Friday, 28 February 2014

Not getting IFTTT

Just occasionally everyone raves about a piece of software and I really don't get it. I never got Pinterest or Instagram, for instance. In those cases it's just that they aren't really useful to me - but the service I'm struggling with here really feels like it's something that should be valuable. And time after time I go to it, think hmm... and get nowhere.

It's called IFTTT, short for If This Then That, and its role is to automate those trivial repetitive tasks we find ourselves doing. The concept is simple but powerful. You have a trigger, which is something happening on anyone of 82 services (or 'channels' as IFTTT confusingly calls them), such as email or Facebook or Evernote, etc. etc. When that something happens, IFTTT automatically carries out an instruction. It could be to send you a text, or perform a task in another service.

Examples work better than the abstract with this kind of thing. You can write your own 'recipes', but IFTTT provides some examples to get you started. We're talking this kind of thing:

  • Send me an email if it's going to rain tomorrow
  • Send an item I favourite in Pocket to Evernote
  • Send a text to Evernote
  • Download any video I favourite on YouTube to Google Drive
  • Repost my tweets on LinkedIn
  • Backup my Dropbox photos on Flickr
You get the kind of thing. It feels like it should be incredibly useful. Yet I struggle to find a single task I want to automate. It always needs tweaking or changing in some way that means the automation doesn't quite deliver.

I'm not going to give up. I'll keep trying it now and again. But IFTTT is still on my 'don't quite get it' list.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Fluoridation follies

There is a long standing campaign in the US to stop fluoridation of drinking water, due to concerns about the dangers of sodium fluoride. (Most of the UK doesn't do this, though around 10 per cent of us get fluoridated water, and most of our toothpastes contain sodium fluoride.)

I have no particular axe to grind on this, though I would be rather surprised if there is a significant health risk with this particular salt - NHS England says 'Reviews of the risks have found no evidence to support these concerns and the general consensus is that water containing the correct amount of fluoride and fluoride toothpaste have a significant benefit in reducing tooth decay.'

What I do object to, though, is when people use scaremongering tactics - specifically making statements that are irrelevant or unsubstantiated.

The other day, as you do, I got one of those graphics sent to me on Facebook, which I have attached here. And it's hard to imagine a better example of naughtiness in misleading statements. Let's take those facts:

  • Waste product of the fertiliser and aluminium industry - it may be, I don't know. But so what? Many dangerous production processes have water as a waste product. Does that mean water is the 'silent killer'? (It's certainly true that water has killed far more people than sodium fluoride.)
  • Basic ingredient of Sarin and PROZAC - Certainly both contain fluorine, though I don't know if sodium fluoride is used in the manufacture. But even more so, so what? That's like saying 'Ricin is the most poisonous substance known to man. Carbon is its main ingredient. So don't consume carbon. It must be bad for you.' It makes no sense at all.
  • Used in Nazi prison camps - I can find no evidence that sodium fluoride acts as a sedative, and it's a very unlikely salt to do so. Nor can I find any evidence that the Nazis made any use of it - this seems to have emerged as a construct in some anti-fluoridation literature. If in doubt, bring the Nazis in.
  • Used as an insecticide - no it isn't. The only recently-used fluorine containing inorganic insecticide was sulfuryl fluoride, though that has now been discontinued. Having said that, sodium fluoride was once used as an insecticide. In sufficient quantities (which isn't much for an insect), sodium fluoride is poisonous, but as with all poisons (water is poisonous if you drink too much at once, as is eating too much chocolate), it is the dose that is all-important, and at the levels in drinking water or toothpaste, sodium fluoride is not toxic to humans.
  • All the 'Linked tos' - only in anti-fluoridation literature. At the levels in water/toothpaste no good trial has shown any of these. The trouble with this sort of claim is that it can be true but irrelevant. For instance, practically everything we eat can be 'linked to cancer' in that if you feed enough of it a rat it may well develop a cancer. Again it's all about quantities and risk. Eating celery, for instance, has a small cancer risk. But it's so small it isn't worth worrying about.
So there you have it. I have no objection to proper arguments being put forward against fluoridation, but using 'facts' of this kind is not the way to go about it.

[UPDATE 9:51 27/2/14]

Thanks to Anthony Morris for providing a link to this review - it doesn't in any way make the misleading and untrue statements in the graphic okay, but it appears to be interesting evidence in terms of impact on one of the 'linked to's - children's IQ.

I would point out, though, that this is for high levels of fluoridation (specifically it provides 'Sensitivity analyses of pooled random-effects standardized weighted mean difference (SMD) estimates of child’s intelligence score with high exposure of fluoride.') And my other concern with it is that I couldn't find any absolute figures for the reported IQs, only a weighted mean difference of -0.45, which is pretty negligable unless I misunderstand it.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Facebook isn't all bad

The inevitable vampire bunny from
Dracula, the Pantomime*
I know it's trendy to pooh-pooh the social networking giant, and speak of the way Facebook is so yesterday. And, of course, one doesn't need virtual friends, one has real ones. And all that guff. But, in fact, in a world where many of us don't stay in one place, and may have contacts around the world, I think Facebook does have a lot going for it. 

Let me give you two quick examples. I used to be a member of a writers' online group called Litopia. Over the years some of the people I liked best left, and then the whole thing folded. But I had made real friends - people who I would happily go out for a drink with if we were in the same city - and I was in danger of losing touch. One of our number (partly as a result of my moaning) set up an invitation-only group on Facebook, which is now 120 strong, and it has kept those virtual friendships going - and brought a good number back into the fold. Facebook made this easy to do, compared with all the faff of setting up and moderating an online community.

