Category Archives: epistemology

Origami

I recently read the amazing book “New Expressions in Origami Art” by Meher McArthur, that I found at the shop Paper Tree in the Japan Town of San Fransisco (it’s one of my favorite shops; they always have stunning origami on display, some for sale, from many origamists featured in the book.)

Every page of the book is a delight, where a modern twists (abstraction, wet folding, tessellation) on origami always bring something very fresh.

One Crease, by Paul Jackson

While reading the book and learning about Goran Konjevod (who seems to be a colleague from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory), I stumbled on the work of Amanda Ghassaei, who has created the Origami Simulator and many other cool simulation tools producing mesmerizing results.

https://twitter.com/amandaghassaei/status/1352605937077522434

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Welcome to Gattaca

The movie Gattaca is my favorite movie of all times. It is the story of a person born of natural ways that need to live in a society where everyone has been selected based on their genes. I think it is an absolute masterpiece, with an incredible photography, excellent actors and a very clever script, touching on very deep issues.

I got a chance to visit the place where the movie was filmed, which happens to be the Marin County Civic Center, in San Rafael, 20 minutes North of San Francisco. The place is absolutely wild.

Marin County Civic Center (botanical garden)

While it seems to be a dystopian intrigue around genetic discrimination, it is actually subtle parable for systemic racism. The movie as a whole is a discussion around the fuzzy notion of meritocracy: people are still supposedly selected on their abilities, and it is formally illegal to conduct genetic testing (extending the notion of “protected characteristics”), but this eventually is a sham. It is interesting to notice that the movie has only two black characters – the geneticist (Blair Underwood) and the interviewer (Clarence Graham) – both serving as gatekeepers, closing the door to applicants who would try to escape their condition.

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Mindfulness meditation

Over the last month I conducted interviews with people from the Berkeley Lab meditation group that we started three years ago.

Mindfulness Meditation – An Interview with the LBL Mindfulness Meditation Group

The meditation group is quite diverse, from members of the National Academy of science to postdocs to building project managers, and it was a blast to get to talk to them and learn about how they see things and what they enjoy!

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aknownspace

My friend Sana has started a wonderful literary project called “A known space.”

Here’s the first issue: A known space: Vol. 1: Nucleus (my personal contribution: The Sound of the waves)

credit: Szymon Kobusiński – TRANSSUBSTANTIATIO

Wade on!

Some thoughts about gender gaps in STEM

Liminary note: I am not a social scientist, but I try to educate myself about some issues facing academia, and this is the result of my inquiries. If you think some elements are incorrect or if you have good resources to share, please let me know!

In this short Life
that only merely lasts an hour
How much – how
little – is
within our
power

Emily Dickinson

Gender gaps in academia are pretty dire, and while it seems to get acknowledged and addressed, it’s not clear whether the root causes – especially social norms – are fully understood and can be solved. The paper Understanding persistent gender gaps in STEM (Science 368, 6497; June 2020, pdf) offers interesting statistics and insights.

Gender gap in physical science majors

The problem does not seem to be a difference in achievement, but social factors rather.

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Scientific mentoring of interns – covid edition

(I owe this piece to a conversation with Laleh Coté – she’s doing an incredible job on STEM mentorship, and even in these difficult times, she documents her observations on how it impacts these efforts.)

I’m always happy to mentor students, for it gives you a change to light a candle, but also forces you to explain things in a legible way – and if you can’t perhaps you don’t really understand things yourself.

Berkeley Lab has a great program for interns, and it comes with some resources: WD&E Mentor Handbook (pdf)

Because of the pandemic, all the summer internships have morphed into virtual internship. While everyone is still trying to figure out how to make it work best, some initial best practices where collected here:  Virtual Remote Mentor Guide -DOE-SC-WDTS Programs- May 2020 (pdf)

Virtual summer internship

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It’s the units, stupid

Whenever I see scientific code without units I scream inside my heart.

Everytime you write simulations of physical phenomena (often using numpy or matlab), make sure to always have variables where the units are clear, e.g. :

lambda_m = 633e-9 #wavelentgh in meters
c_mps = 3e8 #speed of light in meters per seconds
freq_Hz = c_mps/lambda_m

Failure to keep good track of the units has led to disasters. Yet complete lack of clarity  happens more often than not – just look at the code of a random scientist on github to witness the extent of the damage.

The reason why I am adamant about this is because a lot of time is wasted trying to debug code where it there’s a silly unit mismatch, and because we are doing physics.

Math versus physics

Why is coding without units such a terrible practice? It all boils down to the fact that computing is mostly about math and logic, and therefore not geared towards physical quantities. There is beauty in mathematical abstraction, but sometimes it doesn’t mean anything.

Take a mathematical statement that should be true:

1+1=2

Now ask yourself: what does it mean? If I add one orange to one apple:

1 orange + 1 apple = ?

It might sound silly but it’s actually pretty deep. You cannot add quantities which are not congruent. Yes, you may say that by adding one fruit with another fruit you get two fruits, but you’re cheating then.

This is somehow why object-oriented programming was invented: with the notion of “classes”, you can add entities which are compatible, through the game of function overloading and other niceties. In an ideal world, physical quantities in simulations should all have their own class, where the units would be defined.

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It’s getting pretty crammed at the bottom

Let us represent a dot by a small spot of one metal, the next dash by an adjacent spot of another metal, and so on. Suppose, to be conservative, that a bit of information is going to require a little cube of atoms 5 x 5 x 5 – that is 125 atoms. Perhaps we need a hundred and some odd atoms to make sure that the information is not lost through diffusion, or through some other process.
– Richard Feynman

Spoiler alert: we are nearly there!

* *

These very old line (1959) fro Feynman’s famous speech “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” is still valid, though nowadays are getting very close to the bottom!

With my colleague Gautam Gunjala, we published an article in Berkeley Science Review on the ongoing contributions of UC Berkeley and Berkeley Lab to photolithography, the process of making microchips: Room to Shrink.

Photolithography is how you make tiny circuits

It was supposed to be part of the BSR Issue 38 (Spring 2020) but I guess it got covided.

Here are other pieces from yours truly on the topic:

Also:

The topic is getting red hot politically:
Lawmakers Propose Multibillion Dollar Semiconductor R&D Push  (American Institute of Physics, June 24, 2020)

if not down right nasty:
Trump administration pressed Dutch hard to cancel China chip-equipment sale: sources (Reuters, January 2, 2020)

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The Lessons Of The Pandemic, May 1919

It’s like a war
Except the enemy is monumental incompetence

We’ve been there, we know what to do – yet, we don’t.
doi.org/10.1126/science.49.1274.501

Graph alignment chart

There are many ways to document research, and some are better than others.

Make beautiful graphs : only start to write when you have the best data our group can get.
Paul Alivisatos

Here’s my graph alignment chart, curated from personal experience.

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