3 Quarks Daily 2012 Science Prize: The Winners

I was the judge for this year’s 3 Quarks Daily Science Prize; here are the results. Cross-posted at 3 Quarks Daily, obviously.

I want to thank Abbas and all the 3QD crew for inviting me to judge this year’s Science Prize. I can’t help but thinking that after having Richard Dawkins, Stephen Pinker, and Lisa Randall judge the previous years, a certain phase transition has occurred; but I’m happy to be associated with such an amazing group.

Let me start by saying something obvious but nevertheless true: the entries this year were of extraordinarily high quality. Some excellent blog posts among the initial nominees didn’t even make the final ten, and any one of the nine finalists would have been a worthy choice for number one. But I will resist the temptation to declare a nine-way tie.

There is no simple and objective standard for what makes a blog post “the best.” “Blog is software,” as Bora Zivkovic likes to remind us — blogging is a medium, not a genre. Successful blog posts can be one word or ten thousand; a personal reflection or a rigorous analysis; an original idea or an insightful commentary; a devastating take-down or an inspirational message. But within these flexible parameter, there are certain aspects of blogging that make it special, and I looked for posts that took advantage of those unique capabilities. I wanted to choose posts that would be hard to imagine finding in any other medium, but whose quality measured up to the best of journalism or science writing. One frustrating aspect of a contest like this is that the prize is given to posts, rather than to blogs — for many of the most successful blogs, their charm comes from the accumulated effect of reading many posts over a long period of time. But okay, enough with the throat-clearing.

Without further ado:

First place this year goes to Empirical Zeal, for “The crayola-fication of the world: How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains.” With many different criteria in mind, this post by Aatish Bhatia stood out among the rest. It’s just about the perfect use of a blog. For one thing, it looks gorgeous: all those colorful images, each of which actually serves a purpose. The writing is playful and clever; once you see the mantis shrimp telling you “DEAR MORTAL, YOUR RAINBOW IS PUNY,” you’re not likely to forget it. And most of all, the science is fascinating and important. To a physicist, there is a continuum of colors; but to our eyes and brains, “rainbows have seams,” and that affects how we think about the world. A completely deserving winner. (And don’t forget that there is a Part II.)

Second place goes to Three-Toed Sloth, for “In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You” (cross-posted at Crooked Timber.) Cosma Shalizi doesn’t bother with colorful pictures; he even uses a slightly gray font on a white background, presumably because black on white would come off as too florid. But this is a creative and original essay that brings the theory of computational complexity to bear on the practical problem of managing a planned economy. (Conclusion: it can’t be done.) The flexibility of blogs doesn’t just mean the ability to post videos; it also means the freedom to explore ideas outside traditional disciplinary comfort zones. Not a light read, but a true contribution to intellectual discourse. The kind of post that nudges the rest of us to be better bloggers.

Third place goes to The Mermaid’s Tale, for “Forget bipedalism. What about babyism?” In another great use of the medium, Holly Dunsworth takes creative advantage of the blog format to make important points both about science and about how science is done. How much can we learn about a species just by studying a few bones in its feet? Does a particular anatomical feature represent a crucial adaptation to circumstances, or is it just an ancestral remnant? Also: adorable pictures of baby monkeys, as well as real data with error bars. Everybody wins.

In very different ways, these three posts serve as proud examples of what blogging can be at its best — feel free to share them with any of your friends who still remain skeptical. Yet, I cannot help but cheat just a little bit by offering two “honorable mentions.” At The Primate Diaries, Eric Michael Johnson’s “Freedom to Riot: On the Evolution of Collective Violence” is a polished and fascinating look at natural selection and the behavior of human crowds. And at Quantum Diaries, Flip Tanedo’s “Helicity, Chirality, Mass, and the Higgs” is an original take on explaining an abstract but central point in modern quantum field theory. All of these posts — as well as the other finalists! — are impressive achievements. My hat’s off.

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5 Responses to 3 Quarks Daily 2012 Science Prize: The Winners

  1. Brian Mingus says:

    The winning post conflates the biology of the visual system with qualia and overall it doesn’t seem to end up making sense.

    What is the difference between the ability of humans, dogs and mantis shrimp to make decisions based on differences in wavelengths of light? It is essentially a difference of the biology of the eye.

    Firstly, this biological difference does not imply that dogs, mantis shrimp, or even people have qualia. That the vision of a mantis shrimp is “unimaginably rich” is unsupportable. It assumes that mantis shrimp have qualia, which is equivalent to the problem of other minds – an especially intractable problem cross-species, and even further intractable when that species does not have language.

    Going further, how is this difference even relevant to the post? The post starts by focusing on the linguistic differences between cultures whose members – across cultures – have essentially identical visual systems. The concluding paragraphs do not even relate to the rest of the post in this regard. The author jumps from “differences between language” to “differences between eyeballs.”

    Whether assigning words to different wavelength segments changes phenomenology is an interesting question. However, the blog post does not address this question. There is no evidence in the post that individuals who speak different languages actually have different wavelength-qualia mappings. Going further, there is no evidence in the post that, whether or not they have different wavelength-qualia mappings, the individuals could not nevertheless differentiate between the same set of wavelengths as based on the biology of the eye.

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  2. s johnson says:

    Skip over the question whether a blog post that talks about “convexity” in linear programming without bothtering to explain is a useful contribution to general public discussion, even one self-selected for interest. Perhaps it’s a very technical point?

    But consider a statement like this: “A good modern commercial linear programming package can handle a problem with 12 or 13 million variables in a few minutes on a desktop machine. Let’s be generous and push this down to 1 second. (Or let’s hope that Moore’s Law rule-of-thumb has six or eight iterations left, and wait a decade.) To handle a problem with 12 or 13 billion variables then would take about 30 billion seconds, or roughly a thousand years.” It’s not clear why a single machine is necessary. If it’s a technical necessity, it’s one that definitely needs to be justified. Without justification it’ strongly resembles a straw man version of central planning, easily refuted but not what anyone ever meant.

    Worse, consider this: “But what about the planners? Even if they wanted to just look at the profit (value added) of the whole economy, they get to set the prices of consumption goods, which in turn set the (shadow) prices of inputs to production. (The rule “maximize the objective function” does not help pick an objective function.) In any case, profits are money, i.e., claims, through exchange, on goods and services produced by others. It makes no sense for the goal of the economy, as a whole, to be to maximize its claims on itself.

    As I mentioned, Kantorovich had a way of evading this, which was clever if not ultimately satisfactory. He imagined the goal of the planners to be to maximize the production of a “given assortment” of goods. This means that the desired ratio of goods to be produced is fixed (three diapers for every towel), and the planners just need to maximize production at this ratio. This only pushes back the problem by one step, to deciding on the “given assortment”.

    We are pushed back, inevitably, to the planners having to make choices which express preferences or (in a different sense of the word) values. Or, said another way, there are values or preferences — what Nove called “planners’ preferences” — implicit in any choice of objective function. This raises both a cognitive or computational problem, and at least two different political problems.” This sets up the context of the discussion. It is really rather obvious that historical data on consumer preferences can be analyzed for the “given assortment.”

    Whether there can be sufficient feedback mechanisms in central planning to adjust the given assortment is of course the real question. If it can’t, since such changes must occur, then a true argument has been made. The interesting thing here is the way that the “given assortment” is assumed to be something that has to be wholly and instantaneously created de novo. This too smacks strongly of a straw man argument. Acutally it is uncomfortably reminiscent of those mathematical “proofs” that evolution cannot possibly produce a complex organism by chance, because it is impossible for such complex arrangements of DNA to be formed wholly and instantaneously de novo.

    Lastly of course, the blog post starts off by claiming that the whole issue isn’t really relevant. Its selection of course disproves that statement, ingenuous as it may be. Obviously there are political agendas that find attacks on leftism in any form desirable. Was that really a good agenda to follow? Was this really an excellent blog post contributing to public understanding of a complex issue?

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  3. Jon says:

    very good articles

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  4. martenvandijk says:

    I am very disappointed. Therefore I take comfort in giving myself 1 quark daily: strawberry quark, peach quark or vanilla quark.

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