Emeritus Faculty Association news May 2011
Jim Simons will address the Provost's Annual Luncheon for the emeritus faculty, 12.00 noon, Friday, May 20th, in the S.A.C ballroom. Please RSVP to Ann (632-7012 or firstname.lastname@example.org) by May 6.
James H. Simons received his BS from MIT in 1958, and his PhD from U Cal Berkeley in 1961 at the age of 23. He taught mathematics at both MIT and Harvard. In 1968 he became available to chair the SBU Dept of Math when (according to his own description) he was fired from the Institute for Defense Analyses in Princeton. He made his reputation in geometry for work in area minimization of multi-dimensional surfaces (AMS Veblen Prize), and the discovery of the Chern-Simons invariants, much used in theoretical physics, particularly string theory. He nurtured a particularly close and productive research relationship between the departments of Math and Physics, and in 1970 he formed the Division of Mathematics (incidentally midwifing the birth of a department of Computer Science, when he saw the emerging importance of this field considerably ahead of the rest of the SBU administration and faculty). In 1971 he was one of the first to see the significance of mathematical models and computers for investment management and formed a small local start-up company. This ultimately led in 1982 to the founding of Renaissance Technologies LLC, one of the most successful hedge fund firms in the world. At this time he was also active as a venture capitalist for information technology start-ups. In 2006 Simons was named Financial Engineer of the Year by the International Association of Financial Engineers. He officially retired this January but continues at Renaissance as non-executive chairman. While there over the years he has continued his close association with the university, serving for a time as chair of the SB Foundation and chair of the recent presidential search committee. His wife Marilyn has served since 1994 as president of the Simons Foundation, a charitable organization supporting research in the basic sciences and mathematics, with a particular emphasis on autism, and through Math for America, to improve mathematics education in public schools. In 2006 they donated $25 million to SBU to support a number of academic initiatives, including summer institutes on string theory and workshops and lectures related to math and physics. Also in that year, in the wake of federal funding cuts, his foundation and a group of private donors from Renaissance Technologies made a $13 million contribution to maintain operations at Brookhaven National Laboratory's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider. He provided the largest gift ever to a SUNY institution when he gave $60 million for the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics, completed last year. In addition to funding the construction, the gift is used to recruit and retain high quality faculty, enhanced training and support for graduate students, support of research programs, securing visiting scholars, and sponsoring workshops and conferences. His gift to the local community was the Avalon Park and Preserve in Stony Brook, now approaching its tenth anniversary (for an illustrated story of this, click here).
The meeting started with a short ceremony to present our outgoing Provost, Dr. Eric Kaler, with a beautiful cherry bowl* to thank him for his support for the Emeritus Faculty Association over the years; (* and created by our own Donald Lindsley, see here).
Then our main speaker Eckard Wimmer, Distinguished Professor Molecular Genetics and Microbiology (see bio last issue) was introduced to talk on his work on RNA viruses, particularly the chemical synthesis of poliovirus (pv) from its genomic sequence (this was the first artificial synthesis of any virus).
He first acknowledged that this work was done by his whole team in the molecular virology group and in particular Dr Aniko Paul with whom he has had a productive collaboration for 27 years.
He then started by exhibiting the chemical formula of pv: C332,652 H492,388 N98,245 O131,196 P7501 S2340
Scientifically, the bare formula is close to useless. Better to show the structure - the long molecules that carry genetic information (RNA in this case) surrounded and protected by a protein coat, folded up into tree-like structures, and the whole thing twisted up together in the form of an icosahedron (looked like a large knobbly sphere in his slide). Polymers like RNA carry their information by the virtue of the sequence of nucleotides that comprise them, Adenine(A), Cytosine(C), Guanine(G), and Uracil(U). So to synthesize a virus all you have to do is read the published sequence of its genome from the internet and string the appropriate nucleotide molecules together! This is tongue in cheek - this is of course a complex process. Long RNA molecules cannot be synthesized at present. Instead, one synthesizes first a DNA equivalent (in the Watson/Crick sense), converts this DNA to an RNA molecule, and then "boots it" to life in a cell-free juice of HeLa cells. The genome (code) is actually 7500 nucleotides long for pv, illustrated by Eckard on his next slide (too long for the provost's office to print).
These kinds of viruses cause a bewildering array of disease syndromes (paralysis, meningitis, heart disease, hepatitis, common cold, etc), and by doing his synthesis work and experimenting with mutations Eckard can potentially more rapidly and cheaply produce the attenuated viruses to act as vaccines (which he has done recently with influenza). However when his first synthesis work was announced in 2002 it produced some amount of hysteria. He was accused of being unethical, creating a Frankenstein monster, making polio eradication impossible, playing God, and condemning himself to hell. Terrorists could now create biological warfare agents from information on the internet! And a condemnation resolution was even introduced into congress (Rep Weldon, Republican, of Florida). However as Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg remarked in an interview with The New Yorker and also testified to congress, there is no technical solution to the problem of biological weapons - it must rather be sought in the political and social arena. And since 2002 one of Eckard's original critics (J. Craig Venter) has himself synthesized a genome of one million base-pairs long.
