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?

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

My employer, FOM, held their yearly national physics conference again in the town of Veldhoven. It’s always a good opportunity to catch up with people and learn about whatever’s been going on recently in Dutch physics research.

This year, the chairman of the executive board, Niek Lopes Cardozo, opened the conference with a short speech. To my astonishment, he concluded by urging the conference attendees to use Twitter during the conference! This was underscored by two giant projected video screens out in the main hall, scrolling messages from the #FOMveldhoven stream.

How does one set about the task of tweeting about a physics conference? I’m all for getting physicists, who are among the most conservative of scientists, to use exciting new technologies, but in this case I was skeptical. It sounded to me like the proverbial Underpants Gnomes’ half-baked business plan:

  1. Use Twitter.
  2. ???
  3. Profit!

…coming the way it did, with little more explanation than “Tweet for Science!” Possibly there was some metaphorical idolatry involved too, as if a consultant had advised FOM that they needed to “leverage the power of social media” and then leaned back in expectation of managers bowing down before him.

I have the unfortunate habit that when I see somebody’s golden calf, I have to poke at it until it falls over. So I decided to plunge wholeheartedly into it, skeptically but with an open mind.

This was new ground for me. I did already have a Twitter account, although I barely post more than once a month. I use it mostly to read other people’s messages. I thought this would be a nice experiment to try and see what ways I could come up with to put it to actual useful use at a conference.

Unfortunately, the results were underwhelming. It was a lot of inane chatter that in my opinion was a waste of time to read and participate in. Neither can I say that my own messages were very scientifically newsworthy — and it follows from symmetry that if I didn’t think other people’s tweets were interesting then they probably didn’t think mine were.

Here’s what kinds of things went on:

  • The usual let-off-steam tweets about trains being late.
  • Lots of chatter in Dutch from FOM. Of course people are free to tweet in whatever language they like, but projecting tweets on a big screen at an international conference in a language that less than half of the attendees speak is not going to make them disposed to participate.
  • Tweets about Twitter itself: can we get #FOMveldhoven to trend, who’ll be the most active Twitterer at the conference, etc. Meta-conversation is the refuge for people who really don’t have anything to say.
  • Tweets about lunch.
  • People exclaiming which talk they were going to, or at, or had just visited. This was the first reasonably useful Twitter phenomenon at the conference. There were not really any people advertising their own talks, but I found out why that was when I went to give my own talk: I was too busy setting up my laptop and concentrating to get out my phone and type a message, and it would have been disruptive to the person who went before me anyway.
  • Tweets about dinner.
  • People repeating the statistic of how many people there were at dinner including someone who didn’t get the chairman’s joke that it was a “world record in Veldhoven” (one-horse town where the conference is held) and tweeted that it was a real world record.
  • Tweets about how fascinating the after-dinner talk was. I thought the talk was fascinating too. So much so, that I paid attention to the speaker while he was speaking. When I got out my phone afterwards, I was half-amused and half-shocked to see how many people had publicly claimed they were listening raptly on a medium that made it impossible for that to be true. (You’d think this was the nadir, but it wasn’t. Read on.)
  • A snide political remark from me about the junior minister of Education which I later thought better of and deleted. Not my proudest moment.
  • Drunk tweets from people in the nerd disco.
  • The absolute nadir: “Rain in the desert! I saw a beautiful girl at #FOMveldhoven” (later deleted) and “Is this being moderated? Beer and boobs #FOMveldhoven” Congratulations assholes, you’ve just undone more progress for women in physics than any “20% female professors by 2020” policy can do. And seriously, only a physicist could be so socially retarded that, instead of telling a woman she’s beautiful, he manages to tell hundreds of others they’re ugly.

I’m convinced that the lack of useful content is because nobody really knew how to put Twitter to work at a physics conference. For example, it didn’t occur to me to post the slides from my talk online until the day after it was over — but I was surprised that I was the only one who posted any slides at all! Twitter is a powerful tool, but it won’t work for you if you don’t know how to use it, and I don’t know how to use it. Apparently hardly anyone else did at this conference either.

