"if more data isn’t always the answer, maybe we need instead to reassess our relationship with predictions—to accept that there are inevitable limits on what numbers can offer, and to stop expecting mathematical models on their own to carry us through times of uncertainty." Full article at the New Yorker.
"Freeth and colleagues at University College London (UCL) believe they have finally cracked the puzzle using 3D computer modelling. They have recreated the entire front panel, and now hope to build a full-scale replica of the Antikythera using modern materials". News article at BBC News, full article at Scientific Reports.
A few things you should know about complex systems
"Complexity science, also called complex systems science, studies how a large collection of components – locally interacting with each other at small scales – can spontaneously self-organize to exhibit non-trivial global structures and behaviors at larger scales, often without external intervention, central authorities or leaders. The properties of the collection may not be understood or predicted from the full knowledge of its constituents alone. Such a collection is called a complex system and it requires new mathematical frameworks and scientific methodologies for its investigation." A very nice explanation of key concepts with acompanying simulations.
The Hard Lessons of Modeling the Coronavirus Pandemic
"In the fight against COVID-19, disease modelers have struggled against misunderstanding and misuse of their work. They have also come to realize how unready the state of modeling was for this pandemic." Full article @ Quanta Magazine.
Michael Goldhaber, Simon and the attention economy
"Most of this came to him in the mid-1980s, when Mr. Goldhaber, a former theoretical physicist, had a revelation. He was obsessed at the time with what he felt was an information glut — that there was simply more access to news, opinion and forms of entertainment than one could handle. His epiphany was this: One of the most finite resources in the world is human attention. To describe its scarcity, he latched onto what was then an obscure term, coined by a psychologist, Herbert A. Simon: 'the attention economy.'" Full article @ NY times.
"The heart of his theory is a simple but very general model of communication: A transmitter encodes information into a signal, which is corrupted by noise and then decoded by the receiver. Despite its simplicity, Shannon’s model incorporates two key insights: isolating the information and noise sources from the communication system to be designed, and modeling both of these sources probabilistically. He imagined the information source generating one of many possible messages to communicate, each of which had a certain probability. The probabilistic noise added further randomness for the receiver to disentangle." Full article @ Quanta Magazine.
modelling Covid, Interdisciplinarity, and Complexity
"The pandemic has created a tragic ‘natural experiment’ - a once-in-a-century jolt that could produce unexpected insights. As well as modelling the spread of disease, researchers have had to track the dynamics of social behaviour. Because of modern digital footprints, they have been able to do this in more detail than ever, providing unique insights into how individuals and communities respond to outbreaks. These behavioural changes, whether driven by explicit government policies or local awareness of infection risk, have in turn had complex social, economic and health impacts. Untangling such effects will no doubt be the subject of research far into the future." Full news article @TheGuardian.
Cells use condensed ‘blobs’ to collect the molecules involved in regulating genes, sort of "network fluids with viscoelastic properties". Opens very interesting theoretical possibilities for stochastic information processing in eukaryotes. Full article @ chemistryworld.com.
Rapid response to change driven by cross-species gene exchanges
"Gulf killifish have made a stunning comeback in Houston with the help of genetic mutations imported from interspecies mating with Atlantic killifish Scientists have suspected that mixing genes through hybridization 'can benefit populations experiencing rapid environmental change,' Clint Muhlfeld, an aquatic ecologist with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) who was not involved in the study, tells The Scientist in an email. 'But to my knowledge this is the first comprehensive study to directly and scientifically support this prediction." The paper itself is another nice example of bioinformatics methods helping understand bioloigy and new phenomena caused by human impact: "Given the limited migration of killifish, recent adaptive introgression was likely mediated by human-assisted transport. We suggest that interspecies connectivity may be an important source of adaptive variation during extreme environmental change." Full news article @ The Scientist and Original Article in Science.
A CRISPR/Cas9-based core processor that enables different sets of user-defined guide RNA inputs to program a single transcriptional regulator (dCas9-KRAB) to perform a wide range of bitwise computations, from simple Boolean logic gates to arithmetic operations such as the half adder. [...] In principle, human cells integrating multiple orthogonal CRISPR/Cas9-based core processors could offer enormous computational capacity. Full article @ PNAS
"Adapting chatbots to medicine has the potential to help millions, if not billions, of people around the world, right when they most need it. If you have a mobile phone, you have access to a doctor. Imagine the positive effect on people's lives with this equalising force. Especially in developing countries where doctors can be few and far between, or in developed countries where health care can be expensive and not immediate. Even if we can help to reduce people's anxiety about something going wrong with their body (or the body of someone in their care) until they can get to a doctor, that can be an immense relief of global suffering. Medical chatbots can offer relevant high-quality information, reassurance, answers, and ways of thinking about the situation that might be more useful. They would not replace human doctors, but they could help to set a new, increased standard of care. [...] A retrospective review in Geriatric Oncology found that 75% of [Cancer] patients had a potential drug–drug interaction. Pharmaceutial chatbots can be a resource for physicians, preventing these unintentional drug–drug interactions. Chatbots can also be useful as diagnosticians." Full article at The Lancet.
"A general-purpose, reprogrammable molecular computer has been constructed from DNA by a team of researchers in the US and Ireland. The system can execute different algorithms ranging from copying and sorting processes, generating random walks and executing cellular automata. It works by the self-assembly of DNA strands or ‘tiles’ into helices that form tubular structures by complementary base pairing. The emerging patterns on the tubes encode the output from the algorithm, and can be read out mechanically using an atomic force microscope (AFM) to inspect the molecular structures." News Article @ Chemical World and Full research paper @ Nature. (Thanks to Thiago Carvalho for link)
"The DNA of life on Earth naturally stores its information in just four key chemicals — guanine, cytosine, adenine and thymine, commonly referred to as G, C, A and T, respectively. Now scientists have doubled this number of life’s building blocks, creating for the first time a synthetic, eight-letter genetic language that seems to store and transcribe information just like natural DNA. Synthetic DNA seems to behave like the natural variety, suggesting that chemicals beyond nature’s four familiar bases could support life on Earth." Full news article @ Nature News, scientific article @ Science.
Manfred Eigen: Steps Towards Life (and Information)
"Manfred Eigen, who shared the 1967 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for devising a method to time chemical reactions that had been thought too swift to measure, died on Feb. 6 in at his home in Göttingen, Germany. He was 91." Obituary @ NYTimes. Anyone who has taken my courses knows how much I admire his work, and has certainly seen images from his wonderful little book "Steps Towards Life"; a must for anyone interested in understanding how the concept of information is fundamental to understand life and evolution. A giant of Science.
Great interview from a series where his thinking is explored at length.
"[Turing's] theory outlined how endless varieties of stripes, spots, and scales could emerge from the interaction of two simple, hypothetical chemical agents, or 'morphogens.' Decades passed before biologists seriously considered that this mathematical theory could in fact explain myriad biological patterns. The development of mammalian hair, the feathers of birds, and even those ridges on the roof of your mouth all stem from Turing-like mechanisms." News article @ Nautilus, full research article @ Science Advances
The arrangement of denticles on a stained shark embryo (left) closely mirrors the pattern produced by researchers’ mathematical Turing model.
"In September 2017, a screenshot of a simple conversation went viral on the Russian-speaking segment of the internet. It showed the same phrase addressed to two conversational agents: the English-speaking Google Assistant, and the Russian-speaking Alisa, developed by the popular Russian search engine Yandex. The phrase was straightforward: ‘I feel sad.’ The responses to it, however, couldn’t be more different. ‘I wish I had arms so I could give you a hug,’ said Google. ‘No one said life was about having fun,’ replied Alisa." Full article @ Aeon. Thanks Thiago for link.
The Hippocratic oath for data scientists would be a good start, though I am sure greater regulation is needed. There needs to be government agencies (NIST?) who query commercial and government AI systems with blackbox system identification techniques. They would statistically test against non-biased response distributions; If public systems fail hypothesis testing (e.g. chi-square) against fair distributions, they should be further investigated, their algorithms subpoenaed, and prosecuted if need be---same for data scientists shown to fail any future oath. See book reviews @ The New York Review of Books. (Thank you Thiago for link)
"The indigenous Bajau people (“Sea Nomads”) of Southeast Asia live a subsistence lifestyle based on breath-hold diving and are renowned for their extraordinary breath-holding abilities. However, it is unknown whether this has a genetic basis. Using a comparative genomic study, we show that natural selection on genetic variants in the PDE10A gene have increased spleen size in the Bajau, providing them with a larger reservoir of oxygenated red blood cells. We also find evidence of strong selection specific to the Bajau on BDKRB2, a gene affecting the human diving reflex. Thus, the Bajau, and possibly other diving populations, provide a new opportunity to study human adaptation to hypoxia tolerance." Full article @ Cell.
Where is the autonomy when more than half your body is not human?
