Tag Archives: nytimes

An Old NY Times Article on New China

A perfect storm of computer trouble (ok, maybe not perfect, but pretty darn good) has kept me from finishing any new articles, though this should come to an end this week. But while waiting for things to improve, I’ve been pointing your attention (here and here) to various signs that China, which is investing heavily in science and engineering, is catching up to the U.S. and its political and economic allies. The course I taught earlier this month, in which I gave an introduction to particle physics and to the Higgs field and particle, was followed by a couple of lectures by an economist teaching at Williams College, and he pointed me to one other article that I had not been aware of. This one is from the New York Times; I can’t vouch for its accuracy, and I don’t know anything about the main authors (Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher), so… buyer beware. The article has to do with the quintessential modern company: Apple.

Let me quote from the article, to pique your interest:

It isn’t just that workers are cheaper abroad. Rather, Apple’s executives believe the vast scale of overseas factories as well as the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers have so outpaced their American counterparts that “Made in the U.S.A.” is no longer a viable option for most Apple products.

Another critical advantage for Apple was that China provided engineers at a scale the United States could not match. Apple’s executives had estimated that about 8,700 industrial engineers were needed to oversee and guide the 200,000 assembly-line workers eventually involved in manufacturing iPhones. The company’s analysts had forecast it would take as long as nine months to find that many qualified engineers in the United States.

In China, it took 15 days.

Companies like Apple “say the challenge in setting up U.S. plants is finding a technical work force,” said Martin Schmidt, associate provost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In particular, companies say they need engineers with more than high school, but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree. Americans at that skill level are hard to find, executives contend. “They’re good jobs, but the country doesn’t have enough to feed the demand,” Mr. Schmidt said.

“We shouldn’t be criticized for using Chinese workers,” a current Apple executive said. “The U.S. has stopped producing people with the skills we need.”

Of course, I’m cherry-picking out of a long article.  While these quotations do capture its dominant thread, that thread is woven together with several others.  I certainly don’t pretend to have the solution to the multi-faceted problems that it explores.  But I do think it is important that citizens of the U.S. and its friends  not have their heads in the sand, pretending nothing  is changing.   China isn’t just a huge, cheap, unskilled labor force; it also has a growing, highly-skilled labor pool, able already to out-compete its U.S. counterparts.  This is not an accident.  The Chinese government is making good choices.  Perhaps the experts in China have learned from South Korea; anyone ever heard of Samsung?  If you think all Samsung does is copy Apple’s phones, your head is in the sand.  Look it up.

We live in a world dominated by science, engineering and technology.  If we lose our edge in these areas, we may, in the long term, find ourselves no longer important players in that world, with economic and political costs that could be very high indeed.

Science Down, Up, and Inside-Out

First, a couple of things you might like to read:

  • There was a long-overdue article from the New York Times as to how, after eight years of cuts from the Bush administration during good economic times, followed by additional inevitable cuts during the Great Recession, formerly world-leading scientific research efforts in the United States are on the verge of collapse, risking far more than the scientific research itself.  The situation is far more dire, in my opinion, than the tone of the article implies; the brain drain of talent leaving the US is frightening and well underway, and the problems are by no means limited to particle physics and astrophysics.
  • The article that I described last month by Moni Bidin et al. that claimed (loudly, in the press) that there was little evidence for dark matter in the Sun’s interstellar neighborhood (but far from the center of the Milky Way galaxy) has been discredited by one of the world’s leading astrophysicists, working with a younger collaborator. The claim (made without a big press release) of Jo Bovy and Scott Tremaine, from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, is that one of the assumptions on which the Moni Bidin et al. argument was based is inconsistent with data and therefore wrong, ruining the argument. Bovy and Tremaine have replaced this assumption with a different one that is consistent with data, and they conclude, in contradiction to Moni Bidin et al., that the corrected argument leads to the conclusion that there is indeed dark matter in the vicinity — roughly the amount one would expect from other considerations. In short, the Moni Bidin argument, once corrected, actually leads to more evidence in favor of the existence of dark matter! A short description of the situation is given on the Resonaances blog.

Second: I’m starting to think about a new section for this website.

Particle physics, quantum mechanics, and all the strange-sounding stuff that many physicists study are often thought of as esoteric, abstract, and irrelevant to ordinary life. But in fact our world is directly impacted, in many different ways, by quarks and photons and quantum uncertainty and the like; these things are not abstract at all. To make this point more accessible, a website like this one needs a good introductory section to help beginners make their way into the world of particle physics. So I’m going to be constructing this section over the coming months. Feedback from readers as to whether the material is readable and sufficiently introductory will be very valuable, so please feel free to offer your comments.

One of my first tasks is to talk about the architecture of the universe — how its parts are formed from smaller parts, on down to the smallest objects we know about so far. Of course there are many other introductions to this subject already on the web (and a few of them are even correct!) What I hope will make my presentation a little different is the inclusion of some insights into not only what we know about the structure of the universe but also how we know it, and additionally some comments on how our lives are impacted by each level of detail in the architectural hierarchy.

