Science In Islamic Countries

Physics Today published a thought-provoking article on the status of and prospects for science in Islamic countries. The author, a Pakistani physicist, posits that ‘Internal causes led to the decline of Islam’s scientific greatness long before the era of mercantile imperialism. To contribute once again, Muslims must be introspective and ask what went wrong.’ The author makes a few strong conclusions, many of which are relevant to the general debate between science and religion.

Scientific progress constantly demands that facts and hypotheses be checked and rechecked, and is unmindful of authority. But there lies the problem: The scientific method is alien to traditional, unreformed religious thought. Only the exceptional individual is able to exercise such a mindset in a society in which absolute authority comes from above, questions are asked only with difficulty, the penalties for disbelief are severe, the intellect is denigrated, and a certainty exists that all answers are already known and must only be discovered.

Science finds every soil barren in which miracles are taken literally and seriously and revelation is considered to provide authentic knowledge of the physical world. If the scientific method is trashed, no amount of resources or loud declarations of intent to develop science can compensate. In those circumstances, scientific research becomes, at best, a kind of cataloging or ‘butterfly-collecting’ activity. It cannot be a creative process of genuine inquiry in which bold hypotheses are made and checked.

Update: over a 1000 comments in Slashdot discussion of this article.


Indexing the Hottest Topics in Physics

There is finally a scientific way to determine the hottest scientific topics. Michael Banks, a PhD student at the MPI-Stuttgart, in a recent paper extended the Hirsch Index for ranking research topics in Physics. The h-b index is based on the number of published papers and citations for a given topic. The second metric, m, normalizes the h-b by the the number of years that papers on the topic have been published. An m>3 means that a topic is hot. Moreover, a large m number combined with an h-b>100 represents a topic that was popular in the past and still is today. Finally, a small m but large h-b reflects an older topic that was popular for many years but is now less so. The following is a list of the 10 hottest topics in Physics (as of 2006), based on a larger dataset from the original paper.

Topic h-b m
carbon nanotubes 167 12.85
nanowires 105 8.75
quantum dots 149 7.84
fullerenes 140 7.78
giant magnetoresistance 116 6.82
M-theory 79 6.58
quantum computation 73 5.21
teleportation 61 5.08
superstrings 99 3.96
heavy fermion 97 3.73

The original Hirsch's h-index is based on the number of times that papers by a particular scientist are cited. A scientist with a h-index of 10, will have published at least 10 papers that have received at least 10 citations each. Similarly, a topic with an h-b index of 10 means that there are at least 10 papers on that topic, each of which has been cited at least 10 times. Some topics have been around longer than others, so the second metric, m, normalizes the h-b by the the number of years that papers on the topic have been published. The resulting m number indicates how important a particular topic is today. Like the original h-index, the h-b index is calculated by searching the ISI Web of Science database for the topic and then sorting the results by the number of citations.

Search Options for Research Papers

A few personal favorites from the list of alternatives to the popular Web of Science (WoS) index reviewed by Dana L. Roth (for details, see the RMIMR post or the full PDF file). In accordance with my personal research interests, these are the tools useful for literature and citation searches in Physics and Chemistry.

Web of Science
WoS and other databases from Thomson Scientific like ISI Web of Knowledge and the ISI journal impact factor are the tools that I personally use the most. One feature in WoS that I find increasingly useful is the system of citation alerts, whereby I am notified (by e-mail) every time a particular paper has been cited. By selectively “tagging” in this manner several important and specialized papers in a given field (e.g., immobilization of DNA on surfaces), the resulting alerts effectively notify me about most of the new papers on the subject. WoS also happens to provide the easiest way I know to check a Hirsch index.

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Google Ranking for Scientific Papers

A recent paper on “Finding Scientific Gems with Google” tested the application of “the Google PageRank algorithm to assess the relative importance of all publications in the Physical Review family of journals from 1893—2003”. The results, highlighted on IoP’s physicsweb, indicate that in general highly cited papers also have high Google rank numbers, but the algorithm also found a few exceptional papers that have anomalously high Google rank numbers compared with their citation rank. Such anomalies can occur when several derivative follow-up papers, written at a more accessible level, capture most of the subsequent citations. Google Scholar is implementing similar ranking ideas via the new ‘recent articles’ option, which promises to rank papers based on factors like the number of citations and “the prominence of the author’s and journal’s previous papers”.

The updated Google Scholar conveniently includes links to PDF versions of papers from the authors’ websites (when available), which can be a much faster download option than browsing through the subscription-based publishers’ sites. By contrast, Academic search from Microsoft only links to published or arXiv versions of the papers. Both services, however, are not yet as complete as the traditional citation search databases and, in some cases, have trouble identifying multiple links to the same paper, when respective sources contain typos or use different formats for citations.

Neutrino Masses Confirmed

MINOS experiment confirmed that neutrinos have mass. The BBC News story does a good job explaining why masses of particles, that are almost impossible to observe, matter so much. “Light shed on mysterious particle” title though seems like a bad pun, since neutrinos do not have much to do with light. If anything, on those rare occasions when they interact with matter, light is emitted, not absorbed. The Register article about vanishing neutrinos is titled more appropriately, but is actually less informative. And just to round up today’s high-energy physics and cosmology reading list – the Why Files summary of the Big Bang mysteries offers a few insightful soundbites on the current theories about the past and the future of the Universe.

April 1 Update. OMG!!! PINK PONIES day rules!!! Story accepted on Slashdot!!!

pink slashdot logo

A glimpse of the insider’s prospective, from a post by one of the MINOS collaborators:

It’s been a pretty exciting 10 years. The push to get everything together this last month has been exhausting. But after presenting the results on Thursday do we physicists take a well deserved break and party like 1999? Well, noooo. We spend Friday, Saturday and Sunday IN MEETINGS! Today (Saturday) we were there from 8:30am to 7:00pm discussing how further to proceed. We’ve got 50% more data “in the can” that we didn’t yet present (cross checks to perform, fits to perform). Plus plans for more data taking after the accelerator comes up again in June. Plus other physics results we’re still trying to extract. Plus more improved simulations to do in order to yield improved limits. Such is the life of a physicist.

Google Deletes Own Blog

A comment to the official Google Blog is back post claims that the same exploit can be used to take over blogger sites. An approximate translation of the claim (original is in Russian) is that it is possible to not only recover splogs previously deleted by blogger admins, but to also take over ownership of existing blogs. Of course, this could be just a publicity stunt, as the claim is made on a blog titled “Splog”, but at least so far it does not look like one.

The Cost of DNA Origami

Another post curtesy of a Slashdot discussion, this time of DNA Origami. In response to one of the questions, I ventured a guesstimate on the cost of DNA for that project.

The cost of (buying) DNA varies dramatically depending on the length and the purity of a sample, largely because DNA samples of different length are produced by different methods. The cost purification can also add up to more than that of the production. The Nature article specifically mentions common assumptions about the requirements for DNA components that can be used in programmed DNA self-assembly – essentially they have demonstrated that this can be done a lot cheaper than people have assumed.

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