June 25, 2014

There are more and more talks of open or citizen science. For the moment, the main focus is on the publishing system and the way to remove it from the hands of a bit too greedy professional publishers. Two other aspects are the experimentation and numerical science, two money eaters of first class. There is a lot of to say about publishing and numerical science, but I want to focus today on the experimental part and how the maker movement is about to “make” things change in science, provided that we address the right type of issue.

We don’t need to be a fortune-teller to foresee that giant experiments like LHC or ITER or NIF will absorb more and more of the public funding for science. They require money, manpower and a lot of paperwork, changing the way scientists are dealing with experiments. I have to be clear: these experiments are useful and enable to develop a lot of spin-off technologies. The problem is that small or medium-sized experiments are cancelled because of the resulting lack of funding. And believe me, there are a lot of things to learn from room-sized or table-sized testbed. Actually, it is even the only way to keep the contact with reality.

If most institutes or labs start to give up the work on this type of old-fashioned experiments, it can be an opportunity for citizen science. The idea would be to have hackerlabs dedicated to one or several experiments, with access for everybody, just like a hackerspace. You go there to learn how to build a testbed, to carry out experiment, to imagine new experiments. All this with the support of a team of professional experimenters and access to a full-fledged workshop.

What do you gain with respect to a classical lab?  First, independence and flexibility: you choose your hackerlab, your experiment, your objectives, your agenda. Second, you keep hands on real stuff: you learn why experimenting is hard: why it is not enough to push a button to get ready-to-use nobel prize-graded results. Third, you can use as template the structure of the maker world, inclusive the communication system, to present your experiments, your results. You can even imagine a remote control of your testbed, creating your plasma discharge from your bed (I used to trigger my digitizers from the seashore, the best place to think).

And you would not have to justify in advance the choice of every technology you use (“because it’s fun” has always been a bad justification in the academic world). Finally, a good place to use Google Glasses integrated to your experimental process!

For Science and Glory

June 24, 2014

A multi-million prize has been granted to five mathematicians. The NYT reports about it! According to their colleagues, they all largely deserve this prize and they are all a bit annoyed by the amount that they received. I have no doubt that they will use it in the best way (see the article for more details). I was just wondering what the point of these huge prizes was.

I think that Milner tries to use in Science a proven method that was succesful in sport and arts: to transform the best performers in rock-star and to make the whole system revolve around a small elite which is easier to control. 

I am not sure that it will work for the benefit of science (but did it work for the benefit of sport or music? I let you judge). These prizes can be rewarded to two types of persons:

– the true geniuses: I can bet that most of them are not interested by the money and will not choose an area of research because you can win million of dollars but because it is interesting. Otherwise they would work in Fast Trading.

– the guys who can manipulate the system. There are such people with an established network, a lab with powerful equipment and bright team under their supervision and they can get the benefit of the research on their name. 

There is a potential risk that these prizes finish in the end in the pocket of the last class of scientists, which would be bad news, of course.

More generally, I am still surprised by the existence of these prizes. There are more and more of them, even at the lowest levels, like mine. Each conference has now several rewards to distribute in the form of money (best poster, best young scientist, best good-looking experiment). I don’t know exactly how they are given and, above all, I do not see the point. I don’t want to sound naive but the ultimate reward in science is to see one’s work accepted by the community. And it is already an enormous victory.

A prize gives the impression that science for the sake of science is not anymore enough, like a sign of boredom. So you give money to spice up the game. It would be a pity…

The European SpaceX

June 24, 2014

You have probably read the news that Airbus Space and Safran wanted to team up to be more competitive against SpaceX. I am not sure that it is the right solution to develop a future European Falcon. First, they remain a part of their mother companies, which feature, because of their size,  a huge inertia in terms of development. Second, they will have a problem of culture: it will be a hybrid between a system designer and an engine developer with very different methods.  SpaceX is from the beginning a homogeneous company integrating both the system and technology in its culture.

In my opinion, the only solution is to create in Europe the conditions for entrepreneurs (and very bright ones) to create their own space startup. These conditions do not exist for the moment. And it will be a hard task. Airbus, Safran, Thales will block any attempts and they have a lot of weight among politicians in charge of the space program: they recruit their staff from the same pool. It was also the case in the US with Lockheed, Boeing and co. The big trump that Elon Musk played was the Silicon Valley, something that does not exist at all in Europe. SpaceX was able to get the support, the benediction and the image of a Californian startup and to use it to install its political credibility. There is no such lever on the Old Continent and this will be the major difficulty.

In addition, we have here a reduced culture of risk-taking: your diplomas, your position in a well-known company insure you recognition, not being part of a startup even if you build space rockets.

The last problem is the European Space Program itself: it is not ambitious; it has never been ambitious. SpaceX arrived at a point where NASA was lacking of funding but it was still ambitious. So they were eager to accept any viable solution; SpaceX was a solution; they took it to insure an ambitious program. If an European startup goes to ESA and say: we have the way to build a cheap launcher but we need your technical support, the answer will be: “What for?”.

There is no easy solution; but maybe, there is somewhere an European Musk with a high sense of strategy and a genial technical background and he will soon show us his hand.

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