Archive | June 2015

To seem popular, just add coauthors…

Delving into the bowels of citation literature for some academic chores and, well, you know, got a bit grumpy about some things.

Long ago, when there was no Web of Science and you had to go to thick paper volumes to find citing articles, academic advancement had as a principal quantitative component the number of papers, with perhaps a multiplier for perceived quality of journal.  Better places ignored this in favor of directly evaluating the quality and impact of the work, but in many schools this was the main metric.  With the development of manipulatable databases of citations, then counting citations was a preferred metric, and indeed it is superior to simply counting articles. With that have come fancier metrics like h-indices and g-indices and the like. So we are in the golden age of advancing the very best, no?

Here’s the problem.  All of these reward people who get their names into publications with lots of other folks. Why?  Because we all try to build on our own work, so we will tend to cite the stuff we were involved in before. So a paper with 10 coauthors is more likely to be cited than one where you are sole author if for no other reason than those other authors will cite it from time to time.  You could in fact be in the et al on a bunch of papers with nearly no effort and accumulate some really impressive statistics (and yes, GG has several specific examples in mind).  Does it mean you are a hot shit scientist?  Well maybe, but more likely it means you are a master of manipulating the system.

But wait, you cry, just remove the self citations! Ah, so true, but there is the rub: it is almost impossible to do correctly. SCI’s tool (which has other problems) will only remove the self citations of the author under examination, not any other self-citations. It is almost impossible to fix this. The result is a bias against those who tend  to work alone and in favor of those who work in groups. (There is frequently a double bias here: if you are in a large group, typically there are a multitude of papers from a large study, so you get more papers for less work, plus you get more citations.  So this can go with the square of the number of coauthors).

Advocates of h-indices and g-indices like to argue these are less subject to such problems, but GG is not convinced–they are less sensitive only in the sense that the numbers aren’t so different because these metrics are more like roots or logs of citations than total counts. So, if you want to play the game the most aggressively possible, by all means recruit coauthors.  But if you want to make science more stable and reward the very best, watch out for the self-citation inflation problem.  Good luck.

Entrenching tools

So here in Luxembourg, the “Gibraltar of the North” and have been surprised at the entrenched meanders. So in the view of the model at the Musée D’Histoire de la Ville de Luxembourg (below) you can see in the foreground the Bock, the site of the original castle built in the 900s, and its presence on a height encircled by an entrenched meander of the Alzette River, which flows left to right in this view towards the southwest.  Another curve by the tributary Petrusse is in the left background.

Model of Luxembourg early in its development, Musee D'Histoire de la Ville de Luxembourg (Luxembourg City History Museum)

Model of Luxembourg early in its development, Musee D’Histoire de la Ville de Luxembourg (Luxembourg City History Museum)

Geologically, the city sits on a Jurassic sandstone (the Luxembourg sandstone), which lies over Triassic gypsiferous beds that outcrop to the north.  The section overall dips gently towards the south, so as you go to the north along the Alzette, the valley walls retreat and the river occupies a broad valley.

Coming here with the bias from the western U.S. of entrenched meanders seeming to reflect rapid erosion, GG kind of wondered what was up.

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Is “…getting the science wrong in films these days is no longer an option”?

Christopher Nolan, director of Interstellar, was interviewed in a BBC News article which stated that “he added that getting the science wrong in films these days is no longer an option.”

So while they are all busy patting themselves on the back about their strides forward in imaging wormholes (which might not even exist–so how could you verify that you correctly imaged something that might not even be?), those of us who wondered about the planets and not the stars in the movie are waiting for the explanation for ice cloud glaciers and the physics of that super tidal wave. And getting the science wrong is a daily occurrence in Hollywood: Ironman should be jelly inside that suit with some of the hits he’s taken, voices of giants are out of sync with their size, light and sound from distant events arrive at the same time, etc. You can see what one paleontologist thought of Jurassic World in another BBC story (hint: it doesn’t support getting the science right).  GG once sat in on a lecture on CGI animation and all the tricks used to be able to get those animations made in a decent amount of time; the answer to the question “so to what degree do you mimic reality” was “we don’t; we just try to make the animation look the way the animator wants it to look.” Basically, to goal is to look the way people expect things to look, not to look the way things actually would be.

This is not the first time Hollywood has pushed some scientists to look more closely at some aspect of their science (arguably any number of dinosaur movies and documentaries have pushed paleontologists to really see if their ideas on how these animals moved would really work); it is nice that this happened in this case. But if they do show this movie in science classes (which is the point of the BBC article), GG is hoping that they consider all the science and not just the stuff they really cared about.

Squaring Colorado

In our continuing series of “Can anybody make a map?” (and part 2), and in fairness to those we harangued before, we bring you this:

Moho contrast map from Thurner et al., EPSL, 2015.

Moho contrast map from Thurner et al., EPSL, 2015.

Now to be fair, the paper has several other maps that look fine, but this one slipped away from the authors for a new style apparently designed to make everything slimmer. This is a first for GG–we’ve seen Colorado stretched out before, but made into a square?

The silver bullet that ricocheted

[W]e note that if [elastically accommodated grain-boundary sliding] were as ubiquitous as theory implies, then the interpretation of seismological observations of any hot, solid regions of Earth based on single crystal elasticity would require a significant revision.-Karato et al., 2015

This concluding sentence from a recent paper suggests that a lot of seismological interpretations out there are wrong.  Fully understanding what is going on is worthwhile but takes a bit of background. Unfortunately their press release is so tied up in knots that it hides what could be a really significant contribution.

One of the key elements in plate tectonics is, not surprisingly, plates.  While the bulk of the mantle convects as a viscous fluid, some of it near the surface cools enough to essentially remain undeformed.  This mantle tends to stay attached to the crust above it; it deforms more simply as an elastic material than a viscous one.  Together, that uppermost part of the mantle and the crust form the lithosphere.  And the lithosphere is basically where the plates are [let us set aside tectosphere arguments for today]. This paper in essence explores the failure of a promising approach to figuring out the thickness of the lithosphere and in so doing might undercut a fair amount of current understanding of the physical state of the shallow mantle.

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Fun with numbers, Luxembourg edition

More off topic, but here we go anyways. Here are some comparisons probably never made before, but as GG is in Luxembourg, it was amusing to compare with back home…

Luxembourg is one of those small states that most Americans couldn’t locate on a map and so when it is brought up, it is compared with Rhode Island, which most Americans don’t really grasp either. So let’s compare Luxembourg with Boulder County, Colorado. It is a surprisingly robust comparison…

  • Area: Luxembourg, 2586 sq. km; Boulder Co. 1945 sp. km
  • Population: Luxembourg 520,000; Boulder Co. 310,000
  • Population density: Luxembourg 200 /sq km; Boulder Co. 160 /sq.km
  • GDP: Luxembourg $63B, Boulder Co. $18B
  • GDP/person: Luxembourg $121,150; Boulder Co. $58,710
  • Daily in-commutes: Luxembourg 150,000; Boulder Co. ~60,000

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Can AT&T count?

Way off topic, but highly annoying.

I am in Europe and bought an AT&T 30 day Passport plan, starting 21 May.  Today, 19 June, I got notified I was being charged more than $100 in fees for data usage.  I called the number in the email.  When, I asked, did this occur, and how?  Well, today, 19 June.  When did the plan start?  I asked.  21 May at midnight EDT. So, I said, it ends tonight not last night.  Of course the woman at the other end of the phone disagreed–the computer says it is over now, and I need to understand it is from 12:01 am to 12:01 am.  No, I say, count with me on a calendar.  Starting on the 21st means there were 11 days in May.  This being the 19th, we will have 19 full days in June at the end of the day, the total then is 30.  My plan ends at 12:01 am EDT on 20 June.  Obviously over her pay grade, so I ask to escalate.  The response? We can’t change anything until we bill you.  Well, fine.  I will enjoy seeing if there is a class action lawyer who wants to be wealthy, because if AT&T’s computers are constantly unable to count, there is a boatload of money AT&T owes folks.

Yes, folks, companies that can’t count and employees not allowed to count for themselves makes GG extremely grumpy.  It may not be geophysics, but it is arithmetic, and you’d think we might have some capability in doing that without the computer.