Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Long odds: Proposals and how we spend our time

We just completed the two-day kickoff symposium of the Rice Center for Quantum Materials.  It was a good meeting, and the concluding panel discussion ended up spending a fair bit of time talking about the public policy challenges facing basic research funding in the US (with some discussion of industry, but largely talking about government support).  Neal Lane is an impressive resource, and lately he and Norm Augustine have been making the rounds in Washington trying to persuade people that it's a dire mistake to let basic research support continue to languish for the foreseeable future.

Over the December/January timeframe, I'm spending time on several grant proposals.  Three of them have a priori odds of success (based on past years, dividing awards by the number of initial proposals) less than 5%.  Now, obviously longshots have their place - you can't win if you don't play, and there is no question that thinking, planning, and writing about your ideas has utility even if you don't end up getting that particular award.  Still, it seems like more and more programs are trending in this awful positive feedback direction (low percentage chance per program = have to write more grants = larger applicant pool = lower percentage chance).  Many of these are prestigious center and group programs that are greatly desired by universities as badges of success and sources of indirect costs, and by investigators as sources of longer term/not-single-investigator support.  When yields drift below 5%, it really does raise questions:  How should we be spending our time, one resource that we can never replenish?  Does this funding approach make sense?  When the number of potentially "conflicted" people (e.g., coauthors/collaborators over the last four years for every person affiliated with a big center grant) exceeds 1000 (!), who the heck is left to review these things that has any real expertise?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Science and sensationalism: The allure of superlatives and bogus metrics

I helped out a colleague of mine today, who was fact-checking a couple of sentences in a story that's going to come out in a large circulation magazine (that shall remain nameless).  The article is about graphene, and in draft form included a sentence along the lines of "Graphene is 1000x better at conducting electricity than copper."  That sounds great and exciting.  It's short, simple, and easy to remember.  Unfortunately, it's just not true unless accompanied by a huge asterisk that links to a page full of qualifications and disclaimers. 

The challenge:  Come up with a replacement that gets the main point across (graphene is a remarkable material) without being a gross distortion or dissolving into scientific jargon. 

My response:  "Graphene is an electrical conductor that rivals copper and silver, and is much lighter and stronger."  At least this is true (or moreso, anyway), though it's longer and doesn't have an easy-to-remember number in it. 

The search for a simple, one-sentence, exclamatory pronouncement can lead science journalists (and university public relations people) down a dangerous path.  Often really great science is simply more complicated than a sound-bite.  Moreover, the complications can be fascinating and important.  It takes a special journalist to recognize this.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Interesting superconductivity developments

Three superconductivity-related things during the crazy end-of-semester time crunch. 

First, the paper that I'd mentioned here has been accepted and published in Nature Materials here.  That one reports signatures of superconductivity in a single atomic layer of FeSe on SrTiO3 at around 100 K.  This result is not without controversy, as it's very hard to do standard transport in single layers of material like this in UHV, and usually people want to have multiple signatures besides resistivity when claiming superconductivity.

In that vein, there is a recent preprint that reports superconductivity above 190 K (!) in H2S under high pressure.  The belief by the authors is that this is conventional superconductivity, related to classic work over many years (see here and here for example) by Neil Ashcroft and others discussing superconductivity in metallic hydrogen (possibly responsible for things like Jupiter's large magnetic field, for instance).  Because of the challenges of doing ultrahigh pressure measurements in diamond anvil cells, this, too, has only resistivity apparently dropping to zero as its main evidence for superconductivity.  It looks pretty cool, and it will be interesting to see where this goes from here.

Lastly, in Nature there is a paper that looks at trying to understand recent measurements of copper oxide superconductors when hit with ultrafast laser pulses.  The argument in those pump-probe experiments is that smacking the cuprates while in the normal state is enough to produce apparent transient superconductivity (as inferred on picosecond timescales with another optical pulse used to measure a quantity related to the conductivity).  The new paper claims that the initial pulse produces lattice distortions that should favor higher temperature superconductivity.

The common thread here:  There continue to be tantalizing hints of possible higher temperature superconductors, but in all of these cases it's really darn hard to do the measurements (or at least to bring multiple tools to bear).  For a nice look at this topic, see these recent words of wisdom.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Writing style, "grand visions", and impact

It's hard for me to believe that over eight years (!) have passed since I wrote this.  Recently I've been thinking about this again.  When writing proposals, it's clearly important to articulate a Big Picture vision - why are you working on a problem, where does that problem fit in the scheme of things, and what would the consequences be if you achieved your goals?  Some people's writing styles tilt more in this direction (e.g., our team is smart and highly accomplished, and we have a grand vision of a world set free by room temperature superconductors - this path will lead us there) and others lean more toward the concrete (e.g., our team is smart and highly accomplished, and we've thought carefully about an important problem - here is what we are going to do in some detail, what the challenges are, and what it will mean).  I tend to lean toward the latter.  It's not that I lack a grand vision - I'd just rather underpromise and overperform.  Still, it's clear that this doesn't always pay dividends.  (Of course, the best of all possible worlds is to promise a grand vision and actually achieve it, but that's extremely rare.)

