26 June 2011

(Some of the) funny aspects of the Academy of Athens, II

I continue with another hilarious example about a member of the Academy of Athens. One of its members is a theoretical physicist who is known, in Greece, by a large number of common people, people who have nothing to do with physics or science. I've heard his name being mentioned by taxi drivers, manicurists and air hostesses, among others. He is, according to these people, the greatest scientist of all times.

His name is Dimitri Nanopoulos. But how come everyone knows him? On what basis do these people know this academician? Why is he so popular? Is he a popularizer of science? Some time ago I searched to find what's going on. I was very surpised when a mainstream Greek newspaper had a full-page dedicated to the advertisment of a car (Lexus) together with a picture of the aforementioned academician. Fair enough, I thought, he's trying to make some (more) money. But then I read the following phrase below his photo:
Professor Nanopoulos has achieved international reputation. Doing research mainly in Cosmology and High Energy Physics, he is considered today one of the four greatest theoretical physicists of all times.

Just as the distinguished theoretical physicist methodically "besieges" the next scientific revolution, so does Lexus constantly seeks perfection.
So, let's see: Newton, Einstein, Maxwell, and Nanopoulos. What about Richard Feynman, Freeman Dyson, Lev Landau, Henri Poincare, ... , ... ? Well, according to the Lexus advertisement, there is no doubt. The set must contain 4 people. One of them is Nanopoulos.

But where does this claim come from, and what does it mean? I looked further.  According to wikipedia,
He is one of the most regularly cited researchers in the world, cited more than 35,800 times over across a number of separate branches of science.
So, perhaps, the phrase "greatest number of citations" has been changed to "greatest scientist". Is that so? Does number of citations necessarily mean greateness? Yes, says Nanopoulos.

Shortly after the advertisement appeared in several Greek newspapers, in a public letter, 12 emminent Greek physicists write:
[Nanopoulos] knows well that such comments are at the border of being ridiculous, provocatively insulting one's intelligence, and denigrate the Greek scientific community.
Moreover, the 12 scientists ask the president of Greece to be careful when appointing such a self-bragging person to positions of responsibility, such as the president of the Council of Research and Technology (and others).

Nanopoulos replied by characterizing the authors of the letter as "scientists" [i.e. scientists in quotes], and mentioned that people like Al Gore also advertize various products [yes, but Gore is not a scientist]. He also said:
Regarding my achievements in the domain of science, I attach my CV as well as a comparative table of my works and citations, without comment.
In the attached table, he lists the total number of citations to the 12 other scientists (26862) and compares it to the number of citations to his own papers (31412). Therefore [he implies], I am better than the sum of all these other "scientists".

There is another comparison he makes, and this is ridiculous. It concerns the so-called h-index:
A scientist has index h if h of [his/her] Np papers have at least h citations each, and the other (Np − h) papers have at most h citations each.
This silly measure of success was devised several years ago and is taken seriously by lazy administrators, but not by scientists. It is well known (i) that citations alone do not measure one's greateness and (ii) that it is not too hard to boost up one's citations by forming alliances. Moreover, not all citations are necessarily positive (I can cite a paper for its wrong results). However, not only has the h-index (and a variety of other indices) has been glorified, but a "science" has also been formed, the so-called Bibliometrics or Scientometrics. For instance, it is not hard to find papers looking at statistics of indices and "mathematics" of indices. The drive to summarize one's achievements by a single number has thus provided jobs to many other people who can now write papers on citation indices, thereby increasing their own citations!

A good critique of the lunacy around the h-index and other bibliometrical concepts is the paper "Citation Statistics", by Robert Adler, John Ewing and Peter Taylor, a report from the International Mathematical Union (IMU) in cooperation with the International Council of Industrial and Applied Mathematics (ICIAM) and the Institute of Mathematical Statistics (IMS):
The drive towards more transparency and accountability in the academic world has created a "culture of numbers" in which institutions and individuals believe that fair decisions can be reached by algorithmic evaluation of some statistical data; unable to measure quality (the ultimate goal), decision makers replace quality by numbers that they can measure. This trend calls for comment from those who professionally “deal with numbers”— mathematicians and statisticians.
 To summarize:
  1. A Greek academician, D. Nanopoulos, uses the h-index as a measure of his achievements. This can be witnessed in numerous web cites, in his talks, in his wikipedia entry, in his letter to the President of  Greece, etc.
  2. His having one of the greatest number of citations (and a big h-index) has been [presumably] translated and equated to his being one of the four greatest physicists of all times.
  3. The car company Lexus has used this, presumably in cooperation with Nanopoulos, to advertize their car.
Something is fundamentally wrong with all that. Perhaps it is because Nanopoulos is a professor in a horrible place, Texas A&M, where the heat, the conservatism, the guns around you, the pressure towards being the biggest (it's Texas) can drive you crazy. Nanopoulos is also being advertized as "a constant claimant of a Nobel prize"... As I said, funny things happen at the Academy of Athens....

1 comment:

  1. I'm a constant claimant of the Miss World title. But nobody takes me seriously.



What measure theory is about

It's about counting, but when things get too large.
Put otherwise, it's about addition of positive numbers, but when these numbers are far too many.

The principle of dynamic programming

max_{x,y} [f(x) + g(x,y)] = max_x [f(x) + max_y g(x,y)]

The bottom line

Nuestras horas son minutos cuando esperamos saber y siglos cuando sabemos lo que se puede aprender.
(Our hours are minutes when we wait to learn and centuries when we know what is to be learnt.) --António Machado

Αγεωμέτρητος μηδείς εισίτω.
(Those who do not know geometry may not enter.) --Plato

Sapere Aude! Habe Muth, dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen!
(Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!) --Kant