What happened in the world this week

A commenter named “Daniel Quilp” writes:

I am absolutely stunned that you have not posted an encomium to Steve Jobs.  You are a computer science professor.  Jobs was the most important innovator in the field.  You claim you want to reach out to the public but fail to take advantage of this opportunity.  Very sad, very disappointing.

Steve Jobs was indeed one of the great American innovators, and I was extremely sorry to hear about his passing.  I was riveted by the NYT obituary, from which I learned many facts about Jobs that I hadn’t known before.  Personally, I plan honor his memory by buying an iPhone 4S at the Apple Store near my apartment when it comes out on the 14th.  (I was debating between upgrading my 3GS to a 4S and switching to an Android, leaning toward 4S because of battery life.  The desire to honor the great man’s memory is what pushed me over the edge.)

As for why I didn’t write an encomium before: well, frankly, I don’t feel like being a theoretical computer scientist gives me any more of a “connection” to Steve Jobs than any of the hundreds of millions of people who use his products.  And when I do blog about world events, people often accuse me of jumping on a bandwagon and having nothing original to say, and tell me to stick to complexity theory.  That’s life as a blogger: not only is there nothing you can post, there’s nothing you can refrain from posting, that someone, somewhere, won’t be “absolutely stunned” by.

Even so, to anyone who was hurt or offended by my lack of a Steve Jobs post, I’m sorry.

And as long as I’m apologizing for silence about major news of the last week, I’m also sorry that I failed to congratulate the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for two truly magnificent decisions: first, awarding the Nobel Prize in Physics to Adam Riess, Saul Perlmutter, and Brian Schmidt for the discovery of the cosmic acceleration (see these two Cosmic Variance posts for more); second, awarding the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Dan Shechtman for the discovery of quasicrystals.  If these two textbook-changing results don’t deserve Nobel Prizes, nothing does.

Since it’s Erev Yom Kippur, let me hereby repent for all of my countless mistakes, omissions, and lapses of judgment here at Shtetl-Optimized over the past year.  In the spirit of the “Kol Nidre” prayer, I also beg to be released from all survey articles that I promised to write, submissions that I promised to review, deadlines that I promised to meet, and emails that I promised to answer.  (Of course, if I were conventionally religious, I’d also have to repent for the very act of blogging on Yom Kippur.)

39 Responses to “What happened in the world this week”

  1. Slipper.Mystery Says:

    I am absolutely stunned that you chose to say nothing whatsoever about Ralph Steinman, co-winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in medicine, who died just days before the prize was announced.
    You really do have your work cut out for you this Kol Nidre.

  2. Scott Says:

    Slipper.Mystery: I don’t understand Steinman’s work even to the tiny extent that I understand quasicrystals or dark energy, but I heartily congratulate him on achieving the first “Nobel Prize while deceased”—something that eluded Edwin Hubble, Rosalind Franklin, and so many deserving others.

  3. Vadim Says:

    At least according to Wikipedia, two other individuals have received the Nobel Prize posthumously, Erik Axel Karlfeldt received the 1931 Literature Prize, and the 1961 Peace Prize went to Dag Hammarskjöld. Prior to 1974 someone could be awarded the prize if they died in the time between being nominated and selected.

  4. John Quilp Says:

    Really, nothing about Tawakkol Karman!?! I am so stunned that I just fell off my chair.

  5. Scott Says:

    Vadim: Thanks for the correction! Was there any other case of someone dying between the decision and the public announcement?

  6. Scott Says:

    John Quilp #4: Well, I’m stunned that you didn’t mention the other two Peace Prize laureates…

  7. Mohsen Says:

    It is great Scott;) the idea of encomium and respecting!
    However Stallman’s idea was totally different :D

  8. wolfgang Says:

    imho the best obit was written by The Onion:

  9. Cubee Says:

    You will love that iPhone 4s. Excellent choice.

  10. Richard Swiveller Says:

    Gotta disagree with you on the appropriateness of the Nobel in Physics. That award should only be given to theoretical discoveries, not mere observations, no matter how much whiz-bang technology went into making them. Understanding cosmic acceleration might lead to theoretical knowledge but is, in itself, of no more merit than looking through a telescope and learning that there are craters on the surface of the moon. The award is for physics, after all, not astronomy. Another swing and a miss for the Swedes.

  11. Scott Says:

    “Richard Swiveller”: While the competition is fierce, that might actually be the stupidest comment in the entire history of this blog. (Do you have any clue what goes into a “mere observation” of this kind?) Congrats on hitting the doofball out of the park.

  12. rrtucci Says:

    Steve, I took LSD, but I didn’t inhale.
    I see a connection to quantum computers
    My farewell to Steve Jobs

  13. Vadim Says:

    Scott #5: According to my extensive research (looking again at the same Wikipedia page), probably not.

  14. Slipper.Mystery Says:

    I am absolutely stunned whenever I stick my fingers into an electrical outlet.

    This article http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/04/science/04nobel.html
    is consistent with the Wikipedia data re Karlfeldt and Hammarskjöld being the only posthumous, and since 1974 it’s only permitted to die before the award ceremony on 10 Dec. This is the first time that someone died before the announcement, since “the committee normally makes personal contact with the winners before going public with the news”. (In this case the “committee was not able to make contact with any of the three winners before the announcement was made”.)

    “Annika Pontikis, a spokeswoman for the Nobel Foundation, said she did not know whether the board had discussed how to check whether future recipients were alive at the time of their election.”
    — “Hi, this is the Nobel committee calling, not to award you a prize, but just to check whether you’re still alive and planning to remain so for a few more days. Thank you so much.”

    Re appropriateness of Nobel prizes, there was never a stipulation that it be for “theoretical discoveries”, and over half are for experimental discoveries or “mere observations”, including most of the early ones. There are even prizes that seem like pure technology, not research, e.g.
    The Nobel Prize in Physics 1912 was awarded to Gustaf Dalén “for his invention of automatic regulators for use in conjunction with gas accumulators for illuminating lighthouses and buoys”.

  15. hellblazer Says:

    “You are a computer science professor. Jobs was the most important innovator in the field.”

    Good grief, can people not even parse sentences they write properly? Or does your commenter actually believe Jobs was the most important innovator in the field of computer science? If so, I for one will welcome our new insect overlords…

  16. Scott Says:

    hellblazer: I wasn’t even going to comment about the distinction between commercial product design and CS, for fear of exposing myself to charges of ivory-tower intellectual elitism… :-)

  17. Raoul Ohio Says:

    I had to look up “Encomium”. The first choice on the Wikipedia disambiguation list is “A bunch of obscure musicians playing Led Zeppelin songs”. Not sure how that relates SJ.

  18. Timothy Gowers Says:

    I’d like to offer a partial defence of Richard Swiveller’s comment. I heard an interesting interview on the radio in which one of the two winners explained that they had had absolutely no expectation of finding cosmic acceleration: indeed, their measurements were if anything designed to support the general belief at that time. So although “mere observation” would indeed be a very silly way to describe what they did, there is still an element of their being lucky to stumble on something. Of course, luck comes into virtually all major discoveries, and to a large extent you make your own luck, so I don’t dispute that the Nobel prize was deserved.

  19. John Sidles Says:

    George Charpak’s (solo) 1992 Physics Nobel for conceiving the multiwire proportional chamber is a recent example of an applied-physics advance receiving Nobel-level recognition.

    Similarly, the 2009 Physics Nobel to Charles K. Kao, Willard S. Boyle, George E. Smith — for advances in fiber-optics and charge-coupled detectors — similarly was awarded for conceiving practical applications for “old” physics/math, rather than for discovering “new” physics/math.

  20. Scott Says:

    Timothy Gowers: I agree with everything you say, except that what you say amounts to a “partial defense” of Richard Swiveller’s asinine comment! :-)

    I would say that there’s some story involving serendipity in just about every scientific discovery—including, probably, discoveries in pure math (e.g., you happen to attend this talk which stimulates your thoughts in this direction…)—and that that’s a huge part of the “romance” of science. Close to the subject at hand, when Penzias and Wilson discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation in 1964, they were just trying to build an antenna for satellite communication, and they originally thought that the static was due to bird poop on their antenna.

    So long as we have prizes at all, I think it’s reasonable to recognize the people who actually make important discoveries, rather than those who “most deserve to have made important discoveries by virtue of being the hardest-working and smartest.” After all, both of those criteria involve large elements of luck (the latter in what genes and upbringing you happen to get), but the former is easier to measure and also creates better incentives!

    I would go even further, though, and argue that an experimental discovery is usually less impressive if the discoverers were expecting it! For then the decision to measure that particular phenomenon seems more “obvious” than “inspired”, and the discoverers don’t have to undergo the whole process of checking and rechecking, slowly abandoning their starting assumptions as they understand what they’ve found, etc., which is a large part of what science is about.

  21. John Baez Says:

    Personally, I plan honor his memory by buying an iPhone 4S at the Apple Store near my apartment when it comes out on the 14th.

    At first I misread ‘buying’ as ‘burying’, and I was intrigued.

  22. plm Says:

    On the issue of awards, I think there is probably some justification for rewarding (hard-)work in scientific research over luck.

    Less euphemistically, I feel that designing an institution like the Nobel Prize is an important problem in social science, as well as making it work each year, adapting it to our particular history.

    Related issues came up on Tim Gowers’ blog on the occasion of the last Fields Medal awards.

    I would appreciate any reference to research on this topic.

    I wonder how deep your thinking is behind statements such as in this blog post and comments. If you could give more insight, more seriously, I would appreciate.

    Finally I sincerely appreciate your research and contributions, the result of much work undoubtedly. Thank you.

  23. Scott Says:

    plm #22:

    I wonder how deep your thinking is behind statements such as in this blog post and comments.

    Rest assured, far, far deeper than you can imagine. ;-)

    Seriously, there are plenty of scientific awards that make you scratch your head and wonder what the committee was thinking. But a new configuration of matter? The eventual fate of the universe? These things strike me as so far over the boundary—so clearly Nobel-worthy, no matter how you slice them—that using them as a springboard for the present discussion seems surreal. Sort of like me losing to Michael Jordan at one-on-one basketball, then using my loss to launch a philosophical debate about whether or not basketball unfairly privileges dunking over dribbling skills.

    I feel like I could provoke a comment-war with a post asserting the Catholicity of the Pope and the propensity of grizzlies to relieve themselves in the woods.

  24. plm Says:

    Well, I was serious. (I would have used a plaintext smily here but I don’t like when websites replace them with gifs.)

    A few comments that may be relevant.

    Schechtman’s discoveries were made in the 1980s so it seems the Nobel committee did not find awarding him the prize was so obvious as you do. And it also seems that the results were well-accepted over 10 years ago.

    Regarding the supernova observation Nobel prize I think I remember an article not long ago that put into doubt a few assumptions on the astrophysics of type IA supernovae, I think it affected how they could be used as standards for redshift measurements.

    Also, although cosmology has made great advance in the last 20 years as far as I understand there are still very large uncertainties even on basic theoretical issues, which makes implications as to the fate of the universe from supernova measurements reasonably arguable.

    Now from the little information I have this year’s recipients are well chosen, but really I cannot be sure at all.

    I think the issue of the importance of experimental physics versus theoretical physics is also very complicated.

    You say that the supernova observations tell us about the fate of the universe to underline its importance, it is not just the observation but its applications that matter, and here it probably has many and I presume that the experiment was a technical exploit too, so I am pretty sure the prize was deserved some year close to now.

    Regarding the quasicrystal discovery Derek Lowe from Vertex Pharmaceuticals/In the Pipeline blog said something to the extent that they have had no application at all, and here I find him unfair, lacking depth as to how science is applied. But I suspect he knew he was exaggerating.

    Whether an experimental result is expected or not may affect Nobel-worthiness in one way or another. Bose-Einstein condensation was sought for a long time and the prize came relatively shortly after the discovery. It was made by several groups within a short period. There is a reward for relieving society with finally accomplishing a long-term goal of the research community, it is a different situation from that of Schechtman, or even the supernovas.

    In any case I think there are many factors to understand, I think we can model the situation, and it would be useful, I think on some level(s), it is a mistake to feel that Nobel prize decisions need no such careful justification.

    PS: There would be much more to say, and perhaps I missed the more interesting points.

  25. Scott Says:

    plm #24:

    Schechtman’s discoveries were made in the 1980s so it seems the Nobel committee did not find awarding him the prize was so obvious as you do.

    That betrays an enormous misunderstanding of the way these prizes work. There’s a huge backlog, so that it’s not at all unusual for people to get the prize even 40 or 50 years after they did their work. Hence the standard joke about the two keys to winning a Nobel Prize (1. discover something important, 2. stay alive).

    it is a mistake to feel that Nobel prize decisions need no such careful justification

    Sure, and that’s a very pertinent fact if you happen to be a member of the Nobel Prize committee, or nominating someone for the prize! If you’re not in that situation—if, say, you’re a blogger or blog commenter from a different field—then I think you have exactly two polite options, of which I chose the first:

    (1) Celebrate the award.
    (2) Stay silent.

    (These standards can be relaxed for, e.g., the Nobel Peace Prizes, which are at least as much political statements as they are recognitions of accomplishment.)

  26. John Baez Says:

    There’s a huge backlog, so that it’s not at all unusual for people to get the prize even 40 or 50 years after they did their work.

    A good example is how the Nobel prize committee never got around to giving Einstein a prize for either special or general relativity.

    He got a nomination when Eddington confirmed general relativity by measuring the bending of starlight around the Sun in 1919. That year the London Times ran the headline, “Revolution in Science, New Theory of the Universe.” But according to science historian Robert Marc Friedman, the committee didn’t want a “political and intellectual radical, who—it was said—did not conduct experiments, crowned as the pinnacle of physics.” That year they gave the prize to Charles-Edouard Guillaume for his discovery of a new nickel-steel alloy.

    In 1921 he was considered again, but again didn’t get it. Friedman blames the ophthalmologist Allvar Gullstrand, a senior member of the prize committee. He said “Einstein must never receive a Nobel Prize, even if the whole world demands it”. Nobody got a physics Nobel prize that year.

    He got the prize for the photoelectric effect in 1922, on the grounds that this was not a “theory” but a “law”.

  27. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Check out The Register’s bio of Steve Jobs:

    1 http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/10/06/steve_jobs_bio_1/

    2 http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/10/10/steve_jobs_bio_2/

  28. Ajit R. Jadhav Says:

    Re. The quasicrystals Nobel.

    This happened to be the very first time (and it could easily remain the only time) that I could understand a Nobel-winning work right on the day of its announcement, i.e., without having to have someone else explain anything about the work to me. … Crystal structures is something I had studied as an UG (82–83), and I had courses on diffraction techniques (X rays and TEM) during my graduate studies (90–93).

    I do think that Prof. Schechtman’s Nobel was well deserved.

    However, I also wonder if others, esp. Steinhardt (perhaps together with someone else like Levine) might not have shared the second half of it (with Shechtman receiving the first half).

    A Nobel to a mathematician (like Penrose, or even Alan Mackay) is out of the question, of course. However, I do think that the connections which Steinhardt and Levine made, right in 1984, were germane enough and early enough—and therefore, significant enough. Even later on, Steinhardt continued producing high-quality results relevant to this overall discovery. I think his contributions could have been recognized. I am not sure why the committee left him out. (BTW, do the Nobel rules allow for a 2/3 + 1/3 division between just two people?)


  29. plm Says:

    Scott #25:

    I did overlook your position as a blogger, you have lots of pressures certainly and your celebrating the prize was certainly the best thing to do. I apologize for that.

    I was aware of the backlog issue, I probably should have thought more carefully my comments. The question I had in mind was which ones on the list of candidates deserve the prize first: is it this year that Schechtman should receive it? Should it have been earlier? Would it have been different if he had a life-threatening disease? Are there other chemists on the backlog list which we should award soon because they may not live much more and it would be a shame if they did not receive the prize?

    In Schechtman’s case looking a little more into his work I also think he deserved a Nobel and quite possibly as early as possible (this year), and perhaps he should have received it before last year’s or even 2009′s laureates but I am far from confident about this (actually I rather guess not).

    It is reading your response to Richard Swiveller’s comments and Gowers’ that I decided to comment.

    More importantly I felt and still feel that there is perhaps too little investigation in the issue of awards, international recognitions among them. I feel this is an area of social science that mathematicians perhaps should investigate, collaborating with social scientists, and that when they have an opportunity to say something about it, like now, they should underline the theoretical issues involved.

    I think mathematicians and social scientists have here an opportunity to justify their place in society, so to speak, providing insights that are not available without their methods, models, giving us the confidence that society is doing the right thing, that we have used all available tools, or at least that we have made satisfactory efforts to answer the question.

    Sincerely, I think fairness in Nobel Prize awards (as justice in other situations) is a difficult and important question on which we may usefully work.

    And thank you John Baez #26, great story.

    Finally, sorry for my lacking care -including in this comment if I did.

  30. Janoma Says:

    Nothing to do with Nobel prizes, but I have to disagree with the original comment, especially this part: “You are a computer science professor. Jobs was the most important innovator in the field.” Steve Jobs was an industry guy, while Scott is an academic, and there is a non-trivial step from industry to academia. For example, you cannot possibly compare success for a businessman (e.g. “X millions of sales”, or “Y% market share”) with success for a researcher (e.g. “N citations”, or “wrote the standard textbook for this course”). I don’t know much about the area yet, but I guess that Don Knuth could be a candidate for “most important innovator in the field (of TCS)”.

  31. Vadim Says:


    Since this is a current events post and there’s a current event involving computational complexity, can I ask you what you think of http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-10-physicists-solution-constraint-satisfaction-problems.html ?

    Is this another case of someone trying to solve NP complete problems with soap and glass plates, or is there something to this (with caveats, I’d expect)?

  32. Scott Says:

    Hi Vadim,

    I thought that was a beautiful paper! No, it doesn’t solve NP-complete problems in polynomial time (nor does it claim to). What it does is to introduce a very interesting perspective that I’d never thought of, where the clause/variable ratio in random 3SAT getting close to the critical ratio α~4.25 (where the hardest instances lie) is directly related to the onset of chaos (i.e., sensitive dependence on initial conditions) in the trajectories followed by a continuous local search algorithm. I have no idea yet what this connection is good for—but in the meantime, check out the illustrations! They almost make the case by themselves. :-D

  33. IThinkImClever Says:

    “I have no idea yet what this connection is good for—but in the meantime, check out the illustrations! They almost make the case by themselves.”

    Careful, Scott. You’re starting to sound like another complexity researcher I know.

    Anyhow, though I cannot access the paper, are the results really that nontrivial? Isn’t it conventional wisdom that there exists “a fundamental link between optimization hardness and chaotic behavior”? Wasn’t this examined previously with ‘spin glasses’ and ferromagnets near Curie points?

  34. Scott Says:

    IThinkImClever: But Wolfram’s illustrations were black and white, whereas these are color! :-D

    You might be right; I have no idea how novel the connection is between optimization hardness and chaotic behavior in the local search trajectories. I can only say it was new to me: I’ve seen many papers about local search algorithms for random 3SAT near the phase transition, and none of them made this particular point.

  35. x Says:

    Worth noting that an actual computer scientist died: Dennis Ritchie, co-creator of C and Unix, winner of the Turing Award and National Medal of Technology.

  36. Maria Says:

    Dear All,

    Thanks for your comments. Those images are generated
    by the nature of the optimization hardness, all credit goes
    to k-SAT, although I did work a lot on them myself as well, :-).

    First of all, I would like to say, that anyone who cannot access
    the paper and would like to read it please write me (mercseyr@nd.edu) or Zoltan (toro@nd.edu) an email, and we’d be happy to send you a copy.

    Second: Scott is correct, our algorithm is not a polynomial-cost
    algorithm, and we do not claim that it would be. However, what I
    think is really exciting about it (besides the analogy between hardness and chaos, and of course the beauty in the figures :) ) is the fact that this “flow-algorithm” *trades time for energy*. It solves the problem in polynomial continuous-time but at the cost of exponential fluctuations in the system’s energy function. If you were to implement this system of equations let’s say by analog circuits, you’d have to be able to supply large amounts of energy to it. However, since *we cannot produce time, but we can produce energy* this might not be such a bad tradeoff!
    At least from a practical point of view. This is not entirely trivial.
    To our best knowledge, with existing algorithms what we can do is either to use (many) more computers or wait until they get much faster (none of them too efficient :)). The continuos-time algorithm presented in our paper (which is not unique)
    shows how this is possible. Another nice feature of this flow-algorithm is that it never gets stuck in non-solution attractors (unlike many algorithms).

  37. Vadim Says:

    RIP Mr. Ritchie.

    And thanks, Maria, for the summary. Sadly the paper would likely be over my head, but I appreciate the clear, layman-friendly explanation. That’s what I love about academia and academic blogs. Nowhere else would you be discussing something that has worldwide interest (for some people) and the principle parties show up to clear things up for you. To use a sports analogy, since I’m a sports fan, if I were discussing a football game from last weekend with random people online, I seriously doubt that the players from the game would come and explain why they ran the plays they did.

  38. Shubhendu Trivedi Says:

    Professor Aaronson,

    Sorry for commenting here. But I am curious if you were suggested to look at this talk from ICML 2011?
    The second half of it is “Machine Learning and Quantum Algorithms”. Intrigued!

  39. Shubhendu Trivedi Says:

    I linked you up as I thought you would have the best opinion on how good/bad this is. I was impressed with the ideas as someone interested in Machine Learning but have no way to know this is not black magic! (D-Wave is quoted)

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