Monday, 24 April 2017

Come back C. P. Snow

I rarely see the Daily Telegraph, but at the weekend I was at the house of someone who takes it. I couldn't help become a little incensed at an opinion piece by someone called Christopher Booker, bemoaning the 'dumbing up' of University Challenge. Given the proximity to the world marches for science, I couldn't help comment on the piece.

Famously, C. P. Snow once made a big thing of the 'two cultures' of the arts and sciences, pointing out that people from the arts side expected a well-educated person to have a good knowledge of the arts, but themselves expressed a kind of smug satisfaction in their ignorance of the sciences.

I could be wrong, but it's difficult not to read Booker's use of 'particularly' as essentially saying 'I expect everyone to have a good knowledge of the arts, but having a good knowledge of the sciences is for specialist weirdos.' The reality is that the science questions are no more specialist than the arts ones - but they might appear to be if you have the kind of prejudice that Snow identified.

In the last decade or two it has occasionally been put about that Snow's assessment no longer applies, but it seems it's alive and well, at least in the pages of the Telegraph.

Friday, 21 April 2017

How far can you see with the naked eye?

My quiz books How Many Moons Does the Earth Have? and What Colour is the Sun? are all about asking science questions with interesting or intriguing answers, so I was delighted when a reader, Simon Bartlett, asked about how realistic one of my answers was.

The question here (from How Many Moons) was 'What is the furthest you can see with the naked eye?' The traditional answer to this is to point out that you can see at least 21 miles (33 kilometres) across the English channel, and it's said that you can see a candle on a truly dark night about 10 miles (16 kilometres) away. However, I wanted to challenge this by pointing out that you can see the Andromeda galaxy with the naked eye (assuming a dark night and good eyesight), and that's around 2.5 million light years. So, bearing in mind this is usually the standard marker for maximum distance naked eye astronomy, I plumped for that. However, Simon felt this should be considered a bit further:
In answering the question 'What is the furthest you can see with the naked eye?', [don't] you answer address a different question, namely 'How far away is the furthest object I can see with my naked eye?' An object brighter in the visible spectrum but further away could still be visible, so I would suggest that the furthest the naked eye can see is limited by two things, neither of which I actually know - how bright is the brightest object visible in wavelengths we can see, and how far away would it have to be to be red-shifted in order to make it no longer visible? 
In reality neither of these questions I am supposed to have addressed is ideal. The figure I give for the Andromeda galaxy is a good default maximum as it’s the most distant object you can see with the naked eye under normal conditions - and that, in effect, delivers the furthest you can see. However, in extraordinary circumstances - when a big enough supernova is at its brightest, for example - you could see further still. Even then, though, there is going to be a limit to the range, as the power drops off with the square of the distance away, so you would need an exponential increase in brightness for an object to still be visible. The brightest known supernova to date, ASASSN–15lh (now possibly not a supernova at all) is described as having about 20 times the output of the Milky Way - which for our purposes will do as an order of magnitude comparison with the brightness of the Andromeda galaxy. This means you could push back the distance by a factor of around 4.5 and still see an object of this brightness with the naked eye - so we’re talking about maybe 11 million light years. There are brighter things than supernovas, notably quasars, but a lot of their output does not reach us in the visible spectrum - and they are also immensely distant, so they aren’t going to be seen with the naked eye. The brightest detected quasar, 3C273 is surprisingly bright given it's about 2 billion light years away, but would apparently need an 8 inch telescope to see it - not exactly naked eye stuff.

So my answer certainly wasn't wrong - it still makes sense as one answer to a 'most distant naked eye sighting' - but there's more to be got from that question.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Gender neutral titles miss the point

According to news reports, the bank HSBC will allow customers to choose from a whole range of gender neutral titles such as Mx, Ind, M, Mre, and Misc. Some may moan about political correctness gone mad - I would argue it doesn't go any where near far enough. Why do we need to give organisations our 'title' at all?

As far as I can see the only point of using a title is to establish your place in a feudal society - they really should have no place today. Whenever I fill in an online form I leave the title box untouched - yet all too often, the organisation makes it a non-optional selection. I don't want them to label me. It really irritates me, for example, when the programme for an event calls me Mr Brian Clegg. I'm not Mr Brian Clegg. I am Brian Clegg. And why someone who is, say, having a one-off online relationship with me should need a title is baffling.

Some of you may be thinking, 'Ah, but if you don't give a title, they can't write to you formally.' But why do we need a title for that? If you want to write to me informally, put 'Dear Brian' (or in an email etc. just put Hi or Hello - that will do just fine). If you want to be formal put 'Dear Brian Clegg'. That's my formal name.

Not only does dropping the title do away with the feudal system (no longer emphasising that I am not Sir Brian or Lord Clegg), it is automatically as gender neutral as my name allows, which surely is as much as anyone can ask. If you want a totally gender neutral name, then it's simple enough - you can change it by deed poll, either with registration for £36 or for free if you don't want registration (see the government's site). Or just give the initial of your first name as your first name. Either way, doing away with the title strips away the label that you have a particular gender.

Please don't complicate our lives with more titles, HSBC. Get rid of them altogether and then you really will have made a step forward.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

What Reality Frame?

I'm delighted to say that my latest book, The Reality Frame is now available as a truly lovely hardback and ebook - the cover picture really doesn't do it justice.

I suppose the obvious question is 'What Reality Frame?' The book is about relativity and frames of reference - effectively the way we look at things/the position we look at them from.

It looks at how we've moved from very absolutist views to making much more use of relativity in science, and to do this, I use what I hope is a fun and novel approach of building a toy universe from scratch, adding in various properties to see what part relativity has to play.

Unlike your standard physics book, I don't stop with an inanimate universe, but go on to add life and creativity. This is partly because frames of reference are hugely important in these cases too. But also because, in the process, I wanted to help establish humanity's place in the universe.

We have a tendency to do ourselves down, pointing out how small and insignificant we are in a vast universe. But that doesn't take in the wide span of human achievement. In this I'm hoping to reflect the wonderful Ascent of Man series/book by Jacob Bronowski.

Please take a look at the book's web page to find out more.


Friday, 7 April 2017

Avant garde should encourage rebellion

The term 'avant garde' (literally something like 'vanguard' or 'advanced guard', implying being ahead of the pack and outside of the usual boundaries) is one that is proudly adopted by some art. And I think that's fine - but I also think that the artists in question need to expect that their audiences may abandon the reverence that is usually adopted by the audience for traditional art.

Image from Wikipedia
This occurred to me when a friend was describing attending a play at Bristol's fairly avant garde Old Vic Theatre. Apparently the performance was of a Samuel Beckett radio play, and as Beckett had specified it should never be staged, they told the audience that they had to wear blindfolds. Thinking about this, I realised that my immediate reaction, had I been in the audience, would have been to have cheated and taken the blindfold off once they got started. Because once you break the rules as an artist, why should your audience be forced to stick to the rules? It seemed to me that it was just as acceptable for me as an audience member - as art, if you like - to take off my blindfold as it was for the performers and/or the late Mr Beckett to insist that I wear it.

As I wasn't there, I don't know how the artists would have reacted. I do know that on other occasions when the audience has not behaved as expected, the answer has been 'not very well.' This was certainly the case in one of the early performances of one of Stockhausen's more approachable pieces, Stimmung. In the piece, lasting about an hour, a cappella performers sing a single chord. However, it is a genuinely interesting piece because they vary how they sing the notes throughout - using different octaves, sounds and words, tones - I really rather like it. At the performance in question, the audience members started to join in, singing in their own notes in the chord. Now, to me, that's brilliant. But apparently those involved (I can't remember if it was Stockhausen himself or just the performers) were furious and stopped the performance.

