Archive for the ‘Research’ Category
Sean at Cosmic Variance is starting a three part series called Anatomy of a paper, on the mysterious process of doing research and publishing it. The first post in the series is called Inspiration and describes how a crazy idea is born (and refined, and modified, and metamorphosed):
Speaking of which — the answer to the inflation-with-a-preferred-direction question wasn’t obvious, so Lotty asked Mark about it. (Who knows where I was — off traveling, probably.) He didn’t know either, but it sounded like an interesting question. So (as one will do) he started scribbling down some models of inflation that might behave that way. Basically, trying to invent a way to allow the negative pressure associated with the inflaton field (the hypothetical field whose energy drives the hypothetical accelerated expansion) to be direction-dependent. We have some general pre-existing ideas about how inflation might conceivably work, and a good field theorist has a bag full of models that can be shaped into different forms depending on the problem under consideration, so it was a matter of asking how easy it would be to tweak those models to give them a preferred direction.
When I did eventually drop by my office, Mark mentioned the idea to me. It sounded interesting, but I didn’t have anything insightful to add off the top of my head. But that afternoon there was a physics colloquium, during which my mind wandered, and I started thinking of different ways the inflaton might get a direction-dependent pressure. After the talk, I went to Mark’s office to say “Your idea is crazy, but here’s an idea that might work.” The next day, Mark gathered Lotty and me into his office to explain why my idea was crazy, but he had a new idea that might work. That process continued for a while, back and forth between the three of us; suggesting models, finding reasons why they should be discarded, realizing that a previously-discarded model might be able to sidestep the previous objections, and so on.
A must-read post, and I cannot wait for the other two parts!
PS:- Here are some of my own thoughts on getting ideas of research, and a link to Highly Allochthonus‘ thoughts on the same (he also calls it inspiration, by the way!).
Update 1: Here is Part II: Calculations:
I should mention that, while working on the vector-field idea, I found myself in another bar — this one across the puddle, a neighborhood pub in London. Guinness this time, not a martini. And wouldn’t you know it, the bartender sees my equations spread out there and asks what it is I’m doing. (By the time I retire, every bartender in the Western hemisphere is going to have at least a passing acquaintance with the basics of contemporary cosmology.) This guy was really into it, and wanted to write down not just the title but also the ISBN number of the book I was reading. Since it was Dodelson’s cosmology text, which is a gripping read but full of equations, I scribbled a short list of more accessible books he could check out, about which he seemed truly excited. Now if only the London pubs would stay open past ten p.m., we’d have an excellent situation all around.
Now, that reminded me of a T-shirt slogan I saw in IISc once:
Don’t drink and derive.
Looks like Sean does not believe in that advice!
Update 2: All good things must come to an end; series of blog posts are no different. Here is the final section called Culmination:
They had, in fact, derived a few of the equations of which we were justifiably proud.
But not all of them! We had, in other words, been partially scooped, although not entirely so. This is a remarkably frequent occurrence — you think you’re working on some project for esoteric reasons that are of importance only to you, only to find that similar tendencies had been floating around in the air, either recently or some number of years prior. Occasionally the scoopage is so dramatic that you really have nothing new to add; in that case the only respectable thing is to suck it up and move on to another project. Very often, the overlap is noticeable but far from complete, and you still have something interesting to contribute; that turned out to be the case this time. So we soldiered on, giving credit in our paper to those who blazed trails before us, and highlighting those roads which we had traversed all by ourselves.
In this post, Sean also summarises the paper writing process in a single sentence:
At the end of the process — from meandering speculation, focusing in on an interesting question, gathering the necessary technical tools, performing the relevant calculation, comparing with the existing literature, and finally writing up the useful results — you have a paper.
A series worth printing out for meditations and contemplations!
Till I discussed with Abi, I did not know the correct pronunciation of Fourier or Poisson. Later, I learnt that I was not the only one with such problems. One of my friends from the computer science department told me that in his discussions with his advisor, he did not realise that the advisor was talking about Fourier till he saw the equations written down.
