Saturday, December 22, 2012

This is a long read, but I found it pretty interesting. A guy who abandoned his goal of entering the academic linguistics world, but still had the drive to contribute bycreating a new language. But at one point he's quoted as:

I was surrounded by all these people hanging on my every word. It was intoxicating-especially for a loner like me. For one day, I got to play as an academic. I got to live this fantasy where I took the other path in the garden. I got to see what it would have been like if I had gone to graduate school and become a professional linguist. The fates of the universe tore open a window to show me what my life could have been. That night, I went back to my room, took a shower, and burst into tears.

Umm, where are these people hanging on to my every word? Am I doing this wrong?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Naughty, Naughty Boy

This guy's no physicist (but did major in math as an undergrad), but he is an academic who got in trouble with financial reimbursements from his University: Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociologist at Columbia of whom you may have heard via the best-seller Freakonomics which features his work prominently.

This type of financial ''discrepancy'' doesn't seem terribly uncommon, but I don't see how this happens as much as it seems, given how tight and controlled most university's systems are. It's probably just that my mind isn't built to see the ways to abuse the system (that's not supposed to sound as immodest as it does).

His story and rise to academic stardom though is quite emblematic of how the academic world deviates from a pure meritocracy. Not to take anything away from the guy, but he clearly knows how to work the system and it's hard to believe there aren't many others who have gained far less with work just as significant.

A bit more can be found at the Freakonomics blog.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

I've had a number of things to share over the past few months, but none significant enough to merit a blog posting (as if that were a high hurdle!). It even crossed my mind for the first time that Twitter might be appropriate for communication.

My physics life, as opposed to family/friends/etc, has been up-and-down recently. I was riding high, feeling confident for a while...invitations to talk or visit, emails about recent papers, new projects with interesting collaborators, a phone interview with an interesting university.

Now, not so much.  No response to my latest from some folks interested in a paper. Not even a "thank you but..." from the search committee. One collaborator has gone completely AWOL, hopefully just because he's too busy. A big snafu with some refereeing has left me pissed at some editors. A bunch of grant proposals are submitted, but given the current financial situation (e.g. "fiscal cliff") facing the U.S. right now, it's hard to be optimistic.

I know things go up and down and I've got enough experience and job security to ride it out. But it's not fun.

Friday, April 27, 2012


Chad links to this piece at the CHE, from which I quote:

But academe is a profession of opposites. Long periods of social isolation—research and writing—are punctuated by brief periods of intense social engagement: job interviews, teaching, conferences, and meetings. One reason that completion rates for graduate programs are so low—and unhappiness levels so high—is, I suspect, because students are not selected for the full range of aptitudes they will need to be successful in graduate school. And there are few if any supports in place for those students who struggle with the extremes of introversion and extroversion that academe demands.

I've often mentioned to students that being outgoing and social is a huge asset in academe, and I often get confusion. People don't think of physicists as social or outgoing. I've long struggled with these aspects, though not as much as some. I'm easily in the introverted category, but I don't obviously lack social skills (those who know me well often laugh at my lapses, but among physicists I can blend it rather well). In any case, I never quite thought of it as a contrast. But of course it is. Even in the comfort of one's own institution, there are encounters with colleagues, students, etc. These are generally pretty manageable...if I feel overwhelmed, I can always retreat to my office with a closed door. However, one day during a vacation, I had to run into the office to get something. While walking across an empty campus, a woman walks towards me whom I completely ignore, until, up close, she says "hi." I look up, completely baffled and mute. It must have been fifteen seconds till my mind could bring up my database and realize I knew her. But it was too late. Unsure of what to do, not wanting to insult her, I emailed her saying I was spaced out and didn't mean to ignore her. More accurately I just wasn't prepared. I imagine an extrovert simply doesn't need to mentally prepare for an encounter. They naturally make the most of such an encounter. But seconds matter and one can get better at this stuff. It takes more than reading tips in blogs. It takes practice.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Everyday physics questions

Some of these are better than others. Feel free to discuss in the comments. I doubt I'll post my answers unless some sort of argument breaks out. At best, these might be interesting, and at worst, they should give non-physicists some idea of what's going through the physicists head when the conversation turns boring:

  • when one goes to return the shampoo bottle to its place, its moment of inertia is generally much larger than when you picked it up. The moment of inertia is essentially a measure of a rigid body's resistance to rotation, and therefore one might naively think it would be more stable after use. However, that's clearly not the case. So the first question is why? The second is: is there some limit in which the increase to the moment of inertia would be the dominant effect so that one could construct a shampoo bottle that is unconditionally stable about its bottom?
  • Walking down the street, one observes someone who is otherwise well covered and obscured by clothing, but who has some cleavage apparent. As this person walks towards you, you observe the limited cleavage heaving up and down a bit. The question is: can one legitimately estimate the endowment by the time-scale of the heaving or instead does one just instinctively increase ones estimate (given there's so little else to go on) simply because there is motion at all? In other words, are the variables too many...speed, type of walking motion, type of support clothing provide any real estimate? [Sorry for the crassness...]
  • Seeing a Smart car, I am struck by the fact that it is so small but yet the fuel economy isn't particular good, compared to other micro-cars. If one considers good economy cars and then considers mopeds, the fuel economy roughly increases by a factor of two. What is the ultimate (ie physical) limit of fuel economy? Clearly certain assumptions have to go into such a limit, but how many?

Sunday, March 25, 2012


So I've got this paper to referee, this horribly written mess. Among its author list are esteemed people I know who clearly didn't even read the full text. It's a silly paper just to pad the CVs of some listed. I know I'm supposed to just sign-off on it, but I can't. I know I'm supposed to point out the most atrocious of the comments and be done with things. Indeed I've already gone through and mentioned most of them. But now I'm thinking of deleting them all and telling the editors that they should publish as is! Right away! Maybe with footnotes next to the most ridiculous stuff saying explicitly that all the authors agree on these points. What do you think?

In any case, I just worry a bit about anonymity...the editors know who is doing the refereeing, and the editors can be pretty chummy with certain folks. Indeed, when one does email reviews of NSF proposals, the panel *sees* who wrote the review! Maybe something similar happens here...someone on the editorial board finds out, and lets the authors know how obnoxious and insulting I was to these people.

But here's the kicker...I'm pissed off that I've probably spent more time "editing" this paper than some of the established authors!

Friday, March 02, 2012


I'm somewhat sympathetic to those reluctant to accept anthropogenic global warming (AGW). Indeed, it seems that for many their reluctance is in large part a reaction to the force with which "they" try to force it on people. So instead of trying to argue the science, let me try respond gently to certain fair, but likely misguided points, that some of these "deniers" make:

  • they don't reject science, but instead choose which scientists to accept: I think what many people fail to realize is that one can find scientists who say the craziest things. Even Nobel-winning physicists have some crazy ideas. Sure, science isn't a democracy, but when just a small minority of scientists take a certain opinion, the odds are against their being correct. And so one could choose to accept that relativity is wrong, that the mechanics even of the very small is truly deterministic, that evolution is wrong, that the big bang never happened. Heck, moving beyond science, one could choose to believe those who are sure mankind never visited the moon, that six million people didn't die in the Holocaust, etc.
  • climate scientists are motivated to scare the public to maintain their jobs: Ok, fair enough. But aren't we all motivated out of self-preservation?  However, it wouldn't occur to me to publish something I didn't think was true for some professional gain. Besides the dishonesty, I would fear the inevitable refutation by other scientists. Academic scientists are no saints, but I think it fair to say that the motivations are more likely to have them steal the ideas and credit of others rather than to attempt to steer a research program along some particular agenda. And could they even pull such a global conspiracy off? But even if you dispute this, surely one so misanthropically inclined would have even greater suspicion of the intents and effectiveness of huge multi-national companies supporting the denier community.
  • there are many instances of mistakes or disputed claims. The science is either wrong or not well established: Deniers have often referred me to read the denier blogs. However, what these blogs generally have are fine-scale critiques of certain small claims, but with titles suggesting a larger scale of the critiques. I think what many scientists are good at is reading a paper and assessing weakness and strengths. Just because there may be some valid criticism of some aspect of some certain research, that's not necessarily an indictment of the entire field. Right now, I'm trying to figure out how critical to be in my paper which basically says that a competitor is wrong. But at the same time, the competitor is wrong in degree because he's over simplifying. As such, his overall position isn't even as "wrong" as the deniers claim about AGW. This isn't a court of justice with a final verdict. It's a messy, complicated system that we need to understand.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

It's hard out here for a physicist

"Trying to write a pseudonymous blog that wouldn't be immediately identifiable as me would require an awful lot of effort, more effort than would be worth it for the sake of blowing off a little steam."
Chad Orzel

So true, so true. It's darn hard. And what are the rewards? I get
no credit, no acclaim. Heck, I hardly get any readers. It all started
with my reviews. I actually take reviewing seriously which makes me an
attractive mark reviewer for editors. Here I was
tsk-tsking the elders of the field on sloppiness, and then running
into them just a few weeks later. Anonymity wasn't enough to protect I'd use different "voices" in my reports. There was the uptight
who never ended a sentence with a proposition, no matter how awkward
things might get. Then there was the folksy neighbor using non-words
such as "ain't" and beginning sentences with "And another thing..."

So for this blog, it's tough. I'd love to tell stories about meeting
famous physicists, or casually bring up some invitation to speak. Or
even just pointing out interesting papers on the arXiv. But this
community is small. I was chatting about someone's research last week
and wanted to make fun of what a certain physics blogger we all know
and love would think of the work. Just an hour later, looking at some of
this guy's previous papers, he's published with that same physicist!

Anywho, I'm a complainer. I go through financial institutions pretty
quickly. I know this. However, I still maintain that, no matter how
trivial they might be, my complaints are still legitimate. So having
gotten nowhere with one such institution, I closed my accounts with them
and subsequently posted to a finance forum, explaining what happened.
I had heard stories of customers doing similarly and actually hearing
back from institutions trying to make things right in fear of such

So what did I get? Tons of pity, sympathy, advice, consolation? Oh no.
There was some biting, albeit funny, jokes speculating what kind of
curmudgeon I was. But mostly it was people lambasting me expecting
good service and for complaining. Indeed, they just assumed
I had yelled at the CSR on the phone despite the fact that I neither
yelled nor mentioned yelling in my post. People were mean and, I was actually
a bit surprised that it had any effect on me. Here I was, anonymously
posting, and people's hurtful comments about an issue that was done
and over with were bothering me. It's hard for me to even extrapolate
what some teenager might go through with non-anonymous trashing in
social media.

So I concluded that people pretty much suck. They litter, they smoke
near entryways, they drive slowly in the passing lane, and they
perpetuate annoyances such as Rush Limbaugh and Nigerian email scams,

Anyway, one of the things I struggle to communicate concerns the drive
in this profession. I'm friends with a wide range of physicists. The
spectrum pretty much spans the range from those content to teach a few
classes and who do no those who have many pots in the fire,
students working on all manner of things, running from collaborative
meeting to another. I say it's a spectrum, but if one actually introduced
a measure on it, I doubt they're many in between the extremes. I
suspect it's a pretty bimodal distribution. Me? I'm special. Neh, rare!

I always maintain a few pots in the fire, but I'm pretty laid back. I
have a competitive drive to compete with peers. But at the same time,
I want to enjoy the trip. And really I'm not sure where the drive
comes from. It's not that I enjoy the competition.