Why not doing research all the time can make you a better researcher

There we go, I figured out how to reblog I actually wanted to but failed doing so in my “Research career” notice.

In the Dark

Yesterday I read a nice little article in Nature about how doing something different from research every now and again can actually make you a better researcher. I agree with that completely, so thought I’d expand upon the theme with a few comments of my own. I think this is an issue of particular importance for early career researchers, as that is the stage at which good habits need to be established, so I will focus on PhD students.

The point is that a postgraduate research degree is very different from a programme of undergraduate study. For one thing, as a research student you are expected to work on your own a great deal of the time. That’s because nobody else will be doing precisely the same project so, although other students will help you out with some things, you’re not trying to solve the same problems as your peers…

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Research career

I am wondering more and more often in the recent times whether I want to do “pure physics” as some would say and leave science education and accessibility to others, whether I should do both scientific research and support SE, or occasionally I have a feeling I am not competent enough to do hard science therefore I should first and foremost focus on making science inclusive, only then start my own pure science life. Posts like this, help for youngsters like me at the beginning of their science career.
PS: I am trying to reblog a post, so if I don’t succeed and only my short post appears, I will try again.

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Confession

I need to confess as I might be doing more spelling, grammar and typing mistakes than it is acceptable at an online diary. I am going to keep applying censorship on my own words, correct errors when spotting them and also I would like to maintain a regular posting style, work permitted though I am afraid. Having said that, I wish the content is going to compensate the amount of language mistakes.

I will also strive to include more links in the future on things I am mentioning in a particular post. Thank you for your understanding and interest.

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Inclusive vs. Assistive Technology

The work to do the past couple of days forced me to put blogging aside for a moment, but now I shall grab the virtual pen again.
As I was editing a document the other day, I came across a larger paragraph discussing the needs, developments and existence of inclusive and assistive technology. What caught my attention after a while is the use of the forth mention phrases as synonyms . The document was actually written by somebody I know for a long time, fairly well I would say, i.e. myself.
Rethinking the whole concept and having a year more experience compared to the amount of insight I had 12 months ago, I would not use inclusive and assistive technology as anything that substitutes the other.
Probably there is an official definition of both terms, however I have never been a big fan of definitions. It is very subjective in my view how we define things, at least how we do so when it comes to concepts as such. I don’t necessarily have the same view on mathematical definitions for instance. Astronomy on the other hand might serve as a better illustration, since there has been some ongoing debate in the past, and presumably in the presence as well to some extend, on how to define stars, planets. What defines these sky objects? A star is what shines, something that has its own energy source, its size, radiative spectrum?  These days there should be a consistent picture but it was not always as clear.
Analogously, most certainly there is disagreement as of what classifies as IT or AT. In my personal view, I would say, assistive technology is an aid tool developed to assist people with special needs, to enable them to fulfill given tasks, roles. However, these technologies are exclusively made for the disabled community with no intention to serve abled people.
On the contrary my definition of inclusive technology is a gadget that is developed for the general public, keeping in mind the needs of all the individuals, let it be age specific, educational background specific, economic status, disability, nationality and so forth.
The best example for inclusive tech is again Apple’s products. It is difficult to avoid mentioning Apple when it comes to accessibility of modern technology. Although thinking about the digital era is always a good source of reference point, I could stick to the example of a chess board. Even though specially made boards are available for visually impaired, I never would think of using one. I am using the same wooden chess board since I was about 6 or so, and sighted. The pieces are very distinct, easy to move on the dark and light grid. Similar examples could be generated looking at kitchen facilities but I assume I made the point clear. The counter example on the other hand and a disappointing drawback of assistive technology is the set of “accessible version” of websites. Sometimes developers have the good will to help but no knowledge of what they really should be doing. Hence when they completed their web content for example, which turns out not to be useable with a TTS as a matter of fact,  these blessed people set up a brand new page with high contrast colours, larger font size, less graphics etc. Needless to say, this approach couldn’t be more harmful then anything else. As already said, and as I will keep protesting the idea, we have the technology and knowledge to make perfectly accessible websites, inclusive ones so to speak. All we would have to do is to follow carefully written guidelines such as, the WCAG 2.0
Of course, I am generalising now as some countries, typically western European and American states, do better than others. Worht mentioning though that we can not blame everything on developers. Most of the time they would be happy to help, only if they knew how, if they knew such guidelines existed. Thus, it is our responsibility to reach out, to educate. We don’t only want to develop new techniques and tools, utilities but also teach other how to apply these. No knowledge worth a penny if we don’t share it.

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We know why, but HOW? (part I.)

