Am I a dog? Vote Now

April 22, 2014

When I wasn’t trying to solve the fiendishly difficult Easter Clue Hunt my kids set for us, I spent a pleasant hour or two re-discovering the original wiki, started by Ward Cunningham in 1995. It still feels fun and anarchic and useful. Another day I will start a rant on what is and isn’t a wiki .. but meanwhile … one thing that struck me is that the community policy is Real Names Please. This seems to run counter to standard Internet sociology. What many people love about the Internet is that nobody knows you are a dog. On the other hand, maybe hiding behind anonymity is what leads to the nastier sides of the internet, like trolling. I note that I just made a couple of wikipedia links there. Now the folks that edit wikipedia are by and large a sane and well behaved community, but most usernames have almost no information, or little that tells you whether to trust this particular editor. I can see that one wants to avoid things getting personal, but its far too easy to make sock-puppets.

My instinct is that openness and transparency is good. I always sign my referees reports. (So if you just got a mean one that you suspect is me, it isn’t!!) On the other hand, from various experiences of friends and colleagues, I am well aware that sometimes you need privacy. And of course we need the possibility to blow that whistle without the secret police knocking on the door etc. But how common is all that? Enough. Lets do a poll thingy. Which of these is closest to your opinion?


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.

Marginal solution

November 27, 2013

Okey dokey. Better reveal the solution to the stat-geek marginalisation quiz. There were sixty two votes.

The popular winner was the economics/marginal profits idea, with 31 votes. Plausible but wrong.

The second most popular was the “marginal interest” idea. Well… this is what the term has more or less drifted into meaning, because (almost) everybody has forgotten the true origin. So… wrong.

Nobody voted for “lost in the mists of time”, which proves you all care. How nice.

Only two people voted for EB Margin being the pseudonym of WR Gossett. This disappointed me, both because it is funny and because it was supposed to be a cunning false trail. WS Gosset in fact published his papers under the name of “Student”, which is why we have the “Student’s t test’.

So of course the correct answer was other. Sorry if that was an annoying tactic, but I think if I’d made the right answer one of the choices, it would have been too obvious. Amongst the 6 suggestions, two were for our amusement :

“I’d write the reason here but there’s not enough room in the margin”
“To marginalise those who don’t know”

and four were were spot on or more or less right

“Refers to margins of a contingency table”
“thought it was to do with averaging rows, with answer stuck in the margin”
“your are projecting the 2D pdf onto the “margin” of the plot”
“Sweeping the probability to the edge (=margin) of the paper?”

Sounds like the first two people knew, and the second two deduced the right answer. If you were one of those people, award yourself an extra biscuit at coffee time, and feel free to announce yourself.

Just to it spell out..  As physicists, we nearly always think in abstract mathematical terms, so we think of  “marginalisation” as a calculus problem – an integral. Even when thinking visually we picture a joint probability distribution as a smooth surface in three dimensions. But early statisticians were often concerned with tables of numbers, and worked on paper. Think of a joint frequency distribution as a grid of numbers in cells. Then  add up a row, and write the answer in the margin. When you have done this for all the rows, read down that margin, and – voila – the marginal distribution for y.

Don’t start me on regression…

A quiz of marginal interest

November 20, 2013

Two things we know.

(1) Scientific terminology is burdened with the baggage of history, which now makes no logical sense. So… early type galaxies are the ones with late type stars? Errr… And which of these terms relates to a sequence in time? Neither. Right. Very helpful.

(2) When you have to teach something, you finally figure out things that have been bugging you for years.

(3) Nobody expects the … oh. Anyway. Often (1) and (2) combine to make a particularly thick fog.

For some time the term “marginalisation” had been nagging at me, but I ignored it because I had other stuff to get on with. I am referring to the term in statistics. You have a probability density function of two variables, f(x,y), but decide that y is “interesting” and x is “uninteresting”. You then integrate over x to get a PDF p(y) for y alone. This known as “marginalising over x”.

So here is the quiz. My guess is only about seven people will want to take it, but I can’t resist it.

Rule (a) Andrew Liddle is not allowed because I already told him the answer in the pub. Rule (b) No Googling. Rule (c) Never talk about  Stats Club.