Sunday, August 31, 2008

Science in the 21st Century

Only one week to go to our conference on Science in the 21st Century! Registration is closed, and by now I've managed to arrange a program (that I'm waiting to be messed up last minute) and was annoying enough to collect all but two abstracts. I am pretty excited, and very much looking forward to what I am sure will be a tremendously interesting meeting.

Just to remind you: The conference is about the three sides in the Information Triangle. It schematically depicts that information technology (IT) has given a new dimension to various aspects of scientific research and its interaction with the public. The three sides of the triangle are:

1. Science and Society

That includes topics like impact of open access on science literacy, blogging, and science journalism, as well as generally the embedding of scientific research into the society we live in - and the backreaction of the public opinion and sociological values on the scientific community.

  • Harry Collins' talk for example falls into this category. He will address the question of whether the developments in electronic media blur the boundary between acquiring specialist knowledge by social interaction with the community, and acquiring it through reading (read full abstract).

  • Steve Fuller will join us per video on Wednesday, talking about 'metascientific' instruments outside academia that judge on research, like the Citation Index and Wikipedia (I'd have put PageRank on the list!). He is addressing the question whether these interfere with research by steering science policy, and what to do about this influence. (Read full abstract).

  • David Kaiser will talk about booms and busts in the history of science, how they took hold, what consequences have they had on the world of ideas, and what impacts they've had on the direction of scientific research. (Read full abstract.)

  • Beth Noveck speaks about science in politic decision-making. How the government today gathers, analyzes and distributes scientific expertise opens the door to "science bending" - political abuse and manipulation of scientific research results. She argues that technology is changing the nature of expertise in public decision-making and might afford new opportunities for the scientific community to inform policy-making (read full abstract). Beth will later lead a "Design Exercise" in such Science Policy Making.

  • Lee Smolin will talk about ethical principles in the scientific community, and how the increased connectivity among scientists opens up new opportunities and also new challenges for the thriving of scientific communities. (Read full abstract).

We will have a discussion on Wednesday evening about these topics, which will be moderated by Steve Weinstein. Steve is a Professor for philosophy at the University of Waterloo with a cross-appointment to the Physics department, and a familiar face here at PI. He's an interesting guy in many regards and I'm happy he agreed on joining our meeting.

2. Science and IT

The way that changes in information management and community interactions affect the way we do research. That includes unreasonable enthusiasm about data-crunching (for example) as well as social networking, and analysis of community structures.

There are a lot of talks about this topic! Paul Ginsparg will talk about the next-generation implications of open access (read abstract), Cameron Neylon will tell us how he learned to stop worrying and love his blog (read abstract), Michael Nielsen talks about cultural openness and its connection to online innovation in science (see e.g. his recent post on The Future of Science, and my related post on Openness in Science), Chad Orzel from Uncertain Principles talks about weblogs and public outreach (read abstract), Jacques Distler will talk about scientific communication in a new century (read abstract), Greg Wilson aks if the web can make scientists brush their teeth (read abstract), and John Willinsky will review the public impact of developments in open access to research on education, professional practice, and public policy (read abstract).

We will have two discussions about these topics: "Science gets closer to the public" on Monday, which will be moderated by Eva Amsen from Easternblot, and "The Future of Scientific Collaboration" on Tuesday, moderated by John Dupuis from Confessions of a Science Librarian.

I am also very happy that Katy Börner will be at our conference and give a talk about how to map research areas in science, and how to keep track of scientific trends. Read abstract, or check the website. (We were talking about her bringing some of the posters to display in the lobby, but due to administrational hazard I currently don't know whether this will work out.)

3. IT and Society

The way it looks right now, there's only one talk that really falls into this category, that is Barry Wellmann's. His abstract however is long enough to make for 5 talks. I guess he'll pretty much cover every aspect of how IT developments affect our social networks.

I am also very curious about Alex Pang's evening session on Monday. He will lead an exercise to map major trends in the natural and social sciences, science policy and politics, public engagement with science (read abstract).

There were three other topics that I had in mind for the conference that would have fallen into this category: data storage (resilience of, see my post Lost in Information), information overflow (see also), and science education. It is mostly a coincidence that among the final participants nobody will talk about these aspects.

4. In Between

There are some talks that fall in between these areas, such as Andrew Odlyzko's who will speak about the evolution of scholarly communication (read abstract - somewhere between 1 and 3 I guess), and my own talk which will mostly be a motivation and an introduction of the coming talks since many of the participants do not know each other (in fact, this post will make a good draft for the talk.)

We will also have a fourth discussion on Thursday after the conference dinner about "Scientific Utopia - Alternative Forms of Scientific Research" that I expect to be of interest also for PI residents...


Friday, August 29, 2008

Emergent Gravity

I am on my way back from the Emergent Gravity conference at MIT, contemplating what I've heard and learned. The aim of this meeting was to bring together condensed matter physicists with those tireless seekers looking for a fundamental theory unifying classical gravity with quantum field theory. Should such a theory exist then the features we observe might only be collective variables, emerging from a more basic underlying structure. Much like the properties of liquids are eventually a consequence of the dynamics of its molecules, the spacetime we live in might only arise in a macroscopic limit from a more fundamental theory. One would expect then both areas, condensed matter and quantum gravity, to share common approaches when going from a microscopic to a macroscopic description, and there to possibly be similar features like phase transitions or modifications of symmetries in the small distance limit.

This past week we have heard about emergence of gravitons on a quantum bosonic model (Zheng-Cheng Gu, arXiv:gr-qc/0606100v1), the emergence of diffeomorphism (Jorge Pullin, arXiv:gr-qc/0606121v1) and the emergence of spacetime and matter in Group Field Theory (Daniele Oriti, arXiv:0710.3276v1), to only mention a few. My head is still spinning, and I don't really know where to place all this information, so please don't ask for details. Fotini gave an update on Quantum Graphity - A condensed matter model of emergent geometry (arXiv:0801.0861v2). I wasn't very convinced when I first heard of that model, but they've made some refinements to the approach and I see a real chance that maybe some day I indeed manage to make sense of it. Lee talked about his paper with Joao about the possible observational consequences of a phase transition in the early universe from a non-geometrical to a geometrical phase (arXiv:astro-ph/0611695v3), and my talk this morning was just a summary of my Minimal Length model that you of course know all about so I won't bother you with the details.

A highlight was certainly Stephen Wolfram's talk on Tuesday evening in which he introduced his idea that the universe and everything we know and like fundamentally arise from a cellular automaton. He advertised his book "A New Kind of Science", in which, allegedly, the emergence of the universe and all theories we usually deal with is explained. Stephen's claims are certainly bold. By choosing the right updating rules for the automaton, so he says, he gets not only a manifold with Lorentzian symmetry, but also Einstein's Field equations. Unfortunately, I couldn't quite follow his argumentation - the talk was a bit confused (to put it mildly) and about 1 hour over time, but it was certainly interesting. I think I will need to have a look at this book before I come to any conclusions.

Thursday afternoon, we had a panel discussion with Jorge Pullin, Max Tegmark, Xiao-Gang Wen, and Bei-Lok Hu, moderated by Olaf Dreyer. The topic circled around the question what are aspects of emergence, why it is so hard to quantize gravity, and whether this is the right path to follow at all. The issue of background indepence was briefly touched, so was the question of observable predictions and whether or not time is fundamental. It was an interesting exchange, though with a certain lack of disagreement.

I had prepared a 5 min bonus to my talk because I thought I might finish earlier, but then I finished remarkably in time and didn't need it. It was to mention some of my thoughts on the merits of emergence and our quest for a fundamental theory on a very general level, probably quite bloggable. So I thought, you'd get the bonus instead - if I come around to writing it up that is.

To brag a bit: we were staying a the Kendall Hotel in Cambridge, right next to MIT. A very nice place that I can warmly recommend.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Electronic System for Travel Authorization

I am presently at MIT for the Emergent Gravity Conference, a trip that was as smoothly as could be, partly because I didn't bother to hand in my I-94 when I left California only a week earlier. Nevertheless, complains about travel to the USA always makes a good topic at any conference, the best is trying to avoid the country as far as possible since even transit only is an extremely annoying procedure.

