Sunday, January 30, 2011

Most courageous postdoc: Daniel Bedingham

Last year in September, the Foundational Questions Institute, FQXi, called for nominations for the "Most Courageous Postdoc Prize." The candidate should have demonstrated extraordinary passion for unraveling the secrets of the universe and big unsolved problems in FQXi's focus areas. The idea for this price came from my last year's mini-grant proposal.

An external panel of experts reviewed all the nominees... and the winner is: Daniel Bedingham.

The FQXi website features an interesting interview with Daniel, where you can learn more about his work and the path that lead him there. He is one of the very few physicists I know of who have left academia and returned.

Many congratulations to Daniel!

Friday, January 28, 2011

This and That

  • Katy Börner from the project "Places & Spaces: Mapping Science," who came with her poster exhibition to our 2008 conference on Science, Society and Information Technology, has written a book called "Atlas of Science: Visualizing what we know." I haven't read it, but there's a review in a recent issue of Nature which most of you probably can't access, and another review in Seed Magazine which will give you an impression of what the book is about. If you have an interest in visualizing data and/or the structure of scientific communities and the process of knowledge discovery, this might be interesting for you.

  • A PS to my post on Cosmic Strings that summarized a recent study on the gravitational wave emmission from Cosmic Superstrings' cusps. According to the study's results, the presence of extra dimensions would suppresses the signal, possibly too much to be observable. In a new paper, O'Callaghan and Gregory have now studied the signal from kinks, claiming that the suppression is not as pronounced as the one from cusps.

  • Some months ago, during one of my hospital stays, I received another inquiry seeking permission to use one of my figures for what I thought would be an illustration of some essay on gravitons. My reply was essentially "yeah, whatever," just in some more words. I now was sent a link to the result, a digital book, in French, called "Du LIVRE de Mallarmé au livre mal armé." The website is here, and you can download the ebook here. It looks to me like a collection of sciency philosophy essays. My figure appears in section "14.59°" - whatever that might mean. If your French is better than mine, please let me know in the comments what this compilation is all about!

  • Here's an article I filed in the category "Complete Bullshit:" Daniel Sarewitz in Slate claiming, in a nutshell, that it's a problem Republicans are represented among US scientists in a smaller percentage than among the US population: "No wonder the Republicans are suspicious of the science," he writes and goes on to make a case that "the scientific community should be willing to investigate and discuss the issue" because this situation is clearly politically incorrect. I had the intention to get upset about this article, but it's so completely bullshit it's not even worth the effort, so I just let you read it. Don't miss the comments.

  • Something to laugh: And the state of the union is... salmon!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Lara and Gloria are now 4 weeks old. They are gaining weight and are growing and keep us off from sleeping as you'd expect from 4 weeks olds. We've been swamped with congratulations and pink clothes, especially socks which we're using as gloves because the girls keep scratching their cheeks trying to maneuver fingers into direction mouth. We got two EUR 40 vouchers from the state, partly covering attendance of a parenting course which we decided to stay away from as far as possible. We certainly have no lack of advice, and we have meanwhile accumulated several stacks of books on the subject matter "Happy Baby," given to us by friends, relatives and neighbors. Maybe one of these books has advice on the question when to find time to read all these advice books, but till now they've been catching dust.

A month ago, neither Stefan nor I had ever changed a diaper. Meanwhile, we've gotten used to being peed at, spat at and burped at, and we can tell the babies apart by the way they cry. Besides that, in the 21st century becoming parents evidently means reading a lot of manuals. There's the stroller and the car seats and the carrier. There's the bottle warmer and the milk pump and the baby phone and the sterilizer. And then there's, oh my, the baby wrap. It comes with a 40 page manual and 100 or so different options to knot your baby to your front, back, hip, and maybe you can tie it to your head too, I never made it past page 3. After watching the instruction video, I figured the problem was I had forgotten to put that moronic grin on my face. Compared to that the babies seem quite simple at first sight. Stuff goes in one end and comes out the other. At closer look though, digestion is a terribly messy and complicated procedure.

