Apollo 11 as a Paradigm

Saturday, July 20, 2013
Apollo 11: Task Accomplished
“That we had seen a demonstration of man at his best, no one could doubt—this was the cause of the event’s attraction and of the stunned numbed state in which it left us. And no one could doubt that we had seen an achievement of man in his capacity as a rational being—an achievement of reason, of logic, of mathematics, of total dedication to the absolutism of reality.”– Ayn Rand

Tuesday, July 16, 2013
The Virtues of Aviation Culture
The facts of reality force an ethos on pilots. The virtues of aviation are Intelligence, Self-Control, Independent Judgment, and Honor. Within these overlapping spheres are other concepts, often shades of meaning with arguable differentiations among them.

Monday, July 8, 2013
Knowledge Maps
Even if the philosophers could decide on a common vocabulary and a common narrative, the primary constraint may be the very dependence on verbal expressions: graphs might serve everyone better. Outside of information systems, we do not study means of graphical representation, except, of course, for actual artists.
PREVIOUSLY ON NECESSARY FACTS
Readability is the only Metric
Documentation is Specification
The Genius of Design
The Art of Typography
How to Hire a Technical Writer

Wednesday, July 3, 2013
Bob Swanson and Genentech
Bob Swanson was 29 when he provided the money for Prof. Herbert Boyer to start Genentech. Like all overnight successes, the real story is more complicated, with deep roots. Bright, accomplished, and motivated, Swanson had obvious potential – and a string of failures to show for it. In the book, 1,000 Years, 1,000 People: Ranking the Men and Women Who Shaped the Millennium, (New York :, Kodansha International, 1998) the authors ranked Bob Swanson number 612 for launching the biotechnology revolution.

After a year of battling brain cancer via surgery and chemotherapy Bob Swanson passed away on Monday, December 6, 1999, at his home in Hillsborough, California. He was 52.

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Recently on Necessary Facts

(The main site is on Blogspot here. This is an archive, not quite a mirror.)

Monday, May 6, 2013
KALLIOPE
Last night, on patrol, I met a Muse. Kalliope, the muse of epic poetry passed by at 6th and Congress. She was coming from 6th and San Jacinto where she had been performing.

She handed me a slip of paper. “Q: What did Athena say to Medusa? … A: I haven’t seen you in Aegis.”

Friday, April 26, 2013
Disruptive Diagnostics and the Business of Science

Former UT professor Tom Kodadek returned to address the postdoctoral student association of the School of Biological Sciences on April 25. He met a full house of about 250. The title of his talk was “The Ups and Downs of Moving ‘Disruptive’ Diagnostic and Therapeutic Technology from the Lab to the Real World.” Dr. Kodadek is now with the Scripps Research Institute, in Jupiter, Florida. Originally funded by the NIH, his work is now marketed by OPKO Health, Inc.,which found the angel funding he needed to bring his theories to realization.

Monday, April 22, 2013
OBJECTIFIED

Objectified is a film by Gary Hustwit about design, designers, and the objects that they create. Dieter Rams of Braun and Apple’s Jonathan Ive appear, of course. (See, The Genius of Design below.) So do thirty other designers, and a couple of supportive critics, such as Paola Antonelli of the Museum of Modern Art. IKEA and Target both get cameo roles as they deliver to us the magic of inexpensive mass produced items that ennoble us, their owners, with the spiritual benefits of good design. You and I also appear in anonymous walk-ons because in the words of Andrew Blauvelt, “anything that is touched by man, is transformed by man, is by its very nature designed.” The human-built environment is design.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Genius of Design

“For industrial designers, the world is never enough. They give shape and texture to the world to make it livable—indeed, beautiful—for the rest of us. This fascinating five-part documentary examines the art and science of design and the stuff it shapes, from computer chips to cityscapes and everything in between. See the evolution from artisans’ workshops to industrial mass production, and the profound changes it has wrought in our economy, society, and environment.” – from the promotional.

Friday, March 29, 2013 and Wednesday, April 3, 2013
ENGINES OF CREATION and GOOFING TO A MELTDOWN
Engines of Creation
The folks at Code.Org created a video with Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and others, encouraging kids to learn to program computers. That much is laudable. Disgracing the video, with an odd anti-capitalist mentality, is a segment by Drew Houston of Dropbox about how much fun it is to be a programmer. (View from the 3:00 minute to the 4:00 minute mark of this 5:44 announcement.) Was it the fun of 48 hours in three days to solve a tough problem? No, it is the fun of skateboarding in the office, playing ping pong, and chatting with your fields. The segment also touts free food including gourmet cooking three times a day. But where do these come from, if no one works? Blank out.

Goofing to a Meltdown?
After the Code.Org video touting “fun at work” (see the post before this one), this article appeared on March 28 on CNN.com about the positive side of “goofing off at work.”

Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Start the presses!
Reviews of two movies about typography, Justin Nagan’s Typeface and Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica.

The fundamental principles of composition are constant. Styles are invented, transformed, evolved. Good styles depend upon the adaptation of principles and then validate those principles. The composition may be poetry or prose, music or dance, sculpture or painting, but the same principles govern: order, structure, and motion; rhythm, melody, and harmony; contrast, conflict and resolution. These make a symphony or a skyscraper or this page.

Genius

“Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those which are there.” – Richard Feynman

James Gleick’s biography begins by correcting some of the myths about Feynman. Feynman created some of them himself, of course. Overall, the book is yet another tribute. Gleick fills in the narrative that Feynman left out of the two popularizations of his life, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman and What Do You Care What Other People Think?

Genius_Gleick

Underlying and beyond the stories Gleick explains the physics, as best as can be done, in colloquial English. Motivated, I browsed the stacks at the Austin Public Library and checked out Quantum Field Theory Demystified by David McMahon and Understanding Quantum Mechanics by Roland Omnès. Both were approximately the kind of book a physics major would read over the summer before the sophomore year. Though I renewed the check-out, after five weeks, I still did not get much, but gleaned what I could. Relevant here is the fact that just as the Pythagorean Theorem can be shown synthetically and analytically, the truths in quantum mechanics can be expressed with three different methods: wave equations, statistical equations, and Feynman path integrals. Gleick devotes considerable effort to explaining Feynman’s work, given that the intended audience is people who like physics, but really do not understand it.

False Prophets: Scientists as Criminals

Twenty percent of scientists are crooks. At university in both Introduction to Criminology and the Senior Seminar in Criminolgy, our professor, Liqun Cao liked to cite an easy claim of “twenty percent.”  The exact numbers – 18.3% or 23.9% – did not matter and neither did the specific study or survey.  The teaching point was that criminality is not unusual.  Heinous crimes are rare.  Daily harms are all too frequent – and we all engage in one or another of them whether speeding or padding expense accounts.  So, too, in science is it important to realize that fraud and misconduct in research are not rare.

cover of book showing medieval laboratoryFalse Prophets: Fraud and Error in Science and Medicine by Alexander Kohn (Oxford: Basil Blackwell: 1986), is a classic work that remains important. It sets a baseline for understanding fraud and misconduct in research.  Kohn repeats famous cases such as Margaret Mead, Robert Millikan, and Trofim D. Lysenko.  He also tells of N-rays, the Allison Effect, the Davis and Barnes Effect,, and polywater. From there, Kohn focuses on his special interest, clinical research.  The book closes with chapters on broad and deep issues in ethics and science.

Marshall Thomsen of Eastern Michigan University has been teaching “Ethical Issues in Physics” for over twenty years.  A search of “ethics physics” and similar items will return citations to Dr. Thomsen’s work at websites from the Illinois Institute of Technology, the University of Illinois, the University of Massachusetts, and Physics Today, among many more. When I had the class, he was on sabbatical and our professor was Patrick Koehn.  The class also has been taught by Prof. Mary Elizabeth Kubitskey. Dr. Kubitskey’s master’s thesis was Teaching Ethics in a High School Physics Class.
 
