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Showing posts with label caltech. Show all posts
Showing posts with label caltech. Show all posts

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Harvard admissions and meritocracy

Motivated by Steve Pinker's recent article The Trouble With Harvard (see my comments here), Ephblog drills down on Harvard admissions. The question is just how far Harvard deviates from Pinker's ideal of selecting the entire class based on intellectual ability. Others raised similar questions, as evidenced by, e.g., the very first comment that appeared on The New Republic's site:
JakeH 10 days ago

Great article. One quibble: Pinker says, based on "common knowledge," that only ten (or five) percent of Harvard students are selected based on academic merit, and that the rest are selected "holistically." His implication is that "holistic" consideration excludes academic merit as a major factor. But that's surely not the case. Even if Harvard only selects ten percent of its students based on academic factors alone, it seems likely that academic and test score standards are high for the remaining 90 percent. We don't have enough information on this point, because, I suppose, it's not available. (To solve that problem, I join Pinker's call for a more transparent admissions process.)
I don't know exactly how Harvard admissions works -- there are all sorts of mysteries. But let me offer the following observations.

1. Pinker claimed that only 5-10 percent of the class is admitted purely on the basis of academic merit (see more below). The 5-10 percent number was widely reported in the past, including by scholar Jerome Karabel. No one knows what Harvard is up to at the moment and it's possible that, given the high demand for elite education, they have increased their academic focus over the years.

2. IIRC, the current SAT ceiling of 1600 (M+CR) corresponds to about 1 in 1000 ability (someone please tell me if I am mistaken). So there are at least a couple thousand US kids per cohort at this ability level, and several times more who are near it ("within the noise"). A good admissions committee would look at other higher ceiling measures of ability (e.g., performance in math and science competitions) to rank order top applicants. The 800 ceiling on the math is not impressive at all -- a kid who is significantly below this level has almost no chance of mastering the Caltech required curriculum (hence even the 25th percentile math SAT score at Caltech is 770; in my day the attrition rate at Caltech was pretty high -- a lot of people "flamed out"). The reduced SAT ceiling makes it easier for Harvard to hide what it is up to.

4. My guess is that Harvard still has a category, in the past called S ("Scholar"; traditionally 5-10 percent of the class, but perhaps larger now), for the top rank-ordered candidates in academic ability alone. Most of the near-perfect scorers on the SAT will not qualify for S -- it is more impressive to have been a finalist in the Intel science competition, written some widely used/acclaimed code, made (or nearly made) the US IMO or IPhO teams, published some novel research or writing, etc. Harvard sometimes boasts about the number of perfect SAT scorers it rejects each year, so clearly one can't conclude that a 1600 on CR+M alone qualifies for the S category. Along these lines, one even reads occasional stories about Harvard rejecting IMO participants.

5. In remaining categories Harvard almost certainly uses a more holistic approach that also weights athletics, extracurriculars, etc. Some of the people who score high on this weighted measure might not have qualified in S, but nevertheless are near the ceiling in SAT score. It has been reported in the past that Harvard used a 1-5 scoring system in academics, sports, leadership, music, etc. and that to have serious consideration (outside the S category, which is for real superstars), one needed to have two or more "1" scores -- e.g., valedictorian/high SATs + state-level tennis player + ...

From the comments above, it should be clear that one can't simply use the percentage of near-perfect SAT scorers in the class to determine the size of the S category.

See here for discussion of meritocratic test-based systems in other countries. For instance, the Indian IIT, the French Ecole Normale Superieure, and the Taiwan university entrance exams, have in the past explicitly ranked the top scorers each year. (The tests are hard enough that typically no one gets near a perfect score; note things may have changed recently.) I know more than a few theoretical physicists who scored in the top 5 in their entire country on these exams. Mandlebrot writes in his autobiography about receiving the highest ENS score in France.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Caltech honor code and cheating

I hope this isn't true! From Seth Roberts' blog:
Cheating at Caltech

Caltech has a serious problem with undergraduates cheating on academic work, which Caltech administrators appear to be ignoring. A few years ago, one alumnus considered the problem so bad that he urged other alumni to stop donating. I attended Tech (that’s what we called it) for a year and a half in the 1970s. I didn’t think cheating was a problem then. Now it is.

A recent article in the Times Higher Education Supplement by Phil Baty praised Caltech’s “honor system”, which includes trusting students not to cheat on exams. A Caltech professor of biology named Markus Meister told Baty that “cheats simply cannot prosper in an environment that includes such small-group teaching and close collaboration with colleagues because they would rapidly be exposed.” That strikes me as naive. How convenient for Meister that there is no need to test his theory — it must be true (“cheats simply cannot prosper”).
... There is a small and growing population of students at Caltech [who] are systematically cheating, and the Caltech administration is aware of it but refuses to do anything about it. I suspect the problem began when Caltech started advertising its ‘Honor Code’ to prospective high school students in the 90′s, which lead to self-selection of students who were willing to bend the rules. ...

The comment below is consistent with my experiences at Caltech in the 80s. We took the honor code very seriously ...
Bill Mitchell Says:
February 19th, 2014 at 3:29 pm
The honor system appeared to work when I was there. Decades later, Caltech remains one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. As the school’s president put it to incoming students at our orientation, “we will challenge not just your mental limits, but your physical limits,” meaning sleep deprivation. The intensity was incredible. Exhausting, but rewired me to think better.

But it does depend upon the student culture. If cheating takes root, an honor system can’t work. I would hate to see them lose a well-earned reputation by not putting a lid on cheating, if it is a growing problem.

Bill Mitchell Says:
February 19th, 2014 at 3:53 pm
Actually I just realized the honor system was likely working in the 1980s, deducible from two facts: most courses there were still being graded on a C curve, and individual student scores in applied math and electrical engineering tests often averaged below 70%, with wide variance.

If cheating were rampant at that time, this seemingly could not have occurred. The bell-curve grading would have driven competition among cheaters, which would either have driven scores up, or driven variance down, or both. That doesn’t seem to have happened.

I have no idea if any of that is still true today.
See also Vernon Smith at Caltech.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Chomsky: At War With Asia

In an earlier post I mentioned that my introduction to Chomsky came not via linguistics, but through his book At War With Asia, discovered by accident in the Page House library at Caltech. The book had a striking cover image, shown below.

