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Centers of Excellence

April 29, 2011

When I entered industrial research many years ago, my employer was involved in chemical and materials technology areas, only. There was a single corporate research laboratory at a single location. Eventually, through mergers and acquisitions, many satellite research laboratories appeared. As can be expected, there was some duplication of research between these laboratories.

As a consequence, it was decided that each laboratory would need to specialize in a particular research area. Thus were born so-called "Centers of Excellence for X," X being one of a number of technology fields. The "excellence" part was an obvious attempt at nominative determinism. An Internet search will reveal that this idea was not an isolated example.

The logic of this change was that it would eliminate the purchase of duplicate equipment. It also meant that our hard-won atomic force microscope was uprooted and shipped to another location. This scheme may have saved money on some spreadsheet, somewhere; but these savings were overshadowed by lost efficiencies in my research operation and lost opportunities.

It appears that having a single organization for each science and technology area is now the preferred funding model. Second tier organizations need not apply. This is a lot like the physical process of Ostwald ripening that I wrote about in a previous article (Is Religion becoming Extinct? April 1, 2011). Larger entities grow at the expense of smaller ones.

CERN, with its Large Hadron Collider, has now become the world's Center of Excellence in Particle Physics. Other operations of this sort (e.g., Fermilab) are in decline, and all the material and talent are being directed towards CERN. The US was in the running for this Center of Excellence many years ago, but the demise of the Superconducting Super Collider took us out of the game, probably forever.

George Santayana's famous quotation, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," must have escaped the notice of the politicians who doomed US particle physics. World War II was the "physicist's war." Without things like radar, cryptanalysis computers and atomic bombs, the war might have been lost, or at least prolonged. If the US didn't enter the war with centers of excellence in such fields as atomic physics (Ernest O. Lawrence's Berkeley laboratory) and radar (The MIT Radiation Laboratory), there would have been no physicists to fight that war.

It now appears the Armenia wants to become the world's Center of Excellence for Chess. Armenia intends to make chess a compulsory subject in its elementary schools, taught for about two hours each week.[1-2] Said Arman Aivazian, an official at Armenia's education ministry,[1]
"Teaching chess in schools will create a solid basis for the country to become a chess superpower."

Laugh-Out-Loud Cats #736, by Adam Koford

Laugh-Out-Loud Cats #736, by Adam Koford. Hobo cats Kitteh and Pip are playing chess. (Cartoon by Adam Koford, via Wikimedia Commons).

Armenia has been called "chess-mad" by some commentators, and its President, Serzh Sarkisian, is a chess enthusiast. Armenia has had some success in the chess world.[3-4] Levon Aronian has an Elo rating of 2808, making him the third ranked player in the world by the World Chess Federation. The Armenian chess team was awarded the gold medal at the 2006 and 2008 Chess Olympiads, although it ranked only seventh in 2010.

About a million euros has been budgeted for this effort, which is a large amount for Armenia, a country with a population of just a little more than three million. Twenty-nine US states have larger populations than Armenia. Would the citizens of Oklahoma, which has about the same population as Armenia, balk at spending $1.5 million on chess?

The arguments proffered for this are very similar to those in past centuries for a "classical" education or a liberal arts major. Armenian education official Aivazian states that the study of chess will encourage "intellectual development," along with wise and flexible thinking.[1] It's time to fire up the positron emission tomographs to test this hypothesis.

While on the subject of chess, I'll mention a famous chess exercise called the eight queens problem. In a chess game, there are only two queens, one white and one black, but for this problem we place eight queens on a chess board. The problem is to place these such that no piece is in jeopardy. This is a difficult chore, since a queen can move in any linear direction on a chessboard.

This problem was first posed by Max Bezzel in 1848, and its obvious mathematical overtones interested Gauss. Of course, solutions became easy with the advent of computers, and this problem is often used as an example of a recursive algorithm. I was introduced to the problem twenty-five years ago in a program written in Forth. Since few people use Forth, I've attached a C program.[5] There are 92 distinct solutions.

Wood inlay chessboard

Wood inlay chessboard, made for me by my father in the early 1960s)


  1. Armenia makes chess compulsory in schools (Independent (UK), April 17, 2011).
  2. Suren Musayelyan, "Chess," Armenia Now, April 11, 2011.
  3. Armenian chess players at Dubai Open (Aysor Armenia, March 31, 2011).
  4. Chess: Armenia’s world title hopeful in training for FIDE Candidates’ Matches (Armenia Now, April 4, 2011).
  5. Michael Becker, "The 8 Queens Puzzle," April, 2003.
  6. Andy Robertson, "A GeekDad’s Daughter Reinvents Chess," Wired, April 21, 2011.

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Linked Keywords: Industrial research; chemical; materials science; corporate; mergers and acquisitions; nominative determinism; atomic force microscope; spreadsheet; CERN; Large Hadron Collider; Particle Physics; Fermilab; Superconducting Super Collider; George Santayana; World War II; physicist; radar; cryptanalysis; atomic bombs; Ernest O. Lawrence; Berkeley laboratory; MIT Radiation Laboratory; Armenia; Chess; elementary school; Laugh Out Loud Cats; Adam Koford; Wikimedia Commons; Levon Aronian; Elo rating system; World Chess Federation; 37th Chess Olympiad; 38th Chess Olympiad; Chess Olympiads; 39th Chess Olympiad; euro; US states; U.S. state population; Oklahoma; liberal arts; positron emission tomograph; eight queens problem; queen; Max Bezzel; mathematics; Gauss; recursive algorithm; Forth; eight_queens.c; Michael Becker.