March 10, 2009

Physics, quants, and the crash

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:25 PM

I am pretty much required to blog about this piece in the New York Times entitled "They Tried to Outsmart Wall Street": "they" being physicists who left science for Wall Street. And the not-so-subtle implication of the title is that we failed to outsmart Wall Street (and possibly wrecked the economy in the process). To that I say, in the words of Bart Simpson: it was like that when I got here.

More seriously, while I have no doubt that there were crappy quant models out there that contributed to the current crisis by maximizing short-term gain over long-term risk, this was true all the way up and down the chain and the quants don't deserve any more of the blame than anyone else. Quants respond to incentives the same way everyone else does, and the compensation structure on Wall Street can incentivize immediate profit and deferred risk. (My employer is trying to curb this effect by instituting a clawback provision on bonuses; I don't know how widespread this is, but it seems like a good idea to me.)

The Times article is curiously focused on ex-physicists, as if quants don't come from any other fields. In my ten months on the Street I've met quants from a broad range of science and engineering fields, and physicists aren't a majority. That might be a peculiarity of my department's hiring practices, with physicists being much more common elsewhere, but I'd be surprised. Anyway, Kevin Drum noticed this too and wonders why physicists are so suited to quant roles. He has a theory that it's the culture:

Even among the number crunching set, physics has a reputation as the most aggressive, male dominated branch of geekdom: only 14% of physics PhDs are women, the lowest of any of the sciences. (Math is pretty male dominated too, but pales compared to physics: 29% of math PhDs are women.) If the first thing that "aggressive and male dominated" reminds you of is the big swinging dick world of high finance, give yourself a gold star. Call this the testosterone theory: physicists are attracted to Wall Street because they like the atmosphere.

I don't think this is right: the atmosphere in a typical physics department is nothing like the stereotypical Liar's Poker trading floor that Drum is alluding to. To the extent that the environment I work in is like academia, it's because I'm lucky enough to work with a group run by ex-academics rather than people with a typical trader's background. Instead, what Drum calls the "affinity theory" really is the right one. The work I do now is a lot like the problems I worked on as a physicist. It's not just (as Drum suggests) about math; it's about the ability to work with huge data sets and make sense of them, and to find signals in a noisy system. This is a much bigger factor than testosterone levels.

December 18, 2007

Done!

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:54 PM

I filed my dissertation this morning; I am now Dr. Arcane Gazebo. (Well, technically the degree isn't conferred until Thursday when the semester ends, but whatever.)

The main result of the entire thesis comes down to a single plot, shown below. This isn't the "explain my thesis" post so I'll just say that the plot shows our ability to control the coupling energy between two qubits by applying a bias current to our readout device, hence the thesis title Solid-State Qubits with Current-Controlled Coupling. The solid curves are calculations based on device parameters and the dashed curves are one-parameter fits.

Now these points of data make a beautiful line...

If anyone needs me this evening, I'll be at Triple Rock.

November 30, 2007

Just call it entropy research

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:07 AM

I thought our lab was a mess, but it could be worse... via Chad Orzel, here's a chemistry professor (at UT San Antonio) whose lab had to be forcibly cleaned by the university:

"Clean your room or get out!" Words from a frustrated parent to a messy teenager? Not quite. The mess-maker in this case was a chemistry professor at the University of Texas, who ignored repeated warnings to clean up his dangerously cluttered lab space. When University officials decided to clean it themselves, the professor caused such a disturbance that campus police had to lead him away in handcuffs. The professor was eventually fired, which prompted a lawsuit claiming that the University retaliated against him and denied him equal protection.

The legal opinion notes that apart from the problems in the lab, the professor's office was an "extreme fire hazard", which still puts him a step below the physics professor here at Berkeley who actually set his office on fire. In any case, this makes me feel better about the disordered state of our lab. We cleaned it only a few months ago but it returns rather rapidly to equilibrium.

(I also want to point out that the legal blogger linked above is evidently a fan of Arrested Development, and has chosen the obvious pseudonym to use on his law blog...)

Permalink | Tags: Academia, Lab, Science

August 1, 2007

Academics and sex, or the lack thereof

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:31 PM

Via Shellock, there's a fascinating post at Gene Expression on various findings that show that intelligence is correlated with delayed sexual activity. There's a lot of interesting stuff in the post and I encourage reading the whole thing, but I want to point out the results I found surprising. Not because they go against stereotype—they actually confirm "science nerd" stereotypes, but I had convinced myself that these were just stereotypes without much basis in fact. These numbers indicate otherwise: (emphasis in original)

By the age of 19, 80% of US males and 75% of women have lost their virginity, and 87% of college students have had sex. But this number appears to be much lower at elite (i.e. more intelligent) colleges. According to the article, only 56% of Princeton undergraduates have had intercourse. At Harvard 59% of the undergraduates are non-virgins, and at MIT, only a slight majority, 51%, have had intercourse. Further, only 65% of MIT graduate students have had sex.

