Friday, 30 December 2011

sniff talks to the professor

From Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson:
“But how do you know that the Observatory is on that peak especially?” asked Sniff, craning his neck to see the top, but without success as it was hidden in the clouds.
“Well,” answered Snufkin, “you only have to look at the ground just here. It’s covered with cigarette ends which have obviously been thrown out of the windows by those absent-minded scientists up there.”
“According to my reckoning it should hit the earth on the seventh of October at 8.42 p.m. Possibly four seconds later,” said the professor.
“And what will happen then?” asked Sniff.
“What will happen?” said the professor in surprise. “Well, I hadn’t thought about that. But I shall record the events in great detail you may be sure.”

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

to collaborate or not to collaborate

A few quotes from a fascinating new book, Collaborative Computational Technologies for Biomedical Research (Wiley, 2011):

Even within an institution — which should be legally, strategically, and financially incented for alignment, and for maximizing the opportunities for internal collaboration — barriers still exist. The subunits of the institution: its departments, its divisions, its components produce collaboration “walls” of varying substantiality. Organizational lore and personal relationships add another layer of “not-invented here” (NIH) culture, and allegiances to local agendas, even to the point of disadvantaging the larger institutional unit. In fact, if we wish to pursue the elimination of collaboration barriers we have to realize that many barriers are not institutional at all. Choices to collaborate or not collaborate are sometimes based not just on current affiliations but on past affiliations, degrees obtained, reputations, and even a less than rational bias as to just who our collaboration partners should be.
Alpheus Bingham (Foreword)

Many people who enter the field of scientific research are inherently introspective or shy; others possess minds that are highly logical and analytic. Many scientists were loners at school, perhaps never participating in team activities, such as sports or group governance. <...> People without great collaborative skills may engage in criticism, blame, negativity, and back-biting, often when under high stress. They may horde information for fear it will be used improperly. They may withdraw when others need them most or engage in manipulative behavior to get the attention or credit they yearn for. They many not communicate well, especially listening carefully, and may not understand the human side of technical information.

...Large-scale voluntary collaboration systems show remarkably consistent patterns in contributors’ behavior within scientific collaborations in the pharmaceutical industry and extending to every other company and industry examined. This behavior has all the signatures of a power law, driven by positive feedback from the individual and the group, and with a “long tail” such that approximately half of all contributions come from people who contribute only once to any given campaign. Interestingly the evidence also suggests that networks of acquaintanceship are not an essential driving force, which makes us revise our concept of “community”.
Robin W. Spencer (Chapter 6)

So, not surprisingly, what has happened in the past 20 years or so is biologists and chemical biologists (chemists working in biology) have resorted to data collecting. Genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, structural biology [X-ray and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR)], chemical libraries, high-throughput assays, and so on, have been essentially data-collecting exercises. The “exciting discoveries” are made by robots, machines, and computers which collect enormous amounts of data. In the process human thought often seems to have become of secondary importance. At the same time, creative collaborations between chemists and biologists are often marginalized and starved for the resources...
Victor J. Hruby (Chapter 7)

Charles Darwin is an example of someone who acquired vast amounts of biological data from his correspondence with fellow naturalists and others with intimate knowledge of the natural world. Although the Victorian postal service that he used was comparatively efficient compared with today’s “snail mail” (and Darwin’s correspondence was prodigious), the need to communicate by letter writing inevitably slowed the development of his ideas on evolution. A modern Darwin alive today would be able to condense decades of networking into a few years, but it is interesting to speculate whether this speed would come at the expense of deep critical thought undertaken at a more leisurely pace.
Edward D. Zanders (Chapter 10)

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

discoveries today are really not expected

From the telephone interview with Dan Shechtman, the winner of The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2011:

Q: What do you think your experience of discovering quasicrystals taught you about science?

A: Oh, it taught me... This is a very good question! You know, it taught me that a good scientist is a humble scientist, somebody who is willing to listen to news in science which are not expected. Because discoveries today are really not expected – if they were expected they would have been discovered a long time ago. So something new, that is forbidden by some laws... people have to listen to this. In most cases, the news is not really news. But in some cases, discoveries are made and should be listened to.

Sunday, 11 September 2011


I have no illusions as to how many people read my blog. True, it was never meant to be read by many, but it is always nice to be reassured. Thank you Despair, Inc.! What about you?

Friday, 19 August 2011

19 August 1991

Do I remember August Putsch? Yes. Vividly. Early morning Monday, 19 August 1991, I heard the news on the radio. The classical music followed. On the telly, interminable Swan Lake, just like when Brezhnev (later: Andropov) died. I can’t stand Swan Lake ever since.

I was working on my Ph.D. thesis then. Just a couple weeks before the putsch, I did a presentation at the International Conference on Cytochrome P450 hosted by my institute. Some guys were interested and there was even talk of a postdoc stint somewhere in the States or Japan. The future looked bright.

I took a suburban train to Moscow. As I was walking from Park Kultury towards my lab, I saw the tanks on the streets: not-so-gentle reminder what country I was living in. This latter circumstance was about to change in two days though.

Monday, 25 July 2011

inflated importance, unreal deadlines

From Structured Procrastination by John Perry:
The list of tasks one has in mind will be ordered by importance. Tasks that seem most urgent and important are on top. But there are also worthwhile tasks to perform lower down on the list. Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.
The trick is to pick the right sorts of projects for the top of the list. The ideal sorts of things have two characteristics, First, they seem to have clear deadlines (but really don’t). Second, they seem awfully important (but really aren’t). Luckily, life abounds with such tasks. In universities the vast majority of tasks fall into this category, and I’m sure the same is true for most other large institutions.
One needs to be able to recognize and commit oneself to tasks with inflated importance and unreal deadlines, while making oneself feel that they are important and urgent.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

fit for nothing

From The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano (translated by Shaun Whiteside):
He was dressed anonymously and had the posture of someone who doesn’t know how to occupy the space of his own body. The professor thought he was another of those who do well in their studies because they are unable to make much headway in life. The ones who, as soon as they find themselves outside the well-trodden paths of the university, always reveal themselves to be fit for nothing.
The Solitude of Prime Numbers: A Novel
He looked at the scroll that he held rolled up in his hand, on which it was written in beautiful cursive script that Mattia Balossino was a graduate, a professional, an adult, that it was time for Mr Balossino, B.Sc., to face up to life, and that this meant he had reached the end of the track that he had blindly followed from the first year of primary school to his degree. He was still only half breathing, as if the air didn’t have enough momentum to accomplish the complete cycle.

What now? He wondered out loud.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

that’s what the degree was about

From Studies in the Park by Anita Desai:
My father laid his hand on my shoulder. I knew I was not to fling it off. So I sat still, slouching, ready to spring aside if he lifted it only slightly. “You must get a first, Suno,” he said through his nose, “must get a first, or else you wont get a job. Must get a job, Suno,” he sighed and wiped his nose and went off, his patent leather pumps squealing like mice. I flung myself back in my chair and howled. Get a first, get a first, get a first — like a railway engine, it went charging over me, grinding me down, and left me dead and mangled on the tracks.
Games at Twilight and Other Stories
I felt as if we were all dying in the park, that when we entered the examination hall it would be to declared officially dead. That’s what the degree was about. What else was it all about? Why were we creeping around here, hiding from the city, from teachers and parents pretending to study and prepare? Prepare for what? We hadn’t been told. Inter, they said, or B.A. or M.A. These were like official stamps — they would declare us dead. Ready for a dead world. A world in which ghosts went about, squeaking or whining, rattling or rustling. Slowly, slowly we were killing ourselves in order to join them. The ball-point pen in my pocket was the only thing that still lived, that still worked.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

chair of comparative ambiguity

In the introduction to The Oxford Hysteria of English Poetry, which appears in his book Greatest Hits: His 40 Golden Greats, Adrian Mitchell wrote:
I spent three years at Oxford studying Modern English Literature (500—1815). Allegedly. So I thought I should pass on the fruits of my enhanced brainbox to all and sundry especially the latter. Most of my audience is pretty sundry. It is meant to be spoken by a very old battered poet who has survived from the days when we had pterodactyls instead of critics.
Adrian Mitchell's Greatest Hits
There hasn’t been much time
For poetry since the Twenties
What with leaving the Communist Church
To join the Catholic Party
And explaining why in the
C.I.A. Monthly.

Finally I was given the Chair of Comparative Ambiguity
At Armpit University, Java.
It didn’t keep me busy,
But it kept me quiet.
It seemed like poetry had been safely tucked up for the night.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

scientifically produced antiscience

From Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) by Robert M. Pirsig:
If the purpose of scientific method is to select from among a multitude of hypotheses, and if the number of hypotheses grows faster than experimental method can handle, then it is clear that all hypotheses can never be tested. If all hypotheses cannot be tested, then the results of any experiment are inconclusive and the entire scientific method falls short of its goal of establishing proven knowledge.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (P.S.)
It looked as though the time spans of scientific truths are an inverse function of the intensity of scientific effort. Thus the scientific truths of the twentieth century seem to have a much shorter life-span than those of the last century because scientific activity is now much greater. If, in the next century, scientific activity increases tenfold, then the life expectancy of any scientific truth can be expected to drop to perhaps one-tenth as long as now. What shortens the life-span of the existing truth is the volume of hypotheses offered to replace it; the more the hypotheses, the shorter the time span of the truth. And what seems to be causing the number of hypotheses to grow in recent decades seems to be nothing other than scientific method itself. The more you look, the more you see. Instead of selecting one truth from a multitude you are increasing the multitude. What this means logically is that as you try to move toward unchanging truth through the application of scientific method, you actually do not move toward it at all. You move away from it! It is your application of scientific method that is causing it to change!

What Phaedrus observed on a personal level was a phenomenon, profoundly characteristic of the history of science, which has been swept under the carpet for years. The predicted results of scientific inquiry are diametrically opposed here, and no one seems to pay too much attention to the fact. The purpose of scientific method is to select a single truth from among many hypothetical truths. That, more than anything else, is what science is all about. But historically science has done exactly the opposite. Through multiplication upon multiplication of facts, information, theories and hypotheses, it is science itself that is leading mankind from single absolute truths to multiple, indeterminate, relative ones. The major producers of social chaos, the indeterminacy of thought and values that rational knowledge is supposed to eliminate, is none other than science itself. And what Phaedrus saw in the isolation of his own laboratory work years ago is now seen everywhere in the technological world today. Scientifically produced antiscience — chaos.

Monday, 7 February 2011

America, Britain

From Faster Than the Speed of Light (2003) by João Magueijo:
Regrettably, people are often most proud of their most appalling attributes, and indeed many American scientists appear to be more appreciative of bandwagons than of their Feynman legacy. I once met a girl in New York who was thrilled to find out I was a physicist; but she became terminally disappointed upon hearing that I lived in England and harbored no ambitions to move to the United States. She simply couldn’t understand that. When I asked why, she tried to reply with an example, but she couldn’t remember the name of the physicist in point. She asked me, “Who was the physicist who was better than Einstein, but never came to the U.S. so he never made it?”
To this day I have no idea who this mythical character might be.
Britain has a unique ability to let its talent go. People like to say that it’s because its academic institutions cannot financially compete with the United States, but I find that a poor excuse. In fact the British “brain drain” is totally self-inflicted, the product of a culture in which accountants, lawyers, consultants, politicians, and financial morons of all varieties are prized well above teachers, doctors, nurses, etc. It’s considered bad taste in Britain to do anything useful these days.
Faster Than the Speed of Light: The Story of a Scientific Speculation

Thursday, 20 January 2011

work is overrated

From New Rules For Writers by Anis Shivani:
Find ways to be unemployed, doing nothing, finding enough time on your hands, after you’ve met your basic needs, to wander into unknown realms of thought and imagination. You can’t do it when you’re busy working like everyone else, collecting a paycheck, keeping regular hours, depending on the goodwill and collegiality of customers, coworkers, bosses — if you choose employment in academia, it’s no different, you still have clients and bosses to please. Avoid this gentle poison by figuring out ways you can mock the system by taking from it what it needs to give you to maintain your writing, and give it nothing back in return.
What it wants from you is your time — your only irreplaceable commodity, the only thing you can’t ever get back. Every minute spent teaching a student or hiring out your talents in any other way is an insult to your writing potential, and each such moment degrades you so that you can never attain greatness. They’re more than happy to give you a paycheck. Heck, there are tens of thousands of writers “teaching” writing to others, dissatisfied with their own work, and they wonder why? Refuse their devil’s bargain. Refuse them the blood and toil they want from you in return for allegiance. Work at something that mocks the bourgeois idea of work, and make it pay off. You don’t have to work for nothing. You don’t have to live on nothing. You just have to figure out how to turn work on its head so it becomes a means to feed your writing, not the other way around. Work is overrated. It’s the only overrated thing in the whole human realm.