Search This Blog

Monday, May 17, 2010

Graduate School in the Sciences

We had some Northwestern graduate students over today, who talked about their research with dielectrics for capacitors and transistors, as well as flexible video displays for a whole host of applications in the next decade or so. But another topic that came up was what is it like in graduate school?

Something that surprised many of the high school students is that graduate students get paid to go to school! This is absolutely true! Grad students in the sciences and mathematics generally are given assistantships, either teaching or research, when they come to a graduate college. For instance, during my first year of grad school I took my own classes and was a teaching assistant for one of the main introductory physics courses for premeds (essentially like AP Physics B). My tuition was paid for, and I got a salary - not a huge amount of money, but certainly enough for an apartment, living expenses, food, and so on. After my first year, I then was in a research group and hired as a research assistant by a professor who then became my adviser. I then completed my graduate courses, received my Masters Degree in Physics, and then lived on site at Fermilab for a couple years as we ran our detector and collected data sets for dissertations. I never paid a cent for tuition, and actually made enough to save and get married shortly before graduating with a doctorate. Not a bad deal!

Keep this in mind since most of you in Chem-Phys are considering technical majors and most will end up going to graduate school. Try to get involved in research as an undergraduate. Talk with professors, postdocs and graduate students, and make connections in areas of interest. There are so many neat opportunities in college, and many of those can prepare you for graduate school and beyond!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Genius in the Group-Think Era?

One other old post that relates to an issue we are discussing in class, as we think about complex systems, emergence and fractal geometry. Benoit Mandelbrot is another example of someone who was able to create a paradigm shift in the field of mathematics. But he was a loner in many ways, someone who was outside the mainstream of mathematics, and who was willing to think outside of what the traditional textbooks taught. He was a self-admitted 'oddball' who did not fit into the usual academia environment. Many others who changed their fields were also more isolated and were willing to question the textbooks of their day - Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, etc. These individuals were also willing and able to take the brunt of criticism from the "establishment" who were disturbed by the very thought that new knowledge in the field could exist. I do worry that we may have more limitations on such thinkers and shakers, and paradigm-shift makers, in the future because of too much connectivity that promotes 'group-think.' Like anything, problems tend to arise when focus goes too much in one direction. We need a mix of group think, but also individual time to question and be skeptical of the group. This has become a business model for companies like Google, where staff must take a rather substantial percentage of time to work on individual projects outside the company driven projects...they realize it is important to have a mix of thoughts and keep creativity and innovation at the forefront of what they do. xHere is a post from December of 2008:

Found an interesting article off Yahoo. It asked the question if Albert Einstein is the last great genius. This is a legitimate question in an age where 'group-think' is becoming the rage. There are obvious benefits to mass collaboration, largely making use of Web 2.0 tools and applications, and the best set of examples I have found are in the book Wikinomics.

One would like to think that individuals can still make a difference. I suspect this will still be the case, but less frequently than in the past. Ideas can blossom so quickly once numerous people share concepts and possible solutions to problems, but I would argue that there lies a chance that group-think may, in some cases, have one idea catch on that leads the pack on a path that ultimately runs into a dead-end. The notion of 'trends' and 'fads' hold true, and the 'latest craze' idea can attract most minds of the group. It may turn out that it will take an individual or small subset of the larger group to break from the group mindset, think outside the box, and develop an original idea that becomes the next focus of the group. Perhaps a good structure to a mass collaboration is to have numerous subsets working on different aspects of the problem from different points of view, so as to resist the temptation to fall into a 'fad' mentality. This falls in line with 'Mediciexity.' One example of the 'fad' mentality may be string theory. The concept of the 'string' is attractive to solving the ultimate questions of the universe, and over the past couple decades many of the most promising and powerful theoretical and mathematical minds have become part of that 'group.' However, all these years later there is not a viable, i.e. testable, theory that fits into the experimental realm of physics. Time will tell if this mass collaboration is worth it in the may end up one brilliant idea, from one brilliant person, completely separated from the string theory group, will end up being correct. Individuals may still change the world.

Perhaps the notion of individual genius making its mark in the modern mass collaboration age is evolving to the point of the genius required to form the right group. Web 2.0 technology has been applied in an unprecedented way by Barack Obama and a small, few person group of advisers. The creativity, forward-thinking plan and then the discipline and message-delivery by Obama himself has taken a young, smart, but relatively unknown and inexperienced politician whose future was supposed to be a decade away (according the group-thinking of the more traditional political parties)to the presidency. It still takes individuals or very small groups to develop a concept and start the larger group/collaboration, so perhaps this is where we will see genius more often than not.

There will always be a place for individuals, so we need to be careful not to push young minds, which tend to be the most creative and open to new ways of thinking, entirely into a group-think mindset...they still need to be encouraged to think for themselves, be skeptical of the group, and not be afraid to offer up 'outside the box' thinking and creative solutions. I want my students, at least, to never shy away from individual interests and ideas, and to not just go along with the latest fad if they don't agree with it. As always, I am not a proponent of going with one way of doing something, but rather using variety; not to fall into a 'whole language only' or a 'phonics only' way of learning, but rather taking the good things from each and using them. Variety, in this case group-think and individual-think, and the good that comes from each, is the spice of the new Web 2.0 life.

Problems that will Require Science for Solutions

This is a post I put on my other blog in December of 2008:

When one thinks about the variety of problems we face as both a national and global society, it becomes clear that science will be looked to to develop answers and solutions to many of these problems. It is also clear that we need to think of this as science in the broadest sense, as all areas and disciplines will need to contribute. This goes to the heart of the definition of consilience, as numerous areas of knowledge and expertise will need to mix together if we are to make solid progress in finding effective solutions.

To get the ball rolling, consider the following broad issues/problems. All of these will require contributions from a variety of scientific and technical areas of study...multidisciplinary tasks galore:

* Quality of air and water
* Fresh water supplies for much of the west and southwest
* Disposal of solid wastes (everyday garbage)
* Modernization and maintenance of national power grid
* New energy sources, better energy efficiency and conservation
* Climate change (both at an understanding level as well as preparing for consequences)
* Improved electronic encryption algorithms as we digitize everything (medical, financial records, etc)
* Transportation infrastructure
* Telecommunications networks, both development and maintenance
* Continued improvement and progress in computing technologies
* Mass electronic data storage
* Medical treatments for the disease of your choice. This includes stem cell issues, genetic engineering, drug R&D, and so on.
* Military related technologies
* Improved search technologies for earth-crossing asteroids (something I have yet to hear policymakers talk about publicly, but there are literally many thousands of sizeable objects that cross earth's orbit we should try to identify and monitor)
* Food supplies and quality control
* Disposal of nuclear wastes, nuclear proliferation issues
* Nanotechnology in general
* Security technology of all types
* Robotics
* Implementation of educational strategies and structures based on brain research and learning theory to best prepare the next generation of workers
* Continued development of network theory, game theory, etc., and progress in our understanding of complex systems for physical and social applications
* Materials science and development

I encourage comments with additional major issues that are technical in nature and subject to progress via scientific avenues; this is not at all a complete list. What we cannot forget is that further inclusion of other areas of study are intimately connected with just about everything on the above list, such as ethics, state/national/international law, economics, political science, sociology, public policy, military concerns, all areas of engineering, business/industry, job creation, international relations, anthropology, and countless subfields that fall under these larger areas of specialization.

The quicker we as a society recognize and realize the complexity, multidisciplinarity, and difficulty level of finding both short-term and long-term solutions to problems found in any of these areas, the better off we will be. The next president will need to address all of these during the course of an administration, as will every other prominent political figure in every nation across the globe. We will not be able to ignore any of them, and these loom as multi-generational issues that need to be solved. This will require leaders who are able to connect with the masses and communicate the seriousness of the issues, as well as move his or her nation toward a mindset of long-term planning and policy, something we seem to not be very good at.

We need to find and create massive numbers of people who are trained in the all of the sciences, mathematics, engineering and technology, and all the other fields mentioned above to remain competitive in a global marketplace, as well as the maintain and improve the quality of life for future generations. It is challenging work, but do we have any other choice but to address these challenges? Does our consumption-based and entertainment-driven society have the backbone and means to deal with these issues? Will we leave the world in better condition for our kids and grandkids than what we inherited?