Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Good use for Macs?

Continuing in the tradition of putting old
computers to good use, Gizmodo
shows us this old Mac being used as a mail box.

Blue Bell Ice Cream - The Best

NYT discusses the best ice cream I've ever had...I prefer the milk chocolate.

Monday, May 29, 2006

How important is your first job out of grad school?

There's an interesting article over at Slate about graduate student anxiety over getting faculty jobs. The article addresses whether getting a great job at research school essentially makes you a better and more influential researcher. It doesn't give much details, and deals only with some work on economics PhDs. The link to the academic study shows the paper isn't freely available.

But I'm more concerned with phrasing the question a bit differently. Say someone lucks out and gets a tenure-track job at a small, non-research college. Does this hurt their chances at moving up later to a research school? Say the person manages to get lots of work accomplished which is significant, though not trail blazing. I would imagine research schools would presume the candidate more of a teacher, especially if that person stayed long enough to get tenure.

Now imagine that same person had instead lucked out and gotten a faculty job at a research school. S/he would have lots of research support, grad students, colleagues in the same field, etc. Probably lots of invites to conferences out of which good collaborations would form. Same researcher, very different outcome.

I've got more thoughts about this that I'll probably detail in the future. Suffice it now, for me to say that there's lots of feedback in this system...all else being equal between two researchers, a bit of a push by a powerful advisor or some luck in the hiring process at an early stage can drive more and more success to that person. Indeed, even just a little "buzz" seems to attract more...very nonlinear.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Who gets credit?

Knop discusses Sean's speculations about who in cosmology might get a Nobel prize. He quickly veers off into a stream-of-consciousness-like rant about collaborations which is well worth the read for the up and coming physicists.

Someone has to tell young, pospective physics how much social dynamics comes into play...or maybe I was the only one so stupidly naive about such matters.

Physics takes all kinds, and that means there are obstinate people who are slow to publish, and who don't take much care spreading credit where credit is deserved. To be clear, there are plenty of jerks who purposefully steal credit, but I'm assuming all know to avoid those people (unless you are one of those people!). But even well intentioned people who respect this process can simply have different priorities.

Monday, May 15, 2006

The Stress of a Faculty Job

At Uncertain Principles, he discusses stomach problems associated with the stress of being a faculty member. He also links to a rather longer, but interesting column on the same subject. I worked like a dog the first years of my faculty job, but not so much out of stress but because there was so much I wanted to get done, as mentioned in the column:

As one online colleague posted, “"The work is infinite. There is always one more thing you could, should, would like to do." The industry encourages workaholism.

Another quote that is spot on:

Most professors I know feel impotent. They may be forced into either coddling students, watering down curriculum, or passing students who have not earned a passing grade. Those who do not give in may find themselves labeled as "outdated"” or, worse yet, a political outcast. In today's consumer-driven world, holding the line is becoming more and
more dangerous--not only for institutions, but for individual professors as well.

It's still a great job. I can't even imagine having any other type of job.

Physics At Work

Have you ever been there when professional movers actually do the heavy lifting? They're very smart. They use straps to get good use of their muscles. They hold big things in interesting ways such as on their backs for the best leverage and control. It's physics at work where many may not expect it.

The reason I think of it is because of this post at Gizmodo. I'll have to remember to mention this example to all my students who think physics is for ivory tower physics geeks.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Should you buy that extended warranty or rental car insurance?

A nice, short read on buying extra rental car insurance (and "extra" warranties on things such as cell phones). Basically, "they" can greatly overcharge for the insurance because people like it:

Economic psychologists have determined that we find it impossible to put our losses into context. I should recognize that the value of my home fluctuates every hour by more than the value of the cell phone I put through the washing machine—but it will be the loss of the phone that upsets me, and it is the risk of that upset that the phone insurers will try to emphasize.

I find much of the academic business world a bit...nebulous, but I think economics is pretty cool.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

David Blaine's Contributions to Science

I don't watch Blaine's stunts, but I'm glad to hear that his corporal abuse (note the $10 word) is put to some use as mentioned in Salon. Apparently, after he starved himself for 44 days, they studied what happened when they fed him again and reported the results in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Faculty meetings, arghh!

Over at Uncertain Principles, he's got an interesting theory to explain why scientists resent faculty meetings while those in the humanities don't. Is that really the case? I don't know.

I do know I don't like the meetings, not so much because they cut into my research time. Afterall, sometimes I can't seem to get anything done, but that doesn't make me resent the meetings any less.

No, I don't like them because they tend to be so ineffectual. There's always at least one, and usually two, who love the sound of their voice. And the most trivial of items gets the most attention. And they run so long. And the faculty who don't know me, think I'm some student interloper! (I don't look that young, but since I go to so few meetings, most people don't know me).

