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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

Biology experiment

Many of you may have been surprised by the content of my last blog, which deals with biology. I am certainly no biologist, though I do have some interest in it, especially ecology, which was probably my favourite topic in biology at school (and hence the topic of my last blog). Also, my current research in linguistics is tangentially though inherently related to biology, since I am looking at the interface between human language and the human anatomy (‘biolinguistics’). For more detail, please visit my webpage. I remember my schooldays well, as I think most people do, since it is a formative part of one’s life. There were countless memorable moments which have stuck with me, and recently I recalled a particular encounter with my Biology teacher in my first year at High School. We were doing an experiment on the rate of plant growth in correlation with the amount of water fed to the seeds. Our teacher was very thorough in his teaching and he took great pains in explaining to us the importance of variables in scientific experiments, namely the distinction between independent and dependent variables, the former being the ones which had to be controlled while the latter those which had to be observed/measured. It was a brilliantly succinct explanation, though in my tiny and feeble (and often daydreaming) brain at the time (I was only 13/14 y.o.) I did not quite catch the nuance of it all. We hence had to design the experiment, and in my childish desire in wanting to be clever I proposed to vary two variables (amount of water AND the number of seeds) and designed a really big and grand experiment. Our teacher came over and looked over our notes one-by-one, and when he looked at mine, he immediately said, ‘NO! NO! NO!’ He then explained to me that I could only vary one variable in order to get any meaningful results, since varying more than one variable would just complicate the whole analysis (we were only young then and we had not yet set our foot upon the dark and mysterious land of multivariate analysis, which is part of what I am doing right now…!). He also told me that in this experiment I had to keep everything else constant and acknowledge the factors which could not conceivably be kept constant (like room temperature, moisture etc). I eventually got it and re-designed my experiment, which went surprisingly well. It was a fascinating experience, and one which feeds into what I am doing now in my analysis of frequency effects in historical syntax. I mentioned before how our early experiences could have repercussions on us later in life. This one is no different. I don’t think I ever thanked my old biology teacher (Dr Jeremy Wadham), partly because biology was not my thing at all at school and it is only by a strange twist of fate that it has come back to haunt me now (!). I must therefore acknowledge his teaching here and thank him for all that he did for me. Sorry for being 16 years late.

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