Friday, 29 November 2013

Masterly suspense

If I am honest, I'm not a great fan of books with a disaster, 'end of civilisation as we know it' scenario. In my teens I hoovered up vast quantities of these from War of the Worlds to Day of the Triffids, and absolutely loved them in my typical teen enjoyment of misery, but as I've grown older I have become increasingly fond of it all ending happily ever after. I think my problem with disaster books (and films) is the cavalier way that millions are slaughtered by the author. We are expected to feel connected to the main character, who usually miraculously survived, but I am always kept at a cold distance, because I am so sad for everyone else, the bit part players who are killed off for the sake of the scenario.

This meant I was a little nervous coming to Kate Kelly's young adult novel Red Rock, as this is 'cli fi' - fiction based on the world being transformed by climate change, and on the whole that's a pretty disaster-laden scenario. I needn't have worried - although the backdrop is of civilisation crumbling in the face of climate change, the storyline is pure action thriller with plenty of mystery and suspense, which soon distracted me from any concern about the fate of the world.

The main character, Danni, is beset by a host of problems, left on her own (or at least with a stranger) in an attempt to escape capture and understand more about the mysterious object (not unlike the one in the hands on the cover) given to her by her dying aunt. The tension rarely gives up for long - this is one of those excellent stories where the reader accompanies the MC on a race against time and the odds.

If I have any complaint it's an unusual one for me - there is not quite enough description. I felt this particularly when Danni visits both Oxford and Cambridge, cities I am very familiar with, yet I was never given enough to know where she was. Particularly irritating was the way she has find the library of a Cambridge college, but we aren't told which. But any frustration from this is washed away as the action pounds on.

Particularly good for a young adult novel is the way that there is a 'bad' character who turns out to not be all bad. For those familiar with that epic of Australian art, Neighbours (what can I say? my children made me watch it), I've always been rather impressed by the character Paul Robinson, who despite being a long-running baddy is at the same time very caring for those who are close to him, and has moments of genuine thoughtfulness to season the self-centred, grasping ruthlessness. Similarly, Red Rock has a character (I won't give it away by saying who) who betrays a friend but then more than makes up for it.

The other surprise was that I rather liked the climate change backdrop. It is never heavily laid on, but both the sad remains of Cambridge, under water when the tide is in, and the casual decay of coastal towns is beautifully handled. It is never trowelled on, but really gives a feel for the depressing reality of a future where climate change is unchecked.

Overall a book that works both as a good, page-turning thriller and one that makes you think.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

For crying out loud!

'Buy organic! It's ever so mainstream.'
'Such has been the trajectory of some of his most cherished causes that decades after lending support to, say, organic farming and alternative medicines, such matters are accepted as mainstream today.' Andrew Roberts on Prince Charles in the Sunday Telegraph via the i's News Matrix

I'm sorry? Does Mr Roberts write the above about Prince Charles with a straight face? If so, he should be ashamed of himself. As should Prince Charles if it's true that his influence has made this stuff more mainstream. Luckily, though, I think that Mr Roberts is at least in part wrong, because the forces of reason are, to some extent holding out against Prince Charles' self-proclaimed attack on the logical and analytical approach of the Enlightenment.

Is organic farming mainstream? I suppose you could say it is in the sense you will find it in the supermarkets, though interestingly it seems to be getting less and less shelf room, which presumably indicates that customers are getting fed up of paying a significant premium for organics. After all, from most supermarkets' viewpoint, organic food is just a way of getting people to pay more for what is essentially the same product. The same view is also true of at least some organic farmers - I have certainly talked to a fair number who went organic because they saw a way of earning more for their produce, not because they backed some sort of spiritual Royal campaign. And good for them - I'm not suggesting they were cynical, merely sensible.

However, the reason people buy organic food is frankly often as fuzzy as the reason they, for instance, would prefer to shop at Waitrose rather than Asda. Not because what the two shops sell is often any different, but because Waitrose gives you that nice warm glow of middle class belonging, where Asda leaves you mixing with more of the common herd. They won't admit to that, of course. They will tell you there are two reasons for going organic - because of health benefits and welfare concerns. Or even to be green.

On welfare, it is certainly true that in the UK, organic animal welfare is very good. There is no reason why it should be any better than a good free range non-organic farm, but at least you have some degree of checking on that welfare done by the Soil Association, or equivalent bodies. (You have to be very careful about imported goods labelled organic, as in a lot of countries there is a lot less checking - if any at all - before that premium 'organic' label is applied.) There is one negative aspect on welfare, which is that the Soil Association encourages farmers not to treat sick animals using homeopathic remedies, so sick animals often have worse welfare on organic farms, but on the whole the regime is good.

The health aspect from eating organic is less sound. There has repeatedly proved to be no taste or nutrient benefits from organic farming. I have always deeply respected Helen Browning, a local organic farmer and bigwig in the Soil Association, who once told me 'The only health benefit we claim for our organic meat is that it is more healthy than eating a bag of doughnuts.' And as I have shown elsewhere the claim sometimes made about organic food having health benefits due to a lack of 'poisons' like pesticide residues is totally spurious.

As for being green, making sure your food is grown locally is the greenest thing you can do, rather than worrying about it being organic. Organic farming methods are usually worse for the environment in carbon emissions, though better in releasing less nitrogen-based pollution. There's not really a lot to be said either way.

As for Prince Charles' other obsession with alternative medicine I hope it is fair to say that this still isn't mainstream. Hope because much of what he champions is such a load of tosh. Two specific examples - as I've previously discussed, a 'tincture' claiming to detox is a load of bull excrement that would work wonders on any organic farm. And as for Charles' favourite, homeopathy, it's hard to think of a way of getting money out of customers that is less dependent on any kind of logic. Again, I don't need to revisit the detail, but I would refer you back to the lack of danger in taking a homeopathic overdose and a proposal for a new more efficient way to produce homeopathic pills.

Thankfully, then, it seems that Prince Charles' 'trajectory' has yet to drag the majority of us back into the dark ages. But it's always worth keeping an eye out just in case. The forces of unreason are ever amongst us.

Image from Wikipedia

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Dipping a toe in the fiction world

I have long had this suspicion that somehow you aren't a real writer unless you've written some fiction. Clearly this is ridiculous - and yet it's a beguiling feeling.

The first ever book I wrote was a novel (a thankfully now lost turgid science fiction epic, written on the train on the way to school), and I have written at least half a dozen more, which haven't seen the light of day, but I would say are part of my learning to be a writer.

Now, though, I am glad to say, I have a real work of fiction that makes me proud and is published. (I should say I'm already proud of some published short fiction, like my short story in Nature.) It's called Xenostorm: Rising and it's aimed at the young adult market, which is theoretically 11 to 14ish, but in practice is popular with adults too - think Harry Potter in this respect.

This is science fiction, but not in an intrusive spaceships and ray guns way - it is SF that happens to apparently ordinary teenagers with extraordinary results that could transform the world in a shocking way.

The book is available as paperback and ebook from its website, where you will also find details of the Xenostorm game, a fun online puzzle game. At risk of sounding corny, the book should be a great stocking filler for young adult readers.

