Saturday, August 10, 2019

Book Review: “The Secret Life of Science” by Jeremy Baumberg

The Secret Life of Science: How It Really Works and Why It Matters
Jeremy Baumberg
Princeton University Press (16 Mar. 2018)

The most remarkable thing about science is that most scientists have no idea how it works. With his 2018 book “The Secret Life of Science,” Jeremy Baumberg aims to change this.

The book is thoroughly researched and well-organized. In the first chapter, Baumberg starts with explaining what science is. He goes about this pragmatically and without getting lost in irrelevant philosophical discussions. In this chapter, he also introduces the terms “simplifier science” and “constructor science” to replace “basic” and “applied” research.

Baumberg suggests to think of science as an ecosystem with multiple species and flows of nutrients that need to be balanced, which is an analogy that he comes back to throughout the book. This first chapter is followed by a brief chapter about the motivations to do science and its societal relevance.

In the next chapters, Baumberg then focuses on various aspects of a scientist’s work-life and explains how these are organized in praxis: Scientific publishing, information sharing in the community (conferences and so on), science communication (PR, science journalism), funding, and hiring. In this, Baumberg make an effort to distinguish between research in academia and in business, and in many cases he also points out national differences.

The book finishes with a chapter about the future of science and Baumberg’s own suggestions for improvement. Except for the very last chapter, the author does not draw attention to existing problems with the current organization of science, though these will be obvious to most readers.

Baumberg is a physicist by training and, according to the book flap, works in nanotechnology and photonics. As most physicists who do not work in particle physics, he is well aware that particle physics is in deep trouble. He writes:
Knowing the mind of god” and “The theory of everything” are brands currently attached to particle physics. Yet they have become less powerful with time, attracting an air of liability, perhaps reaching that of a “toxic brand.” That the science involved now finds it hard to shake off precisely this layer of values attached to them shows how sticky they are.
The book contains a lot of concrete information for example about salaries and grant success rates. I have generally found Baumberg’s analysis to be spot on, for example when he writes “Science spending seems to rise until it becomes noticed and then stops.” Or
Because this competition [for research grants] is so well defined as a clear race for money it can become the raison d’etre for scientists’ existence, rather than just what is needed to develop resources to actually do science.
On counting citations, he likewise remarks aptly:
“[The h-index rewards] wide collaborators rather than lone specialists, rewards fields that cite more, and rewards those who always stay at the trendy edge of all research.”
Unfortunately I have to add that the book is not particularly engagingly written. Some of the chapters could have been shorter, Baumberg overuses the metaphor of the ecosystem, and the figures are not helpful. To give you an idea why I say this, I challenge you to make sense of this illustration:

In summary, Baumberg’s is a useful book though it’s somewhat tedious to read. Nevertheless, I think everyone who wants to understand how science works in reality should read it. It’s time we get over the idea that science somehow magically self-corrects. Science is the way we organize knowledge discovery, and its success depends on us paying attention to how it is organized.


  1. There are a few ways to consider how science works. One is to consider it as a sociological phenomenon, analogous to say, dance studios. Another is to read the accounts and descriptions of scientists who have actually discovered something important. I prefer door number two.

    1. There are many scientists who did the background work. Think of the legions behind designing and building LHC detectors, or space systems on Hubble ST or WMAP or ... . They are the unsung heroes, who are a part of a social network that make science work.

    2. I'm not saying anything is wrong with the sociological approach, just that at my age it doesn't interest me much.

  2. Spelling issue, you have methaphor instead of metaphor

  3. Get over with this mixing of science with sociology.

    1. I think this mixing really is important. So many scientific institutions gain their funds in ways that may bias their research.

      Also, surely, if people have (say) researched string theory for decades with no real contact with experiment, this is a sociological problem.

      Again, if researchers only get recognised for producing new research, rather than repeating experiments, that weakens science, and the problem is basically sociological.

    2. String Theories could be useless for Physics ... but useful for Mathematics, Information Theory and Topological Computations , etc ... Therefore, useful as a Mathematical tool for dealing with Complex Structures in 'Software Space' ...

      Of course, To pretend to know 'God's Mind' through Mathematics is not a 'Scientific Endeavour' ... but a Funny Entertainment for 'idle Intellects' ... a Mixture of Art, Philosophy, Epistemology, Math, Applied Math, History, Computation, Physics and Academy's Politics ...

      If People get paid by doing lot of non-productive and useless stupid things ... Why not paid Intellectuals for getting fun with maths that can become into Technological Assets??

      Of course, A thing is paying Intellectuals for doing their thing ... another thing is those Intellectuals claiming for receiving Obscene Fortunes for 'testing' untestable Beliefs ...

    3. FN Surname: Professional mathematicians, artists, musicians, historians, chefs, sports stars and commentators and many more all get paid regularly for doing things that may be interesting but have no practical application.

      The problem here is misleading the public (and sometimes outright lying) about what they are doing and why they are doing it. If somebody is a brain surgeon and taking money to do research on brain surgery based on a fantasy they have, but they disguise that this is a fantasy with talk and claims the public doesn't understand, that is a con. Likewise if they claim they are working on fundamental physics and are going to discover the origin of the universe, the nature of dark matter and dark energy, and make desktop quantum computers practical, they are misleading the public to get public funds, in a way that, say, athletes are not when they seek public funds for training and travel to the Olympics. The athletes are not promising anything except they will play to win, and virtually always deliver on that promise, whether they win or lose.

      Unfortunately, intentionally misleading claims and goals often work, receiving funding and going unpunished when they fail to deliver, which obviously leads to massive inflation in misleading claims and goals. The corrupt drive out the honorable, because the reality of what we might accomplish, on time and on budget, cannot compete with science fantasy.

    4. Well said Dr. Castaldo! And yet given how utterly sensible your position happens to be, what now? Would education help scientists “do the right thing”? Thus all we’ll need is for Dr. Hossenfelder, Dr. Blaumberg, and other respected observers of science, to inform scientists about naturally occurring structural deficiencies? And perhaps include a bit of shaming as well for good measure? While I certainly support what they’re doing, I also believe that stronger medicine will be required in the end.

      What do you think? If this current strategy does happen to be insufficient, what else might help?

      I believe that a respected group of professionals will be needed which is armed with various generally accepted principles of epistemology (and more) from which to better found the institution of science. This would be a new breed of “philosopher” that has absolutely no use for humanistic culture and such, but is exclusively concerned about the mechanisms of doing science. Would you support the creation of such a society?

    5. P. Eric: Would education help scientists “do the right thing”?

      No. They are educated, most of them know what they are doing, but ultimately decide the ends justify the means and funding is a game,; that for them to do what they think is important, they are forced to inflate the possibilities or be shut out.

      P.Eric: perhaps include a bit of shaming

      Relying on shame (or the flip side, "honor") to keep people in line is folly. If we could (hypothetically) sort all scientists by a metric that reflected how shameless a lie they were willing to promote in order to gain funding and keep their job of doing what they want, we will, necessarily, find hundreds on the most severe end of the spectrum.

      This is a social problem, but like all social problems (including crime, politics, business and corporate governance, law enforcement), sociopathy is a huge tactical advantage in the competition. People willing to do anything have many more options open to them, than do people constrained by shame or moral values. And psychologically speaking, it is a grievous error to presume sociopaths are unintelligent. Sociopathy is an emotional disconnect, not an intellectual one. PhD's can be sociopaths.

      P.Eric: a respected group of professionals

      I wouldn't support that. Just about every major scientific breakthrough we have is from somebody rebelling against accepted logic. if the forty year impasse in fundamental physics is ever breached, I think it will necessarily be because somebody came up with an idea nobody else came up with, or math that nobody else came up with, or an experiment nobody else came up with. The way forward is seldom turning the crank on more papers based on what we know. The way forward is creativity.

      And that is something rare, because useful creativity in this realm demands a great deal of education. Spit balling by amateurs won't do it, our breakthrough has to come from somebody steeped in what is known but able to imagine where it might just appear to be known without being true. I suspect Dr. Hossenfelder has this power, but she is not the only one. They need to retain enough skepticism about widely accepted results to be able to conceive of results that violate them, and also understand how to work through the math and decide if that is a feasible approach or not.

      IMO a bunch of philosophers won't cut it, that is just another form of bureaucracy to be gamed by the sociopaths, and would also be an organization that, by your lights, would pose an almost insurmountable obstacle to opposing dogma. Under your regine, would Einstein have been published? How about Alfred Wegener (originator of "continental drift", opposed and reviled by dogmatists his entire life)? How about Darwin? All of them upended dogma with *rebel ideas* (but note they were all steeped in the contemporaneous knowledge of their fields).

      What is needed is, in my opinion, something more like the Delphi Method for Graduate Research (Google that, or here is a journal article describing it: ). It is a method of structured anonymous (and anonymized) debate between field experts.

      To do it, you need one expert "umpire" (without any conflicts of interest) to manage the communications between the other experts (preferably also without conflicts of interest). There can be several rounds of communications, but in the end the group (not the umpire) must produce a consensus document on what are valid goals, funding, time, and claims. If they fail to produce a consensus, it is like a hung jury, no verdict is rendered, no funding supplied. The experts and the umpire can be paid for their service. The point is to prevent hype and lies from reaching the funders, so funding is for plausible goals, funding and time. I also think the Delphi Method of structured debate is far superior to current review protocols.

    6. Dr. Castaldo,
      It sounds like we’re agreed on the most crucial point here — education and shaming will not in themselves be sufficient to fix what’s broken in science. Thus “Lost in Math” and “The secret life of Science” should only be partial measures, though hopefully they will help provide some very needed education and shaming anyway.

      I don’t know enough about this “Delphi Method” approach that you advocate. So anonymous experts would be paid to decide the parameters of a given science project, or at least if they can come up with consensus agreements? And no money would otherwise be provided to a given project? Quite ambitious! Some small scale testing could certainly be tried to see what happens.

      Regarding my own plan, the absolute last thing that it would do is create “bureaucracy”. Perhaps I haven’t been clear? It’s not about setting up committees that decide what and how various projects would and wouldn’t get funding. Instead it’s about setting up a community of respected professionals which has developed various accepted epistemological principles (among others) from which to do science. I’m talking about basic rules rather than committees. Committees can be influenced. Rules cannot be influenced. For example what rule might apply to an approach in physics which has found nothing but mathematics for support? That sort of thing should be weeded out by means of my second principle of epistemology. We’ve discussed it before.

      Surely you agree that good science requires good methodology? Well that’s the theme to my plan in general. Technically the methodology of science resides under the domain of philosophy, though at this point philosophers have failed to provide scientists with accepted methodology from which to do science. Of course scientists have resourcefully used implicit rules to do pretty well in harder forms of science at least. At this stage of the game however, explicit rules should be needed even in physics. It is my hope that Sabine and some of her associates will come to this conclusion as well, and so begin proposing and/or advocating various associated rules. Education and shaming alone should not suffice, and for the reasons that you’ve provided.

      Would Einstein have advocated the creation of such a community? In my mind there’s no question that he would. Furthermore I think he’d love my single principle of metaphysics. Modern ontological interpretations of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle have been used to shit all over Einstein’s great legacy. My MP1 would put those “God plays dice” advocates, into a parallel form of science that’s open to supernatural dynamics.

  4. When/where there are "Selves" involved There is not "Science" ... just a "Proto-Scientific Phenomena performed by a bunch of Primates" ... Of Course, They call their Proto-scientific rituals , "Science" ... But Collective Delusions never appoints to Truth.

    To believe in Yourself = To believe in Your Soul ...

    The Soul/Self is a word used by some primates for representation of a set of matter/Energy paths and Memories linked to a local entity ...

    But Obviously, The Local Entity is not The Self/Soul .... But the Primates tends to Believe that Their Body/Local Condition is Their Self/Soul ...

    NOT, The Body is just an Environmental integrated Node of a Symbiotic Colony of Biochemical Structures deployed by the Solar System/Galactic Architecture ...

    Of Course, The Myth of The Self comes by the intrinsic relationship of each integrated local structure or Body with The Energy/Matter/Space/Time/Memory System ...

    There is an energy/Matter Space/time "Causal Trace or Existential Path" linked to each Environmental Node or Integrated Body ... But That Natural Phenomenology doesn't work as Contemporary Primates tends to interpret their interpretations and/or beliefs about Their Self/Soul ....

    Therefore, There is A Block Universe "Soul" but that is not The Primates beliefs about Their Self as some sort of Immaterial Substance and/or Emerging layer of "Self Awareness/Consciousness" produced by Brain/Nervous System Activities ...

    ... But Everything that was/is/will be manifested in this Universe belongs to The Block Universe "Soul" or "Absolute Universal Unity without a Second" ...

    That is not "Spiritual" and/or Immaterial and/or Supernatural ... But Obviously, That is before/during/beyond Primates Contingent Existential Paths...

    A discernible Reality but out or the reach of human comprehension and existential domain/framework ... A Truth that don't require Humans to be as That/It is ....

    Sorry Baumberg, without "Physics" Science do not exist ...

  5. Sabine, I wonder if I am the only person here, to find the scrolling very difficult as I enter a comment.

    1. You are not. I also find it terrible. But please don't direct your misgivings to me because I can't do anything about this. Blogger is a platform hosted by Google and there are very few things I can customize on this page.

  6. Sabine, you are very critical of string theory. But how much string theory do you actually know?

    1. Pmer,

      That is an interesting question.

      I have no idea how to cast a horoscope, but I am highly critical of astrology. Am I wrong?

      I suspect Sabine knows a fair amount about string theory; I myself know some of the elements, though I certainly do not claim to be a string theory expert.

      But, the genius of science is that you do not have to know the details of nineteenth-century vortex theory or Einstein's General Relativity to judge their validity.

      You can largely judge scientific theories from the "outside" by looking at the (novel) predictions they make and comparing those to observation.

      Now, of course it's not quite that simple. I know that it is true that anthropogenic CO2 makes the globe warmer than it otherwise would be because I understand how this follows from very well-established principles of physics.

      And yet... if I really want to know the accuracy of the detailed computer models of the climate, well, let's see how well they predict future climate over a few decades.

      Similarly, we can hardly confirm the theory of evolution by experiment or by future observations of terrestrial evolution. And, yet, the theory of evolution does make very real predictions: as Haldane said, it predicts that we will never find rabbits in the Precambrian!

      Of course, someone who is overwhelmingly ignorant of science will not even understand what a theory does or should predict.

      But, that is clearly not the case with Sabine's (or my) knowledge of string theory.

      By the way, the philosopher (and anthropologist) Ernest Gellner wrote about this at some length: as his colleagues summarized his work, Gellner argued that science puts the "wells of truth beyond the walls of the city."

      I.e., whatever social pressures, commitments, and expectations may compel people to believe in, the scientific method ultimately ignores that social consensus in favor of independent observations and experiments.

      Of course, "ultimately" may be rather a long time. And, there is no guarantee that people who hold the social status of "scientist" will continue to follow the scientific method.

      But that is why Sabine and others can criticize string theory: it is just standard scientific method to ask, from the outside of the string theory community, what novel predictions has your theory made and have they been confirmed by observation?

  7. Apparently Jeremey Baumberg is providing criticism where it’s needed. Though things currently may be frustrating in science, more effective methodology should prevail in the end. Given how young science happens to be, note that it should naturally still function by means of various not yet resolved deficiencies. Even though scientists can be expected to follow existing economic incentives (flawed though they may be systematically), those specific incentives should not always remain. At some point the field should develop various productive principles of epistemology from which to work.

    If philosophers are unable to provide such principles for science to use, then it will be up to scientists to work out their own principles of epistemology. That’s right, we’ll have both “philosopher” philosophers maintaining their various cultural traditions, as well as “science” philosophers maintaining the function of science itself. Until then we can expect the still quite new institution of science to, for example, provide incentives to explore various unproductive but trendy topics.

    1. @Philosopher Eric,

      Agree, ... but If we are lucky, in a some decades, There will be an Haptic Suits WWW Environmental Network for Interfacing Primates senses with The WWW Data Base Compilers ... Therefore, Humans will get a concrete bio-technological physical experience about what means an 'Intersubjective Domain of Information exchanges' ... that will lead to deploy more sophisticated collective standards for defining 'Objectivity' ...

      Paradoxically, a Technology that can derails the intellect into 'Virtual Fantasies' and 'Selfish Isolation in Neurotic Patterns' can purge The Noises from The Self in the Discernment and Production of Knowledge and The Pursuit of Objectivity and Truth.

      'Technology's Double Edge Swords'

      Of course,Human's Cultural changes do not tends to happens through decades ... Those can take from centuries to millennia ... and The Big Filters Shadows could tunneling into Concrete Scenarios for Civilization Decay ...

      Not reason for Optimism.

      Not reason for Pessimism.

      But when it comes to Mankind's will power as a Planetary Scale Effect ... It seems that There are not Reasons for Reason ...

      The System Inertia seems to be more dominant that The Collective Intelligence ...

      ... and without 'Collective Intelligence', Civilizations do not surpass Big Filter Events ...

  8. I would imagine that Miguel Alcubierre's warp drive concept, expressed in the ADM formalism of General Relativity, would be classified as "simplifier science" in Baumberg's terminology, although Alcubierre's idea was quite sophisticated, and anything but simple. For now it's a theoretical idea. To reach the "constructor science" stage, at the very least, exotic matter with negative energy density will be needed to make it practical. Dr. Harold White of NASA has shown, theoretically, that it is possible to reduce by orders of magnitude the quantity of exotic matter required for an operational drive by adjusting the geometry of the negative matter ring enveloping the spacecraft. So, with incremental steps our civilization may be getting closer to the "constructor science" phase of such a system.

    1. I would not hold my breath. The real problem is this requires negative masses, and no matter how small this has profound consequences. It would permit the generation of wormholes, which in turn can be transformed to have closed timelike (time machine) curves. This means one can duplicate quantum states by unitary means, which is forbidden by QM.

      As a rule the physics behind any technology manifests itself in nature prior to our implementing it. In the case of these exotic solutions that violate the Hawking-Penrose energy conditions, eg T^{00} ≥ 0, it would most likely be the case that nature would provide examples of these types of systems naturally. So far nothing.

    2. While negative masses are problematic in our Universe, according to Kip Thorne, in "Black Holes & Time Warps" (1994) vacuum fluctuations can give rise for brief periods to regions of spacetime with negative energy balancing out regions with a momentary surplus of positive energy. Further along on page 492, Kip relates that one of his students, Gunnar Klinkhammer, proved that in regions of flat spacetime vacuum fluctuation cannot ever be exotic. He then explains that Robert Wald (once a student of John Wheeler), and Ulvi Yurtsever (Kip's former student) proved that curved spacetime distorts vacuum fluctuations making them exotic. And, on page 491 he discusses Stephen Hawking's 1974 discovery that black holes can emit radiation near the hole's horizon that are exotic - positive energy particles escaping out to space, while its negative energy counterpart is absorbed by the black hole reducing its total mass/energy by a tiny bit.

  9. OMG, that picture. It feels like it needs a whole book to explain it properly.

  10. Ein Buch schreiben hilft nicht! Die Betrachtung steht zwischen Detail und Emergenz, der Tragödie der Wissenschaften. Kern- und Astrophysik sind beredte Zeugen davon. Kritik und gescheite Logik sind zu Feinden des Systems geworden, dass sich Wissenschaft nennt. Das Licht der Wahrheit ist zu dunkler Wahrscheinlichkeit verkommen. Der (virtuell gewordene) Beweis tötet die Vernunft.

  11. I do not know where else to place this message. Somebody complained about messages not showing up. In fact nobody's message shows up once the number of comments passes 200 or so. The posts concerning quantum measurements are not appearing, even though they show on the comments list.

    1. Lawrence,

      I also sometimes forget to press “load more ...” at the bottom. And once you refresh the browser page (to see new comments) you need to press “load more ...” again – it is a pain.

    2. OTOH I am very fault tolerant.
      Now the philosophical part ;-)
      Without stupid errors (blogger developers screwed their links and page), mistakes and randomness nothing really new (independent of the very initial conditions) would come into existence in this world.
      Nothing is perfect and that´s ok.

  12. Spelling correction: Jeremey should be Jeremy (no e before the y). The incorrect spelling can be found in 2 spots: the title and in the first paragraph.

    1. Ack, thanks for pointing out; I have corrected this.


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