Captain Hammer Physicists

A day after posting about the innumeracy of intellectuals, Chad Orzel asks about the reverse perspective — does the arrogance flow both ways?

This immediately reminded me of a couple years back, when D^2 and the rest of the Crooked Timber crowd got rather annoyed with physicists. Apparently, bored physicists have a habit of diving other fields with shiny new mathematical models — nothing wrong with that, cross-pollination is great — but the kicker is that they tend to do this without first bothering to read any of the previous research in that area.

This tends to A) irritate the hell out of existing scholars in the field and B) generate papers that at best reinvent the wheel, at worst end up being Not Even Wrong. See:

I’m not sure whether this disease is confined just to physicists, or whether the other hard scientists play this game too. Given my brief experience in the discipline, I suspect it’s the former. In any case, I hereby dub this mentality the “Captain Hammer” approach to cross-discipline research:

Stand back everyone
nothing here to see!
A brand new field of research
in the middle of it — me!
Yes, Captain Hammer’s here
hair blowing in the breeze
This data needs my modeling expertise…

“When… you’re the best / you can’t rest, there’s no use / There’s ass… needs kickin’ / some ticking bomb to defuse” … you get the idea.

Poisoning the Minds of our Youth

Still going through all the boxes of stuff from childhood. Right now I’m going through college notes, homework, papers, and tests.

I have no idea why I saved this stuff. Maybe I was thinking that if I became a professor at a teaching college, I could reuse some of the homework and exam questions? But ten years later, these papers were all clearly written by Someone Else. Even if for some reason I wanted to throw my career away and jump back into science, I’d have to start all over anyway. Educational value of these N cubic feet of paper? Basically zero.

Still, there some gems in there. One of my favorites is actually an appendix from our frosh lab manuals, A Guide To Technical Report Writing:

One of the most common criticisms of technical reports is that they are not
are not written in a sufficiently brief and concise form. To write succinctly
is often difficult. Writing in a rather loose and informal style is much easier,
but it simply cannot be tolerated in scientific writing today for some very
good reasons. The editor of the Astrophysical Journal wrote
the following paragraph:

The present accelerated growth of this Journal in common with the other
scientific journals, makes it imperative that authors (in their own interest)
exercise utmost restraint and economy in the writing of their papers
and in the selection and presentation of material in the form of tables,
line drawings, and halftones. In spite of the obvious need for such restraint,
the Editor regrets that authors continue to write in the relaxed style common
a century ago; moreover, the temptation to reproduce large masses of IBM
printouts and tracings from automatic recording equipment appears too
great for most authors to resist. The Astrophysical Journal
will enforce stricter standards in the future with respect to these matters.

The present change for publication in the leading physics journals is over $70
per page. Thus, it is important that you learn to write your reports in such a
way that unnecessary words are eliminated and data is reduced to a minimum.
This generally calls for some rewriting.

You don’t say!

Well, one thing is clear: no honest-to-goodness bad writer could possibly string together so many unnecessary passive phrases, nominalizations, repetitive words, and other stylistic blunders — so what is this piece really all about? My theory is that it’s actually a meta-commentary about scientific prose. Like Alan Sokal in the famous Sokal Hoax, the author is trying to raise the community’s awareness of the problem by mocking it at a fundamental level. The piece even goes so far as to advise students to learn the principles of good writing by “read[ing] reports and articles appearing in various engineering and scientific journals, such as The Physical Review.” Such acute, insider wit can only come from someone who has been seething inwardly about this issue for years. (The prim little tone of admonishment is just the icing on the cake.)

Unfortunately, unlike the Sokal affair, nobody ever came forward to admit that A Guide To Technical Report Writing was a joke. Thus, a hapless freshman physics major skimming through their lab notebook might actually have believed that it constituted real advice! So while I appreciate our nameless author’s cri de coeur about the state of scientific writing, I’m not sure it was worth the risk of confusing the students.

