Time for an 1840s science lesson, folks!

I’m tempted to start this post by saying something along the usual lines of, “You wouldn’t think this would have to be explained in the year 2015,” but really, really, this shouldn’t even have to be explained in the 1900s to anyone except fringe doctors and psychiatrists.

So a bit of background:

The MEC for Basic Education in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, Ms Nelisiwe Peggy Nkonyeni, congratulated the Matric class of 2014 on their results on 6 Jan 2015. Her speech had these concluding remarks:

As I conclude, I revisit the thoughts that guide my inner most conscience in the execution of my responsibilities. Visions of an ideal education system dominate my thinking. In the realm of my thought world, I wish that our system could recognise that there are left brain and right brain children and treat them accordingly;

Let’s break this down a bit. We have a weak start right out of the gate. Although brain lateralisaton is a very real thing, the concept of hemispheric dominance has been thoroughly debunked as far too simplistic. But perhaps we can give her the benefit of the doubt on this one. Sure, she’s trying. It’s not that harmful and I know many smart people who still believe this. Let’s ignore that she’s a Basic Education MEC for now and push on through.

That our system could have graphologists who would analyse the uniqueness of each child’s handwriting and channel them accordingly, based on the fact that no two people in the world write the same, just as no two people in the world have the same fingerprints, voices, or same physical appearance;

Oh dear God, it’s getting worse. I really hope that whoever transcribed her speech is just playing some sort of practical joke at this point.

Graphology is not to be confused with computational stylometry or linguistic fingerprinting, murkily supported approaches in the field of forensic document examination but both fascinating and not without their merits. She seems to be muddying the water a fair amount here. It’s correct that no two people write the same but it’s the application of that knowledge and the assumptions in the conclusions that are concerning. You don’t want your kid to end up in a poor performing class because their letters are a bit too squiggly and loopy for the in-school graphologist’s liking.

Graphology is the analysis of handwriting primarily to determine the personality traits and mental well-being of the author. It’s been discredited since about the 1980s (a generous estimate), when several studies showed the inability of graphologists to accurately predict any personality traits whatsoever. (At least aligned with other personality tests such as Myers-Briggs and Eysenck, which are not without flaws themselves). Human resources can be a pseudoscientific area with many corporate institutions and sometimes even smaller companies using questionable psychometric testing to determine a potential employee’s skills and, far vaguer, their personality traits.

The field of psychology today sees graphologists as akin to astrologers and palm readers with no scientific merit. Yet here stands one of our Basic Education MECs claiming that the practice of graphology is one of the thoughts that guides her “inner most conscience” in leading to an “ideal education system”.

That Philosophy could be a subject offered at a basic education level so that the system could produce critical thinkers;
That chess lessons could be offered to all mathematics learners in order to improve their mathematical schools;

Things seem to be improving somewhat. I’m not convinced these are consciousness-guiding points but at least she didn’t suggest aligning chakras and dowsing for good marks.

That our system could train and produce phrenologists who would study the shape of a child’s head at Grade R so that we channel the children accordingly.

Phrenology, to put it incredibly simply, is the study of skull size and shape to determine characteristics, intellect, and penchant for crime. It has been used as support for entrenched racism in the form of slavery and been pinned as one of the beliefs that laid the foundation for the Rwandan genocide by encouraging the idea that Hutus were superior to the Tutsis. It is now regarded as “an obsolete amalgamation of primitive neuroanatomy with moral philosophy [1].”

Nic Spaull in the Daily Maverick details why Ms Nkonyeni’s lack of basic scientific literacy is dangerous. She’s an MEC in the most populous province and already has a tawdry history with damaging anti-science beliefs in a country that can’t afford to have such misguided people in leadership positions.

My Favourite Space Pics of 2014

This image was was released in 2010 (I know, not a strong start for a 2014 blog post) but I only discovered it this year when it went viral again thanks to a recent Reddit post.

"Vertical structures, among the tallest seen in Saturn's main rings, rise abruptly from the edge of Saturn's B ring to cast long shadows on the ring in this image taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft two weeks before the planet's August 2009 equinox."

