The practice of astronomy is different than it used to be.
Back in the day, the image was of the lone astronomer, sitting at their telescope, communing with the universe. Over time, we got more use to the idea that maybe groups of astronomers might come together to work on a common project. But still, there were fairly tight connections between astronomers and their data.
Over the last decade and a half, something fundamental has changed. Data has gotten big. So big, that it’s impossible for any one person to make sense of it. More importantly, data of these sizes make it impossible to “notice” anything. The line of research that probably got me tenured was based on “noticing” something interesting in several dozen galaxies. But how do you “notice” something in hundreds of terabytes of data?
The standard answer these days is (naturally) computers. Computer science is great at problems like this, and many astronomers are working on the interface of CS these days. But that said, there are some problems that software is simply lousy at. So what do you do when your scientific interests run smack into a problem that you can’t code your way out of?
A little while back, an anecdote was being passed around by liberal folks on Facebook that made Ann Romney look pretty bad. Apparently she said that a woman in the workforce “should be happy just to be out there in the working world and quit complaining that she’s not making as much as her male counterparts.” Even by the relatively relaxed standards that are rightfully applied to the families of political candidates rather than the candidates themselves, that sounded a little tone-deaf to me. So I checked on snopes.com and, indeed, found out that the story was completely false. It was made up by a humor site, and then picked up by people who don’t like Romney, who were willing to take it at face value. As ridiculous as any particular claim may be, confirmation bias nudges us toward greater credulity when we are faced with stories that we want to believe are true.
Which brings us to the Chevy Volt, the electric car from General Motors. One of the blogs I generally read is Outside the Beltway, which is a group of conservatives who are more than willing to decry the worst excesses of conservatives as well as liberals. I generally don’t agree with them (except for the decrying), but they say a lot of interesting things. Doug Mataconis, one of the bloggers there, fell quite a bit short of that standard in a recent post about the Volt.
Mataconis, relying on an equally silly Reuters article, tells us that GM loses $50,000 every time it sells a Volt. The attitude of the post is simple — “maybe I’m no fancy businessman, but even I know that it’s not a good strategy to keep building cars and selling them at a tremendous loss!”
Well, that would be a bad strategy. So bad, in fact, that it might be advisable to pull back a bit and ask if that’s what’s actually happening. Read More
Faye will shamelessly plagiarize Higgs in Monday’s Philadelphia Inquirer, but you can read it straight from the kitty’s mouth at the above link.
As I mentioned in my last post, I’m now in Auckland. Richard Easther, a repatriated Kiwi who came here from Yale last year to head up the physics department, has organized a workshop on “The LHC, Particle Physics and the Cosmos“, at which I gave a talk this morning.
This is a very different affair to ICHEP. In Melbourne there were 800 or so participants, filling a gigantic conference hall for the plenary talks, whereas there are
something like 30 44 participants at this workshop, roughly split between New Zealand academics (faculty, postdocs and students), and those of us from abroad. ICHEP was a terrific conference, but more usually I strongly prefer these small, intimate workshops to huge meetings. They tend to be more focused and I typically seem to leave having learned more from the talks.
There were something like 400 people at his talk, and the thing that struck me was the quality of the questions that people asked at the end. There was even a question that was essentially about triggers, and the risk that one might miss important physics due to them. As you’ll have seen discussed before, the sheer volume of data produced by each collision at the LHC, combined with the frequency of these collisions means that it is just impossible to save each individual event. Instead, a decision has to be made extremely rapidly whether to save a given event, understanding that doing this means that many other events will then be missed. This decision is based on the expectations we have of the kind of signals that we expect the new physics to exhibit. Of course, a consequence is that there exist possible signals of new physics that will evade these triggers. This is a subtle question and one that I’m surprised to hear asked in a public lecture.
Yesterday the research talks began. The topics have spanned quite a number of topics, including talks from people on ATLAS and CMS on their Higgs, and other results. There have been talks on dark matter, neutrinos, variance in the Hubble flow in cosmology, and a number of other topics, including one on the Phenomenological Minimal Supersymmetric Standard Model from Tom Rizzo from SLAC. I particularly enjoyed a talk from Pat Scott, who is a postdoc at McGill, about cosmology with ultracompact minihalos of dark matter. These potentially provide a way to probe the extent to which the statistics of structure formation deviates from that expected from gaussian primordial seeds. As such, it seems that it may provide another way to look at non-gaussianity beyond that we usually think of in the microwave background, and about which we hope to see interesting results from the Planck mission.
This morning Tom Appelquist (Yale) and Jay Wacker (SLAC/Stanford) gave interesting theory talks, and our own JoAnne spoke about the physics that may be probed through a program of physics at the intensity frontier. This afternoon Michele Redi from CERN gave an interesting talk on the implications of a light Higgs for composite models. It is one thing to find the object that breaks the electroweak symmetry, but another to pin down whether it is a fundamental or composite particle. Compositeness is attractive in some ways, since it may provide a way to tackle the hierarchy problem, but finding the Higgs at the rather light mass announced last week presents particular challenges to models in which the Higgs is composite, and leads to some specific predictions. Michele is interested in models in which the Higgs is a pseudo-Goldstone boson and showed that in many such models, naturalness, coupled with a 125 GeV Higgs implies that there should also be new fermions in the model that are quite light, and may be within the reach of the LHC.
Well I’m off to have tea and then chair a parallel session in which there will be a lot of theory talks, about which I may report soon.
Greetings from Vegas, where I’m here for The Amaz!ng Meeting, at which I’ll be talking Saturday. But I’ll also be talking today using one of these fancy electronic information-processing gizmos that are all the rage among the young folk these days. That is, we’re having a video chat, sponsored by the Huffington Post, to talk about the Higgs boson excitement and also something about what it means for science communication across the expert/public divide.
Update: oops! It’s actually not streaming live. Sorry about that. Will be posted later.
We start at 2pm Eastern/11am Pacific. I think you will be able to find the chat by clicking here; if not I’ll try to update. Other participants will be HuffPo science blogger Cara Santa Maria (oops just found out Cara can’t make it), Henry Reich of the increasingly famous MinutePhysics videos, science comedian Brian Mallow, high school science teacher Lorren Hotaling, and the whole thing will be moderated by HuffPo’s Josh Zepps.
To tide you over, here are Henry’s latest videos about our favorite scalar boson. Part One:
And Part II:
Recent reports and articles have generated a lot of buzz about the difficulty of finding employment in the sciences. These articles mirror the anxieties of the young astronomy community with whom I am most familiar. Scientists are not stupid and are pretty good with data, so they can look at the number of graduate students, the number of postdoctoral positions, and the number of faculty ads, and correctly assess that the odds of winding up with a long-term academic position are not good.
However, difficulty finding a “long term academic position” is not the same thing as difficulty finding a job. Buried in those same articles is the fact that the unemployment rate for physicists (which likely mirrors that of astronomers) is between 1-2%. In contrast, the lab-based biologists and chemists (which are the focus of the articles) are not finding employment at all, or if they do, it’s frequently in a position that makes no use of their technical skills.
To me, what this implies is that most of the skills mastered by PhD-level lab-based scientists are not readily transferable to other jobs, and are not easily generalized (or at least, are not perceived as generalizable by employers). The ability to work well in a lab setting is only valuable if the economy supports large numbers of labs. Industry used to host these, but the era of corporate research is largely over.
In contrast, a typical astronomy postdoc has experience with software development, image processing, filtering, large data volumes, experimental design, data visualization, project management, proposal preparation, and technical writing — all of which are generic skills that can be applied to a wide variety of technical positions outside of astronomy. Jobs that use these skills do not require large infrastructure overheads, and thus can be found in start-ups, and in almost any region of the country. Moreover, the typical astronomy or physics postdoc has had much more autonomy and freedom to lead projects, whereas lab-based biology appears to be far more pyramidal, giving postdocs far fewer venues in which to demonstrate their initiative and leadership.
In short, while few astronomy and physics PhD’s are explicitly educated for positions outside of academia, their training actually transfers quite well.
The problem in astronomy and physics is therefore not employment, but expectations. The fact remains that many PhD students do not fully understand that they are unlikely to ever have the equivalent of their advisor’s job, and leading to (completely understandable) fear and frustration when discovering that one’s goal is not likely to ever be achieved. This misconception is primarily a failure of mentoring and education. First, astronomy and physics have never had a 1-to-1 ratio between people earning PhDs and the number of faculty jobs, so while the ratio may be particularly unfavorable now, there was never a golden era. Second, there is no reason that the routine business of being a faculty member should be an appealing job description to every single person who is interested in astrophysics. As such, students should never be made to feel that they’re failures for not getting a particular flavor of academic position, and should instead always be encouraged to explore other avenues that could use their talents while bringing them greater day-to-day satisfaction. And based on the studies, I’m grateful that those options appear to exist for the physicists and astronomers who change their direction.
Accordingly, the alleged injury, destruction of the earth, is in no way attributable to the U.S. government’s failure to draft an environmental impact statement.
Of course, maybe we’re just lucky enough to live in the branch of the wave function where the disaster didn’t happen?
Not wanting to let Sean get away with the only marshmallow-related post this year, I’d like to bring to your attention that, for the fifth year running, the Washington Post recently held its Peeps Diorama Contest. This would be a pretty strange topic to cover on this blog were it not for the fact that one of the entries was the wonderful ATLAS Peeped!
Designed and Constructed by Marilena Loverde and Laura Newburgh, ATLAS Peeped is a painstaking and delicious reconstruction of the detector and its environment, with great attention to detail in adapting it to the peep universe. For example, please note the textbooks in the following (click on the photo for a full-size version)
I really hope Michael Peepskin is reading this.
See! And I had thought peeps would naturally gravitate towards the soft sciences.
Update: I had earlier referred to a third person helping create this, but was mistaken, and have edited the post accordingly.
[Update added below. Further update: here's the video.]
I’m participating this afternoon in an intriguing event here at Caltech:
Affirming the proposition will be Skeptics Society president Michael Shermer and myself, while negating it will be conservative author Dinesh D’Souza and MIT nuclear engineer Ian Hutchinson. We’ll go back and forth for about two hours, after which Sam Harris will give a talk about his most recent book, Free Will.
Festivities begin at 2pm Pacific time (5pm Eastern). I hadn’t previously mentioned the debate here on the blog, because tickets sold out pretty quickly, and it didn’t seem right to taunt people by mentioning an event they couldn’t come see. But the Skeptics folks have been working hard to set up live-streaming video of the event, and it looks like they’ve succeeded! So you should be able to watch all the fun live on YouTube — and feel free to leave comments here.
[Live-streaming didn't work, but here's the video.]
I’ll come back when it’s all over and add some post-debate thoughts.
Update after the debate: first off, very sorry that the live stream didn’t seem to work for many people. (Although the YouTube comments are occasionally funny.) That’s just what sometimes unfortunately happens when you try something new. Pretty sure that video will eventually be available, I’ll link when it appears.
Also I deleted a bunch of comments about string theory from people who don’t take instructions well.
As for the debate, it’s very hard to judge when up on the stage, but I hope there were some enlightening moments. I’m not sure it worked well as a “debate.” I tried to engage a bit with what Ian and Dinesh were saying, but I didn’t feel that they reciprocated — although they might make the same claim about our side. I’m thinking that four people is just too much to have in a debate; it could have been more direct confrontation if there had only been two, with twice as much time for each little speech.
I don’t think I did a very good job in the cross-examinations, but hopefully the actual speeches came across clearly.
The audience was pretty clearly biased toward us from the beginning. Which is great in some sense (go forces of reason!) but I’d actually like to do something similar before an audience that was tilted the other way, or (best of all) completely uncommitted at the start. Preaching to the choir is fun, but doesn’t really change the world.
We had a great crowd, and I very much appreciate everyone who braved the not-that-great-by-Southern-California-standards weather. Would love to hear reactions from people who were actually there.
In the Guardian, Ian McEwan writes beautifully, as always, about the passion involved in scientific discovery, and the drive to establish priority. While it is a refrain among scientists that they are only interested in the work, and gaining a better understanding of nature, it would be hard to believe that, on a personal level, we don’t care deeply about the recognition of our own contributions. McEwan illustrates this with two of the most revered and successful scientists – Darwin and Einstein. On realizing, surprisingly, his fear of being scooped by Wallace, Darwin wrote
“I always thought it very possible that I might be forestalled, but I fancied that I had a grand enough soul not to care.”
and after Hilbert submitted his formulation of the mathematics of General Relativity, Einstein wrote
“In my personal experience I have hardly come to know the wretchedness of mankind better.”
McEwan also discusses the fascinating question of how rapidly some of our greatest scientific accomplishments became accepted, even though, in the case of General Relativity, many years were required to perform the definitive precision experiments one would typically expect. He puts this down to the beauty of the underlying ideas, and emphasizes the important role this can play, particularly for a theory such as relativity, for which the mathematics is inaccessible to most people, and the implications are, at least seemingly, remote from any everyday experience.
In the example of evolution, the basic concepts are much easier to grasp, and should be within the reach of anyone who chooses to think about them with an open mind. However, here the challenge to acceptance is not one of the inaccessibility of the theory, but the implications that it has for existing powerful world views.
“On the other hand, as Steven Pinker has pointed out, the ramifications of natural selection are multiple. And, relatively, they are easily, if uneasily, understood: the Earth and life on it are far older than the Bible suggests. Species are not fixed entities created at one time. They rise, fall, become extinct, and there is no purpose, no forethought in these patterns. We can explain these processes now without reference to the supernatural. We ourselves are related, however distantly, to all living things. We can explain our own existence without reference to the supernatural. We may have no purpose at all except to continue. We have a nature derived in part from our evolutionary past. Underlying natural selection are physical laws. The evolved material entity we call the brain is what makes consciousness possible. When it is damaged, so is mental function. There is no evidence for an immortal soul, and no good reason beyond fervent hope that consciousness survives the death of the brain.
It is testimony to the originality as well as the diversity of our species that some of us find such ramifications horrifying, or irritating, or self-evidently untrue and (literally) soulless, while others find them both beautiful and liberating and discover, with Darwin, “grandeur in this view of life”. Either way, if we do not find our moments of exaltation in religious awe and the contemplation of a supreme supernatural being, we will find them in the contemplation of our arts and our science. When Einstein found that his general theory made correct predictions for the shift in Mercury’s orbit, he felt so thrilled he had palpitations, “as if something had snapped inside. I was,” he wrote, “beside myself with joyous excitement.” This is the excitement any artist can recognise. This is the joy, not of simple description, but of creation. It is the expression, common to both the arts and science, of the somewhat grand, somewhat ignoble, all too human pursuit of originality in the face of total dependence on the achievements of others.”
It is also true that any scientist can recognize the excitement of a great artist taking on a subject about which he feels deeply. I’m thankful that, for McEwan, that subject is frequently science.