Archive for June, 2009

Summer Science

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on June 29, 2009 by telescoper

Just time for a very quick post today, owing to the hectic nature of the past (and future) few days.

Yesterday (Sunday) morning, I clambered on board a large van full of expensive and bulky gear and we lumbered away from Cardiff, down the M4 and all the way to London. The reason is the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, which involves various research groups setting up exhibits and demonstrating their wares to the general public in the splendid environs of the Royal Society building in Carlton House Terrace, just off Pall Mall.

Yesterday and today we’ve been setting up our exhibit, which is about Herschel and Planck  (both of which are still working perfectly, in case you wanted to ask). Unloading the van in the sweltering heat yesterday wasn’t that much fun but everyone was very helpful and we got through it.  We had temporary flooring to put down, lots of rigging and large flat monitors needed to be hoisted on to gantries. I felt a bit like a sort of up-market roadie. Most of the heavy work was done yesterday, though, and we spent today putting the computers and other electronic exhibits together and generally making it all work. I chipped in as best I could, despite my legendary incompetence with practical things. They didn’t really let me near anything really valuable anyway.

By about 2pm today we had finished, and I have to say it looks very impressive. Credit to Chris North, and the others who spent ages designing it and organizing the logistics of what is a very complicated exhibit. There are scale models of Planck and Herschel, and a full-size model of the instrument SPIRE which is on Herschel and which was designed and built by the Cardiff team. The complexity of the optical system is quite amazing. Incidentally, I heard a rumour that some test images from SPIRE are going to be released soon.. I hear they’re stunning. Watch this space.

As well as these other bits there’s an infrared camera attached to a monitor to show your hot bits, and another monitor with a wii attachment so you can see anywhere on the sky at any wavelength you wish. There are also two touch-screen displays that can take visitors through the science and technology behind these two wonderful  satellites.  It’s all very interactive, and I think it’s going to be a hit for the hands-on visitors.

To back this all up, we’ve also got mountains of leaflets, mugs, pens and other assorted memorabilia. I think they’ve overestimated how much of this stuff we can dispense in a week, but I’m sure it will come in handy in the future anyway.

An extensive rota has been organized to set the exhibit up and  keep it staffed. I had an all-day shift yesterday and was signed up for 8-3 today. Since we actually got everything done a bit early, however, I was given permission to leave. At 3pm today there was a “press preview” of the exhibition which I could’t stay for, so I figured I might as well leave before the reptiles started to arrive.

I’ll be on the stand tomorrow, trying to be nice to the public, and back again on Wednesday doing the same. The shifts are only 4 hours at a go, which is good because it’s quite tiring keeping up the enthusiasm. It’s also forecast to be extremely hot on the weather front which is another reason to keep the shifts short. I was longing for a beer by the time I finished yesterday.

I’ve also been invited to a “soirée” on Wednesday evening, which is a swanky black tie function at which sundry VIPs view the exhibits and chat with the exhibitors over champagne and canapés. ‘m quite looking forward to the chance to indulge myself and hang out with the big nobs, but I can’t say I’m looking forward to wearing the penguin suit when it’s 30C. Still, as long as the champagne is chilled I’m sure I’ll survive.

Toodle pip.


Posted in Bute Park with tags , , , on June 27, 2009 by telescoper

Well, that’s something you don’t see every day!

I was sitting in the garden just now, doing the crossword, when I heard the unmistakeable sound of a World War II fighter aircraft flying overhead. I looked up and there it was, right over my house. A Spitfire no less. The outline was instantly recognisable, especially because it was flying so low, on account of its curious elliptical wing shape. It was also low enough for the extraordinary roar of the Rolls Royce engine powering this exceptional aircraft to shake the windows in my house!

I once had the chance to sit in the cockpit of a Spitfire, in an aircraft museum, not one that was flying! The thing that struck me most was how very small and cramped it was, and I’m not particularly tall (although I’m a bit wider than I used to be).

It turns out that the appearance of this aircraft in the skies over Cardiff was related to an event called Armed Forces Day which is happening in Bute Park, just a matter of yards from my house.

