Friday, January 27, 2012

For Whom the Bell Tolls

It's a bad time to be a nuclear physicist.

Never mind that the battle cry is "better education equals better jobs," that a PhD is supposed to be one of the highest achievements one can attain, that our own government continues to tell us that science is important. This patina just serves to hide a rusting inner truth. Nuclear physics in the US is on its deathbed.
Now, don't get me wrong. FRIB will be a great boon to the nuclear physics community. But the cost of FRIB - not only financially - is too much burden for us to bear. In order to "get" FRIB, we had to trade HRIBF. We had to give up Yale. And that's just recently. For many years, smaller university labs have been closing, unable to fund themselves or else seemingly at the end of their useful lives. Slowly, the community has become, instead of vibrant individual groups doing competitive research at a number of labs, an array of satellite groups, each competing against another - not for results - but for experimental time and resources.
To use a (limited) analogy, the heyday of nuclear physics was like having dozens of Mom-and-Pop stores, each competing, and specializing slightly. But slowly, individual shops are being lost, and are being replaced by Walmart - a gigantic monopoly over the whole scientific field. This is what FRIB will be. And unlike our corporate example, FRIB will not provide more of its commodity. We will have more isotopes available for research, but the same amount of time to study them. FRIB can't run three-years' worth of experiments in one year. It's still just a year. So now more of the community is fighting for the same amount of experimental time and resource - which can only mean that fewer in the community are successful. Smaller university groups will either disappear, or be forced to scientifically amalgamate themselves with larger, more successful, groups.
Particle physics has already gone this route, if not for any other reason than money. It simply isn't financially viable to run two dozen versions of CERN. But now that the Tevatron at Fermilab has closed, we only have CERN. The Department of Energy has, of late, threatened to close even more facilities.
One of the great things about science is the objective way it views the universe. We pride ourselves on having others in our field try to prove our answers wrong. But they have to be independent in order for the system to really work. And if the US government keeps closing labs, we'll soon only have one place to do nuclear physics - and thus no truly "independent" researchers.
This collapsing of a field into only one facility (from many) has other problems as well. Fairly or unfairly, our merit as researchers is partially determined by the number of publications we have in a given year. With more people fighting for fewer resources, the total number of publications will decrease, as will the number of publications any one researcher has to his or her name. Because outside researchers are forced, in this scenario, to collaborate with larger and larger groups, only the lucky few who have a job at the one remaining facility will have plenty of publications. Everyone else has to "go through" these few staff members in order to do an experiment. This is already happening in nuclear physics - while on paper things such as a Program Advisory Committee or Experimental Evaluation Committee still exist, experimental proposals submitted to these governing bodies are less successful if a member of the staff at the facility isn't involved. It's simply a matter of familiarity. Proposing a successful experiment at Oak Ridge is difficult if you're not intimately involved with the day-to-day goings-on in the lab. You can gain that expertise by including someone from Oak Ridge in your experimental planning and proposal. So if, in ten years' time, the only place we can do nuclear physics experiments is FRIB, then all experiment proposals to FRIB will involve, in some way, FRIB staff. This creates a potentially unfair advantage when applying for jobs - those from small university groups will have far fewer publications than those who are laboratory staff, even if otherwise either person is equally intelligent, capable, and qualified. A loss of experimental facilities also leads to difficulties in performing different types of experiments. Just because you've spent $500 million to build a lab that can create something special and specific doesn't mean a $50,000 experiment can't also inform what you're trying to figure out. Sure, I'd love to do experiments with radioactive aluminum, but I learned a little something about it recently using stable silicon (the same stuff computer chips are made from). Both approaches are complementary - and necessary. With fewer experiments and fewer ways to do them, the potential for systematic errors increases. And with fewer experiments (as there is only one place to do them), more people will be on each experiment, so the contribution of each is lessened. Particle physics papers have hundreds, if not thousands, of coauthors (and it's always suspect as to how much each coauthor actually contributed to the work). If a PhD candidate had to design, set up, run, debug, analyze and publish an experiment with minimal help, he/she would have substantially more knowledge than the PhD student who spent the same amount of time simply making sure all of the cables on one side of one detector were plugged in for one experiment. But in the end, both get the PhD. It has become a bit of a running gag in the physics community that taking a two-year postdoc position with a particle physics collaboration is roughly equivalent to taking a paid vacation. Nuclear physics is headed this way. Potential PhD students may see this as a boon - less work for equal reward - but it spells death for the field. What good are a thousand coauthors on a paper if not one of them knows how to do more than one-thousandth of anything?
I know I'm picking on particle physics a bit, but it's because particle physics stands already as the model for what happens when you only have one place for your entire scientific field to do experiments. It weakens your science, it weakens your scientists, and it leaves you unprotected from the whims of your funding bodies (one Mom-and-Pop store closing is sad; Walmart going bankrupt is catastrophic). Nuclear physics research may not recover from this; we may already be too far down this road to turn around. And nuclear physics in the guise of nuclear energy and nuclear engineering won't save us, either. There will not be a nuclear renaissance, not in the near future. The public is too sensitive to incidents like what happened at Fukushima, rare (and not as dangerous) as they may be. And even if we did start building and running more nuclear plants, the research community is still at a loss. This is yet one more symptom of a dying field; there is such a degree of specialization that, as a nuclear physics researcher, I can't get a job in nuclear engineering research.

