Saturday, September 27, 2008

Gen Xers and Academia, Revisited

Jeffrey Mervis, Deputy News Editor for Science magazine, recently interviewed 26 graduates of Yale's doctoral program in biophysics and biomolecular engineering. The 13 men and 13 women in the interviews entered Yale's program in 1991, the year I myself started graduate school. Today, only one member of this cohort has tenure, and of the other 25 members, only one is even on the tenure track. When I read the interviews, I thought back to an earlier post in which I reviewed Stefanie Sanford's book, Civic Life in the Information Age. Sanford's book describes the way Generation X has redefined the responsibilities of citizenship. At the time, I wrote:
"We" GenXers emerge ... as a prickly group with an intense work ethic, a mania for effectiveness and efficiency, a hatred of talk and meetings, a pragmatic wish to find out what works, a corresponding impatience with ideology, and a risk-taking and entrepreneurial spirit. ...

...I have noticed that while many of my friends in Generation X have gone for advanced degrees, they have finally eschewed academia in favor of writing and consulting; and many have passed on advanced degrees altogether so that they could become entrepreneurs or start new organizations. In my own case, I chose a college without a tenure system so that I, and not a committee of my elders, could direct my scholarship and teaching. The days of climbing the ladder at work and paying one's dues seem to be over. Will my generation's risk-takers, who value effectiveness and efficiency, and who want to be rewarded for their performance, ever find a home in the seniority-based teachers' unions or the gasifying tenured faculties of the colleges? Or will my generation remake those institutions as soon as we get the chance?

Not all of the respondents in Mervis's interviews voiced Gen X sentiments, but a few did. Some quotes along these lines from the Science article:
Eager to apply her knowledge to helping treat and cure diseases, Nagi was chagrined to learn that her Ph.D. wasn't seen as sufficient training for a career in the field. "I was talking with someone from Merck who seemed very interested in my work," she recalls about one job fair she attended as a graduate student. "But then she realized I wasn't a postdoc, and she said, 'I don't see any reason to continue talking with you.' That's when I realized there is a prescribed path that people were supposed to follow, for no good reason."
"Even as an undergraduate in college, I never bought into the concept of being a professor," says Deborah Kinch, associate director for regulatory affairs at Biogen Idec in Cambridge. "Being a grad student is the last bastion of indentured servitude, and being a faculty member is pretty much the same thing, at least until you get tenure. Earning the same low salary and fighting for every grant--that was the last thing I wanted to do."
To Kinch, the idea of moving lockstep into an academic postdoc "started to look like a trap."
Committed to a career in academia, DeDecker has struggled to move up the academic ladder. But NIH's budget has been the least of his obstacles. "The way to get a job is to have a famous person say [about you] that 'this is the best person I've seen in the last 40 years.'
Kosa's days as an academic scientist were numbered once, as a postdoc at Harvard, he got a taste of the burgeoning biotech industry in and around Cambridge. "I wanted to understand the nonscientific side of the biotech industry, and my work was too basic to be applied," he says. So he left Harvard and enrolled in an MBA program at the MIT Sloan School of Management, turning a student project into a biotech start-up that performed liver toxicity testing with a technology billed as a "liver on a chip." Upon graduation, he counseled venture capitalists looking to invest in the biotech industry, and in 2006, he joined Bayer HealthCare before moving last month to XOMA.
That experience pushed her into the arms of industry. "If I'm going to work my butt off, I want to be in control," she recalls thinking. She posted her resume online, where it was picked up by a recruiter for a south Florida company that was setting up a molecular biology unit to develop military sensors that would detect biological contaminants in the environment. The resulting negotiations were a refreshing change from academia, she says. "I asked for double my salary [$66,000], and they gave it to me," she says.
He also prefers what he regards as the greater transparency of commercial research. "In academia, some of the papers are not reliable and the findings are not reproducible," he says. "In industry, if you don't make a very good antibody, there are tests that can prove it doesn't work. So you have to be honest."
In reading the article I registered a skepticism about academia and its ethics...a desire for competitive compensation for hard work and unwillingness to please one's elders and jump through hoops to advance one's career...and a dissatisfaction with a training program that only fits you for one career path.

That said of course, the one member of the cohort who does have tenure is obviously also from "Gen X." And while I have plenty of friends who've stepped off the path, I also have plenty of friends in tenured professorships. Unlike many of the people Mervis interviewed, they were all certain that tenure was something they'd want if they got it. I suspect my friends were also different in that they were highly confident they would be awarded tenure if they made the attempt. The people in Mervis's article don't emphasize this particular calculation, but it doubtless factored into their decisionmaking.

Friday, September 19, 2008

From The Onion

Obama Feels Like He's Taking Crazy Pills

Obama accused Palin of misleading voters by portraying herself as a politician who has disdained the special spending projects sought by some lawmakers, known as earmarks. "When you've been taking all these earmarks when it's convenient and then suddenly you are the champion anti-earmark person, that's not change," Obama said. "Come on. I mean words mean something. You can't just make something up."

