Sunday, February 28, 2016


The last couple of weeks I have given lectures at local universities, both about 100 miles away:   Tennessee Technological University and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. These colleges do perform research, but the weight of their activities lies closer to teaching. Both want to increase their research weight, though, so the question is how to do that best.

Tennessee Tech

TTU and UTC should use their two best assets  - their young enthusiastic faculty and their curious and bright students. These, and laptops, are all you need these days to perform first-class research. OK, some experimental equipment is useful too, but they have that of course.

I've always been of the opinion that research success is built from the grass roots upwards (this is why ORNL and UTK REALLY need to work together better to greatly increase the student participation in research at ORNL).  This means that the faculty need to integrate research into undergraduate curricula earlier than at present, and need to encourage materially faculty who are doing productive research. With a solid foundation of lively undergrads performing research under faculty supervision, TTU and UTC will quickly increase their research profiles, and everyone will benefit from it.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

No space for today's young Einsteins?

In a recent opinion piece in the Guardian the excellent science writer Philip Ball wonders whether a young Einstein could survive today, given the need for young scientists to get grants and publish work of immediate high impact.   In fact, I  think it might  be easier  for him to flourish. However, maybe he would be less likely to think about physics in the first place.

I'm no expert in the history of science, but from what I read Einstein's first paper, on capillarity, was published as an undergraduate in 1900 (when he was 21) in the then prestigious journal Annalen der Physik. Now, this would be entirely possible today, and getting the work published as a sole author in a prestigious journal would certainly make admissions tutors for graduate school sit up and notice. As a result, Einstein probably would probably be admitted into graduate school in theoretical physics. Instead, for some reason back then he did not go to 'graduate school'. Perhaps this is because they didn't exist, as such? The idea of paying people after a degree without them having to teach perhaps hadn't started up?  So, instead, he had to do it the hard way, while working in a patent office, doing his PhD on the side. He was awarded it in 1905, the year he published  four groundbreaking papers. Now, lets snap back to 2016. Any young theorist with five single author papers in a reputable journal would certainly be offered a postdoctoral position in a leading institute, if not already a professorship. By 1908 the significance of his work was beginning to be appreciated, as it would have been today as well, and he was made a Lecturer.

So I think it was tougher for the young Einstein 110 years ago to do his physics than it would have been for him today. However, another valid question  is whether Western culture today  is as generally conducive to free-flowing creative scientific thought as was the culture in Germany and Switzerland in the 1900s. Einstein  wondered what free-fall really was, and what riding on  beam of light would be like. Has there been a general dumbing down of today's youth  and family life, and if so, does this mean that such questions might never even cross the minds of today's potential young Einsteins?

Friday, February 5, 2016

Patent Pending

Recent discussions we have had about intellectual property in inhibitor design highlight how artificial it all is.  One needs "composition of matter", it seems, i.e.,   a new molecule. One cannot patent a new use for an old molecule as easily - it seems to be not worth it for investors. One cannot patent a molecule that has been published. Etc etc.

One wonders, then, what patents are really for. Are they to give due financial reward for creative people who make new, useful things or processes?  If so,  a lot of people deserve the rewards.

Assume someone designs a drug using molecular dynamics.
Who should get the credit?
Here's a very partial list.

a) Isaac Newton, Erwin Schroedinger etc, who laid the foundations.
b) Everyone who contributed to the simulation methodology.
c) The computer manufacturers and sys admins etc.
d) The team who did the simulations.
e) The experimental team who tested the compounds that failed and those that succeeded.
f) Everyone in decades gone by who devised the experimental methods for e)
g) All the preclinical researchers who optimized the lead.
h) The clinical trial patients and doctors etc.
i) The drug company that makes and distributes the drug.
j) Everyone who taught everyone to do a)-j)

That's a whole lotta folks;  some dead, some alive. Those still alive should share the profits somehow. That would be ideal. Unworkable, surely, but ideal, I think.