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Laws of Physics Under Attack by Economics

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Econ; A hard "Science"?
Island_Al   12/5/2011 11:18:16 AM
As our economy continues to fail I would think that it should be intuitively obvious to the most casual observer that modern mainstream economics is a miserable failure.  Mainstream economics poster boy is John Menard Keynes and the resultant School of Keynesian Economics.  One of his biggest turnoffs for me was he blamed recessions/depressions on “animal spirits” overtaking those who were in business.  If I were to say the reaction between two inductors were caused by something akin to “animal spirits” no one could possibly take me serious.  Well then again perhaps someone in government may!  The strongly competitive economics is the Austrian School who explain econ in terms of human action (see the writings of von Mises).  Humans do not respond like atoms or electrons in a perfectly foreseeable way, thus the math of physics cannot be applied.  All engineers should be able to understand this.

But Keynesian economics is favored by government as Keynes preached only government could fix problems by injection of money.  He did so in 1930 and our government followed his prescription.  The Great Depression followed.  Oops, not enough spending!!!!  Fast forward 80 years.  Huge spending programs, yet terrible employment numbers and soon to pass terrible price inflation.  We as a society have pushed everyone into universities to get a any type of degree.  A lady in Occupy Wall Street complained she had a Masters in Lesbian Studies, yet could not get a job!!! I couldn’t make stuff up like this even if I tried!

I believe engineers and scientists cannot be trained.  The “gift” is within us, probably since birth, and it is not blocked by racial, nor economic reasons.  Most of us have worked with EEs who really knew their stuff in math and electronics, but who could not come up with a new design or product if their lives depended on it.  Educated; yes, intelligent; not very.  With others, the vision is clear.

The last thing we need is more politicians, or lawyers making more decisions, such as Congressmen trying to design cars and mandating flush toilets.  The free market works while central planning has a very long history of failure.


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Re: Reverse Take
Ratsky   12/5/2011 11:24:34 AM
There's a lot of truth in what you say.  Some of us recognized a long time ago that Economics was NOT (and never will be) a true "hard" science.  Way back in the begiining of the '60s, as an MIT undergraduate, there was a required course for all majors, Economics 14.01.  The lecturer was Paul Samuelson, when he wasn't busy being Kennedy's chief economic advisor.  The primary focus was macroeconomic models, particularly his favorite, Keynsian.  I got an "F" in this course TWICE because I insisted on pointing out that the entire model worked only if the much-vaunted "multiplier effect" worked only for government expenditures, not private sector spending.  This was not only contrary to all common sense, it was also not supported by ANY scientific analysis: it was essentially stated as an axiom!  Thus, my recognition of the unscientific nature of at least this particular brand of socio-politco-economics came at age 18!

I have long advocated the necessity for a solid background in Physics and Mathematics for true success in any scientific or engineering field; it's a shame that even our top-rated schools have watered down those requirements in favor of "trendy" "modern" courses instead.

The real problem is that so few of our "best and brightest" are willing to take on the task of studying these difficult and unromantic (and also relatively unprofitable!) subjects.  If technical careers could be seen as more rewarding AND interesting, the laws of supply and demand (so conveniently ignored by Prof. Samuelson and his disciples) would attract more of those potential teachers of the fundamentals.

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Survival of the fittest
jhankwitz   12/5/2011 11:58:46 AM
Why does every college and university in the US need to support a Physics program?  The cost of redundancy is exreme, and taxpayers get left holding the bag again, and again, and again.  Survival of the fittest is natural, so those with the best programs will survive.  This is how the planet has continually improved over the past 14 billion years. 

Dave Palmer
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Economic models
Dave Palmer   12/5/2011 12:15:31 PM
I don't intend to defend the economic theories of Keynes or Samuelson.  But the economic theories which have been pursued in the U.S. since at least the early 1980s have been those of Milton Friedman and his disciples (such as Alan Greenspan), which are based on a complete rejection of Keynesianism.  There was a minor swing back towards Keynes in the last year of the Bush Administration and the first year of the Obama Administration, but it didn't last very long.

Over the past 30 years, the trend has unquestionably been away from the welfare state and towards free market-ism.  Just consider the fact that Nixon, a Republican President, enacted price and wage controls, and proposed a guaranteed national income.  Can you imagine Obama even suggesting either of these things? No - and, in fact, when he proposes returning income tax rates to levels which are lower than they were under Reagan, he's accused of being a "socialist."

That being said, I also think that public policy has never really been wedded to any particular economic theory; the economic theories have been flags of convenience.  For example, politicians who claim to be against intervention in the free market tend not to have a problem with intervention on behalf of their campaign donors, and budget hawks tend not to have a problem with government spending as long as it goes into the defense bucket.  Politicians who are actually consistent in their principles, like Ron Paul, are extremely few and far between.

