I know I rag on physicists sometimes, but you’ve got to stop making it so easy

God damn it.

This is true, mostly. It’s the University of Illinois, and it was a physicist and a bioengineering professor (who had also done some ecological modeling) who came up with the model.

Physicist Nigel Goldenfeld and bioengineering Professor Sergei Maslov, who developed models of the disease for the state and campus, said they think cases can be kept to a level that can be traced and won’t overwhelm the hospital system.

They also used a grossly simplified model of human interactions, which they claim was a “worst-case scenario”. It wasn’t.

“We did not model the friendship social networks of the students when they go outside and socialize in bars and restaurants,” he said. “So our calculation is, in fact, a worst-case scenario, because we assume more mixing outside of the university.”

Here’s an absolutely classic physicist comment from back in March.

For them, transitioning to epidemiology was easy. “The equations that describe epidemics are simplified versions of ones that describe ecology,” says Goldenfeld. For the COVID-19 model, they chose equations that echoed models of predator and prey.

So…epidemiology is easy, they just had to strip out a lot of complicating factors, and then adapt a general ecology model that isn’t actually appropriate here. In other words, they imagined a spherical frictionless undergraduate, made a model that they liked, and then — JESUS FUCKING CHRIST — got the ear of the governor of Illinois and set the policy for whole state.

And now

Parties, gatherings and “irresponsible and dangerous” behavior has led to a spike of nearly 800 coronavirus cases on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus, school officials said, and the university is cracking down.

On Wednesday, the university announced 780 new coronavirus cases on the campus, the Chicago Tribune reported. The campus is now implementing mandatory testing twice a week for all students.

You know, you could have listened to epidemiologists, who actually have some specific expertise in this sort of thing.


  1. rrhain says

    To be fair, none of the physicists I know would have dared to pretend that they had the ability to speak on the subject of epidemiology.

    But then again, all the physicists I know went to Harvey Mudd and we understand the importance of not speaking outside your area of expertise. It’s part of the philosophy of the school. You don’t earn a mechanical engineering degree from Mudd. Your degree is in general engineering and you are required to take coursework across all the various sub-fields. You will concentrate in a particular area, but you must become somewhat familiar with other types of engineering.

    Because your actions in one type of engineering will have consequences in other fields. You won’t be an expert in those other fields (that’s why you work on a team so that other people who do have that expertise can weigh in), but you will understand that there’s more to the problem than just what you focused on.

    And that goes for the general educational program: You’re a bio major. Great. You’re also going to take classes in all these other areas so that you can be aware of the vastness of the scientific landscape and see how your focus fits in with the bigger picture. We’re all taking Systems and E&M and Computer Science and Linear and all those Humanities courses and….

    Oh, and Mudd had the biggest parties of all the 5 Colleges. Long Tall Glasses at North Dorm and TQ Night at West. Even students from the other colleges would come up.

  2. Jason Nishiyama says

    An old physics joke:

    A factory that processes chickens hires a physics prof from a local university to help create a more efficient flow in production. After a few months of measurements and observations the prof heads back to the university to mull things over. A month later he triumphantly presents a report to the factory where he states that if they follow his recommendations the factory will work at peak efficiency.

    The report began: “First we assume a spherical chicken…”

  3. blf says

    An approach which may be working, Arizona university prevents potential Covid outbreak by testing feces:

    Experts are analyzing sewage from student dorms twice weekly, which recently led to identifying two coronavirus cases early


    At the University of Arizona, experts are analyzing the sewage coming from student dorms twice weekly, across all of its halls of residence, to search for traces of the virus.

    And it seems to be working. In a video, Dr Robert Robbins, the president of the university explains how he was contacted by one of the researchers at the university just last week, to notify him of a potential outbreak about to happen in one of its dorms.

    “I got a call night before last to say Dr Pepper has picked up a signal in one of the dorms … We went over, we tested all of the students and staff that worked there and we found two positive cases which we turned over to isolation,” said Dr Robert Robbins. Those students were put into quarantine for two weeks, receiving all lessons virtually.

    “Nobody would have known otherwise, but with this early detection, we jumped on it right away tested those youngsters and got them the appropriate isolation where they needed to be,” responds Dr Richard Carmona, who is also involved in the universities waste detection program.

