The Poetics of Data: Science Depends on Precise Metaphors
Jag Bhalla is an entrepreneur, inventor and writer. His current project is Errors We Live By, a series of short exoteric essays exposing errors in the big ideas running our lives, details at www.errorsweliveby.com. His last book was I'm Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears, a surreptitious science gift book from National Geographic Books, details at www.hangingnoodles.com. That explains his twitter handle @hangingnoodles.
Science and poetry both depend on metaphor. Science typically uses at least two. The first is usually Pythagoras’s astonishingly fruitful, but also limiting, “all things are numbers.” The second shapes what “the data” means. Good data needs good metaphors.
Nate Silver says journalists who aren't "quantitatively inclined, rigorous and empirical," lack discipline and risk creating "a lot of bullshit." Responses range from Leon Wieseltier calling him a “data mullah,” to Noah Smith complaining he’s “barely data-driven.” The critics haven’t noted another problem: in describing his “data journalism” mission, Silver uses a chart where the “x-axis runs from ‘quantitative’ to ‘qualitative’.” But that misrepresents the relationship, quantities aren’t useful without good prior qualitative distinctions. The numbers need labels and the ideas they bring. Silver has worked mainly in sports and election results, where the numbers have clear meaning built in. Other fields, like economics, aren’t so lucky.
E. O. Wilson advises scientists to “think like poets and work like accountants.” The number crunching builds on the poet's skill of making good metaphors (poetry comes from the Greek for "to make or compose"). Metaphors are the muscles that animate the conceptual skeletons we use. Even if as Galileo puts it “The Book of Nature is written in the language of mathematics,” other metaphors are needed.
Deirdre McCloskey calls Gary Becker “an economic poet” because she likes his metaphors: “the family as a little firm,” “children as durable goods.” (I’ve complained about Becker comparing heroin to bowling.) Metaphor making is part of the genius of science. Darwin said natural selection crystallized for him by analogy with Malthus’s essay on population limits, and Joule’s energy conservation arose by analogy with balancing account-books. For examples of badly used metaphors see: Shakespeare’s invisible hand in economics.
Gross domestic product, says Diane Coyle is our tarnished “principal measure of progress.” It doesn’t distinguish “bads” (like wasteful healthcare spending) from genuine goods, and omits everything that has no market value. Yet many obsess about GDP growth. But couldn’t GDP reductions, if achieved by eliminating “bads,” be progress?
Silver worries about “priors” (biases) but doesn’t distinguish input-priors from method-priors from goal-priors. His doctrine of “data journalism” is both an input-prior and a method-prior. (He’s a method-hedgehog in foxes’ clothing.) It discounts whatever isn’t in the numbers and is prone to qualitative weaknesses in their underlying ideas, like the assumption that all economic activity is good. Much data now comes with hidden priors (e.g. from think tanks confessedly pre-committed to particular goals.)
The cult of calculation and data is seductive. And I’m no quantiphobe. But numbers and mathematics have no monopoly on precision or truth. Words, logic, images, and patterns can be exact and can describe more than numbers can. Fit the tool to the task, and the metaphor to the situation. Good quantitative reasoning needs good qualitative priors.
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.
Correction: An earlier version of this post used the sentence "Nate Silver said journalism that isn’t quantitative is “bullshit” That has been changed to "Nate Silver says journalists who aren't "quantitatively inclined, rigorous and empirical," lack discipline and risk creating "a lot of bullshit." Thanks to Adam Gurri @adamgurri for pointing out the inaccuracy (and for the introduction to McCloskey's work on the Rhetoric of Economics, and Bourgeois Virtue Ethics).
Ready your Schrödinger's Cat Jokes.
- For a time, quantum computing was more theory than fact.
- That's starting to change.
- New quantum computer designs look like they might be scalable.
Quantum computing has existed in theory since the 1980's. It's slowly making its way into fact, the latest of which can be seen in a paper published in Nature called, "Deterministic teleportation of a quantum gate between two logical qubits."
To ensure that we're all familiar with a few basic terms: in electronics, a 'logic gate' is something that takes in one or more than one binary inputs and produces a single binary output. To put it in reductive terms: if you produce information that goes into a chip in your computer as a '0,' the logic gate is what sends it out the other side as a '1.'
A quantum gate means that the '1' in question here can — roughly speaking — go back through the gate and become a '0' once again. But that's not quite the whole of it.
A qubit is a single unit of quantum information. To continue with our simple analogy: you don't have to think about computers producing a string of information that is either a zero or a one. A quantum computer can do both, simultaneously. But that can only happen if you build a functional quantum gate.
That's why the results of the study from the folks at The Yale Quantum Institute saying that they were able to create a quantum gate with a "process fidelity" of 79% is so striking. It could very well spell the beginning of the pathway towards realistic quantum computing.
The team went about doing this through using a superconducting microwave cavity to create a data qubit — that is, they used a device that operates a bit like a organ pipe or a music box but for microwave frequencies. They paired that data qubit with a transmon — that is, a superconducting qubit that isn't as sensitive to quantum noise as it otherwise could be, which is a good thing, because noise can destroy information stored in a quantum state. The two are then connected through a process called a 'quantum bus.'
That process translates into a quantum property being able to be sent from one location to the other without any interaction between the two through something called a teleported CNOT gate, which is the 'official' name for a quantum gate. Single qubits made the leap from one side of the gate to the other with a high degree of accuracy.
Above: encoded qubits and 'CNOT Truth table,' i.e., the read-out.
The team then entangled these bits of information as a way of further proving that they were literally transporting the qubit from one place to somewhere else. They then analyzed the space between the quantum points to determine that something that doesn't follow the classical definition of physics occurred.
They conclude by noting that "... the teleported gate … uses relatively modest elements, all of which are part of the standard toolbox for quantum computation in general. Therefore ... progress to improve any of the elements will directly increase gate performance."
In other words: they did something simple and did it well. And that the only forward here is up. And down. At the same time.
These modern-day hermits can sometimes spend decades without ever leaving their apartments.
- A hikikomori is a type of person in Japan who locks themselves away in their bedrooms, sometimes for years.
- This is a relatively new phenomenon in Japan, likely due to rigid social customs and high expectations for academic and business success.
- Many believe hikikomori to be a result of how Japan interprets and handles mental health issues.
How a cataclysm worse than what killed the dinosaurs destroyed 90 percent of all life on Earth.
While the demise of the dinosaurs gets more attention as far as mass extinctions go, an even more disastrous event called "the Great Dying” or the “End-Permian Extinction” happened on Earth prior to that. Now scientists discovered how this cataclysm, which took place about 250 million years ago, managed to kill off more than 90 percent of all life on the planet.
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