Seeing Patterns Is Important Knowledge

Collecting, categorizing, and taxonomizing, are early steps toward scientific knowledge, as the example below illustrates. But these activities are often dismissed or ridiculed by members of the scientific establishment.

(p. A23) In the 1970s, Dr. Melzack turned to another problem he had been thinking about for years: pain measurement. At the time, doctors had only very crude instruments, like simply asking people to rate their pain level on a scale from 1 to 10 (a method that is still in use). As a young researcher, Dr. Melzack had worked in a chronic pain clinic and befriended a 70-year-old woman with diabetes.

“She was a highly intelligent person with a good vocabulary, and I began to collect her descriptive words about pain, like ‘burning,’ ‘shooting,’ ‘horrible’ and ‘excruciating,’” he told McGill Reporter in a 2008 interview.

He continued to build his adjective collection by listening to many patients’ descriptions and, working with a statistician, divided them into 20 categories, each describing a particular kind of pain: “tugging,” “pulling” and “wrenching” in one category, for instance, and “pinching,” “pressing” and “gnawing” in another.

This descriptive catalog, published in the journal Pain in 1975, became the McGill Pain Questionnaire. It soon became a standard measure worldwide, deeply enriching the conversations doctors have with their patients, and in many cases helping with diagnosis.

For the full obituary, see:

Benedict Carey. “Ronald Melzack, Cartographer of Pain, Is Dead at 90.” The New York Times (Monday, January 13, 2020): A23.

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date Jan. 12, 2020, and has the same title as the print version.)

Scientists Are “a Political Interest Group Like Any Other”

(p. B15) Mr. Greenberg, who spent most of his professional life in Washington, became a science journalist at a time when many practitioners seemed to view their job as advancing the cause of research — a consideration that many researchers expected.

As an author, newspaper reporter and magazine editor, and as the founding editor and publisher of Science & Government Report, a newsletter he ran for almost 30 years, Mr. Greenberg took a different view.

From his vantage point in the capital, he tracked scientific rivalries and battles over the government’s science priorities, describing research not as a uniquely worthy activity but rather as one of many enterprises competing for federal largess.

“He recognized that science, and the scientific endeavor broadly, was a political interest group like any other, and they behaved like any other, and he covered them like any other,” said Daniel Sarewitz, a congressional staffer in the science policy arena in the early 1990s and now director of the Washington-based Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University.

“He was not a toady or an advocate for the science community,” Dr. Sarewitz said. “He was a journalist covering science.”

Writing in The New York Times Book Review in 1968, Robert K. Merton, the eminent 20th-century sociologist of science, said Mr. Greenberg’s “perceptive” first book, “The Politics of Pure Science,” was one that “should be read by the President, legislators, scientists and the rest of us ordinary folk.”

For the full obituary, see:

Cornelia Dean. “Daniel S. Greenberg, 88, Science Journalist.” The New York Times (Thursday, March 26, 2020): B15.

(Note: the online version of the obituary was last updated March 26, 2020, and has the title “Daniel S. Greenberg, Science Journalist and Iconoclast, Dies at 88.” Williams’s question is in bold; Achorn’s answer is not in bold.)

The second edition of the book by Greenberg, mentioned in the passage quoted above, is:

Greenberg, Daniel S. The Politics of Pure Science. Second ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Study Claims 77% of Economic Growth is Due to Incremental Innovation

I am surprised by, and dubious of, the claim that 77% of economic growth comes from incremental innovation. That implies that leapfrog innovation, or creative destruction, is not very important. I will need to read and ponder the study that claimed that result.

(p. A15) The comparison of two potential options—known as A/B testing—is now routinely baked into the development of customer-facing software, Mr. Thomke reports. Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and Google “each conduct more than ten thousand online experiments annually,” he writes, adding that even companies without tech roots (Nike, State Farm) run trials like this regularly. The tests might evaluate, say, the components of a website—style of font, color of background, shape of buttons, choice of words—and continuously adjust them based on user response.  . . .

As much as Mr. Thomke, a Harvard Business School professor, believes that “all businesses should be experimenters,” he wisely observes that “not all innovation decisions can be tested.” A/B testing may not be the best way to evaluate a completely new product or a radically different business model, he concedes, but the approach is the ideal driver of small changes. Though we celebrate disruption, Mr. Thomke urges companies to “tap into the power of high-velocity incrementalism,” explaining that “most progress is achieved by implementing hundreds or thousands of minor improvements.” He points to a study that attributes 77% of economic growth to improvements in existing products and notes that the structured system of incremental improvements that Lego implemented following its near-bankruptcy in 2004 drove 95% of annual sales and helped restore the company to profitability.

For the full review, see:

David A. Shaywitz. “Test, Test And Test Again.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, March 16, 2020): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 15, 2020, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Experimentation Works’ and ‘The Power of Experiments’ Review: Test, Test and Test Again.”)

The book discussed in the passages quoted above, is:

Thomke, Stefan H. Experimentation Works: The Surprising Power of Business Experiments. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2020.

The “study” mentioned above that attributes 77% of economic growth to incremental innovation, is:

Garcia-Macia, Daniel, Chang-Tai Hsieh, and Peter J. Klenow. “How Destructive Is Innovation?” Econometrica 87, no. 5 (Sept. 2019): 1507-41.

“Dr. Dyson’s Mind Burned Until the End”

(p. B12) Freeman J. Dyson, a mathematical prodigy who left his mark on subatomic physics before turning to messier subjects like Earth’s environmental future and the morality of war, died on Friday [February 28, 2020] at a hospital near Princeton, N.J. He was 96.

. . .

As a young graduate student at Cornell University in 1949, Dr. Dyson wrote a landmark paper — worthy, some colleagues thought, of a Nobel Prize — that deepened the understanding of how light interacts with matter to produce the palpable world. The theory the paper advanced, called quantum electrodynamics, or QED, ranks among the great achievements of modern science.

. . .

Dr. Dyson called himself a scientific heretic and warned against the temptation of confusing mathematical abstractions with ultimate truth.

. . .

Relishing the role of iconoclast, he confounded the scientific establishment by dismissing the consensus about the perils of man-made climate change as “tribal group-thinking.” He doubted the veracity of the climate models, and he exasperated experts with sanguine predictions they found rooted less in science than in wishfulness: Excess carbon in the air is good for plants, and global warming might forestall another ice age.

In a profile of Dr. Dyson in 2009 in The New York Times Magazine, his colleague Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate, observed, “I have the sense that when consensus is forming like ice hardening on a lake, Dyson will do his best to chip at the ice.”

Dr. Dyson’s distrust of mathematical models had earlier led him to challenge predictions that the debris from atomic warfare could blot out the sun and bring on a devastating nuclear winter. He said he wished that were true — because it would add to the psychological deterrents to nuclear war — but found the theory wanting.

For all his doubts about the ability of mortals to calculate anything so complex as the effects of climate change, he was confident enough in our toolmaking to propose a technological fix: If carbon dioxide levels became too high, forests of genetically altered trees could be planted to strip the excess molecules from the air. That would free scientists to confront problems he found more immediate, like the alleviation of poverty and the avoidance of war.

He considered himself an environmentalist. “I am a tree-hugger, in love with frogs and forests,” he wrote in 2015 in The Boston Globe. “More urgent and more real problems, such as the overfishing of the oceans and the destruction of wildlife habitat on land, are neglected, while the environmental activists waste their time and energy ranting about climate change.” That was, to say the least, a minority position.

. . .

Richard Feynman, a young professor at Cornell, had invented a novel method to describe the behavior of electrons and photons (and their antimatter equivalent, positrons). But two other physicists, Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, had each independently devised a very different way. Each of these seemed to satisfy the requirements of both quantum mechanics and special relativity — two of nature’s acid tests. But which one was correct?

While crossing Nebraska on a Greyhound bus, Dr. Dyson was struck by an epiphany: The theories were mathematically equivalent — different ways of saying the same thing. The result was QED. Feynman called it “the jewel of physics — our proudest possession.”

. . .

Dr. Dyson’s mind burned until the end. In 2012, when he was 88, he collaborated with William H. Press on a paper about the prisoner’s dilemma, a mathematical concept important to understanding human behavior and the nature of evolution.

In his 90s, Dr. Dyson was still consulting for the government — on nuclear reactor design and the new gene-editing technology called CRISPR. In 2018, the year he turned 95, his book “Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters” was published.

For the full obituary, see:

George Johnson. “Freeman Dyson, 96, Math Genius, Tech Visionary and Writer, Is Dead.” The New York Times (Saturday, February 29, 2020): B12.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date Feb. 28, 2020, and has the title “Freeman Dyson, Math Genius Turned Visionary Technologist, Dies at 96.”)

