Monday, July 16, 2012

Things To Read, 16th July

When I first decided to start collecting together links to interesting things on the internet and putting them into one blog post per week, I was envisaging something like a less frequent version of this. Instead these posts have become something slightly different: longer, because I like to add short comments on the articles I link to; and perhaps more selective. This meant that these posts were becoming a little too much work! I also don't always find enough physics links to highlight each week.

So I have decided to embrace the change: these posts will remain a regular feature, but no longer necessarily a weekly feature. Instead I shall put them out as and when I have collected enough items I'd like to point out and briefly comment on. The title of the series will also be amended to reflect this.

Anyway, since I have already started writing something for today, I will include a few items:
  1. I was particularly interested in this little post by Julianne Dalcanton at Cosmic Variance, about the employment chances for physicists who choose to, or for whatever reason have to, leave the world of academia. The statistics — at least in the US — appear to be relatively encouraging, and somewhat better than for "lab-based" biologists or chemists. Julianne has her speculations as to why this should be so; I suppose they sound quite plausible.
    I think the other point she makes is really important too — students enrolling for physics PhD programmes really ought to be aware that the odds against them ever getting a permanent academic position equivalent to that of their advisor are very small. Say the average professor sees one student through to a PhD every two years. Over a career of 40 years, that's 20 completed PhDs, and yet when that professor retires, only one permanent faculty position becomes available. Odds like that mean that, unlike the UK government, every sensible PhD student should be aware of the need to have a Plan B. This applies also to those of us who have been lucky enough to get a foot on the ladder in the form of a post-doc job (though I don't seem to have taken my own advice yet!).
  2. Tucked away in the Guardian, I saw this report on the treatment in Pakistan of Nobel-Prize-winning particle theorist Abdus Salam, both before and after his death in 1996.
  3. Anyone who has been following the US Presidential elections will know that there has been some amount of kerfuffle recently about who was in charge of which company when. You could see this for a little perspective, or doubtless there are countless other places you could read about it. Anyway, that's not what interests me: I don't have a vote in this election, and if I did, I wouldn't need stories about Bain Capital to know that Romney is a ridiculous candidate.
    Instead, I think the significant occurrence from the last week was this quote from Barack Obama:
    [I]f you’re a head of a large private equity firm or hedge fund, your job is to make money. It’s not to create jobs. It’s not even to create a successful business – it’s to make sure that you’re maximizing returns for your investor. Now that’s appropriate. That’s part of the American way. That’s part of the system. But that doesn’t necessarily make you qualified to think about the economy as a whole ...
    Phew. At last some politician has come out and said something sensible. I would have thought it was fairly obvious that the analogy between running a country and running a business was completely wrong — after all, I doubt there is a company anywhere in the world that sells its product primarily to its own employees — but still most politicians continue to treat people like idiots. This is not restricted to the US: in Britain the analogy used by the Tories is different — that government budgets are like family budgets, complete with credit cards and tightening belts — but the underlying fallacy is basically the same (which family buys goods and services primarily from itself?). I don't know exactly what rhetorical devices politicians use in Germany, Spain, Greece and the like, but from the utter mess they have made of the Euro, one can surmise that they must be equally stupid. So one-and-a-half cheers for Obama for attempting to right that trend.

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