In reality, we haven't followed either textbook Keynesianism or textbook Friedmanism.  What we've actually followed is a form of crony capitalism in which government intervenes when it benefits their campaign donors - and stays out of the free market when it's in the interest of their campaign donors to do so. This is what has gotten us into so much trouble.

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Re: Keeping international students
JCG   12/5/2011 1:10:07 PM
I may have a unique, or at least different outlook on this topic.  Upon graduating from high school, I wanted to get a degree in physics, ultimately with the goal of getting a PhD in Astrophysics or Cosmology hoping to teach and do research, but, due to financial considerations, I did not attend the private schools that accepted me, but went to a public university in the middle of the state, known for its engineering curriculum, but also located in possibly the most economically depressed county in the state.

While I've been interested in and better understood the theories, my math was not stellar so I did better in the applied lab classes than the theoretical mathematics.  The department and I had a parting of ways... I was a junior taking junior-level theory courses but had taken the first semester-senior lab.  My grades had suffered, but, on my part, I was disillusioned about pursuing physics on many levels, including politics of academia, limited curriculum/study, employment opportunities (and salary), teaching aptitude (or lack thereof), unreasonable competition/in-fighting in the department and between departments, and the cost of a degree.

Politics of Academia... like almost everywhere else, academia is full of politics, and my limited experience has suggested that its far worse than in the private sector.  Favoritism, intellectual theft, pseudo-science, publication and grant fiascos were a little of what I was privy to.  It didn't seem to matter how smart you were or what you knew, but who you knew, studied under, and what your GPA was.

Limited curriculum... like other departments, the physics departments are 'known' for particular fields of study.  Our department's three areas were cloud physics, subatomic research (particle spin), and solid state.  Most of our equipment was old and custom (we still had a short particle accelator/decelerator that had been built by our university chancellor 25 years earlier).

Employment opportunities & salary... Unless you have a graduate degree, a B.S. in Physics doesn't have as many opportunities outside of academia / government. The places everyone wanted to go, special, high-profile research facilities, JPL, NASA, observatories, prestigious universities, etc. were all so competitive that there was little or no chance of being able to get in. Private sector options were VERY limited... there's a joke that a physics major can do anything an engineer can, but only half as efficiently... In physics, we focus on starting from base principles and mathematically deriving answers through natural and mathematical laws... engineers learn the empirical equations, shortcuts, which make getting answers more efficient.  With a B.S. in Physics, chances are that they'd either be involved in research, mathematics / statistics, and/or business (such as derivatives).  Which brings us to the salary... at the time (mid-'90s) the average Physic B.S. had an average salaray of $20-26k, while a engineer (ME or EE) may make $35-40k.

Teacher Aptitude (or lack thereof)... Many teachers seemed to be pre-occupied with their research and publishing, and acted as it teaching was a necessary 'evil', although there were a few that I thought were rather good at teaching.  Many professors and (G)TAs had English as a second language and couldn't carry on a conversation... I'd estimate of the science and engineering majors, 20%-30% were foreign nationals (most who would return home after graduation), and a MUCH higher percentage for the professors and graduate TAs. I also received grief from teachers going from Physics to Engineering.  There were no shortage of incompetent teachers, usually with tenure, and a shortage of great, enthusiastic professors who are usually the first cut or hired off by better paying schools.

Unreasonable competition/in-fighting... Although Physics was actually one of the better departments about in-fighting, it still had its rivalries.  The worst in-fighting I saw was actually in the College of Engineering... Departments across campus were little feudal kingdoms, and things such as equipment and facilities were only shared begrudgenly. I had heard rumor about a professional society offering $250-400k for development of a focused program... two departments were logical candidates, but the majority of the professional society members on campus were in one department, and the award was to go to them... but the other department heard about it and fought to offer their own version... which ended up around 180 credit hours for an undergraduate degree.  The offer was rejected, but they objected so much that neither department received the award.

Finally, there's the big elephant in the room... the cost of education... University, and even private primary and secondary school costs are growing at an unprecedented rate, with little or no restriction/control.  Even state colleges, land-grant, are getting priced ridiculously so that one can only afford to go if they receive scholarships, they (or more likely, their parents) are wealthy, or their education is paid for by foreign governments (we had engineering and science students from across the globe, primarily the far east... China, Japan, Taiwan, India, Pakistan, etc.).  It's getting so that even military service (GI Bill and signing bonus) are not enough to pay for college, even while working while studying.  Part of this, I believe, is due to the proliferation of student loans and Pell grants... no reason for the university to control costs if more money is simply thrown at it, especially guaranteed by the government.  I loved how the student loans were set up so that 8% off the top went to the issuing financial institution for 'handling/processing fees', then, of the remaining 92% of the loan total, you'd receive only half at the begining of the semester, and the second half after mid-terms... meaning that the financial institutions got another two months of interest off half your loan amount.

Admittedly, my experience may be unique, but I don't think the problems observed are.  A major cultural change, not only in our society, but in our academia, needs to take place before there's any real hope of change.  By apologizing and downplaying American 'exceptionalism', and apologizing to the international community for our acheivements and contributions does not bode well for our future. 

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Reverse Take
Rob Spiegel   12/5/2011 1:20:55 PM
Good point, Ratsky, about the best and brightest not being attracted to studying difficult and unromantic subjects. Some of the older, more unattractive jobs, though, are becoming more attractive. The software proliferation in the automation world is beginning to attract young engineers. New developments is software are making plant automation much more attractive.

Michael Grieves
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Adressing wrong problem
Michael Grieves   12/5/2011 4:49:21 PM

Ignoring the issue that these posts confuse the discussion of economics as one of discipline, Ii.e., Keynesian versus monetarists, rather than economics as "having no money," the Dean unfortunately approaches this issue in a traditional fashion.

The issue should be whether students are educated in physics and not whether there is a physics department. My contention is that if we want to have more students in the technical disciplines, we need to rethink and revamp how we educate them. Today, we bore the heck out of them in the traditional silos of math, physics, thermodynamics, and wonder why students drop out of the area. If we are going to produce more engineers, we need to get them involved in interesting and useful projects that will grab their imagination early on. The problem is that colleges and universities are far more siloed than industry. As a result, we see articles like this that are concerned about the loss of the department rather than trying to address how we need to integrate physics into engineering programs.

There are some bright spots occurring. General Motors has had their PLM PACE (pacepartners.org) program for 10 years now that gets students involved with meaningful projects that, oh by the way, teach them to understand and apply mathematics, physics, etc. There are now 52 educational institutions worldwide that are part of this. I have worked with NASA to create the PLM SPACE (Strategic Partners for the Advancement of Collaborative Engineering) Education program, which will partner up NASA centers with educational institutions to get students in the college and even high school level to address interesting projects.

If we really want to get more students interested and involved in STEM, we need to rethink our engineering and technical education, not worry about individual departments.

Alexander Wolfe
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Re: Adressing wrong problem
Alexander Wolfe   12/5/2011 5:09:49 PM
Your comment was a breath of fresh air, Michael. I do wonder, though, how realistic it is. The real, albeit possibly hidden, purpose of a college department is to perpetuate itself, and so breaking down the siloes is probably a non starter. This doesn't even mention who would teach "physics in another wrapper" courses. My own contention, borne of painful experience, is that many (most?) physics teachers on the college level are not very good teachers at all. I vividly recall as a freshman being told to read the textbook, while the professor amused his own intellect by lecturing to himself. I've often wondered whether the experiences of others in engineering school wasn't all that different.

Michael Grieves
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Re: Adressing wrong problem
Michael Grieves   12/5/2011 5:26:22 PM
Hey, I didn't claim to be realistic. I unfortunately would tend to agree with you. However, I am not giving up just yet. There are some bright spots in the educational institutions that are part of the SPACE and PACE programs. Even in these institutions, these are pockets of progress and traditionalists abound.

Who knows? Maybe the lack of money will be a good thing and force educational institutions to have to do things differently.

I may not be a realist, but I intend to remain an optimist.

William K.
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Laws ? Of Physics? under attack???
William K.   12/5/2011 7:14:40 PM
My thinking is that perhaps those folks in Texas found out just what the physics departments were concentrating on. Producing more research doctorates to spend careers chasing after mythical particles and "dark matter" is not going to help our country at all. 

It has been pointed out by others with a good grasp of recent history that it is the financial weasels who are making all of the money because they are not regulated, and that when they were regulated, but industry was less regulated, engineers made more, and so we had more engineers. It seems that quite a few choose careers where the money is. So how about regulating the daylights out of the financial industries, the ones who damaged our countrie's economy so much, and perhaps we will find more students choosing science and engineering, if our government can ever stop hating manufacturing busnisses for a while.

I am not sure about how to raise the overall pay level of engineers, but it would probably be the same sort of things that would bring back the respect we used to have. 

The solution then is not about funding graduate physics departments, it is about making certain that all engineers have a very good background in physics. Not just in their area of study, but in all of the major areas. Of course this would indeed mean some additional courses, but perhaps some of those non-engineering courses could become optional.

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