Thursday, October 31, 2013

What we can learn from Einstein

Everyone knows Albert Einstein - yes, that Einstein, the famous physicist, the man in the Swiss patent office who shattered the Newtonian ideals of fixed space and time. But even as we recite the stories, recalling the now familiar image of a wild-haired, wrinkle-browed old man, there are things that we miss. Here are a few.

1) Einstein won the Nobel Prize, but that's not what he's most famous for.
Einstein's Nobel was for his work on the photoelectric effect, which describes how materials struck by certain types of light can emit electrons. It's worth noting that while most people don't even know what the photoelectric effect is (or Brownian motion, for that matter), they can correctly link Einstein with "the theory of relativity." Both endeavors were important to physics, but only one was able to capture the public's attention. In other words, what review committees might view as "Nobel-worthy" may not be popular (interesting to a wider audience), and vice versa. When funding is based solely on one of these criteria, it can lead to a loss of good science.

2) Einstein's H-index probably wasn't all that high (during his lifetime).
Sure, Einstein published some really seminal papers, especially in 1905. He published lots of papers over his entire career (though not as many as some frighteningly prolific researchers), though many of those papers he did publish weren't necessarily peer-reviewed. But it's whether people properly cite your work that counts where the H-index is concerned, and despite his brilliance, many of Einstein's papers were greeted with nods of agreement and nothing more. If you only consider the "miracle year," in fact, Einstein's calculated H-index - often used as a means of determining whether you deserve a job - would have been in the measly single digits. Using metrics like the H-index may be interesting, but they're not the penultimate indication of how good you are at science.

3) Einstein struggled to find a faculty job.
Getting tenured (or at least tenure-track) jobs in academia is hard enough when you're not Einstein, so it's always scary to consider that the man himself had trouble finding a job that would allow him to work on theoretical physics. Two frustrating years after he graduated, he managed to get the position at the patent office (with the assistance of his friend's dad); not what he wanted, but at least something to pay the bills and allow him a little free time to pursue his work. Einstein's first lecturer position didn't come until more than three years after the 1905 "miracle year." Imagine how the history of physics might be different had someone in academia recognized Einstein's potential earlier.

4) Einstein was a trouble-maker.
It's a common misconception that Einstein, as a kid, was bad at school - in fact, his grades were exceptional. However, he had a massive distrust for what he considered to be "arbitrary" authority, and he hated the general form of early schooling. Memorization and recitation bored him, and eventually he would take his teacher's advice and leave school (so as not to disrupt the classroom any further). It was only at the Swiss school in Aarau that teachers recognized Einstein's gift and allowed him the freedom to pursue his own studies - eventually allowing him to become one of the most prominent physicists of all time. That student in your class, who doesn't do the homework and would rather make snide observations than listen quietly, could be acting out of boredom, or a longing for freedom and purpose; that student could be the next Einstein.

If Einstein really is our role model, our categorical scientist, then we would do well to learn everything we can from his life.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Hoyle's Nobel

Fred Hoyle never got a Nobel Prize, but he did win the admiration and respect of his colleagues thanks to his incredible insights into the brand-new discipline of nuclear astrophysics. One such contemporary was George Gamow, who wrote later of Hoyle's theory of the formation of the elements:
In the beginning God created radiation and ylem. And ylem was without shape or number, and the nucleons were rushing madly over the face of the deep. And God said: "Let there be mass two." And there was mass two. And God saw deuterium, and it was good. And God said: "Let there be mass three." And God saw tritium and [helium-3] and they were good. And God continued to call number after number until He came to the transuranium elements. But when He looked back on his work He found that it was not good. In the excitement of counting, He missed calling for mass five and so, naturally, no heavier elements could have been formed. God was very much disappointed, and wanted first to contract the universe again, and to start all over from the beginning. But it would be much too simple. Thus being almighty, God decided to correct His mistake in a most impossible way.
And God said: "Let there be Hoyle." And there was Hoyle. And God looked at Hoyle... and told him to make heavy elements in any way he pleased. And Hoyle decided to make heavy elements in stars, and to spread them around by supernovae explosions. But in doing so he had to obtain the same abundance curve which would have resulted from nucleosynthesis in ylem, if God would not have forgotten to call for mass five. And so, with the help of God, Hoyle made heavy elements in this way, but it was so complicated that nowadays neither Hoyle, nor God, nor anybody else can figure out exactly how it was done.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Furloughs and Nobels

As anyone who has been following me on facebook knows, the government shutdown is having a tremendously negative effect on science: the evidence is all around us [1,2,3,4]. Furloughs and temporary lab closures may be coming my way, too, if Congress doesn't get its act together.
At the same time, from across the Atlantic comes news of this year's Nobel Prize in Physics. One should not ignore the unfortunate fact that the "discovery" of the Higgs boson came from CERN and not from Fermilab - in other words, the US decision to shut down the Tevatron had unforeseen effects.
The Nobel announcement should be a clarion call to those whose job it is to regulate/fund/otherwise facilitate US science. If we keep playing games with our scientists, as the US is doing now, we will lose out on future discoveries. We will fall behind in technological advances. We will slowly but surely drain ourselves of expertise, as existing scientists move on to other places and the future generations of scientists are left with no training, no laboratories, and no funding.
Of course, there are more dire situations that have been caused by the government shutdown (cessation of WIC, etc), which I don't mean to minimize. But science is suffering, too.