the Northern Hemisphere, air movement is deflected to the right.  In the Southern Hemisphere, air movement is deflected to the left.  What this means is in the Northern Hemisphere, low pressure systems rotate in a counterclockwise pattern.  You can see this in radar shots of hurricane systems which are massive regions of low pressure.  High pressure systems rotate in a clockwise pattern.  The pattern is reversed in the Southern Hemisphere.

Hurricane Mathew circulating in a counterclockwise fashion. Credit: NOAA.
Hurricane Mathew circulating in a counterclockwise fashion. Credit: NOAA.

Now lets take a look at Jupiter’s Giant Red Spot from this time lapse video of the approach of Voyager I in 1979.

Jupiter rotates in the same fashion as Earth.  That is, counterclockwise if looking down from the North Pole.  At first glance, the Giant Red Spot seems to resemble a hurricane and it might be easy to assume it is an area of low pressure.  However, it is in the Southern Hemisphere and rotates counterclockwise.  By understanding how the Coriolis effect works on Earth, you can deduce the Giant Red Spot is actually an area of high pressure.  Beyond this raging centuries old storm, understanding the nature of Earth’s magnetic field will help one understand the space environment surrounding Jupiter.

Most of the matter we encounter is electrically neutral.  That is, their constituent atoms contain as many negatively charged electrons as positively charged protons.  In space, the Sun is hot enough to break the atomic bonds between electrons and protons.  The result is an electrified gas called plasma.  Neon lights are filled with plasma.  When plasma encounters a magnetic field, it’s electrically charged particles travel along the path of a magnetic field line in helix pattern seen below.


This can be visualized on the Sun which has a more complex magnetic field than the Earth.  The Solar Dynamics Observatory images plasma traveling along the solar magnetic field lines in formations referred to as coronal loops.

Credit: SDO/NASA
Coronal loops.  Credit: SDO/NASA

Back on Earth, these charged particles move along the magnetic field lines until they hit the upper atmosphere in the polar regions.  Nitrogen and oxygen atoms absorb the kinetic energy of the incoming particles causing electrons to jump to a higher energy orbit.  When the electron moves back to its usual lower energy orbit, the absorbed kinetic energy is converted and released as light.  This light is known as the aurora.  Earth is not the only planet with an aurora, the gas giants have strong magnetic fields that produce the same effect, albeit mostly in ultraviolet.  This presents a good opportunity to understand that light and ultraviolet are both electromagnetic radiation.  The difference is our eyes are not designed to detect ultraviolet rays, but our skin can in the form of sunburn.  The aurora of Saturn as imaged by the Hubble can be seen below.

Credit: NASA/ESA/J. Clarke (Boston University).
Credit: NASA/ESA/J. Clarke (Boston University).

Electrons, when accelerated, will emit radio waves.  This is the principle behind radio transmitters.  Electrons are accelerated up and down a radio tower causing the transmission of a radio broadcast.  The same thing happens in space when electrons are accelerated along the path of a magnetic field line.  Jupiter emits radio waves in this fashion that can be detected on Earth with ham radio sets.  This process plays itself out in the deepest regions of the universe.  For one such example, we’ll take a look a the galaxy Centaurus A located 12 million light years away.  Below is an optical image of the galaxy.

Credit: ESO
Credit: ESO

In 1949, it was discovered this galaxy was a strong emitter of radio waves.  Below is a radio image of Centaurus A.

Credit: NRAO/AUI
Credit: NRAO/AUI

The radio source emanates perpendicular to the mass of the galaxy.  Each lobe is a million light years long (10 times the width of the Milky Way) and would appear 20 times the size of a full Moon if we could see radio waves.  This suggests a massive stream of plasma being ejected from the galaxy.  What could cause this to happen?  In the core of Centaurus A resides a black hole 55 million times the mass of the Sun.

It seems counter-intuitive that a black hole could result in such a massive ejection of matter.  We think of black holes as objects that suck in everything, including light.  However, some of the matter in the accretion disk surrounding the black hole hits a magnetic field before crossing the event horizon.  So instead of continuing into the black hole, the plasma is accelerated and ejected violently along the magnetic field line exiting the galaxy.  Below is a composite image of Centaurus A with optical, radio, and x-ray imaging.

Credit: ESO/WFI (Optical); MPIfR/ESO/APEX/A.Weiss et al. (Submillimetre); NASA/CXC/CfA/R.Kraft et al. (X-ray)
Credit: ESO/WFI (Optical); MPIfR/ESO/APEX/A.Weiss et al. (Submillimetre); NASA/CXC/CfA/R.Kraft et al. (X-ray)

There is a tendency to think of Earth science and astronomy as separate fields of study, but as we live on Earth we are also living in space – under the protective cover of the atmosphere.  The first step in understanding space is to learn the science behind what we experience in our surroundings.  From there, we can explore and understand the universe.

*Image atop post – Earth and the Milky Way from the International Space Station.  Credit:  NASA.

