Nov 04

Sloppy Science: the athletics edition

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Sloppy Science: the athletics edition

The September 30 issue of Nature featured a brief communication with a study comparing men’s and women’s sprinting. The authors concluded that by the 2156 Olympics, the winner of the women’s 100 m dash will win with a faster time than the winner of the men’s 100 m dash. They did this by plotting the winning time of the 100 m men’s and women’s gold medallist for each Olympics, assuming that the times for each would continue to decrease linearly. From this analysis, they saw that the times for women are decreasing at a rate faster than those for men, and therefore, assuming that the linear progression will continue, the women will “catch” the men in 2156, winning in a time of just under 8.1 (!!!) seconds.

It seems as though the authors were being only semi-serious with this study, which is good because there’s no way one can take these results seriously. First of all, they chose just one data point for each year, which is hardly an accurate indication of the improvements of sprinters over time. Therefore, the standard deviation in their results is massive, resulting in a 700 year error in their result, i.e. women could overtake men as early as 2064 or as late as 2788. A more precise study, such as this one uses data from the top ten times for every year, rather than one (and not necessarilty the best) time for every four years. For both sexes, the deviations from linearity are clear. These authors did similar studies for shot put and high jump, and found similar progressions.

By taking a proper sample size, anomolies such as FloJo’s sub-10.50 s run in 1988 (which may have been drug-aided) don’t skew the results. I also found it a bit surprising that the significant deviation from linearity began in the early 1980’s for both women and men. It would appear that the advances in medicine and training has benefited both sexes equally despite the imbalance of funding and prominence between the two for all but the last 20-30 years or so.

Nov 04

More on “Flores Man”

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More on “Flores Man”

Nature has now set up a special section on the Flores hominid discovery (or Homo floresiensis — impress your friends!) that Mark UNLEASHED on Proven By Science a few days ago. You know it’s a big discovery when Nature is providing so much FREE content about it.

While you’re there, perhaps take a look at this story about an extremely dicey-looking study into the number of civilians killed during the Iraq war. It’s dicey, first and foremost, because all their data was based on eyewitness perceptions and accounts. And secondly, they compiled much of their data in a small portion of the country (mainly the ultra-violent Fallujah area), only to exclude most of it in the end.

Oct 04

For the politically inclined scientist in all of us:

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For the politically inclined scientist in all of us:

A link to the “Bush and Kerry on the scientific issues” article that I wrote about a few weeks ago. It’s now available for free, no subsription required.

Counterbalancing this repeated foray into politics, they’ve also printed a letter of correspondence (subscription required, sorry) in which the authors (who are also scientists) claim that scientists should concern themselves with science and not politics. Because that’s what scientists are good at, you see, therefore they should just stick to one thing. The authors were upset about the Kerry endorsement from a loose conglomerate called “Scientists and Engineers for Kerry”. The group contains scores of prominent researchers, including 48 Nobel prize winners.

Speaking of the Nobels, I believe the committee has finally flushed particle physics out of their system — basically everyone who contributed a significant piece of the Standard Model puzzle has been given a Prize. This has been a frequent topic of conversation this week, and while I agree that particle physics is the most “physics-y physics” there is (an understanding of matter at its most fundamental level), I think we can start filling in a few more Prize pieces in some other fields.

Sep 04

The Open Access Debate : To be Free, or Not to be Free?

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The Open Access Debate : To be Free, or Not to be Free?

Preamble: I was endlessly undecided about this issue. I mulled this over, wrote some stuff, mulled some more, wrote more a few days later, decided everything I wrote was crap, mulled again, decided my thoughts were too disjointed, did some editing, mulled yet again, contemplated throwing in the towel and not posting anything on this subject, did some rewriting, and finally decided to just post the damn thing. Be warned. Ahem. Let’s start again.

The Open Access Debate : To be Free, or Not to be Free?

Scientific journals are expensive. Yearly subscriptions are hundreds of dollars, and sometimes more. Because of the high costs, individuals and research groups generally don’t subscribe to them. Instead, universities and research institutes tend to buy site licenses so that everyone working there can access the journals. Essentially, the institute is buying their subscriptions in bulk quantities so that the cost per student, researcher, and faculty member is far cheaper. The cost gets incorporated into research costs and tuition fees, as would be the case for all other library materials. So, if you’re a member of the university community, you have easy access to just about every major journal in every field. If you’re not a member, tough luck. Alternatively, if your research institution doesn’t have a license for a particular journal, good luck getting access to it. This happened to me (only) once — our librarian had to send a materials request to OTTAWA and have someone pull the article I wanted from some sort of international archive. Our group was billed fifteen dollars for a three page article.

The US National Institute of Health recently introduced a plan that would require all their grantees to make their papers available online for free (on a central database), six months after initial publication. A similar plan has been discussed in the UK House of Commons. And the fur is starting to fly.

These days, everyone (not just scientists) expects to find content on the internet for free. Every major newspaper and magazine offers substantial online content that is accessible to anybody for zero cost. In comparison, scientific journals seem to close themselves off from open access, with extravagant subscription prices to ensure that the door stays bolted shut. Ironically, the internet was invented in order to felicitate the exchange of scientific ideas and data, only to have their communities evolve into the most exclusionary clubs on the whole net. So, if everything else is free, why shouldn’t scientific content be free too? And doesn’t the public deserve to have access to this content if public funds are being used to pay for the research?

On the other hand, consider the POV of the scientific journals. The NIH claims that journals will still be financially viable and not will lose significant numbers of subscribers because of the six month “grace period”. The journals disagree, they think that open access will lead to a rash of cancelled subscriptions. If so, they will have to start charging authors (as well as subscribers) in order to meet their publication costs. Besides, due to the near-ubiquity of online publishing, subscription prices have fallen significantly in the last few years and should continue to fall.

Now, let’s make one thing clear: you can’t do research if you are six months behind the current state of science. Journals are scientific news periodicals. Suppose newspapers were given away for free six months after they were printed — nobody would wait six months to read the news just so they could do so for free. So canceling subscriptions and waiting six months to read scientific articles is out of the question. Universities will pay for those subscriptions. In principle, they could cut costs by dropping the less widely read journals and only licensing the popular and prestigious ones. But journal subscriptions work much like cable TV — you never pay for just one station, you buy stations in bundles. You might only want two particular stations, but you still have to pay for the bundle and get another 37 channels that you’ll never watch. Welcome to the world of journal conglomerates. However, some libraries and institutions will undoubtedly shed some of their subscriptions, the question is, how many?

Journals don’t want to rock the boat. They are understandably afraid. If they start losing money, and have to begin charging for author submissions, the number of submissions they receive will likely decrease. If they’re receiving fewer papers from top researchers, then the journals prestige goes down. There is a built-in feedback mechanism with this. Researchers want their favourite journals to remain prestigious because they want their work to be published there, which in turn makes their research prestigious and recognizable as being some of the top work in their field. An open access plan could upset this balance, the question is, how much?

Looking into my crystal ball … if open access becomes a widespread reality, journal access will change minimally on university campuses. But there will be a sizeable amount of money lost from smaller (and private) companies and institutions. Journals will be forced to lower subscription costs. At this point, everything might stabilize. They may even regain lost subscriptions. If things don’t stabilize, then open servers such as the one at http://xxx.lanl.gov may become more common. Anyone can register and post a paper there. There is no peer review process, I could write up a paper today and publish it there tomorrow. The feedback an author receives serves as a peer review process, and this information can be used to flesh out further ideas or prepare a more complete manuscript for publication in a “traditional” journal. This sounds a lot like a blog for researchers, doesn’t it? Just as many professional writers have taken their craft into the blogosphere (and paper magazines have not imploded), the lanl server has run for a decade outside of the “traditional” scientific journal community and the journal world has managed to continue spinning on its axis. Such open servers also get around some of the politics and cronyism associated with a peer review process (of course, such things are in no way confined to the scientific community).

However, if I were calling the shots, I would probably wimp out and scrap the open access proposals. Yeah, it bugs me to write that because my gut tells me the opposite, mainly because public money is involved. But my head is telling me that it’s silly to risk the reputations of important journals (and in turn, risking scientific careers) in order to make information available to more people, because 99.99% of those people won’t have any use for that information anyway.

As for the seemingly extravagant subscription prices for top journals, look at it this way. When paying for a journal, a scientist isn’t paying for reading material inasmuch as they’re paying for ideas. Nobody can work in a vacuum. One must cull ideas and necessary background information from other people’s work and then synthesize this information in order to produce new ideas, leading to new science. Subscription costs are nothing compared to the financial costs of running a research lab. Equally important, those costs are miniscule compared to the human cost of making scientific careers. Thus, the high costs of a journal’s wares don’t keep me awake at night.

Sep 04

Stop eating your spinach — the future of hydro may depend on it

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Stop eating your spinach — the future of hydro may depend on it

Spinach Could Power Better Solar Cells

They report a light-to-electrical efficiency of 12%, which in itself isn’t bad. I believe that’s not atypical even for “conventional” solar cells. The main problem is the chemical stability of their cells. A solar cell isn’t very practical if it disintegrates every three weeks.

We could see a lot more research like this in the next few years. Understanding the dynamics of light-harvesting organic materials are a hot topic amongst biochemists these days.

Sep 04


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The cover story in this week’s Nature is a political one: Mr. Bush, Mr. Kerry, what is your stance on science? Fifteen questions were posed to each candidate, and their responses (or at least the responses from their respective camps) were printed. Some highlights:

— In addressing the potential dangers of allowing foreign scientist to visit and travel in the USA, both candidates played the national security card. Yes, in principle, they should be able to expedite the visa applications for legitimate scientists while still filtering out those who might pose a reasonable security risk. In practice, this is failing miserably. It is becoming well known in the scientific community that the US border is becoming increasingly impenetrable for many non-Europeans, particularly Asians, as their visa applications get caught up in endless quantities of red tape.

