Saturday, 31 August 2013

The Best Analogy for the 'God Particle'

Last year there had been great excitement within the circles of theoretical physicists as well as particle physicists concerning the possibility that the  Large Hadron Collider, the world's biggest and most powerful particle accelerator, might have given scientists enough data to clinch the formal discovery of something called the Higgs Boson particle, otherwise known as the god particle (I always get goosebumps when I say that). Recent reviews performed on the data collected so far seem to indicate without a doubt that the god particle is real.

Although this is being described as probably the most sensational discovery yet in modern physics, many of us mere mortals are still unable to understand what's gotten the physics nerds at CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) all pumped up with excitement. I'm sure if it weren't for the albeit scary nickname we wouldn't be talking much about this particle in popular channels. Here's a quick summary about it:

Simply put, the god particle is so named because it is theorized that all the particles in this universe that have mass (like the protons and neutrons in atomic nuclei) all owe their massive existence to this one particle when the universe formed in a hot big bang almost 14 billion years ago. It was first theorised by a man named Peter Higgs in 1964 as part of a solution for the standard model of the universe but we needed something like the Large Hadron Collider to observe this particle in the flesh.

As important as it is however, one can't seem to find a good explanation out there about how on earth can one measly particle do all that it is theorised to do. This recent video from TEDEd provides the best analogy that I have seen yet that tries to do that in simple, layman's terms. Enjoy!

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Agriculture and Climate change: the *other* Inconvenient Truth

Last week I watched a very interesting video talk the TEDEd youtube channel given by a rather relatively obscure chap (in the popular mind at least) called Jonathan Foley. He is the director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, MN, USA and in this video he talks about the issue of agriculture and its effects on the environment and climate change. The title of the talk is taken from the documentary An Inconvenient Truth which features former US vice president Al Gore talking about climate change.

I believe Foley's talk is very important for 2 reasons. First, in this highly misinformed age of ours, the media tends to focus on the hype of climate change which is unfortunate because it is such a technical problem (yes deniers, I'm talking to you) that the populace fails to follow the arguments and research and consequently ends up disputing findings because they applied common sense where one shouldn't, scientifically speaking. Climatology is a complicated thing and not something that should be abused by naysayers.

The second reason occurs as a result of the first; if you want to talk with the populace about climate change, start with the fundamentals. In this case it is the environment and agricultural practices which affects and is in turn affected by the environment. No climate change apparent at first but it is still there, its just being explained in the context of familiar human problems.

Here's the video. Enjoy!

Friday, 23 August 2013

The Process of Innovation: not as straightforward as you think

Did you think all swans are white?
If you did, you've just experienced the
devastating black swan effect! (Commons)
The long vacation from medical school has allowed me to catch up on some good old reading. This month I'm trying to finish up a beautiful philosophical work titled The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. A prominent author and professor in epistemology (who's witty style of discussing unintuitive philosophical concepts and passionate arguments leaves me absolutely refreshed after every reading session) which is simply the study of knowledge, Nassim Taleb explores in the book the theory that he calls 'the Black Swan theory' which describes probabilistic events with the following characteristics:

  1. They are rare enough to surprise us.
  2. They have drastic consequences.
  3. They are prone to erroneous retrospective rationalisation i.e. we try to explain them away after they have happened.
A good example is the 2008 financial meltdown which resulted in a global recession which some regions like Europe are still trying to recover from. Nobody expected it, it hurt us and arrogant economists are trying to explain it away (and in some cases have no idea what they're talking about).

Without going into too much details about the book, the point is that Mr. Taleb hits on an interesting idea that I have never before imagined. In chapter eleven of the book he talks about the role of randomness in fostering scientific and technological progress in the world today. He posits that most of the designed technology today yield are simply toys that wait for an application to appear. As he aptly puts it 'solutions waiting for problems'.

