Blog moving!

Posted on August 2nd, 2010 — permalink

A new science blogs collective, Scientopia, is starting up today, and I will be a part of that! As such, the new location for this blog will be

I’ve just arrived in Squamish, BC, where I’ll be starting teaching at Quest University in less than a month. It’s going to be a very busy fall semester, but as I settle back into academia I intend to pick up the pace of the science blogging once again.

See you at the new site!

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I’ll be joining the faculty of Quest University in Fall 2010

Posted on December 21st, 2009 — permalink

Last week, I flew out to Squamish, BC to interview for a faculty position at Quest University. Two days after I returned, they called me to offer me the job, and I accepted it. Next summer (July 2010), Alyson and I will be moving to Squamish, and starting next Fall, I’ll be a Tutor of Physics at Quest. As far as I can tell, this is my dream job.

Although there have been moments where I questioned this, I have long considered it my calling to teach at the college level at a small liberal arts college. Eight years ago, when the only offer I had was at a large research University, I thought I could make that work— and I almost did. Two and a half years ago, after the quashing of the notion that I could stay forever at a research University, I thought I was never going to be able to work at my true calling, and I took up a (enjoyable and rewarding) backup plan. Half a year ago, when booted out of my backup plan, I despaired that I would ever be able to do anything but “just make money”.

So why do I think Quest is my dream job? I sent out applications to 14 small colleges, 13 of which were in the US, a couple of months ago. I didn’t apply to large research universities at all this time around. However, I’m in that awkward position of being somebody who’s 13 years past his PhD and not a superstar. It’s hard for colleges to hire somebody like me because they have to figure out if they should evaluate me for tenure straightaway, and, crucially, because there is a tremendous oversupply of extremely capable and extremely well-resumed young physics PhDs out there that they can hire for less money. The competition is stiff, and since my realistic and non-superstar resume was competing with extrapolations from very high-end post-docs, I knew it was a long shot. However, even at the beginning, I could tell that Quest was a different sort of place from even most of the small liberal arts colleges. And, I believe it was some of those differences that both made the place so attractive to me and made me “hireable”.

The two single most important things about Quest are this. First, it’s a small liberal arts undergraduate college (enrollment currently in the 200’s, with a target of 600 to 800 in the next five years). (It turns out that while small, secular, independent liberal arts colleges are all over the place in the USA, Quest is unique in Canada.) Second, it’s a new college. Indeed, it’s only had students for three years, so nobody has graduated from there yet! What’s more, not only is it new and thus free of the notion that “we’ve always done things this way here”, but it was also deliberately founded with the best modern understanding of what really makes for a great undergraduate education.

Like Colorado College, Quest operates on the block plan. Students take only one class at a time, and they completely focus on it for three and a half weeks. I don’t have much direct experience with this myself (the closest I’ve been is teaching introductory astronomy over the course of five weeks at Vanderbilt during the Summer term), but I have talked to a number of people who find that they like this model of coursework far better than the traditional “scattered attention over a semester” model. And, given my own tendency to get into something and to want to hyperfocus on it, it appeals to me.

When I was sending out applications, I had to edit my “statement of teaching philosophy” a bit. Originally, I had a statement to the effect of “modern physics educational research has shown that straight lecturing is not an effective way to teach physics courses”. I realized that that statement might directly offend people on the committees that would be reading my applications, and stated it more cagily. (”Much recent research into physics and astronomy education has shown that the most effective use of class time comes when students actively engage the material.”) Quest, however, contained more or less the same original statement in their job advertisement. This was clearly a place that “gets it”. When I visited Quest, I was quite impressed. The faculty members I met with were dynamic and intelligent, and truly cared about undergraduate education as their primary creative endeavor. They were high on the institution, and they were high on their students. Indeed, I was also impressed with the students I met, both in the “sample class” I taught, and when I chatted with a few of them and some others afterwards during lunch. I would say that I was even more impressed by these students as a group than I was by the students at Pomona I met with when I applied there several years ago— previously, that was the group of students I’d met during job interviews who impressed me the most. (Of course, the most impressive undergraduate students I’ve worked with over the years include Jessica Hodges, James Schlaerth, Naved Mahmud, Jonathan Stricker, Andrew Collazzi, Anders Jensen, and Cameron Pittman… i.e. the ones who’ve done research with me!) (When I interviewed at Vanderbilt nine years ago, I met some graduate students, but I didn’t teach a “sample class”, nor did I meet any undergraduates.)

