Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

A not so thoughtful piece!

July 3, 2018

In today’s Mint, Siddharth Pai has a piece titled “Time to stem the ‘corruption’ in scientific studies”. I am disappointed with the piece.

In the first place, the following claim is wrong:

Journal editors, who oversee peer-reviewed journals, are supposed to send submissions to some of the author’s peers, usually to test whether the claims the author is making can be replicated by the reviewers independently in their own laboratories.

I do not see how any reviewer can replicate studies which take lots of time, effort and equipment. If this indeed is the case, I will write grant proposals to replicate the papers that I review.

I also find the following claim problematic at several levels:

Interestingly enough, one does not see this anomaly in the technology world and in some areas of the life sciences, like pharmaceutical research. The reason is simple. Businesses directly invest in research only if they see the potential of economic returns from it. Pharma companies spend billions on research and development and, after they have a successful drug, many more millions on promoting it—partly by sponsoring research papers that doctors will read. All this spend is transparent. In other words, the fact that profit is the motive is always clear, and the market ends up being the final arbiter of whether a new technology or a new drug is a money spinner.

If market dictates drug research completely, more money might be spent on problems of the rich (such as cosmetics and aging, for example). In addition, many technologies that we see today is an off-shoot of independent research which was carried out without explicit market concerns — even in industrial setting such as the Bell labs for example.

Finally, I see this towards the end of the piece:

We would be a lot better off if we stated the profit motive from the get-go and allowed the economics of the market to guide where research money is spent.

I realize this is not a black and white discussion. Nonetheless, taking a polarized position allows for debate. …

I do not see what useful discussion can stem from such a lazy piece which seems to take a polarized position just for the heck of it while twisting facts and offering incorrect analysis along the way!



Condensed Matter / Nano

March 1, 2017

Primer from Doug Natelson: worth bookmarking!

Venky Ramakrishnan on high-impact vanity journals

January 15, 2017

On the other end is the pressure to publish in Science, Nature and Cell, what I call ‘high-impact vanity journals’. People are taking shortcuts to publish papers in these journals. So that’s also creating very bad pressures.

If you publish in a good, solid journal, if it is a nice piece of work it shouldn’t matter that it is not in some high-impact journals. It’s the failure of the system to evaluate the work rather than where it is published.

From the Hindu.


July 16, 2016

And avian eyes! A very nice piece about quasicrystals and random packing and how all these are related to the arrangment of colour sensitive cone cells in the eyes of birds. Extremely well written and strongly recommended.

Specialisation and innovation

February 19, 2015

A nice post (via Abi):

…specialization is highly efficient to optimize existing research programs, but it is counterproductive to the development of new ones. In the production line of a car, specialization allows to optimize every single move and every single screw. And yet, you’ll never arrive at a new model listening to people who do nothing all day than looking at their own screws. For new breakthroughs you need people who know a little about all the screws and their places and how they belong together. In that production line, the scientists active in public peer review are the ones who look around and say they don’t like their neighbor’s bolts. That doesn’t make for a new car, all right, but at least they do look around and they show that they care. The scientific community stands much to benefit from this care. We need them.

Clearly, we haven’t yet worked out a good procedure for how to deal with public peer review and with these nasty bloggers who won’t shut up. But there’s no going back. Public peer review is here to stay, so better get used to it.

Instrumental community of Cyrus C M Mody

January 29, 2012

When I started my PhD in mid-nineties, nano was the in-thing. I remember a reputed electron microscopist whose made a presentation, in which, he pointed out to a particular feature in a transmission electron micrograph and said “Previously, I used to call this a particle; nowadays, we call it a nanoparticle”. That pretty much summed up our attitude towards nano too. Many of us felt that nano was all hype and that there was nothing exciting or intellectually challenging in nano (I do have a friend who calls his blog nono-science!).

A few years into my PhD, I did get exposed to two new viewpoints on nano. One point of view, given by a reputed researcher in nano area, is that nano is a good pedagogical tool which can be used in training a new researcher in materials science and engineering to understand some of the fundamental concepts of materials science; this is because, many a processes and properties of materials, which are generally not considered as important in the typical length scales become important in nano-scale making it an interesting and useful area of study. The other was that nano has some uses in military and medical sciences because these are two areas in which other considerations override cost considerations; otherwise, in actual engineering practice, one might never use nanomaterials at all. Both these points of view are still true to some extent.

Reading Cyrus C M Mody’s Instrumental community: probe microscopy and the path to nanotechnology has given another view point on nano. The first is that nano was a response to “perceived declines in the disciplines”:

Over time, many surface scientists came to believe that nanotechnology provided the best way for them to revive or transform their discipline while retaining much of their knowledge base. As Jun Nagomi puts it

strictly classical surface structure determination is dead as a field. Or extremely mature, and not very fundable. So what I do now I can honestly bill as being related to nanotechnology. But when you look at the actual kinds of materials I’m working with, I’m still working with metals and I’m still working with semiconductors.

The other is that the decline in industrial funding is the reason why nano became popular:

Usually, though, governments created new academic nanotechnology institutions to occupy the niche once held by the big corporate labs. As Jim Murdy puts is

Bell labs is just a shadow of what it once was, and IBM has had to scale back much of its operation as well. So they are not the dominant force they used to be globally across surface science or nano….If they go away, we still have very good people, they just tend to be more in the universities than in an industrial lab. Universities have different strengths. They generally have a harder time getting good equipment. An industrial lab had stuff universities drool over….  That in some sense what IBM and Bell labs did–they brought a bunch of very good people abd put them in a central location at the same lab and equipped them well. To an extent that’s what the [National Nanotechnology] centers are meant to do at the universities.

Finally, Mody also makes the most interesting point about the identification of probe microscopy with nanotechnology and the reasons for it: the short answer — interdisciplinarity.

What is nice about Mody’s book is that he makes these points convincingly and in an extremely readable book. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. If you like anthropology or history of science or science and technology or any combinations thereof, this is the book to read. I strongly recommend it.

One more bonus thing that I learnt from the book is the philosophy of Prof. Virgil Elings on the need for and teaching of instrumentation. As the following quotes indicate they are quite provocative and interesting:

One lesson from the master’s program that Elings carried into DI was that “the areas that students had done undergraduate work in made little difference in their ability to design instruments. Any deficiency, except of knowledge of math, could be repaired by some reading and talking with other students. All those esoteric courses made little difference.”

The MSI program was clearly quite different from a traditional academic degree program. It was, for some students, ” a rude awakening from the spoon-feeding of most undergraduate experiences.”

Elings became convinced that formal academic pedagogy was counterproductive: “[S]chools at all levels, practically down to kindergarten, do almost nothing to foster innovation and invention….[A]cademia can afford to spend some time on innovation since, in my opinion, a lot of what is done now is a waste of time.”

Have fun!

Science for public consumption

October 3, 2011

John Hawks’ post is worth quoting in its entirety:

Christie Wilcox makes a case that every lab should be doing science outreach on social media: “Social media for scientists Part 1: It’s our job, and Part 2: You do have time. Her rationale is worth spreading:

Yes, part of the solution to this problem is to invest in better education. But even assuming we do that, we are ignoring the millions of Americans who are no longer in school. We can make the next generation more scientifically literate, but we have to consider the current generations, too. Adults over age of 35 never learned about stem cells, nanotechnology or climate change in school, so they depend on the media to learn what they need to know. These are the people who vote. They are the ones whose taxes pay for scientific funding. We need to reach out to them, and to do that we need their trust.

I’m not sure social media are necessarily the best way for most labs to make an impact on the public. You may do better working with other institutions, or by going into a collective with other labs. I know that one great way to increase your lab’s profile is to get your department or program to set up a group blog, where the lab’s home page is one contributor along with other labs. Two new posts a month, as Wilcox suggests, is a good start for a single lab but won’t drive much interest; weekly or biweekly posts by a group of five labs would build much more attention.

I also came across to a book review for Randy Olson’s Don’s be such a scientist which talks about writing science for public:

I’ve just finished Randy Olson’s “Don’t be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an age of style” (after loving his article in New Scientist, “Top five tips for communicating science “). Olson is a marine biologist turned filmmaker, so knows the world of science from the inside, and from the outside perspective.This book is 75% solid gold – absolutely essential perspective for scientists who want to communicate outside of their specialism. But it is also 25% misleading and elitistic simplification. At heart, Randy Olson’s message as a populariser ends up pandering to a mistaken belief in scientific exceptionalism – that what scientists do and who scientists are is so beyond the ken of the rest of the population that it cannot be conveyed to them, that we have to use a pound of silly songs and fart jokes to make the public to swallow an ounce of important information. Sorry, Randy, but when you underestimate the public taste you end up demeaning it.

Take a look!

Trusting experts: the social and natural sciences divide

September 14, 2011

Sean at Cosmic Variance:

Over on the Google+, Robin Hanson asks a leading question:

Explain why people shouldn’t try to form their own physics opinions, but instead accept the judgements of expert physicists, but they should try to form their own opinions on economic policy, and not just accept expert opinion there.