I was quite shocked that the numbers were this low; I obviously know a lot of grad students, and though I haven't polled them on this subject, I would have guessed a much higher percentage. (I'm not chauvinistic enough to suggest that MIT grad students are less sociable than those at Berkeley—I expect the populations are pretty comparable, at least in departments like physics.)

However, I may be thinking too narrowly in terms of the stereotype of scientists who are virgins because they are socially maladjusted. (There are people like this in the community, but it's a small fraction.) The Gene Expression post lists a number of other possible reasons this could appear as an aggregate effect, and argues for a few of them as contributing factors. (At an individual level, of course, it will be strongly path-dependent.)

One factor that wasn't mentioned there is culture. This could manifest in at least two ways. The first is that a substantial fraction of grad students in technical fields are immigrants from cultures that are much more sexually conservative. Thus, even if these students themselves don't hold conservative views, they may be less likely to have had sex. The second is that the culture in academia seems to me to be less sexually charged than in other spheres. This is not to say that it's sexually restrictive—as the Gene Expression post points out, most academics hold liberal views about sex—but it's less focused on going out and getting laid than, say, the Late Night Shots crowd. Our lab's monthly board game nights aren't terribly conducive to hook-ups (although surprisingly conducive to drunkenness).

Anyway, this might explain the results of the academic polls, but the original post is concerned with correlations with IQ rather than academic achievement. A logical extension would be to look at people in other intellectually-demanding disciplines, like law or medicine. Would the numbers be similar? My guess is no, but I may be stereotyping again.

Permalink | Tags: Academia, Science, Sex

June 15, 2007

Careers, locations, and settling

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:34 PM

As I start to see the light at the end of the grad school tunnel, I've been contemplating more and more my various options after I finish. The most obvious one is to go on to an academic postdoc, with the aim of eventually getting a tenure-track professorship somewhere. (Other alternatives are various industries or finance.) At the moment I'm leaning strongly against an academic career, which has lately seemed unappealing for a variety of reasons.

A major such reason is the fact that there are many more applicants for tenure-track positions than there are positions available, so that after slaving away for several years as a postdoc (generally considered to be an awful job) I'd be lucky to be offered a position anywhere. It's a job market that's extremely unfavorable to applicants, and having seen the stress and unhappiness it produces in the postdocs I've met, I am thinking I should look at other options.

One corollary to the scarcity of academic jobs is that I would have to take whatever I can get, meaning that I will have basically no choice over where I live—the institution that offers me a job could be anywhere in the country, urban or rural, coast or inland. And I've realized that where I live really is important to me. I like living near enough to a major city that I can take advantage of the cultural and economic diversity. Furthermore, I want to live in a walkable neighborhood where essential goods and services are close by—not just for conservation reasons, although this is certainly part of it, but because I've found firsthand that it brings a definite improvement in quality of life. (This, of course, is also only possible in or near a major city, and only in certain cities that are planned this way.)

And on an emotional level, I've found that I don't want to leave the Bay Area. This surprised me, because (possibly due to my migratory upbringing), I generally feel like I need to move on every few years and explore a new place. I've tried to ascertain why I might have a special attachment to my current location: certainly I don't want to leave my friends, and I like my current neighborhood, but I feel like there's something more than that. There's a sense I have of being settled here, that where I'm living now is woven into the fabric of my life. I haven't felt that way about anywhere else, but I've lived in Berkeley longer than I have any other single place (for a continuous span).

I'm not convinced that this is a good reason to want to stay here—I know that living in different places is an enriching experience for me, and there's some attraction to going and exploring someplace new. But it will probably influence my thinking on career options.

Permalink | Tags: Academia, Career, Life

April 24, 2007

A pretty accurate re-enactment

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:22 PM

I took my qualifying exam this morning. If you'd like to know it went, click here.

Permalink | Tags: Academia, Comics, Physics

March 7, 2007

March Meeting, Days 2 and 3

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:06 PM

I thought about posting last night but this was pre-empted by the fact that the slides for my talk were unfinished (and also the Clarke group dinner). First I want to register a complaint:

hund's rules for conference seating

This is how physicists (or maybe everybody) fill seating at conferences. The first people to arrive take the seats on the outside of the rows, and then fill in to the middle. This is really annoying when arriving in the middle of the session and having to climb over a bunch of people to get into the one empty seat. I am aware that this is a really lame complaint, but please, fill from the middle!