Quest also doesn’t do tenure. Many would view this as a disadvantage. And, indeed, I can fully appreciate the value of the perk of having a permanent assured job. But, I’ve been on the other end of tenure, and anybody who read my blog a few years ago knows that I suffered greatly because of it. A friend of mine once said that she didn’t know anybody who went through the tenure process without having it f–k them up severely. While many point to the “deadwood” problem as the “flaw” of tenure, David Helfand (the current president of Quest) said what I also think— that that problem is overblown, and is only something like a 10% effect. The real problems of tenure is that it limits academic freedom for pre-tenure people. I don’t know that that is such a severe problem in the sciences, but you can easily imagine how in any department the young, bright, and dynamic faculty may have to constantly censor themselves to avoid torquing off a powerful ego in their department. Heaven knows that I didn’t manage keep my mouth shut, and freely offended several senior professors in my department… and I still believe that had I received an NSF grant, I would have had no problem getting tenure at Vanderbilt, because there were enough other senior professors who agreed with the things I was saying. However, tenure did put tremendous stress and pressure on me, and that stress and despair undermined my research productivity my last few years at Vanderbilt. All in all, by the end, for me, the tenure system had nothing but negative effects while I was at Vanderbilt. As long as Quest does real faculty evaluations that really evaluate whether they are doing what they’re supposed to be doing well (and I believe that it will do this), I’m just as happy to be shut of the whole tenure system.

Indeed, I suspect the lack of tenure made it much easier for Quest to consider me than it would have for other colleges. They didn’t have to look at somebody 13 years out from his PhD with six years experience teaching at the University level and think about tenure clocks or any of that. I’m just one more contracted Tutor. (Oh, and, they call them Tutors there in order to emphasize that our role is not to “profess”, but to enable and aid the students in learning how to think and how to learn.)

A lot of colleges and Universities include a “writing across the curriculum” initiative. When I learned during my final interview that Quest is trying to start a “quantitative reasoning across the curriculum” initiative in addition to this, I almost fell over under the “this must be too good to be true” response. I’ve long bemoaned that Universities understand the value of writing while missing the equally important value of quantitative reasoning.

Because Quest is not only a new University, but a small University where faculty have no choice but to teach some courses outside of the “straight and narrow” of their fields, I am very sure I’ll be able not only to challenge myself by teaching some of their Foundation classes, but that I’ll be able to create new and interesting courses that might transcend what you’d fine at a “normal” Physics department. I’m not just thinking about an undergraduate fluid mechanics course (which one student at lunch asked for while I was visiting), but I may one day before long get to teach a class about the science found in Tom Stoppard’s plays…. It’s all opportunity, it’s all exciting future.

When I left Quest this last week, I felt that this was the place where I was supposed to be. It almost made me think that perhaps there was some Plan at work, that I taught at a research University for six years not because I went where I had the offer (instead of to the sort of place I thought I really wanted to teach), but because it was preparing me while Quest University was in the process of being created. (I don’t really believe that; if you are lucky, it’s not a mystical force, but it’s merely because, in the words of Spock, “random chance seems to have operated in [your] favor”.) I was very excited when they called me on the phone to offer me the job, and the only reason I didn’t accept it on the spot was that my wife was napping, and I did want to check in with her before accepting a job that was going to include a move to western Canada.

I still don’t know everything I’m going to be doing during the first half of 2010, but next Summer I’ll be moving to Squamish, and next fall I’ll be a Tutor in Physics at Quest University.


Renaming the blog

Posted on June 2nd, 2009 — permalink

I have renamed my blog back to “Galactic Interactions”, the name of the blog that I started when I was still an assistant professor of physics & astronomy.  After I started working at Linden Lab, I noticed that I wasn’t blogging about astronomy all that much any more, and what’s more I have to admit that I was feeling kind of sad that I wasn’t spending the time thinking about physics & astronomy that would lead me to spontaneously blog about it.  As such, closed down my blog on and started a new blog entitled “Second Sight”.

Life changes. I no longer work for Linden Lab. Also, over the course of the last year, I’ve become involved with MICA, which has made me more active in the astronomy community — not as active as if it were my job, but it does give me a connection that allows me to keep it up on my own time. Especially given that MICA was founded by people who work in N-body calculations (i.e. the computational/theoretical arm that goes into dealing with, among other things, galaxies interacting), it makes sense for me to rename my blog back to “Galactic Interactions”. So here it is!

I may be changing the look of the blog a bit in coming weeks too. Being the nerd that I am, I don’t find themes or anything like that. I hacked the PHP and HTML for a standard Wordpress theme to get the current look, and I may hack it a bit more to make it more appropriate again to its new/old name.

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Obama’s speech to the National Acaemy, my failure at my calling, and bad timing

Posted on April 28th, 2009 — permalink

It is a source of continual angst to me that I’m not teaching college physics at a small college.  It’s my calling, it’s what I’m supposed to be doing.  I sort of made a mistake by going to a research University (that really wanted to be even more of a research University, and was transitioning away from a balance in valuing teaching), but at the time it was the only job offer I had.  If you want to be faculty in physics and astronomy, you’re lucky to get in in the first place….  I would have been happy if I could have kept that job.  Alas, I failed, repeatedly, to get NFS (National Science Foundation) funding.  I tried reinventing my research program in an attempt to make something that would better match the preconception of the funding agencies.  Ironically, this was away from Dark Energy.  However, I was the only professor at my institution who was part of a large collaboration, and funding agencies aren’t interested in that.  Indeed, astronomy panels (at least 7 or so years ago) were suspicious of large collaborations in general.  But, still, no luck.  And, in my last few years, the knowledge (confirmed repeatedly by my department chair) that no NFS funding meant zero chance for tenure begin to weigh more and more heavily on me, and I became more and more dispirited, which made it increasingly difficult to produce any papers and to get good proposals written.  I was in a death spiral.

A year before I left Vanderbilt, I applied for jobs at small colleges, and got several interviews.  I did get one offer, but sadly, for family reasons, I wasn’t able to take the job.  The next year, I applied again, but only got a couple of phone calls, no actual interviews.  Now that I’m out, barring some particularly interesting angle, there’s very little chance of my being able to get back in.  There are just too many young hotshots out there with solid research records, no gap, and who aren’t already over 40.  This isn’t to say it’s inconceivable, but I’ve been on search committees, and I know what happens when they see somebody who’s more than 6 years in and not a superstar.

I can’t help but wonder, though, if things might have been different if the economy had crashed several years earlier, and if we didn’t have a president openly hostile to actual science in the white house.  In a speech to the National Academies, Obama announced that there’s going to be a huge increase in the budget for the NSF.  Mind you, only 1 in 6 grants were being funded, so even if it goes to 1 in 3 (which I doubt will really happen, because assuredly some of that NFS doubling will go to various big projects and other “rich get richer” sorts of things), it’s still difficult, you still spend a lot of your creative effort banging your head against thew all.  So, I might have had exactly the same outcome.  However, when grants were turned down, sometimes NFS program officers could only say they didn’t know what to say, because money was so tight; in previous years, they might have tried to help people applying figure out how to better tune their grants.  At 1 in 6, it was a complete crap shoot.

I can’t help but wonder if it might have been different.  If I was, in part, the victim of bad timing.

“A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.” –John Barrymore

The fact that I’m 40 doesn’t so much make me feel old.  The fact that I’m 40 and not spending my primary full-time-job creative effort on physics and astronomy, together with a realistic assessment that I’ll be able to get back into the sort of faculty job that I want, makes me realize that many (not all) of my primary dreams have in fact been replaced by regrets.


Miracle Drugs

Posted on November 7th, 2008 — permalink

This morning I woke up and had a headache.

I took a couple of Ibuprofen.

Half an hour later, I felt better.

Is chemistry cool, or what?

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My deepest emtion

Posted on September 26th, 2008 — permalink

I think is fear.

It’s only natural, of course, living in the USA, because our government currently gets us to agree to do things by tapping into our fear.  But I’m talking about something more personal.  And, it may not really be “fear” as much as “worry”.  The whole “what if” thing.

At the most base level, it’s probably the same “what if” so many people share, and some people much more directly than myself.  “What if I lose my job?”  Then I can’t pay for the house.  I can’t pay for health insurance, which my wife and I need (literally in my wife’s case) to survive.  I know that the stress of that situation would be killer.  I lived for a few years in academia with the near-certain knowledge that I was going to lose my job, and knew the time when it would happen.

Nowadays, I like my job, I like the people I’m working with, I like the day-by-day work of it.  I’m a happier person.  But underneath all of that is my fear.  And, when I see something, or do something stupid, that makes me think that the worry underneath perhaps isn’t as completely irrational as it usually is, it gets very hard, at least for a short period of time, to carry on like a rational human being.

Worrying about the future has always been a week point for me.  Before my academia-induced depression turned to basic out-and-out despair, it usually manifested itself as worrying, worrying that would take over my brain and freeze me up from being able to do other things.  It still comes back sometimes.  And then I kick myself for having done the stupid thing that led me to think that perhaps I really had something to worry about, or for blowing something that I observed out of proportion.

It is kind of sad, though, that all of us in our society, in or out of academia, spend our lives in fear that we have to hang on to whatever income-earning activies we have or else we’re going to be in trouble, unable to meet our responsibilities, unable to survive.  That at the base there isn’t a drive to make the world a better place, an appreciation of beauty, a wonderful curiosity, but rather simple personal fear that the bottom is going to drop out and we’re going to be in trouble.  No wonder we’re such an on-the-edge society!

Although, truth to tell, I suspect it was worse through most of human history.

All very sad.


Prospero Linden’s Rez Day

Posted on August 6th, 2008 — permalink

If you look at Prospero Linden’s profile, you will see that his rez date is 2007 August 6. What this means is that today is the first day of my second year of employement at Linden Lab.

I’ve already done the navel-gazing introspective about the life-changing decision I’ve made. A such, I won’t blather on that any more here. Instead, I’ll just pop up a few images to celebrate and mark the day.

My primary non-Linden Second Life account is Prospero Frobozz. His appearance has not changed much since he was first created in November of December 2006 (eight or nine months before I would start as a Linden). His rez day is actually February 2006, but because of issues I was having at the time with the 3d drivers in my Linux box (which I didn’t bother to fix until much later), I didn’t actually log into Second Life until the end of the year. I deliberately designed Prospero Frobozz to look something like me (although a lot sleeker). It wasn’t long before I found a skin that had a beard that looked right, and I’ve been using that skin ever since (together with mesh hair that has a bald spot):

Prospero Frobozz

Although, despite advice to the contrary, I did not intend to hide my alt’s or real-life identity associated with Prospero Linden, I decided not to make him look like me. Indeed, vaguely motivated by the appearance of Julian Lopez-Morillas as Prospero in the 1980 Berkeley Shakespeare Festival production of The Tempest, which I saw may times (getting in for free by volunteering as an usher). That was long enough ago that I didn’t remember details, so I settled for “tall with curly black hair”. The very initial Prospero Linden on his rez day looked like this:

Very Raw Prospero Linden

However, by now I was more clued in to Second Life than I was on Prospero Frobozz’s rez day, and fairly quickly I found an appropriate freebie skin (at, if memory serves, Men In Action), and purchased an outfit to fit the “Prospero the Wizard” theme:

The First Prospero Linden

Prospero Linden retained this appearance for many months (although acquiring a number of different outfits), although occasionally I would appear as something else. In particular, I established a tradition (sometimes violated) of going to the “Moonlab” meetings in a triceratops avatar created by Flea Bussy. (The “Moonlab” is what Linden calls the laboratory where all the not-an-an-office Lindens work… we’re on the Moon.)

Prospero Linden as a Triceratops

Prospero Linden obtained his current appearance at the March, 2008 Conceirge party. As part of the festivites, Dee Linden had random drawings for residents who “won” a half-hour of a Linden’s time, to do with them as they pleased. (Well, within reason.) I was won by Barbie Starr, and she said that she’d always wanted to do a Linden makeover. This was actually all win for me, for I came out with a much more attractive avatar than I’d had previously. It actually took closer to 90 minutes than 30 minutes, but it was good. One thing about the current Prospero Linden is that he is huge… extremely tall. People comment on that when they see me next to somebody else in-world. This is Prospero Linden’s current apperance (standing in front of the land where he holds his office hours in Teen Second Life):

The Current Prospero Linden


Academia : do I miss it?

