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Fungible funding September 3, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research, science.
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I was reading a discussion the other day on funding sources when it occurred to me that I’ve made a big switch on the topic.  I used to think that industry funded research was *always* bad, *always* biased.


I guess being in engineering has changed my view considerably.  A lot of engineering work is funded by industry, and this is a good thing.  First, it means that the research actually has a chance of getting used.  Second, it is helpful to the majority of researchers that are likely unable to get any funding from large governmental funding agencies.

In engineering, a lot of the conferences I’ve gone to have had large numbers of researchers from industry.  (In a couple sub-fields I’m involved in, *most* of the people come from industry.)  Those fields are the “too applied for NSF” type work that is still rather interesting and useful.  Without companies funding some of their own research, they probably wouldn’t be going anywhere.

Despite my great appreciation of the system we have for government funding, it is still very limited.  And even when things are funded, I’m not sure how many of these concepts actually make it to industry.

Now, looking at science from this engineering-informed background, I’m not as suspicious about industry-funded projects.  Admittedly, science has a different approach than engineering, but I wonder how many areas are being underfunded.  There are far more good ideas and questions to be answered than funding available.  Is it better to let a question sit unanswered or to try to work with an industry partner to do some type of study?  Just about every university will have a conflict-of-interest policy.  While these aren’t bulletproof, I would assume they’re going to hit some of the basics.  And maybe, just maybe, researchers really want to find the answers to their questions no matter how they get the funding.

That isn’t to say we shouldn’t be skeptical when research is funded by industry…but neither should we just write it off as biased.

Never ask a woman her weight…but her kinetic energy is fine August 2, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in math, physics, running, science.
Tags: blerch, , kinetic energy, mass, , , , ,
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Today, I had one of the most awesome runs I’ve ever had.  In particular, I sustained a much faster pace than I have over a 3 mile distance.

I couldn’t help but wonder, however, about the factor weight plays in one’s speed.  As much as I try not to worry about weight and focus on being healthy, there’s this part of me that thinks it would be cool to lose a bit of weight because then I would go SO MUCH FASTER.  Or at least that’s what I tell myself.  However, I wondered if maybe I was exaggerating a bit, so I decided to check it out.

While it’s a bit of an oversimplification (that doesn’t take into account muscle tone, lung capacity, hydration, electrolyte levels, altitude adjustment, and the 18 bazillion other things that can affect a runner, even as stupid as that kink that’s still in your neck from last Thursday’s swim (okay, that only affects the triathletes here)), a quick check is to use the kinetic energy equation.

First, of course, we have to assume a perfectly spherical runner.  Or a Blerch:

The Blerch

The Blerch

(As an aside, if you don’t know what the Blerch is, you must check out the Oatmeal’s wonderful cartoon on running.  We all have a Blerch deep inside of us.)  Either way, perfectly spherical things are happy for physicists because of all the lovely simplifications we can use in learning about them.  So, if you’re a perfectly spherical runner, remember that physicists will love you.

Anyway, our hypothetical runner will have a mass (m), which is, of course, directly proportional to weight.  (Weight, of course, is also referred to as gravitational attraction, so the more you have of it, the more attractive you are, at least from the perspective of the planetary body you’re closest to.  Also, it may start to be more attracted to you if your velocity starts to approach the speed of light.  Maybe this is why many humans also find runners attractive?  Not sure.)  The unit of mass is the kilogram.  The runner will also have to maintain an average speed velocity (v), and of course your pace is inversely proportional to your velocity.  Your velocity is probably measured in miles per hour by your local race, but since we’re being scientific, we could also use SI units of meters/second.  That being said, if you double your speed in one unit, it will also double in the other.  There’s nothing fancy that happens because you’re using one unit or the other.

The kinetic energy of our runner, assuming an average velocity, can be written as

(1) KE=½ mv2

If we have the kinetic energy and mass, but want to find out the velocity, we first divide both sides of the equation by the mass and then take the square root of both sides.  This leaves us with the following result:

(2) v=√(2 KE/m)

Let’s take an example.  If we have a runner who has a velocity of 5 mph (or 2.2352 m/s) and a weight of 140 lbs. (or 63.5 kg).  If we use SI units to compute this runner’s velocity, it turns out her initial kinetic energy (KEi) is 158.63 J.

On the other hand, we don’t really need to know how much initial kinetic energy the runner has, in terms of numbers.  We can just define it as the quantity KEi. It turns out that physicists are kind of lazy about using numbers, so we’ll try to go without them because, in my opinion, it sort of confuses things. (You’ll see why later.)

How this this help us?  Well, if you want to take a drastic example, let’s assume a runner loses half of her body weight.

First, let’s establish that her initial kinetic energy is defined also by an initial mass mi and velocity vi.  (These would be the same as the 5 mph and 140 lbs. above.)  This means her initial kinetic energy can be written as

(3) KEi=½ mivi2

and her initial velocity would therefore be

(4) vi=√(2 KEi/mi).

If her weight drops by half, we can write this as her initial weight divided by 2:

(5) m=mi/2

If we put (5) into our velocity equation (2) as our new mass and keep the same initial kinetic energy, we get

(6) vnew=√(2 KEi/m)=√(2 KEi/(mi/2))=√2*(2 KEi/(mi))=√2(2 KEi/(mi))

You can see that the last part in six is basically the square root of two times our initial velocity from (3).  That means that by losing half her weight, our runner would run about 1.4 times as fast, or 40% faster.

Now what if she only loses 10% of her weight?  It turns out that (5) would become

(7) m=mi/1.1

so our new velocity would be the initial velocity times the square root of 1.1, which is about 1.05.  Losing 10% of her weight only makes her 5% faster.

After spending time looking at this, I decided that going on a massive diet definitely isn’t going to help me speed up significantly.  (In fact, if I manage to go from my current weight to my ideal, I would maybe get a gain of a bit over 1/2 mph.)  It’s the fact that the mass doesn’t play as strong a role as velocity does because velocity gets squared and mass doesn’t.  If you want to go faster, you are better off practicing running faster.

So please pass the ice cream!  I need it for my fartlek recovery.

A filtered education March 3, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, homeschooling, math, older son, physics, science, societal commentary, teaching, younger son.
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The older son is a lot of fun.  Despite his statements that he has no desire to go into science, he seems to get and make a lot of science jokes.  I know he’s not a scientist, but I feel comfortable that he’s scientifically literate.  As he was homeschooled, I’m feeling pretty proud of myself.

I’m more anxious about the younger son, though.  This weekend, he brought home his science homework, which focused on optics.  The kids were studying filters, and one of the questions asked about what kind of light would you see if you shined a flashlight through a blue filter and then a red one.  I asked him what he saw, and he said nothing.  Unfortunately, he was told that he saw nothing because the flashlights just weren’t bright enough, but that what he should have seen was purple.

I’m pretty sure that if I had ever been bombarded with gamma rays in the past, I would’ve turned into She-Hulk at that very moment and started smashing things.  Fortunately (or unfortunately, if being She-Hulk happens to be a goal of yours), that didn’t happen.

I find it infuriating that, throughout my years of homeschooling older son and teaching younger son math, I have constantly been questioned about my ability to teach them.  The implication has always been that I may have a degree, but they are experts on teaching.  In fact, this particular teacher attempted to take me to task earlier this year about the younger son’s math curriculum…the same teacher who apparently doesn’t understand that light and pigments work completely differently.

After I managed to calm down, I explained that light filters are like sieves, except that they only let one size of particle pass through: nothing bigger can pass through the holes, but nothing smaller can, either.  After this explanation, the younger son was able to correctly explain that the reason he saw no light from his flashlight is that the two filters together had blocked all the light.

I’m going to be watching very carefully to see what kinds of scores he’s getting on his answers and whether the teacher realizes she made a mistake.  This was very disappointing.  There was a new science curriculum introduced this year, one which I was very excited about.  The focus was supposed to be on hands-on, problem-based learning, which is great for science.  Despite that, it seems that younger son’s science education may be lacking.  What good does it do to have a top of the line science education curriculum (or math…or anything else) when our teachers don’t understand what they’re teaching?  And how is it that these same teachers can justify questioning the ability to teach material that some of us understand far better than they do?

There is no crying in science February 7, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in science.
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This week has been a real roller coaster.  Some great things happened, but some really awful things happened, too: horrible, frustrating, gnashing of teeth type awful.  As I was contemplating one of these awful things, this popped into my head:


There may be no crying in baseball, but there is in science…just like sometimes, in science, there is laughter, excitement and giddiness.  But when there’s crying, there’s no use trying to convince yourself not to.  It will happen; it does happen.  And then you get over it and move on, just like the rest of life.

99 bottles of…oops January 28, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, physics, science.
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Yesterday, I was helping guide some cub scouts (specifically webelos) through their scientist achievement.  One of the things we had to discuss was Pascal’s law.  Unfortunately, the instruction set on this was pretty limited: read and discuss.  That, to me, means they likely wouldn’t understand it at all, so I felt like a demo was in order.

I decided to demonstrate the pressure change in a beer bottle.  The concept is simple: fill an empty bottle with a non-compressible fluid (so water works, air won’t) and tap on the open end with a rubber mallet or even your hand.  Of course, you want to do this over a bucket because the sudden change in pressure causes the bottle to break at the weakest point, usually the seam along the bottom, and spill it’s contents.

I did this demo for the first time in front of the kids.  (I had ONE bottle of beer.  No, I didn’t imbibe in front of them…I used it to bake bread.)  It worked like a charm.  If I didn’t trust physics so much, I wouldn’t have been okay trying it cold like that.

If you don’t have a beer bottle handy and would like to see this demo, there’s a good video on YouTube:

At the book fair November 8, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in science.
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I wonder where that came from? October 15, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in family, science, younger son.
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Mike was helping younger son study for a science test.  After they were finished, Mike turned to me and said that younger son seems to have a very good handle on the subject.  The younger son, in response, said that he really likes science and thinks it may even be “his talent.”

I smiled at Mike and said, “Gee, I wonder where that came from?”

Younger boy, apparently not realizing that the question was rhetorical, said in the most definitive tone, “You, Mom!”

I sure wasn’t expecting that but I certainly appreciated it.  For the record, however, I’m guessing Mike had a little something to do with it, too.

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?


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.

Repost: You’re only as washed up as you think you are March 21, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, research, science, work.
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Note: In the course of conversations, I sometimes find myself discussing something that I realize I’ve posted before.  Such was the case with the false notion that scientific honors go only to those who are brilliant in their youth, and so I’m republishing a post from the old blog which addresses this point.

I was listening to a speaker talk about success in grad school. This person said something that has bugged me to this day, particularly since I was 28 at the time. The person sitting next to me was 45…someone who’d worked in industry for over 20 years and decided to get a PhD. Both of us, of course, were parents. He said:

“You want to get through grad school as fast as you can. You want to do your masters in 1 1/2 year, PhD in 3 to 4. You want to do this because you’re young and don’t have families to distract you. Most of the greatest scientists made their great discoveries before they were 25, and you don’t want to be washed up.”

Needless to say, my fellow attendee and I sat slack-jawed after this most definitive pronouncement. We never heard the rest of the talk. We were too stunned to hear anything aside from the fact that were hopeless.

I wonder if this is the whole reason that so many academics feel you can’t succeed unless you put in 80+ hrs./week.

Look at it this way:

1 – The only reason to do science (or engineering) is to win great prizes in your field and endear you to humanity. (You see, you can’t do a job like that simply because you enjoy it. Never mind that most average people have no clue about the majority of Nobel prize winners.)

2 – You must make a brilliant breakthrough early in life to set the tone of your entire career.

3 – If you don’t manage to pull off #2, in order to achieve #1, you will spend the rest of your life chasing after the people who do manage to pull off #2. In that case, you must spend every waking minute focusing on your career and everything else is a distraction. (See FSP’s post on monomania, as well as the follow-up on Women in Science).

All I can say is, “Dudes, get over yourselves.

If you check out this paper (sorry about it being locked, but the NDSU library was nice enough to let me see it), there’s a lot of info that says how whacked out this view is.

It does some nice statistical analysis of Nobel Prize Winners in Physics for the period 1901-2000. Keep in mind that, unlike many professional society awards (the highest of which are usually given for career achievements), the Nobel Prize is a one shot deal. You may be a bright and highly productive person, but unless you make the one great discovery being considered most important to humanity, you aren’t eligible.

It says that Nobel prize winners, at the time of their great discovery, ranged in age from 22 to 64. The average age of the physicist at the time of discovery is 37.4 years with a standard deviation of 8.1 years. (That means that about 2/3 of the people make their discoveries between the ages of 29ish and 45ish.) On average, they get their awards 15 years after their discovery…but the range was 1 year to 53 years later. They did say that the trend seemed to be moving toward the laureates being older when they received their awards.

So the most compelling reason I can see to try to make that prize-winning discovery before you’re 25 is so that you aren’t awarded the damned thing post-humously!

(Keep in mind that your chances of actually winning something like the Nobel prize are probably not quite as bad as winning a lottery, but the chances still aren’t all that great. The max they can award is 30 per decade.)

As a counter to the three “thought points” above, I think these make more sense:

1 – Your best discoveries can happen any time between the time you initially become brilliant at something to when you’ve been brilliant at it for decades. If you are going to win a Nobel, chances are you’ll probably have been at it between one and two decades.

2 – A researcher with a good work ethic who has the time to enjoy his or her life may be less prone to burnout and may actually be able to accomplish something later in life. How many profs get tenure, take a sigh of relief, and just sit there because they’ve had the life sucked out of them as a grad student and assistant prof?

3 – You don’t have to spend the rest of your life playing catch up. Richard Hamming actually suggested that you change (sub)fields every 7-10 years so that your ideas don’t get stale. I’ve often wondered if having a very diverse background (which can take a while to accumulate) may in fact serve the purpose of coming at new fields with fresh ideas…rather than taking the single-minded, monomania approach that seems to be so often revered in science. Maybe, possibly, that approach is more suited to beating a dead horse. (Not always, of course.)

If you’d like more examples of how not to be washed up, I suggest reading R.W.P. King’s Obit. Pay close attention to this paragraph:

His scientific contributions were prodigious. He was the author of 12 books, many of them treatises; many book and encyclopedia chapters; and more than 300 journal papers. Most amazing, he never seemed to slow down. He published his latest book at age 97 and published his latest journal paper at age 98. He received numerous honors. King was a Life Fellow of IEEE and a fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

If I win the Nobel prize, I want my discovery to happen when I’m older than 37.4 years. That way, when I do it, I’ll be above average…even for a Nobel prize winner. But in all honesty, I think I’d prefer to still be publishing papers when I’m 98.


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