Then again, the odds that the students actually read that part of the lab notebook are slim to none. I know I didn’t.

Homework Problem for Next Class: Rewrite the first paragraph of the excerpted piece to say the same thing, using 50% fewer words, thus saving serious $$ when you publish said paragraph in the Astrophysical Journal. Show your work.

Back Off Man, I’m a Scientist

Forget driving. Forget voting. Forget your first real job. Forget moving into your first apartment. Forget true love and true heartbreak. In this country, you know you’ve finally become a real grown-up when your parents finally force you to take away all your boxes of crap.

Oh, I managed to hold them off for a decade, but finally my folks decided that they were redecorating. Which in 20- and 30-something circles is known as “playing the nuclear option.” Fortunately, their timing was pretty good, since I was already on a quest to find my long-lost college diploma. See, my insurance agent told me that he could get me a “Scientist” discount on my car insurance, as long as I could provide proof that I had a Bachelor of Science degree.

Don’t get me wrong — I protested that I wasn’t a working scientist, far from it. I told him that these days I couldn’t do a path integral to save my life. I told him about the thermometers I dropped in undergrad lab, about the spontaneous magnet quench back in grad school — the head grad student gave me the evil eye for that, but that totally wasn’t my fault! I told my agent that I had decided for the good of humanity to stay as far away from the lab as possible. “I do English…y stuff right now,” I told him. “One of the proudest moments in my career was when a software engineer chastised me, saying, ‘I don’t know what your degree is in, English or whatever, but I have a degree in Mathematics.'” (That’s when you know you’ve really made it as a tech writer.)

But my agent said all that didn’t matter, just send him a Xerox of the degree and voila. So thanks to my folks, and the estimated 65 grams of fine particulate dust I inhaled during the arduous search process, I am now saving some serious $$ on my car insurance! Who needs that silly lizard anyway? Does he have a Bachelor’s degree… in SCIENCE?

Anyway, I’m glad to see the ol’ diploma doing some good again. People say college is overrated, and that’s probably true — unless you’re a Scientist like me. After all, another 1,350 years of driving, and this baby just about oughtta pay for itself.

Two Levers Labeled ‘Hope’ and ‘Fear’

Chad Orzel, one of my favorite science bloggers, is trying to answer the question, What should everyone know about science? He suggests these three themes:

  1. Science is a Process, Not a Collection of Facts
  2. Science is an essential human activity.
  3. Anyone can do science.

While #1 and #3 both seem sound, I think #2 defines science far too broadly. To blockquote:

2) Science is an essential human activity. You’ll often hear people who study art and literature wax rhapsodic about how the arts are the core of what makes us human– Harold Bloom attributes it all to Shakespeare, but you can find similar arguments for every field of art. Great paintings, famous sculptures, great works of music (classical only, mind– none of that noise you kids listen to)– all of these are held to capture the essence of humanity.

You don’t hear that said about science, but you should. Science is essential to our nature, because at its most basic, science consists of looking at the world and saying “Huh. I wonder why that happened?” Science is applied curiosity, and there’s no more human quality than that. (“Bloody-mindedness” is a close second.)

I know #2 sounds good. First, it’s flattering, particularly for those of us who were trained in a scientific field or who simply just like science a lot. Second, it’s a good hard stab at all those nasty tweedy humanities professors who preen about how scientists don’t know anything about literature and art, but who can’t themselves even be bothered to learn the frickin’ Second Law of Thermodynamics. Sheesh!

But — science isn’t “applied curiosity.” Most things with vertebrae have applied curiosity (balanced by applied cowardice).

When I think about the nature of science, I’m reminded of something Brad DeLong said about the The Law of Large Numbers: “This is the principal insight of the science of statistics. It is an important insight. It is a powerful insight. It is also not an obvious insight — that’s what makes it powerful and important.” The Law of Large Numbers (and related insights) are powerful, important, and non-obvious precisely because our minds do not naturally think in these terms. It takes training.

