Recently on Necessary Facts

Seeing in the Dark: Your Front Row Seat to the Universe.

Seeing in the Dark by Timothy Ferris is a narrative rhapsody honoring amateur astronomy. You do not need even a telescope to be blessed by the wonder of the skies. City lights are not a barrier. Certainly, a large telescope deep in the countryside, above the surrounding landscape is best. Building your own observatory is the epitome of the hobby. But for anyone, anywhere, passion and patience deliver the rewards. Seeing in the Dark is about the people whose love and work open the universe for themselves and others.

Images from SXSW 2013
FRIDAY, MARCH 15, 2013: Another day and night of fun and splendor as 6th and Congress remains the focal point of energy in downtown Austin. On Saturday, March 15, Oliver and Wilder Lee moved across the street. Balafon player Abou Sylla returned from last year. The Yellow Roses returned from yesterday. The Magician and Sonia did not.
These were some of the people who worked the intersection of 6th and Congress on Thursday. Blues and bluegrass, rock or skittle, tuba, xylophone, acoustic and electric, break dancing, no corner goes unoccupied for long. These shots were possible only in the moments when the on-lookers were sparse. To get me to work, we just waited for traffic to stall and did a “fire drill.” Later, on my way to a bus stop after work, I found the poet Bill Keys up a block, once again surrounded by girls. (Oh, why I did choose technical writing?)

Chamber of Commerce Biobash February 2013
Before and after the presentation, Austin life science professionals enjoyed hors d’oeuvres – courtesy of the Chamber of Commerce – and the opportunity to sit and talk with each other about their interests. Maggie Bishop of the Chamber made sure that I met Dr. Tim Meehan of Saber Astronautics. (Tim and I actually met at Benjamin’s Meetup last month.) I also met Samantha Fechtel, executive administrator of the Texas Medical Accelerator, Joe Smith director of technology innovation for Globiox, Jim and Sabine Accuntius whose Research Equipment Alliance is selling femto-second lasers for histology and similar research. (Calling them microtomes is three orders of magnitude too large.) Sharon Manley just joined Growth Acceleration Partners/Mobius as their new business development specialist. Although we talk a lot about “cloud computing” most of our work is done on the ground, and so, Christopher L. Marchbanks from Cresa Austin (“The Tenants Advantage”) was also at the Biobash.

Autobiography of a Worker

Autobiography of a Worker

Growing up, I did not acquire a good work ethic. What I did well at I did more of, but I never learned to work through a problem to gain a skill. I quit practicing the piano as soon as my younger brother eclipsed me. We competed by being successful at different activities in school. I did not work for money until I was legally of age. At my first summer job (in a hospital laboratory), I was more of a pain than a help. I liked sterilizing labware – which is to say that my best skill was washing dishes. Then, I read Atlas Shrugged. Twice.

Atlas Shrugged is too easily mischaracterized as a glorification of the rich. It is truly an anthem to all workers. Growing up in Cleveland, I knew the Rearden Steel mills (Republic and Jones & Laughlin), the Taggart Terminal (the Terminal Tower), and Patrick Henry University (Western Reserve University).

After two years at the College of Charleston (1967-1969), I came home to work at the Are-Jay Game Company making wooden games and puzzles. I ran drill presses and sanders. Mostly, I sprayed lacquer. I also learned to box shipments and fill out a UPS book and bills of lading. Between stints at Are-Jay, I worked for an employment agency. There, I attended a sales training series and practiced Approach-Benefit-Close making 60 phone calls a day.

After we got married, Coletta and I moved to Lansing. I worked a lot of spot labor jobs, mostly through Manpower. (Fifteen years later, I interviewed the franchise owner for a four-part series on “Quality” published by the Greater Lansing Business Monthly.) Finally, after about a year of that, Coletta said, “Mick, you need a real job.” So, I got on the phone, and a few pitches later I had an interview at Montgomery Ward. I worked there for two years as a stock boy, unloading trucks and distributing goods to the floor.

About a year into that, passing through Lansing Community College to see else I could learn, I picked up a brochure for a certificate in transportation and traffic management. It was a two-year course in government regulations of common carriers. It was painful. But I finished. And I went to work as a dispatcher for a regional truck line. That was 1976.

Toward the end of the course sequence, one of my classmates from General Motors said, “You know, Mike, these computers are going to be everywhere some day and you should find out how they work so the people from data processing can’t hand you a bunch of baloney.” So, I did. I had a semester of Business Programming in Fortran IV and got a C+, having no idea what I was supposed to have learned for the grade. But it was compelling. While working for the trucking company during the day, at night I learned to hack free time at the LCC and MSU computer labs. I took Fortran again (for an A); and then learned Basic in the LCC arts and science division. The class was experimental and resisted by the data processing curriculum of the business division. I met my present wife because we had the same instructor for physics and Basic, Claude Watson. (Man and the Computer by John G. Kemeny reviewed on NecessaryFacts here.)

Laurel and I moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico. I worked as mover’s helper for Bekins Van Lines until I got hired by the NMSU’s Physical Science Laboratory and was assigned to White Sands Missile Range as a computer programmer in Basic on Hewlett Packard desktop micros. Eighteen months later, we moved back to Lansing. Our daughter was born (1979).

(Continued here on Blogspot)


“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?


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.

India Two Point Oh

Both Aristotle and William Graham Sumner pointed out that laws are only expressions of tradition. To cite the terminology of Thomas Kuhn, only a paradigm shift can change a folkway. A hundred years ago, Bhagat Singh Thind (a veteran of the U.S. Army in World War I) was denied citizenship on racial grounds: though admittedly a speaker of an “Aryan” language, the U.S. Supreme Court found that he was “Asian” and therefore not qualified to become a citizen, despite his honorable service in the armed forces. Almost at that very moment, the self-taught Srinivasa Ramanujan was astounding the mathematics faculty at Cambridge.

Read more here

Indian English: Totally Legend Like Anything

The numbers speak. 12. 5 crore Indians use English, whereas only half as many in the UK do the same. When the USA invaded Iraq, I distrusted the American news media and sought international coverage. India’s English language newspaper websites provided some objectivity. One of them also delivered this: “Bush Ploy Foxes Pundits.” I could put the foxes in a bush, but I knew that “he pundits” is incorrect: pundit is a noun. So, I reparsed the sentence.

We think that our vernacular is the standard, but Jews who speak Yiddish have an old joke: “What is the difference between a language and dialect? Dialects do not have armies.” The so-called standard language is only the local dialect of the capital city. See, for example, The King’s English by Henry Watson Fowler and Francis George Fowler (Oxford: Clarendon Press , 1906), which was published at the height of the British empire. But Rudyard Kipling was the first English language writer to be honored with the Nobel Prize in Literature (1907) and he was born in Mumbai.  (Ironically, the Fowlers complained that Kipling introduced Americanisms into his prose.)

Now, India has an army (with nuclear weapons) and …

More here

Sergei Magnitsky

Sergei Magnitsky was a lawyer who investigated the agencies of the Russian government that looted the British firm Hermitage Capital Management. On June 4, 2007, police from the Ministry of the Interior raided the offices, taking all the records and the corporate seal. They then turned over all the assets to various criminal gangs. Hermitage hired Sergei Magnitsky from the law firm of Firestone Duncan to investigate. Magnitsky was arrested and held in prison without charges until he died in 2009, after 359 days, one day short of the legal maximum that you can be held without being charged in Russia. Now, although dead, Magnitsky is being tried for embezzlement.

The Magnitsky Affair is why Russia canceled adoptions by Americans. The Magnitsky Affair is why Russia condemned large lots of US beef as “unfit for sale.” The Magnitsky Affair is the reason for the U.S. Senate bill called the “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Bill” which was eventually made an amendment to H.R. 6156 normalizing trade with Russia, which President Obama signed into law on December 14, 2012.

Wikipedia biography of Sergei Magnitsky here.
The doctor who refused to treat him in prison was found not guilty of killing him. (The Independent UK here.)
Russia puts dead lawyer Sergei Magnitsky on trial. (Perth Now here.)
Wikipedia summary of the Magnitsky Bill as introduced in 2010.
The Government Printing Office PDF presentation of the law as signed by President Obama here.

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