who would patent the atomic bomb?!?!

March 28, 2008 at 8:29 am | | news, science and the public, science community, stupid technology

The US Government would. Alex Wellerstein at Harvard has compiled some of the 2,100 patents that came out of the Manhattan Project … secret patents. Here’s a great one:


Ah, the METHOD FOR PRODUCING, SEPARATING, AND PURIFYING PLUTONIUM. Better patent that one so no one else does it in their basement and sells plutonium on their own. Right.

I hear an interesting piece on NPR about this story. My favorite part was the realization that spies could have taken advantage of these patents, even though they were secret, by submitting their own patents: the Patent Office would then basically reveal they already have a similar patent. Ha! Good luck for the US that no one was smart enough to try that!

I’m sure there’s a smart reason to patent the frikkin’ atomic bomb while you’re making it, but I still don’t know that reason.


March 19, 2008 at 8:15 am | | news, science and the public

acc.jpgOne of the greatest science-fiction writers of all time, Arthur C. Clark, died today at his home in Sri Lanka. Not only was he a great “hard” sci-fi writer, but he shaped our scientific world by promoting the use geosychronous orbit, which is essential to global communication today.


Are graduate student stipends too low?

March 7, 2008 at 10:37 am | | grad life, news, stipends

According to a article in the Stanford Daily, over 60% of graduate students at Stanford consider finances “stressful,” and over 40% consider graduate school “a financial risk.” Source. These figures are apparently from the Graduate Student Council’s 2007 survey of graduate student life, which unfortunately I could not find a copy of on the GSC website.

I did some investigating myself. According to the Stanford Registrar’s “Guide to Graduate Student Life,” the estimated living costs (per quarter) of a Stanford graduate student are:

Housing (Rent, Utilities, Furnishings): $2,941

Food: $1,835

Personal (toiletries, entertainment, and clothing): $856

Transportations (Fares, Parking, Insurance, and Vehicle Expenses): $300

Medical (Insurance, Co-payments, and Meds): $766

Books (For courses and outside research): $591

Total: $7,289/quarter ($29,156/year)


So, according to the Stanford Registrar’s office, the estimated living expenses for a graduate student are $7,289/quarter ($29,156/year). In chemistry since we generally don’t take classes after our first year and our P.I.’s pay for almost all research expenses, we’ll consider a chemistry (or natural sciences) living expense (minus books) to be $6,698/quarter ($26,792/year).

The minimum graduate Research Assistantship at Stanford (which is what the Chemistry Department pays for us as a stipend) is $6,953/quarter (or $27,812/year). This is between a shorfall of $336/quarter (or $1,344/year) from the registrar’s estimated expenses and a surplus of $255/quarter (or $1,020/year) from the chemist’s expenses.

Of course, we’re TAXED on our stipends, and the amount of federal tax we owe on our standard RAship (based on the 2007 tax tables for $27,812 – $5,350 standard deduction) is $2,587/year. That brings our annual salary down to $25,225. This is a shortfall in either scenario.

Political Science Update: New Hampshire Primaries

January 9, 2008 at 3:30 pm | | news, political science, science and the public

It’s Clinton for the Dems, and McCain for the GOP.

Like I did with Huckabee, I dug around to see where McCain stood on science. I was glad to find that he opposes the politicization of science. Source. That is, he accepts that humans are contributing to global warming, and that that’s a problem. He accepts evolution. Source. He introduced the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act of 2006, which aimed to improve communication among scientists. His voting record is pro-stem cell research. I can’t figure out whether he wants to grow a budget for scientific endeavors, and his website is still nothing like Hillary Clinton’s website, but I think I’m safe in saying McCain is at least not an enemy to science.

However, he’s been pandering to the Evangelical constituency, and it’s not clear what this might lead to. On the one hand, he’s pushing for energy independence and cleaner energy—although some might buck at this because he supports funding nuclear energy—on the other, he’s hanging out with the Bob Jones crowd who accept 6-day Creationism and believe the Founding Fathers were all devout Christians. Only time will tell.

