Can you switch off your sense of fairness (and your selfishness)?

You can, with the help of magnetic ‘stimulation’ of certain parts of your brain. Check out this Scientific Americanpiece:

In the [ultimatum] game, a researcher offers two players a set amount of money and explains that if they agree on how to divvy it up they will keep that money for themselves. If they don’t, neither will get anything. One player then offers the other a split. Our thirst for fairness dictates that most players will reject a patently unfair division–such as offering only $4 out of a total of $20. Yet, self interest would argue that even $4 is better than nothing …

TMS [transcranial magnetic stimulation] affects electrical activity in the brain, altering neuron firing in the area where it is applied. During … tests, 44.7 percent of the young men who experienced TMS on the right side of their prefrontal cortex accepted the most unfair offers–a split of 16 to fourcompared with just 14.7 percent of those whose left side had been stimulated and 9.3 percent of the controls. …


Physics Nobel

By now, I’m sure you all know that this year’s Physics Nobel has gone to George Smoot and John Mather. The NYTimes report on this year’s Physics Nobel is here.

“What we have found is evidence for the birth of the universe and its evolution,” Dr. Smoot said in a news conference on the results in 1992. About a map showing the splotchy seeds of galaxy formation, he famously said, “If you are religious, it is like looking at God.”

Sean Carroll gives his perspectives on the Prize here. Janet Stemwedel has comments from her mother, who worked on some of the data from COBE.

The New York Times has chosen to open its archives so we can feel the excitement created by the scientists when they announced their COBE results in 1992. The newspaper called the discovery “momentous”.

Woody Allen does deep physics

Via an e-mail from Anant, we get this wonderful gem published in the New Yorker in 2003.

… I approached Miss Kelly’s gravitational field and could feel my strings vibrating. All I knew was that I wanted to wrap my weak-gauge bosons around her gluons, slip through a wormhole, and do some quantum tunnelling. It was at this point that I was rendered impotent by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. How could I act if I couldn’t determine her exact position and velocity? And what if I should suddenly cause a singularity; that is, a devastating rupture in space-time? They’re so noisy. Everyone would look up and I’d be embarrassed in front of Miss Kelly. Ah, but the woman has such good dark energy. Dark energy, though hypothetical, has always been a turn-on for me, especially in a female who has an overbite.

War for open access publishing

Via Inside HigherEd: A US federal legislation would mandate making all academic publications available for free (presumably over the internet) some ‘n’ months after their original publication date. This legislation is being bitterly opposed by several professional societies (and in particular, by the American Chemical Society). Sometime ago, it found support from high officials of several groups of colleges and universities. And now, another group of high officials have opposed it.

This is one battle that’s worth keeping an eye on.

Here’s the Wikipedia entry on open access publishing. You migh also wish to read what Richard Vedder and Mark Thoma have to say.

Update: Peter Suber informs us (through his comment, below) that he has been following this issue on his blog Open Access News.

Is Steven Pinker right about the evolutionary irrelevance of music?

Just three weeks ago, we looked at a Boston Globe article on the evolutionary significance of music. In it we also noted Steven Pinker’s description of music as having no significance at all: music, according to him, is “auditory cheesecake.”

Now, Babel’s Dawn, a new blog on the origin of speech [here’s the first post], has an interesting commentary on Daniel J. Levitin’s book, This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession.

Levitin also appeals to common sense. A useless activity that can become a time-consuming, exhausting obsession should not become embedded in the species. […] Common sense is a dangerous line of argument because so much of science history recounts the triumph over a particular bit of common sense (the world is flat, the sun moves, time is absolute). On the other hand, we should not abandon common sense before a Magellan, Galileo, or Einstein comes along to correct us. Speculations such as Pinker’s that offer no evidence and that fly in the face of common sense can claim no special pride of place.

Levitin also argues that music also promotes a more general social bonding and cohesion, not just sexual bonding. He presents some interesting work suggesting a link between sociability and musicality (p. 253). While not conclusive, it is provocative and merits further investigation.

Most important from this blog’s perspective is the suggestion that, “Music may be the activity that prepared our pre-human ancestors for speech communication and for the very cognitive, representational flexibility necessary to become humans.”

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Here’s the Wired interview of Daniel Levitin. Link via the Sound and Mind blog, devoted to music cognition.

Intellectual commons

In an interesting piece in Chronicle Review, Mark Oppenheimer urges graduate students (and professors too!) to be interested in (and better yet, contribute to) the broader intellectual discussions and debates (in such magazines as NYRB and NYTimes Book Review, Dissent, etc):

The work of public intellectuals is important to young scholars partly because it helps us speak across disciplines. I, for example, was a student in a religion department, but my particular specialty, American religious history, gave me little common ground with classmates who specialized in Buddhism, New Testament criticism, or Islamic law. I had friends who were getting degrees in American studies, but if they were focusing on, say, material culture in the 19th century, their important professional journals were The Journal of American History and the Journal of American Studies, which I never read. Mine were Religion and American Culture and Church History, which they never read. If, however, we had all read one of the journals mentioned above, or maybe The American Scholar or The Wilson Quarterly — journals that include essays on a wide variety of topics in the humanities and social sciences — we could have had conversations with students who worked outside our immediate areas of interest.

Extracurricular reading would have produced social benefits as well. Graduate students, it’s well known, often feel isolated. On their bad days, they even feel that their lives are pointless, anomic, and worthless. It wears you down to spend years doing research on a topic that few people care about, greater knowledge of which will improve the world in no obvious way. But for graduate students to talk to each other, they need to have something to talk about — an obvious point, but one missed by administrators who try to foster camaraderie by scheduling grad-student movie nights. In unguarded moments, administrators will snicker that the controversial grad-student-union movement is fueled as much by the need for an improved social life as by legitimate gripes about working conditions. They have the ratio wrong — it’s more like 20 percent socializing, 80 percent genuine politics — but that’s a real insight. When I was in grad school, I could talk union politics with chemistry students and entomologists. I couldn’t talk about The New York Review with anybody.

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Link via


John Cassidy has a wonderful New Yorker essay on what neuroeconomists do, new insights the subject might offer us about our economic behaviour and decisions, how it might make mainstream economics revisit some of its rather restrictive assumptions, and what the detractors of neuroeconomics have to say about its techniques.

Here’s a two paragraph summary of the need for behavioural economics:

In 1979, two Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, published a paper in the economics journal Econometrica, describing the concept of loss aversion. At the time, few economists and psychologists talked to one another. In the nineteenth century, their fields had been considered closely related branches of the “moral sciences.” But psychology evolved into an empirical discipline, grounded in close observation of human behavior, while economics became increasingly theoretical—in some ways it resembled a branch of mathematics. Many economists regarded psychology with suspicion, but their preference for abstract models of human behavior came at a cost.

In order to depict economic decisions mathematically, economists needed to assume that human behavior is both rational and predictable. They imagined a representative human, Homo economicus, endowed with consistent preferences, stable moods, and an enviable ability to make only rational decisions. This sleight of hand yielded some theories that had genuine predictive value, but economists were obliged to exclude from their analyses many phenomena that didn’t fit the rational-actor framework, such as stock-market bubbles, drug addiction, and compulsive shopping. Economists continue to study Homo economicus, but many recognize his limitations. Over the past twenty-five years, using methods and insights borrowed from psychology, they have devised a new approach to studying decision-making: behavioral economics.

Here’s a framing of the ‘new new thing’ in economics by one of its practitioners. I like to call it ‘glory by association‘:

“Natural science has moved ahead by studying progressively smaller units,” [Harvard’s David Laibson said]. “Physicists started out studying the stars, then they looked at objects, molecules, atoms, subatomic particles, and so on. My sense is that economics is going to follow the same path. Forty years ago, it was mainly about large-scale phenomena, like inflation and unemployment. More recently, there has been a lot of focus on individual decision-making. I think the time has now come to go beyond the individual and look at the inputs to individual decision-making. That is what we do in neuroeconomics.”

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See also this recent post titled Is economics the new physics?.

Evolutionary relevance of music

Aapparently, humans are hard-wired to enjoy music. What is the evidence?

Researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute, for example, have scanned musicians’ brains and found that the “chills” that they feel when they hear stirring passages of music result from activity in the same parts of the brain stimulated by food and sex.

If something happens, scientists should be — and they are — asking questions like ‘how’ and ‘why’, and offering their versions of possible answers. What might they be?

Some evolutionary psychologists suggest that music originated as a way for males to impress and attract females. Others see its roots in the relationship between mother and child. In a third hypothesis, music was a social adhesive, helping to forge common identity in early human communities.

But some people are not convinced that there is any evolutionary purpose at all.

… [A] few leading evolutionary psychologists argue that music has no adaptive purpose at all, but simply manages, as the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has written, to “tickle the sensitive spots” in areas of the brain that evolved for other purposes. In his 1997 book “How the Mind Works,” Pinker dubbed music “auditory cheesecake” …

Different meanings of the word ‘replicate’

In the rough-and-tumble world of science, disputes are usually settled in time, as a convergence of evidence accumulates in favor of one hypothesis over another. Until now.

On April 10 economist John R. Lott, Jr., formerly of the American Enterprise Institute, filed a defamation lawsuit against economist Steven D. Levitt of the University of Chicago and HarperCollins, the publisher of Levitt’s 2005 book, Freakonomics. At issue is what Levitt meant when he wrote that scholars could not “replicate” Lott’s results …

That’s from Michael Shermer’s Skeptic column in Scientific American. Shermer is “executive director of the Skeptics Society, bold debunkers of all things supernatural”, according to Salon which has a long interview with him [free, if you are willing to watch an ad]. I don’t know if artificial intelligence would be considered ‘supernatural’, but here is an interesting article in the Skeptic magazine (flagship of the Skeptics Society) debunking the lofty claims made by AI enthusiasts.

The Oscars of Indian Science: 2006 Edition

Yes, the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar (SSB) Prizes have been announced for the year 2006. As I said in my post last year, the SSB Prizes are the most prestigeous in India because (a) they represent peer recognition, and (b) they are rare (just one or two in each field). They do come with some money, but at Rs. 200,000 or about $5,000, it’s not much (but certainly nice!).

I’m pleased to note that Prof. S. Sampath, a colleague in the Department of Inorganic and Physical Chemistry, is among the SSB Prize winners [Congratulations, Sampath!]. He has won one of the two Prizes for Chemical Sciences; Dr. K George Thomas (RRL, Trivandrum) has won the other.

The two SSB Prizes for engineering go to Dr. Ashish Lele (Complex Fluids and Polymer Engineering, National Chemical Laboratory, Pune) and Dr. Sanjay Mittal (Aerospace Engineering, IIT-K).

I have to fault the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the organization that awards these Prizes, for giving just the barest of details about the awardees. Is it so difficult to put together a news story that has details about each awardee’s important contributions? Wouldn’t it be nice — offering a higher profile for the Prize winners, and more information for the others — if full citations are available on the CSIR website? Currently, all that it offers is this press release [pdf] which deserves a prize for minimalism.

Ranking of universities across the world

Let’s face it: global rankings of universities are here to stay, despite their poor methodologies. Among them, the ranking by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University University probably deserves the award for the worst methodology. It gives a huge weight — 30 percent — to Nobel prizes won by the faculty and alumni, and a further 20 % for papers published in the journals Nature and Science.

Last year’s ranking, for example, included the University of Calcutta among those ranked between 401 and 500; IIT-Kharagpur too figured in this list, while IISc was among those with ranks between 301 and 400. The inclusion of UCalcutta was definitely because of the Nobel Prizes won by its faculty (presumably, C.V. Raman) and its alumni (Amartya Sen?). Thus, depite scoring poorly on every indicator of its current research activity — it actually scores zero for (a) publications in Nature and Science, and (b) highly cited papers — it was grouped with IIT-Kharagpur — and 98 others! — in the range 401 to 500. [1]

[Oh, just in case you are wondering, UCalcutta is out of the top 500 in this year’s ranking, while IISc and IIT-Kharagpur retain their last year’s rankings.]

Just because the Shanghai group has been in this business for the longest duration — four years! — its ranking is often quoted without paying any attention to its methodology. For example, Kaushik Basu used it in his recent BBC column:

A recent evaluation of universities and research institutes all over the world, conducted by a Shanghai university, has not a single Indian university in the world’s top 300 – China has six.

The Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, comes in somewhere in the top 400 and IIT, Kharagpur, makes an appearance after that.

Now, within the US, there’s a number of rankings that (mis)lead to different conclusions about the excellence level of different institutions [2]. In India, too, all the major newsweeklies (India Today, Outlook, The Week) rank our colleges, B-schools, engineering and medical colleges — with poor (and poorly spelt out) methodologies, each pointing to a different conclusion. When the situation is so complex within a country, the ranking exercise should be hopelessly complex at the international level. After all, the higher ed systems in different countries are different; more importantly, their funding patterns are different. How can one compare, for example, a hub-and-spoke and multi-campus university like the University of Delhi and a tech-centric ‘small’ university like CalTech?

Global ranking exercises, of course, don’t want to — and don’t want you to — look at the enormous complexity that arises from regional variations. By claiming to do the hard work on your behalf, they encourage your laziness!

For example, they want you to ignore a key fact about excellence: it’s always the individual research groups that are the repositories of excellence. Thus, even in supposedly moribund Indian universities, there are such islands of excellence in specific subfields. A good example would be the School of Chemistry in the University of Hyderabad, or the Department of Physics in the University of Pune. The rankings also have an inherent bias against small institutions (and India has quite a few of them). For example, places like the Raman Research Institute, the S.N. Bose Natiaonal Centre for Basic Sciences, or the National Center for Biological Sciences are outside the radar screen of most rankings, in spite of their great research groups, simply because they are small and niche players.

Of course, it is certainly a great feat to put together a large university, with a solid academic and research footprint in many fields. Thus, despite their shortcomings, these rankings do do a good job of identifying the top research universities. By the same token, the top 20 (or even the top 50) universities in these lists are not very different. It’s only when you move away from these top universities that you start seeing the effects of the rankings’ individual quirks.

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[1] In the mid-nineties, there was a ‘ranking’ that took India by storm. Coming from someone (whose name eludes me now) in the University of Maryland, it placed IISc at No. 17 and several IITs in the top 100. It got a lot of play in Indian press for sometime; it was, fortunately, a one-off affair.

[2] For what it’s worth, a recent issue of Newsweek put out its own list of top 100 ‘most global universities‘. Washington Monthly has a sort of anti-U.S. News listing of U.S. universities based on a measure of ‘excellence’ using a different set of critieria.

The Fame Motive

People with an overriding desire to be widely known to strangers are different from those who primarily covet wealth and influence. Their fame-seeking behavior appears rooted in a desire for social acceptance, a longing for the existential reassurance promised by wide renown.

These yearnings can become more acute in life’s later years, as the opportunities for fame dwindle, “but the motive never dies, and when we realize we’re not going to make it in this lifetime, we find some other route: posthumous fame,” said Orville Gilbert Brim, a psychologist who is completing a book called “The Fame Motive.”

From this fascinating NYTimes piece by Benedict Carey on fame as a strong motivator.


A quick note to tell you — particularly those of you in Bangalore — about the Bangalore Materials Quiz (BMQ), an annual event organized by us for the students of Classes XI and XII. As the name suggests, BMQ covers all aspects of materials: their physics, chemistry, production, processing, properties (mechanical, thermal, electrical, magnetic, optical, …), applications and use.

I have created the BMQ blog which will be used to both disseminate information and coordinate our team’s activities.

BMQ is organized almost entirely by the wonderful graduate students of our Department. They orchestrate all aspects of the event, with some minimal guidance (and cheering from the sidelines) from me. This is the tenth year since I took over the responsibility of running this show, and I have met some of the brightest students (one of them runs this blog) through it.

BMQ is not a mega event; we usually get about 25 teams (of two each) every year. This year, we hope to attract 50 teams. On the other hand, we aren’t set up to handle a large number of teams either; so 50 is the hard limit!

The Prize we offer is admittedly small — books worth about Rs. 500 for each student! But the top two teams from BMQ get to take part in a grander event with bigger prizes at stake (see the blog for details).

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Well, if you know anyone in Bangalore-based schools (higher secondary schools and pre-university colleges) who might be interested in BMQ, do please spread the word. Many thanks in advance.

What is so great about the proof of the Poincaré conjecture?

Jordan Ellenberg has a truly wonderful article in Slate.

The entities we study in science fall into two categories: those which can be classified in a way a human can understand, and those which are unclassifiably wild. Numbers are in the first class—you would agree that although you cannot list all the whole numbers, you have a good sense of what numbers are out there. Platonic solids are another good example. There are just five: the tetrahedron, the cube, the octahedron, the dodecahedron, and the icosahedron. End of story—you know them all. […]

In the second class are things like networks (in mathematical lingo, graphs) and beetles. There doesn’t appear to be any nice, orderly structure on the set of all beetles, and we’ve got no way to predict what kinds of novel species will turn up. All we can do is observe some features that most beetles seem to share, most of the time. But there’s no periodic table of beetles, and there probably couldn’t be.

Mathematicians are much happier when a mathematical subject turns out to be of the first, more structured, type. We are much sadder when a subject turns out to be a variegated mass of beetles. […]

[…] [Perelman’s proof of the conjecture of Poincaré] means … that we can think about proving general statements about three-dimensional geometry in a way that we can’t hope to about beetles or graphs.

Manhattan Project in energy saving technologies

Wired has an article (with links) about on-going research in energy-saving technologies in MIT. Check this one out!

The research is applying new materials, new technologies and new ideas to radically improve an old concept — thermophotovoltaic (TPV) conversion of light into electricity. Rather than using the engine to turn a generator or alternator in a car, for example, the new TPV system would burn a little fuel to create super-bright light. Efficient photo diodes (which are similar to solar cells) would then harvest the energy and send the electricity off to run the various lighting, electrical and electronic systems in the car.

Such a light-based system would not replace the car’s engine. Instead it would supply enough electricity to run subsystems, consuming far less fuel than is needed to keep a heavy, multi-cylinder engine running, even at low speed. Also, the TPV system would have no moving parts; no cams, no bearings, no spinning shafts, so no energy would be spent just to keep an engine turning over, even at idle.