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Beautiful mechanical design, + excellent outreach

Yesterday I came across this video series, put up by "EngineerGuy" Bill Hammack.   It shows a mechanical analog computer originally designed by Michelson for building up Fourier series (sums of sinusoids) of up to twenty integer multiples of a fundamental frequency.   Moreover, you could use this machine to go backwards, and mechanically do Fourier decomposition of periodic waveforms.  It's really wonderful.  I would love to have one to use as a teaching tool, and I'm sure some enterprising person will figure out how to 3d print all the relevant parts (except the springs and cables), or perhaps build one out of Lego. 

I also wanted to point out Hammack's other videos.  This is great outreach - really accessible, clear, well-produced content.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Chapter epigraphs from my book

Because of the vagaries of British copyright law and their lack of the concept of "fair use", I am not allowed to use clever little quotes to start the chapters of my nano textbook unless I have explicit permission from the person or their estate.  Rather than chasing those, I've sacrificed the quotes (with one exception, which I won't reveal here - you'll have to buy the book).  However, on my blog I'm free to display these quotes, so here they are.

  • "I would like to describe a field, in which little has been done, but in which an enormous amount can be done in principle. This field is not quite the same as the others in that it will not tell us much of fundamental physics (in the sense of, “What are the strange particles?”) but it is more like solid-state physics in the sense that it might tell us much of great interest about the strange phenomena that occur in complex situations. Furthermore, a point that is most important is that it would have an enormous number of technical applications. What I want to talk about is the problem of manipulating and controlling things on a small scale."  - Richard Feynman, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom" lecture, Engineering and Science 23, 22 (1960)
  • "More is different." - Phil Anderson, Science 177, 393 (1972).
  • "Solid state I don’t like, even though I started it." - Wolfgang Pauli, from AIP's oral history project
  • "How do we write small? ... We have no standard technique to do this now, but let me argue that it’s not as difficult as it first appears to be." - Richard Feynman, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom" lecture, Engineering and Science 23, 22 (1960)
  • "God made solids, but surfaces were the work of the devil." - Wolfgang Pauli,  quoted in Growth, Dissolution, and Pattern Formation in Geosystems (1999) by Bjørn Jamtveit and Paul Meakin, p. 291.
  • "The importance of the infinitely little is incalculable." - Dr. Joseph Bell, 1892 introduction to Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet
  • "Magnetism, as you recall from physics class, is a powerful force that causes certain items to be attracted to refrigerators." - Dave Barry, 1997
  • "If I were creating the world I wouldn’t mess about with butterflies and daffodils. I would have started with lasers, eight o’clock, Day One!" - Evil, Time Bandits
  • "Make big money!  Be a Quantum Mechanic!" - Tom Weller, Science Made Stupid (1985). 
  • "I am an old man now, and when I die and go to Heaven there are two matters on which I hope for enlightement. One is quantum electrodynamics and the other is the turbulent motion of fluids. And about the former I am rather more optimistic." - Horace Lamb, 1932 address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, as cited in Eames, I., and J. B. Flor. "New developments in understanding interfacial processes in turbulent flows." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 369.1937 (2011): 702-705
  • "Almost all aspects of life are engineered at the molecular level, and without understanding molecules we can only have a very sketchy understanding of life itself." - Francis Crick, What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery (1988), p. 61
  • "Be a scientist, save the world!" - Rick Smalley 

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Refereeing redux.

I was also asked:

"I would like to see a post addressing how to handle a paper sent back by the editor for another round of reviews. Of particular interest to me: what do you do if you notice errors that escaped notice (or weren't present) in the original manuscript? What if the authors answered your issues well in the response letter, but didn't include those modifications in the manuscript? What advice would you have if the authors have clearly done the experiments and theory well, and the results are worth publishing, but the writing/figures are still not at a publishable level following their revisions?"

My answers are probably what you'd guess.  I try hard to identify possible errors the first time through refereeing a paper.  If I spot something on the second round that I'd missed, I try to be clear about this by writing something like "Also, on this pass through the paper, I had the realization that [blah blah] - my apologies for not catching this on the first round, but I think it's important that this issue be addressed."  Again, I try hard not to miss things on the first pass, since I know how annoying it is from the author side to be hit with apparently new objections that could have been addressed in the first revisions.

I've definitely had cases where the authors wrote a great response and then made almost no changes to the manuscript.  In this situation, I usually say, "The response letter was very convincing/clarifying regarding these points, and I think it is important that these issues are discussed in the manuscript itself."  I would then, in the "comments to the editor" part of the report, re-emphasize this, in the hopes that the editor will push the authors about it.

If the manuscript contains good science but is written at an unpublishable level (rare, but not unheard of), I try to point this out diplomatically (e.g., "The science here is very interesting and deserving of publication, but I strongly recommend that the presentation be revamped substantially.  I think swapping the order of the figures would make the story much clearer.").  Again, to the editors, I might make more specific recommendations (e.g., "This manuscript absolutely needs to be closely edited by a native speaker of English" if it's full of truly poor grammar).

The basic strategy I follow is to try to evaluate the science and offer as useful and constructive feedback as possible (given that I can't spend tons of time on each refereeing assignment), in the kind of professional and courteous tone I'd like to read in reports on my own work.