Infinite in All Directions: the Fiske Fiasco, Hollywood's Academic, Quantum Fish

Infinite in All Directions is The Wire‘s science newsletter. Subscribe and receive a digest of the most interesting science news and analysis from around the web every Monday, 10 am.

Infinite in All Directions is The Wire‘s science newsletter. Click here to subscribe and receive a digest of the most interesting science news and analysis from around the web every Monday, 10 am.

Credit: ptc24/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: ptc24/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Ghosts of space art past

An interesting review of the origins of the ‘space artist’ – and why science and art no longer work together as closely as they once did. Two insights in particle stand out en route to the author, George Pendle, explaining how crucial the space artist has become to space agencies wanting bring their transcendental visions of space exploration closer home to taxpayers constantly wondering what they’d get out of it. First: that space for a long time remained out of reach of photographers – especially those hunting for non-proverbial forms of beauty – and within reach of imaginative artists who could conceive of and recreate that sense of beauty on paper. Second: that scientists stopped thinking visually with the advent of more powerful forms of photography and radiography.

An excerpt from the piece:

It’s strange to think that while space exploration is a defining factor of the modern era, many space artists hearken back to the landscape painting of a pre-modern age to depict it. Largely this is due to space art still following Leonhart Fuchs’s dictum of communicating information clearly. But perhaps this is also a nostalgic wish to return to a time when scientists and artists took each other’s work seriously.

When Chesley Bonestell was painting his realistic planetscapes in the late 1940s, Wernher von Braun, America’s leading rocket scientist at the time, called his art “the most accurate portrayal of those faraway heavenly bodies that modern science can offer.” This was an astonishing pronouncement. It suggested that Bonestell’s imaginative renderings were as important as von Brauns’ own calculations. Certainly Bonestell felt that his art was as rigorous as the science he depicted. When von Braun sent him some sketches of possible rocket ship designs they were returned with blistering criticism of the scientist’s inconsistencies and oversights.


The Susan Fiske fallacy

Heard of the Fiske fiasco yet? It’s an oped penned by Susan Fiske, a noted social psychologist at Princeton University, and to be published in the APS Observer, a magazine published by the Association for Psychological Science. In the oped, Fiske states that people with destructive attitudes are using the social media to undermine, even publicly shame, what they think could be erroneous social psychology research published in some journal and that that’s wrong. Excerpt from the full:

The destructo-critics are ignoring ethical rules of conduct because they circumvent constructive peer review: They attack the person, not just the work; they attack publicly, without quality controls; they have sent their unsolicited, unvetted attacks to tenure-review committees and public-speaking sponsors; they have implicated targets’ family members and advisors. Not all self-appointed critics behave unethically, and some do so more than others. One hopes that these critics aim to improve the field, not harm people. But the fact is that these vigilante critiques are harming people. They area far cry from peer-reviewed critiques, which serve science without destroying lives.

It’s a composition screaming to be debunked and many stepped forward to do so – on the social media and off it. Two in particular I’d recommend: by Tal Yarkoni, which talks about how Fiske wasted everyone’s time by talking in “vague, general terms” and how a fear of having one’s research refuted is more healthy than pathological; and by Andrew Gelman, who opposed Fiske’s faith in ‘research incumbency’ with a historical review of the replication problem in social psychology.

Update: Okay not really an update but something related. Amy Cuddy, another social psychologist and one of Fiske’s more notable students, attempts to clear some of the confusion – and more generally clamour – around the (in)famous ‘power-posing’ study from 2010. The trouble arose when Dana Carney, one of the researchers who conducted the study, retracted what many thought was one of the study’s key results: “adopting and holding certain open and assertive postures” is “a technique for improving performance in business and other settings”. Why is this interesting? Two reasons: Cuddy was one of Carney’s coauthors on the study, and Cuddy’s built a successful career out of advocating for power-posing.


The silver screen academic

Carl Pierer reviews The Discrete Charm of Geometry for 3QD. According to him, the film’s significance lies in the style of its story, evident when compared to other recent productions involving the choice of intellectual, and intellect, to depict: what the more popular ones have in common is that they’re talking about personalities whose work and influence extended beyond academics. As a result, films about them became the output of a formulaic combination – of some kind of socio-political actions and agendas of the personality on the one hand and, on the other, someone sitting at their desk and tearing their hair out. The Discrete Charm, Pierer tells us, is the other kind of film, arguably more difficult to make but closer than anything else in its depiction of the life academic.

Take a look:

It is notoriously difficult to make a film on intellectual work. Yet, there has recently been a surge in this kind of films: from Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt (2012) and Maria Schrader’s Stefan Zweig: A Farewell to Europe (2016) to the more Hollywoodian Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game (2014) and Matt Brown’s The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015). The difficulty is really rather trivial: there is not very much to show about intellectual work. Somebody sitting at a desk, tearing her hair out? Typing a couple of words, only to delete three more sentences? Or the theatrical stare into the distance while chewing on her glasses? That hardly makes for a feature-length film. But the protagonists of these films are famous beyond their respective field. As some kind of ‘intellectual celebrity’, their lives and characters have a special sort of attraction. There is a natural interest in their persona, maybe because of their work’s status in general culture. To tell their story, then, is sure to attract interest, because their names have become a sort of institution. It is quite a different task to shoot a film on current, less glamorous and perhaps more ‘ordinary’ research: the ongoing work of academics.


On The Wire


Since you’re so into Infinite in All Directions (sign up here), you could also check out the amazing stuff that appeared in The Wire recently.

Sribala Subramanian checked in from New York with a fab piece on what the megacity is doing to ensure it doesn’t have chikungunya outbreaks. It’s not about being modernised and having lots of money but about adopting technology that’s socially conscious in some sense. Check it out.

The midshipman fish often gather in the dozens and hum in chorus. When this happens, their voices sometimes resonate over many hours, rolling over harbours and shores like a booming foghorn seeming to come from nowhere at all. Why do they do this? Janaki Lenin breaks down the latest research.

Sandhya Ramesh live-blogged the final moments of Rosetta’s slow-motion dive onto the comet 67P, which it’s been following since early 2014. To Sandhya’s credit, her commentary did justice to the emotions surrounding Rosetta’s many successes – emotions that ESA famously capitalised on to communicate the scientific results.


NASA’s hype

Last Monday – September 28, pm – NASA held a press conference for which it had created a lot of hype over the weekend. It was going to be some sort of a major announcement concerning Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter’s thought to hold a vast ocean of liquid water many kilometres below the surface. The Galileo and Cassini probes had also provided evidence from the mid-1990s about water plumes spraying up from Europa’s surface, which were the first giveaways of a liquid ocean as well as that there were cracks and vents in the ice through which the water moved upward. NASA’s press conference concerned data collected by the Hubble space telescope.

What eventually was announced was… well, dull: that Hubble had also sighted these water plumes on Europa’s surface. I mean… great and all that that we’re doing good science and that we’re soon going to be sending a couple probes in that general region of the Solar System – but the level of hype was clearly disproportionate to what was announced. If there had been a communication gap between scientists and science journalists, to the effect that some important scientific finding might’ve been lost in translation, it wasn’t apparent. On the other hand, it could’ve been a case of some scientists overestimating the significance of their finding, although this doesn’t seem plausible given the NASA PR machine’s abundant experience with pressers.

What then was the hype about?


Quantum fish

Can’t make this stuff up. A pre-print paper titled ‘Quantum tokens and digital signatures’ on the arXiv server has the following for an abstract, and IT’S THE BEST.

The fisherman caught a quantum fish. “Fisherman, please let me go”, begged the fish, “and I will grant you three wishes”. The fisherman agreed. The fish gave the fisherman a quantum computer, three quantum signing tokens and his classical public key. The fish explained: “to sign your three wishes, use the tokenized signature scheme on this quantum computer, then show your valid signature to the king, who owes me a favor”.

The fisherman used one of the signing tokens to sign the document “give me a castle!” and rushed to the palace. The king executed the classical verification algorithm using the fish’s public key, and since it was valid, the king complied.

Read on.


Notable interestingnesses

A 2002 lecture by Freeman Dyson you should read to get a fuller idea of Freeman Dyson’s visions of the future. Why? Because it’s something I touched upon last week but not in enough detail. If you’re looking for something shorter, Patrick McCray’s review is best.

An ocean of liquid water under Pluto’s surface? It’s possible.

Andy Weir, who wrote that famous book about a man surviving on Mars for 500 days, discusses Elon Musk’s plans to go to Mars.

Is it ethical to have children in times of climate change?

ISRO marked the first anniversary of Astrosat’s launch by publishing a short magazine describing the satellite’s payloads.

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