Saturday, October 28, 2006

Academic Bill of Rights

Many might not be aware of the campaign (neh, crusade) by the likes of David Horowitz and his ilk to "embiggen" government to counteract the horribly corrosive work of us ultra-liberal professors. It's a pretty silly thing, but like so many other silly movements, it has already done some damage.

Anyway, the Washington Post has a well-written opinion piece arguing against these efforts by a senior undergrad at a small school in a state that wants to force heterosexuals to get divorced, or something like that.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Chillin' over your H-Score

Chad, Steinn, Scott, Rob, and probably many others are stressing/discussing their H-score. Chill. Only certain places would resort to such a crude measure.

I looked up my score. I won't reveal so as not to brag :) (or likewise, so as not to embarrass myself, depending on one's perspective). And then, of course, I looked up others. Plugged in a couple well respected, well established researchers who had comparable numbers to me.

Then I plugged in a couple of real know people who copy what others do, add nothing new and publish. Then they tweak the smallest of things which really should have been in the paper they just put out, but they make it into a new paper. The people in the field see they're just padding their CVs, but to those outside, it's much more difficult to see there's nothing there. Of course, their numbers are significantly higher.

I really don't see that this metric avoids the gaming of the system that people do.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Phone Interview Thoughts

There's a blog by a programmer that many readers here probably don't have much experience with, but he tends to make a lot of sense about things related to programming in the real world. Anyway, the reason I mention it is that he has some perspective on the phone interview as a filter of applicatnt. It might benefit those on the physics job hunt. In particular, I was very happy to see this quote:

During this stage, you should be looking for evidence that the candidate is a problem solver: the kind of person who gets things done.

That's one thing I find separates good physicists from bad. Not how smart they are, but whether they get things done. The worst offenders don't have any clue that they get nothing done.

Sean is everywhere

I see Sean is giving a talk at NSF next January titled Dark Energy, or Worse: Was Einstein Wrong?.

And he also shows up in Overbye's latest today in the NYT (free sub. reqd.) defending the Big Bang theory (which seems in excellent shape).

Nothing against Sean, but these invites and mentionings tend to coalesce to the same people. The "deciders" start seeing the same name, and when they need a cosmologists (in this case), they figure they can't go wrong picking this person. One might say these people get their name out there for a reason, which is certainly partly true. The thing is, a few years back, I saw the same person invited to something like three conferences in a row and this person gave essentially the same talk. Nothing new, and nothing groundbreaking. So it can get out of hand and can be pretty demoralizing to others.

But, again, it's not the invitee's fault, it's those in power. And Sean is a very good speaker. So do go see him if you're near Arlington, VA.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Brian May? Anyone? Anyone?

Guitarist for the rock group Queen, Brian May used to be a doctoral student in astronomy. Cool. Well, he's back to astronomy putting out a book on the Big Bang with others, saying

"I think there's a sort of purity about both of them," he said recently, according to The Guardian newspaper. "Because you can immerse yourself in thoughts of the universe, or in music, and you're really abstracted. You're a million miles away from all your worries and personal problems and the dust and smoke of where you are."

Sunday, October 22, 2006


Cocktail Party Physics has a nice post on bridges and traffic. Some comments:

  • GI Jane was a very good movie, no matter what any movie snobs might think.

  • The new Woodrow Wilson Bridge (the link takes you to some online video clips) was the feature of a recent Extreme Engineering show on the Discovery Channel. It was pretty cool. There's another episode on the new Hoover Dam Bypass Bridge.

  • I liked the site she links to concerning the effects on our own driving. I only had time for a quick look, but it looks spot on.

Tillman Brothers

You heard the story about Pat Tillman? Not the manufactured one (I'm anxious to see Eastwood's Flag of Our Fathers), but the real one? There's a very good telling from last month at Sports Illustrated.

The reason I mention it because of a piece by his brother (who was with him in Iraq) railing against the current Administration.

I struggle against thinking my opinions are simply better than others who disagree with me, but I've pretty much given up that struggle and agree with Kevin Tillman when he warns

So don’t be shocked when our grandkids bury much of this generation as traitors to the nation, to the world and to humanity.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Not much

Well, I think the "string wars" are settling down (at least on the blogosphere). I was getting a bit tired of it. Sean over at CosmicVariance is giving advice on what to take in college and which college you might want to attend. I don't really agree with most of it, but I've forgotten the particular points...let's see if I can remember any of them. Well, for starters I think lab is important. Not that I liked it, nor that I didn't try my darndest to get out of it. But I certainly learned important stuff (if nothing else, that I shouldn't try to make a career in the lab). I'm probably stretching the analogy, but you don't coach football having never may not have to be a good player, but it seems you should have played it. And core curricula? Ugghh, I was on our core curriculum committee once. Biggest waste of time ever. Sure there are lots of immature students out there for whom it makes sense to dictate what they take. But for the likely intended audience of his blog, who wants to have these selections crammed down their throats. Foreign language? Certainly if you're gonna say no required physics lab, you don't want to force this...some people suck at foreign languages and hate it.

Anyone watching Lost? Lot's of hokey, physicsy (kind of like "truthiness") stuff? Have some time to waste? Check out what people way too into it have to say.

Even more time to waste? Check out your tax dollars in action on this Mach 10 scramjet.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Speaking of Atheism

As I mentioned recently, I'm fairly sympathetic to religious people. I can appreciate that people want some comfort in what is, at a fundamental level, a very cold universe. For me it's really no comfort once you realize it's just a constructed fairyland...I am much more comforted in the thought that I may be the only thing which actually exists. Of course, people having faith is one thing, and organized religion is quite another.

Anyway, I was reading this Salon article (free if you view their ad), and liked this quote by Richard Dawkins:

Why do you call yourself an atheist? Why not an agnostic?

Well, technically, you cannot be any more than an agnostic. But I am as agnostic about God as I am about fairies and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You cannot actually disprove the existence of God. Therefore, to be a positive atheist is not technically possible. But you can be as atheist about God as you can be atheist about Thor or Apollo. Everybody nowadays is an atheist about Thor and Apollo. Some of us just go one god further.

Oh, and for the record I am literally surrounded by quite religious people (well a significant number of them, anyway)...yes, in physics and in academia. It would seem I am not typical.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Physics Intrigue

Anyone see 60 Minutes last night? The indicted former head of HP was blaming former HP board members Tom Perkins (real rich dude who sent venture capital money Google's way) and his friend Jay Keyworth. Of interest here:

  • Perkins took off on his ultracool looking sailboat. I can't find any pictures with a quick search.
  • The story makes it seem that the superwealthy have immeasurable power...Perkins is accused of bring in the Feds, controlling the media, etc...something I can easily believe (and find quite distasteful of course).
  • They had the previous female head on to promote her book, who basically echoed similar sentiments about Perkins and Keyworth.
  • Finally, it was mentioned that Keyworth is a physicist.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Blogger-Blogger Criticism

A couple bloggers out there are saying things I don't agree with, but that's what all this blogging is about, right?

Clifford has a series of posts knocking Lee Smolin...well, he starts with Lee's appearance on a radio program, but it quickly devolves into more than that. I sympathize with Clifford...strings are his livelihood and Lee's attacking it. I think string theory and some string theorists deserve some criticism. And I think Lee is going about it in a fair way, even if I don't fully buy into all his arguments. I don't want to say too much more given that I just argued with Sean about string theory's dominance not being entirely deserved and because I'd like to see such arguments outside the Woit-Motl boxing ring be confined to civil discussion of the merits of the case.

And there's Pharyngula's comments about the Amish's views on the afterlife. PZ is calling a certain Amish guy a "kook" because he believe the dead children are better off than the survivors. If that were so, he argues, then parents should just kill their children straight away.

