Category: Science

That was then, this is now

As he prepared for Apollo 11’s lift-off, Neil Armstrong thought he had a 10 per cent chance of dying during the mission, and a 50 per cent chance of not walking on the Moon. “There was still a debate about if you stepped on to the Moon, would you step into 10ft of dust?” says former Nasa official Scott Hubbard.

The entire mission was vulnerable to a single-point failure: if the service module’s engine had failed, for example, there was no back-up.

Nasa’s whole attitude to risk has now changed. Until recently, each system was built to tolerate any two faults. This is now seen as a blunt approach, treating all components as equally important. So Nasa instead tries to limit the probability of failure. The chance of losing SLS and Orion on its first mission is one in 140, according to the agency’s analysis.

That is by Henry Mance and Yuichiro Kanematsu, in the FT, from their splendid look at the current attempt to drive a moon mission.  And this:

“We do not have time or funds to build unique, one-of-a-kind systems,” William Gerstenmaier, a senior Nasa official, said recently. The agency’s biggest rocket — Boeing’s troubled Space Launch System (SLS) — will use some of the same engines as the Space Shuttle. Blake Rogers, an engineer at the Aerospace Corporation, a government-funded research agency, told the FT: “2024 is really soon. So there’s not a lot of brand-new technology…Today, Orion’s processing power will still be below 500MHz — significantly less than a MacBook.

Recommended, gated but of course you should subscribe to the FT.

Robin Hanson on coercion and feedback

But the concept of coercion isn’t very central to my presumption. At a basic level, I embrace the usual economists’ market failure analysis, preferring interventions that fix large market failures, relative to obvious to-be-expected government failures.

But at a meta level, I care more about having good feedback/learning/innovation processes. The main reason that I tend to be wary of government intervention is that it more often creates processes with low levels of adaptation and innovation regarding technology and individual preferences. Yes, in principle dissatisfied voters can elect politicians who promise particular reforms. But voters have quite limited spotlights of attention and must navigate long chains of accountability to detect and induce real lasting gains.

Yes, low-government mechanisms often also have big problems with adaptation and innovation, especially when customers mainly care about signaling things like loyalty, conformity, wealth, etc. Even so, the track record I see, at least for now, is that these failures have been less severe than comparable government failures. In this case, the devil we know more does in fact tend to be better that the devil we know less.

So when I try to design better social institutions, and to support the proposals of others, I’m less focused than many on assuring zero government invention, or on minimizing “coercion” however conceived, and more concerned to ensure healthy competition overall.

Here is the full post.

Flying and academic quality

Using the University of British Columbia as a case study, we investigated whether the faculty at our institution who flew the most were also the most successful. We found that beyond a small threshold there was no relationship between scholarly output and how much an individual academic flies…

We certainly did find evidence that researchers fly more than is likely necessary. In the portion of our sample composed of only fulltime faculty, we categorized 10% of trips as “easily avoidable”. These were trips like going to your destination and flying back in the same day or flying a short distance trip that could have been replaced by ground travel. Interestingly, green academics (those studying subjects like climate change or sustainability) not only had the same level of emissions from air travel as their peers, but they were indistinguishable in the category of “easily avoidable” trips as well.

But success isn’t just measured by scholarly output, and so we also checked for relationships between how much academics flew and their annual salaries (which are publicly available). We did find a significant relationship: people who fly more, get paid more. Causation though, could lie in the other direction. Prestigious scholars with more grant money may have extra funds with which to book air travel, for instance.

Here is the full post by Seth Wynes, via Anecdotal.

My Conversation with Hal Varian

Hal of course was in top form, here is the audio and transcript.  Excerpt:

COWEN: Why doesn’t business use more prediction markets? They would seem to make sense, right? Bet on ideas. Aggregate information. We’ve all read Hayek.

VARIAN: Right. And we had a prediction market. I’ll tell you the problem with it. The problem is, the things that we really wanted to get a probability assessment on were things that were so sensitive that we thought we would violate the SEC rules on insider knowledge because, if a small group of people knows about some acquisition or something like that, there is a secret among this small group.

You might like to have a probability assessment of whether that would go through. But then, anybody who looks at the auction is now an insider. So there’s a problem in you have to find things that (a) are of interest to the company but (b) do not reveal financially critical information. That’s not so easy to do.

COWEN: But there are plenty of times when insider trading is either illegal or not enforced. Plenty of countries where it’s been legal, and there we don’t see many prediction markets in companies, if any. So it seems like it ought to have to be some more general explanation, or no?

VARIAN: Well, I’m just referring to our particular case. There was another example at the same time: Ford was running a market, and Ford would have futures markets on the price of gasoline, which was very relevant to them. It was an external price and so on. And it extended beyond the usual futures market.

That’s the other thing. You’re not going to get anywhere if you’re just duplicating a market that already exists. You have to add something to it to make it attractive to insiders.

So we ran a number of cases internally. We found some interesting behavior. There’s an article by Bo Cowgill on our experience with this auction. But ultimately, we ran into this problem that I described. The most valuable predictions would be the most sensitive predictions, and you didn’t want to do that in public.


COWEN: But then you must think we’re not doing enough theory today. Or do you think it’s simply exhausted for a while?

VARIAN: Well, one area of theory that I’ve found very exciting is algorithmic mechanism design. With algorithmic mechanism design, it’s a combination of computer science and economics.

The idea is, you take the economic model, and you bring in computational costs, or show me an algorithm that actually solves that maximization problem. Then on the other side, the computer side, you build incentives into the algorithms. So if multiple people are using, let’s say, some communications protocol, you want them all to have the right incentives to have the efficient use of that protocol.

So that’s a case where it really has very strong real-world applications to doing this — everything from telecommunications to AdWords auctions.


VARIAN: Yeah. I would like to separate the blockchain from just cryptographic protocols in general. There’s a huge demand for various kinds of cryptography.

Blockchain seems to be, by its nature, relatively inefficient. As an economist, I don’t like this proof of work that this is. I don’t like the fact that there’s one version of the blockchain that has to keep being updated. I don’t like the fact that it’s so slow. There are lots of things that you could fix, and I expect to see them fixed in the future, but I would say, crypto in general — big deal. Blockchain — not so much.

And finally:

COWEN: Now, users seem to like them both, but if I just look at the critics, why does it seem to me that Facebook is more hated than Google?

VARIAN: Well, you know, I actually don’t use Facebook. I don’t have any moral objection to it. I just don’t have the time to do it. [laughs] There are other things of this sort that can end up soaking up a substantial amount of time.

I think that one of the reasons — and this is, of course, quite speculative — I think that one of the reasons people are most worried about Facebook is they don’t really understand the limits of what can be done at Facebook. Whereas at Google, I think we’re pretty clear that we’re showing you ads. We’re showing you ads that are targeted to one thing or another, but that’s how the information’s used.

So, you’ve got this specific application in our case. In Facebook’s case, it’s more amorphous, I think.

There is much, much more at the link.

*One Giant Leap*

The author is Charles Fishman, and the subtitle is The Impossible Mission That Flew us to the Moon.  Here is one excerpt:

It [NASA’s Mission Control] was the first real-time computing facility IBM had ever installed.


…the Apollo flight computer was the first anywhere to have responsibility for human lives.

That computer had 73 kilobytes of memory and had 0.000002 percent of the computing capacity of an iPhone.  And don’t forget this:

At least while you were headed outbound, you’d have plenty of fuel to correct things.  Coming home from the Moon is a lot less forgiving.  The heat of reentry, the splashdown targeting into the ocean, and the g-forces piling up on the spaceship and the astronauts inside combine to create a very thin slice of air you need to slide your spaceship into.  The command module had just 1 degree of latitude on reentry.  Too shallow an angle, and your space capsule skips off the top of the atmosphere like a flat stone — out into space and a wide orbit around the Earth, from which there was no rescue.  Too steep a cut into the atmosphere, and the speed, heat, and g-forces would combine to incinerate your space capsule.  And unlike on the way out, on the way back there are no go-arounds.

Definitely recommended, gripping from start to finish.  Overall the best history of how the space revolution and the computer revolution were interconnected.

Laying of cable for the transatlantic telegraph is an underrated achievement

To provide storage space for the huge coils of wire, three great tanks were carved into the heart of the ship.  The drums, sheaves, and dynamometers of the laying mechanism, occupied a large part of the stem decking, and one funnel with its associated boilers had been removed to give additional storage space.  When the ship sailed from the Medway on June 24, 1865, she carried seven thousand tons of cable, eight thousand tons of coal, and provisions for five hundred men.  Since this was before the days of refrigeration, she also became a seagoing farm.  Her passenger list included one cow, a dozen oxen, twenty pigs, one hundred twenty sheep. and a whole poultry-yard of fowl.

