BHA Voltaire Lecture with Prof. Brian Cox

I was at the BHA’s Voltaire lecture this evening. It’s an annual talk, and this year it was given by Brian Cox – who was /excellent/.

Prof. Cox has catapulted to the forefront of UK science in the last year, particularly after his recent – brilliant – BBC1 show ‘Wonders of the Solar System’, and the lecture sold out weeks in advance. His subject was the nourishment science provides to both the imagination and the economy.

The former was a great primer on the current frontiers of physics and the work of the LHC, as well as an ode to exploration. It covered everything from the Standard Model and the search for the Higgs Boson, to the astonishing images being sent back by space probes – he had a couple of very new, as-yet-unprocessed shots from Cassini, showing ice geysers on Enceladus (it was awesome). Prof. Cox has a gift for explanation – think Lawrence Krauss, or Dawkins on biology – and he didn’t shirk from the more complex areas. For example, he showed how (hopefully I’ll get this right) the fundamental mathematics of the fundamental forces beautifully falls out of field invariance equations. I love theoretical physics, and while many of the concepts were familiar (although not always so clear in my head), this last info was all new.

So was the economic side of the talk. I was photographing the lecture so couldn’t catch everything, but, roughly: science research & development gets only a few billion of the UK’s budget (which is a low percentage compared with most first-world countries) yet makes up 40% of the GVA economic output (more than finance). This needs fixing. It’s hard to disagree.

It was engaging and fascinating – I want to see it again to pick up all the bits I missed. Beforehand I managed to photograph the Prof for a uni project, which I’m very pleased about. I haven’t been starstruck at a BHA gig for a while (Dawkins) but I was tonight – hopefully I didn’t say anything too weird. He was very friendly, gracious and down-to-earth, and certainly knew his cameras. After the lecture he spent an hour signing books and posing for photos, too. I’m glad he’s becoming a household name – he’s a great advert for science all round.

(written on WordPress for iPhone – please forgive any formatting weirdness.)

The Age of Wonder

The Age of Wonder - CoverEarlier this year I read Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder – a glorious book about the intertwining of science and Romanticism, before the latter decided to go it alone. I’ve reviewed it over at HumanistLife:

I spent the first few months of 2009 travelling around humanist groups and asking their members one question: ‘what are you happy about?’. I was collecting answers for a book, and I quickly hit a snag: people kept giving the same response. It seems that many, many humanists are happy about the joys of the world, the thrill of experience and the fact of their very existence – in short, the wonder of life. Which is a lovely thing. Somewhat problematic for me, but buoying nonetheless.

The sentiment was so prevalent that it’s tempting to wonder whether it’s a rare (unique?) point of agreement among self-described humanists. I started asking for more details, and found a surprising level of agreement on the inspiration for said wonder. Biology was a common source of delight, as were cosmology and quantum physics. Others waxed lyrical on the power of the arts, or the pure elegance of mathematics. But science was by far the most popular.

It’s clear that many humanists see science and wonder as two sides of the same coin, but the concepts have a fractious relationship. During the 19th century the Romantic movement declared that rational thought in fact stifles wonder and dulls the artistic spirit. A deeper understanding of the world, they said, could only be found through feeling and emotion: insight comes from wonder, never the reverse. Such ideas continue to this day. How often do we hear cultural commentators – and religious apologists – decrying science for destroying mystery? It’s reductionist, we’re told, mechanistic and soul-destroying. Wonder, it seems, lies in the nebulous unknown, and the truth is grey in comparison.

Of course, scientists did, and do, object. Richards Feynman and Dawkins have whole books decrying the idea, and Carl Sagan was a walking counter-example who devoted his life to spreading the opposite message. But the old clichés still have traction, and into this gap steps Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder, a hugely ambitious book that argues for scientific/Romantic union by detailing what the author calls ‘the second Enlightenment’, during which science and wonder were as one.


Evolution in primary school science lessons

News came out this weekend that the theory of evolution is to be included in primary school science lessons for the first time. As of April this wasn’t the case, and the change is down to a successful campaign and a lot of hard work by the British Humanist Association – huge congrats to them for getting this through.

