Old-School Physics

As I’ve suggested previously (https://muircheartblog.wordpress.com/2018/12/16/when-i-were-a-lad/ ), I get rather irritated by that especially tiresome brand of yapping on the theme of how “back in my day…” everything was so very much tougher and that “snowflake students these days” don’t know they’re born. The usual irksome, evidence-free claim is that syllabi and exams have been dumbed down to the point where it takes no intellectual effort at all to do well.

I’m reblogging Peter Coles’ post as a rather powerful rebuttal to that type of reactionary whining. “…they’re not too different from what you might find in the examinations for the early stages of contemporary physics programmes.”

In the Dark

The recent circulation to his staff of daft (and in some cases erroneous) rules to be used when writing documents has led to much hilarity on the media we call social. Among the obvious errors are that the correct abbreviation for `Member of Parliament’ is `MP’ not ‘M.P.’ and that `full stop’ is actually two words (not `fullstop’). On top of those his insistence that civil servants use Imperial units for everything actually may be unlawful as the official system of units for the United Kingdom is the metric system.

The latter exhortation has caused a particular outcry among people under the age of about 50 (who have never been taught Imperial units), and especially scientists (who understand the obvious superiority of the SI system).

Anyway, all this reminded me that many years ago when at Cardiff there came into my possession a book of very old school and university…

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Rules of Engagement

This is a guest post by my friend and fellow physics enthusiast, David Domminney Fowler, previously published at http://www.frontbenchpolitics.co.uk. (Dave’s personal website is http://www.daviddomminney.com/ ). What Dave says below resonates very strongly with me, and as the “rules of engagement” problem is something I’ve thought about a great deal over the last while, I was keen to re-blog his post here at “Symptoms…”

Dave and I have enjoyed the occasional ever-so-brief discussion on the central theme of his post, and I would say our views are very closely aligned. (Indeed, I think the only very minor point on which Dave and I are perhaps not in complete agreement is with regard to the intellectual clout and substance, or lack thereof, of a certain JB Peterson.) The game theory parallel outlined by Dave below is a compelling argument.

Over to you, Dave…


I’ve been struggling for a while now with a question.

How is it that seemingly intelligent, and in some cases extremely intelligent people, seem to draw wildly different conclusions and disagree to the point of being illogical?

For example, take Steve Bannon, Stephen Fry, Ezra Kline, Nigel Farage, Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, Eric & Bret Weinstein, Ben Shapiro, Bill Maher, the list could go on.

They have many differences of opinion on a range of topics, which is to be expected, but why is this to be expected?

Why is it that Steve Bannon and Stephen Fry, both of which are extremely intelligent can disagree about so much when they no doubt have a lot of the same data to draw their conclusions from?

How can Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris, two of the world’s leading public intellectuals disagree on so many fundamental issues, even on the nature of truth?

I think some of this can be explained by thinking about games.

Take chess for example. A player wins when the other player either gets checkmated or resigns.

They are the rules.

If one player doesn’t agree that they are in checkmate then they haven’t accepted the rules.

Now with chess that’s easy to argue as there are set rules, but when you are talking about the complexity of 7 billion people all trying to construct society with only the laws of physics as a boundary things aren’t quite so simple.

There are no physical rules, well no man made physical rules.

People then tend to act based on the rules they think are appropriate, they dream up, or they’re too scared to break.

This is where game theory comes in, or at least the origins of it.

Game theory was originally a study focused on zero sum games, written by mathematician John Nash. You may have heard of him, he had a film made about him called “A Beautiful Mind”. If you haven’t seen it, you should.

Anyway, a zero sum game is basically one that means if one side gains a few points, the other side lose a few. Every win or loss is a cost or benefit to the opponents.

Imagine a mile long beach. There are 2 drink sellers that have an informal agreement to sell to half the beach each, so they each set up a quarter of a mile from an end.

On day two, one edges slightly closer to the centre. This creates an advantage as one seller covers more beach than the other.

So on day 3 the other also edges to the centre, but predicting that this was a likely reaction they both end up edging closer to the centre.

How many days do you think it will take before they are both back to back in the centre?