    [… This approach] also provides the added benefit of sourcing out asymptomatic carriers […]

    As pointed out by Dr Carmona, “If we had waited until they were symptomatic and they stayed in their dorm for days or a week or the whole incubation period, how many other people would have been infected?”

    The article doesn’t say who proposed the idea, but since (as the article does note) “waste-water analysis can provide an early detection of the virus before a potential outbreak hits” is well-known to epidemiologists and other public health experts, I presume someone with that sort of background / expertise was involved. No spherical shite assumed.

  4. consciousness razor says

    Parties, gatherings and “irresponsible and dangerous” behavior has led to a spike of nearly 800 coronavirus cases on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus, school officials said, and the university is cracking down.

    “We couldn’t have guessed that college students would do anything irresponsible.” — Nobody, ever

    Next on the list: “We couldn’t have guessed that university administrators and politicians would do anything irresponsible.”

  5. cartomancer says

    It’s a bit like the old joke where the chemist, the physicist and the economist are stranded on a desert island with a can of soup to eat and no can opener.

    What you really need in this situation, of course, is Medieval Historians. Sure, their solution will be “close the universities and have everyone flee to the countryside until it’s all over”, but, you know, it worked in the 1350s and it would work again now.

  6. blf says

    What you really need in this situation, of course, is Medieval Historians.

    Very matured meat. Uncommon and expensive, and perhaps an acquired taste. Prepare carefully, using only the best ingredients (don’t over-elaborate). Deserves a vin Grande Cru followed by fine cheese and an aged port. Troubadours optional, serve as starters.

  7. stwriley says

    This reminds me of an old mural that used to be in the science wing at school. It depicted the different ways each of the science teachers would calculate the volume of a cat. The physics teacher’s entire answer was “imagine the cat is spherical and dogs are better.” At least some physicists know their limits.

  8. nomdeplume says

    Is it just my failing brain or do these two sentences – “We did not model the friendship social networks of the students when they go outside and socialize in bars and restaurants,” he said. “So our calculation is, in fact, a worst-case scenario, because we assume more mixing outside of the university.” – contradict each other and therefore make absolutely no sense?

  9. blf says

    @12, I’ve been trying to puzzle that out too — I suspect the only way to make sense of what is quoted in the OP is to pile up some cheese and wait for the mildly deranged penguin to pontificate…

    So far, the only thing that seems even plausible to me (dunno about her) is they “modeled” a simplified off-campus scenario (e.g., each spherical student interacts with so-and-so many other spherical students, with a more-or-less fixed probability of infection in each interaction), and are assuming there are more infection-spreading interactions in that model than actually occur in real life (and/or, possibly, the real life probability of infection is lower). Even if the numbers are greater in this speculated model, it still seems daft: What about superspreader individuals / events, as one counter-example?

  10. ORigel says


    They probably assumed the spherical students would only meet with like one other random blob, not a freakin’ PARTY.

  11. blf says

    @12 et al., The mildly deranged penguin explains they modeled each student as a small piece of cheese. The interface between inside the University and the outside is a gate with Maxwell’s daemon. It normally keeps the gate closed (the students have to study and things), keeping all the cheese inside. However, sometimes a particularly tasty or careless cheese gets too close, so the daemon eats it. Whilst so distracted, other cheeses slip out… students are notoriously tricky. Eventually, the gate closes again, to loud swearing from the daemon and any of the slower students hit by the gate slamming shut.

    The free cheeses outside disperse in different directions, hence not infecting each other. (The population outside the University was not included in the model, as that was an annoying complication and too much effort.) So there’s essentially no infection at all outside the University; it’s all imaginary. Whatever happens inside the University is mostly confined to inside the University, minus the daemon’s snacks.

    This is a “worse-case” because Maxwell’s daemon has poor taste and doesn’t eat cheese. Hence, it’s never really distracted, so no students escape, so the outside doesn’t matter. Those zero outside interactions are more than the imaginary number of outside interactions in the real world. QED.

  12. Matt G says

    Why would you ask epidemiologists about epidemiology when you have Kings of Science willing to dispense wisdom to you?

  13. PaulBC says

    @20 Nope, just a minor as an undergrad. I am a computer scientist (with peer-reviewed work, but not in many years since I started working as a software developer).

  14. whywhywhy says

    As a physicist, please keep making fun of the hubris of physicists. This is a needed service and as demonstrated by Illinois, it may save lives.

  15. dontlikeusernames says

    @22 Lol. That was truly a joke, btw. It just sounded like a very ‘physicist’ thing to do :D.

    … but upon self-reflection us software devs tend to have those tendencies too, don’t we? It’s very tempting to think that we can control more than our little corner of the world, isn’t it? Hard to let go of that feeling when you literally make computers do things for you.

    (Not sure why you would mention it, but weirdly, I too have peer-reviewed work out there. It was absolute shite, and I am ashamed of it. Thankfully, it didn’t hurt anyone.)

  16. PaulBC says

    @24 It was a lot of work, I’m proud of it, and I still get citations. If I had a dime for every citation… I could get a decent deli sandwich. But actually I don’t get diddly. (C’est la vie) Anyway, I guess it is odd to mention it, except that I used to see (thankfully not so much anymore) resumes from physicists calling themselves “computer scientists” and, like it’s a real field with actual results that people outside it usually don’t know (because I interview them) (and even ones with CS degrees don’t, but I digress) so it really pisses me off when people think they can just throw the term around because they have written computer programs.

  17. chris says

    Washington State University is a known party state. The Pullman police were prepared to issue fines, but it is still WSU: https://mynorthwest.com/2139145/wsu-students-party-fines-pullman/

    Key quote (aside from party goers scattering when police show up): “What we’re seeing happen now is hosts are collecting a cover charge to pay for the fines, which are not that exorbitant. It’s $250 for a first offense, and $350 for a second offence,”

    Le sigh.

  18. chris says

    Oops: “Washington State University is a known party state school

    At least until the 1970s the drinking age in Washington was 21, while just over the border in Idaho the age was 19 years (or was it less, I might be confusing it British Columbia). There was lots of traffic between Pullman, WA and Moscow, ID.

    My dad attended WSU (Wazoo) in the late 1940s (class of 1950), and when his kids became adults he finally told us about some of his adventures going to dance halls in Moscow, and the crash with a case of booze in the car on the way back home one time.

  19. consciousness razor says

    As a physicist, please keep making fun of the hubris of physicists.

    It’s not a life or death sort of thing, but this article from Scientific American hit a nerve recently:

    Time’s Arrow Flies through 500 Years of Classical Music, Physicists Say
    A statistical study of more than 8,000 compositions shows how the flow of time distinguishes music from noise

    On the one hand, it’s dealing with some fairly obvious stuff — so much that I honestly don’t get the point — but on the other, it’s still being simplified to an absurd degree. To start with, there’s nothing about rhythm, and it’s only looking at single voices which are invariably in much more complicated harmonic contexts that are being ignored. And the usual issues with only thinking about European music from (primarily) the common practice period also still apply. It’s spherical cows all the way down, until you start getting to the turtles obviously.

    In the citations for the paper itself, you’ll find little from music theorists that’s relevant. Mainly just more physics papers. Not a good sign.

  20. hemidactylus says

    @28- consciousness razor

    Find me a physicist with a feel for the nuance between Public Enemy and Puff Daddy versions of Public Enemy No. 1 which many snooty music snobs would instantly classify as noise in either incarnation.


    Or the superiority of EPMD and some Marley guy over Clapton:


    Because I am a pecksniff:


    Fuck Clapton.

  21. chrislawson says

    Wait, so they took models from epidemiology, declared them simplified ecology models, and used those instead…so that’s TWO disciplines they appropriated without a hint of background knowledge.

  22. chrislawson says

    Also, their ‘worst case scenario’ was way better than actual outcomes thus far observed in the real world. This, in and of itself, should have led them to abandon their model. And the university too. Sheer greed and intellectual arrogance.

  23. chrislawson says

    Thirdly, if they knew anything about epidemiology, they’d know that epidemiologists are fully aware of the limitations of their models…because they can’t model all the complexity of human behaviour and social interactions, let alone pathogens in different environments. Saying they used more complex ecological models but ignored all the social factors shows exactly what is wrong with their thinking. They believe that a rough model will be automatically improved by using a more complex model even if that complex model ignores all the difficult factors that epidemiologists take into account when they apply the rough model.

  24. wzrd1 says

    Well, they both have doctor in front of their names, so they’re equally qualified to engage in brain surgery on each other.
    After all, physics leads to chemistry and biology and therefore, medicine and obviously, surgery.
    In a close system environment that only involves both, it’d be a self-limiting problem.

    As annoying as “I’m a nuclear physicist and know how to build an atomic bomb, so the stock market is trivial”…
    All, while the statistician gets everyone’s money… ;)

  25. robert79 says

    If I were to model a pandemic spreading through the student population my worst case scenario would assume that all students would meet up together after school in one big party to which I was not invited…

  26. unclefrogy says

    As annoying as “I’m a nuclear physicist and know how to build an atomic bomb, so the stock market is trivial”…

    there is truth in that statement the problem arises when the physicist then fails to devote as much time as they devoted to studying physics in studying what ever else they are declaring as trivial like the stock-market or a pandemic.
    to bad that attitude is not limited to physicists i even heard of a lousy real-estate developer with multiple bankruptcies thinks he can do anything perfectly.
    uncle frogy

  27. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Actually, this is also piss-poor physics, because they clearly did not study the epidemiology of COVID enough to realize that there is a lot more to transmission than the replication (R) value.

    COVID cases tend to cluster–precisely as you would expect if most of them came from super spreader events like parties, church services, Sturgis… And, frankly, since they were taking predator-prey models from ecology, it sounds like they didn’t fully understand the replication either.

    In some ways, a more appropriate model would be the “degrees of separation” model for social interaction–which gave rise to the old “six degrees of separation” cliche. It turns out that when you actually do the math based on how humans interact, the degrees of separation are usually less, because there are always a few very interconnected individuals who know almost everyone, so all you have to do is get to someone who knows them, and then you have connections to everyone.

    This is physicists who don’t even know how to do physics.

  28. grahamjones says

    consciousness razor at 28. Bach’s Crab Canon must be a bit of a hiccup for their theory. Also Soft Machine’s Facelift.

  29. Matt G says

    Early on in the pandemic, an Israeli-American Nobel laureate (medicine) said in an interview “I’m not an epidemiologist, but I understand numbers…I expect no more than ten deaths from COVID-19 in Israel.” The deaths from COVID-19 in Israel are about to pass 1000.

  30. Rob Grigjanis says

    grahamjones @41: Going by the abstract, they’re not trying to construct a theory. Their goal is to “provide tools for the study of musical periods and composers, as well as criteria related to music appreciation and cognition”. To test and develop those tools, they chose a particular subset of data. As one of the authors says near the end

    Martínez-Mekler is excited about how much more there is to learn. For one, the statistical tools he and his co-authors developed could be applied to a wealth of more contemporary and global compositions. Echoing Margulis, he would like to consider harmony and rhythm, in addition to melody, in future analyses.

    Since their tools are statistical, crab canons are not ‘hiccups’.

    So, unless he objects to physicists trying to come up with tools that might be useful to music theorists, cr‘s moaning in #28 seems rather small-minded.

  31. consciousness razor says

    So, unless he objects to physicists trying to come up with tools that might be useful to music theorists, cr‘s moaning in #28 seems rather small-minded.

    Physicists can work on it as much as they want, but the arrow of time is non-problem for us.

    The stuff about applying this to all kinds of other music, and extending it in various other ways? That’s definitely easier said than done, and I doubt it’s a check they can cash. And if I’m wrong, how might it be useful for musicologists? I don’t know. There were almost no recognizable musical concepts to be found in the entire paper. So do you know what people like me might find useful?

    What I can tell you is that this is a fool’s errand:

    By finding patterns across large bodies of composed music, they were hoping to find hints as to what makes a successful composer.

    So much wrong in such a small package. I think a decent paycheck every now and then can make a successful composer, which is probably why we have so few of them.

    Anyway, they selected only famous composers in a very specific/distinctive musical tradition, grabbed some MIDI files of their works from a website, pulled only a bit of the information contained in one channel of each, and you think they might have something useful. Great. For whom? I don’t know.

    And why didn’t they use entire recordings of actual performances? I don’t know that either. Doesn’t that provide more and better data? Isn’t that the real music that real people actually listen to?