Seeing the plane reminded me of the 60th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Britain in 2000 during which the newspapers reprinted contemporary accounts of the summer of 1940 during which Britain stood alone, and on the brink of the abyss. The thing that struck me most about the heroic pilots who saved this country from invasion was that they were all so young. The same age, in fact, as the students I teach. I wonder how many of todays 18-20s really understand the scale of the sacrifices made by the corresponding generation of 1940?

I had a friend – now long dead – who served in the RAF during the Battle of Britain and I once asked him about the tactics they used. He explained that they didn’t really have any tactics. When scrambled they were usually lucky if they managed to get to the right altitude before the enemy were on them. And if they did they just flew straight at them and tried to shoot them down. There was little point in attacking a big formation from behind with a handful of planes, which was the usual situation. You might pick off one or two but the bombers would carry on to their target. You had to attack from the front in order to scatter them. He added that on a good day, if you were feeling exceptionally brave, you might even keep your eyes open as you screamed into them at getting on for 400 mph.

The other thing that this event reminded me of was the film Battle of Britain. The movie is a bit dated now, largely because some of the special effects don’t really stand up to modern comparisons: no cgi when it was made, for example. The best thing about it for me, though, is the wonderful music written for the film by William Walton, especially in the following sequence where the dogfights are shown with only the music as soundtrack. This turns the shots of terrifying close-range combat into a something a lot more than an action movie. In fact, this is a real piece of art.

The context of this sequence is, as far as I know, historically accurate. Over the summer of 1940 the Luftwaffe had sent raid after raid over to attack Britain, these raids increasing in size as time went on. Hugh Dowding, Head of Fighter Command at that time, refused to let his planes be drawn into a huge battle against numerically superior forces and instead kept most of his planes in reserve, sending up only a squadron or half a squadron to meet the incoming planes. Thanks to the breaking of the German Air Force Enigma code, Dowding knew that the Luftwaffe pilots had been handing in grossly exaggerated reports of how many planes they had been shooting down. Convinced that the RAF was on the brink of collapse, the Germans launched an enormous air raid on September 15th 1940 intended to deliver the knockout blow and prepare the way for invasion.

Dowding knew that they were coming, and put every available plane at the RAFs disposal into the air. He staked everything on this battle. There were no reserves. When the Luftwaffe arrived over Britain they found the air filled with Spitfires and Hurricanes whose pilots, having been consistently outnumbered in the battles so far, relished the chance to fight for once with something close to numerical equality with the enemy. The RAF scored a decisive victory, convincing Hitler to abandon his plans for an invasion in 1940.

Simon Singh and the “Bogus” Issue

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on June 25, 2009 by telescoper

This is an issue that I’ve been meaning to comment about for some time, but hadn’t done so because I really didn’t have a clear view on what opinion to express! I’ve now decided to chip in precisely for that reason, i.e. because I don’t think the matter is as clear as others appear to think.

The story will be familiar to many readers of the blog, so I’ll only give a quick recap of the salient points. Simon Singh is a popular science writer – a very good one, in fact – who recently  co-authored a book on alternative medicine called Trick or Treatment? with Professor Edzard Ernst of Exeter University. In that book they produced evidence showing that many “alternative” medical therapies including homeopathy, acupuncture and chiropractice  were, in fact, useless for the control of many conditions for which they are prescribed by the relevant specialists. Subsequent to the publication of this book, Singh wrote a piece in the Comment pages of the Guardian newspaper in which he specifically criticised the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) for claiming that its members could use spinal manipulation to treat children with colic, ear infections, asthma, sleeping and feeding conditions, and prolonged crying. Singh described these treatments as “bogus” and criticised the  BCA for “happily promoting” them.

The BCA decided to sue Simon Singh for libel. The Guardian removed the article from its web pages and encouraged Singh to settle out of court, offering to pay his legal expenses if he agreed to do so. He refused and decided to defend the libel action in court. At a preliminary hearing in May, the Judge, Mr Justice Eady,  ruled that the wording used by Singh implied that the BCA was being consciously dishonest. Singh has denied that he intended any such meaning.

This ruling – which is currently under appeal – effectively means that Singh has to prove that the BCA are consciously dishonest in order to win the libel case. That looks like a very tall order. He also has to pay the costs of the preliminary hearing, which amount to £23,000. If the matter goes to a full trial then he will be out of pocket to a much greater extent than this: a conservative estimate is that his legal costs alone will exceed £100,000, and there will be damages to pay on top of that.

