E-book collection of essays and commentary

April 16, 2016 Leave a comment

Essays and commentary from this website collected in the e-book

J.D. Wells. Essays and Commentary I. 2016. [pdf]

Table of Contents

Citation inflation and its remedies

English dominance may be hurting science?

Max Planck confidently explaining a wrong theory of Uranium, 1929

University of Florida president rails against abuses in intercollegiate athletics and fraternities … in 1920

Montaigne (1533-1592) describes how students are to be taught to argue

Excellent scientists can have life balance

Successful people work insanely hard

Wisconsin student not impressed with the flipped classroom

Spring break without doing physics or math problems can lower your IQ

All explanations end with ‘it just does’

You can still succeed in science with a non-science background

Longhand writing better than laptop for note taking

Athenodorus teaches Roman Emperor Claudius how to write well

Difference between a cathedral and a physics lab?

Study of nature far superior to other human activities?

On eliminating the university lecture, from Nabokov’s Pnin, 1957

Factors that determine success in learning

In praise of theory and speculation, with help from John Steinbeck

Stanford University president compares American and German students, 1903

Advice from the Soviet Union on how to become a great physicist

University enrollment pressures of the 1930s and Kinsey’s sexual revolution

Completing Hirsch’s h-index measuring scholarly impact

Student petitions his professor, Russia 1899

Heisenberg’s Failed Prophecy for Particle Physics

Suggestions for How to Spell English in International Reports

Cicero on cosmology in Roman antiquity

Strict oversight at Collège de Dainville, Paris, 1380

Teach with enthusiasm and devotion

Examine your students properly

Higher talent required to explain broadly than to impart specialized knowledge

Student evaluations of teaching are of limited value

Advice on becoming a true scientist from Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith

Professor von Jolly’s 1878 prediction of the end of theoretical physics, as reported by Max Planck

Reprehensible behavior in a large population theorem

Breakdown of the 1994 Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea

Ginzburg’s regret at not being the first to discover the BCS theory of superconductivity

“Please, sir, I want some more citations”

Traits of extraordinary achievers

The “vagrant and unfocused” career of Leonardo da Vinci

Pascal’s Conformal Commitment

1936, the year of the first Fields Medalist, and the year MIT kicked him out

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Professor von Jolly’s 1878 prediction of the end of theoretical physics, as reported by Max Planck

April 14, 2016 Leave a comment


It is provided here the original German and an English translation of a passage from a 1924 essay by Max Planck that reports a prophecy of the end of theoretical physics expressed to him by one of his esteemed physics professors, Philipp von Jolly, while Planck was attending the University of Munich as a student in 1878. The decades to come, which saw the revolutions of relativity and quantum mechanics, proved the prognostication to be misguided.


Periodically there are unimaginative voices that declare we are in a very unique and special time of history. A time when fundamental science is over and all that is left is carrying out more precise measurements and applying already understood and known laws toward applied engineering problems. Invariably such pronouncements of the barren future of science turn out to be more of a reflection on the pronouncer’s mindset than on the actual prospects of future science progress.

Anyone who declared physics over in the 19th century was quite mistaken. What we know now would be mostly unrecognizable to the Victorians. General Relativity, Inflationary Cosmology, Nuclei, Atomic theory, Quantum Mechanics, Particle Physics, Quarks, Gluons, and the Higgs boson are just a few of the terms that evoke revolutions in our understanding of the natural world. All would be met with blank stares by even the best physicist equipped with only 19th century understanding.

In the present era we know about these revolutions in physics that took place over the last century, but some of the scientists those many years ago were not able to discern progress on the day to day level. They did not recognize that pushing hard to expand current understanding, whose benefit may go at an unrecognized glacial pace, will one day pay off. Measurements of progress can not be made easily in the course of weeks or years. The arc of truly meaningful discoveries is often only seen from a perspective of decades or more.

It is helpful to be reminded periodically of confident wrong predictions in order to inoculate ourselves against similar wrong thinking today. And the task of doing that was taken up by Max Planck in 1924, when he gave an address to the University of Munich entitled “Von Relativen zum Absoluten” (From the Relative to the Absolute). The passage below speaks for itself but let us say a few short words about Max Planck for those who are not familiar.