  32. wzrd1 says

    The earliest reference I’ve found for wastewater testing for a viral pathogen was in 2003 for detecting a nascent polio outbreak.
    II recall some cases and suggestions for wastewater testing, after one outbreak was traced to leaking wastewater pipes in a multifamily dwelling, when SARS was of grave concern.

    In the news, University of Iowa followed recommendations to not test incoming students.
    “Since the university started tracking cases on August 18, 1,395 students and 19 employees have tested positive for Covid-19, including 253 new student cases on September 2. The university has made clear on its Covid-19 dashboard that its tally only includes self-reported cases.”
    The staff and educators are aware of the gaps in information and mentioned that the students are growing terrified over the spread.

    The University of Wisconsin-Madison has 9 fraternities and sororities quarantined.
    “The university said in a news release Friday that 38 of the 420 students in them had tested positive for coronavirus by Thursday.”

    “The United States reported 50,502 new Covid-19 cases and 965 virus-related deaths on Friday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.”
    Are we “tired of winning”, Trump style? Honestly, I’m now firmly convinced that Superman exists, as it’s patently obvious that Trump is from Bizarro World.

  33. says

    Thank goodness there were some parties, else they’d have to admit that sitting in crowded rooms for a, long time spreads the virus.

  34. blf says

    CSU orders mandatory COVID-19 testing after dorm wastewater shows possible spike:

    Colorado State University ordered mandatory COVID-19 testing for over 600 students after wastewater monitoring indicated that some residents of Braiden Hall, University Village and Corbett Hall might be infected with coronavirus.

    The university is monitoring wastewater at various locations throughout campus to gauge early warning signs of infection. Wastewater data can’t be traced back to a specific person, but CSU is using it to pinpoint areas where COVID-19 infection might be on the rise.

    Wastewater monitoring results from Braiden Hall indicate there are “signs of COVID-19 within the hall and further testing could prevent spread from occurring,” according to an email sent to students living on campus. Braiden Hall is one of the larger residential dorms at CSU. The school ordered testing for all 580 residents of Braiden as well as one wing of Corbett Hall and a section of University Village, CSU spokesperson Dell Rae Ciaravola told the Coloradoan.

    The school provided free testing […]

    Wastewater viral loads are considered an early warning indicator of an outbreak because people infected with COVID-19 shed the virus in their feces soon after infection, often before they develop any symptoms. If officials are alerted to possible infections before people start showing symptoms, they can start targeted testing sooner. The goal is to identify and isolate people who are sick before they spread infection to others.


  35. Rob Grigjanis says

    barbaraeckstein @49:

    They obviously need to add more epicycles.

    That trope is actually the result of one of the most glaring blunders made by historians of science; the belief that astronomers of old kept adding epicycles to make their models more accurate. They didn’t.

    As it turns out, a major difficulty with this epicycles-on-epicycles theory is that historians examining books on Ptolemaic astronomy from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance have found absolutely no trace of multiple epicycles being used for each planet. The Alfonsine Tables, for instance, were apparently computed using Ptolemy’s original unadorned methods.


    Incidentally, the popular myth that Ptolemy’s scheme requires an absurdly large number of circles in order to fit the observational data to any degree of accuracy has no basis in fact. Actually, Ptolemy’s model of the sun and the planets, which fits the data very well, only contains 12 circles (i.e., 6 deferents and 6 epicycles).

  36. PaulBC says

    @51 I suppose you could quip “They need to posit more plurality without necessity.” but it doesn’t really have the same ring to it.

  37. Andrew Dalke says

    Nigel Goldenfeld was my statistical mechanics teacher when I was a physics grad student at UIUC some 27 years ago. What I remember most clearly was our assignment in molecular dynamics (MD) using a simplified 2D model. I had just started an MD group, so this was of special interest to me. I studied the FORTRAN code … and found a bug, which I reported.

    He co-founded Numerix, which applies(/d?) fancy mathematical physics models to market pricing. As I recall, some of his grad students worked for it too, making Wall Street money while living in east central Illinois.

  38. nomdeplume says

    @51 Thanks Rob, I wasn’t aware of that – I love the debunking of facts about scientists that everyone knows are true but which in fact aren’t…