So this post is part cynical, part hopeful dreaming.
Have you ever wondered if there was an algorithm for a successful paper? By “successful” I don’t necessarily mean profound, correct, or well-written. What I mean is that people talk about the paper, people cite it, and people get excited (either positively or negatively) about it.
Is this kind of success good for science? Maybe not. But I bet it is good for career development.
I’m sure that success as defined here isn’t really due to some algorithmic process (just as I’m sure there is no good algorithm to get a #1 song), but I am convinced that there are precise strategies to increase the probability that a paper (or, indeed, a song) is successful. In the context of scientific grants these strategies are collectively referred to as “grantsmanship”. Some people are just good at this: you know who they are, they publish dozens of PRLs per year and are regularly headlining important international conferences 😉
What are these amazing strategies? Well, I really don’t know: I can see when someone is good at using these strategies, but I haven’t really been able to understand them…
However, there are one or two things that seem obvious: the ability to combine currently fashionable buzzwords in the title of the paper is a good one. Is this a good algorithm to get a successful paper? Surely not! Isn’t science about pure research, high morals, and a disinterested furthering of mankind’s collective knowledge?
Perhaps we can test this hypothesis?
So, how about we have an Aaronson-like competition? The objective is simple: combine a couple of fashionable buzzwords together. But this isn’t enough! You also need to provide a couple of sentences justifying why this should work: just something which would make anyone pause for a moment and say, “hmmm, seems plausible… Maybe just maybe…” We’ll take the winning entry and at least and try and write a blog post about it (with the guidance of the winning author, obviously!). Eg. we could then do some crappy numerics with MATLAB, make a couple of 3D colour plots, add a couple of ray-traced diagrams with drop shadows and Robert’s your father’s brother! Any topic in science is admissable, and I would also like to encourage entries involving social science and economics. Although I should say that if it is vaguely physics or maths-related, I am more likely to understand the buzzwords.
To get an idea of what mean I’ll describe an example of what I’m thinking about, and present a potential entry (obviously disqualified from the competition). A classic example of what I’m what talking about is the entanglement and knot theory proposal. This was an excellent case of where two currently fashionable research topics seemed to intersect in a nontrivial way: a caricature of this idea was that the quantum entanglement in the GHZ state
had some deep connection to the Borromean rings: if you cut any ring they become unknotted. If you trace out any qubit from the GHZ state it becomes entangled. When I first heard about this proposal I remember thinking, “hey, that sounds really plausible: these two properties are extremely similar.” (I’m not sure if we yet have a compelling and natural explanation of this connection?)
A potential entry for this competition would look something like the following:
Area laws, matrix-product states, and communication complexity.
Consider a matrix product state for qubits, where are arbitrary matrices satisfying some simple conditions to ensure the state is normalised. Well, you can think of the first qubits as being in Alice’s possession and the remaining qubits as being in Bob’s possession. The objective is then to describe a communication strategy whereby Alice and Bob can collective learn the value of the function for an arbitrary string . The minimum number of bits communicated should be “equal” to the entanglement between the left- and right-hand sides — i.e., it should be connected with entropy area laws! Interesting functions should give rise to interesting results on area laws! Also, ground states of local hamiltonians might give rise to those functions whose communication complexity is minimal…
Ok, sure, this competition is a bit cynical. But, on a serious note, wouldn’t it actually be truly wonderful if something interesting did emerge? Suppose that we brainstormed some buzzwords and then an expert in one of the fields involved actually realised there was some deeper connection? There is a precedent for this kind of thing (eg. think about quantum field theory and topology).