Monday, December 30, 2013

Links and thanks at the end of another year

Thank you, readers, for another year.  It is gratifying to hear from you and to meet people who have found this blog useful and informative (or at least worth noticing, which is something these days).  My posting frequency slumped quite a bit at the end of 2013 because of various writing commitments (a couple of which continue).  I'm hoping to have some more to say in the coming year, and I hope that there are opportunities out there to get some of the coolness of condensed matter and nanoscale physics to the general public as well as my more specialized readers.

Here are a few end-of-year links for your enjoyment:
  • Sometimes people put amusing or snarky comments in the acknowledgments sections of papers.  Who knew?  (Full disclosure:  It's possible that the "M. Fleetwood" acknowledged in this paper is a musician.)
  • Scientists and mathematicians have their own special brand of humor.  (I love the Mandelbrot joke.  This does omit one of my favorites:  What is purple and commutes?  An Abelian grape.)
  • Bob Laughlin is jumping back into physics aiming to make a big splash:  He basically is arguing (see this preprint) that there really is no such thing as a Mott insulator.  That's a rather radical statement at this point, given (for example) experiments with optical lattices that seem to show that the Mott insulator appears to exist as a realizable state.  (I'm sure there are ways to argue that those experiments are not really in the thermodynamic limit and involve interactions that are not the Coulomb interaction, etc.)
  • Snowflakes are still cool.  (A repeat, but worth it.)

Friday, December 20, 2013

I was plagiarized - what happened, and how I handled it.

Last week I received an email from a scientist asking me for a copy of one of my articles, and the correspondent pointed out:  "On a tangent it would appear that your work is highly prized by fellow researchers.  I include your work and that of an admirer.  Not sure if its worth chasing this up or not?" while attaching a copy of one of my group's papers, and a copy of a paper published here.  I was surprised to find that the other paper (published in August of 2013) was a copy-and-paste plagiarism job, approximately 70% from our paper and 30% from my former student's doctoral thesis.  This was not some minor issue of someone "borrowing" a paragraph - this was a full blown appropriation of all of the words and claims, including a discussion of what future work could be done at Rice (!) on these systems.  Nothing subtle here - no possible legitimate excuse.

What I did next probably cost me a huge bump in my readership.  If I wanted to goose my numbers,  I should have pointed this out to the folks who run Retraction Watch.  I did plan to do so.  However, I actually followed their own advice on how to handle the issue, at least broadly.  After notifying my former student with an email having the subject "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery", I used the "contact us" link on the publisher's website to tell the editor what I'd found, explaining that this paper needed to be retracted.  You notice that I don't link to the paper in question.  That's because instead of retracting it, the publisher "disappeared" the paper.  The link I had doesn't work anymore; the paper no longer shows up in the online table of contents; it's as though the paper never existed at all.  Not what I expected to happen, but on the scale of possible outcomes, not the worst.

The authors (a student and professor) are from some tiny college in India.  I couldn't find email addresses (or really any history of publication) from either one, but I was able to get an email address for the department head there.  I emailed him (explaining what I'd found, and how in the US I would have contacted someone at his university with a title like "research integrity officer"), and was pleasantly surprised to get a response within a day, agreeing that this was "terrible", and saying that he would take it up with the faculty member and the "proper authorities".  This morning, I received an apologetic email from the professor, placing all of the blame on his student.

Some observations:
  • Even if the student submitted the paper, the professor has some culpability - his name is on it, and someone paid the publication charges (a whopping $75US, which tells you something about the journal).
  • It is abundantly clear that the paper was never seen by any reviewer of any kind.  It literally jumped, in mid sentence in a grammatically awful way, from one spot to another in the copy/paste from our paper, skipping over all the surface chemistry stuff.  The discussion included from the thesis mentioned Rice explicitly.  No one who read this would have thought that this work was done at the home institution of the supposed authors.
  • "Disappearing" a paper is wrong - a legit journal should retract the work, or publish an expression of concern, or something, not make it look like this never happened.
  • I suppose I should be happy with the outcome (paper gone, publisher chastened, professor at least disciplined somehow by his chair), and given the lack of academic footprint of the student and professor, I'm not sure there is any point in mentioning them by name - I'd rather resign them to obscurity.
  • This was so absurd (absolute copying without any attempt to hide it, in an obscure "journal"), my reaction really was one of almost amusement.  My former student's reaction was definitely more one of anger, which is understandable given that it was his thesis that was being stolen.
We'll see what comes next.  I suppose I should be flattered - this is a sign that I've made it, right?  Like some weird kind of peer review?  My group's work is worth stealing.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Another workshop + some links

It's been a very hectic end-of-semester, between classes, research, and writing.  Thank all of you for your replies concerning power outages.  Perhaps recurring power problems are actually some secret motivator to get all of us to work on alternative energy research - I'll invent an arc reactor just to guarantee reliable power.

Right now, my colleagues and I here at Rice are hosting another workshop, this one on heavy fermions and quantum criticality.  For those who don't know, "heavy fermions" are found in materials where there are particular magnetic interactions between mobile charge carriers and localized (usually 4f) electrons.  Think of it this way:  the comparatively localized electrons have a very flat, narrow band dispersion (energy as a function of momentum).  (In the limit of completely localized states and isolated atoms, the "band" is completely flat, since the 4f states are identical for all the same atoms.)  If you hybridize those comparatively localized electrons with the more delocalized carriers that live in s and p bands, you end up with one band of electron states that is quite flat.  Since \(E \sim (\hbar^2/2m*)k^2\), a very flat \(E(k)\) would be equivalent to a really large effective mass \(m*\).  Heavy fermion materials can have electron-like (or hole-like) charge carriers with effective masses several hundred times that of the free electron mass.   These systems are interesting for several reasons - they often have very rich phase diagrams (in terms of magnetic ordered states), can exhibit superconductivity (!), and indeed can share a lot of phenomenology with the high temperature superconductors, including having a "bad metal" normal state.  In the heavy fermion superconductors, it sure looks like spin fluctuations (related to the magnetism) are responsible for the pairing in the superconducting state.

Quantum criticality has to do with quantum phase transitions.  A quantum phase transition happens when you take a system and tune some parameter (like pressure, temperature, doping, etc.), and find that there is a sharp change (like onset of magnetic order or superconductivity) in the properties (defined by some order parameter) of the ground state (at zero temperature) at some value of that tuning (the quantum critical point).  Like an ordinary higher temperature phase transition, one class of quantum phase transitions is "second order", meaning (among other things) that fluctuations of the order parameter are important.  In this case, they are quantum fluctuations rather than thermal fluctuations, and there are particular predictions for how these things survive above \(T = 0\) - for example, plotting properties as a function of \(\omega/T\), where \(\omega\) is frequency, should collapse big data sets onto universal curves.  There appears to be an intriguing correlation between quantum critical points, competition between phases, and the onset of superconductivity.  Fun stuff.

A couple of links:
  • Higgs doesn't think he would have gotten tenure in today's climate.  
  • Elsevier is still evil, or at least, not nice.
  • A higher capacity cathode for Li-ion batteries looks interesting.
  • NIST has decided to award their big materials center to a consortium led by Northwestern. 

Monday, December 02, 2013

Quick survey of my readers at R1 universities

I'm trying to gather some information, informally.  If you're at a tier-1 research university in the US or Canada, please tell me how many power failures your university has had this year, or in a typical year.  By "power failure", I mean a campus-wide outage lasting at least a second.  It's better if you can mention the name of the university.  (Rice readers, I already know the answer for us - no need to chime in.)  Follow up:  if you know, does your university have big uninterruptible supplies for particular facilities or buildings?  Thanks.