Max Planck was born in 1858 in Kiel and was educated at Friedrich Wilhelms University (FWU) in Berlin, where he was taught by several luminaries of physics and mathematics, including Helmholtz, Weierstrass and Kirchhoff. After defending his habilitation thesis in 1880 he became Privatdozent in Munich and ultimately made his way back to Berlin where he became a full professor in 1892 at the age of 34. He retired from FWU Berlin in 1926. He is most known today for his work in 1900 explaining black body radiation. His quantization ideas heralded the beginning of the quantum mechanics era which brought revolutions of basic science insight and applied science applications to the world. He also was a philosophical thinker and his ideas and approach to science were influential in the early 20th century.

In the passage below Planck refers to Prof. Philipp von Jolly (1809-1884). Unfortunately for von Jolly, he is most known today for his comments to Planck in 1878, near the end of von Jolly’s career, regarding the end of physics. However, von Jolly’s career was also illustrious, having made important contributions to the fields of gravitation and osmosis science. The esteem in which he was held among those in the scholarly community is evidenced by his knighthood in 1854. As we see, even knighted, respected scholars can be wrong, especially when prophesying that the future (no new science) will be fundamentally different than the past (continual new science breakthroughs).

In the next two sections the original German version and English translation of the quote by Planck is presented. As mentioned above, this comes from his talk “Vom Relativen zum Absoluten” in 1924 which is reprinted on pp. 128-146 of Planck (1933).

Passage in the Original German

“Als ich meine physikalischen Studien begann und bei meinem ehrwürdigen Lehrer Philipp v. Jolly wegen der Bedingungen und Aussichten meines Studiums mir Rat erholte, schilderte mir dieser die Physik als eine hochentwickelte, nahezu voll ausgereifte Wissenschaft, die nunmehr, nachdem ihr durch die Entdeckung des Prinzips der Erhaltung der Energie gewissermaß en die Krone aufgesetzt sei, wohl bald ihre endgültige stabile Form angenommen haben würde. Wohl gäbe es vielleicht in einem oder dem anderen Winkel noch ein Stäubchen oder ein Bläschen zu prüfen und einzuordnen, aber das System als Ganzes stehe ziemlich gesichert da, und die theoretische Physik nähere sich merklich demjenigen Grade der Vollendung, wie ihn etwa die Geometrie schon seit Jahrhunderten besitze. Das war vor fünfzig Jahren die Anschauung eines auf der Höhe der Zeit stehenden Physikers.”

English Translation of the Passage

“As I began my university studies I asked my venerable teacher Philipp von Jolly for advice regarding the conditions and prospects of my chosen field of study. He described physics to me as a highly developed, nearly fully matured science, that through the crowning achievement of the discovery of the principle of conservation of energy it will arguably soon take its final stable form. It may yet keep going in one corner or another, scrutinizing or putting in order a jot here and a tittle there, but the system as a whole is secured, and theoretical physics is noticeably approaching its completion to the same degree as geometry did centuries ago. That was the view fifty years ago of a respected physicist at the time.”

Acknowledgments: I wish to thank G. Knodel and T. Rindler-Daller for helpful discussions.


Planck, Max (1933). Wege zur Physikalischen Erkenntnis: Reden und Vorträge. Leipzig: Verlag von S. Hirzel.

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Ginzburg’s regret at not being the first to discover the BCS theory of superconductivity

April 9, 2016 Leave a comment

The theory of superconductivity has gone through four significant phases of understanding. The first phase was Londons theory of superconductivity (1933), which was a successful phenomenological theory in some ways (e.g., explained Meissner effect) but unsuccessful in other ways (e.g., failure to understand end of superconducting state at high currents).

The second phase was the Ginzburg-Landau theory (1950) which applied Landau’s theory of phase transitions to superconductivity with great success. In particular it gave descriptive understanding of coherence length, type I and II superconductors, and quantization of magnetic flux and vortices.

The third phase was the discovery of BCS theory (1956), which gives a perturbative microscopic understanding of the Ginzburg-Landau theory. And the fourth phase, which we are still in, is the discovery of high-Tc superconductors, for which we still do not have a complete understanding.

The history of superconductivity has many lessons to learn, both in the principles of physics but also in the culture of scientific discoveries and missed opportunities.

In the category of missed opportunities, Ginzburg points out in his Nobel Prize lecture of 2003 that he and Landau missed an insight that perhaps should have been seen, and which perhaps could have led them to the BCS theory before Bardeen, Cooper and Schrieffer.

The theory of superconductivity that they developed was based on the Ginzurg-Landau potential

V_{GL}(\Psi)=\alpha |\Psi|^2+\beta |\Psi|^4

where \Psi is the order parameter for superconducting charge carriers. When an electromagnetic field is applied the free-energy requires the addition of the vector potential added to the gradient term:

\left(-i\hbar\nabla -\frac{e^*}{c}{\bf A}\right)\Psi

When you construct the superconducting current you find

{\bf j}_s=-\frac{ie^*\hbar}{2m^*}\left(\Psi^*\nabla\Psi-\Psi\nabla\Psi^*\right)-\frac{(e^*)^2}{m^*c}|\Psi|^2{\bf A}

The observables of the theory, such as the penetration depth and the critical magnetic field, depend on these “phenomenological parameters” m* and e*. They are phenomenological parameters because the Ginzburg-Landau theory was a phenomenological theory that had no first-principles derivation.

Now, it is tempting to say that m* and e* should be connected to the electron mass and charge. After all, what else is there in the superconductor that could carry the superconducting current! However, Ginzburg and Landau recognized immediately that m* could deviate far from the electron mass just as there are “effective masses” in the theory of metals, and it would depend on temperature and other properties. However, as Ginzburg reports, “Landau did not see why e* should be different than e, and in our paper it is written as some compromise that ‘there are no grounds to believe that the charge e* is different from the electron charge'” (Ginzburg 2003).

The trouble was that Ginzburg later compared theory with experimental and found that e*=(2-3)e was required. The naive view that e* had to be equal to e just wasn’t fitting the data. Landau’s response was to argue that, like the effective mass, “the effective charge may and, generally speaking, will depend on the coordinates, because the parameters that characterize the semiconductor are functions of the temperature, the pressure, and the composition, which in turn depend on the coordinates r” (Ginzburg 2003).

When BCS was discovered a few years later it became obvious that e* was near 2e because of the special Cooper pairing of electrons that take place inside a superconductor to form a superconducting bosonic state.  You can almost feel the sharp regret in Ginzburg’s tone when he talks about it in his 2003 speech so many years later:

“Landau was right in the sense that the charge e* should be universal and I was right in that it is not equal to e. However, the seemingly simple idea that both requirements are compatible and e*=2e occurred to none of us. After the event one may be ashamed of this blindness, but this is by no means a rare occasion in science, and it is not that I am ashamed of this blindness, but I am rather disappointed that it did take place” (Ginzburg 2003).

Ginzburg’s contributions to science and the theory of superconductivity were extraordinary and worthy of the Nobel Prize, and they are still studied to this day. Yet, we can also find value in seeing that he missed opportunities. I suspect that we all have many opportunities for keen, and maybe even dramatic, insight swirling around us, and we can only hope that we concentrate hard enough and work hard enough to grasp at least one or two of them before they float away.


Vitaly L. Ginzburg. “On Superconductivity and Superfluidity.” Nobel Lecture, December 8, 2003.

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Theory-perspective comments from HEPAP meeting 3/31 – 4/1/2016

April 2, 2016 Leave a comment

I was selected to be a member of HEPAP (High Energy Physics Advisory Panel) recently and my first meeting was this week [link]. Here are my impressions from that meeting.

First, there is plenty of good news from the HEPAP meeting. We have no lack of ideas of what to do in HEP. Our field is active and passionate and people love what they do and have a strong positive outlook on discovery and the future. It was exciting to see more results from the LHC experiments, progress on Fermilab’s intensity frontier efforts, and others. In addition, from discussions it is clear that students continue to be attracted very strongly to our field, and we are training people for a wide range of excellent jobs in the 21st century economy. So, we and taxpayers alike can be very happy about what is happening in HEP.

It also can be considered good news in our budgetary climate that HEP has support on the Hill and our budgets overall have more or less held steady, although we are feeling the pinch due to inflation. There is difficult news, however, for theorists. The DOE theory budgets have been cut dramatically (by ~25% since FY11). Why, and who made that decision, and how was that decision made, are questions being asked.

The questions regarding Theory support should continue to be asked. Stefano Profumo (UC Santa Cruz) requested a committee be formed to look into this, which I and others supported, and the initial response was that discussions about theory had happened at Snowmass 2013. However, the cuts at DOE theory seem to keep coming and it’s uncertain why. A second response was that DOE is forming a Visitors Committee for all its HEP programs and it will be one question that will be addressed. The Visitor’s Committee will be chaired by Sally Dawson (Brookhaven).

It strikes me that there are several ways we as a theory community can respond to this. One is we can complain very loudly and incoherently about lack of theory understanding and vision in some quarters. This is unlikely to be very useful. After all, our passion is particle physics and we are all on the same team regarding that. We do not want to undermine the people that can help us.

A different response, which requires more effort and more care is to make the positive case for Theory. To grow HEP means that every sub-community (the High-Energy Frontier expt, Intensity Frontier expt, Cosmic Frontier expt, and Theory) must make its case as a dynamic and exciting field at the forefront of science. The experimental communities have done well in this.

We as a theory community know that we too are all of these good things. However, we sometimes just assume that others will naturally and simply “get it” and we don’t have to articulate it. But Einstein was a century ago, so we do have to articulate it again. We don’t just have to show the importance of theory/HEP to the public, which we are actually doing a pretty good job of in my view, but we have to give a similar message to funding agencies and government officials. However, that message needs to be tailored differently.  We need to efficiently and straightforwardly show the interconnectedness of theory, including formal theory, to the success of experiment in both the short term and the long term, and also to the attainment of knowledge unattached to any one particular experiment currently in the DOE portfolios, for example. We also have to show how the skills we develop in students are building a better workforce. These are messages that do not have to come out in a Discover Magazine article or in a high school classroom, but DOE officials and Congress need to see that case made convincingly, with fresh examples updated often. I think they would even appreciate it to help them make more informed decisions and also use it to take to their bosses to grow our field.

Lastly, Theory is vulnerable. Theorists do not have a “lab director” in regular contact with the agencies to make a persistent case for the work we do. Also, Congress doesn’t sweep down and criticize DOE if a theorist’s calculation on a difficult project takes 5 months to do instead of 4, like they would if an experiment construction got 25% behind, etc. We have to keep this in mind when thinking about the challenges that a roughly flat budget brings to the funding agencies. Nevertheless, we want to give them ammunition to stay strong and supportive of theory research. We should take any opportunity we can to show the positive impact theory has had, and that the need for continued support of theory is vital to not just theory research, but for high-energy research in general, and ultimately for society.

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“Please, sir, I want some more citations”

March 27, 2016 Leave a comment

March 27, 1866

Dear Prof. James Clerk Maxwell,

I have read with great pleasure your preprint on the theory of Electromagnetism that you kindly sent to our Mathematics Library in Coventry. I find that it has answered several important and pressing questions posed in the literature and opened up new questions that were not thought of before. Congratulations on an excellent paper.

However, I did want to draw your attention to some previous work of mine that has some bearing on your work. In section 3 of your paper you utilized the result that 3*7=21. You will find that I was the first to draw attention to this result in a paper written two years earlier entitled, “Low Multiplicities of Seven”. You will notice that eq. 79 of that paper has 3*7=21 explicitly written. You will also find that the result was anticipated in an earlier publication by me and my collaborator, Prof. Art Dodge (Provost at Adelaide College), entitled “Multiplicities of Three: a Comprehensive Survey”, where we explicitly wrote down that 6*3=18 in eq. 92 and then elsewhere in the paper noted that 18+3=21 (see eq. 173).

We hope that you will kindly take a look at these earlier papers and cite them in the appropriate places.

Sincerely, Dr. Oliver Twist

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Breakdown of the 1994 Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea

March 17, 2016 Leave a comment

There is much talk about the failed 1994 Agreed Framework [1] between the United States and North Korea, and what lessons it may have for our attempts to reign in Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions. It may be useful to review a somewhat technical description of what the Agreed Framework tried to accomplish, and how North Korea built nuclear bombs anyway.

Let us start many decades ago. Since the 1960s North Korea has had nuclear fission reactors at its Yongbyon facility. Its main reactor is a 5 MWe gas-graphite Magnox reactor, which fissions uranium to produce electricity for normal power consumption, and, can create plutonium as a byproduct for nuclear weapons.

The existence of a nuclear reactor on North Korean soil might sound alarming on its own, but it was thought in the earlier days of nuclear power that the type of reactors that North Korea had would not be useful for bomb making. The uranium fuel needed for reactor operation has very little fissile U-235, certainly less than needed for a nuclear bomb. Reactor-grade uranium fuel is typically less than 5% U-235, whereas the nuclear bomb safe isotope U-238 accounts for over 95%. North Korea’s gas-graphite reactor takes natural uranium as fuel with less than 1% U-235. To enrich the fuel further to the much higher concentrations of U-235 needed to make a bomb requires highly technical centrifuging techniques that separate the U-235 isotope from the U-238 isotope. This is technology and know-how that North Korea on its own did not possess, and the danger of it possessing it in the future was thought to be low, and anyway it would be found out if they tried.

An easier path to the bomb for North Korea, on the other hand, was understood to be through plutonium. Bomb-grade plutonium can be extracted from uranium fuel that burns up in normal reactor operation. The reprocessing of the used fuel to extract plutonium was thought to be the primary proliferation risk and concern. North Korea was suspected of working toward just that aim in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Confrontation between North Korea and the United States over these suspicions led to the Agreed Framework in 1994, where North Korea agreed, among other things, to stop the reprocessing of nuclear fuel for the purposes of extracting plutonium for bombs, and to grant full inspection rights to the IAEA of North Korean nuclear sites. In exchange the U.S. agreed to provide oil and much needed humanitarian aid, to give North Korea security promises (i.e., the U.S. will not attack them), and to facilitate construction of a new light-water reactor that has much less proliferation concerns.

The 1994 Agreed Framework was voided by the Americans when it was discovered in 2002 that North Korea had begun a uranium enrichment program [2]. Although uranium enrichment is not explicitly proscribed in the Agreed Framework, the U.S. interpreted this activity as a violation. North Korea, on the other hand, continued to maintain that enrichment was not in direct violation of the Agreed Framework, and that anyway the United States was not living up to its end (e.g., providing a light-water nuclear reactor in a timely fashion) so if anybody is to be charged with violating the Agreed Framework first, it should be the United States.

Regarding whether uranium enrichment was in direct violation, the Agreed Framework required that North Korea remain party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [3], which however does not forbid uranium enrichment. The closest direct statement in the Agreed Framework against uranium enrichment is the statement that “The DPRK will consistently take steps to implement the North-South Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” [4]. That document clearly disallows uranium enrichment: “Under the Joint Declaration, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (ROK) agree not to test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy, or use nuclear weapons; to use nuclear energy solely for peaceful purposes; and not to possess facilities for nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment.” However, technically speaking, the Agreed Framework does not say that North Korea must abide by all the terms of the Joint Declaration, but rather “take steps.” One could interpret this as a failure of U.S. diplomats to cover the bases; nevertheless, few would disagree that it was in violation of the spirit of the Agreed Framework, and U.S. suspension of its obligations under it, and its declaration that North Korea was in violation of it, was a justified response.

North Korea quickly made their own counter-response by withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treating, expelling IAEA inspectors and announcing the restart of their reactors and plutonium reprocessing. Several years later North Korea conducted two nuclear bomb tests in 2006 and 2009. These bombs were made of plutonium extracted from their spent nuclear reprocessing work. Further tests have ensued and the diplomatic standoff is still critical today.

Additional technical details of reprocessing and fuel composition of reactors and bombs relevant for the North Korean nuclear weapons program can be found at [5].


[1] Agree Framework Between The United States of America and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Geneva, 21 October 1994.  http://2001-2009.state.gov/t/ac/rls/or/2004/31009.htm

[2] “N Korea ‘admits nuclear programme’”. BBC News (17 October 2002).  http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/2335231.stm

[3] Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Signed July 1, 1968. Ratified by U.S. Senate March 13, 1969, entered into force March 5, 1970. http://www.state.gov/t/isn/trty/16281.htm

[4] Join Declaration of South and North Korea on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Signed 20 January 1992, entered into force 19 February 1992. http://www.nti.org/media/pdfs/aptkoreanuc.pdf

[5] J.D. Wells. “Science background to North Korea’s nuclear bomb program.” July 14, 2011. http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jwells/publications/jdw110714.pdf


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Reprehensible Behavior in a Large Population Theorem

March 13, 2016 Leave a comment

Reprehensible behavior in a Large Population Theorem :

Consider any imaginable reprehensible behavior(s) X. As the population N tends toward the large-N limit, there exist people doing X. In the limit that the population N goes to infinity there are an infinite number of people doing X.

RB Sub-Population Corollary :

Any sub-population N’ of N, which is a finite non-zero fraction of N, satisfies the above theorem.

Selective Propaganda Proposition :

Since X will happen in a large population, a news agency or news aggregate or social media activist can paint a sub-population N’ as degenerates doing X at an arbitrarily high rate by running stories of N’ only doing X.

Theorem Generalizations :

The RBLP theorem could just as easily be valid when replacing “Reprehensible” with “Impressive” and everything carries forward. You can make a sub-population look like supermen and superwomen by only running stories of them demonstrating some amazing, impressive behavior.

Indeed, X could be any characteristic and the theorems and Propaganda Proposition would be just as valid. Understanding this is the key to propaganda and manipulation of an audience.

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English dominance may be hurting science

February 16, 2016 Leave a comment

Globalization in the last few decades has only increased the power of English in international science communications. English accounted for less than two-thirds of all scientific publications in 1980 and now is over 95% [1]. The hold-outs are mainly regional journals that have no ambitions for a global audience.

Linguistic requirements on students have also changed. As a PhD student at the University of Michigan in the 1990’s we had to be certified with some competency in a foreign language. German, French or Russian were the only three that would count. I certified in German. However, most of my fellow students couldn’t be bothered with the language requirement and were passed off for knowing a computer “language” such as C and fortran. It was a slippery end-around to a rule becoming quickly irrelevant, and a few years later the foreign language rule was scrapped all together.

The rise of English

The language of written scientific communication up until about the early/mid 18th century was largely in Latin, but local languages were becoming increasingly represented. By the mid 18th century scientists scrapped Latin and wrote in a “living language” they felt most comfortable with. English, German, Italian, French and Russian were all well-represented in the western world. English began to push out all others most notably after World War II.

And now today, in my entire career I have never been to a conference that was not in English, nor do I know anybody writing a scientific publication for general consumption in anything other than English. These are brutal facts about the current state of linguistic diversity in the scientific world, but an interesting question is if we are losing out by this lack of linguistic diversity. Some say we are.

Supporting German

In Germany there is a group called ADAWIS (Arbeitskreis Deutsch als Wissenschaftssprache) that laments the fall of German in scientific discourse so much that they have made a quasi-union of German-speaking scientists. In their guidelines document [2] they make the lamentations clear but also claim that the rise of English at the exclusion of other languages “limits the scope of intellectual inquiry and hinders cultural understanding and the anchoring of academic research in society.”

These points deserve reflection; however, I am skeptical of the second point. Although “cultural understanding” is great, and most of us are all for it, it is a comparatively weak argument that writing papers in German on Higgs boson decays or RNA transcription is critical for that. The other two points they make are more important in my view.

Knowledge is aided by linguistic diversity

How might the rise of English “limit intellectual inquiry”. The group’s main complaint is that “knowledge depends on linguistic diversity.” For example, they say that “understanding is sharpened and deepened through a comparison of terms in different languages for similar things and concepts.” This argument is reasonable to me. Bilingual beginning physics students of physics can compare, as one example of many, “angular momentum” in English to “Drehimpuls” (turning impulse) in German and gain a modicum of more understanding from the exercise.

I also know that reading the excellent “Statistique Physique” by Diu et al. [3], which is not available in English, was somehow additionally enlightening in ways that I was not able to articulate as well as ADAWIS does: “Since reality is structured and represented in a different way in each language, the co-existence and competition between as many academic languages as possible must serve to encourage the generation of new insights”[2].

Discouragement of talented non-English speakers

The third reason to support research in the local language, to “[anchor] academic research in society”, is also reasonable to me. A society that speaks language A but requires everyone to communicate in language B, even for their own research funding applications, diminishes the identity and security of the country and their citizens. A country of 80 million such as Germany that at times does not allow its citizens to write exclusively in their own language in order to compete in a scientific discipline risks losing out on scientific talent that does not feel comfortable participating in that environment. Indeed, sometimes the greatest mathematicians and physicists are ones who struggle the most in language, and to add that extra required burden on them may weaken academic research in their native lands and globally.

Rejection of cultural arrogance

Despite seeing the large benefit in maintaining linguistic diversity, there is one claim I disagree with that is hinted at in different ways by fellow diversity advocates. I reject the claim that some languages are intrinsically better than others for scientific discourse, or any other discourse for that matter. It is cultural arrogance that is unlikely to be supportable in any significant way. Ralph Mocikat, the chair of ADAWIS, says, for example, “the augmentation [going from evidence to conclusions] is more linear in English-language papers, whereas the German grammar facilitates cross and back references” [1]. This is close to declaring German intrinsically better than English as a language, when the fact is that extremely articulate people in English can do whatever extremely articulate people in German can do, and vice versa. The key is that they do it in their native tongues.

Costs of language diversity

In the limit that we all had an infinite amount of time, I’d highly recommend learning German or French or Russian and reading and writing science in those languages too. It is enlightening and beneficial. However, the big question remains of which costs are we willing to pay: the costs of striving to maintain linguistic diversity, or the costs associated with lack of linguistic diversity. The world has answered that question by giving up on linguistic diversity. Nevertheless, it is worth concerted effort to determine if we are all indeed losing out by the dramatic ascendancy of English.


[1] Pickles, M. (2016). “Does the rise of English mean losing knowledge?”
http://www.bbc.com/news/business-35282235 (accessed January 18, 2016)

[2] “Arbetskreis Deutsch als Wissenschaftssprache: Guidelines”
http://is.gd/adawis_guidelines (accessed Jan 24, 2016)

[3] Diu, B., Lederer, D., Roulet, B. (1989). Physique Statistique. Paris: Hermann.

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Citation inflation and its remedies

January 17, 2016 Leave a comment

The recent announcement from the ATLAS and CMS particle physics experiments at CERN that they might be seeing a signal of a 750 GeV resonance (i.e., new particle) decaying into two photons is very exciting. Much is being written on this potential signal for new physics. However, there is another phenomenon that is not new but is equally visible in the wake of this development. That phenomenon is citation inflation.

Citation inflation is when authors write a paper and reference many more papers than need be referenced, and often well beyond those they have even read or looked at. In the old days a reference to a paper was listed because the author(s) directly used a result for their present study, or the reference was acknowledged to be first to recognize some specific finding in the research field. Today references are added in the dozens in nonspecific contexts. For example, you may read in a paper a sentence like this: “Other studies [1-78] have addressed the possible interpretations of anomalous g-2.” And then in the references section of the paper there are 78 papers listed, numbered 1 through 78.

When Einstein wrote his theory of Brownian motion article he cited only two authors, himself and Lectures on Mechanics by Kirchhoff. Today, reference lists in papers much shorter than Einstein’s can extend into the hundreds of publications.

Origin of citation inflation

What is the reason for this inflation of citations? For one, science has progressed. We have many more theoretical physicists in the world than when Einstein was working, and many more publications. Perhaps the ratio of citations in individual papers today to those of Einstein’s time is consistent with the ratio of total number of papers today vs. then. However, even if this were so, it is unambiguous that the referencing today includes carpet bombing of marginally relevant papers compared to the referencing of yore.

A second and more insidious reason for this dramatic increase in referencing is that it is completely free to reference as many papers as you like. There is no down side to reference an even marginally relevant paper, but potential downsides if you do not — you may get an angry email asking why you are not citing their paper(s) even if they are only tertiarily relevant to your study. There is no reason to deny such giving in to such demands since there is no penalty today for citing an almost arbitrary number of papers.

Perhaps we as a community do not wish to rectify this problem. Citation inflation is occurring, yes, but with online articles it arguably does not matter that it takes up a lot more space at the end of an article, and maybe readers want to see all the papers that are even remotely relevant to the subject.

However, there are at least two reasons why we may wish to bring this citation inflation under control. One, it becomes harder to evaluate the quality of papers upon entering a subject. In the limit that every paper is cited that is merely related to the subject at hand, citation rates for a paper further lose their correlation with quality. Second, it obfuscates the questions of prior art. The huge citation rates tend to obscure the people who first made significant observations.

What to do about it?

Perhaps these reasons are not strong enough to do something about citation inflation. However, if we do want to do something about it, we somehow have to introduce a penalty for over-citing. Two ideas come to mind. The first approach impacts one’s career metrics. The count for citations in your paper could be normalized to the number of references you have in the paper. For example, if you reference 50 people in your paper and your paper receives 100 citations, you get a “normalized citation metric” of 2 (100/50). Likewise if you reference 50 papers and your paper receives 10 citations you get a citation metric of 0.2 (10/50). This actually correlates quite well with the purposes of controlling citations and the identification of original papers. For example, very mature fields and review papers always have more papers that one really must reference. Yet, these are the most likely papers to not have much original thought in them. Therefore, the proposed “normalized citation metric” has additional value beyond stabilizing citation rates.

Another penalty that could be introduced is a “readability penalty”. Somehow your paper should become unreadible if you write something like, “And others have worked on this [1-78].” How to accomplish this? One way is to change the style rules of the articles. An effective style rule against such over-citing is that all citations must have author and year in the text itself and then the reference page at the end is in alphabetical order to find the details of the reference. For example, in such a style you would have to write “And others have worked on this (Weinberg 1964; Glashow 1962; Jarlskog & Yndurain 1972; ….).” If you wanted to write out the citations for all 78 articles your paper would become totally unreadable. Authors are then forced to give up precious in-line reading space only to references that really deserve to be there. Some journals already have this style mandate, but it was formed well before the onset of citation inflation. Perhaps all journals should consider going to it.

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University of Florida president rails against abuses in intercollegiate athletics and fraternities … in 1920

April 15, 2015 Leave a comment

Nearly a century ago President Albert Murphree of the University of Florida pleaded to his fellow university presidents to rein in football and fraternities:

“Now I come to the last menace to good scholarship that I shall mention. It is probable that the emphasis which is now placed upon extra-curricular activities is one of the most potent causes of low intellectual standards. Thoughtful executives contemplate only with alarm the abuses which have crept into intercollegiate athletics, fraternities, dramatics, social affairs and student clubs of every conceivable nature.”

– F.L. McVey (ed.). Transactions and Proceedings of the National Association of State Universities, Volume 18, 1920, pp. 51-66.

Comment: For many decades we have had the same “menace” to universities, ever increasing in intensity it seems, and yet we have survived and people get educated. Perhaps stability has been maintained largely because of the constant vigilance by people like President Murphree and the core of students that are very dedicated to their studies. Yet, as always, balance is the key. Extra-curricular activities at some level are good for students to maintain health and vigor.

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