Research

Big Questions Research Mini-Grants 

Practically any scientific or mathematical research agenda can be viewed from a big questions perspective with the results understood in terms of the big questions framing that research and with new insights into the big questions themselves. Besides increasing the inherent interest in the research (i.e., by helping to identify it as a potential component of a much larger picture), this approach can be utilized to help select between competing projects. It also opens up new publication possibilities for the researchers. With this in mind, a call for research proposals was issued in January, 2010 to faculty at participating institutions and awards were announced at the end of March. Each funded project involves collaboration between at least one full-time faculty member and one student. Students were primarily undergraduates (although two were working on a masters degree). 

 

Projects

Implications of quantum physics and relativity for spontaneous emergent order as viewed through the lens of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics in process philosophy  
Dr. Duane Pontius, Department of Physics, Birmingham Southern College
Ryan Melvin (physics, religion, philosophy major)

 Defining, mapping, and visualizing the health of a community 
Dr. Brian Toone, Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, Samford University
Josh Moore (computer science major)

Developing aesthetic measures for 3D head models 
Dr. Marietta Cameron, Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, Birmingham Southern College
Reed Milewicz (computer science major)
Brandon Shewmake (computer science major) 

Impact of modern physics on the training and mindset of American ministers of religion
Dr. Tom Nordlund, Department of Physics, The University of Alabama at Birmingham
Philip Markham (Beeson Divinity School student, Samford University)

The need for social acceptance and the cost of social rejection 
Dr. Stephen Chew, Department of Psychology, Samford University
Carolyn Gibson (psychology and history major)  

An evaluation of the distribution of human health risks across socioeconomic status: Alabama—a case study  
Dr. Ron Hunsinger, Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, Samford University
Ben Meadows (environmental science masters student)

 

Project Descriptions and Plans

Implications of quantum physics and relativity for spontaneous emergent order as viewed through the lens of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics in process philosophy
Dr. Duane Pontius, Department of Physics, Birmingham Southern College
Ryan Melvin (physics, religion, philosophy major, Birmingham Southern College)

Big Question How can interrelatedness be an essential property of an individual?

Research Question What can modern physics and contemporary philosophy tell us about each other?

Project Summary The hallmark of classical physics is reductionism, the separation of the object of investigation from everything else in the universe. While providing great insights, it has also highlighted the importance of connections among phenomena, which have often been disregarded for reasons of simplicity, ignorance, or convenience. Indeed, modern quantum physics clearly demonstrates the interconnectedness of what are classically treated as distinct objects. Present interpretation of the methods and results of quantum mechanics suffer from an outmoded metaphysics indicative of Aristotelian philosophy. In brief, particles are envisioned as discrete entities that interact directly or via the mediation of third parties, but interactions at a distance are prohibited. Hence any object is reducible to its constituents, be it a simple object, a human being, or even a work of art.

Quantum theory does not permit a clear intuitive description within the prevailing metaphysics and remains only a mathematical model that makes statistical predictions (albeit excellent ones!). The philosopher A. N. Whitehead observed that “scientific theory is outrunning common sense” and he sought to develop an alternative metaphysics that could provide a satisfactory resolution of this dilemma. His process philosophy, developed in parallel with J. Dewey’s theory of immediate empiricism, offers a new metaphysics wherein the conceptual difficulties of quantum mechanics might be better addressed. To wit, the connections among a collection of objects is not reducible to its individual parts, and their interrelatedness is as essential as their individuality. Hence, behavior can only be fully explained by analyzing aggregate manifestations. This thought is often captured in Whitehead’s phrase “The many become one and are increased by one.”

Our goal is to study how process philosophy can shed light on interpreting modern physics and vice versa. We do not envision any practical consequences for, say, the mathematical formalism of quantum mechanics. Rather, we seek to identify how a study of metaphysics can refine current conceptual models of quantum mechanics. Similarly, we will use well-established but counter-intuitive experimental results to illustrate the utility and value of various metaphysical approaches. These validated experiments provide a valuable crucible in which philosophical implications of interconnectedness can be studied. Once the importance of these connections is established in this limited context, broader implications can be explored.

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Defining, mapping, and visualizing the health of a community
Dr. Brian Toone, Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, Samford University
Josh Moore (computer science major, Samford University)

Big Question What is community health?

