Feb 27, 2012

Academics should be blogging? No.

"blogging is quite simply, one of the most important things that an academic should be doing right now" The London School of Economics and Political Science states in one of their, yes, Blogs.
It is wrong.
The arguments just seem so right: "faster communication of scientific results", "rapid interaction with colleagues" "responsibility to give back results to the public".
All nice, all cuddly and warm, all good.
But wrong.
It might be true for scientoid babble. But this is not how science works.  Scientists usually follow scientific methods to obtain results. They devise, for example, experiments to measure a quantity while keeping the boundary-conditions in a defined range. They do discuss their aims, problems, techniques, preliminary results with colleagues - they talk about deviations and errors, successes and failures. But they don't do that wikipedia-style by asking anybody for an opinion. Scientific discussion needs a set of non-negotiable attributes: there has to be competence, trust and reputation. That's one reason why scientists meet at conferences. You need to know whom you are talking to. You have to be sure you can talk freely about difficulties without spilling them out into the public. You need to know the competencies of your colleague - her strengths and weaknesses.
Science is not just opening the doors for input and flooding the public with data. Science simply does not work that way.
Patrick Dunleavy and Chris Gilson complain in that blog that scientific discussions happen "in language where you need to look up every second word in Wikipedia". Dear! You can not look up scientific language in Wikipedia. Look, the language of physics is in large parts: mathematics. And it is so not to exclude Justin Bieber fans from tweeting about it - science uses language-extensions to express things that can not be talked about in everyday language.

"Twitter is a huge supplementary help, in forcing academics to communicate key messages in 140 characters!" Between scientists? What a terrible idea! This does nothing more than reducing the complicated and complex findings of research to flashy, glittery nonsense. We have that all the time: a group of physicists does experiments with single atoms close to absolute temperature to check on a principal law of physics. What does the public-relations guy demand? At the end there has to be a sentence about the relevance of that research for the computers of tomorrow. The relevance is zero.
The public is not stupid. It is simply not true that they want to have *anything* back - as long as it is entertaining. Look at the nobel-prizes for physics of the last 100 years. All that basic research stuff on x-rays, electromagnetic waves, semiconductors.... Nobody would have tried to dumb that down to some catchy 140 character nonsense that 'the person on the street' understands or feels good about. It took decades - many decades - to be relevant to the public. But then it had the most impressive impact. What multi-billion dollar markets all that became! Again: x-rays, electromagnetic waves, semiconductors.
Ok, the authors of that 'five minutes with...' blogpost speak for social sciences. But I am certain social scientists disagree as well.
It is good policy, of course, to think about dissemination of scientific results to the broader public - and any media is good for that. But there certainly is no need for extreme speed or extreme brevity. The findings have to be translated for non-scientists, sure. But we all are aware that the amount of  truth and relevance that get's lost in that process has to be kept at a minimum.
Science-communication has to be done by professional science-communicators. They live at the interface between public and science. They are translators. In no way is blogging "one of the most important things that an academic should be doing right now".

Feb 24, 2012

Understanding is an evolutionary advantage

Already in the 30's of the last century it was observed that an injured fish can trigger a fright-reaction in the members of his school.
Nobody really understood why or how this was communicated but it was speculated that some substance must be released that instills fear in others. That substance was adequately called "Schreckstoff" (german for 'fear-stuff'). And, indeed, injecting skin-samples of an injured fish (well, how could he then *not* be injured?) into water, scared the §$%* out of the otherwise relaxed co-fishes.
Up to now the chemistry behind that reaction was unclear.
Suresh Jesuthasan of the National University of Singapore and coworkers have isolated one component (the glycosaminoglycan (GAG) chondroitin) from Zebrafish that turns out to be important as messenger . While the evolutionary advantage of Schreckstoff for the survival of the school is obvious (run!) the fate of the injured fish is sealed when he is left alone - showing that evolution developed the use of this warning-signal on the receiver-side, while the agent is possibly released unvoluntarily and aimlessly by the prey. This is consistent with observations that predators are attracted by the same substance that is triggering fear in others.
In the meantime proponents of a commercial view on science already discuss how this substance can be used to keep unwanted fish away from the farm or to attract others - but  it is quite fortunate that you just asked what that has to do with Brad and Angelina. Well, you go and figure out!

(for the faint-hearted readers: Suresh Jesuthasan also researched what mechanisms are involved when that scared bunch of  Zebrafish calms down again - envisioning new medication for fear-reduction. Anyone speculating that the military might have a benevolent eye on that type of research?)

Feb 14, 2012

If Brad Pitt is a Zebrafish then Angelina Jolie is not

Two Zebrafish on a date.
Foto from IGB, Eva-Maria Cyr
You are probably not among those who subscribe to the newsletter of the "Leibniz-Institute for Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries" (IGB) - but you probably should. Their recent press-release (in german) is a real eye-opener - it has potential to completely change my bar-life.
Scientists at IGB devised an experiment code-named wedding-planner in which they check which male Zebrafish get's lucky on a date.
The result is nothing short of stunning.
If the girl-fish gets to chose between a number of differently attractive guys she does not go for the most attractive stud but the second-best looking. Reproducibly.
The reason is, they found in a monogamous setup, that the super-guy tends to bully the female zebralette into submission, which kind of spoils the party. Quite reminiscent of what we observe amongst humanoids. Too bad that neither Zebrafish nor those brawny bar-peacocks have enough brains to read and understand the study.
(Since Brangelina are here in Berlin right now during Berlinale I might get a chance to check for fishlike features of that supernatural couple again - maybe it is not Brad, who is the fish.)

