Archive for Guardian

A blog by any other name..

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on August 8, 2012 by telescoper

While I’m online I thought I’d pass on the following gripe.


Some months ago I saw a message going around on Twitter that the Guardian was looking for new science bloggers to cover a wide range of disciplines for its website. After thinking hard about it, I decided to submit an application basically so I could find out more about what was involved and see if I really wanted to do it. Anyway, I’ve already written a commissioned piece for the Guardian website, so I thought it was an idea worth pursuing.

My idea wasn’t to scrap In the Dark or move it all to the Guardian, but to post less frequent and more sciencey pieces there and keep this as a personal ego-trip blog. The advantage of that being that they pay, whereas this blog doesn’t make me any dosh at all, and also presumably generates significantly wider exposure. As well as making a pitch for the content of the proposed blog, I had to think of a new title if In the Dark was to carry on, so I came up with Across the Universe, which seemed to me to emphasize nicely the cosmological slant of the pieces I would be likely to write. It’s not a new coinage, of course. It’s based on a Beatles song I have posted about previously.

So I filed the application and waited. Then I was contacted by Alok Jha, who looks after the Science blog network at the Grauniad, who initially made encouraging noises, explained that there would be minimal editorial control and  I would keep copyright of anything I wrote for them, etc. Most of my questions having been answered I awaited further developments. Then Alok Jha contacted me again and explained that the editorial team wanted me to jump through several extra hoops if I wanted to take the idea forward. I sensed cold feet. For a number of reasons, the timing of these new phases of the process were also very inconvenient, so, after mulling it over, I contacted Alok Jha and politely withdrew my application.

I’ve no regrets about that decision, and thought no more about it, until last week when the Guardian started to roll out its new blogging team. I was delighted to see neuroscientist, comedian, and fellow Cardiff University chappie Dean Burnett among the bloggers. Their new blogger for matters astronomical is Stuart Clark, a well-known and respected science writer who I’m sure will cover a wide range of interesting topics (as he has already started to do).

What I’m peeved about, however, is that Stuart’s blog title is Across the Universe, exactly what I had suggested in my proposal! Coincidence? I asked Stuart via Twitter and he told me that the name was suggested to him by none other than Alok Jha.

Of course the title isn’t copyrighted by me, and wasn’t even original, but it was my suggestion and I do think it’s very poor form to have appropriated what was on my proposal without asking or giving acknowledgement. I’ve no complaints about Stuart Clark, of course. He didn’t know what had happened, and I wish him well with his new blog – which I shall certainly be reading. But I’m not at all chuffed about the way this was handled by the Guardian.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out Alok Jha recently contacted me to apologize and say that he had “forgotten” that Across the Universe was the title I gave on my proposal.


Anyway, the upshot of all this is that I’ll be keeping In the Dark going pretty much as it is for the foreseeable future.

Health willing.

Camera may have exposed a fossil…

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on August 1, 2012 by telescoper

Yesterday’s old photograph reminded me of this classic from Private Eye ages ago. It appeared originally in the Guardian (before it went all Helvetica). Sorry it’s a bit battered…

Crosswords and Prizes

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , , , on June 24, 2012 by telescoper

It has been a while since I last posted anything in the box marked Crosswords, so I thought I’d while away a bit of this dreary Sunday morning with a few thoughts on that topic.

Less than a year ago, I switched my Saturday newspaper from the Guardian to the Independent (see here for the reason). I’ve been doing the Independent Prize Cryptic every week since then, except when I’ve been away. I find it significantly more satisfying than the Guardian puzzle. I’m not sure the Independent‘s crossword is harder – although some of my friends think so –  but there seems to be better quality control there than at the Guardian.

I still occasionally do the Guardian puzzle at weekends by downloading it from the web. Yesterday’s celebrated a centenary – not difficult to guess whose! – but it wasn’t a particularly interesting puzzle, and I thought some of the clues were very clumsy.

