As a physicist, I am fascinated by trying to quantify the world – to find the numbers that can represent what is going on in nature. People are hard to quantify most of the time, but trying to do so can be informative. Organizations like PolitiFact  offer a set of data about people – specifically, about politicians – that can allow us to create numbers to represent and understand those people. In this post, I discuss my own recent attempt to quantify the data collected by PolitiFact by constructing an “Verbal Honesty Score” for the remaining Democrat and Republican Presidential Candidates. I find that Donald Trump is, by far, the most verbally dishonest candidate… by a long shot, and by two measures of the same data. I find that Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and John Kasich are the most verbally honest of the group, though who is more verbally honest differs by which of the two measures you want to use. For now, I assign no errors to the numbers though errors of a statistical nature are possible. I comment on errors of a systematic nature.
I haven’t posted in a while. The current global Ebola panic, spread mostly by social media and the media and not so much by the actual global threat of Ebola, has spurred me from complacency. Specifically, a WHO ethics panel today unanimously authorized the use of unproven, untested, experimental Ebola drugs in the field. But missing from the public discussion of this move is a key question: what is the scientific benefit (or downside) of this decision? In this short post, I hope to address the issue of using unproven drugs on Ebola patients from the perspective of the scientific method.
I am Stephen Sekula, an Assistant Professor of Physics at SMU conducting research on the ATLAS Experiment. These comments will be my own, and I will try to take a broad view. Let me begin by thanking the members of the Panel for this opportunity to speak, and let me also send my greetings to all of my friends and colleagues who are connected to this town hall. We certainly stand on the threshold of an era in particle physics where the questions are big, and the challenges to answering them are bigger. We have been presented with the mysteries of dark energy and dark matter. We have been granted a gift by the neutrino and its behavior, which lies partially within and partially outside the Standard Model. We have also been granted a new gift – the Higgs boson – which marks just how successful the Standard Model has been in the laboratory and whose properties need to be fully illuminated. But that model has not yet risen to the challenge of explaining mysteries like the nature of dark energy and dark matter. We know that something must lie beyond the Standard Model; what it is, we must discover.
There seems a general consensus in our field about these frontiers and their importance. The problem we are all faced with in the US is the reality of constrained budgets and national priorities that are not perfectly aligned with our own field’s scientific goals. This is our biggest challenge. At the end of this P5 process, while certainly the prioritization and the community consensus will be correlated with one another, they are not necessarily the same thing. We should not think of the P5 process as the end; it is the beginning of a much longer process of program-building, and there will still be left to us the work of convincing our colleagues inside and outside the field about the value of the P5 outcome.
We all know that not every project can go forward, or if they do go forward that there isn’t room for all projects to proceed with the fullest funding desired by its participants. It would seem prudent that the final report emphasize how the prioritization enables a US program that tackles these frontiers. For instance:
- Explain clearly the measurements that define each area of the US program, and their role in advancing our understanding in that frontier. Articulating this will help students and post-docs see how and where they can advance their skills and leadership in this field.
- More importantly, explain how the outcomes of those measurements avoid scientific dead ends and point the way to the next stage of the US program. How will continuity be assured by this prioritization? Answering this is how we will continue to attract and retain students and post-docs, and maintain excitement and interest in the field.
- Explain how each endeavour leaves open the possibility for serendipitous discovery, which has always been an important part of defining new directions in the field. After all, it is the possibility of discovery that ultimately drives us into and forward through the field, even in hard budget times.
The worst thing we can do is assume that the prioritization speaks for itself. It obviously cannot. The report should have a voice that speaks for the scientific value of the prioritizaton, and how it advances US science by advancing US high-energy physics into the great frontiers of our time: dark energy, dark matter, and the nature of what lies within and beyond the Standard Model.
I thank you for your time and consideration.
When I think back to my youth, I recognize a series of key moments that happened that led to my becoming a physicist. I often speak of one of those moments when I discuss physics with students or the general public. My father once recorded a documentary about physics entitled “The Creation of the Universe,” hosted by writer Timothy Ferris . A scene from that documentary had a particular effect on my mind, which in part led me down the path of being a physicist. In that scene, the full length of a typical human life was compared to the trivial act of light leaving the Big Dipper and travelling to Earth. In that one moment, I came to understand our place, the insufficiency of light itself in comparison to the size and scale of the universe, and the small but meaningful role that humans play in the life of the cosmos. I hope to live long enough to see the stars of the Big Dipper as they appeared on the day that I was born.