Archive for March, 2017

March for Europe

Posted in Politics, Uncategorized with tags , on March 24, 2017 by telescoper

Just a quick post to say that I’ll be travelling from Cardiff to London first thing tomorrow morning in order to take part in this March to Parliament.

March for Europe

After Wednesday’s terrorist attack near the Palace of Westminster, there has been some talk – some of apparently emanating from BrExit-supporters wanting to sabotage the event – about cancelling this demonstration against the folly of BrExit, and to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, but I’m glad to say it is going ahead. I think Wednesday’s events make it even more important that we exercise our democratic rights including the right to engage in peaceful protest. The march goes ahead with the full support of the Police.

For more details please see the facebook page here. I hope this will be a big one!

London looking back

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , on March 23, 2017 by telescoper

I thought I’d do a quick post as a reaction to yesterday’s terrible events in London in which four people lost their lives and several are still critically injured. We now know that the attacker was British and that he was known to the intelligence services. He appears to have acted alone and was armed with knives and drove an ordinary car onto the pavement, hitting a number of people before crashing the car and managing to stab a police officer to death before he was himself shot and killed. Whatever his motivations were, it looks more likely on the basis of information currently available that these were the actions of a crazed individual than part of an international terrorist conspiracy. We should, however, avoid jumping to conclusions and wait for the investigation to be completed.

The first thing I want to do is to express my condolences to the families and friends of those who lost their lives. My thoughts are also with those who were critically injured and I hope with all my heart that they will all recover speedily and completely. Physical healing will take time, but they will need help, support and time  to come to terms with the mental trauma too. The same is true for those who were caught up in this attack and received minor injuries or even just witnessed what happened, because they must have been shocked by the experience. I hope they receive all the help they need at what must be a very difficult time.

The second point is that it’s clear that the police and other emergency services acted with great courage and professionalism yesterday. One policeman sadly died, but the swift actions of his colleagues prevented further loss of life. Ambulances, paramedics and members of the public all responded magnificently to care for those injured, and we shall probably find that their response saved many lives too. They deserve all our thanks.

Finally, I noticed a number of ill-informed comments on Twitter from the usual gang of Far-Right hate-mongers, especially professional troll Katie Hopkins, claiming that London was “cowed” and “afraid” because this attack. I don’t believe that for one minute, and I want to explain why.

I lived in London for about eight years (between 1990 and 1998). During that time I found myself in relatively close proximity to three major bomb explosions, though fortunately I wasn’t close enough to be actually harmed. I also concluded that my proximity to these events was purely coincidental…

The first, in 1993, was the Bishopsgate Bombing. I happened to be looking out of the kitchen window of my flat in Bethnal Green when that bomb went off. I had a clear view across Weavers Fields towards the City of London and saw the explosion happen. I heard it too, several seconds later, loud enough to set off the car alarms in the car park beneath my window.

This picture, from the relevant Wikipedia page, shows the devastation of the area affected by the blast.

The other two came in quick succession. First, a large bomb exploded in London Docklands on Friday February 8th 1996, at around 5pm, when our regular weekly Astronomy seminar was just about to finish at Queen Mary College on the Mile End Road. We were only a couple of miles from the blast, but I don’t remember hearing anything and it was only later that I found out what had happened.

Then, on the evening of Sunday 18th February 1996, I was in a fairly long queue trying to get into a night club in Covent Garden when there was a loud bang followed by a tinkling sound caused by pieces of glass falling to the ground. It sounded very close but I was in a narrow street surrounded by tall buildings and it was hard to figure out from which direction the sound had come from. It turned out that someone had accidentally detonated a bomb on a bus in Aldwych, apparently en route to plant it somewhere else (probably King’s Cross). What I remember most about that evening was that it took me a very long time to get home. Several blocks around the site of the explosion were cordoned off. I lived in the East End, on the wrong side of sealed-off area, so I had to find a way around it before heading home. No buses or taxis were to be found so I had to walk all the way. I arrived home in the early hours of the morning.

