As sweet as any harmony …

• “Isn’t life great?” The final words, and final thoughts, of a scientist and “an amazing man.”

• A² + B² = C² … Here, I’ll show you.

• I suppose a new poll showing that “78 percent of Americans believe the earth’s temperatures are rising” is a positive sign. That’s up from  the same survey taken in 2009, so it’s an encouraging sign that climate denial can’t be sustainable.

But on the other hand, the results of the poll — and even the existence of the poll itself — show that even our own personal experience becomes “controversial” once it’s framed as a partisan political question. Yesterday’s weather has become a point of contention and dispute. And that dispute cannot be settled with a thermometer because thermometers are now regarded as politically biased.

“This object is an expanding cloud of gas rushing away from a dying star. So what’s with the huge backwards S-shape?”

• “Astonishingly, if given access to a small hoard of chocolate chips, the free rat would usually save at least one treat for the captive — which is a lot to expect of a rat.”

Giant squid.

Slinkies and Wile E. Coyote.

• The Discovery Institute’s theology and biblical interpretation are also done with a green screen instead of a real Bible.

Sunita Williams gives a video tour of her office — the International Space Station. The special effects in that video are amazing — it really looks like she can fly.

• “A solar powered coal-mining museum is a fantastic way to celebrate this national journey.”

• James McGrath looks at a “science” lesson for fundamentalist homeschoolers that is guaranteed to produce legions of future atheists.

• Ed Darrell shares “A slightly rude film with a powerful point” — as well as some helpful resource links for broader context — in response to the horrific ignorance and negligence of the anti-vaxxer movement.

• “13 must-see stargazing events in 2013

• “Top 10 skywatching events not to be missed this year” (via)

(Five items not shared between those two lists.)

• “The Top 10 Reasons Why We Know the Earth Is Round

CJR must-reads of 2012: Science.

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  • chris the cynic

    • A² + B² = C² … Here, I’ll show you.

    So I was wondering how that could be done, and it is so simple, so obvious once you see it, so elegant, that it is clearly brilliant. 

  • Shay Guy

    I hadn’t even thought of that… but I’m still partial to the algebraic proofs I’ve seen.

  • DorothyD

    That is so cool. Somehow I want to say “Eureka!”

  • Vermic

    That “textbook” page on the James McGrath link made my head implode just looking at it.  It makes so many bad assumptions, it’s not even wrong, it’s just nonsense.  It would actually require extensive revision and correction to upgrade to “wrong”.

  • Magic_Cracker

    it’s not even wrong

    Oh, now you did it. Those text book publishers can now take your quote and say, “See? Even this secular evolutionist agrees with us!”

  • FearlessSon
    it’s not even wrong

    Oh, now you did it. Those text book publishers can now take your quote and say, “See? Even this secular evolutionist agrees with us!”

    Nah, “Not Even Wrong” refers to something else.  RationalWiki defines it as, “any statement, argument or explanation that can be neither correct nor incorrect, because it fails to meet the criteria by which correctness and incorrectness are determined.”

  • Münchner Kindl

    Astonishingly, if given access to a small hoard of chocolate chips, the free rat would usually save at least one treat for the captive — which is a lot to expect of a rat.

    I don’t quite understand the really big surprise about rats helping each other. I consider it a small surprise, since rats are not only mammals, but also social animals. All social animals have “help members of your group” hardwired as instinct, because that’s how groups work and why you have groups for long-term survival.

    It’s only when people fail biology by declaring social darwinism/ Randism to be “everybody for himself” that they are astonished that people/ animals help each other without direct rewards. Because rats (and people) don’t act in isolation, they act on their previous experiences and hopes for the future, where helping each other is the best longterm strategy for survival.

  • Magic_Cracker

    Cooperation! It’s Nature’s way!

  • LL

    This. I mean, most people don’t have harsher opinions about humans and human nature than I do, but even I see that cooperation and altruism are “natural” in that they make more sense than the “I got mine, fuck everybody else” philosophy of life that so many rugged individualists seem to think should be our guiding principle. 

    Or maybe it’s rat prejudice. People let their revulsion towards rats color their thinking, believing that rats are just filthy eating and breeding machines. Apparently, they’re quite intelligent. 

  • P J Evans

    Apparently, they’re quite intelligent.

    Also warm and furry.
    (Lab rats make nice pets. Quiet, clean, small.)

  • AnonymousSam

    It also ties into why they so desperately want Creationism to be real, since they want humans–specifically the ones who said the Magic Jesus Words–to be special creatures, and they have abhorrent views of animals and evolution. I’ve seen many, many, many people conflate evolution with the idea that every animal just wants to kill and eat every other animal so it alone will survive.

    To which I say, “No, that’s more a human thing. But only certain, special humans, like the ones who believe magic words make them a superior race to all the rest.”

  • FearlessSon

    This. I mean, most people don’t have harsher opinions about humans and human nature than I do, but even I see that cooperation and altruism are “natural” in that they make more sense than the “I got mine, fuck everybody else” philosophy of life that so many rugged individualists seem to think should be our guiding principle. 

    Yeah, but unfortunately there is a very small but significant subset of people who might be thought of as “social dominators”, people who genuinely do have a “I got mine, screw you,” kind of outlook.  Assuming that everyone else is working cooperatively and self-sacrificing for the collective good, a small number of dominators can be supported and can leverage the social structure gain themselves an advantage at the expense of others.  Generally such people define their own comfort in terms of a hierarchy  they are only satisfied if they are “above” someone else, equality is an impediment to them, and they would only contribute as much to the group as they need to in order to keep up appearances.  

    Objectivism is what happens when one of those dominator personalities (Rand) decides to give away the game and try to make a philosophy out of it.  Unfortunately, actually put into wide spread practice generally means that a few of the most ruthless people get their comforts, everyone else has it increasing degrees of worse.  

  • Münchner Kindl

    “A solar powered coal-mining museum is a fantastic way to celebrate this national journey.”

    That does surprise me – I didn’t know Wales (or any other part of the GB) had enough sun hours/ year to make this worthwhile, I thought it mainly rains there.

  • Randy Owens

    …I thought it mainly rains [in Wales].

    No, that would be the plain of Spain you’re thinking of.

  • The_L1985

    Ah, “My Fair Lady.”

  • The_L1985

    Yay, Fred is blinding us with SCIENCE! :D

    I’ll need to peruse these later today, when I’m not on my lunch break.

  • vsm

    That textbook is meant for a homeschooling course that will result in the student receiving a real high school diploma, right? Are there no standards they must fulfill, or is Christian Fundamentalism given a special pass? If not, could I teach a course about the pre-historic moon-based civilization that ruled the solar system before being brought down by a sun demon and a lovesick sorceress and have my kids graduate?

  • Magic_Cracker

    Are there no standards they must fulfill … ?

    Standards vary from state-to-state, and, of course, the enforcement of standards varies even more.

  • Jenny Islander

    Alaska: Homeschooled students are typically enrolled through a school district.  They must take the same standardized tests as anyone else, beginning in third grade.  Tests are proctored by school district staff, not parents.  In my school district, parents are expected to submit a summary of subjects to be taught with a list of textbooks or programs.  Three progress reports are expected each year, with a sample of the student’s work.

  • Albanaeon

     Yep.  You’d be amazed on how much caterwauling my in-laws made when they found that the local school district required standardized testing for homeschoolers.  “What about choice?!”  “What about supporting students?!”

    That a state might have an interest in its children being able to function in society was pure “evil socialism.”  And that it was brought on by their conviction that their non-mentally handicapped son couldn’t score in the bottom 13% in math and have to go to real school because of it, was particularly odd.

  • Magic_Cracker

    And that it was brought on by their conviction that their non-mentally handicapped son couldn’t score in the bottom 13% in math

    What’s sad is I’ve heard lefties express similar sentiments, but rather than railing against “socialism,” they’d rail against “hegemony” or whatever. Special Snowflake Syndrome is an equal opportunity fallacy.

  • The_L1985

    The idea that a bunch of Scantrons can determine a child’s destiny is equally fallacious.  I ACED every single standardized test I ever took.  Then, I flunked out of college my first semester.

    Standardized test scores measure one and only one thing: how well you can perform on a multiple-choice Scantron test in a controlled classroom environment.

  • David Starner

     There’s a lot of problems with standardized tests, but I’m sure they correlate to a lot of intelligence and knowledge related things. I don’t know of a better way to take a mass group of people and check who is or isn’t learning about a subject.

    I strongly suspect that you didn’t flunk out of college because of a lack of intellectual knowledge. Standardized tests don’t and can’t test for maturity and the ability to handle the social pressures of college.

  • arcseconds

     They do ‘correlate with a lot of intelligence and knowledge related things’, but, you know, intelligence tests are also about sitting at a desk answering pointless questions :]

  • depizan

    Standardized tests don’t and can’t test for maturity and the ability to handle the social pressures of college.

    However, at least based on the Standardized tests I’ve seen and taken, they only test math and reading comprehension.  (I hope by now the science and history tests actually, you know, test those subjects, but they didn’t when I was in school.)

  • The_L1985

    My class was used to scale the AHSGE in 2000.  Here is a sample question from the American history section:

    “Which of the following is most closely associated with the 1920’s?
    a. World War II
    b. The Jazz Age
    c. The Great Depression
    d. World War I”

    So, they do sort of test history.  In a very generic, oversimplified sort of way.  Nothing after 1960 or so was really mentioned in my history classes, except for who the President was and a bit about the Vietnam War in APUSH.

    I was 4 years old when the Berlin Wall came down, but when I was 15 they still weren’t discussing that in history class. 10 years is long enough for history books to decide what happened and its significance, surely?

  • Madhabmatics

    Hahahaha, you’re referring to the Alabama High School Graduation Exam, right? I remember taking that as a kid.

    edit: there was actually a school in north alabama recently that got busted having a cheating ring for that test, IIRC. They were worried about funding cuts if they had the normal rate of students fail it, so they fed answers to the test during the test to make sure enough people would pass that they could keep their current funding,

  • Invisible Neutrino

    It’s a pretty sad state of affairs when the teachers are telling students how to cheat. :(

  • P J Evans

    I’ve heard of cases where it’s the administrators pushing the cheating. Because good test scores get them money.

  • Münchner Kindl

     Which is of course the completly wrong course – the failing kids in failing schools need money for extra tuition, special programs (or maybe just enough desks and textbooks for every student), if “no child left behind” isn’t an euphemism, but means what it looks it means.

  • The_L1985

     Honestly, the problem is the following:

    Corrupt school-board officials were given administrative jobs at schools for a long time, and this created all kinds of problems, so a law was passed stating that you cannot be a member of a state or local school board, and employed by a public school, at the same time.  This means that the vast majority of school-board officials have never set foot in any teacher-training courses, much less taught in a classroom, and thus have no idea at all how people learn, how to assess learning in ways that make sense, or what incentives actually WORK.

    The goal of NCLB was, officially, to make sure all students were educated to a competent level in K-12.  They chose to measure this entirely through standardized-test scores (for example, in Florida there is now a law that you MUST spend 10 minutes explicitly on preparation for the FCAT).  To motivate teachers to teach better, they tied teacher pay to student test scores.  To make sure principals were watching their teachers and keeping scores high, they also tied school funding to student test scores.  And most standardized tests are scored based on percentile, not on how much of the test that individual student got correct.

    Anyone who knows any damn thing at all about learning and education can tell that this is completely counter-productive, but most people don’t, so the school boards get away with it. There are members of the Texas board of education who have stated several times, for the record, that their goal is to eliminate public schools entirely*, forcing parents to either home-school or cough up insane amounts of money for private schools.  Those people have been re-elected to the TX Board of Education since.

    * There is a movement in the Religious Right to protect kids from those “Godless” public schools, because apparently you don’t get enough religious indoctrination when you only hear it from your parents, Sunday mornings at church, Sunday School, and the Wednesday night church prayer meeting.

  • depizan

    That’s marginally better.  Only because when I was a kid, the tests consisted of very short essays about history (or, on the science section, science) followed by a handful of questions that could be answered from the essay alone.  So…yay?

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    “Which of the following is most closely associated with the 1920’s?a. World War IIb. The Jazz Agec. The Great Depressiond. World War I”

    That’s representative of history taught to 15-16 year olds? Jesus Christ.

    I was 4 years old when the Berlin Wall came down, but when I was 15 they still weren’t discussing that in history class. 10 years is long enough for history books to decide what happened and its significance, surely?

    I took Modern History as an elective in Year 11 and 12, which included a contemporary history unit. We studied the Arab-Israeli conflict–the genesis and evolution, but also as it played out in the newspapers each week. My brother, who took the same course a year before me, did his final exams the week after Rabin’s assassination, so his contemporary history essay incorported stuff that was still headline news.

  • The_L1985

     When I tell you that Alabama’s education system is a joke, this is exactly what I mean.  Unless you’re taking honors or AP courses, that’s how dumbed-down EVERYTHING is.  I have no idea how bad it is in other states, because there isn’t a national standard–they’re set on a statewide level.  And we still have a disturbingly high percentage of students who don’t graduate–so why is the bar set that low?

    Frankly, I think How To Read The Textbook should be more explicitly stated as part of the elementary school curriculum.  I’ve encountered a shocking number of middle- and high-school students who could only find the answers to worksheet questions if the questions were verbatim from the textbook.  They couldn’t find the answers to questions that were paraphrased at all.  They also had no clue how sectional headings could help them find what they were looking for.

    US education is a mess overall.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    One thing I’ve noticed is that even when I point students to how to solve questions by seeing how the textbook models them, some of them still need me to work the question in real time on the whiteboard. (experience as a TA)

    I don’t know if this is laziness or just reading comprehension.

  • The_L1985

     I think it’s a combination of both.  A couple of those students, after I explained to them what to do, still kept asking me to essentially do their schoolwork for them.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    My modern history class in my last year of high school took us up to near the present day in some circumstances, especially since the Soviet Union had vanished not long before. But there was a fairly broad focus on the 1930s – 1970s at the time.

  • The_L1985

    Well, first of all, why are students being tested on such a massive basis in the first place?  Authentic assessments include more than the test alone (naturally, tests are involved, but they shouldn’t be the only assessment tool used), and are best performed on as close to a one-on-one basis as is practical.  One of the reasons the US school system is falling behind Europe and Asia is because we’ve made everything contingent on students passing standardized tests since at least 2001 (possibly earlier; I didn’t go to public schools until high school so I’m not sure how far before NCLB the damage started).

    Teachers’ pay is based on standardized test scores.  Students are informally “tracked” based on standardized test scores.  Schools gain or lose funding based on standardized test scores being above or below a certain percentile (which guarantees that some schools will, definitely, lose funding–usually the ones with the most struggling students)!  Students are told that these tests will essentially determine their destiny (even though nobody after high school really cares what you made on the FCAT or the STaR or the ARMT or the OAA or whatever), and that contributes to high levels of test anxiety, which in turn make the assessments less valid.

    As for why I flunked out–I did not know how to study. I had never had to study a subject before–usually a Q&A drill with my mother the night before a test was all I’d needed in K-12, and I couldn’t understand how to study on my own, or that studying was something you did every day instead of right before a test.  Social pressures literally didn’t affect me–I was basically a hermit.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    One thing that appears to be true is that the ability to cram before an exam and pass on the strength of it seems to disappear by one’s late teens or early 20s.

    I suspect this is a side effect of the settling of the brain pathways as one approaches adulthood.

  • arcseconds

    Hopefully one isn’t still doing high-school tests in one’s early twenties, and has moved on to the sorts of things that one shouldn’t be able to just cram and pass.

  • AnonymousSam

    My Anatomy and Physiology college class lab exams consisted of 95% rote memorization skills and would take place later in the same week as the terms that were demonstrated. Cramming was very much a thing for those, which is probably why I was a B- student there.

  • PepperjackCandy

    we’ve made everything contingent on students passing standardized tests since at least 2001 (possibly earlier; I didn’t go to public schools until high school so I’m not sure how far before NCLB the damage started).

    I don’t know whether promotion to the next grade depended on the scores or not (the only person who would have known that was my mom and she died in 2006), but I took a standardized test (math, reading comprehension, and vocabulary) every year for first through sixth grade.   I started first grade in 1971.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    This is one reason why I’m a big believer in the philosophy that if you create a multiple choice test, it should be able to be handed back to the student so they can see how well they did, as well as a written component to the exam so students can stretch themselves a little.

  • The_L1985

    I was always so angry when teachers would give a Scantron test, then later on hand just the Scantron sheet back.  Okay, so I got number 17 wrong–but what was the question about?  My long-answer question was wrong–but I can’t tell what it was asking me without the question sheet!

    Fortunately, most of my teachers had more sense than that, and would either give the whole test back or at least recite question-and-correct-answer in class so you could actually tell what you missed. Bonus points to the teachers who let you keep quizzes after they were put in the grade book so you could use them as a study tool for tests and the final.

  • Ken

     Only in Louisiana.

    (Or maybe not. It will depend on how the state Supreme Court rules, and perhaps higher courts.)

  • rrhersh

    That slinkie demonstration is way cool, completely counter-intuitive, yet makes perfect sense once one is forced to think about it.

  • Loki100

    I once got into a discussion with someone about the way historical temperature charts were constructed. I pointed out that tree rings as an indication of temperature were phased out around 1960 because they stopped being in correlation with recorded temperatures. Apparently I was wrong and we should trust tree rings over thermometers  No, seriously, I was told we can’t rely on thermometers and need to rely on tree rings.

  • MaryKaye

    First-hand personal experience can’t tell you that the planet is warming.  It can only tell you that your locale, or locales, are warming.  Some of us live in places that are not warmer, and it’s entirely appropriate to say “My personal experience of cooler temperatures in the last few years does not invalidate global warming.”  But then, others’ personal experience of warmer temperatures does not validate global warming.  You really can’t measure global events at a single locale.

    Put together measurements from a lot of locations–then you see the whole story.  But that will never be “personal experience” unless you are a globe-trotting climatologist.

    This doesn’t bother me–I work every day with data about molecules I have never seen, derived from people I have never met, by a lab technique I have never done.  Personal experience only gets us so far in science.

    (Incidentally, though it has been warm here the last few years, the global-warming prediction, as far as I know, is that Seattle will get cooler and wetter.  Which is a little alarming given that it already rains 152 days a year.)

  • Carstonio

    The backward S shape? Obviously the dying star’s solar system included Bizarro’s home planet, with him arriving here the same way as the original.

  • Kiba

    Oh cool. I get to see a comet around my birthday. Neat…if I can remember to watch for it.

  • OriginalExtraCrispy

    The ISS tour was so cool. Almost made me want to go out into space. Almost but not quite since I suspect my stomach couldn’t handle it.

  • BaseDeltaZero

    • Sunita Williams gives a video tour of her office — the International Space Station. The special effects in that video are amazing — it really looks like she can fly.

    *Makes incoherent Space Sphere noises*In other news, has nobody noticed this yet or what?

  • AnonymousSam

    I popped in about to comment on plasticity and synaptic pruning, but I see you beat me to it with an edit. :p

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Out of interest I pulled up the 2012 paper for Modern History in the HSC (the largest Australian end-of-school qualification, which around 75,000 kids got last year).

    The syllabus has a number of components, broadly: WWI; a 20th century national study (choice of Australia, China, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Russia/USSR, South Africa, USA); an international conflict area (choice of The Troubles, WWII Europe, Indochina, WWII and aftermath in the Pacific, Arab-Israeli conflict, Cold War, UN peacekeeping activities); and various 20th century personalities.

    Thought you guys might be interested in the essay questions on 20th century USA given to Aussie 17 year olds:

    To what extent were growing urbanisation and industrialisation the dominant influences on US society in the period 1919 to 1941?


    To what extent was the New Deal effective in solving the problems created by the Great Depression

    No multiple choice.

    Man, I loved studying history in school.

  • EllieMurasaki

    If I’d had history courses where I was expected to be able to answer those questions, I think I would have loved history class. Instead we got a stack of names and dates and places, probably because that’s all that no political agenda was lobbying against teaching, or all that the school board feels can be taught without risking the lobbyists storming their meetings.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Instead we got a stack of names and dates and places, probably because that’s all that no political agenda was lobbying against teaching, or all that the school board feels can be taught without risking the lobbyists storming their meetings.

    Our curriculum is more centralised–to the state level, at least, and in recent years there has been a move to a national curriculum in a bunch of core subjects.

    Of course, when the national history curriculum was first proposed a bunch of high profile conservatives (including a Prime Minister) protested that it had too much focus on Asia, not enough on Europe, and left out some of their pet topics. Keep in mind, it still had a strong European slant, but it’s less than in the 50s (i.e. less than 100%). And there are the usual accusations about a “black armband” approach to history: admitting to the slaughter and oppression of Aboriginal people and its effects into the modern day, rather than saying “all in the past old chaps, the blackfellas get running water now and doesn’t eveyone love Cathy Freeman?”

    So the history wars are a thing here, too, but thankfully not one that every other parent gives a rats about, and not something that has polluted our senior school curriculum to the extent you describe. I think it helps, in NSW at least, that the HSC is seen as one of the best end-of-school qualifications in the world, so there’s a lot of pride invested in maintaining that reputation.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    While I’m on a roll I should note that I loved high school history partly because the curriculum was good (especially in the senior years); partly because my parents were into history so we discussed stuff at home all the time; and partly because my Year 11/12 history teacher was awesome. I chose the elective for the first two reasons, but I loved it because of him.

    Our in-school classes consisted of a bit of reading a passage from the text, or him talking us through something, then a whole lot of group discussion about the issue at hand. He was perfectly happy for people to disagree, as long as you showed a sound line of argument. That quality is essential in a good teacher, I think.

    It was geat for me on a personal note as well as academically. I went to a Catholic school, at that point in my life I was going effectively going through a conversion experience (which sounds weird cos I ostensibly went from Catholic to Catholic but that’s a separate story), and this teacher was a practicing Muslim. Sometimes we’d be chatting about stuff and he’d ask “why do you think that? what does it mean to you? what are the implications?”, and if I gave a considered, reasonable answer, he’d say OK, cool. I ran into him a few years later at uni, when I was becoming more solidly left wing (again, from left to left, also a different story) and he did the same thing. Is this what you, personally believe? Have you thought through your reasons for doing so?

    Of course, he may have reacted diffeently if he thought I was becoming a fundamentalist or a Nazi :) But it’s pretty great as a young person to have someone show that it’s important that your thoughts, opinions and beliefs are really your own, and that you are prepared to own them.

    Great guy.

  • The_L1985

    That sounds like the AP US history test (the one that gives you college credit for taking the course in high school).  There were 2 essay questions, and one of them you got to pick from several options (I chose the Cold War, because I’d watched enough old TV and heard enough stories from my parents that it was the next-best thing to living through the 50’s fallout-shelter madness).

    There were also a short-answer section and a multiple-choice section.  But the AHSGE, which is the bare minimum you need for a diploma, was ALL multiple-choice.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    That sounds like the AP US history test (the one that gives you college credit for taking the course in high school).

    Oh, is that what AP means? I’d heard the term but didn’t realise AP courses actually counted as college credit. The HSC (Higher School Certificate), from which I quoted, is required to get into university (well, the HSC or its equivalent in another jurisdiction). But it doesn’t count towards anything in terms of getting you through uni, no matter how well you did.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Whether AP courses count for credit depends on the school. Scores on those tests are from 1 to 5. 5 is credit at any college as long as the test was taken recently enough. At some colleges, 4 and below don’t get you credit; at others, 3 and above do. I don’t think anyone takes a 2 and I know no one takes a 1.

    Whether AP courses count to fill distribution requirements is a different ball game entirely. I know Allegheny College–well, Allegheny does distribution funky to start with. They sort their departments into physical science, social science, and humanities. Major in one of the three, minor in another, take at least two courses from somewhere in the third. AP courses in a subject found in the third category do not count toward distribution. I forget whether AP courses in one’s major or minor subject count toward distribution, and I no longer have any recollection of what is done with AP courses in a college that takes the usual ‘X English, Y math, Z physical science including Z’ courses with labs, etc’ route. And if AP courses are credit but don’t fill distribution, well, that’s elective credit you don’t have to pay tuition for, but half the fun of college is finding elective credits that make one happy.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    The US college system is confusing! Majors, minors, credits, distribution…I’m lost.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Major: one’s primary subject of study. Minor: one’s secondary subject. Or so it’s supposed to work; some people do multiple minors, some people multiple majors. (Some both. On the off chance my brother is reading this: yes, I am looking at you funny.) There’s more required for a major in a subject than for a minor in that subject. Minor is usually fifteen credits, which usually works out to five semesters of lecture, major is more like thirty credits. Distribution is just spreading out not-major-or-minor courses over the panorama of human knowledge in pursuit of the elusive goal of graduating a well-rounded well-educated student.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Distribution is the big difference. We don’t do that (mostly).

    re majors–there’s a difference between taking a subject in your first year and taking it in your third year, right? Or is there no difference in levels of subject, just volume?

  • EllieMurasaki

    Usually class numbers starting with 1 are for freshmen, 2 for sophomores, 3 for juniors, 4 for seniors. (First through fourth years of college.) Nobody’s kept out of those classes for being the wrong year, of course, there’s generally a lot of seniors in 1xx classes to fill stray distribution requirements, but usually getting into a 3xx class needs its 2xx prerequisite.

  • Ross

     Usually, but there are schools that offer certain special classes that are specific to year standing.  They’ll often be one- or zero-credit courses.  My undergrad had special symposium classes that were required for various years in certain programs, where having your name on the class roster got you on the guest list to certain special events.

  • EllieMurasaki

    That might’ve been unclear. Here, real-world example:

    VSC 160, Computer Graphics I. Long list of X-or-Y-or-Z prereqs, any one of the list will do, which boil down to have you proven you can read for comprehension, and another such list that’s for have you proven string a sentence together, I tested out of both.

    VSC 161, Computer Graphics II. Prereq, VSC 160.

    VSC 165, Photography I. Same prereq lists as VSC 160.

    VSC 166, Photography II. Prereq, VSC 165.

    VSC 190, Intro to Videography. Prereqs, VSC 160 and 165. Huh. I’d have thought it was a 2xx course, but apparently people doing visual communications at this college are kind of expected to do photography and graphics in the fall freshman year and videography in the spring.

    VSC 292, Video Production. Prereq, VSC 190.

    Community college, two-year school, so 2xx is as high as it goes, but you get the idea.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Can I be concerned that it’s possible to get into college without definitely being able to read for comprehension or string a sentence together?

  • EllieMurasaki

    Yes. Very. The problem is more acute at community colleges than four-year institutions, though.

  • Ross

     The numbering system also tends to clump together for more technical fields.  Where I went, 100-series computer science classes were for non-majors, 201 and 202 were the freshman intro-for-majors classes, and the more narrowly-scoped major-sequence classes were all in the 300s. The rest of the 200s and 400s were basically special topics

  • Ross


    Distribution is the big difference. We don’t do that (mostly).

    Really? Weird. There’s been a push here by a lot of schools to pare down or get rid of the Core (‘Core’ is an older name for the same basic thing as ‘Distribution’, though it tends to connote that there’s one specific sequence of classes everyone must take), but I always thought of it as being part of my country’s ceaseless drive to turn college into Good Employee Prep School and get rid of the idea of what they used to call a “liberal education”, inj order to get rid of those godless academics.

    (I recall when I was in high school, a recruiter came around from a for-profit tech school, and they treated “You will never have to take a class that is not directly applicable to your chosen profession” as a major selling point. It was like “Do you hate reading? Good news, come study here and you’ll never have to read a novel again!”)

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Yeah. Covering a bit of everything is what high school is for.

    You can choose to take subjects from a bunch of different disciplines if you want, but it’s not required. At uni, you’re supposed to go pretty deep into a field and that’s hard to do at the same time as getting lots of breadth unless you spend a decade studying.

    Even within one discpline there’s a breadth vs depth issue. I studied medical science, which was one of the more specialised courses at the time. It involved a year of courses across the sciences–maths, physics, chemistry, biology, statistics–and they were way more advanced that my Year 12 advanced science courses. In second year I took more specialist courses–dropping maths and physics to do biochemistry, genetics, pharmacology and a composite human biology course (physiology, histology, pathology, anatomy). In third year I dropped pharm and biochem to specialise more. And so on.

    This wasn’t about employee prep–there’s a level of depth necessary to engage academically in the field, and you can’t get it by doing a handful of introduction to major subdiscipline courses.

    I was on the governing board at one of our best universities a number of years ago when there was serious discussion about the merits of moving towards a US-style generalist undergrad degree. Ultimately the VC was concerned that it would exacerbate the difficulties people from disadvantaged families face in getting a tertiary education–effectively requiring a graduate degree on top of the bachelor’s before you got to specialise would make higher education a 7+ year commitment, which is just too much.

  • Ross

     That’s interesting. Different fields have very different requisite knowledge bases, but I know for my own field, what I learned in my major  courses actually ended up being far less useful to me professionally than my non-major classes. The most important thing I learned in undergrad was really how to learn, to think, and to construct an argument. Every actually technical thing I learned in undergrad was obsolete by the time I got into the workforce (That would likely be less true if I’d gone straight into it instead of spending the next three years in grad school).

  • We Must Dissent


    5 is credit at any college as long as the test was taken recently enough.

    This isn’t exactly true. At my alma mater, a small school focusing on science and engineering, AP scores only got distribution requirements waived. I skipped straight into vector calculus and didn’t have to take a history course, but I still had to take as many credits as anyone else. No actual credit was received for my AP scores.

    There are probably schools that simply don’t do anything with AP test scores.

  • The_L1985

    Yes.  Here in the US, you are allowed college credit for some honors courses you took in high school if you pay $100 or so to take the AP or KLEP exams (depending on your state).

    What they don’t tell you in high school is that there’s a limit to the number of AP credit-hours most insitutions will take.  I earned 24 hours of AP credit in high school, but the unis I went to only accepted 18 hours.  I was just happy to have had challenging courses in high school, for once, and the college credit was the icing on the cake.  Mom and Dad had actually paid for all those exams, though, and they Were Not Pleased.

    Courses labeled “AP” in US high schools allow you to take the AP exam, but don’t require it.  If you take an AP-level course, but can’t or don’t want to take the exam, it’s counted as an “honors” course.

  • Ross

     I ended up in the very strange position where the computer science department would accept my physics and calculus AP credits, but the physics and math departments wouldn’t. Which meant that I met the lower-level math requirements for my CS major, but did not have the necessary prerequisites to take the higher-level ones (I managed to finagle it by finding an assortment of high level classes that were orthagonal to calculus. Which was not great for my GPA, since it turns out that I have absolutely no aptitude for statistics.

    (The other weird result was that I got credit for the physics lecture class but not for the lab, and you can’t take one without the other. The department chair eventually just signed off on exempting me from the lab requirement.)

    Of course, I also finished high school with 33 of a possible 30 credits at a time when you only needed 21 to graduate (A few years later, they revised the requirements so that you needed 28 to graduate, which sounds fine, but I’ve heard that the specific requirements actually make it extremely hard to get all the right classes in 4 years without doing summer school at least once)

  • AnonymousSam

    It doesn’t help that now the GOP is outspoken in their rejection of public education, too. -_-