Tuesday, 18 December 2012

season greetings to excellent people

This is the time of year — again! — when they start cleaning their desks and send holiday greetings to unsuccessful applicants. I don’t even have to open these emails anymore to know what’s there. I just got one today.

Dear Dr. Doctor,

Thank you for your recent application.

The appointing committees have now had a chance to consider your application and have on this occasion decided not to take it any further.

You were up against some outstanding candidates and the choice of the shortlist was very difficult.

On behalf of whoever it is who couldn’t bother to write himself, I should like to thank you for your interest in applying.

With best wishes,

Human Resources

The other one came last week. I don’t remember what the application was about because the letter referred to it by some number and right now I am too tired to look it up. Most probably it was regarding the position advertised last Summer. I liked the wording so much that I made a note of it:

To continue its policy of investment in excellent people, the School of Something Else at the University of Poshborough is seeking to appoint up to (some number) high calibre individuals at either high or even higher level.

But I am the excellent people! How come they don’t see that?

I know. This is all my fault, really. Instead of just sending the application off and forgetting about it, I am worrying that they will expect more of me than I can deliver. So I put all sorts of ridiculous stuff in my covering letter. For example:

As you can see from my CV, I do not have a strong record of teaching at the university.

How’s that? I bet nobody else is doing this. My goal is to convince them that I am the best candidate to fill the position, not some sort of impostor. If they can see something from my CV, then they will see. Or maybe not. The point is not to worry about that.

Another mistake I keep on repeating is to do an informal enquiry, whenever such an option exists.

Dear Professor Professor,

I would like to apply for a position of Somebody in Something as advertised somewhere. However before sending the full application, I am asking for your kind advice.

<insert a stupid bit about not having a strong record of doing Something>

I do not wish to waste the expert committee’s time. <Why?> Therefore I would greatly appreciate your frank opinion whether I should proceed with full application.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Doctor

Dear Dr. Doctor,

Thanks for the email and CV. Your career track is a bit unusual and the fact that you have not been active in science in the last three years will probably catch the attention of the assessment committee.

I can not tell you whether to apply or not, it has to be your own decision.

Kind regards,


See? Totally absurd query and deservedly useless response.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Sir Patrick Moore (1923—2012)

Moore was perhaps the last in the great British tradition of significant contributions to science by distinguished amateurs, and was fiercely proud of his amateur status.

I wonder what academic bureaucrats of today would make of Sir Patrick Moore’ CV if he ever applied for professorship. Moore never went to the university (he famously refused a government grant to study at Cambridge), let alone wrote a Ph.D. thesis. So what. Dennis Barker wrote in The Guardian:

With one exception after his teaching days — his directorship of Armagh Planetarium in Northern Ireland (1965—68) — Moore was never an employee.
Even better.

I first learned about Moore from Англия, a British magazine published (in Russian) in Soviet times. I remember the black and white photo of him by the grand piano, the caption saying that Moore is an accomplished musician possessing perfect pitch. Back then, I thought he was some sort of English eccentric. Many years later, I saw him on the BBC. Yes he was an archetypal English eccentric all right, and amazingly brilliant at that. He joined the RAF during World War II; he met Yuri Gagarin and appeared in Doctor Who. He was the world’s longest-serving TV presenter — and, briefly, the finance minister for the Monster Raving Loony Party. According to Wikipedia, “as a pianist, he once accompanied Albert Einstein playing The Swan by Camille Saint-Saëns on the violin”. He wrote hundreds of books, including the one called Bureaucrats: How to Annoy Them. So I think his application would not be successful.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

find your passion and pursue it

From the introductory lecture to the MIT course 3.091, Introduction to Solid State Chemistry by Professor Donald Sadoway (Fall 2010):
Let me begin by saying that 3.091 is the most important class you will take at MIT. It’s true. But, you know, anybody who stands in front of you to lecture should say the same thing about his or her class. If they don’t believe that they shouldn’t be standing in front of you lecturing. The difference is, when I say it, I’m right.
See, I have tenure. So what does that mean? It means you find your passion and pursue it. You don’t waste time on trivia. And that’s what I urge you to do: find your passion and pursue it.
Making safe batteries out of earth-abundant, accessible materials for portable power, ultimately to drive the car with electrons, electric fuel, to eliminate this country’s dependence on imported petroleum — we can do it. How? By inventing. And the way we’re going to invent is to learn the lessons in 3.091 that will give us the chemistry we need to invent a battery that can send that car 250 miles on a single charge, and put it in a show room for the same price as a car with an internal combustion engine. The only thing that stands between that image and where we are today is invention, and the requisite material is right here in this class.
And then, lastly, let’s never forget about dreaming.
What are the origins of chemistry? The ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs refer to khemeia, which was a chemical process for embalming the dead. You know the Egyptians were very fixated on the afterlife. And the chemists were revered in that society — not like here.
Newlands was a musician and he talked about octaves. So if you start here, if this is a diatonic scale, so this is C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. So potassium lies an octave away from sodium. He was ridiculed. They said, have you considered perhaps putting the elements in alphabetical order? They were cruel. Scientists can be very cruel to new ideas.

Friday, 19 October 2012

checking the winning formula

The day when the first of 2012 Nobel Prizes was announced, a short article containing the recipe for winning one of those appeared on the BBC website. Let’s see what we’ve got this year.

If there are deviations from the winning formula, they are neither significant nor surprising. (For example, the formula does not reflect the fact that the prize winners are getting older.) Excluding the EU, we have the average age of 66. Five out of nine winners are Americans. Wineland and Shapley went to Harvard, Lefkowitz and Roth to Columbia, Gurdon to Oxford. Two economists and one physicist sport facial hair. I’ve counted at least five pairs of glasses. And no women.

Too many factors to consider, I say. Last year, Benjamin Jones and Bruce Weinberg published a paper in PNAS where they concentrate just on the age dynamics of Nobel laureates (prizes given between 1901 and 2008 in physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine). It has rather fascinating figures in it.

In chemistry, great achievement by age 40 converges toward 0% by 2000, but it accounted for 66% of cases in 1900.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

professor awakens, you fail

Transitions may be the only type of human-like words and phrases that could make mathematical texts accessible for — and, hopefully, even understandable to — humans. On the other hand, this document dealing with issues of mathematical communication warns:
Be careful with clearly, obviously, and surely, as graders often interpret these connectives to mean that important parts of the problem are being glossed over and that they should therefore read over the surrounding text more diligently.
And you wouldn’t want that. I recall an anecdote about great mathematician Andrey Kolmogorov who for many years was a professor at the famous Department of Mechanics and Mathematic (мехмат) of Moscow State University. Now Kolmogorov normally was snoozing his way through the exams. A successful exam strategy tactics approach was to talk non-stop whilst trying not to wake him up with a careless transition word such as obviously. Otherwise, he would open his eyes and say with a smile: “Очевидно? Докажите!” (“Obviously? Prove it!”)

Thursday, 27 September 2012

the end of the world as we know it?

I don’t think so. Not this year anyway. Instead, we have the next best worst £!@#$%* thing. Today, the Spanish government announced its austerity budget. Which, as you may have guessed, is not a good news. Especially for those with even a passing interest in schooling.

The spending on education was not that great in the first place; how cutting it any further can help to plug the hundred-billion-euro hole? I know. One does not choose to be a teacher because it is a well-paid job, right? That means, to save some money, you have to sack thousands of teachers, rather than a dozen or so of bank CEOs.

Will they ever start to learn? That is not very likely. Stupid — I repeat, stupid — austerity measures will not get Spain out of crisis. Far from cutting, they should start investing in education. Furthermore... But I guess I could as well stop here and now: anybody who sometimes takes time off to think can continue the argument.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

editing the uneditable

My classes were not going that well. And so, some time last month, in a moment of weakness (which lasted couple of days actually), I sent a few job applications. To keep myself and my CV in shape. So to speak.

To my surprise, I got a human-written response from one of the companies straight away. The job was a freelance editor, and I was sent an editing exercise consisting of three “extracts from papers to be published in international journals”. One of them was in the area of biochemistry, another medicine, and third pharmacology. I was asked to edit at least one of the text(s) using the change tracking tool and mark my time.

It seems that I did underestimate the difficulty of the task. I chose one abstract only (biochemistry) hoping to complete the editing in one hour. In fact I spent more than three hours. Frankly, this was the worst piece of “scientific writing” (no I cannot omit the quotes) I ever seen. Yes I understand that English is not the author’s native language. Even so, I started to doubt whether it even was a real abstract. Maybe it was specifically designed to test editor’s ability to remain sane. Or maybe, as Tamara suggested, it was some sort of crowdsourcing exercise and the company never intended to hire anyone in the first place. I sent the completed task away and forgot about if for a while.

But let’s assume that these abstracts/extracts are real. It is my deep conviction that humankind would lose nothing if they were never published. If the authors are unable to formulate what is the point of their work, in whatever language, with or without external help, these texts shouldn’t even have reached the editorial office. Ever. Period.

