Jun 27, 2016

Indicators of scientific excellence - where are they?

The discussion about reputation-metrics in science is dragging on. By now everybody knows the standard indicators (publications, impact-factor, citations,...), everybody uses them, everybody criticises them - and everybody ignores them if necessary. It has become a ritual to do metrics-bashing (while boasting about the own Hirsch-factor). Something has to happen. 
Now. 
(It won't.)
While researching new metrics can earn you a living, the output, quite frankly, can bore you to tears. The same folks that were unable to show how scientific excellence maps onto numbers, now open the floodgates. They  spread their concept of 'excellence by Excel' from research to knowledge-transfer to impact on society - expanding the food-chain to be tagged. 
Get real! 
What societal impact does a scientific result have? The discovery of superconductivity? Research on linguistics of micro-languages? Any result: societal impact? Good luck!

The science-community is feeling the grip of the bureaucrats while science-funding is following the mirage of 'efficiency'. It looks as if everybody is fooled into submission.You know the line: 'I believe it is crap but since everybody is doing it, so should we' - which is heard from scientists and bureaucrats alike. So they all play those 'boredgames'.
The science-bureaucrats are the ones who need some computable numbers to rank, judge, praise or dismiss science and scientists - because they so deeply mistrust the concept of science and the peer-review-system, it seems. How could they understand the predominant working principle of curiosity-driven self-exploitation that powers any real scientist?
Since many of them can't distinguish potatoes from horse-droppings, they need the science-landscape mapped to a score-sheet to create their impressive set of poo-charts - umm, pie-charts.

This age-old approach to reputation-metrics looks so impressingly objective. But it must not be mistaken: no matter what numbers they compile, the best ones are the fallout of a peer's opinion:
publications? - Referrees have seen the paper and commented on it
citations? - Scientists quote what they learned to be important and trustworthy
PhD-theses? - a number of scientists were involved over years

Reputation-metrics as we know them - the compilation of indicators - is nothing but the condensate of peer-review that scientists justifiably rely on and that bureaucrats are so scared of. 'Objectivity' is a sweet deception and honesty about that would be a good thing for a start.

Mar 3, 2016

Treehuggers stole my headline!

Last weekend I was reading about microbial fuel-cells that are able to convert sewage-waste to electrical energy (Nature). The authors' carefully phrased result ('Mutually complementary substrates may take advantage of substrate interaction in the cell metabolism, and generate a total effect greater than the sum of the individual contribution of single substrate for electricity generation.') will definitely be more streamlined for the 'dumb public' to 'make it more accessible' leading to something like 'energy-problem solved by using synergy'.
Want to bet? It will happen.
The researchers found that two different processes for the generation of electrical energy by microbial fuel-cells can interact synergetically - enhancing the efficiency (in terms of total Coulombs as well as conversion rate) above the added efficiency of both individual processes (as interesting as it is, I am always a bit nervous when looking at the error-bars. But that is only one of the cultural differences between physicists and fellows in life-sciences).
The guys at treehugger.com were so kind to condense the findings not only in a speed-readable text-snippet (which bears exactly the title I would have chosen for the work: 'Power from poo') but also in a video:

It is worth watching.

Feb 20, 2016

Feeling home is about locking doors

I don't do dinners - it would scare my last remaining friends away. I learned that it is only me who strongly believes in my cooking-skills (but hey, I think it's great food!).
How lucky I felt to be invited to a lovely get-together involving professionally prepared food recently. The host carefully arranged his guests at a number of tables, making sure that nobody sat close to anybody they knew. As he is really great with people it worked wonderfully and nobody froze in desperate silence with a featherbrained smile on her face.
Clamped between a huge greek-embassy-woman and a romantically active bundle consisting of an artist and her Argentinian Tango-wife I stared straight ahead and so got to listen to an architect I would have never met otherwise. He was as passionate about his job as the girls were about 'Tango' in its amazingly varied physical representations. It was clear that he was not interested in making money by simply arranging concrete around people.
He cared about the concept of 'feeling home' in a very general way. Central to 'home', he said, is the certainty of having protected spaces. When you build a house you build walls not only to support the roof, but to create quiet corners and private spots. A cellar, a workshop in the basement, some hidden reading-space in the attic, the safe-haven behind the fridge (for your cat, not you, silly!). That is why some of the amazing modern lofts look breathtakingly good on paper but you would never want to move in (and if you do, you get a speed-divorce).
In a house the protected spaces are marked by walls made of solid matter. But in a home there are additional lines and boundaries non-verbally negotiated between the residents. In an understanding environment they are lines of respect (my sofa, your armchair, her sunny spot in the living-room, his pile of newspapers on the floor...); in a hostile environment they are lines of fear. Some of those lines and boundaries can change frequently while others are rock steady. The better the social sensing of the partners the smoother and more natural the adaptation to the flow of the lines, their acceptance and allowed transgressions.
It is the sensing and quiet accepting of borders and closed or even locked spaces that is the big sign of trust and understanding that makes your house your home.
As if to prove the point this eery couple that kept an eye on one-another the whole evening, walked by, smiling their rehearsed smiles. Earlier they had proudly proclaimed that they were so close they even share one email-address. The architect would shiver at this screaming sign of mistrust.
I just stopped short of asking them if they had glas-walls around the loo. Maybe no. But I am sure there is no key.
They have no home.

Jan 24, 2016

The rude mechanic and the cat

I have a cat that is extremely catlike. Cuddly (whenever she wants to be), scratchy (whenever the world has been mean to her), smart (always), in need to be left alone (except when she needs not to be left alone).
When a dustball crosses her path in the wrong moment she gets totally flustered and scared and runs for cover. I know, there ought not to be any dustballs where she is. I should keep the place tidy anyway. Problem is: a vacuum-cleaner is worse than dustballs.
Life is not always easy.
So my friend hid behind the big fridge for over a week, only coming out at night to get some food and then disappearing again through that small gap between fridge and washing-machine. 
I started to get worried and tried to coerce her out of there. Great food didn't help. Sweet-talking led to nothing. Turning the lights off - or turning them on. Futile. She seemed to blame me for the dustball-scare. She was totally unforgiving and made me feel terrible.
One evening I talked with a colleague. He suggested to withhold food altogether. No water, no dead animals, no nothing. She would come out eventually. When I said that this sounded too cruel and would certainly ruin all trust of that little fur-ball and - knowing the cat - she would rather starve than give in, he just said: I am a neuro-scientist - I know what I am talking about! Those critters are a bunch of hard-wired neurons, they function like robots.
Well.
My cat certainly didn't. And, actually, robots don't.
There is this big not-understood mess of bio-matter which my brain-mechanic might allude to as 'hard-wired neurons'. But then there is the software that controls all that. It certainly is not as easily separable as in your chunky iPad-one (commonly known as 'the old iPad', thanks), it is an agglomerate of neurons, synapses, connections, currents, chemistry - you name it. But it is certainly wrong to claim that since the parts of the brain can be labelled, listed, and charted the whole system is understood or even that its function is superbly deterministic.
(How boring the world would be! Those scientists claiming to understand the world by reducing it to their latest model are probably simply too scared themselves to face reality. It is full of ill-understood stuff that might sometimes resemble dustballs.)
Does my Brain-Mechanic accept that his laptop has software running on it? If the word-document doesn't open properly, would he plug in the soldering-iron? If the cat does not behave as desired that means what? Call a neurosurgeon?
I tried cat-psychology.
It is tricky. But it worked. My cat got out from behind the fridge and we both cursed dustballs at length. What a wonderfully complex world we live in!