Archive for October, 2009

Why are physicists sometimes arrogant to outsiders?

October 30, 2009

Robert P Crease tells why, here, in this must-read piece:

In my own encounter with Feynman – which, incidentally, is recounted in the epilogue to James Gleick’s biography Genius – I asked him questions about episodes of his intellectual development. Feynman’s replies were direct, but accompanied by intense curiosity about why I was asking; he sought to learn. Then I asked him about progress in science. This did not interest him. A physiological change in his face told me that I had abruptly gone from scholar to scribbler.

All at once he grew angry, stood up, and began shouting. “It’s a dumb question,” he yelled, “I don’t know how to answer it. Cancel everything I said!” He slammed his fist into the mountains of papers on his desk, then strode to the door. “It’s all so stupid. All of these interviews are always so damned useless.” He walked down the corridor, shouting: “It’s goddamned useless to talk about these things! It’s a complete waste of time! The history of these things is nonsense! You’re trying to make something difficult and complicated out of something that’s simple and beautiful!”

In that instant, witnessing his curiosity evaporate, I realized this had nothing to do with me, nor with contempt for outsiders, nor with scorn for history. Rather, it had everything to do with Feynman’s absorption in his own work – the same kind of absorption that made him a great physicist.

By the way, there is an interesting story about S Chandrashekher too in that piece — one that you don’t get to see in the pages of, say, Current Science:

Horgan once flew to Chicago for a prearranged interview with the late astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who shared the 1983 Nobel Prize for Physics for his theoretical work on the structure and evolution of stars.Chandrasekhar, who was then writing a book on Newton’s Principia, demanded to know Horgan’s purpose. Horgan replied that he was writing a two-page profile about Chandrasekhar and his project.

“What!” the Nobel laureate hollered, ordering Horgan out. “You think that you can summarize Homer’s Odyssey in two pages? You think that you can write about the Sistine Chapel in two pages?” Horgan laughed nervously, wondering if this was a joke. It was not. Chandrasekhar again demanded he leave.

A University of Chicago public-relations aide eventually coaxed Chandrasekhar to stop the bullying and go through with the interview – but afterwards Chandrasekhar insisted that Horgan should not print anything about their meeting. Horgan, within his rights, did so anyway, penning a delicate, toned-down description of the encounter.

Horgan’s book, The End of Science, is full of such stories.

Link via John Hawks

Gender equality in Carnatic music

October 23, 2009

Sriram Venkatkrishnan has a nice piece in the Hindu:

Within a year, Nagarathnamma was to discover that she, and other women, would not be allowed to participate in the Tyagaraja Aradhana, then considered a male preserve. There began a battle for equality, with a separate women-only Aradhana being conducted at the rear of the Samadhi. As was to be expected, this festival conducted by the women outshone the rival events conducted by others. In 1940, everyone saw the light of day and the warring factions were united in their worship of Tyagaraja. The festival then took on its present dimensions.

What is interesting is however the role of women in ensuring a proper memorial to Tyagaraja. If Nagarathnamma showed the way and several Devadasis helped her in the women’s festival, the silver vessels used for worship came courtesy Padmasini Bai, a leading Harikatha artist. The electrification of the Samadhi was done in 1962 thanks to Kolar Rajam, consort of Palani Subramania Pillai. This was of course long after Nagarathnamma’s death, but she would have been pleased. For years, flowers for worship would come from Ammapettai Chellam Ammal, yet another hereditary artist. The inscribing of Tyagaraja kritis in marble slabs was envisioned and implemented by Srirangam Sundaram Iyer with donations and help from several people. But a survey of the slabs will show the contributions from M.S. Subbulakshmi.

Breaking the bastion

There remained the question of women’s participation in the unchavriti. This was a men- only-affair and that too performed by the most orthodox. Nagarathnamma had shown that women could participate in it indirectly, for she sponsored her own team of male bhagavatars who went around Tiruvaiyyaru and participated in the symbolic collection of alms. But still it was an event in which only men could participate.

Then during an Aradhana, many years after Nagarathnamma’s passing, three women came forward and broke the last bastion most musically. As the procession wound its way down Tiruvayyaru’s narrow lanes, Brinda, Muktha and M.S. Subbulakshmi joined the singing and walked with the group.

After so many years, it is impossible to fathom whether this was a premeditated move on the part of the trio or whether it was done on the spur of the moment. Presumably it had the backing of T. Sadasivam, MS’s husband who would have anyway loved challenging established taboos. And so they joined in and sang along. Not one voice of protest was heard. And so it became an accepted aspect of the Tyagaraja Aradhana. The spirit of Nagarathnamma lives on.

In a field where even now it is not uncommon to hear male singers refusing women accompanists and even worse, women singers refusing accompanists of their own gender, such stories are heart-warming and indicate that gender equality in Carnatic music, though not yet fully achieved, is definitely a success story.

FFT faster than FFTW

October 21, 2009

Frigo and Johnson’s FFTW is a software that I have used extensively and continue to use. Today I learnt of another FFT that is faster than that of FFTW (pdf):

My djbfft software at computes power-of-2 discrete Fourier transforms at extremely high speeds. It’s several times fasterthan a typical “optimized” FFT library. It’s even faster than the Frigo-Johnson “Fastest Fourier Transform in the West.”

I got the link to the pdf file from Aaron Shwartz’s post (which, by the way, has some very nice quotes) which I reached thanks to Abi‘s sharing of a link at Google Reader.

The broom of Ockham

October 20, 2009

Although it is increasingly difficult to gauge what people can be expected to know, it is probably safe to assume that most readers are familiar with Ockham’s razor – roughly, the principle whereby gratuitous suppositions are shaved from the interpretation of facts – enunciated by a Franciscan monk, William of Ockham, in the fourteenth century. Ockham’s broom is a somewhat more recent conceit, attributable to Sydney Brenner, and embodies the principle whereby inconvenient facts are swept under the carpet in the interests of a clear interpretation of a messy reality. (Or, some – possibly including Sydney Brenner – might say, in order to generate a publishable paper.)

In due course, the edge of the carpet must be lifted and the untidy reality confronted, and in this issue of Journal of Biology we are launching an occasional series of Opinions in which contributors inspect the sweepings and discuss their implications.

Thus begins an editorial of Miranda Robertson in the Journal of Biology
. A nice concept that is worthy of emulation by other journals too!

Good conversations with insightful colleagues, expert attention and all that

October 16, 2009

I found this nice blog of Michael Nielsen thanks to a pointer from MR. One of the pieces of Nielsen that I am reading and enjoying lot is the one about doing science online. Nielsen talks in the piece about the necessity of discussions with insightful colleagues:

As all of us know, when you’re working on a problem, a good conversation with an insightful colleague may be worth as much (and sometimes more) than reading the classic papers.

Nielsen also has some interesting things to say about how internet is and can influence the way science is done:

I’ve started this talk by discussing blogs because they are familiar to most people. But ideas about doing science in the open, online, have been developed far more systematically by people who are explicitly doing open notebook science. People such as Garrett Lisi are using mathematical wikis to develop their thinking online; Garrett has referred to the site as “my brain online”. People such as chemists Jean-Claude Bradley and Cameron Neylon are doing experiments in the open, immediately posting their results for all to see. They’re developing ideas like lab equipment that posts data in real time, posting data in formats that are machine-readable, enabling data mining, automated inference, and other additional services.

Stepping back, what tools like blogs, open notebooks and their descendants enable is filtered access to new sources of information, and to new conversation. The net result is a restructuring of expert attention. This is important because expert attention is the ultimate scarce resource in scientific research, and the more efficiently it can be allocated, the faster science can progress.

How many times have you been obstructed in your research by the need to prove or disprove a small result that is a little outside your core expertise, and so would take you days or weeks, but which you know, of a certainty, the right person could resolve in minutes, if only you knew who that person was, and could easily get their attention. This may sound like a fantasy, but if you’ve worked on the right open source software projects, you’ll know that this is exactly what happens in those projects – discussion forums for open source projects often have a constant flow of messages posing what seem like tough problems; quite commonly, someone with a great comparative advantage quickly posts a clever way to solve the problem.

If new online tools offer us the opportunity to restructure expert attention, then how exactly might it be restructured? One of the things we’ve learnt from economics is that markets can be remarkably effective ways of efficiently allocating scarce resources. I’ll talk now about an interesting market in expert attention that has been set up by a company named InnoCentive.

