Archive for February, 2010

Simplifying the witches brew in Shakespeare’s MacBeth

Last week I enjoyed an innovative performance of Shakespeare’s MacBeth at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.  The director, Joe Dowling, takes some liberties with the original production, such as dropping the warrior MacBeth on stage down a ninja rope and equipping him with a machine gun.  However, mostly the gruesome killings that riddle this dark play are accomplished with old-fashioned daggers and swords.

Being a chemical engineer who abhors overly complicated recipes, it bothers me that the three weird sisters in Macbeth put so many ingredients into their witches brew.  It would be very hard to scale up their potent product from bench-level kettle to massive manufacturing.  By the way, thanks to this heads-up by Nigel Beale I cracked this coven’s confidential code on components; for example, eye of newt, which cannot be easily sourced, is really readily-available mustard seed.  Nevertheless, I’ll bet that a good mixture screening experiment, followed-up by an in-depth formulation design, such as this one on a cell-culture medium, would reveal that only a few key ingredients might do the job for enabling clairvoyance or whatever a witch might be up to.

Keep it simple, I say.  Or as Shakespeare advises more eloquently, “Brevity is the soul of wit.

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Skepticism versus cynicism about science experiments

Eric Felten’s latest “De Gustibus” column in Wall Street Journal reports New Episodes of Scientists Behaving Badly.  It details various scandals, for example the retraction of a landmark publication linking autism to childhood vaccines.  This creates a great deal of cynicism such as that expressed by this parent of a kid she helped on a science project:

“The experiments never turned out the way they were supposed to, and so we were always having to fudge the results so that the projects wouldn’t be screwy.  I always felt guilty about that dishonesty, but now I feel like we were doing real science.”

Ouch!

Coincidentally, Stat-Ease received an email from someone who goes by the pen-name “The Pyrrhonist.”  (I see a trend here:  I need to work on a scholarly-sounding moniker.)  While researching pyrrhonism, I came across this skeptical quote by a Greek named Carneades who set the stage for his countryman Pyrrho:

“Nothing can be known, not even this.”

That’s tough to get around!

I truly believe that some degree of skepticism is healthy, such as judicious use of the null hypothesis for assessing the outcome of experiments.  However, it’s not good for experimenters to abandon all standards by succumbing to an attitude of scornful or jaded negativity, especially a general distrust of the integrity or professed motives of others – the definition of cynicism (according to the Free Dictionary).

So, be skeptical, but not cynical.

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