Anyway, my point is that amid these awful terrorist atrocities of the 1990s, people were not “cowed” or “afraid”. Londoners are made of sterner stuff than that. It is true that one’s immediate response when confronted with, e.g. , a bomb explosion is to be a bit rattled. I’m sure that was true for many Londoners yesterday. That soon gives way to a determination to get on with your life and not let the bastards win. The events of the 1990s gave us a London of road blocks, security barriers and many other irritating inconveniences, but they did not bring the city to a standstill, as some have suggested happened yesterday. For the most part it was “business as usual”.

I don’t live in London anymore, but I think Londoners are as unlikely to be frightened today as they were back then. And it will take much more than one man to “shut down the city”. As a matter of fact, I think only a coward would suggest otherwise.

 

P.S. I forgot to mention another event, in 2005, when I was at the precise location of a bomb explosion but precisely 24 hours early…

 

 

 

Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3 1802, by William Wordsworth

Posted in Poetry with tags on March 23, 2017 by telescoper

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

by William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

 

Keep Calm and Carry On

Posted in Uncategorized on March 22, 2017 by telescoper

I had just finished my biggest task of the day and stopped to make a cup of tea, when I caught the news of a serious incident on Westminster Bridge in London, at which it seems several lives have been lost.

My thoughts are with my friends and colleagues in London at this very scary time and, above all,  with those who have been affected directly by this terrible event.

I hope everyone will keep as calm as possible and avoid jumping to conclusions about who is responsible, and let the police and security services get on with doing their job.

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R.I.P. Colin Dexter (1930-2017)

Posted in Crosswords, Literature, Television with tags , , , on March 21, 2017 by telescoper

I was saddened this afternoon to hear of the death, at the age of 86, of Colin Dexter, the novelist who created the character of  Inspector Morse, memorably played on the long-running TV series of the same name by John Thaw.

The television series of Inspector Morse came to an end in 2000, with a poignant episode called The Remorseful Day, but has led to two successful spin-offs, in Lewis and Endeavour both of which are still running.  Colin Dexter regularly appeared in  in both Inspector Morse and Lewis, mainly in non-speaking roles and part of the fun of these programmes was trying to spot him in the background.

As a crime writer, Colin Dexter was definitely in the `English’ tradition of Agatha Christie, in that his detective stories relied more on cleverly convoluted plots than depth of characterization, but the central character of Morse was a brilliant creation in itself and is rightly celebrated. Crime fiction is too often undervalued in literary circles, but I find it a fascinating genre and Colin Dexter was a fine exponent.

Colin Dexter was also an avid solver of crossword puzzles, a characteristic shared by his Detective Inspector Morse. In fact I met Colin Dexter once, back in 2010, at a lunch to celebrate the 2000th Azed puzzle in the Observer which I blogged about  here.  Colin Dexter used to be a regular entrant – and often a winner – in Azed‘s  monthly clue-setting competition, but I haven’t seen his name among the winners for a while. You can see his outstanding record on the “&lit” archive here. I guess he retired from crosswords just has he had done from writing crime novels. To be honest, he seemed quite frail back in 2010 so I’m not surprised he decided to take it easy in his later years.

Incidentally, Colin Dexter took the name `Morse’ from his friend Jeremy Morse, another keen cruciverbalist. Sadly he passed away last year, at the age of 87. Jeremy Morse was another frequent winner of the Azed competition and he produced some really cracking clues – you can find them all on the “&lit” archive too.

Here’s a little cryptic tribute:

Morse inventor developed Nordic Telex (5,6)

Now I think I’ll head home to cook my traditional mid-week vegetable curry, have a glass of wine, and see if I can watch a  DVD last episode of Inspector Morse without crying

R.I.P. Norman Colin Dexter (1930-2017)

 

 

My Last Will – by Sir Walter Raleigh (no, not that one…)

Posted in Biographical, Poetry with tags , , , on March 20, 2017 by telescoper

The vernal equinox in the Northern hemisphere passed this morning at 10.29 GMT, heralding the start of spring – a time when naturally our thoughts turn to death and decay. Which is no doubt why I remembered this poem  I came across some time ago but for some reason haven’t posted yet. It’s quite astonishing how many websites attribute this verse to the Elizabethan courtier and explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, who was indeed an accomplished poet, but the use of language is very clearly not of that period. In fact this was written by Professor Sir Walter Alexander Raleigh (1861-1922). What he says in this poem about his own untidiness is I’m afraid very true also of me, but the semi-joking tone with which he opens gives way to something far more profound, and I think the last two lines are particularly powerful.

When I am safely laid away,
Out of work and out of play,
Sheltered by the kindly ground
From the world of sight and sound,
One or two of those I leave
Will remember me and grieve,
Thinking how I made them gay
By the things I used to say;
— But the crown of their distress
Will be my untidiness.

What a nuisance then will be
All that shall remain of me!
Shelves of books I never read,
Piles of bills, undocketed,
Shaving-brushes, razors, strops,
Bottles that have lost their tops,
Boxes full of odds and ends,
Letters from departed friends,
Faded ties and broken braces
Tucked away in secret places,
Baggy trousers, ragged coats,
Stacks of ancient lecture-notes,
And that ghostliest of shows,
Boots and shoes in horrid rows.
Though they are of cheerful mind,
My lovers, whom I leave behind,
When they find these in my stead,
Will be sorry I am dead.

They will grieve; but you, my dear,
Who have never tasted fear,
Brave companion of my youth,
Free as air and true as truth,
Do not let these weary things
Rob you of your junketings.

Burn the papers; sell the books;
Clear out all the pestered nooks;
Make a mighty funeral pyre
For the corpse of old desire,
Till there shall remain of it
Naught but ashes in a pit:
And when you have done away
All that is of yesterday,
If you feel a thrill of pain,
Master it, and start again.

This, at least, you have never done
Since you first beheld the sun:
If you came upon your own
Blind to light and deaf to tone,
Basking in the great release
Of unconsciousness and peace,
You would never, while you live,
Shatter what you cannot give;
— Faithful to the watch you keep,
You would never break their sleep.

Clouds will sail and winds will blow
As they did an age ago
O’er us who lived in little towns
Underneath the Berkshire downs.
When at heart you shall be sad,
Pondering the joys we had,
Listen and keep very still.
If the lowing from the hill
Or the tolling of a bell
Do not serve to break the spell,
Listen; you may be allowed
To hear my laughter from a cloud.

Take the good that life can give
For the time you have to live.
Friends of yours and friends of mine
Surely will not let you pine.
Sons and daughters will not spare
More than friendly love and care.
If the Fates are kind to you,
Some will stay to see you through;
And the time will not be long
Till the silence ends the song.

Sleep is God’s own gift; and man,
Snatching all the joys he can,
Would not dare to give his voice
To reverse his Maker’s choice.
Brief delight, eternal quiet,
How change these for endless riot
Broken by a single rest?
Well you know that sleep is best.

We that have been heart to heart
Fall asleep, and drift apart.
Will that overwhelming tide
Reunite us, or divide?
Whence we come and whither go
None can tell us, but I know
Passion’s self is often marred
By a kind of self-regard,
And the torture of the cry
“You are you, and I am I.”
While we live, the waking sense
Feeds upon our difference,
In our passion and our pride
Not united, but allied.

We are severed by the sun,
And by darkness are made one.

 

Science for the Citizen

Posted in Education, Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on March 20, 2017 by telescoper

I spent all day on Friday on business connected with my role in the Data Innovation Research Institute, attending an event to launch the new Data Justice Lab at Cardiff University. It was a fascinating day of discussions about all kinds of ethical, legal and political issues surrounding the “datafication” of society:

Our financial transactions, communications, movements, relationships, and interactions with government and corporations all increasingly generate data that are used to profile and sort groups and individuals. These processes can affect both individuals as well as entire communities that may be denied services and access to opportunities, or wrongfully targeted and exploited. In short, they impact on our ability to participate in society. The emergence of this data paradigm therefore introduces a particular set of power dynamics requiring investigation and critique.

As a scientist whose research is in an area (cosmology) which is extremely data-intensive, I have a fairly clear interpretation of the phrase “Big Data” and recognize the need for innovative methods to handle the scale and complexity of the data we use. This clarity comes largely from the fact that we are asking very well-defined questions which can be framed in quantitative terms within the framework of well-specified theoretical models. In this case, sophisticated algorithms can be constructed that extract meaningful information even when individual measurements are dominated by noise.

