April 2008

I had a discussion with another graduate student today about overspecializing ourselves into obscurity. She was lamenting her last several years as a spectroscopist and what is has done to her job prospects when I reminded her, she could always be in a worse place. She could be a theoretician.

To the scientific community, and society in general, we theoreticians are very valuable in that we hold a mastery, some better than others, in the knowledge base that our current perception of physical laws is based upon. When someone wants something explained properly they come to us. We explain things. How noble.

On the other hand, we are of almost no use to industry and commerce as we can’t really do anything. We can tell you what is happening, but we can’t make it happen if our tenure depended on it. Even a rudimentary understanding of basic physical concepts can produce a good experiment that outputs data. Whether or not meaningful information regarding the physics behind the data can be gotten is another story, and is where we come in. So in a perfect world every experimental group would have their own in-house theoretician, and every theoretical group would have their own little experimental whipping person.

But alas this world is not perfect (shocker), and experimentalists make stuff. I just think about stuff. Apparently there isn’t much of a market for thoughts these days.

Around lunchtime today my grad senses started tingling. Normally I would go to the old lab fridge down the hall we use to keep our lunches in, get my food and eat in my office. But I had some strange sensation that said I needed a fork (I was having soup?) so I made my way to the atrium of the building with the cafe that I pilfer silverware and cream from. As I neared the balcony I heard the unmistakable sounds of gathered scientists. Then it hit me. Food. Sure enough, as I walked into the atrium a fellow classmate of mine was standing there plate in hand and pizza stacked high, and pointed me in the right direction. I weaved past vendor tables pawning HPLC’s and new fangled micro pipettes to the promised land. I must be getting old because I got the last few pieces, but regardless, I’ve still got it.

Bio-fuel is a sham and a boon to big ag-industry. It takes much needed food from poor, developing nations who’s citizens are starving and redirects it to affluent, non-starving countries (like the US) who need more fuel to get around town in an “eco-friendly” manner. There is also no evidence to support the contention that biofuels are even any more environmentally less harmful than fossil fuels. Just because we can, for the moment, grow the fuel it does not mean we can do so indefinitely or even in the short term. Combustion is a wasteful, archaic technology that will torpedo us into our sooty graves.

Why, in the age of the electron, are we still using hydrocarbons to provide us with energy? And why are we not looking forward to the age of the photon (or beyond)? We have a free, virtually limitless, source of energy literally falling on our heads every day (unless you live in the NW). Solar cells take those photons and move electrons around, creating electricity, with no fossil fuels, no soot, no CO2, and no dead baby dinosaurs had to be excavated. Plants have done it for millions of years. They’re no dummies.

While I agree that humans are the biggest detrimental contributor to the destruction of our natural world, I don’t think we should starve ourselves to death while continuing polluting our own air, either.