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…

Short illustrated plasma course – part III

February 22, 2012

Last part about particle trajectories in a plasma with magnetic field for today. With that we will be able to understand the configuration of a tokamak and how particles behave in its particular magnetic field.

Short illustrated plasma course – part II

February 22, 2012

Next step in understanding plasma confinement for fusion energy: the trajectory of plasma particles inside a magnetic field.

Short illustrated plasma course – part 1

February 22, 2012

To understand fusion energy with magnetic confinement, the first thing to know is the nature of a plasma.

Some thoughts on presentations

October 28, 2010

I am currently following lectures on different topics about fusion engineering by some of the most renowned specialists of their field. But I must admit something: on average, the lectures are bad. There are all powerpoint-based courses: the slides serve both as support for the oral contribution and for the lecture notes. As a result, there are overloaded, the speaker try to detail everything and after a few minutes, a large part of the audience has gone back to their computing activities. In my opinion, there should really be two parts to a lecture: the written notes, with a detailed explanation of the content of the course and the oral part where the lecturer stresses the most important parts; his purpose during the talk should be to make the audience feel and understand the major issues at stake, leaving the details for a later reading of the notes.

It is a bad effect of powerpoint and of the cumulation of the presentations by the lecturers. I do not know how many presentations they have in a year, but I would say more than 10. In these conditions, it is easier just to adapt the slides from one presentation to the other and not to prepare lecture notes.

I thing this has to be improved because it can ruin the motivation of students when a subject is badly addressed.

Congratulations to Cedric Villani

September 7, 2010

He won the Fields Medal for a work, (distantly) related to plasma physics. I must say that his resume is impressive. But I was surprised how clearly the description he makes from his work is. I am not a theoretician, rather a hybrid entity between theory and experiment; as a result I am frequently in contact with plasma theoreticians and, I must admit that they often disappoint me because a lot of them (not all, see for instance T.H. Stix) make no effort to provide a usable work for non specialists. I invest a lot of efforts in decrypting their system of notation, developing their equations just to extract the essence of their work. Some explanations would be welcome but when asked for this kind of development, they look at you as if you had insulted them.

That’s why it was a nice surprise to see this expert explaining in clear words the objectives of his research, the problems they met and the methods used to solve them. Rewarding such personalities can only bring more credit to this prestigious Medal.

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