Friday, 14 October 2016

A new low in tabloid science reporting

Every now and then I have to sit down and breathe deeply when seeing a tabloid science headline that is about as far as the truth as is possible. Usually such headlines use a kind of bait and switch mechanism where the headline proclaims something dramatic, but the article makes much weaker claims, or points out that most scientists think this is a load of tosh. (Even New Scientist rather likes doing this.) But the Daily Express has come up with an outright winner where the article backs up the headline with a story that bears little resemblance to science as we know it.

Let's see if we can spot what's a little iffy with this 'Scientists discover what existed BEFORE the beginning of the universe' article:
  1. Scientists have not 'discovered' anything. That means finding something. What has happened is someone has come up with a model that produces these results. It's a bit like confusing having a business plan with being a billionaire.
  2. We read in the article 'they discovered what came before this universe was.. another universe or more accurately another "cosmological phase".' See above re what a discovery is. In reality they've made an educated guess based on a model.
  3. But best of all, we read 'Despite being infinite in size our universe is cyclical and has always existed in one of four stages.' Whoa - Paul Baldwin, the writer of this piece seems to know an awful lot the rest of us don't. We don't know the universe is infinite, we don't know it's cyclical and we don't know it has always existed in one of four stages. The rest - 'Despite' - is true.
When we get on to quotes from the scientists involved it all settles down. All they talk about is their model, not the universe itself. They point out their model avoids singularities, which is a nice to have (though hardly unique).

So, as a guide for intrepid tabloid hacks, here's the main thing to remember. A model is just that. To say that universe is like X because someone has a model of it is like saying a child can destroy Westminster Abbey by standing on it, because someone built a model of the abbey out of matchsticks and that's what happened when a child stood on the model.

Let me finish off with that sentence again, because it fascinates me. It has all the attraction of a slow motion traffic accident. 'Despite being infinite in size our universe is cyclical and has always existed in one of four stages.' Wow.

10 ways clickbait marketers get our attention - number 10 is amazing!

  1. See number 10
  2. See number 10
  3. See number 10
  4. See number 10
  5. See number 10
  6. See number 10
  7. See number 10
  8. See number 10
  9. See number 10
  10. By promising something like this. But they never deliver.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

A farewell to time travel?

I recently had pointed out to me that all my efforts in writing How To Build a Time Machine (aka Build Your Own Time Machine) were wasted because time travel is apparently impossible - at least according to this new theory which suggests that 'now' is defined by the extent of expansion of the universe and new time is only created with that expansion.

Thankfully, we don't need to worry too much. To begin with, the idea the theory presents of 'now' being defined by the state of expansion of the universe seems strangely detached from the fundamental idea in relativity that simultaneity is relative - the author seems to postulate a universal 'now' - which just doesn't exist.

And for that matter, it's a bit late to say that time travel isn't possible, because it is always happening on a small scale - relativity makes it inevitable. Tell the Voyager 1 probe, which has travelled over a second into the future that time travel isn't possible.

So even though the TARDIS or the Back to the Future DeLorean will certainly never work, there's no need to write off time travel.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Dad skills nonsense

I've now heard twice in a news context about the way that men are poor at 'dad skills'. I really don't care about whether or not this true. But what worries me here is how spurious the data is that produces this kind of news piece.

The 'news' was based on 'a survey of 2,000 men.' But we can't tell from this the quality of that data, nor do we tend to think about how the question is asked can have an influence on the result. 

In this particular case, I have seen the original questionnaire. Participants were asked to pick from a list of 50 'skills' by ticking a box (online) alongside each skill. I would be very surprised if most participants did not pick out the handful of skills they thought represented them best, producing a 'men are bad at dad skills' result. No one really wants to tick 50 boxes. I suspect the result would have been very different if they had started with all the boxes ticked and asked participants to untick the ones they were bad at.

Now, this was just a fun questionnaire - though you do have to ask why it has ended up in the news so much. But the same concern applies to any such data. Whenever we are presented data which supposedly represents people's opinion, we should be able to drill down to see exactly how the participants were asked the questions, as it can have a huge impact on the outcome.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Bonkers billboards

On my drive home from the centre of Swindon I pass a couple of billboards which have recently, once again, displayed a very mysterious message (one shown here*). It's a bizarre and pretty much meaningless message, yet someone has spent a lot of money on it. Billboard advertising is not particularly cheap.