Greek logic is less than 3000 years old. Modern science is about 400 years old. Modern statistical methods are even younger than that. Meanwhile, storytelling has been with us, oh, ever since we had language. Singing possibly longer.

Or another way of putting this is: tell the average citizen, “All studies indicate that wearing a bicycle helmet drastically reduce incidence of head injuries,” and at best you’ll get a vague nod. If you want that same person to actually wear a helmet, you need to tell them something like this: “Dude, I just saw this bike messenger flip over his handlebars, slamming his head into the curb — and the guy simply got up and walked off, with a big old chunk out of his helmet.” Whoa.

Perhaps what makes this confusing is that you can harness science’s power without being all that scientifically inclined. I mean, John Hagee drives a car and flies in airplanes and everything. In fact, science is so powerful that “it works, bitchesdespite the fact that it’s so new and so shallowly rooted in our primate skulls. Of the entire spectrum of human behavior — all the appalling things and all the wonderful things too — science might well be one of the least “intrinsic” behaviors we have.

As for what all this says about us as a species, that’s well above my pay grade.

Not Cute

Oh sure, the glowing cats are super cute and all. You probably want to rush right out and get one for Christmas? Of course you do.

Just keep in mind that it’s stories like these that make one thing increasingly clear: in the next five years, some deranged madman is going to engineer flying spiders.

Don’t worry, though. Even though they might be flying right at you with their huge creepy fangs and eight hairy legs and eight soulless eyes, just remember that they are more scared of you than you are of them.

Feeling a lot less sanguine about technological progress now, aren’tcha?

I Miss Liquid Nitrogen

Chad Orzel points to a collection of amusing science “merit badges”. In particular, Chad highlights:

The “has frozen stuff just to see what happens” badge (LEVEL III).
In which the recipient has frozen something in liquid nitrogen for
the sake of scientific curiosity.

Ah, how I miss liquid nitrogen. Back in the day, we had this thing called the Physics Circus, where we’d go out to local elementary schools and give physics demonstrations to the kids. It is amazing how enthusiastic third and fourth graders can be. If you ask a bunch of fourth graders “how do you think this worked?” you get a forest of hands shooting up, and all sorts of wonderful ideas. Of course, you have to catch them at the right age, because just a couple years later, they transform into sullen middle schoolers. But right before that, kids are amazing little scientists.

Anyway, we had a boatload of demonstrations about electricity, Newtonian mechanics (the weighted bicycle wheel in the spinny chair, that sort of thing). But the one the kids really loved was the liquid demonstration. Unlike the other demonstrations, there really wasn’t much scientific content to the liquid nitrogen segment of the show. The message was basically, “freezing things with liquid nitrogen and breaking them is really cool.”

Personally, I was less interested in breaking things with liquid nitrogen and more interested in just playing with the stuff. I used to pour a few drops on my hand and watch the droplets skitter across the surface, like water droplets on a hot stove (in fact, exactly like water droplets on a hot stove). If you were careful, you could also stick your hand directly in a dewar of liquid nitrogen. One professor I knew would pour a little liquid nitrogen in his hand, slurp it up, and shoot steam out of his nostrils. I never dared try that. He had achieved a sort of Liquid Nitrogen Zen Mastery.

Of course the best of all was the liquid nitrogen ice cream. You just get the ingredients for ice cream as if you were going to make it using a traditional ice cream machine, with the rock salt and everything. But instead of turning the crank for an hour, you just pour the ingredients in a bowl, pour in the liquid nitrogen, and stir, stir, stir. Vapor pours out of the bowl like a witches cauldron, and in less than five minutes you have smooth, creamy ice cream. The bubbling during the freezing process aerates the ice cream perfectly, and it all freezes too fast to form any ice crystals. Liquid nitrogen! It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking some up.

Orders of Magnitude

My mathematical skills have been decaying for years. First it was tensors and what little I knew about group theory. Then PDEs, then multivariable calculus, linear algebra, …

Now the arithmetic module is finally failing. This week I went to go look at tile. I tried to do a first-pass estimate of the cost of materials.

