Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Alas dear email, I knew ye well

The email system here at Big State U has now been down for 24 hours. I've developed a twitch in my right eye, my hands are shaking and I'm sweating uncontrollably... I think I'm going into withdrawal...

Oh where, oh where has my email gone?
Oh where, oh where can it be?
With its spam and junk,
And its mail for me,
Oh where, oh where can it beeeeeeeeeeeee?

This (hopefully) temporary insanity is brought to you courtesy of the Big State U IT department.

Friday, January 27, 2006

To Nobel or not to Nobel...

In the comments to my previous post, my good friend Milo pointed out that I seem to be lusting for the Nobel prize. As he is no doubt well aware, my previous posts on winning a Nobel (here and here) were written with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. I honestly cannot imagine ever being in the running for a Nobel. In my post on how you win a Nobel I left out one essential criterion - knowing the right people. Many (not all) Nobels are won with not just great science, but also a large amount of schmoozing... Unfortunately for any Nobel aspirations I might have, I am not much of a schmoozer. C'est la vie.

However, I am just like any other scientist in that there is some small part of me that enjoys, even craves, recognition for the work I do. Scientists are people, and just like everyone else, have egos that like to be stroked. I'm certainly no exception. It is gratifying when your work is acknowledged in a positive manner. It can even be gratifying when some well-known individual in the field, who possesses a significant god-complex*, is publically negative about something you've done (at least when you know you're right and they're wrong).** Everyone likes to be told they're doing a good job. For scientists this generally comes in the form of citations in published papers (the authors refer to your work) and sometimes in talks where the speaker points out something you've done. I'll readily admit to being delighted when hearing someone mention my work in a talk. And I'm something of a ISI Web of Knowledge junkie (this is a web site that let's you look up how many times your papers have been cited - only available to people at institutions who pay the hefty subscription fees). I like to see who is citing my work and in what context. And I honestly don't believe I'm any different from my peers in that regard. All scientists care at some level about how they are perceived.

So, do I want a Nobel? I certainly wouldn't turn one down if it were offered. But I'm also not making that a life goal. Or a goal of any sort. My only real goal with my work is to keep doing the stuff that fascinates me, and hopefully manage to keep others fascinated too.

* Someone with a god-complex thinks they are one.

** That sounded rather arrogant, but I WAS right. Really I was.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Who are those people?

This weekend my wife and I had an hour or so to ourselves (ie no kids!) and we found ourselves sitting in a coffee shop watching the world go by. While there I overheard the barista telling a customer all about some friend of a friend who got this job with a web site design company and how he was sent off to live in Aspen, Colorado, and how he got to go skiing every weekend and how his life was one big party... I got to pondering, isn't it funny how it's always someone else who gets to live the dream life? I don't mean someone other than me*, but rather how it's always a friend of a friend, or a cousin's second cousin, or an aunt's step-father's daughter's son... Does anyone really know one of these people? Do they really exist, or are they some kind of collective urban myth created subconsciously to assuage feelings of shortcomings in our own lives?

More importantly, why wasn't the barista making my latte rather than carrying on about some mythical skiing party dude?

* I actually think I am living the dream life - a wonderful wife, two great kids (and a third on the way!), good friends, a job I love. What more could I want?

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Stockholm? Not yet apparently...

I've finished reading Peter Doherty's "The Beginners Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize." (Okay, so it's taken a while...) It was an interesting read. Covered Doherty's career, his ideas on religion and science, science funding etc. I would recommend it to anyone in science or interested in science. As I noted before, he rambles, and writing a book like this is clearly not his forte. Still, a good read.

He saved the "how to win a Nobel" bit until the last chapter. Bugger me if I'm not already doing (or have done) pretty much everything he recommends!

1) Get good training at good institutions.

Okay so my undergraduate and graduate degrees aren't from a world-reknowned institution. They are however from an institution with a good reputation for solid training. And the place can (now) claim two resident Nobelists. I did do my postdoctoral training at high profile institutions that have spawned, and have resident, multiple Nobel prize winners. So I think I've got this criteria covered, more or less.

2) Work at a high profile institution.

This is the one where I'm somewhat deficient. Big State U is known for stellar athletics, not academics... However, the department I'm in is ranked in the top 20 for a public university in the US, so it's not all bad.

