Monday, 26 January 2015

The green dilemma

I'm interested in, and care for, the environment - so why do I have so much trouble with the Green Party? After all, I grew up in a good, Manchester Guardian reading household (though admittedly my parents gave the newspaper up when it weaselled off to London).

I certainly have issues with some of the party's policies. I objected previously, for instance, to their £10 minimum wage by 2020 target. And their politics is generally too left of centre for me as a default liberal. But there is no party that exactly represents my views, so I had a suspicion there was something deeper - and I have realised what it is.

When writing about green issues online, in Ecologic, and also in my latest book Science for Life, I point out a common failing which is letting the emotion behind certain trigger words overcome logic. So words like 'natural' and 'organic' with all their warm fuzzy connotations become equated with 'good' - even though there's a lot that's natural and organic (think the deadly poison ricin, for instance, or the bacteria and viruses and parasites that cause everything from malaria and ebola to flu) that is anything but good. Similarly there are keywords that are automatically considered bad. And the problem with the Green Party is that they come at environmental issues - a scientific endeavour - in a way that ignores the science in favour of fuzzy feelings.

The most obvious example of this is the total inability to think about nuclear power. It's a head-in-the-sand approach that says 'As soon as I hear the word "nuclear" I turn off.' No reasoning, no thought goes into it - it's pure knee-jerk. Instead they have the impractical target to have wind as the UK's 'main source of power by 2030.' In the end, all solutions to problems have pros and cons - but the Greens aren't prepared to look at them in a detached, scientific manner. And that's not good enough.

Now you may, quite reasonably, say that politics isn't a detached, scientific business. It's about hearts more than minds. It's about tribalism, not science. And of course I recognise there's an element of this. But the fact is we live in a world that is defined by science and technology. It's just not good enough to approach environmental and energy issues with that same hearts over minds stance. Almost all politicians are bad at taking a scientific viewpoint - but I find it particularly off-putting in a  party whose raison d'ĂȘtre is those science-based issues.

UPDATE: I'm also unhappy with a their general policy detail, now it is available. Apart from being suspicious of their taxation plans, I don't want to live somewhere that terrorism is considered 'an extremely loaded term' and all we need to do is be nice to everyone, which means we can pretty well get rid of our military. And when the party leader says 'So it’s simple, really: we have to entirely redesign the system,' in a piece in the Independent, that's really scary. Because that casual 'It's simple' suggests that these people haven't a clue how to make it happen. They seem to be taking the part of the innocent idiot Jim Hacker from Yes Minister repurposed with a change of party colours.

Take their concept of a 'citizens' income' which every citizen gets, eliminating most benefits. Sounds great in principle. Apart from not making it clear how they could possibly keep the cash flowing for this when they also want to shrink the economy. It's a brilliant example of something that sounds simple, but really isn't. Want more evidence? Look at the Green party stronghold, Brighton. It would obviously have the best recycling rates in the country. Or maybe 302nd out of 326. Hmm.

This has been a green heretic production.

"Green Party of England and Wales logo" by The logo is from the website.. Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Green Party of England and Wales via Wikipedia

Friday, 23 January 2015

Mea culpa on the naming of black holes

Anyone writing a popular science book is likely to make occasional errors. In my experience they happen most often when the writer assumes that a 'fact' is correct based on memory and doesn't bother to check it. Things go downhill from then on.

I think it's fair to say that pretty well every book I've written has had at least one mistake in it, and some of them I've perpetuated several times, as once I've made the error, it's in a book... so it must be true.

Since I'm now occasionally followed by that scourge of science history inaccuracy Thony Christie, I thought it was best to come clean on an error I've just discovered that I have been repeating for some time - and that's over the origin of the term 'black hole'.

I have several times said that the name was first used by the American physicist John Wheeler. To compound the matter, in my otherwise excellent (ahem) Gravity, said that it was in 1969, rather than 1967, but that was just a typo. To be fair, Max Tegmark, who knew Wheeler personally, makes exactly the same mistake in Our Mathematical Universe. However, it turns out that the real history is significantly more murky.

Wheeler seems to have been the first to use the term consistently in publications, but the origin is at least as early as an AAAS meeting in January 1964. It was written up in an article in Science News Letter by Ann Ewing, but she was reporting on what she heard at the meeting. The problem is no one is sure who actually said it. The News Letter's successor Science News suggests that it could be physicist Robert Dicke, who was certainly present and had a habit of referring to things that were lost at home as 'disappearing into the Black Hole of Calcutta.' But it seems unlikely it was Wheeler.

Sigh. No one ever said science writing was easy.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Home Fires - review

Gene Wolfe is possibly my favourite fiction author, full stop. So coming across a book by him I haven't read, in this case Home Fires from 2010, is something of a red letter day. I think it's fair to say that this novel is a minor addition to his works, but welcome nonetheless, with many of the trademark Wolfe characteristics.

Arguably there are three different types of Wolfe books. There are his collections of short stories, which can be beautiful and frustrating in equal measure. There are his best-known books, the New Sun series, which to be honest I've never particularly enjoyed, though I know many people love them. And there are his real world (i.e. set in ordinary America) fantasy books, which are the ones I can't get enough of. Books like There Are Doors, Castleview and The Sorcerer's House. This title, Home Fires is a bit of an oddity as it fits into the final category, but it's not fantasy. (There is another book, Pandora by Holly Hollander that I'd say is also like this, probably Wolfe's most easily approachable title and a little gem.)

Where Pandora is a mystery story, this is science fiction. Set in a future where there is hardly any oil, most of the action takes place on huge, sail-powered liner. There are significant science fiction themes - the main character and his 'contracta' (roughly member of a civil partnership) have been separated for 20ish years in his time, but only 2 in hers, as she has been fighting in space. There's also a touch of Dollhouse in one aspect of the plot.

I'm not going to give anything more away, but there's enough complexity to keep the intrigue going - it just feels a little lightweight to me. As I mentioned upfront, there are still the trademark characteristics. The reader has little idea what is going on for a fair part of the book. Chapters sometimes end with something totally unexpected. The characters are multi-layered and rarely transparent. It's a bit like a book equivalent of Twin Peaks without the weird bits.

So do I recommend it? To a Wolfe fan, absolutely. And I will certainly read it again, because if there's one thing certain about a Gene Wolfe book, you don't get it all in the first reading. But if you are new to his work, I would suggest having a go at one of the other titles mentioned above first.

You can find Home Fires on and

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

One thousand years ago

In case you prefer to read it in the original
(actually the first page of the Peterborough version)
I feel that the typical 'on this day' or 'what happened a century ago' is far too shortsighted, so armed with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle I thought I'd give you a quick tour of the highlights of 1015. (For more, see The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle - Whitlock, Douglas and Tucker)
In this year the great assembly at Oxford took place, and there Ealdorman Eadric betrayed Sigeferth and Morcar, the chief thegns belonging to the Seven Boroughs*: he enticed them into his chamber, and they were basely killed inside it. And the king the seized their property and ordered Sigeferth's widow  to be seized and brought to Malmesbury...
(Come on, forget Game of Thrones, this is the real deal)
At that same time, King Cnut came to Sandwich, and then turned at once round Kent into Wessex, until he reached the mouth of the Frome, and ravaged then in Dorset, in Wiltshire, and in Somerset. The king then lay sick at Cosham. Then Ealdorman Eadric collected an army, and so did the atheling Edmund in the North. When they united, the ealdorman wished to betray the atheling, and that account they separated without fighting, and retreated from their enemies. And then Ealdorman Eadric seduced 40 ships from the king, and then went over to Cnut; and the West Saxons submitted and gave hostages and supplied the Danish army with horses and it then stayed there until Christmas.
(I think, despite all the moaning about the electorate not being engaged, I'm happier with modern politics)

* A footnote in the book kindly explains this was probably the Five Boroughs plus York and Torksey, so now all we need to find out is what the Five Boroughs were. And where Torksey was. I've heard of York. Apparently the Five Boroughs were the main towns of the Danelaw, namely Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham and Stamford. And Torksey is a village in Lincolnshire that back then was a more significant town. So now you know.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Caution - deduction from infinity can lead to madness

I'm currently reading for review Max Tegmark's intriguing newish (well, new in paperback) book, Our Mathematical Universe. It's generally rather good, though it's a bit infuriating that they clearly haven't updated the text to reflect this edition, as Tegmark keeps referring to the image on the front of the book as showing the Cosmic Microwave Background - if the CMB really looks like that, cosmology truly has got exciting again.