Anyway, somewhat amazingly, I’ve actually won the Independent crossword prize no less than six times in the nine months or so since I starting doing it. An immediate inference from this is that there must be many fewer entrants than for the Guardian weekly puzzle, which I only won once every few years. The other side of this is that I’m accumulating dictionaries at an alarming rate. The prize for the Indy cryptic competition is The Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus, a substantial tome that retails for about £20. I now have one in my study at home, one in the sitting room, and one in my office at work. I gave one to my mum a while ago, and the other two I’ve given to colleagues at work. I’ll probably be disposing of a few more copies like that if things carry on the way they have in past months. I’ve even started taking advance orders…

I haven’t been doing so well this year in my favourite crossword competition, the Azed puzzle in the Observer. I started well enough, but then drew a blank on a number of occasions and slipped back down the table. However, this week I got another score with a VHC (“Very Highly Commended”) in Azed 2087, and am currently in equal 24th place. There’s only one competition puzzle left, and I’m a long way off the pace set by the leaders, so I’m not going to finish much higher than that even if I do well in the last competition.

Anyway, my clue for the word ROCKET was:

Dicky ticker – love might make this one race!

I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to parse, although it involves a “comp. anag.” It goes without saying that the prize-winning clues are much better than my effort!

Incidentally, I noticed yesterday that my post about the Azed 2000 lunch a couple of years ago was getting a bit of traffic. I don’t really know why, but in the course of looking around I saw that there’s a nice collection of photographs of the event here. I couldn’t embed any of them here as they’re protected.

The general reaction of people I work with to all this cruciverbalism is that it’s a waste of time. I actually don’t agree, except insofar as everything is a waste of time when you think about it. Crosswords for me are a form of mental jogging. They exercise a brain in a way that’s different from the usual things it is faced with. In my case, a lot of my work involves puzzles of various kinds. Some are mathematical, connected with my research, but the most difficult ones are bureaucratical: trying to work out what all the paperwork is for and how to fill it in without losing my rag. Despite a complete lack of empirical evidence to support this assertion, I think doing crosswords keeps my brain from ossifying and enables it to think more flexibly. Or maybe I protest too much. Perhaps I just enjoy them.

The Academic Publishing Empire Strikes Back

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , , on May 25, 2012 by telescoper

There’s an article in this morning’s Grauniad in which a representative of the academic publishing industry, by the name of Graham Taylor,  tries to counter the vociferous criticism that has been aimed at this sector in recent months. Mr Taylor is right when he comments that most of the furore relates to the issue of Open Access, i.e. the fact that academic  articles are often hidden behind paywalls when published, even when the research on which they are based is funded by the taxpayer.

Mr Taylor actually claims that the publishing industry is all for open access. Perhaps this is true, but if that’s the case it’s because they’ve been forced to that point by pressure from external agencies.  The latest sign of this pressure is a petition in the US to force taxpayer-funded research out into the open. I’m sure academic publishers are smart enough to read the writing on the wall, so it has now become politic for them to pretend that the proposals for open access were what they wanted all along.

However, the main thrust of Mr Taylor’s argument is that we must ensure that any new model of academic publishing is “sustainable”. What he means by that is that he wants academic publishers to be able to sustain their healthy profit margins at the expense of the taxpayer.  I disagree with his arguments in almost every respect, so much so that it actually made me rather angry to read the piece.

Here’s an example

The publishing process involves: soliciting and managing submissions; managing peer review; editing and preparing scripts; producing the articles; publishing and disseminating journals; and of course archiving.

This description bears very little relation to what happens in my field. Journals do not “solicit” manuscripts – they just wait for submissions to arrive. “Managing peer review” merely involves farming the job out to unpaid external referees. “Editing and preparing scripts”? All journals I deal with require authors to typeset and copy-edit their own papers. “Producing the articles” is done by the authors! Moreover, everyone in my field also publishes their work for free on the arXiv. Articles can be disseminated over the internet at negligible cost via a number of routes as well as the arXiv.

No, Mr Taylor, the process of academic publishing you describe in your article went out the window years ago. Now virtually everything is done by academics apart from the bit at which the academic publishers really excel – the imposition of extortionate costs to maintain your profits. The fact is that the academic publishing industry is not only redundant but also parasitic. The only viable solution is to bypass it altogether.

