Sunday, September 20, 2015

Parenting HowTo

SMBC offers a tip. Not likely to work on kids over 4, though.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Scientific Papers with 1000+ Authors

Robert Lee Hotz has a great article in WSJ on the phenomenon of papers with long author lists (in a recent case, this list is over 24 pages long -- in fine print!). His articlle has a plot that shows that 2012 saw over 200 papers with 1000+ authors!

Hotz also goes on to discuss some of the pranks played by scientists:

Michigan State University mathematician Jack Hetherington published a paper in 1975 on low temperature physics in Physical Review Letters with F.D.C. Willard. His colleagues only discovered that his co-author was a siamese cat several years later when Dr. Hetherington started handing out copies of the paper signed with a paw print.

In the same spirit, Shalosh B. Ekhad at Rutgers University so far has published 32 peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals with his co-author Doron Zeilberger. It turns out that Shalosh B. Ekhad is Hebrew for the model number of a personal computer used by Dr. Zeilberger. “The computer helps so much and so often,” Dr. Zeilberger said.

Not everyone takes such pranks lightly.

Immunologist Polly Matzinger at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases named her dog, Galadriel Mirkwood, as a co-author on a paper she submitted to the Journal of Experimental Medicine. “What amazed me was that the paper went through the entire editorial process and nobody noticed,” Dr. Matzinger said. When the journal editor realized he had published work crediting an Afghan hound, he was furious, she recalled.

Physicists may be more open-minded. Sir Andre Geim, winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics, credited H.A.M.S. ter Tisha as his co-author of a 2001 paper published in the journal Physica B. Those journal editors didn’t bat an eye when his co-author was unmasked as a pet hamster. “Not a harmful joke,” said Physica editor Reyer Jochemsen at the Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Maria Mitchell's Fight for Equal Pay

Becky Ferreirain Motherboard: How a Victorian Astronomer Fought the Gender Pay Gap, and Won:

... [One] of the most interesting fights [Maria] Mitchell [the first professional female astronomer in American history] took up during her life was over an issue that remains incredibly relevant: equal pay for equal work. Given that the gender wage gap still is a pervasive problem in STEM fields, it’s worth revisiting the utterly badass way in which Mitchell approached some 145 years ago.

Phyllis Rostykus on Women Scientists in Films

In her Slate article -- The Real Real Genius -- she says, "Thirty years ago, I helped inspire the lead female character in the classic nerd movie. I finally understand why some critics disliked its portrayal of women."

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Married Kama Sutra

Simon Rich and Farley Katz describe some of the positions from this yet-to-be-written classic.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Interest in adultery as a metric for ranking universities

It turns out that Ashley Madison [Slogan: "Life is short. Have an affair."] had over 74,000 members who used official university e-mail addresses. Who knew?

Inside Higher Ed has done the next thing we all think of -- ranking universities on this metric! In case you are wondering, here are the top two: Michigan State and Penn State; all but one in the top ten are public universities or community colleges.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Life Imitates Onion - Part Deux: Area People Search for Google CEO's Chennai Origins

The farcical search for Venky Ramakrishnan's origins in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, is playing out all over again. This time, the search is for the Chennai origins of Google's newly minted CEO Sundar Pichai.

Exhibit A: Chennai digs for Pichai’s past:

The search for his Chennai connections began soon after news of his new role at Google was announced. Schools, alumni associations and the media came together to track down Mr. Pichai’s roots in the city.

Mr. Pichai was born and brought up in Chennai, but left the city after he completed his class XII in 1989.

At his alma mater, Jawahar Vidyalaya (JV) in Ashok Nagar, the phone has been ringing non-stop since Tuesday morning. “Only when the media alerted us to the news did we start looking through our records. He studied here from 1979 to 1987, and then switched schools,” Alice Jeevan, school Principal said. While the school was able to locate his transfer certificate, they have not yet found his other school records.

“Had he been a naughty child, we would have remembered him,” she said. Mr. Pichai was a quiet student and, though he studied well, was not the school topper.

One of his schoolmates, now in Kolkata, recalls being in the same class with Mr. Pichai, but says they were not good friends. “The only thing I remember is that he and Shankar Subramanian used to compete for the highest marks in science.” She did not wish to be identified.

Vanavani, where he is believed to have attended Classes XI and XII, has been unable to locate his records yet.

Exhibit B: Editing spree on Wikipedia for Sundar Pichai:

The day broke in India with the Wikipedia entry mentioning “done his schooling in Vanavani and Jawahar Vidyalaya, Chennai.” [...]

But then began the edits to the Wikipedia entry on Pichai and, in a sense, all hell broke loose.

Subsequently, various permutations and combinations involving three schools — Vanavani, PSBB and Jawahar Vidyalaya — were the flavour of the day. Other notable mentions were GRT Mahalakshmi Vidyalaya and All Angels Matriculation Higher Secondary School. While the first three were at least in the running, the others were probably long shots for publicity by enthusiastic alumni, taking advantage of the open editing format of Wikipedia.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The FBI File on Paul Erdős

You know you are in for some surreal stuff when the article's headline carries this quote:

"Nothing to indicate the subject had any interest in any matter other than Mathematics.”

And this is followed immediately by this opening line:

Turns out, J. Edgar Hoover's Erdős number is lower than yours.

Academic War!

