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Comment Get someone else (Score 1) 480

I've worked with "Brilliant Jerks" before. As a physicist, that's a large population of my colleagues. In every instance I've encountered a person like this, a team of "regular brilliant" people working well together outperforms the jerks by a landslide.

Being effective is different than being smart and requires teamwork at high levels.

Get rid of the jerks and get someone who knows how to use intensity, passion and knowledge as part of a team.

Comment yeah? so does my lab (Score 1) 133

I think I speak for a lot of scientists when I say we all could use more funding. This isn't to say there isn't enough money out there for us to do great things, but we all need to think hard about what we're doing and why.

I know I've moved out of some research areas because I couldn't really make a compelling argument that society needed to invest in them right now.

Maybe particle physicists should think about how many billions each year we really need to spend smashing things together at near the speed of light. Sure, it's cool, but maybe we have what we can reasonably expect to get out of the field at this point. For the last 10 years, observational cosmology has been a much more cost effective investment for probing the same research areas. Maybe it's time for those guys to ramp back up.

Comment been on a jury? (Score 2) 506

I wonder how many people here have been on a jury. I have been on several juries and been a jury foreman. Once the trial is completed, what you are allowed to ask as a juror is quite limited.

It is the lawyers' job to ask questions of the witnesses and explain the facts of the case. It is the judge's job to explain the relevant law (this is typically minimal and bound by legislation). It is the jury's job to determine what the relevant facts are and how they apply to the law. I've been on juries where we set things aside simply because we didn't see how it was applicable. That happens all the time.

It is often the case that some jurors understand certain things more than others. It is often the case that neither side's lawyer provides an adequate and complete description of the situation. It is often the case that a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the law is absent in the deliberation room. It is often the case that a jury has only part of the information available to those outside the jury. It is often the case that different jurors have different reasons for making a decision. None of that matters. It is the jury's job to come to a verdict with what THEY are given.

Comment Re:There is no way a tokamak can be cost competiti (Score 1) 184

So why are we still funding fusion research at a billion dollar level? Why can't program officers get the message up the chain that funding should go elsewhere? There are similar fields ticking along with $100M/year funding.

I'm just getting started reviewing programs, but I can't wrap my head around this concept that wasting money is what you have to do as part of government scientific oversight. There are way too many good projects that go unfunded to spend money on things serious scientists agree will never work.

I have seen that periodic cuts in government funding due to lack of progress spur research communities into being more creative and pragmatic. Old tired ideas just don't die otherwise.

Comment people aren't computers (Score 1) 840

As much as people here would like to compare genetics to computer software, there's only so far that analogy goes.

Your genes will not force or prevent you from having a particular personality trait. They don't "make" you rebellious or creative or intelligent. Many purely physical characteristics are highly dependent on your environment. In addition you are dependent on non-genetic as well as genetic inherited biology. DNA alone does not include all the information necessary to make a person.

There are many people here with sophisticated understanding of technology, but not so many who understand biology. Biology has been moving faster than any other field over the last 10 years. Things you learned 5 years ago are now understood to be wrong. Try not to have a knee-jerk reaction based on science fiction fears.

Let's start with simple things like food. What would happen if people could drink saltier water without dehydrating, or synthesize more vitamins internally, or digest cellulose? Would that be terrible?

Comment Re:I visited the National Ignition Facility this y (Score 1) 543

I completely agree with your statement that we need big science. I think the idea of NIF is great and the use of a national lab to host such a facility is great, but...

Scientists have become more adept at marketing and the sociology of government funding. You see the material you linked as glowing examples of scientific achievement. As a scientist familiar with fusion, I see a collection of half truths and misleading statements. They don't need to worry about me. With their size and mission they live or die by broad political and military support.

Comment haven't we been through this already? (Score 1) 184

I am a scientist, I work across multiple disciplines and have to deal with jargon from physics, chemistry, biology, law and the military. It's a lot of fun. Consider for a moment that undefined jargon is used in law and the military to prevent people from fully understanding something. Is a similar tactic a really a good idea in science?

As the various disciplines become more intertwined, the differences in jargon are creating problems. For example, you have terms like "free carrier" and "quantum efficiency" which may relate to light adsorption and the operation of a solar cell. Like much physics jargon, those terms imply a simplicity and elegance which is misleading when you get down to the real, formal definition. A fundamental misunderstanding of the definitions behind those terms has led to skewed estimates of the overall efficiency of some polymer and biological solar collectors. This in turn has led to bad research investments, with the failed companies and careers that come with that. Now, if physicists had done a better job disseminating the formal definitions of those terms, the people without a condensed matter physics background would have had a better chance for success.

Jargon is used within disciplines as a kind of short hand. There are (or should be) perfectly acceptable definitions for each term. The jargon (such as "free carrier") used is not important, it's the definition of those terms which is meaningful and which needs to be present when trying to communicate precisely.

