Wednesday, 4 March 2015

No, I don't want a super car experience, thank you

Every now and then I get a semi-spam email (i.e. something I probably accidentally signed up to receive, but never really wanted) offering me the opportunity to buy cut-price 'treats', like a super car experience. I know some people love this kind of thing, but I just don't get it.

I've got three problems with the whole 'super car experience' thing. (If your mind is heading back to the early Gerry Anderson series, illustrated here, which I loved as a boy - our Ford Anglia was excellent for playing Supercar, as the heater controls made an excellent substitute for the throttles, and it even had little wings on the tail - I am not referring to Supercar, but rather an 'experience' day where you get to drive something like a Ferrari or an Aston Martin.)

My first issue is that I wouldn't actually want one of these cars as they are incredibly impractical (anyone remember the Top Gear where they tried to get 3 out of an underground car park in Paris?), ludicrously expensive and make a silly noise. I've never understood the appeal of the sort of noise boy racers try to imitate by having a dustbin in place of an exhaust pipe on their Ford Fiesta. It sounds loud, nasty and industrial. My favourite car noise is an electric car - but that's a different story.

The second problem is that they wouldn't just give you the keys and say 'Have fun,' they would expect you to drive it around a track, with experts looking on and sniggering at your inability to 'take the correct line' or brake at the sweet spot, or G spot or whatever it is. I did once accidentally go to a track day, and quite enjoyed being driven around by an expert (scary though it was), but there was no way I was going to do it myself, in front of others.

Most importantly, though, if I did have a drive in a super car (and if I did, it would be an Aston Martin, no question), it would have to be my own. I don't understand the envy-driven gratuitous excitement of having a go at something you can't actually have. It's a phenomenon that's quite closely related to pornography, perhaps most closely in those house porn 'Escape to the Country' style house programmes where people who are selling a 3 bed semi in London look round 10 bathroom mansions in the country, which normal people could never afford, so they watch the programme to drool instead. It's one of the nastiest aspects of capitalism.

So there you have it. Super car experiences are for those whose existence is unsatisfactory. Get, as they say, a life.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Making experiments (some on your own brain) come to life

There has been a significant amount of noise on Twitter and elsewhere about 'The Dress', the phenomenon of a photograph of a dress which it is claimed that some people see as black and blue, and others as white and gold. My suspicion is that this is a hoax - a very nice piece of PR.

The reason I am suspicious is that I've seen pictures on different sites where I see it as each of the colours (and the pictures are different at the RGB level)*. But if it were genuine, it would simply be demonstrating how false the image of the world we think we see through our eyes really is.

This was one of the points I wanted to demonstrate when writing The Universe Inside You. In its predecessor, Inflight Science, I included a series of science experiments that the reader could do on a plane. It was a bit harder to do something similar with TUIY, where I wanted to show things from optical illusions, with a reveal of what was happening, to demonstrations of a Crookes radiometer and the early 'artificial intelligence' program ELIZA.

In the end I put together a website to accompany the book which has the experiments on it, often as videos. When 'The Dress' came up, I immediately thought of a couple of the demonstrations on there - the experiments include both an optical and an auditory illusion. So if you want to do a little experimenting with the universe (and your brain), take a look at the Universe Inside You website.

*ADDED: HT to Stuart Cantrill for pointing out that some people see the same image differently at different times, and that two people looking at the same image at the same time can get different results - so it isn't all a hoax. But there certainly are many mocked up versions in the Twittersphere etc. which definitely are fixed.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Lost and found in translation

I was reminded at the weekend of the apparent translating boo-boo that resulted in Cinderella's very impractical glass slippers. Allegedly, in the original French, she had slippers that were 'vair' - made very sensibly (if you don't belong to PETA) of fur. However, the translator was clearly having a bad day, and just as I tend to merrily type 'there' instead of 'their' when I'm tired, he or she read this as the similar sounding 'verre' - meaning glass. (Sadly, according to Snopes, this is unlikely to be true - HT to Matthew Surnameunknown for pointing this out. I still suspect there was something in it, though.)

So far, so amusing. But then it made me think of my books.

My various titles have been translated into a good few languages, and for all I know they could be replete with interesting changes of meaning. Of course they were translated by good, professional translators, but even so slip-ups can occur.

As it happens I know this for certain, by taking a quick look at my biography in the German translation of 'Instant Egghead Guide to Physics', which becomes 'Physik für Eierköpfe'.

