Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Column of Nelson

Our hometown hero, he is (or, apparently, was).
Born in my county of birth, went to school in my city, then commanded the British Fleet that gave Napoleon a right good spanking at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 (where, romantically, he died).

You could always tell the difference between Napoleon and Nelson, because Napoleon held his only arm like this, whereas Nelson held his like that.(*).

Now, apparently, enlivened by the Confederate monument debate, people want to remove his statue from Trafalgar Square because he supported the slave trade. But in that case should we not also be pulling down statues of Mandela, who was a terrorist, and Gandhi, who was an anti-African racist, and Churchill, who said that 'Ghandhi-ism and everything it stands for will have to be crushed'  and Reagan, who supported genocidal dictators, and for that matter, shouldn't we be destroying everything Roman and the Great Wall of China (which killed millions, including a million workers  who were forced to build it)?

Go ahead if you want. I don't care. Pull down Nelson's column. I never thought much of worshipping politicians or the military and I'm not a great fan of statues.  But if so, pull everything  down, please (**). Just like ISIS did in Palmyra...

* quote from 1066 and All That
** I'm not being serious, of course.

Monday, July 31, 2017

2017 ORNL Futbol Game

Mentors versus Interns  it was. The Mentors always win, of course. We can't let those young punks get too cocky. So this time we were 3-2 down at half time and so we cancelled the second half due to rain. Now, in TN when you abandon a game before the second half it becomes invalid, meaning the result from last year (which we of course won) carries over and applies this year as well. So we won. And, anyway, as Budhu stated in the official FIFA match report, the rain 'prevented the greatest Mentor comeback in history'. So there.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Outrageous Theory

I arrived to start a PhD at the Institut Laue Langevin in Grenoble in September 1982 a day late (having missed the boat and been 'repatriated' back to England with just my passport and 2 pounds).   I soon found the ILL to be organized into 'Colleges' of which 'College 1' was Theory. It was lead by a brilliant chap called Philippe Nozieres and seemed to be full of theoretical physicists.

I didn't have much to do with them, but there were quite a few grumblings about the theory college over the years;  about them not talking much to experimentalists, being aloof, superfluous etc. ORNL doesn't have one.

But just before I was at ILL, from 1977-1981, Duncan Haldane was there for a postdoc. He did work on quantum-mechanical spin systems that was so outrageous that nobody believed it and it was impossible to publish in  a journal,  residing just as an  ILL preprint. This work was later found by neutron experiments to be correct, and was critical to Haldane winning the 2016 Physics Nobel Prize. If you want more details, Tim Ziman (who I had a wonderful hike in Alaska with) wrote about it here and the ILL wrote about it here.

I don't think the way the national labs, and science in general, are organized particularly fosters the kind of research Haldane did at ILL. But a  theory group could be a good idea, and perhaps DOE might like to consider setting one up at ORNL, after all?

Friday, June 16, 2017

Helmut Kohl

An alumnus of Heidelberg University who championed German reunification.  I never really understood why the West Germans were so keen on this, as it came at a high  economic cost.

The Tennessee Torpedo

Christian Coleman - 9.82s. The fourth fastest American ever, and he's only a Junior!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The 2018 Trump Administration Science Budget

Scientists don't do universal good.
Take Fritz Haber, for example. He invented the technique for synthesizing ammonia, which has been invaluable to agriculture. The food production for half the world's population depends on his method for producing nitrogen fertilizers.  But he was also the "Father of Chemical Warfare". Hmm...

But it is easy to show that science is what propels technological development and that government-funded science is essential for this, so it is baffling why the administration want to cut the science budget of NIH by 22%, DOE by 15% and NSF by 13%. Yes, I know they want to cut overhead grants, and a sensible discussion about that is always useful, but who would then build the buildings in which science is done?

Are they doing it just to save money? In fact I might consider myself more of a fiscal conservative than most Republican politicians.  Why? Because I would be in favor of keeping both the military and mandatory elements of the federal budget under control, whereas they wish to inflate the former (through blind ideology) and ignore the latter (through fear of losing votes).

Let's hope the Congress does its job and reverses this policy. As President Obama said in 2011, cutting investment in innovation is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engines. It may make you feel like you're flying high at first, but it won't be long before you feel the impact.

Friday, April 21, 2017

March for Science?

Did ancient astronauts perambulate on Earth?  Does the Full Moon influence human behavior?
Do we need  medicine to be evidence-based; or should we try some colon cleansing,  or a detox, or faith healing, or homeopathy, or Ayurveda based on quantum mysticism?

In the absence of facts and proof, people need something to cling on to, something to believe in. That's normal, and has historically determined a large part of human behavior. But in the last couple of centuries a discipline has been embraced that can separate fact from fiction: science. Science tells us what the result will be when  the natural world is acted on in a certain way - what happens if we strike a ball, or mix chemicals together - and often tells us why, in a logical, theoretical framework.
The West  embraced science, and it fueled the technological revolution of the last century. But there is much more to do; we need to cure harmful diseases, find efficient, non-polluting forms of energy, new materials, and to understand the environment.

But since I have been back in the USA, i.e., for the last 10 years, reason, in general, and science, in particular, have been  under particularly strong attack,  from people who can't accept proven facts. They are denying the science because it doesn't fit their beliefs or feelings or desires.

For example:

- Many people still don't believe in evolution; others think GMO is dangerous.
- Many people don't believe in climate change; others think vaccines are  dangerous.
- Many people believe the Earth is only a few thousand years old; others believe in astrology.

These beliefs don't tally with the demonstrated facts, and so people believing them live at least to some degree in an alternate reality.

The problem is that more and more people in power in the USA are not accepting these facts as well. They are ignoring established facts in setting policy, and sometimes don't even want the truth to be determined, and so they advocate axing the science research programs that find the facts out.

Take climate change. Arguing what, if anything, to do about it is one thing. That is politics.
Denying that it exists, or saying you don't want to know whether it exists (which is effectively what stopping climate research would do)  is another. That is dangerous.
And the same goes for other critical issues in health, technology, energy and the environment.

Now, I am probably not going to March for Science on Saturday, mainly because the marches do not appear to be just for science, but for other issues as well, such as  diversity, inclusion, equity etc; and in choosing Earth Day they seem to be choosing which science they support most. Not that I disagree with these other issues per se, but I think that they are complicated and deserve separate consideration.

More importantly, though: welcome back to ignorance, America; I guess you were never very far away from us.