Philip Ball: Grainy tunes from sand dunes.
Put yourself in the shoes of a young, hot-shot post-doc who has got several offers for a faculty position, including one from a Great University in your field. Naturally, you are keen on joining GU, except for one small glitch. GU also has a leading senior researcher — a Nobel laureate, no less! — with research interests that overlap yours considerably; the glitch is that this senior researcher is not keen on having you as a colleague. He says so in so many words in his e-mails (doc):
… I am afraid that accommodating your lab would be difficult.
… [As] you are very aware, two competing labs in the same building is something we should avoid by all means. Some people who are promoting your arrival here are ignoring this basic principle, but I don’t believe that they are doing a service to you.
I am sorry, but I have to say to you that at present and under the present circumstances, I do not feel comfortable at all to have you here as a junior faculty colleague. … I am most happy to support you if you and I are going to work with some distance between us.
What would you do? How would you react?
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After thinking this over, do read these two reports in Boston Globe about the sordid saga that played itself out in MIT, involving a star neuroscientist (Alla Karpova) and a Nobel laureate (Susumu Tonegawa). Links via Inside Higher Ed (1, 2).
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You must read the follow-up post by Janet Stemwedel, who ends her post with: “it may be wise for the tribe of science to look at whether these competitive situations are really the best way to build better scientific knowledge.”
… At the beginning of June the University of California, which had run Los Alamos since the days of the Manhattan Project, ceded control to a consortium known as Los Alamos National Security. Though the university remains one of the consortium’s members, it will now share what bouquets and brickbats come Los Alamos’s way with three firms that make a lot of their money as military contractors. These are Bechtel and Washington Group International, two large engineering and construction companies, and BWX technologies, a concern that specialises in managing nuclear facilities.
Unlike the university, the new consortium will be aiming to make a decent profit from its activities. It is also thought likely to change the emphasis of the laboratory from research (in a wide range of subjects, not all of them to do with defence, let alone nuclear weapons), to the more mundane business of making the detonators of nuclear warheads.
The consortium is making reassuring noises. According to Jeff Berger, its director of communications, “There is a popular misconception that we’re out to change the lab’s mission.” Nevertheless, many of Los Alamos’s researchers sense a shift of direction. Indeed, quite a few have left. …
For a long time, physicists have had a reputation for boldly venturing into other disciplines. Indeed, in a recent Physics Today article recounting the history of physics since 1931, Spencer Weart specifically mentions the rise of ‘hyphenated physics’ (bio-physics, geo-physics, etc) during this period as a key development.
The natives of the other disciplines, of course, would grumble because they felt that many of these wandering physicists were promiscuous (with no long term commitment to their field) and, more importantly, arrogant. I remember a wanderer saying several years ago, “You know, these metallurgists know a lot of stuff about X. I don’t know how they know so much, but they just do!” Among the natives, the joke is that these promiscuous physicists were just looking for interesting problems, because there weren’t any in physics. I suppose all this is a part of a healthy disdain for other disciplines that scientists imbibe and develop.
Economists are extending the range of their studies to include all of the social sciences. . . . What is the reason why this is happening? One completely satisfying explanation . . . would be that economists have by now solved all of the major problems posed by the economic system, and, therefore, rather than become unemployed or be forced to deal with the trivial problems which remain to be solved, have decided to employ their obviously considerable talents in achieving a similar success in the other social sciences. However, it is not possible to examine any area of economics with which I have familiarity without finding major puzzles for which we have no agreed solutions, or, indeed, questions to which we have no answers at all. The reason for this movement of economists into neighbouring fields is certainly not that we have solved the problems of the economic system; it would perhaps be more plausible to argue that economists are looking for fields in which they can have some success. [from Ronald Coase’s 1978 paper titled “Economics and Contiguous Disciplines”.
Just replace ‘economics’ and ‘social sciences’ with ‘physics’ and ‘natural sciences’, respectively, and you have a perfect analogy!
[Peeter Klein’s posts also discuss and critique the ‘freakonomics’ kind of incursions into other fields; do read them.]
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Last year, the New York Times proclaimed ‘econophysics’ as one of the most noteworthy ideas of the year. Given the reputation of physics and economics in their respective domains (natural and social sciences), econophysics sounds like a marriage between two domineering individuals. Has it been a marriage filled with joy and peace? Hardly!
In a recent article in Nature (subscription required), Philip Ball (author of this survey article on interating agent models in sociology) describes the scene rather well. Here’s how the article opens:
For the past two decades, some physicists have been trying to apply their ideas and tools to an area that seems a long way from traditional physics. They are exploring the notion that there might be a kind of physics of the economy — an ‘econophysics’, as it has been dubbed1. Last year, some of these econophysicists even went as far as to suggest that economics might be “the next physical science”.
But now this unlikely marriage is showing signs of turning sour. Even those economists who at first welcomed econophysics are starting to wonder whether it is ever going to deliver on its initial promise. Early successes in modelling financial markets have not led to insights elsewhere, some complain. Matters came to a head at the Econophysics Colloquium, held at the Australian National University in Canberra last November. A group of economists attending the meeting were so dismayed with what they saw many physicists doing that they penned a forthcoming paper entitled ‘Worrying trends in econophysics’.
To me, this paragraph is telling:
So why have some of these physics-friendly economists become fed up? Although Ormerod and colleagues are highly critical of mainstream economic theory, they point out that “economics is not at all an empty box.” The Canberra critique accuses econophysicists of ignoring the existing literature — a charge also levelled at physicists when they began to dabble seriously in biology.
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Over a year ago, I covered a different kind of interdisciplinary war: the one between sociologists and physicists about the theory of social networks.
Alternate title: “Fun and Frolic on the Beaches of the Just-So Land”
(from the Annals of Just-So Theories, May 2006)
Introduction: In this paper, we propose a simple (heck, it’s even simplistic!) model to show that quotas are economically efficient.
Model: Consider two students A-1 and A-20 who are about to enter college. Let their intellectual abilities be similar (that’s why we use the symbol A to designate them!). However, assume that A-1 comes from a disadvantaged group (compared to A-20), and possesses a smaller amout of ‘social capital’ (networks, support system, contacts, what have you) than A-20.
Consider now two colleges Q and Z. Let’s assume that Q has global brand equity, and Z is another one of those run-of-the-mill colleges. Let the cost per student borne by the society be $50,000 for College Q, and $10,000 for College Z.
Now, assume that education in College Q — somehow! — compensates students such as A-1 for any lack of social capital they start out with, while education in College Z does not possess this wonderful property.
Thus, both A-1 and A-20 will get the same benefit from College Q; let’s say it’s $70,000. On the other hand, A-1 (with lower social capital) benefits from College Z to the tune of $20,000, while A-20 gets $50,000 from his education in
College Q the same college (Z).
Results: It’s easy now to prove that the combination of A-1 studying at College Q and A-20 studying at College Z produces a higher net benefit to the society (for the same cost: after all, the society spends the same amount of $60,000). This combination produces a net gain to society of $60,000, while the reverse combination (of A-1 at Z and A-20 at Q) produces only $30,000. QED!
Discussion: I am sure some readers are wondering why we have made these specific assumptions. Why, they are ‘just so’! For one thing, they are not unreasonable, and are certainly plausible; more importantly, their virtue lies in the fact that they are less implausible than some of the other models (one of them can be found right at the end of this post by Atanu Dey) in the intellectual market for ‘just-so’ ideas.
Conclusion: Quotas are economically efficient!
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Update: Added the link to Atanu Dey’s post, following this post over at my main blog.
Disclaimer: For this post, I am going by popular accounts of the contributions of great people like Sudarshan, Feynman and Glauber.
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.
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!