Archive for Friedrich Engels

Surplus Value, Exploitation and Scientific Publishing

Posted in Open Access, Politics with tags , , , , on August 11, 2013 by telescoper

The August edition of Physics World – house organ of the Institute of Physics – contains an article about Open Access Publishing which is available online here.  In fact, I get a mention in it:

Another vocal critic of the science-publishing industry has been astronomer Peter Coles from the University of Sussex. “Publishers want a much higher fee than [the real cost of publishing a paper on the Internet] because they want to maintain their eye-watering profit margins, despite the fact that the ‘service’ they provide has been rendered entirely obsolete by digital technologies,” Coles claimed on his blog In the Dark earlier this year. Yet publishers have been fighting back, pointing out that scientists often do not understand how the publishing industry operates and highlighting the many valuable – and expensive – functions they provide to the scientific community. In addition to the often complex process of managing peer review, these include everything from developing and maintaining IT systems to checking papers through plagiarism detection software – none of which comes cheap (see “The value publishers bring”).

Publishers have indeed been fighting back, but you’d expect that of vested interests.  You can read the rest of the article yourself to see if you’re convinced. I’m not. I think it’s a desperate piece of propaganda.

The last comment in the quoted paragraph (in parenthesis) points to a box purporting to explain why scientific journals should be so expensive. The explanations presented in that box  are so obviously  disingenuous that they don’t merit a detailed debunking because the argument can be refuted without any need to refer to the box: note the deliberate confusion between cost (“none of which comes cheap”) and “value” in the last paragraph quoted above.

IOP Publishing (along with  other profiteering organizations of its type) insist that it brings value to scientific papers. It doesn’t. The authors and referees do all the things that add value. What the IOP does is take that value and turn it into its own profits. The fact that enormous profits are made out of this process in itself demonstrates that what the scientific community is being charged is nothing whatever to do with cost.

This reminds me of many discussions I had in my commie student days about surplus value, a concept that I believe was first discussed by Friedrich Engels, but which was explored in great detail by Karl Marx, in Das Kapital. According to the wikipedia page, the term “refers roughly to the new value created by workers that is in excess of their own labour-cost and which is therefore available to be appropriated by the capitalist, according to Marx; it allows then for profit and in so doing is the basis of capital accumulation.”

Engels is quoted there as follows:

Whence comes this surplus-value? It cannot come either from the buyer buying the commodities under their value, or from the seller selling them above their value. For in both cases the gains and the losses of each individual cancel each other, as each individual is in turn buyer and seller. Nor can it come from cheating, for though cheating can enrich one person at the expense of another, it cannot increase the total sum possessed by both, and therefore cannot augment the sum of the values in circulation. (…) This problem must be solved, and it must be solved in a purely economic way, excluding all cheating and the intervention of any force — the problem being: how is it possible constantly to sell dearer than one has bought, even on the hypothesis that equal values are always exchanged for equal values?

Marx’s solution of this economical conundrum was central to his theory of exploitation:

…living labour at an adequate level of productivity is able to create and conserve more value than it costs the employer to buy; which is exactly the economic reason why the employer buys it, i.e. to preserve and augment the value of the capital at his command. Thus, the surplus-labour is unpaid labour appropriated by employers in the form of work-time and outputs.

In this context of academic publishing, the workers are scientific researchers and the employers are the publishers. The workers  not only produce the science in the first place, but also carry out virtually all of the actions that the employers claim add value. The latter are simply appropriating the labour of the former, which is exploitation. It has to stop.

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A Piece on a Paradox

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 7, 2012 by telescoper

Not long ago I posted a short piece about the history of cosmology which got some interesting comments, so I thought I’d try again with a little article I wrote a while ago on the subject of Olbers’ Paradox. This is discussed in almost every astronomy or cosmology textbook, but the resolution isn’t always made as clear as it might be. The wikipedia page on this topic is unusually poor by the standards of wikipedia, and appears to have suffered a severe attack of the fractals.

I’d be interested in any comments on the following attempt.

One of the most basic astronomical observations one can make, without even requiring a telescope, is that the night sky is dark. This fact is so familiar to us that we don’t imagine that it is difficult to explain, or that anything important can be deduced from it. But quite the reverse is true. The observed darkness of the sky at night was regarded for centuries by many outstanding intellects as a paradox that defied explanation: the so-called Olbers’ Paradox.

The starting point from which this paradox is developed is the assumption that the Universe is static, infinite, homogeneous, and Euclidean. Prior to twentieth century developments in observation (Hubble’s Law) and theory  (Cosmological Models based on General Relativity), all these assumptions would have appeared quite reasonable to most scientists. In such a Universe, the intensity of light received by an observer from a source falls off as the inverse square of the distance between the two. Consequently, more distant stars or galaxies appear fainter than nearby ones. A star infinitely far away would appear infinitely faint, which suggests that Olbers’ Paradox is avoided by the fact that distant stars (or galaxies) are simply too faint to be seen. But one has to be more careful than this.

Imagine, for simplicity, that all stars shine with the same brightness. Now divide the Universe into a series of narrow concentric spherical shells, in the manner of an onion. The light from each source within a shell of radius r  falls off as r^{-2}, but the number of sources increases in the same manner. Each shell therefore produces the same amount of light at the observer, regardless of the value of r.  Adding up the total light received from all the shells, therefore, produces an infinite answer.

In mathematical form, this is

I = \int_{0}^{\infty} I(r) n dV =  \int_{0}^{\infty} \frac{L}{4\pi r^2} 4\pi r^{2} n dr \rightarrow \infty

where L is the luminosity of a source, n is the number density of sources and I(r) is the intensity of radiation received from a source at distance r.

In fact the answer is not going to be infinite in practice because nearby stars will block out some of the light from stars behind them. But in any case the sky should be as bright as the surface of a star like the Sun, as each line of sight will eventually end on a star. This is emphatically not what is observed.

It might help to think of this in another way, by imagining yourself in a very large forest. You may be able to see some way through the gaps in the nearby trees, but if the forest is infinite every possible line of sight will end with a tree.

As is the case with many other famous names, this puzzle was not actually first discussed by Olbers. His discussion was published relatively recently, in 1826. In fact, Thomas Digges struggled with this problem as early as 1576. At that time, however, the mathematical technique of adding up the light from an infinite set of narrow shells, which relies on the differential calculus, was not known. Digges therefore simply concluded that distant sources must just be too faint to be seen and did not worry about the problem of the number of sources. Johannes Kepler was also interested in this problem, and in 1610 he suggested that the Universe must be finite in spatial extent. Edmund Halley (of cometary fame) also addressed the  issue about a century later, in 1720, but did not make significant progress. The first discussion which would nowadays be regarded as a  correct formulation of the problem was published in 1744, by Loys de Chéseaux. Unfortunately, his resolution was not correct either: he imagined that intervening space somehow absorbed the energy carried by light on its path from source to observer. Olbers himself came to a similar conclusion in the piece that forever associated his name with this cosmological conundrum.

Later students of this puzzle included Lord Kelvin, who speculated that the extra light may be absorbed by dust. This is no solution to the problem either because, while dust may initially simply absorb optical light, it would soon heat up and re-radiate the energy at infra-red wavelengths. There would still be a problem with the total amount of electromagnetic radiation reaching an observer. To be fair to Kelvin, however, at the time of his writing it was not known that heat and light were both forms of the same kind of energy and it was not obvious that they could be transformed into each other in this way.

To show how widely Olbers’ paradox was known in the nineteenth Century, it is worth also mentioning that Friedrich Engels, Manchester factory owner and co-author with Karl Marx of the Communist Manifesto also considered it in his book The Dialectics of Nature. In this discussion he singles out Kelvin for particular criticism, mainly for the reason that Kelvin was a member of the aristocracy.

In fact, probably the first inklings of a correct resolution of the Olbers’ Paradox were contained not in a dry scientific paper, but in a prose poem entitled Eureka published in 1848 by Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s astonishingly prescient argument is based on the realization that light travels with a finite speed. This in itself was not a new idea, as it was certainly known to Newton almost two centuries earlier. But Poe did understand its relevance to Olbers’ Paradox.  Light just arriving from distant sources must have set out a very long time ago; in order to receive light from them now, therefore, they had to be burning in the distant past. If the Universe has only lasted for a finite time then one can’t add shells out to infinite distances, but only as far as the distance given by the speed of light multiplied by the age of the Universe. In the days before scientific cosmology, many believed that the Universe had to be very young: the biblical account of the creation made it only a few thousand years old, so the problem was definitely avoided.

Of course, we are now familiar with the ideas that the Universe is expanding (and that light is consequently redshifted), that it may not be infinite, and that space may not be Euclidean. All these factors have to be taken into account when one calculates the brightness of the sky in different cosmological models. But the fundamental reason why the paradox is not a paradox does boil down to the finite lifetime, not necessarily of the Universe, but of the individual structures that can produce light. According to the theory Special Relativity, mass and energy are equivalent. If the density of matter is finite, so therefore is the amount of energy it can produce by nuclear reactions. Any object that burns matter to produce light can therefore only burn for a finite time before it fizzles out.

Imagine that the Universe really is infinite. For all the light from all the sources to arrive at an observer at the same time (i.e now) they would have to have been switched on at different times – those furthest away sending their light towards us long before those nearby had switched on. To make this work we would have to be in the centre of a carefully orchestrated series of luminous shells switching on an off in sequence in such a way that their light all reached us at the same time. This would not only put us  in a very special place in the Universe but also require the whole complicated scheme to be contrived to make our past light cone behave in this peculiar way.

With the advent of the Big Bang theory, cosmologists got used to the idea that all of matter was created at a finite time in the past anyway, so  Olber’s Paradox receives a decisive knockout blow, but it was already on the ropes long before the Big Bang came on the scene.

As a final remark, it is worth mentioning that although Olbers’ Paradox no longer stands as a paradox, the ideas behind it still form the basis of important cosmological tests. The brightness of the night sky may no longer be feared infinite, but there is still expected to be a measurable glow of background light produced by distant sources too faint to be seen individually. In principle,  in a given cosmological model and for given assumptions about how structure formation proceeded, one can calculate the integrated flux of light from all the sources that can be observed at the present time, taking into account the effects of redshift, spatial geometry and the formation history of sources. Once this is done, one can compare predicted light levels with observational limits on the background glow in certain wavebands which are now quite strict .