Posted on July 13th, 2008 — permalink

Ethan Siegel asked me a question in a comment on an earlier post: do I miss it?

It’s rapidly approaching a year since I began working for Linden Lab (Prospero Linden’s rez day is August 6, 2007), and it’s now been just about a year since I submitted my resignation letter to Vanderbilt, officially ending my career as a professor of Physics and Astronomy. It had been a long road; I’d been in grad school at Caltech from 1990-1996, a post-doc at LBNL with the Supernova Cosmology Project from 1996 to 2001, and a professor at Vanderbilt from September, 2001 to June, 2007. I had dedicated my life, years of schooling and work thereafter, to this career. Once, upon meeting the chair of the department of Harvey Mudd (my college) at an American Astronomical Society meeting, he described me as “one of Harvey Mudd’s successes”… for, as many post-docs will tell you, it’s very difficult to get that tenure-track faculty position. But, as I told people many times, even though “most” pre-tenure people who actually put themselves up for tenure end up getting it, pre-tenure is hardly a cake walk.

I left. I jumped ship entirely– and in this field, it may well make it impossible for me to go back. Because there are so many more people than positions, any college that is hiring will be able to hire truly excellent people who never left, who don’t have a gap in their resume. Now I’m working as a computer engineer, trying to help build and maintain the metaverse. Some have said to me (including a professor of astronomy from Caltech) that I may well be doing more for Astronomy than many in tenure track positions– for, after all, Tim Berners-Lee, and Larry Page and Sergey Brin, each did more for Astronomy (even though they weren’t thinking about Astronomy when they did it) than the vast majority of lifelong astronomy teachers and researchers. Who knows.

But, back to the original question. Do I miss it? The answer is an emphatic yes, and an emphatic no. What else would you expect from me?



In San Francisco for a week

Posted on December 10th, 2007 — permalink

I’m in San Francisco for a week, visiting the main SF Linden office for the first “DNOC Summit”. The DNOC is the “Distributed Network Operations Center,” the group that I’m in at Linden. Although I’ve only been working there since August, I am now more senior than the DNOC median…. This is a new group that was put together starting with Neuro Linden. The idea is to have operations folk (i.e. system engineering type people) who are online and monitoring the cluster 24/7 during their normal working hours. This means to zeroth order following the Sun, with people in time zones around the world, although of course not everybody’s normal working hours coincide with the sun (especially among computer people). We’ve got five people in the DNOC now, with hopes of continuing to grow.

This week I’ll be meeting in-person for the first time a number of people that I’ve been working with and have talked with extensively. Alas, I foolishly forgot to bring my camera with me, so don’t expect any juicy insider Linden photos here.

I’ll be staying with my father, who lives on a “floating home” in Alameda. It’s a great deal that when I visit the Linden head office, I get to stay with him. Not only does this mean I get free (i.e. company reimbursed) travel to visit my father, sister, brother-in-law, and nephew, but also I save the company a lot of money by saving them hotel costs while I’m out there.


Welcome to my blog – there’s lots of room, so come right in

Posted on December 1st, 2007 — permalink

I know, I’ve said that sort of thing before. I’m not a new blogger… until a couple of months ago, I was writing Galactic Interactions, a science blog that (like so many other blogs) was about everything under the Sun, but which tended to focus vaguely in the direction of astronomy.

Lots of things have changed in my life since then. I’m no longer in academia. I’m no longer an active physics & astronomy researcher or teacher. I’m now a computer engineer, working for Linden Lab, the company that has created and runs the virtual online 3D world known as Second Life. For a while, I tried to keep writing Galactic Interactions, but I was finding it difficult on a few fronts. First, I was quite busy learning my new job (my new career!). Second, I really am somewhat bitter about having had to leave physics & astronomy, and it was a bit of a bitter reminder. Most importantly, though, I was finding that I felt the need, the responsibility to post something about astronomy regularly (each week?) to Galactic Interactions, and it was starting to feel more like a burden. I wasn’t naturally running into random astronomy news tidbits as much as I had been, so the spark of “oh I must post about this!” wasn’t coming so naturally. What’s more, there are always nasty comments out there from people who know everything, and the personal attacks in the comments were making me feel like it just wasn’t worth being out there saying my say— even though they were rare in comparison to what quite a number of other bloggers at, say,