Friday, December 15, 2006

Out of the Closet

Some people think that I am a Republican. I think my dad thinks this, and might be a little worried that I have fallen under the spell of Neocons and fundamentalist Christians. I oppose any government suppression of free religious expression. I am suspicious of government programs and regulations, and I have peculiar ideas about economics for a son of a former union member. Not to worry, Pop. I'm not Republican. (Not that there's anything wrong with that. Well, no more so than other common alternatives).

Others incorrectly assume that I am a Democrat, because I am pro-science, a staunch defender of medical research, and of teaching biology properly with evolution at the core. I am against the military getting too powerful, and I am suspicious of corporate power. I oppose religious intervention in government. But I am very much not a Democrat. (The same NTTAWWT applies here.)

I am libertartian. Jeffersonian "that government that governs best, governs least" democrat-republican libertarian. The actual Libertarian Party I know very little of, and I suspect it might be full of loonies, but I don't know, so my apologies to any card carriers if I have this wrong. In past times, I would have been called a Liberal, and later, a Classical Liberal. The term 'liberal' has been debased somewhat, at least in the 20th century in the US, and has now fallen out of favor for those who now call themselves 'progressive', so maybe liberal can go back to meaning, well, liberal in the Enlightenment sense of valuing individuals, their freedom, initiative, energy and property, as opposed to expecting collective solutions to problems, but to avoid confusion, I'm afraid that term is off limits for now.

I have had it patiently explained to me that libertarians hate everyone, are selfish, impractical, and are largely misanthropic, tin-foil hat wearing dupes of capitalism that want everything in private hands. These are the nice things 'liberal' people say. Republicans are more often willing to admit that I might have a point, but think that libertarians are atheists and dope-smokers who really want to be Republicans, but lack the moral fiber. While I support people's right to intoxicants with responsibility, I also support their right to religion with similar responsibility. And I don't need lectures on morality from Republicans, thank you.

I support individual liberty, property rights and freedom. To a large extent, both Democrats and Republicans have reservations about these. I hope to say more about this, though this will never devolve into a blog about politics. But for now, I just needed to come out.

Sirens of Titan

This is Titan, Saturn's haunting and and mysterious moon. Titan is arguably he most fascinating place outside Earth in our solar system. This image is just stunning, in my opinion- more so even than those of Mars, which rightfully garners a lot of attention. Titan is an active, vital object, a "somewhere" outside Earth we instinctively recognize as a world. A world that beckons us to explore. A world frozen and hostile to us, no doubt, with lakes of liquid methane and ethane lapping on frigid shores.

Still, Titan alive in a way our own moon is not. The Cassini-Huygens mission is quietly producing exciting and compelling science, and the results are worth a look. You can find more here.

Titan is the second-largest moon in the solar system (behind Jupiter's Ganymede, which is pretty boring and barren by comparison) and is larger than any of the dwarf planets. It is the only moon with a dense atmosphere. The clouds may be made of ethane, and the lakes, though not absolutely confirmed, seem to exist near the poles, and are probably hydrocarbons. As a chemist, I find this particularly exciting. Titan is clearly cold, and hostile, but with all that organic material, something interesting is going on, perhaps supporting a primitive form of life.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Pressure Cooker

I have not written anything here for a while because I am part of several projects at work that consume most of time lately. I spend most of my free time with the wife and kids as much as possible.

Which set me thinking- why do people go to school for decades, study really challenging and frustrating things, and then go get jobs that take over their lives?

For a scientist, I assure you it isn't the money, even in industry. I love what I do, but I still wonder at how hard I work sometimes. It comes from something other than ambition, and other than love.

The best way I can describe it is obligation. Part of the training that I received instilled a lot of discipline and tenacity when attacking problems. It is necessary to have these attributes to get anywhere in research, no doubt. But still, because I am a scientist, I feel like I have to work in a sort of single-minded, grinding way, whether the project warrants the effort or not.

I am not complaining. My work is interesting, and certainly beats most other things I can imagine doing for comparable remuneration. But there is something there that seems less than rational.

I especially see it in academics- they get paid much less than industrial scientists, and work really hard, especially at first in order to get tenure. Once that hurdle is cleared, though, the pressure remains if one wants to remain active in the field. Certainly, some do not, and languish happily, knowing they can't be fired. But if you aren't excitied by what you are doing, it is stll an incredibly uncertain road to a job with very poor reward in comparison to the effort expended to get there.

Some academic friends of mine claim that the freedom that they have is the reward. I think this is demonstrably nonsense, part of the bullshit that they tell us as we join the club; most of the time, they have to work on what they can get funded. Their freedom is fettered, and their time squandered by service obligations and office hours.  They direct their own research quite a bit, but do almost none of it, leaving it to grad students that impose yet another burden that must be funded. Foregoing a little of this 'control' could return much more financial reward, while also yielding the existential pleasures of actually getting to do some of the science.

Usually, I have almost total freedom in how I proceed, even when my choice of project is not entirely my own. In any case, I find my work interesting, and do not chafe at the few restrictions I encounter. Unlike my academic friends, if I want time in the lab, I just go there and work.

Part of the reason scientist think this way is that the 'scientist club' only fully accepts academic scientists. Anything less than getting a tenure-track job, then tenure, is a kind of failure. Utter bullshit. But the culture of academic science, which is where we all start, assumes that only academic science counts, and many of us who took different paths have a hard time shaking this, too. Having seen both, I know work coming from each spans the gulf from sublime to ridiculous. If anything, selective pressure is worse in industry, because there the science has to work well enough to make money. Much good science gets killed off before blossoming, but what survives is usually rock-solid.

I have been enculturated to work at a grinding pace, nonetheless.

I think I perceive an almost monastic quality in academics- that they must dedicate all their efforts to their discipline, like the medieval monk would turn all his thoughts to God. To do less is to be less. To not suffer in relative poverty is to exhibit something unseemly, as if ambition and success are sins. Many academics act as though money taints, and poverty enobles. That's bullshit, mind you, but that's what I hear them say, and watch them demonstrate.

I have more to say, especially about how limited I think the worldview of science has become, but I want to think more about this first.