The Truth is Out There … isn’t it?

April 17, 2014

Its disconcerting reading/watching the news from Ukraine. Not just because of the fear of decades of war to come, but the temptation to slide into relativism. Statements and stories from various quarters vary from the vaguely inconsistent to the baldly contradictory. Its tempting to think “well, they are all lying”, or “hmm.. it all depends on your point of view”. You slide down that slope and pretty soon there is no truth. We can’t let that happen. The truth is out there somewhere. Its just hard to extract from the filtered messages. As scientists, our philosophical stance is that we must be personally sceptical; you should not trust authority blindly. That’s all very well but I ain’t going to Kharkiv to make my own observations. I have to trust somebody don’t I? But who? In descending order of reliability, I guess its (1) The Guardian and the BBC (2) Our own governments (3) The Ukrainian government (4) The Russian government (5) My mate Kevin who is usually down the Dog and Ferret on a Friday, and (6) The Daily Mail.

Mind you, some days science is just as hard. I mean research, the process of uncovering new truths. The truth is out there, but its hard work to find. There are no tablets of stone. You’ve been working on something for months, but every so often you wake up in a sweat thinking oh crap it could all be wrong. Suppose X is going on instead of Y? (Radio loops versus inflationary polarisation anyone?) The philosophy of science doesn’t help. Most scientists claim to be Popperians. You can never prove, you can only falsify. All models are provisional. But its such a small step from there to “all truth is provisional”. Somehow we have to cling on to the belief that there IS a definite truth; its just that we can never have it.

A further problem is the same one we get in trying to understand Ukraine: the human filter. We can’t make all our own measurements. We have to read other people’s papers, go to conferences, and so forth. But we are all human; chasing our careers; making our pitch; following fashions; squabbling with rivals. This doesn’t mean we are not sceptical and rational; we are. But the messages are filtered through biology.

Our biology filtering a truth that is out there is essentially the message of much of Eastern mysticism and Buddhism. I have long been fascinated by where mysticism chimes with science, and where it jars. Definitely some of each. I am sitting through a MOOC on Buddhism and Modern Psychology which is quite fun. (Partly of course in mentally preparing myself for my upcoming AstroTech MOOC. Scarily soon. Gulp.) Anyway…  Zen holds that at least in principle once the biases and illusions have been stripped, you can actually personally and directly perceive the truth. Satori. Unexcelled Complete Awakening.

Boy. I’d just love a kind of mini-Satori on the structure of quasars.


Concrete Science Epiphanies

April 9, 2014

The title is a kinda cultural reference to Musique Concrete, don’t you know. Maybe should be read in French.  Sea-onss kon-krett. Pretentious, Moi?

Anyhoo. I have always loved that moment when Jane Public looks through a real telescope and sees the rings of Saturn. Suddenly its real. Not on TV. Seen with her own eyes. There is a physical context. She had to walk up some stairs to the roof, queue up, bend at an awkward angle, and squint. Mental processing is good, but physicality is also good. It helps the scientific understanding, and it has a separate cultural impact which has its own importance. Its a kind of epiphany, an awakening.

I encountered two more such epiphanies yesterday. Here in Edinbrr its Science Festival time. (In Edinburgh, if you miss a Festival, don’t worry. There will be another one along in a minute.)  During the day I donned my STFC tee-shirt and helped out at the STFC roadshow, Seeing The Universe In All Its Light. This has all sorts of groovy things, but the bit I loved best is dead simple. We had a bunch of TV remote controls and pointed them at people’s camera phones. You can see the IR beam, which you can’t see with your naked eye. People almost gasp. There are invisible things in the Universe, but they are really there. You don’t need a million pound device. I can see it with with my own phone.

Wind forward to the evening, where I was part of the SCART Connection, a strange event that presented the results of pairing up scientists from the School of Physics and Astronomy with artists from the Edinburgh College of Art to see what they would come up with. This involved microscopic pictures of sludge crystals, sculptures of Ice-2,  Fibonacci spirals, a social soundscape project, and yours truly pontificating about cosmic violence to the accompaniment of electronic music by a local composer.  All very weird and wonderful. One thing that struck me was people’s reactions to a movie of those tiny sludge crystals. You could see them jiggling – Brownian motion in action. When told that this was caused by buffeting by atoms, their eyes bulged. Atoms? I can see them in a movie made by a guy from the Art College? Wooaahh.



Restart Miscellany

March 26, 2014

Some chums complained I have written no blog posts for about eight million years. I blame teaching. Anyway. Lets see. How do you do this thing? Scrapes off rust. Here are a few bits.

(1) At last the STFC Programmatic Review emerges!!! Get it here. I have tried to wade through it, but it looks like all the interesting bits are [redacted]. I encountered one or two cynics who claimed most of it was about the process rather than the results. Unfair. I would say its no more than 40%. About another 40% is generic RCUK Boilerplate.

(2) Research Fish. Don’t even start me.

(3) George Fraser died. This was a real shock and a terrible loss to X-ray astronomy. But he has the most astonishing swan song. Here is his incredibly careful and potentially crucial paper which claims a detection of the signal of solar axions interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field.

(4) The other reason I have been a tad busy is that I have been writing and filming a MOOC with me old mate Catherine H. It’s almost ready for show time : April 28th. You can tell your Auntie to sign up here.

(5) Seeing yourself on film, especially as the free bus pass approaches, is a tad disconcerting. I seem to be perfecting the scrawny old lizard look, whereas I am expecting myself to look vaguely like Charles Manson.  Sorry, off on a 1970s nostalgia kick, as a result of watching this documentary about Mike Oldfield and the making of Tubular Bells. This made it pretty clear (if it wasn’t already) that he was inspired by Terry Riley. Rainbow in Curved Air still amazes me. Here is a yewtoob version with groovy astropix. I think the gaudy artist’s quasar at 5mins in is from an ESO press release I was involved in. Enjoy.


Deadlines. We love ‘em

January 5, 2014

Happy New Year all. Virtual Handshake.

Just discovered a groovy new web comic called Toothpaste for Dinner thanks to Tweeter @Mariancall via @CatherineQ . Well, its new to me anyway. This one is The Creative Process and will cause both giggles and nods from anybody who does anything creative which involves a deadline. This includes writing a paper or submitting a proposal…

We all love deadlines. The usual joke is “I love the whooshing noise as they go past me” which is tres amusant, but the real problem is that we tend to meet them by the skin of our teeth and let them destroy our sanity. As in aforelinked cartoon. (NB WordPress confirms my creativity. In the edit box every neologism is underlined in red. Bizarrely, this is true of “WordPress”. Anyway. Yes. Where was I?)

I have noticed a consistent pattern, especially coming up to observing runs.

  1. Start work nice and early, in a relaxed manner.
  2. Two weeks somehow drifts by.
  3. Make a plan, organise work into sections.
  4. This isn’t really working and time is passing. Getting somewhat nervous. Realise what you need is a priority list of tasks. Start working down from the top in a firm manner.
  5. The first task is half done and there is a few days to go. Getting distinctly twitchy. Miss coffee break and grab sandwich lunch but still hard to concentrate.
  6. Your flight is day after tomorrow. Feeling of desperation building. Suddenly realise got this list thing wrong. Start working up from the bottom crossing off things that aren’t essential.
  7. Flight is tomorrow. Half list crossed off from bottom. Panic starting. Go back to top and fiercely ask of each item – right, will it be a disaster if I don’t do this?
  8. Six pm in your office. Standing in middle of room unable to move because pulled in multiple directions, and muttering “not physically possible … not physically possible..”
  9. Midnight. Suddenly think “screw it, thats good enough”. Immense feeling of relief washes over you and you to go to bed.
  10. Catch flight, have perfectly good observing run etc. Possibly a few things have to be improvised.

Of course, that last minute improvising thing is a bit tricky when making ESO style Observing Blocks. For the benefit of any ESO staff that may be reading this blog I should of course clarify that I always make OBs in a calm, efficient and timely manner, with no errors. Hem.


Book fever

December 13, 2013

I am terribly excited because my book just came out. Three years in gestation, but finally got there. Its called “Astronomical Measurement – a Concise Guide”, its published by Springer, and it even has a Kindle version. I am not expecting you all to rush out and buy it, because like most textbooks it is horribly expensive – 26p a page as Mike Watson pointed out. You will appreciate that the price was not chosen by me…

Career-wise, I think maybe finishing a book ranks third after finishing a thesis (btw, well done Jack!) and seeing my first research paper come out, but pretty groovy nonetheless. I was expecting a warm glow for a day or two. But what took me pleasantly by surprise was the very positive reactions from many friends, colleagues, and distant rellies. I guess I was expecting that most people would just think “err yeah ok, thats what academics do isn’t it, write textbooks? I expect you give some lectures too.” Or perhaps the younger ones would be thinking “oh, a book, how quaint, do people still do those?”.

Through most of my life books were very important to people. Its not just the stories. Its the physical presence. A book-lined room was what we dreamed of. The smell of a new book is wonderful. I love picking up an old book in a dusty second hand bookshop and finding it signed “To Eric, Christmas 1938″. A new friend walks into your room and goes straight to your shelves to see what kind of person you are, and a conversation starts.

Well now of course the future of the physical book is unclear, along with the physical music album and perhaps the physical lecture course. (I am halfway through filming a MOOC …) But its not even clear that eBooks will survive. What I mean is, when all the material you need is dispersed through many web pages, all indexable and searchable, why do you need to package material into 300 page chunks? Shouldn’t content diffuse and spread and mingle? Part of the appeal of a book has always been the heft. Never mind the quality, feel the width. But once that is gone, why do you need so many dumb consecutive words, as opposed to a complex hyperlinked reality?


Do The Right Thing

December 6, 2013

Like millions of others, I have been welling up listening to people on radio and TV recount their memories of Nelson Mandela. I’ve never even been to South Africa, but during my youth and early manhood, the struggle against apartheid was the great cause for anybody with a heart and a political head, the rotten thing in the world that needed fixing. A short but vivid memory from a few years before Mandela was released is of watching TV and seeing Soweto youths burst across a field, with sticks. I can remember being exhilarated, and thinking yes, they are bursting from their chains – it will all change now. Then moments later I felt guilty. Oh, surely, violence is bad? What we need is peace, love, and understanding? Well mostly yes, I do believe that peace and love is best. But sometimes … sometimes …

Everybody on the Beeb is stressing that Mandela was a great man because he resisted revenge : he emerged from decades of injustice with a message of co-operation and peace. He did the right thing. He did the right thing again five years later when he stepped down, visible proof of the democratic transfer of power. Sometimes we hear that during his time in prison he changed, and realised that he had to reach out to his gaolers.

Just occasionally it is mentioned that he did indeed plan acts of sabotage. In the beginning, in the early 1950s, he believed in non-violent direct action. But he saw it didn’t work, and 65 of his brothers were massacred by police. He decided he had to take up arms, and began forming a guerilla army. I am still waiting to hear somebody on the BBC say this : that too was the right thing.

I love the Beeb, but it is really a branch of the state. The message we are taught is that violence is bad. But the truth is that it is only bad if you ordinary people try to use it. The state needs a monopoly on violence, to maintain civil order. Mostly I believe this is correct : brutal but necessary. But sometimes … sometimes… I have never had to fight. I like to think that in the First World War I would have been a conscientious objector, and in the Second World War I would have signed up. You shouldn’t fight for power, but you should fight evil. But who knows.

So … taking up arms in the late 1950s was the right thing. Rejecting revenge in the 1990s was also the right thing. Having the strength of character to do both, to have the judgement to know what is right for the time – now that is wonderful. Lets not airbrush the violent past. Its part of why the reconciliation was so amazing.


Borders Meltdown

October 25, 2013

I do like to keep up to date. So here is a link to a 2009 blog post about the US Republican Party. George Djgovsiki Dvosrgksji Djorgiojski me old mate George from Caltech just posted a link to this on Facebook. It’s based on a book called Albion’s Seed which I have been fond of since ex-SLAC chum Jack Singal bought me a copy as a present. I wrote a connected blog post about Puritan Sex back here.

Short version. Appalachian/backwoods/redneck culture comes from the borders of Scotland and England. This was a war-torn lawless region that bred a culture that had no trust in authority and believed only in family and clan. Fiercely stubborn and violent. The traditional aristocratic slave-owning south on the other hand sprang from a Cavalier culture from Southern England. These two cultures – borderers and cavaliers – have traditionally made up the Republican party, with the aristos keeping the rednecks in check. What has happened over the last decade is that the rednecks have taken over, and are now holding America hostage at the same time as they are a diminishing part of American culture.

Pretty convinced myself, and its a strangely optimistic vision. This is not a crisis of American political culture. Its a crisis of conservatism. It cannot persist. It will implode. It just needs a few old-fashioned Republicans to start rebelling.

I just hope it happens before the Capitalist World System collapses.

Or do I?


The Art of Scientific Knowledge

October 16, 2013

I find myself musing again on the links between Art and Science. No, not the fact that the latest Booker prize winner apparently has an astrological structure, sigh. No, not even The Falling Sky, intriguing blend though it is of academic angst and lesbian lust. No. Umm. Where was I? Oh yes. Art. Grayson Perry has been delivering the first ever cross-dressing Reith Lectures  and very fine they are too. Yesterday’s was about how you judge quality in Art, a famously heated topic. (Can you have a heated topic, rather than a heated debate? Ed.)

There is no objective formula. The choices seem to be (a) The Market. (b) The Club – curators, critics and successful artists. (c) Public Opinion. All the tension seems to come from (c) disagreeing with (b). I have always been fascinated by the way folk are not content to just not like something; they get angry with Art. “My Johnny can do better than that” etc. Oh. Right. How come your Johnny ain’t famous then? I saw this in action the previous summer when visiting a Tracey Emin exhibition at the lovely Turner Gallery in my old home town of Margate. (An art gallery! In Margate!!!) Tracey is not quite my cup of tea but I was giving it a go. Suddenly there were staff scurrying around because a small child had drawn on one of the sculptures. The crowd was instantly split into the horrified bourgeoisie and the cheering polloi. Pardon my mongrel language approach.

So. Thats Art. Science? When we try get all philosophically rigorous we also find it really hard to pin down an objective assurance of truth. Cue pub argument about Hume, Popper, Feyerabend etc. But day by day the situation is the opposite. We know in our guts that the whole point of science is the search for objective knowledge, and that we have found a strange paradoxical but reliable method of getting at it; knowledge comes from honest scepticism.

We also take for granted that the arbiters of good science are us gals and guys in the club. (More gals please.) We don’t think the public should vote on whats true and whats not. There is no market in science. You can’t simply proclaim yourself an expert (though some try). There are not even any gentleman amateur scientists any more. You pass your exams, convince an interview panel, take the Government Shilling or the University Penny, expose your work nervously at conferences full of other club members, and try to decide whether you want to play the Herd Member route or the Lone Wolf route. They can both work, as long as you keep publishing, although the latter is a harder trick to pull off.

But public opinion? You will note its called Public Outreach, not Public Insertion. We generously give them the benefit of our wisdom. Oh, but please, do explain again why you personally believe Einstein was wrong because public opinion is very important to us.  Yeah, right.


Truth, Belief, and Action

August 27, 2013

My daughter is doing a medical degree. At dinner the other day, I mentioned that a few years back everybody seemed to think that doctors would be replaced by expert systems. Did that happen? Oh no, she said, that’s never going to happen. Its the doctor’s job to decide. Hmm. I see a scientist’s job, much of the time, as a dogged persistence in avoiding deciding, as you hunt down the sometimes stubborn truth. You have to steer carefully between the Scylla of shallow herd fashion and the Charybdis of renegade self delusion, but the aim is constant – to discover what really is the case.

Of course we have statistical methods for dealing with uncertainty, whether it be missing information or true randomness. But even here, as scientists, we avoid jumping to a conclusion, as a fundamentally unsound thing to do. All I can do is tell you that on Hypothesis A, you would have been pretty unlikely to get that measurement. Doesn’t necessarily mean its wrong though… (Pour beer. Cue usual frequentist vs Bayesian argument. Fail to come to conclusion. Drink more beer.)

But for much of our worldly lives, its not about truth, and its not about decision – its about action. You can see this trio as a chain. You cannot take a sensible action unless you have made a wise decision. You cannot take a wise decision unless you know what is and what is not. Each step limits the landscape for the next, but does not fix the path. Well thats what Hume said, which is good enough for me, as he is an Edinburgh Local Hero. Got a statue on the High Street and everything.

We see this every day in public policy – should we punish Assad? Should we allow fracking? Anybody care to postulate the relevant probability distributions in the Syrian case? Thought not. What makes these debates so difficult is not just that we have to act before all the options or their consequences are clear; or that we have to decide whats going on before we know all the facts; its that different people are not even trying to achieve the same ends; and sometimes they don’t even realise this.

A curious and frustrating example is racial profiling. If your aim is to maximise the number of terrorists you stop, regardless of anything else, its hard to deny the statistical fact that if you randomly stop young asian looking men with beards you will do better than if you randomly stop middle aged white women. But if your aim is to minimise the number of terrorists you create over a period of years, you could be making a big mistake.

A few days back, I followed a Twitter link to this beautiful little video. A black American woman explains how she was asked out of the blue for two types of ID, and looked up in a bad-check book, at a supermarket checkout. Her white sister in-law, immediately in front of her, was not asked for ID. The  sister used her white privilege to step in and address the inequity, which is the political point of the story.

However what I found intriguing is that the woman telling this depressingly normal story is so clearly middle class, articulate, intelligent and trustworthy. It sounds like the checkout girl was not being mean, but dim. At the back of her head was not necessarily emotional dislike, but instinctive statistical reasoning – if I stop black people, I will find more bad checks. Well this is probably true, but its a bit like the old gag about the price of fish in Billingsgate market being correlated with the size of women’s feet in China. Most bad checks will be written by members of the impoverished underclass. Due to hundreds of years of social, economic, and political repression, black people in the USA make up a larger then average fraction of the underclass. But the woman in that video is patently not a member of the impoverished stressed out underclass. So what’s depressing is that this isn’t obvious to a supermarket checkout girl. Why can’t she read the signals?

So.. I guess education, in the largest sense, is the answer. Maybe we can’t avoid profiling. We just want better profiling. Academic readers can draw the analogy with citation statistics and divert the conversation as they wish.

Anyway. Got some grant applications to re-read.


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