Faster than a speeding bullet

Perhaps not the most wisely chosen title for this Scientific American newsbite, but very cool research: “Ultra High Speed Camera Records at Speed of Light

They have built a high-speed camera with a high-enough frame rate that they were able to watch a pulse of laser light traveling through a Coke bottle in slow motion. (Pause for a moment to watch this video, for it’s really impressive. I’ve linked to the juicy part.)

You should never read Youtube comments, but on this video, people are actually asking good questions, albeit with the usual Internet rudeness. There are two very confusing things said in the video and article which I think are putting people on the wrong track.

Velocity vs. rate

This can’t possibly be true! Nothing can move faster than the speed of light.

The camera does not record at the speed of light (slightly less than 300 000 000 meters per second, or 1 billion km/h). This confuses two common meanings of the word speed: ‘velocity’ and ‘rate’. It makes no sense to say that a camera records film frames at a particular velocity, much less the velocity of light; velocity means something is moving, and in this case nothing is moving fast at all. (Except for the light pulse itself, which of course travels at the velocity of light.)

Instead, by ‘recording speed’, it really means the camera is recording at the rate of 1 billion images per second (which is not the same thing as meters per second). There is a fundamental rule saying that no object can travel at a faster velocity than 300 million meters per second, but there is no such rule for rates.

(Although, if it were an old-fashioned film camera, the film would have to feed through the camera at a velocity faster than the speed of light, which would be impossible. So it’s lucky we live in the digital age.)

“We can see photons”

The other confusing thing is that the researcher says in the video that they can see photons moving through space — that’s strictly true, but not very helpful, since you are seeing photons moving through space right now too. That leads people to ask:

Hey, I thought you could only see light when it reflected off something into your eye! How can we see the photon moving through the bottle when it hasn’t hit anything yet?

Well, the thing we see moving through the bottle is a laser pulse – not one photon but a clump of trillions of them. Out of those trillions, some hit air molecules and fly off in all directions, and some of those happen to hit the camera. We say “the pulse scatters off the air.” So, it’s true, you can’t see photons directly unless they are flying right at you. What we’re actually watching is the air molecules lighting up as the laser pulse passes by.

None of this takes away from the fact that the front edge of that laser pulse travels with the speed of light — and we are watching that in slow motion! How cool is that?

Nature, why?!

Scientific journals charge subscription fees in order to access their content. If you’re an employed scientist, the university or company where you work usually buys an institution-wide subscription to a journal. In that case you don’t have to log in to the journal website because it recognizes your IP address as belonging to a subscribing institution. In fact, you don’t even get an account on the journal website, because it’s impractical to issue an account to every single user at a university, for example.

So what do you do when you have to look up something when you’re away from your office? You use SSH with port forwarding to connect to work, then visit the website using a proxy server on that port. Since you are now browsing through a work computer, you can read the journal. There’s nothing wrong with this, because your employer has already paid for your access that content, but the barrier was simply the impracticality of issuing you an individual account.

So it’s really strange that Nature Publishing Group, which publishes the overrated Nature family of journals, seems to want to discourage this practice. If you visit the site of a Nature journal from a non-subscriber IP address, they set a cookie in your browser that says you are not a subscriber. So even when you turn on your proxy server and revisit the site, it still tells you you’re not a subscriber and can’t access the journal article. Luckily, it is easily remedied by erasing your browser’s cookies. (Easily done, that is, but not easily thought of. Hope this helps someone.)

Why, Nature, why? Why would you do this? Do you have scientists’ best interests at heart and you want to prevent them from working at home? Or do you hope that people are gullible enough to pay twice for the same content?

Discretization, Part II

In this post I described how I encountered the Sell Your Science contest and was entirely fed up with how they perpetuate the myth that scientists are a bunch of timewasters and that marketable research is the only research worth doing. I wrote the organizers, Science Alliance, a letter and urged other people to do the same. Well, it took fewer letters than I expected for something to happen.

My coworker Jelmer Renema wrote them a more strongly worded e-mail than I did. Today he got a telephone call from someone from Science Alliance who wanted to talk about the e-mail. The outcome of the telephone call was that the Science Alliance employee said they didn’t mean that economic gain was the only valid reason for science; social relevance and curiosity from the public are important too. He admitted that the blurb could have been worded differently, although he claimed that there was a large group of scientists opposed to bringing research to market. No, Jelmer told him, nobody’s opposed to that — they’re opposed to the idea that marketable research is the only worthwhile research. In the end, Science Alliance promised to do better next year and Jelmer offered them his assistance in matters of science communication.

