Friday, December 8, 2017

Four distinct responses to the cosmological constant problem

One of the biggest problems in theoretical physics is to explain why the cosmological constant has the value that it does.
There are two aspects to the problem.
The first problem is that the value is so small, 120 orders of magnitude smaller than what one estimates based on the quantum vacuum energy!
The second problem is that the value seems to be finely tuned (to 120 significant figures!) to the value of the mass energy.

The problems and proposed (unsuccessful) solutions are nicely reviewed in an article written in 2000 by Steven Weinberg.

There seem to be four distinct responses to this problem.

1. Traditional scientific optimism.
A yet to be discovered theory will explain all this.

2. Fatalism. 
That is just the way things are. We will never understand it.

3. Teleology and Design.
God made it this way.

4. The Multiverse.
This finely tuned value is just an accident. Our universe is one of zillions possible. Each has different fundamental constants.

It is is amazing how radical 2, 3, and 4, are.

I have benefited from some helpful discussions about this with Robert Mann. There is a Youtube video where we discuss the multiverse. Some people love the video. Others think it incredibly boring. I think we are both too soft on the multiverse.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Superconductivity is emergent. So what?

Superconductivity is arguably the most intriguing example of emergent phenomena in condensed matter physics. The introduction to an endless stream of papers and grant applications mention this. But, so what? Why does this matter? Are we just invoking a "buzzword" or does looking at superconductivity in this way actually help our understanding?

When we talk about emergence I think there are three intertwined aspects to consider: phenomena, concepts, and effective Hamiltonians.

For example, for a superconductor, the emergent phenomena include zero electrical resistance, the Meissner effect, and the Josephson effect.
In a type-II superconductor in an external magnetic field, there are also vortices and quantisation of the magnetic flux through each vortex.

The main concept associated with the superconductivity is the spontaneously broken symmetry. 
This is described by an order parameter.

The figure below shows the different hierarchies of scale associated with superconductivity in elemental metals. The bottom four describe effective Hamiltonians.
The hierarchy above was very helpful (even if not explicitly stated) in the development of the theory of superconductivity. The validity of the BCS Hamiltonian was supported by the fact that it could produce the Ginzburg-Landau theory (as shown by Gorkov) and that the attractive interaction in the BCS Hamiltonian (needed to produce Cooper pairing) could be produced from screening of the electron-phonon interaction by the electron-electron interaction, as shown by Frohlich and Bardeen and Pines.

Have I missed something?

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

How do you run a meaningful and effective consultation?

It is now quite common for university management and funding agencies to run "consultations" where they interact with members of the "community" and "stakeholders". An example, I recently attended at my university was one concerning the university developing a "Mental Health Strategy".
Some departments run "retreats" for staff members with similar aims.
For reasons I describe below, I think such events vary greatly in their value and effectiveness.

I write this because I would like to hear from readers what they think are important ingredients for an effective and meaningful consultation.

My interest is partly because my wife and I were asked by a NGO and a philanthropic organisation to facilitate several consultations with a view to future grant-making initiatives.
My literature search for "best practises" did not yield much.
But here are two resources we did find helpful.

How Employees Shaped Strategy at the New York Public Library
[Published in the Harvard Business Review]

Appreciative Inquiry

Both of these focus on finding a balance between "bottom-up" rather than a "top-down" approach.
They focus on positive things that may be already happening and building on them rather than focussing on problems.

A while ago I heard a talk by a faculty member who previously was Chief of Staff for a state Governor. He mentioned that one of worst things he had to do in that role was to run community "consultations" about "proposed" new government initiatives and policies. Unfortunately, the government had already made a decision but was merely conducting these events to give the appearance of consulting people who would be affected. A sad thing is that some would consider that Governor was one of the best that the state has had.

In a blog post, Best practice of top academic departments, Rohan Pitchford from the ANU School of Economics laments that in Australian universities
Over the last 15-20 years academic school meetings have gone from rambling and unstructured brawls to dull “executive infomercials”. The former led to marathon meetings. The current model has led to a middle-management culture that often does not take advantage of the very valuable specialists skills of talented, highly trained (and experienced) scholars in the department. Nor does it allow for reasonable checks and balances on the powers of the executive–something that is vital for the management of any group of academics.
Australian indigenous communities face many challenges. I recently heard one of their leaders say they were so sick of "white fellas" coming and running "consultations" aimed at finding "solutions" to their problems. He said the negative focus was actually dis-empowering the community, sucking away the energy and confidence to address their problems. They needed a more positive approach that focussed on some of the good things that they were doing and how they could build on those.

Here are a few things I have observed.

First, rearrange the furniture. This says a lot about the power  and communication dynamics in the room. A traditional lecture theatre means people can't see each other and that everyone is looking at the "presenter" who has the power and presents pre-packaged solutions. In contrast, a flat floor with groups of people around circular tables which are used for break out discussion groups, suggests something quite different. My wife taught me this. I also heard from Jenny Charteris (who does this for a living) that this is the first lesson of Facilitation 101.
It was interesting that the UQ Mental Health consultation was done in a good room like I describe above and I think this did facilitate more discussion, including after the meeting. I don't know if this was by intent or whether it was just the room that was available.

Second, it is important that people are heard and feel heard.
In many Australian universities, staff surveys have shown that the vast majority of staff say that "senior management does not listen to other staff". I have also seen instances where someone up the front exhibited what seemed "fake empathy". "I hear you, but ...." and later implemented policies that were contrary to what happened at the meeting.

Third, allow plenty of time for discussion, both in small and large groups. It is also to break up the small groups along different demographic lines.

Fourth, interaction both before and after any meeting is valuable. This also means providing different forums and means of communication, from anonymous comments on a website to public discussions with large groups. I thought it was good that for the UQ Mental Health consultation they said they had already run some small focus groups to get ideas.

What do you think are important ingredients for a meaningful and effective consultation?

Monday, November 20, 2017

I am not that Ross MacKenzie

Today the Australian Medical Journal published an article

Legal does not mean unaccountable: suing tobacco companies to recover health care costs 
Ross MacKenzie, Eric LeGresley and Mike Daube

This is getting some press and community attention.

For the public record, I am not one of the authors. I am Ross McKenzie.

Yesterday, I got an invitation to do an interview with a radio station in New Zealand!
Now, I just received the following hate mail.
Pity that you don't advocate for the government to recoup alcohol costs from companies, who have caused much more damage to drunks and others, you intellectual pigmy

Monday, November 13, 2017

Two important principles of time management

1. Delegate

2. It can wait.

These are also conducive to good mental health.

The second is not a mandate for procrastination.
Rather it is a mandate to be pro-active rather than reactive, to set and stick to priorities, to not let the squeaky wheel get the most oil, to let people solve their own problems,  ....

I often feel pressure to get a long list of things done as soon as possible. This is not good for my stress level and mental health. However, if I can calm down and let things go, and come back to them later, I will have a better sense of perspective.

I don't claim to have the best time management. Some earlier thoughts are here.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Social qualities emerge from multiple interactions at multiple scales

Different qualities are used to describe and characterise societies: civil, fair, intolerant, racist, corrupt, free,  ….

Two big questions are:

How does a society make a transition between from a bad quality and a good quality?

What kind of initiatives can induce changes?

Initiatives can be individual or collective, political or economic, local or national, ...

For example, how does reduce corruption, which is endemic in many Majority world countries?
Or in the USA, why is public debate losing civility?

I think it is helpful to acknowledge the complexity of these issues. They have some similarity to wicked problems. They are problems that involve multiple interactions at multiple scales. Some of these interactions are competing and frustrated (in the spin glass sense!) and initiatives can lead to unintended consequences.

Whether you look at societies from a sociological, cultural, geographical, political, or economic perspective they involve multiple scales. For example, at the political level, one goes from local to city to state to national governments to the United Nations. In some countries corruption (bribes, extortion, nepotism, tax evasion,…) occurs at all levels. A policeman demands a bribe for a traffic violation. A university administrator changes records so his nephew, a mediocre student, can be admitted to medical school. The president of the country moves millions of dollars in foreign aid money into an off-shore bank account….
These phenonmena occur at multiple scales and involve multiple interactions. For example, an individual citizen will interact with many levels of government, and government agencies, and with each may be involved or impacted by a corrupt interaction.

Civility (respect, graciousness, politeness, listening) or uncivility (disrespect, rudeness, contempt, shouting) also occurs at many levels. These range from everyday conversations, comments on Facebook, to debate in parliament, to the Twitter feed of the President of the USA.

Michel Foucault, is one of the most influential (for better or worse) scholars in the humanities from the 20th century. He is particularly well known for his arguments that power operates at many levels and in many different ways in societies.

I find a multi-scale perspective helpful because it undercuts two extreme but common views concerning how we address significant social problems.
One view is the “top-down” perspective that if we just have the right national leader and the right laws a problem will be solved. This is argued for a whole range of issues ranging from corruption to sexual harassment, to “hate speech”.
The other extreme is the “bottom-up” view that the problem can be solved by individuals just making the right choices. Each individual should be polite to others and not give or take bribes. We need both approaches.

Moreover, I believe we need initiatives at all levels and interactions.
The importance of the absence of the intermediate scales (and the associated concept of social capital) was highlighted in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by the Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam.
An example of a multi-scale perspective is in the Oxfam book, From Poverty to Power: How active citizens and effective states can change the world.

A question that is both practically important and intellectually fascinating is:

What are the critical parameters and their values at which a society undergoes a “phase transition”?

Such a question is addressed in
The Epidemics of Corruption 
Ph. Blanchard, A. Krueger, T. Krueger, P. Martin

The figure is from a paper, Small-World Networks of Corruption.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

My recent mental health reading

Mental issues have been on my radar for the past few months, mainly for three reasons. First, I am coming back (very positively) from a low over the past year. Second, I continue to have many conversations with people who have struggled with the issue. Third, University of Queensland has decided to develop a "Mental Health Strategy" for students and staff.
Last week I went to a public consultation about a draft document for UQ. (I was on leave from work, but thought it so important I went on campus). I read the document carefully, spoke out at the meeting, and also sent some email feedback.
More on that later, maybe...

Australian universities seem to have discovered the issue following the publication of a report, concerning student mental health. The "strategy" for ANU is here.

Here are a few valuable pieces that have "come across my desk" in the last few months.

Santa Ono, President of the University of British Columbia, and a distinguished medical researcher is a passionate advocate and speaks publically, about his own struggles, including several suicide attempts.

On PBS Wellread [recommended by my mother-in-law], I watched a fascinating interview with Tracy Kidder, a Pulitzer Prize winner, whose latest book is a profile of Paul English, a wealthy software entrepreneur who suffers from bipolar disorder. A Truck Full Of Money.

The ‘Madman’ Is Back in the Building is a moving Opinion piece about the personal experience of a lawyer who had a psychotic breakdown at work and then struggled as he went back to work after 90 days leave.

There is a BBC article about a recent UK study commissioned by the Prime Minister
'Depression lost me my job': How mental health costs up to 300,000 jobs a year

Mental health also features in a Nature editorial
Many junior scientists need to take a hard look at their job prospects. Permanent jobs in academia are scarce, and someone needs to let PhD students know.
More than one-quarter of the Ph.D students who responded listed mental health as an area of concern, and 45% of those said they had sought help for anxiety or depression caused by their PhD. One-third of those got useful help from their institution (which of course means that two-thirds did not).