Friday, 30 August 2013

The Woman who understood Newton

I'm not a great fan of writing blog posts by copying press releases, but this is one I found genuinely interesting, so I am sharing it with you!

Laura Bassi - from Wikipedia
In this month’s edition of Physics World, Paula Findlen from Stanford University profiles Laura Bassi – an emblematic and influential physicist from the 18th century who can be regarded as the first ever woman to forge a professional scientific career.

Once described as the “woman who understood Newton”, Laura Bassi – born in the city of Bologna in 1711 – rose to celebrity status in Italy and all across the globe, gaining a reputation as being the best physics teacher of her generation and helping to develop the discipline of experimental physics.

Bassi held numerous professorships and academy memberships throughout her life, starting as a professor of universal philosophy at the University of Bologna in 1732, where she may have been the first woman to have embarked upon a fully fledged scientific career. Shortly before that, Bassi became only the second woman, for whom there is documentary evidence, to have ever received a university degree.

Her professorship at the University of Bologna was created solely for her, beyond the normal number of faculty positions, as was her admission to the Academy of Sciences of Bologna Institute – an equivalent of the Royal Society – which was the vehicle that propelled Bassi into the public eye.

Like most celebrity figures, Bassi’s career was not without controversy. Pressure from older male colleagues, who considered it indecent for a young woman to be discussing ideas of nature with them, resulted in the archbishop of Bologna making an explicit injunction on her university professorship – she was only allowed to lecture occasionally when she was specifically asked.

Bassi was extremely passionate about her teaching and, when her request to have this injunction lifted was declined, she chose to raise her scientific value instead through an additional programme of private study. She also shocked some observers by reading books that were prohibited by the Roman Catholic Church, including works by Protestant scientists such as Galileo and Descartes.

After marrying fellow professor Giuseppe Veratti in 1738, Bassi was able to invite guests to her house to discuss physics without violating her teaching restrictions. In 1749 Bassi officially opened her domestic school, bringing renewed and more lasting fame.

In 1764 physician John Morgan – a friend of Benjamin Franklin – visited the Bassi–Veratti home laboratory and watched Bassi perform Newton’s prism experiments, promising to tell his famous American friend that he had met her.

Alessandro Volta – who later became the inventor of the battery – sent Bassi his earliest publications, hoping to gain approval for his work. The culmination of this appreciation came in 1776 – two years before her death – when Bassi was appointed Bologna Institute professor of experimental physics. "The Bologna academicians, in the end, had learned to live with the century’s most famous female scientist as their colleague for almost 45 years," writes Findlen.

One reason for Bassi’s relative obscurity today is that only four of her papers appeared in print during or after her lifetime. Many of Bassi’s unpublished papers went missing during the Napoleonic era. However, Findlen concludes that Bassi’s outstanding contributions were made through conversation, demonstration, experimentation and explanation.

“She produced the kinds of incremental results that tend to accrue with far more ordinary research that – although not worthy of a Nobel prize – is essential to the daily pursuit of science. She reminds us of the importance of the kind of person who can reveal dimensions of science other than a singularly great discovery or insight,” writes Findlen.

Find out more at Physics World's website. (And see Seduced by Logic for two more historical female science stars.)

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Bringing home the Bacon

I'm delighted that my book on the thirteenth century proto-scientist Roger Bacon (now helpful retitled Roger Bacon from the old The First Scientist) is now back in print, or rather in virtualish ebook form from Kindle to iBook.

There are three fascinating things here. First there's the medieval university life, complete with murders and riots and other fun activities. Then there's Bacon's remarkable attempt to codify scientific knowledge. The ideas just poured out of him to such a degree that his original proposal - not the book, just the proposal - turned out at over 500,000 words. In it he devised the modern dictionary, used Cartesian coordinates, gave the latest ideas on optics and a whole host of other early bits of work (plus some classic misunderstandings of the period).

The final remarkable thing is the story of his attempt to write an encyclopaedia of science, faced by a ban on writing books for his religious order and problems with the pope. It had more highs and lows than a soap opera plot.

All in all, Bacon's is a remarkable story, with great insights into the early forming of science - so it's brilliant to have my book available again. Take a look at its page.

As Professor Heinz Wolff so kindly said:
Roger Bacon was a polymath, prepared to think beyond the doctrine of the time, despite being constrained by the by the all pervading influence of religious dogma... The author’s talent for giving the reader an almost tangible feeling for the atmosphere of 13th Century Europe in general and of England in particular was marvellous – I found it fascinating.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Quizzically challenged

Having been on University Challenge (if only as the subject of a question) I had a natural interest in the book Universally Challenged, quiz contestants say the funniest things. It was a slight let down that most of the contents have nothing to do with that august BBC 2 quiz show, featuring rather less academic ventures, but it doesn't stop the responses being entertaining.

What we have here is a whole stream of wrong answers from the downright dumb to the entertainingly wacky (I particularly liked 'What insect is commonly found hovering over lakes?' - 'Crocodiles.')

Admittedly there were a few questions where I doubted the selection, because the answer made too much sense. There was, for instance, 'Name a place where you take your clothes off beside home?' to which the apparently funny answer was 'School.' Now, I can see why this was considered funny, but in fairness to the contestant it was also correct - most people have taken off clothes at school to change into games kit. But even these doubtful questions were interesting because it meant you could feel superior to the editor of the book, Wendy Roby, because you know better than she did.

I read the whole thing through while on holiday, which was possibly a mistake, as apart from the truly hilarious and wildly eccentric answers, it could feel a little flat, reading question and answer after question and answer. It may be it's a better book to dip into - perhaps to keep beside the loo. But there is no doubt that it makes a great combination of entertainment and mind boggling at humanity's ability to get it wrong - and it would make an ideal gift.

You can see more and buy it at Presents for Men (amongst other presents that really could be for anyone, not just men).

Monday, 26 August 2013

Tread carefully in the mindfield

I was excited to get my hands on Anthony Peake's new book The Infinite Mindfield, as I had found his previous title taking a scientific approach to life after death intriguing - and there are parts of the new book I found equally excellent. I was fascinated to learn more about the pineal gland, about which I had very little idea, apart from knowing of the now dismissed idea that identified it as a kind of withered third eye. It is particularly fascinating that the gland can contain piezoelectric crystals that in principle mean it could act as a kind of natural radio receiver. There were also other parts of the book about the nature of light, zero point energy, hallucinogenic drugs and more that were very approachable. Peake has a great way of making you really think about a subject, rather than just take in a set of facts. However there were other sections that I have problems with.

The overall approach that I felt unsure with was the lack of selectivity. Everything from the outcome of detailed scientific study to the made up meanderings of the likes of Madam Blavatsky and Rudolf Steiner are presented on exactly the same level as if they are all true. Totally unsubstantiated concepts like chakras, based on the concept of an 'energy' that has never been detected and that has no physical basis are stated as if they are simple fact. I think the first section of the book, which looks at various religions (through to less well established concepts like theosophy and anthroposophy) is genuinely interesting, but I would have been much more comfortable if the various beliefs were stated in terms of 'this is what these people believe based on no verifiable evidence' rather that stating the beliefs, however unlikely, as if they were on a par with scientific discovery. (I've checked with the author, and this wasn't the intent, but it is how it came across to me.)

The other side of the book I have issues with is the way some fringe science is presented as if it is on a par with proper, peer reviewed discoveries. So, for instance, we hear of Luc Montagnier's assertion that DNA in one test-tube can influence pure water in another test-tube and turn it into more DNA. We are told 'Montagnier thinks that this suggests that DNA emits its own electromagnetic signals that imprint DNA's structure on other molecules.' Peake points out that it is telling that even a 'Nobel Prizewinning scientist is not immune to being labelled a "pseudoscientist" if he decides to apply his knowledge and experience in areas that are labelled "fringe" by the modern equivalent of the Inquisition, the "thought police" who hide under the term "sceptics."'

I have a number of problems with this. Just because someone is a renowned scientist does not mean he can't be totally ignorant outside his field - there have been plenty of examples of this in the past. And Montagnier, a medical doctor, is hardly qualified to deal with physics. Just think what he claims is happening. In order to transform water into DNA you would have to turn the elements hydrogen and oxygen into nitrogen, carbon and phosphorous. So this is not just a matter of 'imposing structure' - you would have to produce nuclear fission and fusion using only a 'weak electromagnetic field'. To say this doesn't make sense is an understatement. It is not unreasonable, or Inquisition-like to be sceptical in the face of such a claim.

