Monday, December 15, 2008

-Really? Is that so surprising?

The electorate is misinformed according to this article. Wow, what a surprise (sarcastic gesture)!!!

The article starts with:

"We saw more aggressive fact-checking by journalists in this election than ever before. Unfortunately, as a post-election Annenberg Public Policy Center poll confirms, millions of voters were bamboozled anyway."

Aggressive fact-checking? Maybe just at the end with Joe the Plumber and I am not so sure I would call it aggressive fact-checking. I never saw a piece on detailing the different proposals the candidates had.

Then it goes to say:

"There are deeper reasons as well"

Deeper reasons? I don't think so. The reasons are simple, the media has never bothered to publish/air reasonable information. Anyone who sees Bill O'Reilly's show will either completely agree with him or completely disagree. There is nothing fact-checking in those shows. The media has an inherently large power. Reporting should be done responsibly. If they knew Obama was not a Muslim or Arab or that McCain's medicare plan would not cut benefits, why air the ads? They should be held accountable in some way.

Things will never change unless someone thinks responsibly.

Monday, October 20, 2008

-technology insurance

It's well known that health care issues are at the top of this election season in the US. People want, but not all can have it, and of those who do have some kind of insurance they don't really get what they expected/wanted.

Now, the reason why people buy insurance is to pay for something (in this case health care) at a lower rate now to then get it cheaper or sometimes even free in the future. People are willing to pay hundreds, if not thousands of dollars for their health insurance because they are very aware of what it takes to get treated by doctors in the US.

I propose to have a "forced" technology insurance, in which every household pays a few cents for the technological apparatus they use in their house, say TV, car, phones, etc., and then we use that money to fund the sciences (which ultimately had everything to do with the discovery of the technology used in those "luxuries" we know have) more. This will be an attempt to guarantee that technology will be accessible and at an affordable cost in the future, and that science will continue its course.

According to wikipedia, the average household size is around 2.5, so if every household pays from $0.5 to $1.5 max a month ($18 max a year) for their technology insurance, that would add up to a minimum of 720 millions to a max of 2.16 billions, which then would be used ONLY to fund science and technology. That means that 10,800 labs a year at $200,000 per year could be funded. Of course, I haven't thought all the details out, like who would assign the money to projects, how much money per year can a given lab get, etc. but I think they idea could work.

10,800 labs at $200,000 a year for only $1.5 max a month,!!!! who can seriously argue that without that $1.5 their families won't eat? They can drink one less beer a month.

I brought up that idea today with my labmates and their first reaction was that it would be hard to convince the people that it is in their best interest to pay this extra tax. First of all, it's not a tax, it's an insurance that they "buy" now and from where they will be given the benefit of having new devices in the future (fundamental research has also contributed to development of devices, so they should also be funded). Secondly, while I agree that the current situation makes it hard, I don't think it is impossible, but it requires a lot from professors. It would now fall (I think it has always, but somehow some profs get away with it) on they hands to teach the average Joe (I guess now it's Joe the Plumber) how scientific concepts from simple ones as Hooke's law to difficult ones as particle collisions have, can or will affect their lives for their own good. It's not enough to get in front of the class and say, well, here are Newton's laws, here's your HW and if you stay among the average you'll get a B. We would have to do our best (this is very difficult, particularly because so far I haven't seen any good undergraduate basic physics book being used) for people to understand the importance of science, and not so much all the mathematical,boring details.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

- is it not obvious?

I was recently sick and had to see a doctor. When I was called in to see him, the nurse greeted me with: How are you doing?... I looked at her and said, well.. I feel really bad. She was confused, she was expending a good or great for an answer.

I noticed that they do that to everybody, but isn't it obvious? If you go to the doctor's office is not because you are well and happy. Right?

Monday, September 1, 2008

-The right choice? Part 2

In the first part of this post I mentioned some of the "bad" things during PhD studies, to summarize:

1) Grad students are "abused" by professors (not by all, but a good number of them nevertheless) and students are kept from graduating a little (or not so little) longer.
2) The assistanship (money you get to pay for expenses during grad school) is very little.
3) Physics is hard, even if you like it, you are in for stressful times.

There are probably more issues that affect a grad student, but those are the more universal ones I've seen. It doesn't end there though, once you obtain your PhD there are many more issues to deal with, a very important one is the job you will perform.

Many physics students (with no solid data, I would say that at least 70% of them) enter grad school with the hope of ending up in academia or something similar doing research that they like. Some also like to teach but mainly at a more advanced level than high school math or physics.

Life's a bitch, so the actual percentage of PhDs will not end up doing that. You will end up working as an engineer (if you are experimental) or as an advanced data analyst. A good number of my friends ended up working for either a finance firm or an oil-related company. It's true the money is good, and I think that's the reason they don't complain as much, but they're not doing what they wanted to do.

ISP proposes making a 2-year Master's degree in Physics more popular. After all, those who choose this path will not spend many years in school and might not regret working on something that's not physics. In a way I have always thought that a Master's degree in physics is useless so I see a few problems with this option. Here's why:

First, if I decide to go for a Master's degree I am basically throwing away any chance (as low as it can be with a PhD) at teaching at an advanced level or at research, and if I really want to do that then a Master's is not the way.

Second, assuming that you have thought about the first point and decided to give up that small opportunity at doing research by ending your student career at a Master's degree, why would you get a Master's in Physics? The only reason I can think is because you really have no idea what to do with your life. This is probably more common than people think, at least among physicists. So if you are "lost", you can go for a Master's degree which will (hopefully) give you a couple more years to mature and to find out what you want to do. But, what if you know what you want to do? You must remember that at this point you have given up on teaching or researching at college/university level. Well, if you know what you want to do, I would suggest you go for a Master's degree in that field. If you want to do finance, get at least an MBA, if it's engineering then go to an engineering college. You will learn what's relevant to that field and you will probably get a bigger check just because of your specialized background.

In my opinion no one should just go for a Physics Master's degree (OK, maybe science school teachers, but that is it). If you start the PhD and then you decide you don't want that for you anymore then a Master's degree in Physics is not a consolation prize nor any less than a master's in a different field and you should get your degree and leave. Plus taking the degree will at least help fill the two years otherwise missing on your resumé. But to just enter grad school to pursue a MS in Physics doesn't seem like the best idea to me.

Now, back to the topic of a PhD in Physics being the right choice. It's OK to get a PhD in Physics, it's fine if the students are willing to take the risk of giving up years of their lives for a small chance at a dream job (read academic job). What's not OK is that a lot of those students are not told what's waiting for them (the lab I am in right now has 3 grad students, none of us knew anything about what to expect in and after grad school).

Sure, Harvard and other top schools don't have to say much. After all, it's people from those schools that most likely will get the faculty job. But most of the PhD granting universities are not top, and they still need the grad students to teach labs, grade HWs and to some extent do the research (professors are too busy writing proposals). Those departments will flat-out lie to you promising a bright future. I know, I've been in one of those places.

If after being told the truth about your future you still want to go for a PhD, then go ahead, you will probably have fun and won't be disappointed. However, I get the feeling many of you will read this post a bit too late...

-First commenter

Thanks to Okham, Coherent States has gotten its first comment.

That's it.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

-The right choice? Part 1

There is an intense discussion over at ISP that started as an idea on the over-supply of Physics PhDs and has heated over whether Physics (in general Science) as a career represents a bright, happy future.

I thought I should throw in one (the one related to the path towards the PhD degree) of my two cents, the next will come later. So, here it is:

Science is indeed a difficult career, it takes a lot of time and effort but in principle it will provide a great deal of satisfaction whenever a "discovery" is made. Science is not for everyone, I personally think that anyone can learn science but only a few can actually do science. If you are in the latter group and want to learn about science, go for an undergraduate degree. As a physics graduate, I can tell you that I learned a lot during my undergraduate and when I finished I was as prepared (I think even better prepared) than my engineer friends.

