Tuesday, 30 December 2014

The sad fate of the bound proof

Some have boring covers, others look like the
real thing, but there's usually a clue...
What do you call a book that's not a book? A bound proof (or if you are American and like a good acronym, an ARC, standing for Advanced Reading/Reader Copy).

It sort of makes sense. While I, as a reader, would always prefer to read a finished copy of a book, the publisher likes to get reviews in as early as possible, particularly if the reviewer is likely to provide snappy remarks to put on the cover. So quite often, before the book is actually produced, they will typeset and bind as a paperback the uncorrected proofs and send them out to eager reviewers.

The reviewer reads this not-quite-a-book as usual and produces his or her words of wisdom. But what to do next?

With a real book I have two choices. If I love it, I put it on the shelf for future re-reading. But shelf space is very limited and I can only do this with 2 or 3 books a year, where I review about 50. The rest, I'm afraid, I resell. Some people mutter about a free copy being sold, but short of putting it in the recycling, whatever I do will result in that free copy going on the market. And bearing in mind I don't get paid for the reviews I do for www.popularscience.co.uk, I don't think this is an unreasonable thing to do. (It's not just me. One of my favourite bits of Brian Aldiss's excellent autobiography, Bury My Heart at W. H. Smith is his description of John Betjeman regularly coming into the bookshop Aldiss worked in with a pile of review books to sell on.)

However, with a bound proof I am faced with much more of a quandary. I don't really want to keep it, even if it is a great book, because it's not the real thing and doesn't look good on the shelf. And I can't sell it or even give it away. So they really do end up in the recycling. And that feels awfully sad.

Monday, 29 December 2014

A Scandi too far?

Pronounced?..
In the old days, foreign product names were anglicised where necessary, to avoid undue confusion in the British populace. But gradually, over time, as we've got more sophisticated, we have been exposed to more of the real thing without our brains exploding. So, for instance, despite much moaning, the brand we always called 'nessuls' as in 'Nestles Milky Bar', sneakily switched to being 'nesslay' as a better approximation to Nestlé.

Now, perhaps thinking that we have been prepared for the exotic by our fondness for The Killing and The Bridge, that household standard Ikea has made the risky switch from 'eye-kee-uh' to 'ick-ay-ah', presumably also closer to the original pronunciation. As far as I can tell, the Great British Public (GBP) has yet to adopt this. People still sigh and gird their loins at thought of facing the industrial-strength unfriendliness of the car park of a Eyekeeuh store. But perhaps we will end up with something like the puzzling hybrid used by the more educated driver in an attempt to pronounce the name of the car manufacturer also known as VW. I suspect the initials will always remain 'vee double-you' rather than 'fow vey' as I suppose they should be, but where some of the GBP goes for the full English 'vokes-waggon' many adopt 'vokes-vargen' as a halfway house to 'folks-vargen'.

I don't know why, but my suspicion is that there is a limit. Chances are that yummy mummies will continue to take their kiddywinks on the school run in a 'volvo' rather than a 'wolwo', because, frankly, in English it sounds rather silly.

But who can tell...

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Happy Christmas!

I'd just like to wish everyone a Happy Christmas and a great New Year. Posting here is likely to be suspended for the next week - see you in 2015.

As a bit of passing entertainment, here's a Christmas Medley, arranged by the excellent Roger Witney and sung by the best group I've sung in, Nonessence.








Friday, 19 December 2014

Have Rough Guides missed the point?

I was interested to see that the Rough Guides folk have declared that Birmingham is one of the top ten cities in the world to visit. If I am honest, my opinion of Birmingham has significantly improved lately. It used to be that I thought of it as a place of awful concrete public spaces like the Mk I Bullring. And it had this bizarre idea that it was the UK's second city, when everyone with any sense realised that the second city was actually Manchester. But I've been visiting regularly over the last couple of years and Birmingham is now genuinely a 'vibrant city' as they say in the guides. (Though still a bit of dump when you drive in down the Hagley Road.)

There is, however, from my viewpoint, one strange piece of parochialism in the Rough Guides choice. Because one of Birmingham's selling points was its vast cultural diversity in restaurants and the like. Now, for me, this is certainly a plus for domestic visitors, but a turn-off for the world market. When I go out for a meal on home turf, I love the option to sample food from around the world. But when I go abroad, it's the last thing that I want.

Do the Rough Guide people go to Paris and hunt out a pizza? Do they eat cassoulet in Athens and McDonalds in Bangalore? When you go abroad you want to sample the local food.

Now at this point thirty years ago, you would be right in wheeling out the old 'but British food is rubbish' argument. Not any more. There is plenty of great British food these days, from superb fish dishes to magnificent pies. (Not to mention snail porridge, or whatever Heston gets up to.) It was interesting that on the TV show about Liberty, when Chinese visitors came they didn't want to see Liberty's magnificent oriental carpets, or its designer wear from around the world. They wanted to see Burberry. People visit another country for what's uniquely from that country, not for what's available everywhere else in the world too. So next time, Rough Guides, don't be so parochial.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

The sadness of 5 minutes of fame

That #1 album (currently #3,529 on Amazon)
No, I don't refer to my own 5 minutes of fame, though it is the anniversary of my taking part in 'celebrity' University Challenge, but that of Swindon's attempt at the X-Factor crown in 2012, Jahméne (or Jasmine, as the spellchecker would prefer it). Now, for all I know he is now revelling in the success of his '#1 Album' (that's what his website says, so it must be true), but I must admit he didn't look all that happy when I saw him this Monday.

I was walking through our local Asda, where Mr Douglas used to work before his TV exposure. All I spotted to begin with was a posse of Asda staff heading in my direction, accompanied by a couple of photographers. Somewhere in the centre of the bunch was a smartly dressed young man who I assumed was a management trainee. Even after I walked straight past him about six inches away, I didn't cotton on - it's only as I was doing the self-service checkout thing and looked back that I spotted what was occurring.

Once it did fall in place, I couldn't help think he really did look like he'd rather be anywhere else. On the show, when he returned to his place of work with the TV cameras in tow it was all smiles and happiness, but it was clear that Monday's appearance was a piece of publicity work that Jahméne really didn't want to do. And I can kind of understand that. If he really does have a '#1 album', why does he still have to do this kind of thing? Of course they had to pull the 'humble background' card on X-Factor because it's a hugely manipulative show and that's what it's all about. But once he is established, shouldn't it be the music that makes the statement, without the need for this stuff? I have no idea what Adele did before she was a singer - and why should I care?

Whether or not Jahméne is doing well - and I genuinely hope he is - I couldn't help be amused by an aside from one nearby Asda worker to another as we watched Jahméne being photographed seated at an Asda checkout. 'He never worked on a checkout,' she hissed. Such is the price of fame.

If it's your kind of thing, check out JD's album on Amazon.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Of poetry and railways

If  you were a railway enthusiast you would know why finding this
on the front of your train would be exciting...
Despite having several friends who are poets (and very nice people they are too), I really don't get poetry. At least, I didn't until last Friday, when the light dawned during a village Christmas shindig.

There was a pre-Christmas evening of merrymaking in a nearby village hall, and with a number of others I had been asked to come along and help support the carol singing that would intersperse the important bits of drinking, eating, nattering and more drinking. What I, and quite a lot of the audience, didn't realise is that there were also going to be poems. Three poets, apparently connected to Swindon's successful Festival of Poetry came along to give renditions of their own and others' work.

I could help but observe the strange atmosphere in the hall during the poetry readings. It was, to be honest, a bit uncomfortable. People stared into space or at candles or generally looked as they had probably not looked since the English class at school many years before. And then it all changed. One of the poets read a funny poem. In an Irish accent. (Because he was Irish. A secondary observation is that poetry always sounds better in an Irish accent than in a UK one.) The audience came alive. They suddenly wanted to have eye contact with the reader. They smiled. They looked at each other. It was a different event altogether.
... but this wouldn't.
(At least not as exciting. But better than being in a DMU.)

And that's when the parallel between poetry lovers and railway enthusiasts struck me. I have some form in this respect. I was a railway enthusiast in my teens. In case you are thinking 'trainspotter,' it's not the same thing. I was indeed a trainspotter up to about the age of 13, but this was replaced by a sheer enthusiasm for trains and travelling by train, to the extent that, at age 15, with two other friends, I bought a week's 'railrover' ticket given access to all of Britain's railways. And we spent the week on the trains, only leaving the railway network four times during the period. (Our biggest excursion was to Land's End, for which we had to get a bus. Oh, the indignity.)

Now there was a clear gap between what we railway enthusiasts thought about trains, and what ordinary folk did. Ordinary folk could indeed enjoy a special case, like going on the Orient Express, or being pulled by a preserved steam locomotive. But they would never have understood why there was a difference between being pulled out of Paddington behind the stylish lines of a Western diesel hydraulic, and the lowest of the low, a diesel multiple unit. They would never have understood the visceral thrill of standing by a window up the front of a train on the East Coast Main Line, hearing - no, feeling - the roar of a Deltic in full flight.

And so it is with poetry. Most of us are steam train enjoyers and Orient Express dabblers when it comes to poetry, where steam trains are the rhythmic engaging classics like The Night Mail (yes, trains again) and the Orient Expresses of poetry are the funny ones. It is only the relative few, mostly I suspect poets themselves, who are really engaged by the wider concept. I found it interesting that our Irish poetry host kept saying that a poet he was introducing was 'Well respected in the poetry community', or 'known among the poetry fraternity' or some such remark. They too, like the railway enthusiasts, are a cadre, a group with a common interest not shared by the rest of us. And that's absolutely fine.

However, what it does mean, poets please note, is that you shouldn't be disappointed when we get all excited by Roger McGough and Benjamin Zephaniah but fail to engage with your beautifully crafted stanzas on the plight of a mistle thrush that has lost an eye and can't, Janus-like, see the dawning new year from the ashes of the old.* We just can't all be railway enthusiasts either. Life is sad like that.

* If you have written such a poem, apologies - I was just picking random, poet-like feelings out of the ether.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

What is light, REALLY?

Every now and then someone sends me an interesting question about science, and, while I can't guarantee to answer it, I do my best. I got one yesterday that said 'if light can be considered traveling in packets, what is between those packets? Does anything exist (in the space) at the end of one photon and the beginning of the next photon?' And this a particularly engaging question, not so much for the answer, which is pretty straightforward, but for the implications it has for the way we talk about physics.

The answer, to get it out of the way, is nothing. There is nothing (in terms of the light itself) in between photons or between the 'end of one photon and the beginning of the next' - apart from anything else, photons don't really have 'ends'. A beam of light can be described as a set of discontinuous particles we call photons and there is no more something between them, linking them, than there is amongst a stream of electrons. Yet that's where the story gets interesting.

Part of the problem, I think, is that word 'packet'. We tend to use it when talking about the early development of quantum theory as it reflects the terminology used at the time. But it does give a highly misleading impression that a photon is a traveling 'packet' of light waves, rather than a particle like an electron. It's true that, before measurement a quantum particle doesn't have a location, but is instead a spread out probability wave describing the chances of finding it in any particular place, but that is in no sense a wave in the same sense that classically we would have imagined a beam of light as a set of continuous actual waves in the ether, nor does it make a photon a spread-out wave packet.

The other thing that is misleading is that eminent scientists tend to say things about light and other quantum phenomena that arguably isn't really what they mean, but is said at a kind of meta-level that they take to mean one thing, but the world can interpret rather too literally.

A classic example was Richard Feynman's comment about light in his book QED. He said:
I want to emphasize that light comes in this form – particles. It is very important to know that light behaves like particles, especially for those of you who have gone to school, where you were probably told something about light behaving like waves. I’m telling you the way it does behave – like particles.
Before I comment on that, let me give you a quote from another Nobel Prize winning physicist, Steven Weinberg who wrote (about ten years before Feynman's book came out):
[T]he inhabitants of the universe [are] conceived to be a set of fields – an electron field, a proton field, an electromagnetic field – and particles [are] reduced to mere epiphenomena.
It would seem that each was telling us what light (encompassed in Weinberg's more general remark) is. But they weren't. Each was making a point, emphasising that a conception of light familiar to their audience wasn't the only way of looking at. Feynman was saying 'you've been told light is a wave, but I can explain all its behaviour using (very special) particles.' Weinberg was saying 'particles aren't really necessary, you can describe what's going on just using fields.' But I don't think Feynman believed that light is a stream of particles, or that Weinberg believes that light is a variation in a field.

Here's the really gut-wrenching thing. We can't know the truth about light. We don't know what it 'really' is and we never will. We just have various models of light that can be useful to predict its behaviour. For basic use - say for producing everyday optics - the old classical idea of a continuous wave propagating through space works fine, and it's simple to use. Once we introduce quantum effects, and the interaction between light and matter, Feynman's elegant diagrams and a particle model work well (bearing in mind these are peculiar particles with phase and a tendency to take every possible path between origin and destination, not bullet-like, straight line particles). And for most modern physics, a field approach is most effective.

However, none of these - not waves, not quantum particles, not quantum fields - is what light is. They are all models, ways we use to build a toy version of reality and see how well it reflects the real thing. Light is light. It does what light does. Those models help us predict what light will do. And that's the limit of science. It is immensely valuable. It allows to make all sorts of interesting hypotheses derived from those models, and to develop all sorts of wonderful technology. But it is not the 'truth' about reality, a clear window on the workings of the universe. As St Paul put it, we see through a glass darkly (i.e. as they saw things in the poor mirrors of the day). As humans we are all model builders, making mental constructs to get a handle on the world around us, but scientists do this in a particularly precise, beautiful and robust way. Something to celebrate indeed. But don't expect them to have superhuman powers.

You can find out more about this fun quantum stuff - and the way it has been used to make remarkable technology - in my book The Quantum Age.
 

Monday, 15 December 2014

Joly Monsters

I've come across two very different versions of Dom Joly. One is the pleasant family guy I've seen in Cirencester's best coffee shop. The other is the 'TV personality' who has appeared in the kind of excruciatingly unfunny shows that I wouldn't watch with a barge pole. (This is not quite a mixed metaphor if you use Decartes' model of light.) Luckily, Scary Monsters and Super Creeps was written by the former Joly.

Although ostensibly about hunting down famous monsters from bigfoot to the ogopogo, it is probably best read as a humorous travel book, one of my favourite genre, and the reason I bought it. There are some wonderful writers in this genre - think, for instance, Bill Bryson, Dave Gorman and Stuart Maconie. In fact, for me, the humorous travel book is far better than the serious kind.

In principle, Scary Monsters ticks all the boxes. We've got a funny, self-deprecating narrator and interesting locations to visit. Not only do we get Loch Ness, but we also get to see the likes of Japan and the Republic of Congo through Joly's eyes. Like all good travel stories, some of his adventures are fraught with problems, and a couple of near-death experiences. What can possibly go wrong?

It's really hard to put your finger on what is wrong with this book - but there is something. It's not Joly or his writing. It's not the places he visits or the people he meets. I think, in the end, it's the theme that doesn't work. Although the frameworks that some humorous travel books are hung on are pretty flimsy (I'm talking to you, Dave Gorman - not to mention that other guy who went round Ireland with a fridge), at least they have the potential to be fulfilled. Going to see mythical monsters inevitably lacks a satisfactory conclusion.

It probably doesn't help that Joly's monster hunting technique is essential to turn up at the alleged location and mooch around. A problem that is reinforced when, in at least one situation, the travel problems he faces are so big that he never even makes it to the monster's home. Along the way he meets lots of people who, when asked 'Have you seen the monster?' say 'No, I haven't, but I know lots of people who have.' And like their secondhand stories, this book lacks the narrative drive to pull the reader in for long sections.

It really isn't a bad book, and worth taking a look if you are interested in cryptozoology (if only to see how not to do it) or like pretty well anything from the humorous travel shelf.

You can find out more or buy it at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Science fiction weapons can be strangely mundane

This is what laser weapons ought to look like
(Image credit: NASA)
I enjoy reading science fiction (or watching a sci fi movie) as much as the next nerd, and it's fascinating to speculate on the similarities and differences between the science and technology in the fictional world and reality.

In some areas we have gone far beyond the imagination of the fiction writers; in others we haven't come close. One obvious area that we've lagged pretty far behind is in lasers, phasers, blasters or whatever you want to call them. I think one of the most interesting aspects of the Battlestar Galactica reboot is that once they'd established the technology of space flight, almost every other bit of technology from fridges and phones to weaponry was pretty much late 20th century standard. So any shooting was done with old fashioned bullets. And it's certainly the way things have been in the real world - until now.

The US has been experimenting with laser weapons on ships for some while, but they've now come up with a demo video of their most impressive toy to date. Ships make ideal platforms for lasers. They're big enough to deal with the large-scale equipment needed to power up a major laser, and ships are infamously bad places to fire weapons with recoil (this is why rockets were developed as weapons in the West), from which lasers are wonderfully free.

So here you go: fill your boots with the sight of a genuine laser weapon in action, doing suitably destructive (and pinpoint targeted) stuff. The only disappointment is, if course, it doesn't really look like it's a laser in action. If there's one thing Hollywood has taught us, it's that when you fire a laser you see a bright, coruscating beam in the air. But here the operator presses a button on his video-game like console and instantly the hit happens with nothing visible or audible in between.

It's not likely to be the future of warfare on a large scale, at least for some considerable time, as these things are extremely expensive and quite possibly a little temperamental right now. But this a reality. To quote the US Navy Office of Information 'Laser weapon capability is now allowing operation aboard ships at sea.' Which I think, in English, means 'We are ready to use this for real.'

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Don't put magicians on pedestals

James Randi
Over the years, magicians like Harry Houdini and James Randi have shown time and again that they have ideal skills for spotting and debunking fraudulent claims of magical abilities and mental powers. In the Telegraph yesterday, though, Will Storr had a go at 'debunking the king of the debunkers', demonstrating that Randi himself, now 87 (according to his article, or 86 according to Wikipedia), was not all he seemed. For me, this was a wonderful example of entirely missing the point.

Storr makes three main accusations. That Randi has at some point been doubtful about the science behind climate change, that he was intolerant to drug users and that he had lied about replicating Rupert Sheldrake's dog experiments, in which Sheldrake claims to have shown that at dog was able to predict when its owner would return home.

The first two, frankly, are hardly worth considering as they are classic type failure errors. Being good at debunking fraudulent psychics does not make you a climate change expert. Why should it? And some perfectly respectable scientists have doubts about some aspects of climate change science. It's the nature of science - it's not a belief system where you have to sign up to everything it says in the big book. As for the attitude to drug users, again, so what? You don't have to be a nice person to be good at your job. So that leaves us with the strange incident of the dog.

It seems likely, if we take Storr's article at face value, that Randi did indeed claim to have replicated an experiment when he hadn't done so. This isn't good. But in a sense it is the inevitable reverse face of the reason that Randi has done his job so well in the first place. Randi has always argued that scientists are not very good at devising tests that prevent those with a stage magician's skills from cheating, or at detecting such cheating in action. What you need, he says, is a magician. And he has proved time and again that he is right. Scientists don't have the expertise of a magician. Well, guess what? Magicians don't have the expertise of a scientist either. Randi isn't a scientist. So why are we surprised when Randi fails to operate in a proper scientific fashion over the Sheldrake business?

I'm not defending Randi in any way for what he is accused of doing. If true, it was bad science, the kind of thing that gets a scientist kicked out of his job. But it doesn't in any way detract from the useful service Randi has provided over many years in devising tests and pointing out the flaws in scientific studies of ESP and the like. Has Storr shown that Randi is sometimes a liar? Quite possibly - and that's why he's good at his job. All magicians are liars by trade, even if they don't always use words to do it. Deception is their business. Perhaps the problem is the fuzzy nature of Randi's skeptical foundation JREF, which gives the veneer of science to what never really deserved that label.

When I read Storr's article, I got the impression of reading the words of a fan who discovers his idol has feet of clay. The same as those who discover their favourite singer has an unpleasant private life. Or that a Nobel Prize winning scientist had unacceptable views on other topics. Welcome to the real world, Mr Storr.

Image from Wikipedia

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Christmas carol name that tune

Whatever your religious persuasion from none to something significant, a lot of people enjoy a Christmas carol this time of year. So, as we're already getting a bit demob happy, here's the first part of an occasional Christmas quiz. As you might guess from the title, I'm going to give you a snippet from the start of five carols - all you have to do is identify them. (Apologies if you aren't from the UK - some of these tunes may not be the ones you are familiar with.)

The answers are at the bottom of the post, but try all 5 first.

So here we go (NB - embedded Soundcloud players may take a few seconds to load: please be patient!):

Number 1 - we'll start with an easy one.


Number 2


Number 3


Number 4 - probably the most obscure, so I'll give you a couple more notes.


Number 5 - to make this a little different, I've the start of the introduction, not the sung part:


I've taken these snippets from a sort of karaoke carol CD - if you have a secret passion for singing along to carols but prefer to do it without a snooty Oxbridge choir in the background, it's worth taking a look here: www.hymncds.com/christmas.html


So, the answers.


Don't peek if you haven't had a go.


Go back and try.


But if you really want to know....
...

..

.

Here they are:


  1. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
  2. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen (lose half a mark if you didn't mentally insert the comma)
  3. Once in Royal David's City
  4. As with Gladness Men of Old
  5. The First Nowell
The organ's played by the excellent John Keys - in case you'd like to hear him in full flow, here's something a bit more impressive taken from this album:


Monday, 8 December 2014

Defending James Watson

That book
I would like to take a moment to defend James Watson. This is a dangerous thing to do, because he has shown himself to be a dinosaur in terms of his attitude to many things and to support concepts that, based on the best scientific evidence, can only be considered racist. Now he is being pilloried again because he has sold his Nobel Prize medal for several million dollars, and that clearly makes him a money-grubbing misanthrope.

Let's be clear - what he has said on race and other matters is wrong. He shouldn't have said it. There is a partial defence that he is in his 80s, and in my experience of elderly family members, the majority of people who grew up in the 1930s have a social outlook that dates back before modern views, including attitudes that most people under 70 would consider racist and unacceptable. You simply can't change this, though a more sensitive person would at least conceal it. No one accuses Watson of being a sensitive person.

However I do think the fuss over selling his medal is wrong. It doesn't help that the media misrepresent this as 'selling his Nobel Prize'. Clearly you can't sell the prize per se, which is an honour rather than an object, all you can sell in this case is the medal. And at 86, I can understand why Watson isn't particularly bothered about the trinket, and is more interested in the good that money can do. I think, if anything, what he is doing is actually a noble (pun intended) thing - because spending on charity and scientific investigation (if this is what he spends it on, as reported) is frankly a much better use of £3m than sitting as a lump of gold in a display cabinet.

I also think what we mustn't do is let Watson's unfortunate nature and this latest furore get in the way of the achievements of the remarkable group of people of which he was a part. Nor, for that matter, would I overlook the fact that, despite its undoubted self-serving nature, his book The Double Helix is one of the best popular science books by a working scientist (certainly a better read that A Brief History of Time).

So by all means feel sad that the man is the way he is, rather than a really nice guy (though my suspicion is that not many Nobel Prize winners are really nice people, because being driven or a genius is rarely an attractive trait). But don't follow the modern tendency to lump everything about a person into one soundbite, because Watson, like all of us, is far more complex than that.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Bestseller lists? Nah

I'm taking part in a radio discussion tomorrow about science books of 2014. It's for a US radio show, and they've provided me with an extensive (and really interesting) set of topics to discuss from 'A book that pleasantly surprised you' to 'Which genres do you grab and which do you tend to overlook?' But one section left me absolutely cold - we're going to discuss the New York Times Bestseller List.

As the only newspaper I read with any regularity (about once a week) is the i, I never see bestseller lists. I have no clue what has been on the NYT list (or the Sunday Times, or whichever newspaper in the UK does them - I have no idea about that either). And, frankly, why should I care? Of course if one of my books was on one of those lists I would inevitably be rather more interested for my own purposes, but of itself it tells you nothing but sales figures. It certainly doesn't identify the best books - or books I would particularly want to read - so why should I bother to hunt it down? Specifically I have no interest in slavishly following the masses. After all, if I did that in TV viewing I would have a continuous diet of soap operas and reality TV shows. Is that a recommendation for an approach?

As I describe in Dice World, the process by which a book becomes a true bestseller (as opposed to the category bestsellers most of us authors claim, for instance when a book gets the top ranking on Amazon in the popular science category) is one that is inevitably shrouded in mystery as it's a chaotic process. Just like you can't forecast the weather months ahead (take note, Daily Express), you can't forecast what will be the next Harry Potter or Brief History of Time. And what being a 'bestseller' certainly doesn't indicate is excellence.

So my answer will be simple - I don't look at these lists, I don't want to be guided on what I read or review on popularscience.co.uk by what is primarily a marketing tool, and it seems to be a way that many books get overlooked because there becomes too much focus on a handful of titles that simply happen to have been in the right place at the right time. It's the Richard and Judy bookclub all over again. Sorry NYT, you're not for me.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Computers as commodity

An early Apple Mac - how do you open the case?
You don't.
I'm currently reading for review an interesting book by Matt Nicholson called When Computing Got Personal. I was reminded strongly of the debates back in the mid 1980s over the decision to make Apple's Macintosh computer a sealed unit, which the user was not expected to open up and fiddle inside. At the time, pretty much all PCs could be opened so you could add in 'expansion cards' to improve graphics handling, add network connectivity, beef up memory or whatever. The general feeling amongst professionals was that Apple were making a huge mistake. You had to be able to stick expansion cards into the chassis: it was almost part of the definition of what a personal computer was.

In the end, though, it was spiky, irritating Apple that got it right and the industry heavies that got it wrong. Because the sealed unit is exactly the way the business has gone. I'm writing this on an (Apple) all-in-one that only allows you to do one thing inside it: add memory. The vast majority of domestic computer hardware these days is either in the form of a laptop, with similarly limited abilities to open it up, or a tablet (or phone) where opening up isn't even an option for the owner.

The change has been driven from two directions. One was the philosophical vision behind the Macintosh, which was computer-as-commodity. No one expects to be able to open up their TV and fiddle around inside it - why should you have that expectation for a computer? It's simply not a very sensible thing to do. The other is the simple fact that we really don't need to open up computers any more. This is partly because so much that you used to have to add in is built in anyway. And also because USB, Firewire, Lightning and the like have provided external connectors that are so fast that if you want to add something you just plug it into a connector. No need to have your sticky fingers straying near delicate integrated circuits and panicking about doing damage with static charges.

So it's not just the mass use of graphical interfaces and high resolution printers that we have to thank Apple for. They realised long before their competitors that most people don't want to be hardware engineers, tinkering around with circuit boards and such. They just want to turn the thing on and use it. (And count me amongst them.)

Strangely, a company began as a hobby business taught the more 'serious' computing manufacturers how to move a product from being something for techies and hobbyists to something for a true mass market.

Image from Wikipedia

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Self-selecting jokes

Jokes are notoriously subjective. Some find a simple pun hilarious - many wince and move on. But there are some jokes that work in some parts of the country, but don't in others - which is an interesting reflection on the regionality of words and their pronunciations.

Of course, the UK/US divide is an infamous one for making different use of words, even with today's shared culture. When I write a book for my US publisher, I quite often get a query about a term I've used that they simply don't get over in New York. The most recent manuscript (just in), had two such queries. What, they wanted to know is 'dross'? And for that matter, what are 'holiday snaps'? (I corrected the latter to holiday photographs, though really I should, I suppose, have made it vacation photographs.) And inevitably you say tom-ate-oh and I say tom-aht-oh.

However, my favourite example of this is much more subtle. One of the few clear memories I have of junior school is our teacher reading The Hundred and One Dalmatians aloud to us. Although now a little dated, the original Dodie Smith book has far more to it than the films, and it was a wonderful experience. But there was a joke in the book that flew straight over our heads up in Rochdale (or, to be precise, Littleborough), because it simply didn't work the way that we pronounced words.

Unfortunately my cherished 1960s paperback of THaOD has gone walkabout, so I am having to remember the wording from memory - feel free to give me the exact version if you have it to hand. The joke comes when the puppies have been rescued and the dog family are on the run. To avoid detection, the dogs all roll in soot so that they no longer look like dalmations. Missus says to the now black-coated Pongo: 'Suit soots you.' Hilarity ensues from her slip-up in many a southern household. Queue puzzled faces in our northern classroom.

Why? Because with a Rochdale accent 'suit' and 'soot' are homophonic. Both are pronounced approximately like the name 'Sue' with a T on the end. And so the joke fell flat, because when read aloud there is nothing wrong with what Missus said.

So there we have it. Some jokes can be used to tell which part of the country the reader comes from.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Christmas Gift Guide

As we enter that time of year when many of us have lots of presents to buy, I thought it would be a good idea to highlight some of my titles that make useful gifts - especially for those difficult-to-buy-for people. When you consider what many presents cost these days, I honestly think you can't beat a book for value. So here's my top six, in no particular order:

Introducing Infinity: a great stocking filler (just £5.99 currently on Amazon, and pocket-sized), Introducing Infinity brings the mind-boggling subject of infinity alive with powerful illustrations in a unique graphic guide. Suitable from about 14 upwards for anyone with an inquiring mind. See at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. If your gift recipient would prefer a more in-depth, though still approachable read, there is also A Brief History of Infinity.

Xenostorm: Rising: a faced-paced science fiction novel, technically for a young adult audience (12+), though it works as well for adults who like SF. (Currently £7.75 on Amazon.) Fourteen-year-old Davy comes home to discover his parents have disappeared - and then a voice in his head tells him that he will be shot if he doesn't act immediately. Davy finds himself facing a powerful underground group who have lived for hundreds of years - and want to see him dead. The future of human existence is in the balance. What that future is – only Davy can decide. See at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

The Universe Inside You: an entertaining exploration of science, using your body as a starting point to look at everything from bacteria to the scale of the universe. Bursting with eye-popping facts, and a great way to introduce science to someone who is reluctant to read about it - but equally for anyone who enjoys exploring the true sense of wonder of science. Written for adults but suitable from about 13 up. (Currently £7.19 on Amazon.) See at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

Build Your Own Time Machine: the subject I get asked to talk about most is time travel - because it's something that fascinates everyone, yet many are surprised to learn that there is nothing in the laws of physics that prevents it. This is one for the slightly more dedicated science lovers as it goes into more detail than some of the other books. But if you have a science fan, from 15 to adult, on your gift list, they will love this one. (Currently £7.61 on Amazon.) See at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

The Quantum Age: my latest book and a chance to explore the weirdest aspect of science, quantum theory. The book introduces the basics of quantum physics in a highly approachable way, but it focuses mainly on the amazing applications of quantum physics, from lasers to electronics to superconducting magnets... and even the way that strange quantum effects take place in the natural world. Despite the subject, this is not an overly-technical read, but opens up the topic they're usually too scared to teach you at school for anyone from 14 to adult. This is a hardback, so a little more expensive (currently £11.99 on Amazon), but that does make it more attractive as a present. See at Amazon.co.uk - sorry, not available on Amazon.com until February 2015.

Dice World: recently on the longlist for the Royal Society Prize, Dice World gives the reader a chance to have his or her mind boggled by the aspect of maths that we seemed designed to be fooled by: probability and randomness. Find out how to toss a head ten times in a row, how to make predictions with impossible accuracy, why people volunteer to give up thousands of pounds for no good reason, and how a game show left the woman with the world's highest IQ being reviled by a whole list of academics... until they discovered she was right. Inquisitive minds from 15 to 99 will be fascinated - and it's currently £7.19 on Amazon. See at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.



... if there's nothing here that catches your fancy, take a look at my entire collection of science books, or if you want something special, I have many of my books available direct, signed and with an inscription of your choice.

Monday, 1 December 2014

The Many versus The Few

View from the A303 (looks better than this in reality)
It might seems strange, but some British road planners have just faced the kind of dilemma beloved of Star Trek - and have made a decision I find quite sad.

Anyone who has watched shows like Star Trek, Buffy, Battlestar Galactica etc. (basically any ensemble show where the characters' lives are put at risk) will be familiar with the 'Many versus the Few' dilemma. Our heroes get in a situation where they really ought to apply the dictum 'the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few'. It's what Mr Spock usually wants to do. But in this case, the 'few' at risk are their comrades, and so they invert the rule and put the lives of many at risk to save a few. (This is, of course, related to the trolley experiment I've referenced before.)

What has this to do with road planners? I have just read that the go-ahead has been given to construct a tunnel so that the A303 is not visible from Stonehenge. The result will be that visitors to our local ancient monument (though not the best - don't forget Avebury!) will have a more 'authentic' view as they look over the much-farmed Wiltshire landscape from the roped-off perimeter of the stones. What no one seems to have noticed is that this also means that Stonehenge will not be visible from the A303 - and I think that's a real pity.

Seeing Stonehenge appear as you pass it by is, for me, one of the greatest driving experiences in the UK. I have regularly rerouted a drive to make sure I go along this stretch of the A303 just to see it. Particularly near sunset in summer it is a wonderful sight. And, of course, far more people get this amazing experience as a result of driving past than ever take the trip to the visitors' centre to plod around that perimeter barrier.

So what they have decided to do is sacrifice the experience of the many for the experience of the few. Is it justified? Possibly. But my suspicion is that they never gave any consideration to the benefits of the majority. And that is a shame.

Health and safety requires me to point out that if you are a driver, you should only allow yourself a passing glance of Stonehenge - but the passengers can drink it in as long as they like.

Friday, 28 November 2014

You get what you pay for in publishing

The publishing world is very different now to the way it was 20 years ago. Some of us still work with traditional publishers. We appreciate the professional services they offer, from editing and typesetting to getting our books into bookshops. Others choose to do it themselves with mixed results - the best self-published authors do superbly well others sell to their aunty and that's about it. But there's an interesting in-between scenario.

What if you want your book professionally produced, but it's rejected by traditional publishers? It might seem there's an ideal alternative in companies that do the work the traditional publisher does, but  will accept pretty well any manuscript as long you are prepared to defray costs. This kind of operation has been going a long time, and is traditionally described as 'vanity publishing'. In principle there's nothing wrong with it - but a recent experience I've had with just such a publisher (I won't name them as there are plenty of their ilk) shows the dangers for the author.

We'll leave aside the price that authors face - these are typically too high for the services offered, but I'm sure there are some competitively priced vanity publishers out there. It's more about what the author expects to get for their money.

What started this was receiving a press release from a vanity publisher. I had no illusions about what they were, and treated it as I would a self-published book. 99 times out of 100 I ignore these. But this real world fantasy with a historical twist sounded quite intriguing, so I thought I'd give it a go. The book arrived, and you could see that the author had got some serious work done for his or her money:
  • It was a professional produced paperback without that rather cheap look of print on demand.
  • It had clearly been proofread - there were no obvious typos.
  • The publicist had managed to get it in front of a reviewer.
All in all, not bad. Of course it's unlikely it would ever be in a bookshop, but with Amazon etc. this isn't strictly necessary. But then I started to read the book. I tried. I really did. But it was practically unreadable. Poor use of English, badly structured... it was well produced, but a very bad book. I pointed this out to the publicist, to be told that some authors are trickier to deal with than others.

Okay, I should have left it there. But I was then offered something more down my usual line - a popular maths book, written by someone who had a background that made it possible that it could be a decent text, and on a subject I find really interesting. So I thought I'd give them another go.

Again, the presentation was excellent. This was a chunky hardback produced to excellent quality - it could easily have been from one of the big publishers. And again it had clearly been proof read. There was even a lot of worthwhile content. But it was a book that was crying out for a proper edit. The text wandered here and there, had stylistic issues and, most worryingly for a popular science book, repeatedly made reference to concepts and people it had yet to introduce, so unless you already knew the subject it was baffling.

This was by no means a total disaster, so I wrote a review on popularscience.co.uk concluding: 'Overall, then, the idea behind the book is excellent and there is sometimes some rather poetic, readable material, but there is a total lack of understanding narrative flow - the writing jumps around without consideration for what the reader already knows - and the whole is in need of a serious edit. The book is handsomely produced, but from a publisher that only seems to do copy editing without any true editorial input, and it shows. I can't really recommend the book unless you like a challenge, but that's a pity because there is good material in it.'

I thought the publicist would think any publicity is good publicity, but instead got a hurt email saying 
Thank you, but the bad aspects of your review outweigh the good so I would have preferred it if you had warned me that you found the book poor as I would have asked you not to put it up on your site.

I hope the author will appreciate your review.
Taking that final remark as a veiled threat, I took the review down. I won't be taking books from them again. But this sorry debacle left me with two thoughts. First, what did they expect, putting out a book that clearly hadn't been edited? A glowing review? And secondly, and more importantly, what do the authors expect? Did they think their books had been edited, just because they had been proof read? Were they like those X-factor contestants who blithely believe in their own talent, despite all the evidence to the contrary, or did they think that by going to an apparently respectable publisher that their handsome looking books would have been turned their book into something more than they originally wrote?

I have been writing books for a long time, but I still get editor's notes and make changes to the first draft. I'm just doing such an edit right now, and, for instance, the editor suggested a change to the end of the book that I think has improved it immensely. Yet these people have missed out on this essential part of working with a publisher - something needed far more with a new writer.

You do indeed get no more than what you pay for with a vanity publisher (and in some cases considerably less) - but would-be authors who are thinking of using their services should check exactly what is on offer, and whether it will indeed make their book saleable.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

I don't know much about robots, but I know what I like

Is it art?
I've always had mixed feelings about the Turing test. This is (a variant on) the mechanism proposed by Alan Turing (you know, the one who looks like Benedict Cumberbatch) to decide if computers could be considered to be intelligent. As I've pointed out previously, the way the test is administered is far too lax. And part of the problem is the requirement of a judge to decide if the entity he or she is communicating with is a person. This is inevitably a subjective decision, and highly dependent on the quality of the dialogue the judge uses.

Now, though, we've got a whole new level of silliness, with a Georgia Institute of Technology professor suggesting that in testing for machine intelligence we should also 'ask a machine to create a convincing poem, story or painting.' What remarkable twaddle. Take the 'art' aspect. We can't agree on which humans can create a convincing painting, so how could we possibly use this as a test? By the standards of modern art, any random collection of paint marks on a canvas could be considered a 'convincing painting' - it purely depends on what those judging persuade themselves is valid and/or meaningful and important. There is no standard against which to measure what the computer produces.

Let's be clear - I am not saying this because I think that art that doesn't require skill and craft is worthless (although I do think this). Merely saying that there is no metric that could be possibly be used. What, for instance, if the computer produced the image shown here. If this had been done by, say, Mark Rothko, it would be classed as a convincing painting. As it happens I did it pretty randomly on an iPad in 2 minutes - so it's not classed as a convincing painting. The metric is not the nature of the artwork itself, but who produced it. Modern art is essentially a celebrity phenomenon. And that means the process is bound to fail.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Do You Still Think You're Clever? review

John Farndon, the author of Do You Still Think You're Clever?: Even More Oxford and Cambridge Questions! is, very sensibly, a believer in 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' In this follow up to Do You Think You're Clever? he takes exactly the same approach of collecting a series of the more bizarre questions asked in Oxbridge interviews and providing his own suggested answers.

As Farndon says, you may not always agree with his answer - but that's part of the fun, because when you're dealing with questions like 'What makes a strong woman?' in a theology interview, it's really up to you how you answer - and what the interviewer is looking for (if he or she is any good) is not so much someone who comes up with a pat answer, but someone who can demonstrate how to think through a question, and this is something that Farndon excels at.

Thankfully, the reader doesn't need to know too much about the subject. In fact I found questions like 'Was Shakespeare a rebel?' much more interesting than more science-based ones like 'Why does a tennis ball spin?' I have both taken a Cambridge entrance interview and interviewed for a company that used a fiendishly evil question in their interviews (or at least did until it got too well known) - in the latter case, it was always the interesting answers that came at the problem laterally that were considered to indicate better candidates rather than the straightforward attempts at a solution.

(As an aside, the company interviews had a senior and junior interviewer. The first time I took part, other than being interviewed myself, the senior interviewer said to the first candidate 'If you need to know any statistical formulae don't worry, just ask Brian.' (B*st*rd.) I was taken totally off guard. I'm not good at remembering formulae, and it's a red herring - the question doesn't require it. But of course the first person said 'What's the formula for standard deviation?' and my mind went totally blank and had to ask for help. Next interview I had a cheat sheet.)

In the end, the reader's thoughts are as interesting as Farndon's answers. I found, having put the book down part way through, that I was thinking about how I would answer the next question up - in fact probably the best way to read it is one question at a time, then put it down while you think about the next one. This makes it a great loo book - but also a great gift book (I'm sure it's no coincidence it's going on sale this time of year) and it will certainly be one I'll be giving to a few people.

I feel I ought to say something negative about any book I review - all I can really find to say here is that I hate the cover. Please don't judge the book by it.

You can find out more or buy it at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Proving the irrational

When writing about science we often have to fight against irrational ideas that seem to grow on people's minds like fungi. Yet early mathematicians had the opposite problem of requiring the irrational. This was the irrational in the literal sense - a number that is not made up of a ratio. According to myth, when one of Pythagoras' merry band discovered that the length of a diagonal of a square with sides of length one (the square root of 2) was not a rational number (a fraction that's the ratio of two whole numbers), he was drowned for spreading such a malicious concept.

What's interesting, as I describe in my book A Brief History of Infinity, is that there is a remarkably simple proof that 2 is irrational. It requires little more than an understanding of odd and even and goes something like this:

Let's assume 2 can be represented by a rational fraction - we'll call it top/bottom.

To keep things simple, we are assuming that top/bottom provides the simplest fraction you can get - there's nothing to cancel out, so it's like 1/2 rather than 2/4. So:

top/bottom =2

Square roots are a bit fiddly, so let's multiply each side of the equals sign by itself. This gives us

top2/bottom2 = 2

In traditional mathematical fashion, we can get rid of the division by multiplying both sides of the equation by bottom2, giving us:

top2 = 2 x bottom2

Next, the Greeks relied on their knowledge of odd and even numbers. They knew three things about odd and even numbers.
  1. A number that can be divided by 2 is even.
  2. If you multiply an odd number by an odd number, you get another odd number.
  3. If you multiply any number (odd or even) by an even number, you get an even number.
As the right-hand side of the equals sign is 2 x bottom2, it must be even - it's the outcome of multiplying by an even number, 2. So top2 also must be even. And that means top has to be even (because were it odd we would be multiplying two odd numbers together and would get an odd result).
Now here comes the twist. If top is even, then it can be divided by 2. So top2 can be divided by 4. And we know that top2 is the same as 2 x bottom2. If 2 x bottom2 can be divided by 4, then bottom2 can be divided by 2. So bottom2 (and hence bottom) is even. (Read that again if necessary - it makes sense.)