By coincidence, an interview appeared in the Delft University newspaper this week. Professor Piet Borst, former scientific director of the Dutch Cancer Institute, says that the whole ‘valorization’ business has gone too far and gets quite angry about it (translation mine):

“We are going about this in such an absurd way. There’s really no other way to put it. [The ministry of] Economic Affairs is living in the 1970s, they think like this: ‘Those wretched university researchers and other academics, busy only with their own hamfisted hobbies, we have to force them to do useful work, and we can only do that by making them dependent on industry financing. They need guidance from our watchful industrialists over what they do.’ They’re delusional. It’s a recipe for how to do it wrong.”

Note that this man isn’t one of those mythical ‘hermit scientists’ either: he says in the interview that those who do research with public money have a duty to allow their findings to be turned into products, which create jobs.

One other important point that Borst makes is that if you, as a researcher, have a significant stake in a spinoff company, then can you really be trusted to publish findings that will cause your shares to plummet? As the interviewer says in the article, “The answer is obvious once you’ve asked the question.”

Discretization is the better part of valorization

V is for Valorization. What’s that? A buzzword coined by the Dutch government that signifies how all scientific research should make money, and lots of it, sooner rather than later. It’s certainly not an English word, as evidenced by the quizzical looks on the faces of physicists who haven’t been working in the Netherlands lately, when some official government delegate gets to make a speech at a Dutch physics conference and says, beaming into the audience, “We are ferry heppy to see so much fellorizable research going on here!”

(UPDATE: Merlijn van Deen reports that valorisation is, in fact, a borrowing from French, where it is used in the same context of scientific research as in Dutch. In English, according to Wikipedia, it is used only as a translation of the German Verwertung, a technical term coined by Marx in Das Kapital meaning to add surplus value to capital by human action.)

I don’t fit the popular caricature of a scientist who thinks all research should be pure and untouched by worldly concerns. On the contrary, I have a Master’s degree in applied physics. One of my current projects is to build a new kind of wavefront sensor that works on a different principle than the commercially available ones. I’m firmly of the opinion that the original reason for this ‘valorization’ policy is quite sound: to get academia and industry interested enough in each other so that academia’s more marketable efforts get passed on to industry instead of dying the death of obscurity in a professor’s filing cabinet, and industry knocks on academia’s door when they have an interesting problem to solve with a longer time-to-market.

But it’s been blown all out of proportion now. The government has declared some research more valuable than other research: fields like high tech systems and energie (energy) are now designated topsectoren (top sectors,) research to which funds should be diverted at the expense of all other research. They are headed by topteams (top teams) each including a captain of science and captain of industry, which draw up innovatiecontracten (innovation contracts) that are required to hit each vertex of the gouden driehoek (golden triangle) of kennis, kunde, kassa (knowledge, expertise, and cash.) It will be successful in making the Netherlands #1 worldwide in the use of buzzwords, which I’ve italicized and translated (only where necessary, since half of them are in English anyway to make them sound more important.) If you read the actual documents, you get the feeling that the government is telling the big companies, “Hey! Want some cheap contract research? We’ve given those scientists free rein for too long and it’s time they worked for you to redeem themselves!”

The thing that spurred me out of lethargy was this, the Sell Your Science contest. You have to make a 90-second video about your research and the winner gets the title “Best Science Communicator of the Netherlands.” Sounds great. But it turns out that you literally have to sell your research: in the description, they treat ‘the audience’ and ‘investors’ as one and the same! I’m sorry, but science communication and sales pitches are two different things. Nothing wrong with a sales pitch contest, but at least call it by its rightful name!

Science crosses borders that politics doesn’t, so it may not have even occurred to their bureaucrat brains that they’re shutting out a large share of the scientists in the Netherlands, who are not Dutch and might not speak it well enough to read the rules of the contest which aren’t in English.

And this part really makes my blood boil (translation mine):

Nowadays, it’s not enough just to write scientific articles and to talk to people in your own field. A broader, open attitude towards society is expected, and valorization sections are required in NWO grant applications. The modern scientist will have to communicate differently and more widely in order to propagate their research.

I explain exactly why this makes my blood boil in the letter that I sent them on May 10. My own English translation is reproduced below. It’s been two weeks and I’ve received no reply. So I’m sharing it:

Dear Sir or Madam, (cc: editorial office of the Leiden University employee newsletter)

I read about the ‘Sell Your Science’ contest in Leiden University’s employee newsletter, and from there I clicked over to the website My astonishment was boundless when I read there that this contest is failing to distinguish between the two entirely disparate concepts of ‘science communication’ and ‘science valorization.’ I would like to take a moment of your time to explain why I think this is wrong.

Science communication is, as you say, presenting research to a broad audience in a clear and understandable way. But is that the same as ‘valorization’? Only if one assumes that the broad audience is exclusively interested in marketable research. That is a dangerous fallacy.

The passion that drives a researcher to be good at science communication usually doesn’t spring from the commercialization of research. It’s likely that someone who’s motivated by commercialization won’t choose a career in research. These days, there are those who would rather deny that, but it’s a fact. The description of Sell Your Science, in which scientists are portrayed as hermits, only speaking to their fellow scientists and avoiding contact with society, and in which you say that the ‘modern’ scientist has to start doing things differently, feels like a slap in the face of my profession. There are countless scientists, both in the past and in modern times, who may not necessarily be oriented towards industry, but do stand 100% squarely in society. These people are marginalized by the tendentious introduction on the website. ‘Hermits’ may exist, it’s true, but they are a small minority.

Anyone that I’ve ever encountered who’s been good at communicating science, was able to captivate their audience using their dedication and passion, no matter what the economic value of the research was. Good science communication makes sure the audience has learned something by the time they leave. Good science communication fans the sparks of curiosity in the audience, so that someone, the day after or the day after that, might just hit upon the idea to ask “How does that work, anyway?” A scientist who can captivate an audience (apparently, a hostile one at that) with ‘unmarketable’ science and at the same time, manages to convey its importance despite its unmarketability, is a much better candidate for the title of “Best Science Communicator of the Netherlands” than someone who can sell ‘marketable’ science to investors. That’s the difference between ‘science communication’ and ‘science valorization.’

Philip Chimento
PhD student, physics
Leiden University

Writing letters seems to have had an actual effect — read Part II.

Rain in the Desert, Part II

Recently I wrote about my experience with microblogging at a physics conference. I was gratified to find out that people actually read and enjoyed it, and it might even have had an effect on next year’s conference. Roy Meijer was kind enough to send me some tips on how to use social media at scientific conferences. I’ve said what I wanted to say about the experience, but I want to discuss my further thoughts about two inappropriately sexist messages that showed up on the big Twitter screens at the conference.

A conference-goer who made one of the sexist comments wrote a comment on this blog, anonymously, objecting to me calling him a socially retarded asshole in my essay. Let it be absolutely clear that I don’t take kindly to people who create an unwelcoming or unpleasant environment for women in physics. But it made me think anyway: he seemed genuinely convinced that women enjoy this kind of attention, and indeed, one shouldn’t ascribe others’ objectionable behavior to malice when it could be just cluelessness. So maybe I should just have said socially retarded.

But no matter whether it’s malice or cluelessness, I know that physicists can do better. Not just can, but have to. Sexist attitudes just don’t belong in the world today, and most other professions have gotten with the program. But physicists apparently still live in 1972. Here are some examples of what women in physics have to put up with:

  • A few years ago a professor at our Institute gave a really horrifying speech at the Christmas party, in which he thanked the secretaries for being our mothers who took care of us, and the technicians for being our fathers who brought us toys to play with. As if that piece of gender stereotyping weren’t enough of a train wreck by itself, he had actually started out his speech by telling an off-color story that involved mistresses, then said he’d heard that story from a Jewish colleague and that it was typical Jewish humor. (Although this post is about sexism, not racial stereotypes, and I can only be outraged about one thing at a time if I want to keep my message on track.)
  • Another professor at our Institute told grad students that to be a successful physicist, you have to have a supportive family, so his wife stayed home and took care of the children. Yes, there were female grad students in the audience. Perhaps there were gay grad students too.
  • At a conference I was at, a professor put a slide of a bikini model into his talk. He had photoshopped her head to be the professor organizing the conference (who is a woman).
  • If you go to the poster session at a physics conference, you’ll always see a crowd of nerds clustered around a few posters. At the center of each cluster is a female physicist presenting her poster. If I put myself in her place, I figure the attention to one’s research is gratifying — as a male physicist, I always have to work really hard to get anyone to even stop and take a look at my poster — but on the other hand, as a male physicist, I never have to worry about whether the attention comes from sincere interest in one’s research, or ulterior motives.

[Man writes incorrect equation on chalkboard] ONLOOKER: Wow, you suck at math. [Woman writes incorrect equation on chalkboard] ONLOOKER: Wow, girls suck at math.

Dear readers, I respect you, really I do. I know everybody on the whole internet links to this XKCD cartoon and you've seen it fifty thousand times already. But there's just no possible way to illustrate sexism in science more accurately and simply than Randall Munroe does.

So the question is what in particular is wrong with these comments I objected to. The Geek Feminism Wiki’s page on technical conferences has a list of problems with which women are often confronted. My experience is that FOM does a good job at making sure that most of these problems don’t occur at the Veldhoven conference. (Although my personal experience doesn’t really count, does it, since I’m lucky enough not to have to face these challenges.)

However, our conference-goer who made the inappropriate comment on the public screen, in my opinion, has made the mistake of falling into the “You should be flattered” trap: the misguided belief that since he was actually making a compliment, it should be OK. I quote (and slightly paraphrase) from that link on why this belief is wrong:

  • “It attempts to dictate women’s emotional responses to such comments, in particular perpetrating the idea that women are socially obliged to be pleasant and accommodating;
  • “It places the blame on women for responding negatively to attention which is wholly inappropriate in [a professional context];
  • “It reminds women that they are subject to men’s approval […];
  • “It reminds women who aren’t the object of the comment that they are also subject to men’s approval;
  • “It ignores the fact that many women have had negative experiences with sexual attention, such as immediate or eventual criticism or violence, and therefore do not view it with unmixed (or any) pleasure;
  • “It makes non-straight women feel particularly marginalised;
  • “Focusing on women’s appearance contributes to feelings of exceptionalism and conveys the judgment that a woman’s [physics] expertise is less valuable than her attractiveness.”

In my mind, there’s still an unsolved question. Does the conference organizer have a responsibility towards the conference-goers to prevent this stuff from happening or mitigate it when it does? On the one hand, you have to assume that people will comport themselves decently in public, and you can’t prevent every possible turd that people might drop in the punchbowl. On the other hand, allowing someone to create a poisonous environment for a minority lasts much longer than the conference does.

Addendum 1: I debated with myself whether to name-and-shame the professors in the examples above. They certainly deserve it, but I’m not sure it would serve any purpose other than spite. The time for denouncing the first and third incidents was right after they happened, and I will always regret that I said nothing in both cases. I wasn’t present at the second incident myself; I only heard about it from people who were there.

Addendum 2: Please realize that I’m not trying to flog a dead horse by chastising someone for an inappropriate comment at a conference that has been over for two months now. I am writing this because I think that the problem is an important one and I think that we have a responsibility to educate our colleagues so that physics can move out of the social Dark Ages, and women will actually feel welcome in our field, and nobody will argue about affirmative action policies, because we won’t need them.

Wisteria Hysteria

Dutch wireless disease? (By Yug, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Dutch wireless disease?

Faced with the prospect of funding cuts from the new anti-intellectual government (“We don’t pay you to think, Mister Scientist!”), apparently someone at Wageningen University’s PR office has decided their results need to make more waves.

The university’s press release on their website is unfortunately only in Dutch, but in it they say that while observing young ash trees growing for three months, close proximity to six wireless routers seemed to cause discoloration and death of leaves. They then go on to say [translation mine],

Although the effects were observed using various sources of radiation and various trees, the researchers think it desirable to repeat the experiment, preferably during a longer period and on a larger scale.

This is code for “Our results were not statistically significant,” which in layman’s terms means “It might or might not be true, but we proved jack.” Now this research has the potential for far-reaching consequences in our modern society that depends on wireless internet and other sorts of electromagnetic waves, and the subject is also a touchy one, about which many people have a strong opinion which is totally unsupported by facts.