Another particularly specious bit of argument is the following:

Scholarly publishers support 10,000 jobs in the UK and we are significant net revenue earners for the UK. The members of the Publishers Association pay more in taxes to the UK exchequer than all UK universities collectively pay to all publishers globally for access to their journals.

This may be the case, but the problem is that the money that underwrites this thriving export industry is taken from a budget that was intended to be spent on research. As the science budget dwindles – yes, it is dwindling – an ever-increasing proportion is being devoted to supporting these racketeers. Can you imagine the outcry if taxpayer’s money were used to support other private publishing interests, perhaps even the porn industry?

And consider this:

However, in 2010 – the last year for which Society of College, National and University Libraries data are available – UK universities had access to 2.42m journal subscriptions, an increase of 93% over 2006. The price paid for these subscriptions, £134m, increased by only 31% over the same period, so the price paid per journal accessed actually fell by 32%.

The real scandal is that the cost of journal subscriptions has gone up at all when the real cost of digital publishing has plummeted over the same period. All the price increase has done is line the pockets of folk who seem to think they have a God-given right to sponge off the public purse. And so what if they have created a plethora of extra journals? That’s just to acquire more raw material to mark up and sell on to the gullible consumer.

Returning to the subject of Open Access, Mr Taylor argues for a model in which scholarly publishers can continue to fleece the research sector but in a way that’s different from their current racket. They want authors to pay a huge fee up-front (a “paper management fee” perhaps £2000) to have their paper published. Such a system would have the merit of making research available free of charge to anyone who is interested in it, but in terms of its function as a scam it is just as ludicrous as the current racket. Since authors do all the work anyway, there’s no reason to charge an amount anything like this. It simply does not cost  £2000 to publish papers on the internet!  Any fee of this magnitude would just be fed to the parasites.

The activities of academic publishing industry are no longer relevant when it comes to dissemination of research results; academics can do that for ourselves. You have done very well for yourselves at our expense, but you’ve been rumbled. Time to face the music.

My Guardian Science Blog…

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , , on April 20, 2012 by telescoper

Just a very quick post to direct you to a piece by me on the topic of Open Access and the Academic Journal Racket, which appeared today in the Grauniad Guardian Science Blog.

Here’s a taster, but for the whole thing you’ll have to go here.


Setters and Solvers

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , , , , , on February 26, 2012 by telescoper

I realise that yesterday I said I only had time for a quick post, and then proceeded to write >1000 words on the subject of Masters degrees. Today I really only have time for a quick post, as I have to finish writing my examination paper (amongst other things).

Anyway, I haven’t blogged about crosswords for a while so I just thought mention a few things. Some time ago I switched from the Guardian to the Independent on Saturdays. The Guardian is a sad case. As its circulation falls, the price continues to rise. It is now getting more expensive virtually by the week. It comes with stacks of tedious supplements which go straight into the recycling bin anyway. There’s much less of the Independent and it’s both higher quality and cheaper. There’s a lesson there for the Grauniad, I think.

More importantly (for me) the Guardian’s crosswords have gone rapidly downhill and I much prefer the Independent’s setters nowadays. I do occasionally do the Grauniad prize one by downloading it from the net, especially if it’s Araucaria, but most of the other setters are nowhere near as good. Since I started doing the Indy crossword last year I’ve won the prize, a rather splendid dictionary, three times. I’ve got one in my study at home and one in my office. The other I gave to my mum. If I win any more I’m not sure how I’ll dispose of them. Perhaps I could open a shop?

The magazine bit of the Independent has a more difficult crossword called Inquisitor. I’m not sure about these at all. Sometimes they’re really good, but too often they require so many modifications to be made to each solution before entry into the grid that they become completely tedious, and the completed puzzle just looks like a random jumble of letters. Call me old-fashioned, but I like my crosswords to have words in them. Last week’s (Inquisitor 1217) was an extreme example, with “thematic modifications” all over the place and some parts of the puzzle completely unclued. It turned out that you had to remove every third letter of each solution before entering it into the grid, the theme being an obscure and entirely unclued reference to the Rime of the Ancient Mariner “And he stoppeth one of three”. I got there in the end – I find I can’t leave a puzzle incomplete once I’ve started – but I didn’t post it off in protest at how unsatisfying it was.  I don’t mind difficult puzzles, but they have to be fair: leaving huge parts of the puzzle unclued means that it’s just guesswork rather than logic.

My favourite crossword is still Azed in the Observer. I got off to a good start in this year’s clue setting competition with a run of VHCs (“Very Highly Commended”). However, I didn’t have time to do the Christmas Azed and have therefore slipped down the league table a bit.

I got an HC in the last competition, No. 2070, in which the word to be clued was MISTREATMENT. My clue was

Kinky “Master” welcoming one into pain or wanting abuse

i.e. anagram of MASTER including I running into TORMENT with OR missing (wanting); abuse is the definition. It’s OK I suppose but admittedly not as good as the prize-winning entries.

This word is tailor-made for an &lit type of clue, which Azed seems to like. The winning entry for this one was of this type

Abuse T. Emin’s art met?

So you can read this as “abuse” (an anagram indicator) of the subsequent letters to make MISTREATMENT or the whole clue itself as a definition. Azed seems to allow a lot of slack in the definition part of such clues, but I’m not at all convinced that “T. Emin’s art” has ever been actually mistreated so I don’t like this as much as some of the other clues. It’s not my decision, however, and I have to say some of the clues in the list are really superb, much better than my mundane effort.

I love solving crossword puzzles, but I find setting the clues extremely difficult. I think I’m the same way with physics too. I like solving – or trying to solve – problems of various kinds, but I find setting them very hard work. That’s why it takes me so long to write examination papers, and why I consequently have to go into the office on a lovely spring sunday. It would be much easier to set exactly the same paper as last year, but of course no self-respecting university teacher would ever even dream of doing that….

Telescoper Crossword Competition

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , , , , on September 14, 2011 by telescoper

Having had a busy weekend reading grant applications and referee reports in advance of next week’s meeting of the Astronomy Grants Panel, I’ve been unusually late completing the weekend’s crosswords. As I mentioned a while ago, I’ve given up buying the Guardian in favour of the Independent, whose crosswords are much better in my opinion. I managed to do the prize crossword in the newspaper without too much difficulty, but the magazine supplement has a much more testing one called Inquisitor. In addition to being quite a challenging cryptic crossword, this usually has a twist in that one has to highlight (or sometimes delete) letters entered into the grid according to some theme. I’m a bit skeptical about these extra tasks, I suppose because I think a good crossword doesn’t need any such embellishments. I have to say, though, that it is  a different kind of challenge from the usual cryptic and I might warm to it given time.

About a year ago at the Azed 2000 dinner I had the opportunity to chat with some professional crossword compilers. It seems one gets paid around £150 (give or take) for setting a crossword in a national newspaper which isn’t a lot considering how difficult it is. One of the features of the Azed puzzles in the Observer is the monthly clue-setting competition, which I enjoy entering, but I’ve never tried to compile an entire crossword.

However, after finishing this week’s Azed  and Inquisitor puzzles I suddenly hit on a potentially lucrative idea. I’ve decided to start a crossword competition of my own. Here  is Telescoper Prize Crossword No. 1, inspired by Azed’s “Carte Blanche” puzzles…

Instructions for solvers. To enter the competition, devise a set of clues and solutions that fill the above grid in the manner of a typical Azed puzzle. Mail completed grids, together with clues to me at:  Telescoper Prize Crossword No. 1, PO Box 16  (across), Cardiff. The best entries, as judged by me, will win 27p in (used) postage stamps plus the chance to see their crossword in a national newspaper with my name as setter.

As a business plan, this simply can’t fail. It’s nearly as good as running an academic journal!

Dingbats, surface readings, and literally what it says

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , , , , , , on August 22, 2010 by telescoper

It’s been a long time since I posted anything in the box marked crosswords, so I thought I’d remedy that today.

As I’ve explained before, I’m a regular entrant in the monthly Azed competition in the Observer. There’s actually an Azed cryptic crossword every week, but every four weeks there’s a special one  in which contestants have not only to complete the (usually quite tricky) puzzle, but also to supply a clue for a word for which only a definition was given. There are prizes for the best clues each time, as judged by Azed himself, and a league table is built up over the year.

I don’t mind admitting that I much prefer solving the puzzles to setting clues of my own. Perhaps that’s consistent with the fact that I don’t enjoy setting examination questions much! However, I do enter the clue-writing competition every time it comes up. I’ve never won it, but I’ve had several VHC (Very Highly Commended) which count in the honours table. I’ve gradually improved my ranking year on year, and perhaps one day I’ll actually win the  coveted Azed bookplate. However, I’ve got a long way to go before I can produce clues of the ingenuity and subtlety of the regular winners.

Last year, I started brightly and was for a long time neck-and-neck with the novelist Colin Dexter in the league table. However, over the last few months my clues didn’t find favour with Mr Azed while his were much better. He finished in 8th place, while I languished in joint 40th; the complete table is here.

My best clue last year (I think) was in Azed 1967 for the word SUBORDINATELY:

In the manner of an inferior sandwich, prepared ‘to a New York deli recipe’ (13)

It’s a fairly straightforward one, as these things go, consisting of two parts, a definition and a cryptic allusion to the word being clued.  “In the manner of an inferior..” is the definition, meaning “subordinately”. The cryptic allusion in this case is the word “SUB” (meaning an American-style sandwich) followed by an anagram of the collection of letters indicated by what’s inside the quotes, i.e. to+a+NY+deli+r, the NY and r being standard abbreviations. “Prepared” is an anagram indicator.

The clue also has a nice surface reading, I think, which is an aspect many setters don’t seem to bother with. The surface reading is just how the clue reads when you don’t try to interpret it as a cryptic clue. I much prefer clues that read like something that  as could be written or said in a different context to a crossword, as well as making grammatical and syntactical sense.

The winning clue for this word was by D.F. Manley, who is one of the setters for the Times, with an &lit clue:

As in ‘B-role’ duty possibly (13)

This type of clue is regarded by many setters as the cleverest kind, but I have to admit that I have a love-hate relationship with them. Here the definition and cryptic allusions are supplied not by two different parts of the clue, but by two different readings of the whole thing. The cryptic allusion in this case is an anagram indicated by the word “possibly”, i.e. SUBORDINATELY is an anagram of AS IN B ROLE DUTY. The definition is “&lit”, i.e. “and literally what it says”. This is where I think setters push the boundaries a bit too far. I don’t think “As in B-role duty possibly” is really a very fair definition of SUBORDINATELY, and this clue has a very clumsy surface reading too. It’s undoubtedly clever, but I don’t like it as much as some of the others. In general I think these kind of clues are more appreciated by setters, who know how hard they are to concoct, than by solvers.

Anyway, today saw the announcement of the results of the first round of the current Azed competition, and I got another VHC for the slightly obscure word FOULARD (a kind of scarf or handkerchief). My clue was

A square covering La Dame’s head? (7)

This is an “&lit” too, but the cryptic allusion isn’t an anagram. FOUR is a perfect square so “A square covering La” is FOU(LA)R, and Dame’s Head is D (first letter of “Dame”), hence FOULARD. The whole clue also serves as a fair definition, I think, because a “square” can be a scarf (the wikipedia example of a foulard shows the typical way of wearing it, around the head); it also suggests a French word. Anyway, I’m off quickly out of the blocks again with a VHC, and am currently in 4th place in the table! That might be the highest I’ve ever been. I doubt it will last, though.

I also do the Guardian Prize crossword puzzle every week, which has many potential setters some of whom seem to bend the rules beyond breaking point. Last week’s Guardian competition puzzle (No. 25089) by Paul contained a number of clues that I didn’t like at all. They weren’t particularly difficult but had neither a  fair definition nor a good surface reading. Take, for example,

Dr Castier? (5,2,3,5)


M – give it ten? (5,2,5)

The question marks are a conventional way of indicating that something funny is going on, but they’re not sufficient to give   fair indications of the solutions in this case. These are, in fact, reverse clues of a form sometimes known as a dingbat or a rebus. The first one gives THROW IN THE TOWEL, which is clued thus: DR(CAST)IER,  with DRIER defining TOWEL and CAST defining THROW. In similar vein the second one is HAND IN GLOVE, via M(GIVE)ITTEN, with GIVE=HAND and MITTEN=GLOVE. Clever, but neither clue has any definition whatsoever of the answer phrase nor any surface reading other than gibberish. I might have forgiven Dr Castier? were it a familiar name from history or literature, but it isn’t. It was just made up for this puzzle. A very poor show, in my view. Anyone can make a clue by flinging random letters together.