Accordingly, following along with the conference on Twitter would have been nice if it hadn’t been shoved into our faces quite so much. Exhorting the attendees in the opening speech and projecting the tweets on a big screen makes people feel expected to join in. Feeling expected to follow along with it makes it all the more annoying when it turns out to be a waste of time. It should have been optional.

I’d like to amend what I tweeted near the beginning of the conference. I said, “Twitter isn’t magical. Tweeting random crap from a conference doesn’t automatically make it nifty.” Twitter can actually make magical things happen, but like most magical things in this world, you can’t just wave a wad of cash around and say “I’ma get me some of that.”

Hurdles Even Here

My good buddy Diederik was on the popular evening variety show De Wereld Draait Door Tuesday evening, being interviewed by the host Matthijs van Nieuwkerk about the Nobel prize going to the graphene people. It was a rousing success: on twitter, people were wondering whether he had a fan club, and clamoring for him to appear on the program more often! It was wonderful to see Diederik combine his gift for entertaining people with the contagious enthusiasm with which he does everything. The clip below is ten minutes well spent, if you speak Dutch that is.

He did a brilliant job, but if I’m to keep true to the principles of this blog, I’ll have to make a serious observation, not just congratulate him on a job well done — sorry, Diederik. Well, my observation is about the part that starts almost exactly two minutes into the interview. I’ve transcribed it and translated it into English below:

MVN: He won, and you were ecstatic, is that what you said?

DJ: Maybe not ecstatic, but I worked a lot with the material [graphene] at university, and it’s such a cool material! His winning is completely justified. It’s as if… well… if you read the papers from those days, then the American phrase “It’ll even walk your dog!” comes to mind. It’s strong, it’s flexible, you can see through it, it conducts infinitely better than copper — well, not infinitely of course — a million times better…

MVN: [interrupting] Please consider, Diederik, that not all the viewers have your brains!

Of course it’s good practice for talk show hosts to interrupt their guests when they’re not getting to the point quickly enough. I happen to think Matthijs van Nieuwkerk is a good interviewer. However, probably without even meaning to, he came uncomfortably close to the knee-jerk reaction that physicists are so familiar with: physicist starts talking, and interlocutor stops listening because he’s busy thinking “Oh no! He’s opening his mouth and I’m not going to understand anything that comes out!”

My geek heart breaks a little whenever that happens.

Not too much though, because Diederik went on to give one of the best popular-science explanations I’ve ever heard. Seriously, watch the video.

Presentation Poetry

I attended a lunch talk on Tuesday in which the speaker opened by saying how much he enjoyed mathematical modeling. So much, in fact, that it had inspired him to write a poem, which he recited for us from his first slide. He was no T. S. Eliot, but that would have been a bit too much for a lunch talk anyway. As it was, the audience didn’t quite seem to know what to do with the poem, but there’s physicists for you.

Whenever I give a talk or present a poster I always try to search for some gimmick that will stand out in people’s minds, and give me a way to distinguish my message from that of the other talks or posters. I’ve never quite been able to do that to my own satisfaction. What I usually end up doing is taking particular care to produce well-designed, uncluttered slides and hoping the audience notices the difference. They probably don’t, since my ideal of scientific information design is to be neat and unobtrusive.

The best way to make an unforgettable impression is to get your audience to laugh at something entirely frivolous right at the start, but I think you need to have been a scientist for longer than I have if you want to get away with that and still be taken seriously. Starting off with a four-line poem, on the other hand, was cute and stylish. It was unobtrusive like good slide design, but not unnoticeable. It made those who could appreciate it smile; and those who couldn’t simply had a “What?” moment before the real scientific content started. It certainly didn’t detract from taking the speaker seriously.

Now, if only I could find a similar gimmick that fits my personality more than poetry.