Sunday, May 21, 2006

New, old and (always) exciting in science

Shortly back to blogging after quite a while... Today I'll drop a few lines about some interesting science pieces, both new and old, but anytime exciting. Of course the selection is mine.

  • For quite a while now, I've been listening every week (really!) to the Scientific American (SCIAM) podcast new episodes. It is absolutely worth it and it is very practical as well since you can do it in a break (from reading, programming or any other research or non-research activities). Steve Mirsky, the host, manages to keep a perfect balance between general and specific, with humorous interludes now and then, hence all these subjects are generally available to the large public- provided of course a minimum interest in science (which, by the way, might be induced this way)- and they are never boring! One of my favourites so far is a recent entry from May 3 which is largely dedicated to a very nice informal interview with 2004 Physics Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek (he shared the prize with other 2 researchers). Among other things you'll find out the basics about the weak and strong forces acting in the nature, super symmetry, but also about the call received at 5:30 in the morning from Stockholm announcing Prof. Wilczek that he received the Nobel prize. One small correction though to be made to Prof. Wilczek's story (nothing on the technical side though :-)): Professors Gerardus van 't Hooft and Martinus Veltman received the Nobel in 1999, not 1998. I was actually present at the ceremony dedicated for this great event within the Utrecht University (as an aspiring Theoretical Physicist at that time!) and later attended a very interesting lecture by Prof. van 't Hooft, at the University College Utrecht (in which I remember he also talked about Frank Wilczek's research and the fact that Wilczek and his co-laureates were just a bit- in the annoying sense- faster than him in publishing on the extension of his previous research with Veltman, that won them the 1999 Nobel ). All right, just one more digression here: you should also check out Betsy Devine's (the wife of Frank Wilczek) page about their Nobel adventures but also a bunch of Funny Ha-Ha and Funny Peculiar things (btw, the Guy Goma- BBC entry is absolutely hillarious).

  • Prof. Harold Shapiro's recent address at the AAAS is an important advice addressed to all scientists:

    Humility remains an important human characteristic even for scientists. [...] Scientists need to recognize, for example, that other areas of human activity also have been critical participants in this vast humanitarian effort, providing quite different but equally imaginative, equally creative and equally valuable contributions to the evolution of human societies. The evolving literary, artistic, political institutions and imaginations have also been central to this humanitarian enterprise, to say nothing of the world’s great religions, whose narratives have done so much to sustain human efforts over such a long period of time. More on this address.

  • In the latest issue (vol 96, no.2, 2006) of the American Economic Review, Gregory Mankiw is addressing a letter (you need to have a subscription to AER) to new Fed Governor Ben Bernanke. I like a lot the part about the fact that the Fed boss should be as boring a public figure as possible (and I agree!):

    My recommendation to you is to become as boring a publig figure as possible. For an economist, boring is an occupational hazard. For a central banker, however, it is just the ticket. The central bank's job is to create stability, not excitement. One way of doing that is to increase confidence in the institution of the Federal Reserve and to educate the public that the institution matters more than the individual who happens to be leading it at the moment. It would be ideal if, after a long, succesful tenure, your retirement as Fed chairman were a less momentous event than your arrival.

  • a US Senator decided to question and probably oppose (you need subscription for Science to read the whole article) any further NSF funding for social science (and target all funding for natural sciences and engineering). While I think USA social scientists could (and should) do a much better job in explaining what they are doing and why they are doing what they are doing, I also think she is more than exaggerating and simply making a show. What is amazing though is that apparently social scientists present at the audience could not answer her immediately to questions which show her being parallel to science, such as (taken from one of the Science numbers) "Why is the NSF funding a study of a women's cooperative in Bangladesh? Why are US taxpayers footing the bill for efforts to understand Hungary's emerging democracy? And why are social scientists even bothering to compile an archive of state legislatures in a long-gone era when those legislators choose US senators (ok, that might actually have a direct answer since it could prove that US senators back in those times were having somewhat higher IQ's)." On the other hand, no answer from the scientists point of view (remember Shapiro's point above) seems even more foolish and I don't really want to think of what it indicates.

  • and finally for now (simply a time constraint, otherwise I could go on ad infinitum), an older, nonetheless very interesting and definitely very actual article. It concerns new developments in trying to explain circumstances under which people might cooperate for contributing towards a public good and how the option to punish detractors can help. Just imagine you could immediately punish people that avoid paying their mandatory taxes etc, albeit at a cost. Would you do it? This very nice experiment described below suggest you would, even if initially you might not think so. And assumably that this will also eliminate any cheating behavior in the long run.

Understanding the circumstances under which people cooperate is a complex matter that has challenged evolutionary, behavioral, and economic researchers for decades. Particularly difficult to deconstruct are so-called "public-goods" problems, which involve situations in which individuals incur a cost to create a benefit for the group (modern examples might include recycling, voting, or giving blood). In a Report inthe 7 Apr 2006 Science, Gürerk et al. ( ) offered new insight into what drives cooperation in large groups. In an experimental game, individuals were asked to choose between two artificial societies. In one society, players could contribute money to a group project and the sum of all contributions was divided evenly amongst all players. The second society was similar except that after players contributed, they were allowed to pay to punish (reduce the payoff of) players who did not contribute equally. After each of 30 rounds of play, players were allowed to choose their society for the next round. The researchers found that most people initially picked the first society, which does not permit punishment and tolerates freeloaders. But as successive rounds of the gamewere played, cooperation broke down in that group and nearly all players came to appreciate the greater rewards of the other society, which enabled higher total payoffs despite the individual cost of punishing freeloaders. An accompanying Perspective by J. Henrich ( ) highlighted the study.

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