Archive for Economics

The Terror of Maths

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on May 9, 2016 by telescoper

I’m not sure whether to be amused or appalled by the story of the Professor whose flight was delayed in order for him to be interrogated because a fellow passenger saw him doing some mathematical calculations. I know some people who find mathematics scary but that’s taking things too far! I wonder if the passenger was Simon Jenkins?

I was wondering whether the calculation was concerned with plane geometry but that seems not to be the case. The academic concerned is an Economist and he was studying a differential equation. That surprises me. I hadn’t realised economists knew about calculus. Or about anything else, for that matter.

The BBC coverage of the story used the following image:


The physicists among you will recognize this as a representation of some of Maxwell’s Equations. I very much doubt they played a part in the work of  our Economics Professor, so presumably this is just one of the  BBC’s stock of generic “scary maths” images.

Other things worth noting are that this version of Maxwell’s Equations isn’t written in SI units, the standard notation in the UK and Europe. As a matter of fact it uses cgs units, which suggests it may be an American import. Nor is it really correct anyway, because the time derivative inside the brackets should surely be partial.

All of which goes to demonstrate how Mathematics is usually viewed in the media and, by extension, the public at large: like an arcane book written in an incomprehensible  language that should be viewed with suspicion or ridicule by any sensible person.

There is nothing new about this, of course. I’m reminded that in 1870, during the Franco-Prussian Way, Norwegian mathematician Sophus Lie was arrested in France on suspicion of being a German spy because the authorities thought his mathematical notes were coded messages of some sort.

In reality, mathematics is the most open and universal language of all and, as such, is a powerful force for human good. Among many other things, quantitative reasoning and proper logic help to defend us against those who lie and distort the facts in order to gain power. Mathematics may not be the easiest language to learn, but it’s well worth the effort, even if you can only master the basics.



Why is Astronomy Important?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on November 5, 2013 by telescoper

There’s an interesting and unusual article on the arXiv today entitled Why is Astronomy Important? Here is the abstract:

For a long time astronomers and other scientists believed that the importance of their work was evident to society. But in these difficult days of financial austerity, even the most obvious benefits of science have to undergo careful scrutiny. Eradicating poverty and hunger is a worldwide priority, and activities that do not directly attempt to resolve these issues can be hard to justify and support. However, several studies have told us that investing in science education, research and technology provides a great return not only economically, but culturally and indirectly for the population in general and has helped countries to face and overcome crises. The scientific and technological development of a country or region is closely linked to its human development index a statistic that is a measure of life expectancy, education and income.

The full text of the paper can be found on the IAU website here.

The article focusses on matters relating to the transfer of technology between astronomy and, e.g. industry, aerospace, and medicine, its effect on technology we are familiar with in everyday life, on astronomy as an exemplar of international collaboration and on its wider cultural and philosophical impact. Many of the points made in this article can also be found in the Royal Astronomical Society‘s free publication Beyond the Stars: Why Astronomy Matters which is available for free online here.

I recommend you read the full article and make your own mind up about why astronomy is important. I have just two comments, which are partly questions. The first is that I’ve always had a bit of a problem with the interpretation of correlations like that mentioned in the last sentence of the abstract (between technological development and the human development index). The issue is the basic one that correlation of two phenomena does not necessarily imply that one causes the other. Is it really possible to establish rigorously a causal link between spending money on astronomy and wider societal benefits? I’m not saying that there isn’t such a link, just that it’s difficult to interpret evidence which is dependent on so many factors. Could one not argue instead that more developed countries spend more money on astronomy because they can afford to?

The other thing that troubles me with arguments of the type presented in the paper is that there is a danger that  emphasizing the transfer of knowledge to other disciplines as the rationale for funding astronomy implicitly negates the argument that astronomy has intrinsic worth of its own. In other words, answering the question “Why is Astronomy important?” seems to accept at the outset that it isn’t.  If it is indeed the case that we can only justify astronomy because it has produced spin-offs in, e.g., medicine, why not just spend more money on medicine and forget the astronomy?

I’m not saying that the technology transfer arguments carry no weight, just that they are definitely double-edged and should be used with caution. For the record, I think we should fund Astronomy (and other sciences) primarily because they are an essential part of the fabric of our culture and civilization; all the rest is icing on the cake. In other words, I support state funding for the sciences for very much the same reasons as for the arts.  I’m fully aware, however, that this unlikely to persuade the powers that be as effectively as an appeal to economic benefits; that’s why science funding has fared so much better than arts funding in this age of austerity.

Fears for the Future

Posted in Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on April 10, 2010 by telescoper

Just came back from a lovely cycle ride to find that my polling card arrived through my letterbox while I was out. Gordon Brown announced the election earlier this week, so it’s quite impressive how efficiently the electoral system swings into action.  It’s a pity so much else is screwed up.  Anyway, Parliament now goes into limbo and we have three weeks of heightened tedium to endure while the politicians try to convince us that, despite all the mess they’ve made of things so far, they do actually know what they’re doing.

I still don’t know how I’m going to cast my vote on May 6th (polling day). I can’t see myself voting for the incumbents – for more reasons than I have time to list. My experience of Thatcher’s Britain in the 1980s convinced me that I’ll never vote Conservative either. And the Lib Dems are just, well, a bit pathetic. I will vote. I just don’t know who I’ll vote for. I’ll have to look at my constituency’s history carefully to see if tactical voting might help. Perhaps more on that in due course…

Anyway, whatever the result of the election turns out to be, I’m pretty scared about what the next three or four years has in store.  The huge budget deficit that the government has built up saving the banks from collapse is going to have to be dealt with. The recent budget didn’t really do anything to tackle it, but everybody knows that was just a holding operation until the election is over. Whoever takes power afterwards will have to take serious measures to fix things. It won’t be pretty. Tax rises and public spending cuts are both inevitable as  the international bond markets threaten to downgrade Britains AAA credit rating. If that happens we will end up with runaway debts and increasingly expensive borrowing.  Don’t think we won’t go the way of Greece.

In the meantime our economy is carrying on as if it is in a trance. House prices continue to rise, the FTSE index is climbing, interest rates are at the astonishingly low level of 0.5%. It can’t possibly go on. Houses are clearly still overvalued, at immense social cost to people wanting to start a family. The stock market is gaining because investors are not getting any return from cash deposits, and companies are boosting their profits by sacking staff and cutting costs rather than generating new demand. As soon as interest rates go up again – which they surely must – I think there’s a good chance the stock market will fall again. If you don’t hold any shares yourself you may think that’s not important. However, it directly affects the pensions of millions of people, most of whom are not wealthy, because that’s where a lot of their pension schemes’ money is invested.

The most pressing issue is not who wins the election but whether there is a winner. If the election turns out indecisively – which at the moment seems quite likely – then we’re going to see turmoil on a scale that makes the banking nightmare of 2007 look like a tea party. And even if there is an outright winner, there’s no guarantee that they will have the gumption to even begin tackling the problem.

Of course, as a scientist working in a University, I’m also concerned about what’s going to happen to my own livelihood after the election. The recent mess this government has made of science funding has blotted its record on this, which was previously not bad. However, the true scale of this country’s economic problems seems to be too much for our political leaders, both present and future, to cope with. I don’t see any of the parties having the vision to manage the current crisis as well as putting together a coherent plan to build a better future. I’m not the only person to think so, in fact, as a letter in The Times today from a group of distinguished astronomers made clear. Other nations (especially the USA and France) are all investing heavily in science as a means to secure future economic growth. We’ve already started cutting back, and don’t see any strong political voice to reverse that policy.

Of course people don’t just vote for their immediate self-interest. Science is important to me, and I think it’s important for the country too, but there are other issues. There’s more to life than economics too. This country has been in a post-Imperial sleepwalk for too long and it needs to snap out of it. We need to renew our political system, which has grown distant and unaccountable. We need to deal with a looming energy crisis. We need to develop a proper education system that is fit for the 21st century. And we need to deal with the problems of a rapidly ageing population. For these reasons, and more, I hope the next Parliament will contain politicians with the vision necessary to see this country through the tough times ahead. Unfortunately, I don’t think it will.

I’m just glad I’m no longer young.