Sunday, January 31, 2010

To be or not to be...

..a Norwich City football supporter.

On May 3rd 2009, when Norwich were ignominiously relegated to League One, I announced that I was no longer a fan...and marked the occasion with a bitter, fractious poem.
Now, given recent exploits of the lads on the field there here have been raised eyebrows as to why my green and yellow scarf is still studiously banished to the attic.


it is true that..

- Norwich are presently top of the table
- The misers have taken 44 out of the last possible 47 points
- They have shattered the club record for the consecutive number of home wins (11 and counting)
- They are packing them in Carrow Road to a point where even flocks of migrating geese have been reported to pause and perch upon the Barclay Stand to take in the spectacle.
- Manchester United's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, after his team's comprehensive defeat by second-placed Leeds, was rumoured to have said: "Lucky we weren't drawn against Norwich otherwise we would have got a real hammering."

However, one's support should not be pledged lightly.

Therefore, under the following conditions only will I formally resume with the Canaries:

- Norwich are promoted this year.
- Ipswich are not relegated. [Yes, not. This may sound strange given that Ipswich are Norwich's sworn lifelong arch enemies, but there would be little point in them plunging down past us as we are flailing past them on the way up, would there? The existence of the local derby is quintessential. Perenially one place above the relegation bracket is the ideal purgatory for Ipswich.]
- (optional get-out clause, to be invoked facultatively): Norwich City win the World Cup in South Africa this Summer.

However, even were the above conditions to be satisfied, there would, of course, be no guarantee of a celebratory poem.....

Ice-adorned trees in my garden

Hope it thaws soon because I've been snow-bound at home for two days.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The flora and fauna of Pandora....

..,which are what made Avatar worth seeing, awaken the innate taxonomist in viewers.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Welcome, China, to the Club of Scientific Superpowers

Data, released today by NSF, illustrate quantitatively what many have been feeling over the last 10 years - that China is surging in the world of scientific research. Looking at the rate of change of many indicators, China will very soon overtake the U.S.

This has been interpreted in gloomy terms as a "worrisome trend showing erosion of U.S. competitiveness" and as indicating that the "U.S. dominance in science is at risk".

I would look at things a different way. I would welcome China to the club of scientific superpowers, applaud their progress over the last decade (which does not seem to have been mirrored by India, which arguably could have done as well), and try to see what we can learn from it.

Well, the U.S., to its credit, has lead the world in welcoming qualified foreigners to populate its research universities and fuel the creative technological drive the future always requires. But since time immemorial (meaning, at least since I was first in the States in '85-'89!) we have bemoaned the number of homegrown graduate students in the sciences. Local kids just don't seem to get motivated and curious about finding things out.

Compare this with the sentiment embodied in the following quote in Time Magazine from Energy Secretary Chu on a trip to Beijing: "In the U.S., rock stars and sports stars are the glamour people. In China, it's scholars. Here, Nobel laureates are the equivalent of Britney Spears." If this is truly the case, look forward to a fair fraction of the best and brightest of the youth of the presently 1.3 billion Chinese keenly dedicating their creative abilities to science.
And if, as is likely, the U.S. cohort remains mired in banker/rock-star/NFL fantasyland then China will quickly swamp the science stats.

How, then, will the U.S. remain at the table? Maybe the only way will be to rapidly further step up immigration of qualified talent from China? Rapid immigration isn't impossible - just look at Vancouver which, in the blink of an eyelid, has quickly become 30% Chinese, albeit not uniquely of the highly-qualified variety. But whether such an influx happens in the U.S. may well depend on whether we will continue have the means to attract the brightest over here. If not......

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Snake-Mimicking Moth

....the picture tells all.

Monday, January 11, 2010

ORNL-UT cooperation to be strengthened..

....according to an announcement by Gov. Bredesen, with 200 new faculty positions at UT staffed by researchers at the lab, and a doubling of the number of doctoral degrees awarded at the university. This is just what both institutions need, but for best effect will require overcoming some obstacles.

One of these is that there is a problem at ORNL in housing undergraduate and graduate students and postdocs as they do not 'carry off' much overhead. Thus, according to the 'full cost recovery' model by which ORNL operates, these young researchers become financial liabilities for ORNL, which must provide office space, heating, basic facilities etc out of the organisational burden (overhead), even if they arrive with salaries from elsewhere. This problem could be remedied at least in part by expanding the space allocated on the ORNL campus to the UT/ORNL Joint Institutes, by re-assigning parts of existing buildings, if this is legally conceivable. My perception (maybe wrong?) is that the Joint Institutes have so far been largely technology platforms e.g., for the Bioenergy Science Center (BESC) systems biology apparatus and the UT/ORNL NSF Kraken supercomputer. Although BESC and Kraken have been very successful for both UT and ORNL, (and I am involved with both myself) the dedication of the Joint Institutes to facilities rather than UT:ORNL grassroots research cooperation leaves a vacuum. So basically what I am saying is that if a student, postdoc or visitor wants to come and work with an ORNL staff member or UT faculty member at ORNL (and has their salary already paid from some external source) then ORNL needs to have a mechanism in place to welcome these people with space, offices and open arms, without needing to worry about extra costs, and whatever the subject they work on: this will be cost effective for ORNL in the long run as it will produce lots of cheap, high-profile science that can be used to write money-winning grants in the future.

Secondly, if ORNL staff scientists are to become UT faculty then they need to teach - maybe not a lot, but some at least - and most of the staff scientists I know would be happy to do this. This would help staff UT classrooms in the coming budget crunch, but there would have to be a mechanism in place to pay them. Given the relatively high salaries and astronomical overheads applied at ORNL the hourly rate of an average staff scientist is likely to be much higher than UT could afford. Hence, the corresponding budget strain may have to be absorbed by the funding agencies currently paying the staff scientist salaries. How they could do that is a good question, but I believe it is in the interests of the agencies themselves (DOE, NIH, NSF, etc) that their funded researchers keep their minds broadened and in contact with bright students by the noble endeavour of teaching. It's certainly in the interests of both ORNL and UT to have hordes of bright, motivated graduate students populating the offices and corridors at Oak Ridge at midnight...

Friday, January 1, 2010

Quote of the Decade

...for a football tifoso at least.

Pepe Reina and the big red ball.

"I lost sight of the official ball and stayed on the red one. I went for the red one instinctively as that was the one closest to me and the other one went past me." Pepe Reina on that demon beach ball that condemned Liverpool to a 1-0 defeat by Sunderland, October 2009.

Wishing readers all the best for 2010 and not too many red beach balls.