Sunday, September 24, 2006

Some Links, Some Thoughts

On science related topics:

Peter Woit writes about "open access" journals.. You probably know that scientific theories and experimental results are supposed to be published in "peer reviewed" journals. You may not know that the only subscribers to the physical copies of these journals are university libraries. That's because those subscriptions are expensive. Or that no one these days ever really looks at the physical copies. The university library usually has a subscription to the electronic edition too, you see, much easier to access. (But also expensive.)

Also these days many papers are available on the so-called "arXiv". (The X is a greek Chi. Get it?) Papers on the arXiv have not been peer reviewed yet, may not ever actually be published. But since results appear there months earlier than in the journals, and since papers which will end up in all different journals are available there in a single place, it's very popular.

So to me, the question is, does it make sense to write papers to fit the limitations of print? The shortage of space in print journals means that there is usually no room for a whole derivation, so equations are presented without justification. Results taken from huge data sets are summarized in single graphs. Basically, everything has to be compressed until it's so cryptic that even "peer" reviewers (who are not always specialists in the precise sub-fields of the papers they're sent) have little chance of working out whether the equations make sense or whether the results are reasonable.

And, of course, lots of papers are rejected by the more prestigious journals, not because they're wrong, but because you can only fit so much in an issue. This makes the ego-driven, status-seeking aspects of "publication" even worse.

But the "Open Access" movement apparently doesn't want to move to electronic journals, but to pay-to-publish print journals!

Speaking of the ego-driven, status seeking aspects of publishing: Piled Higher and Deeper has a simple diagram of how it works.

Okay, but before I get too cynical, I'll go on to "Cocktail Party Physics," a non-academic, un-mathematical blog by science writer and Buffy fan Jennifer Ouellette. Her enthusiasm for the subject usually restores my own a little, (so does Pyracantha's.) Inspired by the internet holiday called "Talk Like a Pirate Day," she proposes Talk like physicist day. I think we should combine them. Argh, matey, that plank is a simple harmonic oscillator and you're about to find out its natural frequency!

And Chad Orzel, a working researcher in (more or less) my own field, reminds me that as frustrating as the impossible experiments we try to do on our cold atoms may be, the basic idea of laser cooling is still pretty awesome. He describes the first time he heard of it, as an undergraduate "Right about there, I was hooked, just because it's such a wonderfully counter-intuitive idea. When you think about hitting something with a laser, you don't imagine that it'll get cold.". He then describes the basic concepts involved, continued in the following post. This is the theory behind a lot of the stuff our lab does, if you're at all curious. Ken is the university's laser cooling and trapping expert, these days, as the operator of the only working atom trap. Even when the research is stalled, that's still a pretty cool position to hold.

Finally, Mark Chu-Carroll has a post about working in a academia versus working in industry from the point of view of someone who works in industry. Of course, his field is computer science, but a lot of what he says seems to be true in general. He says, "When I started working on my PhD, I had no intention of going to work at an industry research lab. I went to get my PhD specifically because I wanted to teach." The story of how he wound up where he is, especially the parts about not having as many publications as he'd've liked, and research politics, and the constraints of being married to someone with her own career, and the fun he had working at his current lab as an intern compared with the pressure to get grants and get papers published in academia, are all really interesting to me. And the fact that he's so happy with how it worked out is very encouraging.

It's also really encouraging that some post-doc friends of mine recently got permanent jobs of their own, outside the academic track (and in very diverse places.) We'll probably see one of them, at least, at a conference we're attending next month (my first one! I'm nervous about it.)

In the end, the best advice is probably Timothy Burke's. Accept that your first job out of college or grad school is not going to be great. Accept that you're going to be paying some dues. Just because you don't get the cool job right away, doesn't mean you never will... So I should relax.

I'll try.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

September Poem

Dunno what this one means, but it suits my mood.

W.H. Auden

For what as easy
For what thought small,
For what is well
Because between,
To you simply
From me I mean.

Who goes with who
The bedclothes say,
As I and you
Go kissed away,
The data given,
The senses even.

Fate is not late,
Nor the speech rewritten,
Nor one word forgotten,
Said at the start
About heart,
By heart, for heart.

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Final Frontier

I'm a fan of the space program. Not a hardcore fan, maybe, not a self-made expert like some I've known. But, y'know, I watched Apollo 13 four or five times in theaters and the HBO series "From the Earth to the Moon" and "The Right Stuff" and then I read some of the books that those are based on. And yesterday I picked up We Seven, purporting to be an account of the "most magnificent adventure of modern times, told by the heroes who achieved it" -- the Mercury astronauts.

And then there's all the science fiction dating back to the early days of the space program that I still love. When I bought the Mercury book, I also picked up Stowaway to Mars by John Wyndham. "An international prize of over a million dollars was being offered to the first man to complete an interplanetary journey. Target -- Mars. [...] Dale Curtance of England didn't need the fortune. He was a millionaire. He was an eccentric. But most of all he was an adventurer and he was determined to win. [...] There were going to be many surprises. And they all began with the stowaway aboard Curtance's ship. A stowaway to Mars. A woman."

Who could resist that?

The great part about space travel is that it blurs the line between science fiction and reality. For instance, there is the X Prize Cup, which has already awarded a ten million dollar prize to a spacecraft developed by a billionaire. Now they plan to offer more prizes. And a British billionaire has joined forces with the American one to try to put the prize-winning craft to use.

And NASA really is planning to go to Mars, and back to the moon. The Constellation program borrows ideas from Apollo (and so resembles the science fiction of that era too) for the design of a vehicle versatile enough to handle both, supposedly, and dock with a space station too. Lockheed Martin got the contract. They're hiring in Colorado. My mom sent me an e-mail alert. But I don't really want to build it, so much as fly in it... Maybe I'll stow away.

Realistically, private space tourism is probably is the only way I'm ever going to get any kind of taste of space. Right now it's a little out of my price range, around $20 million to go up aboard a Russian Soyuz and an extra $15 million if you actually want to do a spacewalk. I'm saving up.

There is one other option. You can move to a small country and talk them into buying fighter planes from Russia, and hope the Russians throw a trip in to "sweeten the deal". That's how Malaysia's getting its first astronaut to space. Whoever it is will attempt to make Teh Tarik (pulled tea) in space. This will be a challenge because, normally, it involves pouring "boiling-hot milky tea swiftly and repeatedly from one vessel held high in one hand into another held low, producing a distinctive layer of froth."

If I ever go into space, I'm going to drink my national beverage: Diet Coke. I can think of all kinds of experiments to do with that. Shaking the can, ditching the can altogether, maybe even bringing along some Mentos.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Happy Birthday to Me

Actually I did have a happy birthday yesterday. I love that my birthday falls 1) on or near a three day weekend, every year 2) at the beginning of my favorite season. And now that it's not "back to school time" for me anymore (I never left), my only worry is allergies. What the heck is it that blooms in September and makes my nose go nuts?

But the season is worth the sneezing. In Chicagoland, fall is by far the nicest time of year. Seventy degree days with golden sunshine and cool lake breezes. And yesterday was the most beautiful day in the history of the Earth. I went for a long run, interrupted in the middle by a little while laying on a bench and watching the sailboats pass in front of the skyline and letting myself be hypnotized by the sunlight flashing on the water.

I got a bracelet, money, flowers and (yet to come) running shoes from my parents. I asked for the running shoes. From my husband, I got, not the new watch I had asked for, but my beloved old one, repaired. He snuck out and got this done while I was making copies the other day, never even knew he'd left. I also got a new wallet (the one I had was in shreds, but I hadn't been able to find one like it) and and candy and glow in the dark solar system and Star Wars stickers. I will be taking general relativity soon, after all. A girl's got to decorate her binder.

He also took me out to dinner -- capellini pomodoro, red wine, and chocolate cheese cake, with a candle. Mmmm.

Then we went for a walk, back out in that beautiful sunshine. And I got phone calls from family, and fell asleep watching the Saturday night B-movie on Svengoolie. I tell ya -- this is the life.