Monday, January 16, 2012

Two scientific mentors gone, but not forgotten

Alas. Today I learned about the passing (a few days ago) of two great men who were mentors to me in both science and life, each of whom had a dedication or salutation in one of my novels. Professor James (Jim) Arnold and Professor Harold (Hal) Zirin.

Jim Arnold had been one of the great pioneers in cosmochemistry - probing the chemical and isotopic composition of meteorites and lunar rocks, in order to reveal secrets about the origins of the solar system. Working with Harold Urey and others, he helped turn UCSD's sleepy little La Jolla campus into one of the world's greatest centers for chemistry research.

Jim was chairman of my doctoral committee at UCSD and I later worked for him as a post-doc when he ran the California Space Institute, analyzing exciting spacecraft concepts and proposing (much better) alternative space station designs.  Jim's gentle wisdom and humor epitomized gracious style.  His breadth and depth of scientific insight was exceeded only by his insatiable curiosity.  Jim passed away at 88, a ripe and full life... and not enough for those of us who are greedy for a world filled with wonder.

Also today I learned that Hal Zirin died.  Zirin was a leading solar astronomer whose work probed the nature of the solar photosphere, chromosphere and corona. He founded Caltech's famous Big Bear Solar Observatory, where I worked for two summers as an undergraduate observer and where I learned much of what later went into my first novel, SUNDIVER.

Hal was a beloved figure around Caltech, known as Captain Corona, the redoubtable sun-powered superhero. At least, that was his monicker in a pair of hand-drawn comic books, one by Dick Trtek and the other by... me. Every time a new building went up on campus, someone would paint a Captain Corona figure on the fence surrounding the construction site.
That's love.


David Brin said...

Replied to Rewinn, Larryhart, Robert, Marino and Tacitus at the very end of the previous posting's comments.

Ian said...

Condolences on your loss, David.

Now it's time to play contrarian once again.

The $15 billion-odd shortfall in Rhode Island's pension funds sounds scary.

However, that's a contingent liability which MAY come due over the next 50-odd years - assuming that asset values don't recover from current levels at the low point of the worst recession in 70-odd years.

That's what's known as a heroic assumption.

The article about Rhode Island also ignores the real underlying cause of the pension "crisis" (which I put in quotes because it's largely a media and political invention), pension liabilities are increasing primarily because people are living longer.

If the life expectancy of pensioners increases from 75 to 76, then assuming an average retirement of 65, total liabilities of the pension system increase by 10%.

Average life expectancy in the US has been increasing approximately 1.5 years per decade for the past several decades and is unlikely to stop doing so for the next several decades. (Average US life expectancy is currently roughly three years less than the world's best so there's clearly scope for continued improvement for at least the next couple of decades.)

That's not just liabilities for current retirees of course it's liabilities that will be incurred when that 25 year old who's just hired on as a teacher reaches retirement age some time after 2050.

There are three fundamental problems with proposals to cut benefits to current retirees (even granted they're needed which I don't for reasons alluded to previously):

And here I have to split the psot for reasons of length.

Ian said...

Part 2:

1. They won't fix the demographic problem of increasing life expectancy - unless you plan to continue cutting benefits indefinitely.

2. There's a fundamental problem which conservatives above all others should be concerned with: the state should honor its debts and its contracts. Cutting "benefits" which were earned over 40 or 50 years of labor is no different to confiscating private retirement savings or retroactively deciding "Sorry we just decided we paid you too much for that highway you built for us 10 years ago so we're seizing and auctioning your company's headquarters to recover the overpayment."

There are undoubtedly real examples of people rorting the public pension schemes. guess what - there are examples of people rorting every system ever designed by humans.

Deciding that public servants are unpopular and that therefore they, as a class, should be penalized is no different than deciding bankers or business executives, as a class, are unpopular and that it is therefore fair and reasonable to confiscate their property.

3. It probably won't work: the Rhode Island Treasurer talks about the need to cut public pensions to protect the "poorest and most needy" (or some such assembly of buzzwords).

Take it from someone who used to write press releases for Ministers - when a politician, especially one currently in office, starts talking about the poorest and neediest, they're about to stick their hand in someone's pocket.

(A quick digression: my deferred state government pension is in an accrual account not a defined benefit account and is fully funded. I have no personal stake in any bail-out of public pensions. although politicians here running similar beat-ups include the "liability" for paying me back my own contributions plus accrued earnings in the state's total liabilities.)

Guess what: cut the average public servant retiree's pension benefits significantly and they're going to be part of that "most needy" sector of society - and much of the supposed savings from the pension cuts will be eaten up by increased welfare spending.

Oh and that's not to mention what happens to that small and fragile Rhode Island economy when current retirees are forced to reduce their consumption spending drastically overnight and current employees cut back on their discretionary spending to increase alternate forms of retirement saving.

David Brin said...

No question that pensions and SSI need adjustments for increased lifespan. The retirement age should be raised. Period. 65 was originally chosen because only 1% were expected to collect!

Otoh, Ian is perfectly right about the hypocrisy aspect. Clawing back pension benefits that were contractually legitimate is like clawing back billions of $ of ill-gotten CEO bonuses from clods who "managed" their banks into disaster. What's good for the goose is good for the gander.

duncan cairncross said...

Highlights of the above include the jaw dropping number 10% of current state revenue goes to retired public workers, headed for 20% without reform. This from a Democratic state treasurer.


Ian and David have already commented but I will add mine.
In the UK the money to fund future pensions is paid AS THE COST IS INCURRED
This means that as the 25 year old contributes a year of labor the funds to pay his/her pension in 40 years are paid to the pension fund.
A company (or city/state) should not be paying retirees out of current funds

The amount that needs to be put in the sock will change as investments change and as lifespans increase
Anybody using increase in lifespan as an excuse is the same as the engineer designing a bridge without allowing for weight of the traffic.
Lifespan increase is NOT a surprise!
Investments dropping in value is a more excusable excuse

The business about public service unions "buying" their paymasters is a total nonsense - not only does it assume all politicians are venal BUT it assumes that a union has deeper pockets than the businessmen who would compete for the purchase

Who is more likely to "own" the local politicians - a union or some property developers?

David Brin said...

Do any of you have any idea what this is?
or this?
or this?

Paul451 said...

[From the last thread.]

"A Congress with over 5000 congresscritters!"

"We're gonna need a bigger boat."

"Both liberals and conservatives should be dismayed at the socialization of bailouts, but is it a "conservative" fear only when municipalities are the ones doing the deed?"

No, I've heard plenty of conservatives (well, Republicans) shout about "Obama's Bailouts" to "his buddies on Wall Street". I think there's a genuine belief amongst an awful lot of conservatives (present company excluded) that Bush left a booming economy and low debt (he gave tax cuts, so he must have cut the debt), and the financial meltdown and Federal debt is purely since Obama took office.

I hear the same weird selective memory on space blogs. Obama supporters praise Obama for introducing the Commercial Crew Development for low cost manned spaceflight. Obama haters curse Obama for cancelling the shuttle program without an available replacement. Yet both those things happened under Bush.

It's a bit like your REAMDE book title. People actually physically see it they way they assume it should be.

Re: Proxy Votes.
I like systems like that. They suit the nerd desire-for-symmetry in me. (So does David's state swap. And a similar one I want for Australia.) But who actually keeps track of where your proxy lies? (Country/State/Federal level?) Also, how often do you have to reaffirm it? Every election, or just once and then whenever you change it. Also, what do ballots look like? (If you can vote regardless of geography, there is, in effect, a single electorate with every possible candidate running in it.) Oh, and what happens to votes proxied to someone with less than 100,000 votes, are they just lost, or do that person proxy my vote further up the chain until it reaches someone with the minimum?

Paul451 said...

"The retirement age should be raised. Period. 65 was originally chosen because only 1% were expected to collect!"

While life expectancy is rising, years-of-good-health is not rising as fast. People are spending more of their lives in infirmity, which is expensive. Being 65 still feels like being 65. Unless your job is seriously non-physical, you will start the see the limit of your ability to physically do your job. So unless you're saying we should work more people to death, which I expect you aren't, then something else has to change.

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Anonymous said...

Regarding the IMDB entry for Startide Rising. The NYT has a similar entry with a little more detail (producer and screenplay author):

Tim H. said...

I hope they're gentler on the story than the soap opera treatment LOTR got. Why would someone start a production without talking to you?

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin,

Another thing about the Neal Stephenson book (REAMDE)...there was a quick one-off mention of "The terra-cotta soldiers of Xi'an", which reference I only understood because I had just read about them in "Kiln People".

Sometimes, it really is a small world.

LarryHart said...


While life expectancy is rising, years-of-good-health is not rising as fast. People are spending more of their lives in infirmity, which is expensive.

My dad used to quote an old Jewish saying that went something like "When a father gives money to his son, they both laugh, but when a son has to give money to his father, they both cry."

Having experienced both sides of that quote (albeit with a daughter rather than a son) I can attest to the veracity of both.

And I think I'm agreeing with you when I observe that an increased lifespan is of little (or negative) value if it means impoverishing your wife and children maintaining yourself in pain and infirmity.

David Brin said...

Chewing gum before a test - does it increase brain function?

"Being 65 still feels like being 65."
Um... not really. I'm approaching that age and physically I feel maybe 45. It's true for most of my peers. What happens now is increased FRAGILITY so that this robustness might suddenly go away, say, if I were to slip and have a very bad fall. I watch my step more. But lots of us eke out this plateau for a good while.

Hmmm... that listing for the Startide film... after probing the NYT site I find that the Executive Producer is... me. It's a listing of the old option from 12 years ago from Paramount/Mace Neufeld. My only worry is that it might scare someone off deom exploring a more recent interest, but implying that option's still active.

(Thanks anonymous...)

TheMadLibrarian said...

This goes back to Dr. Brin's comment a couple of posts back, about whether we should try for immortality. Immortality without good health is no joy; many people today end up in hospitals and nursing homes for some portion at the end of their lives. Imagine doing that for an extended period, let alone decades or centuries! Last night I watched an relevant old Star Trek: Voyager episode -- a member of the Q Continuum was petitioning to be allowed to die. Immortality had become tedious and boring to him, and the rest of the Q were frightened of him for wanting to commit suicide.

Unions negotiate retirement benefits for their members, and some of the promised benefits are very generous. However, once the contract is ratified, the employers should not be able to decide "Well, we can't afford this so we'll just ignore it." What use is a contract if it can be revoked unilaterally? Think before you sign!


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Robert said...

Actually, that's the entire point of Hostess declaring bankruptcy. They want to force the unions to renegotiate at gunpoint the pensions so that the company can ignore its obligation to the pension fund, which it failed to fund properly despite having signed a contract. This is a growing trend by companies as more and more declare bankruptcy to better violate the obligations they have toward workers with pensions and the like.

Personally, I think the Federal government should pass a law stating that pensions are outside of bankruptcy protection. If a company cannot get out of its obligation by declaring bankruptcy, it is forced to either provide for the pension (and thus negotiate better when times are good so ensure it can afford the benefits), or close its doors permanently. And if the company is working to screw over its workers, then maybe the company shouldn't be allowed to continue through bankruptcy.

Of course, I speak partly because a friend of mine is one of those affected by the Hostess pension hostage situation....

Rob H.

sociotard said...

Wikipedia will be down towmorrow to protest SOPA/PIPA.

I say we all note the event by going to a meatspace library and reading an article from a printed encyclopedia.

prose said...

Thanks for commenting on the loss of Hal Zirin and condolences. I met Dr. Zirin once several years ago. I saw a brief comment on his passing on SolarNews. I have since been out of the solar field for a few years now, but still try to keep informed with what is going on. I used to know a mutual friend of yours who's last name escapes me right now... Harvey ? He was a machinist who performed work for our group at Mt. Wilson Observatory on the 60' Solar Telescope. So your drawing of the 150' tower was especially heartwarming. Harvey said you used to rent a house from him I believe... years ago.


David Brin said...

Heh, Prose, thanks!

But when I lived for a summer at the Mt. WIlson observatory I had a tiny cell-room in the "monastery".

Good times tho...

Bob Sills said...

David --

I have lots of memories of Hal Zirin from my two summers at Big Bear Solar Observatory, and still have my original (Xeroxed) copy of Dick Trtek's Captain Corona.