Since it occurred to me many people don't seem to know about improvements to the pleasures of travel to and through the USA, here is an update on the visa waiver program (VWP). (Your country is participating in the visa waiver program if you have usually filled out a green form with your passport information, travel dates and so on - this is the I-94W, the Visa Waiver Arrival-Departure Record.)

Effective January 12, 2009, all VWP travelers will be required to obtain an electronic travel authorization prior to boarding a carrier to travel by air or sea to the U.S. under the VWP.

It's called the "Electronic System for Travel Authorization" (ESTA) and you find more information on this website and is supposed to work as follows:

Log onto the ESTA Web site and complete an on-line application in English. Travelers are encouraged to apply early. The web-based system will prompt you to answer basic biographical and eligibility questions typically requested on a paper I-94W form.

Applications may be submitted at any time prior to travel, however, the Department of Homeland Security recommends that applications be submitted no less than 72 hours prior to travel.

So say good bye to last minute trips.

After January 12, 2009, VWP travelers who do not apply for and receive travel authorization via ESTA prior to travel may be denied boarding, experience delayed processing or be denied admission at a U.S. port of entry.

That's the bad news. The good news is that an approved travel authorization is valid for up to two years, or until the traveler’s passport expires, whichever comes first (the I-94 was so far good for 90 days only), and valid for multiple entries into the U.S. (as previously).

What stuns me about this is that US officials seem to assume everybody has the possibility to access that website in a timely manner.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Will Physics turn into Philosophy?

I recently talked to a friend who said the century of physics is over. The 21st century is about biotechnology, it's about enhancing ourselves, it's about designing our children, it's about customizing our food.

Of course I disagreed. Not only do I think biotechnology will take quite a long time to be incorporated in our every day lives simply because it’s hard to do better than Nature. I also think the 21st century is going to be about the social sciences: To cope with the challenges mankind is facing, the scientific revolution has to be finished. It needs to be extended into those areas we use to organize our lives on this planet, most notably sociology, politics and economics. The natural sciences are ahead in rigor and successful integration of knowledge into our civilizations, but both areas, the social and the natural sciences, are necessary to successfully shape our future.

Nevertheless, it made me wonder, what is the future of physics, the field that I love and live for?

The Future of Physics

While the content of our research departs more and more from our immediate experience and experimental confirmation of hypotheses becomes increasingly difficult, speculations are thriving and unconstrained creativity is booming on the theoretical side. Science fiction writers find ideas for their stories on the arXiv, and in some cases the boundaries are blurring. Will the Higgs try to disable its own discovery by inducing a technical failure at the LHC? Will we all be reborn as Boltzmann Brains? Have alien civilizations rearranged the stars to leave messages for us?

Motivations are turning into constructed justifications for calling fantasy research. Besides the oldfashioned strive to explain recognized puzzles in data or to solve shortcomings of current theories, one can now excel simply through creativity and novelty, connection to Nature not required. New theories can be introduced just for the fun of brain exercise. The light that shines on your career path is trendleading. Thus, you better know the fashions of the day - currently it's phenomenology, so whatever you're speculating about you should call it “phenomenological”, make sure it's “falsifiable” and claim to have “testable predictions”. At the very least, write that in the abstract, whether it's true or not.

If I look at hep-th and gr-qc, I find it increasingly depressive. In the vast majority of cases it is a complete mystery to me why somebody would even be remotely interested in that topic if he wants to describe nature. And isn't that what physics is supposed to be about? Describing nature? If we go on like this, I see physics moving from science to science fiction, from explanations to equationized stories about the could-be.

Do we have too many physicists?

We can not plan progress.

I'm all in favor of fundamental research, and I strongly believe that unexpected spin offs arising from it are a crucial ingredient of progress. Scientific breakthroughs can not be planned and rarely be foreseen. That makes it necessary to have faith in the scientific community and to support non-directed research. Today however, research in theoretical physics is directed by financial possibilities and job opportunities that are too often bound to specific subfields. Experts in a field will promote their own research and try to ensure its survival by hiring more people and producing more papers. But are more people working on a topic always the right choice to foster progress? Or does a field have a certain topic-dependent complexity that is optimally examined by a limited number of people?

Given the tight budget in foundational research this question is sure to upset many of my colleagues who are competing for the few permanent positions, but still, I have to ask: do we have too many physicists? Do we really need this vast production of redundant papers that nobody reads? Has foundational research become a commercialized publication production because our societies value money over wisdom and that’s where the incentives are, and thus, grants and papers and a well-paid job has become how we define ‘success’ in research. It’s about the career, stupid.

But if you try to build a house, hiring more and more people won't make the construction go faster and faster. At some point you will have a lot of workers who don't know what to do. They will pretend to be useful by occupying themselves with carving the wood or painting the bricks or worse, they will attempt to add extensions here and there that nobody asked for and nobody needs.

Do more people necessarily imply faster progress? Can we push insight by distributing research to ever more researchers? Can scientific breakthroughs be speed up by community building? I think there are limits to this. Progress has a pace that is set by the time it takes to appreciate, digest and incorporate a new insight. It can't be accelerated arbitrarily, it is constrained by the capacity of the human mind to find and process input, to extract patterns, and to then express an idea in a rigorous and useful way. It is, in many aspects, a lonely task - at least until we find a way to share our thoughts without the need to express them in words and equations inbetween. I would certainly be in favor of just uploading part of my brain.

Improving the connectivity of the scientific community and finding better ways to manage information is helpful to improve collaboration, get knowledge faster where it needs to be, and to optimize the use of resources we have. But still, the thinking needs to be done by a human brain. Look at the billions of dollars that have been spent and the thousands of people that have dedicated their lives to cancer research. Yet, the long hoped for breakthrough couldn't be pushed despite all these efforts. Science is a community enterprise, research lives from exchange and discussion and gradually builds the body of our knowledge. Does anybody really believe the ingenious idea will come if only the pressure is high enough, if only the incentives are good enough, if only enough money goes into the right channels? Do you really think we can overcome the limits of the human mind that easily? We can not plan progress and all the pushing isn’t going to change that. (Sadly enough, many people seem indeed to believe this works which is the reason why they don’t take global environmental problems seriously: surely, if the situation gets only bad enough, the ingenious homo sapiens will come up with a solution. Everything's gonna be alright.)

Diffusing the frontiers of research to more people the outcome will only be that new results are superficially discussed, sloppily integrated, and insufficiently communicated. If a field has too many people it will just produce irrelevant output, fragment and specialize, and lose coherence. A process that unfortunately is greatly supported by the pressure to publish for the sake of the CV.

But calm down, if you read this blog frequently you should know I don't think there are too many physicists. However, the investment of time, financial and human resources is suboptimal and directs too many people in some construction areas whereas others have too few workers. The present organization also doesn't really encourage new construction areas altogether, and the management of knowledge in academic research isn't appropriate to deal with the changes in our information-infrastructure. One obvious way to alleviate this problem is to just hire workers, and not assign them to a certain construction zone. (For more about this, see my earlier post We have only ourselves to judge on each other.)

What the bleep can we know?

But let me pursue this line of thought one step further. We have seen that theoretical physics opens a playground for increasingly wild speculations, due to the growing difficulties in experimental accessibility. We have also seen that research areas can attract more people than would be necessary to investiage their promise. The problem is that due to the delayed testability, it’s not Nature that judges on our ideas when we put them on the archive - it’s our peers, and it remains our peers for a long time.

Especially the field of physics I work in has set its goal very high. Commonly referred to as the “holy grail”, researchers are looking for a fundamental theory that combines quantum field theory with classical gravity, or even gives rise to the standard model of particle physics.

“Phenomenology” is the word of the day, and sometimes I can't but wonder what if that fundamental theory - should it exist - indeed does not make any testable predictions. Just consider it for a moment: There is a fundamental theory, but it makes predictions only in ranges far outside what we can measure. With the focus on phenomenology, aren't we then potentially discarding the path to go? It is not even that I believe it to be the case that a theory of quantum gravity would not have observable effects, but that possibility certainly exists (and who cares what I believe). So then what? What can we know? Can we know what we can know? What will happen to physics? Would the pursuit of such a theory still count as science?

