Sunday, August 29, 2010

Steven Shapin on Professional Science

Scientific research is a job, a decently remunerated living for significant numbers of people. According to the most recent statistics assembled by the National Science Foundation, there are 5.4 million Americans in science and engineering occupations, up from 3.3 million a decade ago, and from fewer than 200,000 in 1950. [...]

It was not always this way. Well into the 19th century, and even into the 20th, doing science was typically more of an avocation than a job. In the 17th century, the great chemist Robert Boyle not only financed his science out of his own deep pockets but also shared a common view that doing science as a “trade” was demeaning. Anyone who accepted money to pursue knowledge would compromise their integrity — who paid the piper called the tune. Isaac Newton, as professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, was not paid to do physical or mathematical research but to teach. The 19th century’s most famous scientist, Charles Darwin, was never paid to do science. And Einstein’s three great papers of 1905 were not part of his job specifications: He was then a patent clerk in Switzerland. True, over the course of history, many scientific researchers were in academic employment, but with few exceptions, before the 20th century, the job of a science professor was not to produce new knowledge but to transmit and safeguard existing knowledge. Until quite recent times, the number of people in the world paid to do original scientific research “for its own sake” was infinitesimally small.

The transformation of science from a calling to a job happened largely during the course of the past century. Indeed, science is arguably the world’s youngest profession: The routinization of the paid role is less than a hundred years old; the word “scientist,” coined in 1840, was not in standard usage until the early 20th century.

More here. Hat tip: Rahul Basu.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Simon Singh's documentary on Andrew Wiles

This 45-minute documentary on Andrew Wiles' proof of Fermat's Last Theorem is surprisingly powerful and emotional. Give it until 1:45 or so and you'll want to watch the whole thing. [...]

That comment is from Jason Kottke and he's absolutely right. If the embedded video doesn't work, watch it at Google Videos.

Uwe Reinhardt on Efficiency

His last two Economix columns dissect the concept of efficiency and lay bare the kind of things economists want hidden when they pass it off as if it's value-neutral or value-free.

Excellent stuff!

The second column ends with this warning:

My advice to students and readers is: When you hear us economists wax eloquent on the virtue of greater efficiency — beware!

Marc Hauser's misconduct at Harvard

A Harvard dean sent a letter to the faculty on l'affaire Hauser:

An oblique sentence in his letter said that the Cognition paper had been retracted because “the data produced in the published experiments did not support the published findings.”

After seeing the relevant parts of Harvard's internal investigation into Hauser's research (and methods), this is what the editor of Cognition he had to say:

Given the published design of the experiment, my conclusion is that the control condition was fabricated.

Same difference, I suppose.

For more on this sordid affair (in which Harvard has been playing too coy for its own good), see Language Log where there   are   several   posts.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Growth in number and impact of publications by Indian scientists

... [J]oint international collaborative papers tend to have a higher-than-average citation impact. India–UK collaborative papers in the physical sciences, for example, are cited four times the world average [...]

That is one of the interesting pieces of information from this SciDev.Net report by Papri Sri Raman and T.V. Padma summarizing the results published in a recent study by Research Councils - UK (RCUK) that analyzed the number and impact of scientific publications from India, and how they compare with those from a few other countries (including China, Brazil, UK and USA).

Here's the list of key findings from the study:

  • India’s share of world papers and the relative number of citations these papers received have both increased in recent years. However, while India is currently ranked seventh in terms of total output of papers within the group of countries selected by Research Councils UK for comparison, it remains tenth in terms of citation impact.

  • India’s output of research papers (and share of the total world output) has increased across all subjects. Citation impact has also increased across most subjects although it often lags behind other countries in the comparator group.

  • While most of India’s research is cited less frequently than word average it continues to improve and collaboration with the UK corresponds with an increase in impact to approximately world standard.

  • In terms of overall collaboration across all subjects, the USA is India’s largest partner by a sizeable margin followed by Germany and the UK. This pattern of collaboration has been consistent in every year between 1999 and 2008.

  • The volume of papers which are cited at least four times the world average in different fields indicates that physical science subjects are particularly strong areas for India-UK collaboration. It is noteworthy that other fields, particularly medical, health and biological sciences, also produce a substantial volume of highly-cited research.

  • A diverse range of UK institutions collaborate with India and the analysis of most frequent collaborators identifies several non-traditionally research intensive universities. The most frequent Indian institutions for collaborating with the UK are mostly research intensive universities and specialist research organizations. The analysis indicates that the Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institute of Science are particularly active collaborators with the UK.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

IISc's UG Program

IISc's 101st batch of students (who will join in August 2011) is also going to be special: it will include the first batch of students admitted into IISc's real undergraduate program.

Do check out the program's website; right now, it has an overview of the UG program, the course structure, and the six streams of specialization, including Materials. Yay!

[Quite a few of the links at the website are empty right now; they'll be filled up in due course.]

IISc's UG program represents a unique experiment in India: it's a four-year program leading to a bachelor's degree -- abbreviated as BS, to distinguish it from BSc -- in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, materials and environment.

A couple of excerpts from the FAQ page:

Which are the entry channels to get admitted to the programme?

To save additional burden of an entrance exam on the overtaxed 12th standard students, IISc is planning to exploit the existing highly competitive national level entrance exams such as KVPY, IIT-JEE, AIEEE and AIPMT. Mechanisms by which rural and women candidates are encouraged in a major way to apply for the programme are also being explored. Students desirous of applying to the BS programme must watch out for the above examinations.


How is this programme unique?

The uniqueness of this programme lies in its interdisciplinary approach, strong flavour of engineering, exposure to disciplines in social sciences, and a one year research project. The graduates of this programme will obtain a Bachelor of Science degree in a Specialization. This programme is carefully designed to offer specialization in a Science stream but the knowledge imparted carries a strong flavour of engineering and an exposure to social science disciplines. The students admitted to a stream are encouraged to take courses from other streams, thus maintaining the strong interdisciplinary flavour of this undergraduate programme. One full year of participation in a research project identifies the programme as unique and innovative. This research based interdisciplinary undergraduate programme is well suited to meet the present vocational and post graduate requirements of the ever demanding modern world. The undergraduate programme is embedded in an ambience of a mature and highly sophisticated research culture which has an equally strong base of both science and engineering. This research culture has evolved over the last hundred years, primarily engendered by an exceptionally well endowed faculty, graduate students and post doctoral fellows. The academic environment is open, free, pedagogic and non-hierarchical.

100th Batch of Students at IISc

People say it's difficult to get into IISc. But, it's even more difficult to get out of it,
--Prof. N. Balakrishnan, Associate Director, IISc.

That fun quote is from his speech at the special event organized by IISc's Student Council to welcome the institution's 100th batch of students who joined two weeks ago. The ToI report on this event is here.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


The problem with having a PhD mom is that she doesn't just give advice [to her kids], she supports it with references!
-- L at Midway.

35 Dollar Tablet PC from India

If you count yourself among the skeptics, you might want to watch this video of an NDTV show [thanks to Animesh for the tweet-link].

This thing is real!

And it does demonstrate the kind of design and development talent that exists in India. Disappointingly, though, the great folks behind this gadget have been conspicuous by their complete invisibility -- HRD Minister Kapil Sibal has been the only public face behind this tablet.

[I work in the IISc -- one of the institutions behind this gadget -- and I have asked around; and yet, I have no clue about who at IISc worked on this wonderful project!]

I'm not very happy with framing this gadget as something that will revolutionize education in India -- note Sibal's reference to "my children" in Indian universities! When this cute little gadget was unveiled, Toronto Star's Rick Westhead asked me for an opinion about its potential in education. You can read what I said here. [If you are interested in to know why, see this post]

Deolalikar's Paper and Public Science

It has made it to Indian press; see, for example, Samanth Subramanian (Mint), Shyam Ranganathan (The Hindu). Nature News calls the P vs. NP problem "the sexiest problem in computer science."

Through a magical process of self organization, the action and excitement -- critical and technical scrutiny of the paper, as well as opinion mongering -- have shifted to Richard Lipton's blog where he has posted a response from Deolalikar on a specific issue flagged by the community of mathematicians and computer scientists. The back-and-forth among the commenters there has been pretty intense -- with over 450 comments spread over four posts in the last four days!

The Polymath wiki page on this paper is also getting updated, with participation from such renowned mathematicians as Terry Tao.

As I said, this is Public Science at its best. As a commenter at Lipton's blog put it:

This member of the community at large can’t understand a word you say, but is nevertheless fascinated by every new post and comment. Seeing the review process unfold in public has rekindled my long-dormant interest in mathematics. ...

Don’t infer from the paucity of experts who can contribute to the public conversation that you might as well confer entirely in private; on the contrary, public discussion is an immense service to the community. Thank you.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Scientific Misconduct by Author of "Moral Minds"

Harvard University psychologist Marc Hauser — a well-known scientist and author of the book “Moral Minds’’ — is taking a year-long leave after a lengthy internal investigation found evidence of scientific misconduct in his laboratory.

