Monday, October 11, 2010

Midterm Elections: Don't Reverse into a Ditch

In the autumn of 2008, the economy was in free fall. Things were so bad that I was in favor of President Bush's actions to rescue the banks (independent of how poorly they behaved, we simply could not let them drag down the whole economy). The ditch we went into was still plenty deep. For the last two years, the Democrats have been trying to get us out of that ditch. It is slow going, but the economy has begun to recover. The Republicans made the tactical decision to oppose President Obama at every turn, gambling that if the economy did not recover quickly, Democrats would be blamed.

Now you may not like the direction the Democrats took to head out of the ditch. That's fine. But in the next two years, it is critical that we keep moving forward on a path to recovery. You may not be happy with the way things are now, but it would be far worse to go into reverse, backing into the ditch. And that's what the Republicans plan to do.

How do I know: they say so. They have concluded that "stimulus" is unpopular, and they plan to stymy any further stimulus to the economy. They want to revisit the last two years of legislation instead of moving forward. Rush Limbaugh told his listeners, “People want an end to what is happening now. They want the brakes applied to the Obama agenda.” It will be just like 1937, when FDR was persuaded to cut spending while the economy was still struggling out of the Great Depression, which caused the recession of 1937-38.

We need to control spending in the long term, just as one should drive prudently down the road. But we are still coming out of a ditch, so we need to keep the pedal to the metal. And we certainly have to keep the car in Drive, not Reverse.


Monday, September 27, 2010

Sometimes It's Just Hay

Last December I wrote about rumors that an experiment called CDMS had found evidence for direct detection of the Dark Matter. I called my post "Searching for Unusual Hay in a Haystack" because the "needle" they were looking for (the dark matter) is so close in appearance to the "hay" (background events) that it is really hard to tell them apart. At the time, I said that it was quite likely that the "signal" of two events was just some background events that happened to look a lot like the signal they were looking for---that they had just found normal hay that looked a little unusual. And I concluded, "So we await future experiments with more signal and less background".

Well, that data has just been published in the journal Physical Review Letters. Here is a nice writeup of the results. In brief, an experiment called XENON100, which is much more powerful than CDMS, was able to take enough data in just its first 11 days of running to basically rule out the CDMS signal (in the plot pictured above, the solid black XENON100 line is below the dotted CDMS line on the left half of the plot, where CDMS signal events were found). Another way to put that is this: if the CDMS signal were real (not just a background fluctuation), XENON100 would easily have seen it. But XENON100 saw nothing unusual.

This is often the pattern on the frontiers of science. There is a hint of a signal, and then it is either confirmed or it is ruled out by a more powerful experiment. Alas, this time it was ruled out. So it's back to waiting for a hint of a signal from somewhere else.

[the plot is taken from the journal article, which is available here]


Sunday, August 29, 2010

Ground Zero Mosque and Religious Freedom

It seems to me that there are two very different issues regarding the mosque (and cultural center). Whether the builders have the right to build it two blocks from Ground Zero, and whether one thinks it is a good idea to build it there. I believe President Obama tried to make this distinction, but, in part because he addressed the points on two separate days, it was in-artfully done (to be kind).

Let's be clear about the first point. There would be no objection to building a Christian church two blocks from Ground Zero. This country was founded, in part, by those fleeing religious persecution, and freedom of religion is fundamental to our society and our Constitution. As such, any attempt to prevent the building of the mosque (and cultural center) should be, and likely would be, ruled unconstitutional. But it goes far beyond legality. I think that to be true to the freedoms we hold dear, we need to support the right to build the mosque even if we strongly disagree with its construction. Supporting freedom means supporting things one does not agree with.

Note that this principle applies to the speech of those who oppose the mosque. They have the right to say it should not be built, and, like Voltaire, I will defend to the death their right to do so. But when someone uses their right to free speech to call for the rights of others to be curtailed, I think it is particularly important we use our right to free speech to call for those rights (here freedom of religion) to be respected.

Now, is it a good idea to built it there? Well, that depends somewhat on what 'it' is. If it really is a center designed to promote religious understanding, then Ground Zero would certainly serve as a powerful reminder to all who came there what horrible things rage coupled with fundamentalism can do. On the other hand, there are some who lost loved ones in 9/11 who will be traumatized by its presence. One can argue that they should not react that way, since the terrorist act was committed by a small sect of people (and sects in all religions have done awful things), but this is an emotional issue.

If one thinks it is a bad idea to build it there, I think it is perfectly reasonable to ask the builders to reconsider their location. But I think it goes against the idea of religious freedom to demand it.

In brief, I think there is nothing wrong with having misgivings about a mosque (and cultural center) being built two blocks from Ground Zero, but I think all of us need to defend the right for it to be built there.

[photo: Dramatization of a pilgrim praying freely in the New World.]


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

French President Sarkozy Speech in Support of Basic Research

[September 2010 Note: I am appalled but what President Sarkozy has done of late regarding the Roma People, but I am leaving up my positive impressions of him from this summer on the narrow issue of science funding]

I am attending the International Conference on High Energy Physics (ICHEP) in Paris. I'll write a subsequent post about the science. But first, in a perhaps unprecedented move, a head of state for major country has chosen to address a physics conference. Nicolas Sarkozy, President of the Republic of France, gave an impressive impassioned visionary speech to a skeptical audience of particle physicists. He won us over.

The speech lasted perhaps 1/2hr, and was constructed specifically for the assembled audience. No doubt he can use elements in other speeches, but most of it was really directed at us. He said that some of his friends asked why he would give such a speech to "those people", and the content of his speech was a ringing answer. He highlighted the need for basic research, especially in a world where fundamentalism and economic conditions threaten it. He stressed the need for politicians, such as himself, to work actively to support science. And he talked about the role basic research plays in future innovation, saying something like "you can't build a lightbulb by successive improvements to the candle". Finally, he called upon us to convey what we know to the public.

The speech was also remarkable for it humility and for its grasp of the topic of the conference, which really is, in some sense, an attempt to understand the very small in order to understand the very large.

So to President Sarkozy and his staff, all I have to say is, "Merci beaucoup".

UPDATE: Here is a page devoted to the speech with video and full text in French and English.

[photo: Mike Paterson, from the only other hint I have seen of the speech on the web thus far:]


Saturday, June 26, 2010

Blog short-circuited by Twitter

Apologies for not writing in a while. Life is busy, and when I have a quick idea or link I want to pass on, I simply issue a tweet and leave the blog for "sometime soon". (email me at science.eyes at g m a i l . c o m if you want to follow me on Twitter.)

This 'Compose' window now seems absolutely enormous compared to the 140 characters of a Twitter window. Now, if I just had the time to create text worthy of filling it...

I do plan to write a few posts about climate change and my perspective on the Obama administration. I will also post on the LHC, and update the CDMS dark matter story. Soon.