The first phase of this process will be to look at how ordinary matter that we are made from and surrounded by is constructed from the basic ingredients of electrons, quarks (and anti-quarks and gluons), and the strong nuclear, electromagnetic and gravitational forces. The figure below gives a preview of what’s coming (and you can click the figure for a larger version.)

The hierarchical architecture of ordinary matter. At the lowest known level are found electrons (e), quarks (u,d,s) and anti-quarks, along with force particles such as gluons. Up and down quarks, gluons and pairs of quarks and antiquarks make up the proton and neutron (the “nucleons”), and are held together by the strong nuclear force; a residual effect of that force holds the protons and neutrons together in atomic nuclei, of which there are a few hundred. The electromagnetic force allows electrons to attach themselves to nuclei, forming a hundred or so chemically distinct types of atoms. A residual effect of the electromagnetic force then binds the atoms together into a gigantic zoo of molecules, out of which the vast complexity of ordinary materials — the air, the sea, the rocks underfoot, and the immense diversity of life — are formed. Meanwhile gravity crushes the earth’s rock into a rough sphere and keeps the air, water, and living things from floating off into outer space.  The rough sizes of the objects appearing at each level of structure are indicated at right.

Why the Curtain Has Not Fallen on OPERA

For those of you who read the news reports about OPERA, and its potentially (not) superluminal neutrinos, on Thursday or on Friday morning, and stopped following after that, I have news for you: almost everything that appeared in the press up to that point was wrong in some important details.  Thanks to my readers and their comments and detective work, we’ve collectively managed to figure out much more clearly what’s actually going on.  I put up a relevant post Thursday morning and another Thursday afternoon, but I especially recommend Friday morning’s post (and comments) and Friday afternoon’s post (and comments).  I really emphasize the value of the comments; I have some very well-informed and insightful readers who contributed a great deal.  You can read this summary post first, and then go back to the older posts and read through the earlier viewpoints and the detailed commentary.  [The science press has caught up, though; here’s an accurate article from 2/27 in Nature.]

Most press reports on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday boiled down to this statement: “The OPERA folks found a loose wire, and when they fixed it their timing shifted by 60 nanoseconds [billionths of a second], bringing neutrino speeds right back to where they were supposed to be.”  That’s certainly what the original Science Insider article implied, from which many articles took their cue.  This is illustrated in the Figure below (labeled (b) to be consistent with a figure from an earlier post. )  The original OPERA result — that neutrinos arrived 60 nanoseconds before they were expected to — is shown as (a).

But this statement is completely wrong.

(a) OPERA originally claimed neutrinos arrived early by 60 nanoseconds (ns), with an uncertainty of about 10 nanoseconds, shown by the black vertical bar. (b) Incorrect press reports widely suggested that OPERA had found a mistake (a "loose wire") that caused a 60 nanosecond shift and brought the measurement back into agreement with expectations. (d/e) But in fact the two problems identified so far by OPERA, a sensitivity to an optical fiber's exact orientation and a miscalibrated timing oscillator, are both large compared to the original measurement, are both imprecisely known, and point in opposite directions. This makes the situation entirely unclear for the moment.

In fact the OPERA press release made clear that there were two problems (a problematic fiber-optic cable and a miscalibrated oscillator), causing shifts in opposite directions, and mentioned that a re-run of the experiment would be necessary.  Still, most press articles seemed to give this lip service, and assume the correct reading of the situation was that the fiber was the main source of the problem, and that a re-run of the experiment was just pro forma.  They mostly stuck with the simplistic idea that the OPERA people found a mistake and now everything agrees nicely with Einstein.  A few, such as the New York Times, did a somewhat better job.  But they still missed key points.

So what is the real story?   Continue reading

About the NY Times article from 8/02/11

On Tuesday, the New York Times had an article on the Higgs particle search.  Not bad, and does quote relevant people, but just a little bit thin on content.  If you want some actual content, try my article on the hints of the Higgs particle.

Also, the article falls into the common mistake of not distinguishing “The Higgs particle” from “The Standard Model Higgs particle.”   One paragraph says

The Higgs boson is the keystone and last undiscovered piece of the so-called Standard Model, a suite of equations that agrees with all the experiments physicists have been able to do so far in the laboratory.  If the Higgs boson does not exist, theorists will have to go back to their blackboards.

If you conflate the general with the specific, you will at some point down the line end up very confused about what the LHC is trying to do and what its results do and don’t mean.  It would be good for the public if the NY Times reporter would read the Higgs FAQ before phrasing a statement like this.  A more correct statement is:

The Standard Model Higgs boson is the keystone and last undiscovered piece of the so-called Standard Model, a suite of equations that agrees with all the experiments physicists have been able to do so far in the laboratory. If the Standard Model Higgs boson does not exist, this will be very exciting for particle physicists, as it will imply (as has been known for decades) that there must be other particles — perhaps multiple Higgs bosons, and/or perhaps other types of particles — that physicists have not yet discovered, but should be able to discover with the LHC.

The spin is pretty different.

And then there’s the generic paragraph about supersymmetry — more or less right, but again with some big missing points.  Well, stay tuned at this website for an article or two on supersymmetry, and what we have and haven’t learned about it from the LHC so far.