The findings have resulted in the retraction of an influential study that he led. “MH accepts responsibility for the error,’’ says the retraction of the study on whether monkeys learn rules, which was published in 2002 in the journal Cognition.

Two other journals say they have been notified of concerns in papers on which Hauser is listed as one of the main authors.

More in this Boston Globe story by Carolyn Y. Johnson.

Hat tip: Medical Writing, Editing & Grantsmanship, whose author, Writedit, notes (with bold emphasis added by me]:

Author of Moral Mind, Hauser is apparently currently working on another book entitled, Evilicious: Explaining Our Evolved Taste for Being Bad.


* * *

In an update, Writedit points us to this post at Retraction Watch.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Krugman's one-liners

In an op-ed on the economy of digital goods, Paul Krugman said, "But in the long run, we are all the Grateful Dead."

In his recent tear-down of a 'fiscal roadmap' of a hapless (but ambitious) Republican, he's at his snarky best: "[Paul Ryan is] often described with phrases like “intellectually audacious.” But it’s the audacity of dopes."

P != NP?

A 100+ page paper by Vinay Deolalikar, a Principal Research Scientist at HP Labs has been making waves in the computer science / math blogosphere, primarily because it claims to have solved one of the most famous problems in theoretical computer science, by proving that "P is Not Equal to NP."

My brief (and only) encounter with this problem was through a popular talk [[slides, though these from an earlier lecture (ppt, 16.6 MB) are better]] by Prof. Avi Wigderson, so I won't say anything more about the paper.

But I am interested in how other scientists react to a major new development such as this one. The community of mathematicians and theoretical computer scientists have organized themselves to verify Deolalikar's proof; as Richard Lipton quotes Yuri Manin, "A proof only becomes a proof after the social act of 'accepting it as a proof'."

If Deolalikar's proof survives expert scrutiny, he will win the US $ 1 million Clay Mathematics Institute Millennium Prize, and blogs and wikis [see below] will have given us a ring-side view of history being made.

This, I think, is the best of "Public Science."

* * *

Here are the blogs to follow: Richard Lipton at Gödel's Lost Letter and Suresh Venkatasubramanian at The Geomblog. And this page on the Polymath wiki aggregates the discussion on Deolalikar's paper. Terry Tao's Buzz is worth following too.

* * *

A few early reactions from bloggers:

  • Scott Aaronson is skeptical that the proof will survive scrutiny, and makes this bet:

    If Vinay Deolalikar is awarded the $1,000,000 Clay Millennium Prize for his proof of P≠NP, then I, Scott Aaronson, will personally supplement his prize by the amount of $200,000.

  • Daniel Lemire "[finds] it interesting that:

    ... Deolalikar did not submit the paper to a journal, as far as I know. He didn’t even post it on arxiv like Perelman. Yet, he is receiving much attention. His name is being tweeted several times a minute. Many of the most influential theoretical computer scientists are reacting to the paper. He is getting the best peer review possible.

PhD Explained

Short and sweet. With pictures!

The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D. by Matt Might.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Blank Noise, Gulabi Gang, and Pink Chaddi Campaign

A NYTimes profile of three movements for making Indian streets safe for women: Blank Noise, Gulabi Gang, and Pink Chaddi Campaign. I knew about the first and the last; here's how Roy describes the Gulabi Gang:

Sampath Pal Devi grew up in Bundelkhand in Uttar Pradesh and, like many of the women in her community, married young — at 12. She witnessed violence against women as an everyday part of life. It was unsafe for women to go to the outdoor bathrooms at night for fear of assault. At the age of 20, Ms. Sampath Pal fought back, organizing a few women armed with brooms to thrash a notorious wife-beater.

Now in her 40s, she runs the Gulabi Gang. “This country is ruled by men,” she said in her asthma-roughened voice. “No use asking them for help. We women must fight our own battles ourselves.”

Gulabi means “pink” and refers to the color of the saris Ms. Sampath Pal and her band of women wear. The movement has grown from that tiny core of four concerned women to a movement that covers much of rural Uttar Pradesh, one of the most conservative states in India. The brooms have evolved into canes. The Gulabi Gang has thrashed recalcitrant officials and police officers who wouldn’t register cases of domestic violence. It also runs vocational centers that offer practical ways of employment and empowerment for women.

BrainGate: "Thought into Action"

[Braingate is] a way for people who’ve been paralyzed by strokes, spinal cord injuries or A.L.S. to connect their brains to the outside world. The system uses a tiny sensor that’s been implanted into the part of a person’s brain that generates movement commands. This sensor picks up brain signals, transmits them to a plug attached to the person’s scalp. The signals then go to a computer which is programmed to translate them into simple actions.

From this interview of Prof. John Donoghue of Brown University. His lab's website has this slogan: Thought into Action"

Here's one more excerpt from the interview:

Q. At the recent World Science Festival, you showed a video of a paralyzed woman who employed her thoughts to move a robotic arm. She guided the arm to pick up a glass. To everyone watching, it seemed a miracle.

A. Well, for her it was, too. Most paralyzed people, they’re just like anyone else. Their minds are still working. They just can’t get their brain to control their body. Their dignity suffers because they can’t do anything without assistance — including, in some cases, breathing.

So for this woman, moving the glass was a very big thing. The participants in our study just want the chance to do for themselves and not be dependent. I remember once we were discussing the project with several potential participants.

“Would you like to walk again?” someone asked an interested candidate. “No, I’d just like to be able to scratch my own nose,” he answered.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Raghuram Rajan on Indian billionaires

Raghuram Rajan, a finance professor at UChicago's Booth School of Business and an economic adviser to the Prime Minister of India, gave a talk here at IISc last Sunday on "Faultines: India in the World Economy." The talk turned out to be largely a summary of his new book, Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy, with "India in the World Economy" getting only a cursory discussion in the final 10 minutes, thrown in almost as an afterthought.

In those final ten minutes, Rajan touched on too many different things -- a quip here about NREGA, and a comment there about higher ed system, a snide remark here about quacks cheating poor, rural patients, and a quick comparison there about how India and China manage their economies. It was all too quick, all too cursory, and all over the place. [I noticed that the talk was videotaped; I couldn't find it on the web so far].

I don't know about the rest of the audience, but I went in there expecting a coherent thesis on India's place in the World economy; what I felt we got was a coconut-tree-and-cow story.

Anyways, Rajan made an interesting point about India's (dollar) billionaires (which he elaborated a bit on during the Q&A). I don't have to paraphrase what he said, because he has said this stuff in a recent ToI interview:

... Rajan said he had no problems with wealth creation, "but I do think there is a problem if much of this wealth comes from proximity to government". Pointing out that India had the second largest number of billionaires per trillion dollars of GDP in the world (after Russia) prior to the crisis, and now possibly the largest, Rajan said "If you look at the areas where we have so many billionaires, many of them are not software entrepreneurs, it's things like land, real estate, natural resources and areas that require licences."

While conceding that some of these people have genuinely created entrepreneurial firms that have done wonderful things, in telecom for instance, Rajan added, "There are other areas which are less competitive and where proximity to government helps. That's a worrisome factor."

Monday, August 02, 2010

Higher Education?

That's the title of a new book -- yes, the question mark at the end is there for a reason -- by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, and the working title reads, "How colleges are wasting our money and failing our kids – And what we can do about it." The book will be launched tomorrow in the US, and its website is here.

Going by the authors' Chronicle of Higher Education article -- Are Colelges Worth the Price of Admission? -- the book appears to raise controversial questions [there has already been some serious push back]. Hacker and Dreifus have strong views about what the universities should really be doing: get their focus back to teaching and education. And some of their recommendations are quite radical: replace tenure with contractual appointments, allow fewer sabbaticals, and spin off medical schools and research centers.

Here's an excerpt (from the Chronicle piece) about one of their controversial ideas: college education is meant for the sciences and liberal arts, and not (really) for vocational courses.

Make students use their minds. What should happen to students at college? They should become more thoughtful and interesting people. But some 64 percent of undergraduate students are enrolled in vocational majors, instead of choosing fields like philosophy, literature, or the physical sciences. We'd like to persuade them that supposedly impractical studies are a wiser use of college and ultimately a better investment. The undergraduate years are an interlude that will never come again, a time to liberate the imagination and stretch one's intellect without worrying about a possible payoff. We want that opportunity for everyone, not just the offspring of professional parents.

In a Washington Post story on their book, Hacker is even more blunt in making this point about vocational courses:

And, [Andrew Hacker] said, many undergraduate degrees are vocational -- from resort management to fashion merchandising ...

"Bachelor's level vocational education is, I don't want to say a fraud, but close to it," Hacker said.

"Undergraduate business classes ... are just a charade; 19-year-olds play as if they are chief executives of General Electric. It is a waste of time and money." [...]

Among the examples of unnecessarily vocational degrees listed in the book ... are ornamental horticulture, poultry science and ceramic engineering.

"All undergraduate education should be a liberal arts education where you think about the enduring ideas and issues of the human condition," Hacker said.

[That stuff about Ceramic Engineering tickled the hell out of me!]

Sunday, August 01, 2010


BusRoutes.In is for bus routes in Chennai. Aside from its obvious usefulness, it has such a cool logo! Here's the Google Profile page of Arun Ganesh, the man behind this wiki project and student of the National Institute of Design, Bangalore, who produced this transport density map (the hi-res version is here) of Chennai.

This site was featured along with several other such cool efforts in this Guardian piece by David McCandless, who "[runs] the website, dedicated to visualising information, ideas, stories and data."

Metaphor for morality

From an interesting Edge talk by Jonathan Haidt on The New Science of Morality:

I think taste offers the closest, the richest, source domain for understanding morality. First, the links between taste, affect, and behavior are as clear as could be. Tastes are either good or bad. The good tastes, sweet and savory, and salt to some extent, these make us feel "I want more." They make us want to approach. They say, "this is good." Whereas, sour and bitter tell us, "whoa, pull back, stop."

Second, the taste metaphor fits with our intuitive morality so well that we often use it in our everyday moral language. We refer to acts as "tasteless," as "leaving a bad taste" in our mouths. We make disgust faces in response to certain violations.

Third, every culture constructs its own particular cuisine, its own way of pleasing those taste receptors. The taste analogy gets at what's universal—that is, the taste receptors of the moral mind—while it leaves plenty of room for cultural variation. Each culture comes up with its own particular way of pleasing these receptors, using local ingredients, drawing on historical traditions.

And fourth, the metaphor has an excellent pedigree. It was used 2,300 years ago in China by Mencius, who wrote, "Moral principles please our minds as beef and mutton and pork please our mouths." It was also a favorite of David Hume [...]

Metaphor for the American economy

... [T]he renowned Harvard economist, Larry Katz, who offers the most compelling analogy. “Think of the American economy as a large apartment block,” says the softly spoken professor. “A century ago – even 30 years ago – it was the object of envy. But in the last generation its character has changed. The penthouses at the top keep getting larger and larger. The apartments in the middle are feeling more and more squeezed and the basement has flooded. To round it off, the elevator is no longer working. That broken elevator is what gets people down the most.”

That's from The crisis of middle-class America by FT's Ed Luce.

Burqa diktat at Aliah University

Yet another Is This Legal? news, this time from West Bengal's Aliah University:

For the past three months, 24-year-old Sirin Middya has not been able to hold her classes at West Bengal’s first Muslim university. While the guidelines at Aliah University in Kolkata don’t stipulate the same, the students’ union has demanded that Middya can teach but only in burqa.

Middya was appointed a guest lecturer at the university in March this year and got the union “diktat” in the second week of April. “I was told that I would not be allowed to attend college if I did not agree to come in a burqa. The University Grants Commission does not prescribe any such dress code and even the university does not have a dress code. But the most unfortunate part is that students are forcing us to wear burqa,” Middya told The Indian Express.

Thanks to Jai for the pointer; his comment appeared in a post on Martha Nussbaum's rebuttal of arguments trotted out to support a burqa ban in France.

Spying on Internet Users

Whoa, is this all legal?

One of the fastest-growing businesses on the Internet, a Wall Street Journal investigation has found, is the business of spying on Internet users.

The Journal conducted a comprehensive study that assesses and analyzes the broad array of cookies and other surveillance technology that companies are deploying on Internet users. It reveals that the tracking of consumers has grown both far more pervasive and far more intrusive than is realized by all but a handful of people in the vanguard of the industry.

  • The study found that the nation's 50 top websites on average installed 64 pieces of tracking technology onto the computers of visitors, usually with no warning. A dozen sites each installed more than a hundred. The nonprofit Wikipedia installed none.

  • Tracking technology is getting smarter and more intrusive. Monitoring used to be limited mainly to "cookie" files that record websites people visit. But the Journal found new tools that scan in real time what people are doing on a Web page, then instantly assess location, income, shopping interests and even medical conditions. Some tools surreptitiously re-spawn themselves even after users try to delete them.

  • These profiles of individuals, constantly refreshed, are bought and sold on stock-market-like exchanges that have sprung up in the past 18 months.