Fair and balanced

Aw, shucks! 🙂

“Nordstrom’s article clearly and accurately described the scientific context for the sea-level debate. But her story was a rarity in a sea of “balanced” stories about the controversy.”



Sports, a new arena for scaling

A recent paper in the open access New Journal of Physics, might help you outsmart your bookie. At least if your bookie covers tennis.

In this country, we like to think of all men being equal. But when it comes to things we can measure, like height, we know all men are not equal. If you make a histogram of heights for men, you get the famous “bell curve.” There exists some average height that corresponds to the peak of the curve, in the neighborhood of 6 feet. Most men are a bit shorter or taller than average, but even extreme heights are still within 2 feet of average. It’s exceedingly unlikely to find someone 10 feet tall. So, by this measure, all men are equal-ish.

But all men are not equal in wealth. The Pareto principle, worth another post in itself, says that 20 percent of the people have 80 percent of the wealth. Further, with wealth, there is no upper bound on income. As a result, the histogram of wealth looks vastly different from the histogram of height. It is a “power law” distribution. There is no average amount of wealth. It is also called a scale-free distribution: if you zoom in on any area of the graph, it will look exactly the same. And extreme wealth, unlike 10 feet tall men, becomes a real possibility.

In the article mentioned above, the authors extend the wealth analogy to sports. It’s a natural fit here: individuals are not equal, they have rank. Anyone who watches or plays sports knows there is no average. One can be an Olympic-level sprinter, but every so often a Usain Bolt will come around to humble you. The authors of the article look at the distribution of ranks (or prizemoney, where appropriate) for different sports and indeed find a power law relationship.  (There is an exponential tail, but that is a mathematical detail to be discussed among the truly interested.)

Actually, the running analogy is a little off, because presumably there is some biological limit to sprinting speed, though apparently we aren’t there yet.

Switching focus, tennis is a good example of a sport where we don’t seem to be up against any biological limits, and there is no upper limit on skill, the crucial piece of the game. All pro players are good, but Serena Williams or Rafael Nadal will crush most of them.

In the paper, the authors further go down the rabbit hole with tennis, as it is a sport with an extremely detailed record of head-to-head meetings. Based on the previous analysis of the rank distributions, they are able to come up with an equation (that fits the data) predicting the likelihood of a win. Based solely on the difference in rank of two players, they know the exact odds.

Call your bookie.

2 kinds of mole rats, 2 different cancer-fighting techniques

Did you know there are two (at least) kinds of mole rats? I didn’t until recently. Here they are:
Blind mole rat
Naked mole rat

Beautiful creatures, aren’t they?

Well, they’re fascinating anyway. Naked mole rats have been shown to be cancer-resistant. Their cells are programmed to cease division when they sense they are getting too crowded. So any cancerous cells that develop will eventually crowd themselves out of dividing any further, “contact inhibition,” as the shop talk goes. Basically, the cancer cells keep quiet about their identity, and do no harm.

Recently, in a paper by a team at the University of Rochester, blind mole rats are shown to also have cancer-fighting properties. However, it seems their potential cancer cells take a different tack. When they sense they have divided more than a normal amount of times, they kill themselves with their form of a cyanide capsule: a protein, IFN-beta. Rather than risk wreaking havoc on their sister cells, they take themselves out of the picture.

It’s exciting to think that perhaps these discoveries will help us unleash  hidden knowledge our own cells have. Or to simply help develop a novel drug.

Of course, it’s absurd to think the cells have “free will” as I have analogized. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help thinking about Battlestar Galactica when thinking about cells discovering they were something else. By the way, if you haven’t seen it, don’t wait around, just do it.

Effect of Good Teachers

This NYTimes article alerts us to work done on the efficacy of good teachers. The conclusion: good teachers are good. The article mentions “poor performing” teachers and the some comments debate about what do do about them, now that there is proof that good teachers are good.

A couple of thoughts. First, the effect is quite modest for an individual student, an increase of about $4600 in LIFETIME income. To me, the modesty of the gain underscores the notion that one teacher is just one variable in a sea of about 1000 variables, including socioeconomic status, family situation, race, peers, administrators, etc. But cumulatively, over a teacher’s career, this results in about 2.5 million in increased earnings.

Maybe “good” teachers should get this figure as bonus on retirement. Not kidding, but wouldn’t it be peachy?

Of course the question remains, how to weed out the bad apples. This seems the exact opposite tack to take. Our best and brightest (and medium best and medium brightest) are choosing “professional” careers. Teaching, in this country, has not garnered the respect of a profession, because it is historically low-paying. [Actually, most jobs once (or currently) dominated by women are underpaid, and that’s another article I’ll get to some day.]

Can we please just raise teachers’ salaries and attract the good ones, rather than focusing on weeding out the bad ones?

Film Consulting

I’m sure they do good work, can we please have more of this stuff?


How hard would it be for almost every film to have a bona-fide science consultant? Even “low-budget” films have a pretty high sticker price. Not that they should be underpaid, but I’m sure a fair number of scientists would be willing to help out for far less than their market value as a consultant (a different sort of mini-sabbatical, for sure!). Bottom line, having a science consultant shouldn’t affect the budget too much – why wouldn’t you?

And for your extremely high budget pictures, don’t skimp and just get one consultant. You don’t skip on cameramen or costume designers. Far too many good movies, even movies with a heaping serving of science, are riddled with errors.

Protein Folding

I’m currently in the process of going through a monstrous stack of periodicals I’ve accumulated, including the magazine Physics Today, which comes with my APS membership.

This article by Ashley Smart is simply a research summary on experiments on proteins.

But Smart evoked a lot of thoughts about proteins. We need them to be folded correctly to work, but how are they folded? How is this the minimum energy state.

Smart’s description of various denatured (unfolded) proteins reminded me a lot of the language used in the glass/jamming community. A fried egg consists of proteins denatured by heat. A similar transition happens for
“glassy” systems: raise the temperature and the material will flow.

Mechanical stress can cause also cause the protein in egg white to denature, resulting in a foamy, stiff, meringue. In jammed systems, like mayonnaise, mechanical stress (i.e. using a butter knife) causes the material to unjam (i.e. deform and spread on the sandwich).

The third variable discussed in the jamming community is volume fraction, which I won’t delve into here. The third variable for the egg example is acidity, mixing egg whites with lime juice will also cause the proteins to denature. Completely different, can’t win ’em all.

What also drew me into this simple piece was the description of the experiments. (Smart does a commendable job of trying to explain the math in words.) There are two processes that contribute to the overall signal the researchers measure, only one of which relates to protein folding. But if you change the temperature, each process responds on a vastly different timescale.Taking measurements at the right frequency and using a trick of derivatives, they can isolate the process of interest. An experiment like this would be a great lab in a biophysics class.