In the meantime, he would pose a formidable foe to Hillary Clinton, as evinced in the most recent polls taken in December asking who people would vote for between McCain and Clinton:

Fox News: 47% McCain / 42% Clinton
Zogby: 49% McCain / 42% Clinton
CNN: 50% McCain / 48% Clinton


With McCain mildly pro-science and Clinton avidly pro-science, I’d say this poses some risks toward science’s future, but it’d still be better than what’s come before.

Political Science Update: Iowa Caucus

January 3, 2008 at 9:16 pm | | news, political science, science and the public, science community

The Iowa Caucuses have concluded with Obama winning the Dems’ caucus, and Huckabee winning the GOP’s. What do the Iowa Caucuses mean for science? First, the caucuses are not good predictors of who will win their respective party’s nomination. Iowa gets it wrong about as often as it gets it right:

George McGovern finished second in 1972—the year the modern caucus process started—and still won the Democratic nod. When Jimmy Carter won the presidency in 1976, he finished second in the Iowa caucus to “uncommitted.” George H.W. Bush defeated Ronald Reagan in the 1980 caucus. George H.W. Bush finished third in Iowa in 1988 and won the presidency that year. Michael Dukakis finished third in the 1988 caucus and won the Democratic nomination. Bill Clinton took third place in Iowa in 1992, with 3 percent; Harkin won 76 percent. Source.

Nevertheless, Iowa is supposedly important in shaping the candidates’ platforms. It serves as America’s veritable test kitchen for candidates’ White House recipes. (Too much metaphor?) Candidates can try out what works and what doesn’t. Obama tried out the ol’ “time for a change” theme, and it seems to have worked better than Clinton’s “I’ve got the experience,” and Edwards’ “I’ve got the compassion” narratives. Huckabee won by offering up the image of a regular Conservative Christian good ol’ boy, over Romney’s “I’m Mormon, but I like to kill terrorists like the rest of you!” approach, Giuliani’s “I am 9/11” slogan, and John McCain’s “I was tortured once, but I believe in a strong….”

Specifically, as to science, as you’ll recall, Sam kindly pointed out that Obama pitched a pro-science platform, but painted that platform in broad and Monet-esque strokes. And Huckabee avoided science, more or less, aside from saying that he opposed stem cell research. To be fair, I dug around a bit more to see what Huckabee’s views were on science. I didn’t find much more. He appears to reject or withhold judgment as to evolution, claiming the question of evolution is irrelevant to the presidency. (I would disagree with Huckabee here. Acceptance of evolution might indicate an amicable view toward science, particularly in light of all the recent hostility surrounding evolution curricula in schools. And rejection of or indecisiveness toward evolution might even more strongly indicate an ignorance, apprehension, suspicion, or hostility toward science. I would say evolution is a “barometric” topic of sorts.) Also, Popular Mechanics quotes Huckabee as follows with regard to energy and climate change:

a.) “Achieve energy independence by the end of my second term.”
b.) “We have to explore, we have to conserve, and we have to pursue all avenues of alternative energy: nuclear, wind, solar, hydrogen, clean coal, biodiesel, and biomass.”
c.) “We will remove red tape that slows innovation. We will set aside a federal research and development budget that will be matched by the private sector to seek the best new products in alternative fuels. Our free market will sort out what makes the most sense economically and will reward consumer preferences.”
d.) “If we are energy independent, we will be able not just to take care of our own needs and protect our economy, we will also create jobs and grow our economy by developing technologies that we can sell to the rest of the world to meet their needs.” Source.

I’m guessing this was just a response to Evangelicals warming up to the problems surrounding global warming. It doesn’t seem terribly pro-science. That said, to the extent the caucuses have taught the candidates something about science (and it probably hasn’t), my guess is that it told the Dems that a vague science agenda is preferable; and the GOP, that de-emphasizing science in favor of faith is the smart card. For both parties, generalities are better. Some past elections would suggest as much. For instance, Gore had a very specific and detailed agenda, much like (Hillary) Clinton does now, and he lost out to (G.W.) Bush who called Gore’s approach “fuzzy math.” Similarly, Perot didn’t gain cool points against (Bill) Clinton and (not the banana) Dole when he pulled out his chart with a detailed explanation of his plan. (Nevermind whether it was a good plan).

