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June 2010

Scientists in the eyes of seventh graders

Fermilab's website shows drawings of seventh graders before and after their visit to the US Department of Energy national laboratory, which specializes in high-energy particle physics. (I don't remember how I found out about the link, but it seems that I read it on Anand Kulkarni's Twitter page.) The drawings are all wonderful, but I particularly liked these ones:

  • Beth: Before: "I see a scientist working in a lab with a white lab coat . . . holding a beaker filled with solutions only he knows." After: "The scientists used good vocabulary and spoke like they knew what they were talking about."
  • David: Before: "I always see a scientist holding a bottle with a bubbly substance and it is usually a weird color, like green or red." After: "I first thought of the scientist as a nerdy person or someone walking around with a laptop. [...But scientists] are just like you and me."
  • Katie: Before: "[My scientist] would also have numerous white lab coats." After: "[Scientists'] jobs sound very interesting because they can do whatever they want and they still get paid for it. They can dress in casual clothes and decorate their offices however they want." Living the high life!

What is obvious from the drawings is that seventh graders all imagine scientists as experimental chemists in lab coats who look very nerdy - that image does not particularly encourage schoolchildren to pursue science as a career. A benefit of the visit is that they realized after meeting the staff at Fermilab that science isn't limited to chemistry, that there's more to science than doing experiments (especially in high-energy particle physics until the Large Hadron Collider was completed) and that scientists are regular folks with interests outside work.

In Pat's words: "The scientists were like me when I was little. The scientists played sports, hung out with their friends and also did not get straight A's in every subject."

The site was apparently created in 2000. I wonder how kids' perception of scientists have changed over the past ten years, although I suspect they have not changed by much. More importantly, I wonder if the visit to Fermilab encouraged any of these kids to become a scientist.

Congrats, R Erich Caulfield!

After my previous post on Cathy's audition for the Oprah Winfrey Network, it's time for another MIT shout-out: fellow alumnus of the MIT Graduate Student Council - and also past MIT Graduate Student Council President and present member of the MIT Corporation, no less - R Erich Caulfield (SM'01, PhD'06) is in the news.

First, Erich is one of the young professionals profiled in a recent article by Black Enterprise, which touches upon his career trajectory from his first aspirations to become a researcher in the medical field, to his advocacy work as GSC President - which made him realize that public policy was his true passion - to his time as an Associate at McKinsey after he graduated, to his decision to take a 40% pay cut to become the Chief Policy Advisor to Newark, NJ mayor Cory Booker in 2008.

The article explains: "[In his role,] Caulfield directs Newark’s response to the federal economic stimulus package by reviewing, implementing, and/or tracking projects totaling nearly $360 million." I wish the part of the article about him had been longer; his insights into how he found his passion (which, as some of my readers will notice, happened several years after he had graduated from college) and how he decided to make the jump out of the lucrative consulting industry to do what he loved, certainly deserve to be shared in more depth.

But that's not all. It was announced this week that Erich has been selected to be a member of the 2010-2011 Class of White House Fellows. From the official program webpage: "Founded in 1964, the White House Fellows program is one of America's most prestigious programs for leadership and public service. White House Fellowships offer exceptional young men and women first-hand experience working at the highest levels of the federal government."

And: "Selected individuals typically spend a year working as a full-time, paid Fellow to senior White House Staff, Cabinet Secretaries and other top-ranking government officials. Fellows also participate in an education program consisting of roundtable discussions with renowned leaders from the private and public sectors, and trips to study U.S. policy in action both domestically and internationally." More information about the fellowship is available here.

The program is the focus of the recent book Leadership Lessons of the White House Fellows: Learn How to Inspire Others, Achieve Greatness and Find Success in Any Organization, by Charles Garcia, himself an alumnus of the program, who interviewed more than 200 former Fellows for his book and shared their stories.

While the fellowship selection process is very competitive, and many highly deserving individuals don't make the cut due to the very small size of the program - the 2010-2011 Class counts only thirteen members - I was not surprised to learn that Erich had won one of the coveted spots. (Interestingly, he was already a national finalist for the Class of 2008-2009 but was ultimately not selected that year. Talk about resiliency and determination. And what looked like a setback gave him the chance to become a senior aide to the mayor of a large American city.) In fact, when I heard Erich had been selected, my first reaction was "Of course! He's such a perfect fit for the job!" While at MIT, he also received the MLK Leadership Award and the Karl Taylor Compton Prize in recognition for his leadership with the Graduate Student Council and the Black Graduate Students' Association. He certainly was on an upward trajectory.

