### Aiming for the unexpected

The other night I received an email from my friend Avi Loeb, the director of the Harvard Institute for Theory and Computation, sharing one of his regular non-refereed astro-ph opinion pieces. Avi likes to share his non-standard opinions and ideas in these short little papers, and I've enjoyed and learned a great deal from his previous contributions, such as this one about taking the road less traveled in ones research.

In his most recent posting, Avi avocates for national funding for "open research without a programmatic agenda establishes a fertile ground for unexpected breakthroughs." This would be in addition to funding for traditional, low-risk endeavors.

I really like this idea, especially since it resonates with what I'm trying to set up within my own research group at Caltech. I try to make sure that my students and postdocs have primary projects that "pay the bills," as my advisor Geoff Marcy liked to say. But I also encourage open discussion, outside-the-box brain-storming, and inter-group collaboration. Nothing makes me happier than when a student comes to my office with a new idea, or when summer undergrads start up collaborations among themselves and sometimes even with older group members.

Many of my group's best papers have sprung up while we were pursuing totally different science. For example, earlier this year Phil Muirhead announced the smallest planets ever discovered. He found those planets and their sizes not by searching for the smallest signals in the Kepler mission data sample, but instead by trying to characterize the properties of low-mass stars in the Kepler field. Further, it should be noted that the NASA mission directive for Kepler team is to find Earth-like planets around Sun-like stars. Meanwhile, my group has hit pay dirt by instead studying planets around some of Kepler's least Sun-like target stars.

Avi writes:

It is common to think about short-term goals in funding physics, but nurturing data-driven research with no programmatic goals promotes innovation and brings unanticipated proﬁts...Over long periods of time, decades or more, the beneﬁts from a data-driven culture without programmatic reins are so great that even proﬁt-oriented businesses may choose to support it.

From here he goes on to describe the stunning historical success of Bell Labs:

This corporation assembled a collection of creative scientists in the same corridor, gave them freedom, and harvested some of the most important discoveries in science and technology of the 20th century, including the foundation of radio astronomy in 1932, the invention of the transistor in 1947, the development of information theory in 1948, the solar cells in 1954, the laser in 1958, the ﬁrst communications satellite in 1962, the charged-coupled device (CCD) in 1969, and the ﬁber optic network in 1976. Such long-term beneﬁts require patience and the foresight of paying it forward.

The solution Avi proposes is that funding agencies should set aside a fraction of their funding (say 20%) for centers of excellence with no programatic direction. Instead, people working in these centers should be free to pursue high-risk projects with no clear goal that will inevitably lead to unexpected discoveries that drive science forward, such as those made at Bell Labs. This would be a welcome change from the strict programatic aims of most national funding agencies and the ultra-conservative bent of their grant review panels.

As someone who has been hitting the grant-writing circuit hard over the past three years with little to show for it, I've become accustomed to reviewers who worry about projects being "too risky." The joke goes that the best way to get funding is to propose for things you've already done; of course, having already done the work necessarily reduces risk. Given the six-month review period of proposals, I basically make this joke my reality with every project I propose. It's pretty frustrating to think that as these negative reviews were being written by some panelist, my group was busy actually doing the "risky" science project described in the proposal!

Maybe I should start soliciting venture capitol.

### On the Height of J.J. Barea

Dallas Mavericks point guard J.J. Barea standing between two very tall people (from: Picassa user photoasisphoto).

Congrats to the Dallas Mavericks, who beat the Miami Heat tonight in game six to win the NBA championship.

Okay, with that out of the way, just how tall is the busy-footed Maverick point guard J.J. Barea? He's listed as 6-foot on NBA.com, but no one, not even the sports casters, believes that he can possibly be that tall. He looks like a super-fast Hobbit out there. But could that just be relative scaling, with him standing next to a bunch of extremely tall people? People on Yahoo! Answers think so---I know because I've been Google searching "J.J. Barea Height" for the past 15 minutes.

So I decided to find a photo and settle the issue once and for all.

I then used the basketball as my metric. Wikipedia states that an NBA basketball is 29.5 inches in circumfe…

### Finding Blissful Clarity by Tuning Out

It's been a minute since I've posted here. My last post was back in April, so it has actually been something like 193,000 minutes, but I like how the kids say "it's been a minute," so I'll stick with that.
As I've said before, I use this space to work out the truths in my life. Writing is a valuable way of taking the non-linear jumble of thoughts in my head and linearizing them by putting them down on the page. In short, writing helps me figure things out. However, logical thinking is not the only way of knowing the world. Another way is to recognize, listen to, and trust one's emotions. Yes, emotions are important for figuring things out.
Back in April, when I last posted here, my emotions were largely characterized by fear, sadness, anger, frustration, confusion and despair. I say largely, because this is what I was feeling on large scales; the world outside of my immediate influence. On smaller scales, where my wife, children and friends reside, I…

### The Force is strong with this one...

Last night we were reviewing multiplication tables with Owen. The family fired off doublets of numbers and Owen confidently multiplied away. In the middle of the review Owen stopped and said, "I noticed something. 2 times 2 is 4. If you subtract 1 it's 3. That's equal to taking 2 and adding 1, and then taking 2 and subtracting 1, and multiplying. So 1 times 3 is 2 times 2 minus 1."

I have to admit, that I didn't quite get it at first. I asked him to repeat with another number and he did with six: "6 times 6 is 36. 36 minus 1 is 35. That's the same as 6-1 times 6+1, which is 35."

Ummmmm....wait. Huh? Lemme see...oh. OH! WOW! Owen figured out

x^2 - 1 = (x - 1) (x +1)

So $6 \times 8 = 7 \times 7 - 1 = (7-1) (7+1) = 48$. That's actually pretty handy!

You can see it in the image above. Look at the elements perpendicular to the diagonal. There's 48 bracketing 49, 35 bracketing 36, etc... After a bit more thought we…