A Murder Over Mars: Did Johannes Kepler Poison Tycho Brahe?

The Planet Mars
The Planet Mars

An Unexpected Death

On October 13, 1601 the famous astronomer and astrologer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) — new friend, confidant, and adviser to the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, one of the most powerful men in Europe — became unexpectedly and gravely ill at a banquet in the Imperial capital of Prague.  Tycho was a colorful, athletic and brilliant Danish nobleman who had defied convention by taking a commoner as his wife and by pursuing the study of astronomy instead of the more common pastimes of his fellow nobles in Denmark which he pointedly disdained as frivolous and unimportant.

Tycho Brahe
Tycho Brahe

Tycho suffered horribly for about a week, seemed to begin recovering, and then died unexpectedly on October 24, 1601.   Tycho was noted for his good health and vigor.  His death came as a surprise to his family, friends, and colleagues.

The Imperial court was a hotbed of intrigue and filled with peculiar and often ambitious men who frequently worked with highly toxic chemicals: astrologers, alchemists and magicians in the employ of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) who hoped to unlock the secrets of the universe by funding a research program that might be called the Manhattan Project of its time.

From the start there were rumors Tycho had been poisoned and some suspected his assistant the young, equally brilliant mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler, remembered today as the author of Kepler’s Three Laws of Planetary Motion.

Tycho was buried with great pomp and circumstance in Prague on November 4, 1601 with some of his friends and colleagues making pointed aspersions in Kepler’s direction during the ceremonies.  In time, his beloved wife Kirsten Barbara Jørgensdatter was buried beside him.

Tycho and Kepler

By one year earlier (1600), Tycho had accumulated over a lifetime by far the most accurate measurements of the positions of the planets over time, especially the planet Mars thought by astrologers and kings to influence the occurrence and outcomes of wars and conflict. After years of lavish royal patronage in Denmark, Tycho had a falling out with the new king and fled to the mostly German-speaking Holy Roman Empire of Rudolf II.  Here with funding from Rudolf II he hoped to analyze his data and confirm his own novel theory of the solar system, the known universe at the time, in which the Earth was the center with the Sun and Moon orbiting the Earth and all the other planets orbiting the Sun.

Tycho hired the brilliant young up-and-coming astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) to analyze his data. Kepler hoped to use Tycho’s data to confirm his own Theory of Everything based on the hot new Sun-centered theory of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543).

Johannes Kepler (1610)
Johannes Kepler (1610)

Tycho and Kepler had a stormy working relationship until Tycho’s untimely death in 1601 which left Kepler with the access to Tycho’s data that he desired.  In the chaos accompanying Tycho’s death, Kepler quietly walked off with Brahe’s notebooks containing his data on Mars.  The ensuing controversy with Brahe’s family was eventually resolved more-or-less amicably, but in the mean time Kepler had the data he had sought.

In one of the great ironies of scientific history, Kepler proceeded to discover that his pet theory, the other variants of Copernicus’s Sun-centered system, the traditional Earth-centered system of Klaudius Ptolemy, and Tycho’s hybrid Earth-Sun centered system were all wrong, although he was never able to fully accept that the data ruled out his system as well.

The models were all mathematically equivalent although they had different physical interpretations.  All incorrectly assumed that the motions of Mars and the other planets were built up from uniform circular motion, the infamous epicycles.

Kepler’s analysis of Tycho’s data on the planet Mars took about five years — including his work in 1600 and 1601 when he had limited access to the full data set.  In 1605, while taking a break during the Easter Holiday, Kepler had his Eureka moment.  He realized that the orbit of Mars was elliptical with the Sun at one focus of the ellipse and that the speed of the planet varied inversely with distance from the Sun so that the plane swept out the same area in the same time.  These two insights are now known as Kepler’s First and Second Laws, and they ensured the fame of both Brahe and Kepler to the present day.

Did Kepler Murder Tycho?

In 1991, soon after the end of the Cold War, the National Museum in Prague gave a somewhat peculiar goodwill gift to Denmark, a small box with a six centimeter long sample of Tycho Brahe’s mustache hair, acquired years earlier when Tycho’s crypt was refurbished in 1901.  Tycho and his wife’s skeletons were examined and then reburied in 1901, but a few samples were taken and given to the National Museum in Prague.

The gift reopened the old question of whether Kepler or someone else had poisoned Tycho in 1601.  Kepler had been a seemingly deeply religious man who had given up a comfortable teaching job in Graz rather than abandon his Lutheran faith and convert to Catholicism.  He was later excommunicated from the Lutheran Church for publicly rejecting the Lutheran doctrine of ubiquity with no apparent gain to himself.  This latter doctrine was an esoteric theological issue nonetheless of paramount importance in the conflict between the Lutherans, Calvinists, and Catholics that would soon lead to the horrific Thirty Years War (1618-1648).

