Archive for BBC

Science, Art and The Song of the Lyre Bird

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on February 10, 2015 by telescoper

I’ve posted this before but I thought I would do so again, just because it’s so marvellous.

I wonder what you felt as you watched it?  What went through your mind? Amusement? Fascination?  I’ll tell you how it was for me when I first saw it.  I marvelled.

Seeing the extraordinary behaviour of this incredible creature filled me with a sense of wonder. But I also began to wonder in another sense too. How did the Lyre Bird evolve its bizarre strategy? How does it learn to be such an accurate mimic? How does it produce such a fascinating variety of sounds? How can there be an evolutionary advantage in luring a potential mate to the sound of foresters and a chainsaw?

The Lyre Bird deploys its resources in such an elaborate and expensive way that you might be inclined to mock it, if all it does is draw females to “look at its plumes”.  I can think of quite a few blokes who adopt not-too-dissimilar strategies, if truth be told. But if you could ask a Lyre Bird it would probably answer that it does this because that’s what it does. The song defines the bird. That’s its nature.

I was moved to post the clip some time ago in response to a characteristically snide and ill-informed piece by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian. Jenkins indulges in an anti-science rant every now and again. Sometimes he has a point, in fact. But that article was just puerile. Perhaps he had a bad experience of science at school and never got over it.

I suppose I can understand why some people are cynical about scientists stepping into the public eye to proselytise about science. After all, it’s also quite easy to come up with examples of  scientists who have made mistakes. Sadly, there are also cases of outright dishonesty. The inference is that science is no good because scientists are fallible. But scientists are people, no better and no worse than the rest. To err is human and all that.  We shouldn’t expect scientists to be superhuman any more than we should believe the occasional megalomaniac who says they are.

To many people fundamental physics is a just a load of incomprehensible gibberish, the Large Hadron Collider a monstrous waste of money, and astronomy of no greater value to the world than astrology. Any scientist trying to communicate science to the public must be trying to hoodwink them, to rob them of the schools and hospitals that their taxes should be building and sacrifice their hard-earned income on the altar of yet another phoney religion.

And now the BBC is participating in this con-trick by actually broadcasting popular programmes about science that have generated huge and appreciative audiences. Simon Jenkins obviously feels threatened by it. He’s probably not alone.

I don’t  have anything like the public profile of the target of Jenkins’ vitriol, Lord Rees, but I try to do my share of science communication. I give public lectures from time to time and write popular articles, whenever I’m asked. I also answer science questions by email from the general public, and some of the pieces I post on here receive a reasonably wide distribution too.

Why do I (and most of my colleagues) do all this sort of stuff? Is it because we’re after your money?  Actually, no it isn’t. Not directly, anyway.

I do all this stuff because, after 25 years as a scientist, I still have a sense of wonder about the universe. I want to share that as much as I can with others. Moreover,  I’ve been lucky enough to find a career that allows me to get paid for indulging my scientific curiosity and I’m fully aware that it’s Joe Public that pays for me to do it. I’m happy they do so, and happier still that people will turn up on a rainy night to hear me talk about cosmology or astrophysics. I do this because I love doing science, and want other people to love it  too.

Scientists are wont to play the utilitarian card when asked about why the public should fund fundamental research. Lord Rees did this in his Reith Lectures, in fact. Physics has given us countless spin-offs – TV sets, digital computers,  the internet, you name it – that have created wealth for UK plc out of all proportion to the modest investment it has received. If you think the British government spends too much on science, then perhaps you could try to find the excessive sum on this picture.

Yes, the LHC is expensive but the cost was shared by a large number of countries and was spread over a long time. The financial burden to the UK now amounts to the cost of a cup of coffee per year for each taxpayer in the country. I’d compare this wonderful exercise in friendly international cooperation with the billions we’re about to waste on the Trident nuclear weapons programme which is being built on the assumption that international relations must involve mutual hatred.

