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Rapid-response (non-linear) teaching: report January 25, 2018

Posted by apetrov in Blogroll, Education, Near Physics, Physics, Science.
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Some of you might remember my previous post about non-linear teaching, where I described a new teaching strategy that I came up with and was about to implement in teaching my undergraduate Classical Mechanics I class. Here I want to report on the outcomes of this experiment and share some of my impressions on teaching.

Course description

Our Classical Mechanics class is a gateway class for our physics majors. It is the first class they take after they are done with general physics lectures. So the students are already familiar with the (simpler version of the) material they are going to be taught. The goal of this class is to start molding physicists out of physics students. It is a rather small class (max allowed enrollment is 20 students; I had 22 in my class), which makes professor-student interaction rather easy.

Rapid-response (non-linear) teaching: generalities

To motivate the method that I proposed, I looked at some studies in experimental psychology, in particular in memory and learning studies. What I was curious about is how much is currently known about the process of learning and what suggestions I can take from the psychologists who know something about the way our brain works in retaining the knowledge we receive.

As it turns out, there are some studies on this subject (I have references, if you are interested). The earliest ones go back to 1880’s when German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus hypothesized the way our brain retains information over time. The “forgetting curve” that he introduced gives approximate representation of information retention as a function of time. His studies have been replicated with similar conclusions in recent experiments.

EbbinghausCurveThe upshot of these studies is that loss of learned information is pretty much exponential; as can be seen from the figure on the left, in about a day we only retain about 40% of what we learned.

Psychologists also learned that one of the ways to overcome the loss of information is to (meaningfully) retrieve it: this is how learning  happens. Retrieval is critical for robust, durable, and long-term learning. It appears that every time we retrieve learned information, it becomes more accessible in the future. It is, however, important how we retrieve that stored information: simple re-reading of notes or looking through the examples will not be as effective as re-working the lecture material. It is also important how often we retrieve the stored info.

So, here is what I decided to change in the way I teach my class in light of the above-mentioned information (no pun intended).

Rapid-response (non-linear) teaching: details

To counter the single-day information loss, I changed the way homework is assigned: instead of assigning homework sets with 3-4-5 problems per week, I introduced two types of homework assignments: short homeworks and projects.

Short homework assignments are single-problem assignments given after each class that must be done by the next class. They are designed such that a student needs to re-derive material that was discussed previously in class (with small new twist added). For example, if the block-down-to-incline problem was discussed in class, the short assignment asks to redo the problem with a different choice of coordinate axes. This way, instead of doing an assignment in the last minute at the end of the week, the students are forced to work out what they just learned in class every day (meaningful retrieval)!

The second type of assignments, project homework assignments are designed to develop understanding of how topics in a given chapter relate to each other. There are as many project assignments as there are chapters. Students get two weeks to complete them.

At the end, the students get to solve approximately the same number of problems over the course of the semester.

For a professor, the introduction of short homework assignments changes the way class material is presented. Depending on how students performed on the previous short homework, I adjusted the material (both speed and volume) that we discussed in class. I also designed examples for the future sections in such a way that I could repeat parts of the topic that posed some difficulties in comprehension. Overall, instead of a usual “linear” propagation of the course, we moved along something akin to helical motion, returning and spending more time on topics that students found more difficult (hence “rapid-response or non-linear” teaching).

Other things were easy to introduce: for instance, using Socrates’ method in doing examples. The lecture itself was an open discussion between the prof and students.


So, I have implemented this method in teaching Classical Mechanics I class in Fall 2017 semester. It was not an easy exercise, mostly because it was the first time I was teaching GraphNonlinearTeachingthis class and had no grader help. I would say the results confirmed my expectations: introduction of short homework assignments helps students to perform better on the exams. Now, my statistics is still limited: I only had 20 students in my class. Yet, among students there were several who decided to either largely ignore short homework assignments or did them irregularly. They were given zero points for each missed short assignment. All students generally did well on their project assignments, yet there appears some correlation (see graph above) between the total number of points acquired on short homework assignments and exam performance (measured by a total score on the Final and two midterms). This makes me thing that short assignments were beneficial for students. I plan to teach this course again next year, which will increase my statistics.

