The universe is not a Computer

MAX DOOLEY

“How do bacteria know when to split without having a brain?”

“How does an electron know it is being measured?”

These questions, and similar, have bothered me for some time now. Not in that I have searched for the answers to no avail. It’s not the actual answers that concern me. It’s the implication that these questions make that inanimate objects and, perhaps worse, physical forces are somehow cognisant.

To seek the answer to what it is that drives the universal forces of the Universe is a completely reasonable goal. The problem as I see it is that we are too quick to use the comfortable frame of reference of a computer program as our explanation. As physicists we learn our science through the language of maths and maths, in this context, is a representation of a model or simulation. For instance, when we use the formula F=ma we are modelling acceleration through maths. In this way we are taught to simulate everything.

We rarely, however, discuss the fact that this isn’t what is really happening. We talk about “the laws governing the universe” but there is no list of these laws anywhere. There is no Matlab workspace, with the variables saved, which is referenced by the universe for calculations. Sometimes, I think, we forget this. Too often have I had to stop to think in order to explain why the real world deviated from my equations.

The wording of the last sentence of that paragraph should show the innate hubris in this approach. To approach science from the direction of mathematics has been the best tool we have had for centuries. Before that, science was the domain of philosophers. With the advent of computers we could build true simulations. Those simulations use maths to give us a fantastic tool to look at the Universe, to model and to explore but they are not actually the Universe and they do not work the way the universe works.

So is this a problem? I believe it could be. While discussing relativity the other day, I decided to play devil’s advocate and argue that it was false. From a layperson’s perspective (or more accurately from a classical perspective) it is true that there are some major hurdles to overcome. The answer that came back was basically this: “the maths works”. Cool! But does this further our scientific understanding? Have we built physics so thoroughly on foundations of maths and computation that “the maths works” is really all that matters?

It is conceivable that there is no unifying theory. No final collection of equations to simulate every force and every interaction. Moreover, as the boundaries of physics become less intuitive we rely more on a mathematical understanding rather than a physical. It seems possible to me that as this continues we could lose sight entirely of the physical phenomena we are trying to explain.  We must be careful then to test our understanding of the underlying phenomenon on a physical level lest we lose ourselves in the maths. To ask questions is important, but we must ask the right ones.

 

The universe is not a Computer

Are we thinking about PhDs the wrong way?

MATTHEW BLINDT

There isn’t a problem with the number of science PhDs, but with the overwhelming expectation that the sole purpose of a PhD is to lead to professional, long-term academic research.

A chorus of bloggers and journalists have come to the conclusion that science produces far too many PhDs. One even claims that the high number of these scientifically literate, skilled individuals could threaten science itself. While that might be a somewhat bold assertion, it is true that this year the Careers in Research Online Survey (a survey of 9000 PhD candidates) found that 77% of respondents wanted an academic position, while a 2010 Royal Society report found that “only about 3.5% of science PhDs achieve a long-term career in academia.” Does this disparity suggest an excess of PhD graduates?

RoyalSoc

What comes after a PhD? From The Scientific Century by The Royal Society.

Despite the figures, I would argue that it doesn’t. Since so few of those who want academic positions actually secure them, it is evident that academia is a fiercely competitive arena – prospective PhDs should understand that when they apply. However, they should also be encouraged to consider the many other paths available to someone with such a high level of education: if these were made clearer, society could expect to benefit from a greater number of analytically minded people driving forward technology and business alike. If, however, we continue to view PhDs solely as preparation for the next generation of professors, only 0.45% of doctoral students will fully benefit, and there will continue to be a huge number of disappointed graduates unsure of where to go next.

PhDs who graduate and don’t get into university research are an incredibly highly trained and intelligent demographic: one far too valuable to lose from the workforce just because they are unprepared for life outside of academia. Imperial College London places some emphasis on teaching its PhD students “real-world” skills to remedy this. Other institutions would be wise to follow suit.

Gregory Petsko, professor of neurology and neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medical College says, “I don’t believe you can train too many PhDs in science. We live in a complicated, technologically sophisticated, rapidly changing world, and I can’t think of better preparation for that world than the kind of discipline in analysis, planning, and decision-making that you get from a good PhD program… It’s great preparation for just about any field — politics, policy — you name it.”

Daniel Munro, who earned a PhD in political science from MIT, summarises: “if the purpose of a PhD is to train people for academia, then we produce way too many… By contrast, if you think the purpose of a PhD is to produce advanced researchers [with skills that are relevant outside of research], then, well, maybe we don’t produce too many. Maybe we produce just the right amount.”

 

Are we thinking about PhDs the wrong way?

Bridging the Gap Between Girls and STEM

CHARLOTTE BEACH

STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) is a branch of academia that I know (at least the science aspect of it) reasonably well. It is also an area where my gender means I am a minority. It’s not unusual to find myself sat in a lecture surrounded by guys and in my A-Level physics class I was one of two in a class of 13. Also throughout my undergrad degree, from around 40 lecturers, six of them have been female.

I could go on but the picture is clear, women aren’t prevalent in STEM fields. This, however, is not due to the (incorrect) assumption that boys are simply better in these areas than girls. Performance between girls and boys at GCSE level in STEM subjects sees girls consistently out-perform boys in almost all STEM areas bar maths, and even in that case the numbers are very close.[1]

So why is this still such an issue?

Parental Influence
It’s common knowledge that children are heavily influenced by their parents, and this can be applied directly to possible career choices they may make. A study by BIS showed that only 15% of girls had been encouraged to do engineering by a parent, compared with 35% of boys. Similar low numbers applied to teacher encouragement (18% vs 10%). Also, parents of girls would much rather see them in teaching or nursing careers, whereas for boys engineering and scientific paths were preferred.[2]

The “science girl” trope
Women in STEM in pop culture are rare, and those few who do appear on television are usually portrayed as geeky and a bit odd. The kind of girl who’s useful to spout science, but one who also lives up to a lot of teenagers fears that the brand of “nerd” can never be removed
and leads to a life with excessive amounts of cats. Take The Big Bang Theory’s Amy, who comes across as awkward in social situations and portrays the nerd “girls wear glasses and dress like grandmas” trope.
This stereotype has started to break down in some areas but is still considered the norm and puts a harmful spin on the types of women in STEM fields, deterring rather than encouraging girls to follow in their footsteps.

Role Models?
Even in non-fictional settings, the number of women in the public eye with scientic recognition is again small. Of Nobel prize winners, Marie Curie is probably the only well known woman in the science field to have been awarded one. She is also one of only six women to have been awarded the prize for chemistry and/or physics.[3] Personally, asked to name a
famous scientist the names at the forefront of my mind are all male.

What’s Next?
I believe the solution to this is found in schools. Moving forward with a STEM career can depend largely on choices made as early as 13, with girls not having taken GCSE triple science hindering possible STEM futures.[1] Having role models in schools that girls can learn from and look up to is a big step in helping the next generation realise their potential and
begin to restore balance in the STEM workforce.

[1] Engineering UK. (2015) The state of engineering. London: Engineering UK
[2] BIS (2013) Review of Engineering Skills, November 2013. London: BIS
[3] \Nobel Prize Awarded Women”. Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 14 Oct 2015.
http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/lists/women.html

Bridging the Gap Between Girls and STEM

How do you terrify a physics undergraduate?

BEN HILLS

How do you terrify a physics undergrad? No, it’s not by setting all their lectures for 9am, mentioning student debt or even telling them that they are no longer allowed a calculator in their exams. The answer to this, admittedly bad, joke, is, worryingly, that nothing chills the spine of an undergrad more than asking them to write you an essay. This aversion to prose, however, is not the undergrad’s fault but rather an unacceptable by-product of the current education system in both public sector and (most) private sector schools that forces students to specialize academically far too early.

There are two main problems with our system in England that I will be discussing here:

1. There are certain life skills (writing essays and prose being amongst them) that I believe to be necessary for everybody in our society to have in order to maximise their potential and;

2. The potential impact that overspecialization is having on interdisciplinary research.

Firstly, then, by forcing students to pick their A level subjects at (at the latest) the beginning of year 12, students are prevented from learning vital skills at a level that is necessary for them to go on to be the best possible member of society that they can be. Essaywriting, for example, is one such vital skill because it teaches you to not only express your opinion in a structured and persuasive way but also to critically assess the opinions of others the cornerstone of a liberal democracy such as ours. How can someone who has not had to write an essay since they were 16 participate fully?