But plenty of people one meets in one's twenties don't fulfill their potential - not every charismatic student leader continues to make a difference in others' lives, some individuals get sidetracked in their career, some lose their ambition, some take wrong turns somewhere along the way, and some quite understandably develop other interests. So I was delighted to learn that Erich not only remains committed to the advocacy work he was known for at MIT, but is being given unique opportunities to contribute to the greater good on a regional and now national level. I am sure he will use them well.

Good luck in DC!

Science on the Oprah Winfrey Network?

A friend of mine and fellow MIT alumna recently submitted an audition video to have her show on OWN, the future Oprah Winfrey Network, which will launch in January 2011. Her idea is to match celebrities with experts in scientific and engineering fields that the celebrities would be interested in learning about. She needs people to vote for her before the end of the voting period on July 3 to become a finalist. Wouldn't you love to see science become more mainstream, instead of being relegated to public television? Watch Cathy's 2-min audition here and vote for her!

Quantifying Risk

The Wall Street Journal has a print column and a blog post (both by Carl Bialik) on ways to quantify risk for rare events.

The print column mentions Probabilistic Risk Assessment (PRA) as a technique widely implemented in safety engineering, which builds upon Event Tree Analysis and Fault Tree Analysis (the idea being to study all the consequences - direct and indirect - of an adverse event). The idea is to consider both the probability of an adverse event happening but also the amount of damage it can bring. This NASA document provides an excellent introduction to PRA.

According to the journalist, BP did not apply PRA and simply classified the risk of a blow-out in that part of the Gulf of Mexico as "low-probability". Here is the exact quote by BP's spokesman: "We don't grade the risk in terms of percent likely to happen. It's not quite as scientifically hugely detailed." (This does not inspire confidence in BP's risk management skills, but we've all been able to see that for ourselves over the past two months.)

The article also describes NASA's approach to risk assessment - interestingly, NASA has included new risks and changed some of its formulas, which "creates the seemingly paradoxical situation in which missions might get safer even as reported risk increases."

The journalist also rightly emphasizes the difficulty of quantifying risk precisely, which he covers in more detail in his blog post. For instance, using the mean instead of median changes the probability of an adverse events from 1 in 254 to 1 in 234, but the order of magnitude is a lot more important than the actual, impossibly precise number. 

The manager of the NASA shuttle program also gives a confidence interval for the probability of any one shuttle mission ending in disaster: "there is a 90% chance that the true risk lies somewhere between one in 63 and one in 130." As I've written elsewhere on this blog, I like the idea of using ranges because it forces people to admit risk cannot be quantified by a single number.

Carl Bialik's astute WSJ column and blog represent a great step forward in educating businesspeople about numbers - in this day and age, it is no longer acceptable to profess (sometimes even take pride in) one's ignorance about statistics and probabilities. BP, take notice. 

The Star and the Sinkhole

Here are links to two great articles in Slate:

A 51st Star on the US Flag. The Puerto Rico Democracy Act could bring Puerto Rico one step closer to becoming the 51st state, which begs the question: where would we fit the extra star on the flag? A mathematician from Emory University came to the rescue and "did what anyone would do in this situation: He wrote a computer program to figure out all possible combinations for flags of any number of stars." Of course. The link above brings you to the article and the widget, which allows you to experiment with possible configurations (dubbed: long, short, alternate, equal, wyoming and oregon; see the explanations in the article) for various numbers of stars, up to 100. Math meets history - isn't that beautiful?

The Biggest Sinkhole in the World. Well, it might not be the biggest ever, but from this picture, it certainly looks big. In numbers: 65 feet across, 100 feet deep, according to Slate. It's in Guatemala City, where such things have happened before, due to the city's location near seven major volcanoes and its faulty sewage system: "Guatemala City's last major crater, which opened in 2007, dropped three houses 330 feet below the city's streets." Back in 2007, the sinkhole was filled with cement at a cost of $2.7 million, but there might be better alternatives in the long run, as the article explains. For impressive pictures of that sinkhole and its famous predecessors (including the one in Mulberry, Florida, which opened in 1994, as well as others in Lisbon [look for the picture with a bus being lifted out!] and at sea in Belize), please see this page on the National Geographic website.

