I’m back

May 13, 2013

This blog and my twitter account have been very quiet for the past year. This time it wasn’t entirely due to laziness or a lack of motivation. Instead, as an experiment, I gave up all forms of social networking and online news: I stopped reading all blogs, I uninstalled the twitter and facebook apps, I deleted all bookmarks to anything resembling an online news service, and I removed all chat programs. Apart from one or two minor lapses, in order to obtain some contact details, the closest I was to anything resembling a social network is arxiv.org and the closest news source has been (occasionally) the radio. (Not internet radio though.) I did, however, read email (alas, this seems to be necessary for daily functioning in a large institution in the modern world…)

Why did I do this? I think it is an understatement to say that the internet is distracting and I increasingly had the suspicion that news and social networks did not make me happier. I also suspected that the internet was a serious drain on productivity. So, what is the result? Disappointingly, my productivity didn’t soar. It turns out that you can be distracted by things that aren’t the internet, e.g., unfortunately, books. This problem must be solved by some other productivity measure (however, visiting a lifehacker site is still strictly forbidden!).

What about happiness? This is more interesting: I think I am, in general, actually a teensy weensy bit happier. It is abundantly clear that “giving up the internet” is not a miracle cure for the malaise of modern life. But one does feel noticeably calmer on a day to day basis when not exposed to people being wrong on the Internet.

But didn’t I miss out on loads of important things? Well, it seems not. It gives you a sense of perspective to stop living in the sometimes hollow echo chamber that is the blogo-twitter-gplus-facebook-sphere. I’m sure I missed out on loads of really important scandals and outrages. I do know that I missed out on a couple of really very good blog articles: but the nice thing is that the good ones I did miss got recommended to me by word of mouth.

I am now returning to a more active internet presence: I strongly believe in open access science, and open science in general. I also believe that social networks are a fantastic medium with which to interact with others in science. I just wish there was a really simple way to filter out all the negative stuff.

To kick things back off on this blog I will be right back with a guest post 😉

Now for something shorter?

October 23, 2010

Like many, this blog has been sadly neglected of late. Like many, I feel bad about it too. In my case the problem is simple: while I want to share my research notes and related material it takes a lot of time to format them so they makes sense (i.e. including the bare minimum introductory material to make it halfway self contained). And, generally speaking, I’ve lacked the discipline to do this rather than, say, trying to solve another research problem for an extra 20mins…

I’m not really sure how to solve this problem. But I’m going to try an experiment: I recently got an iPad and I’ve noticed that with it I’ve been able to make use of lots of little periods of “dead time” between meetings etc. because it is so easy to “just quickly” type an email etc.

With the wordpress app (which is sadly really buggy and keeps dumping…) I figure I can at least try and work on the blog with the iPad. Necessarily I’ll probably end up writing a lot of shorter soft posts (a format that is probably better suited to google Buzz, but no one will read that…) But at least something is better than nothing.

Anyways, to finish, I thought I’d share something I discovered today that I found really striking. A long time ago in another life I briefly worked as a research assistant in a CS dept. One of the things I was meant to do was to work with a program written in ML, a functional programming language, see e.g., this.

I was completely defeated by the task; I simply didn’t “get” functional programming, I mean, you don’t use “for” loops. Huh?!

So I’ve always maintained a healthy fear of functional programming languages since then. But then today I stumbled upon the Haskell webpage, where I found the following explanation:

Anyone who has used a spreadsheet has experience of functional programming. In a spreadsheet, one specifies the value of each cell in terms of the values of other cells. The focus is on what is to be computed, not how it should be computed. For example:

  • we do not specify the order in which the cells should be calculated – instead we take it for granted that the spreadsheet will compute cells in an order which respects their dependencies.
  • we do not tell the spreadsheet how to allocate its memory – rather, we expect it to present us with an apparently infinite plane of cells, and to allocate memory only to those cells which are actually in use.
  • for the most part, we specify the value of a cell by an expression (whose parts can be evaluated in any order), rather than by a sequence of commands which computes its value.

