Sep 14, 2010

Values


"An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest"
Benjamin Franklin

It was a beautiful morning and the singer, who was one of the most popular in his planet, sat in his living room to read a magazine. He was feeling well and happy. He suddenly felt like doing something good something honourable. Then he passed his eyes over a small note in one of the magazine's page. Archaeologists were trying to raise 500 000 pieces to complete a project not far from where he lived. They had found two truly beautiful floor glass and metal mosaics, almost complete. Both dated from around two thousand years before, said the magazine. It was one of the brightest periods in the Jau history. The amount would be spent in the construction of a museum over the art crafts, mimicking the structure that should have been there before. The mosaics were not the only things they found. Many other pieces were there. Parts of the original construction, daily utensils, artwork. The project would allow people to walk around the whole reconstructed structure in suspended glass platforms.

The singer smiled. 500 000 was not too much. Actually, he himself had spent more than that in a flying vehicle three months ago. And last week holiday in the south continent with his friends has costed as much as ten times that. He felt sorry for those archaeologists. So little and still they could not raise it. At some point, the article said that the government was going to give them funding, but then decided to cut it because the project would not have a big impact on society. Then, he decided that he would give them the amount.

But he was the most popular singer in his planet and it was too difficult for him to do something in secret. Besides, his public relations team decided that would be good for his image to transform the occasion into a big event. However, when the people of the city discovered his plans, they wondered if that was the best use to that money. Soon, a campaign led by the citizens was urging him to give the money to a more useful cause. What a waste of money was to donate 500 000 pieces to restore some old bricks while people was suffering every day with more immediate problems. Little time passed before they agreed on the cause. Scientists have been searching for a cure to Jora's disease for more than sixty years and that amount could help them. Obviously, those scientists agreed.

The singer was puzzled. All he wanted was to do a good action. There was no campaign against his new car or his previous week holiday, so he could not understand why people were making a big deal of that. Lots of people were holding huge signs in front of his house. His advisers suggested him to give up the idea and give the money to the disease's research instead. It would be better for his image. He was tired but he was decided to do a good action. Then, he went to the bank, collected the amount and finished what he begun and do what he thought was right. 

One kid stopped on the highest platform and stared at the mosaic in awe, her tentacles holding firmly to the coloured plastic bars. She had never seen something like that before. The fantastic bipedal creatures depicted in the artwork made her chill. She never forgot that. The whole structured filled her dreams. Inspired her like nothing else before. She looked for the creatures on the network and read all the stories. When there were no more stories about the creatures, she started to read about the people who created them. And then she read about why they created those creatures. What inspired them? And she learned that those people, who lived much before She was born, asked the same questions about the world that she used to ask herself and her parents. She wanted to know the answers and she studied hard for that. She became a biologist and she ended up knowing many of the answers, but in the process, she also find out many other questions. She was seeking the answer for one of them, the cure for Jora's disease? Late that night, she remembered the mosaic. And when she looked at the pattern of the molecules in her computer screen, she saw something wonderful. The answer had always been in the mosaic. Jora's disease was eradicated form her planet in fourteen years.

But, in fact, the child never saw the mosaics, for the singer was convinced by the citizens that giving the money to the disease's research was much more important than to give the money to maintain some old stones. The archaeologists could never raise the money and the mosaics were lost to the action of the planet's harsh weather. The kid was inspired by that, so she became a singer. A famous one. The best of her planet. She always had enough money, but she also remembered about what happens with the old singer in her childhood time and always kept secret about her own possessions. She died of Jora's disease, as many other people. Eventually, they found the cure some centuries after that. But that was okay, for the people was happy. They never stopped singing. 

Sep 10, 2010

Science Stamps

I probably haven't said yet that I am a collector. Actually, I collect collections. One of them happens to be a stamp collection and, thanks to a friend who wanted some stamps of the Royal Mail some time ago, I ended up signing for a newsletter of them. I have already bought two nice sets of stamps and today I received an email with one of their new sets: 
"Medical Breakthroughs - The Mint Stamps have been created using medical imagery that best illustrates each of our six specially selected breakthroughs: beta-blockers, penicillin, hip replacements, artificial lens implants, malaria parasites and CT scanners."
And here is a picture of the presentation pack:

They will be issued on the 16th of September and
"The Presentation Pack also takes an in-depth look at at how each of these significant breakthroughs came about, courtesy of Dr Richard Barnett from the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge."
Although I really feel that magnetic ressonance should be among the breakthroughs, as I am a biased real fan of it, I reckon that there must be difficult to choose just 6 among the many achievements of (real) medicine. By the way, check out the link to the CT scanner to see the link between it and The Beatles. 

While browsing the stamps, I also found this other pack:

The Royal Society Presentation Pack - A beautifully illustrated Presentation Pack containing all ten Royal Society stamps, together with authoritative text by Eugene Byrne telling the stories of those featured.
If you live in the UK, the stamps plus the postage end up costing just around £6.00, which is fair. As I said, I bought two other packs and they were worth the price.

Sep 9, 2010

Standards


The man in the photo above is the UK Business Secretary Vincent Cable (I hope I have highlighted enough the word Business in this statement). In a radio interview on the 8th of September, the above politician said that presently in the UK
"45% of grants were not of excellent standard"
It is a very worrisome figure, isn't it? Now, the bare truth is that politicians obviously now very little, usually nothing, about science. I don't mean popular science, I mean scientific research, although I believe that many of them do not know either. Therefore, to make this kind of strong assertion, the politicians rely on certain "objective" quantities. In the case of science, they forced the idea that number of publications, weighted by the so-called impact index of the journals, and citations are good numbers. Number of patents  as well. 

Another criteria which is more subjective is called impact. Impact means how the society will benefit from the research. Sounds pretty noble, but again, after throwing away all the nice words, the true meaning is how much money the research can generate in the short term. Money and short term are really the key terms here. And not only politicians are to blame here, but we as well. Everybody has a relatively short lifespan in history terms. We all are interested in our lives, which is obviously okay. So, we want results from our invested money and we want it fast. Everything boils down to that. Therefore, a good translation of the assertion of Mr. Cable would be
"45% of grants do not generate enough money in the short term"
Although this would be the honest thing to say, it obviously is not nice. Now, what if I say that 99% of all politicians are not of excellent standards and we should cut their budget? I guess it is not very difficult to come up with much more reasonable numbers to evaluate this, right?

Let me just finish with another statement. There is one and only one measure of excellent research: seriousness. It does not matter what is the subject. It may be the less money-generating of all subjects. It may be a completely abstract mathematical theorem. It will be excellent when the researchers involved really care about the subject and explore the area with seriousness and professionalism. That is excellence. No single set of numbers can measure it and that is the problem. To evaluate true excellence requires also true excellence. It requires effort and is time consuming. It requires hard and deep thinking and analysis. Even if a study does not get published, even if it is not cited by anyone presently, if it was done seriously, it is excellent. 

It's easy to agree with the above arguments, isn't it? But are you really kin to stick to them in your life? Think seriously.