Sunday, November 28, 2010

Recent Distractions

Under The Dome
Stephen King

I've read most of Stephen King's book, and "Under the Dome" is clearly one of his best. It's the story of a small city suddenly cut off from the rest of the world by a transparent barrier, the "Dome." On the one hand it's one of these stories that show how many things we take for granted are quite fragile achievements of civilization, like water, electricity, or food supply. On the other hand, King masterly tells how the small-town leaders abuse their power and manipulate the town folks, while ordinary people find their inner hero. Of course the book also has a significant yuck-factor, King-style. The end leaves the scientist somewhat unsatisfied as to explanation, but then King isn't known as a sci-fi author.

Ian McEwan

One long Saturday in the life of a neurosurgeon. It's an extremely well-told story with very carefully worked out and authentic characters. While there isn't actually much plot in this book, the reader gets to share the mind of the main character, his thoughts about current events, terrorism, the war in Iraq as well as aging and happiness in his own life. I found the book in parts quite annoying because of side-long detailed explanations about every move in a squash match or how to cook a bouillabaisse for dinner, but if you occasionally like to see the world through somebody else's eyes, this book is for you.

Ian McEwan

The main character of this novel is Michael Beard, a Nobelprize winner, now in his late 50s, with a long history of marriages and affairs. He doesn't see how he can make further contributions to physics, so he sets out getting famous in the flourishing business of clean energy and climate change. The story is a mixture of his private life with his attempt to leave a mark in history by not-so noble means The physics is sufficiently plausible, the author has clearly done his homework, and I found the story highly amusing and entertaining. As with "Saturday," by reading this book you'll get to see the world through somebody else's eyes. Very recommendable.

Duma Key
Stephen King

The main character of this book is Edgar who, after a work-accident that leaves him one-armed, loses also his wife and moves to Florida for a new start. There, he finds he has acquired a new talent, painting. And not only does he suddenly come to fame by his new talent, his paintings also have an eerie influence on his and other people's lives and bring him in contact with scary powers that awake from a long sleep. Together with newfound friends, Edgar sets out to battle these powers and put them back to sleep. It's a well-written story and an easy read, though there are repeated remarks about some good power watching over our heroes, so they "just know" what to do, which is never explained. The reader is left to wonder what this is all about, definitely not a feature I've encountered in earlier Stephen King novels.

Lisey's Story
Stephen King

King tell's the story of Lisey, the wife of a recently deceased famous who had, one could say, access to a parallel world. King being King, besides the writer's inspiration there's monsters and dangers lurking in that world. The story of that other world is woven together very nicely with Scott's family history and his marriage. The story is told after Scott's death, when Lisey has to deal with a mentally distorted person who is threatening her. However, the plot takes several hundred pages to actually start, and then lots of it doesn't make very much sense. Lisey is constantly following some intuitions for doing this or that which are never explained (similar to "Duma Key"), but she "just knows" it's the right thing to do. It's very unsatisfactory.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Nonsense people once believed in

I have a list with notes for blogposts, and one topic that's been on it for a while is believes people once firmly held that during the history of science turned out to be utterly wrong.

Some examples that came to my mind were the "élan vital" (the belief that life is some sort of substance), the theory of the four humors (one consequence of which was the wide spread use of bloodletting as medical treatment for all sorts of purposes), the static universe, and the non-acceptance of continental drift. On the more absurd side of things is the belief that semen is produced in the brain (because the brain was considered the seat of the soul), and that women who are nursing turn menstruation blood into breast milk. From my recent read of Annie Paul's book "Origins" I further learned that until only some decades ago it was widely believed that pretty much any sort of toxins are blocked by the placenta and do not reach the unborn child. It was indeed recommended that pregnant women drink alcohol, and smoking was not of concern. This dramatically wrong belief was also the reason why thalidomide was handed out without much concerns to pregnant women, with the know well-known disastrous consequences, and why the fetal alcohol syndrome is a fairly recent diagnosis.

I was collecting more examples, not very actively I have to admit, but I found yesterday that somebody saved me the work! Richard Thaler, director of the Center for Decision Research at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, is working on a book about the topic, and he's asked the Edge-club for input:

"The flat earth and geocentric world are examples of wrong scientific beliefs that were held for long periods. Can you name your favorite example and for extra credit why it was believed to be true?"

