Category Archives: Academia

Starting at Westminster College in September

Now that I’ve signed a contract, I feel comfortable going public.

Next September, I will be moving back to the USA, and I will be starting a job as an associate professor in the Physics department of Westminster College, a small liberal arts college in western PA, about an hour north of Pittsburg in the town of New Wilmington.

In the last few days, my wife and I have been out in PA house hunting, and things are starting to come into place for the move.

In the fall, I’ll be teaching the algebra-based introductory physics class, the lab that goes along with that class, and an intermediate level Modern Physics class (covering Special Relativity and introductory quantum physics). I’m looking forward to it.

(It seems odd to me that I capitalize Special Relativity but not quantum physics, but it also seems right that way. The former is really the proper name of the theory, but the latter is a description of the topics of the course. Interesting. My usage may be entirely incorrect.)

Do “Gen Eds” make sense?

In a blog post today, Chad Orzel (chair of the physics department (last time I checked) at Union College) speaks out against a proliferation of “Gen Eds”. These are courses that teach basic skills that you’ll need either in life or in college, courses that are either divorced from content, or that are taught in a department other than the department of a student’s major and as such are “outsourced” skill-building necessary for their major.

Chad makes the argument that the proliferation of these things are bad, for a few reasons. By and large, I agree with him. Even beyond what he says, too often courses that are completely divorced from content can be vapid; the best ones, the ones that actually work, will apply some real content to make them work. (You can’t learn how to write without something to write about.) Students end up viewing these courses as hoops you jump through, boxes you check, rather than courses you’re actually supposed to take something away from and use in other courses. They then become less fun courses to teach, because the students aren’t intellectually engaged; instead, they think of you as primarily an obstacle.

Chad’s final statement is that departments who value these other skills (be it writing, public speaking, computer programming, or whatever) should find room for those skills within their major; if they can’t find room, then perhaps those skills aren’t important. I had a debate with a colleague this morning, who thought that Chad’s last statement was patently false. I believe he was misreading it, however; he seemed to be reading Chad as saying that “if you can’t find room, that other stuff isn’t important”. I hang on the “maybe” in Chad’s statement though; my colleague argued that conversationally, the maybe was a throwaway word and that Chad really was saying the other stuff was a waste of time. However, given the rest of what Chad wrote in the article, I think the point he’s trying to make is that by not finding room in your major, you’re indicating to the students that you think these things aren’t important; therefore, if you think they’re important, you damn well better find room in the major for them.

On a couple of points, I disagree, however. As Chad says, physics both outsources some of its basic skills to other departments (writing usually goes to English or similar departments, but most notably all sorts of the basic skills and knowledge you need for physics is taught by math professors), and provide outsourced “service” instruction for other departments (most notably, introductory physics for life science types (often (too often) pre-meds) and engineers). Now, I must admit that I have had moments in my life where I think that students would be better getting their math from physicists than from mathematicians. Mathematicians get worked up about proofs and (for instance) weird edge cases of limits, whereas physicists tend to like to be able to use the mathematical tools as they are useful in addressing physical theories and situations. (Mathematicians also have this terrible tendency to ignore units and dimensionality, and students come into physics classes thinking that that stuff doesn’t matter, creating headaches for all of us.)

There are a couple of reasons, however, why I still think that students (particularly at liberal arts colleges) should learn math from mathematicians rather than physicists. First, at a liberal arts college, the point of taking math classes is not just as a tool for physics. It’s also to learn math, as its own example of a human intellectual pursuit. On a more practical level, having everybody who needs calculus take that class in their own department splits the audience, and might lead (depending on the size of the school) to a whole bunch of classes with 5-10 people each learning calculus, instead of a smaller number of 20-person (ideally, more at some schools) classes learning calculus. Likewise, as a physicist, I can’t help but think that physicists are probably better people to teach physics to life science students than life science types. You can argue that, yes, if physics really is important for life scientists, then the life scientists should know it well enough to teach it at that level. But, again, I think there’s more to it than just getting what you need to do life science.

Indeed, in physics classes, we teach some math. There are some mathematical tools that might not come up in math classes. What’s more, we may “reteach” some of the math, to give physics students the “physics perspective” on math that they’ve already learned. (“Cheating with differentials” is an important skill that first-year physics students should learn, for example.)

The other area where I disagree with Chad is when he says this:

There’s a stark difference in style between the normal mode of writing in the two disciplines that just doesn’t cross that boundary– there’s some benefit to varying up the language used to refer to things in English papers, and trying to work in the occasional ornate turn of phrase, but in science papers, those both fail spectacularly. The goals in technical writing are clarity and precision, which means that you use the same words to refer to the same things throughout, as boring as that might seem. And you don’t use flowery language in places where it might cause confusion about what you did and what you measured and how you analyzed your data.