But it was at that point that I noticed a big difference between those friends and my physics friends. They didn't want to go to grad school, at least not for an engineering degree, and I wanted to go. I had the idea that pursuing a PhD would give me the opportunity of learning a lot more about the things I thought were cool, do research while in grad school and at the end do independent research. On top of all of these, I thought a PhD degree would provide greater job security since there would not be many people capable of replacing me. With these in mind, I embarked in this grad school journey.

After a few years into studies, I have found out that it is not what I thought it would be. It turns out that chances are I will not end up doing research as I thought if I go for an industry job (many of my older friends that already obtained their degrees have engineering jobs that could've probably performed without the PhD), and if I decide to go for academia, it can easily add up to 10 years (5-6 PhD, 3-4 postdoc) before I get my first real job. It can take another 5-6 to get tenure and then have maximum job security.

It feels worse when you include some professors' attitude towards grad students. Grad students are considered cheap (sometimes free) labor, with long hours, no or little personal life and very, very low pay. And grad students are the ones that actually get the results in the lab (sure, professors come up with the ideas and money, but it is the student who does at least 90% of the lab work). In basic words, students are like slaves and the more you have and the senior they are the best. This presents a conflict of interests in my opinion. Universities (through professors) will demand more and more money to support grad students, and if you get professors to talk about your professional future they will all (ok, not all, maybe Okham, Doug and IP are more understanding) promise you the chance of a fairly paid, nice research job when they know it's probably not true.

I have witnessed professors that purposely keep students from graduating to get more results out of them with no consideration for the student's future, and I have seen many professors who keep their students as long as they can as TAs, demanding the same results as if the student were full time RA.

Science is a tough career, not so much for the science itself but for all the other aspects that make a science career. Many of those aspects happening even before you get to look for a job.

Is the (bleak) hope of a tenure-track position enough to still go through all that? Maybe, I can't tell for sure yet. What I do know is that I would have appreciated it if someone had told me before finishing my undergrad degree that grad school and academic life would be tough in respects I could have not imagined then. If they had told me that I would most likely end up working as an engineer and that even in that position I would make less than the guy that actually went to engineering school.

I also know that I would not call it a science career if it ended with grad school.

-Shooting the rain

As Gustav approaches New Orleans, people start preparing for its arrival. Some people leave town, some people barricade in their houses with hopefully a full pantry, and some other people go buy guns. Yes, apparently gun sales are through the roof.

Whether these people are buying guns for their return, or to protect their belongings while riding out the storm, all I can think is of how stupid this is.

I can't say I know what it feels to lose everything, but if this is what it comes down to there is something really wrong.

Anyways, good luck to those in the hurricane path. I hope nothing really bad happens.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

-Math wiz?

This is an interesting story. A couple won 4 lottery jackpots in a single draw. He claims he's found a winning formula and is looking to patent it. But a math professor doesn't think it's true. Either the couple were lucky (most likely), the guy is a genius or the number generator is not so random.

If he's found the formula I hope he reads my blog, I swear I will delete yesterday's post. =)

Friday, August 22, 2008

-At least pay better!

Grad students don't really get "paid" a lot (I would say an average of $18k a year that actually goes to our pocket might be already an overestimate), and I had always seen it as a good amount of money. A student can typically survive with $1,000 or so a month, and because it's our choice to go to grad school I considered it a privilege, a prize.

Well, not anymore. I have found that the amount of stress a grad student has to carry on his/her shoulders is way too much for the money we get. As an undergrad I didn't have a lot of money in my pockets either (I had about a third of the money I get now), but somehow the way to survive college is way easier than that of grad school.