SGI computers are still worth something!

Seeing the use put to this old SGI machine, you wonder why they didn't try to use it as a heater. It's a bit sad...not so much that SGI has finally declared bankruptcy.

Via Gizmodo.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Mad Scientists are not (necessarily) Angry Physicists

Slate has an slide show of mad scientists from old time movies.

Teach nonscience majors uncertainty?

Is it a complete waste of time to try to teach experimental uncertainty to non-science majors?

Getting science majors to understand the idea of uncertainty is tough enough. However, I can usually get some significant fraction of a class to get the general idea. But non-science majors?

I'm not talking about having them propagate uncertainties or otherwise calculate anything. But it seems to me that they should be able to grasp that limitations of your measurement give you some idea as to whether your percent error is big or small.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Student Thesis don't always workout!

Steinn muses on how sometimes a thesis (presumably undergrad?) magically works out in the end. Let me testify that sometimes it's the opposite. Sometimes a student starts out great, does lots of stuff on his/her own, and then when it comes time to write it up at the end of senior year when the weather gets better, the student goes completely AWOL with only the errant email about how he/she has worked hard enough! I even had one email asking me to sign off on the thesis saying that she thought "it is pretty much done."

Student evaluations

Uncertain Principles has some good advice about student evaluations. At my school, I find the students remarkably bad at evaluating a class. And of course it's always funny (and very sad) pointing out the horrible grammar. One semester I taught a new class and one I had taught many times. The evaluations came back with high scores for "knowledge of the material" in the new class and low scores in the other. The answer to such a paradox was simply that low-scored class was calculus based physics which was very hard.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Gravity experiments at UW

Lubos mentions the work done by the Eotwash group at the University of Washington.

Besides giving string theory a bit too much credit for the idea of extra dimensions:

...with a review of Newton's theory, general relativity, old large dimensions, and warped dimensions, among other possibilities inspired by string theory.

which have been around since soon after Einstein published his general theory,
he seems to simplify things a bit too much. I'm no expert here, but the usual thing is that there's a parameter space of deviations from Newton's laws, one axis of which is the size of the extra dimension(s).

The Eotwash group has done some great work closing off much of this space, but there are still regions they can't reach.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Cool water droplets

Slashdot has a post on some cool experiments with water (and other liquid) droplets. I saw this a few weeks back in the NYT Science section (every Tuesday).

I'm trying to post the picture here, but Blogger doesn't play too nicely with Opera (the best browser I've seen).

Check out the movies though!

Final days of the Spring Semester

Classes are finishing up here! I'm always in a good mood at the end of Spring semester. The promise of so much time to do research with none of the angst of wondering whether I'm being sufficiently productive. Of course, accompanying such a high point is the corresponding point near the beginning of Fall when, after putting it off as long as I can, I finally have to prepare for my Fall semester classes. That horrible feeling of disappointment that I could have gotten more done is the price one pays for these days. Oh well. It's these feelings that feed the drive to research...many family members outside academia don't understand how one can have the self-discipline to research (especially when one has tenure already).

It's strange because I always thought I was kind of lazy. Just doing chores such as taking out the garbage took so much effort (I've since seen studies that the laziness of teenagers is somehow biological). I guess it's true that if you find a profession that you like to do, you don't have to work a day in your life (except faculty meetings!).

Advice for grad students

Part of the reason I started this blog was to give advice to future physicists, advice that I wished I had gotten (and that I was ready to receive it).

Steinn gives some advice...addressed to budding astrophysicists, but it's pretty general.

Two pieces of advice deserve more comment.

Pick an advisor you can get on with. Scientists are often "characters". Way high up on the list of "things you do not want to do" is being stuck with a PhD advisor you do not get along with.

Exactly. "Stuck" with is literal. You'll need letters of reference from this person. You'll need someone to talk you up with others and get you invited to talks, etc. I'm talking years and years after you graduate (and of course there are all the horror stories of advisors' behavior *during* grad school!).

And then there's this:

Introduce yourself to the speaker if possible. Go to lunch or dinner or coffee, or meet formally, if you can. Be nice.
These people will often remember you, they may be your future employers, or friends of your future employer, they are virtually certain to be reviewing a proposal or something of yours eventually.

Again, this needs to be emphasized. You need to know people and people need to know you. The powerful physicists are extremely lazy :) and often have to recommend someone for an invited talk or a job or somesuch. Whom do they pick? Someone they know, someone they like, someone in their "camp" (whatever that means). Notice little emphasis on merit.