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Notes of a curious mind

Category: Science (Page 1 of 2)

Weapons of math destruction by Cathy O’Neil

It was mostly the subtitle that made me interested in Cathy O’Neil’s book Weapons of Math Destruction.

“How big data increases inequality and threatens democracy.”

Weapons of math destruction (WMDs), is the term coined by O’Neil to describe the ways that mathematical models adversely affect a large number of people, especially the poor and disadvantaged.  They are used to generate scores that are used in critical decisions, such as teacher performance scores, criminal recidivism scores, or credit scores that are used in hiring people, approve loans and mortgages, in sentencing criminals, and in influencing how we vote.

The current Big Data craze is not new. During the last 20 years there has been a great interest in storing and analysing large data sets. It is a digital revolution that will transform the way society is organized.

Today, algorithms know almost everything about us. All of our clicks in the Internet are being recorded and evaluated. Algorithms know our profession, where we live, our hobbies, and our shopping activities. They know how we feel; they can even control how we feel. Algorithms can be used to manipulate and influence our attitudes and behaviour, it is called persuasive computing. Does these technologies are threatening our democracy?

Following the housing crash, Cathy O’Neil woke up to the proliferation of WMDs in banking and to the danger they posed to the economy. A Harvard trained mathematician, former academic mathematician, Cathy O’Neil was working until early 2011 for DE Shaw, one of the world’s leading hedge funds. After quitting her job, she rebranded herself as a data scientist and joined an e-commerce start-up. She has been involved in Occupy Wall Street,  she is the author of the blog Mathbabe.org and recently started a company called ORCAA, an algorithmic auditing company. Cathy o’Neil is the ideal person to write this book.

In Weapons of Math Destruction, she explores the damage inflicted by WMDs and the injustice they perpetuate. She focuses on the potential or actual harm of powerful, and often secret and unaccountable mathematical models on people’s lives, and how they often reinforce inequality in America, with unfair discrimination against minorities, particularly African-Americans, and the poor.

“.. fairness isn’t calculated into WMDs. And the result is massive, industrial production of unfairness. If you think of WMD as a factory, unfairness in the black stuff belching out of the smoke stacks. It’s an emission a toxic one.”

Don’t expect to find mathematical formulas in the book. There is none. This is not a book about math at all – “it’s a book about power masquerading as neutral technology.” Its purpose is to demystify algorithms, and equip the reader with the knowledge to question the authority of the most influential and opaque algorithms that govern our lives.

The Weapons of Math Destruction is a very thought-provoking book and Kathy O’Niel’s writing is clear, concise and direct. In the last chapter, she calls on modelers to take more responsibility for their algorithms and shares a few ideas about how we can use big data for good. She advocates an ethics of data science and she proposes a Hippocratic Oath for data scientists.

The book focusses only on US case studies. It would be useful to see if there are similar examples or cases in Europe or elsewhere and how policy makers regulate the use of WMDs.

The Hunt for Vulcan by Thomas Levenson

Newton’s laws enabled the scientists to understand and decode the movement of objects in the solar system. It worked every time, everywhere. Everywhere except Mercury. Something strange was going on with our solar system’s innermost planet.

It turns out that every time the Mercury orbits around the Sun, its ellipse precesses ever so slightly. So far so good, no problem there.  Albeit, when scientists tried to calculate how quickly this should precess and then they observed how fast this procession was, the numbers did not match. There was a discrepancy of 43 seconds of arc per century (one second of arc=1/3600 degrees). This is small, very small. Nevertheless, it is still a discrepancy.

Newton’s law could not explain this discrepancy and nobody knew what was cause it. Until 1859. Urbain-Jean  Joseph Le Verrier, the man who discovered Neptune and sought out opportunities to extend his knowledge, thought he had found the solution to the Mercury’s anomaly.

“….a planet, or if one prefers a group of smaller planets circling in the vicinity of Mercury’s orbit, would be capable of producing the anomalous perturbation felt by the latter planet… According to this hypothesis, the mass sought should exist inside the orbit of Mercury.”

A planet, or a belt or asteroids inside the orbit of Mercury. It sounded exciting.

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Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli

If you liked Rovelli’s last book, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, you will be excited and challenged with his new one, Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity. Be prepared to really dive into the fundamentals of quantum gravity, one of the most beautiful and thought – provoking theories in the world of physics.

Rovelli takes us on a fascinating journey spanning 2,500 years of evolution in physics, starting with the ideas of ancient Greeks and especially Democritus of Abdera to the Newtonian revolution and the genius of Albert Einstein to the strange world of loop quantum gravity. A world where time does not exist and physical reality is not what it seems.