My reaction to the book was similar to that of this blogger:
... no Chomsky book affected me as much as At War With Asia. To me, it was the purest, most incandescent experience of receiving facts imbued with moral clarity arising out of a submerged moral outrage. Perhaps I was affected because during the events being described I was dealing with a bureaucracy intent to induct me into the US Army, to be fed into the meat grinder of the Vietnam War, for 1968 to 1970.

I have never read a clearer description of colonial management (how the “white men” controlled “the natives”) than Chomsky gives in At War With Asia. From it one understood how the British had ruled India, and it opened my eyes as to how the “white men” in the U.S. today rule “the natives” (the ethnic minorities and the low economic classes, including the “white trash”), by stoking inter-group tensions (between ethnic groups in the colonies of prior centuries, and between groups based on economic class, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality in today’s “homeland”).

The greater part of At War With Asia deals with the massive and barbaric US aerial bombardment of northern Laos, in the Plain Of Jars. ... Chomsky’s focus and passion were so intense in this book, and yet the language is kept so reasoned and calm, that the effect on me was as if I suddenly awoke to the fact that while I was walking through a quiet summer scene, beneath me a raging magma chamber was expanding to explode. Were the subject matter less dire, I would say this book was pure poetry. In fact it was a restrained expression of a passionate — magmatic — compassion.

Chomsky is obviously a genius, a person born with great talent, and he is also a person of supreme dedication. ...
I also recommend the essay When Chomsky Wept, by Fred Branfman:
... we both had one of the most unique experiences of our lives — he on the back of my motorcycle, me driving him about the streets of Vientiane, as he sought to learn as much as he could about U.S. war-making in Laos, still at that point largely unknown to the world outside. It was only in the next month that Richard Nixon finally admitted for the first time that the U.S. had been bombing Laos for the previous six years, though he and Henry Kissinger continued to lie by claiming that the bombing was only striking military targets.

I have a number of particularly vivid memories of Noam from our week together. One was watching him read a newspaper. He would gaze at a page, seem to memorize it, and then a second later turn it and gaze at the next page. On one occasion I gave him a 500-page book to read on the war in Laos at about 10 at night, and met him the next morning at breakfast prior to our visit to political officer Jim Murphy at the U.S. Embassy. During the interview the issue of the number of North Vietnamese troops in Laos came up. The Embassy claimed that 50,000 had invaded Laos, when the evidence clearly showed there were no more than a few thousand. I almost fell off my chair when Noam quoted a footnote making that point, several hundred pages in, from the book I had given him the night before. I had heard the term “photographic memory” before. But I had never seen it so much in action, or put to such good use. (Interestingly enough, Jim showed Noam internal Embassy documents also confirming the lower number, which Noam later cited in his long chapter on Laos in “At War With Asia.”)

I was also struck by his self-deprecation. He had a near-aversion to talking about himself — contrary to most of the “Big Foot” journalists I had met. He had little interest in small talk, gossip or discussion of personalities, and was focused almost entirely on the issues at hand. He downplayed his linguistic work, saying it was unimportant compared to opposing the mass murder going on in Indochina. He had no interest whatsoever in checking out Vientiane’s notorious nightlife, tourist sites or relaxing by the pool. He was clearly driven, a man on a mission. He struck me as a genuine intellectual, a guy who lived in his head. And I could relate. I also lived in my head, and had a mission.

But what most struck me by far was what occurred when we traveled out to a camp that housed refugees from the Plain of Jars. I had taken dozens of journalists and other folks out to the camps at that point, and found that almost all were emotionally distanced from the refugees’ suffering. Whether CBS’s Bernard Kalb, NBC’s Welles Hangen, or the New York Times’ Sidney Schanberg, the journalists listened politely, asked questions, took notes and then went back to their hotels to file their stories. They showed little emotion or interest in what the villagers had been through other than what they needed to write their stories. Our talks in the car back to their hotels usually concerned either dinner that night or the next day’s events.

I was thus stunned when, as I was translating Noam’s questions and the refugees’ answers, I suddenly saw him break down and begin weeping. I was struck not only that most of the others I had taken out to the camps had been so defended against what was, after all, this most natural, human response. It was that Noam himself had seemed so intellectual to me, to so live in a world of ideas, words and concepts, had so rarely expressed any feelings about anything. I realized at that moment that I was seeing into his soul. And the visual image of him weeping in that camp has stayed with me ever since. When I think of Noam this is what I see.

One of the reasons his reaction so struck me was that he did not know those Laotians. It was relatively easy for me, having lived among them and loved people like Paw Thou so much, to commit to trying to stop the bombing. But I have stood in awe not only of Noam, but of the many thousands of Americans who spent so many years of their lives trying to stop the killing of Indochinese they did not know in a war they never saw.

As we drove back from the camp that day, he remained quiet, still shaken by what he had learned. He had written extensively of U.S. war-making in Indochina before this. But this was the first time he had met its victims face-to-face. And in the silence, an unspoken bond that we have never discussed was forged between us. ...
Let me qualify this post by noting that some of Chomsky's writing on other topics seems simply crazy to me. But on Vietnam and Laos he was right.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Universities ranked by SAT/ACT scores

Jonathan Wai and Max Nisen rank US universities by student ability level as measured by SAT/ACT for BusinessInsider (methodology). Note I think using SAT/ACT disadvantages Caltech/MIT because the ceiling on the math component is lower than for the verbal, and many (almost all?) techers hit that ceiling. An alternative method using a higher ceiling test would yield improved rankings for STEM focused schools.

I always guessed that the Caltech undergraduate cognitive ability threshold was roughly few per thousand (perhaps even 1 in 1000) in the general population. Although the kids are smart there is still a broad distribution on campus in the ability to learn core subjects like the required two years of math and physics (keep in mind -- these are Caltech-level courses!). Based on my experience I would guess that the threshold ability to understand (for example) quantum mechanics is pretty high. A good chunk of the Caltech class doesn't grasp QM despite taking a year of it as sophomores -- and these are hard working, self-selected kids, in addition to being very smart. In our U Oregon study of psychometric thresholds, we found that kids in the top 1% of math ability (say, SAT-M > 750) had only a 50% chance of graduating in the physics major with more A's than B's -- i.e., in-major GPA > 3.5. Note, thanks to grade inflation the in-major average GPA in physics, as in other majors at Oregon and at other public universities (vs even higher averages at private schools), is something like 3.2, so 3.5 is not a high threshold (about +0.5 SD).