To give you a taster, here's the opening chapter:

One


DAVY FORCED a path through the streams of pedestrians flooding down London’s Cromwell Road.

Across the wide street loomed the Natural History Museum, a Victorian forest of pillars and carved beasts thronging around its twin towers. Already visible ahead was the tall town house with his flat on the third floor. Davy’s home – at least for the next few months.

He stopped to unwrap a stick of gum and stared at the plain white house.

When, he thought, had they ever lived anywhere longer than a year? 

Now Davy was in London. Before that Kent, then France and South America. It sounded exciting. But it wasn’t so great when you lived it. Davy had never belonged anywhere. His parents said that their jobs were to blame, but that seemed an excuse. There were plenty of journalists and scientists who didn’t drag their children from place to place. It was almost as if they were frightened of settling down.

Why couldn’t they have stayed on the farm? That was really home.

Davy’s first seven years had been spent on an isolated farmstead, up on the high Pennine moors of Northern England. A cold, wild, wet place – yet one that always felt solid and reliable.

That was how it should be, he thought. Seven years without moving on. There was a dog, Jasper, and everything. It was normal, comfortable. They were a proper family then.

He threw his gum wrapper at a bin by the road’s edge. It fell short, dropping to the pavement.

No one would notice. London was like that. You could be invisible. If only it was the same at school.

For Davy, walking through the school gates with their twisted crowns of barbed wire was a daily ordeal. He knew that somewhere the bullies would be waiting. It was only if he managed to find his best friend Raul first that he would be safe. Then they would leave him alone.

It’d be hopeless without Raul, he thought. There’d be no way to make it through the day. But everyone liked Raul – even the bullies.

Just ahead of Davy a girl collecting for charity stood in the middle of the pavement, chatting to an elderly man. He saw her at the last moment and swerved to avoid a collision. When he looked back over his shoulder, she winked at him, a pretty girl with long black hair. Davy felt a warm flush of embarrassment and looked away at the pavement ahead.

If mum knew about the bullying she’d say ‘Just tell a teacher,’ but it didn’t happen to her. She didn’t know what it was like.

Davy’s mother was the solid one of the family. The person he and his father turned to when things went wrong. A physicist, she wasn’t anything like the stereotype mad scientist. She was good with people, always making friends quickly. But she wasn’t right about everything. She thought anyone could be reasoned with, even a bully.

Why was he a target? It’s not like he was a nerd. He fitted in. Not fat. Average height, almost. Alright, there was his hair, you always got snide remarks about red hair, but not like this.

‘School sucks.'

Oh great, thought Davy, I said it aloud.

He glared at the passers-by, daring them to laugh, but they ignored him.

His iPod reached the end of the track. He slipped it out to skip the next song, that rubbish one with the boring chorus.

He touched the control.

Pain! 

What’s happening? Stop it! Please, someone stop it!

A wave of pure agony blasted through Davy’s skull. It was like a dentist’s drill ripping into his brain. Pressure soared in his head. Jagged bursts of excruciating pain tore down his neck. More and more the pressure built behind his eyes, so much they would surely burst.

Clutching his forehead, Davy dropped to the pavement.

... read on in XENOSTORM: Rising.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Shields up, Mac users

I'm virus proof on my Mac! Oops...
Even though I am now a Mac user, I have to admit that, as a species, they have their problems. Specifically, they have always had a tendency to be smug. Infuriatingly so.

Perhaps the biggest example of this, bigger still than their certainty that their machines had more style and flair, or were better at arty things, was the assurance that computer viruses were not a problem for them. They sneered at the poor PC user, scrambling to update their anti-virus every year. They sniggered behind their hands as friends computers succumbed to worms and trojans. Because, on the whole, Macs were virus proof. Not because they were so technically sophisticated, but because they were simply too small a market to make it worth virus writers targeting them.

However, though Macs still have a relatively small market share, it has steadily grown. And guess what? Viruses are out there. What's more, since hardly any Macs are protected against them, they are easy pickings.

I've taken the plunge and installed AV software. I haven't done a scientific survey or anything, but I've gone for Sophos. There are a couple of reasons for this. I have an affection for the company as they helped me out free of charge a number of times in the early days of PCs at British Airways. Their software has never been the slickest, but it has always had an industrial strength feel to it. The other reason, frankly, is that it is free. Eat that, PC users.

How has the experience been? Pretty good. The initial scan was a bit of a nightmare - it ground to a halt a couple of times and I had to restart it, but eventually I got the 6 million files (gulp) scanned. But since then, in background mode it has been trundling away nicely, occasionally spotting nasties in my emails and generally being a good egg.

If you are a Mac user and want to give it a try you can find it here. I would recommend giving it a thought. The world, it is a-changeing.

I ought to stress there are other products, this isn't a comprehensive test and (sadly) Sophos are not paying me anything to say this.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Elements of Excellence

I very much enjoyed Mark Forsyth's fluffy but inspiring earlier books on words, notably The Etymologicon, and his new title The Elements of Eloquence is equally enjoyable (and anything but a hard read). But it is also a book that makes you stop in your tracks. Because this stuff really matters.

Forsyth has revealed a startling truth that should have been obvious - in all those hours spent in English lessons we aren't taught how to write well. Yet there is a way to do this that has been around since the time of the ancient Greeks and that was, until it went out of fashion, a major part of the school curriculum - rhetoric.

Now, if you told me a couple of weeks ago that I would wax lyrical about a book on rhetoric, I would not have believed you. 'Rhetoric' just sounds really dull. As a subject, it sounds as if it would make politics look engaging. Yet, as Forsyth so ably demonstrates, rhetoric is simply the key tools and techniques of getting something across in words in a way that will catch the attention and engage the reader. Although originally aimed primarily at speeches, these techniques are equally important for the written word.

A couple of hundred years ago children were taught rhetoric - now we have to pick it up by osmosis as our English teachers rabbit on about 'what the author was feeling when she wrote this' or 'what the author really means.' How much more valuable to teach us 'what techniques and tricks the author is using to reel the reader in.'

Admittedly the whole field could do with a bit of a work over. If their science was anything to go by, I can't believe the ancient Greeks had the last word on rhetoric - there are probably key tools and techniques they weren't aware of. And the current terminology is horrendous. Forsyth points out that experts can't agree on what the rhetorical terms mean - but even if they could, many of them are obscure Greek words that are almost impossible to remember. If we were to teach rhetoric again, I'm sure we could come up with more memorable terms than aposiopesis, polysyndeton and epizeuxis (to name but three). But the fact remains that rhetoric is a treasury that most modern writers have never consciously explored - and our writing life would be much richer if they had. It's a brilliant conceit to do this, Mr Forsyth.