You find the replies on this website, which include most of my examples and a few more. One reply that I found very interesting is that by Frank Tipler:
"The false belief that stomach ulcers were caused by stress rather than bacteria. I have some information on this subject that has never been published anywhere. There is a modern Galileo in this story, a scientist convicted of a felony in criminal court in the 1960's because he thought that bacteria caused ulcers."

I hadn't known about the "modern Galileo," is anybody aware of the details? Eric Weinstein adds the tau-theta puzzle, and Rupert Sheldrake suggests "With the advent of quantum theory, indeterminacy rendered the belief in determinism untenable," though I would argue that this issue isn't settled, and maybe never will be settled.

Do you know more examples?

Saturday, November 20, 2010


I’m stuck in the hospital again, thus my silence. The brief version is that my doc got nervous I might be in for preterm delivery. Now I’m getting medication that’s supposed to mature the babies lungs, just in case. Unfortunately these meds can have the side-effect of triggering labor, so to avoid that I get more medication (called tocolytics) to prevent the contractions. That medication then doesn’t only affect the muscles it should, but most importantly also the heart muscles, ie more side-effects, these of the very unpleasant sort. And then there’s more medication against the side-effects of that medication. The result is that I feel like shit, can’t go farther than up and down the corridor since I’m tied to an IV-drip, and my butt hurts from the injections. But otherwise we’re all fine. Below is a recent bump-photo from a surprisingly warm and sunny November weekend.

And if you think I was actually sleeping, just right of the photo, there's a table (you can see one edge) with a pile of papers on it...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

This and That

  • We discussed several times on this blog the question how plausible metrics for scientific success are, see for example my posts Science Metrics and Against Measure. This week, the NYT reports an amusing fact from the recent Times Higher Education university ranking in the article Questionable Science Behind Academic Rankings: Alexandria University in Egypt made it on the list on rank 147 (together with Uppsala) as the only Arab university. Just that, upon closer inspection, this success goes back to the enormous productivity of one researcher... and that is no other than Mohamed El Naschie. If you recall, two years ago we mentioned El Naschie's amazing publication record of more than 300 papers within a few years, published in a journal of which he also was editor-in-chief. He retired from his position a few weeks later. The NYT reports:
    “But the news that Alexandria University in Egypt had placed 147th on the list — just below the University of Birmingham and ahead of such academic powerhouses as Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands (151st) or Georgetown in the United States (164th) — was cause for both celebration and puzzlement. Alexandria’s Web site was quick to boast of its newfound status as the only Arab university among the top 200...

    Like most university rankings, the list is made up of several different indicators, which are given weighted scores and combined to produce a final number or ranking...

    Phil Baty, deputy editor of Times Higher Education, acknowledged that Alexandria’s surprising prominence was actually due to “the high output from one scholar in one journal” — soon identified on various blogs as Mohamed El Naschie, an Egyptian academic who published over 320 of his own articles in a scientific journal of which he was also the editor. In November 2009, Dr. El Naschie sued the British journal Nature for libel over an article alleging his “apparent misuse of editorial privileges.” The case is still in court.”

  • El Naschie commented the following on the university ranking:
    “I do not believe at all in this ranking business and do not consider it anyway indicatory of any merit of the corresponding university.”

  • Somehow scary:
    “In this edition, we have added, for the first time, annotated references in the text to provide the beginning of an evidence based approach to clinical methods.”

    From the preface of “Clinical Examination,” by Nicholas J Talley & Simon O'Connor, 4th Edition, 2001.

  • The results from our recent poll: Is the scientific process one of discovery or invention? A total of 167 people took the poll. To my surprise, most them shared my opinion. The replies were: Both - 52.1%, Discovery - 33.7%, Invention -10.4%, Neither - 1.8%, Don't know - 1.8%.

  • Chad Orzel discusses the statistic on the initial employment of new PhDs in physics from 1979 to 2008 in his post Physics Job Market: Same As It Ever Was. Slightly more than 50% of new PhDs presently go on to make a postdoc...

    You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack... and you may find yourself in another part of the world... You may ask yourself, "Well, how did I get here?"... Same as it ever was... Same as it ever was... (Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime).

  • And if you think that statistic doesn't look so bad, you may want to watch this:

    [Via Dynamics of Cats]

    You may ask yourself... How do I work this?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Religion: A temporary phase in mankind’s history?

I don’t often write on science and religion. That’s because it seems to me that everything that can be said was said about a million times already. But much of what I read recently tries to argue for or against the compatibility of religion and scientific research. The outcome is either some justification for denial of scientific facts or what’s become known as the “god of the gaps:” religion confined to these areas where scientific explanations are still lacking; an inevitably shrinking range of operation for god. But I believe that’s the wrong way to think about it.

Religion and science are not two different approaches to explain the world that need to be made compatible, possibly by discarding one entirely. Instead, religion (as well as other superstitious believes) is a historical pre-phase to scientific thinking. It’s a primitive exercise in story-telling and sense-making, that has proven to be of advantage for its practitioners. Religions are part of our historical legacy, but the wide spread of religion we currently witness is a temporary phase. Both are not compatible in the same sense that an MP3 player isn’t compatible with living in the Stone Age. But then, people in the Stone Age were happy even without MP3 players.

As an atheist, my interest in religion stems from them having a major influence on our history and their lasting effect in shaping our societies. It is an interesting question: Why is it that so many people, all around the globe, believe in some god when that god and its tales are in outright conflict with scientific evidence or, in the better case, without evidence whatsoever?

In an earlier post, I reported on results of a study looking for the neurological origin of religion. There have been a lot of studies in that direction during the last decade. Almost all of them however do not so much look for the origins of religiosity as more for the origins of supernatural thinking, or call it jumping to conclusions. The human brain looks for explanations, tries to find patterns, and to construct theories. These are skills that have proven very useful to our survival. Inventing gods arguably serves as some sort of explanation. Yet, superstition generally serves that purpose too, and at the end of the road, if you carefully follow up on the explanations, if you construct correct theories, where you inevitably arrive is: science! And over the course of history, that’s the path we’ve taken: Starting from gods and superstition towards science by continuing to ask and to look for better and more useful explanations.

Thus, one could equally well say our looking for patterns and aiming to construct explanations is not only the origin of religion, but the origin of scientific thinking and drawing upon such neurological basis to claim religion is hard-wired just confirms what we see in the world around us but doesn’t explain it. On that level, the difference between religion or superstition and science is simply how carefully you investigate the data and how much you learn about how to construct consistent theories of reality, ie the question is at which level of explanation do you stop searching. Tests for activity in certain brain regions look for activity on the very-short to short timescale. But that’s not all what constitutes human cognition. In contrast, compared to other species humans are particularly good in careful deliberation, reflection and advance planning. That’s the basis of our success. Not so surprisingly then, most, if not all, religious people sooner or later have doubts in the reality of what they believe in. This doubt has to be constantly silenced to be a good believer, and many people manage indeed to lull themselves into a state of constantly belying their own intelligence. But the existence of these doubts tells us that indeed religion is not the natural endstate of the search for explanation. The human mind wants to question and solve the puzzles. It wants to understand, not to be shut up. It wants to know more.

So, compared to science religions don’t make particularly convincing or useful explanations for anything and knowing what we know today, belief is only possible with working against ones’ own intelligence. We are then left to wonder still, why do so many people believe?

In a recent opinion piece on the NYT blog, Tim Crane (who declares himself an atheist) wrote, in essence, that people chose to believe because it’s easier:
“[S]cientific explanation is a very specific and technical kind of knowledge. It requires patience, pedantry, a narrowing of focus and (in the case of the most profound scientific theories) considerable mathematical knowledge and ability...

Religious belief is a very different kind of thing. It is not restricted only to those with a certain education or knowledge, it does not require years of training, it is not specialized and it is not technical. (I’m talking here about the content of what people who regularly attend church, mosque or synagogue take themselves to be thinking; I’m not talking about how theologians interpret this content.)...

I would guess that very few people in the world are actually interested in the details of contemporary scientific theories... [M]ost people aren’t deeply interested in science, even when they have the opportunity and the basic intellectual capacity to learn about it.”

I don’t find this explanation plausible. True, if one wants to understand the details of modern science it requires time and effort. But that’s true for everything, including religion, as Crane points out himself. Understanding the Bible (to the extent possible) also requires patience and a narrowing of focus. It would already make a difference if more people would at least understand contemporary science on the level they understand their weekly sermon. No, the actual reason why people have more knowledge about their religion than, say, modern cosmology, is that they go to church every Sunday instead of going to a physics lecture. Their mindset is a consequence, rather than the origin of what they spend time on. Just think about how amazingly quickly seriously ill patients learn details about their disease, up to the level where they know more about recent research than their doctors. Suddenly they are deeply interested indeed, it’s just a matter of motivation.

With Crane’s explanation not being convincing, let us ask again: why do so many people believe? I think it’s because religious belief has both psychological as well as social advantages, and that serves as a motivation science is often lacking. Let us start with the psychological advantage. Existential psychotherapy is a particularly simple (and overly simple) model of the human mind. It posits that we all have four so-called “existential fears” – the fear of death, of loneliness, of meaninglessness and the fear of freedom. (The latter refers to the fear of responsibility one has for one’s own decisions.) Psychological problems occur if one or several of these fears take overhand and stifle personal development. Religions neatly address all of these fears. The social advantage comes from being a member of a global community with shared traditions that in many cases are very well organized, providing counseling and support in difficult phases of one’s life. The believer belongs, and he knows where he belongs.

Thus, the practitioner of a widely spread religion has indeed benefits from his belief. The benefits are less pronounced for superstition for which there is no such social cohesion and does less to address existential fears, thus explaining why the neurological origin might be the same but religions are more successful.

The question is now what has science to offer?

On the psychological and social level, science has no such offers to make – at least not yet, and not obviously so. But I think these offers will come, and they will become more and more widely accepted.

On the social level, I don’t think it is farfetched that one day people do indeed go to a public lecture on science every Sunday instead of going to church (must be one of my optimistic days). And the sense of community, that some of you might have found already on the Internet, comes automatically with the spread of shared knowledge, and time and places where you know you will meet like-minded people to discuss what's on your mind. Today, if you are actively working in science, you’ll find your community easily at the next university, all over the globe. Departments of physics look the same everywhere. If you’ve been in the field for some while, you’ll feel at home in either one. Same posters on the wall, same books in the shelves, same topics over lunch. I guess it is similar in most other fields: Science is a global enterprise.

On the psychological level, let us first mention again that science has the advantage of allowing –indeed welcoming – skepticism and doubt. The disadvantage is that one has to accept uncertainty as necessary ingredient. Science does not address the four existential fears as directly as religion does, but it does to some extent and that’s becoming more and more noticeable. There are for example numerous research programs trying to understand, explain, and modify human mortality. Of course these are on very different levels of scientific rigor and plausibility (ranking from freezing in one’s brain, over uploading oneself to a computer, to improving the body’s DNA repair mechanism). And of course they are not as complete comfort as believing in an immortal soul that goes to heaven or is reborn, but they offer a ground to grapple with the process of one’s own aging and death. The fears of loneliness, meaninglessness, freedom: There is lots of scientific research which addresses one or the other, on social, neurological, psychological, or philosophical grounds. That again is becoming more and more noticeable. Just have a look at the abundance of self-help books (e.g. on the topic of happiness). Yes, most of them are based on pseudo-science rather than sound science, but at least it’s a start. The point is not the quality of the science, the point is these approaches are non-religious. It’s a begin of a change of which I’m convinced we’ll see more.

And finally, of course a major role is played by the ancient questions: Where do we come from? and What are we made of? Theoretical physics is on the most fundamental level of our search for explanations. This is why the questions asked in this field seem quite detached from life and understanding current research – and its relevance – takes time and effort indeed. But it is this research we need to truly understande our place in the universe.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Americans prefer Swedish wealth distribution

I was a little bit depressed about the recent US midterm election. Not so much because of the outcome. I wasn't too convinced of Obama when he was elected. The way his campaign went, I was afraid he'd turn out to be a populist and change his course every time some interest group's wishes made it into the headlines. But I severely underestimated the man. In contrast to most of the commentators on the outcome of the midterm election, he is evidently well aware that halfway through his term he's in a lose-lose situation anyway. Either he keeps his course and is being criticized for not being a miracle healer, or he'd listen to the masses and claim he changed his mind and be criticized for that. Whether one thinks his political agenda is promising or not, in that situation at least he's aiming at doing the right thing in the course of history, rather than doing the right thing to be re-elected. In January, Obama said:
"I'd rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president."

A rare case of a politician with a backbone. Given that, I can't say I was surprised by the election outcome. No, what depressed me was the lacking substance of arguments. The American nation strikes me as similar to a group of overweight people who at their first weight watchers meeting chants "Yes, we can" and cheer upon change. But when change is staring back from the dinner plate, and change on the scale leaves waiting, they realize change doesn't come easy. And the vast majority of them still doesn't know the difference between social democracy and socialism. Clearly, the world would be a better place if everybody would read my blog ;-)

Anyway, to some extend I don't care very much how the Americans organize their society. I think they're not fully using their potential, and find that a shame, but after all it's their decision what they put on their plates and shovel down their throats while I, well, I live in Sweden. And that brings me to one of the most amusing studies I've come across lately:
    Building a Better America – One Wealth Quintile at a Time
    By Michael I. Norton and Dan Ariely, PDF here

Michael Norton, from Harvard Business School, and his colleague Dan Ariely, from Duke University, asked a random sample of US citizens what wealth distribution they think is ideal. In 2005, they surveyed 5,522 people. Asked for their voting pattern in the 2004 election, the sample reproduced well the actual voting result. The survey respondents were given a definition for wealth so there was no ambiguity. Then they were shown three pie charts. Each slice of the pie represents 20% of the population, from the poorest to the wealthiest. The size of the slice is the wealth owned by this group. One pie showed a perfectly equal distribution. The other two pies were unlabeled but showed the distribution of the USA and that of Sweden.

The result: 47% of Americans preferred the Swedish wealth distribution, followed by 43% for the equal distribution, while only 10% found ideal the actual distribution. Just focusing on the Swedish vs the US distribution, 92% of Americans prefer the Swedish one over their own.

[Source: Fig 1 of this paper]

It turns out that these preferences depend only very little on demographic factors like gender or whether they voted for Bush or Kerry in 2004. Considered how convinced Americans tend to be about their own greatness, this result seems somewhat puzzling. However, keep in mind that these pie charts were unlabeled in the questionnaire. The replies makes sense if you come to the next question. In that, survey respondents were asked first to guess the wealth distribution in the USA, and then chose what distribution they would find ideal. It turns out that most Americans severely underestimate the rich-poor gap in their own country, and in addition would prefer a distribution that is even more equal than their erroneous estimate. This is shown in the figure below.

[Source: Fig 3 of this paper]

Again, note how little both the estimate as well as the ideal depends on demographic factors.

This result fits quite well with previous studies which had shown that Americans overestimate the social mobility in their own country. They're still dreaming the American dream, despite its evident conflict with reality.

After I stopped laughing I started wondering what this result really means. The survey respondents are very clearly considering the present wealth distribution as not ideal. However, the wealth distribution is a fairly abstract observable. Would you have been able to accurately estimate it? My own estimate would have been considerably closer to the actual one than the average guess, but that's only because I happen to have seen the relevant numbers before.

Norton and Ariely had a good reason to ask these questions: The philosopher John Rawls proposed that justice should be identified by taking a position behind a "veil of ignorance." For that, you're supposed to imagine that you decide on a particular question - for example the distribution of wealth - and only after you've decided you'll be randomly assigned a position within that society you've just created. I've never been really convinced by that approach. It's much too heady, or call it utopian. As a matter of fact, people don't live behind a veil of ignorance and their own social status does influence their decisions. Also, it isn't only the ideal (size 4!) that's relevant but also the way to get there (diet). In fact, the way is typically the question that's more immediate and thus more prominent on people's mind.

If one just asks people what they think is ideal, you're probing their ideas about what they believe the wealth distribution means, not necessarily what they actually want. To get to the relevant point, one would have to ask for factors that actually affect their life, or are such that they have some basis to judge on. Social mobility for example, the possibilities that are open for them and their children, is a relevant factor, and it is of course related to the wealth distribution. Or, instead of asking for the distribution of wealth, maybe better ask if they think somebody's work is really worth a 1000 times more than somebody else's. Another factor, and the one that bothers me most, is that wealth means power and it means influence. How much influence on your life do you want a small group of people to have? And at which point does this run into conflict with democratic decision making?

Bottomline: This is an interesting study. It explains a lot of things about the US American attitude towards their country's income distribution and the sometimes puzzling disconnect between their wish for change on the one hand and on the other hand their unwillingness to really take the necessary steps: they believe the steps are smaller than they in fact are. However, it's not a result that should have any relevance for policy decisions because the question asked is impractical. One doesn't chose a wealth distribution first and then gets randomly assigned a place in that society. It's not how things work in real life, and it's just replacing one dream with another one. There's always the risk the dream might later turn out to be a nightmare.

Aside: Dan Ariely, one of the authors of the study, writes a blog. He commented on his own paper here.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Learning: school versus university

Two days ago, a young man about to finish high school told me he couldn’t decide whether to study mathematics, informatics or physics. If I would have any advice? Though physics is interesting at school, he doesn’t really like it because there is so much to learn, he said. Math on the other hand he likes better because once understood, one just has to do it.

My first reaction was if you dislike learning, a university isn’t the right place for you no matter what field you chose. Then I thought he might be disliking not learning in general, but a particular sort of learning. It might be useful to distinguish the following four types of learning:

  1. Physical learning
    Is the training of motion sequences through practice and exercise. Plays a major role for sports, playing an instrument, driving, and so on. It’s aiming for the goal, doing your scales practice, filling cuvettes till you manage without spilling, etc.

  2. Learning by doing
    Is learning from cause and effect, trial and error. Omnipresent theme of children’s toys and school education. Many science museums too work with push here - look there. In contrast to physical learning though, the emphasis is not on learning a particular motion but understanding a relation.

  3. Knowledge gathering
    Is the classical learning of facts and data. Avogadro’s number is about 6 x 1023. The capital of turkey is Ankara. The milky-way is about 100,000 light-years side to side. The can-opener was invented 48 years after the can. Etc.

  4. Conceptual understanding
    Is the learning of explanations and relations, theories and concepts. What is chaos? How does the stock market work? What makes airplanes fly? Why doesn’t the moon fall down on Earth?

Learning at school as well as at the university is typically a combination of these 4 types of learning. But the composition depends on the field, and it may substantially change from school to university. Languages for example are generally heavy in knowledge gathering. You just have to memorize that vocabulary, no way around it. And you can’t lead any argument in history without the names and dates. Biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics necessitate type 3 learning in declining order. Lab work is the contribution from 2.

At school, you will generally do well just by learning the facts and it is, at least in my experience, also often where the emphasis of the educational system is (except for classes like sports and music which rely on type 1 learning). Especially in mathematics however, it is possible already in school to replace type 3 learning with type 4 learning: You can either memorize a table with functions and their derivative and integrals, or you understand what a derivative and an integral is. You learn the steps you have to do to calculate the intersection of two planes in a 3-dimensional space. Or you understand what the equations mean. Pupils who fly through math are typically those who understand the concepts, rather than learning a scheme for computation.

When you finish school and start studying math or physics, the relevance of memorizing facts drops dramatically. Who cares if you know Avogadro’s number - you can go look it up if you need it. Sure, it’s handy to know the distance from Earth to Sun, but it’s not going to impress your prof. In mathematics, the break with school practice is particularly dramatic. What you’ve done at school doesn’t prepare you for studying mathematics at all, except that some symbols might look vaguely familiar. To quote my younger self:

[W]hat's called mathematics in school has little to do with mathematics. It should more aptly be called calculation. Don't get me wrong, it is essential knowledge to be able to multiply fractions and calculate percentage rates, but it has about as much to do with mathematics as spreading your arms has with being a pilot. Problem is, that's about all most people ever get to know of mathematics. The actual heart of math however is not number crunching or solving quadratic equations, it's the abstraction, the development of an entirely self-referential, logically consistent language, detached from the burden of reality.

Both Stefan and I can recall from our first semesters those students who tried to continue type 3 learning that had worked so well at school. You can indeed just learn by heart what your textbook says what the variational principle is, and reproduce the relevant sentences when asked. You can memorize every example discussed in class, and learn technical terms by writing down definitions on a stack of index cards. This might get you through the first few semesters, but it’s not going to work in the long run. Both Stefan and I have seen dropping out the fellow students who proceeded this way, one after the other.

To come back to the young man’s question. If what you dislike in physics at school is the emphasis on type 3 learning, chances are you’ll do just fine at the university. There’s still the lab exercises where you have to stare at glowing wires for several hours or find anything else on the oscilloscope besides the 50 Hz curve, but if I managed that you can do it too.

I started studying mathematics and only changed to physics after my bachelor’s degree. That was possible because I had taken all the necessary classes and the department of mathematics had a respective agreement with the department of physics. It didn’t cause me any problems, and pretty much all of the additional math came in handy at some later point. I don’t know much about the requirements for informatics, but what I know from friends is that the first semesters are very heavy in math too. So in case of doubt, I’d recommend to start with math because the change to either physics or informatics will be easier than if you do it in any other order. However, since the time I was in my first semesters many regulations have changed to accommodate the European master’s program. I don’t know if, or under which conditions, it is still possible to change field after the first semesters.

In summary: Don’t expect that physics or math at the university is a continuation of what you’ve done at school, neither for what success or boredom is concerned. Best is to primarily follow your interests because you will need perseverance and motivation.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Book Review: "Origins" by Annie Murphy Paul

How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives

By Annie Murphy Paul
Free Press (September 28, 2010)

I thought the acronym FOAD stands for fuck off and die, but Annie Paul taught me it stands for "Fetal Origins of Adult Disease." Maybe I wasn't the only one with that association, because from her book "Origins, How the Nine Month Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives" I also learned that this research field was later renamed into DOHaD - "Developmental Origins of Health and Disease." And that's what her book is about: The increasing amount of scientific evidence that besides our genetic inheritance and individual experience, who we are and what we will be is influenced by a third, and long neglected, factor - the nine months spent inside our mother's womb.

As the renaming of this flourishing research area indicates, these are interesting studies not only to understand the origins of diseases, but also as guides to the health of coming generations. Unlike our genetic information, the conditions in utero are to some extend accessible for prevention and intervention. It has long been known for example that the same genetic information (genotype) might come in different appearances (phenotype), but exactly how this mechanism works and how the phenotype is affected in particular during gestation has only recently become accessible to scientific investigation.

Annie Paul is a science journalist, and her book is a survey of recent and not-so recent studies on DOHaD, together with historical anecdotes and reports of interviews with scientists, all woven together with the story of her own pregnancy. The book's chapters are (guess) month one to nine, and the reference list is extensive. It is a well-written, classical and flawless piece of a good science journalism. It also comes with the typical weaknesses of the genre. While Paul has thoroughly scanned the literature, she reports rather than explains, and if she has an own opinion on a particular controversial issue, she does not offer it. Since in addition a book on such a popular level cannot explain in much detail the studies it reports on, the reader who doesn't go and check the literature himself has little chances to form an informed opinion. While Annie Paul cleans up with a few decade old myths (for example the advise that showering with baking soda increases the chances of conceiving a boy) most of her book is a collection of topics and studies presently under discussion, and also an outlook on studies planned and consequences of what we have learned or may learn.

She covers the influence of traumatic experiences and stress on the developing fetus, environmental toxins, drugs and medication, and preexisting conditions of the mother (such as overweight or diabetes). The reader learns that there are studies that claim to have shown eating a bowl of cereal in the morning increases a mothers' chance of having a boy - and others that claim the result is nonsense, that a mother's experience of high stress or periods of hunger affects more strongly the survival chances of male than female fetuses, and that daily chocolate consumption of a pregnant woman results in happier babies. Paul also briefly touches on economical factors, citing studies that have shown people born in periods of hunger or wide-spread disease do on the average have a lesser income as adults than those who were born before or conceived after the tough times.