Three stages of a continuing saga, dubbed the Battle for San Diego by Inside Higher Ed:

  1. July 6, 2015: UC San Diego sues University of Southern California.

  2. July 27, 2015: UCSD 1, USC 0.

  3. August 3, 2015: USC Sues UCSD.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Akshat Rathi on History of Indian Science

Over at Mint On Sunday, Rathi has a great article with a brilliant title -- Separating Fact from Ancient Indian Science Fiction -- exploring the question: "Why is the public’s knowledge of the history of Indian science so poor?"

The sad part is that, despite an ongoing history of science programme, which has been running for more than 50 years, very little of that has filtered in to public knowledge. I asked Subbarayappa why.

“That is a question I have often asked myself,” he said laughing. The commission nudges on with what it has been doing for the past 50 years. Regular articles appear in the Indian Journal of History of Science, but there is little conversation between the few academics working on the history of Indian science and those working on setting the science curriculum.

Anant Bhan on Gender Gap in Medical Education Leadership in India

Anant Bhan has a link-filled post over at British Medical Journal Blogs:

Given the high number of women entering medicine—a status report in 2012 pegged the number of female medical students in India at around 200 000, compared with 175 000 male students—and subsequently also joining as faculty in medical colleges, one would expect a significant number of them to occupy top leadership positions in medical education. This is where there seems to be a gap—much fewer women occupy positions of director or principal in medical colleges in India than men.

Let’s take the example of those institutes of national importance in India which offer medical education courses. There are 11 of them: the seven All India Institutes of Medical Science (AIIMS; in Delhi, Rishikesh, Jodhpur, Bhopal, Raipur, Patna, Bhubaneshwar), the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER, Chandigarh), the Jawaharlal Institute of Post Graduate Medical Education and Research (JIPMER, Puducherry), the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience (NIMHANS, Bengaluru), and the Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences and Technology (SCTIMST, Thiruvananthapuram). Of these 11 institutions, currently only one has a female director—Asha Kishore became the first female director of SCTIMST in mid-July 2015 after the institute had been without a director for two years.

Adversarial Collaboration

David Shariatmadari's profile of Prof. Daniel Kahneman has lots of fascinating details, including some about his childhood years in Nazi-occupied France. In the section on Kahneman's intellectual contributions, we find this episode which I think is fantastic:

... Then there is the concept of adversarial collaboration, an attempt to do away with pointless academic feuding. Though he doesn’t like to think in terms of leaving a legacy, it’s one thing he says he hopes to be remembered for. In the early 2000s Kahneman sought out a leading opponent of his view that so-called expert judgments were frequently flawed. Gary Klein’s research focused on the ability of professionals such as firefighters to make intuitive but highly skilled judgments in difficult circumstances. “We spent five or six years trying to figure out the boundary, where he’s right, where I am right. And that was a very satisfying experience. We wrote a paper entitled ‘A Failure to Disagree’”.

Fortunately, that paper is available online.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Richard J. Light: "How to Live Wisely"

Harvard Graduate School of Education's Richard Light talks about an interesting seminar/discussion course in his NYTimes column [Hat tip to an alumnus from our department via e-mail]. The short course (more like a module running into several sessions) is built around a set of exercises which make the students not just think through their core values, but also consider situations where they might lead to conflicting conclusions. Here's one of them:

This exercise presents a parable of a happy fisherman living a simple life on a small island. The fellow goes fishing for a few hours every day. He catches a few fish, sells them to his friends, and enjoys spending the rest of the day with his wife and children, and napping. He couldn’t imagine changing a thing in his relaxed and easy life.

A recent M.B.A. visits this island and quickly sees how this fisherman could become rich. He could catch more fish, start up a business, market the fish, open a cannery, maybe even issue an I.P.O. Ultimately he would become truly successful. He could donate some of his fish to hungry children worldwide and might even save lives.

“And then what?” asks the fisherman.

“Then you could spend lots of time with your family,” replies the visitor. “Yet you would have made a difference in the world. You would have used your talents, and fed some poor children, instead of just lying around all day.”

We ask students to apply this parable to their own lives. Is it more important to you to have little, accomplish little, yet be relaxed and happy and spend time with family? Or is it more important to you to work hard, use your talents, perhaps start a business, maybe even make the world a better place along the way?

Typically, this simple parable leads to substantial disagreement.

Friday, July 31, 2015


  1. Ben Goldacre in Buzzfeed News: Scientists Are Hoarding Data And It’s Ruining Medical Research. "Major flaws in two massive trials of deworming pills show the importance of sharing data — which most scientists don’t do."

  2. Hari Pulakkat in Economic Times Blogs: Why India is lagging in disruptive innovation.

  3. John P.A. Ioannidis in Al Jazeera: Could Greece become prosperous again?

    Populism and a critical lack of know-how is the common denominator among the neo-Stalinist syndicalists, outspoken nationalists and eccentric university professors (most of whom are entirely disconnected from serious global scholarship) who now happen to run the country. Mass media, justifiably anxious to create anti-austerity heroes, manufactured an artificial reality about these people. For example, the original finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, was heralded as a famous professor of economics, while he has never authored a single scientific article in any of the 30 top economics journals (as ranked based on citation impact factor by Thomson Reuters). In education and science, the two fields where Greeks particularly excel, emerging state policies are strikingly counterproductive. In his inaugural parliament speech, the minister of education (a professor emeritus) proudly declared himself a Marxist who considers excellence a stigma; fittingly, his deputy minister, a university professor of genetics, has not published any PubMed-indexed peer-reviewed scientific paper since 1996. This is Greek mediocrity at its finest.