Posts byAdam Hill

Undergraduates are needed

_DSC0097The University of California is a powerhouse of STEM research, whose prestigious faculty harnesses the skills of an army of graduate students and postdocs. Those young scientists are the engines of scientific progress. They build their psyches around the idea that they are the young elite of academia. No one gets to Berkeley without the benefit of research experiences at the undergraduate level.

In spite of this, many graduate students and postdocs with whom I’ve spoken are downright dismissive of the contributions of undergrads in the lab. This has lead to a chilly environment for students seeking to do research at Berkeley, while their peers at schools like Reed and St. Lawrence are literally guaranteed senior research experiences. These other schools understand that even for students not planning to go to graduate school, the experience of working in a real lab is invaluable.

Though UCB has recently improved, adding courses like CHEM-96, the SMART program, and the fourth annual Undergrad Research Symposium, we’re still a decade behind. The reticence on the part of many faculty and graduate students to be part of the solution is antiquated.

During my time at Berkeley, I’ve had the pleasure of working with two undergraduate students. I’m going to tell you the reasons why I recommend that every graduate student do the same.

Ego as tradecraft

I Swear It Was Bigger...Nine times out of ten, “ego” is a dirty word—one used in the context of the pompous and the self-absorbed. Nonetheless, in the harsh world of science, a healthy ego is as critical as knowing how to integrate or do a titration. The right mindset makes the scientist, and part of that mindset is a sense of self, and a sense of confidence, that says, “I am capable of learning things no human before me has ever known.” To put this in context, walk a ways with me while I compare a graduate student to a secret agent:

The average graduate student can often feel as though their world is as labyrinthine and surreal as a Cold War spy’s. Every field has its integral tools and techniques. In the hard sciences, the most-frequently considered skills tend to be practical: perhaps aligning lasers, synthesizing compounds, or writing code. In the secretive and deceitful world of international espionage, these on-the-job skills are termed “tradecraft.” Unlike the skills of a scientist, a spy’s tradecraft comes down as much to mindset and habits as much as actual techniques.

Relativity, and why real estate still matters

CoitTower_40 The advent of the Internet and its associated modern communication tools seems to make physical space less meaningful. When a collaborator or a loved one on the other side of the planet is just a Skype call away, what does distance really mean? When Amazon offers free two-day shipping and burritos are delivered in minutes by automated drones, who cares about physical space? The answer will quickly spring to the minds of anyone interested in high finance, or video games, or physics: lag.

Among the mind-blowing implications of relativity is the following: the speed of light imposes a fundamental limit on how quickly information can travel through space. Our “light cone” means that we can be influenced by events sufficiently far in the past, and can have our own influence on events in the future, but that we cannot influence events happening in the present when they are not happening near us. No matter how advanced our fiber optic networks become (limited, presently, by the necessity of repeaters and the like), information can never (for instance) make a round trip of the earth in less than 133 milliseconds.

Alexander wept and science triumphed

Solvay_conference_1927“When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer.”

-Die Hard (1988) (Yes, really.)

This recent editorial in Nature (subscription required) complains that truly groundbreaking, paradigm-shifting scientists like Newton and Einstein can no longer exist in the current world of science. The author, Dean Keith Simonton of UC Davis’s Department of Psychology, laments that there are no entirely new fields of science to be founded, nor great breakthroughs to be had from relative laymen. This is not a new argument, but understanding the culture underlying it is critical to knowing one’s context in the larger body of human knowledge.

Source: want to take a moment to discuss the idea, and the portions with which I sympathize (the ability of an individual to accomplish something enormous) and the portions I find preposterous (a profound nostalgia.) Ultimately, though, the article helps to elucidate something very important: the great scientific achievements of the past millennium were almost entirely accomplished by people who would, by current standards, still be graduate students or (at most) postdocs. The ever-increasing times before young scientists become independent faculty mean that the current scientific establishment is taking on the structure of a pyramid scheme.

Ethics of the dangerous present and the hypothetical future

Embarcadero_27I need to reiterate an obvious truism: science peels back the unknown, producing new knowledge and changing our perception of the possible. Every bit of new information is individually inert and blameless, but when humans choose to act on scientific knowledge, fundamental facets of nature are seen in a whole new light. Over the latter half of the 20th century, perhaps no field was more emblematic of the dichotomy between great good and great danger than nuclear physics; the same knowledge that lead to abundant nuclear power also lead to ruinous nuclear weapons. Though the developments of other fields may not be so dramatic and poetic, the ethics underlying technological advancement are an important issue. I am frustrated that scientific ethics so often abandons the issues resulting from present-day science to dance through the realm of the science fictional.

