Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Jehovah lite

The much improved design
We were sitting at breakfast and the others saw someone approaching the door. I was sitting with my back to the window, so didn't realize what was about to happen. The doorbell rang.

'You go,' they said.
'It's Jehovah's Witnesses, isn't it?' I asked.
They just smirked.

And it was, but interestingly this was a JW visit lite. Rather than attempt to engage me in conversation, the female member of the (inevitable) pair just told me they were distributing these leaflets across the country and gave me one. And went. So I was immediately in a good mood, as the toast was still warm.

The good news about the leaflet is that they've finally hauled the typography into the 21st century. The old JW leaflets were so old fashioned looking, and very alien in presentation for a UK audience - they were very obviously American. I'm not talking spelling, but rather the design just wasn't the way a UK leaflet looks. Now, as you can see, they've improved things enormously.

It's only 8 out of 10, though, guys. Why not 10? The paper is still wrong. I don't know why, but US leaflet paper feels totally different - less glossy, more flimsy, than UK leaflet paper: and this was still wrong.

As for the content,this was also much more clever. Just one Bible quotation. Mostly advertising the free resources on their website. In fact with its 'Where can we find answers to life's big questions?' header, it was very reminiscent to the advertising you see on posters for an Alpha course. The front also says 'Are the answers in... Science? Philosophy? The Bible?' And then inside we read that 'the Bible is providing answers to millions of people.'

Clever again, as it's not explicitly knocking science - though we clearly get the message that science can't answer life's big questions. In case you aren't sure what these are, the back suggests:
  • What is the meaning of life?
  • Is God to blame for our sufferings?
  • What happens when you die?
My suspicion is that for many people these questions aren't as big as various ones that science can probably do better at than the Bible. For instance, the (old testament) Bible is pretty strong on mass extermination of your enemies, and I'm pretty sure that isn't the right answer with the various Middle East problems underway at the moment.

For me, that highlights the mistake of comparing the Bible and science as an answer to some problems. Although I admit there will always be alternative theories under development, at any one time, science has a single, mainstream consensus answer - our current best theory. The Bible and other religious texts, though, can almost always deliver conflicting answers, so you choose the one that suits your preferences. How to deal with your enemy? If you're a hawk, you can use the Old Testament as the reason for smiting them and wiping them out to the very last person (children included). If you're a dove, you can use the New Testament to make it obvious that loving them and turning the other cheek is the answer.

So, well done Jehovah's Witnesses for pointing out the underlying flaw in your own argument. I'm impressed.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Superconducting sewage

One of the joys of writing a book like The Quantum Age (still just 99p on Kindle) is discovering new and interesting things - and one I particularly enjoyed was the deployment of quantum technology to deal with sewage.

Finding superconductors in powerful electronic devices and scanners may not be too much of a surprise, but a surprising example of an application of superconductivity - a totally quantum phenomenon -  is a million miles away from the delicacy of Josephson junction powered SQUIDs (Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices). It is in sewage treatment. We live in a paradoxical world that is awash with water – it almost defines our planet – and yet at the same time where there is a shortage of clean drinking water. It shouldn’t be that way. The world contains around 200,000,000,000 litres of water for every living person.

If you think of that in terms of consumption, assuming a typical 5 litres a day, the water out there should last over 100 million years. And that would be if it were all used up, where we know in practice that most of the water we consume is released back into the environment in short order. Of course that 5 litres only represents our direct consumption. A typical Western water user will be responsible for up to 10,000 litres a day. In part this is due to washing, watering the garden and flushing the toilet, but also because of the indirect use in the production of the goods we buy and the foods we eat. Just one hamburger takes around 3,000 litres, while a 1 kg jar of coffee requires a massive 20,000 litres. (Though once again, most of this water will be recycled – it doesn’t remain in the product.)