To my surprise, one month later I got the response from the company thanking me for taking the test. The letter proceeded to say that, regrettably, the test did not meet their (unspecified) benchmark for freelancers and therefore they were unable to consider my application any further.

I should say that I feel relieved.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Einstein was right, so what?

I don’t know about you, but I am really disappointed with the “news” that neutrino, after all, does not exceed the speed of light. According to CERN Press Release, the surprising results of the OPERA experiment were due to what many researchers now say suspected all along: faulty wiring or something.

The mass media, which got (understandably) overexcited since last Autumn, had to make less-than-exciting coverage this time and explain us that slower-than-light neutrinos are actually good news. Alok Jha wrote in The Guardian:

Travelling faster than the speed of light goes against Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity. If it were possible, it would open up the troubling possibility of being able to send information back in time, blurring the line between past and present and wreaking havoc with the fundamental principle of cause and effect.
Or dear.

So Einstein was right, or, rather, special relativity was not proved wrong on this occasion. As it was not proved wrong when the antineutrinos from Supernova 1987A, some 160,000 light years away, arrived to Earth about three hours earlier than photons. The conclusion was that they actually were not faster than light, it was light that was slower than light. Great stuff. Based on observation of, in total, 24 neutrinos. Of course, there is only a slim chance of repeating an experiment on such scale.

Back to the OPERA. What kind of distance is 730 km anyway? We are talking the speed of light here. We’d better do collaboration with somebody at least from the other side of the galaxy. Forget the GPS then.

Please don’t get me wrong: I have no problem with newer experiments showing that the original experiment was flawed. That happens all the time in science. But the collective sigh of relief from the mainstream physics community, that saddens me. (As if everybody’s scientific career depends on that thin unblurred line between past and present.) Ditto the resignation of Antonio Ereditato and Dario Autiero. What, exactly, was their crime? Presenting their results?

Although the existence of an extremely light neutral particle emitted during beta decay was postulated first by Wolfgang Pauli, it was Enrico Fermi who coined this lovely term, neutrino. In 1934, Fermi wrote his classic paper on beta decay and submitted it to Nature. The manuscript was rejected because “it contained speculations which were too remote from reality”. Good thing Zeitschrift für Physik published it. As for Einstein, I doubt that the author of 300+ non-peer-reviewed papers would even be taken seriously by the scientific community today.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

putting the spheres back into tetrahedra

This post has its roots in a discussion during the coffee-time, inspired by an almost empty jar of condensed milk. It seemed obvious that spherical jars do not pack as good as cylindrical jars. But how good do they pack? Some scribbling ensued.

Realising that solving the problem from the first principles might take much more than quarter an hour, I looked up the problem of close-packing of spheres, seemingly one of easier packing problems, in Wikipedia. I thought it was solved ages ago. I was wrong (or only partially right, if we are optimists.)

Sir Walter Raleigh posed so-called Cannonball Problem around 1587 to the English polymath Thomas Harriot, his scientific adviser on the expedition to the New World. Later, the correspondence of Harriot with Johannes Kepler influenced the Kepler conjecture (1611), which says that no arrangement of equally sized spheres filling space has a greater average density than that of the face-centered cubic (fcc) packing and hexagonal close packing (hcp) arrangements. Gauss proved in 1831 that the average density of close-packed spheres is π/√18 ≃ 74%. (Compare that with circle packing — or cylinder packing — density of π/√12 ≃ 90.7%.)

In 1998 Thomas Hales announced that the proof by exhaustion of Kepler conjecture was complete. It took four years for a twelve-strong panel of referees to agree with 99% certainty that Hales’s proof is correct. (How did they do that?) However a complete formal proof is still to be produced — Hales’s Flyspeck Project is said to last at least twenty more years.

What is the best container for close-packed spheres? At first, I naïvely thought that, if one can stack spheres as tetrahedral pyramids, maybe tetrahedral boxes? Provided, of course, that one knows what to do with tetrahedral boxes. Another discovery awaited me. Aristotle wrote in 350 BC in his treatise On the Heavens:

It is agreed that there are only three plane figures which can fill a space, the triangle, the square, and the hexagon, and only two solids, the pyramid and the cube.
It is somewhat reassuring that until recent I shared with great Aristotle the belief that one can fill space with regular tetrahedra. On the other hand, it is not. It was known at least since fifteenth century that these polyhedra do not tile space. Interestingly, the optimal packing for regular tetrahedra remains to be found. The best known packing of 85.63% was achieved as recently as 2010. Of course it is much better than 74% density of spheres, but maybe there is still room for improvement.

Even so, as this diagram shows, one can quite nicely stack the balls in more convenient cubic boxes, which do tile space for sure.

What, if any, is the moral of the story? Not every statement starting with “It is agreed that...” is true. The old problem does not mean it is a solved problem. You might as well have a go at it. Or, at least, read in Wikipedia about it.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

dead don't read emails

Over the last twenty or so years, I have changed several email addresses. Not too many — less than my postal addresses, in fact. It’s not a big deal. My old email addresses could be found in some papers that I authored, although I seriously doubt anyone will ever bother to check their validity. In any case, my readers had a few years to ask their questions. Now the shop is closed. I moved on. Emails happily bounce back.

But when a person dies and his or her email is still active — that by some reason freaks me out. That felt weird twenty years ago, that still feels weird today. Inbox full of unread emails. Creepy.

Now, with everyone connected by social networks, it feels weirder still. Yeah, let’s all write “R.I.P.” on the deceased’s Facebook wall, that will help.

Death of a friend. That emptiness left behind. Do we have to fill it with worthless words?

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Hottabych principle

Two Young Pioneers, Volka and Zhenya, take the old genie Hassan Abdul-rahman ibn Khattab, aka “Hottabych”, to the football match. As the boys did not bother to explain the rules of the game to Hottabych, he had to figure them out himself.

The object of the game is not possession of the ball but to score more goals at the end of the game than the opposing team — something that is not immediately obvious in a match that can go for ninety minutes without scoring a single goal. So Hottabych decides to give each player a ball of his own. As I just learned, in Russian-language cyberspace this approach to football (and its extensions) is referred to as Принцип Хоттабыча (“Hottabych principle”).

— Не сочтешь ли ты, о Волька, возможным объяснить твоему недостойному слуге, что будут делать с мячом эти двадцать два столь симпатичных мне молодых человека! — почтительно осведомился Хоттабыч.
Но Волька в ответ только нетерпеливо отмахнулся:
— Сейчас все сам поймешь.
Как раз в этот момент игрок “Зубила” звонко ударил носком бутса по мячу — и состязание началось.
— Неужели этим двадцати двум приятным молодым людям придется бегать по столь обширному полю, терять силы, падать и толкать друг друга только для того, чтобы иметь возможность несколько мгновений погонять невзрачный кожаный мячик? И все это лишь потому, что на всех нашелся для игры только один мяч? — недовольно спросил Хоттабыч через несколько минут.
Но Волька, увлеченный игрой, снова ничего старику не ответил. Было не до Хоттабыча: нападение “Шайбы” завладело мячом и приближалось к воротам “Зубила”.
— Знаешь что, Волька? — шепнул своему приятелю Женя. — Мне кажется, просто счастье, что Хоттабыч ничего не понимает в футболе. А то бы он тут таких дров наколол, что ой-ой-ой!
— И мне так кажется, — согласился с ним Волька и вдруг, ахнув, вскочил со своего места.
Одновременно с ним вскочили на ноги и взволнованно загудели и все остальные восемьдесят тысяч зрителей.
Пронзительно прозвучал свисток судьи, но игроки и без того замерли на месте.
Случилось нечто неслыханное в истории футбола и совершенно необъяснимое с точки зрения законов природы: откуда-то сверху, с неба, упали и покатились по полю двадцать два ярко раскрашенных мяча. Все они были изготовлены из превосходного сафьяна.
Лазарь Лагин, Старик Хоттабыч

“Will you, O Volka, consider it possible to explain to your unworthy servant what these twenty-two pleasant young men are going to do with the ball?” Hottabych asked respectfully.
Volka waved his hand impatiently and said, “You’ll see for yourself in a minute.”
At that very moment a Zubilo player kicked the ball smartly and the game was on.
“Do you mean that these twenty-two nice young men will have to run about such a great field, get tired, fall and shove each other, only to have a chance to kick this plain-looking leather ball around for a few seconds? And all because they gave them just this one ball for all twenty-two of them?” Hottabych asked in a very displeased voice a few minutes later.
Volka was completely engrossed in the game and did not reply. He could not be bothered with Hottabych at a time when the Shaiba’s forwards had got possession of the ball and were approaching the Zubilo goal.
“You know what, Volka?” Zhenya whispered. “It’s real luck Hottabych doesn’t know a thing about football, because he’d surely stick his finger in the pie!”
“I know,” Volka agreed. Suddenly, he gasped and jumped to his feet.
At that very moment, the other hundred thousand fans also jumped to their feet and began to shout. The umpire’s whistle pierced the air, but the players had already come to a standstill.
Something unheard-of in the history of football had happened, something that could not be explained by any law of nature: twenty-two brightly coloured balls dropped from somewhere above in the sky and rolled down the field. They were all made of top-grain morocco leather.

At this point, the referee stops the game, depriving us of the opportunity to see what could happen next. On one hand, the players are saturated with footballs. So passing the ball is possible but not really needed. Ditto tackling the opponent, unless you know what to do with two or more footballs. On the other hand, the object of the game remains the same. One still can score, and one still can defend. Of course, that requires an adjustment of the rules and some extra skills. I wonder how many footballers would be up to challenge.

As it happens, most of the magic performed by well-meaning Hottabych is not welcome. This has nothing to do with the fact that the old genie finds himself in the 1930s USSR, even though both the book and the film have their fair share of Soviet propaganda.

Much of the comedy is based on old Hottabych failing to understand what people really mean when they express their wishes. Or is it people who cannot formulate their wishes clearly and frankly? I think that the latter is true, and genie is brought into the picture simply to demonstrate that.

When a wish is granted, especially by a genie, you may come to realise that it is not what you actually want or need. For example, to possess the ball in the game of footie is an opportunity, not an end in itself. Twenty-two balls falling from the sky serve to prove it.

I suspect there is no scientist alive who never dreamed of getting a Nobel Prize. Imagine that Hottabych, in form of the Nobel Committee, awards you a Nobel Prize, sparing you years of tedious experiments, paper writing and other activities that scientists habitually torture themselves with. Will you be happy? I guess not. To quote Russell W. Belk, “the gift of an award may be a Trojan horse that destroys our initiative for further achievements”. Or, as Mikhail Zhvanetsky put it: «Процесс — жизнь, результат — смерть» (“Life is the process; death is the result”).

Friday, 9 March 2012

against intellectual property

From Against Intellectual Property by Brian Martin:
Few scientists complain that they do not own the knowledge they produce. Indeed, they are much more likely to complain when corporations or governments try to control dissemination of ideas. Most scientists receive a salary from a government, corporation or university. Their livelihoods do not depend on royalties from published work.
University scientists have the greatest freedom. The main reasons they do research are for the intrinsic satisfaction of investigation and discovery — a key motivation for many of the world’s great scientists — and for recognition by their peers. To turn scientific knowledge into intellectual property would dampen the enthusiasm of many scientists for their work. However, as governments reduce their funding of universities, scientists and university administrations increasingly turn to patents as a source of income.
The case of science shows that vigorous intellectual activity is quite possible without intellectual property, and in fact that it may be vigorous precisely because information is not owned.
Intellectual property is supported by many powerful groups: the most powerful governments and the largest corporations. The mass media seem fully behind intellectual property, partly because media monopolies would be undercut if information were more freely copied and partly because the most influential journalists depend on syndication rights for their stories.

Perhaps just as important is the support for intellectual property from many small intellectual producers, including academics and freelance writers. Although the monetary returns to these intellectuals are seldom significant, they have been persuaded that they both need and deserve their small royalties. This is similar to the way that small owners of goods and land, such as homeowners, strongly defend the system of private property, whose main beneficiaries are the very wealthy who own vast enterprises based on many other people’s labour. Intellectuals are enormous consumers as well as producers of intellectual work. A majority would probably be better off financially without intellectual property, since they wouldn’t have to pay as much for other people’s work.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

an absolute sinecure

From Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams:
Indeed, it was not entirely clear if Reg had ever taught anybody at all and what, if anything, he would have taught them. His professorship was an obscure one, to say the least, and since he dispensed with his lecturing duties by the simple and time-honoured technique of presenting all his potential students with an exhaustive list of books that he knew for a fact had been out of print for thirty years, then flying into a tantrum if they failed to find them, no one had ever discovered the precise nature of his academic discipline. He had, of course, long ago taken the precaution of removing the only extant copies of the books on his reading list from the university and college libraries, as a result of which he had plenty of time to, well, to do whatever it was he did.

Since Richard had always managed to get on reasonably well with the old fruitcake, he had one day plucked up courage to ask him what, exactly, the Regius Professorship of Chronology was. It had been one of those light summery days when the world seems about to burst with pleasure at simply being itself, and Reg had been in an uncharacteristically forthcoming mood as they had walked over the bridge where the River Cam divided the older parts of the college from the newer.

“Sinecure, my dear fellow, an absolute sinecure,” he had beamed. “A small amount of money for a very small, or shall we say non-existent, amount of work. That puts me permanently just ahead of the game, whichis a comfortable if frugal place to spend your life. I recommend it.”