Prestigious publication for 'sloppy' research

Nov 11, 2013
BYU physics professor Mark Transtrum

A new professor at Brigham Young University saw his research appear this week in Science magazine, one of the top scientific journals in the world.

BYU physics professor Mark Transtrum and researchers at Cornell present a theory about why scientific theories work despite generally "sloppy" components in scientific models.

"Nobody argues that science hasn't been successful at describing the physical world, but it's actually far more successful than it has any right to be," Transtrum said. "We're explaining why that is."

Take an incredibly complex system like a cell, for example. Despite practically endless possible combinations of variables, only a few variables end up predicting how the biological system will behave.

The researchers demonstrate that the same is true in physical systems, such as equations that calculate anything from to the diffusion of perfume in a room.

The call the key variables with predictive power "stiff" because they encapsulate the vital components of the system. They refer to the vast majority of variables in complex systems as "sloppy" because detailed measurements are unnecessary to see the big picture.

"In physics, the complications all condense into an emergent, simpler description," said James Sethna, a Cornell professor and lead study author. "In many other fields, this condensation is hidden – but it's still true that many details don't matter."

Explore further: Researchers find a way to predict 'dragon kings' in small circuits

More information: "Parameter Space Compression Underlies Emergent Theories and Predictive Models" is online: www.sciencemag.org/content/342/6158/604.abstract

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orti
1.3 / 5 (12) Nov 11, 2013
An excellent point. Few admit how empirical and tentative science is. It's an imperfect tool based on limited observation and always subject to revision. "This rule seems to work for the special cases when we were watching really closely so let's leave it at that for now and go on the next problem."
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Nov 11, 2013
refer to the vast majority of variables in complex systems as "sloppy" because detailed measurements are unnecessary to see the big picture.

I'd stress the 'big picture' part here - because the devil of interactions is often in the details (the 'sloppy variables'). Big picture science is important - but one should not construe this to mean that we should ignore the nitty-gritty stuff.

Despite practically endless possible combinations of variables, only a few variables end up predicting how the biological system will behave.

The 'endless combinations' are only seemingly endless - as the interrelation between factors does not allow to set them independently of one another (e.g. you can't just set the salinity of a cell interior at will and expect the pH value to remain a free variable)
Eoprime
1 / 5 (1) Nov 11, 2013
Pastello... hm sounds familiar, like natello..
And I was right. Found a Waterstrider-Comment, so just another Zephirpuppet. You should try to be more creative with your names.
HannesAlfven
1 / 5 (13) Nov 11, 2013
Re: "Nobody argues that science hasn't been successful at describing the physical world"

Actually, a close look at many of the more empirically-challenged domains suggest otherwise … After all, it remains an open question if constructs like dark matter and energy will ever be directly observed.

The more nuanced observation is that consensus appears to hold in spite of apparent uncertainty. And this is really just a byproduct of the way we train physicists today … Those who refuse to hop onto the established ideologies tend to get booted from the programs.

Re: "The researchers call the key variables with predictive power "stiff" because they encapsulate the vital components of the system. They refer to the vast majority of variables in complex systems as "sloppy" because detailed measurements are unnecessary to see the big picture."

It works at least until it doesn't, right? We still run into problems predicting the behavior of laboratory plasmas, even w the best supercomputers...