Archive for the ‘funding’ Category

Adieu, Monsieur Mandlebrot

How long is the coastline of Britain?

It sounds like a simple question. We have maps. We have rulers. So just take out a map and measure! But which map do you use? The problem is, the more detailed a map you use, the greater your answer will be, because a coastline is not smooth. It is jagged. There are river mouths and bays and promontories to account for. The answer changes as the resolution of the map increases. Do you chart a path around each rock? Each stone? What about every grain of sand?

This is not the simple math problem of computing the circumference of a circle given the diameter. As a math problem, this is turned out to be an entirely new kind of beast that its discoverer Benoit Mandelbrot called “fractal geometry.” Mandelbrot assigned a “fractal dimension” to measure jaggedness in general.

Since most things scientists want to study in nature, such as clouds, proteins, galaxies, earthquake faults, are neither tiny particles nor smooth Platonic objects, of course it was important to have some kind of mathematical language for describing them.

Thanks to Mandelbrot, now they have one.

Fractals are also great for generating cool pictures like this one:

Mandelbrot set

Mandelbrot set

Mandelbrot passed away Thursday in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was an instigator rather than a rigorous investigator, a rogue mathematician who left the proofs for those who followed in his maverick footsteps. He will be missed, but hopefully he’s inspired other rogues and mavericks out there to come and do their bit to shake things up.

One last thing — in the name of alumni pride, I’d like to point out that in addition to all the other famous places in America and France where Mandelbrot worked and studied, he found time to earn a master’s degree in aeronautics at my own alma mater Caltech.

Good job, Science is Vital

It’s normally hard to get scientists out of their labs for anything other than food or caffeine, but about 2,000 of them managed to make it to a demonstration outside the British Treasury today to protest the drastic cuts being made to the UK science budget in the name of deficit reduction.

Students of science around the world end up having to learn a lot of British names, like Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin anmd Stephen Hawking, just to name three. That’s because UK has produced far more than its fair share of the world’s cumulative scientific knowledge, even while spending less on science per capita than other modern countries.

A scientific community has to be grown and nurtured across many generations. You can’t just add money to smart people and grow one overnight.

And scientists are mobile — they travel very easily from countries that don’t want them to countries that do. The countries that do want them end up more prosperous than the countries that don’t.

Now I have to be honest — there are a lot of British physicists I would be happy to see more of in America. But my pleasure will come at the UK’s expense, and I think the government needs to reconsider this decision.

You can read more about this topic at the Science is Vital website.