I was quite surprised that my students generally liked this way of teaching. In fact, they were disappointed that I decided not to apply this method for the Mechanics II class that I am teaching this semester. They also found that problems assigned in projects were considerably harder than the problems from the short assignments (this is how it was supposed to be).

For me, this was not an easy semester. I had to develop my set of lectures — so big thanks go to my colleagues Joern Putschke and Rob Harr who made their notes available. I spent a lot of time preparing this course, which, I think, affected my research outcome last semester. Yet, most difficulties are mainly Wayne State-specifics: Wayne State does not provide TAs for small classes, so I had to not only design all homework assignments, but also grade them (on top of developing the lectures from the ground up). During the semester, it was important to grade short assignments in the same day I received them to re-tune lectures, this did take a lot of my time. I would say TAs would certainly help to run this course — so I’ll be applying for some internal WSU educational grants to continue development of this method. I plan to employ it again next year to teach Classical Mechanics.


So, you want to go on sabbatical… February 5, 2015

Posted by apetrov in Blogroll, Near Physics, Physics, Science.
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Every seven years or so a professor in a US/Canadian University can apply for a sabbatical leave. It’s a very nice thing: your University allows you to catch up on your research, learn new techniques, write a book, etc. That is to say, you become a postdoc again. And in many cases questions arise: should I stay at my University or go somewhere else? In many cases yearlong sabbaticals are not funded by the home University, i.e. you have to find additional sources of funding to keep your salary.

I am on a year-long sabbatical this academic year. So I had to find a way to fund my sabbatical (my University only pays 60% of my salary). I spent Fall 2014 semester at Fermilab and am spending Winter 2015 semester at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Here are some helpful resources for those who are looking to fund their sabbatical next year. As you could see from the list, they are slightly tilted towards theoretical physics. Yet, there are many resources that are useful for any profession. Of course your success depends on many factors: whether or not you would like to stay in the US or go abroad, competition, etc.

  • General resources:

Guggenheim Foundation
Deadline: September

Fulbright Scholar Program
Deadline: August

  • USA/Canada:

Simons Fellowship
Deadline: September

IAS Princeton (Member/Sabbatical)
Deadline: November

Perimeter Institute:
Visiting Professors
Deadline: November

Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University
Deadline: November

URA Visiting Scholar program
Intensity Frontier Fellowships
Deadline: twice a year

  • Europe:

Alexander von Humbuldt:
Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Award
Humboldt Research Award
Deadline: varies

Marie Curie International Incoming Fellowships
Deadline: varies

CERN Short Term visitors
Deadline: varies

Hans Fischer Senior Fellowship (TUM-IAS, Munchen)
Deadline: varies
Some general  info that could also be useful can be found here.

I don’t pretend to have a complete list, but those sites were useful for me. I did not apply to all of those programs — and rather unfortunately, missed a deadline for the Simons Fellowship. Many University also have separate funds for sabbatical visitors. So if there is a University one wants to visit, it’s best to ask.

On a final note, it might be useful to be prepared and figure out, if you get funded, how the money/fellowship will find a way to your University and to you. Also, in many cases “60% of the salary” paid by your University while you are on a sabbatical leave means that you would have to find not only the remaining 40% of your salary, but also fringes that your University would take from your fellowship. So the amount that you’d need to find is more than 40% of your salary. Please don’t make a mistake that I made. 🙂

Good luck!

Digital bureaucracy August 9, 2013

Posted by apetrov in Near Physics.

This post is about how digital technology of the 21st century “helps” professors (well, at least, this professor) to spend his time doing very important paper submission. Except for the fact that “paper” here refers to the receipts of the expenses that were incurred attending professional conferences. Sorry in advance for the rant that follows.

As an introduction, let me tell you how the procedure used to work at our University. Before going to a conference I had to “encumber” (“reserve”) expenses that I planed to incur – filling out one paper form, no receipts. After return from the conference, I would fill out the same form and attach receipts. Our secretary would then type the form up nicely and submit it for reimbursement. It would normally take weeks to get reimbursed, but timewise I’d spend only about 10-15 min doing the whole procedure. Including a nice cover letter to the said secretary summarizing the details and thanking her for her job. 15 min.

Enter digital age! And the age of layoffs. With great fanfare, the university rolled out a new digital system in 2012 — no paper (save the trees!), no secretary involvement (remember the age of layoffs?), maybe even quick turn-around, yahoo!!! Even MIT does not have such a system! Take that, MIT!

Except for now I have to first file the request, complete with all receipts and a conference agenda. No problem, right? So it takes about 20 min to collect all receipts, turn them into pdf files and fill out a bunch of forms electronically. Now, upon return you do the same thing. Except for now you have to

– digitize the receipts that were not digital originally (like highway tolls or gas),enter those receipts separately based on the day when the charge occurred,

– provide proof that you paid for your hotels with your own credit card — not the university one (no problem of getting the pdf file from your credit card company, blacking out your personal details and submitting, attaching it electronically to the request). Also, you’d need to itemize your hotel stay — enter how much it was per day + taxes, etc.

– you have to once again attach the same files with conference agenda.

And, of course, you have to state the business purpose of all of your lunches and dinners (not to die of hunger during the conference, I suppose?) separately for each day of the conference.

Of course, all of this is not a problem. It only takes 30-40 min to do all of this. If you know how.  So, if my math is correct (and your expense report is not returned back — so you have to fix your problems and resubmit), the whole procedure takes about 20 min+40 min = 1 hour (60 min – remember 15 min???).  Moreover, no secretary involvement, remember? I do it all myself, so the said secretary is fired.

So here is some interesting math. it takes, on average, 4 times longer for me to file the digital reports. I know now why MIT does not have such a system. I’ll take that back, MIT…. Questions remain, though. Do faculty have to do all of those reports on their own time or during the time when they are supposed to do research or write grant applications or talk to students? Does the university save money on that (hint: secretary’s salary is on average less than that of a faculty)?

So here you have it. Does it kill me to do all those things? Of course not. As it wouldn’t kill me to mop the floor in the corridor near my office or go to a supply store to buy chalk to teach my class. Hey, here is an idea for new cost-cutting measures!

Inverse superconductivity in iron telluride April 1, 2012

Posted by apetrov in Funny, Near Physics, Physics, Science, Uncategorized.
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One of the most significant advances of science in the 21st century so far is the 2008 discovery of iron-based high temperature superconductors such as LaFeAsO1-xFx. Previously, all high-temperature superconducting compounds, there so-called cuprates, were based on copper and consisted of copper oxide layers sandwiched between other substances. Much of the interest in those materials has arisen because the new compounds are very different from the cuprates and may help lead to a theory that is different from the conventional BCS theory of superconductivity, where electrons pair up in such a  way that  so coupled they can then move without resistance through the atomic lattice.

Among those new materials is the iron telluride, FeTe. This compound has the simplest crystal structure and exhibits antiferromagnetic ordering around 70 K and does not show superconductivity. It is now known that substitution of S for Te sites suppresses the antiferromagnetic order and induces superconductivity. Quite amazingly, this is not the most surprising property of those compounds. In a quite remarkable study performed by a group of Japanese physicists, it was shown that the iron-based compound FeTe0.8S0.2 exhibit superconductivity if soaked in red wine. They also performed a study of the effect with different types of wine and other alcoholic beverages, finding that a particular type of wine, 2009 Beajoulais from the French winery of Paul Beaudet, has the most profound effect.

A recent follow-up analysis, however, showed that subsequent and repeated applications of red wine and hard alcoholic beverages, such as cognac or vodka, can induce a new state in the study samples, dubbed the inverse superconductivity. The results, reported in the recent issue of Wine Spectator, clearly show steep increase of the samples’ resistivity after only five consequent applications of the liquid substance. As explained by the lead author of the study, John Piannicca, the results follow the simple model of the electron crowd. Interestingly enough, as reported by Dr. Piannicca, this model was developed by observing the change in the mean free path of a group of students visiting bars near the campus of his University.

