Archive for Guardian

Blog Endings

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on August 1, 2018 by telescoper

I was surprised and disappointed to learn via Twitter that the Guardian is to shut down its science blog network.

I have no idea why the powers that be at the Grauniad took this decision and I’m not sure any of the blog authors know why, either. Does anyone out there know the reason?

Whatever the grounds it’s a shame, because the various blogs on the network have generated a lot of interesting posts and related discussion over the years.

I toyed with the idea of applying to join the Guardian Science Blog Network way back in the summer of 2012, but nothing came of it so I just carried on here. The one real attraction of doing a Guardian blog was that I would have made a bit of money out of blogging, but the downside would probably have been feeling obliged to concentrate on science topics rather than whatever random stuff comes into my mind, which is what I do now. Anyway, whatever the reason I don’t regret keeping In The Dark going as an independent blog even if I have never made a penny out of it.

Next month (September 2018) will see the tenth anniversary of the first post on In The Dark. They say that all good things come to an end, on which basis this blog should probably carry on forever, but maybe a decade is long enough. On the hand it’s become a habit now, and I’m not sure I could stop even if I wanted to!


Crunch time for Dark Matter?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on January 9, 2018 by telescoper

Gratuitous picture of the cluster Abel 2218, showing numerous gravitational lensing arcs

I was reading through an article by Philip Ball in the Grauniad this morning about likely breakthroughs in science for the forthcoming year. One of the topics discussed therein was dark matter. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s been agreed for decades that the universe must contain large amounts of so-called dark matter – about five times as much as all the matter visible as stars, galaxies and dust. This dark matter appears to exert a gravitational tug while not interacting significantly with ordinary matter or light in other ways. But no one has any idea what it consists of. Experiments have been trying to detect it for years, but all have drawn a blank. The situation is becoming grave enough for some researchers to start taking more seriously suggestions that what looks like dark matter is in fact a consequence of something else – such as a new force that modifies the apparent effects of gravity. This year could prove to be crunch time for dark matter: how long do we persist in believing in something when there’s no direct evidence for it?

It’s a good question, though I have to say that there’s very little direct evidence for anything in cosmology: it’s mostly circumstantial, i.e. evidence that relies on an inference to connect it to a conclusion of fact…

Anyway, I thought it would be fun to do a totally unscientific poll of the sort that scientists find  fun to do, so here’s one. It’s actually quite hard to make this the topic of a simple question, because we know that there is ordinary (baryonic) matter that we can’t see, and there is known to be some non-baryonic dark matter in the form of a cosmic neutrino background. What the question below should be interpreted to mean, therefore, is  `is there a dominant component of non-baryonic dark matter in the Universe in the form of some as-yet undiscovered particle?’ or something like that.

For the record, I do think there is dark matter but less convinced that it is simple cold dark matter. On the other hand, I regard its existence as a working hypothesis rather than an article of faith and do not lose any sleep about the possibility of that hypothesis turning out to be wrong!


Rank Nonsense

Posted in Bad Statistics, Education, Politics with tags , , , , , on September 8, 2016 by telescoper

It’s that time of year when international league tables (also known as “World Rankings”)  appear. We’ve already had the QS World University Rankings and the Shanghai (ARWU) World University Rankings. These will soon be joined by the Times Higher World Rankings, due out on 21st September.

A lot of people who should know a lot better give these league tables far too much attention. As far as I’m concerned they are all constructed using extremely suspect methodologies whose main function is to amplify small statistical variations into something that looks significant enough to justify constructing  a narrative about it. The resulting press coverage usually better reflects a preconceived idea in a journalist’s head than any sensible reading of the tables themselves.

A particularly egregious example of this kind of nonsense can be found in this week’s Guardian. The offending article is entitled “UK universities tumble in world rankings amid Brexit concerns”. Now I make no secret of the fact that I voted “Remain” and that I do think BrExit (if it actually happens) will damage UK universities (as well as everything else in the UK). However, linking the changes in the QS rankings to BrExit is evidently ridiculous: all the data were collected before the referendum on 23rd June anyway! In my opinion there are enough good arguments against BrExit without trying to concoct daft ones.

In any case these tables do not come with any estimate of the likely statistical variation from year to year in the metrics used to construct them, which makes changes impossible to interpret. If only the compilers of these tables would put error bars on the results! Interestingly, my former employer, the University of Sussex, has held its place exactly in the QS rankings between 2015 and 2016: it was ranked 187th in the world in both years. However, the actual score corresponding to these two years was 55.6 in 2015 and 48.4 in 2016. Moreover, Cambridge University fell from 3rd to 4th place this year but its score only changed from 98.6 to 97.2. I very much doubt that is significant at all, but it’s mentioned prominently in the subheading of the Guardian piece:

Uncertainty over research funding and immigration rules blamed for decline, as Cambridge slips out of top three for first time.

Actually, looking closer, I find that Cambridge was joint 3rd in 2015 and is 4th this year. Over-interpretation, or what?