Research Question How can the health of a community be defined, assessed, mapped, and visualized using the social media and Geographic Information System (GIS) tools available today?

Project Summary
How does one measure the health of a community? How does one track change over time to know if social programs, government policies, focused efforts, etc... are making a difference in the health of a community? What social media tools can we identify to help members of the community connect with each other and those outside of the community who want to offer assistance? These are the specific questions we will be addressing as part of this research project.

(i) This project will be split into three major parts to be pursued concurrently:
(ii) Defining community health
(iii) Development of a framework for collecting and assessing community health data using social media tools
(iv) Creating a tool for mapping and visualizing collected data

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Developing aesthetic measures for 3D head models
Dr. Marietta Cameron, Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, Birmingham Southern College
Reed Milewicz (computer science major, Birmingham Southern College)
Brandon Shewmake (computer science major, Birmingham Southern College)

Big Question How do we make value (e.g., aesthetic) judgments? To what extent are these innate or acquired? How do such judgments impact our lives?

Research Question Can we devise a goodness-of-fit function that measures the “visual aesthetics” of generated three-dimensional meshes?

Project Summary In this project, we establish a working definition of aesthetics and explore the role aesthetics play in creativity. In a previous work, we developed a system that constructs new head models by randomly perturbing landmarks on a template model and shifting non-landmark points using a blend function based on thin-plate splines. We now seek to develop functions that measure the “visual aesthetics” of these generated models. In evaluating these functions, we compare our measures with the aesthetic evaluations from undergraduate students in art and psychology.

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Impact of modern physics on the training and mindset of American ministers of religion
Dr. Tom Nordlund, Department of Physics, The University of Alabama at Birmingham
Philip Markham (Beeson Divinity School student, Samford University)

Big Question What impact does basic understanding of the physical universe and its laws have on the preparation and mindset of students planning to become ministers in mainline American churches? Are formal religions and the physical sciences becoming more and more distant from each other even as their regimes of overlap increase?

Research Question
Does understanding and analysis based on principles of modern physics have any impact on the mindset and world view of future ministers of mainline religions (e.g., their understanding of God), or is this science irrelevant to their planned ministry to people?

Project Summary
The “Big Bang” picture of the universe and the quantum theory of microscopic matter has been taught in mainstream colleges and universities for 100 years. During the first four decades, the subject consisted of research and debate among professors of physics, chemistry and math and their graduate students. Though details are still undergoing vigorous discussion, the main features of modern physics have been taught to undergraduate science students of American universities since the 1950’s. The approach taught to such students attempts to explain how matter changes with time, subject to conserved quantities and usually described in terms of three spatial dimensions and a time dimension. Equations based on the principles predict the outcomes of certain events and experiments are designed to confirm or disprove the prediction. Experiment has often contradicted prediction, but the issue has usually been a faulty equation or assumption—e.g., ignorance of electron spin in an atom’s angular momentum—and not the principle itself (e.g., conservation of angular momentum). The quantum view of the micro-world and the cosmological view of the universe has had profound impact on attitudes and actions of physical scientists, as well as on society in general. Experiences, technology and devices derived from modern physics direct, if not dictate, our everyday lives.
The emerging mechanistic view of astronomy and cosmology had a profound impact on mainline religious leaders hundreds of years ago and, as a result, on the congregations they taught. Some church ministers were also numbered among the scientific elite. In contrast, quick surveys of training programs for 21st-century, mainstream religious ministers does not reveal a significant scientific preparation for “religious” implications of modern physics, though the implications are many. Future ministers focus on history, literature, languages, speaking, managing, and counseling.

We hypothesize that the American science-religion “debate” remains inhibited, unproductive and unconnected to society in general because of the weak physical science requirements of seminaries and schools of theology. This project aims to measure the time, effort and importance attached to modern physics by students preparing for the ministry and their teachers. We will
(i) Search seminary and schools of theology websites, compiling physical science academic entrance and graduation requirements and related course syllabi.
(ii) Identify American centers for training in ministry and science, including Vatican (Catholic Church) centers.
(iii) Develop seminary student and faculty surveys that assesses physics/cosmology knowledge and understanding, interest and the considered importance of those areas to their careers or service.
(iv) Develop these data and tools for publication in scientific and religious education journals (e.g., The Physics Teacher, J. Sci. Stud. Relig., Christ. Today).