So both top and bottom are even. But if both are even, then top/bottom isn't the simplest fraction we could have, since we can divide both top and bottom by 2. Yet we started by saying that top/bottom was the simplest fraction we could have. We've reached an impossible contradictory situation - which means our original assumption that it was possible to represent 2 by a ratio was false.

Added: Thanks to Thony Christie for pointing out that it's thought the Pythagoreans first discovered that 5 was irrational - but because 2 is based on the diagonal of a unit square, I think it makes the simplest example.

Monday, 24 November 2014

The joy of being tech support

For a while when I worked at British Airways I was in charge of the department that did all the support for PC users - and I was also one of BA's first PC programmers - so I think it's fair to say that I know more about computers than most people of my generation. This can be handy. But the downside is that the family regard me as official PC support guy.

This came home with a bang when one of my daughters reported one of the weirdest errors I've come across. Every time she tried to save something in Word the above error box came up. She couldn't save a single file. Even with the default Document1 filename. Yet other programs - Powerpoint for instance - were fine. Word is something she uses heavily on her course, so it needed sorting, but what could possibly be happening?

At the time the laptop was at university and I was at home, so several local attempts were made to sort it out without success. This weekend I finally got my hands on it and spent a couple of hours tidying up various bits and pieces, plus fully de-installing and reinstalling Office. End result? No change.

I was under a bit of pressure, as I had a train to catch. But three minutes before I was due to leave I had a really silly idea. And 2 minutes and 50 seconds before I was due to leave, I had fixed the problem. What it comes down to is a subtle divergence between Word, with its Windows background, and the Mac's OS X operating system, which is basically a tarted up version of Unix. Windows comes from a DOS heritage where filenames were very limited. Who remembers names that had to be no more than 8 characters in length? And there were lots of forbidden characters in filenames. Windows has loosen up since then, but there are still a number of limitations on what can appear, and this proved to be the secret to fixing the problem.

It might seem this doesn't make any sense - after all I was trying out totally legitimate filenames. But the whole path that specifies where the file is located also had to meet with Word's approval. And at some point, the hard disc of the computer had been accidentally renamed ]q - which the Mac had no problems with. But this meant that file's path, which includes the name of the hard disc, had a ']' in it, which Word didn't think was possible.

So there are three problems here the developers should have spotted and prevented. First, by default the Mac puts an icon for the hard disc on the desktop, which makes it far too easy to accidentally rename it. (Easily removed, but it's probably a mistake to have it there in the first place.) Secondly Word, like Powerpoint, should have coped with all possible Mac file naming possibilities. And thirdly the Word error message should have been a lot more explicit, rather than leaving you guessing just what it was complaining about.

Sigh. Computers, eh?

Friday, 21 November 2014

An old one but a good one

Thanks to Peet Morris for reminding me of this little puzzle for the weekend.

Multiple choice:
If you choose an answer to this question at random, what is the chance you will be correct?:

A) 25%
B) 50%
C) 60%
D) 25%

I'm not going to suggest a 'right' answer (though there are at least two) - I leave it up to you.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

The most obscure physics laureate?

We all love a good Nobel Prize, but every now and then there is a flare up over the winners. Sometimes it is because of the arbitrary restriction to three winners who must be alive at the time of the award. Sometimes, as when Jocelyn Bell appeared to be pushed aside for her boss Anthony Hewish (much to the irritation of Fred Hoyle), it is an apparent unfairness. But most often, I suspect, in the case of the physics Prize it is due to the Prize committee's inability to decide just what physics is.

There have been a number of examples of awards that were really for inventions or technology. Admittedly these inventions were usually based on physics - but it would be tenuous to call them a fundamental breakthrough in physics itself, as the inventors were making use of an existing physical concept. So, for instance, the award for the laser (or more accurately the maser, as neither Gordon Gould nor Theodore Maiman were included, arguably the key names for the laser) should arguably have gone to Einstein, who came up with the theory in the first place.

But one thing the dalliance with inventions gives us is the inclusion of the man who must, surely, be the most obscure physics Nobel laureate ever: Gustaf Dalén. Without peeking below, I challenge anyone from working physicists to those with a casual interest in science to say what Dalén achieved to win the 1912 prize.

Here's his picture to consider while you work it out:

Gustaf Dalén: public domain image from
Nobel Prize website

You must admit, he looks cool. Possibly the hero of a steampunk romance.

Okay have you guessed? Have one more attempt before the reveal.

Gustaf Dalén won his prize for his 'invention of automatic regulators for use in conjunction with gas accumulators for illuminating lighthouses and buoys.' 

Not only was there no real physics here, the control of gas-lit lighthouses is not exactly going to have a long-term impact on life, the universe and... well, anything really.

Nice one, Gustaf.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

A zap from the sun

Image by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos from Wikipedia
I've always loved the science of lightning, hence, for instance the piece I wrote for the Observer. At the time I mentioned a theory linking cosmic rays to lightning strikes as, surprisingly, we really don't know a lot about why lightning occurs. Now there's some brand new (published today) research that suggests the Sun may be playing a part in the generation of lightning strikes by temporarily ‘bending’ the Earth’s magnetic field and allowing the shower of energetic particles that makes up cosmic rays to enter the upper atmosphere.

According to the IOP, 'researchers at the University of Reading who have found that over a five year period the UK experienced around 50% more lightning strikes when the Earth’s magnetic field was skewed by the Sun’s own magnetic field. The Earth’s magnetic field usually functions as an in-built force-field to shield against a bombardment of particles from space, known as galactic cosmic rays, which have previously been found to prompt a chain-reaction of events in thunderclouds that trigger lightning bolts.'

Lead author of the research Dr Matt Owens said: 'We’ve discovered that the Sun’s powerful magnetic field is having a big influence on UK lightning rates. The Sun’s magnetic field is like a bar magnet, so as the Sun rotates its magnetic field alternately points toward and away from the Earth, pulling the Earth’s own magnetic field one way and then another.'

In their study, the researchers used satellite and Met Office data to show that between 2001 and 2006, the UK experienced a 50% increase in thunderstorms when the heliospheric magnetic field pointed towards the Sun and away from Earth. This change of direction can skew the Earth’s own magnetic field and the researchers believe that this could expose some regions of the upper atmosphere to more cosmic rays.

'From our results, we propose that galactic cosmic rays are channelled to different locations around the globe, which can trigger lightning in already charged-up thunderclouds. The changes to our magnetic field could also make thunderstorms more likely by acting like an extra battery in the atmospheric electric circuit, helping to further "charge up" clouds,' Dr Owens continued. The results build on a previous study which found an unexpected link between energetic particles from the Sun and lightning rates on Earth.

'Scientists have been reliably predicting the solar magnetic field polarity since the 1970s by watching the surface of the Sun. We just never knew it had any implications on the weather on Earth. We now plan to combine regular weather forecasts, which predict when and where thunderclouds will form, with solar magnetic field predictions. This means a reliable lightning forecast could now be a genuine possibility.'

This paper can be downloaded from the IOP here.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Science writing one hit wonders

I'm in the process of transferring the Popular Science book review site (www.popularscience.co.uk) to a new home after getting fed up with Wordpress.

The old site (about the fourth incarnation since 2004), was hosted on my own website using Wordpress, but it was a nightmare to keep up to date. They kept updating Wordpress and its plugins with nauseating regularity, and I could never get the automatic updates to work, so had to update it by hand each time. For a while it has been close to the maximum memory my ISP allocates to a virtual server, and the latest version crashed through this so that it was impossible to update the site ever again.

One advantage of moving it to a new site is that I've taken the opportunity to add a couple of features missing from the Wordpress version, notably an alphabetical set of index pages by author. And what's quite surprising is how many one hit wonders there are. If you take a look, for instance, at the S authors, one of the more popular surname initial letters, out of 51 authors, only 6 have more than one book listed. (I am still updating the site, so there may be more by the time you read this.)

One interpretation of this is that popular science writers are primarily amateurs (at writing). Another is that most aren't very good. Or are very slow writers. Or didn't earn as much as they expected. (Or hated our review and wouldn't send another book in case that one was slated too.) All of the above, I suspect, and other reasons too. But interesting nonetheless.

Incidentally, the site is up for the UK blog awards. If you've got a few moments to spare, it would be great if you could pop along and vote for it! It should only take a few seconds.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Politicians need science advisors - and not to be swayed by single interest groups

Image from BBC website
I am totally disgusted by the EU. Not in a generic UKIP fashion, but by their cancellation of the position of EU Chief Scientific Advisor, a post held by Professor Anne Glover, otherwise based at the University of Aberdeen.

There are two problems with this. The first is that politicians are in dire need of science advice. We (and the EU as a whole) have very few politicians and civil servants with a science background. It is essential that they have advisors who can explain the scientific realities of a world where science and technology is central to our everyday lives. To abolish the post is madness.

Secondly, the reason that Professor Glover seems to have got her marching orders is a result of a campaign by green groups, and specifically Greenpeace, which objected to her support for genetically modified crops. Just like they do for nuclear power, such groups have a knee-jerk reaction to GM that has no thought, no appreciation of the science, they just don't like the words.

The green blanket opposition to GM just doesn't make any sense, because it's something we've been doing for thousands of years (if you doubt this, take a look at maize and cauliflowers, both so drastically genetically modified that they can't reproduce without human intervention) - and because we can now do it in a much more controlled and beneficial fashion.

The GM debate is admittedly not simple or black and white, but it has certainly been subject to the misuse of information from both green organisations, which oppose it on principle without thinking about it in detail, and from tabloid newspapers. For example, genetically modified variant of rice that was designed to counter vitamin A deficiency was dismissed by Greenpeace because the environmental organisation said that to obtain the required amount of vitamin A would require ‘seven kilograms a day of cooked Golden Rice’. The actual amount is 200 grams.

So shame on you Greenpeace (who have tried to weasel out by saying that 'Scrapping the CSA post was about the integrity of science advice, the clarity and independence and it's about getting the science right' - since when has Greenpeace cared about getting science right?) for engineering this highly negative move.

We need more MPs and MEPs with a science background - but even if we had them today, party politics and, yes, the malign influence of pressure groups both from industry and the greens, means that we also need good science advisors. Professor Glover will be sorely missed.

This has been a Green Heretic production

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Where were the world's first computer animations produced?

Part of one floor of the Atlas installation
(courtesy Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and
the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC))
We are all so used to CGI that it's not even a surprise these days when the effects on Dr Who are passable. But 50 years ago, things were very different. Usually the only computer animation you could expect was watching the punched tape or cards fly through the reader. But where was the first seed planted for the future wonders of CGI that would make practically any modern science fiction or action film possible? Was it MIT? Hollywood? No, it was Oxfordshire. In the wonderful Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

Let me hand you over to Marion at the Science & Technology Facilities Council (based in sunny Swindon):

UK computing is today celebrating fifty years since the launch of what was at that time the largest supercomputer in the world, the Atlas 1. When built it was the size of a large detached house.  Now that same computing capacity would fit in your pocket inside your mobile phone.

In 1964, the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) in Oxfordshire opened the UK’s first purpose-built computer laboratory to house one of the world’s first supercomputers.   Not only did this facility go on to produce the world’s first computer animated films during the mid-seventies it also contributed the 3D wire-frame model  shown on the navigation monitors in the landing sequence of the Ridley Scott film ‘Alien’ – making it the Industrial Light and Magic or Weta computer animation facility of its day.

The Ferranti Atlas 1 computer was the largest of three world leading computers built in the UK.  It cost around £3M – equivalent to about £80M in today’s currency – and was so enormous the Atlas Computer Laboratory, as it was known then, was built to fit the computer.

This week, on 13 – 14 November, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is opening RAL’s doors to celebrate those 50 years of supercomputing, with a series of talks, tours and exhibits to highlight the importance of this computer facility to society today.

 In the 1960s and 70s, universities and other research establishments  that needed to use computing facilities had to put their program and data onto punch cards and post them to the Atlas Computing Laboratory, where their program would  be run for them.

Dr Andrew Taylor, Executive Director, STFC National Laboratories, said, “Since those early days, computing at RAL has gone from strength to strength, and the Atlas Centre is now home to Tier One – where data from the Large Hadron Collider is stored in the UK, as well as a range of other facilities such those which process data from weather satellites. Fifty years on, the technology is so far advanced that a mobile phone is more powerful and far cheaper than the Atlas computer.”

The Atlas processor used more than 5,600 circuit boards, which would have covered an area about the size of a tennis court – around 90,000 times bigger than a modern computer chip.  One of its discs could hold just two photographs, whereas today’s equivalent, the USB stick, can store thousands of images.

The original Atlas Computer Laboratory established a national computing operation to support scientific research.  Since 1964 that UK computing operation has been a part of many technical and scientific innovations. It has contributed to the governance of the World Wide Web; it has managed the data which led to the discovery of the Higgs boson, and it continues to support major scientific experiments at facilities in the UK and internationally.

The world's first computer animations were produced at the laboratory. These included an animated model of stress-loading across an M6 motorway bridge that was being built at the time.  It was the first entirely computer-produced engineering film to be made in the UK and won the Great Britain entry in the 1976 international Technical Films Competition in Moscow. Most famously, the laboratory's facilities were used to produce the 3D wire-frame model  shown on the navigation monitors in the landing sequence of the Ridley Scott film ‘Alien’, which won the 1979 Academy Award for best visual effects.

People touring the Atlas Centre exhibits during these 50th Anniversary celebrations will discover the rich history of computing innovations at RAL, from the very beginning of supercomputers to the endless possibilities of today.

Dr Taylor added, “We are particularly excited that, in its 50th anniversary year, we are able to display the console from the original Atlas computer, together with memorabilia of the time.”

Though the Atlas computing operation has gone from strength to strength the Ferranti Atlas 1 itself closed in March 1973 and was replaced by an ICT1906A. In the eight years of operation it had run for 44,500 hours with a 97% up time. 836,000 jobs were run, 300 million cards read, 4000 million characters from paper tape read, 800 million lines of line-printer output generated and 17 million cards punched.

You can read more about Atlas at its website. Here are those groundbreaking wireframe graphics in a clip from Alien, but it French to make it more noir: