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## Archive for April, 2012

### Globetrotting

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

There has been a wave of advice posts recently, for new graduate students making their decisions by the April 15 deadline, and for graduating PhDs who are receiving their degrees by the end of the semester. Congratulations to both groups! What I have to say today is most relevant to first or second year students ready to make an exclusive commitment to a research group.

Last Wednesday morning my alarm went off at 4:30 so I can catch my 7:30 flight. Four phone calls, six emails and seven hours later I was back at my desk, having moved my 36 hour trip to the following day since my plane had mechanical problems. The first email I read was from the lab’s travel office, wondering if I knew that the way I have arranged my summer travel right now meant I had a round trip each to China and Japan within two weeks. “Yes,” I responded, “I planned it that way.” The trips are three days apart and it’s cheaper to fly back and forth than to book a complicated itinerary with a stopover and three unnecessary nights at a hotel. In exchange for jetlag I collect miles.

Travel is very much a fact of life in high energy physics. Most people, including myself, consider it a perk. At least most of the time. It’s an opportunity to see new places all expenses paid. But it’s not without its drawbacks, and I recommend that any grad student find out about travel and moving before they sign up for it. Some of these you can ask your future adviser directly, some you might be better off finding out through more senior grad students.

Where will you need to travel, how often, for how long? Do you have to move long term (months to years) or is it an option to live near your university and travel for shifts/meetings? This is especially important for those with significant others, families or plans to start a family. Or even pets.

Is there enough funding for all the mandatory travel? This is a good one to ask more senior grad students. You want to be able to travel to a summer school and a couple of conferences throughout your few years in addition to mandatory travel. It wouldn’t hurt to find out about the typical accommodation.

If you’re an international student and need to travel internationally – do you need a visa to travel to and from your destination? This is extremely important, since it can mean being allowed or denied reentry to the US, and very few (if any) people in your department will have reliable information on it. Talk to the equivalent of the “Office of International Students” in your university, as soon as possible. Lots of arrangements are possible, but happen on bureaucratic timescales.

Another one possibly important for international travel is dietary preferences or restrictions. I now have to travel to China frequently, and my second favorite sight, after the Forbidden City in Beijing, was shelves of Skippy peanut butter at a grocery store.

Finally, once it’s time to go, make sure you talk to those who have traveled before you about their experiences. Small things like a restaurant recommendation or advice on navigating public transportation in a language you don’t speak can make your experience significantly better. If possible for your first trip, plan your travel to coincide with someone who’s done it before.

Bon voyage!

### The Role of Mathematics and Rational Arguments in Science

Friday, April 20th, 2012

Mathematics is a tool used by scientists to help them construct models of how the universe works and make precise predictions that can be tested against observation. That is really all there is to it, but I had better add some more or this will be a really short essay.

For an activity to be science, it is neither necessary, nor sufficient, for it to involve math. Astrology uses very precise mathematics to calculate the planetary positions, but that does not make it science any more than using a hammer makes one a carpenter (Ouch, my finger!). Similarly, not using math does not necessarily mean one is not doing science any more than not using a hammer means one is not a carpenter. Carl Linnaeus’s (1707 – 1778) classification of living things and Charles Darwin’s (1809 – 1882) work on evolution are prime examples of science being done with minimal mathematics (and yes, they are science). The ancient Greek philosophers, either Plato or Aristotle, would have considered the use of math in describing observations as strange and perhaps even pathological. Following their lead, Galileo was criticized for using math to describe motion. Yet since his time, the development of physics, in particular, has been joined at the hip to mathematics.

The foundation of mathematics itself is a whole different can of worms. Is it simply a tautology, with symbols manipulated according to well defined rules? Or is it synthetic a priori information? Is 2+2=4 a profound statement about the universe or simply the definition of 4? Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) argued the latter and then showed 3+1=4. Are the mathematical theorems invented or discovered? There are ongoing arguments on the topic, but who knows? I certainly don’t. Fortunately, it does not matter for our purposes. All we need to know about mathematics, from the point of view of science, is that it helps us make more precise predictions. It works, so we use it. That’s all.