Recently, I read this article by Huw Price in the New York Times with a mixture of excitement and disappointment. His particular focus is on artificial intelligence research and thus on the possibility of a technological singularity-like event. Sometimes derided as the “Rapture of the Nerds,” the singularity refers to a time when humans first develop an AI smarter than themselves, which will (in theory) exponentially improve itself. This massive intelligence could potentially render humans themselves superfluous—or at least, no longer the dominant will on Earth. In any case, the implications of such an event are, of course, enormous.

Happy Holidays from the Berkeley Science Review

Long Cabin We’ve had an amazing fall here at the Berkeley Science Review: the latest issue of the magazine is packed with awesome science, and the blog has been steadily rolling out stories of the discoveries happening at Berkeley and around the world. With holidays fast approaching, the blog staff is going to turn the science down from a boil to a simmer for the next few weeks as we spend time with family and friends. This is just the calm before the storm, though! (If you pardon the mixed metaphors.) In January, the BSR blog will be back with the fantastic science content you know and love.

In the meantime, have a safe and happy holiday season!

The ethics of Alzheimer’s

Though the authors of the BSR blog don’t comment on the topic frequently, there’s an undercurrent of ethical debate to the vast majority of scientific issues. Sometimes the ethical debate is obvious, as in these recent pieces on Proposition 37. In other cases, it’s more subtle: all research needs to justify the money spent on it—money that could otherwise go to other efforts at improving the human condition. In the particular case of Alzheimer’s, the ethics of diagnosis have increasingly become critical. I want to pause for a moment from science, and think about a few of the shifting considerations of this case brings.

Alzheimer’s disease causes the slow degradation of the mental faculties, leading to dementia and death. This decline places an enormous burden on caregivers, often family members, and makes AD the third most economically expensive disease in the developed world. Because onset of the disease typically begins after age 65, it has been an increasing concern as the human lifespan lengthens. Though some are in trials, there are no known treatments that cure or even simply slow the progress of Alzheimer’s.

The foreign language of science: a trip to Brazil and thoughts on the elite

Surf: Brazil In September, I traveled with fellow BSR blogger Piper Klemm to Florianopolis, Brazil to attend a meeting of their Materials Research Society. The official language of the conference was not English, and despite assurances from the conference organizers, we were confronted with an odd experience: speakers giving talks entirely in Portuguese, accompanied by slides in English. When presenters from North America, Europe, and Asia spoke, they reverted to English or (occasionally) Spanish. Even in a different hemisphere, English was alive and well as the vehicular language. We were able to pick up plenty of information, and take some photos (seen throughout this story-click to see full size) to boot. In between talks, though, I reflected on what English’s dominance means for the average global citizen.

Balneario Camboriu In Brazil, English might be lingua franca for science, but this stood in contrast to the rest of the country. Even in airports and large hotels, where one might expect some international contact, few people spoke more than cursory snippets of English. At the end of the day, the majority are blocked from directly interacting with science for two reasons: certainly, because of a lack of a basic education in science, but also because they did not speak the language of the majority of other scientists.

Quantum computers are among us: update

In July, I wrote a post on the basics of quantum computation and the current state of the art. This field offers the promise of drastic improvements over our current computers, particularly in the ways they can factor large numbers. (That sounds dull, but it’s critical to modern cryptography, among other things.) Though quantum computers are not yet close to being cost-effective, their future is rapidly evolving from science fiction to science fact.

The development of real-world quantum computers relies on overcoming two challenges. The first is scientific: given the limitations of physics, is quantum computation possible? What sorts of calculations can be done with it, and how can the technique best be applied?

The second challenge is from the engineering standpoint; true quantum computers require atom-level precision and accuracy in the creation of the qubits. While current transistors in silicon-based chips are just reaching 22 nm in size, atoms themselves are a hundred times smaller. Truly controlling the positions of individual atoms on a surface might have, at one time, seemed an enormous hurdle to manufacturing quantum computers.

Humanizing the graduate student lifecycle

Graduate students gather at the start of the school year.