Here's another example. I'm gradually digitising my pre-digital photos to have a more comprehensive collection in the places I tend to look at photos these days (and to have a Cloud-based backup, which means I wouldn't lose my precious pictures in a fire). A few days ago, I put up a set of pictures from the mid-1990s of a couple pantomimes I wrote and directed, starring the members of a youth group I helped run. I put these up on Flickr and made the only person I was still in contact with from the group aware via Facebook. Within a day I'd made a whole string of connections with people I haven't seen for nearly 20 years - and it's really rather a nice feeling.

The fate of an author/director at the end of the run of a youth group pantomime
So don't always paint Facebook as evil. Yes, it's too big and powerful. And manipulative. Yes, it has problems. But it can also put a smile on your face and re-connect you with people you thought you'd never see again. Which can't be a bad thing.

* The vampire bunny was shamelessly lifted from a joke in the old radio comedy show, I'm Sorry, I'll Read that Again. To get the joke, you have to be aware that in the even older TV quiz show, Take Your Pick, the culminating game involved the contestant choosing between opening a box or taking cash. The audience would shout out 'Open the box!' and 'Take the money!' So, in the panto, a character is running away from the vampire bunny and finds a coffin to hide in. Should he hide, or should he attack the monster rabbit? The opposing shouts go up 'Hop in the box!' and 'Stake the bunny!'

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Would popular science counter creationism?

Bringing me in doesn't make it
teaching creationism
Thanks to Ian Campbell for pointing out a report to me, publicised last week, on the best way to 'tackle creationism in the classroom. The blaring headlines suggested 'Children should be taught about creationism in science lessons to avoid alienating those of strong faith,' but before the radical atheists start foaming at the mouth, I'm not sure that's what the study actually concluded. (Actually it's too late to prevent the backlash. Apparently 'Richy Thompson, campaigns officer at the British Humanist Association, said: “Young Earth creationism and intelligent design should not be given credence and taught as scientifically valid for the simple reason that they are not.”'

But did the study suggest this? Admittedly there was the inflammatory statement 'If [evolution] is presented insensitively, students may feel compelled to choose between science and deep-rooted religious beliefs. Rather than asking whether religious views should be covered in science lessons, the question is can we afford not to talk about them?' But one of the people who appears to be involved in the study (I only have indirect reporting on it, which isn't totally clear), Pam Hanley of York University said 'I wouldn’t for a moment say you should teach creationism in science, but you could certainly talk about evolution in the context of when Darwin first published his ideas, when it was challenging the religious orthodoxy.'

So, no one appears to be suggesting we teach 'Young Earth creationism and intelligent design... as scientifically valid.' Rather, what they appear to be saying is, rather than plonkingly teach evolution as 'This is how things are, accept it,' instead they take the popular science approach of giving the context of the discovery. Don't just teach what evolution is, but explain how it came about. I think that is totally uncontroversial. In fact, I'd suggest we ought to be using the techniques of popular science far more in the science classroom if we want to overcome the general impression that science is boring. It doesn't mean you shouldn't do the grunt work with formulae and experiments and all that good stuff too, but some context of how the theories were developed can really make them seem more relevant and comprehensible.

So was this a storm in a religious tea cup? I think so. The study raises a point worth making, because a fair number of students coming from strong religious backgrounds, particularly muslim and Christian, do reject evolution when simply presented with it as 'scientific fact' because such an approach is not strong enough to come up against deeply held beliefs. But with more context, there is every possibility that some (not all - there will always be those who can't look around the blinkers) will expand their worldview to take in the stance that evolution and their religious beliefs do not have to be incompatible.

Image from Wikipedia

Monday, 24 February 2014

More QI QuIbbles

I enjoy the TV show QI with its combination of fascinating facts and entertaining banter, but occasionally the programme's smugness gets too irritating, especially when it gets things wrong - and I have in the past (herehere and here) moaned a bit about this. It's doubly irritating when QI spends part of its time attacking the fact checking on another show, as the first of the K series (repeated last week on the BBC) did.

It was rather ironic that the show itself happened to contain two errors itself.

One was on the matter of the red kite. Stephen Fry asked what colour a red kite was, and inevitably the siren sounded as someone said 'red'. He pointed out the quite interesting fact, featured in my book Light Years, that orange wasn't given a name as a colour until around the sixteenth century, and until then 'red' was used for both red and orange (the word 'orange' existed, but just for the, erm, red fruit). But the boo-boo was that he said that a red kite was orange. In fact, it's brown. Yes, it has an orange patch, which gives it the red name, but there is no doubt whatsoever that this is a brown bird. Wrong, QI. (Actually biologists, get your act together. It's not red. It's not a kite. What are you on? Though I admit 'brown bird' would be a bit generic as a name.)

What colour is this bird? It's brown!
More worrying was the way a totally wrong answer was allowed through. If Mr Fry has one failing, it's a tendency to be overly impressed when one of the participants comes up with a bit of science whereupon he tends to lavish praise them - unfortunately, in this case, the science was wrong, but he didn't realise, which was fair enough, but also the 'elves' in the background didn't pick up this glaring error.

Fry was going on about the size of the intestine, and someone said that the human intestine was far too long for a meat eater, which proved that we were naturally 'vegetarian', one of only three animals that had switched diet over time, and this was why we find meat so hard to digest. I'm sorry, but this is rubbish, pedalled by those trying to justify vegetarian and vegan diets, with no good evidence to back it up.

Firstly there are other animals, for instance, the capuchin monkey, with very similarly proportioned gastrointestinal setups and guess what? They aren't 'vegetarians' - they are omnivores, consuming a diet that's roughly 50:50 meat and fruit/vegetable. Our gut morphology indicates that we are omnivores. Our teeth indicate we are omnivores. The fossil record bears this out, showing humans have always eaten meat as part of their diet, as does our handling of various nutrients that makes an omnivorous diet the best for our requirements. The suggestion is pure woo.

Sorry QI - big fail here in not picking up the panel member on her error.

Images from Wikipedia

Friday, 21 February 2014

Dose his tea, matron!