That is 1865 we are talking about here, remarkably early (in my view) for laying a cable across the bottom of the entire Atlantic.

The passage is from Arthur C. Clarke’s excellent How the World Was One: Beyond the Global Village.

You are creating a genetic profile for your entire family…

…if you give away a genetic profile for yourself.  Elizabeth Joh (NYT) writes:

You may decide that the police should use your DNA profile without qualification and may even post your information online with that purpose in mind. But your DNA is also shared in part with your relatives. When you consent to genetic sleuthing, you are also exposing your siblings, parents, cousins, relatives you’ve never met and even future generations of your family.

Unless you are going to gain something very specific, I generally recommend that people should not give away their genetic information.

*The Case for Space*

The author is Robert Zubrin and the subtitle is How the Revolution in Spaceflight Opens Up a Future of Limitless Possibility.  I found this book fun, ambitious, and informative, even if I was not entirely convinced.  Zubrin thinks big and bold in an exciting way, here is one bit:

Exploring Mars requires no miraculous new technologies, no orbiting spaceports, and no gigantic interplanetary space cruisers.  We can establish our first small outpost on Mars within a decade.

There is not much talk of the stress space (or for that matter life on Mars) might place on the human body.  Zubrin talks of Mars tours of four or six years or more.

Yet my biggest difference with Zubrin is this: I think of space and planetary exploration as presenting many surprising and difficult problems, ones which cannot be foreseen and fixed in advance by stocking a spacecraft with “just the right materials.”  There are many sentences like this:

Mobile microwave units will be used to extract water from Mars’s abundant permafrost, supporting such agriculture and making possible the manufacture of large amounts of brick and concrete…

But when the problem of missing parts arises, or perhaps missing links between systems, you can’t run to the local hardware store.  Try this one too:

Extracting the He3 from the atmospheres of the giant planets will be difficult, but not impossible.  What is required is a winged transatmospheric vehicle that can use a planet’s atmosphere for propellant, heating it in a nuclear reactor to produce thrust.

My other worry is that if we do not find it profitable to inhabit rural Nevada, Mars might stay empty as well.  Zubrin does make a detailed economic case for the value of space, though to my eye much of it falls on satellites.  Asteroids have valuable minerals, such as uranium, and that might spur mining operations, powered by nuclear fusion.  But is that really the cheapest way to get more uranium, in any case I suspect its price and value would fall rapidly with quantity.

Zubrin puts forward the interesting hypothesis that life in space will encourage a great deal of political freedom:

Historically, the easiest people for a tyrant to oppress are nominally self-sufficient rural peasants, because none of them are individually essential…In a space colony, nearly everyone will be individually essential, and therefore powerful, and all will be capable of being dangerous to those in authority.

Hard to verify, but worth a ponder.

Under another scenario, arks full of large, smart salamanders, genetically programmed to build incubators by instinct, will settle the galaxy at “a speed exceeding 20 percent the speed of light.”

There are many interesting ancillary points, such as using the length of the growing season to estimate global warming, or how pp.284-285 offer an ambitious take on the spin-off benefits from the space program so far, or pp.294-295 on exactly why taking out an asteroid with bombs is so hard.

With plenty of caveats of course, but recommended, the author of this one is never coasting.

Do DNA databases deter crime and limit recidivism?

Anne Sofie Tegner Anker, Jennifer L. Doleac, and Rasmus Landersø tell us yes:

This paper studies the effects of adding criminal offenders to a DNA database. Using a large expansion of Denmark’s DNA database, we find that DNA registration reduces recidivism within the following year by as much as 43% and it also increases the probability that offenders are identified. We thereby estimate the elasticity of crime with respect to the detection probability to be -2.7, implying that a 1% higher detection probability reduces crime by more than 2%. We also find that DNA registration makes offenders more likely to find employment, enroll in education, and live in a more stable family environment.

Via Ilya Novak (and others).

