Sunday, February 28, 2010

A sane Republican

“I have been to enough college campuses to know if you are 30 or younger this climate issue is not a debate. It’s a value. These young people grew up with recycling and a sensitivity to the environment — and the world will be better off for it. They are not brainwashed. ... From a Republican point of view, we should buy into it and embrace it and not belittle them. You can have a genuine debate about the science of climate change, but when you say that those who believe it are buying a hoax and are wacky people you are putting at risk your party’s future with younger people. You can have a legitimate dispute about how to solve immigration, but when you start focusing on the last names of people the demographics will pass you by.”
- Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Quo vadis, natural science?

On Wednesday last week the town where I lived got 20 inches of snow in a twenty-four hour period. I got an unexpected, happy, day off work. Bizarrely, southern regions like Washington and Baltimore got much more than northern ones; Baltimore got 40 inches, Philadelphia got about the same. Records were set in both places for the snowiest winters in recent history. People were left wondering and reeling at this capriciousness of the Norse Gods.

So what could be the reason for this sudden onslaught of severe weather? That’s akin to asking what could be the reason for cancer suddenly emerging in someone’s body or for a particular drug demonstrating a slew of side-effects. The reasons are non-obvious, often non-intuitive, complex, multifactorial and extremely hard to determine. And that is also what one should say if asked to elucidate reasons for a particularly snowy winter.

But human beings don’t work that way...

...Read the rest of the post on the Desipundit blog

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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

An alternative BBC list for the "educated" mind

So there's this little blurb going around on Facebook in which the BBC has listed 100 books written over the last 200 years or so and asked people how many they and their friends have read. The books are diverse and include everything from Jane Austen to J D Salinger to Harry Potter.

Obviously the BBC thinks this list is important in some way or that people who have read some of these books are educated or well-informed. There is a note informing us that most people would have read only 6 out of those 100 books. Perhaps this is startling.

But what is startling by orders of magnitude is that this list of 100 books does not include a single scientific work. Now of course people would not be expected to have read The Principia. But what about Darwin's "The Origin of Species"? Or, looking at something more modern and still pivotal, Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions"? These volumes are comparable to many of the books listed by the BBC, certainly in terms of comprehension, and also almost certainly in terms of importance.

Most prominently, what about C P Snow's "The Two Cultures" which lamented the rift between science and the humanities? You want to see a classic example of this rift? WItness the BBC list! Snow would have nodded his head vigorously, especially and most ironically because the exclusion of his own volume from the list makes his point resoundingly clear.

So, dear BBC, if I were to draw up my own short and admittedly limited list of scientific works that surely deserve as much of a place in the "educated" man's mind as the august books you present, I would cite the following. I haven't read all of these works; but with all I have a passing familiarity and some I have read more seriously. Let's even forget Newton's "Principia" for now and focus on the last 200 years as the BBC mostly has, and even just on the 20th century. Of course some of the following are more important than others; some are popular treatments while others are defining and fundamental volumes for their respective fields. But one can still come up with a highly readable list, which in my opinion would enrich the mind of any human being.

1. The Origin of Species- Charles Darwin

2. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions- Thomas Kuhn

3. The Logic of Scientific Discovery- Karl Popper

4. Silent Spring- Rachel Carson

5. Science and the Common Understanding- J. Robert Oppenheimer

6. Principia Mathematica- Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead

7. Physics and Philosophy- Werner Heisenberg

8. Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions- Edwin Abbott

9. On Growth and Form- D'Arcy Thompson

10. What is Life?- Erwin Schrodinger

11. Men of Mathematics- E T Bell

12. Microbe Hunters- Paul De Kruif

13. The Mismeasure of Man- Stephen Jay Gould

14. The Selfish Gene- Richard Dawkins

15. Sociobiology- E O Wilson

16. Mr. Tompkins- George Gamow

17. The Double Helix- James Watson

18. The Nature of the Chemical Bond- Linus Pauling

19. Chaos- James Gleick

20. Advice to a Young Scientist- Peter Medawar

and finally

21. The Two Cultures- C P Snow

Consider the diverse and varying importance of these works. Kuhn and Popper are defining volumes in the philosophy of science. Darwin needs no explanation. Schrodinger inspired a generation of physicists like Francis Crick to change fields and initiate a revolution in biology. E O Wilson's book started a fierce chapter in the "nature vs nurture" debate whose ramifications can still be felt. In one fell swoop Gould demolished the foundations of scientific racism and eugenics. Pauling's book is one of the most important scientific works of all time and redefined chemistry. D'Arcy Thompson's beautiful volume established the mathematical foundations of developmental biology. Bell and De Kruif both inspired dozens of famous scientists like Andrew Weil and John Nash who went on to do groundbreaking work and win Fields and Nobel medals. Russell's book was a landmark event designed to provide a foundation for all of mathematics. Watson's book is considered the archetype of how real science is done, warts and all. Carson became the godmother of the modern environmental movement. On a more limited but important level, Gleick, Gamow and Dawkins made chaos theory, quantum physics and selfish genes comprehensible to the layman. And Medawar, Oppenheimer and Snow wrote deeply thoughtful volumes on the relationship between science, society and culture.

Now I suppose it would not be too presumptuous to ask the question; how many of these have the BBC list-makers read?

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Friday, February 05, 2010

The writings of John Cassidy

For the last several weeks I have been enjoying John Cassidy's "How Markets Fail". I am almost done with the volume and have to say that it is one of the best and most balanced critiques of markets that I have read. Cassidy who was educated at Oxford and certainly knows his economics carefully documents the history of how academic mathematical theories like Arrow's impossibility theorem and Robert Lucas's theory of rational expectations came to be mistaken as practical rules for application to the free market when they were really supposed to be not much more than ideal mathematical constructs. Quants fell into the same trap (incidentally I saw a book today by Scott Patterson named "The Quants" which looked quite engaging).

Cassidy also documents very well how most free market theorists did not include the behavioral economic approaches later pioneered by psychologists like Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. One of the important points that Cassidy makes is that a lot of these people who came up with models for finance and the free market thought that anomalies would not persist for long and that the market would iron them out, except that it doesn't, usually as a result of the (rather obvious) failure of models to forecast human behavior.

Even more enlightening is Cassidy's series of interviews with Chicago school economists like Richard Posner, Gary Becker and Eugene Fama in the New Yorker. It is heartening to see how most of these people who were once die hard free marketeers are now taking a more moderate stance towards the world and accepting the limitations of things like rational expectations and the efficient market hypothesis. One reason for the decline of the Chicago school has been the death of Milton Friedman, but another reason seems to be the genuine flaws that at least some of the practitioners seems to have acknowledged. All except Eugene Fama, who in his interview appears to be as much of a stubborn free market "fundamentalist" as anyone else; the last man manning the fort, keeping a brave face and clinging to the flag known as the efficient market hypothesis, with smoke and mirrors being his main weapon of combat. Behavioral economists who were once despised at Chicago are now part of the establishment there.

Very enlightening and more than a little gratifying. I would strongly suggest especially the interviews and also the book.

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Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Mandatory movie post

Since everyone and his uncle seems to have held forth on this, I have a few words about the great Avatar.

I saw it in an IMAX last week and was totally underwhelmed. Sure, the special effects were interesting and novel but almost everything else was sub par. The dialogues were leaden, the attempts at humor were so weak that I am still confused about whether they were indeed such attempts or not, the performances were unimpressive and most annoyingly, the characters defined "stock" and "stereotype".

The scientist, arrogant at first and motherly later, the embodiment of a woman staking out her territory in a man's world, generally consigned all female scientists to a skeletonized cliche. Most prominently, the general or colonel or whoever he was must have been the most stereotypical Curtis Le May wannabe I have seen in a long time (of the "Yeah, we are gonna bomb those critters back to the stone age" variety). Plus, the "law of economy of characters" seemed to admirably kick in halfway through since you could tell exactly which brave-hearted souls were going to die.

In short, the story was generally childish and the direction was terrible. I expected much better from Cameron who I consider to be a pretty good even if not great director. Compare this with "Titanic" which even with the love story and the Bollywood type drama is still a fantastic movie.

I really hope Jimmy does not get another chance to yell at the top of his voice on the stage at the Oscars this year.

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Monday, February 01, 2010

Is the Drake Equation for hookups borrowed from The Big Bang Theory?

The Drake Equation was devised in the 1960s by pioneering astronomer and "extraterrestriologist" Frank Drake who was the main founder of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). The equation essentially lists the product of a variety of probabilistic terms related to intelligent life arising on an earthlike planet somewhere in the universe to come up with an estimate of "N", the number of intelligent civilizations in the universe.

The equation's rather limited utility can be gauged from the fact that over the years, estimates of N have ranged from "infinity" to one to essentially zero. In any case, it does provide for a useful way of thinking about the sheer number of obstacles that would come in the way of a mirror image of myself arising a million light years away and saying "Howdy".

But Peter Backus does not care as much about green-blooded aliens as he does about very much red-blooded earthly females. He has used a modified version of the Drake equation to calculate his chances of finding a girlfriend in 2010. You can read his paper here.

While some of the analysis of the terms is delightfully droll, it does seem uncannily similar to a Drake equation for hookups that the great Howard Wolowitz formulates in an episodes of The Big Bang Theory. As a BBT fanatic, the episode immediately popped up in my mind when I read about Backus. It's Episode 20 in Season 2, "The Hofstadter Isotope". Watch Howard expound on the equation just after Sheldon rattles off the terms.

There is no indication in Peter's article that he was inspired by this episode. If he was, I think poor Howard deserves a nod. If not, the odds of both Peter and Howard coming up with such a formula are...well, similar to estimates of N.

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