Pure? Applied? Just good science


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Two scientists who invented methods to observe and measure the behavior of tiny particles, a key step toward developing powerful quantum computers, were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics today.

Working independently, American David J. Wineland of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and Serge Haroche of France developed ways to study individual particles of matter and light without destroying them, a feat that was previously thought to be impossible because quantum particles lose their special properties when anything interacts with them.

The nice part here is that wineland is the 4the Nobel prize from this lab since 1997. In the old style of thinking national labs do applied science, and the academics do the thinking (the pure science). But this shows how outdated this model. Now, everyone does both. Congratulations David, now go and get that quantum computer working.

Astrophysics needs your help


The latest installment of galaxy zoo is ready you to take part.


For anyone of you thinking ‘Galaxy zoo? What?’ you should check out the project. It collates hundred if thousands of images from both the Hubble space telescope and the SLOAN survey (based 2 hours east of NMSU ). It provided people limited training and sets you free to stay the data and do your own classification. It is the new sexy link from telescopes to the general public. Have a go, let me know what you think.

The ‘Sagan’ effect


Nice article on science outreach.

Couple of snippets.

5 percent of the most active public scientists do half of all outreach
This seems about right to me. My assumptions were that this was because non active scientists either didn’t like it or didn’t see the point in it.

There is also a widely perceived “Sagan Effect” or a professional stigma attached to spending too much time translating one’s research to the broader public

This one was a bit of a surprise to me. Interestingly no one admit to placing a Sagan effect on anyone but many think that it happens.

Additionally, a widespread conception among academics is that dissemination of research findings beyond peer-reviewed journals is “dumbed-down” [9] science and thus not undertaken by the most talented of researchers [10].

Einstein one said that if you cannot explain it to your Granny, then you don’t really know it. Dumbing down is not the same as careful explanations.

However, some scientists feel widespread disinterest in science and mistrust of scientists is a more pressing issue than a lack of science knowledge among the public. They believe that the public is simply apathetic or even opposed to learning about science and the scientific process, meaning that outreach efforts will have little impact

This one is very worrying. This could become a self fulfilling prophecy.

Billionaires and asteroid mining


Asteroid mining a reality

One of the best stories of the year.

A bunch of billionaires want to go and mine asteroids for water and platinum. With the depressing news recently regarding government funding of science, the demise of the shuttle, and the lack of jobs, it is actually refreshing to see private money step in. Even if they only do it for profit the spin off for society will be huge. It is natural and human to explore, to see what it out where, to stretch the boundaries. And it could start new interest in engineering and science, similar to the Apollo era.
This is what makes space great.

Astronomy, astronauts, and the president

11 jobs that are hard to get


So 50 jobs a year appear in astronomy? Not too sure about that one. Seems a little high to me. I wonder how many of those were real job, and not just 2 year soft money positions somewhere. We have a real problem in science with this. If we assume that a retired professor’s position will be replaced, then each professor should only ever have 1 PhD student. An average professor will put through 30-40 PhD students in a career, so that means 29-39 students must get a job in a research institute. Sounds unlikely.

So what is the solution? More research money in industry might work, and leads to the bonus of making companies more efficient. But this poses a second question- why should the tax layer fund PhDs if the students are just going to go into industry. More money in education, and a stricter selection of grad student might work. But this leads to the accusation of throwing good money after bad.

In general education is always good. So I recommend that students pursue a PhD because they love science, not because they think it’ll be good for their career or will lead to a job. If money is your chief concern, better to stay clear of research. Or aim to become president instead.

Women in science


I saw a plot yesterday in the latest edition of physics world, a publication of the UK institute of physics. It showed that the ratio of males to females in science is almost 50/50 at high school level. This drops dramatically at college, and grad school level, such that when it comes to filling faculty posts, the ratio of males to females is 95-5. So why the sudden drop?

One theory is that is a self fulfilling prophecy. There are few women at faculty level hence female students have no role models and do not see career prospects. Another theory is the teaching of the more mathematical sciences is still carried out in a didactic linear fashion that men seem to respond to better ( or least, “less worse”). Studies in china and india, where they have lots of females science students entering grad school, but few female faculty, suggest the the second reason may be more correct.

Either way, it is clear we need to entice more top quality female students into science.