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Friday fun: The best videos I’ve seen this week September 20, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in Friday Fun, physics, science.
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In hearing about all the racism that surfaced regarding Nina Davuluri, I heard someone mention she’d done a Bollywood dance for her performance.  I had to check it out, and I have to admit that I’m very impressed.  Her kneeling spins are something else.

I wasn’t nearly as impressed with Bill Nye’s cha cha on Dancing with the Stars, but you have to admit it’s kind of cute (if a bit stereotyped).

And speaking of science and music (but not dance), I also came across this wonderful remake of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody called Bohemian Gravity.  I think this one is my favorite this week…it combines some pretty amazing talent with really amazing physics.

 

 

Academic freedom: “I’ve got no strings to hold me down” September 14, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research, science.
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It’s no secret that I can’t stand the word “novel” when used to describe research.  (I talked about that here.)  Therefore, I was quite interested when I saw, in one of my newsfeeds, an article titled, “Academic spin: How to dodge & weave past research exaggeration.”  The post is about a discussion that biomedical journal editors at a conference had regarding some of the items that are being published and how to avoid hype and conflict of interest.  In general, the topic was interesting, but I had to pause at this paragraph:

Later, we heard from Serina Stratton that out of 313 trials studied, 36 required sponsor/manufacturer approval for text or publication and 6 had gag orders. Leading to some inevitable questions: why aren’t all academic institutions protecting researchers and trial participants from industry restrictions on academic freedom – and why aren’t potential participants being warned about this before they agree to be in a trial?

I’m afraid this may sound a bit judgmental, but I felt like the question about academic institutions protecting researchers and participants was a bit naive.

It is my observation that universities are very much gearing operations toward a business model and are less concerned about education.  (I’m not passing judgement, by the way…just stating my observation.)  Bringing in research money is a huge component of creating a successful university in the business model, and this is reinforced by things like the Carnegie rankings.  The level of research effort is one of those criterion for the rankings, and that is measured not in hours or publications but in research dollars.  (The methodology for these rankings is here.)  Being a RU/VH (research university, very high) is something nearly every university aspires to.  (It was a huge deal when my own university joined the ranks…despite the fact that no one outside the university seemed to realize it.)

But how does one become a tier 1 school when federal budgets are shrinking?  You have to fill the gap somewhere, and a lot of places do that by doing contract research for industry.  Given the choice between research funding and the prestige that goes with it versus academic freedom, it seems pretty obvious that the whole academic freedom issue is rather inconvenient.  The rankings don’t look at academic freedom, they’re looking at research expenditures.  Obviously, given the choice, the university is going to catapult whatever prevents receiving funding.

If you’re doing contract research for industry, there is almost always some limitation on academic freedom.  Companies are not going to fund research that doesn’t generate proprietary information.  Heck, a lot of them won’t fund research if they think the research might leak out and make them look bad.  Trade secrets are the norm in industry, and the choice researchers make when they work with industry is the loss of academic freedom.  This is a choice that is being pushed by the universities in general, however, because, like most businesses, decisions revolve around the bottom line.  Because of that, researchers understand that tenure, and for those on soft money, continuing employment, is heavily dependent on funding.  There are few researchers who are going to turn their nose up at a major funding source, even if that funding comes with some pretty serious strings attached.

This is NOT what a scientist looks like August 26, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, science, younger son.
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The younger son’s school is starting a new science curriculum this year. Mike and I were very excited to learn about it as it’s supposed to emphasize hands-on learning. But this came home today, and I could only roll my eyes. Can you see what’s wrong?

20130826-234914.jpg

Making your mom proud (if she’s a physicist) August 19, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in gifted, homeschooling, older son, physics, science.
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One of the classes that the older boy is doing this year is physics.  Rather than give him something very math intensive, I instead chose to have him study from Paul Hewitt’s Conceptual Physics text.  It’s a book I came across after I’d already had a couple years of physics, and I regret not having had that book first.  It does a wonderful job of explaining how physics works and what the concepts mean without drowning the reader in math.

When I picked up the older son after his study session the other day, he began talking about how imbalances in forces are what cause objects to accelerate.  For instance, a car will move forward when the force created by the engine to move the car forward exceeds the forces of friction, gravity (if it’s on a hill), etc.  After listening, I asked the question, “What happens then if the forces become balanced?”

I fully expected him to say that the object would stop moving.  I really did.  This is what the vast majority of students in my physics labs assumed when asked that question.  Their assumption is that the forces must always be out of balance if the object is moving.

His response:

It would really depend on if the object were moving or still to begin with.  If it was moving, it would continue to do so, and if it wasn’t moving, it would continue to stay still.