You might think that it means Apple is going to sue us every time we mention an apple, but according to the website that seems to be related to the posters, it is all based on a bizarre pseudo-legal claim, with no basis in law, that your birth certificate means that you handed over your name to the Crown/government, and it is then illegal to use your name without their permission.

There have been absolute shedloads of discussion of these things on the internet - plus quite a few websites making the claim supporting this idea that you do not have legal ownership of your name. I'm not going to link to these for reasons discussed below, but you can easily find them if you wish. As far as I can see there can only really be three reasons behind this.

One is that there is a very rich conspiracy theorist who genuinely believes that the legal registration of our names is a state control measure, and we should therefore identify ourselves as WibblyWoo73, justifying all those silly online names we give ourselves before we get older and realise how stupid they look.

The second is that this is a vast clickbait/phishing programme, and the whole idea of it is to get you to look at one of their websites, which then plants something malicious on your computer. If so, it's a very expensive way to do it, compared with sending out spam emails or putting fake giveaways on Facebook. The only thing to be said for it is that spam tends to capture the naive, while this approach will catch the curious, and the two sets are by no means identical, so it would widen the scope of the scam.

And the third? It's the most expensive practical joke you ever saw, and all of us who are writing about it are falling for it hook, line and sinker.

This has all been going on now for some time - we had another outbreak of posters last year. Apparently the Advertising Standards Agency thinks the posters are harmless, so they may well continue for some time to come. Silly season fun, or dangerous misdirection? You pays your money and you takes your choice.

* I did not take this picture while driving.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Generating music

It's every teenager's duty to find music that his or her parents will hate. (I was discussing this with a daughter the other day, and it's very difficult these days, because parents' music is less different to that of their kids. My prog rock was worlds away from Bing Crosby - but unless my children liked rap, which they don't, it's hard to find any of their music which I don't find acceptable. However, I digress.)

I struggled with achieving something suitably distasteful, as my first love was classical, and I was very lukewarm about the obvious rebel music of my youth, punk, except in smartened up versions like Blondie and Toyah. But I eventually discovered the perfect choice in Van der Graaf Generator.

The dismal songs, the wailing sax and Peter Hammill's despair-filled rough vocals fit the bill entirely. Along with other student fancies such as difficult novels and Stockhausen, I gave up VdGG when I fully embraced adult life, but in the last few years I've come back to them (just the Generator, not difficult novels or Stockhausen). It's partly the surprising lyricism that lurks amongst the nihilism) - but it's also because it just sounds right again.

So I was delighted to lay my hands on the new Van der Graaf Generator album Do Not Disturb, even if a little saddened that it may be their last. The reformed group (they've done several 21st century albums) sadly lacks the saxophone, but that apart, there's plenty of the same delightful nihilism. It could be Nietzsche on vocals. Overall the sound is probably a little more approachable than it used to be - but it still might frighten your granny.

Highlights for me were the stark simplicity and weirdness of Room 1210 and the driving Forever Falling with (dare I say it) a touch of King Crimson about it until the vocal kick in very late, the contemplative, 12-tonish Shikata Ga Nai and the classic VdGG sound of Almost the Words.

It's not for everyone, but take a listen to My Room from the earlier Still Life album below for a taster if you feel at all intrigued.

Do not Disturb is available from and

Monday, 3 October 2016

We're all descended from slave owners

A recent Guardian article made a dark comment about the past of the British royal family. Jamie Doward tells us
Most royals are proud that they can trace their lineage back centuries. But princesses Beatrice and Eugenie may be reluctant to delve too far into their past. New analysis reveals that Prince Andrew’s daughters are the direct descendants of a major slave-owning family.
I've got a bit of news for Jamie. He too is a descendant of a major slave-owning family.