Now that I've got that out of my system: the last couple days were a blur of superconducting qubit talks. There's a lot going on in this field, and most groups had three or four (10-minute) talks in a row to have enough time to explain all their results. One experiment I thought was very neat was this one from Terry Orlando's group at MIT. In flux qubits like the ones we study, one can measure the temperature by sweeping the flux bias across the degeneracy point and measuring the population of the qubit states. Higher temperatures will give wider curves, as energies further away from the degeneracy point are more likely to be populated by thermal activation. When we measure this on our qubits we usually get something like 150 mK, mysteriously somewhat higher than the fridge temperature (roughly 50 mK).

What the Orlando group did was to apply an analog of laser cooling (as in atomic physics) to their qubit, using a microwave pulse to induce transitions that ultimately cool the system. As a result they were able to see these temperatures (as measured from the widfh of the qubit step) reduced by a factor of 100, from 300 mK to 3 mK. It was pretty impressive; I'm not sure how important it is for quantum computing or whether it's something we should be doing with our qubits, but it's a nice application of techniques from another field.

This morning I gave my talk, which was helpfully introduced by Frank Wilhelm's talk immediately prior, in which he said something like "the really important development for scalability is what Travis Hime will talk about next". So the pressure was on, but I think I did ok. After this was... more qubit talks, but I was mostly decompressing after finishing mine and didn't pay as much attention as usual.

Tomorrow I go to see talks by other Clarke group members, including John himself. And then, an evening flight back to Berkeley.

Permalink | Tags: Academia, Physics, Quantum Information, Science

March 5, 2007

March Meeting, Day 1

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:50 PM

bear peering in glass

Actually I spent much of today working on my talk instead of going to sessions. The superconducting qubit sessions start tomorrow morning and basically run continuously until Thursday evening. I did go to some talks in the afternoon, though, mostly in D2: Ion Traps for Scalable Quantum Computation. (In some sense this is our competition.)

Ike Chuang, who is a big name in this field, gave the first talk, which laid out the challenges in making a practical quantum computer with ion traps. Most of this dealt with error correction; according to Shannon's theorem (or maybe a quantum information version thereof) it should be possible to build an error-free quantum computer out of qubits that do make occasional errors, as long as the failure rate is below some threshold. Unfortunately in some cases they've looked at this requires a prohibitively large number of operations, as many as 1020. One can try to implement various error-correcting codes, such as Shor's or Steane's, but certain operations that are needed for a universal quantum computer don't work within these codes. And in fact Chuang et al. have shown that there is no stabilizer code that allows a universal set of operations to be performed within the code—one has to decode first before performing at least one of the operations.

The other talks in the session were less abstract, and thus harder to understand (since I'm not terribly familiar with this architecture). The talk by Slusher described a proposal for a VLSI-based scalable ion-trap based quantum computer, which seemed impressive, except I'm pretty sure this is the one Chuang mentioned that would require 440 watts of laser power to operate.

I skipped out on the last talk to go to D8: Superconductivity: STM of Cuprates and see what the group I worked in as an undergrad was up to. However, I haven't thought about STM of cuprates for a while now and only had the faintest idea what they were talking about.

A tempting alternative for the end of the day was Session D33: Focus Session: Quantum Foundations II. It starts out as a perfectly normal session, but somewhere around 4:30 becomes the dumping ground for crackpots. For example:

D33.00014 : Do Particles have Barcodes?

If an elementary particle shown in Fig 2 of gr-qc/0507130 has an UNSTABLE quantum connection to the rest of the universe calibrated by nature in terms of Planck times, as also proposed in my separate MAR07 abstract, there exists a possibility that each particle has a barcode of its own. Instability implies varying periods of connections and disconnections of particles to the universe, which would be equivalent to the varying widths of white and black strips of commercial barcodes. Considering the high order of magnitude of Planck times in a second, each particle and the universe generated by its radiations may have their unique birth times registered in their barcodes. My quest for the cause of consciousness, in MAR06 abstracts, as an additional implication of physics/0210040, leads to the inquiry if these unique parallel universes are like the ones that give rise to consciousness as proposed by some physicists. With all due respect, the attempts to explain TOE of inert matter may not be attempts to explain one step to climb up on a stairway at a time. They may be attempts to explain only half a step at a time to on a stairway made with only integer number of steps. The search for TOE assumes such a theory exists. Mathematics has no barrels to fire bullets that can shoot down a non-existent bird. A Hamiltonian knows no consciousness, a missing ingredient of biology made of particles or vice versa, and of realistic TOE.

The talk after that one describes a theory of Atonic Physics [sic], which sounds like an outtake from Monty Python's bookstore sketch.