This week, thousands of new students will begin their graduate careers at UC Berkeley. Though many graduate students in the STEM fields have been entombed in their labs and offices all summer, we can’t help but take note of the newest generation of our peers. Since I was a first-year student back in 2008, I’ve seen the same beats repeated with each new class. In coming to understand this “graduate student lifecycle” both at Berkeley and a variety of other schools, I’ve realized two important points: (1) Berkeley does a very large number of things correctly, and (2) there is one particular shift that would result in an enormous quality of life improvement. More than rewriting any institutional protocol, I see a strong need for a change in the way graduate students interact with each other. Perhaps so many of the negative experiences and connotations of graduate school are passed from student to student, rather than being endemic to the institution itself. We need to replace the sense of pity (for both ourselves and others) with something more useful: compassion.

Are quantum computers among us?’s Law describes an observed trend in the number of transistors on a chip over time; over several decades, this number has doubled roughly every two years. The influence of this phenomenon has had a profound effect on virtually all aspects of modern life: everything from your phone to your microwave exhibits the results.

The problem facing scientists and engineers is this: Moore’s Law is not a law. Nothing guarantees that this doubling trend will continue; computers as you and I know them are approaching a dead end. The basis of modern computer is the doped silicon semiconductor, but in order to increase the number of silicon transistors on a chip, the size of the transistors needs to be decreased. The approach of making smaller transistors has worked for decades, but will eventually run up against the limits of solid state physics. Fundamentally, a different material is needed to fulfill the projections of Moore’s Law.

Over the coming decades, a host of new technologies will supplement and (perhaps) replace the ubiquitous silicon chip. New materials like graphene seem like they may offer at least incremental improvements over silicon, but is there hope for really continuing this exponential growth in the face of the very limits of physics?

Fireflies and the ubiquitous real-world application

A press release came out this week, touting an exciting new paper in Nanotechnology Letters in which enzymes from fireflies were combined with nanorods to producing easily tunable light. The release does a pretty good job of explaining the basic science involved in the work (I’ll get to that later), but I found it most notable for the forced way in which it scrapes for importance and meaning to an experiment that is already hugely important. Why, in particular, is chemistry (and its closely-related cousin, materials science) so frequently bound to “real-world” applications, while no one questions the applications of sequencing a genome or detecting the Higgs boson?

But first, why was this nanorod/enzyme science so interesting? It sits at an incredibly ripe threshold between nanotechnology and biotechnology that, from the viewpoint of many scientists, is key to developing a wide array of new technologies. The proteins developed by species over millions of years of evolution are often incredibly efficient at doing challenging chemistry. In particular, when it comes to using light to do chemistry (or vice-versa), we’re still struggling reaching the same levels of efficiency that natural selection has produced.

Of viruses and volts

The Device Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have been responsible for  many discoveries over the years, but this February they published a piece that I found particularly fascinating. Seung-Wuk Lee and his coworkers have created a device that uses a single layer of viruses to generate enough electric current to run small, simple devices (like screens or sensors.) This breakthrough is exciting not only because of the device itself, but also because of its implications for the cost and environmental impact of future generations of widely adopted technologies.

Review: Maggie Koerth-Baker on the future of the electric grid

Maggie and Me

On Wednesday, May 2, Maggie Koerth-Baker, science editor of and author of Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us, gave a talk on U.S. electrical grid for the Berkeley Science Review‘s Spring 2012 Seminar. Throughout her talk, Maggie used examples from history to provide insights as to the grid’s likely future. Maggie is an anthropologist and journalist by training, and her background informed the approach that she took to understanding the energy industry. The talk seemed to be optimistic and realistic in its approaches, but most importantly focused on the true reality of handling the global energy crisis: the effectiveness of an electrical grid is driven not by power sources but by distribution systems.

The origin of these systems can be traced to Edison’s earliest grids in New York, where teams of engineers perfected the technologies necessary to safely and reliably deliver electricity to consumers. That wasn’t where Maggie started her story, though. Instead, she began by talking about Appleton, Wisconsin. In 1882, Appleton became home to the world’s second electrical grid when H.J. Rogers bought the rights to Edison’s technology (though none of the technical expertise) and proceeded to electrify the town. Though the town generated more renewable electricity than it needed from Rogers’s mill’s water wheel, this didn’t mean that an effective grid existed. Among other things, the voltage and current in the grid varied enormously throughout the day, one effect of which was to rapidly burn out every (at the time very expensive) light bulb in H.J. Rogers’s house.

Science and inspiration in San Diego

Convention Hall

Science is, fundamentally, a collaborative enterprise. No discovery is made in an interpersonal vacuum (though some are made in literal vacuum.) In light of this fact, perhaps the rise of the semi-annual national science society convention as the “event of the year” for many fields was only natural.

This year, I had the chance to attend the American Chemical Society’s national meeting in San Diego. As the presentations and posters associated with my own work were on the first and last days of the meeting, respectively, I hung around for the entire convention. Behind the science, both groundbreaking and mundane, I found a surreal gathering of some of the continent’s most brilliant chemists.

Let me set the scene for this festival of scientific collaboration (and mild debauchery): the San Diego convention center, a structure that bears an eerie resemblance to a Floridian airport. The elaborate palm-tree-centric landscaping really hammers home the touristy aesthetic, while the interior features the same blank white walls, durable benches, and rigid carpeting that says, “Wait patiently for your boarding group to be called.” The surrounding “Historic” Gaslamp Quarter offers a tasteful array of overpriced restaurants and comfortable hotels. Beyond this, the most notable feature of the region was the absolute ubiquity of ACS badges; the area took on the feel of a college campus, with everyone gathered for the same purpose.

Attosecond spectroscopy promises deeper understanding of chemical reactions

Sketch of Molecule

Chemistry is the science of understanding reactions by stringing together fundamental steps into complicated transformations. As the science has advanced, the ability to parse out finer and finer details of reactivity has unveiled new horizons of understanding. Many physical chemists believe that the future of this finer understanding will be found in a technique called “attosecond spectroscopy.” “Attosecond” refers to the lifetime of the shortest pulses of light ever generated; creation of these light pulses by research groups at UC Berkeley allows scientists here to probe the workings of chemical reactions as they occur.

Chemical reactions consist of changes to molecules; these molecules are made up of atomic nuclei that are held together by a sea of electrons (Fig. 1). Physicists and chemists have become accomplished at understanding how these nuclei move during a chemical reaction, and have a variety of techniques to interrogate their positions.

Wonders of the machine shop

I’ve previously posted on the importance of accomplishing science with MacGyveresque inventiveness, but even McGyver needed the right tools to get the job done. My own experiments would never be possible without the UC Berkeley College of Chemistry’s student machine shop. Phil Simon, head of the college’s Liquid Air Plant, is kind enough to train graduate students and postdocs in the skills necessary to form metals and plastics into whatever an apparatus demands. After passing the machine shop class, I had full access to the incredible array of tools within. Though the student shop once took up an entire floor of Gilman Hall (what is now the Pitzer Center), it is now squeezed into an annex to the main machine shop in the basement of Tan Hall. Still, new tools are still being added (all thanks to the attention of Phil Simon) and the shop gets significant use from the school’s physical chemists.

I want this post to serve as a tour of some of the amazing machines in the shop and the ways that I use them; to facilitate that, I’ll use some of my own photographs.

Work Bench

Science and love

I want to spend a moment talking about scientists in love. Pierre and Marie Curie are perhaps the most famous power couple in all of science; together, they shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics for their studies of radiation. Marie went on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911 for her discoveries of radium and polonium, as well. Their daughter, Irène, went on to win the 1935 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with her husband, Frédéric, for the discovery of induced radioactivity.

At the moment, Berkeley’s College of Chemistry has more than its share of scientific power couples: Teresa and Martin Head-Gordon, Marcin Majda and Birgitta Whaley, T. Don and Rosemary Tilley, Michelle and Chris Chang, Anne Baranger and John Hartwig, and Kristie Boering and Ron Cohen. As someone who is also in a scientific relationship (with fellow BSR blogger Piper J. Klemm), I wanted to share some of the benefits and challenges as I’ve experienced them:

  • Home becomes a science zone. Sitting at the breakfast table can be a moment to discuss the state of federal funding for science, and a walk to grab a cup of coffee might suddenly be a discussion of nonlinear optics. For partners who want a refuge from work and research, this can be sincerely frustrating; for others, that means that they can constantly talk about the things that excite them the most with someone who shares that interest. There are thrills to be had from highly overlapping knowledge bases.
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The MacGyver manifesto