Education is Not a Business

And by that, I do not mean the administration of an educational institution should not be conducted in a businesslike manner.  What I mean is that students should not be treated in the same fashion as a business treats a customer.  Recent events have focused on for-profit colleges such as ITT Technical Institute which has closed due to irregularities in both academic standards and financial aid.  However, a well funded ideological movement is in place at a state level to promote a profit orientated curriculum.  Nominally, this is free-market ideology but as we’ll see, in fact, this is detrimental to a well functioning market economy.

Free market models taught in undergrad micro incorporate some pretty abstract concepts.  These include competition to the point that neither an individual buyer or seller can impact the price of a product.  Also, both buyer and seller has perfect knowledge of the market which leads to a rational transaction process.  These conditions result in an optimal allocation of resources.  This model is akin to the Carnot engine in physics.  No engine can run more efficiently than a Carnot engine.  However, the Carnot engine is impossible to build as it requires zero friction and would violate the 2nd law of thermodynamics.  What the Carnot engine does is help us understand the inefficiencies of real engines and the same is true of basic free market models.  In the case of education, perfect knowledge, or lack thereof, is the key.

Asymmetric information in a competitive situation presents profit opportunity depending on who holds the upper hand.  It is why inside information, despite its illegality, is often sought in financial markets. It is why websites offer pricing information on products such as gasoline to arm consumers in the market.  In its more egregious forms, it is how some auto repair shops dupe customers in repairs they do not need or doctors charge for procedures a patient does not require.  In a non-business sense, it is why a sports team will attempt to steal signals from the opposition to get the advantage in a competitive contest.  Information asymmetry is not always unethical, but it is why businesses do not voluntarily disclose their hands when making a deal, and why businesses, if they are smart, require due diligence before closing a deal.

Education has information problems on two fronts.  One is temporal and the other is the lack of information the student has enrolling in an educational institution.  As Alfred Marshall noted in 1890, students are in the dark as to how valuable in monetary terms their education will be years down the road.  Conversely, future employers have no way of investing in education years before they even meet a student.  For Marshall, this meant the free-market would in general fund education below optimal levels and necessitated public funding to make up the gap.  The lack of information on the student side of the equation also means an educational institution operating on a for profit basis may seek to exploit this asymmetry for gain just as a business would.

In terms of social policy, the role of education is to reduce, not to exploit, information shortfalls a student possesses.

Kenneth Arrow, in his landmark paper on asymmetric information in the health care industry, notes that social structures are established to protect a patient against exploitation.  Arrow notes that the societal expectation of a physician’s behavior towards a patient is much different than that of a salesman towards a customer.  A doctor is expected to act with the patient’s welfare in mind.  Some of the expectations are by nature of the social contract such as the Hippocratic Oath, some are monetary in nature such as ACA regulations which stipulate that reimbursement for services are tied to patient health outcomes.  Given that students enroll in a school with the same kind of information disadvantage, it is sensible that educational institutions operate within a similar framework.

Recently, the Frank-Dodd Act has enacted regulations upon financial institutions to act on a customer’s behalf in situations when the institution has a higher degree of product awareness.  One, of many, of the factors leading to the mortgage bubble was a lack of understanding of the product customers were signing into.  One such example would be daily simple interest mortgages.  These mortgages accrue interest on a daily, rather than a monthly, basis as most standard mortgages do.  The end result is that homeowners who paid their mortgage bill after the due date but before the late fee grace period expired would still be left with thousands of dollars in unpaid principal balances when the loan matured, risking default.  The new regulations endeavor to ensure customers do not enter such agreements without an understanding of such details.

If financial institutions are being required to act on a customers behalf, why on Earth would we not expect educational institutions to do the same, if not even more so, on a student’s behalf?

And if the role of education is not to arm students with information, what is it for?  One suspects those who desire to enforce free market ideology on education wish to keep students in the dark so they are always potential marks for the next scam.  Part of the current free market movement is to provide economic instruction based on an uncritical study of the works of Ayn Rand, a fiction writer, into the classroom.  That’s like teaching astronomy based on an uncritical viewing of Star Wars films.  I happen to enjoy Star Wars, but I am not going up to a NASA engineer and suggest they use The Force to get to Mars.  The role of education is to prompt students to up their intellectual game, to challenge assumptions, to bump their preconceptions against empirical observations, the exact opposite of what ideologues of any stripe do.  There may be an Absolute Truth to the universe, but it’s not going to be held in the confines of a single mind.

As for those who believe only “career-orientated” curriculum should be offered, Alfred Marshall, the father of classical economics, had this to say:

For a truly liberal general education adapts the mind to use its best faculties in business and to use business itself as a means of increasing culture

After all, a market-based economy, like democracy, will operate most efficiently with a well informed citizenry.

No, Vaccines Do Not Cause Autism

Recent misgivings expressed by Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein on the safety of vaccinations has created another round in the vaccine/autism debate.  I use the word debate loosely here as we’ll see, there really should not be a debate at all on this topic.  In all fairness, Stein expressed concerns over potential industry capture of vaccine regulators, but that concern has been shot down effectively and some view this as merely a dog whistle for anti-vaxxers.  To be clear on this, the purported link between vaccines and autism is simply a case of scientific fraud and should be reported as such without mitigation.  However, once an idea, even a fraudulent one is let loose, it is very difficult to dislodge from the public mindset.  And that presents an arduous challenge for educators and policy makers alike.