'"Prof Sarkis Mazmanian, a microbiologist from Caltech, argues: "We don't have just one genome, the genes of our microbiome present essentially a second genome which augment the activity of our own."What makes us human is, in my opinion, the combination of our own DNA, plus the DNA of our gut microbes."' Full news article @ BBC News.
This new understanding of the organization of vertebrates really highlights the external nature of DNA qua Turing tape. Notice that the microbes in us do not strictly reproduce with us; some may, but the majority enters us via the environment---which often explains that certain conditions run in families, and often disappear (or appear) when we leave home. Since some of this microbiome actually controls host behavior (as shown in drosophila experiments), our decision processes (e.g. what we like to eat and mating behavior) can change depending on the external DNA that gets into our guts. So the idea of a self or identity that is self-producing or self-reproducing becomes greatly challenged.
"When you improve the praxis of science, the dream is that you’ll improve its products, too. Leibniz’s notation, by making it easier to do calculus, expanded the space of what it was possible to think. The grand scientific challenges of our day are as often as not computational puzzles: How to integrate billions of base pairs of genomic data, and 10 times that amount of proteomic data, and historical patient data, and the results of pharmacological screens into a coherent account of how somebody got sick and what to do to make them better? How to make actionable an endless stream of new temperature and precipitation data, and oceanographic and volcanic and seismic data? How to build, and make sense of, a neuron-by-neuron map of a thinking brain? Equipping scientists with computational notebooks, or some evolved form of them, might bring their minds to a level with problems now out of reach."
"Clark says that our minds extend out into the world, incorporating tools and other minds in order to think. The tools we use to help us think—from language to smartphones—may be part of thought itself. [...]. The idea of an extended mind has itself extended far beyond philosophy, which is why Clark is now, in his early sixties, one of the most-cited philosophers alive. His idea has inspired research in the various disciplines in the area of cognitive science (neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, A.I., robotics) and in distant fields beyond. Some archeologists now say that when they dig up the remains of lost civilizations they are not just reconstructing objects but reconstructing minds. Some musicologists say that playing an instrument involves incorporating an object into thought and emotion, and that to listen to music is to enter into a larger cognitive system comprised of many objects and many people." Full article @ the New Yorker
"BS is the farce of what are actually 'fragmentversities' claiming to be universities, of hyperspecialization and academic disciplines unable to talk with each other about obvious shared concerns. [...] BS is the institutional reward system that coerces graduate students and faculty to "get published" as soon and as much as possible, rather than to take the time to mature intellectually and produce scholarship of real importance. [...] BS is the grossly lopsided political ideology of the faculty of many disciplines, especially in the humanities and social sciences, creating a homogeneity of worldview to which those faculties are themselves oblivious, despite claiming to champion difference, diversity, and tolerance. [...] the idea of tragedy is incomprehensible in institutions drifting in a Bermuda Triangle marked by the external-funding addictions of the STEM fields, the obsequious scientism of the social sciences, and the intellectual fads, ideological doctrines, and science-envy that captivate and enervate the humanities. And when the protagonists and victims of such a tragedy cannot even recognize their own tragic condition, the situation is even more dreadful and pathetic."
"The gains from interdisciplinary research are essential, especially in addressing grand challenges such as sustainability; together we must take on the tough challenge of not being glib. [...]To make progress on the grand challenges, authors, reviewers and editors must take the time to respect each others’ expertise and blind spots." Full Editorial @ Nature.
"Perhaps the most stinging reminder of these pitfalls comes from a timeless paper published by the statistician Richard Peto. In 1988, Peto and colleagues had finished an enormous randomized trial on 17,000 patients that proved the benefit of aspirin after a heart attack. The Lancet agreed to publish the data, but with a catch: The editors wanted to determine which patients had benefited the most. Older or younger subjects? Men or women?
Peto, a statistical rigorist, refused — such analyses would inevitably lead to artifactual conclusions — but the editors persisted, declining to advance the paper otherwise. Peto sent the paper back, but with a prank buried inside. The clinical subgroups were there, as requested — but he had inserted an additional one: “The patients were subdivided into 12 ... groups according to their medieval astrological birth signs.” When the tongue-in-cheek zodiac subgroups were analyzed, Geminis and Libras were found to have no benefit from aspirin, but the drug “produced halving of risk if you were born under Capricorn.” Peto now insisted that the “astrological subgroups” also be included in the paper — in part to serve as a moral lesson for posterity. I’ve often thought of Peto’s paper as required reading for every medical student".
Looks like I am right to ban laptops in my classes... "By the end of the semester, students in the classrooms with laptops or tablets had performed substantially worse than those in the sections where electronics were banned."