All that aside, what if Iowa has it right this time? What if the general election is a showdown between Obama and Huckabee? So far, it looks like Obama has the lead, at least according to mid-December polls. Here’s the rundown:

Fox News’ poll (biased?): Obama 35% / Huckabee 21%

NBC survey: Obama 48% / Huckabee 36%.Gallup: Obama 53% / Huckabee 42%.

Zogby (who?): Obama 47% / Huckabee 42%.

CNN: Obama 55% / Huckabee 40%.

So if Iowa is any indication—and it isn’t—then science is on the up and up!

political science: conclusion

December 26, 2007 at 12:35 pm | | news, political science, science and the public, science community

I guess Clinton wins the science race. At least so far. Maybe others will catch up before too long.

Do you want to see the candidates debate about science? Maybe there will be a debate someday, if you vote here:

You can check which members of Congress encouraged adequate NSF and DOE science funding here.

Jordan and Kendall mentioned that Popular Mechanics has helped us along the way by compiling quotes from the leading candidates on several geek-oriented issues, including “science/education.” Don’t be fooled by the number of checks by any candidate’s name. They get checks so long as they say something about the issue, no matter how vapid. But check them for updates.

political science part 5: the republicans

December 24, 2007 at 11:17 pm | | news, political science, science and the public, science community

I should be up front about this: I’m not a fan of Republicans right now. But we should give ’em the benefit of our many justified doubts and see if any of the Republican candidates have anything nice to say about science. From Popular Mechanics’ compilation of quotes, we find a few tiny tidbits:

Rudy Giuliani: “Promote science and mathematics through technical certification or an associate degree.”

Mitt Romney: “Emphasize math and science, while promoting innovative approaches such as charter schools and public-private partnerships, to ensure American workers have the intellectual capital and skills to compete in the 21st century economy.”

“Governor Romney will ensure that the workers of the future have the intellectual capital and skills they need to compete in the new global marketplace.”

Fred Thompson: “Encourage students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.”

Wow. This is sad. And this is digging really deep on their websites. All the Democrat candidates said things like this, but I left out those lamest statements.

There, I gave the Republicans the benefit of my doubt. I gave them a big chance to stand up and say, I disagree with the Bush Administration’s anti-science attitude. But they are all basically silent on the topic. And there’s there another side that indicates that they’re science’s antigonists:

Mitt Romney said, “What became clear during the cloning debate is how the harsh logic of an absolute right to abortion had cheapened the value of human life to the point that rational people saw a human embryo as nothing more than mere research material to be used, and then destroyed.” Fred Thompson “opposes embryonic stem cell research.” And Mike Huckabee said, “I am opposed to research on embryonic stem cells.”

And, in general, the Republicans spend a lot more space on their websites complaining about stem cells and lovin’ on Jesus than ever suggesting that they would be even luke-warm toward science.

They all lose the science race. Lose lose lose.

political science part 4: joe biden

December 20, 2007 at 10:34 am | | news, political science, science and the public, science community

I really like Biden: I think he speaks his mind and has a lot of experience with good results. Maybe speaking his mind sometimes gets him in trouble for not being politically correct or when his words are taken out of context, but I’m impressed by a politician who doesn’t tip-toe all the time.

I had trouble finding information on science on Joe Biden’s website, but maybe because it has so much impressive information and detailed plans (check out his thoughtful plans for Iraq) and I just got lost. So I emailed his campaign and they responded in a couple days with this (emphasis mine):

Developments in aeronautics, science and technology drive American business and further our place in an ever changing global economy. Joe Biden believes we must make an investment in one of our greatest resources, American innovation, through supporting scientific research. Joe Biden supports stem cell research and he supported the successful effort several years ago to double the NIH budget and believes we should not lose the momentum generated toward cures for diseases of all kinds. He supports continued increased investments and recently joined with those advocating to increase the agency’s budget by 6.7 percent each of the next three fiscal years. Joe Biden also believes that we need a substantial national commitment and would support an Apollo Project of $50 billion to dramatically increase investment in energy and climate change research and technology so that that United States becomes the world leader in developing and exporting alternative energy and energy efficiency technology.

