Thursday, February 11, 2016

Meeting to brainstorm strategies to efficiently reduce productivity

Last week The Economist had a good article about how in organisations today there is so little time to  think and do "deep work". Instead people are too busy going to meetings!
The article is stimulated by a Harvard Business Review cover article on "collaborative overload" and a new book, “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World” by Cal Newport.

Minor point. I think the article title, "The collaboration curse: The fashion for making employees collaborate has gone too far" is a misnomer (at least in terms of the way academics think about collaboration). I don't think most meetings are actually about collaboration, but rather discussing, deciding on, communicating, and implementing policies.
But, I do think the pressure to collaborate, particularly across research groups, disciplines, departments, and institutions has gone too far. But, that is not the biggest problem...


Here are a few relevant quotes from the article.
interruptions, even short ones, increase the total time required to complete a task by a significant amount. A succession of studies have shown that multitasking reduces the quality of work as well as dragging it out.

whereas managers may notice the benefits of collaboration, they fail to measure its costs. ...
estimate that knowledge workers spend 70-85% of their time attending meetings (virtual or face-to-face), dealing with e-mail, talking on the phone or otherwise dealing with an avalanche of requests for input or advice. Many employees are spending so much time interacting that they have to do much of their work when they get home at night.
 
The biggest problem with collaboration is that it makes what Mr Newport calls “deep work” difficult, if not impossible. Deep work is the killer app of the knowledge economy: it is only by concentrating intensely that you can master a difficult discipline or solve a demanding problem. Many of the most productive knowledge workers go out of their way to avoid meetings and unplug electronic distractions. Peter Drucker, a management thinker, argued that you can do real work or go to meetings but you cannot do both. Jonathan Franzen, an author, unplugs from the internet when he is writing. Donald Knuth, a computer scientist, refuses to use e-mail on the ground that his job is to be “on the bottom of things” rather than “on top of things”. Richard Feynman, a legendary physicist, extolled the virtues of “active irresponsibility” when it came to taking part in academic meetings. 
Why have organisations been so naive about collaboration? One reason is that collaboration is much easier to measure than “deep work ... 
A second reason is that managers often feel obliged to be seen to manage: left to their own devices they automatically fill everybody’s days with meetings and memos rather than letting them get on with their work. 
Helping people to collaborate is a wonderful thing. Giving them the time to think is even better.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Is this the ultimate compliment for your paper?

For someone to put the main points to a popular song!

Yesterday I heard an interesting talk "Truths we must tell ourselves if we are to manage climate change" at UQ by Robert Socolow [aged 80!].

He is well known for a paper, Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies

The paper considers Seven ways to reduce carbon emissions. Glenn Wolkenfeld has written corresponding lyrics to the tune of the classic Paul Simon song, 50 ways to leave your lover!



Socolow has an interesting career history, having started out in theoretical physics, working on elementary particles. I will write more about that career transition later.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Wave-function based electronic structure methods are "scientifically legitimate"

Peter Fulde [who turns 80 in 2 months!] has a nice informative 2 page Commentary Wavefunction-based electronic structure calculations for solids.

For electronic structure calculation there are two distinct alternative methods (formulations): those based on Density Functional Theory (DFT) and wave function based approaches.

Fulde directly addresses an "objection" to the latter raised by Walter Kohn in his Nobel Prize Lecture. He suggested that for more than one thousand electrons a many-body wave function is not "scientifically legitimate" because it suffers from the the "exponential wall" problem.
(i) It cannot be calculated with sufficient accuracy.
(ii) It cannot be represented numerically sufficiently well that it can be stored and later retrieved.

Fulde states

The exponential wall problem is avoided when we characterize the many-electron wavefunction not by a vector ψ(r1σ1, ... , rNσN) in Hilbert space but instead by a vector |Ω) in operator space, with the cumulant metric given by equation (3). The operator S in |Ω) = |1 + S) is a cumulant scattering operator.

The point we wish to emphasize is that a numerical representation of the results for the different contributions to |S) poses no problem. 

Although he does not spell it out (I think) the cumulants here are in quantum chemistry related to "coupled cluster" methods and in solid state physics a very simple example is a Gutzwiller projection. These kind of connections between chemistry and physics techniques are nicely brought out in Fulde's classic book, which I highly recommend. It is where I first learnt about such connections.

I thank Mohammad Sherafati for bringing the article to my attention.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The case for quantum materials

Nature Physics has an editorial The Rise of Quantum Materials.
In a refreshing change for the Nature Publishing Group, it is devoid of hype.
The editorial nicely gives the scientific background to the sociological observation:

 As it has become clear that the study of emergent properties is no longer restricted to strongly correlated electron systems, a new, broader description has become necessary. And the term that seems to be gaining currency on departmental websites and research programmes is quantum materials. 

