Friday, March 30, 2012

Sweet Home Academia, Down Under

A recurrent theme on this blog is the danger of attempting to measure scientific success by an oversimplified scale, and then forcing researchers to excel according to this scale. The risk is that a simplified measure, even if it was originally correlated with scientific success, becomes a goal on its own right, setting incentives for researchers to waste time on tactics that hinder progress.

A typical example of such a measure is the number of publications. Anybody who works in research knows that the number of papers produced is a bad predictor for the quality of research a scientist does. Not only is the frequency of publications strongly dependent on the research area, it also depends on the personal style, as well as on the number of collaborators and students. Some people write a long paper every couple of years because they want to have everything in place. Others write a paper about every small step. Yet others again are authors of papers they didn't even read.

You'd think this is so obvious that nobody can plausibly try to measure scientific success by counting publications. Then read the folling, via Nature News Blog:
One hundred academics at the University of Sydney, Australia, have this week been told they will lose their jobs for not publishing frequently enough. The move is part of wider cost-cutting plans designed to pay for new buildings and refurbishment to the university.

Letters were posted to researchers on Monday, 20 February, informing them their positions were being terminated because they hadn’t published at least four “research outputs” over the past three years, Michael Thomson, branch president of the Australian National Tertiary Education Union, told Nature.

Read the full article here.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Reflections on the paywall

It's been a year since the New York Times set up a paywall that restricts access to their online content. 20 items per month are free, multimedia and blogposts do count to the 20 items. I do have some NYT feeds in my reader, but I'm not a very committed reader. I'm not even committed enough to bother figuring out how to circumvent the limit.

The NYT paywall did however have a noticeable effect on me. Whenever I saw a title in my feed that looked potentially interesting, I asked myself "Would I pay for this?" The answer was almost always "No." Since I more or less unconsciously carried over this thought to my other feeds, this has dramatically slimmed down the time I need to get through the unread items, because I no longer click on everything that looks kinda interesting. I am very grateful to the NYT for that education, and I'm sure my daughters are too. I'm not so sure that was the desired effect.

During the last year, I ran into the NYT paywall once. It was the 31st of the month, and it happened because I didn't know that they do count blogposts to the 20 free items.

The Globe and Mail reports that the NYT paywall successfully boosted the number of subscriptions. The NYT just announced that by next month they'll cut the number of free articles to ten. I'm wondering now if it makes sense to just remove them from my reader completely.

I dislike the NYT paywall not because they're trying to make money, but because they expect the reader to pay before they know what they get. I would vastly prefer a system in which I can click a button at the end of an article and put a few dollars in the writer's pocket. I know that there are tools for that already. It is puzzling to me why newspapers aren't using it.

I would prefer this for two reasons. First, I do value high quality written information very much. If I read a good article online that gives me something to think about, I'd be willing to pay for it. But then I want the money to go to the writer of the article I liked. Second, if I buy a book, I'll read some reviews and the blurb and open it and make up my mind. You can't do that with short reads. I find it virtually impossible to tell whether an article is worth reading from its title and/or its first 2 sentences. It's like you'd try to figure out if a song is worth downloading from a 1 second snippet. (I don't even buy songs based on the 30 second snippets. 30 seconds do however work just fine to recognize a song heard elsewhere.)

Part of the reason the NYT took this step might be the realization that financing web content by advertisement is not a good arrangement. Not only doesn't it bring in enough money, it also annoys the reader and creates an incentive for increasing traffic, not for increasing quality. Advertisements also carry hidden costs for the consumers. One might get the article free, but then one pays for the advertisement because the price of the product that is being advertised goes up.

I am basically blind to advertisements. Stefan and I, we once were in Frankfurt downtown by car, stopped first in line at a red light. We stood there for a minute or two, and when the traffic moved on Stefan asked what I thought of the advertisement. "Which advertisement?" I said. "The 30 feet high advertisement on the building you've been starting at for 2 minutes?" I hadn't seen it. (I saw it later. It featured a very photoshopped woman in a very tiny bikini. I forgot what they were trying to sell.) Making use of the principle of mediocrity, I would guess that most people share my selective blindness.

That having been said, while my brain does a good job filtering out adverts, I am annoyed by ads because it's ugliness that doesn't serve any purpose. If I need product information I'll look for it. Plastering the planet with advertisements is so yesterday. It's a relic from the times when you needed advertisements to make people aware of your shop, your service, your product. Now my phone delivers all the information I want exactly when I need it.

So to me it's clear that financing web content by advertisements has limits, and we reached them years ago. I understand the economical impossibility of providing content for free, which opens the question how to do it best. The NYT paywall doesn't make sense to me. Why for example is content free if you are directed there by a blog? It's the person recommending your content that is primarily expected to pay for it?