It doesn’t require much imagination to extrapolate the current situation based on the above. We might get stuck with several theories that make differing predictions only in ranges we can’t test. That’s when we still start to argue about the beauty, elegance or naturalness of one approach over the other. That’s when we will start to ask how much time is appropriate to investigate and solve shortcomings before we have to consider them ugly, that’s when we will start discussing personal taste, community likabilities, and the historical value of concepts underlying our speculations. And that’s when physics will turn from a science to philosophy.

Time discovers the Truth

However, though this is my extrapolation of the current situation, it certainly isn’t inevitable. I think that the biggest part of the problem is that theoretical physics is way ahead when it comes to explaining the world around us. Maybe we will have to wait for other areas to catch up. Maybe we will have to wait until we can measure graviational waves or the cosmic neutrino background. Maybe we will have to wait until we can extend our brains, or the internet finally becomes self-aware and overtakes the planet. Either way, I am optimistic that time will discover the truth.

    “Veritatem dies aperit.”
    (Time discovers truth.)
~ Seneca

If that was too much words for you, here are some questions to ponder, your comments are welcome:

  • Can progress be accelerated by increasing the number of researchers or does scientific insight proceed on a pace eventually set by the capacity of the human mind and the complexity of the field?
  • Do too many people on one topic eventually hinder progress by producing irrelevant reduncancies and speculative distractions?
  • Do we have too many theoretical physicists?
  • Might the fundamental theory only make predictions far outside any range potentially accessible to experiment in the long future?
  • Might there be various consistent theories that agree in the observable range that we will be unable to test for their truth, and would the argumentation about these theories still count as science?
  • If the right theory of quantum gravity indeed does not make testable predictions, is the present focus on phenomenology hindersome to progress?
  • Will physics turn into philosophy?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

This and That

  • A group of reasearchers around Lynn Sykes from Columbia University claims the earthquake risk in the greater New York City area is higher than previously assumed. In their recent publication in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America (Aug. 2008, 98; no. 4; p. 1696-1719), they come to conclude “The probability of an earthquake the same size as the 1884 event during a 50-yr period is about 22%.” They add that the Indian Point nuclear power plant is unfortunately located:

    “Indian Point is situated at the intersection of the two most striking linear features marking the seismicity and also in the midst of a large population that is at risk in case of an accident to the plants. This is clearly one of the least favorable sites in our study area from an earthquake hazard and risk perspective. ”

    [Via Spiegel Online, see also SciAm 60 Seconds Science]

  • A note in the recent SciAm Mind issue titled “Call me Sleepless” claims (once again) that researchers have shown electromagnetic radiation from cellphones influences brain activity: “Neuroscientist Rodney Croft and his col­leagues at Swinburne University of Technology in Australia strapped a Nokia 6110 cell phone to the heads of 120 men and women and then monitored their brain waves. When the re­search­ers switched on the phone without the subjects’ knowledge, they saw a sudden power boost in the volunteers’ alpha brain waves.”

    Since I recently had an argument with a friend about the issue (after I read Madonna sleeps with her BlackBerry under the pillow), I looked up Croft's website to find the relevant publication (not cited by SciAm), and found that his most recent study on the topic listed there (“The Sensitivity of Human Event-Related Potentials and ReactionTime to Mobile Phone Emitted Electromagnetic Fields” , Bioelectromagnetics 27:265-273 (2006)) explicitly states “As previous positive findings were not replicated, it was concluded that there is currently no evidence that acute mobile phone exposure affects [certain investigated indices] of brain activity.”

    So you can leave the BlackBerry under the pillow. Anyway, warning of cancer risks, whether backed up by research finds or not, is always sure to get you into the headlines.

  • Magnetic Movie: “The secret lives of invisible magnetic fields are revealed as chaotic ever-changing geometries.” Awarded Best Film at Cutting Edge at the British Animation Awards 2008.

  • I'm on my way to the Emergent Gravity Conference at MIT which is certain to be a very interesting meeting, and after I'm back PI will host “A Debate in Cosmology - The Multiverse”, the second 'Debate' in that series after last year's on the Arrow of Time at NYAS. This means however, I am unfortunately missing the SciBlog conference in London, which is too bad.

  • Quotation of the week

    “Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no
    account be allowed to do the job.”
    ~ Douglas Adams

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Why is there nothing instead of something?

Following the laws of gravity, the matter in our universe forms a net of filaments. Voids mostly empty of matter also are a natural outcome of this structure formation. However, it turns out that numerical simulations based on the standard ΛCDM model yield voids that contain more galaxies than we observe. It seems that the voids in our universe are too empty. Though the predictions work well for giant voids, the situation is less clear on smaller scales [1].

[Picture credit: Suvendra Dutta]

The closest void in our galactic neighborhood is called the 'local void'. It is empty except for a lonely dwarf galaxy whose velocity indicates it's trying to move out of the void. That behavior is what one would expect to happen to underdense regions during structure formation. According to estimates following from ΛCDM simulations one would also expect there to be about ten dwarf galaxies in this void [2]. So where are they? Why is the void so empty?

However, what is usually computed in structure formation simulations is not the distribution of visible matter but that of dark matter, and our usual matter follows the dark matter's structures. Thus, what we actually know is that there are too many dark matter dwarf haloes in the simulations as compared to data. It might thus be the problem is not one with the void, but that dark matter haloes just failed to form galaxies. ΛCDM also predicts too many dwarf dark matter haloes as compared with the observed dwarf galaxies [4]. The solution to that puzzle might thus be on the cosmological side - in case there's something about structure formation we haven't yet got quite right - or on the astrophysical side - in case there's something about galaxy formation we haven't appropriately incorporated.

Tinker and Conroy [3] recently extrapolated the halo occupation distribution (the relation between dark matter halos and galaxies) into regimes in which observational data is lacking in order to model the distribution of dwarf galaxies. In doing so, they claim to be able to model the emptiness of voids, which would mean the explanation is on the astrophysical side. Tikhonov and Klypin [1] however point out that to explain the void structures, small haloes with circular velocity Vc > 20 km/s should not host galaxies, which however they do: they include a table with properties of observed isolated dwarf galaxies with circular velocities of about 20 km/s. Tikhonov and Klypin conclude

"We would like to emphasize that the disagreement with the theory is staggering. The observed spectrum of void sizes disagrees at many sigma level from the theoretical void spectrum if haloes with Vc > 20 km/s host galaxies brighter than MB = −12."

There is no bottomline to this post, I'm just trying to summarize some stuff I recently read. I'm still not entirely sure what to make out of the void problem, any comments are welcome.

[1] A. Tikhonov and A. Klypin "The emptiness of voids: yet another over-abundance problem for the LCDM model" arXiv:0807.0924v1 [astro-ph]
[2] P. J. E. Peebles, "Galaxies as a cosmological test"
arXiv:0712.2757v1 [astro-ph]
[3] Jeremy L. Tinker and Charlie Conroy "The Void Phenomenon Explained"
arXiv:0804.2475v2 [astro-ph]
[4] Strigari at al "Redefining the Missing Satellites Problem"
arXiv:0704.1817v2 [astro-ph]

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

From a Distance

Take Off

Each time I'm leaving California I feel like it's going to be the last look. Nothing seems to be permanent here and these temporary settlements let my European senses tingle with a feeling of imminent doom. The highways are always under construction without ever getting better, shops seems to come and go like the seasons, hardly noticeable here in Southern California, what was a beauty spa last time is now a Sushi bar, what was a drugstore is now a pet grooming salon. Many of the buildings have colorful facades with shacks behind them where the lights will flicker, and if there's a truck going by the whole construction starts shaking. If you live here, you'll get used to calling the plumber, to windows who don't close or don't open, to potholes, to power outages, to flooded streets, you'll get used to throwing away things and buying new ones, you'll get used to breast enlargement ads, you'll get used to guarantees that guarantee the impossible, you'll get used to fakin' it, here at the West Coast.

I look through the double glass of the little airplane window and see a whole country constantly fixing what constitutes its civilization, always running, always busy to avoid falling back, I see a society that needs an incredibly high throughput of energy and resources to maintain its level of complexity. And I can't but wonder what happens if this throughput gets any less. Fast forward some thousand years, only the beach will be there long after all the angels got lost. Each time I'm leaving California I'm wondering why.

Touch down

Through the clouds I see a glimpse of North America every now and then. Approaching the Toronto area the buildings get denser, more streets, cars clogging the highways, large industrial areas, finally skyscrapers. I can't but find this manmade rash on the Earth's surface incredibly ugly, Toronto, LA, NYC, Chicago, London, Paris, Cape Town alike in their ugliness, spreading like a disease, still growing like we'd have 1.25 planets to live from.

One of 6.6 billion humans, in a tiny metal box above the clouds, going from here to there like too many times, I can't but be proud what we managed to achieve. All the infrastructure, all the logistics, all the scientific knowledge necessary to make these cities work, smoothly, providing food, water, shelter for millions of people, guaranteeing survival and creating a place to live, a place for culture, entertainment and the search for understanding.

The flight is in time. Due to "technical difficulties" with the baggage retrieval system we have to wait two hours for our luggage.

And back

On the way back, it is dark outside, not much traffic on a late Sunday evening. A family van on the lane next to us. The father driving, the mother and the two kids in the backseats all have a laptop open and are watching different movies, their faces ghostly in the light of flickering stories from elsewhere. Where does this highway go to?

See also: Ghosts in Transit, Scenes

Monday, August 18, 2008

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Would you buy a car powered by Microsoft?

I am currently driving a rental car, a Ford, which to my horror has a tag 'Powered by Microsoft' next to the gearshift, no kidding:

So here is a question of believe, a yes or no, a good or evil, black or white kind of question; I want no nuances, no ifs or depends-ons: Would you buy that car? As for me, I clearly wouldn't. I wouldn't buy a car with an automatic transmission to begin with.

See also PS on Cast Away.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Equivalence Principle

Some time in sixth grade a well-meaning librarian shoved me out of the Scifi/Horror aisle and into the dreaded youthbook (Jugendbuch) section, an act that had unintended consequences. The books in that aisle were neatly marked with dots, the more dots the higher the recommended age. I didn't immediately realize that blue dots were meant for boys and red ones for girls, so ended up with a book that recommended to handle unwanted occurrences of sexual arousal by mentally focusing on something decidedly unsexy, such as potatoes or General Relativity.

This advice changed my view of the world. Not only did I realize that being a teenager with a Y-chromosome can't be easy either, it also explained why my male classmates were suddenly developing interests in things like Special Relativity or Scanning Tunnel Microscopes (Nobel Prize '86). It made also sense they were usually very irritated if a girl attempted to join them: all that was just suppressed hormones, the poor guys*. It further revealed a deep connection between General Relativity and potatoes that hadn't previously occurred to me. Most disturbingly however, it labeled General Relativity as unsexy, a fact that has bothered me ever since.

Over the course of years I moreover had to notice that General Relativity is a subject of great mystery to many, it's a word that has entered the colloquial language as the incomprehensible and ununderstandably complicated result of a genius' brain. My physics teacher notably told me when getting tired of my questions that there are maybe three people in the world who understand General Relativity, thereby repeating (as I found out later) a rumor that was more than half a century old (see Wikipedia on the History of General Relativity).

Special and General Relativity is also the topic I receive the most questions about. The twin paradox for example still seems to confuse many people, and only a couple of days ago I was again confronted with a misunderstanding that I've encountered repeatedly, though its origin is unclear to me. The twin paradox is not a paradox, so the explanation seems to go, because it doesn't take into account General Relativity. That's plain wrong. The twin paradox is not a paradox because it doesn't take into account acceleration (unless your spacetime allows closed timelike loops you will have to accelerate one of the twins to get them to meet again which breaks the symmetry).

The problem is that for reasons I don't know many people seem to believe Special Relativity is about constant velocities only, possibly a consequence of bad introductionary textbook. That is not the case. Heck, you can describe acceleration even in Newtonian mechanics! To make that very clear:
  • The difference between Special and General Relativity is that the former is in flat space, whereas the latter is in a 'general', curved space.

  • Flat space does not mean the metric tensor is diagonal with the entries (-1,1,1,1), this is just the case in a very specific coordinate system. Flat space means the curvature tensor identically vanishes (which is independent of the coordinate system).

  • Of course one can describe accelerated observers in Special Relativity.

That leads me now directly to the Equivalence Principle, the cornerstone of General Relativity. Googling 'Equivalence Principle' it is somehow depressing. Wikipedia isn't wrong, but too specific (the Equivalence Principle doesn't have anything to do with standing on the surface of the Earth). The second hit is a NASA website which I find mostly confusing (saying all objects react equally to gravity doesn't tell you anything about the relation of gravitational to inertial mass). The third and fourth hits get it right, the fifth is wrong (the locality is a crucial ingredient).

So here it is:
    The Equivalence Principle: Locally, the effects of gravitation (motion in a curved space) are the same as that of an accelerated observer in flat space.

That is what Einstein explains in his thought experiment with the elevator. If you are standing in the elevator (that is just a local patch, theoretically infinitesimally small) you can't tell whether you are pulled down because there is a planet underneath your feet, or because there is a flying pig pulling up the elevator. This website has two very nice mini-movies depicting the situation.

If you could make your elevator larger you could however eventually distinguish between flat and curved space because you could measure geodesic deviation, i.e. the curvature.

If you think of particles, the Equivalence Principle means that the inertial mass is equal to the gravitational mass, which has been measured with impressive precision. But the above formulation makes the mathematical consequences much clearer. To formulate your theory, you will have to introduce a tangential bundle on your curved manifold where you can deal with the 'local' quantities, and you will have to figure out how the cuts in this bundle (tensors) will transform under change of coordinates. If you want your theory to be independent of that choice of coordinates it will have to be formulated in tensor equations. Next thing to ask is then how to transport tensors from one point to the other, which leads you to a 'covariant' derivative.

The Equivalence Principle is thus a very central ingredient of General Relativity and despite its simplicity the base of a large mathematical apparatus, it's the kind of insight every theoretical physicist dreams of. It gives you a notion of a 'straightest line' in curved space (a geodesic) on which a testparticle moves. This curve most notably is independent of the mass of that particle: heavy and light things fall alike even in General Relativity (well, we already knew this to be the case in the Newtonian limit). For a very nice demonstration see the video on the NASA website. Please note that this holds for pointlike testparticles only, it is no loger true for extended or spinning objects, or for objects that significantly disturb the background.

The Equivalence Principle however is not sufficient to give you Einstein's field equations that describe how space is curved by its matter content. But that's a different story. It remains to be said all this is standard textbook knowledge and General Relativity is today not usually considered a large mystery. There are definitely more than 3 people who understand it. We have moved on quite a bit since 1905.


General Relativity is sexy.

Though I doubt there's more than three people in the world who really understand potatoes.

* In the more advanced stages of confusion they start referring to physical theories as women.

Josh, this one's for you.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

SciFoo Before- and Afterthoughts


When I got the invitation to SciFoo, I thought I'd decline. I halfways assumed I ended up on this email list accidentally and had a scheduling conflict already (I meant to be in Germany at this time to help my husband with his move). In addition to this, they didn't reimburse travel expenses and my budget for such purposes is typically permanently overstretched (they payed the hotel though).

Mostly however I've been hesitant because I am very skeptic about the merits of unconferencing. I'm not much of a believer in creative chaos - it is typically more chaotic than creative, especially if crammed into two days. The possibility that anything comes out of such a gathering except for empty words, a large exchange of business cards, and self-celebration just seems very small. The only thing I knew about SciFoo was what Lee told about last year (which had something to do with Martha Steward, I can't quite recall the details). It didn't sound like a meeting I'd want to be at. If the only thing you bring back is names of people with Wikipedia entries and a T-shirt, I can find better ways to spend my time and money. Neither did I ever have a large interest in visiting Silicon Valley, and had never heard of O'Reilly Media.

So, why did I go then? Well, first, out of curiosity. Second, because California is always nice. Third, because it was a good excuse to avoid Stefan's move. Forth, because I'm in a midlife crisis and don't know what to do with my life anyway (but don't worry coz I've said that for at least ten years now).


Thus, admittedly I was negatively biased upon arrival. We were told the first evening we're supposed to socialize and make friends and have FUN! Luckily, there were plenty of British people around who looked about as enthusiastic as me upon being told to socialize at 10pm with a 9 hour jetlag.

Despite my cynical attitude I realized fast most of the people on the meeting were luckily reasonable, normal though over-averagely intelligent, and one could actually have sensible discussions. I mean, seriously, I was afraid I'd be facing 48 hours full of smalltalk and 'What are you doing, oh how interesting' with totally crazy VIPs (California seems to attract them).

The first evening I talked to some bloggers about how weird it can be to meet people you only knew online previously. Some of them are just what you'd expect, but others are quite different. It didn't come as a surprise to me I'm considered falling into the latter category. My writing output doesn't match my chatting desire. Typically, I'm a spectator who will process information later. So that's what you get right now.

Surprisingly though it was easy - it was really easy to start a conversation. The atmosphere was very relaxed, the desperados trying to impress others were missing which I believe makes a big difference to conferences I typically go. It seems to me everybody assumed everybody else is at SciFoo because he or she is doing something interesting. In addition to this, everybody could suggest and hold a session under the same circumstances. Thus the organizers did not impose any hierarchy of plenary and parallel sessions which put all of us on an equal starting level. Likewise, we were all staying in the same two hotels, no economy housing elsewhere for the financially less fortunate.

I have neither founded any company, nor written several books, nor won a Nobelprize, but it turned out being a theoretical physicist is quite cool these days which was an uplifting experience to begin with. I ended up having dinner with a Nobel-prize winner because Frank Wilczek's wife apparently thought I look like a nice person to sit with; most interesting conversation I've had was with a guy from Pixar (Toy story 3 is coming), I learned something about advertising in science and politics, the doom and gloom of a civilization heading for break down (that's you guys between Canada and Mexico), data sharing, and city planning (I used the opportunity to complain extensively about the lack of sidewalks in North America). Funnily enough, about half of the people I talked to wondered like me what they are doing among all the VIPs (just check the blog reactions).

All together it was a very positive experience. Though the intensity of the meeting has advantages (most notably, more people will be able to come), a large disadvantage is that you aren't really able to follow up on a thought or a conversation and to get something running at place. One would hope that people keep contact with each other, but there is always the risk once they are back at their desk you turn into an annoyance in their inbox. It would have been nice to stay for some days for some more relaxed meetings with people who you've found share some of your interests. Also, because of the large amount of parallel sessions everybody was left with the feeling of having missed something - an effect that I noticed often happens at conferences with parallel sessions but usually fades after some days if people have a chance to catch up and hear what was going on elsewhere.


What did I learn from that?

  • Well, for one it seems to me an important aspect of the success of that meeting is a carefully assembled list of participants, and a carefully unassembled schedule.

  • In addition, creative exchange benefits noticeably from having only participants who actually are interested in being at the meeting. (In contrast to the invited plenary speaker who will leave immediately after his talk.)

  • Not trying to worsen differences in experience or career by dividing participants into different housing or different types of talks also seems to considerably improve casual exchange.

  • Constant supply of food and drinks keeps people in a good mood (Nothing new about that. Btw, I still need $1500 for catering at our upcoming conference, otherwise people will have to eat the PI-pens. If you know anybody who can afford that, please, please email me.)



I'm looking for somebody who has experience with Java-applets, numerical simulation of an n-body problem. Doesn't necessarily have to be Java, but needs to have some sort of visualization. It's not a technically difficult problem (that is to say, you don't need to have a PhD to understand it). I have nothing to offer except my gratitude so you'll have to do it for the love of physics. For more information, please write an email to sabine [at] perimeterinstitute [dot] ca.

Update Aug 14: Thanks so much for you replies, I've found what I was looking for!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Here is a short note from the other side of the Atlantic. A week ago, nine strong men carried an endless series of moving boxes and pieces of furniture from an apartment on the fifth floor to the basement. Unfortunately, there was no elevator, but four hours later, everything was stowed away in a van.

Heidelberg is just about one hour's drive from Frankfurt, so my move went quickly. And the new apartment is in the ground floor and the second floor, which meant much less sweat when moving everything in.

In the meantime, there are still boxes everywhere, but at least, all the rooms are usable. And the moving company, Schlensker Umzüge, did a great job - nothing got damaged or lost, and even the blanket of the couch, which had been missing first, did pop up again on Sunday: Someone had put it into the microwave oven. Fortunately, I had reduced the common microwave background before!

Monday, August 11, 2008

SciFoo Camp: Sessions

It is too bad I can't branch into several parallel sessions, sometimes the choices at the SciFoo Camp were really tough. All the rooms had whiteboards and beamers, technical support was always around the next corner, so things ran very smoothly. We were right next to the bistro, so had constant supply of food and drinks for free. The toilet-seats were heated (at least at the women's), and this week you could read there the 'Fixits on the Flusher No 95'. The building itself is a somewhat weird piece of architecture with a certain lack of right angles, kept in bright primary colors.

Here are some notes on the sessions I went to, I might pick up one or the other topic in more detail in a later post.


9:30 am
Anthropic Reasoning
Paul Davies, Robin Hanson

A discussion about the role and importance of the observer, mostly circling around the question what is an observer. The issue of what anthropic reasoning can or can't be good for wasn't really touched. Instead, there was the recurring question of how to count intelligent beings and the omnipresent problem to measure anything. I admittedly find such discussion somewhat pointless because its based on a notion that's just not well defined. If one wants to say anything there is the need to define sensible quantities to begin with as could e.g. be complexity, which was also mentioned by Martin Rees in this meeting. Interesting as this exchange was, I found it scientifically vague and not really insightful. The Doomsday Argument and Boltzman Brains plopped out of vacuum every now and then. I had the impression though that only half of the people in the room actually knew what we were talking about.

One of the participants remarked - completely without any intentional sarcasm - where physicists start wondering about the notion of an observer and how that depends on the ability of the society to provide the means for observation, that's where physics becomes a social science.

See also my posts: The Doomsday Argument and Thoughts on the Anthropic Principle

10:30 am
The used car test - How politicians influence people and how to influence politicians
Adam Wishart, Daniel Finkelstein

A really interesting session though most of the points were only superficially touched. Daniel started by explaining that over the time that capitalism came to spread its reach into more areas of our lives, the scope of advertisement changed. Originally meant to inform the consumer about the product, it is now often used to suggest how a product makes you feel. And this is a tactic also used in politics. (The title refers to this.)

Adam Wishart added an interesting aspect from the scientific side talking about demonstrations against animal tests in the UK, that for a long time have pushed scientists using animal tests into a corner. Interestingly, they let this happen and almost all refused to talk to journalists explaining the importance of their work - probably because they were afraid of becoming a target of sometimes quite aggressive animal right defenders. It has, so Adam explained, been only recently that the scientists managed to organize themselves to communicate their point of view, started speaking out and organize their own demonstrations - a process apparently catalyzed by a quite weird 16 year old guy whose name I've forgotten.

It followed a very interesting discussion on the advertisement of science, and how that influences the public as well as politicians. I'd have much more to say about it, so will probably come back to it in another post.

See also my posts: Fact or Fiction? and Scientists and the Mass Media

11:30 am
LHC, the universe, and all that
Brian Cox, Max Tegmark, Frank Wilczek, Martin Rees

A very entertaining selection of four presentations: about the LHC by Brian Cox (who is really cute, sorry, but this has to be mentioned), Frank Wilczek about supersymmetry and unification (which was well done but left me thoroughly unimpressed, and no, I don't think the LHC will see any SUSY), Max Tegmark about the CMB and 21cm tomography, and eventually Martin Rees about the multiverse, which I however left early to join one of the tours around the Google campus. I didn't learn anything new, but it's always uplifting to hear about the excitement of one's own research field.

