Nov 27, 2013

You want to eat your neighbour?

It sounds a bit cheesy - and it smells like it. As reported in Nature (vol 503, Nov 14, 2013), a bunch of science artists at the Dublin Science Gallery presents a cream-cheese that is prepared from milk and cultures from a persons skin. They don't expect you to eat that monster, though. The whole event is rather about life after nature - it is about manipulating biology, designing life-forms, hacking evolution. Not necessarily with the goal to entertain the fromage-conoisseur.
The Science Gallery is one of a few projects aiming at getting the excitement of science to the public, and doing so not by mashing up sci-fi talk with scientoid babble (the ubiquituous time-travel, worm-holes (not in cheese but in space-time, for once), and code-breaking quantum computing, topped off with mind-numbing what-if stories of the kind bigthink and their protagonist Michio Kaku like to sponsor). Instead they show off the excitement and the real emotions of a scientifically curious approach to the world. Shows like this aim at the high-end, widely awake cultural person. They are miles apart from the often patronizing endeavours of TV science-blunder that is decorated with the archetypical Mad Professor joking his way through a cartoonized science-world. Do you really wonder why kids are turning away from science? Most of the stuff is simply too childish for our children.(My 4 year old asked me, why the heck the blood in her biology book is depicted as litte guys with a red swim-ring around its belly. What the §$%& do I know?!)
But science is too important an element of our culture to be ridiculed by default. Many of those proudly admitting at a reception that they never understood physics, might be as far off from getting a clue what that Shostakovich guy whom they routinely mix up with Tchaikovsky is all about. Incompetence in conventional culture is too comfortably covered up by droning on about emotions with the intellectual depth of an underage deep-frozen Gorgonzola.
Bon app├ętit!
(oh, and check out the relation between verbal dexterity and Camembert)

Jul 15, 2013

Kings will fall

Us wannabe-managers get flooded by offers for management-courses all the time. There are wonderful things to be learned: how to manage your time (hey, do you actually have any time left, that you would like to manage? What kind of manager are you?).They teach you negotiation skills (if you don't have them, the guy on the other side of the table will always outsmart you - minutes before you even get a chance to have a glance at your cheat-sheet, because as they say 'either you are at the table or you are on the menu'). Oh, and yes, team-building skills (just accept, that nobody wants to be in your team anyway, let alone have you as the leader, if you are not male, extremly handsome, witty, generous, nonchalant and self-confident). There are hundreds such training-camps every year, every place. And they all promise to help you. The more expensive the better.
But they don't. The best they can do, is open your eyes for your weaknesses, tell you some tricks, give you a brush-up at excel-sheet managment of your work life and hand you a box with nifty rules for pretending to be in control.
One thing you have to master before you even start thinking about leading a team, heading an institute, commanding the world: control your temper. If you can't switch your adrenaline-level on and off at will, you are the wrong person.
And there is no better way learning that than playing chess. Playing chess after a round of boxing, that is. Imagine opening a game of chess with an equally smart mate, interrupt that after two minutes for a round of boxing, get back at the chess board, boxing ring, chess board... until one runs out of time or is set check-mate (in chess) or get's knocked out (in the ring). You will have to switch from cold calculations to fiery bouts and back to an all focused brain again and again.
This sport does exist and it is on the rise. It is called chessboxing and it increasingly draws excited crowds all over the world. Started as a form of art by the Berlin based dutch artist Iepe Rubingh it now is in a phase of professionalization through its World Chessboxing Organization. Iepes goal is to have it as part of the Olympic games 2016. All looks like this is absolutely doable. 
But very short term, the film-maker David Bitton hopes to get the first documentary out. He has filmed a shipload of unique material and has the most comprehensive insider view on the competing Chess-Boxing organizations, the development of which is a thriller by its own. Problem is: he needs funding, fast. So please check out his kickstarter campaign. And contribute madly!

