I’m back from dinosaur hunting, no worse for wear, save for the indignities suffered upon me by Delta Airlines on the trip home. A brief report will be forthcoming.
But a looming event demands our attention: tonight’s NBA draft, the process by which the world’s most promising young basketball talent is apportioned to the Association’s various teams. A process, which, by all accounts, is in serious need of fixing. But don’t worry, I have it figured out. (Hey, I was stuck in airports for over eight hours.)
The basic problem is one that is common to the draft process of most professional sports leagues: the draft rewards failure. The teams that finish at the bottom of the season’s standings get to choose first in the draft, funneling the best players to the worst teams. The motivation, of course, is fairness: the good teams have had their chance at success, let’s give the bad ones a fighting chance. The ultimate goal is to win, so the incentive to grab a better player should be offset by the incentive to win games.
In most other sports that idea basically works, but it fails drastically for basketball. The problem is that the difference in game-altering ability between the first one or two players and the next few can be huge. There are fewer players on court in hoops than in other sports, so one great player can wield a disproportionate influence. The incentive to get that very first pick can be tremendous, especially if it’s between a group of teams that aren’t good enough to make the playoffs anyway.
As a result, a straightforward worst-pick-first draft structure leads to a race to the bottom, where bad teams intentionally lose games to have a chance to make the first pick. Repulsed by the idea that teams would purposely tank, the NBA decided to alter the incentive structure by softening the reward for losing. In 1985 the NBA instituted the Lottery: all of the teams that had missed the playoffs (seven back then, fourteen today) would be entered into a random drawing for draft position, with equal chances of getting any of the first picks.
The lottery removed the incentive for finishing with the worst record in the NBA, but introduced an even worse incentive: now a team that just missed the playoffs could possibly land a franchise-caliber player if the ping-pong balls bounced their way. The last thing the Association wants is to see teams trying to not make the playoffs, so they instituted a compromise: via an ungainly formula, each non-playoff team would have a weighted chance of getting a top pick, with better chances for the teams with the worse records. This year, for example, the 14th-worse team had a 0.5% chance of getting the #1 pick.
Which, of course, is the worst of all worlds! There is still some tempting incentive to miss the playoffs, but there is also incentive for non-playoff teams to lose more games. It is almost inevitable: the first pick, in the right year, can be enormously valuable, so any chance to get it will be highly sought-after, no matter how such chances are distributed.
Aside from all this, there is another nagging problem with the basic idea of worst-pick-first drafts: teams can be rewarded not only because they struggled valiantly but lost with inferior talent, but also because of sheer incompetence. Good players can be steered to teams that regularly suffer from bad decision-making at the level of coaching or management.
With all that in mind, here is my magic formula for fixing the NBA Lottery. (Unfortunately, I know of no way to prevent the crimes against fashion regularly committed by draft attendees.) Each year, the draft order will be chosen by the following two-step algorithm:
To see how this would work, here are the records of the bottom 14 teams for the combined 2005/2006 and 06/07 seasons, starting with the worst:
If you are really lucky, then you may have a great new idea about particle physics. It may be a way to address the hierarchy problem (why is gravity so much weaker then the known particle physics forces), or to generate mass for fermions (after all, we haven’t found the Higgs yet), or to understand the flavor hierarchy (how come there are three repeated families of particles in the standard model with increasing masses), or perhaps to unify all the forces into one (Grand Unification). Obviously, your obligation is to begin systematically computing the consequences of this idea for existing and future particle physics experiments.
Thirty years or so ago, with a few notable exceptions this would have been the end of the story. But it has become increasingly clear to most physicists that there exists a complementary list of consequences that should be figured out; those for cosmology. These days, this approach is basically second nature to any of us who might have new ideas about how the micro-world works, and reflects the modern thinking that particle physics and cosmology are not distinct disciplines, but are two sides of the same set of questions.
So, parallel to the cross-section and decay rate calculations, what are the most common cosmological areas in which one currently looks for further constraints on one’s new particle physics idea? What new questions do you need to ask yourself?
Yesterday morning I woke up moderately early to hie myself down to the NPR West studio in Culver City, where the magic of electromagnetism enabled me to participate in a BBC Radio 4 program, The Material World. Also appearing as a guest was Peter Woit, as we talked about — wait for it — string theory. It was fun, but to be honest, it wasn’t the most enlightening fifteen minutes I’ve ever spent, as too much time was spent talking about whether this ambitious scientific idea was overhyped or not, rather than making the effort to elucidate the idea’s successes and shortcomings in any substantive way. But perhaps I am just spoiled by blogs, where the constraints of time and space are felt much less keenly.
More interestingly, Peter in his post points to a blog I hadn’t heard of, The Atom Smashers. It’s by Clayton Brown, a filmmaker who is presently working on a documentary about particle physics. I won’t give too much away, except to encourage you to read it, and note that one of our bloggers plays a crucial role!
Then, a couple of hours after the BBC interview, I had a really interesting and fun meeting in Beverly Hills, which I’m not going to tell you about, or at least not now. Ha!
Tomorrow morning I will wake up truly early, in order to hop on a plane to scenic Billings, Montana, from which I’ll join an intrepid crew of bone hunters on a trip to the Kedesh Ranch in beautiful Shell, Wyoming. This is one of my occasional chances to join up with Project Exploration, as Paul Sereno and the gang lead some enthusiastic amateur paleontologists to dig up honest-to-goodness Jurrasic dinosaur fossils. I’ve done this a couple of times before, as recounted (naturally) in blog posts about the 2004 trip:
Here’s a picture of Paul and me, laughing in the face of danger as we stand astride an interesting geological formation:
Paul is the one who looks like a paleontologist in the field; I’m the one who looks like a theoretical physicist who someone dragged into the sunlight. He was also voted one of People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People” in 1997. But I am better at calculus!
Sadly, the seeming ubiquity of the internet has not managed to extend its way to the Kedesh Ranch. So no blogging. Cell phones don’t work there, either. In fact I’m pretty sure that this particular part of Wyoming is absolutely free of electromagnetic radiation of any sort. That’s the only explanation I can think of.
PZ Myers links to a great Ted Rall cartoon on Stupid Design. The point being that the world around us isn’t anything close to being efficiently designed. If it is the reflection of the plans of some supernatural architect, many of us could have offered a few useful pointers. As with most such arguments, David Hume was there first:
In a word, Cleanthes, a man who follows your hypothesis is able perhaps to assert, or conjecture, that the universe, sometime, arose from something like design: but beyond that position he cannot ascertain one single circumstance; and is left afterwards to fix every point of his theology by the utmost license of fancy and hypothesis. This world, for aught he knows, is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance: it is the work only of some dependent, inferior deity; and is the object of derision to his superiors: it is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity; and ever since his death, has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force which it received from him.
Hume gets extra bonus points for writing before Darwin demonstrated how complex adaptive organisms can arise even without a designer. (But he loses some points for weaseling at the end of the Dialogues.)
Before Darwin, you couldn’t really fault someone for thinking “Gee, my two choices are between imagining that something as complicated as a human being just sort of came together by accident, or that someone designed it. I think I’ll go for Door Number Two.” But once we figured out that there was a Door Number Three — that such complexity could evolve through descent with random modification and natural selection — it boggles the mind how anyone could look at the natural world and conclude that it shows any signs of being intentionally constructed just this way.
One of the prevalent misconceptions about evolution is that, in response to a certain problem, organisms can (over the course of generations) simply “evolve an appropriate solution.” Of course they don’t always do so; sometimes they just die off. But more importantly, the space of possibilities that organisms explore via descent with minor modifications is most definitely not the space of small variations on bodies (or behaviors); it’s the space of small variations on genomes. Even if a certain physiological feature would be useful, we’re not going to be able to evolve it unless flicking a few switches in the genetic code would lead to an intrinsically useful mutation that would move us along that direction.
Years ago, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin borrowed the term spandrel from architecture to illustrate an important consequence of the way evolution works. A spandrel is an aspect of some form (whether from Renaissance arches or paedomorphic morphology) that arises as a side effect of some other trait that is useful, even if it doesn’t itself serve a necessary purpose. Those kinds of non-adaptations and accidents and anachronistic features are found all over the place in real organisms. Any intelligent designer with a shred of self-respect would be embarrassed to exhibit such shoddy workmanship.
The classic argument-from-design question is: What good is half an eye? Even when I was twelve years old, I could guess the answer to that one: it’s a lot of good! Imagine just a few photo-sensitive cells evolving on the skin of a sightless organism; that could be immensely useful, offering a decided advantage to its offspring. Continual reinforcement of that tendency could directly lead to better sensitivity and all the other highly-specialized upgrades that our own eyes come with.
On the other hand: What good is half a wheel? Now you’ve got me. The wheel is an excellent answer to a pretty obvious question, if you’re a person sitting there thinking about how to move heavy loads more quickly or efficiently. And it’s not hard to imagine wheels coming in useful on certain organisms. (Tell me that a snake with wheels wouldn’t be pretty efficient, if a bit scary.) But you just can’t get there from here, by ordinary evolutionary means. It’s hard to think of useful transitional forms.
