Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The ongoing train wreck that is "Texas Science"

I know there are some good and decent people in the state of Texas. But they appear to struggle in the minority. Today, The Bad Astronomer alerts us to the latest bad news for science in Texas. The top post in the state's educational system will be occupied by a creationist. That's right: Texas governor Rick Perry has appointed dentist, creationist, and anti-intellectual Don McLeroy to be Superintendent of the State Board of Education.

Here are a few gems illustrating McLeroy's educational policy wisdom.

In 2003, Dr. McLeroy voted against proposed high school biology textbooks because he felt their coverage of evolution was “too dogmatic” and did not include possible flaws in Charles Darwin’s theory of how life on Earth evolved from lower forms.

In 2001, McLeroy and a majority of the board rejected the only Advanced Placement textbook for high school environmental science because its views on global warming and other events didn’t comport with the beliefs of the board majority. The book wasn’t factual and was anti-American and anti-Christian, the majority claimed. Meanwhile, dozens of colleges and universities were using the textbook, including Baylor University, the nation’s largest Baptist college.

And from McLeroy's own website, he lists this as a favorite quotation: "The belief seems to be spreading that intellectuals are no wiser as mentors, or worthier as exemplars, than the witch doctors or priests of old. I share that scepticism."

In a previous post, I mentioned that in the mid-'80's, Texas tried to bully textbook publishers into dropping the very mention of the word "evolution" from science texts. The size of the Texas market forced publishers to take notice. But California stepped in and told publishers that if they dropped evolution, they could kiss California's even larger market goodbye. As California quashed an anti-science initiative from Texas, I decided I could work in a state like California.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A plug for rechargeable batteries

I am fortunate to have a reasonably well-stocked physics lab for my students. A number of the gizmos we use in the lab require batteries. Most of our battery-operated devices use the AA-cell.

A few years ago, I decided it would be worthwhile to invest in a lab set of rechargeable AA batteries.

Some people developed a distaste for rechargeables back in the 1970s when nickel-cadmium cells were used. Ni-cads had their issues, and they are disappearing from the rechargeable battery scene. They've been replaced by nickel metal hydride technology. NiMH batteries have enjoyed widespread adoption by digital camera users. They're good for hundreds of recharge cycles, and don't suffer the "memory" issues that NiCds were accused of having. They still check in with 1.2 volts (as opposed to the 1.5 volts of alkaline batteries), but I have yet to encounter that being a problem.

I use ten sets of four NiMH AAs and one eight-cell charger. The batteries and the charger get steady use throughout the year.

The current retail price of good rechargeable AAs is now less than $3 each ($10-$12 per set of four). Good alkalines run about $0.50 each. I'm happy with the performance of my NiMHs and I'm happy to not be filling the landfill with more and more discarded alkalines.

Buying advice? I've had good luck with Energizer and more recently Duracell. Look for high capacity values. As of this writing, I wouldn't go for anything less than 2500 mA h (milliamp-hours). Don't fall for fast recharge times--often that's how low-capacity batteries are marketed. Higher capacity batteries will serve longer between charges. And that's what's important.