Annie Paul does mostly just document the research, but a few paragraphs here and there she takes on the question what the impact of this research may be on our societies in the future and what the benefit of this area of science may be. She hopes that babies born in difficult social situations - often correlated with malnutrition, drug abuse, stress or trauma - will have chances of doing better than their parents if special care is taken of pregnant woman, or children at risk for problems can be identified in advance and offered targeted help. She also hopes that in cases of natural disasters or war, mothers-to-be will receive psychological support to prevent their babies from being affected.

This all sounds very sensible, but on several instances Paul comes close to arguing for this additional care by an improved economic output: Healthy and happy children grow up to be more productive adults, so our societies should have an interest in this investment. I have encountered similar arguments repeatedly when it comes to health care, and I am wary of the implications. It is a quite slippery slope. If you step on it, you easily slide down to where you'll find that investments that will not pay off should not be made. It is however very likely that understanding the origins of adult's diseases and problems will in some cases lead to a better understanding, but a treatment may not pay off in economic terms. To me, it is more a matter of empathy and solidarity, than one of productivity, to offer such support.

Taken together, Annie Paul's book has provided me with a bulk of interesting and entertaining study results, yet with little insight as to their scientific credibility. It has given me an excuse to munch down Stefan's chocolate, reminded me of the weakness of the male part of our species, and caused me a bad consciousness for not clearing my household of plastics containing Bisphenol A, whether or not scientists will eventually find them reason for concern. Paul's book is an easy read, yet I would have appreciated a somewhat deeper coverage of the underlying science. I'd give this book 3 out of 5 stars if I'd have stars to give - in other words, it's not a must-read, you can wait for the paperback version.

Monday, November 01, 2010


For those of you who've been asking how my pregnancy is going, here's a brief update.

Unfortunately, I'm having some complications that prompted the doctors to put me on medication and bed rest already several weeks ago. I've been on sick leave since, trying to stay horizontally as much as possible, having weekly check-ups. After last week's exam the doctor recommended if I plan on taking any flights before delivery, I should do so rather sooner than later.

So I packed my bag, rebooked my flight - and now I'm back in Germany. The prospect of staying here for almost half a year is admittedly odd. I haven't lived in Germany for almost 7 years now. When I moved to Arizona for my first postdoc I never meant to stay away more than a year. You'd have told me then I'd only come back after a detour through California, Canada, and Sweden, in late 2010, 7 months pregnant with twins, to move in with a guy I've been married to for more than 4 years yet have never shared an apartment with, I'd have declared you nuts.

Funny, the way life goes, eh?

In any case, moving in with Stefan some weeks earlier than planned means I've stepped right into his moving chaos. We're sitting on boxes, waiting for phone and internet, and have no kitchen appliances. Also, we're facing difficult decisions. For example, Stefan is left-handed but I am right-handed. So which side of the toilet do we put the paper?

The babies meanwhile are doing fine, growing properly and kicking stronger every day. My belly's size is presently that of a nine month single pregnancy, yet scarily enough has to grow 10 more weeks.

News to me is that Halloween has become a seasonal event in Germany. When I was a kid, that tradition was pretty much unknown here. Now, people have carved pumpkins on their doorsteps, stock up on candy and welcome another opportunity to go out and get drunk. No, I didn't carve a pumpkin. I feel like one myself, that's enough seasonal event for me.

Within the last decade or so, Germany has also seen a boom of new shopping malls outside the city centers. On the weekend, Stefan and I went to Starbucks in one of these malls in the area. Half of the guests seemed to be Americans, probably because the US Army has troops in nearby Mannheim, and really, where can you go on a weekend other than Starbucks? The whole place was eerily non-national, and crowded in addition, so we ordered our coffees to go. Then somebody left and I managed to occupy a table. Sitting there with the paper cups quickly got us a reprimand from the barista for producing unnecessary garbage. Suddenly the air smelled German again.