This same stubbornness in holding to his views and perhaps the jealousy of his colleagues had led Kepler into bitter clashes with Tycho and others during his career.  Could such a man have committed murder for the lucrative position of Imperial Mathematician in Rudolf II’s court, fame, or even a fanatical desire to extend human knowledge whatever the cost?

The hair from Tycho’s mustache was examined using modern forensic techniques by Bent Kaempe, Director of the Department of Forensic Chemistry at the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Copenhagen — one of the leading toxicologists in Europe, and potentially lethal levels of mercury detected.  Kaempe concluded that:

Tycho Brahe’s uremia can probably be traced to mercury poisoning, most likely due to Brahe’s experiments with his elixir 11-12 days before his death.

Mercury and mercury compounds, some extremely toxic, were widely used in alchemy.  Tycho himself used a mercury compound at low doses, potentially deadly at higher doses, for his health — following the alchemical ideas of Paracelsus (1493-1541): the elixir mentioned by Kaempe.

Some experts argued the mercury measurements demonstrated that  Tycho had been poisoned and murdered with a mercury compound.  Others suggested that the mercury was due to the embalming process or some other contamination of Tycho’s remains.

In 2004, journalists Joshua and Anne-Lee Gilder published a book Heavenly Intrigue: Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe, and the Murder Behind One of History’s Greatest Scientific Discoveries popularizing the theory that Kepler poisoned Tycho with mercuric chloride — based on the mercury measurements from Tycho’s mustache hair.

The controversy led to the exhumation of Tycho’s skeleton in 2010 in an attempt to settle the issue.  The analysis of Tycho’s remains seemingly ruled out lethal levels of mercury as the cause of death in 2012 and  seems to have been generally consistent with natural causes, a bladder infection.

The Limits of Forensic Science

After over four-hundred years, it seems unlikely that we will ever know for sure if Tycho Brahe was poisoned and, if so, by whom.  Even today, people in their fifties die unexpectedly from heart attacks and other causes at rates substantially higher than people in their twenties, thirties, and forties.  Medicine was very limited in Tycho’s time — often more dangerous than doing nothing in fact.  Modern sanitation measures were almost non-existent even at an Imperial court.

On the other hand, Rudolf II had recruited and gathered around himself in Prague some of the most brilliant, highly educated, ambitious, and strange men of his time, many experts like Tycho in toxic chemicals used in alchemy and medicine.  Many were probably familiar with plants and herbs available in Renaissance Europe, some of which could have been used as deadly poisons as well.  He offered these men enormous wealth at a time when most people in Europe lived in dire poverty.

Kepler’s own mother was accused of and convicted of witchcraft.  She was specifically accused of poisoning another woman with a magic potion.  Kepler himself was a highly educated and brilliant man. It is quite conceivable that he could have known much about poisons, perhaps even ones unknown or rarely used today.  He had close access to Tycho, his boss.

The mercury measurements of Tycho’s mustache hair is one of many examples of overconfidence in forensic science.  This overconfidence is often an explicit or implicit claim that forensic techniques — if done right — can give an absolutely certain or almost certain (for example, the one in many trillion odds often quoted for DNA matches in criminal cases) answer.

This false certainty is a claim made by governments, prosecutors, scientists who should know better, and many others.  It is heavily promoted in the popular media with television shows like CSI (2000-2015), Numb3rs (2005-2010), Quincy (1976-1983), blockbuster movies like Silence of the Lambs (1991), and many others.

Numerous cases in recent years have demonstrated the uncertainty of forensic methods in the real world.  These include the Brandon Mayfield case for fingerprint analysis, the questionable use of DNA “profiling” in the Amanda Knox murder case in Italy, the failure of DNA analysis in the Jaidyn Leskie case in Australia, and many more.

In the case of DNA, the astronomical DNA match odds frequently quoted by prosecutors are highly misleading because they do not include a valid statistical model for the probability of contamination of the samples in the field, at the crime scene by investigators, or at the forensic laboratory where the DNA match is performed.  Almost certainly the odds of a false match due to some sort of contamination scenario are much higher than the one in several trillion odds often cited by prosecutors.

Contamination in the field is a likely explanation for the mercury levels in Tycho’s mustache.  The mercury may have come from the embalming process.  Perhaps Tycho or someone near him somehow spilled some mercury compound on his mustache while he was ill and dying.  Tycho worked with and used mercury compounds frequently and they were likely present in his home.

The reality is that there is limited data in many crimes and possible crimes like Tycho’s death.  There are usually many interpretations possible for that data, some more likely than others, some improbable but not impossible.  In many cases, we don’t even know the prior probability of those interpretations.  In the case of Tycho, we don’t know the probability that his mustache was contaminated with mercury by embalming or some other cause.

Mathematically, we now know there are an infinite number of mathematical models that can match any finite set of data with a desired level of accuracy.  In an early example of this, Kepler was able to show that the traditional Ptolemaic Earth-centered model of the Solar System, the hot new Copernican Sun-centered model, and the hybrid model of Tycho were mathematically equivalent and matched the data equally well — predicting the future position of Mars in the Zodiac to about one percent accuracy, a few degrees.

Most of this infinity of mathematical models matching a finite data set are extremely complicated.  We typically throw out the more complicated models to get a finite set of arguably plausible choices.

Historically, this method of selecting mathematical models has proven remarkably powerful in physics and astronomy.  Kepler discovered that a simple mathematical model of non-uniform elliptical motion explained the seemingly extremely complex motions of Mars and the other planets.  Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, and others have repeated this success with other data and phenomena including gravitation, electromagnetism, and radioactive decay.

Many Model for the Same Data
Many Model for the Same Data

This infinity of possible mathematical models for a finite data set is the mathematical explanation for the many possible interpretations of the data from a crime scene.  Even if we exclude extremely complicated and implausible models and interpretations a priori, we are still typically left with a number of possibilities, notably including contamination scenarios with DNA and other forensic methods such as the measurements of the mercury in Tycho’s mustache hair.

The figure above illustrates the many models problem in a forensic context.  It shows a simulation with four simulated data points.  These data points could be, for example, the strength of a DNA signal or the mercury level in different parts of Tycho’s body.  The high point on the right is the mercury level in his mustache hair.  The problem is the level could be lower in his body — too low to cause death.  The other points could be measurements of the mercury level in various bones from his skeleton.

We don’t actually have the soft tissues where the putative poison would have done its deadly work.  These have decayed away.  The analyst must therefore infer the mercury level in those tissues over four hundred years ago from measurements today.  The red line represents, for example, the threshold for a lethal level of mercury in Tycho’s body.  Thus, depending on which model is chosen, mercury did or did not kill Tycho.  In reality the forensic analysis is often much more complex and difficult to perform than this simple simulated example and illustration.

In conclusion, the certainty or near certainty often claimed or implied in many forensic analyses is frequently illusory.

(C) 2017 John F. McGowan, Ph.D.

Credits

The image of the planet Mars is from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and is in the public domain.  It is a mosaic of images taken by observation satellites in orbit around Mars.  It shows the giant Valles Marineris canyon on Mars front and center.  It is one of the most popular images of Mars.

The image of Tycho Brahe is from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.

The image of Johannes Kepler is from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.

About the Author

John F. McGowan, Ph.D. solves problems using mathematics and mathematical software, including developing gesture recognition for touch devices, video compression and speech recognition technologies. He has extensive experience developing software in C, C++, MATLAB, Python, Visual Basic and many other programming languages. He has been a Visiting Scholar at HP Labs developing computer vision algorithms and software for mobile devices. He has worked as a contractor at NASA Ames Research Center involved in the research and development of image and video processing algorithms and technology. He has published articles on the origin and evolution of life, the exploration of Mars (anticipating the discovery of methane on Mars), and cheap access to space. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

Coding Bootcamps Closing

Hack Education has a good article on the recent closures of Dev Bootcamp and The Iron Yard, early high profile “coding bootcamps.”

“Why are Coding Bootcamps Going Out of Business?”

which has got some attention on Hacker News:  https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14831918

A couple comments on the article:

In my experience in the Silicon Valley, software developers/engineers/programmers almost always have at least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited non-profit university or college, mostly in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) field with CS (Computer Science) and EE (Electrical Engineering) the largest sub-groups.

I have personally never encountered a graduate from controversial for-profit schools like DeVry, University of Phoenix, etc. or a bootcamp.  Even developers with a solid work history but no bachelor’s degree seem to encounter a significant prejudice against them.

Yes, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of college and made it big in software, but they are rich kids who graduated from elite prep schools and then dropped out of Harvard.

The article has a brief line about a Haskell programmer making $250,000 in the Silicon Valley.  It is not clear if the author actually knows of a case like this.  If real, it is probably very unusual.

Top software engineers seem to be bringing in a base salary of around $150,000 in the Silicon Valley:

http://spectrum.ieee.org/view-from-the-valley/at-work/tech-careers/a-snapshot-of-software-engineering-salaries-at-silicon-valley-startups

There is always the question of stock options and RSU’s (restricted stock units) and cash bonuses which can sometimes boost the base salary significantly.

Keep in mind the Silicon Valley/San Francisco Bay Area is very expensive with some of the highest home prices and apartment rental rates in the United States.  The salaries are still attractive but not nearly as large as they sound if you are from an inexpensive region like Texas.

The bottom line is to be very cautious about paying large sums of money for coding bootcamps or other non-traditional education.

(C) 2017 John F. McGowan, Ph.D.

About the Author

John F. McGowan, Ph.D. solves problems using mathematics and mathematical software, including developing gesture recognition for touch devices, video compression and speech recognition technologies. He has extensive experience developing software in C, C++, MATLAB, Python, Visual Basic and many other programming languages. He has been a Visiting Scholar at HP Labs developing computer vision algorithms and software for mobile devices. He has worked as a contractor at NASA Ames Research Center involved in the research and development of image and video processing algorithms and technology. He has published articles on the origin and evolution of life, the exploration of Mars (anticipating the discovery of methane on Mars), and cheap access to space. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

The Accuracy of Fingerprint Identification in Criminal Cases

Fingerprint
Fingerprint

In the wake of the Brandon Mayfield case (2004) which raised serious questions about the accuracy of fingerprint identification by the FBI, the National Academy of Sciences was asked to perform a scientific assessment of the accuracy and reliability of latent fingerprint identification in criminal cases.  Initial results were published in:

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)

Bradford T. Ulery, 7733–7738, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1018707108

Accuracy and reliability of forensic latent fingerprint decisions

Bradford T. Ulery (a), R. Austin Hicklin (a), JoAnn Buscaglia (b),1, and Maria Antonia Roberts (c)

Edited by Stephen E. Fienberg, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, and approved March 31, 2011 (received for review December 16, 2010)

ABSTRACT

The interpretation of forensic fingerprint evidence relies on the expertise of latent print examiners. The National Research Council of the National Academies and the legal and forensic sciences communities have called for research to measure the accuracy and reliability of latent print examiners’ decisions, a challenging and complex problem in need of systematic analysis. Our research is focused on the development of empirical approaches to studying this problem. Here, we report on the first large-scale study of the accuracy and reliability of latent print examiners’ decisions, in which 169 latent print examiners each compared approximately 100 pairs of latent and exemplar fingerprints from a pool of 744 pairs. The fingerprints were selected to include a range of attributes and quality encountered in forensic casework, and to be comparable to searches of an automated fingerprint identification system containing more than 58 million subjects. This study evaluated examiners on key decision points in the fingerprint examination process; procedures used operationally include additional safeguards designed to minimize errors. Five examiners made false positive errors for an overall false positive rate of 0.1%. Eighty-five percent of examiners made at least one false negative error for an overall false negative rate of 7.5%. Independent examination of the same comparisons by different participants (analogous to blind verification) was found to detect all false positive errors and the majority of false negative errors in this study. Examiners frequently differed on whether fingerprints were suitable for reaching a conclusion.

http://www.pnas.org/content/108/19/7733.full

Authors

Bradford T. Ulery

(a) Noblis, 3150 Fairview Park Drive, Falls Church, VA 22042;

R. Austin Hicklin (a) Noblis, 3150 Fairview Park Drive, Falls Church, VA 22042;

JoAnn Buscaglia (b) Counterterrorism and Forensic Science Research Unit, Federal Bureau of Investigation Laboratory Division, 2501 Investigation Parkway, Quantico, VA 22135; and

Maria Antonia Roberts (c) Latent Print Support Unit, Federal Bureau of Investigation Laboratory Division, 2501 Investigation Parkway, Quantico, VA 22135

Whether a 0.1 percent false positive rate is “small” is a subjective value judgement. Would you drive across a bridge that had a 1 in 1000 (0.1 percent) chance of collapsing and killing you as you drove across it? No, probably not.

In addition, the 0.1 percent false positive rate is based on a small sample of less than 1000 test cases, 744 pairs of latent and exemplar fingerprints. The Federal fingerprint databases such as the ones used in the Brandon Mayfield case have millions of people in them and may eventually have all US citizens (over 300 million people) in them. How does this “small” rate extrapolate when a fingerprint is compared to every fingerprint in the US or the world?

One might wonder why such an assessment was not done a long time ago.

This is a report on the Brandon Mayfield case:

https://oig.justice.gov/special/s0601/exec.pdf

The National Research Council also published a detailed report Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward in 2009 addressing the scientific issues raised by the Mayfield case and other questions about the scientific validity of forensic science methods.

Fingerprint identification: advances since the 2009 National Research Council report by Christophe Campod (Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2015 Aug 5; 370(1674): 20140259.
doi: 10.1098/rstb.2014.0259) has a summary of work on the issue since the 2009 National Research Council Report.

The bottom line is fingerprints are much more accurate than random chance but hardly infallible as used to be widely believed.

(C) 2017 John F. McGowan, Ph.D.

Credits

The fingerprint image is from the United States National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) by way of Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.

About the Author

John F. McGowan, Ph.D. solves problems using mathematics and mathematical software, including developing gesture recognition for touch devices, video compression and speech recognition technologies. He has extensive experience developing software in C, C++, MATLAB, Python, Visual Basic and many other programming languages. He has been a Visiting Scholar at HP Labs developing computer vision algorithms and software for mobile devices. He has worked as a contractor at NASA Ames Research Center involved in the research and development of image and video processing algorithms and technology. He has published articles on the origin and evolution of life, the exploration of Mars (anticipating the discovery of methane on Mars), and cheap access to space. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

 

Microsoft Layoffs and STEM Shortage Claims (2009-2017)

Bill Gates
Bill Gates at the World Economic Forum in 2012

Microsoft and its former CEO and founder Bill Gates are prominent in claiming that there is a severe shortage of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) workers in the United States.  Bill Gates testified on this claim to the House Committee on Science and Technology in 2008.

I know we all want the U.S. to continue to be the world’s center for innovation. But our position is at risk. There are many reasons for this but two stand out. First, U.S. companies face a severe shortfall of scientists and engineers with expertise to develop the next generation of breakthroughs. Second, we don’t invest enough as a nation in the basic research needed to drive long-term innovation.

Bill Gates

Remarkably, Microsoft appears to have laid off about 35,000 of these allegedly rare, difficult to find STEM workers since 2008, with even more planned layoffs announced a few weeks ago.

Microsoft Layoffs

In January 2009, Microsoft announced planned layoffs of 5,000 employees, about five (5) percent of its workforce over the next eighteen months.

In July 2014, Microsoft announced layoffs of 18,000 employees.  Most of these employees, reportedly about 12,500, were part of the Nokia mobile phone division, many in Finland.  In 2015 Finland students were ranked sixth (6th) worldwide in math and science compared to the United States twenty-eighth (28th).  In 2001 Finland was tops in the PISA international tests.  The engineers and other STEM workers laid off by Microsoft would have been educated in Finland’s schools in the early 00’s when Finland was at or near the top.

In July 2015, Microsoft announced layoffs of 7,800 employees, also mostly related to Nokia.

In May 2016, Microsoft announced layoffs of about 2,000 employees, including about 1300 from Nokia.

In July 2016, Microsoft announced layoffs of about 2,850 employees.

In July 2017 (a few weeks ago) Microsoft confirmed reports of planned layoffs without confirming reports that about 3,000 employees would lose their jobs, primarily in sales.

Thus, Microsoft appears to have laid off about 35,000 employees with more cuts likely in the coming year since Bill Gates testimony to the House Committee on Science and Technology.  Microsoft reported to the SEC that it had about 114,000 full time employees in 2016.

Stack and Rank

Up until 2013, Microsoft overtly practiced a stack and rank employment system where employees were graded on a curve compared to co-workers and “low performers” apparently laid off or fired.  This stack and rank system was the subject of a highly critical article in Vanity Fair by Kurt Eichenwald in July 2012 which probably contributed to the decision to shelve the system.  It is unclear how many allegedly difficult to find and replace STEM workers were laid off, fired or constructively discharged due to stack ranking.

Microsoft has been sued over allegedly using stack ranking to discriminate against female employees.

Microsoft like other industry leaders such as Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon is noted for being extremely picky about who it even interviews for jobs and for a grueling, highly demanding interview process.  Nonetheless, Microsoft appears to have had a policy of laying off a certain percentage of these highly qualified STEM workers every year despite repeatedly claiming to have great difficulty in finding these same STEM workers!

Conclusion

Microsoft is not alone in announcing sizable layoffs at the same time that it claims a STEM worker shortage.  Many other  large STEM worker employers do the same thing.  In an exchange on Bloomberg TV in August 2014 interviewer Alix Steel confronted industry funded “immigration reform” PAC FWD.us then chief Joe Green on the inconsistency between numerous layoff announcements and the shortage claims.  His answer was especially unconvincing and he soon resigned as chief of FWD.us probably at the behest of his friend and colleague Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

It is difficult to know what to make of this.  On a short term quarterly basis replacing a highly experienced and more expensive STEM worker with a less experienced, cheaper, more error prone STEM worker is likely to make the quarterly and sometimes annual earnings numbers look better.  However, there is a reason more experienced STEM workers are on average more expensive than less experienced STEM workers.  Some problems simply require more experience to solve; two less experienced STEM workers is not always equivalent to one more experienced STEM worker.

I personally don’t doubt that these bizarre hiring and employment practices have seriously negative consequences in the longer term.  Many of Kurt Eichenwald’s unnamed sources in his Vanity Fair article on Microsoft’s stack and rank employment system blamed the system for Microsoft’s faltering fortunes.  Would Microsoft not have been better off reassigning its highly skilled workers in Finland to new projects?

Nonetheless, despite the STEM shortage claims and despite what seems like common sense, many major STEM worker employers like Microsoft continue to lay off, fire, or constructively discharge large numbers of the qualified STEM workers they claim they want.

(C) 2017 John F. McGowan, Ph.D.

Credits

The picture of Bill Gates at the World Economic Forum 2012 in Davos, Switzerland is from the World Economic Forum by way of Wikimedia Commons.  It is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

About the author

John F. McGowan, Ph.D. solves problems using mathematics and mathematical software, including developing gesture recognition for touch devices, video compression and speech recognition technologies. He has extensive experience developing software in C, C++, MATLAB, Python, Visual Basic and many other programming languages. He has been a Visiting Scholar at HP Labs developing computer vision algorithms and software for mobile devices. He has worked as a contractor at NASA Ames Research Center involved in the research and development of image and video processing algorithms and technology. He has published articles on the origin and evolution of life, the exploration of Mars (anticipating the discovery of methane on Mars), and cheap access to space. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

 

The Problems with STEM Shortage Claims

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) shortage claims are claims that there is a current or projected shortage of STEM workers in the United States and sometimes worldwide.  These claims are promoted by large employers of STEM workers in private industry, academia, and the government.  In the last few years the claims tend to be focused on a particular subset of STEM workers: programmers, software engineers, and other “technology” workers, where “technology” is implicitly equated with “computer technology.”

STEM Workers: Computer Science Pioneers Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie

A high profile example of these claims can be found in venture capitalist Marc Andreesen’s widely cited Wall Street Journal article “Why Software is Eating the World” (August 20, 2011):

Secondly, many people in the U.S. and around the world lack the education and skills required to participate in the great new companies coming out of the software revolution. This is a tragedy since every company I work with is absolutely starved for talent. Qualified software engineers, managers, marketers and salespeople in Silicon Valley can rack up dozens of high-paying, high-upside job offers any time they want, while national unemployment and underemployment is sky high. This problem is even worse than it looks because many workers in existing industries will be stranded on the wrong side of software-based disruption and may never be able to work in their fields again. There’s no way through this problem other than education, and we have a long way to go.

(Emphasis added)

Andreesen is far from an isolated instance of these claims.  For example, in his testimony to the House Committee on Science and Technology in 2008, former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates claimed:

I know we wall want the U.S. to continue to be the world’s center for innovation. But our position is at risk. There are many reasons for this but two stand out. First, U.S. companies face a severe shortfall of scientists and engineers with expertise to develop the next generation of breakthroughs. Second, we don’t invest enough as a nation in the basic research needed to drive long-term innovation.

(Emphasis added)

Ironically, Microsoft, a highly profitable company, announced several thousand layoffs of its highly qualified and presumably difficult to replace employees a few months later.  Both Bill Gates and Microsoft have been prominent in claiming shortages of qualified technology workers since 2009 even as Microsoft has announced a series of major layoffs of presumably highly qualified technology workers.  Microsoft announced another round of about 3,000 layoffs a few weeks ago (July 2017).

Rising Above the Gathering Storm

In 2005, the COMMITTEE ON PROSPERING IN THE GLOBAL ECONOMY OF THE 21ST CENTURY produced a widely cited report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future” under the auspices of the National Research Council (NRC) promoting similar claims.  The committee members were:

NORMAN R. AUGUSTINE (Chair), Retired Chairman and CEO, Lockheed Martin Corporation, Bethesda, MD

CRAIG R. BARRETT, Chairman of the Board, Intel Corporation, Chandler, AZ

GAIL CASSELL, Vice President, Scientific Affairs, and Distinguished Lilly Research Scholar for Infectious Diseases, Eli Lilly and Company, Indianapolis, IN

STEVEN CHU, Director, E. O. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA

ROBERT M. GATES, President, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX

NANCY S. GRASMICK, Maryland State Superintendent of Schools, Baltimore, MD

CHARLES O. HOLLIDAY, JR., Chairman of the Board and CEO, DuPont Company, Wilmington, DE

SHIRLEY ANN JACKSON, President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY

ANITA K. JONES, Lawrence R. Quarles Professor of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA

JOSHUA LEDERBERG, Sackler Foundation Scholar, Rockefeller University, New York, NY

RICHARD LEVIN, President, Yale University, New Haven, CT C. D.

