Sunday, October 25, 2009

Destiny on the table

My friend's son turned one today. There was a big party. After the cakes were cut and served to the guests, a few objects were placed on a low coffee table: a pen, symbolizing scholarship; a drumstick, foretelling the life of a musician; two crayons, pointing to artistic creativity; a pink plastic ribbon, embodying longevity; a $20 bill, foreshadowing a career in finance; and a calculator, auguring a career in science and engineering. The one-year old was going to pick one of these objects on his own, which would reveal his future.

The son's name is Haydn, and my friend named his dog Mozart, so there was a clear expectation from the parents. Lo and behold, Haydn, donning traditional Korean costumes, reached for the drumstick. But then something funny happened. He stopped 3 inches short, hand suspended in mid air. He was thinking, and he started inspecting other objects. Then he noticed the pen - a Mont Blanc, and without further hesitation he grasped it. Scholar he would be! Everyone in the room broke into applause. Then Haydn also took the crayons. A scholar with artistic creativity, it could not have been better.

With an analytical turn of mind, I could not help thinking about the one-year-old's choice. First, he went for the drumstick; but instead, he chose the pen and the crayons. All these objects are long cylinders, with the Mont Blanc pen being the most well-crafted (and also by far the most expensive). Perhaps all toddlers have a innate affinity for cylindrincally shaped objects, but prefer the ones that they can easily hold in their tiny hands.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Reenact a novel on Facebook

Here is a silly but potentially fun game to play on Facebook. Take your favorite novel, say, War and Peace, and for each character, Pierre Bezukhov, Natasia Rostova, etc., register a Facebook page. Next, connect the characters in friendship as they do so in the novel. As you read the novel, each day you will update each character's page with things that happen to the character. Write statements in first-person, and write them in the protagonists' own tones. Record not only the events in the protagonists' lives, but also the thoughts that may go through their minds, and the emotions that they experience - use your own imagination here to express your personal impressions. By the time you finish reading the novel, you will have reenacted the novel in the cyberspace. Won't this be fun! Better yet, it will make you pay more attention to the details in the novel, thus appreciating it better.

If you have a reading group, each member in the group can play a different character. Such a game surely will enhance the reading experience, and give you something extra to discuss over cheese and wine.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Friendship, one bite at a time

In the movie Fightclub, Norton's nameless character coined the phrase single-serving friends - strangers who share a few hours of flight time, chat, and then part their ways. On Facebook, friends are like bite-sized snacks - their frequent posts and comments alleviate the sense of separation but never satiate the craving for real connection. Just like too much snack can ruin the appetite for a real meal, the deluge of Facebook friendships, I fear, might get in the way of developing more full-fledged friendship. We take a glimpse into our friends' lives through their Facebook posts, confuse them with real conversations, and be content with an illusion of company. 

In this new era of Facebook, friendship needs a re-definition. According to Facebook, my friend Coco has 1278 friends and counting, and George recently announced that his friend count just entered 4 digit realm as well. When one's got that many friends, each friendship cannot but be diluted down. As an old Chinese saying goes: a virtuous friendship is thin but pure like water. Are all Facebook friendships not only virtual but also virtuous?

One psyche that draws us to Facebook, I suspect, is curiosity, a social voyeurism out of boredom. We are born to peek into others' lives, and now Facebook seemingly offers a way to peek into others' minds (the form on Facebook asks "What is on your mind?"). A thought, once posted, is no longer exclusively owned but is shared among all who read it. Does this allow us to vicariously live our friends' lives? When a friend posts sad feelings, does it inflict sadness among all who view the post? To what extent will the great connectivity synchronize our emotions?

On Facebook, one promotes to friends who in real life are but acquaintances. It is convenient and it costs nothing. Friendship can be deleted - a click on a button and the connection is removed; no awkward social situation is involved. One can also delete one's posts; is it equivalent to saying "Oh, sorry, I take it back!" in a real conversation?

Friday, October 09, 2009

A Nobel SurPrize

In debating whether President Obama deserves the Nobel Peace Prize after only 9 months as the president of United States, it behooves a re-reading of Alfred Nobel's original will:

one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity among nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.

There is an apparent difference between the intended recipients of the Peace Prize and those of the other disciplines. In chemistry, physics, medicine, and literature, the prize should go to researchers or writers who have produced the most significant result - discoveries, inventions, or a body of literature that have transformed the scientific, technological, or cultural landscape. Notably, these prizes award impact, not effort or intention. Even though success, as Edison put it, is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration, sometimes chance happens to all. Kary Mullis won 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry not for any heroic effort, but for his stroke-of-genius invention of polymerase chain reaction. With few exceptions, Nobel Prizes in these disciplines have rarely been given to anyone for simply tireless work - too many scientists and writers toil for a lifetime without any recognition. In short, award for quality, not quantity.

The Peace Prize is singled out because it can be bestowed upon a person who has "done the most or the best work". Now the door is open for effort, regardless of result. In the past, the Nobel Peace Prize has been repeatedly awarded for intentions and labor, even when such intentions and labor have not paid quantifiable dividend of a more peaceful or sustainable world.

Unlike the other Nobel Prizes, which are established to encourage individuals in the pursuit of science and literature, thus more immune to any mutable agenda of the committee itself, the Nobel Peace Prize takes it upon itself to promote peace in the world. The Prize committee therefore has its own political agenda. The main purpose of the award is not to recognize any individual's effort or accomplishment, but to recognize and support a cause, a policy or an action that the committee deems to be in the correct direction. It is not an award for the past, but for the present and the future. The award to Obama is not a nod to what he has achieved, but to what he is doing. In other words, the committee is making a statement that had they been elected the president of the United States, they would be instituting the same international order as Obama; they are also telling the world, be vigilant of this new course of the United States, and make sure that the Obama administration never strays from it. The award is a means for the Prize Committee to insert its own agenda into world politics.

Unfortunately, good intentions do not equal good outcomes. As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. (This is probably best illustrated by the predecessor of Obama.) A world without nuclear weapons may not be a more peaceful world, just one less likely to face total annihilation. The impact of policies can only be tested by time. But again, the committee of the Nobel Peace Prize is not there to assess the impact using scientific measurements, it is there to ensure that the United States, and the rest of the world, commit to the policies that the committee approves of out of their own noble intentions and gut's feelings. After all, in the long run, we are all dead; but in the next 3 years, we want to live the way that feels right.

If the Nobel Peace Prize were to be awarded for impact instead of intention, if it were to be given to people whose work have fundamentally improved fraternity among nations and different people, I would like to nominate Timothy Berners-Lee, for the invention of the internet, or Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google. Nothing has done more to spread democracy, to combat poverty, to defeat dictators, to foster fraternity across national borders, and to carry prosperity from corner to corner in this world, than the freedom of information and instant communication brought about by the internet. If there were to be a number assigned to the impact of the internet on world peace, it would have to be googol.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Making of a Great Scientist

When I first got into science, I thought that it was about coming up with brilliant and evolutionary ideas and the rest would come together by itself. After ten years in research, however, while being by no means a great scientist, I did learn a few things about the making of one, which I would like to share with you. It's an immodest thing to do. But anonymous modesty never serves anyone. So here I go.

First of all, if you have not read Richard Hamming's lecture, "You and Your Research", read it now. If you haven't reevaluate your research after reading it, read it again. Hamming's lecture should really be writings on the wall for all aspiring scientists, for it shows us the most important step to great research: how to pick the great problems to work on. Avoid mediocrity.

But picking the right problem is just the first step. The really great scientists are also great problem solvers. Rome is not built in one day. Great science does not happen by itself even if you have a great idea. There is only subtle difference between a genius and a mad person. That difference is the methodical implementation of one's ideas.

Once you have an idea to solve a great problem, you set out to see if it is right. You carry out an experiment. If you are really onto something big, often you will need to design a new experiment that nobody has done before, you will build some new apparatuses, write some new computer programs, collect some hard-to-collect data. (Incidentally, having to do something difficult and unusual also hints that you may be onto something significant.) These new elements bring in extra uncertainty. The experiments may at first disagree with your hypothesis. You have to determine whether your hypothesis is wrong or your experiment has flaws.

The ability to verify the integrity of your experiment is the paramount skill you need to have as a great scientist. You have to be able to design experiments where you know the outcome to test your new apparatus, devise simple models with analytical results to test your computer program.

Once your experiment agrees with your hypothesis, the real test of greatness begins. You must overcome the initial excitement, and with a cool head, consider if there is an alternative hypothesis that also agrees with your experiment. How can you design additional experiment to distinguish between different hypotheses? Don't draw conclusions too quickly.