The Scientists Behind the Headline

Obama Promises Major Investment in Science” – AP News story (April 27, 2009)

“The bottom line is that if you’re a fan of new technologies being developed on US soil, you should be pretty damned excited.”Alex Koppelman, writing in

President Obama announced today an effort to increase the nation’s investment in research and development spending for the sciences and new technologies.  As Alex Koppelman points out:

One particularly striking point to note about this: That level of funding [an increase to ‘more than three percent of GDP’] would almost meet the amount of money spent on defense. To some extent, that may simply represent a shift in where on the budget certain funds are accounted for, as defense spending has always been a key driver of American scientific research, but it’s still a sharp difference from the normal state of affairs.

I’ve written before (“How to Find Research“) about the need for increased R&D spending, and about the role of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy in its main role: advising the President and others within the Executive Office of the President on the impacts of science and technology on domestic and international affairs.

OSTP does the hard work – but it is guided in part by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, or PCAST.  This group can be a quiet backwater – as it has been on and off for years – or it has the potential to be a dynamic leading voice in advising the Administration on S&T policies, particularly in investments in scientific research and tech innovation.

It looks like we’re on the dynamic upswing, given that President Obama also used today’s high-profile announcement to name his appointments to an all-new PCAST. 

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March of progress with human consequences

Fact: Today Cisco announced a new program with “learning solutions partners” to support China’s growing IT infrastructure by “Nurturing Talent in More Than 100 Training Centers Across 31 Cities in China” (Cisco Launches Talent Development Strategy for China“)

Analysis: One day last week an enterprising handyman in my little town of Montross, Virginia spied a large sinkhole in the long driveway leading up to our house. He offered to my wife that he’d fill and level the hole for $20.  Sold! Continue reading

Google Accelerates Hiring of Nobel Laureates

FACT:  Answering a question in this week’s Business Week about several recent high-profile departures of Google executives and engineers, CEO Eric Schmidt said: “What bothers me is that some people write: ‘So-and-so left the company.’ Well, they don’t also write that we hired 120 people that week, five of whom have Nobel prizes, three of whom have PhDs, and so on, who are beginning their career here now.”

ANALYSIS: There have only been some 700 Nobel Laureates awarded in the history of the program since 1901, according to the official Nobel site, and at least as of a 2001survey there were approximately 210 living Nobel prize-winners.

So, with some trepidation, I calculate that by Schmidt’s aggressive hiring of five Nobel laureates in a typical week, the entire roster of living prize-winners will be working for Google within a year.

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Microsoft Research Reclaims Value of Pi

pi-techFACT: Educators in the state of Alabama are chafing as the state celebrates a dubious anniversary: today marks ten years since the Alabama state legislature voted to change the value of the mathematical constant pi from 3.14159… to the “Biblical value” of 3.0.  Ramifications were felt across the state. 
Now, a team of Microsoft Research computer scientists have announced success in a groundbreaking effort to refactor the Biblical value, using modern high-performance computing hardware and machine-translation technologies on the original Old Testament texts.
ANALYSIS:  Looking back, an April 1998 issue of Science and Reason newsletter written by physicist Mark Boslough recounts the political and cultural battles which went behind the Alabama legislative change. The legislature of the “Yellowhammer State” justified the change by citing biblical injunction. As one supporter put it: “the Bible very clearly says in I Kings 7:23 that the altar font of Solomon’s Temple was ten cubits across and thirty cubits in diameter, and that it was round in compass.”

The use of “3.0” as the value of pi led to problems in schools, businesses, and local scientific pursuits, including a group of frustrated engineers at the NASA research facility in Huntsville.  According to NASA/Huntsville’s director of special projects “Dr.” Jim Simon (doctorate pending), “We had strayed from using our Microsoft software and instead had been trying to figure out how to use an advanced Google search platform, which was sold to us as a powerful Cloud Computing system.”

Unfortunately, that effort proved frustrating for the “rocket scientists” any time they used calculations involving pi, based on the Alabama-standard value of 3.0, mostly because they were under the mistaken impression that they were contractually barred from using Cloud Computing on any sunny days. Given the hospitable local weather that left them unable to use their computers for an average of 290 days each year.

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