Thursday, 30 June 2016

Does physics describe reality?

What do physicists study? It seems a simple enough question, but if you talk to a modern physicist who isn't in 'speak slowly for ordinary folk' mode, you might suspect it's not the world as we know it. I'd say about nine times out of ten when I ask a friendly physicist to elucidate some aspect of modern physics, what they say provides no light on reality. And this thought has been around a long time.

In effect the idea that we aren't talking about reality is the picture Plato had, often summed up in the image of the cave - that we are in a cave and can only study the shadows of reality on the wall of the cave, not the 'true' world that is not part of our world. Plato took this viewpoint from an arbitrary philosophical basis that the 'real' world was perfect - so, for instance the real world might contain the perfect archetype of 'dog' where in our cave we just experience a shadow of dogness.

Something closer to modern science comes out in Kant's 'Ding an sich', explored so enjoyably in Adam Roberts' science fiction novel The Thing Itself. Here, there is a (non-perfect) reality in our universe but we can never experience it. As we can only interact with it through our senses, we can will never know what it is. And that brings us on neatly to the strange case of the superposed Bohr.

In his excellent collection of essays Why Quark rhymes with Pork, physics professor David Mermin discusses the Niels Bohr quote:
There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum physical description, It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.
Now Mermin gets his knickers in a twist claiming this isn't a quote, as Bohr didn't write these words, but rather it was reported that he said it by Aage Petersen. Mermin uses a very odd definition of a quote that only allows the written form - the OED defines a quote as a 'quoted passage or remark' - some of the best quotes in history would have to be erased if we only accepted the (initially) written form. But it is true that reported quotes are more likely to contain errors, and the topic becomes interesting when Mermin speaks with two physicists who knew Bohr personally.

Apparently, Victor Weisskopf claimed that Bohr could not possibly have said anything like this, while  Rudolf Peierls said that this was exactly the kind of thing that Bohr liked to say. So in good quantum style, Bohr appears to be in a superposition of the 'said it' and 'didn't say it' states. (For what it's worth, I think Peierls was right - Weisskopf seemed to be denying the possibility because he thought it was a ridiculous idea, rather than because Bohr wouldn't have said it.)

There is something very Ding an sich like about this statement (whoever said it). And apparently Bohr did write 'In our description of nature the purpose is not to disclose the real essence of the phenomena but only to track down, so far as it is possible, relations between the manifold aspects of our experience.' Which comes pretty close.

Although the original quote (or non-quote) was specifically about quantum physics, the second was much wider and reminds us of something it's easy for both working physicists and those who report science to forget. When we talk about the constituents of the atom, when we say that light is like a wave or a particle or a disturbance in a quantum field, when we speak about black holes or the big bang - these are not reality. There are real phenomena which we can indirectly observe, but we will always be dealing with models, with descriptions based on our indirect measurements and theories, not 'the real essence' as Bohr put it.

This doesn't mean we can't make huge achievements using these models. All our modern electronics depends on the effectiveness of the modelling of quantum mechanics. So, in practical terms it really doesn't matter that we aren't dealing with reality. But when considering pure science, we should never fall for the glamorous elegance of our models or the bewitching glitter of a big machine like the Large Hadron Collider. We are not exploring reality. All we can ever do is construct a better model, a better way to talk about nature. Don't get me wrong, though - it's a wonderful achievement, but often misunderstood.

Altogether now:

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Why time travel is just fine

Those of us who enjoy science fiction - and all the indications are that a good proportion of those who are interested in science do enjoy it - might have felt a little depressed at the recent announcement that the discovery of a new shape for an atomic nucleus could 'ruin our hopes of time travel.'

According to Science Alert (an outfit, I must admit I hadn't heard of), 'Physicists have confirmed the existence of a new form of atomic nuclei'. Now, putting aside that unwanted plural, they reference the BBC, which also makes the claim that this discovery 'may [..] end hopes of time travel.'

What the discovery actually shows is a nucleus with an unusual symmetry, and a Dr Scheck of the University of the West of Scotland says that this Radium-224 nucleus 'violates the theory of mirror symmetry and relates to the violation shown in the distribution of matter and antimatter in our universe.'

Now that's interesting and important stuff (if verified), but Dr Scheck goes on to say 'We've found these nuclei literally point towards a direction in space. This relates to a direction in time, proving there's a well-defined direction in time and we will always travel from past to present.' From which the BBC deduces 'So time travel would appear to be a non-starter.'

No need to give up hope, though, time travel lovers, as I don't know where to start on what's wrong with this, and I hope that the last part of the quote is BBC interpretation, rather than Dr Scheck's thought on the matter. First, I'm not sure that Dr Scheck's assertion that this proves that 'there's a well-defined direction in time and we will always travel from past to present' is even true. This seems a huge leap to make from this discovery.

However, more to the point, the practical implications for time travel rely on a total misunderstanding of the nature of the beast. Firstly, travel into the past and future are not symmetrical. It's much easier to get into the future than the past. Hang on a second. We just moved into the future. Okay, that's not very impressive, but with a touch of applied special relativity, anyone moving quickly through space can travel into the future of the place he or she is moving quickly with respect to. The Voyager 1 probe has moved around 1.1 seconds into the future. It works, we know it works - there's no questioning it. There is time travel - and it's a bizarre assumption that it has to be into the past.

When it comes to travelling into the past, it certainly is impractical for the foreseeable future, apart from small scale effects such as those experienced by GPS satellites (which effectively drift a tiny amount into our future, so on returning to Earth, if they ever did, would move into their past). But even more dramatic backward shifts are not impossible, whether or not what Dr Scheck asserts is true. This is because the sensible approaches to travel into the past, making use of general relativity, don't involve travelling backwards in time per se - they involve finding or making somewhere that time runs slowly (easily done thanks to special relativity) and finding a mechanism to get into that place (that's the hard bit - but as the GPS example shows, you don't need time to 'run backwards' to do so).

Sadly, then, this is a case of looking for a dramatic media hook for a science story and forcing one to fit, even if it means distorting the science far away from its real, and still very interesting, implications and possibilities.

There's far more on time machines and time travel in my book Build Your Own Time Machine (UK)/How to Build a Time Machine (US).

        


Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Apple drops a thunderbolt

I'm what you might call a middling fan of Apple. I use Apple products, for which I think it's worth paying a premium. I've had so much more fun with my iMac than any PC, and after over 3 years it is still running well, unlike every PC I've ever had.

However, I'm not a total Apple fanboi - I couldn't justify buying an Apple Watch (though I'd be very happy to have one if Apple would like to give me one) and similarly I've never seen the point of buying an Apple Thunderbolt monitor. Admittedly they're stylish and sit well alongside an iMac, but at £899 for a 27" screen, they are only on the shopping list of those with more money than sense. When I got a second screen for the Mac, I never thought of lashing out even half as much.

So, although it's sad in a way, it's no surprise that Apple appears to be dropping its monitors - most Apple products, though expensive, can at least justify that expense because of what they do and are. But, frankly, a monitor is a monitor. As long as it's reasonably quality, it's spec that matters, not the badge. In effect they were a luxury brand selling into a commodity market. Let's hope this decision means they will concentrate on making what they do really well even better.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Hands off our science

I get a little thrill whenever I see the word 'science' in a place of entertainment - I'm always happy to see new ways of communicating science, and when a science gig reaches a mainstream theatre, for example, that's brilliant.

But when I saw the entry below in my local theatre's events programme, my reaction was not excitement, but concern.


As you can see, the S word is prominent. Now, one of the performers is the spirit medium Derek Acorah - hence, presumably the 'psychic' bit - but the other is Richard Felix, described in the programme as a 'Ghost and Scientific Historian'. I assume that means that he studies the history of ghosts and of science, rather than that he is a ghost who also happens to be a scientific historian.

As a science writer I get to communicate with a lot of historians of science, but I'd never come across his name, so I looked up his profile on his website. Confusingly, this only describes him as a historian - the word 'science' does not appear at all. And, if his Wikipedia entry is accurate, he left school at 15 and had no further opportunity for science or history of science training. Of course, this doesn't stop him being self-trained, but if he was, you'd think there'd be a mention of it somewhere.

So what's this all about? I emailed his website asking for details, but they haven't replied. I also contacted the theatre, where their marketing and sales manager replied:
...we are advertising [...] a show that is touring the UK discussing paranormal investigations.  The event is chaired by a sceptic and features theories about ghosts and mediumship.  Regarding the background of Mr Felix, he has studied this area for more than three decades and so will be sharing the history of the scientific theories of the paranormal as part of the evening.
When I queried the term 'scientific historian', she came back:
As the venue who are hosting the show we have booked the performance in good faith and will forward your e-mail to the production company who will be in the best position to answer you.
As yet they have not done so.

Although I wrote the book Extra Sensory on paranormal abilities, I explicitly left out ghosts and spirit mediums, so I checked with Hayley Stevens, someone with wide experience in the field, and was told that the only reason she could think the S word was being used was because Mr Felix is an enthusiast for ghost hunting technology - the mostly electronic equipment favoured by some ghost hunters, which sadly lacks any verified scientific basis. But even if it were 100% acceptable as genuine science-based equipment, this misses the point.

Everyone uses electronic equipment these days. A plumber does. The bloke who delivers parcels from Amazon does. However, this doesn't give them the right to describe what they do as science or to append the word 'scientific' to their role. A historian of science (I've never come across the term 'scientific historian') is someone with expertise in, you guessed it - the history of science, not a historian who uses gadgets. It's hard not to see this as marketing that strains credibility to its very limits.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

How to alienate a chunk of your readership

I've read a one of Hugh Aldersey-Williams books, and enjoyed Periodic Tales, and the Popular Science site has reviewed another, Anatomies, but I hadn't come across his 2015 title The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century and when coming across its existence in an interview with Aldersey-Williams in the Guardian, I was thinking about paying money to get hold of a copy, but then I came to this rather remarkable paragraph:
While The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century was much praised, Aldersey-Williams now feels its message was missed by readers of popular science. “There’s no point in making ultra-subtle points about how science is done,” he says. “You have to bang them over the head with it. They want scientific facts and they want science explained to them, which I’m less and less interested in.”
Frankly, I think that is profoundly condescending and insulting to the readers of popular science. The best popular science writing manages to give the reader both context and the science - Aldersey-Williams has never been particularly strong on the science, but because he finds science difficult to write about doesn't mean he should take it out on his readers. I think I will be giving his books a miss from now on.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Pots, balls and the Reverend Bayes

I'm reading a book called Bayes' Rule by James V. Stone for review, which has reminded me of the delightful case of the mathematician's coloured balls. (Mathematicians often have cases of coloured balls. Don't ask me why.)

This is a thought experiment that helps illustrate why we have problems dealing with uncertainty and probability.

Imagine I've got a jar with 50 white balls and 50 black balls in it. I take out a ball but don't look at it. What's the chance that this ball is black?

I hope you said 50% or 50:50 or 1/2 or 0.5 - all ways of saying that it has equal chances of being either white or black. With no further information that's the only sensible assumption.

Now keep that ball to one side, still not looking at it. You pull out another ball and you do look at this one. (Mathematicians know how to have a good time.) It's white.

Now what's the chance that the first ball was black?

You might be very sensibly drawn to suggest that it's still 50:50. After all, how could the probability change just because I took another ball out afterwards? But the branch of probability and statistics known as Bayesian tells us that probabilities are not set in stone or absolute - they are only as good as the information we have, and gaining extra information can change the probability.

Initially you had no information about the balls other than that there were 50 of each colour in the pot. Now, however, you also know that a ball drawn from the remainder was white. If that first ball had been black, you would be slightly more likely to draw a white ball next time. So drawing a white makes it's slightly more likely that the first ball was black than it was white - you've got extra information. Not a lot of information, it's true. Yet it does shift the probability, even though the information comes in after the first ball was drawn.

If you find that hard to believe, imagine taking the example to the extreme. I've got a similar pot with just two balls in, one black, one white. I draw one out but don't look at it. What's the chance that this ball is black? Again it's 50%. Now lets take another ball out of the pot and look at. It's white. Do you still think that looking at another ball doesn't change the chances of the other ball being black? If so let's place a bet - because I now know that the other ball is definitely black.

So even though it appears that there's a 0.5 chance of the ball being black initially, what is really the case is that 0.5 is our best bet given the information we had. It's not an absolute fact, it's our best guess given what we know. In reality the ball was either definitely white or definitely black, not it some quantum indeterminate state. But we didn't know which it was, so that 0.5 gave us a best guess.

One final example to show how information can change apparently fixed probabilities.

We'll go back to the first example to show another way that information can change probability. Again I've got a pot, then with 50 black and 50 white balls. I draw one out. What's the probability it's black? You very reasonably say 50%.  So far this is exactly the same situation as the first time round.

I, however, have extra information. I now share that information with you - and you change your mind and say that the probability is 100% black, even though nothing has changed about the actual pot or ball drawn. Why? Because I have told you that all the balls at the bottom of the pot are white and all the balls at the top are black. My extra information changes the probabilities.

If the mind-boggling aspects of probability and randomness interest you, find out far more in Dice World.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

In praise of throwing books away

I'm going to attempt to be controversial, but I'm not very good at it.

I think people should consider recycling books if they don't want to keep them. And by recycling, I don't mean taking them to Oxfam or a second hand bookshop, I mean putting them in the recycling bin.

What a waste! Absolutely. Not green at all. But if people don't do this, there are two problems. One is the world will gradually choke with books as more and more come into the world and fewer and fewer ever leave the circuit. The other, more serious, concern is that if someone wants to read one of my books I would far rather they either bought a new copy or borrowed it from a library. In part this is because it means I can afford to live, and in part because if people don't buy new books (which are still incredibly good value compared with cinema, theatre, opera etc.) then publishers will go bust and there will be far less good quality reading available.

There are plenty of other things you can give to and/or buy from charity shops. But please don't make it books.

Monday, 20 June 2016

The birth of Goldilocks

Fred Hoyle's script featuring 'big bang'
(source St John's College, Cambridge)
The origins of snappy terms for scientific events and concepts is sometimes very clear. We know, for instance, that English astrophysicist Fred Hoyle came up with 'big bang' in a BBC radio broadcast in 1949.

Others are somewhat less clear. Although many identify the American physicist John Wheeler as the originator of 'back hole' they appear to be incorrect - and we aren't sure who did coin the term. It seems to have been first used at at an American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in January 1964, as a result of which it first appeared in print in a Science News Letter article by Ann Ewing. No one is sure who thought of it.

Another term that is popular these days that has some mystery over its origin is where Goldilocks came from. Not the children's story itself, but rather the idea of applying the 'not too hot, not too cold, just right' principle to the region around the Sun which can support water-based life - now often referred to as the Goldilocks Zone.

Nope, that's not it
(source Wikipedia)
The terms seems to have crept in during the 1970s, despite suggestions that have been made that it was down to the team of astronomer Donald Brownlee and paleontologist Peter Ward. However this pair wrote papers around the area in 2000/2001 - far too late to have originated the term, and also seem to have used the rather more frumpy Circumstellar Habitable Zone or CHZ. Similarly claims for Geoffrey W. Marcy, the disgraced American extrasolar planet discoverer, place it in the 1990s, which again is too late.

Perhaps the best lead we have is that science writer John Gribbin used the term (or to be precise, Goldilocks planet for the Earth) in the early 1970s when writing for X. At the time he thought that he had originated the term, but subsequently discovered it had been used earlier - only he can't remember by whom.

So, for the moment, the definitive origins of the term are a mystery. Perhaps someone has an earlier source hiding away somewhere. It would be delightful to find out.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Capel is back

I am pleased to say that the third of my Stephen Capel murder mystery novels A Spotless Rose is now available as a paperback and on Kindle.

In the sequel to A Lonely Height and A Timely Confession, vicar Stephen Capel is on his first holiday after joining his first parish in the village of Thornton Down. In Brighton with his girlfriend, Vicky Denning, Capel hopes to get away from it all. Taking a stroll on the beach, he sees a woman fall from the ruined pier. He rescues her, but discovers that she is dead - stabbed - and soon finds himself suspected of her murder. Each day, as Capel tries to untangle himself from suspicion, another woman dies. The race is on to prevent yet another death.

It may seem that I've been coming out with these books rather quickly - it's because the first three were written a number of years ago. They came close to publication, but were considered rather too mild for the blood-and-guts preferences of the time. Now, I think, they make an excellent antidote to Scandi-Noir.

There will be something of a pause before #4, though, as this is only partly written.

If you do decide to go for a copy (available via my website either from Amazon, or as signed copies direct from me), please do leave a review on Amazon - even if it's just a line or two.


Wednesday, 15 June 2016

The curious paradox of the self-confirming Englishman

At the weekend I was saddened to see someone post on Facebook:
[the] EC debate has reinforced how out of tune I feel with any nationalistic sense of being "English"
For me, this statement was a genuine paradox in the proper logical sense. Because the only people I know who are embarrassed by their nationality are English. I don't know a single Scottish or Welsh person who isn't proud to be - Scottish or Welsh. I delight in my part-Irish background. Yet there is something in the poor tortured English soul that produces a kind of national self-loathing. So bizarrely, by proclaiming that you don't feel English... you show how English you are.

It's time we grew up in England and realised that being proud of your nation is not the same as fascist-style Nationalism. People who assume this are falling into a classic either/or logic error. Such people assume that if you don't loathe your nationality you have to be a Nazi - but, of course, the vast majority of people in the world are very happy with their nationality and proclaim that to be the case. It's time we reclaimed our right to be English without being guilty about it.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

The PR Corner - issue #3

I was always a fan of Pseud's Corner in Private Eye. These days, the most purple prose I receive is often in the form of press releases for books being offered for review. I will provide an irregular series of these, both for your entertainment and, I hope, as pointers of what not to do with the press releases for your own books. 

Note that the books themselves could be brilliant... or not. But a poor press release is unlikely to generate many reviews. Names will be omitted to protect the innocent and guilty alike. 


I suspect the problems are fairly self-evident, but just in case here's a few key pointers to look out for:
  • Do critics really ask 'When is film coming?' [sic]
  • Do readers want to be embroiled? Or just parboiled?
  • So most writers don't really try with their first book?
  • I can't see anything in the release that suggests this book 'redefines the YA/Adult crossover fantasy genre'.
  • Fierce ability? Really?
  • It has all the same old concepts, but doesn't succumb to... the same old concepts. Good trick.
  • Is it a good thing it doesn't have a clear audience?
  • Do readers want a book to be a hoot?
  • It repeatedly tells us the book is 'unique in the market' but does not give any evidence of what makes it unique, instead reeling out the 'same old concepts.'
  • And doesn't that last line fill us with joy?




[TITLE]: Blistering New YA/Adult Crossover Novel Redefines Fantasy Genre. Critics Ask: “When is Film Coming”?

X’s ‘[Title]' embroils readers in a land where danger, magic, quirky creatures and chillingly-vivid characters run amok. There’s nothing else like it on the market, with critics tipping the adventure as the perfect candidate for the big screen. In fact, one critic recently wrote, “Enter through the portal and be swept up in a whirlwind of a vividly described new world. X writes like a dream”.


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
United Kingdom – While most authors use their first release to do nothing but simply test the literary waters, X is rapidly proving that a debut novel also presents an opportunity to rival the bestsellers. In fact, X ‘[Title]’ is being praised by critics for totally redefining the YA/Adult crossover fantasy genre.
It all comes down to the author’s fierce ability to defy convention and her refusal to succumb to the ‘same old’ concepts. Yes, her novel contains all of the unique, intricate creatures and characters fantasy fans crave, but with a narrative unlike anything else on the market.
[...]
“This novel was primarily written for both the young adult audience and adults, as the story’s culture and values transcend any single age group to make it a hoot for readers in any stage of their life,” explains X. “It’s all about retaining the hallmarks of the fantasy genre, while also breaking new ground to produce something that sits as totally unique in the market. It was no easy job, but I’m delighted with the final product.”

Continuing, “And remember, this is just the very start of the saga. The next book is currently on my writing desk and should be released later this year.”


Enjoyed this one? See PR Corner #2


Monday, 13 June 2016

Data is like money

I am very fond of scientists, but I have to admit that their discipline tends to make them pedantic (I suspect even I can be occasionally) - which is fine when assessing science, but rubbish when thinking about use of English. Scientists should realise this. Suggesting language should have a fixed set of rules that always apply and never change is a bit like saying all species should be as they were 6,000 years ago and never change. Language is far more like biology than physics.

The particular bit of scientific pedantry that gets my back up is the instance that the word 'data' should be treated as plural. So scientists will pedantically insist on writing 'the data support the hypothesis' rather than 'the data supports the hypothesis.' To every normal person, the scientists' version is clearly wrong. Because language evolves, and the way we use the word 'data' has evolved too.

I would argue that data has become the same kind of singular collective noun as money. The word 'money' usually refers to more than one thing and we use some plural forms with it - so we say 'I have some money' not 'I have a money'. But we also say 'The money is in the bank,' not 'The money are in the bank.'

This makes a huge amount of sense. There are very clear similarities with the way 'money' and 'data' are used as words. But the trouble with being a pedant is that you can stick with an outdated theory  far longer than you should. So those who want data to be plural, scratch around for a justification and think they have found one. 'Ah,' they say, 'data has to be plural because it is a Latin word, the plural of datum.' But this is rubbish. Classical plural forms are decreasingly used in English, and have never been definitive. If you really wanted to be pedantic about Classical plurals - and even Fowler thought this was silly - the plural of octopus would be octopodes. Data has become a word we use for something that had nothing to do with its Latin roots.

No, you've lost this one scientists. Data, as a word, should work just like money does, and it's about time you switched away from this clumsy usage.