Is the book perfect? No. I find Forsyth's writing style a little too jovial and jokey, while some of the approaches he uses (cramming paragraphs full of the rhetorical technique covered by that chapter, and ending each chapter with an example of the next technique, for instance) are irritatingly clever-clever. For me, some of his examples of hendiadys just don't make sense (though to be fair, he says you can never really be sure this technique has been used.) But I can forgive anything for a book that has educated me more about the use of English than several years in English classes at school.

if writing were building construction, grammar and vocabulary would give us the raw materials and the basic skills to assemble them, but rhetoric provides the abilities of the architect. To write without an awareness of these tools and techniques is like expecting a bricklayer to create a cathedral. Anyone with the faintest interest in writing, or the English language, should be rushing out and buy this book.

You can see more at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

Friday, 22 November 2013

The Smartwatch Files

O yippee-do-dah, Sony has brought out another smartwatch. And further surprises, Samsung's smart watch sales are pitiful. Still my beating heart, and pass the smelling salts. (Whatever happened to smelling salts?)

In case you haven't come across them, a smartwatch is the wrist-worn equivalent of a smartphone, though the screen is, of course, much smaller. I can see why people get excited about smartwatches. They are truly reminiscent of all that 1950s scifi. Once you've got a videophone on your wrist, all you need is a flying car and a laser gun and you are truly equipped for the twenty-first century. But the reality is rather different.

Firstly, all the evidence is that wearing watches is going out of fashion. Remaking them as a smartwatch seems a bit like the way the gas companies responded to the introduction of the electric light by bringing out a better gas jet. They were already dead, but they didn't realize it. I'm not saying watches will disappear. There are still plenty of old fogies like me who love them, and they will always have a niche appeal. But lots of people in my daughters' generation simply don't wear watches.

Then there's the matter of functionality. It's amazing what you can get in a watch-sized bit of electronics, but it is not going to be the equivalent of a phone. Firstly, at a time when phone screens are getting bigger and bigger, you are talking about taking the screen down to a tiny fraction of the size. But also it would be an immense challenge to get all the gubbins of a smartphone into that form factor.

So in reality, smartwatches are actually dumbwatches. Rather than have the functionality themselves, they pretty well universally tie into a smartphone using Bluetooth. So you have to carry the phone anyway. And that being the case, what would you rather do using that tiny screen on your wrist? After all, bear in mind that as much as 90% of smartphone use has nothing to do with making calls. I can't see myself typing a text on a smartwatch screen, or consulting a map, or looking up something on Google, or watching a Youtube video, or updating Facebook. It is inevitably going to be very limited by scale. You are left with a very expensive remote control for a device that really isn't hard to handle.

Will this stop manufacturers churning them out? Not for a while. Because anyone who hasn't got one will still be tempted by that Dick Tracy appeal, and the gadget lovers amongst us will lash out for one. But after that... would they buy a second smartwatch once the novelty has worn off? I think not.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Thermodynamics 3 - The Demon

 It's relatively rare that physicists indulge in a spot of whimsy. They are, on the whole, rather literal people - which is not to say unimaginative. Most modern physics is so imaginative it is hard to believe it is connected to the real world. But it is rarely whimsical. However, one rare step into the field, far eclipsing Schrödinger's unfortunate mangy moggy, is the strange case of Maxwell's demon, and this imaginary character's threat to the second law of thermodynamics. This is the third and final post on the subject, inspired by my book Dice World.

Let's start with the split box we met in the previous post. The door in the middle has been open for  a while and entropy has risen as the gasses on either side go from being hot and cold respectively to a mix of the two. But now enter the demon. He is an extremely small creature, so small that he can see the individual molecules of gas passing back and forth in the box. And he has such a high metabolism that he can respond to the different molecules one by one as they pass by. He is in charge of a trap door in the divider that splits the box in half, a special trap door that it takes no energy to open and close. As a molecule approaches the (closed) door our demon takes a look at it. If the molecule is moving left to right and it’s fast, he opens the trap door and lets it through. If it’s going slow he leaves the trap door shut. Similarly, if a molecule is moving right to left and it’s slow, he opens the trap door. Fast molecules from right to left don’t get through.

After a while, our demon will have many more fast molecules in the right-hand half of the box than in the left-hand half. He will have started with a mixed gas with a middling temperature throughout the box and will have ended up with cold gas in the left section and hot gas in the right. He has reduced the entropy, because the gas molecules are now more ordered than they were before, the reverse of the original action of opening the partition and letting them mix. But assuming he really can open and close the trap door with no energy used, then he really is a demon. He has defeated the second law of thermodynamics. Not through some statistical fluke, but systematically and reliably.

Ever since the demon's introduction by the great James Clark Maxwell (though it was Lord Kelvin who called the creature a demon), there has been a debate about what's wrong with this model of the world. It surely can't be allowed. The chances are that it comes down to a failure in the simplification that always occurs when we build a scientific model of reality. Sometimes that simplification is very obvious. I recently saw a paper addressing the likelihood of getting a cat into a superposed state and it began by assuming the cat was a sphere of water. Can you spot the simplification?

With Maxwell's demon we have a few potential issues. One is whether we can have a door that can be opened and closed without putting energy into the system, which may be enough to account for the very small increment in entropy every time a molecule is switched by the demon. Another is that the demon would have to make a measurement of the incoming molecules to decide if they were fast or slow. That act would surely involve some exertion of energy? Again, very little is required to balance out the increase in entropy of a single molecule's position. But cunning scientists have found ways around these issues.

There is a more mind-boggling suggestion. Apparently, while storing information does not require energy, erasing information does. And it is suggested that with each measurement the demon has to adjust its ideas of what 'fast' and 'slow' are, which means that each molecule that passes by will add to the demon's memory store. Arguably, however much storage the demon has, to keep going with the process it will eventually have to delete information to make room for new stuff - and there goes the energy.

If you think that argument is tenuous, it is. The demon may well still be off the hook. But whatever the outcome, it still makes a fascinating way to think a little more about this most significant of physical laws.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

White sharks and romantic comedy

I'd like to introduce another of my guest bloggers: Ute (who pronounces her name Oooh-tah) Carbone is a multipublished author of women’s fiction, comedy, and romance. She lives with her husband in New Hampshire, where she spends her days walking, eating chocolate and dreaming up stories. Find out more about Ute and her work at her website.

GUEST POST

Last summer, the great whites came to Cape Cod. There were multiple sightings of these sharks in the waters off the Cape Cod National Seashore. In July, a great white shark attacked a man kayaking near Nauset Beach in Orleans. A few weeks later, a swimmer was bitten near Balston Beach in Truro. These were the first recorded incidents of shark attack on the Cape in seventy five years.  Towns began to post warnings about getting into the water. On busy Labor Day Weekend, the bank holiday that marks the unofficial end of the summer season, beaches in Chatham and Orleans, a stretch that the Cape Cod Times  dubbed “shark alley”, were closed to swimming.  It was beginning to look like the opening to a sequel of Jaws.

I watched this unfolding story with great interest. I live in New England and have spent many a long weekend and holiday week enjoying the beaches on Cape Cod. I’m also a fiction writer and Provincetown, the fist at the end of Cape Cod’s arm, is the setting for my romantic comedy, The P-Town Queen.