I could end this essay here, but it is still quite short. Luckily, there is more. Mathematics is so entwined with parts of science that is has become its de facto language. That is certainly true of physics where the mathematics is an integral part of our thinking. When two physicists discuss, the equations fly. This is still using mathematics as a tool, but a tool that is fully integrated in to the process of science. This has a serious downside. People who do not have a strong background in mathematics are to some extent alienated from science. They can have, at best, a superficial understanding of it from studying the translation of the mathematics into common language. Something is always lost in a translation. In translating topics like quantum mechanics—or indeed most of modern particle physics—that loss is large; hence nonsense like the “God Particle”. There is no “God Particle” in the mathematics, only some elegant equations and, really, considering their importance, quite simple equations.  One hears question like: How do you really understand quantum mechanics? The answer is clear, study the mathematics. That is where the real meat of the topic and where the understanding is—not in some dreamed up metaphysics-like the many worlds interpretation.

Closely related to mathematics are logical and rational arguments. Logic may or may not give rise to mathematics, but for science, all we require from logic is that it be useful. Rational arguments are a different story. Like mathematics, they are useful only to the extent they help us make better predictions. But that is where the resemblance stops. Rational arguments masquerade as logic, but often become rationalizations: seductive, but specious.  Unlike mathematics, rational arguments are not sufficiently constrained by their rules to be 100% reliable. Indeed, one can say that the prime problem with much of philosophy is the unreliability of seemingly rational arguments. Philosophers using supposedly rational arguments come to wildly different conclusions: compare Plato, Descartes, Hume, and Kant. This is perhaps the main difference between science and philosophy: philosophers trust rational arguments, while scientists insist they be very tightly constrained by observation; hence the success of science.

In science, we start with an idea and develop it using rational arguments and mathematics. We check it with our colleagues and convince ourselves using entirely rational arguments that it must be correct, absolutely, 100%. Then the experiment is performed. Damn—another beautiful theory slain by an ugly fact. Philosophy is like science, but without the experiment[1]. Perhaps the real definition of a rational argument, as compared to a rationalization, is one that produces results that agree with observations. Mathematics, logic, and rational arguments are just a means to an end, producing models that allow us to make precise predictions. And in the end, it is only the success of the predictions that count.

Additional posts in this series will appear most Friday afternoons at 3:30 pm Vancouver time. To receive a reminder follow me on Twitter: @musquod.

[1] I believe this observation comes from one of the Huxelys but I cannot find the reference.

### Why India is a Modern Country

Friday, April 20th, 2012

–by Nigel S. Lockyer, Director

I am back in India to attend the first International Advisory Committee meeting for the ANURIB project at VECC. It is hard to ignore how rapidly India is changing. But to have some fun with them, I came up with the Top Ten reasons India is a Modern Country.

1. It is Saturday, April 15th, Nabobarsho, the Bengali new year. Poila Baisakh is the first day of the new year and is cause for celebrations and speeches by politicians. A sign of the times was the message was sent out in West Bengal by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to millions of cell-phone users.
2. Katy Perry opened the India Premier League’s opening cricket game….OK, not a reason.
3. Kolkata has just launched its first online radio station
4. Attention squirrel lovers: The India forest department is using satellites to track down giant squirrels. What the heck are giant squirrels? Apparently they look like cats with long tails (2 feet) and weigh about 4-5 pounds. They are famous for jumping 20 feet between branches. The head and body of this scary animal is up to sixteen inches in length, compared to the ten of the Eastern Gray found in the US.  Relax, it is herbivorous!
5. MS Dhoni, the cricket star, just signed a contract worth 200 crore or about $40M. With his TV contracts etc. he pulls in about 700 crore or$140M. Still waiting for his team to win a championship!
6. The AC power adapter in my hotel room is universal. No need to carry around an adapter. Time to return the one CERN DG Rolf Heuer gave me several years ago that was useful about 50% of the time.
7. Recently famous Bengali native Shah Rukh Khan (locally referred to as SRK) was detained in a NY airport because of his name. King Khan, the Bollywood superstar just laughed it off. However we hear the U.S. envoy was called to New Delhi for explanation. The U.S. said they have now invented and are ready to release an automatic South Asian apology machine for such cases—and the software was written by Indians!
8. I couldn’t get a beer in the Mumbai hotel bar after 1:30 AM. Last call!
9. Next evening I ordered a Kingfisher (a national Indian beer and quite good) and all they had was Heineken.
10. Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre (VECC) in Kolkata is starting Phase I of a major new “green field” initiative in Rare Isotope Beam physics called ANURIB in Rajarhat, near the Kolkata airport. ANURIB is building off their present cyclotron driven RIB program. It involves a 100 kW, 50 MeV electron linac driver, a post accelerator, a cyclotron to raise the energy to over 100 MeV per nucleon and then a fragment separator. A very ambitious vision for India and it is getting strong support from the Government of India. Congratulations, VECC!