Permalink | Tags: Academia, Physics, Quantum Information, Science

February 28, 2007

Your search requests answered

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 7:09 PM

Today's amusing search request: should I make an outline slide for my APS march meeting talk?

My physics category archive is the second hit for this search in Google. This is a surprising query to see from (presumably) a physicist: an overspecific question phrased in standard English is not the most well-formed Google search. (Some search engines are designed to take queries in this form, but Google is not one of them.) Nevertheless, the searcher lucked out: the fifth hit is a set of slides on giving good scientific talks.

I'll answer the question anyway in case anyone else is wondering. If it's an invited talk, the answer is almost certainly yes—a 30-minute talk will cover enough different points that an outline at the beginning will help the audience follow the transitions. If it's a contributed talk, with only ten minutes of material it may not be necessary. If the talk divides nicely into multiple distinct sections, it's a good idea, but if it's centered on a single result you probably don't need it.

Permalink | Tags: Academia, Physics, Search Requests

February 26, 2007

Cults and hierarchies in physics

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:52 PM

There's a great post at Cosmic Variance about the cult of genius in physics:

During high school or college, many aspiring physicists latch onto Feynman or Einstein or Hawking as representing all they hope to become. The problem is, the vast majority of us are just not that smart. Oh sure, we’re plenty clever, and are whizzes at figuring out the tip when the check comes due, but we’re not Feynman-Einstein-Hawking smart. We go through a phase where we hope that we are, and then reality sets in, and we either (1) deal, (2) spend the rest of our career trying to hide the fact that we’re not, or (3) drop out. It’s always bugged the crap out of me that physicists’ worship of genius conveys the simultaneous message that if you’re not F-E-H smart, then what good are you?

I remember clearly the moment I found that physics was much harder than I realized (although I had no delusions of being F-E-H smart by that point anyway): it was Ph 106a. I was used to being able to pick up concepts fairly quickly, but the subtleties of advanced classical mechanics (and Goldstein's textbook) eluded me, and it was a serious blow to my confidence that I really didn't get it. I worried that this was a sign that all the high-level physics concepts would be beyond my reach. Obviously that turned out not to be the case; I just needed to work a lot harder to understand these concepts. It's striking to me how rapidly the difficulty seemed to ramp up, but this may have been due to the way Caltech structured the physics curriculum rather than an inherent property of the subject.

Chad Orzel has a related point:

Too many people approach physics as if there's some sort of Great Chain of Being, with the most abstract theoretical particle physics at the very top and low-energy experimentalists down at the bottom, just above biologists and rude beasts incapable of speech.

This drives me right up the wall.

There's no inherent moral worth to working on more "fundamental" and mathematical physics. A lack of familiarity with algebraic topology is not a defect in character, or a sign of gross stupidity. Low-energy physics is different than high-energy theory, but not inferior to it.


This is something I noticed a lot as an undergrad—in my freshman class almost everyone who wanted to do physics was interested in high-energy theory; I was rare in actually being inclined towards experiment at that point. Part of it is that there's a certain glamour to working on the Theory of Everything, and there's an apparent elegance to a simple but widely applicable theory that makes the experimental world look messy and ugly by comparison. (Although in fact the Standard Model isn't really what I'd call simple or elegant.) Furthermore, at roughly the freshman undergrad level the major contact with experimental physics is through high school or freshman physics labs, which tend to be pretty lame.

(So how did I end up wanting to do experiment at that stage? At the end of my senior year in high school I had the opportunity to do some labs on more advanced topics, and they were less structured than what I was used to—instead of the procedure being laid out explicitly, I was given a set of equipment and had to figure out how to use it to measure a certain parameter or figure out how something worked. Although it was still pretty far removed from the actual practice of experimental physics, it gave me a better sense of the kind of problem-solving involved, which I found I really enjoyed. Plus I noticed I was better at it than I was at theory.)

Permalink | Tags: Academia, Caltech, Physics

November 6, 2006

Use PowerPoint for good, not evil

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 7:14 PM

Chad Orzel offers advice on PowerPoint lectures, all of which is very sound. The closest thing we have in the Clarke group to hazing new members are the multiple rounds of "practice talks" that grad students must survive when preparing a talk for a conference. These sessions consist of ten minutes of actually practicing the talk, followed by at least an hour of going through the talk slide-by-slide while the rest of the group provides merciless criticism. This tends to instill the student with deep knowledge of the principles of effective presentation, along with some idiosyncracies passed on from senior group members, like putting titles in red and using Times New Roman everywhere. (I am a dissenter who uses black for titles and Verdana for everything on the grounds that sans-serif fonts are more readable on slides. A few people unaccountably use the dread comic sans, which I have tried in vain to discourage.)