Quantum gravity combines general relativity (GR) and quantum mechanisms (QM) to find a new synthesis that will help us understand a world in which quanta and curved space exist. It is a major challenge and most of the physicists, with the exception of Dirac, Feynman, Weinberg, Penrose, Hawking, among others, in the second half of the 20th century have ignored this challenge.

In science, writes Rovelli, “there are no secure recipes for discovery and it is important to explore different directions at the same time.” Currently, string theory and loop quantum gravity are the two most developed paths.   Carlo Rovelli belongs to the school of loop quantum gravity where the central idea is that space is not a continuum, “it is not divisible ad infinitum” but it is quantified, “formed of ‘atoms of space,’ a billion billion times smaller than the smallest of atomic nuclei.”

Rovelli, with great elegance and clarity, presents leading-edge research in the revolutionary field of loop gravity theory. It is an intellectually challenging book, accessible to all readers but not for the faint-hearted.

A Farewell to Arctic Ice by Peter Wadhams

Only a few people in the world know ice better than Peter Wadhams. A professor of Ocean Physics at Cambridge, Peter Wadhams is a world authority on sea ice. His  book ‘A Farewell to Ice’ is a report from the Arctic, and the consequences of the loss of the summer sea ice. It is also a personal history of a scientist and his extraordinary work in the polar regions in the past 35+ years.

Peter Wadhams believes the Arctic has reached a tipping point, that is a  point at which a certain system that has been stressed beyond a certain level does not return to its original state when that stress is removed. He predicts that  Arctic will be be ice free in the next few years and that would have a series of disastrous consequences for the whole planet.

The retreat of the summer sea ice in the Arctic is important because the loss of sea ice is changing the global albedo (the reflected sunlight). A vast area will change from white (ice) to blue (sea), therefore less energy will be reflected back into space. It means that the global warming will increase.

The darker ocean will absorb more energy which warms the water which melts more ice, which further warms the ocean, which melts more ice, in a spiraling feedback loop.

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The Gene: An Intimate History

The science of genetics was born in mid-19th century with the discovery of the basic mechanisms of heredity in the pea garden of an Austrian monk. Although, humans have acted as agents of genetic selection, for thousands of years, by breeding offspring with desired traits, it was Mendel’s discovery of the existence of dominant and recessive traits in pea plants, that set into motion the modern field of genetics.

 Siddhartha Mukherjee, a cancer physician and researcher has written a comprehensive, engaging and insightful history of the gene as well as  an analysis of the ethical dilemmas, the challenges and the medical benefits of the genomic science in the 21st century.

The Gene is also a personal history. Entwined with the Gene’s history is Mukherjee’s own Bengali family history of mental illness, which erupts from shared genetic inheritances and define the lives of past, present and future family members.

The book covers 150 years of history, from Gregor Mendel, the monk who discovered the basic principles of heredity, working in his pea garden in Brno, through to Darwin and to his half- cousin, Francis Galton, one of the first proponents of the ‘eugenics movement’ to Oswald Avery’s pinpointing of DNA as the carrier of genetic information, to James Watson and Francis Crick and to the recent years where the sheer ingenuity of the scientists demystified the genome.

The Gene is a book of scientific progress, the benefits of direct genetic modification can be enormous, “to carve out a life of happiness and achievement without undue suffering”, but the possibilities of a  serious, irreversible mistake are also immense. Genetic modification has the potential to alter the course of human evolution to something completely unexpected, even harmful. Are we really ready to take this step?

The Birth of a Theorem: A Mathematical Adventure

Mathematics is like life, you can’t expect to go forward if you’re not prepare to expose yourself to chance, risk, even danger. It is an idea that appeals to Cédric Villani, mathematician and author of “The Birth of a Theorem: A Mathematical Adventure”.

Mathematics is also a work of reasoning and evolution of thinking, of logical deduction and perhaps a bit of sleuthing. In Villani’s words “Appreciating a theorem in mathematics is like watching an episode of Columbo, the line of reasoning by which the detective solves the mystery is more important than the identity of the murderer.”

Villani was awarded the Field medal for his work on Landau Damping, a spontaneous phenomenon of stabilization in plasmas, that is a return to equilibrium without any increase in entropy. This is in contrast to the mechanism described by Ludwig Boltzmann which expressed the statistical motion of entropy. With his famous now, equation, Boltzmann proved that moving from an initial arbitrarily fixed state, over reasonable time spans in the future,  entropy can only increase.

Birth of a Theorem is not just a popular maths book. It is a personal and exhausting journey, an obsession, of a brilliant, passionate and eccentric mathematician.  

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