Tricky Dick, Leicester’s own

February 5, 2013

Except he wasn’t of course. Just murdered and buried there, poor sod. He should be re-buried in Yorkshire. Anyhoo, by majority vote, the Leicester archaeology team did a fine job. It was all very exciting and splendid, and a lovely boost for my second Alma Mater… so of course here are a few carpings : (is carping a noun? Ed)

(1) Did you see the Channel 4 documentary? It was both fun and worrying – all that nervous weeping, buried-under-the-R stuff, and interviews with nutty Ricardians. I guess it was planned as a jokey look at over-keen amateurs and the usual “aren’t the eggheads funny”  stuff, presented by a comedian, but bugger me they spoiled the plot by actually finding the bastard. Still… it was enjoyable.

(2) Big press release before the paper is refereed? Oooohhh dear …. Martian meteorite anyone? As far as I can tell, the team did do a very thorough job, but you never know. Somewhere I saw some dark mutterings about “only thirty base pairs”. Where was that? Probably somewhere in the Grauniad, but unless @wikimir points me to the right page, I don’t know where to look. Anyway, with something as big as this, they probably had no choice.

(3) The only bit that grated for me was the  corporate wording of the announcement. “So, the academic conclusions of the University of Leicester are..”. Not, you’ll notice  “..the conclusion that I, learned scholar, have come to is…”. Boy those Leicester people have their scientists well trained ! There was me thinking that universities are multilithic cultures, convenient agglomerations of scholars. Well of course we are all under pressure, so one can’t blame an organisation for trying. My first Alma Mater and current employer has got about a quarter of the way towards house training Peter Higgs. But somehow I can’t help feeling it could be done with a little more subtlety. You don’t find starlets on chat shows saying “well, in my latest Warners Bros movie…” but somehow Warner Bros make a decent living …

Guest Post : Humble Questions

July 30, 2012

Some people have this annoying habit of starting a blog post with an embarassing statement about how they haven’t posted for a while, thus drawing unecessary attention to their failings. Well, I have absolutely no intention of mentioning… oh hang on. Bugger. Already done it. Oh. Well. Anyway. LUCKILY, old chum and intellectual sparring partner Martin Elvis has supplied me with a lovely guest post. It follows on from my previous post, and is a plea for asking answerable questions. I think its spot on – how about you ?

Humble Questions
Martin Elvis, Harvard-Smithsonian CfA

Scientists are sometimes criticized for their hubris, trying to explain the whole Universe, searching for the beginning of Time, or for the God Particle that gives mass to all things. But excuse us, that was never our intent. A feature of science, why it has been successful, is that it asks humble questions.

The alchemists famously wanted to find the Universal Solvent, or to turn Base metals into Gold. It’s good to have ambitious goals, surely. “Make no small plans”, they say. Well, no. Not if you have no idea how to achieve them. Your plans should be just as big as they need to be to answer a well-posed question. It’s too easy to ask a big question. Science began when some folks decided to ask small questions: How does a ball roll down an inclined plane? What if I pump the air out of a closed container? Being happy to get answers to these questions, led on to more questions, and those to more still. And after 400 years of one tractable question after another, we have the extraordinary questions we can ask today.

Linking these questions up with mathematics was often a good way to make the questions sharper, though not always. Some technologies – gunpowder, transparent glass, printing – made progress more rapid. And publishing our answers to these questions publicly made a huge difference. But the main point was to ask tractable questions, ones that you had an idea how to answer.

For some time I’ve felt that present day philosophers are stuck with asking the same Big Questions, and have made only as much progress as the alchemists did. But now I’m worried that Big Science has run off in the same direction. We want a Theory of Everything, but 50 years of searching has produced only tantalizing clues in 6 dimensions. We want to understand Dark Energy, the ‘anti-gravity’ that accelerates the expansion of the Big Bang. But all we know how to do is to measure that acceleration more and more precisely. So far that has produced zero insight. There are an infinite number of theories that can fit the data, and there will still be an infinite number of theories if we measure the acceleration 10 times more accurately. We will want to image the Other Earths that we expect find soon, map their continents, study their vegetation. But that needs telescopes far, far, larger than we can currently build. These are not good questions. In his Op-Ed “The ‘Nightmare Scenario’ ” James Owen Weatherall (UC Irvine) says of high energy physics: “We are faced with a struggle between the questions we want to answer and the limitations of our abilities – and at some point, perhaps soon, our limitations will win the day”.