Thanks to today's colloquium speaker, I can offer some further advice: Dark purple text on a light purple background is a spectacularly bad color combination. If you want to be even less legible, use green as your alternate text color. This was one of those talks where I had to listen very closely to the speaker, because his slides were useless.

Permalink | Tags: Academia

September 25, 2006

Newsweek on the gender gap at Berkeley

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:36 AM

Newsweek has an article on the gender gap in science, and looks at Berkeley's physics department in particular:

To get a sense of how women have progressed in science, take a quick tour of the physics department at the University of California, Berkeley. This is a storied place, the site of some of the most important discoveries in modern science—starting with Ernest Lawrence's invention of the cyclotron in 1931. A generation ago, female faces were rare and, even today, visitors walking through the first floor of LeConte Hall will see a full corridor of exhibits honoring the many distinguished physicists who made history here, virtually all of them white males.

But climb up to the third floor and you'll see a different display. There, among the photos of current faculty members and students, are portraits of the current chair of the department, Marjorie Shapiro, and four other women whose research covers everything from the mechanics of the universe to the smallest particles of matter. A sixth woman was hired just two weeks ago. Although they're still only about 10 percent of the physics faculty, women are clearly a presence here. And the real hope may be in the smaller photos to the right: graduate and undergraduate students, about 20 percent of them female. Every year Berkeley sends freshly minted female physics doctorates to the country's top universities. That makes Shapiro optimistic, but also realistic. "I believe things are getting better," she says, "but they're not getting better as fast as I would like."

Overall the description of Berkeley is positive; they highlight some of the female researchers here and mention policies that the campus is undertaking to improve the situation.

Permalink | Tags: Academia, Physics, Science, UC Berkeley

September 20, 2006

NAS Report on Women in Science

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:12 PM

A National Academy of Sciences panel on women in science finds:

For 30 years, the report says, women have earned at least 30 percent of the nation’s doctorates in social and behavioral sciences, and at least 20 percent of the doctorates in life sciences. Yet they appear among full professors in those fields at less than half those levels. Women from minority groups are “virtually absent,” it adds.

The report also dismisses other commonly held beliefs — that women are uncompetitive or less productive, that they take too much time off for their families. Instead, it says, extensive previous research showed a pattern of unconscious but pervasive bias, “arbitrary and subjective” evaluation processes and a work environment in which “anyone lacking the work and family support traditionally provided by a ‘wife’ is at a serious disadvantage.”


(Via Bitch, Ph.D.) Although the conclusion is unsurprising to anyone who has followed this issue, it's good to see the gender gap getting attention at high levels beyond Larry Summers dismissing it as due to "innate differences". The NYT article is short on recommended reforms, but I don't know whether that is also true of the original report.

The panel included UC Berkeley's chancellor Robert Birgeneau, and the late UCSC chancellor Denice Denton, who committed suicide recently, had also been on the panel before her death.

Back in March we had a pretty good comment thread on this subject.

Permalink | Tags: Academia, Science, UC Berkeley

August 24, 2006

"Qual Season!" "Prelim Season!" "Qual Season!" "Prelim Season!"

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:40 PM

Gordon Watts and Chad Orzel have some thoughts on qualifying exam season. This confused me until I realized that what other departments call the qual is what Berkeley's physics department calls the preliminary exam. Incoming grad students take the written prelims as soon as they arrive: these are a pair of six-hour exams given on consecutive Saturdays, one on classical physics and one on modern physics. After passing the written exams, one then takes the oral prelims which are an additional two hours (again divided evenly between classical and modern). One must pass the whole fourteen-hour suite before joining a research group.

This is every bit as stressful as the links above describe; the grading is set up so that only about two-thirds of the students pass each round, and officially you only get three tries. (In fact, almost everyone passes by the third attempt.) I don't really have any advice for the written portion, but for the orals I had my faculty mentor give me a practice run that was incredibly helpful (especially since I got asked many of the same questions in the actual exam).

We do have something called a qualifying exam; it's a two-hour oral exam set up on an individual basis, and meant to be taken after two years in research. The first hour is a presentation by the student of a proposed topic for the dissertation, and the second hour is an exam on the subfield relevant to this research. As it happens, I will be taking the qual "soon". Some of you may note that I have been doing research for four years, and have been about to take the qual for two years now. Indeed, it is quite common for students to put off the qual until just before writing the dissertation, where the "proposal" actually becomes a presentation of results. Most departments call this the "thesis defense".

On the other hand, we don't have a thesis defense, so it all evens out in the end.