Richard Dean Anderson as MacGyver

I did not spend my elementary-school-era Saturday mornings watching cartoons. No, when I pounced on the couch at 5:30 am with my bowl of cereal, I tuned in to the wise tutelage of Angus MacGyver, the lead character of the TV series “MacGyver”. MacGyver, as portrayed by Richard Dean Anderson from 1985 until 1992, was a special agent who solved problems using practical science and engineering. On a weekly basis, he out-thought poachers, drug dealers, communist spies, and any other bad guys he crossed paths with. In doing so, he served as a role model who was drastically different from the muscle-bound “men of action” who littered ‘80s television and film.

My affection for the television series goes beyond nostalgia; I credit “MacGyver” as a significant inspiration to my scientific career. By watching the show, I learned from a young age that cleverness and compassion were much more effective tools in combating “evil” than gunpowder and brawn. Now as a graduate student, I’ve come to realize that “MacGyver” also contains many lessons that are relevant to the broader scientific community.

For instance, MacGyver was a master of applying old science in surprising new ways. In life-or-death situations, he could always be counted on to come up with a creative solution to a problem. It’s true, scientific research is rarely life-or-death, but we are all occasionally overwhelmed — more often than not because our experimental data isn’t coming out as theory predicts. We start to wonder: “do I even know the science necessary to describe the phenomenon correctly?” In that moment of doubt, try to think like MacGyver. Even though the perfect tools might not be available, there must be something lying around the lab that will get the ball rolling. A great scientist needs to apply that MacGyver-esque mindset of being flexible and making due with limited resources.

Telluride’s Town Talks: A model for scientific discourse

This summer, I ventured into the scientific wilderness to a workshop on theoretical chemistry in Telluride, CO, and I’ve returned with hope for the future of the public scientific discourse in America. While in town, I attended a talk delivered by Sambhav N. Sankar of the Justice Department about the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill; to my surprise, 205 of the town’s 2,300 citizens turned up . Such a large turnout for science education is rarely seen in most communities, even in university towns like Berkeley. I believe that this sort of engagement should be a model for future interactions between the scientific establishment and the public.

Before I describe Mr. Sankar’s eloquent presentation and the town’s response, let me first set the stage by describing the surreality of Telluride: it’s a town that feels orthogonal to normalcy. It began as a silver mining outpost at the end of an aspen-encrusted box canyon in the second half of the 19th century. Presently, much of the environmental destruction wrought by those mining efforts has been mitigated, and there seems to be a strong desire among the residents to protect their gorgeous valley. In contrast with the placid countryside, the main street’s historical architecture had me ready for gunslingers to meet at high noon. And although I swear there must be two bars per block, this is also a town that looks eternally ready for an Independence Day parade to roll down Colorado Ave., with kids and dogs chasing the a fire truck to the tune of a marching band. The town’s self-image is deeply indebted to the region’s hardscrabble, pioneer roots, but the environment and history of the town now exist in an uneasy truce with developers who desire to stud the hillsides with condominiums for the winter ski season.

My own journey to this slightly alternative reality was prompted by a workshop at the Telluride Science Research Center called the Telluride School of Theoretical Chemistry. The scientific content of the presentations was excellent, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a bit bizarre to spend mornings in intense scientific lectures and afternoons wandering the hiking routes that surround town.

The most unique part of my experience in Telluride was witnessing the interaction between the school (and the scientists attending it) and the residents of the town. Each week, the Telluride Science Research Center hosts an event that is free and open to the general public called Telluride Town Talks, during which a prominent scientist or science public policy figure gives an hour-long talk and participates in a lengthy question-and answer session. The speaker at the Town Talk I attended was Sambhav N. Sankar, an eloquent and passionate member of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. He was also an attorney in the Department of Justice, and his legal background was immediately apparent in his delivery. His presentation covered technical background on deep water drilling before moving to the events leading up to the spill itself. Although he limited his use of technical terminology, Mr. Sankar did not shy away from using and explaining terms that were critical to his audience’s understanding. This clarity, in conjunction with the town’s intense interest in conservation, made for a rapt audience. A moderated question and answer session followed, during which the audience grilled Mr. Sankar to find out his opinions of the crisis and his view on the future of oil drilling and the energy industry.