Is there really a point at which we should say “This is too hard a question. We don’t have a clue how to answer it, or the best plan we have costs so much we couldn’t do anything else. So let’s shelve it for now. Maybe in 50 years we’ll see how to get at it.” Superconductivity remained unsolved for 50 years. No-one knew how to attack it and/or they didn’t have the technology. It’s plausible that another clue to Dark Energy will come up thanks to research in some other area of astrophysics, or elsewhere. Perhaps in 50 years we’ll be able to afford much bigger telescopes in space to image new Earths. Perhaps In solving another problem, maybe in mathematics or computing rather than physics, we may see how a Unified Theory of quantum gravity can be built. Almost certainly it won’t be the tricks that worked before. Einstein and Feynman failed. New ways of thinking are needed. They may be Outsider now, but perhaps the approaches of Robert Laughlin (“A Different Universe“) or Stephen Wolfram (“A New Kind of Science“) are what we need. What now seems a weakness, may be re-imagined as a strength. 1/3 cannot be expressed as a decimal. Is that a problem, or does it point the way to irrational numbers?

This is not a cry of despair. Weatherall is too pessimistic. Building ever bigger colliders has probably hit its limit. But we will find other ways. We’ve always made these choices. Asking what the stars were made of, even though it’s an obvious question, was left alone because there was no way to address it. Then Kirchoff and Bunsen were taking their exercise along the Philosopher’s walk in Heidelberg talking about how their new spectrograph had analyzed the composition of a fire in the nearby city of Mannheim. Bunsen half joked “Why should we not do the same with regard to the Sun?”* Moment of silence. Bingo! Now we can ask what the Sun is made of, because we can see a way to find out. This was the birth of modern astrophysics. There’s still a huge amount of science we do know how to make progress on. Modest specialized telescopes found exoplanets and Dark Energy. New ones can test quantum chromodynamics, not to mention understanding galaxies and quasars. Ongoing laboratory searches could well identify the Dark Matter. Meanwhile, we leave unanswerable aside.

The trick in science has always been to ask the right questions – not too easy, not too hard. (Imre’ Lakatos, a philosopher of science, called it being able to imagine a research program.) We do best when we see how we can go forward easily; the means of doing so may not be all that cheap, though it can be. What we do have to do is to ask humble, but not too humble, questions.

* as recounted in an anonymous article in Nature in 1902 (vol.65, p.587).

Arabic Science Tidbits

February 10, 2011

Another episode in the “Andy’s favourite books” series. I just finished reading “Pathfinders : The Golden Age of Arabic Science” by Jim Al-Khalili. Jim is a physicist from Surrey, but also a TV presenter – you may remember “Atom” and “The Secret Life of Chaos”. This book grew out of a three part TV series called “Science and Islam”, but goes well beyond it. I love books that are popular in intent, but also serious works of scholarship. I won’t attempt to review the whole book. Here are just a few things that struck me as interesting.

  • I had thought that mediaeval Arabic science was important mainly for passing the flame from Greece to Europe, and that this happened through Andalusia. In fact they clearly made deeply original contributions and greatly improved on Greek science; and the Andalusian thing was a late stage. The golden age was ninth century Bagdhad.
  • As ever, patronage was crucial. The early Abbasid caliphs encouraged and funded open-ended work, which was incredibly successful. This coincided with growth and confidence of the Abbasid empire itself. As the good times ebbed, science continued, but the authorities were more insistent on it being useful – economically, militarily, or religiously. Sound familiar ? Thinking of the Medicis of course…
  • The broader intellectual outlook was important for encouraging science. Just as Renaissance science flourished in the context of the humanist movement, so too did Arabic science in the context of Mutazilism , which argued against over-literal reading of the Qu’ran,  and stressed the importance of human reason within Islam.
  • Why then ? Why there ? Al-Khalili suggests there is a technological answer –  papermaking (as opposed to papyrus or parchment) which came to Samarkand in 751 when a Chinese army was defeated, and prisoners taken who knew the technology. Flax and hemp were abundant around Samarkand. Around the same time, there were great advances in the making of dyes, glues, leather, and book-binding techniques, all of which resulted in cheap and robust books.
  • Hundreds of years later, Al-Khalili argues that part of the reason for the decline of Arabic science just while European science was starting up, was that Arabic script was much harder to print than Latin script, because letters take different shapes depending on their position in a word.
  • Here is a favourite wee snippet, which is the origin of the term “sine”, as in opposite-over-hypotenuse. Hindu mathematicians used the Sanskrit word jya-ardha, meaning “half the bowstring”. (Draw the chord of a circle and stare at it…) This was abbreviated to jiva, which Arabic scientists transliterated as jiba, and customarily abbreviated as jb. Robert of Chester first translated the Arabic work, and misread jb as jayb, which means “pocket”. So he used the Latin word for pocket – sinus.