Feb 9, 2012

The software that will earn you admiration, gratitude, and real money

Electronic media once seemed destined to reduce the use of paper. This certainly environmentally attractive idea is proven wrong daily in any office or home trash-bin. It simply doesn't work. We seem to need the paper. This impression of paper-crave is backed-up by studies that show an ever-increasing paper-production (and accordingly -consumption).
We are doing ok reading a book on kindle, pad or laptop. It is fine for the subway ride to work. It works for leisurely reading a finished text. But if you have to thumb through a financial report of your institution or the first draft of a thesis of one of your students, you want to have it printed out. On paper. You rummage for a pencil.
We need the haptic of paper, we want to spread the sheets all over the table, jump from page to page, change the order, scribble,…
Why can't we stop printing what we see on our screens? Correcting, annotating, highlighting seems just more natural when done with pencil on a sheet. The ever-increasing number of document-modification software that allows for quite nifty scribbles and conversions on your screen-displayed documents is nice but it has not significantly reduced the urge to print.
Ok, so we print.
Once printed we scribble on our documents and then what? The stuff has to get back into our files. Some hand it to the secretary to deal with it, others scan, convert, retype… this is not, well, ergonomic - to say the least (it is outright annoying).
One application will pop up soon - if anybody just codes it. I still wonder why it is not on the market yet. People would kill to get it!
As I don't find time or skill to code it myself I just give the idea away and hope for the best (if one of you wants to write that software, and is able to do it, contact me - we will work something out along the line of: just mention me favorably and give me a free copy, willya?).
You've heard of the input-device that traces what you write with a propped-up pencil on conventional paper and allows you to import it into standard graphics-software (Wacom is promising to have the so-called Inkling out in March)? It uses some infrared and ultrasound sensor that you clip to your paper-notepad. So when you write on that paper you end up with two versions of your scribbles: one conventional (ink on paper) and another, well, also conventional (bitmap, vector-graphic, jpg,… in your computer).
Why not combine that with your document-reader?
You read a manuscript (a pdf, maybe) on a screen-device. Then you decide to really work on it and print it out, because it just feels more natural to work on a paper-version. To that print-copy you clip the scribble-sensor, do some clicks to have orientation and size of the document right and then you start making your comments and alterations with real ink on real paper. What you do there, however, is recorded and transferred to the original file, creating a modified electronic copy. Either as hand-written annotation overlay to your pdf - or converted to text by some text-recognition software.
By moving to the archaic work style you retain all your creative energy from working on real paper and with the scribble-interface you skip the burden of transferring your work back to the electronic document. And your retro-boss, who still only reads emails when they are printed out, wouldn't even have to know that she is modifying the original word-file while she fiddles with the pen on paper. Thinking of it, she may even send the handwritten letter as email by ticking a box on her paper-form...

Feb 2, 2012

Justin Bieber falsely correlates with Influenza

Just now we got aware of a scientific paper by Aron Culotta (2010) evaluating data from The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Influenza Like Illnesses (ILI) and specific influenza-related keyphrases on twitter (flu, cough, headache, sore throat...). The correlation of twitter-based predictions of ILI-devlopment (after a training-phase to optimize the algorithm) with real data is amazing, giving proof to the concept of data-mining from social-media streams. While for a variety of analyzed phrases the results were comparably good, there is a word of caution from the authors These results show extremely strong correlations for all queries except for fever, which appears frequently in figurative phrases such as “I’ve got Bieber fever”.
Besides the beauty of the demonstrated algorithms the paper gives a helpful overview of fundamental literature in this young field.

Feb 1, 2012

Pasta - e basta!

As you keep asking: this is my pasta. Handmade by me.
Photographed by me. Eaten by me.
Let's forget what we just learned (it is the carbohydrates, not the fat that makes us (them) fat.
Wonderfully explained in the infographic of the day on fastcodesign).
Pasta is not bad for you at all!
The unrivaled Maria Popova from www.brainpickings.org just circulated a breathtaking review of 'Pasta by Design' - an extremely ambitious and obviously beautifully illustrated book analyzing with rigor the geometrical shapes of almost 100 different types of pasta.
(and I was proud of being able to identify eight!)
Most importantly it is stated already in the introduction that pasta is made of durum wheat flour and water. Pasta!, um, Basta! The designers would never even attempt to touch any of these egg-infested derivatives or supposedly ecological or healthy experiments with rye or spelt flour (yes, I had to look this one up).
To the trained cook and passionate gourmet it is clear that different shapes of pasta serve different purposes: the intake of sauce, the bite, the haptic ... all depends on the correct shape.
While the book then goes on to classify that amazing variety of noodles by following the science of phylogeny (building a family tree based on morphological similarities), the highlights are the mathematical descriptions of the individual species. Their simulation and graphic representation side by side with food stills of simple beauty.
To some the juxtaposition of mouthwatering food and scary mathematics might be too much to bear but some could get an inkling of what mathematics is doing when employed in natural sciences: far from claiming to accurately describe nature or to even break down nature into something cold and constructed, it illustrates the desire to find words for observations that go beyond "oh nice!", the sensation of mimicking nature. And maybe one or the other non-mathematician gets the flavor of what scientists are talking about when they describe a model or a theory as 'elegant', 'beautiful' - and thereby more probably 'true' than others.