Sabbatical: Release?

Text and photos by Prof. Prakash Panangaden, School of Computer Science.

Giving a talk in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Giving a talk in Sofia, Bulgaria.

I was curious about the etymology of the word “sabbatical” after just completing one last August. There is the obvious connection to “sabbath”, which suggests a once-every-seven-years cycle. Apparently it comes from the Hebrew “Shmita” and means the land is to lie fallow once every seven years, with activities like planting and harvesting forbidden. So much for etymology!

Perhaps no other academic practice is so open to misunderstanding as the sabbatical. For many outside the University it is deemed to be a year long “holiday.” I remember thinking to myself as I hauled my suitcase off yet another luggage carousel on my way to give yet another talk that I would slug anyone who asked me “how was your vacation?” Mine was anything but a fallow time. I counted 37 lectures that I gave in my sabbatical year, very few of which were repeats. I racked up far too many frequent flyer miles, travelling to Australia, Bulgaria, Germany, Iceland, New Orleans and even Toronto. I was based in Oxford for the whole year so even Toronto was a trans-Atlantic trip. But was it all just a travel junket? (more…)

Mini-Science 2012 Q&A: “Pain, friends, sex and your mother” and “Why a broken heart really does hurt”

Mini-Science logoAt the conclusion of each Mini-Science lecture, audience members submit their questions to the evening’s presenter, who answers as many as possible on the spot. Some of the best answered or unanswered questions are sent to the presenter for posting here. Here are questions from the third and fourth lectures in the series.
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Publish or perish

BooksAcademics and academic administrators are always looking for ways to measure and quantify performance.  That is, how can we tell if someone is doing, or not doing, excellent science?  This is easy to assess in hindsight – excellent science is that which advances the field – but it is a surprisingly tough question to answer in real time, because the scientists doing the work are studying right at the boundaries of what is known.  The scientific method provides the rules for the game, but it does not keep score: there are no infallible scorekeepers regarding the importance of just-discovered knowledge.  This is why we enlist the work of other active scientists to assess quality, called peer review.  It is a cumbersome method.  We do this for publishing scientific papers, for decisions on hiring, on tenure, to prepare nominations for awards, and so forth.  The real-time assessment of science and of scientists is a lot of work. (more…)

Mini-Science 2012 Q&A: “The chemical conquest of pain” and “How the mind can alter pain”

Mini-Science logoAt the conclusion of each Mini-Science lecture, audience members submit their questions to the evening’s presenter, who answers as many as possible on the spot. Some of the best answered or unanswered questions are sent to the presenter for posting here. Here are questions from the first two lectures.
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