### Powerless Haikus

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

Jordan is an English major on a Communications co-op term at TRIUMF. When the power went out at TRIUMF, he was asked to write about what it was like. He decided to write it in haiku. He had never written a haiku before. It showed.

I have never written a haiku before. After the power came on, I Googled haikus and these barely count.  Enjoy.

The power is out

There is nothing left to do

Except write haikus

Computers shut off

I forgot to save my work

Many strong expletives

Eyes raised to the ceiling

A brief respite from the screen

It is sunny out?

A brief argument

On the location of Spain

No one can Google

Two scientists turn

Engage in deep discussion

Or maybe shallow

Silent Meson Hall

Punctuated by a laugh

Cannot find the source

The power is back

I am Googling some haikus

Amateurish, I

— Written by Jordan Pitcher (Communications Assistant)

### IceCube non-detection of neutrinos from GRBs

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

In a new paper in Nature, IceCube shows a solid, non-detection of neutrinos from gamma-ray bursts (GRBs). That is, the expected emission of neutrinos if GRBs were the sources of the highest energy cosmic rays was not observed. There had been a generally agreed model of GRB emission, and now it’s essentially ruled out. Cosmic rays remain a mystery…

More personal comments on this in a bit, but let me send along some of the news coverage in the shorter term:

IceCube popular version of the Mystery of the Cosmic Rays

IceCube press release

“Although we have not discovered where cosmic rays come from, we have taken a major step towards ruling out one of the leading predictions,” said IceCube principal investigator and University of Wisconsin-Madison physics professor Francis Halzen.

### SESAME: quand la science ouvre des portes

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

Deux scientifiques pakistanais sont arrivés au CERN en février, au plus fort de la vague de froid. Pendant toute l’année 2012, ils vont travailler en collaboration avec les spécialistes des aimants du CERN, en s’initiant à la technologie et en prenant part aux projets en cours.

Sumera Yamin, physicienne, et Khalid Mansoor Hassan, ingénieur électricien, sont deux scientifiques du Centre national de physique d’Islamabad venus travailler au CERN dans le cadre d’un accord avec le Pakistan.

«Ils se sont immédiatement mis à l’œuvre en nous aidant à concevoir et à assembler de nouveaux aimants pour l’expérience ALPHA, explique Davide Tommasini, chef de la section responsable des aimants résistifs. Ils se sont tout de suite adaptés, comme je l’espérais. C’est incroyable de constater que tous les scientifiques ont la même approche.»

Les deux nouveaux venus participeront également à certaines étapes de la conception d’aimants et aux spécifications techniques du projet SESAME (Centre international de rayonnement synchrotron pour les sciences expérimentales et appliquées au Moyen-Orient), le premier centre de recherche d’envergure internationale de la région.

Sumera Yamin (à gauche) et Khalid Mansoor Hassan (à droite) avec un aimant quadripôle dans une des zones expérimentale du CERN.

SESAME a été fondé sous les auspices de l’UNESCO en prenant le CERN pour modèle. Il compte actuellement parmi ses membres le Bahreïn, Chypre, l’Égypte, l’Iran, Israël, la Jordanie, le Pakistan, l’autorité palestinienne et la Turquie. Le but est de d’établir des ponts au niveau culturel et scientifique entre des sociétés diverses et contribuer à une culture de paix à travers une coopération internationale en science. Le projet vise aussi à prévenir et même renverser la fuite actuelle des cerveaux en établissant un centre de recherches de pointe en sciences des matériaux, physique, chimie et sciences de la vie.

Le CERN soutient cette initiative en partageant son expertise, notamment en ce qui concerne le système d’aimants. En 2010, les directeurs du CERN et de SESAME ont signé un protocole de coopération. Les spécialistes du CERN pourront également former le personnel de SESAME si ce dernier en fait la demande.

Le Pakistan est membre de SESAME et participe également à la collaboration CMS au CERN. Il souhaite aider le CERN à promouvoir le projet SESAME et, dans le même temps, acquérir une expertise dans la science, la technologie et la conception des accélérateurs pour développer ses capacités nationales.