This criticism goes both ways, however, because, just as soon as STEM students drop Humanities, so too do Humanities students drop STEM subjects! A basic understanding of statistics, probability and calculus (such as taught in AS maths) should be required for everybody so that critical subjects such as the economy, climate change and public health can be better understood and acted upon. Moreover, due to recent incompetent bumbling, we are encouraging stronger specialization by abolishing AS level qualifications, forcing students to pick subjects to do for the whole 2 years or leave empty-handed.

Finally, overspecialization is damaging interdisciplinary research. Interdisciplinary projects are a hot topic at the moment, as Sarah Byrne mentions in this Guardian article, with research in Medicine, Physics, Sociology and Economics (amongst others) all coming together to provide fresh eyes on old problems and to push the boundaries of each field. The view that our specialized schooling system promotes, however, is one of everybody in their own separate research ‘bubble’, independent to, and sometimes in direct competition with, other ‘bubbles’ for resources, funding and results. This leads to a lack of support for these groundbreaking projects and so harms research at the highest level and this feeling comes, in part from our insistence on specialization so early!

So, ironically, the answer to how to terrify a physics undergrad is, itself, terrifying, because it is indicative of a schooling system that not only prevents students from honing life skills to a level that will allow them to fulfill their potential as a member of our liberal democracy but goes on to cultivate a mentality that damages some of our most cutting edge research through academic isolationism.

How do you terrify a physics undergraduate?

What should be the motivation for scientific research?

KATINKA VON GRAFENSTEIN

 “Yesterday was my 21st birthday, at that age Newton and Pascal had already acquired many claims to immortality.” Joseph Fourier (1768 – 1830), a French mathematician and physicist, wrote this sentence in a letter to one of his professors in Auxerre. Immortality – a very personal reason for becoming a scientist and trying to make an important discovery.  There should be nothing wrong with the wish to become famous and maybe even known ‘forever’ for a great scientific breakthrough. With this wish there may be the longing for wealth as well.

But these motivations are certainly understandable and very human. Another personal motivation, but less profane as fame and wealth, is the interest in science itself, the need for knowledge, just to know how the world is constructed and how it works, maybe without even the wish to use this knowledge for anything. The question of where everything, the universe, the earth and all living things on it come from can be very driving. This is a good reason to do science – without considering the possible misuse of this knowledge by others, for example for atomic weapons.

But the motivation which drives scientists to their work can also be in consideration of a larger group of people or the whole world. There could be the reason to gain power for a certain nation, for example to be more successful in a war through better and newer weapons. Since war and scientific new weapons are able to bring death and misery to a lot of people I am convinced that this should not be the motivation to do science. Even if one must admit that some important new technologies are developed for armies and are only introduced later to public use. For example the da Vinci System, which uses console controlled robots for operations on humans, was originally invented by a company working for the U.S army and is now used in many hospitals to do complicated surgeries.

While the outcome of this particular invention may have been the same, I think scientists should rather try to develop something like this to help people and not because it is needed for war. Thus we arrived at the completely different motivation to invent new technologies to help people or for example to conserve the environment which is the foundation for everybody’s living. This can range from renewable energy technologies to the prevention of danger to humans through the early knowledge when a volcano will erupt or a meteor might hit the earth.

The last mentioned possible motivation for being a scientist is certainly the most moral and honourable one. Nevertheless it is probably the most difficult one since it is hard to consider the whole world in one’s own life and I would suspect that more personal reasons stand beside those ethical reasons as well. It is my opinion that whatever motivations or reasons stand behind the wish to do science there should always be the consideration of what the effect of new discoveries and new technologies will be.

What should be the motivation for scientific research?

Should scientists have to justify their research in terms of its socioeconomic impact?

JOSEPH SHANKLAND

Society that is no longer capable of waiting; we have been conditioned into knowing that what we want can be directly and instantaneously obtainable – we can walk into a fast food ‘restaurant’ and get a quick fix, we work hourly and daily knowing that we are receiving a direct monetary recompense. This conditioned behavior has led to us having an incredibly myopic vision, a way of thinking whereby the question of ‘what if’ has been relegated in favour of ‘I will do this because I want that’. Clearly this ethos has infiltrated its way into the domain of science, whereby large amounts of public research funding is allocated on the basis of ‘when’; not ‘if’, it will have a socioeconomic impact.

 

The question on whether or not research should be justified in terms of its socioeconomic impact actually bemuses me in a very simple way; in fact I’m sure it does to most scientists who have a grasp of scientific history. It bemuses me because it has a very obvious underlying fallacy, in that throughout the history of science, theories have been developed through research that people originally thought had no scientific basis, let alone ‘socioeconomic impact’. These theories have then gone on, whether immediately or decades later, to fundamentally shift how technology works, our quality of life and most importantly our knowledge of the universe. For example was Copernicus’ research into heliocentricity unjustified at the time because it didn’t increase the GDP of Prussia?

 

Now this converges back to my original point about society being myopic in their justification of research, because how is it possible to objectively quantify whether research will be socioeconomically beneficial when we cannot know what, if anything, it will manifest into? We are clearly too fixated on acquiring immediate benefit that we have appeared to forget the true purpose of research, which is the pursuit of knowledge. For generations research has been undertaken to develop the knowledge and understanding of humankind and not to generate some direct socioeconomic benefits, it is particularly clear as well that the more educated and the more we understand about science the more the economy and society benefit. The understanding and development of knowledge we acquire through research is in itself what justifies the research and whether or not it has a socioeconomic benefit is secondary. Unfortunately this altruistic approach to research is not inline with how the capitalistic market forces and the scarcity of resources operate.

 

Should scientists have to justify their research in terms of its socioeconomic impact?

Power to the People: Can Crowdfunding Replace Government Grants?

JONATHAN HODSON

What do potato salad and a lunar lander have in common?

Both raised thousands of pounds through online crowdfunding.

Crowdfunding websites such as Kickstarter allow people to donate towards the development of products in exchange for small rewards based on their donation amount. From board games to beer, many different projects have been launched this way. But would this approach work for science?

In recent years, a number of websites such as Experiment.com and Walacea have sprung up with the specific intention of crowdfunding scientific research. This is likely in response to the fierce competition for dwindling government grants, and the ever-growing population of academics in contest for a comparatively small number of research positions. At first these websites seem like a good idea – they allow scientists to do niche research that would otherwise go unfunded, and at no (mandatory) cost to the taxpayer. For example, more controversial topics of research such as the investigation into LSD as a means of curing depression may not have been undertaken if not for crowdfunding. One of the biggest selling points is that crowdfunding gives the general public an opportunity to dictate the direction of scientific research.

But wait up a second.

Isn’t this the same general public that crowdfunded over £35,000 for a guy making potato salad? What’s to stop people from funding frivolous research just because it’s amusing? It is not cynical to assume that some “researchers” would start to take advantage of the public by creating flashy, but questionable research proposals. One example might be the lunar lander project, Lunar Mission One, that raised over £600,000. Their objective is to get a lander to the Moon by 2024 and not only gather data on the surface, but also to act as a time capsule for their backers’ photos, recordings, and even strands of hair. This sounds like a fun and interesting idea, until you realise that you might need to add a couple of zeros to the amount donated in order to actually reach the Moon.

It’s easy to see why people might’ve taken a shine to Lunar Mission One. What percentage of the public could honestly say that they’d rather donate to something like “Recovering molecular orientation from convoluted orbitals”? But herein lies the problem. The public, not being well-versed in science, may not see the value in more complex research, or could be put off by its complexity altogether. Related to this, the public may not realise when an experiment is unfeasible or suspiciously light on supporting theory. The crowdfunding websites can vet the projects themselves, but some junk projects will inevitably slip through.

Overall, as a supplementary system, crowdfunding could shine. It provides an excellent way of engaging with the public and capturing their imaginations. This rare ability to inspire, while also backing useful research means that perhaps crowdfunding should have a place in science. However, it seems that research funding is not suited to such a paradigm shift due to the sheer number of pitfalls associated with it. Crowdfunding has some real potential, but not as the main source of finance for research.

  1. https://walacea.com/campaigns/lsd/
  2. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/zackdangerbrown/potato-salad
  3. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/lunarmissionone/lunar-mission-one-a-new-lunar-mission-for-everyone
Power to the People: Can Crowdfunding Replace Government Grants?