Archive for the 'Physics' Category


Academic Publishing

In my years as a lecturer at the California Maritime Academy (CMA)1, my activity in reading research papers slowed to a crawl.  There is no formal expectation of research for lecturers, but the more proximate cause is simply that teaching course loads are very high for lecturers, and there was scant time that could be spent on research.  Now, however, I am a new assistant professor, which means that research is expected, and I have some time to spend on doing it. The first step, after several years away from intensive research, is to re-familiarize myself with the state of the art in my research subspecialties. To do that, I need to read research papers. A lot of them. And that’s where I encountered a scourge that I had no significant prior experience with: the paywall.

I was certainly familiar with the concept, and I had encountered some while reading various publications online like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, but I hadn’t experienced the paywalls of academic publishing.  When I was a grad student, the University of Oregon was (and is) large enough and well-funded enough that pretty much all the journals I wanted to read were available with just a few clicks as long as I was on campus.  I could cast a wide net, sift through dozens of articles looking for information, find or not find what I was looking for, and continue onward having never left my desk or paying a penny.  It was an efficient and gloriously simple way to conduct research.

When I first started reading papers (or trying to read papers) at CMA, I knew that I wasn’t sitting within the walls of a major research institution, but I thought that I’d try doing the same thing I did at University of Oregon.  It did not go well.  A conversation with our librarians later, I learned: (1) online access for physics journals is very poor, and this is because CMA only has a few physicists, and most of those physicists have affiliations at larger schools through which they can get their access2, (2) I can read any article I like (there’s the California State University (CSU) system advantage!), but I need to order it via a sort of digital interlibrary loan, which takes between 0.5 and several days to fulfill, and (3) there are journals that are available CSU system-wide, but their number has been dwindling because the budget for them is flat, and the cost of the journals has been going up.

All this provided everything I need to know to go about my research.  Sure, it’s a pain in the ass compared to a few clicks for instant access, but I can get the papers I need.  However, the situation got me thinking about academic journal publishing.  Why can’t libraries afford more journals?  Why are journals so expensive?  What if I didn’t have an academic job, but felt like trying to read about or do some research on my own time?  Why, when most research papers are produced by researchers paid by public institutions and funded by grants from public institutions, is there a paywall at all?  My inquiring mind wanted to know.

As with most things in this world, it turned out a lot of people had been doing a lot of thinking about this issue prior to my interest in it.  After reading for a while, I’ve formed some opinions, but I’ll save those for later.  First, some facts and figures.

  • Most journals do not require a submission fee, which means that anyone can submit their manuscript. Yay! Journal editors spend some of their time culling the herd of submissions before sending out the remaining ones for peer review.
  • Most journals get most of their money from subscriber fees, and most subscribers are institutions like libraries, not individuals. This is the ‘traditional’ model of funding academic journal publishing. If you aren’t a subscriber, you can buy individual articles for something in the neighborhood of $30(!).  Publishers add value in various ways.  Reputable ones have excellent editors who filter out submissions that don’t fit the scope or pedigree of the journal and coordinate the all-important peer review process.  There are reproduction and distribution costs for journals that still have a print presence rather than online only.  Online publications must host the material, archive it, and index it so that readers can find it easily.
  • More recently, so-called ‘open-access’ journals have begun to grow in popularity. In this model, when a paper is accepted for publication, a fee is paid by the writer of the paper to publish it.  The paper is then free to read for anyone in perpetuity.  The fee is relatively large, typically $1k – $3k.
  • Lastly, the Internet exists, so there is a very low barrier to simply ‘self-publishing’ a paper on one’s own webpage or posting it on something like arXiv3. Everyone can read it, and you don’t have to pay to publish it.  However, there are issues here.  First and foremost for someone like myself is that this sort of publishing holds almost no weight when it comes to tenure and promotion. Research publications need to appear in academic journals if you want to stick around. And unfortunately, you usually can’t publish your paper on your webpage and then submit it to a traditional journal as well. Some simply discourage it, but others, particularly the ‘name’ journals, will not publish it if you also self-publish.

So, what do I think about all this? Well, I think that most journals are too expensive for the value they add.  Costs for subscriptions have gone up at about triple the rate of inflation for decades.  Journals have mostly gone online, which should reduce costs associated with reproduction, printing, and distribution. The peer review process, though coordinated by the journals’ editors4, is done by the writer’s peers (other researchers) who aren’t paid.  Copy editing is mostly done by the writer and in the peer review process, not by editors.  Even typesetting is mostly automated. The cost run-up, at least for most journals, seems entirely disproportionate.  And although the  open-access journal model is, I think, overall a better system, there is still a significant barrier to publishing, albeit now it is on the writers’ side of the equation.  Not everyone has a couple thousand dollars to get an article published.

All this doesn’t even address the following: if the reviewers aren’t paid and are often employees of public institutions, and the research that led to the paper is funded, quite often, by public dollars, how is it fair that Joe Q. Public (or me) can’t read anything but the abstract if the paper goes into a traditional journal?  Adding insult to injury, commercial, for-profit publishers’ margins are around 25%, so they are profiting handsomely while not writing the content or reviewing the content or funding the content5.

Justifiably, there are some who look at all this and want to burn it down6. Two individuals of note in this category are Aaron Swartz and Alexandra Elbakyan.  A relatively famous computer programmer, Aaron Swartz engaged in political advocacy for freedom of information, and subsequently more dramatic ‘freeing’ of public records and academic journal articles from behind paywalls.  His most dramatic stunt, using an MIT guest account to download hundreds of thousands of articles from JSTOR7, got him in significant legal trouble, and he tragically committed suicide while free on bail.  Alexandra Elbakyan started Sci-Hub in 2011, a website that provides access to millions of scientific articles that are normally locked behind a paywall.  Predictably, commercial publishers were not pleased, and one of the largest, Elsevier, filed suit against her and managed to win a judgment against her that resulted in being shut down.  Also predictably, since the material is primarily hosted abroad and the internet is a big place, Sci-Hub is still up and running at other domain names.

Despite my own frustrations with the system as it stands, I don’t think that simply ignoring the law is the correct way to proceed8.  There has been progress, both in terms of publishing models and in policy.  Though open-access publishing models are currently expensive for writers, there are programs for writers with demonstrated financial difficulties, and universities or granting agencies will often pick up this publication cost.  Open-access journals represent greater than 10% of published articles, and that proportion is growing.  Many universities are adopting some flavor of open-access policy, in which their professors’ papers are published in a free repository after (typically) a year-long embargo.  On the other end, granting organizations are starting to demand the same sort of thing – the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (among others) – currently require that papers that relied on funding from them be open-access after a year-long embargo.  Academic libraries, the predominant subscribers to various academic journals, are pushing back more and more on journal subscription costs, motivated by flat purchasing budgets and massive run-ups in subscription costs.  In addition to all this, the publish-or-perish nature of gaining tenure for academic researchers, a major source of fuel for the articles going into all these academic journals, is being subjected to some scrutiny9.

These are all encouraging developments, but a great deal is left to be done. Researchers, no matter their financial means, should be able to read about the current state of their field.  Researchers, no matter their financial means, should be able to publish their work if it is of high quality.  This is currently not the case, and only by examining the whole picture – the article writer, the expectations of the writer’s employer, the cost structure of publishing, the motivations of the publisher, and methods by which the articles are disseminated – will meaningful progress be made.  For me, other than talking about it here, I’ll start by publishing my stuff in open-access journals.  Fingers crossed that CMA will want to pick up the publishing fee!

1 Known by many other names, which is confusing even to people who work there like me.  The most recent offical name is California State University – Maritime Academy.  Cal Maritime is another, more common usage.

2 Which doesn’t help me.  Blerg.

3 arXiv is an awesome pre-print archive (read the ‘X’ as the greek letter it resembles to get the cleverness of the name) that is free and run by Cornell.  It’s a physics and math thing for the most part, and is not a peer-reviewed journal, though a lot of eyeballs see the papers there.

4 Though even this coordination is mostly done through an automated online system for the referees.

5 There are partial exceptions to this, but not many.  Also, the editors of many journals do review the article, but not anywhere near the extent of the unpaid peer reviewers.



7 A massive online journal article archiving and indexing service that requires a subscription to view its contents.

8 Though it’s certainly convenient until you get caught.

9 Well, at least a little.  Check out this article for instance.  I particularly enjoy this quote: “…lamenting that academic scholarship had become fixated on generating lots of pieces of knowledge — bricks — and was far less concerned with putting them together into a cohesive whole.  In time, he worried, brick making would become an end in itself.”


Summer 2017

With the current state of the academic calendar at California State University – Maritime Academy, faculty who aren’t on what is commonly referred to as “cruise” have quite a long summer: from the fourth week of April to the last week in August.  The trade-off is that the semesters are a sprint.  None of the usual breaks except for the non-negotiables like Thanksgiving Day, Martin Luther King, Veterans’ Day, and, because this is California, Cesar Chavez Day.  And teaching loads are high compared to most colleges/universities.

This means that 90% of research by faculty occurs during the summer.  As I piece together what will become my research program at Cal Maritime, I’m endeavoring to catalogue my efforts (as well as a few other things) this summer.  It will help me be productive and organized, and hopefully it will make for some entertaining reading as I flail impotently in full view of the Internet.  Something for everyone, I’d say.


Avoiding Graphing With Calculators

As anyone required to buy a graphing calculator for pre-calculus knows, those calculators’ second-most important function was to allow their owners to play games. I can honestly say that I did almost none of this because I was a good student1 and was too cheap to buy the data transfer cable for the TI-82.  However, I was definitely fascinated by my classmates’ ability to play Pong in the back of class.  Or at lunch.  Or in the hall.

Technology has of course continued its inexorable march since the days of my TI-82 usage (circa 1998)2, and now the proud owners of the TI-83/84 series of graphing calculators can play a version of Portal in the back of class.  For the uninitiated, Portal is a gaming classic that came out in 2007 and was published by Valve after Valve hired the group of students who wrote and coded the original ‘portal’ concept in 2005.  The player controls a protagonist who is “armed” with an Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device, which is a teleportation device that allows the player to place the entrance and exit points of the teleport.  This can lead to some entertaining physics – stepping through an entrance portal on the floor with the exit on the ceiling above causes the player to fall faster and faster and faster as the player goes through the floor up to the ceiling, falls to the floor again, back up to the ceiling, etc, etc.

Anyway, all this good, clean, thought-provoking fun is available to slacking TI-83 owners everywhere thanks to the ingenuity and hard work of one Alex Marcolina (handle: Builderboy2005) at UC – Santa Cruz.  I figure Builderboy2005 is going places in the future.  In addition to figuring out how to program the game, he managed to shove a 2-D version of Portal into the 24kB3 of user available RAM in the TI-83.  That’s efficient programming.

1 Or at least I was deferential to authority.  Must be all that the fluoride in the drinking water impurifying my precious bodily fluids.
2 What, you think those graphing calculators come in handy after pre-calculus/calculus?  Hahahahahaha.  No.  Or at least you can become a physicist without ever using one.  Of course, you just graduate to more complicated crutches like Mathematica and Matlab.
3 This massive pool of RAM was only recently surpassed by a cutting-edge desktop computing device called the Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I.  In 1977.  Though you did need the optional expansion card interface to get the extra 32kB of RAM.  This thing also had the same processor as the TI-83, albeit at about a quarter of the TI-83’s blistering 6 MHz clock speed.  You have to love Texas Instruments’ business model.


Particle Physics and Boobs

So, when I first heard about the story I’m about to discuss, it was in the context of my favorite newspaper, the American Physical Society News.  I think at the time the details of the story were still in dispute and APS News tends to be about the least sensational news outlet I know1, so although I remembered some mild weirdness, it didn’t make me sit up and take notice quite like the article sent to me more recently by a friend.  In summary (though I would recommend reading the full article yourself) a notable theoretical particle physicist, Paul H. Frampton, has been sentenced to about four years in prison for (1) meeting a woman claiming to be Denise Melani on a dating website, (2) over a period of weeks being convinced that this was in fact the actual Denise Milani2 and that she was in love with him despite only communicating via Yahoo Messenger, (3) flying to La Paz, Bolivia to meet her, (4) being told that she had a last minute photo shoot in Brussels, that he could come and join her there, and ‘oh by the way could you bring this empty suitcase that I just happen to have left in La Paz’, and finally (5) being caught in the Buenos Aires airport with a suitcase full of his dirty laundry and two kilos of cocaine sewn into the lining.
Despite Dr. Frampton’s continually professing his complete ignorance of anything illegal or strange about the situation, subsequent court testimony and documents seem to indicate that he had more than an inkling of what at least might be in the suitcase.  Still, this 68 year old professor from Chapel Hill had seemingly convinced himself beyond much doubt that this glamor model was willing to drop everything, marry him, and have children with him.  He’s a bit young for dementia – after all, he was publishing papers in good scientific journals in 2011 with abstracts like

We examine models in which the dark energy density increases with time (so that the equation-of-state parameter w satisfies w < -1), but w approaches -1 asymptotically, such that there is no future singularity. We refine previous calculations to determine the conditions necessary to produce this evolution. Such models can display arbitrarily rapid expansion in the near future, leading to the destruction of all bound structures (a “little rip”). We determine observational constraints on these models and calculate the point at which the disintegration of bound structures occurs. For the same present-day value of w, a big rip with constant w disintegrates bound structures earlier than a little rip.3

He has a reputation for being a bit prickly and terribly arrogant, but these characteristics make him more likely to try and fluster some poor particle physics grad student during a conference talk rather than take on the occupation of drug mule.  The man also, by his own admission, “rarely listens to the opinion of others”, which is probably why he ignored a more worldly physicist friend who told him before he left Bolivia that he was being duped into carrying drugs.  The only thing that suggests to me that he might be a little more street smart and calculating than he appears are the facts that he had little in the way of savings, so needed money, and that the text messages he was sending to ‘Denise’ from Bolivia made specific references to his concern about drugs and drug-sniffing dogs4.
Personally, despite his conviction, I’m inclined to believe most of his side of the story.  The man certainly has a rational and penetrating mind, but one that had been cloistered and focused for decades on questions that have almost nothing to do with the world as most humans understand it.  As with any ability that is rarely or never used, his ability to interact with and read people who weren’t his peers in the academic community had clearly atrophied to the point of being nonexistent5.  As for his motivation, well, it could have been money.  To me though, his apparent complete naivete and not inconsiderable arrogance actually fits well with the story of his ‘finding love’ over the Internet with a glamor model he’d never met.  He thought of himself as a brilliant and famous physicist: a wonderful match for a famous, large-chested glamor model who was half his age.  Right.  One pubescent fantasy that was never outgrown, and so began the tragi-comedy that describes Dr. Frampton’s career change from respected professor to (perhaps unwitting) drug trafficker.  I would say something like, ‘let this be a lesson to you’, but it’s hard to come up a useful takeaway other than, “Well, sometimes people say things that aren’t true. So don’t believe everything you hear.”  Most of us, however, learn this earlier than Dr. Frampton did.  Unfortunate for him.

1 Which simultaneously explains why I enjoy reading it and why almost no one reads it.
2 An internet search will provide plenty of scantily-clad photos of this very pretty and, er, top-heavy glamor model.
3 I’ll see if I can get back to you on the meaning of that.
4 He, unsurprisingly, claims he was merely joking around with his beloved.
5 Kind of a scary thought, really.


A Bit of Automobile Physics

A couple days ago, I sat down to write a physics problem that would quantitatively illustrate the concept of power to my students.  Those of you with some physics education know that power is work done per time or the rate of consumption/expenditure of energy.  Here’s the setup:  the proud owner of a new Porsche 911 Turbo S* decides to test Porsche’s claim that the car will achieve 60 mph (~27 m/s) in a mere 3.1 seconds.  The approximate mass of the car is 1350 kg.  Determine the average power that will achieve this goal.  The problem can be done in a couple ways, but the simplest is to apply the work-energy theorem, which equates the net work done on the car to its change in kinetic energy.  Kinetic energy is 0.5*mass*velocity^2.  Go through this calculation, and the result is about 160kW or about 210 horsepower.

On the face of it, this is pretty standard introduction to physics stuff.  Nice and simple.  Illustrates how to use the new equation for power they’ve just been shown and relates it to something in the real world.  For me (and hey, maybe my students too once I talked about it**), the interesting bit is when the result is compared to the horsepower rating that Porsche gives to their engine, which is 530hp.  Now, Porsche isn’t lying.  These things can be checked, and often are.  The big difference between the two figures comes from a couple of things:  (1) Our calculation incorporates all the other forces acting on the car during its 0-60mph sprint.  Drag and contact rolling friction are forces which oppose the propulsive force delivered from the engine to the wheels, and what we’re reading out (210 hp) is the propulsion minus those energy sapping effects.  (2) 530 hp is, at least as far as I can tell, brake horsepower, which is the power that the engine delivers directly to the output shaft.  From there, bits and pieces of that power are used up by all sorts of things before it ever gets translated to the wheels.  Power steering, air conditioning, fuel pump, water pump, alternator, frictional losses in the transmission, the differential, etc, etc…all these get a piece.  All these effects combined take us from 530 hp at the engine to 210 hp “on the road” so-to-speak.

But wait, you say, that isn’t so bad!  We’re still about 40% efficient in terms of translating raw engine power to the road even with all those parasitic effects!  Indeed, that is a testament to the engineering prowess of Porsche (or any other major car company).  Of course, the real inefficiencies come from the fact that we’re using a heat engine to produce that 530hp in the first place.  I’ll write a follow-up on that subject whenever I get a little sad about heat engines not being in the curriculum*** for Physics 100 at Cal Maritime.

* If you’ve got a spare $160,000, you too could be the proud (and possibly broke) owner of this car.

** Hope springs eternal.

*** Physicist rage!!!


Back To School

Just FYI, if you’re one of the (very)* select readers of this blog, you might not have as much to read as often over the next few months.  The fall semester has begun at my place of employment, the California Maritime Academy…or Cal Maritime…or Cal State University – Maritime.  What one calls the institution seems to depend on a variety of factors.  I’m sure I’ll learn the system.  Someday.

Anyway, I try to teach physics to aspiring mariners.  They, in turn, try to learn physics from an aspiring professor.  Each of these endeavors has a varying degree of success.  In concert, however, the institution seems quite successful at training some of the people who move some 90% of the Earth’s international commerce (by volume).  If you like that fun fact, you can find many more with a bit of poking around at  One thing the website doesn’t do particularly well is highlight the location.  Vallejo the town isn’t anything too grand, but half the campus is about fifteen feet above sea level with a view of the lovely San Pablo Bay…and a ConocoPhillips refinery terminal.  Still, it is beautiful.  I’ll see if I can grab a picture tomorrow to add to this post and prove this assertion.

* extremely?