Moreover, as was shown in a recent work of a group of scientists at the Siberian institute of Advanced Kevlar Engineering, it is also the quantity of alcohol that was responsible for the onset of inverse superconductivity. While this is also consistent with the already mentioned model of electron crowd, the samples obtained in the Siberian lab required much larger quantities of alcohol to achieve the same effect than those obtained in the American or Japanese labs, which could probably be explained by the specifics of liquid utilization. As was shown, the best effect was achieved with a brand of vodka “Imperia” commonly “recognized for it superbly smooth spirit and pure taste,” as advocated by its producers. It would be interesting to see how other brands would fare in such a study, which is on-going.

Why do physicists go to Aspen? September 1, 2011

Posted by apetrov in Near Physics, Particle Physics, Physics, Science.
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While the most obvious answer to this question is “to ski”, it is, nonetheless, not the correct one. Yes, skiing is great here in the winter (and hiking is great in the summer), but most of the time physicists come here to work. The reason is Aspen Center for Physics. I write “here” because I’m currently participating in one of the programs organized by the Center (the program is called “Flavor Origins” — it brought together theorists working on the problems of neutrinos, heavy and light quarks, CP-violation, etc.). The Center, which exists here since 1961, organizes workshops and conferences. But the main reason that theorists (and occasional experimentalists) come here is to talk to other theorists. In short, it is as if you are visiting a huge theory group — you can work individually or with your colleagues, but you can always knock on an office door and bounce your ideas off someone else visiting the Center, etc. It is great to have such a concentration of theorists of different trades. And it leads to breakthroughs and simply good papers. As it is said on the Center’s website:

“Many seminal papers have been written in Aspen, which has grown to be the largest center for theoretical physics in the world during its summer sessions. Among many other subjects, the theories of superstrings, chaos, evolution of stars and galaxies, and high temperature superconductivity have all made large strides in recent Aspen seasons.”

There is almost always someone with an expertise in a subject that you have a question about. And that makes this Center great. And, of course, hiking and skiing is also good. The only “downside” (note the quotes) is that you can meet a real bear (even at the Center) or other wildlife. Today a snake came to check out a lecture on conformal field theories…

P.S. Also check out my blog on Quantum Diaries

Congratulations Dr. Yeghiyan! July 26, 2011

Posted by apetrov in Near Physics, Particle Physics, Physics, Science, Uncategorized.
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Today my third graduate student at WSU, Gagik Yeghiyan, defended his Ph.D. thesis. Congratulations Dr. Yeghiyan! Good luck to you in your new life as an Assistant Professor at Grand Valley State University!

Update on the situation at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant March 15, 2011

Posted by apetrov in Near Physics, Physics, Science, Uncategorized.

The situation at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant remains fluid, but it makes sense to do an update. It turns out that the situation is more challenging then I originally thought. To recreate what is happening (based mainly on TEPCo’s press releases and Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) press releases), let us take a look at the Mark 1 BWR reactor (for a short description of physics of the nuclear power generation and schematics, please see my earlier post):

This picture was modified (by me) from the materials provided by Department of Energy’s Nuclear Regulatory Comission’s (NRC) website. It is Mark-1 BWR-type nuclear power reactor supplied by General Electric.

The Fukushima Daiichi plant operates six reactors, Units 1, 2 and 6 are supplied by General Electric (Unit 1 is the oldest, built in the 70’s — I’ve heard it was supposed to be decommissioned this Spring), while Units 3-5 are supplied by Toshiba and Hitachi. So, what is happening there?

As you already know, the magnitude 9.0 on Richter’s scale earthquake hit Japan. The reactors at the Fukushima plant were designed to withstand the 8.2 magnitude quake. Nevertheless, the structures held (note that the Richter scale is logarithmic, meaning that 9.0 earthquake releases 10 times energy than 8.0). Since Japan is located in seismically-active zone, there exist provisions on what to do in case of one, especially for the nuclear power stations.Reactors 1-3 were operational at the time of the earthquake, while reactors 4-6 were in a shutdown mode.

