Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Automaton People

This automaton was built ~ 1800.
Our educational system (even in the best of the best schools) tries hard and often succeeds in turning us into some sort of automatons without feelings or families. The poster child for these automaton-like people is a woman becoming "man-like" to join the workforce. To me it just means that we all wear shapeless clothes and try to dismiss all feelings. We spend most of our time at our computers. When we don't work, we browse the web.  Because of demands on our time and visa requirements we stop being there for existent family, and then lose the courage to invest in a new family.  The few of us who do have families are told to not feel guilty when we don't spend time with our children since this means our partner & the child-care centres "lean in". After our education is complete, a very small fraction of us are labeled as successful by the society.

So what is success? I went to really good schools. I was educated at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Bachelors and Masters) and Cornell University (another Masters and PhD; I received my PhD from Cornell before I turned 25). Afterwards, I worked as a researcher at the Pennsylvania State University, and now I am a researcher at the University of Zurich. I have worked with people who are described on wikipedia as having significant impact on the world as we know it. Interacting with and learning from individuals who are not just smart, but what my brother and I call "out of this world smart", is pretty amazing. I admired and respected all the people I worked for/with, and I hope I have managed to stay "friends" (as much as my time and theirs allows) with some of them.

I have no good advice on how to win the Nobel Prize or on having the perfect life or even on how to be successful. If I had, I would have won the Nobel prize myself and spent less time feeling unfulfilled and unproductive. However, I think I understand better than before that success is a mixture of talent, hard work, and being in the right place at the right time with an open mind. The latter aspect is typically forgotten later in life even by the winners themselves.  It's difficult to work hard, and not lose yourself in the work (too much). Yes, all these amazing people have worked a lot and often still work very hard. However, most of them were able to work hard while gauging what is important and what not of what they did.   Of course, this instinct is also built through trial and error and more work while retaining some part of one's personality. People win prizes when they are young because that's when they have the courage of going in a different direction than most of the crowd. These winners are people whom our schools failed to conform to the beaten path for a little while. Don't worry they are (almost) all automatons, too by now. Also, perhaps one does not have to be as popular as Angelina Jolie or be a Nobel Prize winner to feel successful and fulfilled.

The shapeless dressing, and the not having/exhibiting any feelings is more prevalent in sciences and engineering and yet every year scientists wonder why they have so few women in their ranks. There are also very few women at the top if we average over all fields: industry, politics, science, etc.  The reason for this may be that women have a stronger instinct of preservation/survival because the human race depends on us, and so we run away more easily than men when we see automatons/the automaton path. People don't know how to not be automaton-like, and yet be labeled as successful.  The consequence of continuously trying to fulfil these aspirations is that we often lose our creativity along the way, and our families, and our humanity sometimes too.

I will conclude with "Sorcova Vesela" (various translations or wikipedia, youtube), which is an old folk song/carol that is sung by boys to young women on New Year's day.

The Romanian version:

"Să trăiți,
Să-mbătrâniți. Să-nfloriți,
Să mărgăriți,
Ca un măr,
Ca un păr,
Ca un fir
De trandafir.

Tare ca piatra,
Iute ca săgeata
Tare ca fierul
Iute ca oțelul.
La anul si la multi ani!"

and the English translation:

"May you live long, may you grow old,
Over summer, over spring,
Like a pear tree, like an apple tree, 
Lovely like a rose 
Tough like a rock 
Fast like an arrow
Strong like iron,
Sharp as steel.
Happy New Year!"

This song is closer to my heart than superman or superwoman because my brother and I used to serenade the old ladies in the neighbourhood with it on New Years Day. At the time I had a vague idea that only boys were supposed to sing it, but singing it was fun and my brother would have felt lonely singing without me. Also, we were both equally tone deaf. So, our signing meant we were screaming the words all in the same pitch while waving the "sorcova" - a stick covered with shinny paper and other ornaments.  I finished college before I realised the song was funny.

The song is inline with the superhero concept, i.e., people who are so efficient that they do everything and do it right in addition to always being awesomely good looking independently of what they just went through. In the end, we have always wanted and perhaps we will always want to be like that. So, do I want to be like that? Well... I want to be/remain beautiful, healthy, intelligent, strong and efficient preferably for as long as live, I'd like my children and nephews and nieces to be like that too, and I hope to live for a very long time. Everybody does, and I am human after all. But first and foremost I want my family and I to be healthy, and then I believe that all other things will naturally follow, and that even when they do not, life is still beautiful and worth living.

Conclusion: I think people should stop referring to the ideal working person as "man-like", when they really mean it to be an asexual being.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Second indirect detection of gravitational waves. First direct evidence of inflation?

Update: The BICEP2 paper recently appeared in Physical Review Letters. I have been remiss in mentioning that their discovery is controversial due to potential 'improper' subtraction of galactic dust. The opinions are split is that it's unclear that dust could reproduce the B-mode polarisation that they are claiming to see. However, more evidence is needed before we can believe this discovery. So, no Nobel prize yet, but stay tuned for Planck results, and data from other telescopes! 

South Pole Telescope & B-mode data. Credit:  BICEP2, NASA.
The South Pole telescope (BICEP2 collaboration) reported seeing a twisting in the direction of the polarization of primordial light (also known as the cosmic microwave background) that is likely to be a signature of gravitational waves from inflation.  There are numerous news reports about this all over the web, e.g., Sky and TelescopeCaltech, New Scientist, the Guardian, and even CNN, and the NY Times.

E-mode pattern (up), B-mode pattern (down)
Inflation tells us that for a tiny fraction of a second the universe after the Big Bang grew exponentially stretching both (1) the quantum fluctuations in the spacetime into gravitational waves (the B-modes or tensor modes), and (2) the scalar fluctuations of the inflaton (the E-modes or scalar modes) also known as the ordinary density perturbations that later grew into the structure we see today: stars, galaxies, etc. The photons were polarized in a particular pattern by scattering off electrons (see Fig 2 in Sky and Telescope for a short explanation of this process). Once the first atoms formed, the universe became transparent to radiation (some 380, 000 years after the Big Bang) and those photons traveled to us to form the Cosmic Microwave Background. They were seen by WMAP, Planck, the South Pole telescope, and as well as by other ground-based telescopes and balloon experiments. Accurate measurements of the residual polarization of these photons are very challenging, but hopefully some of these experiments will confirm the BICEP2 results. There is also a BICEP3 planned.

If the interpretation of these results is correct, the potential impact is huge. These photons provide a first estimate of how hot the big bang was, tell us the gravity is quantised, constrain different models in string theory, quantum gravity and cosmology by indirectly probing space-time at an energy scale when the strong, weak and electromagnetic force were one, etc.

Technical results: Their best fit of the data is a scalar to tensor ratio of 0.2 ± 0.07/0.05, and imply an energy scale for inflation of about 1016 GeV, which may be as close as we can get to the Planck scale of about 1019 GeV. They believe the gravitational waves come from inflation because the B-modes peak at a particular multipole: l = 80, which is particular to the gravitational waves expected from inflation and makes them unlikely to be E-modes turned into B-modes via lensing.

See the BICEP2 papers and Data for the original work. They describe the instrument, their data analysis, some of its potential interpretations and combine their results with those from current data from Planck and other experiments. Also, Sean Carroll's blog is typically great for explaining the physics while proving necessary background information for people who are not cosmologists.

Direct vs. indirect gravitational wave detection.
Gravitational waves are a direct consequence of general relativity, which is a theory that has been tested many times in many different ways. The first indirect detection of gravitational waves was in the Hulse-Taylor binary pulsar system for which the prediction from general relativity matches extremely well to the observed decrease in orbital period as the two neutron stars spiral together. The neutron stars speed up and get closer together as they lose energy via gravitational wave emission. This is considered to be evidence for gravitational waves and not a direct detection. The binary system is a single source that generates the waves, and cannot be used to detect other gravitational wave sources.

The CMB polarization observations represent unequal heating of photons that scattered off electrons that were stretched and squeezed by passing gravitational waves. The "waves" are pre-inflation quantum fluctuations stretched by inflation that are observed via their imprint on the CMB photons. It's truly amazing that this effect can be measured with such good accuracy (5-sigma level), and it's data that holds information on what happened at about 10-37 seconds after the Big Bang at energy levels at the GUT (Grand Unified Theories Scale). However, it is still a one-time event. Now, this one time event may be way more interesting than many detections of neutron star binaries and black hole binaries, but that may be a matter of perspective. Also, such observations may not be as unrelated as they seem. Both the very early universe and the interior of black holes were governed by quantum gravity, e.g., we don't understand the difference between a black hole horizon and the cosmological horizon as well as we would like to.

Experiments on Earth such as the Advanced LIGO detectors (and in space: LISA, Pulsar Timing arrays) expect to see gravitational waves from a large variety of sources. On Earth, gravitational wave detectors will see macroscopic masses (40 kg objects) move when a gravitational wave passes by. The problem is that the gravitational waves are very weak. Such detectors have to recover this movement generated by the gravitational wave(s) and distinguish it from noise, i.e., the movement generated by numerous other things on Earth (e.g., traffic, people cutting wood, earthquakes, waves, etc). This is extremely challenging, but there is hope it will happen this decade.

Note:  The discussion on direct vs. indirect detection was added after reading Sam Finn's facebook explanation.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Can skipping school be good?

I mostly skipped class when I was sick or studying on my own for exams, i.e., either I could not go to school or I was doing something I believed to be more important. I took the GRE Subject Test in Mathematics at the end of highschool to prove that I could do it. This is a test for college graduates with a major in Math. I scored 860 (62%) out of 990, a score with which I would have been admitted to some graduate schools. However, towards the end of high school I have also sometimes skipped school with friends. This was in part because we had some uninterested/ing teachers, and in part because it was fun to do what was not allowed.

Are we right in valuing attendance so much? No! No! No! Our educational system fails our children by assigning a zero or sometimes negative value to their time.  Schools are not there to keep children busy, but to teach them new and wonderful things and to make them interested in learning.

So should children skip school? Yes, but in a controlled way. Both the parents and the school should, in principle, always know where the child is because until college children are underage. However, I think it should be ok for children to skip school for short periods of time. OK, you can skip school if your parents agree with that, but then you have to catch up with what was taught in class on your own. If it's allowed, it is not going to be considered so cool. 

It is ridiculous when skipping school is confined to two days per semester, which require petitioning to some weird entity like the city hall. School is not a prison system, and turning it into one can only cause rebellion. We want to prevent children from skipping school to get high on drugs without paralysing their thought process. Students should have more freedom of choice because when they graduate they have to be able to manage their time and their lives effectively. If they do not graduate, the decisions will be even harder to make. 

Travelling is good. Children (and adults) learn from their own experiences better than from books. So, traveling should be encouraged within some limit - just like graduate students are encouraged to go to one or two conferences every year, children should be encouraged to travel with their families to see new places when it is possible. Conferences often happen during the semester and involve skipping class. The timing is not important, it is important that they go to these meetings, talk to people and learn new things. There are projects that can be assigned to the child about the learning he does when he is away, and these can be presented in class to make studying more interesting for everyone.

What was the most important part of my education? Since I remember my mother paid attention to our opinion and respected us, and in turn we have always respected her - even as teenagers. She did, however, make a point of always trying to know where we were. Placing some level of trust in children is something very important that most parents and educational systems fail to do.

Did I ever skip school while I was growing up? Yes, sometimes. I mostly stayed home when I was sick or when I wanted to study on my own. However, I distinctly remember that our French teacher, whose class was scheduled after two hours of classes that were not happening, remarked on how much Jeni's hair grew since the last time he saw us. Jeni, Alina and I were almost always together. So, it must have been that none of us attended French for a while. Instead of learning French, we saw James Bond movies and two other movies that had just come out. One other time we went to a park near our school instead of to class. There we sat on swings and prepared for the class after the one we were skipping. We were noted as absent in red by our Romanian Literature professor. Romanian was my favourite class from high school and I still skipped it. We also went to the opera several times - this was with the approval of our chemistry teacher who sold the tickets and allowed only the kids who attended the opera to skip her class the day of the play. I remember the movies and the plays we saw, and the trips to the park better than I remember the times I sat in class.

There were also classes that I skipped because the teachers were not interested in teaching and would rather send us home, but then everyone skipped.  However, I do not count these incidents so much as skipping school - more as poor management:  the school could not find teachers who were interested in teaching whatever subject they were supposed to be teaching. This was not surprising since salaries were very low, and the bribes for positions were a way of survival. We did have some really good teachers from my parents' generation. It was mostly the new hires who did not care about teaching and let us go home instead, but they gave us good grades, which ended up counting for admission to some universities.

I did not travel much until I left home for college, but this was because my family did not have the money or the time to travel. 

Did I ever drink alcohol or smoke in high school? No. I did have many classmates who enjoyed both. I had a few really good friends. However, none of my close friends smoke or drank on a regular basis, and so I was not under too much pressure to drink and smoke myself. While I agree that drinking socially is OK,  I still don't drink or smoke. I sometimes have a glass of Champagne at occasions, e.g., when a student graduates.
From right to left: Jeni, Alina, Adriana, below: me & my great aunt
Over the big break, we used to go to a nearby store and buy whole-grain black bread to share, and then to the post office to mail applications for US schools. My best friends from highschool with whom I used to skip school are Alina (who has a Masters in Mathematics from the University of Pennsylvania and is now a highschool teacher herself at a top US highschool) and Jenica (holds a PhD from the University of Notre Dame in bioinformatics, and performs research in genetics at the Children's Hospital in Philadelphia). My other friends from high school have stayed in Timisoara. However, they all have good jobs, and families that they are very proud of.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

David is 7!

Tasting the cake.
Framed drawings by David and Edward.
When I was in school, our behaviour was always blamed on our first seven years at home (known in Romanian as "cei sapte ani de acasa"). This period is now over for David. He turned 7 last month!

A typical conversation between David and Edward:

Edward enters the room. David is holding a toy while finishing his homework.
Edward: "I want that toy!"
On Rollerblades

In a former prison in Martinique
David: "I will give it to you if you tell me who is the smartest person in the world."
Edward: "OK, David. You are the smartest person in the world!"
David passes the toy to Edward, puts his pencil down and says:
"Edward, NOW, the smartest person in the world can read AND write! Isn't that amazing?".

I suppose when I first learned to read and write I must have thought it was quite amazing, too.

A little later Edward comes by with a candle: "I have a candle! Who wants to buy a candle?" he asks.
David: "I do. I do!"  (he is looking for distraction from his homework)
Edward: "I don't sell to smart people."

I find some of their conversations particularly funny. Now I understand why parents quote their children.

Lighting up the candles on his cake.
Learning the history of Martinique
David is a typical 7 year old with lots of energy. He loves rollerblading, swimming, drawing, playing with electronics, wax, candles, is fascinated by fire, etc.   He spends most of his daytime playing outside, and in the evening he does some extra writing or math, and he falls asleep while he is being read to. He enjoys Pippi Longstocking, and various science books starting from genetics to astronomy to lots of books about animals, fish and snails. He can also add numbers in his head pretty well.

Were my teachers right with the first seven years? Are they the most important in a child's life?
On an old cannon.
The brain's ability to change and adapt as a result of experience,
David's first volcano is hidden in fog.
i.e., the plasticity of the brain, is much higher for children than adults. This means that children learn easier than adults and the information acquired shapes their thinking at a deeper level than what they learn later on.
They learn languages easier and can recuperate from various forms of trauma faster than adults.

While the neuroplasticity level decreases as children grow, I do not think there is a scientifically proved threshold at exactly the age of seven.  At 6-7 children start school. Assuming that they did not attend pre-school & day-care & kindergarten before that, which most children do attend, starting school is a traumatic experience since it involves obeying a rigid program that confines children to chairs for several hours a day. If they do attend kindergarten and day-care, then it's wrong to assume the first seven years were spent at home. Before school, I only occasionally attended kindergarten and skipped school significantly afterwards - so the statement was factual in my case.

Conclusion. In the end, I think it's good to view every year of a persons' life as important and as different - each year holding its own beauty and surprises. I still believe that children are rightfully named bundles of joy. They do add a lot of trouble to the joy they bring, but the trouble keeps our lives interesting. I am glad that David had a happy birthday, and I hope that he will continue to be a very happy little boy for many years to come.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Random thoughts

In the past I have consistently chosen work over most other things. I also chose to have a family to whom I have always been very close to, and I have always lived in beautiful areas - although I have never chosen a position based on location so far.  I have a reasonable level of tolerance, but I have often felt that most members of my family and I were genetically designed to get along.

 The risk I consistently take is that of doing many things. While most people dislike leaving their comfort zone unnecessarily, I repeatedly ignore my comfort zone and my fears, which are always there. I am, of course, afraid of failing, of being too superficial, of choosing the wrong paths too often, and of doing too many things that will not be worthwhile in the end. I do make an effort to finish most of the things I start even if it sometimes takes me a long time - always way longer than I think it should take. All this is against what I have been taught in school. Society wants us to be in the same box doing the same things all our lives. Change is most often seen as a failure to continue in the same direction. My colleagues who switched to industry after having a PhD (and perhaps one or two postdocs) are seen as people who failed to stay in the wonderful academic system by the people who stayed in the academia. The people who stayed in the academia are probably seen as failures by those who left because most of what we do does not have direct, immediate impact on the world. Most articles we write reach a very small community. More often than not this community is just too small to be worth the one or two or several years of work invested. Also, we are always at work, but make a lot less money.

But is it better to stay in the same field forever even after one's productivity drops or to be open to reinventing oneself and have the courage to change careers? How much does the reinventing process reduce the risk of Alzheimer and other problems later in life? Is it worth it?  Every subfield has its own jargon and its own little world, and I have tried hard to not be stuck in local minima for too long. However, it's hard to leave many little worlds behind - and in time it gets harder and more tiring to start over. How many people can start something entirely new, and finish it at a level that is worth the time and potentially the money invested? Is our society right in forcing people to be in the same box doing the same things all their lives? 

I do not have good answers to every one of these questions because the answers depend on the situations they are applied to.  I have always tried to be optimistic and to believe in the people around me. I think that, in time, the rapid transfer of information will completely reform our educational system, the way we work and the way we think. It is likely that this new system will allow change more readily, and perhaps even be able to simulate potential outcomes and come up with optimum solutions. I hope that we will not have to wait for people born before computers (at 31 I am part of the older generation) to die or retire before our educational system and the work place become more fluid because changes are exciting and I want to see them happen.

Could I work in a field that is not in the academia? I do not want to work in a bank, in programming, industry or consulting. All these jobs seems too hard, too boring, and often too far away from anything that feels real. Physics does model reality after all. However, I often wish I lived on a farm (with some help for the various responsibilities) where my children could learn more from experiencing the life around them vs. mostly from books, and that this farm was located in a warmer place than Zurich or central Pennsylvania. I could be a high-tech farmer who controls his tractors from home. But then I dislike monocultures, using insecticides, and killing animals. So, I do not think I will ever be very productive as a farmer.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Temper tantrums

I remember throwing temper tantrums when I was little. I have learned to control my temper and I expect most children do the same in time.  However, I am surprised by the attitude I see among parents who are told they are not supposed to shorten the tantrum of their child, and that it's good to let them cry, to put themselves to sleep, etc.  I agree that it makes children easier to manage on a short term basis, but as a parent I worry more about long-term consequences than about my short-term well being. My instinct tells me it's wrong to let a child cry or let him be unhappy if I can help it, and I see no reason to ignore this instinct. 

Is it good to ignore an angry child - especially in the first few years before they can communicate well? does it make them feel unwanted? unloved? what if the tantrum happens because they are sick or tired or hungry and cannot communicate that to me? is it not 'my job' as a parent to try figure out what is wrong vs. just ignore my child? 

What do I do then? 
I first try tell or show them something interesting that draws their attention.  Its success depends on how well my imagination/brain functions at the time, and of how willing they are to accept an alternative solution. The latter part depends on the cause of the temper tantrum. Also, I dislike lying - so what I tell my child is usually something that I think is true.

I try to remember there are times when it does not matter who is right or who is wrong. This is often hard to do. For example, it is very annoying if children do not eat when the food ready. However, this may just mean they are not hungry enough now and prefer to eat in an hour from now, which is unpleasant but not the end of the world.

I sometimes compromise, sometimes distract them with things they can do that are useful (most children love to help) or just try prevent tantrums by avoiding things that are known to obviously cause them like a trip to the store. If I was in the store, and Edward wanted a particular object I would get it if I did not have a strong objection against it. If I object, which is more often than not the case, we discuss my objection and I try to persuade him that I am right. Sometimes we end up buying a different object that I think is more useful/fun. It helps to get them involved in the shopping, e.g., the child/children put(s) the fruits and vegetables in the cart.

 Should this happen?  I think it's normal to want things, and to go through a negotiation process to get some of the things we want. I  did not ask my parents for toys at their age because I was more interested in observing live things like chickens or dogs and also because there weren't many toys available in Communist Romania. Here we rent. There are plenty of tempting toys and we don't have pets so far. We are lucky that the stores in Switzerland have repetitive and unimaginative enough merchandise that by now (we've been here for two years) we have had most of the toys they wanted from the grocery store. They only have a few toys that stay the same all year round. So, visiting the store is less complicated now.

From time to time I bribe my son (I am not proud of this, but it sometimes works). e.g., IF you stop crying now you will get a candy. It only works if they do not usually get candy and so I try to do this only rarely.

Once they are older, sending them to their room can work. I have tried this a few times.

I try hard to keep calm and behave as the adult. This is bound to be very hard at times. My mother always tells the Robert be calm joke: A man walks on the street pushing a crying child in a stroller and repeating "Robert be calm. Robert be calm. Robert be calm. Robert be calm". An outraged woman stops and tells him "How can you ask a child so young to be calm? He cannot understand you." The man replies: "Madame, I am Robert".

Needless to say I am not an authority in parenting and never will be. These are just some observations. In general, I try to behave naturally around children and not stress them out or myself too much.

I believe that temper tantrums are related to being stubborn, a bit of a perfectionist, and also that in those moments the child sees only what he wants while everything else disappears. When someone is angry or upset (adult or child) their whole "horizon" collapses to a point of interest or distress and they miss seeing anything else. One cannot easily stop this horizon shrinking. OK, sometimes, it is best to wait for the moment to pass mostly on its own. However, I think it's never good to argue in such moments whether the angry person is an adult or a child or to try to teach them who is the boss lesson. Discussions should be had a little later on when everybody has calmed down.