Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year!

A happy New Year to all our readers!

Stefan and I, we will spend the next two weeks in the Southern Hemisphere, so don't expect to hear from us too much.

I found posting my New Year's resolutions would tell too much about my bad habits, so instead I will give you some hand-made future predictions for 2009 or maybe 2099. Feel free to add yours, and be bold:

  • Transparent clothing will become trendy! Especially in footwear.
  • The LHC will finally make the first collision and the world will not end.
  • Instead we will be swamped by rumors about potential discoveries at the LHC that will all vanish into the background mist again.
  • Obama will be accused of populism and run into problems with his own party.
  • We will witness the bankruptcy of many social networking sites and online news providers.
  • Somebody will claim to have found a counterexample for the AdS/CFT correspondence.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Two Cultures

I just finished reading C.P. Snow's “The Two Cultures,” a transcript of his 1959 Rede lecture, together with a “second look” written 4 years later. Snow bemoans the lacking communication between the humanities and the sciences, and argues that this is an obstacle to the solution (if not a cause) of many problems, most notably the poverty in the developing world. Well, I disagree with him on several points, but then 40 years later things might look different. In the second look he addresses some of the criticism that has been raised.

More interesting than Snow's lecture I found actually the introduction to the Canto edition (it makes up half of the book) by Stefan Collini (who amazingly doesn't seem to have neither a website nor a Wikipedia entry. Does the man actually exist?). He embeds the lecture in the historical content and also provides a more up to date view, especially with regard to the fact that there have in the last decades been many interdisciplinary efforts to bridge these gaps, and that Great Britain in particular might be an extreme case. I just wanted to dump here some quotations from this introduction that I found particularly interesting:

    “[M]ore important still will be the nurturing within the ethos of the various academic specialisms not only of some understanding of how their activities fit into a larger cultural whole, but also of a recognition that attending to these larger questions is not some kind of off-duty voluntary work, but is an integral and properly rewarded part of professional achievements in the given field.”

    “[T]he pressures of competitive research, especially in the natural sciences, tend to relegate engagement with larger cultural or ethical questions to the status of soft options, to be pursued only by those not able to maintain the pace at the cutting edge of research.”

    “It may be far more damaging to encourage, however inadvertently, the reduction of the processes of decision making to matters than can be counted or measured than it would be to appear complacent about an inadequate level of technological or statistical under understanding. At least as pressing as the need for a basic scientific literacy is the need to develop and diffuse a public language in which non-quantifiable considerations can be given their proper weight.”

Sunday, December 28, 2008

We are Einstein

A lot has been said and written in the last years about the promise of online connectivity and open access, about the potential of borderless communication, the power of crowdsourcing, Wikinomics, and the wisdom of the masses. What does that mean for science? I have been wondering, will this impact the way we do research? Will we see the rise of “Wikiscience” and changes to the scientific method as Kevin Kelly predicts? Will we see the end of the “lonely genius problem” as Jeff DeChambeau suggests in a remarkable reinterpretation of my writing [1]? And while I can not give you a definite answer, I want to share some thoughts with you.

Unused Potential

There is without doubt unused potential in badly connected or unordered knowledge. Progress often comes from connecting the right pieces, or the right people, in the right way. And though this takes the ability to recognize two pieces fit together, as well as knowing how to connect them, it also requires knowing of them in the first place.

The larger the body of knowledge grows that we are working with, the more important it thus becomes for scientists – as for everybody else – to not only have information available, but also have the tools to search, filter, and structure this information, and to direct it to where it is useful. Given this possibility, we could save a lot of time and effort by more efficiently sorting through available sources of information, by faster finding people with the right knowledge to complement our work, by outsourcing specialized tasks to those who have the best skills. And while the first of these points is readily under way with ever more powerful search tools, the latter two are only in the beginning and will need to bring changes in the way science is presently done.

Global collaborations have become more and more common over the last decades, as communication becomes easier. And as more and more people put information about their research interests and education online, it also becomes easier to find them. In my impression, there are today few scientists who actually use this opportunity, but I have little doubt online networking will become more common, simply because it is useful. If there is a guy in Australia who happens to have thought for three years about what you are currently scratching your head over, just go skype him and write a paper together. And if you have a problem, ask everyone.

The Trouble with Specialization

But connecting, ordering, and filtering information alone is not sufficient. Knowledge can also remain unused due to communication barriers. Especially in highly specialized communities this problem is prevalent. Two people who do not share the same basis of information must make an effort to come to common ground, to properly ‘decode’ each other. This effort however does often not pay off due to the incentive structure of the present academic system that dominantly rewards specialization: The fewer people can judge on your work and the more the few who can like you and your work, the better your career chances. Thus, a good strategy is to put your effort into creating a niche that is of interest to the relevant people, being nice to your peers, and connecting your name with a research agenda [2]. This tactic flourishes well in the incenstual environment of peer review in specialized expert communities, and comes to full fruition when watered with ignorance.

Specialization is an inevitable consequence of more education that is required to work at the edge of scientific research, so I certainly acknowledge its necessity and its relevance for progress. But it comes with the side-effect that links between research areas might go unnoticed and unexplored. There should thus be a balance between specialization and interdisciplinarity, and more attention be paid to communication between different fields. In my impression, this balance is presently off to the favor of specialization, and communication remains underappreciated, which hinders progress. (For more about the problems with the present academic system see We have only ourselves to judge on each other).

But also with regard to improving this communication between specialized communities I think we are making progress mostly because online connectivity has opened new ways to circumvent what Bora so aptly referred to as the scientists ‘Kabuki’ dance (I disagree with him on several points but it's worth reading it). Again, I think the major impact on science is yet to come, but it will come.

Taken together it seems while the trend towards specialization will certainly go on, we will see more effort going into communication and connection of experts, both driven probably by different groups of people (an example of what I referred to as a specialization in task).

Taken together we thus have four trends in different stages of development: 1) Better tools for archiving and searching available information, 2) An increased connectivity of the community’s network leading to easier ways for scientists to find each other, 3) More frequent outsourcing of tasks to experts possibly even outside the community, and 4) An improved communication among specialized groups. The only thing I presently see in the way of these changes is inertia that will not hold for long against the advantages in their adaptation. Now one can discuss whether I am too optimistic if I consider this the probable and pretty much inevitable development, but let us just boldly extrapolate these trends and see where it gets us: It gets us to a tightly connected network of scientists with a high interaction rate in which researchers will exploit the unused potential in the present knowledge.

All in all you're just another brick in the wall

It is very tempting then to compare the world wide web of scientists to neurons in a brain. No single neuron in your brain understands Special Relativity; it is only the whole together which can. Are we headed into a situation where no single scientist understands the theories we might be using, because this understanding is only emergent from all of their interactions? It is a likewise tempting and depressing future projection. It is tempting because it takes the pressure of ingenuity off the individual. On the other hand, it also takes away both the internal and the external driver of science: understanding and fame.

But aren’t we a long way towards this already?

Steve Fuller writes in his book ‘Knowledge Management Foundations’ about the “perceived lack of scientific genius in our time”:
“We are more impressed with such early 20th century physicists as Einstein, Bohr, and Heisenberg, for whom the chalkboard was the laboratory, than with the battery of physicists continuing these work on multibillion-dollar particle accelerators today. We even rank those seat-of-the-pants discoverers of DNA’s structure, Watson and Crick, over that well-financed and methodological mapper of the human genome, Craig Venter, even though the latter has enabled the promise of biotechnology to become a reality. […] In other words a “most bang for the buck” principle seems to rule our intuitive judgment for genius. Television producers know this all too well. It explains why viewers are more impressed by a John Doe who invents something that stumps experts than by a battalion of well-financed lab scientists who arrive at some equally counterintuitive and probably better grounded discovery.”

Considered this trend and my above bold extrapolation of present developments, Why no new Einstein? might just the wrong question to ask. It could simply be inappropriate for our times. We should not be looking for a new Einstein to bring progress, this suggests. Instead, we should be looking for networks of many stones [3], well connected, moving us forward together. We should be looking for well working communities of experts, and judge their knowledge production as a whole.

Will the future of science bring the end of personal genius?

Why no new ideas?

    “Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats.”

Thus, the trend seems to be going towards a tightly coupled global network of scientists, in which we can 24/7 bounce ideas off each other, e-meet in second life, and distribute our talks and papers in no time around the world. That might be some people’s paradise and other people’s hell. To me it mostly seems like a good environment for ideas grow, but is that where they are born?

Missing in this picture is the fact that all the connectivity in the world won’t help us to overcome the limits we are set in expressing our ideas in the first place. When it comes down to this, we are all alone in our heads, and left to our own devices. It takes time and effort to find a way to communicate a thought such that other people can follow it. Every genuinely new idea - one that does not connect pieces but creates a new piece - has to go through a prestage in which it can only badly be communicated. In his talk at our September conference, Eric Weinstein referred to this as the “valley” in which you don’t make sense [4].

Now bouncing ideas off your colleagues is a good way to make progress once you have something to build up upon. But on the other hand an environment with a very high interaction rate thermalizes quickly, and can be very destructive in the early stage of an idea's development. A highly connected community means we’ll have to watch out very carefully for sociological phenomena that might affect objectivity, and work towards premature consensus. We will have to watch out for fads that grow out of proportion, and we will have to find a way to protect the young ideas that “you have to ram down people's throats,” in Atkin's words, until people are ready to swallow them. There is no reason to assume scientists are immune to sociological effects.

Some People's Paradise is Other People's Hell

If you’d ask me what is the way to make progress in theoretical physics (and if you don’t I tell you anyway) I’d make the following suggestion: Pick 30 of the brightest physicists from all fields. Give them ten year contracts and put them on an island with no administrational duties, but all the necessary infrastructure (ie blackboards, chalk, coffee, and library access). In the first five years, they are not allowed to write papers or go to conferences. They can travel and invite collaborators, but are not allowed to give talks or schedule seminars. They are not allowed to teach, to mentor or to write proposals. That might be some people’s hell and other people’s paradise, but that’s how I think ideas are born.

We are Ein Stein - Or are we?

Over all the enthusiasm about our increasingly connected global scientific community, don't forget that scientists need time to think and room to breathe. Some developments happen naturally and by themselves because they are of individual advantage. These include increased connectivity, more social networking, and outsourcing, and are not the ones you should be worried about. You should be worried about these trends dominating styles of research and reducing a diversity of approaches towards knowledge discovery.

Related posts (hand generated):

[1] He is referring to the following sentences from this post:“This does not mean the times of the lonely genius are over […] I am very skeptic about the enthusiasm caused by wiki-like collaborative efforts (see e.g. Wikinomics). It is one thing to use existent resources - here, human knowledge - most efficiently, but something completely different to add new.” Notably, I never did and never intended to regard the “lonely genius” as a “problem” in need of a remedy, and certainly not one that starts with “wiki”.
[2] In
Sean Carroll’s unsolicited advice it sounds like this “While you’re in grad school, establish a track record of productivity by writing papers. Even better, write good papers — write about things that other people are interested in. What is it about your research or skill set that makes you useful to people hiring postdocs? Become the world’s expert in some hot topic, or the master of some novel technique, along with establishing your broad-based competence.” Emphasis mine.
[3] Excuse the pun. "Ein Stein" is German for "one stone".
[4] Yes, once again the same story with the mountain climbers and valley crossers.It is not so surprising this picture comes up again and again. It’s what it necessary to not get stuck in a local optimum. For more about this, read my post The Best of All Possible Worlds.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

We Feel Fine

The other day I came across this lovely website We Feel Fine , “an exploration of human emotion, in six movements” by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar.

We Feel Fine scans blog posts for occurrences of the phrases “I feel” and “I am feeling,” if available they extract age, gender and location of the blogger, and save the sentence in a database. If an image is found in the post, the image is saved along with the sentence. The process is repeated automatically every ten minutes, generally identifying and saving between 15,000 and 20,000 feelings per day. We Feel Fine offers various visualization of the results. If you have some time on your hand go check it out, it is very well done. Expressions about love an hate particularly go on a slidescale at the related project Lovelines.

The same two guys also had an installation in the NY Museum of Modern Art, called I Want You To Want Me, which “explores the search for love and self in the world of online dating”. See the video below for what that is about.

Isn't it amazing how seamlessly they connect data analysis with art?

Friday, December 26, 2008

Guestpost: Christoph Schiller about Motion Mountain

"Please present the free Motion Mountain Physics Text and yourself!" Sabine wrote me some time ago. I answered that I first wanted to put the new version online. That is now done; it can be downloaded at

For a long time I carried the dream to tell the story of physics in the way I would have liked to hear it as a student. Simple, vivid, up to date - and stimulating. I wanted to write a text that is never boring, always challenging and surprising. Even though, of course, physics states that there are no surprises in nature.

My own physics studies, in the late seventies and early eighties in Stuttgart, had left me with three main impressions. (1) Physics is very interesting. (2) Most physics books are awful, in all languages. (3) Physics teaching is often even worse than its books - and often much better. My PhD time in France and Belgium confirmed the impressions. I wanted to change at least the book part.

I started writing in 1990, and now, in 2009, with 1600 pages, 600 photos, films and illustrations, 1700 challenges and puzzles, 900 internet links, the result is slowly realizing the original vision. The subtitle "The Adventure of Physics" expresses the tone in which the text presents the topic. Now in its 22nd edition, the text is a pdf file for free download. To get an impression, here are the topics that are new
in this edition:

The new edition now explains how it is possible to plunge a bare hand into molten lead, includes a film of an oscillating quartz inside a watch, explains how it is possible to type a letter by controlling a computer with thought alone, includes a film of a solar flare, explains the fifteen ways that colours appear in rocks plants and animals, explains the connection between cats and gauge theory, adds more ways in which the human eye invents colours that are not there, includes a list of laser types and applications, includes many images of crystals, explains how physics Plotinus and christianity come together to show that the universe and god are one and the same, adds the handcuff puzzle and several other puzzles, explains how jet pilots frighten civilians with sonic superbooms produced by fighter planes, presents the most beautiful and precise sundial available today, adds a simple photographic proof that the Earth is larger than the Moon, improves the presentation of elementary particle physics, adds a photo of a red rainbow, gives the latest discoveries on the Galileo trial, presents a fascinating mathematical aspect of Ohm's law, states the hardest open math problem that you can explain to your grandmother, and much more.

The full text presents mechanics, electricity, thermodynamics, special and general relativity, quantum theory, and a bit of unification, all explored in a way that should be in the reach of an undergraduate. The structure of physics and the adventures one encounters are shown in a graphic that describes the exploration:

The idea of the text has always been to mix theory and experiment, in contrast to many courses at university. I wanted to add topics that appeal to young men and women (including sport, biological matters, medical matters, music, sex, games, machines). The idea was also to stimulate those readers that are more intellectual and those which are more practically inclined - and it should be fun and challenging to read for somebody from outside physics, for a student, and for a physics professor alike. The text now contains many self-contained stories, but also follows a narrative thread.

I always wanted to write a complement for all those texts that are write-ups of lecture notes: fewer formulae, more stories, more ideas. This probably is a result of my own experience as young boy and young man living in many countries in Europe and Asia.

There is a now a French translation of the first 560 pages (more are coming), a Spanish translation of 80 pages, with more coming, and also an Italian and a German version in the making. There is also a charitable non-profit association that finances all this, sponsored by a few donors, the largest being the Klaus Tschira Foundation. But as usual, funding is never sufficient...

The funds are used for computers, software, editors, designers, internet presence. So far, no money has been used for the writing or the content itself. And it was decided not to generate any income, neither with ads nor with other means. Job and family are limiting the total effort, of course.

The newest project is a version for the blind, which we hope to present as a first prototype in the summer. This was triggered by John Gardner from Viewplus, a blind entrepreneur and physicist.

A rewarding aspect has been that more and more professionals are providing images, references, and also corrections. I have many email exchanges with researchers and teachers all over the world who are helping to improve, correct and complete the text. For example, the sections on astronomy, on optics, on the climate, on relativity, on knots, on material science, and on animals and plants have gained much in this way. If you have a comment or suggestion, let me know. I'll do my best to implement it in the next edition. In total, over 200 people have provided suggestions and material, and the book would not be what it is without them. They are all listed in the acknowledgements.

Several young readers have told me that they decided to study physics partly because they were inspired by this text. Therefore I hope to be able to continue the project for a few more years. There is still much to be added - my present "to do" list has 1060 open items. In the meantime, there is only one thing to say:

Enjoy the reading!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas!

It is Christmas! Time to take a break from the blogosphere. But before you turn off the computer, we have a quiz for you to finish our seasonal program. Here we go:

87-8-2 26-53-68-73-32

The above encodes a German expression, if you type the result into this online dictionary you get the English translation.

As last year, the first correct answer wins a PI mug, see photo. (If you are not willing to provide a mailing address, or aren't interested anyhow, please don't spoil other people's fun and do not post your answer in the comments).

A Merry Christmas and nice holidays to all of you!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

What if... #24

What if we could read each other's mind?

This post is part of the 2008 advent series "What if..."

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

What if... #23

What if SETI detects strange radio signals from a star with an exoplanet?

This post is part of the 2008 advent series "What if..."

Monday, December 22, 2008

What if... #22

What if the internet became self-aware?

This post is part of the 2008 advent series "What if..."

Sunday, December 21, 2008

PS on "Chaos, Solitons and Self-Promotion"

For those of you who have followed the earlier discussion, here are news from the website of the Elsevier Journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals:

“The Founding Editor for Chaos, Solitons and Fractals Dr El Naschie will retire as Editor-in-Chief. This will be announced in the first issue of 2009.

The publisher will work with the editorial board and other advisors to identify a new editor, as well as reviewing the aims and scope of the journal, as well as the editorial policies and submission arrangements.”

Off-topic: You might have noticed that the recent-comments feature in the sidebar presently does not work. The bug is due to a malfunctioning in our comment feed, which is stalled at last year August for mysterious reasons. The problem seems to affect also other blogs. We can only hope that blogger fixes this soon.

What if... #21

What if all Curie temperatures drop to zero and matter loses permanent magnetisation?

This post is part of the 2008 advent series "What if..."

Saturday, December 20, 2008

What if... #20

What if we could arbitrarily rescale the size of all objects?

This post is part of the 2008 advent series "What if..."

Friday, December 19, 2008

What if... #19

What if the memory of all electronic data storage media was suddenly erased?

This post is part of the 2008 advent series "What if..."

Thursday, December 18, 2008

What if... #18

What if the left and the right side of the human brain were considerably better connected?

This post is part of the 2008 advent series "What if..."

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

What if... #17

What if somebody we've never heard of found a way to compute all the ratios of masses in the standard model (without introducing new ad hoc parameters)?
This post is part of the 2008 advent series "What if..."

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

What if... #16

What if our vacuum was only metastable and started decaying tomorrow morning?

This post is part of the 2008 advent series "What if..."

Monday, December 15, 2008

What if... #15

What if the Sun was hotter and more blue, or cooler and more red than it is?

This post is part of the 2008 advent series "What if..."

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Who owns this blog?

Some days ago I received a Facebook message that asked me to confirm Moshe is “owner” of the blog Shores of the Dirac Sea. Which I did and while at it, I too joined that Facebook blog network, upon which I had to pick 9 people from my friends list to confirm I “own” this blog. Among the ones I picked was Tommaso, the Quantum Diaries Survivor from next door. We got into a conversation about the question of blog ownership, a term that he seemed to find similarly bizarre as I do, and I thought it would be interesting to hear your opinion on that too.

Sure, I am writing this blog - well, most of it. But do I own it? One could equally well argue it is owned by Google. The only meaning of ownership that makes sense to me is that this blog is public property. Everybody who writes a blog knows what (s)he is doing when clicking on the “publish” button. It means your thoughts go out there, into the wild open.

Now don't get me wrong, of course I am pissed off if somebody uses my writings without paying credits to me. But if I write something where this aspect is of major importance I publish it such that I have a copyright on intellectual property. However, plagiarism doesn't seem to happen all that often even on blogs. For one, most people are actually honest and don't claim originally where there was none. Instead, over the years, we have had several requests to reprint articles or figures, to use quotations, and have been asked how to properly cite a blog post. But besides this, the very reason that blog posts are public provides safety through recognition of copies by readers. The more readers you have, the more likely one of them is to come across and recognize a plagiarism and notify you.

An effect much more interesting than actual copies and quotations however are follow-up threads were people continue a discussion that was initiated elsewhere. This pinging back and forth of thoughts through the blogosphere is as far as I am concerned one of the best aspects of it. What matters in the end however is the emergence of the discussion itself, not who owns it.

What if... #14

What if all screws on this planet would suddenly dissolve?

This post is part of the 2008 advent series "What if..."

Saturday, December 13, 2008

What if... #13

What if we would chose the members of parliament randomly from the whole population?

This post is part of the 2008 advent series "What if..."

Friday, December 12, 2008

World's Friendliest Countries

1. Canada
2. Germany
3. Australia
4. UK
5. India
6. USA
7. Hong Kong
7. Spain
8. France
9. Netherlands
10. China

The study surveyed 2,155 expats in 48 countries, spanning four continents, between February and April 2008. Respondents rated their country in four categories: ability to befriend locals, number that joined a community group, number that learned the language and percentage that bought property. Source: Forbes.

What if... #12

What if we could see light over as large a frequency range as we can hear sound?

This post is part of the 2008 advent series "What if..."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Perimeter Scholars International

News from PI for our student readers:

Perimeter Scholars International (PSI) Provides New Opportunity for Young Researchers
Unique Masters Course Now Accepting Applications

Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, December 9, 2008 - Canada’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (PI), in partnership with the University of Waterloo, has launched Perimeter Scholars International (PSI), a concentrated Masters level course for exceptional students who wish to become researchers in theoretical physics.

The 10-month course will be taught at the Perimeter Institute by outstanding international lecturers. Participants will be brought to the cutting edge of fundamental physics across a wide range of research disciplines, and conduct a specialized research project under the supervision of a faculty member at one of the local universities. The course will prepare students for PhD research in Theoretical Physics.

“Theoretical physics is the basis for much of modern science and technology. PSI is designed for adventurous students who wish to understand the deep principles underlying the physical world and how to translate them into observational predictions,” says Neil Turok, Perimeter Institute Director. “Our aim is to attract and nurture the brightest talents from across Canada and around the world and enable them to become brilliant young researchers contributing to future discoveries.”

The Masters degree will be issued by the University of Waterloo (UW), an internationally recognized university within walking distance of PI. UW President David Johnston says, “We are very pleased to join forces with Perimeter Institute and help propel this new model for research training. Such a program is long overdue. The ingenuity of PI and the academic foundation at UW will provide young researchers with unique opportunities to develop their skills.” Amit Chakma, UW Vice-President, Academic and Provost, adds, “PSI will see an influx of top talent into the existing research culture here in Waterloo, Ontario, while stimulating a new generation of scientists who can drive future discoveries of incalculable benefit to our world.”

PSI will enroll its first 25 students in August 2009, and will eventually grow to 50 scholars per year. Fully funded scholarships will be available as needed. Applications should be submitted by February 1st, 2009 in order to receive full consideration. For detailed information regarding all procedures, scholarship opportunities, supervision, accreditation, and program leadership, please visit the PSI website.

About Perimeter Institute

Canada's Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics is an independent, non-profit, scientific research and educational outreach organization where international scientists cluster to push the limits of our understanding of physical laws and develop new ideas about the very essence of space, time, matter and information. The award-winning research centre provides a multi-disciplinary environment to foster research in areas of Cosmology, Particle Physics, Quantum Foundations, Quantum Gravity, Quantum Information, Superstring Theory, and related areas. The Institute, located in Waterloo, Ontario, also provides a wide array of educational outreach activities for students, teachers and members of the general public in order to share the joy of scientific research, discovery and innovation. In partnership with the Governments of Ontario and Canada, Perimeter Institute continues to be a successful example of private and public collaboration in science research and education.

Contact Information

· PSI Program inquiries can be directed to John Berlinsky, PSI Director, at
· All other inquiries, such as media requests, should be directed to Angela Robinson at

What if... #11

What if we could grow hardware on trees?

This post is part of the 2008 advent series "What if..."

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What if... #10

What if water had a vanishingly small surface tension?

This post is part of the 2008 advent series "What if..."

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

What if... #9

What if you could download a textbook directly on your brain?

This post is part of the 2008 advent series "What if..."

Monday, December 08, 2008

Can Science Help Solve the Economic Crisis?

The Edge features a brilliant and timely essay

by Mike Brown, Stuart Kauffman, Zoe-Vonna Palmrose and Lee Smolin.

Having had the privilege to read a draft of this essay some weeks ago, I am thoroughly unsurprised to see my comments were completely ignored. To begin with, I must have repeated several times it is Jeffrey Sachs, Sachs, Sachs - not Sacks. Btw, his quotation used in section 4 you first read here. I doubt anybody else was stupid enough to rewind the recording two hundred times to do the transcript.

But that's what writing a blog is good for I guess, so I can now publish my comments here.

I largely agree with the overall scope of the essay, to the extend that my knowledge about economy is limited and some details escape me. The main statement however comes across very clearly: we need a scientific approach to modeling our economy, a necessity that have referred to as “Finishing the Scientific Revolution”. Given that our social, political, and economic systems affect the lives of billions of people this is in our responsibility as scientists. In their essay the authors make this point very aptly, pointing out especially the interdisciplinary nature of this endeavor:
“When physicists made the atomic bomb they realized what they had conceived and immediately felt a sober responsibility to help make the world safe from their invention. At this time there is a responsibility for those with the knowledge and skills to understand the financial instruments involved in this crisis to help first to resolve this crisis and to next turn their attention to the design and regulation of a stable market system. This will involve economists, mathematicians, physicists, biologists, computer scientists and others working together to make a more stable economic system.”

The authors first summarize common assumptions of neoclassical economics and then proceed “to ask if there are alternative ideas, principles and methods of modeling economic systems which might also provide the basis for wise advice and policy.” My social democratic heart was very pleased to see they explicitly acknowledge the necessity to regulate a system so it can properly fulfill its function, and especially that it can do so without running into instabilities:
“[E]conomies, financial institutions and markets cannot function without a context of rules and laws, which regulate them. In a market, each participant tries to do the best they can for themselves. In a properly architected and regulated market this contributes to the public good. There is simply no place for an ideological discussion about regulation. Stable systems in nature such as individual organisms and ecosystems are regulated. So must ours be. The only relevant question is do the regulations work or not, where work means that stable markets allow an orderly flow of capital to and from the goods and services economy and the people who comprise it.”

I previously wrote about the need to set up systems appropriately so they work towards their primary goal in my recent post The Best of All Possible Worlds.

Overall, the essay is for a bunch of Americans very well balanced and - in contrast to many other pamphlets on the topic that I have come across - notes that there is a plurality of what nations will consider optimal solutions depending on their citizens' preferences:

“An economy involves finding balance between long- and short-term objectives, acceptable distributions of wealth, and rewards for innovation and risk taking. Different governments may embrace different social philosophies and may seek to establish economic and financial regulations to obtain somewhat different desired results. The role of an independent, non-partisan scientific conceptualization of economics should be to provide these policy makers with a notion as to the likelihood that new economic and financial regulations they are considering will have the results they desire and that these will not involve unintended consequences to others.”

They finish with an appeal to scientists from different areas to join forces to increase our conceptual understanding of the systems that govern out lives with the aim to provide advice on their organization and regulation. Such an approach must be scientific, “should not be a matter of opinion or ideology” and “has to be carried out in an interdisciplinary and open spirit”. Or, as I put it in my post This is your Economy on Drugs

“[T]he central issue is trust in our ability to detect and correct shortcomings of the system. A detection that should not be hindered by faith-based argumentation, should not be tampered with by rhetoric, should not be driven by psychological effects. It requires a solid data base, shared knowledge, objective evaluation, and validation of models and predictions. In short, it requires a scientific method to reestablish trust in the working of our political and economical systems.

The Scientific Revolution, which has lead to a stunning progress in the natural sciences four centuries ago, has not yet been extended to the applications of social sciences. To a large extend, developments in these areas are still made in a process of trial and error, experiments with the well-being of billions of people. It is a slow learning process often plagued by a lacking ability to learn from past mistakes. Given that trial and error has worked for a long time, and that the computational prerequisits to deal with large amounts of data are only available since recently, it is not surprising this revolution did not take place earlier. But it is about time we upgrade to the 21st Century.”

Indeed, one should fund an institute to carry out such research to extend the scientific method to the applications of social science. Doesn't that sound like a great idea? It certainly does to me! Though I am not exclusively concerned with the economic system, the more general goal of combining insights from the social, the natural and the computer sciences to better understand and manage the complex systems that shape our living together on this planet is the idea behind The Lightcone Institute (see also this post). If you happen not to have lost all your billions of dollars in the last months, I would greatly appreciate some start-up support.

Okay, before you throw up because I'm praising this essay too much, let me mention what I think the authors did not sufficiently emphasize. Throughout, the economic system is treated as being coupled to the political system only in the sense that the latter acts as a provider of regulations. The idea seems to be that scientists will gather, analyze and model the economy, and provide some advice for proper regulations.

That is a well meant, but very short-sighted attempt and bound to fail. You can't understand and update the economic system and improve its functioning without simultaneously understand and update the political system that is supposed to balance and regulate it. The cause of the problems we have is a severe mismatch in timescales on which the global economic system evolves and reacts, and the timescales on which our global political system evolves and reacts - the latter is lagging severely behind. To fix that problem the political system too needs a scientific investigation and advise on how to set up flexible institutions that are able to learn in a timely manner - instead of reacting with panic meetings only when things have already gone disastrously wrong.

Besides this, it might seem like a redundant point to mention, but the essay completely fails to at least address the central question what it actually is our economic system is supposed to work towards and who decides that - again the connection to the political system is missing. The primary purposes they mention (provide capital, provide a stable repository for our collective savings, provide credit to individuals) sounds perfectly reasonably, but are actually what I referred to not as primary, but secondary goals. I have no reason to question their desirability, but they are only relevant because of the benefit they bring in increasing the well-being of the people. That really should be the primary goal. And yes, scientists can help in achieving it.

What if... #8

What if all the world leaders were women?

This post is part of the 2008 advent series "What if..."

Sunday, December 07, 2008

PS on "The Block Universe"

In May, I wrote a post on “The Block Universe,” a commentary on a paper by Vesselin Petkov that I thought might serve as a useful basis to explain why Special Relativity is not incompatible with presentism, the idea that it is only the “now” that “exists”. Note speech marks, for both are undefined terms. That lacking definition is essentially the point of my argument.

Now, some days ago, author of said paper contacted me to let me know I allegedly “completely failed to understand” what he wrote, and urged me to publish my writing in a journal so he could react to it, followed by “friendly warnings”. If I come around to converting my post appropriately, I might indeed send it somewhere, but it admittedly isn't very high on my list of priorities. As far as I am concerned, I said what I had to say, and the eternal reinterpretation of Special Relativity isn't a topic I am particularly keen on engaging in to begin with. It followed some back and forth of emails that did not amount to anything.

Such reminded that my statement might have confused some people, I thought it would be worthwhile to briefly summarize the point of my argument. It really isn't so hard to understand. Special Relativity is based on these axioms:
  1. Space and time form a 4-dimensional, flat, differentiable manifold with Lorentzian signature.

  2. The laws of physics are tensor equations over this manifold.
If you take out the word “flat” you get General Relativity, but that's a different story and shell be told another time.

My argument is now simply, from these axioms you can not follow what “existence” means, thus you can not outrule presentism for it builds on this notion. You can then go ahead and produce a lot of fog by talking about clocks and rods and rulers and twins etc, but all of this is completely irrelevant. If you introduce additional assumptions about what constitutes a physical object then you might be able to come to conclusions. But these assumptions do not follow from Special Relativity and should be named explicitly.

As a concrete counter example for the claim that shows why this talk is empty, I suggested the following: Introduce an arbitrary time-like slicing in Minkowski-space and name it “existence slicing” to mean what is on the same slice “exists” together. This is not incompatible with Special Relativity.

No, there isn't anything more to this example, that was already it. I've shown one can define a notion of “existence” only on 3-dimensional submanifolds and this is compatible with Special Relativity. Now you can say you don't like this definition of “existence”. Fine. Nobody said you have to.

If you want you can understand “together” in the above example as “simultaneous”. This is not the notion of simultaneity commonly used in Special Relativity (based on inertial observers), but nobody forbids you to introduce a different one as you please. Again, you might not like that, but that was not a requirement I aimed to fulfill. For more precise statements, please see mentioned earlier post.

Just to make it clear, I personally don't even believe in presentism, I am just trying to say that the claim it is outruled through Special Relativity is logically false. If you want to come to any conclusions, you will need additional assumptions for what you mean with “existence”.

What if... #7

What if the Earth had two small moons instead of one?

This post is part of the 2008 advent series "What if..."

Saturday, December 06, 2008

What if... #6

What if we could build a room in which time could be made to run faster or slower?

This post is part of the 2008 advent series "What if..."

Friday, December 05, 2008

What if... #5

What if we found a way to predict the outcome of quantum measurements?

This post is part of the 2008 advent series "What if..."

Thursday, December 04, 2008

What if... #4

What if we discovered a drug for immortality?

This post is part of the 2008 advent series "What if..."

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

What if... #3

What if carbon dioxide was pink?

This post is part of the 2008 advent series "What if..."

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

What if... #2

Today's thought experiment:

What if we could create anti-gravitating matter?

This post is part of the 2008 advent series "What if..."

Monday, December 01, 2008

When Capitalism Fails

I guess some of you have been wondering why I occasionally put you through heavy reads like the recent “Best Of All Possible Worlds,” or my earlier elaboration on the reward system in “This is Your Economy on Drugs” instead of sticking with the fun and entertaining stuff, as one is supposed to do as a blogger?

Well, that's because now that you have patiently read all these lengthy explanations - and I am sure you have - I can finally draw the conclusions. See, if I say “love” before I've said “Money” “doesn't” and “buy,” you wouldn't get the message, would you?

Thus, I will now finally tell you why financing Open Access through author-pay is a bad idea, why science journalism is more Fiction than Fact, and will answer The Question Of All Questions: Who killed the blogosphere?

Yes. You will get answers to all this if you stay with me for a little while. It lies at hand now, and this hand isn't even invisible. Ready?

Okay! To summarize the most important points of my earlier writings: For a system to work towards its primary goal that system has to be endowed with a feedback mechanism. This mechanism has to allow for evaluation of the system's status, and needs to have enough flexibility to react to this evaluation, depending on whether a change works in favor or against achieving the primary goal. In social systems, feedback is most powerful if it arises from incentives on the personal level, meaning from criteria that are both local and immediate - in particular they have to be uncomplicated. The challenging task is to ensure that from these incentives on the micro-level there arises a trend that is desirable also on the long-term and long-distance scales.

Money, Money, Money

An example for such incentives that drive a system's behavior is operation for profit in our economical system. It works stunningly well and has resulted in such a remarkable optimization of our lives that many people have come to believe in its infallibility for guiding us towards happiness, and - with quite an impressive twist of thought - have equated its activity with progress itself. However, though the correlation between economic growth and increasing well-being of a nation's citizens might hold for a long range of GDP, this is a correlation and not an equality. It's like your children's growth tells about their health, but what you really want is them to be healthy, and not continue growing eternally. This is what I refer to as the confusion of primary goals (here: health, happiness) with secondary criteria (here: growth/economic growth).

Besides this, it is also well known that operation for profit alone does not take into account many long-term and long-distance effects that a society might strive for. This is typically the cases when a development will not be initialized through individual action, either because the individual would put himself in a disadvantage by taking the action, or because she would put herself into an advantage when she was the only one not taking the action (also known as a "free ride").

Examples might be costly expenses for environmental protection (putting the company in a disadvantage with competitors who don't have these expenses), or everybody spending a tenner, so somebody can fix all these potholes (advantage of profiting from the improved pavement nevertheless if enough other people spends some bucks). This is also known as the collective action problem.

These goals are thus often achieved by changing the incentive structure through fees, taxes or simply legal restrictions. The point of balancing the economical system with a political one is that the latter gives us a way to include the pursuit of goals that would fail when only looked at from the individual point of view.

Must be funny

Money however is not the only immediate and local feedback that drives our societies. For a different kind of feedback, take the blogosphere. Here, the currency is attention. You trade it through links and comments, and count it in visits per day. Another sort of feedback are reviews at Amazon, PageRank or more generally every kind of rating. In many cases, these feedback cycles are related to money, but a priori they are goals by themselves.

However, we all have to live from something, and that something still has to be paid. Thus, whatever service it is you are asking for, somebody has to pay for it. The internet offers an astonishing amount of information - and it's free! Or is it? Well, the price you pay is that the web has gotten swamped with advertisements, because that's the only readily available way to get the money in (unless you belong to the lucky few that can survive on donations).

That wouldn't have to be the case, but currently that is where the incentives are. The more visitors you attract, the more you get in with ads, meaning the only criterion is how much people like what you put on the web. This is a feedback. It is immediate, and it results in a learning curve. This feedback however leads quite obviously towards populism. If that is your primary goal, then it works. Everything else... will be struggling.

In a rich man's world

Now, why do we see so much bad science journalism and so many over-hyped sensational stories? Because there is insufficient feedback that rewards quality. Quality is just simply not a criterion that is optimized for, and increasingly less so the more funding needs to come from advertisements and via high Google ranking. Here is an extract from an email that I received from a popular science magazine after I remarked some of their advertisements are of scientifically doubtful content:
“[R]emember that ads pay for the content, paper and mailing of magazines. I trust that our readership is bright enough to appreciate the fine work of Scientists and the value of Science to their world and can sift through and filter out advertising that they don't believe is of value [...] It's important to remember that advertising pays for the value of most of a magazine. Subscribers actually only cover a small part of the cost of any magazine.”

Not that this came as a surprise to me, still, it is somehow depressing to have it stated that clearly. There is a tension in this arrangement between the goal of the advertiser and that of the publisher. It takes effort to keep up a tension, and the tendency is towards an equilibrium where advertisements match the reader's interests, for example by dumbing the reader down.

The open access movement has a similar financing problem which is that giving free access to publications doesn't pay off. There is no source for funding of necessary staff and editors. Thus, the money has to come from elsewhere than from the readers.

The most widely used model is that the author pays a charge. Though I am all in favor of open access, this option is a huge mistake if you consider what it means for science in the long run: With traditional publishing you couldn't read a paper if you couldn't afford it. With author-pay you can't publish a paper if you can't afford it. What does the incentive structure look like then? Well, the news is that journals will be interested in having good contacts to affiliations that do financially well. Does that sound like a bias you want to have on the scientific publishing process? Just asking.

The other option is to be financed through advertisements, which suffers from the same problem as journalism that I mentioned above. The incentives don't go towards quality, but towards populism. That also isn't something I want to affect scientific publishing.

There is an obvious solution to the problem. If I mention this in the presence of Americans they stare at me in disbelieve, but it seems to me a logical conclusion from what I've told you above: Open access is a public service. Thus, it should be financed like a public service. That does not necessarily mean neither it needs to be governmentally funded, nor through taxation. There are other options.

One that I discussed with Stefan a while ago is to simply use the existing library committees with a funding that possibly could be much smaller than in the traditional system. Instead of buying subscriptions however, let them rate journals according to criteria of quality and importance and distribute grants according to this. It's a flexible system of evaluation and feedback and has at least a chance to work towards quality.

But really, who killed the blogosphere?

If you read Nicholas Carr's post (and don't miss the postscriptum), you will find that he is not so much bemoaning the death of the blogosphere, but more its commercialization:

“That vast, free-wheeling, and surprisingly intimate forum where individual writers shared their observations, thoughts, and arguments outside the bounds of the traditional media is gone. Almost all of the popular blogs today are commercial ventures with teams of writers, aggressive ad-sales operations, bloated sites, and strategies of self-linking.”
And is anybody really surprised by that? As he aptly remarks later “For the lion's share of bloggers, the rewards just aren't worth the effort.” The question is now once again what does the present system with its feedback driven by popularity optimize? Individuality? Hardly.

So who killed the blogosphere? Well, we killed it by omission. It's our choice to set up the systems we operate in such that they work towards what we want. Capitalism isn't the only choice, and its invisible hand is not infallible.
    “What will we do?
    What will we say?
    When it's the end of this game that we play?
    Will we crumble into the dust my friend?
    Or will we start this game over again?”


Where is the love? It's in your hands. And these hands aren't even invisible.

What if...

candleWe've been wondering what to do this year at advent time. Last year's “Plottl a Day” was great fun, but this year unfortunately neither Stefan nor I have much time. Thus, we thought this year we'd make it an interactive advent season and count on you to make it memorable!

We will suggest a one-line science fiction scenario every day, and hope you let your fantasy go wild :-)

Here is the first:

What if we could change the value of Planck's constant?

Also... we haven't yet quite 24 “What if's” together. So, if you have a scenario that you'd love to speculate about, leave it in the comments!