Big Science Done Privately at Great Risk

ChasingVenusBK2012-09-01.jpg

Source of book image: http://t0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcQPLdrVlC1FT3ojxyxWJLq55AeAs87pw_Bw6ks1ugFnkcI_DBa_1w&t=1

(p. 23) Next time you find yourself grousing when the passenger in front reclines his seat a smidge too far, consider the astronomers of the Enlightenment. In 1761 and 1769, dozens and dozens of stargazers traveled thousands of miserable miles to observe a rare and awesome celestial phenomenon. They went by sailing ship and open dinghy, by carriage, by sledge and on foot. They endured discomfort that in our own flabby century would generate years of litigation. And they did it all for science: the men in powdered wigs and knee britches were determined to measure the transit of Venus.
. . .
The British astronomer Edmond Halley had realized that precise measurement of a transit might give astronomers armed with a clock and a telescope the data they needed to calculate how far Earth is from the Sun. With that distance in hand, they could work out the actual size of the solar system, the great astronomical problem of the era. The catch was that it would take multiple measurements from carefully chosen locations all over the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. But that was somebody else’s problem. Halley knew he wouldn’t live to see the transit of 1761.
That challenge fell to the French astronomer Joseph-Nicolas Delisle, who managed to energize and rally his colleagues in the years leading up to the transit, then coordinate the enormous effort that would ultimately involve scientists and adventurers from France, Britain, Russia, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Sweden and the American colonies. When you think about how hard it is to arrange a simple dinner with a few friends who live in the same city and use the same language when e-mailing, it’s enough to take your breath away.
. . .
Sea travel was so risky in 1761 that observers took separate ships to the same destination to increase the chances some of them would make it alive. The Seven Years’ War was on, and getting caught in the cross-fire was a constant concern. One French scientist carried a passport arranged by the Royal Society in London advising the British military “not to molest his person or Effects upon any account.” Others were shelled by the French or caught in border troubles with the Russians. An observer en route to Tobolsk, in Siberia, found himself floating in ice up to his waist when his carriage fell through the frozen river they were traveling in lieu of a road. He made it to his destination. Another, heading toward eastern Finland via the iced-over Gulf of Bothnia, was repeatedly catapulted out of his sledge as the runners caught on the crests of frozen waves. He made it too.

For the full review, see:
JoANN C. GUTIN. “Masters of the Universe.” The New York Times Book Review (Sun., May 20, 2012): 19.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 18, 2012.)

The full reference for the book under review, is:
Wulf, Andrea. Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

ApparatusTransitVenus2012-09-01.jpg Source of image: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

Kahneman Preaches that People Can and Should Act More Rationally

(p. 338) . . . I have a sermon ready for Sam if he rejects the offer of a single highly favorable gamble played once, and for you if you share his unreason-able aversion to losses:

I sympathize with your aversion to losing any gamble, but it is costing you a lot of money. Please consider this question: Are you on your deathbed? Is this the last offer of a small favorable gamble that you will ever consider? Of course, you are unlikely to be offered exactly this gamble again, but you will have many opportunities to consider attractive gambles with stakes that are very small relative to your wealth. You will do yourself a large financial favor if you are able to see each of these gambles as part of a bundle of small gambles and rehearse the mantra that will get you significantly closer to economic rationality: you win a few, you lose a few. The main purpose of the mantra is to control your emotional response when you do lose. If you can trust it to be effective, you should remind yourself of it when deciding whether or not to accept a small risk with positive expected value. Remember these qualifications when using the mantra:

  • It works when the gambles are genuinely independent of each other; it does not apply to multiple investments in the same industry, which would all go bad together.

(p. 339)

  • It works only when the possible loss does not cause you to worry about your total wealth. If you would take the loss as significant bad news about your economic future, watch it!
  • It should not be applied to long shots, where the probability of winning is very small for each bet.

If you have the emotional discipline that this rule requires, you will never consider a small gamble in isolation or be loss averse for a small gamble until you are actually on your deathbed and not even then.

This advice is not impossible to follow. Experienced traders in financial markets live by it every day, shielding themselves from the pain of losses by broad framing. As was mentioned earlier, we now know that experimental subjects could be almost cured of their loss aversion (in a particular context) by inducing them to “think like a trader,” just as experienced baseball card traders are not as susceptible to the endowment effect as novices are. Students made risky decisions (to accept or reject gambles in which they could lose) under different instructions. In the narrow-framing condition, they were told to “make each decision as if it were the only one” and to accept their emotions. The instructions for broad framing of a decision included the phrases “imagine yourself as a trader,” “you do this all the time,” and “treat it as one of many monetary decisions, which will sum together to produce a ‘portfolio’.” The experimenters assessed the subjects’ emotional response to gains and losses by physiological measures, including changes in the electrical conductance of the skin that are used in lie detection. As expected, broad framing blunted the emotional reaction to losses and increased the willingness to take risks.

Source:
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.
(Note: ellipsis added; italics in original.)

Global Warming Expands Range of Brown Argus Butterfly

BrownArgusButterfly2012-09-03.jpg “The brown argus butterfly has expanded its range in England.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D3) A butterfly species in England is expanding its range, thanks to climate change.

In the current issue of Science, researchers at the University of York report that the brown argus butterfly has spread its reach in England northward by about 50 miles over 20 years as a warmer climate allows its caterpillars to feed off wild geranium plants, which are widespread in the countryside.

For the full story, see:
SINDYA N. BHANOO. “OBSERVATORY; A Butterfly Takes Wing on Climate Change.” The New York Times (Tues., May 29, 2012): D3.
(Note: the online version of the article has the date May 24, 2012.)

The results summarized above are reported to the scientific community in:
Chen, Ching, Jane K. Hill, Ralf Ohlemüller, David B. Roy, and Chris D. Thomas. “Report; Rapid Range Shifts of Species Associated with High Levels of Climate Warming.” Science 333, no. 6045 (August 19, 2011): 1024-1026.