March 2013 Letters

Opinions expressed in the pages of the magazine are those of the signed contributors or the editor and do not necessarily represent the official position of the University of Sydney.

Creativity important for engineers

The Vice-Chancellor, Dr Michael Spence, refers to the new governance structure (Unifying Diversity, SAM, October 2012), with five new divisional boards to cover the Natural Sciences, Architecture and Creative Arts, Business, Engineering, and Humanities and Social Sciences – reflecting the University’s desire to expand its business and engineering programs.

The University does a good job of producing professionals across many fields. However, we don’t have to travel far from the university to realise that, despite some remarkable exceptions, creativity is a general weakness of the engineering profession, and our business leaders who are too focused on quarterly profit guidance. Engineering should be grounded in the creative arts and business within the humanities.

Peter Egan (BCivil Eng ’82)
Artarmon NSW

Chancellor's musical legacy

The article on Marie Bashir (The Common Touch, SAM, Oct 2012) was a wonderful insight into her life and interests. As the Musical Director and Conductor of the Sydney University Symphony Orchestra, I note that she has attended all concerts presented by the orchestra in the Great Hall in recent years. Her support for the orchestra is highly valued by everyone at SUSO.

George Ellis (BMusEd ’87)
Balmain NSW

Quantum physics mind-boggling

I find Quantum Physics (Tiny Particles, Quantum Leaps, SAM, October 2012) very difficult to get a handle on. I do not understand how a physical thing can be in more than one place at exactly the same time. But assuming that there is a rational explanation that I am not aware of, I fail to see how “… qubits, which can either be one, zero or both states simultaneously”, could have any value as a hardware platform for computing.

The certainty that a bit is either zero or one, and will remain that way until deliberately changed, is the basis for data storage in conventional computers. The article makes an assertion but to my mind provides no supporting explanation, even in outline. This is disappointing in a University publication.

Further, the article claims that Michael Biercuk says that “If you were to construct a standard computer with the same computational capacity as that projected for this device, it would need to be larger than the size of the known universe”. Such unsubstantiated claims belong in comic books or fiction such as The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. He could have said “very very very large”, but to pick a measure this extreme really requires some explanation.

Michael McLean (MLitt ’94)
Sunnybank Hills Qld

Health and invested interests

Thank you for the most interesting and important article, The fight against fat, by Chris Rodley (SAM, July, 2012). Rodley’s article focuses on the threats to health and quality of life in relation to diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease (CD).

It is worth pointing out that in 1990 American researcher Dean Ornish’s ‘Lifestyle Heart Trial’ demonstrated that serious CD could actually be reversed without surgery by changes to diet (ie from animal to plant-based) and lifestyle.

So effective is the Ornish program – the first non-surgical non-pharmaceutical heart disease therapy to qualify for insurance rebate – that by 1998, in the US, 45 health insurance providers were reimbursing members for it as a treatment.

Yet in Australia, health authorities, charities and health insurers still don’t promote the Ornish program but continue to promote animal-based diets as the main contributor to CD.

In Rodley’s article, Professor Steve Simpson points out the importance of demystifying ‘‘the clamour of conflicting advice that people receive on diet and lifestyle’’ and calls for “a dispassionate presentation of our current understanding that’s unpolluted by vested interests”.

Simpson is absolutely right. I wish him and his team well in their endeavours.

Paul Bacon (Dip RehabCouns ’90)
Belmore NSW

Taking personal responsibility

I was interested to read the article on lecturer Fiona Allen (Female Fans: It’s Personal SAM Oct, 2012). A Saints fan has to be accorded due attention. However, two comments by Ms Allen seemed to reveal a lack of historical perspective. After the impact of the GFC, she writes of the “increasing dominance of economics and markets in social life”. Yet economic crises have troubled social life much before the recent GFC.

Further, she argues that as “the state retreats from its previous responsibilities there has been a huge transfer of risk onto the ‘household’, with “ordinary people ... required to take responsibility for their savings, retirement funds, education, health” etc. If that is true, would it not be a reversion to the state of affairs for most of human history?

More concerning is the implied lesson to be taken from the comment: ordinary people needing to take responsibility for their own savings and welfare. What an eccentric proposition. To be a spectator in sport is one thing, but who wants to be a spectator in their own lives? You only get one, if you want to live it you have to take to the field.

Nic Angelov (BA ’95 LLB ’98)

The first rule of lectures

When I enrolled at the University in 1963, the Registrar addressed all new university entrants in The Great Hall on the first day of our Orientation Week, offering advice, drawing our attention to portraits of past academics, and shocking me with witty comments. Later on, I heard a story which would have been appropriate for the occasion.

It concerns a student called George Bernard Dantzig who arrived late to a statistics lecture in 1939 at the University of California, Berkeley.

On the blackboard were two problems apparently assigned for homework, which Dantzig scribbled down during the lecture. A few days later, he apologized as he handed in his overdue work, explaining that the problems seemed harder than usual.

One Sunday morning about six weeks later, Dantzig was awakened by someone banging on his front door. It was his professor who rushed in with papers in hand, all excited: “I’ve just written an introduction to one of your papers. Read it so I can send it out right away for publication.”

For a minute Dantzig had no idea what he was talking about, until the professor explained that the problems on the blackboard he had solved were not homework but two of the most famous unsolved problems in statistics, which he had written to pique the students’ interest.

A year later, when he began to worry about a thesis topic, his professor just shrugged and told him to wrap the two problems in a binder and he would accept them as his thesis. George Dantzig went on to become the Father of Linear Programming.

The moral of the story: don’t be late for lectures.

Dr Malcolm Cameron (PhD Physics ’71)
Camberwell Vic