This is a bit of a late arrival for one of my Royal Society of Chemistry podcasts, as I didn't get round to blogging about it when it was published - which is a bit of a shame, as we are talking potassium bromide, that compound of legend, that was allegedly put in the tea of the troops in an attempt to reduce their sexual drive.

That does seem to have been a myth, but it doesn't stop this simple compound having a rather juicy history. So pin back your ears, suppress your libido and take a listen by clicking play on the bar at the top of the page - or if that doesn't work for you, pop over to the full page.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Why is science boring?

Making science more approachable?
(Photo of The Big Bang Theory cast courtesy CBS)
I think science is wonderful, fascinating, life-enriching, and generally the best thing since the big bang. So it may seem odd to head up a post 'Why is science boring?' - but the fact is, like it or not, the majority of people consider it to be so. So those of us whose job is communicating science need to be aware of this and its implications.

Despite occasionally enjoying pointing out its failings, I am quite fond of QI, and have observed something quite interesting about the general attitude to science there. If there is a guest with a science background like Dara O'Briain or Ben Miller, then whenever that person answers a science question with a little bit of detail the other team members glaze over and generally act bored.

So why does this happen, and how can we get around the issues? Here's a few thoughts, which I can guarantee aren't comprehensive, but are a starting point.

  • A lot of science teaching is boring. If you are a science teacher, I'm sorry, but this is true. A fair amount of the blame is down to the curriculum - it is still essentially Victorian, and ought to be re-written from the bottom up, as at the moment it ignores most of the really exciting bits of science like relativity or quantum theory or epigenetics. Some of it is down to the teaching itself. It doesn't help when, say, a biology teacher is trying to teach physics. But we definitely need more inspirational teaching in the sciences.
  • A lot of scientists are boring. Actually most of them. Of course there are wonderful exceptions who are great communicators, but they are still in a tiny minority. In part the answer here is more teaching of science communication. I really believe it should be a standard part of a scientist's training how to communicate to the general public, as in the end, continued funding often depends on public support. One problem scientists face is that they are too picky about accuracy, which means they are always qualifying their answers or making them far too detailed. Sometimes you have to smooth things over a bit to get the point across. Think of it as rounding. Another issue is that they have usually forgotten the difference between jargon and normal English.
  • A lot of science is put across without enthusiasm. There seems to be a strange leap made from 'We are doing a serious piece of work' (true) to 'We we need to come across as serious people.' Take a lesson from business. Business people are serious about their work, but when they are telling people about their products and services, they make it interesting, enjoyable and sometimes even fun. That's why I like things like Festival of the Spoken Nerd which puts across science with enthusiasm. Another lesson from business is they use professional communicators to do the communicating. Science should do more of this too.
  • Give context. Science is generally very focussed on the experiment or model or theory. That's fine, scientists could learn a lot from popular science in that context - history, (potential) applications, stories about people all helps to make the science itself more approachable.
  • Challenge the glaze. If someone you are talking to does the QI glazed boredom bit, ask them why it's happening. You're a scientist - do a bit of research.
  • Politicians don't care. Our politicians are largely ignorant of science or even science-phobes. We need more people in parliament who understand science and its importance to the country. Without a political backing it is difficult to get money behind the right initiatives. 
... I'm sure you have thoughts too. Feel free to add them!

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

A silly answer to an interesting question

See this and weep, Mr Mayo
Last night I heard some of Simon Mayo on Radio 2. (It was an accident, okay?) They asked quite an interesting question: 'How far can you see?' - but then accepted as if it were fact a totally silly answer. Someone had rung in to say that a British Airways pilot told him you could see up to 250 miles, or words to that effect. There are two problems with this.

First, I worked at BA for 17 years and met quite a lot of pilots, and many of them were jolly nice people. But almost all were great spinners of yarns. I wouldn't believe a word they said. More to the point, though, as presented, the question bears a considerable resemblance to that hoary old favourite 'How long is a piece of string?', because the proper answer is 'It depends what you are looking at.'*

The furthest anyone can see dwarves the 250 miles answer to a ridiculous extent, but let's work up to it. The human eye is actually very good at detecting photons - it only takes a few to trigger it. This means that on a clear, dark night you can see a candle flame around 10 miles** away, which is pretty impressive in itself.

But a candle isn't exactly hard to beat. Anyone seen the Moon? Yup. So have I. That's around 230,000 miles away. Makes 250 miles seem a little weeny doesn't it? And we haven't started. The Sun is further still, and stars take us out even further. But let's push it to the limit.

The generally agreed 'furthest thing away you can see' (subject to some superbright thing flaring up in the future) is the Andromeda galaxy. Want to find it? One of the most recognizable constellations is Cassiopeia. The five main stars of the constellation form a large letter W, which is hard to miss (though you may see it looking more like an M). But it’s not Cassiopeia itself we are interested in.
If you think of Cassiopeia as a W, treat the second V in the W as an arrow and follow its pointer by a distance that is about the same as the entire span of Cassiopeia. This will have taken you into the much less obvious constellation called Andromeda. And around the point you arrived, a little fuzzy patch of light is just visible with the naked eye.

That fuzzy smear is the Andromeda galaxy, the nearest large galaxy to our own Milky Way. But ‘near’ is a relative thing in intergalactic terms. The Andromeda galaxy is 2.5 million light years away.  Let's do a bit of approximate maths to turn that into more familiar units. A light year is the distance light travels in a year. It goes around 186,000 miles a second, so that makes a light year around 186,000 x 3600 x 24 x 365.25 miles. Call it 5,869,713,600,000 miles. So the Andromeda galaxy is around 14,674,284,000,000,000,000 miles away. So the figure given on Simon Mayo's show was around 58,697,136,000,000,000 times too small.

Even by broadcasting standards, that's a pretty magnificent level of inaccuracy.

* This assumes, by the way, that we are talking about seeing with the naked eye, and someone who has good eyesight. 