Let me state here once and for all that I don’t know the facts either. I tend to start out skeptical of these “studies” because of all the nonsense floating around, but like any good skeptic, I am open to being convinced by sound science. Several serious mistakes indicate, however, that while the as yet unpublished research may be sound, the press release doesn’t even come close:

  • Mistake #1. Sending out a press release before the experiment was finished, apparently. What if this premature conclusion is disproved when the experiment is repeated over longer periods and with more trees, as the researchers say they need to do?
  • Mistake #2. Misrepresenting collaborating parties in the press release. Only the city of Alphen is mentioned in this version of the press release, at whose request (and presumably, on whose dime) the research was carried out. However, other news items also list Delft University and the independent research lab TNO as parties in the research. That indicates to me that they must have been mentioned in an earlier version of the press release. Turns out, TNO issued a statement on their website explicitly distancing themselves from the conclusions! Let me assure you, this does not happen lightly in science.
  • Mistake #3. Including numbers in the press release to inflate its importance, without explaining what they mean so that readers can understand.

Let me elaborate a little on Mistake #3, since numbers are important in this game. The exact words are [again, translation mine]:

…frequencies varying from 2412 to 2472 MHz, and a power of 100 mW EIRP at 50 cm distance.

So this just means that they used wireless routers, transmitting at 2.4 GHz, and placed them half a meter away from the trees. The frequency “variation” here means nothing. The researchers didn’t vary anything, those frequencies are just the standard channels used by 802.11b and 802.11g wireless. Why didn’t they test 5 GHz, which is also a common frequency used by wireless routers? Couldn’t they afford more than six routers?

I also had to look up the abbreviation EIRP, which stands for equivalent isotropically radiated power. This is too technical for me to get into in this post (although if you’re curious I’d be happy to explain it) which means it had no business being in a press release for the public. Also, it makes no sense to quote the EIRP in this case, so I’m guessing the PR office just got it off the side of the box the router came in. For nerds who know what I’m talking about, the power the tree is actually exposed to, depends not only on the distance to the source (and it falls off as 1/r²) but also on the surface the tree presents to the source!

The figure of 100 mW, besides being dubious, also means nothing to the average reader when taken out of context. Let me illustrate: a 100 mW green laser beam will blind you if you look into it. It might sting you if you stick your hand into it, and it might burn paper, all depending on how tightly it’s focused. But a regular 40-watt lightbulb, which radiates both light and heat, lights up your room nicely and harmlessly, despite radiating four hundred times as much power as the laser beam.

You stay the hell away from my baby, you internet tree-murderer! (By blaackhawk, freely reusable, from

You stay the hell away from my baby, you internet tree-murderer!

All this has led to a spate of news articles with titles like “Wireless internet makes plants sick!” The irresponsibility exhibited here just astounds me. Hippies everywhere are going to don their tinfoil hats, and mobile phone users are going to be subjected to the kind of crusade that smokers have already had to face: “Put away that phone, you irresponsible jerk!” concerned mothers will scream at us. “Your secondhand radiation is giving my kid cancer!” Of course I’m exaggerating, but the damage is already done.

The worst example of this is Spits’ (a freely distributed newspaper, i.e. you get what you pay for) take on the article: you might as well stop reading when you see the giant radioactivity signs in the photo! Conflating ionizing nuclear radiation with non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation is pure fear-mongering, because they are as similar as Santa Claus and Parmesan cheese. If you do read beyond the photograph, bravely risking the loss of several IQ points, you see that Spits can’t even avoid contradicting themselves within the three-paragraph extent of the article! [translation mine.]

Whether radiation is really the cause of these phenomena, did not become clear in the study. […] In the study, the possibility that ultrafine particulates caused the phenomena was not ruled out. In any case, it is certain that the dead leaves and stunted growth were caused by radiation, according to the researchers.

The last sentence is also an outright lie, if I’m to believe the university’s press release. All because some PR monkey or fame-crazy researcher couldn’t wait for conclusive, publishable results and decided to fan the flames of the public’s fear instead. Sorry people, but when the results are not conclusive, that means the results are not conclusive. That’s the way science works. Suck it up and deal with it.