Many scientific, philosophical, and social issues are raised by this work:
First could Bill Gates' enormously expensive campaign for the complete eradication of polio ever succeed anyway? For, unlike smallpox, polio infection can not be immediately recognized and traced. It may reside in the gut for weeks without discomfort and even if and when it finally gains entry to the nervous system it only causes the disease in as few as 1 in 1000 cases. And if immunization were attempted on a mass scale the imperfect nature of the current live vaccine (the oral vaccine, OPV) might cause disease itself, in some cases as recombinants with other harmless viruses (coxsackie A viruses).
Second, are viruses alive or dead? In the most widely accepted definition of life, John Maynard Smith has it as "Any population of entities which has properties of multiplication, heredity, and variation". Viruses lack the first of these since they cannot reproduce unless they get inside a cell. But once they gain entry they produce a space to proliferate precisely according to Maynard's definition.
Finally, now that it has been shown that at least parts of RNA can naturally assemble from chemical components plausible on the prebiotic earth, all kinds of questions arise as to the sequence of events leading to the eventual emergence of eukaryotic (nucleated) cells. Although much remains to be discovered, Eckard himself says that he sees "no transcendental mechanism" necessary for such a process.
Harry Fritts, the founding chair of the Department of Medicine and one of our members, died in Stony Brook University Hospital on Friday, 22 April. He was 89 years old.
New contagion alert!
A new malevolent pathogen is spreading in the land and this note has to do with the minimal hygiene for protection.
The outbreak got started on 6 January when the Competitive Enterprise Institute filed a request under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act for all the old emails of Prof Michael Mann (an expert on global warming) who had departed UVA in 2005 to take a position at U Penn. Then when Prof William Cronon (U Wis.) was working on a solicited NY Times op-ed piece on the historical context of the anti-union campaign in Wisconsin, UW received a request under the open records law of that state for all his emails containing the words (among others) Walker, Republican, and union. Along with this, the state GOP requested the email addresses of other selected UW professors. From there the disease spread across Lake Michigan where on 24 March, the Mackinac Institute issued its own FOIA request to the universities of Michigan, Michigan State, and Wayne State, requesting emails of all faculty referring to Scott Walker, Madison, and Rachel Maddow.
Meanwhile here in New York the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) was designed to guarantee that the public has access to public records of state governmental bodies, see:
http://sunshinereview.org/index.php/New_York_Freedom_of_Information_Law. Under FOIL, a record is defined as " any information kept, held, filed, produced, or reproduced by, with or for any state agency . . . , in any physical form whatsoever." The statute does not specifically address email and there has yet been no case law located concerning the disclosure of email. FOIL does not require that the party requesting records make any showing of need, good faith or legitimate purpose, and places no restrictions on how public records may be used, once they have been obtained. No doubt this is as it should be, since this is part of the price to be paid for democracy. However the hazard is that information so obtained might then be published in a very selectively edited form. For example last July Shirley Sherrod lost her position in the US Dept of Agriculture after an out-of-context snippet from an address to the NAACP was posted to make it appear that she had said exactly the opposite of what her speech was actually all about.
In the case of NYS employees, their positions could be particularly jeopardized if it appeared that they had used state time or equipment for a statement to the possible advantage/disadvantage of any candidate for state office.
Regarding university computer accounts, the following is from the policies of the SBU Division of Information Technology (DoIT): (see: http://it.cc.stonybrook.edu/policies/).
"E-mail messages stored on a server within the backup cycle may be retrieved even if the user has deleted them."
"Email records residing on University-owned machines belong to the University, may be audited by DoIT at any time, and may be subject to disclosure to a third party . . . "
Actually there is some question as to the legality of the current requests in Wisconsin, and under the NYS FOIL an information request can be contested. But perhaps professors had better not depend on SUNY for this.
Coming now to our members, quoting again from SBU DoIT: " Employees who retire from the University may continue to use e-mail accounts for a period of three (3) years after the retirement date". Actually this cut-off has not been enforced, but in any event: "Thereafter, retirees may apply to their former department to sponsor the continuation of the account for a stated purpose that supports the mission of the University". So for example your correspondent has an account inside his department which he uses to keep up with departmental and university matters. But like Prof Cronon, he does personal chores on private machines and accounts. Emeritus members without external ISP providers might still want to avail themselves of email accounts available on the web free on third-party servers such as Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. For protection against spam these are even superior to university email in the experience of your correspondent. Unfortunately privacy has been weakened by a succession of acts of congress. For example under the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), if email is downloaded and stored on a recipient's computer, the 4th amendment requirement for a warrant based on probable cause applies. However if the email is stored on a third-party server, then this protection only applies for the first 180 days. Recent administrations have claimed wider reach, particularly for communications to or from foreign countries. So in the brave new world it is wisest to proceed on the assumption that email of any kind has no privacy assurance whatsoever.