Thursday, February 26, 2009

Obama: Not Quite Robin Hood

So, Obama has unveiled his $1.75 trillion budget. I've yet to see too many details on how the sciences are affected directly and when I do, I'll make some comments then on it.

But I wanted to point out something rather unusual (in my opinion) about how Obama is going to generate more money. Everyone knows that if you give money to a charity that the money is tax deductible, thereby providing some incentive for people to donate or at least, removing some of the burden. What is going to change in the USA is how much money people earning over $200 000 will get back from their donations. If the budget passes as it stands, Obama will reduce the incentive people earning over $200 000 have to donate to assorted charities.

(From the link previously)
The tax increase would occur by reducing the benefit the wealthy get on tax deductions. As one example, taxpayers in the current top tax bracket of 35 percent would see their tax deduction for every $1 given to charity drop from 35 cents to 28 cents.
Now, personally I don't have too many qualms about raising taxes on individuals who earn more than $200 000. Earning that much money people can afford to pay more taxes, its the middle and working class I care more about. But reducing the incentive people have to donate seems like a bad way to raise that money since it will reduce the amount of money that is donated to charities. As someone who once was a community organizer, I'd think Obama would know this.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Free Grades

An interesting article I dug up in the Globe and Mail concerning a controversial professor at the University of Ottawa. Apparently, he was fired for giving all his students an A+. At first blush, this seems like an overreaction to what should be a minor offence, but digging deeper the Globe and Mail finds that this professor and his department have been at loggerheads for some time now.

First of all, most university departments have a policy concerning the ultimate grade distribution for a class. A class average must be within a particular range, usually from 65-75%, failure to do so will usually result in the department automatically scaling your average to within this range or force the professor to do so. Its understood that this policy prevents professors from marking too easy or too hard and treating the students fairly. Physics departments take this much more seriously than other departments as they generally feel they have a reputation to maintain.

The next thing that caught my attention was the comment about how he had alienated so many professors in his own department that they signed a complaint about him. This is really the crucial detail. When you anger your own department things can go downhill very quickly and this is one fairly clear example of the repercussions of that.

Generally a tenured professor has a certain degree of insulation against attacks on his career and his research so the university must feel extremely confident that they can remove him without significant backlash from either his department or the student body. I'd seriously doubt that the university would take such an action without the implicit approval or urging of the physics department itself.

Without taking a serious look at the professor's justification for his actions I'd say that he may have angered enough people with his actions to make his position at the university untenable. Physicists sometimes have terrible social skills and anger people that they need to maintain good relationships with. I can recall a Nobel prize winner who, in trying to convince a number of professors to change their teaching styles instead alienated and angered them by making arrogant, personal attacks on the professors.

Monday, February 2, 2009

General Fusion: Flights of Fancy?

Recently it was reported that we were only five years from producing energy from nuclear fusion. And that within 10 years that full scale operations would be in progress.

A couple of notes, first of all some people may try to search for publications by this company, General Fusion, and to you I'll say, don't bother. The company hasn't made any formal publications, according to the founder, he doesn't enjoy the process of submitting papers for review.

Which is fair enough and shouldn't cause us to view his claims any more skeptically.

I should point out one thing, General Fusion is a company that seeks and receives money for its research, so any publicity that it receives aids its fundraising processes. Therefore, it is in its own best interests to publish 'good news' and to predict quick success. CTV did a terrible job in its article as it provided no balance or tempered optimism or even an examination of the future problems that must still be overcome. The article that I linked to in the Financial Post and the one I link to later by Technology Review do a far superior job in that respect.

About the science itself, I won't go into the nitty gritty details about this kind of nuclear fusion frankly because I don't know it well enough to speak with any authority but my searches for any further information are coming up with a few peculiar things.

There were other more formal experiments done by the Los Alamos National Laboratories on the same kind of technique that General Fusion is proposing. The last report listed states that experiments involving the plasma would begin in spring of 2008. The webpage, however, hasn't been updated since February 2008 so its impossible to ascertain what progress they have made, if any.

I think there is a widespread misconception that we do not know how to get nuclear fusion to work. That's not the problem at all, getting electricity out of it in a form we can use is the real problem. We've performed nuclear fusion many times before, most notable in hydrogen nuclear bombs where typically two isotopes of hydrogen are fused together, generating massive amounts of energy. Moreover, researchers in New Mexico two years ago created a device that produces electricity from nuclear fusion but only in spurts, which is not necessarily a useful form but might be useful to provide energy to heat a steam engine and turbine system.

In short, be skeptical but don't be pessimistical. General Fusion may well indeed be on the verge of a major breakthrough. Or they could just be overly optimistic in their predictions. The only way we'll know for sure is in 5 years.