The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Bob Stepno § The structure of journalism today / 2014-03-10 18:42:32

What Physicists Like

My skepticism about the signal-to-noise ratio of Atlantic bloggers has a big asterisk next to it pointing to James Fallows. I like Fallows not least because of his tone — he prefers chiming the triangle to banging the gong, although he can blow the horn when he wants to.

His coverage of the Eric Shinseki and Steven Chu cabinet picks show off Fallows at his blogly best. And today he has a follow-up about the Chu pick, with feedback from a writer (Steve Corneliussen) with contacts in the physics community. (Where else in journalism besides a blog can you cut-and-paste an email without chopping it up, paraphrasing it, or otherwise interjecting yourself all over perfectly well-reported and well-written analysis?)

I’m also impressed by the content, which in two places argues that physicists’ professional self-interest actually makes them more likely to produce good science (because it trumps politics):

I suspect many physicists would pronounce Vice President Gore wrong to confine the energy challenge inside a mere ten-year limit with the longer-term research dimension omitted. Physicists like big-picture arithmetic and they like research. Many believe that the arithmetic shows that in the long run we can’t meet the energy challenge without new fundamental knowledge — no matter how innovatively we re-engineer what we already know, and no matter how well we conserve.


I’ll bet [Chu] could illuminate [to global warming skeptics] scientists’ self-interested desire to promote themselves by genuinely, in fact ruthlessly, seeking truths about nature, with a consequent disinterestedness that has nothing to do with their political views because it has everything to do with their professional aspirations.

“Dude, we don’t care about the back and forth — we just want to know stuff and get tenure. We got this.”


Hahahahaha. GREAT post. Imaginary physicist’s to-do list:

1. Know stuff

2. Get tenure

3. Physics puns (maybe as one-panel cartoon???)

Agree about Fallows. His pieces in the Atlantic, circa 1999/2000, were what got me interested in the world of policy and (for total lack of the correct word on a Sunday morning) “macro change.” I can vividly remember sitting on my couch at 326 Holmes Hall, reading an article of his about the procurement process for a new jet (?!), and feeling, for the first time, like somebody was pulling back the curtain on the world and letting me see behind the scenes.

And now he’s a terrific blogger!

Role model.

Of course, physicists can’t always be trusted to apply their knowledge to practical problems. Consider this vignette from the Futurama episode “A Big Piece of Garbage”:

Mayor: “Dr. Wernstrom, can you save my city?”

Wernstrom: “Of course, but it’ll cost you. First I’ll need tenure.”

Mayor: “Done.”

Wernstrom: “And a big research grant.”

Mayor: “You got it!”

Wernstrom: “Also, access to a lab and five graduate students…at least three of them Chinese.”

Mayor: “Did…all right, done. What’s your plan?”

Wernstrom: “What plan? I’m set for life. Au revoir, suckers!”

Leela: “That rat! Do something!”

Mayor: “I wish I could, but he’s got tenure.”


Dan says…

Fun fact about the DOE: up until this fiscal year, defense and weapons R & D constituted the largest single portion of the department’s budget. (The DOE is the Atomic Energy Commission, plus) As of FY2008, “Science” R&D has surpassed “Atomic Energy Defense.” See the AAAS analysis here [PDF]

On the whole, I can see the advantage to having a respected scientist at the head of the DOE. Similarly, I can see a great deal of sense in Corneliussen’s report.

But I’m hesitant to bite on the Gore criticism w/o more information. It sounds too much like an argument that would be most effective at undermining efforts to move effectively with existing technologies. Sure, basic research on long-term energy sources (fusion, anyone?) deserves continued funding. But including dreamed-of technlogies in policy decisions now don’t make sense. Similarly, drawing too much attention to future savior innovations only makes it easier to dismiss meaningful changes right now. So make 10-year plans that involve graspable techniques; (while quietly funneling a good chunk of change to the scientists who may come up with the next big thing.)

I’ll also note: when it comes to professional interest, scientists often have economic and professional incentives (augmented by technogeek aesthetics and proclivities) to call for further research rather than to advocate using existing techniques that are good enough.

Yeah, I’m just as hopeful that Chu will be able to say “cut the BS” in his dealings with professional physics; his cred with that community and his knowledge of how they work will actually make him more able to push the relatively short-term and practical goals of his dept and the administration (as well as, I hope, bringing bigger scientific projects from knowledge-gathering into production in a faster timeframe).



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