Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Who to vote for?

Snapshot of my ward, from www.ukpollingreport.co.uk
It's that time again. A UK general election in around five weeks. And I genuinely don't have a clue who to vote for. Or, rather, I have reasons for voting for three of the candidates and don't know how to assess those reasons.

According to this handy website I have a minimum of five candidates to choose from, who are (in alphabetical order of surname):
  • Janet Ellard (Liberal Democrats) - my default voting preference is Liberal Democrat (someone has to, and cousin Nick expects it). But there is no chance of the Lib Dems taking our seat. I am very disappointed by the total lack of online data about Ms Ellard. The site I used has not yet got anything like a webpage, Twitter, etc. And the only link they (or Google) do have is to a LibDems page that currently isn't working. No literature through the door or visits. Poor show, guys.
  • James Faulkner (UKIP) - not a chance in hell of getting my vote, I'm afraid. We have email and Twitter. No literature through the door or visits.
  • Justin Tomlinson (Conservative) - I am not a natural Tory voter. However, Mr Tomlinson, the sitting MP, has proved an effective constituency MP, which makes me teeter towards supporting him as an individual, despite significant concerns about his party's policies. He is also a real local, rather than someone dropped in from on high. He didn't reply awfully well to my email about better funding for science. But at least he did respond, very quickly. Every kind of way to contact him, and he has called personally, and put literature through.
  • Mark Dempsey (Labour) - my other voting choice, though the problem here is that I am more New Labour than the current version. My opinion of Mr Milliband has gone up a bit since the TV appearance, and I probably agree with more labour policies than Tory. Mr Dempsey is a local, rather than a parachute in. Good online access. He hasn't called in person, but I had a letter (rather bizarrely addressed to me and one of my daughters).
  • Poppy Hebden-Leeder (Green) - very unlikely to get my vote. I've studied their policies at some length and they are bizarre on defence, spin fantasy on finance and are  very poor on science, particularly nuclear power. While I have a natural aversion to anyone with a double barrelled name, Ms Hebden-Leeder is local. Good online connections, though the fact that her Twitter name is @veggiepoppy does her no favours. No literature through the door or visits.
So there we have it. UKIP and Greens won't get my vote. My natural choice, the Lib Dems, can't win and so far the candidate is totally anonymous. While I was quite fond of New Labour, the current Labour is veering back to the left a little far for me, which is worrying, and more worrying still, faces the dreaded cold hand of the SNP. While I haven't voted Tory before, the sitting MP seems to have done quite a good job, but can I put constituency effectiveness above party policies and their impact on the country?

I will listen to the TV debate later this week with interest, but I suspect this is the first election in a long time when I will be going to the polls and not know which way I am going to vote until the pencil is poised over the voting slip. 

All advice welcome, as long as it is a reasoned argument, not knee-jerk nonsense.

Monday, 30 March 2015

The religious fervour of homeopathy fans

A couple of weeks ago I put up a blog item on Huffington Post, suggesting that it would be a good idea if alternative remedies, like cigarette packets, had to carry a health warning.

In some cases this was because there were reports of a high percentage of herbal remedies not containing the requisite herb, and sometimes containing fairly dubious contents that could be harmful. And in others, such as homeopathy, it was more because there was a danger of using a homeopathic remedy, and as a result not taking medication that actually does something. So I suggested a suitable warning for a homeopathic product might be something like:
WARNING -- contains no active ingredients. If taken in place of medical treatment could result in harm or death
Now it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that I didn't expect a certain amount of negative response. I was sure it would bring the homeopathy supporters out of the woodwork and it has. I'll go into some of the specific kinds of response in a moment, but the thing I was really quite surprised by (but probably shouldn't have been) was how close some of these responses were to someone defending their religious faith.

I expect, in a contentious area of science, that there will be arguments. So, for instance, if I were to say that I rather hope MOND (modified Newtonian dynamics) can be made to work rather than dark matter as an explanation of the gravitational effects blamed on dark matter (which is true), I could sensibly expect cosmologists/astrophysicists to weigh in with the scientific arguments as to why dark matter is a better bet. But that's not what happened here at all. What I should have been seeing is a) a good explanation for the mechanism of homeopathy (as I claimed there wasn't one) and b) a good collection of large scale, double blinded trials undertaken by experienced professionals that came out in favour of homeopathy being more than a placebo effect. Neither of these things happened.

In practice, the science isn't contentious about homeopathy - it's fairly straight forward. And so, instead, arguments fell into these broad categories:

  • The report you mention only uses big studies - and this is a bad thing because? Good big studies give more statistically reliable results that good small studies - that's inevitable. If you don't understand this, take a statistics course, please.
  • Making snide remarks - ad hominem attacks are the last resorts of those who have no good arguments. When I see things like 'Thanx [sic] for embarrassing yourself even more' and 'pointing out your egregious ignorance and prejudice in regard to the topic' I know I've hit a raw nerve, because clearly there is a total inability to answer my two key points above.
  • Attack allopathic [sic] medicine - there's a technical term for 'allopathic medicine': it's 'medicine'. However the real point here is that you can't defend something by attacking something else. (E.g. 'Rx drugs are toxic, and RCTs have proven that 50% of the drug trials cannot explain the method of action.') I know the huge amount of good done by modern medicine, and know plenty of people whose lives have been saved or improved by it. But even if every real doctor doing real medicine made all their patients worse, it wouldn't make alternative remedies any better. It's a bit like responding to a restaurant critic who says the food in your restaurant is bad by saying 'Yes, but the food in McDonald's is really bad.' So?
It was also fascinating that at least four of the comments were by the same person, someone called Dana Ullman who strangely enough, according to Google is a 'proponent in [sic] the field of homeopathy. Ullman received his MPH from the University of California at Berkeley, and has since taught homeopathy and integrative health care.' So he's not at all biassed, unlike me, as I don't make any money from either alternative remedies or real medicine.

The sad thing is that in all those comments, none of the supporters of homeopathy could address my two key points (or even tried - randomly mentioning the existence of trials without citing them, when meta-studies like the Australian government one have a very clear outcome is not trying). And none seemed to actually realise the point is not that we need a warning that homeopathic remedies (unlike some other alternative therapies) can harm you, but that using them instead of things that work to treat dangerous diseases (there are homeopathic remedies for malaria, for instance, one of the world's biggest killer diseases) really does put people's lives and health at risk.

In the end, as I mentioned above, these weren't logical or scientific arguments I was presented with but rather statements of faith. And that should be a bit embarrassing for those concerned.

Friday, 27 March 2015

What's in a (website) name?

A rose by any other name might smell as sweet (though would you really enthusiastically sniff a 'bumodour' or a 'dogpoo'?) - but websites can have problem if you happen to give a site a name that doesn't really fit with what it sells.

Why would anyone do something so stupid? Well, I did. Or, to be more precise, I didn't, but the world has changed around me.

I've always loved church music, particular from the Tudor / Elizabethan period. You'll never find me happier than relaxing to a spot of John Sheppard. So many moons ago, when the web was young and fresh I set up a fan site for this kind of music online. I was approached by some nice people who had recorded some CDs of hymn accompaniments to sing along to - hymn karaoke, if you like - and asked if I could give them a mention. This ended up with me being the online marketing arm of an operation that now has around 93 CDs under its belt, all recorded by a top-notch world-class organist, John Keys.
Not a church organist
Before long, this had far outgrown my little fan site, so I set up a more professional site for the CDs, imaginatively called www.hymncds.com - and so it continues to the present day, proving remarkably popular, as the world's supply of organists (with the exception of Henry Gee, pictured left, who doesn't do many hymns) is sadly getting on the elderly side.

But here's the thing. Some time ago, realising that this downloading and streaming was the thing (innit), I added the ability to download the tracks via fine facilities like iTunes and Amazon. You can even stream them for free on Spotify - just search for 'John Keys'. And over time this has become at least 75% of our business. So the site's home page is no longer quite as shown above, as it now proudly says 'ACCOMPANIMENT CDS AND DOWNLOADS' - but it was still www.hymncds.com - to me it seemed a bit strange going to a site called hymncds.com for downloads. The world has moved on from my URL.

Of course one of the joys of the interwebz is that the same site can have more than one address. So from now on, you can also get to it using hymnmp3s.com and hymndownloads.com - because you have to move with the times. Bro.




By the way, if you you wondering 'John Who?', here's a touch of Sheppard to chill out to. Enjoy.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Stretching mathematical minds

Okay, here's a word association test. What's the first thing that comes to mind when I say... mathematicians? Hands up how many of you said 'Fun'? What, no one?

If you are a mathematician, or a physicist making heavy use of maths, you may feel there's plenty of fun in your world, but just in case you needed a bit more, I can highly recommend UCL's new e-magazine for mathy people, Chalkdust. (Rather an odd choice of title - a bit like a computing magazine calling itself Abacus. But we are dealing with mathematicians.)

What I ought to say straight away is that Chalkdust (my spellchecker insists on converting that to Chalkiest) is not a magazine version of an Ian Stewart type, light and fluffy popular maths book. This is a magazine that doesn't shy away from including the equations of general relativity. But having said that, you don't have to be a genuine, heavy duty mathematician to get something out of it. When I was at university, my maths supervisor gave me some excellent advice, which was 'if the maths doesn't make sense to you yet, just go with the flow, keeping going and it will gradually fit into place.' If you take that kind of viewpoint, looking at the scarier equations, but not worrying too much if you don't understand them, it has something for anyone who has A-level maths or more.

After all, who wouldn't love a mathematical analysis of Pac Man, producing the optimal strategy, or an exploration of the mathematics of wormholes? Okay, quite a lot of people - but I did.

There are parts of the text that feel a touch amateurish, perhaps reflecting that it is produced by students. This was particularly the case with the (very) long interview with Dr Hannah Fry, where the wording sometimes seemed like the work of a 12-year-old, for example:
Boys are like, this maths is hard; whereas the girls are like, I find this maths hard.
Hmm. It would also be sensible, if they want some history of maths, to talk to someone who is better informed, as the section on Ada King, Countess of Lovelace had a number of historical inaccuracies, notably:
And if she had [done the 'PR' for Babbage's Analytical Engine], who knows what would have happened. The analytical engine could have been built and then the first computer could have been created a hundred years before it actually was.
Well, no, it couldn't have been built, because the analytical engine would have required engineering that was far beyond the capabilities of the time, if it could be constructed at all in mechanical form. It's also an exaggeration (if frequently repeated) to say that King 'wrote the first program' for it. It would be more accurate to say that she translated a paper about the analytical engine written by Luigi Menabrea from French into English, adding a long set of notes in which she described how the machine might be used.

Inevitably a production like this is a trifle hit and miss - but if you take your maths seriously, you could find a surprising amount to interest and entertain you. Sounds worth popping over to straight away. Or at least, after solving* the travelling salesman problem and discovering the best route.

* I know, I know. It was a joke. If you don't know why it's a joke, this might not be the magazine for you.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Government Statistic Shock Horror Probe!

Ever happy to expand the horizons of this blog, today we have a guest post from the Daily Excess:

Seventies Student Scroungers Sickie Stats Shock

These 1970s students have grown up to be scroungers
When we think of the 1970s we remember ridiculous clothes, progressive rock and punk, and the Winter of Discontent. (We would like to say something about Princess Diana, but she didn't do much in the 1970s.) What not many realise is that by allowing long-haired types like these to go to university for FREE we brought up a whole generation of scroungers.

Statistics show that workers who were students in the 1970s carefully time their sick leave to extend the weekend - nearly half of all sick days are taken on either side of the weekend by these layabouts. This is no doubt so they can attend "music" festivals, or "drop out" and try to recapture their long-lost hippy youth.

A report published by the University of Swindon makes it clear that a whopping 40% of the sick days taken by these rarely-washed individuals are on a Friday or a Monday, giving them a fun long weekend at the expense of taxpayers and business. The Excess says: "It's a disgrace!"

NEXT - SUMMER WILL BE A SCORCHER! 8 WEEKS OF 80 DEGREE MADNESS PREDICTED and RED WINE CAN MAKE YOU STOP EATING CHOCOLATE

___________________________________________

I'm sure you've all spotted the Excess's little error, but just in case you were having a bad day, here is a chart of how the sick days might vary through the week if the Excess's statistics are true:





Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Something nasty in the woodshed - review of On Parson's Creek

Or more accurately, the title of this review should be 'something nasty in the woods', but I couldn't resist the quote from the incomparable Cold Comfort Farm.

I thought I might be a good target for Richard Sutton's On Parson's Creek (no relation to the American soap opera, Dawson's Creek), as I love a touch of the strange, and some of my favourite books are those by, for instance Ray Bradbury, which portray a kind of magical look back at boyhood, although in this case it's more teenhood, with all the uncomfortable difficulties that particular time of life throws up. And I was right.

Sutton does an excellent job of portraying the brooding atmosphere of the dark woods in which the protagonist finds himself, recently moved in with his family and coping with the difficulties of a new school; making new friends at the same time as exploring this uncanny backwoods location. In parts the storytelling oozes atmosphere, particularly in the scenes with the old railroad locomotive.

What starts off as a classic 'young people discover strange things and try to sort it out without involving adults' tale takes some interesting twists as the discoveries get mixed up with Indian legend and the possibility that the woods are home to something like a tribe of Bigfoot.

Although the main character is a teenager, I had no problem getting absorbed by the book. My only real complaint was that Sutton doesn't give us enough. It's quite a short book, and I think he could have expanded the story to give it more drama and a more striking destination. In fact, in a way, the problem is that the storytelling is too realistic. This feels like what a real encounter with Bigfoot might be like, but I wanted more drama, more obstacles to overcome and more twists and turns in the plot.

Since they always say 'Leave them wanting more,' this surely is a relatively small omission on the part of the author. That apart it's a book I really enjoyed.

You can find On Parson's Creek at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Artful chemistry

Last Friday I spent a fascinating day at the Royal Society of Chemistry's swish headquarters in Piccadilly (to be precise, in Burlington House, to the right of the Royal Academy). The event was the final of Chemistry World's science communication competition.

I really didn't know what to expect, but after a rather drawn-out arrival tea and coffee (because the judges couldn't make their minds up in the time available), the day began with short pitches from the 10 finalists who had written an article and now had presented a 'poster session' to the judges on their personal take on the theme of 'art and science.'

RSC building to right of sculptury thing
Now, to be honest, when I heard the topic, my bullsh*t detector went into overdrive. I find the money poured in to projects where artists hang around a science facility than produce some generally forgettable result that is somehow inspired by/linked to/giving extra depth to the work a little nausea-inducing. This is especially the case when sadly, as all too often happens, the suggestion is that the art in some way makes the science more approachable to the public. It doesn't.

However, to give them their due, most of the finalists had taken a different tack and were either dealing with the impact of science on art (for example, exploring the way that van Gogh's reds have changed over time) or that science was used in the creation of art. And the results were fascinating. What's more, the articles were very readable, especially bearing in mind that most of the participants were graduate students with little or no experience of science communication.
Who says chemists can't do style

Probably the best bit of the day was the lunch. (That makes it sound like a jolly, but it wasn't - you have to be paid for it to be a jolly.) In part this was due to the imagination that the catering team put into the presentation of a lunch served by people in white coats, using lab utensils. The buffet was so visually striking thatfor a little while no one dared approach it.

Nice! The syringe contains salad dressing
After a teensy problem of very limited space to eat other that standing up, which would require four hands for knife, fork, plate and glass (I led a rebellion that broke off into the building's reception seating), the best part of lunch turned out to be an opportunity to go around the poster sessions. If you haven't been to an academic conference of late, these started as people standing in front of a poster they had created, talking about their topic (hence the name), though mostly these versions were videos or computer presentations. Not only did you get a chance to find up more about the subjects up close and personal, tasting chocolate and macaroons and sampling delicate perfumes (though it was too close for some on the 'stench of purple' stand, where you had a chance to sniff rotting sea snail odour), but also there was a chance to ask questions of the finalists, who made a great job of it.

So to the actual entries. I'm not going to go through all ten here (I had hoped to point you to details of them online, but I can't find them), but I will mention feeling rather sorry for two finalists who weren't there and did their pitch by video, one entirely inaudible while being represented by an incomprehensible silent video in the poster session. They really didn't stand a chance.

Paul Brack receives his award from the RSC's president
I must give an honourable mention to one of the runners up, Wei-lun Toh, who, remarkably, is a first year undergraduate. Not only was his slideshow about the whole range of ways that science could be used to determine that Han van Meegeren forged a supposed work by Vermeer fascinating, he added the delightful concept of using a limerick on each slide (some shockingly bad, which added to the appeal) to help reinforce memorability and make the presentation more fun. I would have given him first prize.

However, I should also say that the winner's story about the use and re-discovery of Egyptian blue, one of the first ever blue pigments, and the first synthetic pigment was fascinating, making Paul Brack a worthy winner. Especially when he said in his pitch that he groaned when he heard the topic, because he wasn't interested in art.

Overall an excellent day - I'm glad I went and I congratulate the RSC (and their sponsor Akzo Nobel) for a great event. I hope some of the participants go on to do more excellent science communication - and here's to next year's shindig!

Thursday, 19 March 2015

How very different from the school life of our own dear students

My old school, the Manchester Grammar School is celebrating its 500th anniversary this year with various goings on, including a 'history in 50 objects' series.

I was struck by a recent entry, on the 'Handbook for Parents' illustrated here, published in 1922. Inevitably, part of the attraction is the period feel of the instructions that the powers-that-be felt should be passed on to the boys. At the time, the school was located in the centre of the city, and it was sternly observed that
Boys are forbidden to smoke, or to enter public billiard rooms, smoking cafes or smoking carriages on the railway. No boy is allowed, without special permission, to enter Victoria or Exchange Stations in the dinner interval.
There is also something of a spirit that has perhaps been retained more in our public schools, but thankfully was largely absent from MGS by the time I attended, when parents are informed that
A boy should be trained to get up sufficiently early to allow time for a cold bath…nothing is equally tonic and bracing for the day’s activities, or a better safeguard against catching cold... Frequent indulgence in the theatre or the picture-palace is as harmful and wearing as gardening or carpentry is useful and restful.
That was them told.

But the thing I found most fascinating was that at the time the school was divided in an antiquated structure from day one, as soon as a pupil arrived, between the 'classical' and 'modern' sides. The modern side (described as 'the natural resort of the boy who aims for business') covered science and modern languages, while the classical side (you're ahead of me) specialised in the classics and history. But what is particularly interesting is that the classical side was aimed at the 'Higher Civil service' and the learned professions, such as the Church, the Law and Medicine.

So even as recently as the 1920s, less than a century ago, medicine was not really considered as a scientific pursuit. It easy from the outside to equate medicine and science, but there is a distinct tension between the two sometimes. This background as a career that would be best grounded in the classics is perhaps a good indicator of where that tension originated. Things have, of course, changed hugely - but I can't help but confess I sometimes see more of that classicist in some GPs than the viewpoint of a modern scientist.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Where have all the comments gone?

Prompted by a query from Sabine Hossenfelder, I've just changed the comment system on my blog. When it looked like Google+ (which is Google's mostly failed attempt to take on Facebook) was going to take off, it seemed quite sensible to take Google's offer of switching the comment system over to Google+

The good news was that it meant any comments on a blog on Google+, but I hadn't realised until I just looked into it that it also meant that you could only comment if you had a Google+ account.

As a result I've switched the commenting back to Blogger's own. But the downside of this is that some existing comments will disappear. Many apologies if this happens to one of yours. I promise not to change it again!

Why steal a review?

I write a lot of science book reviews, both for magazines and for www.popularscience.co.uk, and I do also put them on Goodreads and Amazon. The other day I got a couple of contacts from Goodreads users, pointing out that someone had copied one of my reviews and published it as their own on their blog. (Thanks to Russa04 and Brendan Schrodinger.)

I couldn't go the blog in question, which had been switched to private, presumably because of complaints, but my informants pointed out that it was still available using the Google cache and low and behold when I went to http://webcache.googleusercontent.com... I found the page shown here:



Which certainly does bear a striking resemblance to my own review (written 6 months earlier):


Which I guess demonstrates that the internet is a dangerous place to resort to plagiarism. But I'm still puzzled. Why bother? Simply to pack out a fairly random website that mostly has music reviews? It seems unnecessarily hard work.

Here's how to do it, Joe Goodglass. Just read a book and write about it. It's not that hard, really.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Does my MP think that science is vital?

The Science is Vital campaign is coming into full swing again, ready for the UK general election. And with good reason. Take a look at that graph.

In the UK we spend a lower percentage of GDP on science than any other G8 country. Our spending has fallen by 15% in real terms since 2010. Germany, the USA and France are all spending around twice as high a percentage of GDP. We simply can't afford to keep ignoring our failing investment in science and it ought to be higher on the political agenda this election.

Why is this important? The reasons come in at all sorts of levels. There's a grounding of 'this is how our universe works - how can it not be important?' There's the enrichment of people's lives in knowing about it - and keeping the interest of children at school, who get turned off it and lose our country important resources.

But also there's a combination of business and survival. It has been estimated that around 35% of GDP is based on quantum physics alone (electronics, lasers, superconductors etc.) - and there's far more when you take in all of science. And everything from medical science to environmental science is central to our survival as a race.

Yet the fact is that very few MPs understand science. The vast majority are arts graduates and make little or no effort to understand what they make spending decisions on. We even have an MP on the science and technology committee who believes we should use astrology more. Unless we make our politicians more aware of the importance of this issue, we risk all our futures. It's that important.

So Science is Vital has encouraged us to write to our local MPs to ask for their support. Mine is Justin Tomlinson. He is a Tory, which means he is not someone I'd naturally support, but he has proved an effective constituency MP in the past. True to form he emailed me back after three days with the following reply. It does seem something of a politician's reply, not saying anything about our miserable spending level, sadly.
Swindon is indeed home to a vast array of science and high technology companies, many of which I have visited during my time as your MP, to see the excellent work that they do.

I know that both Greg Clark and George Freeman (the current Science and Life Sciences Ministers respectively) and their predecessors get how important science is, particularly to our town. Both Ministers have visited Swindon recently and alongside my South Swindon colleague, Robert Buckland, we have taken them to see the amazing work being done by companies and at research facilities across our town.

I will of course feed your thoughts into the policy-making process and continue to champion the excellent work being done here in Swindon.
Not a major response at this stage, then - but we can hope that if more of us (more of you!) contact our MPs, the message will start to get across.

What are you waiting for? Hop over to the Science is Vital site for the information you need to contact your MP and get emailing.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Lessons from Loki on authors using social media

Authors are often told that we should engage in social media. I do, using Twitter and Facebook (as well as this blog), and it certainly does get me some exposure, but I discovered this weekend what it is to have a tweet really take off.

The thing that got me pondering how authors should use social media is my tweet shown on the right. With around 1,200 retweets it is in a totally different league to anything I've put on social media before.

I shared the same image with the same words on my Facebook page - it has been liked 26 times and shared once.

I admit this is a very small sample to draw conclusions from, but it does suggest to me that Twitter is the more valuable mechanism for gaining a wider reach out into the world. Of course you have to be lucky with your content - most of my tweets are retweeted between zero and four times - but Facebook users seem far less likely to pass things on and spread the word.

Of course, this hasn't done a lot to get people excited about my books. But that's not really what engaging with people on social media is about. By all means throw in some of your writing-related material - around the same time I tweeted about a misunderstanding over Amazon rankings and about my 'How to write a popular science book' event at the Guardian - and there's no harm mentioning your books as long as you don't turn into one of these people who tweets about their output every few hours, yelling at people to BUY THEM. But your best bet to build up a following you can then interact with on Twitter (and always remember it is a two-way street) is by putting out fairly regular, quirky, potentially entertaining treats.

Of course, one success doesn't make you a Twitter star. A day later, I put out this tweet, which I thought had a certain something:

All it has achieved is 295 views and no retweets (so far).

The final irony about the tube tweet is one of the effects giving it an extra boost was having it picked up by The Metro, the free London newspaper, which featured my tweet in a little article. As a professional writer, part of me feels inclined to moan that my material is being reused free of charge and without permission - but they did give me appropriate credit, and in reality I am rather pleased.

So, simply put, my lessons from Loki are:

  • When you see something strange or funny, tweet about it
  • If someone comments on your tweet reply (or like it if that's more appropriate) - Twitter is about a conversation, not just broadcasting your words of wisdom
  • There's a huge amount of luck - you can't predict the timing, wording, image that will have this effect
  • By all means tweet about your books as well, but don't let it dominate



Friday, 13 March 2015

Hit by a Newton bomb

Excuse the blur...
I’m getting in a real mental twist over Isaac Newton’s birth and death dates. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Scientists, fuzzily illustrated here, they were 1642-1727, but I think that this is wrong. You can either say they were 1642-1726 or 1643-1727 but not plump for half and half.

The trouble is that the change of calendar we have had since Newton's time produced two effects. One is that the date jumps forwards (10 days at his birth, 11 by his death), and the second is that the date that the year changed moves from March 25th (don’t ask) to January 1st.

In the dates that would have been used by Newton himself, he was born on Christmas Day 1642 and died on 20 March 1726. (If he had died instead on 25 March, it would have been 1727.) Alternatively, if we decide to impose our present dating system on the past, he was born on 4 January 1643 and died on 31 March 1727. This is upsetting for those who like to make the handing-on-the-baton observation that Newton was born in the same year that Galileo died.

So which dates should we use? In one case, there is no argument. When talking about the anniversary, we have to use modern dating. So if you said on Christmas day 2042 that Newton was born 400 years ago, you would be plain wrong. But for the rest it's a more difficult decision. It somehow feels right to make use of the dates of the time - but then you have a problem with using BC dates. After all, when Archimedes had his twentieth birthday in 267 BC (did ancient Greeks celebrate birthdays?), he was hardly likely to call it 267 BC or to ponder on the fact that Christ was going to be inaccurately dated as being born 267 years in the future.

The other problem with using contemporary dating is that, for instance, when Newton was alive, some of his European friends were already using the Gregorian calendar. So how do you date an event where Newton interacts with someone in France, say? It's a worry.

I suspect, then, that it's probably best to stick to new style dating. So it's 1643-1727. Okay?

Thursday, 12 March 2015

What is design for? The new Apple Macbook, hobs and toilet doors

Of all the companies involved in the IT and communications world, Apple arguably has the most style and elegant design. We all know that design is brilliant on a thing you just look at, but when you also have to use it, usability comes in too - and there is frequently a tension between the two.

Many years ago, I did quite a lot of work on user interface design, and that's all about the balance, making something that looks good, but is also effortlessly usable. Generally speaking, Apple's UI designers get this, and in part maintain it by keeping more of a grip on the user interface than do rivals. However, on Apple's hardware side, the design/usability balance has sometimes strayed too far towards looks above function.

This happens all the time in everyday items. I've mentioned before the toilet doors at the British Airways Waterside HQ, which had pull handles on both sides, even though you had to push them when going in. I used to delight in watching person after person approach the door, pull it (because that's what you automatically do when you see a pull handle), fail, hesitate, then push the door. The designer let the visual elegance of symmetry overcome the practical value of a push plate.

Another great example I've mentioned before is the hob - the bit of the cooker with rings that you put pans on. Most of these have four rings, arranged in a rectangular shape. But because it looks better, designers almost always put the controls for these rings in a straight line. So there is no way of telling which control is for which ring without looking at the labels. If they just put the controls in the same shape as the rings it would be immediately apparent without any labelling.

So we come to Apple's new Macbook, coming out next month. It looks gorgeous. Super slim with stunning graphics. It may well be one of my favourite laptops ever. And the designers have really thought about how nasty the side of a typical laptop looks with all those different shaped ports and have come up with a cunning design of a single type of port, USB-C (see pic above) that can act as power in, USB, display adaptor, HDMI - whatever you need. Because the laptop is so slim you could only get one of these per side, but because they're so flexible, you'd be happy with the limit of just having two of them. But it only has one.

Just think about that. A single port for everything. Design bliss possibly (though for symmetry, there really ought to be one each side). But practical? Hardly. Okay, battery life is good, but who would willingly do a whole day's presentation from a laptop that can't be connected to the mains, because the only socket is being used to connect it to the projector? As it happens, Apple has that one covered. You have always had to have a special adaptor to connect a Mac's proprietary video port to the VGA or HDMI used by video projectors. So the new adaptor not only has a video out socket, but also a connector for the mains unit (and a USB socket). That's okay, although arguably this should come with the laptop, rather than being a £65 extra.

However, that's not the only problem. Far more people use USB sockets at the same time as the power than use projectors. They might need to swap information on and off a memory stick. They might be synchronising or charging a phone or iPod. They might want to pop on a USB mouse. Well, tough. If you want to do this, you will have to disconnect your mains supply, unless you spend £65 on one of those adaptors. If your laptop is low on charge - doubly tough. You will just have to wait to get those extremely urgent documents off that secure memory stick, because you will run out of battery if you disconnect the mains.

This can't be good. Just putting one socket either side - or providing a USB/mains adaptor with the laptop - would have made all the difference. But design has triumphed. In fact it has even robbed us of one of Apple's unique features. Anyone who has sat in a living room with four people all using laptops on mains cables will know the hazard they form. You either trip over a cable, or send a laptop flying off the sofa to crash to the floor as your foot gets wrapped in the wire. So for many years, Apple has a used a lovely 'MagSafe' connector that doesn't plug in, but is attached magnetically.   Get your foot caught in this cable and it detaches safely. But the new USB-C connector isn't magnetic. Lose-lose it seems.

When I get my hands on one of these it may still be one of my favourite laptops ever, and in the end I suspect I will overlook this flaw. But that doesn't stop it being a sad example of design over usability.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

The wonderful world of Ladybird art, science and technology

If you are of a certain age in the UK, you will have read Ladybird books as a child. The brand, owned now by Penguin/Random House, has been resurgent for some time, and there are plenty of the small format, large print books available.

I was inspired to write this post by the science and technology bit I'll come onto in a moment, but I must start with the art part, which combines the best subversive pastiche I've ever seen with some real David and Goliath action.

A couple of years ago, artist Miriam Elia produced a spoof Ladybird book called We Go to the Gallery. It has exactly the same format as a Ladybird reading scheme book, and used images from original book(s), but here the format is used to provide a wonderful and subversive take on modern art. Here's an example of the text for the page that has the same image as the cover of the book:

There is nothing in the room.

Peter is confused.

Jane is confused.

Mummy is happy.

'There is nothing in the room because God is dead,' says Mummy.

'Oh dear,' says Peter.

The book is absolutely brilliant and was immediately popular. Orders started to flood in and a first run was printed, but then Penguin muscled in with demands that the print run be pulped because of breach of copyright of the images Elia had used. The legal battle has rumbled on for some time, with Penguin consistently unable to produce any evidence that they had copyright in the images. Since changes to the law making spoofs and satires less open to legal change, and a change in Elia's design to make it a Dungbeetle Book instead, a new version is sale (you can only buy the books directly from Elia's website - well worth a look.

The science and technology side was brought to my attention by the excellent actor Roger Ashton-Griffiths in this BBC news story. It's quite a long one, but worth perusing. It's about the way that the Ladybird books have been updated from their original 1950s look and feel (both in terms of clothing, for instance, and of women's roles etc.) There's a rather endearing toyshop window illustration where you can still see the ghostly outlines of a badly Photoshopped out golliwog (in fact, I think it might be Tippexed out). But interestingly, where all the changes so far mention are positive, I think it's arguable that when you get to the science and technology bit, some of the changes they've made (or books they have simply dropped) are negative.

We can laugh at the way that their book on 'The Rocket' portrayed the future of space travel, or the ungainly 'mini computer control unit' in 'The Computer'. But what's really sad is that they show examples where children are investigating what's in a battery by pulling it to pieces, or starting a fire (to cook sausages) with a magnifying glass and the BBC writer comments that this would never be allowed today because of health and safety.

I think it's fair to say that most of the scientists I know of my kind of age did plenty of hairy experiments in their youth (in my case, mostly in chemistry, and often featuring bangs) and I genuinely believe that we ought to recognize the need for a little more risk taking in the development of our scientists of the future. I took batteries apart too - quite possibly inspired by a Ladybird book. And I'm glad I did.

To finish off, here's a little Channel 4 News video from March 2014 with more on the spoof Ladybird art book.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

A rank error

There's are two distinct shifts of focus when you become an author. First it's all about getting the book (or proposal if it's non-fiction) in a perfect state to send off to agents/publishers. Then it's all about getting someone to publish it. And once it's out there, it's about whether or not, and how much, it sells.

Now, you will get a few authors who genuinely say 'I don't care about sales. It's all about the art/achievement/fulfilling a lifelong goal.' But for most of us sales matter - and the more, the merrier. It can come as quite a surprise to a new author that sales are really quite opaque. Mostly publishers will only update you on sales in their twice-a-year (or even annual) royalty statement. Which is sent out typically four months after the end of the previous sales period. That's a long time to wait to find out how your baby is doing.

Clearly the publishers have access to much better information, but rarely do they give access to authors. The only exception I know of is Penguin Random House, which has an 'author portal' website which gives figures for both 'shipped' and 'sold' on a weekly basis, up to last week. (The difference between the two figures is a scary one, bearing in mind the book trade has the archaic system that stores take their books on a sale or return basis.) If other publishers have similar systems for their authors, please let me know.

Otherwise authors really only have one place to turn. Amazon. The behemoth of books has a magic number on the page of every book that has sold at least one copy called its 'bestsellers rank'. In one sense this is quite simple. A big number (potentially in the millions) means it's not selling much at all. Numbers get smaller when more are selling. So, for instance, if I nip to the page of a book I liked very much when I reviewed it, Lee Smolin's Time Reborn, which has been around since 2013, I see this:

The book's 'Bestsellers Rank' (previously called sales rank) is perfectly respectable 16,092. (You will also note that it is number 48 in Astronomy, which is odd (if typical) as it's not an astronomy book, but that's more use for boasting than monitoring sales.) And what an author can do is keep an eye on that bestsellers rank and see how it goes up and down to get a feel for sales. There's even an impressive free (if slightly fiddly) website called NovelRank, that monitors the number for you.

So, I suspect a number of authors felt the bottom had dropped out of their world when a Huff Post blog post announced that 'Your Amazon ranking has nothing to do with sales.' This post by Brooke Warner claimed that 'all your ranking means is that people are looking at your page.' This would be very depressing if true. But is it true? Warner gives no source for her assertion, although in answers to comments she refers to 'my Amazon source', so presumably has a contact who works there - but that doesn't mean she is right.

While no one can say definitively what goes on in Amazon's no doubt byzantine algorithm (or 'logarithm' as Ms Warner engagingly called it until she was corrected) there is strong evidence that it is primarily sales based. First, Amazon actually says it is. They say here, referring to the sub-categories, but then bringing in the main rank: 'As with the main Amazon Best Sellers list, these category rankings are based on Amazon.com sales and are updated hourly.' That's a pretty straight answer. And NovelRank's creator, Mario Lurig, who told me that Warner was 'wrong. Flat out.' has a useful page pulling apart various myths about the ranking - his conclusions may be based on small samples sometimes, but everything he says bears out the experience of regular sales watchers.

It's quite interesting to read the comments of Warner's post, as she becomes increasingly defensive, falling back on the statement that what she really meant was that the rank shows how well a book is selling 'in relation' to other titles. (And says she'll get Huff Post to correct her main text, which may have happened by the time you read this.) However, sadly, this just shows once more Warner's limited grasp of anything vaguely mathematical. Of course a ranking is relative to other titles - that's why it's a ranking, rather than an absolute sales figure. But it still should go up when you make sales, and then decay until your next sale.

The only proviso to this, which Lurig makes clear on his site, is that if you are lucky enough to get a ranking in 3 figures or lower, it won't go up for each sale, because at that kind of level, books are selling fast enough to have more than one per hour, and selling 20 in that hour, say, won't be much different in rank change from selling 21.

So, conclusion? Amazon Bestsellers rank is still the best guide authors have to sales, and when it goes up, you can be pretty sure you have made a sale. Here's my best ranking outside of Kindle (where there are fewer titles) to date. We can always hope for smaller...




Monday, 9 March 2015

Scientist, heal thyself

An interesting blog post was brought to my attention in something written by Sabine Hossenfelder, a physics professor who has a real passion for the better communication of science. 

She picked out a passage in the blog, commenting 'spot on':
Sciencey headlines are pre-packaged cultural tokens that can be shared and reshared without any investment in analysis or critical thought — as if they were sports scores or fashion photos or poetry quotes — to reinforce one’s aesthetic self-identification as a “science lover.” One’s actual interest doesn’t have to extend beyond the headline itself.
I must admit, I find that paragraph hard to understand, and while it may sound correct in isolation (if it means what I think it means), it doesn't work in the context of the rest of the text. The central thesis of the post is that scientists aren't making the outrageous claims. It's partly the fault of science journalists ('overblown science headlines are still a major aspect of the problem') and partly the fault of the ignorant unwashed general public ('many of your friends and relatives — and most likely, even you — are now implicated in this onslaught of misinformation').

However, in my experience, these contortions of the true picture of science largely originate with scientists and with university press offices - not the science journalism community or the public at large. I'm not saying science journalism isn't rife with misinformation that has come from the journalist (often not a science journalist but a health or lifestyle correspondent or similar) - but I'd suggest the biggest sources are back at the universities.

Let me give you two examples.

If I am writing about, say, the big bang, I always make sure I include the proviso that what I am covering is the current best-accepted theory given the data we have right now, but that the picture may change in the future. I have lost count of the number of scientists who write something like 'the universe began around 13.7 billion years ago...' and go onto describe the hot big bang with inflation model as if it were absolute fact.

And then there's the matter of light sabers. (I know it should be 'light sabres', but that's the way they spell it.) Here are some newspaper headlines from 2013: 'Star Wars lightsabers finally invented,' 'Scientists Finally Invent Real, Working Lightsabers,' and  'MIT, Harvard scientists accidentally create real-life lightsaber' were among the dramatic headlines. (I love that use of 'Finally' as if it is about time that those lazy scientists managed to get around to something so trivial.) Silly journalists. Now all the common unwashed people will think that light sabers really exist.

Is this what had happened in the lab? Nope. By using a Bose-Einstein condensate, the scientists had been able to create what they called 'light molecules' - pairs of photons that were temporarily linked together. Interesting, and possibly useful in photonics, but not a light saber by any stretch of the imagination. So how did those wacky science journalists come up with the imaginary light saber image? Did they just make it up? No. One of the scientists involved, Professor Mikhail Lukin of Harvard said: “It’s not an inapt analogy to compare this to light sabers.”

Perhaps, then, the answer is that scientists who like the media spotlight should think twice before coming out with such a remark. And then not do it. But to blame this kind of thing on science journalism (why should the journalist know more than the professor?) or the unwashed public (why shouldn't they find a headline like that worth repeating?) is simply wrong.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Happy Birthday, Phil!

Yes, it's birthday time today for old Phil Trans, or more properly Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the world's oldest continuously published scientific journal which is 350 years old today.

Back on 6 March 1665 (centre image), the first copies of this remarkable document appeared in London. Since then it has carried a whole range of mid boggling papers, including everything from Newton's breakthrough paper on light and colour in 1672 (left image), Benjamin Franklin's account of flying a kite in a storm (not performed personally it now seems) in 1752, Eddington's (rather dodgy) 'proof' of the general theory of relativity from eclipse observations in 1919, published in 1920, through to the present day.

What sadly it no longer includes are the more wacky topics that turned up in the past, from an account of a 'very odd monstrous calf' (by Robert Boyle in the first volume) and 'of a way of killing ratle-snakes (sic)' to an analysis of the young Mozart that somehow managed to deduce he really was a musical genius.

Those nice people at the Royal Society are celebrating by making all RS journals content free to access to the end of March (though to be fair, they ought to always be free to access). There are also special commemorative issues, films and more - take a look at the 'Publishing 350' site.

You can read more about the history of Philosophical Transactions, and download a 26 page ebook on it here.

If you want to read the very first issue, you can also do this, as all the historical editions of Transactions up to 1943 are available freely online here. Scroll down to the bottom to find volume 1.

Altogether now: Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday, dear Phil, Happy Birthday to you!

Teachers - go forth and demo!

When I talk to scientists who want to write a popular science book rather than a textbook, there are two connected differences I emphasize - narrative and drama. A textbook can be just a collection of facts, but that's anathema to the popular science audience. Narrative steals some of the tools of fiction, both on the small scale and in giving the book as a whole a narrative arc. And drama gives tension and excitement.

Some scientists and historians of science have always complained about the use of drama. 'It wasn't really like that,' they moan. 'It wasn't one person against the world, coming up with a great idea, it was a team effort, building incrementally on other's work.' Well, yes, to a point. But as long as you don't trample on facts, I think an element of drama is essential, and it can usually be found, even if it has to be given slightly more prominence than it really had.

When giving a talk about science, these two factors are equally important - and the opportunity for drama is so much greater, because it's not just in the information, it can be in the way the information is put across. At its most basic, it's about presentation style - not reading from notes in a monotone. But also there's the chance to the demonstrate. If you take a look at this video of my Dice World talk (don't worry, no need to watch it all!):



... the first thing I do is give away a free book. Not a conventional 'demonstration' but something active, rather than just talking. Then from 2:40 to to about 6 minutes I do a little demonstration involving flipping a coin. It doesn't contribute hugely to the information content of the talk, but from feedback, it's something the audience really appreciates. Later on, I get the audience standing up and partaking in an experiment, and when I finish with the Monty Hall problem, I don't just describe it, I run the gameshow. And it really helps.

So if you're a science teacher or technician, you've got something in your armoury that can easily add drama to lessons. Demonstrations aren't always used as much as they once were, partly because of the strictures of the curriculum and partly because of Health and Safety (my brother-in-law, a former head of chemistry did manage to get the building evacuated with one of his better demonstrations). But we forget demonstrations at our peril.

Those nice people at British Science Week have come up with a cunning plan to get more demonstrations happening. They want to make the Thursday of Science Week (19 March) 'Demo Day' when you can pledge to make a demo in return for a prize draw that includes a wifi microscope - can't be bad! And they've got some excellent video resources giving demonstration ideas (don't just show the video, that misses the point). Why not pop over to the Demo Day web page and take a look.

I'll just finish of with a video they made last year called Demo Day, The Movie:



Thursday, 5 March 2015

Quantum quackery

One reaction to my writing The Quantum Age is that the number of emails I receive based on a sort of 'quantum mysticism' has doubled. This is where the jargon of quantum theory is applied recklessly, without any of the background science, to imply that something strange and wonderful can happen... because it's 'quantum'.

 I recently had this article on the website of the 'Committee for Skeptical Inquiry' with the same name as my current post brought to my attention. It is rather dated, as it was written 17 years ago, but much of it holds up. A lot of blame is laid at the door of Fritjof Capra's popular book, The Tao of Physics, which draws parallels with aspects of quantum theory and Eastern mysticism (though to be fair to Capra, he doesn't the extra step, made by many New Agers, of going from parallels to assumed causality).

The author of the CSI piece, Victor Stenger, is very blunt in his dismissal of anything mystical, if not mysterious, about quantum theory. He was a physics professor, but the view he gives in this article is not 100% what I'd regard as mainstream physics. He is so enthusiastic to get rid of any possible weirdness that he plays down some aspects. This comes across particularly strongly when he merges the concepts of quantum entanglement and wave function collapse. He says, for instance, that Einstein called wave function  collapse 'spooky action at a distance', but that was a reference to quantum entanglement, a phenomenon that does indeed allow the kind of instant communication at a distance that Stenger is at such efforts to dismiss, although admittedly it is a not a mechanism that allows the communication of non-random information, as there is no way of controlling what is 'transmitted'.

Stenger also seems to dismiss the Feynman path integral approach, commenting that quantum behaviour can be understood 'without discarding the commonsense [sic] notion of particles following definite paths in space and time.'

What we have here, I think, is almost an inverse of Capra. Just as Capra could sometimes be a bit loose with making something of parallels that didn't mean anything, Stenger is so determined to show that quantum physics really isn't strange but is 'common sense' that he overplays the idea that quantum theory is really just good old classical physics with a few bells and whistles.

However much I find the Stenger piece irritating, though, there is no doubt (as often seems to be the case with skeptics with a 'k') he is doing the wrong thing for the right reason. Because there are plenty of people trying to deceive others by claiming all sorts of quantum holistic hogwash. Just because something has a probabilistic component, and seems weird to common sense, as quantum theory certainly does, it does not follow that everything weird is valid. There is no scientific basis for using quantum theory to justify magic.

We know that there are some quantum effects in biology - and it's just possible, despite Stenger's firm denial, that quantum physics plays a role in human consciousness (though it's relatively unlikely, as quantum effects dislike warm and wet conditions). But there is no firm evidence to date for quantum physics underlying strange psychic abilities or medical magic. Unlike a skeptic with a k, I don't dismiss these possibilities out of hand - there is slight, though certainly not definitive, evidence for at least one aspect of ESP (see my Extra Sensory). But even if such abilities were definitively proven, there is no basis as yet for saying that quantum physics has any role to play. And its relevance certainly can't be deduced from any mystical mumbo jumbo.

So, unless it's used in a scientific context*, beware 'quantum' like the plague.

* With the exception of uses where it is not intended to portray weird mysticism, such as the Bond film Quantum of Solace, or Finish Quantum dishwasher tablets, which actually work quite well.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

No, I don't want a super car experience, thank you

Every now and then I get a semi-spam email (i.e. something I probably accidentally signed up to receive, but never really wanted) offering me the opportunity to buy cut-price 'treats', like a super car experience. I know some people love this kind of thing, but I just don't get it.

I've got three problems with the whole 'super car experience' thing. (If your mind is heading back to the early Gerry Anderson series, illustrated here, which I loved as a boy - our Ford Anglia was excellent for playing Supercar, as the heater controls made an excellent substitute for the throttles, and it even had little wings on the tail - I am not referring to Supercar, but rather an 'experience' day where you get to drive something like a Ferrari or an Aston Martin.)

My first issue is that I wouldn't actually want one of these cars as they are incredibly impractical (anyone remember the Top Gear where they tried to get 3 out of an underground car park in Paris?), ludicrously expensive and make a silly noise. I've never understood the appeal of the sort of noise boy racers try to imitate by having a dustbin in place of an exhaust pipe on their Ford Fiesta. It sounds loud, nasty and industrial. My favourite car noise is an electric car - but that's a different story.

The second problem is that they wouldn't just give you the keys and say 'Have fun,' they would expect you to drive it around a track, with experts looking on and sniggering at your inability to 'take the correct line' or brake at the sweet spot, or G spot or whatever it is. I did once accidentally go to a track day, and quite enjoyed being driven around by an expert (scary though it was), but there was no way I was going to do it myself, in front of others.

Most importantly, though, if I did have a drive in a super car (and if I did, it would be an Aston Martin, no question), it would have to be my own. I don't understand the envy-driven gratuitous excitement of having a go at something you can't actually have. It's a phenomenon that's quite closely related to pornography, perhaps most closely in those house porn 'Escape to the Country' style house programmes where people who are selling a 3 bed semi in London look round 10 bathroom mansions in the country, which normal people could never afford, so they watch the programme to drool instead. It's one of the nastiest aspects of capitalism.

So there you have it. Super car experiences are for those whose existence is unsatisfactory. Get, as they say, a life.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Making experiments (some on your own brain) come to life

There has been a significant amount of noise on Twitter and elsewhere about 'The Dress', the phenomenon of a photograph of a dress which it is claimed that some people see as black and blue, and others as white and gold. My suspicion is that this is a hoax - a very nice piece of PR.

The reason I am suspicious is that I've seen pictures on different sites where I see it as each of the colours (and the pictures are different at the RGB level)*. But if it were genuine, it would simply be demonstrating how false the image of the world we think we see through our eyes really is.

This was one of the points I wanted to demonstrate when writing The Universe Inside You. In its predecessor, Inflight Science, I included a series of science experiments that the reader could do on a plane. It was a bit harder to do something similar with TUIY, where I wanted to show things from optical illusions, with a reveal of what was happening, to demonstrations of a Crookes radiometer and the early 'artificial intelligence' program ELIZA.

In the end I put together a website to accompany the book which has the experiments on it, often as videos. When 'The Dress' came up, I immediately thought of a couple of the demonstrations on there - the experiments include both an optical and an auditory illusion. So if you want to do a little experimenting with the universe (and your brain), take a look at the Universe Inside You website.

*ADDED: HT to Stuart Cantrill for pointing out that some people see the same image differently at different times, and that two people looking at the same image at the same time can get different results - so it isn't all a hoax. But there certainly are many mocked up versions in the Twittersphere etc. which definitely are fixed.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Lost and found in translation

I was reminded at the weekend of the apparent translating boo-boo that resulted in Cinderella's very impractical glass slippers. Allegedly, in the original French, she had slippers that were 'vair' - made very sensibly (if you don't belong to PETA) of fur. However, the translator was clearly having a bad day, and just as I tend to merrily type 'there' instead of 'their' when I'm tired, he or she read this as the similar sounding 'verre' - meaning glass. (Sadly, according to Snopes, this is unlikely to be true - HT to Matthew Surnameunknown for pointing this out. I still suspect there was something in it, though.)

So far, so amusing. But then it made me think of my books.

My various titles have been translated into a good few languages, and for all I know they could be replete with interesting changes of meaning. Of course they were translated by good, professional translators, but even so slip-ups can occur.

As it happens I know this for certain, by taking a quick look at my biography in the German translation of 'Instant Egghead Guide to Physics', which becomes 'Physik für Eierköpfe'.


I'm not sure where they got it from, as there isn't a biography in the English version, but if you take a look at this snippet from my website, you don't need to be a German speaker to spot what's wrong in the first line of the German version:


I know that's more a transcription error than a translation problem - an error that could occur even in an English version, but at least with English texts I see the proofs and can correct them. 

There are now rather a lot of translations out there, as the picture below indicates, with a good few more in production as we speak. With most, frankly, I haven't a clue, and my rusty school French and German would be little help in attempting to spot any errors even in those relatively familiar languages.

So what is the moral of all this? There may be errors, but there's not a lot I can do about them (unless an eagle-eyed reader sends me an email). That being the case, it's best not to say anything. After all, it is best not to be rude to a translator. They have an important job to do - and I don't want the literary equivalent of an insulted waiter spitting in a  customer's soup.