Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The 90% University

A helpful starting point for me when considering universities after the pandemic is the cover story of The Economist, from two weeks ago, The 90% Economy. They were reflecting on the world economy will change in the coming years, suggesting three key characteristics.

 1. the economy will be more fragile 
 2. there will be less innovation 
 3. there will be even greater inequality 

The reason that it is called the 90% economy is because in the next few years rather than growing a few percent each year it will decrease in size by about 10%. 
Now on one level that doesn't sound too bad, but the problem is that it is not a uniform decrease across every sector, company, and individual. The changes will be quite heterogeneous. Rather, there will be significant gaps, that because of the interconnectedness of everything there will be problems. 

Just like the economy going back to ``normal'' universities will continue to have students, continue to do teaching, continue to graduate people but things, won't be quite the same, in some quite significant ways. It is not just a matter of possible 10-20 percent budget cuts.

1. Universities will be more fragile

Less stability and predictability is particularly bad for universities. Key ingredients for universities to achieve their real purpose are time and stability. Significant research, teaching, and learning all require time to build up knowledge, explore different possibilities, make mistakes, and not be distracted by crises, whether personal, institutional, or societal. Economic uncertainty is just one of many dimensions to the forthcoming fragility.

2. There will be less innovation in universities

Research is all about innovation, discovering new things, and exploring new ideas.  Drawing on The Economist article. More virtual meetings, less international travel, and fewer face-to-face meetings mean less brainstorming. Less random meetings and informal interactions will mean fewer new ideas. There will also be less money available for discretionary funding for new initiatives and fewer startup funds for new faculty, even if hiring freezes end.
After any crisis, people are more cautious and more risk-averse. A problem before the pandemic was that science was increasingly being done in a very risk-averse manner. People, particularly those without tenure, focus on low-lying fruit, working on problems that they are pretty sure they can solve in a year or less. Even senior people can only get funding if they have a ``track record'' in an area. This means they will just keep doing the same thing and not move into new areas. 
In reviewing his scientific life, Tony Leggett recently made the following comments.
Indeed, when I look back on ... a 60-year career in physics, I think I have been fortunate in many ways. I have had a marvelous constellation of graduate students and postdocs, from all corners of the globe... But if I had to pick out one thing that made all the difference, particularly in the early stages, it would be the tolerant and relaxed environment that I experienced at Sussex when starting there in the late 1960s. When I recall this and then look around at the current environment for people at the postgraduate, postdoc or junior faculty level, I feel quite concerned ... I get the impression that many of them feel that there will be no hope of obtaining the kind of postdoctoral/faculty/tenured position .. unless they have not only published three or four papers but published them in high-impact journals... I fear that one almost ineluctable outcome is that there is a strong temptation to focus all one’s energy on problems that can be reasonably guaranteed to yield results within the relevant time frame, typically two or three years. And almost by definition, these are not the really worthwhile problems! ...  the best advice I can give to any younger colleagues who seek my opinion is deliberately to put aside some fraction (30%, 25%, even 20%) of their research time for problems that they not only are not sure they can solve within the two- or three-year deadline but are not even sure that they (or anyone) can solve at all.
A similar conclusion can be drawn from a brilliant podcast, The Obscure Virus Club, by Malcolm Gladwell.

3. There will be more inequality, both within universities and between universities

This is part of the social tragedy that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, particularly during and after a crisis, such as a pandemic. The poor do not have the resources to adapt and survive. If you live in a slum you can't practice social distancing. If you don't have access to clean running water or disinfectant it is hard to practice personal hygiene.  If you lose your job you can't use your savings to go and get training for a new job. In contrast, if you are wealthy and have significant cash reserves you can wait things out, see your competitors fail, and snap up cheap investments. Similarly, with universities, it's hard for me to believe that institutions such as Harvard with massive endowments won't come out of the pandemic relatively stronger. Weak institutions will fold. Others will really struggle to survive and go through periods of stagnation.

There will also be inequality within institutions related to access, gender, and seniority. Because of the background of an economic downturn it will be harder for students from poorer backgrounds to afford tuition or access scholarships. Furthermore, poor job prospects will make the financial cost and risks of student loans not seem worthwhile. There will also be a push within universities to increase the number of adjunct faculty (i.e. people on short-term teaching contracts with no benefits). People with tenure who are well established will do fine because they also have a good strong social and professional networks. In a more online environment, it's harder to build those professional networks and so disparities may increase. The Economist article mentions a study that found the productivity of female economics faculty, as measured by the production of research papers, fell relatively to male ones, since the pandemic. That's arguably because women are more likely to have to take care of homeschooling and entertainment of bored children during the lockdown.

All this is a bit depressing. However, with a crisis, there are always opportunities. There will be plenty of opportunism (where people exploit a situation without regard to moral considerations and the impact on others). But, there will also be opportunities for the wealthy, powerful, and privileged to do good and facilitate much-needed changes in universities. For example, large philanthropies and wealthy universities can make long-term investments that others won't or can't. Well-established faculty can provide support/cover to junior faculty, students, and postdocs. In the longer term of decades, these will likely be the institutions and individuals at the forefront of what universities really should be about: thinking, writing, teaching, and learning, at the deepest level.

Monday, May 25, 2020

The Critical Point

I have now finished my first draft of chapter 6, of Condensed Matter Physics: A Very Short Introduction. The main purpose of the chapter is to introduce the idea of the critical point and the renormalisation group.

 I welcome comments and suggestions. However, bear in mind that my target audience is not the typical reader of this blog, but rather your non-physicist friends and family.

I think it still needs a lot of work, particularly to be less technical.

The goal is for the chapter to be interesting, accessible, and bring out the excitement and importance of condensed matter physics.

Aside. Don't think that because I am posting two chapters one week apart that I am writing one per week. I wish I could. I sometimes move onto a new chapter before getting it into a draft form good enough to post.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Universities after the pandemic

There is a growing discussion of what changes might result from the pandemic: changes in societies, in institutions, and to us as individuals.

What will happen to universities? Will they change for the better or for the worse?

First, I want to acknowledge that there's a lot of heterogeneity, due to the diversity of institutions and their different contexts. The effect of the pandemic on Harvard, on the University of Queensland, and on a small state university in Sri Lanka, could be vastly different.

Any change produces both challenges and opportunities. There are many immediate questions: which universities will survive financially? How many staff will be sacked?  To what extent will universities move to online learning, or to some hybrid? A few years from now will we be back to largely face-to-face teaching?
Although important, we should also ask be asking bigger questions.

An epidemic provides a mirror on society: its values, its strengths, and its weaknesses. This idea is emphasized by Frank Snowden, a historian at Yale University. Last year he published “Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present,” and there is an insightful interview with him in The New Yorker.
David Brooks in the New York Times also picks up on this idea.
Thus, it's worth thinking about how universities respond to the pandemic may tell us something about them. What do you think?

The Chronicle of Higher Education had an interesting series, How will the pandemic change higher education? (in the USA). They asked about a dozen different faculty, administrators, and analysts. It's worth looking at the article as they present a range of perspectives on a range of issues, some pessimistic and some optimistic. One scary suggestion is that the crisis will be used by managers as a pretext for various cost-savings, such as moving to more online learning and an even greater increase of adjunct faculty (i.e. in the USA this means faculty on short-term and part-time contracts and with few benefits). Will the humanities die or experience a resurgence? Will grades be abandoned? Will research become less esoteric? Will students' personal needs be better addressed? Will universities give up on risky expansion plans and expensive fancy buildings?

I would welcome responses to some of these articles.

There are questions about the mechanics of universities such as financial sustainability, modes of teaching, and virtual graduation ceremonies. These are important. However, these mechanics are really means to an end. One can do all the mechanics: recruiting, enrolling students, offering courses, assessment, and graduation, without actually achieving anything. Doing these things does not mean students actually get an education.

 I would like to see more discussion of big questions about what universities are actually for and how can they do those things better, not just in the next few years but also in the longer term. We need to keep coming back to what universities are all about: thinking! Teaching is about students learning how to think and the discipline of learning to think in the manner of certain disciplines. Learning to think like an economist, learning to think like a historian, or learning to think like a physicist or an engineer. Secondly, universities are about research. Again this means thinking, discovering new things, and synthesizing ideas.

What do you think might be significant changes that will occur in the coming years in your own context?

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Adventures in Flatland

I have now finished my first draft of chapter 5, of Condensed Matter Physics: A Very Short Introduction. The main purpose of the chapter is to introduce the idea of spatial dimensionality.

 I welcome comments and suggestions. However, bear in mind that my target audience is not the typical reader of this blog, but rather your non-physicist friends and family.

I think it still needs a lot of work, particularly to be less technical. I still have not figured out how to explain how fluctuations are larger in lower dimensions.

The goal is for it to be interesting, accessible, and bring out the excitement and importance of condensed matter physics.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

The beautiful mathematics and physics of virions

Next Monday I am giving a seminar, ``The mathematics and physics of virions", for the virtual Pandemic Seminar of the UQ School of Mathematics and Physics. Most of the talks so far have been about modeling the spread of the virus and the effect of social distancing measures. In contrast, I will look at phenomena at a much smaller scale.

The past month I have taken a crash course in what is known about the structure and properties of virions (single virus nanoparticles). There is some fascinating and beautiful mathematics and condensed matter physics involved. A nice place to start is this short animation video that shows how the Dengue fever virus replicates itself.

Three important questions for any virus are the following.

1. What is the structure of the virion?
In particular, what is the structure of the viral capsid, i.e. the protein shells that encapsulate the genome of the virus?

2. How does the capsid self assemble?

3. How is the genetic material packaged inside the capsid?

Handwashing with sanitiser works because hydrophobic interactions cause the breakup of the membrane that encases the virion. This is the same soft matter physics as when soap removes dirt.

The role of anti-viral drugs is to interrupt/sabotage any of the steps in the multi-step process of the action or duplication of the virion. Thus, finding answers to any of the three questions above may facilitate the development of anti-viral drugs or vaccines.

Here are a few of the articles I have found fascinating and helpful.

Geometry as a Weapon in the Fight Against Viruses
Reidun Twarock

On Virus Growth and Form 
Roya Zandi, Bogdan Dragnea, Alex Travesset, Rudolf Podgornik

TRIM5α self-assembly and compartmentalization of the HIV-1 viral capsid 
Alvin Yu, Katarzyna A. Skorupka, Alexander J. Pak, Barbie K. Ganser-Pornillos, Owen Pornillos, Gregory A. Voth

The figure below (taken from the second article above) shows the structure of the capsid of five different virions. The number of proteins in all of them is an integer multiple of 60.

Left to right: Satellite Tobacco Mosaic virus (composed of 60 proteins); L-A virus (120 proteins); Dengue virus (180 proteins); Chlorosome Vigna virus (180 proteins); Sindbis virus (240 proteins).

In the next post, I will explain the geometric origin of this quantisation.