Science Diet: The New Land of Opportunities?


Science Diet is a weekly selection of five science/technology stories that are timely and relevant, fascinating and inspiring, and certain to stimulate your mind.

1. Pioneering Indian psychologist dies

Despite the best efforts of her family and friends to find a matching bone-marrow donor, she couldn’t get one. The ones who were found to be matches declined to donate. And thus Prof. Nalini Ambady of Stanford University succumbed to leukemia. She was best known for her work on the subliminal processes which lead us to make judgements about people, without knowing much about them at all.

She showed, with other researchers, how our first impressions of people are no less accurate than impressions formed over longer periods of time. A now-famous experiment of hers, makes the Teacher Course Feedback forms you’ve been filling this last week feel redundant. They might as well have asked us on the first day of class. Her work also showed how the same cognitive processes also often reinforce our stereotypes of people.

2. The new land of opportunities

This multi-part series in Science Magazine examines the impact of the remarkable infusion of funds for scientific research in India in recent years. This, along with the creation of new infrastructure in the form of institutes and universities, has attracted many who left these shores for the West. Faculty positions have never been so abundant. Dr. Krishna Jagannathan of our EE department says: “Generally, it seems to me that the research atmosphere is on an upward cusp, as enough critical mass continues to build in several disciplines.”

Challenges, however, still remain. There are differences in how projects get funded in other countries, particularly the U.S., and in India. Bureaucracy means that “India’s hiring system is a coordinate system made of noodles.” A research scientist in India also needs “a sense of humour” and “a thick skin”.

3. “Peer review is sick and collapsing under its own weight.”

The model hasn’t changed for over three centuries. Researchers send their papers to a journal, which sends it on to anonymous peer reviewers (who usually do it on a voluntary basis), and the paper gets published after incorporating any corrections. Or is rejected.

One flaw in the model is the incentive to hype a result with the aim of publishing in a top journal, meaning those with high “impact factors”  a proxy for a journal’s prestige that doesn’t reflect the quality of individual papers. The problem, though, is that the peer-review system is not the sieve which filters out bad and fraudulent papers many imagine it to be. A lot of research in frontline research areas in the life sciences cannot be replicated. Which means it’s not science. What’s more, there’s no career gain in replicating or validating a previously-published result, which means a vital cog in the process of science goes missing. Negative findings and incremental advances thus do not see the light of the day. “The thing that should scare people is that so many of these important published studies turn out to be wrong when they’re investigated further.”

A promising alternative that has emerged is the idea of a continuous, post-publication peer review, wherein papers become more like wikis with the ability for reviewers and authors to post comments and revisions. Because as things stand, “a paper that actually shows a previous paper is true would never get published in an important journal and it would be almost impossible to get that work funded.”

4. The Everything Store

Steve Jobs, born out of wedlock, was given up for adoption and never really got to know his biological father well. Here’s a Businessweek story on Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, whose biological father never realised his son had grown up to be one of the richest men in the world.

Amazon’s success derives from two principles: One, making sure their customers are happy  if not, you can write an e-mail straight to Jeff Bezos  and can buy everything they want from Amazon, and two, their ruthless and predatory instincts to minimise costs, maximise profits, and eliminate competition either by acquisition or by driving down prices to put them out of business. We get to know that the company which relies on data to analyse its business   and that of its rivals’   from top to bottom also listens to anecdotes from its customers, lest they be displeased. Amazon has grown from being just an online bookseller to an online everything-seller, and then a serious player in the consumer tech industry with enough clout to take on Apple and defy Google, along with being the leader among cloud service providers through Amazon Web Services. It now handles the computing requirements of thousands of technology companies, universities, and government agencies. And if that isn’t enough, Jeff Bezos also owns a rocket ship company and the newspaper Washington Post.

Amazon, meanwhile, has $75 billion in revenue. And no profits. Why? “Bezos has chosen to run Amazon to be the biggest, most powerful and successful retailer on Earth 20 years from now. Any fool could run it profitably today.”

5. Beyond the Higgs

Steven Weinberg, Nobel Laureate 1979, and the wise old man of theoretical high-energy physics, writes in the New York Review of Books of two areas of physics that couldn’t be further apart in their domains, yet are intimately related: cosmology and particle physics. The discovery that the two have anything to do with each other speaks of the stunning success physics has had in the last century, a progress that hasn’t been sustainable since. Theories abound, often without the crutch of experimental evidence, yet a few questions loom large: what are dark energy and dark matter? And why do the universal constants that appear in the equations of physics, such as masses of the elementary particles, have the particular values they do?

Read on for a concise overview of physics as it stands now, post-Higgs boson. “Physical science has historically progressed not only by finding precise explanations of natural phenomena, but also by discovering what sorts of things can be precisely explained. These may be fewer than we had thought.”

As you prepare for the end-sem exams, here’s the ultimate end-of-the-world scenario to cheer you up.

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