You may wonder how I know this, because I've never met Jamie, nor do I know anything about him or her. But I can make this claim with confidence because we all are descendants of major slave-owning families. One of the fascinating revelations in Adam Rutherford's book, A Brief History of Everyone Who Has Ever Lived, is that if you are of European origins, then you are a descendant of everyone alive at the start of the eleventh century who has living descendants. Every one of them. And plenty of them would have been slave-owning families.  (If you aren't of European origin, don't feel smug - the same goes for your ancestry, it's just the timescale may not be identical.)

On the plus side (if that's the right way to look at it), Jamie and the royals (and the rest of us) are also descended from slaves. And kings and queens. In case you doubt this can be the case, it's all about the combinatorial explosion. Go back a couple of dozen generations and if all our ancestors were unique we'd need many more than were alive back then. In reality family trees are not the neat linear things we are familiar with from genealogy - they are far more tangled and messy.

I have always been uncomfortable with the idea of looking back into ancestry and feeling pleased or guilty about what is found. We are not responsible for the behaviour or culture of our forebears. And the reality of our genetic background shows just how silly it is to think otherwise.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Alarming logic

I am faced with a small but satisfying logical puzzle in my office at Bristol University. When I come in first thing (actually, even if I come in about 10), the alarm is often set. In fact, the first time I ever entered the building the blasted thing started beeping at me, and no one had bothered to tell me there was an alarm. So now, as I belatedly know the code, I unset it. But the puzzle is - how and when does it get set?

I certainly never set it on leaving. I wouldn't know how to, and anyway I have no way of knowing if the building is empty. It's a tall, old house - my office is on the second floor and I can often spend the entire day here without seeing another inhabitant, though I regularly hear them. The same uncertainty must surely apply to any ordinary resident. So how is it done?

In principle it could be automated. To be safe, there would have to be motion sensors in every room, which as far as I can tell there aren't. So if it is automatic, perhaps they just assume there's no one here after, say, seven pm and set it. Pity the person trying to put some serious work in. The alternative is a security person pops in and does it. But if so, would he or she really bother to ascend the four flights of stairs to my room, night after night, when there's never anyone here? I somehow doubt it.

So it looks like it's likely to be a case of set the alarm and fingers crossed. Remind me not to work late.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Roald Dahl's Marvellous Medicine - review

I've never tried that US favourite of combining peanut butter and jelly (jam, for those who use proper English), but sometimes unlikely combinations do work well together - and that's the case here, where neuroscience professor and medical doctor Tom Solomon manages to bring together Roald Dahl's life story and medical popular science. Don't be put off by the university press publisher - this is not a heavy title.

The thing that links the topics together - the sandwich for the peanut butter and jelly - is Dahl's stays in an Oxford hospital, when Solomon was a junior doctor there. The two struck up a friendship, and Solomon very effectively makes use of their conversations as leaping off points both to take us through Dahl's fascinating life story and the medical incidents that peppered the author's life. We also get a few of Solomon's own experiences (if anything I'd have liked more of these), though it's not long before we are back with Dahl.

Apart from Dahl's own medical experience through to his final injection of morphine from Solomon, which included being rebuilt after a traumatic plane crash in the Second World War, Dahl's family had more than its fair share of medical tragedy. Two of his daughters died in his lifetime - one aged just seven from measles complications, his first wife had a serious stroke, and his son's pram was hit by a car, resulting in a serious brain complication, which led to Dahl helping to design a new kind of valve to reduce pressure on the brain and contributing to a paper in the Lancet.

According to Solomon, Dahl was always curious about medical matters, and they occur regularly in his writing as well as his family experiences. Whenever anything medical comes up, Solomon takes us through the detail of what's involved - though this is in no way a morbid book, lifted as it is by Dahl's life story. I'm personally not a great audience for medical matters (I can't even watch a medical drama on TV), but with a bit of judicious skipping of the more detailed medical aspects I still managed to thoroughly enjoy this book, both in finding about more about this remarkable author, and also in the sensitively handled conversations in the hospital - boosted by Solomon's recent visit to Dahl's home town - all of which really give the reader a sense of being there.

It's an oddity of a book, but one I am very glad that I read - what's more, all the author royalties are going to Dahl's favourite charities.

Roald Dahl's Marvellous Medicine is available from and

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Sugary science?

Sucrose - image from Wikipedia
It is well known that the cigarette companies were aware of the dangers of smoking long before the general public, yet spent large amounts of money on attempting to counter the science. Similarly, many of the oil companies have actively sponsored attacks on global warming. Now it appears there is a new bad guy on the block - the sugar industry.

It is only in the last few years that we have displaced some of our concern about fat in the diet to take on sugar as a dangerous substance to over-consume. And it's easy to assume that this awareness also took the sugar industry by surprise. But research undertaken by the University of California, San Francisco suggests that the US sugar giants were aware of the risks of sugar consumption as far back as the 1950s.

To make matters even worse, the paper tells us
Together with other recent analyses of sugar industry documents, our findings suggest the industry sponsored a research program in the 1960s and 1970s that successfully cast doubt about the hazards of sucrose while promoting fat as the dietary culprit in [coronary heart disease].
This is astounding if true. Not only was the risk from sugar played down, but it appears that the sugar industry used a distraction technique by overplaying the role of fat.

There's the possibility here of tobacco-style mass law suits. But what interests me more is whether or not US big business (Europeans do it as well, but not on the same scale) is still playing this kind of bait and switch game with our health. We know that the oil companies are still trying to play down climate change - but what about the food industry? Or pharmaceuticals?

I'm no enthusiast for conspiracy theories, but this kind of behaviour defies belief. Don't these people have children?

Monday, 19 September 2016

Listen to the infinite

I don't think it's particularly surprising that my bestselling book so far is A Brief History of Infinity. Infinity is just one of those topics that grabs your interest, not because it necessarily has any impact on your everyday life (though thanks to calculus, it does), but because it's genuinely mind boggling and has fascinated people for millennia.

Now, philosophy professor Adrian Moore is bringing a touch of the infinite to your ears with a 10 episode series of surprisingly bite-sized 15 minute programmes, starting today at 1.45pm on BBC Radio 4 (or listen later on iPlayer).

I know Adrian does a great job, as I appear in episode 5 on Friday, so I've seen him in action. It was also fascinating to discover that Adrian was inspired with an interest in philosophy by the same teacher who inspired me to write the book - it's really true what they say about a great teacher.

So buckle in to your radio/computer/phone or however you get hold of it for a fun ride...

Friday, 16 September 2016

Splice the mainbrace and read me a novel

Image modified from Wikipedia
Last year I had the pleasure of appearing at the Manx Literary Festival alongside other, more stellar literary luminaries including Chocolat author Joanne Harris. Generally, I find Joanne's words of wisdom on the writing life spot on - particularly her recent campaign to get writers paid for appearing at literary festivals (I'm pleased to say we were paid for the Manx Festival). However, I've got mixed feelings about her recent, interesting piece on piracy.

Don't get me wrong. I absolutely agree that piracy is wrong. People should pay for a book (or borrow it from a library) if they want to read it. I am not in any way condoning piracy.  Book pirates should be locked up and the key thrown away. Full stop.

The only point I'm not sure about is whether piracy is as much of an issue with books as it has been for music. There are two big reasons for this. One is that when music piracy was at its height there were glossy sites like Napster to get the free downloads, while there weren't easy ways to get paid downloads. By comparison there are easy way to get paid ebooks (though some publishers still stupidly price them as if they are hardbacks - I have some ebooks priced at over £13), but the pirate book download sites tend to be sleazy sites that feel as if they are going to give you a virus, and in many cases they will.

The other reason is the demographic of the customer base. The kind of people who tend to access the most music also tend to be the kind of people who are most likely to download pirate material. But the kind of people who read lots of books tend to be the kind of people who shy away from pirated stuff and prefer to be legitimate. It's a generalisation, I admit, but I think it holds true pretty well.

I get tens of alerts a week that pirate copies of my books have been put up. I used to pass these on to the publishers, who muttered that half of them didn't work anyway, but they'd work through them. Now I tend not to bother. I could be wrong, of course, but I genuinely believe that I am not losing many sales at all to pirates, and as such it's not a big issue for me. I still hate it. I still want it to stop. But for most authors I doubt that it has a huge impact on earning a crust.