The story revolves around the relationship between a down-on-her-luck shark researcher and a guy who’s hiding from the mob by pretending to be gay. You might think writing such a story involves little more than pulling it from
my overactive imagination and putting it to paper. But fiction, even at its wildest, has to have some basis in reality. If it doesn’t, the reader will soon put down the book (or throw it against the nearest wall, as the case may be) never to pick it up again. So even a fiction writer like me has to do her homework, otherwise known as research. Since my main character, Nikki, was a shark expert, one of the things I researched was great white sharks.

 It takes a while for a book to go from bright idea to published entity. In the case of  The P-Town Queen, the process took  four years, give or take. And what I found in researching sharks off the waters of Cape Cod, four years before publication, was there weren’t many of them. An occasional sighting would cause a blip on the local news, but that was about it. If you were a shark researcher like Nikki, you’d most likely do research somewhere other than Cape Cod, choosing instead a location where there was a large population of sharks to study. The Channel Islands off the coast of California, perhaps. Or the southwestern coast of Australia.

I needed to set my story in Provincetown and so I made up a story line to fit this few-sharks-on-the-Cape fact. Nikki had been researching sharks in California, she lost her grant money and was forced to move home to Cape Cod to live with her retired fisherman father while she figured out how to get more funding and further her career. The story line worked. The book was picked up by Champagne Books and, in June of 2012, it was published.

And in July of 2012, one month after the release, white sharks started appearing off the coast of Cape Cod. There are good reasons for the increase in the white shark population.  Grey seals are a protected species and their numbers have been on the rise. Monomoy Island off of the town of Chatham  is now home to over a thousand grey seals. White sharks feed on seals, so the greater the food source, the more sharks come around to feed.  It does make perfect sense, but I can’t help feeling a little wiz-bang shiver at the co-incidence. I’m sure Nikki would be pleased that the subjects of her research have come to her. Funny, how things work, isn’t it?

White shark image from Wikipedia

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Alphabetti spaghetti

A few days ago I heard the author Michael Rosen talking on the radio about his new book Alphabetical. He told how the capital letter A turned upside down looked like a stylised ox's head with two horns - and low and behold, this letter used to be called aleph, the word in ancient Semitic languages for an ox. I was hooked and was soon plunging into this exploration of the English alphabet.

Along the way Rosen brings in so many stories. A lot of this is done by a cunning wheeze in the structure. The book is arranged alphabetically (how else?) and each letter starts with a short section on the letter itself, its origins and its uses in English, then follows with a longer section that has a theme. So, for instance, D is for disappeared letters and V is for Vikings. We then get a meandering exploration of that theme - sometimes with many deviations along the way, but always tying back to the alphabet and writing.

It ought to work brilliantly, and in many ways it does, but I was slightly put off by the chunkiness of the book - over 400 pages - and combined with the alphabetic approach, it is difficult not to occasionally have that sense of 'I must plough on to the end' rather than 'I'm enjoying it'. It's that same sense I might get when someone has kindly bought me, say, an encyclopaedia of science fiction and I feel I must my work my way through it from end to end. On the whole it does work, but I couldn't help but feel it might have been better if Rosen had let go of the rather obvious strictures of the alphabet for the book's structure. I think there's an interesting comparison with a couple of books I reviewed once about the periodic table. The one that worked best wove the subject matter into a series of stories with no particular table-related structure. This worked so much better than if the author had worked sequentially through.

However, there is lots to enjoy, from Rosen's impassioned rant against the obsessive use of the systematic synthetic phonics approach in teaching reading these days, to his really interesting observations on the importance of Pitman's shorthand and even his affection for the A to Z (or his knowledge of the absence of the London E19 district). It's a bit like being trapped in a lift with Stephen Fry when he's playing QI host. This is the QI of letters and words.

If you are interested in writing and words - or struggling for a present idea for someone who is - this could be an ideal buy. See more at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

Monday, 18 November 2013

The invisible truth

I am rather fond of the US TV show Fringe, and am currently working my way through Season 4 (when are we getting Season 5, Netflix?). An episode I watched recently featured an invisible man, which made me think of the difficulties that invisible man syndrome has traditionally revealed in the Science Fiction Hokum Test (SFHT).

The SFHT is a recognition that to make science fiction work it is perfectly acceptable to make up new science or to bend the laws of physics, but once you have set up a premise, it needs to work consistently and logically, or it fails the SFHT.

The original H. G. Wells invisible man (and many in the movies) have had a big problem because their alleged mechanism was a treatment that made our hero transparent. The SFHT says it's fine to invent a mechanism for making someone transparent - but then you have to live with the consequences. And for Wells' invisible man this should have meant going blind. If he had literally become transparent, light would pass straight through his eyes without interacting with them. So there would be no stimulation of the optic nerve - no vision. If, on the other hand, his eyes were allowed some kind of special treatment that prevented this, they would either appear as black holes in space (if they absorbed all light) or floating eyeballs (if they re-emitted photons).

A cuttlefish working its chromatophores for all it's worth
The writers of Fringe escaped this problem by using a different mechanism. Their invisible man, it seems, was endued with chromatophores. These are special pigment-containing organelles found in various creatures that can allow them to change their coloration, most dramatically in the likes of squid and cuttlefish, to provide a remarkably good match to the background they are sitting on.

Now, SFHT says it's fine to allow this and to overlook all the difficulties of making it work to the extent of making a person invisible. (Apart from getting these alien structures in our skin, they would have to respond much faster than the original, be much more detailed, and be able to pick up a detailed image from the other side of the person, where an actual chromatophore user seems to primarily use information from its eyes.) However, once we have established this, the chromatophores have to act logically and consistently.

You could just about imagine a mechanism for concealing the eyes but leaving them working, though two spots on the back of the head behind the eyes would be visible unless there was a different mechanism for picking up the image from the pupil. But the real problem is with dead stuff. Hair and nails, for instance. Chromatophores have to be in a part of the animal that is alive. For nails this wouldn't be too much of an issue, because they are translucent, so they would produce ripples but be semi-invisible, but hair is a real issue. Doubly so, in fact. All your hair would be visible, and any part of your skin directly opposite a bit of skin shielded by hair would also be visible. It's a massive SFHT fail.

Interestingly the two real bits of invisibility technology echo these two science fiction approaches. The most effective at the moment is simply to put a lot of cameras on one side of the object you want to conceal and a screen on the other. Look at the screen and you see through the object. This is conceptually similar to the approach used in Fringe. At the moment it is an approach that is flawed because your invisibility only works when viewed from a single direction. But it would be surprising if, within a few years, we couldn't produce a spherical shield that consists of a matrix of alternating miniature cameras and LEDs, like those used in LED TV screens. The result is that you would both pick up and transmit an image in any direction - it should produce genuine cloaking.

The other, in some ways more impressive, technology, which you see quite often in the press, is cloaking using metamaterials. These are artificial materials that play around with the way substances interact with light or sound or electromagnetism. Invisibility metamaterials are usually those with a negative refractive index. You'll probably remember from school, refraction is the way light bends as it travels from one medium to another - causing effects like a bending pencil when one is put in a glass of water. Negative refractive index means that the light bends in the opposite way to usual, making it ideal to bend around something and conceal it. Like the original invisible man, with this kind of invisibility, the light never goes through an intermediate electrical signal.

The trouble with existing implementations is that they only work with very small objects and mostly with microwaves rather than visible light. The fact that this is reported in the media as 'Harry Potter style invisibility cloaks created in the lab' reflects the way the media (and university PR departments) can't help wildly exaggerating to get our attention. (A most dramatic example of this recently was the claim that a real Star Wars lightsaber had been made. Headlines literally claimed this. Actually what had been done is linking together two photons so they acted a bit like a molecule of light as they passed through a peculiar substance at near absolute zero. Not exactly a lightsaber.)

The kind of shielding provided by metamaterials, unlike the TV camera version (which doesn't render you blind as you can have inward facing LEDs as well) does suffer from the classic invisible man problem. As the light no longer passes through your pupils, but is deviated around your body, you can't see. Shame really.

So there we have it. You can be invisible and succeed with the SFHT. But very few actual examples in novels, TV and film actually do pass the test.

Image from Wikipedia

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Haynes Death Star Manual

Anyone who has gone through that 'I want to fix up my car' phase in the UK will be familiar with Haynes workshop manuals. These large format hardback books take the reader through all the basic maintenance and fiddly bits for practically every model of car you can think of. Now, they've added a fairly unique bit of maintenance work to their portfolio - fixing up the Imperial Death Star from Star Wars.

This is one of a range of entertainment-based titles added to the range. I recently reviewed the UFO Investigations Manual, but the Death Star version is closer to originals in the sense of being about a specific piece of technology. Like the UFO book, though, it's a bit of misnomer, in the sense that it isn't actually a workshop manual - it doesn't guide you through maintenance work on a Death Star, but rather it is a book about the Death Star, treating it as if it really existed.

It reminds me in some ways of the sort of thing you used to see in comics like the Eagle when I was young, where you might have a feature on something like the latest steam engine (ahem) or jet fighter or bomber (I remember one on the ill-fated TSR-2) which would inevitably include a cutaway drawing - and here we get several of these on the Death Star in all its glory.

One of the handy things about the whole Star Wars universe, probably only paralleled by Star Trek, is the extent to which back story details have been built up that makes it possible to provide page after page on the technological precursors of the Death Star and the different sections of the vast spaceship (120 km across, in case you wondered). There are plenty of diagrams and also plenty of stills from the Star Wars movies, illustrating different parts of the interior, exterior, and the partly completed second attempt at a Death Star.

Being old and cynical, the faux history and commentaries from the Grand Moff Tarkin amongst others come across as a little forced, but I think for a younger reader these won't prove a problem, and I think any younger fans of the original (and best) Star Wars movies, plus any older types with a sentimental fondness for these films will get a lot of enjoyment out of this. Certainly an excellent stocking filler if you have a big stocking.

You can see more at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The history under our feet

 A new guest post by Kate Kelly. Kate is a marine scientist by day but by night she writes SF thrillers for kids. Her debut novel Red Rock, a Cli-Fi* thriller for teens, is published by Curious Fox. She lives in Dorset with her husband, two daughters and assorted pets and blogs at scribblingseaserpent.blogspot.co.uk

* No, I didn't know either. It stands for Climate Fiction, often dystopian fiction where climate change has had a significant impact on the environment.

GUEST POST

Most of the time you will find me somewhere on the internet talking about writing with my fellow authors, but Brian’s invitation to appear as a guest on his blog has given me the opportunity to talk about my other great passion – geology!

During the day when I’m not writing fiction I work as a marine scientist. I studied first geology and then oceanography at university and both these subjects have remained very close to my heart – especially the geology. And I’m lucky because I am able to indulge this passion – I live on the Jurassic Coast (The southern one – there are two).

What I love so much about geology is the way it influences the landscape around us – it is like the skeleton underneath the fields, determining where the hills persist and the valleys form, the balance between rugged headland and sandy bay. I love the stories it tells of ancient swamps and shallow seas, vast forests and marauding reptiles.

I stood in a quarry once, looking at a rockface - but that rockface was a section through time. I saw the ancient channels where a river once flowed, and the roots of the plants that had grown along its banks – cut off at ground level and singed to carbon by the overlying lava flow – an ancient cataclysm that had destroyed that peaceful valley.

I can stand on the beach near my home, sand ripples beneath my boots, and stare at ripples that look just the same, but are millions of years old, frozen into the rocks of the cliff face, reminding me that once before there was a sandy beach on this spot.

The Jurassic coast where I live is, in itself, a section through time. The rocks here span a period of time that straddles the Jurassic on either side.

We start with the Triassic red sandstone cliffs of East Devon, laid down in an ancient desert on the edge of an evaporating sea. We can see the ancient dunes in the cliff face, and find layers of gypsum left behind as what water there was evaporated in the sun.

As we head east the rocks change as the seas encroached, through the Triassic to the life rich seas of the Jurassic proper – ammonites and belemnites teemed in these waters as the occasional icthyosaurus swam by.

Then the seas shallowed to swamp and at Lulworth Cove you can stand on the remains of a fossil forest, giant tree ferns, their roots and stumps now turned to stone.

Finally the seas encroached once more – the eastern most layers are the chalks exposed at Old Harry Rocks – a deeper sea, these rocks made up of the carbonate shells of tiny plankton.

This is a section of coastline that can give you a broadbrush sweep through time – but if you start to look closer you can see the finer detail of that changing landscape – the local variations – where the land shifted along a fault line – did the Earth shake at that moment? I wonder if it frightened any dinosaurs?

Once there was a desert, then there was a swamp. Now there is a town. I wonder how much of that town will remain for geologists in the future?

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Thermodynamics 2: the statistics

Last week I started a quick look at the most mind-boggling bit of 'classical' physics, the second law of thermodynamics, one of the stars of my book Dice World.  This week I'm exploring how the second law can both be true and not true at the same time.

Thinking of the traditional approach of 'heat flows from hot to cooler', this seemed solid and unbeatable in the Victorian world of brass and iron. And once scientists began to take the idea of atoms and molecules as real entities seriously (something that happened surprisingly late), it also made a lot of sense at the level of individual particles - but there was a twist in the tail.

In the beginning was order
A favourite thought experiment for thermodynamicists is a box that is split in two. (They don't get out much, and consider the Large Hadron Collider to be showy and unnecessary.) On one side of the box is a hot gas. On the other side is a cool gas. Life doesn't get much more exciting than this. But wait, it can - because there is a door in the partition separating the two halves.

Let's imagine we could see the individual molecules of the gas, zooming around. (At least a small subset of them.) on the hot side they would be flying about a lot faster than on the cool side. That's what temperature is all about - the energy levels of the molecules. So we open the door and molecules start to swap between sides of the box. After a while, instead of all hot on the left (say) and all cool on the right we will have a mix of hot and cool on the left and a mix of hot and cool on the right. What has happened in macro terms? The hot side got cooler, the cool side got hotter. Heat moved from the hot bit to the cool bit. 'Result!' as our over-excited thermodynamicist might shout.
But soon disorder ruled

It's worth also looking at this from the point of view of entropy. Entropy, you may remember, is the measure of disorder that is a key to deep thinking about the second law. You could work the change in entropy mathematically, because there is a formula for entropy that is designed for this kind of situation. It's a very simple formula by the standard of modern physics, so I won't apologise for mentioning it. It's:
S = k log W
S is the entropy (E was already used up for energy when this equation came along), k is a constant called Boltzmann’s constant and W is the number of ways a system can be arranged to achieve the particular result. (Log is short for 'logarithm'. If you're old enough, you'll know what this is. If you aren't, look it up.) Think of the example of the letters on this web page. If you imagined there are a series of slots on the screen that you can put letters in (think of the old moveable type printing press), then it’s easy to see that there is one way to arrange the letters to get a specific page, but by trying each letter in each slot you could (very slowly) work out W for randomly distributing all the letters and would get a much higher value.

Mostly entropy isn’t about letters on a page but about stuff, and particularly the atoms or molecules that make that matter up. There again, in principle, we can imagine different values for entropy for, say, a crystal where all the atoms have to slot into specific positions and a gas where they’re bouncing all over the place. We couldn’t do the sums exactly – and would have to resort to statistics to get anywhere – but it’s entirely possible to see how entropy applies this way in theory.

As it happens, we don't need to do the maths to see what is happening in terms of entropy with our box. To start with it was relatively ordered because most of the hot (high speed) molecules were on the left and most of the cool (lower speed) molecules were on the right. After a while it is more disordered because each side is a mix of the two. There are more ways to have them in this mixed state than in a state where they are separated. W is bigger. Disorder - entropy - has increased.

Physicists were so impressed with the inevitability of this process that they were prepared to call it a law, and to say that either heat would flow from hot to cold or nothing would happen at all - but that this process would never reverse. Never ever. Not once. And this is where they got a bit of shock when they started to think of the implications of that simple divided box.

Once we are dealing with billions of molecules, flying around randomly, it isn't possible to make a practical prediction of exactly what will happen from moment to moment. Instead we have to rely on statistics, the branch of mathematics that allows us to take an overview of a lot of items simultaneously. And that tells us that, on the whole, the molecules will balance out and we will end up with a mix on both sides. On the whole, W will increase and the entropy will rise. Disorder will rule. But note that 'on the whole' - not every time. Not an unbreakable law. Just a statistical likelihood.

It is entirely possible - though extremely unlikely - that all the hot molecules will happen to head for the left side at the same time, and all the cooler ones to the right. So the system could go from being all nicely mixed up to being separated again. This would mean heat flowing from a cooler region to a hotter one. Entropy would have spontaneously decreased. Remarkably, the second law, despite being so fundamental to the universe working the way we expect it to, is only statistical. It works most of the time. Almost all the time. But just occasionally, over a long enough timescale, it is bound to fail.

The last episode, coming soon, will wrap up the second law with some demonic action.

Monday, 11 November 2013

The Young Dictator

There's a certain kind of novel that is technically aimed at 'young adults' (bookseller speak for teenagers), but that is also enjoyed by adults. It is, of course, a publisher's dream if it comes off, as you end up with a much bigger potential audience than usual. The best known example is, of course, the Harry Potter series, though I think my favourite crossover YA books are The Owl Service,  The Night Circus and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, - in fact, demonstrating the power of this approach, they remain among my favourite books ever. I was, therefore, rather interested when I came across a new such book called The Young Dictator by Rhys Hughes.

The premise is intriguing. Jenny Kahn, a twelve-year-old girl, by strange means, wins a by-election and becomes a member of parliament. With some magical assistance, she ends up as dictator of the UK, which is just the starting point on a career of dictatorship that will involve aliens, giant spiders, a visit to Hell and more. Promising indeed.

The reality is mixed. On the good side, the imagination is unparalleled and often unrestrained, creating some bizarre and wonderful imagery. Although the main character is a touch two dimensional, there is a marvellous character in the form of Gran, an alchemist who claims to have been around in the time of the dinosaurs and is both totally evil and often hilarious. I love a scene early on when Gran is trying to conceal that she is knitting Jenny a rosette so she can stand as an MP. Asked what she is knitting, Gran replies 'An idol.' When questioned further she claims it is a false god to worship upstairs at a shrine she has constructed dedicated to old pagan beliefs. When it is pointed out that she lives in a bungalow, she responds 'Exactly!'

On the downside, the ideas are rather let down by a writing style that is virtually non-existent. We are just told what happens, plonkingly, without any feel for atmosphere or characterisation (apart from Gran). It was rather like reading a book written by a teenager. I was also uncomfortable about the casual lack of morality of practically all the main characters, especially Jenny. She has occasional slight twinges of conscience, but is quite happy for pretty well all the main supporting characters to be massacred in unpleasant fashions, often at her orders. Someone she goes out of her way to rescue, for example, is then crucified. There's also a rather tasteless idea that as a dictator she can join an online service called Fascbook, where she chat to various online friends including Adolf, Benito, Pol Pot and Idi Amin. While I am against any form of censorship, I do wonder if using people who caused such suffering as a comic turn is ideal in a book for teenagers.

I am left, then, in a bit of a quandary. There was certainly much to enjoy in the book, and I happily read on to see what the next exotic idea and weird happening would be, as you may well do too - and Rhys Hughes did not disappoint - but it would have been so much better with a lot of polishing and a big dollop of writing style.

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

Friday, 8 November 2013

The unbearable appropriateness of being Carmina Burana

Anyone who is an aficionado of The X-Factor (or even hears the start of it as they rush out of the room screaming) will be aware of its producers' tendency to use a striking bit of classical music as a background, typically at the beginning and as the judges come on stage. The older members of the audience may recognise it as 'that music they used to have on the Old Spice ad' - not to mention in numerous movies. What it really is, of course, is 'O Fortuna', the opening and closing chorus of Carl Orff's choral masterpiece, Carmina Burana.

What I wonder, though, is whether those involved in the X-Factor know just how appropriate this particular number is, for two reasons, to their peculiar form of entertainment/torture. I suspect not.

The first appropriate aspect is that the chorus is about the wheel of fortune in the sense of the random hand of fate meaning that at one moment we might be on top and the next on the way down. Spookily accurate. But even more interesting is the second aspect, which used to really depress me as a student.

I first came across Carmina Burana when we performed it in a concert at my college music society, and it rapidly became one of my favourite pieces. But this didn't stop me finding the ending, in my idealistic student fashion, rather unpleasant. The second half of the piece is largely the story of a seduction, with the antepenultimate section being an electrically soaring climax from the soprano soloist. We then have the penultimate section, Ave Formosissima, celebrating love to a rising, uplifting ending... which crashes into the final, grinding repeat of O Fortuna. The message is clear. You go through this apparently life-changing experience and afterwards the world goes on and everything is just the same.

I have to say I find it less depressing now (perhaps because as an older person I am more accepting that this is a realistic rather than a cynical view). But oh how it should resound for those X-Factor entrants who tell us that they don't want to be a cleaner or a van driver or whatever it is anymore. And the judges, putting them through, tell them 'You can say goodbye to all that.' But actually the Carmina Burana music is much more honest. They might be going through an apparently life-changing experience, but afterwards, for most of them, the world will be exactly the same.

I really would encourage you to listen to this clip to hear that transition from affirmation to inevitability. It is quite spine tingling:

Thursday, 7 November 2013

A new brand of revolution

Like many, I watched online the interview between the UK's leading political interviewer, Jeremy Paxman and comedian Russell Brand with interest. It brought out, as has quite frequently been the case over the last few years, the way that Brand is not just an idiot who can offend people on radio programmes and/or a sex addict - he is very verbally able, and has thought about things in what is, admittedly, a rather shallow, but nonetheless interesting fashion.

I can certainly see why Brand could get many rallying to his cry that politicians don't do anything for us and that democracy is flawed. But there is a real problem with Brand's approach to politics - and it is reflected all too often in the over-the-top, knee jerk political comments I frequently see on Twitter and Facebook. It's a problem that is often reflected in protest movements - they're against something, or everything (think capitalism, conservatives, politicians, America, big business, corporations whatever) - but they don't actually offer a better alternative.

We know from practical experience that Marxism does not of itself offer a great alternative to capitalism. I'd go further - for the vast majority, Marxism proved far worse than capitalism. It's all very well to slag off democracy and capitalism, but be very wary what you wish for. Because the alternatives have so far always been a disaster.

So I'm sorry, until the likes of Mr Brand can come up with a constructive alternative that will deliver a better life for everyone, I'm sticking with democracy and capitalism. Of course it's flawed. Of course some people do better from it than others - and some of them deserve to have the smug smiles wiped off their faces. But simply posturing on TV and using big words, attacking the status quo without offering any suggestion of how to improve things, does nothing for politics and nothing for the human condition. I'm afraid Russell Brand's revolution would simply make things worse.

In case you didn't catch it, here it is:

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Coming over all thermodynamic

My book Dice World about randomness and probability and their impact on our lives inevitably includes quantum theory, but some have expressed surprise that it also covers the second law of thermodynamics. After all, popular science books are supposed to be about modern, trendy, weird science, aren't they? And that sounds so old and Victorian. I mean, 'thermodynamics'. It just reeks of steam engines. And that's certainly why it was first of interest - but the second law is just as fascinating as anything that the twentieth or twenty-first centuries have thrown at us, and this is the first of a short series of posts pondering it.

The second law is a classic of physics, so much so that it inspired the physicist Arthur Eddington's famous lines:
If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell's equations - then so much the worse for Maxwell's equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation - well these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in the deepest humiliation.
The more common way of looking at the second law in modern times is in terms of entropy, a measure of the disorder in a system, but I want to start with the original, steam engine driven approach. This says approximately that in a closed system, heat will move from a hotter part of the system to a cooler part. If it didn't, we could have lots  of fun. We could build a perpetual motion machine. All you would need is to get that heat flowing the wrong way, make use of it to power the machine, then send it back to be used again. Simples. We can also think of it as saying that in a closed system disorder stays the same or increases; it does not decrease.

But the universe seems to have a downer on perpetual motion machines, and doesn't allow the second law to be broken. Except when it does. Because one of the reasons that the second law is so fascinating is that, though it is such a fundamental aspect of the workings of reality there are ways that it can be broken - or bent. The true flaw in the law I'll come back to another time, but let's explore the classic bending beloved of creationists. Because it's easy to read the law as 'heat flows from hot places to cold' or that 'disorder stays the same or increases.' Yet this is patently not always true.

Take a refrigerator. That starts with something that is cold and makes it colder still. It takes heat from a relatively cold place (inside the fridge) and sends it somewhere warmer (outside). Surely Eddington should be turning in his grave. Or there's the argument of our creationist friends. They say that the second law proves the existence of God. Why? Because disorder has clearly decreased on the Earth. You might not think this is the case when you listen to the news, but here we are talking about the order and disorder in stuff. In the early years of the Earth's formation everything was pretty random. But over time molecules have been organised into all kinds of complex systems. There is much more order in the world than there used to be. And that, say the creationists, is evidence of God's hand at work.

The reason for this apparent discrepancy is that we aren't allowed to cherry pick with science. We can't just take a bit of a scientific theory that we like and ignore the rest. And that's exactly what is being done here. In both the fridge and the disorder on Earth examples we are ignoring the words 'in a closed system.'

Scientists like closed systems. They are imaginary boxes in which something takes place that are isolated from everything outside. They make things simple for the scientists - but they are often not very realistic. Think of my specific examples. The second law only works in a closed system because otherwise energy can come in from outside and drive things the opposite way. And that's exactly what happens here. The refrigerator isn't a closed system - we have to pump power into it to get the cooling to happen. Similarly, the Earth gets vast amounts of energy from the Sun - plenty to deal with its ability to create order from disorder.

So the second law is bent - but only if you read it wrong.

I want to leave you with one disconcerting thought, though. There are no closed systems, with the possible exception of the universe (and we don't know that for sure). None whatsoever. For example, you can't stop gravity. There is no box to prevent it influencing a system. Of course you can counter it various ways, notably through acceleration, but that isn't the same thing as saying that you are isolated from it. Closed systems are useful approximations to the real world, a tool that physicists rely on to make understanding ridiculously complex things amenable. But they aren't real. It's easy to think of scientists as being very precise people - and they are. They love their error bars. But that precision comes at a price, and it's one that sometimes catches everyone out.

More on the second law another time, where we will see how it can be broken entirely - and the role of a demon in exploring it.


Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Braindead at the Beeb

I'm delighted that my latest guest post is from the inestimable Henry Gee: Henry is a Senior Editor of Nature. His latest book ‘The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution’, is now available from the proverbial All Good Bookshops. His blog The End Of The Pier Show continues to delight its three regular readers. DISCLAIMER: for readers for whom rhetorical devices are as giraffes to unicycles, no kittens were harmed in the making of this post.

GUEST POST

Brian, for it is he, has invited me to write a guest post for his blog, so here I am, not too late I hope, with a bottle of wine and a smile, though I decided against buying the flowers on the garage forecourt as they looked rather tired. Goldie looks up from her cosy spot in the corner, raises an eyebrow and sensibly goes back to sleep.

I’ve known Brian for six years or so, ever since we both had blogs on Nature Network (now SciLogs). We’ve even met two or three times in real life. Just to show you that we take this science business seriously, we did, on one occasion, share a podium at the Royal Institution. Here we are, with author Clare Dudman:

Henry Gee gives the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in the year 2031

We share interests in all sorts of things from writing and music to dogs and the zany antics of Boris Johnson. Another thing we share is a general despondency at the scientific illiteracy of people in general – especially among people who should know better.

Like those at Casa Clegg, we watch chez Gee a televisual emission called ‘Waterloo Road’, a soap opera of the doings at a comprehensive school in the north of England. Brian noticed, as did I, that on one occasion the science teacher wrote the formula for hydrogen peroxide on the board as H2O2, with the ‘2’s as superscripts rather than subscripts. Who let that howler through?

