Monday, December 30, 2013

Some Science Jokes for the New Year

Always game for a lame one or two, am I, so here are some science  jokes for the New Year:

Two theoretical physicists are lost at the top of a mountain. Theoretical physicist No 1 pulls out a map and peruses it for a while. Then he turns to theoretical physicist No 2 and says: "Hey, I've figured it out. I know where we are." 
"Where are we then?" "Do you see that mountain over there?" "Yes." "Well… THAT'S where we are."

A blowfly goes into a bar and asks: "Is that stool taken?"

A statistician is someone who tells you, when you've got your head in the fridge and your feet in the oven, that you're – on average - very comfortable.

And a couple of limericks to finish with:

A friend who's in liquor production,
Has a still of astounding construction,
The alcohol boils,
Through old magnet coils,
He says that it's proof by induction.

A mosquito was heard to complain
That chemists had poisoned her brain.
The cause of her sorrow
Was para-dichloro-

*p.s. That's DDT.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The September 1991 Mineriad

22 years ago, in September 1991, I happened to be in Bucharest.  I was working in France, which had had strong links with Romania, and so after the 1989 revolution they tried to fill the vacuum and  sent us over for the first post-communist Franco-Romanian Biophysics conference. But we weren't the only visitors: several thousand Jiu valley miners had been organized  to come and cause trouble - the "Mineriad". Nice lads, most of them. They were wearing wellies and carried sticks (see above), slept in the parks, and shouted "Jos Iliescu" ("Down with Ion Iliescu", the President). Now, this confused me because I had thought it was Iliescu who had arranged for them to come in the first place, laying on trains etc (maybe a Romanian reader can clue me in?).

The night was full of the sweet aroma of CS-gas: Jean-Louis said he'd already experienced that, much worse, in '68. Next morning, they marched to the parliament building. We tagged along, at the back, so we missed the fighting, hundreds injured, deaths etc. They petrol bombed the parliament and the Prime Minister (Petre Roman) resigned. That was a momentous visit, I guess. The conference led to my establishing a strong association with the guys there, who throughout everything had maintained a love for science. I brought students back to Germany, France and the USA, and they did great stuff.  I want to go back to Romania, back to the monasteries in Moldavia, the mountains of Transylvania, to Bucharest, and all the friends I made there. Maybe even, one day, to drink beer with miners in the Jiu valley..........

Friday, November 29, 2013

Whopping University

The USA is in chains. The chain stores are all over the USA, draped everywhere like kudzu.  In the drive for efficiency everything has been automated, standardized, homogenized and cheapened. In doing so all that is left is unskilled minimum-wage jobs operating easy machines. Society is indeed on the way to a utopia where only university professors and entertainers need to work? Wait. Professors? We can downsize them, too! And make billions.

It has started already. Online courses are multiplying. Large lecture courses are being taught by low-paid adjuncts rather than faculty. Here's how to finish the job, once and for all, with the creation of Whopping University.

Firstly, you make sure that WU is created  by the same banking conglomerates that  own the present  chains. You know the types;  Goldman Sachs, Bain, 3G Capital, Falfurrias etc. They have the dosh to kick-start this and they know how to quickly standardize.

Then, you drive all other colleges out of business, retaining only their football and basketball teams. How do you do this? You offer good-looking, well-packaged degree courses for $10,000. And how, pray,  is this miracle to be achieved? Using a single team of highly charismatic professors you produce online lectures for all subjects in demand and at all levels. These syllabi are well crafted, easy to follow. The lectures are good and cheap. Every student in every state has the same selection. Perfect core curricula. All lectures are  followed by the students at home on their computers. The accompanying tests are fair, securely computerized, multiple choice. No more need for lecture halls, libraries, classrooms etc, anywhere in the land. No books required, everything kindled.

What about the interactive sessions? Well, you need a few of these, but these can be online, too. And you don't need professors for them, either. Students form interactive groups amongst themselves. And, a few graduates can be employed online at minimum-wage levels to provide a bit of expertise at some of these discussion sessions. Same for essay grading in the few subjects that still require those: all done via e-mail.

What about lab sessions/field-work? Hum. Indeed. Not easy to get rid of localizing that. We'd have to set up highly uniform entities, but this could be done cheaply no doubt. Little  purple Whopping Lab Huts dotted over the nation with little purple WU vans taking students out to corporate-owned fields.

And there we have it.  5 million students graduating per year at $10,000 per degree means $50bn of  annual revenue to be taken over. OK, that's about a tenth the size of Walmart but that's just counting the USA. Whopping  University International could doubtless at least double turnover. And we can expand into high schools, too, replacing teachers with low-paid minders who just need to keep the kids watching their screens. An initial investment of about $100bn should suffice to create an unbeatable, irresistible entity capable of folding the 2000 or so colleges presently leaching students' pockets in the USA. Let's lobby congress to keep funding the scholarships though - even WU degrees need to be taxpayer funded, don't they? Those old colleges with high reputations (Harvard, Stanford etc) can franchised into the WU structure - their names would be useful - indeed, by a click and an extra debit you can say your WU degree comes from Harvard. Massive profitability after 2 years. Education for the masses! Let's take over with Whopping University!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Science on Shaky Ground

Listen to Sally Ellingson and myself on NPR's "All Things Considered" as we discuss possible effects of recent government funding reductions for science.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

No, I didn't build it myself, but....

I just delivered the Karcher Lecture at the University of Oklahoma. People call this university OU and not UO. [I wondered if this was  to avoid  students saying "I go to the University of Oklahoma" and being subjected to the smug retort: "Ah, You Owe!" But, I digress :-)]. Karcher discovered reflection seismography  when working for NIST, used these to discover oil, then co-founded what became Texas Instruments.  Texas Instruments is where Jack Kilby worked when he invented the integrated circuit, the basis of computer hardware. He won the 2000 Physics Nobel for that. I liked Kilby's Nobel lecture in which he stated how he felt when he saw a computer: 'It's like the beaver told the rabbit as they stared at the Hoover Dam. "No, I didn't build it myself, but it's based on my idea."'

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Nobel Prize in Chemistry

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was today awarded to my postdoc advisor, Martin Karplus (above) together with Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel. These are three of the main developers of our field of biomolecular simulation. This announcement was somewhat a surprise as this field had not been a favourite in the "betting". Also,  there are several other scientists in the field who, in my opinion, have made comparably strong overall contributions. However, what the three winners played leading roles  in in the 1970s was certainly special -  the genesis of biomolecular simulation.  Scientists had before that time already been deriving spectroscopic force fields, to match infrared and Raman frequencies, but these don't provide information on structural energetics. Also, others had been working on molecular mechanics force fields and methods to find energy-minimum conformations of organic molecules and peptides. The three winners, inspired by Lifson in Israel, were at the origin of many of the ideas that have slowly blossomed into the present-day biomolecular simulation field, in all its glory, with molecular dynamics simulations of biomacromolecules, QM/MM calculations of reaction rates (which, perhaps surprisingly, was the sole subject of the Nobel citation), protein folding calculations, free energy analyses, the design of drugs currently on the market,  and everything else.

All three of the winners have had to endure heavy professional criticism from different parts over the years. Our field was frowned upon by many for a long time. Many of the calculations performed were, and are, wrong, inconsistent, biased and disagree with experiment and these shortcomings were jumped upon by discreditors and still are, although to a lesser extent, nowadays. However, the three Laureates certainly got everyone's attention early on. I don't know Michael Levitt personally so well, but of course I know his work. In the 1970s and 1980s, working in Cambridge, he published papers folding BPTI and predicting protein stability that created quite a storm. Arieh Warshel was at the origin of some of the key concepts in the field - I would think of his multiple papers on the electrostatic control of enzyme reactions. As for Martin, he's been absolutely towering. Carefully building up the complexity of the systems he studied, from simple hydrogen reactions through conformational NMR to large biological complexes, his contributions have been wide-ranging, careful, and thorough. His QM/MM work was but a small part of his overall career.

As ever in human life, the strongest reflections at these times are maybe personal. Michael Levitt impressed me by working mostly alone for a long time, when everyone else was building up large groups. Many of us know the twinkle in Arieh Warshel's eye when he stands up in a conference and criticizes the speaker, and we can all recognize his 'anonymous' referee reports. As for Martin, he has left an indelible impression on all of us who have passed through his lab over the last 50 years. He's has been a dedicated servant to science - a role model for us all. Congratulations to all three - and to my ex-boss in particular!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

And When They're 45?

I'm currently at a workshop in Lausanne, Switzerland and one of the lecturers is Dorothee Kern from Brandeis University. She was point guard in the East German National Basketball team in the 1980s and has kept playing, leading the German National Over-45s to winning the world championships this year. I asked her about the USA team. Given that they're so good at college, how did they do? Dorothee answered that they didn't even have a team.

This is sad, but jives with my experience of adults doing sports in the USA. They are active at school, jamming the soccer fields with kids playing soccer under the adoring eyes of parents, but by the age of 20 everything has stopped. Inactivity, indolence, unhealthy obesity.

The next Master's World Basketball championships is in Orlando, sponsored by ESPN. Maybe the USA won;t have a team there, either?

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Accidental Nuclear Holocaust over North Carolina?

A newly declassified report from Sandia National Laboratory confirms that in 1961  B-52 broke apart over North Carolina dropping two 4 megaton bombs. One fell to the ground unarmed. But the second assumed it was being deliberately released over an enemy target - and went through all its six arming mechanisms save one. OK - that's certainly scary. But how scary exactly? The journalist currently publicizing this states  "only the failure of a single low-voltage switch prevented disaster".  In contrast, the declassified report states that a short would have been required i.e. the sixth switch appeared to function as it should have.  How close were we actually? In nearly 70 years we haven't had a single nuclear weapon accidentally detonated, but we need to be careful that it never happens in the future.  

Friday, September 20, 2013

My future job

Mr. Neil Doncaster,
Chief Executive,
Norwich City Football Club,
Carrow Road
Norwich NR2 3EW

Dear Neil,

After the debacles against Hull and Spurs, whereby in both games the lads managed to reduce themselves within 5 minutes to lurching after the shadows of the opposition like blinded zombies, it’s clear that Carrow Road needs some big changes.

So I am hereby applying for the obviously-soon-to-be-vacant position of manager of Norwich City FC.

You’ll probably want to know what experience I have in running a football club? The answer is: none whatsoever!

So what? I’ll run the show using a three-point principle broadly inspired by the athletics department of my current employer.

Firstly, I’ll get rid of the best players. This will engender an unprecedented level of solidarity in the remainder, leading to their being psychologically solidly impenetrable.
Anyway it’ll be quite easy to do because my predecessor Hughton has already voided the club of all but a couple of the good players – there’s only Hoolahan and the lad Redmond left. They’ll have to go!

Secondly, in a revolutionary step, I’ll remove the goalkeeper from the team! Knowing that our goal is gaping and unprotected will give our outfield players tremendous incentive to never let the opposition have the ball.

Thirdly, I’ll stop all training sessions. This will make the players so keen to play so that, come Saturday afternoon they’ll all run around like demented threshing machines, reducing even our dear friends from Ipswich to a bunch of whimpering blue babies.

It’s time the Canaries opened up a can of Norfolk Whoop Ass on the Premier League.

On the Ball City!

Let’s get to work!

Yours,  Jeremy C. Smith. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Solution to Syria

Amidst the confused public debate as to what to do about chemical weapons and what is happening in Syria, there seems to be no clear consensus as to how best to deter their use.  But the fact is that there was a solution to this problem that, with a bit of thought and development, could have been implemented by now. And it does not involve arming Al Quaeda,  potentially ineffective or counterproductive military strikes or, indeed,  any military strikes at all, and it would not have needed any international agreement.

The solution, which is still the way to go, is to render  chemical weapons ineffective.

Enzymes exist that can act as "bioscavangers", chemically transforming nerve gases such as sarin and VX into harmless molecules by breaking them apart, before they have had a chance to act on the nervous system. But these enzymes need to be improved, developed and translated into field use.

Troy Wymore, Jerry Parks, Larry Avens  and myself  have received a small amount of grant money over the last year or so from NNSA and DOE to work on this using calculations of reaction mechanisms and enzyme engineering. Together with Paul Langan and colleagues we wish to combine these calculations with neutron crystallography to rationally improve these enzymes. We have submitted a paper detailing our first findings, which were quite surprising and exciting and could lead the research in a somewhat different direction. Soon, if, and only if, nerve gas bioscavenging research is properly funded over a long enough period, there will be a primary prophylaxis that military and civilians will be able to use in the form of an injection, patch or pill that will neutralize sarin and other nerve gases before they get a chance to work. This would render any chemical weapons strike useless, which is about as good a deterrent as one could imagine.

However, we, and others in the field,  have had a hard time getting sustained funding for this. It's not that the idea of sarin bioscavanging enzymes is particularly controversial - just that, as usual, the will has not been there to divert money from other, less effective programs to fund development of this technology. $150M over 5 years would probably solve the problem. Financially this makes so much sense, compared to the cost and uncertainty of missile strikes.

And, had this research been funded sufficiently earlier, all those children could have been saved.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Do not trust atoms

Thanks: Thomas Splettstoesser.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Mysterious Melted Forts

Some readers will know that we spend some time characterizing glass-like properties of proteins obtained by cooling to low temperatures. Well, another kind of glass transition happened in various Iron Age forts in Western Europe. Something heated them up, melted the rock, and on cooling the rock vitrified. Here's one that the admirably knowledgeable John Dye kindly took us to see  -The Torr in Shielfoot, Argyll.

Photo: Stephine Smith.

John and his colleagues managed to reproduce the vitrification in the lab using a temperature of 850C.
But why would the ancients have done this?  Destruction? Ceremony? Analytical chemistry can tell us nothing about how the temperature was achieved and even less about the motives for the burning.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Milestone in Cellulosic Ethanol Production

A milestone appears to have been reached in cellulosic ethanol production  when INEOS Bio announced that its Indian River gasification and fermentation plant is now producing cellulosic ethanol at commercial scale from waste matter.  Maybe this is the needed commercial breakthrough?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

USA neutron scattering - behind Asia?

I just got back from the International Conference on Neutron Scattering in Edinburgh. The conference went very well and had, I believe, a record attendance. Arguably, the provenance of the invited talks gives some indication of the relative worldwide influence of the various continents on the field worldwide. Ignoring the Europeans, whose numbers are likely to have been inflated by the geographic proximity of Scotland, it is perhaps reasonable to compare Asia in this regard with the USA. Of the 175 lectures 25 were from the USA compared to 41 from Asia.  It would appear, then, that the USA still has some catching up to do?

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Rio 2016

Fabian Heinle: won the Long Jump with 7.91m - Europe's best this year.

So I decided to take in the Jumping at the International Junior Gala U20 Track and Field at Mannheim this weekend and barged in to hang out with the UK team. I  sauntered up to this bloke in his 60s-ish in a UK track suit and started bragging about how great a long jumper I was at school, but he curiously didn't seem particularly impressed.  Turns out he was Alan Lerwill. OMG - as is the contemporary acronym - Alan Lerwill!  He was my bloody hero in the 1970s.  Olympic Long Jump finalist in Munich, Commonwealth Games Gold medallist, UK High Jump record holder. Whoops.

Lerwill was competing in the Mexico Olympics in 68 when Bob Beamon performed the greatest athletic feat ever. Lerwill was talking to his coach, Tom McNab (technical director for Chariots of Fire), when Beamon jumped further than the optical measuring device's range, so the officials had to find a tape measure. When they announced the distance, 8.90m, neither Lerwill nor McNab knew what that meant - they had to use conversion tables to feet and inches, but the Long Jump tables didn't go that far either, so they had to use the tables for the Shot Put.  Beamon had jumped 29ft 2 1/2 inches, breaking the World Record by nearly two feet. 45 years later it's still the Olympic Record.

As for the Junior Gala, Alan is here coaching the  UK U20 team. The UK male jumpers, Efe Uwaifu, Elliot Safu and Feron Sayers are all very polite kids. Efe and Elliot are going to Harvard next year.  Harvard! Why Harvard? What's wrong with UTK? Elliot wants to study chemistry, even! We have a great track and field team. I did try to do a bit of recruiting myself, though. If UT has the scholarships I know who they need, now. Go Vols!

Some of these kids will become Olympic Champions (the reigning Olympic  Champion won here in 2005), others won't make it at all. It's a rough, tough life they have.  Efe couldn't get it right yesterday. Either too much energy and a no-jump or not enough energy. Alan told him to approach in a more upright posture but it seemed to me that he lost forward  momentum doing that. You need to drive forward with maximum speed then straighten up just before hitting the board. Mind you, I'm not exactly the one who has been coaching this for the last 50 years, am I? So I kept my trap shut for once.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Supreme Court Fails Biology 101 (update)

Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit) claims "That's not surprising: they're elderly lawyers......That’s okay, because a legal system that requires the Supreme Court to understand molecular biology as well as molecular biologists is a legal system that’s doomed to fail." Nobody's expecting them to understand the case as well as molecular biologists. However, the Supreme Court has clearly failed to establish a support system whereby the people who are advising them are capable of communicating to them the basic elements of a technical case. What they wrote was embarrassing and laughable. Is that really okay?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Supreme Court Fails Biology 101

Whatever one thinks of today's SCOTUS ruling concerning gene patenting, it's undeniable that their description of the  biology involved was littered with  basic errors. Some of these errors are listed here, but there are more. The whole thing abounds with jarring sentences such as "DNA nucleotides contain the information necessary to create strings of amino-acids, which are in turn used in the body to build proteins." Is it amusing or worrying that our most venerable legal institution is apparently incapable of seeking out accurate basic information? Is this incapacity repeated in other technical cases they review?


Monday, June 10, 2013

30 petaflops in Southern China

Jack Dongarra just posted a report on the new Chinese supercomputer, Tianhe-2.
His Linpack test clocks it at over 30 petaflops, outgunning Titan by 74%.
The theoretical peak performance, using 3 million processors, is over 50 petaflops.

Looks like this might nip up to the number one spot in the Top500 supercomputers next week?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Energy Speech by Lamar Alexander

Yesterday our local senator,  Lamar Alexander, gave a speech in Oak Ridge on America's energy future that I think came close to hitting the nail on the head. The full speech can be found here.

Having lived in Germany I  appreciate his assessment of the German energy mess. Germany adopted cap-and-trade,  started closing its nuclear power plants and became more dependent upon natural gas, buying both forms of energy from other countries rather than producing it on its own. The Germans are subsidizing wind and solar, but are building new coal plants in order to have enough reliable electricity. The end result is that Germany is a major carbon producer and also has the second-highest household electricity prices in the European Union.

More generally, Alexander's "four principles" are:

1. Cheaper, not more expensive, energy.
2. Clean, not just renewable, energy.
3. Research and development, not government mandates.
4. Free market, not government picking "winners and losers"

The only quibble with these I might have is over the "government mandates".
I can't see global CO2 control ever happening without there eventually being some kind of global treaty that all nations have to abide by, and that, of course, is a massive multi-government mandate.

But maybe I'm wrong? Conceivably CO2 reduction could happen naturally by voluntary application of principle 2? But by itself principle 2 contains no business incentive. More likely, if the R&D spending in principle 3  is biased towards clean energy, then this will naturally become cheaper and create business incentive.  Alexander recommends doubling the federal R&D outlay on energy research. Creating the necessary clean technology will lead to its widespread use.

Monday, May 20, 2013

500th BESC Bioenergy Publication

Congratulations to the Bioenergy Science Center (BESC) for its 500th publication. BESC has been up and running for about five years, at a cost of about $25M per year, so my rough calculation is that that makes about $250k per publication. Given the high overheads associated with the full cost recovery model that national labs must work with, that's competitive with the output from typical grants from other funding agencies.

Publication numbers don't tell the whole story, though. From what I can see from my smallish role in the organization,  BESC has been run in a particularly highly-managed and coordinated way. This contrasts with the ideal of the liberated, isolated researcher following his/her own flights of fancy to brilliant, unpredictable discoveries.  Rather, BESC researchers have been focussed on largely common questions concerning the recalcitrance of biomass to deconstruction and have delved deeply into them from a variety of angles. As a result BESC has carved out a distinctive niche, with a fruit of 500 interlinked, targeted publications. This shows how large centers, focussed on a theme of strong societal importance can function, a model of research that hardly existed 20 years ago. Furthermore, in the case of BESC, there were initial doubts as to whether the delocalization of the center (over the South East, Colorado and New England, for example) could ever lead to a high degree of effective coordination. These doubts have been dispelled:  BESC has shown how to do it, setting a clear precedent for highly integrated, geographically delocalized, targeted research by a large number of scientists.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Accountability and the National Science Foundation

Some of the research the National Science Foundation performs is suspected by some people as being a waste of taxpayer's money.  So, regularly there are initiatives in congress trying to improve the accountability of the NSF.   The latest suggests adding a fresh layer of bureaucracy after the peer review process to "solve the problem of so many questionable grants being awarded".  The proposal is to not fund  any research unless Congress certifies after the initial peer review that it addresses questions of economic development or national security. Well, the problem with that is that all NSF grants DO address questions of economic development or national security. 

The new initiative selected as examples five grants (out of about 10,000 awarded) suspected as being dubious. I quickly looked up two random abstracts of the five projects under question. It's clear to me that, if they are what they claim (and peer review is to make sure of this), these projects are of clear potential economic benefit.

One of them is a comparative network analysis of global social interactions. This has implications  for the spread of pathogens and public health countermeasures, for market research on the diffusion of innovations,  for social movement research on "domino effects" like those observed in the cascading collapse of the former Soviet Union and more recently in the Arab Spring (there's a national security interest), and  comparative studies of social capital and economic development. Computer scientists will benefit from comparative data that may be helpful for tailoring the design of online social network sites. 

The other is a study of a food safety scandal in China. Food safety scandals raise questions about complex and globalized food production and distribution systems, the impact on consumer health and well-being, and the global governance of food and health risks. Results of the project will increase knowledge of the transmission of food safety standards and contribute to public discussions about food safety and security in the U.S. and China, resulting in greater opportunities for improved food safety. 

These two would clearly appear to meet the criterion. My guess is the others are similarly useful. 

So where's the problem?  Is it that the Congressional office concerned simply didn't read the abstracts? Or that they can't see that, say, market research on the diffusion of innovations is of economic importance? If it's the former then they simply need to make the effort to read the abstracts - that's not NSF's fault. If the latter, then clearly some lawmakers need  a simple education on what drives long-term prosperity and security in a country - let's call it "Economic Development and National Security, 101".

Congress obviously should perform important work in deciding relative public priorities (e.g. cancer  versus energy research). However,  NSF, with its miserly funding level of $7bn, is a major driver of the US economy, both via direct research innovation and  in training the STEM researchers of the future. Putting politicians  on the review boards of individual NSF proposals would quickly put the brakes on that. 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Sylvia McLain

Our former colleague and East Tennessean Sylvia McLain, who was a Shull fellow at SNS, now runs a scattering group in Oxford and moonlights as a hard-hitting, no-holds-barred  blogger with the Guardian newspaper.

Here's a recent entry on creationism.

She also has her own science blog here.

Good stuff, Sylvia. More of us could be communicating in the various media spheres.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Really just can't stand it....

I did turn on the telly with 5 minutes to go and, lo! and behold, they conceded the losing goal 3 minutes later to Aston Villa. To the team immediately fighting with us to avoid the chop. To the team to whom our coach absconded without permission 12 months ago........Next week I shan't watch at all.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Just can't stand it

 I've been watching a lot less of Norwich City's soccer games recently. Now, why is this? All who know me know I am soccer mad, playing 2-3 times a week and following the team of my town of birth avidly. Why could this be? Have I finally,  after 48 years of addiction, cottoned on to the fact that soccer actually is pointless? Just, as one female friend once said, "11 men in yellow and 11 men in red with a ball, who sometimes are all up one end of the field and sometimes up the other"?  Finally, after all this time, have I found something better to do.......?

No. It's just that it's got worse. They're not winning.  They keep throwing away leads. They might get relegated. I can't stand it. When they lose my  Saturday goes into depression.

So, recently I tried a new, fairweather  tactic. Instead of watching the game from the beginning I would look up the score with 20 minutes to go, and only if they were winning would watch. Surely this would minimize the risk of nailbiting pain.

I started last week, away to Arsenal. Switched on the telly with 20 minutes to go and they were 1-0 up! Against the cream of the London pedigree at the Emirates Stadium. Watched avidly. 15 minutes to go. 10 minutes to go... A famous away victory in sight. Then, of course, the inevitable happened. The linesman, from 50 yards away, gave them a soft penalty. A penalty that wasn't. 1-1. With time standing still  Arsenal scored 2 more in two minutes. Dejection.

I should have known, shouldn't I?  Next week I'll turn the telly on only if they're winning with 5 minutes to go......

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Tennessee-Georgia War of 2013.

Well, Georgia is at it again.

They are again outrageously claiming that an 1818 federal survey erroneously marked the state border one mile south of its intended location, putting it in TN rather than GA, whereas we have written extensive legal documentation stating exactly the opposite

They say that the surveyors in 1818 were using antiquated equipment, whereas we know it was Georgia that supplied this equipment in the first place. Hah!

They say they're being generous with the offer to redraw (sorry, correct) the state line by asking only that Tennessee merely return a small part of the 'misappropriated' land, not the whole lot, but we don't see what's in it for us to give any of it back at all thank you very much.  

They claim that all they are doing is innocently correcting history, but we know what they really want is access to the Tennessee River to siphon off our beautiful water at the dead of night, and anyway it's not as if it's called the Georgia River is it?

They say they have a crippling drought whereas we say they have done diddly squat to encourage conservation or rein in growth of their polluted Atlantan megopolis, and their blatant land-grab would unceremoniously dump 30,000 upstanding Tennesseans into their grubby little clutches.

They are claiming that we are not taking this issue seriously enough. Last time they tried this prank they claimed we were responding with catcalls and whistles because we didn't have any legitimate arguments to make, whereas we know this is just because they are incapable of having fun with anything.

No quarter shall be given to Georgia, especially if they keep whooping us in the SEC.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Sad Truth about Scientists

It was "Pi day" in the USA last week (3.14). (Not in Europe, of course, where it was 14.3 day). Now,  in 2005 Lu Chao, a 24-year-old graduate student in Northwest Agriculture and Forestry University in Shaanxi Province, China,  successfully recited 67,890 digits of pi in 24 hours and 4 minutes with an error at the 67,891st digit, saying it was a "5", when it was actually a "0".  He had started learning to recite pi in 2004 and spent more than 10 hours memorizing and practicing everyday during his summer college vacation.

Officials with Lu's university perceptively said that he had a very good memory.

What's the truth about these guys? Well, an American  won the memorizing pi competition some years previously, but his wife revealed  that, well may he be able to remember thousands of digits of pi but  he could never remember where he put his glasses or keys. Now THAT'S the harsh, bitter reality. They're not superhuman after all.  They resemble Jeremy Smith these guys, who when HE was 24 walked his mother to his car in France,  found his key didn't turn in the ignition,  phoned a mechanic to start the car,  drove off then noticed there was a teddy bear hanging from the rear view mirror that he didn't remember putting there.  And the Jeremy Smith who in 1985 dreamily got on the wrong ferry in Dover, UK, ended up in Boulogne, France instead of Calais, without his backpack, and was sent back penniless to the UK on the last ferry. And the Jeremy Smith who was in Tony Mezzacappa's office last week fiddling with his blackberry. He'd had it for two years but  when Mezzacappa asked if it was a touch screen phone, Jeremy didn't know.  

I think I'd better get back to memorizing Pi. I've heard mnemonics are good. Here's one for the first few digits:  How I wish I could recollect pi easily today!  

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Reasons to be Cheerful, Part IV

Photo: Thomas Splettstoesser,

Troy Wymore: appears to have found out something surprising concerning sarin ....Hmm...
Demian Riccardi: has found out why mercury binds thiol groups. The traditional explanation was not correct.
Jerome Baudry and Xiaolin Chemg: are publishing all sorts of stuff at a rate of knots.
Hong Guo: has cemented the Shanghai relationship.
Loukas Petridis: has simulations of biomass pretreatment that agree remarkably with experiment
Tongye Shen and Hanna Qi: understand peptide folds in solution.
Derek Cashman and Pavan Gatty: gave great talks last week.
John Eblen: looks like he has a new deal sorted out.
Dennis Glass and Benjamin Lindner: graduated!
Hao-Bo Guo: figured out excited states for benzoic aromatic compounds.
Liang Hong: got his third PRL here published.
Amandeep Sangha: has a theory for lignin control.
Sally Ellingson: has an Autodock manuscript written.
Jason Harris: has a Biochemistry paper and more on the way
Xiaohu Hu: appears to be working for his girlfriend now?
Quentin Johnson and Ricky Nellas: have peptide results together.
Roland Schulz: as a Gromacs megadeveloper, has a paper that is sure to be cited thousands of times.
Jing Zhou: quickly got initial results on her cobalamine project.
Emal Alekozai: has found a curious dipole effect in cellulose:cellulase interactions
Jerry Parks and Alex Johs: Figured out how bacteria methylate mercury. You can find the paper describing the work in Science here, and  news reports here and here. For me, this brings home a lesson -  that genomes as lists of letters are listless.  Only when transformed into  three-dimensional molecular architectures with chemical duties can gene function, and thus genomes, really be understood.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Ladle Rat Rotten Hut

Wants pawn term, dare worsted ladle gull hoe lift wetter murder inner ladle cordage, honor itch offer lodge, dock, florist. Disk ladle gull orphan worry putty ladle rat cluck wetter ladle rat hut, an fur disk raisin pimple colder Ladle Rat Rotten Hut.

Wan moaning, Ladle Rat Rotten Hut's murder colder inset. "Ladle Rat Rotten Hut, heresy ladle basking winsome burden barter an shirker cockles. Tick disk ladle basking tutor cordage offer groinmurder hoe lifts honor udder site offer florist. Shaker lake! Dun stopper laundry wrote! Dun stopper peck floors! Dun daily-doily inner florist, an yonder nor sorghum-stenches, dun stopper torque wet strainers !"

"Hoe-cake, murder," resplendent Ladle Rat Rotten Hut, an tickle ladle basking an stuttered oft. Honor wrote tutor cordage offer groin-murder, Ladle Rat Rotten Hut mitten anomalous woof. " Wail, wail, wail ! " set disk wicket woof, "Evanescent Ladle Rat Rotten Hut! Wares are putty ladle gull goring wizard ladle basking?"

"Armor goring tumor groin-murder's," reprisal ladle gull. "Grammar's seeking bet. Armor ticking arson burden barter an shirker cockles."

"O hoe! Heifer gnats woke," setter wicket woof, butter taught tomb shelf, "Oil tickle shirt court tutor cordage offer groin-murder. Oil ketchup wetter letter, an den bore!"

 Inner ladle wile, Ladle Rat Rotten Hut a raft attar cordage, an ranker dough ball. "Comb ink, sweat hard," setter wicket woof, disgracing is verse. Ladle Rat Rotten Hut entity betrum an stud buyer groin-murder's bet. Soda wicket woof tucker shirt court, an whinney retched a cordage offer groin-murder, picked inner windrow, an sore debtor pore oil worming worse lion inner bet. En inner flesh, disk abdominal woof lipped honor bet, paunched honor pore oil worming, an garbled erupt. Den disk ratchet ammonol pot honor groin-murder's nut cup an gnat-gun, any curdled ope inner bet.

"O Grammar !" crater ladle gull historically, "Water bag icer gut! A nervous sausage bag ice!"

"Battered lucky chew whiff, sweat hard," setter bloat-Thursday woof, wetter wicket small honors phase.

"O Grammar, water bag noise! A nervous sore suture anomolous prognosis!"

"Battered small your whiff, doling," whiskered dole woof, ants mouse worse waddling.

"O Grammar, water bag mouser gut ! A nervous sore suture bag mouse!"

Daze worry on-forger-nut ladle gull's lest warts. Oil offer sodden, caking offer carvers an sprinkling otter bet, disk hoard hoarded woof lipped own pore Ladle Rat Rotten Hut an garbled erupt.  

Mural: Yonder nor sorghum stenches shut ladle gulls stopper torque wet strainers.

[Written in 1940 by H.L Chace, a French professor, to show his students how integral intonation is to the meaning of language. Thanks to Don Bashford at St. Jude's Hospital for showing me this 25 years ago].

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Nobody In Edinburgh?

[Old Bus on the Isle of Hoy, Scotland. Photo by Martin Bay].

Time to spruce up the old bangers, maybe? We're economizing on travel!

 I'll be giving a resounding  Plenary Lecture at the International Conference on Neutron Scattering in Edinburgh in July. However, it now appears that very few colleagues from the USA will be there to witness this edifying spectacle.  You see, we are now seeing the effect of The New Travel Restrictions. Indeed, the Energy Department Inspector General's report notes that in the last six years  over 90,000 contractor employee foreign travel trips occurred with a cost to the government of just over $300 million.  That's quite a lot of dough! 

Now, don't get me wrong, I am strongly in favor of reducing unnecessary government expenditure, but things need to be thought through, or unintended consequences shape the end result.  In the case of scientists, many lay-people don't realize that talking with other scientists about your work and learning about other scientists' work in person are absolutely critical to making key discoveries. If scientists don't go to foreign conferences then they don't get to talk with people from other countries  about projects, and, moreover, they don't get to publicize their work. So the result is less well-informed, less motivated scientists doing poor-quality work that no-one else in the world pays much attention to. This reduces significantly the value of funds invested in the research in the first place. To put it another way, we may well spend $3bn on the Spallation Neutron Source, but  if we then try to crimp a few thousand dollars by stopping people going to the world's premier neutron conference future work at SNS will be of lower quality and the worldwide standing of the USA in the neutron sciences will be significantly diminished. 

Here's an alternative suggestion. It seems to me that, unless my maths is really, really bad, the figures above equate to about $3300 per person per trip.  How about simply putting a cap on foreign travel of, say, $2800 per trip? People can get to most places for a $1500 airfare and $200 per day for the hotel and registration. They might have to work a bit online to bring costs down, but that's the point, isn't it?  Better still, if we were to allow lots of  our IT researchers to go to foreign conferences about high-performance computing then, sitting down over a few beers with their German, Chinese and Japanese counterparts, they might just figure out a way  to make videoconferencing really fast and high quality, thus obviating the need for any foreign conference travel at all.  And don't worry, for quite  a while alcohol has not been reimbursable!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Frozen Head and Frozen Toes

There's nothing like a crisp winter hike in sub-zero temperatures!

Here's the view last MLK Day the from Frozen Head mountain fire tower. Frozen Head mountain offers unimpeded views stretching from the Cumberland Mountains to the north to the Tennessee Valley and Smokies to the south.

Starting at 1,362 feet the South Old Mac trail rises steadily for nearly two miles to the summit at 3,324 feet.  Cold indeed it was, especially at the start, but the trees were bare and the cold seemed to lengthen the penetration of the views. We soon warmed up. 

In the early 1800's, settlers from the mountainous regions of Scotland and Wales moved into the Frozen Head area and built homesteads in the high mountains. I  am presently trying to learn  Old Time Music in Knoxville,  and would have loved to have witnessed their Ceilidhs.  Later, local coal  was deep mined using, presumably less joyful convict labor.

The fire tower was built in the 1930s to spot fires and trespassers.  They didn't seem to be up there, though,  in the  fall of 1952 as the  entire state forest was burned by the worst forest fire season in state history.