As I quite regularly go to Bristol, I'd also say the same goes for those who add things to Banksy paintings. The whole concept of painting on walls is breaking the rules - so you can hardly complain when someone else does the same thing. In some cases where a Banksy has been 'defaced' I think the result is an improvement. In others it's borderline. The image shown here has according to Wikipedia been 'defaced with blue paint'. Actually the 'defacing' is quite effective as it looks as if someone has shot at the people with a paint gun, which itself could be interpreted artistically (in fact, I didn't know it was 'defaced' until I looked it up). Admittedly if all someone does is scrawl a tag over it, it's not a great contribution. But even so, I'm not sure we have any right to complain. If someone does it to a conventional piece of art in a gallery, that is totally unacceptable. But if you really want to be avant garde, then you should go with the flow when it comes to others contributing. Get antsy about it, and it shows that underneath you are still very conventional.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Time to end April fool news

Last Saturday saw the usual spate of 'April fool' spoof news stories - but I think it's time this practice stopped.

In the early days, these stories were delightful. I remember seeing a re-run of the Panorama spaghetti harvest film as a child (probably on its 10th anniversary) and loved it. At university, I read with glee the Guardian's superb San Seriffe feature with all the wonderful detail of this supposed travelling island nation. However, I'd say the news reporting world has changed in two ways that make the whole business not so funny - and when we get flooded with these stories, many of them lack the originality and sheer madness of these early attempts.

The first change is the rise of comedy news sources like The Onion and The Daily Mash. They churn out several such stories a day - we really don't need extra ones on April 1. And then there's the rise of post-truth, fake news reporting. And that brings it home that it's not acceptable for a proper news outlet to lie to us just because they think it's funny to do so. To take a trivial example, my favourite newspaper, the i, ran a story that Southern Rail was going to start standing-only carriages to pack more people in. I simply took that as fact - it wasn't silly enough to do its job. As it happened I saw the 'retraction' on the following Monday, but if I hadn't, it would have become fake news for me - and 'Bur we were just being funny, not lying' isn't a good enough reason for doing that to your audience.

So let's give it a miss next year. Please? Yes, fine, I don't mind the occasional, large scale extravaganza like the spaghetti harvest or San Seriffe. But stop with the barrage of silly little stories that could all too easily be true.

If you've never seen the spaghetti harvest, this mini-documentary shows the original material and fills in some of the context of it being put together. It's only 4 minutes and well worth enjoying:






Monday, 3 April 2017

Amazon Echo review

For several months now I have had Amazon's Echo devices, with the Alexa voice-operated assistant in the house. To test their effectiveness, I have the two main Echo variants - Echo and Echo Dot, plus a small Phillips Hue smart lighting system to see how the Echoes interact with home automation. I'll take each separately, starting with the full size Echo.

Amazon Echo

The Echo looks like a wireless speaker until you use the trigger word 'Alexa', at which point a funky blue glowing ring appears on top to indicate it is listening (the glow even attempts to point towards your voice). The Echo can cope with a vast number of 'skills' - responses to voice commands - from playing music to ordering an Uber taxi. Some of the skills are excellent, though I think it's fair to say that 95% of them are either too local to somewhere in America or too pointless to be of any use.

Our most frequent use of the full-size Echo is playing music and radio. We opted for access to Amazon's full 50 million+ music library just on the one device, which costs a reasonable £3.99 a month. This is excellent whether you want to listen to some new release, select a playlist or dig out a prog rock classic. As I demonstrate in the video at the end of the review, it's not so good with classical music, where it struggles with the idea of something being 'by' a composer (as opposed to a performer), doesn't like non-English titles and is too song-oriented to easily select long pieces. There is a way round it - you can set up a playlist on your computer with anything you like in it, then the Echo will play it. There's also easy access to internet radio - say 'Play BBC Radio 4' and you're away.

