Category Archives: science

Most notable science and technology from the last 20 years, and predictions for the next 20

Here is a selection of the most notable advances in science and technology over the last twenty years.

I’ve collected these from people working around me (there may be a Berkeley Lab or Optics bias!) or by looking at what around me had made life different (a  an Academic life or California bias!) They are listed in no particular order, but the ordering tries to highlight some relationship between the topics.

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ALS-U CD-3A

We were awarded CD-3A, yay!
Amazing team, and amazing project:)

On Dec. 23 the DOE granted approval for a key funding step that will allow the project to start construction on a new inner electron storage ring. Known as an accumulator ring, this inner ring will feed the upgraded facility’s main light-producing storage ring, and is a part of the upgrade project (ALS-U)

[…]

Powerful arrays of magnets bend the beam of electrons, causing it to emit light that is channeled down dozens of beamlines for experiments in a wide range of scientific areas – from physics, medicine, and chemistry to biology and geology. More than 2,000 scientists from around the world conduct experiments at the facility each year.

[…]

The ALS-U project will keep the facility at the forefront of research using “soft” X-rays, which are well-suited to studies of the chemical, electronic, and magnetic properties of materials. Soft X-rays can be used in studies involving lighter elements like carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen, and have a lower energy than “hard” X-rays that can penetrate deeper into samples.

It will also expand access to “tender” X-rays, which occupy an energy range between hard and soft X-rays and can be useful for studies of earth, environmental, energy, and condensed-matter sciences.

Milestone in Advanced Light Source Upgrade Project Will Bring in a New Ring

There ends the 2020s

The first two decades of the twenty first century are over! I’ve spent more than half of my life there, and here’s a very incomplete list of what I admired the most in the creative genius of the human mind!

As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty – Jonas Mekas

20 Best Movies

Up
Skyfall
Kill Bill
Respiro
Paterson
Memento
8 Femmes
Lord of War
Holy Motors
A separation
Social Network
The Dark Night
Mulholland Drive
Castle in the Sky
Lost In Translation
Mountains May Depart
Les Amours imaginaires
En la gama de los grises
Blue is the warmest color
As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty

20 Best albums

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Hard Duino

I was in Trieste for a conference, and one afternoon after the conference was finished I went 20 minute North, on the path between Duino and Sistiana where Rilke liked to stroll. How beautiful!

And yet how much more human is the dangerous in security that drives those prisoners in Poe’s stories to feel out the shapes of their horrible dungeons and not be strangers to the unspeakable terror of their cells. We, however, are not prisoners. No traps or snares have been set around us, and there is nothing that should frighten or upset us. We have been put into life as into the element we most accord with, and we have, moreover, through thousands of years of adaptation, come to resemble this life so greatly that when we hold still, through a fortunate mimicry we can hardly be differentiated from everything around us. We have no reason to harbor any mistrust against our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them. And if only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience. How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.

Letter to a young poet #8 – Rainer Maria Rilke

Duino Castle, December 2019

Science and politics – Part 1

On October 30th, 2019 I’ve organized an event at Manny’s (3092 16th St, San Francisco) on Science and Politics, with accomplished scientists Elaine DiMasi and Michael Eisen who chose to run for congress, in the wake of the 2016 US election, the Women’s March and the March for Science.

Dr. Michael Eisen and and Dr. Elaine DiMasi, who respectively ran for US Senate (CA) and US House of Representative (NY-1) , at Manny’s in San Francisco on October 30th, 2019

The setting was quite ideal for the speakers (Manny’s has held event for 17 out of the 20 Democratic candidates to the US Presidential election), and the two accomplished scientists shared many thoughts on their unsuccessful run.

A man’s life is interesting primarily when he has failed — I well know. For it’s a sign that he tried to surpass himself
George Clemenceau

Of the wave of scientists who ran in 2018, few were elected, but it’s is hard to change a political machine that has been here for many decades on the first attempt.Trial, error, re-calibrate, try again. I hope to shortly provide a summary of lessons learned in a “Part 2” (I have a recordings of the event, but it’s low quality.)

While there is a lot of work done in the realm of science policy (how to inform our representative and make sure they make evidence-based decision)—groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, Engineers and Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) or closer to me the Berkeley Science Policy Group and interesting programs such as the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships— very few scientists do engage politics frontally, as candidates.

While other countries do have trained scientists at their helm (Angela Merkel from Germany and Xi Jinping from China are both doctors in Chemistry, and their respective term have been relatively successful up to this point), other countries not so much. Currently, Rep Bill Foster (D-Il), Steve Englebright (NY state assembly) and Dan Kalb (Oakland City Council) are scientists in public offices; Vern Ehlers and Rush D. Holt were the first physicists to be elected in congress (party did not matter so much, Ehlers being a Republican and Holt a Democrat; see College Professors Who Have Served in Congress – The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 2014) for a partial list)

Interestingly, a few rising stars (or shining bright already!) of the Congress are professors (but not scientists): Katie Porter, ❤️Kirsten Sinema💙, Elizabeth Warren. Jess Phenix is a geologist who has ran for the House of Representative; she has still been unsuccessful, but her time might come.
https://vis.sciencemag.org/midterm-science-candidates/

(edit 11/8/2019: note that Olivier Ezratty published a post on “Do we need more scientists and engineers in politics“, quite thorough)

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Threads

I’ve been using Twitter (@awojdyla) more frequently over the last 3 years, finding a lot value in this tool which allows to address a worldwide audience and reach out to people in a very effective way.

Straight goals

Twitter is a very strange medium, in that it can be extremely helpful to reach out to people (the six degrees of separation collapse to one, basically), but whose rules and purpose are hard to understand.

Here’s a few remarks on my experience, and some resources if you’re interested in engaging the tweet game!

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Good optics

Here are collected pictures from the vendor exhibition at the SPIE Optics+Photonics 2019 conference in San Diego, CA.
I always find these exhibitions strangely fascinating, and I wanted to capture why. Enjoy!


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The New Yorker and the current times

Since I arrived in the US about six years ago, I’ve been interested in learning about the culture of my new country. An obvious way is to read the magazines and learn what people are talking about. Alas, the free press is usually not very interesting. Some magazines are standing out; I’ve been subscribed to The Atlantic, the Pacific StandardWired and Rolling Stones, and I’ve read GQ, Vanity Fair, The Economist (though British), but while there’s a bunch of good articles, they are plagued by terrible layouts, dull advertisement, and I can’t find any thing that matches some of my favorite French magazines, such as Les Inrocks or Le Nouveau Magazine Litteraire, though I must say I now realize they often feature subjects that have been thoroughly digested by US magazines.
There is however a publication which is consistently good, entertaining, frequent (every week) and almost free of advertisement: The New Yorker, which contrary to its name suggests doesn’t delve too much on the (otherwise great) city of New York.

“He tells it like it is.” August 18, 2016

Agency

Not only the quality and the length of the articles, which are often sheltered from the ceaseless stream of news, allows go deep into some subjects (some arcane but always interesting), but they do make an impact.
For witness:
It is quite remarkable for a journal to be able to uncover so many stories. Maybe the times are ripe for that and comes the reckoning…

Legacy

The publication has a tremendous legacy, with writers such as Hannah Arendt (who published her series on the banality of evil there), James Baldwin who covered the civil rights movement and Susan Sontag who mused on various topics (see her collected articles in Against Interpretation and On Photography.)

I am speaking as a member of a certain democracy and a very complex country that insists on being very narrow-minded. Simplicity is taken to be a great American virtue along with sincerity. One of the results of this is that immaturity is taken to be a great virtue, too. – James Baldwin

Culture

There are many contributors to the magazine, but there are three I am particularly fond of, maybe because I can relate and they write things I don’t even know to express. Jia Tolentino covers Millenial generation with great nuance, and how we navigate the navigate the culture rift; Adam Gopnik often writes about culture in the broad sense, often threading from his experience in France (he has a very acute knowledge of France culture and how it differs from US culture); Louis Menand writes excellent book reviews.
It is interesting to see that both Gopnik and Tolentino released books in the past month (“A thousand small sanities” and “Trick Mirror”), which both deal with the current, heavy, atmosphere that lingers over the country as a whole, not complaining, but trying to find an outlet.

Open access – redux

Wow the levy is about to break on Open Access!

I’ve written a few times on Open Access (here, and here), and things have been changing at an incredible pace.

A quick explanation about the topic: scientists share their research by publishing into very specialized journals. These journals then either charge a fee (>$10) for any reader to read a specific article, or as is more often the case, collect a subscription for an institution so that all of the people who work for this institution get complete access to a journal or a set of journal. The problem here is that the research submitted by the authors is often funded by public entities, which do not have the right to read the publications of other group freely (open access.) And the subscription fees have skyrocketed (e.g. in the order of $10 million for UC Berkeley.)

But now, large entities are rebelling.

The first salvo came from funding agencies, which require the papers to be made freely available, either by sharing the pre-prints (e.g. on arxiv) or by publishing in an Open Access journal (journals where the authors pay (usually $1000!) to get published, and where anyone can read.)

Then came Germany, which reached an impass with the academic publisher Elsevier (one of the leading actors, together with Springer and Wiley) and decided not to pay for the racket (projekt DEAL). The issue has not been resolved yet and German researchers still do not have access to publications such as Cell (they can however directly contact the authors of the papers to get the papers — which actually sound like a good way to start off collaborations!)

Next is the University of California (the whole UC system, with UC Berkeley, Los Angeles, … including Lawrance Berkeley National Lab and Los Alamos), who decided not reneged a deal with Elsevier. That’s a lot of people, for the most important public university system in the world. The impact can be quite dramatic…

And soon will be the turn of Europe as a whole, with Plan S, starting next year…

I can’t wait to see the science literature being unshackled!

Still, don’t expect much changes in the conduct of science… “Authors do not publish to get read, they publish to get reviewed.”

 

Autopilot

Lead by lidar

At the moment (April 2019), the economy is in a weird quantum superposition of doom (yield curve inversion) and exaltation, with Lyft recently joining the public markets (always loved the irony of the term…)

I’ve been talking to a few people involved in driverless cars and AI lately, asking them…. when? They usually tell me soon, the problem they have is that the main drawback with learned neural networks is that they are almost impossible to debug. You can try to get insight on how they work (see the fascinating Activation Atlas), but it’s really difficult to rewire them.

And it’s actually pretty easy to hack them — you can easily do some random addition to find noise that will activates the whole network. In the real world, you can put stickers at just the right location and… make every other car crash. Pretty scary…

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