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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, August 28, 2004

The Journal of Negative Results

Lindsay Beyerstein, guest-blogging at Preposterous Universe, writes about the settlement between GlaxoSmithKline and Kate's boss, in a suit that charged GSK with hiding the reports of unfavorable trials. Derek Lowe may well have something to say on this at a later time.

Her comment that "All scientists have some incentive to publish favorable results over unfavorable ones" reminded me of a conversation I had with some colleagues at DAMOP. I want to state up front that I am most definitely not asserting that the misconduct of GSK (which seems to be rather serious, to my outsider's eye) is in any way equivalent to the trivialities I'll be talking about. The one just reminded me of the other.

A bunch of us were sitting around, talking about current progress on various experiments, and somebody noted that one of their students had just spent a couple of months on something that didn't pan out. He went on to say that the whole thing had taught them a lot about the system in question, so it wasn't really wasted time. Everybody else chimed in with similar stories.

One of the central ideas to emerge from the conversation was that, many times, failed experiments turn out to be some of the most useful things you do as a scientist. Often times, you think you have a good idea, and then end up spending several weeks figuring out why, exactly, it didn't work. In the course of working out that explanation, you usually end up with a vastly improved understanding of the system you're trying to work with. On rare occasions, those experiments will point toward new physics, but more often, they just lead to better techniques.

In a way, it's sort of a shame that people can't get credit for these noble failures. We jokingly suggested that there ought to be a journal where you could write this stuff up-- the Journal of Failed Experiments, which would contain descriptions of experiments that seemed like a good idea, and detailed descriptions of why they didn't work. This would provide an outlet for those researchers who keep running into weird technical roadblocks (the EDM search community would probably provide a good third of the articles), as well as an invaluable resource for people who want to start up new experiments.

There's a huge body of technical knowledge of how to build things out there, including innumerable ideas that won't work for one reason or another, but most of it's locked away in the heads of individual researchers. If you've trained in a particular sub-field, you pick a lot of this up, but if you're moving into a new area, you wind up spending a lot of time re-inventing the wheel. Some archive of not only what works (that would be Reviews of Scientific Instruments), but what doesn't work, would be useful for a lot of young researchers. Not to mention providing a lot of extra publications for those trying to make a tenure case...

The best example of this sort of thing in action is probably the indespensible book The Art of Electronics, by Horowitz and Hill. Not only does it provide a comprehensive overview of pretty much any electronic techinque you might care to use, each chapter includes a "Bad Ideas" section, with diagrams of things that you might think would work, but don't. When I have to design a circuit for some purpose, the first thing I do is check the relevant chapter for a refresher on how the components in qustion work, and once I think I know what to do, I check my proposed circuit against the "Bad Ideas" schematics. It's one of the most useful parts of the book.

Let me say again that I'm not saying that the results GSK buried are not the same sort of thing that I'm talking about. I'm talking about results that aren't particularly interesting, save for what they tell you about the technical details of your experiment. Negative results in pharmaceutical trials are a different beast-- those are interesting results in their own right, and not something that should be hidden away.

Posted at 10:00 AM | link | follow-ups | 6 comments

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Both Start With "M" and Are Full of Liberals, So What's the Problem?

Just over two weeks ago, I had a major piece of equipment-- a very expensive vacuum pump-- break. This happened just before I left for a family vacation in San Francisco, which sort of cast a pall over the whole trip.

On my return, I called the manufacturer to see about repairing the pump, and the news was better than expected-- about $1500 for a rebuid, and they could do it in seven to ten days, rather than the three or four weeks I was expecting. So, I took the pump off the chamber, boxed it up, and shipped it off to the Massachusetts repair center, FedEx.

That was last Thursday. On Tuesday, I checked the FedEx web site to see where the box was, and found out that it had been picked up on Friday, then delivered to Hartford on Saturday. Where it was apparently still sitting.