Permalink | Tags: Academia, Physics, UC Berkeley

August 22, 2006

Types of laboratory scientists

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:49 PM

Via Syaffolee, an over-the-top but amusing list of personality types one encounters in a science lab. In fact, I believe I've met most of these people. I've put a lot of effort into not becoming #5 (the obsessive perfectionist with no life), but this probably just makes me closest to #1 (the antisocial weirdo)—although my personal hygiene isn't that bad and I've been more social lately. Of course it's not an exhaustive list, so maybe I need to add to it:

7. The Blogger
He seems quiet, but he's actually telling the world about the latest lab mishaps on the Internet. These scientists prefer highly automated experiments so as to spend more time surfing the web. They're good with computers and publicizing results to a broad audience. They are communicative provided the medium is e-mail or IM, and happy to come to parties if there's a proper Evite or MySpace announcement. If the network goes down they are likely to display withdrawal symptoms.

Permalink | Tags: Academia, Lab, Science

May 17, 2006

Total Request Blog: My research in a nearby possible world

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:23 PM

In the requests thread, Kyle asks: If you had to research in a different area than you are now, what would it be? It can be as different as you want, but can't be too similar. At the least you have to be publishing in entirely different journals.

This is an easy one: philosophy of science. I took several great philosophy courses at Caltech (which you might imagine had a scientific focus in its philosophy department) and got really interested in issues of what science is and why it works. I still think about these topics in idle moments and I could definitely see myself doing research in this field if I hadn't gone for something more practical and experimental. Indeed, many of you have had to sit through my digressions on problems like the grue paradox (sometimes presented in Dinosaur Comics form). Imagine if I could get paid to do this—although I'd have to write serious papers, unless there's a Journal of Philosophical Letters as Presented by T-Rex. The downside is that I wouldn't get to play with expensive high-frequency electronics with lots of buttons, and having qubits to experiment on is pretty cool.

Permalink | Tags: Academia, Comics, Philosophy, Science

May 5, 2006

Jorge Cham, New York Times on/as distractions

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:45 PM

Jorge Cham, who writes/draws PhD Comics, is doing a book tour and gave a talk at Berkeley yesterday. (He did his grad work at Stanford and is now an instructor at Caltech.) This is one of those comic strips that hits home a little too often, but in doing so is frequently pretty funny. Cham is also funny as a public speaker, with an excellent sense of comic timing. He sometimes played the straight man with jokes appearing on his Powerpoint slides, and sometimes reversed this dynamic.

The talk was about staying sane under the pressures of grad school, and the main theme was that procrastination is a powerful tool for this, both for taking the pressure off and regaining motivation and creativity when one returns to work. Needless to say, I had already figured this out, as the three-plus years of archives on this blog will attest. It turns out that there is also scientific confirmation of a sort: via Chad Orzel I read in the New York Times that distraction is key for relieving dread.

The first study ever to look at where sensations of dread arise in the brain finds that contrary to what is widely believed, dread does not involve fear and anxiety in the moment of an unpleasant event. Instead, it derives from the attention that people devote beforehand to what they think will be extremely unpleasant.

Grad students in the Berkeley physics department have their share of unpleasant events to devote attention to, beginning with the prelim exams and ending with actually writing the thesis. My personal source of dread lately has been the qualifying exam, and maybe my ability to find new distractions lately is related to this. However, I definitely plan to take it next semester. (I've been saying this for three semesters now, but that's the power of procrastination for you.)

Permalink | Tags: Academia, Comics, Neuroscience

April 20, 2006

The pro wrestling school of abstract composition

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:25 AM

Via Christine Dantas: Now this is an abstract. From astro-ph/0604410:

Occam's razor meets WMAP Authors: Joao Magueijo, Rafael D. Sorkin
Using a variety of quantitative implementations of Occam's razor we examine the low quadrupole, the ``axis of evil'' effect and other detections recently made appealing to the excellent WMAP data. We find that some razors {\it fully} demolish the much lauded claims for departures from scale-invariance. They all reduce to pathetic levels the evidence for a low quadrupole (or any other low $\ell$ cut-off), both in the first and third year WMAP releases. The ``axis of evil'' effect is the only anomaly examined here that survives the humiliations of Occam's razor, and even then in the category of ``strong'' rather than ``decisive'' evidence. Statistical considerations aside, differences between the various renditions of the datasets remain worrying.
Yes! I need to write more papers which use words like "demolish", "pathetic", and "humiliations" when describing the effects of my research on competing theories. Also, I am not sure whether I am amused or horrified that there is an "axis of evil" effect in astrophysics. (According to the paper this is "the embarrassing statistical anisotropy exhibited on the largest angular scales" in CMB data.) Who knew Bush was making contributions to this field?
Permalink | Tags: Academia, Science

March 10, 2006

More Postdoc Commentary

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:32 PM

Since this is becoming a theme around here, I'm linking to another perspective on the postdoc experience, this one embedded in a rant about public perceptions of scientists.

