Quick Thoughts on Diversity in Physics

Earlier this month, during oral arguments for Fisher v. University of Texas, Chief Justice John Roberts asked what perspective an African-American student would offer in physics classrooms. The group Equity and Inclusion in Physics and Astronomy has written an open letter about why this line of questioning may miss the point about diversity in the classroom. But it also seems worth pointing out why culture does matter in physics (and science more broadly).

So nature is nature and people can develop theoretical understanding of it anywhere and it should be similar (I think. This is actually glossing over what I imagine is a deep philosophy of science question.) But nature is also incredibly vast. People approach studies of nature in ways that can reflect their culture. Someone may choose to study a phenomenon because it is one they see often in their lives. Or they may develop an analogy between theory and some aspect of culture that helps them better understand a concept. You can’t wax philosphical about Kekule thinking of ouroboros when he was studying the structure of benzene without admitting that culture has some influence on how people approach science. There are literally entire books and articles about Einstein and Poincare being influenced by sociotechnical issues of late 19th/early 20th century Europe as they developed concepts that would lead to Einstein’s theories of relativity. A physics community that is a monoculture then misses out on other influences and perspectives. So yes, physics should be diverse, and more importantly, physics should be welcoming to all kinds of people.

It’s also worth pointing out this becomes immensely important in engineering and technology, where the problems people choose to study are often immensely influenced by their life experiences. For instance, I have heard people say that India does a great deal of research on speech recognition as a user interface because India still has a large population that cannot read or write, and even then, they may not all use the same language.

Thoughts on Basic Science and Innovation

Recently, science writer and House of Lords member Matt Ridley wrote an essay in The Wall Street Journal about the myth of basic science leading to technological development. Many people have criticized it, and it even seems like Ridely has walked back some claims. One engaging take can be found here, which includes a great quote that I think helps summarize a lot of the reaction:

I think one reason I had trouble initially parsing this article was that it’s about two things at once. Beyond the topic of technology driving itself, though, Ridley has some controversial things to say about the sources of funding for technological progress, much of it quoted from Terence Kealy, whose book The Economic Laws of Scientific Research has come up here before

But also, it seems like Ridley has a weird conception of the two major examples he cites as overturning the “myth”: steam engines and the structure of the DNA. The issue with steam engines is that we mainly associate them with James Watt, who you memorialize everytime you fret about how many watts all your devices are consuming. Steam engines actually preceded Watt, but the reason we associate them with him is because he greatly improved their efficiency due to his understanding of latent heat, the energy that goes into changing something from one phase into another. (We sort of discussed this before. The graph below helps summarize.) Watt understood latent heat because his colleague and friend Joseph Black, a chemist at the University of Glasgow, discovered it.

A graph with X-axis labelled

The latent heat is the heat that is added to go between phases. In this figure, it is represented by the horizontal line between ice and heating of water and the other horizontal line between heating of water and heating of water vapor.

I don’t know whether or not X-ray crystallography was ever used for industrial purposes in the textiles industry, but it has pretty consistently been used in academia since the basic principles were discovered a century ago. The 1915 Nobel prize in physics was literally about the development of X-ray crystallograpy theory. A crystal structure of a biological molecule was determined by X-ray studies at least in 1923, if not earlier. The idea that DNA crystallography only took off as a popular technique because of spillover from industry is incredibly inaccurate.

Ridley also seems to have a basic assumption: that government has crowded out the private sector as a source of basic research over the past century. It sounds reasonable, and it seems testable as a hypothesis. As a percentage of GDP (which seems like a semi-reasonable metric for concerns about crowding out), federal spending on research and development has generally been on the decline since the 70s, and is now about a 1/3 less than it’s relatively stable levels that decade. If private R&D had been crowded out, a competitor dropping by that much seems like a decent place for some resurgence, especially since the one of the most cited examples of private research, Bell Labs, was still going strong all this time. But instead, Bell cut most of its basic research programs just a few years ago.

Fedederal research spending as a percentage of GDP from the 1976 to 2016 fiscal years. The total shows a slight decrease from 1976 to 1992, a large drop in the 90s, a recovery in 2004, and a drop since 2010.

Federal spending on R&D as a percentage of GDP over time

To be fair, more private philanthropists now seem to be funding academic research. The key word, though, is philanthropist, not commercial, which Ridley refers to a lot throughout the essay. Also, a significant amount of this new private funding is for prizes, but you can only get a prize after you have done work.

There is one major thing to take from Ridley’s essay, though I also think most scientists would admit it too. It’s somewhat ridiculous to try to lay out a clear path from a new fundamental result to a practical application, and if you hear a researcher claim to have one, keep your BS filter high. As The New Yorker has discussed, even results that seems obviously practical have a hard time clearing feasibility hurdles. (Also, maybe it’s just a result of small reference pools, but it seems like a lot of researchers I read are also concerned that research now seems to require some clear “mother of technology” justification.)  Similarly, practical developments may not always be obvious. Neil deGrasse Tyson once pointed out that if you spoke to a physicist in the late 1800s about the best way to quickly heat something, they would probably not describe something resembling a microwave.

Common timeframe estimates of when research should result in a commercially available product, followed by translations suggesting how unrealistic this is. The fourth quarter of next year The project will be canceled in six months. Five years I've solved the interesting research problems. The rest is just business, which is easy, right? Ten years We haven't finished inventing it yet, but when we do, it'll be awesome. 25+ years It has not been conclusively proven impossible. We're not really looking at market applications right now. I like being the only one with a hovercar.

Edit to add: Also, I almost immediately regret using innovation in the title because I barely address it in the post, and there’s probably a great discussion to have about that word choice by Ridley. Apple, almost famously, funds virtually no basic research internally or externally, which I often grumble about. However, I would not hesitate to call Apple an “innovative” company. There are a lot of design choices that can improve products that can be pretty divorced from the physical breakthroughs that made them unique. (Though it is worth pointing out human factors and ergonomics are very active fields of study in our modern, device-filled lives.)

“Cosmos” is allowed to have a narrative

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s sequel/reboot to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, premiered last week on Fox and there’s a multitude of reactions to it. One of the most common negative reactions focuses on the episode’s relatively long segment on Giordano Bruno. If you really want to learn more about Bruno and the various other figures people relate him to and see one of the clearest criticisms and replies to defenses of the show, I suggest you look at the Renaissance Mathematicus’ post on the issue. (And if you want to learn REAL history of science, I highly suggest you check out the rest of his blog.)

A very religious friend posted concerns from Catholic commentators that Cosmos is attacking religion here. I argue that both just seem to be taking offense and ignore Tyson’s actual narration during and around this segment. At no point does Tyson criticize faith. If anything, it’s a critique of institutions which both blog posts seem to also acknowledge by saying that structures and actors in the Church may be bad, but that doesn’t mean Catholicism itself is bad. I’d argue the bigger takeaway is that Bruno thought others’ God was too small.

Several people have asked why mention Bruno at all in the show. Because the entire point of this first episode was to establish the scale of the Universe and our place in it. Bruno was one of the first Western thinkers to propose a Universe where humanity and Earth and the Sun are all small and not particularly unique with respect to the rest of the cosmos. though he was still off on how that actually worked out, as detailed in the Renaissance Mathematicus link above. To Bruno, that had immense philosophical implications and he was willing to die for them (and the host of other heterodox beliefs he held). Why should we just ignore that? Tyson (and Sagan!) are both big on the idea that science can inform metaphysics, and Western culture seems to have a fear that science will leave life without meaning. It seems perfectly reasonable for the show to mention a person whose cosmology inspired a lot of his own religious and spiritual thought. 

Hank Campbell, founder of Science 2.0 and one of the co-authors of Science Left Behind, has different criticisms than most about the first episode, saying “Science is cool. Should we care if it’s accurate?” I want to quickly respond to these points, and I’ll go in more depth later. 

  1. The greenhouse effect is in fact different from the idea of global warming, but the greenhouse effect does play a part in the latter.
  2. I kind of cringed too at the reference to a multiverse but considering the language the episode used, I’d say the phrase “many of us suspect [a multiverse]” was chosen precisely because it isn’t an accepted theory.
  3. The first time I watched the episode, I didn’t notice the external sounds in space separate from the soundtrack. It struck me as kind of funny because Tyson would typically destroy any show that did it. He should be held accountable on his own.
  4. The episode did not claim Bruno was more important than contemporary natural philosophers and empiricists and definitely pointed out that he wasn’t a scientist. Bruno’s ideas, though, do fit in well with the idea of understanding our place in the universe, which was the entire point of the first episode, as stated in like the first five minutes.
  5. The age of the universe as 13.8 billion years old was given multiple times, and the introduction to every major historical landmark on the calendar involved Tyson giving both its date on the calendar and a conversion to how many millions or billions of years ago it actually was.

Scientists Still Aren’t Really a Political Bloc

The Atlantic recently published an article in the “but Democrats are anti-science too!” genre that seemed to get really weird in the end. Perhaps this is because author Mischa Fisher is a staffer for Republican Congressman Randall Hultgren of Illinois. Honestly, a lot here isn’t new, and I’ll link to my response to Alex Berezow’s book and interview with reason. The big thing, as I said before, is that we’re not given many numbers about the prevalence of anti-scientific views on the left, especially in comparison to their support by the right (fringe views on chemicals show up in New World order conspiracy theorists on the right and granola groups on the left). The only ones Fisher gives are about evolution and creationism and views of God, and I don’t think most scientists actually fret over that in science policy things.

And that’s where I lose my understanding of Fisher’s piece. He seems to be conflating scientists, secularists/skeptics, and Democrats as whatever best fits the argument he makes in each paragraph. There’s no shortage of scientists writing articles attacking chemophobia and irrational fears of GMOs from groups on the left and attacking any science cuts. Nature wrote a pretty balanced review of science policy during Obama’s first term. And there have been many revolts by scientists against policies the administration has pursued. Most scientists don’t care about your view of God, and many want people to appreciate that science doesn’t have to kill religious faith. The American Association for the Advancement of Science came out against California’s GMO labelling proposal last year.

At the end, Fisher says “there is a second, larger reason why it’s important to keep science bipartisan—and why cheap shots about Republicans and science are dangerous. The politics of the immediate will always trump the politics of the long term.” But that just seems to lump in all scientists as knee-jerk Democrats again, which isn’t true. It also seems hard to argue how most Republican politicians do believe in global warming or care about science funding when the members who rise to positions of influence on science policy don’t believe in these things. See: Rep. HallRep. Rohrabacher, and Rep. Smith on the House science committee. And while Fisher says Obama’s budgets have been harmful to basic science, many Republican politicians don’t seem to understand the point of basic research.

Hard Scientists Should Care About the NSF’s PoliSci Woes

Alex Berezow wrote an op-ed in USA Today defending the decision to defund the NSF’s political science programs aside from projects “promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States”. Berezow is also co-author of Science Left Behind, a book looking at anti-science tendencies on the left half of the political spectrum, which I blogged a bit about last November. And then the piece tapers off into something about scientists being too Democratic and they’re like a lobby and it just kind of becomes a generic cut the budget piece by the end. Needless to say, I’m not much more convinced by this op-ed than by the book or his interview with reason.