The problem, of course, comes not from poor availability of water per se, but the lack of clean drinking water in the right place for those who need it. Arguably this makes any water shortage more of an energy problem than anything else –that’s the energy required to clean up the water, whether it is desalination or removing dirt and sewage, and to get the water to where it is needed. And superconductivity can play its part in overcoming this. Most existing waste water treatment – whether cleaning up sewage or cleaning water from a river to use in an industrial plant – is expensive to build and has to be on a large scale to be cost effective. There are many circumstances where a smaller, distributed system would work better and, surprisingly, superconductors offer a solution to cleaning water that is both more cost effective and compact than a conventional treatment plant. What’s more it works more quickly too.

The process makes use of a powerful superconducting magnet to separate off the suspended material in the water. This is obviously fine for magnetic metals, but it seems an unlikely solution for the rest – the typical gunk that we associate with sewage and polluted water. But by adding a substance known as a ferromagnetic adsorbent to the water this mess become accessible to magnetic fields. The suspended particles stick the adsorbent material, which is then dragged out of the water by the magnets leaving clean water behind. The only way to get a sufficiently strong magnetic field is to use superconductors. Quantum physics to the rescue.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

A great guide to some classic SF

Younger readers may not have come across some of the classics of science fiction, so I'm grateful for Pete Young for assembling around 250 reviews of these great books in issues 3 and 4 of his fanzine Big Sky. (There are a couple of my reviews in issue 3, though that's not why I'm recommending this.) Specifically, these reviews cover the books that were re-issued in the excellent Gollancz SF Masterworks series.

To be honest, I've never been a great enthusiast for the whole fan fiction/fanzine scene, because time is limited and I haven't enough to read all the 'real' stuff without getting onto the fan work, however good it is. But I have to say these are good quality productions (best read on a tablet, I suspect) and free too, so well worth a look.

You can download Big Sky from http://efanzines.com/bigsky/index.htm

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Funny serious psychopathy

During the panel session at our Guardian masterclass on science writing, the excellent author M. G. Harris recommended Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test. I had already read and enjoyed The Men who Stared at Goats (even though Professor Brian Josephson assures me I gave too much attention to the 'staring at goats' issue in my book Extra Sensory), so had no hesitation on buying this book on M. G.'s recommendation - and it is even better.

The book starts with a mystery - a strange, expensively produced book that is being sent to a number of academics. No one knows what it means, or who has written it. Ronson solves this mystery, which leads him to taking the plunge into what he describes as the 'madness industry'. It might seem this is a subject that couldn't produce much humour, but what Ronson does so well is brings out the essential human funny bits, while not holding back on some of the surprising and sometimes horrific realities.

Whether he is dealing with a man who apparently is in a secure unit because he pretended to be mentally ill to avoid a jail sentence and now can't get out, to the mind-boggling possibility that over a million US children are being medicated for a mental condition that most of the rest of the world doesn't think exists, the book is a wonderful set of revelations, all tied together in an effortless, page-turner style.

Like Louis Theroux on TV, you sometimes get the feeling that the author is being a touch manipulative, telling us just a bit too much of his own anxieties and feelings to get us engaged - but you can forgive Ronson, because these are just such good stories, so well told.

Is it all true? You could almost say some of this stuff is so weird you couldn't make it up. I think it probably is, even if coloured a little to make the story tell well. Take the plunge and you will meet some fascinating and scary people, understand a lot more about why mental health issues are so difficult to deal with (anything that is diagnosed by the percentage score on a checklist is, at least, worrying) and realise that whether you love or hate psychiatry, there were some prejudices you had that were wrong. Oh, and there are even Scientologists. (Who really hate psychiatry.) What's not to love. Great holiday reading.

Find out more at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Graphene's little brother

I'm not a great one for using press releases as blog posts (although, come on, it is the silly season), but this one was so interesting, I wanted to share it.

It's about silicene, which is the silicon equivalent of graphene, a single atom thick sheet of the substance. Just as graphene has proved an incredibly versatile material, the same is likely to prove true for silicene (which the spellchecker keeps trying to change to silicone - sigh). It's early days, but watch this space. Here's what the IoP had to say:

An international team of researchers has taken a significant step towards understanding the fundamental properties of the two-dimensional material silicene by showing that it can remain stable in the presence of oxygen.

In a study published today, 12 August, in IOP Publishing’s journal 2D Materials, the researchers have shown that thick, multilayers of silicene can be isolated from its parent material silicon and remain intact when exposed to air for at least 24 hours.

It is the first time that such a feat has been achieved and will allow scientists to further probe the material and exploit the properties that have made silicene a promising material in the electronics industry.

Silicene is made from single, honeycomb-shaped layers of silicon that are just one atom thick. At the moment, silicene must be produced in a vacuum to avoid any contact with oxygen, which could completely destroy the formation of the single layers.

Silicene must also be “grown” on a surface that matches its natural structure — silver is the leading candidate. To create silicene, a wafer of silicon is heated to high temperatures, forcing single silicon atoms to evaporate and land on the silver substrate, forming the single layer.

Silicene can also be transformed from a 2D material into a 3D material by stacking more and more single layers on top of each other. However, previous research has demonstrated that silicene has “suicidal tendencies” and always reverts back to silicon as more layers are added, because a silicon structure is more stable.

In this new study, an international team of researchers based in Italy and France fabricated multilayers of silicene using a silver substrate kept at a temperature of 470 K and a solid silicon source, which was heated to 1470 K. A total of 43 monolayers of silicene were deposited onto the substrate.

Once fabricated, the researchers observed that a very thin layer of oxidation had formed on top of the multi-layered stack of monolayers; however, it was shown that this preserved the integrity of the stack, acting like a protective layer.

The stack of monolayers remained preserved for at least 24 hours in open air, in which time the researchers were able to use x-ray diffraction and Raman spectroscopy to confirm that the material was in fact silicene and not ordinary silicon.

Lead author of the study Paola De Padova, from Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche in Italy, said: “These results are significant as we have shown that it is possible to obtain a silicon-based 2D material, which up until a couple of years ago was deemed inconceivable.

“Our present study shows that multi-layered silicene is more conductive than single-layered silicene, and therefore opens up the possibility of using it throughout the silicon microelectronics industry. In particular, we envisage the material being used as gate in a silicene-based MOSFET, which is the most commonly used transistor in digital and analog circuits.

“We are currently studying the possibility of growing multi-layered silicene directly onto semiconductor substrates to explore the joint superconducting properties.”

"Silicene Cluster" by Ayandatta - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Silicene_Cluster.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Silicene_Cluster.jpg

Monday, 11 August 2014

All the fun of the Astrofair

On Saturday I spent an extremely entertaining day in Sidmouth, not on one of the town's beaches, but instead at an astronomical observatory.

I confess that, while I knew about Norman Lockyer, I wasn't aware of the Norman Lockyer Observatory - and it's a wonderful find.

Lockyer was a professor at Imperial College (or, rather, its predecessor) and one of his main studies was the Sun. Using spectroscopy - splitting the light from the Sun into a colour spectrum, where dark lines indicate the presence of atoms that are absorbing particular energies of photons - Lockyer discovered a puzzling line in the yellow band, which had not been seen before. He had discovered an element that had not yet been found on the Earth, and named it after the Greek word for the Sun, helios. As well as discovering helium, Lockyer brought another significant presence of modern science into being when he founded a journal called Nature, one of the most prestigious scientific journals today.

When he retired to Devon, Lockyer established an observatory, which has grown to be today's Norman Lockyer observatory. Apart from a handful of telescope domes, the facilities now include an excellent lecture theatre and planetarium, and, for the fair on Saturday, an array of marquees that took me back to my youthful delight in all things astronomical. If the cash had been available I could have spent thousands on the technology on sale - and even without cash I was pressed into taking part in an experiment when I dared to enter the Institute of Physics tent.

I was there primarily to give a talk, based on Before the Big Bang, which seemed to go down well - but also took part in the fair and spent a lot of time next to a fascinating stand where a collection of stellar spectra on glass plates, mostly over 100 years old, was on display and could even be picked up and looked at. The archive, under the aegis of Exeter University and the Observatory, has apparently over 7000 of these plates which need cataloguing (the old catalogue was lost) and scanning in high res to preserve their delicate and valuable contents - after all these are records of spectra made before the light pollution we so decry to today.

All in all a brilliant day, and if you are anywhere near the West Country, I urge you to turn up at next year's fair - or at one of the observatory's many other events through the year. You can discover their programme and much about it at their rather quirky (bear with it) website.

I just wish I had taken some photos - but I was having too much fun!

Friday, 8 August 2014

What's your digital quotient?

Take that 6-7 year olds!
According to the news, the communications watchdog Ofcom has told us that 'the average six-year-old child understands more about digital technology than a 45-year-old adult.' (To be precise, that quote is from this Guardian report.)

Looking at the actual data, the Guardian statement is a little naughty, as I doubt very much that the difference between the scores of 6-7 year olds and 45 year olds is statistically significant (see how close they are in the chart alongside). However there is no doubt there is a point here. Most of us older folk (as you'll see from the line at the top of the chart, me excepted) are pretty poor at coping with technology compared with da yoof.

This isn't really news. It's quite a while since those many jokes about how people had to get their children to set the timers for their video recorders for them (remember video tapes, kiddies?) because they couldn't cope with them. But by setting up a measure, the so-called 'Digital Quotient' or DQ, Ofcom is trying to quantify the position. Given the way that the concept of IQ has been found decidedly wanting, I do think it's a shame that marketing people can't get enough of xQ measures, but that's by-the-by.

Back in my (relative) youth, I helped set up the PC centre for a large company, providing assistance for those struggling with the new technologies. (And yes, I really did have someone ring me up, worried that they might catch a computer virus.) I found back then, and I think it's still true today and reflected in this graph, that there was one huge dividing factor between those who coped easily with PCs and those who struggled. It was fear.

The users who were scared of their computers, terrified of losing stuff or doing the wrong thing, struggled mightily. Those who just plunged in and had a go, treating the whole thing a bit like an adventure game got on easily. I do actually wonder if the fact that my first experience of interactive computing, as opposed to batch computing with punched cards, was playing ADVENTURE on the George III-based ICL system at Lancaster University helped. I was used from the beginning to plunging in, looking around, seeking what I can find and using it.

I still find this today if someone asks me, say, how to do something in Word. My answer is 'I can't tell you how to do it, because I don't know how, but if you give it to me I'll fiddle around and find it.'

I'm not sure if the solution to the problem Ofcom is highlighting is to send all those with low DQs into Colossal Caves to do a bit of adventuring, but we certainly need to encourage them to lose that fear. There might be a little pain along the way - notably learning to ensure that everything is well-backed up - but we could certainly do with a computing mantra along the lines of 'There is nothing to fear but fear itself.'

You can have a go yourself with a simplified version of the DQ test here.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

How the AA can take money you don't want them to take

Like many concerned parents, when my daughter started driving, I took out breakdown cover with the UK's biggest, and usually trusted provider the AA. I did so with my credit card. As renewal comes close, I decided to go with a different supplier (at 1/3 the cost).

About a month before the start of the new cover, I got a letter from the AA telling me that 'relax, you don't have to do anything' and 'as you pay by continuous annual payment, all you have to do is check your details.' Now I wasn't happy with this - I didn't set up a continuous payment and had no documentation to say that I had. But what really shocked me is that nowhere on the letter - and I have examined it very closely - does it say how to cancel that payment.

I complained to the AA and after over two weeks they finally deigned to explain themselves. They pointed out that the letter says 'If there's any aspect of your Membership you would like to discuss, please call us on xxxx xxx xxx.' And, indeed it does. But that's not what I was looking for. I didn't want to discuss an aspect of my membership, I wanted to cancel a payment.

Personally I think that the company is using weasel words to say that this is their get out clause. Any letter saying that payment will be taken from a credit card using a continuous annual payment mechanism should have in large clear letters THIS IS HOW TO CANCEL THE PAYMENT. Anything less bears a distinct resemblance to the planning documents relating to the demolition of Arthur's house in Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, that were 'on display' in a locked filing cabinet in a cellar etc. etc.

This isn't the sort of behaviour we expect from a company like the AA.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Poppy harvests and nightmares

Halfway through the poppy field - it was rather impressive
On Monday I had the pleasure of taking on another stretch of the Ridgeway (just two or three more to reach Ivinghoe Beacon!). As usual the walk was a mix of tracks and paths through farmers' fields, and at one point I felt I had been transported to Afghanistan. Because we were walking through a huge field of poppies.

It is striking how much the media influences our thinking, because the only association I could come up with immediately was that these must be opium poppies. Despite being on one of the best-known long-distance footpaths in the country, I nervously joked with my walking companion that any moment we were going to come across the farmer toting a machine gun and shooting anyone who discovered his crop.

Even beyond the joke, the first assumption was that these poppies were being grown for opium, though admittedly for a more benign application in the production of morphine for medicine. And perhaps they were - I have no clue what kind of poppies these are (though the field must have been magnificent before the flowers dropped). Later though, it struck me that the poppy seeds for all those seeded rolls and loaves must come from somewhere, and presumably this was a more likely crop.

The point really, though, was a sadness about the way my expectations had been manipulated. I often moan about the media's presentation of science, but this is a wider thing. Because the news is almost always bad news (apart from the occasional royal or sporting event, both of which I also consider bad news), we do get these negative associations all the time that make everyday life less pleasant. Even though children are safer than they've ever been, because you can't turn on the TV or open a newspaper without hearing about predatory pedophiles, parents keep their kids on tight leash and don't allow them the magnificent adventure of unsupervised outdoor play we had when young. We can't look at a muslim on the tube without suspecting we are seeing a terrorist. And an innocent poppy field becomes an evil source of heroin.

I don't know what the answer is. I'm not sure there is one. But it's such a shame that by constantly showing us the worst of humanity, the news media manage to make life into one long threat.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night - review

I love detective fiction, but I'm very parochial about it - I'm only interested if it's English. Even Scottish is too alien. At the moment most of the big names in the field are silent, so it was interesting to discover on Waterstones' BOGOHP table this book by James Runcie.

I think it's fair to say I give it a mixed reception. I love that it's set in Cambridge and Grantchester, and unlike Colin Dexter's Morse books with its fake Oxford colleges, Runcie has chosen to use actual settings. It is much more satisfying to have real locations that you know and love. The period setting is reasonably well done - it is placed in the late 50s and early 60s, and there's none of the all too common tendency to give period characters modern views. These are very much people of their time. In fact the main character is almost too reserved for his own good.

On the downside, I find the situation a little far-fetched. The main character is the vicar of Grantchester who seems to spend most of his time helping the local police as an amateur sleuth. It's all a bit slow and leisurely. And there's an interminable section describing a cricket match that is deadly dull if you aren't interested in sport*. Oh, and there's a section where the crime involves a physicist and the physics as described is anachronistic, combining an enthusiasm for the basics of quantum theory that would be more appropriate for the 1930s with a mention of dark matter as if it were commonly discussed back then. Admittedly Zwicky mentioned the possibility of dark matter in the 1930s, but no one would refer to it as if were a commonplace in the 1950s and 60s. Oh, and I can't stand the Harry Potter-style naming convention of the books.

