Monday, February 27, 2012

Doubting the dangers of mercury poisoning

         I haven't posted in a while. That's because two weeks ago I received my PhD. This was much to my relief and also to those around me who wondered if I'd ever finish (though scary enough, six years to completion is becoming the norm). Along the way I had many, many doubts about my project, myself, and whole host of other personal introspective moments. In the end they were healthy ones, much in the same way that challenges to your views on life will make you a little more robust. This is not always the case, since many people can break down permanently through self-doubt. Like sports, some forms of stress are good, others bad. No-one ever said breaking your leg will make your bones stronger. Neither do people become mentally tougher thanks to relentless psychological torture.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Science specialization

We spend most of our lives in academia specializing in our chosen field, and I wonder if it's all a ruse. There's an old joke about a professor telling their students "As I learn more and more about less and less, eventually I will become an expert in nothing." Funny, but do we unconsciously accept this calculus as fact or is the reality far different?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Idea quote

Ideas come arrive at you like buses. Their schedule is not under your control, but if you wait in the right place they will arrive and you will recognize them when they come. Don't chase the one you just missed; be patient and another will be with you soon enough.

Does posting on a blog count as research?

When publishing a paper one criterion is that all submitted data must be original. A second criterion is data cannot appear in any prior publications (basically a subset of the first criterion). It doesn't seem clear whether posting original research online, such as on a personal blog, is counted as breaking this second rule. I have no idea. Going to look into this.

It's too bad if this is the case, as publishing online quickly to your personal website might be a good way to have some instant feedback. Most professors will set up a correspondence with a co-author or discuss results at meetings. The first solution is a little closed door for my liking, the second is expensive and also closed door, in the sense conferences costs hundreds to attend. I'm not advocating that all labs publish on blogs, since for some areas publishing your data can be a dead giveaway to your entire project, assuming the idea is more important than the work. Then again, it could provide a shortcut for a 'me first' discovery claim.

My hope since the recent percolation of dissent against Elsevier, (ignited by Gower), there could be a similar bleed-off of productivity in the blogosphere the way the Hollywood writer's strike led to more shorts on YouTube, i.e. Childrens Hospital by Ron Cordry and Dr. Horrible's Singalong Blog, by Joss Whedon. Recall a few years ago when Perelman posted his proof of the Poincare conjecture on arXiv for free, essentially the same as if he had posted it on a personal blog (but with a wider circulation). Is Perelman such an isolated case to not happen again? Science is mostly about bragging rights. You don't double your personal salary for making a new discovery (although more grant money is awarded to you).

I believe both writers and scientists work well in a creative environment, and unnecessary copyright laws are stifle the free flow of ideas that science is supposedly about. Emphasis on the free. Since  the whole idea behind science is you can't predict where the next big hit will come from you'd better keep your options open and minimize expensive subscription fees.

Once upon a time the only access anyone had to journals was in their university library. (Additionally personal subscriptions by professors were common, but usually just to one journal). Point is, the public is allowed access into to a university library. No-one checks your ID when you walk in. Now that online journals are the norm, paper subscriptions are being canceled or discontinued. If access to these journals isn't freely open on-campus, then a logon ID will be necessary. Hence the irony is online publishing has the potential for a more restrictive access than the prior print era. Also if rising subscription costs rise, it could mean medical students only have access to medical journals, environmental scientists have access to analytical stuff, etc, and barriers rise. From a top-down view we look like a highly divided, honeycombed community.

My thoughts are not 100% organized here, and will remain so until I can post an example of my own research I want to share in this way. Oh, there certainly is some, but I'll have to sort through it. 

Environmental categories

First post, hopefully not the last.

Ok, so I already have another blog, but this one is going to be about science and science things that come to mind.

I was talking with a co-worker earlier today about the dangers of mercury (those real versus imaginary). No time to get into details on that, but mercury is not as dangerous as people sometimes say. Yes, I'm a heretic. But we got talking about other pollutants such as PCBs and arsenic. Also there's the story about the Sudbury ON nickel smelting stack that killed all the trees around the city. Their solution was build the smoke stack higher. Low and behold the immediate damage of the pollution was abated. And it got me thinking: we can divide atmospheric pollutants into two kinds, those that specifically benefit from being dispersed (type A) and those which ought to be contained (type B). Examples of type A pollutants are sulfur dioxide or ozone (though debatable). In trace enough quantities some chemicals are not harmful, but at higher doses can kill readily. Type B include carbon dioxide, which is not harmful when condensed, but of course when dispersed globally causes planetary warming. Type A might also include aerosols, as the more finely divided they (in air) are the more dangerous it is to breathe.

The challenge then is to decide what other chemicals cause more damage from being condensed rather than dispersed. Are radioactive isotopes more dangerous sitting in barrels under bedrock, or should we to slowly dilute them with time? Recall U235 is quite harmless at trace quantities, but at 100% purity...
A lot hinges on how dangerous trace quantities of these materials are. These are very empirical numbers that get revised constantly. Still, it could be a nice launching point for policy making, assuming it hasn't been done already. Note to self: update this post after a more thorough online search.