Archive for the ‘science and society’ Category

Quite recently my e-mail inbox has been inundated with requests to send my papers to Open Access journals and books.

The premise of Open Access is that authors pay for their work to become published and available at no cost to users.

The economic reality is that Universities pay exorbitant amounts of money for journals to stock their libraries and for access fees to published journals. In theory, grants pay for these services via overhead (think of this as a tax on grants by the Institutions). I think in practice that overhead on grants is not enough to cover these costs, so looking for an alternative economic model to make science publishing available to a wider audience at a cheaper cost makes a lot of sense. Here, the Open Access premise is that in this new economic model the overall cost to produce and consume published articles is reduced and transferred as a one time fee to the author.


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Investing in (basic) science is like playing the lottery. If you buy just one ticket, you will probably lose your investment. But if you buy all the available tickets, you can win big. The NYT has a piece reminding readers of this fact. Often the problem of most states/nations is that they can not afford to buy all the tickets, not even close to a fraction of the tickets. So instead they end up having to decide what looks most promising. This is where it gets tricky.

I think that is enough philosophizing for today. I better get back to work.

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I just came across this article in the NYT, about Artificial Intelligence. It made me want to share it, thereby making me a cog in the Artificial Intelligence of the Internet.

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I recently gave an interview about my research to a newspaper run by my Alma matter mater. The article can be found here. It is in Spanish. As with most newspaper articles, very little science ends up punching through. It is extremely hard to communicate with the public without falling into my usual jargon. I learned that people like hearing about black holes, that it inspires a little fear of the unknown and that they think that the back holes just about eat everything. At least I was able to tell them that there is good evidence for  a super-massive black hole in the center of the Milky Way and that my work hopes to disentangle some of the mysteries of black holes.

Another thing that happened recently, is that a book for which I made a contribution finally got published. The book is called ” Geometric and Topological Methods for Quantum Field Theory“. The book is a set of lecture notes of a school that I attended two years ago. In my section I  try to explain some sring theory basics and the rudiments of the AdS/CFT correspondence. Unfortunately I was not allowed to post the notes in the arxiv when I asked. If your library happens to buy it you might want to give it a look.

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I happened onto an article on the New York Times abut Erik Verlinde’s take on gravity as an Entropic force. The article was written by Dennis Overbye who most of the time does  a good job of covering high energy physics.  Erik’s work dates from earlier this year and can be found here. To tell the truth, I don’t understand what he’s trying to say in that paper and to me it feels like it’s almost certainly wrong.

However, I don’t want to discuss that paper. What I want to discuss is the following  provocative quote

“We’ve known for a long time gravity doesn’t exist,” Dr. Verlinde said, “It’s time to yell it.”

I don’t believe this is taken out of context,  so we should take it at face value. The statement is obviously wrong, so it sounds like ultra-post-modern pap and makes all physicists working on the subject of quantum gravity look like crazy mad men. I’m sure this sells newspapers, but that is not the point.

When asked for a sound byte can’t people at least say something that is correct and not just provocative?

The proper way to write that statement is that “Gravity is not really a fundamental force “, which is more correct and does not deny gravity its proper place as something that has been observed in nature, however it is less catchy. If we apply the same criteria as used in the above construction, all of the following statements are also correct:

  • Hydrodynamics does not exist (it only happens for collections of atoms, but not for individual ones)
  • Space and time do not exist (often used when talking about quantum gravity being emergent from somewhere else)
  • All emergent phenomena do not exist (they are not fundamental after all).
  • I do not exist (I’m an emergent phenomenon).

Reminds me of discussions I have read before at Backreaction, here and see also  here in the Discover magazine about time not existing.

You should also read the following from Asymptotia: But is it real? and also a discussion on What is fundamental, Anyway?

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Yesterday night I attended a reception for the international scholars to UCSB. This was the first time that such a celebration took place in Santa Barbara, thanks to an anonymous donor. It was a lively event, and various important people from the UCSB campus showed up. I won’t bore you with the details.

Amongst the interesting facts that I collected yesterday, was that most international students in the US come to study in the science and technology fields, while very few people from the US go out to study and when they do, the statistic is mostly on humanities. I also found out that there are about 640000 students from abroad in US Universities, and that US Universities graduate about 30000 PhD’s annually.

Not surprisingly, current cuts in US University funding (especially state Universities) will hurt the efforts to get the best (graduate) students to the US, with the consequent deterioration of the pool of people with talent contributing to the US economy. An interesting article regarding this issue can be found here.

If you couple all of this progressive lack of investment by the states into the education system, the future starts looking pretty bad, not just for education, but for the US economy.

This year I am working on a University committee in charge of international education. So I have to learn quite a bit about this stuff.

Simple observation: if you lose loose the people from abroad (who are extremely good students), and you lose loose the local people (because they can not afford to go to school any longer), where is the human capital investment in the future development of technology going to come from?

Remember, modern economies depend on having the best and most innovative modern technology in order to compete. And, new ideas for technology come from people who know what the current technologies are, what they can do and how to make them. Ideas are not born from thin air.

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Charles K. Kao, Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith share this years Nobel prize in Physics for their contributions to the transmission and detection of light. Congratulations to the three of them.

Charles K. Kao did research in material science of glass, and argued that the losses in glass fibers available in the 1960’s where mostly due to impurities in the material. A few years later glass of sufficient purity was made by Corning, and modern fiber optics telecommunications where born. Nowadays, this technology impacts us directly by making the infrastructure that handles the information traffic of the internet possible.

Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith created the CCD. This is one of the main technologies in modern photography. It make the capture and reading of light fast and efficient and it essentially made photographic film obsolete: the cost of capturing an image went down to essentially zero. It is also one of the standard technologies for astrophysics and most importantly, it is not restricted to the visible spectrum. It can be used to read light from distant sources very fast, data that can be transmitted to researchers all over the world very quickly (we don’t have to wait to develop the film), and being in electronic format, it is easy to manipulate, send and store. This is anther technology that has wide applications on the Internet, capturing live images that end up in U-Tube and Flicker.

Lubos laments the fact that the Nobel prize went just for technology. Although I sympathize, I think that this is not a bad choice at all. Although one can call this applied physics rather than fundamental physics, the technological breakthroughs enabled by these inventions is truly remarkable. Nowadays, we take it for granted. But it is truly a marvelous thing. Today,  I can have a video-phone conversation on the Internet with someone on the other side of the planet, for a costs that is essentially zero. This is a science fiction idea that did come through, but not necessarily the way they were originally envisioned.

You should also consider that modern telecommunications account for a big chunk of the worlds GDP, and it will surely grow in the future. The technologies that make this possible come from Physics research, and it might take many years before the engineering issues and the costs can be lowered enough so that we all benefit from them. Besides, the whole architecture of the modern Internet came out from CERN. A lot of people needed to look at large chunks of data with completely independent computer systems ans operating systems. A common message protocol for communications and standards for addressing data was born from these necessities. It would be hard to give a Nobel prize for that.

I would wish that the public at large was more aware that the technologies of today are the product of years of development, starting from physics discoveries and inventions and refined by engineers so that they can be mass produced with quality that can be controlled. Without the first invention, the rest of the process doesn’t work.

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