FPS Student Fellowship Award Winners and Project Descriptions

FPS Student Fellowships

Kevin Thomas, an undergraduate at the University of Central Florida, and Zhenyuan Zhao, a graduate student at University of Miami, have each been awarded an FPS Student Fellowship in Physics and Society for summer 2009. Fellowships consist of a stipend of up to $4000 and are awarded to undergraduate or graduate students in physics in support of projects that apply physics to a societal issue. See http://www.aps.org/units/fps/awards/student-fellowship.cfm; applications for summer 2010 awards are due Dec. 15. Thomas’ project involves surveying students’ pseudoscientific beliefs in the context of a course that uses study of films to explore scientific theories. He is working with Prof. Costas Efthimiou at UCF and will complete his Bachelor of Science in Physics UCF this summer, after which he will begin teaching high school physics while getting his Master’s degree in Education. Zhao’s project involves computer simulations of capping carbon emissions; he is working with Prof. Neil Johnson at UM – Ed. These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of APS

Combating Pseudoscience

Kevin Thomas

According to the National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2008, “Television and the Internet are Americans’ primary sources of science and technology (S&T) information.” [1] In its report, NSF concluded that although Americans display interest in science and technology, they do not demonstrate high science literacy. Many Americans fail to answer basic factual questions about science and the scientific inquiry process correctly. While Americans endorse past achievements and future discoveries of science, they continue to score low by international standards on questions concerning the Theory of Evolution and the “Big Bang.” Unfortunately, American education persistently includes nonscientific views in science classrooms.

Our research seeks to further understand this lack of scientific awareness via surveys of groups of physical science students at the University of Central Florida; this summer (2009) will mark the third year of this project. Specifically, our team takes data during Professor Costas Efthimiou’s “Physics in Films” course, which uses movies to help explain physical science theories and practices. During the summers of 2007 and 2008 the course focused on Pseudoscience in films, that is, false ideas and/or methods which intentionally are presented as science. Blockbuster movies such as Ghost and Premonition are used to teach physical science concepts and demonstrate how they reinforce pseudoscientific beliefs. The class also has used the two pseudoscientific documentaries, The Secret and What the Bleep Do We Know? to explain concepts in Quantum Mechanics and to debunk the extraordinary statements made in the movies. This method has been very effective as a vehicle of education. Among other outcomes, it showed students how to be skeptical of extraordinary claims and how to use the scientific method in analyzing everyday beliefs and practices such as the reading of horoscopes or the interpretation of extraordinary religious events. While the course did not intend to discuss religion, many students found this an unavoidable topic and it is thus an important link and result of our study. This summer (2009), the course will use a mixture of movies of a various genres and themes: Sci-Fi, Superhero, Action, and Pseudoscience. My research will involve surveying the class and comparing results with data from the last two summers. The results are expected to help us improve the course further and to quantify how serious is the lack of critical thinking and science literacy among non-science college students. We will also compare our results with national data to draw comparisons of college students versus all citizens.

The methodology includes taking data through essays that the students write, poll questions asked by the teacher during lecture, group interviews, and multiple choice questions during exams. At the conclusion of the project we should be able to better understand what the students believe in terms of pseudoscience vs. science, and why they hold these beliefs. Ultimately, we hope to see that students can analyze statements they hear on television and other public media and properly judge their credibility. Preliminary results tell us that certain pseudoscientific topics have fewer believers among college students than other topics. For example, while astrology is good for teaching gravity and astronomy, the majority of the students seem not to believe in its credibility. We have noticed that the students have problems with critical thinking and often with quantitative reasoning. Since critical thinking is the major underlying focus of the study, we need to more deeply analyze the students’ issues in order to understand how to engage their cognitive processes more effectively.


[1] Science and Engineering Indicators 2008 ”Public Attitudes and Understanding.” National Science Foundation. 5 May 2009. 5 May 2009.

Self-Organized Capping of Global Carbon Emissions

Zhenyuan Zhao

There is widespread agreement that carbon emissions need to be reduced but there is little agreement on how this should be done. Aside from the long-term goal of creating new emissions-friendly technologies, the immediate issue concerns how to globally control existing emissions. Despite many international summits on global warming and its high profile in the media, there is very limited quantitative understanding of the extent to which institutions or governments can in principle control total emissions without having to continually intervene to micro-manage daily quotas, and hence lose their free-market ethos. By building on a novel theoretical Complex Systems framework developed in part by my supervisor, my project will address this issue. In this article I describe this approach and some preliminary results already obtained.