3) Work on something really important.

I've got this one down. My area of study, protein folding, is widely considered to be one of the more important areas in modern biology. If you're interested, you can get brief introductions to protein folding here and here (the latter focuses too much on "misfolding" diseases in my opinion).

4) Work on something the Nobel committees care about.

Again, got it covered. The study of protein folding has lead to Nobel prizes in the past.

5) Be open to explanations/discoveries outside the accepted "norm".

I try to be. In fact I think I'm somewhat successful at that, even if I do say so myself.

6) Don't piss off your peers.

Obvious really. The Nobel committees ask distinguished scientists and past winners to nominate people for Nobels. And this is all done in a very secretive manner, so you have no idea who's been asked to nominate and who's been nominated. If you piss people off, you probably won't be nominated. I'll try to be nice...

I have it covered then. But still no trip to Stockholm...

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Fraud in science

Fraud in science, at least "major" fraud, is very rare. Any kind of falsification of results is very, very wrong, but I can imagine it's possible to get away with a tweak or two to data to make it look better. Outright falsification though is virtually impossible to get away with. The reason for that is that science is built around an extensive system of checks and balances. Important experiments will be repeated by scientists other than the one who did the original work. Although we scientists are a trusting bunch, we do like to make sure we can get relevant experiments to work in our own labs. If you can't get an experiment to work, you contact the original scientist and try to work out why. If no one can repeat the work, then falsification begins to look like a real possibility... If you do important science, someone will check up on your work. The more important/high profile your science, the more people will attempt to replicate it. Sir Peter Medawar, in his classic book "Advice to a Young Scientist" advocates that all scientists should work on something important. Some important science may seem esoteric to the public, such as perhaps my work on protein structure. Other science has spent some time in the spotlight, such as stem cell research, and is generally considered important in one way or another. I suspect most scientists believe what they're doing is important in some sense.

So one wonders, WHAT WAS HE THINKING????

Monday, January 09, 2006

Letterman 1 Big Fat Liar 0

The other night Dave Letterman really let Bill O'Reilly (obnoxious right-wing demagogue) know what he thought. I think 60% was something of an underestimate though...

Want to see something really, really scary? I mean REALLY scary? Click here. Don't say I didn't warn you...

Friday, January 06, 2006

Emulate the innocence

This morning at breakfast my five-and-a-half year old told me that she loves everyone in the whole wide world.
There should be more five-and-a-half year olds in this world.
Five-and-a-half year olds don't preach hatred and intolerance.
Five-and-a-half year olds don't shoot you because you don't look like they do.
Five-and-a-half year olds don't drop bombs on you because you practise a different religion.
Five-and-a-half year olds don't invade your country because they don't like your system of government.
Five-and-a-half year olds just are.
We should all listen to the wisdom of five-and-a-half year olds.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

I'm going to be rich!

I'm back from spending Hannukah with the in-laws (who are truly wonderful). My daughters were given Bella Dancerella Pop Star Home Studio as a present to share (along with many other presents...). This consists of a plastic mat with a central star surrounded by numbers, a plastic head set and a video or DVD. The video features an overly enthusiastic teenager, Bella, who teaches the watcher how to dance "like a pop star". Basically you stand on the mat and follow instructions ("kick, step, touch number five!"). My daughters love it. While watching them I had this idea - I could repackage this thing and sell it to male college students! How many male college students have you met who could dance? Not many I bet. And yet female college students seem to be all about dancing (well, at least some of the time). So here's the marketing strategy - "Learn how to dance and get lucky!" It's sure to be a big seller. I could have infomercials timed to come on after bars/nightclubs have closed so they catch the hapless, lonely (and drunk!) students surfing the channels while bitching about how that hottie at the bar who went home with that guy who could dance and not them! Soon I could have entire frat houses prancing about on their little plastic mats!

It gets better! Obviously selling Bella Dancerella kits themselves could make me wealthy. What would make me fabulously rich though would be the new reality TV show I would produce shortly after they came on the market. A tentative title is "College Boys Dancing Like Preteen Girls: The Lonely Get Lonelier, Ridiculed And Beaten Up."

It's going to be a great year.