Sunday, 28 December 2008

A joke or not a joke?

The equations of medieval cosmology
Roberto Buonanno and Claudia Quercellini from Universita di Roma Tor Vergata have published on arXiv a paper titled
The equations of medieval cosmology
The abstract claims:

In Dantean cosmography the Universe is described as a series of concentric spheres with all the known planets embedded in their rotation motion, the Earth located at the centre and Lucifer at the centre of the Earth. Beyond these "celestial spheres", Dante represents the "angelic choirs" as other nine spheres surrounding God. The rotation velocity increases with decreasing distance from God, that is with increasing Power (Virtu'). We show that, adding Power as an additional fourth dimension to space, the modern equations governing the expansion of a closed Universe (i. e. with the density parameter \Omega_0>1) in the space-time, can be applied to the medieval Universe as imaged by Dante in his Divine Comedy. In this representation the Cosmos acquires a unique description and Lucifer is not located at the centre of the hyperspheres.

Indeed, the paper combines the Dantean images with astrophysical equations.
To what end? Does it tell us anything about Dante? Or perhaps it tells us something about us, modern scientists? Don't we have more important subjects to study?

Friday, 5 December 2008

Science may be a pleasure

It was with great pleasure that I have read of recent choice of prizes of Polish Science Foundation (sometimes dubbed "Polish Nobels").

The reason was actually quite far from my usual turf. One of the prizes went to prof. Stanisław Mossakowski for the monography od Sigismundus Chapel at the Wawel Castle in Cracow. Interviewed he has said that he has been working alone, without special grants:
Thanks to this I was happy to work for the sheer pleasure that may come out only from selfless scientific research. If I had signed a contract the results would be probably worse. As it was, I had no schedules to meet and I had the pleasure of work.

What could be more optimistic than such account?

A Science Fiction challenge

I was a great fan of hard SF: the stories of dauntless exploration of the Cosmos, of spaceships, new planets, new galaxies... But my realist psyche has decreasingly reduced the fun I was getting from these lectures. I simply stopped believing that it is possible for the human race to make the effort necessary to go anywhere in the Universe. Even to Mars, not mentioning successful colonization of other star systems or galaxies. The more I look at the way we act, at out limitations (which are to a large part built in our evolutionary heritage) the more I doubt of any concerted action that would put us on a way to stars. I am not alone. Norman Augustine, Chairman of Lockheed AMrtin corporation has written a short essay What We Don't Know Does Hurt Us. How Scientific Illiteracy Hobbles Society Science, 1998, 279, p. 1640.
He states:
Could we send men and women to Mars? Technologically speaking, I believe we could. But politically there is no will to do so.
Augustine should know - after all LM holds quite a lot of the technology necessary to make the trip. But I agree - there is no will and no chance of making it, unless...

And this is the first topic of the challenge:
Try to describe what should have happen in the future (I fear my knowledge of English tenses runs short here) that would change the attitude and ways of significant part of our societies to launch us on the way to Cosmos? What social, psychological, technical, maybe biological changes, what wars/new religions/single events might do the job?

The second challenge is less ambitious and more scientific: what kind of alien evolution would produce beings that would be capable of intermixing the cooperative spirit and curiosity that would lead them and allow the effort necessary for space exploration?

Answers more than welcome!
One avenue is, however, excluded, as I already have thought of it (of course, with due humility, not being the first to do so). The beings that might have the necessary capacities would be the ones that do not have the evolutionary heritage, being programmed to explore the Universe. Machines. Possibly self replicating, possibly intelligent. As they would be conceived with the very idea in mind and without the evolutionary baggage, they might just be the thing. So, the challenge is a biological one: think of a sequence of events and constraints that would produce species cooperative like bees, intelligent and technical as humans and peaceful as orcas. Or, to be working, something much, much stranger.

Anyone out there?

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Wonderful material universe

For all those doomsayers who proclaim the nearing end of science - the Universe has more surprises than anyone can think of. So if the science would come to an end, it would not be because of the lack of wonders to discover, but because either we cease to look for them (because of lack of funds and public understanding and support) or that the humanity loses the capability to do science...

But back to the interesting part: I always thought material science (especially inorganic) to be a bit boring. Even discoveries of fullerenes, nanotubes and graphene was not a surprise: these were all forms of the `most flexible' of elements, carbon. But then there are the mysterious High Tc ceramic superconductors, where we still do not know what causes the current to flow without resistance.

A recent piece of news has caught my attentions: a new material, ceramic alloy of boron, aluminium and magnesium (AlMgB_14) with titanium boride (TiB_2). It is extremely hard - in fact one of the hardest substances ever discovers/made. But it has also a very, very low friction coefficient, 2.5 times smaller than the previous record holder - teflon, and 8 times smaller than lubricated steel. Such discovery can bring real changes in the efficiency of machinery, energy coonservation etc.

So, even the traditional, down-to-earth, just another compound to be tested physics can be refreshing and important.

Dumb or not so dumb?

One of the recent issues of New Scientist has published a popular piece called Dumb eco-questions you were afraid to ask.

What has interested me the most was the last one, which I quote here in entriety, because it's just co much contrary to the philosophy of the New Scientist that I am shocked.

What is the single most effective thing I can do for the environment?

Over a 75-year lifespan, the average European will be responsible for about 900 tonnes of CO2 emissions. For Americans and Australians, the figure is more like 1500 tonnes. Add to that all of humanity's other environmentally damaging activities and, draconian as it may sound, the answer must surely be to avoid reproducing.

Candidness leaves me speechless.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Link to an article on arXiv

In a spur of dissatisfaction I have posted a short paper on the arxiv, Peer-review in the Internet age

The importance of peer-review in the scientific process can not be overestimated. Yet, due to increasing pressures of research and exponentially growing number of publications the task faced by the referees becomes ever more difficult. We discuss here a few possible improvements that would enable more efficient review of the scientific literature, using the growing Internet connectivity. In particular, a practical automated model for providing the referees with references to papers that might have strong relationship with the work under review, based on general network properties of citations is proposed.

Comments are more than welcome.

Friday, 31 October 2008

Numbers behind the folly

Following the last post: I have found an interesting report on ecological devastation of our planet published by WWF and Zoological Society of London. The report claims that we now have the ecoligical impact equivalent to 1.3 times the capacity of planet Earth, that is we are overusing our environment by 30%. This sounds - and if true it is - really scary.

But my post deals with a small set of numbers at the core of the report. While the ecological impact per person in high income countries is 2.9 times greater than for the middle income countries the population of the middle income countries is 3.2 times greater. This more than compensates the relative overall impact. Moreover, there are two additional effects at play: first, the inevitable and laudable wish of the people in the middle income and low income countries to improve their living standards. Second the concentration of the population growth in these regions. As a result, simple math would show that future growth of the overall impact would be the fastest exactly there, coming from the combination of these two factors. The industrialised, high income nations would play smaller and smaller role in the global consumption.

The authors do focus mostly on the `per person' indicators, but even they do recognize the overall impact of the population growth:
There are many different strategies that
could reduce the gap between human demand
on nature and the availability of ecological
capacity. Each of these strategies can be
represented as a sustainability wedge that
shifts the business-as-usual path towards one
in which, when these wedges are combined,
overshoot is eliminated
One way of organizing wedges is to link
them to the three factors that determine
footprint. Some strategies in the per person
consumption and technology wedges, such
as insulating buildings, produce quick results
for shrinking overshoot. Other strategies,
such as those that would reduce and
eventually reverse population growth, may
have less impact in the short term, but lead
to large cumulative declines in overshoot in
the longer term

Sounds easy. But can anyone tell any reasonable way of invoking such a strategy for reversing the population growth?

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

The Folly of Folly

A recent issue of New Scientist had a special section on The folly of growth - how to stop the economy from killing the planet. This report is so far away from the "scientist" part of the journal that I was almost speechless. Politics, pure politics...

Several carefully chosen experts, all representing almost the same point of view, postulate that the western civilisation is killing the planet. That western civilisation - and it alone - is to balme for all the sins: unwarranted greed and exploitation of natural resources, the fact that green values have no chances against market capitalism, short term thinking, all of that and more.

Well, let me aks some questions:
What are the effects of population growth, especially in non-western world? The journal prints one comprehensive graph showing all our exponential explosion.

Everything is exploding: exploited fisheries, paper consumption, extinct species, motor vehicles ... and ... human population.
The last one, especially outside the western world. But stating obvious truth, that overpopulation, especially in poor regions may be one of the causes of the poverty, is, hum, politically uncorrect. So, no, we do not touch this subject.

Secondly, I'd like to see an analysis of the impact on the planet from various populations, projected into the future: India, China, Africa... The people living there have every right to hope for, to aim for and to work for the same level of living and citizens of EU and USA. The question is: are there enough resources to achieve this, and at the same time to keep the population explosion going?

