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Big Bang Theory

Sheldon may play dice, but scientific publishing cannot be left to chance

Sheldon may play dice, but scientific publishing cannot be left to chance

Sheldon using dice to make his life decisions

This is a guest post written by a fellow physicist, Marco Piani, who loves quantum information and the TV show The Big Bang Theory In a recent episode of the The Big Bang Theory, "The Wiggly Finger Catalyst", Sheldon reverts to taking "minor" decisions by rolling dice. It does not always work perfectly, as Sheldon, for example, ends up eating food he doesn't really want just because the dice have "decided" so.

 

Nonetheless, Sheldon argues that his mind, not burdened anymore by the consideration of minor issues, can focus better on questions much worthier of Sheldon's attention. He judges his experiment a success, in particular because he is able to publish two papers in "notable peer-reviewed journals" in a short period. The measure of success adopted by Sheldon is actually shared to a good extent by the entire academic system: indeed, one of the main goals of a researcher is that of publishing papers in "good" journals. What does this mean?

A researcher devotes his/her work, for example, to better understand how the world works, to improve the treatment for some disease, or to create some new technology. These results only come with dedication and hard work. When there is enough progress---for example, when a group of astrophysicists have collected enough data about the explosion of a giant star, achieving a better understanding of the life cycle of stars---this progress is reported to the scientific community by means of an article published in a scientific journal---a highly specialized research magazine. Such an article may condense down to few pages years of work.

Roughly speaking, papers constitute the record of the progresses made in science (in all the senses mentioned above, and in many more!) and add to the body of human knowledge. Most importantly, they are used as references---that is, roughly speaking, as the starting point---for the future work of other scientists, as well as for developing applications of scientific knowledge.

It is then quite obvious that published results must be sound: that is, mathematically correct in the case of theory, and supported by the collected data---as well as by the methodology of the data analysis---in the case of experiments. A key issue is that science is divided in so many fields and subfields that only people working on the same or a similar topic can really check that the progresses being reported are, first of all, actually interesting progresses---worth being "archived" and developed in the future---and, most importantly, correct. Hence the notion of "peer-reviewed journals": in order to publish, a researcher has to convince his/her own colleagues that what he/she has done is worth the attention of the scientific community and is correct. Furthermore, the level of "interest" of the results is nowadays often reflected by the journal in which the results are published: "good" journals have a higher bar for what is deemed "interesting".

There are a lot of details and many subtle points that we are leaving out here. For example, the people who have to review a manuscript submitted for publications and to help decide about its acceptance---the "referees"---are often unknown, both to the authors of the manuscripts and to the rest of the community. The idea is that referees can then be less afraid to point out potential issues affecting the submitted paper, while they could restrain themselves from doing it if the persons whose work they are judging today could knowingly end up judging their work in the future.

The principle that whatever new result should be scrutinized by the community of peers is well established; in many ways it is a cornerstone of modern science. On the other hand, the exact process to arrive at the acceptance of new results and to their incorporation into the body of scientific knowledge---as well as the issue of how these results should be made available and disseminated---may change in the near future.

At the moment this process is mainly administered by scientific journals and their editors. It is the editors who receive the request from the authors to publish their manuscript. It is the editors who get in touch with potential referees, asking them to judge the submitted manuscript. It is the editors who, after reading the reviews of the referees, finally choose whether to accept the manuscript for publication. Most importantly, it is often the case that papers appearing in journals---that is, the only papers nowadays "officially" certified as "interesting and correct"---can only be accessed through the payment of a fee.

But exactly in these days many scientists and thinkers (notably Timothy Gowers, a Field medalist 1, and Michael Nielsen, the author of Reinventing discovery, an interesting book about how the Internet will dramatically change the way we do science) are considering how the traditional peer-review process and the scientific publishing industry could be disrupted by new online tools and by the more direct involvement of the community of scientists through these tools.

Sheldon may be happy about letting dice decide about other issues to focus entirely on finding new results, but researchers all around the world are aware that modern science is a very complex and collective enterprise. In particular, new results require both validation and dissemination; while "peer-review journals" have played and still play a primary role in these two processes, things could soon change.

  1. The Field medal is considered the correspondent of the Nobel prize for Mathematics 

Is Geology a real science?

Sheldon paint ball war cry

This is the first in a series of posts by fellow physicist Marco Piani on the science in the television show The Big Bang Theory.

In Season 5 Episode 1, "The Skank Reflex Analysis", we see Sheldon face "certain death" during a paintball battle, standing defenseless and shouting out "Geology isn't a real science!", in this way triggering the angry reaction of the geology paintball team:

 

Why does Sheldon say that? We know that Sheldon has, let us say, a "mild" superiority complex when it comes to science. He is a theoretical physicist, and thinks that Physics is the discipline that deals with the fundamental laws of nature, hence the queen of sciences. All other scientific disciplines come second, and he goes as far as to consider engineers "umpa lumpas of science" in Season 1 Episode 12


But in the paintball scene Sheldon does not simply make fun of geology as a "lesser" science; he actually expresses his belief that geology is not a real science. His is a pretty harsh statement, and we understand why the geologists are so pissed off not to think twice before shooting Sheldon down!

While we do not endorse Sheldon's words, let us try to understand the possible reasons behind his verbal attack.

The question we should ask ourselves is: "what characterizes science?" It is actually a tough question, and there is an entire branch of philosophy that deals with it. It is clear that we will not even scratch the surface of the issue in this post. Nonetheless, we can at least say that one of the key concepts is that of "scientific method", that is, of how scientists proceed in establishing the body of knowledge called "scientific knowledge". What this method is or should be, and whether scientists actually adopt it in their normal practice are exactly the kind of questions addressed by philosophy of science. One widespread point of view (closely related to the ideas proposed by Sir Karl Raimund Popper (1902-1994)) is that science advances through the empirical falsification of hypotheses formulated to explain the results of observations. That is, hypotheses are made that in principle would allow to "compress" the information collected in numerous observations. For example, when we have a pen in our hand and we open the hand, the pen falls. The same happens with an apple, or a ping pong ball; thus, we may tentatively express our belief that "when we let go of any object, it always falls". Such a hypothesis can then be "tested", by letting a new object fall. If it does fall, our hypothesis—that all objects fall—is corroborated by observation, and we gain confidence in it; if it doesn't (e.g., if we let go of a string attached to a balloon full of helium, and it flies away), we have to go back to the drawing board to design a new theory that is compatible also with the new event we have experienced—the balloon and the string flying away. What is important is that we did test our hypothesis, verifying whether predictions made assuming the truth of our hypothesis actually happen. Even more importantly, we are ready to change our "theory" if its predictions turn out to be wrong. Of course, this is a simplification and an idealization of the scientific process, and real life research activity can be very different from this:

We are now in the position to better understand Sheldon's statement. For example, we can imagine that what Sheldon is pointing out is that geology does not allow for an easy implementation of the scientific method. One problem is that geology deals with processes—like the formation of mountains, or the drifting of continents—that take place in very long periods of time. So what a geologist can see is often only a snapshot of these processes (as if we could only see a picture of the object halfway between our hand and the ground, rather than the whole motion). On the other hand, a related problem is that geologists cannot set up controlled experiments that can be repeated to test their theories: we are given one Earth, and the geological processes that happen on its surface as well as in the underground are mostly out of our control. We are almost always limited just to witness them. Of course, what geologists actually do is much more than witness passively. As usual you can find more information on Wikipedia:

Actually, what might have triggered the criticism against geology of that snobby theoretical physicist of Sheldon, is the relevance of "applied geology" in the modern world, which goes from mining to environmental issues.

Even if, like Sheldon, I am a theoretical physicist, I am very happy to call geologists "fellow scientists". I must add that I am also a peaceful man, but I know that my inner geek will sooner or later induce me to take part in a paintball battle. Scientist or not scientist, surrender, or be stained!