Scientific Sense Podcast

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Don’t cry for me

It was an enjoyable spectacle – something that lifted the spirit of at least half the world. Sport, perhaps the only human invention, that may provide a safe outlet for the clan like behavior that is integral to the human psyche. It is much less expensive – even a dozen billion $ invested in the recently concluded famous ball game, is a mere drop in the bucket, if it can keep the testosterone laden humans under control and perhaps avoid other more expensive endeavors, grown men and women engage in around the world. Some sport, however, still suffer from hooliganism, an expression of the same ideas that have kept humanity under check from advancing further.

Real champions are sportsmen – they play the sport seriously and accept victories and defeats as part of the game. They do not attempt to win at any cost and they lift mere humans from despair and afford them abundant joy. They move whole countries, something their mediocre leaders simply cannot do and they unite them – not to war against others but to see how unity could add value to entire societies, countries and humanity itself. They script beautiful stories on the field – some tragedies, some even comedies but always engaging.

It is important to nourish truly global sport – something that could engage large swaths of the world population. If we do, perhaps, we can alleviate the pain and tribulations served every day by ego and ignorance around the world.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Engineers discover uncertainty

A recent paper in Science describes simulations and systematic analyses of uncertainty as a way to simplify predictions of material properties such as density, hardness and reactivity for so called “designer materials.” Conventional engineering – in education and in practice – focus too much on deterministic methods of evaluation and design, an artifact of the use of traditional materials that are well understood. But such designs are of little use in the modern world, already replete with ugly structures and weak materials. Additionally, most of the traditional engineering designs could be fully handled by computers.

The next frontier for engineering has been designer materials that could substantially change industry, electronics, energy and drug design. The use of deterministic and antiquated tools of yesteryear have been successful in slowing down innovation for the past several decades. Precision has to be abandoned and faster experiments with approximations have to be embraced. Trends need to be evaluated, hypotheses need to be formed, tested and proved and errors are to be expected. Once variations are accepted, then it is easier to predict, test, refine and retest. These techniques have been in use in many areas and it is time that such ideas entered engineering and materials science.

Materials scientists and engineers, laggards of the technology cornucopia, need to come to the party soon.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The end of mind?

In a recent study (1), the authors seem to have made the following interesting observation:

“In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.”

Most of the study subjects appear to be men. Does this indicate a systematic atrophy of the human mind? Is this the end of thoughts? Is this the beginning of regression to nothingness?

Humans have been busy most of their evolutionary history – they had to sense and avert danger in every corner, hunt for food incessantly and later fight other clans constantly for superiority and survival. Humans have been both tacticians and a strategists, adept at maximizing within the constraints presented. They even ventured into abstract realms – philosophy, art and mathematics – that provided little direct utility to the problems at hand. Some even had visions of space travel and rocketed to nearby pebbles as a precursor. The human mind has been active – perhaps till very recently.

Now, we find ourselves unable to think and preferring electric shocks to boredom. How did we get here? Where do we go from here? Is this a segregation of mind share? What role do society, education and industrial organizations play?  Humans, the most unlikely species to dominate the World, may have overshot their own capabilities.

(1) Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind

Timothy D. Wilson1,*,
David A. Reinhard1,
Erin C. Westgate1,
Daniel T. Gilbert2,
Nicole Ellerbeck1,
Cheryl Hahn1,
Casey L. Brown1,
Adi Shaked1

Friday, July 4, 2014

The education gap

A recent article in NY times points out correctly that there is a subtle difference between the statement that “the US has the best universities” and “of the top 25 universities, most are in the US.” Indeed, an education gap has opened up between the very top and the average available college education in the US. Many believe that the recently fashionable online education trend will even out the field, making college education fully democratic. Educators, policy-makers, rating agencies and the public appear to be missing several important considerations here.

Before one can measure and rate the outcome of a process, one has to define the objectives of the process itself. In the last century, education was supposed to train graduates for “jobs.” However, in an economy that does not create many jobs, the objective of education has to be fundamentally redefined. Today, education has to be something that prepares graduates for the non-jobs – add value to society through innovation and advancement of knowledge and ideas. These are volatile endeavors – most offering no stability and often result in catastrophic failures. In a jobless economy, the next generation has to be taught skills that are not necessarily related to parroting out standardized answers to Arithmetic, Physics, Chemistry and Biology questions (PISA scores, for example) – or churning out engineers and doctors like perfectly predictable stack of pancakes in the “International house of pancakes.”  High scores in standardized exams and high graduation rates in environments that are designed to create “bricks in the wall,” are not good metrics for the success of education.

It is important to fully redefine the objectives of modern education before one could conclude on its effectiveness. The content drilled into the brains of the merry college goers of today, is largely a commodity and it generally correlates badly to eventual success. It is the ability to look outside the content and find relationships among apparently disconnected fields that will hold the key for future success. On that measure, the US schools, still offer much higher flexibility than the antiquated systems of the East. Further, the top schools in the US continue to command the lion’s share of innovation in the world – a true measure of how good education is.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Stupidity of the crowds

Recent research from the Max Plank Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands show that Chimpanzees quickly copy arbitrary behavior of others in close proximity. The researcher noticed how a female chimp named Julie repeatedly put a blade of grass for no apparent reason in her ears and that behavior was copied rapidly by other chimps who observed it. This has implications for humans, who share most of the genetic make-up of chimps. Copying observed behavior of others may have had some evolutionary advantage for humans – at the very least it may have allowed them to experiment. It appears that such a notion is now built into the psyche of humans. This may have some negative consequences in the modern world.

