Friday, December 16, 2011

Perfect class project for teaching science

Imagine a class project where the students have to find a few failed experiments (or experiments with confusing results) and develop hypothesis on possible explanations. Of course, some of them might be human error, but that is the part of the challenge of the assignment -- to develop reasons why that is the likely explanation.

I don't think this assignment is possible at present. Why? Below are my reasons, although I am sure there are many more.

1) There are a few journals of negative results, but I think they probably capture only a very small fraction of the number of failed experiments [in biological sciences as a whole].

2) EVEN IF all the failed results were published, how would a student navigate through them. Usually, understanding the nature of a failure is far far more difficult that understanding a successful experiment, because the pieces of a successful experiment make a coherent story. For a failed experiment, an expert in the field is often required to hypothesize potential explanations.

3) Failures MAY very often relate to each other. I, personally, think that most failed experiments can be attributed to a combination of human error and actual biological issues. If this is true, then looking at any single failed experiment is meaningless (sort of obvious). Finding "patterns" amongst thousands of failed experiments is practically impossible via the traditional journal-reading process.

Possible solutions (ambitious):

I believe that the human eye is extremely efficient in finding patterns, and therefore, it is necessary to leverage the visual + intuition capabilities of human researchers in order to make sense out of failed results.

A class project means that this task needs to be accomplished by non-experts. I think a framework that combines education + research + visual representation of results can by-pass this problem. In other words, provide ways to educate a student about a method when presenting the results from that method. If such a framework can be created, the boundary between education and research may become vague, which might be quite remarkable.


The traditional test-based system for selecting students is bound to miss several great minds who have the potential to solve many unresolved mysteries in science. If an infrastructure can be constructed where anyone can educate themselves and connect research results efficiently, there is a possibility that various geniuses around the world will be able to utilize their potential and service the community. The opportunity to circumvent the traditional test and money-based avenue to higher-education should provide an incentive for students around the world to try to do science on the side.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Leave "pheromone trails" on research articles

What if there was a way to leave a "trail" (like ants) whenever researchers jump from one research article to another and find the connection very interesting. As more researchers walk the same path, the "pheromone" along that trail becomes stronger. This would provide a nice way of linking interesting research articles together, highlighting interesting patterns in the network of related research papers.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A dynamical systems analogy of society

Lets consider individuals in a human society as monomers. These monomers can interact in different ways to form larger complexes, with each complex having different functional capabilities. The reason why monomers might come together may be different. For example, in a modern company of workers, the monomers come together because of money - the salary provides the attractive force that brings the monomers together to form a larger cluster. Families are formed due to a different form of attractive force. Friends circle and so on have a different (maybe similar) force. Non-profit organizations or other occupations that are not motivated by salary (i.e. intrinsic reward based systems) attract monomers for an entirely different reason. I think this type of attractive force forms a larger variety of complexes, many of which interact more closely with the world outside human society (based on a few observations).

Now, lets consider society as a system with multiple stable states. Each stable state is defined by the types of complexes that exist in that state. For example, in one stable state, all the complexes are formed by salary-driven forces. In another stable state, the salary-driven forces are weak and therefore, intrinsic-reward forces are responsible for forming complexes. In another stable state, perhaps other forces are responsible for the complex formation. The question is: what causes these systems, i.e. societies, to shift from one state to another?