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 Papers on the arXiv have not been peer reviewed yet, may not ever actually be published.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.

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