Follow-ups on Peers and Pluto
Based on recent columns, you might think me obsessed with the
brain. I''ve written about damage to the left brain and savant
syndrome and about rats and monkeys controlling robots with
their brains. Now I''m concerned about my own brain. Two
weeks ago, I described my experience involving my wife-to-be
reading me data to plot for my Ph.D. thesis calculations and how
I mixed up the x and y axes. My wife thought that column was
one of my most interesting, undoubtedly influenced by the fact
that she played a key role in it. After posting the column, it
suddenly occurred to me that maybe it was she who got the
numbers mixed up and was reading me data from the wrong
columns. It took my feeble brain over half a century to come up
with this obvious possibility. I was amazed at how well my wife
took my suggestion that she might have been at fault!
In that same column, I could have questioned the status of J.
Hendrik Sch n''s brain when he allegedly falsified data in his
work at Bell Labs. Paul Ginsparg had no such qualms in an
interview with William Speed Weed published in last Sunday''s
New York Times Magazine section. Regarding Sch n''s actions,
Ginsparg suggested "There had to be a screw loose." Ginsparg''s
opinion was that "…years ago this never would have happened at
Bell Labs." I was pleased to see that his opinion was in line with
my own and that he also shared my skepticism and/or shock with
Sch n''s claim that he didn''t have a notebook or his original raw
data. Ginsparg also thought Sch n''s co-authors should be
embarrassed and be shown no sympathy, citing the fact that he
himself checked every equation in any paper he authored.
Following up further on that column, I noted that I hadn''t seen
anything about patents in connection with Sch n''s work. Last
week, however, Lucent reported that it has pulled 6 patents on
that work. For the record, I can report that none of my 7 patents
at Bell labs were ever pulled.
Oh, you wonder who is this fellow Ginsparg? I asked myself the
same question. To find the answer I had to supplement the
Times article with a visit to the Cornell University Web site.
Ginsparg is a professor of physics and computer and information
science at Cornell. The Times interview appears to have been
prompted by the fact that, within 24 hours of the investigative
committee''s finding of misconduct at Bell Labs, Ginsparg was
informed that he had won a MacArthur award. A MacArthur
award, often termed a "genius award", is a big deal. Ginsparg
receives the tidy sum of $500,000 over the next five years, no
strings attached. Appropriately, string theory is one of the fields
in which Ginsparg, a theoretical physicist, has made significant
contributions. However, it seems that the MacArthur award was
for something quite different that he created 11 years ago while
working at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
Peer review was the theme of the column on my x-y axis mistake
and Sch n''s misconduct. But Ginsparg''s MacArthur-winning
creation is the very antithesis of the peer review system. What
he created was arXiv.org, a system for online distribution of
scientific papers prior to publication. There''s no peer review.
You submit your paper and, after a check to make sure the
subject matter is not out of line, it''s there online for anyone to
look at. Ginsparg worked on setting up this system in his spare
time using surplus equipment at Los Alamos. The arXiv system
is currently limited to certain fields of physics, mathematics,
computing and other selected areas. The X in arXiv
approximates the Greek letter chi; hence "archive".
I admit to not having heard of arXiv before reading the Times
interview so I logged on. Whoa! It''s impressive. There were
papers entered the previous day and the subject matter was over
my head in most cases. The online site now contains over
200,000 papers and is receiving more at roughly 3,000 papers a
month! Employing higher mathematics, I calculate that''s about a
hundred papers a day!
Now I understand the reason for the MacArthur award, which is
meant to stimulate innovation. Think of the implications of
Ginsparg''s arXiv. Instead of waiting many months (6 months to
a year was not unusual when I was at Bell Labs) for your paper
to appear in a journal or a proceedings volume, it appears online
instantaneously after you e-mail it to arXiv and it passes the topic
scrutiny. There''s also the matter of cost. It takes thousands of
dollars to distribute an article in a conventional journal but only
$1 to $5 to distribute the same paper on arXiv. With Ginsparg''s
move to Cornell last year, the National Science Foundation and
the Cornell University Library now support the site.
You might think that this publishing of papers without peer
review would make it more likely that scientific misconduct
would spread. Ginsparg''s reply is that because the audience is so
vast online and the speed of communication so fast, questionable
results are quickly put to the test. He feels that Sch n might
have been saved from himself had his papers been distributed in
Just for the record, while Sch n''s claims of molecular transistors
have been deemed unreliable, it doesn''t mean that work towards
such devices is dead. Indeed, there are now claims to have done
Sch n one better by making switches involving single atoms!
You can''t get much smaller than that. Let''s hope that work is
While we''re following up on past columns, a topic we treated
quite a while ago was the status of the "planet" Pluto. I put the
term planet in quotation marks because in recent years there has
been a controversy as to whether Pluto should even be called a
planet. Indeed, Neil de Grasse Tyson, director of the Hayden
Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New
York, has demoted Pluto in the museum''s exhibits. Now comes
another discovery that really puts Pluto''s status in doubt.
You may have learned about this discovery in the October 6 New
York Times or other news media. A new spherical object, half
the size of Pluto, has been found orbiting the sun some 4 billion
miles out in space. This new object was given the curious name
of Quaoar (pronounced KWAH-o-ar). Unlike Pluto, it has a
circular orbit around the sun and also orbits more closely to the
plane in which most planets orbit. Not only is Pluto''s orbit tilted
substantially to that plane but it is also elliptical and at times
Pluto swing in closer to the sun than the planet Neptune. With
the discovery of Quaoar, it seems that Tyson''s demotion of Pluto
should gather support in the International Astronomical Union,
which has been reluctant to downgrade that object.
I visited the Museum''s Web site and found that I could listen and
watch Tyson answer various questions. He pointed out one very
pertinent point. He says that if Pluto were put closer to the sun,
say into Earth''s orbit, it would develop a tail. Tyson asks, "What
kind of a planet is that?" He suggests making Pluto King of the
Comets! I''m convinced. Pluto is dead - long live the King!
I was intrigued by the fact that Quaoar is making the headlines
today even though it was actually discovered much earlier. Well,
not exactly discovered. What happened is that Mike Brown and
his colleague Chad Trujillo found the object in June of this year
using a 1.2-meter telescope on Mount Palomar. On such a
relatively small telescope, Quaoar is just a point of light but,
when they looked back at old plates, there was Quaoar in photos
ranging back to 1982. This year, when the Hubble telescope was
pointed at Quaoar, it showed up as a disk and its diameter could
be measured. Quaoar is 1,280 kilometers in diameter, about half
the diameter of Pluto and about a third the diameter of our Moon.
Now astronomers will not be surprised to find other objects,
maybe even bigger than Pluto out there in the far reaches of our
Following up on past columns was very rewarding for me.
Checking furhter on the Bell Labs affair, I visited the Lucent
Web site and found that I could listen to a conference call with
analysts last when Lucent announced further cuts in work force.
Until then I hadn''t realized my computer was capable of getting
audio from the Net. This led to my listening and watching the
aforementioned Tyson bit on Pluto. Even better, I found that I
could log onto the Prairie Home Companion Web site and listen
to old broadcasts of Garrison Keillor dating back to 1996. It''s
been a bone of contention in our house for years. My wife wants
to go out to dinner on Saturday evenings and claims I''m in a
grumpy mood because I''m missing Keillor''s stories of Lake
Wobegone. Now I can do both.
Allen F. Bortrum