[Indeed, I just got a grant with a title "The bad metallic state in quantum materials"]

My only minor comment is that the editorial does not quite explain why "quantum" is appropriate nomenclature.
I would say that is because on some level they have macroscopic properties [e.g. quantised magnetic flux in superconducting vortices and quantised Hall resistance] that are quantum mechanical in sense that they involve Planck's constant. This is the point I try to bring out in my colloquium on emergent quantum matter.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Introducing scientific dignitaries and charlatans

I find it interesting to listen to the introductions that different seminar speakers get. Sometimes the introduction tells you more about the host than the speaker.

Introductions I don't like may include:

"Sarah has published lots of Nature and Science papers."

Mention of the h-index or number of citations.

Mention of amounts of grant money.

"John has done important work in quantum biology".

"The speaker needs no introduction (so I won't give one)".
I have heard this many times but I did not really know the speaker.

A live dialogue between the host and speaker about the details. e.g., "When did you get your Ph.D with me? So how long have you been at Sydney now?"

"When I Googled him this is what I found out ...."

Recitation from an old university web page. For a few years I sometimes got introduced as someone who does research on the "electrical conductivity of DNA". I finally discovered that this was because if you Googled me the first hit was an old university web page that listed this. I worked on this for a few months before I discovered all the experiments were duds. I eventually got the old page removed and have not had this introduction since.

Glowing accounts of how great the speaker is, when he is a charlatan or mediocre. This either reflects hypocrisy or poor judgement on the part of the host.

Introductions I do like include:

A very brief career history.

A very brief statement of what scientific contribution the speaker is best known for.

Any personal connection between the host and the speaker. e.g. "We were postdocs together at Rice University".

Thursday, February 4, 2016

We should not give up on falsifiability

No, we should redouble our efforts!

Over past few years some scientists, particularly string theorists, have suggested that we should give up on the idea of falsifiability as a criterion for deciding whether or not to accept or reject a specific scientific theory. (A good theory is one that one can perform a specific experiment, whose outcome may lead to the rejection of the theory).
For example, in 2014 in answer to the question, "What scientific idea is due for retirement?" Sean Carroll's answer was Falsifiability. He uses this to justify string theory and the multiverse.

First, I think several important points need to be conceded and acknowledged.

1. There are subtle philosophical issues associated with falsifiability. Popper did not have the last word!

2. In practise, rarely will a theory get rejected just because there is experimental data that is inconsistent with it. Sometimes the data will get rejected. Other times the theory will get modified.

3. In practise, rarely do many scientists actually focus on falsifiability. For example, theorists generally don't write papers or give talks suggesting specific experiments that could be used to falsify their favourite theory or latest calculation.

I would argue that 3. happens partly because it is actually extremely difficult to come up with specific do-able experiments that will give definitive results that can clearly falsify a theory, particularly in condensed matter or theoretical chemistry. As I have said before, good science is hard work. 

But, the solution is not to give up on falsifiability. To me this is throwing the baby out with the bath water. It is a bit like discussions of foreign aid for poverty alleviation. Currently, some programs waste money and others actually cause more harm than good. But, the solution is not to give up but focus on supporting programs that actually do make a positive difference.

I think Einstein's General Relativity does provide a nice example of falsifiability, contrary to what Sean Carroll claims. This is because besides Einstein's theory there are many alternative theories: Newton, Brans-Dicke, Cartan, ...
We are celebrating the centenary of GR and not some alternative theory because they have largely been ruled out by experiment ....

I think that science would be better off if we all worked a little harder and thought a little more critically about how integrate falsifiability more into science.

What do you think?

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Mrs. Pauling was right about two things

For Christmas (two years ago) my sister-in-law gave me a copy of
Ava Helen Pauling: Partner, Activist, Visionary by Mina Carson, a historian at Oregon State University, which is home to the Linus Pauling archives. I read it then but it has taken me a while to get around to writing this post.


Aside: There are many personal dimensions to this gift choice. My sister-in-law and her family live in Corvallis, and their younger daughter attends Linus Pauling Middle School. Of course, they knew about my great admiration of Pauling. But also, the author has been in a book club with my sister-in-law.

I enjoyed reading the book and it gave me a different perspective on Pauling's life. Although, some of the more intimate details in the book I would rather not have known about...

The author nicely highlights how Ava Helen was really the driving force behind Linus' political activism, which ultimately led to his second Nobel Prize (in Peace) for the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. It is interesting to wonder whether today she would have shared the prize with him.

But, here I want to focus on two things that really struck me from the book.

In the 1950s Mrs. Pauling advocated two positions that we (or at least most people) just take for granted today. Yet at the time, the Paulings were persecuted for their advocacy of these views, particularly by powerful political, governmental, and commercial interests.

1. Above ground nuclear testing and the associated radiation exposure is bad for peoples health.

2. Faculty at public universities should be allowed to hold and advocate any political views they choose.

The context of the second was the Loyalty Oath Controversy that ripped apart UC Berkeley from 1949-1951.