Free online education

The invention and widespread use of computers has had a massive impact on how things are done. I grew up with computers and it can be quite amusing to hear about the way my father used to do things and how much more difficult it was back then. For example, when I did a literature review, all I had to do was go online, search for some keywords and download the relevant papers. He spoke about books with lists of article titles that used to be mailed to universities. He had to find the relevant titles, order them and wait for the copies to be delivered before he could see if they really were relevant. When I did referencing I just put everything into a reference manager which then inserted, formatted and arranged the reference list as required. Before computers it all had to be done manually. Continue reading

To do science

What does it mean to do science? I have a few suggestions that I want to put out there but the first we need to decide what science itself is. The first thing most people think about when they think of science is “what scientists do.” They might say that science is what people in white coats do in the laboratory. If you study science, that is certainly what you will learn but we also know that what physicists do in a lab and what biologists do in a lab are quite different. What do they both do that is the same? Science is not about specific subjects; it’s a way of thinking. All scientists try to think logically, to ask questions and following them up with experiments or observations that will give them the evidence needed to answer their questions. Continue reading

Scientific literacy in South Africa

General science education in South Africa is in a terrible state. Recently, a survey was conducted among 1000 South Africans. They were asked 10 true or false questions about general science and, as Rapport reports (The article is in Afrikaans because the English versions only report on that article and are pathetic in comparison), the average South African only got five answers correct. These same questions were also asked in the United States where the average person got 6,5 questions correct. Since there is a lot of confusion over these questions I would like go through them, share the correct answer and briefly expand on it. Continue reading

Don’t limit inadvertent learning

Last month, UCT made an announcement about Emeritus Professor Richard Whitaker’s new version of the Illiad which made use of many South African terms. I am not in a position to judge whether this is a good idea or not, although the announcement includes the endorsement, “As for the South African vocabulary and idiom, words like inkosi, indaba, induna and impi actually take us much closer to what Homer was singing about than their English equivalents,” but I want to address this issue of reworking literature or other creative outputs to suit a specific culture. Continue reading

Science and the world’s future

Today, I attended a special lecture, Science and the world’s future, presented by Bruce Alberts, the editor of Science. Since Science is one of the most respected scientific publications out there I expected a good talk about science. For the most part I got what I expected. However, when it came to the questions things went downhill quickly. Continue reading

Rhinos need evidence-based thinking

Late last year the Western black rhinoceros was declared extinct in West Africa. This year South Africa, home to up to 80% of the world’s rhino population, has had to deal with incredibly high levels of poaching. They are being killed for their horn, even by the very people that are meant to protect them, which sells for an astronomical amount. If the trade on rhino horn was lifted South Africa would be sitting on a stockpile worth R10 billion! Continue reading