Polaris and the Bowdoin odyssey
If you’ve given Polaris a glance lately, you might have noticed a few things. There appear to be three new language departments. The philosophy department appears to be on a diet. Clayton Rose (Professor Rose?) has his own discipline. Professor Barker’s Projective and Non-Euclidean Geometries has the craziest course description: "Special focus will be placed on conic sections and projective embeddings.” In theory, you could take classical political philosophy and contemporary political philosophy at the same time. There are exactly two humanities seminars that examine relationships between humans and animals. You can fulfill your INS studying (and sipping?) wine. You definitely cannot take what you really want to take.
Polaris is another name for the North Star: a stable point of light and the original navigation tool for wandering seafarers. (It is also a part of the constellation Ursa Minor, or “smaller (she-)bear.”). But is Polaris a fitting name for our course selection system?
Polaris is chaotic and essential to our Bowdoin educations. By Polaris, we mean not just the online system, but the entire course selection process. Neither benevolent nor unkind, it is both the arbiter and instigator of contentious scheduling politics. A range of disciplines, an endless lineup of professors, and arbitrary distribution requirements stare blankly at you through the screen. There’s no indication of where to go or what to do. Our need for intellectual discovery takes us through murky, pine-dark waters: how are we to steer?
Consider the deluge of 10:00-11:30 Tuesday/Thursday classes. No student will take more than one of: Introduction to Africana or Environmental Studies, Anthropology, Religion, Art History, Education. This might ruin some plans. Suppose some aspiring-to-be-well-rounded first years cannot get their introductory fill, and are forced elsewhere into some dark 2000-level unknown. A few other classes might over-register. We upperclassmen will obviously sell short on this 1101 bubble and register elsewhere, but next year’s in-comers might be trapped. We all deal with the frustration of time conflicts and sometimes end up places we don’t want to be, but those with the standing “first year, first semester” are most vulnerable. Polaris shipwrecks even the most prudent planners among us.
Amidst the wavy tumult are many tantalizing options. Look at Barker’s Math 3404. The class purports to cover the “transformational viewpoint of Klein’s Erlanger Program” and, time permitting, “quaternions in three dimensional geometry.” Scrumptious. We’re not sure what these words mean, but this class promises to tickle any tummy hungry for abstraction and especially mathematical theory. For those of us with no math experience since high school (Ben), it’s a dream and nothing more; for those who have the prerequisites, but lack the schedule space (Michael), it gestures toward a more perfect semester that is just out of reach. There are not only storms, but also sirens in the curricular seascape.
We’re not sure we want to be tied to the mast. This is the fun of Polaris. Registration encourages us to dream about what we could be as scholars, if only we could explore the geometry of four-dimensional spacetime in special relativity. Though it’s a romantic ritual, and somewhat whimsical, it’s also an important occasion for self-reflection. Mistakes we’ve made in the past will inform the decisions we make this round. As we fine-tune our interests, our ogling changes too. To refine our tastes in The Science of Food and Wine! (We don’t actually want to take that class.) The new Polaris cycle comes with new dreams and new conflicts: dynamic and chaotic.
Polaris is better conceived of as something to navigate, than something to navigate by. At once, it encourages romantic intellectual wandering and curbs it. To an extent, it alienates us from the hard work and stresses that go with courses, allowing us to indulge in titles and descriptions, while we ignore the real work they entail. There’s also an element of chance (fate?): sometimes you end up on the waitlist, and too often the “right” courses meet at the same time. In the end, we always compromise. We wash up somewhere we didn’t expect to land. Robert Peary, class of 1877, and supposedly the first man to reach the North Pole, declared “I shall find a way or make one.” The Bowdoin opportunity is to find order in the chaos of intellectual possibility. What we make is never perfect, but it is truly our own. We are our own stars: imperfect, but reliable guides.
Michael Butler and Ben Bristol are members of the class of 2017.
A vote for Cutler is a vote for LePage
In 11 days, Maine citizens will elect a governor to lead their state for the next four years. Students of Bowdoin College: you live in Maine, you can vote in Maine and you have the opportunity to decide the trajectory of Maine’s future.
Maine can proceed either down a path paved by Democratic congressman Mike Michaud, or one paved by Republican incumbent Paul LePage. Both Michaud and LePage have the support of around 40 percent of voters, while the support for Independent candidate Eliot Cutler has stagnated near 15 percent for the past six months.