All of which should teach us a lesson when we sit down to try to understand and reproduce the workings of actual organisms. The idea behind Strong Artificial Intelligence is that the brain is basically a computer — a thesis I’m happy to go along with. But reproducing brainlike behavior in actual computers has turned out to be much harder than many people anticipated. In retrospect it’s not hard to see why; the brain might be a computer, but it’s certainly not the same kind of computer that we are used to programming. Its functioning arose naturally, rather than through top-down planning, and this kind of “organic design” leads to very different structures than “synthetic design.” Rather than relatively straightforward sets of algorithms expressed in neurological lines of code divided into tidy subprograms, our minds are subtle machines with virtual processors distributed holographically and interacting nonlocally throughout the brain. As a result, computers still aren’t very good poets, but they’re definitely better at multiplication and division than we are. (Now you tell me which talent might have been more useful out there on the veldt.)
I almost never read children’s books, since my list of unread novels aimed at adults is already far too long. But a few years ago I took time, on the advice of friends, to read Philip Pullman’s trilogy – His Dark Materials. The initial book of the trilogy, Northern Lights, won the coveted Carnegie Medal in 1995. Last night it was declared the finest children’s book of the last 70 years, and awarded the Carnegie of Carnegies 70th Anniversary Medal.
The trilogy is remarkable fiction, taking on the themes of science, religion, authority and morality in a wonderfully rich array of parallel fantasy worlds. This is seriously educated fiction, drawing on cosmology, particle physics, philosophy, theology and history, and pitched at children. It is sometimes violent, sometimes upsetting, but ultimately uplifting. If you have kids, they’ll love it. If you haven’t read it already, you might find yourself itching for them to finish each book so that you can get your hands on it.
Glenn Greenwald has a thoughtful essay in Salon (titled “A tragic legacy: How a good vs. evil mentality destroyed the Bush presidency“), which is an excerpt from his upcoming book of the same name, in which he discusses the role that Bush’s simplistic and dogmatic worldview has played in his disastrous administration.
The article is an interesting read, and one doesn’t have to agree with everything that Greenwald says to accept the basic premise, which is that if one thinks one is the holder of an absolute truth, then the gray areas that make up most of life, and the complexity that underlies almost every important decision in the modern world, will forever be beyond you, and you are doomed to failure. While Greenwald applies this to the thought processes that led the country into the ill-conceived Iraq quagmire – that one can see people and actions as purely good or evil and hence make decisions based on that determination rather than a deep understanding of the situation – the general point applies to many other actions taken by the President.
Interestingly, this column appears on the very same day that Bush has once again vetoed a bill to promote embryonic stem cell research. As Sheryl Gay Stolberg reports in The New York Times
“I will not allow our nation to cross this moral line,” Mr. Bush said, exercising the third veto of his presidency. At the same time, he issued an executive order intended to encourage scientific advances in regenerative medicine, a move that he said would respect “the high aims of science” without encouraging the deliberate destruction of human life.
His (Christian) morals must be the right ones. A human life is the same thing as a few cells. Although support for stem cell research is quite popular among Americans, there appears to be no room for discussion with the President about the complexities or scientific debate around these issues. Because his decisions don’t come from informed discussion; they come from ideology, which trumps reason, science, and complex debate with depressing regularity these days.
I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that it is a mistake. But I do wonder how exactly that happened.
Also interesting on the internets: Randy Barnett gives you the inside scoop on being a technical consultant for, and landing a minor role in, a legitmate Hollywood movie; and Ezra Klein talks about the importance of changing areas of specialization throughout one’s career. Both of which I note because it would be very easy to substitute “scientist” for “lawyer” and “pundit” in the respective discussions.
Consider this an open thread in which you are encouraged to mock my co-bloggers for being the slackers they so obviously are. Also, if you have any groundbreaking theories about the fundamental nature of space and time and would like someone to have a look at them because reading up on the literature yourself sounds like too much of a bother and besides which great wisdom only springs forth from a position of ignorance, this is the place!
Believe me, I sympathize. You are in possession of a truly incredible breakthrough that offers the prospect of changing the very face of science as we know it, if not more. The only problem is, you’re coming at things from an unorthodox perspective. Maybe your findings don’t fit comfortably with people’s preconceived notions, or maybe you don’t have the elaborate academic credentials that established scientists take for granted. Perhaps you have been able to construct a machine that produces more energy than it consumes, using only common household implements; or maybe you’ve discovered a hidden pattern within the Fibonacci sequence that accurately predicts the weight that a top quark would experience on Ganymede, expressed in femtonewtons; or it might be that you’ve elaborated upon an alternative explanation for the evolution of life on Earth that augments natural selection by unspecified interventions from a vaguely-defined higher power. Whatever the specifics, the point is that certain kinds of breakthroughs just aren’t going to come from a hide-bound scholastic establishment; they require the fresh perspective and beginner’s mind that only an outsider genius (such as yourself) can bring to the table.
Yet, even though science is supposed to be about being open-minded, and there’s so much that we don’t understand about how the universe works, it’s still hard for outsiders to be taken seriously. Instead, you run up against stuffy attitudes like this:
If there are any new Einsteins out there with a correct theory of everything all LaTeXed up, they should feel quite willing to ask me for an endorsement for the arxiv; I’d be happy to bask in the reflected glory and earn a footnote in their triumphant autobiography. More likely, however, they will just send their paper to Physical Review, where it will be accepted and published, and they will become famous without my help.
If, on the other hand, there is anyone out there who thinks they are the next Einstein, but really they are just a crackpot, don’t bother; I get things like that all the time. Sadly, the real next-Einsteins only come along once per century, whereas the crackpots are far too common.
And that last part is sadly true. There is a numbers game that is working against you. You are not the only person from an alternative perspective who purports to have a dramatic new finding, and here you are asking established scientists to take time out from conventional research to sit down and examine your claims in detail. Of course, we know that you really do have a breakthrough in your hands, while those people are just crackpots. But how do you convince everyone else? All you want is a fair hearing.
Scientists can’t possibly pay equal attention to every conceivable hypothesis, they would literally never do anything else. Whether explicitly or not, they typically apply a Bayesian prior to the claims that are put before them. Purported breakthroughs are not all treated equally; if something runs up against their pre-existing notions of how the universe works, they are much less likely to pay it any attention. So what does it take for the truly important discoveries to get taken seriously?
Happily, we are here to help. It would be a shame if the correct theory to explain away dark matter or account for the origin of life were developed by someone without a conventional academic position, who didn’t really take a lot of science classes in college and didn’t have a great math background but was always interested in the big questions, only for that theory to be neglected because of some churlish prejudice. So we would like to present a simple checklist of things that alternative scientists should do in order to get taken seriously by the Man. And the good news is, it’s only three items! How hard can that be, really? True, each of the items might require a nontrivial amount of work to overcome. Hey, nobody ever said that being a lonely genius was easy.
Via Mixing Memory, Slate has a collection of short reminisces about Richard Rorty by everyone from Brian Eno to Jurgen Habermas. (Although, admittedly, I sometimes have trouble telling the two apart.) In one contribution, semi-retired blogger of leisure Michael Bérubé says just what I was saying, except from a better-informed and more eloquent perspective.
In the spring of 1985, when I was a graduate student at the University of Virginia, Richard Rorty’s seminar on Martin Heidegger changed my life. Not because he converted me to Heidegger; he was not much of a Heidegger fan himself. But his seminar introduced me to anti-foundationalist pragmatism — to the idea that our beliefs, our vocabularies, and our ways of life are contingent. “Um, contingent on what?” I asked. “Not contingent on anything,” Rorty replied, “just — contingent.”
Although I was never quite convinced by Rorty’s claims that the languages of the physical sciences were as contingent as any other form of language, I was thoroughly convinced, by the end of the term, that it was a bad idea to think of philosophy as a kind of epistemological physics, in which moral truths are waiting somewhere out there to be discovered, like planets or particles. One of the reasons Rorty’s view of the world seemed so attractive was that it offered us humans a useful way to think about why it is that we disagree with each other about what those moral truths actually are: If you think you are acting in accordance with the eternal moral truths of the universe, after all, it is likely that you will think of people who think and act differently as being defective, deluded, or downright dangerous. On the other hand, if you think that morality is a matter of contingent vocabularies, you don’t have to become a shallow relativist — you can go right on believing what you believe, except that you have to give up the conviction that there’s no plausible way another rational person could think differently.
There’s a scene in Six Degrees of Separation, where the Donald Sutherland character tells some friends at a party:
I remembered asking my kids’ second-grade teacher:
“Why are all your students geniuses?”
Look at the first grade – blotches of green and black. The third grade – camouflage.
But your grade, the second grade…
Matisses, every one.
Like art, science relies on a combination of understanding and curiosity. As we gain wisdom and experience over time, we should be better able to understand what is going on; but with time can also come cynicism and boredom, especially if one’s exposure to the subject fails to convey the underlying mystery behind the essential grunt work. So there can be a point of diminishing returns.
In art, if John Guare’s judgment is to be trusted, that point often comes between second grade and third grade. What about science, you are no doubt wondering? Eli Lansey has done the research, and has the answer to your question: between fifth and sixth grade. The same set of cool physics demos, presented to each class, was met with dramatically different responses; excitement and independent investigation from the fifth graders, blase indifference from the sixth graders.
Like any good scientist, Eli also has a theory about why this is the case. What is more, he has data to back it up! I won’t give away the theory, but it was inspired by classroom poster presentations that looked like this: