Saturday, April 30, 2005

Fake news all the time

I like fake news
Well, I like it on the Comedy Channel when it is done openly, with a sense of humour and actual factual information as the base.

Last night our local NBC affiliate (WJAC out of Johnstown Pa. 11pm news) ran a top of the hour "Consumer Alert", explaining that the AARP was ripping off its members...
Story was an interview with a Mr Jarvis of USA Next.

Problem is, it was fake news. A precanned tape, I believe; an attack ad run as a news story. By an organization that is essentially a republican party front for damaging the AARP. How stupid is this.

Friday, April 29, 2005

NASA: Hubble servicing back on - now I'm dizzy

Following e-mail flashed around this afternoon:

...earlier this afternoon Michael
Griffin held a news conference. The main item was the delay in
launching the shuttle until July, but he was asked about Hubble and
replied that he had directed Goddard to prepare for SM4. In other
words, shuttle servicing of HST is now the default, pending the outcome
of shuttle flights, obviously.

Wow! What? How?

This is potentially very nice, though the HOP advocates will be disappointed.
It also makes sense, in so far as a HST servicing flight is not actually any riskier than an ISS rendezvous flight, and the marginal cost of having a rescue shuttle on the pad as contingency is low.

But... using what money? If CEV is being accelerated, and HST SM4 is back on, then by my calculation it leaves more or less exactly no money to do anything else... Congress authorization act passed yesterday does not expand the science and space line enough to do this. So if it is earmarked in, then real money has to come along with it (I am realizing that I probably used "authorize" and "appropriate" exactly the wrong way around a few blog entries earlier).

Now, what was it we wished for again...?
(Yeah, I know, no pleasing some people)

Screwfly Solution

A number of years ago (1977), a pseudonumous author wrote the best science fiction story written.

James Tiptree Jr (aka Alice Sheldon) wrote superb short stories (good collestion in "Her Smoke Rose Up Forever) and a couple of interesting novels.

She wrote radical feminist fiction, but infamously famous contemporary authors and editors were convinced she was male.
A number of her stories are excellent and have stood the test of time, the best one, in my opinion, is the
Screwfly Solution - it begins with the protagonist observing a disturbing rise in misogyny and religious fundamentalism, starting in Peedsville, a small town in Texas, but spreading insidiously. To say more would be a spoiler. It is thought provoking and rather frightening story in a way. Many of her other stories are also excellent.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

NASA: full speed ahead

More news from NASA: the CEV (aka Very Expensive Can) will be locked in design and singe sourced this year (does anyone seriously think a can on top of a Delta IVH will be safer than Shuttle? Or even cheaper? If you need a CEV+Delta and a heavy cargo launcher, it will add up).
Also, budget priorities will be locked in this summer - since the committees were not due to report, this was a problem, so solution is to have the roadmap committees report early, like next month early.

Then the cuts will come, anything not top 2-3 listed by any thematic committee will have to go, unless congress provides serious new money for the new exploration initiatives. Else something has to give.

How terribly exciting.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Perfect Driving Song

Shamelessly crabbing from a Bérubé thread, I consider, with less erudition, the "perfect driving song".

This is clearly not a unique property of a song, unlike for example, the perfect pop song. It depends on whether you are alone, with a partner, or kids; the time of day (morning is NOT the same as evening; and heading home from work is not the same as a late night emergency run to WalMart [sic]); time of year; and location, location, location. Going through the 101-I-10-210 interchange in downtown LA is different from cruising from Urbana to O'Hare, is different from cresting Independence Pass, is different from threading the M25 junctions, is different from doing a night run on the Autobahn, is different from taking a "AWD only" shortcut over a mountain in Iceland...

Having said that, clearly the perfect car song is "Þrjú Hjól undir bílnum" as done by Ómar Ragnarsson. I am not being deliberately obscure or anything here, it just is the best car song ever done.
In the interest of outreach and fair use, I present Þrjú Hjól .... Get thee hence to tó and buy some now!

However, in the interest of global accessibility, I'll go with "If I should fall from grace with God" by the Pogues. It is best suited for LA driving, since KROQ can't be completely relied upon; but it will do almost anywhere.
In a different mood I'd take "All I wanna do" by Sheryl Crow will do; as will "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" by Meatloaf.
In a different place, I'd take "A13, Trunk Road to the Sea" by Billy Bragg, or "Alright" by Supergrass.
Anything by the Beach Boys can also do on some occasions; but "Men of Harlech" done by any good welsh choir (men's) will also go a long way on occasion.


Tuesday, April 26, 2005

NSPD-40: ask and ye shall receive

Thanks to the good people at FAS

here is a description of NSPD-40 - US Space Transportation directive and the new rules for NASA Exploration.

Actual text of NSPD-40 is not published.

Now if we just knew the text of NSPD-31 - which is allegedly the directions in Space Science one (a "Security" directive?),
well, then we'd know where we're supposed to be going, eh?

NASA: coming up ROSES

And, more fund news from NASA.

The ROSES-05, omnibus RFP solicitation is being further amended:

The Sun-Solar System Connection Guest Investigators program described in
Appendix A.19 is postponed; no new proposal due date is being announced at
this time. NASA is conducting a Senior Review for operating Sun-Solar
System Connection (SSSC) missions in the Fall of 2005.

At a guess, something has to be cut - this will relate to the snap decision earlier to close a number of operating probes. There was probably enough furor that they need to think about which to close and what new starts to sacrifice (or what ongoing projects to stretch) in order to keep some old probes alive.
It is rational to wait for the senior review, and it will defer new funding. Win-win eh? But something will have to give by the end of the summer. Probably 1-200 million cut as funds are shuffled and the $426 million in earmarks is covered from programs.

Oo ya, ROSES omnibus is amended. It is kinda cute, they strike the original, don't delete it, very visually striking.

Expect more ROSES amendments.

NASA moves on CEV - and NSPD-40 ???

Exploration division of NASA had an RFP for a Systems Integration Contractor. This has been pulled, and is apparently to be moved in-house.
Interesting part is the rumour that the CEV procurement RFP is to be pulled after the design review, and replaced with a call for a single source contractor with an accelerated schedule and double the budget!
Intent is obviously to avoid the "gap years" where Shuttle is shut down, and CEV not up.

With what money? Return-to-Flight is way over budget and sucking up all funding in NASA. Where is the budget for an accelerated CEV development to come from? (Any guesses? I think space science can duck for cover now, and the Earth observation people can kiss their butt and bucks goodbye). Ouch.
I am also very uneasy about CEV going to a single contractor with an accelerated schedule at this stage. This is a recipe for a dead-end PowerPoint spacecraft. Although I suppose they could be figuring that by the time it flies there will be Only One aerospace contractor left to deal with (L-Mart-Boing? Boei-L-Mart? Bo-L-Mart?).

I haven't felt like this since last time I was in a dentist chair and heard the high speed whizz of a watercooled drill power up;
it is the anticipation that hurts.

So, here is the other Very Interesting data point. The amended solicitation refers National Security Presidential Directive-40 (NSPD-40).
Eh wot?

There's been a rumour that a big part of the reason for NASA's sudden hustle, starting last year, was that the directive came down not as a plain executive order, but a Presidential security directive. Those are not generally published. The title is US Space Transportation Directive, and it is not the Secure Ports directive, or NSC-40, or DOD-40 as near as I can make out.
Be interesting to know what it says. Might help people understand what and why things are happening.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Science as competition

Mark over at Orange Quark has some interesting stuff to say about science and what is going on in the US right now.

I should say explicitly that I agree with him that the combative implications of "dominance" or "leadership" are missing the point, 400 years of enlightenment should have taught us that co-operation and synergistic play is a win-win game in science; but, it is a convenient shortcut to the emotionally loaded issue of where good science is getting done.

The US is not yet in serious trouble, but it is getting there. Here is a paper on this from WTEC, presented at an EU meeting - EU DGXII worries about this a lot; one of its missions is to make the EU collectively a lead or level player in all important scientific fields.
To summarise, the EU collectively now outproduces the US in science, and leading indicators suggest EU to be level or leading in anywhere from 1/3 to 2/3 of science and tech sub-fields. Whereas by the same metrics they were competitive in 0-15% of sub-fields only a decade ago. EU still lags the US in lagging indicators (like Nobel prizes).

So what? Well, my personal take on the issue was whether this is driving a reverse flow of personnel back to Europe. I still see that happening at some level, anecdotally, with a potential to accelerate sharply given a modest nudge.

Sharp funding cutbacks for more than 1 year will drive postdocs and tenure-track faculty back, and cut-off the inflow of fresh PhD postdocs.
The catastrophically bad Detp Comm. policy proposed would cut-off half of incoming graduate students in physical sciences, math, comp sci and engineering.
If the various "Intelligent Design" or "Academic Freedom" measures pass, then a lot of people are going to be searching their conscience and contemplating whether feeding kids and paying mortgages is worth their integrity and professional honour. Some will stay, there is real life to deal with; some will swallow their pride, some will fight in place, but a lot, particularly the younger ones, will say "sod it" and go somewhere greener. Even a year ago I could never have seen myself saying this, but if some of the measures threatened by some political factions are actually passed and put into effect, then the US could see a science exodus not seen since 1930s Germany. This makes me sad, and a little bit frightened. I hope I am just being paranoid, but some people seem to have forgotten how modern society came about. You can't have all the toys and suppress science and liberal intelligentsia. Been tried, don't work.

Oh, and there's practical basics; like the US political dominance hinges on research done post-WWII. This is now being rolled back relatively speaking. There's still maybe a decade of technological leadership in some fields, especially defence related; but even though defence R&D line budgets are growing, looking at the details, the research is shrinking, and a lot of the "development" is really hacking buggy procurement prototypes.
"You snooze, you lose".

The US is close to losing a good part of its commercial technological advantage, which hinges on publicly funded research done 10+ years ago. The US could also lost its military technological edge. Politicians need to stop treating the world like it was a Clancy novel and think a little bit about what their experts are trying to tell them. Reality will trump faith every time.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Best pop song ever

Michael Berube (see link in blog column) challenged people to name the best pop song ever.

We all know, of course, that this is "Teenage Kicks" by the Undertones, as identified by the late John Peel,
with "Love will tear us apart" and "New England" close runners up.

But, secretly, I know the true best pop song ever is of course "Út í eyjum" by Stuðmenn.
Still rocks 25 years later.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Brain Drain reversal? The Hare vs Tortoise hypothesis.

A curious thing happened this year - a lot of European names started popping up on rumour web sites, linked to senior positions open in Europe. Young scientists, who moved to the US for postdoc or tenure-track positions.

Since WWII, the US has benefitted tremendously from a steady "brain drain", whereby scientists (particularly physical science and mathematics) move to the US for permanent positions; this is partly because the US is large - in a given field, a particular European country might have 0-1 positions in any given year, and the US might have 5-10. The US was also richer and had more higher education participation per capita, so relatively more jobs. They also paid well (though I think the recent collapse of the dollar shows that even PPP adjusted exchange rates were anomalously tilted to the dollar for a couple of decades there). Finally it was often easier to move Europe-US than within Europe! Until the latest round of EU forced reforms, getting basic stuff like pensions and health-care cover was non-trivial, and there were (and still are) severe cultural barriers to hiring foreigners (eg the Netherlanders always did; the Belgians did not. Germany recently started aggressively hiring foreigners, but France and Italy do not; nor does Scandinavia, although that is changing.) So steady trickle of Europeans to the US, and spurts of other nationalities (lots of Russians in early 90s. Waves from China in mid-80s and mid-90s on; spike from India in the 90s (now apparently ebbing); lots of Eastern Europeans right now), but the trend is down, to the point where graduate admissions are getting tight. Oh, foreigners represent about 50% of the graduate student and above workforce in the US in the physical sciences.

If this is reversing, if there is not just a decrease in new people coming in, but an exodus of settled people, then the US science infrastructure could take a very serious blow (on the other hand, it would improve the job prospects of the few US nationals who actually hang in there and do physical sciences). Is this real? I don't know, not enough data yet, but anecdotally I'd say it is - people talk about leaving, they make semi-serious enquiries about leaving and more interestingly the Europeans (and Canadians!) are fishing for prospects...

So what is going on? It is not just money, or politics. It is partly opportunity, Europe is hitting the wave of retirements from the 60s expansion wave just as hard as the US, and possibly little later; and the anti-boom in Europe has been more severe than in the US, with some small cohorts (and in a rare field, a contraction of the recruitment pool can shrink prospects entering the pool to zero - no candidates graduating at home in a particular subfield in small countries! Particularly with enrollement in physical sciences down everywhere as a percentage of total enrollement).

However, there is an even more significant change: Europe is pulling ahead in science (and I don't just mean particle experiments and nuclear energy)!
There's a hare vs tortoise paradox here - the US has more funding, is more agile in allocation and is faster in responding to new results (cf the High Tc superconductors and what happened in the UK (for shame!) vs US; or planet finding - the ramp up in the US was much sharper and the US seized a lead after a Europe breakthrough (leveraged off Canadian and UK techniques...) - BUT, the Europeans hang in there, and they are less vulnerable to fashion flings and porking (yeah there is a "just return" and regionalism, but the Europeans tend to take science committee and panel recommendations terribly seriously, sometimes too seriously (see above on lack of flexibility)). However, the European system is less likely to lead to projects abandoned in mid-stream (yeah, sometimes they should be, but too often they should not), and there is less pressure for "what have you done lately", it is possible to assemble research teams that work steadily on consistent projects for a long time, until they own the field. Totally.

And this is happening: there is waste in Europe, there are incompetent research groups and idiot professors leading whole teams astray (and in the US too - cf some of the "earmark" expenditure in some of the more interesting places). But, Europe is pulling ahead (and I don't mean particular issue fields like stem cells, I mean basic areas like optical interferometry, quantum optics, materials, computing techniques. Inconceivable, I know.).

Search for Planets using optical Doppler radial velocity time series is actually a good example of this - the US took the early lead after losing the start (but did have the first detection of extrasolar planets at all in radio of course, with PSR1257+12 planets!), but the European teams have come back, and in my opinion have the lead now. The VLT is unbeatable right now, and they have better instruments. This will change (in fact IIRC the California group got an "earmark" which will jump them again to a lead, probably) but it will change back again, the European groups are not relinquishing this field. And the US can't just take supremacy in the field by leveraging resources or technology, it is a genuine race.

This, I think is the driver for any reverse brain drain - Europe is becoming as good, or better in some areas, to do science, and people go where they can. Living standard is also as good as the US, better in some ways depending on family status, and what will happen with US health care system (and if the dollar crashes seriously, as it might, all bets are off). Politics could also become a serious issue - if the US becomes more xenophobic, or the christian right makes serious political gains, some people will vote with their feet. Tenured faculty are immune from a lot of social fluctuations, but not all; nor do they all want to be.

Interesting times...

Friday, April 22, 2005

NASA: mark this

Following comes from an educational list.

Yummy: Experimental Sciences Inititative at Texas Tech University gets a $1,000,000 earmark. That is a nice round number.
120,000 square foot facility to promote interdisciplinary programs like agroterrorism (what! couldn't DHS absorb this earmark?); hoping to secure private funds to equip it... well, er, if you build it, they will come.
Should be a bit of that floating around with current oil prices.
I hope it produces some f'ing great science, because I know what that megabuck was taken from.
The science community will be eternally grateful.

Looking at that list, I could even approve as a good thing some of the project earmarked (eg Hilo center is doing good stuff), but there's a reason for the proposal process...

I'll be cherry picking more of these, and the sub-million dollar insidious earmarks that wreak havoc on budget lines.
Bleedin' congresscritters ought to learn some classical iterated game theory.


People should read Cordwainer Smith - specifically the short stories in "The Rediscovery of Man"; he was an extraordinary writer, exceptional ideas and good writing. Stories such as Ballad of Lost C'Mell and Game of Rat and Dragon still read as well as when they were written decades ago. His best(!) novel, Norstrilia, is also worth a read, but his strength is short stories.

Author was an interesting man too; see his daughter's website.
Scholar, diplomat, spy.
Something about being a spy that makes good science fiction writers. Better do Tiptree next.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

NASA: where it goes

One of the "interesting" things about recent NASA budgets is the very rapid growth in earmark authorization by Congress.
Both the total dollar amount and the number of items are up very sharply in recent years; this is, of course, a long-dishonoured tradition in US politics - Congressional Reps "bringing home the bacon" through line item authorizations for pet projects for their constituents, and used wisely it can be a critical local tipping point, providing infrastructure, opportunity for economic growth or emergency relief.
Most of the time, though, it is gross waste, often egotistical waste, which circumvents the budget process, is out of control and destroys the results of huge amount of time spent publicly debating and setting spending priorities.
It also is enormously destructive, since the money associated is authorized, and line itemed, but usually not appropriated. The actual funding gets taken from projects that are agency or administration priorities, with agency employees given the joyful task of finding which productive projects to cut to fund the pork.

In the 2005 omnibus budget, NASA science had $426 million in 150 or so separate earmarks (the exact numbers depend on how and what you count - eg the Hurricane emergency repairs at KSC are reasonable earmarks). This is a ridicilously large amount of money which is wreaking havoc with the science programs.

It is bad form to pick on other work. I was never a fan of the "Golden Fleece" awards, and there's a reason "proxmiring" is a curse word in some circles. But this is getting ridiculous.

Consider for example the Independent Verification and Validation Facility in Fairmont, West Virginia. Established courtesy of Sen. Byrd, and sustained with the help of Cong. Rep Mollohan (ranking minority member of the ethics committee as I recall). They have 150 employees, nice building, nice hardware and $10+ million per year budget (as far as I can tell, no budget info on their web site I can find). Doing what? Can someone please tell me they have made use of some IV&V software product or heard of a mission critical fault that IV&V caught? I can't find anything substantial on their research product web page, but I confess that I have only casually browsed it. I realise they must primarily deal with flight software, but I can't find anything they did. Well, they seem to award contracts to IV&V software consultant companies.