Not too many specifics or detailed plans here, which is a little disappointing. But Biden has demonstrated many years of support for scientific research funding; and his attitude toward science is obviously one of respect instead of the disdain we see from the current Administration.

I think Clinton still wins in the science race, mainly for the details and plans she’s laid out on her website. Regardless, all four candidates I’ve summarized so far (Clinton, Obama, Edwards, and Biden) exhibit respect for science and demonstrate—in their words and their actions—that they would support scientific research efforts in this country during their Presidency and beyond.

political science part 3: john edwards

December 16, 2007 at 1:38 pm | | news, political science, science and the public, science community

Here’s a good introduction to John Edwards’ attitudes toward science and toward the current administration (from the Edwards website): “George W. Bush has presided over the most anti-science administration in American history, censoring research and slanting policy—on climate change, on air pollution, on stem cell research—to advance a narrow political agenda.”

And: “The key to our future success lies in our nation’s labs and testing rooms, but federal funding for physical science research as a share of GDP has been on a 30 year decline. The NIH used to fund four out of 10 grant applications; now it funds less than two out of 10.”

OK, so what would John do for us? His campaign website promises to build a new energy economy while cutting greenhouse-gas emissions, better our primary- and secondary- education system when it comes to science and math, expand access to college, strengthen the internet, provide universal healthcare, and remove political requirements for scientific appointments. Here’s an important paragraph:

Supporting American Ingenuity: The most important factor for America’s future prosperity is investment in education, science, technology and innovation. As president, Edwards will make the Research and Experimentation tax credit permanent. The credit has expired or nearly expired 11 times in the last 25 years, discouraging companies from making long-term commitments to research. Ideological debates at NIH about things like stem cell technology have drained resources from promising research. Edwards will increase spending on basic research at the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health and lift stifling research restrictions. He will also modernize our patent laws—which haven’t been updated in 50 years—to provide incentives for research.

This is nowhere near the detail that the Clinton campaign has included on their website. Nevertheless, it seems that President Edwards would turn around the most dramatically stupid Bush policies and attitudes toward science and research. It’s really, really satisfying to read so many pro-science views coming from the current batch of (Democrat*) candidates for President!

* We will eventually write a post summarizing the Republican candidates’ attitudes and planned policies toward science. But it’s really hard to find positive statements coming from any of them so far.

political science part 2: hillary clinton

December 11, 2007 at 9:56 pm | | news, political science, science and the public, science community

Hillary Clinton is the second candidate in this series. Bill Plait over at Bad Astronomy already posted about some of Clinton’s comments on science this press release; enjoy his analysis and readers’ comments here.

There’s actually a lot of information about science and innovation on Clinton’s website! (And I think most of it is new in the last few weeks.) I’ll summarize by listing the main points. I suggest you go read the details at the Clinton website.

General attitude toward science:

According to her press release, Clinton claims that she would sign an executive order that:

  • Rescinds President Bush’s ban on ethical embryonic stem cell research and promotes stem cell research that complies with the highest ethical standards.
  • Bans political appointees from altering or removing scientific conclusions in government publications without any legitimate basis for doing so, and prohibits unwarranted suppression of public statements by government scientists.
  • Directs all department and agency heads to submit annual reports on the steps they have taken to (1) safeguard against instances of political pressure threatening scientific integrity; and (2) promote openness and transparency in decision-making.
  • Reverses President Bush’s new directive that dramatically expands political appointees’ control over agency rulemaking.
  • Revives and expands the national assessment on climate change, going above and beyond the requirements imposed by Congress.
  • Restoring the science advisor’s direct access to the President.
  • Working to re-establish the Office of Technology Assessment.
  • Protecting the integrity and independence of federal scientific advisory committees.
  • Strengthening whistleblower protections for those who disclose potential instances of political interference with science.

