Lotteries fascinate the human mind. In the The Lottery in Babylon, Jorge Luis Borges describes a city where the lottery takes a progressively dominant part in people’s life, to the extent that every decision, even life and death, becomes subject to the lottery.
In this story, Borges brings us face to face with the discomfort that the concept of randomness creates in our mind. Paradoxes are like lighthouses, they indicate a dangerous reef, where the human mind can easily slip and fall into madness, but they also show us the way to greater understanding.
One of the oldest paradoxes of probability theory is the so called Saint Petersburg paradox, which has been teasing statisticians since 1713. Imagine I offered you to play the following game: if you toss ‘tails’, you gain $1, and as long as you toss ‘tails’, you double your gains. The first ‘heads’ ends the spree and determines how much you gain. So you could gain $0, $1, $2, $4, $8... with probability 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32 etc. What is the fair price I can ask you to play the Saint Petersburg lottery?
Probability theory says that the...
Trying to come up with a name for the blog, I wondered what a good title should be. If you ever wrote a scientific article, you probably found yourself in the same situation. You try to surf the trend, mix in carefully selected buzzwords and present the work under its sexiest side. Sexy, that is, to the veterans. Admittedly, not everyone will crave to read “Epithelial cell adhesion molecule (EpCAM) complex proteins promote transcription factor-mediated pluripotency reprogramming” (no offense intended, I just took the first title that showed up in PubMed).
Meta-analysis of scientific literature tells us a lot about how science and scientific discourse change over time. A simple title word analysis of the articles published in Nature in an 8 year interval shows how some topics fell from grace, whereas others rose to the top.
The struggle-for-hype allows us to tell what scientists and editors find exciting at a given time. To play with this idea, I collected all the titles of the Nature articles published in 2002 and in 2010, and ran Wordle on them. The size of a word in the cloud is proportional to its occurrence in the corpus...
“You know how scientists will communicate in the future, don’t you?
— Of course I do!”
It is a shameless lie, I have no clue what Frédéric has in mind, but I don’t want to look stupid.
“And you Vincent, I bet you know it too... right?”
On this afternoon of 2004, somewhere on the south coast of Madagascar, Vincent gives one of his majestic puzzled looks. That was exactly what Frédéric had hoped for.
“Well, in the future, scientists will no longer publish in journals. They will have public lab notes. They will post their results on their personal Internet page day by day... like a blog. Peer scientists will be allowed to leave their comments, criticize the protocols and the results. In short, the information will go directly from the producers to the consumers, and it will spread much better because science will become open source.”
I believed it then.
But now, I just became an independent researcher. I have my own team. I am the boss!! And I realize that Frédéric was wrong. To stay in research you need a good track record. And as far as track...