There is much, much more in the piece. Take a look!

Tail went — Knife came – Dum Dum Dum

October 15, 2009

வாலு போச்சி கதஂதி வந்தது டும்டும்டும் was one of our favourite stories from our grandma. Nicholas Carr describes a similar situation in the communications industry:

After email took hold in offices, you always had a few doofus laggards who continued to rely on the phone and voicemail. They were widely despised: synchronous dinosaurs lumbering through the pleasant pastures of asynchronous Internet communication.But email also did something else, the consequences of which we didn’t fully foresee. It dramatically reduced the transaction costs of personal communication. You had to think at least a little bit before placing a phone call, not just because it might cost you a few cents but because you knew you were going to interrupt the other person. Is this really necessary, or can it wait? Email removed that calculation from the equation. Everything was worth an email. (As direct marketers and spammers also soon discovered.) And there was the wonderful CC field and the even more wonderful Reply All button. Broadcasting, cumbersome with the phone, became easy with email.

Goodbye voicemail hell. Welcome to email hell.

Blaming it all on the bosons — Higgs, that is

October 15, 2009

Clearly, the universe itself must have decided last month that this blog was so abhorrent to it, it would employ quantum post selection effects to force me to procrastinate whenever I would otherwise have posted something.  An obvious corollary is that, if I do manage to post something nevertheless, it will bring about the immediate end of the universe.

From here; there has also been quite a bit of non-activity in this blog also in recent times; just saying.

A commentary on Chemistry Nobel 2009

October 15, 2009

Dr. D Balasubramanian in the Hindu.

Quantum coherence and photosynethsis

October 14, 2009

An interesting paper:

Theoretical examination of quantum coherence in a photosynthetic system at physiological temperature

A Ishizaki and G R Fleming

The observation of long-lived electronic coherence in a photosynthetic pigment–protein complex, the Fenna–Matthews–Olson (FMO) complex, is suggestive that quantum coherence might play a significant role in achieving the remarkable efficiency of photosynthetic electronic energy transfer (EET), although the data were acquired at cryogenic temperature [Engel GS, et al. (2007) Evidence for wavelike energy transfer through quantum coherence in photosynthetic systems. Nature 446:782–786]. In this paper, the spatial and temporal dynamics of EET through the FMO complex at physiological temperature are investigated theoretically. The numerical results reveal that quantum wave-like motion persists for several hundred femtoseconds even at physiological temperature, and suggest that the FMO complex may work as a rectifier for unidirectional energy flow from the peripheral light-harvesting antenna to the reaction center complex by taking advantage of quantum coherence and the energy landscape of pigments tuned by the protein scaffold. A potential role of quantum coherence is to overcome local energetic traps and aid efficient trapping of electronic energy by the pigments facing the reaction center complex.

Here is a commentary on the paper:

Some quantum weirdness in physiology

P G Wolynes

Quantum mechanics seems alien to physiology. Alarm bells go off in our heads when we hear even people of such genius as Sir Roger Penrose (1) invoke the weird coherence of quantum mechanical wave functions to explain biological function. Of course, it is only some of the “weirder” parts of quantum mechanics that bother us. Structural biochemistry is founded on the rigid geometrical relationships involved in chemical bonding that arise from quantum mechanics; the α-helix could only have been discovered by Pauling by acknowledging the power of quantum mechanical resonance to flatten the peptide bonding unit (2). Nevertheless, most modern biomolecular scientists view quantum mechanics much as deists view their God; it merely sets the stage for action and then classically understandable, largely deterministic, pictures take over. In this issue of PNAS Ishizaki and Fleming (3), by combining experimental and theoretical investigations, demonstrate that quantum coherence effects play a big role in light energy transport in photosynthetic green sulfur bacteria under physiological conditions. Quantum coherence allows a nonclassical simultaneous exploration of many paths of energy flow through the many chromophores of a light-harvesting complex, thereby significantly increasing the efficiency of the energy capture process, presumably helping the bacteria to survive in low light.

HowTo: do audacious science

October 12, 2009

Here are some pointers; link via Zapperz.