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The need for social acceptance and the cost of social rejection
Dr. Stephen Chew, Department of Psychology, Samford University
Carolyn Gibson (psychology and history major, Samford University)

Big Question Is a social nature essential to being a human?

Research Question What happens when an individual is rejected from being part of a group?

Project Summary "To be no part of any body is to be nothing" (John Donne).

What does rejection do to an individual? Donne believes lack of participation in a group makes an individual nothing; a group identity is wrapped up in identity as a human. Social identity is an important factor in one’s identification as a human. People live in family units, work in groups, and fight together against challenges. Humans are social animals, and that nature influences how they live in nearly every way. What happens when a person is prevented from social activity or from group acceptance? The current study seeks to understand the consequences of group rejection of an individual. By simulating rejection, this study seeks what emotional reactions and behaviors occur in the rejected individual.

College freshmen must make many adjustments in the transition to university life. In addition to being away from friends and family, they are in a completely new environment. Part of adjusting to that environment is becoming involved: making friends, participating in activities, and joining groups. The attachments made through these activities help freshmen to cope with being in a new environment.
This study will examine reactions of college freshmen and college seniors to rejection and acceptance. Primacy will be examined to see if it has an effect on the strength of the rejection. Rejected individuals are expected to experience aggression and the desire to retaliate against their rejecter. Freshmen are expected to feel greater rejection because college is a relatively new environment in which they are still finding their place.

University students will be evaluated on their responses to being told that they are being considered for membership in two groups. Seniors and freshmen will be randomly assigned to one of four possible group acceptance conditions (acceptance by both groups, rejection by both groups, acceptance first then rejection, or rejection first then acceptance). Individuals will then fill out a survey measuring self-esteem, level of desire to belong in either organization, level of frustration with acceptance or rejection, sense of helplessness, and liking for the people who accepted or rejected them. Participants will be fully debriefed after completing the experiment.

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 An evaluation of the distribution of human health risks across socioeconomic status: Alabama—a case study
Dr. Ron Hunsinger, Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, Samford University
Ben Meadows (environmental science masters student)

Big Question
 
What Empirical Findings Can Be Used to Better Understand Poverty?

Research Question
 
How do various indices of poverty contribute to human health risks?  What are the correlations? Which contribute the most? The least?

Project Summary 
 
In 2004, the World Health Organization raised the question concerning how human health risk factors are distributed across socioeconomic status, both at national and local levels (WHO, Poverty, 2004). Many studies are needed to fully address this issue, which we propose is related to the bigger question of “How Can We Better Characterize the Risks of Poverty Using Empirical Research?” In this proposed study, we will examine the case of Alabama and its wide social strata and known high rates of human health problems. Specifically, we will analyze the mortality rates for four leading indicators of health problems, i.e., cardiovascular disease (heart attack plus stroke), diabetes, breast cancer and prostate cancer. These mortality rates will be taken from epidemiology data bases maintained by the Alabama State Department of Health for the three economically poorest-, three median- and three highest-ranked counties in Alabama. Socioeconomic data from these selected counties will be obtained from the state health department’s vital statistics records and from the US Census Bureau files. Annual rates and data for these indices will be taken for the last ten years or for whatever period of time is accessible in the records. Indices of poverty are likely to include median household income, per capita income, sex, race, education level, patients per physician in the county and environmental pollutant contributions as indicated by EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) for the comparable periods of time.  Alabama presents itself ironically as a perfect fit. With the fastest growing metropolitan county in the United States (Shelby) that has been bestowed with developmental riches, and the very poor and ill-affected Black Belt, representing some of the poorest counties in the nation, we feel that Alabama makes an excellent model to study.

Using the Alabama Department of Health Statistics, County Profiles, in combination with County Socio-Economic data from the Census, we will analyze the relations among the mortality rates of cardiovascular disease (heart attack plus stroke), diabetes, breast cancer and prostate cancer in the 3 richest, 3 median, and 3 poorest counties in Alabama and the socioeconomic demographics of each region. We will analyze our data using multiple linear regression approaches for each of the four health factors at each county stratification (poor, median and wealthiest) using the various socioeconomic indicators as independent variables.

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Final Reports

Click here to access the final reports for all projects