Wednesday (yesterday), it was still showing up as being in Hartford, so I called FedEx to find out what the deal was. I was told (fairly snottily) that since I had shipped it FedEx Ground (it's a heavy item, I wanted the cheaper shipping, and I figured, it's going to Boston, which is like three hours away by car), they were under no obligation to deliver it until today, as they only guarantee delivery within five business days. This posed a slight threat to my plans to take next week off, but nothing too horrible, and it didn't really seem like there was anything I could do.

Today, I punched up their web site, to find that the package has arrived at a new place: St. Paul, Minnesota. Which, you will note, is not remotely on the way from Hartford to Boston. The "estimated delivery date" is now next Tuesday. This throws a major wrench in my plan to take next week off.

I called them up, and the explanation was, and I quote, "It seems to have been put on the wrong truck." Really? Gosh, that's a surprise. I told the customer service rep that I wanted the box found, and delivered to Boston by tomorrow. She "started a trace" on it, and promised to call me right back.

A good four hours later, at 2:00, I called FedEx again, having not heard a thing. The customer service person I spoke to this time confirmed that there was, in fact, a trace on the package, but couldn't say anything else. He promised to call right back with more information.

At 6:00, I called from home, as I hadn't heard anything more. When the third operator of the day offered to call me back shortly, I replied "Well, the last two people I spoke to said they would call me back, and didn't, so I'm not sure what good it'll do."

After a pause, I got transferred to a manager, who was the first competent person I spoke to in the two days of intermittent calling. She explained that the bar code apparently got messed up somehow, and when they replaced it, they put the wrong code on, and it got sent to Minnesota. Which was nice, and all, but didn't exactly find my missing pump for me. She, too, ran a trace, and using her magical managerial powers, was able to locate the box.

It's sealed in a truck, headed back to Hartford, and is not scheduled to see the light of day again until Monday.

There are two lessons here, that I need to remember (and that I offer as adive to anyone planning on shipping packages in the near future): 1) Never ship anything FedEx ground ever again. I could've walked to Boston with the pump in the time it's taking them to get it there. 2) Always ask to speak to the manager immediately. "Starting a trace" apparently means "We'll send a letter to St. Paul, and ask if they could maybe think about trying to look for a box that looks like yours, if they get a chance," at least when said by the front-line drones at the call center.

And my plan to take next week off is comprehensively hosed.

Posted at 8:34 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Amen, Hallelujah!

Having previously called for more activity from left-wing Christians, I feel obliged to point out the "Take Back Our Faith" petition being circulated by the Sohourners ministry. They're also placing full-page ads in the New York Times with the banner headline "God Is Not a Republican Or a Democrat," to run during the Republican convention.

[Jerry Fallwell and Pat Robertson] mistakenly claim that God has taken a side in this election, and that Christians should only vote for George W. Bush.

We believe that claims of divine appointment for the President, uncritical affirmation of his policies, and assertions that all Christians must vote for his re-election constitute bad theology and dangerous religion.

We believe that sincere Christians and other people of faith can choose to vote for President Bush or Senator Kerry - for reasons deeply rooted in their faith.

(Emphasis in original.) This is exactly the sort of thing I'd like to see more of, and I'm glad to see them speaking out. I'd encourage those so inclined to sign the petition as well.

(I'd give credit to Amy Sullivan guest-blogging at Calpundit Monthly for bringing this to my attention, but they appear to be using a DNS server in Najaf, which is down again, so I can't reach the site to get the specific link.)

Posted at 8:48 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Consumer Electronics and Me

In addition to nearly $20K dropped on fine products from Kurt J. Lesker, I've blown $100 of my research money on a boat radio, another $60 on automobile jacks, and $150 on ham radio gear. No, this isn't me confessing to embezzlement-- these are all legitimate research purchases. The jacks will be used to boost up a part of the vacuum system, and the radio gear will be serving as a source for an RF-driven plasma discharge, which I need to produce krypton atoms in the right state for my experiments (and will be replacing a $50 Radio Shack CB radio).

One of the fun things about research is that the best way to get things done often involves using commercial products for novel purposes. There are plenty of times when the only acceptable product is a high-tech gadget made especially for the scientific market-- I'm about to write a grant proposal asking for a $6,000 ultraviolet light source, which can't really be replaced by a black light from the local stoner supply house. But there are other times when the best source of some piece of equipment is the consumer electronics market.

The radio thing is probably the best example. I worked on the same sort of experiments in grad school, studying the behavior of xenon atoms in a metastable state, and we initially used a high-voltage DC discharge to excite the atoms. Electrons are accelerated through a tube of the appropriate gas by a very high voltage (something in the neighborhood of 800 volts), and as they go screaming through, they knock into some of the gas atoms, and will occasionally drop off enough energy to put the atoms into the state we care about. It's not the most efficient process in the world (one atom in 10,000 or so ends up in the right state), but it's good enough for most purposes.

In the end, the DC discharge turned out to be a hassle, for a variety of reasons including (but not limited to) the fact that 800 volts applied to the inside of your wrist hurts like a sonofabitch. We decided to switch over to the other canonical method for exciting these sorts of discharges, namely an RF-driven discharge, where you put a large radio-frequency field on the tube of gas, which makes electrons accelerate back and forth through the tube (as the field changes direction), occasionally knocking into atoms, and so forth. It's not really any more efficient, but it does do away with the need for 800 V electrical leads on the table where people can grab them by mistake.

This being NIST, we first tested the scheme using a tunable Hewlett-Packard RF synthesizer, that would give us a couple of watts of RF over a huge range of frequencies. It's also a $40,000 piece of equipment, but we had a couple lying around... This eventually got to be a little extravagent even for us, so one of the post-docs in the group ran out to Radio Shack and bought a couple of CB radios. A basic dashboard-mount consumer CB radio will provide 4-5 watts of RF at a frequency of 27 MHz (good enough for our purposes), and it'll do it for $50 (car not included).

Why the boat radio? The exact frequency isn't critical as long as it's fast enough, but there are some technical reasons why higher frequencies are better, and the boat radio runs at 155 MHz, give or take a bit. It'll also provide about five times as much power as the CB radio, which is just kind of cool. The basic principle is the same in both cases, though-- that magical free market that the libertoonians are always going on about has worked hard to make certain telecommunications devices afforable, and we'd be fools not to take advantage of that.

In a similar vein, a certain type of apparatus for making Bose-Einstein Condensation requires a fair amount of electrical power at audio frequencies, which the NIST group obtained with a series of commercial products, starting with a pair of car stero amplifiers (which proved to be a violation of Aephraim's Law), moving on to a large home stero amp, and eventually ending up with a mini rock-concert amp. (Which they later discovered could be rented for quite reasonable rates...)

(Being physicists, the first thing we did when the concert amp arrived was to open up the case and take a look at the guts of the thing. Inside the outer case was a second box, bearing a large label warning that greivous bodily harm could befall anyone poking around inside wearing long hair or dangly jewelry, or while drunk or on drugs. They know their market...)

The best part of this process (other than the look on the faces of visiting dignitaries when they see the Radio Shack CB set sitting on the laser table) is probably the conversation you get to have with the people at the store when they try to sell you accessories. The Radio Shack guy tried three times to sell me an antenna for the unit, then looked at me like I had three heads when I told him what I was using it for. And I think I visited every electronics supply place in the Capital District looking for some part for the boat radio scheme, and not one of them knew what the hell I was talking about. I'm sure the salesmen all went home to their families and told funny stories about the deranged professor who came in looking for parts for an atom-smasher, or some such. (I'm not sure why I didn't just go to Grimmer's first thing, but I'm sure I livened up their days...)