(DAN) MOTE, JR., President, University of Maryland, College Park, MD

CHERRY MURRAY, Deputy Director for Science and Technology, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, CA

PETER O’DONNELL, JR., President, O’Donnell Foundation, Dallas, TX

LEE R. RAYMOND, Chairman and CEO, Exxon Mobil Corporation, Irving, TX

ROBERT C. RICHARDSON, F. R. Newman Professor of Physics and Vice Provost for Research, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

P. ROY VAGELOS, Retired Chairman and CEO, Merck, Whitehouse Station, NJ

CHARLES M. VEST, President Emeritus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA

GEORGE M. WHITESIDES, Woodford L. & Ann A. Flowers University Professor, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

RICHARD N. ZARE, Marguerite Blake Wilbur Professor in Natural Science, Stanford University, Stanford, CA

Nearly all of the committee members were current or former top executives, frequently the CEO, of major employers of STEM workers, public and private.

The committee followed up with another report in 2010 “Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5.”  Category 5 is a reference to the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale in which the highest classification Category 5 is reserved for extreme storms with winds exceeding 156 miles per hour.

Rising Above the Gathering Storm, like most reports of this type (there are many), called for more STEM teachers, more STEM students, more visas for STEM worker immigrants and guest workers strongly implying a major shortage of STEM workers in the United States.

Ironically the report starts with a claim that appears grossly inconsistent with this,  a quote from Nobel Laureate Julius Axelrod (Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Preface, Page ix):

Ninety-nine percent of the discoveries are made by one percent of the scientists.

Julius Axelrod, Nobel Laureate

It is manifestly unclear why more scientists and more funding for science is needed if ninety-nine percent accomplish almost nothing.  Why indeed not eliminate the nearly useless 99 percent and the 99 percent of funding that they consume?  Federal R&D funding is over $100 billion per year.  Why not free up over $99 billion to fund other more productive activities?  🙂

STEM shortage claims have a long history

STEM shortage claims predate the acronym STEM by many decades.  STEM shortage claims date back at least to the early days of the Cold War, when much of the focus was on physics and physicists.   Then, as now, the STEM shortage claims often involve an alleged existential threat to the nation.

Professor David Kaiser of MIT, a physicist turned historian of science, has written a number of articles and given a number of presentations on the Cold War physics and STEM claims, notably “TOIL, TROUBLE, AND THE COLD WAR BUBBLE: PHYSICS AND THE ACADEMY SINCE WORLD WAR II” at the Perimeter Institute in 2008.

In recent years, the STEM shortage claims tend to focus on computer science and software engineering rather than physics, although claims of this type are common for almost all forms of STEM work.

STEM shortage claims have many highly qualified critics

The claims have been questioned and challenged by a large number of academics, journalists and others for many years including Michael S. Teitelbaum (Senior Research Associate at the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School), Norman Matloff (Professor of Computer Science at UC Davis), Peter Cappelli (George W. Taylor Professor of Management,  Wharton Business School, University of Pennsylvania),  Paula Stephan (Professor of Economics at Georgia State University),  Ron Hira (Associate Professor, Howard University), Patrick Thibodeau (a Senior Editor at Computerworld), Robert N. Charette of the IEEE and author of “The STEM Crisis is a Myth,” and many others.

I have written many critical articles on the claims including “STEM Shortages, Purple Squirrels, and Leprechauns,”  “STEM Shortage Claims and Facebook’s $19 Billion Acquisition of WhatsApp”,  and “The Corinthian Colleges Scandal, STEM Shortage Claims, and Minorities.”  The last includes a lengthy discussion of Microsoft’s numerous layoffs in the comments section.

STEM shortage claims are closely connected to, although logically separate from, calls for increased immigration and guest worker visas such as the controversial H1-B visa.  The claims are also closely connected to, though again logically separate from, claims that education in the United States is poor both in absolute terms and compared to other nations such as Finland and calls for “school reform” often promoted by extremely wealthy individuals such as former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and others.

STEM shortage claims are confusing

STEM shortage claims are surprisingly difficult to pin down.  The crux of the issue is what exactly constitutes a qualified STEM worker (software engineer, scientist,…)?

