Weekly Roundup 115


Weekly Roundup 112

This week I had the great opportunity to listen to a talk from Sir Philip Campbell who some of you may know as the editor in chief of Nature. Now considering the overwhelming majority of scientific reports I cover are published in Nature this was a great opportunity to ask some questions. In particular, I asked about Nature’s possible future policies regarding the publishing of repeat research.

Now it may sound at first like repeated research is not something the scientific community really wants but of course when you think about it, it evidently is. Repeated experiments are the basis of science and unfortunately the percentages of paper’s published confirming each other’s work has dropped from 20% of paper fifty years ago to less than 5% today (depending on what you count as reproducing paper). On some level this is due to some experiments being performed with the best equipment in the world, the biggest lasers, the most sensitive particle detectors, the fastest computers and so reproducing these results is hard. However I suggested to Sir Campbell in my question that perhaps it was the unwillingness of high prestige journals, which of course is a category Nature falls into, to publish such results that leads to less scientists wishing to do them.

Some people may question why such results should need to be published, after all, if scientists repeat a published experiment and it works then that’s good. If it doesn’t, then they should start trying to have their counter results published. However this leads to multiple researchers checking the same experiment at the same time all getting the same results without knowing about the other’s work and then when one out of ten doesn’t get the same results due to random error they’re counter paper has equal weight to the original. Actually there were nine other experiments that confirmed the original paper, but we might never see them.

Sir Campbell suggestion is that Nature is planning on developing a scheme they already have in place to solve this problem. Currently, if a paper is written disproving or criticising a paper already published in Nature, Nature guarantees that it will publish the rebuking document linked to the original. Now, the development will be that soon papers providing strong assenting evidence for a paper in Nature may also be published linked to the original. This encouragement may solve the problem I suggest and boost the numbers of repeat experiments being performed.

Until tomorrow, goodnight.

Weekly Roundup 111

I decided I would like to expand on some of my reasoning about the post I wrote yesterday. In a way I have already written a half explanation in this Weekly Roundup 20 weeks ago now. If you didn’t read yesterday’s post, it was about the possibility of solar activity affecting human physiology on a short time scale of a few months. It was being used as part of larger evidence that solar cycles may have an effect on human behaviour. My main concern with this paper was that without a valid  theory properly linking why a higher speed solar wind will induce physiological stress and increase heart rate, then really it’s just messing around with data to try and get the best regression you can. I’d urge everyone to look at this website: spurious correlations which  provides “strong evidence” for whole lot of connections.

It’s for this reason I will always some level of doubt when it comes to studies that claim results without posing a serious logical link. “The hypothesis that energetic environmental phenomena affect psychophysical processes” doesn’t convince me. The argument used by the paper is that the correlation between events A and B can only be explained by:

  • chance
  • A causes B
  • B causes A
  • Both are caused by something else

I personally believe chance may explain their results or that a final more convincing theory linking the two events may still need to be found. Ultimately I agree with the paper’s authors’ that more work needs to be done for a solid conclusion to be found.

Until tomorrow, goodnight.

Weekly Roundup 110

What’s in a degree? The United Kingdom is in a bit of a debate right now about how valuable going to university is. Go back fifty years of course and university was free but no more than 5% of people went. Why? Well because what’s the point. Unless you really wanted to be a lawyer or a doctor or a scientist the job you wanted probably didn’t need  a degree let alone a PhD. The idea that an electrician or a plumber or most people working in an office needed to have degree would have sounded ridiculous. Of course there are good reasons for the government to encourage people to go to university, having a more educated population can’t be a bad thing. Except in a way, and it’s time for amateur analysis, it was sort of a bad thing.

The fact is that when people, let’s say, get the now compulsory degree to become a nurse, they are now a rank above those previous nurses. All the menial tasks that were traditionally assigned to nurses are, in a way, below them. Why should they be expected to clean medical equipment, they have a degree? Except they do have to do those jobs that we all know you don’t need a degree to do because people without degrees were doing them fine for decades. So all we’ve achieved is a great waste of everybody’s time, three years wasted as the mode and gotten a lot of our brightest people into what would be considered serious financial debt.

Anyway, until tomorrow, goodnight.

Weekly Roundup 109

Linear algebra is very important. It is critically important. I’d even go as far as to say that it perhaps is as important as calculus for a physicist and should probably begin being taught at a similar level. I would never claim I am more apt at the theoretical sides of linear algebra and there are certainly a bunch of mathematicians in the world with much greater insight then me, but perhaps I can try and narrate why I consider it very important.

It would not be incorrect to say that linear algebra is about matrices and vectors. Although what we’ll soon see is that “vector” has a much broader meaning than a first time reader might think. For instance, which of the following is a vector?

Vector in three forms

And I would be fully willing to except that they are all vectors and at the same time they’re all not, they’re a representation of a vector. For instance is, is this a vector?

Random quadratic

and most people will respond “no, that’s a quadratic.” But in fact they’re wrong, above is a vector and I’m going to show you at least that it’s plausibly a vector (even if my proof is not rigorous). You may notice that the coefficients of this polynomial are actually the values of the column vector, but really they are just three numbers. If we had both previously agreed that the first value would be the coefficient of x0 and the second x1, ect then the column would represent the quadratic perfectly. But instead, in your head, you imagine the column vector corresponding to x, y and z to produce some form of arrow in three dimensions, how is then any different from a x0, x1 and xdimension producing a quadratic when you go along these axes? All quadratic equations are a 3D space with these [x0,x1,x2] axes and they add and multiply just like vectors, because they are vectors.

When you realise that in fact a vector is something that exists in a vector space and a vector space is just an any dimensional space with axes that obey particular rules (it’s actually more strict than that but that’s good enough for now) then you begin to see the concepts you thought were only applying to vectors actually apply to polynomials, graphs, differential equations, magic squares and probability distributions.

This is linear algebra and I consider a great tragedy that secondary schools do not teach at least the basics at some level. Until tomorrow, goodnight.

Weekly Roundup 108

Science and religion are often presented as being concepts diametrically opposed. It seems sometimes as if they are destined to fight and generally hamper each other for all eternity. I, however, find it quite comedic to see examples of science, or perhaps, scientists mimicking religion. An example that comes running to my mind is that of Broom Bridge in Dublin. This bridge plays a memorable rôle in mathematical canon as it was in the stone of this bridge that William Hamilton carved the fundamental equation for four dimensional numbers, the quaternions,  having suddenly understood their importance while walking by. The strange thing is that many mathematicians take part in a commemorative walk (some might call it a ceremonial pilgrimage) to this bridge from Hamilton’s workplace of the Dunsink Observatory. Places like this exist all over the world where various great mathematicians and scientists dwelled and to this day other scientists visit as some form of remembrance. Throughout history, whether it be the ancient Greeks arguing about whether matter could be split infinitely or if there would a smallest possible thing; or the scientists of the 20th centuries first half debating quantum mechanics; there have always been scientists that devote themselves to a  particular theory and hold to it. Although nowhere near as calamitous as the Protestant-Catholic or Shia-Sunnis divides there is still something reminiscent about these fractured communities. The most obvious explanation is this: scientists and priests are both humans and both fall into the human mould. The similarities in action are simply part of human nature in that we love to attach our cart to something greater then ourselves. The idea of community is omnipresent and its not surprising that the social formation of science and religious institutions started together and are both opposite strands of the same double helix.

Until tomorrow, goodnight.

Weekly Roundup 107

This week I was in a conversation with a philosopher and it came to the point in the discussion when he asked me what my definition of a person was. I took a couple of seconds to think about this and decided that a good definition would be that of the human chromosome. Anything with the set of 46 chromosomes (acknowledging that genetic defects can distort this) is a person. Of course he quickly pointed out that that might be accurate for Earth bound species, as there is no other animal with a chromosomal set that we’d call a person. But he very correctly argued that my definition is only that of a human and not actually a person. An alien doesn’t need to have chromosomes or resemble us any real way but if it was intelligent we’d probably call it a person. And yet, there are people in this world with unfortunately severe brain damage and I feel that I stand on ethically shaky ground to say that intelligence is the defining trait of a person. If this was true then it would be a purely subjective and arbitrary choice for the point at which intelligence is too low to be considered a person and I could never support an intelligence level which excluded even a single human from personhood. We could look at empathy, yet there are some people psychologically capable of feeling it and young children lack empathy for the first few years of life. The more I consider this issue the more impenetrable it becomes. We have all have a pretty good sense, even if it differs slightly in cases, about what a person is. We could all qualitatively agree in any given situation but for the most part we can’t give a definition.

An interesting puzzle, perhaps can try and come to their own conclusion. Until tomorrow, goodnight.