A View from the Shadows

“Reality in the Shadows (or) What the Heck’s the Higgs?” is meant to help a new audience come to discover a love of science (and especially physics), and to welcome to the frontier those who already discovered that love a long time ago.

A human being is the sum of the influences of all their caregivers and bullies, successes and failures, dreams and fears… all bound together by that something special each of us has inside, that thing that ultimately makes each of us unique. I am no different. As a teenager, and later in my 20s as I pursued a Ph.D. in Physics, I was influenced by parents, teachers, friends and foes, and even the science writers to whom I was exposed by family, friends, and colleagues. With the publication of our book, “Reality in the Shadows (or) What the Heck’s the Higgs?”, Jim Gates, Frank Blitzer, and I hope now to repay the gift given to me by those science writers. I repay it not to them, but forward to a new generation (or even an existing one) by nurturing a new love of science, and especially for physics, as a principle means of inquiry into the origin, nature, and fate of the cosmos.

Continue reading “A View from the Shadows”

What Did You Expect?

“It’s here!”

Mandy came running into the house, waving a letter in the air. Levar looked up from reading the news and forced a smile. They’d been waiting for this day for months… hopeful for some good news, but mostly dreading it.

Mandy plopped down on the couch next to Levar, poring over the letter. Her hope faded. A frown lit in its place. Even this was but a torch held aloft in distant warning. The firestorm of her eventual grimace was almost too much for Levar to bear.

“So… how bad is it?”

“It’s bad.”

Mandy let the letter fall into her lap. She was lost in thought. How would they move money around to make the commute work? How early would they have to get up in the morning if they couldn’t afford the fast lane? They’d moved to this suburb to have an affordable, high-quality of life. The neighbors were kind. But the jobs were downtown, and that was their life. Get up in the morning. Commute 45 minutes. Work a day. Commute home. If there was an accident, add 15 minutes to the commute either way.

She hadn’t even realized she dropped the letter. Levar snatched it up. “Well… I’ll be shitted.”

“We shouldn’t have bought that Tayata,” Mandy lamented.

Levar grunted. “It was a good investment. It’s a good car. We needed that car.”

“I know, but…”

Her voice just faded away.

The letter made it clear. The interstate highway upon which they depended for a speed commute had been carved up by a bunch of companies. Hondo Motor Company owned the stretch that went halfway to downtown from their house; the other half was owned by Chrestler. The latter wasn’t a surprise; they had their big headquarters downtown. They were always buying this or that and branding the hell out of it. When the feds sold off the interstate highways to private companies, ending their era of regulation of these precious open freeways, everyone in the metroplex knew Chrestler would grab up something.

All the companies had taken to installing the lane radio markers right away. They had some clever process for getting them into the roadways every half-mile or so, and they did it over a month’s worth of nights in what seems like no real time at all. Cars already had transmitters with unique codes  (good for theft and tracking purposes, the car companies told us). The combination was inevitable. Now that car companies owned the on-ramps, off-ramps, and all the lanes in between, everyone knew what was coming: progressive lane tolling.

“Why did we buy a fucking Tayata? They don’t own shit anywhere we normally go.”

Mandy was past depression and into the standard “losing your shit” phase. Levar was muttering aloud. “Slow lane is fifty cents a mile if you own a Hondo, five cents more a mile for any other make. Lanes increase in price to the fast lane by 10 cents per mile. Add five more cents a mile for other makes.”

“Chrestler is worst. They own everything close to downtown. It will cost even more once we get halfway to work.”

Levar dropped the letter too. This was the last goodbye from the feds as they abandoned interstate highway regulation. Congress had ceded by law the ownership of highways to private companies. The sales happened fast and furious. The plans went from general tolling to lane-tolling. Want to drive fast? Pay more. Want to drive a car not owned by the company in charge of your highway? Pay more.

“This is shit. This is fuck shit.”

Mandy was losing it. Levar was doing the math now, too.

“We’ll car pool,” he said.

“Everyone is going to try that. We can sell seats in our car but we only have two seats to sell. It will be a race to the bottom to sell seats to get money for the tolling. We’ll wind up giving them away just to get tolling money.”


They sat in silence for a while. The house creaked, but no other sounds met them. They weren’t listening, anyway. All they heard was the blood rushing in their ears.

“What did we expect?” Levar asked, breaking the silence.

Mandy looked at him. Levar pressed on.

“They did this to the internet. Remember? Want to visit Goggle instead of the search page that pays that cable company? Pay more for your bits. Want to use Factbook instead of Tweeter to talk? Pay more. Want to visit Netshows instead of our streaming site? Pay more.  Made cable companies billions.

It was only a matter of time before somebody tried this bull in the real world.”


Senator Orrin Hatch recently said, “I grew up in a shack with a Meadow Gold Dairy sign for a wall. I worked as a janitor to pay for law school. I believe in opportunity because I’ve lived it.

And that’s what we’re going to deliver with #TaxReform.”


He is right. With the GOP plans in both the House and Senate, most Americans again will surely be guaranteed a house with at least one wall made from a disused sign, and that they will have to work a low-wage job just to scratch out enough money to afford a higher education.

Thank you for accidentally being honest in a poorly written tweet, Senator Hatch.

The only opportunity delivered by the GOP tax plans to most Americans is the opportunity to lose more wages to taxes.

Write Your Member of Congress: Graduate Tuition is Not Taxable Income!

Write your member of Congress today and tell them that making graduate tuition waivers count as part of taxable income will spell doom for higher education in STEM in the US and threaten the US STEM workforce.


Here is my letter to Congressmen Pete Sessions and Sam Johnson:

Dear Congressman X:

As a researcher making breakthroughs in STEM, a professor who trains the next generation STEM workforce, and your constituent, I urge you to reject the provisions in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (H.R.1) that increase the financial burden of higher education for graduate students. Advanced degree-holders are essential to the nation’s innovation ecosystem and economic growth. This bill makes it more financially difficult to obtain those degrees and disincentivizes education.

The bill takes away the current provision that allows graduate research and teaching assistants to only pay taxes on the wages they receive and not the tuition waived for them by their university. Being accepted into graduate school and holding one of these positions is a milestone accomplishment, and a university rewards this success by covering tuition. The bill would unfairly penalize that success by taxing this scholarship.

As a concrete example of this, a typical graduate student at local Texas research universities is provided a $20,000 per year stipend, and tuition is covered by a scholarship from the institution. $20,000 per year is barely enough to rent an apartment, buy food, and provide transportation to work. This has been the taxable income, and it puts graduate students in such a low-income tax bracket that they pay very little tax, which helps stretch their stipend for living expenses. However, treating the tuition scholarship as taxable income will at least double their reported taxable income; this then puts them in a higher tax bracket, increases substantially their tax burden, and makes their ability to afford living expenses weaker than the minimum standard of living. Students will not choose graduate programs in STEM as a result, increasing the shortage of US STEM experts. That threatens our economy and our global leadership, as well as the health of American citizens who depend on STEM experts to help drive down the cost of healthcare.

Advanced degree-holders go on to careers in industry, national labs, and academia where they help ensure America’s global leadership and strengthen our national security. I urge you to support the U.S.’s future workforce and reject these provisions.


Stephen Sekula