Archive for Brian Cox

Why the Universe is extremely overrated.

Posted in Television, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on June 19, 2018 by telescoper

A few weeks I read an article in Physics Today which prompted me to revise and resubmit an old post I cobbled together in response to the BBC television series Wonders of the Universe in which I argued that the title of that programme suggests that the Universe is wonder-ful, or even, in a word which has cropped up in the series a few times, `awesome’.  When you think about it the Universe is not really `awesome at all’. In fact it’s extremely overrated.

Take this thing, for example:

 

This is an example of a galaxy (the Andromeda Nebula, M31, to be precise). We live in a similar object. Of course it looks quite pretty on the surface but, when you look at it with a physicist’s eye, such a galaxy is really not as great as it’s cracked up to be, as I shall now explain.

We live in a relatively crowded part of our galaxy on a small planet orbiting a fairly insignificant star called the Sun. Now you’ve got me started on the Sun. I know it supplies the Earth with all its energy, but it does the job pretty badly, all things considered because the Sun only radiates a fraction of a milliwatt per kilogram. By comparison a human being radiates more than one watt per kilogram. Pound for pound, that’s more than a thousand times as much energy as a star.

So,  in reality, stars are bloated, wasteful, inefficient and not even slightly awesome. They’re only noticeable because they’re big. And we all know that size shouldn’t really matter. In short, stars are extremely overrated.

But even in what purports to be an interesting neighbourhood of our Galaxy, the nearest star is 4.5 light years from the Sun. To get that in perspective, imagine the Sun is the size of a golfball. On the same scale, where is the nearest star?

The answer to that will probably surprise you, as it does my students when I give this example in lectures. The answer is, in fact, on the order of a thousand kilometres away. That’s the distance from Cardiff to, say, Munich. What a dull landscape our Galaxy possesses. In between one little golf ball in Wales and another one in Germany there’s nothing of any interest at all, just a featureless incomprehensible void not worthy of the most perfunctory second thought.

So galaxies aren’t dazzlingly beautiful jewels of the heavens. They’re flimsy, insubstantial things more like the cheap tat you can find on QVC. What’s worse is that they’re also full of a grubby mixture of soot and dust. Indeed, some are so filthy that you can hardly see any stars at all. Somebody needs to give the Universe a good clean. I suppose you just can’t get the help these days.

And then to the Physics Today piece I mentioned at the start of this article. I quote:

Star formation is stupendously inefficient. Take the Milky Way. Our galaxy contains about a billion solar masses of fresh gas available to form stars—and yet it produces only one solar mass of new stars a year.

Hopeless! What a waste of space a galaxy is! As well as being oversized, vacuous and rather dirty, one is also pretty useless at making the very things it is supposed to be good at! What galaxies clearly need is some sort of a productivity drive or perhaps a complete redesign using more efficient technology.

So stars are overrated and galaxies are overrated, but surely the Universe as a whole is impressive?

No. Think about the Big Bang. Well, I don’t need to go on about that because I’ve already posted about it. Suffice to say that the Big Bang wasn’t anywhere near as Big as you’ve been led to believe: the volume was between about 115 and 120 decibels. Quite loud, to be sure, but many rock concerts are louder. To be honest it’s a bit of an anti-climax. If I’d been in charge (and given sufficient funding) I would have put on something much more spectacular.

In any case the Big Bang happened a very long time ago. Since then the Universe has been expanding, the space between galaxies getting emptier and emptier so there’s now less than one atom per cubic metre, and cooling down to the point where its temperature is lower than three degrees above absolute zero.

The Universe is a cold, desolate and very empty place, lit by a few feeble stars and warmed only by the fading glow of the heat left over from when it was all so much younger and more exciting. Here and there amid the cosmic void a few galaxies are dotted about, like cheap and rather tatty ornaments. It’s as if we inhabit a shabby downmarket retirement home, warmed only by the feeble radiation given off by a puny electric fire as we occupy ourselves as best we can until Armageddon comes.

In my opinion the Universe would have worked out better had it been entirely empty, instead of being contaminated with such detritus. I agree with Tennessee Williams:

BRICK: “Well, they say nature hates a vacuum, Big Daddy.
BIG DADDY: “That’s what they say, but sometimes I think that a vacuum is a hell of a lot better than some of the stuff that nature replaces it with.”

So no, the Universe isn’t wonderful. Not at all. In fact, it’s basically a bit rubbish. Again, it’s only superficially impressive because it’s quite large, and it doesn’t do to be impressed by things just because they are large. That would be vulgar.

Digression: I just remembered a story about a loudmouthed Texan who owned a big ranch and who was visiting the English countryside on holiday. Chatting to locals in the village pub he boasted that it took him several days to drive around his ranch. A farmer replied “Yes. I used to have a car like that.”

Ultimately, however, the fact is that whatever we think about the Universe and how badly constructed it it, we’re stuck with it. Just like the trains, the government and the weather. There’s nothing we can do about it, so we might as grin and bear it.

It’s being so cheerful that helps keep me going.

 

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On the Importance of School Experiments

Posted in Biographical, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on February 27, 2017 by telescoper

Twitter drew my attention this afternoon to a series of videos produced by the Royal Society designed to give teachers in schools some additional resources to encourage their pupils to do science experiments. They star the ubiquitous Professor Brian Cox, and they cover a wide range of science. You can see the whole playlist on Youtube here (although it is unfortunately back-to-front):

Although I ended up doing primarily theoretical work in my scientific career, there’s no question that ‘hands-on’ experiments played a big part in the development of my understanding of, especially, physics and chemistry. I remember vividly when I was about 12 years old doing a simple series of experiments in which we weighed out samples of chemical material of various types, then burned it somehow (usually over a bunsen burner) and weighed what was left. Commonsense based on experience with burning stuff like wood and paper is that the process reduces the amount of material so I expected the mass remaining at the end to be less than the initial mass. The first stuff that I did was a few grains of calcium. I couldn’t believe it when the residue turned out to weigh more than the stuff I started with. I was sure I was wrong and got quite upset for failing such an elementary practical exercise, but the same thing happened every time whatever the material.

Of course, the explanation is that the process going on was oxidation, and the calcium was actually combining with oxygen from the air to form an oxide. It did look as if some kind of destruction had happened, but the oxygen taken from the atmosphere had bonded to the calcium atoms and this increased the mass of the residue.

The teacher could have talked about this and explained it, but it wouldn’t have had anything like the impact on my understanding of discovering it for myself.

That’s a personal story of course, but I think it’s probably a widespread educational experience. These days few students seem to have the chance to do their own experience, either because of shortage of facilities or the dreaded ‘Health and Safety’ so I think any effort to encourage more teachers to allow their students to do more experiments is thoroughly worthwhile!

TV Star and Physicist Look-alike?

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes with tags , on February 6, 2013 by telescoper

My attention was drawn yesterday to this remarkable photograph of a very young Professor Brian Cox, the famous particle physicist turned astronomer biologist and media star. I believe it was taken while he was a member of a popular beat combo of some sort. Before seeing this picture I hadn’t realized what people meant when they referred to him as a TV celebrity ….

cox

…geddit? Anyway, I have to say I think the look rather suits him!

I haven’t got time today to trawl the interwebs looking for a lookey-likey, so it’s time for a bit of crowd-sourcing. Anyone care to suggest a celebrity likeness?

P.S. I have done a look-alike for Prof. Cox already.

The Cox-Ince affair rumbles on..

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on January 1, 2013 by telescoper

The Cox-Ince controversy rumbles on, apparently…

Open Parachute

Popular science presenters like Brian Cox are sometimes criticised by colleagues suffering from a bit of professional jealousy – although it’s a lot better than in the old days. I think most scientists today recognise the need for good science communication with the public – who, after all, are financing our science through the taxation system.

Brian Cox and his mate Robin Ince wrote a recent New Statesman editorial promoting a better understanding of the nature of science and its role in public decision-making (see Politicians must not elevate mere opinion over science). It made some good points – but upset some people. The jealousy this time seems to come from a few historians and sociologists – and not scientists themselves.

I think their criticism reveals an unfortunate attitude towards the scientific process, or indeed a misunderstanding of that process. Nevertheless, the debate does reveal some aspects of the…

View original post 2,382 more words

Science and Politics

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , on December 22, 2012 by telescoper

It’s a dark dreary December day with a downright deluge descending outside to add to the alliteration.  Fortunately, it being almost Christmas, this weekend is offering a glut of crosswords with which I’ve been occupying myself while waiting for a break in the rain.

Among the puzzles I’ve done was a moderately challenging one in the New Statesman.  I have a subscription to the New Statesman, which means that I get it delivered in the post approximately two days after everyone else has had a chance to read it. After finishing the crossword, which contain a number of hidden (unclued) famous pseudonyms, I had a look at the rest of the magazine and discovered that this issue, the Christmas one, was edited by Brian Cox (who needs no introduction) and Robin Ince (who I believe is a comedian of some sort). It’s nice to see science featured so strongly in a political magazine, of course, but I did raise an eyebrow when I read this (about the LHC) in a piece written by Professor Cox:

The machine itself is 27 kilometres in circumference and is constructed from 9,300 superconducting electromagnets operating at -271.3°C. There is no known place in the universe that cold outside laboratories on earth…

Not so. The cryogenic systems on ESA’s Planck mission achieved a stable operating temperature at the 0.1 K level. This experiment has now reached the end of its lifetime and is warming up, but  the Herschel Space Observatory with a temperature of 1.4 K is still cooler than the Large Hadron Collider. Moreover, there are natural phenomena involving very low temperatures. The Boomerang Nebula has a measured temperature of −272.15°C, also lower than the LHC.  How does this system manage to cool itself down below the temperature of the cosmic microwave background, I hear you asking.  A detailed model is presented here; it’s “supercooled” because it is expanding so quickly compared to the rate at which it is absorbing CMB photons.

Anyway, if this all seems a bit pedantic then I suppose it is, but if prominent science advocates can’t be bothered to check their facts on things they claim to be authorities about, one wonders why the public show pay them any attention in the broader sphere. Fame and influence bring with them difficult responsibilities.

That brings me to another piece in the same issue, this one co-authored by Cox and Ince, about Science and Society entitled Politicians must not elevate mere opinion over science. I’d realised that there was a bit of a Twitter storm brewing about this item, but had to wait until the horse and cart arrived with my snail mail copy before I could try figure out what it was about. I still haven’t because although it’s not a particularly focussed piece it doesn’t seem to say anything all that controversial. In fact it just struck me that it seems to be a bit self-contradictory, on the one hand arguing that politicians should understand science better and on the other calling for a separation of science and politics.   There are two more detailed rejoinders here and here.

For my part I’ll just say that I think it is neither possible nor desirable to separate science from politics.  That’s because, whether we like it or not, we need them both. Science may help us understand the world around us, and (to a greater or lesser degree of reliability) predict its behaviour, but it does not make decisions for us. Cox and Ince argue that

Science is the framework within which we reach conclusions about the natural world. These conclusions are always preliminary, always open to revision, but they are the best we can do.

I’d put it differently, in terms of probabilities and evidence rather than “conclusions”, but I basically agree. The problem is that at some point we have to make decision which may not depend solely on the interpretation of evidence but on a host of other factors that science can say nothing about. Definite choices have to be made, even when the evidence is ambiguous. In other words we have to bring closure, much as we do when a jury delivers a verdict in a court of law, which is something that science on its own can rarely do. Mere opinion certainly counts in that context, and so it should. The point is that science is done by people, not machines. People decide what questions to ask, and what assumptions to proceed from. Choices of starting point are political (in the widest sense of the word) and sometimes what you get out of a scientific investigation  is little more than what you put in.

It’s always going to a problem in a democratic society that scientific knowledge is confined to a relatively small number of experts. We can do our best to educate as many as possible about what we do, but we’re always going to struggle to explain ourselves adequately. There will always be conspiracy theories and crackpots of various kinds. The way to proceed is not to retreat into a bunker and say “Trust me, I’m a scientist” but to be more open about the doubts and uncertainties and to present a more realistic picture of the strengths and limitations of science. That means to engage with public debate, not by preaching the gospel of science as if it held all the answers, but by acknowledging that science is a people thing and that as such it belongs in politics as much as politics belongs in it.

Brian Cox up the Exclusion Principle

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on February 22, 2012 by telescoper

I know a few students of Quantum Mechanics read this blog so here’s a little challenge. View the following video segment featuring Sir Brian of Cox and see if you can spot the deliberate (?) mistake contained therein on the subject of the Pauli Exclusion Principle.

When you’ve made up your mind, you can take a peek at the objection that’s been exercising armchair physicists around the twittersphere, and also a more technical argument supporting Prof. Cox’s interpretation from a university in the Midlands.

UPDATE: 23/2/2012 Meanwhile, over the pond, Sean Carroll is on the case.

Polished Cox

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on November 17, 2011 by telescoper

It looks like impressionist Jon Culshaw has been working hard on Cox in his spare time judging by the following, rather polished, article recently unveiled on TV: