Quinn Fusting, PUP’s editorial assistant in the life sciences, has conducted a Q&A with Sönke Johnsen, the author of The Optics of Life: A Biologist’s Guide to Light in Nature.
Q: When, how, and why did you become interested in light?
As for why…well, light is beautiful. What’s more wonderful than the light filtered through new leaves on a windy, Spring day? Or the green bioluminescence trailing your limbs as you swim on a moonless night? The stars alone are worth having eyes for. I can’t imagine not studying light.
A: I’m not entirely sure. I do enjoy writing, but this was a lot of work, so there must have been a reason. When I pitched the project to my editor, I told her that it would fill a niche, but I’ve never been one to lose sleep over unfilled holes. I also told her that optics was important to biology. It is, but so what? Steve Vogel told me once that writing books is wonderful because it transforms you from a competitor into an enabler. I do hope this book helps people use optics in their research, but honestly I still feel competitive. Maybe I just want people to stop me in the hall and say, “Nice book!” I’d be lying if I said this didn’t matter. I’m shallow, and flattery goes a long way with me.
There’s more though. While not religious, I am often overcome by this world — it’s like being given a prize over and over. The most remarkable part to me is that we are able to appreciate and at least partially understand it. Being a biologist, I can mumble about scientific curiosity being an epiphenomenon of natural selection for cooperative hunting, foraging, individual recognition, and so on, but that doesn’t make it any less incredible. As the physicist Isidor Rabi said when the muon was discovered, “Who ordered that?” However we acquired this ability to appreciate and understand the world, it would be rude to waste it. So I wrote this book to share this feeling, this amazement at what is all around us.
Q: What would you say is the most important thing for biologists to know about optics?
A: That it’s easier to learn than you think. The long history of the field and its connection with human vision has left us with a horrible mess of units and concepts. Only in optics do people still publish papers using units like stilbs, nits, candelas, trolands, and my personal favorite, foot-lamberts. However, the reality of optics itself is simple and elegant. With the right introduction, you can sidestep the mess and get right to the fun parts.
However, light is also harder to work with than many people appreciate. The main reason for this is that we don’t measure light in our daily lives. Since childhood, we develop an intuitive sense of weights, lengths, area, temperature, and so on. For example, we can guess someone’s height to within 5% and weight to within 10%-20%. However, even after a decade of measuring light, I can’t tell you how bright my office is on this overcast morning to within even an order of magnitude. This is like saying that I can’t decide whether I am six or sixty feet tall. So you need to be careful. It’s worth it though. The biological world is a funhouse of optical tricks and traits just waiting to be discovered. Just today, I read that jumping spiders use image defocus to judge distance and that bowerbirds play with visual perspective to impress their mates. How cool is that?
Q: What is light anyway?
A: I have no idea. I have thought about light since I was five years old and am no closer to understanding its fundamental nature. I am in good company though. Even Richard Feynman, one of the creators of the theory of how light and matter interact and widely acknowledged as one of the best explainers of physics, said that light cannot be understood. We have equations that let us predict what light will do to a precision of more than twenty significant figures, but no one has come up with a description of light that makes sense. It is unlikely that anyone ever will. Read enough about the subject, and your head will start to itch.
However, while the non-intuitive nature of light can be unsatisfying, it doesn’t affect our ability to use it. In other words, as long as you do your measurements and math correctly, you can think of light as little purple buffaloes and it won’t matter. After all, we don’t really understand the fundamental nature of anything, but manage just fine.
We are pleased to have just published Duke political science professor Ruth W. Grant’s fascinating new book about the uses–and abuses–of incentives called STRINGS ATTACHED: Untangling the Ethcis of Incentives. Her new book is a must-read for every politician, businessperson, and manager.
STRINGS ATTACHED is co-published with the Russell Sage Foundation and they have recently conducted a terrific Q&A with Ruth on the book and her work.
Q: When you consider the controversies that currently dominate the political debate, the use of incentives isn’t high on the list. People seem more vexed about policies like the health care mandate or income taxes than, say, the use of a tax deduction to encourage charitable donations. Why did you become interested in the use of incentives as a form of power, and why do you think we should talk about them more?
A: I think that I have always been uncomfortable with certain kinds of incentives in my own experience; for example, incentives in the workplace that undermined team spirit or incentives in my child’s classroom that really made her feel manipulated. Other incentives don’t bother me at all. I began to notice that incentives have become the preferred tool of policy in all kinds of settings – governments, businesses, schools, prisons, hospitals – and it seemed important to think through which uses of incentives are innocuous and which are not. The fact that we have invented a new verb – “to incentivize” – is an indication of how much this approach has seeped into the culture. “To incentivize” is a much narrower concept than “to motivate,” which includes incentives, inspiration, arousing curiosity, etc. Something is lost if we automatically consider only incentives when we want to influence people. It seems important to discuss these issues precisely because incentives are pervasive, but also taken for granted.
Princeton Professor Sheldon Garon has done a few major interviews so far this week to discuss the big ideas in his new book, Beyond Our Means: Why America Spends While the World Saves.
His recent Q&A with NPR’s senior business editor Marilyn Geewax is the most popular post on the NPR site today: http://www.npr.org/2011/12/05/143149947/why-americans-spend-too-much
And Kimberly Blanton of the Squared Away Blog of the Financial Security Project at Boston College recently spoke with Prof. Garon about savings rates, “over-indebtedness,” and America’s “unusual” Christmas shopping season: http://fsp.bc.edu/united-states-of-credit/
You can also check out Prof. Garon’s interview yesterday with Marilyn Geewax and host Michel Martin on “Tell Me More” from NPR News: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=143141870
Congratulations to Edwidge Danticat, author of Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, who has been honored with the 2011 Langston Hughes Medal from City College of New York. The award recognizes the body of Danticat’s work.
“The Langston Hughes Medal is awarded to highly distinguished writers from throughout the African American diaspora for their distinguished contributions to the arts and letters. Among past recipients of this award are James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Toni Cade Bambara, Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, Ralph W. Ellison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, August Wilson, Chinua Achebe, Derek Walcott, and Octavia Butler, to name a few.”
Here is a video of a Q&A with the author at the 2011 Langston Hughes Festival:
Check out this video of Robert Frank’s 11/10 LSE Lecture on his new book: The Darwin Economy: liberty, competition, and the common good. The book’s Facebook page is updated regularly with news, clippings, and author videos!
Howard Wainer’s most recent book, Uneducated Guesses, is both a challenge to education policymakers and a warning to the country about the misguided policies that shape our nation’s educational system. Wainer uses statistical evidence to uncover the problems that threaten education in the United States in a book that is both accessible and eye opening for any reader. We recently posed some questions to Professor Wainer and are thrilled to post this dialogue about various issues he addresses in his book.
PUP: You discuss a lot of issues surrounding college and university admittance in Uneducated Guesses, one of which is the current trend of not requiring the SAT for admittance. Do you think that more schools will follow suit?
Professor Howard Wainer: I hope not. Right now there are powerful forces pushing some schools to abandon admission tests. One of the most insidious is how making such tests optional artificially boosts the school’s US News & World Report rankings. I hope that by exposing such strategies it will help to stifle such policies.
PUP: I always thought the rankings were done without room to really “cheat”. How do optional SAT admissions allow schools to game the rankings?
HW: If they make an admission test optional, applicants will behave sensibly. If their scores are lower than is typical for the school to which they are applying,they are likely to not submit them. Therefore the average SAT score, calculated from those who submit them, will be higher than the true, but unknown, all-student average. Thus schools that make the SAT mandatory are placed at a competitive disadvantage. Suppose one school’s average SAT score (an important component of the US News & World Report rankings) included all attending students, whereas another school’s only included the top half? It doesn’t make for fair comparisons.
PUP: So then, how well designed are college rankings and how much do they mean?
HW: I think that the rankings generated by US News & World Report are a sensible way to begin. They choose a set of variables that are positively related to the vague concept ‘quality’, rank schools on each of these variables, and then add them up. The key elements that are of concern are: (i) are the variables all pointed in the right direction, (ii) are there any important variables missing, (iii) are there any included variables that have no relationship to ‘quality’. If these bases are covered there is a theorem (stated and proved by Princeton statistician Sam Wilks 75 years ago) that tells us that this procedure will work. Consumers of such an index must be worried about two things – first, the extent to which the variables used can be gamed, and second, that they are interpreting the rankings too finely.
PUP: Jumping to another topic you discuss extensively in the book: testing. You note that tests in which examinees are allowed to choose which questions they answer are problematic–why is this?
HW: Because they are not fair. It is insuperably difficult to write test questions that are of equal difficulty. If examinees choose unwisely they will get lower scores than others who choose to answer easier questions. When we build tests with choice we exacerbate group differences. In one test I looked at, women, for whatever reason, seemed to systematically choose harder questions, and thus obtained lower scores, than comparable men who chose the easier options.
PUP: Your book makes it clear that you believe that essays on large-scale standardized tests also pose special problems: they are time consuming for examinees, expensive to score, and yield less reliable scores than multiple-choice exams. Why do you think the College Board opted to add a writing section to the SAT?
HW: I don’t know. That test was added to the SAT after I left Educational Testing Service (ETS), so I was not privy to the discussions involved in its genesis. But I can guess. It is well known that if a topic is tested its likelihood of being taught increases. I suspect that the College Board wanted to emphasize the importance of developing skills in writing clear prose and that they probably figured that if there was a separate test of writing, schools would be more likely to emphasize its instruction.
PUP: Another take away for me was the sheer number and variety of tests that students take. You have a fascinating chapter on AP courses and tests, so let me start by asking why do you think so many high schools have such a high failure rate among their students who take AP exams?
HW: AP courses have a well-deserved reputation for rigor and quality among both parents and educators. Hence there is pressure on schools to offer as many AP courses as possible and to enroll as many of their students in them as they can. Unfortunately, not all students are prepared for such courses. Nevertheless, too often such students are allowed to take the courses; perhaps because school officials yield to parental pressure, or perhaps because schools are judged by the size of enrollment in AP courses, or both.
When this happens, AP teachers are placed in a difficult position. They must choose between teaching the course in a way that covers the material necessary to pass the exam or using up as much class time as necessary for remedial material. If they choose the latter they cheat those students who are prepared to take the course, if they choose the former they must leave some students hopelessly befuddled. Faced with this Scylla and Charybdis, the only sure outcome is unhappiness all around. Schools that screen students carefully before allowing them to take AP courses are the only ones that make full use of the considerable resources required to teach advanced courses.
PUP: And now to one of the hot-button issues in contemporary education policy — Value-Added Models of teacher evaluation. In the book you provide real evidence that this system simply doesn’t work as it stands now. Can you explain this a bit further?
HW: Evaluating a professional’s competence is a task that has a long and rocky history. Many people have worked on this in the past, and many more are working on it right now. Why don’t we learn from what is done with other professionals? How are lawyers or doctors evaluated? I suspect that if patient outcome was the principal datum in physician evaluation we would see many more dermatologists and far fewer oncologists. While it is obvious in medicine that the success of a physician is crucially dependent on the overall health of the patient, proponents of Value-Added Models seem to believe that a teacher can be evaluated without regard to the students’ initial ability. There is this mistaken belief that somehow the magic of statistics can make equal things that are not. It can’t.
PUP: You speak highly of computer adaptive testing in Uneducated Guesses, what is that exactly?
HW:To be efficient a test should be aimed at the ability of the examinee. It makes no sense to ask calculus questions of 3rd graders. Mass-administered tests have to have questions that span the range of ability of the examinees. This means that there will be questions that are inappropriately difficult for some people and inappropriately easy for others. A computer adaptive test, a CAT, fixes this. It asks the examinee a question of middling difficulty. If the examinee gets it right it asks a more difficult one. If the examinee gets it wrong it asks an easier one. In this way it can quickly zero in on the appropriate level. In practice we have found that a CAT only needs about half as many questions as a paper & pencil test to arrive at a score of comparable accuracy. For some purposes this is a significant saving.
PUP: Computer adaptive tests seem like the way to go, so why do you think institutions are not adopting the method?
HW: They are expensive to implement because they require a large pool of items to be included that have all been pre-calibrated. Such a system can be done by a large commercial testing organization (e.g. ETS, the US military, the College Board, ACT) but it is nigh onto impossible for a classroom teacher.
PUP: What do you believe is the largest misconception about the school system in the United States?
HW: That it can work miracles without the full cooperation of parents and without a lot of money.
To discuss this we must use the right words. We must distinguish between education and schooling. The former takes place 24 hours a day and for most of that time is determined by the home, the community, the church, and the school. The latter takes place for six hours a day, 5 days a week, 30 weeks a year. To have an effective education system, all of the components must work together toward common goals. To leave it to teachers whose schools are too often so short of resources that they, the teachers, end up having to buy classroom supplies from their own funds, is a recipe for failure.
Reuben Hersh and Vera John-Steiner talk about the love/hate relationship with math on InsideHigherEd
Reuben Hersh and Vera John-Steinver were interviewed about their new book LOVING AND HATING MATHEMATICS: Challenging the Myths of Mathematical Life by the renowned education website InsideHigherEd.com. Their interview has received numerous comments the moment it was posted yesterday so take a look here.
From the interview….
Q: What are some of the key changes you would like to see in mathematics education at the primary and secondary levels, and why are they needed?
Reuben Hersh: The most important is to pay math teachers enough so that the public schools can compete for mathematically talented people in the job market….
We live in a society in which information is only a simple keystroke or click of the mouse away. Online chat rooms have become a virtual bridge for those who wish to meet with people across the world and websites have become the forum for online advertisements, but what could happen if all of the seemingly innocuous information we typed into our computers every day fell into the wrong hands?
Next month, Princeton University Press is proud to publish Shumeet Baluja’s The Silicon Jungle: A Novel of Deception, Power, and Internet Intrigue, a captivating thriller about the promise and perils of data mining, so we sat down with the author to learn more about the story–and the technology–behind his timely novel.
Q: Why did you choose an epigraph from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to preface your novel?
“In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it, and over it.”–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Shumeet Baluja: The internet is, in every aspect, about connections – the connections between people and websites, products, programs, raw information, and more than ever, simply other people. Increasingly, we find the internet becoming the de facto medium for most of the connections we deem meaningful. The quote by Goethe beautifully captures the notion that we are defined in relation to our connections. Today this is truer than ever – it’s just that our latest connections are online ones. Perhaps most pertinent to this novel, for better or worse, is that these connections are becoming measurable, predictable, and steadily more
Q: In your letter to the reader you go on to write, “It’s not technology or a newfound ability that should be labeled ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ it’s what we choose to do with that ability.” How would you suggest we find an ideal balance between innovation and responsibility in cyberspace?
SB: Early in many scientists’ careers, it is common to be enamored with the lofty goal of finding scientific truths and making discoveries that advance human knowledge. Only later in one’s career does reality set in – that scientists have a responsibility when deciding what to explore and what to create. There are real ramifications tied to the discoveries they make – history has proven time and again that some will be amazing, while others horrific. In the novel, for example, an internet behemoth routinely surveils, analyzes, dissects, and predicts the actions and interests of internet users. While doing this, though, they offer us an amazing set of benefits – in the form of convenience, access to information and resources that were unimaginable even just a few years ago, and a way to reach and stay in touch with our friends and families. But all of this comes at a price – the absolute and utter destruction of our privacy.
It’s not hard to imagine that a large proportion, if not all, of a person’s thoughts are represented online – through searches, emails, chats, status updates, etc. We willingly give all of this away. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe convenience is more valuable than privacy? But maybe it isn’t. The point is that a conversation about what we lose, and at what price, is worth having; it is not a conversation that should quietly be swept under the rug in the face of the latest bright-and-shiny service disguised as the next must-have technological convenience.
Q: The novel begins as a series of vignettes that seem unrelated but tie together as the story progresses. How and why did you decide to create your work in this way? Does it relate to your theme of interpersonal connections?
SB: There were three reasons for this. First and foremost, I constructed the scenes to be very visual. It’s amazing what photographs can do – the instant we see an image, we fill in a story, we bring in our own experience to make sense of what we see. My goal was to write visual guideposts to reveal the story and lead the reader through the inner workings of a world that most take for granted – but also to allow the reader to add his or her own experiences to make the story more personal.
Second, and this relates to the first point, whether as a writer or as a teacher, I cannot over-emphasize how important it is to me to treat people as intelligent beings. Too often books spoon-feed us and leave nothing to the imagination. I can only hope that I have struck a good balance.
Finally, as you mentioned, one of the pervasive themes of the book is connections – how are we connected to others and to events that we could never have foreseen? How is it that a well-intentioned intern is instrumental in the death of a would-be philanthropist? I made a concerted effort to connect the chapters in unexpected, and multiple, ways. Indeed, I hope that the form of the novel reinforces the theme.
Q: The theme of image versus reality also comes up again and again–especially in later chapters when, for example, Stephen’s girlfriend Molly creates a website and uses a pseudonym to disguise herself as someone [sic] from the Middle East. Do you want to encourage your readers to be skeptical of the credibility of certain websites and online chat rooms?
SB: It’s funny that you bring that up. Having worked on the Internet for as long as I have, my first reaction is to distrust anything I find on the internet until proven otherwise. At the very least, yes, I certainly hope that I have encouraged readers to be skeptical of the characters they meet online.
Molly, the anthropologist, plays an important role. Without giving too much away about the book, remember that she enters the book with the best of intentions. Though her character has a vastly different background and motivation than the Silicon Valley denizens who surround her, she shows just how far awry people can go, and eventually how dangerous they can become, in the maniacal pursuit of ‘the truth.’ The effects are intensely magnified when they possess the tools to dissect, analyze, and watch the behaviors of so many people so easily.
Q: On page 82 you even illustrate his rigid and demanding work schedule in detail–why did you do this?
SB: Stephen is a kid in a candy store. He’s just been granted an amazing array of resources along with access to people’s emails, searches, friends – basically an entrée into their thoughts. He finds it intoxicating. He’s the ideal candidate for the job he is in. The title of the chapter is “The Life and Soul of an Intern;” he gladly trades his life outside of work for one inside the cocoon that has been meticulously built to harness employees who are willing to give so much.
Q: And he’s not the only one: In of the most memorable scenes, a fellow Ubatoo data-mining intern creates a program which allows users to clearly view any websites people are using from their homes without their knowledge-and all of the interns become mesmerized by the homes using adult sites. Stephen’s friend Aarti even remarks, “For everything else we do, this is what people decide to look at.” What did you want to get across about privacy invasion here?
SB: There are escalating levels of privacy invasion throughout the book–this is the middle one. First, the novel should be very clear: there is nothing private on the internet. It doesn’t matter if it’s an email that nobody except your friends are supposed to read, or a picture that you’ve shared only with that special person, or the file that you’ve uploaded just to keep safe.
Perhaps one of the truly ironic aspects of this is that adult-content searches are first to enter people’s minds when they think of privacy invasion. The problem is that, at least at the company detailed in the book, adult searches are so common that they are most often not what is most interesting about a person – it’s the other, less mainstream, pursuits (this is commonly known as the long-tail) that truly make a person interesting. These are the things that often reveal the most about a person – and most people never even think to try to keep these private.
Q: I notice recurring themes of identity and of the classification of people. Why did you choose to highlight this theme?
SB: It’s a fortunate coincidence that you referred to it as a ‘classification of people.’ Classifying people, their actions, and intentions is one of the cornerstones of internet data mining. Is this person a good candidate for an advertisement? Will this person buy a $10,000 car or a $100,000 one? Will this person be a terrorist? Is this a compatible person to date? What zip code does this person live in, what is his occupation, where has he traveled? Who are his friends? It’s all about classification – from the beginning to the end. In the business of internet data mining, the faster and more accurately you can classify people, the closer to being omniscient you become.
Q: What was your biggest challenge in writing this book?
SB: From the very beginning, this was going to be a book about the abuse of the enormous amount of data we willingly reveal about ourselves through our everyday actions. The hardest question was how to best demonstrate this. In the end, I decided to turn to something that is, at times, on the forefront of our minds, but always in the back of our thoughts – terrorism and the massive religious unrest and changes that seem to occur daily now. Once this direction was chosen, it was crucial to me to ensure that no group was stereotyped; that’s why the book very deliberately mixes the good and the bad across religions and races.
Q: Do you have any other novels in mind for the future?
SB: Looking back on the book, I believe it’s fair to say that it was heavily influenced by 1984 (George Orwell) and The Jungle (Upton Sinclair). My next project also owes a great deal to 1984, but from a perspective other than privacy. Imagine a world (not ours, of course, because the next work is also fiction), but one that may have a lot of similarities to ours, in which the majority of people turn to a single place for all of their information. We would be crazy to put all that trust in that single place, unless we were absolutely sure that place was trustworthy, wouldn’t we? For all the rhetoric about the internet being the salvation for the democratization of information and giving a voice to those who previously had none, how do you find that information, those lost voices? Right now, access to and ways for finding that information are pretty limited, pretty funneled, pretty controlled, no?
The ramifications and exploits of the discoveries and inventions made in the past 10 years have yet to be uncovered. I suspect that all of them will not be as innocuous as they seem today. There are many stories yet to be written.
What would happen to international politics if the dead rose from the grave and started to eat the living? Daniel Drezner’s groundbreaking book Theories of International Politics and Zombies answers the question that other international relations scholars have been too scared to ask. Check out this recent Q&A Drezner had with i09:
What drew you to this particular science fictional trope? As you’ve said, there are a lot of things that are interesting for international relations scholars, aliens for example. Why this type of story?
In some ways it was truly accidental. What originally sparked this was that paper by a bunch of biomathematicians at Carleton University called “When Zombies Attack.” I saw that and thought, “There’s no politics here.” So I wrote a sort of lighthearted post about it and it got linked to by a lot of people. That led me to think there’s actually something useful and pedagogical about this. And as much as people get aliens, they also get zombies.
I think the other reason is, simply put, name any book, add the world “zombies” to the title and it’s automatically funny. War and Peace and zombies. Crime and Punishment and zombies. It’s impossible not to start laughing. And if you can make a student laugh, you sneak in the learning before they realize it.
The key thing to realize is different governments would respond differently. This is interesting in comparison to the trope you were talking about earlier. Most alien stories end with all of Earth uniting against the aliens. What’s fascinating about zombie stories is they almost always end with the apocalypse. When you think about diseases breaking out, governments don’t always cooperate terribly well. They sometimes have an incentive to conceal information. When there’s genuine concern about epidemics, you start seeing competition over scarce resources. There are different paradigmatic responses and cooperation would be one possible outcome. But the book shows that’s hardly the only one.
I see, so there are any number of scenarios, and different governments might act on different paradigms?
It’s possible. Again, one of the interesting things as I was writing it was how often I could go to the well of zombie movies and say that this scenario plays out in this particular movie or this particular book. Obviously, none of these theories perfectly captures the dynamics of world politics. They’re all partial pictures at best. But hopefully, by reading the book, when people are looking at real world situations, they can say, “Oh, I see, constructivism is playing itself out here.” And then also see what they can expect going forward.
Daniel Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His books include All Politics Is Global (Princeton). He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Zombie Research Society.