The Nobel Prize and mental health

Ah fall, the time when an elder scholar’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of Sweden. Presumably all scientists at one time or another in their career dream of autumn slumber jarringly interrupted by a pronouncement that will ensure their impact has been indelibly left on their field for decades to come: the Nobel Prize.

A Nobel Prize comes with an 8 million kronor cash prize (as of 2012), or about 1.25 million USD. Far more than that, the prestige and standing that come along with the receipt of said prize insures no shortage of seminar invitations, honorariums, and appointments, all but guaranteeing that a winner will never have to “work” another day in their life if that’s what fries their biscuit. A Nobel Prize winner may soon find themself at real risk of succumbing to the glamouros life of resting on their laurels. For some, all that fame and glory can go to their head, potentially leaving their mind a bit less comprehensible. This brings us to the topic of this essay: the world-infamous Nobel co-winner in Chemistry from 1993, Kary Mullis.

For those that have read Kary Mullis’ (self-penned, he fired his co-writer) autobiography, you will remember his accounts of being abducted by an extraterrestrial in raccoon form, his persistent belief in astral projection, and his insistence that HIV and AIDs are not causally linked among other -quite odd- convictions. He may have been attempting to instil in the reader contrary lessons in the role of scepticism and credulity in scientific thinking, he may have recounted events and reality to the best of his understanding, or he may have been just fucking with his readers. Probably all of those options and a few others come into mixed play throughout the autobiography. Perhaps a look at Dr. Mullis’ brief foray in astrophysics may provide some insight. Kary Mullis’ first publication as a biochemistry grad student came in 1968, appearing in the journal Nature: The Cosmological Significance of Time Reversal..

It is, I think, among Dr. Mullis’s proudest accomplishments. He even references the article in his Nobel Prize speech. Now considered to be a bit of rubbish, fuelled by the psychoactive recreations Dr. Mullis is now famous for, which enhanced his “perceived understanding of the cosmos.” The closest I can find to a full text of the article is a grainy scan on Readcube, the preview is limited to the first few paragraphs. Mullis’ article resulted in heavy press coverage, presumably as a result of perceived credibility from specialist language in a generalist journal, obscuring what seems to have been a very vague theory. The tenets of the hypothesis are nearly entirely untestable by experiment: the “time-reversal” described in the article makes it impossible for particles to interact with those of the opposite time sense, namely us. Oh, and time reversal happens inside a mass only after it collapses to a black hole, so “Seen from the outside there will be no effect” (quote from the article). It is just weird enough to leave me wishing I could read past the paywall.

The moral of this story is that one shouldn’t trust everything you read, even (especially?) if it is found in Nature or Science. Resonates well with some of the high-profile rebuttal(s) of prominent articles of the last few years.

The moon at 2150 km – back of the envelope

I’ve been seeing a lot of this video recently:

We can probably all agree that it looks pretty cool, particulary around the time when Luna occludes Sol at 0:53. But the imagery flipped some interrupt flags and, per my programming, I had to head to the back of the envelope to get an idea of just what would happen if Luna were to switch places with the ISS. First of all, it would be silly to take the statement “at the same distance” as literal. The moon’s radius is almost 4 times the height above ground of the ISS at apogee, so placing the lunar center of gravity within the ISS orbital range of 415-419 km [1, Oct. 18, 2013] would lead to a bit less idyllic scene than seen in the video.


I’m not sure what proportion of matter would have a significant probabability of fusing, or what the average proportion of each nuclei pair would be converted to energy, but the density of the Earth/Luna overlapping volume would immediately increase to 160% of normal Earth density, increasing in temperature by about the same proportion.

Instead, let’s consider transporting the moon from its current orbit, with an apogee of about 407,000 km, to an orbit where the edge of the moon is the same distance from the earth’s surface as the ISS. That would place the approximate center of gravity of the moon at 2150 km.


This puts our only natural satellite well within the Roche limit[3], the minimum distance at which a satellite can remain intact without tidal forces tearing it apart, leaving a debris field in its place.


But we would run into trouble long before the debris field began to give us problems. Luna’s tangent velocity is about 1.022 km/s on average[4]. Remember the cartoon you saw in physics class where Newton shoots a cannon over the hill fast enough to enter orbit? This would be the one that didn’t make it. To maintain an orbit at this altitude, an object would have to be travelling at 6.844 km/s [5] to avoid spiralling down to the earth’s surface.