An interesting consequence of the spreadsheet’s unspecified order of re-calculation is that the notion of assignment is not very useful. After all, if you don’t know exactly when an assignment will happen, you can’t make much use of it! This contrasts strongly with programs in conventional languages like C, which consist essentially of a carefully-specified sequence of assignments, or Java, in which the ordering of method calls is crucial to the meaning of a program.

Now there’s an explanation that speaks to me! This one paragraph has completely unlocked the functional language thing for me! It just goes to show that often all you need is the right person to say the right thing to you at the right time.

Note: I don’t really intend to write any functional programs.

What I’ve been doing

April 26, 2010

After a hiatus of 6 months or so, I’m hoping to get back to posting again.

During the past half year I have been living in Berlin as a fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. During this time I’ve been involved in plenty of activities both research and non-research. Here is a brief description.

At the WiKo I’ve had the sincere pleasure to meet a great number of extremely talented people from all walks of academic life, from musicians and humanists to social scientists and natural scientists. The most striking thing in all these interactions has been the communication problem that we face in talking to our fellow academics. In listening to the colloquia of the fellows it is remarkable how broadly even basic methodologies differ from discipline to discipline. For example, in the humanist tradition, in contrast to the natural sciences, it is standard practice to sit and read the entire presentation with no visual cues. Also, it is often that case that such things as stating the hypothesis of an investigation is not done in certain disciplines (which causes no small amount of frustration for the natural scientists!). Conversely, many of the humanist and social scientists find the natural scientists “practical approach” somewhat off-putting and over-simplifying 🙂

Things I’ve learnt: (i) the value of a narrative in a presentation; (ii) everything traces back to Aristotle and Plato, and what doesn’t most certainly can be found in the works of Darwin; (iii) a sense of humility.

I also gave a colloquium on my on work, which can be found here: Dienstagskolloquium 2010. In designing the presentation I hoped to made it possible for all of the fellows to understand. I’m not sure if I completely achieved that goal; please judge for yourself.

On the research front it was my objective to immerse myself in a problem I’ve been idly contemplating for many years; my thinking being that this year will be the last chance I’ll get for a while to work on highly speculative research. I’m not sure that it has been entirely successful, but I certainly did learn a lot of interesting stuff.

I’ll briefly sketch the idea here. Basically I was trying to develop a “canonical” procedure to quantise algebraic geometric spaces in positive characteristic. What does this mean? To explain this it is helpful to recall what geometric quantisation means. Here the input is a symplectic manifold (or a Poisson manifold), with a closed two-form which can be thought of as generating hamiltonian flow. Roughly speaking: I really just mean some classical dynamical system. The output of this procedure is a hilbert space {\mathcal{H}}, and a hamiltonian operator {H} on that space which is meant to be associated in some canonical way with the input classical system. The best and most well-known example of this procedure in action is known as Schrödinger quantisation which takes the symplectic manifold {\mathbb{R}^n\times \mathbb{R}^n} with linear dynamics as input and outputs the quantisation {\mathcal{H} \equiv L^2(\mathbb{R}^n)}.

What I initially wanted to do was to replace {X} by an algebraic variety over a field of positive characteristic (actually, a general symplectic scheme) and find out what {\mathcal{H}} ought to be. I believe I pretty much succeeded in this initial goal: the result is what it ought to be in the case of the symplectic scheme {X = k^n\times k^n}, namely, {\mathcal{H} = L^2(k^n)}. Linear dynamics quantise to something familiar in the case of {k = \mathbb{Z}/2\mathbb{Z}}, namely (tensor products of) the pauli matrices. Rather interesting stuff happens for even the simplest nontrivial varieties, but I won’t elaborate here as it is lengthy and assumes rather a lot of background.

Why would anyone want attempt such a baroque thing? Well I’ve had hopes for many years that a natural quantisation program would be a first step in a program to provide another proof of the Weil conjectures in algebraic geometry from the perspective Polya-Hilbert approach. Needless to say, I have not been successful in this objective.

Lately I’ve been thinking about much more physical problems. After a break of several years I’ve been working again on matrix product states and all that stuff. And also thinking a lot about disorder and topologically ordered systems. I hope to report more on all of this in future posts.

Over 6 months later

October 4, 2009

So it’s been over six months since I started this blog and I thought that this might be an appropriate moment to pause and reflect. During this time I’ve experienced several major changes culminating in a move to my new institution, the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin where I’ll be a fellow for 2009/2010. These changes have been reflected in a serious lack of productivity for the past couple of months. Now that I’ve moved to Berlin and my fellowship is starting I’m hoping to reassess my involvement in open science via this blog. (And to try and restart my scientific contributions here.)

I originally started this blog for a variety of reasons, some noble, and some not so noble ;), including,

  1. I wanted to experiment with this whole science 2.0 thing in the context of a theoretical science.
  2. I wanted to silence the critics of open science (eg., by showing openness is no bad thing).
  3. I wanted to create a new venue to disseminate my research agenda.
  4. I wanted to find new collaborators and outsource (crowdsource?) expertise to solve my problems.

After 6 months or so on I feel that I am in a good position to assess how things have gone. So here goes.

1. Is there anything to this science 2.0 thing?

Yes and no: I’ve discovered some very interesting web tools to do all sorts of things which can help me to organise my scientific workflow. I really like bookmarking tools like del.icio.us. I also absolutely love tiddlywiki (although mine is sadly neglected of late); the nonlinear note-taking of tiddlywiki perfectly matches my approach to research. (I’m extremely curious to see if google wave will provide a more natural science 2.0 tool. I look forward to being able to participate when enough invites become available.)

However, I’ve discovered that other webtools (namely Twitter!!) insidiously (and seriously) fragment my concentration and free time.

(Now that I’m beginning my fellowship at the Wissenschaftskolleg I’m going to turn over a new leaf and completely shutoff internet access for several hours every day… I figure this might help me focus better.)

I’m less clear on blogging as a means of scientific outreach: I haven’t tried to seriously do this yet, but it occurs to me that this is an ideal medium.

2. On the criticisms of open science

There is one criticism of open science that I think, from my personal experience, is totally unfounded: that is the worry that people will “steal” your ideas. This certainly never happened to me over the past 6 months. I know this is a stupid argument, as I probably had nothing worth stealing etc. etc. But I also think, for other reasons, that it is an unfounded concern. Firstly, the blog posts are time stamped. Secondly, to actually steal an idea/result someone would probably have to write everything up carefully etc., and that, in itself, is hard work, which is rather unattractive. But this is all obvious.

However, this isn’t really the actual concern that critics have: the main worry that many of my colleagues express is not that someone will come and copy a solved problem from a post and make a paper, but rather that, if one was to post their favourite open problems openly, then someone else will solve them faster! Many people have expressed this concern to me.

Evidently, the currency of theoretical physics is not solved problems, but rather “solvable problems” coupled with a good intuition for how to solve them: I know lots (most?) of people who hoard interesting conjectures which are on the edge of solvability. These are the primary treasures of theoretical physics.

Open science asks you to reveal these treasures and, in the process, give up the intellectual credit for their solution; if someone quickly goes and solves the problem using your own suggested method and writes it up then all you’re likely to get in return is a citation for suggesting the problem and the argument. I have certainly experienced the frustration of posing a solvable problem and suggesting an appropriate method of solution only to find that someone else had gone and solved it using my suggested method, wrote it up, and didn’t even acknowledge our conversation.

There’s not much I can say here: I do believe this concern *is* justified. And since these treasured problems are potential papers, every time someone shares a solvable problem (+appropriate intuition for a solution) then one exposes oneself to a considerable risk of losing all credit for the potential paper.

In my experience, to first order ;), noone actually reads the scientific content on a blog. (This is pretty easily detected by looking at the blog stats, the “soft” posts always attract an order of magnitude more views.) This is natural: there are simply not many people who work in areas related to my work, and it would be presumptious to expect that everyone should read the technical posts. So the only rejoinder I can make to the criticism that sharing solvable problems is bad is that noone will read them.

3. The blog as a venue for a research agenda

Maybe. It certainly helps me: at conferences people now often know exactly what I’m thinking about and this helps conversations to start.

4. The blog as a means to find new collaborators?

No. This hasn’t helped me at all so far; I haven’t found a single new collaborator this way. Worse, most potential collaborators are quite hesitant at the prospect of having research posted online before it is complete.

Is this blog really open science?

No. I’ve had to withhold several research results from this blog. This is because of many reasons (eg. the project predated the start of the blog, my collaborators were unwilling, or I didn’t have enough time to type stuff up). So, sadly, I must confess that I’ve failed the purity test of open science…

Will truly open theoretical science ever eventuate?

My quick answer: no. Here’s why: I think we’re in a local optima which would require most scientists to simultaneously and completely change their behaviour in order to shift away from. What do I mean? As I discussed above: the currency of theoretical physics (at least) are “solvable problems+solution intuition”. If *everyone* shared there little stash of this treasures then I agree we’d live in utopian world where science would be advanced as quick as possible. Except, this global optima is unstable: all it takes is for a couple of scientists to “cheat” and hoard their solvable problems to get an edge on their colleagues and thus kick us away from this global optimum. (This is all preconditioned on papers being a metric for success in the scientific community. Yeah, I know that’s not correct but, hey, if you’ve ever sat on a hiring committee you’ll know it isn’t too far wrong.)

This is my simple intuition for why things will always stay the same. I know it’s pessimistic; but I can’t think of how to realistically create the conditions so that the global scientific optimum becomes stable. (Give increased credit to problem ideas? How?)

Where now?

I don’t know. I’ll probably go quiet again for a couple of weeks while I adjust to life here in Berlin. After that I hope to restart my research. However, I’m hoping to spend several months learning new stuff outside my area of expertise. This probably won’t produce many new results, hence, not many posts. But I’ll try and summarise my efforts here, if it fits naturally into my workflow…

Many thanks for your attention and your comments!


May 5, 2009

We are entering the exam term here at Royal Holloway so I probably won’t have much time for any research or blogging over the next 4 weeks or so as I will be dealing with exam administration and marking exams…

Even more open science?

February 18, 2009

Whether a theoretical weblog can be truly allowed to be called open notebook science has been questioned recently. I’m not sure where I stand here. Wikipedia’s definition reads: “Open Notebook Science is the practice of making the entire primary record of a research project publicly available online as it is recorded.” This is roughly what I’m trying to do here: I have notebooks containing the records of my research projects and instead of letting them collect dust on my filing cabinet I’m typing them up as I go and sharing them here. (So, naturally, this means you’ll get a lot of dead ends and half explored ideas…) If enough people feel passionately that my weblog doesn’t count then I’m happy to go with the flow and accept whatever definition is deemed more appropriate by those more involved in this kind of thing (open theoretical brain dump, or open theoretical posturing perhaps?) 🙂

On another note: you’ll probably have noticed the twitter updates and del.icio.us bookmarks boxes on the right: I’m experimenting with increasing the “openness” of my research. I intend to post updates on what I’m up to via twitter and to share what I’m reading via del.icio.us bookmarks. (However, at the moment I can only display my entire twitter feed, rather than just my tweets…) Probably one or the other will turn out to be less than useful.

Any comments or suggestions are, as always, greatly appreciated! Also, please feel free to comment on any of my posts at any time: any questions at all would be greatly appreciated! Please don’t feel afraid to ask “stupid” questions: if you have a question then the odds are that someone else does as well.