LinkFest 2015-12-21

Where America Gets its Winter Lettuce


Lettuce Produces More Greenhouse Gas Emissions than Bacon Does

The vast fields of lettuce in Yuma, in all places, are almost enough to drive me to despair. Almost.

Dear Parents: Everything You Need to Know About Your Son and Daughter’s University But Don’t by Ron Srigley

I am sympathetic to the author, but not at all that sympathetic to his argument. The American university system is currently caught between the cracks of at least three different models. There is the old English system of the upper classes, the German research university model, and most recently a bastardized vocational model. Srigley seems most closely aligned mid-century American model, which was a combination of the German and British systems, prizing both liberal studies and science, with an undercurrent of class distinctions. He is not a fan of the many, many students who go to college today because it is a gatekeeper to the middle class vocations. However, this is not their fault, but ours, for having made a system that requires this. Also, I'm dubious of the purported distinction between 'pure' science in the past and engineering now. A focus on pure science seems like a current obsession, whereas in the past application was very much on the minds of scientists.

A Change of Mind: Is there a way to treat Down's Syndrome?

The inventor of the widely used prenatal test for Down's Syndrome is on a quest to find an effective treatment for it. I think this is a good thing.

The New Atomic Age we Need

I'm not the only one to think that nuclear power is probably the most green energy technology we currently have.

Canada and the Emerging Terror Threat from the North

One of my current favorite authors is John Schindler. Schindler worked for the NSA, and now is a columnist, historian, and professor. Schindler calls it like it is, and I always appreciate that. I have been particularly enjoying his acerbic exchanges on Twitter with critics who don't know anything about espionage or security.

The Ionian Mission

Greg Cochran asks what made the Ionian Greeks so smart? I have wondered this myself. Aristotle must have had a prodigious intellect to figure out everything he figured out. Many of the other Greeks at the time were similarly remarkable, but Aristotle in particular has pride of place. Some commenters on Cochran's post say that this is just low-hanging fruit, but I think this misses the startling depth and breadth of the Ionian Greek accomplishments.

The Once and Future Liberalism

This post echoes a number of themes John Reilly used to talk about. Mead doesn't use the term, but this article is clearly about the apoptheosis of the New Deal in the Kennedy Enlightenment.

PhD Glut

This is sort of thing is usually discussed scoffingly over at the PhysicsForums, but there is a massive over-supply of PhDs. When even Nature is publishing articles on the subject, something has to give.

There have been some attempts to reform the Ponzi scheme nature of grad school in the US.

Some universities are now experimenting with PhD programmes that better prepare graduate students for careers outside academia (see page 280). Anne Carpenter, a cellular biologist at the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is trying to create jobs for existing PhD holders, while discouraging new ones. When she set up her lab four years ago, Carpenter hired experienced staff scientists on permanent contracts instead of the usual mix of temporary postdocs and graduate students. “The whole pyramid scheme of science made little sense to me,” says Carpenter. “I couldn’t in good conscience churn out a hundred graduate students and postdocs in my career.”

But Carpenter has struggled to justify the cost of her staff to grant review panels. “How do I compete with laboratories that hire postdocs for $40,000 instead of a scientist for $80,000?”

I suspect the problem is that an experienced scientist isn't actually twice as productive as a post-doc, which makes the scheme so appealing. The system is set-up to generate cheap scientific labor in a manner the maximizes the metrics chosen: number and dollar amounts of grants and citations for the PI. What this does not do is maximize scientific progress. The path of least resistance for getting a paper published is to do something that hasn't been done before, but the easiest way to do that amounts to stamp-collecting. "Let's sequence this environmental isolate." Ad infinitium. But why?

At this point it seems that the paradigm that reigned during the twentieth century is over. Most of the big principles have already been discovered [for now], so the tasks remaining to scientists involve filling in the details. Why don't we switch to a focus on engineering and try to apply what we already know? I have a suspicion, so far unproven, that modern science has removed itself much further from engineering and applications than was usually the case from Newton on.

The Germans seem to be thinking the same thing:

Germany is Europe’s biggest producer of doctoral graduates, turning out some 7,000 science PhDs in 2005. After a major redesign of its doctoral education programmes over the past 20 years, the country is also well on its way to solving the oversupply problem.

Traditionally, supervisors recruited PhD students informally and trained them to follow in their academic footsteps, with little oversight from the university or research institution.
But as in the rest of Europe, the number of academic positions available to graduates in
Germany has remained stable or fallen. So these days, a PhD in Germany is often marketed
as advanced training not only for academia — a career path pursued by the best of
the best — but also for the wider workforce.

Universities now play a more formal role in student recruitment and development, and many students follow structured courses outside the lab, including classes in presenting, report
writing and other transferable skills. Just under 6% of PhD graduates in science eventually go into full-time academic positions, and most will find research jobs in industry, says Thorsten Wilhelmy, who studies doctoral education for the German Council of Science and Humanities in Cologne. “The long way to professorship in Germany and the relatively low income of German academic staff makes leaving the university after the PhD a good option,” he says.

 So far, I have observed that a graduate education in science can stifle the urge to be useful.

The Value of Libraries

There was a short blurb in the online New York Times about a library in California that closed due to falling tax revenues despite the efforts of Ray Bradbury to save it.

Explaining his support of libraries generally and his efforts in Ventura specifically, Mr. Bradbury said in an interview last summer: “Libraries raised me. I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries, because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”

I am entirely sympathetic to Bradbury. I did indeed go to college, but I managed a liberal education despite the best efforts of the university to prevent it, by means of the campus library and the Internet. I honestly didn't work all that hard in college, so I had plenty of time to read. I probably spent more time reading things in this fashion than I did on coursework. I still spend a lot of time reading, because that I how I learned much of what I currently know.

h/t Christopher Blosser