Lastly, a very uncorrect suggestion. The cover of the magazine shows a white male, dressed in western-type clothes (suggesting a banker?), pushing the Earth into an abyss.

Isn't this racism? Sexism?

(If you think it is obviously not, then please consider would it bee racist if the picture would show a bunch of African children pushing the same world into the same abyss?)

Thus, instead of a much needed discussion I was served with several pages of political propaganda. If this is the level of professionalism one can get from a popular science publication, what could we expect from less informed participants in the public debate?

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Day of leisure (sort of)

Yesterday I have spent almost a whole day reading a book. What made it unusual was that the book was a Science Fiction novel. I have been a voracious SF reader some years ago, but gradually it has become harder and harder to find a book that would satisfy my desire for scientific plausibility and a good plot. For years the favourite was Timescape by Gregory Benford. But the trend to write `for the public', to use the easy Universe of swishing swords and zipping magical missiles has got me less and less interested in modern SF/Fantasy -- with the obvious exception of Terry Pratchett.

So, waiting in line to get some schoolboks for my daughter, I have leafed throug some books on display and I have found one that contained a bibliography! Moreover this bibliography contained rather unusual comments. I thought why not, and bought the book. And spent the whole day reading it.

The book is Blindsight, by Peter Watts. It is no easy read, but it offers a refreshing departure from the world of fireballs and enchantments, even though it does feature vampires. Since then I have learned that one can read the book for free, but I do not begrudge the price I paid, hoping that at least a part would reach the author.

The bibliography notes that caught my eye are worth noting. They are introduced as:
References and remarks, to try and convince you all I'm not crazy (or, failing that, to simply intimidate you into shutting up about it). Read for extra credit.

Many are papers and books that I have encountered during my wanderings (as may be seen in the Country of Blindfolded). But some were a discovery, for example works of Metzinger. Because who, in a sane mind, could refuse an invitation like this:

This is the heart of the whole damn exercise. Let's get the biggies out of the way first. Metzinger's Being No One is the toughest book I've ever read (and there are still significant chunks of it I haven't), but it also contains some of the most mindblowing ideas I've encountered in fact or fiction. Most authors are shameless bait-and-switchers when it comes to the nature of consciousness. Pinker calls his book How the Mind Works, then admits on page one that "We don't understand how the mind works". Koch (the guy who coined the term "zombie agents") writes The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach, in which he sheepishly sidesteps the whole issue of why neural activity should result in any kind of subjective awareness whatsoever.

Towering above such pussies, Metzinger takes the bull by the balls. His "World-zero" hypothesis not only explains the subjective sense of self, but also why such an illusory first-person narrator would be an emergent property of certain cognitive systems in the first place. I have no idea whether he's right— the man's way beyond me— but at least he addressed the real question that keeps us staring at the ceiling at three a.m., long after the last roach is spent. Many of the syndromes and maladies dropped into Blindsight I first encountered in Metzinger's book.

What a language! Not an usual, watered down peer-review blah-blah. So, as I finished the novel, I hooked up to the Scholar and hunted for Metzinger. While the book is obviously not there, I have found some papers which I hope to skim through soon.

The Subjectivity of Subjective Experience: A Represent at ioualisl Analysis of the First-Person Perspective Networks, 2004, 3--4, 33-64 ,

Précis of Being No One PSYCHE, 2005, 10, 1-35,

The emergence of a shared action ontology: Building blocks for a theory Consciousness and Cognition, 2003, 12, 549-571,

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Post-feminist-modernist idiocy

I thought, naively, that the exposure of itiotism of post modernist, feminist, multicultural critique of science, done, for example by Sokal and Bricmont, or by Levitt and Gross would at least discourage further attempts. How wrong I was...

Searching for references on the modern fate of amateur scientist I have found some papers devoted to "citizen scientist". At first I though that the topic wouls be a close one. So I dug in, into, for example, papers by Karin Backstrand:
Civic Science for Sustainability: Reframing the Role of Experts, Policy-Makers and Citizens in Environmental Governance Global Environmental Politics, 2003, 3, 24-41
Scientisation vs. Civic Expertise in Environmental Governance: Eco-feminist, Eco-modern and Post-modern Responses Environmental Politics, 2004, 13, 695-714

The latter lecture has been a clear example that the trends are alive and kicking:
Scientific rationality should be replaced by a social and ecological rationality that entails a self-critique of the progress of ‘scientific truths’. Science should be de-monopolised and democratised and redirected toward a social rationality.

The discourses and practices of science are at the heart of theories of risk society and reflexive modernisation. The encroachment of scientific and technological practice can be seen as a cause of environmental problems. However, if the role of science in decision-making can be reframed, science can also present the solutions to global environmental hazards. A distinction
is made between primary and reflexive scientisation. Primary scientisation belongs to the epoch of the industrial society and simple modernity associated with a positivistic science with a claim to universal and objective truth. Moreover, there is a clear division between the enlightened priesthood of scientific experts and ignorant laymen. Science has
become increasingly professionalised and inaccessible to non-experts. In contrast, reflexive scientisation implies that scientific decision-making on environmental risks is opened up for social rationality and wider participation. Society has to exercise a new level of self-critique and systematic self-doubt has to be invoked in science.
Society has to exercise a new level of self-critique and systematic self-doubt has to be invoked in science
However, the expert-centred forms of knowledge with their secrecy and centralised character need a democratic check.

While my own goal is simply to broaden the social (civic) participation in science I see no other way to do it than to bring up the interested perties knolwege of the scientific methods, processes and results. Trying to broaden the participation by denigrating scinece seems not just plain stupid, but extremely dangerous.

The feminist part is also present, and how! Backstrand writes:
I start by presenting three green perspectives – ecofeminist, eco-modern and postmodernism – which all offer a trenchant critique of how science and technology generate unprecedented environmental risks.

The relationship between human societies and the environment is gendered, i.e. structured by patriarchal relations that have positioned women closer to nature. However, feminist philosophy of science has stretched the argument further: the central norms underpinning science – rationality, objectivity and control – are also celebrated masculine ideals.

An important assumption in eco-feminism is the conceptual connection between the subordination of women, the destruction of the environment and scientific rationality. This revolves around the women-nature association – women are associated with nature and the feminine, which, in turn, are devalued and degraded.

Just one small question: in which type of society are women more subordinated: in Nature-living primitive societies or in todays, Science-begotten modern society? Would Karin Backstrand be allowed to have her say in other corcumstances than those brought by the accumulated knowledge of whole humanity, men and women alike?

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Mathematical treasures by Gregory Chaitin

My wanderings over various disciplines that usually lead mt to and fro, this time have led me back to gregory Chaitin. I have already read some of his articles while writing Country of Blindfolded bit this time the search has been started by a provocative paper How real are real numbers?.

This has directed me to Irreducible Complexity in Pure Mathematics and finally to a delightful, easy to read but very deep Meta Math! The Quest for Omega. The last one is especially worth recommending. Mathematics that is told with gusto and personal interest.

There are whole passages that are so close to my soul, that I can only quote them in extenso:
In my opinion, the view that math provides absolute certainty and is static and perfect while physics is tentative and constantly evolving is a false dichotomy. Math is actually not that different from physics. Both are attempts of the human mind to organize, to make sense, of human experience; in the case of physics, experience in the laboratory, in the physical world, and
in the case of math, experience in the computer, in the mental mindscape of pure mathematics.

And mathematics is far from static and perfect; it is constantly evolving, constantly changing, constantly morphing itself into new forms. New concepts are constantly transforming math and creating new fields, new viewpoints, new emphasis, and new questions to answer. And mathematicians do in fact utilize unproved new principles suggested by computational experience, just as a physicist would.

And in discovering and creating new mathematics, mathematicians do base themselves on intuition and inspiration, on unconscious motivations and impulses, and on their aesthetic sense, just like any creative artist would. And mathematicians do not lead logical mechanical “rational” lives. Like any creative artist, they are passionate emotional people who deeply care about their art, they are unconventional eccentrics motivated by mysterious forces, not by money nor by a concern for the “practical applications” of their work.

I know, because I’m one of these crazy people myself! I’ve been obsessed by these questions for my whole life, starting at an early age. And I’ll give you an insider’s view of all of this, a first-hand report from the front, where there is still a lot of fighting, a lot of pushing and shoving, between different viewpoints. In fact basic questions like this are never settled, never definitively put aside, they have a way of resurfacing, of popping up again in transformed form, every few generations. . .

So that’s what this book is about: It’s about reasoning questioning itself, and its limits and the role of creativity and intuition, and the sources of new ideas and of new knowledge. That’s a big subject, and I only understand a little bit of it, the areas that I’ve worked in or experienced myself. Some of this nobody understands very well, it’s a task for the future. How about you?! Maybe you can do some work in this area. Maybe you can push the darkness back a millimeter or two! Maybe you can come up with an important new idea, maybe you can imagine a new kind of question to ask, maybe you can transform the landscape by seeing it from a different point of view! That’s all it takes, just one little new idea, and lots and lots of hard work to develop it and to convince other people! Maybe you can put a scratch on the rock of eternity!

A good read ahead

Just a short note on a book I have found on the arXiv:
Complex and Adaptive Dynamical Systems: A Primer by Claudius Gros.

On first impression it looks interesting and accessible, an joind an already quite rich shelf of electronically available books on networked systems.

Sunday, 21 September 2008


A couple of news stories have drawn my worried attention to the status of medical research. The appearance of more and more bacteria strains that are highly resistive to the current generations of antibiotics is showing the difference between a natural process - such as evolution of bacteria - and the socially driven planned activity of medical research.

While it would be unjust to call the process under which bacteria reach resistance to new generations of drugs "easy" and "costless" (as the billions of dying bacteria for each one that survives and multiplies prove), the human effort, with its needed billions of dollars is much less flexible.

I recall a quote from Lem's Magellan Cloud, hwere infections are deemed to be long gone - one of very few blunders of Lem. Nope. It's a lost war.

And in the current political and social climate, the situation is even worse due to lack of concentrations, and anti-scientific sentiments. I have read some news stories in the Polish dailies - accompanied by lots of supporting WEB comments - condemning doctors and medical industry for its inability to fight "trivial diseases". Probably, many of these comments were by people who discarded their antibiotic treatment just after a couple of days, when they "felt better".

I am quite pessimistic for the next 20 years. If, as recent article in Science claims,
more people die from the methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacterium than from HIV in the United States

then we need to start worrying. The number of new drugs is decreasing. The activity of bacteria is not and will not. You do the math yourself.

Revival - perhaps

Due to vacation season and lots of work I have almost abandoned the blog in the past months. Perhaps it is time to revive it? I'll try...

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Reading `Trouble With Physics' the second time

As indicated on the front cover - `Read this book. Twice' - I went through L:ee Smolin's Trouble with physics again. And I found a nugget I have missed previously. It concerns the positioning of Science as social enterprise, as a very special social enterprise. Ethics of the scientific community that Smolin describes are very close to my heart. But there's one point I tend to disagree.
Membership in the community of science is open to any human being. Considerations of status, age, gender, or any other personal characteristic may not play a role in the consideration of a scientist's evidence and arguments, and may not limit a member's access to the means of dissemination of evidence, argument and information. Entry to the community is, however, based on two criteria. The first is the mastery of at least one of the crafts of a scientific subfield to the point where you can independently produce work judged by other members to be of high quality. The second criterion is allegiance and continued adherence to the shared ethic.

Well, formally I fulfill the first criterion - PhD in theoretical physics (however ancient) may be considered a sufficient proof of mastery of the craft. But in my little crusade for revival of amateur science I think of those who have only touched the scientific method and life during their studies. If we are able to promote their adherence to the scientific ethic, even when they do not produce the work judged to be `high quality', but just to spread the understanding and the ethic, would be a great and much needed success for science.

Anyway, the second reading was as much pleasure as the first one.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Almost final draft of Country of Blindfolded

The link for the In the Country of Blindfolded has been updated to an almost final draft of May 2008.

Fruitful reading!

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Is there a place for Amateur Scientists?

I pride myself on being a contemporary Amateur Scientist. Whether this pride is justified or not is not for me to decide, but I staunchly believe in the need for such backing of institutional Science. Recently my dedication was strengthened. The story below shows how and why...

The story begins with an essay competition I read about in New Scientist

Wellcome Trust and New Scientist essay competition

In partnership with 'New Scientist', the Wellcome Trust runs an annual competition inviting postgraduates and postdoctoral researchers in science, engineering and technology to tell the world about their work.

The competition is about encouraging researchers to communicate their science and to explore the possible implications of their work for society. The judges look for interesting, creative and fresh approaches, in a style that would appeal to readers of New Scientist. The competition is open to entries from PhD students who are registered at an internationally recognised university.

I decided that while the amount of actual research I do is rather minimal (a few arXiv preprints) I do have something to say - mostly tongue-in-cheek - with particular motivation coming from the effort to defy the last limitation of the participation. There was no age limit - but you have to be registered at a recognized university? So, in direct violation of the rules I submitted the following essay, arguing that Science can be done outside such institutions, more, that such activities should be encouraged...

Sociophysics from Home

Today’s science is a domain of universities, international research projects and formalised grant processes. Groups of specialists communicate in a language that is incomprehensible to anyone outside their circle. Even the rules of this competition reflect such view – the participants are limited to those affiliated with appropriate research institutions. Is it because science is `done' only there?

On the other hand the social reception of science is getting less and less favourable, the appeal of scientific curiosity is diminishing. Other `narratives’ are growing in popularity, some of them openly irrational and anti-scientific. The conventional response is to try to get more and more young people to universities. This is, of course, important, but not enough. Many of these students leave science for other occupations and never return to the scientific frame of mind. My own story describes such a return to science. What I call for is restoration of the status of AMATEUR SCIENTIST.

Of course, there are disciplines where the huge machinery and funding are simply necessary condition for success. But there are discoveries that may be made by amateurs, and other useful roles they may play.

My involvement with applications of physical methods in sociology (sociophysics) is an interesting example. Long after I left semiconductor research I have heard someone mention Bose-Einstein condensation in computer networks. This sounded so ridiculous that I decided to look it up, and step by step got enthralled by the topic. The existence of freely accessible databases and search engines allowed me to track some of the new developments. Even to my untrained eye some publications were just begging for corrections or extensions. So I dusted off my FORTRAN skills (and in some cases simply used spreadsheets) and wrote my own simulations. I went through some of the discipline topics: assortative matching, theory of cooperation, influence of leadership strategies on opinion formation. Thanks to arXiv site anyone can `publish’, so I did. The result was not overwhelming – a few people downloaded the papers, some commented on them, as far as I know they were not cited. I’d be the first to admit their limited value. But – and this is, I guess, the most important part of amateur research – I was able, as a participant, to change my outlook on the topic profoundly. For by doing something myself, I was able to see the difficulties and the simplifications, to recognize the processes, which is much more than just seeing the results.

One of the first questions was: does modelling of social phenomena using simplistic tools have any sense? Do we really gain understanding or is it just a fad, a convenient way to get grants and publications? Some papers were obviously trivial. But there were others that seemed to detect mechanisms underlying our real social behaviour, sometimes quite surprising. Somewhat later, I began to get referee requests from established journals. I try to do this task conscientiously, feeling that my lack of bonds imposed usually by one’s own career and the web of mutual obligations and cooperation allows quite a lot of candour in the analyses. And it just spurs my own interests. I feel that in this relationship between institutionalised and amateur science both sides win.

And this is the reason why I call for re-establishment of the honourable status of the amateur scientist. Obviously, it is not limited to sociophysics. Ecology and observational biology are classical examples from Victorian era. But there are many more, I am sure. The cost of promoting such activities for traditional scientific institutions is minimal, compared to the grand projects. Guidance in topic choice for prospective participants, coordination, help in access to publications. Occasional funding for conferences. Yet the outcome may be tremendous. Many of the people who now leave the universities, with reasonable education but no wish for a full time research career, could be brought back to the scientific way of seeing and understanding the world. Moreover, they would become science’s ambassadors, sometimes much better than `proper’ scientists, because amateurs are used to talk in comprehensible language. To get the `part time research’ back on the list of interesting and fashionable hobbies seems well worth the trouble.

Well, a few days after my submission has been posted I received a curt reply from the Wellcome Trust:
Hi Pawel,
Very sorry, but you are ineligible to enter the competition.

Now, I was not particularly surprised. And I fully agree with the right of the organisers to set out and enforce all the rules for the competition. Their money, their show, their right. But I was saddened. Because I do believe that every means to get greater public involvement in Science is beneficial - to both Science and Society. And the particular choice of rules reflects the division between the `certified', academic world of universities and the public, which, at best, is a target of communication, never a participant.

My initial thoughts were that the competition rules seem to embody the basic principle that
1. `Proper' Science is done only in established institutions. This is where ALL the scientists are.
And it seems that indeed they are confirmed.

While this is true for most of the scientific effort, there are clear examples of achievements coming from outside of the academic circles.
Moreover, by stressing the origin, instead of content of the work, we arrive at several consequences that are not necessarily positive:

2. We create an image that any `science' done without the official support of an established institution is, by definition, uninteresting or crank.
3. The general public gets estranged from the ivory tower, and drawn to `alternative explanations', sometimes with disastrous results in policy determination
4. Science itself loses a lot of possible active supporters through a lack of `retention policy', which could encourage the low-level involvement in scientific development.

My motivation for submitting the essay was directly connected with the main goal of the competition "As well as communicating their science, researchers are encouraged to explore the possible implications of their work for society." In a sense, I see my submission - with full recognition of breaking of the formal rules - as a practical experiment in sociology of science. As for the results...

I am more than ever convinced that increasing the public involvement with DOING science, on every level, is sensible and much needed. But I seem to be rather alone in my feelings...

Friday, 23 May 2008

Dark Energy STSI Symposium

For someone like me - trying to follow what is interesting in Science - getting access to `live' events, to `science as it happens' is like finding a pirate treasure trove. Reading preprints, even reading blogs and comments does not give the same feeling as participation in meetings where key ideas are discussed.

As one of my recent points of interest is the string theory vs. other quantum gravity models controversy - on both physical and sociological level - I was more than thrilled by finding a complete recording of Space Telescope Science Institute May 2008 symposium on Decade of Dark Energy.

As it turns out STSI contains much more than this single treasure - a WEB page certainly worth bookmarking.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Science and Society

Hunting down some references from a very, very interesting paper on discrepancy of justice and morality and diffrences between `liberal' and `conservative' outlooks, written by Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham, titled When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions that Liberals may not Recognize I have found another quite interesting link.

This is a three-years old paper by Helga Novotny, freely accessible at Science, titled High- and Low-Cost Realities for Science and Society.

What I have found there was quite resonant with my own thinking. Simply consider a question:
Now that researchers are becoming more than 1% of the population, should their ways of interacting with society change?

Well, have there ever been `better times' that that for Science? I guess there were, despite the numerically weaker representation. Because the trust and respect for Science were higher in 19th century...
Declining trust in science and scientific experts has been clear in public controversies like genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) crisis, as well as in the rejection of scientific evidence regarding vaccination safety in the UK. The Euro-barometer, conducted as an EU-wide survey, probes the state of mind of EU citizens and how they view science and technology. The most recent data are expected to be published in mid-May and, for the first time, will be commented on by a panel of experts. The 2001 survey revealed that two-thirds of the public do not feel well-informed about science and technology, and the number of people who believe in the capacity of science and technology to solve societal problems is declining. Trust in science in general seems to be on the decline in many national surveys, although scientists still come out way ahead of politicians or other public institutions.

There are currently clear examples of research on the frontiers of science clashing with human beliefs and values. From the United States, voices can be heard deploring the tendency of politicians to interfere with scientific agendas in teaching and in research and faith-based opposition to the teaching of evolution and some forms of frontier research, like stem cells continue to raise serious concern. Luckily, creationism/evolution is not an issue in Europe, largely due to the centralized education systems in most countries. However, an analogous situation exists for stem cell research, with some countries, like Germany and Italy, completely opposed. There will be a referendum in Italy shortly on stem cell research. The Catholic church urges the public not to vote, in the hope that the necessary 50% quota will not be reached, and the referendum will be defeated.

Although we may welcome greater public interest in science, if only to avoid another backlash in fields like nanotechnology as occurred with GMOs, we must also confront the thorny issue of how contemporary democracies will deal with minorities who, on faith-based or other, value-related grounds, refuse any compromise. There is no reason to believe that Europe will be immune to an ascendancy of groups who oppose otherwise promising lines of research on the basis of their value system. If the values dimension is here to stay, it is far from certain that the usual response of setting up ethical guidelines and committees will suffice, let alone that any of the efforts to "better communicate science" will have any effect.

Indeed. Science is not easily explainable, it is difficult and disturbing, it is contrary to intuitions we get as children (our naive physics, naive biology etc.).
But we need to try nevertheless. And try again. Adopt, adapt and improve. And try again.

P.S. I am sure I'll come back to the Haidt and Graham paper - the funny part is how well it explains Polish politics...

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Reading continued - String theory

As I delved deeper into Smolin's Trouble with physics, with its critique of the specific status of string theory (at the cost of other possible approaches to quantum gravity and ToE) I found a very recent paper on arXiv. This is "So what will you do if string theory is wrong?" by Moataz H. Emam. Written by an active proponent of the theory, it contains some very defensive statements. Is it a preparation for defeat?

Let's look at some quotes:

String theory occupies a special niche in the history of science. It is the only theory of physics with no experimental backing that has managed to not only survive, but also become “the only game in town” (to quote Sheldon Glashow). In addition, the theory has gained much popularity with the general public, spurred on by accessible online accounts and popular TV programs. Judging by amateur web sites and personal discussions, there seems to be a rising belief that it is a correct theory of nature. [...]

In fact, string theory has so far failed to conform to the definition of a scientific theory. In his classic work Karl Popper gives several criteria that a scientific theory must satisfy. These may be summarized as “the criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability”. [...] So far string theory has failed to meet Popper’s criterion. It might be argued that this situation is temporary. Eventually technology will catch up with string theory and allow us to test its assumptions directly or someone will find a way to test the theory using current technology. This hope is what keeps string theory on the list of scientific theories, saving it from the fate of astrology and creationism. The failure to satisfy Popper’s definition is however a serious drawback that string theory critics will, justly, continue to point out.
So why do people continue to work on string theory? There are several reasons. We often hear that the theory is aesthetically attractive and that it would be a shame if nature had not picked such an elegant structure to use as the basis of the universe. [...]

People like myself who are interested in some small segment of the string theory landscape that might not relate to the universe naturally are asked: “Why do you work on this theory? Shouldn’t you, as a physicist, be interested in what describes nature? Why waste your time on something
that you know a priori to be wrong?” Another closely related question is “What if someone proves that subatomic particles cannot possibly be made of strings? In that case not only is the particular theory you are working on wrong, the whole edifice has collapsed! What will you do then? Will you drop your research and switch to something else? Or will you stubbornly continue to work on the (now incorrect) string hypothesis? What will happen to all of your careers? And why take the
risk in the first place?” These questions are reasonable and may be rephrased as “Are there any accomplishments of string theory that would survive such a total collapse?

This is indeed, an important question. In fact, no critics of string theory deny its beauty and mathematical accomplishments. But the question rests on limited resources. With the decrease of funding for basic science, including physics we must ask ourselves a question is this the best avenue to follow. And, if because there are no physical references to guide us there is no option but to explore the whole landscape (as Emam suggests). But how can we hoe to explore bu a tiny part of the 10^500 Landscape? The analogy with a Persian rug that Emam uses is misleading: the ratio of the single thread to the whole rug, the image of `already woven patches' is wholly misleading: the real ratio of known/unknown is ... unimaginably low. And unless the research is given to some future quantum computers, I see no chance of exploring all the alternatives. On the other hand if we give the task to computers, would it still be human science?

The lack of experimental results to guide us through the vast string landscape leaves string theorists with no choice but to systematically explore all of it! These explorations, even within theories that we already know are not related to nature, have resulted in the discovery of deep and elegant mathematics. Mathematicians today work in parallel with string theorists to explore the frontiers that the latter have opened.

Studying the large number of theories in the landscape and how they are related to each other has provided deep insights into how a physical theory generally works. The string theory landscape may be likened to a vast range of samples collected and studied in detail for the purpose of understanding why theories of physics behave the way they do and perhaps guide us into answering
deep questions about such things as symmetry and its origins. So even if someone shows that the universe cannot be based on string theory, I suspect that people will continue to work on it. It might no longer be considered physics, nor will mathematicians consider it to be pure mathematics. I can imagine that string theory in that case may become its own new discipline; that is, a mathematical science that is devoted to the study of the structure of physical theory and the development of computational tools to be used in the real world. The theory would be studied by physicists and mathematicians who might no longer consider themselves either. They will continue to derive beautiful mathematical formulas and feed them to the mathematicians next door. They also might, every once in a while, point out interesting and important properties concerning the nature of a physical theory which might guide the physicists exploring the actual theory of everything over in the next building. Whether or not string theory describes nature, there is no doubt that we have stumbled upon an exceptionally huge and elegant structure which might be very difficult to abandon.

The difficulty of abandoning one's own brainchild is obvious. But is there enough scientific justification? Today, one may assume that there is some hope that string theory would not remain forever disconnected from real world and experimental physics. But how long can we (should we) wait? Another 30 years? Who can say?

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Curious coincidence

During a recent business trip I had to spend seven hours on the train. As my favourite task on such occasions is reading I have equipped myself accordingly.

On the way out I have read almost entire `Winning' by Jack Welch (the one of GE fame). It is a no-nonsense, clearly written book on good business practices, touching topics such as finding company values and mission; setting goals; finding, cultivating, motivating and firing employees; and managing crises. Most of the ideas are straightforward - the key lies in their execution, the capability to walk the talk. I could recognize, from my own experience, some of the good practices, as well as many of the bad examples. However, in describing the balancing act that company CEOs face everyday, between creativity and obedience, Welch argues (with the successes at his posts in GE giving the arguments much weight) that the importance of creativity is much higher - and the companies should be built with the tools that enable all employees their voice and dignity. In a chapter on hiring Welch describes the qualities necessary for any candidate: integrity, intelligence and maturity, but then moves to qualities that do make the difference: energy, capability to energize others, edge (defined as capacity to make decisions) and finally ability to execute, and lastly - passion.

On the way back, I have decided to switch to more scientific subject and begun to read Lee Smolin's `Trouble with physics'. As I did not have the mental capacity to dig into string theory controversies, I have started the book from the last section, dealing with Smolins remarks on status and future of Science. And, without much surprise, I have found all the signs of, what Welch would undoubtedly describe as very bad management, in Smolin's description. Of course, Smolin devoted most of his examples to US, but I was coming back from a meeting with ... a leading Polish University! And the problems look so similar... maybe even worse here, as there is less money, less opportunities, less capacity to choose.

Discontinuity between the expressed values and mission of Science (we all know what it is, don't we?) and the practice. For example, hiring, advancement and funding principles, favouring the old and tried or just plain fashionable topics, and inhibiting research into new ideas. As the old joke has it: to write successful grant application use results you got last year as your goal. This way you can be sure of success... Jokes aside: such approach forces innovativeness out of established research. Which is wholly contrary to the Science ideals, isn't it?

Highly hierarchical structure that fosters politics and groupthink/conventional wisdom. Using yesterday's solutions to tomorrows problems is just as killing in business as it is in Science.

Egalitarian culture as opposed to differentiation: giving each team `a little piece of the cake' may keep bickering down, but would not lead to necessary concentration. Giving everyone `nice evaluations' might be considered nice and friendly, but does it breed dedication and passion? But there's another side: putting all the eggs in one basket (as has been done with the string theory) may result in missing some other opportunities. Business practice of the best companies, pitting internal teams against each other in the competitive environments - or just plain good old commercial competition - is the way that ensures the keenness of the cutting edge.

Last, but not least, demographics. My experience with business (IT to be specific) shows relatively quick career paths here. While not a dinosaur, I am now one of the older people in the current company. And young age - as Welch duly notes - does not inhibit maturity. On the other hand it does correlate with inquisitiveness and lack of `conventional wisdom'. Quite a few of these young people are successful entrepreneurs and managers. In Science - in US (according to Smolin) and in Poland (my observations) the average age of attaining self-sufficiency (permanent position, funds sufficient for research) is moving to greater and greater values. Whether this is a result of closed circle of established Professors defending their turf (as Smolin suggests, and I would tend to agree) remains to be proven - but then who would allow a grant for such a study to be approved?

All in all, my trip has resulted in rather pessimistic outlook on the today's capability of rejuvenating Science - which seems necessary to bring it back to the rightly earned place in Humanity decision making. It can not be, as it is, on the defensive against pop-culture, mass-disinformation or fundamentalist religions. But to move out of the ivory tower Science needs young, passionate entrepreneurs of its own, with all the qualities described by Welch: energy and capability to energize, edge and execution, and integrity ensuring strict adherence to the mission: discovering the truth about Nature.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Politics of Science

For the last few weeks there's a discussion in Poland, spurred by plans of the Ministry of Higher Education to abandon the "habilitation" part of the career path. The reason for this move is to speed up the possibilities of scientific career for your researchers (an make them stay in Poland!).

Shortly after the plans were revealed, 44 prominent professors from humanist departments of various institutes and universities have published a very strong letter, defending the current model, with its long advancement path, with a message:
in humanist disciplines it is the experience, not the talent, that decides on matureness and value of the research. Maybe in physics or mathematics young bright people may discover something interesting, but in the Polish literature studies or in history or in theory of theater it is the knowledge and experience - the age of the scientists that carries the weight. needless to say, the average age of the authors of the letter is, well, `experienced'.

Now, there are three trains of thought that this letter has stirred in my head.

First, that there must be a very strong difference between the humanities and `hard sciences'. Physics, biology or geology deal with external reality. The measure of a theory or experiment is in its power to show new phenomena in Nature or to explain them. No matter how venerable you are - if your work disagrees with observations it is invalid. It is no wonder that in the `Science Wars' between the postmodernist humanities in the US and the `reality' sciences the favourite weapon of the lit-crit crowd is to postulate that Science is but one of many alternative `world narratives'. This downgrade of Science would allow the humanists to claim their level of freedom from being accurate is generally applicable.
In Poland the Science Wars seem to have taken the additional conflict of generations flavour. Old professors defending their posts by claiming the `deep differences' between, for example, physics and literary criticism - well they might be right after all.

Which brings me to the second train of thought: are these disciplines different in Poland? In several aspects the answer is - yes. For one thing, despite very, very low level of funding for science in Poland, the hard sciences note some successes on the international scale. From astronomy to zoology. On the other hand, the humanities seem to boil in their own sauce, as the saying is. International publications? Who needs them! Certainly very few of international readers... Additionally, as there is no measuring stick of Nature, the Professors judge the validity of research by relationship to their own work. And thus the advancement of a young scientist is based on his social skills and on fitting into the existing trends, structures and cliques. I ask the international reader: do you know of any significant development of huninities originating from Poland in the past 20 years?

Lastly, a word on my personal history: as I have left the official path of active, institutionalized research some fifteen years ago I have no interest in supporting this or that model. In fact, my own career has been positively influenced by my tutors. They have not only encouraged me but also actively helped in my first publications. Without putting their name on the papers - situation very unusual in the master-apprentice model of humanist disciplines, where usually the Master becomes a co-author as a norm, without the real work done (sometimes automatically on the first place). Both my masters thesis and PhD tutors (Jan Blinowski and Jacek Kossut) have followed the rule "these are your calculations so it is your paper". Significantly on the papers with mixed experimental/theoretical content I was usually one of the last authors, which bears witness to the primacy of experiment over theory, at least the kind of theory I was involved with.
So I can say that I was lucky, up to a point, in my career. The relative freedom of research I enjoyed, constrained by the needs to find topics interesting enough for the experimentalists is a value, that I recognize fully today.

And thus, whatever the actual means are I would always support processes that promote young, enthusiastic scientists. This is the only way that our societies can manage to overcome the problems ahead of us. And the role of older, more experienced scientists should be to nurture and grow the talented younger colleagues, not to defend their positions via abstract hierarchies, closed grant applications and politics. Unless their disciplines would devolve to the geriatric obscurantism.

What pride is spelled by the words of Humphry Davy (who had quite a lot of achievements under his belt), who said that his greatest discovery was the discovery of Michael Faraday. Would every professor from the 44 list have something like this to say...

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Right and Wrong in Science.

A very interesting and thought provoking paper has appeared at arXiv. Crime and punishment in scientific research by Mathieu Bouville attempts to show discrepancy between the current policies for scientific misconduct and the goals of promoting Science in its various aspects, including getting more knowledge about Reality.
Arguments against scientific misconduct one finds in the literature generally fail to support current policies on research fraud: they may not prove wrong what is typically considered research misconduct and they tend to make wrong things that are not usually seen as scientific fraud, in particular honest errors. I argue that society cannot set a rule enjoining scientists to be honest, so any such rule can only be internal to science. Therefore society cannot legitimately enforce it. Moreover, until an argument is provided to prove that lack of honesty is far worse than lack of technical competence, intentional deceit should not be punished much more harshly than technical errors

While the paper is short and for me just an intro to the subject, it is interesting and opened my eyes to the mismatch between the human side of doing Science and its general aims.

CERN's LHC to be stopped by Hawaiian court?

Some time ago I have found that two men have sued CERN (at a court in Hawaii!) and asked the court to stop the building and operations of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva.
They think a giant particle accelerator that will begin smashing protons together outside Geneva this summer might produce a black hole or something else that will spell the end of the Earth — and maybe the universe.
If you think that this is April Fools day - think again. It's deadly serious.
Especially when one looks at the `achievements' of one of the plaintiffs.

The way that the world turns away from Science, away from its ethics and the special position with respect to Reality that Science has is indeed frightening. I can only hope that the court would follow the previous decisions (as was the case of the heavy Ion Collider). But ... there is little chance of the judge giving a verdict of thoroughness of the Dover district intelligent design trial. Simply because we do not know, what to expect from the LHC. That's the purpose behind it!

Of course, the danger of being swallowed by a Black Hole or some other `strangelet' in very small. Yet - can we say it doesn't exist? But by that token, every action, from the first step our ancestors have taken, going down the trees, is dangerous. And if, indeed the scientists have to prove that what they would so would be absolutely safe, then I would ask the plaintiffs to prove, on similar absoluteness, that what they do in everyday actions (such as going to the toilet) is just as absolutely safe and Black Hole or `malignant fractal' free...

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Global Warming and Social Warming

One of my favourite authors of sociophysics papers, Serge Galam, has published an interesting short analysis of social phenomena associated with the frenzy of words and resolutions (hardly a frenzy of real activities) that is called `response to the Global Warming threat'.

The paper, found on arXiv, Global Warming: the Sacrificial Temptation argues that the emotional side of the situation has led all research on the warming and conclusions of such research away from the scientific princliples.

Let me quote the abstract and conclusions of this paper:

The claimed unanimity of the scientific community about the human culpability for global warming is questioned. Up today there exists no scientific proof of human culpability. It is not the number of authors of a paper, which validates its scientific content. The use of probability to assert the degree of certainty with respect the global warming problem is shown to be misleading. The debate about global warming has taken on emotional tones driven by passion and irrationality while it should be a scientific debate. The degree of hostility used to mull any dissonance voice demonstrates that the current debate has acquired a quasi-religious nature. Scientists are behaving as priests in their will "to save the planet". We are facing a dangerous social phenomenon, which must be addressed from the social point of view. The current unanimity of citizens, scientists, journalists, intellectuals and politicians is intrinsically worrying. The calls to sacrifice our way of life to calm down the upset nature is an emotional ancestral reminiscence of archaic fears, which should be analyzed as such.

To sum up above analysis of the social and human aspects of global warming, most caution should be taken to prevent opportunistic politicians, more and
more numerous, to subscribe to the proposed temptation of a sacrifice frame in order to reinforce their power by canalizing these archaic fears that are reemerging. Let us keep in mind that in a paroxysm crisis of fear, opinions can be activated very quickly among millions of mobilized citizens, ready to act in the same direction, against the same enemy: it then enough to designate it.

Read it, even if you fear the global warming.

Friday, 14 March 2008

New Scientist and dark energy without dark energy

Some time ago I have decided to subscribe to New Scientist. My reactions are, on the average, rather mixed. Half o f the printed pages are taken by job postings for UK (which are rather uninteresting for me. And the general tabloid style, which I have already ridiculed here is a bit too tabloid.

But there is a positive side of the `hunt for the NEWS' approach, which, in summary more than compensated the shortcomings. It is exactly the tabloid style hunt for the man bites dog sensational news that allows to find scientific research that is off the beaten path.

The reason for this mention is the reference to works of David Wiltshire, especially his efforts to build alternative to the cosmology model. Ever since the discovery of the acceleration of the expansion of the Universe, I have felt that the acceptance of the Dark Energy/Dark Matter Universe, despite the 120 orders of magnitude discrepancy with the basic quantum `explanation', was a bit too fast.
My own experiences with solid state physics are that if anyone proposes an explanation that is off the data by, a single order of magnitude, it is `suspect', two orders make it useless. But hundred and twenty orders of magnitude? Yet the astrophysics community has accepted the 70%/25%/5% explanation so easily, without real understanding about what these 95% of the Universe are made of. Carroll's Preposterous Universe offers a good label for this quick understanding.

For these reasons I am grateful to the New Scientist for pointing out the work of Wiltshire. His papers, on Dark Energy without Dark Energy and Cosmic clocks, cosmic variance and cosmic averages, available on the WEB, are rather difficult in their mathematical part, but they are also very pedagogical.
In the words of the author:
An overview is presented of a recently proposed "radically conservative" solution to the problem of dark energy in cosmology. The proposal yields a model universe which appears to be quantitatively viable, in terms of its fit to supernovae luminosity distances, the angular scale of the sound horizon in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) anisotropy spectrum, and the baryon acoustic oscillation scale. It may simultaneously resolve key anomalies relating to primordial lithium abundances, CMB ellipticity, the expansion age of the universe and the Hubble bubble feature. The model uses only general relativity, and matter obeying the strong energy condition, but revisits operational issues in interpreting average measurements in our presently inhomogeneous universe, from first principles. The present overview examines both the foundational issues concerning the definition of gravitational energy in a dynamically expanding space, the quantitative predictions of the new model and its best-fit cosmological parameters, and the prospects for an era of new observational tests in cosmology.

While the calculations are rather intricate (too intricate for this amateur), the background physics and assumptions used are physical common sense and with much closer links to reality (such as observations of inhomogeneity of the Universe) that the Dark Energy models.

Why is then Wiltshire's work not the hot topic of astrophysics conferences?

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Cultural Natural Selection

An interesting paper by Rogers and Ehrlich, titled Natural selection and cultural rates of change, published in a recent edition of PNAS, has brought my attention to the issue if some principles of the Darwinian evolutionary theory might be applicable to cultural transmission. The findings document the intuitive reasoning that it should be so.

It has been claimed that a meaningful theory of cultural evolution
is not possible because human beliefs and behaviors do not follow
predictable patterns. However, theoretical models of cultural
transmission and observations of the development of societies
suggest that patterns in cultural evolution do occur. Here, we
analyze whether two sets of related cultural traits, one tested
against the environment and the other not, evolve at different
rates in the same populations. Using functional and symbolic
design features for Polynesian canoes, we show that natural
selection apparently slows the evolution of functional structures,
whereas symbolic designs differentiate more rapidly. This finding
indicates that cultural change, like genetic evolution, can follow
theoretically derived patterns.

Of course the mechanisms of change are different: in place of biological mutations we have innovation and cultural drift. But the stabilizing (or destabilizing) effects of selection on those traits that have strong link with reality which may influence the survivability of individuals and societies (canoe design, but also obviously, building design, food preparation etc.) are the same in mechanisms in biology and cultural change. The difference between the observed rates of change in functional and decorative design elements of canoes provide not only beautiful observational example of such differentiating process in action, but also are reminiscent of the `Spandrels of San Marco' discussion. Is it possible that a functional (i.e. selective) element in canoe design could come from a decorative change?
What was the origin of the high bows of the Viking boats? Was it technical/functional when conceived? I guess that yes, but perhaps there is more to the story?

In any case, this is a short but quite interesting paper.

Crowd Behaviour, continued

Following the topic of the previous post: fortunately, the search through references has been possible, and thus I have been lucky enough to read four of the key papers related to the field under discussion.

It seems that indeed, animals and humans alike may be led by relatively small groups of informed individuals, and that in most cases such non-democratic methods do have an advantage (for example in choosing when/where to feed, or in choice of the new location for a bee swarm). Whether the selective advantages of such a method of being led by small `informed' minority are applicable to human societies is an interesting question, both from scientific and from political point of view.

The paper mentioned in the previous post, Consensus decision making in human crowds, by Dyer at. al. depicts a very interesting experiment, where conditions reduce humans to `animal' status, by careful choice of setting where verbal and sign communications are prohibited. Despite the limitations, strong correlations were observed.

For those interested in following the trail deeper, I suggest the following papers:

Evolutionary Origins of Leadership and Followership, by Van Vugt

Consensus decision making in animals, by Conradt and Roper
Group decision-making in animals by Conradt and Roper


Effective leadership and decision-making in animal groups on the move by Couzin et. al.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Crowd behaviour

Some time ago I have dabbled in simplistic modelling of decision making in networked societies. While large scale decisions, in weakly connected environments, such as political choices in country sized society, where most of the participants can interact only indirectly, via many links or via general communication tools, such as media, are rather difficult to study and observe `in real life', it seems that the research on crowd behaviour is much easier.

A recent publication by a group od researchers at the University of Leeds that humans flock like sheep and birds, subconsciously following a minority of individuals. It takes a minority of just five per cent to influence a crowd’s direction – and that the other 95 per cent follow without realizing it.

Comparing this to animal behaviour might be really interesting. But also the nature of the links in the crowd, where interactions span almost the whole group - but are of necessity very shallow in information transfer (we observe only very superficial and incomplete indcators of others decision reasoning, process and results) is quite interesting.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

We are the champions - national pride in Science

Recent discovery of a stellar system that contains two planets that closely resemble Jupiter and Saturn, and thus offer great similarity to our own solar system has resulted in quite curious `national' observation.

Most of the Polish newspapers and TVs have reported this under the titles of "Polish scientist discover a Solar-like star system". One TV news programme has even suggested that the Polish team should get Nobel Prize for the discovery. (To be fair, they have asked a researcher from Oxford and he clearly replied NO).

On the other hand most of the US news agencies and papers have not reported ANY Polish involvement. For example in the Reuters newsfeed we find

Scientists and amateurs find new solar system

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Astronomers and amateur stargazers have used an unusual technique to find a solar system that closely resembles our own and say it may be a new and more productive way to scour the universe for planets -- and life.

They said technique, called microlensing, shows promise for finding many more stars, perhaps with Earthlike planets orbiting them.

"We found a solar system that looks like a scaled-down analog of our solar system," Scott Gaudi of Ohio State University, who led the study, told reporters.

The new solar system, described in Friday's issue of the journal Science, has two planets of similar size and orbit to Jupiter and Saturn. It is the first time microlensing has been used to find two planets orbiting a single star.

Let's have a look at the original paper, published in Science. The author list is quite impressive - and one can find both Scott Gaudi and many Polish astronomers there, as well as many others.
B. S. Gaudi, D. P. Bennett, A. Udalski, A. Gould, G. W. Christie, D. Maoz, S. Dong, J. McCormick, M. K. Szymanski, P. J. Tristram, S. Nikolaev, B. Paczynski, M. Kubiak, G. Pietrzynski, I. Soszynski, O. Szewczyk, K. Ulaczyk, L. Wyrzykowski, The OGLE Collaboration, D. L. DePoy, C. Han, S. Kaspi, C.-U. Lee, F. Mallia, T. Natusch, R. W. Pogge, B.-G. Park, The µFUN Collaboration, F. Abe, I. A. Bond, C. S. Botzler, A. Fukui, J. B. Hearnshaw, Y. Itow, K. Kamiya, A. V. Korpela, P. M. Kilmartin, W. Lin, K. Masuda, Y. Matsubara, M. Motomura, Y. Muraki, S. Nakamura, T. Okumura, K. Ohnishi, N. J. Rattenbury, T. Sako, To. Saito, S. Sato, L. Skuljan, D. J. Sullivan, T. Sumi, W. L. Sweatman, P. C. M. Yock, The MOA Collaboration, M. D. Albrow, A. Allan, J.-P. Beaulieu, M. J. Burgdorf, K. H. Cook, C. Coutures, M. Dominik, S. Dieters, P. Fouqué, J. Greenhill, K. Horne, I. Steele, Y. Tsapras, From the PLANET and RoboNet Collaborations, B. Chaboyer, A. Crocker, S. Frank, and B. Macintosh

Now, the question is: is it acceptable that the reporters would pick the nationalistic elements in the story and openly wave the flags of discoverers? In the light of the truly multinational cooperation that has led to the discovery it seems a bit parochial. This is the humanity effort to discover, possibly, other beings in the Universe!

But on second reflection I thought of the positive, role model building side of such national pride attitude. Yes, the Americans have the right to claim success. So have the Poles. And so have the New Zealanders, Koreans and many others, judging by the affiliations of the team members. Science should use any available vehicle to promote rational thinking and scientific attitudes, and the model offered by sports reporters is a good one. We are the champions! Everytime we discover anything!

And for me the most uplifting part of the news is that indeed, some members of the team were genuine AMATEUR SCIENTISTS. This is the flag I would choose to be counted under.

Evolution wars - again

Recently, Florida Department od Education has become a new battl;efront in the war waged by religious groups against Science. The Clay County School Board has voted for the following resolution:


Whereas, the Florida Department of Education has drafted and is now proposing new Sunshine State Standards for Science, the Clay County School Board opposes the implementation of the new standards as currently presented.

Whereas, the new Sunshine State Standards for Science no longer present evolution as theory but as “the fundamental concept underlying all of biology and is supported in multiple forms of scientific evidence,” we are requesting that the State Board of Education direct the Florida Department of Education to revise the new Sunshine State Standards for Science so that evolution is not presented as fact.

Whereas, the Clay County School Board recognizes the importance of providing a thorough and comprehensive Science education to all the students in Clay County and to all students in the State of Florida, it recognizes as even more important the need to present these standards through a fair and balanced approach.

NOW THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED by the School Board of Clay County, Florida, that the Board urges the State Board of Education to direct the Florida Department of Education to revise the new Sunshine State Standards for Science such that evolution is not presented as fact.

Approved by the School Board of Clay County on the 17th day of January, 2008.

Similar resolution has been passed by Taylor County, differing only by adding a significant phrases extending the meaning of the resolutions beyond mere `biological evolution':

Whereas, the Florida Department of Education has drafted and is now proposing new Sunshine State Standards for Science, the Taylor County School Board opposes the implementation of the new standards as currently presented.

Whereas, the new Sunshine State Standards for Science no longer present evolution as theory but as “the fundamental concept underlying all of biology and is supported in multiple forms of scientific evidence,” we are requesting that the State Board of Education direct the Florida Department of Education to revise/edit the new Sunshine State Standards for Science so that evolution is presented as one of several theories as to how the universe was formed.

Whereas, the Taylor County School Board recognizes the importance of providing a thorough and comprehensive Science education to all the students in Taylor County and to all students in the state of Florida, it recognizes as even more important the need to present these standards through a fair and balanced approach, an approach that does not unfairly exclude other theories as to the creation of the universe.

NOW THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED by the Taylor County School Board of Taylor County, Perry, Florida, that the Board urges the State Board of Education to direct the Florida Department of Education to revise the new Sunshine State Standards for Science such that evolution is not presented as fact, but as one of several theories.

Now, aside from rather obvious fact that the School Boards in question do not understand what they are voting about, for example what is a scientific theory and fact, or that evolution has very little to do with origin of the Universe the recent movements seem quite important.

Some of the comments following these resolutions were that Florida will become laughingstock of the US and the world. I believe otherwise. Florida is on the forefront of the battle against secular, rational thinking and will be eventually applauded for its dedication to fight unwanted thinking. I am not joking. The general resurgence of fundamentalist religions everywhere is a phenomenon that has to be taken into account. Just check what is the stance of the UC presidential candidates. Does ANY SINGLE ONE OF THEM clearly and openly support evolution and scientific viewpoint? Can anyone send me a pointer to such statements? Is it that they are afraid of stating it, or that they really do not believe evolution?

The rational efforts of scientists are falling on purposely deaf ears. Our societies want to be blindfolded. And it seems that probably the only way to fight the religious war against rational thinking is to adapt the same measures.

I would vote for the resolutions taken in Florida. And I urge that the doctrines of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster should be taken equally seriously as Christian Intelligent Design proposals and incorporated into school curricula as one of the `several theories explaining the origin of the Universe'. An almost ready to send letter to this effect is available on the WEB page of the Church:

I am writing you with much concern after having read of your hearing to decide whether the alternative theory of Intelligent Design should be taught along with the theory of Evolution. I think we can all agree that it is important for students to hear multiple viewpoints so they can choose for themselves the theory that makes the most sense to them. I am concerned, however, that students will only hear one theory of Intelligent Design.

Let us remember that there are multiple theories of Intelligent Design. I and many others around the world are of the strong belief that the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster. It was He who created all that we see and all that we feel. We feel strongly that the overwhelming scientific evidence pointing towards evolutionary processes is nothing but a coincidence, put in place by Him.

It is for this reason that I’m writing you today, to formally request that this alternative theory be taught in your schools, along with the other two theories. In fact, I will go so far as to say, if you do not agree to do this, we will be forced to proceed with legal action. I’m sure you see where we are coming from. If the Intelligent Design theory is not based on faith, but instead another scientific theory, as is claimed, then you must also allow our theory to be taught, as it is also based on science, not on faith. [...]

Scientists seem to have to adapt the same discipline and devotion that the religious movements have to protect the sacred grounds of Science against the infidels. To Arms!

No excuse for ignorance

One of the major topics of the Country of Blindfolded is my horror of humanity as ignorant mass of people, taking decisions blindly. Not because we can not see, but because we do blindfold ourselves. Especially when it comes to rationality. Especially when it comes to basic scientific literacy.

For this reason I was thrilled when I have read the commentary by Anthony C. Grayling in the Feb 9th issue of New Scientists, titled `There's no excuse for ignorance'. This was as if I read the thoughts that are constantly in my mind (written in better English). Here are some excerpts that point to the major issues (I am sorely tempted to quote in extenso, as the text is fully worth of it and accessible only by subscription, but my legalistic mind prevails):

Keeping abreast of what is happening in science and technology should be a matter of course for thoughtful people, no matter what their educational background or occupation. [...] Of course, active engagement in any branch of science requires expertise, but an intelligent appreciation of reports about the outcomes, significance and possible applications of research does not. [...]

A third and equally important part [of scientific literacy] is being able to take an informed and hence responsible stance on issues that vex society, a stance that might, say, influence how one votes.

[But the] biggest boon that scientific literacy can confer: the development of rational attitudes.

By this I mean the kind of healthy scepticism that asks for good evidence and good argument, that applies critical scrutiny to propositions or claims, that suspends judgement while the evidence is pending, and accepts what the evidence says once it has arrived, independently of prior wishes or partisan beliefs.


Saturday, 26 January 2008

Strings, LQG and all that

During a week long business trip I have finished reading a book by Peter Woit, Not Even Wrong, about the failure of the String Theory. I have then augmented it by several articles by Carlo Rovelli (especially Notes for a brief history of quantum gravity, and A dialog on quantum gravity, Int. J. Mod. Phys., 2003, D12, 1509-1528). Just to preserve the balance I leafed through Brian Greene books and Leonard Susskind Cosmic Landscape.

Results? Of course I do not understand String Theory not Loop Quantum Gravity. But as for human side, it is quite interesting.

The situation seems more than lightly skewed. While Woit and Rovelli discuss at length the pros and cons of string theory and its alternatives, the proponents of string theory behave somewhat differently. For example, Susskind devotes a single paragraph (about six lines of text) to Loop Quantum Gravity,
stating that it `is an interesting proposal, but it is not nearly as well developed as String Theory'. He continues:
As much as I would very much like to balance things by explaining the opposing side, I simply can't find that other side.

Very similar stance is taken by Greene in The Elegant Universe. He devotes about four pages to `criticisms of String Theory', which he starts as follows:
Is string theory right? We don't know. If you share the belief that the laws of physics should not be fragmented into those that govern the large and those that govern the small, and if you believe that we should not rest until we have a theory whose range of applicability is limitless, string theory is the only game in town.
You might well argue, though, that this highlights only physicists' lack of imagination rather than some fundamental uniqueness of string theory. Perhaps. You might further argue that, like the man searching for his lost keys under a street light, physicists are huddled around string theory merely because vagaries of scientific history have shed one random ray of light in this direction.

But, as Greene argues, these arguments are less and less important as the theory climbs up the mountain of understanding. The fact that it does not have any connection with experiment and reality is, for Greene, but a temporary matter, a `historical asynchrony'. What he hopes is that soon experiment would be able to confirm the results. The book has been written before the number of solutions of String Theory grew so much that any solution became possible, somewhere within the immense landscape which made the falsification near impossible. But the departure from the classical ideal of falsifiability by experiment is not critical for many proponents. The beauty of String Theory with its self-consistent finite number of dimensions, slightly spoiled that the number is wrong, not four but ten or eleven, and deep mathematical relationships is for many enough to continue the work. Both books by Greene and Susskind (as well as the one by Woit) are of the popular science genre. Thus, they may be considered as examples of what the scientists want to communicate to the lay public. And in the proponents of the String Theory it is clearly the excitement of research but also a lot of Public Relations. Look, we are climbing the mountain! We're just below the summit! The critics voices, more sombre, point out the less optimistic perspective. Is this good PR? Should we, scientists, show the public that we might be spending their money without getting results? Should we admit that some efforts (and funds) are wasted on wrong theories and failed experiments? If one looks through most of the books on history of science we usually see an uninterrupted march of progress, leaping, from tree to tree, like the Monthy Pythons lumberjack. Yes, there are some pet `wrong theories', like the phlogiston, or Ptolemaic system to show that progress is sometimes at expense of old ideas. But finding the day-to-day struggle with failed concepts, with ideas that caught fire for a couple of years only to be forgotten after a decade, is much more difficult. And for anyone who does dig deeply enough into the history of science, it is soon clear that this waste of funds and effort is an indispensable part of the success of science. Discovery can be achieved only by going into unknown. And this, by definition, means traveling without paths, often in a wrong direction.

The String Theory controversy, even taking into account its relatively low profile and the disproportions in the numbers of critics and supporters, is one of the crucial disputes in modern science. First, because it touches issues of group behaviour, career development, freedom of research. The question is: how can we expect to boost creativity if all the money (from limited and shrinking funds) is directed into one approach? What is the result of all the young, enthusiastic physicists flocking into one path?

The second issue is the role of Public Relations in science. In which way should the work be portrayed, is is allowed to publicize the controversies and questions? At first glance the situation in String Theory looks like a perfect case study for the radical `science studies' proponents, the deconstructivists and others. There is a lot of political agenda visible, a lot of social and psychological motives. But then the question becomes: can we separate the human and political aspects from the scientific content of the debate? Ultimately, some of the equations, some of the experiments would show who was right and who was not. This is at least what most of the physicists on both sides of the dispute hope for. How, then, could a sociologist decide who is right today, without understanding the physical problems? I am quite sure that most of the hard words expressed by the participants of the debate result not from some character flaws or political agendas but from deep convictions about the nature of the Universe. Yet, on the other hand, the social phenomena, such as tenure track selection or funding decisions are real.

The third issue is more physical: can we expect that any of the theories would touch with any experiments or observations in a foreseeable future? It seems that a small (but very fundamental) part of physics has turned into speculative metaphysics, where theories are laced so far ahead of experiment, that decisive factors are mathematical beauty or popularity. Some people might think that these are sufficient motivations for support. Some disagree.
But whatever our human inclinations are, the real verdict is still out --- there is no Quantum Gravity today.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

A scan(ny) for your thoughts, my dear

I got interested in a recent news reported by Science Daily. Apparently a group of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University has been able to
identify where people's thoughts and perceptions of familiar objects originate in the brain by identifying the patterns of brain activity associated with the objects.

A dozen study participants enveloped in an MRI scanner were shown line drawings of 10 different objects -- five tools and five dwellings --one at a time and asked to think about their properties. Just and Mitchell's method was able to accurately determine which of the 10 drawings a participant was viewing based on their characteristic whole-brain neural activation patterns. To make the task more challenging for themselves, the researchers excluded information in the brain's visual cortex, where raw visual information is available, and focused more on the "thinking" parts of the brain.

I'll need to have a deeper look at the original work, because the news reporting is, perhaps, a bit on the hype side, but nevertheless, this sounds like Science Fiction, doesn't it?

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Judging by appearances - String Theory

In the recent issue of the New Scientist (january 5th, 2008) I have found an article on an new development in string theory, String theory may predict our universe after all, by Anil Ananthaswamy. The news is that instead of the `traditional' string theory landscape of Universes, with maybe 10^500 possible universes, differentiated by 10 dimensional manifolds, there may be a way to arrive at our Universe, via some kind of path through the landscape. An evolution through the landscape if you will.
The idea is quite interesting, it offers a new way of explaining our own Universe, other than anthropic principle of pure luck. So I read the article, and also adhered to my usual advice: I followed the sources, in this case a paper by Philip Candelas, Xenia de la Ossa, Yang-Hui He, Balazs Szendroi, titled Triadophilia: A Special Corner in the Landscape. I looked at both and come out with quite a lot of observations.

However, before I present them, a word of warning: I do not have any special knowledge of string theory beyond the popular books and papers. I would not recognize a string-theoretic equation. I have met most of the terms used in the discussion below for the first time. I am a perfect amateur here.
But - does it make me totally unqualified to judge the matter by appearances? I let you decide...


My problems started with the following paragraph in the New Scientist article, describing what Candelas and coworkers did:
The group placed all of the known Calabi-Yau manifolds on a diagram, plotting their topological complexity - for instance, how twisted and contorted the manifold is - against their "Euler number", which mathematicians use to dictate how the extra dimensions can be compacted.

The plot turned out to have the shape of a cone (see Diagram).

When I turned to the original paper I found a diagram that was similar, yet significantly different.

It is not the question of colour. It is, for example, how the axes are labelled. In case of New Scientist the vertical axis is a mysterious `complexity of manifolds'. In the original paper it is also rather mysterious quantity h^11+h^21. But knowing this makes the mysterious cone shape very simple of origin: The oblique axes bound the region where h^11 and h^21 are greater than zero.

The next problem is the visual suggestion that all interesting things happen at the bottom triangle, strengthened by the arrow in NS picture. Well, this is what the authors argue, that's true. But we should be really cautious to let us be guided away from the top of the triangle. The facts that points representing manifolds are getting sparser as one moves up is not a property of string theory (I think) but rather reflects our limited knowledge of the manifolds. as Candelas et al. write, the diagram represents only manifolds from Kreuzer-Skarke list. There are no informations on all the 10^500 (?) manifolds allowed by String Theory.

The question becomes: can such editing of the original research, undoubtedly aimed at improving understanding and making `the story' more colourful, be considered fair? Does the triangular shape comes from simple mathematical condition and not from profound discovery? Or am I oversensitive, and all journalist media, including blogs (such as mine) have to exaggerate...