Category Archives: Life as a Physicist

The Citation Motivation Situation

Citations are the bread and butter of academia, or maybe its prison cigarettes. They link us together, somewhere between a map to show us the way and an informal currency. They’re part of how the world grades us, a measure more objective than letters from our peers but that’s not saying much. It’s clear why we we want to be cited, but why do we cite others?

For more reasons than you’d expect.

First, we cite to respect priority. Since the dawn of science, we’ve kept track not only of what we know, but of who figured it out first. If we use an idea in our paper, we cite its origin: the paper that discovered or invented it. We don’t do this for the oldest and most foundational ideas: nobody cites Einstein for relativity. But if the idea is at all unusual, we make sure to give credit where credit is due.

Second, we cite to substantiate our claims. Academic papers don’t stand on their own: they depend on older proofs and prior discoveries. If we make a claim that was demonstrated in older work, we don’t need to prove it again. By citing the older work, we let the reader know where to look. If they doubt our claim, they can look at the older paper and see what went wrong.

Those two are the most obvious uses of citations, but there are more. Another important use is to provide context. Academic work doesn’t stand alone: we choose what we work on in part based on how it relates to other work. As such, it’s important to cite that other work, to help readers understand our motivation. When we’re advancing the state of the art, we need to tell the reader what that state of the art is. When we’re answering a question or solving a problem, we can cite the paper that asked the question or posed the problem. When we’re introducing a new method or idea, we need to clearly say what’s new about it: how it improves on older, similar ideas.

Scientists are social creatures. While we often have a scientific purpose in mind, citations also follow social conventions. These vary from place to place, field to field, and sub-field to sub-field. Mention someone’s research program, and you might be expected to cite every paper in that program. Cite one of a pair of rivals, and you should probably cite the other one too. Some of these conventions are formalized in the form of “citeware“, software licenses that require citations, rather than payments, to use. Others come from unspoken cultural rules. Citations are a way to support each other, something that can slightly improve another’s job prospects at no real cost to your own. It’s not surprising that they ended up part of our culture, well beyond their pure academic use.

In Defense of Shitty Code

Scientific programming was in the news lately, when doubts were raised about a coronavirus simulation by researchers at Imperial College London. While the doubts appear to have been put to rest, doing so involved digging through some seriously messy code. The whole situation seems to have gotten a lot of people worried. If these people are that bad at coding, why should we trust their science?

I don’t know much about coronavirus simulations, my knowledge there begins and ends with a talk I saw last month. But I know a thing or two about bad scientific code, because I write it. My code is atrocious. And I’ve seen published code that’s worse.

Why do scientists write bad code?

In part, it’s a matter of training. Some scientists have formal coding training, but most don’t. I took two CS courses in college and that was it. Despite that lack of training, we’re expected and encouraged to code. Before I took those courses, I spent a summer working in a particle physics lab, where I was expected to pick up the C++-based interface pretty much on the fly. I don’t think there’s another community out there that has as much reason to code as scientists do, and as little training for it.

Would it be useful for scientists to have more of the tools of a trained coder? Sometimes, yeah. Version control is a big one, I’ve collaborated on papers that used Git and papers that didn’t, and there’s a big difference. There are coding habits that would speed up our work and lead to fewer dead ends, and they’re worth picking up when we have the time.

But there’s a reason we don’t prioritize “proper coding”. It’s because the things we’re trying to do, from a coding perspective, are really easy.

What, code-wise, is a coronavirus simulation? A vector of “people”, really just simple labels, all randomly infecting each other and recovering, with a few parameters describing how likely they are to do so and how long it takes. What do I do, code-wise? Mostly, giant piles of linear algebra.

These are not some sort of cutting-edge programming tasks. These are things people have been able to do since the dawn of computers. These are things that, when you screw them up, become quite obvious quite quickly.

Compared to that, the everyday tasks of software developers, like making a reliable interface for users, or efficient graphics, are much more difficult. They’re tasks that really require good coding practices, that just can’t function without them.

For us, the important part is not the coding itself, but what we’re doing with it. Whatever bugs are in a coronavirus simulation, they will have much less impact than, for example, the way in which the simulation includes superspreaders. Bugs in my code give me obviously wrong answers, bad scientific assumptions are much harder for me to root out.

There’s an exception that proves the rule here, and it’s that, when the coding task is actually difficult, scientists step up and write better code. Scientists who want to run efficiently on supercomputers, who are afraid of numerical error or need to simulate on many scales at once, these people learn how to code properly. The code behind the LHC still might be jury-rigged by industry standards, but it’s light-years better than typical scientific code.

I get the furor around the Imperial group’s code. I get that, when a government makes a critical decision, you hope that their every input is as professional as possible. But without getting too political for this blog, let me just say that whatever your politics are, if any of it is based on science, it comes from code like this. Psychology studies, economic modeling, polling…they’re using code, and it’s jury-rigged to hell. Scientists just have more important things to worry about.

The Point of a Model

I’ve been reading more lately, partially for the obvious reasons. Mostly, I’ve been catching up on books everyone else already read.

One such book is Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. With all the talk lately about cognitive biases, Kahneman’s account of his research on decision-making was quite familiar ground. The book turned out to more interesting as window into the culture of psychology research. While I had a working picture from psychologist friends in grad school, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” covered the other side, the perspective of a successful professor promoting his field.

Most of this wasn’t too surprising, but one passage struck me:

Several economists and psychologists have proposed models of decision making that are based on the emotions of regret and disappointment. It is fair to say that these models have had less influence than prospect theory, and the reason is instructive. The emotions of regret and disappointment are real, and decision makers surely anticipate these emotions when making their choices. The problem is that regret theories make few striking predictions that would distinguish them from prospect theory, which has the advantage of being simpler. The complexity of prospect theory was more acceptable in the competition with expected utility theory because it did predict observations that expected utility theory could not explain.

Richer and more realistic assumptions do not suffice to make a theory successful. Scientists use theories as a bag of working tools, and they will not take on the burden of a heavier bag unless the new tools are very useful. Prospect theory was accepted by many scholars not because it is “true” but because the concepts that it added to utility theory, notably the reference point and loss aversion, were worth the trouble; they yielded new predictions that turned out to be true. We were lucky.

Thinking Fast and Slow, page 288

Kahneman is contrasting three theories of decision making here: the old proposal that people try to maximize their expected utility (roughly, the benefit they get in future), his more complicated “prospect theory” that takes into account not only what benefits people get but their attachment to what they already have, and other more complicated models based on regret. His theory ended up more popular, both than the older theory and than the newer regret-based models.

Why did his theory win out? Apparently, not because it was the true one: as he says, people almost certainly do feel regret, and make decisions based on it. No, his theory won because it was more useful. It made new, surprising predictions, while being simpler and easier to use than the regret-based models.

This, a theory defeating another without being “more true”, might bug you. By itself, it doesn’t bug me. That’s because, as a physicist, I’m used to the idea that models should not just be true, but useful. If we want to test our theories against reality, we have a large number of “levels” of description to choose from. We can “zoom in” to quarks and gluons, or “zoom out” to look at atoms, or molecules, or polymers. We have to decide how much detail to include, and we have real pragmatic reasons for doing so: some details are just too small to measure!

It’s not clear Kahneman’s community was doing this, though. That is, it doesn’t seem like he’s saying that regret and disappointment are just “too small to be measured”. Instead, he’s saying that they don’t seem to predict much differently from prospect theory, and prospect theory is simpler to use.

Ok, we do that in physics too. We like working with simpler theories, when we have a good excuse. We’re just careful about it. When we can, we derive our simpler theories from more complicated ones, carving out complexity and estimating how much of a difference it would have made. Do this carefully, and we can treat black holes as if they were subatomic particles. When we can’t, we have what we call “phenomenological” models, models built up from observation and not from an underlying theory. We never take such models as the last word, though: a phenomenological model is always viewed as temporary, something to bridge a gap while we try to derive it from more basic physics.

Kahneman doesn’t seem to view prospect theory as temporary. It doesn’t sound like anyone is trying to derive it from regret theory, or to make regret theory easier to use, or to prove it always agrees with regret theory. Maybe they are, and Kahneman simply doesn’t think much of their efforts. Either way, it doesn’t sound like a major goal of the field.

