Culture means whatever Brian Micklethwait says it means.  
Category Archive • Science fiction
November 12, 2004
Michael Jennings on scientists getting the credit they deserve

MichaelJCanonA75s.jpgMy latest CNE Intellectual Property piece is up. It was triggered by the student who is suing Ground Zero architect David Childs for allegedly nicking one of his student designs to use for the big tower at the heart of the scheme. I then talked about academic idea-stealing in other fields, especially science.

This article, linked to today by A&LD, discusses how the expansion of science may have lowered its ethical standards, a matter also touched on by Michael Jennings (recent picture of him there), in the following email which he sent me in response to my CNE piece:

Whilst academia is indeed full of asymmetric relationships in which more senior academics gain credit for the work of younger people, most scientific fields are small enough, and the participants meet each other at conferences and talk to one another often enough, that in the case of any important work everybody knows who actually did it, regardless of whose name is on the paper. In practice, it is usually a case of figuring out which of the multiple people whose names are on the paper actually did the work. Maybe this is changing as academia gets bigger and more corporate, but I am not so sure. For one thing, scientific research responds to this by breaking up into more and more fields with a relatively small number of individuals in them, and I think this is unlike architecture. It varies from field to field though. Some fields consist of large laboratories with hundreds of people, but most are as I describe.

And the most asymmetric relationship that exists in scientific academia is that between a supervisor/adviser and a PhD student. In most circumstances a supervisor has a de facto veto over whether a student gets a PhD. This can lead to abuses of various kinds, and also to somewhat weird human relationships. Nothing bad happened to me personally in this regard, but I have seen one or two slightly dubious things happen to other people.

Rather amusingly if you have done a PhD, science fiction writer Vernor Vinge a former mathematics professor himself wrote a story a year or so back about a professor who has a virtual reality simulation of one of his students created and told that he has to get so much work done in the next year, or he will not be allowed to get his PhD and runs it over and over again to get this hypermotivated student to do near infinite amounts of work for him.

And as for your final comment about someone suing Nobel Laureates, the interesting issue is that in the sciences the Nobel Prize committees have credibility, and scientific Nobel Prizes are considered such a great honour at least partly because they are seen to have almost invariably been given to the right people, and that means the committee goes to great trouble to see that they are given to the people who actually did the work. In particularly controversial circumstances, there have been a number of incidents where people have not received the Nobel prize until decades after they did the original work, and where the prize was awarded within a year or two of the death of the more senior academic who laid claim to the work. More senior academics are usually older, so waiting for the
wrong person to die before giving the award to the right person is a workable strategy.

One thing that comes into play here is that there is no limit on the number of authors that may appear on a paper published in most journals, whereas a Nobel prize in the sciences is never shared by more than three people, which means that if the wrong people are awarded a Nobel prize, the right ones usually miss out. Even within this constraint, though, simply giving the prize to the three people whose names are on the paper is never done. In such circumstances the prize tends to be shared between people doing work in the same or closely related fields for different universities/laboratories rather than by people who worked together.

You can actually tell certain things about who did what by the way in which the prize money is split in a three way award. If the three recipients each get a third of the money, this means either that the three of them did related but separate pieces of work, or that the three of them were involved in doing the same piece of work (either as collaborators or (more often) by coming up with the same results independently). If one of the recipients gets 50% of the money and the others 25% each, then this means that the one who got 50% did a separate but related piece of work to the other two, who were involved in doing the same work, either together or independently.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:33 PM
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October 29, 2004
Here come the Fifth Element cars!

I'm busy lashing up a TransportBlog posting, following on from this Samizdata posting about air taxis, and in connection with that, I want this image .


up here, so I can link to it from there. Click to get it lots bigger.

The Fifth Element (and by the way these storyboards are worth a look if you are the arty type) has always struck me as a hugely under-rated movie, from the urban futurology point of view. It deserves, from that point of view, at least equal billing with Blade Runner, which I believe is only liked as much as it is because it says (with the usual absurdly short and impatient SF timeframe it's set round about now, as I recall) that the weather is about to become permanently horrible.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:42 PM
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May 25, 2004
Scott Hillis on John C Wright's The Golden Age

This email has arrived at Samizdata HQ and been sent around to all the Samizdatistas. In case it falls between the cracks, with each of us assuming that someone else will flag it up, I take the liberty of reproducing this eamil here in its entirety, which is about a matter where the interests of Samizdata and Brian's Culture Blog overlap. If there is no response to this email at Samizdata I will perhaps (I know from bitter experience that I am bad at keeping promises so I do not promise this) do a shorter posting there myself.

I have not myself read the book about which Scott Hillis writes so enthusiastically.

GoldenAge.jpgGreetings Samizdatistas!

This to call your attention to a science fiction novel that I believe is one of the most important pieces of libertarian fiction in recent memory.

The book is The Golden Age by John C. Wright. It was published in 2002 and won critical praise for his flowery revival of the romantic space opera. It is one of the finest works of science fiction I have read in at least a decade.

I am writing you because I found no reference to it while searching the Samizdata site (of which I am a regular reader). Please accept my apologies if this perception is mistaken.

Mr. Wright was schooled in classics from Homer to The Federalist Papers, and his erudition shines through on every page. Characters are named after personages from ancient myth. He appears equally passionate about scientific realism. While the book paints incredible advances in computing and nano-scale technology, there are no warp drives or blatant breaking of the known laws of physics.

Yet his scenarios and inventions are so fantastic, so wonderfully fresh and well-crafted, as to send the mind reeling.

All this would be enough to recommend the book on its own, but I believe the book's philosophical merits will make of particular interest to Samizdata's contributors and readers. In interviews, Mr. Wright states outright that he created his future society to be a libertarian utopia. In fact, he wrote it partly as an explicit rebuttal to certain portrayals of communist utopias.

Of course, there is not much drama in an actual utopia, and the central conflict in the novel arises out of the desire of one man to upset the conventions of his prosperous society in pursuit of a magnificent vision. In one interview, Mr. Wright named his target audience when he says, "I am certainly writing for those who believe in the American dream."

The book is not long, but it took me more than a week to finish it simply because it is so dense. Every page is packed with meaning, and I found myself rereading passages over and over to extract their full meaning. No words are wasted, and readers are rewarded for paying attention to details like names, titles and descriptions of the various factions and elements in Mr. Wrights fabulous future society.

Here are two amazing and revealing interviews with Mr. Wright. I challenge any Samizdata sci-fi fan to read these exchanges and NOT immediately rush to read "The Golden Age" (and its sequel, "The Phoenix Ascendant").

For the record, I have no association with Mr. Wright, his publisher or any of that. I am simply a long-time Samizdata reader who has been deeply affected by a remarkable work of science fiction, and hope the word can be spread.

Thank you for your attention.

Scott Hillis - Beijing - China

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:03 PM
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August 20, 2003

A great way to edge your profile in the blogosphere in the upwards direction is to do one of those links to a Samizdata posting that turns the bit where it says "TrackBack [0]" to "TrackBack [1]". Noticing such a circumstance (and making it go now to "TrackBack [2]") at the top of Dale Amon's posting about SpaceShipOne (which I have a soft spot for simply because it photographs so prettily), I backtracked my way to a blog called The Speculist, which is about the onward march into the wild blue future yonder of technology. Whenever Samizdata gets too gloomy about the European Union, income tax, UK gun control, etc., this will be one of the places I go for optimistic refreshment about life's possibilities.

My favourite posting there at present, edging the one about DNA computing into second place, is this one about Chinese human-rabbit hybrids.

Hollywood must be told about this. The pitch: The Fly, only instead of a fly it's a bunny. The Bunny! Jeff Goldblum with fur and whiskers (which he has already practised doing in the outstanding Earth Girls Are Easy), winning an Olympic sprinting medal and then disappearing into a hole in the ground. Maybe not.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:12 PM
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February 06, 2003
SF upon the brain

In the wake of the Columbia disaster, science fiction is on a lot of people's minds this week. A disaster to a mundane little space ship returning from mere earth orbit, having been studying the behaviour of insects in zero G if you please, has caused the bereaved space fans to take refuge in reveries about what it may all be leading to, despite all the frustrations and banalities of what passes for space travel now.

I did the libertarian science fiction binge when I was in my late teens, but now it doesn't really do it for me any more. But SF remains a big deal for many of my libertarian friends. Paul Marks has a piece on Samizdata today, and is typically pessimistic about how statist SF authors have, he argues, now become. But, read the comments. And Tom Burroughes has a piece over at Survivalarts, about SF book covers. This was in response to an earlier piece by Russell Whitaker, blogmaster of Survivalarts, which Samizdata also used on Tuesday, in explicit connection with, as he put it, "you know what".

The bad BCBlog news for SF people is that I probably won't have that much to say about SF here, and what I do say is as likely to be critical as positive. This is deliberate. My tastes in art don't seem to fit with the usual libertarian tendencies. BCBlog will thus be especially keen to point out that if you want to be a libertarian, that does not mean that you have to share the widespread libertarian fascination with SF, Lord of the Rings, etc. If, like me, you prefer hard history to hard SF, or you like to read strictly earthbound novels suggested to you by TV serialisations (I read the whole of A Dance to the Music of Time about a year ago) - if you prefer Jane Austen to Robert Heinlein (as I now do) - you should feel quite at home here. Apologies for what follows, though. You might want to stop reading this posting now.

Because one fairly recent SF book I did enjoy a lot was Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon The Deep. The elaborate stuff about mini-dog-packs I couldn't get excited about. But the way that doomed emailers would send out calmly analytical descriptions across the depths of the galaxy about why they were about to be wiped into oblivion, or why some other emailer was perhaps not to be trusted, was, for me, charming. And I liked that the emails were easy to find in the text because typographically distinct. I read them all with great care.

Some of the emails that concerned the forthcoming arrival of The Blight were rather as if Dale Amon had been doing something like his Columbia disaster analysis for Samizdata last weekend, but while he himself was on board a space ship whose forthcoming incineration he was calmly trying to account for. "So, here's what I think will happen if I'm right about how the left wing will behave, we will see the first explosions from inside the capsule, and our best hope will be to but this will almost certainly not work then we'll probably have about another one to two seconds of life before we get blown to buggery, but I remain open to correction on that I think it will be a quick death, but that could be wishful thinking on my part "

I didn't participate in the email chat era myself, and still feel (note: not think this is not an argument, merely an unexamined emotional response) that chatrooms are pointless dead-ends, just another bunch of places where opinions can go to die which I'm sure is how lots feel (ditto above) about blogs. For me an email is just a cheap and convenient telegram rather than a means to have a serious conversation. But Vinge captures and universalises an entire era, or what I imagine was an era. I especially like how he reproduces all the guff you get at the top of an email, about how the message travelled, via what giant machines, who else is getting it, and so forth, just like with a lot of emails now, or perhaps I mean then. He also goes into the details of how much it is all costing, the way more and more people are able to forget about now, but had to concern themselves with at first.

Reviews I've just been glancing at for linking purposes suggest that, for a real SF-er, the email stuff is fairly obvious. So 1990s man. But wow, how about those dogs! And the changing laws of physics! But for me, the emails helped me to make sense of the physics, and gave me a sense of the vastness of the galactic civilisation(s) Vinge was evoking. And thank goodness also for the map at the beginning.

But those reviewers are right. Just as TV SF tells you more about the technology and fashions when it was made than the technology and fashions of the far flung future, so A Fire Upon The Deep certainly the email aspect of it tells you about the 1990s rather than about the time that the book is supposedly set in. "More interesting than Single White E-m@il" hardly counts as a rave review.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:27 PM
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