However, that wasn't my point. Having set the stage with an explanation of the hot big bang with inflation theory, Tegmark begins launching off into the possibilities for multiverses, and there's a lot of deduction from infinity. (If this doesn't mean anything to you, I'll get there in a moment.) Georg Cantor, the great mathematician of infinity, ended up in a mental hospital - you play with this stuff at your peril.

What I mean by deduction from infinity is arguing along these lines. If eternal inflation holds, there are an infinite set of big bangs producing universes (of which ours is one). Each will be subtly different due to quantum fluctuations. So as they are infinite, every possible outcome will happen in one of these universes - for example, one where you read this blog and sneer, rather smile at its cleverness as you currently are doing. (Hopefully.)

The problem is that infinity can't be used like this to deduce things. Let's look at some simpler infinite sets to see why. First, bear in mind that every member of an infinite set does not have to be different. So, for instance, you can have the set 1, 0, 0, 0... where all the members are zero except the first. If 1 represents our universe, all the others could be devoid of life. (I do remember those quantum fluctuations, but that doesn't mean that you couldn't end up with all but one devoid of life.)

Here's another one that's a little more interesting: 1, 4, 9, 16... - the infinite set of the squares. One for every universe that has life in it. But what if the actual infinite set of universes only corresponded to the numbers that aren't squares with a different value to its square root: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8... - there's an infinite set of those, none of which has life, apart from no 1 - us.

Or again, think of the infinite set of positive integers: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6... If one of these could be part of an infinite set but also demonstrably unique, that could like the condition for life. And guess what - 1 is unique. It's the only positive integer that is its own square and that when something else is multiplied by it, that something else doesn't change. So despite there being an infinite set of subtly varying possibilities only one is in the 'life' state.

My examples here don't prove that there aren't all those different variations of you in parallel universes, but rather they demonstrate that you can establish pretty well anything you like if you try to deduce things from an infinite set - and my suspicion is that the deductions made by cosmologists are equally suspect.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Conspiracy History - review

There are two aspects of this book that might raise a suspicious eyebrow in a potential reader. One is the cover, which is a trifle garish and reminiscent of those local history books you get on holiday in Devon. The other is the idea that, as a book about conspiracy theories, it is going to be all about topics like the Moon landings being faked and Princess Diana being murdered at the behest of the British royal family.

I can immediately allay those fears. This slim book is a solidly written collection of historical stories, many dating back several hundred years or more. The lunatic fringe conspiracy theories are mentioned in the introduction, where Andrew May does exhibit possibly excessive open-mindedness by saying that David Icke's theory that the world is run by shape changing lizards is 'probably too far fetched to be true'. But in his historical explorations, which range from ancient Egypt, through a whole raft of British and European kings and queens, to twentieth century events, he is soberly careful to distinguish what probably was indeed a conspiracy from wild speculation.

It's arguable that some of the stories - for instance the establishment of the rump parliament or the massacre of St Brice's day are more quirky historical facts than true conspiracies, but that doesn't stop them being interesting if, like me, your grasp of history is largely confined to the narrow topics covered in school. In writing style, May sometimes veers dangerously close to 1066 and All That with phrases like 'he couldn't stand to see other people enjoying themselves, and he believed the end-times were imminent' - but this isn't a significant problem.

Overall I felt I'd learned a lot of interesting oddities in history, many of them with a conspiracy flavour. Some I would have liked to delve into in greater detail. For instance, in the suspicious death of Napoleon, possibly by arsenic poisoning, could green wallpaper in the damp house he lived in have had a role?

Many modern conspiracy theories fail because they involve a situation where incompetence is a far more likely cause than conspiracy, especially in a world where far more information is available for far more people to check, making it difficult to cover up secret goings on. In the historical periods May describes, there was far more opportunity for a small number of powerful people to succeed with a conspiracy and get away with it. And some of the stories he tells are excellent examples.

So get over the book's cover and your wariness of conspiracy nuts - this is an excellent smorgasbord of strange historical delights.

You can find Conspiracy History on and

Friday, 16 January 2015

Have we lost the 15-25 effect?

For decades it has seemed to be the rule that the music we listen to between the ages of 15 and 25 (give or take a few years either way) defines our musical tastes for life. It's certainly true for me - assorted prog rock groups, the likes of Simon and Garfunkel, plus the same basic taste in classical music, serve me still many years later, and if I buy an album these days, it is far more likely to be filling a gap in that oeuvre than anything more trendy.

However, it struck me the other day as I listened to one of my 20-year-old daughter's Spotify playlists in the car, that this phenomenon may now be doomed. In the olden days we bought albums, and once we got into an artist, we bought more of their albums. And this continued indefinitely. (Witness the fact that my Christmas stocking contained Al Stewart albums and a Curved Air album.) Now, though, a playlist is an ever-shifting collection of individual tracks. Certainly the download-and-stream generation will have favourite artists, but these also seem much more fluid, in part because the listeners are not immersing themselves in artist's work.

Of course things could change. It's too early to say what the download-and-streamers will be doing in their 30s. They may still develop a longing for the music of those key years and start to expand their playlists to include more from the bands and singers they liked best. But equally, and particularly if they are pretty much pure streamers, their taste could continue to evolve. If so, it will be a sad day for those whose pension resides in their backlist.

In one way, the new approach has advantages. It's more eclectic, less set in its ways. But I can't help but feel it's not the best way to really appreciate music.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

A different world

It looks a bit like 1955, but the date is actually 1933

I suspect most of us have little family items that we treasure. One that is particularly close to my heart is this - a little, leather-bound booklet that is primarily a list of subscribers to a particular cause - and the opening pages show just what that cause was - my grandad.

He played cricket in the Lancashire leagues, and was the professional for a couple of teams, most notably this Penrith side. The position sounds quite glamorous (though the professional was very much the second class citizen among the amateurs), but was actually an act of desperation. The job didn't pay much, but it was better than nothing, and as a mill worker, laid off because of the depression, the alternatives were dire.

Even though he'd rather not have done it, my grandfather did look back on his sporting achievement with pride. And even though I have zero interest in sport, I can't help but feel a lump in my throat when I see this reminder of his achievement as well.

I never saw my grandad play, but I did quite often see him umpire, and when he went onto the pitch this unassuming, gentle man became something more, gained an unexpected authority. Cricket was very special to him.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

So-called embarrassment quotes

There is a usage that is becoming more and more common, verbally and in writing, which I hate. The most frequently used verbal form is 'so-called', and though it can also appear this way in writing, the usual written approach is what I call embarrassment quotes - misused quotation marks.

The reference that set me off on this bijou rantette was a comment on the Today programme on Radio 4, when they referred to 'so-called exoplanets'. Exoplanets exist. There is no doubt about this. Yet according to the OED, 'so-called' means 'called or designated by this name or term, but not properly entitled to it or correctly described by it'. In other words, by saying 'so-called' the speaker implies that there's no such thing.

Now, admittedly, the OED does qualify this definition by saying 'More recently, and now quite commonly (esp. in technical contexts), used merely to call attention to the description, without implication of incorrectness', but I am not prepared to accept this. It's stupid. If you simply mean that an object is an exoplanet, say 'exoplanet'. The 'so-called' is an unnecessary waste of space and confuses those of us who know what the term actually means.

I've linked this phenomenon with embarrassment quotes, as these are used all the time by the press and by the BBC in a similar fashion. Whenever they use a word they're a little uncomfortable with, or that might not be correct, they stick it in quotation marks. A 10 second glimpse at the BBC News website gives us, for instance:
Second body found after sea 'dare'
A&E waits in England 'getting worse' 
No doubt there were many more. You may suspect that the reason for the quotation marks in the second example was that the last two words were a quote from someone - but they weren't. In both cases, all we have are observations where, for some reason, a particular word or phrase makes a so-called journalist feel a little 'uncomfortable' so 'he or she' resorts to the embarrassment quotes.


Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Don't be weedy - hit the chemistry set

Is your garden a touch messy? Chances are you'll be reaching for the weedkiller. Generally speaking we know these more by the brandname than the active chemical, but there is at least one compound that has taken on a life of its own - and that's paraquat.

Find out the pros and cons of this controversial chemical in my latest Royal Society of Chemistry podcast about 1,1'-Dimethyl-4,4'-bipyridinium dichloride, as I like to call it.  Take a listen by clicking to pop over to its page on the RSC site.

Monday, 12 January 2015

No need to panic, Jezza, you don't need to read the instruction book

This is how you do it - with big friendly picture to help
I know it's popular for people with more than three brain cells to despise Jeremy Clarkson, but he is genuinely an entertaining writer, and Father Christmas sometimes includes one of his books in my stocking.

In the latest, (reviewed here) there are a couple of times when he makes a reference to Macs being worse than Windows PCs 'because you can't right click.' Well, I'm here to tell you not to panic Jezza, because you can. 

It's true that the very first Macs had a dinky little mouse with a single, big, friendly button and no other option, but that went out with the dark ages. Both the mouse on my iMac and the clicky pad thing on a MacBook are capable of doing right clicks. 

'But,' the baffled Jezza would no doubt reply in his trademark 'I don't understand' small boy voice, 'when I do a right click it doesn't work, and being a man, I can't look in the help section.' Fear not, because the whole point of a visual interface is that you don't need to get help. Let's guess what to do instead. That should suit you as well as a pair of baggy jeans.

So we open Settings, click on the Mouse/Pointy Thing bit, and low and behold we can switch on right click. There's even an animated picture to show you what it does, for the hard of thinking.

You can argue, probably correctly, that Apple should have switched right click on by default, because it's jolly useful - but even a Top Gear presenter can manage to engage it without assistance or instruction books. So stop moaning, Mr C., and get yourself a decent computer.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Science for Life

I'm unusually excited that my new book Science for Life is now on sale.

It's quite different from anything that I've ever done before. The idea is to take on all those science issues we constantly get pumped at us in the media (especially from the Daily Mail and Daily Express), telling us about a new discovery in science and how it influences in our lives. It could be that red wine is good for you... or bad for you. It could be that there's a new sunscreen you just drink, or that listening to Mozart will make your baby cleverer. What I try to do in the book is both explain the
 difference between real science and the media representation of science, and to cover as many different topics that have an influence on our lives as I can.

It's divided into Diet, Exercise, Brain, Psychology, Health, Evironment and Fun sections, each containing a host of little articles on all these many topics. And because it's never really going to be finished, there's an accompanying blog where I'll continue to add new topics and update existing ones.

The book is now available both as a rather handsome hardback and as an ebook (all the main formats) - please do click through to its web page and find out a bit more about it (or even go mad and buy a copy). The nice thing about it is that though it should interest my usual science audience, I think it will be really appreciated by a much wider set of people who are simply confused by all the conflicting information the media pump at us.

In case you didn't believe the bit about a drinkable sunscreen - and to see a little of what the book's like - here's the entry on that subject.

Drinkable Sunscreen

In May 2014 the British newspapers were flooded with articles about a new, miracle product. The Daily Mail took the lead, splashing the headline: ‘World’s first DRINKABLE sun cream goes on sale – and just a teaspoon will offer three hours’ protection.’ According to the Mail, the product ‘works by molecules vibrating on the skin, cancelling UVA and UVA [sic] rays’. (The Mail clearly meant to say ‘cancelling UVA and UVB rays’.)

This is a bizarre claim. The Mail tells us that the product’s developer says: ‘If 2mls are ingested an hour before sun exposure, the frequencies that have been imprinted on the water will vibrate on your skin in such a way as to cancel approximately 97% of the UVA and UVB rays before they even hit your skin.’

There are serious problems with this explanation. The suggestion is that somehow the frequencies ‘imprinted on the liquid’ can cancel out light the way noise-cancelling headphones cancel out noise. If this were possible, the military would be rushing out to buy this product for their planes as ‘cancelling out light’ would make them invisible. But in fact light is nothing like sound – you can’t cancel it out with a vibration, even if something you drink could make your skin vibrate with a particular frequency – which it can’t.

The real concern is that people will use this product and then undertake dangerous levels of sun exposure – and a particular concern is that this would seem ideal for children. There’s no worse job when arriving on a beach than having to coat your children, who want to be running around, in sunscreen. Imagine how attractive the idea is of just being able to give them a drink and they are protected. But should parents do this, they will be exposing delicate skin to the sun’s rays without protection, which can result in very serious outcomes.

Of course, scientists are coming up with new treatments and products all the time – but when the description of how a product works is one that bears no resemblance to known science, when the product has not been tested by any authorities for safety, and when the result of it not working could have very serious health implications, it is extremely irresponsible of newspapers to cover it in this way.

There is nothing you can drink that will protect you from the sun.