All of this is easy to say and to come across at pro-science (or at least not anti-science); that’s easy in comparison to Bush. But what if she didn’t have that on her website? I think it’s important for a candidate to distance oneself from the current Administration’s ridiculously anti-science stance.

Plans for funding:

Clinton has a very detailed plan for funding science research in the US. Here is her 9-point plan:

  1. Establish a $50-billion Strategic Energy Fund.
  2. Increase the basic research budgets 50% over 10 years at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the Defense Department.
    • Increase research focus on the physical sciences and engineering.
    • Require that federal research agencies set aside at least 8% of their research budgets for discretionary funding of high-risk research.
    • Ensure that e-science initiatives are adequately funded.
    • Boost support for multidisciplinary research in areas such as the intersection of bio, info, and nanotechnologies.
  3. Increase the NIH budget by 50% over 5 years and aim to double it over 10 years.
    • Increase investment in the non-health applications of biotechnology in order to fuel 21st century industry.
  4. Direct the federal agencies to award prizes in order to accomplish specific innovation goals.
  5. Triple the number of NSF fellowships and increase the size of each award by 33 percent.
  6. Support initiatives to bring more women and minorities into the math, science, and engineering professions.
  7. Support initiatives to establish leadership in broadband.
  8. Overhaul the R&E tax credit to make the U.S. a more attractive location for high-paying jobs.
  9. Restore integrity to science policy.

I’m really impressed with this. I can’t find anything wrong with any one of these points. Her plan to increase funding for science is spelled out: 50% for the NSF over 10 years; 50% for NIH over five years and double in 10. The nine-point plan is clearly directed at scientists: who else would care about how many NSF fellowships there are each year?

This is better planned than Obama‘s idea listed on his website. That’s not to say that Clinton would actually do a better job promoting science, but she obviously had someone do some careful planning and research into the entire concept of science funding.

Now I’m really curious to see if Obama and the other campaigns revamp their websites to add more information about science. But I’m not holding my breath.

political science part 1: barack obama

December 10, 2007 at 12:25 am | | news, political science, science and the public, science community

Out of curiosity, I started reading how the different presidential candidates stand on science, science funding, and research. Some of the candidates even have information about it right on their websites! So I’ll try to convey to you all what I discover. Part 1 is Barack Obama, next will be Hillary Clinton, then Joe Biden and John Edwards. Stay tuned…

There’s not tons of information on Obama’s website specifically about scientific research, but there is this paragraph (emphases are mine):

Barack Obama supports doubling federal funding for basic research, changing the posture of our federal government from being one of the most anti-science administrations in American history to one that embraces science and technology. This will foster home-grown innovation, help ensure the competitiveness of US technology-based businesses, and ensure that 21st century jobs can and will grow in America. As a share of the Gross Domestic Product, American federal investment in the physical sciences and engineering research has dropped by half since 1970. Yet, it often has been federally-supported basic research that has generated the innovation to create markets and drive economic growth. For example, one recent report demonstrated how federally supported research in fiber optics and lasers helped spur the telecommunications revolution.

Obama also commented on the US patent system:

A system that produces timely, high-quality patents is essential for global competitiveness in the 21st century. By improving predictability and clarity in our patent system, we will help foster an environment that encourages innovation. Giving the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) the resources to improve patent quality and opening up the patent process to citizen review will reduce the uncertainty and wasteful litigation that is currently a significant drag on innovation. With better informational resources, the Patent and Trademark Office could offer patent applicants who know they have significant inventions the option of a rigorous and public peer review that would produce a “gold-plated” patent much less vulnerable to court challenge. Where dubious patents are being asserted, the PTO could conduct low-cost, timely administrative proceedings to determine patent validity. As president, Barack Obama will ensure that our patent laws protect legitimate rights while not stifling innovation and collaboration.

There’s more information on the official Obama website here. But not too much more. Nothing really specific. Still, doubling the federal budget for scientific research would be quite impressive.

which way, Dick?

December 3, 2007 at 5:21 pm | | literature, news, science community

wei-wang_prl.jpgPRL is trying to be all accepting-of-other-cultures. Pfsssh! If you can’t spell your name with normal letters, then you should change your name. If my name were a little drawing of a house or something, I would change it to Fred or George or William or Samuel (!) or Robert or something more … you know … waspy. I wonder how PRL would find another way to bend over if the artist formerly known as Prince decided to write a scientific article. I think PRL has already gone too far allowing accents in names: how am I supposed to remember which way the little hat blows on those crazy names?

In all seriousness, I think that this is a really good idea: inconsistent or degenerate English spellings cause quite a bit of confusion. And English hegemony can’t last forever, and there’s no reason to act like it will! But I wonder if scholarly search engines (ISI, SciFinder, Google Scholar, etc.) will begin to index by the true/original spelling. I know that SciFinder let’s you find alternative spellings of a last name, but what if I just want to search for 汉字 and only 汉字? I dunno, there’s probably a real solution out there somewhere (RFIDs, anyone?). Until then, I think PRL has a good idea.

citizen kane wins the peace prize!

October 12, 2007 at 8:59 am | | news, science and the public

I shouldn’t post twice in the same day, but look, Citizen Kane won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize:

I’m surprised that Gore won, mostly because his was the only name I actually heard floated.

I can’t believe the Nobel Committee overlooked George Walker Bush for yet another year! How can they ignore the wonderful work he’s done reshaping the Middle East and torturing Germans? Maybe Bush still has a chance for an Ig Nobel Peace Prize, like Teller in 1991.

ACS insider?

October 12, 2007 at 8:36 am | | news, open thread, science community

Did everyone get this email?

Subject: Time to Reform the American Chemical Society
From: Madeleine Jacobs <acs_insider@yahoo.com>
Date: Thu, 11 Oct 2007 17:24:22 -0700 (PDT)
To: [redacted]


I’ve been an ACS employee for many, many years, but I’ve grown concerned with the direction of the organization. I’m sending this email to alert you that ACS has grown increasingly corporate in its structure and focus. Management is much more concerned with getting bonuses and growing their salaries rather than doing what is best for membership. For instance, Madeleine Jacobs is now pulling in almost $1 million in salary and bonuses… That’s almost 3X what Alan Leshner makes over at AAAS, and almost double what Drew Gilpin Faust makes to lead Harvard.

I think Madeleine is smart, but I’m not quite sure if she’s in the same category as Dr. Faust. She doesn’t even have a PhD!

What really concerns me is a move by ACS management to undermine the open-access movement. Rudy Baum has been leading the fight with several humorous editorials—one in which he referred to open-access in the pages of C&EN as “socialized science.” ACS has also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in membership money to hire a company to lobby against open-access.

What troubles me the most is when ACS management decided to hire Dezenhall Resources to fight open-access. Nature got hold of some internal ACS emails written by Brian Crawford that discussed how Dezenhall could help us undermine open-access. Dezenhall later created a group called Partnership for Research Integrity in Science and Medicine (PRISM), which has this silly argument that open-access means “no more peer-review.”

If you’re wondering why ACS is fighting this, it’s because people like Rudy Baum, Brian Crawford and other ACS managers receive bonuses based on how much money the publishing division generates. Hurt the publishing revenue; you hurt their bonuses.

I’m hoping that sending out this email will get people to force ACS executives to become more transparent in how they act and spend membership money. Not to mention their crazy need for fatter salaries.

It’s time for some change. If you want to check out the sources for this information, there is a wiki site that has all the articles and documents outlining what I’ve just written.

You can find it here:


Those of us inside ACS know that it’s time for things to change. But management won’t alter their behavior. The money is just too good.

ACS Insider

Strange. Did this “ACS insider” send the email to all ACS members?

What do people think about this? I’m not surprised that ACS is working to fight the open-access movement, because it threatens their business (or their business model). Whether it’s appropriate for ACS to spend member fees to fight that fight is a different matter, I suppose.

I do agree that exorbitant pay rates for the top executives is a problem, and an indicator of larger issues within the organization.

All in all, it’s hard for me to care that much: My student membership fees are relatively small and I don’t have to pay for journals (although I know they are expensive for the library). And the ACS conference is well run.

What do other people think?

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