Archive for Science

Talent versus Luck

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on March 5, 2018 by telescoper

I’ve remarked quite a number of times on the blog that I think I’ve been exceptionally lucky in my scientific career, the latest example being the good fortune that the position at Maynooth University came up precisely when it did, enabling me to relocate to Ireland.

It struck me further the other day that the people who think that science is genuinely meritocratic, tend to be those who have done well in the system rather than those who haven’t. It’s rather like the way that very rich people tend to think that they have earned their wealth and that makes them better people than those who are less well off, even when that’s demonstrably not true.

Likewise, luck plays a definite role in winning grant funding. Having been on grants panels I’m away that many very good proposals are not funded. A scoring system is generally used that introduces some level of objectivity into the process, but the fact is that a lot of proposals come out with similar scores and the ranking of these is a bit arbitrary. A slightly different panel would produce slightly different scores, but perhaps a large difference in ranking would result.

Anyway, there’s a paper on the arXiv (by Pluchino et al) with the title Talent vs Luck: the role of randomness in success and failure that
discusses the role of good fortune in scientific careers. This is the abstract:

The largely dominant meritocratic paradigm of highly competitive Western cultures is rooted on the belief that success is due mainly, if not exclusively, to personal qualities such as talent, intelligence, skills, efforts or risk taking. Sometimes, we are willing to admit that a certain degree of luck could also play a role in achieving significant material success. But, as a matter of fact, it is rather common to underestimate the importance of external forces in individual successful stories. It is very well known that intelligence or talent exhibit a Gaussian distribution among the population, whereas the distribution of wealth – considered a proxy of success – follows typically a power law (Pareto law). Such a discrepancy between a Normal distribution of inputs, with a typical scale, and the scale invariant distribution of outputs, suggests that some hidden ingredient is at work behind the scenes. In this paper, with the help of a very simple agent-based model, we suggest that such an ingredient is just randomness. In particular, we show that, if it is true that some degree of talent is necessary to be successful in life, almost never the most talented people reach the highest peaks of success, being overtaken by mediocre but sensibly luckier individuals. As to our knowledge, this counterintuitive result – although implicitly suggested between the lines in a vast literature – is quantified here for the first time. It sheds new light on the effectiveness of assessing merit on the basis of the reached level of success and underlines the risks of distributing excessive honors or resources to people who, at the end of the day, could have been simply luckier than others. With the help of this model, several policy hypotheses are also addressed and compared to show the most efficient strategies for public funding of research in order to improve meritocracy, diversity and innovation.

Comments are, as always, welcome!


Hamiltonian Poetry

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on January 8, 2018 by telescoper

I posted a couple of items last week inspired by thoughts of the mathematician William Rowan Hamilton. Another thing I thought I might mention about Hamilton is that he also wrote poetry, and since both science and poetry feature quite regularly on this blog I thought I’d share an example.

In fact during the `Romantic Era‘ (in which Hamilton lived) many scientists wrote poetry related either to their work or to nature generally. One of the most accomplished of these scientist-poets was chemist and inventor Humphry Davy who, inspired by his friendship with the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, wrote poems throughout his life. Others to do likewise were: physician Erasmus Darwin; and astronomer William Herschel (who was also a noted musician and composer),

William Rowan Hamilton interests me because seems to have been a very colourful character as well as a superb mathematician, and because his work relates directly to physics and is still widely used today. Interestingly, he was a very close friend of William Wordsworth, to whom he often sent poems with requests for comments and feedback. In the subsequent correspondence, Wordsworth was usually not very complimentary, even to the extent of telling Hamilton to stick to his day job (or words to that effect). What I didn’t know was that Hamilton regarded himself as a poet first and a mathematician second. That just goes to show you shouldn’t necessarily trust a man’s judgement when he applies it to himself.

Here’s an example of Hamilton’s verse – a poem written to honour Joseph Fourier, another scientist whose work is still widely used today:

Hamilton-for Fourier

If that’s one of his better poems, then I think Wordsworth may have had a point!

The serious thing that strikes me is not the quality of the verse, but how many scientists of the 19th Century, Hamilton included, saw their scientific interrogation of Nature as a manifestation of the human condition just as the romantic poets saw their artistic contemplation. It is often argued that romanticism is responsible for the rise of antiscience. I’m not really qualified to comment on that but I don’t see any conflict at all between science and romanticism. I certainly don’t see Wordsworth’s poetry as anti-scientific. I just find it inspirational:

I HAVE seen
A curious child, who dwelt upon a tract
Of inland ground, applying to his ear
The convolutions of a smooth-lipped shell;
To which, in silence hushed, his very soul
Listened intensely; and his countenance soon
Brightened with joy; for from within were heard
Murmurings, whereby the monitor expressed
Mysterious union with its native sea.
Even such a shell the universe itself
Is to the ear of Faith; and there are times,
I doubt not, when to you it doth impart
Authentic tidings of invisible things;
Of ebb and flow, and ever-during power;
And central peace, subsisting at the heart
Of endless agitation.