Assuming the winner of this election needs 40 percent of the vote, 25 percent of Maine citizens would have to change their mind and vote for Cutler for him to win. Barring any ridiculous controversies, the statistical likelihood of that happening is effectively zero. All that is to say, if you want to make your vote count, vote for Lepage or vote for Michaud.
Vote for LePage if you support a governor who vetoed raising the minimum wage from $7.50 per hour, compared the Affordable Care Act to the Holocaust and the Internal Revenue Service to the Gestapo, opposes gay marriage, objects to abortion, proposed tax cuts for corporations operating in “Open for Business Zones” and denies that humans have been the primary cause of climate change.
Vote for LePage if you support a governor who refused to sign a bill that banned the use of Bisphenol A (BPA) in plastic products. BPA is a known carcinogen that has been positively correlated to birth defects, heart disease and asthma. LePage claimed, “the worst case is some women may have little beards.”
Vote for Michaud if you would like a governor who has pledged to give Maine citizens a living wage, thinks that women have the right to make their own health care decisions and believes that everyone deserves the basic human right of marriage. (If elected, Michaud would be the first openly gay governor in U.S. history.)
Vote for Michaud if you support clean energy progress in Maine and the rebuilding of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection after LePage appointed an oil lobbyist to lead it.
Cutler and Michaud have very similar political stances. When I look solely at the issues, I have a hard time choosing between them. But when I see the polls, Michaud becomes the clear choice. Since Cutler isn’t going to win, not only does voting for him fail to accomplish anything, but it also withholds a vote for Michaud, making a vote for Cutler essentially a vote for LePage. It makes sense, then, that the cunning Maine Republican Party has poured tens of thousands dollars into pro-Cutler ads.
The Maine gubernatorial election won’t be decided by a sudden surge in the LePage campaign. If LePage wins, he’ll win with around 40 percent of the vote. If Cutler supporters decide that they want to actually see a governor in office who shares a vision of Maine relatively similar to their own, then they’ll vote for Michaud, and consequently, we won’t have an embarrassment of a governor.
For those of you who plan to vote for Cutler because you don’t believe in partisan politics, I beg you to vote practically, not ideologically. Though the issues at stake are sadly partisan, they ought to be treated chiefly as issues of justice. Voting for Cutler or LePage—or not voting at all—is an injustice to women, to minimum wage workers, to the LGBTQ community, and to the current and future communities disproportionately affected by the horrors of climate change.
To the 90 percent of Bowdoin Students not originally from Maine, if you have not registered to vote in your home state, you can register to vote in Maine on election day. To students who have already registered in their home state: if there isn’t a particularly close race you care about in your home state, consider cancelling your home state registration and voting in Maine. To those who were not planning to vote: vote. Every vote for Michaud brings Maine closer to achieving a more just, sustainable and LePage-less future.
Tap out: for same taste, bottled H20 has huge cost
Let’s talk about bottled water.
First of all, bottled water is significantly more expensive than tap water. A one-liter bottle of Poland Spring at the C-Store costs $1.31. A one-liter Smartwater costs $3.52, but a liter of tap water is essentially free (or $0.0009 per liter in Brunswick and Topsham, if you want to get technical).
Second, bottled water is bad for the environment. We have turned parts of the ocean into giant plastic soups by improperly disposing of our plastic products. Students that buy bottled water unavoidably enlarge their carbon footprints, even if they recycle every single bottle they drink.Tap water is also more likely to be clean and free of contaminants. In some areas of the world, it’s necessary to drink bottled water because the tap water isn’t safe to drink. Brunswick is not one of those areas.
Tap water is not only as clean as bottled water, but it’s also more stringently regulated. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets safety standards for all bottled water, while the EPA, state, and regional municipalities work together to create tap water quality standards.
The New York Times reported in 2009 that the FDA does not require bottled water companies to provide consumers information on what contaminants their water contains, where the water was sourced from or how it was treated. By contrast, the EPA mandates that all municipalities report the source of their tap water and any evidence of contaminants to their residents.
Erin McAuliffe wrote in a 2009 Orient article that though Maine’s water is the nation’s third most contaminated, the tap water supplied by the Brunswick Topsham Water District (BTWD) is comparatively clean. According to the latest annual report by the BTWD, the concentrations of all potentially hazardous materials found in our tap water were all low enough to pose no health risk.
However, there are differences in the cleanliness of different sources of tap water on campus. Several water fountains—those snazzy zero-touch water bottle fill stations and the water dispensers in the soda machines in the dining halls—have reverse osmosis filtration systems. The bathroom sinks and the other water fountains do not.