** For easy comparison with the 250 miles, I am abandoning my usual metric units, so those who don't use miles will have to grit their teeth and mentally multiply by 1.609 to get kilometres.

Image from Wikipedia

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Medieval crackers

Image showing the 'Centaury' word
Courtesy University of Bedfordshire
According to a press release from the University of Bedfordshire, Stephen Bax, the Professor of Applied Linguistics there has finally managed to begin the process of interpreting the Voynich manuscript, a medieval book on plants and science that is written in a language that is so mysterious that many believed it to be made up, without meaning. To continue with the release:
Up until now the 15th century cryptic work has baffled scholars, cryptographers and code-breakers who have failed to read a single letter of the script or any word of the text. 
Over time it has attained an infamous reputation, even featuring in the latest hit computer game Assassin’s Creed, as well as in the Indiana Jones novels, when Indiana decoded the Voynich and used it to find the ‘Philosopher's Stone’. 
However in reality no one has come close to revealing the Voynich’s true messages.
Many grand theories have been proposed. Some suggest it was the work of Leonardo da Vinci as a boy, or secret Cathars, or the lost tribe of Israel, or most recently Aztecs … some have even proclaimed it was done by aliens! 
Professor Bax however has begun to unlock the mystery meanings of the Voynich using his wide knowledge of mediaeval manuscripts and his familiarity with Semitic languages such as Arabic.  Using careful linguistic analysis he is working on the script letter by letter.
“I hit on the idea of identifying proper names in the text, following historic approaches which successfully deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs and other mystery scripts, and I then used those names to work out part of the script,” explained Professor Bax, who is to give his inaugural lecture as a professor at the University later this month. 
“The manuscript has a lot of illustrations of stars and plants. I was able to identify some of these, with their names, by looking at mediaeval herbal manuscripts in Arabic and other languages, and I then made a start on a decoding, with some exciting results.”
Among the words he has identified is the term for Taurus, alongside a picture of seven stars which seem to be the Pleiades, and also the word KANTAIRON alongside a picture of the plant Centaury, a known mediaeval herb, as well as a number of other plants. 
Although Professor Bax’s decoding is still only partial, it has generated a lot of excitement in the world of codebreaking and linguistics because it could prove a crucial breakthrough for an eventual full decipherment.
Great stuff. The manuscript features in my book Roger Bacon, because it was once thought to be the work of the great thirteenth century proto-scientist. I've reproduced the (long) section on it below for your entertainment.

From Roger Bacon: The First Scientist 

In the early months of 1912, Wilfred Voynich, an American dealer in antique books, bought a strange manuscript that had been found in an Italian villa near Frascati. It was said to contain the secrets of nature, but its author had taken much care to conceal this dangerous knowledge from prying eyes. More than two hundred heavily illustrated pages were filled with a dense, incomprehensible script which no one had yet deciphered, accompanied by enigmatic sketches and diagrams. In its time this remarkable book may been the property of the astrologer John Dee  and it certainly found its way into the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II. The author was said to be Roger Bacon.

 Nine years after Voynich's purchase, the manuscript was to cause an international sensation. The man responsible was William Newbold, Professor of Intellectual and Moral Philosophy at the university of Pennsylvania. After making a careful study of the Voynich manuscript's complex script he had seen a pattern, not in the characters themselves but in minute markings above the strange lettering. Newbold  announced not only that could he confirm that the secret document was the work of Roger Bacon, but that its contents seemed to blow apart the conventional idea of what was known in Bacon's time.

As Newbold's work on the manuscript progressed, he found confirmation of Bacon's authorship. But the revelations that were to amaze the world were that the text accompanying some of the less clear diagrams identified them as depicting distant objects in space and the microscopic features of sperm. These remarkable observations seemed to prove that Bacon had built telescopes and microscopes hundreds of years before they were believed to have been invented.

Newbold needed to confirm that Bacon had written the Voynich manuscript because, despite a long history of its association with Bacon, its author was not explicitly identified. Rudolf II certainly believed that it was Bacon who had written the manuscript when the emperor purchased the book in 1586 for the sizeable fee of 600 gold ducats, but that was simply because he had been told so. It was for the frisson of secrecy that the he paid such a royal fee. The book looked – still looks – as if it contained a wealth of scientific and magical secrets. And Bacon had always stressed that it was vital to keep the secrets of science hidden from the common herd. Here was documentary evidence of how Bacon maintained secrecy.

The emperor had been told that the manuscript must be Bacon's work because it appeared to be cryptically autographed by Bacon. On the last page are three lines of text in a different hand from the rest of the book. They seem to provide an incomplete key to the code used in the main text. Although this key itself is enciphered, it uses a simple form of code already well known in the thirteenth century, so in theory this addition could have been Bacon's work. It seemed, on decoding, that the first few words read 'To me, Roger Bacon' – though to discover this the reader would also have to unscramble an anagram. The man who brought this inscription to the emperor's attention is said to be the same man who had sold it to him, a man who believed Bacon to be much more than the caricature figure of the legend. That man was John Dee.

Dee was the personification of much of what legend had built up Bacon to be. An occultist and alchemist, he was royal astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I. Despite escaping a prosecution for sorcery in 1553, he was constantly held in suspicion by the common people, and eventually much of his extensive library (more than 4,000 books) was destroyed in a fire that was intended to burn Dee alive for his witchcraft. Like Bacon, Dee had wide-ranging interests, arguably sometimes inspired by Bacon. He applied mathematics to geography, improving the navigational techniques that were used at the time. He provided a preface for a translation of Euclid into English, and was active in theatre and the arts. But unlike Bacon, Dee had a very real dark side.

Where Bacon was dismissive of magic and magicians, there is no doubt that Dee revelled in the power that conferred by a claim to manipulate nature by magical means. With his companion Edward Kelley, very much the Bungay to Dee's Friar Bacon, he was said to have conjured up all manner of spirits. Like Bacon in Peter of Trou's stories, Dee was said to possess a magic mirror in which Kelley could see distant events take place. Dee, it was said, single-handedly defeated the Spanish Armada's invasion plan by summoning up bad weather. It's hard to believe that he would ever have denied this feat.

Dee also claimed to be able to communicate with angels by using a special alphabet that he had devised. He has been credited with the founding of the Rosicrucian Order,  supposedly a Protestant equivalent to the Jesuits but in fact a secret organization with an inclination towards the occult. It is telling that when Shakespeare wanted a model for Prospero, the powerful but amoral sorcerer in The Tempest, he used Dee. He is also said to have inspired the character of the mad King Lear.

This Elizabethan occultist developed a passion for Roger Bacon (who would have been horrified by much that Dee did). Dee's library contained the largest known collection of Bacon's works, many of which survived the fire. In his preface to Henry Billingsley's translation of Euclid's Elements, Dee says of Bacon that he was 'the flower of whose worthy fame can never dye nor wither'.  It is obvious that Dee drew heavily on Bacon's work. The closest Dee came to pure science was in his Propadeumata aphoristica ('Preliminary Aphoristic Teachings'), of which Benjamin Wooley remarks in his 2001 biography of Dee, 'This became the basis of Dee's natural philosophy, and in several ways anticipates Newton's groundbreaking Principia mathematica ...'  In Propadeumata, Dee puts forward his theory that everything in the universe gives off rays of a force which then influence other bodies – nothing more than Roger Bacon's species.

It even seems that Dee went so far as to claim to be related to Bacon. In a pamphlet on the reformation of the calendar addressed to Queen Elizabeth in 1582, he took the opportunity both to praise his hero and to try to establish a connection with him:

None has done it more earnestly, neither with better reason and skill, than hath a subject of this British Sceptre Royal done, named as some think David Dee of Radik, but otherwise ... called Roger Bacon.

While it's true that Bacon had argued strongly for calendar reform, Dee's enthusiasm to claim Bacon as an ancestor seems to have overcome his sense of reality – there is no evidence anywhere that Bacon changed his name in this fashion. Any relationship was in Dee's mind alone. It would not have been surprising, then, if Dee himself, to develop the pedigree of the Voynich manuscript, had added the three lines that seemed to link it to Bacon.

This is something that cannot be proved. Little is certain with this manuscript, even the matter of Dee's involvement. A letter attached to the manuscript, written by Prague scientist Johannes Marcus Marci and dated 1665, tells us that the book was sold to Rudolf for 600 ducats. We also know that in 1586, when Dee was in contact with Rudolf, Dee records having 630 ducats, an unusually large sum as he was not well off at the time. Other circumstantial evidence has pointed to Dee's ownership, though some scholars continue to doubt it.  But whether or not Dee owned or tampered with the document, the contents remained a total mystery until Professor Newbold's sensational translation.

Newbold basked briefly in the glory of his discovery, but very soon the critics descended upon him. The method Newbold had used to decipher the manuscript was complex and open to misuse. He claimed that the characters in the inscriptions themselves were meaningless, there only to mislead the reader. The message, he thought, lay hidden in almost invisible markings above the strange letters. These markings, he suggested, were similar to a shorthand used by the Greeks. But that wasn't the end of the mystery. To decode the text, Newbold had to use double-character combinations – assuming that two marks in the manuscript made up a single letter of writing – and then apply anagrams, jumbling up groups of characters to make appropriate words. In the hands of his critics, this  led to the destruction of Newbold's credibility. They were blistering in their criticism of the Pennsylvania professor's approach, condemning his whole structure as imaginary, and objecting that the use of anagrams meant that almost any meaning could be extracted from a text of this length.

It is certainly true that within Newbold's 'translation' there was much that sat uncomfortably with Bacon's time and seemed to suggest wishful thinking on the professor's part. For example, Bacon appeared to call the members of the Franciscan Order 'monks', a description that would not have been made at a time when the distinction between monks and friars was a recent introduction and very clear. Other, apparent historical references to Bacon's life could simply not be true. Any fit with the historical facts of the period was superficial and collapsed when the detail was examined. It seemed that Professor Newbold had used his imagination to augment the text.

Since Newbold's abortive attempts, the closest there has been to a translation of the Voynich manuscript has come from the acknowledged expert on it, Robert S. Brumbaugh.  Brumbaugh managed to establish a sensible structure behind the encoding of the titles of the illustrations, if not of the main text. Unfortunately the technique that seems to have been used to produce the text is numerological, each letter having been converted into a single-digit number before being translated into another character. This process inevitably means that it is hard to decode, as a single number could represent any of several different letters. Brumbaugh's work, together with a closer examination of the style of the manuscript means, has proved that Bacon's connection with it is fictional.

Also, the age of the manuscript itself argues against any link. Although the physical materials used in the manuscript could have been thirteenth-century, little else shows any sign of being contemporary with Bacon. The style of the book – or rather the collection of five different books that it appears to be – is much more like that of the early sixteenth century, particularly in the botanical illustrations. Some of these – confirmed by Brumbaugh's translated captions – include a sunflower and a capsicum pepper, both of which were unknown in Europe until Columbus brought them back to Spain in 1493.

Apart from Brumbaugh's publication, there have been a string of books and papers on the Voynich manuscript, most notably Mary d'Imperio's The Voynich Manuscript: An Elegant Enigma.  For the future, perhaps the best hope of cracking the mysterious manuscript may lie in using the statistical techniques developed for the Human Genome Project to search for structures and patterns in the text.  Modern Voynich enthusiasts are also producing a high definition computer-based copy of the work to replace the hazy microfilm that Voynich historians have had to work from in the past. However, it seems that what appeared at first to be a new window onto Roger Bacon's work is just as much fantasy as the more obviously grotesque mythological tales that appear in the Historie. It's not that the Voynich manuscript itself is a fraud, but any link with Bacon lies in the imagination, quite possibly the fevered imagination of John Dee.

