Friday, 29 June 2012

Science and Paris Hilton

A not very popular science writer at work
I write in a genre that's usually labelled "popular science" to distinguish it from the real academic stuff. In a recent Scientific American, the excellent Michael Shermer writes that popular science writing is often esteemed less than technical writing, and that he considers it very narrow and naive to regard anything other than peer reviewed papers as "mere popularization."

I must admit, I've always had a bit of inverted view, thinking that, at least from a quality of writing viewpoint, most science writing other than popular science is pretty unreadable. (Someone has to stick up for the poor science writers.)

Yet enthusiastic though I am about popular science, I feel a little nervous about that word "popular." Reading about celebrities like Ms Hilton is popular [2012 note - of course celebrities come and go - if I was writing this now I suppose it would someone from TOWIE or Pippa Middleton], but is reading about science? It's certainly true that there was a brief flowering of popularity around A Brief History of Time, but on the whole, I don't see much science up the front of the bookstores on the "new and exciting things" shelves. I'm much more likely to find a cookbook or a celebrity biography.

This may sound like a moan, but it's not, it's a spur to action. All of us who write this kind of book should be looking for ways to make science genuinely popular. Not only would this boost our royalties (which few of us would object to), it's also important because getting science across to a wider public matters a lot.

My first small contribution is the website which is a review site for popular science books, but that's largely preaching to the converted. As for the rest, I intend to keep trying.

This post first appeared on my Nature Network blog back in 2007- I'm bringing some of the old posts over to my new home, as the NN blog is liable to disappear soon.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Why arty plays will never be popular

Don't expect much entertainment here
I was listening to James Naughtie on his series about the 'New Elizabethans', being reverential (as he always is about anything arty) about Harold Pinter and his work.

There was much discussion of how Pinter's plays represented real life, with all its contradictions, without resolution, without true endings. How it's wonderful that everything is left in the air and unexplained. And it struck me exactly why such theatre isn't exactly commercial.

The fact is, we can all experience real life and real conversations and contradictions and lack of resolution. We can all be left in the air and have things unexplained. It happens every day. That's where we live. We don't need to go to a theatre to experience it. The fact that Pinter encapsulates it wonderfully is a big 'so what?' It makes for theatre that is about as engaging as Big Brother. We don't want to go to a theatre to see real life, we want to be entertained or informed or surprised or excited, or even better all four.

I suspect the minority with a 'literary bent' will continue to be thrilled by Pinter's kind of thing, perhaps because their lives are a lot less real than those of most people. But for the rest of us, I'd much rather we celebrated playwrights who are good at entertaining us, at giving us that delightful, informing, surprising, thrilling evening.

Image from Wikipedia

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Paying for travel

There's a lot of debate going on in the UK over the fact that the Chancellor of  the Exchequer (isn't that a wonderfully archaic term when you actually look at the words) has announced that he is not going to increase petrol duty by 3p from August, putting it off to January at least.

Leaving aside the political insults flying about U-turns (get a grip politicians! When are you going to realise that admitting a mistake or the need for change is a good thing?), it has been useful in exposing the debate on what we should do to tax driving. There are two broad needs, to raise revenue (in principle, though not explicitly to pay for the road network and secondary costs thereof) and to discourage use of fossil fuels/high carbon emission activities/pollution.

At the moment there are two weapons in the government's armoury. There is an annual car tax (formerly known as road fund licence), and there is fuel tax. The annual tax is ridiculous. Although it has gradations for emissions, it is still a tax that gets cheaper per mile the more you drive. It is totally counter-functional and ought to be dropped immediately.

As for fuel duty, while it is proportional to the amount you drive and how much of a gas guzzler your car is, it is very heavy handed because it applies equally to someone driving through a crowded, polluted city with a superb public transport system and someone driving in the depths of Cornwall, where the car is an absolute lifeline, the nearest shop is 10 miles away and there is practically no public transport system.

I heard on the radio the other day a Labour person saying what we really needed to do was to go back to the idea of a road pricing scheme, which would monitor exactly where you are driving and charge you accordingly, something the previous government was interested in, but that was squashed because of a ridiculously biassed campaign against it resulting in a huge anti-petition, based much more on emotion than logic.

The trouble is, the Labour plan is also a disaster. It requires far too much technology to work, needing every car to be fitted with a tracking device, and a vast computer system to monitor and collect movement data. It is also hugely Big Brotheresque. There has to be a better way. And there is. Here's Brian's cunning plan to sort out this mess:

  1. Dispose of car tax immediately. This will lose some revenue, though not as much as you might thing as it's quite expensive to administer. If necessary slap on a bit of extra fuel duty.
  2. Find a workable way of doing road pricing. The most important thing is that it should be passive - active systems, requiring technology in the car, are too complex and costly. I'd suggest doing it only on motorways, major trunk roads and in cities to keep costs down, using a camera system like the London congestion charge.
  3. Once you have the road pricing system, remove the fuel tax entirely.
  4. If a load of people whinge about it in a petition, ignore them. You can't always be popular. But if you make it clear that petrol prices will drop by around 70p a litre, people may be more enthusiastic.
Successive governments have been too timid about this. Get your act together, guys.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

About four inches

The answer was 'about four inches' - what was the question?

Once you have finished sniggering in the back row, the real answer is an unreal pretence of accuracy.

This mini-rant was inspired by a weather forecast, heard on the radio a few days ago for some eastern part of the UK or other. We were told that 100 millimetres of rain was expected 'which is about four inches.'

Now it is perfectly reasonable to say that 100 millimetres is about four inches, as it is actually pretty close to 4.16 inches. But the point is that there weren't really going to be 100 mm of rain.

In reality that '100 mm' number was just a round figure guess. There was no significant accuracy to the value. So the inches version should be a round figure too - in this case, four inches, not 'about four inches'. Otherwise it suggests a totally spurious accuracy in the original 100 millimetres.

When I worked for a certain large airline with the initials BA, we used to have a similar problem with the people involved in scheduling aircraft. The planning system included various variables, like passenger load, and we worked out the weight of the total passengers on board (because that influences the amount of fuel you need) using an average figure. One of our planners wanted us to change the system so he could put in passenger weights to two decimal places. But given this was a vague estimate, such accuracy was worse than meaningless: it gave the figures a spurious reality.

And that's why I'm picking up the weather forecaster highly unfairly on what was actually a very natural thing to say. It's just too easy to give a forecast figure, which in the end is an informed guess, a spurious sense of accuracy, and we need to be on our guard to avoid this.

Image from Wikipedia

Monday, 25 June 2012

Mind Storm

Creativity in business is a funny thing. We all pay lip service to how important it is - but when times are tight and money is short we tend to pull up the drawbridge and say 'We can do without all this new-fangled innovation. While we're in trouble we need to stick with what we know.'

In reality, of course, this is absolute tosh. The very time when you need to be most creative as a business is when things are difficult. But it's understandable that, in times of financial stress, you don't necessarily want to spend lots of money to train people in being more creative.

There's an assumption in that previous sentence, of course. I'm taking it for granted that there is benefit in training people in creativity. I hope there's no doubt about the need for creativity. If everything around you stayed exactly the same, then you could carry on as you have before and thrive. But the fact is that the environment (financial and physical) is changing. Your customers are changing. Your competitors and your industry are changing. Techology is changing. You need creativity for new ideas, and you need it to solve problems. I think it's no exaggeration to say that in this environment, creativity is nothing less than a survival essential. It's a case of be creative or go to the wall.

However, is there any point in training people in creativity? Haven't they either got it or not? And what can you possibly do? Give them a pot of paint and say 'Get creative?'

In fact, there is a huge point. Everyone can be creative, but most of us suppress that natural ability. We block it in ourselves and in others. We're great at doing this. (If you doubt that statement, next time you are in a meeting, watch out for someone coming up with an idea, then see how everyone else finds reasons why it won't work.) And in the last few decades practical techniques have been developed that will enable anyone to come up with a much richer pool of ideas, and help them to develop and implement those ideas effectively. We're not talking about airy-fairy conceptual creativity, but down-to-earth, practical tools that solidly deliver ideas and problem solutions.

So, creativity training, good - cost of creativity courses, bad. If your business has the money, I would still get yourself a proper course. You can't beat the interaction with a good creativity trainer to get people up and running with creativity quickly. But if the budget doesn't run to it, I've put together a simple, self-managed 25 module course in the form of a PDF ebook called Mind Storm that won't break the budget at £19.99.

To get a better feel about what's involved, the first chapter of the book is available to download for free - or you can find out more details and purchase the full course here.

I really think, given the current conditions, any business that isn't doing something about its creativity is asking for trouble.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Funny business on the price tag

Have you ever wondered about those strange prices that dominate the retail world? It's not £5, it's £4.99. Forget £10, it is bound to be £9.99. Just occasionally a retailer will rebel. For a brief bizarre period around 10 years ago Asda experimented with pricing CDs and the like with prices that ended with numbers like .74 or .27 - it looked much stranger than you might expect, so engrained is the notion that .99 is what nature intended.

I think there is little doubt that the reason that retailers do this is psychological. We aren't hugely rational when it comes to decisions, especially when they involve those alien things numbers, which didn't exist as concepts when our current brain structure first evolved. So it doesn't matter how much you consciously tell yourself that £10 is pretty much the same as £9.99, your unconscious, shopping-powering mind will see it as considerably less. And it helps if you have to describe your purchase to a penny-pinching other half. 'It was only £9,' you can say, simply not specifying your rounding rule (and who would).

Interestingly, though, a book I'm currently reading for review suggests that the practice of using these trailing .99s predates the awareness of such psychological factors. According to The Universal Machine by Ian Watson, this practice originated with the first cash registers. These were designed to prevent the salespeople ripping off shop owners by clearly registering a transaction and by ringing a bell so the supervisor could see the assistant drop the money into the till.

Apparently the theory was that if you had something priced at £5 then you could be handed a £5 note which you slipped into your pocket and as far as the shop was concerned, the item had been stolen by a shoplifter, while you were £5 better off. But if the item was priced at £4.99 you would almost inevitably have to give change, making it necessary to 'ring up' the item and be under your supervisors scrutiny.

So there you go £4.99? It's surprising how much you get for it.

(The full review of The Universal Machine will be posted on in a few days time.)

Image from Wikipedia

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Surely this is madness? No, sir, 'tis mine art

I was listening to some Shakespearian actor Johnnie on the radio yesterday morning talking about an arts event that is being arranged in London for the Olympics. Apparently he and 49 other actorrrrs (sic) will be spontaneously weaving quotes from Shakespeare into encounters with the public. Apparently he is a little worried about doing it himself, because people will recognise him. (He shouldn't worry, I've never heard of him, let alone know what he looks like. I think he rather overrates his fame.)

But here's the thing - when he described what would happen, it didn't so much sound like art as letching. I paraphrase from memory, but this is roughly what he said might happen.
I might sit next to someone on a park bench and say 'Hello, it's a nice day,' and then 'That's a nice bracelet... Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate. Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, And summer's lease hath all too short a date.'
Now, I'm sorry, but if someone did this to me, or the equivalent - I can't see anyone comparing me to a summer's day (more like 'This misshapen knave - His mother was a witch') - I would at best be moving away rapidly and at worst calling the police. This isn't art, it's harassment.

I can just imagine the meeting where someone dreamed this up. 'Oh, daaaarling (sic), wouldn't it be wonderful? The common proles could hear the language of Shakespeare without us having to get them into an overpriced theatre seat, which they can't afford once they've paid for their bingo and whippets. It would so good for them. They'll just lap it up.'

I remain to be convinced.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Royal Society Winton Prize

It's a lazy post today. The long list has been announced for the 2012 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books (though I don't know what Dale Winton has to do with it). Take a look at my post on it at with links to reviews of the listed books we've had in so far, plus the all-important set of the books that should have been on the list but were overlooked.

To be fair, you really have to feel a bit sorry for the judges. They had to somehow whittle down a pile of over 100 books to 12, which is a horrendous task.

Oh, the excitement.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

So long, farewell

The means we have for communicating in writing have blossomed over the last couple of decades. When I was at university it was letters or telegrams. We may have lost those exciting little brown envelopes that brought  news of disaster and triumph, but we've added email, text messaging and so much more. Which leads me to ponder the ways we sign off when writing.

In formal letters it's easy - Yours sincerely if it's a named person you are writing to and Yours faithfully if it's not. But informal letters and particularly these quicker, easier means of written communication of today bring with them a whole host of options for how to end. Even text messages have this: do you end with a kiss or not? My (female) family expect this. In fact the number of kisses acts as a kind of emoticon. No kisses - you're in trouble. One or two - ordinary communication. Lots of kisses - either 'I want something' or 'Thank you so much!' But those kisses are so dangerous. Because 90+% of my texts are to said family members it's so easy to nearly add a kiss to a text to a business colleague, or to a tweet, where it simply isn't what I want to do.

And then there are the endings for emails and other longer communications. They too carry a hidden baggage of subtle secret messages. Here is my attempt to decode them:
  • Best regards - Straightforward, neutral sign off
  • Kindest regards - I don't really know you, but I want to appear rather formally pleasant
  • Get stuffed - This is probably the end of our conversation
  • Bye - In a hurry, but want to appear chatty and friendly
  • Cheerio - Just off to have a picnic, washed down with lashings of ginger beer
  • Best wishes - We aren't just business colleagues, we are social colleagues
  • Cheers - I know we're quite close, but it would be embarrassing to say anything else
  • All the best - One of my favourites: an affectionate farewell without being sloppy
  • Love - For girlies
  • Lots of love - For people you fancy or very close family
So there we have it. It's quite difficult to end anything, letter or email or even blog post.

Keep smiling,
Brian xx

Monday, 18 June 2012

Defying gravity

I'm delighted to announced that my new book Gravity - How the weakest force in the universe shaped our lives is now available in the US. (UK readers, the proper UK version is out on 25 October, but if you can't wait that long, there are some copies of the US version on Amazon, and the UK link from my website will point to that until the official US version is out.)

I have recently done a few relatively light topic books, which is hugely enjoyable to do (and, I hope, to read), but it's nice to get your teeth into something meaty, and it's interesting that my best selling physics-based book remains The God Effect on quantum entanglement, one of my more challenging titles. The great thing about doing the book on gravity is that it's a subject that is very obvious - you can avoid the effects of gravity in everyday life - and yet for most of human existence it has been quite mysterious.

Then, when you get onto general relativity it becomes even more fascinating, and if you don't try to do the maths (which you'll be pleased to know I don't), it is still surprisingly approachable. I've gone into more depth in general relativity than I've seen before in a popular science title, but I really think its worth it, as it gives you a chance to explore, for instance, why frame dragging, the effect that is used in conceptual general relativity time machines, exists.

For light relief there is the whole anti-gravity business. There's a hilarious mid-20th century article on how the world will be transformed by anti-gravity (quite serious), there are the real scientific attempts to counter gravity... and the sometimes delightful amateurs. Not to mention the conspiracy theories.

All in all, I think this is a book that should go down well - and I think it's the best cover St. Martin's Press has ever done for me (the blue one at the top of the page). I've also included here the UK cover from Duckworth, which I think is great fun, though I'm not so sure about the subtitle, which no one consulted me about.

If you are on Goodreads, I've a free copy on offer - see the link at the bottom of the page. To finish off, here's a few fun factoids from Gravity:

  • The gravitational attraction of the midwife is a stronger effect than that of the planets – so basing astrology on gravity is problematic
  • Thanks to a project sponsored by KFC we know that birds eggs don’t develop in zero gravity, as the yolk needs to be kept near the shell
  • Originally gravity was paired with levity, the tendency light things have to move upwards
  • Surprisingly, Galileo’s famous observation that pendulums swing with the same frequency however far they swing is wrong. It only applies for small swings
  • Newton’s ideas on gravity were called ‘occult’ by his contemporaries because he referred to ‘attraction, and the only meaning for the word was the attraction between people – he seemed to be saying the Moon orbits the Earth because they fancy each other
  • If you fire a bullet horizontally and drop a bullet from the same height at the same time they will both land at the same time
  • If there was water on the Moon the tides would be dramatic – 80 times the size of those on the Earth
  • If you fall through a hole dug from point to point on the Earth (e.g. from one side to the other) it takes 42 minutes to fall through
  • The gravity on the International Space Station is around 90 percent Earth normal – but they don’t feel it because they are constantly falling and accelerating towards the Earth
  • The famous experiment that ‘proved’ general relativity right by measuring the deflection of starlight round the Sun in a total eclipse in 1919 was fudged to get the right results (though it has since been proved)
  • Relativity made Einstein such a media star he was asked to appear for a season at the London Palladium, explaining his theories. He politely declined
  • For five  decades, millions of dollars have been spent on a whole range of experiments to detect gravity waves but as yet not a single one has been detected
  • There is no evidence to support conspiracy theories about antigravity technology – we know all about stealth technology, which doesn’t have commercial applications – antigravity would inevitably ‘escape’ from the military sphere it if it existed
  • It is possible that antimatter is repelled by gravity rather than attracted – we have never had enough of it to measure the effect

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        Gravity by Brian Clegg



          by Brian Clegg

            Giveaway ends July 06, 2012.
            See the giveaway details
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Friday, 15 June 2012

On the Evolutionary Road to Damascus - 5

This is the fifth and last in my series of linked blog entries on my experience of being converted (or not) to intelligent design.

The final evidence provided to me is from the DVD 'Where does the Evidence Lead'. Like my first source, the book "What's Darwin Got to do with it?": this is a calm, reasoned argument for intelligent design, rather than a religious rant.

I don't think the DVD provides any additional arguments, going over the same material slowly with pictures. Once again, I am convinced that the reasonable inference argument means that ID needs at least considering, but that there just isn't enough evidence to unseat evolution.

This DVD majors on the bacterial flagellum as impossible to explain without design. We are told that no one can explain how the various different components could have evolved, as none is useful independently. Unfortunately, it appears that the only source for this assertion is the champion of the motor, Michael Behe (who appears prominently on the video). There are good examples already of many of the components of the flagellar motor in action elsewhere. This was highlighted in the 2005 Pennsylvania court case.

So, sadly, nothing more added here.

The outcome of my trip through this material? I am more sympathetic to intelligent design than I was. Because I know it has been used as a 'stalking horse' by some creationists I was suspicious of it, but frankly this is an ad hominem attack, which was unscientific of me. It doesn't matter why someone puts a theory forward if it has some merit.

There is enough  in nature that is suggestive of design to make it worth investigating as a scientific thesis - however, there appears to be no good evidence to accept the design theory, and everything to stick with evolution. This doesn't mean evolution shouldn't be challenged - it always is being - and it doesn't mean we can rule out design - but it has to remain a minority theory to be kept in mind but not in a fit state to challenge mainstream thinking.

POSTSCRIPT - When I thought I was finished, a book called Dissent over Decent dropped onto my review pile. Subtitled 'intelligent design's challenge to darwinism' I thought it might give me a final conclusion. Unfortunately it's a philosophy (or possibly sociology) of science book, so very woffly and intensely dull. I think its conclusions were that both ID and evolution are scientific theories (in that they try to offer an explanation for the existence of something), but both are bad science (because neither can offer any useful predictions about a specific species etc.) So I got nothing useful here, apart from reinforcing my prejudices about philosophy/sociology of science - but that's a whole new debate which I will leave to another day.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

On the Evolutionary Road to Damascus - 4

This is the fourth in my series of linked blog entries on my experience of being converted (or not) to intelligent design. I had intended to do much the same with the second book as I did with the first - give a quick summary of the book in a first post, then analyze the key points in the next, but in this case there will be only one post about the book, for reasons that I think will become obvious.

The second book intended to shift me into the intelligent design camp is The 10 things you should know about the Creation vs Evolution debate by Ron Rhodes. What I didn't realize when I started to read this is that it's one of a whole series Ron has written including The 10 most important things you can say to a mason and The 10 most important things you can say to a Catholic. I think this tells you where Ron is coming from. (I confess I would be fascinated to read both of these!)

As the other books in the series show, this title really doesn't contribute to my journey, because it's not a science book, it's a religious book. A fair amount of its arguments are based on biblical quotation - important to many, but irrelevant to this discussion.

All in all, the book left me feeling more than a little queasy. Perhaps the best example of how it got things horribly wrong is it gives three examples of the evil that 'darwinism' is responsible for. This came close to self parody, because in every single example you could change 'darwinism' to 'Christianity' and make as much sense. According to Ron:
  • Hitler was a 'Darwinian evolutionist' - the implication is that evil actions of the state are driven by a 'belief' in darwinism. Unfortunately, it's all too easy to say the same about many world religions. And Hitler also believed the world was not flat - does his support make that theory doubtful too?
  • Evolutionary theory has played a role in fostering racism - no, incorrect assumptions falsely citing evolutionary theory have done this, not evolutionary theory. And let's not forget the Ku Klux Klan, making exactly the same type of misuse of a Christian heritage.
  • Darwin argued that men had greater mental powers than women, so evolutionary theory is sexist - Darwin's beliefs on women are neither here nor there, and would certainly be of his time. And let's face it, some of the epistles in the Bible are not exactly lacking in sexist content if you're just going to take things out of context.
I really can't go on with the contents of this book, which has a 'young earth', world created less than 10,000 years ago in six literal days viewpoint. If its viewpoint were true, it seems to accept that we are dealing with a God who maliciously did things to fool us, like set light from the stars in motion part of the way here, so it appears to be coming from further back in time than it really is. (The author agrees this is an unacceptable picture, so it must be wrong, but doesn't provide an alternative explanation.)

I can only end with a quote from a review of one of Ron's other books: 'This is an uneducated author in biblical research and church history, not to mention a person with an already established agenda which will not be deterred by the facts.'

This book hasn't changed my opinions at all - but then it's not surprising, as it regards even Intelligent Design as suspect. This isn't a science book, full stop. So, in my next and final post on the subject, I come to the last of the evidence I've been presented with - a DVD.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

On the Evolutionary Road to Damascus - 3

This is the third in my series of linked blog entries on my experience of being converted (or not) to intelligent design. Here I present the key arguments from the book What's Darwin Got to do with it? by Robert Newman, John Wiester and Janet and Jonathan Moneymaker, and how I respond to them.
  1. You can't necessarily argue from small scale to large - you can't take the example of (say) all the different shapes and sizes of dogs and draw the conclusion that you can evolve something from a single cell to a complex mammal. Seems fair - certainly in physics you can't apply the same rules to different scales. Micro-evolution accepted without question. Macro-evolution requires more evidence.
  2. Peppered moths aren't enough either - the famous increase of dark peppered moths in the industrial revolution demonstrates selectivity, but not evolution of drastically different species. Can't argue with this. (Similarly finch beaks.)
  3. Similarities between species doesn't necessarily imply common descent rather than design - the fact, for instance, that many mammals have very similar skeletal structures etc. is true but not useful. The fact that all cars are pretty similar in layout doesn't imply common descent rather than design.
  4. You can't use the bad design argument - This is one I've been guilty of. You point out that if biological entities are designed, they aren't perfectly designed. Look at our back-to-front optic nerves. Look at the panda's thumb. Y-e-e-s - but this is a theological argument, not a scientific one. ID doesn't say that an infallible God designed everything, just that there is evidence of design. (And let's face it, some biological 'design' is very good at what it does.)
  5. Transitional fossils are few and far between - MY FIRST CRY FOR HELP. Is this true? I know it used to be, and also there could be other reasons for this than they don't exist (e.g. transitions tended to coincide with geological circumstances that don't suit laying down of fossils). This was kindly answered by Henry Gee in my first posting: Yes. See this paper for a good, recent example. There is a problem, though, with 'transitional' fossils, as follows. In a sense they do not exist except in hindsight. As I have said elsewhere, evolution has no memory and no foresight, and only exists in the moment. Although we can pick up trends in the fossil recod after the fact, this doesn't mean that evolution runs on some kind of pre-ordained rails. I think creationists of all stripes think that that's how evolution works. Many evolutionary biologists certainly seem to think like that, or did until recently. This is not to deny that evolution happens, only to state trhat we should be more rigorous in defining what evolution is. Nevertheless, when I debunked the notion of progressive evolution in my book Deep Time there were howls of protest from evolutionary biologists complaining that I was giving ammo to the creationists. The existence of creationism has, to that extent, eroded free thought among evolutionary biologists, and this is something to be deplored.
  6. Everything since the Cambrian explosion has been variations on those 'basic designs' - SECOND CRY FOR HELP. Is this true? The book alleges that 'no animal phylum has appeared since [the Cambrian era].' Is this just a function of the way phyla are defined? This also was answered by Henry: [Yes], this is pretty much true.
  7. If SETI received a message that appeared to be designed, we would attribute it to intelligence, even though we have no evidence whatsoever of the existence of alien life. Why do we treat the possibility of intelligent design so differently? - Their best argument, I think - not for the correctness of ID, but for not dismissing it out of hand.
  8. What about irreducible complexity? - For me this turns out to be an argument against ID. The Victorian favourites the eye and the wing have both been shot to pieces; as far as I'm aware, the same has been done for 'rotary motors' propelling bacterial flagella. If irreducable complexity indicates design, you'd expect to see it all over, and you don't.
Apart from my factual queries, what isn't mentioned anywhere is the sheer timescale available for evolution to do its work. Between the 1950s and 1990s, the Russian geneticist Belyaev selectively bred Russian silver foxes for docile behavior and showed just how early man may have turned the wolf into a dog. In just 40 years he got from a fox to something very close to a dog. Imagine what you could do in a billion years.

The other missing argument is the remarkably large overlap in the information content of DNA between different species. It really doesn't take too many changes to provide a change of species. [Added: and also there's the fundamental error made over and over again by those who query evolution, which is failing to recognise that evolution never sees a change of species from one generation to the next. Every individual is the same species as its parents, but paradoxically it is still possible to change over time. Divide a rainbow into billions of colours. It goes all the way through the colours yet each of your colour 'pixels' is indistinguishable from the previous one.]

Overall, then, I feel we need to take ID seriously, unlike creationism, because there is reasonable inferential evidence that is worth considering. And I will stop using the 'bad design' argument - that's not a scientific argument. (In my original post Stephen Curry queried this, but as I pointed out, 'bad design' is a theological argument. If we take ID at face value the designer does not have to be infallible.) But going on what this book can tell me I'm not persuaded that there is any reason why we couldn't see the changes an evolutionary model implies producing the variety of animals and plants we see today.

P.S. On my original post Bob O'Hara kindly listed these answers to my points above:

  1. CB902
  2. CB910.2
  3. CI141
  4. I can't find anything for this, but anyway I agree to some extent: it would only be an argument if there was a perfect creator. I would disagree because some of the imperfections (e.g. the 10-15 foot detour in the giraffe1's nervous system) are better explained through common descent with modification.
  5. CC200
  6. CC300
  7. CI190
  8. CI102

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

On the Evolutionary Road to Damascus 2

My original blog at Nature Network is due to disappear fairly soon, so I thought I would bring back one or two old posts. This week I am re-visiting a brief series of posts on evolution and the alternatives from 2008:

This is the second in my series of linked blog entries on my experience of being converted (or not) to intelligent design.

The first of the books I read was What's Darwin Got to do with it? by Robert Newman, John Wiester and Janet and Jonathan Moneymaker (I just love the polarity of the comments on Amazon). I mostly started with this as it was in friendly cartoon form (not unlike one of the Horrible Science books) so seemed a good way to pick up the main themes quickly.

I'm going to start with two points from here: what labels to use, and whether intelligent design has any scientific legitimacy.

The book is in the form of a friendly debate between two professors, and they start by ditching the terms creationism and evolution, in favour of intelligent design and darwinism. I half agree. They dump creationism because it's a loaded term, making you think of a young Earth, only 10,000 years old and a literal creation in six days. This, they imply, is garbage. So we'll adopt the less loaded intelligent design. Fine.

They dump evolution because they don't dispute the evolutionary process by natural selection on a small scale. Fine so far, but I can't accept the substitution of darwinism. To me, the 'ism' makes it sound like a religious belief - one of a strictly godless world where everything is mechanistic. That too is a loaded term. So I can't go along with the book here. I'll use a new term, evolutionary design (where the D word is in implied inverted commas), to encompass the full panoply of evolution.

Now some would say, there's no need to dispute this at all. It's 'obvious' that science shouldn't even consider the possibility of intelligent design. But I'll go along with the book in saying this isn't a good scientific viewpoint. You don't dismiss things arbitrarily because they are different. Of course this doesn't mean you can examine everything - nothing would ever get done if I expected equal time to be given to the great green Arklseizure theory, for instance. But intelligent design is rather less bizarre.

Specifically, I'd say intelligent design deserves examination, because it's a theory that works quite well be inference. This is, of course, Paley's 19th century argument about finding a watch and inferring a watchmaker. While this doesn't prove anything, it makes the concept worth considering. We can't dismiss inference in science - almost all cosmology is based on inference one way and another, for instance.

Note that this does NOT mean I accept that intelligent design should be taught in schools. There are lots of alternative theories that shouldn't come into the curriculum (e.g. alternatives to the big bang) because there just isn't time, and it's confusing at the level it's taught. Same here. The curriculum should mention that all scientific theories are current best understanding and likely to change, but should not waste time on the alternatives. However, the quite logical inference protects ID from being instantly discarded.

At this stage, then, 1 1/2 points to the book, 1/2 a point against it. In the next post I examine the key arguments and decide whether this book has changed my thinking.

Monday, 11 June 2012

On the Evolutionary Road to Damascus - 1

My original blog at Nature Network is due to disappear fairly soon, so I thought I would bring back one or two old posts. This week I am re-visiting a brief series of posts on evolution and the alternatives from 2008:

I quite often get emails and letters from readers of my books, and recently was contacted by someone who I shall call Sandy (because that's his name). He had one or two questions about my book on quantum entanglement - The God Effect which I was pleased to answer.

At the end of our short discussion, because of the 'God' word in the title he asked me about my religious beliefs and went on to offer me a book exploring the arguments for intelligent design. In the end, he very generously sent me two books and a DVD.

What I'd like to do in this short series of blog entries is explore whether reading these books and watching the DVD has any effect on my attitude to evolution and intelligent design. If my mind is changed, I want to share the experience, and ask for words of wisdom from those who know more about these matters than me. If my mind isn't changed, that too shall go on record.

To set the scene, I am someone whose opinion can be swayed by argument - for example, I've voted for all three major parties in the UK in my time. Religiously, I'm neither an atheist nor a fundamentalist believer in any of the religions. Scientifically I am currently of the opinion that evolution is sufficient to explain what we see out there without resorting to intelligent design. So here we go. Fasten your seatbelts.

Friday, 8 June 2012

The warm glow of being a record producer

I have been running a website selling organ accompaniments for hymns and organ voluntaries for a few years now.

Church music is a particular interest of mine, and when I teamed up with the superb organist John Keys and his recording engineer and co-worker Wendy Williams I have been able to sell some excellent CDs and MP3s. But it has all been from my site, so it has felt a little DIY and yard sale. But now I feel like a real record producer.

Thanks to a service by the name of AWAL (Artists Without A Label) I have been able to put one of our CDs in downloadable format on Amazon, iTunes and even Spotify.

I don't know why, but it's immensely satisfying, being able to go onto one of these sites and think 'we did that.'

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Carbon tet

Between school and university, with a shiny new chemistry A-level under my belt, I spent the summer working in an industrial lab. As the lowest of the low, my jobs were those that no one else wanted to do. Our lab’s role was testing incoming raw materials at a plant that specialised in fatty acids. The worst job was, without doubt, being ‘lumper bumper’ - a nickname of uncertain origin for going out in all weathers and climbing up on top of chemical tankers to take samples of the hot contents. At best this meant handling sweet-smelling cocoa nut oil… and at worst, reeking tallow. After these excursions, the sampling equipment joined the endless piles of dirty labware that were also my responsibility. And that’s where I got my introduction to carbon tetrachloride.

Take a listen to my Royal Society of Chemistry podcast on carbon tetrachloride's bumpy ride as a solvent, cleaner and dangerous substance. Click here to listen.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

No more Dell

I have been buying Dell computers for around 20 years. Perhaps more significant for that company, as someone who ran the PC department for BA and has written for a good number of PC magazines over the years, lots of people have asked my advice on buying PCs, and I would say because of that advice Dell has sold dozens of computers. But my advice has changed - whatever you do, don't buy a Dell.

This has nothing to do with my recent conversion to using an iMac - I accept that Apple isn't for everyone, and are overpriced. It's just that Dell has let me down in a big way.

The reason I've recommended Dell for such a long time is not because they are the cheapest, or have the absolute best machines. It's because I've always found their service to be good when things go wrong. So when number 1 daughter wanted a laptop, I didn't hesitate to get a Dell. And because it has always worked for me, I got an extended onsite warranty.

So two years in, with two years of warranty to go, the M key falls off. A bit of the keyboard has detached itself. So I get in touch. And guess what? Apparently it is not covered because it's 'wear and tear'. Would they say the same if the screen fell off? (I did ask one the 3 representatives who I've talked to if this was the case, but his English wasn't good enough to understand my question.) The fact is bits shouldn't fall off your computer in ordinary use. That's not wear and tear, it is bad quality manufacture. If they extend the warranty, it should also cover this kind of thing.

In fact another Dell person, the support manager, made a very telling point. 'Ah,' he said, 'it's the N key, isn't it?' Well, no it wasn't, but this seems to be a clear admission that they know there is a problem with keys around that area falling off this particular laptop. Could it be that it has a design fault? But no, it's 'wear and tear.'

To make matters worse, they have been sneakily changing the warranties and there are number of complaints on Dell's bulletin board where they have refused to do on-site visits when that was in the original contract, because they have changed what the warranty is called to something that only includes return-to-base.

Now I know extended warranties are often a rip-off, but I've always done it on my computers because they are central to my business, and I wanted the same protection for my daughter's PC. I feel Dell has really dropped the ball - they are clearly more interested in squeezing the last drop from profits than their customers.

So I won't be buying from them again, and my advice to anyone wanting to buy a PC or laptop is to avoid them. They have just destroyed their one great selling point.

(Oh, and if you take out an extended warranty, get it in writing that it covers bits falling off your computer...)

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

My Mother was an Upright Piano

Actually she wasn't. My mother was not an upright piano either literally or metaphorically. But that is the title of Tania Hershman's new collection of very short stories. (I dislike the term 'flash fiction' - I don't really even know if that's what these are.)

This is not, I must admit, typical reading for me, but I like to try something different occasionally and I had very much enjoyed Tania's collection of science-based stories, The White Road (and other stories), so it seemed a good gamble.

 There were two things the stories in this book reminded me of. One was poetry. I don't know if it's intentional, but a lot of these pieces read to me like blank verse. There was the feeling that the words had been very carefully selected, the feeling that each line almost stood alone as a crafted object, rather than having the normal flow of a story, and the feeling that these stories worked best read aloud. Whatever, I had to seriously slow down my reading style, which is normally very quick, getting the jist, almost ignoring anything descriptive. I needed to slow down and appreciate the words.

 The other thing it reminded me of was a story by my favourite fiction writer of all time, Gene Wolfe. Wolfe is a prolific story writer and I buy all his collections, though I have to confess I am much more fond of his novels. But one story has always fascinated me, so much that I included it in the business creativity book Imagination Engineering I wrote with Paul Birch. We finished each chapter with a short piece of fiction, to help the reader think differently, and I was determined to get this story in. It's called My Book and it is, just like the stories in Piano, a very short short where every word in carefully selected and where about 90% of the story is implied rather than explicit. I managed to obtain it at a very reasonable rate, and got a lovely typewritten letter from Gene Wolfe as a result.

 So, for me this is a brilliant collection. And the stories are so short that if you don't like one it doesn't matter - you are already into the next (the difficulty is putting it down). You have to be prepared as the reader to do some work, to fill in that implied 90%. But is that a bad thing? Expect to spend some time staring into space as you do this. You may get some funny looks, but what the heck. Available from, and direct from the publisher.

Monday, 4 June 2012


Over the Jubilee weekend it has been hard to avoid renditions of Jerusalem (And did those feet/in ancient time) - and I've heard it described on the radio as a jubilant anthem and a celebratory hymn. In fact only one of those key words loosely applies to this strangest of songs.

Let's take 'jubilant' and 'celebratory' first and give them a good kicking. It's nothing of the sort. It's a whinging NIMBY protest song. When William Blake wrote the poem, they were building a factory in sight of his house (from memory it was in in Chiswick, but don't quote me), and he didn't like it one bit. This was a rant about his view being ruined.

Then there's that word 'hymn'. You will admittedly find the song in both the UK's big traditional hymn books, the far superior English Hymnal and the uninspiring Ancient and Modern. But this is arguably a mistake. In structure it is more like an anthem - and it's certainly beyond most congregations to sing well. I've never heard anyone but a choir get the ending right, for example. But more importantly, it's not really very Christian. Apart from the protest song element, the main theme is a bizarre myth that has nothing to do with conventional religious beliefs.

So there we have it. Neither jubilant anthem nor celebratory hymn, but an ornate and tricky protest song.

If you aren't British and wonder what I'm droning on about, here it is in an appropriately regal setting:

Friday, 1 June 2012

Forget the Queen, I have more birthdays

Apparently this is the Queen's Official Birthday
As I am a mild republican on the quiet (I don't want them all taken out and shot, but I am very doubtful of the benefits of paying for a royal family, even more doubtful about the benefits of having Prince Charles become king, and feel it's time we liquidated most of the royal estates) I won't be celebrating the Queen's diamond jubilee over the next few days. I will just enjoy muttering 'Bah humbug,' and taking potshots at bunting. But I thought I would put up a post that mentioned herself.

One of the oddities about the Queen is that she has two birthdays. This isn't due to some biological peculiarity from inbreeding, but for some reason she has a separate 'official birthday'. (Don't ask.) Funnily, in this age of e-presence I suspect more and more of us will be like the Queen in this respect.

This occurred to me when that excellent living typo Peet Morris congratulated me on my birthday on a day that, well, wasn't my birthday. This reflects an intentional casualness I have about my date of birth online. I am profligate with my dates of birth. The only rule is that none of them is correct. We all know that date of birth is one of the ways financial institutions and others try to make sure they've got the real you - so it seems best not to broadcast your birthday this way if you want to avoid identity theft. (Actually it's academic, as the only time I've suffered identity theft so far they used totally random dates of birth and it wasn't picked up. But hey.)

So you will find, for instance, that on Goodreads I was born on April 1, 1959. I have no idea where it got this date from - it's not the date I put in, but I rather liked it when it came up, so I stuck with it. In the 'Rochdale Hall of Fame' (don't laugh) which I proudly share with the likes of Gracie Fields and Anna Friel, I was apparently born on March 22, 1955 (closer but no cigar). And Wikipedia (I must do something about that photograph - I don't know who put it up, but it's terrible) accurately but coyly places me in 1955. I can think of at least three other dates I've used, though I'm not quite sure where they are.

So move over, Mrs Windsor. Two birthdays? Pah! That's nothing.

Photo from Wikipedia