This position is called the “Nash Equilibrium”. Neither side has an advantageous move.

A non zero sum game is something where all participants end up receiving a benefit, like a well written trade agreement or falling in love.

Imagine a world where things are so complex that you have 7 billion people with 7 billion different ideas on what the rules of the game are.

Imagine a world where some people are seeing situations as zero sum games and others are not.

I think that is partly why we have so much confusion and seemingly contradictory ideas coming from some of the finest minds.

At this point one has to take into consideration individual skill sets. Everybody looks at problems with their own lenses focused using their experiences.

It’s not surprising that Elon Musk sees the world as potentially a computer simulation, from his perspective there is evidence everywhere, but that’s because he sees things through a computing, engineering and physics lens.

It’s also not surprising that people without any significant science or maths training tend to see the world in a much more analogue and in some cases romantic way.

Using Steve Bannon as an example. Love him or hate him or in-between, he’s an incredibly clever guy.

If you don’t know who he is, he’s by many considered the real brain behind the Trump movement and many other nationalist movements around the world.

Let’s look at his main careers pre Trump.

He was a military man, then worked for Goldman Sachs before co founding media company, Breitbart News.

In the military most things are zero sum games. If one side wins the other loses. Yes this is an over simplification but in general it’s true.

Anyone that has degrees in economics or business studies game theory. It’s essential for all modern day bankers, and he holds masters degrees in these areas.

Media is also mostly a zero sum game. Time spent reading the Guardian or watching CNN is time not spent reading the Times or watching FOX.

So it’s no wonder that Bannon views everything through the lens of his zero sum game training, it’s probably his best skill.

Unfortunately this sometimes leads very clever people to inaccurately draw conclusions because they mistake a non zero sum game for a zero sum game.

Whilst away on a break thinking about writing this I happened to catch part of “The Boss Baby”, a movie that summed up game theory and the dangers of perceiving non zero sum games as zero sum games.

It’s a kids film but it’s lesson is no less accurate. The Boss Baby tries to argue that there is a finite amount of parental love and if more things (like puppies) need love they’ll be less for the children. Obviously it ends well with the lesson not to misidentify such games. A great lesson for kids.

If you think that for your nation, to do well, others have to do less well, then you probably see such things as a zero sum game.

If you think that for your nation to succeed every nation has to succeed and we can all improve our standards of living by working as a team, then you probably don’t see things as a zero sum game.

If you see all global and national power and influence structures as a combined force, a hidden hand steering the world without revealing their true identity then you probably see a lot of zero sum games.

So next time you are in an argument or debate with someone that vehemently oppose what you are saying, yet you know they are indeed a rational and intelligent person and you question how they cannot see what you see, think about it in terms of rule differences.

Do you know the rules of the game?

Do they?

Are there set rules?

Is it a zero sum game?

What are the consequences of misidentifying the rules?

My personal opinion is whatever debate we engage in, the rules are fluid and it’s very easy to be disorientated by the complexity. This is why sometimes different voices with different outcomes are important to create balance, as no one group or person can calculate their position based on every rule, but a collection of people lensing problems through their own skill sets can be a great thing.

Where this goes wrong is when an influential person or group misidentifies the game, either through their own lens bias or for personal gain, then they influence others to see their rules as the game and ignore the possibility of other better fitting rule sets.

Do games become different depending on the lenses of the participants? I’m sure they do.

Life is not chess, there are no set rules, it’s possible for one person to hail an individual as a hero and another to see the same person as evil.

Let’s spend less time thinking opponents are crazy and more time discussing how they reached their rules of the game.

“And now behold a feast befitting famine…”

When it comes to thrash, death, grindcore, and the heavier end of the spectrum, I tend to like my metal crunchy, guttural, and driven by huge sludgy riffs. There is nothing that gets my pulse racing more than a massive riff propelled by pummelling double bass drums, with vocals dredged up from the Seven Circles [1]. If the lyrics have a social conscience and/or political bent, all the better.

So when Chris Morley, a final year PhD student researcher here in the School of Physics & Astronomy — and fellow metal fan, accomplished musician, and quantum technologist — sent me a link to the new song he’s recorded with Beyond Grace, I was, let’s say, just a tad enthusiastic about the track.

Strap yourselves in. I’ll see you again in 4 mins and 56 seconds…

I f**king love that track. [2] There aren’t too many other bands (metal or otherwise), with the notable exception of Napalm Death [3], who would write a song that lambasts the breathtakingly simplistic fantasy of trickle-down economics. (And kick off by sampling Obama’s critique of that fantasy.)

As Beyond Grace themselves explain over at MetalSucks,

In The Arabian Nights there’s a story where a beggar is taken in by a rich man and served an imaginary meal and, after playing along with the illusion, is ultimately rewarded with a life of luxury and opulence.

“Of course, in the real world, this isn’t what happens. We wait and we wait, but nothing changes. We’re just told to do more with less, to keep our mouths shut, even as those upstream do their best to dam the river so that all that reaches us is the merest trickle of the wealth they’ve hoarded.”

And not only do Beyond Grace raise awareness, they put their money where their collective mouth is. They’re donating all the proceeds from the single to local food banks. You can purchase the track here, for however much or little you would like to donate. Go get it now. As MetalSucks put it, “killer music, killer ethos.” ‘Nuff said.

OK, are you ready? Growl like you’ve never growled before. Everyone. On 4.

1, 2, 3, fouuuuuuurggghhhhh…

AND NOW BEHOLD A FEAST BEFITTING FAMINE


[1] On other occasions, Abba, Zappa, or just about anything in between — except, of course, the aural enema that is country – are what I need for my musical fix. (And, if you, like me, have ever idly wondered what Abba-influenced death metallers might sound like …

A big thank you to my friend, and erstwhile colleague at Nottingham, Adam Sweetman, for introducing me to the majesty of The Night Flight Orchestra.

[2] Back in the days when I used to waste a lot of time “debating” pointlessly online, aggrieved anti-social-justice warriors often whined at me about “self-censoring” expletives in this way. (I kid you not. They really are exceptionally fragile individuals.) Let’s just say that it’s my homage to Kerrang! magazine, which I read voraciously as a teenager. I also think that partially “redacting” the word like that actually strengthens, rather than lessens, the written impact of the expletive.

[3] As I said to Chris, I hear echoes of Barney and the boys in “Barmecide Feast”.  

From the peer-reviewed pages of Springer Nature…a theory more bonkers than a conference of Flat Earthers.

“Wow. Just wow. What the f**k?!?!”

That was the opening line of my e-mail reply to Ivan Oransky, MD, and co-founder of Retraction Watch, when I’d picked myself up off the floor after reading the paper he sent me earlier this week. Ivan wanted my reaction to…deep breath…”Development of a safe antiparasitic against scuticociliates (Miamiensis avidus) in olive flounders: new approach to reduce the toxicity of mebendazole by material remediation technology using full-overlapped gravitational field energy”, Parasitology Research https://doi.org/10.1007/s00436-018-6010-8 (2019). 

That paper has now been retracted for reasons that will become very clear, very soon.

The more puzzling question is how the hell it got accepted in the first place.

Scroll down to page 5 of the paper (linked above) and find the section headed “Production of material remediated MBZ using full-overlapped gravitational field energy“. Actually, I’ll save you the bother. The section is reproduced in all its glory below. Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin…

SilkwormNonsense_1

…wait, there’s more…

SilkwormNonsense_2

And in case that didn’t make sense, there’s a helpful figure to explain everything:

SilkwormNonsense_3

I haven’t read anything quite as superbly crackpot as this since Jordan Peterson’s “Maps Of Meaning”.

As Ivan discusses over at the Retraction Watch blog, this, um, seminal example of truly innovative scientific reasoning was submitted on March 18. The editors and reviewers then took four months to consider the paper. And subsequently accepted it for publication.

Peer review. The gold standard on which all of science stands or falls.

Sloppy Science: Still Someone Else’s Problem?

“The Somebody Else’s Problem field is much simpler and more effective, and what’s more can be run for over a hundred years on a single torch battery… An SEP is something we can’t see, or don’t see, or our brain doesn’t let us see, because we think that it’s somebody else’s problem…. The brain just edits it out, it’s like a blind spot”.

