Random Nature

I hope you’ll forgive my short attention span at the moment – if you read my last post, you’ll know why. What I thought I’d do, then, is to pluck a few random things from Nature that have interested me in the last few weeks. Publish your computer code

First, I really enjoyed Publish your computer code: it is good enough by Nick Barnes, who begins with the reassuring:

I am a professional software engineer, and I want to share a trade secret with scientists: most professional computer software isn’t very good

He goes on,

…you scientists generally think the code you write is poor. It doesn’t contain good comments, have sensible variable names or proper indentation. It breaks if you introduce badly formatted data, and you need to edit the output by hand to get the columns to add up. It includes a routine written by a graduate student which you never completely understood, and so on. Sound familiar? Well, those things don’t matter.

The point being that software is written to the point at which it is good enough – if your code does the job, it does the job, and that makes it good enough to do the job for someone else too. I couldn’t agree more. For instance, I’ve used some pretty awful R code from various supplementary appendices – but, with a bit of fiddling with names and formatting, I’ve got it to work, and with substantially less effort than had I started to program the routine from scratch. Some of my own code is doubtless equally clunky – I try to make it legible, reasonably well commented, and with a certain degree of robustness to catch errors, but as soon as it works, I tend to stop. Writing code, though, is a big part of what I do, and I like the fact that my efforts might be useful to others too. Then there’s the selfish side: if people use my code, they cite my work.

The origins of genius

Robert J. Sternberg’s review of Sudden Genius: The Gradual Path to Creative Breakthroughs by Andrew Robinson and Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson, was fascinating. I’ve not read either book, but the review itself was insightful.

First, just to get this off my chest – Sternberg quotes Robinson as stating that ‘determination, practice and coaching’ are more important than innate talent in the creative process. This is a bugbear of mine: that somehow, the ability to practice determinedly is available to all, regardless of nature or nurture. So failure is a consequence of not trying hard enough, rather than being unable to try hard enough. I see no reason why there should be as much of a genetic component to being driven to practice, as there is in any other talent. Sternberg also points out that those lacking aptitude are more likely to give up – after several years as a kid torturing the dog with my violin, I tend to agree. I would have been much more inclined to put in the hours of practice if I’d seen some kind of concomitant increase in skill (as I did when I picked up a guitar instead).

I do agree with Robinson’s conclusion (as paraphrased by Sternberg) that genius is on the wane due to the need for increased specialisation, particularly in the sciences, which precludes the development of the kind of broad thinking necessary for genius. Sternberg continues,

And the astonishing amounts of complex knowledge that must be mastered today prevent most researchers from making deep connections between disciplines. Cross-disciplinary work, more and more, requires teams.

Interestingly, a few weeks before, Nature carried a letter decrying the specialisation of teaching in university, and calling for curriculum reform based around interdisciplinary themes – their manifesto makes for very interesting reading.

A defence of universities comes from Johnson’s book: (according to Sternberg) they

…encourage the free interchange of ideas. To maximise creativity, you need both the availability of a network [of minds] and the random collision of ideas within it, and universities offer both.

Well, they should do, anyway – I’m not sure that’s always the case, which is why I’ve got so much out of interdisciplinary programmes like NESTA Crucible, and Frontiers of Science – which provide the network and the collisions in a very concentrated form.

Sternberg’s own view is that inventive people are ‘crowd-defiers’, prepared to be combative in their challenge of received wisdom. Of course, this is also a characteristic of various other, less positive groups (conspiracy theorists, for example), but I do like this:

…the more creative an idea is, the harder it will be to sell. Reviewers of grant proposals and journal articles must recognise that highly creative research may be less developed than that which furthers established paradigms, and should make more allowances for originality.

Amen to that!

Don’t Fly Me To The Moon

Finally, mentioned almost as an aside in the editorial Space hitch-hiker was a study by Martin Ross in press at Geophysical Research Letters# on the potential environmental impact of commercial space flight. Or rather, the editorial focused on this study, but what I felt was the striking conclusion of the study was barely mentioned – that 1000 commercial space flights a year (a plausible number for the not-too-distant future) would “…add as much to climate change as current emissions from the global aviation industry.”

Now, I’m as disappointed as anyone who grew up wanting to be Han Solo that spaceflight isn’t yet commonplace. But, to double the climate impact of the aviation industry, for the momentary pleasure of a handful of the world’s richest people? Sorry, but isn’t that a tad… well… irresponsible?