This is the sort of argument that gets politicians interested, but scientists must be wary of it. If particle physics is good because it has spin-offs that can be applied in, e.g. medicine, then why not just give the money to medical research?

I’m not often put in situations where I have to answer questions like why we should spend money on astronomy or particle physics but, when I am, I always feel uncomfortable wheeling out the economic impact argument. Not because I don’t believe it’s true, but because I don’t think it’s the real reason for doing science. I know the following argument won’t cut any ice in the Treasury, but it’s what I really think as a scientist (and a human being).

What makes humans different from other animals? What defines us? I don’t know what the full answer to that is, or even if it has a single answer, but I’d say one of the things that we do is ask questions and try to answer them. Science isn’t the only way we do this. There are many complementary modes of enquiry of which the scientific method is just one. Generally speaking, though, we’re curious creatures.

I think the state should support science but I also think it should support the fine arts, literature, humanities and the rest, for their own sake. Because they’re things we do. They  make us human. Without them we’re just like any other animal that consumes and reproduces.

So the real reason why the government should support science is the song of the Lyre Bird.  No, I don’t mean as an elaborate mating ritual. I don’t think physics will help you pull the birds. What I mean is that even in this materialistic, money-obsessed world we still haven’t lost the  need to wonder, for the joy it brings and for the way it stimulates our minds; science doesn’t inhibit wonder, as Jenkins argues,  it sparks it.

Now, anyone want to see my plumes?

Slightly Famous?

Posted in Biographical, Television with tags , on January 25, 2013 by telescoper


To “boldly” go…

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on July 15, 2012 by telescoper

I thought anyone reading my rather gloomy recent posts could probably do with a laugh so I thought I’d put this up. It’s something I posted a while ago, in fact, but the video links on that have long since evaporated; a newer version appeared recently on Youtube so I thought I’d update it and re-post the piece.

This clip contains a short item  I did about twelve years ago for the BBC series Space, which was presented by Sam Neill. It was subsequently screened outside the UK with an alternative title, Universe. Originally we were going to demonstrate wormholes using a snooker table, clever editing and reversed video. However, the producer, Jeremy,  decided that wouldn’t look spectacular enough so instead we went to St Anton in Austria: I was flown over the Alps in a helicopter and then driven through the Arlberg tunnel in an impressively fast car. Well worth the cost to license fee payers, I’m sure, even if the three-day trip to Austria by me and a crew of six as well as the hire of the helicopter ended up as a mere three minutes of screen time…

The episode I was in, the last of 6 in the series, was called To Boldly Go. I remember suggesting to the producer that the only way to travel faster than light in the manner required was with a split infinitive drive, but they didn’t use that in the final script.

The segment I’m in starts at about 18:00 on the video. Notice how, in the helicopter sequence, I give the appearance of being completely terrified. A fine piece of acting by me, I thought. *Cough*

The item is daft, I know, and I don’t really believe any of that stuff about wormholes, but it was great fun doing it and I have to say the camera guys took some amazing footage of the mountains from the helicopter.

P.S. The next sequence, after mine, explains how the Anglo-Australian 2dF Galaxy Redshift Survey was done in order to provide a map for future generations of intergalactic space travellers. Really?

Stargazing (virtually) Live

Posted in Television, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on January 18, 2012 by telescoper

I hope you’ve all been tuning in to the BBC’s astronomy jamboree Stargazing Live. There have been two episodes so far, with one last one to follow tonight, plus a huge range of activities across the country (including Wales) giving members of the public the chance to look at the sky through telescopes. The programmes and other activities have been getting an excellent response, especially from the younger generation, which is excellent news for the future of astronomy.