This has become something of a cause célèbre owing, it is alleged, to the intrusion of the courts into matters of scientific debate. The organization Sense About Science has organized a petition (“to keep libel laws out of science”) which has attracted over 10,000 signatures. The issue that signatories are worried about is that the open cut-and-thrust of rational scientific debate will be stifled if a precedent is set that involves one party taking another to court. As they put it

Freedom to criticise and question in strong terms and without malice is the cornerstone of scientific argument and debate, whether in peer-reviewed journals, on websites or in newspapers, which have a right of reply for complainants. However, the libel laws and cases such as BCA v Singh have a chilling effect, which deters scientists, journalists and science writers from engaging in important disputes about the evidential base supporting products and practices. The libel laws discourage argument and debate and merely encourage the use of the courts to silence critics.

The case has also revived calls to reform Britain’s  laws on defamation, which make the defence of a libel action in the UK very difficult from a legal perspective compared to other jurisdictions because, roughly speaking, they place the burden of proof on the defendant not the plaintiff. It is also so expensive to pursue such an action through the courts that the system clearly favours the rich and powerful versus ordinary citizens.

The ruling by Sir David Eady has been singled out for disapproval in the print media and across the blogosphere as an example of how  British law stifles free speech.

So why am I unclear about this? Shouldn’t we keep libel laws out of science? Doesn’t the British law of libel need changing?

Of course I say “yes” to both of those. But it seems to me that the Simon Singh case isn’t really about those questions.

For a start, there is no way that you can regard a Comment article in a national newspaper as the proper place for scientific debate between qualified specialists. Such arguments can and do take place at scientific conferences, seminars and through the pages of learned journals. Simon Singh was not participating in this process when he wrote his article. He was doing something quite different: publicising his book.

Secondly, it is true that Simon Singh is a qualified scientist. He has a PhD in particle physics, in fact. But that does not in itself qualify him as competent to pronounce on issues relating to medical practice. I wouldn’t want to stop anyone stating their opinion about things that they’re interested in. It’s just that he doesn’t get a special ticket because he happened to get a science PhD. My point is that his article was not part of the cut-and-thrust of informed scientific debate between experts, merely an individual commenting on something. The fact that he’s a scientist should not give him a blanket exemption from having to obey the laws that apply to others, especially when he is talking about things outside his speciality. It’s also worth stating here that if what he’d said had clearly just been an opinion it would not have been subject to a libel case. The problem is that it appears to be a statement of fact from an authority on the matter.

Third, note that the original book – which is a proper scientific work in which arguments are presented with accompanying evidence – is not the subject of the libel action, just the newspaper article. The BCA is not using the libel laws to suppress or contest scientific evidence.

Now we come to the crux. Does Mr Justice Eady’s ruling really “defy logic” as many commentators have alleged? What does the word “bogus” actually mean? It seems sensible to turn to an authoritative source, the Oxford English Dictionary. Doing so, I find that the word “bogus” is actually of American origin. The first usage found in the OED is from 1827 where it appears as a noun, meaning “an apparatus used for making counterfeit coins”. Later on it is found as an adjective, with current meanings

Counterfeit, spurious, fictitious, sham: ‘originally applied to counterfeit coin’ (Webster).

It seems to me that since the preliminary hearing was specifically intended to give a ruling on the meaning of the words that had been used in the allegedly libellous document, Mr Justic Eady actually had no choice at all in deciding that the word meant what it did. Clearly “counterfeit” implies a deliberate misrepresentation. Effectively the ruling means that Singh’s words mean that the BCA are no better than Snake Oil salesmen, a defamatory statement if ever I heard one.

Singh has claimed that this was not what he meant by “bogus” and what he intended was something more like “unproved” but I don’t see how it can be an acceptable defence to claim that one’s words mean what you think and not what everyone else thinks. It didn’t work for Humpty Dumpty and it won’t work for Simon Singh. If I write that “Jones the Dentist is incompetent” then that will be libelous (if untrue) even if I later claim I thought that the word incompetent meant something different to what it everyone else thinks.