My response was to yell, “Yes!!!!!” at the top of my lungs and pump my fist.  I’ve been proud of my son many times over the past few years, but few things make me beam as much as displaying a clear understanding of Newtonian mechanics.

Friday Fun: Cool toys August 9, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in Friday Fun, physics, science, science fiction.
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My birthday is coming up in a few days, and despite the fact that my husband already got me a present, I’m still thinking of other fun things that I want.

He knew I had to have the purple cover.

He knew I had to have the purple cover.

I thought a new pair of running shoes might be in order, but those are no longer in the category of ‘fun’ and more into the realm of ‘must have’!  Also, I got running shoes last year for Christmas, so it would be boring to always get running shoes.

I decided to get in touch with my inner geek and see what she really, really wanted if she had an unlimited budget, space, and time:

Yes, it's a Barbie.  But it's Mars Explorer Barbie!  It's probably the only Barbie I'd ever want to own, but I have to give two thumbs up to Mattel for this one.

Yes, it’s a Barbie. But it’s Mars Explorer Barbie! It’s probably the only Barbie I’d ever want to own, but I have to give two thumbs up to Mattel for this one.

I've been eyeing this one for a long time.  I wanted to have space battles between it and my lego space shuttle.  (Sadly, I'm sure the shuttle would be outgunned.)

I’ve been eyeing this one for a long time. I wanted to have space battles between it and my lego space shuttle. (Sadly, I’m sure the shuttle would be outgunned.)

 

 

I may have to scrounge Ebay to find a Star Trek pizza cutter.  ThinkGeek is out!

I may have to scrounge Ebay to find a Star Trek pizza cutter. ThinkGeek is out!

I do realize they're coming out with a scaled down version of the LHC...but I want the full-blown version.

I do realize they’re coming out with a scaled down version of the LHC…but I want the full-blown version.

And finally, I think I’d book a trip with these guys.  At least the $250k is refundable.

So if you could have anything you wanted…what would you want?

Slime for sale August 5, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in science, societal commentary.
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I really hate listening to sales pitches.  Really, really hate it.  Part of it is that I’m skeptical enough to look at a lot of the claims the way a scientist does.  I can’t imagine why.

I was walking through a department store after a purchase when the clerk who’d been helping me said she’d like to show me something.  So she started in on a sales pitch for a ‘newly reformulated’ skin care product.  She started by rubbing it on the back of my left hand.  Then she sprayed water on both hands and told me to shake them.  She pointed out that the water on my bare hand had formed into balls while the water on the other hand was spread evenly over the skin.

I nodded and said, “That’s interesting.”

I was thinking: “This is bogus.  There’s some sort of surfactant in there that’s minimizing the surface tension of the water.  This has nothing to do with how well moisture can be held by the skin, and I know from experience that skin health is much more dependent on diet than anything else.”  (This last point has been a huge point of discovery since I’m no longer starving because of my celiacs.)

Okay.  So she keeps going on and I’m getting ready to leave, but she puts some of her elixir on a couple sponges.  I’m curious to see what she’s going to do next.  I should have left.  As she’s talking to me, she suddenly reaches up and starts dabbing this goop all over my face.

If she were my child, I would have shouted, “Hey!  Personal space!  Stay out!”  But she wasn’t.

She then asked me how it felt, and I wasn’t inclined to put on a show for someone who just used cosmetic sponges on me as though they were nunchucks.

If that lady had tried to put makeup on Chuck Norris, I'm sure she' would've been seeing double.

If that lady had tried to put makeup on Chuck Norris, I’m sure she’ would’ve been seeing double.

Having been assaulted with foam, I wasn’t inclined to be nice, so I just said, “Weird…and slimy.”  Then I smiled, said I’d think about it, and made a beeline for the bathroom so I could wipe that stuff off.

It’s bad enough when they’re trying to sell me on something that makes no sense, but smearing stuff on my face is definitely over the top.  I’m not sure what she thought she accomplishing, but I don’t think I’ll EVER buy any of her slime.

Rihanna has it wrong! June 27, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in physics, science.
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I heard Rihanna’s song “Diamonds” for the first time yesterday.  (I know…I live under a rock…though, unfortunately, not that kind of rock or I’d be rich.)  I rather liked the song except for the line that keeps popping up: “Shine bright like a diamond.”  Something about the way it sounds doesn’t quite fit the rest of the song for me, or maybe it was to repetitive.  But what really bugged me is that, every time I heard it, all I could think was, “Diamonds don’t shine!  They refract!”  I suppose refraction doesn’t sell as much pop music, though.  I will suggest, however, if any of you are aces at making music remixes, that the song would benefit from more accurate physics.  (Maybe she should take some notes from Britney Spears?)

Anyway, I hate it when science gets in the way of enjoying music.  When it’s not wrong, though, it can sometimes make the music more enjoyable.

I only wear goggles when swimming May 21, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, physics, research, science, societal commentary, Uncategorized.
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I was recently chatting with an acquaintance when they mentioned they had seen me in the local paper a while back.

You were wearing goggles, right?

No.

Well, you did have a lab coat…

No, I was actually wearing a sweater.

I have had articles on my work run in the paper a couple times in the past few months. However, only one had a picture, and I cringe every time I think about it. I learned the hard way that it is important to wear solid colors on such occasions.

The picture involved me standing in front of several racks of computers wearing a rather ugly ombré sweater. I find it interesting that this acquaintance knows I’m a scientist and equates that with the goggles and lab coat schtick so heavily that they remember me wearing one even when I was not.

I remember reading about a project where kids drew pictures of scientists, visited some at Fermilab, and then drew pictures after their visit. The contrast was striking.

Having talked with this person on and off during the years, never once while wearing a lab coat (probably because I haven’t worn a lab coat since freshman chem and certainly wouldn’t out in public), I’m very surprised that they still imagine me that way. I guess it goes to show how powerful those stereotypes are.

I think I need to have a “Visit Cherish At Work” day where people can watch me sit at my computer, lab coat free.

Between a rock and a soft (money) place May 20, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research, science.
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I’ve been cogitating on another comment that showed up on a proposal review.  The general complaint was that we were funding too many staff and not enough students.

I could see this…except for the fact that all but one of the people involved is on soft money.  This proposal was already being trimmed left and right to make it fit into budget constraints, and our choice was to fund 1 or 2 months for each of these five staff (including myself), all of whom are in different disciplines and contributed to the development of the project concept and writing of the proposal…or I can fund another grad student for a year.  Of course, if I had no facilities costs to worry about…

I suspect this is a drawback of doing interdisciplinary research: you need expertise in a variety of fields, and so it may look like a situation of “too many managers, not enough peons.”  On future proposals of this nature, I’ll have to make the point that each of those people is essential and none can be replaced by a grad student.

It’s also leaving me wondering if there is something that explicitly needs to be said about funding arrangements.  For most professors in engineering or science, I imagine they have 9 mos of salary paid, so they often only take a couple weeks to a couple months of summer salary under their grants.  Also, most of them have teaching duties and therefore need to have grad students to do most of the work.  I imagine the reviewers may assume that people applying for funds are probably working under a similar arrangement where they have a base salary and anything coming from the proposal is ‘extra’.

But what about people who are in a situation like I am?  I’m in a soft-money position and I have no teaching obligations (unless I choose to).  Given the choice, I’d rather have a couple months more salary than hire more grad students (assuming there are any available, which is not always true).  If I only get one month salary from a winning proposal and my funding rate is 10% (and I don’t know if it is yet as I’ve only written about half a dozen proposals), then I have to write about 120 proposals to fund myself for a year.  Even if I was physically capable of doing that (I’d like to meet someone who is), I doubt the proposals would be of the quality that would get funded, anyway.

Admittedly, different funding agencies will have different expectations…but not radically so.  Maybe my readers are more knowledgeable about I am on these points. If so, I’d appreciate it if someone would enlighten me.

Spacing out May 5, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in photography, science.
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Last week, having never been to Florida, I had one day to go exploring.  While Universal Studios was awfully tempting, I chose another location: Kennedy Space Center.  Rather than bore you with explanations, I’ll give you the photo tour.  (My husband graciously consented to be the model for several of these pictures…)

The entrance (if you click on the picture, the full size one will come up and you can read the quote):

mike_entrance_KSC

After passing through the visitor center entrance, the first thing you see is a bunch of rockets:

mike_rocket

And a few capsules (which, of course, are fun to crawl into):

mike_capsule

They are currently building the final home for the shuttle Atlantis, which will be on display at about the end of June.  I was disappointed it wasn’t ready yet.

Then we hopped the bus and drove past the vehicle assembly building:

KSCva

And visited the Apollo/Saturn V center:

saturnV

At the center, they start you by sitting through a simulated launch of one of the missions.  There are tons of things on display that relate to the Apollo missions, such as newspapers, space suits, and even the moon rover they practiced on.  There’s also a moon rock that you can touch.  (I was disappointed that it was polished.)  We unfortunately only had about 5 hours, which didn’t feel like nearly enough, but we definitely had a good time.

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