La construction du bâtiment principal de SESAME, à Allan, en Jordanie, a été achevée en 2008. D’ici à 2015, ce centre de recherche commencera à accueillir des utilisateurs et utilisatrices originaires de l’ensemble de ses États membres et leur permettra de venir pour de courtes périodes afin de réaliser des expériences particulières, avant de retourner dans leur pays pour procéder à l’analyse des données. Le but est de créer un environnement scientifique stimulant qui encouragera les meilleur-e-s scientifiques et technologues de la région à y rester, voire même y revenir.

Les deux scientifiques s’attèlent donc à la tâche d’apprendre tout le processus de la construction des aimants pour l’anneau principal de SESAME. Ils travaillent en ce moment sur la conception et les spécifications devront être finalisées pour la fin du printemps. Le but est de pouvoir construire et/ou assembler la plupart des composantes au Moyen Orient. En même temps, le Pakistan mise sur des scientifiques comme Sumera et Khalid pour acquérir une expertise en technologie des accélérateurs et développer ses propres applications dans le domaine médical.

«Nous bénéficions de l’aide et de l’attention de l’ensemble du groupe, assure Khalid. Dès que nous soulevons une question, quelqu’un propose de prendre un café pour en discuter!»

Mais ces conversations autour d’un café ne sont pas la seule expérience qu’ils retiendront de leur séjour au CERN. «C’est un apprentissage différent, ajoute Sumera, plus participatif, plus ouvert.» Sumera et Khalid apprécient l’environnement multiculturel du CERN, et c’est avec plaisir qu’ils s’imprègnent au quotidien de nouvelles connaissances.

Pauline Gagnon

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### SESAME: opening doors through science

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

Two Pakistani scientists arrived at CERN in the midst of the cold snap in early February. They will spend the coming year working in collaboration with CERN’s magnet experts both learning the technology and contributing to ongoing projects

Sumera Yamin, a physicist, and Khalid Mansoor Hassan, an electrical engineer, both from the National Centre for Physics in Islamabad, came to CERN thanks to an agreement with Pakistan.

“They started contributing right away, helping us build new magnets for the ALPHA experiment,” says Davide Tommasini, Head of the resistive magnet section. “They fitted right in, just like I had expected. It is amazing to see that all scientists share the same approach.”

The two scientists will also contribute to some aspects of the magnet design and technical specifications for the SESAME project, the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, the first major international research centre in the making for the region.

Sumera Yamin (left) and Khalid Mansoor Hassan (right) next to a quadripole magnet in one of CERN test areas.

SESAME was set up on CERN model and likewise, it is being developed under the auspices of UNESCO. Its current members are: Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, Palestinian Authority and Turkey. The goal is to build scientific and cultural bridges between diverse societies, and contribute to a culture of peace through international cooperation in science. It also aims at preventing or even reversing brain drain by enabling world-class scientific research in basic properties of materials science, physics, chemistry, and life sciences.

CERN is supporting this initiative by sharing its expertise in particular for the magnet system. In 2010, CERN and SESAME Directors signed a collaboration protocol. CERN’s experts will also deliver training to SESAME personnel on request.

Pakistan is both a member of SESAME and the CMS collaboration. Its goal is to support CERN in its effort in favor of SESAME, and, by the same token, build expertise in accelerator science, technology and design for domestic use.

SESAME main building was completed in Allan, Jordan in 2008. By 2015, this research center will start welcoming scientists from all member states. As a “user facility”, scientists will come for short visits, perform a specific experiment and return home for the data analysis. The goal is to create a motivating scientific environment that will encourage the region’s best scientists and technologists to stay in the area or to return if they have left.

The two scientists are now hard at work learning how to build magnets from scratch for the SESAME main ring. They are working on the design and the specifications should be finalized by late spring. The goal is to have most components produced and/or assembled in the Middle East. In parallel, Pakistan counts on scientists like Sumera and Khalid to build expertise in accelerator technology and develop its own skills for medical applications.

“We are getting a lot of help and attention from the whole group”, says Khalid. “Every time we need to discuss something, someone proposes we go for coffee!” But discussing everything and nothing over coffee is not the only memory they will have of CERN. “This is a very different learning experience,” adds Sumera, “more cooperative, more open”. Both Sumera and Khalid enjoy the multicultural environment and are happily soaking up all the new knowledge.

