When Laws of Nature must concede to the Laws of Metre

Here is a wonderful anecdote about Charles Babbage: he sent the following letter to Lord Alfred Tennyson about an factual imprecision in his poem “The Vision of Sin” in the following couplet:

Every minute dies a man,
Every minute one is born

I need hardly point out to you that this calculation would tend to keep the sum total of the world’s population in a state of perpetual equipoise, whereas it is a well-known fact that the said sum total is constantly on the increase.

I would therefore take the liberty of suggesting that in the next edition of your excellent poem the erroneous calculation to which I refer should be corrected as follows:

Every minute dies a man,
And one and a sixteenth is born

I may add that the exact figures are 1.167, but something must, of course, be conceded to the laws of metre.

Babbage reveals himself not only as the superior poet by being faithful to truth as the highest inspiration, but also as a superior scientist by respecting the limits of his craft.

Sorry, got it wrong:

Babbage reveals himself not only as the superior scientist by being faithful to truth as the highest inspiration, but also as a superior poet by respecting the limits of his craft.



Against Beauty II

This blog just recently celebrated its first year anniversary!

In my first post, Against Beauty, I’ve argued that beauty is not likely a good criterion for scientific theories.

It is just telling, that now a year later I came across a quote from one of my heroes – Ludwig Boltzmann:

If you are out to describe the truth, leave elegance to the tailor.

— Ludwig Boltzmann

Incidentally, Lisa Randall talks along similar lines in a recent episode of the On Being podcast:

[…] you can frame things so that they seem more beautiful than they are, or less beautiful than they are. For science to be meaningful, you want to have as few ingredients as possible to make as many predictions as possible with which you can test your ideas. So I think that’s more the sense — I think that’s what people are thinking of. And simplicity, by the way, isn’t always beauty.

While I agree with the beauty part, I’m of different opinion on the ultimate role of simplicity in evaluating scientific theories (understood here as the Kolmogorov-Chaitin complexity of the given model).

As we learn more about the universe we necessarily will have to abandon effective theories that are “human readable”. The world is too complex, to be describable by human-mind-sized models.

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

— H. L. Mencken

Beauty and simplicity are often conflated – I’m also not always clear on which one I mean).

My current thinking is that if we consider beauty of a theory to be the ratio of the model’s explanative (predictive) power to its Kolmogorov length, then this will remain a relevant model selection criterion.

But I think, that ultimately we will have to say goodbye to the notion that the Kolmogorov complexity of models is not allowed to cause a stack overflow in human brains.

Replication problems: pre-socratic edition

It seems replication problems are nothing new in science:

Fortunately twitter also suggests a light at the end of the tunnel:

You might also recall an alternative solution – Kahneman’s daisy-chain replication proposal.