Dangerous Dissertation

The Washington Post has a fascinating article - from July 2003 - about the dissertation of a grad student at George Mason University (with thanks to Abi for the link). The student, using information apparently freely available on the Internet, "has mapped every business and industrial sector in the American economy, layering on top the fiber-optic network that connects them." For instance, "[h]e can zoom in on Baltimore and find the choke point for trucking warehouses."

Government officials and CEOs he has briefed on his work "invariably... suggest his work be classified," although the founder and first director of the National Infrastructure Protection Center quipped: "I don't think security through obscurity is a winning strategy." The chairman of the board of Pepco Holdings Inc, when shown the student's map, had this to say: "Why in the world have we been so stupid as a country to have all this information in the public domain? Does that openness still make sense? It sure as hell doesn't to me."

There is significant pressure for the student, who says he would like to go into academia but doesn't want to jeopardize national security, not to publish the results. at the risk of ruining his career. GMU, which is "trying to build a cooperative relationship with the Department of Homeland Security" as well as secure funding, has imposed stringent security measures to safeguard the data. The then Dean of Stanford Law School pointedly observed that: "The government uses research funding as a carrot to induce people to refrain from speech they would otherwise engage in. If it were a command, it would be unconstitutional."

What's interesting about this is that we can tell now how the story ended: the student graduated in 2004 with a PhD in public policy and founded a company with two GMU professors; "In the end, [the student] assured the Department of Homeland Security that he could publish the dissertation and create a separate report with the more sensitive information." The company, named FortiusOne, creates tools to visualize real-time data sources and recently launched GeoCommons (among other tools) to deliver visual analytics through maps.

Career Trajectories

The Wall Street Journal Hire Education blog recently featured a post about "How Successful People Get That Way". I particularly liked the following excerpt, which I thought was highly accurate: "Oftentimes, people’s paths to success are neither linear nor particularly efficient. Many don’t even start out with so much as a plan." The writer then gives several examples of trajectories that were, shall we say, rather convoluted.

Case in point: Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, who delivered the Commencement address to the blog author and her classmates at Wesleyan University. Hickenlooper is a Wesleyan graduate himself; he received a BA in English in 1974 and a master's degree in geology in 1980. The mayor's website describes him as "a geologist-turned brewpub pioneer who had never run for political office".

This point is also emphasized in a New York Times article from October 2009, "Helping Teenagers Find Their Career Dreams". A child-and-psychologist comments: "I see many teens who jump on the first career track that someone recommends just to avoid being directionless, only to find themselves miserable a few years later." The journalist also writes: "as adults, we often reinvent ourselves more than once, moving among professions."

While I was lucky enough never to change fields completely, I can relate to convoluted trajectories - I studied pure math early on in college and then control theory (the math part of robotics) my last two years, came to MIT for a Master degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science because I didn't want to start working (in France once you start working you usually don't go back to school), then I switched to the PhD program after I realized I liked research, and graduate school, and the Boston/Cambridge area; I ended up with an advisor in the business school, working on operations research problems.

I only decided to go into academia three years into the doctorate, after insisting in college that I would never, ever become an academic. (Back in France, when the time came to take the various written entrance examinations to the grandes ecoles, I declined to go to the one for the Ecole Normale Superieure - the main school preparing future French academics - on the grounds that I was interested neither in research nor in teaching and preferred to take a week of rest after three intense weeks spent taking the other entrance exams.) And what is my job now?... Life is funny sometimes. Oh, and I am now a tenured faculty member in an industrial engineering and systems department, while I have very little knowledge of manufacturing.

To best explain my career path, I am reminded of a quote by E.L. Doctorow about writing novels: "Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." When you decide on a career in your twenties, you only have a very limited amount of information (what your headlights let you see), and take action based on this information.

The action doesn't have to be significant - often it starts as almost nothing, just like when you're driving on Route 81 to get back to Bethlehem from the Harrisburg area: if you stay on the right, Route 81 becomes Route 78-East, which will bring you straight to Bethlehem or even New Jersey and New York City, but if you stay on the left, you'll end up fifty-ish miles north of Bethlehem in Hazleton, a former coal centre now better known for its stance against illegal immigrants. And you adjust your aim, little by little, based on the information you glean along the way.

Probably because of the exorbitant cost of college in the US, students are under a lot of pressure not to waste time - they have to figure out early on what they want to do in life; otherwise, what is the point of spending so much money on an education that won't even be put to good use? But, in Hickenlooper's words: "Bliss often doesn’t start out as bliss; passion often doesn’t start out as passion. It’s more likely to begin as a quirk or nagging awareness, a nagging idea coming in from left field."

Balancing one's passion with the need to pay the bills is a difficult act, and too often, the choice is presented as an either/or situation: parents want their children to pick a well-paying career path; plenty of life coaches and just about every single New Age guru will advise students to "follow your bliss" (echoing Joseph Campbell, who was neither a life coach nor a New Age guru but a highly respected scholar on mythology).

People are impatient; they don't want trade-offs. This is apparent in this other WSJ Hire Education blog post, which starts with: "Too many people commence a career early in life only to later discover that the selected path is much less gratifying than they imagined or hoped. This is the fate career development experts yearn to help clients avoid when extolling the importance of following one’s passion."

The thing is, turning one's passion into a financially viable scheme takes time. For instance, starting a business requires market research, website design, supplier selection, a crash course in the legal and tax ramifications, and more, before the company has even launched. The key, I think, is to align what you do with you like to do, find a connection - however tenuous - with your passion (if the day job from hell pays the bills so that you can spend the weekend working on a business plan, then the day job does have a positive side after all).

People who haven't figured out what their passion is can start by contacting alumni from their alma mater in industries that interest them, take them out for coffee in exchange for their insights - most people enjoy giving advice and sharing stories; while it's important to keep in mind that people value different things, and what is a good job for one might be awful for another, it can't hurt to gather anecdotes from the front lines and make contacts. In addition, for my readers out there who might be looking for a job, any job, yet another post from the Hire Education blog provides helpful - and original - advice on resume writing.

The full transcript of Hickenlooper's address at Wesleyan is available here. It's a great speech (funny but full of wisdom too), and I highly recommend that everyone reads it. I particularly liked what he had to say about entrepreneurship, and his mother, and the mention of Chase Parr '10, who died in 2007 in a car crash with her parents (he mentions he was a good friend of the Parrs - Parr's father was a political consultant), and the mention of Johanna Justin-Jinich '10, who was murdered in 2009 on campus at the bookstore cafe where she worked.

"[T]he entrepreneur is in each and every one of you. Feed your dreams; not your nightmares. Persevere against the naysayers. Be ready for luck, but don’t wait for it. [...] As the talented Wesleyan graduate Brad Whitford once said, “At the end of your days, you will be judged by your gallop, not your stumble.”"

Chemistry, Physics and Photography

I dropped by the Henri Cartier-Bresson retrospective at MoMA over the weekend (ending June 28, for those of you who haven't yet had a chance to go). Cartier-Bresson, a French photographer considered to be "the father of modern photojournalism" who died in 2004 at age 95, continues to enjoy a formidable reputation in France; I was not surprised to see large crowds - especially of European tourists - at the exhibition, which contained iconic portraits of French intellectual heavyweights Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir (used as cover for this book of hers, incidentally, and that book, and that book) as well as Albert Camus, among many others.

Photography is a fascinating medium, especially nowadays where just about everyone owns a digital camera and can shoot pictures without training - but far fewer people take good pictures and understand the importance of lighting and composition. It has become to the arts, in a way, what English is to college majors: anyone can write a few words but few can write good essays (this contrasts with the engineering curriculum, which is hard at the beginning and becomes easier junior and senior years). Since photography is based on chemical reactions, I thought I'd use this post to go over some of the physics and chemical engineering behind it, or rather, to link to useful Internet resources for those of you who are interested.

The main idea behind photography is to let light fall onto a light-sensitive medium, which creates a chemical reaction that will record the image. But the choice of the medium, the mechanism to let the light go through, and the ability to create copies, have evolved over the years.

According to this Wikipedia timeline, the first photography is due to Nicéphore Niépce in 1822, who used a "heliographic process". He coated a glass plate with a petroleum derivative called bitumen of Judea. From this Wikipedia page: "Bitumen hardens with exposure to light. The unhardened material may then be washed away and the metal plate polished, rendering a negative image which then may be coated with ink and impressed upon paper, producing a print." (Also read this webpage of the Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin, which has a lot of details about the process.)

Later, Niépce experimented with silver compounds and enlisted the help of Louis Daguerre, who became immensely famous as the father of the daguerreotype after Niépce's death in 1833. According to the Daguerre page on the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History website hosted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, "[e]ach daguerreotype is a remarkably detailed, one-of-a-kind photographic image on a highly polished, silver-plated sheet of copper, sensitized with iodine vapors, exposed in a large box camera, developed in mercury fumes, and stabilized (or fixed) with salt water or "hypo" (sodium thiosulphate)." The Wikipedia page on the daguerreotype points out that the process "allow[s] no direct transfer of the image onto another light-sensitive medium, as opposed to glass plate or paper negatives."

Producing daguerreotypes was a complex, labor-intensive endeavor, which exposed photographers to toxic mercury vapors and, according to Wikipedia, led in some cases to severe health problems. It progressively fell out of favor, although it remained popular longer in the United States than in France. "Although quite popular in Europe, photography with paper negatives as invented by the Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot in 1839 found little favor in America. The daguerreotype process, employing a polished silver-plated sheet of copper, was the dominant form of photography for the first twenty years of picture making in the United States." (From: The Daguerreian Era and Early American Photography on Paper, 1839-1960, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History page.)

According to this Wikipedia page, Talbot - the pioneer of photography using negatives - spent much of his life trying to defend his patent on photography; after he died, George Eastman (founder of the Eastman Kodak company) improved his approach, which led to the process used in modern photography today. More information about Eastman is available on this Kodak company webpage. His main contributions were twofold: (1) he demonstrated "the great convenience of gelatin dry plates over the cumbersome and messy wet plate photography prevalent in his day", and (2) he "invented an emulsion-coating machine which enabled him to mass-produce photographic dry plates".

The Kodak R&D website describes the scientific side behind photography, including innovations to make photographs show subjects the way the human eye sees them. For more on the chemistry side of the photographic process, please read this page. Photography isn't always used to depict reality faithfully, though, as Surrealists - Man Ray in particular - have shown through their innovative use of double exposure, solarization, and other techniques.

Now (briefly) on to the physics of photography. A great resource is this tutorial on the Photography Jam website. This presentation on the University of Colorado at Boulder website also has a lot of valuable information (once you get past the graphs about the homework grades), as well as graphs and examples. Also see this page on How Stuff Works.

Photography is really about optics. Shutter (especially shutter speed) and diaphragm (which changes the usable diameter of the lens in steps) control how much light reaches the back of the camera, where the film is. A smaller lens opening (aperture) results in a larger depth of field (objects are still in focus even when far apart) but the image is dimmer. The f-stop number controls how much light goes through the lens, with large numbers indicating less light (the f-stop number is calculated as the ratio of the focal length of lens divided by the aperture diameter.) Faster shutter speeds freeze motion but require bigger lens opening, which also means the depth of field will be decreased.

While most people keep the settings of their digital camera on "automatic", using manual settings (and knowing what they mean) can turn any ordinary photograph into a work of art.


"It is through living that we discover ourselves, at the same time as we discover the world around us." -Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1952. (Source: MoMA website.)

The website of the Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson contains a trove of information about the artist and his work. The foundation also awards the Henri Cartier-Bresson prize every other year, "to stimulate a photographer’s creativity by offering the opportunity to carry out a project that would otherwise be difficult to achieve."

Interested in black-and-white portraits? See the Yousuf Karsh memorial website. Karsh's name might not ring a bell, but this portrait certainly will. Another famous portrait photographer (of an earlier era, though) is Nadar.

For more black-and-white photography, see the website of the International Center of Photography in New York, which has a fascinating exhibition on the civil-rights movement on display until September 12 ("For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights")

Some of my favorite photographers include: Alfred Stieglitz, Margaret Bourke-White and Berenice Abbott.