Well you do learn stuff if ya read books.

Get your boots on

October 8, 2010

We interrupt Geek Week to wish good luck to those going on the Science is Vital Rally tomorrow. Fraid I have stuff to do, but I will be there in spirit.

That splendid chap Drevan Harris has written an open letter to George Osborne setting out the case. Its very clearly and forcefully written, so if you read nothing else on the subject, read that. The other thing definitely worth a butcher’s is the Scientific Century Report put together by the Royal Society. Chock full of useful facts and figures, and again putting a forceful case, not just for science, but specifically for public spending, especially through the Research Councils.

It contains a figure I copy below, showing public R&D expenditure in real terms from 1970 to 2008. See if you can, without reading the x-axis, locate the period of time occupied by the previous Conservative Government. Not hard.


Public R&D 1970-2008, Royal Society Report, The Scientific Century


Vital Problems

October 4, 2010

In case you hadn’t noticed there is a petition brewing – Science Is Vital. The arguments against cutting the science budget are well made, and there is a rally planned next Saturday. Volume of public protest does matter : sign up.

Amongst other things, the web site  stresses that science is not so much a fixed body of knowledge but an incomplete project. What don’t we know ? As a postgrad I was inspired by Ginzburg’s “Key Problems in Astrophysics”. I can’t promise to be that good, but here is my personal pick of Top Ten Big Problems. Probably on the obvious side. I’d love to hear your vote.

  1. Why is the Universe accelerating ?
  2. What is the dark matter ?
  3. Why did the Universe start in such a low entropy state ?
  4. Why are galaxy formation and quasar formation so closely linked ?
  5. Are Earth-like planets normal or weird ?
  6. Does the Oort cloud really exist  ?
  7. How is the solar corona heated ? (Time this one went…)
  8. Where did Life originate ?
  9. What causes gamma ray bursts ?
  10. How do relativistic jets form (Time this one went..)

Next up, some practical issues related to Astronomy

  1. Can we predict CMEs ?
  2. Can we find all the potentially dangerous NEOs ?

And some niggly worries

  1. Why are quasar metallicities the same at all redshifts ?
  2. Supernova models must surely be right, but don’t work (I hear).
  3. Quasar accretion disc models must surely be  right, but don’t work.
  4. How come the star formation radio-FIR relation is so constant ? Too good to be true.

I note that the niggling worries are closer to home for me. Probably there are lots of others I just don’t know about ….

Happy Wesak Day

May 28, 2010

I just agreed as usual to do the facepainting at the primary school fair. I love doing this, and the fact that I am ok at it intrigues me, because I have always been crap at art. I need to get to the bottom of thoughts about Art, Science, Academia, and Buddhism. Yes I know I should be writing a blog post about the new Government’s attitude to space, but just bear with me.

I have sometimes been caught up in academic debates about “bridging the gap between art and science'”. I’ve never seen the issue. My impression is that artists and scientists instinctively get on, each recognising that the others are engaged in creative work. We tend to be mutually in awe. I watch my daughter with a paint brush; a flick of the hand and something magical and evocative appears. How does she do that ? Likewise, artists I know gawp at our mathematical skill, and the ability to conjure up exotic ideas – black holes, the ambiguity of time and space. So there is difference but respect. If anything, the sneering cultural gap is between both of us and the “humanities”, disputatious folk who do not create but who analyse, recycle, and judge ideas.

So what joins Art and Science is creativity, and an instinct that the most important thing in life is to seek truth. There is however something that profoundly divides science and the graphic arts. Why did I manage face painting when I am so awful at drawing ? I think the answer was that I didn’t try to be creative. I just took some examples and copied them. My arty friends said “Well of course. Anybody can draw. You intellectuals just mess it up because you are always trying to draw the idea in your head. Just open your eyes and draw what you can see. Easy.”

Cue mysticism. The aim of meditation is the removal of desire, and the removal of illusion. The reason many people misunderstand mysticism is the assumption that the idea is to reach some deep, mysterious, weird and foggy world. In fact the point is to strip out of our heads the pictures that we force onto our sense data, and just see the world as it is. Like an artist.

So thats a very appealing idea, from both an artistic point of view and from a spiritual point of view. Wow ! Do you mean I can get spiritual insight without having to believe in gods and monsters and the book and all that crap ? Where do I sign ?

But it still leaves a scientist uncomfortable. Those pictures of the world – those theories – are explanatory frameworks. They are why we are doing this. We want to explain, not just reflect. Of course we have to make sure we don’t get dogmatically attached to our theories. If they disagree with the facts, we chuck ’em out and get new ones. That process of sceptically converging on explanations, is what science is. Its not Art. Its not Academic Disputation. Its not Buddhism. Its a method for finding truth..

Mind you, reading the astronomical literature, you get a strong sense of how tangled up we are in the current fashions, how every set of “facts” is seen through a theoretical filter. That organised scepticism thing is really hard. How do we open the doors of perception ?

Happy Wesak Day.

Sci Vote Mismatch

April 13, 2010

Warning : grumpy posting.

I arrived in London this morning and bought the Guardian. Front page news was the arrival of the lovely new Manifestos from Labour and the Conservatives . The Labour manifesto cover is just so socialist realist. Its a hoot. Anyhoo. In the Science net-o-sphere several blargs and columns have already tried to decode what they say about science – eg Mark Henderson at the Times, and Nick Dusic at the S-Word. General consensus seems to be that the Tory one is vague to the point of meaninglessness, and the Labour one promises a “ring-fence” but doesn’t mention the height of the fence as it were.  Is there actually a significant boffin vote ? Or are we hoping that basically Jane Public will vote for more Brian on the telly ?

Thumbing through my Guardian, I found the G2 section had an article called “How Science became cool” with several nice short pieces by Brian Cox, Martin Rees, Tim Radford and others. (The online version is here ). My favourite is by comedian Dara O’Briain. I didn’t know that he was such a geek. The most puzzling was by Kevin Fong, because his header said he was an astrophysicist, but the footer said he was a lecturer in physiology. Cor. Cool dude.

I found myself pondering two things. One. How does P.B.Cox get any real work done these days ? Two.  Yet again we see public displays of interest are about two thirds due to astronomy and particle physics. And one third genetics.

Conversely last week there was a very nice letter to the Times by a starry array of FRS bigwigs, which was all about how investment in science in general is crucial for a high technology twenty first century economy … but the list of signatories was heavily dominated by astronomers and particle physicists.

There is some kind of reality mismatch here. Is there much evidence that The Government has been mean to Science In General ? Not really. Is there evidence that The Government has been mean specifically to Astronomy and Particle Physics ? Yup. Do the politicians notice who is bitching ? Are the public stupid ? Don’t answer the last two questions.

Scientists on tap

November 9, 2009

I have been worrying about the Professor Nutt story, for personal reasons. For those who don’t know, this business is about the science adviser fired by the Home Office for criticising the government in public. Of course the gut instinct of most of our scientist colleagues will be to side with the Prof – Science versus the Barbarians ! Man the Barricades ! I am not so sure . Its the Government’s job to govern, and the Adviser’s job to advise. I wouldn’t quite go with the classic Winston Churchill quote – scientists should be on tap, not on top – but a little humility is due. On the other hand, the current government can be a tad brutish, as we know. It all depends what Nutt actually said, which I haven’t found out.

This is on my mind because I am about to take the Kings Shilling. As of next year yours truly is becoming chair of the Astronomy Grants Panel. Early Warning. Do not expect the inside dope. Do not ask. I will still be free to talk of matters Ess-Tee-Eff-ical, but anything connected with my newly privileged position will be off limits. STFC have asked me to help them, and that is what I will do.

Meanwhile, there is a renewed sensitivity to public comment in RCUK-land.  Upstairs of STFC they were very concerned about the Sunday Times story a few weeks back, that reported that STFC were seriously considering leaving CERN. The Sunday Times was able to write a somewhat alarmist story because they got a quote. This actually just stated the obvious – well, we will have to consider every option, Brian – but coming from a senior STFC staff member, whose blushes I shall spare, it sounded like a secret policy had been uncovered.  Sooo…. I understand that as a result new guidelines are being issued. Staff can freely comment on uncontentious things – like their own exciting science – but should refrain from things that might sound like a policy statement. Unless, presumably, it really is a policy statement. Quite right too. If I was in charge of RCUK I would I do much the same thing.

I just hope the baby isn’t thrown out with the bathwater…

Obama and the last scattering surface

January 21, 2009

What a fine day. I saw Obama’s inauguration and attended a colloquium by Rashid Sunyaev.

The three hour East-West time difference was just right. I was able to catch the inauguration speech on TV and still get in to work before coffee. It was a beautifully crafted and well delivered speech. Emotional but not mawkish. Had just enough content to avoid being vacuous, but not so much that his freedom of action is blocked once real world compromises are needed. And very promising from a rationalist point of view .. he said “we will restore science to its rightful place”, mentioned “curiosity” as one of the “values on which our success depends”, and even mentioning “nonbelievers” is very unnusual in America. You can see Andrew Jaffe’s take here, and read the speech here.

Sunyaev’s talk was fascinating. He is of course just a tad well known for things like inventing the “alpha disk” paradigm for accretion disks, and predicting the Sunyaev-Zeldovich effect; but in 1970 he also predicted acoustic oscillations in the CMB power spectrum. I didn’t know this. Its in this paper, published in Russian in 1970, and in translation in 1972.  He said that Zeldovich almost stopped him stating that such observations could measure Omega, because obviously these fluctuations could never be measured ! So now he has a new wacky prediction : seeing beyond the surface of last scattering by looking for the imprint of emission lines produced during the preceding recombination phase. These should produce tiny wiggles in the high frequency end of the CMB spectrum; measuring them could for example tell us the pre-stellar abundance of Helium. Sunyaev said that expert opinion is divided on whether these wiggles can be measured, but the twinkle in his eye let us know the right answer…


October 20, 2008

I had a very American Weekend. Saturday morning we left our comfortable  safe-as-milk suburban house in our Japanese car and set off on the six lane freeway, exiting over the hills to Small Town USA, a.k.a Half Moon Bay. This weekend Small Town came to life, thousands of visitors descending for the annual Pumpkin Festival. We had pumpkin pancakes for breakfast, gawped at the champion pumpkin (1528 lbs !!), and cheered our favourites at the pumpkin pie eating contest. Grand Marshall was Baseball Hero Will “The Thrill” Clark. Then we wandered down to the beach (still warm enough with your clothes on) where we saw bottlenose dolphins leaping in the surf. Finally we went back to town for a cheap Mexican dinner and then got in our car and returned through hyperspace to Palo Alto.

So, as the Chamber of Commerce will explain, Half Moon Bay is the Pumpkin Capital of the World. Last week on our roadtrip home from the City of the Angels, we passed through several other Capitals. Gilroy is the garlic capital of the world and yes indeedy it has an annual Garlic Festival. Lompoc it seems is the Flower Seed Capital of the World – see nice pictures here –  although maybe it could also have been the mural capital of the world. Even more appealing, Buelleton is  the split-pea soup capital of the world.

I began to find this interesting, so Googled for some more. Of course, I have been thoroughly beaten to it. There is a list of “capital of” places here and a more general list of town nicknames here.  My favourite is Fort Payne Alabama. This is apparently the Sock Capital of the World. I think our friends in Nottingham may contest that.

For many decades, the USA has been able to claim that it is the Scientific Capital of the world. This it seems to me is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you turn up at Stanford or MIT or Caltech or whatever, it can be quite hard to find a genuine American. The corridors are full of Poles and Brits and Italians and Japanese and Russians. Its the best because everybody is here. Thats why they come. Because everybody is here. Because this is where they come …

If Western Capitalism falls about our ears, will they all go home ?