Obama was then heard to say under his breath, "Jesus Christ, I feel like I'm taking crazy pills."

OK, I admit it, this isn't actually from The Onion. The first paragraph is actual reportage from Yahoo! News. I made up the second paragraph (and the title) myself.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Physics of Democracy

Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli once ridiculed a colleague's theories by calling them "not even wrong." But trust me, being wrong is worse. I was horrified two or three years ago to find an error in one of my own published papers, more than a year after it had appeared in American Journal of Physics. A cooling effect I had estimated as being roughly 110 millikelvin in magnitude actually appeared in the published paper as 11 millikelvin, because of a typographical error. (The error was mine; I went back to my files and saw that the mistake had already been present in the manuscript submission.)

I quickly published an erratum. This was embarrassing, but of course I had no choice. How could I live with myself if I knowingly allowed such a bald error to remain in print under my name? This is not to mention that the only thing more embarassing than pointing out the error myself would have been for somebody else to beat me to it!

Being right about the math is important, and we physicists pride ourselves on always getting the order of magnitude right. But being right about the phenomena is finally what matters. And that was why I was actually eager to publish the erratum: The additional digit makes the effect ten times easier to measure, and thus it became more likely that an experimentalist might someday try to verify (or disprove) my predictions. I think I finally have the math right, but if nobody ever performs the experiment, then I'll never know whether my calculation passes the most important test: that of correspondence to the facts.


Political campaigns resemble the enterprise of physics in some ways. Campaign strategists are like theorists trying to understand the electorate. They build models and crunch all kinds of numbers. On the day of the election, the big experiment is performed. Once the data are collected, we see whose numbers (if anyone's) are borne out.

Another similarity is that according to the standard interpretation of quantum mechanics, atomic-scale measurements don't straightforwardly reveal pre-existing qualities of the atom; and likewise, I would doubt that a question on a poll always reveals firmly pre-existing thought patterns in the minds of people being surveyed. In both cases, the act of questioning creates some of the reality. Maybe there are even pollsters who adopt an instrumentalist interpretation of the electorate, just as physicists sometimes did back in the 1950s. On the instrumentalist view of campaigning, you don't even try to figure out what the beast is really thinking; you just try to learn which inputs lead to which outputs. "Pinch and poke" the electorate, and take careful notes on how it responds.


The McCain/Palin campaign's study of the electoral beast appears to have led them to the conclusion that victory depends on shoveling garbage at us as fast as they can. Paul Krugman had a good piece on this on September 11, 2008. A reader made the following comment on Krugman's article:
A democracy cannot function in an atmosphere of dishonesty. The point of popular consent is that the people make a reasoned judgment about their leaders and select those that seem most likely to provide what they are looking for. Political dishonesty is inherently undemocratic. It is an attempt to cheat the voters out of their right to make an intelligent choice. Liars should be rejected for that reason alone. — S MacDougall, N. California
This comment brings us full circle back to physics, although at first sight it's not obvious why. To begin with, here is psychologist Emily Cahan discussing the influential American philosopher John Dewey:
The problem of education for Dewey is to discover the means for making scientific thought more widespread in society and giving it a deepening hold among people—for extending his ideals for individual growth in the classroom into society.
. . . if scientific thought is not something esoteric but is a realization of the most effective operation of intelligence, it should be axiomatic that the development of scientific attitudes of thought, observation, and inquiry is the chief business of study and learning.
In schools,
we want that type of education which will discover and form the kind of individual who is the intelligent carrier of a social democracy.

For it will have come about that education and politics are one and the same thing because politics will have to be in fact what it now pretends to be, the intelligent management of social affairs.

It is interesting to contrast this vision of education with that contained in the education chapter of the Republican platform:
Education is a parental right, a state and local responsibility, and a national strategic interest.
(This is the first paragraph in its entirety.)


Dewey wrote on education during the early 1900's. More than a century earlier, Laplace was led to similar thoughts by his investigations into probability theory. As we now understand much better thanks to R.T. Cox and E.T. Jaynes, Laplace extended probability theory far beyond its roots in the mathematics of gambling, building it into nothing less than a set of principles for any sort of reasoning in the face of incomplete information - that is, any sort of of scientific reasoning - that is, any sort of clear thinking in situations with consequences. Laplace described for the first time how evidence should be used to modify our beliefs, sometimes strengthening them when the evidence lines up, but sometimes weakening them when the evidence turns the other way. But this process can only work if we develop certain habits: the habit of seeking evidence in the first place; the skill and inclination to weigh it critically; the flexibility and integrity to change our minds and admit when we are wrong. These habits are not natural, but must be developed through education. Laplace:
It is remarkable that a science, which commenced with the consideration of games of chance, should be elevated to the rank of the most important subjects of human knowledge.

If we consider that [this science] teaches us to avoid the illusions which ofttimes confuse us, then we shall see that there is no science more worthy of our meditations, and that no more useful one could be incorporated in the system of public education.
The world is harsh, and those who subscribe to illusions are eventually crushed by their failure to respect the facts. That's why we so desperately need more honesty from our leaders. That's why McCain's lying campaign not only insults our intelligence but threatens our country.


Here I am, piling blame on the Republicans. Using some high-falutin names as weapons. (And one of them a—a Frenchman.) I know that many of my friends (and not only the Republicans among them) will say that both parties lie to get elected; that all politicians lie all the time. The trouble with this position is that it puts all lies on the same footing. Take for example the lies that got us into Iraq. Those lies, and all of the weak evidence I'm embarrassed to admit I fell for too, have cost us hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of American lives, while bringing Al Qaeda to Iraq and keeping our eye off the ball in Afghanistan. My nephew and his wife, and doubtless all of America's soldiers, have made their sacrifices willingly. Bravely. Heroically. But the tragedy is that their bravery and their heroism finally do not make their sacrifice worthwhile. We should be furious at the party that led us down this painful road.

To my knowledge, only Barack Obama among the major presidential candidates has said flat out in print that invading Iraq was a mistake. And he said has said it recently, in the heat of this campaign, and he has said it as loud as one can say such a thing: on the editorial page of the New York Times. Here are the first two sentences of "My Plan for Iraq":

Unlike Senator John McCain, I opposed the war in Iraq before it began, and would end it as president. I believed it was a grave mistake to allow ourselves to be distracted from the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban by invading a country that posed no imminent threat and had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.

This is some of the straightest talk I've ever heard from a presidential candidate. Obama may bob and weave like any politician, but in comparison to John McCain he is a philosopher-king. If it should happen again any time soon that our President leads us to war in Iran, North Korea, or anywhere else, then I want that President to be Barack Obama. He may make mistakes. He may get some things wrong. But he won't lead us to war by manufacturing evidence and lying to us.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Monday, September 1, 2008

Back-of-the-Envelope Statistics

I recently gave a half-hour talk on statistics for non-experts, which sounds like a half-hour visit to hell for everybody concerned, but it was actually a lot of fun. The audience was sharp and engaged, and I think everybody got something out of the presentation.

In the talk, I was trying to achieve three things. The first goal was to give my audience a gut-level feel for random fluctuations and signal-to-noise ratios. I wanted to convey the same kind of rough, theorem-free intuition that physicists commonly use when approaching noisy data. The second and most important goal was to help my audience differentiate clearly between the "statistical significance" of a measured effect vs. the size of that effect. This is a distinction that the press almost never makes when reporting about scientific research. For that matter, even scholarly authors tend to equivocate on the different senses of the English word "significant" when it helps them further their agenda. Finally, I wanted to show people a toy model of a multiple regression, so that they could at least know what the experts are talking about when they present model coefficients or discuss "the problem of missing variables" in correlational studies.

In case anybody's interested, the Powerpoint document is here.

N.B., the presentation includes a map from American Scientist with no written explanation alongside it; that's because I spoke about the map off-the-cuff. The map is from an article by Howard Wainer that appears here; I also discuss Wainer's map in my pamphlet "Randomness and Reason", available here.


Danimal's Game

Just in case statistics isn't everybody's idea of fun, I thought I'd also take a moment here to develop a comment that Danimal made on an earlier post. Danimal suggested an interesting variation of the standard change-a-word game:
Find a route from one four-letter word to another, but making changes only between neighboring letters in the alphabet, i.e. "b" can only become "a" or "c".

For example, we are allowed to change BELL to CELL, because B and C are neighboring letters in the alphabet. But we can't change CELL to TELL, because C and T are not neighboring letters.

As Danimal pointed out, the new constraint makes it difficult to design instances of this game by hand. A well-designed game, by the way, should satisfy the demand that the starting word and the ending word share no letters in the same position. The BELL example now shows the major difficulty: how are we ever going to get away from that E? Vowels aren't adjacent to one another!

This suggests the strategy of "pivoting" on a double-vowel combination, as in the following three-letter example:

SOY [note, we now have two vowels to work with]
SPY [thus we can pivot from the O to the second vowel]

Admittedly SOX is not a very appealing word, but this was the best I could do by hand.

Using the computer, I did manage to find a (single) viable four-letter instance of Danimal's game:


(A hint is here and the solution is here.)

Graphically speaking

A fair move in Danimal's game is a fair move in the standard game, but the converse is not true. This means that Danimal's rule deletes edges from the standard connectivity diagram (over 90% of them). In other words, the adjacent-letter constraint shatters the standard game's supercontinent of words into hundreds of tiny atolls. The two largest atolls have twelve words each, as shown in the graphs below (spoiler alert!):

The movie below gives a fast review of all of the sizable atolls in Danimal's game. (A clearer version of the movie is here.)


People were kind enough not to send me any congratulatory emails last June 7th, which was roughly when I passed the halfway point of my table of American male life expectancy (see my earlier post on "The Prime of Life"). Today I'm 39 and officially celebrating the beginning of Life, Part II. Now: will it be the motorcycle or the convertible?