Jaron Lanier in his book "You are not a gadget" argues for micropayments. As long as I can chose what I find worth paying for, I am in favor of that. There's an interesting thread on that... at the NYT blogs.

Do you read the NYT? If so, what has been your experience with the paywall?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Book Review: "Reinventing Discovery" by Michael Nielsen

Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science
By Michael Nielsen
Princeton University Press (October 3, 2011)

Michael Nielsen is one of the founders of the field of quantum information and among the pioneers of quantum computation. I had some overlap with him at Perimeter Institute, where we organized a conference together. Michael resigned from his tenured faculty position in 2008 to dedicate his time to the future of science, to studying how it will work best in the era of rapid information exchange, high connectivity, and large capacity for data storage and handling. His book "Reinventing Discovery" is a careful argument, as much as a vision and a manifest.

For his book, Michael has collected a large number of examples how the new software and hardware is changing the way we do science, and the way scientists interact with each other and the public. He has probably looked at and studied many more examples than he wrote about. He has sorted these examples into tools that amplify collective intelligence by creating an "architecture of attention" for a community of practice and tools that integrate science into our societies, like open access, citizen science, and the generally improved exchange between scientists and the public. In each case, he has analyzed successes and failures, and draws conclusions from it, pointing out shortcomings and risks, and making suggestions for improvement.

It is impossible not to see the academic shine through the lines of the book. This isn't your typical popular science book, it's original research by a smart and dedicated scientist who spent a lot of time studying the facts and thinking about them. Michael's main point is that new tools allow us to use our knowledge much more efficiently, thus tapping upon a presently unused potential, and that this is a quiet revolution
"It's a slow revolution that has quietly been gathering steam for years. Indeed, it's a change that many scientists have missed or underestimated, being so focused on their own speciality that they don't appreciate just how broad-ranging the impact of new online-tools is."

Collective intelligence, Michael argues, works by bringing together many people's "microexpertise," that is a specialized knowledge in a specific area. New software can tell them when their microexpertise is needed and where and how they can add their contribution. To that end, it is preferable if problems are brought into a modular structure, so that parts can be tackled independently. Suitable tools, some of which already exist, then allow scientists to scale up collaborations, helping them solve problems much faster, wasting less time and effort. These are exciting developments for every scientist that promise to make scientific research smoother, faster and less frustrating.

Michael also covers many amazing examples of citizen science that are redefining the way science is integrated into our societies, which he believes taps on a large but still mostly unused potential:
"Cynics will say that most people aren't smart enough or interested enough to make a contribution to science. I believe that projects such as Galaxy Zoo and Foldit show those cynics are wrong. Most people are plenty smart enough to make a contribution to science, and many of them are interested. All that's lacking are tools that helo connect them to the scientific community in ways that let them make that contribution. Today, we can build those tools."

In his book, Michael doesn't merely summarize how online tools have changed science, but he also lays out a vision for the future, making a compelling case for just how big a different these developments can make. In the last chapters he addresses concerns and finally obstacles on the way to make his vision come true, most notably the collective action problem: Scientists have in the present system little incentives to contribute to open science or to share and discuss their ideas openly. Michael seems to find a top down approach (guidelines by founding agencies) to be most promising, but also has suggestions for little pragmatic steps that everybody individually, scientist or not, can take.

Michael's argument is so convincing indeed that I almost forgot my own reservations about open science. Good thing I write a blog. I agree with Michael on almost all points. Science is undergoing a dramatic change right now, and new software opens up new possibilities that have the potential to lead to a sudden and large knowledge gain, both for scientists as well as for the general public. My biggest concern is that too much exchange can actually be harmful to creativity and originality. To Michael's credit, he briefly addresses this point, saying that it's "serious but not insurmountable." Basically, he says, software needs to be smart so scientists can filter the information they receive. In principle that's true. But my concern is addressed by this as much as obesity is addressed by saying people can just buy less food.

That having been said, my point is essentially that the creation of any tool that is supposed to improve science should be informed by sociologists and psychologists likewise, and be continuously monitored in its effects, in a process that should be integrated into the system. We have a lot to lose. There are several other points in Michael's book that I don't entirely agree with; they might make fodder for more blogposts.

In any case, though I don't agree with Michael on everything, it is a brilliant book. Despite the many examples, it is reads well. With 200 pages, it's neither too long nor to short, and it has an extensive list of references. If you are interested in open science, Michael Nielsen's book is mandatory literature for you. If not, even more so! You should read this book if you're a scientist in the 21st century, or if you want to know how science in the 21st century works, or if you want to know why this is a relevant question to begin with. In short, you all should read Michael's book because he's right: We're on and about to reinvent discovery. And that reinvention will decide whether or not we'll be able to manage the problems that the future will bring.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

What can science do for you?