  1. “Okay, the bathroom is 7′ x 10′. So that’s 700 square feet.”
  2. “The tile is, say, $6 per square foot. That’s… crikey! $4200!”
  3. “Okay, maybe I’ll feel better if I try to calculate the tile square footage more precisely. That should knock things down by at least a third, probably more.”
  4. “First, let’s subtract out the sink and counter area. That’s 7′ x 2′, or 14 square feet.”
  5. “700 – 14 is… waaait a second. Something’s wrong here.”

Pretty sad, really. You know, I used to have circuit breakers designed to halt ridiculous calculations in process, and they should have kicked in at Step 2. Either those circuit breakers are gone, or they got disabled when I started browsing through fancy bathroom supply stores and catalogs. After all, when you see shower heads going for $699 and heated towel racks going for over $1000, that tile calculation doesn’t seem too far out of whack.

As an aside, I wonder how hard it is to make your own heated towel rack? I might have forgotten all my math, but I do remember how to use a soldering iron.

Death by Algorithm!

My old college buddy Dinesh pointed me to the blog of a company, D-Wave, that is trying to make quantum computers commercially available. That statement alone nearly triggered my brain’s Quantum Computing Bullshit Detection Nodule,[1] but Dinesh says that he’s met some of the employees and he thinks they might be the real deal. They’re trying out an alternative approach to quantum computing called adiabatic quantum computing, which they believe is more likely to meet with success than the “traditional” approach. It’s a hard problem, and I wish them luck.

Linked from the D-Wave blog, there’s an interesting paper on arXiv called “NP-Complete Problems and Physical Reality” [PDF]. It’s a more layperson-friendly piece than your average physics journal article, but I still only understood a small fraction of it. This math-y stuff is getting harder every year. Still, I thought it explored some fascinating, if somewhat deranged, physical concepts. I particularly liked the discussion of time-travel computing and its close relation, “anthropic computing”:

“There is at least one foolproof way to solve 3SAT in polynomial time: given a formula phi, guess a random assignment x, then kill yourself if x does not satisfy phi. Conditioned on looking at anything at all, you will be looking at a satisfying assignment! Some would argue that this algorithm works even better if we assume the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. For according to that interpretation, with probability 1, there really is a universe in which you guess a satisfying assignment and therefore remain alive. Admittedly, if phi is unsatisfiable, you might be out of luck…”

1. Conveniently nestled against the larger and more highly evolved Nanotech Bullshit Detection Nodule.

Physics: Pretty Weird All Around, Actually

Ah, July, when a young man’s fancy turns to… thermodynamics. Seriously, it is just broiling up here on the second floor. My plan tonight was to post the final “Category IV Bad Movie” entry, but that’s going to be a long one, and it’s just way too hot to even try that tonight.

Instead, I’ll riff off a post by physicist Chad Orzel, who discusses how “common sense” can apply to physics. Orzel makes a distinction between one kind of common sense, our natural human intuition about how the universe works, and the second kind of common sense, the logic of the scientific process. I’ll focus on the first kind, though.

Most people who have taken physics classes at some point in their lives will tell you that quantum mechanics (or alternatively, special relativity) is weird and counter-intuitive. And these people are absolutely right about when they say this. However, whenever I hear this complaint/observation, I think of two counterpoints.

First, our minds evolved in a world that operates at a particular scale and energy. Here’s what would be really weird: if we were born with an intuitive understanding of the physics of extremely hot things or extremely large things or extremely small things. Why would evolution have provided us with that functionality? And why would we think that our realm of “tables and chairs” would be anything like the realm of galaxies or particles?

Second, all realms of physics are weird, even boring old Newtonian mechanics. All objects instantaneously exert an invisible attractive force on each other? Really? How? Who’s crazy enough to believe that? (Certainly not physicists.) And for that matter, even if you ignore all the conceptual and philosophical issues, it’s still hard to work out Newtonian problems. Aristotlean physics might be commonsensical, but Newtonian physics clashes with common sense all the time.[1] There are all sorts of fun Newtonian thought-experiments out there that not only trip up all “regular people”, but also most physics undergrads, many grad students, and even the occasional young and unwary professor. For examples of what I mean, go read Lewis Epstein’s outstanding Thinking Physics. If you think you know Newtonian mechanics, this book will blow your mind. Ditto for fluid mechanics, electromagnetism, and other less sexy realms of physics.

Hmmm. I really sold that one, didn’t I?

1. I remember that as a little kid, my science fair project one year was to prove that objects of equal mass fall at the same rate. Despite what Galileo had to say about the matter, I was sure that the heavier rocks were hitting the ground first. Dropping rocks off a 6′ step ladder was insufficient; we had to go to the park and drop the rocks off a 20′ climbing structure before I was convinced. This experiment would be impossible to reproduce today, since such climbing structures have long been litigated out of existence.

You Don’t Need No Fancy Math or Nuthin’

(Update: Peter Woit responds in comments, and is quite the gentleman. A textbook case of Internet Jiu-jitsu. Curses, foiled again!)

Over at Jacques Distler‘s place, a discussion is boiling over the trackback policy of According to Jacques, arXiv’s current policy restricts trackbacks to the blogs of persons who are “active researchers”. This raises a couple of problems. First, the criterion of “active researchers” is slippery at best.

Second, a mathematician at Columbia named Peter Woit is upset because he is not on the approved trackbacks list. Woit is a vocal critic of string theory, and he has tangled with a number of high-energy physicists, including Jacques, over this issue. Physicist Chad Orzel had this to say:

When you get down to it, I’m with Sean Carroll on this: Peter Woit’s criticisms of string theory often border on the unhinged, but he’s not a complete crackpot. He has strong opinions, and expresses them strongly, but then, there are well-known and apparently respected string theorists who make Woit look like Miss Manners when it comes to interacting with those they don’t agree with. There’s no reasonable basis for banning Woit on the grounds of general jackassery.

The line between “gadfly” and “crackpot” is a fine one. And it raises the question: do we who are outside the field even have a chance of figuring out whether Woit is getting a fair shake? Just as an example, here’s an old discussion between Jacques and Peter (warning: acromonious math exchange). Amazing stuff, eh? I couldn’t have followed that even when I was at the top of my game — and certainly not now, when my physics knowledge has decayed back to early undergraduate levels. (Never mind physics, I can’t even remember the fundamentals of sed. Jesus.)

Now, you might think that given the rarified nature of the subject, we laypersons would have no way to determine who, if anyone, has crossed the line. Silly you! This is the Blogosphere! We can pass judgments about anyone and anything. It turns out that for this case, you don’t need any mathematics. Here’s Woit responding to one of the commenters at Chad Orzel’s site:

Aaron, Since I gather that your job depends on Jacques’s good will, you might want to consider that you have no credibility here arguing his side of this case.

Case closed! Crackpot and jackass.

On a more serious note, the arXiv folks are faced with these two unpleasant options:

  • Shut off trackbacks entirely. This would be an easy choice if trackbacks had devolved into uselessness, but according to Jacques, the great majority of the trackbacks arXiv receives actually are useful and informative.

  • Have some sort of trackback moderation policy. Which means playing into the hands of the conspiracy theorists. You can always try to modify the moderation system to make it more “fair”, but the hardcore trolls will never be satisfied.

The sad truth is that by the time a site is routinely receiving more than fifty comments per post, the comments section has always devolved into a cesspool. Always. The sole exception is Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s Making Light, and that’s only because Patrick and Teresa have been ruthless about disemvowelling trolls from the beginning. Endure endless cries of arbitrariness and censorship, or shut off direct feedback entirely? I don’t envy arXiv their choice.