See also my posts on: The World's Largest Microscope, Running Couplings in MSSM, and The CMB Power Spectum

Brian's talk was very similar to his TED talk that you can find here.

Google Tour
Basically, we were extensively told how great Google is. I'm thinking of sending in my application. They cut the thorns off the cacti because nerds seem to run into them, have kitchenettes distributed all over the place because allegedly nobody can develop software if more than 100 ft away from food, floors made out of recycled plastic and solar panels on the roof. I'm just wondering if Google has any employees older than me, I haven't seen anybody who seems to have passed the twenties. For more info on Google's carbon footprint, check this website.

3:00 pm
The Marketplace of Ideas or Why the academic system sucks
Sabine Hossenfelder

The previously announced un-session, basically a summary of my posts We have only ourselves to judge on each other and The Marketplace of Ideas. It went very well indeed, though - depressingly - suffered from a certain lack of disagreement. Nobody seems to think that the way funding in academia is distributed to researchers is an optimal use of resources (financial, human and time). Somebody in that discussion (whose name I've forgotten) set up to blame everything on commercial scientific publishers which I think however doesn't tackle the main problem. Robin Hanson made some very interesting remarks. You will hear more about that topic anyway on this blog so I leave it at this for now.

4:00 pm
Something about funding risky research or so, forgot the exact title
Lee Smolin, Max Tegmark, Garrett Lisi

Lee started with telling his tale of the mountain climbers and valley crossers, and that the latter is necessary for progress but often falls through the commonly applied selection criteria. Max continued summarizing his efforts to support unconventional research projects with FQXi and more or less explicitly asked for help with future funding. Garrett then went on briefly introducing his idea of a science hostel (that was continued in the following session). Most interesting remark in that discussion came from a biologist (I believe) who said (I paraphrase), frankly, he thinks we'd rather need people to carefully work out the details than add more quirks. To offer my local impressions: it's all a matter of balance. At PI the valleys are rather crowded places which leaves one longing for a lonely mountain top.

5:00 pm
Science Hostel
Garrett Lisi

Garrett briefly summarized his suggestion of a science hostel which he actually envisions more as a sort of temporary housing service. Roughly speaking the idea is to collect a list of (wealthy) people with spare rooms or residences who might be willing to host scientists or possibly workshops for some amount of time and match them with researchers who need some quiet place - something we all seemed to agree on is necessary but increasingly rare. To me it sounds like a great idea and I wish him best luck.

8:00 pm
Existential Risks and Global Catastrophes
Nick Bostrum, Martin Rees

Nick Bostrum from the Future of Humanity Institute is a very serious man with very serious concerns. He basically lead us through a list of catastrophes that can cause the extinction of the human race. Point three on his list is a 'simulation shutdown', after all, we might be living in a computer simulation and somebody could pull the plug. Though I believe some of the points he makes should be taken more seriously indeed, I wasn't very impressed. He neither said anything particularly insightful nor suggested any way to address the problems.

Martin Rees then basically advertised his book 'Our Final Century', remarkably without saying what it is about. Only interesting point made: the US edition is titled instead 'Our Final Hour', maybe because one can't expect Americans to think ahead for more than one hour.

All together the session was utterly pointless and I wish I had gone elsewhere.


10:30 am
The Reality of Time and the Evolution of Laws
Lee Smolin

That must be the third or fourth time I hear Lee giving that talk and I'm still not entirely sure what he's saying. The talk is getting better though, if I hear it some more times maybe I can figure it out. It was interesting to have Paul Davies in the audience. I seem to agree more with Paul than with Lee, the two made for an interesting combination.

As I mentioned earlier in my post Every Now and Then, I think our experience of there being a present moment is related to our brains being able to store memory (in contrast to elementary constituents of our theories that we typically deal with). You can find some of Lee's arguments on PIRSA 08040011 and 08040013.

(Aside: Apparently some of the people in the audience thought the session to be about the evolution of "ling" what they assumed to be an abbreviation for linguistics. So much about Lee's handwriting.)

11:30 am
Sustainability: Where are we today? Where are we headed? How can we change the course of time?
Steve Goldfinger

Was an interesting summary of the attempt to quantify sustainability by measuring it in land use, and the data that has been collected from various nations. You find most of what Steve said on the websites of the Global Footprint Network, so I'll just point you there.

See also my previous posts: SciFoo Camp - 1st day and SciFoo Camp - 2nd day.

More SciFoo blogging: Check this list


Sunday, August 10, 2008

SciFoo Camp - 2nd day

I seriously hate conferences. Surprisingly, I find myself enjoying SciFoo. The atmosphere is very relaxed, people are indeed interested in being here and talking to each other. At conferences I usually go, people deliver their talk, chat with the same group of friends, and leave as soon as possible. After some years then, you know all the talks, you know all the jokes, you know who is going to ask which question or make which comment. Inevitably, you end up drinking too much coffee, eating to many cookies, and I have to remind myself constantly to socialize more while wondering why I'm even spending money on that nonsense.

In contrast to that, most of the talks here at SciFoo are semi-prepared. It's thus somewhat different to the SciBar Camp I attended in March in Toronto, where at least all sessions I went were completely unprepared up to the point that the person proposing it said I don't know what to do, lets just talk about something. The result were sort of group-therapy session that though nice were almost content free. The SciBar camp thus struck me as an intermingling event meant to make connections. Which isn't bad if you're looking for that kind of thing.

Here, the sessions are all one hour, and there's either one or a few people who give a brief talk (with or without slides) followed by an extended discussion. It works very well - I haven't witnesses a single instant of somebody trying to show off with some unrelated explanation nobody was interested in. A lot of people add experiences from other fields. There is a substantial amount of science meta-talk here, i.e. questions of how science works, or how its relation is to the public. Some people have brought demos like science toys and there's some interesting looking sports cars in the yard, plus a car with wings, no seriously (see Being here is as exciting as inspiring.

We're surrounded by a group of very efficient Google-employees who take care of anything. Their average age seems to be in the twenties, probably people working here just don't grow up. Another thing that is remarkable is that though here is a free wireless throughout the whole building, indeed very few people use their laptops during the sessions, and those who do are taking notes as far as I can see. Here is a photo of the camp:

For some more photos, see Mario's blog.

More about yesterday's sessions later.


Saturday, August 09, 2008

SciFoo Camp - 1st day

Here I am, at the SciFoo Camp in the bay area. I did fly in yesterday and of course I am up way too early now, waiting for the sun to rise. I almost missed the flight because we were stuck some hours on the 401 - I'd really, really like to know who has the ingenious idea to close two of three lanes of one of the main highways to Toronto for a construction on a Friday morning. I suspect it to be a real world experiment for traffic jam formation. It took 30 minutes to create a 10 km backup and raise the average blood pressure by 40 points. PI's driver did his best, constantly cursing all the Canadians who don't know how to drive (he's German), and otherwise complaining he couldn't watch the opening ceremony of the Olympic games.

Toronto does US custom pre-clearance so requires you to arrive at least one hour prior to departure. I am three minutes too late at the airport and just freak out when I'm told I'd have to wait for the next flight. I have someone talk to a manager, am put in the front of a queue and run through Pearson International to jump on a plane. To my surprise, even my bag arrives with me. I'm really getting better with yelling at airline personnel.

San Francisco welcomes me with blue sky, sunshine and a Yellow Cab driver from Chicaco. A black women with clothes size 14 who constantly chews gum while cursing all the BMW drivers, calls me honey and upon arrival at the hotel goes "Ooh, aah, wow, hey, boah, looks expensive!" Indeed, that's the reason why I'm not staying any night more than what Google pays. And yes, it's a nice place, at least the sinks are not made of plastic.

Shuttle buses bring us to the "Googleplex" and I feel like visiting Disneyland, just that the people welcoming us wear Google-shirts instead of Mickey-Mouse ears. Welcome to Google! We all get name tags, are photographed, are handed a SciFoo T-shirt and a SciFoo bag, and some other nice things. Everywhere there's security personnel. I look at the schedule, which says 5:30 pm: Socializing. Gee, what am I supposed to do? I hold on to a glass of red wine (a good one) and talk to somebody about climate change models who to my irritation constantly looks past me, then suddenly he goes "Hey! Did you see that guy? That's Neal Stephenson." I'm not blind and I can read, so I nod, "He's REALLY famous!" the guy goes. I nod.

