New column on the Science 2.0 network

This journal has seen articles being published regularly of late. This consistency is not new, but I am quite pleased with the fact that it has lasted this long. What I have rarely been pleased with, however, is the odd mixture of topics I write about here. There is always physics, a lot of social commentary, the occasional satire, reviews of tech and software, and on and on it goes. To make a long story short, the science section of this journal will have a new home on the Science 2.0 network where I will be writing a column alongside several other scientists.

A bit of rambling: while each of these topics I write about may appeal to those who like, or are familiar with, any of the others, I continue to find topic-based categorisation lacking in more ways than one. First of all, it is clumsy. Second, it is ugly. Third, there is no way to provide feeds for each of these topics without making a mess of the design. (Seven RSS feed icons are never a pretty sight.) Fourth, and probably the most valid point of all, it makes the entire journal directionless and gives readers no reason to stay back and follow it simply because there may be things they are simply not interested in. I made this point fourth on my list, however, because this is a personal website and marketing has always been the least of my concerns.

This is why a lot of “blogging pundits” advise making niche blogs. This never made sense to me not because of the time and effort it would demand but because it would make writing a chore rather than a hobby. That is dangerous, because when a hobby feels like work, you are bound to drop it. On the other hand I have always been open to having a similar solution with little (or preferably no) maintenance issues at all.

Being allowed as part of the Science 2.0 network of scientific writing makes a lot of sense for me besides making me quite happy: there are other scientists writing too, there are good chances of networking, plus excellent writing to browse through right on the network, especially because Science 2.0 is not open to everyone and writers are carefully selected. Plus, no matter what anyone might say, having my own column feels good. Full stop.

All fun apart, though, Physics Focus, as I have decided to call my column (going against every bone in my body which wanted me to call it The Alterverse), will be as open-ended as this journal with an added change: all articles will have to do with physics. Look at it as publishing there any physics-related writing I would have published here. This change has also prompted a small alteration in the design of this website with a cover page now that my articles no longer need to be the focus. The main links, though, still lead to this journal, Physics Capsule, and my new column on the network. Unsurprisingly, the frequency of publishing in both these websites will drop thanks to the distribution of articles now, but I cannot think of anyone who would be adversely affected by it.

So long. All writing not related to physics will still be published here. When you have a moment, drop by on Physics Focus and subscribe via RSS (still my favourite mode of subscription, and still the most effective in my opinion, as opposed to bloated content aggregators like Flipboard and Apple News — try Feedly with Reeder or Unread instead). Subscription is free and takes all of three clicks. I can even link to it right here if you like: there you go. I can, hopefully, make it worth your while, and in any case you will find the other scientists writing columns there too; they are far more accomplished and you are bound to find an interesting piece or ten.

Additions to Chad Orzel’s article on physicists and philosophers

Chad Orzel wrote a column on his blog last week about James Blachowicz’s opinion piece in the New York Times titled “There is no scientific methods”. The Times article talks about how methods in science and those in, say, the humanities, are similar and then tries to make some point out of it regarding the validity of any thought.

Orzel uses an apt emoji (or is it kaomoji?) to describe the lack of a conclusion in Blachowicz’s article: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. This is particularly representative of a lot of research in the social sciences. There are two things Orzel’s article misses out on, in my opinion: firstly, it does not talk about the fact that such a practice of abrupt endings — that feel as if a closing inverted comma is missing — are a manifestation of a deeper problem in the humanities, and one that particularly disturbs physicists: vagueness. Somehow, most social scientists I have come across are perfectly satisfied with an answer that appears to point them in some meaningful direction, and they seem oblivious to the fact that the same argument is being understood by different people differently as a direct result of its being vague. The open-ended state of arguments (or the lack of a conclusion altogether) catalyses this.

Consider this sentence which Orzel also quotes, albeit for a different purpose: “If scientific method is only one form of a general method employed in all human inquiry, how is it that the results of science are more reliable than what is provided by these other forms?” The argument begins by stating that the scientific method is only one form of inquiry. The only logical next step is to state that any other discipline which uses the same scientific method must also be similarly reliable. However, the sentence itself seems to assume without any base that if the scientific method is reliable, then any form of it is also reliable. This may be true, but is still certainly not a valid assumption without some sort of context.

The second argument that I think Orzel should have made is once again aimed at the three paragraphs he quotes from the Times article, where Blachowicz says that that the reliability of the scientific method stems from the fact that “science deals with highly quantified variables and that it is the precision of its results that supplies this reliability.” And then helpfully warns that “quantified precision is not to be confused with a superior method of thinking.” Except this is only part of the picture.

The reliability of science — I can only speak for physics anyway — does not come from sheer precision of so-called “highly quantifiable variables”1 but rather from mathematics. This language (or tool, depending on how you wish to look at it) that physicists employ has an inherent logic to it in that the validity of every step is ensured by the previously established validity of each of its preceding steps. For instance, having proved beyond doubt that 1+1=2, 1+1+1=3 and so on, to show that 2+2=4 with similar “reliability” means one only need show that 1+1=2, so 2+2=1+1+1+1=4. Now this is a dull example compared with the concreteness and logic that maths is really capable of, but it was meant to explain a point to people of the humanities.

I particularly like this paragraph in Orzel’s post that quite sums up how we all feel:

As a scientist, I often find myself nodding along with the steps of the process to work something out, only to be left waiting for some sort of concrete conclusion about what comes next. There’s a comprehensive failure to build on prior results, or even suggest how someone else might build on them in the future, and as a physicist I find this maddening.

It is this idea of a logical building block where the stability of each block depends on that of the blocks that came before it is what physics and mathematics have that gives our results solidity. It is precisely this habit of using building blocks that prompts us to take a step back and look at the entire structure as a “therefore” as Orzel points out. To build an argument without some form of conclusion is to have a fanfare that awkwardly fizzles out halfway through.

This is all no different from asking a question and not getting an answer. The lack of a conclusion can be particularly frustrating. It is also why those of us in physics are often accused of over-thinking things while

On bad metals

On Condensed Concepts yesterday, Ross Mckenzie talked about bad metals and the unitary limit. There were a couple of ideas I was unfamiliar with, and I note some points here for anyone similarly interested in this area. Dr Mckenzie’s own writing followed the paper “Breakdown of the universality of the Kadowaki-Woods Ratio in multi-band metals” by D.C. Cavanagh et al.

Generally, we consider a material to be a metal when its resistivity increases with increase in temperature, and its electron excitation spectrum has no gaps. Its classical picture is given by the Drude model in which electrons move some average distance between two collision-scattering events. This is called the “mean free path”. In its quantum mechanical picture given by Sommerfeld’s later model (which was built on Drude’s), like everywhere else in quantum mechanics, we consider plane-wave states with corresponding wavelengths.

To define a good metal we need to mash these two models together (which is not something I like) and state the following: when an electron propagates a distance longer than one wavelength, it may be considered a good metal. Further, the electron-electron collision that occurs is proportional to the number of excited electrons and the number of vacancies, both of which are proportional to the temperature, making the resistivity — afforded by such electron-electron collisions — proportional to the square of temperature.

When none of these (or even some of these) are violated, the material is considered a “bad metal”. In physics we have a lot of such boring names, and we hardly spend any time naming things elaborately like chemists or biologists may. Another interesting value at this point is that when the mean free path is lesser than the interatomic distance in a lattice, there occurs a violation of the Ioff-Mott-Regel limit (or Mott-Ioff-Regel limit, depending on whom you ask), which demands that the mean free path be equal to the interatomic distance.

“In reality, it is not clear whether the MIR limit exists in any known material.” As Dr Mckenzie points out. “Bad metals, be definition, violate it.” More information is available in the form of slides from a presentation by Sean Hartnoll at Stanford.

Additionally, the first property stated above is actually related to an interesting phenomenon known as the Kondo effect which describes how magnetic properties affect electronic scattering to give a typical resistivity-temperature variation wherein the resistivity has a minimum. The effect is actually too complex to describe accurately (here and now) but there are always sources to read on this. Try Andrzej Nowojewski’s write-up at Harvard, or Alexander Hewson’s book from Cambridge.

iPad Pro

My first tablet was the Samsung Galaxy Tab, the first Android tablet ever, and I still have it and I still think that, for its time it was a splendid piece of technology. I have since moved wholly to the iOS universe where my first tablet was the first generation iPad Air, and today, two years later, I upgraded it to a 9.7 inch iPad Pro, with a spacious 128GB storage, and so far it has been a lovely experience.

The fact that I am typing these thoughts on my new iPad Pro goes to show just how capable this tablet is for “real” work. By contrast, I only ever used my iPad before to make notes for articles, and never to type the articles themselves. But to say the tablet alone is responsible for this would be wrong: it is a combination of iPad Pro, the new Smart Keyboard, and Apple Pencil. In fact, I have come to believe that it is this ecosystem of basic but incredibly capable accessories that makes the whole experience feel worthy of a pro tag.

I do not mean to undersell the iPad itself, but a closer look at its specifications will show that iPad Pro is really a next-generation iPad Air. It performs almost twice as well as its predecessor, the Air 2, and a whopping five times better than my old iPad Air. During daily tasks (read, media consumption) even iPad Air is plenty; and if that is all your usage is, then an upgrade to the Pro device is unnecessary. The specifications of the Pro shine when under stress, because you will find it hard to stress the A9X processor and the 2GB of RAM with any app currently on the App Store. There may be apps that put the device to a real test a few years from now, and this is where the older 12.9 inch iPad Pro wins — a better shelf life — but this 9.7 inch device is not to be dismissed, because in real world performance it is just as good as its larger counterpart with the added perks of being portably and not being ridiculously unwieldy.

The company’s new stylus, the Apple Pencil, is remarkable. It could just be that I am not thoroughly familiar with styluses in general, but this one is extremely accurate and goes a long, long way in making the iPad feel like a notepad. Couple this with apps like Penultimate or, my personal favourite, Goodnotes, and you have a complete solution to take notes, annotate, and maintain texts. On similar lines, with apps like Adobe Sketch, Paper by fiftythree, or the humorously named but powerful drawing app, Procreate, the Apple Pencil takes both dimensional iPad Pro devices several strides ahead of the competition.

The fallacy lies in viewing iPad Pro as a laptop-replacement, a flawed concept that was birthed with (as far as my own knowledge goes) the Surface lineup by Microsoft. Now the Surface is a PC that runs a PC operating system and looks like a tablet. That is completely different from iPad Pro, which is a tablet that runs a mobile operating system. Besides, when Steve Jobs first introduced the concept of a “tablet”, he never advertised it as a PC that is even more portable than a laptop. He intended to fill a void between the mobile phone and the laptop. Something that overcame the small-screen restriction of the mobile phone and coupled it with beefier hardware that allowed you to maintain the same portability while carrying more capabilities around. So iPad Pro, or any iPad in the foreseeable future, will not be a replacement for my MacBooks, but will hold its own place as a media consumption and ntertainment device as well as a text and photo content creation device.

This is precisely how I use my iPad and have been for a couple of years now. However, as far as content creation goes, it used to be my mind palace and notes area as well as where a lot of thoughts sparked. With the new Pro device and its peripherals (not to mention four brilliant speakers with channels that shift based on screen orientation) I have started using my iPad for more serious work: this whole article was typed from start to finish with great ease using Byword on iPad Pro, with split screen alongside Safari, and continuously backed up to my Dropbox. Would it have been impossible on my old iPad Air? Not necessarily, but it would have been cumbersome enough to become off-putting without the new Smart Keyboard.

Speaking of the Keyboard, the travel in the keys is considerable for a device wrapped in cloth that looks so thin. It is neither fragile or unusable. The travel is enough that once you get used to the smaller dimensions of the keyboard (not all that hard) typing is a breeze. The dimensions of the keyboard have been made sufficiently airy by reducing the size of companion keys like tab, return etc., and not by shrinking the alphanumeric keys. My Smart Keyboard had an issue where the keyboard itself would rise and flop around, creating an imbalance in the stand, all of which had nothing to do with the weight of the tablet itself. The guys at the Apple Store were courteous as always and agreed to replace the keyboard for me. I still with the keyboard was backlit and had function keys, but it certainly is good as it stands.

Fortune describes iPad Pro as “the best of both worlds”, because it takes all the power of the 12.9 inch behemoth and makes it portable in a more familiar 9.7 inch form factor. But the new device also brings a much, much better display. Samsung has long been the maker of supposedly better smartphone displays and, of late, cameras. But, as someone who makes a lot of photographs, I have always preferred the more realistic colours on iPhone to the over-saturated mess on Samsung phones, despite better rendition of blacks on the latter. Apple takes the proverbial game to the next level with a much brighter screen on this new iPad, with an improved colour gamut and the same digital colour space as that used by Hollywood, all wrapped up in a nice screen that is much less reflective than previous devices. And a new technology, dubbed “True Tone”, subtly modifies screen temperature with the help of four dedicated sensors depending on the environment you are in, to mimic paper. This felt like always-on Night Shift at first, but within hours I had stopped noticing it — unlike Night Shift.

Apple’s bid to sell an iPad as a “Super. Computer.” seems like a desperate move at this point. The future of the iPad is not threatened because nobody considers it as their next computer, rather because nobody seems to realise it for what it is. It is an iPad. And instead of forcing it to be something it is not, we should all take another look at iPad Pro and appreciate how differently it lets us do intensive tasks — and with ease too — and Apple should take that mindset and begin working on making tablets their own, entirely new class of devices as was originally intended, instead of presenting them as wannabe computers. What must also change is apps, most of which still boast enlarged iPhone UIs, and a file system needs to be made available, not to make iPad more like a computer but because, half-a-decade on, it is time we came up with a whole new manner of working with tablets: if the hardware fills a void between smartphones and PCs, so too must the software.

The best thing about iPad Pro is that it has made me use it a lot more and has reduced my iPhone use. When, earlier, I used to simply grab my iPhone because my iPad was in another room and it made no difference anyway, the Pro device does make a difference. And boy is it thin. Thinner than my iPhone 6S, and sporting a darker space grey brushed Aluminium back, it is a joy to carry around, and is much easier as well. The Smart Keyboard cover does add bulk, but is nothing unforgivable. And my new iPad Pro is fast becoming my device of choice for select tasks, not stealing the limelight from my MacBook, but carving out its own space in my workflow.

What is it with people and weather apps?

“Weather forecast for tonight: dark.” George Carlin was probably the only one who ever gave an accurate weather forecast. Knowing how incredibly unpredictable the weather can be it always surprises me how much people seem to love weather apps. Perhaps it is just me but never in my life have I ever looked at a weather forecast before wearing “appropriate” clothes or grabbing an umbrella.

I love umbrellas and perhaps the only reason I would ever use a weather app was if I needed to find a reason to carry one, but the umbrella is a versatile device: you can use it come rain or shine. On a more serious note, however, weather apps are, quite a lot of the time, little more than entertainment. You would have just as much fun as if someone made an app that predicted all your shots in a game of billiards. Sure, given all the variables to enough degrees of accuracy, you could predict precisely where the cue ball goes and how much you score, but there are so many variables you are bound to go wrong sooner or later.

Sample forecast message, courtesy of NOAA.

Sample forecast message, courtesy of NOAA.

Model Output Statistics, says the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is a technique used to objectively interpret numerical model output and produce site-specific guidance of the weather. And there are a huge number of variables involved, all of which are measurable, but all of which are constantly changing. (See an old sample from the NOAA’s technical procedures bulletin above.) Couple this with the fact that it takes time for data to transfer from the detection site to the weather people (some call them meteorologists) to their machines and human interpreters — whom we will talk about presently — and then for the softwares to get updated and then for data to upload and transfer to everyone’s smartphone and you have a surefire recipe for missing the mark, sometimes narrowly, sometimes widely, but missing the mark nonetheless.

As the New York Post elaborately reported last year, some people are really going to town with their weather apps, treating its word like the Gospel. Had humans not been involved to inject a certain degree of subtlety, purely numeric, machine-forecasted data would show a chaotic earth. This is all a first world problem like no other. On top of which, most weather apps log the user’s location all the time and eat away at the battery life.

With all this in mind, here is an idea for CERN: make a “what particle will we discover today?” app with dress-codes associated with various possible quark arrangements and charge a premium for it. There is little doubt in my mind that this app (which we should definitely call The AcuParticle Underground Channel — show of hands if you get the joke) will suggest dresses with greater accuracy than any weather app available for your smartphone.

If you think my suggestion is far-fetched, take a look at what a Pennsylvania college did back in 2007. They made a prediction market where students bet on what the highest and lowest temperatures would be and their predictions were off from those of professional forecasters by a frequency less than 7%. Weather forecast is, in spirit, gambling with limited known data that will increase our odds of winning — or the odds of making accurate predictions if you will — but never make anything a certainty. Certainly not a soothsaying about this evening’s rain, so you might as well put your phone back in your pocket.