Archive for the 'Research' Category

Science, Cell Phones and Community

Most of my time in college was spent in humanities and social science classes. I was a History major that had a propensity for wandering into all sorts of disciplines, mostly untrained. Usually it was the topic that drew me into a class (Anthropology of Food, Aesthetics, Bible as Literature to name a few) but, I was also interested in learning how to see things differently. Every discipline has its different lenses for analyzing the world.

I didn’t spend much time in traditional science classes. I took Physics for my gen-ed and ended up enjoying it more than I thought I would (I lucked out with a truly wonderful professor). It was around my sophomore and junior year that my interest in science began to reignite. Most of my interest was in a popular science reading kind of way but, you have to start somewhere. I was drawn to certain characters, like Richard Feynman, who introduced me to the wonder and the joys of science.

During my senior year I started to understand the value of being science literate and I made it a goal (and it is still is a goal) to become as science literate as possible. I started studying biology, astronomy, nutrition science and whatever else piqued my interest. In my quest to become educated I found that the more controversial and political topics are often fraught with bad science. I’ve briefly talked about my interest in food chemistry and the problems I encountered there. Another topic that also interested me was radiation.

Now radiation is kind of a vague statement. Worries and discussion about radiation began again after the earthquakes caused nuclear crises in Japan. With nuclear radiation on the front page it was clear that there was ignorance on radiation in general (I count myself among the ignorant). People started producing helpful infographics to help put things in perspective. Around this same time I was working with someone who was worried about cell phone radiation (and all sorts of electro-magnetic radiation) and it got me interested in what the science had to say about it. Cell phones and cancer is a very popular news item. In fact, not too long ago the IARC classified it as category 2b, which is possibly carcinogenic to humans (you’ll also find things like coffee, picked vegetables, talcum powder there). Spend a little time googling it and you’ll see lots of fear-mongering about the dangers of cell phone and electro-magnetic fields (EMF). So, how does one go about finding good information?

One thing I learned during college was the value of finding scholarly communities. Once you start spending time on a topic you start to see who the scholars are in a community, what general consensus is on a topic, scholarly criticism going back and forth. The more time you spend looking closely at claims you begin to see what is trustworthy and what is not. One of my favorite science-based blogs is Science Based Medicine and they did a wonderful break-down of the IARC classification of cell phones. While this isn’t a journal it is a good place for people to go to have complex ideas explained. The articles are written by people who work in various fields they write about (of course you can’t automatically trust credentials but, it doesn’t hurt). The articles cite their sources and are more than self-referential blog loving. One of the nicest features of it being a blog is that the comments are open and it is there you’ll find good discussions that allow for push-back and also clarification. I won’t explain in detail what science has to say about cell phones right now (go read the post and the comic below). Long story short there is currently no strong evidence that we need to be worried about cell phones. We don’t have any plausible mechanism for cancer (cell phones are non-ionizing radiation) but, science is rarely settled, so in the future we might see long-term effects or effects we didn’t expect (maybe super human powers?! probably not). At this point the most dangerous part of owning a cell phone is driving while using it.

When learning about topics, especially things I am unfamiliar with, I value finding the communities around the topic (those with good and bad reputations) and getting to know them. It makes it a lot easier to see the flawed arguments or it raises the skeptical senses a little sooner when you see certain red flags.

For your viewing and educational pleasure a comic from Sci-ence.org about cell phones and radiation:

Family History, Public History and Digital History. Oh my!

So earlier today I tweeted that I had talked to Jeff McClurken about an idea I have for an individual study. My family is fairly interested in our family history and various members have taken the time work on genealogies, recovers photos, and record other things. For some time now I wanted to create some sort of online depository to collect memories, photos, videos or whatever to create a kind of family history. A few weeks ago I started wondering if I could possibly work this into some sort of individual study. Although I knew it didn’t seem like the typical 400-level class idea I had already had a taste of one class that was quite unusual in our department, so I thought I’d give it a chance. As a side note, have I mentioned how lucky I am to be a major in a department that has someone like Jeff as the Chair? Well, I am because he entertains my craziness and has already pointed me in the direction I need to go. Being an amateur historian I still need that guidance and I am very thankful to have it.

First things first I need to figure out the methodology I will use to tackle this project. Obviously I couldn’t do this just about my family history, there needs to be some academic rigor involved with this too. One of my first tasks will be to research literature to assist me in my project. I will have to find text on family history, public history, and digital history so I can create a bibliography for this project. I will probably be enlisting the help of UMW’s very knowledgeable reference librarian Jack Bales, who has already helped me so much in my history research. I want to find some way to weave together what was going on in my ancestors lives and what was going on in the world too. There are so many questions I want to explore I don’t even know where to begin. A big component of this project will be the structure of the actual site and more than likely I will be using Omeka (oh, how I’ve missed thee!) and with a little help from Patrick Murray-John I’m sure we will kick code butt. There will surely be many more posts on this in the future.

One of the purposes for this project is not only to create a cool site for my family but, that I will create documentation so that others can create these sort of family collections and have my site as a sort of model for those interested in doing something similar. The internet has made doing family history research so much easier and because of that people have been increasingly interested in family genealogy and tracing roots. I would hope that whatever my project turns into that it will in some way enable others to do what I did so that they too can create a place to record family history. One of the greatest joys I’ve experienced during my time at college is knowing that some of the work I have done has been beneficial to others in some way.

This is still more to say about it and I’m only at the tip of the iceberg here. But I am excited to see where this takes me and if you, my dear readers, have any suggestions about anything I’d love to hear them.

Forgot Again and I Need Research Ideas

I was just about ready to go to bed when I remembered that I haven’t blogged today. Well technically I have blogged, just not on this blog, so that should count for something.

Right now I am in the process of trying to pick a topic for my research paper in my History Methods course. I’m trying to think of topics I like and that is not a problem, but narrowing them down is a little harder. I’ve gone from ideas about Irish history (Easter rising, Michael Collins, Bloody Sunday) to my interest in wars (more specifically World War II and the Vietnam War) to just about everything in the 20th century. I’ll admit I’m even looking at some intersections between physics and history, studying something a lot will keep it on your brain I guess.

Tomorrow morning we are going around the room to say what we think we are planning to do for our research paper. What is an indecisive girl to do? I’ll probably be running to the Prof’s office before class (nothing like last minute help, right?). I’m not enough of a history junky (yet?) to really be well versed in details and I’m not quite sure what is out there. I suppose people always face the problem of not knowing what is out there when they first start their research.

I’ve got other questions nagging me, but those will be addressed when I am in a more lucid state.


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