The true value of coding: It teaches you to think differently
Interest in learning certain skills, like computer science, can wax and wane with economic opportunity and job availability. But Gene Luen-Yang explains why it's a valuable skill in any season.
Gene Luen Yang began making comics and graphic novels in the fifth grade. In 2006, his book American Born Chinese was published by First Second Books. It became the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award and the first to win the American Library Association’s Printz Award. It also won an Eisner Award for “Best Graphic Album – New.”
In 2013, First Second Books released Boxers & Saints, a two-volume graphic novel about the Boxer Rebellion. Boxers & Saints was nominated for a National Book Award and won the L.A. Times Book Prize. He’s done a number of other comics, including Dark Horse Comics’ continuation of the popular Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender and DC Comics’ Superman!
In addition to cartooning, he teaches creative writing through Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. I teach alongside amazing authors like Anne Ursu, Gary Schmidt, Laura Ruby, Matt De La Pena, and more.
In January 2016, the Library of Congress, Every Child A Reader, and the Children’s Book Council appointed Gene as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.
Yang was named to the 2016 class of the MacArthur Fellows Program, receiving what is commonly called the "Genius Grant". The MacArthur Foundation that names the fellows said that his "work for young adults demonstrates the potential of comics to broaden our understanding of diverse cultures and people."
GENE LUEN YANG: I was a high school computer science teacher for 17 years. I taught at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, California.
I taught during the dotcom boom, I taught during the dotcom bust, and I taught during sort of the recovery of the tech industry afterwards, and I did see the interest in what I was teaching fluctuate.
It would go up and down every year largely tied to the economy, which was a little bit weird to me. And even as a school, you know, when I began to teach in the late 90s the school itself actually had a computer requirement. You were required to take a certain number of computer classes before you were allowed to graduate. They got rid of that requirement. They got rid of that requirement because at some point they felt like computer literacy was so important that it ought to be integrated in all the other subjects. So it shouldn’t be a thing in and of itself.
So in the beginning I agreed with that. But after seeing how it played out I don’t think it was as effective as we wanted it to be, you know. I think that computers are still a fairly specialized type of knowledge, computer science. And teachers today still—I don’t think we’ve been trained on how to integrate computer science well into the other subjects.
So ultimately what ended up happening at that school site was we would graduate students who would know how to use computers but would not necessarily understand how they worked or even understand how to maximize what they could get out of the computer.
As a computer science teacher, something I used to talk to parents about—especially during the dotcom bust when interest in my class started to evaporate—is coding is not about training students how to type into a computer. That’s the least of it. Coding is actually really about training students to think in a certain way. It’s about training students to take large and complex problems and break them up into small pieces. It’s about training students to take things that are vague, that are difficult to wrap your mind around, and putting them into concrete sequential steps.
And that sort of thinking, that sort of skill, that sort of mental skill is applicable no matter what you do in life, you know. What you’re talking about right now, about how the future economy is going to require more knowledge work—we don’t know what computers are going to look like, right?
We don’t know, we don’t even know what coding is going to look like. But I can guarantee you that the coding mentality, the type of thinking that’s required in order to code well, that will become increasingly valuable as we go on.
I think when you teach kids computer science you are touching on a lot of principles of logic. And in terms of students knowing how to use computers but not necessarily understanding why they work, I think that’s largely a product of the success of the computer field, you know.
Within computer science there’s this idea of abstraction, where you separate the interface of something from the internals of it. And that’s something that I talked about in my computer science classes when I was teaching. You do that because it makes the computer itself, it makes whatever you’re making easier to use, right?
The user just has to have like a working mental model of what the interface looks like. They don’t have to know anything about the guts underneath. But unfortunately what you miss out on in that is the mental development in your thinking that comes with understanding the guts, right?
When you understand the guts it’s not just for using that tool, it’s actually to change what’s inside of your skull. It’s actually to change your brain. It makes you a better thinker. It makes you a better problem solver to understand those things.
So I think there’s a place—I think there’s a place for abstraction, but my hope is that every student, before they graduate from high school they’ll have a chance to wrestle with those guts, to be able to really understand how a computer works from the inside. How both software and hardware work from the inside.
As a high school teacher for 17 years, Gene Luen-Yang experienced the highs and lows of teaching computer science. Initially offered as a standalone course at Bishop O’Dowd High School, where Luen-Yang taught, faculty came to believe that computer science was so essential that it be integrated into every subject. Still, interest in learning coding among students varied with market fortunes. When the dotcom bubble burst in the late 1990s, fewer students wanted to learn the zen of programming languages. That's a shame, says Luen-Yang, because more than an employable skill, coding is a gateway to using logic to solve large problems creatively. Gene Luen Yang's most recent book is Paths & Portals.
It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction
- It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
- If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
- The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.
- The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
- You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
- This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.
Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.
Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.
The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.
Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv
Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.
The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.
While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.
One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.
"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"
Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.
The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.
Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.
Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.
- Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
- Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
- The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.
The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.
To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.
In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.
An "unthinkable" engineering project
"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.
One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.
The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.
Source: Wolovick et al.
An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.
But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.
Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.
"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.
"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."
A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.
"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."
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