Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

January 23 Links: Sciences from Soft to Hard; Eggs from Hard to Soft


The first was going to be about my favorite Operating Systems professor ending up in the Financial Times for her quotes at Davos on David Cameron's proposed policies banning strong encryption, but then it passed 450 words, and I spun it off into its own post.


Instead, (speaking of economics and expert opinions,) The Upshot asks how economists came to dominate the [public-policy] conversation, beating out historians, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and demographers:

Two hundred years ago, the field of economics barely existed. Today, it is arguably the queen of the social sciences.

These are the conclusions I draw from a deep dive into The New York Times archives first suggested to me by a Twitter follower. While the idea of measuring influence through newspaper mentions will elicit howls of protest from tweed-clad boffins sprawled across faculty lounges around the country, the results are fascinating. And not only because they fit my preconceived biases.

Using the new Chronicle tool that catalogs the entire Times archive, I discovered that in recent years around one in 100 articles mention the term “economist,” and these typically occur in the context of introducing a proponent of the dark arts. Far fewer articles mention the terms historian or psychologist, while sociologists, anthropologists and demographers rarely rate a mention. (...)

If you haven't clicked through yet, ask yourself as a quiz: what major world event let economists pass historians? It's pretty obvious when you think.


Elsewhere in "economists", George Mason professor of Economics Tyler Cowen (of Marginal Revolution) is one half of MRUniversity, a site full of free open courseware covering topics in economics. Specifically, in the form of three-minute bites like this:

Not bad if you're looking to get a basic grasp of things and better understand the way world works.


On the topic of "explaining things", Randall Munroe touched on the topic of Slinkies in this past week's What-If?:

Michael Longuet-Higgins was a research professor at the University of Cambridge and an expert in fluid dynamics, bubbles, and unusual types of waves.[5][6] In 1953, Dr. Longuet-Higgins was shown, by a colleague, an "interesting toy" which had recently appeared on the market. This toy, "Slinky," had some unusual properties. The professor immediately set to work analyzing it, and wrote up his results in a paper.

Dr. Longuet-Higgins first determined through mathematical modeling that the rate at which the Slinky descends steps should depend only on the properties of the spring itself, and not the size or shape of the stairs. He and his colleague conducted a series of experiments "on five different flights of stairs, of various dimensions, in Trinity College, Cambridge." Their conclusion: The Slinky descended a constant rate of about 0.8 seconds per step.[7][8]

Once again, the paper is here, and includes such lines as:

The spring then uncoils itself on to the lower stair, and the end that ws at the bottom of the coil flips over on to the stiar next but one below. The cycle is repeated and the Slinky walks furtively down the stairs, at a surprisingly steady rate.

Also in Slinkies, this:


An even more unusual paper is this one on bees, written by eight-year-olds and accepted in The Royal Society's Biology Letters:

To get ready to do the experiments with the bees we first talked about science being about playing games and making puzzles. We then got into groups and made up games to play using random pieces of physical education equipment. This gave us experience of thinking of games and puzzles. We then had to explain our games to other people. After talking about what it is like to create games and how games have rules, we talked about seeing the world in different ways by wearing bug eyes, mirrors and rolled-up books. We then watched the David Letterman videos of ‘Stupid Dog Tricks’, in which dogs were trained to do funny things. Next, we too had to learn to solve a puzzle that Beau (a neuroscientist) and Mr Strudwick (our headteacher) gave us (which took an artificial brain 10 000 trials to solve, but only four for us). Afterwards, we started asking questions about bees, and then more specific questions about seeing colour using the bee arena (figure 1).

Figure 1, diagrams about color patterns, and the responses to them by the bees studied.


Also in science, but back to scientists in videos, here's Bill Nye the Science Guy on #DeflateGate:

Also this guy:


(the icon is an arrow, for archery; get it?)

More debunking of things, moving from football scandals to that video about archery that's been making the rounds on Facebook, here's a recreational archer poking holes at Lars Andersen's grasp of archery history:

His gimmick is speed, not accuracy, and it’s obvious to anyone who actually knows anything about archery that his complete lack of any kind of consistent form is going to require camera tricks and a lot of luck, which is exactly what’s on display here. He may in fact be the fastest archer in the world; he just shouldn’t pretend to be accurate.

The really egregious part is the staggeringly inaccurate, misleading, and hyperbolic narration, written by somebody with little-to-no actual knowledge of archery history and a willingness to distort facts to make a bogus case. (...)


And, coming back to the hard sciences (or maybe coming back to soft eggs): chemists find a way to 'unboil' eggs, chemically speaking. Possible applications in protein synthesis.

Basically, chemistry is witchcraft.

Those were the links that were technically supposed to go out last Friday, and due to shopping week being crazy, I'm deciding now that I won't have more this week. (I do have actual posts lined up, though, so don't be too terribly heartbroken.)