David Wright, 1963-2013

I guess this is just a week for sadness.  My high school friend, David Wright, died this morning at the age of 50.  He collapsed at his desk, probably of a heart attack. Dave was a natural athlete and story teller. He was always there for you if you needed someone.  He will be missed.


Epic comeback

Well, I spoke too soon in my earlier post on the America’s Cup.  Oracle Team USA has since won 7 races in a row and now it is 8-8 in the best of 17 match (although they have already had 18 races). The final race to determine the winner is today. Check out the action here.  In the past, America’s Cup races had usually been best of 3 or best of 5 matches. In this new format, the races are much shorter, taking less than an hour rather than several, and they try to get in two a day if the weather permits. In the beginning New Zealand had the faster boat. They had already been racing for over a month in the challenger series and were just better than Oracle. However, the long format and some weather delays has given Oracle a chance to get up to speed and now they are definitely the faster boat. Yesterday, they flew by New Zealand on the upwind leg. The only chance New Zealand has to win today is if Oracle makes a mistake.

Richard Azuma, 1930 – 2013

I was saddened to learn that Richard “Dick” Azuma, who was a professor in the University of Toronto Physics department from 1961 to 1994 and emeritus after that, passed yesterday. He was a nuclear physicist par excellence and chair of the department when I was there as an undergraduate in the early 80’s. I was in the Engineering Science (physics option) program, which was an enriched engineering program at UofT. I took a class in nuclear physics with Professor Azuma during my third year. He brought great energy and intuition to the topic. He was one of the few professors I would talk to outside of class and one day I asked if he had any open summer jobs. He went out of his way to secure a position for me at the nuclear physics laboratory TRIUMF in Vancouver in 1984. That was the best summer of my life. The lab was full of students from all over Canada and I remain good friends with many of them today. I worked on a meson scattering experiment and although I wasn’t of much use to the experiment I did get to see first hand what happens in a lab. I wrote a 4th year thesis on some of the results from that experiment. I last saw Dick in 2010 when I went to Toronto to give a physics colloquium. He was still very energetic and as engaged in physics as ever. We will all miss him greatly.

America’s Cup 2013

Today may be the last race for the America’s Cup yacht series between the US and New Zealand.   Here are the highlights from the last race.

It is a best of 17 series and New Zealand has 8 wins so today may be the last chance to watch these hundred million dollar multihull yachts fly around San Francisco harbour at close to 50 miles per hour.  All the races are posted on You Tube.

Coase and the Nature of the Firm

Economist and Noble Laureate Ronald Coase died earlier this month just three months short of his 103rd birthday. Coase is mostly famous for two papers: “The Nature of the Firm” (1937) and “The Problem of Social Cost” (1960). He came up with many of the ideas for the first paper when he was just 21. Coase asked the simple question of why companies exist. According to Adam Smith it should actually be more cost-effective for a person to contract out work rather than hire people. Coases’s answer was that there are always transaction costs or frictions that make a firm more cost-effective. In other words, the market (i.e. price mechanism) is not always the most efficient way to organize production. The size of a firm is determined by the point when the extra (marginal) cost of organizing an extra employee balances the transaction costs of obtaining her services on the free market. Hence, the great irony of modern capitalism is that its main pillar, the firm, is a paragon of central planning. Firms in essence are totalitarian regimes where the citizens are free to leave.

Conservative and libertarian leaning individuals generally prize  private companies and free markets over governments. They argue that many of the functions of government, such as schools and healthcare, would be more efficient if privatized. The question then is why are private firms more efficient than government? When we hand over functions formerly performed by a democratically elected government, we are in essence making society less democratic. One could argue that firms are more efficient because they are subject to competition. That is why we want to break up monopolies. However, that should be true of government too. If we don’t like the government we have then we can always elect another one. We can even change the constitution to our liking. In principle, no one is under more competition than our elected officials. It is the job of the citizenry to ensure that they are doing their job.

TB, streptomycin, and who gets credit

The Science Show did a feature story recently about the discovery of streptomycin,  the first antibiotic to treat tuberculosis, which had killed 2 billion people in the 18th and 19th centuries. Streptomycin was discovered by graduate student Albert Schatz in 1943, who worked in the lab of Professor Selman Waksman at Rutgers. Waksman was the sole winner of the 1952 Nobel Prize for this work. The story is narrated by the author of the book Experiment Eleven, who paints Waksman as the villain and Schatz as the victim. Evidently, Waksman convinced Schatz to sign away his patent rights to Rutgers but secretly negotiated a deal to obtain 20% of the royalties. When Schatz discovered this, he sued Waksman and obtained a settlement. However, this turned the scientific community against him and he forced him out of microbiology into science education. To me, this is just more evidence that prizes and patents are incentives for malfeasance.