I left school knowing what vaguely what evolution was, but with no understanding of how it underpins all of biology. Now I don’t understand how you can teach biology without it. I remember GCSE biology just being a bunch of disparate facts about animals and plants. The closest we got to evolution was having it drilled into us that a) camels have large feet, as they’re adapted to the deserts, and b) polar bears have clear fur, the relevance of which is still a mystery1. These two facts were all we needed for the exam, so I duly wrote them down and paid no more attention. My science teacher obviously noticed this problem, and at the end of our final year gave a friend a copy of The Selfish Gene. Looking back, that was a pretty awesome thing to do. I didn’t find that book until three years later.

Hopefully these developments will see evolution built more fundamentally into the textbooks, and not just as another thing to learn.

  1. and, now I look it up, a bit more complex than is perhaps necessary for an introduction to evolution []

13 unsolved scientific puzzles. Kinda.

The Times has a rather odd list of 13 Unsolved Scientific Puzzles. They’re a bit odd, and the accompanying review is even worse. Here are a few of the ‘puzzles’:

1. MOST OF THE UNIVERSE IS MISSING – We can only account for 4 per cent of the cosmos

Yep, that’s a big one. Dark matter + dark energy aren’t understood. Here’s what the other article says:

One of the great discoveries of 20th-century science was that our universe is expanding. The discovery, however, led straight to another puzzle. The puzzle is, there’s nowhere near enough matter to prevent the expanding universe from blowing apart completely into a vast, sterile infinity of lifeless interstellar dust. So how come we live in a lumpy universe, one of the lumps being the planet on which we live? There must be more matter than we can see: the famous dark matter and, to go with it, something even more mysterious – dark energy.

No – what? That’s nothing to do with anything, is it? This could be the still-lumpy phase of an expanding universe. The main problem is the acceleration itself: gravity should at least be slowing the expansion down, but it’s actually increasing. That’s dark energy, and it’s an unknown. Dark matter is the discrepancy between the mass we can see and the mass we can detect by its effect on matter. 

To date, however, there’s not a shred of evidence for either, even though teams of scientists have been looking for years. (The UK’s search “takes place 1,100m underground, in a potash mine whose tunnels reach out under the seafloor”.) The only alternative to dark matter is to tweak Newton’s most fundamental laws of physics and suggest that they don’t apply everywhere, all the time, in quite the same way. But physicists are a law-abiding bunch, and detest this idea.

No, there’s evidence for both. We can see where dark matter is, we just don’t know what it’s made from. And if it’s detectable, it must by nature be difficult to detect, so years of looking is probably necessary. Dark energy is more of an unknown quantity, but we see its effects, so something must be going on. And yes, scientists are unwilling to reject the laws of gravity (actually Einstein’s at this kind of accuracy, but whatever), since they’ve made incredibly accurate predictions up to now, and the Pioneer anomaly isn’t yet a clear-cut case of a violation of those laws.

2. THE PIONEER ANOMALY – Two spacecraft are flouting the laws of physics

Yes again. The Pioneer space probes aren’t where they should be, and it’s a bit odd.

“Nasa explicitly planned to use them as a test of Newton’s law,” explains Brooks. “The law failed the test; shouldn’t we be taking that failure seriously?”

 The article also says “decades of analysis have failed to find a straightforward reason for it”. This is what as known as taking something seriously: you try very hard to explain something unexpected, and see where that takes you. I don’t see the problem here.

4. COLD FUSION – Nuclear energy without the drama

But, despite what you might have heard, “cold fusion” never really went away. Over a 10-year period from 1989, US navy labs ran more than 200 experiments to investigate whether nuclear reactions generating more energy than they consume – supposedly only possible inside stars – can occur at room temperature. Numerous researchers have since pronounced themselves believers.

Cold fusion. Right. Not really an ‘unsolved scientific puzzle’, as there’s no evidence it exists, as far as I’m aware. And if you think the scientific establishment is deliberately ignoring a potential source of safe, clean energy that would completely transform the world, you’re bonkers.

5. LIFE – Are you more than just a bag of chemicals?

Fair enough. But wtf:

In labs across the world, people are taking the raw materials of living things and trying to put them together in a way that makes them come alive. In an effort to resolve the anomalous nature of life, the idea of scientists playing God has taken a whole new turn.

It’s almost like you’re referencing some fiction there…can’t think what. And when ‘God’ is just your word for ‘anything I don’t understand’, which it clearly is, then scientists are always going to be ‘playing God’, and it’s a silly thing to say.

6. METHANE FROM MARTIANS – NASA scientists found evidence for life on Mars. Then they changed their minds

On July 20, 1976, the Viking landers scooped up some Martian soil and mixed it with radioactive nutrients. The mission’s scientists all agreed that if radioactive methane was released from the soil, something must be eating the nutrients – and there must be life on Mars. The experiment gave a positive result, but NASA denied an official detection of Martian life. 

Yeah, because the results were contradictory and ambiguous. Yeesh. The atmospheric methane increases are pretty cool, though.

Ok, I need to skip a few or I’ll run out of time. Arguments over sexual reproduction and death seem somewhat misprepresented, lack of free will1 is given short shrift (rejected out of hand in the accompanying article) and the placebo effect is indeed genuinely mysterious, but then at the end there’s this:

13. HOMEOPATHY – It’s patently absurd, so why won’t it go away?

How the hell did this get in here? He says “there remains some slim evidence that homeopathy works” – and this is what, exactly? And what of the many, many double-blind trials that suggest otherwise? I would like to point out that people still worship Greek Gods. It’s ridiculous, but why won’t it go away? Maybe we should look again at Greek Gods.

The ‘puzzles’ are all taken from a book, which gives me pause – maybe the full text is more rigorous, and these quick generalisations are written by someone who doesn’t understand the issues. But Uncertain Principles perhaps has some insight: the author worked for New Scientist, and the book apparently has the typical New Scientist attitude of glorifying fringe work, making dramatic declarations on the imminent overturning of long-held theories, and paying little attention to consensus. Seems to fit with the above.

  1. edited later []

Time-gated ballistic imaging

I’ve no idea what this paper is about, but it has the best Abstract ever:

We have developed an optical technique called ballistic imaging to view breakup of the near-field of an atomizing spray. In this paper, we describe the successful use of a time-gated ballistic imaging instrument to obtain single-shot images of core region breakup in a transient, single hole atomizing diesel fuel spray issuing into one atmosphere. We present a sequence of images taken at the nozzle for various times after start of injection, and a sequence taken at various positions downstream of the nozzle exit at a fixed time. These images contain signatures of periodic behavior, voids, and entrainment processes.

They just needed to reverse the polarity of the deflector array.

Via Young Jim.

Uni project: science-y Christmas cards

Six weeks ago I was given a broad photo project. The possible themes were ‘still life’, ‘a journey’ or ‘a document’, which meant I could shoehorn in anything I wanted; I just needed to come up with something interesting.

I had an idea. It only required dry ice, a prism, fifty light bulbs, and access to a physics lab. So one Saturday morning I was figuring all this out, and at the same time (in an uncharacteristic fit of forward planning) looking for decent non-religious Christmas cards. I idly tweeted about the dearth of good cards from the BHA/NSS, and Andrew of Apathy Sketchpad replied with a comment about making your own. Well, that did it. I couldn’t let the opportunity pass, so I changed my entire project in an afternoon1.

So I wanted to produce images for non-religious Christmas cards. Not in an avowedly there-is-no-god way – no need to be a jerk about it – but (somehow) pro-science and secular wonder. My lofty dream result was images that evoked a sense of awe. Not at the aesthetics or my photographic skill or anything2, but at the facets of nature they represented. They’d have a festive air, but be about reality and the joys of discovery. I also wanted them to work as images on their own, but with a ‘something else is going on here’ for anyone interested. If that makes sense.

That’s what I wrote in my project proposal, anyway. I figured this might be pretty difficult in practice, but really I just wanted to produce some cool science-y Christmas cards that I could actually send out. The only catch was the project needed to be on film, so I couldn’t use Photoshop – everything had to be done in-camera.

Anyway, I had good fun with this project, and did eventually produce some actual cards (until WH Smiths ran out of photo-card printing packs, anyway). If anyone’s interested, here are the final results (the captions were printed on the back of the cards):

The Candle Aquatic
The Candle Aquatic
(no Photoshop involved)


Fibonacci Cones
Fibonacci Cones
Pine cones grow to the Fibonacci golden spiral:


Oh say can you C
Oh say can you C
(yes, if you know one Smartie = 15mm)


Bauble Fractals
Bauble Fractals

More info after the break, for anyone interested.

Continue reading Uni project: science-y Christmas cards

  1. my workbook is…messy []
  2. as if []

Here are some things I’ve learnt in this term’s photographic theory classes

Women only have children to make up for their lack of a penis.

This came up in “one of the two most important photographic essays of the 20th century”. It’s an idea originally from Freud, so it must be true. Freud can do no wrong on my course. He’s worshipped as a god, despite the last thirty years of psychological research suggesting his explanatory framework is, well, bullshit. Here’s the ‘fair’ Freud: A Very Short Introduction bending over backwards to give the guy some credit:

The female version of the Oedipus complex is less clearly worked out, in line with the fact that Freud continued to find women a puzzle throughout his life. However, Freud concluded that, while the little girl is also at first involved emotionally with her mother, her discovery that she lacks a panis, and is therefore an inferior being, leads her to become disillusioned with her mother whom she blames for her condition. This turns her towards her father as a love object, and she begins to phantasize that he will impregnante her. The resulting child, Freud supposes, will compensate the girl for her lack of a penis, and, in this sense, might be said to be a substitute for the missing organ. What brings this stage of emotional development to a conclusion is the girl’s growing perception of other men as potential impregnators who will enable her to have a baby and thus overcome her continuing sense of being an inferior kind of human being.

Stated in so bald a fashion, Freud’s perception of the Oedipus complex as constituting the central emotional stage through which every human being has to pass if she or he is to achieve adult stability and happiness sounds crude indeed. We have already observed that Freud invariably strove to reduce the psychological and emotional to the physical. To allege that all small boys fear castration at the hands of their fathers sounds ridiculous when taken literally. But, if we were to phrase it differently, and affirm that small boys are greatly concerned with establishing their identity as male persons, feel rivalry with their fathers, and are easily made to feel humiliated or threatened by disparaging remarks about their size, weakness, incapacity and lack of experience, most people would concur.

Maybe, but that’s not really what he said, is it? In fact, in this case it seems he was wrong about everything until you massively overgeneralise. The defence is usually ‘he was the first to think about this stuff’, which is all well and good1. But if I go to a science class I don’t expect to learn about Prime Mover theory, no matter how awesome Aristotle was.

The one high point of this topic was when my lecturer couldn’t bring himself to mention Freudian dick theory in regard to fetishes. He said people fetishise things for ‘a variety of reasons’. This was quite funny.

Western science, and indeed culture, has ‘privileged the visual’ for centuries.

God knows what this is supposed to mean, but they say it a lot. Galileo started the trend of privileging the visual when he looked through his telescope, apparently, and it’s been true in astronomy – and pretty much all the sciences – ever since. The other senses are given far less attention. Apparently.

It’s always spoken about in sinister tones, as if it’s really oppressive. I keep thinking they’re going to draw some profound conclusion, but one hasn’t yet materialised. I honestly don’t know how to respond. It’s not even wrong. I mean, doesn’t walking privilege the legs? It’s just how things are, isn’t it? How are you meant to look at the stars without using your eyes? Maybe I’m missing something profound, or maybe it’s just filling time between drooling over Freud.

Society tells us what ‘perfect vision’ means. There’s no concept of 20/20 vision in nature.

This is also SINISTER AND OPPRESSIVE. It’s all a bit libertarian, my course. Oh look, someone’s trying to help me see better. How bloody arrogant and insulting of them.

I think this meant to be some mealy-mouthed point about culture and its subtle influences. Which is probably an interesting discussion. Or would be, if they could think of any other examples.

I don’t think society says jack shit about ‘perfect vision’. I think society says you need a certain standard of vision for specific tasks, like driving. I think society says your vision can be improved – as a quantifiable measure – with corrective lenses. I don’t think society makes any value judgements about your vision. If you want to stick it to the man by refusing to read eye charts just because someone tells you to, go right ahead.

Before humanity learnt about Cartesian perspective, people had an entirely different concept of the space around them.

This is all a bit odd. Apparently the understanding of perspective fundamentally changed the way we view the world. I’m not totally averse to this idea, but their evidence is so pathetic that I provisionally conclude they’re making stuff up. Here’s the proof: a few lines from the start of Hamlet in which the perspective is changed – because it’s not like Shakespeare was a poet or anything – and an anecdote about showing a film to some tribespeople, who didn’t understand it at all. Yeah, I’m totally convinced. They also say that pre-perspective painting indicates something other than ‘them not having developed perspective yet’, which, to my eyes, it doesn’t.

Oh, and cameras were designed around2 cartesian perspective, which is SINISTER AND OPPRESSIVE. You may think your eyes see things in perspective, but they don’t! As proof: do you ever walk places and notice new things, despite having walked there many times before? Proof that our brains don’t work just through perspective! I’m so glad I came to university to learn this stuff.


Sorry to rant. It just gets me down sometimes. I increasingly feel like it’s a massive waste of my time. What isn’t demonstrably wrong is just facile, unfalsifiable wittering, all presented as terribly profound art theory.

Maybe it is interesting, if you’re not like me. I suppose there’s value in discussing unfalsifiable theories, if you happen to find it fascinating. But I don’t. I just find it annoying. I want to see the modern, evidence-based psychological research into people’s experience of the world, and how they look at art, and how culture influences the way we think. In Our Time recently had an episode on neuroscience, and it was utterly fascinating. I know there’s wonderful knowledge to be had, and it’s so disappointing to instead get psychoanalytic gibberish from the ’70s, by people incapable (suspiciously so) of writing clearly.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to quit or anything. I have another 18 months of this before I hit the 4th year and can study whatever the hell I want, and I can live with it for 18 months. Goodness knows how the essays will turn out, though. I’m not optimistic about squeezing 3000 words from this term’s work.

  1. the other defence, which my lecturer actually said to me, is ‘he wrote really well’ []
  2. ‘designed around’, as opposed to perspective being part of the physical laws of the universe []

LHC on The Big Picture

The Big Picture blog has twenty-seven pictures of the currently cooling Large Hadron Collider. They’re stonking, and the final shot really captures the scale of the thing. It should be up and performing experiments by the end of the year, and with a bit of luck the Higgs Boson1 will make front pages all around the world.

The comments are insane, as lots of people think the LHC is going to kill us all. I particularly liked:

What a way to go!! Beats frying from global warming or being swept away in a tornado or hurricane or drowning in a meltdown of the polar ice cap!! Wasn’t CERN featured in The DaVinci Code?

You don’t come across the Argument From Dan Brown so much these days, but I’m glad it’s still around. I think it was Angels and Demons, though. I’m one of the few who quite enjoyed that book (I didn’t take it seriously), but the CERN bit was excruciating: a terribly put-upon Catholic assistant feels proud to be alive when every scientist in the facility is numbed into stunned silence by the Most Wonderful Religious Speech Ever. *shudder*.

  1. original typo: Higg’s Bison []

Blogs > the Sunday Express

There is some epic pwnage currently going on in the comments of Ben Goldacre’s blog. Quick background: The Sunday Express recently published a front page article claiming suicides were linked to the locations of phone masts. This was based on some dude’s research. Ben Goldacre contacted said dude and asked if he could see the data, but the guy had lost it. Happily, he’s now found it, and this evening turned up in the comment thread, where he’s currently, as polite as you like, being taken apart.

My MP’s thoughts on climate change email me whenever my MP – John Maples – says anything. He’s in the Conservative Party, and not the most active of MPs:

  • Has spoken in 12 debates in the last year — below average amongst MPs.
  • Has received answers to 9 written questions in the last year — below average amongst MPs.
  • Replied within 2 or 3 weeks to a high number of messages sent via during 2007, according to constituents. [Andrew’s note: not mine, though]
  • Has voted in 60% of votes in parliament — well below average amongst MPs. (From Public Whip)

He didn’t turn up for the smoking-ban votes, and seems to be against gay rights when he’s there, which isn’t often1. He was present for all the hunting ban votes – you know, the important stuff – and was strongly against.

It seems a bit odd not to be around for such things. Maybe he’s been ill. But when he’s there, he does things I don’t like. I wouldn’t (and didn’t) vote for him, but I still like to follow what’s going on, and today I had an email to say he’d been fairly active in a recent debate.

Turns out he’s a climate-change denying n00b. Here’s his first contribution to the debate on the Draft Climate Change Bill:

After the Bill abolishing slavery was passed by the House, the British Navy patrolled the Atlantic, stopping other countries indulging in the slave trade. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that we do the same with global warming?

Helpful, I think you’ll agree. Then comes:

I do not believe that the science is anything like as settled as the proponents of the Bill are making out. In fact, the scientists hedge their predictions with an awful lot of qualifications and maybes that those who invoke them often omit. The science is a bit like medicine in the 1850s. The scientists are scratching the surface of something that they do not really understand, but no doubt will. They are probably on to something, but nothing like the whole story. What they say does not justify any of the apocalyptic visions that we have heard set out.

This is called the language of science. You have to put in all the qualifications, or you’re not doing proper science. Full debunking. Medicine in the 1850s? There was no medicine in the 1850s! This is supposed to be an accurate comparison with the thousands of climate scientists who’ve been collecting data and making confirmed predictions for decades? And then he accuses other people of making statements with no basis?

The record shows that the climate warmed from 1920 to 1940, cooled from 1940 to 1975, rose again from 1975 to 2000, and since 2000, according to the Hadley centre, has not risen at all. In the past seven years, global temperatures have not increased. All the predictions that we work from, whether from the IPCC or anybody else, are based on models, none of which can account for the cooling between 1940 and 1975.

Here’s a graph of global temperature over the last century, and explanations of why it varies. Things are always more complicated than you’d think. I’ve no idea whether climate models take into account the supposed cooling – it seems to be understood fairly well, from what I can tell – but here’s why not-perfect models are still useful and make confirmed predictions.

There’s lots more – he’s been reading books by climate change skeptics – but I want to skip to this:

Over the past 150 years, sea levels have risen by about 30 cm, which is the predicted rise for the next 100 years. Okay, it will happen slightly quicker, but we coped with that rise perfectly easily over the past 150 years so we can cope with it over the next 100 years.

Wtf. I lost electricity this evening, and the freezer’s been warming up. All the ice cubes have been fine for the last hour, though, so I’m sure they can cope for the next. No worries. What’s that, you say? Everyone else’s freezers have broken down too? What do I care about them?

Secondly, we have urban heat islands. In cities, temperatures have risen considerably. The temperature in London has risen between 4 and 6° C since 1950, as it has in Los Angeles, Tokyo and other places. It is a fact of urbanisation called the global heat island effect. We know how to deal with that. If we are richer, we can have air conditioning. We know that if we put in more parks, water and trees in cities, we can cool them considerably. We know how to do that. We can adapt to that very successfully.

Brilliant! Air conditioning is the solution! You’ll be kept cool, and there are no ironic disadvantages. Only if you’re rich, of course – if you’re poor, screw you. And what an idea to build lots of parks in, you know, the world! If only someone had thought that planting trees might help. Ooh, could cost a bit, though – best watch that.

Did I mention he’s a Conservative? Can you tell? It’s almost like the rest of the world doesn’t exist.

To be fair, he abruptly comes back down to Earth a bit later:

Some man-made warming is going on. It is worth taking action now: a price mechanism through carbon tax, energy efficiency and nuclear power are worth pursuing, especially nuclear power. Research into alternative power sources—fusion, carbon capture and adaptive strategies—is also worth conducting.

I agree about nuclear power, but I’m not sure about fusion – that’s a way off, I think. Hardly makes up for the earlier comments, though.

I’m far from knowledgeable about climate change, but I see no reason to doubt the conclusions of massive, independent studies by the UN and countless governments. Whenever I investigate any claim that supposedly casts the whole thing into doubt – usually by non-scientists, and usually with a great deal of paranoid conspiracy thrown in for good measure – there’s a comprehensible annihilation of it by people who know what they’re talking about.

So this is all a bit depressing, but at least he’s showing an interest.

  1. to be fair, the train service from Stratford to London isn’t the best []