Truth is of course an acceptable defence against libel, but the “truth” at issue has now become not whether chiropractice is effective or ineffective (a scientific issue) but whether chiropractioners are consciously fraudulent. I’d be wholeheartedly against trying to settle the first question in the courts, but nobody is trying to suggest that. The second question seems to me one that has to be settled that way.

Now let me say that I don’t know anything at all about chiropractice. I don’t know whether it works or doesn’t work, but it does seem to me that Simon Singh was very unwise to use the word “bogus” and even unwiser still to defend the action after he did.

For me, the only really significant issue in this saga is a general one: the overall matter of freedom of speech. In general, I believe strongly in freedom of speech but because we don’t have a written constitution the right to it is not stated as clearly here in the United Kingdom as it is, for example, in the United States. However, don’t forget that there are defamation laws (including libel) in America too. Among those statements considered defamatory per se under US law are statements “injurious to another in their trade, business, or profession”, which certainly would cover chiropractors. The US system is much less plaintiff-friendly than ours, in that it provides for a wider range of potential defences, and it also largely reverses the burden of proof unless there is an affirmative defence. It does not seem obvious to me, though, that Singh would have any more success in defending his case in America rather than here. But, then, I’m not a lawyer.

Even in countries like the United States where Freedom of Speech is enshrined as a constitutional right, it is necessary that it should tempered by wider considerations. It should not be legal for someone to damage another person’s reputation and livelihood by making intentionally false and defamatory assertions. Neither should it be possible to abuse and/or threaten another in such a way as to cause harassment or intimidation. There have to be laws covering such things. The real question is how to make them work in a more impartial way than they do now. To argue that one should be exempted simply by declaring oneself to be a scientist seems to me to be dangerously simplistic. The best way to keep the libel laws out of science is to for scientists not to make potentially libelous statements if they don’t possess the evidence to back them up.

I realise that many of you may think that, in not fully supporting Simon Singh, I am being overtly pro-BCA. I certainly don’t intend to be so. I think there’s blame on both sides. I think that the BCA was unnecessarily aggressive in suing him for libel. Given that they did so, though, Singh seems to me to have made an error of judgement in continuing an action he is very unlikely to win. If he continues with the case now his only hope is that he can produce enough evidence in court that damages the BCA that they drop the action. In the long run, what will probably happen is that he loses the case and the BCA wins damages, but suffers a big dent in its reputation for rather heavy-handed tactics. Along the way it might even happen that there is intense scientific evaluation of the effectiveness of chiropractics, and that might do the BCA more harm than good. Bear in mind that anything said in court under oath is privileged can’t be subject to libel actions…

The New Eye Test for Members of Parliament

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on June 24, 2009 by telescoper

The newly-elected Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, has promised a host of sweeping changes that will improve public confidence in the political process after damaging revelations about expenses claims by some MPs.

Among the measures he is to introduce in order to improve the powers of scrutiny within the House is the following new eye test for Members of Parliament:


Mummified by Beer

Posted in Biographical with tags , on June 24, 2009 by telescoper

Years ago I went on holiday to Egypt with a friend. It wasn’t the usual kind of holiday because we didn’t stay in a hotel, but at the house of my friend’s cousin Moira who worked in the Cairo American College, in a suburb of the city. Since we were both pretty skint at that time we got an incredibly cheap flight to Cairo from London via Bucharest with the Romanian airline Tarom. The less said about the flight the better, especially the food on it, because it made Ryanair look positively luxurious, but at least we got there alive.

The first evening there we were both very tired and a bit overwhelmed by the surroundings, but we decided to go into one of the local bars for a quick drink before going to bed. Only two kinds of beer were available, both called Stella. (I should point out for legal reasons that this is not Stella Artois that we’re talking about!) The Egyptian Stella came in two varieties: Stella National (which was one Egyptian pound for a pint bottle; about 20p in British money then) and Stella Export (5 Egyptian pounds). Being impoverished, I ordered a pint of the National version. It tasted slightly odd, but basically OK. I drank up and went back to the house.

The next morning I had the worst hangover I’ve ever had in my life. I couldn’t understand it. I saw Moira at breakfast and she told me I looked dreadful. I explained that I had only had one pint the night before. She looked at me in horror.

“You didn’t drink the Stella National, did you?”

I said yes, I did, but I only had a pint.

She explained that the reason the “National” version was so cheap was that it contained something to stop it going off in the hot climate. The “Export” version didn’t have this ingredient because they couldn’t possibly export it if it did. The preserving agent turned out to be formaldehyde, which is used in embalming corpses.

That Beat…

Posted in Jazz with tags , on June 23, 2009 by telescoper

I remember when my Dad told me years ago that actually playing Jazz fast was much much easier than playing it slow, I didn’t really believe him. Only gradually did I understand that the problem is that, in order to sound right, Jazz has to sound spontaneous. When you’re going flat out there’s no alternative to that, as you haven’t really got any time to think. At slower tempos, though, it often sounds too conscious of itself. Sounding relaxed is the most difficult thing, especially when you’re not relaxed at all but a bundle of nerves (which is actually what virtually all musicians are like in front of an audience). The worst thing you can do in Jazz (as a rhythm player at any rate) is to speed up, and the temptation is always there if you’re going slow. It’s not an option when you’re at full pelt.

A great example is the version of Twelfth Street Rag recorded by Louis Armstrong and the Hot Seven. This was a hit tune from 1918 and most other bands in the 1920s played it just about as fast as they could. Louis Armstrong decided – quite rightly – that he didn’t have anything to prove by playing it that way so he turned it into a stately slow blues. The result is magical. Another advantage if it is that it is slow enough for would-be musicians to try making a transcription of the solos, which is what I did many years ago with Johnny Dodds’ clarinet solo. I still have the scrawled sheets of music now to remind me of the hours I spent trying to work it out! You can hear it in low-fi on an old gramophone here; the clarinet solo starts around 2.04.

Certainly the yardstick by which traditional Jazz giants were measured was not on the up-tempo tunes – which lots of bands could play – but on slower numbers, especially that very difficult beat that is usually described for the want of a better name as mid-tempo. Too slow and it drags, too fast and it sounds forced. Real New Orleans Jazz has a wonderfully loose feel at such speeds: a cross between a lilt and a strut. It’s totally infectious.

That’s what popped into my head when I found the following track on Youtube by the band I blogged about yesterday. They nail that classic New Orleans beat right from the word go on this number called Royal Garden Blues. It’s driven along by the wonderful but relatively unknown Billie Poole doing the vocal. I really love this.

Dating terms for Cricket fans

Posted in Cricket, Uncategorized with tags , on June 22, 2009 by telescoper

Not long ago I was having a chat with an American friend of mine and I happened to mention to him that I’d never really understood how various expressions derived from baseball apply to dating. I’ve heard, in movies, phrases like “I only got to first base” but not knowing much about baseball -or dating, for that matter, although I am, as you all know, extremely dated – I never really knew what they meant. Now I do, of course, because he spelled them out to me, but I’ll spare my innocent readers the graphic details…

Anyway, I got to wondering about what it would be like if we British used cricketing expressions in this context in the same way as our American cousins do with those from baseball.

Some would work fairly well, of course. I think  leg bye has an obvious connotation for anyone who strays down the legside. I’m sure we’ve all also been in situations where we might have wanted to run out or even perhaps retire hurt. However, the mind boggles at what might have to go wrong in order for you to have to declare a wide or a no ball;  the latter may well involve a bouncer.  An outside edge would be an unfortunate occurrence, and it may have the same result as being stumped.

The presence of a third man is probably a rarity for most people on a date, but perhaps I’m just making a silly point there. Generally speaking, a fine leg is greatly appreciated, and a long leg would be a pretty good alternative. I’m not myself sure about short leg – let alone a square leg – but whatever floats your bat boat.

Cover or extra cover is usually recommended these days but, even then, there’s a risk of one or more slips. Things would have to go very badly wrong, however,  for there to be a risk of a leg-break. A late cut sounds too painful to contemplate and most would be satisfied with a pull if there was no alternative. I’ve always been partial to a quick single, and would even jump at the chance of a full toss, but most would prefer to make it through to a complete innings which probably involves finding one or more boundaries.

Phew! I’m glad I got all the way to the end without making a corny joke about bowling a maiden over