It might seem trivial, but the hands-free manipulation of music and radio (especially if you're cooking) is very effective. Outside of these uses, our main other ways of employing the Echo is as an information source or for home automation. (No need to Shazam an unfamiliar piece playing from its library, by the way - just ask Alexa who it is and she gives the details.) Among Alexa's talents are being able to read the opening of a Wikipedia entry, giving a local weather forecast, converting Fahrenheit to Celsius (useful if you have a US recipe) and more. She'll also tell you a (bad) joke or respond wittily to some queries. We also use Alexa to set timers, which again is great in the kitchen.

To test home automation, we've tied the Echo in to the Phillips Hue lighting in the utility room next to the kitchen where the Echo is located. It works fine - you can ask Alexa to turn the light on, off or to a desired level. But it's only really an advantage when you're not near the light (you can control Alexa from the opposite end of the kitchen). Otherwise it feels a lot more work than just pressing a switch. Also, Alexa insists on saying 'Okay' when she's done the automation task, which becomes irritating.

Of the other skills that felt like they might be useful, most are just too restricted to be useful. So, for example, I can check the trains on my usual route or the traffic on my usual journey... but I don't commute, so I don't have a usual route. I can order the last thing I ordered from Just Eat... but I can't remember what it was, and usually tweak the order. I can get an Uber... but we don't have Uber here. I can ask Jamie Oliver for a recipe... but not for a specific meal - I have to choose, say, a chicken dish and then hear what's on offer and choose one. Alexa can add items to a to-do list, shopping list or a Google Calendar, but this is quite messy in practice (she can't delete items, for instance) and I don't find I use this at all.

For me the main Echo is worth it as a hands free music and radio speaker, with a bit of info retrieval thrown in. The sound quality is fine for kitchen listening. A definite plus.

The Echo is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com

Amazon Echo Dot

The Dot looks like the top cut off the full size Echo and is extremely good value for what it does. In effect it has the same capabilities as the main Echo, but only a tiny speaker, so it's no better for playing music than a mobile phone. We tested ours in the living room where this limitation isn't too much of a problem, as you can ask the Dot to pair with a Bluetooth speaker (in our case, a TV sound bar) and play through that (once you've set it up, it's simply a matter of saying 'Alexa Connect'), which then produces excellent sound.

In practice, we've found this Echo far less useful. We tend not to play music or listen to the radio in the living room much, so our use is limited to the occasional information request and automation. This is more useful than the single bulb in the utility room, as Alexa is in charge of two table lamps which she can turn on/off together or separately and it is easier to use the automation than going from table to table.

One disadvantage here is that Alexa is quite often fooled by the TV. Several times a week she will leap in, trying to answer a question she thinks the TV has asked her. The first times this happen are decidedly spooky... then it just becomes irritating. Still - it is incredible value for what it does.

The Echo Dot is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com

Phillips Hue

Although not part of the Echo system, I ought to say a few words about Hue in its own right. This consists of a central controller linked to you wifi and individual bulbs that are also linked, meaning you can control those bulbs from a smartphone app. The system works well with Echo, but also has some great features standalone. From my phone, I can control the light bulbs in the system, switching any of them on and off or dimming them with a slider. (If I had fancy coloured bulbs, I could also do colours, but I stuck to white.)

By default you can only do this within the house, but if you register with Hue's system, you can also do it remotely via the internet. I find the best part of this extended facility is that it can detect when you are coming home and it's after dusk and will automatically switch selected lights on - so you never come home to a dark house.

We have also installed a Hue wall switch in the utility room, which gives on/off and fade controls for that light. The Hue bulbs we have in table lights are easier to control via the app or an Amazon Echo than manually, but the single bulb in the utility room often seemed harder to deal with that way, so now we have the option to do this manually, without disabling the remote control, which would happen if we used the wall switch.

I don't think I'd ever extend it to the whole house - but it's excellent having this available in our test rooms.

Hue is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com

Is it for me?

I wouldn't get rid of our home automation, and would happily extend it to include, for example, a smart thermostat. We love our main Echo as a music player/hands free radio, but a lot of the extra 'skills' seem more for show than practical purposes. So it's restrained enthusiasm all round.

Here's that video again, attempting to get Alexa to play Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht: