Archive for BBC

The Hawking Paradox

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on July 3, 2010 by telescoper

I found this on Youtube. The programme was 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 got 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. Horizon has gone steadily downhill since 2005, obviously because I haven’t been involved…

It’s in 5 parts so if you want to watch all of it, you will need to click through to the next at the end of each segment.

The Song of the Lyre Bird

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on June 25, 2010 by telescoper

I’ve wanted to post this little clip for some time, 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 in response to a characteristically snide and ill-informed piece by Simon Jenkins in yesterday’s Guardian. Jenkins indulges in an anti-science rant every now and again. Sometimes he has a point, in fact. But yesterday’s 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. 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?

A Reith Lecture

Posted in Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on May 13, 2010 by telescoper

I’m a bit late getting around to blogging today, primarily because I spent the evening at a lecture by Martin Rees. Not just any lecture, but one of the annual series of Reith Lectures that he has been chosen to present this year. This event took place in the splendid Reardon Smith Theatre in the National Museum in Cardiff, and was preceded by a wine reception where we mingled amongst the relics of Welsh prehistory. The audience for the lecture  included academics, politicians, journalists and students and there was a lively question-and-answer session afterwards.

The Reith Lectures were inaugurated in 1948 by the BBC to mark the historic contribution made to public service broadcasting by Sir John (later Lord) Reith, the corporation’s first director-general. John Reith maintained that broadcasting should be a public service which enriches the intellectual and cultural life of the nation. It is in this spirit that the BBC each year invites a leading figure to deliver a series of lectures on radio. The aim is to advance public understanding and debate about significant issues of contemporary interest.

The very first Reith lecturer was the philosopher, Bertrand Russell who spoke on “Authority and the Individual”. Among his successors were Arnold Toynbee (The World and the West, 1952), Robert Oppenheimer (Science and the Common Understanding, 1953) and J.K. Galbraith (The New Industrial State, 1966). More recently, the Reith lectures have been delivered by the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks (The Persistence of Faith, 1990) and Dr Steve Jones (The Language of the Genes, 1991). Since 2002, the Reith Lectures have been presented as was tonight’s,  by Sue Lawley.

I think this is the first time any of these lectures have been delivered in Cardiff. Martin Rees is, in fact, almost a Welshman himself ,  being born in Ludlow in Shropshire only about a mile the wrong side of the border; since being elevated to the peerage a few years ago, he is now known as Baron Rees of Ludlow. He is, of course, an immensely distinguished astrophysicist (he has been Astronomer Royal since 1995) but now has a broader portfolio of responsibility in the higher echelons of British science as President of the Royal Society.

As well as being an eminent scientist, Martin Rees is also a very fine public speaker, possessing an effortless gravitas that  any politician would die for.  He speaks with great clarity, thoughtfully and to the point, but with an economical use of language. He comes across as not only highly intelligent , which he undoubtedly is, but also deeply humane, another rare combination. Martin Rees was therefore an excellent choice to give the Reith Lectures. I had been looking forward to the evening for months after I got a phone call from Auntie Beeb asking me if I’d like to attend.

His lecture this evening wasn’t about astrophysics, and neither are the others in the series which has the pretty vague overall title Scientific Horizons. This lecture, the second of the series of four, was entitled Surviving the Century,and it concerned the role of science in identifying and possibly counteracting the threats facing humanity over the next few decades. He touched on climate change, renewable energy, and the possibility of nuclear or bio-terrorism. Although he spelled out the dangers in pretty stark terms he nevertheless claimed to be an optimist to the extent that he believed science could find solutions to the most pressing problems facing our planet, but I also sensed he was more of a pessimist as to whether the necessary measures could be implemented owing to socio-economic and political constraints. Science is vital to safeguarding the future of the planet, but it isn’t sufficient. People need to change the way they live their lives.

I won’t say any more about the lecture – or the interesting audience discussion that followed it – because you’ll be able to hear it yourselves on BBC Radio 4. The Lectures will be broadcast at 9am on Radio 4 starting on Tuesday 1st June (Lecture 1, called The Scientific Citizen). The lecture I attended tonight will be broadcast at the same time the following week (8th June). Lectures 3 and 4 will follow on 15th and 22nd June. Of course they will also be available as podcasts from the BBC website. If you want to be informed, enriched and challenged then I recommend you check them out.

Over the Rainbows

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , on May 3, 2010 by telescoper

I had the misfortune a few weeks ago to see a bit of a terrible BBC TV show called Over the Rainbow, the main aim of which seems to be to use TV License payers’ money to provide free advertising for a forthcoming West End production of the Wizard of Oz. Anyway, when I was thinking yesterday about cover versions of tunes that turned out better than the original, the tune Over the Rainbow sprang to mind. Since I’ve been on holiday today – studiously avoiding doing very much at all – I thought I’d put up some interesting jazz versions of that particular song.

There are hardly any tunes ever written that some jazz musician somewhere hasn’t taken a fancy to and done their own original version, however unpromising the raw material. Louis Armstrong had a particularly amazing ability to turn base metal into solid gold, making glorious music out of tunes nobody else wanted to touch. I’ve picked three quite different versions of Over the Rainbow, all of which I think are brilliant despite the mawkish sentimentality of the original song.