To end with, I can’t resist mentioning that the University of Sussex is in the top 150 in the Shanghai Rankings for Natural and Mathematical Sciences this year, having not been in the top 200 last year. This stunning improvement happened while I was Head of School for Mathematical and Physical Sciences so it clearly can not be any kind of statistical fluke but is entirely attributable to excellent leadership. Thank you for your applause.



Academic Cruciverbalism

Posted in Biographical, Crosswords, Literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2016 by telescoper

The other day I came across something I’ve never seen before: an academic paper about cryptic crosswords. It’s in an open access journal so feel free to clock – it’s not behind a paywall. Anyway, the abstract reads:

This paper presents a relatively unexplored area of expertise research which focuses on the solving of British-style cryptic crossword puzzles. Unlike its American “straight-definition” counterparts, which are primarily semantically-cued retrieval tasks, the British cryptic crossword is an exercise in code-cracking detection work. Solvers learn to ignore the superficial “surface reading” of the clue, which is phrased to be deliberately misleading, and look instead for a grammatical set of coded instructions which, if executed precisely, will lead to the correct (and only) answer. Sample clues are set out to illustrate the task requirements and demands. Hypothesized aptitudes for the field might include high fluid intelligence, skill at quasi-algebraic puzzles, pattern matching, visuospatial manipulation, divergent thinking and breaking frame abilities. These skills are additional to the crystallized knowledge and word-retrieval demands which are also a feature of American crossword puzzles. The authors present results from an exploratory survey intended to identify the characteristics of the cryptic crossword solving population, and outline the impact of these results on the direction of their subsequent research. Survey results were strongly supportive of a number of hypothesized skill-sets and guided the selection of appropriate test content and research paradigms which formed the basis of an extensive research program to be reported elsewhere. The paper concludes by arguing the case for a more grounded approach to expertise studies, termed the Grounded Expertise Components Approach. In this, the design and scope of the empirical program flows from a detailed and objectively-based characterization of the research population at the very onset of the program.

I still spend quite a lot of my spare time solving these “British-style” cryptic crossword puzzles. In fact I simply can’t put a crossword down until I’ve solved all the clues, behaviour which I admit is bordering on the pathological. Still, I think of it as a kind of mental jogging, forcing your brain to work in unaccustomed ways is probably good to develop mental fitness for other more useful things. I won’t claim to have a “high fluid intelligence” or any other of the attributes described in the abstract, however. As a matter of fact I think in many ways cryptic crosswords are easier than the straight “American-style” definition puzzle. I’ll explain why shortly. I can’t remember when I first started doing cyptic crossword puzzles, or even how I learned to do them. But then people can learn languages simply by picking them up as they go along so that’s probably how I learned to do crosswords. Most people I know who don’t do cryptic crosswords tend to think of them like some sort of occult practice, although I’ve never actually been thrown off a plane for doing one!

If you’ve never done one of these puzzles before, you probably won’t understand the clues at all even if you know the answer and I can’t possibly explain them in a single post. In a nutshell, however, they involve clues that usually give two routes to the word to be entered in the crossword grid. One is a definition of the solution word and the other is a subsidiary cryptic allusion to it. Usually the main problem to be solved involves the identification of the primary definition and secondary cryptic part, which are usually heavily disguised. The reason why I think cryptic puzzles are in some ways easier than the “straight-definition” variety is that they provide two different routes to the solution rather than one definition. The difficulty is just learning to parse the clue and decide what each component means.

The secondary clue can be of many different types. The most straightforward just exploits multiple meanings. For example, take

Fleeces, things often ordered by men of rank [6]

The answer to this is RIFLES which is defined by “fleeces” in one sense, but “men of rank” (soldiers) also order their arms hence giving a different meaning. Other types include puns, riddles, anagrams, hidden words, and so on. Many of these involve an operative word or phrase instructing the solver to do something with the letters in the clue, e.g.

Port’s apt to make you steer it erratically [7]

has the solution TRIESTE, which is an anagram of STEER+IT, port being the definition.

Most compilers agree however that the very best type of clue is of the style known as “&lit” (short for “and literally what it says”). Such clues are very difficult to construct and are really beautiful when they work because both the definition and cryptic parts comprise the same words read in different ways. Here’s a simple example

The ultimate of turpitide in Lent [5]

which is FEAST. Here we have “e” as the last letter of turpitude in “fast” (lent) giving “feast” but a feast is exactly what the clue says too. Nice.

Some clues involve more than one element of this type and some defy further explanation altogether, but I hope this at least gives you a clue as to what is involved.

Cryptic crosswords like the ones you find in British newspapers were definitely invented in the United Kingdom, although the crossword itself was probably born in the USA. The first great compiler of the cryptic type used the pseudonym Torquemada in the Observer. During the 1930s such puzzles became increasingly popular with many newspapers, including famously The Times, developing their own distinctive style. People tend to assume that The Times crossword is the most difficult, but I’m not sure. I don’t actually buy that paper but whenever I’ve found one lying around I’ve never found the crossword particularly hard or, more importantly, particularly interesting.

With the demise of the Independent, source of many prize dictionaries, I have now returned to the Guardian and Observer puzzles at the weekend as well as the interesting mixture of cryptic and literary clues of the puzzle in the weekly Times Literary Supplement and the “Genius” puzzle in The Oldie. I’ve won both of these a few times, actually, including the TLS prize just last week (£40 cash).

I also like to do the bi-weekly crossword set by Cyclops in Private Eye which has clues which are not only clever but also laced with a liberal helping of lavatorial humour and topical commentary which is right up my street. Many of the answers (“lights” in crossword parlance) are quite rude, such as

Local energy source of stress for Bush [5]

which is PUBES (“pub” from “local”+ E for energy +S for “source of stress”; Bush is the definition).

I send off the answers to the Eye crossword every time but have never won it yet. That one has a cash prize of £100.

Anyway, Torquemada, who I mentioned above, was eventually followed as the Observer’s crossword compiler by the great Ximenes (real name D.S. Macnutt) who wrote a brilliant book called the Art of the Crossword which I heartily recommend if you want to learn more about the subject. One of the nice stories in his book concerns the fact that crossword puzzles of the cryptic type were actually used to select recruits for British Intelligence during the Second World War, but this had a flip side. In late May 1944 the chief crossword setter for the Daily Telegraph was paid a visit by some heavies from MI5. It turned out that in a recent puzzle he had used the words MULBERRY, PLUTO, NEPTUNE and OVERLORD all of which were highly confidential code words to be used for the forthcoming D-Day invasion. The full background to this curious story is given here.


Sir David Attenborough at 90, Boaty McBoatface, and the Song of the Lyre Bird

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2016 by telescoper

Today is the 90th birthday of one of my biggest heroes, Sir David Attenborough, so let me start by wishing him many happy returns of the day!
There has been some controversy recently about the new Polar Research ship being called the Sir David Attenborough despite overwhelming support in a public poll for it to be called Boaty McBoatface. The latter name has been retained for one of the remote-controlled submersibles carried by the larger vessel, but I’ve seen a number of complaints that this was inappropriate. Actually, I disagree. For one thing the new vessel is undoubtedly a ship rather than a boat; its prefix ‘RRS’ means ‘Royal Research Ship’ after all. For another, submarines – even the very big ones – are always known as boats. This has been the practice since the earliest days of submersible craft, presumably because the earliest ones were small enough to be carried by other vessels. A submersible Boaty McBoatface is absolutely fine by me!

Anyway I thought I’d use the occasion of Sir David Attenborough’s birthday to post one of my favourite clips from one of his many TV programmes, and the piece I wrote about it a while ago

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 marvellous 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 the  Guardian a while ago. Jenkins indulges in an anti-science rant every now and again. Sometimes he has a point, in fact. But this 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?

What has the European Convention on Human Rights ever done for us?

Posted in Politics with tags , , on April 27, 2016 by telescoper

In case there are some people who haven’t seen this yet, here is a short video featuring Sir Patrick Stewart the Guardian made in response to Home Secretary Theresa May’s suggestion that the United Kingdom should leave the European Convention on Human Rights. It owes more than a little to Monty Python’s Life of Brian but is none the worse for that. Make sure you watch right to the end as it exposes the hypocrisy of Home Secretary’s position on this.

Farewell, Independent, and thanks for all the dictionaries..

Posted in Biographical, Crosswords, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on March 30, 2016 by telescoper

I thought I’d resume blogging activity rather gently with a short post to mark the end of an era. Both the Independent and the Independent on Sunday have ceased to exist, at least in their print editions.  It was about three years ago that I switched from the Observer to the Independent on Sunday, which involved switching from the Azed cryptic crossword to Beelzebub for my most testing weekly crossword challenge. I stopped doing the Saturday Prize Cryptic puzzle in the Saturday Guardian too, in favour of the Independent Saturday Prize crossword in the Independent which immediately paid dividends in terms of prizes!

For crossword aficianados both the Azed and Beelzebub crosswords are composed by strict adherents of the rules set by the great Ximenes and both feature grids with no black squares, in contrast to the more normal Everyman puzzle. Jonathan Crowther, who sets the Azed puzzles is the successor to Ximenes in the Observer; he’s been setting puzzles there since 1971.

Anyway, the last Independent on Sunday was published on Sunday 20th March and it included a list of the winners of the last two Beelzebub puzzles; the very final one was No. 1,358:


It’s a nice way to mark the end of an era! One last dictionary to add to the collection. I’ve completely lost track of the number of books of words I’ve won from the weekly puzzles in the Independent, but it’s certainly more than 50. I’ve given many away but there’s still a large stack in Dorothy’s office.

Anyway, I spent some of my Easter weekend off doing the Guardian  prize crossword (extra-large size, but quite easy) followed by Everyman and Azed in the Observer. I guess that’s my diet from now on…