New Year Mutterings

Another year is racing past the finishing post. Queenie’s Birthday Honours List  is out.  Not bad for science overall, with  Knighthoods for selllotape and pencil heroes Geim and Novoselov.Weaker than usual for astronomy and particle physics. I could only find an MBE for Derek Raine – well deserved, but awarded for services to education, not science. (Embarassing note : in the original version of this post I had some others but thats because somehow I had downloaded last year’s list as well.. Doh.)

Of course I have the usual confused mixture of approval and discomfort. Its good that public service is recognised; the MBE seems particularly important, as it rewards those all the way up and down the social tree, rather than just giving an extra bauble to those already at the top of the tree. But on the other hand it seems a throwback to a fusty and repressive past. Knighthoods, Orders, Empires ? The nobility only exists because a thousand years ago some people were better at bullying, greed, and violence than others. But hey ho thats the way of the world. At least now we have community workers, and they can be valued and rewarded. With a medal. Not a banker-style bonus of course.

I guess these thoughts are sharper than usual as the world is in a strange state. Europe and America about to plunge into recession again. Ordinary people in the Arab world and in Russia openly challenging their rulers. Tea Party nutters showing no sign of backing off.

I find myself more confused about politics than ever before. Communism failed and real people didn’t want it. But now Capitalism is failing too. Is there a genuine Third Way ? Maybe what we want is actual genuine Free Enterprise Capitalism, as opposed to the fake Capitalism of the last thirty years. Can we in fact allow people to trade freely, without the need for “trade agreements” stacked in favour of rich countries, invasions to control resources, and the IMF dictating to elected governments ? Well ok, a chap is allowed to dream at Hogmanay.

Maybe I should be careful what I wish for. State investment in science and technology makes rational sense in an imperialist economy. Its not clear what would happen in a genuine free market system.

Oh. On a cheerier note, I just passed the fifth birthday of the blog !


21 Responses to New Year Mutterings

  1. telescoper says:

    There’s an interesting list here of honorable people who declined honours:

    The strangest thing about politics seems to me that so many people appear think that there will eventually be an economic recovery and we can go back to living the way we have for the past 30 years. In reality we’ve been living beyound our means for so long that the world is essentially bankrupt. The future is going to be decidedly less comfortable for all apart from the ultra rich. All I can say is that I’m glad I’m no longer young.

    • My look-ahead language parser came up with “All I can say is that I’m glad I’m no longer poor.” 🙂

    • Wow! John Cleese rejected a life peerage! I’m not a fan of the concept, but it would have been nice to have Lord John Cleese up there with Lord Martin Rees. Surely there would have been an opportunity during a debate to cry “I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition”!

      Kudos to the Royal Family for rejecting offers of life peerage across the board!

    • mattburleigh says:

      I was enjoying the list of honourable objectors until I reached Michael Winner (declined an OBE in 1996): “An OBE is what you get if you clean the toilets well at King’s Cross station.”
      If they ever offer me a gong (highly unlikely of course) I might be inclined to accept just so I’m not in the same club as that wretched cretin.

  2. says:

    “Embarassing note”

    Not as embarrassing as misspelling “embarrassing”!

    • andyxl says:

      Well done that man. I was wondering who would notice. And for those who accuse me of implicit sexism at this point, I have the real email address and you don’t.

  3. Tony says:

    Very pleased to hear about Derek. Greatly deserved.

  4. Tony says:

    Oh, and happy birthday, blogwise.

    Been having the same ponderings – must be the time of year or the fast approaching big six-oh! My philosophy MA thesis argued that inheritance was undeserved (and, so, anything left over at the end of a life ought to revert to the state – didn’t address the practicalities). Would people be less greedy if they couldn’t pass it on? Would society be ‘fairer’ if we all started from similar bases? Then the depressive side kicks in and I figure we’d f*ck it all up, whatever the ‘system’. Right, time to open the booze, methinks.

  5. Martin E. says:

    Always thought Paris Hilton was a good argument against inherited wealth. But my daughter is a good reason to pass it on. Hmmph. Stumped again. Happy New Year to all e-astronomers!

    • andyxl says:

      Tony, Martin – I don’t think inheritance is the primary problem these days, and as Martin intimates, how can you deny it to the super-rich unless we deny it to our own children too ? The problem (I think today …) is that the economy is distorted by super powerful structures – corporations, banks, armies, governments, oil companies – which can change rules to their own benefit, so the free market does not operate. What I don’t know is how much of the power and wealth carried in those structures is passed on through family lines… but in a way it doesn’t matter because its the structures rather than the people that cause the problem.

      • Tony says:

        I’m no longer convinced that more and more legislation to stop bad behaviour is the answer. We need to find ways to address peoples’ *belief* in their entitlement to grab as much as they can get and to do so by whatever means possible. No idea how but it has to start with the idea that some are born with the right to more than others.

      • “how can you deny it to the super-rich unless we deny it to our own children too”

        The sensible thing to do is to tax it as one would tax other income. Of course, this assumes that other income is properly taxed. (One should have it tax-free up to a certain amount, at least for large durable goods up to a certain value, so that one doesn’t have to sell the house to pay the tax on it.) Considering that people who inherit a fortune do essentially no work to get it, I could never follow the logic that it should be taxed less than ordinary income.

  6. MikeW says:

    Derek’s MBE was for science education, not just education. He has made some impressive contributions to all kinds of undergraduate teaching initiatives, something which I’m pleased to see marked with an honour. Well done Derek.

  7. […] want to depress myself and everyone else going on about that. The e-astronomer has already done something along those lines […]

  8. andyxl says:

    I should just add that as Regius Professor, I do actually have a warrant signed by Her Queen. Me Mum was thrilled and I thought it was a hoot. So while not exactly a Royalist, I am mostly quite happy with quirky ceremonies and dressing up in funny clothes and so forth. Nothing wrong with a bit of theatre. And I think politically I am still a pragmatist. But the last two years have really made me worried that we have been taken for a ride for the last thirty years and I am cross we didn’t notice.

    • Martin E. says:

      I never understood what being a pragmatist meant, except being flexible about means. Surely you have to be pragmatic toward some goal? And that goal defines what your politics really are.

      • andyxl says:

        Martin – my understanding was pretty much the opposite. You derive meaning and value from practical considerations, rather having pre-existing values and then designing practice to get there.

  9. Clive Page says:

    There’s an entertaining and illuminating article in today’s Financial TImes by Andre Geim. It’s behind a paywall (but free registration for limited access), but I’ll post a couple of extracts here:

    I then experienced a distinct sense of déjà vu at the European Commission’s first Innovation Convention in December. It was clear that everyone there loves science. José Manuel Barroso said both publicly and privately that he trusts science will in the end solve all our problems, from the current economic crisis to climate change. Science was unanimously referred to as the only reliable medicine for sorting out all our traumas and providing long-term growth. Such deep faith in science was remarkable, and my heart melted. But there was a catch. It was equally clear that policymakers perceive science as something abstract and remote, à la Santa.

    Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Cambridge University vice-chancellor, was the most reassuring about our economic future. He reminded the audience several times that he represented an 800-year-old institution. According to Sir Leszek, innovation will be fine, so long as everyone follows the model of his 800-year-old institution. Everyone applauded his positive attitude at the time of crisis.

    Don Tapscott, author of Wikinomics, was the advertised star of the show. He explained to the audience that Boeing’s Dreamliner – 20 per cent more fuel efficient than earlier models – is possible due to a new business model of web networking. He did not bother with such details as better engines and aerodynamics, and the use of new composite materials. His message was so well received that, watching the enthusiastic applause given to him by officials, I imagined them issuing a mandate that all Commission staff join Twitter and carry a second Blackberry.

    My own talk was a waste. I reminded the audience that without scientific discoveries there could be no new basic technologies and, without these, scope for innovation was limited. Eventually, we would end up in a great stagnation, if we are not there already. I also warned about the emerging technology crisis that stems from chronic underinvestment in basic sciences for the past 30 years. Amid other, more acute, crises this has gone unnoticed, because it takes decades for scientific discoveries to result in consumer products. Previously, science was high up governments’ agenda because of external threats but, without them, calls for better funding are doomed to be ignored amid cries for lower taxes.

    How far I was off the mark can be judged from the following anecdote. At a dinner table, European officials and science ministers were curious about my line of work. In 2010 I shared the Nobel prize for physics for my work on graphene, an exciting new material with a wide range of potential applications. But graphene was no good as a reference.

    So, I explained that I was at the start of a long economic chain leading to more powerful computers and gadgets, which require smaller and faster transistors. To my surprise, the listeners were well informed. I should not worry – one interjected – Moore’s law, which says that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles every two years, would take care of everything. I felt snubbed. I had no strength to explain that Moore’s law is not a law of nature but an observation.

    What is the moral of my journey? Karl Marx, who was a disastrous revolutionary but a good economist, once stated that every nation had the government it deserved. Judging from the Brussels convention, Europe has exactly the state of innovation that we deserve.

  10. Regardless of whether one agrees with his remarks, it is interesting that he came to Europe (whatever that* is) and has had a successful career here, not without recognition.

    *Note that this chart includes neither ESO nor the EBU.

  11. Tony says:

    A late entry to this discussion. Check out Will Hutton’s FiveBooks on fairness & inequality:

  12. Collin says:

    Good news and bad news. The good news is I’ve finally found a group that vigorously asserts science as a good thing in the world. Not science serving some other motive like bling or atheism. The bad news is they’re Communists (their own designation) who want to destroy America.

    We must answer them with our own science front fit for democracy. The time for mind games is over. Everyone, regardless of income level, race, ethnicity, religion (or lack thereof), or any other criterion, lives in the same universe and the same reality. We cannot afford to let our ideological differences render us meek in the face of the rising tide of absurdity and paranoia.

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