Wednesday, November 21, 2012


I encourage all of you to head over to the BBC to read this op-ed, and then to buy yourselves and everyone you know a subscription to Lapham's Quarterly.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Ten years

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of -
 wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hovering there,
I've chased the shouting wind along and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew:
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The (academic) beaten path

Picture this scenario:

A young scientist (post PhD) meets up with some older colleagues at a conference. They laugh and joke and perhaps share a drink in the hotel bar; in the course of the conversation, one of the more senior colleagues asks: "so where are you (employed) these days?"
Our protagonist responds, "at Weasel Creek State Community Technical College."
Imagine the response - an immediate hush, an awkward silence, eyes turned toward the table - finally, someone asks, delicately, "so what prompted that decision?"

But why?

In academia, we never ask why people follow the beaten path. We only ask why they leave it. And if they cannot or will not answer, we assume answers for them: they had to do it to follow a spouse, or to be closer to elderly family members who need long-term care, or because they were fired or lost their grant.... In other words, because they are a bad scientist. There is only one way, and it's our way.

Even those who wish to study the so-called "leaky pipeline" fall prey to this mindset. They assume that the drop in the number of female students in physics (for example) is due to the same mechanism as the drop in the number of tenured or tenure-track female faculty in physics (that one is simply an extension in time of the other), and that our end goal should be to increase the number of women students and faculty. Because that is what everyone really wants, right? To be "successful" in science. Which has become synonymous with "to get a tenured professorship at a highly-acclaimed university."
Let's go back to our hypothetical situation. Our protagonist has reasons for choosing to work at Weasel Creek State Community Technical College which are just as valid as the reasons to work at Ivy League University. Perhaps this young scientist wants to make a difference in the lives of non-traditional students. Perhaps the overhead on research grants at WCSCTC is practically nil. Perhaps the "publish or perish" mentality doesn't taint every project, allowing our scientist to include students in research without fear of delaying scientific results. Perhaps the teaching load is light and the work flexible. Perhaps the college made a very generous offer, including salary, benefits, and ample lab space.
Our more senior researchers, however, work at Ivy League U. They had to choose this - something prompted that decision. Maybe they got lucky and the department cleared out some laboratory space in the basement. Maybe they get their choice of dozens of graduate students, many of whom will never be so "successful." Maybe they only have to teach the higher level courses. Maybe they only pay 50% in overhead on their research grants. Maybe there's even faculty parking that doesn't cost too much. And maybe, once they finally get tenure, they won't have to try and publish so often. But they get to write ILU next to their names when they go to conferences, and surely that's enough.

The point is, we should not scrutinize one decision over another simply because it does not conform with what we expect (socially, that is) - we should scrutinize all equally. If anything, it is those who choose to leave the beaten path who have the most valid reasons for doing so; "I took this job as a science educator because I wanted to get kids excited about physics" is a much better answer than "I took this job at Super Duper National Laboratory because I wanted to write Research Scientist under my name in my email signature" (..."I took this job at Ivy League because I wanted to have to compete for funding for the rest of my life!").

Part of me does want to "buck the odds" and get that tenured professorship at a highly-acclaimed university, but the larger part of me can see the futility of that struggle. It's time I started asking myself, "so... what prompted that decision?"

Friday, November 9, 2012

On collaboration

I am remiss in not writing since the election. Of course, I am glad to see Obama win a second term. But it is a microcosm of the US which I wish to describe.

Now that we have chosen (not that the act of choosing grants us reprieve), we need to set aside our differences and cooperate toward the greater good. It is not just a lesson to the wider US population, with regards to the President. It is also a lesson to me and my fellow physicists.

My "home" facility was shut down, as you may remember. We were cut in favor of other facilities, one of which has yet to exist. What smarted the most was that we felt ourselves singled out unfairly (sound familiar, Republicans?) - none of us saw it coming; instead, we all "knew" that it would be Argonne (ATLAS) that lost funding, not us. But that's not what happened in the end. We were cut, and ATLAS was directed to take up the slack. And we are fooling ourselves if we refuse to acknowledge that, aside from the politics, there was some reasonable basis for the decision: number of users, cost to operate, number of publications and citations, etc. (Of course, there were some dirty politics involved also, but that is never one-sided). Just like in the presidential election.
So now we are faced with an honest dilemma: how do we proceed? Do we continue to wallow in our self pity? Or do we stiffen our upper lips and start working collaboratively on real problems? The answer is obvious (even if, early on, we cannot see it through our emotion-tinted glasses).
And so I find myself here at ATLAS, working with those people whom once I considered competition, but since have been rendered cooperative by the nature of the larger system. Our shared situation requires that we collaborate instead of compete, and it is important that someone take that difficult first step - that one side reach out a hand first. I am trying to do just that.
We can solve our problems - and run some really great experiments - if we stop acting dogmatic and isolationist and instead focus on our common goals. Are we here to bicker over number of publications, or are we here to further scientific knowledge? Similarly, are we here to argue over precise tax rates, or are we here to make America a great place to live? It's up to us.

It's time to collaborate.