Working in a School of Physics & Astronomy makes one realise just how much public interest there is in astronomy, not just among schoolkids but in the numerous amateur astronomical societies, the members of which actually know the night sky better than many professionals! Most of us astronomers and astrophysicists are regularly asked to give public lectures and Cardiff in particular runs a  host of other outreach activities related to our astronomy research. Our colleagues in mainstream physics subjects such as condensed matter physics don’t get the same level of direct public interest – I don’t think there are any amateur semiconductor physics  clubs in the UK! – but many students attracted into universities by astronomy do turn to other branches of physics when they get here, because something else catches their imagination.

But important though that role is, let’s not forget that astronomy isn’t just about outreach. It’s actually real science, making real discoveries about the way our universe works. It’s worth doing in its own right as well as being good for other branches of physics.

Anyway, being a theoretical astrophysicist I usually feel a bit left out of these stargazing actitivies because I don’t really know one end of a telescope from the other. The other day I jokingly  asked whether Stargazing Live was ever going to include a theory component…

Last night’s episode actually did, in the form of a discussion of a numerical simulation of galaxy formation between the presenters and young Dr Andrew Pontzen from Oxford University. He even made a little video about the simulation, sort of virtual reality rendition of the formation of the Milky Way, as shown on the telly:

Apparently, making this required 300,000 CPU hours on 300 processors and it is based on 16 Terabytes of raw data. Phew!

It’s a very impressive simulation, but the use of the word simulation in this context always makes me smile. Being a crossword nut I spend far too much time looking in dictionaries but one often finds quite amusing things there. This is how the Oxford English Dictionary defines SIMULATION:


a. The action or practice of simulating, with intent to deceive; false pretence, deceitful profession.

b. Tendency to assume a form resembling that of something else; unconscious imitation.

2. A false assumption or display, a surface resemblance or imitation, of something.

3. The technique of imitating the behaviour of some situation or process (whether economic, military, mechanical, etc.) by means of a suitably analogous situation or apparatus, esp. for the purpose of study or personnel training.

It’s only the third entry that gives the intended meaning. This is worth bearing in mind if you prefer old-fashioned analytical theory!

In football, of course, you can get sent off for simulation…

The Hawking Paradox on BBC iPlayer

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on August 17, 2011 by telescoper

I just heard at lunchtime that a TV programme I was in was recently repeated on BBC4 and is consequently now available on BBC i Player, so I thought I’d advertise it on here.  I didn’t see the broadcast myself, because I scarcely watch TV these days.

The programme was originally made for the BBC TV series Horizon and first broadcast in the UK in 2005. You’ll find yours truly in a couple of places, when I was working at the University of Nottingham and had more hair. In fact I got quite a bit of stick, from some people at a certain University I used to attend, for being insufficiently reverential in my comments about Stephen Hawking but, for what it’s worth, I stand by everything I said. I do admire him enormously as a physicist, but I think his very genuine contributions are sometimes lost in the cult that has developed around him.

Anyway, I thought the programme turned out relatively well but you can watch it yourself by clicking here and form your own opinion!

Soul Limbo

Posted in Cricket, Music with tags , , , on April 16, 2011 by telescoper

Yesterday after I finished work I shunned the usual Friday-night trip to the Poet’s Corner in favour of dropping in to Sophia Gardens to catch my first County Cricket of the season. It’s actually Glamorgan‘s second game – they lost the first , away at Leicestershire – but they’re doing much better in this one, against Gloucestershire. There was a sparse crowd, but there was some absorbing cricket as Glamorgan’s batsmen fended off some good bowling to end the day on 185 for 3. The game is finely poised, with Glamorgan carrying on this morning to build a handy lead but the game could still go either way.

Anyway, in belated honour of the start of this year’s cricket season, here’s a piece of music that will bring back a lot of memories to those who, like me, used to spend a lot of their time glued to the BBC’s cricket coverage. It’s Soul Limbo, by Booker T and the M.G.’s, the long-time theme tune for the BBC’s cricket coverage. And there’s also a few clips of cricket action to go with it…


Hard Decisions, Easy Targets

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on January 25, 2011 by telescoper

Just back from a day trip to London – at the Institute of Physics to be precise – to wrap up the proceedings of this years protracted STFC Astronomy Grants Panel (AGP) business. The grant letters have already gone out, so no real decisions were made relating to the current round, but we did get the chance to look at a fairly detailed breakdown of the winners and losers. Perhaps more significantly we also discussed issues relating to the implementation of the brand new system which will be in place for 2011/12.

I’m not exactly sure at the moment how much of what we discussed is in the public domain, so I won’t write anything about the meeting here. Tomorrow there is a meeting of the RAS Astronomy Forum at which department representatives will also be briefed about these issues. I will, however, in due course, on as much information as I can through this blog in case there is anyone out there who doesn’t hear it via the Forum.

Not being able to blog about AGP business, I thought I’d comment briefly on a couple of recent things that sprang to mind on the train journey into London. Last night there was a programme in the BBC series Horizon called Science under Attack, presented by Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse. I didn’t watch all of it, but I was fortunate (?) enough to catch a segment featuring a chap called James Delingpole, whom I’d never heard of before, but who apparently writes for the Daily Torygraph.

My immediate reaction to his appearance on the small screen was to take an instant dislike to him. This is apparently not an uncommon response, judging by the review of the programme in today’s Guardian. I wouldn’t have bothered blogging about this at all had I wanted to indulge in an ad hominem attack on this person, but he backed up his “unfortunate manner” by saying some amazing things, such as

It’s not my job to sit down and read peer-reviewed papers, because I don’t have the time; I don’t have the expertise

Yet he feels qualified to spout off on the subject nevertheless. The subject, by the way, was climate change. I’m sure not even the most hardened climate skeptic would want Mr Delingpole on their side judging by his performance last night or, apparently, his track-record.

Anyway, this episode reminded me of another egregious example of uninformed drivel that appeared in last week’s Times Higher. This was a piece purporting to be about the limits of mathematical reasoning by another person who is quite new to me, Chris Ormell, who appears to have some academic credentials, if only in the field of philosophy.

Ormell’s piece includes a rant about cosmology which is on a par with Delingpole’s scribblings about climate change, in that he has absolutely no idea what he is talking about. Jon Butterworth and Sean Carroll have already had a go at pointing out the basic misunderstandings, so I won’t repeat the hatchet job here. If I had blogged about this at the weekend – which I might have done had my rodent visitor not intervened – I would have been considerably less polite than either of them. Ormell clearly hasn’t even read a wikipedia article on cosmology, never mind studied it to a level sufficiently deep to justify him commenting on it in a serious magazine.

I’m still amazed that such a pisspoor article could have made it through the Times Higher’s editorial procedures but more worrying still is the ract that Ormell is himself the editor of a journal, called Prospero, which is “a journal of new thinking of philosophy for education”. The last thing education needs is a journal edited by someone so sloppy that he can’t even be bothered to acquire a basic understanding of his subject matter.

What’s in common between these stories is, however, in my opinion, much more important than the inadequate scientific understanding of the personalities involved. Rubbishing the obviously idiotic, which is quite easy to do, may blind us to the fact that, behind all the errors, however badly expressed it may be, people like this may just have a point. Too often the scientific consensus is portrayed as fact when there are clearly big gaps missing in our understanding. Of course falsehoods should be corrected, but what science really needs to go forward is for bona fide scientists to be prepared to look at the technical arguments openly and responsibly and be candid about the unknowns and uncertainties. Big-name scientists should themselves be questioning the established paradigms and be actively exploring alternative hypotheses. That’s their job. Closing ranks and stamping on outsiders is what makes the public suspicious, not reasoned argument.

In both climatology and cosmology there are consensus views. Based on what knowledge I have, which is less in the former case than in the latter, both these views are reasonable inferences but not absolute truths. In neither case am I a denier, but in both cases I am a skeptic. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that’s what a scientist should be.



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