A view of Orion

Venus rises over the mountains east of the SMU campus in Taos, NM. It is nearly sunrise.

This weekend is drawing to a close. I write this not from Dallas, where Jodi and I finally returned home 2 weeks ago after a brief (and originally unplanned) vacation in Wisconsin, but from the SMU campus in Taos, NM. It is Sunday morning. The past week – the first week of classes for this fall term – was long and painful, brightened by the students I get to work with this fall in class and on research and dimmed by the usual complexities of life in an academic department. I won’t get into the dimming. I’ll focus on the bright spots of the week.

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Summer Journal: Part 2

My notes on machine learning concepts from my whiteboard at the Weizmann Institute, “dressed up” to look like blueprints.

The first half of the summer was packed with a bunch of stuff, including a busy travel schedule followed by the death of a beloved pet. The second half of the summer has been a little bit more sane, involving more focused travel followed by a break in work-related travel for some recovery before the fall semester begins. In pictures and words, below, are some scenes from the second half of the summer.

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The Higgs’ Most Favoritist Thing is Beautiful

The ATLAS detector captures a proton-proton collision that is a promising candidate for the production of a W boson and a Higgs boson, where the Higgs boson decays to heavy conical sprays of particles (bottom-quark-initiated jets) and the W boson decays to its “golden” final state with a muon and a muon neutrino.

Today at the European Physical Society’s annual meeting, the ATLAS Experiment unveiled a number of new results based on the extensive data collected in 2015 and 2016 at a center-of-mass collision energy that is equivalent to balling together the energy of 13,000 proton masses. Among those results was one near and dear to my heart: the first evidence from the ATLAS Experiment of the Higgs decaying to its most favoritest decay mode, a pair of bottom quarks, also originally known as “beauty quarks.” But why did it take 7 years from the start of data collection to first see this decay, if the Higgs likes it so much? And why am I excited about it? Let’s find out!

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Draining the Brain

A healthy human brain depicted on the left, and an Alzheimer’s addled brain depicted on the right. The American Political Brain is in the throes of a neuro-degenerative disease that will leave us less innovative, less competitive, and unable to made decisions based on reliable evidence.

The most definitive way to diagnose Alzheimer’s Disease, a severely degenerative disease of the brain, is an autopsy. Of course, the symptoms show up earlier – memory loss, personality changes, physical changes, and differing degrees of diagnosis are achievable with cognitive tests and scans of the brain. But distinguishing Alzheimer’s from other neuro-degenerative diseases of aging is still a difficult medical challenge. All such diseases do have one thing in common: they ravage the mind of the afflicted, ruining that life and the lives of those around them, until there is no more of the original person left. There is only the burden of intact memory born by those who remember the person, and the emotional and financial hardship, born out of love and devotion to the person, in caring for that person whose brain is utterly savaged.

When Donald Trump ran for President, he famously promised to “drain the swamp” – the swamp being Washington D.C. and the metaphor intended to convey that he will remove corruption and gridlock (due to entrenched interests) from government. It is the height of delicious irony that the claim of D.C. being built on a swamp is an utter myth, based on a tiny drop of truth (a very small part of what is now D.C. was once marshy land), and yet forms the basis of a (hollow) political slogan.

While Trump has failed to do what he pledged – in fact, he introduced even more special financial and business interests into D.C. while actively encouraging and cultivating petty partisan deadlocks and even rifts within his own party – he has succeeded in doing something else: draining the political brain of the United States.

The symptoms are apparent, but I fear America will only realize the extent of the degeneration when the Trump administration is a by-gone era and an autopsy of his legacy reveals the extent of the disease. I fear we may learn that this singular act of depleting the nation’s science policy capabilities also destroyed America’s competitiveness and leadership in the world, at the same time making it impossible to even sustain the innovation economy required to achieve his isolationist “America First” policy platform. But as with the Alzheimer’s patient, the most definitive diagnosis would come too late to save the patient or the family. Can we as a nation reliably diagnose the illness now, and rush to treat?

Unlike Alzheimer’s or other neuro-degenerative diseases, Americans have a chance to prevent the disease from spreading by engaging their representative lawmakers and arguing loudly and publicly for the brain drain to stop.

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