Oct 1, 2014

The Science Festival in Berlin

You know those science shows, right? The mad professor on TV. An Einstein-lookalike (the hair, the tongue, wild eyes, lab-coat, dry-ice, smoke, bubbles, bang!). This is the impression your kids get: science is stupid crap. Putting an egg in a microwave and watching it blow up - that is science. Freezing a rose with liquid nitrogen and then trampling on it - close to Nobel-prize.
We scientists know: it is not.
But our PR-professionals tell us that we *have to* communicate like that. We have to be accessible. That's why they always smuggle their fishy last sentence into the press-releases: 'this brings us one step closer to quantum computing' - no! 'so, time-travel seems not that unlikely at last!' - wrong!
The guy responsible for science at Der Spiegel told us years ago: 'if you want your stuff published, we need a catchy title, awesome images. And you know: sex sells'. He was not joking! And look, the most widely quoted research result of the Forschungsverbund Berlin (the administrative link-up of eight institutes our Paul-Drude-Institute is a member of) is probably the work on ... dare I say it .... Rhino insemination. (stop clicking. I just painted it blue ... there is no link here)
Remember when we opposed the view that 'every academic should be blogging'? Somebody wrote "blogging is quite simply, one of the most important things that an academic should be doing right now".
Listen. We have a mission. We want our scientific results to be transferred into society. It should get there as fast as possible and it should be as accessible as possible so that it can be 'used'. But it has to be the real stuff. Innovation does not come from secretly optimizing what we have. It does not come from patenting every discovery and filing it in the basement or selling it to a company (that files it in the basement). It get's there by communicating it. Professionally.
And we want the public to see why science is such an important part of our culture. I see scientists at four o'clock in the morning bursting of excitement in their lab. The public should know of those emotions. So, let's tell them.
We will try that with our Science Festival this fall in Berlin. We call it "STATE experience science festival". And that is a link you should click on! I hope to see you there.
Don't hesitate to look the festival up on facebook or twitter - and spread the news.

Sep 14, 2014

Elegant moss-covered furniture

We got this great side-board from a friend. He moved and had no place to put it. We moved and had no furniture. The classical win-win situation.
We now had a stylish, perfect 70s norwegian beauty in our living-room. An expensive piece that conoisseurs would kill for. It is great, it is elegant, it is big. 
Way too big for our apartment as it turned out.
So we put it in the basement.
As the basement is dark, humid, moldy - home of vicious spiders and man-eating multi-legged creatures crawling up the brittle walls and scurrying behind decaying cardboard boxes whenever you put a foot on the ground, sometimes getting inside your shirt or attacking your calves... (but this is another story) - we called my friend weekly to have him rescue that treasure.
I really felt bad about it.
But now my favorite source for ultimate taste, the treehuggers (oh, click here and there), tells me that we are way ahead, style-wise...
Some italian designers are sporting moss-covered furniture to bring biophilia into the homes and minds of the eco-aware homeowners.
But they are chicken.
Their moss is cute but dead and it is preserved in resin.
We do the living thing. The wood changes it's colour and texture almost daily now and it will not be long and the side-board will walk out of the basement all by its own (accompanied by his multi-legged friends, but this... yep... later..). 
And I am sure it will find my friend and then beware!

(Hey mate, could you please come and pick up your gorgeous element of interior design?)

Jul 15, 2014

Crabby cabbies and fish

Cabdrivers internationally are artists, musicians, dancers, writers - anything but cabdrivers. That was different in pre-oh-so-hip, pre-wall-came-down Berlin, where cabdrivers (east and west) used to be just angry, crabby old cabbies, and proud of it. They were eloquent only when it came to convincing every happy visitor why it is no good idea to be a happy visitor, ultimately proving their point by ridiculously overcharging for an annoying ride. General misanthropy wasn't fashionable only in a tiny yellow car - it was a hallmark of Berlin. Yep, east and west. A colleague of mine, coming from the Netherlands, got a convincing performance at the fish-counter of a local supermarket. When he tried to strike a jolly conversation by asking:"what goodies have we got today?!" he was served the perfectly berlinesque response: "fish.". (period.).
With the wild and art-packed Berlin going down the drain so disappears this element of style and so mutate the cabdrivers.
Recently I took one hasty ride from Berlin/Mitte to Berlin/Mitte and was confronted with one of the new Berliners behind the wheel - easily recognizable by the fact that they ask you for directions (trying to figure out if you have a clue where you are - if not, well, it will be a long and expensive trip).
Like so many of his colleagues, he was an 'artist', who ventured into Astrology, tought Reiki and won his driver's license in the lottery. He was the emblem of what is going wrong with Berlin-turning-normal: installing air commas around 'artists', taking the stars to the street, treating social pain inadequately and living off pretense.
¡No pasarán!'

