Category Archives: Blog

Today in “AMO Physics Is Way More Pleasant Than Biology”

As part of my “blog more regularly” push, I’m going to start moving some things that I’ve been posting as Twitter threads over here, where they’ll maybe be more pleasant to read for the tiny number of people who bother to read them. Starting with this Ed Yong piece at The Atlantic on a couple of life-science journals making it easier to publish papers whose main results were “scooped” by another group within a few months.

This is very much a Good Thing, but also a bit of a head-scratcher for me, particularly the quote from journal editor Eve Marder saying “We are seeing a trend toward the co-submission of papers from labs that choose not to compete but, rather, to jointly announce new findings.” Thee are both things that have been reasonably common in my corner of physics, going back twenty-plus years.

I mean, two of the papers I published in grad school had technically been “scooped” in this way– our paper on optical control of collisions came out a couple of months after a similar paper from a Japanese group, as was the paper on collisions in optical lattices. In both cases, the Japanese group sent us advance notice of their work, and offered to delay publication slightly so the papers could come out together. We didn’t take them up on that, but in both cases, our paper came out later in the same journal, Physical Review Letters, which was about as high in the prestige hierarchy as it could plausibly get.

It’s not just us, either– when I was doing the research for the ebook on quantum simulation that I wrote for Physics World (which is a free download, you should read it), I saw a bunch of this. Papers announcing key advances in the techniques used for these experiments tend to come in groups: there are 2-3 papers demonstrating single-atom resolution in optical lattices with bosons, then 2-3 papers doing the same thing with fermions, etc. These come from different groups, but they’re all in glamour journals (granted, not exactly the same journal– typically one is in Science and the next in Nature, or vice versa). There doesn’t seem to be any career-destroying penalty to being second in these sort of races in the world of cold-atom physics.

Now, granted, in these groupings, the two papers tend to have slightly different angles on the same thing, but that’s a natural part of doing science– different labs think about the same problem in slightly different ways, so the results from two groups are never perfectly identical. But my experience within my home research community has not been that second-place papers are totally blocked from publication, or even blocked from publication in the top journals. There are plenty of examples of pairs or triplets of papers that report essentially the same physics result within a few months of each other, all in top-tier journals.

So, I find the story from biology slightly surprising. It’s a positive development, but also a bit of a “thank God I don’t work with these people…” kind of thing. I’m making another tally mark in the column headed “Life Scientists Are Assholes,” and then partially erasing it.

Academic Book Chapter: Pseudoscience

One of the many things I’ve been busy with that have kept me from blogging has now seen print: a chapter in the new MIT Press book Pseudoscience: The Conspiracy Against Science, edited by Allison Kaufman and James Kaufman. This has a bunch of different takes on pseudoscience, from a range of academic disciplines, and includes Internet luminaries Orac and Ivan Oransky.

My chapter is titled “Scientific Failure as a Public Good: Illustrating the Process of Science and Its Contrast with Pseudoscience,” and the argument is pretty similar to this 2015 piece for The Conversation (which is, in fact, how I got asked to write the chapter in the first place…). I go through two big recent debacles in physics, the OPERA faster-than-light neutrino thing and the BICEP2 primordial gravitational waves business, and point out how the behavior of the scientists involved fits a clear pattern showing how real science works. Both the initial claim and the criticism of it come from within the relevant scientific community, the debate over the validity is carried out in the regular scientific literature, and the ultimate resolution comes with the active participation of the original scientists.

As a contrast to this, I look at a specific example of a pseudo-scientific enterprise, namely the “hydrino” physics of Randell Mills, a fringe theory which is promoted by an outsider, mostly operates through non-standard channels, and barely acknowledges the existence of criticism, let alone accepting it and working to resolve the issues. The contrast is really stark, and I would say that this sort of procedural distinction can be a useful part of a bullshit filter for anyone looking to distinguish real-but-incorrect science from pseudoscience.

This is written for an academic audience, so the language is a little more formal and complicated than a lot of my popular stuff, which made an interesting contrast during the writing process. It also involved a lot of LexisNexis searching for news articles, which was kind of fun in a really dorky way. Other than the occasional baroque sentence, though, it’s probably a pretty accessible read, since the editors are psychologists, not physicists.

Or, at least, it would be accessible to read if it were, you know, accessible. That part of academia hasn’t really embraced the concept of the arxiv yet, so there isn’t a readily available online version. I think there’s some provision for posting a PDF on my website eventually; I need to check into that.

The finished book looks pretty spiffy, though:

My author copy of Pseudoscience: The Conspiracy Against Science, now out from MIT Press

I can’t vouch for any of the other pieces (yet, anyway; I may try reading a few), so I don’t know that I’d push you to drop $40 on a copy for yourself. You could ask your local library to pick it up, though…

Charlie Pupdate

Yesterday’s post launching the blog portion of this site included some cute-kid photos, but of course they’re not the only photogenic mammals in Chateau Steelypips any more. There’s also Charlie the pupper, shown here in a collage helpfully assembled by Google Photos:

Collage of Charlie the pupper photos, put together by Google Photos.

(Google Photos has recently added Charlie to the list of “People and Pets” that it automatically recognizes in pictures. I, for one, welcome our new image-recognition-algorithm overlords…)

Charlie is, as he will constantly remind you, a good boy, really sweet and enthusiastic with people and other dogs. He’s been invaluable for schoolday mornings, because when it’s time to get the sillyheads up for school, he goes charging up the stairs and licks their hands and faces (he especially loves to lick The Pip’s face, possibly because the Little Dude derives roughly 25% of his calories from bacon) while they’re in bed. The ambient morning stress level is about 30% lower with Charlie on the job. (That’s 70% of a rather large baseline, alas, because SteelyKid is emphatically Not A Morning Person…)

There are, of course, a number of adjustments that come with getting a new pupper after a couple of dog-less years. Charlie’s energy level is, um, juussssst a bit higher than Emmy’s was during her last few years, which means longer and faster walks than I had become accustomed to. Also a lot more “Jesus, what is he chewing on NOW?” moments when we’re all around the house. We’ve had to become vigilant about keeping the downstairs bathroom door closed, because otherwise when he gets bored (say, because somebody stopped petting him for thirty seconds), Charlie will trot off and come back to present us with a slightly slobbered-on hand towel.

One of the biggest adjustments has been that he’s really good with other dogs– he’s got a lot of puppy enthusiasm for roughhousing, but manages to take the hint from dogs who aren’t into that style of play, too. Emmy was Not Good with other dogs, so we always had a pet-sitter when we left town, and I had a whole set of routines for our walks designed to avoid encountering other dogs. Charlie, on the other hand, loves being taken to the dog park; the more dogs there, the better.

Panorama of the Niskayuna dog park stitched together from two shots tracking Charlie as he ran by, leading to a double pupper image.

It’s been a lot of fun taking him over there, and getting to experience the social aspects of dog behavior as well as the human-oriented stuff we had with Emmy. We can also leave him with a boarder when we go out of town, and he makes regular visits to the groomer for a bath and a day of playing with their day-care dogs. The only hitch is that he HATES riding in the car, and needs to be physically carried to the minivan and stuffed inside, even when we’re going someplace fun.

Pretty much everyone who meets him exclaims over his coloring, and also what a good boy he is for a nine-month-old puppy. This of course makes me feel proud, which is really weird because we have very little to do with that– he was very well socialized by his foster family before we got him, and naturally has a good temperament. And yet, the immediate reaction is the same as when somebody praises one of the kids, with whom I share actual genes…

Anyway, that’s the current status of Charlie the pupper, who is well settled into Chateau Steelypips and much loved by all, and especially by the kids. Both of them take almost any opportunity to play with him, which he is of course happy to indulge.

Is This Thing On?

Since the shutdown of ScienceBlogs, I’ve been feeling the lack of a personal blog a bit. It doesn’t seem quite right to add to the now-archived Uncertain Principles, though– that era is over– and the thought of adding yet another WordPress install to all the ones I already have is kind of exhausting. I’ve got this site right here, though, and it’s a blog system, after all, so let’s see how it works to put a “Blog” category in with the rest, and start posting some stuff here.

Of course, the most important rule of public writing is that you have to give the people what they want. So here are some cute kid photos. First, The Pip looking pleased with himself:

The Pip in a rocket/tower he built with a fort-making kit.

And then SteelyKid in profile:

SteelyKid talking to someone out of frame.

I’m not sure how regularly I’ll be posting here, but just having the option again will be nice.