(I suspect the thing he wants me to explain is not something he thinks is actually true.)

I am a strong believer that good reasons, arguments, and evidence are what matter, not credentials. So the short answer to “when should we trust an expert simply because they are an expert?” is “never.” We should always ask for reasons before we place trust. Hannes Alfvén was a respected Nobel-prizewinning physicist; but his ideas about cosmology were completely loopy, and there was no reason for anyone to trust them. An interested outsider might verify that essentially no working cosmologists bought into his model.

But a “good reason” might reasonably take the form “look, this is very complicated and would take pages of math to make explicit, but you see that I’ve been doing this for a long time and have the respect of my peer group, which has a long track record of being right about these issues, so I’m asking you to go along this time.” In the real world we don’t have anything like the time and resources to become experts in every interesting field, so some degree of trust is simply necessary. When deciding where to place that trust, we rely on a number of factors, mostly involving the track record of the group to which the purported expert belongs, if not the individual experts themselves.

So my advice to economists who want more respect from the outside world would be: make it much more clear to the non-expert public that you have a reliable, agreed-upon set of non-obvious discoveries that your field has made about the world. People have tried to lay out such discoveries, of course — but upon closer inspection they don’t quite measure up to Newton’s Laws in terms of reliability and usefulness.

However, the recent talk by Sharachchandra Lele (and several discussions with another colleague about astronomical evidence for/against Aryan Invasion Theory) has convinced me that Natural scientists are equally unreliable if it comes to things in which value judgement is involved. So, anywhere, anything with even remote human interest is involved, one has to make one’s own decisions and not rely on expert opinions! It just so happens that in the case of things like Newton’s law, it is the engineering that is based on these laws that convince people to believe in them — at least for the majority!

What kind of person can science make you?

March 8, 2011

John Hawks quotes Lena Groeger:

And that’s the value to the person — the habits, the values, the character that a person develops by actually doing science. The ability to think critically, exchange ideas, imagine alternatives, ask questions, invent new possible worlds and go on speculative adventures, present reasoned arguments and retain a healthy dose of skepticism and doubt; these are all deeply scientific and deeply formative values. You become a different person with scientific training, and we do science because we value that kind of person. Science is not only bridge-building (usefulness and technology driven) and knowledge-building (adding to the pile of facts we know about reality) it is also people, character, and citizen-building.

Aye! Aye!

Happy National Science Day

February 28, 2011

Happy national science day to the readers of this blog.

Since we celebrate the national science day on the day of the discovery of Raman effect, here is some writings of Raman to dip into. His popular articles from magazines and newspapers like Hindu are great read, by the way.

For science to become a way of life, politics is essential. We owe the current scientific progress in India, partly at least, to enlightened politicians who decided to make science as the basis of their politics:

Our politics must either be those of magic or of
science. The former of course requires no argument or
logic; the latter is in theory at least entirely based on
clarity of thought and reasoning and has no room for
vague idealistic or religious or sentimental processes which
confuse and befog the mind. Personally I have no faith
in or use for the ways of magic and religion and I can
only consider the question on scientific grounds.

That is Jawaharlal Nehru; so, it is time to read some of those pioneers also.

By the way, I found that Gandhi could be contrarian and thought-provoking when it comes to discussions on science based politics. Reading Gandhi to see how far one agrees with him or how one may refute his arguments can be quite challenging and fun.  Personally, I found that I neither agree with Nehruvian science policies nor with Gandhian — completely and unequivocally; personally, I have come to the conclusion that we have to have Nehru’s scientific temperement — to make progress, but be tempered by Gandhi’s admonitions to keep us on track for such a progress to be sustainable.

Finally. here is a video of an interview with Feynman to watch, wherein he talks about taking the world from another point of view. In this interview, he tells about the kind of people with whom he finds he can have an useful conversation (about 1.40 minutes into the video). After fumbling a bit (and that is great to see how he fumbles and recovers from the fumble, by the way), Feynman calls some people as deep — those who have stretched themselves to the maximum thinking about some stuff so deeply that they have reached mysteries on all sides of their understanding; Feynman says that talking with them gives him the thrills. And, for me, science is one of the areas where such deep thinking is fairly easily available — to anybody who puts in a bit of effort. So, this science day, do also spend time browsing through some of these videos in YouTube and wonder about the things that you have taken for granted till now.

Have fun — that is what science is all about in the end!!