I would honestly like to be enlightened on this issue. Here we have a large lump of funding going to a center that seems to bounce around as a sub-center for one of the big NASA centers, but I can't find what the actually DID. Like "we verifiied that the following mission critical piece of software works to spec/is mathematically not faulty" - I see a lot of conference papers on methodology, which does not inspire me to confidence.

Ok, found one - they had looked at the MER software, not actually found a flaw, but recommended considerably more software validation - more than the funding and time permitted, based on software complexity and inadequate specs. They also did a post-mortem, but the JPL crew hacked and fixed the problem before there was any formal response if I read it correctly. So IV&V didn't work is my crude inference.

Then there is the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Project.
At least they published papers in refereed journals I recognise. I don't think they got any breakthroughs though.
I wonder if the Revolutionary Propulsion Research Project did any better (some of those concepts might jest about be doable sometime this century (as opposed to some others which are unphysical garbage), whether that makes it timely to spend that much money on them is more debatable. Maybe a couple of cases of beer and some peanuts...
Also, to be fair, both were a solicited public RFP if I read it correctly under ASTP program.
So, they solicited some rather speculative physics, at the $10-100k level each; but here is the real problem
from 2001 budget:

PI: Dr. Jim Corum, Inst. for Software Research, WV, NAS3-00124.

BPP Relevance: Directly relevant to a desired effect for BPP Goal 1 (Mass).

Impact: If genuine, this effect may enable thrusting directly against spacetime without propellant.

Progress: From R-3 / SM-1 to R-3 / SM-4 of the BPP Readiness Levels.

Due: June 2001, with public reporting at 2001 JPC, July 2001.

Funds: $915K FY00, via CONGRESSIONAL EARMARK (circumvents BPP selection review)

You have got to be f'ing kidding.

I wonder what the report said... No, unfortunately I don't - it was presented at an AIAA meeting in July 2001:

AIAA-2001-3654, Jim Corum

Corum presented an experimental paper on the use of the Heaviside force in conjunction with a Slepian Antenna as a form of space drive using nothing more than the classical Maxwell stress tensor. Slepian proposed the same thing in 1949, but came to the conclusion that it would not be useful, since the time average of the resultant AC force would be zero. Corum's contribution has thus far been two-fold: (1) In conjunction with Dr. Alan Barnes of WVU he has experimentally shown that the AC version of the Slepian Resonating Antenna does produce a force, and has measured it to within 3.6%, and (2) has designed a way for Hartley's variable capacitor rectification to be used with the Slepian resonator such that the rectification results in a DC force component. The first experiment has already been achieved, the second experiment is the logical next step. If successful, the result would be quite revolutionary: a true space drive.

RESULTS: Experimental - POSITIVE (so far)

That was 4 years ago, I wonder what has taken so long...

Oh, here's another gem, while I'm on a roll. I actually had a conversation with Scott Hughes about this at KITP (over wine), as to whether it was theoretically possible to be unethical enough to propose asymmetric gravity wave propulsion.
Our concept was much better though, it used Black Holes!!!

AIAA-2001-3913, Jeff Cameron

Cameron presented a paper on a proposed Asymmetrical Gravity Wave Propulsion System that has been simulated using computer simulation but has not yet been experimentally verified. The proposed concept uses Weber resonant vibrators as gravity wave radiators, and magnifies the effect by proposing an array of these radiator cells, such that they are phased to constructively interfere with each other to form a tighter gravity wave beam. While he proposed a linear array I see no reason why a 2D array could not be used to further enhance directivity. Aside from the reaction force to the propagation of the gravity wave, which has better per unit area force than a solar sail, there is also the impact of the gravity wave on other masses to be considered. Would pointing the gravity beam at a planet help to "pull" the space vehicle towards that planet? Alternatively, if the reaction mass where attached to a fixed object, would the gravity beam be useful as a "tractor beam" if pointed directly at a non-fixed object? The answers to these questions may be non-intuitive and bear further investigation.

RESULTS: Theoretical - Applied Physics

NASA: this time it is personal

Anne Kinney came for dinner yesterday.
Good wine, good food, fun conversation; she has excellent taste, I feel quite cheered up about long term NASA science prospects. Also interesting "business" lunch, but not for the record.
For dinner we had the good taste to avoid business talk.
I think I will also give Griffin a pass until we see what happens. Am still worried about Hubble, the squabble over the rescue has dragged too long, and either robotic or Shuttle refurbishment is probably too late to put together for a finite amount of money; but for various political reasons, it may be that hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent on optional plans and powerpoint presentations. I understand why, but it still grates. Someone has to make a decision (and it is a political level decision) that is final. Piss or get off the pot.

Still in for some hard times; and the root cause is that NASA has been told to do too much, without being appropriated the resources to do it. In particular, Return-to-flight is sucking out funds, with Congressional porkearmarks a close second. (BTW Keith was right (comments in previous thread - Exploration ramp up has not really hit the Science Directorate very badly yet; I thought the Lunar Exploration reprogramming within the agency had taken a bite, but it is insignificant).
May still squeak out of this ok. If not, maybe ESA will have some euros to pass around (and those are worth real money nowadays).

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

New Director for STSCI

So, apparently Matt Mountain is the new appointee for Space Telescope Science Institute Director.
Loss for Gemini, good for STSCI. (Jean-René Roy apparently steps up to the plate at Gemini).

That's going to be an interesting job - first task I guess is to see if Griffin is serious about revisiting HST rescue as was hinted at in the confirmation hearings. Given the delay, that'd require serious $ upfront from Congress - if they want it done within the current budget it'd wipe out all other science programs.

Well, at least we can look forward to the Next Generation Space Telescope, Real Soon Now.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Millions of physicists

Stumbled on this story on CNN and retained barely enough memory to google it back. Relevant bit is below:

Today, universities have produced millions of physicists. There aren't many jobs in science for them, so they go to Wall Street and Silicon Valley to apply their analytical skills to more practical and rewarding efforts.

Well, no, they have not.

Lets say a "physicist" is someone who has received a BSc in physics. Current US output is about 4500 per year. This peaked at about 6000 per year in the 60s. After BSc, the working life of a physicist is 40-50 years (depends on whether you call a graduate student earning a PhD a "working physiscist"). So total in the US is less than 1/4 million.

But, it is worse than that: as the article notes, a lot of physicists immediately quit physics. About 1/3 go to graduate school, another 1/3 work in physics related activities (and more quit after a PhD or a postdoc or two). So less than 100,000 people actually work doing physics in the United States, with maybe another 50,000 doing physics related jobs.
Sanity check: APS has a membership of about 40,000 - consistent with above numbers, and comparable to total number of PhDs working in physics. Of which ~ 10,000 (8,800 according to AIP stats) are in academia, most of the rest in industry or government.

Most of the rest of the World's physicists are produced in Europe. Enrollment % there is higher, but not much higher and declining... (cf UK's IoP has 37,000 members, though UK has ~1/5th population of US; the European Physical Society claims ~ 80,000 members, through its national member societies). And China and India are probably producing comparable numbers of physicists, but their production has only recently ramped up.

So, I think it is clear the since Einstein died 50 years ago, less than 1 million physicists have been produced by universities;
and that maybe only about 200,000 are currently working in some professional physics capacity, with probably less than 100,000 actually doing research.

Certainly not "millions". And if you want Einstein compatriots - PhD level research physicists (with or without a PhD), doing independent and original research - we're probably talking about something like 25,000-50,000 people. A lot more than in Einstein's days, to be sure. But a staggeringly small absolute number.

addendum on physics prep and GRE

In the SywtbaA - 2.0, I didn't mean to imply foreign students were more capable than US students - just in case anyone takes offence. Rather, on average, given the same intrinsic ability and educational level, a typical foreign student will have taken physics for considerably more time than a US student and will have been exposed to more sub-fields. On average.

Why? My understanding is that a US student will have 1-3 years of physics in high school (and that more than 1 year plus AP classes is unusual, and that this will typically be senior year at that); I would expect a European student going to university to major in physics to have had 4+ years of physics, and before that at least a couple of years of a lab based "general science" class. Now these are school physics - repetitive and basic; but that is how you learn, overlapping repetition building on what was learned previously.

As an example - when I started university, I had had 5 full years of physics (with chemistry in parallel for 5 years, and biology for 3 years]), in addition I had had 4 full years of a lab based general science - first lab class when I was 9, measuring and plotting conductivity and heat capacities - still remember it. In addition, since non-US universities typically have little or no Gen Ed requirements, and majors are usually strict structured in-sequence classes (though there is a deplorable tendency towards US style modularity recently, at the intro levels, modularity is great at the advanced levels); so each term a student will typically take more major-subject classes than a comparable US student (unless the US student overloads, or has the Gen Eds waived). European universities also tend to trimester systems (since Easter is a holiday, and sports are irrelevant), which makes for easier structuring of sub-topic classes, while the "big topic" classes are just taught as in-seqence (QM I, II, III etc;. E&M I, II, III; Mechanics I, II, II etc etc).

So a foreign student will spend more time doing physics, see more classes and cover more sub-fields.

Doesn't mean they're better researchers or more talented scientists; just more experienced in some way earlier. In fact some places complain the foreign students are too rigid, too indoctrinated and have lost the ability to think flexibly.

Just can't win...