We tend to apply retrospective historicism to explain that x invention was  made to solve y problem and so on in a neat chain towards today's progress. Taleb tries to squash that version of history and replaces with something less romantic but probably more grounded in reality. In fact, according to him, there might be no difference to evolution and our progress.

Evolutionary theorists posit that innovations in biological designs are actually a product of random mutations that are filtered out by environment and internal pressures such as food availability, selection during mating. He considers the laser (whose inventor was in fact ridiculed by colleagues) and Viagra (which started out as a drug for hypertension). Today we can't live without laser and its field of uses is ever expanding even today as for Viagra, it has uplifted the lives of so many men living with impotence. Or consider the internet for that matter. It was originally designed for military purposes, now we all live online.

Some companies even capitalise on such a process according to Talab; scientists can sit down in such companies and simply tinker just for the fun of it. Commercialisation comes later. Whether such a thing is feasible in the long term is unknown to me but it certainly is tantalizing to see a business model that doesn't force a scientist to become a businessman full time.

Now considering this seemingly random process of innovation, how do we make of something like '3d printing' work? Some describe it as the biggest thing since the Industrial Revolution and it honestly looks like it. You can print anything you might fancy in 3d, your face, prototypes, shoes, designs and what not. Sceptics call it a gimmick, a toy with no future, a fad. In short, the solution is so elegant, but what's the use of a layman having it in his house?
An example of a 3d printer; the ORDbot Quantum printer
Recently, a new desktop scanner has come out on sale that allows small items to be scanned by a laser in 3d and a computer prints a 3d copy. So we now have a desktop scanner and a home ready printer that anyone can use.  So now what? Is the technology going to be for fun or art or what. Some analysts suggest that 3d printing is only for industries and they may be right but then again, who really knows? It seems to me like we're living in the age of another growing bubble; the 3d bubble. Like the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s and early 2000s, this one might burst and make a lot of investors up on Wall street lose their breakfast.

The moral of the story is that its very hard to predict these kinds of things. Randomness has gotten the better of us and no amount of risk management will ever remove it and it is ludicrous to imagine that we will ever master risk management. Th least we can do is enjoy the ride. At least, that's what Nassim Taleb says.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Celebrating a 136 years of Mars moon discovery

Asaph Hall (Commons)
It's 136 years since American Asaph Hall discovered the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos in August 1877! Today we can now see the two moons from Earth, Mars orbit and the surface of the planet itself!

We have come a long way and we've still got loads of places to go. Like to my Mars Science Lab journal page where I've written a piece today all about the moons of Mars!

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Justifying Space Exploration

A self-portrait of the Curiosity rover
on Mars. How do we justify this?
I remember being on a family visit at one time when I was still in my early teens. We were settling down for lunch and the table discussions inexplicably veered towards the financial justification of conducting space missions by America and other countries.

The debate split the table into 2 camps for and against. Naturally, being citizens of a third world country, the latter camp was full to breaking point. Guess who was all by his lonesome self in the for camp. Moi!

I don't remember much details but what I do know is that for the first time in my life, I felt completely hopeless in the face of open scrutiny. How could an ignorant young chap justify such expensive endeavours that he doesn't immediately benefit from and yet loves as much as a young person would love, say, a rock star or a professional wrestler?

Time has passed and today America is running a one year old Mars rover. They're still spending on space exploration and still a superpower by any objective standard and we're still, *ahem* stuck in the mud. I should feel vindicated (and indeed I do) but an explanation is in order.

To that end, I have written a short reflection on this other blog of mine as a sort of delayed response to that old debate that I couldn't even hope of ever winning at the time. But we must remind ourselves that in the art of important debates, it isn't a question of winning or losing but a question of clearing the air and revealing truth. That is the sign of a true knowledge gatherer!

Saturday, 3 August 2013

THE IT SOCIETY: In databases we trust!

Today I wish to explore the extent to which our IT-enabled society could go in making a seemingly straightforward situation more complicated and how we can make our technological expertise more grounded in reality.
Our modern society is what one would call a complex system rather than a linear system. In linear systems, outcomes between different variables are predictable with a clockwork regularity that can be described neatly with mathematical and physical principles. Examples include classical mechanics such as a swinging pendulum. Complex systems on the other hand comprise of thousands if not millions of variables which interact in a non-straightforward manners with such unpredictable outcomes that simplistic mathematical theorems that you learned in class simply fall apart. Unless you develop new ways in describing these non-linear systems (like chaos theory which I will not bother talking about here), you haven't a hope in deducing outcomes, let alone understanding the system in the first place. Classical examples include the weather. Forecasting the next day’s weather only became easier with the advent of sophisticated computers and, more importantly for today’s topic, better meteorological databases.

For many scientific disciplines, you need lots of up-to-date data. Research and survey projects are a dime a dozen nowadays but such data is useless if you don't have an efficient way to store, clean (removing input errors) and retrieve it easily. We usually rely on IT to do most of these things nowadays and we are so used to hearing from manufacturers about the benefits of these machines that we might be forgiven to believe that there aren't any catches at all with regard to IT.

Two months ago on the 15th of June I gave a review talk at my university on the subject of health information technology or HIT. I described its usefulness and the need for its implementation in the African health arena. My talk focused heavily on the history of one particular attempt in my home country of Tanzania. Many countries require all health institutions to record outpatient and inpatient details to allow abnormalities in outcomes to be tracked on a long-term basis. Typical systems employed include a centralised health database system, most of which are digital in nature. In Tanzania the database (referred to as the Health Management Information System or HMIS or MTUHA in the local language) was mostly paper-based, and still is at the district, level for a good number of years since its inception in 1993. Digitisation of the HMIS records only began at the turn of the new millennium and instead of improving data quality and efficiency in collection, IT augmentation has seemingly lowered the already poor quality of the data and has even made it more difficult for the users i.e. the health professionals to use. Researchers complain that far from being a source of life-changing knowledge, harvesting HMIS data is like looking for crops in a field of weeds. Useless!

What’s most disturbing however is the lacklustre enthusiasm that came out of the HMIS managing team based in the country’s ministry of health in the form of the following quote in a 2002 report:
“Contract out the review of the current HMIS software in the light of alternative packages available, with a view to recommending the best option for the national [health] system” (MoH, 2002:16).
In less than 2 years after digitisation was complete at the upper levels of governance, changing the system’s software was being contemplated by the team overseeing HMIS operations. More than a million U.S. dollars were used to build a broken system!

So what went wrong? The explanation I offered in the talk was that the stakeholders involved in the design and execution of the new system failed to come together in the open. Apparently the donors funding the program decided that it was better to give money directly to software vendors rather than risk losing it to the depths of government bureaucracy. But I insist that the more important reason is that these stakeholders failed to design the system to serve the health system effectively. IT is useless if the customer does not know how to use it, hence Samsung’s catchy phrase ‘designed for humans’ used in advertisements of the Galaxy series of smartphones. Although steps are now being taken to ensure that the next generation of Tanzanian health professionals are IT literate by introducing definite IT studies in the university curriculum, I think it would be better if the whole country were to prioritise IT in its national development goals just like in its neighbour Kenya which has recently seen a surge in investments from big names like IBM, Google and Hewlett Packard.

What we see here is a case of fundamental system design failure. The stakeholders forgot about the complexities of the African health system, hence the seemingly inexplicable nature of the digital HMIS’ outcome. Health workers are either too busy or too ignorant to work the gadgets. The solution is elegant but not necessarily simple; build a strong culture of IT, make people more aware of it then design the system to fit the people and not the other way around. This bottom-up approach will help us prevent building loaded but useless systems that will inhibit rather than allow us to harvest life-saving health knowledge.

You can also read my original paper here where you will also find a list of good references.