Friday, October 29, 2010

The Ghost of Fractals Past

There I was minding my own business, which in this particular case happened to be a classic paper by Peter Elias (P. Elias, "Coding for two noisy channels", Proc. Third London Symposium on Information Theory, The Royal Institution, London, September 12-17, 1955), when one B. Mandelbrot made an unexpected appearance. It was in the "Discussion" section appended to the end of the paper:

B. MANDELBROT: Some of Dr. Elias' results can be deduced by continuing the argument of Feinstein (cf. Mandelbrot, Ann. Telecomm., June 1955). I should like to ask Dr. Elias if he can say more about the relationship between Feinstein's work and random coding.

P. ELIAS in reply: [...] Dr. Mandelbrot's question is difficult to answer briefly, but in general Feinstein's work may be considered as random coding operating under constraints. These constraints do not reduce channel capacity, nor do they alter the exponent in the exponentially decreasing error probability, so far as the leading term for rates very near channel capacity is concerned. However, they do increase the error probability for somewhat lower transmission rates compared with what unconstrained random coding can do.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Orwell on Intellectuals

"One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool."

- George Orwell, "Notes on Nationalism" (1945)
Usually (mis)quoted as:
"There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them."

Friday, October 22, 2010

20 years of MMD

To some, MMD stands for Movement for Multiparty Democracy. To others, it stands for Mwadya Mweka Daddy (literally "You've eaten alone Daddy"). This retrospective by Jack Zimba goes some way to explaining why there are such contrasting views of the MMD.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A General Theory of Googling

Why some nouns become verbs.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Research in Africa

In April 2010, Thomson Reuters published an interesting report on research in Africa. The report cites a very thoughtful speech by President Paul Kagame of Rwanda on the role of science and technology in African development.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

The power of simplicity

One of the most popular quotations attributed to Einstein is: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." Indeed, it's one of my own favourites.

Unfortunately, I have never been able to verify its authenticity as something Einstein ever wrote or said. The closest I've come is in some words contained in an address by Einstein entitled "On the Method of Theoretical Physics" in The Hebert Spencer Lecture delivered at Oxford on the 10th of June, 1933:

It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.


Our experience up to date justifies us in feeling sure that in Nature is actualized the ideal of mathematical simplicity. It is my conviction that pure mathematical construction enables us to discover the concepts and the laws connecting them which give us the key to the understanding of the phenomena of Nature.


It is essential for our point of view that we can arrive at these constructions and the laws relating them one with another by adhering to the principle of searching for the mathematically simplest concepts and their connections. In the paucity of the mathematically existent simple field-types and of the relations between them, lies the justification for the theorist's hope that he may comprehend reality in its depths.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

2010 Ibrahim Index

The 201o Ibrahim Index was released this week.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

English Communication for Scientists

This guide is essential reading for all scientists since, as one (continental) European colleague remarked to me once, the international language of science is broken English.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Styles of doing science

Andre Geim and Konstantin "Kostya" Novoselov, who earlier today won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics, practise a particularly innovative and playful style of doing science that Geim calls the "Lego Doctrine". (See also Novoselov's perspective.)

So far, so wrong

The Thomson Reuters 2010 Nobel predictions, that is.

They predicted this for medicine - this is how it actually turned out. And this for physics - and this is how it turned out.

Update (5 October 2010):

In response to my initial post (above), I received the following email from David Pendlebury of Thomson Reuters (published with his permission):
Subject: Re: Actually, Thomson Reuters picked Geim and Novoselov to win the Nobel in 2008


I just wanted to point out that those scientists named in previous years as Citation Laureates are still considered contenders for the Nobel Prize. We do not really expect that our selections will win the Nobel Prize in the same year they are named. Here is our 2008 press release:

Best wishes, David Pendlebury
To which I replied:
My remarks were, of course, somewhat tongue in cheek. The sheer number of worthy discoveries and discoverers (compared to available prizes), and the various factors and actors at play in the nomination and selection process, make any kind of year-to-year prediction of Nobel Prizes nigh on impossible (at least, in the sciences!). I daresay many of the contenders identified by your analyses over the years, worthy though they most certainly are, will never win the Nobel Prize. I recognise that this is through no fault of theirs or of Thomson Reuters.

Monday, October 04, 2010

The Dinner Game

Le Dîner de cons (The Dinner Game) is worth seeing. Many times. Don't bother with the cheap Hollywood knock-off.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

59 Seconds

59 Seconds: Think a little, Change a lot by the very aptly named Richard Wiseman.
The first self-help book based on solid scientific research.