Many claims seem to imply a shortage of STEM workers with critical basic skills taught at the K-12 level such as basic arithmetic, algebra, AP Calculus, basic programming skills taught in AP Computer Science and other introductory CS courses (or for that matter learned programming a game on your laptop in Python or Java, a popular activity among STEM students who never take AP Computer Science).

Obviously, the tens of thousands of highly qualified engineers and other STEM workers laid off by Microsoft since 2008 have these K-12 skills in spades.  Indeed many of the highly qualified engineers laid off by Microsoft were from Finland which has consistently scored top or near the top in the international comparisons of K-12 skills frequently cited in STEM shortage claims.  So apparently this is not the STEM shortage referred to by Microsoft and Bill Gates.

Similarly, many older — over thirty-five, even over thirty sometimes — software engineers and other STEM workers report surprising difficulties finding jobs, a fair number leaving the STEM fields every year.  Again there is little question these candidates have the K-12 level STEM skills and much more.

When pressed about these obvious inconsistencies, spokesmen for STEM employers will generally begin to claim they mean a shortage of very specific skills such as years of paid experience developing first person shooter apps for the iPhone (IOS) in Objective C (C++ on Android won’t cut it!) and often that they mean a shortage of the very best STEM workers — along the lines of the elite one percent in the Axelrod quote  from the Rising Above the Gathering Storm report above.  Often, years of specialized experience in narrowly defined skills and being the very best are implicitly conflated in these revised STEM shortage claims.

What do the STEM employers really want?

Yet, do the employers actually want either the candidates with years of specialized experience or the very best or both as they claim?  There are some high profile rejections of candidates who would seem to meet these criteria such as Facebook’s infamous turndown of Brian Acton who went on to found WhatsApp which Facebook then acquired for $19 billion.

In recent years, many employers are noted for quizzing candidates about introductory data structures and algorithms taught in college CS courses rather than advanced specific skills learned on the job.  This has spawned a large number of interview practice books, courses and programs such as Gayle Laakmann McDowell’s Cracking the Coding Interview.

It is difficult to see how these introductory questions would reliably identify the specialized skills learned on the job such as iPhone app programming that are often listed in job descriptions and cited in defenses of STEM hiring practices.  Can these tests really identify the very best candidates either?  More likely they identify candidates who have spent many hours drilling on the questions in books like Cracking the Coding Interview.

STEM shortage claims are highly questionable.  For sure, there is no shortage of K-12 level STEM skills in the United States and probably world wide.  Indeed, the actual hiring practices of STEM employers suggest they are often not interested in the specialized skills they claim to seek when confronted about refusing to hire, laying off, or firing seemingly highly qualified engineers and other STEM workers.

Is the real problem a STEM worker shortage or excessively picky, irrational, discriminatory and ultimately costly hiring and employment practices?

(C) 2017 John F. McGowan, Ph.D.

Credits

The picture of Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie is from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.

About the Author

John F. McGowan, Ph.D. solves problems using mathematics and mathematical software, including developing gesture recognition for touch devices, video compression and speech recognition technologies. He has extensive experience developing software in C, C++, MATLAB, Python, Visual Basic and many other programming languages. He has been a Visiting Scholar at HP Labs developing computer vision algorithms and software for mobile devices. He has worked as a contractor at NASA Ames Research Center involved in the research and development of image and video processing algorithms and technology. He has published articles on the origin and evolution of life, the exploration of Mars (anticipating the discovery of methane on Mars), and cheap access to space. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

 

 

A Personal Note: Break-in

Someone broke into my storage locker in Mountain View (best known as Google’s home town) over the past weekend.  I was notified but was not able to take a look until this morning.  Fortunately, so far, nothing appears to have been taken or damaged.  I don’t of course keep anything valuable, important, or that I cannot afford to lose in my storage locker.

About a dozen lockers, several neighboring lockers on the same floor and several on another floor with the same locker numbers for that floor, were reportedly broken into at the same time.

Many boxes were thrown about and cut or torn open, but nothing appears (so far) to have been taken or damaged.  Supposedly the most common motive for locker break-ins is to get personal financial records related to bank accounts and other financial accounts as a step to gaining access to the money in the accounts.  I don’t keep any personal records like that in my locker for that and other similar reasons.

While it does not look like I was personally targeted, it still leaves an uneasy feeling!  One cannot be sure.  🙁

The picture below shows the boxes strewn about when I opened the locker this morning.  They were neatly stacked and packed together in one corner before.  Many of the smaller boxes and some of the larger ones were torn or cut — mostly cut — open.

Post Break-in Locker Contents
Post Break-in Locker