My Conversation with Russ Roberts

The podcast master himself, here is the audio and transcript, here is the opening summary:

What are the virtues of forgiveness? Are we subject to being manipulated by data? Why do people struggle with prayer? What really motivates us? How has the volunteer army system changed the incentives for war? These are just some of the questions that keep Russ Roberts going as he constantly analyzes the world and revisits his own biases through thirteen years of conversations on EconTalk.

Russ made his way to the Mercatus studio to talk with Tyler about these ideas and more. The pair examines where classical liberalism has gone wrong, if dropping out of college is overrated, and what people are missing from the Bible. Tyler questions Russ on Hayek, behavioral economics, and his favorite EconTalk conversation. Ever the host, Russ also throws in a couple questions to Tyler.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Here’s a reader question. “In which areas are you more pro-regulation than the average American?” They mean government regulation.

ROBERTS: Than the average American?


ROBERTS: I can’t think of any. Can you help me out there, Tyler?

COWEN: Well, I’m not sure I know all of your views.

ROBERTS: What would you guess? Give me some things to think about there. In general, I think government should be smaller and regulations should be smaller.

COWEN: I’ll give you–

ROBERTS: Let me give you a trick answer. Then I’ll let you feed me some.

COWEN: Sure.

ROBERTS: Many people believe that the financial crisis was caused by deregulation. I think that’s a misreading of the evidence. It’s true that some pieces of the financial sector were deregulated, but government intervention in the financial sector was quite significant in advance of the crisis. In particular, the bailouts that we did of past failed financial institutions, I think, encouraged lenders to be more careless with how they lent their money, mainly to other institutions, not so much to people out in the world like you and me.

Deregulation’s a little bit tricky, so I wanted to get that in. I’m not sure how that pertains to the question. It does, probably, in some way. So give me something I should be more regulatory about.

COWEN: Well, one answer —

ROBERTS: Baseball? Baseball, of course. [laughs]

COWEN: I would say animal welfare — government should have a larger role. But also what counts as a tax-exempt institution, I would prefer our government be stricter.

ROBERTS: Well, I’m with you there. Yeah, okay, kind of.

COWEN: Well, that’s more regulation, okay?

ROBERTS: I guess.

COWEN: Kind of.

ROBERTS: Yeah, kind of. It’s different standards.

COWEN: Higher capital requirements for banks.

ROBERTS: I’m okay with that. Yeah, that’s a good one. I’d prefer a laissez-faire world for banks, more or less. If we can’t credibly promise not to bail out banks — if that’s the case, we live in a world where banks get to keep their profits and put their losses on taxpayers — bad world. A more regulated world would be better than the world we live in; not as good as my ideal world, though. But there’s a case where I would be in favor — like you just said — more capital requirements.

You’re on a roll. See what else you can come up with for me.

COWEN: Spending more money for tax enforcement, especially on the wealthy.

ROBERTS: Not the worst thing in the world.

COWEN: You can spend a dollar and bring in several times that, it seems.

ROBERTS: I don’t think rich people cheat on their taxes. Do you? [laughs]

COWEN: “Cheat” is a tricky word, but I think we could spend more money.

ROBERTS: We could probably collect more effectively.

COWEN: And it would more than pay for itself.

ROBERTS: Yeah. That’s probably true.

COWEN: We’re actually big fans of government regulation today.

ROBERTS: Yeah, we’ve really expanded the tent here. [laughs]

Do read or listen to the whole thing.

The JPE is going monthly in 2020

Here is the announcement.  Presumably they wish to claw back some of the quantity going to the ever-multiplying number of AEA journals and to thus avoid being an afterthought.  Will the average quality of JPE article decline?  I suppose by one definition it has to, but in such a rapidly specializing discipline, who will notice?  Is it really so clear which pieces come close but don’t quite deserve to belong in the JPE?  I for one could not pass this “blind taste test” in my role as a JPE reader, and I have been following the rag for decades.

As a polar experiment, what if they put out an issue every day, and in essence the top journals took all the published pieces?  Then the notion of having a “top three” hit (or whatever) would dwindle and people actually would have to judge the work.  A modest move in that direction should be just fine, said the daily blogger.

In the meantime, the leading lights of the profession — most of all in the earlier parts of their careers — should be prepared for that much more refereeing.  Ay!

*Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World*

That is the new book by David Epstein, the author of the excellent The Sports Gene.  I sometimes say that generalists are the most specialized people of them all, so specialized they can’t in fact do anything.  Except make observations of that nature.  Excerpt:

In an impressively insightful image, Tetlock described the very best forecasters as foxes with dragonfly eyes.  Dragonfly eyes are composed of tens of thousands of lenses, each with a different perspective, which are then synthesized in the dragonfly’s brain.

I am not sure Epstein figures out what a generalist really is (and how does a generalist differ from a polymath, by the way?), but this book is the best place to start for thinking about the relevant issues.

My Conversation with Ezekiel Emanuel

Very much a fun one, here is the audio and transcript, here is part of the opening summary:

Do we overrate the importance of doctors? What’s the importance of IQ versus EQ in the practice of medicine? What are the prospect for venture capital in biotech? How should medical training be changed? Why does he think the conventional wisdom about a problem tends to be wrong? Would immortality be boring? What would happen if we let parents genetically engineer their kids?

Tyler questions Emanuel on these topics and more, including the smartest thing his parents did while raising him, whether we have right to medical self-defense, healthcare in low- versus high-trust institutions, and much more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: How can we improve medical education?

EMANUEL: Cut it down. Make it shorter.

COWEN: Cut it down? Why does that make it better? Or does it just make it cheaper?

EMANUEL: No, I think it will make it better. So, we have a lot of memorization, a lot of . . . So, let’s go back to the start. The four years of medical school: two years of preclinical in the classroom learning about biochemistry, genetics, anatomy, microbiology; and the two years of clinical time in the hospital, on the wards.

That dates from 1910. We haven’t really updated it much, except in this one way: we’ve cut down the preclinical time because — less of it — and it changes so fast, by the time you learn it in medical school, get out as a doctor, it’s out of date, A; and B, it’s more or less irrelevant to managing most patients…

And then, by the way, in med school, spending your time in a hospital is not the future. The future of American medicine is out of the hospital. So we need more rotations, more experiences for students out of the hospital.

No med school has made that big shift, and those are the shifts that are going to have to happen over the next 15 or so years.


COWEN: Is there a right to medical self-defense that should override FDA bans on drugs and medical devices? I want to try something that’s not approved —

EMANUEL: No. I don’t like that.

COWEN: I’m saying it’s my body. But why don’t you like it?

EMANUEL: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, Tyler.


COWEN: Now, you’ve written a much-misunderstood article about how hard you would try yourself to live past the age of 75. Would not the suspense of world and national history always keep you wanting a bit more extra time?

So, say I’m 75. I’ve decided I agree with you, but the NBA Finals aren’t over yet. I want to see game seven. I want the Mueller report to come out. Isn’t there always something?

And then, it’s kind of intransitivity of indifference. Every day there’s something, and you just keep on hanging on, even if one accepts your arguments in the abstract. Can you talk me out of that?

EMANUEL: No, no, Tyler, I think you’re exactly right. That’s why people do hang on. It’s because . . . you know, so I talked to my father, who — he says, “Zeke, you’re absolutely right. I’ve become slower, physically slower, mentally slower. My life” . . . what ends up happening is your life cones down, and you begin to overvalue certain small things. Like the NBA Finals. Like what’s in the Mueller report.

We all know, from any cosmic standpoint — even not a cosmic standpoint, just a 2,000-foot standpoint — most of those things are not irrelevant. It’s really cool to know.

You often ask — and this happens to me all the time. I teach undergraduates. Pretty smart undergraduates. Very smart undergraduates. MBA students, nurses, doctors, right? They have no understanding of history. So, whoever finishes in the NBA Finals, in five years, people have forgotten.

Recommended, interesting throughout.

Excess seniority as one problem with American science

The current grant opportunities for starting a new independent research career in academia have not only become increasingly unavailable to young scientists and engineers, but are also disastrously risk-averse. At the NIH, the proportion of all grant funds awarded to scientists under the age of 36 fell from 5.6% in 1980 to 1.5% in 2017. One might ask the rhetorical question: How successful would Silicon Valley be if nearly 99% of all investments were awarded to scientists and engineers age 36 years or older, along with a strong bias toward funding only safe, nonrisky projects? Similarly, at the U.S. Department of Energy and its National Laboratories, high-risk, high-reward research and development has been severely limited by extreme volatility in research funding and by very limited discretionary funding at the laboratory level.

That is by Bruce Alberts and Ventakesh Narayanamurti, via Larry Summers.