“Vertical structures, among the tallest seen in Saturn’s main rings, rise abruptly from the edge of Saturn’s B ring to cast long shadows on the ring in this image taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft two weeks before the planet’s August 2009 equinox.”

"NGC 2207 and IC 2163 are two spiral galaxies in the process of merging. They have hosted three supernova explosions in the past 15 years and have produced one of the most bountiful collections of super-bright X-ray lights known."

“NGC 2207 and IC 2163 are two spiral galaxies in the process of merging. They have hosted three supernova explosions in the past 15 years and have produced one of the most bountiful collections of super-bright X-ray lights known.”

The plucky little Mars Curiosity rover was very busy again this year.

"Curiosity Self-Portrait at 'Windjana' Drilling Site"

“Curiosity Self-Portrait at ‘Windjana’ Drilling Site”

This was of course the year that the Philae Lander bounced its way onto the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko from the Rosetta Spacecraft, revealing some extraordinary images of the comet surface.

"The Cliffs of Churyumov-Gerasimenko: an enhanced and procosessed crop of an image from Rosetta’s navcam."

“The Cliffs of Churyumov-Gerasimenko: an enhanced and procosessed crop of an image from Rosetta’s navcam.”

The Martian dunes have always been a favourite of astrophotographers and astronomy enthusiasts. They reveal a desolate world that is just familiar enough for us to feel like we can just reach out and touch it, yet eery and alien enough to keep us interested. View more gorgeous pics of the dunes here.

"The Russell Crater dune field is covered seasonally by carbon dioxide frost, and this image shows the dune field after the frost has sublimated (evaporated directly from solid to gas). There are just a few patches left of the bright seasonal frost."

“The Russell Crater dune field is covered seasonally by carbon dioxide frost, and this image shows the dune field after the frost has sublimated (evaporated directly from solid to gas). There are just a few patches left of the bright seasonal frost.”

Some of my favourite pics this year have been tweeted by astronauts on board the ISS, my favourite of which has been Samantha Cristoforetti.

“Those aren’t mountains!”


The I Fucking Love Science Facebook page shared this image from the Scientific Illustration for the Research Scientist page.

The maths behind this image is incorrect and I just need to have a little rant about it.

According to Interstellar, 1 hour on the water planet = 7 Earth years

There are 8,760 Earth hours in 1 Earth year

So 7 years on the water planet = 613,20 water planet hours (8,760 * 7)

Assuming it takes 7 Earth years to complete a PhD, that’s 429,240 Earth years.

By the time you get back to Earth your thesis will be extremely out of date. The robots that refuted the people who refuted the original refutations of your original hypothesis would have already been refuted.

My Favourite Robin Williams’ Clips

I’m sure most of us were saddened to hear of the passing of Robin Williams today. Here are just a few of my favourite scenes from a few of my favourite movies with Robin Williams. He was one of my favourite actors and will always be a legend.
He’s survived by his son, daughter, and wife, who has asked us to remember and celebrate his life rather than dwell on his death. I hope these clips let you do just that.

Our Feminist Wedding

It wasn’t until I read this article by the creator of the Everyday Sexism project about her own feminist wedding that I realised that what my partner and I have planned for our own wedding also has a uniquely feminist bent.

Our relationship, engagement, wedding, and ultimately our marriage have seen us both on equal footing the entire way. Oddly though, applying the adjective “feminist” to these events never occurred to me until I read Laura Bates’ article, but that’s quite an apt way to describe them.

The Dating
We were seeing each other for about a month before we decided to go the official boyfriend-girlfriend route and we entered into that arrangement with no small amount of discussion. We share a friend group and had work connections in common at the time, so agreeing to be together came with some risk of jeopardising certain areas of our lives were the relationship to fall apart. I think in many ways those early discussions set the tone for the type of relationship we would have in the future: even-handed, rational, fair, tolerant, and equal.

The Engagement
Whenever women ask me about our engagement they are always interested in the proposal above all else and seem to yearn for stories of him sweeping me off my feet by delivering an unnecessary number of red roses to my office or flying-in distant relatives to flash mob me at the gym. Thankfully though I didn’t have to sit through anything like that. They always seem deflated when I say we made the decision to get married together, chose the engagement ring stones and design together, discussed the price together, and chose the restaurant together. I was involved in every step of the decision-making process, which seems like the only sensical approach considering that I will wear this ring for presumably the rest of my life and getting married is also a major commitment that I should obviously have some say in.

The Wedding
This is where it gets a bit more complicated because we’re actually flying from Cape Town to Las Vegas in 5 days to get married far from friends and family.

We reached this decision quite organically and neither of us seem to be able to remember the exact moment we made the call to abandon the traditional route and flee West. We are going because a good friend of ours from Cape Town is a licensed marriage officer who performs secular ceremonies and will be speaking at The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas from 10 – 13 July. That’s initially where the idea arose because it’s a conference we’ve both been extremely eager to attend ourselves.

There was the customary wedding send-off, which included a combined bachelor/bachelorette party involving cake, shots, crime-solving games, and our combined friend group (of men and women).
Despite not having a large wedding at home we both selected a best man and best woman each, just as special friends to share the preparations with.

After battling with the arduous decision of what to do with our last names we finally came to the conclusion to keep our surnames the way they are, which makes the most sense since we don’t want kids. To double-barrel them would have resulted in an absurd 20 character surname. We also considered playing with middle name combinations where we both take my surname as our middle names and I take his surname as my last name, but that also began to seem unnecessarily complicated. The symbolism of having the same last name quickly began to lack gravity when we realised that our lives have come together in so many real, tangible ways already.weddingpics2

Of course choosing not to have a big white wedding back home has some small repercussions. We had a formal pre-wedding dinner with 11 other people so that our close friends and immediate family could have the opportunity to wish us well and so we could thank them for their support. Both my partner and I said a speech. When my coworkers heard that I had said a speech at this dinner their immediate reaction was one of confusion. Since when does the bride speak? At her own wedding? The horror!

It was strange hearing myself referred to as “the bride” in reference to that dinner. In part because it wasn’t the actual wedding ceremony but also because I haven’t been thinking of myself as a bride. My wedding won’t have a white dress or a veil. I won’t be walking down an aisle to be given from one man to another. I won’t have a bouquet to throw, a garter to remove, speeches to listen to where family members offer questionable relationship advice and groomsmen jokingly express sympathy for the poor, whipped, duped groom. I haven’t had a bridezilla moment where some insignificant detail has sent me over the edge into a hormonal rage. I have not been the sole planner of every detail of our trip and ceremony nor excluded my soon-to-be-husband from having any say in it. If he wants to wear a purple shirt he should absolutely wear a purple shirt. It’s as much his day as it is mine, and the happier he is on the day the happier I will be.


We’ve worked on our vows together, agreeing on a collection of attributes that are important to us, such as respect, compassion etc, and are reworking them in our own ways so that we’re not reading the exact same script on the day of the ceremony.
Our venue is a neutral location as well. The thought of marrying in a chapel was cringe-worthy, so we’ve rented a penthouse with a gorgeous terrace for the day.

In a way, leaving the country to have our small ceremony elsewhere has alleviated the strain of having to tick all of these little check boxes. The stereotypes that abound when people hear the words “bride” and “wife” are prolific, limiting, and tend to the negative, at least in my experience. Going away and starting this new phase of our lives together in an environment where we can create our own identities as married individuals has given us the opportunity to commit to one another the way we want to. It’s a connotation-free slate and now we can carve out our own definitions without any stress of judgement.

Every planet in our solar system could fit between Earth and the Moon


Image by Tom Verez

A lot of people online seem to be taking issue with this picture based on what they call “common sense” or the fact that “it just doesn’t feel right.” If you break it down though, the maths checks out.

Let’s start with the distance of the moon from Earth. This varies greatly. The average distance is 384,403 km but if you look at apogee (when the moon is furthest from Earth) instead of mean this can be as much as 406,696 km, with perigee (the closest point) being 363,104 km. So the distance can vary by as much as 43,592 km, which can dramatically change the size of the moon in our view depending on where it is in its orbit.


A to-scale image of the distance between the moon and Earth

It seems that people struggle to realise just how vast distances in space are. That includes the empty space between Earth and the Moon, which, despite not being quite as mind-blowing as the distances between the planets themselves, is still tough to comprehend.

Check out this table below. It shows the distances of the planets from the Sun and the Earth. The distances in kilometers are rounded off obviously, but the accuracy of the two columns showing “years of travel” seems completely nonsensical. A trip to Mars currently takes about 7 months, so I’m not sure where they’re getting 18 years from. There’s no indication of type of spacecraft being used or the theoretical speed the spacecraft would be traveling to take those lengths of time to arrive at the different planets, so they’re not reliable figures. Ignore them.


Nevertheless, you can still get a great sense of the distance between the planets and just how phenomenally vast they are. Just the distance between us and our closest neighbour, Venus, is 42 million kilometers. This means that, working with the diameter of the Earth sitting at 12,742 kms and the rounded off distance of Venus from Earth in kilometers, you could fit 3,296 Earths between Earth and Venus, with room to spare.

Right, now let’s break down the diameters of the planets. I got these figures from Universe Today but there are varying figures all over the internet. They don’t vary enough to wreck the basic conclusion though.

The total of all the combined diameters without factoring in distances between them is 402,936 km.

So let’s recap: the moon is 406,696 km away from Earth at apogee. That means you could easily fit all of the planets between the Earth and the moon, although this is strongly advised against as it would wreck Earth pretty quickly.

Learning High School Maths and Science as an Adult

“I Change Myself” by kparks

It’s never easy having the realisation that you’re never going to be able to advance as far as you want to in your career or be as satisfied with your life unless you rewind the clock and pick up some pieces that you may have let fall by the way side. Maybe you’re like me and your career was put on a certain trajectory because of subject choices you made in high school, or heck, university even. I mean most of us were still teenagers when we made our university decisions. What did we know?

I’ve been fortunate enough to have migrated from Linguistics, to web analytics, to data analysis and, depending on choices I make along the way, hopefully onwards to proper data science. This has been the result of a combination of good fortune (finding the right jobs at the right time), my personality (making sure people took notice of my skills and interests so they could help develop me in a certain direction), and damn hard work.

If you ended up doing a soft skill job that you don’t enjoy and are worried that, with high school long over, it’s too late to make a change, it’s not. Generally I abhor aphorisms and can always think of one opposing example when I’m skimming past pithy motivational posters on Facebook, but I do think that it’s never too late to make a change. This does of course come with some mild caveats. It’s never too late to make a change from, say, copywriting to mechanical engineering if you will be happier and more content with your life as an undergrad mechanical engineer than a senior copywriter. The satisfaction that comes with doing something you love and feeling like you’re contributing to the world in some meaningful way can be achieved at any age (provided, of course, that you have the means and environment to support such a drastic change).

To bring it back home a bit, I did standard grade mathematics at high school and drama instead of science from Grade 10. However, I use numerical reasoning in my career and I love science. I spend most of my free time stalking the latest articles of science journalists. The field doesn’t seem to matter too much to me. Geology, astronomy, atmospheric science, physics, Sure, a lot of it goes over my head, but it’s all mind blowing to me.

So how do you go about brushing up on high school maths and science when you matriculated years ago? Here are some resources that I managed to dig up, which I highly recommend. It’s really frustrating how hard it is to find proper resources for adults online. My research led me to all sorts of places, including home school forums. I had to Google “homeschool science curriculum high school -christian -creation -genesis -apologia” to get anywhere worthwhile. The system just isn’t set up to accommodate post-high school learners who wish to learn high school subjects. I hope someone out there finds this list useful and that it saves you a few weeks of internet scouring.

Most of these resources apply as much to science as they do to maths.


IXL – R89 a month, maths only. I know you were probably hoping for a list of free sites (and most of them are) but trust me, this one is amazingly worth it. Maths from preschool to Grade 11. You learn as you complete quizzes and you can track your progress. As you reach 70%, 80%, and 90% completion on a question the difficulty level changes to accommodate you, which motivates the learner to keep going even if they think they’re a boss at that particular topic. Sure, the prizes aren’t Khan Academy good, but the content is solid and modeled on the South African high school maths curriculum. Register as a parent and just sign yourself up again as a student through the parent profile. I renamed the parent “admin” so I didn’t feel like a complete dumbass who gave birth to myself.

Khan Academy – Free. Maths and science. I mentioned this in the previous point. It’s an amazing site that has everything I’ve looked for so far. Use these videos to supplement the material in IXL when you get stuck. And believe me, you will get stuck. It happens when you don’t have a teacher to speak to so just accept it as part of the learning process and don’t beat yourself up about it, even if it’s a Grade 9 topic (yes, this happened to me). Go ahead and complete some quizzes as well, the site makes it a lot of fun. Just make sure you follow the topic structure of IXL if you want to make sure you’re not missing any fundamentals.

Everything Maths – Free. Everything Science is the science equivalent. Siyavula is a Shuttleworth Foundation project which makes high school maths and science text books available online for free. It’s an incredible service. The site allows you to read the textbooks online without having to download them (although that’s an option too). The format is great; not some crap PDF you have to scroll through. You also have the option of practicing maths on the the site. It’s really amazing and worth looking into when you reach Grade 11 and 12 I reckon, especially since IXL only goes up to Grade 11.

X-Kit – About R110 a book. Consider getting some X-Kit Maths books for Grade 11 and Grade 12. They’re wonderful study guides and will easily help you figure out what your strengths and focus areas are. Check out their chemistry and physics books for high school as well.

Master Maths helped me a lot when I was actually in high school. Their tuition rates fluctuate depending on how many hours you attend one of their centers for, but they have an example fee structure here. 3 hours per week is about R92 an hour. This helps a lot if you actually need that one-on-one interaction of someone explaining something to you. I don’t remember them having Master Science when I went there but they do now, which is great!

Brainline – Brainline is a distance learning institution based in South Africa which allows adults to write their matric exams. It’s really wonderful that such a service exists but it comes with a few heavy caveats.

First, you have to complete the school based assessment portion of the work in order to qualify for the NSC (National Senior Certificate) exams, which is a certification you’ll need if you want to use these results to apply to a university. I assume this will be the case even if you already have your NSC.

Second, if you never took the subject in high school at all, such as me with science, you’re going to have to do their full matric offering which involves doing Grade 10 for half a year, Grade 11 for the second half of the year, and then a whole year doing Grade 12. You can do this part time but, remember, you’ll have to do the school based assessment portion as well.

Third, because the school based assessment is mandatory, there’s no room to use other materials instead of theirs and just write the exams when you feel you’re ready. This is quite frustrating if you spend all of your time on IXL, Khan Academy etc and then aren’t permitted to write the NSC. Plus I have no idea what the quality of their own material is like.

Fourth, it’s not cheap. If you’re doing the full adult matric with all subjects it’s going to be about R15,000. Per subject is more tolerable at around R3,500, but that still excludes the IEB exam fee.

Fifth, if you do a quick search you’ll find their FB page and their Hello Peter page. I saw these overwhelmingly negative comments before I decided to contact them with some questions. Sadly, communicating with them confirmed what I’d already seen online. You have to phone them if you want a decent response and then constantly chase them for the additional detail and follow-up they’d promised. Maybe it’s just my experience, but proceed with caution.

Damelin also offers matric by correspondence. I haven’t looked into this all that much, but here’s the link if you think it might be worth it: https://www.dcc.edu.za/high_school/matric-senior-certficate

So by now you’re half-genius and remember more high school maths than your not-in-finance friends. Whoop! Now let’s take it to the next level. Ad Maths will help you bridge the gap between high school and university maths. I’m not sure of the cost but they seem to offer a fairly solid distance learning, self-study option which is worth looking into.

There are also a lot of fun, educational science videos on YouTube. It’s tough learning chemistry in a distance learning environment because you miss out on the experiments and hands-on activities which make you really understand the material. YouTube channels like Periodic Videos really help you get around this. It comes complete with their mad-looking science teacher. They have a different video for each element.

If you want to start doing first year university stuff, a quick search will give you all the information you need, for free. Calculus on Coursera or Linear Algebra on MIT Openware, you have an oysterous world.


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