Apr 15, 2013

The Value of Science

The number of publications and citations, possibly rescaled into more complex relations like the Hirsch-index or fashionable derivatives thereof, are widely accepted parameters to quantify ,scientific quality‘.  In times of scarce financial resources, transparency is imperative for allocating funds, and it is more than understandable that substantial investments in science are best legitimized by ,useful‘ research results.
 This goes along with the belief that scientific quality can somehow be objectively measured and the whole process of 'doing science' can ultimately be subjected to some sort of controlling.  While the drive for excellence and usefulness is agreed upon - their definition and measurability, however, is far from clear.
It seems rather straightforward to translate usefulness into technological applicability of the research results, favouring in general strictly application-orientated and and even product-driven applied research over basic research, which often is seen as costly dabbling of excentric scientists.This rather economic understanding of scientific value is bemoaned in a desperate note by Abraham Flexner: „We hear it said with tiresome iteration that ours is a materialistic age, the main concern of which should be the wider distribution of material goods and worldly opportunities“ at a speach as founding director of Princeton‘s Institute for Advanced Study in1939.
If usefulness equals monetary return it is worth while looking at the most fundamental and academic research endeavours of the highest quality.  Scanning the Nobel prizes in physics of the last century turns up a majority of science that is predominantly curiosity-driven and that was of pure academic interest at the time it was undertaken. Today, however, the market-value of x-rays, radioactivity, electron-rays,  x-ray diffraction, nuclear fission, and of course semiconductors can not be overstimated. Every one of these discoveries opened markets worth billions and billions of dollars, dwarfing the return on investment of the ubiquitous 'mp3-code' that is quoted at nauseam as one of the more successful patents from applied research in Germany.
Product driven application oriented research ultimately encourages iterative optimizations well within the  borders of the known. Fundamental research, on the other hand, has the potential for real disruption and a leap in technology - the basis for innovation. Only together technological advance is achievable.
As obvious as this might be, research funding is focusing on the planable, forseeable - and this can be most easily spotted at applied research. The common research project demands for milestones and interim reports and justifications are expected if goals are not reached. This drives grant-applications into the mainstream. If the results are predictable, if the milestones are reachable, if the project is rather risk-free an application looks promising to take the hurdles of scientific refereeing and pass critical examination of the funding agency‘s grant officers. But this is the opposite of innovation.
Scientific research is never more than an option on a return. The value of this option certainly depends on a number of variables that are seen as indicators for good science: a prolific research team (as measured by the number of publications) and high scientific standards (which might be inferred from the acceptance in the scientific community, reflected by the number of citations, the frequency of invited talks - generally, the impact of the group).  But as has been suggested in analogy to pricing models for options on goods in the world of investment banking, the optional return increases also with the volatility of the research results (an indicator of the innovative potential) and the time allowed to pass (see "Der W€rt der Wissenschaft", Gegenworte 27, 54-56, 2012) - parameters that hint at the dynamic and sometimes volatile nature of research but are not commonly taken into account.

Feb 22, 2013

If my house was on fire, I'd leave the cat behind

Because that is exactly what she would do. A dog would rush into the blistering heat of the burning bedroom and drag you into safety. A cat would grab her favourite rotten rat and run - long before the smoke-detectors even bother to do their job.
For some years I was wondering why I am attracted by the seemingly bloated ego of cats but at the same time don't really feel at ease when they are around. The attraction is clearly justifiable. Arrogance, if perfected, just tastes great: the sound of inflating egos, the circulation of hot air, the crackling noise when it fills the room wall to wall - priceless. But it has to be done well. Cat-like.
More often than not, professional ego-inflation is traded in for a substitute. A puppy-dog dressed up as a kitten.
If you are a scientist and kind enough, you might sometimes answer questions thrown at the servers of ResearchGate. Asking and answering questions there supposedly builds your reputation - and leads to too many questions asked and too many answers given. There is always a good reason to jump on the bandwaggon, to gesticulate wildly and promote oneself (as flight attendants so kindly remind us again and again:"a whistle is attached to attract attention" - what more could you ask for in case you are kept from drowning by a brittle life-west? Be it in the waters of the southern seas or academic dispute.).
If you are not from the field you might not be able to grasp all the detail of the discussion about trickery of superconductivity here. But if you scroll down you will recognize how the topic is suddenly highjacked for self-promotion.This can be quite tiresome. But fortunately, as soon as the lecturing is interrupted, the hot air escapes with a burping sound and the badly masked puppy dog stands exposed - hissing a tenacious "meow!".
The unease (with cats as well as scientist-lookalikes) is to be found in the patronizing. A cat always seems to suggest "you have no idea what you are doing - and you are really annoying at that". But I keep it with Mark Twain, who clear-sightedly stated: ‎"Ignorant people think it's the noise which fighting cats make that is so aggravating, but it ain't so; it's the sickening grammar they use."
Which is also true for scientoid debates.

Feb 11, 2013

I love Cindy!

When I fire up my web-based email account late at night, I get a predictable selection of 'consumer suggestions'. Today it got scary.
"One million singles are waiting for you!" - it doesn't get more frightening than that! Imagine, one percent of them camping out in front of your house. It's hard to explain to the neighbours, let alone your spouse - and outright unforgivable to the omnipresent neighbouress, who has her eyes everywhere and her thoughts dependably focused on the worst. It made my rant-in-progress (whining about the abusive way of oversimplified popularisation of science by Michio Kaku - again) collaps and left me stunned, occupied, worried.
As advice-literature is the straw to hold onto in difficult situations, I recall what always helps me to activate the neurons in times of blank: adrenalin. I am not too fond of externally adding chemicals to my body - and my love to syringes is limited - so I fall back to sports: 5 chin-ups, 10 push-ups, 15 squats - repeated as often as possible for 20 minutes. Yep, that's cross-fit, it's called Cindy, it will bring your heartbeat up to the maximum rate (220 minus your age = obviously close to zero in my case) and it will flood the system with adrenalin. Why am I saying this? Because of the amazing stupidity of internet-ads after 9 pm, the troubling popularity of bad science-communication and because 
I love 'Cindy'.

Jan 29, 2013

Is BlueBrain worth the Billion Dollars? Ask the Zebrafish

Remember the Zebrafish? That likeable little thing is termed the 'workhorse' model organism in developmental biology (and nobody has a problem with this metaphor). Be it as it is - Zebrafish are the pet model organism for brain studies for essentially two reasons: they are easy to breed - and the larvae are transparent, allowing for easy access to neuronal imaging. Recently Florian Engert and coworkers put paralysed zebrafish larvae in an experimental setup that is highly reminiscent of The Matrix, letting the fishlet experience a virtual world of environment-simulations and study the reactions to the stimuli by optically monitoring brain-functions via a fluorescent reaction to calcium-flow (which, you guessed it, is related to cell-activity)(see Nature 493, p467). The calcium-indicator is actually expressed by a transgenic line of fish (or other even less cuddly animals like fruit-flies, clamped under a microscope with their legs moving freely on a little ball). As reported in the top-tier journal Nature, the versatility and recent innovation in those techniques, open the floodgates to top-tier journals such as Nature, which would historically rather favour experiments on higher organisms. The beauty of the experiments lies not only in the widely accepted belief that it is morally more acceptable to tape a fruit-fly to a microscope than to insert electrodes into the brain of a mammal but also in the relative simplicity of the neuronal network. There is hope to get "a wiring diagram of the whole brain that can relate structure to function" - as Florian Engert says. This would be a great base for understanding a complete network consisting of about 300.000 neurons. How modest and realistic this rollerblading, motorcycling and fiery lecturer is - compared to the billion-dollar-supported big-mouthing Henry Markram who claims to be able to model the whole human brain (about 100 billion neurons) in a supercomputer, if only the Dollar-influx is right.
("See you tomorrow", says the dayfly. Liar!)