When I read Dawkin's "God Delusion" some years ago, I had very mixed feelings. On the one hand, I think he has a good point that monotheistic religious beliefs are well explained by neurological, psychological and social factors playing together.

On the neurological side, because it has proven to be a useful survival strategy, the human brain is constantly trying to make sense of the world. God is a convenient and simple explanation for all and everything and probably a side-effect of the sense-making attempts when other explanations are difficult to come by.

On the psychological side, religions address our fear of death and tell us that life is fair after all, the bad guys will be punished - post mortem. They help us to find meaning in the carelessness of the cosmos.

On the social side, small children are likely to believe what elders tell them; indoctrination at young age is highly efficient and hard to overcome later. We all want to fit in.

I learned an interesting new aspect at the latest FQXi meeting from David Eagleman, though he didn't draw a connection to religious thinking. Most mentally healthy people lead internal monologues. It's an input-output cycle that circumvents the external part of the loop (in which you actually speak and hear your voice). Eagleman spoke about his hypothesis according to which a failure of the brain to correctly time the inner monologue would have you think you "heard" your inner voice before you formulated it yourself, creating the illusion that you are hearing voices.

Evidence for the neurological roots of religious believes is mounting, see eg Kapogiannis, D., et al. "Cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief" or this earlier post. Or, if that's too many words, here's a fluff talk about funny things people believe by Michael Shermer

So, I'm with Dawkins on the origin of religious beliefs.

On the other hand I think religions serve a need of our societies, and the big churches have learned to serve it well. They provide a community for their followers, no entry exam required, and they offer help and advice. They have beautiful architecture and music. This used to be my favorite church song:

It's a variant of Gloria in excelsis deo. So what, really, does science have to offer in comparison?

I think that the biggest problem that science in the 21st century faces is to convince religious people that it has something to offer to them; that scientific thinking brings a value added to their life. Unfortunately, scientists, me included, are not good in sharing this value. Most of us, that is. Carl Sagan did a pretty good job. Neil deGrasse Tyson does too.

When the piano music set in, I felt like puking, and I hate Symphony of Science with a passion. But Tyson's speech has been viewed more than 2 million times, and Symphony of Science is wildly popular, so clearly it speaks to people. And the reason is simple: They're awe-inspiring.

These are both brilliant examples that document so nicely what science can do for you: It tells you what is your place in the universe. It explains how the universe works and how you're part of its working. That's more than any monotheistic religions can offer. In fact, the whole purpose of these religions is to get you to stop asking, to stop thinking.

Shawn Otto has written a book about the US American right's war on science, called "Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America." I haven't read the book and have no intention to but there's an interesting interview with Otto on Daily Kos. Otto makes a case there that
"When one side of the debate is based on knowledge and the other is based on mere belief or opinion, it’s really a battle over freedom versus authoritarianism...

I understand the argument he's trying to lead, but I think it's not going to be successful. This isn't a battle about freedom, it's a battle about happiness. For Otto's argument to work, he'd have to show that a science-based democracy will contribute the most to the societies' well-being. Now, I believe this is indeed the case, but the problem is that Otto can't base his argument on beliefs, otherwise it'll turn upside down. And to my best knowledge there's no scientific proof that democracy and science make people more happy than, say, monarchy and religion. So, in the end we're left with opinions which is why I doubt this will lead anywhere, especially since the "anti-scientific" side isn't burdened by sticking to scientific arguments.

Thus, I think the awe-inspiring approach is much more promising. Chances are, in the course of time, scientific-themed music will become more common (and less sickening). Bjök's Biophilia is maybe a beginning - though that's arguably not everybody's petridish. What science is still lacking though is a broad sense of community that includes the non-professional public. If I had an institute, I'd have a weekly public event, every Sunday morning at 11, open for everybody. We'd summarize this weeks awesome news, see the most amazing images and videos, and talk about a topic that gives everyone something to think about. On occasion, we'd have a guest speaker. After that, we'd all have a brunch and people could stay and talk and make suggestions for the next week.

I think we have a long way to go to convince people that science is more than a collection of numbers and figures, but a way to understand the world and our place in it. But we're well on the way.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

University dropout rates by field

The German "Bildungsbericht 2010" (report on education), has a table on the dropout rates by field that I thought would be of interest for some of you. The table is from this PDF, page 297. These are the dropout rates in percent at German universities, I've ordered them by decreasing percentage.

Physics, Geoscience 36
Mechanical engineering 34
Electrical engineering 33
Linguistic and Cultural science 32
Computer science 32
Mathematics 31
Chemistry 31
Economics 27
Science of education, sport 20
Architecture 16
Biology 15
Geography 15
Art 12
Social sciences 10
Law 9
Agriculture, forestry and nutrition science 7
Pharmacy 6
Human medicine 5
Dental and veterinary medicine 3

The data is for the year of 2006, it is averaged over several years in which the students might have started and includes only German students.

I was surprised that the rate in mathematics is not higher. Sitting in a classroom that was a little emptier every week, it certainly seemed higher to me (in 1995). Though my estimate would have included those who had taken mathematics as a minor field of study, so the rate was probably indeed higher. I have no idea what's wrong with linguistic. And I would have expected the dropout rate in medicine to be vastly higher.

For some fields there is data for men and women separately. In almost all cases where there is data, the dropout rate among women is lower than among men. The one exception is medicine, where women drop out in a higher fraction.

It would be interesting to compare these rates to countries in which there are tuition fees to see if it makes a large difference in commitment. If somebody has a reference, please let me know in the comments.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Workshop on Nonlocality, June 27-29

I am presently organizing a workshop at NORDITA, Stockholm, on "Nonlocality: Aspects and Consequences." This meeting will take place June 27-29, briefly before this year's Marcel Grossmann meeting which is also in Stockholm.

The workshop on nonlocality is 3 days only, and we have about 20 participants already, so no more place for speakers. However, if you are planning on attending MG13 and are interested in the topic, you are welcome to attend. We can accommodate up to 35 people. If you are interested in attending, please fill out this registration form. And please forgive me for the website. I thought we don't need one but learned the meeting has to be listed in what appears on my browser like the world's most crappy looking conference listing. Credits for the logo go to Hans Mühlen, von und zu.

I am organizing this workshop together with Fotini Markopoulou. It is sponsored in almost equal parts by NORDITA and FQXi. I am really excited about this meeting because it's a topic that has been on my mind for a while, and I believe it has a large potential to move forward both the phenomenology as well as the theory of quantum gravity. Finally, here's the blurb, a true masterpiece of vagueness that is to say we'll figure out what we do if we know who'll be there:
"The workshop focuses on non-locality in quantum foundations, quantum information, and quantum gravity, including string theory and emergent gravity. The aim of the workshop is to bring together researchers working on various aspects of non-locality, to identify commonalities as well as differences in the role non-locality plays in different approaches to a fundamental description of space, time and matter."

Monday, March 12, 2012

Thinking the Unthinkable

Cassandra is a tragic figure in Greek mythology. A woman of extraordinary beauty and intelligence, Cassandra attracted the attention of Apollo, god of light and the sun. He granted her the gift to see the future, but when she didn't return his love, Apollo cursed her so that nobody would believe her prophecies. This left poor Cassandra not only with the knowledge of things to come yet unable to prevent them -- she warned the Trojans about the Trojan Horse to no avail -- it also had people think she was insane.

Cassandra's conundrum is one that was on my mind four years ago when I was at Sci Foo, sitting in a discussion lead by Nick Bostrom and Martin Rees on "Existential Risks and Global Catastrophes." I wrote back then "the session was utterly pointless and I wish I had gone elsewhere." Bostrom's presentation was a rundown of risk estimates for certain catastrophe scenarios. Neither was the audience at least given a hint where these numbers came from, nor was there even an attempt to address these concerns.

Nick Bostrom is director of the Future of Humanity Institute, which has a nice website and research staff that except for him and a research fellow seems to consist of associates. Bostrom is best known for putting forward the "Simulation Hypothesis," that is the idea that we are living in a computer simulation. It is unfortunate that the extinction risk of somebody pulling the plug out of the simulation that we wrongly believe is reality has gotten mixed up with more conservative concerns like pandemics, nuclear terrorism or nanotech weapons. The PDF with the risk assessments from 2008 is on the website too, if you have a look you'll understand why I didn't find it particularly insightful.

At a conversation on last year's FQXi conference the simulation hypothesis came up, mixed with Jaan Tallinn's worry that artificial intelligence, once created, might decide humans are too dumb to be kept around. What are we supposed to do to prevent The Simulator from pulling the plug, I wondered out aloud, and Max Tegmark said above all things we should be interesting. And there, right in this instant, all of Tegmark's papers suddenly made sense to me. Though, as Anthony Aguirre remarked, the guy made it all through the Pleistocene, so how difficult can it be?

Leaving aside the question why it's a guy coding our earthly miseries, it is terribly easy to make fun of Tallinn and Bostrom's existential worries. It doesn't even help that Nick Bostrom, what I recall of his presentation, is a very serious person indeed. I doubt I would be able to talk for half an hour about the risk of human extinction without making a series of jokes. But then, Bostom's job is being serious about it.

I guess that most people prefer not to think too much about the extinction of the human race. Yet somebody has to do it. So, despite the ridicule, we should be grateful Bostrom is doing the job of putting numbers on the facts that we know of, even if nobody wants to hear them. The above mentioned risk assessment comes to the conclusion that the
"Overall risk of extinction prior to 2100 is 19%"

which isn't exactly going to make a good anecdote at your next dinner party.

So in 2100, we're either all dead or we're not, but then you already knew that. The only purpose I can see of putting a number on the extinction risk is to find a way to keep it down. But then the question becomes more involved than it seems at first sight: We have to ask then what to we want to achieve, and what's the rationale for that? For bringing down the risk will come at a price, and the mere fact that Bostrom's cassandraing isn't having much of an impact tells us that the price is too high to pay for most of us.

The Atlantic recently had an interview with Bostrom which touches this point that I found so missing in the 2008 discussion:
"[S]uppose you have a moral view that counts future people as being worth as much as present people. You might say that fundamentally it doesn't matter whether someone exists at the current time or at some future time, just as many people think that from a fundamental moral point of view, it doesn't matter where somebody is spatially---somebody isn't automatically worth less because you move them to the moon or to Africa or something. A human life is a human life. If you have that moral point of view that future generations matter in proportion to their population numbers, then you get this very stark implication that existential risk mitigation has a much higher utility than pretty much anything else that you could do."

That is one part of the question, how do you value or devalue the future. But a more important part is what do you want to optimize to begin with. Bostom's mission is apparently to maximize the number of humans that will have lived before the heat death of the universe:
"Well, you might think that an extinction occurring at the time of the heat death of the universe would be in some sense mature. There might be fundamental physical limits to how long information processing can continue in this universe of ours, and if we reached that level there would be extinction, but it would be the best possible scenario that could have been achieved. I wouldn't count that as an existential catastrophe, rather it would be a kind of success scenario. So it's not necessary to survive infinitely long, which after all might be physically impossible, in order to have successfully avoided existential risk."

I don't really know what to make of Bostrom's tendency to answer questions with "Well, you might think" rather than "I think" but apparently his idea of success is to reproduce plentifully before Game Over. But why should we live according to what Nick Bostrom might think? Maybe I would prefer blowing up the planet when we're out of oil and all dying together. Who decided that Nick Bostrom must be pleased about mankind?

The underlying issue is intricate because we can't just count heads, we also have to take into account quality of life and the multitude of people's opinions of what constitutes good life.

And that brings us to the question how to measure and aggregate quality of life, and how to weigh a reduction in quality of life today against an increase in quality of life in the future, which opens a whole can of moral and political worms crawling all over the place. There is presently no good answer to this question, except of course my answer, which is is that we shouldn't attempt to measure and aggregate happiness but instead possibilities.

I therefore think that the main challenge we are facing is not to quantify existential risks, but how to integrate scientific insights - these and others - into our social and political systems.

But while I believe that thinking about existential risks is not our main challenge I am very sympathetic to Bostrom's mission. I believe he is right in that the rapid technological progress that we have seen in the last decades poses unprecedented risks that we should take very seriously. Somebody has to be the one to say what nobody wants to hear.

If Cassandra had not been cursed and been able to warn the Trojans, she would have spoiled her own prophecy; it was only her being cursed that enabled her to make good predictions. Let's hope that Bostrom is on good grounds with Apollo.

Friday, March 09, 2012

European Research Council refuses to require anything but excellence in research

I have written many times about the relevance of basic research, and how important it is to not impose any artificial measures for success on scientists. If scientists are forced to justify their research by economic impact, not only do they have to waste time with a justification they're not educated for, it also inevitably creates short-term thinking and cuts off exactly those unforeseeable and unplannable breakthroughs we are hoping for.

Now the following awesome piece of news appeared in my feed: the Times Higher Education reports that Helga Nowotny, president of the European Research Council, spoke at a conference in Brussels last week marking the fifth anniversary of the ERC's creation. She said in her address that the ERC, contrary to many national funding bodies, will not adopt an impact agenda, and will not require applicants to quantify their potential research outcome in terms that would please economists or politicians.

Nowtony acknowledged the tension between the need to take risks to make headway in fundamental research, and the - understandable - aversion to risk of policymakers and their "demands... for practical innovation, seen as the undisputed motor of...economic growth". But she stood by her principles:

"One answer is to target resources... to look to strategic sectors, to put science to work on the most pressing problems. It all looks so easy, so obvious. But frontier science does not work like this. We cannot programme scientific breakthroughs or order them from a menu... We can't foresee the consequences of what we discover."

It is noteworthy that Nowotny is an emeritus professor of the social studies of science at ETH Zürich. I am very sure that her opinion is backed up by science rather than based on personal belief.

She said it so well, the only thing I can add is "Bravo!"

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Book review: "Quiet" by Susan Cain

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking
Susan Cain
Crown (2012)

People who got to know my from my blog are usually surprised when they meet me in person.

I like to write, but I am not very talkative. I try to avoid group activities. I don't like to draw attention to myself, and I don't like crowds. I'm noise-sensitive. I prefer reading over parties, and if you find me at a party, I'm the one in the corner watching the others. My school memory contains a long series of teachers telling me to speak up more often. My Myers Briggs type is INTJ, with 100% on the introvert scale.

I am, in short, the sort of person that Susan Cain's book is about. So how could I not read it.

Susan Cain, a self-confessed introvert herself, has collected results of scientific studies on introversion and extroversion, from neurology, psychology and sociology. As it has recently been the case with many personality traits, evidence is building up that they are to some extend genetic, but the strength of expression also depends on environmental influences. This also means that while we can't change our genetic predisposition, we have some flexibility to deal with it.

Cain writes studies show that one third to one half (depending on the study) of all adults in North America are introverts, yet the American culture has glorified the extrovert ideal. That is, so Cain argues, a disadvantage not only for the introverts, many of whom end up pretending to be something they're not, but also for society as a whole because we're not making good use of many skilled people. Cain discusses studies that have shown that in the right circumstances, thinking brings better results alone than in groups, and that some leadership roles call for extroverts, and some for introverts. Extroverts do better, it turns out, when motivating others is relevant. Introverts do better when listening is important.
"[E]xtrovert leaders enhance group performance when employees are passive, but... introvert leaders are more effective with proactive employees."

She covers a lot of ground in her book, and draws upon many examples, Rosa Parks, Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt and Moses, just to mention a few.
"We don't ask why God chose as his prophet [Moses,] a stutterer with a public speaking phobia. But we should. The book of Exodus is short on explication, but its stories suggest that introversion plays the yin to the yang of extroversion."

In her book, Cain discusses for example evidence from Jerome Kagan's research that shows introversion is linked to a physiological trait called "high reactivity." I used to say I have an input filter problem. Amazingly enough, it turns out that's pretty much exactly what Kagan's research, and the research of those who have followed up on his original intuition, has shown. "High reactivity" is a higher activity in a brain region called the amygdala when confronted with something new. Infants who show high reactivity are more likely to grow up to be introverted adults; they need less stimulation than extroverts.

Later in the book, Cain also discusses another trait called "reward sensitivity," basically how active the brain's reward circuit is, and how much attention we thus pay to prospects of rewards:
"[E]xtroverts seem to be more susceptible than introverts to the reward-seeking cravings of the [limbic system of the brain]. In fact, some scientists are starting to explore the idea that reward-sensitivity is not only an interesting feature of extroversion; it is what makes an extrovert an extrovert. Extroverts, in other words, are characterized by their tendency to seek rewards."

Cains book is very carefully written. She points out repeatedly that no two people are alike and the reader might not feel well classified in all terms she discusses. Introversion is for example correlated with agreeableness and conflict aversion. As you might have guessed, I'm not a very agreeable person ;o) Cain also explains that it's not uncommon for people to "act out of character" if the situation calls for it, but too much of it can lead to a burnout. Professor Brian Little calls it the "Free Trait Theory":
"Introverts are capable of acting like extroverts for the sake of work they consider important, people they love, or anything they value highly."

That would be me organizing a conference.

Cain's argument is also very balanced. Her perspective is that there's not one best way of doing things, but that introverts and extroverts both bring different strengths that we are not all presently supporting and using very well. She seems to have taken particular offense in teachers using group tables, something I too recall very well from my schooldays. She argues for seeking a better way to do things, based on recent insights about how differently people's brains work
"We should actively seek out symbiotic introvert-extrovert relationships, in which leadership and other tasks are divided according to people's natural strengths and temperaments. The most effective teams are composed of a healthy mix of introverts and extroverts, studies show, and so are many leadership structures."

Cain is also careful to point out that extroversion and introversion are partly cultural, and she discusses to some extend the tension of Asian-Americans. She doesn't go into the cultural aspects very much though. I guess it's not very well understood.

The book is well referenced, she does mention if a research result is still under discussion or maybe even controversial. She doesn't merely report, but also brings in her own opinion. The book is flawlessly written. For the first two of three parts I found it to be the best non-fiction book I've read lately. It taught me a lot of things I hadn't previously known, without drowning me in irrelevant details. Then I came to the last part of the book.

The last part of the book gives the reader advice how to manage their personal lives and relationships. It's about the couples Greg and Emily, and John and Jennifer. It's about Joyce and her daughter Isabel, and about Sarah and her daughter Ava. I would have much preferred Susan Cain's book without the self-help part. Not only because I'm happily married to another introvert and wasn't looking for advice, but because for 200 pages I was thinking to send a copy of her book to some of my extrovert friends, just so they understand. Now I'd risk they think I'm suggesting they need help with their marriage or parenting.

In summary: If you are, as I, following research in neurology and psychology only peripherally, Susan Cain's book is likely to teach you something about yourself, and your friends and relatives. It is a well written, well researched, and well argued book that studies both the powers and weaknesses of introversion and extroversion, and addresses the question how much of these personality traits are nature and how much nurture. I would recommend this book to everybody who has ever felt they have trouble understanding others or themselves.

You can read an excerpt of Susan Cain's book here, and you can watch her TED talk here.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

The Edge annual question 2012

With somewhat of a delay, here is my annual summary of the Edge annual question. In 2012 the smart people were asked

As every year half of the respondents used the opportunity to promote their own research. This year they may be forgiven, for they were likely drawn to their research because they found it elegant or beautiful. A notable exception is experimental psychologist Bruce Hood who nominated Fourier's theorem because "psychology ... is rarely elegant."

Some of his colleagues see this differently though. David M. Buss, for example thinks "Sexual Conflict Theory" is an elegant explanation for what he is concerned: "Men are known to feign long-term commitment, interest, or emotional involvement for the goal of casual sex, interfering with women's long-term mating strategy," he writes. He'd better learn string theory to explain everything.

Psychologist Mahzarin Banaji offers "Bounded Rationality," the insight that human beings are not "smart enough [to behave] in line with basic axioms of rationality." The inexistant rational person would say if the subject of your study doesn't behave as your axioms say, you should conclude that you've used the wrong axioms. More replies from the psychological side are that of Emily Pronin, who finds it beautiful that "Human beings are motivated to see themselves in a positive light," and that of Joel Gold who likes Freud's elegant discovery of the unconscious.

Nathan Myhrvold explains that the scientific method "it is the ultimate foundation for anything worthy of the name "explanation,"" and is, surprisingly, the only one to name the scientific method. The double helix and natural selection, as one could expect, appear various times.

Needless to say, the physicists had a large selection of answers to choose from. As Leonard Susskind wrote in his reply "That's a tough question for a theoretical physicist; theoretical physics is all about deep, elegant, beautiful explanations; and there are just so many to choose from." He chose to nominate Boltzmann's explanation of the second law of thermodynamics because his "favorites are explanations that that get a lot for a little." A good choice.

Anton Zeilinger names Einstein's 1905 proposal that light consists of energy quanta, Raphael Bousso on similar reasoning goes for quantum theory, and Satyajit Das for Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.

Steve Giddings and Roger Highfield nominate Einstein's insight that gravity is curvature of spacetime, Lee Smolin's favorite elegant explanation is the principle of inertia, and Sean Carroll, close by, names the universality of gravity. Stephon H. Alexander, always unpredictable, goes for particle creation in time dependent gravitational fields. (Which, incidentally, was the topic of my master's thesis.)

Lawrence M. Krauss goes for electromagnetism, Eric Weinstein favors the deep insight that quantum theory is "actually a natural and elegant self-assembling body of pure geometry that ha[s] fallen into an abysmal state of pedagogy putting it beyond mathematical recognition," Timo Hannay's favorite is QED, Laurence C. Smith goes for continuity equations, Lisa Randall nominates the Higgs mechanism, and Garrett Lisi names a theory of everything that does not yet exist - who knows what might have been on his mind.

Marcelo Gleiser and Bruce Parker nominate atomism. Gregory Benford and Peter Woit reasonably find beauty in the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics, and Shing-tung Yau, (Co-author of The Shape of Inner Space) keeps it simple and elegant with "A Sphere."

Max Tegmark is as always entertaining:
"My favorite deep explanation is that our baby universe grew like a baby human — literally. Right after your conception, each of your cells doubled roughly daily, causing your total number of cells to increase day by day as 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, etc. Repeated doubling is a powerful process, so your Mom would have been in trouble if you'd kept doubling your weight every day until you were born... Crazy as it sounds, this is exactly what our baby universe did according to the inflation theory pioneered by Alan Guth and others..."
The reason to capitalize Mom is that it stands for God in this creation myth. And I guess the navel of the universe lies at MIT.