Sunday, April 17, 2005

So you want to be an astrophysicist? Part 2.0 - GRE at

So you want to be an astrophysicist?
You've suffered through 3-4 years of undergrad, and you're ready for more.
You picked the places to apply to (or have you...?), and you're ready for the paperwork.

So what do you do. First you apply to the departments. As a rule, go directly to the department web site you are applying to and read carefully (ie do not go to the Graduate School at the University, until/if the department indicates you should), then do as they say.
Application deadlines should be around christmas, either just before or after. Most places move relatively quickly on the decision process, to get offers out early enough that people have time to visit (most US places will invited US candidates to visit, many will pay or part-pay for the trip). Decisions deadline is April 15th, that is to say, you have until then to accept, after that the department may withdraw the offer (yes, they may hold it open, but they will either be overcommitted or wanting to move on any waiting list candidates; make you mind up by the 15th unless there are exceptional extenuating circumstances). Foreign grad applicants - note this is early, much earlier than, eg, universities in Europe make decisions. You miss the deadline, chances are you're out of contention for a year.

Research the departments you're applying to. That is trivial now on the web. Take the time to do so. Find out what research they do, who is there, the age profile, the student population, check informal student web sites, boring faculty blogs, pompous administrative blurbs- everything. This is your life. Do the work, start it early, take notes and take the time.

So, admission decision is done by the department (or possibly a sub-set of the department if you're applying for astrophysics in a joint physics and astro department). It is a committee (always a committee), membership changes each year, typically (or not). There is a chair. That is a person, and that person can be dealt with. Decision is not anynomous or robotic. If in doubt, contact the person (email preferred), ask questions.
A good committee will have a blend of people: the one who just goes by the GRE score; the one who likes a good GPA; the one who only likes students from universities they've been to (or heard of); the one who thinks research is all important; the one who carefully reads the recommendation letters, and the one who thinks activities showing enthusiasm and interest are important. There may even be that many people on the committee...

The committee will have too many applications (they wish) and (some) want to cut on some pre-set criteria. A lot of places cut on GRE subject score, or GPA or both. Most everyone says they have a "preferred minimum score", but most will look below the cut-off (a few don't, they just cut the pile). Some departments game the system, since they know the process is flawed and the indicators inaccurate. eg. some just admit everyone (above some minimum cut) and figure they'll flunk some out (so look at sizes of incoming vs graduate classes - 20-30% attrition is normal, higher than that, check what is going on; oh, and do a box car average, small field, Poisson noise dominates...).
Some places ignore subject GRE and look for either GPA; good letters; or, interestingly verbal GRE general score (more on that later).
Then there is some horse-trading (plus look at research statements, etc) and then offers are made, typically k times as many offers as target number of intake, where k is an empirical ratio carefully based on historical experience. Some places make heavy use of waiting lists, others do not.

Important things. Your research statement should be short, clear, free of spelling errors, and please skip the "career counselor" poetic blurb crap you learned in high school. What we want to know is whether you're interested in theory, observation or instrumentation - or don't know; and, whether you think you know what sub-field you want to work in.
[side-note - when I applied, a long time ago, I didn't know about this tradition of the "application essay" in the US. My statement fit on the box on the form, two sentences. Except the last application I sent in - a friend saw it and said "you can't say that!" and made me write a full page essay. That one place rejected me. Bastards. ]
If you don't know, be honest and say so, half of the incoming students will change fields anyway. And don't all say you want to do cosmology, it is soooo sophomoric. Er, unless, of course, that is what you really want to actually do...
Other important thing - don't say you desperately want to do, say, VLBI observations of CO at high redshift, if there is no one at all at the institution you're applying to who does that stuff! Either customize applications to each university (which takes like 10 minutes electronically) or check that you're applying to universities where they actually do the research you claim to be interested in doing! Most departments are not big enough to have a presence in all sub-fields (maybe 1 or 2, but not really, not any more).

So, where should you apply. Well, unless you're the next Feynman, and everyone else knows it already, you should be applying to 6-12 places. Less is foolhardy, more is gratuitous. Usual application rules, apply to at least one "safe" place, and one "better than you hope for" place (unless you're applying to top places only, in which case have a backup anyway). Pick places that do research that you are interested in; if you're not sure, pick a place that is big enough. Check if you're free to move around between research groups or advisors after accepting within the department, you can in most places, but it is harder some places than others. Think about whether you're better off in a pure astronomy department (smaller usually) or a joint physics department (where astro may be a minority activity).
Then apply secondary criteria: cost of living (the stipend will be enough for you to survive, just, in most places); style of living (big city, town, rural?); climate; two body and family issues. If you didn't get away from your hometown for undergraduate, then get out now, while you can! Oh, and staying at the same university you did your undergrad is a Bad Idea. Most places forbid it or strongly discourage it except for the most exceptional of extenuating circumstances; and it is still a bad idea.

So, where will you get in. Even if you have a perfect GPA from a top ranked university and 99% on the GRE, there are still no guarantees on admission into any one of the top 4-6 schools; but anyone else will take you, unless you have something really bizzarre in your application. After that, the strongest determining variable in applications is the subject GRE score.
Some places cut on it; a high score guarantees you a close look from most places, a low score means you have to hope something in your application catches someones eye.
What is "high" - well, 50% is the crude cut-off line in a lot of places. Higher is better, lower is a concern.

So WTF is the GRE. See

It is a set of multiple choice tests. The General: quantitative, analytic and verbal sections.
The Subject (physics).
Scoring is reported by percentile rank, not raw score. Supposedly normalised (with declining numbers taking the physics subject test, this is a concern, since we don't know if the people now taking the test are more biased towards being good in the subject!)

Analytic test is sort of like an IQ test, like one of those stupid MENSA tests. Quantitative is straightforward and the only catch is that there's a lot of it; so practise doing dumb number and logic problems quickly. Verbal has changed since I took it.
Here's the catch: astro and physics grad students have the highest GRE general exam averages. No one will be impressed if you do well, it can only hurt you if you do badly. In fact you damn well better do very well in Q&A; so Verbal is really the only discriminant there.

Subject test: it is a friggin' multiple choice test. Such tests are inherently flawed; taking them can be gamed, and they are usually poor tests of knowledge or skills relevant to research. I despise it (and I did very well on it when I took it).
So why the emphasis on it? Well, it works. GRE subject score correlates reasonably with later performance - it shouldn't, the skills that make people good at fast multiple choice tests are not what make good researchers, so it must be due to a cross-correlation. I still worry that we miss good people who do badly on tests.

So, what is the catch. The GRE physics test covers all of physics (caveat - I took it some years ago). If you're a US student, then you do not have the breadth to do very well in it, unless you were taking intro calculus college classes while a junior in high school and went straight into advanced electives at a Good University. The US system starts students too late in physics, does modular immersion courses with poor student retention (in both sense, students don't take additional classes, and individual students retain the material poorly). So most students do not have a comprehensive education in physics at the end of their junior year. A good European student will outperform you on the test, on average. So will the Asian students, if good enough. (There was a cheating scandal a couple of years ago, test forms sold on web sites in south-east Asia - this has tainted both past tests, and current candidates; universities have responded in different ways. Asia is still the source of some of the very best students, but they find it harder to come to the US to study.)
Other catch, preferred test taking dates are Nov/Dec - the score from the earlier test comes too late to decide on the second test. If you take both (expensive) then you better do better on the second test. There is a test in spring, but then you take the exam with one less semester of study, which is a gamble.

So, what do you do. I recommend taking the Nov test. You'll get the score just around christmas break and you can adjust your application strategy. If you do much worse or better than predicted, e-mail or phone your advisor, that's what they're there for - to advise you. Oh, and talk to your advisor at the beginning of this process. Don't show up out of nowhere in the middle of january. and say you need letters of recommendation for PrincetonandHarvard, and, by the way, they're due tomorrow.
Bring stamped, addressed envelopes, and a list of places with names of admission committee chairs, and due dates Then send short, polite e-mails the week before they're due, as reminder.

Ok, enough for now. There you go, don't have to worry about it for months yet.
Good luck, and apply to Penn State!

Saturday, April 16, 2005

late night science fiction blogging

Just a mini-blog...

Currently reading (slowly...) "Chasm City" by Alastair Reynolds. So far so good. Possibly very good.

Reynolds is one of the new post-punk, post-Thatcher group of UK science fiction authors who has taken up the mantle of hard, edgy science fiction (cf Stross, McLeod, Mieville, Hamilton and of course Banks). And just in time too, since US hard science fiction is in a lull, lots of fantasy, including EPF trilogies, lots of vampire porn filling shelfs in the SF sections, and lots of lite carnography (understandably, but man it gets tiresome). The great US hard writers are not pumping stuff out like they used to (cf the "killer Bees" - Bear, Benford and Brin [actually think I just missed hearing a talk by Benford on campus, ah well, no helping it]), but UK is just ripping (and Aussies too - Egan!). Probably make a good literature PhD thesis in a few decades to figure out why (or two, one to figure out the dip in the US, one to figure out the upswing in the UK).

Anyway, Reynolds is a PhD astronomer ( and still publishing science, damn, looks like local X-ray binary kinda guy), he is working at ESA in the Netherlands.