The girls now have their own health insurance and their mommy too has, after more than 6 months fighting bureaucracy, a card from a German health insurance partnering with the Swedish Försäkringskassan. Lara and Gloria are properly registered as newborn German citizens which brings with it loads of forms with stamps and signatures, one of which will hopefully please the Swedish authorities when time comes.

And Stefan will be eternally grateful for me talking him into spending good money on a tumble dryer.

Monday, January 24, 2011


Secrecy was arguably one of the hottest topics in 2010. In 2011, Julian Assange will hopefully vanish from the headlines, but how to deal with privacy and freedom of information will remain a central question for modern societies. Assange's story captured public attention but he hasn't impressed by being a particularly deep thinker. He seems motivated in the first line by making himself important, justifying irresponsibility with ideology.

So, let's look at some of the things that have been said about secrecy and the freedom of information. (And if that's too much for you on a Monday, you can instead design a new hairstyle for Assange.) First, what are we talking about? Depending on context, secrecy is sometimes called privacy, but fundamentally it's both the same: the deliberate withholding of information. If not only information is withheld, but it is replaced with faulty information, we'd be dealing with lies. But that's another topic that shell be discussed another time.
"True information does good."
~Julian Assange

True information does not always do good, neither for the individual nor for the common good. Competition is an essential ingredient for innovation and progress in our societies, and competition is also essential for ecological and economical systems. But competition doesn't work well with leaking secrets, and even true information doesn't do good in the wrong hands.

Consider for example a company is doing a costly survey to better understand consumer interests, and then invests more money into developing a new product. If this information was shared with a competitor, the competitor would have the advantage without having made the investment. Thus, the company which made the effort would put themselves at a disadvantage by spending money on their studies. Here, the withholding of information is simply necessary for progress.

You can make a similar case for science. As discussed in this earlier post, if you invest time, effort, and money into designing and executing an experiment, you want to get something out of this investment: Be the first to analyze the data obtained, the first to potentially have a Heureka-moment, the one to maybe win a Nobel prize. If your 'true information' was publicly available from the moment you first saw it, what would be the incentive to do the experiment to begin with? What "good" would it do for science to prematurely share information?

Of course, competition isn't always necessary as incentive. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), this decade's mammoth project, is basically without competition. Instead, it rests on collaboration. The insights that can be won are sufficient incentive in that case. But the LHC is not your average experiment, and whether one likes it or not, competition is a relevant driver of innovation.
"[I]nformation that organizations are spending economic effort into concealing, that's a really good signal that when the information gets out, there's a hope of it doing some good."
~Julian Assange

The consequence might be that the organization just goes bankrupt. In general, it's somewhat inappropriate to call that "doing some good."

So much about Assange. Now let's look at somebody else's take on secrecy:
"If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."
~Google CEO Eric Schmidt

One of the most stupid remarks on privacy ever. There are many reasons people might not want to share some information with others. You might for example not want a prospective future employer to know about your health problems. You might not want your neighbors to know what you're doing on weekends, because you have zero interest in them chatting you up on your hobbies. You might not want your girlfriend to know you were arguing with your boss again, because she'll worry and get a headache and won't be in the mood tonight. Add your own favorite example. Human culture is complicated, humans don't always act rationally, and when to best share what information with whom is a context-dependent and non-trivial question. You don't want third parties to pass on information you'd rather have passed on yourself when time is right. Instead of doing good, it might just ruin your life.
"Information wants to be free."
~Stewart Brand

Often cited, this quotation as it stands doesn't make much sense. Information doesn't "want" to be free any more than muffins "want" to be eaten. To be fair however, this sentence makes more sense within the context:
"On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable [...] On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other."

And indeed, leaving aside the rhetorical trick of assigning a will to unanimated bits and strings rather than admitting it's us who want information this or that way, there's two factors working against each other here and the ideal solution is thus neither extreme. It's as easy as this: Extreme positions are almost always wrong. Free information isn't always beneficial and information doesn't always do good, much like secrecy isn't always justified.

I would argue that the benefit of a piece of information to be publicized depends on the time and the manner in which it is being made public, and the best time and way is case-dependent. So there's no easy solutions and no catchy one-liners as answers.

But let's try and turn things around.

The necessary amount of secrecy tells you something about your society. If your government has secret information about other nations, it's an indicator for mistrust. If you don't want your employer to know about your health problems, it's because you suspect his opinion on your qualification will be affected. If you don't publicize your data before you've analyzed it yourself it's because you think your efforts won't be sufficiently credited. If you don't want a company to raise data about your shopping behavior it's because you're afraid you'll be swamped with ads.

In all these cases the need for secrecy arises because our societies are imperfect. Maybe, in an fictional world where ideas are credited where credit is due, where we'll all work together rather than compete with each other, where physical and mental conditions are perfectly integrated and not of disadvantage, where people don't have biases and all trust each other, in such a world true information might do good and therefore we'd want it to be free. But we don't live in this world.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

How to improve the world? Quick! In 140 characters or less.

... or so one could paraphrase the Edge Question 2011: "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?" Here, a "concept" is meant to be "a single cognitive chunk which can be used as an element in thinking and debate." I'm surprised none of the replies was about the limited use of single cognitive chunks. Going through the list, I was imagining how this debate would go:

Alter: "Humans are blind to many of the processes that shape their mental lives."
Wolpoff: "Garbage in, garbage out."
Hillis: "Think beyond cause and effect!"
Rucker: "The world is unpredictable."
Oxman: "It ain't necessarily so."
Harris: "We are lost in thought."

That is to say, I didn't find the 2011 question too inspiring. Predictably, a lot of the replies target science education. If only people would understand better probabilities (Paulos), possibilities (Hillis), uncertainty (Krauss), rspt the uselessness of certainty (Rovelli) and, gosh, if just everybody could learn to deal better with the unknown (Llyod), realized that a claim is scientific only to the extent that it can be disproved (Gardner), understood the virtue of negative results (Kelly), and knew the scientific concept (Tegmark), science (Randall), risk (Lisi), the use of controlled experiments (Hannay) and replicability (Knutson).

My answer to the question would have been along the same lines: "Finishing the Scientific Revolution." In a nutshell, as I've argued before, we're close to reaching a point where progress of our societies will stall unless the scientific method is used for applications of the social sciences (sociology, politics, economics). The previous mode of operation, trial and error, only gets you so far. When questions become increasingly complex, and there's not enough time to learn from mistakes, and errors are too devastating, more caution than trying and erring is necessary. When it comes to the systems that govern our lives this means we carefully need to disentangle questions of value that are a matter of opinion, and scientific questions about the working of the system. (This also applies to the academic system as we've discussed many times on this blog.)

Among the more amusing replies to the Edge 2011 question, there's psychologist Nicholas Humphrey who makes a case for the multiverse because it implies immortality, architect Stefano Boeri who reminds us that it's all about sex ("In every room, in every house, in every street, in every city, movements, relations and spaces are also defined with regards to logics of attraction-repulsion between the sexuality of individuals."), and Richard Thaler who suggests to use the term "Aether" for "convenient fictions able to "explain" some otherwise ornery facts" and name people who do so "Aetherists."

Scanning through the list, I see that German expressions are still en vogue among the intellectuals. Some suggestions for your cognitive toolkit are Umwelt (lit: "the world around," aka environment or sourrounding), Gedankenexperiment, and the Einstellung Effekt ("Einstellung" translates into "attitude," "hiring," or "adjustment.")

My prize for the most creative reply goes to Eric Weinstein. He suggests the concept of "Kayfabe," describing "an altered reality of layered falsehoods in which absolutely nothing can be assumed to be as it appears" and "a world in which fakery may reliably crowd out the genuine." This concept, so Weinstein argues, would allow us to understand much better what's happening on this planet, including what's going on in quantum gravity research:
"The decades old battle in theoretical physics over bragging rights between the "string" and "loop" camps would seem to be an even more significant example within the hard sciences of a collaborative intra-promotion rivalry given the apparent failure of both groups to produce a quantum theory of gravity."

My favorite replies are Rushkoff's who reminds us that technologies have biases, and that we shouldn't accept them as given but shape them to suit our needs rather than shape us to suit their needs, and Anthony Aguirre's who suggests the concept of a paradox as a starting point for insight.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Is the universe fine-tuned for life?

You can say about Don Page's papers what you want, at least they are entertaining. The title of his most recent arXiv submission

pretty much tells you its content. Page argues that the fraction of baryons that condense gravitationally into structures large enough to allow for the development of life depends on the value of the cosmological constant in such a way that the fraction of baryons monotonically decreases for all positive values of the cosmological constant. Thus, Page concludes, the observed value of the cosmological constant is not optimal for the evolution of life - any smaller positive number would be better. He offers an estimate that in fact a small negative number would be the optimal value. Consequently, our universe is not fine-tuned for life.

Besides the relation between the cosmological constant and baryon condensation being more subtle than Page takes it to be, there are other reasons why this conclusion might not hold that Page also mentions in his discussion. It could be for example that there is an unknown constraint preventing an independent variation of the cosmological constant without also altering other constants. Or the fraction of baryons is not monotonically related to the probability of forming life. Though this relation seems plausible, it is an additional assumption.

Page's argument adds to previous studies indicating that life may be possible with other constants of nature, if several of them are changed simultaneously - a possibility that is often left out in the common arguments of the sort "if only [some constant] was a little bit smaller or larger, then [some disaster would happen]." Harnik, Kribs & Perez have for example suggested a model without weak interaction, the "weakless universe," that leaves chemistry and nuclear physics almost unchanged, such that evolution of life could still take place. (See "A Universe Without Weak Interactions," arXiv:hep-ph/0604027.)

So, is the universe fine-tuned for life? Probably not.

This might seem quite depressing for a scientist who sees his God's role becoming ever more constrained by modern research and wishes to let Him at least chose constants of Nature that are "just right" for our existence. Page however does not falter in his belief. Instead, he interprets his argument as support for the multiverse:
"It could be taken as negative evidence for theists who expect God to fine tune the constants of physics optimally for life. However, for other theists, such as myself, it may simply support the hypothesis that God might prefer a multiverse as the most elegant way to create life and the other purposes He has for His Creation."
I have nothing to say to this except "Amen."

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

This and That

  • In partnership with CERN, The LEGO Group, National Geographic and Scientific American, Google is introducing the first global online science competition: the Google Science Fair. It is open to students around the world who are between the ages of 13-18. More info at the Google Blog.

  • If you haven't yet played around with Google's Ngram Viewer, you've missed a great opportunity to waste time. Ngram allows you to search Google Books for words or expressions and display the results, normalized to the total number of books, as a function of the year. You find some great examples here. Also interesting is "absolute" vs "relative" ("relative" took off in 1900 but has dropped sharply since 1980, while "absolute" is constantly in fashion since 1800), "abortion" vs "adoption" ("adoption" is almost constant since 1900, while "abortion" rises in the mid 60s, but interestingly falls again since the mid 90s.), "love" vs "war" ("war" surpassed "love" around 1920 and peaks during the two world wars. Since then, it's been on the decline but still ahead of "love"), "God" vs "science" ("God" has on the average been decreasing since the early 18-hundreds, though it's slighly increasing again since 1980. Science has constantly been on the rise, but still hasn't caught up with "God"), and nobody wrote "hello world" before the first programming languages came up.

  • Have a look at our night sky in different wavelengths with the Chromoscope. See here for a video tour. [Thanks to Steven!]

  • Wiley's journal on Environmental Microbiology annually publishes some amusing referee's comments. Some examples: "This paper is desperate. Please reject it completely and then block the author’s email ID so they can’t use the online system in future.", "I started to review this but could not get much past the abstract.", "I agreed to review this Ms whilst answering e-mails in the golden glow of a balmy evening on the terrace of our holiday hotel on Lake Como. Back in the harsh light of reality in Belfast I realize that it’s just on the limit of my comfort zone and that it would probably have been better not to have volunteered." Makes me wonder if the prospect of one's comment getting published encourages referees to write such things?

  • Something to laugh about: The customer is not always right. [Thanks to Andreas!] Example:

      Bank employee: “And how would you like that $500?”
      Customer: “In one bill.”
      Bank employee: *trying to be nice* “Would five hundreds do?”
      Customer: “No! One bill!”
      (Employee gives her five hundreds, and she throws them back. Supervisor comes over.)
      Supervisor: “Problem?”
      Customer: “Yes, he refuses to give me what I want.”
      Supervisor: “There is no $500 bill.”
      Customer: “Yes there is!”
      Supervisor: “Not since the late 1800′s ma’am.”
      Customer: “I remember seeing it!”
      Supervisor: “Then might I say you look great for your age!”

Monday, January 10, 2011

Fun with the h-index

The h-index is a widely used measure for a scientist's scientific productivity and impact somewhat more sophisticated than just the number of publications. The h-index is the greatest positive integer number h, such that the scientist has h papers each of which has been cited at least h times. If you're wondering how relevant the h-index is in practice, I have no way of telling in general. I know however that I've been in committees where the h-index evidently was an interesting point of reference for some of its members, and I have also been asked a few times what my h-index is. (Before you ask, according to SPIRES my h-index is either 14 or 16, depending on whether you count all or only published papers.) The absolute number isn't of much importance in most cases, it matters instead how you compare to others in your particular field - as Einstein taught us, everything is relative ;-)

Next time somebody asks for my h-index, I'll refer them to this hilarious paper by Cyril Labbé from the Laboratoire d'Informatique de Grenoble at the Université Joseph Fourier:
    "Ike Antkare, One of the Great Stars in the Scientific Firmament"
    22th newsletter of the International Society for Scientometrics and Informatrics (June 2010)
    PDF here

Labbé has created a fictional author, Ike Antkare, and pimped Ike's h-index to 94. For this, Labbé created 102 "publications" using a software resembling a dada-generator for computer science called Scigen, and a net of self-citations. Labbé's paper contains an exact description of the procedure. His spoof works for tools that compute the h-index based on Google scholar's data; the best known is maybe Publish or Perish.

What lesson do we learn from that?

First, the Labbé's method works mainly because he uses the h-index computed with a quite unreliable database, Google scholar, to which it is comparably easy to add "fake" papers. While for example the arXiv database also contains unpublished papers, it does have some amount of moderation which I doubt 102 dada-generated papers by the same author would get past. In addition, SPIRES offers the h-index for published papers only. (Considering however that I know more and more people - all tenured of course - who don't bother with journals, restricting to published papers only might in some cases give a very misleading result.)

Second, and maybe more importantly, I doubt that any committee that were faced with Ike's amazing h-index would be fooled, since it only takes a brief look at his publications to set the record straight.

Nevertheless, Labbé's paper is a warning to not use automatically generated measures for scientific success without giving the so obtained results a look. Since the use of metrics in science for evaluation of departments and universities is becoming more and more common, it's an important message indeed, and an excellent example for how secondary criteria (high h-index) deviate from primary goals (good research).

For more on science metrics, see my most Science Metrics and Against Measure. For more on the dynamics of optimization in the academic system, and the mismatch between primary goals and secondary criteria, see The Marketplace of Ideas and We have only ourselves to judge each other.

Thanks to Christine for drawing my attention to this study.