Pauline Gagnon

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### Name these brands/plants? Name these particles!

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

I don’t know the original source, but there’s an image that has gone semi-viral over the past year which challenges the reader to identify several brand names based on their logos versus plant names based on their leaves. (Here’s a version at Adbusters.) The point is to contrast consumerism to the outdoors-y/science-y education that kids would get if they just played outside.

This isn’t the place to discuss consumerism, but I don’t agree with idea that the ability to identify plant names carries any actual educational value. Here’s my revision to the image:

Adapted from the original “Name these brands/plants” image (original source unknown).

On the right we’ve encoded all of the particles in the Standard Model in a notation based on representation theory. In fact, this is almost all of the information you need to know to write down all of the Feynman rules in the Standard Model (more on this below).

Tables that the one above are a compact way to describe the particle content of a model because the information in the table specifies all of the properties of each particle. And that’s the point: whether we name a particle the “truth quark” or the “top quark” doesn’t matter—what matters is the physics behind these names, and that’s captured succinctly in the table. Science isn’t about classification, it’s about understanding. I leave you with this quote from Feynman (which you can watch in his own words here):

You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird… So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing — that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.

## Addendum: naming those particles

For those who want to know, the particles in the table are, from top down:

1. The left-handed quark doublet, containing the left-handed up quark and left-handed down quark
2. The anti-right-handed-up quark
3. The anti-right-handed-down quark
4. The left-handed lepton doublet, containing the left-handed electron and left-handed neutrino
5. The anti-right-handed electron (a.k.a the right-handed positron)
6. The anti-right-handed neutrino
7. The Standard Model Higgs

SU(3), SU(2), and U(1) refer to the strong force, weak force, and hypercharge. Upon electroweak symmetry breaking, the weak force and hypercharge combine into electromagnetism and the heavy W and Z bosons. Here’s how to read the funny notation:

1. Under SU(3): particles with a box come in three colors (red, green, blue). Particles with a barred box come in three anti-colors (anti-red, anti-green, anti-blue). Particles with a ‘1’ are not colored.
2. Under SU(2): particles with a box have two components, an upper and a lower component. That is to say, a box means that there are actually two particles being represented. More on this below. Particles with a ‘1’ do not carry weak charge and do not talk to the W boson.
3. Under U(1): this is the “hypercharge” of the particle.
4. The electric charge of a particle is given by adding to the hypercharge +1/2 if it’s the upper component of an SU(2) box, -1/2 if it’s the lower component of an SU(2) box, or 0 if it is not an SU(2) box (just ‘1’).

As a consistency check, you can convince yourself that both the left- and right-handed neutrinos carry zero electric charge. Note, also, the fact that we’ve written out left-handed and right-handed particles differently. This is a reflection of the fact that the Standard Model is a chiral theory.

Finally, I said above that the table of particles almost specifies the structure of the Standard Model completely, the additional pieces of information required are:

1. Which of the above particles are fermions and which are scalars (the gauge bosons are implied)
2. Write down the most general ‘renormalizable’ theory (we write only the simplest interaction vertices)
3. Specify the pattern of electroweak symmetry breaking (the Higgs)
4. Specify the flavor symmetries (three of each type of matter  particle)

From this one can write the complete mathematical expressions for the Standard Model. One then just has to fill in the observed numerical values to be able to calculate concrete predictions for actual processes.

### Travelling 10,000 miles for breakfast

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

–by T. “Isaac” Meyer, Head of Strategic Planning & Communication

I am on location in Kolkata, India, at the Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre (VECC). It took me 36 hours travel time to get here from Vancouver, including two red-eye plane flights. It feels like 42 deg C outside and the computer firewalls are configured so that I cannot send or receive e-mail from my laptop. And the tap water is not potable.

Why did I come?

To have breakfast with scientific peers from around the world (RIKEN in Japan, ESS in Sweden, Cockcroft Institute in the UK, VECC and IUAC and BARC here in India, and so on). Okay, not just breakfast. Also a few lunches and dinners.

Of course, we actually came together to participate in the International Advisory Committee meeting for VECC and its proposed ANURIB project and the subsequent VECC/TRIUMF semiannual collaboration meeting. It still sounds like a cliché, but the reason we attend these meetings in person is because of the sidebar conversations.

