Scientific Sense Podcast

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Predictions with a single observation

A recent study from the University of Rochester (1) claims to improve the "Drake equation," - a constant reminder that multiplying random numbers does not provide any additional insights that are not present in the components. Now with exoplanets galore, the study that appeared in Astrobilology claims they can put a "pessimistic estimate" on the probability of non-existence of advanced civilizations, elsewhere in the universe. Just as in the previous attempt, the study suffers from traditional statistics. Most agree that a singular observation is not sufficient to predict anything, let alone the age, capabilities and the distance from Earth, where they could reasonably exist.

As the authors note, the space time window afforded to humans is too narrow to prove or disprove anything. However, the tendency to be amazed by large numbers and the multiplicative effects of such constructs, have led scientists to make non-scientific claims. Until at least a second data point becomes available, the effort expended on statistical analysis in this area is a waste of time. Availability of data is necessary but not sufficient to assign probabilities. Even those clinging to normality statistics, centuries old by now, know that it is not a good tool to make predictions.

More importantly, those awaiting ET's arrival, have almost infinite flexibility to keep on searching. If one has a hypothesis, then an accumulation of negative findings against it, regardless of how many trials are possible, has to be given due consideration. As an example, if one claims favorable conditions exist for life on Enceladus, Saturn's famous moon, such as water, oxygen and a heat source - then investing into the exploration of the icy rock is reasonable. However, if one comes out empty, it cannot be irrelevant. Just because there are trillion other rocks, in the solar system alone, that could be explored, one cannot simply ignore such an observation. At the very least, it should challenge the assumptions used by the space agency and others to justify such explorations. This "new" statistics - perhaps called "Statistics of large numbers," - where no negative observation has any utility - is very costly even though it is well positioned to pump out publications.

Scientists, engaged in irrelevant and invalid observations. aided by large numbers, may need to challenge themselves to advance the field.


Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Uncertain networks

Recent research from MIT, Chicago and Harvard (1) contends that smaller shocks in the economy could be magnified significantly by network effects. If true, it may provide guidance on policy that is trying to "jump start" large economic systems by targeted investments. If the transmission of such shocks across the economy is predictable, then, it could impact macro-economic decisions favorably. However, looking back with a deterministic view of network evolution, may have some downside.

Economic growth is driven by the conscious harvesting of uncertainty and not by strategic investments by bureaucrats or even corporations. Further, networks are in a constant state of evolution. Measuring GDP impact, a backward looking measure has less meaning in an economy driven by information, innovation and intellectual property. Firms, locked into the status-quo, with a rigid view of demand and supply, indeed fall prey to shocks amplified by static networks, But those, keenly aware of unpredictable uncertainty and the value of flexibility, could certainly surpass such external noise. The question is not how the present network amplifies shocks but rather how the networks are built. If they are built by organizations with a static view of the future, then they will be brittle and consumed by minor shocks. The measurement of intellectual property by patents is symptomatic of the adherence to known metrics and a lack of awareness of where value is originating from.

Empirical analyses in the context of accepted theories have less value for the future - policy or not. The field of economics has to evolve with the modern economy. Lack of innovation will always have a negative effect on the economy - no further analysis is needed.


Monday, April 25, 2016

Biological storage

Recent news (1) that University of Washington researchers have successfully stored and retrieved data using DNA molecules is exciting. As the world accumulates data - already many tens of millions of gigabytes, growing at an alarming rate, storage capacity and efficiency are becoming top priorities in computing. With material sciences still lagging and computer scientists clinging to the Silicon status-quo, it is important that the field takes a biological direction. After all, nature has coded and retrieved complex information for ever. Using the same mechanism is likely a few orders of magnitude more efficient than what is currently available.

DNA, the most important biological breakthrough over four billion years, has been almost incomprehensible for humans, arguably, the best product of evolution. Lately, however, they have been able to understand it a bit better. Although some argues that the human genome map is the end game, it is likely that it is just a humble beginning. The multi factorial flexibility afforded by the DNA molecule may allow newer ways to store binary data, making it akin to the other belated innovation - quantum computing. Here, thus far, research focused on mechanistic attempts to force fit the idea into the Silicon matrix. Taking a biological route, perhaps aided by the best functioning quantum computer, the human brain, may be a more profitable path.

Biology could accelerate lagging innovation in material sciences and computer science.


Sunday, April 17, 2016

Bacteria rising

Recent research from Michigan State University (1) that demonstrates the rise of multi-drug resistant bacteria due to overuse of antibiotics in animals is troubling. It has long been known that flu originates in farms with multi-species interactions. As mentioned in the article, the swine farms in China are particularly problematic as they allow easy gene transfers among bacteria. This, in conjunction with lack of antibiotics research for decades due to declining commercial economics, could result in a perfect storm. 

Bacteria have been dominant all through the history of the planet. Robust architecture with fast evolution by sheer numbers, led them to largely supersede any other biological life form on earth. For the past several decades, they have been put on the back foot, for the first time, by humans. All they need, however, are sufficient number of trials to develop resistance against any anti-bacterial agent. Data shows that they are well on their way, thanks to a variety of experiments afforded to them by inter-species breeding and the overuse of known agents. 

The economics of this indicates that commercial organizations are unlikely to focus on it till it is too late. If R&D, commercial or publicly funded, is not focused on this developing problem, we may be heading toward a regime that may make Ebola look like a household pet. In a highly connected world of intercontinental travel, it is easy for the single cell organism to hitch a ride to anywhere they would like to go. Thus, local efforts are not sufficient and a true global push is needed to compete against the abundant experience, collected over four billion years.

R&D prioritization at the societal level needs to take into account the downside risk and value of investments. 


Sunday, April 10, 2016

Hole in the soul

The super-void, that presented itself in the background radiation, sporting a size of close to two billion light years, has baffled scientists. A few years after its discovery, no reasonable explanation is forthcoming. The standard model, that most still pin their research on, has shown so many cracks that scientists who adhere to it are beginning to look like economists, who have similar difficulty letting go of established theories. Hunting in the particle forest, either to propose new ones or to prove the hypothesized ones indeed exist, has been the favorite past-time of physicists. Recently, they even measured the reverberation of gravity waves, generated by an event over billion years ago, to the tune of the diameter of a proton. Now, it is nearly impossible to disprove anything in Physics.

Biologists and chemists are in the same spot. Technology is advancing so fast that scientists are running out of hypotheses to prove. There are so many engineers and technologists, pumped out by the elite educational institutions around the world, who stand ready to prove anything in science. We are fast approaching a regime of dearth of ideas and an oversupply of proofs. Is this what was envisioned a few decades ago by visionary scientists, who predicted a future in which there would be nothing more to prove. If so, it would be bleak, indeed.

Creating hypotheses, a skill that was left undernourished for a few decades, may need to be brought back.