Beyond papers – GitWikXiv

[Other posts in this series: 2,3,4.]

I had the chance to have dinner tonight with Paul Ginsparg of arXiv fame, and he graciously gave me some feedback on a very speculative idea that I’ve been kicking around: augmenting — or even replacing — the current academic article model with collaborative documents.

Even after years of mulling it over, my thoughts on this aren’t fully formed. But I thought I’d share my thinking, however incomplete, after incorporating Paul’s commentary while it is still fresh in my memory. First, let me start with some of the motivating problems as I see them:

  • People still reference papers from 40 years ago for key calculations (not just for historical interest or apportioning credit). They often have such poor typesetting that they are hard to read, don’t have machine-readable text, no URL links, etc.
  • Getting oriented on a topic often requires reading a dozen or more scattered papers with varying notation, where the key advances (as judged with hindsight) are mixed in with material that is much less important.
  • More specifically, papers sometimes have a small crucial idea that is buried in tangential details having to do with that particular author’s use for the idea, even if the idea has grown way beyond the author.
  • Some authors could contribute the key idea, but others could contribute clarity of thought, or make connections to other fields. In general these people may not know each other, or be able to easily collaborate.
  • There aren’t enough good review articles.When the marginal cost of producing a textbook is near zero, the fact that no one gets proper credit for writing good textbooks isn’t so bad simply because you only need one or two good ones, and the audience is huge.
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X-risk postdocs at Cambridge

The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) in Cambridge is now taking applications for four 2-year postdocs to work on existential risks from technology.

As I’ve reported before, there are good reasons to think that the importance of such risks goes beyond the 7 billion lives that are immediately at stake. And we should expect the mitigation of these dangers to be undersupplied by the market.

It’s very exciting to see CSER go from an ambitious idea to a living, breathing, funded thing. As effective altruism becomes more mainstream, we should expect the obvious neglected causes to begin to dry up. If you care about existential risk, I have it on good authority that researchers are in short supply. So I encourage you to apply if you’re interested. (EDIT: The deadline is April 24th.)

DOUBLE EDIT: The Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford is also hiring for one postdoc, due April 27th.

The full CSER job posting is here:

Up to four full-time postdoctoral research associates to work on the project Towards a Science of Extreme Technological Risk (ETR) within the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER).

CSER’s research focuses on the identification, management and mitigation of possible extreme risks associated with future technological advances. We are currently based within the University’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH). Our goal is to bring together some of the best minds from academia, industry and the policy world to tackle the challenges of ensuring that powerful new technologies are safe and beneficial. We focus especially on under-studied high-impact risks – risks that might result in a global catastrophe, or even threaten human extinction, even if only with low probability.

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Papers I want to write

I keep a text file on Evernote called “paper ideas”, now numbering 20 or so half-baked bullet points. Some of these topics are interesting physics problems that I think ought to be solved, and some of them are already well-understood but aren’t covered comprehensively and clearly anywhere.

It seemed like I should take advantage of the explosion in traffic coming from Peter’s nice comments about yesterday’s post. So I figure now’s as good a time as any for me to put up this list. (EDIT: Needless to say, let me know if you think these are already answered!)

Here is a list of topics I’d like to write a paper about with a collaborator. I encourage you shoot me an email if one of them piques your interest, regardless of where you’re located geographically. Some of these topics would need an expert, but a lot of them would be suitable for an enthusiastic grad student. If you’re a student at PI or Waterloo and are interested in working with me, this list is a good place to start.

Decoherence detection

  • What dark matter masses and cross sections could be probed by the MAQRO satellite experiment, as currently proposed? Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest this could reach cross-sections as low as 10^{-35}\,\mathrm{cm}^2 for some dark matter masses between 10\,\mathrm{eV} and 10\,\mathrm{keV}. This is well below the scale of solar neutrinos cross sections. Writing this paper would require understanding shielding from the Earth and the satellite, the time stability of conventional sources of decoherence, and the unusual quadratic scaling of the coherent scattering enhancement that appears in the appendix here.
  • Related to previous: Construct a concrete dark matter model that would be tested by MAQRO.
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Bateman et al. dark matter model in the news

As previously reported, Bateman, McHardy, Merle, Morris, and Ulbricht ran with the idea of detecting dark matter with large quantum superpositions and have proposed an explicit dark matter model that could be tested by the proposed MAQRO satellite . That paper is now in print , and it has gotten a bit of press!

Top: What space looks like right now. Pretty boring. Bottom left: The innards of the LPF science spacecraft, on which the MAQRO experiment would be built. Bottom right: MAQRO in space. Cf. top image. Notice the change in awesomeness.

All aboard the hype train! If this satellite gets built, it WILL discover dark matter, and probably extra dimensions, a solution to the is-ought problem, and the secret to true happiness.

EDIT 2015-2-16: Here is a copy of the proposal recently submitted by the MAQRO consortium, led by Rainer Kaltenbaek, for the M4 satellite mission slot with the European Space Agency.

EDIT 2015-3-10: I was bummed to find out that MAQRO did not make the short list for the M4 slot. The updated version of the proposal is now available on the arXiv. Hats off to Rainer for the excellent submission. Here’s looking to M5, just 36 months down the road!


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Records decomposition talk

Last month Scott Aaronson was kind enough to invite me out to MIT to give a seminar to the quantum information group. I presented a small uniqueness theorem which I think is an important intermediary result on the way to solving the set selection problem (or, equivalently, to obtaining an algorithm for breaking the wavefunction of the universe up into branches). I’m not sure when I’ll have a chance to write this up formally, so for now I’m just making the slides available here.

Screen Shot 2015-01-26 at 7.42.02 AM

Scott’s a fantastic, thoughtful host, and I got a lot of great questions from the audience. Thanks to everyone there for having me.… [continue reading]

Musk donates $10M to Future of Life Institute

The Future of Life Institute (FLI) is a group of folks, mostly academics with a few notable celebrities, who are jointly concerned about existential risk, especially risks from technologies that are expected to emerge in the coming decades. In particular, prominent physicists Anthony Aguirre, Alan Guth, Stephen Hawking, Saul Perlmutter, Max Tegmark, and Frank Wilczek are on the advisory board. I attended their public launch event at MIT in May (a panel discussion), and I am lucky to be acquainted with a few of the members and supporters. Although not a self-described Effective Altruist (EA) organization, FLI has significant overlap in philosophy, methods, and personnel with other EA groups.

One of the chief risks that FLI is concerned with is the safe development of artificial intelligence in the long term. Oxford Philosopher Nick Bostrom has a new book out on this topic, which seems to have convinced nerd hero Elon Musk that AI risk is a valid concern. Yesterday, Musk made a $10 million donation to FLI to fund grants for researchers in this area.

This is a big deal for those who think that there is a huge underinvestment in this sort of work. It’s also good fodder for journalists who like to write about killer robots. I expect the quality of the public discussion about this to be…low.

EDIT: The grant application process is now open. … [continue reading]

Perimeter Scholars International now accepting applications

Perimeter Institute runs a fairly unique one-year Master’s program called Perimeter Scholars International (PSI). It’s an intensive crash course in most parts of theoretical physics at PI. Besides the opportunity to take an additional year of courses before deciding on a PhD programs, attending PSI exposes you to the huge range of smart folks at PI. They are now accepting applications, due Feb 1st, for the term starting Fall of 2015.

Anyone who has talked with me about the graduate school process in the US knows I have strong views about how the current system forces students to effectively pick their field before they know enough physics to evaluate the various options, thereby entrenching the popularity of existing fields. (I’m sure I’ll blog about this in the future.) Although PSI is far from my imaginary ideal that would fix the problems as I see them, I think it is still one of the few steps in the correct direction of giving prospective physics PhD students the training they need to evaluate research programs on the merits rather than on prestige. Alas, PSI didn’t exist when I was looking at grad schools. If I were senior physics major in college now I would definitely try to get into this.

Here’s the blurb:

Each year, Canada’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics recruits approximately 30 exceptional science graduates for an immersive, 10-month physics boot camp: Perimeter Scholars International (PSI). This unique Master’s program seeks not only students with stellar undergraduate physics track records, but also those with diverse backgrounds, collaborative spirit, creativity, and other attributes that will set them apart as future innovators.

Features of the program include:

  • All student costs (tuition, living, travel) are covered, removing financial and/or geographical barriers to entry
  • Students learn from world-leading theoretical physicists – resident Perimeter researchers and visiting scientists – within the inspiring environment of Perimeter Institute
  • Collaboration is valued over competition; deep understanding and creativity are valued over rote learning and examination
  • PSI recruits worldwide: 85 percent of students come from outside of Canada
  • PSI takes calculated risks, seeking extraordinary talent who may have non-traditional academic backgrounds but have demonstrated exceptional scientific aptitude

Here’s the video advertisement which, if nothing else, should convince you that PI is awesome enough to have a publicity department:… [continue reading]

Dimopoulos proposes super lab for small experiments

Savas Dimopoulos gave a talk recently at Perimeter where he proposed building an institute to bring many small-scale, beyond-the-standard-model experiments under one roof. The claim is that experiments testing fundamental physics (new particles, forces, dimensions, etc.) would benefit from being near each other and related theorists than they would from being grouped with experiments using similar techniques but not probing fundamental physics (as they often are now). He starts the talk with some discussion of axions, the LHC, and some recent small-scale experiments. His proposal (“Super-lab”) begins at 1:05:37.

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