At a single breakfast meeting with three colleagues, I got updated on the budget situation for UK science, learned why Higgs spectroscopy is so intrinsically compelling that its worth several billion dollars, reviewed Japanese recovery from the earthquake & tsunami, debated “coal smuggling” in West Bengal, speculated on the international flow of in-demand talented workers in accelerator physics & engineering, and re-learned the rules for scoring in cricket. I also drank four cups of masala tea.

In global computing and networking, the experts still say, “Never underestimate the bandwidth of an overnight package stuffed full of DVDs.”

In global science, I’d say, “Never underestimate the amount of collaboration & partnership that is supported by flying people 10,000 miles to share a coffee break.”

25-acre Rajarhat site of VECC...soon to contain a world-leading electron accelerator and isotope laboratory

### Communicating Science and Its Value, pt. 1

Monday, April 16th, 2012

In the past I’ve made it known that I’m a politically-engaged person — and not without some commentator controversy. While I generally prefer to keep my science and politics separate, they inevitably intersect in the matter of governmental funding of scientific research and conflicts between groups driving the national dialogue on science policy. Unfortunately, scientists are often left behind in this conversation, resulting in a serious disconnect with the public.

It’s not hard to find embarrassing stories about how Americans are ignorant of basic scientific knowledge: roughly half believe dinosaurs and humans coexisted, 1 in 5 adults believes the Sun revolves around the Earth, and when it comes to acceptance of evolution, we’re out of step with much of the world. On many topical issues — global climate change, nuclear energy, genetically-modified foods, vaccination, cell phones — an abundance of misinformation drowns out the science, or at least muddies the waters. And even worse, many Americans don’t understand how scientists draw their conclusions, i.e. the scientific method, nor do they apply it in their daily lives. A much-quoted survey from 2007 found that 70% of Americans are “scientifically illiterate” (though that distinction, as well as the statistic, is misleading: scientific literacy is not on a binary scale).

I realize that I’m probably preaching to the choir here: You all have made the effort to read a physics blog written by physicists about highly technical topics, which suggests to me that you are either totally awesome science enthusiasts or… scientists. Thanks for reading! 🙂 But from whom does the rest of the country not following Quantum Diaries get its science information?

Well, for starters, there’s Hollywood and the entertainment industry, where scientists are commonly portrayed as mad/evil or awkward geniuses — people to fear or mock, perhaps, but not befriend or idolize — and scientific accuracy is typically thrown out the window in favor of more explosions. There’s also the Internet, where people can and do say pretty much whatever they want without the need for peer review or, you know, facts. Do you remember when unfounded fears that CERN was going to create an Earth-devouring black hole ricocheted around the web? Although the Internet is an incredible resource for information and personal research, it’s treacherously inconsistent. The public also learns about science from the news/media, where sensationalism is routine and “fair and balanced” reporting means giving equal time to scientific fact and wild speculation. Recently, a chemistry publication entitled “Evidence for the Likely Origin of Homochirality in Amino Acids, Sugars, and Nucleosides on Prebiotic Earth” made headlines when, in its final two sentences, the author suggests that advanced, potentially dangerous, dinosaurs could exist elsewhere in the universe. Take a guess on how the media covered it. Unfortunately, most Americans don’t learn about science from scientists, and given the abject mess of these other sources, it’s a wonder that a quarter of the population is “scientifically savvy and alert.”

Well, an explainable wonder: America is the only country in the world that requires undergraduates to take a year of general education — and it makes a difference! Education works, who would’ve guessed? 😀 However, there is serious cause for concern, particularly with regards to K-12 education. One of the great legacies of the Bush Administration, the “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001, tied federal funding of public schools to student performance on annual, standardized tests in math and reading (laughably, the law stipulates that all children are to perform above average). Perhaps not surprisingly, educators under pressure are more likely to “teach to the test” to improve scores at the expense of other subjects and skills, such as science and critical thinking. Should we worry about what will happen when the NCLB generation makes it to Physics 101…?

It’s worth pointing out that a post-secondary education in physics, for instance, is also subject to distorted priorities: Our training is extremely focused on skills needed to continue in Academia and fundamental research, while statistics show that a significant fraction of us go on to careers in industry immediately after grad school, and that the most-used skills are not properly developed in the curriculum. Furthermore, in the long term, most of us end up working outside of Academia. Are we better off learning electrodynamics from a glorified textbook on special topics in mathematical methods? I think not.

More to come!

— Burton 🙂