11 December 2014


Great illustration of normal modes in acoustics!

3 December 2014

What science is

I am not satisfied with most definitions of science I've seen so far, either essentialist or enumerative. I think the "social" definition below is much better:

1. Science is what scientists do [1].

It may not be very satisfying, but neither is it as glib as it first appears. Still, I believe it needs some precisions: obviously, not everything scientists do is science. This applies in private life (some scientists are atheists and others are deeply religious) but also to public attitudes: Johannes Stark was an authentic Nazi, but this does not prevent us from studying the Stark effect. Conversely, his scientific achievements do not render Nazism respectable. Then:

2 December 2014

CNRS positions - the 2015 campaign

[Updated with 2015 data]
The 2015 campaign for permanent research positions at the CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique) is officially open. The submission deadline is January 6th 2015. There are 212 open positions at the CR2 level (same as in 2014), 77 CR1 (+11), 253 DR2 (-26) and 2 DR1 (+2).

30 November 2014

Resources on creating scientific graphs

For the data analysis course I'm teaching these days, I've been looking into the best way of plotting the data (classical two-dimensional line or scatterplot). There are surprisingly few resources (or I am surprisingly bad at searching for them!)

The classics:

    The moderns:

    9 November 2014

    Good research practice

    The Ethics Committee of the CNRS has published (in French only, as far as I can see) a Guide for the promotion of truthful and responsible research.

    The guidelines are quite reasonable, but what drew my attention is the front cover: three ladies, a senior researcher, a more junior one and —probably— a PhD student or postdoc are huddled around a multi-well plate, each of them pointing at a different well. Note the micro-pipette in the foreground (shorthand for "this is a biology research lab"). Note also that the boss is in her street clothes and her bare hand is dangerously close to the samples. Maybe one should add to this guide rule 0.1: "Use appropriate protective equipment ?!"

    Borges and Nietzsche

    Borges was influenced by Nietzsche's ideas, in particular his "eternal return" (see The Doctrine of Cycles) and mentions him explicitly in some of his stories (e.g. Deutsches Requiem). What I have only recently realized is that Borges' story Funes the memorious (already mentioned in a previous post) is prefigured in Nietzsche's second Untimely Meditation1:

    Imagine the extremest possible example of a man who did not possess the power of forget­ting at all and who was thus condemned to see everywhere a state of becoming: such a man would no longer believe in his own being, would no longer believe in himself, would see everything flowing asunder in moving points and would lose himself in this stream of becoming: like a true pupil of Heraclitus, he would in the end hardly dare to raise his finger.

    Nietzsche's  has already been invoked in relation with Funes2, but as far as I can tell (I do not have access to the full text of the paper) only with respect to the difficulty of forming general concepts.

    1. Breazeale, D., & Hollingdale, R. J. (1997). Nietzsche: Untimely meditations. Cambridge University Press.
    2. Martin, C. W. (2006). Borges Forgets Nietzsche, Philosophy and Literature 30(1), 265-276.

    2 November 2014

    The politics of disgust

    Right in time for the midterm elections we hear that liberals and conservatives react differently to disgusting images. I find it very surprising, the more so because I have never been able to understand how a single variable can account for so many orthogonal issues (citing from the paper): pacifism/abortion rights/welfare spending/torture of terrorism suspects etc.

    28 October 2014

    Historical event

    This month, after nine years in my current (tenured) position, I finally earned more than the monthly income during my Göttingen postdoc (2002-2005).

    5 October 2014

    The veil of ignorance

    There is something disquieting about Rawls' veil of ignorance position: participants are supposed to set aside their status, their attributes and even their personality in order to found this ideal society, whose first principle enshrines the liberty of conscience and freedom of speech. There may not be a logical contradiction between the two, but I think there is an obvious moral one.

    4 October 2014

    A neural basis for readiness-to-hand ?

    Researchers in Munich discovered that there is a specific network in the brain for using tools (the paper appeared in The Journal of Neuroscience).
    Heidegger's concept of readiness-to-hand is arguably much more general than the motor skills involved in the use of familiar objects, but I like the idea of a neural basis for a philosophical concept.