Category Archives: Grit

Post-2000 Nobel Prizes by Country

Source: Slate Star Codex,  May 2017


Kowloon Walled City

Source: South China Morning Post (HK), Mar 2013

More Pictures Available Here:

Related Resource:
Wall Street Journal interactive documentary, date indeterminate

Scientific Papers that Met with Initial Resistance

Source: Slavov blog, Aug 2014

The weak interaction (beta decay), 1933

Fermi, E (1934). An attempt of a theory of beta radiation. Z. phys, 88(161), 10.

Nature Editors: It contained speculations too remote from reality to be of interest to the reader

Descriptive versus normative economic theory, 1980

Thaler, R. (1980). Toward a positive theory of consumer choice. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 1(1), 39-60.

Richard Thaler: Toward a Positive Theory of Consumer Choice was rejected by six or seven major journals

Quasicrystals, 1984

Shechtman, D., Blech, I., Gratias, D., & Cahn, J. W. (1984). Metallic phase with long-range orientational order and no translational symmetry. Physical Review Letters, 53(20), 1951.

Dan Shechtman: It was rejected on the grounds that it will not interest physicists

Sydney Brenner – Casino Fund

Source: SMA, Aug 2007

I have always been interested in twists of words. I think it is something that you can make life amusing with, while also saying quite important things.

Everybody would like to be an innovator, because they believe innovation is what gives them the edge. You need a lot of conditions to be satisfied for innovation. Some are personality driven, in that they depend on individuals. If you notice, the number of major discoveries in Science has remained constant since the 17th century, even though the number of scientists keeps on increasing.

to allow innovation, you cannot have this. You need people to step out and do things that have not been done before. I mean, if you know the answer, why bother to do it at all?

the subject was “The Casino Fund”. The idea was that everybody who gives money for research takes out 1% or 0.5% and puts it into the Casino Fund – and forgets about it. Who manages the Casino Fund? You give it to successful ‘gamblers’ – people like me [laughs] who can hand it out, and people who have a nose for people and projects. And this is with the full expectation that most of the money will ‘disappear’. But when you do this, all the people in the business will say: “Oh no, we can’t have that because how do we ensure payback?” So I said: “Let’s make it 0.1%.”

But even when I tell them to put 0.1% into this “Casino Fund”, they still would not. Even if they think this might lead to the most successful breakthroughs but yet they are not prepared to do it themselves, to put their money where their mouth is!

You can say to these investors – concentrate on the other 99% of the research funds and do not bother with the 1% in the Casino Fund. But then all the academics will say: “We must have peer review.”

Now, peer review is regression to the mean, and the mean is mediocre. If you have peer review alone, it means you are always going to select the conventional, middle of the road activities – you are thus not going to gamble on big ideas and big breakthroughs.

These days when people write a research grant, it has been said that half of their proposed research has already been done, so they somewhat know the answer already when they submit for a research grant application. That is how a lot of people escape the constraints of the grant funding system. But it is very hard on the younger researchers, because they do not have a reserve of data accumulated or capital which they can invest in future results, and so they would stand less chance of being successfully funded. But some of what is going on in this research grantsmanship is absolutely ridiculous.

I think the most important people now who are funding research are the charities, like the Gates Foundation. These organisations also would like to drive innovation, but because they use all the same people in the scientific community, it is more or less going to be conventional. Basically all you have to do is to separate the nutcases from the real research.

at the moment, Singapore goes too much on written records, achievements, and examination results. The big thing about doing Science is motivation. In fact, I think, one really needs to pick the right people to do Science. I feel very strongly, and I have often said so before, that I am very suspicious of people who obtain First Class Honours degrees. They would satisfy me more if they could have gotten a Second Class if they had really tried harder [laughs]!

Because I think motivation to do research is much more important than aiming to get the top grades. Everybody just wants to get top marks these days, and publishing papers in the journals are all about journal impact factors, which is another form of achieving top marks. I think this is nonsense.

When you look for a successful scientist, you go for the truly motivated individual because Science is still a very personal thing.

I think there is now a greater lack of communication between scientists. There are now so many journals and such a large body of scientific literature that we are losing communication between the various scientific fields. People working in one part of their own fields may have no idea what is going on in another’s field. So one of the problems of modern society is actually how to turn data into usable knowledge, because all we have got is plenty of data on everything.

I gave an interview here to the Singapore press and they asked me: “Is there anything else Singapore needs for success?” I said: “Yes, I don’t think the people here are cheeky enough!” And the reporter asked me how we could teach people to be cheeky, which was ridiculous! What I meant by “cheeky” was to question – question authority and question things in a productive way. And you do not get innovation if you are just doing things according to the rules.

I think the American PhD produces, for the average person, an overall much more competent scientist, whereas the British PhD allows people much more freedom to get on with the job of scientific inquiry. 

I just think that in Britain it is a different way of doing things and asking questions. People are not so, how shall I say, organised.

Building Resilience

Source: HBR, Jan 2017

people are far more resilient than they imagine. Like many of us, my students systematically underestimate their resilience in challenging situations. Their fears about being assertive, speaking in public, and networking are a completely unhelpful, inaccurate guide to what it will be like when they actually take the leap and stretch outside their comfort zones.

.. we systematically underestimate our resilience in four ways:

  1. We’re more flexible than we give ourselves credit for.Throughout your life, you’ve been trained to adapt and adjust your behavior across contexts. Think about the wide range of people in your social circle who you already interact with. Do you speak with your boss the same way you do with your colleagues? Do your interactions with your in-laws take the same form as those with your friends from university? My guess is that the answer is no. In fact, I find that simply reminding people of this fact can boost their confidence going into an unfamiliar situation. You’ve adapted and adjusted your behavior before; you can do it again.
  2. We’re braver than we think.Consider all the things you’ve already done in your life that took serious guts. For some of us, it was going off to college and living alone for the first time. For others, it was switching jobs or careers, or getting married. One of my MBA students from Israel, fearful of networking in the United States because of how awkward and superficial it felt, used his army experience as evidence of his capacity for bravery. Compared to leading a platoon of soldiers into battle under extreme conditions, he realized that networking just wasn’t that intimidating. Of course, not all of us have been in the armed forces, but we all have our own experiences that required some level of bravery, and we can draw on them when confronting the next situation outside our comfort zones.
  3. The situation we’re worried about probably isn’t as bad as we think.Fear gets in the way of clear thinking. We worry about the worst possible outcome, that we’ll humiliate ourselves onstage during a public speaking event, or that the person that we’re delivering negative feedback to will hate us forever. There’s always a slight chance that the worst will happen, but the reality is a bit more nuanced than that. People are shocked, hurt, and angry when being given bad news, but if it is delivered with compassion and sensitivity, they will forgive the messenger. You might be anxious about speaking in front of a crowd, but research suggests that some degree of anxiety is quite helpful for effective performance. Additionally, though you could embarrass yourself onstage — by saying the wrong thing, for example — it’s far more likely that you’ll do just fine if you’ve prepared, or at least reality will be far less terrifying than what you imagined.
  4. We have more resources than we think. When you face a really tough situation, you often feel vulnerable, perhaps even hopeless. But you’re not alone in the situation. You often have quite a number resources to use — mentors, colleagues, or friends to go to for guidance, or steps you can take when preparing. You can even make slight adjustments to the event itself to make it more manageable. For example, one of my MBA students who feels awkward making small talk in social settings sometimes brings a selfie stick with her as an icebreaker. What’s great about this prop is that does more than generate conversation. When a photo is taken, she can easily exchange contact information so she can send a photo later — and, if she’s interested, make a future connection with the person involved. But that’s just an example. The reality is that few situations are one-size-fits-all, and you usually have quite a few resources to bring to bear to make a situation more tolerable for you.

In situations outside our comfort zones, we can feel weak or powerless. But we can leverage the capabilities that we already have inside ourselves to march into unfamiliar situations with confidence. Don’t underestimate how flexible, brave, and capable you actually are. Give it a go, and chances are, you’ll probably end up surprising yourself.

Counterfactual History of Scientific Discoveries

Source: Nautilus, Dec 2016

think about the way science works: how ideas arise out of the context of their time and the contingencies and quirks of individual scientists.

Heliocentrism – Johannes Kepler

There are few great discoveries for which one can’t find precedents, and heliocentrism—the idea that the Earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa—is no exception. It’s such a pivotal concept in the history of science, displacing humanity from the center of what was then considered the universe, that anticipations have been well documented before the German-Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus outlined the theory in his epochal De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, published as he lay on his deathbed in 1543.

Tycho’s protégé and Galileo’s correspondent, the German Johannes Kepler, would have done it first. He had access to Tycho’s excellent observational data, he was mathematically adept, but crucially he also had Copernicus’s dash of (to our eyes) mysticism that saw a sun-centered universe as appropriately harmonious. To dare to put the sun in the middle, you needed not just rational but also aesthetic motives, and that was Kepler all over.

Laws of motion – Christiaan Huygens

A single law of gravitational attraction was all you needed to explain the shapes of planetary and lunar orbits and the trajectories of comets.

All this was laid out in Newton’s Principia, published in 1687 after being instigated to eclipse Hooke’s reckless claim that he could explain the ellipse-shaped planetary orbits. Before he could deal with planets, Newton had to set down his basic laws of motion. The three that he described in Book I are the foundation of classical mechanics. In short: Bodies maintain their state of uniform motion or rest unless forces act on them; force equals mass times acceleration; and for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

They are concise, complete, and simply stated, almost heart-breaking in their elegance. Could anyone else have managed that feat in Newton’s day?

at least one genius among the Society’s many continental correspondents who might have risen to the challenge. Dutchman Christiaan Huygens was polymathic even by the
 ample standards of his day: a mathematician, astronomer (he made
 some of the first observations of 
Saturn’s rings), inventor, and expert
 in optics and probability. He was especially good at devising clocks and watches, which occasioned a priority dispute with the irascible Hooke. Huygens’ theorems on mechanics in his book on the pendulum clock in 1673 were taken as a model by Newton for the Principia.

Newton’s first law was scarcely his anyway: Known also as the law of inertia (a moving object keeps moving in the absence of a force), it was essentially stated by Galileo, and Huygens embraced it too. The Dutchman’s studies of collisions hover on the brink of stating the third law, while Huygens actually wrote down a version of the second law independently. He had what it took to initiate what we now call Newtonian mechanics.

Special relativity – James Clerk Maxwell

One reason why it is more than just fun to imagine alternative routes to discovery is that it can help to puncture myths. The story of Einstein imagining his way to special relativity in 1905 by conceptually riding on a light beam captures his playful inventiveness but gives us little sense of his real motives.

awarding that realization to a man who was dead in 1905, namely Maxwell himself. He died in 1879 aged just 48, and was very much active until the end. He had the kind of deep intuition in physics that was needed for the remarkable feat of adding electricity to magnetism and producing light. Given two more decades (and the seeds of doubt sown about the ether) I suspect he would have figured it out. You don’t need to take my word for it: Einstein said it himself. “I stand not on the shoulders of Newton,” he said, “but on the shoulders of Maxwell.”

General relativity – Hermann Minkowski

In 1916 Einstein unveiled a new view of gravity, which superseded the theory of Isaac Newton that had reigned for over two centuries. He argued that the force we call gravity arises from the curvature of space and time (the four-dimensional fabric called spacetime) in the presence of mass. This curvature causes the acceleration of bodies in a gravitational field: the steady speeding up of an object falling to Earth from a great height, say. This was the theory of general relativity, which is still the best theory of gravitation that exists today and explains the orbits of the planets, the collapse of stars into black holes, and the expansion of the universe. It is Einstein’s most remarkable and revered work.

Permit me again to bend the rules of the game here—for once more, Einstein might have been beaten to it if another scientist had not died first.

In 1908 Minkowski explained that the proper way to understand Einstein’s theory of special relativity—which was all about bodies moving at constant speeds, not accelerating—was in terms of a four-dimensional spacetime. Einstein was at first skeptical, but he later drew on the concept to formulate general relativity.

Minkowski was already alert to the implications, however. Crucially, he saw that whereas the path of an object moving at a constant speed in spacetime is a straight line, that of an accelerating object is curved. In three-dimensional space, the path of the moon orbiting the earth under the influence of their gravitational attraction is more or less circular. But the four-dimensional worldline of the orbiting moon is a kind of helix: It goes round and round in space, but returns to the same position in space at a different time.

There’s more to general relativity than that. It is mass itself, Einstein said, that deforms spacetime into this curving, so-called non-Euclidean (not flat) shape. But the idea of a non-Euclidean spacetime was Minkowski’s, and it’s quite conceivable that he would have fleshed out the idea into a full-blown gravitational theory, perhaps working together with the formidable mathematician David Hilbert at the University of Göttingen, where Minkwoski was based starting from 1902.

We do know, from a lecture Minkowski gave at Göttingen in 1907, that he was already thinking about gravitation in the context of relativity and spacetime. But we’ll never know how far he would have taken that, had he not died suddenly at the start of 1909, aged just 44.

Structure of DNA – Rosalind Franklin

I’d love to think that Rosalind Franklin, the English crystallographer whose data were central to the discovery of the double-helical structure of DNA, would have figured it out if James Watson and Francis Crick hadn’t done so first in 1953. It was famously only when Watson saw the pattern of X-rays scattered from DNA and recorded by Franklin and student Raymond Gosling that he became convinced about the double helix. He was shown these data by Maurice Wilkins, with whom Franklin had a prickly working relationship at King’s College London—and Wilkins did not have Franklin’s permission for that, although any impropriety has been overplayed in accounts that make Franklin the wronged heroine. In any event, those data triggered Watson and Crick’s deduction that DNA is a helix of two strands zipped together via weak chemical bonds between the gene-encoding bases spaced regularly along the backbones.

I was worried, though, that Franklin—cautious, careful and conservative by instinct in contrast to the brilliant, intuitive Crick and the brash young Watson—wouldn’t have stuck her neck out on the basis of what by today’s standards is rather flimsy evidence. She knew that a female scientist in those days couldn’t afford to make mistakes.

So I was delighted when Matthew Cobb, a zoologist at the University of Manchester who delved deeply into the DNA story for his 2015 book Life’s Greatest Secret, confidently told me that, yes, Franklin would have done it. “The progress she made on her own, increasingly isolated and without the benefit of anyone to exchange ideas with, was simply remarkable,” Cobb wrote in The Guardian. Just weeks before Watson and Crick invited Franklin and Wilkins to see their model of DNA in March 1953, Franklin’s notebooks—studied in detail by British biochemist Aaron Klug, who won a Nobel Prize for his own work on DNA—show that she had realized DNA has a double-helix structure and that the two strands have complementary chemical structures, enabling one to act as a template for replication of the other in the way Watson and Crick famously alluded to in their discovery paper in Nature that April.

“Crick and I have discussed this several times,” wrote Klug in the Journal of Molecular Biology. “We agree she would have solved the structure, but the results would have come out gradually, not as a thunderbolt, in a short paper in Nature.” At any rate, her contributions to the discovery are undeniable. “It is clear that, had Franklin lived, the Nobel Prize committee ought to have awarded her a Nobel Prize, too,” writes Cobb.

The other contender for the discovery is American chemist Linus Pauling, who was the Cambridge duo’s most feared rival. Pauling had impetuously proposed a triple-helical structure of DNA in early 1953 with the backbones on the inside and the bases facing out. It made no chemical sense, as Watson and Crick quickly appreciated to their great relief. Unperturbed by such gaffes, Pauling would have bounced back. But he didn’t have Franklin’s X-ray data. “Pauling was a man with great insight, but not a magician who could manage without data,” wrote Klug.

Natural selection – ?

Sometimes discoveries or breakthrough ideas occur to different individuals more or less simultaneously. It happened with calculus (Leibniz and Newton), with the chemical element oxygen (Scheele, Priestley, and Lavoisier), and most famously, with evolution by natural selection, announced in 1858 by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.

That tells us something about this entire counterfactual enterprise. Science provides us with theories that are objectively useful in explaining and predicting what we see in the world. But that doesn’t deny the fact that specific theories generally have a particular style in terms of what they express or stress, or of what metaphors they use:

quantum electrodynamics could have been constructed without using the celebrated language of Feynman diagrams devised by Richard Feynman. It seems entirely possible that the way we conceptualize the world bears the imprint of those who first proposed the concepts. Scientists may be less replaceable than we think.

An 800-feet ladder between school & home

Source: The Guardian/UK, Nov 2016

Authorities in south-west China have come to the aid of schoolchildren who had to climb an 800m cliff to get to and from school – by installing a thin steel ladder at the site.

Left:  newly installed blue steel ladder
Right:  old wood+vine-based ladder

Close-up of students on the old ladder