Finally, I am a little concerned when Peake spends quite a while telling us how 'mainstream scientists have dismissed the vast majority of [DNA] code as being useless.' This might have been true 30 years ago, but since the development of epigenetics I can't imagine there are any biologists who think that what used to be labelled 'junk DNA' is useless. It is entirely recognised by mainstream science that much of this DNA has plenty of functionality.

So my problem with this book is mostly a failure to distinguish, sometimes between analogy and reality - so assuming the use of terms like 'energy' and 'light' when applied in an illustrative manner makes them the same as real energy and light - and sometimes not distinguishing between made up ideas and scientific theories, or between anecdote and data. There is plenty of good stuff in there, and if you can read the book in an appropriately selective manner it is both enjoyable and informative - but I suspect many readers will struggle to make that distinction. I am reminded in some ways of Chariot of the Gods - there is a similar logical, informative and entertaining approach, but also a similar lack of distinction between science and beliefs. A curate's egg? Definitely. But one I enjoyed nevertheless.

See more at and

Monday, 19 August 2013

Fiscal Cliff

As a popular science writer I have always had a second (working) life as a business creativity trainer. It's not uncommon for people in the field to have a second activity - apart from anything else, if you spend your whole working life teaching people to be creative and don't do anything creative yourself, you will soon lose your mojo.

A while ago, creativity expert Peter Cook invited me to do some training at one of his Open University events. In my case the 'bit on the side' of writing has taken over to be my primary activity, but Peter keeps his rock musicianship more firmly in check, despite using it directly in his training. But he has recently given it full rein by producing a rock song on the financial crisis that manages to be a little ironic (never a bad thing), thought provoking and a damn good bit of music too.

I'll be quite honest, I listened to it on YouTube out of friendship - but that's not enough to make me part with cash. I bought a copy because I liked it.

See what you think:

If you do like it, I encourage you to buy a copy in the hope we can make this unusually relevant rock song visible in the charts. You can get it at Amazon or of course from iTunes:

Friday, 16 August 2013

Subscription monarchy

A picture I took as the Queen passed Lancaster University in 1977
I have always been suspicious of those who want that excellent institution the BBC to switch from being funded by licence fee to subscription, but I am coming round to it, because I think I would be hypocritical to argue otherwise given what I'm about to say.

The other night I was watching Steven Fry's TV programme on the City of London. All the places were very interesting, but people like the Lord Mayor, beadles and livery companies, dressed up in their silly pantomime costumes really got up my nose. Or rather, I thought it's fine, as long as we don't have to pay for it. As far as I'm aware, the livery companies are self-funding, and if that's the case, and as long as they keep it behind closed doors, I'm delighted for them to prance around in silly robes and share loving cups and such. However, my suspicion is that the Lord Mayor's antics (not Boris, the pantomime Lord Mayor of the City of London) are paid for by taxpayers or ratepayers, and that is not on. At least, not without any choice in the matter.

I feel the same about royalty. I know I'm in a 20% minority, but I'd get rid of the lot of them. Not in a revolutionary, guns at dawn sense, simply get rid of the institution and stop paying for it. However because I am in a minority, perhaps a better answer for royalty (and the Lord Mayor) is exactly the same proposal that is often put forward for the BBC. Let's move away from having a licence fee for royalty and go to a subscription basis. If you want the royals, you pay for them. If you don't want them, you don't pay.

Of course those who pay need to get something in return. Free entry to a raffle to go to a garden party or something. A royal channel on Sky. But I think it would make the situation fairer. Moaners like me couldn't complain about taxpayers money being wasted on these chinless wonders (not to mention the one who peddles homeopathy and such), but those who want them can pay to keep their antics.

Of course, we might find that those who are all in favour become less so when they have to sign up for their direct debit. But perhaps I am being cynical. I'm sure they will feel it's worth every penny.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Einstein's molecular dance

It's that time again when posts will get a little more sparse as the holidays kick in. Just time for a little sciencey piece on one of Einstein's sometimes overlooked achievements from his annus mirabilis, 1905.

Atoms are like small children – they are never entirely still. It’s a remarkable contrast between the visible world, and the world of the very small. Look at a glass of water. That water appears to be motionless, yet within the liquid the water molecules are frantically dancing around.

In 1827 a Scottish botanist called Robert Brown was trying to understand plant pollination. On a microscope slide he had the pollen grains of an evening primrose plant suspended in a drop of water. When he peered through the microscope, the tiny specks of pollen jumped about, constantly in motion.
What was particularly puzzling was that there seemed to be no order to the motion, no rules for the way they moved. Instead the pollen grains’ dancing was wild, chaotic, quite different from the picture of the world as a clockwork universe, built on Newton’s laws.

When Robert Brown first saw Brownian motion he suspected it was the life source of a plant in action. It was only when he tried long-dead pollen, then stone dust and soot, finding the same effect with particles that were never alive, that he confirmed that the size of the pollen grains was responsible for their motion.This jerky dance was named Brownian motion, but remained little more than an oddity until Albert Einstein linked it to the behavior of atoms.

Einstein produced three great papers in 1905. His work on relativity and the photoelectric effect (one of the foundations of quantum theory) get the glory, but his third great paper was on Brownian motion. At least two other scientists explained Brownian motion at the same time as Einstein.  Scottish-Australian scientist William Sutherland published a similar paper in 1904, but has been forgotten in the enthusiasm for Einstein’s work. Similarly, Polish scientist Marian von Smoluchowski devised a parallel explanation to Einstein’s, published in 1906, written well before he read Einstein’s paper. The timing of these papers reflected a growing understanding of matter.

Until that time, the concept of atoms was very theoretical. It's hard to believe now, but many thought they were a fiction to make calculations work. However, Einstein showed that the dance of the pollen grains was caused by the random impact of billions of water molecules, with the grains moving much as the molecules did, but vastly amplified in size. Einstein used Brownian motion to show that the liquid the grains floated in was composed of many billions of gyrating molecules.

It wasn’t until 1912, with the completion of a wide range of experiments based on Brownian motion, that French physicist Jean Perrin firmly established the existence of atoms. Until then, many scientists denied they existed.

Image from Wikipedia

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

How Microsoft got tablets wrong. Again.

Make me cheap!
Although we think of Microsoft as a software company they have had some big hits on the hardware front. The Microsoft mouse was, for years, the definitive pointing device. I used Microsoft's ergonomic keyboards for a long time before discovering for reasons I don't understand that Apple's straight version doesn't give me the same strain as a typical keyboard. And, of course, the X-box has done pretty good business. But Microsoft has not been lucky with tablet computing.

They first went wrong with their early attempt at creating a touchscreen standard. It gave us that excellent piece of software OneNote, but the hardware never took off. No one could see why anyone would want to buy a tablet when they could have a real computer. Then Apple showed the world exactly why they wanted one - and the world changed. So when Microsoft came back to the market with the Surface they should have had it easy. They had an excellent, touchscreen-oriented operating system that would run legacy programs (if you had the right version of the hardware). And a neat design. What could possibly go wrong?

At the time of writing the price of Surface tablets is being heavily discounted for the obvious reason that they simply aren't selling. We now all understand why we want a tablet - but we want it to be an iPad or and Android device, and we need a fair amount of persuading to go for something else. And the MS sell just isn't working. I think Microsoft has one hope, but I don't think they will see it. Certainly the usually spot-on industry website The Register didn't in this piece on the price cuts.

Simon Sharwood, the author of the piece, comments 'One small ray of sunshine is that the price cut may not be permanent.' But I'd say that's bad news, not a ray of sunshine. I think Microsoft's only hope for the Surface was not keep it premium priced, but to make it really cheap. It's the Polaroid strategy. Polaroid used to practically give away their cameras, because they made all their money from the film. You can still see this sales model operated today by printer manufacturers who sell printers ridiculously cheap considering what sophisticated devices they are, because they expect to make their money from the consumables. (I once had a colour laser printer where a set of cartridges was more expensive than buying the printer (with a set of cartridges) in the first place.)

Of course 'consumables' are a very different business with a tablet than with a printer or Polaroid camera. They are less essential, so you have to make sure that it's attractive and very, very easy to upgrade your software (something, let's face it, Microsoft knows all about with Office), to buy new apps and to buy little add-on hardware gadgets and widgets. But given that, there is no reason why Microsoft couldn't sell Surfaces mega-cheap for ever. That way, they'd have a chance of surviving against the might of the aluminium clad opposition.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Reclaiming Carmina Burana

Here's that wheel of fortune in the original
(image from Wikipedia)
For many people, Carl Orff's unique choral piece Carmina Burana is nothing more or less than 'that music they use on X-Factor.' I suspect the X-Factor producers or Simon Cowell or whoever chose it simply think of the opening/closing chorus of the piece that they use for dramatic effect as a bit of loud imposing background, not realizing just how appropriate it is for TV shows like this. That particular chorus is about the wheel of fortune. How one day you are up on a high - but then the wheel turns again and nothing has really changed.

When I was a student I loved this piece. What student wouldn't if you take a look at what it means. It is based on a collection of often bawdy but sometimes romantic poems by medieval monks, obsessed, as only monks and students can be (though in rather different ways), with drinking and sex. Musically there is nothing quite like it (certainly not Orff's two attempts to do something similar) and it contains huge contrasts in the different sections. If you have only ever heard that chorus O Fortuna it really is worth persevering and taking in some of the rest.

The thing that makes it for me is the ending of the piece, which puts it in my top three pieces of music that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The last few segments portray, well, the climax of the whole business. There is a glass-cracking soprano solo as she gives her all, followed by a triumphant chorus, glorying in the outcome. But here is where the tingle factor comes in. Right at the end of this chorus, when the music seems to be coming to a dramatic climax, it turns. Something shifts and what should have been a triumphant ending suddenly opens up like a void... into a reprise of the opening chorus about the wheel of fortune turning and things always being the same. I found the implications of this rather unpleasant as a romantic youth, but you can't argue with the genius of the way those bars of music are constructed.

If all you know of Carmina Burana is the loud, blaring opening O Fortuna, here's a rather beautiful contrasting bit where the female character is deciding whether or not to go for it.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Why we're in the financial mess we are

One nice side effect of my encounter with the BBC's Robert Peston the other day was that he kindly gave me a copy of his latest book, How Do We Fix This Mess - and I am very grateful that he did.

Like, I suspect a lot of people, I have struggled to understand just how the banks got into the mess they did, what is happening to try to untangle it, what is going on in the Eurozone and more. And thanks to this book I now have a much better feel for what it's all about. It's the sort of thing that is very difficult to put across on the TV news, requiring a more detailed, sprawling approach possible in a book, and Peston really does make things a whole lot clearer. He also makes it clear that there hasn't been enough done to prevent this happening again - the regulatory system still encourages the bankers to dream up byzantine mechanisms to get around the rules and increase their bonuses.

What's more as a bonus (the acceptable face of the bonus) there's an explanation of the whole LIBOR scandal business - and an in-depth analysis of China's finances and why there is a lot of potential for problems there too. Of course, you have to have an interest in current affairs/business and finance to find this as fascinating as I did, but it is important reading if you want to get on top of this crucial world situation affecting all our livelihoods.

One thing Robert Peston is famous for is his rather strange, drawling intonation (oddly this was less obvious when we were discussing quantum physics) and the book does have an equivalent in a habit of far too often saying 'In other words' or 'Put simply this means' or something similar. Time and again he will make a statement and then re-state it in simple terms. (He actually does this twice in a single paragraph at one point.) Usually the restatement is valuable, and sometimes having both versions helps because one uses the terminology you often hear but don't understand and the other clarifies - but it does happen far too often. I also ought to mention Laurence Knight who appears in very small letters on the front - he presumably co-wrote the book, so part of the acknowledgement for an excellent bit of work should go to him.

If you were baffled by the credit crunch, banking behaviour, the Eurozone crisis or any combination thereof and want to know more, this is definitely the book for you. You can see it at

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Peston physics

After the shoot
A couple of weeks ago I had the very enjoyable experience of spending a couple of hours in the company of the BBC's business editor, Robert Peston. In a series of five short pieces, Robert has been finding out more about a number of things that have fascinated him but eluded him over the years. He has learned to do Punch and Judy, to paint a landscape and to order his Chinese takeaway in Mandarin. And I had a go at teaching him quantum physics. We met at the Science Museum Library at Wroughton near Swindon, a location I had suggested as a good sciencey backdrop.

Although it was a bit slow going as anything with a camera involved tends to be - and I'm rather sad at just how much as ended up on the cutting room floor - I think it went pretty well. See what you think: