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.