In other words, asking someone to explain Schrodinger's equation and the two slit experiment to you is probably a better verification of high end cognitive ability than any standardized test. (I wrote verification because understanding of QM is a sufficient but not necessary indicator of brainpower... some very smart people never study QM ... too bad for them!)

Here's what Vernon Smith (Nobel Prize in econ; started as a physics major at Caltech but bailed into EE and then econ ;-) had to say:
The first thing to which one has to adapt is the fact that no matter how high people might sample in the right tail of the distribution for "intelligence," ... that sample is still normally distributed in performing on the materials in the Caltech curriculum. The second thing you learn, if you were reared with my naive background, is the incredible arrogance that develops in conjunction with the acquisition of what you ultimately come to realize is a really very, very small bit of knowledge compared with our vast human ignorance. ... the difference between Harvard and Caltech: "At Harvard they believe they are the best in the world; at Caltech they know they are the best in the world."

Thursday, September 12, 2013

So long, Voyager!

Voyager 1 has left the solar system -- the first space probe from Earth to do so. Like other US deep space probes, it was made at Caltech's JPL, and carries with it the secret message: DEI or "Dabney Eats It"  :-)

They say DEI was written on the moon by Caltech alumnus and astronaut Harrison Schmitt (the twelfth and last man to walk on the moon), but I don't know whether this is true.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Caltech Institute for Quantum Information and Matter

IQIM is the home of John Preskill, the Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Caltech. John was celebrated on the occasion of his 60th birthday here.

Dinner meeting with the group.

Working in the Pasadena sunshine.

Inside the Annenberg Center.

On the first floor there are some old plaques, including this one honoring Chris Chang :-)

Some random Caltech photos I took. Go Beavers!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Ken Wilson, dead at 77

Wilson was a hero to many, many theoretical physicists, including me. Wilson's father did his PhD with Linus Pauling, Wilson with Murray Gell-Mann, both at Caltech (see Defining Merit). To Wilson we owe much of our modern understanding of renormalization, effective field theory, phase transitions, lattice quantum field theory, and, of course, the renormalization group.
NYTimes: ... His colleagues hailed Dr. Wilson as a legend who had changed how theoretical physicists went about their work, especially in particle physics, the study of the elementary and fundamental constituents of nature. He was also a pioneer in using computers and then supercomputers to study the properties of quarks, the building blocks of protons and neutrons.

“He’s a giant in theoretical physics,” said Frank Wilczek, a Nobelist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, calling his work “quite profound.”

Steven Weinberg, a Nobel winner at the University of Texas at Austin, said, “Ken Wilson was one of a very small number of physicists who changed the way we all think, not just about specific phenomena, but about a vast range of different phenomena.”

Kenneth Geddes Wilson was born on June 8, 1936, in Waltham, Mass., the first of three children of Edgar and Emily Buckingham Wilson. His father was a chemist at Harvard. His mother had been a physics graduate student before marrying. One grandfather was an engineering professor at M.I.T. and the other the speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives.

Kenneth Wilson entered Harvard at 16, majored in math and was the Ivy League mile champion. He obtained his Ph.D. at the California Institute of Technology under the legendary theorist Murray Gell-Mann, then did postdoctoral studies at Harvard as a junior fellow that included a year at CERN, the European nuclear research organization in Geneva. He joined Cornell as a physics professor in 1963.

... From the start, Dr. Wilson was drawn to difficult problems that could take years to solve, said Kurt Gottfried, a Cornell colleague. One such problem was phase transitions, the passage from water to steam or atoms lining up to make a magnet. At the critical point — the temperature at which the change happens — orderly behavior breaks down, but theorists had few clues to how to calculate what was happening.

Dr. Wilson realized that the key to the problem was that fluctuations were happening on all scales at once — from the jostling and zooming of individual atoms to the oscillations of the entire system — something conventional theory could not handle.

At the heart of Dr. Wilson’s work was an abstruse mathematical apparatus known as the renormalization group, which had been conceived by his thesis adviser, Dr. Gell-Mann, and Francis Low in 1951. They had pointed out that fundamental properties of particles and forces varied depending on the scale over which they are measured.

Dr. Wilson realized that such “scaling” was intrinsic to the problems in phase transitions. In a series of papers in the early 1970s, building on the work of Michael Fisher and Benjamin Widom at Cornell and Leo Kadanoff, then at the University of Chicago, he applied the renormalization idea to show how the critical phenomena could be solved by dividing the problem up into simpler pieces, so that what was happening at the melting point, for example, could be considered on one scale at a time.

The results showed that many seemingly unrelated systems — from magnets to liquids — could exhibit the same characteristic behavior as they approached the critical point. The concept proved to be of wide relevance in physics and was cited by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in presenting the Nobel.

Dr. Wilson went on to apply the same divide-and-conquer strategy to quantum field theory, the mathematical language that underlies the study of the most elementary particles and fundamental forces in nature. The theory was plagued by such vexing issues as infinities and other mathematical absurdities when physicists tried to calculate something like the mass of an electron. A method had been developed to work around these anomalies, but many physicists worried that they were just sweeping a fatal flaw in physics under the rug and that, in the words of Dr. Wilczek, “quantum field theory was doomed.”

Dr. Wilson’s new technique banished the infinities for good, putting the theory on a sounder footing. As the Caltech physicist John Preskill put it in a blog post, “Wilson changed that.”

Dr. Wilson’s ideas played a major role in the development of quantum chromodynamics, the branch of quantum theory that describes the behavior of quarks and the gluons that stick them together to form protons and neutrons. In 1974, in order to solve the equations of this theory numerically and gain a more precise understanding of this process, he invented a digitized version of the theory called lattice gauge theory, in which space is imagined as a kind of finely resolved jungle gym where every intersection of the bars represents a point in space-time.
From Wilson's 1982 Nobel Lecture:
... When I entered graduate school at California Institute of Technology, in 1956, the default for the most promising students was to enter elementary particle theory, the field in which Murray Gell-Mann, Richard Feynman, and Jon Mathews were all engaged. I rebelled briefly against this default, spending a summer at the General Atomic Corp. working for Marshall Rosenbluth on plasma physics and talking with S. Chandresekhar who was also at General Atomic for the summer. After about a month of work I was ordered to write up my results, as a result of which I swore to myself that I would choose a subject for research where it would take at least five years before I had anything worth writing about. Elementary particle theory seemed to offer the best prospects of meeting this criterion and I asked Murray for a problem to work on.

... In 1960 I turned in a thesis to Cal Tech containing a mish-mash of curious calculations. I was already a Junior Fellow at Harvard. In 1962 I went to CERN for a year. ... By 1963 it was clear that the only subject I wanted to pursue was quantum field theory applied to strong interactions. I rejected S matrix theory because the equations of S matrix theory, even if one could write them down, were too complicated and inelegant to be a theory; in contrast the existence of a strong coupling approximation as well as a weak coupling approximation to fixed source meson theory helped me believe that quantum field theory might make sense. As far as strong interactions were concerned, all that one could say was that the theories one could write down, such as pseudoscalar meson theory, were obviously wrong. No one had any idea of a theory that could be correct. One could make these statements even though no one had the foggiest notion how to solve these theories in the strong coupling domain.

... When I entered graduate school, I had carried out the instructions given to me by my father and had knocked on both Murray Gell-Mann’s and Feynman’s doors, and asked them what they were currently doing. Murray wrote down the partition function for the three dimensional Ising model and said it would be nice if I could solve it (at least that is how I remember the conversation). Feynman’s answer was “nothing”.

... My very strong desire to work in quantum field did not seem likely to lead to quick publications; but I had already found out that I seemed to be able to get jobs even if I didn’t publish anything so I did not worry about ‘publish or perish’ questions.

... This work showed me that a renormalization group transformation, whose purpose was to eliminate an energy scale or a length scale or whatever from a problem, could produce an effective interaction with arbitrarily many coupling constants, without being a disaster. The renormalization group formalism based on fixed points could still be correct, and furthermore one could hope that only a small finite number of these couplings would be important for the qualitative behavior of the transformations, with the remaining couplings being important only for quantitative computations. In other words the couplings should have an order of importance, and for any desired but given degree of accuracy only a finite subset of the couplings would be needed. In my model the order of importance was determined by orders in the expansion in powers of l/L. ...
From Wilson's Nobel biographical entry:
... My schooling took place in Wellesley, Woods Hole, Massachusetts (second, third/fourth grades in two years), Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Mass. (from fifth to eighth grade), ninth grade at the Magdalen College School in Oxford, England, and tenth and twelfth grades (skipping the eleventh) at the George School in eastern Pennsylvania. Before the year in England I had read about mathematics and physics in books supplied by my father and his friends. I learned the basic principle of calculus from Mathematics and Imagination by Kasner and Newman, and went of to work through a calculus text, until I got stuck in a chapter on involutes and evolutes. Around this time I decided to become a physicist. Later (before entering college) I remember working on symbolic logic with my father; he also tried, unsuccessfully, to teach me group theory. I found high school dull. In 1952 I entered Harvard. I majored in mathematics, but studied physics (both by intent), participated in the Putnam Mathematics competition, and ran the mile for the track team (and crosscountry as well). I began research, working summers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, especially for Arnold Arons (then based at Amherst).

My graduate studies were carried out at the California Institute of Technology. I spent two years in the Kellogg Laboratory of nuclear physics, gaining experimental experience while taking theory courses; I then worked on a thesis for Murray Gell-Mann. While at Cal Tech I talked a lot with Jon Mathews, then a junior faculty member; he taught me how to use the Institute's computer; we also went on hikes together. I spent a summer at the General Atomic Company in San Diego working with Marshall Rosenbluth in plasma physics. Another summer Donald Groom (then a fellow graduate student) and I hiked the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada from Yosemite Park to Mt. Whitney. After my third year I went off to Harvard to be a Junior Fellow while Gell-Mann went off to Paris. During the first year of the fellowship I went back to Cal Tech for a few months to finish my thesis. There was relatively little theoretical activity at Harvard at the time; I went often to M.I.T. to use their computer and eat lunch with the M.I.T. theory group, led by Francis Low.
IIRC Gell-Mann was twice nominated for the Society of Fellows and twice rejected! Was there ever a bigger mistake in personnel selection? :-) On the other hand, John Bardeen (JF '35) twice won the Nobel Prize in physics (once for the transistor, once for superconductivity), so the selection process must have something going for it! See these slides from a talk by Howard Georgi for some more details about theoretical physics at Harvard in the 1970s.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Gell-Mann, Feynman, Hawking

Murray Gell-Mann on his relationship with Feynman.

See also Gell-Mann, Feynman, Everett.

I had only one memorable encounter with Murray while I was a student at Caltech. On the other hand I have quite a few memories of Feynman, who enjoyed interacting with students. I don't really blame Murray for not being particularly interested in students. The gap between him and us must have been (and still is) quite vast :-)

Hawking was on campus and was giving a kind of "secret" (not advertised) seminar in the medium sized lecture room on the second floor of Lauritsen. In those days Hawking could sort of talk, although only people who had worked closely with him could understand what he was saying. Nick Warner, at that time a postdoc at Caltech, was Hawking's interpreter. Hawking would gurgle briefly, and Nick would translate (decompress?) the message as Consider a 4-manifold endowed with a metric ...  drawing a blob on the blackboard and even writing equations. I could never figure out how this communication worked because what Nick said was so much more elaborate than the brief gurgle from Hawking. Perhaps the gurgle messages were something like Give the setup for the no-boundary wavefunction on a Euclidean 4-manifold!

They were filming the lecture for a documentary. A statuesque blonde woman in a tank top and jeans was holding a boom mike (microphone attached to long white plastic tube), standing in the aisle next to my seat. To keep the mike off camera she had both arms extended above her head with her chest thrust forward in a dramatic posture. Murray was seated directly ahead of me, and he couldn't keep his eyes on the lecture. He spent the first 15 minutes craning his neck to look at the chest display of boom mike girl. But he must have been half listening because at some point he got agitated about what Nick was saying and jumped up to disagree. He ran to the blackboard and hijacked the lecture from the postdoc and the guy in a wheelchair to explain his ideas about the wavefunction of the universe. After holding the speaker, interpreter and audience hostage for about 10 minutes, he relinquished the chalk and sat back down to resume peeking over his shoulder. That's my most vivid memory of Murray.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods

An earlier post, Discrete genetic modules can control complex behavior, described genetic control of burrowing behavior in deer mice. A reader commented that the results were entirely unsurprising. I wasn't aware of similar results in mammals, but of course this sort of thing has long been known in drosophila, thanks to Seymour Benzer and collaborators.

WSJ: ... When the great California Institute of Technology geneticist Seymour Benzer set out in the mid-1960s to find mutations in fruit flies that affected behavior, rather than mere anatomy, he was ridiculed for challenging the consensus that all behavior must be learned.

Benzer told the geneticist Max Delbrück about the plan to find behavioral mutants; Delbrück said it was impossible. To which Benzer replied: "But, Max, we found the gene, we've already done it!" (Benzer's mother was more succinct: "From this, you can make a living?") He was soon able to identify mutations related to hyperexcitability, learning, homosexuality and unusual circadian rhythms, like his own: Benzer was almost wholly nocturnal.

Since then, thanks to studies of human twins and a rash of genetic investigations in animals, it has become routinely accepted that most things, including personality, sexual orientation and intelligence, are to some degree affected by genes. The University of Virginia's Eric Turkheimer has declared what he calls the "first law of behavior genetics": that all human behavioral traits are heritable.

Benzer started in solid state physics, migrated to molecular biology, and then to neuroscience.
Caltech Oral History:  ... I had my nose on the transistor. It’s like Max Delbrück [professor of biology at Caltech; d. 1981] failed to discover fission, and he had it under his nose. [Laughter] I failed to discover the transistor, because I had three electrodes in there, and I was measuring things—using one to measure what the other one was doing—but I never had the idea of trying to use that arrangement as an amplifier. Instead, I had a different idea; I had the idea of making a crystal amplifier, but it was too sophisticated. It was based on putting a metal layer on top of a semiconductor and using a tunnel effect to control the current that’s passing through, but I never got it to work. Instead, the Bell Labs guy did the most simpleminded thing, which was to have just these two wires next to each other and have one influence the other. It escaped me, and it was under my nose. Some time later, there was a big demonstration of it at Bell Labs. These guys grabbed me and said, “You should have done this.” [Laughter] And they were right. But, you know, maybe to some extent, because I was already into biology at that time, I wasn’t really focused on that problem. Of course, being a graduate student and not being all that able or having big resources [played a role]. But by the time I got my Ph.D. in 1947, I was already interested in biology.

Aspaturian: What had happened?

Benzer: I was always interested in biology. But two things happened. One of the guys in the lab — his name was Lou [Louis L.] Boyarsky—told me about mapping genes on chromosomes, the work that had been done here at Caltech by [Alfred H.] Sturtevant and [Thomas Hunt] Morgan and their group. I thought that was very exciting. And then I read this book by [Erwin] Schrödinger, written around 1944, called What Is Life?, which inspired a number of other people as well—Francis Crick, for one. Max Delbrück was in the book—he had been at Caltech in the thirties, switching from physics to biology—and there’s a chapter in there on Delbrück’s model of mutation. ...

Aspaturian: What brought you to Caltech, the first time you came?

Benzer: During the sixties, I was getting more and more interested in behavior. One reason was my two children. I have two daughters with very different personalities. If you have one daughter, you don’t notice anything, but if you have a second one, you begin to wonder, “Are we doing things differently, or is it genetic?” So I got interested in this general problem of personality and behavior—how much is genetics and how much is environment? And how do you study such a problem? I had actually begun to be interested even before that time. There was a meeting about ’63, I think, at Cold Spring Harbor, where I remember having a conversation with Marshall Nirenberg. We had this feeling that all the molecular biology problems were on the verge of being solved. It was a little bit like the physicists at the end of the nineteenth century saying, “All we have left to do is one more decimal place.” Little did we anticipate all the recombinant DNA technology. So that was another part of it, the fact that molecular biology was going so well, becoming rather crowded. When things get to that stage, you wonder why you should be doing something somebody else is already doing. It’s just redundant. ...

Aspaturian: Would you say that Drosophila is about the most complex organism with which you can get really rigorous results in this kind of research?

Benzer: Well, I don’t know. It depends on what you want to study. You can get rigorous results with humans now. Modern technology makes it almost as easy to work with humans as with flies, and that’s why I have the courage to get into the human business now.

Aspaturian: But there are so many more behaviors to look at in humans.

Benzer: Humans are wonderful. There’s a book on viewing disorders of man, containing 4,000 hereditary disorders in humans, one or two thousand of which have been actually mapped on the chromosome. Many of these have behavioral components, and hundreds affect the eye. There’s a similar book on Drosophila. And we’re finding that more and more of the genes correspond to one another.
See also this video interview of Benzer. Among other things, he discusses specific mutations that control sexual behavior in drosophila (e.g., length of copulation, courtship), learning ability, memory, etc. Of course, these are just flies  ;-)

For more on Max Delbruck, see For the historians and the ladies; for more on physicists and early molecular biology, see The Eighth Day of Creation.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Myth of American Meritocracy

Ron Unz has performed an exhaustive analysis of elite university admissions in The Myth of American Meritocracy (December issue of the American Conservative). He finds strong evidence for de facto quotas on Asian-Americans at Ivy League universities. See below for a brief summary. I suggest reading his entire article, which is filled with additional insights, including one rather shocking surprise. Don't miss the statistical supplement.

Asian-American Quotas at Ivy League Universities?

November 28, 2012 - America’s elite Ivy League universities appear to follow a de facto Asian-American admissions quota policy according to “The Myth of American Meritocracy,”a 30,000-word cover story in the December issue of The American Conservative by publisher Ron Unz.

Unz provides detailed statistical evidence that the pattern of Asian-American enrollment over the last two decades is remarkably similar to what followed the establishment of Ivy League Jewish quotas in the mid-1920s. Soon after the U.S. Department of Justice closed its early 1990s investigation into allegations of anti-Asian admissions bias at the Ivy League:
  • Asian-American numbers at Harvard, Yale, and Columbia began large declines. 
  • Asian-American enrollments throughout the Ivy League strangely converged to very similar levels. 
  • The college-age population of Asian-Americans doubled during 1993-2011 as did their top academic awards, but none of this was reflected in their Ivy League enrollments. 
  • As one example, the percentage of college-age Asian-Americans at Harvard dropped by more than 50% during 1993-2011, a larger decline than that suffered by Jews following the 1925 establishment of ethnic quotas. 
  • Meanwhile, race-neutral Caltech saw its Asian-American enrollment increase closely in line with the growth of the college-age Asian-American population. 
  • Comparing the Ivy League enrollments of Asian-Americans with those of high-performing white subpopulations rules out general “diversity” factors as an explanation for these patterns.

See also Defining Merit. Guess which university produces the most Nobel prizes per student?

Some additional figures from the article (click for larger versions). Note that not only did the number of college age Asian-Americans increase in recent decades, so did (overwhelmingly) their performance at the high end of academic achievement. If admissions were race neutral (meritocratic) at Harvard, why did the percentage of Asians decrease?

The Caltech student population is demographically similar to the most intellectually talented portion of the US population (see below); the Ivy League student population is not -- there are curious distortions.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The normaliens

In an earlier post I mentioned that Serge Harouche (2012 Nobel Prize in physics) is a normalien: a graduate of France's Ecole Normale Superieure. Admission to ENS is strictly meritocratic, based on a competitive exam. The result: 12 Nobel Prize laureates and 10 Fields Medalists from a school with fewer than a thousand undergraduates. (The school is similar in size to Caltech; smaller than most high schools.)

See Defining Merit for the story of Harvard's internal debates of the 1950's, during which a realistic and shrewd admissions dean faced down idealistic faculty committees that wanted to make Harvard more meritocratic.
"Do we want an Ecole Normale Superieure, a 'cerebral school' ... ?"

"What's wrong with Harvard being regarded as an egghead college? Isn't it right that a country the size of the United States should be able to afford one university in which intellectual achievement is the most important consideration?"

Thursday, October 04, 2012

The Christy Gadget

Christy was one of the last Manhattan Project survivors.
NYTimes: Robert F. Christy, who as a young Canadian-born physicist working on the Manhattan Project came up with a critical insight that led to the creation of the world’s first atom bomb, died on Wednesday at his home in Pasadena, Calif. He was 96.

... The first bomb, developed in secrecy during World War II at Los Alamos, N.M., relied on implosion. The plan was to detonate a sphere of conventional explosives, the blast from which would compress a central ball of nuclear fuel into an incredibly dense mass; that in turn would start a chain reaction that would end in a nuclear explosion.

But the Los Alamos team discovered that the interface between the detonating explosives and the hollow sphere could become unstable and ruin the crushing power of the blast wave.

Dr. Christy, while studying implosion tests, realized that a solid core could be compressed far more uniformly, and he worked hard in the days that followed to convince his colleagues of its superiority. He succeeded, and the hollow core was replaced with one made of solid plutonium metal.

A 1993 book, “Critical Assembly,” sponsored by the Department of Energy, which maintains the nation’s nuclear arsenal, said Dr. Christy’s insight reduced the risk that the core would lose its spherical form and thus fail to explode.

And Robert S. Norris, an atomic historian and the author of “Racing for the Bomb,” called Dr. Christy’s breakthrough, known as the Christy pit, “a conservative solution to a problem they were having” that “increased the likelihood of a successful detonation.”

[ The bomb itself was called the "Christy Gadget". ]

Robert Frederick Christy was born May 14, 1916, in Vancouver and studied physics at the University of British Columbia. He was a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, under J. Robert Oppenheimer, a leading theoretical physicist who became known as the father of the atomic bomb.

After completing his studies in 1941, Dr. Christy worked at the University of Chicago before being recruited to join the Los Alamos team when Oppenheimer became its scientific director.

After the war, Dr. Christy joined Caltech in theoretical physics and stayed at the university for the rest of his academic career, serving as a faculty chairman, vice president, provost (from 1970 to 1980) and acting president (1977-78). He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
Caltech Oral History:
Then, in the examinations at the end of grade twelve, they gave us general exams — and this was given to the whole province of British Columbia ... I could get top marks in anything, in that kind of exam. So I got the highest marks on these exams of anyone in the province.

Friday, August 17, 2012

"For the historians and the ladies"

The excerpts below are from interviews with Benoit Mandelbrot.

On the birth of molecular biology under Max Delbruck at Caltech:
I would say the more important event was quite outside of my life's work, the arrival of Max Delbruck. Now Max Delbruck was, I think, one of the great personalities of those times. He was a physicist by training, a man belonging to one of the very highest families in Prussia, in many ways a great liberal, in many ways a great authoritarian. 
Max Delbruck had been told in the '30s, according to rumour, that he was just not good enough to be doing physics as well as he hoped; that while Bethe would spend a few hours and write seventeen pages of flawless mathematics, and Weisskopf wrote only fifteen, but equally flawless - and Pauli always preferred Bethe to Weisskopf because of this difference - well, Delbruck only wrote five and there were bugs to fix. He was not up to this competition, which he was finding himself in. 
But he had branched into biology, the first physicist (to do so). Schrödinger had written about him in his book What Is Life? Delbruck had suddenly become a challenge. And the challenge was met by an equally remarkable man named Beadle who was a farmer from Nebraska who had gone to university to learn more about corn to improve the yield of his farm and moved on, and by that time had become the chairman of the Biology division at Caltech. Beadle was a very bold person. He hired Delbruck, who knew no biology, and told him, "You go and learn biology by teaching Biology One to freshmen, and then go on and do your thing," - which was to introduce quantum mechanics ideas into biology. 
Now, I never knew what they were doing. They were very - I wouldn't say secretive, they were just a little elusive. They never said what they were doing. Well it was clear they were doing something extraordinarily exciting which for me was again this very strong hope of bringing hard mathematical or physical thinking to a field, which had been very soft before.
"For the historians and the ladies"; saved by Oppenheimer and von Neumann:
... I met Oppenheimer now and then, and then saw him in a train from Princeton to New York. We chatted. He asked me what I was doing, and I explained to him what I was doing. He became extraordinarily excited. He said, "It's fantastic. It's extraordinary, that you could have found a way of applying, genuinely thinking of applying thermodynamics to something so different, and that you find everything will be decided upon analytic properties like partition function," and of course he understood instantly. 
And he asked me to give a lecture, and he said, "Make it a lecture in the evening, for the historians and the ladies." Those were his words. "Make it easy." 
So one evening, which was fixed with his secretary, I came up and I was expecting to find "historians and ladies." To my surprise, Oppenheimer was there. I tried to block his way, and he went, "No, I'm very much interested.' And then Von Neumann came. I said, "You know my story completely. I didn't prepare a lecture for you." "Well," he says, "perhaps not, but I'm the chairman and the discussion may be interesting." Now, the lecture was, again, to explain to this group that the kind of thinking represented by thermodynamics, as Tolman had made me understand it, could be applied outside and that in a way the abyss between, how to say, humanities and sciences was something you could bridge. That was Oppenheimer's idea, or something like it. 
Well, I saw all these great men and their spouses arriving, and my heart sank to my heels. I became totally incoherent. I had prepared a very simplified lecture, which I could not do at that age - I could do it now, perhaps, but not then. I tried to change it into a lecture for them. They started falling asleep and snoring. It was a horrible sight. I stopped after forty-five minutes saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your attention," etc., etc. Mild applause. Von Neumann stands up and says, "Any questions?" Dead silence. Then a friend asked a question. "Any other question?" Dead silence. Another friend asked a question. And when Von Neumann was about to close the lecture, somebody named Otto Neumenbour stands up in the last row and says, "I have, not a question, but a statement. This is the worst lecture I have attended in my life. I have not understood one word the speaker said. I don't see any relation with the title," and he went on like that, until Oppenheimer stopped him. "Otto, Otto. Please, let me respond, if Dr Mandelbrot would be so kind as to allow me to respond instead for him. The title is very unfortunate. I gave it to my secretary. Dr Mandelbrot should have changed it to be more appropriate. As to the content, well, it may well be that he didn't make justice to his own work, but I believe I understand his every word, and he has a point." 
Now he went on into the celebrated Oppenheimer lecture. In fact he was the fear of any lecturer in physics - after he had struggled for an hour explaining things, Oppenheimer would stand up and say, "Well, if I understand correctly, this is what you said." In ten minutes he would speak flawlessly - finished sentences and everything! At that time everybody woke up. They said, "That miserable lecturer, he was trying to say these things!" Well, then when he sat down, Von Neumann stood up and said, "Well, I too have some comments to make about Dr Mandelbrot's lecture. We've had a number of interesting discussions and it may well be that he didn't do much justice to his work." Well, it was an abominable lecture, and he went on in his style which was very different, explaining what he saw in my work and why it was interesting, why this and that. Well, needless to say, I was taken in time by my friends to the only place in Princeton that served beer at that time. 
Next day I went to see to Neumenbour, when I entered he said, "Oh, I'm very sorry. I made a fool of myself yesterday. Please excuse me," etc., etc. (I replied) "No, I am coming to thank you. It was you, in a way, that started the real lecture." Well, so you see what was happening was that Von Neumann - and Oppenheimer, I think- understood what I was trying to do, and Von Neumann wanted to encourage me very strongly.
Note added: In this Caltech oral history, Delbruck recalls that at one point he was studying Fisher's The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, and mentioned this to a visitor from the Rockefeller Foundation (the sponsor of Delbruck's fellowship at the time). He was immediately offered the chance to work with Fisher, but decided to go to Caltech (as a postdoc; he was hired back as a professor some years later) instead. Also, see comments for corrections to Mandelbrot's story from a biologist.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Curiosity has landed

The crazy sky crane landing worked!

First images of Mars from the nuclear powered rover. Check out the laser armed robot's menacing shadow :-)

Geeks exuberant!


Landing in progress, captured by MRO (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter).

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Science and Engineering PhDs per hundred graduates

Interesting NSF data showing which undergraduate institutions' students are most likely to go on to earn science and engineering PhDs. (Click for larger graphic.)

Which institution produces the largest number US PhDs in absolute terms? See here.

Science 11 July 2008: A new study has found that the most likely undergraduate alma mater for those who earned a Ph.D. in 2006 from a U.S. university was … Tsinghua University. Peking University, its neighbor in the Chinese capital, ranks second. Between 2004 and 2006, those two schools overtook the University of California, Berkeley, as the most fertile training ground for U.S. Ph.D.s (see graph). South Korea's Seoul National University occupies fourth place behind Berkeley, followed by Cornell University and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

The normalized figure for Berkeley is about 6% -- six times lower than Caltech.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Instagram story

I was shocked at the $1B Instagram acquisition, but then again I'm not exactly up to speed on the latest in iPhone apps or social networking. This Times article gives some background. Although the article stresses founder Kevin Systrom's Stanford connections, it seems like the go to guy was really a Caltecher ;-)
NYTimes: Past midnight, in a dimly lighted warehouse jutting into the San Francisco Bay, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger introduced something they had been working on for weeks: a photo-sharing iPhone application called Instagram. What happened next was crazier than they could have imagined.

In a matter of hours, thousands downloaded it. The computer systems handling the photos kept crashing. Neither of them knew what to do.

“Who’s, like, the smartest person I know who I can call up?” Mr. Systrom remembered thinking. He scrolled through his phone and found his man: Adam D’Angelo, a former chief technology officer at Facebook. They had met at a party seven years earlier, over beers in red plastic cups, at the Sigma Nu fraternity at Stanford University. That night in October 2010, Mr. D’Angelo became Instagram’s lifeline.

... For Mr. Systrom, the connections forged at Stanford were crucial.

Mr. D’Angelo, a 2006 graduate of the California Institute of Technology, helped him find engineers, set up databases and flesh out features. Soon after Instagram came out of the box, he put his money into it.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Time machines, robots and silicon gods

The NY Times has a great profile of Gil Elbaz, founder of the startup which eventually became Google AdSense.

Elbaz's early aspirations sound like those of other Caltechers, except perhaps the part about being rich :-)

NYTimes: AT 7 years old, Gilad Elbaz wrote, “I want to be a rich mathematician and very smart.” That, he figured, would help him “discover things like time machines, robots and machines that can answer any question.”

He is old enough to have experienced the horribly dull pre-internet technology world. Young people these days can't imagine how much more limited opportunities were then for people with math/sci/engineering ability. From the article, Elbaz definitely had an entrepreneurial bent already as a kid.

... At Caltech, Mr. Elbaz majored in applied science and economics. Interested in the subject of monopolies, he won an award for a paper that determined that companies would take financial losses to corner their markets.

He worked for I.B.M. for two years, looking at the use of computers in problems of manufacturing, then went to Sybase, a database company. This was in the early 1990s, when I.B.M. was stumbling in the transition from mainframe computers to servers and PCs.