Science and Innovation after Brexit

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on September 7, 2017 by telescoper

I’ve been busy most of today so I only have a little time for a short post pointing out that the long-awaited `position paper’ about collaboration on science and innovation between the UK and EU after Brexit has now been published. Those of you intending to remain in the United Kingdom if and when it leaves the European Union might be interested in reading it. I say `might be’ rather than `will be’ as it doesn’t really say anything concrete about anything.

Here’s the overall summary:

In preparing to leave the EU, one of the UK’s core objectives is to “seek agreement to continue to collaborate with European partners on major science, research, and technology initiatives”. It is the UK’s ambition to build on its unique relationship with the EU to ensure that together we remain at the forefront of collective endeavours to improve the world in which we live. The UK believes this is in the joint interest of the UK and EU, and would welcome discussion on how best to shape our future partnership in this area.

The answer to the last bit is, of course, easy. The best way to shape our future partnership in this area is unquestionably for the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union. This document says as much itself. As with most of these papers it consists primarily of a long list of the benefits in this area that the United Kingdom has enjoyed as a direct result of our membership of the European together with a desire to keep most of them after our departure. It offers no real ideas as to how to square the many circles that would involve. In particular, many EU schemes, including those funded by the European Research Council, depend on the freedom of movement the European Union guarantees. Given the leaked Home Office document outlining how it intends to deter EU citizens from coming here I don’t see how we can possibly remain an attractive destination for scientists, or anyone else for that matter.

Meanwhile, today, Parliament is debating the European Union Withdrawal Bill which, if passed, would give the Government sweeping powers – the so-called `Henry VIII’ powers – to bypass Parliament and directly repeal or amend any law it doesn’t like the look of without debate. This is exactly the right-wing power grab that many of who voted Remain feared would happen. If this Bill passes without significant amendment then we can say goodbye to our parliamentary democracy. The parallel with the Enabling Act of 1933 that gave absolute power to Adolf Hitler is frightening.

March for Science – Cardiff

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on April 21, 2017 by telescoper

Just a quick note to say that tomorrow I’ll be attending the Cardiff March for Science, which is one of a series of events happening around the world. I quote:

The March for Science is a celebration of science.  It’s not only about scientists and politicians; it is about the very real role that science plays in each of our lives and the need to respect and encourage research that gives us insight into the world.

The Cardiff March starts with a rally at 10am on the steps of the Senedd in Cardiff Bay and is followed by a march around the bay to Techniquest for a science event there to which families with children are particularly welcome. It should be a fun occasion  There’s a science-themed fancy dress competition. I’ll be going as a middle-aged man with a beard.

For further details see here or follow the Twitter feed:



Lord Rees on the Threat to UK Science

Posted in Politics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 6, 2016 by telescoper

In case you missed the comments by Lord Rees on Newsnight in the wake of the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prizes for Physics, here is a video.

Martin is always impeccably polite but I sense he must have been outraged by the statements made by Home Secretary Amber Rudd at the Conservative Party Conference this week, some of which seem to have been taking directly from Mein Kampf. Prior to this interview, the most extreme word I’ve ever hard Martin use was “reprehensible” – and that on an occasion when he was clearly angry. His use of the word “deplorable” here is very significant.

Quite apart the threat to science, I have to admit I’m extremely worried about the direction this country is taking. Perhaps someone should tell Prime Minister Theresa May that the referendum wasn’t about leaving the League of Nations and that this isn’t 1933. The parallels with Germany are striking. In that case it didn’t end with the identification and deportation of foreign workers. Yesterday Theresa May stated that anyone who describes themselves as a “Citizen of the World” is really a “Citizen of Nowhere”. I’ve never felt less at home in my own country than I do now.

A few days before the referendum a wrote a post that included this:

Of course I’m not saying that all those who want the UK to Leave the EU are fascists. Far from it. Many – indeed the majority – are reasonable, civilised people. But like it or not, if you vote Leave you’re voting the way the far right want you to vote. I for one will not take a single step in that direction. Fascism only needs a foot in the door. I fear that the domestic political consequences of BrExit will give it far more than that. Once they get hold of it, we’ll never get our country back.

My fear is even more real now than it was then.


Sir David Attenborough at 90, Boaty McBoatface, and the Song of the Lyre Bird

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2016 by telescoper

Today is the 90th birthday of one of my biggest heroes, Sir David Attenborough, so let me start by wishing him many happy returns of the day!
There has been some controversy recently about the new Polar Research ship being called the Sir David Attenborough despite overwhelming support in a public poll for it to be called Boaty McBoatface. The latter name has been retained for one of the remote-controlled submersibles carried by the larger vessel, but I’ve seen a number of complaints that this was inappropriate. Actually, I disagree. For one thing the new vessel is undoubtedly a ship rather than a boat; its prefix ‘RRS’ means ‘Royal Research Ship’ after all. For another, submarines – even the very big ones – are always known as boats. This has been the practice since the earliest days of submersible craft, presumably because the earliest ones were small enough to be carried by other vessels. A submersible Boaty McBoatface is absolutely fine by me!

Anyway I thought I’d use the occasion of Sir David Attenborough’s birthday to post one of my favourite clips from one of his many TV programmes, and the piece I wrote about it a while ago

I wonder what you felt as you watched it?  What went through your mind? Amusement? Fascination?  I’ll tell you how it was for me when I first saw it.  I marvelled.