This is not reality. If you want to do science, you're in the lab. You're in the lab a lot. Sometimes you forget what the sun looks like. You gotta pay your dues. That means laying your intellect bare for harsh criticism for years on end. Committee members and advisors constantly challenging you. Who the hell do you think you are? What makes you think you can succeed in this field?

The underlying point seems to be that the academic career path selects for scientists who are dedicated and intellectually rigorous, although this is not explicitly stated. The author's "job description" for a neuroscience postdoc is amusing. (Via Pharyngula.)

Permalink | Tags: Academia, Science

March 5, 2006

Postdoc unionization

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:30 PM

Some excellent comments have been posted on my earlier entry regarding working in science and the gender gap. Much more insightful than what I wrote. On a related subject, I find via The Daily Transcript an article in Science describing moves towards unionization of postdocs. Berkeley is naturally one of the schools at the vanguard of this movement. The article is very positive towards this development and describes some significant improvements in conditions at one school (the University of Connecticut Health Center) that has unionized.

I think this is probably a good idea. The way postdocs are currently used as cheap labor strikes me as tremendously exploitative, and a union could alleviate this. Of course this will ultimately mean that it's more expensive to hire postdocs, and funding scientific endeavors will likewise become more expensive. But as a society we're willing to pay more for clothing that's not produced in sweatshops—we should also be willing to pay more for science that's not produced by overworked and underpaid scientists.

There is one problem that comes to mind, though: much of what currently drives the exploitation of postdocs is the scarcity of top-tier academic jobs in science, and the corresponding pressure to produce high-quality publications during the postdoc period. So you will get a lot of people who aren't willing to, say, go on strike, because they need to be taking data in order to advance their case for a tenure-track job. I'm not sure how to get around this.

Permalink | Tags: Academia, Science

March 3, 2006

"Why does anyone think science is a good job?"

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:31 AM

Uncertain Principles links to an essay proposing a novel explanation for why there are so few women in science: jobs in science are terrible in terms of pay, working conditions, and job security, and women are put off by this.

This is how things are likely to go for the smartest kid you sat next to in college. He got into Stanford for graduate school. He got a postdoc at MIT. His experiment worked out and he was therefore fortunate to land a job at University of California, Irvine. But at the end of the day, his research wasn't quite interesting or topical enough that the university wanted to commit to paying him a salary for the rest of his life. He is now 44 years old, with a family to feed, and looking for job with a "second rate has-been" label on his forehead.
I don't buy it as an explanation for the gender gap: it doesn't explain the vast gender disparities between different fields within science. Women are being deterred from working in physics but not biology, and as far as I can tell everything that is said in this essay about science in general applies to both fields. On the other hand, it's good commentary on the serious downsides of pursuing a career as an academic scientist.
Permalink | Tags: Academia, Science

March 1, 2006

Mathematical Fashions

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:30 PM

While we toil away on our experiments in Birge Hall, the works of our mathematical colleagues in neighboring Evans become ever more mysterious.

The Sarong Theorem Archive: This page is an electronic archive of images of people proving theorems while wearing sarongs.

So what theorem would you choose when preparing a photo for this page? I would go with the proof of the error bound on Simpson's Rule, but I should give Mason first dibs on that.

Via Bitch, Ph.D.

Permalink | Tags: Academia, Randomness, Science, UC Berkeley

October 14, 2005

The (imagined?) perils of academic blogging

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:10 PM

There's been a bunch of commentary among academic bloggers about whether blogging hurts one's chances of getting tenure. (For example: Sean Carroll, Chad Orzel, PZ Myers.)

Tenure considerations are still many years off for me, but I will admit to having similar worries with regard to the process of landing a tenure-track job in the first place. The job market in physics is very tight, and I hear from people going through the process that candidates are scrutinized very closely. Physics postdocs are expected to devote pretty much all their time to research, and in that regard my having a blog might be interpreted as insufficient dedication (or something). Maybe that's irrational but this is how the worry goes.

Of course, this too is a long way off for me—probably four to six years. Four to six years ago, hardly anyone knew what a blog was, so the culture may be very different by that time. If I wanted to play it safe, I could close the public blog when I graduate (which itself is probably two years off) and if I wanted to continue blogging, do so at some other site under a pseudonym. (The blog will have to relocate in any case, assuming I leave Berkeley.) The disadvantage of this is that I wouldn't be able to talk about my research in any detail without the risk that someone would recognize me.

Most likely I'll just keep on blogging as normal; it's too much fun and a job that frowns on it is probably a job I don't want anyway.

Permalink | Tags: Academia, Internet

September 6, 2005

Speaking on Theory, Theory on Speaking

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:36 PM

You may be wondering where I disappeared to, perhaps imagining that I was pursuing adventure and excitement during the long weekend. This was true during the first half, but Sunday afternoon I had to face the fact that I had been assigned the first group seminar of the semester. (In fact, I was due to give a talk towards the end of last semester, but managed to put it off for about five consecutive weeks until I was saved by the end of the term. Unfortunately I was still at the front of the queue when we started up again.)

For a topic I chose to review an 18-page theory paper: partly because I had no better ideas, partly because I wanted to do something relatively impressive, and partly out of sheer masochism. I would have expected such a task to consume my entire weekend rather than just half of it (and much of today), but fortunately the paper was not as daunting as it looked. This was for several reasons:

  1. As theory papers go, this one was not very dense. There was lots of text to go with each equation, and they mostly explained the algebra involved.
  2. After establishing the major equations governing the problem, they confine their solution to a particularly easy special case.
  3. For this special case, they give a "formal solution": i.e., when they get to a difficult integral equation, they declare themselves done with the equivalent of "if we knew how to solve this, here's what it would look like".
  4. Having obtained the formal solution, they set their computers on the problem, leaving the second half of the paper primarily to an avalanche of plots illustrating the numerical results.

My strategy for assembling my talk was to start by putting the numerical plots on Powerpoint slides, so that if I ran out of preparation time I could do the rest of the talk on the whiteboard. It turned out I had time to put everything into Powerpoint, which was nice since my whiteboard handwriting isn't terribly legible. For a denser theory paper, I would certainly use the whiteboard since it's tough to get the pacing right for mathematical derivations in Powerpoint. Also it's annoying to construct equations on the computer; I try to copy them from the PDF of the original article when possible, but sometimes I have to fill in steps or rearrange something into a clearer form.

I've noticed lately that when I'm giving a talk or a speech I seem to go into a kind of trance where I construct and deliver sentences without thinking about them on a conscious level. (This is not normally the case unless I am sufficiently inebriated.) This is absolutely essential because I can shut down the conscious part of my mind and therefore not notice that lots of people are watching me. One might ask why I can't duplicate this in normal conversation, and the answer seems to be that I rely on the prompts from my prepared notes or slides or whatever, and in more free-form circumstances some more conscious thought is necessary. I used to have difficulties with freezing up during the question period following a talk and I think this is the reason. (I've since improved in this regard.)

Permalink | Tags: Academia, Life, Physics, Science

August 2, 2005

Bush, ID, and Republican scientists

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:58 PM

There's a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth over the Bush's statement that Intelligent Design should be taught in schools. Now, naturally I agree with the many commenters who have remarked that ID is not a scientific theory, and teaching it will only degrade the state of US science education.

On the other hand, my reaction is less outrage than a sigh of resignation. What, Bush rejected science in favor of an ideological and religious position? The same Bush who opposes stem-cell research, promotes abstinence-only sex education, ignores climate change, and suppresses inconvenient scientific findings by government agencies? We knew we were getting this back in November when Bush won the election. Certainly anyone who voted for Bush should have been prepared to accept this kind of dumbassery as a consequence. And didn't Bush say that "the jury is still out" on evolution back in, like, 2000?

Of course, we should vigorously oppose attempts to insert ID into actual curricula, but the mere fact that Bush supports it doesn't exactly seem new.

Matt Yglesias points out that Bush's view is very widespread among the American public. Some of you may recall a poll result that I blogged last November showing 45% support for young Earth creationism.

Meanwhile, Brad DeLong remarks,

I believe I can now safely say without fear of contradiction that any scientist or academic (outside of fundamentalist seminaries, of course) who is a Republican is in serious need of help: professional help.

I think this is overstating things. I know a number of Republican scientists (in Berkeley, even!) and they are sane and intelligent people—they just vote based on factors other than science and education policy. Specifically, many of them are quite vocally anti-tax, anti-union, etc. and seem to vote predominantly on economic issues. I certainly don't agree with their economic views, but I can't blame them for prioritizing those issues over scientific ones.

I'm appalled by Republican science policy, but if the Republicans were a lot better on other issues and the Democrats a lot worse, I could concievably be convinced to vote Republican anyway. But science policy isn't the only problem—in fact it's a nice synecdoche for the way the GOP sticks to ideology in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence on nearly every issue. This frightening disconnection from reality is a deal-breaker for me. The Republican scientists that I know, whatever they may think about science policy, disagree about whether there's a larger pattern of ignoring evidence. I think they're wrong, but I don't think they need professional help.

Permalink | Tags: Academia, Creationism, Evolution, George W. Bush, Politics, Science