Before I start to lose more readers than gain new followers let me give a very brief, and far from incomplete but still conclusive overview on some technology that helps science education. I stated earlier it is important to notice the significance of substituting sight but it is not enough to only recognise the problem. We need to act, rather than just discuss and say heroic phrases.
The baseline of the challenges behind doing mathematical sciences, – or in actual fact any science that involves any form of mathematics such as physics, chemistry, astronomy but even psychology, economics, engineering and so on – is the scientific language. Language is the way we create, record, share and inherit knowledge throughout generations. Regardless the style of communication, the modality of conveying a piece of information, we do it by means of a system of symbols. Depending on the local culture of a geographic region humanity uses various signs to symbolise given thoughts. We can draw these symbols, we can verbalise these character strings, we can sing them, convert into body movements, a set of light fleshes and so on. Mathematics has its universal language across most cultures on Earth, but what it also has, a unique set of symbols to represent numerical information and the operations on those values.
Taking the most conventional and popular way of creating and distributing scientific knowledge i.e. writing and reading, we face the first problem. How do non-sighted people read and write? There are a number of ways, two of which are the use of touch or hearing. You can transcribe information into tactile formats, not necessarily braille dots but simple embossed shapes, or you can speak the information out loud. You can do it, I can do it, people near by can do it, we all are able to communicate applying touch or hearing. Now the second problem is to automate the process of converting visual text into tactile or spoken format. To maintain individuality, flexibility and time efficiency this is done using tireless machines. This immediately brings us to the third and original challenge. Machines don’t learn easily and have difficulties seeing what is written if it is something more complicated than text composed of Latin characters.
Mathematical language has two key features causing the trouble in automating the visual to tactile or auditory conversion.

  • It is full of special symbols implying an operation of some sort,
  • It is multidimensional.

What I mean by the latter characteristic is the variation on the notation of subscripts, superscripts, writing numbers on the top of each other not to mention objects like matrices, vectors, or the use of the Greek alphabet.
It is no easy task for a machine, nor for the developer and designer of that device to deal with the number of different symbols to be recognised, or how to render properly the various positional notation from a visual input to a verbal, auditory or tactile format.
And then we have only covered textual information so far ignoring graphical information which became inevitable in science since Descartes. Modern technology makes it possible to read and write standard text even if someone doesn’t see. There is also great progress in rendering the mathematical content and displaying it very interactively using synthetic speech or tactile surfaces. One of the remarkable efforts made is the standards introduced as MathML, which is a “linear” way of writing and communicating information on the internet, such that it offers a visually appealing output for sighted users, but also enables text-to-speech engines to process the language correctly. MathML is becoming more and more available and also it is supported by the most recent versions of screen readers such as Voice Over on Apple products, JAWS for Windows from Freedom Scientific or other programs with web browser plug-ins e.g. Design Science‘s software MathPlayer. The other remarkable project – that serves offline source support more effectively when it comes to reading and writing mathematical documents, is an initiative I am also involved in, called LaTeX Access.
Further more, for those of you who might be familiar with JAWS (Job Access With Speech) surely the virtual keyboard rings the bell. It helps inserting special characters not present on the physical keyboard into text. The idea is great and it is done but guess how many symbols you have in the list of choice! The answer is 17 in one particular version and if I remember correctly from the top of my head, 33 in an other version. Even this little selection appears to be composed of utterly useless symbols. After a years search I finally found a way how this list can be extended. So the plan is to add a few hundred more characters to it, including mathematical symbols and letters of foreign languages. I want to do what should have been done a long time ago by professional developers. The technology is there, we know how to do it, just a bit of time and effort is required to bring the most out of what we have so far. Of course when inserting those characters as an example, we have to make sure they can be also interpreted in a non-visual format. This was not the case with the Greek alphabet until two years ago. Figuring out how easy it would be to make the TTS engine announce alpha, beta, gamma and their friends, I worked it through, coded it and surprise-surprise my own computer learnt how to speak Greek letters in less than a day, making mathematical text much more understandable.
This is just one of the many similar simple examples. What I really want to emphasise is that very often all we need is some ingenuity, creativity and effort in using and further developing the technology we are already served with. Thus I am less concerned about making mathematical language accessible. Using MathML, LaTeX Access, Voice Over, JAWS, NV Access, MathPlayer, Infty Reader and a handful of more digital tools, we can make reading and writing of mathematical content more convenient for people who might just have lost their sight regardless of how well they are equipped with coding skills. I believe in the near future it will be a fairly resolved challenge. The technology required is there, facilities are in good development for rendering text and equations with a variety of notations, and also standards are spreading ensuring the existence of a unified system. Although we are at the beginning of a journey,
publishers of science books pay more and more attention to accessibility and great initiatives such as Bookshare become a reality. However, what concerns me much more is the access to scientific graphics. This is a topic for an other day but certainly worth mentioning.

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To see, or not to see.

Elaborating on the enthusiastic words of yesterday’s post, the thoughts I have in mind today are as projected below.
Even though studying and pursuing science can be difficult for people with various different disabilities, my special interest and focus at the moment concentrates on the visual aspect. Nature, and hence science is a rich set of  stimuli, most of which humans are tuned to perceive using their eyes.  Though libraries could be filled up with tons of books written on what vision is, technically speaking it is just a light-to-electricity transducer. Photons reflecting from surfaces collide with the retina, producing the signal our brain can process and forward to the “office” responsible for making decisions. This however, does not always work. If there are no photons to reflect, if there are no surfaces to reflect from, or if there is no retina to detect the incoming light. This can happen if you are blind, this can happen deep underground or in a case of an idealised black body with emissivity 0 for instance. Obviously, there are many more situations where vision can fail.
As already mentioned, my goal is not to create assistive ways of doing certain things but I want to teach human kind how to see without using our eyes. I don’t yet know how to do it, I only know this can be done if we give it a bit of effort and creativity. I want to teach a new skill to men, analogously to how we learnt to fly, how we can stay at the top of oceans, how to communicate over distances of the scale of the Solar system and so on. Why would the ability of seeing in the dark be any different from the forth mentioned skills? It isn’t, and we already made some progress by developing infrared cameras, X-ray technology, tactile figures, auditory descriptions etc. As the early example of Braille developing his system of communication in dark for the armed forces, we can continue to explore the numerous ways intelligent beings can access information. We are still a vision dominated culture because we didn’t find any equally sophisticated way of looking at the world surrounding us.
Two potential ways to take are computer vision with artificial intelligence or sensory substitution. None of these concepts are developed enough to serve as natural vision but with time and further knowledge one of the two will fulfill its premise . 
It is important to recognise the necessity of substituting natural vision not only to cope with blindness as we know it today or to overcome situations in which we can not rely on our eyes but also because nobody can guarantee  we always are going to see. If it wouldn’t be clear what I am suggesting here, I recommend you reading “The day of the Triffids” by John Wyndham. Although the novel probably qualifies to be science fiction, I never really thought why this couldn’t happen in reality. Not very likely indeed in the exact form as it has been described in the book but a variation of the theme is not unimaginable.  It is not a fancy tool that we desire by seeing in the dark but rather an essential skill to survive.
I have talked to a fair few people who lost their sight later in life and we can safely assert: the change of circumstances is enormous and is extremely challenging to cope with, to adapt, to get used to. Therefore the ultimate objective is to establish a stage of evolution in which it doesn’t really matter if you lose your sight the next day or not.

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Introduction of me, my ideology and this blog

If you look at the “About me” section of this set of articles, you will most probably find nothing. The reason for that is deep in the roots of the idea; it does not matter who I am. It does not matter what my name, age, gender is, that does not tell you a lot about me if you know I have long hair and green eyes. Similarly, it really doesn’t change much whether you know my nationality, profession, or the food, music I like. I would be too subjective and biased to introduce myself in words of descriptions, adjectives and attributes. Why don’t you tell me and retell others who I am, what I believe in, what I do, based on the things I say, think or in this case blog post.
I also wouldn’t want to write about me, simply because there are certainly more people thinking the same, remarkable way about the topics to be discussed at this WWW address.
To get to the point why I am actually writing this blog (which I never did before, so criticism in comments is very welcome), let me say a few words on SENSE.  Me and a handful of my friends, colleagues, research partners or supporters do believe science is key to human culture. Why that is I could detail in many pages. Instead, let me say only that science is one of the four pillars besides religion, arts and philosophy, nurturing humanity all the way from discovering fire to the global brain we call internet.
However, this is not the topic for today, nor it is the profile of this set of written thoughts. SENSE would like to promote the concept: science is for everyone who wants it.
Stephen Hawking said:

“Theoretical physics is one of the rare fields of science where no disability is a handicap”.

In my opinion, science really should be there fore everyone who enjoys it, who would like to solve its puzzles, for all the people being curious how nature works. Unfortunately, this is not so at the moment. People with special needs, especially those with sensory disabilities can not always have access to the techniques and knowledge libraries developed by our history.
Our goal is not to take the conventional route of making accessible the existing technologies, but rather shape our environment in a manner that it is by default accessible for all intelligent beings. We don’t want to build higher the pool of assistive technology developers, those who occasionally claim to do great when creating a new technology that speaks out loud at a crossroad to warn blind people: “Look right!”

No, instead we are determined to innovate and deliver technologies with the accompanying ideology, that is made for every single individual in a way that it also serves the abilities of people with different to conventional ways of interpreting the world around us.  As an example you can take Apple’s iPhone or Google’s self-driven car. Both of these are developed for the general public, still serving disabled people more than any exclusively produced assistive technology.
I believe no disability is a handicap in theoretical physics but nor it is going to be at any other field of science.

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