Director of Facilities Operations and Maintenance Ted Stam could not say whether filtered water was significantly safer than non-filtered water, adding that the choice to drink one or the other should depend on taste preference.
“Some people like having the natural minerals and their taste in water,” he said. “Others prefer having the minerals filtered out and the absence of the taste.”
On November 19, members of the Green Bowdoin Alliance conducted a blind taste test at Smith union to investigate if students could tell the difference between bottled water, filtered water and tap water from the bathroom sink.
After conducting statistical work with math professor Jack O’Brien, I found that although people could tell the difference between water types, they had no significant preference for any one type.
Assuming our 70 samples were collected randomly, we can generalize that Bowdoin students don’t prefer bottled water to tap water.
Some people actually believe that Smartwater’s electrolytes make you smarter. Smartwater only contains “electrolytes added for taste,” as printed on every single Smartwater bottle. I couldn’t find the concentrations of Smartwater’s electrolytes on the Internet, so I emailed customer relations at Coca Cola, the brand’s owner.
They responded that the “exact amounts of minerals in Smartwater is proprietary information to our company,” and assured me that their products’ electrolyte concentrations “are insignificant from a nutritive value point of view.” It’s not a sports drink—it’s a slightly salty bottled water.
Obviously, you have the right to buy bottled water. I only want you to justify your decision: Buy that bottle of water at the C-Store if your preference for its subtle taste outweighs its burden to your wallet and to the already dirty planet.Statistical Analysis
Prepare for scientific speak. Each student sampled bottled, filtered, and unfiltered water kept at equal temperatures. The students were then asked which sample was which type of water. Table 1 breaks down how the subjects faired in the guessing part of the taste test. Students were then asked to rank the taste of the three samples. Table 2 details how the subjects ranked each type of water. Afterwards the identity of each type of water was revealed. Using data on the subjects’ preferences and guesses, I aimed to answer two questions with Professor O’Brien.
Are there a significant number of wrong guesses, suggesting people cannot tell the difference between the types of water? To answer this question, I set up a null and alternate hypothesis for a statistical test. Under the null, students cannot tell the difference between each type of water. Under the alternate, students can tell the difference. To figure out which hypothesis agrees with the data, I used the Fisher’s Exact Test, which is extremely similar to the Chi-Squared Test. A Fisher’s test calculates the expected values of the data under the null, and then calculates the probability that our data would occur under the null. We reject the null if the probability of our data is lower than an arbitrary number. Many scientists, as well my Bio 1109 lab instructor, Pam Bryer, require the p value to be less than 0.05 to reject the null. In other words, Pam would only reject the null if her data occurs 5% of the time under the null. For example, after achieving 95% confidence that the Higgs-Boson particle exists, those scientists poured billions into achieving 5sigma confidence, equivalent to achieving a p-value lower than 2.85 x 10-7. For the sake of my data, I’ll follow the scientific standard of 0.05. For the guessing question, the Fisher test spat out a p-value of 0.0002, which means the probability that our data would occur under the null is 0.0002. Given 0.0002 is less than 0.05, I can say with 95% confidence that students can tell the difference between the different types of water.
Table 1. Shows the percentage of people who guessed a type of water after given a type of water. For example, 27% of subjects given bottled water guessed it was filtered water. Subjects guess correctly significantly more often than incorrectly (Fisher, p = 0.0002).
Do students consistently rank one type of water over another? Again, we must set up a null and alternate hypothesis. Under the null, students do not prefer one type of water to another. Under the alternate, students prefer a type of water over another. I used another Fisher Test, which spat out the p-value of 0.2. Though low, this probability is not low enough for Pam’s statistical standards. Since our p-value is greater than 0.05, we cannot reject the null, so we conclude that our subjects have no preference for one type of water over another.
Table 2. Shows the percentage of subjects who ranked a given type of water as their favorite (1), their least favorite (3), or somewhere in between (2). Some subjects could not rank any type as their favorite or least favorite, so they ranked all types as 2. Subjects did not significantly favor one type of water over another (Fisher, p = 0.2).
A Statistical Generalization. Assuming our samples were collected randomly, which is to say that the people participating in our taste test were essentially drawn from a hat containing every Bowdoin student, the 70 subjects who participated in the blind taste test sufficiently represent the Bowdoin student body. This means that the conclusions from these Fisher Tests can be generalized to the Bowdoin community. In other words, Bowdoin students can tell the difference between these types of water, but they do not prefer one over another.
Michael Butler is a member of the Class of 2017.