Archive for October, 2010

Of course, some people will accuse me of an anti-intellectual bias.  Some will even be so cynical as to say “you got yours, now you want to deny others the same opportunity.  Neither of these charges has any merit.

It is an axiom that more education is better.  It is one truth that many people in academia and government believe should be accepted without question.  For there is nothing more despised in our world than ignorance.

Ask yourself “Who stands to benefit?”  While this may be seen as a cynical question to ask, it is always fair game to question the motivation of those pushing for any policy.  We hear from politicians all the time that for the US to maintain the technological competitive edge that makes us a world power, we need to stimulate more interest in science and engineering among our younger generation.

Another truism is: “That which is measured is done”.  To measure the effectiveness of any program, we need to measure the output and compare it to the output before the program was in place.  If the belief is that more science and engineering PhDs make us more competitive in the world marketplace, then we had better do something to increase the number of science and PhD graduates.

Companies also believe that they need a certain baseline number of PhDs, so the accountants figure out what that means, and ten set hiring targets.  Many times, we find PhD chemists doing simple analytical services that only a few years ago were handled by either technicians or BS-level chemists.

Then, the same accounting staff figures out that it is much less expensive to have the universities do the core research that the companies were doing.  This is because of the federal grants and the benefits that the companies are no longer responsible for.  Sure, they toss some research dollars to academia, but that is still far less costly than keeping the researchers on staff.  Or worse, they ship the jobs overseas as a recent C&EN article reports.  This is common in the more high tech areas, such as pharmaceuticals and electronic materials.  That these companies have decided to do the research in China with the resulting loss of any intellectual property rights is of little consequence.

Unfortunately, in recent years the PhD degree in science has rapidly become equivalent to the college football player – a resource for the school that gains them both money and glory (in the form of how many grants and papers are awarded to an institution).  As a matter of fact, the recent C&EN rankings of graduate Chemistry/Chemical Engineering programs strongly suggest that these 2 factors are at the top of the list when professors evaluate PhD programs.  When the usefulness runs out, the “graduate” is left to his own devices to find suitable employment, most recently with little success.

So colleges and universities need a steady stream of sweatshop workers to do the “grunt” work – of course they say “we need more”. They do not care if the graduate can actually find a job they trained for – they got their grant and papers published so they have no use for you.

Just about the only way in the current economic situation that one can find suitable employment is to work with an advisor who has many industry contacts and has funding from the industry. Get him to get you connected – or it’s a steady stream of post-docs that actually lead nowhere.  And there is a limit to a post-doc career path – many federal programs will not accept post docs more than 4 years after graduation.

Want to get into academia? Good luck with that. Do the math. Each professor has 2 or more grad students, and not every one of them can get a research (teaching) gig at a university. Someone is going to be left out in the cold.

And then you cannot just assume your professor will expend too much effort in hopes of getting you an industrial gig. This is especially if you lack the people skills. I have seen many professors give half (or less) effort on behalf of their “problem children”.

Of course, the foreign-born always have the potential to go back to their home countries. That is, if their home country is ready (economically AND culturally) for an influx of individuals who have maybe just become too Americanized – this can be a problem for many Asian cultures. 

A good third option is to create your own job – however, it is probably really only open to those who have substantial experience in the for-profit sector AND those who have the guts to try to make a go of it. But then again, if you are not the type who “plays well with others”, you fill find it a very difficult path.

So, do we need more PhDs? Probably, but not in the numbers we are producing now. More is not always better.  A large supply of unemployed PhDs does absolutely nothing to advance the competitiveness of the nation.


The Second Law

I was lucky enough to be taught my Thermo by Hank Van Ness and Mike Abbott.  I am sad to say, that they both were better teachers than I was a student.  My grades in the subject were atrocious; but throughout my professional career I was seen as the go-to guy in when it came to VLE calculations.

Almost all engineers and scientists have some training in Thermodynamics, and almost all of us know the Four Laws of Thermodynamics.  In reality, there are only 3 laws and an assertion.  The assertion is sometimes referred to the 0th Law of Thermodynamics, and can be summed up by the statement Temperature Exists.

Everyone should be familiar with the First Law – Conservation of Energy.  As any Chemical Engineer can tell you, if you model a system and you cannot complete a simple energy balance, the model is basically worthless.  This is comparable to the mass balance.  It is so fundamental that it is to be taken for granted that any system that violates either of these truths is not to be trusted.

The Third Law, the one that states that the absolute entropy is zero for all perfect crystalline substances at absolute zero, is rarely invoked by the vast majority of scientists and engineers.  It probably comes into play for the wizards who dabble in extreme cryogenic temperatures, but for the rest of us in the room temperature realm, it matters little.

But the Second Law of Thermodynamics, that is another question all together.  The Second Law puts limits on changing heat into work.  It is the reason why perpetual motion devices can never work.  It is fundamental to our understanding as to how the universe works.

Entropy – the measure of disorder – surrounds us.  Look at your desk: the piles of papers there did not spontaneously grow by themselves.  You added to them probably until you needed to find something in one of them.  At that time, you probably spent far too long going through the papers until you found what you were looking for.  That expenditure of work – sorting through papers – was fighting the disorder that is your desk.  Of course a filing system is a method to contain entropy, but it takes effort and energy to stick to it.  Creating order out of chaos takes work and it is a constant struggle.

While there are many who can recite the textbook definition –the total entropy of any system can never decrease – there are few who understand its philosophical underpinnings.

We believe in the Second Law because we have observed it to be true.  After all, your mug of tea does not spontaneously warm up as it sits on your desk, just as your can of Coke does not get colder without some outside influence.

Of course, we see this in the expanding universe.  As the universe expands, disorder increases.  This is not rocket science, it is common sense.  There are some hardy souls in the astrophysics community who are on the search for “dark matter”.  Seems the visible mass floating around out there is not enough to eventually slow the expansion of the universe.  If they can find enough of the missing mass, there might be some point at which the universe would begin to collapse to a new singularity, followed by another “big bang”.

If there is enough mass for the universe to begin contracting, wouldn’t that violate the Second Law?  A contracting universe would imply a spontaneous decrease in the entropy of the entire universe.

So the question boils down to: Is the Second Law of Thermodynamics truly a universal Law, or is it a byproduct of an observable expanding universe?

If it is indeed a universal law, then the search for “dark matter” is pointless, because there will not be enough mass to induce the universe to contract in on itself.

However, if sufficient “dark matter” can be found to ensure the collapse of the universe to a new singularity, then the Second Law is simply an artifact of observation.

It will be interesting to see what develops.

An Epiphany

I have been labeled either a skeptic or a denier of the science of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) by people who call themselves “serious” scientists.  The polite ones called me a skeptic; the not-so-polite ones have called me a denier.  But all of that has changed as of today.  I have come to see the folly of my ways and can only hope to be forgiven and welcomed into the flock. 

I have been told that since I am not an expert on all things atmospherically related, I had no right to question the findings of people who would not have a job save for a crisis they manufactured.  So I have come to understand that “Shut up!” is a valid argument after all.

 And since the leaked (or stolen) e-mails of last November are of limited utility because they were stolen (or leaked) and violated the “privacy” of a few professors who were gaming the system and generally showing them to be a petty, nasty bunch who would stoop to intimidation to get their way, we are not to question the contents.  So I have been reeducated to understand that Freedom of Information is only for crusaders against conservatives and not the other way around.  I truly did not know that intimidation was a valid part of the scientific method.  Mea culpa!  Mea maxima culpa!

But the weight of the intimidation and professional ruin made me stop to reconsider my heresy.  After all, who am I to question those world renowned pillars of the scientific community?  I am just a PhD Chemical Engineer with about 25 years worth of experience across a wide range of industries.  I have been doing mathematical modeling for almost my entire career; my MS thesis was on modeling acid rain processes.  So obviously, I am unable to formulate an opinion without being told what it should be.

However, rather than bore you with my credentials, I want to return to the story of my conversion, and how I came to see the light.

It happened when I began to embrace the whole concept of “settled science” and its implications for the very survival of the invasive species known as Homo sapiens.  Of course, I now am devoted to the mantra of consensus and hope to build one in the very near future.  Because consensus is what we as a collective humanity so desperately desire.  And we all know that we deserve to obtain our desires, because to deny us our desires is to deny the human spirit.

Never mind that collectivism has failed spectacularly every time a person or group has tried to implement it; the seething, redneck, uneducated masses never know what is good for them until told by their more enlightened, intellectual betters.  But this time it’s different.  Since we only have good intentions at heart, we know our motives are pure and this time it will work.

I implore you all to embrace AGW as settled science because the consensus says so!  Resistance is futile and our elite leaders certainly know what’s best for the rest of us.  We, the unwashed, unannointed, the untouchables should bow to our new, benevolent masters.

Which brings me to the consensus I am trying to build: Since the science is settled, I think this would be a good time to eliminate all future funding for climate science.

After all, if the science is settled, what would be the point of any future research?  To know more about something we already admit to knowing everything about?  That is just wasteful and diverts resources to other, more pressing problems.  Besides, if we continue to fund more research, then we might discover that something is wrong and it would throw the whole works into question.  That will simply not do – I have committed my future on the science being settled and learning something that could discredit the settled science would shake my faith in my leaders who assured they knew more than the rest of humanity.  The potential to shake my newly found faith is so discomfiting it might make my head explode.

In fact, since all of our current knowledge is “settled science”, what is the point of continued federal funding of any research whatsoever?  In fact, all further research can accomplish is to unsettle the science.  And we know that would be a bad thing, because my leaders pray at the altar of “settled science”.

With fewer federal dollars flowing to the universities, we certainly do not need the current overproduction of PhD students, so I would suspect that we could limit the entry into grad programs based on a “constant replacement” number of PhDs that either retire or die.  But why bother?  Since additional research can only undermine the foundation of our knowledge that is “settled science”.

But I can acknowledge that there may be a few remaining heretics that want to continue to have cushy university research jobs.  More is the pity for you.  You have stipulated that “settled science” is the litmus test by which we decide what topics are worthy of a dispensation, and the elites now decide which research may continue.  With fewer topics available, the role of the university professor would be reduced to – horrors! – actually having to teach undergraduates, since we will need a steady supply of marginally educated drones to make the machinery of the modern word work.  Don’t worry, you won’t need to keep up with advances, because there will be no advances to keep up with.

“Settled science” is now the new path to enlightenment.  How ironic those individuals who profess to be enlightened want to bring back the inquisition and destroy the careers of those who dare to question.  To question their authority is to threaten their orthodoxy.

Forward, my friends, back to the Dark Ages.

If you came here for insights on politics, you came to the wrong place.

This blog is about how science has become politicized.  How politicians have grabbed onto the latest “meme du jour” to figure out how to get people to submit to their will by claiming their nonsense is “science based”.   How science funding is destroying the educational system.  And the economy.

Whether it’s AGW, creationism, wasteful research of the obvious, misrepresentation or misunderstanding of science, there will be no sacred cows spared.

Who knows? We might just have some fun.