Friday, July 22, 2005

The Templeton Foundation

There was an interesting story this morning on NPR about the Templeton Foundation and their efforts to fund physics research. The Templeton folks are interested in the interface between science and spirituality, and sponsor the Templeton Prize (which is intentionally larger than the Nobel). The occasion for this story is an upcoming conference at Berkeley in honor of Charles Townes' 90th birthday, sponsored by the Templeton Foundation. I know about this because, like pretty much all of my peers, I received an announcement about a Young Scholar's competition being held at this meeting.

I have no problem with increased dialog between science and religion, as long as people remember where the boundaries are. "God did it" is a rather inquiry-ending proposition to hold in a scientific investigation, so I prefer to assume that non-supernatural explanations exist for the world around me and go from there.

Anyway, the story is interesting food for thought. Physicists talked to who are skeptical of the Templeton Foundation's motives include Sean Carroll and Lawrence Krauss.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Science and today's politics

Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, has decided to threaten NSF-funded scientists who authored a peer-reviewed, published study on climate change that suggests that fossil fuel consumption influences global warming. Specifically, he has requested that these scientists turn over all records of their work to his committee, where (quoting Barton's letter to the director of the NSF) "The term 'records' is to be construed in the broadest sense ... whether printed or recorded electronically or magnetically or stored in any type of data bank, including, but not limited to ... summaries of personal conversations or interviews ... diaries ... checks and canceled checks ... bank statements." For more information, see the New York Times and BBC articles on the subject.

It is a huge understatement for me to say that I find this disturbing. Asking scientists to essentially open their personal financial records to him because he doesn't like their research is appalling. We all sign "conflict of interest" disclosure forms when we accept research funds - threats of congressional subpoenas are not the appropriate way for Barton to voice concerns about the objectivity of researchers! Indeed, given that Barton's campaigns through the years have been massively financed by the oil and energy industries, if anyone's objectivity should be of concern, it's not that of the scientists.

I am genuinely concerned that even writing about this in a public forum potentially puts my future funding at risk. It is only a short step from Barton's current actions to some future move to political litmus tests for research funding (i.e. Why should tax dollars go to someone who holds views contrary to those of the current administration?). To some degree this is already happening. Read this (go to the full report link (pdf) and read page 26.).

The whole point of the peer-review system is that scientists have the appropriate training to evaluate the work of other scientists! At a time when American preeminence in science and engineering is slipping (pdf), and when research funding in real dollars (let alone as a percentage of GDP) is being cut, is politicizing the process at all a smart thing to be doing?

Friday, July 08, 2005

Interesting recent papers....

Here are a couple of interesting papers I've seen in the last week or so:

Doh et al., Tunable supercurrent through semiconductor nanowires, Science 309, 272 (2005).

Very pretty use of InAs semiconducting nanowires grown by the now-usual VLS approach, and contacted by aluminum pads. When the Al goes superconducting, carriers in the InAs (controlled via field effect with a gate) become superconducting, too, via the proximity effect. Basically this results in a tunable Josephson junction with the InAs nanowire as the controllable weak link. Gorgeous, as is most of the stuff that comes out of Delft.

Ghosh et al., Zero-bias anomaly and Kondo-assisted quasi-ballistic 2d transport.

A preprint out of the Cambridge folks that looks at very clean mesoscale 2d GaAs/AlGaAs systems and argues that there is evidence (a temperature-dependent zero-bias peak in the differential conductance) that points to Kondo-assisted transport in these systems. The remarkable thing is that the orthodox Kondo effect relies on localized spin degrees of freedom, and there shouldn't be any in these materials. The authors suggest a more exotic (2-channel!) Kondo effect involving localized two-level defects. Very intriguing data, though the interpretation is likely to be controversial, if past 2-channel Kondo reports are any indication.