Haven't read all his stuff, 1.5 novels and few shorts so far, but that got him on my "to-buy-on-sight list; third novel is in the to-read pile. Hard, well written science fiction; good science, consistent and not too implausible near future scenarios. Worth a read or three.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Health Care rumblings

Krugman is on form today, and hits the spot. US health care isn't bad, but it is horrendously cost ineffective and heterogenous.
Docs and Insurance companies pay for MRIs and CATscans without blinking, and put people on long (or lifetime) drug prescriptions; but won't pay for basic physiotherapy, well-baby visits or nurse visitations, which are actually effective at improving quality of life and maintaining health. Insanity.
Paperwork is also monstrous (eg the local ER won't come to agreement with the two largest local health insurers, there is no weekend or evening urgent care, so all medical treatment that is not by pre-scheduled appointment goes through them. But the hospital they are part of does have a deal with the insurers. So the smallest of treatments requires about 12 pieces of paper as the ER company bills everyone, and the insurer orders patients to not pay until the actual cost of treatment is negotiated, individually. Takes ~ 6 months to settle the accounts), and there is a wait for most anything, the mean time until treatment in the US seems to be about the same as in Europe for most procedures and tasks, just not enough time and not enough doctors - US has more high tech facilities in big cities; Europe has more face-to-face contact and prompter.
And the whole thing is tied to employment reducing mobility and amplifying risk for workers. On top of a gov safety net that is already expensive enough per capita to pay for full health care! (IIRC the single largest government health care system anywhere is in the US, but it only covers a small part of the population, and has to interface with not only other parts of itself, and the private sector but also 50 different State level public systems. Argh!)

I've lived under the US system in two States and in range of circumstance (big city; medium town near big city; and small town in rural area). I've also dealt with three very different European systems. The US system is quite good if you have good insurance and are well located, and awful otherwise, and always with the problems above (there is no % in health prevention for any one company unless there's a single payer system, at the crudest level).
On balance the European/Canadian systems work better for most people. Both systems face severe structural problems with some of the near future technological developments, in particular (as was first hammered into me by Leroy Hood at a science ethics/bioethics grad seminar) the concept of individual "insurance" becomes almost meaningless as we understand genetic factors in illness better. But, I think the US system will have a harder crisis sooner. Better hope you or your employer is rich enough that you're on the right side of the transition. Of course a pandemic or effective biowar act (or indeed much of WMD terrorism) would effectively destroy the US funding system for health care.
Single payer systems are not perfect, and are vulnerable to the problems of monolithic state entities, but they're a lot better than nothing, which is what a large percentage of the population will soon have under a pure commercial insurer system.

Interesting times.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

science prime - astronomers peak late

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Job Rumours

Things to do: post "So you want to be an astrophysicist - Part 2.0" Real Soon Now, but not before April 15...

Get back to Rare Earth: more on "Intelligent Design"; catch up on arXiv and expound on wonders of current research...

In the mean time... Many Moons ago, a clever young student named Pat Hall (later postdoc, and now Prof Hall) used the web to post Astro Job Rumours. It was a decorous and useful page, basically listing the nominally public information of the status of jobs in astronomy, especially postdoc positions; it told us when short lists were assembled, letters sent out, interviews done, offers made and accepted. Useful for gaming job offers and applications. All anonymous.

Sometime later a new, more aggressive job rumour page appeared, naming names New Astro Rumours. Much read, and the id of the owner much speculated upon (we all have our theories, and as with "guessing the referee" almost all are wrong. Though recent info correlated well with the travel schedule of a major suspect, busted!?).

The page is fascinating, no matter which side of the game you're on (looking for job, or hiring). It is sometimes incorrect, occasionally badly so (claiming someone is in play who isn't, or that a job is gone when it is still open); and often frighteningly accurate. It is gamed - applicants leak info to make themselves look more sought after; departments leak info to leverage jobs or to manipulate applicants. And people just like to gossip.

It also shows some of the structure of the market - the tendency for a small number of currently "hot" candidates to get multiple offers (this typically only lasts one year, enjoy it when it is your turn, don't expect to be so hot next year); the associated bidding instability (cf Mirrlees microeconomic theories, or the "Baseball Player Instability"), and the ratio of positions to applicants.

At a glance, fair number of postdocs this year, but with structural problems (eg the loss of STIS badly hurt optical spectroscopy people; sky survey folks are doing well; if you do mid-IR you are good; exoplanets doing well, but not as well as they should, maybe some protection of all-fields positions by extragalactic types; high energy, touch'n'go still).
Faculty positions, looks like a shortage, lots of senior level moves, searches cancelled, multiple positions and offers. We're hitting the demographic hump from the previous wave of expansion; but this is very sensitive to macroeconomic; if the economy sneezed all the universities will snap into a hiring freeze again. Elephant in the corner is whether the UC campuses will move to replace people on schedule; they represent 10-20% of all potential positions. I don't know if there are that many independently wealthy millionaries in astronomy (see California Housing Prices... - I'm only half joking).
Other possible trend that might surface is what has happened in Europe - universities abandon low demand niche fields like astronomy, and it ceases to be done at some of the (few) universities currently offering it, with even more concentration in the top 20-40 institutions that survive. That would increase statistical noise in the hiring process, because year-to-year hiring would be correlated. Could be interesting times ahead.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

iPod games

Everybody pile onto Guardian's "What should Bush have on his iPod contest

For what its worth, here was my quickie list:

I fought the Law - Clash
Vote for We - General Saint & Clint Eastwood
My perfect cousin - Undertones
The Boy Done Good - Billy Bragg
Walk this Way - Run DMC
I wanna be sedated - Ramones
Californication - Red Hot Chili Peppers
Every Sperm is Sacred - Monty Python
Common People - Pulp
Liar - Sex Pistols

Sean has an interesting post on why we must continue to do particle physics - astrophysics is not a substitute. As someone who crossed that road, I have to say I agree with him. Astronomy is not a substitute for particle physics, it complements the field. Particularly well in some areas right now.
This is partly because astronomy is on a technology upswing with a lot of rapidly maturing technology providing very good data, while particle physics is in a lull while new generation technology comes on line. Just for the record, I wouldn't hold my breath for an LHC breakthrough, although failure to find a Higgs or equivalent substitute would be a major piece of information in and of itself. But, particle physicists are clever. Very Clever. There are clearly promising new technologies in the pipeline, and somewhere beyond the short term planning horizon there will be a new wave of experiments that will leapfrog the field, probably just a bloated astronomy field sits down to digest petabytes of diffraction limited synoptic surveys, wondering how the $@(@!%! they're ever going to make sense of it (well, start by hiring some particle experimentalists with experience in handling Large Data Sets, right after publicly archiving the data of course).

But, for now, astronomers can gloat, just a little bit. And frantically scramble to try to make sense of it all...

Monday, April 11, 2005

What colour is the sky on Planet Consultant?

Oops. Righteous Anger time again.

An OpEd by a S.R. Goodman, Educational Consultant, in the Washington Post calls for Hey, Profs, Come Back to Earth.

Er, we were here. Where were you?

First some choice quotes:

"...increasingly resentful of paying sky-high tuition for colleges they see offering their kids a menu of questionable courses and politically absurd campus climates that detract from the quality of a university education."

"If colleges don't tone down the politics, and figure out how to control ballooning costs, they run the risk of turning off enough American consumers that many campuses could marginalize themselves right out of existence."

"They're flabbergasted by courses with titles like "Pornography and Evolution," "The Beatles Era," or "Introduction to Material Culture," as well as educational values that appear only tangentially related to the reality of their lives."

"While the median income for a family of four is just a little over $62,000, middle-class families are regularly expected to come up with nearly $200,000 per child for four years of college."

"321 colleges and universities are sitting on endowments of $100 million or more"

"I'm not arguing that universities should teach only engineering, business and computer science. Liberal arts courses, taught in the context of free speech, have always helped open young minds to the excitement of the marketplace of ideas and to the value of even unpopular opinions. But that tradition seems to have been stood on its head. There is a world of difference between challenging students to think more broadly and trying to shoehorn them into a more narrow spectrum of thought, which many parents feel is happening."

"Recently, I was advising an Eagle Scout who was justifiably proud of his accomplishment and wanted to highlight it on his college applications. But I worried that the national Boy Scouts' stand against homosexuals as scout leaders might somehow count against him in the admissions process at some schools. So I suggested that he get involved in an AIDS hotline to show his sensitivity to an issue often linked to the gay community."

Where shall we begin.

  • Colleges are not politically active; the level of activity on campuses is at a 50 year low. Students are apathetic in bulk, and if the faculty appear to be stirring things up it is out of frustration at this apathy. Young people should care about something.

  • Yes. Universities are expensive. First, state support for public universities is down from ~ 50% of their budget to typically less than 15%. This money has to be replaced from another source. Namely tuition. The arithmetic is brutal, if you want cheaper schools, then either you need bigger classes, or you need higher workloads on the faculty. The private schools are expensive because they have better faculty to student ratio and lower teaching loads. The State Universities with high tuition are holding down the faculty teaching loads to let the faculty do research. If that changes, then the faculty leave. You get different faculty, possibly even better teaching, but not better education, and a loss of a national resource.
    Oh, and state funding is earmarked - it typically does not broadly subsidise tuition but is targeted (eg a powerful rural legislator may direct funding to Dairy Science - and that is appropriate; but doesn't help the cost of running a psychology major).

