Archive for Lord Rees

Lord Rees on the Threat to UK Science

Posted in Politics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 6, 2016 by telescoper

In case you missed the comments by Lord Rees on Newsnight in the wake of the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prizes for Physics, here is a video.

Martin is always impeccably polite but I sense he must have been outraged by the statements made by Home Secretary Amber Rudd at the Conservative Party Conference this week, some of which seem to have been taking directly from Mein Kampf. Prior to this interview, the most extreme word I’ve ever hard Martin use was “reprehensible” – and that on an occasion when he was clearly angry. His use of the word “deplorable” here is very significant.

Quite apart the threat to science, I have to admit I’m extremely worried about the direction this country is taking. Perhaps someone should tell Prime Minister Theresa May that the referendum wasn’t about leaving the League of Nations and that this isn’t 1933. The parallels with Germany are striking. In that case it didn’t end with the identification and deportation of foreign workers. Yesterday Theresa May stated that anyone who describes themselves as a “Citizen of the World” is really a “Citizen of Nowhere”. I’ve never felt less at home in my own country than I do now.

A few days before the referendum a wrote a post that included this:

Of course I’m not saying that all those who want the UK to Leave the EU are fascists. Far from it. Many – indeed the majority – are reasonable, civilised people. But like it or not, if you vote Leave you’re voting the way the far right want you to vote. I for one will not take a single step in that direction. Fascism only needs a foot in the door. I fear that the domestic political consequences of BrExit will give it far more than that. Once they get hold of it, we’ll never get our country back.

My fear is even more real now than it was then.

 

Advertisements

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?

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?

Will University Swapping Work?

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , on October 21, 2012 by telescoper

Yesterday’s crossword having been more straightforward than usual, I found myself with time to peruse the Independent newspaper at my leisure. While doing so I came across a little item describing a plan suggested by Lord Rees that students from “disadvantaged backgrounds” should be allowed to swap universities after two years of a three-year degree and transfer to a Russell group institution. Apparently this idea is based on a scheme that runs “successfully” in the University of California.

The purported aim of this is to give “a second chance” to students who didn’t do well enough at A-level to get into an “elite” university – which is laudable – but it doesn’t deal with the underlying problem, namely that our pre-university education system is a mess, for two reasons.  First, students can have the misfortune to attend a school where certain subjects are taught badly or not at all. This is a particular problem in my own field, physics. Second, the A-level examinations on which most institutions base their entry criteria do not provide a reasonable assessment of a candidate’s suitability for university study.

Because of these problems many students either don’t apply to top universities or fail to make the grades required. Such universities are reluctant to drop their grades to make special allowance because they would then get penalised in the league tables –  a high entry requirement at A-level is perceived to be a mark of quality. I’m convinced that this is a major flaw in the system. Some of the very best students I’ve had the pleasure to work with at Cardiff, for example, came in at a time when our recruitment team was struggling to meet its quota,  with modest A-level scores that would not normally have been high enough to get in. I worry a great deal about how many more talented young people there are out there who lacked that bit of luck and missed out entirely.

Lord Rees is correct in saying that it will take a very long time to fix the pre-university education system, and his proposal is an attempt to provide a sticking-plaster solution later on. If you like, it’s an admission of defeat. Elite universities will be allowed to carry on using inappropriate criteria to reject talented students applying to join the first year of a degree, but will be allowed to cherry-pick the best performers from other institutions into Year 3.

Although I think this proposal contains some good ingredients, there are several things about it that worry me. I don’t know how many students will want to move after two years in the first place. They will have made friends, formed relationships, and generally settled in at their original university and to up sticks in order to travel to another university for their final year would be very disruptive. Steps would have to be taken to ensure continuity of curriculum too. And what about the financial and other implications for the original institution, which would have to be prepared to lose an indeterminate number of its best students at the end of Year 2, with consequent impact on the quality of its graduating class?

I don’t think it’s fair for the so-called “elite” to exploit the hard work put in by other departments and institutions in order to mask its own failure to recruit appropriately. The only fair solution is to fix the university admission system, which means fixing our  broken A-levels.

And another thing. I’m shortly moving from Cardiff (which is a member of the Russell group) to Sussex (which isn’t).  Look at the league tables for Physics and tell me which one should be regarded as “elite”. Should students choose their University on the basis of which one provides the best education, or on the basis that it provides membership of a prestigious club?

On balance, I don’t think this scheme is workable in the way suggested. There is a variant, however, which I think is more promising. I think we should scrap the current confused system of 4-year undergraduate degrees (MPhys, MSci, etc) and adopt a standard system of 3-year Bachelors degrees. The next level of degree should be standalone postgraduate Masters. I’d prefer these to be two years, actually, but that’s not essential to this argument. Students could then transfer after their Bachelors’ degree into an “elite” university for their Masters if they so wish.

Last Week of Term

Posted in Biographical, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on March 26, 2012 by telescoper

So the glorious weather continues. Unfortunately, unlike most UK universities, we’re not finished for Easter yet; at Cardiff University we only get three weeks for the Easter recess instead of the four that colleagues over the border seem to enjoy.

One of the consequences of this is that the annual National Astronomy Meeting (NAM) often falls in Cardiff term time. This year NAM is taking place in the fine city of Manchester (which, for those of you unfamiliar with British geography, is in the Midlands). Many colleagues in the School of Physics & Astronomy are attending NAM, and most of my research group are either there already or travelling up today. I particularly wish Jo and Ian well when they give their talks; one of the excellent things about NAM is the opportunity it offers for younger researchers to talk about their work to a large audience. Nerve-wracking, no doubt, but invaluable experience.

I’m not going to NAM this year because I have too much to do back here at the ranch, including filling in a few lectures for staff who are away.  I’m always reluctant to cancel lectures during term-time, but in the current spell of good weather I doubt if any students would complain too much! I did a cosmology lecture this morning – only the second I’ve done here – and it the room was uncomfortably stuffy. A few of the students failed to fall asleep, however, so I regard that as a major success.

It’s strange how often good weather coincides with times of great stress for students. I recall that most of my undergraduate examinations took place in glorious sunshine, which seemed to have been laid on by some malevolent being to make us suffer. This week our students have project reports and presentations to worry about and other coursework to finish before term ends, as well as revision for the exams that take place in May; being couped up inside is no fun on days like this and I’m sure they’d prefer it to be raining outside so as not to distract them from the tasks in hand…

It’s so quiet around here today that it occurred to me now would be a good time to stage a Coup d’Etat. Come to thank of it, there’s a Staff Meeting  been called on Wednesday which may well amount to something pretty similar…

Anyway, those of us around today have a nice event this evening to look forward to, a lecture by Lord Rees followed by a nice dinner in Aberdare Hall. Here’s the invitation:

You’ll see that this is organized “in association with The Learned Society for Wales“, which I only just learned about when I saw it on the invitation!

Anyway, the prospect of a slap-up dinner persuaded me to just have a sandwich for lunch. Now that’s eaten methinks I’ll get back to work!

UPDATE: It was indeed a very interesting and entertaining lecture by Lord Rees; here he is, in action, watched by Prof. Disney…

Off the Main Sequence…

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on July 22, 2010 by telescoper

When I was at School, one of my English teachers enjoyed setting creative writing challenges for homework. One of the things he liked to do was to give us two apparently separate topics and get us to write a short story that managed to tie them together. Although I seldom got good marks I now realise that this is quite a useful skill to develop.  Sometimes, when I’ve been at a loss for something  to blog about, I’ve taken two items from the news and tried to link them somehow. That’s also how a lot of satire works – many of the best Private Eye skits involve putting two pieces of news together in a way that’s deliberately back to front. In fact many writers have commented along similar lines,  the most famous being E. M. Forster, whose advice to a young writer was “Only Connect”.

Yesterday the news was full of stories emanating from the discovery of a very massive star, in fact the most massive one ever found.  This news also got the Jonathan Amos treatment on the  BBC science website too. I think it’s quite an interesting discovery but it  didn’t generate much enthusiasm from Lord Rees who wrote in a Guardian article

I don’t view this discovery as a big breakthrough. It’s a bit bigger than other stars of this kind that we’ve seen and it’s nice that it involves British scientists and the world’s biggest telescope. It’s a step forward, but it is not more than an incremental advance in our knowledge.

What’s interesting about this star is that it may shed some light – actually, rather a lot of light, because it’s 10,000,000 times brighter than the Sun – on the properties of very big stars as well as possibly how they form.

There was even an item on local radio last night, which reported

The biggest star ever discovered was recently found by astronomers in Sheffield.

You’d think if it was that bright and so nearby somebody in Sheffield would have noticed it long before now…

A star this big – about 300 times the mass of the Sun – operates on the same basic mechanism as the Sun but the quantitative details are very different. Its surface temperature is about 40,000 Kelvin compared to the Sun’s, which is only about 6000K, so the radiation field it generates is very much more powerful. It’s also very much larger, probably about 50 times the Sun’s radius, so there’s more surface area to radiate. It’s a very big and very bright beastie.

The name of this star is R136a1 but given its new status as media star, it really needs a better one. In fact, there’s a suggestions page here. Let me see. Overweight and prominent in the media? No Eamonn Holmes gags please.

A star is basically just a ball of hot gas which exerts pressure forces that balance the force of gravity, which tries to make it collapse, in a form of hydrostatic equilibrium. With so much mass to hold up the pressure in the centre of the star has to be very large, and it therefore has to be very hot. The energy needed to keep it hot comes from nuclear reactions that mainly burn hydrogen to make helium (as in the Sun), but the rate of these processes is sensitively dependent on the temperature and density in the star’s core. The Sun is a relatively sedate pressure-cooker that will  simmer away for billions of years. A monster like the one just found guzzles fuel at such a rate that its lifetime will only be a few million years. Like megastars in other fields, this one will live fast and die young.

Nobody really knows how big the biggest star should be. Very big stars are produce such intense radiation that radiation pressure is more important than gas pressure in supporting the star against collapse, but if the star is too big (and therefore too hot) then the radiation field will blow the star apart. This is when the so-called Eddington Limit is reached.  Where the line is drawn isn’t all that clear. The new star  suggests that it is a bit higher up the mass scale than previously thought. I think it’s interesting.

I’ve written about this star partly to make a point about how wonderful astronomy is for teaching physics. To understand how a star works you need to take into account thermal physics, gravity, nuclear physics, radiative transport and whole load of other things besides. Putting all that physics together to produce a stellar model is a great way to illustrate the much-neglected synthetic (rather than analytic) side of (astro)physical theory education. Stars are good.

Cue cheesy link to another item.

The single biggest step towards the understanding of stellar structure and evolution was the Hertzsprung-Russel diagram, or HR diagram for short, which shows that there is a Main Sequence of stars (to which the Sun belongs). Main sequence stars have luminosities and temperatures that are related to each other because they are both determined by the star’s mass. That’s because they’re all described by the same basic physics – hydrostatitic equilibrium, nuclear burning, etc – but just come in different masses. They adjust their temperature and luminosity in order to find an equilibrium configuration.

Not all stars are main sequence stars, however. There are classes of stars with different things going on and these lie in other regions of the HR diagram.

With this in mind, the Astronomy Blog has constructed an amusing career-related version of the HR diagram which I’ve reproduced here:

Instead of plotting temperature against luminosity (or, to be precise, colour against magnitude) as in the standard version this one plots academic publications against google hits, which purport to be a measure of “fame”. A traditional academic will presumably acquire fame through their publications only, thus defining a main sequence, whereas some lie off that sequence because of media work, blogging, or (perhaps) involvement in a juicy sex scandal. I don’t think fame and notoriety are distinguished in this calculation.

I know quite a few colleagues have been quietly calculating where they lie on the above diagram, as indeed have I. Vanity, you see, is very contagious. I’m not named on the version shown, but I can tell you that I’m much more famous than Andy Lawrence, who is. So there.

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?