But wait, there was more. In another episode of ‘Waterloo Road’, Brian noticed that the chlorine molecule, Cl2, was described as C12 (C twelve) – someone had misread the ‘L
’ as a 1’. (I confess I didn’t see that episode. I was in my shed at the time, listening to my tapes of kittens being impaled on red-hot skewers.) Once again, didn’t anyone notice?

Such programmes are watched by quite a lot of people, notwithstanding inasmuch as which those of school age, and their teachers. They are indeed avidly lapped up by the younger Gees (13 and 15) and Mrs Gee (a learning support assistant.) So you’d hope that the people making the programme would take some care with its content. First, the people who write this stuff. Then there are the script editors, the producers, the editors, the directors. Did anyone notice? If not, why not? To anyone with more than a gnat’s crotchet of scientific literacy, these errors would stick out like a sore thumb.

I can think of three reasons why such errors were left until broadcast. First, the people responsible didn’t even have as much science as that. Second, they might have had that much science, but were plain incompetent. Third, they just didn’t care, because such things are, to them, small and unimportant details. Quite apart from the necessity in dramas, even those as ridiculous and over-the-top as ‘Waterloo Road’ (an establishment where fires, poisoning and brutal murder are not unknown), that details are important to maintain the suspension of disbelief, this betrays an insouciant ignorance that should not be tolerated.

Now, I’m not talking about the televisual ghetto in which science is usually confined, which, if its offerings are designed for a general audience, speak to us as if we are small children, in what Rabbi Lionel Blue once called the ‘let’s-all-be-bunnies’ voice. ‘Horizon’, the flagship science TV show on the BBC, is the worst offender. Its offerings are almost uniformly dreadful. Whenever reason fails me and I switch on, imagining’ hope against hope, that things couldn’t get any worse than the time before – they do.

The few episodes of ‘Horizon’ that treat us like adults are proofs in the breach. One thinks of Simon Singh’s wonderful film  for ‘Horizon’ on Andrew Wiles and the solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem. How could any TV program succeed that was about maths? When he suggested the subject to the BBC commissioners, Singh recalled at a lecture I attended, “you could see they’d have preferred a program called ‘Fermat’s Last Dinosaur’ or ‘Fermat’s Last Volcano’.” The fault, then, lies in a broadcasting culture in which science is seen as something for small children. If it is for older children, or – gasp – adults, it’s aimed at a self-selected audience of geeks, with a presenter who looks like the cool older brother you never had (Brian Cox) or an indulgent grandparent who might be persuaded to dispense a Werther’s Original (David Attenborough).

But I digress.

Science literacy is poor, and this is especially true of TV, in which the arts, politics and current affairs are usually presented to a high level.  What I contend here is that it’s so poor that it reflects an almost deliberate carelessness on the part of the people who churn it out. And that’s shocking.  If the commissioners of the BBC would (or so one would hope) never let through a humanities programme that treats its audience as if they were watching ‘Playschool’, why is science presented in such a jejune fashion?

Do broadcasters, seeing that many toddlers can pronounce words such as ‘Triceratops’ while still in diapers, assume that science is a form of children’s programming, something that might not be of interest to intelligent adults?

Is this why broadcasters, remembering that they once in childhood saw ‘Captain Pugwash’, pronounce ‘boson’ as ‘bosun’? If anyone does that to me, especially if it’s live TV, I shall mention Higgs the Bosun’s shipmates – Master Bates, Seamen Stains and Roger the Cabin Boy.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Stephen Fry caught mooning on QI

Call that a moon? THIS is a moon!
(Apologies to Crocodile Dundee)
I am very fond of QI, but as I have mentioned previously, there are times when the QI elves' attempts to be perverse just to be able to catch the contestants out result in a warping of reality as we know it.

One of the most dramatic examples of this over the years has been their varying answers to the question 'how many moons does the Earth have?' While the show has been running the accepted QI answer has been various numbers between 2 and 20,000, but never one, the obvious and actual answer. But I have to say, if I were ever on the programme I would protest loud and long if hit by this question, because that answer of 'one' is correct.

They excuse their latest, 20,000 (that's from memory - it was some large number) value by saying there are lots of little lumps of rock that get captured by Earth's gravitational field for a few days and while captured they are natural satellites, which makes them moons. But this is the excrement of the male cow. You might as well say the Sun has many thousands of planets, because of all the asteroids, as a planet is a satellite of the Sun. However, we all know there are just eight planets.

Now to be fair, with planets there are clearer rules. To be a planet the body has to (in my wording):
  • Orbit the Sun
  • Be roughly spherical
  • Have swept its orbit clean of minor debris
... this last one being what did for Pluto. But I would suggest, whether or not there is an IAU definition of 'moon' as there is for 'planet' there are still clear intended consequences of using the word 'moon' as opposed to just 'satellite'. These are that the body in question should be:

  • Long lasting - I suggest staying in orbit for at least 1,000 years
  • Sizeable - say at least 5 kilometres across
This would still allow moon status for the pretty dubious companions of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, which are about 20 kilometres and 10 kilometres across.

Clearly such rules are there implicitly when we talk about moons. If the time rule didn't exist, then every lump of rock that spent 5 minutes in our company would be a moon, while without the size rule, we would have to count every tiny piece of debris in Saturn's rings as a moon - every one of them is, after all, a natural satellite.

No, I'm sorry QI, but everyone who is not a teenager or drunk realises that mooning is not funny, and it's not clever, and it's time you gave it up.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Down the line

We really don't appreciate enough the wonders that information and communication technology enables. The smartphone in our pockets gives us abilities that only James Bond had when I was young. And earlier this week I had a brilliant example of the way ICT can transform the way we work when I spent the day in a school in Amman, Jordan without leaving my office.

I've done quick Q and A on occasions via Skype with a school before, but nothing on this scale.

Overall it was remarkably effective. Now I can hear the technophobes in the background (what are you doing reading a blog, you old fogies?) saying 'Ah, but it's not like really being there!' And for once they are right. That is perfectly true. But there are plenty of occasions when being there is just not practical, and this is certainly the next best thing. What's more, it even saves the school money (something most schools are not averse to),  because they don't have to pay for my travel. And I can do it in my slippers.

We had two-way video set up and the outcome was better than I could have imagined. I ran interactive sessions - I could see them with their hands up, as long as they spoke nice and loud I could hear what they were saying and this two way visual communication gave some real benefit. (I've had lovely emails from the school emphasising this.) Just how important the video link was was brought home in the first session of the day (not helped, I admit by starting at 5am because of the time difference), when technical problems meant I had to do a chunk of the session 'blind.' Not seeing the audience made a huge difference - and not a good one.

I know lots of people use Skype to keep in touch with distant loved ones. I've always found it a bit clumsy for this, as you have to schedule a chat and it feels far less spontaneous than phoning or texting. But for this particular application the technology came up trumps and made it possible to spend a day in a school that was, in reality, over two thousand miles away.