That’s the part that bothered me. In physics, we can’t always hope to derive things from a more fundamental theory, some theories are as fundamental as we know. Psychology isn’t like that: any behavior people display has to be caused by what’s going on in their heads. What Kahneman seems to be saying here is that regret theory may well be closer to what’s going on in people’s heads, but he doesn’t care: it isn’t as useful.

And at that point, I have to ask: useful for what?

As a psychologist, isn’t your goal ultimately to answer that question? To find out “what’s going on in people’s heads”? Isn’t every model you build, every theory you propose, dedicated to that question?

And if not, what exactly is it “useful” for?

For technology? It’s true, “Thinking Fast and Slow” describes several groups Kahneman advised, most memorably the IDF. Is the advantage of prospect theory, then, its “usefulness”, that it leads to better advice for the IDF?

I don’t think that’s what Kahneman means, though. When he says “useful”, he doesn’t mean “useful for advice”. He means it’s good for giving researchers ideas, good for getting people talking. He means “useful for designing experiments”. He means “useful for writing papers”.

And this is when things start to sound worryingly familiar. Because if I’m accusing Kahneman’s community of giving up on finding the fundamental truth, just doing whatever they can to write more papers…well, that’s not an uncommon accusation in physics as well. If the people who spend their lives describing cognitive biases are really getting distracted like that, what chance does, say, string theory have?

I don’t know how seriously to take any of this. But it’s lurking there, in the back of my mind, that nasty, vicious, essential question: what are all of our models for?

Bonus quote, for the commenters to have fun with:

I have yet to meet a successful scientist who lacks the ability to exaggerate the importance of what he or she is doing, and I believe that someone who lacks a delusional sense of significance will wilt in the face of repeated experiences of multiple small failures and rare successes, the fate of most researchers.

Thinking Fast and Slow, page 264

The Academic Workflow (Or Lack Thereof)

I was chatting with someone in biotech recently, who was frustrated with the current state of coronavirus research. The problem, in her view, was that researchers were approaching the problem in too “academic” a way. Instead of coordinating, trying to narrow down to a few approaches and make sure they get the testing they need, researchers were each focusing on their own approach, answering the questions they thought were interesting or important without fitting their work into a broader plan. She thought that a more top-down, corporate approach would do much better.

I don’t know anything about the current state of coronavirus research, what works and what doesn’t. But the conversation got me thinking about my own field.

Theoretical physics is about as far from “top-down” as you can get. As a graduate student, your “boss” is your advisor, but that “bossiness” can vary from telling you to do specific calculations to just meeting you every so often to discuss ideas. As a postdoc, even that structure evaporates: while you usually have an official “supervisor”, they won’t tell you what to do outside of the most regimented projects. Instead, they suggest, proposing ideas they’d like to collaborate on. As a professor, you don’t have this kind of “supervisor”: while there are people in charge of the department, they won’t tell you what to research. At most, you have informal hierarchies: senior professors influencing junior professors, or the hot-shots influencing the rest.

Even when we get a collaboration going, we don’t tend to have assigned roles. People do what they can, when they can, and if you’re an expert on one part of the work you’ll probably end up doing that part, but that won’t be “the plan” because there almost never is a plan. There’s very rarely a “person in charge”: if there’s a disagreement it gets solved by one person convincing another that they’re right.

This kind of loose structure is freeing, but it can also be frustrating. Even the question of who is on a collaboration can be up in the air, with a sometimes tacit assumption that if you were there for certain conversations you’re there for the paper. It’s possible to push for more structure, but push too hard and people will start ignoring you anyway.

Would we benefit from more structure? That depends on the project. Sometimes, when we have clear goals, a more “corporate” approach can work. Other times, when we’re exploring something genuinely new, any plan is going to fail: we simply don’t know what we’re going to run into, what will matter and what won’t. Maybe there are corporate strategies for that kind of research, ways to manage that workflow. I don’t know them.

Thoughts on Doing Science Remotely

In these times, I’m unusually lucky.

I’m a theoretical physicist. I don’t handle goods, or see customers. Other scientists need labs, or telescopes: I just need a computer and a pad of paper. As a postdoc, I don’t even teach. In the past, commenters have asked me why I don’t just work remotely. Why go to conferences, why even go to the office?

With COVID-19, we’re finding out.

