Wednesday, August 24, 2016

How to find Big Science Questions




The second in a series of "How To" articles :-))

Here at ORNL we are pondering which Big Science Questions the National Lab should attack over the next years. Good question. National labs were invented for a big science question - the atomic bomb, are tailor made for problems involving big teams of scientists, and later started the Human Genome project.

What Next Then? "The Sustainable City"? "Personalized Medicine"? "Cancer Moonshot"? "Complexity Science"?

Here's how to find out what to do next:

(a) Send around an e-mail to all national lab employees, postdocs and students asking for a "Big Science Question" written in one sentence only.

(b) Get a committee to sift through them and select some to be expanded an sculpted.

(c) Pick one every year to get serious about.

That'll create a buzz around the place.

Monday, August 8, 2016

How to Run a Conference


I go to quite a lot of scientific conferences - maybe 10-15 per year - and they all tend to be in posh hotels with entry restricted to those able to find the registration fee, which normally is hundreds of dollars, and which pays for renting the conference room at the posh hotel, speaker travel, exorbitant cookies etc.

Sometimes there are not many people there. I remember once flying all the way over from France to Seattle to give a talk to about 10 people.  But many more than that would have been interested - its just that they were blocked by the gnashing costs.  A very recent conference I was at had trouble attracting enough attendees, even though I know dozens of young local scientists would have liked to attend.

So here's what to do (for some of the conferences, at least):

(a) stop holding conferences in posh hotels - hold them in university lecture halls.
(b) stop providing free meals
(c) stop providing free coffee and cookies
(d) stop funding speaker travel
(e) reduce the registration costs as the conference approaches if there are not enough attendees
(f) let in all students free

Then conferences would be what they really should be: a  transmission of passion and knowledge to an enthusiastic and inspired young audience.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Our Role in the Clinton E-mails

Well, we have deep ties to the Hillary Clinton e-mail scandal. Oh, yessiree!

Well, maybe not deep, but perhaps a shallow connection,  and rather remote.





But here it is:

1) Xiaolin Cheng, here was a postdoc with Andy McCammon at UCSD, as is presently our ex-postdoc, Yinglong Miao. Tongye Shen also worked with Andy. Andy himself was a postdoc with Martin Karplus, as was I. And we have a paper in press together. So we have several connections with the McCammon group.

2) In the seventies Andy was  a grad student of John Deutch, a chemistry professor at MIT.

3) Deutch became Director of the CIA in May 1995 but stored and processed hundreds of files of highly classified material on unprotected home computers that he and family members also used to connect to the Internet, according to an internal CIA investigation. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for this, and was only few hours away from signing a plea bargain when Bill Clinton pardoned him on his last day in office!

4) As a result of that presidential pardon  the FBI today could find no precedent for indicting Hillary for storing secret information on her personal computer. So they didn't recommend indictment, thus paving the way for her presumed victory in November.

Ta-da!  Cool, huh? Not.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Frank Munger

Frank Munger



Yesterday Frank Munger, the local journalist who wrote about Oak Ridge science for the Knoxville News Sentinel and in the associated  "Atomic City Underground" blog, retired.

His blog kept us informed daily about what was going on at Y12, other areas of ORNL and the region. He was also a strong supporter of Club Mod.   He was given the "Muddy Boot Award" yesterday for his contributions to building the local community's economic base.

We're all sad to see you go, Frank! We wish you a fulfilling and rewarding retirement! Maybe you'd consider writing a book about Oak Ridge. Nobody would be better positioned to do so.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Personal Thoughts on the Brexit



In 1970 my postdoc advisor, Martin Karplus, considered leaving the US for a professorship in France. However, professors there were civil servants, and all civil servants had be French. Karplus' colleague at the time was Jacques Dubois, who was well connected politically, and he lobbied President Pompidou for a change in the law. Thus was the law indeed changed, but it all took too long, and Martin went back to Harvard.

Ten years  later everything was different. Europe had come closer together. Britain had joined in. As soon as I reached adulthood in the UK  I thought to myself - hup, lets get outta here, let's explore. So in 1982 I moved to France to start my Ph. D,  at the Institut Laue-Langevin in Grenoble, which, together with CERN,  was a model of how  Europe can work together to achieve greater goals.  Then, after 4 years in the States I came back to work in Saclay, as a French civil servant,  for 10 years. After that, I moved to Germany, again as a  civil servant,  a Herr Professor. Now, I can't say all this was made possible specifically by the EU - there are plenty of Swiss and Norwegians who have done the same thing.  But European integration in the broader sense, and globalization in the even broader, are indeed responsible.

BUT....

The Brexit debate is part of the ongoing worldwide tumult pitting forces of integration and globalization against those of nationalist isolation. We have it here in the States, with the immigration ruckus and both the Trump and Sanders campaigns promoting trade barriers.  I get what the isolationists are saying, indeed. Globalization has spawned income inequality in developed nations (although has it perhaps reduced global income inequality?).  And I favor a relatively restrictive line on immigration myself, although there is no xenophobia in my reasoning,  it being  simply resistance to local population growth (more on that later, maybe).

AND...

The EU has become divorced from its population. It doesn't listen to them. Its high-minded prescriptions have alienated far too many. The average Brit feels nothing good from it. It elicits no pride. It's a deeply frustrating entity. While at Heidelberg University I received an EU science grant. It was a huge amount of dosh, accompanied by infuriating instructions written in prescriptive  'Euro-babble'; the national science agency, the DFG, got far more bang for the buck in my opinion, reinforcing  my  view that the EU wastes too much money on  bureaucracy and idealistic spending. When I arrived in Heidelberg, in 1998, the Euro was being contemplated.  Juergen Siebke, the university Rektor and an economist, was very skeptical of it. 'You can't have monetary union without political union' he told me at a reception. And he was right, as the Euro debacle, Greece and fighting the recession have proven.

SO....

The UK should stay in the EU...just, but all the while scratching and clawing.  It should keep needling them, restraining them, defying them. Break a few EU laws, just as the Eastern EU countries are doing with regard to border control. Refuse flatly to pay in as much money. Be a spanner in some of the works.

But stay in.

BECAUSE..

Otherwise Scotland will leave the UK. Jobs, trade and exports will suffer. Globalization will hit even worse as the multinationals will have little incentive to negotiate with the rump of the UK. Little England will be powerless and rudderless, sinking in the mid-Atlantic. And, worst of all, God help us, all the professors in the sinking English universities will end up having to be English.



Saturday, June 4, 2016

Canoeing the Clinch River - Memorial Day Weekend 2016

Photo: Stephine Smith

Photo: Stephine smith

Nice lodge there Mr Beaver! (Photo: Stephine Smith)




Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Peter Kollman




Peter Kollman died 15 years ago today, at my age,  56.

He was a giant in our field, yet wholly unpretentious and purely enthusiastic.

And he was the subject of one of the most moving obituaries I have read, by Fred Cohen.

Here's an excerpt:

"Peter told me more than once that he had no regrets. He had the good fortune to work on problems he loved with colleagues that he enjoyed. At a time when many of us would focus on all that we had not made time for, Peter displayed a rare sense of contentment as he listened to the music he loved and sent out a few extra e-mail messages. In the last few weeks of his life, the bone pain from his tumor required morphine. When discussing mundane subjects, he had a difficult time staying focused. But, when his thoughts turned to science, he was as lucid as ever. Science clearly held a privileged spot in Peter's mind, a spot that was not subject to ephemeral or biochemical distraction."