Saturday, September 8, 2012

Things to Read, 8th September

I have been neglecting this series over the summer, so there are rather a lot of things to highlight today.

Science items:
  • The most interesting piece of physics news over the last few months has been that the wealthy Russian investor and physics fan, Yuri Milner, decided to award a 'Fundamental Physics Prize' to 9 theorists he chose himself. The amount of the award is a staggering $3 million each, wired overnight into the physicist's bank accounts — as many people have pointed out, this makes the prize worth far far more than the Nobel Prize. Suddenly being a physicist almost appears to be a lucrative career choice. The lucky physicists were Nima Arkani-Hamed, Alan Guth, Alexei Kitaev, Maxim Kontsevich, Andrei Linde, Juan Maldacena, Nathan Seiberg, Ashoke Sen and Ed Witten. All big names in theoretical physics.
  • Unsurprisingly, the award of this prize generated a lot of debate. For one thing, it is a huge amount of money. For another, the prizes were awarded basically on the whim of one man, who is not a physicist himself. But perhaps the most controversial thing was reported in the New York Times:
    Unlike the Nobel in physics, the Fundamental Physics Prize can be awarded to scientists whose ideas have not yet been verified by experiments, which often occurs decades later.
    This was picked up on by Peter Woit, who is of course well-known for his dislike of some of the work on string theory that the said physicists are famous for, and was highly critical of the prize, including in an article for an Italian newspaper (English transcript from his blog). I guess most physicists would share his unease with the prize, if perhaps not with string theory itself. It was quite amusing to read Matt Strassler finding himself in a position of agreement with Woit but managing to attack him nevertheless (I get the feeling he really dislikes Woit).
  • Motivated by this discussion, Strassler did put up a very interesting and nuanced personal defence of string theory. Whether you have an opinion on 'The String Wars' or not, you will probably have heard strong criticisms of string theory. This piece will provide some balance.
  • Among the other worthwhile physics discussions were two guest posts at Cosmic Variance: by Terry Rudolph and Douglas Finkbeiner. Both discuss recent research work (in quantum mechanics and searches for dark matter, respectively) and both include interesting little insights into the world of academic publishing.
  • Outside physics, I saw a piece by Dr. Dave Hone in the Guardian science section that includes the lines:
    [...] we have dinosaurs everywhere around us. We have dinosaurs nesting in trees in our gardens, tiny dinosaurs that can hover and fly backwards and feed on nectar, aquatic dinosaurs that live in Antarctica. There are dinosaurs that we eat, we have dinosaurs that can circle the globe without landing, intelligent and puzzle-solving dinosaurs, tall and flightless dinosaurs that can sprint at over 40 miles and hour, and brightly coloured and beautiful dinosaurs almost too numerous to mention.
Other items:
  • Of course the big news over the summer has been the Olympics. It's been impossible to miss the outpourings of national pride in British newspapers at Team GB's medal tally and I have heard also of despondency in countries such as Russia and Australia. But what is the benefit to a nation from this arms race for medals? This was discussed, rather provocatively perhaps given the timing, by Ian Johnson in the New York Review of Books
  • There's been a lot of discussion in the US about the Republican presidential ticket, and in the UK about the dire state of the national economy, now in a longer slump than during the Great Depression. Paul Krugman made the obvious connection, and labelled Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne "Britain's Paul Ryan." That post includes a graph that should be shown to everyone who still believes austerity in the recession is the answer to anything:

    One could forgive Krugman for feeling rather frustrated (and perhaps a little smug), because this is pretty much exactly what he predicted back in 2010:
    The British government’s plan is bold, say the pundits — and so it is. But it boldly goes in exactly the wrong direction.
    See also here.
  • Of course some people might remember the 20 "leading economists" who wrote an open letter to The Sunday Times supporting George Osborne's fiscal plans back before the 2010 election. Well, some time ago the New Statesman had the bright idea to go back and ask them if they still stuck by their advice: 9 of the 20 had changed their minds, 10 refused to comment, and only one still agreed with himself.
  • You might wonder what a poor politician is to do: if you have only a degree in History and an ideology as substitutes for genuine competence, you naturally rely on the advice of professional macroeconomists. But when the economists disagree with each other, which ones should you listen to? Jonathan Portes had a post laying out some sensible criteria for judging who to take seriously. Unsurprisingly, people like Krugman, Simon Wren-Lewis and Martin Wolf passed the test, but none of the Sunday Times economists did. Portes notes that not all those who pass his test always agree with each other — but he still always takes them seriously.
  • The New York Review of Books carries a review of two books on the current global and American economic mess by Paul Krugman (End This Depression Now!) and Joseph Stiglitz (The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future). What particularly interested me here was learning just how radical Stiglitz appears to be.
  • Incidentally, for those who were interested in the Niall Ferguson episode featured here, John Cassidy in the New Yorker has a longer look at the arguments, and comes to the same conclusions: Ferguson is a lightweight who is being repeatedly knocked to the canvas, and this "isn't a fair fight".
  • And finally, since I'd like to end on an uplifting note, here's a video to cheer us all up.


  1. With regard to the first item, I say the more prizes the better, as long as they are a) given to real scientists and b) by a person or organization genuinely interested in promoting science (this rules out the Templeton foundation). Yes, more money than the Nobel Prize, but money is not the only reason that the Nobel Prize has a good reputation. In fact, the Templeton Prize is intentionally worth more than the Nobel Prize, but that has not made it more reputable. (Actually, the Nobel Foundation recently decided to decrease the prizes by about 10%.)

    One man? Not a physicist? Where's the problem? Other rich people buy solid gold toilet seats.

    The Nobel Prize is often criticized for being too conservative. While I don't share this, I think the idea for a prize which also goes to unproven theories or whatever is a good addition. We don't know if inflation occurred, but the idea has been extremely productive and generated a huge amount of good physics, so I think it's fine that Alan got a prize.

  2. There's a long and nuanced discussion to be had about the pros and cons of these prizes. I'll restrict myself only to the points you brought up, and ask a few questions in return:

    Firstly, do you agree that the targeted injection of large sums of money to support particular research aims can have an effect on the general direction of growth of that field? If yes, then how do you judge which person or organisation injecting this money is "genuinely interested in promoting science" and which isn't? Does it not come down to a question of the scientific merit of the thing being promoted? And would you agree that judgements of scientific merit should best be made by working scientists?

    On a different note, do we judge the worth of scientific ideas only on the basis of how "productive" they are - which I take to mean how many subsequent papers they inspire? So for example if it were to turn out that inflation was shown to be observationally ruled out or theoretically inconsistent, would all that huge amount of "good physics" still be "good", or a waste of time? (I'm not expecting either of these to happen, of course.)

  3. With regard to your first question, I don't think (maybe I am wrong) that the main goal of the targeted injection is to have an effect on the general direction of growth in that field. Rather, I see it as a reward for people bold enough to go out on a limb, which might persuade other people, in a completely different field, to go out on a limb.

    With regard to your second question, it would definitely be good. Just because a theory itself is ruled out doesn't mean that it didn't generate other good stuff. The original work on nucleosynthesis in stars was motivated by the fact that it was required to make elements in the steady-state model. That model was ruled out, but it inspired good research. (The original idea that all elements could be made in the big bang also turned out to be wrong.) I'm sure there are many more examples. In fact, in many ways the steady-state theory was a good theory, because it made clear and testable predictions.

    1. Further to the first question: It certainly wasn't necessary to give Guth the prize in order to stimulate work on inflation!

    2. I didn't suggest that the goal of the prize was to affect the direction of growth. It may be or it may not; but the important question is surely whether it actually does affect it or not, irrespective of intentions.

      I understand the point you are getting at in the second instance, but would you argue that the understanding of nucleosynthesis in stars means that the proponents of the steady-state cosmology should have been given a prize bigger than the Nobel?

    3. If anything, giving someone a hefty prize might cause others not to work in this field. -:) I think it depends. In the case of inflation, so many people are working on it already that I doubt the prize would have any effect. But if it is given for something obscure where there is more work to be done, then it might stimulate something. I don't think this is very relevant, though.

      Interesting take on my second point. The way you phrase it, the answer is "no". :-) However, there are other examples as well. Jim Peebles, for instance, has often come up with various cosmological scenarios outside of the mainstream. I don't think he really believed in them, but he was more of a devil's advocate. Disproving them actually improved the standard model. I think this is a good thing so, if he put enough effort into it, then why not give him a prize? I think the amount of money is a red herring. The Templeton Prize, for instance, is intentionally more money than the Nobel Prize. However, that doesn't make it better. The Nobel committee actually recently decreased the value of the prizes. I don't think that that will decrease their prestige, though.