A doctorate in the universe

Probably one of the hardest choices I made in college.

The Careers section of Science has an interesting article about specialization in science, by the author of this wonderful grad school guide. I agree that the specialization of science is something people often don’t know about, leading to pop culture icons who seem to be able to do research in completely unrelated fields. And it can have it’s drawbacks. Every few years, another article seems to lament the increasing specialization of science.

But it’s worth pointing out that specialization isn’t unique to science; it seems common in “analytical” fields, for lack of a better term. Most medical doctors end up specializing in residency (and there is a specialty crisis in medicine too). And while people may not think of it, lawyers generally practice in a specific field of law, but unlike a science PhD or medical residency, I don’t think that would show up on just by looking at education. But ask a question about patent law to a civil rights lawyer, and they might not have an immediate answer. And virtually every person in academia has to specialize in their own field.

But like Ruben says, just because we work in a specialty, it doesn’t mean we can’t learn about anything else.

Can Engineers Popularize Science?

This is a very selfish and random post, but it’s an idea I’ve been musing over for a while as I’ve slowly been trying to establish a regular blogroll to get news and ideas. Over the last several years, there’s been much talk about science outreach, the teaching (or reaching out, if you will) of scientific research and concepts to non-scientists. Sometimes you’ll also hear the term “popularization of science” to describe the same thing. And sometimes you’ll hear about engineering outreach, but more often it seems to be wrapped up in the broader idea of STEM outreach. And you almost never hear of “popularization of engineering” to the broader public. The one exception I noticed was in college, when I saw several scholarships and programs that would be marketed to, or only open to, engineering majors. And then despite my previous rant on some of the technical distinctions between science and engineering, I would typically still try to see if I could count as a physics major with some engineering background. It’s not my fault Rice didn’t have a formal applied physics major. Also amusing, I still remember the time someone told me they thought physics was in the engineering school because “it’s so hard, it seems like it should go there” and I felt incredibly satisfied by that statement… this tangent has gone really weird places.

I typically don’t hear of engineers doing science outreach, aside from community service done by large science/engineering companies (in Houston, I think ExxonMobil was a sponsor of the Sally Ride Science Festival) or events sponsored by engineering programs at universities. And they seem nonexistent in the broader pop cultural view of popular science. When people think of “pop science”, it’s a lot of who pops up most on TV, like Neil deGrasse Tyson,  Richard Dawkins, and Carl Sagan and maybe even Richard Feynman for those of an older generation. If you watch more documentaries, then you may know Brian Greene, Michio Kaku, and other people who seem to make the History/Discovery/Science channel actual-science-show-not-a-terrible-show-about-antiques circuit. The one exception is Bill Nye, who seems to be making a comeback in culture as a science pundit. Nye studied mechanical engineering and worked as a engineer at Boeing before he would eventually become the Science Guy. The science blogosphere is also really well-developed and is made up of science writers and scientists who blog in their free time. For the purpose of this article, I looked up “engineering blogs” on Google and came up with no websites with regular postings that still seemed active (excluding corporate blogs mainly meant for publicity).

It’s also interesting to note that the scientists I pointed out, besides Dawkins, all have physics backgrounds. And they’re all either in astrophysics or “theoretical” physics, which is what I typically call “fundamental” (along with random elements of quantum mechanics) or more technically rigorous people consider “quantum gravity”. And while I love reading about astrophysics and think things like string theory and the LHC are cool, it’s strange that pop culture only seems to put those branches in the limelight. They don’t make up the majority of work in physics.

Articles sent to the pre-print site arXiv, by field. Left is total number of articles, right shows the percentage of articles in each year from the field. CS is computer science, hep is “high energy particle physics” (think LHC), the cyan covers a mixture of fields that loosely covers “quantum gravity”, and cond-mat is condensed matter physics.

And the breakdown seems even more clear when you look at membership in physics groups. Dr. Hossenfelder looks at the numbers in Germany:

More data that tells you that the vast number of physicists aren’t working on anything related to quantum gravity can be obtained from the number of members in sections of the German Physical Society. The section on Particle Physics (which includes beyond the standard model physics and quantum gravity) has about 2,500 members. The section on Quantum Optics and Photonics has more than 3,000 members, Physics of Semi-conductors 3,800Low Temperature Physics 1,450Atomic Physics together with Hadronic and Nuclear Physics come to about 3,000, Material Physics together with Chemical and Polymer Physics and Thin Films another 3,500. Not all sections have membership numbers online, so this doesn’t cover the full spectrum. But this already tells you that “most physicists” don’t even do high energy physics, certainly not quantum gravity, and have no business with multiverses, firewalls, or “micro-landscapes of black holes”.

So why does it matter if, say, string theory gets nearly all the limelight? Because it’s not what all of physics is and it’s becoming a PR problem, because people don’t understand what these other fields of physics do. Pop physics books talking about quantum mechanics will often mention how computer transistors work on purely a quantum mechanical level. And that’s true. But making the transistors is very much an act of solid-state physics and understanding how structure and material properties relate to quantum behavior. It’d be like thinking only a surgeon is a doctor, and not the general practitioner you have a check-up with. (This also can extend to science in general. PZ Myers has pointed out that in philosophy of science circles, “science” often just seems to mean physics unless there’s a biology context to the discussion, like evolution.) And these other fields may be easier for non-scientists to relate to. By talking about crystal planes, I can explain why metal is flexible and glass is brittle (and I did this for an open house my department had).

And so this is why I’m confused by how little engineers seem to be involved in the science/tech blogging communities and science outreach. Engineers are definitely at the intersection of scientific concepts and everyday life. This would seem to make them perfect for explaining how science affects people. But aside from Bill Nye, you don’t see much of this. And I really want to know why. Are engineers too busy? Is it because most aren’t in academia, with its obligations of public service and education? Or do people want to hear more from scientists than from engineers?

Happy First Birthday!

Today is the first birthday/anniversary/blogoversary of nontrivial problems! And it just recently got over 500 views (today or yesterday, I’m a bit unsure)! Thank you everyone for reading, following, and commenting.  I’d probably still be working this attempt at outreach even by myself, but it’s nice to know other people read what I write.

I also want to take this moment to plug one of my favorite posts from the first month of the blog, before I got most of my followers and views. It was about a study on the “Pioneer effect”. It also kind of best represents the type of work I would like to produce. It’s based on news stories from other sites, but I also did some research on my own to help synthesize the information together and go a bit deeper. As time goes on, I hope my blogging skills mature and I’ll be able to produce work like that more often. But I’m also glad people read (and hopefully enjoy?) posts where I just try to break down new research findings or just rant about cultural perceptions of science and technology.

Thoughts on Star Trek Into Darkness

So I recently watched Star Trek Into Darkness (and this seems to have won out as the proper stylization) and found myself having strong feelings (or I suppose if I want to get tech blog credit, “feels”) about it. And before you claim I’m overthinking it, or far too much of a Trekkie, let me explain myself

  • I mostly enjoyed the movie in the theater (with some exceptions)
  • I like Star Trek, but I’m probably a “Diet” Trekkie at best since I’ve really only seen The Next Generation (and still technically not all of it), Voyager, and Enterprise and little bits of Deep Space Nine and the original series (and read none of the novels or other things). For Trekkies who generally love DS9 more than Voyager, realize the preference there is related more to by bed time in elementary school when both of those were on. (Wow, I just admitted a bed time on the Internet, that was unexpected. Also, I just learned virtually every episode of every Star Trek series is on Netflix, so this excuse probably doesn’t hold anymore)
  • I do think there’s a difference between a good individual movie and a movie that’s supposed to fit into a franchise

So let’s talk about the experience in the theater as a singular movie. First, the pros. It delivered as an action movie and was a decent science fiction movie. Having only really seen Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock, it was interesting to see him play such a physical character. Spock, Kirk, and Scotty were all great and Scotty was pretty fun to watch when he was off on his own. But let’s also get to the two big things that really threw me off during the movie.

Depicted: A surprisingly accurate view of cold fusion compared to Star Trek Into Darkness

First, the entire opening scene was unintentionally hilarious to me.  The trailer clip of Bones and Kirk running in a gorgeous red rainforest is the start. And that was fine (wow, for once a trailer in recent memeory that didn’t spoil). But it turns out they jump off a cliff because the Enterprise is underwater? We find out the reason the crew is even on the planet is because a volcano is about to erupt and it threatens to wipe out a primitive alien species. Kirk and Bones are running because they stole some sacred scroll from the aliens and the chase would draw the tribe farther away from the volcano. We then find out Spock is in the volcano, preparing a cold fusion device. I’m not joking, that’s official. Okay, that sounds weird because cold fusion isn’t “cold”, it’s just fusion that takes place at like room temperature instead of the temperature inside the heart of a star. Like the arc reactor in Iron Man. That’s cold fusion (plus magic comic book science, but technically cold fusion). But okay, maybe I’ll give it a pass, this is like the far future so maybe it’ll do something like how the US government hoped to use nuclear bombs for constructive purposes. Then we see it go off. And the cold fusion device seems to cause the magma to ice over. Yep, okay, it’s as stupid as I thought. (Slight spoilers immediately after the cut, bigger spoilers further down)

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