Scientific Sense Podcast

Friday, January 3, 2014

Materials genome

Research from Duke indicates that the recently launched “Materials Genome Initiative,” is already beginning to yield results. Their study published in Physics describes a new Platinum group compounds with interesting properties. Humans are finally shaking off the perils of industrial revolution, when scale was the only consideration – mine, smelt, roll, build and sell – to the masses. Early automotive tycoons didn’t even want to color their end products as they feared loss of efficiency.

Lack of progress in materials sciences has held humans back in virtually every field. In computing, packing conventional silicon ever closer to increase speed has led to thermal and quantum tunneling limitations in chip design. In space travel, inelegant designs that use massive amounts of conventional fuel to propel heavy payloads into orbits, has been the norm for decades. In medicine, drug delivery continues to rely on decade long techniques that is akin to carpet bombing with little access to the brain. In transportation, traditional materials based designs are responsible for the highest number of deaths on the road and high energy use in other modalities. Century old building techniques and materials have led to energy inefficient homes aiding accelerating green house effect.

It is time to step back from mass manufacturing to intelligent materials based design in every field.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Social progress

Research from Harvard (1) provides an overall measurement of social progress for countries all around the world. Although there aren’t many surprises in the list, it does point to an overall disparity between social conscience and progress.

The most interesting observation in this empirical study is that no country was able to score in the top half of all dozen components measured including medical care, sanitation, shelter, safety, access to knowledge, information and higher education, wellness, ecosystem, personal rights and equity. This implies that progress in some of these dimensions are negatively correlated with others. Those seeking to design better future societies need to understand the causes of such correlations as well as have an overall view of portfolio management.

The source of negative correlations among factors of progress is likely temporal. The impact one can achieve by investing in certain dimensions is higher than others in the short run. However, such a skewed portfolio allocation may adversely affect overall progress in the long run. Very large countries such as India, pulling up the rear, is symptomatic of its lack of understanding of how to manage a portfolio of seemingly contradictory objectives. Focus on any one area at the cost of others may be useful to win elections for its leaders but it will likely keep it bottled up for decades.

Another large country, the US, albeit being on top, shows that it is necessarily sub-optimizing available opportunities. The immense talent available to it has been constrained by its increasing political and bureaucratic inertia, which if left unchecked, has the potential to bring the galloping nation to slow saunter. Although portfolio management principles are well understood, the current system prevents it from making optimal allocation decisions. The tendency to complicate policy decisions, either because of lack of understanding or for political gains, has created a regime that seems to be controlled by the incompetent.

Good performances by small countries, such as Sweden and Switzerland also imply that scale is a huge impediment to effecting beneficial policy changes. The real question for the countries down the list is how they can take advantage of their size and learn from the mistakes of those showing persistent under-performance.

(1) Michael Porter unveils new health and happiness index, the Guardian.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Untestable simplicity

Cosmology has been unable to advance any further understanding of the universe for nearly a century. However, aided by fancy mathematics and fancier machines, physicists have been successful in creating a false perception of knowledge progression during this time as they danced their way to Nobel prizes and professorships. Some have even been successful in making the field “approachable” for the common woman through lecture circuits, books, blogs, podcasts and countless TV appearances. Even sitcoms have become “socially responsible,” teaching the couch potatoes about black holes and time travel through the comedy of idiots representing wise men. The general and continuous lowering of standards, aiding entry based on popularity and not competence, has resulted in a crop of physicists who are good story tellers but not much else.

The collective groan heard across the physics departments in major universities when the LHC failed to detect exotic partners to the much anticipated Higgs Boson or the conspicuous absence of her bridesmaids, the SUSY particles, could only be attributed to broken strings on their mathematical violins and the possibility of curtailed funding to mend them. It is ironic that the “theory of everything,” was done in by the potent concoction of the particle soup – something that the man who made the last meaningful contribution to physics, warned against. The dangerous combination of declining imagination and accelerating technology to make finer and finer measurements of noise has resulted in the field coming to a grinding halt. To top it all off, mathematics, a tool that helped humanity build civilizations in the past has now turned into a trick to prove anything or to create theories that do not need to be proven.

Experimentalists have been “defending” the field against occasional excursions into imagination – such as the multiverse - on the premise that a theory, if not proposed along with predictions that can be experimentally tested, is not worthwhile. They steadfastly cling to such a practical notion that most are willing to accept any level of complexity in existing alternatives as long as something could be tested. This is indeed noble. However, judging from their contributions for the past hundred years, it is unclear if such a posture is valuable for humanity.

Simplicity, even at the cost of untestability, should dominate the discourse in physics.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Data loss?

A recent report in Current Biology Indicates that a large percentage of the data, supporting scientific publications, are lost due to lack of access to the original authors and obsolete data storage techniques. Underlying data to scientific publications are apparently lost at an astonishing rate of 17% per year. Current expectations of the life of data are significantly different from what was considered to be acceptable 20 years ago.

What is an acceptable span of life for data today? Do data remain relevant for ever? Should data have an expiry date? Data, as we all know, are the raw materials to insight generation but that does not necessarily mean that they should exist for ever. In a world of exponentially increasing data, the challenge is to extract any information content in them quickly and discard the rest. Storing data for ever is likely going to create problems in many different dimensions.

The basic notion that more is better is not at all true for data. Scientific experiments such as the LHC create data at such a rate, it is virtually indistinguishable from random noise, unless one is looking for something specific. Large companies create so much data that many are coming to a grinding halt. The star of the data revolution has been googling its way into such endeavors as creating a human brain through artificial neural nets and curing death on the premise that there is nothing one cannot accomplish if data were available. Based on the artificial brain’s proclivity to seek cat videos on the internet they may be right on one account but not on others.

Data are very close to random noise. More of it is unlikely to solve problems.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Shilling out

A recent Nobel laureate has derided his fellow prize winner as “the catholic who has discovered that God does not exist.” He argues that humans are psychologically imbalanced and make irrational decisions. That is fair enough – one has to just observe our leaders in Washington to understand this is a truism. What he misses however is the simple idea that predicting irrational behavior of aggregate markets – a large number of idiots – is not easy. If this is not true, Yale would have amassed all of the world’s wealth by now. One could observe this is not the case – neither for the University nor for its illustrious champion. It is also not true for its foundation – one would imagine with such knowledge, the professor would have helped it a bit. Alas, alpha is not that easy to capture.

Market efficiency has been a lightening rod for many practioners, those who make money by moving money around for no other purpose. It is ironic that an economist of such stature will fall for the same. It is indeed puzzling that the Nobel committee will find such an argument compelling. Getting wrapped in psychology, albeit being good fodder for story telling, is not amenable to creating frameworks for the behavior of large and complex systems. Measuring real estate prices is one thing – many could do that, but imagining how complex systems function in aggregate is another. If one could indeed predict “bubbles,” why not do that routinely – and become the richest man on earth? Is it just the altruistic endeavors in education that is holding him back? or is it that practicing what is being professed is not as easy as it seams?

To make this clear, once and for all, all he has to do is to predict the next bubble and bet his entire career, home and savings on it. Then, perhaps, he can find some disciples.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Slow evolution

A recent book “The Ghosts of Evolution of Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Patterns and other Ecological Anachronisms” points out that Avocados appear to prefer designs that seem to rely on creatures who lived a few million years ago to perpetuate their seeds. Is this a case of a time warp or just incredibly slow evolutionary trajectories?

Avocados, clinging to a strategy that worked for many millions of years, may find themselves extinct, eventually. Is the speed of evolution an important attribute of survival? The fact that Avocados are still around implies processes that replicate transmission, albeit at lower efficiencies. This is an important learning for more advanced life forms as well. The fact that the form has survived does not mean that it is the fittest, it is just that natural laws have not gotten to them.

Humans should be worried.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Leaning PISA

Results from the recently concluded PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) test show sobering results for US teenagers, lagging behind in Math, Science and Reading to their Asian counterparts in aggregate (although certain states such as MA and CT are on par or above). Although these are important metrics, there are more fundamental questions for education systems worldwide.

Is education about getting high scores in Math, Science and Reading? What’s the correlation of such high scores to eventual success – perhaps defined as the contribution to society – in the advancement of knowledge and humanity? What Math, Science and Reading are being tested – are they from last two centuries or something newer? How do such high scores correlate with the GDP growth of the countries associated with the star test-takers? What do the students who capture such superior scores eventually do with their lives?

What is education for? Is education about taking and performing in tests? Does education improve intelligence or does intelligence portends education? What has been the educational background of people who changed the world? Were they good test takers or something else? What are contemporary tests really testing – is it the ability to take tests, acquired knowledge or intelligence? How does culture affect measurement by tests? Do tests motivate students to learn? How does one learn? Is it from books and classes?

Educations systems, world-over, have gotten it completely wrong. In the East, they cram information into the brains of kids, essentially destroying any innate creative capabilities. In the West, they de-prioritize fundamental knowledge, creating students with stars in their eyes but with no hard skills to back it up. And PISA shows up – testing, ranking and reporting as if it means something. It doesn’t.

The only metric of a good education system is the end result. Does it produce individuals and teams who advance humanity? If not, it does not mean anything.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

It is complicated

A recent article in Nature that shows Native Americans may have arrived 24,000 years ago and they are a mixture of two distinct populations – East Asians and Western Eurasians is interesting. Current technology on human genome may be more aptly applied in this manner rather than the misguided attempts at predicting the probability of disease.

Humans have been circling the Earth for long. Contemporary populations that subscribe to country, color or religion are akin to those who may find the meaning of life based on the color of ice-cream that was consumed yesterday. It is such a preposterous notion that a large percentage of the 7 billion current humans are driven by such ideas of cultural purity. They have figured out how to divide themselves so infinitesimally small that the preferred human in close proximity has nearly zero chance of carrying anything resembling them in her genes.

Is this lack of information or just a bug in the physical hardware that they are endowed? If it is the former, then the biggest productivity boost for humanity could come from disseminating information on migratory patterns for the last 50,000 years to all inhabitants. If it is the latter, then, God save us.