Archive for Guardian

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?

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.

\begin{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.

\end{gripe}

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….

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