I'm not sure where they got it from, as there isn't a biography in the English version, but if you take a look at this snippet from my website, you don't need to be a German speaker to spot what's wrong in the first line of the German version:

I know that's more a transcription error than a translation problem - an error that could occur even in an English version, but at least with English texts I see the proofs and can correct them. 

There are now rather a lot of translations out there, as the picture below indicates, with a good few more in production as we speak. With most, frankly, I haven't a clue, and my rusty school French and German would be little help in attempting to spot any errors even in those relatively familiar languages.

So what is the moral of all this? There may be errors, but there's not a lot I can do about them (unless an eagle-eyed reader sends me an email). That being the case, it's best not to say anything. After all, it is best not to be rude to a translator. They have an important job to do - and I don't want the literary equivalent of an insulted waiter spitting in a  customer's soup.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Is being an author the most desirable job in Britain?

An article in the Independent newspaper was boldly headlined with the news that 'the three most desirable jobs in Britain are author, librarian and academic.' The article begins 'Forget dreams of a glittering career in Premier League football...' Now as an author myself, I feel really thrilled that I've got the country's dream job. But as an author who likes to look at the numbers behind the headlines, I'm a little doubtful about the validity of this story.

The article was based on a YouGov survey of an impressively large 14,294 British adults, and the chart to the left was the combined outcome.

Well, author is certainly up top. But when you look through that list, there are (at least) two strange additions, which I was very surprised about. No footballers and no pop stars. Isn't that strange?

So it's important to know exactly what YouGov asked - and being a responsible polling organization they give us all the information we need here.

There are a number of fiddly pollster manipulations in the numbers. The sample is weighted, most notably giving less weight to under-forties, though it's not a particularly heavy change. And rather than show people all the options, the were only shown a random sample of 8 jobs, so each particular job was only offered to between 3,643 and 3,797 people - still quite chunky samples.

But there were two particularly interesting points. The data confirm that they neither footballer nor pop star were offered - and as far as I can see, one thing YouGov don't say is how they chose the list. (I have asked YouGov to explain their selection criteria, but they are yet to reply.)

And here's the other thing. The respondents weren't asked 'what would you most like to do?' They were asked 'Generally speaking, please say whether you would or would not like to do each of the following for a living,' for each of the eight options.

So what the survey actually says is this:
We asked people, of the jobs offered (which don't include some of the most common aspirations particularly of young people) which would you like to do and which would you not like to do. 'Author' is the job that the most people said they would like to do.'
Note that this doesn't mean that anyone most wanted to be an author from the selections offered. It could have been everyone's fifth choice, say. Just that more people included it in their 'would like to do' list than any other item from the list.

I don't want to knock the poll too vigorously - but there's quite a leap from what it actually measured to how the results have been portrayed in the media.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Structural alterations

The British physicist/astronomer, Arthur Eddington was a great science populariser who came up with a lovely comment when writing about quantum mechanics in the late 1920s.

He wrote that rather than cover the theory as it stood, he really ought to 'nail up over the door of the new quantum theory a notice "Structural alterations in progress - No admittance except on business". And particularly to warn the doorkeeper to keep out prying philosophers.'

I don't think I've seen such a brilliant summary of the way quantum physics went through a transformation from its early implementation, and brought what many physicists would continue to consider far too much agonising over interpretation and philosophy into the field. I think it's fair to say that the notice has come down, but whether those philosophers should have been allowed in is a different matter.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Apparently authors can't advertise on Facebook

Like many authors I have a toe in social media - not just this blog (and the associated Google+), but Twitter and Facebook (and LinkedIn) too. I do have some useful social interaction on Facebook, but my Facebook page is dedicated to business - in my case, letting people know about science, writing and my books.

Fair enough, and Facebook positively encourages this, providing opportunities to advertise both your page and specific posts to interested parties. I've never bothered with this - I do a bit of Google advertising in the vain hope that it will push up visibility in the search listings, but Facebook advertising seems like money down the drain. However, the other day I had a post I thought would be benefit from a wider audience so I thought I'd invest the price of a cup of coffee in a couple of days promotion.

Off it duly went to the Facebook censors... only to be rejected fairly smartly because it 'breached guidelines'. Apparently, the image in my 'advert' had too great a percentage with words in it. Now, bear in mind I hadn't designed an ad - all I did was to try to promote a post that pointed to my blogs, and Facebook had automatically picked up the image from the header of the blog. So the 'advert' looked like this:

Now, bear in mind I didn't choose what that image was - Facebook did. And when you think about it, any advertising showing a book's blog header, or a book's cover is liable to have a lot of writing on it. That's what books do.

Get your act together, Facebook! (If you want to see the post about chocolate it was referring to, you can see it here.)

Saturday, 21 February 2015

You say embargo, I say lumbago

One of the fun things (well, it's sometimes fun) about my job is that I get sent interesting books to review, which I sometimes do for magazines and newspapers, but most of my reviews either appear here on my blog (if it's not a science book) or on my website.

When a book arrives from a publisher, it is accompanied by an information sheet/ press release. The bright-eyed and bushy tailed view of these is that they provide useful information for the editor or review writer. (The cynical view is that they provide nice words about the book that some lazy hacks will just reproduce, in classic press release journalism. But I'm not cynical.)

I must confess, I rarely give these more than a quick glance before reading the book. Yes, I do read every book I review, almost always cover to cover, with the exception of books where I decide that my review would be so nasty that I really shouldn't do it - and usually the publisher agrees this is a good move. I don't want the publicists' words to influence my thinking about books - I want to come to it with the same information that a casual purchaser would have.

There are really only two significant things I check - the email address of the publicist, almost inevitably down the bottom, so I can let them know the review has gone live, and the publication date, because I don't want to review a book months before publication, and sometimes I get sent them ridiculously early. (When a book is very early, it is usually a bound proof, rather than a real book, which I don't like. The only possible excuse for this is if the publisher wants me to write a nice couple of lines to go on the back of the book, otherwise they are the devil's spawn.)

When I do glance at the publication date, just occasionally I will see something like this:
From a real book information sheet
(Publisher's name hidden to conceal the guilty)
The book comes out on 5 March... but I'm not allowed to write about it until the 2 March. This is an example of the dreaded press embargo. Sometimes these have an obvious point. When, for instance, the shortlist for a book prize is going out to the press, you don't want it published before the date the list is announced. But it's a bit more complicated when it comes to book reviews - and it's not clear what's the best approach.

The idea of an embargo is that readers get all the publicity at about the time the book launches, so it's fresh in people's minds, and I can see that's a good thing. But on the other hand, perhaps it's good to build up the awareness a bit earlier? Perhaps this date doesn't fit well with my publishing schedule?

It was the particular case illustrated above that gave me a bit of a pain in the backside - I wrote the review on Saturday intending to go live with it this weekend... and now I've got to sit on it for a couple of weeks. (The review. Not my backside. Well, not the whole two weeks.)

So... I can see why they do it. It sort of makes sense to get a flurry of activity and awareness around the time the book goes on sale (though if that's really what's wanted, why not embargo it until publication date?). But I honestly don't know if it works in a marketing sense. I'd be interested to hear if anyone has done research on this. And when most books are listed on Amazon months for pre-order months before they are available, I do wonder if the embargo is a concept from a different era.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Two weird quantum concepts

Quantum physics is famous for its strangeness. As the great Richard Feynman once said about the part of quantum theory that deals with the interactions of light and matter particles, quantum electrodynamics:
I’m going to describe to you how Nature is – and if you don’t like it, that’s going to get in the way of your understanding it… The theory of quantum electrodynamics describes Nature as absurd from the point of view of common sense. And it agrees fully with experiment. So I hope you can accept Nature as she is – absurd.
It's interesting to compare two of the strangest concepts to be associated with quantum physics - Dirac's negative energy sea and the 'many worlds' interpretation. Each strains our acceptance, but both have had their ardent supporters.

Dirac's 'sea' emerges from his equation which describes the behaviour of the electron as a quantum particle that is subject to relativistic effects. The English physicist Paul Dirac discovered that his equation, which fits experimental observation beautifully, could not hold without one really weird implication. We are used to electrons occupying different quantised energy levels. This is bread and butter quantum theory. But all those levels are positive. Dirac's equation required there also to be a matching set of negative energy levels.

This caused confusion, doubt and in some cases rage. Such levels had never been observed. And if they were there, you would expect electrons to plunge down into them, emitting radiation as they went. Nothing would be stable. As a mind-boggling patch, Dirac suggested that while these levels existed, they were already full of electrons. So every electron we observe would be supported by an infinite tower of electrons, all combining to fill space with his 'Dirac sea'.

As you might expect, a good number of physicists were not impressed by this concept. But Dirac stuck with it and examined the implications. Sometimes you would expect that an electron in the sea would absorb energy and jump to a higher, positive level - leaving behind a hole in the negative energy sea. Dirac reasoned that such an absence of a negatively charged, negative energy electron would be the same as the presence of a positively charged, positive energy anti-electron. If his sea existed, there should be some anti-electrons out there, which would be able to combine with a conventional electron - as the electron filled the hole - giving off a zap of energy as photons.

It took quite a while, but in the early cloud chambers that were used to study cosmic rays it was discovered that a particle sometimes formed that seemed identical to an electron, except for having a positive charge - the positron, or anti-electron.

Weird though it was, Dirac's concept was able to predict a detectable outcome and moved forward our understanding of physics. As it happens, with time it proved possible to formulate quantum field theory in such a way that the positron was a true particle and the need for the sea was removed, although it remains as an alternative way of thinking about electrons that has proved useful in solid state electronics.

The 'many worlds' hypothesis originated in the late 1950s from the American physicist Hugh Everett. Its aim is to avoid the difficulty we have of the difference between the probabilistic quantum world and the 'real' things we see around us, which seem not to have the same flighty behaviour. Everett didn't like the then dominant 'Copenhagen interpretation' (variants of which are still relatively common) which said that a quantum particle would cease behaving in a weird quantum fashion and 'collapse' to having a particular value when it was 'observed'. This concept gave a lot of physicists problems, especially when it was assumed that this 'observation' had to be by a conscious being, rather than simply an interaction with other particles.

Like the Dirac sea, 'many worlds' patches up a problem with a drastic-sounding solution. In 'many worlds', the system being observed and the observer are considered as a whole. After an event that the Copenhagen interpretation would regard as a collapse, 'many worlds' effectively has a universe that combines both possible states, each with its own version of the observer. So, in effect, the process means that the universe doubles in complexity each time such a quantum event occurs, becoming a massively complex tree of possibilities.

Some physicists like the lack of a need for anything like the odd 'collapse' and the distinction between  small scale and large - others find the whole thing baroque in its complexity. What would help is if 'many worlds' could come up with its equivalent of antimatter - a prediction of something that emerges from it but not from other interpretations that can be measured and detected. As yet this is to happen. Whether or not you accept 'many worlds', it is certainly a remarkable example of the kind of thinking needed to get your head around quantum physics.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Top Gear forgets the number one rule of hybrids

On Top Gear last weekend, Jeremy Clarkson drove the rather lovely looking BMW i8 hybrid, and decided he'd rather drive it than the sporty BMW M3, as the i8 has great performance and the manufacturer claims you can get over 100 miles to the gallon - truly a win-win for greenness and petrolheads simultaneously.

However, in his excitement at driving the thing, Clarkson forgot the number one rule of hybrids, established, in part, by Top Gear. This is that hybrids are only more fuel efficient than ordinary cars in urban driving. They use more fuel than an equivalent petrol car (let alone a diesel) on motorways and country driving. Both Top Gear and rather more reliable testers have shown in the past that a BMW 3 series (sorry it's so BMW weighted - I have no affection for the things) uses less fuel than a Toyota Prius when driving outside towns. But here's the green rub (my Grandma used to have some of that) - short drives in town are exactly the conditions when a pure electric is superb. So even if all your driving is 10 mile urban tripettes, a hybrid isn't the greenest option.

It turns out that the i8, on Clarkson's 400 mile round trip, averaged around 30 mpg - these days even something pretty sporty can manage that, while I'd expect a good midrange vehicle to manage something in the 50-70 range. Now, add in the fact that building a hybrid is vastly less green than building an ordinary car, typically doubling its environmental impact, and we see once again that hybrids have no place in the green driver's vocabulary. If most of your driving is short range urban, go electric (you can always hire for the long trips). If not, go for a low consumption standard car until electric technology has improved enough to give them a practical range for longer journeys. But hybrids aren't the answer.

This has been a green heretic production.

Image from Wikipedia - click for attribution details

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Light in treacle

I was in Waterstones, Piccadilly in London yesterday and rather pleased to see that I was allocated my own mini-section (see photo), but also that they had the new version of my book Light Years on one of the tables used to grab people's attention. Light was one of the first topics I wrote about, and it has always fascinated me.

A key characteristic of light is its dramatic speed - the universal speed limit when in a vacuum and not cheating by warping space or similar - but something I cover is the experiments Lene Hau did a few years ago, bringing light to a walking pace. I just wanted to share an extract here.

Nearly 80 years after the theory [of Bose-Einstein condensates] was developed, a Danish scientist has used a Bose–Einstein condensate to drag the speed of light back to a crawl. Her name is Lene Vestergaard Hau. In 1998, Hau’s team set up an experiment where two lasers were blasted through the centre of a vessel containing sodium atoms that had been cooled to form a Bose–Einstein condensate. 
Normally the condensate would be totally opaque, but the first laser creates a sort of ladder through the condensate that the second light beam can claw its way along – at vastly reduced speeds. Initially light was measured travelling at around 17 metres per second – 20 million times slower than normal. Within a year, Hau and her team, working at Edwin Land’s Rowland Institute for Science at Harvard University, had pushed the speed down to below a metre per second – and more was to follow, as we will discover later... 
Lene Hau’s team have not stood still since they originally slowed light to a crawl, despite accidental sabotage by a German TV team. The strange possibilities of quantum light experiments quite often attract media attention, but a modern lab is visually boring. One set of black boxes looks much like any other. The TV team decided that they could make Hau’s experiments look more impressive by bringing in a smoke machine to make the interlacing patterns of lasers visible. Unfortunately they didn’t ask permission to do this. The result was a total collapse of the experiment, which had to be shut down for days until the air could be cleared. Now a plastic curtain surrounds the table that houses the experiment to keep out interfering onlookers. 
As we saw in the first chapter, Hau’s first experiments used one laser to form a sort of ladder through the otherwise opaque Bose–Einstein condensate that allowed a second laser to claw its way through. But if that first laser, called the coupling laser, is gradually decreased in power, the team found that the second beam was swallowed up in the material. The result is a strange mix of matter and light, called a dark state. The trapped light only comes out again when the coupling laser is restarted.
There's far more about the history of our understanding of light from ancient times through to the latest quantum theory in Light Years.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Time for open book exams?

Reading Steve Caplan's interesting piece on cheating I was reminded of two very different types of exam I've done in my youth. (Thankfully I haven't done an exam in over 30 years and have no intention to start now.)

The first are the traditional horror exams where you might be tested on your expertise, but you only got a chance to use it if you could remember a whole pile of facts. And I still occasionally get nightmares where I am in exams and can't remember this or that formula. 

The other type was pretty much the last exam I ever took, on my OR course at Lancaster. Called a 'jumbo' it was a 6ish hour exam with a single question. (Though admittedly that question was a good few pages long). You could take in whatever books you wanted - and go out and get more if you wanted. Not only was it far more interesting to do than a traditional exam, I believe it told you far more about the candidate than any ordinary test. 

I really can't see any reason exams should test memory. Surely they should be about understanding and what you can do with the equations (or history dates or whatever)? I think this also fits very well with the RSA's alternative school curriculum, which is all about giving students the tools to research and work, rather than remembering lots of facts. 

How about it, educationalistas? Can we move to a better way?

Monday, 16 February 2015

What did Descartes do for science?

Actually Lancaster University one Rag Week (infra-red shot)
According to Monty Python's Philosophers' Song, sung by the Bruces at the the University of Wallamaloo* (see below for the real thing):
Rene Descartes was a drunken fart: 'I drink, therefore I am'
However, Descartes tends to be held up as a scientist just as much as a philosopher. In Steven Weinberg's book To Explain the World which I've just reviewed, the author points out that while we owe a lot to Descartes' maths for providing the mapping between geometry and algebra, his thinking on the philosophy of science was more than a little shaky.

Specifically, Weinberg shows how Descartes, in his best bit of pure science, explaining how rainbows are seen at the angle they are, totally ignores his own method for 'Rightly Conducting One's Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences.' According to this, Descartes says we should be highly doubtful about information that is derived from authority or our senses, but should instead rely on the power of reason alone. This was a kind of hybrid of Ancient Greek thinking and modern - he dropped the importance of authority and rejected teleology (where things are assumed to be the way they are because they are fulfilling a purpose), but he still wanted minimum observation and experiment, merely providing a spot of data to be worked with the power of sheer thought.

In practice, when working on the rainbow, he totally ignored his method and did something much closer to modern science. He guessed a mechanism and used that to work out the angles of incidence and refraction that would occur in a raindrop, finding they come close to what's observed. Then he does an experiment with an artificial 'raindrop' in the form of a globe filled with water and showed that the observed angles matched his predictions.

So, interestingly, at least once Descartes 'did' science in an effective manner, yet his philosophy of how science ought to be conducted was fatally flawed.

And philosophers wonder why scientists are sometimes a bit sniffy about their subject.

* I know this isn't the correct spelling, but it matches the picture