Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Various items - solids, explanations, education reform, and hiring for impact

I'm behind in a lot of writing of various flavors right now, but here are some items of interest:

  • Vassily Lubchenko across town at the University of Houston has written a mammoth review article for Adv. Phys. about how to think about glasses, the glass transition, and crystals.  It includes a real discussion of mechanical rigidity as a comparatively universal property - basically "why are solids solid?".  
  • Randall Munroe of xkcd fame has come out with another book, Thing Explainer, in which he tackles a huge array of difficult science and technology ideas and concepts using only the 1000 most common English words.  For a sample, he has an article in this style in The New Yorker in honor of the 100th anniversary of general relativity.
  • There was an editorial in the Washington Post on Sunday talking about how to stem the ever-rising costs of US university education.  This is a real problem, though I'm concerned that some of the authors' suggestions don't connect to the real world (e.g., if you want online courses to function in a serious, high quality way, that still requires skilled labor, and that labor isn't free).
  • Much university hiring is incremental, and therefore doesn't "move the needle" much in terms of departmental rankings, reputation, or resources.  There are rare exceptions.  Four years ago the University of Chicago launched their Institute for Molecular Engineering, with the intent of creating something like 35 new faculty lines over 15 years.  Now Princeton has announced that they are going to hire 10 new faculty lines in computer science.  That will increase the size of that one department from 32 to 42 tenure/tenure-track faculty.   Wow.

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