Friday, November 17, 2017

Max the Demon and the Entropy of Doom

My readers know I've complained/bemoaned repeatedly how challenging it can be to explain condensed matter physics on a popular level in an engaging way, even though that's the branch of physics that arguably has the greatest impact on our everyday lives.  Trying to take such concepts and reach an audience of children is an even greater, more ambitious task, and teenagers might be the toughest crowd of all.  A graphic novel or comic format is one visually appealing approach that is a lot less dry and perhaps more nonthreatening than straight prose.   Look at the success of xkcd and Randall Munroe!   The APS has had some reasonable success with their comics about their superhero Spectra.  Prior to that, Larry Gonick had done a very nice job on the survey side with the Cartoon Guide to Physics.  (On the parody side, I highly recommend Science Made Stupid (pdf) by Tom Weller, a key text from my teen years.  I especially liked Weller's description of the scientific method, and his fictional periodic table.)

Max the Demon and the Entropy of Doom is a new entry in the field, by Assa Auerbach and Richard Codor.  Prof. Auerbach is a well-known condensed matter theorist who usually writes more weighty tomes, and Mr. Codor is a professional cartoonist and illustrator.  The book is an entertaining explanation of the laws of thermodynamics, with a particular emphasis on the Second Law, using a humanoid alien, Max (the Demon), as an effective superhero.  

The comic does a good job, with nicely illustrated examples, of getting the point across about entropy as counting how many (microscopic) ways there are to do things.  One of Max's powers is the ability to see and track microstates (like the detailed arrangement and trajectory of every air molecule in this room), when mere mortals can only see macrostates (like the average density and temperature).    It also illustrates what we mean by temperature and heat with nice examples (and a not very subtle at all environmental message).   There's history (through the plot device of time travel), action, adventure, and a Bad Guy who is appropriately not nice (and has a connection to history that I was irrationally pleased about guessing before it was revealed).   My kids thought it was good, though my sense is that some aspects were too conceptually detailed for 12 years old and others were a bit too cute for world-weary 15.  Still, a definite good review from a tough crowd, and efforts like this should be applauded - overall I was very impressed.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Taxes and grad student tuition

As has happened periodically over the last couple of decades (I remember a scare about this when Newt Gingrich's folks ran Congress in the mid-1990s), a tax bill has been put forward in the US House that would treat graduate student tuition waivers like taxable income (roughly speaking).   This is discussed a little bit here, and here.

Here's an example of why this is an ill-informed idea.  Suppose a first-year STEM grad student comes to a US university, and they are supported by, say, departmental fellowship funds or a TA position during that first year.  Their stipend is something like $30K.  These days the university waives their graduate tuition - that is, they do not expect the student to pony up tuition funds.  At Rice, that tuition is around $45K.  Under the proposed legislation, the student would end up getting taxed as if their income was $75K, when their actual gross pay is $30K.   

That would be extremely bad for both graduate students and research universities.  Right off the bat this would create unintended (I presume) economic incentives, for grad students to drop out of their programs, and/or for universities to play funny games with what they say is graduate tuition.   

This has been pitched multiple times before, and my hypothesis is that it's put forward by congressional staffers who do not understand graduate school (and/or think that this is the same kind of tuition waiver as when a faculty member's child gets a vastly reduced tuition for attending the parent's employing university).  Because it is glaringly dumb, it has been fixed whenever it's come up before.  In the present environment, the prudent thing to do would be to exercise caution and let legislators know that this is a problem that needs to be fixed.