Archive for the 'Opinion' Category

Buried by Papers

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education blames the increased number of published scientific articles on “an avalanche of low-quality research,” and claims that this avalanche is damaging academia. I agree that there are certainly problems associated with the large volume of published research, but is it truly the crisis that the article claims?

It becomes more difficult finding articles for a particular area of interest, as the arXiv feed for the limited area of high energy phenomenology dumps 20+ articles into my RSS reader every evening. This is not entirely unmanageable, as I mostly scan abstracts for anything related to my current work, and ignore the rest.  Plus, it is 2010, and a search function can turn up a paper on any topic I desire.  However, the number of articles makes it more difficult to keep abreast of more subfields, and tangentially-related, though helpful, articles in other fields go unnoticed.  Cross-pollination of ideas has been essential throughout the history of science, but it is more difficult in this era of increased specialization.  The increased number of papers in all areas can’t be helping matters.

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Talent is a Process

With the semester over, I was able to dive into a couple of books that I had been waiting to read.  On the surface, they seem very different in subject matter, but reading them in succession allowed for some interesting insights.

The first book that I read was David Shenk’s The Genius in All of Us, whose thesis is that the usual conception of talent is incorrect.  Rather than being innate, talents are developed over years of sustained practice. (The canonical 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.)

The book, which is shorter than it looks due to the notes that fill about half of the volume, covers a variety of interesting topics to help debunk the notion that talents and other personal qualities are inborn.  The author describes a new understanding of genetics by throwing out the classic “nature vs. nurture” distinction, and arguing that the two are inextricably linked through the interaction of genes with their environment.  He goes too far with this in the final chapter, discussing the impact of epigenetic material (stuff other than DNA) on gene expression.  While there seems to be some credible and recent research on the effects of lifestyle on heredity, his assertion that “we may well be able to improve the conditions for our grandchildren by putting our young children through intellectual calisthenics now” seems to me to be a gross overstatement of the research.  Although much of the rest of the book is couched in this genetic argument, it isn’t dependent on his perhaps flawed understanding of the biology.

To determine the true sources of talent, Shenk discusses everything from the history of intelligence testing and “gifted” designations to the reasons for the athletic dominance of certain ethnic groups in their chosen sport.  (It is interesting to note that people used to wonder what genetic gifts allowed Jewish players to dominate basketball in the 30s and 40s, in much the same way that people discuss black players today.)  However, it seems that the most important factor for the development of talent is still the same: deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice requires more than just hard work, and it is not achieved by simply “putting in your 10,000 hours,” although both hard work and large amounts of time are certainly required.  Instead, it involves pushing beyond one’s current skill level to the point of failure, then picking up the pieces and trying again.  This type of practice is not necessarily enjoyable, but pushing beyond current limits is the only way to improve.  The practice activities have to be focused on particular aspects of the performance, with appropriate refinement and feedback for improvement.

It’s easy to imagine this deliberate practice as applied by a musician: seeking out more challenging pieces of music to play, focusing on the most technical measures, playing them repeatedly in solo practice, and later for a demanding instructor.  Or we can imagine the chess student, poring over volumes of opening and closing strategies, learning the tricks of the masters through solo study of their games, before testing those skills against ever tougher competition.

And of course, we can see this playing out with athletes, as it did in the other book I read to start my summer: Chris Ballard’s The Art of a Beautiful Game, which has chapters that discuss several of the basic components of basketball.  Though the book is wonderfully written, and a great read for any basketball fan, I couldn’t help but notice a strange battle playing out between the belief in natural athletic talent with the evidence of his descriptions of the players’ relentless practice habits.

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Unpaid Internships and Power

Because I have always had my eye on academia, there are many things I don’t know about the business world, including the process of getting started as a young person and moving up the ranks.  However, whenever I hear aspiring business-types talk, internships perpetually come up.  Internships seem to be central to the plan of getting experience, getting noticed, and getting on track to a good job.  And the accompanying question is always asked: is the internship paid or unpaid?

Before today, this question never fazed me.  I have always been paid for my internship-like research experiences, but I was not surprised that in some fields, people paid their dues by working for free.  However, a blog entry that I read today completely changed my mind, and not in the direction that the author intended.

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Unsolicited Advice, Volume I

So you want to be a physicist?  Hey, me too!  While I don’t know everything there is to know about getting there, I might be farther along than you are, and have some wisdom that I’ve accrued along the way that I can impart to you, even though you never asked for it.  Hence, this series of Unsolicited Advice.  (I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the inspiration I got from Cosmic Variance.  Plus I borrowed stole the name.)

Since this is Volume I, we’ll start early: before college.

Nurture Your Interest

If you’re reading this, and you’re not yet in college, then I’m willing to bet that you got interested in physics by reading one of the many popular books on physics.  It’s a great way to get into physics (it’s the way I got into it all those years ago).  You should continue to feed that interest in any way you can: read more books, watch tv specials, and discuss what you’ve learned with anyone who will listen. Continue reading ‘Unsolicited Advice, Volume I’

Concentrating on Focus

A couple of weeks ago, I ran into an article with a very provocative title: Is Google Making us Stupid? Ordinarily, these types of articles strike me as the older generation failing to cope with technological changes, and decrying the younger crowd for embracing them.  I generally find reading such articles to be unrewarding, but this one was different, because lately I had been asking myself a similar question.  Not so much whether Google makes us stupid, but if getting much of my information from reading blogs, Wikipedia, and other web pages was changing the way that I read and the way that I think.

In contrast to the title of the article, I don’t think this is all bad.  For instance, the instant access to supporting or contradicting information in the form of hyperlinks or the ability to do a quick Google search is certainly a good thing.  Now, we no longer have to confine ourselves to the limited and perhaps biased view of just one author, which certainly has the possibility of increasing the amount of critical thinking done while reading.

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Environment vs. Human Achievement?

As you may have heard, many individuals and municipalities will be observing Earth Hour tonight at 8:30 pm, your local time.  The idea is to raise awareness about the importance of energy conservation in combating global climate change.

The success that is reported in actual energy savings varies greatly, and it’s unclear how much of an impact this might have on the environment overall.  Several cities reported reductions in consumption between 1-10% during Earth Hour 2008, although some cities increased consumption, possibly because of the weather increasing the need for heating.  This is a savings of in the neighborhood of 100 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

So, is a small decrease in consumption for one hour out out of the year really something to make a big fuss out of?  Not if that energy saving is all that comes out of it.  If you sit with the lights off for an hour, then go out and drag race your Hummer to the lake and dump toxic sludge in it, of course you’re not doing much good.  But if Earth Hour increases awareness of environmental concerns, and shows that participating governments are truly serious about enacting green policies, then a lot of good can come out of the Earth Hour project.

Of course, there’s been some criticism of Earth Hour, and a competing event scheduled for the same time called Human Achievement Hour.  The idea is to celebrate human achievements, one of the greatest of which is the ability to generate, control, and harness energy, all of which has been necessary for our modern human achievements.  I guess we’re supposed to celebrate this by doing what we normally do and leave the lights on.  Or maybe we should turn on lots of unnecessary lights?  Really, this “celebration” doesn’t seem like a true counter to Earth Hour, but simply a mockery.

But the real point here is that human achievement and environmentalism are in no way in opposition to one another.  If we enjoy all our modern conveniences without concern, and end up making our planet unlivable, that’s not really a human achievement, is it?

But if we can figure out how to keep those conveniences, all while preserving our environment?  Talk about a human achievement to be proud of.

“Kids These Days,” a Reductio ad Absurdum by Induction

Choose an arbitrary Generation N.  Then let Generation N-1 be the next-older generation.

Generation N-1 says of Generation N:

“What’s wrong with Generation N?  They aren’t as smart, they don’t work as hard.  They have terrible manners, their clothes look stupid.  Have you heard their music?  Have you seen the way they dance?  Terrible.  They can’t speak properly to save their lives…

“Look at all that we’ve done for them, and they’re squandering it.  All of it.  I fear for the future of our society.”

So, Generation N < Generation N-1.

By a similar logic, we establish our base case: Generation 1 > Generation 2.

We can therefore conclude that human society peaked when Generation 1 came down from the trees, and has been monotonically decreasing in worth ever since.  There has been no progress, ever, and our society’s eventual destruction is ensured.


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