First, the good: my colleagues at the Niels Bohr Institute have been hard at work keeping everyone connected. Our seminars have moved online, where we hold weekly Zoom seminars jointly with Iceland, Uppsala and Nordita. We have a “virtual coffee room”, a Zoom room that’s continuously open with “virtual coffee breaks” at 10 and 3:30 to encourage people to show up. We’re planning virtual colloquia, and even a virtual social night with Jackbox games.

Is it working? Partially.

The seminars are the strongest part. Remote seminars let us bring in speakers from all over the world (time zones permitting). They let one seminar serve the needs of several different institutes. Most of the basic things a seminar needs (slides, blackboards, ability to ask questions, ability to clap) are present on online platforms, particularly Zoom. And our seminar organizers had the bright idea to keep the Zoom room open after the talk, which allows the traditional “after seminar conversation with the speaker” for those who want it.

Still, the setup isn’t as good as it could be. If the audience turns off their cameras and mics, the speaker can feel like they’re giving a talk to an empty room. This isn’t just awkward, it makes the talk worse: speakers improve when they can “feel the room” and see what catches their audience’s interest. If the audience keeps their cameras or mics on instead, it takes a lot of bandwidth, and the speaker still can’t really feel the room. I don’t know if there’s a good solution here, but it’s worth working on.

The “virtual coffee room” is weaker. It was quite popular at first, but as time went on fewer and fewer people (myself included) showed up. In contrast, my wife’s friends at Waterloo do a daily cryptic crossword, and that seems to do quite well. What’s the difference? They have real crosswords, we don’t have real coffee.

I kid, but only a little. Coffee rooms and tea breaks work because of a core activity, a physical requirement that brings people together. We value them for their social role, but that role on its own isn’t enough to get us in the door. We need the excuse: the coffee, the tea, the cookies, the crossword. Without that shared structure, people just don’t show up.

Getting this kind of thing right is more important than it might seem. Social activities help us feel better, they help us feel less isolated. But more than that, they help us do science better.

That’s because science works, at least in part, through serendipity.

You might think of scientific collaboration as something we plan, and it can be sometimes. Sometimes we know exactly what we’re looking for: a precise calculation someone else can do, a question someone else can answer. Sometimes, though, we’re helped by chance. We have random conversations, different people in different situations, coffee breaks and conference dinners, and eventually someone brings up an idea we wouldn’t have thought of on our own.

Other times, chance helps by providing an excuse. I have a few questions rattling around in my head that I’d like to ask some of my field’s big-shots, but that don’t feel worth an email. I’ve been waiting to meet them at a conference instead. The advantage of those casual meetings is that they give an excuse for conversation: we have to talk about something, it might as well be my dumb question. Without that kind of causal contact, it feels a lot harder to broach low-stakes topics.

None of this is impossible to do remotely. But I think we need new technology (social or digital) to make it work well. Serendipity is easy to find in person, but social networks can imitate it. Log in to facebook or tumblr looking for your favorite content, and you face a pile of ongoing conversations. Looking through them, you naturally “run into” whatever your friends are talking about. I could see something similar for academia. Take something like the list of new papers on arXiv, then run a list of ongoing conversations next to it. When we check the arXiv each morning, we could see what our colleagues were talking about, and join in if we see something interesting. It would be a way to stay connected that would keep us together more, giving more incentive and structure beyond simple loneliness, and lead to the kind of accidental meetings that science craves. You could even graft conferences on to that system, talks in the middle with conversation threads on the side.

None of us know how long the pandemic will last, or how long we’ll be asked to work from home. But even afterwards, it’s worth thinking about the kind of infrastructure science needs to work remotely. Some ideas may still be valuable after all this is over.

What Do Theorists Do at Work?

Picture a scientist at work. You’re probably picturing an experiment, test tubes and beakers bubbling away. But not all scientists do experiments. Theoretical physicists work on the mathematical side of the field, making predictions and trying to understand how to make them better. So what does it look like when a theoretical physicist is working?

A theoretical physicist, at work in the equation mines

The first thing you might imagine is that we just sit and think. While that happens sometimes, we don’t actually do that very often. It’s better, and easier, to think by doing something.

Sometimes, this means working with pen and paper. This should be at least a little familiar to anyone who has done math homework. We’ll do short calculations and draw quick diagrams to test ideas, and do a more detailed, organized, “show your work” calculation if we’re trying to figure out something more complicated. Sometimes very short calculations are done on a blackboard instead, it can help us visualize what we’re doing.

Sometimes, we use computers instead. There are computer algebra packages, like Mathematica, Maple, or Sage, that let us do roughly what we would do on pen and paper, but with the speed and efficiency of a computer. Others program in more normal programming languages: C++, Python, even Fortran, making programs that can calculate whatever they are interested in.

Sometimes we read. With most of our field’s papers available for free on arXiv.org, we spend time reading up on what our colleagues have done, trying to understand their work and use it to improve ours.

Sometimes we talk. A paper can only communicate so much, and sometimes it’s better to just walk down the hall and ask a question. Conversations are also a good way to quickly rule out bad ideas, and narrow down to the promising ones. Some people find it easier to think clearly about something if they talk to a colleague about it, even (sometimes especially) if the colleague isn’t understanding much.

And sometimes, of course, we do all the other stuff. We write up our papers, making the diagrams nice and the formulas clean. We teach students. We go to meetings. We write grant applications.

It’s been said that a theoretical physicist can work anywhere. That’s kind of true. Some places are more comfortable, and everyone has different preferences: a busy office, a quiet room, a cafe. But with pen and paper, a computer, and people to talk to, we can do quite a lot.

The Road to Reality

I build tools, mathematical tools to be specific, and I want those tools to be useful. I want them to be used to study the real world. But when I build those tools, most of the time, I don’t test them on the real world. I use toy models, simpler cases, theories that don’t describe reality and weren’t intended to.

I do this, in part, because it lets me stay one step ahead. I can do more with those toy models, answer more complicated questions with greater precision, than I can for the real world. I can do more ambitious calculations, and still get an answer. And by doing those calculations, I can start to anticipate problems that will crop up for the real world too. Even if we can’t do a calculation yet for the real world, if it requires too much precision or too many particles, we can still study it in a toy model. Then when we’re ready to do those calculations in the real world, we know better what to expect. The toy model will have shown us some of the key challenges, and how to tackle them.

There’s a risk, working with simpler toy models. The risk is that their simplicity misleads you. When you solve a problem in a toy model, could you solve it only because the toy model is easy? Or would a similar solution work in the real world? What features of the toy model did you need, and which are extra?

The only way around this risk is to be careful. You have to keep track of how your toy model differs from the real world. You must keep in mind difficulties that come up on the road to reality: the twists and turns and potholes that real-world theories will give you. You can’t plan around all of them, that’s why you’re working with a toy model in the first place. But for a few key, important ones, you should keep your eye on the horizon. You should keep in mind that, eventually, the simplifications of the toy model will go away. And you should have ideas, perhaps not full plans but at least ideas, for how to handle some of those difficulties. If you put the work in, you stand a good chance of building something that’s useful, not just for toy models, but for explaining the real world.

Science, the Gift That Keeps on Giving

Merry Newtonmas, everyone!

You’ll find many scientists working over the holidays this year. Partly that’s because of the competitiveness of academia, with many scientists competing for a few positions, where even those who are “safe” have students who aren’t. But to put a more positive spin on it, it’s also because science is a gift that keeps on giving.

Scientists are driven by curiosity. We want to know more about the world, to find out everything we can. And the great thing about science is that, every time we answer a question, we have another one to ask.

Discover a new particle? You need to measure its properties, understand how it fits into your models and look for alternative explanations. Do a calculation, and in addition to checking it, you can see if the same method works on other cases, or if you can use the result to derive something else.

Down the line, the science that survives leads to further gifts. Good science spreads, with new fields emerging to investigate new phenomena. Eventually, science leads to technology, and our lives are enriched by the gifts of new knowledge.

Science is the gift that keeps on giving. It takes new forms, builds new ideas, it fills our lives and nourishes our minds. It’s a neverending puzzle.

So this Newtonmas, I hope you receive the greatest gift of all: the gift of science.

Life Cycle of an Academic Scientist

So you want to do science for a living. Some scientists work for companies, developing new products. Some work for governments. But if you want to do “pure science”, science just to learn about the world, then you’ll likely work at a university, as part of what we call academia.

The first step towards academia is graduate school. In the US, this means getting a PhD.

(Master’s degrees, at least in the US, have a different purpose. Most are “terminal Master’s”, designed to be your last degree. With a terminal Master’s, you can be a technician in a lab, but you won’t get farther down this path. In the US you don’t need a Master’s before you apply for a PhD program, and having one is usually a waste of time: PhD programs will make you re-take most of the same classes.)

Once you have a PhD, it’s time to get a job! Often, your first job after graduate school is a postdoc. Postdocs are short-term jobs, usually one to three years long. Some people are lucky enough to go to the next stage quickly, others have more postdoc jobs first. These jobs will take you all over the world, everywhere people with your specialty work. Sometimes these jobs involve teaching, but more often you just do scientific research.

In the US system, If everything goes well, eventually you get a tenure-track job. These jobs involve both teaching and research. You get to train PhD students, hire postdocs, and in general start acting like a proper professor. This stage lasts around seven years, while the university evaluates you. If they decide you’re not worth it then typically you’ll have to leave to apply for another job in another university. If they like you though, you get tenure.

Tenure is the first time as an academic scientist that you aren’t on a short-term contract. Your job is more permanent than most, you have extra protection from being fired that most people don’t. While you can’t just let everything slide, you have freedom to make more of your own decisions.

A tenured job can last until retirement, when you become an emeritus professor. Emeritus professors are retired but still do some of the work they did as professors. They’re paid out of their pension instead of a university salary, but they still sometimes teach or do research, and they usually still have an office. The university can hire someone new, and the cycle continues.

This isn’t the only path scientists take. Some work in a national lab instead. These don’t usually involve teaching duties, and the path to a permanent job is a bit different. Some get teaching jobs instead of research professorships. These teaching jobs are usually not permanent, instead universities are hiring more and more adjunct faculty who have to string together temporary contracts to make a precarious living.

I’ve mostly focused on the US system here. Europe is a bit different: Master’s degrees are a real part of the system, tenure-track doesn’t really exist, and adjunct faculty don’t always either. Some particular countries, like Germany, have their own quite complicated systems, other countries fall in between.

Academia Has Changed Less Than You’d Think

I recently read a biography of James Franck. Many of you won’t recognize the name, but physicists might remember the Franck-Hertz experiment from a lab class. Franck and Hertz performed a decisive test of Bohr’s model of the atom, ushering in the quantum age and receiving the 1925 Nobel Prize. After fleeing Germany when Hitler took power, Franck worked on the Manhattan project and co-authored the Franck Report urging the US not to use nuclear bombs on Japan. He settled at the University of Chicago, which named an institute after him.*

You can find all that on his Wikipedia page. The page also mentions his marriage later in life to Hertha Sponer. Her Wikipedia page talks about her work in spectroscopy, about how she was among the first women to receive a PhD in Germany and the first on the physics faculty at Duke University, and that she remained a professor there until 1966, when she was 70.

Neither Wikipedia page talks about two-body problems, or teaching loads, or pensions.

That’s why I was surprised when the biography covered Franck’s later life. Until Franck died, he and Sponer would travel back and forth, he visiting her at Duke and she visiting him in Chicago. According to the biography, this wasn’t exactly by choice: they both would have preferred to live together in the same city. Somehow though, despite his Nobel Prize and her scientific accomplishments, they never could. The biography talks about how the university kept her teaching class after class, so she struggled to find time for research. It talks about what happened as the couple got older, as their health made it harder and harder to travel back and forth, and they realized that without access to their German pensions they would not be able to support themselves in retirement. The biography gives the impression that Sponer taught till 70 not out of dedication but because she had no alternative.

When we think about the heroes of the past, we imagine them battling foes with historic weight: sexism, antisemitism, Nazi-ism. We don’t hear about their more everyday battles, with academic two-body problems and stingy universities. From this, we can get the impression that the dysfunctions of modern academia are new. But while the problems have grown, we aren’t the first academics with underpaid, overworked teaching faculty, nor the first to struggle to live where we want and love who we want. These are struggles academics have faced for a long, long time.

*Full disclosure: Franck was also my great-great-grandfather, hence I may find his story more interesting than most.