Luckily, some familiar faces appear: there's Garrett Lisi, Stephon Alexander, Paul Davies, Martin Rees, Frank Wilczek, Michael Nielsen, Lee Smolin, Fotini Markupoulou, Max Tegmark and Olaf Dreyer, and some other people I've met online, Robin Hanson from Overcoming Bias and Neylon Cameron. Some people say hey, they read my blog and nice to meet you. I have a brief chat with a women named Jill Something whose face looks strangely familiar but I can't place her anywhere. With some hours delay it occurs to me I've seen her on that TED video (thanks Phil for sending the link!), I feel strangely misplaced among all the VIPs.

After some dinner, we all gather in a room for the introduction. I didn't really expect there to be so many people, I would estimate maybe 250 or so. I haven't been at a conference that size for a long time. Tim O'Reilly and Timo Hannay make a brief introduction about the spirit of the meeting: Mingle and interact. Talk about what's on your mind, even if it's not a finished work or not your area of work altogether. We're supposed to make at least a dozen new friends, he says. I don't think I have acquired a dozen friends within my whole life.

Then we all have to introduce ourselves, name, institution and three words that describe our interests. It feels to me like one of these memory games, 250 faces and names, how many can you recall? What I recall one hour later is that almost everybody is a native English speaker, evidently the majority of participants is from North America or Great Britain, and even those who are not live there. I recognize two French accents, and there's another German, living in London, who I meet later at the buffet fishing a Warsteiner out of the ice-water.

For those of you who don't know how to unconference, here is what happens then: Boards with empty schedules are put up, people run to grab pens and occupy a slot, that's supposedly fun. There are various rooms in different sizes and you have to guess are there 5 or maybe 120 people interested in the topic? Add what you're planning on, a discussion, a presentation, a demonstration, a group therapy? I take a pen out of somebody's hand and write "The Marketplace of Ideas" on a yellow post-it, then jump to the board and stick it onto a random slot. Turns out however, nobody knows what that's supposed to be about. Heck, don't these people read my blog? So I add a subtitle "Why the academic system sucks".

I'm scheduled for 3pm, wish me good luck.


Thursday, August 07, 2008


I just tried out Cuil, a new search engine, that strives to be at the very least different from Google. Notably, it lists 11 search results per site, not 10. Besides this, it offers pictures and a box 'Explore by Category'.

Searching for "Sabine Hossenfelder", the result is outright bizarre. It brings up a selection of vaguely related pictures splattered over the site. Such as the book cover of "L'equation Bogdanov" that confusingly links to Tommaso Dorigo's blog, a photo of a water vapor bubble that I've used in my post Water on Zero Gravity that however links to a newsfeed about a talk I've given at a SUSY conference, a photo of PI's building, and the book cover of Peter Woit's "Not Even Wrong". Cuil finds my homepage, but misses the main page of this blog - it just brings up various posts I've written.

The offered 'categories' to explore are in this order

1.) "Quantum Gravity Physicists" On mouseover you are offered the following five names: Lee Smolin, Rafael Sorkin, Martin Bojowald, Abbay Ashtekar and Giovanni Amelino-Camelia.

2.) "String Theorists", with the exhaustive selection Lubos Motl, Leonard Susskind, David Gross, Jacques Distler, and Michael Atiyah.

3.) "Cosmologists", represented by Lee Smolin, Paul Steinhard and Martin Bojowald again.

The fourth category is "Fundamental Physics Concepts" which isn't a bad association, and the fifth is "British Mathematicians" for reasons that are a mystery to me. How is your try?

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Community Deconstruction

I am presently somewhat stressed out, so sorry for the silence. I'm kind of stuck in a phase of de- and reconstruction of some projects in the course of which I've covered my apartment with about a hundred piles of papers in the attempt to get some order into them - and my thoughts possibly. The only outcome however is, well, piles of paper distributed in my apartment. Meanwhile, Stefan is busy with his move, and it occurred to me I'm flying to California on the weekend for the SciFoo camp, having no clue what I'm supposed to do there.

Anyway, besides some other things I've been dealing with the conference organization. As you can see on our website, the schedule is slowly taking shape and looks more interesting every day.

As a PS to my weekend post Lost in Information where I wrote “I've diffused myself over a dozen social network sites and now wonder who I am.” I just came across an open letter by Cameron Neylon in which he asks the developers of tools that broadly fall into the category of social networking or collaborative tools for scientists to critically analyse the strengths and weaknesses of their sites, and pleads for some kind of collaboration. He is afraid, and I share this concern, that the overabundance of such offers may lead to “a situation where, because of a splitting up of the potential user community, none of these tools succeed.”

What are the chances however, I ask myself, that any such plea will have a large effect? After all, it's not about collaboration, it's about competition, right?

Something else related that crossed my mind the other day is how the decreasing diameter of our social networks has efficiently created a strong hierarchy within the network. If you think of information exchange between the nodes of the network as links, it is a directed graph. Clearly, as I had to realize when dealing with the conference invitations, people come in various sorts of VIPness and information usually doesn't go both ways. The most Important people are, easy to recognize, those whose email address you won't find online. If anything, you'll find a website referring you to a PR manager. Jokingly I said to my husband, I should name him as my PR manager, maybe that would help with my grant proposals.

Then there's the kind of people who are too important to answer emails. And then there's the kind of people who will constantly forget what you've already told them - a very lopsided information exchange indeed. It's not hard to figure how come. Where once we had a small-scale network with everybody having mostly local neighbors and some few longer connections, now everybody can reach everybody from everywhere. So who do people address their questions to, who do people send their insights to, hoping for reply? Well, if they can choose among the whole wide world, why would they chose the local people? No, they will go straight to the top. As a result, incoming information must have vastly increased for the better known people in whatever area, incoming information from within the community as well as from the public. Sure, there's always been fanpost and death threats by snail-mail, but the effort to write has decreased so much, there's a vast inflation of commentaries being sent around.

So then what happens? Well, as I can tell from myself, you'll reach the point at which it becomes simply impossible to reply to all the emails and comments and Facebook messages and you will have to find some simple and fast way to screen and sort them. This is as much an attempt for explanation as an apology on my behalf: please, please don't expect me to reply to your emails. It's not that I don't want to, I just can't do it. Let me put it like this: every node in this network has a maximum capacity of information output. If vastly more information comes in than can be processed, the in to out ratio will drop dramatically.

Unfortunately, this then raises the problem of how to decide what to keep and what to toss. And I am afraid the order goes as follows: People you know personally first. People who are considered equally important second. Then declining order of importance. One could call that a manifestation of hierarchy. On the very top you'll find those people whose personal email addresses you only get, hesitantly, via some connection. And then there's the struggle of people trying to appear important, the biggest hurdle to which are obscure email addresses.

(Btw one side effect of this is also that those somewhere in the middle get approached from those even more weakly connected to the higher levels. So here's another remark on my behalf: I would rather cut off my tongue than passing on your email to any of my colleagues, increasing your chances of being read. So, just forget about it.)

This might turn out to be a very bad trend that eventually, ironically, will act against the idea of a well connected world and getting science closer to the public (and against a flat hierarchy in our community), simply because information exchange to and from every node has natural limits and thus becomes directed.

Just some random thoughts...

Monday, August 04, 2008

This and That

  • Charlie Brooker explains that Scientists are killjoys. That's right folks. If I look back onto my life it seems to consist of a long and increasingly longer list of ideas I've killed, most of which are my own. That's the purpose of my being - telling you and myself why things don't work.

    For the intellectual value of this blog, let me add a quotation from Goethe's Faust, entry Mephistopheles

    Ich bin der Geist, der stets verneint!
    Und das mit Recht; denn alles, was entsteht,
    Ist wert, daß es zugrunde geht;
    Drum besser wär's, daß nichts entstünde.
    So ist denn alles, was ihr Sünde,
    Zerstörung, kurz, das Böse nennt,
    Mein eigentliches Element.
    I am the Spirit that denies!
    And rightly too; for all that doth begin
    Should rightly to destruction run;
    'Twere better then that nothing were begun.
    Thus everything that you call Sin,
    Destruction - in a word, as Evil represent-
    That is my own, real element.

    And if you want to know how that's pronounced, download wav-file (4MB) here or mp3 here (400 KB). Sorry for the bad recording, can't find my microphone.

  • The world isn't all evil, we still have the 7-year old kids. Here's the most heartwarming story of the week: 7-year old draws € 500 from his grandma's bank account, buys some sweets and since he doesn't know what to do with the rest, gives it away. Being tracked down by police officers, he explained that “he wanted to get money out of the machine and go shopping just like his grandmother,” because when his grandmother handed money to other people “they were always so happy.”

  • Discover Magazine has a reasonable, clear and well-written note on Black Holes at the LHC: The Extremely Long Odds Against the Destruction of Earth that is highly appreciated by the authors of this blog. See also our posts: Is there life after CERN?, Black Holes at the LHC - what can happen, Black Holes at the LHC - again, and Black Holes at the LHC - the CERN safety report.

  • Terra Mineralia is an exhibition in Freiberg, Germany, that will open in October. It is announced as the 'world's largest exhibition of unique minerals' that will 'enchant visitors of all generations through their splendid colors and stunning diversity' (my translation of their website). Spiegel Online has some beautiful photos here. If you're in the area, sounds like it's worth a visit.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Lost in Information

The origins of our culture date back 100,000 years ago and started with burial rituals, stone carvings and cave paintings. While it can be disputed whether these were purposefully designed to pass on information there remains the fact they indeed did. Throughout the history of mankind, it has been the passing on of knowledge from one generation to the next that enabled us to gradually improve our understanding of nature and our ability to shape our future. Communication - over increasingly long distances in space and time - is possibly the most essential human skill that sets us apart from other species. The efficient dissemination of what we have learned is what allows us to build and maintain a body of knowledge - without it, every generation had to start over again, reduced to what is imprinted in its genetic code.

Near the city I grew up was once the Roman Limes, a defense line marked by walls, gates and towers, ruins of which can be visited in many places. It was not unusual that a farmer would find some Roman relics in his ground, such founds were collected and displayed in the city-hall, constituting an incomplete but lasting record of the past that puts our existence in line, assigns us a role in the story of our evolution.

Traditionally, information was passed on in the narrative, and later in the written form. Carved in stone, painted on papyrus, printed on paper, data could be stored and preserved outside the human brain. This enabled us to become self-taught, to extract knowledge out of books, to learn from those long gone, and use the same means to collect our contributions to mankind's ongoing strive for understanding and sense-making.

Today we store information on microchips, CDs, or DVDs and if you use the Internet like I do, in most cases I have no clue where or how that information is actually stored. Like this blog post, presumably on a server somewhere in the bay area, but who knows, and more importantly: who cares? My understanding of my laptop's internal organs is at best peripheral, what experience tells me however is when you drop it you're fucked.

Since my work consists of spreading my brainchildren, I've developed a considerate amount of paranoia and meticulously back up paper drafts on various memory devices and different servers distributed all over the planet, while hard copies get lost and damaged in an increasing number of moves. Passing on of information to the next generation? Gee, passing it on to my older self is hard enough. A report by the National Institute for Standards and Technology notes that CDs and DVDs might last anywhere from twenty to two hundred years [1], others are less optimistic and come to notice the average writable CD you buy at Walmart becomes useless after ten years. Chances are the backups of your '99 intellectual effusions are slowly disintegrating.

The way we store information today it is no longer immediately accessible to our own senses, it can not be retrieved and used without highly sophisticated techniques. A CD is useless without a device to read it, an iPod useless without a player, and if you still have floppy disks lying around you know that information can get lost in upgrades “Any file stored more than six to eight years ago and not transferred to something more modern in the meantime, in on its way to doom” writes James Fallows in his article “File not Found”.

Colleagues ask me why I bother to publish my papers. Worse, why I publish in print journals, dead tree format. Because I'm German possibly? I value permanence. I'm used to houses that are centuries old, and cars that run and run and run. I'm used to marvel at the achievements of earlier cultures, I'm used to wonder what they would tell us if they could. I publish in print because this is my life's work, I want it to be stored in a medium that will survive at least some decades, and I don't want that survival to be left to the believe that progress will last forever. Because if progress doesn't last, that's when we will need it most - all that knowledge which became inaccessible. Paper you can spill Coke over, you can slap mosquitoes with it, you can put in the trunk of your car where it will endure temperatures from -25° to +50°C. Sure, it doesn't get any prettier but the information is not lost. Try that with an ebook. Progress?

And yes, that is a tiny fraction of my mental output I consider to be worth the preservation and I can't but be stunned upon the growth of the blogosphere, wrapping around the planet like a constant cloud of chatter. Every day there are more and more people writing up the stories of their first or second lives, or comments on other people's multiple lives. They snip information in smaller and smaller pieces, pieces that are being picked up and passed on by others until they lose their news value. But after some years one can warm them up again! Blogs have no memory, as I learned fast. How far have we come, we, the species whose superiority builds on accumulation of knowledge? Upon the invention of large artificial memory devices, we're declining to a culture that laughs about the same joke every three years.

With every day that more people write, there are less people reading. The more people are shouting and asking for attention, the less people are listening. With every day that more people collect information, less people assemble it to useful knowledge. With every day we snip information into smaller pieces: an abstract, a quotation, a headline. What was once carved in stone and carefully arranged in elaborate argumentation is now crumbled to sand, tiny pieces that can be put together into every desired form, can be used to build castles of sand hosting beliefs of any kind. We have accessibility to a vast and increasing amount of data, but unshaped and unordered information is noise, is useless.

So, no, it doesn't bother me much that most of this cloud of chatter will never be read by a coming generation because it's completely redundant noise. But what then is it that we want to pass on, what are the essentials the next generation needs to know? How do we find out what is relevant without some sorting and sifting, without some judging and selecting? Do we want to leave it to PageRank what is worthy being read repeatedly? There ought to be something! If there's some million bloggers tapping their keyboards, every now and them one of them should produce a coherent insight. The problem is just: if we're all tapping our keyboards who is left to read it and find out whether it's meaningful?

And the longer I watch the more islands of knowledge I see disintegrating, newspapers declining to catchy headlines, ads hanging in front of text, flashing blinking and asking for attention. [Figure: Project for Excellence in Journalism]

Reporting on results of a recent survey researchers on the 'Project for Excellence in Journalism' summarize that the newspaper of today “has fewer pages than three years ago, the paper stock is thinner, and the stories are shorter. There is less foreign and national news, less space devoted to science, the arts, features and a range of specialized subjects [...] but coverage of some local issues has strengthened and investigative reporting remains highly valued.” Which leaves me to wonder what then is investigated, apparently “the local issues”? Well, at least investiagive reporting is still “highly valued”, even if if can no longer be afforded since newspaper's “staff also is under greater pressure, has less institutional memory, less knowledge of the community, of how to gather news and the history of individual beats. There are fewer editors to catch mistakes.”

So what are we creating then? We create a culture of the Now and the Here, with people commenting on other comments, arguing without conclusion, then forgetting about it and repeating the same story some months later, decaying into “a cacophony of controversy,” as Alison Gopnik puts it. We are creating a self-referential bubble without permanence, void of any useful structure. Start with a random blog post: you'll be left with links to other websites referring to other websites, until you end at a 404 page not found or come back in a circle. We're creating layers over layers of social games, and online tools for these games. Networking is the word of the day. I've diffused myself over a dozen social network sites and now wonder who I am. We're talking about talking about talking about each others. And the titles of our posts are puns on movies we didn't even watch.

PS: Yes, that means the blog-block we had yesterday was removed.

[1] Daniel Cohen, "The Future of Preserving the Past" CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship 12 no 2 (2005): 6-9.

See also: Cast Away, The Spirits that We Called

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