The purpose of this project is to explore the extent to which free competition, linked with minimal global control, can lead to a self-organized capping of the global emissions. Via computer simulations I will study a model in which a population of competing, adaptive emitters make decisions on when to emit based solely on the behavior of some shared public information. My preliminary work shows that within this simple framework, the emitters can organize themselves in order to collectively hit their emissions target at the expense of some quantifiable fluctuations in the total volume emitted. Most importantly, they can achieve this without the need for any external regulation or manipulation of the market.

Specifically, our model considers an ecology of companies who are continually trying to outguess each other in such a way that they end up emitting at the right time. Our model is a generalization of both the so-called “El Farol Bar Problem” and the “Minority Game,” in which agents repeatedly compete for some limited resource [1, 2, 3, 4]. The companies constitute a heterogeneous population with possibly quite different strategies but similar capabilities and who make their respective decisions about emitting based on some knowledge of past history or limited public information. In the El Farol Bar Problem [1], agents decide whether to visit a bar with a limited seating; correct (incorrect) decisions correspond to visiting an undercrowded (overcrowded) bar or not visiting an overcrowded (undercrowded) bar. In the context of the carbon market, our model assumes that the goal of the government is that the companies collectively emit no more than some predetermined total of carbon pollutants each month. If this limit is exceeded then the amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere is too high, but if the aggregated emissions are too low then this suggests some wasted production capacity. The only information given to the companies after each day is whether or not the actual emissions level exceeded or fell below the average daily value of the monthly cap. Each company makes its decisions based on the strategies it holds, with the best-performing strategy being used at any given moment. In an ideal world, all companies want to be operating (and hence emitting) every day. But we assume that any given company will be sanctioned by the government or the national press if it emits on an overcrowded day (i.e. it emits on a day when too many others are also emitting). Likewise, the company will be sanctioned by its stockholders or customers if it fails to emit on an undercrowded day (i.e. it fails to emit on a day when few others are emitting) since this would represent a wasted opportunity. The model allows us to explore the consequences of many different forms of penalty-reward structure.

The net performance of the overall system is assessed through an analysis of the mean and maximum aggregated emissions over a fixed period of time, and the standard deviation of this aggregated emission about the mean. Based on preliminary simulations we expect the results to show that within the basic constraints of the model, companies are able to organize themselves to hit their collective monthly emissions target with relatively minor fluctuations in the aggregated emissions each month and in the absence of any external regulator controlling the market. We will explore the extent to which companies react to changes in the monthly emission limit, and the difference between this behavioral change for both an incremental and a sudden cap reduction. This will provide insight into the most efficient method for reducing the emissions cap within the carbon market.

As documented in Johnson et al. [5], we know that the underlying model concept works well for financial exchange markets and regular stock markets, that is, it reproduces quantitatively the fat-tail distributions, clustered volatility, and bursty behavior typical of markets. We are now applying this to emissions markets. Both the regular and emissions markets have the same human aspect of yes/no decisions in response to limited global information and a maximum global capacity, so it is likely to be a good first approximation in terms of emissions markets. As emissions markets are established in the next few years, we will be able to test out their behaviors in terms of our common model of collective competition, and hence refine the model according to specific regulations, etc.

Although this model setup is not unique and arguably leaves out many possible complications, we believe that it does indeed incorporate the essential ingredients and hence provides a potentially useful laboratory for exploring the dynamical behavior of future carbon emissions.

[1] W.B. Arthur. “Inductive reasoning and bounded rationality (the El Farol problem).” Amer. Econ. Assoc. Papers. Proc., 84:405, 1994.

[2] N.F. Johnson, et al. “Volatility and agent adaptability in a self-organizing market.” Physica A, 258:230, 1998.

[3] D. Challet and Y.C. Zhang. “Emergence of cooperation and organization in an evolutionary game.” Physica A, 246:407, 1997

[4] N.F. Johnson, P.M. Hui, D. Zheng, and Tai C.W. “Minority game with arbitrary cutoffs.” Physica A, 269:493-502, 1999.

[5] N. F. Johnson, P. Jefferies, and P. M. Hui. Financial Market Complexity (Oxford University Press, 2003).

This contribution has not been peer refereed. It represents solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of APS.