The energy imparted throughout the impact would pretty much defy any metric we have for intuitively thinking about energy. At 2150 km above ground acceleration due to gravity is about 5.5 m/s2[7], and Lunar mass is about 7.34 X1022 kg[4], for a combined energy due to velocity and gravity potential of 3.5X1030 Joules. That’s a lot (5.2X1016, or over 50 quadrillion) Little Boy equivalents.

Even if we incresed lunar orbital velocity so that the the moon doesn’t immediately fall to ground, orbital decay would still come into play fairly quickly. The ISS loses about 2 km a month, making it dependent on expensive station keeping maneuvers. Even at the 6.844 km/s required to maintain orbit at 2150 km, a great deal of Luna would be dragging through the upper atmosphere (The thermosphere tops out between 500-1000 km [6]). So we would have a continuous rain of meteoric debris to look forward to as tidal forces ripped our moon apart, the majority of the mass of the moon following a decaying orbit until eventually (my guess is well within 20 years) the largest chunks and the majority of the total mass had dissipated their kinetic and potential energy relative to the Earth in a concussive fashion.

Free Luna, comrades.

Open Access Death Knell. Or Is It?

I told you publication was a fiat currency

Last week, Science published a critical investigation into the state of peer review in open access journals. John Bohannon, the author,  generated a faux paper describing a set of fictional experiments testing the effects of secondary metabolites from lichen on cultured cancer cells. These papers were sent to a selection of open access journals sampled from the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) and Larry Beall’s infamous list. The lichen species, secondary metabolite, and cancer cell line were varied randomly to generate iterations of the paper with slight differences, but the shoddy results were the same in each. In a few of the iterations I examined, the structures didn’t even match the secondary metabolite described. The researchers didn’t exist, their names random combinations from a database of first and last names with random middle initials, and the institutions they worked at were fictional. A “dose-dependent” growth inhibition effect in ethanol buffer (with no EtOH in controls) spans five orders of magnitude, and shows growth rates all with overlapping confidence intervals at 95%.

Of 304 papers submitted to various open access journals, 157 were accepted, many of them without any real review taking place. 98 were rejected, and 49 were still up in the air at press time. The article seems to make a solid case against the relatively nascent open access model of publishing, and that is certainly the tone represented by the article and associated press coverage. However, if I assume that the average reader of Science is scientifically literate, then I would expect that most readers will remain unconvinced that open access is dead and dangerous.

In Who’s Afraid of Peer Review Bohannon combines language from both scientific and journalistic writing styles, taking advantage of the credibility implied by describing sample-selection and procedural decisions in a semi-scientific manner, as well as the journalist’s ability to make general claims with a strength that would be questionable in a scientific article.


And the acceptances and rejections of the paper provide the first global snapshot of peer review across the open-access scientific enterprise.

137 of the journals chosen for this investigation were pulled from a black list maintained by Jeffrey Beall at the University of Colorado Boulder. In places (such as the general description of results) the overlap between Beall’s list and the journals selected from the DOAJ is not clear. In the original sample, 16 of these journals are in both the DOAJ and Beall’s list, but it is difficult to tell if they made it into the final analysis because 49 of the 304 journals selected for submission were thrown out for “appearing derelict” or failing to complete the article review by press time.

For the publishers on his [Beall’s] list that completed the review process, 82% accepted the paper. Of course that also means that almost one in five on his list did the right thing—at least with my submission. A bigger surprise is that for DOAJ publishers that completed the review process, 45% accepted the bogus paper.

This is somewhat misleading, as it implies that the 45% and 82% results are exclusive of each other. I could not tell just from reading the paper what proportion of the 16 journals found in both Beall’s list and the DOAJ made it to the final analysis. Furthermore, I know this is misleading based on how Jeffrey Beall, who is quite close to the subject, interpreted it: “Unfortunately, for journals on DOAJ but not on my list, the study found that 45% of them accepted the bogus paper, a poor indicator for scholarly open-access publishing overall.”

Acceptance was the norm, not the exception.

157/304 journals (51.64%) accepted the paper. While this is a majority, I would hardly qualify acceptance as a typical result when the split is so nearly even, especially when 137 of the 304 journals had already been blacklisted. Discrediting open access in general based on the results reported is not a fair conclusion.

Overall, the article just misses making a strong critical statement about the state of scientific publication, instead focusing only on problems with predatory publishing in open access. By ignoring traditional journals, we are left without a comparison to inform what may be quite necessary reform in scientific publishing. Bohannon’s article is likely to be seen and read by a large number of people in both science and scientific publishing. Editors can be expected to be on alert for the sort of fake paper used by Bohannon and Science, making any comparison to traditional publishing models just about impossible for now. Finally, the overall effect is to damn innovation in publishing, particularly open access models, and it is not surprising that the sting article was published by the “king-of-the-hill” of traditional scientific journals. It is possible that the backlash against open access and publishing innovation in general will actually impede necessary progress in scientific publishing.

As long as an academic career is judged blindly on marketing metrics such as publication frequency and researchers continue to accept excessive publication fees, there will remain an incentive for grey market “paper-mills” to gather up unpublishable papers for profit. Overall, the open access model has thus far incorporated too much from traditional publishing and not enough from the open source movement.

Science magazine warns you that open access is too open, I say that open access is not too open enough.

text in block quotes is from Who’s Afraid of Peer Review by John Bohannon, Science, Oct. 4 2013

Original version of image here

EDIT: link to John Bohannon’s article

Mars orbiter MAVEN will make its launch window

MAVEN is back on line

The federal government shutdown this week has a lot of scientists scratching their heads and packing their bags. All “non-essential” elements of the federal government, i.e. things without guns attached and people with high IQs, get the axe. It is a bit like congress holding the nation hostage while whining about themselves. Oh, and congress still gets paid while the CDC isn’t allowed to keep track of the coming flu season.

In somewhat of a surprise move, the NASA Mars orbiter mission, MAVEN, has been deemed “essential” and will actually get to make its launch window. But its not just a case of the grinch’s heart growing three sizes, spurred on by the magic of xmas. The status of the MAVEN project was switched to essential due to an exception in a law from 1884 called the Antideficiency Act.

The act’s main provisions are actually in place to prevent government institutions or employees from spending money that has not been appropriated to them through legislation. Federal institutions and workers aren’t allowed to accept voluntary services or spend any non-appropriated money. . .

. . .except in cases of emergency involving the safety of human life or the protection of property. 31 U.S.C. § 1342.

The Mars Oddyssey and Mars Reconaissance Orbiter are currently serving as necessary communication relays for Curiosity and Opportunity rovers on the planet surface. Launching MAVEN on time (a three week window from November 18 to December 7) ensures that communication with the rovers will continue unabated. Bruce Jakosky, principal investigator for MAVEN at the University of Colorado Boulder, points out that the decision was made for non-science reasons, but the reactivation should allow for MAVEN to meet all of its scientific objectives as well as act as a rover relay.

MAVEN, for Mars Atmostphere and Volatile EvolutioN, has primary scientific objectives are to sample and measure the Martian atmosphere, uncovering clues as to the current and past rates of atmosphere loss and what this has meant and will mean for the planet. The orbiter will use a highly elliptical orbit to make measurements ranging from direct sampling of the Mars atmosphere when MAVEN dips into the upper atmosphere as close as 125 km (77 mi) to the red plant, to global ultraviolet imaging from 6000 km (3278 mi) at apogee. The three sensor suites will include the Particles and Fields package, measuring particles and electromagnetic fields mostly associated with solar wind, the Remote Sensing Package for imaging the upper atmosphere, and the Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer for spectroscopy of atmospheric samples (it is not clear from the mission facts sheet whether the spectrometer package might provide any insight into the ongoing methane measurement discrepancies discrepancies reported by Chris Webster et al). These instruments should gather data that will point to the role of solar radiation in atmosphere loss on Mars, how fast it is happening today and what this might have meant for ancient Mars.

I hate to think that the state of U.S. Congress will become the new norm, but does this point to a mission operations strategy that could lessen vulnerability to government shutdowns? Incorporating some sort of reliance on future missions into probes like the Mars rovers prevents those future missions from being postponed and ultimately cancelled might be tempting, but I’d hate to see mission design robustness sacrificed to account for the decidedly un-robust nature of U.S. lawmakers.