Monday, July 24, 2006

What the...?!

I thought I'd seen it all this evening when I opened my email to find an extensive warning email about laser pointer safety (!) from the SPIE (presumably sent to me because I'm speaking at an upcoming meeting, not because they think I'm a danger to myself and others when armed with a laser pointer). Remember, laser pointers are all fun and games until somebody loses an eye. This warning actually did include the sentence "NEVER stare directly into the beam of a laser pointer!". Whew! Good thing they warned me, in case my advanced degree hadn't given me sufficient critical thinking skills to reason that out for myself. The last line of the email made clear the real reason for sending it. They boldly declaim that any person using a laser pointer at an SPIE event but not adhering to the outlined safety protocols is personally liable in the event of injuries, and the SPIE is not liable. I consider this direct observational proof that our society has too many risk management and personal injury lawyers.

That paled compared to my reaction to this story, though. It would appear the Purdue University has done a thorough and careful investigation of claims of research misconduct in the case of Rusi Taleyarkhan, the scientist who claims to have used sonoluminescence of deuterated acetone to produce table-top-scale fusion. In the spirit of scientific openness and transparency, Purdue has decided to not make public the result of its investigation. So, either Taleyarkhan is legit, and Purdue is content to let his reputation suffer, or they think he's a fraud, but are content not to tell the scientific community, or some mysterious third alternative. What on earth is Purdue's administration thinking with this? Did they assume noone would notice?

7 comments:

Incoherent Ponderer said...

I am turning into regular commenter, but I am really enjoying this CM-exp oriented blog. Not many of those out there.

The "Rusi" story gets curiouser and curiouser.
I may have not been following all the details, but controversy started when he was at ORNL and Nature or Science was trying to decide whether or not to publish their results while another group *at ORNL* requested not to publish them since they tried to reproduce them and failed. Considering collaborative effort at most government labs, this is rather strange to have two groups to be in such a striking disagreement. Nature (or Science?) editors decided to publish it anyways. I wonder if it's the first time the whistle about potential fraud was blown well before publication, but journal didn't act on it.

Then Purdue hired Rasi guy, despite all the controversy. A rather strange hiring decision as there are plenty of younger and successful scientists out there not involved in highly controversial scandals. Which reminds me - there's another case I heard about when a university hired a postdoc (in biophysics) who was implicated and "convicted" in data "fudging", fully aware of his reputation.

Then there was this whole controversy at Purdue, with university investigation. But what really surprised me is that Putterman, who seemed to be suspicious of Rasi from the start, decided to become co-PI on a federal grant with Rasi. I guess this is the only way he could get close to research to figure out what is what.

And now it is Putterman who is pushing for disclosure of university investigation, claiming the use of government funds makes it their legal responsibility. I personally think he should appeal to their ETHICAL responsibility, but he has solid legal grounds as it appears federal funds paid for a portion of his student salary, and that's enough, even though the grant was never acknowledged properly.

Weird, weird stuff... Sort of like the cold fusion, Schon and fighting stringers - a terrible highway accident that you just can't help following. But somehow Korean cloning scandal gets more coverage. Physics loses to biology once again! :)

Incoherent Ponderer said...

I just discovered wikipedia has the whole story...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bubble_fusion

Doug Natelson said...

Thanks for the comments! I'm adding you to my blogroll (that's intended as a compliment, rather than some sort of punishment, btw.).
That's some very interesting information that I didn't know (Putterman and Taleyarkhan as co-investigators).

As you point out, hiring decisions can be weird sometimes. I know of one example in our own field of someone who has multiple controversies associated with him. No hint of impropriety here on his part - just some high profile results (in two different areas) where (in both cases) people disagree very very emphatically about the interpretation of the data. However, he publishes in high impact places, gets cited a ton (because his results are so controversial), and brings in research funding, so presumably his department is happy, whether or not he actually turns out to be right.

Honeychurch said...

I got the SPIE email too, and the thing that got me was that:

"In California, it is a criminal misdemeanor to shine a laser pointer at individuals “who perceive they are at risk.” "

But obviously it's OK to shine them at people who are ignorant of the risk...

However I have some sympathy with SPIE here as I've sat in numerous talks where people (and usually senior Professors) shine those pointers around willy nilly, and it's often those same senior people who have the shiniest new (and probably most dangerous) blue and green devices.

Oh and seeing as SPIE is an optical engineering society one would think that nearly everybody at their conferences would have a solid appreciation of optical safety, but alas I very much doubt it!

DM said...

The truly relevant fact here is that, for the typical 2-4 mW laser pointer, you would have to stare into it for far longer than your blink reflex will allow in order to actually be hurt by it. Not that you'd hear this from anybody with a legal department. You're more likely to be hurt by a laser pointer if somebody throws it at you.

Which might happen, so give a good talk, Doug.

And, by the way, the green ones are probably not more dangerous. They look brighter because your eyes are more efficient at detecting green, but they actually produce about the same irradiance as a red one (less than 5 mW, typically). On the other hand, they are usually heavier, and therefore make better projectiles.

DM said...

p.s. insert disparaging comment about SPIE here.

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