Tag Archives: Perspective

Disorganized Reflections

Recently, this blog has been concentrating on topics that have lacked a personal touch. A couple months ago, I started a postdoc position and it has gotten me thinking about a few questions related to my situation and some that are more general. I thought it would be a good time to share some of my thoughts and experiences. Here is just a list of some miscellaneous questions and introspections.

  1. In a new role, doing new work, people often make mistakes while getting accustomed to their new surroundings. Since starting at my new position, I’ve been lucky enough to have patient colleagues who have forgiven my rather embarrassing blunders and guided me through uncharted territory. It’s sometimes deflating admitting your (usually) daft errors, but it’s a part of the learning process (at least it is for me).
  2. There are a lot of reasons why people are drawn to doing science. One of them is perpetually doing something new, scary and challenging. I hope that, at least for me, science never gets monotonous and there is consistently some “fear” of the unknown at work.
  3. In general, I am wary of working too much. It is important to take time to exercise and take care of one’s mental and emotional health. One of the things I have noticed is that sometimes the most driven and most intelligent graduate students suffered from burnout due to their intense work schedules at the beginning of graduate school.
  4. Along with the previous point, I am also wary of spending too much time in the lab because it is important to have  time to reflect. It is necessary to think about what you’ve done, what can be done tomorrow and conjure up experiments that one can possibly try, even if they may be lofty. It’s not a bad idea to set aside a little time each day or week to think about these kinds of things.
  5. It is necessary to be resilient, not take things personally and know your limits. I know that I am not going to be the greatest physicist of my generation or anything like that, but what keeps me going is the hope that I can make a small contribution to the literature that some physicists and other scientists will appreciate. Maybe they might even say “Huh, that’s pretty cool” with some raised eyebrows.
  6. Is physics my “passion”? I would say that I really like it, but I could have just as easily studied a host of other topics (such as literature, philosophy, economics, etc.), and I’m sure I would have enjoyed them just as much. I’ve always been more of a generalist in contrast to being focused on physics since I was a kid or teenager. There are too many interesting things out there in the world to feel satiated just studying condensed matter physics. This is sometimes a drawback and sometimes an asset (i.e. I am sometimes less technically competent than my lab-mates, but I can probably write with less trouble).
  7. For me, reading widely is valuable, but I need to be careful that it does not impede or become a substitute for active thought.
  8. Overall, science can be intimidating and it can feel unrewarding. This can be particularly true if you measure your success using a publication rate or some so-called “objective” measure. I would venture to say that a much better measure of success is whether you have grown during graduate school or during a postdoc by being able to think more independently, by picking up some valuable skills (both hard and soft) and have brought a  multi-year project into fruition.

Please feel free to share thoughts from your own experiences! I am always eager to learn about people whose experiences and attitudes differ from mine.

A few nuggets on the internet this week:

  1. For football/soccer fans:
    http://www.espnfc.us/blog/the-toe-poke/65/post/3036987/bayern-munichs-thomas-muller-has-ingenious-way-of-dodging-journalists

  2. Barack Obama’s piece in Science Magazine:
    http://tinyurl.com/jmeoyz5

  3. An interesting read on the history of physics education reform (Thanks to Rodrigo Soto-Garrido for sharing this with me):
    http://aapt.scitation.org/doi/full/10.1119/1.4967888

  4. I wonder if an experimentalist can get this to work:
    http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-bristol-38573364

Consistency in the Hierarchy

When writing on this blog, I try to share nuggets here and there of phenomena, experiments, sociological observations and other peoples’ opinions I find illuminating. Unfortunately, this format can leave readers wanting when it comes to some sort of coherent message. Precisely because of this, I would like to revisit a few blog posts I’ve written in the past and highlight the common vein running through them.

Condensed matter physicists of the last couple generations have grown up ingrained with the idea that “More is Different”, a concept first coherently put forth by P. W. Anderson and carried further by others. Most discussions of these ideas tend to concentrate on the notion that there is a hierarchy of disciplines where each discipline is not logically dependent on the one beneath it. For instance, in solid state physics, we do not need to start out at the level of quarks and build up from there to obtain many properties of matter. More profoundly, one can observe phenomena which distinctly arise in the context of condensed matter physics, such as superconductivity, the quantum Hall effect and ferromagnetism that one wouldn’t necessarily predict by just studying particle physics.

While I have no objection to these claims (and actually agree with them quite strongly), it seems to me that one rather (almost trivial) fact is infrequently mentioned when these concepts are discussed. That is the role of consistency.

While it is true that one does not necessarily require the lower level theory to describe the theories at the higher level, these theories do need to be consistent with each other. This is why, after the publication of BCS theory, there were a slew of theoretical papers that tried to come to terms with various aspects of the theory (such as the approximation of particle number non-conservation and features associated with gauge invariance (pdf!)).

This requirement of consistency is what makes concepts like the Bohr-van Leeuwen theorem and Gibbs paradox so important. They bridge two levels of the “More is Different” hierarchy, exposing inconsistencies between the higher level theory (classical mechanics) and the lower level (the micro realm).

In the case of the Bohr-van Leeuwen theorem, it shows that classical mechanics, when applied to the microscopic scale, is not consistent with the observation of ferromagnetism. In the Gibbs paradox case, classical mechanics, when not taking into consideration particle indistinguishability (a quantum mechanical concept), is inconsistent with the idea the entropy must remain the same when dividing a gas tank into two equal partitions.

Today, we have the issue that ideas from the micro realm (quantum mechanics) appear to be inconsistent with our ideas on the macroscopic scale. This is why matter interference experiments are still carried out in the present time. It is imperative to know why it is possible for a C60 molecule (or a 10,000 amu molecule) to be described with a single wavefunction in a Schrodinger-like scheme, whereas this seems implausible for, say, a cat. There does again appear to be some inconsistency here, though there are some (but no consensus) frameworks, like decoherence, to get around this. I also can’t help but mention that non-locality, à la Bell, also seems totally at odds with one’s intuition on the macro-scale.

What I want to stress is that the inconsistency theorems (or paradoxes) contained seeds of some of the most important theoretical advances in physics. This is itself not a radical concept, but it often gets neglected when a generation grows up with a deep-rooted “More is Different” scientific outlook. We sometimes forget to look for concepts that bridge disparate levels of the hierarchy and subsequently look for inconsistencies between them.

The Struggle

Haruki Murakami, the world-renowned Japanese novelist, has garnered a large following because one can easily relate to his protagonists. I have been reading his novels for around ten years now, and recently picked up his unique memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. It is a quirky book, at once about his marathon and ultra-marathon running endeavors, his writing struggles, and how the two are interwoven.

To me, the most inspirational part of this book lies in how through mundaneness and mediocrity springs a rather unique exceptionalism. Murakami is an outstanding writer, but his talents have a limit, and he is honest about this. Most of the book is about struggling, with running and with writing. When I reflect on the book, the image I have in my mind is of a  truck wheel, bearing huge weight, going around and around, yet somehow trudging forward.

Here is a passage from the book I particularly enjoyed, which is applicable in many contexts:

…writers who aren’t blessed with much talent — those who barely make the grade — need to build up their strength at their own expense. They have to train themselves to improve their focus, to increase their endurance. To a certain extent, they’re forced to make these qualities stand in for talent. And while they’re getting by on these, they may actually discover real, hidden talent within them. They’re sweating, digging out a hole at their feet with a shovel, when they run across a deep, secret water vein. It’s a lucky thing, but what made this good fortune possible was all the training they did that gave them the strength to keep on digging. I imagine that late-blooming writers have all gone through a similar process.

Naturally, there are people in the world (only a handful, for sure) blessed with enormous talent that, from beginning to end, doesn’t fade, and whose works are always of the highest quality. These fortunate few have a water vein that never dries up, no matter how much they tap into it. For literature, this is something to be thankful for. It’s hard to imagine the history of literature without such figures as Shakespeare, Balzac and Dickens. But the giants are, in the end, giants — exceptional, legendary figures. The remaining majority of writers who can’t reach such heights (including me, of course) have to supplement what’s missing from their store of talent through whatever means they can. Otherwise it’s impossible for them to keep on writing novels of any value. The methods and directions a writer takes in order to supplement himself becomes part of that writer’s individuality, what makes him special.

Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running everyday. These are practical, physical lessons. How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate — and how much is too much? How far can I take something and still keep it decent and consistent? When does it become narrow-minded and inflexible? How much should I be aware of the world outside, and how much should I  focus on my inner world? To what extent should I be confident in my abilities, and when should I start doubting myself? I know that if I hadn’t become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist, my work would have been vastly different. How different? Hard to say, but something would have definitely been different.

The book ends with what Murakami hopes his tombstone will read:

Haruki Murakami

1949-20**

Writer (and Runner)

At Least He Never Walked

On Science and Meaning

The history of science has provided strong evidence to suggest that the humanity’s place in the universe is not very special. We have not existed for very long in the history of the universe, we are not at the center of the universe and we likely will not exist in the future of the universe. This kind of sentiment can seem depressing to some, as can be seen in the response to the video made by Neil DeGrasse Tyson and MinutePhysics:

It appears that such ideas can make human life and our actions here on earth (and beyond) seem rather meaningless. As I have referenced in a previous post, this can especially be true for graduate students! However, on a more serious note, I would contend the exact opposite.

Because life on earth is so fragile and transient and only exists in some far-flung corner on the universe, the best thing we can hope to do as humans is celebrate our existence through acts of exploration, beauty, creation, truth and acts that enrich the lives of others and our environment.

When working in the lab or on a calculation that requires attention to small details, this larger context is often forgotten. To my mind, it is important not to lose sight of the basic reason why we are there in the first place, which is all too easy to do. The universe can seem meaningless, but not so when she lets us peer into her depths, usually revealing order of spectacular beauty.

I apologize if this post comes off as a little preachy or pretentious– I suspect I am really the one that needed this pep talk.

Data Representation and Trust

Though popular media often portrays science as purely objective, there are many subjective sides to it as well. One of these is that there is a certain amount of trust we have in our peers that they are telling the truth.

For instance, in most experimental papers, one can only present an illustrative portion of all the data taken because of the sheer volume of data usually acquired. What is presented is supposed to be to a representative sample. However, as readers, we are never sure this is actually the case. We trust that our experimental colleagues have presented the data in a way that is honest, illustrative of all the data taken, and is reproducible under similar conditions. It is increasingly becoming a trend to publish the remaining data in the supplemental section — but the utter amount of data taken can easily overwhelm this section as well.

When writing a paper, an experimentalist also has to make certain choices about how to represent the data. Increasingly, the amount of data at the experimentalist’s disposal means that they often choose to show the data using some sort of color scheme in a contour or color density plot. Just take a flip through Nature Physics, for example, to see how popular this style of data representation has become. Almost every cover of Nature Physics is supplied by this kind of data.

However, there are some dangers that come with color schemes if the colors are not chosen appropriately. There is a great post at medvis.org talking about the ills of using, e.g. the rainbow color scheme, and how misleading it can be in certain circumstances. Make sure to also take a look at the articles cited therein to get a flavor of what these schemes can do. In particular, there is a paper called “Rainbow Map (Still) Considered Harmful”, which has several noteworthy comparisons of different color schemes including ones that are and are not perceptually linear. Take a look at the plots below and compare the different color schemes chosen to represent the same data set (taken from the “Rainbow Map (Still) Considered Harmful” paper):

rainbow

The rainbow scheme appears to show more drastic gradients in comparison to the other color schemes. My point, though, is that by choosing certain color schemes, an experimentalist can artificially enhance an effect or obscure one he/she does not want the reader to notice.

In fact, the experimentalist makes many choices when publishing a paper — the size of an image, the bounds of the axes, the scale of the axes (e.g. linear vs. log), the outliers omitted, etc.– all of which can have profound effects on the message of the paper. This is why there is an underlying issue of trust that lurks in within the community. We trust that experimentalists choose to exhibit data in an attempt to be as honest as they can be. Of course, there are always subconscious biases lurking when these choices are made. But my hope is that experimentalists are mindful and introspective when representing data, doubting themselves to a healthy extent before publishing results.

To be a part of the scientific community means that, among other things, you are accepted for your honesty and that your work is (hopefully) trustworthy. A breach of this implicit contract is seen as a grave offence and is why cases of misconduct are taken so seriously.

What Life is Like in Grad School…

Graduate school is tough. It takes a lot of perseverance and this can be emotionally and mentally draining. While it is important to work hard, it is also important to take care of oneself physically, mentally and emotionally. It is necessary to take vacations, and importantly, to do something else (sports, music, hobbies, socialize, etc.). Otherwise the scenes is this video will become an all to familiar reality…

Although this video is humorous, it does tickle a weird part of the graduate school experience that, unfortunately, too many can relate to!

Goodhart’s Law and Citation Metrics

According to Wikipedia, Goodhart’s law colloquially states that:

“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

It was originally formulated as an economics principle, but has been found to be applicable in a much wider variety of circumstances. Let’s take a look at a few examples to understand what this principle means.

Police departments are often graded using crime statistics. In the US in particular, a combined index of eight categories constitute a “crime index”. In 2014, it was reported in Chicago magazine that the huge crime reduction seen in Chicago was merely due to reclassification of certain crimes. Here is the summary plot they showed:

ChicagoCrime

Image reprinted from Chicago magazine

In effect, some felonies were labeled misdemeanors, etc. The manipulation of the “crime index” corrupted the way the police did their jobs.

Another famous example of Goodhart’s law is Google’s search algorithm, known as PageRank. Crudely, PageRank works in the following way as described by Wikipedia:

“PageRank works by counting the number and quality of links to a page to determine a rough estimate of how important the website is. The underlying assumption is that more important websites are likely to receive more links from other websites.”

Knowing how PageRank works has obviously led to its manipulation. People seeking to have greater visibility and wanting to be ranked higher on Google searches have used several schemes to raise their rating. One of the most popular schemes is to post links of one’s own website in the comments section of high-ranked websites in order to inflate one’s own ranking. You can read a little more about this and other schemes here (pdf!).

With the increased use of citation metrics among the academic community, it should come as no surprise that it also can become corrupted. Increasingly, there are many authors per paper, as groups of authors can all take equal credit for papers when using the h-index as a scale. Many scientists also spend time emailing their colleagues to urge them to cite one of their papers (I only know of this happening anecdotally).

Since the academic example hits home for most of the readers of this blog, let me try to formulate a list of the beneficial and detrimental consequences of bean-counting:

Advantages:

  1. One learns how to write a technical paper early in one’s career.
  2. It can motivate some people to be more efficient with their time.
  3. It provides some sort of metric by which to measure scientific competence (though it can be argued that any currently existing index is wholly inadequate, and will always be inadequate in light of Goodhart’s law!).
  4. Please feel free to share any ideas in the comments section, because I honestly cannot think of any more!

Disadvantages:

  1. It makes researchers focuses on short-term problems instead of long-term moon-shot kinds of problems.
  2. The community loses good scientists because they are deemed as not being productive enough. A handful of the best students I came across in graduate school left physics because they didn’t want to “play the game”.
  3. It rewards those who may be more career-oriented and focus on short-term science, leading to an overpopulation of these kinds of people in the scientific community.
  4. It may lead scientists to cut corners and even go as far as to falsify data. I have addressed some of these concerns before in the context of psychology departments.
  5. It provides an incentive to flood the literature with papers that are of low quality. It is no secret that the number of publications has ballooned in the last couple decades. Though it is hard to quantify quality, I cannot imagine that scientists have just been able to publish more without sacrificing quality in some way.
  6. It takes the focus of scientists’ jobs away from science, and makes scientists concerned with an almost meaningless number.
  7. It leads authors to overstate the importance of their results in effort to publish in higher profile journals.
  8. It does not value potential. Researchers who would have excelled in their latter years, but not their former, are under-valued. Late-bloomers therefore go under-appreciated.

Just by examining my own behavior in reference to the above lists, I can say that my actions have been altered by the existence of citation and publication metrics. Especially towards the end of graduate school, I started pursuing shorter-term problems so that they would result in publications. Obviously, I am not the only one that suffers from this syndrome. The best one can do in this scenario is to work on longer-term problems on the side, while producing a steady stream of papers on shorter-term projects.

In light of the two-slit experiment, it seems ironic that physicists are altering their behavior due to the fact that they are being measured.