Should arxiv have ranking and annotation features?

Arxiv.org is a great resource where many, if not the majority, of results in my field appear long before formal publication in journals. In fact, I don’t have a habit of reading physics journals anymore, but I daily look through new postings on arxiv.I also have two papers submitted only to arxiv, and not to any old-fashioned journal.

That said, arxiv is stuck in the 1990’ies with its focus on lists, TeX, its awkward search and lack of any social network functions. Since it is such a convergence point for the physics community, its backwardness has grown into a serious limiting factor for the free and open scientific process. In other words, what it offers – namely instant publication – is better than what journals offer, but this has in the meantime become the new normal. While what it does not offer is holding us back.

This can be seen in the new massive survey that arxiv has conducted of its own users. In a long list of boring questions about tiny incremental improvements to the website, there is a very important category they called ‘New Services’. You will see that over 55% of survey respondents say that ranking and comment functions, familiar from social networks, reddits, and just, ahem, the entire internet, are either ‘Very Important’ or ‘Somewhat Important’. A smaller majority has just taken the UK out of the EU!

Yet the arxiv program director at Cornell Oya Rieger writes about it as an even split between those who are strongly for these features (~35%) and those strongly against (~35%). She goes on an on about caution and caveats, which basically means that her and the arxiv team are not going to do this on their own. She does mention that the support for these features is stronger among younger users, so there may be a generational divide at play here, and the arxiv team is on the wrong side of this divide from the historical point of view.

Think about it: all of arxiv content is open to the entire internet. If somebody makes a different website which implements these annotation, ranking, search, communication features nicely, and if the community starts using that service, then not having these features as part of arxiv.org itself will be akin to hiding one’s head in the sand – ignoring the new norm that just grew around you. Now, this has not happened yet, but the demand for it is clearly present, as the survey results demonstrate. When this finally happens, it will be the beginning of the end of arxiv, as at that point it will be easier to submit your work to the new website where it can be instantly evaluated, discussed, ranked, categorized and improved through community interactions.

Nanolithography Expert Position

University of Pittsburgh Peteresen Institute of Nanoscience and Engineering is hiring a PhD-level expert in electron beam and optical lithography. This job is for someone to develop lithography processes in close cooperation with research groups at Pitt, and to take full advantage of the Raith e-Line system, as well as of the  brand new Elionix 100kV machine that is shortly arriving to the Carnegie Mellon cleanroom next doors. Our nano team, once complete, will have four PhD-level experts in different areas of nanofabrication and nanocharacterization.

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Full job announcement can be found here

Commercializing your Research

Sometimes I stay awake in the night thinking – how soon will the results of my work become useful for humanity? Well, better get up and do something about it! And so a few months ago we have started a new scientific equipment company, based on research breakthroughs in the field of topological quantum matter.

The new company is called ‘Pittsburgh Instruments’ to honor the long-standing tradition of naming something after a city. We currently have three employees, and a distinguished board of advisers though some of the founders of our technology are sadly, no longer with us. The website for the company, along with the Kickstarter page are going online as I write this.

We actually already have a prototype of our first instrument. Please welcome:

Chernnumberometer 1.0 from Pittsburgh Instruments, going on sale December 31 2016

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It is a sleekly designed high tech gadget which can measure a Chern number of anything that fits inside! Just open the door, put your item of choice in.Select Integration Time. Press start. The machine will rotate the object to examine it. Then the digital display will show you the answer. For example, if you put a doughnut inside it will read 0, if you put an orange it will read 1. You can read pretty high numbers if you put in something like this. Give it a try! You can also easily switch a topological invariant that you want to measure from Chern number to a Z2 or a determinant of a scattering matrix for 1D systems. Nevermind that labels say ‘Chicken’ or ‘Popcorn’ – this is an inside joke from the company, we like to be cool like Android developers. For example ‘Defrost’ refers to a very advanced renormalization group-based algorithm.

Our target population are theoretical physicists who have an incessant desire to know things about physical systems that cannot be measured. This compact and elegant Chernnumberometer fits on an office desk, in the coffee area or even at your house! Priced at just $3,999 it also fits on almost any grant. Make sure to mention it in your next proposal!

(Some of the issues we are still working out are dynamic cooling, as certain samples we reported to get very hot. The final release might actually feature a helium compressor bumping the price to $53,999. Also, don’t try to measure Chern numbers of your pets or eggs)

Introduction to Solid State Physics

Last semester I recorded 23 lectures on Solid State Physics for Undergraduate students. The first 15 lectures are following the wonderful texbook by Steven Simon “Oxford Solid State Basics”, and the last lectures cover superconductivity and advanced topics from Quantum Transport. This class can be a prequel to my Quantum Transport course and I hope it will be useful for students thinking of going into condensed matter research.

Because this is so great for binge watching, I am releasing the whole season at once.

Back to the Future

So there is this great movie that you should totally go see, it is about an eccentric scientist who befriends a simple-minded neighborhood teenager and sends him backwards in time in a car converted into a time machine…

Something like this just happened in our lab. We started out a couple of years ago as a cryogen-free operation. Instead of relying of liquid helium, we used closed-cycle cryostats where helium circulates between a compressor and a cryostat and extracts heat from a vacuum-shielded volume. There are two reasons why cryogen-free systems are great – they save money on (pricey) liquid helium and they are easy to operate at a push of a button.

But in the meantime our generous university set up a helium liquefier, which supplies nearly-free liquid helium to us. And so now we built our first liquid helium setup – a dunker stick! It derives its name from a concept of dunking your specimen into liquid helium in order to reach a low temperature of 4.2 Kelvin, at which helium is stored in liquid form.

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From the technological point of view, it is a step back compared to our cryofree setups. But we can use it for many quick measurements and tests, which is great.