So, first and foremost, control rods (containing boron, neutron-absorbing material) were automatically inserted. According to  TEPCo’s press release, this was done successfully at all three units that were in operation. There was an alarm on Unit 1 that one of the rods was not fully inserted. The alarm then went away. It is now believed that all control rods were fully inserted and chain reaction in fuel assemblies was stopped. Even after this, one must keep circulating water in order to continue cooling fuel assemblies due to the heat produced by decays of nuclear reaction products in the fuel rods. It needs to be done for several days.

It appears that over the course of three days reactor cooling systems kept failing, which resulted in increasing steam pressure in the reactor pressure vessel (see the picture above). In this case you really don’t want to keep the pressure rising, as it eventually would simply blow up the containment vessel and you’d get pretty much what happened in Chernobyl. So, the idea is to gradually release pressure by disposing the (slightly radioactive) steam through the vent line (see above picture). The steam is only slightly radioactive because one is using purified water, which does not get activated by the radiation from the fuel assemblies. This was done at all three units. You have to still keep cooling the core, which was done at Units 1 and 3 with injection of seawater into the Primary Containment Vessel and at Unit 2 with seawater injection into the Reactor Pressure Vessel. Injecting seawater is a desperate move, as it contains salt and other staff that can get activated. Which means that the reactor will be decommissioned regardless of whether there is a meltdown or not. Along with seawater, they injected boric acid to capture neutrons.

Now, if the cooling is ineffective (as it appears is at Fukushima) and you keep disposing steam, you lose the amount of water you have in your reactor (think of a boiling teapot). This leads to water levels in the reactor dropping to the point that the fuel assemblies get exposed to steam. This is what happened at Fukushima. This is bad, because this drops cooling efficiency and fuel rods start to heat up (recall the decays of radioactive decay products that are still going on). At some point, zirconium in the ziralloy (the alloy of zirconium and tin that makes up the fuel rod casings) starts react with water vapor. Here is the chemical reaction:

2 H20 + Zr = 2 H2 + Zr O2 + energy

which means that you start producing hydrogen (H2), some of which will escape into the reactor building. Most likely, escaped hydrogen exploded in units 1-3, blowing off the roofs of the reactor building hosting Unit 1, 2, and 3, like this:

This picture is done by the local TV station and posted on Wikipedia. According to the power station owners, the containment vessels are still intact, which is precisely what they are designed to do. Let’s hope that this is an accurate assessment.

Now, if there is a meltdown (fuel rods are damaged), some of the reaction products might get into the atmosphere (the troubling news is that the monitoring stations did detect small amounts of iodine nearby the reactor). The most immediate concern are radioactive Iodine (half-life of 8 days) and Cesium (half-life is 30 years). Iodine can accumulate in human’s thyroid gland – so the first line of defense is to saturate the gland with non-radioactive Iodine. This is why the population around the station is given iodine tablets as a precaution. The detected amounts of iodine are not of a concern for the US West Coast (too far).

In the case of a serious meltdown, the melted fuel will likely remain in the reactor containment below the rector pressure vessel. This would be bad, but still nowhere near Chernobyl’s explosion. BTW, I was on a school trip in Kiev when the Chernobyl power station blew up. I had to bury my shoes because the radioactivity levels on them were too high (dust)…

To add to the problem, rector unit 4 (which was not operational at the time of an earthquake) developed problems of its own. In particular, it appears that the personnel missed that the water level in the spent fuel pool came down. This exposed spent fuel rods that contain more long-lived radioactive isotopes. You want to keep spent fuel rods in the water to cool them, as the decays still produce heat. In this case, usual convection cooling (warm water is rising and is replaced by cooler water) is sufficient to keep them cool. That is, if there is water! There was report of a fire at the spent fuel pond. This might indicated that the water level in the pool went down and spent fuel caught on fire. This might be bad, as this would release radioactive material in the air. Japanese scientists monitor the situation.

I’ll try to keep you posted as well.

What is happening at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant? March 12, 2011

Posted by apetrov in Near Physics, Physics, Science, Uncategorized.

This is a good question to ask — especially amid speculations about “possible Chernobyl-like nuclear meltdown” and pictures of explosions at the plant.  Knowing a little bit of physics (and reading press-releases from TEPCo — Tokyo Electric Power Company), one can make some initial analysis. Clearly, a complete picture will follow in the near future.

So, first of all, what is the problem? To understand this, let me note that nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant are of the Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) type — quite different in design from Three Mile Island’s PWR-type reactor and  Chernobyl’s RBMK reactor. In order to see the logic of what Japanese engineers are doing, it is useful to see how the BWR reactor works.

Here is the scheme of BWR-type reactor, taken from the Wikipedia page on BWR. The physics here is very simple. Fission reaction in the uranium fuel assemblies (2) heat water (blue stuff, 7), which turns into steam (red stuff, 6) in the reactor vessel (1). The steam exits the vessel and spins the turbine (8 and 9) that generates electricity. That steam is cooled down and returned into the reactor vessel (as water) and the process begins again.

Simply speaking, fission reaction happens when a slow (thermal) neutron is absorbed by a uranium (U-235) nucleus, which then splits into several (two) lighter daughter nuclei, and several fast neutrons (about 3), releasing energy that is converted into heat. In order to have sustained nuclear reaction one needs to slow down those produced neutrons so that they could be absorbed by other U235 nuclei to initiate chain fission reaction. Different reactor designs use different moderators to do that: water (BWR, PWR), graphite (RBMK), etc.

This simple excursion into nuclear physics tells us that the rate of power generation can regulated by controlling the flux of thermal neutrons. This is indeed what is done by the control rods (3) that are usually made of a material (boron) that absorbs neutrons.

What happens in case of an earthquake? Well, the automatic control systems first and foremost would kill the sustained fission reaction that is going in the fuel elements. This was done at the Fukushima plant immediately by inserting the control rods (notice that the control rods are inserted from below). So, what’s the problem then? Why is the water vapor’s pressure rising?

The problem is that during the fission reaction one also produces a lot of short-lived nuclear isotopes. Normally, if you would like to shut down a reactor (say, to refuel), you need to allow for some time (several days) for those isotopes to decay. During that time, water is still being circulated through the reactor core in order to take away the heat produced in the decays of those short-lived isotopes. This is done via pumps that are operated via electricity from (a) power grid or (b) diesel generators or (c) batteries. After the earthquake, the grid was  knocked out and the diesel generators got damaged. The pumps are now running on the batteries and the water vapor pressure inside the reactor vessel is rising — by the way, the normal operating pressure there is about 75 atmospheres!!! TEPCo reports that the pressure there rose twice that, so the plant operators decided to release steam from the vessel.  Now, to cool down the reactor (until those short-lived isotopes decay) they decided to flood the containment vessel with sea water.

So, as you see, the Chernobyl-type of explosion is highly unlikely at the Fukushima plant. I think the reactor will cool down in a couple of days. BTW, it appears that the reported explosion happened at the pumping system

The only troubling news is that the monitoring stations appear to detect small amounts of iodine and cesium isotopes (to quote TEPCo’s press release “The value of radioactive material (iodine, etc) is increasing according to the monitoring car at the site (outside of the site). One of the monitoring posts is also indicating higher than normal level.”). Those isotopes are normally produced in the nuclear fuel rods. This might indicate that one or more rods are damaged.