The use of “Big Data” in civic society is much more problematic because the questions being asked are often ill-posed and there is rarely any compelling underlying theory. A naive belief exists in some quarters that harvesting more and more data necessarily leads to an increase in relevant information. Instead there is a danger that algorithms simply encode false assumptions and produce unintended consequences, often with disastrous results for individuals. We heard plenty of examples of this on Friday.

Although it is clearly the case that personal data can be – and indeed is – deliberately used for nefarious purposes, I think there’s a parallel danger that we increasingly tend to believe that just because something is based on numerical calculations it somehow must be “scientific”. In reality, any attempt to extract information from quantitative data relies on assumptions. if those assumptions are wrong, then you get garbage out no matter what you put in. Some applications of “data science” – those that don’t recognize these limitations – are in fact extremely unscientific.

I mentioned in discussions on Friday that there is a considerable push in astrophysics and cosmology for open science, by which I mean that not only are the published results openly accessible, but all the data and analysis algorithms are published too. Not all branches of science work this way, and we’re very far indeed from a society that applies such standards to the use of personal data.

Anyway, after the day’s discussion we adjourned to the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies for a set of more formal presentations. The Head of School, Professor Stuart Allan introduced this session with some quotes from a book called Science for the Citizen, written by Lancelot Hogben in 1938. I haven’t read the book, but it looks fascinating and prescient. I have just ordered it and look forward to reading it. You can get the full-text free online here.

Here is the first paragraph of Chapter 1:

A MUCH abused writer of the nineteenth century said: up to the present philosophers have only interpreted the world, it is also necessary to change it. No statement more fittingly distinguishes the standpoint of humanistic philosophy from the scientific outlook. Science is organized workmanship. Its history is co-extensive with that of civilized living. It emerges so soon as the secret lore of the craftsman overflows the dam of oral tradition, demanding a permanent record of its own. It expands as the record becomes accessible to a widening personnel, gathering into itself and coordinating the fruits of new crafts. It languishes when the social incentive to new productive accomplishment is lacking, and when its custodians lose the will to share it with others. Its history, which is the history of the constructive achievements of mankind, is also the history of the democratization of positive knowledge. This book is written to tell the story of its growth as a record of human achievement, a story of the satisfaction of the common needs of mankind, disclosing as it unfolds new horizons of human wellbeing which lie before us, if we plan our new resources intelligently.

The phrase that struck me with particular force is “the democratization of positive knowledge”. That is what I believe science should do, but the closed culture of many fields of modern science makes it difficult to argue that’s what it actually does. Instead, there is an increasing tendency for scientific knowledge in many domains to be concentrated in a small number of people with access to the literature and the expertise needed to make sense of it.

In an increasingly technologically-driven society, the gap between the few in and the many out of the know poses a grave threat to our existence as an open and inclusive democracy. The public needs to be better informed about science (as well as a great many other things). Two areas need attention.

In fields such as my own there’s a widespread culture of working very hard at outreach. This overarching term includes trying to get people interested in science and encouraging more kids to take it seriously at school and college, but also engaging directly with members of the public and institutions that represent them. Not all scientists take the same attitude, though, and we must try harder. Moves are being made to give more recognition to public engagement, but a drastic improvement is necessary if our aim is to make our society genuinely democratic.

But the biggest issue we have to confront is education. The quality of science education must improve, especially in state schools where pupils sometimes don’t have appropriately qualified teachers and so are unable to learn, e.g. physics, properly. The less wealthy are becoming systematically disenfranchised through their lack of access to the education they need to understand the complex issues relating to life in an advanced technological society.

If we improve school education, we may well get more graduates in STEM areas too although this government’s cuts to Higher Education make that unlikely. More science graduates would be good for many reasons, but I don’t think the greatest problem facing the UK is the lack of qualified scientists – it’s that too few ordinary citizens have even a vague understanding of what science is and how it works. They are therefore unable to participate in an informed way in discussions of some of the most important issues facing us in the 21st century.

We can’t expect everyone to be a science expert, but we do need higher levels of basic scientific literacy throughout our society. Unless this happens we will be increasingly vulnerable to manipulation by the dark forces of global capitalism via the media they control. You can see it happening already.