— Q: Do you support research into new nuclear weapons designs in the US? (excerpted answers follow)
Kerry: I would end the pursuit of a new generation of nuclear weapons.
Bush: The Nuclear Posture Review released by my administration in January 2002 noted that the nation’s nuclear infrastructure had atrophied since the end of the cold war and that the evolving security environment requires a flexible and responsive weapons-complex infrastructure. To that end, my fiscal-year 2005 reflects an increase over 2004 in weapons activities.

In other words, it appears that Bush wants to step up nuclear weapons development and readiness to Cold War levels. This is scary.

— On a personal interest note, both candidates pledged not to sacrifice funding for the environmental and physical sciences in favour of medical research. Big bonus points to Kerry for also pledging to double the number of NSF graduate scholarships in maths and sciences.

— Kerry supports the Endangered Species Act. Bush thinks “we need to modernize the act”. It’s like Kyoto all over again.

— Kerry thinks the scientific evidence clearly states that global warming is happening. Bush thinks the evidence is still uncertain. This is a case of their “judgements” of the scientific evidence merely falling in line with their politics. The truth is, atmospheric scientists are still very divided on the issue. Politicians will obviously stand behind the data which best suits their agenda.

— Stem Cell Research. OK, most people already know their stances here. Their statements are a bit bizarre. Kerry wants to “lift the ideological restrictions on stem cell research” but wants to do so “while ensuring rigourous ethical oversight”. Um, which is it? Once you’ve told the pro-lifers to shove it, what other ethical overseeing needs to be done?

Part of Bush’s statement takes a grounded tone that was missing in Kerry’s rather exuberant statement : “However, stem cell research is in a very early stage and while it may hold great promise we should not overstate the state of the science, or politicize these issues, because it gives false hope to individuals and families suffering through terrible illnesses”.

It is true enough that anyone who thinks that doctors will be able to grow them a new heart — perhaps in any of our lifetimes — is only kidding themselves. Therefore, from an investment standpoint, boosting stem cell research funds may not be the best practically-minded expenditure at this time. Of course, one could say that about ALL basic research.

Of course “we should not … politicize these issues” = “we don’t want to politicize it if it means misleading families that are suffering from illnesses, but we have no problem politicizing it to get the pro-lifers to vote for us”.

A guy spends months on ILX being forced to talk about boring stuff like music and sex…

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A guy spends months on ILX being forced to talk about boring stuff like music and sex without any respite*. Then, out of all that gloom*, emerges not one, but TWO science threads in the same day**.
Qaballah — Classic or Dud

Parallels Between Music and Science

* just kidding
** joke’s over

On a completely unrelated note, there was an article in last week’s Nature dealing with the potentialities of widespread access to scientific journals after a certain number of months following their initial publication. In other words : FREE access to scientific literature for one and all. I plan to write something about it, but I’m still unsure about what exactly my position is.

Sep 04

4th Annual University of Toronto Physics Jamboree

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4th Annual University of Toronto Physics Jamboree

Despite the silly name, this is actually a very creative introduction to the work done in our department. The concept : in alphabetical order, each professor must present an introduction to their work in exactly three minutes. In today’s case, that’s 38 three-minute talks. It’s an oppurtunity for new grad students to get a “who’s who” of the department, as well as a glimpse of all the research being done so that they can start thinking about what they may want to study.

What can you possibly talk about in three minutes? In short : nothing. For an old fart such as myself (even though I’ve never gotten around to seeing the Jamboree on any of the other three occasions), most of the entertainment is watching a succession of professors, all in vain, try to communicate minute details about their research. And get cut off by the absurdly piercing three-minute bell. It seems so obvious that the only sensible strategy is to talk about the “big picture”, i.e., outline only the problems in your field, since there is no time to explain the solutions. And yet I am amazed that people choose to show complicated graphs and attempt to explain them to an audience of non-specialists in the final fourty-five seconds of their talk. Hell, even an audience of specialists wouldn’t be able to digest it that quickly. As if, amongst a field of almost forty talks, anyone’s going to remember one particular data feature in one particular talk in a field they’re unfamiliar with.

All this was followed by the annual beginning-of-term party, whose open bar seems to close earlier and earlier each year. Yes, I am complaining.

Aug 04

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t give a crap about the Kobe Bryant rape trial, but…

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Ordinarily, I wouldn’t give a crap about the Kobe Bryant rape trial, but check out this article :

The Science of the Brief Encounter

It looks to be a well-researched overview of the key physical evidence in the case (incl. DNA evidence). The article is rife with scientific discussion and bereft of celebrity sensationalism (in other words, it’s a welcome change from the usual tabloid junk).

So we all know that Pong was the first video game. Well, now it can be played for the first time … using MIND CONTROL …

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So we all know that Pong was the first video game. Well, now it can be played for the first time … using MIND CONTROL … link

It blows my mind that such things are possible. What’s more, MRI techniques are bound to keep getting more and more precise, so I suspect we’ll be hearing about a lot more of these fMRI experiments.

Of course, there is a massive gap between such science and workable, everyday technology. Subjects must learn how to control the proper areas of the brain, which requires training and practice. Therefore, using these techniques for possible treatments for mental illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia (as suggested in the article) is just a pie-in-the-sky suggestion (for now). But that’s likely the sort of “big picture” discussion they feel obligated to include when spicing up their scientific grant proposals.