The first is from a concert by Keith Jarrett in Tokyo in 1984. As well as being a brilliant jazz musician, Jarrett is an accomplished classical performer who, for example, made an exceptionally fine recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations a few years ago. Quite a few people seem to get put off by watching his antics at the keyboard. I can see why. I think he sometimes looks like the piano is playing him, rather than the other way around. But if his contortions bother you, just listen to the music, which is just gorgeous… 

When I was still at school back in 1980 or 81 I had the good fortune to get to see the great alto saxophonist Art Pepper playing live with a band led by pianist Milcho Leviev. He played so beautifully on that concert that I became an immediate fan and tried to get hold of as many of his records as I could. I was devastated to hear just a couple of years later that he had died. Like many jazz musicians of his generation, Art Pepper had a serious drugs problem and he spent long periods in jail as a consequence. He joked that San Quentin Prison had better musicians than any establishment on Earth.

His tender, lyrical sound and graceful improvisations are  beautifully represented on this track recorded with George Cables (piano) and – I think – Charlie Haden (bass) and Billy Higgins on drums.

The last one up is by the great Bud Powell. He was another musician who struggled with narcotics, but he also had serious mental illness to deal with – he suffered numerous breakdowns and was heavily medicated in an attempt treat his schizophrenia. Although he moved to Paris in 1959 to make a fresh start, his self-destructive tendencies caught up with him. The quality of his playing deteriorated, his behaviour became erratic and he eventually died in 1966. Before leaving the States, however, Powell had made a number of recordings in which he demostrated the virtuousity and musical imagination that established him as one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time, and certainly the leading stylist of the bebop era.

Bud Powell’s version of Over the Rainbow is one of my all-time favourite pieces of music. He puts so much variation into the way he plays it, alternating a lush romantic style with jagged boppy lines and dark undertones introducing a strong element of parody juxtaposed with a more orthodox treatment of the melody. As much as I love the other two versions, this is my a favourite. By any standards, it is a masterpiece.

Wonders of the Solar System…

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on March 30, 2010 by telescoper

Apologies to Professor Brian Cox, but I couldn’t resist this! I think it’s hilarious…

A word of warning: it contains colourful language, so please be sure to watch it after the watershed. And if you can’t find water, lava will do just as well.

Going Forward

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on July 22, 2009 by telescoper

Since I’ve recently been officially awarded the title of Grumpy Old Man, I now feel I have the necessary authorization to vent my spleen about anything and everything that really irritates me.

This morning I got my regular monthly credit card statement, something likely to put me in a bad mood at the best of times. However, at the end of the itemized list of payments, I found the following:


I don’t actually care about the credit card cheques – they’re a ridiculously bad way of paying for things anyway –  but what on Earth is the phrase going forward doing in that sentence?

I’ve taken a swipe at this monster once before, when I blogged about the Wakeham Review of Physics. The example I found then was

The STFC’s governance structure must be representative of the community it serves in order to gain stakeholders’ confidence going forward.


Going forward is one of those intensely annoying bits of office-speak that have spread like Swine ‘flu into the public domain. Pushing the envelope is another one. What does it mean?  Why would anyone push an envelope?

Anyway, the worst problem with going forward is that it is now used almost universally in official documents instead of more suitable phrases, such as in future, or from now on. What particularly irritates me about it is that it is usually part of an attempt to present things in a positive light even when they clearly don’t involve any forward movement at all; often, in fact, quite the opposite. It is just one symptom of the insidious culture of spin that seems to be engulfing all aspects of public life, making it impossible to deliver even a simple message without wrapping it up in some pathetic bit of PR. Any kind of change – whether or not there’s any reason for it, and whether or not it improves anything – has to be portrayed as progress. It drives me nuts!

This sort of language is frequently lampooned by Laurie Taylor in his brilliant weekly column for the Times Higher.  The Director of Corporate Affairs for the fictional Poppleton University, Mr Jamie Targett, contributes regularly to his column, always in meaningless business-oriented gibberish of this type. In fact, shortly after reading the Wakeham Review quoted above, I sent a letter to the Times Higher (which was published there) accusing Jamie Targett of moonlighting from his job at Poppleton to work on the Wakeham Report.

In the case of my credit card cheques, the implication is that the withdrawal of the service represents some sort of progress. In fact, it’s just to save money. A friend of mine who uses a local gym told me today that the gym had recently announced that

Going forward, members of the gym will no longer be supplied with free towels.

They went on to portray this as a great leap forward in caring for the environment, but in fact it is obviously just a way of saving their costs. Likewise with a sentence I found in a railway timetable recently:

Going forward the 8.15 train from Paddington will no longer call at Didcot Parkway

At least it’s still going to call at Didcot when it’s going backwards, which is the obvious implication of this sentence.

I’m glad I’m not alone in my disapproval of going forward.  A year or so ago there was an article on the BBC website making much the same point. However, the amount of going forward has continued to increase. Robert Peston, the BBC business editor, once managed three going forwards in a four minute item on the Today programme.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council has obviously taken this phrase to heart. Their website is chock-a-block with going forward. Here’s an example (referring to a budget cut)

It will result in an approximately constant volume of project activity going forward ..

Obviously, once you start going forward there’s no going back, even if what lies in front of you is financial catastrophe…

PS. Feel free to add your own pet hates via the comments box going forward.