For example, in the financial markets – there appears to be a tendency to follow arbitrary behavior of others, however stupid that could be. It has been established that in large markets, outcomes are generally efficient even though individual participants could be irrational and stupid. However, if copying is an in-built behavior pattern of the closest cousins of the chimps, then one could envision persistent excursions away from efficiency. Hedge funds, for example, may arbitrarily attempt a trade that could be replicated by many others – not because they understand it but because it is compelling to copy. The short term volatility in the market could be explained by such chimp-like behavior.

This behavior is equally apparent in real markets. For example, it is often observed that in large meetings within operating companies in which the participants are ambivalent as to the choices presented, a preemptive selection decision by one is quickly followed by many. In such experiments, the crowd could reach diametrically opposite decisions just because the first mover had preferences in one direction or another. Large companies are generally managed by chimp-like instincts exhibited by one and quickly adhered to by others.

It is ironic that large-brained animals – chimps and humans – may be more prone to group-think than others such as cats, who exhibit more individualistic preferences.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Maximizing children

Recent research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that early stress – such as poverty and abuse - has a lasting deleterious effect on children’s brains. Stress at ages less than five seems to impact even the structure of the brain with predictable negative effects all through life. Policy tacticians, counting today’s debt and tomorrow’s votes and busy shutting down the government may be well advised to take a more holistic and macro view of societal costs and health.

Education and health with unambiguous positive network effects on society could substantially influence the trajectory a nation or society could progress in. Now, it appears that even micro-effects such as early childhood stress may have to be considered in the design and provision of healthcare if societies want to nourish healthy, productive and intelligent future generations. Maximizing human resources is an important strategic goal for any society and if that is understood then one could delve into policy implications.

Humans, born totally incompetent and unprotected, require systematic nourishment in early part of their lives. Evolution seems to have assumed that societies would care for the children and accordingly selected a design with a large brain attached to a feeble body that can be pushed through a narrow canal at birth. Such a design requires a system of support, for without it the results are obvious. But in more subtle ways, even if the children survive physically, it appears that they get hurt mentally if sufficiently protective environments are not afforded. The brain, a fantastic organ, requires close attention in the formative years and it appears that modern societies do not understand this well.

More practically, there are two primary questions modern societies have to grapple with. First, given that a child requires specific considerations at least in the first five years, should parents be punished if they are unwilling or unable to provide the required environments for them?. Since the child is a luxury item and a choice, more thought and planning are needed prior to a decision to have children. And, second, assuming no policy will be perfect and that transitions will be problematic in any case, how should societies treat children born into environments unable to provide the evolutionarily required conditions?

As the politicians and policy makers – some octogenarians – are utterly incompetent and incapable of understanding and thinking about the future, it seems that we are entering a very problematic time. “Serving the country,” is not a job and it requires people who recognize at the very least that they have become ineffective.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The age of AI

Computer scientists from the University of Washington and the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Seattle claim that they have created the first fully automated computer program that teaches everything there is to know about any visual concept (1). Artificial Intelligence has been the most hyped and the least effective of concepts for over three decades. Determinism and rules based logic – underpinnings of the shallow understanding of human knowledge by humans, have put a lid on progress in this field and it appears that such a constraint could be for ever.

Watson, the current champion, has perpetuated the same ideas even though it dazzled ordinary humans by its ability to memorize rules and retrieve them fast. Not impressed, the autonomous car maker of the West, unleashed the “neural net” of immense proportions on the web where it invented search, only to realize that the beast only went looking for “cat videos.” And now, some academics claim that all they need is raw computing power to create something that will learn “everything there is to know.” It is indeed impressive.

Artificial Intelligence is showing its age. No amount of computing power is going to help humans learn how stupid they really are.


Sunday, June 8, 2014


Nearly 500 years ago, a heliocentric view of the solar system was proposed. It was reluctantly accepted over time – by the religious and not so religious, as it fundamentally shook the core belief system of humans – the idea that they are not at the center of the universe. Further intellectual excursions into defining the universe, first as infinite and then as very large, possibly supplemented by alternatives, have been eating into the psyche of humans, as they struggle to forfeit superiority.

They never really let the idea go. The fact that Earth revolves around the Sun and the solar system revolves around the center black hole of the Milky Way and the galaxy itself revolves around the center of gravity of the local group, that represents a tiny part of the space-time continuum of one of the many possible universes, never sinks in. Astrophysics and Astrobiology, arguably the most progressive of scientific disciplines of the present, still invest significant resources looking for Earth’s twins and Human’s alter-ego, across the universe. They argue that life will be found on an “Earth-like planet,” rocky with a density of 5.5 grams per cubic centimeters, revolving around a “Sun-like” star in the “habitable zone,” that affords the same temperature and radiation shields, with an atmosphere replete with oxygen and oceans with plenty of water to drink, bathe and perform religious ceremonies. Such is the power of homocentrism that leading science fiction writers find extra-terrestrials travelling to Earth to be similar to humans - eyes, legs, hands and a brain, supported on long and flexible necks, albeit with a different skin color, something humans hold dear. The less sophisticated ones create crafts that travel across space-time and find creatures, well dressed and fed, ready to converse in English.

The discovery of thousands of exoplanets has led to a feeding frenzy and heart-break for most for they are yet to find something with the precise dimensions and density of their beloved home. Exolife has eluded them and this has forced them to lower some standards. Some are now willing to accept that the Sun is no ordinary star and that there are ten times as many dwarf stars as Sun-like stars with one-tenth the energy, occupying space near and far. This has expanded the “habitable region,” where Earth’s twins would be found, albeit such a discovery may not be as exciting. On that Earth, just next door, orbiting a dwarf, they still hope to find organisms, animals and human clones of similar proportions, aerobic and hydrophilic, living, fighting and killing each other, occasionally looking for their twins elsewhere. They are ready to sacrifice the Sun but not the Earth, an ironic twist to the story of “scientific discoveries.”

Homocentrism, the curse of humanity, may have substantially limited humans.