National Institutes of Health Rejected Funding for Moir’s Radical Theories

(p. B14) Robert D. Moir, a Harvard scientist whose radical theories of the brain plaques in Alzheimer’s defied conventional views of the disease, but whose research ultimately led to important proposals for how to treat it, died on Friday [December 20, 2019] at a hospice in Milton, Mass. He was 58.

His wife, Julie Alperen, said the cause was glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer.

Dr. Moir, who grew up on a farm in Donnybrook, a small town in Western Australia, had a track record for confounding expectations. He did not learn to read or write until he was nearly 12; Ms. Alperen said he had told her that the teacher at his one-room schoolhouse was “a demented nun.” Yet, she said, he also knew from age 7 that he wanted to be a scientist.

. . .

Conventional wisdom held that beta amyloid accumulation was a central part of the disease, and that clearing the brain of beta amyloid would be a good thing for patients.

Dr. Moir proposed instead that beta amyloid is there for a reason: It is the way the brain defends itself against infections. Beta amyloid, he said, forms a sticky web that can trap microbes. The problem is that sometimes the brain goes overboard producing it, and when that happens the brain is damaged.

The implication is that treatments designed to clear the brain of amyloid could be detrimental. The goal would be to remove some of the sticky substance, but not all of it.

The idea, which Dr. Moir first proposed 12 years ago, was met with skepticism. But he kept at it, producing a string of papers with findings that supported the hypothesis. Increasingly, some of the doubters have been won over, said Rudolph Tanzi, a close friend and fellow Alzheimer’s researcher at Harvard.

Dr. Moir’s unconventional ideas made it difficult for him to get federal grants. Nearly every time he submitted a grant proposal to the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Tanzi said in a phone interview, two out of three reviewers would be enthusiastic, while a third would simply not believe it. The proposal would not be funded.

For the full obituary, see:

Gina Kolata. “Robert Moir, 58, Researcher Who Rethought Alzheimer’s.” The New York Times (Saturday, December 21, 2019): B14.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was last updated December 23 [sic], 2019, and has the title “Robert Moir, 58, Dies; His Research Changed Views on Alzheimer’s.”)

Opening a New “Treasure Box of Strange Phenomena”

(p. D1) In the universe of office supplies, pencil lead — a mixture of graphite and clay, which does not include any lead — appears unexceptional beyond its ability to draw dark lines.

But 15 years ago, scientists discovered that a single sheet of graphite — a one-atom-thick layer of carbon atoms laid out in a honeycomb pattern — is a wonder. This ultrathin carbon, called graphene, is flexible and lighter than paper yet 200 times stronger than steel. It is also a good conductor of heat and electrical current.

Scientists imagined all of the remarkable things that graphene might be made into: transistors, sensors, novel materials. But after studying and cataloging its properties, scientists moved on to other problems. Practical uses have been slow to come, because part of what makes graphene alluring — its strength — also makes the material difficult to cut into precise shapes.

Last year, graphene burst back on the physics research scene when physicists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discovered that stacking two sheets of the material, twisted at a small angle between them, opened up a treasure box of strange phenomena. It started a new field: twistronics.

For the full story, see:

Kenneth Chang. “A Physics Trick: Take 2 Sheets of Carbon and Twist.” The New York Times (Tuesday, November 5, 2019): D1 & D3.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Oct. 30, 2019, and has the title “A Physics Magic Trick: Take 2 Sheets of Carbon and Twist.”)

Forecasts “of Doom and Gloom” Fail Because “Lot of Moving Parts That Are Not Well Understood”

(p. A3) The science community now believes tornadoes most likely build from the ground up and not from a storm cloud down, potentially making them harder to spot via radar early in the formation process. But scientists still struggle to say with certainty when and where a tornado will form, or why some storms spawn them and neighboring storms don’t.

“Sometimes the science and the atmosphere remind us of the limitations of what we can predict,” said Bill Bunting, chief of forecast operations at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center.

. . .

“We have big outlooks of doom and gloom, and nothing happens because there are a lot of moving parts that are not well understood yet,” said Erik Rasmussen, a research scientist with NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory.

For the full story, see:

Erin Ailworth. “Tornadoes Outrun Forecaster Data.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, May 30, 2019): A3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 29, 2019, and the title “New Science Explains Why Tornadoes Are So Hard to Forecast.”)