Comment it's fun (Score 2) 265

I taught Introductory Astronomy to a bunch of non-science majors looking to fulfill their science requirement. It was fun, that the kids were good at it despite lacking the physics and mathematics background for it. Statistics maybe isn't as interesting as astronomy, so keeping them interested is probably your biggest challenge. That would be true no matter who was taking the class.

Teaching to science and engineering students too often results in off topic discussions which put me off my lecture schedule (that's my problem, but it makes those classes more stressful to teach). Enthusiasm and detail are good, but lectures have a time limit. Pre-meds (a totally different category from science and engineering students) rarely show more than a passing interest in physics. Social scientists were really a joy to teach. They were interested in the material, the historical context and particularly the differences between astronomy, 'movie astronomy' and astrology. There's more than enough historical and current relevance to statistics to pique their interest, but you'll have to point it out.

Comment budget isn't the biggest issue right now (Score 4, Interesting) 176

NASA needs to make the transition from an executing agency to a support agency, more like NSF and less like the post office.

It's still appropriate to have NASA labs and NASA projects, but the next big advances are going to come through private partnerships and creative investments. NASA's budget is more than 5 times DARPAs budget, for example, but DARPA grabs much more of the public eye these days. The key difference is that program managers (people who control the money) serve 3 year terms in DARPA. There's no time for empire building or lawyering up, which are BIG problems at NASA.

Comment it's a problem, here's how to fix it (Score 2) 408

I'm a scientist. It's a big problem.

Here's how you fix it:
The metric for success for both researchers and their government funding sources is published papers. It's hard to change the cultural view of the scientific community, but it's easy to change government metrics. Paper publishing as a metric is easy to track between programs, but has had a terrible impact on scientific culture. It's also led to a large bias in how the government decides what areas to fund. If your metric is paper publishing and you're looking at energy issues, do you fund a sub-field with a historic high paper publication rate, a moderate paper publication rate or a low publication rate? It's fine for us here to say we'd fund the best research, but a government program manager may lose his job for picking a field with the lower publishing rate.

Other metrics such as how many other researchers use some results or whether a practical implementation of some new technique is developed will be harder to judge and take a longer time to evaluate, but would at least give us an honest assessment of the quality of government funded research. Tie future funding to what our broader society is looking for out of science, and eventually the scientific culture will follow.

Comment a misunderstanding of science and engineering (Score 3, Insightful) 171

It's more than a little insulting when scientists and engineers are painted with the "uncreative and money grubbing" label simply because we work on things that have practical value.

I don't understand why anyone would criticize a university for training students to "serve the public" and for having an unusually happy and diverse student body.

Comment Re:Business/Government Divide. (Score 1) 194

You're close, but not quite there.

During the Cold War, the government required business to set aside a certain percentage (I think 15%) of funding from defense contracts and spend that money on internal research. They could do anything they wanted, as long as it was R&D.

After the Cold War, we removed that requirement. It cut 15% off the cost of defense contracts, but also removed the incentive for big companies to spend on high risk R&D.

The "official" government funding for R&D has been pretty good since the Cold War, and big companies still get a lot of it. The problem is a $250k research grant doesn't go as far as 15% of a $100 million procurement contract.

Comment danger of a monoculture (Score 0) 194

Weinberg points to some un-named Congressman for the line on finding priorities in science funding, but that's not necessary. He should be looking at his colleagues in a physics department, many of us feel the same way!

What particle physics has lacked is true oversight. At this point, their papers aren't really peer-reviewed, their grants aren't competitive, and their results are borderline relevant to actually understanding new physics. Their culture is so monolithic that they actually believe internal competition and review is all they need.

Astronomy is an example of a field of physics where oversight and competition have been beneficial. Weinberg is incorrect, we do not need space based resources to do the top level work. There have been some creative solutions to doing astronomy cost-effectively. Astronomers and the spin off field of cosmology have effectively taken leadership on research of fundamental physics away from particle physicists using small and moderately sized projects, with a few exceptions.

The social and funding effect which we're seeing now in particle physics can be found in any other big field of physics. Superconductivity research is famous for it. At a certain point, it's not really worth continuing fundamental research in a given field; funding and interest drops. It's not that everything is solved, but simply that creative research is no longer encouraged by the community and funding agencies get tired of seeing the same proposal every year. Eventually, more interesting research plans are accepted; funding and interest increases again. That will happen with accelerators, but first this old mindset needs to be challenged.

Comment if you care... (Score 1) 204

If you want to get through to your local politician, show up at their district office. If you care enough to go to their office, you'll at least get a few minutes with a staff person.

Politicians do get tons of emails, and it is functionally impossible to tell the difference between a constituent sending an individual e-mail on their own and a constituent paid to send an individual e-mail.

I've visited my representatives many times, sent individual emails and been part of organized lobbying efforts. The more you talk with your representatives, the more they will respond to and respect you. Our system is very slow and sometimes very frustrating, but it is possible to get things done. You will get personal emails back after the automated responses, but it may be months later. If they're doing their job well, they're going to figure out what stance they should take and not simply agree with you.

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There is no likelihood man can ever tap the power of the atom. -- Robert Millikan, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1923