Monthly Archives: December 2005

Just say no to …

… to new year resolutions. It will make you happier. So says Timothy Wilson, a professor of psychology at the University of Charlottesville, in this wonderful NYTimes op-ed.

Social psychologist Daniel Batson and colleagues at the University of Kansas found that participants who were given an opportunity to do a favor for another person ended up viewing themselves as kind, considerate people – unless, that is, they were asked to reflect on why they had done the favor. People in that group tended in the end to not view themselves as being especially kind.

The trick is to go out of our way to be kind to others without thinking too much about why we’re doing it. As a bonus, our kindnesses will make us happier.

Wilson advises us to not waste our time thinking about all that we did wrong during this year, and about how we can improve upon them in the new year. In other words, no new year resolutions. The advice is based on the finding that when you brood over negative stuff in your life, well, you end up with an even more negative mood. The punchline is this:

If we are dissatisfied with some aspect of our lives, one of the best approaches is to act more like the person we want to be, rather than sitting around analyzing ourselves.

I like the advice about new year resolutions, and it has already made me happy. I can’t imagine how much happier I will be when I actually follow this advice …

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In his article, Wilson uses a couple of nice quotes:

“Self-contemplation is a curse / That makes an old confusion worse”, by the poet Theodore Roethke.

“We become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlled by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage”, by Aristotle.

It doesn’t make sense!

The New Scientist has an article on ‘Thirteen things that don’t make sense‘, with a nice description of some big problems that have been baffling scientists. There are many entries there on astrophysics and cosmology, which never made much sense to my (admittedly puny) mind. But the ones on the placebo effect (at No.1) and cold fusion (at No. 13) are really interesting.

The real stunner came at No. 4: Belfast homeopathy results. It certainly made me go ‘it doesn’t make sense’!

Caste discrimination

There is indeed much discrimination in our society but there is also a sense of fair play, and that sense is growing. It is a sensitive plant and it should be given fresh air to grow. To insist as a matter of course that there is discrimination against Dalits without even looking at evidence to the contrary does little good to the long-term interests of the Dalits themselves.

So says Andre Beteille in this opinion piece in the Telegraph.

Intriguing enchantment from a soap bubble with a handle …

I am sure you all want to know what a ‘genus one helicoid’ is. Apparently, it’s the new, new thing in minimal surfaces.

The article mentions some of the applications of minimal surfaces in mixtures of polymers and architecture too; the latter might exploit, for example, the physical ruggedness of the minimal surfaces. However, the next sentence left me utterly stunned:

Calendars are another use for this work, highlighting the aesthetic qualities of minimal surfaces.

Calendars? It sounds loony; but this feeling will go away in a hurry the moment you take a look at the pictures in these two galleries. Indiana University’s Mathias Weber, the author and host of these galleries says they are meant to convey “some of the intriguing enchantment that a mathematician feels when exploring the mathematical objects.”

The enchantment is more than intriguing; it’s amazing.

Happiness and the new year

So in these last days of 2005 I say to you, “Don’t have a happy new year!” Have dinner with your family or walk in the park with friends. If you’re so inclined, put in some good hours at the office or at your favorite charity, temple or church. Work on your jump shot or your child’s model trains. With luck, you’ll find happiness by the by. If not, your time won’t be wasted. You may even bring a little joy to the world.

So says the New York Times op-ed by Darrin M. McMahon, a professor of history at Florida State University and the author of the forthcoming”Happiness: A History.”

“It may happen, but not now, and not to us”

The first anniversary of the south east Asian tsunami is being commemorated as the Remembrance Week. Dilip D’Souza has an excellent series of posts, with snippets from his coverage of not just the 2004 tsunami, but also the 2001 earthquake in Kutch, Gujarat, and the 1999 floods in Orissa.

On the first anniversary of the tsunami, this excellent article by Richard Fortey, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, appeared in the New York Times. A quick quote:

Human beings are never prepared for natural disasters. There is a kind of optimism built into our species that seems to prefer to live in the comfortable present rather than confront the possibility of destruction. It may happen, we seem to believe, but not now, and not to us. There is nothing new in this attitude.

Fortey covers quite a few things about natural disasters (“acts of God”?), but towards the end, turns his attention to man-made disasters:

But there is another kind of disaster. Many scientists think that the Gulf Coast hurricanes may be a symptom of climate change. Carbon emissions have been accelerating more rapidly within a generation or two: this is not the result of some creeping plate indifferent to the fate of humans; this is our responsibility. However, there is still the same, almost willful blindness to the dangers of climate change; after all, the sun still rises, the crops still ripen – why worry?

Geology tells us that there have been “greenhouse worlds” in the distant past. These have been times when seas flooded over continents. Even modest sea-level rises would spell the end of densely populated areas of the world like Bangladesh. In such a case, invoking the deity to look after us for the best is just pie in the sky. These are not “acts of God” but acts of man. We can grieve for the human consequences of plate tectonics, but we should be ashamed of the consequences of our own willing blindness.

Sexy scientists?

Science is sexy, but scientists?

Yeah, I know the idea sounds spooky. But there is this uber-elite club, and I know quite a few among my colleagues who would qualify. .

Check out the list of 10 Sexiest Geeks of 2005, compiled by the folks at Wired. Quite a few of the good looking ones in the list are people who have mastered the new media options offered by the internet (ermm, Web 2.0). The list also features at least two scientists:

  • Wise Young (you’ve got to love that name!), “a world-renowned spinal cord injury researcher” at Rutgers University. He also runs CareCure, an online community devoted to “the art and science of managing therapies, routines, medication, supplies, equipment and everything else needed to maintain the spinal injured person in top health..”
  • Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University, who specializes in “neurophysiology of economic decision making”. One of his recent papers is on “neuroeconomics of distrust: sex differences in behaviour and physiology”. It sounds really interesting, and I would love to link to it, except that the link on his site doesn’t work!

I am sure some of the more hardened souls among you wouldn’t take Wired‘s word; hey, they *are* the techies, and they can be weird, right? I wouldn’t blame you if you want some real, serious evidence that will convince everyone of the existence of sexy scientists. Tell you what: just wear your seatbelt, and get ready to go to that ultimate destination where good taste and great judgement rule. The People magazine!

People has featured, in its “Sexiest Man Alive” issue,   Michael Manga, an academic in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. [link via inkycircus, a group blog by three women who are in the process of starting a science magazine for women. This particular post (and other such posts) are listed under the category “men whose babies we want to bear“!]

100 Dollar laptop, Niagara, and browser birthday

… all of them made possible by the great folks at digg.com.

A really, truly, absolutely amazing picture of the Niagara falls from a satellite up above the world so high; it actually looks as if it was taken from a helicopter flying at a low altitude. It’s awsome. [via]

You must feast your eyes on the new beauty that was unveiled by MIT’s Media Lab: the 100 dollar laptop from the ‘One Laptop Per Child’ program. I don’t like its marketing strategy, but I certainly like these pictures. [via]

The browser was born on the Christmas day 15 years ago. e-week has a story commemorating the event. [via]

For as much as Berners-Lee seems proud that the browser has come as far as it has, growing from an underground academic phenomenon to a vitally important tool in millions of people’s lives, he still believes browsers are too limiting in how they allow people to input and consume information.

[…]

The W3C head said that he’s encouraged by the new wave of interest in self-publishing technologies such as blogs, RSS feeds and wikis, as those interactive Web applications are closer to what he’d originally imagined, versus a network of tightly-controlled browsers and sites largely owned by businesses.

As part of a tightrope act that people exchanging information online must learn how to balance better, he said, Web browsers and sites will need to become more adaptive in allowing users to manipulate information online, while also getting more secure and trustworthy.

Why should all Koreans pay for the sins of one fraudulent ‘scientist’?

Nicholas Wade has a report on the immediate aftermath of the disgraceful end to the Hwang Woo Suk saga. This guy seems to have figured out how to trick the system:

The South Korean government, which promoted Dr. Hwang as a national hero and an international celebrity, has seen its investment wasted. The leading scientific journals that vied to publish Dr. Hwang’s work are re-examining their acceptance procedures. […]

Three ingredients of his ascent were attracting generous support from the South Korean government, compartmentalizing his laboratory so that few others had any overall view of what was going on and reporting plausible advances that scientists abroad felt they, too, might have achieved if they had access to as many human eggs as Dr. Hwang obtained.

In addition, Dr. Hwang invited well-known American researchers to be co-authors on his articles, which he may have hoped would make his findings more acceptable to leading journals like Science and Nature. He even invited Dr. Gerald Schatten, a stem cell expert at the University of Pittsburgh, to be the lead author on the June 2005 report although Dr. Schatten had done none of the experiments. But Dr. Donald Kennedy, the editor of Science, said the inclusion of American co-authors “certainly did not affect us.” […]

An indication of Dr. Hwang’s good connections to the government was the inclusion of Dr. Park Ky Young as a co-author of his 2004 report on human cloning. A botanist by training, Dr. Park may not have contributed much scientifically to the task of cloning of human cells. She is, however, the science adviser to Roh Moo Hyun, the president of South Korea.

Now, this part of the article really irritates the hell out of me:

“Clearly the scientific credibility of Korean investigators has been compromised,” said Dr. John Gearhart, a stem cell expert at Johns Hopkins University and a member of Science’s board of reviewers. He referred to the fact that duplicate and misidentified photos had turned up in articles by other South Korean authors besides Dr. Hwang.

This is utter nonsense. Two or three groups have screwed up. Does it mean that you start with the premiss that every Korean scientist is a fraud until proven innocent? The response of Donald Kennedy, the editor of Science is puzzling:

Dr. Kennedy said, “You cannot avoid a sense of taint from an experience like this.” He added, however, that many leading American universities had had at least one case of scientific fraud.

Read the two sentences again. What do they really mean? Just how many scientists in these American universities suffered because of “a sense of taint”?

It’s over

A panel at the [Seoul National University], releasing initial findings of a investigation, accused Hwang Woo-Suk of damaging the scientific community with his deception, while the South Korean government threatened to pull its funding for his research.

“I sincerely apologise to the people for creating a shock and disappointment,” Prof Hwang told reporters as he was leaving his office at Seoul National University, considered the country’s top institution of higher learning.

The quote is from this Guardian story. The International Herald Tribune story is here.

Remember the NYTimes report we looked at just a few days ago? Towards the end, it had this to say about the then ongoing investigation:

But experts also cautioned that the committee’s credibility requires the addition of outsiders, and perhaps scientists from other countries, who know the field and can help ensure that the investigation will retain its objectivity.

One has to wonder how these ‘experts’ are going to react to this news.

Evolution in Action, etc.

The prestigeous journal Science has just announced the “Breakthrough of the Year”. The prize goes to — can we have some drumroll, please — “Evolution in Action”. You can read its report here. If you are wondering why a 146-year old idea is being accorded this special status now, you should read P.Z. Myers, who explains that “we’re on the edge of a Renaissance in the discipline [evolutionary biology], if we’re not already in the middle of it.”

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Sunil Laxman has a nice post explaining a recent breakthrough in understanding the genetics of skin colour.

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BBC has a report about some promising research on cancer (leukemia) neutralizing effects of green tea. Doctors warn, however, that it is all still early days.

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For the average woman, life holds not two but three certainties: death, taxes and 35 years of monthly hormonal mayhem. Periods can be wretched. But from a young age, girls are comforted with the promise that the bleeding, cramping and radical mood swings are all part of the special alchemy of womanhood. Menstruation is — to use the mother of all feminine-hygiene euphemisms — a precious gift. Which is why the introduction of a new product that invites women to opt out of the whole ordeal is something of a cultural upheaval. Health experts are predicting that by this time next year, menstruation will no longer be an inevitable function but rather an optional feature, a bit like power steering or pay-per-view.

I am sure this quote piqued your interest. Go read all about Anya, a new contraception pill that also “provides a steady stream of hormones, [thus promising] to quash a woman’s usual cyclical fluctuations, virtually wiping out all the irksome symptoms of PMS”. It is expected to hit the drugstore shelves in the US and Canada in 2006. [Update: Anne Casselman notes some curious side effects mentioned in the article.]

Ranjit Nair on this year’s physics Nobel

Disclaimer: For this post, I am going by popular accounts of the contributions of great people like Sudarshan, Feynman and Glauber.

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The latest is by Ranjit Nair, who has an op-ed in today’s Times of India on the issue of who deserved one half of this year’s Physics Nobel: Roy Glauber of Harvard or E.C.G. Sudarshan of the University of Texas at Austin; the other half of the Prize was shared by two experimental physicists. I wrote about this topic a while ago in my other blog. So, what’s new?

Nair, who is the Director of Centre for Philosophy and Foundations of Science (Prof. Sudarshan is the President of the Centre’s Board of Advisors) indicates that Sudarshan also missed out on credit for some of his earliest work that Feynman did sometime later (I am not sure about the details here). This particular story has also been told by Sudarshan’s thesis advisor himself (I don’t have a link), and it goes like this: Sudarshan’s Ph.D. work was presented in one or two conferences. However, the paper by Murray Gell-Mann and Feynman appeared a few months before that by Sudarshan and his advisor.

So, it appears that in both cases, Sudarshan’s contributions appeared in print a few months after the ones that went on to become highly celebrated. In the first case (involving Feynman), Sudarshan was clearly a pioneer. In the latter (involving Glauber), his ideas and work were far better, but came after those of the Prize winner.

With this retelling, it now appears to me that Sudarshan’s main claim rests on the superiority (and not precedence) of his version of the theory. Given that the Prize was already shared by three scientists (apparently, Nobel Prizes cannot be shared by more than three people), the Nobel Committee’s decision to leave him out seems, if not totally fair, at least understandable.

Unless, of course, the demand (by Sudarshan and his supporters) is for the Prize to be awarded to Sudarshan instead of Glauber. I don’t think they are making that demand.

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See this story for more details about the Glauber-Sudarshan controversy. Peter Woit mentions it in his blog and gets a bunch of interesting comments about Feynman’s celebrated work. No, they are not talking about Sudarshan, but a German scientist called Stueckelberg!

Nanosilver

Apparently, silver (particularly in the form of silver nitrate) was used as a disinfectant before the advent of antibiotics. Today’s NYTimes has an article about the return of silver — this time, in the nanometric, elemental form — to its well known medical use. It adds that this link between silver and its disinfectant properties is not fully understood.