Slime Mold Splendor- System inspirations

As a grad student, I was TA for a developmental biology class (it was, for a while, my PhD target). Almost all of the aspects of the lab excited and fascinated me, but I was especially taken by the slime mold. It remains one of my favorite organisms ever.

Back in 2000, when I first saw Javaspaces demonstrated at the JavaOne conference, I immediately got excited and started babbling to fellow geeks about how the ultimate design for a self discovery middleware/messaging system would be modeled after slime mold. They are the perfect model for small message/self discovery systems. They mostly looked at me like I was slightly insane.

I love that others are now using slime mold as a model for networks, and have mathematically mapped the algorithms of slime mold network forming. Time for us to realize that we are not always discovering brand new things, but are just describing things that much simpler organisms discovered millenia ago. I think I want that algorithm… there is a next generation self assembling messaging system buried in it.

What biolgical inspirations drive your designs??

Science Suffers while Salaries are Safe??

When I am considering supporting any organization, one of the first things I want to know is what their overhead percentage is. In other words, for every dollar I donate, how much is going to the actual work that organization does and how much is paying for mail, computers and the Director’s salary. There is huge market pressure to get these overhead costs as low as possible in every non-profit organization out there. If I get an answer back from a charity that says they are “wasting” more than 20-25% of my donation on overhead, I walk away. Lots of people do.
Our government does not have the same sense of fiscal responsibility that we as individuals do. The federal and state governments frequently sponsor research at universities. This is a very good thing. Universities have something called indirect costs, which they deduct from incoming grants (grants less than 20-25K are usually immune). Indirect costs are the same thing as overhead. This is money the tax payers are donating for scientific research in the form of grants that never actually goes to research. Indirect Costs are not new. They were an issue in the 80s when I was in grad school, and probably before that. Time magazine even wrote an expose on indirect costs back in 1991. If the indirect costs were reasonable, I would have no complaint. Every group has to pay some basic bills. But the indirect costs at universities ranges from 50-70%!!
That means if a brilliant researcher is donated 1 million dollars by the tax payers in the form of an NSF grant, he will actually receive only a half a million dollars or less. This is NOT the sort of organization I would normally donate money to. Agencies can refuse to pay indirect costs, and most universities have policies in place for how to deal with this. ( you can see an example for the University of California).
In this time of fiscal trouble, it seems wrong to me that our tax dollars are willingly being donated not to the source we thought they were, but to pay the 150-400K salaries of deans and others at Universities.
If we agree as a nation that we need to subsidize Public Institutions of Higher Education, I am in agreement with that- and we do. But there needs to be transparency in how and where that money is being spent.

If universities are facing increasing deficits because of decreasing enrollment and higher costs, they should be getting creative about cost cutting and savings, not sitting down and negotiating higher Indirect Cost rates with Federal funding agencies, like many recently have. Scientific research and innovation are the things that will continue to make us strong- the government should be looking for ways to funnel more money in that direction, not less.

Selling Scientists

In a previous incarnation, I was involved with gender equity research in science education. You can see examples like this:

Scantlebury, K., Green, N., & Kahle, J. B. (1989, July). Teacher as researcher: A case study of collaborative research. National Coalition of Sex Equity in Education, Lowell, MA.
or this
Scantlebury, K., Green, N., & Kahle, J. B. (1989, July). Developing science skills. National Coalition of Sex Equity in Education, Lowell, MA.

I am afraid they were published well before the nifty development of web based publications, so they are unfortunately not easily accessed. I also did reviews and studies of science text books for most of the major US textbook publishers, checking for gender equity in the representation of scientists in the book illustrations. There were a lot of studies that showed that if students saw pictures of people who they could identify with, they more easily conceptualized themselves as scientists. In the same manner, if the pictures showed female scientists as well as male then the female students has an easier time visualizing themselves as scientists.

It all makes good sense. We want to make sure that we are not isolating any potential group of science or engineering students from being able to dream of this career. Regardless of sex, race or religious persuasion, anyone is capable of being a scientist if that moves them. The critical years are late elementary school and middle school, with continuing support through high school. This is especially true for girls, who drop out of math and science as electives in droves about halfway through middle school.

What triggered all of this ancient history?? I was watching this Nova Vodcast profile of Karl Iagnemma, who is a scientist and a writer. Karl is an amazing, intense, hard working human. And all those years of work an research came flooding back to me. Here is the dilemma. At about 6th grade, hormones and neural re-routing take over in humans that shift their priorities and focus. Peer groupings and acceptance become one of the single largest factors in their decision making process. No matter how much support structure they have at home, it is a rare teen who will ignore their peers at age 12 and pursue their passions. Yes, It does happen. Yes, you probably have a story of someone like that. I do too. But not the majority. Not at the percentage that we are aiming for if we want to continue developing enough scientists and engineers to grow our technology driven dreams.

So, we attempt to make science “cool”. We have the Mythbusters and rock star scientists. We try to make it look like lots of fun and infuse science with prestige. This works for a while, then students still drop out.

The truth is, science DOES take hard work. It does take incredible drive and focus. To be perfectly honest, the people who are wildly successful really ARE a little bit odd when compared to the rest of the population. You have to have focus for long periods of time. You spend lots of time thinking-alone.. or observing- alone. Then you think a bunch more. Maybe there are equations involved, or test tubes or baby mice. But there are not giggling groups of friends in the long long hours. This is not a bad kind of weird-if you are an adult. But at 13 or 14, any kind of weird is difficult. Passions that drive you to spend time alone are anathema.

So. At what point do we admit as society that it takes a special and wonderful kind of person to be a researcher or a creative engineer, and not everyone is cut out for this. Maybe we will never push the percentage of science majors above a certain percentage becuase there are just not that many people interested in that lifestyle.

Is this bad? Should we try to change or alter something about the nature of research or how reearchers behave to create more scientists? Should we be facing the fact that our scientist population will always be limited and start to prioritize what we work on rather than whine about not having enough scientists? Or is there still an untapped group of scientists that I am overlooking?

News from the LHC

In case you have only been following the news of the imminent collapse of the world, and not actually looking at the data that is flowing, you are missing one of the most interesting scientific experiments that will be conducted in our lifetime. Although the LHC is a single large installation, it has several major experiments and detector sets, each watching, recording and probing in different ways. You should check out some of these sites:

  • Images from first data collected by CMS. Watch the official CMS site, it is rumored that they are thinking of doing some live web casts of data collection in the future…
  • The official ALICE site is also posting images of the first beam passes.
  • The LHCb, which is trying to figure out why there is so little antimatter in the universe, has a website and has links there to some of their first images.
  • The ATLAS team made a flash movie of their first detections, and is sharing news and information on their main site.
  • Although the TOTEM group is not yet sharing data, watch their website for future updates and information.
  • With a set of computers that spans the globe, and public access so prominent, it should be no surprise that hackers have already cracked their way in to the LHC. While I understand the draw of the challenge presented by the LHC computer network, I hope that the hackers of the world show some restraint and do not cause a complete lock down of systems that would end this type of open data sharing.

    Supporting the Intellectual Life

    I had recently written a post here, about how frustrated I am with the publish or perish cycle and how the focus on ROI by Granting organizations was shifting pure science from research to development.

    The more it rattles in the back of my brain, the more it eats at me. It is not that development is a bad thing. Development has improved YouTube, so that more and more users can watch without having it crash. Development adds new features to AmieStreet, so that now I can send 10$ gifts to my friends ( I have a couple extra still– comment here if you are interested….). I am sure that development played a role in making the brand new Calphalon pots and pans I got for Christmas as amazing as they are. But without research, we soon stagnate and falter.

    So how do we support researchers who want to do cool things, without creating another beaurocracy that slows them down? Since the Corporate mindset has invaded governments and the social ethos everywhere..( and with the recent move to block all but government sponsored video sites, I am now convinced this is even true in communist China), the current focus on ROI will prevent major funding agencies and large groups of people from supporting the sort of pure research that will take us to the next level.

    At first, I thought- why not have a fund that is “Feed the Research”, instead of “Feed the Children“? People will donate 3.50$/month without thinking too much about it. Set it up in paypal and get the word out, you could actually fund something interesting. But then you need an oversight board- who decides what gets funded and based on what criteria? Oiy– back to large group mindset again. We already decided this was trouble. What about the model used by DonorsChoose, to fund small projects and the needs of teachers? Here the Teachers post what they need, donors get to choose who they want to fund and when all the money for a project is raised- voila! But these are small scale projects, and it is a whole lot easier to raise 500$ for classroom materials, than 500,000 for some seemingly whacky research project. Then there is Sellaband– a site where bands who want to record post music and fans who want them to record. Fans who like them invest in the band, until the band has raised enough( 50,000) to get a recording session. But here the fans are not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts- they get profit sharing later– which take us back to the ROI issue.

    I know there has to be a way to make this work, a way to fund pure research that will revolutionize our world over and over again. I am a child of the 60s and 70s SciFi, dang it.. I grew up on the Jetsons and I want my jetpacks and rocket cars 😉 How would you model this so that good research could thrive without the tentacles of profit and ROI strangling it?