The Office of Research Integrity of the US Department of Health and Human Services investigates and acts on cases of fraud in research when federal grant money is involved.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Criminality and Scientific Research:Why Scientists Go Wrong; and Why the Wrong People Become Scientists

 “Crime knows no neighborhood” is an axiom of criminology. In other words, every population contains members who stray from folkways, violate norms, harm others, break laws, ignore contracts, and betray trusts.  Occupation, avocation, ethnicity, nationality, language group, religion, philosophy, ideology, age, sex, gender, height, weight, body mass, and shoe size are all irrelevant. 
 
So, of course, some scientists are criminals.  They falsify data; and they embezzle research funds. They also harass coworkers and subordinates, discriminate on the basis of race, age, religion, and gender. And they cheat on their spouses, beat their dogs, and kick their cats.  But not every scientist who falsifies data abuses their aged parents. In fact, very few do.  The arithmetic of intersecting sets limits the count.  If 20% of scientists publish phony findings and if 20% of researchers carry non-existent students on their payrolls, then only 4% of research scientists do both.
 
At the same time, criminality is a way of life.  The criminal researcher does not round up the value of a single point on one graph to make the curve smoother.  And the vagary is not the first lapse after 35 years of devotion to truth.  If a complete and nearly omniscient investigation could be conducted, it would most likely show falsified lab reports in ninth grade biology. 
 
Of course, “most likely” is not “certainly.” When the case of Jan Hendrick Schön was finally resolved, the University of Konstanz revoked his doctorate, even though his dissertation was above reproach. 
 
Revocation of degree is perhaps the most serious punishment any scientist can face. See “Another Case of Fraud in University Research” here.  Even though Dr. Eric Poehlman was sentenced to a year and a day in prison. he kept his degrees.
 
It seems that in the instance of Jan Hendrick Schön the pressure for results was his motive for crime.  The pressure for results has been cited as a cause of research fraud.  However, it is also true that truck drivers also labor under a call for results and that does not justify crime for them.  Basically, everyone whether in a market economy or a centralized state is called upon to produce.  At the end of a sabbatical, a professor is expected to show more than a sun tan.
 
Given all of the above, the research enterprise that does not engage independent investigation jeopardizes its funding and its social status.  Which loss would be the worse is hard to say.Whether all crimes are evenly distributed across all neighborhoods is another question.  It remains an easy assumption that life sciences are more susceptible to deviance than physical sciences.  Tons of public money are thrown at both; but as living entities are more complicated than subatomic particles, experimental results may be harder to quantify rigorously.  Confirmation bias may be a greater danger when we want to believe that we are helping other people live longer and better.  Another explanation is that the US Department of Health and Human Services actually has  an active Office of Research Integrity, while the U.S. Department of Energy has none. 

On 6 April [2011], a federal district judge in Boston, Massachusetts, dismissed a lawsuit that I had filed in 2009 under the US Freedom of Information Act. He concluded that the US government does not have to release a report on an investigation into a case of alleged scientific misconduct at a national laboratory. The ruling was disappointing but liberating: I finally had occasion to write about a case that has shown how the US Department of Energy (DOE) takes a strikingly hands-off approach to the oversight of such investigations.
“Misconduct oversight at the DOE: Investigation closed” by Eugenie Samuel Reich  Nature 475, 20-22 (2011) Published online 6 July 2011 here

University oversight committees focus on human factors. We seek to protect individuals from unintended harm during experiments and surveys in psychology and sociology. But you cannot hurt a chemical or a star.  Short of serendipity, we only find what we seek. 

 Previously on Necessary Facts
 

Merry Newtonmas

Sir Isaac Newton was born on December 25, 1642.  Sworn as a justice of the peace, while Master and Warden of the Mint, Sir Isaac Newton circulated in disguise among criminals to pursue counterfeiters. 
 
The English crown turned to him to save the Royal Mint. Even when they were not corrupt – which they usually were – the Mint officials were unable to solve the basic problem of creating and maintaining a system of money that worked. A stern Protestant, deeply religious, and moralistic in the extreme, Newton cleared out the criminal element and gave England a reliable monetary system.
 
Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist by Thomas Levenson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009) is intended for a general readership, yet rests on an extraordinary foundation of careful scholarship.  Thomas Levenson teaches science journalism at MIT.  He has been granted several awards for his PBS documentaries. Levenson delivers to print the videographer’s impact of sight and sound.  You walk down the alleys and into the pubs where Isaac Newton investigated crimes against the Mint of which he served as warden and later master.
 
A History of Newtonmas

The origins of Newtonmas are murky at best. Michael E. Marotta, a technical writer in Austin, Texas, has sent Newtonmas cards for 30 years and remembers a radio commentary he gave in 1982 that highlighted the parallels between Newton and Jesus.

Zebrowski thought she invented Newtonmas, but was delighted to learn she had co-revelers when the Skeptics Society sent her a catalogue of “Newtonmas gifts” — books like The Believing Brain, How to Debate a Creationist and Why People Believe Weird Things.

“I just made it up back in the 1990s as a joke, just to promote items we were selling,” said Michael Shermer, executive director of the Skeptics Society, which aims to debunk supernatural and pseudoscientific claims. “Everybody was giving me a hard time for calling our party a Christmas party so I said, ‘Alright, I am calling it Newtonmas.'”

Matt Blum, who wrote about Newtonmas in a 2007 post on Wired magazine’s GeekDad blog, says his high school physics teacher marked Newton’s birthday with experiments and “physics carols.”

A 1892 issue of Nature magazine bestows the carol credit on some Victorian-era English scientists.

“At Christmas 1890, or Newtonmas 248, for the first time,” the Nature article reads, “the members of the Newtonkai, or Newton Association, met in the Physical Laboratory of the Imperial University, to hear each other talk, to distribute appropriate gifts, and to lengthen out the small hours with laughter and good cheer. The Society has no President: a portrait of the august Sir Isaac Newton presides over the scene.”

Newtonmas picked up momentum — in keeping with Newton’s Second Law of Motion, of course — in 2007, when the evolutionary biologist and prominent atheist Richard Dawkins championed it in a British magazine.

USA Today from December 16, 2011 here

 

Open Secrets

Cancelled postal envelopes showing dates of secret satellite launches.

Engineers celebrate their work.

Openness brings risk.  We all take the keys from the car and lock the doors when we leave it parked. While the need to secure our infrastructure is clear, it is more important to maintain, reward and enhance the creation and  transmission of information, money, goods, services, and people.
But for 100 years collectivists right and left declared that our open society would be easy to infiltrate and destroy. We’re here. The Nazis and Communists are gone. Today, the open society, the agora, is attacked by new enemies who fear knowledge.  In Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics Jane Jacobs identified the dichotomy between the commercial ethos and the guardian way. Secrecy is important to police forces, armies, charities, and socialist economies.  On the other hand, scientists, farmers, and merchants depend on open communication.
Read more here.

 

She’s Such a Geek!

She’s Such a Geek! Women Write About Science, Technology, & Other Nerdy Stuff, edited by Annalee Newitz and Charlie Anders (Seal Press, Avalon Publishing, 2006) delivers 24 autobiographical vignettes about growing up, working, and living as a female noted for, and often defined by, her relationship to one or more STEM studies: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  The editors (who also contributed) selected these stories from among 200 entries.

Yet within each of these 24 narratives are many more commonalities and differences, any of which could be used to draw thin conclusions or question broad generalizations.  That, to me, is the ultimate lesson here: statistics about populations hide the realities of individuals.

I previewed this a couple of weeks ago. Read full review here.