Were I a little more clever about such things, there's probably a way to tap the cell phone industry for even higher frequency sources and amplifiers. It's not an important enough part of the process to demand that much effort, though. And anyway, I need to go buy a barbecue lighter to use to start the discharge...

Posted at 8:45 PM | link | follow-ups | 11 comments

Monday, August 23, 2004

A Good Idea

The proprietor of One Man's Opinion (found via Technorati) has a good idea for some blog posts. He's going through his blogroll one link at a time, saying a few words about each link, and why the site in question is worth reading. One of the ones he's already done, AKMA's Random Thoughts has already proved to be pretty interesting, including both theological commentary, and a story of one of those depressingly authoritarian moments that are all too common these days.

This is a good way to generate links to some interesting stuff, and maybe steer some people to new sites. And, as John Scalzi found out the hard way, it can be a Good Thing to go through your links and bookmarks and think about why you're linking to or reading that person in the first place. As opposed to just mechanically adding new links to the list over on the left...

Of course, I'm not going to do that now. I've got enough other time-sinks going at the moment, what with my actual job, and the redesigned booklog. Which, he added shamelessly, has been updated with a couple of new books, and a question about baseball...

Posted at 10:28 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

But They Were Viet Cong Fillings...

More like this, please:

On ABC's "This Week," former White House chief of staff John D. Podesta tackled Bush's National Guard service during Vietnam. "Senator Kerry carries shrapnel in his thigh as distinct from President Bush who carries two fillings in his teeth from his service in the Alabama National Guard, which seems to be his only time that he showed up," Podesta said.

I mean, if we're going to have the campaign revolve entirely around thirty-year-old sleaze, let's just go all the way.

To paraphrase Ted Barlow, oh, what I wouldn't give to be in a coma from now until just before the election...

(The quote is buried in the middle of this Washington Post article, right after a bunch of slime from Bob Dole. I had thought better of Dole than this-- another one bites the dust.)

Posted at 8:14 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Back to School Books

It's that time of year again, when the thoughts of media types everywhere turn to trying to sell school-themed items to parents of school-age children. The New York Times is no exception, and today's book review offers two school-themed articles.

First up is Laura Miller, with the can't-miss title "Why Teachers Love Depressing Books." There's not much actual insight in the piece, in the end, but she gets in some good shots:

An avid reader growing up, I decided that there were two types of children's books: call it ''Little Women'' versus ''Phantom Tollbooth.'' The first type was usually foisted on you by nostalgic grown-ups. These were books populated by snivelers and goody-two-shoes, the most saintly of whom were sure to die in some tediously drawn-out scene. When the characters weren't dying or performing acts of charity or thawing the hearts of mean old gentlemen, they mostly just hung around the house, thinking about how they felt about their relatives.

The people in the other kind of book, however, were entirely different. They had adventures.

For older kids, there's Chuck Klosterman, ostensibly writing a review of Real College, but (in keeping with Times practice) really taking the opportunity to provide his own brand of how-to-succeed-in-college advice:

ROOMMATES: If you want to get along with your roommates, here are things you should never do -- never "confront them" about their behavior, never talk about your feelings if you're sober, never force them to live exactly like you and never sleep with anyone they are sleeping with (or intending to sleep with, even if the likelihood of that event appears implausible). Just be cool. I know that sounds reductionist and simplistic, but it's generally the whole equation; be cool, and this stranger will eventually become the best man at your wedding.

I'm generally a sucker for Klosterman's shtick, so you may want to take this with a grain of salt, but his list strikes me as generally more worthwhile than most of the college-advice materials I've seen. Listen to the man, even if it does seem weird to take advice on cool from a guy in his thirties who looks like the Corey Feldman character from Stand By Me.

(Of course, I havn't actually read the book he's talking about, so you might want to keep that in mind, too. But, really, since the Times doesn't require its reviewers to actually talk about the book they're supposed to be reviewing, I don't think I have any obligation to know what I'm talking about, either...)

Posted at 10:34 AM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

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