As an undergrad, I didn't hesitate to go to the movies, or a hiking weekend, or to spend hours at the field playing some kind of sport. Now, in grad school, I am always questioning myself about doing these activities. Can I really afford going to the movies? You at least spend 2 hours there, plus ~$20 (including ticket) per person if you happened to stop by the snacks. Maybe if I stay those 2 extra hours in the lab I can graduate earlier (or at least not later than planned). A movie is easy to give up, but there are other things that are not easy or good to give up. Exercise, for example, is recommended at least 3 times a week. You have to either do it very early in the morning, or late afternoon (maybe even at night). At least experimentalists don't want to stop their experiment when it's working nor waste time on something else when it's not working (once again, the longer it doesn't work the longer we are staying in school). And there are several problems with exercising in the morning or at night, 1) you get less hours of sleep, which are probably already running low, 2) there is nobody to exercise with you, unless you like running long distances by yourself (not me, I find that boring) you won't have a tennis, basketball, etc. partner, much less to play soccer, volleyball or any other sport that requires more than 2 people.

Having no pleasure activities builds stress, in many cases way too much stress. Now, add to that the physical stress that comes with operating a piece of equipment, preparing a sample or sitting at your desk or computer carrying out a calculation and we are fucked!

And I am not considering the food quality, the bed quality, the foreign students that miss home or feel out of place in a new society, married students, lack of future security, etc.

If the levels of stress are that high, we need more money. That way we could at least afford a massage one or two times a month (or semester?), or to take a one week vacation once a year in a nice place (but most likely expensive) and with no advisor or lab duties. Unless you are an assistant professor, you cannot complain: you either make a lot of money in the industry or are tenured and have job security.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

- Sicko

I finally watched Sicko and it got me thinking a lot. I am not originally from the US, but I have lived here for a few years while going to grad school. Ever since the first time I went to a doctor in the US I have been unhappy with the way things are handled here. My country doesn't have Universal Health Care (UHC) either, but for some reason I feel I am treated a lot better there, than here and for a much lower cost. Actually, if there is something I miss about my country, medical care is right at the top closely followed by food.

Now, I have seen most of Michael Moore's films and I know that many times he exaggerates reality with the purpose of making the US look bad so I naturally don't believe him immediately. On top of this, I have never been in any other country for enough time to need medical care and therefore I lack data to make up my mind on the topic of health care. Stop by and leave your country's health care story!!!!

- Debatable answers

Some time ago I posted about the Physics Question of the Week (PQW) website. A very interesting site, with questions and answers (videos for anyone to believe). Recently, I was showing my classmates (other grad students) some of these questions and there was a huge uproar about some of the answers given on the website. For example, look at this question, the answer is on the site but I invite you to try to answer it on your own first. After that, look at the answer and tell me if you agree. From their answer I understand that the same thing will happen no matter what spring (k-constant value) and what mass are used, as long as the initial setup looks the same, that is, the mass is sufficiently large to stretch the spring outside of the cup and the spring is strong (or weak) enough to balance the weight.

Among my friends, the biggest debate was that we could visualize situations in which we think a different thing will happen. I should admit though that I agree with the video.

By the way, I was told that the Professor in charge of PQW has asked these questions to many Assistant, Associate and Full Professors, including Nobel Laureates and supposedly they don't all get them right. So, don't feel bad about getting it wrong either.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

- Mathematical world?

I have had this discussion with several people now, and it seems this is one of those never-ending debates where no one party will accept they are wrong and the other one is right. Now I share it with you, let's see what you think:

My claim is that Physics is independent of Mathematics. Yes, yes... I know when you take physics in school it's always mathematics or at the very least full of mathematics, but that is understandable because Mathematics is just another language and it turns out to be one which everyone is suppose to know plus it allow us to calculate numeric answers for Physics problems. I know all of these, but I still think that Physics exists whether or not I can put them in an equation, or whether or not you can put numbers to it.

Let's just think of a child. S/he knows that to reach the top of the kitchen counter he needs to jump higher than he needs to reach the top of the couch (where he might not even need to jump), and therefore the initial upward velocity needs to be large enough. He goes through all this process and eventually gets it right. Now, I think the kid learned Physics by trial and error, however some people think the child unconsciously solved a complicated (or not so complicated) mathematical model. Some of the advocates of a mathematical world believe that we are born with the mathematical abstraction, some others believe that we subconsciously learn it as we go. Also, some people are not amazed by the fact that relatively simple (by simple I mean something that at least 1 person in this world can do) mathematical models can "describe" the universe. Why should they be? After all, Physics is Mathematics, or so they claim.

Here is the list of (some) points I have heard in favor of Physics being independent of Math:
1) If Mathematics is just another language, I should be able to say the same things in English, or Spanish or Chinese or whatever. Mathematics is then not special at all and there is no reason the world should be mathematical.
2) It's hard to believe that a kid or an animal have a subconscious mathematical machinery that solves some kind of equation for every single world situation. It would be easier to just learn by experience where left or right, up or down are.
3) Before Newton, people could also tell things fell to the ground. They just didn't make much of it.
4) This is similar to 3 - Physical phenomena exist whether or not we have a mathematical theory for it.

Now, for Math is basically just the negation of every point above mentioned:
1) Mathematics is NOT just another language, it is THE language.
2) Whether or not you believe it, we all have the mathematical machine inside our heads.
3) We don't know new Physics until we can explain them with a mathematical model.

There are probably more, and better points to consider. However, usually these points are defended with examples which makes it hard to convince anyone. Like I said at the beginning, I don't think this battle will ever end but if you have a good argument for either one (or maybe a different option) please share it.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

- Gas savings can be misleading

I just read an article in Science (Volume 320, page 1593) about gas consumption and how the typical reporting data (in this case Miles Per Gallon, MPG) can be misleading.

The main idea of the article is that people think gas savings go linear with MPG when "upgrading" their vehicles, for example, going from a 10 MPG to 15 MPG would be considered a worse option than going from 40 to 45 MPG. Or, even going from a 20 MPG to a 30 MPG being worse than going from a 20 MPG to a 40 MPG. It turns out it's not so easy, because gas consumption is not linear with MPG,

From this graph, which I reproduced it from the paper and added the two linear regimes, it easy to see that somewhere around the 30 MPG the gas consumption difference slows significantly for a given change in MPG. This calculation was done for total travel of 10,000 miles a year which I think seems a pretty good average.

If one also considers that high MPG vehicles can cost significantly more these days, it might be wise to reconsider how to shop for a car.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

- Teaching how to teach

There was an article in APS News recently about a fictional story of a Nobel Laurate MIT professor applying for a job at a high school. He was rejected because he didn't have the state credentials to teach, i.e. he wasn't a licensed teacher.

This article has sparked several comments on both sides of the aisle. Some people argue that it is true that college/university professors are never taught how to teach and that reflects in the poor teaching skills seen in a lot of classrooms. These people can go as far as to say that those professors shouldn't be teaching at all. While I ocassionally agree with this scenario, I really don't think it is because they don't know how to teach, I think it's because they really don't care about teaching (I am talking about the ones that perform poorly in the classroom, not the ones that give remarkably good lectures). Some professors probably went into academia for the advantages of research (IP has a post on this) and not so much for the teaching, at least not the teaching by itself. This doesn't mean they suck at teaching. My point is just that probably a lot of university professors are there because of research and teaching then comes in second place. Is this an issue that requires attention? Absolutely, but I don't think requiring teacher's certification for all professors is going to solve the problem, it might not actually do anything since it is lack of willingness to teach as opposed to lack of preparation in teaching that's affecting college education in my opinion. High school now, has bigger issues.

The article also shows how probably a lot of very well prepared people (PhDs, reknowned university professors, excellent researchers, etc.) might be rejected from high school teaching jobs because they don't have that a piece of paper that in some unknown way (at least to me) shows someone can teach. Come on, it's not like high school education in the US is something to brag about, and all the teachers are certified. As far as I am aware, there are more underprepared high school teachers than college/university professors. You can argue that university professors could just go an get the certification which is a valid point assuming that the certification actually changes teaching. That is a BIG assumption.

Maybe university professors should be required to pass the state certification before teaching in college, they certainly need one right now to teach high school, maybe high school teachers should be required to have a PhD. I really don't know what can be done, but I'll take a university professor a million times over a high school teacher.