I'm as much an atheist as the next person and I think religion is a pretty awful construct of people coming together for protection from the dinosaurs and needing a tool to beat the underlings into submission. But PZ's on a pretty high horse with this argument. He comes off as an obnoxious, know-it-all who sees himself as better than those whom he judges.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Hiring String Theorists

  • I occasionally teach liberal arts majors, and I try to impress on them that we all think scientifically to some extent. In particular, everyone needs to be able to evaluate risk such as when they pick what car to drive, decide whether to pay for bottled water, or whether to support various anti-terror measures.

    Gizmodo links to an article about how extended warranties aren't worth their price. In other words, their price reflects a ridiculously high risk of product failure. But then many of us already knew that.

  • Sticking w/ Gizmodo, they've got a wonderful piece about an elevator car painted so that it looks like there's no floor! Very convincing picture making it look like you'd step in and fall to your death.

  • Just a quick note that I'm using Google's spreadsheets for my grades and it works quite well, saving me from having to transfer grades from work to home or from one OS to another.

  • Gordon Rails against email (what's the origin of that expression: "rails against"?). Well, not so much email per se, but spending too much time emailing. I suppose that's fair, but I will say that I've gotten through many an obstacle by the simple act of writing someone who could help me with it....about three quarters of the way into it, after carefully describing what I'm doing it hits me "eureka" what I'm forgetting.
    He also describes a busy day, lamenting "Poof! It is 11pm." Yep, being an adult can really suck. If there were a way to communicate to kids (ie. if I could only go back in time and tell myself as a kid) how nice it is to have so much free time.....

  • The NYT (free sub. reqd.) has an article about the irony of NASA winning a Nobel Prize at the same time that most of its science has been cut or cut back in the budgetary shadow of the space shuttle, the ISS, and dear leader's pet project.

  • Sean gives a pretty critical review of Smolin's latest. I haven't finished it so I'll hold off commenting too much. However, he makes a point that I tend to disagree with:

    if string theory were suddenly to fall out of favor, it seems much more likely that jobs and money would flow to particle phenomenology, astrophysics, or other areas of theory than to alternative approaches to quantum gravity.

    But then he follows with a paragraph I very much disagree with:

    It seems worth emphasizing that the dominance of string theory is absolutely not self-perpetuating. When string theorists apply for grants, they are ultimately judged by program officers at the National Science Foundation or the Department of Energy, the large majority of whom are not string theorists. (I don't know of any who are, off the top of my head.) And when string theorists apply for faculty jobs, it might very well be other string theorists who decide which are the best candidates, but the job itself must be approved by the rest of the department and by the university administration. String theorists have somehow managed to convince all of these people that their field is worthy of support; I personally take the uncynical view that they have done so through obtaining interesting results.

    Yes, this is "uncynical" it's also naive and just plain silly. Yes, the program officers are the ultimate "deciders," but it is regular physicists who are doing the reviews (either by mail or by panel).

    And when the great preponderance of theoretical high-energy physicists are string types, then who gets the invitations to talk? Who writes review papers? Who gets called up by Scientific American? The string theorists set the entire stage of deciding what and who is important. The program officers aren't off in an ivory tower deciding what to fund. They're listening to their respective community members and when the dominant voice is strings, then guess what happens?

    Now, I'm not saying string theory doesn't merit funding from "obtaining interesting results." But to suggest as Sean does, that string theory's dominance doesn't self-perpetuate is ridiculous.

    Sean is almost as wrong to suggest that the hiring process is so meritorious. From what I've seen and experienced, a department will get a position to hire and then decide in which field it will be. Lot's of politicking, and some of these lines will fall to the high energy theory group. And that's about it...they're going to hire whom they want, the rest of the department be damned (to some extent). You think Susskind is going to hire an LQG guy because the rest of Stanford wants it? No way. And you think Ashtekhar is going to be hiring Lubos anytime soon?