  • Why are costs increasing so fast? 1) Benefits, especially health care. 2) Infrastructure costs - buildings put up rapidly to accommodate student number expansion in the 60s need maintenance or replacement now. 3) Unfunded mandates. Federal and State regulations need staff for compliance. This drives up administrative cost. There are secondary issues like cross-subsidies of other activities (notoriously athletics) and research (usually a gamble - spend to get research going so research income and prestige goes up, leading to payback in the long run)

  • So what about the big endowments? Well, first of all, universities are racing to pad those out to compensate for income lost from State funding. Several universities are considering going independent. The constraints associated with State funding are just not worth the hassle. Secondly, endowment can't be spent arbitarily. It is for the most part seed money, with only the income from the endowment spendable (so the $100 million only buys you $4 million income per year).
    Further, endowmenet has restrictions - some is for buildings (which then cost to run); some is for such specific things as undergraduate tuition scholarships (or, athletic scholarships! those count too).

  • Liberal arts are not taught to showlight the marketplace of ideas or value of unpopular opinion. They are taught to so that students learn to think, to challenge received knowledge, provide context for the world they live in and to learn to learn.
    The "stupid title" course are fun to pick at; but you know what - pornography is a very large and very lucrative industry, and one that is very sexually dimorphic. Maybe there are evolutionary drivers for male fascination with pornography, and maybe it is worth trying to understand what is going on there. Similarly the Beatles are now art history; up there with Mahler, Armstrong and Mozart.

  • The purpose of a university is not to propagate the values of the parents; that is a task for the parents. If you don't like that, don't go to university and maybe the opportunity cost you recover makes that a cost effective decision. If that is what you value.

  • Oh, and university admission committees don't look down on Eagle Scouts. Certainly not on sincere committed Eagle Scouts, doing it because the embrace the values of Scouting. Admission committees discount students who became Eagle Scouts only because they thought it would look good on their CV. The young man Mr Goodman advised should get involved in an AIDS hotline, should do so IF he sincerely cares about it and thinks it is important enough to spend his time on it; not as empty piece of resume padding. That shines through an application and makes admission committees wonder just what sort of student they're getting.

Grr. Universities are not perfect. But they're doing a much better job than bleedin' Educational Consultants.

Parents, stop gaming the system; prospective students - be honest about your abilities and interests and go take classes that interest you, not ones that reinforce your parents prejudices. There is nothing that makes some of us cringe more than the student majoring in "something practical" just because the parents insist that that is what they ought to be doing.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

sunday night blogging...

Pope passed away. In case you hadn't heard. Only encountered him once, at a the Marcel Grossman meeting in Rome in 2000. Meeting organisers organized a blessing; didn't go up for the in person audience, since attendance was limited and I am not catholic. Was in the audience for the general blessing, and then did the tour. Interesting place. Interesting man, watching his interaction with the audience was very illuminating. Oh, interesting meeting too, should talk about that later, though I am not a regular MG attendee. Regrettable.
So, during his tenure the Vatican Observatory started running some interesting annual meetings, and building some serious telescopes. He also accepted evolution and recanted on Galileo see here.
Be interesting to see what direction the Catholic Church takes next. Tipping point is the current buzzphrase I believe.

Evolution (1996) - see 63 and 64
Galileo (1992) - er I think that is the right one, my Italian is worse than useless. Date and context are right. German translation is encouraging...

On a slightly different note: Interesting places to visit and do science...

Institute of Astronomy, Madingley Road, Cambridge.

Nice place. Nice people. Lots of visitors. Stay in the visitor housing on the grounds if you're solo, for a shortish time and intending to get serious work done. Else a B&B in north Cambridge, or a College if you have the connections.

For decades, legend has it, no one crossed Madingley Road (MRAO is on the other side; exaggerated, but not much), but relations have thawed, and Isaac Newton Institute is there, and DAMTP too, having finally relocated from the Victorian jumble on Silver Street. All three are exemplary for how a science institute should be laid out (well, the Hoyle building at IoA anyway). So, do visit across the street.

Things to do: well, hang out at morning coffee and chat. Go to lunch (seminar bread & cheese is a must; else sandwich, or go into town or College) chat some more. Read e-mail. Go for afternoon tea. Chat. Find out which pub the postgrads and postdocs are going to. Go. Chat. Repeat. Find you have somehow written half-dozen papers... Its a mystery.

Touristy things to do: go punting (seriously, even if they punt from the wrong end. Even if it is raining). If weather is nice and you are fit, punt up to Grantchester for cream tea. Else drive there. Do a College tour - if you go to King's chapel, donate generously. Go to the Pubs. Have pub lunches. You want one in town, one on the river, one in the outskirts of town and one country pub. At least. So stay at least 4 days! Wander around town and sightsee. Get out of town and sightsee.

Places for dinner: fancy - I like 3 Horseshoes in Madingley for ye olde Englishe cuisine, but done really well. Or go to an Indian restaurant. Any will do, if it is in business odds are 80%+ that the food is decent (and 80%+ that the service is lousy). I like the one of Histon road across from the chippy. The fish and chips are ok, best out of the city centre, but not great. Pub dinners are pretty good in a lot of places now as well. French sounding expensive places are mostly to be avoided unless specifically recommended by someone (time constant is very short) [last time I was there 21 Chesterton was very good, and Michele's was decent. ]

If in doubt about a pub, go to the Cow and Calf on Castle Hill, off the main road, just up from St Edmunds college.

Oh, and be nice to the Cat (Muon); say "Hi" from me.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Random late night science fiction blogging

Harry Turtledove is one of the few people actually making a living out of writing science fiction (as far as I know).
He is "the master of alternative history", to quote a blurb, which is sort of true. He has written some gems, both short stories ("The Road not Taken" should keep physicists awake at night), and some of his novels or composite novels (Between the Rivers, Rule Brittannia).

His characteristic output though is tri- or quadrology (or more...) riffing on some simple alternative. These range from good solid work (the Videssos series - several series redoing Byzantium and late Roman Empire history) to interesting but "not quite there" like the Worldwar series (Aliens invade in the middle of WWII; spunky humans fight back, with understandable exceptions...), to atrocious reworking of history (one on an upside-down US Civil War; another on WWII fought with magic, bleh). One of his very interesting recent works is a multiple series on a "what if the Confederacy "won" the Civil War? Following the American Empire through multiple subsequent wars as history increasingly diverges (current epoch has a fascist confederacy allied with fascist France, British and Japanese Empire attacking a socialist USA allied with Imperial Germany).

Good things - he knows history, and he can write flowing readable books.
Bad things - he's writing too many books too quickly, the history is rubber-stamped and the characters getting thinner.
Turtledove tends to "multiple viewpoint character" settings which evolve slowly (ie some die off). But to set the tone he uses little cliche phrases to identify which scene you're in and too set the tone. This becomes really tiresome when repeated too many times (why, yes, we know this character has pale skin and the Navy keeps posting him in the tropics. Ha ha. Oh, and here comes the doctor gone native in Quebec saying "tabernac" again. Ha ha ha. As a literary device this is way overused and he badly needs an editor who will actually edit.

But good read overall.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Intelligent Design in PA - I think not

National Center for Science Education has a good web site on recent developments in anti-evolution activity. And, there, right at the top is Pa House Bill 1007 an Amendment to the Education Act,

"Section 1516.2. Teaching Theories on the Origin of Man and
13 Earth.--(a) In any public school instruction concerning the
14 theories of the origin of man and the earth which includes the
15 theory commonly known as evolution, a board of school directors
16 may include, as a portion of such instruction, the theory of
17 intelligent design. Upon approval of the board of school
18 directors, any teacher may use supporting evidence deemed
19 necessary for instruction on the theory of intelligent design."

" 1 (b) When providing supporting evidence on the theory of
2 intelligent design, no teacher in a public school may stress any
3 particular denominational, sectarian or religious belief.
4 (c) This section shall not be construed as being adverse to
5 any decision which has been rendered by an appellate court."

Yeah, sure. It is still unconstitutional, and will anyone do Cosmic Cows (english link this time), I think not. I think we're going to have good little stealth fundies prattling on about Apples and Gardens and Snakes (hey, it is 7 Rivers, not 7 Days... Hello!).

Well, not to my kids you won't. If Pa wants to provide for Comparative Religious Studies in publicly supported schools, fine by me. But, don't go around pretending this crap is science.

Clearly a day for Righteous Anger and Smiting of Things.

Military on Campus - InstaPundit Insults

I don't often lose my temper, but this particular piece of "punditry" really teed me off.

Prof Reynolds, at InstaPundit has a commentary on a protest at UCSC, where campus anti-war protesters disrupted a career fair where a military recruiter was present. He pontificates, and then forwards a readers comment:

"Reader Bart Hall emails:

The rarely-mentioned dirty secret of it all is that the military are increasingly disinclined to recruit in such places to begin with. They did not push to reinstitute ROTC at places like Harvard and Middlebury because "frankly, we've found that students from such institutions tend to perform poorly as officers," to quote an officer (O-4) in a position to know.