Take a look at the book, a bargain as an ebook, to find out more about the real Roger Bacon.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Colour conundrum

Have you ever thought about how strange a concept 'shiny black' is? Read on, in a post inspired by a Twitter interchange with Steve Mould of Festival of the Spoken Nerd. (If you haven't seen their show, book now - it's great!)

What colour is the car in the picture?
It's black.
Are you sure?
Of course I'm sure. What's your point?
It's black?
YES! Okay?
Bear with me. How do you know it's black?
Because that's the colour it is.
And how do you know what colour anything is?
This is basic Newtonian stuff, isn't it? White light hits an object. White light is made up of all the colours of the visible spectrum. Some colours are absorbed, the rest re-emitted. And the colours that are re-emitted are the colours we see. Trivial.
So a postbox, for instance?...
Exactly. White light hits a postbox, which absorbs everything except the red photons, which re-emit. And amazingly we see a red postbox. I still don't get your point.
You will. What about a black object?
That's a bit of a special case. We say something is black when it absorbs the whole caboodle. It doesn't re-emit any colours of light. So arguably black isn't a colour at all, it's an absence of colour.
Spot on. So what colour is the car in the picture?
And yet it is emitting light. It's shiny. And what does shiny mean?
Unless you are a Firefly fan, it means, well, something that shines. The OED says 'Full of light or brightness; luminous...'
So how can that car be black, if it is full of (emitted) light? By your definition, the colour of something is the colour of the light it gives off. What colour light does the shiny car shine with?
Erm, white light?
Exactly. So by your definition of colour, this black car is white. Next we prove that 2+2=16 and rip off the Bank of England.

Friday, 14 February 2014


It's not surprising when the beam lines have to go through two of these
that a bit of energy is lost.
(Photo courtesy of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)
I'm a bit embarrassed that the day after moaning about the Today programme's handling of a climate change story, I'm getting at the way the press dealt with a science story today. Some may rightly say something about pots and kettles.

After all, I am a science writer, and I get things wrong too (most recently calling the Harwell facility the National Physical Laboratory rather than it's true name of the Rutherford Appleton - though, to be fair, I think the Harwell lab probably deserves the title more). But the problem I'm describing is more about mainstream media misunderstanding the science, rather than a simple factual error.

The last couple of days, most of the papers have carried excited reporting of a breakthrough at the National Ignition Facility, the vast nuclear fusion site at the Lawrence Livermore lab in America, where they are experimenting with creating fusion for energy by zapping small amounts of material with vast lasers. Typical of the write-ups was the Guardian with 'Sustainable nuclear fusion breakthrough raises hopes for ultimate green energy'. They tell how the scientists have achieved a world first by getting more energy out of the nuclear fuel than they put in.

What some of the other papers never mention, and the Guardian doesn't put up front, is that this is true, but not as good as it sounds. It's true they did get more energy out of the fuel than they put into it - but they got a lot less out than they put into the system as a whole, as the vast banks of laser amplifiers all lose a bit along the way. To be fair to the Graun, they did eventually explain this - but I think the way the story is structured doesn't put enough emphasis on it up front. And several other papers never even bothered to mention this bit at all.

However, that isn't really what I've got a problem with, so much as the timing. Most of the articles (including the Guardian one) give the impression that this break-through has just happened. But in fact it took place last autumn and was well publicised at the time. All that's happened now is that it has been written up in Nature, who have put out a press release about it and the journalists reacted to the press release, not the actual event.

Now I know many scientists don't particularly like information about experiments to be publicised before they have a peer-reviewed paper, but this was rather different. Either way, the result was, because of the press's obsession that they can only write about things that are immediate and current, rather than just because they are interesting (which this is), that the truth about the timing was carefully pasted over. And that's a bit naughty.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Why do they do it?

Would you buy a used weather system
from this man?
I was listening to Lord Lawson on the radio this morning, doing his usual climate change denial thing (though he was being very careful to always refer to it as 'global warming', as the kind of weather we have at the moment is not one many would associate with warming). And in his voice was all the fervour of an old-time religionist. He knows that global warming doesn't exist, and he wants us all to share in his beliefs.

It made me wonder, why he believes something so fervently in the face of the evidence. By evidence, by the way, I don't mean the current flooding in the UK, though of course it may be indeed influenced by climate change. We can't deduce anything from a single data point. I mean the big picture. And when you think about it, his response is very similar to the way that creationists cling onto their beliefs that, say dinosaurs co-existed with humans and were on the ark in a great flood where the waters covered the earth, despite all the evidence the contrary.

It's also why people like Lord Lawson are the last kind of person who should be given a public platform on a subject like this - which wasn't helped by the Today interviewer who several times referred to 'the controversy.' There is no controversy among people who know what they are talking about - and it's interesting again that the interviewer was employing exactly the same term as the creationists: 'teach the controversy.'

As far as I can see, Lawson, who studied PPE, has no training to interpret scientific data, nor to pronounce on science, but away he goes with those typical denialist tropes, some of which I list here to help you spot them in action:
  • Use language that is misleading, like 'global warming' but never 'climate change'.
  • Cherry pick data to show what you want it to show. So, for instance, point out that global temperatures haven't risen much in the last 15 years, but don't include why this would be expected with the current picture of climate change.
  • Make statements that simply aren't true with such conviction that it sounds as if you know what you are talking about. Say, for instance, when an expert says 'During that time the excess energy is still being absorbed by the climate system,' respond with 'That is pure speculation.' No need to base your comment on any scientific data, even though the argument your are countering is based on measurement, not just theory. Just say 'That's not true,' or 'That's speculation,' loud enough and you will carry the day.
  • Point out that the UK only contributes a small percentage, and say that therefore it doesn't matter what we do. Would he do this about anything else that was wrong, like hanging ex-politicians from lampposts? 'It doesn't really matter, as the UK only has 2 per cent of the world's ex-politicians.' That's okay, then.
  • Say that scientists can't agree, or can't be definitive. This just describes the nature of science. But it doesn't mean we shouldn't go along with the best match science can give us to reality until better results come along. Why go with something that bears no resemblance to reality instead?
  • Find some tiny example that seems to contradict the theory, while ignoring huge swathes of evidence that support it. I know this is cherry picking again, but this time it's extreme cherry picking.
All I can say to anyone who is listening to Lord Lawson and thinking 'It must be true, he used to be Chancellor' is to consider whether you would take the same attitude in this situation. You are ill and you go to the doctor. A whole host of medical experts tell you that you need a particular treatment. Then Lord Lawson comes along (who knows as much about medicine as he does climate change) and says 'No, that's rubbish. There is no evidence you need this treatment. You just need to pull yourself together.' Would you really give him the time of day, or would you consider him to be irrelevant to the discussion? 

Enough said. I'm off for a ride on Walter, my pet dinosaur.

This has been a green heretic production.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Amazon dilemma

If there was ever a company it is possible to have a love/hate relationship with, it's Amazon.

The hate side is pretty straightforward, and the one that probably many of my readers could put forward. In fact the very mention of them will have some of you frothing at the mouth. They are a behemoth, flattening all opposition in their path. They fiddle their taxes. They drive bookshops out of business. They don't pay publishers (and hence authors) as much as they should because of their virtual monopoly. They set the rules and everyone else has to follow or get out. And they treat their low level employees like automata.

I really did write the book
But actually, they are also pretty damned good at what they do. As someone who wrote the book on customer service, I have to grudgingly admit that most of the time they get it right in a big way.

Like the way that I can buy music from them and in many cases I can not only get the CD, but instantly download the tracks at the same time at no extra charge. Now you may say, 'Grandad! Why do you need the CD if you've got the download?' And I have to reply, 'Experience, young Jedi, experience.' When I first worked on PCs I twice lost a hard drive before I realised backing up was a good thing (I mean the drive failed, as early ones tended to - I wasn't careless enough to actually lose them). If you can get a backup for free, then it's well worth having.

Another example. On Saturday morning I ordered a household product from them. Because I'm one of their 'Prime' customers I get free next day delivery - which itself is a brilliant thing, because it puts online shopping more on a par with the old bricks and mortar version. But of course, we all know that on Saturday, 'next day' means Monday. Nope. It was here, at my house, before 11am next day - Sunday.

And then there's returns. A couple of times I've had to send something back and they make it very easy. They even send out the replacement before you put the original in the post.

So, yes, they may be evil. Yes, they plan to take over the world.. But they are so seductive, like all the best baddies. I don't think I can give them up.

If you want to read more about Amazon (and the secrets of what they get up to), with useful timing, part way through writing this, I got a link to this interesting, if immensely long, article Is Amazon Bad for Books in the New Yorker magazine, from the lovely Lynn Price at Behler Publications.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

How not to run a phishing scam

There are some evil people out there who prey on computer users by pretending to be their banks etc. Luckily for us, the people who run these phishing scams are often not very bright. The other morning I received this email:

Oh, dear, I thought, what a shame I can't receive that £265.93 as I don't have a NatWest account. Silly old bank. And fancy them not spotting they should take the fee off, rather than add it on. Doubly silly old bank.

But then, the very next email in my inbox was this:

Now, call me suspicious, but finding out that exactly the same amount, with exactly the same transaction ID (and exactly the same negative fee) was also being applied to 'my' Barclaycard account was teensiest bit worrying. Especially as the format of the email was identical. Then I looked at the next email.

Oh, come on now. This is taking idiocy to a new and rather dizzy height. It's surely not phishing at all, but a form of performance art, designed to bring a smile to my face first thing in the morning. 

And if that was the intent, it certainly worked.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

The compound of regret

On the whole I find pretty well every compound I cover in the Royal Society of Chemistry podcasts quite interesting, but today's is a bit of a beast. Prepare to meet acetaldehyde, which some blame for your hangover.

So grab yourself a glass of Irn Bru and hurry over to the RSC compounds site to see more on this painfully fascinating substance (posted 22 Jan). If you'd like to listen straight away, just click here.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Warped vision

The typical movie jump to hyperspace
If there's one thing science fiction movies can agree about, it's that heading towards the speed of light, and or engaging warp drive should make for some interesting special effects. Often stars elongate, sometimes they change colour, sometimes they disappear with a bang.

The reality is not quite so visually exciting, but it is still impressive and decidedly confusing until you  think through what is happening.

As a ship accelerates towards the speed of light, two things should happen. One is that there will shifting of colours. The colours of the stars behind the ship will be red-shifted, moving down the spectrum and those in front will be blue-shifted, moving up. This means that some stars will disappear as their colour goes out of the visible range, while others will pop into visibility for the first time.

The second thing is that the stars will move towards the front of the ship, bunching up in the direction of flight (though still as points, not the traditional movie streak). As the ship gets close to light speed, even stars that were almost directly behind it will appear in front. This is the least intuitive aspect,  because it seems more natural that the starlight will be 'left behind' than brought to the front. What you have to bear in mind is that while the light was travelling from a particular point, you will have moved with respect to it. Add in the relativistic complication that light continues to travel towards you at the same speed whatever speed you are moving at and you end up with the bunching effect - it just remains very difficult to envisage. This website may help.

Things get more messy when we enter warp drive, whatever than means, as what you see is likely to depend on the mechanism of the warp drive itself, and since they are almost all imaginary, it's really rather up in the air. This website suggests that it would basically be more of the same - that in the warp bubble envisaged for a real warp drive you would see the same effects as when nearing the speed of light (but even more so). However the environment of a warp drive is quite different from a ship travelling at near the speed of light. Technically in a warp drive, the ship isn't moving at all, it's space that is moving around it. And once you get into the more dramatic science fiction concepts like hyperspace it isn't at all clear what the implications would be - quite possibly, there would be no stars visible at all.

There is always a tension in science fiction movies between getting a good representation of the best science tells us and making the film work as a piece of storytelling. Often the reality is ignored due to ignorance or a misapprehension of the audience response. As I mentioned recently, I think the silence of space worked superbly in 2001, and yet practically every movie since has given us sound in a vacuum. In the end, the Star Trek/Star Wars whoosh of stars as warp/hyperdrive is engaged and similar effects probably don't do any harm (though I here and now put a scientific curse on any movie or TV show that portrays a star field that moves visibly past as the ship flies), if only because the technology is fictional. But it doesn't do any harm to ponder it.

Image credit: University of Leicester via

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The myth of the friendly newsagent

My corner shop
I was listening to a piece on the radio the other day on the way home from the STFC (not a football club - but that's a different story). The piece was bemoaning the rate of closure of local newsagents. 'We are losing a vital local resource,' they said. Are we? Are we really?

Don't get me wrong, I'm all in favour of local enterprise and such, but are the typical local newsagents all that wonderful?

As I've mentioned before, my local corner shop, 5 minutes walk from my front door, is a massive 24 hour Asda superstore, alongside the likes of Marks and Spencer, Next and Starbucks, so I'm not exactly typical in local provision. But I've had plenty of experience of local newsagents in the past, and I really can't see what all the fuss is about.

Those on the programme, bemoaning their loss, had two principle arguments - that the local newsagent gave better customer service than a supermarket, and that mostly they are being replaced by 'metro' or 'express' versions of supermarkets, i.e. diabolical large companies, worming their way into the neighbourhood, rather than friendly locals.

I know there are exceptions - but I think in most cases this is not a viable comparison. Yes, I have known one excellent corner shop/newsagent/post office - to be precise a village shop, where the service was very good. But frankly many of the newsagents I go into are dingy and unpleasant, and have surly staff who haven't a clue about customer service, other than taking your money. Oh, and they are expensive to shop in. By comparison, our nearest supermarket 'local' (which I admit I don't use much because it's further to walk than the hypermarket) is bright, clean and relatively cheap. And in my experience the staff are just as friendly, if not more so.

For that matter, I don't really do small talk. I find it embarrassing and irritating with people I don't really know want to act as if they know me. Of course I like to chat to friends, but these aren't friends. I really don't want to have a conversation, I want efficient, quick service. (Which is why I frequently use the self service tills.) But I'll put that down as my failing. I know a lot of people do like to speak people. But the 'better customer service' argument simply doesn't hold water.

Of course you can't really argue against the 'big evil supermarket' bit. I'm no fan of Tesco, say, as a company. However I'm not sure there is more social benefit to be had by contributing to the coffers of one family rather than the many more people who work in a supermarket 'local'. And in the end it is a financial transaction, not a social service. I would like to be able to make that transaction with whoever does it best, not based on a personal bias against a large company.

So are we really losing a hugely valuable local resource when a local newsagent closes? I'm really not sure we are.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Selective tree hugging

Picture from Mike Jupp
I was interested to see this graphic on Facebook the other day. I was impressed by the statistic - and it makes a lot of sense. Tear out a load of trees, replace them with housing and tarmac and you are going to get an awful lot less water taken out of the system, inevitably increasing the flood risk.

As always when I see such numbers, though, I feel the urge to check the source, as I am afraid as many as 91% of statistics found on the internet are either wrong or simply made up.*

I have struggled to find anything other than people repeating the 50 gallon figure without sources (though I'll come back to how realistic it is), but I was fascinated to discover this piece of research by the Forestry Commission. Although it doesn't directly confirm the 50 gallon figure, it does (not surprisingly) confirm that trees are about the best thing you can have to reduce water run-off. But the reason I found it fascinating was the detail, looking at different kinds of trees, because it underlines the problem I often have with the green movement.

There is often a tendency to confuse what is 'natural' or sounds more green in a 'hey, let's hug the trees' hippy way with what is better for the environment (this comes through, for instance, in all the myths surrounding organic food). In the UK there is no more natural symbol of a tree than the oak tree, but it's actually not the best tree to reduce flooding. In fact, conifers are significantly better than broad leaf trees like oaks at putting water back into the atmosphere. They also have the advantage of being much quicker to grow. It's all very well for 60-year-old oaks to 'drink' up to 50 gallons, but we haven't got 60 years to wait for new trees to grow. Yes we should preserve existing oaks (which, to be fair, was the point of the graphic), but we should not be planting new ones if this is our aim.

I find this particularly interesting because on the whole the dedicated green types are likely to frown on conifers as being unnatural and not as good as the 'native' species. But if you truly care about the environment, we need a lot more conifers.

I said I couldn't directly confirm the water consumption figure, but I can do a Fermi calculation. Broadleaves achieve between 400 and 640 mm of evaporation from 1 hectare of forest receiving 1000 mm annual rainfall. Let's use the median of 520. The current moving average annual rainfall is about 1175 mm, so that pushes up the consumption to 611 mm/hectare. A typical oak tree is about 13 metres across, so realistically you could get about 40 per hectare (which is 100m x 100m) in a well-covered forest. So the annual volume of water one broadleaf disposes of is 8109942 cc or 81099 litres. That's 222 litres a day, which is 48 gallons. Of course that is all back of the envelope stuff, but it's good enough to see that 50 gallons per day isn't a bad figure.

* If I am honest, this is one of those made up statistics. I picked the number 91 at random. However, because I used the statistical weasel words 'as much as' I am pretty safe, as this basically means anything between 0 and 91. (The same goes for 'up to' which you will see elsewhere above.)

This has been a green heretic production