Friday, January 30, 2015

Appalling Lack of Responsibility

DOE photo - degraded conditions at Y12

Frank Munger has reported on inexcusable neglect at Y-12, the nuclear weapons plant at Oak Ridge. Apparently there are buildings there that are being simply left to fall apart, with equipment contaminated by radioactive and other hazardous material sitting in standing water from roof leaks (see DOE photo above). These buildings are primed to release their contents into the groundwater.

Roof leaks!!! ?

What tiny fraction of the trillion dollars spent yearly on US defense would have sufficed to prevent roof leaks from happening?  Instead, like small children bored with new toys, we just ignore our past actions. We send our youth to foreign wars then neglect them when they return and are of no more use. We build nuclear weapons  then simply leave dangerous material unattended to leach into the groundwater,  willfully and negligently destroying the environment in doing so. Where on earth is our sense of responsibility?

Sunday, January 25, 2015

KTS - Think Beyond the Limits!

Klaus Tschira
SAP cofounder Klaus Tschira donated 7 million of his shares in 1995 to found the Klaus Tschira Foundation, a nonprofit established in Germany  to perform research in computational science and foster public understanding of mathematics, informatics and natural sciences (an amateur astronomer, Tschira has a small asteroid named after him). 

Last Friday was the 20th birthday party of KTS, entitled "Think beyond the Limits". KTS has funded projects to the tune of $300 million so far. I gave one of the two keynote lectures (Computational Science: Curing Disease and Saving the Environment) and the other was given by Mark Vogelsberger of MIT, who has used supercomputers to perform the most ambitious simulation yet of the evolution of the universe. Check his video out here!

Not all very rich people are greedy exploiters of the working class. Klaus Tschira - self made - a demonstration of  how some billionaires can be true forces for good for humanity. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Cow Tipping

Let's go cow tipping in the Spring, shall we? That, of course, is when "rural citizens", for want of anything better to do, sneak up upon an unsuspecting cow and push it over. Apparently, it's been all the rage for decades down our neck of the woods in East Tennessee.

Udder chaos? A tiresome form of lactose intolerance? Disrepect for Sir Loin? ........Or simply impossible?

 A UBC student, Tracy Boechler, calculated a few years ago that  a cow of 1.45 metres in height pushed at an angle of 23.4 degrees relative to the ground would require 2,910 Newtons of force, equivalent to 4.43 people. That means ya can't do it alone, yer know. What's more cows have the annoying tendency to notice you coming and move away. And further complicating the task is that cow tipping protagonists must of course be uniformly plastered. Therefore, it must indeed be extraordinarily difficult.  

But it  really doesn't sound impossible to me. Earplug the cow, get a team of five,  start  drinking but plan on carving out  a moment of lucidity, concentration and coordination to creep up soundlessly and all push together simultaneously. Whaddaya think? Worth a try, worth a try....

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Save Us Some Day from Sauvadet

Francois Sauvadet
I want research in France to succeed; it's where I got my start as a principal investigator. But the guy above is not helping one bit.

When I first arrived there in 1989 I wished to hire a postdoctoral researcher, and was informed that such contracts had a maximum of 18 months due to  what the French call the fight against "precarious jobs". Conditions eased off, but now the screw is back with a vengeance with the "Loi Sauvadet" of 2012, the effect of which, as I found out from a chat with Chris Chipot,  is that there can be only one temporary employee for every three permanents in government-funded jobs. This, when allied with the quickly disappearing number of permanent contracts available, is a sure-fire prescription for killing off research in France and strangling opportunities in science for young people.

It's easy for me to preach, up here from my safe, tenured professorship, and I do understand the attraction of job security and the society-wide exploitation of low-paid workers. But young scientists are not like others - temporary jobs are an essential part of research training, giving experience in different labs and techniques. Moreover, the demand in society for trained scientists is such that most of these can get a job in industry. They're not like dead-end unskilled jobs. Permanent contracts given to scientists who are too inexperienced kills innovation - I saw that myself in France in the 1990s. The  relative success of research in the USA owes much to the element of competition, and a permanent job is basically simply part of the package that employers may offer candidates they are courting, if they have the means. In research, as elsewhere, the most important task to create jobs by creating ideas. The Loi Sauvadet is bad for France, and particularly bad for scientific research.

France: save us one day from Sauvadet.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Black milk of morning we drink you....

    It's been a long time since I posted a poem. Here's one in German that I particularly like. It's by Paul Celan, and was written around 1945. Of course, the theme is morbid, befitting the epoch. The poem is, however, music.  Here's a translation into English.


    Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends
    wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts
    wir trinken und trinken
    wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng
    Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
    der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete
    er schreibt es und tritt vor das Haus und es blitzen die Sterne er pfeift seine Rüden herbei
    er pfeift seine Juden hervor läßt schaufeln ein Grab in der Erde
    er befiehlt uns spielt auf nun zum Tanz

    Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
    wir trinken dich morgens und mittags wir trinken dich abends
    wir trinken und trinken
    Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
    der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete
    Dein aschenes Haar Sulamith wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng
    Er ruft stecht tiefer ins Erdreich ihr einen ihr andern singet und spielt
    er greift nach dem Eisen im Gurt er schwingts seine Augen sind blau
    stecht tiefer die Spaten ihr einen ihr andern spielt weiter zum Tanz auf

    Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
    wir trinken dich mittags und morgens wir trinken dich abends
    wir trinken und trinken
    ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete
    dein aschenes Haar Sulamith er spielt mit den Schlangen
    Er ruft spielt süßer den Tod der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
    er ruft streicht dunkler die Geigen dann steigt ihr als Rauch in die Luft
    dann habt ihr ein Grab in den Wolken da liegt man nicht eng

    Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
    wir trinken dich mittags der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
    wir trinken dich abends und morgens wir trinken und trinken
    der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland sein Auge ist blau
    er trifft dich mit bleierner Kugel er trifft dich genau
    ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete
    er hetzt seine Rüden auf uns er schenkt uns ein Grab in der Luft
    er spielt mit den Schlangen und träumet der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland

    dein goldenes Haar Margarete
    dein aschenes Haar Sulamith

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Leave me Reeling

I cycled quite a way on a rainy day in 1979 to the Leeds Irish Centre. There were only maybe 50 or so people at the concert; I sat in the second row. The woman in front of me had an annoying habit of slapping her knees loudly during the music.

The band in front of me was in some disarray. They kept breaking down in the middle of tunes and appeared somewhat annoyed with each other. They had only been together for three years and they disbanded forever a few weeks later.

But they were the band that  changed the face of  Celtic music.  Three unparalleled virtuosos  tangled with each other for that brief period: Matt Molly's flute, Paddy Keenan on the Uilleann pipes and Kevin Burke, the fiddler; shepherded by a precise rhythm section. The result was jigs and reels had never before been played with such brilliant driving energy.  The Bothy Band. Check them out.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Quotas on Asian Students?

I have always argued against any sort of differential treatment based on skin color. An example of this is race-based affirmative action in college admissions, increasing admission rates of minority racial groups, which was explicitly allowed in a 2003 Supreme Court decision. College selection should based solely on how well  a prospective student is likely to succeed. Given this criterion, there is indeed an argument in favor of some preference for low-income students, based on the precept that their circumstances have made it more challenging for them to achieve a given level at high school, and therefore they are  more likely to succeed on the level playing field of college. Of course, discrimination based on income does favor low-income racial groups, but this is not an explicitly race-based policy.  

Given the above position I am curious to learn that the three most selective Ivy League colleges may well be discriminating against Asian candidates. Apparently, although Asian-Americans made up over 27% of the applicant pool  from 2008 to 2012, they comprised only 17-20% of the students admitted. Of course, it is conceivable that the Asian-American applicants were less qualified on average, collectively sending in hopeful below-par Hail Mary applications just in case. But if not then these schools are rejecting bright, qualified hard-working future leaders solely on the basis of race. Why? Because they 'work too hard'? Because they're 'no fun'? Because their parents don't have enough money or connections? No, in the interests of 'diversity', ostensibly, so that the universities can plant their pretty little gardens mirroring the make-up of society.   

My response is to say to the University of Tennessee is "Bring 'em here"! Let's get those thousands of highly qualified future leaders to UT. That'll get us up towards the Top 25, help motivate the locals  and teach the Ivy League a lesson. The use of race in college admissions should end.