He starts by pointing out that political scientists are predictably outraged, but is confused why natural scientists are angry. He links to theoretical physicist Sean Carroll’s post on the funding cut and calls it an overreaction because he quotes “First they came”. Nazi overtones might be a bit much, but the analogy of continually chipping away at something seems valid. Berezow seems to think the fact that “relevant” political science could still be funded means a hard scientist shouldn’t ever worry about this. But a lot of hard science isn’t immediately practical. Carroll works in cosmology, which is basically abstract physics and abstract astronomy, so it seems entirely reasonable for him to worry about cuts to grants for research projects that won’t generate immediate economic benefit. We’ve already seen an attempt to go down the slippery slope with Lamar Smith’s proposed amendments to limit NSF funding in all fields to only projects relevant to economic or defense interests.

Berezow also claims that scientists act like too much of a partisan interest group since they only attack Republicans. While it’s true the Coburn amendment was approved by a bipartisan vote, that was part of a compromise to keep funding the government past sequestration. And Republicans have repeatedly offered similar amendments in the past, even when there weren’t such pressing budget concerns. It also seems ironic that despite two of Coburn’s amendments being incorporated into the bill, he still voted against it. Part of the logic behind the scientists are an interest group claim is how often they identify with Democrats. The survey does show that scientists are more Democratic and liberal than the general public.  This may lead to a disconnect between scientists and the public on some issues, and it merits study, but there’s no clear mechanism explaining it. But Berezow also seems to be including social scientists in his definition of scientists. The survey everyone talks about is focused on natural scientists. While some social science fields are also filled with liberals, I believe that political science and economics have a stronger Republican/conservative presence. 

Scientist ideology

Also, if politicians are going to go after interest groups, there are many with more votes to grab than a scientist bloc. In 1999, there were only about 3.5 million people with STEM degrees working in science and engineering fields. But if we’re talking about scientists as a interest group, we need to separate them from the engineers. Engineers are more likely to work in industry instead of in the public sector or academia than scientists, and also tend to be more evenly split along party and ideological lines. In 2011, about 35000 people graduated with doctorates in physical, life, and social sciences and engineering. Although this includes engineers, the fact that this only looks at people graduating with doctorates increases the odds that they will be doing basic research for the government or academia. Not all of those people are American citizens, though, and so they won’t vote. I don’t know the number for social sciences, but international students now make up almost half of all natural science and engineering grad students, so that already narrows the voter pool to like 25000 new group members a year (assuming nearly all social science PhDs are American citizens, for some reason). And not all these people will end up being funded by the government, either in a government agency or by public grants to universities. 27% of life science PhDs, 54% of physical science PhDs, and 71% of engineering PhDs went to work in industry in 2011. Factoring that in, a “government-dependent scientist” bloc would only grow by about 14000 votes a year. I think that is the rounding error of a decent get out the vote project.


Why Lamar Smith Doesn’t Seem to Understand Science

So we’ve looked at the research that seemed to motivate the following criteria that Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX) has proposed that all NSF-fund research be certified as fulfilling:

  1.  ”… in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;
  2. “… the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and
  3. “… not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.”

Now I’d like to break down why these criteria reflect a poor understanding of science and the National Science Foundation. Let’s just go through each point.

  1. First, Smith has the theoretical point of NSF backwards. The legislation that founded NSF put the mission “to initiate and support basic scientific research and programs to strengthen scientific research potential and science education programs at all levels in the mathematical, physical, medical, biological, social, and other sciences” before Continue reading

In Praise of Social Science and Science Studies at NSF

Consider this a slightly belated reaction (and a slightly different take) to the proposed bill from Congressman Lamar Smith that would propose the National Science Foundation certifying all research is

  1.  “… in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;
  2. “… the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and
  3. “… not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.”

I’d like to address why requiring ALL projects funded by NSF to meet all these criteria is bizarre (especially 3, preventing the funding of multiple research paths or even funding what would essentially be the  reproducibility of an experiment suggests Smith literally does not know how scientific research is done), but I’ll save that for a future post. But for now I’d like to address what seems to be some of the underlying motivation of the first criterion by looking at the projects Smith seems to be concerned by.

Continue reading