I strongly suspect that the writers that Chad is complaining about would, by and large, not be the writers that would be considered the best writers by English professors.  While, yes, there are stylistic differences when you’re writing for different audiences and with different goals in mind, I do strongly believe that there is a thing one could call “good writing” that is absolute.  In English papers, clarity is important.  Students too often seem to think that it’s all about bullshit and about using lots of self-important and gratuitously flowery language to make yourself appear all impressive.  I strongly suspect, however, that those papers do not tend to be the papers that receive the highest grades.  Yes, being interesting to read, and not sounding dull and repetitive is important, perhaps more important than strict precision in many cases, while in a science paper the priorities might be reversed.  But, the actual writing by some scholars (as exposed by things like the Sokal affair) aside, good writing in the humanities is also supposed to be clear. You’re supposed to be making your argument and supporting your argument clearly, not obfuscating it, or using a lot of flowery and creative prose to hide the fact that you don’t have an argument. Yes, sometimes, the style is the point, and you deliberately try to be obtuse. By and large, though, that’s not the type of writing that students are primarily supposed to be learning in their English classes, and the students who are best at that are indeed the ones who write clearly and realize that it’s not all BSing.

All of that being said– I don’t think there’s a lot of point in having a class called “writing”, or “public speaking”, or (God forbid) “critical thinking”. As I said, you learn how to write by writing about something. You can have a class where you look at a diversity of things and write about that, sure, but just calling it writing itself, reducing writing to a skill along the lines of typing, misses the thought and creativity that goes into writing well. (For the same reason, when I’ve taught a computer programming class here at Quest, I focus most of the class on the students writing a major project. You might think they should learn programming first and then attempt the major project. However, by having something they care about be what they’re spending their time on, ideally they are more motivated actually to learn the programming. Ideally, they learn by doing the major project. To be fair, while I think it’s worked pretty well, I can’t claim that this approach has worked universally for me.)

I still do think there is a place for “gen eds” at a liberal arts college, however. Not, definitely not, as explicitly “skills” classes. For all the reasons Chad said, students groan and mentally disengage if they have to take a wealth of courses with titles like “Rhetoric”, “Quantitative Reasoning”, “Critical Thinking”, and so forth. However, if you’re getting a liberal arts education, you should learn more than just your major. The whole point of going to a liberal arts college is to become broadly educated, to be generally familiar with the human intellectual endeavour. So, while, yes, focusing on something, learning something in depth (i.e. your major) is an important part of that, it’s not the be-all and end-all. Students should not only take classes, but ideally (if they “get” the liberal-arts ideal) should embrace taking classes that are outside of their major. I’m not just talking the classes that teach you skills you will “need”, but classes that expose you to other parts of human scholarship. And, who knows, you may well find out that some of what you learn in these other places broadens your perspective and gives you an ability to communicate with people who aren’t in your subfield, and gives you a flexibility of thought that you might not have hyperfocusing on just completing the prerequisites for whatever graduate program you seek to apply to.

Image of a Thermomnuclear Supernova Progentior

Holy cow, it’s been a long time since I blogged.

The class I’m teaching right now is 3d Computer Modelling and Animation. Perhaps the hardest thing about it is figuring out if the word Modelling has one or two l’s in it… it depends on whether you’re in the USA or Canada, I think.

For this class, I’m making all of the students do a major project. Some of them are doing some pretty interesting things, and already several of them have figured out things about Blender (the 3D software we’re using, a quite powerful free package that you should check out yourself) that I don’t know myself. A couple are playing around with motion tracking, in order to add 3D rendered elements into a live action video scene. One is building a game using the Blender game engine. Others are doing various other animations.

I’ve decided to take on a project myself. For this project, I am going to model a white dwarf in a mutual orbit with a main sequence or red giant star, pulling matter off of it into an accretion disk. During the animation, the white dwarf will go critical, and explode in a supernova, blowing itself way, and blowing off some of the outer layers of the companion star.

So far, I’ve managed to create the basic progenitor model, and do a little bit of animation of the textures so that the disk is spinning, the star’s surface is roiling, and the gas bridge between the star and the disk looks a little like it’s streaming. Here’s a rendered frame from what I’ve done so far:

sn1aprogenitor
Click to embiggen (CC-BY-3.0)

I’ll certainly post the full animation once I’ve completed it. Next, I’m going to have to start worrying about how to deal with the supernova. Eventually, I’ll set the whole thing to music.

