Now that's what I call self correcting

credit: University of Illinois

Apparently this is the year for breakthroughs in self-correcting computer hardware. After hearing about Jeongwan Haah’s new self-correcting topological quantum memory at QIP, I just learned, via BBC news, about a new type of (classical) self correcting circuit: one which heals itself when one of the wires cracks! The full paper can be found here, and it is mostly quite readable. The basic idea is to start with a standard classical wire made of (for example) gold. The researchers sprinkled the wire with tiny capsules filled with a metal alloy (Ga-In) which is liquid at room temperature and has high conductivity. Then they bent the circuit board until it cracked, breaking the wire, and hence the circuit. Within milliseconds, the capsules also broke, the cracks filled with the liquid metal, and conductivity was restored. Self correcting, indeed!
One thing I didn’t understand is how the liquid metal stays in the cracks. I guess that at the scale they are working at, the surface tension alone is sufficient to keep the liquid metal in place?

Why medicine needs

Defenders of the traditional publishing model for medicine say that health-related claims need to be vetted by a referee process. But there are heavy costs. In quantum information, one might know the proof of a theorem (e.g. the Quantum Reverse Shannon Theorem) for years without publishing it. But one would rarely publish using data that is itself secret. Unfortunately, this is the norm in public health. It’s ironic that the solution to the 100-year-old Poincaré conjecture was posted on and rapidly verified, while research on fast-moving epidemics like H5N1 (bird flu) is
delayed so that scientists who control grants can establish priority.
All this is old news. But what I hadn’t realized is that the rest of science needs not only, but also Here is a recent and amazing, but disturbingly common, example of scientific fraud. A series of papers were published with seemingly impressive results, huge and expensive clinical trials were planned based on these papers, while other researchers were privately having trouble replicating the results, or even making sense of the plots. But when they raised their concerns, here’s what happened (emphasis added):

In light of all this, the NCI expressed its concern about what was going on to Duke University’s administrators. In October 2009, officials from the university arranged for an external review of the work of Dr Potti and Dr Nevins, and temporarily halted the three trials. The review committee, however, had access only to material supplied by the researchers themselves, and was not presented with either the NCI’s exact concerns or the problems discovered by the team at the Anderson centre. The committee found no problems, and the three trials began enrolling patients again in February 2010.

As with the Schön affair, there were almost comically many lies, including a fake “Rhodes scholarship in Australia” (which you haven’t heard of because it doesn’t exist) on one of the researcher’s CVs. But what if they lied only slightly more cautiously?
By contrast, with, refutations of mistaken papers can be quickly crowdsourced. If you know non-quantum scientists, go forth and spread the open-science gospel!

Balancing the Budget, One NSF Grant at a Time

Now THIS is the kind of idea we pay our Republican house representatives to come up with. A website where we can go through NSF grants and identify the ones we think should not be funded, balancing the budget, one NSF grant at a time.But clearly this is barking up the wrong tree! The NSF budget is only $7 billion-ish (and there is no WAY that this budget pays for itself by barely maintaining the most innovative economy in the world. Psah you say!) So…
Anyone want to help me build a website where we go around and identify senior citizens that are collecting social security but have not contributed enough in their life to merit this money? Grandpa can appear on youtube where he’ll describe what exact it is that he did in his life that merits his current social security check. Too young to fight in world war two, that no good lazy bum, cut his check! BAM, social security solved!
Next we can expand into hospitals where we will be able to identify tons of cost cutting measures. Does little Suzy really need that surgery? See little Suzy via a snazzy web interface. Ask her questions. Find out she is a very unproductive member of society, what with her 3rd grade reading skills and 4th grade math skills. No surgery for you little Suzy! BAM, Medicare problem solved!
Moving down the budget we get to the military. My first suggestion was that we take all members of the armed forces, count the number of people they have killed, sort the list, and start chopping from the bottom up. BAM, military spending cut! Okay that doesn’t use the web and well qualified internet surfers to help us solve this problem. We could have the surfers do the sorting (internet sort is a less well studied sorting algorithm taking 2N time to sort a list of length N, and usually results in the death of far too many neurons.) So instead we could put up videos of every member of the military and vote on whether they are dangerous enough looking to merit their pay. BAM, military spending cut! For a second time! And we’d win wars just by glancing menacingly at our enemies!
And what about income tax rates? Well I suggest we make a great tool where people can vote on what they’d like marginal tax rates to be. And then we can exactly INVERT the results. BAM, income distribution problem fixed!
Okay, enough with reason number 1231 why I am not a Republican.
P.S. If you go to the website for this spirited effort,, the web form doesn’t appear to verify that you’ve submitted a valid email address or a grant, and well, you know that those don’t have to be real anyway. Just saying. 😉

Beyond Postdocalypse

Even more postdocs 🙂 Peter Love from Haverford College has postdocs for quantum simulation, the most important, yet with apologies to those who have made major progress in this field, still least understood portion of quantum algorithms.  Which is why you should do this postdoc and help us all understand the power of quantum simulation:

Postdoctoral position in Quantum Information
Applications are invited for a postdoctoral research position in quantum information at Haverford College.  The successful applicant will work with Peter Love and collaborators on the development of methods for the simulation of quantum systems on quantum computers, but will also be able to pursue their own research agenda. Applications of particular interest include methods for quantum chemistry, including electronic
structure and chemical reactions.  Candidates must hold a Ph.D. in Physics, Mathematics, Chemistry, Computer Science or other relevant subject by the starting date.
Haverford College, located 10 miles from downtown Philadelphia, is one of the country’s leading liberal arts colleges.  Its Physics and astronomy program emphasizes research both in and out of the classroom. The Departments of Physics and astronomy comprise seven faculty and three existing postdoctoral scholars. The qualified and interested applicant will have the option to participate in this program by advising undergraduate research students and possibly teaching within the physics department.
The initial appointment will be for one year, with possible extension to three years.  The position is available to begin on the 1st January 2011, but the starting date is negotiable.  Applicants should send a cover letter, CV, bibliography, and a statement of research experience and interest, and arrange to have at least two letters of recommendation sent
Peter Love
Department of Physics, KINSC
Haverford College
370 Lancaster Avenue
Haverford PA 19041
Applications received by Nov. 1 2010 will be given full consideration, but will be accepted until the position is filled.
Included Benefits:
A full benefits package is provided with this job.  The full dental coverage and maternity leave begin after one year of employment.

And as always, the best postdoc positions around, okay so I’m biased…the Omidyar Postdocs at the Santa Fe Institute:

The Omidyar Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Santa Fe Institute offers you:

  • unparalleled intellectual freedom
  • transdisciplinary collaboration with leading researchers worldwide
  • up to three years in residence in Santa Fe, NM
  • competitive salary and generous benefits
  • discretionary research and collaboration funds
  • individualized mentorship and preparation for your next leadership role
  • an intimate, creative work environment with an expansive sky

The Omidyar Fellowship at the Santa Fe Institute is unique among postdoctoral appointments. The Institute has no formal programs or departments. Research is collaborative and spans the physical, natural, and social sciences. Most research is theoretical and/or computational in nature, although may include an empirical component. SFI averages 15 resident faculty, 95 external faculty, and 250 visitors per year. Descriptions of the research themes and interests of the faculty and current Fellows can be found at

  • a Ph.D. in any discipline (or expect to receive one by September 2011)
  • – computational and quantitative skills
  • an exemplary academic record
  • a proven ability to work independently and collaboratively
  • a demonstrated interest in multidisciplinary research
  • evidence of the ability to think outside traditional paradigms

Applications are welcome from:

  • candidates from any country
  • candidates from any discipline
  • women and minorities, as they are especially encouraged to apply.

SFI is an Equal Opportunity Employer.
Application Materials:
Interested candidates must submit the following:

  1. Curriculum vitae (including publications list).
  2. Statement of research interests (max. 2 pages) to include a short description of the research you would like to pursue and why.
  3. Description of interest in SFI (max. 1 page) that describes your potential contribution to the SFI community and also explains the potential impact of SFI on your research. Consider addressing one or more of the following: What sort of input from other fields would most improve your future research? What type of multidisciplinary workshop might you want to organize during your Fellowship? What aspects of your present or future research are difficult to pursue in a traditional academic environment?
  4. Three letters of recommendation from scholars who know your work. (The letters should be sent independent of the application. When you complete the online application, please be prepared to provide e-mail addresses of the three individuals who will recommend you. SFI will contact them directly with instructions for submitting letters.)
  5. (Optional) A copy of one paper you have written in English, either published or unpublished.

The Omidyar Fellowship at the Santa Fe Institute is made possible by a generous gift from Pam and Pierre Omidyar.
The Santa Fe Institute is a private, independent, multidisciplinary research and education center founded in 1984. Since its founding, SFI has devoted itself to creating a new kind of scientific research community, pursuing emerging synthesis in science. Operating as a visiting institution, SFI seeks to catalyze new collaborative, multidisciplinary research; to break down the barriers between the traditional disciplines; to spread its ideas and methodologies to other institutions; and to encourage the practical application of its results.
To apply:
Online application site open 1 Sept – 1 Nov 2010.
We ONLY accept online applications via the online-application site.
To begin your online application click HERE
Inquiries: email to (Javascript must be enabled to see this e-mail address) // < ![CDATA[
// ]]>ofellowshipinfo [atatat]


Oh wow, very cool.  TEDxCaltech (

On Friday, 14 January 2011, Caltech is hosting TEDxCaltech, an exciting one-day event to honor Richard Feynman—Nobel Laureate, Caltech physics professor, iconoclast, visionary, and all-around “curious character.” You won’t want to miss a minute. Stay tuned for more details.

Via @seanmcarroll.  Here is the YouTube teaser:

Oh I would absolutely love to see this. And, “Dear organizers, Please make sure Scott Aaronson is one of your speakers as he is clearly the Richard Feynman of the modern era (without the bongos, I think.)”

Missed This: New John Baez Blog

Hmm, I’m totally out of it as I missed that John Baez, who “blogged” before blogging was the incredibly hip thing to do (which lasted for exactly 2 seconds in 2006?) has a new blog, a new two year visiting position in Singapore, and a new focus.  From his first post:

I hope we talk about many things here: from math to physics to earth science, biology, computer science, economics, and the technologies of today and tomorrow – but in general, centered around the theme of what scientists can do to help save the planet.

Quick, to the RSS feeder!

Book: The Myths of Innovation

Last week I picked up a copy of The Myths of Innovation by Scott Berkun. It’s a short little book, clocking in at 256 pages, paperback. The subject is, well, read the damn title of the book, silly! Berkun picks apart the many different myths that exist around innovation: epiphany, lone inventors, and many of the stories we tell ourselves after the fact about the messy process of innovation. It’s probably fair to say none of the insights provided by Berkun is all that shocking, but in a nice collected form you really get the point that we tell ourselves a lot of funny stories about innovation. My first thought upon reading the book was “oh, this book is for curmudgeons!” But upon reflection, perhaps this is exactly opposite. Curmudgeons will already know many of the myths and be curmudgeonly about them: it is the non-curmudgeonly among you who need to read the book 🙂
But one point that Berkun makes is something I heartily concur with: that laughter can be a sign that innovation is occurring (dear commenter who is about to comment on the causal structure of this claim, please reread this sentence.) As a grad student in Berkeley I participated in a 24 hour puzzle scavenger hunt around nearly all of the SF Bay Area. At each new location a puzzle/brainteaser would be given whose solution indicated the next location in the puzzle hunt. At many of these locations we would start working on the puzzle and someone would suggest something real crazy about the puzzle “hmmm, I bet this has something to do with semaphore” because, well the chess board colors are semaphore colors. And we would all laugh. Then someone would think to actually check the idea that we all laughed about. And inevitably it would be the key to solving the damn puzzle. After a few stops, we noticed this and so anytime someone would say something we would laugh at we’d have to immediately follow up on the idea 🙂 But this makes complete sense: insight or innovation occurs when we are, by definition, pushing the limits of what is acceptable. And laughter is often our best “defense” in these situations. Further laughter has a strong improv component: the structure of what is funny requires you to accept the craziness behind the joke and run with it. Who knows where a joke may take you (as opposed to this paragraph, which is going nowhere, and is about to end.)
Finally I wish every reviewer of papers and grants would read this book and especially the reviewers who said one of my grant applications was just too speculative for the committee’s taste 😉
And a note to myself when I get a bad review about something I really think is the bees knees: reread this book.

Reimagining Science Networks

Scienceblogs, the science network that was my old (where “old” = “a few days ago”) haunt, is in revolt.  Okay, well maybe the network is not in revolt, but there is at least a minor insurgency.  Yesterday, the amazing force of blogging known as @Boraz, left the network (be sure you have more than a few minutes if you are going to read Bora’s goodbye letter.)  Today, the biggest fish of them all, PZ Myers has gone on strike (along with other Sciencebloggers.)  Numerous other bloggers have also jumped ship (a list is being kept by Carl Zimmer here.)  This is both sad, as I personally think the Scienceblogs network does contribute significantly to spreading the joys and tribulations of science, but also a bit exciting for, as Dave Munger points out, this also represents the prospect of new networks arising and hopefully pushing the entity that is known as the science-blogosphere forward.
I myself am not much of a blogger.  What I write here is for my own personal amusement (so if you don’t like it, well I don’t give a damn, thankyouverymuch) and, frankly, to distract my fellow quantum computing researchers from getting any work done (ha!)  I do enjoy writing (literature major, you know) and also enjoy trying to write coherently about science, and sometimes, as a consequence, I get read by people who aren’t here just to hear about the latest and greatest in quantum channel capacities.  That’s great, but I don’t really consider science blogger as my defining characteristic (my self image, such as it is, is more in the line of a hack who has somehow managed to remain in science—despite being almost a decade out of graduate school without a tenure track position due in large part to being stubborn as hell.  But that’s another story.)
But, even though I don’t consider myself very bloggerrific, having had a seat at the Scienceblogs table gave me an up front look at, to use a silly term, new media, and in particular at the notion of a science network.  So to me, following Munger’s post, the interesting question is not what will become of Scienceblogs in its current form, but how will the entities we call science networks evolve going forward.  Since there are a large number of Sciencebloggers jumping ship, it seems that now would be a good time for a new media science mogul to jump into the fray and scoop up some genuinely awesome bloggers.  So the question is, what should a science network look like?
To begin, I can start with Pieter’s comment a few days ago:

…I never fully understood the need for successful bloggers to join an umbrella organization. Did you get more readers when you moved to Pepsiblogs (good one!)?

That is exactly what I thought when I was asked, clearly by some clerical error, to join Scienceblogs!  Having joined, I can say that yes, it did increase my blog traffic.  But I think a science network also adds something else.
First of all, there is the fact that there is a front page which contains significant “edited” content.  It is edited in the sense that the powers that be have a large say in selecting what appears there in a highlighted mode.  This great because even the best bloggers, I’m afraid, generate a fair amount of posts which aren’t too exciting.  A discerning eye, however can grab the good stuff, and I regularly go to the front page to see what exciting is being blogged about.  I’m not sure that the front page of Scienceblog is the best way of providing an edited version of a blog network, but I do think that it is heading in the right direction.  So in thinking about moving forward, I wonder how one could change this editing and give it more value.  For instance, is the fairly static setup of the front page the right way to go, or should there be a more dynamic front page?
Another important property of a science network is in building discussion, and by discussion I don’t just mean a bunch of people agreeing with each other.  For example, Scienceblogs has a “buzz” where articles on a featured topic are posted on the front page.  Sometimes this content presents a unified view of a topic, but mostly you get a terrific variety of opinions about a subject.  Now I won’t argue that this diversity of opinion is huge: for instance you aren’t likely to find the Christian view on topological insulators, but you are likely to get the opinion of a large number of scientists or science journalists from a variety of areas.  This solves, for me, one of the worst problems with my blog reading: only following blogs for which I am predetermined to agree with the blogger.  Further this content gives rise to a genuine discussion among the bloggers in that they actually will read what others have written as opposed to just sitting on an isolated island (okay well I rarely read what even I’ve written, hence the horrible typos and grammatical gaffs that liter my writing.)
Third a science network like Scienceblogs serves as a proxy for a certain amount of quality.  Despite me trying to bring this quality down, I would say that some of the best science bloggers around have or have had a blog at Scienceblogs and this lets the network serve as a proxy for having to read a bunch of blog posts to see if the person has something interesting to say, or whether they are not worth your time.
So those are at least some of the reasons that a science network is good.  I must say, in thinking about these reasons, however, that I can’t completely convince myself that these amount to enough to justify the science networking idea.  Many high quality bloggers get along just fine without such a network.
Which brings me to the real subject of this post: how would I redesign Scienceblogs?
Well the first thing that comes to mind is better tech support.  Okay, just kidding.  Kind of.
Actually I do think there is a valid point in this dig at tech support.  One of the hardest things for me while I was at Scienceblogs was not being able to dig around and modify my blog in the sort of way I can do on my own hosted server.  Why is this important?  Well, for example, Scienceblogs does not currently have a mobile version of the website.  (Mea culpa: at one point, back when I was writing iPhone apps, I emailed the powers that be at Scienceblogs asking if they wanted me to design an iPhone app for them.  I got crickets back in response.  Later this came up in discussion among Sciencebloggers and the powers that be emailed me asking for more details.  This was in the middle of the impending arrival of baby Pontiff, so I never followed back up on this.  I feel bad for not doing this, but it seems that if the management was really serious about this they could have pursued numerous other, um, really qualified people.  Note that it took me about 30 minutes to get a mobile read version of my blog setup when I moved back here, and yes this is different than an iPhone app.)  But more importantly, technology has that important property that it is constantly changing.  Anyone who wants to build a network of science blogs should probably seriously consider that the infrastructure they are building will be out of date every few years or so and need major upgrades at a fairly high rate.
For instance, Scienceblogs should have been among the first to offer an iPhone app, an Android app, an iPad app.  Scienceblogs should think of ways to incorporate its tweeting members: as it is, as far as I know, Scienceblogs doesn’t even keep a list of its members who tweet.  Scienceblogs, a network about science, doesn’t even have LaTeX support for heaven’s sake, let alone, as far as I can tell, plans for how things like html5 will change what one can do on a website.  What will happen to Scienceblogs when technology adapts? Will it adapt too?
So I think, if I were going to start a new science network I would start with an incredibly dedicated hacker.  A quickly adaptable platform is a prereq and if you don’t start with a good base, well then you are just going to be out of date pretty quickly.
But of course there is more to a platform than just the tech behind the scenes.  There is also the content.  I have a lot of admiration for the people who have been the behind the scenes editors at Scienceblogs and I think this is part of the network that worked the best.  I do wonder, however, if they have enough editorial control: that is it would seem to me that they should have an even more expansive roll in the network.  And it’s not clear to me that there should be as large of a separation between their magazine Seed and the Sciencebloggers.  I would wager that many people don’t even know that Scienceblogs is related to Seed or that Seed exists at all.  And here is where I think one needs to get a little radical.  Seed should (as roughly suggested by Bora), I think, give up it’s print magazine and fold Seed into Scienceblogs.  High quality traditional media pieces like those Seed produces are great.  So why can’t they be part of the network in an integrated way?
Well these are just my silly initial thoughts about re-imagining science networks, when I should be busy changing diapers.  And certainly I don’t know what I’m talking about.  But read the disclaimer in the upper right of this blog.  So don’t say I didn’t warn you!