Fewer and fewer students attending places like UCSC are of the sort who can handle the military. These institutions do not, however, yet sseem recognize their growing irrelevence and its connection to a woefully distorted and unbalanced political environment."

Now, I was a researcher at UCSC, and knew a fair number of students there. I am now at Penn State, where we have one of the largest ROTC programs and I have taugt and advised a number of absolutely superb active duty and ROTC personnel (and a couple of true goldbricks, there's always one). And, you know what, the students are about the same - the fraction of UCSC students who would be good officer material is comparable to that here at Penn State. Oh, and UCSC has ROTC students, want to go tell them Mr Hall's comment now? (UCSC has only been in existence a short time, and was a small campus for most of that time, the numbers of students going on to the Armed Forces really is statistically insignificant, but even a cursory google through UCSC Alumni records shows a number of commissioned officers currently serving in the US Armed Forces.).

As for Harvard, they graduated 10 ROTCs out of about 1500 students in 2004. Penn State, with over 8000 graduates from our main campus, and about 12,000 system wide, graduates about 120 ROTCs each year from the main campus, but this is from one of the strongest ROTC programs in the nation. So per capita, Harvard actually has a proportionate ROTC program.

Oh, and as the Harvard Gazette notes one of the Harvard class of '02 was injured in Fallujah last year, maybe Prof Reynolds wants to forward him his opinion of the quality of Harvard trained officers? Talk about undermining the troops during war time.

"Roche, who received a doctorate in business administration from Harvard in 1972, said the armed forces needs Harvard graduates in its officer corps, just as it needs graduates of West Point, Georgia Tech, and other universities across the country." from the Harvard Gazette article above. Who to believe...

Oh, and the number of officers recruited from the Ivy League may be statistically insignificant according to InstaPundit readers (well, ~ 100 per year would actually add up a bit), but one of them would be USANG lt G.W. Bush, who still has something to do with the military (oh, the irony). And, if you broaden your mind to graduate study, then such pikers as the current superintendent of West Point Gen Lennox (Princeton), Secretary of the Air Force Roche (Harvard), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Myers (Harvard) and the vice Char Gen Pace (Harvard), and Gen Abizaid (Harvard).

I don't know if that is distinguished enough, or statistically significant enough, but every little bit counts.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Conservative Academics and Liberal Angst

Hm, so blogger bug is fixed for Firefox but not Safari. How very annoying.

There is a slightly bizarre public squabble over a couple of bad surveys which claims academics are excessively liberal (and by implication unrepresentative, and therefore presumably there should be some affirmative action for Conservative Profs, or something. ).

See Sean's take on this
and Krugman NYT editorial, and just for fun, the Penn State edition of the "controversy".

Much sage comment has been expended on this tempest. Noting simple truisms, such as the inaccuracy of excluding independents, the poor sampling of the survey and the innate tendencies of self-identfied Republicans to not take academic jobs. These are slightly non-trivial considerations; for example a fair fraction of US faculty are non-US citizens, especially in the sciences where people tend to be more politically conservative (and, yes, your stereotypical western European is more liberal, but there are a lot of ex-Communist nation and 3rd world nation faculty who may tend to be seriously conservative in important ways, or not).

On a larger scale the issue is not so much to get more Republican Professors hired (I mean if they were any good they wouldn't be teaching, as we know, they'd be in the Beltway launderingcirculating contributions to lawmakers.
One should also be careful for what one wishes for, Bérubé has a brilliant blog entry on Real Life in Academia as it would be for Distinguished Republican Professors in a Just World.... ), rather (and did you all get the subtle nesting of clauses here?), the issue is to establish an atmosphere of intimidation so that liberal faculty shut up and don't subvert students (now, where DID I put my copy of "Teaching as a Subversive Activity..."?). Establish the controversy, move the middle ground, and watch all Reasonable Men and Women scurry for cover so as not to actually offend anyone.

But, is this really true? There are several puzzles here.

  • Are Republicans really conservative? I'd argue Not. Current Republican leaders and ideology are Radical, possibly even Revanchist. But not conservative (as a few remaining Republican Conservatives have belatedly started noticing). Does that mean Democrats are Conservative. Well, yeah, sorta; they made a lot of political gains in the last 40-70 years, and their main policy is to hold on to and consolidate those gains. That is Conservative. The real Radical fringe of the Democrats tends to lean environmentalist, where The Good Fight is still being fought (and where a Environmentalist + Christian Right allegiance is one of the more "interesting" possible realignments (cf Creation Care Movement), but the Democratic Leadership is really sort of Clinton Conservatives.

  • If you become a Conservative Academic, do you stay one? I honestly don't know. On the one hand there is the subtle irony of the TV adaptation of "The History Man" (spoiler - he votes for Thatcher in 1983). And then there is the common phenomena of the conservative middle class student of conservative parents, who discovers Radicalism of some variety in the first 18 months of University, fights The Good Fight to graduation and the goes into middle management and votes their economic interest, figuring the social issues will never affact Their Family.
    So what is the point. Well, if that student (initially conservative) becomes Junior Faculty instead of Middle Management, will they relapse into knee-jerk conservatism, or vote liberal under peer pressure? Someone should quantify this.

  • Finally, academics are getting older, and on average as people get older they get more conservative. Is the perceived liberalism of proferssors mostly a memory of the 70s, and are they really mostly little "c" conservatives, who vote Democrat nationally out of fond memory of their youth? (Or, more likely register Democrat and vote Republican - someone did. A lot of someones...).

But, really, this is just jealousy of some transient political class, with some money but no persistence, at the beauty of the eternal self-perpetuating oligarchy powerhouse that is The University. They are Wannabes, who want to join the club without jumping through the hoops. One sign of this are the untold Foundations and ThinkTanks cropping up around the Beltway, they are holding places for temporarily unemployed political conservatives, and by their nature self-perpetuating oligarchies. Except they tend to rely on sugar daddies for funding, a more uncertain lifestyle than the University niche (sugar daddies being notoriously more fickle than even State Legislatures). I bet we see some of the more respectable ThinkTanks absorbed into suitable nearby universities for both institutions sake (Hoover Institution, anyone?).

So what is the point here? Finally.
Well, academics are not intrinsically liberal (or even Democratic), and I would argue that as a group they are generally quite little "c" conservative. That the periods of progressivity and radicalism are rare, quite limited, and only apparent in so far as academia is a little bit more tolerant and nurturing of such than society in general, some of the time. And a significant reason for lack of Republicans among US academic faculty, to the extent it is even true, is that the Republicans are Radical, and Radical in a way that is counter to the interests and inclinations of much of academia.

Moe Nasa Woe

So what is causing the squeeze at NASA?
Well, there's a nice summary at Partly it is a 1% clawback to avoid total budget overflow fed-wide; partly it is the $450 million on pork earmarks (?!!) and
partly it is a $300 million shuttle return to flight underfunding. But it is also reprogramming to bring LRO back to speed even though Congress cut it to minimal life support, and Prometheus and CEV need start-up too (although JIMO, which was to be the lead off Prometheus mission has been cut, and Prometheus is soliciting for a first flight mission - Prometheus is the nuclear solar system cruiser, fission powered electric propulsion, high impulse, high power, low thrust and long duration. Essential for long term duration exploration of the outer system, but currently there'd be no way to actually get it to off the surface in the first place since there is no real heavy launcher in the US inventory...). All worthy projects. All underfunded.

Basic problem (beyond the insanity of the pork) is exploration has several new starts that need to start now, not next year or the year after, and no adequate funds to actually get them going. Which is why the exploration side needs to siphon funding out of the science side. Private prediction - NASA HQ needs more funding still, I bet Earth Observation gets it next, some quiet friday afternoon when the media is sleeping and no one is reading Aeronautics has no more to give (Ames apparently is planning on 1/3 cuts) and space science will get a breather until next year.

In the meantime, Calvert, new House sub-committee chair, has endorsed a no-repair deorbit of Hubble. Good start, eh?

I'll think of something cheerful again tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Final Hubble Fun and TIP RIP

So, Hubble Cycle 14 TAC results are out; not bad, got 2 (smallish) proposals, out of three submitted.
Sadly my "brilliant" theory proposal was downgraded - not enough detailed examples of the proposed models, Hello! Its a friggin' three page proposal folks! Get a grip!. Phew, that feels better.
The empirical scatter in TAC rankings from year to year continues to be at ~ 50%. ie if your proposal is not either clearly flat out wrong, or absolutely brilliant (a "damn, I wish I had thought of that", as opposed to, "yeah, should be done, sometime, obviously, by someone, but not in preference to My Proposal" which is the fate of most proposals), then the TAC ranking is essentially random (and the STSCI essentially admitted as much last year). Cold comfort.
This may well be the last GO cycle for Hubble, hope we can squeeze everything out of it.

On a different note, one of the best least well known science journals was the Industrial Physicist, the house journal of the forum on Industrial Physics of the APS. They were concise, generally good (at the Physics Today level) and informative on technological physics developments (devices etc). They also, for example, had one of the best articles I've seen on the failure of the US electrical grid the other summer, and what the long term issues are and possible fixes.
So, of course it is being shut down. Not enough readers and advertisers and too expensive. Bummer. Ah well, it will reduce my reading list backlog. At least the Forum on Physics and Society newsletter is still chugging along.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Rare Science and Mean Spoofs has a very badly written short story on the AMNH "Asimov" debate on Rare Earth, see story here.
Alarm bells went off when Goldreich and Tremaine's names were spelled incorrectly. I hope the debate was better and more informative than the story.

While I am on it, go visit AMNH and the Rose Planetarium if you're in NY. Went there for the opening of the planetarium. Good show.

Peter Woit at Columbia has an often interesting and provocative blog. For April 1st he had a joke entry on the new STRINGS institute at Stanford. Sorry, not funny, though I was glad to catch up with what happened to Gerry Cleaver, a classmate of mine from Caltech. I'm not the worlds biggest string theory fan, though I spent more time on it than I care to think about now. There is probably something to it, in that the mathematics have captured some essential aspects of the theory, but we are still lacking some fundamental physical insights. But it is possible to give string theorists a hard time without getting personal.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Fischer in the Arctic

So, why did Iceland give Bobby Fischer citizenship and whisk him out of Japan just ahead of US extradition papers?

Yes, they do know he has been ranting obscene conspiratorial garbage and generally doing obnoxious things for years.

Iceland every now and then does stuff like that, sort of by accident (like when they accidentally announced that the Baltics should be independent from Russia, as NATO policy). It usually boils down to a small number of people sitting in a hot tub pushing some emotional buttons. In the Fischer case, as before, it is a knee-jerk favouring of an underdog that is being outmatched, and there's this vague "but he made some people take notice of Iceland" warm fuzzies.

This can get us into trouble. Since I think they will resist extradition on whatever grounds the US invents next (I think Fischer was wrong to go play in Serbia in 1992, from what little I know of the circumstances, I also think the US justice department is severly misinterpreting the law in thinking that this was a prosecutable offence; as to whether he owes taxes, well that depends on when his renounciation of US citizenship was effective - when he said or when they said).

Yes, he will turn on Iceland and say something obscenely shocking and insulting about us, I think everyone there knows it and expects it. But insane people should be treated not jailed, the man deserves sympathy and medication, not persecution and prosecution.

So, bottom line, warm fuzzies, sympathy for someone who did us a good turn once, and compassion for the sick. There are worse reasons to piss off superpowers.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Self-Perpetuating Oligarchies

What is the purpose of a University?

Well, first and foremost, it is to ensure its own continued existence. Universities are among the oldest, most stable institutions in the world; they are competitive with monolithic theocracies, water empires and parliamentary democracies in duration - and are arguably stabler to schisms (or handle them more gracefully) than the former and more enduring than the latter. They do this by being self-perpetuating oligarchies, they are self-selecting elitists; and by being independent to the extent they can while assiduously tapping social resources, both through appeal to their core population and through manipulation of social institutions (cf the Oxbridge influence on the British Civil Service, or the role of the tax code in encouraging donations to US universities). Mostly harmless too.

But, a quick order of magnitude analysis shows that at most about 1% of the output of universities are required to perpetuate themselves (at the simplest level, for example, Penn State graduates ~ 8-10,000 students per year, and to sustain ~ 2000 faculty it hires ~ 50-100 per year; fudge factors for satellite campuses and non-tenure track professional staff, we only want the order of magnitude here). So what is the point of the rest of the university members, aka students, other than having a larger pool to choose the future oligarchs from of course? [BTW - note that if you are a prospective university student who wants to maximise the probability of being a professor (WHY anyone would want this is a separate issue to be considered), then your odds are maximised, at some fixed level of high enough ability, by taking the least popular major. Er, like the physical sciences, or classics or something].

So what to do with the rest??? Well, there are the professional schools, successfully assimilated into universities. Engineers, medical doctors, lawyers, architects, etc - professions requiring university level education but whose intake at the social level is governed by independent (oligarchic) professional societies (note that the sciences are generally not professions, there are membership societies but they are voluntary associations requiring either buddy nominations, or merely a degree and a check, not independent certification of actual working competence). There's also the secondary professions, like business studies, education and psychology, which are at the same education level, but not generally governed by professional societies as such. That accounts for a fair fraction.

But, the bulk of students receive general "liberal" education. Not in the political sense, but in the sense of having studied a broad but advanced curriculum in the academic arts, having achieved some level of proficiency in some subject. Note that to some extent many useful, but advanced skill avocations are somewhat separate from this category - so nursing schools and fine arts conservatories may be associated with liberal arts universities, or not, but rather may be independent organizations or associated with technical institutions. So, the bulk of the university students are intended to study history, or literature, or a language or some general skill, that per se is not associated with a particular job in society.

So, why? And why do people pay serious money to do this, governments and charities organize huge subsidies for people to do this, and most importantly society incurs a massive opportunity cost by letting some of the most talented young people avoid work for ~ 4 years.

Well, first of all, this creates a talent pool for society; you never know when you might need a few hundred pashto speakers or experts on the history of the British conquest of the Middle East. Secondly, as a matter of experience, the discipline to study, assimilate new ideas, check facts, debate uncertainties and publicly present arguments is a valuable skill set in and of itself (one that could arguably be taught more efficiently without the time spent on Austen novels in the process, except we're never quite sure which of those skill sets are needed next). Oh, and maths. There can not be too many people with knowledge of as much mathematics as possible; people in general are shockingly innumerate, and any time spent teaching those who can take it any bit of numeracy, calculus, statistics or computational techniques is time well spent.

But, that leaves out the other two major functions of universites: one is that they are a meritocratic path to advancement, which is robust and orthogonal to the other great levelers (armed forces and mercantilism, in societies with open enough social structures). If you're good enough at something, a university will snatch you up, and try to develop you and place you (and universities have extraordinary placement networks); at its root, this is the system for self-perpetuation, but with bells and whistles to leverage the meritocracy into broader society. And universities try to make sure their own members are at least somewhat comfortable (instant metric - can the children of faculty afford to attend the university?). This is a Good, it promotes social mobility and rewards ability and hard work. It is an imperfect system of course (hey, if you know an infallible system to identify potential ability in untutored youth, we'll take it!), but every bit helps.
The other grand effect of a university education, and one actively promoted since we're aware of it,is Social Networking; both peer networking (like alumni preferences, and the somewhat unsavoury preferences given to children of well connected parents) and the critical role of taking people out of their social contexts and introducing them to new ones. Whether people later go back to their roots and bring back the experience, or they assimilate into a new social strata, the net effect is one of social mobility and homogenizing influences. And, historically, this has been liberalising and beneficial, although there are constant social pressures towards exclusivity and social segregation, both for any university as a whole (consider for example the social roles of some of the southern state universities in the US and the division between minority institutions, the landed old money institutions and the A&M colleges) and within universities (for a contemporary example, look at the spontaneous social segregation at lunchtime in most school cafetarias).
That is the other role of universities, and one they have done quite successfully. Incidentally, in the liberal democracies, the armed forces are the other institutions that have in effect served this role, by promoting to some extent on merit, mixing social classes within ranks, and geographically moving people around. The mercantile path is not intrinsically configured to serve these roles, but sometimes does so incidentally. Not coincidentally, "self-made" merchants are not infrequently contemptuous of the universities and their output...

Phew. Who knew. Oh, and sports... I don't know how US universities became training camps for professional sports, but at least this fits in with a couple of their major social roles, if somewhat imperfectly. And, having competing self-perpetuating oligarchies is awkward, better to assimilate them (anybody mention ROTC?).

Friday, April 01, 2005


(If this sounds suspicously like the current thread in Sean Carroll's blog, that is not at all coincidental, along with many others this is one of our graduate student recruitment weekends, and it is schmooze time to the max; though that is not why I am actually too busy to properly blog, it is secondary).

So, the grads are here, almost time for "So, you want to be an astrophysicist, Part 2, but not until after April 15 I think. It is hard sometimes to advice the students, since they are mostly astronomy grads, applying to an astro program, whereas I was a mathematical physics major, and did a physics PhD in a physics department. Back then String Theory was fading from its first renaissance, and prospects looked grim, the Superconducting Supercollider was a distant prospect that was causing excitement, condensed matter physics had not resurged yet, funding prospects looked grim, and there was faint hope that a new NASA mission called COBE might soon make an obscure sub-field called cosmology into a real science. Hubble had just launched, and found to be flawed, there was hope for a repair, but no certainty. Infra-red astronomy was a new field that very few had experience of, but radio astronomy was active and a new x-ray satellite called ROSAT was returning unprecedented data. Ah, the Good Old Days. Not!

There is significantly more activity and capability now, and some very interesting future directions; especially in exoplanets, near and mid-infrared, possible resurgence of radio astronomy and prospects for actual gravitational radiation detections, Real Soon Now. Ah, which to choose. Choose wisely.

So, Universities: the Perfect Self-Perpetuating Oligarchies. What good are they, what with Freedom Reigning all over the place, including even Florida. We shall have to examine this at some point. And do some serious cat blogging, I don't know how other people get their cats to stay still long enough to take digital pictures...