Celebrating Einstein’s birthday on Pi Day

Besides today being World Kidney Day, which I incorrectly listed on the blog for yesterday, the 14th of March is also the celebration of Pi Day, commemorating the mathematical constant π (pi), which, to two decimal points, equals 3.14.

Enjoying 3.14 pies on Pi Day.(© All Rights Reserved)
Enjoying 3.14 pies on Pi Day.
(© All Rights Reserved)

OK, we’ve already celebrated Pi Approximation Day on the 22nd of July (22/7 is also used to approximate π), but surely this amazing number deserves another mention.

So bake yourself 3.14 pies and share in the celebrations!

Making today extra special, we also celebrate the birthday of Albert Einstein (14 March 1879 – 18 April 1955), the greatest scientist of the 20th century. What makes Einstein such an endearing figure is that, besides his numerous groundbreaking contributions to science (thermodynamics, relativity, quantum theory, wave-particle duality, statistics, cosmology, nuclear physics and much more), he has also made deeply profound contributions to secular subjects as diverse as war and peace, religion, human rights, economics and government.

The ideas and opinions of the great Albert Einstein - a continuous source of insight and inspiration. (© All Rights Reserved)
The ideas and opinions of the great Albert Einstein – a continuous source of insight and inspiration.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Many volumes have been written about the great man, so rather than trying (and no doubt failing) to adequately capture his contributions in a single blog post, I will rather leave you with one of his many, many wonderful quotes:

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.
The important thing is not to stop questioning.”

Alfred Binet, the father of the IQ test

Today we have no big, UN-sanctioned observances. While there have been a few notable births on this day, none of it really caught my fancy. So instead, let’s commemorate the work of Alfred Binet, who died on this day in 1911.

Alfred who?  Well, Alfred Binet was the guy who, together with psychologists Victor Henri and Théodore Simon, developed the Binet-Simon Test – a test for verbal abilities in children. The test was later adapted by Lewis Terman at Stanford University, resulting in the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales, published in 1916, which was the most popular intelligence test for decades in the US, and formed the basis of IQ testing over the past century.

Yes, Alfred Binet is the father of the IQ test.

For the past century, IQ testing has been used as a measure of future educational achievement, special needs, job performance and income.
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Mention the concept IQ testing, and you are very likely to get some really strong opinions. Some people (especially those treated favourably by the IQ scale, I guess) probably consider it a pretty accurate measure of their mental superiority. Many, however, seriously question its validity as an absolute measure of intelligence. Even Binet himself felt strongly that his tests had significant limitations, stressing that he saw extreme diversity in intelligence, and felt the result of the tests only had qualitative value, and should not be used as a quantitative measure.

It is exactly this diversity of intelligence that forms the basis of much of the criticism against IQ testing, with detractors insisting that it fails to accurately measure intelligence in its broader sense, pointing to the fact that it is not an adequate measure of creativity and emotional intelligence. It does not even come close to testing physical intelligence (hand-eye coordination, ‘ball sense’, etc).

Some critics go further, not only critisizing the scope of IQ testing, but disputing its validity entirely. Paleantologist Stephen Jay Gould, for example, in his book The Mismeasure of Man (1996), equated the tests to scientific racism, saying “…the abstraction of intelligence as a single entity, its location within the brain, its quantification as one number for each individual, and the use of these numbers to rank people in a single series of worthiness, invariably to find that oppressed and disadvantaged groups—races, classes, or sexes—are innately inferior and deserve their status.”

The above criticism rings quite true when you read about the early days of intelligence testing at the start of the 20th century. To quote wikipedia, “The eugenics movement in the USA seized on it as a means to give them credibility in diagnosing mental retardation, and thousands of American women, most of them poor African Americans, were forcibly sterilized based on their scores on IQ tests, often without their consent or knowledge.”

Given that, despite the criticisms of IQ testing, these tests have been performed extensively around the world for the past century, there’s obviously a lot of IQ data out there, which has been the source of some very interesting analyses and practices. Here’s some of my favourites:

  • Musical training in childhood has been found to correlate with higher than average IQ. As has listening to classical music (but you have to do your listening directly before the test – apparently it only serves as a 10-15 minute mental boost!). So I guess my years of listening to rock, folk and blues wouldn’t have helped much.
  • IQ has been used quite extensively in human resource evaluations, when hiring new employees etc. What’s interesting is that it’s not only a too low IQ that can count against you. Apparently some US police departments have set a maximum score for new recruits (example: New London, CT has set an upper limit of 125), the argument being that those with higher IQs will become bored to soon, resulting in a too high job turnover.
  • In terms of income, it seems that there is a general correlation between IQ and income up to a certain level of IQ, but there’s no correlation between very high IQ and very high income. Top incomes are dependent on so many factors that IQ doesn’t really feature at all.
  • As far as criminal tendencies are concerned, being very clever or very stupid (in IQ terms) generally speaking seem to keep you from pursuing a life of crime. Most criminals fall in the 70-90 IQ range (i.e slightly below average), with the peak being between 80 and 90. There is, of course, the argument that only the dumb ones get caught, so maybe criminals are much smarter than the statistics suggest.
  • Politically, studies in the UK and USA have found that young adults who classify themselves as very liberal have a higher than average IQ, while those who consider themselves very conservative tends to have slightly below average IQ scores.

There are many more interesting correlations, but let’s leave it there for now. What do you think – do you believe in IQ tests, or do you think its a load of hogwash?

I personally think that the best comment on intelligence comes from Albert Einstein (he really did leave us with the greatest quotes, didn’t he?), when he said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Math Storytelling Day, Einstein and a glass of milk

Today, my sources tell me, is Math Storytelling Day. One of several mathematically oriented holidays, the idea of this specific day is to focus on the anecdotal side of mathematics, to address mathematics in a manner that may be more acceptable to the ‘wordy types’ among us – the ones who prefer a good sentence to a good equation.

I was hoping to come up with an original story for this day, but sadly my muse failed to come to the party, so I will have to resort to sharing an existing mathematical anecdote, from our old friend Albert Einstein. OK, it’s only borderline maths, but what the heck…

A glass of milk – just the thing to explain the theory of relativity.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Apparently, shortly after his appointment at Princeton, Einstein was invited to a tea in his honour. At the event, the excited hostess introduced the great man and asked if he could perhaps, in a few words, explain to the guests the theory of relativity.

Not missing a beat, he rose to his feet and shared the story of a walk he had with a blind friend. It was a warm day, so at one point Einstein said to his friend, “I could really do with a glass of milk!”

His blind friend asked, “I know what a glass is, but what is milk?”, to which Einstein replied, “Why, milk is a white fluid.”

“Now I know what fluid is,” the blind man responded, “but what is white?”

“Oh, white is the colour of a swan’s feathers.”

“Feathers, I know what they are, but what is a swan?”

“A swan is a bird with a crooked neck.”

“I know what a neck is, but what do you mean by crooked?”

Einstein realised the discussion could go on for a while, so instead he seized his blind friend’s arm, straightened it, and said “There, now your arm is straight.” He then bent his friend’s arm at the elbow, and said, “And now, your arm is crooked.”

To which his blind friend happily exclaimed, “Ah! Now I understand what milk is!”

At this point, Einstein politely smiled at his audience, and sat down.

Going Green on Sewing Machine Day

It’s Sewing Machine Day, the day to dust off and celebrate the trusty sewing machine, unsung hero of the industrial revolution.

Tracking the invention of the sewing machine is like reading the script of a sensational TV drama – a juicy tale of betrayal and deceit, industrial sabotage, stolen ideas and legal battles. The first patented design dates back to Thomas Saint in 1790, followed by various iterative improvements, but the first commercially viable design came some 60 years later, courtesy of Isaac Merritt Singer who combined ideas from various previous designs.  Unfortunately he borrowed a bit too heavily from a patent by Elias Howe, who promptly took him to court for patent infringement, winning the case and forcing Singer to pay him a fee for every sewing machine sold.

Despite its checkered past, the sewing machine quickly gained popularity, vastly improving efficiency in the clothing and fabric industries. As such it played a key role in the industrialisation of the manufacturing sector.

By the early 20th century, the household sewing machine was a common appliance in almost every home. Most families had one in the house – used to sew new clothes, do alterations, or to mend worn or damaged clothes. This golden era of home sewing lasted almost a century, but with the proliferation of mass produced, super cheap clothes from giant producers like China, the trusty home sewing machine seems to be facing extinction.

Scientific sewing? Even a basic sewing machine offers many more creative opportunities than just shortening a pair of pants.
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So, with today being Sewing Machine Day, perhaps it is high time to dig out the old sewing machine, give it a good dusting and reacquaint yourself with the possibilities it offers. Or if you don’t have one, check out the secondhand stores or online auction sites – perfectly functional machines are going for a song.

Not only is home-sewing an excellent outlet for your inner Chanel or Versace – it is also a positive step towards green living.  Sure, it may be quicker and easier to go out an buy a new $5 t-shirt, $30 jacket or a pair of $20 jeans, but Mother Nature will be so much better off if you rather patch up the elbows and cuffs on your old jacket, mend those torn jeans, and wear them for a while longer.  The environmental impact of a few minutes of home sewing is negligible compared to the impact of creating a new garment in some industrial sweat-shop.

Like 150 years ago, when the sewing machine became a key player in the industrial revolution, it now has the potential to become a surprise hit in the green revolution.