There were several other clues of this type in the puzzle, so once you have one of them the others are quite easy.  However, in my opinion, they’re all pretty dismal clues on their own. I only ever buy the Guardian these days on Saturdays, largely for the weekend Prize crossword. If they carry on using puzzles as feeble as that one I’ll ditch it altogther. However, this week we were back to good old Araucaria, which restored my faith. My favourite  clue was

The wrong way to be (4)

The solution is left as an exercise.

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?

Dark Squib

Posted in Bad Statistics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on December 19, 2009 by telescoper

After today’s lengthy pre-Christmas traipse around Cardiff in the freezing cold, I don’t think I can summon up the energy for a lengthy post today. However, today’s cryogenic temperatures did manage to remind me that I hadn’t closed the book on a previous story about rumours of a laboratory detection of dark matter by the experiment known as CDMS. The main rumour – that there was going to be a paper in Nature reporting the definite detection of dark matter particles – turned out to be false, but there was a bit of truth after all, in that they did put out a paper yesterday (18th December, the date that the original rumour suggested their paper would come out).  There’s also an executive summary of the results here.

It turns out that the experiment has seen two events that might, just might, be the Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) that are most theorists favoured candidate for cold dark matter. However, they might also be due to background events generated by other stray particles getting into the works. It’s impossible to tell at this stage whether the signal is real or not. Based on the sort of naive  frequentist statistical treatment of the data that for some reason is what particle physicists seem to prefer, there’s a 23% chance of their signal being background rather than dark matter. In other words, it’s about a one-sigma detection. In fact, if you factor in the possibility of a systematic error in the background counts – these are very difficult things to calibrate precisely – then the significance of the result decreases even further. And if you do it all properly, in a Bayesian way with an appropriate prior then the most probable result is no detection. Andrew Jaffe gives some details on his blog.

There is no universally accepted criterion for what constitutes a definite detection, but I’ve been told recently by the editor of Nature himself that if it’s less than 3-sigma (a probability of about 1% of it arising) then they’re unlikely to publish it. If it’s 2-sigma (5%) then it’s interesting, but not conclusive, but at 1-sigma it’s not worth writing home about never mind writing a press release.

I should  add that none of their results has yet been subject to peer review either. I can only guess that CDMS must be undergoing a funding review pretty soon and wanted to use the media to show it was producing the goods. I can’t say I’m impressed with these antics, and I doubt if the reviewers will be either.

Unfortunately, the fact that this is all so inconclusive from a scientific point of view hasn’t stopped various organs getting hold of the wrong end of the stick and starting to beat about the bush with it. New Scientist‘s Twitter feed screamed

Clear signal of dark matter detected in Minnesota!

although the article itself was a bit better informed. The Guardian ran a particularly poor story,  impressive only in the way it crammed so many misconceptions into such a short piece.

This episode takes me back to a theme I’ve touched on many times on this blog, which is that scientific results are very rarely black-and-white and they have to be treated carefully in appropriate probabilistic terms. Unfortunately, the media and the public have a great deal of difficulty understanding the subtleties of this and what gets across in the public domain can be either garbled or downright misleading. Most often in science the correct answer isn’t “true” or “false” but somewhere in between.

Of course, with more measurements, better statistics and stronger control of systematics this CDMS result may well turn into a significant detection. If it does then it will be a great scientific breakthrough and they’ll have my congratulations straight away, tempered with a certain amount of sadness that there will be no UK competitors in the race owing to our recent savage funding cuts. But we’re not there yet. So far, it’s just a definite maybe.


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