The case for linking autism with vaccines began with the 1998 paper authored by Andrew Wakefield and 12 others stating their case.  Serious reservations regarding the research was expressed shortly after its publication.  The study had a small sample size and relied too heavily on parents recollections rather than hard data.  As is the case for scientific protocol, attempts were made to replicate the results of the Wakefield study.  In 2004, an extensive report by the National Academy of Sciences refuted any link between vaccines and autism.   The Center for Disease Control has followed up with nine studies confirming the National Academy of Science’s report.  As it turned out, there was a reason the Wakefield study was not confirmed.  The Wakefield report was not just bad science, but a fraud perpetrated to cash in on a potential lawsuit against manufactures of vaccines.

This is how the original paper purporting a link between vaccines and autism now appears on the Lancet website.

In 2011, the medical journal BMJ issued a retraction of the Wakefield study bluntly titled, Wakefield’s article linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulentAnd the retraction is damming.  Among the charges are:

“Is it possible that he (Wakefield) was wrong, but not dishonest: that he was so incompetent that he was unable to fairly describe the project, or to report even one of the 12 children’s cases accurately? No. A great deal of thought and effort must have gone into drafting the paper to achieve the results he wanted: the discrepancies all led in one direction; misreporting was gross.”

The BMJ also published an article by journalist Brian Deer that exposed Wakefield’s motivation for engaging in the fraud.  As it turned out, the medical records for all 12 children in the study were falsified.  The motive?  Wakefield was receiving compensation by a law firm to provide research that could bring a favorable result in a lawsuit against vaccine manufactures.  The compensation amounted to £435,643 ($700,000 in 1999).  And the damage done?  In the UK, the vaccination rate for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) dropped to 80% by 2003.  Fortunately, that has rebounded back to 92%.  In the United States, vaccination rates held steady between 90-92%, but geographical pockets of low immunization rates put children at risk of acquiring easily avoidable diseases such as the 2015 measles outbreak in Southern California.

So how could such a fraud still be considered a legitimate topic to debate in some quarters?  The answer lies in confirmation bias.  Science works by matching theory with data.  Sometimes, the theory comes first and is later proved by experiment.  This happened with James Clerk Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism developed in 1867 and proved correct with the discovery of radio waves in the late 1880’s.  Sometimes the data comes before a theory is devised to explain it as the case with dark energy discovered in 1998.  Astrophysicists are currently attempting to devise a theory to describe the accelerated expansion of the universe caused by dark energy.  Sometimes both, as in the case of general relativity published by Einstein in 1916.  Einstein’s theory solved the existing problem of Mercury’s orbit that Newton could not, but had to wait until the Eddington Expedition in 1919 to prove space-time could bend light waves.

The key point here is that in science, a theory or model of a physical process must match the experimental data or it is wrong.  If an experiment cannot be devised to prove a theory, such as currently the case with string theory, it is simply unproven until such an experiment is produced.  However, those not trained in science tend to construct understanding via a narrative.  In the case of autism, the vaccine issue fills a gap in the narrative that science presently does not, that being an understanding how to prevent it.  And once a narrative is constructed, confirmation bias develops when facts that go against the narrative are rejected which is the opposite of how science works.  So how to go about getting the facts out?

To begin with, especially in a classroom situation, do not belittle the other person.  Doing so only motivates retrenchment.  This is why arguments are rarely, if ever, resolved on social media.  Once the insults start flying, forget about it.  In the class, it is important for each student to feel they have a fair role in the discussion.  For example, if a student holds creationist beliefs, I point out the father of the Big Bang really was a father, that is, Fr. Georges Lemaitre who was both a Catholic priest and astrophysicist responsible for conceptualizing the Big Bang by analyzing relativity theory.  Holding religious beliefs does not preclude someone from appreciating science and in the case of Lemaitre, performing scientific work at a high level.  In the case of vaccinations, expressing an understanding the other side’s concerns with a serious children’s health issue can go a long way in creating a constructive dialog.  The public generally does not read medical journals and the media, in some quarters, has been irresponsible in its reporting leading to the construction of a false narrative.

Once the student understands you are giving them a place at the table in the debate, go over the scientific method once again.  In a one off argument this is a bit difficult and thus, is something that is to be emphasized throughout the course.  Theory must meet experimental data which must be independently confirmed.  Over the course of time, the goal is to move a student from an ideological to a scientific mindset.  Doing so will open the student up to being more receptive to data that contradicts a previously held belief which in turn can reduce confirmation bias.  And sometimes, it is best to acknowledge science does not currently offer an explanation.  In the case of autism, we have to admit we do not know what its cause is rather than allowing a charlatan to fill a gap in a narrative.

On the other hand, those such as Andrew Wakefield, who have perpetuated this myth with the intent of monetary and/or political gain, simply deserve to be rebuked and marginalized from any policy debate regarding vaccinations.

*Image atop post is polio vaccinations during 1954 in Kansas.  Credit:  March of Dimes.