Douglas Adams (1952 – 2001) Life, The Universe, and Everything

The very first blog post I wrote (back in March 2013), for the Institute of Physics’ now sadly defunct physicsfocus project, was titled “Are Flaws in Peer Review Someone Else’s Problem?” and cited the passage above from the incomparable, and sadly missed, Mr. Adams. The post described the trials and tribulations my colleagues and I were experiencing at the time in trying to critique some seriously sloppy science, on the subject of ostensibly “striped” nanoparticles, that had been published in very high profile journals by a very high profile group. Not that I suspected it at the time of writing the post, but that particular saga ended up dragging on and on, involving a litany of frustrations in our attempts to correct the scientific record.

I’ve been put in mind of the stripy saga, and that six-year-old post, for a number of reasons lately. First, the most recent stripe-related paper from the group whose work we critiqued makes absolutely no mention of the debate and controversy. It’s as if our criticism never existed; the issues we raised, and the surrounding controversy, are simply ignored by that group in their most recent work.

More importantly, however, I have been following Ken Rice‘s (and others’) heated exchange with the authors of a similarly fundamentally flawed paper very recently published in Scientific Reports [Oscillations of the baseline of solar magnetic field and solar irradiance on a millennial timescale, VV Zharkova, SJ Shepherd, SI Zharkov, and E Popova, Sci. Rep. 9 9197 (2019)]. Ken’s blog post on the matter is here, and the ever-expanding PubPeer thread (225 comments at the time of writing, and counting) is here. Michael Brown‘s take-no-prisoners take-down tweets on the matter are also worth reading…

The debate made it into the pages — sorry, pixels — of The Independent a few days ago: “Journal to investigate controversial study claiming global temperature rise is due to Earth moving closer to Sun.

Although the controversy in this case is related to physics happening on astronomically larger length scales than those at the heart of our stripy squabble, there are quite a number of parallels (and not just in terms of traffic to the PubPeer site and the tenor of the authors’ responses). Some of these are laid out in the following Tweet thread by Ken…

The Zharkova et al. paper makes fundamental errors that should never have passed through peer review. But then we all know that peer review is far from perfect. The question is what should happen to a paper that is not fradulent but still makes it to publication containing misleadingly sloppy and/or incorrect science? Should it remain in the scientific record? Or should it be retracted?

It turns out that this is a much more contested issue than it might appear at first blush. For what it’s worth, I am firmly of the opinion that a paper containing fundamental errors in the science and/or based on mistakes due to clearly definable f**k-ups/corner-cutting in experimental procedure should be retracted. End of story. It is unfair on other researchers — and, I would argue, blatantly unethical in many cases — to leave a paper in the literature that is fundamentally flawed. (Note that even retracted papers continue to accrue citations.) It is also a massive waste of taxpayers’ money to fund new research based on flawed work.

Here’s one example of what I mean, taken from personal, and embarrassing, experience. I screwed up the calibration of a tuning fork sensor used in a set of atomic force microscopy experiments. We discovered this screw-up after publication of the paper that was based on measurements with that particular sensor. Should that paper have remained in the literature? Absolutely not.

Some, however, including my friend and colleague Mike Merrifield, who is also Head of School here and with whom I enjoy the ever-so-occasional spat, have a slightly different take on the question of retractions:

Mike and I discussed the Zharkova et al. controversy both briefly at tea break and via an e-mail exchange last week, and it seems that there are distinct cultural differences between different sub-fields of physics when it comes to correcting the scientific record. I put the Gedankenexperiment described below to Mike and asked him whether we should retract the Gedankenpaper. The particular scenario outlined in the following stems from an exchange I had with Alessandro Strumia a few months back, and subsequently with a number of my particle physicist colleagues (both at Nottingham and elsewhere), re. the so-called 750 GeV anomaly at CERN…

“Mike, let’s say that some of us from the Nanoscience Group go to the Diamond Light Source to do a series of experiments. We acquire a set of X-ray absorption spectra that are rather noisy because, as ever, the experiment didn’t bloody well work until the last day of beamtime and we had to pack our measurements into the final few hours. Our signal-to-noise ratio is poor but we decide to not only interpret a bump in a spectrum as a true peak, but to develop a sophisticated (and perhaps even compelling) theory to explain that “peak”. We publish the paper in a prestigious journal, because the theory supporting our “peak” suggests the existence of an exciting new type of quasiparticle. 

We return to the synchrotron six months or a year later, repeat the experiment over and over but find no hint of the “peak” on which we based our (now reasonably well-cited) analysis. We realise that we had over-interpreted a statistical noise blip.

Should we retract the paper?”

I am firmly of the opinion that the paper should be retracted. After all, we could not reproduce our results when we did the experiment correctly. We didn’t bend over backwards in the initial experiment to convince ourselves that our data were robust and reliable and instead rushed to publish (because we were so eager to get a paper out of the beamtime.) So now we should eat humble pie for jumping the gun — the paper should be retracted and the scientific record should be corrected accordingly.

Mike, and others, were of a different opinion, however. They argued that the flawed paper should remain in the scientific literature, sometimes for the reasons to which Mike alludes in his tweet above [1].  In my conversations with particle physicists re. the 750 GeV anomaly, which arose from a similarly over-enthusiastically interpreted bump in a spectrum that turned out to be noise, there was a similarly strong inertia to correct the scientific record. There appeared to be a feeling that only if the data were fabricated or fraudulent should the paper be retracted.

During the e-mail exchanges with my particle physics colleagues, I was struck on more than one occasion by a disturbing disconnect between theory and experiment. (This is hardly the most original take on the particle physics field, I know. I’ll take a moment to plug Sabine Hossenfelder’s Lost In Math once again.) There was an unsettling (for me) feeling among some that it didn’t matter if experimental noise had been misinterpreted, as long as the paper led to some new theoretical insights. This, I’ll stress, was not an opinion universally held — some of my colleagues said they didn’t go anywhere near the 750 GeV excess because of the lack of strong experimental evidence. Others, however, were more than willing to enthusiastically over-interpret the 750 GeV “bump” and, unsurprisingly, baulked at the suggestion that their papers should be retracted or censured in any way. If their sloppy, credulous approach to accepting noise in lieu of experimental data had advanced the field, then what’s wrong with that? After all, we need intrepid pioneers who will cross the Pillars of Hercules

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool experimentalist; science should be driven by a strong and consistent feedback loop between experiment and theory. If a scientist mistakes experimental noise (or well-understood experimental artefacts) for valid data, or if they get fundamental physics wrong a la Zherkova et al, then there should be — must be — some censure for this. After all, we’d censure our undergrad students under similar circumstances, wouldn’t we? One student carries out an experiment for her final year project carefully and systematically, repeating measurements, bringing her signal-to-noise ratio down, putting in the hours to carefully refine and redefine the experimental protocols and procedures, refusing to make claims that are not entirely supported by the data. Another student instead gets over-excited when he sees a “signal” that chimes with his expectations, and instead of doing his utmost to make sure he’s not fooling himself, leaps to a new and exciting interpretation of the noisy data. Which student should receive the higher grade? Which student is the better scientist?

As that grand empiricist Francis Bacon put it centuries ago,

The understanding must not therefore be supplied with wings, but rather hung with weights, to keep it from leaping and flying.

It’s up to not just individual scientists but the scientific community as a whole to hang our collective understanding with weights. Sloppy science is not just someone else’s problem. It’s everyone’s problem.

[1] Mike’s suggestion in his tweet that the journal would like to retract the paper to spare their blushes doesn’t chime with our experience of journals’ reactions during the stripy saga. Retraction is the last thing they want because it impacts their brand.

 

“Uncertainty to 11” Playlist

I was over the moon to find that a goodreads reviewer who goes by the handle of Hisacro had very kindly put together the YouTube playlist below for “When The Uncertainty Principle Goes To 11“. Hisacro diligently worked page by page through “Uncertainty to 11…” to add each of the songs I referenced therein, with a couple of key (and quite brilliant) differences to my selections and suggestions in the book. These include a wonderful version of Peanuts doing Rush’s classic 2112Thank you Hisacro, for taking the quite considerable time to put the playlist together. If you ever read this, please drop me a line so I can thank you slightly more directly than via the lines of a blog post!

 

 

Composing Lydian Pi

Over the years I’ve dabbled with “translating” the digits of fundamental constants (pi, tau, phi, etc.) into musical — and arguably not-so-musical — scales, not only for my own fun and distraction but because it’s a neat way of getting across the fundamental links between maths and music (and physics and music.) As I’m fond of noting in talks and podcasts (and  *cough* books), although one should generally never read below the line, this particular comment, posted under that “not-so-musical” video, made me very happy indeed:

Numberphile

I was equally, if not more, delighted when an e-mail popped into my inbox earlier this week from Paul Downing, who had watched the Numberphile video I did with Brady Haran on converting pi to music and did his own far, far superior* version, based on the Lydian mode. I’ll let Paul explain in the following guest post…

*That “pi music” video contains possibly the most painfully inept guitar work (courtesy of yours truly) since CC DeVille last picked up his axe. My sincere apologies. The pi-derived guitar solo in the track below is slightly less teeth-grindingly awful. Alan Stewart‘s version without my guitar noise on top is here.


I was wandering around YouTube one day, looking at videos about maths, a subject that has always intrigued me (although I must confess it can confuse me more often than not.) Let’s just say I enjoy being mystified by difficult to grasp concepts and strange looking symbols. It proves to me there is much to learn in the universe and that inspires me.

I came across Brady’s video where Philip maps a major scale to the digits of Pi and plays the sequence on guitar. Wow, I thought. That is quite something. Pi.  A universal constant. A number that pops out of a circle. A number that presumably has existed since the birth of the universe and will presumably exist as long as the universe exists. Leading to a sequence of notes or pitches that, as far as we know, goes on forever. An infinite melody. Now that is quite something. In fact, that’s totally awesome.

As someone who composes a fair amount of music, I was hooked. I started to think about writing a melody using this technique. I had a think about how to approach things. I’ve always liked the Lydian mode. It’s basically a major scale with a raised 4th (think of a C major scale with an F sharp in it). It has a kind of ethereal, mystical sound to it, very open, almost super-major. How many notes should the melody have? Well an infinite number would be ideal. But seeing as I don’t have an infinite amount of time to compose, I settled on Pi to 100 decimal places.

I wrote out the digits and mapped them to C Lydian using the technique Philip had used and grouped them in bunches of 10. I then set about the task of creating a melody that had pleasing aesthetics. This part of the process is hard to describe. I rely on intuition and instinct, listening to the muse in my head, to write music. So, at this point, I went into ‘composing mode’. Improvising and refining until I had something I was pleased with. Making artistic decisions about rhythm, phrasing and bass notes.

This led to the creation of a lead sheet. A basic structure and blueprint that myself and other musicians could work from. Now it was time to arrange and record. I started by creating a fast moving looped synth sequence of the 101 notes and imported it into the main song to run in the background. It acts almost like a background drone, anchoring the piece. Next, some guide drums (which I later removed). Then some arpeggiated chords from the piccolo bass. A moog synth bass. Another piccolo bass playing the melody on the head and soloing during the improvised section. I then asked Mark Allaway to play some alto saxophone on the composition, with splendid results I think. Finally the track was mixed and mastered…

Something that struck me about improvising within ‘Lydian Pi’ is that whatever notes the improviser chooses. Assuming that the digits of Pi go on forever. Then that sequence of notes must exist somewhere along that Pi number line. So as long as you stick to the mode, you literally can’t play a wrong note. It’s in there somewhere.  Which is nice to know I think.

Thanks to Philip for introducing me to the ‘fundamental-constant-to-music concept’. I’m finding it a great springboard to musical composition and have created another piece using Pi (currently a demo) and a piece based on Euler’s number ‘e’ titled ‘E by Sum’. I’m now thinking about using Phi and fixating somewhat on Euler’s identity.

Paul Downing   16.07.2019