May 15, 2014


Someone said every good blogpost starts with blood. And that guy's blog is insanely popular for good reasons.
In contrast, Richard Dawkin's blog is popular for god reasons (yeah, that was cheap).
While scrolling through my twitter timeline I am getting a bit tired of the religiously fervent atheism of @RichardDawkins whom I admittedly pity as he just completed his transformation from an interesting thinker to a t-shirt salesman. Glittery, silver double helix neclaces, bold atheist-'A' bumper stickers. Boring stuff. He must have fired his best ghostwriters after the n-th remake of his smart bestsellers (you do remember them, don't you?).
Fortunately, before wasting too much thought on why elderly men tend to get so narrow-minded, self-pitying, and self-centered (and while laboriously calculating my own age) I was getting aware of a conversation at a nearby table in the run-down coffee shop that serves the most intense espresso in town - 'so strong, they barely add water'.
I heard the one guy had just met a woman whose daughter had passed away unexpectedly, age 16 - beautiful (as he emphasized), smart, kind and the light to everybody she met. 'How,' he asked, 'how can people be religious and believe in a loving god while at the same time we see dictators celebrate their 80th birthday and 64th year in power - with a track-record in cruelty that would make Hieronymus Bosch sob?'. The lamenting went on and on, touching about every stereotype you could expect; the heartless god, the god-less world, the world-less stochastics of being human. All seemed to defy any purpose, a blip in the time-line, completely unimportant in the face of the infinite universe - it sounded so grown-up, so wonderfully materialistic, so enlightened, so Darwinian and even Dawkins-esque.
But, thinking about it, it was heartwarmingly romantic. His proof was that if all this suffering, love, heartwrenching tragedy was ignored by god then he must be absent. But being a hardened materialist, shouldn't he denounce that soft and bubbly heart-stuff altogether in the first place? Looks like the god he wished to argue away is way more materialistic than he - casting dice to determine the fate of the universe instead of accurate bookkeeeping, calculating, weighing, rewarding. And why not? Isn't the statistics of fate more fair and just than an accumulation of brownie-points of  'goodness' to trade in for a long and healthy life? Wouldn't it be entirely unfair to have a homeless alcoholic compete with a millionaire's daughter for being a better person? So, the beautiful and kind 16 year old would go on to live a long and healthy life while the misled thug gets run over by a freight-train? Come on.
But more annoying than the logical flaw in that chatter was the evangelistic tone of the anti-evangelist. One problem with atheist zealots - as with any - lies in the extremist position combined with the infinite urge to be right. It is this self-righteous indignation that seems to allow anybody to vent her anger, to rage on and ultimately kill. No matter what -ism is pulled up for justification.
And as Dawkins and friends so breathlessly argue the case for science and knowing - against believing - they seem to forget that doubt is at the core of good science. If you want to be right, no matter what, if you need it - keep out of science. If you need the 'I told you!'-effect, leave science, close the door from the outside, lock it, nail it shut and throw the key away. Because it is this desire to have an infallible guide through our wonderfully complex and at times messy world that is at the core of the extremism of any relgion.
The lack of missionary zeal, the relaxed tolerance, and sheer infinite curiosity are among the many incredible strengths of science.
Sometimes you can simply shut up and enjoy.

May 14, 2014

Self-replicating code-creatures abound!

The amount of data being created every second is breathtaking (five trillion bits per second, as George Dyson tells us at ege.org).
Some take this as proof for a tremendous increase in knowledge, others spot only chatter and pocket litter - (and yes, there are estimates that half of the storage capacity - and hence half of the power consumed for 'the internet' - is used for porn).
Some see much more. Already in 1955, when the Norwegian-Italian mathematical biologist Nils Aaall Barricelli had heard about the machines operating on digital code in Princeton and finally managed to go there, he experimented with self-replication and cross-breeding of random strings on that machine. Being an experimentalist he observed carefully and studied patterns that reminded him of biological systems. Couldn't computer-code be treated similarly? Shouldn't there be the possibility of evolution in code?
Roger Dyson highlights the fact of universal operating systems across multiple hardware-platforms facilitating the occurence of multi-cellular operating systems that would be able to cross-breed, mutate, develop ... in the background.
While there is only speculation about the possibility that this could, might or would occur in an uncontrolled way there definitely is the option if not the clear reality of human-initiated 'meta-zoan' activity on the net. Probably most visible in the stealth-features of self-adapting malware.
But couldn't there be some damp, sparsely lit corners of the web where hitherto unidentified code-creatures linger and replicate - just like the amazing worms that curl up under those socks that you lost behind the washing-machine - years ago?

May 13, 2014

Don't call Big Data a Revolution

Everybody in science seems to love Big Data. Put "Big Data" in your grant proposal and your file gets on top of the pile. Sure, some had the suspicion that funding for operating with big data went up because those nerds in the basement of NSA need some help sifting through cassettes of indiscriminate tapping into every utterance of every two-legged creature on earth. Those losers obviously lack the brains to ask the right questions and to target a reasonable subset of mankind - so they just grab everything they get. And stay as blind as they were before. Of course it is difficult to find a needle in a haystack - but why dump all that hay on the needle in the first place?
This aside, there are believers like Kenneth Cukier and Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger, authors of "Big Data: A Revolution that will transform how we live, work and think" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), who marvel at the transition from trying to approach a mechanism in nature with smart experiments to prediciting the future behaviour of the system by merely observing and describing patterns. They call the interest in correlation (and not causation) a paradigm-shift, a revolution and nothing less than the future of science at large.
They are probably right.
And this is scary.
If you just want to get an idea of potential traffic jams depending on location and time of day, big data might help. If you need to know if your medication cures or kills, excellent statistics will do. Big data ultimately brings you from statistics of small numbers to 'N=ALL'. 
The main drive of science always was - and always will be - curiosity for the mechanism, the 'why?'.
Recording huge amounts of data - all data available - does not solve any problems. In the worst case it substitutes understanding with describing.
But in the best case, the mapping of a system on as many related data as possible can be seen as lifting it from nature to the lab. The really Big Data that contain *all* correlations would be a transposition of the real thing that then can be experimented on. See Big Data as the score-sheet to a symphony, plus information on the instruments, plus the acoustics, plus the musicians, plus the atmosphere, plus...
(I am off to the lab)

May 6, 2014

Tidy up!

Not all the NSA does is bad. The huge financial support for projects developing tools for the analysis of vast amounts of data, the impressive funding of research into 'big data' in general (and the fabricated hype around it) as well as the humungous pile of dollars washing over insanely overenthusiastic mega-endeavours like the 'blue brain' project are possibly related to national interest in tidying up the discs and tapes of the data-messies at NSA and their disheveled brothers and sisters.
That is good. Mom would love that.
But one side-effect must not be underestimated: our site-statistics show a significant increase in traffic whenever words like 'terrorism', 'NSA' or 'national security' are interspersed. I am sure, SEO professionals would offer a list of much nastier - and therefore traffic-generating - keywords, resulting in an even bigger data-mess at NSA to clean up.
Good luck!

Apr 16, 2014

Bureaucracy will kill terrorism

It is certainly no good idea to employ google translate to read the only german post on this blog - the one dealing with the platonic love between science and bureaucracy: 'the best of all worlds'. You might otherwise have got the impression of a verbal terrorist attack reading the stuff coming out of the google-garble fed with the first lines. Look: 'bureaucrats seem to be driving for unlimited harassment in jealousy and resentment'.
(This in mind, the admission of google to scan all emails to generate a user-profile that allows for more meaningful ad-targeting is - well - scary.)
But it also does no justice to the bureaucrats - scientific or otherwise. They can be quite helpful when harassing the right people.
Terrorist organizations' humble aspirations to change the world and the unfallible hyperinflated egos of their selfdeclared masterminds are not as much threatened by military responses but rather by bureaucracy, as Jacob N. Shapiro explains in his book The terrorist's dilemma'. If you are a terrorist psychopath about to send a 7 year old kid taped with explosives on a mission to blow herself up in a schoolbus, you might get a bit edgy when you have to file a travel-form, collect receipts and justify the choice of duct tape over some cheaper brand. Remember, the extent of their stupidity is still topped by their amazing capacity for combined self-pitty and vanity.
And now back to the lab.

Jan 8, 2014

Die beste aller Welten

Das größte Hemmnis in der Forschung, die furchtbarste Plage für einen Wissenschaftler, der täglichen Alptraum: Bürokratie. Kein Zweifel. Immer abenteuerlichere Abläufe und Formulare für einfachste Bestellungen, kleinteiliger Stundennachweis in Forschungsprojekten, Excel-sheets mit Leistungskosten für jeden Handgriff, Bewertung von Wissenschaft nach Kennzahlen, Abrechnungen von Dienstreisen, bei der Neid und Missgunst Antrieb für grenzenlose Schikanen zu sein scheinen. Hier verraucht Energie, die in die Forschung gehen sollte, gleich zweifach. Einmal im bürokratischen Prozess und dann im lange nachklingenden Ärger darüber. Die Folge ist eine Einstellung zur Verwaltung, die mit dem Wort ‚skeptisch’ deutlich zu wohlwollend beschrieben ist.
Natürlich sind das zwei Welten, die unterschiedlicher kaum sein können. Wissenschaft befasst sich mit dem Ungewissen, dem Ungewöhnlichen, sie sucht nach dem Widerspruch und dem Abweichen vom vorher geplanten Pfad. Verwaltung arbeitet hingegen am liebsten an Standards, strukturiert das Berechenbare, definiert Prozesse und strebt Routine an - sie hasst die Überraschung. Gleichzeitig wird von der Forschung größtmögliche Sichtbarkeit und maximaler Impact gefordert, während die Verwaltung desto besser ist, je weniger man von ihr sieht. Rampenlicht auf der einen, Schattendasein auf der anderen Seite.
Offensichtlich ist Wissenschaft mit Verwaltung nicht vereinbar. Wissenschaft und Verwaltung stoßen sich geradezu ab. Der Widerspruch ist offenbar. Es kann gar keine Wissenschaftsverwaltung geben. Schon das Wort müsste, kaum zu Papier gebracht, spontan zerfallen.
Es ist bezeichnend, dass der damalige DFG-Präsident Hubert Markl zur ersten Verleihung des Leibniz-Preises 1986 von ‚märchenhafter Freiheit’ für die Ausgezeichneten sprach. Denn sie bekommen 2.5 Millionen Euro Preisgeld nicht für ein Haus, ein Auto oder ein Leben am Pool. Sondern für bis zu sieben Jahre ungeahnter Freiheit: Tag und Nacht forschen, Wochenenden im Labor, harte Diskussionen, experimentelle Rückschläge, Anfeindungen, Konkurrenz und seltene Durchbrüche. Forschen nach eigenen Vorstellungen und frei von bürokratischem Aufwand. Märchenhaft in der Tat.
Es ist ja die Enge der bürokratischen Vorschriften, die die Freiheit der Wissenschaft bedroht – nicht unbedingt die Verwaltung. Nur befassen sich Wissenschaft und Verwaltung zu oft und zu intensiv miteinander und machen sich das Leben schwer. Sie sollen das gar nicht. Verwalter sollen keine Wissenschaft strukturieren und Wissenschaftler sollen nicht verwalten. Sie sollen ganz unterschiedliche Probleme lösen. Bei wachsenden Forschungs-Infrastrukturen und dem Arbeiten mit öffentlichen Mitteln ist ein Administrieren der Wissenschafts-unterstützenden Prozesse dringend notwendig. Das Regelwerk, das unausweichlich anhängt, sobald man mit großen Summen öffentlichen Geldes, mit Personalverantwortung und drohenden Prüfungen durch Zuwendungsgeber und Rechnungshof  arbeitet, ist notwendige Bürokratie. Da Bürokratie aber inhärent zu Metastasenbildung neigt, braucht Forschung eine effiziente Verwaltung, die das Forschen unterstützt, indem sie jegliche bürokratische Böe von der Forschung fernhält. Sie tut das, indem sie Infrastrukturen administriert und die bürokratischen Erfordernisse des komplexen Wissenschaftsbetriebs ebenso bedient, wie sie im Sinne der Wissenschaft dann aber auch Anforderungen definiert, formale Auswüchse korrigiert, bürokratische Zellteilung reguliert und Bürokratie-ästhetische Absurditäten selbstbewusst ausbremst. Wenn sie es schafft, die legitimen bürokratischen Anforderungen zu befriedigen, dabei aber wissenschaftsfremde Tätigkeiten weitgehend von den Wissenschaftlern fern zu halten und selbst nahezu unsichtbar zu bleiben, dann ist sie ein wertvolles Instrument für den Wissenschaftsbetrieb. In diesem Idealfall können die Wissenschaftlerinnen und Wissenschaftler alle Energie auf das verwenden, was sie am besten können: forschen. Eine märchenhafte Situation wie es sie im wirklichen Leben nur ganz selten gibt.