Jeremy Bernstein, interestingly enough, names the Planck scale as a limit to measurement of time (and space I want to add), which we recently discussed here. Bernstein however credits this insight to Freeman Dyson.

Freeman Dyson himself thinks it is elegant that general relativity remains unquantized and, repeating earlier statements of his, he "propose[s] as a hypothesis... that single gravitons may be unobservable by any conceivable apparatus." I very much like his reply, because I keep using a fairly old quote from Dyson on my slides to enter into an explanation why the detection of gravitons isn't equivalent to evidence for quantum gravity. So now I can use a newer quotation.

Frank Wilczek offers a very good answer: Simplicity, which he thinks of as the length of an algorithm: "Description length is actually a measure of complexity, but for our purposes that's just as good, since we can define simplicity as the opposite—or, numerically, the negative—of complexity." I like his answer because it touches on the question what we actually mean with elegance.

This underlying big question mark is raised also by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: "Where do we get the idea — a fantastic idea if you stop and think about it — that the beauty of an explanation has anything to do with the likelihood of its being true?" An excellent point that we explored in my post "Is Physics cognitively biased?"

On that note, Frank Tipler favors parallel universes, Andrei Linde thinks "the inflationary multiverse" is a beautiful explanation for everything, and Martin Rees also nominates the multiverse.

Another noteworthy physicist's reply is that of Seth Lloyd, who made the effort to write up the demonstration SU(2) being a double cover of SO(3).

My award for the most bizarre reply goes to Dave Winer who thinks it is elegant that his computer screen "has the time in the upper-right corner."

The most interesting reply I found that from Barry C. Smith who summarizes it as "Lemons are Fast" and explains "When asked to put lemons on a scale between fast and slow almost everyone says 'fast', and we have no idea why." I'm not sure exactly what is elegant about this, but interesting it is without doubt.

For me the most insightful reply was that of Tania Lombrozo who writes:
"Metaphysical half-truths... realism, the existence of other minds, causation... These explanations are so broad and so simple that we let them operate in the background, constantly invoked but rarely scrutinized. As a result, most of us can't defend them and don't revise them. Metaphysical half-truths find a safe and happy home in most human minds.

[T]he depth, elegance, and beauty of our intuitive metaphysical explanations can make us appreciate them less rather than more. Like a constant hum, we forget that they are there."

And the shortest reply is that by Katinka Matson who nominates Occam's Razor.

My nomination for the most beautiful and elegant explanation would have been the variational principle (about whose elegance I wrote here), close to David Dalrymple's reply that named the principle of least action.

Anybody else has the impression that list is getting longer every year? Do they just write more or are there actually more names on the list?

The question that I would like to ask all the smart people is this: If everybody on the planet would read your reply (or have it read to) what would you want to tell them?

Thursday, March 01, 2012


Lara and Gloria are now walking well, and have learned to run too. We have bought them their first pair of shoes, size 21, and took them for a first walk outside. This month has brought more firsts. The girls have been swimming the first time, they have been to a playground the first time, and they have made their first encounter with salt, which they didn't seem to mind.

Confronted with new information, environments, or people, Lara is generally more reserved than Gloria. Lara will watch from a safe distance for a while before she splashes in the water, stomps on the sand, or pulls on grandma's necklace. Gloria is faster to warm up. On the other hand, Lara falls noticeably less often and if she does, is less likely to hurt herself.

Teeth-wise the girls are still months behind. On the average, I read, babies have their first tooth between 4 and 7 months. Ours had their first tooth in their 12th month. Now at 14 months, they have both 6 front teeth that are half out, and still no molars. They can bite off cookies, but they can't chew.

The most remarkable development this month has been the communication. Lara and Gloria both have learned how to work well with pointing and a single word, "Da", which might mean "lift me up", "put me down", "give me this" or "make this work". Gloria is especially expressive. If she sees as much as a spoonful of vegetables come into her direction, she hits the spoon and sends it flying, then points at the dessert and commands "Da." Lara often comes to me with a scarf and wants me to wrap it around her head.

Most of the time, the girls are playing with each other nicely. They do sometimes steal each other's toys, but they also offer toys to each other. When Gloria cries, Lara tries to give her a pacifier. If that doesn't work, Lara begins to cry too.

Their parents have meanwhile reason to celebrate. After more than a year of fight, the German authorities have finally revised their decision that we're not eligible for child benefits, and now we receive the standard rate. Since we're paying rent for two apartments, one in Germany and one in Sweden, this has come as much of a relief for us.