Update (3/14/2011): It appears that water circulation systems in reactors 1 and 3 of the power station failed on 3/12-13. The reactor containment is now cooled by sea water (with added boric acid to further capture neutrons). Sea water is not an ideal coolant — purified fresh water is — sea water contains salt and other things that can become radioactive in the core of a reactor. Thus, the spent water will most likely be transferred to the spent fuel pools (place on the power station’s campus where spent fuel rods spend some time before being transferred to the permanent storage facility). It also appears that there were two hydrogen explosions in Units 1 and, recently, 3. Where did the hydrogen come from? It most likely came from the chemical reaction on the zircalloy’s casings of the fuel assemblies. Zircalloy, an alloy of zirconium, tin and sometimes other things, contains zirconium. That zirconium  reacts with oxygen in water and releases hydrogen. It is, however, believed that in both cases the containment vessels held up. Those containment vessels did not exist at the Chernobyl’s power station.

Update (3/15/2011): I decided to put updates in the separate post.

Science and politics: to the attention of Michigan Congressional delegation February 13, 2011

Posted by apetrov in Near Physics, Particle Physics, Physics, Science.

I usually don’t comment about politics in this blog. But today I’ll make an exception. Maybe someone from Michigan Congressional delegation will read it. I’ll be happy to answer any questions regarding this situation.


Each developed country in the world has a stake in an interdependent triad that builds up its wealth and independence: fundamental research, applied research and industry. It is only the combination of excellence in those three fields that has kept the United States at the forefront of technological revolutions of the past 50 years. Elimination of one of those components will spell trouble for the remaining two: for example, defunding fundamental and applied science in the Russian Federation in the early 1990’s led to a quick demise of that country’s high tech industry.

The new Continuing Resolution (CR) bill announced on 02/08/2011 by House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers [1] imposes deep cuts on Department of Energy’s Office of Science (DOE OS), National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA and National Institutes of Health (NIH) that simply threaten US fundamental research. The cut to DOE OS’ budget of $5.12B is $1.1B. It is proposed to happen half way through the current budget year. To keep things in perspective, the amount needed to implement this cut would be equivalent to closing down all US National Laboratories for a continuous period of time this year.

Among other things, DOE’s Office of Science supports fundamental and applied research done by the University groups all over the country. In the state of Michigan that includes University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Michigan Tech and Wayne State University. This funding is neither redundant nor wasteful: each grant issued by DOE’s Office of Science, NSF or NIH is reviewed by several independent experts and expert panels. It is this funding that helps us train the next generation of scientists and engineers that will keep America prosperous in coming years. It is this funding that the new CR proposal would severely cut.

To compare, Chinese government’s spending on science and technology was slated to rise 8% to $24 billion in 2010, of which $4 billion is basic R&D [2]. By contrast, the cuts included in the proposed Continuing Resolution bill reduce funding to basic and applied research made by DOE’s Office of Science by 18%. Liberal and conservatives commentators alike voiced concerns about how the US is losing its edge in math and sciences. This budget cut signals that there is no reason for young Americans to pursue careers in science.

The fundamental research done by particle scientists might not have immediate applications to industry. But not all basic research projects are “long shots.” The first Internet browser developed by high energy physicists at CERN (the site of currently running Large Hadron Collider) for the needs of the experiment designed to understand the basic building blocks of Nature in 1991 made possible creation of the World Wide Web and revolutionized the US and world’s commerce.

Balancing our country’s budget is an important and noble goal, but it should not be done at the expense of the future.



[1] House appropriation committee website http://republicans.appropriations.house.gov/index.cfm?FuseAction=PressReleases.Detail&PressRelease_id=259

[2] Physics Today http://blogs.physicstoday.org/politics/2010/03/china-increases-science-fundin.html

2010 Nobel week (and 2010 Ig Nobel) October 1, 2010

Posted by apetrov in Near Physics, Physics, Science.
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Once again, the Nobel week is upon us! The Nobel Prize in physics will be awarded on Tue, Oct 5. I’ll be in the “smoke-filled room” at the NSF paneling about some grants, so if they call… nah… At any rate, my yearly report of the research that led to that Noble prize will be delayed by a day.

As always, there is a set of predictions that are compiled by Thompson Reuters — yes, that company that has been wrong every time it tries to do predictions. Anyways, this year Johns Hopkins people have a field day — at least as far as predictions are concerned (I support that predictions — as a person who spent three years at JHU 🙂 )…

And here they are (taken from here):

  • Charles L. Bennett
    Professor of Physics & Astronomy, Department of Physics & Astronomy, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD USA
    Why: for discoveries deriving from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), including the age of the universe, its topography, and its composition
  • Thomas W. Ebbesen
    Professor, University of Strasbourg, and Director, ISIS (Institute of Science and Supramolecular Engineering), Strasbourg, France
    Why: for observation and explanation of the transmission of light through subwavelength holes, which ignited the field of surface plasmon photonics
  • Lyman A. Page
    Henry DeWolf Smyth Professor of Physics, Department of Physics, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ USA
    Why: for discoveries deriving from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), including the age of the universe, its topography, and its composition
  • Saul Perlmutter
    Professor, Department of Physics, University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, CA USA, and Senior Scientist, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA USA
    Why: for discoveries of the accelerating rate of the expansion of the universe, and its implications for the existence of dark energy
  • Adam G. Riess
    Professor, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD USA, and Senior Member, Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD USA
    Why: for discoveries of the accelerating rate of the expansion of the universe, and its implications for the existence of dark energy
  • Brian P. Schmidt
    Australian Research Council Federation Fellow, Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Australian National University, Weston Creek, Australia
    Why: for discoveries of the accelerating rate of the expansion of the universe, and its implications for the existence of dark energy
  • David N. Spergel
    Charles Young Professor on the Class of 1897 Foundation and Chair, Department of Astrophysical Sciences, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ USA
    Why: for discoveries deriving from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), including the age of the universe, its topography, and its composition

I’ll stick to my last year’s prediction (Perlmuter/Reiss). Will see if anyone gets it right this time…

P.S. Ig Nobel prizes were awarded yesterday. Here are some cool ones:

  • PHYSICS PRIZE: Lianne Parkin, Sheila Williams, and Patricia Priest of the University of Otago, New Zealand, for demonstrating that, on icy footpaths in wintertime, people slip and fall less often if they wear socks on the outside of their shoes.

REFERENCE: “Preventing Winter Falls: A Randomised Controlled Trial of a Novel Intervention,” Lianne Parkin, Sheila Williams, and Patricia Priest, New Zealand Medical Journal. vol. 122, no, 1298, July 3, 2009, pp. 31-8.

  • ECONOMICS PRIZE: The executives and directors of Goldman Sachs, AIG, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, and Magnetar for creating and promoting new ways to invest money — ways that maximize financial gain and minimize financial risk for the world economy, or for a portion thereof.
  • MANAGEMENT PRIZE: Alessandro Pluchino, Andrea Rapisarda, and Cesare Garofalo of the University of Catania, Italy, for demonstrating mathematically that organizations would become more efficient if they promoted people at random.
    REFERENCE: “The Peter Principle Revisited: A Computational Study,” Alessandro Pluchino, Andrea Rapisarda, and Cesare Garofalo, Physica A, vol. 389, no. 3, February 2010, pp. 467-72.
  • PEACE PRIZE: Richard Stephens, John Atkins, and Andrew Kingston of Keele University, UK, for confirming the widely held belief that swearing relieves pain.
    REFERENCE: “Swearing as a Response to Pain,” Richard Stephens, John Atkins, and Andrew Kingston, Neuroreport, vol. 20 , no. 12, 2009, pp. 1056-60.

And there is this one… not sure what to make out of this one:

  • BIOLOGY PRIZE: Libiao Zhang, Min Tan, Guangjian Zhu, Jianping Ye, Tiyu Hong, Shanyi Zhou, and Shuyi Zhang of China, and Gareth Jones of the University of Bristol, UK, for scientifically documenting fellatio in fruit bats.

REFERENCE: “Fellatio by Fruit Bats Prolongs Copulation Time,” Min Tan, Gareth Jones, Guangjian Zhu, Jianping Ye, Tiyu Hong, Shanyi Zhou, Shuyi Zhang and Libiao Zhang, PLoS ONE, vol. 4, no. 10, e7595.

Have fun, everyone!