The final question remains. Why should you care?
Why should the public care if one scientific field, an aging one at that, finally dies? You should care because it affects you, too.
You may not realize it, but without nuclear physicists, you'd have an entirely different world. Nuclear physicists may have given the world The Bomb, but nuclear physicists are also the only ones who know how to safely dismantle and dispose the bombs we have. How else would you know whether the new TSA scanners are safe? How would you know how old ancient artifacts are, how would you keep astronauts safe in space, and how would you treat cancer?
And to take a broader perspective, it isn't just nuclear physics that we're considering. Death of one scientific field is a partial death for all science. Any time we stop pursuing objective truth, we lose a piece of ourselves. It tolls for thee.

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." - John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII (1623)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Nuclear Physics, Holifield, and the End of an Era (or, why I'm at work at 11pm on a Saturday)

You can tell by the large pile of junk food near me that we're camped out.

When we run our nuclear physics experiments, like the one running right now, we utilize every available moment. Weekends. Overnights. We run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Someone is always here. At least one experimenter, as well as two facility operators and the on-call radiation protection folks. But this is the price of science. Science doesn't stop at 5pm. Science doesn't take weekend breaks.

What's more, this particular experiment is important because it may be one of our last. As you probably know, the Department of Energy - our sole source of funding - made the decision last year to close us down. The Holifield Radioactive Ion Beam Facility, where I now sit, is slated to cease doing science on March 1st. This knowledge adds almost a desperate sense of urgency to the results of this experiment, prompting a concerted effort by the facility staff to keep things running. We don't have much longer, and we know it.

I don't know what I hope to achieve by elaborating upon the fact that I'm sitting at a data acquisition computer at 11pm on a Saturday. Perhaps I felt as though getting the thoughts out would help ease my pain and frustration. Perhaps I feel as though it is a justification, a reason to keep going - look, I am here now, is that not enough?

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy Arbitrary Calendar Division Day

I wanted to point you all to an excellent (re)post over on Bad Astronomy. It explains, in rather humorous fashion, why January 1st is... well... rather arbitrary.

Wouldn't you rather celebrate the changing seasons? That's a tropical year (named from the Greek tropi which means "turn," from whence the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn derive; not for tropical climates*, where, as we know, the seasons are not so marked). It makes the most sense if you're basing your calendar on the changing seasons. The equinoxes and solstices would continue to line up on the same dates over time (the new year would fall on the winter solstice, for instance).

But perhaps you want to align your calendar with the motion of the Earth through space. But relative to what? Relative to its perihelion (closest approach to the Sun)? That's an anomalistic year. Relative to some distant stars? That's a sidereal year. Want to count up from the number of days that it takes to get the Sun back in the same position? That's a solar year. Perhaps we could use the motion of the Moon to define a year - but we know that won't work out to be the same as the others, either.

The truth is, none of these years are precisely the same, and there are good reasons for that (basically, the motion of the Earth through space is not as straightforward as one would hope). So we have to pick a standard and go with it. And picking that standard is... well... like I said, arbitrary.

So we picked the Julian calendar as our standard (365.25 days per year) and thus we celebrate the New Year on January 1st. It's not what other civilizations have chosen, but it works. I, for one, am torn - as a scientist, I'd love to use sidereal years, to base my calendar on the broadest and most thorough scope; but as a human being, as a gardener, as someone who loves to watch the seasons change, I'd prefer the tropical year.

Ultimately, it makes no difference. Regardless of what calendar we choose, we will have regular holidays (Christmas is always December 25th, for instance) and floating ones (the date of Thanksgiving varies year to year). We'll still have to add complications to our chosen system to account for time zones and axis precession and so forth. We'll still have people who disagree and use a different system (heck, we can't even decide whether to write the date month-day-year or day-month-year). But I think it's only fair that we admit it: January 1st has no meaning unless we grant it meaning. Our choice of this particular day is arbitrary. It's not even a "nice" choice that simplifies calendars or coincides with something obvious. It just is.

Happy New Year, everyone.

*Instead of double-nesting parentheses, I'll add here: "tropical" places are those which fall in between the two Tropics on the globe, and it is only incidental to the etymology that the weather in the "tropics" seems so standard. In fact, the weather in the tropics isn't standard, anyway. What we think of as standard tropical weather is actually standard tropical maritime weather. The temperature of the ocean likely has more to do with the climate in places like the Caribbean and Hawaii than does the latitude.