Seeing the extraordinary behaviour of this marvellous creature filled me with a sense of wonder. But I also began to wonder in another sense too. How did the Lyre Bird evolve its bizarre strategy? How does it learn to be such an accurate mimic? How does it produce such a fascinating variety of sounds? How can there be an evolutionary advantage in luring a potential mate to the sound of foresters and a chainsaw?

The Lyre Bird deploys its resources in such an elaborate and expensive way that you might be inclined to mock it, if all it does is draw females to “look at its plumes”.  I can think of quite a few blokes who adopt not-too-dissimilar strategies, if truth be told. But if you could ask a Lyre Bird it would probably answer that it does this because that’s what it does. The song defines the bird. That’s its nature.

I was moved to post the clip in response to a characteristically snide and ill-informed piece by Simon Jenkins in the  Guardian a while ago. Jenkins indulges in an anti-science rant every now and again. Sometimes he has a point, in fact. But this article was just puerile. Perhaps he had a bad experience of science at school and never got over it.

I suppose I can understand why some people are cynical about scientists stepping into the public eye to proselytise about science. After all, it’s also quite easy to come up with examples of  scientists who have made mistakes. Sadly, there are also cases of outright dishonesty. Science is no good because scientists are fallible. But scientists are people, no better and no worse than the rest. To err is human and all that.  We shouldn’t expect scientists to be superhuman any more than we should believe the occasional megalomaniac who says they are.

To many people fundamental physics is a just a load of incomprehensible gibberish, the Large Hadron Collider a monstrous waste of money, and astronomy of no greater value to the world than astrology. Any scientist trying to communicate science to the public must be trying to hoodwink them, to rob them of the schools and hospitals that their taxes should be building and sacrifice their hard-earned income on the altar of yet another phoney religion.

And now the BBC is participating in this con-trick by actually broadcasting popular programmes about science that have generated huge and appreciative audiences. Simon Jenkins obviously feels threatened by it. He’s probably not alone.

I don’t  have anything like the public profile of the target of Jenkins’ vitriol, Lord Rees, but I try to do my share of science communication. I give public lectures from time to time and write popular articles, whenever I’m asked. I also answer science questions by email from the general public, and some of the pieces I post on here receive a reasonably wide distribution too.

Why do I (and most of my colleagues) do all this sort of stuff? Is it because we’re after your money?  Actually, no it isn’t. Not directly, anyway.

I do all this stuff because, after 25 years as a scientist, I still have a sense of wonder about the universe. I want to share that as much as I can with others. Moreover,  I’ve been lucky enough to find a career that allows me to get paid for indulging my scientific curiosity and I’m fully aware that it’s Joe Public that pays for me to do it. I’m happy they do so, and happier still that people will turn up on a rainy night to hear me talk about cosmology or astrophysics. I do this because I love doing science, and want other people to love it  too.

Scientists are wont to play the utilitarian card when asked about why the public should fund fundamental research. Lord Rees did this in his Reith Lectures, in fact. Physics has given us countless spin-offs – TV sets, digital computers,  the internet, you name it – that have created wealth for UK plc out of all proportion to the modest investment it has received. If you think the British government spends too much on science, then perhaps you could try to find the excessive sum on this picture.

Yes, the LHC is expensive but the cost was shared by a large number of countries and was spread over a long time. The financial burden to the UK now amounts to the cost of a cup of coffee per year for each taxpayer in the country. I’d compare this wonderful exercise in friendly international cooperation with the billions we’re about to waste on the Trident nuclear weapons programme which is being built on the assumption that international relations must involve mutual hatred.

This is the sort of argument that gets politicians interested, but scientists must be wary of it. If particle physics is good because it has spin-offs that can be applied in, e.g. medicine, then why not just give the money to medical research?

I’m not often put in situations where I have to answer questions like why we should spend money on astronomy or particle physics but, when I am, I always feel uncomfortable wheeling out the economic impact argument. Not because I don’t believe it’s true, but because I don’t think it’s the real reason for doing science. I know the following argument won’t cut any ice in the Treasury, but it’s what I really think as a scientist (and a human being).

What makes humans different from other animals? What defines us? I don’t know what the full answer to that is, or even if it has a single answer, but I’d say one of the things that we do is ask questions and try to answer them. Science isn’t the only way we do this. There are many complementary modes of enquiry of which the scientific method is just one. Generally speaking, though, we’re curious creatures.

I think the state should support science but I also think it should support the fine arts, literature, humanities and the rest, for their own sake. Because they’re things we do. They  make us human. Without them we’re just like any other animal that consumes and reproduces.

So the real reason why the government should support science is the song of the Lyre Bird.  No, I don’t mean as an elaborate mating ritual. I don’t think physics will help you pull the birds. What I mean is that even in this materialistic, money-obsessed world we still haven’t lost the  need to wonder, for the joy it brings and for the way it stimulates our minds; science doesn’t inhibit wonder, as Jenkins argues,  it sparks it.

Now, anyone want to see my plumes?