His younger brother says he thinks that the experience changed him. Many employees were “just trying to hold on to their jobs, not working together for the company,” Eytan says. He recalls how Gil, concerned about how employees were hoarding their data, “started talking about how much better it would be if people shared data.”

Mr. Elbaz then joined a semiconductor start-up called Microunity and became a consultant, saving money and playing the stock market to help finance his own first business. His father gave him $10,000 to invest for him, which Mr. Elbaz tripled in 18 months. When Mr. Elbaz and a Caltech friend decided to form a company in 1998 — it became Applied Semantics — his father told him to put the stock winnings into it.

Applied Semantics software quickly scanned thousands of Web pages for their meaning. By parsing content, it could tell businesses what kind of ads would work well on a particular page. It had 45 employees and was profitable when Google acquired it in 2003 for $102 million in cash and pre-I.P.O. stock.

While Mr. Elbaz would not say how much he made from the deal, his father’s $30,000 from the stock investments was eventually worth $18 million. “He certainly changed my retirement,” Nissim Elbaz says.

When I met Elbaz a few years ago, I have to admit I thought the business model for his current startup Factual was kind of shaky. Although I'm a proponent of Big Data, doing stuff that is technically cool is not the same as creating economic value. My understanding from someone at WolframAlpha is that cleaning and "curating" data is a lot of work!

... His mental and financial assets, he says, are like gifts he needs to deploy so the world works better.

“If all data was clear, a lot fewer people would subtract value from the world,” he says. “A lot more people would add value.”

Creating clear, reliable data could also make Factual a very big company.

“Gil is pretty far ahead of the rest of us, the one entrepreneur where it takes a few meetings before I really understand everything he is talking about,” says Ben Horowitz, a venture capitalist who backed Factual through his firm, Andreessen Horowitz. “Three years ago, he thought Factual was his biggest chance to change the world. Over time, the world has moved his way.”

... Factual’s plan, outlined in a big orange room with a few tables and walled with whiteboards, is to build the world’s chief reference point for thousands of interconnected supercomputing clouds. The digital world is expected to hold a collective 2.7 zettabytes of data by year-end, an amount roughly equivalent to 700 billion DVDs. Factual, which now has 50 employees, could prove immensely valuable as this world grows and these databases begin to interact.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Hurray for the little guy

I actually spent more time at Harvard than at Caltech, and the former paid me generously to be there while the latter charged me tuition. But I still root for the geeky underdog :-)

My Caltech graduating class was 186 kids. How many schools that size can compete with Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley or Cambridge in anything?

A reasonable university ranking metric should have components that are normalized to size. For example, the number of citations or publications or research dollars per professor (or per student) is more informative than the absolute number. Otherwise schools with 50 or 100 thousand students would have a misleading advantage over smaller schools. But once you try to adjust your metrics to take this into account it is very hard to keep Caltech from coming out as number one. You basically have to cook the books ;-)

TimesHigherEducation: ... In the eight years that Times Higher Education has published a global university ranking, one thing had always seemed unassailable: Harvard University's position as the world's number one. Not any more.

Harvard - the world's best-known university, boasting a brand some sources rate as more valuable than Pepsi, Nike or Sony - has this year been pushed off the top spot.

Most remarkably, the 375-year-old colossus of global higher education has been toppled by a much younger, much smaller upstart from the West Coast of the US. The world's number one for 2011-12 is the California Institute of Technology, better known as Caltech. Why? It is clear that the differences at the pinnacle of the World University Rankings are minuscule. In terms of the overall score for each institution, the gap last year between first-placed Harvard and second-placed Caltech was 0.1 point.

This year, Caltech pips Harvard with marginally better scores for "research - volume, income and reputation", research influence (measured by paper citations) and (most substantially) the income it attracts from industry. Harvard just beats Caltech for the quality of its teaching environment.

Don't take it from me, or some crazy ranking metric, just ask (Economics) Nobel Prize winner Vernon Smith, who attended both institutions:

At Harvard they believe they are the best in the world; at Caltech they know they are the best in the world

... The first thing to which one has to adapt is the fact that no matter how high people might sample in the right tail of the distribution for "intelligence," ... that sample is still normally distributed in performing on the materials in the Caltech curriculum.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Ditch Day

My Ditch Day stack was an honor stack: the underclassmen only got access to the room if they could accomplish the assigned task, to change the Hollywood sign to read CALTECH. Unfortunately, one of the students working on the stack did an interview with a local TV reporter, describing their plans. This reporter called the Hollywood police for comment, which led to the underclassmen being met at the sign by a police unit. The task was not carried out until the following academic year -- I received a postcard with the picture above after I had already started grad school :-)

Ditch Day

One of the oldest Caltech traditions is Ditch Day. Sometime during the 1920s, seniors longing for a break decided to give themselves a day off. Abandoning classes and schoolwork, they collectively vanished from campus.

This became an annual tradition, and eventually underclassmen (from whom the date of the event was kept secret until the day itself) took to "modifying" seniors' rooms while they were gone. Over the years, rooms have been filled with sand, Styrofoam, a disassembled-and-reassembled car, and a functioning cement mixer, among many other items; and furniture has been glued to ceilings, moved into courtyards, and suspended from trees.

Hoping to frustrate these modifications, seniors took to stacking cement blocks in front of their doorways before leaving campus. Over the years, these "stacks" evolved into complex, imaginative puzzles that are carefully planned out for months or even years in advance in order to occupy the underclassmen throughout the day.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Crossing the Pacific

Sorry for the lack of posts. I just returned from the US and I'm recovering from jetlag in Taipei.

On my last day at Caltech, just for fun, I gave a lunch talk on my genomics work with BGI. I'll give a similar talk next week at the Taiwan National Center for Theoretical Science to an audience of mathematicians and physicists.

During the talk last week I joked that if we discover some genes affecting cognition, it might be more significant than all my work in theoretical physics. I also mentioned that, because sequencing costs are going down exponentially, I occasionally get the feeling that our work is unnecessary: the explosion of genomic data will produce much more powerful results almost by accident in the next decade or two. So why should we kill ourselves today? People in the audience immediately pointed out that this is always the case in science -- you do what you can with current technology, even though your efforts will seem puny when viewed in retrospect by future experimenters with vastly superior capabilities. However, most areas of science aren't moving quite as fast as genomics, so the feeling is especially strong from my vantage point.

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