Posts Tagged ‘Experimental science’

Soilless Farming and “Re”search

In Education, Engineering Principles, Research and Development on June 25, 2013 at 12:12 AM

When I started my PhD, my supervisor, among other things, told me that research is also revisiting the existing concepts and examining them. It is not always about plucking a blue-sky idea from nowhere or dreaming up something like that out of nowhere. That is why it is called “re”search. Based on my experience over the last few years, I now firmly believe in what he said. Very often we try to come up with an idea that we want to sound extraordinary. We want to come up with something that inspires awe and gaze. Nothing wrong in that, except that looking at the history of technological evolution, it can be seen that ideas and technologies that have been considered ground breaking and have held us in thrall, have often come up revisiting the existing concepts. Of course there are those which were the results of serendipity, for instance the discovery of penicillin. But that is not the topic of this post.

By examining closely what is considered common knowledge or given fact, people have made breakthroughs. Agriculture has long been associated with soil based farming. In fact, we seldom talk about agriculture without associating quality of soil with it. Agriculture, as we have known over thousands of years, cannot be practised without soil. However, Dr. Yuichi Mori, a professor in Japan, has re-examined the role of soil and realized that soil can be replaced by a suitable membrane that can provide nutrients to plants and physical support for roots to grow. This is “soil-less agriculture“. His company Mebiol markets the technology called Imec. Not only the technology does not need soil, the hydroponic membrane stores water and nutrients leading to need for less water for plant growth. The membrane may also block some pathogens that cause plant diseases. Field trials have shown that tomatoes, cucumber etc. can be easily grown and grown this way they in fact taste better and richer in nutrients. You can watch his TEDxTokyo talk here.

Amazing, isn’t it? Now I can safely try to grow some of these if I were to live in a land scarce country or in a high rise apartment! Interestingly, the earliest documentary proof of the idea of soil-less agriculture can be found in 1627 book Sylva Sylvarum by Francis Bacon with follow up research by some people over the next few centuries. However, Mebiol is the first company to come up with a technology that can be commercialized.

PhD vs Work Experience: The Perennial Debate

In Education, Engineering Principles, Intellectual Property, Research and Development on March 9, 2013 at 11:35 PM

Those of you who have ever considered doing a PhD or getting a higher technical degree would have definitely come across this debate on PhD vs work experience. One can find so many articles and opinion posts on this subject. Many of us tend to evaluate PhD and work experience by replacing one with the other. Setting aside financial considerations, we tend to evaluate these two experiences by examining the worth of each when replaced by the other. I think that this approach is improper. PhD  and work experience can be/made to be complimentary to each other. Not all work experiences are of high quality and same is the case with PhD granting institutions. Not all companies are alike just the way standards differ across institutions of higher learning. I would not be debating the pros and cons of PhD or of work experience in this post as that subject merits far greater analysis than what I can put in a blog post. However, taking a broader view, I would say that a PhD program lets you get out of your comfort zone and explore complex, unbounded problems which could be fundamental or applied in nature. It teaches you to learn, examine (and re-examine), critique, argue and persuade using facts and figures. Its not that there are no corporate jobs where one cannot learn these very things. But they are far and few and the degree to which you need to exercise your brain varies across them. As an example, you can be a great lawyer, corporate, civil or criminal, but being a great lawyer is different from being able to comment, analyse, contribute to the very subject of jurisprudence which gives rise to all judicial activities. Another example: you can be an excellent system on chip architect, but being able to get into the depth of power integrity analysis is a different story. Of course you can be a great power integrity analysis engineer too who can apply all sorts of engineering tricks to perform clean power integrity analysis but you need not be able to comment, analyse or examine the principles on which power integrity analysis is based to the same depth as a typical  PhD degree holder would do. The point I am trying to make is that “there is space and need for both kinds of experiences“. They need not be present  to the same degree in one single person. The utility of a PhD and that of work experience depends on many factors. At the end of the day, you do a PhD because you want to explore, find new things or just sit back and critically reflect on the existing things because other people are  busy meeting the demands of the market which has its own challenges!

Experiments in Computer Science/Engineering?

In Design Methodologies, Education, Embedded Systems on February 1, 2013 at 1:35 AM

A friend of mine, who is doing a project on implementing various image processing algorithms (like edge detection, adding colors etc.), was asked by the concerned supervisor to conduct experiments as part of the work. This friend then asked me what the supervisor meant by experiments in this particular case. I was taken aback initially because I had not come across the term experiment being associated with computer science/engineering in a case where the principal job was to implement some algorithms  already developed by someone else and package the implementation as a software. Here, there is no hypothesis to be tested which is an integral part of any experimental science or approach! If the student’s job had been to choose an edge detection algorithm for implementation, by controlled experiments using different kinds of edge detection techniques on the same kind of workload, then that would have  qualified as an experiment.

Nevertheless, I made some suggestions: examine the execution time of the developed software package as the input image size changes; test if there is any dependency based on the image format; test the performance (visual perception of quality of result, execution time) as the amount of information varies across images ( for example an image with a few straight lines/curves with a few orientations vs. an image with hundreds of straight lines/curves with varying orientations). I do not know if the concerned supervisor meant this or something else or the term was used in a loose way to refer to software testing.

However, I decided to explore this topic a little bit more. I found that Stanford University has a graduate level course titled Designing Computer Science Experiments. An excellent paper on what is experimental computer science by Peter J. Denning, a former ACM President, was published in 1980 and can be found here. A good repository of resources is maintained by Prof. Dror Feitelson of Hebrew University, Israel here. Researchers in the field of computer architecture theorize (make a hypothesis) and do a lot of experiments to test their theory.  For instance, people work on different kinds of FPGA architectures to see their benefits and drawbacks. The essential point is that in an experimental approach, one states a hypothesis, conducts experiments and then analyzes the data generated as a result of experiments to test the hypothesis.