When Andrew Hacker asks “Is Algebra Necessary?”, why doesn’t he just ask “Is High School Necessary?”

Yes, I admit, the editorial at the New York Time entitled “Is Algebra Necessary?” pushes my buttons. Hacker makes some valid and relevant points, and I’ll get back to that. However, the core of his argument is the ultimate in anti-intellectualism. What’s worse, it’s the kind of anti-intellectualism that you get from intellectuals, the sort of thing that sprouts from those on the math-ignorant side of the “two cultures” identified by C. P. Snow.

Andrew Hacker’s argument against making algebra necessary for high school and college students is essentially: Math Is Hard. Having to do it gets in the way of people who could be amazing at other things, because they will drop out of high school because Math Is Hard. So, rather than stop them from achieving all that they might achieve, we should just remove algebra from the high school curriculum. He points out that failing math is one of the main reasons students leave school. Now, I might think that this is a reason to look at our educational culture, at how math is taught, at the fact that it is somehow deemed acceptable and indeed normal to find basic math impenetrable. But, if you’re on the other side of the two cultures, evidently this means that we as a society should just give up on the general teaching of basic algebra. Evidently, it’s OK that the elites who understand the simplest things about science become that much more separated from the general educated public, and that the generally educated public know that much less about them.

There’s one particular part of the argument I want to highlight:

Nor is it clear that the math we learn in the classroom has any relation to the quantitative reasoning we need on the job. John P. Smith III, an educational psychologist at Michigan State University who has studied math education, has found that “mathematical reasoning in workplaces differs markedly from the algorithms taught in school.” Even in jobs that rely on so-called STEM credentials — science, technology, engineering, math — considerable training occurs after hiring, including the kinds of computations that will be required.

So, because algebra isn’t what’s needed in jobs, we shouldn’t be teaching it. This is absolutely the wrong way to think about a lot of education.

If you accept that argument, we need to reevaluate the entire high school curriculum, and the entire core curriculum of all colleges and universities. I think most people would agree that you need to be able to read and write in order to function in today’s society. Do you really need to be able to interpret themes in literature, however? Honestly, is anything that you do in high school or college English classes really necessary in the workplace, any more than algebra is? The kind of reading and writing that most people need is something that students should already know by the time they’re out of middle school. Likewise, history, biology, all the rest: everything that they study in high school is not going to be necessary for their jobs. And, really, if the purpose of high school and college is to train people to function like good little Betas and Gammas within our economic system, why is Andrew Hacker singling out algebra for attack? If we’re going to dumb down the curriculum because we don’t like that right now some people aren’t mastering it, why don’t we just dumb it down all the way?

The simple fact is that a college or university education is not job training. In recent decades, it’s become conflated with job training, at least in North America, and this is too bad. A liberal arts education is all about expanding your mind, all about being able to think. It’s not about gaining skills that you are then going to use in a job. Too many of us professors tend to not have any clue what somebody is supposed to do to earn a living after a liberal arts education other than go to graduate school (so that your liberal arts education is “training” for what you do next). That’s because that was our own life trajectory, and it’s what we know. Liberal arts education is to make people into good citizens, not into good workers. They are to acquaint you with the intellectual achievements of humankind. That is why we read the Iliad, why we watch a performance of Hamlet, why we learn about the history of ancient Greece, and, yes, why we study algebra. Because we want people to be educated so that they understand the intellectual achievements that have made our society what it is today, and that will drive our society in the future. We’re training people to be members of civilization, not employees.

I will say that Hacker makes some good points. There are other kinds of quantitative reasoning, which too many of those coming into college and too many in our society completely don’t grasp, that people should learn. A better understanding of basic statistics may at this point be more important to the citizen of a democracy than an understanding of algebra. So, yes, I would agree that we could and perhaps should de-emphasize algebra in favor of making time for statistical awareness, and perhaps in filling in the basic number sense that students failed to get out of elementary school. However, to me this is a bit of a red herring. Yes, we should always be evaluating what the subject matter of mathematical high school education is. But, right now, the problems are bigger than that. That so many people through high school without basic quantitative reasoning skills is not a reason to throw out algebra. We do, however, have to figure out why it is somewhere around fifth grade that individuals and society both get the “Math Is Hard” meme so firmly embedded. Why it becomes normal not to “get” math and indeed a little weird to actually understand and like those classes. Why it becomes OK to not like and not try at math and just do what’s necessary to get by without actually learning anything. I strongly believe that there are serious problems with a lot of the math education that’s done at the later elementary, middle school, and high school level. But that’s not a reason to give up. We might as well point at various studies of how little so many people know about the state of the world to say that teaching geography and international history just isn’t worth doing any more.