A 17th century English lit doctoral candidate has completed her dissertation on Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist. Early on in her studies (yes, the gender makes this seem sexist, but I’m just reporting the anecdote as I heard it), she moved away from the university because of something — oh, let’s say she had to live with her parents. So she completed her work by mail. This was not that uncommon 25 years ago, and probably even less so today with the internet.
At any rate, it’s the day of her defense, she returns to the department and faces a jury of professors — who quickly realize that in all this time, no one has explained that Pepys’ name is pronounced “Peeps.” But the professors are embarrassed as well, to have one of their Ph.D. candidates get this far and never to have spoken to one of them directly. So our plucky candidate has the unnerving experience of hearing her mentors nervously coo at her for several hours.
Everytime she says “Peppis,” one of them would softly go … “Peeps.”
It also reminded me of stories that my father used to tell us about how spies were identified in England during second world war, namely, based on how they pronounced the names of places like Islington.
Here’s the short version. Dr. Hall made a mistake in the software he wrote to do something. Another scientist, Dr. Otto, saw the mistake, contacted Dr. Hall and told him about it, and the two of them worked together to confirm that it was in fact a mistake. Recognizing the error, Dr. Hall has now retracted the paper and is working to ensure that people quickly learn that the conclusions are in error. Knowing that will keep others from using Dr. Hall’s original conclusions in their own work, which means that they won’t be starting from a position that’s wrong.
And that, ladies and gents, is exactly how this thing called “science” is supposed to work.
Take a look!
- Clifford at Asymptotia writes about his kettle buying experience, and uses that as the starting point to give some pointers on how to think about physics problems:
Physics training is all about figuring out which parts of those messy systems are important to the question you’re asking, and which parts are just “noise”.
Physics training is also about knowing which question to ask in the first place.
Once you’ve found your question, and separated out the noise from the signal (usually by identifying a reliable approximation scheme), then you’re ready to bring out the mathematical tools and solve the problem using brute force and whatever tricks you’ve learned over years of experience.
The last step in the sequence is to step back from the Mathematics and plug everything back into the Physics problem and answer the original question.
Undoubtedly, a must-read piece.
- Rob Knopp at Galactic interactions has an alternate model to fund astronomy research:
Why not the following. Every institution that has an astronomy program will be designated a certain fractaion of the pie.
The division of the money amongst the invididual astronomers would then be the institution’s problem to work out.
However, I am not sure what makes him think that the individual institution can come up with a mechanism that allows fair sharing of the funding, and supports good research. For example, what happens if some Institution decides to give major fraction of the funds to some established researcher? The institution might still be able to justify the funding that it receives; but, it will drastically reduce the variety of research, and eventually lead to specialised units headed by individuals (or groups of individuals). In fact, such funding, in the long run, may even lead to Institutions collecting people of some specific expertise at the cost of variety.
I don’t know if you read ScienceWoman’s posts at the blog “On being a scientist and a woman”, but if you don’t, go over there from time to time. The same thing can be said for the blog “Female Science Professor”. They are both very internal sorts of blogs. You won’t find overly-opinionated rants and pontifications about various things nearly as often as you’ll read thoughtful anecdotes and internal debates about what it is like to be a scientist (who also happens to be a woman) in a science department somewhere in America…
Here is Nature‘s guide for mentors; the rather lengthy piece talks about the various aspects of mentoring, namely, personal characterisitcs, teaching and communication, building communities, skill development, and networking. It also gives several tips for mentors, and even a self-assessment sheet. Take a look!
- Daniel Nettle comments on a recent study which tries to correlate the evolution of languages with the genetic composition of the population that speaks it; along the way, Nettle also feels that this kind of approach can lead to similar studies on the other culturally transmitted elements. A very thought provoking piece!
- David Pascual writes about the edible vaccine research, its advantages over conventional oral vaccines, and the challenges associated with their production.