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Big Think Interview With Krisztina Holly

Question: What is the future of the U.S. university? 

Krisztina\r\n Holly: So there are two main parts to the university. There is the \r\nresearch enterprise and there is the educational enterprise and I \r\ndefinitely see both parts of it changing a lot in the next decade or so.\r\n So, speaking about the educational enterprise it’s not enough for \r\npeople the learn the skills that they’re learning today, as valuable as \r\nthey may be, but it’s going to be very important for them to learn \r\ninnovation skills that enable them to better communicate their ideas and\r\n communicate a value proposition, figure out how to make greater impact \r\nwith their ideas by enrolling other people in their vision and to \r\nunderstand how to finance their idea and how to turn it into a \r\nsustainable business, nonprofit, whatever form it is. So that is going \r\nto be really important. We think it is especially important at the PhD \r\nlevel. We think that is something that has been ignored. In fact, Kurt \r\nCarlson who is the CEO of SRI International, they’re a non-profit \r\nresearch lab in Menlo Park, he was giving a talk recently and he said \r\nthat they get the most amazing PhDs around the world, around the country\r\n to come and work for them and despite that, it takes them seven to ten \r\nyears to become fully productive members of the team. Why is that? It is\r\n because they lack the innovation skills. They lack the skills of \r\nunderstanding how they fit into the innovation ecosystem, how they fit \r\nin, how they communicate their ideas and how they address real world \r\nproblems. So that’s perfect validation for the fact that at USC we just \r\nannounced and we’re launching for the fall an innovation diploma program\r\n for PhD students that is free of charge for PhDs. It is a three-course \r\nsequence unlike any other program that we’re aware of, and we think it \r\nis really, really valuable for our students. We’re not trying to turn \r\nPhDs into business people. We don’t think that is appropriate. We don’t \r\nthink that it always works. We want to keep them as researchers at the \r\ncutting edge of their field and that’s their whole goal is to become the\r\n absolute best in a discipline and there have been some criticisms that \r\nacademics don’t understand the bigger picture or they’re too \r\nspecialized. The reality is if you’re going to be the absolute best you \r\nhave to be very specialized, but that doesn’t preclude you from \r\nunderstanding how to communicate with others that can take your idea and\r\n make it into something really impactful. So it’s sort of bridging that \r\ngap by making both the academics aware and then of course we’d like to \r\nfocus on the business community as well to bring them closer to \r\nacademia.

Question: How might digital scholarship \r\nimpact innovation at universities? 

Krisztina Holly: There\r\n are a lot of changes that are happening now that are really going to be\r\n impacting the way innovation happens in the university. One of them, \r\nfor example, is open access to research results and people are \r\npublishing increasingly in open access journals and in fact I think \r\nthere have been about 5,000 new open access journals that have popped up\r\n online in the last couple of years that are circumventing the typical \r\npeer reviewed printed journal publications and that will have some \r\nsignificant affect in the future. It’s not just a matter of open access \r\nto the papers, but also there has been a greater drive towards open \r\naccess towards the data itself. It is somewhat controversial because \r\nthere is definitely an interest by faculty with all the work that they \r\nput into collecting that data and this has been a challenge for a while,\r\n but it is exacerbated by this new open access. How do you get to \r\nbenefit from your own data that you’ve worked so hard to collect and \r\nthen and publish on? So how long is it appropriate to hold back that \r\ndata before you share it with other people? Obviously the sooner you get\r\n the data out there the more people will benefit and at the same time \r\nyou need to motivate faculty to be collecting that data in the first \r\nplace and so that will be an interesting thing to see. 

Also \r\ndigital scholarship is changing the output of research. It used to be \r\nthat you can do some research, you can write it up in a thesis or a \r\npaper, publish it or put it on a bookshelf and that was your \r\npublication. That is not going to cut it anymore. You have digital \r\nmultimedia output. How do you archive that? For example, we have this \r\nsystem that was developed at USC in collaboration with some other \r\nuniversities called Hypercities. It was developed by a historian in fact\r\n at USC, Phil Ethington and what it is, is you can put geo-rectified \r\nmaps and geo-tagged photographs into the system. I can look at my \r\nneighborhood and then click on a button and it goes from the view from \r\nthe sky, the satellite view down into "Well let’s see what the map \r\nlooked like from 1986. Now let’s see this other map from 1920," and you \r\nrealize "My God, there is no marina there," and it’s almost like going \r\nthrough time and seeing how things were. You can look at different \r\nphotographs and very much in a crowdsourcing fashion it enables other \r\nhistorians now. It’s this platform where other people can add to this \r\narchive of information, so it brings up some interesting questions. One \r\nof the questions is how do you store that kind of output if it is not a \r\npiece of paper that you can put in a library or you can scan in? How do \r\nyou archive this? How do you enable people to access that information? \r\nAnd if you are allowing people to contribute to it then how do you give \r\nproper credit to those individuals that are contributing to this piece \r\nof scholarship if there is now hundreds of people that are contributing \r\nto this? So this is very different. It’s a brave new world. It’s \r\ndifferent from the way it was 20, 30 years ago and it’s going to \r\ncontinue to change.

Question: How can we stop the concealing of research in academia? 

Krisztina Holly: It is an interesting challenge that in order to motivate people to excel and do things, it’s part of human nature that there needs to be some sort of incentive. So in the market economy it’s very much based on financial rewards. In academia it is very much based on reputation and so either way there is competition. I do think in academia it’s much more collaborative, so I think that although people can criticize academics at times for holding back certain research results—and it’s not ideal, it’s not optimal—at the same time I do think that there is a real sense of collaboration and the desire to create great results together. But I do think that we do have to be collaborating more and we are collaborating more. A perfect example is the Human Genome project. That would not have come together unless you had many universities and researchers that came together to work for the greater good on this project and ultimately it was clear who the big contributors were. It’s really a part of the whole ethic is to try to be able to track that, but there are challenges because if you’re starting to bring together lots of other people you know you want to make sure that we maintain that ethic for providing acknowledgment to the people who contribute. 

We have lots of big challenges ahead of us, whether it is trying to reduce the cost of solar energy or trying to deliver clean water to the whole world or renewable energy in general and global warming. All of these things are going to really need to have large collaborations and I don’t know that we’ve completely figured that out yet. It’s just a prediction that it will cause some pressure and some challenges for universities because right now, especially the larger elite universities they have large research enterprises that they can build on and they can build on their reputation by bringing more research or dollars, and to be doing more exciting research. At the same time if universities are collaborating more on programs then the universities will maybe be asking themselves: "How do we preserve our brand?" Because brand is important in that collaboration. So individual universities need to have a value proposition so that it is not just a place where faculty sit and get a paycheck. Faculty can take their research and they can move to another place, so it will put more pressure on universities to ensure that they’re doing their jobs and creating that innovative environment that enables people to collaborate and work together. That is really one of the huge values of universities and a place like USC, we’ve been around for almost 130 years... absolutely integral to the local community and also within our own we’ve built up this faculty over the years. And that enables us to get the absolute best students to come through. So it’s based on a real foundation and as an example we just need to make sure that we maintain that and we keep growing and we keep increasing that or else we’re not going to be relevant.

Recorded on May 6, 2010

A conversation with the vice provost for innovation at the University of Southern California.

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A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."


A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."