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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Gravity Suspended

Physicists the world over have been scratching their heads this Fall, as our current understanding of gravity has been shattered. The most famous of the fundamental forces, gravity has long been a source of curiosity for the eager young scientist. Newton took the first successful crack at it with his infamous apple and Einstein came along to sure up the theory for later generations. All was going well until recently.

A month or so ago, an extremely focused disruption in the gravity field allowed blogger and student, Tony Lucchese, to literally fall off of the face of the Earth. It is unclear as to what caused the disturbance, but what is clear is that Lucchese has been MIA for several weeks. Scientists from CalTech to CERN are working around the clock to rectify the problem. Until then, we can only wait.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Random Samples: Making an Ass of You and Me

I first heard the colloquial definition of assume from my middle school band teacher. He relayed it during one of his notoriously crimson-faced tirades as a part of his tireless crusade to get us to practice our instruments. The mere mention of the word ass brought a cacophony of pubescent snickers, as you might well imagine.

Twenty years later, I find myself enrolled in school once again. This time around, I'm not taking any fine arts, and my musical stylings are reserved for my shower head and the lonely walls of the Pottery Barn stockroom. Still, the trite but true words of Mr. Danner stick with me. Daily I am confronted with a seemingly innocuous request to assume. Assume a friction-less surface. Assume no air resistance. Assume a random sample.

Of course, for the purposes of class, I play along. I understand that in order to proceed, a beginner like myself, must temporarily set aside the more confounding components of mathematical problems. Yet I do not take these assumptions lightly, and they hover somewhere in my psyche underlined, in both italics and bold-face. I fear that many people become far too accustomed to these kinds of assumptions, never truly revisiting their ramifications at that later date. Even seasoned professionals fall victim to this permanent credulousness.

My physics teacher relayed the results of a now famous statistical experiment whose findings declared that cats stand a greater chance of survival falling from higher windows than from lower ones. My hand shot up with such velocity that it nearly dislocated my shoulder. You see, that study has a huge hole in it. The sample space isn't really random at all. It originally appeared in a 1987 issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association and was authored by two doctors at the Animal Medical Center of Manhattan. They published based on a small sample of cases they had seen at their practice, all feline victims of high-rise free-fall. On the surface, it all seems on the up and up, until you consider the one gaping hole in their methodology. In order to be a random sample, the study must include all instances of the event in question, which is a cat falling out of a window and hitting the ground. Ask yourself this, if your precious Fluffy were to fall victim to accidental defenestration, and upon reaching the street level, you found myriad biological parts where your furry friend was hoped to be, would you scoop up the pieces and take them to the vet? No, and neither do most of the pet-owners in Manhattan. The 1987 study is based on the assumption of random sampling that did not actually occur.

As I have said, these school room assumptions are necessary steps to greater understanding in any and all STEM related fields. But we must never forget that they exist. Our future failures hinge upon them.