Even so, I enjoyed the gentle, slow pace. As one of the puff comments remarks it is 'perfect company in bed' - not challenging and decidedly cosy and nostalgic. I even quite enjoyed the rather unlikely timing of the main character's visit to East Germany that happened to coincide with the Berlin wall going up. This isn't going to be a book that appeals to someone who wants fast paced, modern dynamism, but if you enjoy a little period gentility with around four different crimes packed into the same volume, it's worth a try. There are three books available in the series. See more at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. At the time of writing, this one (number 2) and the first in the series are bargains 51p as a Kindle.

* Less forgivable still, in another story, Runcie describes a backgammon game in which the same player doubles and then redoubles. Well, really.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Breaking the writing rules

Who wouldn't want a doorway that looked like this?
Last night I had a quaint dream. Don't stop reading - I know the rule is to never tell other people about your dreams because it's so BORING, but the whole point of this post is about when it makes sense to break the rules.

In the dream I was helping out a company whose sole product was doorways designed in the style of the old Foyles building in Charing Cross Road (don't ask). They were worried about their advertising, which consisted of half page magazine adverts that were totally full of text apart from a backdrop of a Caribbean beach.

Now, one rule of advertising is Don't use too many words. People switch off. Get your message across with images and a few snappy words. (You can have small, secondary text to give follow-on information, but the main message should be short and big.) If you look at adverts on Tube stations these days, for instance, that's generally the case. But when I regularly caught the Tube when I worked at Hatton Cross, one company thought differently.

The adverts were for a Russian restaurant, and they reasoned that people waiting for a tube have nothing else to do but read the adverts - so why not give them something more significant to read? So their adverts had loads of text. And it caused a storm. People loved it. (And briefly other advertisers did the same, though they seem to have forgotten how effective it was now.) Rules in writing are all very well, but sometimes the best result is had from breaking them. Every great writer does this. It doesn't mean you  can write well without knowing what the rules are - but if you know what you are doing, you can consciously break those rules to superb effect.

We had a good example of this at the popular science book writing masterclass a couple of weeks ago. At the end of the event, a panel, including me, were giving feedback on book ideas. What we said several times was that the idea being presented to us was really just a collection of information. To make a good popular science book it needed an arc - an overarching development of a theme across the book. And then someone came up with an idea where each chapter in her book was effectively a separate story with no real connection, apart from the device that was used to link them together. The person with the idea was hesitant, because there was no arc - this was a separate set of individual stories. And the answer was - it's fine to break the rules. (I think I actually said 'There are no rules,' which isn't true, but I meant there are no unbreakable rules.) Here it worked because of the special nature of that linking device.

So the advice to writers (and I think this applies to both non-fiction and fiction) is simple. Learn the rules. Be aware how they apply to your book. Use them conscientiously. And then be prepared to ignore them if it works better that way.

Image "Soho foyles bookshop 1". Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Not in my global village

I have just read the 17 May edition of New Scientist. (My reading filing pile is somewhat random.) In the leader we are told how the illegal export of rhino horns, ivory etc funds terrorist groups like Boko Haram.

Fair enough. Then comes this statement: 'When it comes to wildlife crime it is easy to point the finger at Chinese demand for ivory, rhino horn and tiger penis while forgetting that all consumers contribute to some extent.'

What?  I'm sorry, I find this extremely offensive. You can't make a blanket statement like that without evidence, and a science magazine should know better than to do so. I simply don't accept that I, as it later puts it, as an 'affluent consumer', 'encourage the slaughter of endangered animals.'

I think the slaughter of these animals and the uses of their materials in what is nothing more than a pathetic attempt at magic is unacceptable. I don't in any way support the practices in which they are used. It is the people who believe in the magic and who pay for this indefensible trade who are to blame, full stop.

This is the concept of the global village gone mad. The world is not a village. I do not offer any encouragement to this activity, and for New Scientist to suggest that I do is the worst sort of appeasement. It's time people took responsibility for their own actions, rather than the responsibility being displaced on the rest of us in some kind of misguided internationalism.

"Rhino Killings" by Shaz Lock - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons