Category: Science and the Media

Guest Post: Terry Rudolph on Nature versus Nurture

By Sean Carroll | August 27, 2012 1:07 pm

Everyone always wants to know whether the wave function of quantum mechanics is “a real thing” or whether it’s just a tool we use to calculate the probability of measuring a certain outcome. Here at CV, we even hosted a give-and-take on the issue between instrumentalist Tom Banks and realist David Wallace. In the latter post, I linked to recent preprint on the issue that proved a very interesting theorem, seemingly boosting the “wave functions are real” side of the debate.

That preprint was submitted to Nature, but never made it in (although it did ultimately get published in Nature Physics). The story of why such an important result was shunted away from the journal to which it was first submitted (just like Peter Higgs’s paper where he first mentioned the Higgs boson!) is interesting in its own right. Here is that story, as told by Terry Rudolph, an author of the original paper. Terry is a theoretical physicist at Imperial College London, who “will work on anything that has the word `quantum’ in front of it.”


There has long been a tension between the academic publishing process, which is slow but which is still the method by which we certify research quality, and the ability to instantaneously make one’s research available on a preprint server such as the arxiv, which carries essentially no such certification whatsoever. It is a curious (though purely empirical) observation that the more theoretical and abstract the field the more likely it is that the all-important question of priority – when the research is deemed to have been time-stamped as it were – will be determined by when the paper first appeared on the internet and not when it was first submitted to, or accepted by, a journal. There are no rules about this, it’s simply a matter of community acceptance.

At the high-end of academic publishing, where papers are accepted from extremely diverse scientific communities, prestigious journals need to filter by more than simply the technical quality of the research – they also want high impact papers of such broad and general interest that they will capture attention across ranges of scientific endeavour and often the more general public as well. For this reason it is necessary they exercise considerably more editorial discretion in what they publish.

Topics such as hurdling editors and whether posting one’s paper in preprint form impacts negatively the chances of it being accepted at a high-end journal are therefore grist for the mill of conversation at most conference dinners. In fact the policies at Nature about preprints have evolved considerably over the last 10 years, and officially they now say posting preprints is fine. But is it? And is there more to editorial discretion than the most obvious first hurdle – namely getting the editor to send the paper to referees at all? If you’re a young scientist without experience of publishing in such journals (I am unfortunately only one of the two!) perhaps the following case study will give you some pause for thought.

Last November my co-authors and I bowed to some pressure from colleagues to put our paper, then titled The quantum state cannot be interpreted statistically, on the arxiv. We had recently already submitted it to Nature because new theorems in the foundations of quantum theory are very rare, and because the quantum state is an object that cuts across physics, chemistry and biology – so it seemed appropriate for a broad readership. Because I had heard stories about the dangers of posting preprints so many times I wrote the editor to verify it really was ok. We were told to go ahead, but not to actively participate in or solicit pre-publication promotion or media coverage; however discussing with our peers, presenting at conferences etc was fine.

Based on the preprint Nature themselves published a somewhat overhyped pop-sci article shortly thereafter; to no avail I asked the journalist concerned to hold off until the status of the paper was known. We tried to stay out of the ensuing fracas – is discussing your paper on blogs a discussion between your peers or public promotion of the work?

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Higgs the Cat on Higgs the Particle

By Mark Trodden | July 15, 2012 3:11 pm

Higgs the cat, owner of friend and guest author of the blog Faye Flam, has written his own take on the Higgs boson as a contribution to Faye’s Planet of the Apes blog.

Faye will shamelessly plagiarize Higgs in Monday’s Philadelphia Inquirer, but you can read it straight from the kitty’s mouth at the above link.

Chatting Higgs

By Sean Carroll | July 12, 2012 10:04 am

Greetings from Vegas, where I’m here for The Amaz!ng Meeting, at which I’ll be talking Saturday. But I’ll also be talking today using one of these fancy electronic information-processing gizmos that are all the rage among the young folk these days. That is, we’re having a video chat, sponsored by the Huffington Post, to talk about the Higgs boson excitement and also something about what it means for science communication across the expert/public divide.

Update: oops! It’s actually not streaming live. Sorry about that. Will be posted later.

We start at 2pm Eastern/11am Pacific. I think you will be able to find the chat by clicking here; if not I’ll try to update. Other participants will be HuffPo science blogger Cara Santa Maria (oops just found out Cara can’t make it), Henry Reich of the increasingly famous MinutePhysics videos, science comedian Brian Mallow, high school science teacher Lorren Hotaling, and the whole thing will be moderated by HuffPo’s Josh Zepps.

To tide you over, here are Henry’s latest videos about our favorite scalar boson. Part One:

And Part II:

Radio National RN Drive Interview

By Mark Trodden | July 11, 2012 4:10 pm

I’m about to leave Melbourne for Auckland, where I’ll be speaking at and participating in a workshop Richard Easther is organizing, called The LHC, Particle Physics and the Cosmos.

I’ll have a little bit more to say about the ICHEP conference, but for now, I’ll leave you with a link to a very brief interview I did on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National Drive Radio show a couple of days ago. I found it hard to get much across in the short time, but it is nice to think that people driving home from work might have been hearing about ICHEP, the Higgs and dark matter.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Media, Science and the Media, Travel

3 Quarks Daily 2012 Science Prize: The Winners

By Sean Carroll | June 25, 2012 8:17 am

I was the judge for this year’s 3 Quarks Daily Science Prize; here are the results. Cross-posted at 3 Quarks Daily, obviously.

I want to thank Abbas and all the 3QD crew for inviting me to judge this year’s Science Prize. I can’t help but thinking that after having Richard Dawkins, Stephen Pinker, and Lisa Randall judge the previous years, a certain phase transition has occurred; but I’m happy to be associated with such an amazing group.

Let me start by saying something obvious but nevertheless true: the entries this year were of extraordinarily high quality. Some excellent blog posts among the initial nominees didn’t even make the final ten, and any one of the nine finalists would have been a worthy choice for number one. But I will resist the temptation to declare a nine-way tie.

There is no simple and objective standard for what makes a blog post “the best.” “Blog is software,” as Bora Zivkovic likes to remind us — blogging is a medium, not a genre. Successful blog posts can be one word or ten thousand; a personal reflection or a rigorous analysis; an original idea or an insightful commentary; a devastating take-down or an inspirational message. But within these flexible parameter, there are certain aspects of blogging that make it special, and I looked for posts that took advantage of those unique capabilities. I wanted to choose posts that would be hard to imagine finding in any other medium, but whose quality measured up to the best of journalism or science writing. One frustrating aspect of a contest like this is that the prize is given to posts, rather than to blogs — for many of the most successful blogs, their charm comes from the accumulated effect of reading many posts over a long period of time. But okay, enough with the throat-clearing.

Without further ado:

First place this year goes to Empirical Zeal, for “The crayola-fication of the world: How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains.” With many different criteria in mind, this post by Aatish Bhatia stood out among the rest. It’s just about the perfect use of a blog. For one thing, it looks gorgeous: all those colorful images, each of which actually serves a purpose. The writing is playful and clever; once you see the mantis shrimp telling you “DEAR MORTAL, YOUR RAINBOW IS PUNY,” you’re not likely to forget it. And most of all, the science is fascinating and important. To a physicist, there is a continuum of colors; but to our eyes and brains, “rainbows have seams,” and that affects how we think about the world. A completely deserving winner. (And don’t forget that there is a Part II.)

Second place goes to Three-Toed Sloth, for “In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You” (cross-posted at Crooked Timber.) Cosma Shalizi doesn’t bother with colorful pictures; he even uses a slightly gray font on a white background, presumably because black on white would come off as too florid. But this is a creative and original essay that brings the theory of computational complexity to bear on the practical problem of managing a planned economy. (Conclusion: it can’t be done.) The flexibility of blogs doesn’t just mean the ability to post videos; it also means the freedom to explore ideas outside traditional disciplinary comfort zones. Not a light read, but a true contribution to intellectual discourse. The kind of post that nudges the rest of us to be better bloggers.

Third place goes to The Mermaid’s Tale, for “Forget bipedalism. What about babyism?” In another great use of the medium, Holly Dunsworth takes creative advantage of the blog format to make important points both about science and about how science is done. How much can we learn about a species just by studying a few bones in its feet? Does a particular anatomical feature represent a crucial adaptation to circumstances, or is it just an ancestral remnant? Also: adorable pictures of baby monkeys, as well as real data with error bars. Everybody wins.

In very different ways, these three posts serve as proud examples of what blogging can be at its best — feel free to share them with any of your friends who still remain skeptical. Yet, I cannot help but cheat just a little bit by offering two “honorable mentions.” At The Primate Diaries, Eric Michael Johnson’s “Freedom to Riot: On the Evolution of Collective Violence” is a polished and fascinating look at natural selection and the behavior of human crowds. And at Quantum Diaries, Flip Tanedo’s “Helicity, Chirality, Mass, and the Higgs” is an original take on explaining an abstract but central point in modern quantum field theory. All of these posts — as well as the other finalists! — are impressive achievements. My hat’s off.

Trending Topic on Twitter

By Sean Carroll | June 20, 2012 2:54 pm


The Particle At the End of the Universe

By Sean Carroll | April 24, 2012 3:47 pm

Update: here’s the amazon page, where the book is ready for pre-order.

Speaking of writing popular books, I’m at it again. I’m currently hard at work writing The Particle At the End of the Universe, a popular-level book on the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. If all goes well, it should appear in bookstores at the end of this year or beginning of next. (Ideally, it will go on sale the same day they announce the discovery of the Higgs. I’m trying to bribe the right people to make that happen.) The title is somewhat tentative, so it might change at some point.

This will be a somewhat different book than From Eternity to Here. While both are aimed at a general audience, FETH was a rather lengthy tome that made a careful argument in a hopefully novel way. Anyone could read it, but to get the most out of it you have to really sit and think about certain ideas. Particle, on the other hand, aims to be a fun and narratively gripping page-turner — a book that makes you eager to move quickly to the next chapter, rather than taking a few minutes to let the last one sink into your head. A bodice-ripper, if you will. It will be full of stories and fun anecdotes about the human beings who made the LHC happen and have devoted their lives to searching for the Higgs and particles beyond the Standard Model. A book you would be happy to give to your Grandmom in order to convey some of the excitement of modern physics. (Unless your Grandmom is a particle physicist, in which case she might think it’s at too low a level.)

At the same time, of course, I’m going to try to illuminate the central ideas of the Standard Model in as clear a fashion as I can manage. It won’t just be a list of particles; I’ll cover field theory, gauge bosons, and spontaneous symmetry breaking. All in fine bodice-ripping style. (Maybe get Fabio for the cover?)

If you are a particle physicist yourself, I’m happy to take input. This could take the form of a favorite analogy you like to use to explain some subtle concept, or some physics idea or piece of history you think really doesn’t get the attention it deserves in the popular media. Even better if you have some personal involvement in a fun story — you lost your virginity in the LHC tunnel, or you discovered asymptotic freedom but didn’t get around to publishing it. I’m talking to as many physicists as I can, but I can’t talk to everyone. I’m looking for tales that will make the human side of physics come alive.

Also happy to take input if you’re not a particle physicist! What are the concepts that we don’t do a good job explaining? What are the buzzwords you’ve heard about the don’t make sense? The questions you really want answered?

I sincerely believe the search for the Higgs and whatever might lie beyond is a Big Deal in the history of science, and I hope to convey some of the importance and excitement of this question to as large an audience as possible. I’ll be flitting around the country giving talks when the book comes out, so let me know if you have a big lecture hall full of eager minds that want to hear the latest dispatches from the particle trenches. Should be a fun ride.

Aiming at Different Audiences

By Sean Carroll | April 22, 2012 10:50 am

When I wrote From Eternity to Here, I was faced with a perennial problem for pop-physics authors: how to write a book that will appeal to the aficionados (although not scientists themselves) who have already devoured everything Brian Greene and Lisa Randall have ever written, but also be understandable and interesting to folks who don’t know much more about Einstein than the fact that he rarely combed his hair? I came across a short blog review that claims I wasn’t entirely successful in balancing the competing requirements, and it might be a fair criticism.

But one small complaint is I’m not sure if he’s quite exactly worked out his audience. Early in the book, I was starting to fear it would be a rehash of stuff I already knew. It’s not. But there were some elementary rehashes that, frankly, I think if someone went into the book not having that knowledge already, they aren’t going to be able to grok the rest. This is not a mathematically demanding book, but it is a conceptually demanding book, and I am not sure if someone who doesn’t have some limited grounding in the mathematics side will be able to make it through the conceptual side without missing a lot.

The diagnosis is completely accurate. On the one hand, I do spend time going over the basics of relativity, quantum mechanics, and logarithms, in ways that hopefully make these ideas accessible to people who haven’t ever tried to understand them before. On the other hand, the meaty middle section of the book is conceptually very challenging for almost everybody, even if you are a regular consumer of popular physics books. We are simply not used to thinking in ways that don’t presume the arrow of time from the start, and some of the issues that arise are highly non-intuitive. I tried to keep things fun and engaging, but there’s no question that certain pages of the book require careful thinking and brain work.

What to do? I’m not sure that, given the material I wanted to cover in this book, there is much else one could do. Probably I could have had less about the basics of relativity, and moved what there is until later in the book. But although the central ideas are conceptually very challenging, I don’t think they’re actually inaccessible to anyone who is willing to put some thought into them, regardless of mathematical background. So I don’t regret that I didn’t write a leaner and more challenging book aimed only at the aficionados, although I appreciate that something along those lines might have been more focused. I think that the aficionados just have to get used to reading introductions to GR and QM from a wide variety of different books — at least until those topics become part of the standard high-school curriculum.

Jon Stewart Doesn't Understand How Science Works Even a Little Bit

By Sean Carroll | April 17, 2012 9:40 am

I love Jon Stewart’s work on The Daily Show, which manages to be consistently fresh and intelligent. Their segment on the Large Hadron Collider was sheer brilliance, and I’ve often said that between Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central is the best place to go to hear insights from real working scientists on TV these days.

Which is why it was so crushing to listen to this interview he did with Marilynne Robinson, a leader among the movement to reconcile science and religion. I didn’t agree with much of what Robinson said, but then again I didn’t really expect to. Nor did I expect Stewart to challenge her in any way; a “why just can’t we all get along” perspective is very consistent with his way of thinking. But I admit I was hoping he would not misrepresent modern science as thoroughly and lazily as he managed to do here. (It’s a 2010 interview, brought to my attention by Scott Derrickson’s Twitter feed; apologies if these complaints were hashed out elsewhere two years ago.)

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Marilynne Robinson
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If you skip ahead to 2:50, here’s what Stewart has to say: Read More

Is Physics Among the Dysfunctional Sciences?

By Sean Carroll | April 16, 2012 2:38 pm

Sorry for a post title that will attract the crazies. Carl Zimmer has a story in the New York Times that discusses a growing unease with the practice of science among scientists themselves.

In tomorrow’s New York Times, I’ve got a long story about a growing sense among scientists that science itself is getting dysfunctional. For them, the clearest sign of this dysfunction is the growing rate of retractions of scientific papers, either due to errors or due to misconduct. But retractions represent just the most obvious symptom of deep institutional problems with how science is done these days–how projects get funded, how scientists find jobs, and how they keep labs up and running.

However… essentially all the examples are from biologically-oriented fields. I’ll confess that Carl asked me if there is a similar feeling among physicists, and after some thought I decide that there really isn’t. There are certainly fumbles (faster-than-light neutrinos, anyone?) and scandals (Jan Hendrik Schön being the most obvious), but I don’t have any feeling that the problem is growing in a noticeable way. Biology and physics are fundamentally different, especially because of the tremendous pressure within medical sciences when it comes to any results that might turn out to be medically useful. Cosmologists certainly don’t have to worry about that.

But maybe this is a distorted view from within my personal bubble? Happy to hear informed opinion to the contrary. The relevant kind of informed opinion would actually involve a comparison of the situation today with the situation at some previous time, not just a litany of things you think are dysfunctional about the present day.


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