Perhaps the problem, or part of the problem, is that we have conflated vocational and liberal arts education. Anybody who is interested in a liberal arts education does not deserve a degree if they are completely ignorant of algebra, and any society that values liberal arts education cannot neglect algebra. However, perhaps not everybody needs such a liberal education. If we have the problem right now of too many people failing out, it may be that we’re pushing them through the wrong kind of education. This does not mean that a liberal arts education needs to jettison those parts of it that are hard for people on the wrong side of C. P. Snow’s divide!

Algebra is fundamental to nearly all of “higher math”. Even if you want to do more than the most basic of things with statistics, you need to know some algebra. To give up on that would be right on par with the giving up on the teaching of history as anything other than memorizing the occasional date, and to give up on the teaching of English literature as anything other than being able to read a short document for simple surface content and to put together a simple declarative sentence. If you want people to be educated beyond elementary school and beyond “job training”, then algebra is one of the intellectual foundations of our civilization that simply cannot be neglected.

Same Old Story : Too Many Graduate Students

Via Slashdot, I saw this report from the NIH advisory committee. The summary of the problem: there are too many graduate studnets produced in biomedical fields for the number of academic positions that will be available for them in the future. Quotes include:

NIH should create a program to supplement training grants through competitive review to allow institutions to provide additional training and career development experiences to equip students for various career options, and test ways to shorten the PhD training period.

Of course, earlier there is the statement of purpose:

Attract and retain the best and most diverse scientists, engineers and physicians from around the world to conduct biomedical research as well as increase the number of domestic students from diverse backgrounds who excel in science and become a part of the Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) workforce

This is a decades-old story at this point. I remember my junior or senior year of college (back in 1989 or thereabouts) hearing news stories about how there was going to be a “shortage of scientists”, because all of those who rushed into science after Sputnik were going to be retiring. BS, of course, because during the intervening decades they all groomed multiple replacements for themselves, but they’re only retiring once.

In my very early years of graduate school (1990-1992 or thereabouts), there was a statistical continuum of letters to the editor to Physics Today talking about the sea of physics post-docs out there: PhDs who could get a temporary post-doc position, or two, or three, but who couldn’t find permanent positions. The astronomy journal club (I believe it was) at Caltech dedicated one of their meetings to talking about this issue. And, the professors there all gave lip service to “training students so that they can go into other careers.” But I could practically hear each and every professor there thinking “but not my students— they will be the ones who get the coveted academic positions.” (Some may even have been generous enough to think “Caltech” students.)

The sad truth is that those professors were probably mostly right, although not entirely. Of the three PhD students who worked with my advisor, Tom Soifer, when I was there, we’re all in faculty positions. James Larkin is at UCLA and Tom Murphy is at UCSD. I’m the odd one out, teaching at a teaching-focused small liberal arts college rather than at a prestigious research Unviersity, but still I’ve got one of those rare and coveted professor positions. In Physics, professor positions everywhere are heavily dominated people with degrees from the top handfull of schools… yet they are all themselves still training graduate students, with graduate training programs designed to produce more academic researchers.

Socieites and meetings and focus groups will meet every so often and wring their hands about the problem, and give lip service either to increasing the number of staff scientists and decreasing the number of graduate students, or give lip service to “training graduate students for other careers”. But little has changed despite this hand-wringing in the last twenty years, and I don’t expect it to change any time soon. The professors, the ones in position of power, are the rare few who got the desired positions, so they aren’t feeling the pain, and thus have little incentive to change it. Meanwhile, funding agencies keep talking about “attracting the best scientists”, which leads to university administrations talking about “improving the graduate program”, which inevitably leads to trying to attract more graduate students. It’s a vicious cycle that’s not going to end.

(And even if you do get into a scientific research position, you’re still screwed. At least in astronomy, funding has gone completely into the toilet. Last I heard, NSF astronomy was granting only about 1/8 of the proposals it received, which is even worse than when I was failing to get NSF grants in the 00’s. Also, national observatory facilities are being eviscerated on the altar of ausperity and gigantic projects. Not only are there too few research science positions for the graduate students we’re producing, there are too many research science positions for the amount of science that our society is willing to support! It’s bad all around.)

What you should do about it is be open and honest to any young people you know. Warn them that going into an academic PhD program is a trap. You will be enticed with the promise of an intellectually fulfilling job as a research scientist, once you put up with the years of hazing you undergo as a grad student. Only, at the other end, statistically you won’t be able to find a job. I wrote about this back in January in my post Why go to graduate school in Physics?. The short version is that there’s only one reason: because you want to be a physics graduate student for six years, and it’s worth it to you to take six years out of your life to do that. Yes, if you want to be a professor, you have to get a PhD. Similarly, if you want to win the lottery, you have to buy lottery tickets. but the competition is intense.

You will also spend much of your graduate school career frustrated as you will see that everybody around you knows that the system is broken, that academic PhDs are being vastly overproduced… but that nobody is willing to do anything about it.

So do something about it yourself. Don’t let yourself into the trap unless it’s not a trap for you, but an interesting diversion for your life.

“Of the Wonderful Kind”, a play by Claire Hately

You wanted to see a picture of me in a onesie, riding a unicorn and weilding a light sabre? Why, yes, I can accommodate that:

One of the fun things about being at Quest University is the diversity of student “majors”. Students don’t actually have majors; instead, they choose a “Question” that they focus much of their last two years on. Most of the students I have working with me have a Question that’s focused somewhere in the physical sciences, although some are a bit more diverse. One of the ones that is entirely out of the physical sciences is Claire Hately’s question, “How Can We Keep Creativity Alive?” For her keystone project (the project that all students do by the end of their tenure here), she wrote and is now producing a play entitled “Of the Wonderful Kind”. The one performance is tonight.

The play takes place in two locations: first, in the bedroom of an 8.5-year-old boy who’s created a startling and potentially world-changing invention for the next day’s school science fair. Second, inside the mind of that boy, as his confused imagination tries to deal with growing up. The play is quite funny and lasts about an hour.

And, yes, I play the 8-1/2 year old boy. Everybody else in the play is a Quest student, and is 24 years old or younger (mostly 4 or so years younger). So, naturally, I was the obvious choice to play the little boy…! Claire herself plays the role of my little sister, and various other students play my mother, the Nymphs of the Night (faeries who carry on like drug dealers), Jesus, as well as various characters in my imagination including a train conductor, the psychotic favorite doll of my little sister, a couple of cats, a foul-mouthed and wryly philosophical toad, a bevel of hard-drinking poker players, a kindly old train conductor and his assistant who turn evil, and, of course, Cowboy Bill, the flying cowboy who does nice things for people but never stops to ask for any thanks.

Sadly, I’ve had a cold since last week, so I’ve sort of lost my voice. But, I’ll make it through.

Why go to graduate school in Physics?

I just came accross an article at The Economist entitled The Disposable Academic: Why doing a PhD is a waste of time. This has prompted me finally to write this post, which I’ve intended to write for a long time (like so many other posts on my too-quiet blog).

There is one, and only one, reason why you should go to graduate school in Physics or Astronomy. (This is probably true for any other field as well, but I’m going to stick to the field where I actually know what I’m talking about.) That one reason is: because you want to be a graduate student in physics for five or six years. That’s it.

It is true that if you want to teach physics at the University level, or that if you want to have a career in physics research where you’re leading and doing you’re own research, you need to get a PhD. This isn’t 100% true; you can certainly teach at the community college level with a masters’ degree, and you can get a job working with a physics research group (although those are quite rare). However, for the most part, it’s true. This leads many people to conclude that, because what they really want to do is spend their life as a professor at a University, they need to go to graduate school.

However, going to graduate school because that’s what you want to do is similar to buying a lottery ticket because you want to be a millionaire. Yes, buying a lottery ticket is a prerequisite for winning the lottery, just as getting a PhD in physics is a prerequisite for being a physics professor. However, the fact that you’ve met that prerequisite is very far from assurance that you’ll be able to do either. Thankfully, the chances of getting a physics professor job aren’t quite as bad as the chances of winning the lottery. However, in both cases, they’re bad investments.

There is a tremendous opportunity cost associated with being a physics graduate student. It’s not as bad as being a humanities graduate student. For the most part, if you can get into a physics graduate school, your tuiton will be paid, and you will receive a stipend of something like $20,000/year. You may be able to make this as a research assistant— a good deal, because you’re essentially being paid to do your PhD research. Or, you may have to teach some classes… which I also personally view as a good deal, but that’s because I like to teach. (And, the teaching you do as a PhD student is lower stress and less time consuming than what a professor at a small liberal-arts college does.) However, there is still the opportunity cost. With your skills and abilities, you would be able to make a lot more money doing something else.

If you think you want to pursue a profession in academic physics, but you are going to view the years you spend working on your PhD as a sacrifice, then it’s not worth doing it. The probability of getting that academic research job is just not high enough, even if you go to one of the top schools out there. What’s more, ironically, the experience you get doing something else may well serve you better for any other job you might get thereafter, and it will almost certainly look better on your resume than the PhD will.

On the other hand, the life of the physics graduate student isn’t necessarily a bad one. Yes, you will spend several years of your young life making a whole lot less money than you could otherwise. Yes, you will live the “graduate student lifestyle”, meaning that you’re still more or less pond scum in the hierarchy of your institution, and that you’re still in training, still living the life of an apprentice. However, you do get to spend five or six years studying very interesting stuff, and performing original research. It can be a very cool thing to do. Yes, no matter who you are, you will go through moments of self-doubt where you wonder just what the hell you’re doing, and you may go through periods of despair. But, overall, it can be a very fulfulling way to spend several years. That is, if you go into it recognizing that you’re doing it for the sake of doing it, not as an investment in a future career that you’ll have any assurance of achieving.

And, of course, to enjoy the graduate student lifestyle, you have to keep some perspective on life. If a professorial job were guaranteed, then perhaps one could stomach the idea of living several years with your life on hold, being underpaid and undervalued for working too hard. But, since that professorial job is far from guaranteed, you can’t sacrifice your whole life to be a graduate student. Some will consider this heresy, will believe that graduate students are supposed to work really really hard because “your education is an investment in your future”. But, again, a PhD program is today a terrible investment. Yes, you should probably expect to work up to 50 hours a week… not because you’re overworking, but rather because you’re inspired by your subject. But you should not, under any circumstance, join one of “those” labs where the professor expects you to work 10 hours a day, 7 days a week. You need to have a life. Work hard, but keep perspective. Recognize that you need to value your life right then.

What’s more, you’ll need to recognize that the culture of the PhD program is a bit dysfunctional. You almost certainly will feel cultural pressure to want to achieve the highly valued research professor position after graduate school, especially if you go to a top tier graduate school. You will feel this pressure from peers, and from your institution. (They partially judge the “success” of their graduate program based on the “placement” of their graduates.) Take it all with a grain of salt. It’s your life. You are decidedly not a failure if you don’t get one of the vaunted research positions, and indeed there’s nothing shameful about deciding that you don’t want one. Try to get one if you want one, and it’s inevitable that you’ll be disappointed if you don’t, but don’t feel ashamed, don’t feel like a failure, and don’t feel like you’re letting anybody down if you don’t get one. After all, most of us, if we’re honest, will admit that we’re overproducing PhDs in all fields, including physics, for the number of jobs out there that Physics PhDs are “supposed” to want.

The End of Nobel Week

The Sunday (Dec. 11) after the Nobel Prize ceremony was a slow and quiet day. I slept in a bit (due to having gone to bed so late the night of the cermoney), but not as much as I had intended. That was fine, though, as late in the afternoon I fell asleep, to wake up briefly in the evening, only to fall asleep again. So, the day before yesterday, I slept a lot. (If only you could bank sleep.) The one fun thing I did on Sunday was head down to the Vasa Museum. The Vasa was a ship that was launched in the early 17th century, commissioned by the then-king of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus II. Its trip didn’t last long; on its first voyage, it tipped, took on water, and sank. In the mid-twentieth century, it was rasied again, and today forms the basis of a museum all about early 17th-century Swedish ships, shipbuilding, and life related to these things. The Vasa was a warship, loaded with cannon. At the time, Sweden was perenially at war with Poland (and sometimes Denmark as well). Ah, the Renaissance.

[Vasa]
The Vasa

On Monday, I did a bit more gratuitous walking about Stockholm, and then in the afternoon there was a symposium at the Albanova University Center. This is where SCP member Ariel Goobar is headquartered, along with the graduate students and post-docs who have worked with him and continue to work with him. The symposium was introduced by saying that we’d heard a lot from Saul, Adam, and Brian at the Nobel Lectures; for these two hours, we’d hear from other members of the team. The three laureates moderated, while four different panels representing four different eras of the whole supernova search business gave short talklets about the prehistory of the whole thing. That included Rich Muller talking about the LBL robotic search, as well as Rich’s Nemesis idea that (if I am not mistaken) was the topic of Saul’s thesis, and Bob Kirshner talking about supernova work “back in the day” when he was the thesis advisor for both Brian Schmidt and Adam Reiss. It also included Richard Ellis talking about the original Danish high-redshift supernova search (which wasn’t really succesful; they found only one supernova, and after maximum light). Mark Phillips talked about the genesis of the Calan-Tololo supernova search, which established Type Ia supernovae as calibratable standard candles suitable cosmology, and whose supernovae served as the low-redshift comparison set for both high-redshift teams.

[Saul on the Phone]
Many people commented on Saul’s propensity for calling people at observatories, as Richard Ellis does here

The second panel was about the early days of the project. Carl Pennypacker, Brian Boyle, Heidi Newberg, and Warrick Couch talked about the early days of the SCP, when the weather was extremely frustrating, and Heidi figured she’d get a thesis out of it even if they didn’t manage to find even a single supernova. (The first supernova was found in 1992.) Nick Suntzeff talked about the genesis of the High-Z team.

The next batch of people included Alejandro Clocchiatti and Chris Smith from the High-Z team, and Peter Nugent and myself from the SCP. After Peter told a very funny story abuot observing at the CTIO and neary running over Brian Schmidt in a runaway CTIO volkswagon bug whose brakes had failed, it was difficult to follow myself. In the SCP, we’d only been told what the program was and what we were going to be talking about an hour or so before the thing began, and I had no idea what anybody else was going to say, so I didn’t really plan anything. The result was that I just blathered a little bit about Moore’s Law and computer (and network) technology having made it all possible, and I completely failed to make any of the two or three points I was hoping to make about what it was like to adopt the search software from Alex Kim and Ivan Small, and spend 40-hour days processing the data as it came in during a search run.

Next, Alex Filippenko, Isobel Hook, Chris Lidman, Ron Gilliland, Saurabh Jha, and Alex Kim talked about spectroscopy (showing off how much better an 8m telescope is than a 4m telescope for the more distant supernovae), using HST to observe supernovae, and some other things. Saurabh told an amusing story about performing the supernova photometry. Adam Reiss had been put in charge of the analysis that lead to the High-Z team’s discovery paper by team leader Brian Schmidt. Adam, in turn, had farmed out the work of getting the photometric lightcurves to several team members. When the due date came, he sent out an e-mail to all of them saying (I paraphrase) “thank you! Everybody but one (you know who you are) have turned in your data.” This made Saurabh, a young grad student at the time, feel terrible, because he was the one. He went nuts over the next 36 hours, and managed to get his data in. Only after that, running into Peter Garnevich and Ron Gilliland, did he figure out that in fact nobody had managed to get their data in, and Adam’s message wasn’t entirely serious.

Finally, Ariel Goobar, John Tonry, Peter Garnevich, and Craig Hogan talked about the cosmology analysis. Craig Hogan, the theorist, went last. He pointed out, as we all know, that while we’ve established that the Universe is accelerating, we don’t know why. “Dark Energy” is the name we give to the phenomenon, but we don’t know what it is, or even if it is stuff at all; it may in fact be that we’re seeing the breakdown of General Relativity. Craig and John did, at the end during a Q&A period, rain a bit on everybody’s parade by saying that this field is more or less a dead field. I’ve had similar feelings myself for a few years, but few would agree with me. There are parameters about Dark Energy that can be measured; my suspicion is that we’re just going to keep narrowing the errorbars around the default, not-terribly-interesting answer. (If the values are even slightly different from that answer, it’s extremely interesting. However, you can never prove that that answer is right, you can only shrink the error bars around it. There are arguments, however, why it’s not a waste of time to do this, and I won’t get into it here.)

During the Q&A period, Hubble Space Telescope director Matt Mountain asked a leading question about “can’t we all just get along?” He talked about repeated semesters where the HST time allocation committee would assign time to either Adam or to Saul; inevitably, he would then hear from the other one shortly thereafter. He suggested that with HST having only perhaps five years left, and nothing to follow it very soon, it was a crucial time for them to figure out ways in which the community as a whole could work together. Indeed, it sounded to me like he was inviting them to get together and put in a proposal to ask for a truly impressive amount of HST time, even more than the already-impressive amounts of time that has gone to supernova cosmology work. (This was what triggered Craig Hogan and John Tonry to caution that perhaps beating down the error bars on the two parameters we’ve identified, rather than trying to be more creative, might not be the best way to proceed.)

[Big Rodent]
For example, the human-sized rodent was pretty scary

After the symposium, both groups retired to the Junibcken museum, a museum dedicated to Swedish children’s litrature, in particular the stories of Astrid Lindgren (the author of the Pippi Longstockings books). (I have to admit to being nearly compltely ignorant about those.) We all rode their Story Train (in little cars of 3), that took us through 15-minute tour of lovingly recreated dioramas of scenes from these stories… none of which I recognized. I was sitting with Shane and Stormy Burns as we made the trip, and we agreed that these would probably be delightful to kids who were fans of the books. We also thought that some of the scenes would be quite scary.

At the end of the train ride was a dinner, for both of the teams together. Of course, at the end of the dinner, there were some speeches, which were all quite nice. Alex Filippenko— who started collaborating with Saul on the SCP, but defected to the High-Z team in what I gather was a rather unpleasant falling-out— gave a nice speech crediting the two teams’ differences with being strengths, as each team learned from the other. (And, of course, he mentioned, as did a man from the Royal Swedish Academy (whose name I didn’t get) involved in the Nobel selection, that the fact that there were two different teams with the same result is part of why the world couldn’t just dismiss it right away, as we so far have more or less done with the FTL neutrino result.) Several other peple told stories about various things, including Saul’s father, and the woman from the Swedish diplomat service who had been appointed as Saul’s liaison and shepherd during the whole process. She had only met Saul just this week, but said that she was impressed with how gracious he was talking to nearly everybody. Whether it was a 15-year-old or a colleague, he was always interested when talking to them.

[Santa Lucia]
Santa Lucia showed up to help banish the darkness; she brought with her a rather nice group of a capella singers who sang Christmas songs. At least, I think they were; but for “Deck the Halls”, they were all in Swedish.

In the end, several people remarked that it was unusal for a group this large, especailly including collabortors, to come out to the Nobel Prize Ceremony. Brian, Adam, and Saul may be the ones with the glory, they may be the ones that history will remember, but they did a good job of sharing some part of the glory with the rest of us during this week. Somebody (I forget who, but it may also have been Alex Filippenko) commented that it’s too bad that too many members of the public think that science is done by individuals working away all by themselves— antisocial individuals, even. For these groups that’s certainly not the case, and indeed this science could never have been accomplished in such a mode. The fact that the Nobel Prize celebrates individuals only serves to cement this model in the public mind. However, as I said, Saul, Brian, and Adam were very generous with making it clear that there are a lot of people who share the credit for this discovery.

And now I’m on my way home; I’ve composed this post in fits and starts along my way home, and won’t finish getting all the pictures embedded until after I’m home in Squamish. (I decided not to attend the Lucia Ball on the 13th, but to head home.)

This last evening, I also got what I think is the coolest souvenir of the trip. The Astrophysical Journal put out a special “Nobel” commemorative reprint of the Perlmutter ’99 paper (as well as the corresponding Riess ’98 paper, although I didn’t see that one). We were all given copies of it. At the end of the night, those of us who were still there passed the copies around to each other to sign. A few signatures are missing, but I do have this Nobel commemorative reprint with the signatures of Saul and all the other authors (including myself). That’s going to get framed and put on my office wall next to the Gruber prize!

[Signed Paper]
Perlmutter et al., 1999

I can’t help but get a wee bit choked up when I think about this last week— when I think about the fact that I was a major contributor to one of the coolest discoveries in science in the last couple of decades, and that the world has now recognized that discovery with its highest honor. It’s been quite a week.

This Morning: Quest University’s First Ever Graduation

In an hour and a half, I will head up the mountain to Quest University‘s first ever graduation. As you can imagine, we’ve had a number of events this week to celebrate the completion of our first class of students’ studies. Of course, I’ve only been here for a year; those who’ve been here four years or more are (visibly) much more affected by the fact that Quest has managed to get to this state.

Yesterday afternoon, the five students whose capstone projects received distinction all gave presentations in front of an audience of a few hundred, including students, faculty, parents, and maybe even a few members of the community. They all did an impressive job, and showed tremendous poise. They also performed very well when receiving questions from the audience, showing a comfort both on stage and with the material they’d studied. The projects varied quite a bit, from a study of human perception from primarily a literary and philosophical point of view, to a study of just war theory and military response to terrorism, to a psychology experiment testing whether environmentalism corresponded to a “world view” under a particular definition, to a survey of wildfire managers about trying to reintroduce what used to be the natural wildfire cycle in BC, to a combined biological and social study of the factors influencing the spread of a particularly nasty virus in Bolivia. Everybody I talked to was quite impressed with what the students did, and I think that the first through third year students were a little scared by the standard that had been set…. (We must remember, however, that these were what we identified as the top five projects out of the 45 or 50 in the graduating class!)

It’s pretty exciting to be a part of this experimental University. I’m just happy to be teaching again, but I’m particularly happy to be teaching at a place that really cares about teaching. Quest’s mission is focused entirely around teaching. What’s more, the students here by and large are great. At Vanderbilt, at least in my large introductory classes, I wouldn’t see the whole class except on the day of an exam. Here, if one student is missing one day, I’m surprised, and will often e-mail afterwards to see what’s up. Everybody comes to every class, pretty much; that’s unheard of at most any other University. (I will say that in my upper division physics electives at Vanderbilt, generally almost everybody was there every day, but certainly not by any means in the introductory classes.)

After today, Quest will for the first time have alumni. I hope it has many more, and I hope that I’m able to stay around for a few decades and participate in this experiment.