Archive for October 16, 2010

The Father of Fractals

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , on October 16, 2010 by telescoper

Just a brief post to pass on the sad news of the death at the age of 86 of Benoit Mandelbrot. Mandelbrot is credited with having invented the term fractal to describe objects that possess the property of self-similarity and which have structure on arbitrarily small scales. In his marvellous book, The Fractal Geometry of Nature, Mandelbrot explored the use of fractals to describe natural objects and phenomena as diverse as clouds, mountain ranges, lightning bolts, coastlines, snow flakes, plants, and animal coloration patterns. His ideas found application across the whole spectrum of physics and astrophysics including, controversially, cosmology. Fractal images, such as the one below of the Mandelbrot set, also found their way into popular culture; I had a poster of one on my bedroom wall when I was a student and kept it for many years thereafter.

I came across Mandelbrot’s book in the public library and found it truly inspirational, so much so that he became a scientific hero of mine. I was therefore thrilled at the prospect of meeting him when I myself had become a scientist and had the chance to go to a conference, in Paris, at which he was speaking. Unfortunately, I was deeply disappointed by his lecture, which was truly awful, and his personal manner, which I found less than congenial. Nevertheless, there’s no denying his immense contributions to mathematics and science nor his wider impact on culture and society. Another one of the greats has left us.


Thatcher’s Final Victory?

Posted in History, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on October 16, 2010 by telescoper

Next Wednesday (20th October) we will hear the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review, and what it means for the scale of the cuts to UK public spending in each of the government departments. After that the detailed breakdown of cuts within each Ministry will gradually be revealed. Some news has already leaked out, of course. The Browne Report published last week almost certainly heralds huge cuts in the state subsidy to the UK University sector, with the cost of Higher Education consequently shifting from the taxpayer to the student. On top of that, and despite the best efforts of the Science is Vital campaign, it seems highly likely that there will be a steep decrease in investment in scientific research – both through the Research Councils and through the research component of Higher Education funding. On the other hand, the defence budget appears to have been spared the worst of the hatchet, with the Trident nuclear submarine programme set to go ahead (with a price tag around £25 billion) and two new aircraft carriers to be built at a cost of £5.5 billion (although it is not clear there will actually be any aircraft to operate from them).

Obviously, knowledge and learning are less important to the future of this country than the ability to fight pointless wars against invented enemies. Morover, we already spend more than most competitor economies on defence as a fraction of GDP, and less on  universities and science. How did we end up with such distorted priorities?

On top of these cuts we have to contend with a draconian cap on immigration. New restrictions on visas for non-EU citizens will make it much harder for British universities to recruit overseas students and staff. The new rules give exemptions only to those coming to the UK to take up highly paid jobs, such as professional footballers. Postdoctoral researchers and university lecturers don’t get paid enough to register as economically relevant, so many fewer will be able to enter this country. While these restrictions may satisfy xenophobic Daily Mail readers, they promise to damage the University sector almost as much as the funding cuts, as a significant fraction of the best staff in UK science departments are from outside the EU (including the two winners of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics).

All this sounds depressingly familiar to those of us who lived through the various Thatcher governments and their successors. In fact, looking at the following graph (which I nicked from Andy Lawrence’s blog, but which comes from a document produced by the Royal Society) you’ll see the steady reduction in science investment under previous Conservative governments

I know I’m not alone in interpreting these cuts as not being about the need to secure the country’s finances. The UK’s public debt as a fraction of GDP is rising, of course, and something needs to be done about it. But this graph shows the actual situation:


Serious? Yes, but not sufficient to justify the carnage we’re about to experience.

What is going on is that the parlous state of the UK’s finances is being used as a pretext to resume the Thatcherite attack on the welfare state through a campaign of privatisations and closures so that wealthy Tory voters can get richer at the expense of ordinary working people.

No doubt there will be people reading this who really think that cutting back state expenditure is a good thing, and even I agree with that to some extent. However, there is a part of Thatcher’s legacy that is actually the root of the problem and it represents a fundamental inconsistency of the Thatcher project. Unless it is tackled, the cut-and-burn route will not lead to a sustainable economy, but will take this country into inexorable decline.

The nub of the matter is the Invasion of the Bean Counters into every aspect of public life. The breakdown of trust between government and the public sector that ushered in Margaret Thatcher’s victory in the 1979 General Election has led to a huge increase in red tape involved in the assessment, regulation and general suffocation of public services. As the Thatcher project continued through John Major’s, and, yes, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s governments (Blair was undoubtedly a Thatcherite) any rises in public spending went not into providing better services but in a vast and unwieldly machinery of regulation. Now it matters less whether the public sector does things well. What matters is that they tick the boxes imposed by civil service mandarins. This mentality has led to a proliferation of overpaid administrators in the National Health Service, schools are hamstrung by the rigid constraints of the National Curriculum, the Police spend more time filling in forms than they do investigating crime, and the number of staff employed in university administration has increased at the expense of teaching and learning.

You might say that this is all the fault of New Labour, but I don’t think that’s right; the suffocation of the UK’s public sector began with Thatcher and it began as a direct result of the Winter of Discontent (a re-run of which seems eminently possible). The reason why a succession of right-wing governments have failed to get a grip on public spending is that they’ve all been run by control freaks and have pumped money into wasteful self-serving bureaucracies.

Britain has turned into a version of Golgafrincham, with the “useless third” now in the position of wielding the axe over those few remaining things in the UK which are actually pretty good.

Apparently, Margaret Thatcher is not in very good health and may not live much longer. I won’t mourn her passing. In Thatcher’s time in office, this country took giant steps towards becoming a police state. She encouraged xenophobia and intolerance, and spawned the generation of small-minded money-grabbing lizards who now occupy the Government benches. As Britain turns into a wilderness of cashable things once more, it looks like she might be set for her final victory.



Tower of Song

Posted in Music with tags , on October 16, 2010 by telescoper


Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on
I’m just paying my rent every day
In the Tower of Song

I said to Hank Williams: how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
A hundred floors above me
In the Tower of Song

I was born like this, I had no choice
I was born with the gift of a golden voice
And twenty-seven angels from the great beyond
They tied me to this table right here
In the Tower of Song

So you can stick your little pins in that voodoo doll
I’m very sorry, baby, doesn’t look like me at all
I’m standing by the window where the light is strong
Ah they don’t let a woman kill you
Not in the Tower of Song

Now you can say that I’ve grown bitter but of this you may be sure
The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor
And theres a mighty judgement coming, but I may be wrong
You see, you hear these funny voices
In the Tower of Song

I see you standing on the other side
I don’t know how the river got so wide
I loved you baby, way back when
And all the bridges are burning that we might have crossed
But I feel so close to everything that we lost
Well never have to lose it again

Now I bid you farewell, I dont know when Ill be back
There moving us tomorrow to that tower down the track
But you’ll be hearing from me baby, long after I’m gone
I’ll be speaking to you sweetly
From a window in the Tower of Song

Yeah my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I’m crazy for love but Im not coming on
I’m just paying my rent every day
Oh in the Tower of Song