Monday, 30 March 2015

The religious fervour of homeopathy fans

A couple of weeks ago I put up a blog item on Huffington Post, suggesting that it would be a good idea if alternative remedies, like cigarette packets, had to carry a health warning.

In some cases this was because there were reports of a high percentage of herbal remedies not containing the requisite herb, and sometimes containing fairly dubious contents that could be harmful. And in others, such as homeopathy, it was more because there was a danger of using a homeopathic remedy, and as a result not taking medication that actually does something. So I suggested a suitable warning for a homeopathic product might be something like:
WARNING -- contains no active ingredients. If taken in place of medical treatment could result in harm or death
Now it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that I didn't expect a certain amount of negative response. I was sure it would bring the homeopathy supporters out of the woodwork and it has. I'll go into some of the specific kinds of response in a moment, but the thing I was really quite surprised by (but probably shouldn't have been) was how close some of these responses were to someone defending their religious faith.

I expect, in a contentious area of science, that there will be arguments. So, for instance, if I were to say that I rather hope MOND (modified Newtonian dynamics) can be made to work rather than dark matter as an explanation of the gravitational effects blamed on dark matter (which is true), I could sensibly expect cosmologists/astrophysicists to weigh in with the scientific arguments as to why dark matter is a better bet. But that's not what happened here at all. What I should have been seeing is a) a good explanation for the mechanism of homeopathy (as I claimed there wasn't one) and b) a good collection of large scale, double blinded trials undertaken by experienced professionals that came out in favour of homeopathy being more than a placebo effect. Neither of these things happened.

In practice, the science isn't contentious about homeopathy - it's fairly straight forward. And so, instead, arguments fell into these broad categories:

  • The report you mention only uses big studies - and this is a bad thing because? Good big studies give more statistically reliable results that good small studies - that's inevitable. If you don't understand this, take a statistics course, please.
  • Making snide remarks - ad hominem attacks are the last resorts of those who have no good arguments. When I see things like 'Thanx [sic] for embarrassing yourself even more' and 'pointing out your egregious ignorance and prejudice in regard to the topic' I know I've hit a raw nerve, because clearly there is a total inability to answer my two key points above.
  • Attack allopathic [sic] medicine - there's a technical term for 'allopathic medicine': it's 'medicine'. However the real point here is that you can't defend something by attacking something else. (E.g. 'Rx drugs are toxic, and RCTs have proven that 50% of the drug trials cannot explain the method of action.') I know the huge amount of good done by modern medicine, and know plenty of people whose lives have been saved or improved by it. But even if every real doctor doing real medicine made all their patients worse, it wouldn't make alternative remedies any better. It's a bit like responding to a restaurant critic who says the food in your restaurant is bad by saying 'Yes, but the food in McDonald's is really bad.' So?
It was also fascinating that at least four of the comments were by the same person, someone called Dana Ullman who strangely enough, according to Google is a 'proponent in [sic] the field of homeopathy. Ullman received his MPH from the University of California at Berkeley, and has since taught homeopathy and integrative health care.' So he's not at all biassed, unlike me, as I don't make any money from either alternative remedies or real medicine.

The sad thing is that in all those comments, none of the supporters of homeopathy could address my two key points (or even tried - randomly mentioning the existence of trials without citing them, when meta-studies like the Australian government one have a very clear outcome is not trying). And none seemed to actually realise the point is not that we need a warning that homeopathic remedies (unlike some other alternative therapies) can harm you, but that using them instead of things that work to treat dangerous diseases (there are homeopathic remedies for malaria, for instance, one of the world's biggest killer diseases) really does put people's lives and health at risk.

In the end, as I mentioned above, these weren't logical or scientific arguments I was presented with but rather statements of faith. And that should be a bit embarrassing for those concerned.

Friday, 27 March 2015

What's in a (website) name?

A rose by any other name might smell as sweet (though would you really enthusiastically sniff a 'bumodour' or a 'dogpoo'?) - but websites can have problem if you happen to give a site a name that doesn't really fit with what it sells.

Why would anyone do something so stupid? Well, I did. Or, to be more precise, I didn't, but the world has changed around me.

I've always loved church music, particular from the Tudor / Elizabethan period. You'll never find me happier than relaxing to a spot of John Sheppard. So many moons ago, when the web was young and fresh I set up a fan site for this kind of music online. I was approached by some nice people who had recorded some CDs of hymn accompaniments to sing along to - hymn karaoke, if you like - and asked if I could give them a mention. This ended up with me being the online marketing arm of an operation that now has around 93 CDs under its belt, all recorded by a top-notch world-class organist, John Keys.
Not a church organist
Before long, this had far outgrown my little fan site, so I set up a more professional site for the CDs, imaginatively called - and so it continues to the present day, proving remarkably popular, as the world's supply of organists (with the exception of Henry Gee, pictured left, who doesn't do many hymns) is sadly getting on the elderly side.

But here's the thing. Some time ago, realising that this downloading and streaming was the thing (innit), I added the ability to download the tracks via fine facilities like iTunes and Amazon. You can even stream them for free on Spotify - just search for 'John Keys'. And over time this has become at least 75% of our business. So the site's home page is no longer quite as shown above, as it now proudly says 'ACCOMPANIMENT CDS AND DOWNLOADS' - but it was still - to me it seemed a bit strange going to a site called for downloads. The world has moved on from my URL.

Of course one of the joys of the interwebz is that the same site can have more than one address. So from now on, you can also get to it using and - because you have to move with the times. Bro.

By the way, if you you wondering 'John Who?', here's a touch of Sheppard to chill out to. Enjoy.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Stretching mathematical minds

Okay, here's a word association test. What's the first thing that comes to mind when I say... mathematicians? Hands up how many of you said 'Fun'? What, no one?

If you are a mathematician, or a physicist making heavy use of maths, you may feel there's plenty of fun in your world, but just in case you needed a bit more, I can highly recommend UCL's new e-magazine for mathy people, Chalkdust. (Rather an odd choice of title - a bit like a computing magazine calling itself Abacus. But we are dealing with mathematicians.)

What I ought to say straight away is that Chalkdust (my spellchecker insists on converting that to Chalkiest) is not a magazine version of an Ian Stewart type, light and fluffy popular maths book. This is a magazine that doesn't shy away from including the equations of general relativity. But having said that, you don't have to be a genuine, heavy duty mathematician to get something out of it. When I was at university, my maths supervisor gave me some excellent advice, which was 'if the maths doesn't make sense to you yet, just go with the flow, keeping going and it will gradually fit into place.' If you take that kind of viewpoint, looking at the scarier equations, but not worrying too much if you don't understand them, it has something for anyone who has A-level maths or more.

After all, who wouldn't love a mathematical analysis of Pac Man, producing the optimal strategy, or an exploration of the mathematics of wormholes? Okay, quite a lot of people - but I did.

There are parts of the text that feel a touch amateurish, perhaps reflecting that it is produced by students. This was particularly the case with the (very) long interview with Dr Hannah Fry, where the wording sometimes seemed like the work of a 12-year-old, for example:
Boys are like, this maths is hard; whereas the girls are like, I find this maths hard.
Hmm. It would also be sensible, if they want some history of maths, to talk to someone who is better informed, as the section on Ada King, Countess of Lovelace had a number of historical inaccuracies, notably:
And if she had [done the 'PR' for Babbage's Analytical Engine], who knows what would have happened. The analytical engine could have been built and then the first computer could have been created a hundred years before it actually was.
Well, no, it couldn't have been built, because the analytical engine would have required engineering that was far beyond the capabilities of the time, if it could be constructed at all in mechanical form. It's also an exaggeration (if frequently repeated) to say that King 'wrote the first program' for it. It would be more accurate to say that she translated a paper about the analytical engine written by Luigi Menabrea from French into English, adding a long set of notes in which she described how the machine might be used.

Inevitably a production like this is a trifle hit and miss - but if you take your maths seriously, you could find a surprising amount to interest and entertain you. Sounds worth popping over to straight away. Or at least, after solving* the travelling salesman problem and discovering the best route.

* I know, I know. It was a joke. If you don't know why it's a joke, this might not be the magazine for you.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Government Statistic Shock Horror Probe!

Ever happy to expand the horizons of this blog, today we have a guest post from the Daily Excess:

Seventies Student Scroungers Sickie Stats Shock

These 1970s students have grown up to be scroungers
When we think of the 1970s we remember ridiculous clothes, progressive rock and punk, and the Winter of Discontent. (We would like to say something about Princess Diana, but she didn't do much in the 1970s.) What not many realise is that by allowing long-haired types like these to go to university for FREE we brought up a whole generation of scroungers.

Statistics show that workers who were students in the 1970s carefully time their sick leave to extend the weekend - nearly half of all sick days are taken on either side of the weekend by these layabouts. This is no doubt so they can attend "music" festivals, or "drop out" and try to recapture their long-lost hippy youth.

A report published by the University of Swindon makes it clear that a whopping 40% of the sick days taken by these rarely-washed individuals are on a Friday or a Monday, giving them a fun long weekend at the expense of taxpayers and business. The Excess says: "It's a disgrace!"



I'm sure you've all spotted the Excess's little error, but just in case you were having a bad day, here is a chart of how the sick days might vary through the week if the Excess's statistics are true:

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Something nasty in the woodshed - review of On Parson's Creek

Or more accurately, the title of this review should be 'something nasty in the woods', but I couldn't resist the quote from the incomparable Cold Comfort Farm.

I thought I might be a good target for Richard Sutton's On Parson's Creek (no relation to the American soap opera, Dawson's Creek), as I love a touch of the strange, and some of my favourite books are those by, for instance Ray Bradbury, which portray a kind of magical look back at boyhood, although in this case it's more teenhood, with all the uncomfortable difficulties that particular time of life throws up. And I was right.

Sutton does an excellent job of portraying the brooding atmosphere of the dark woods in which the protagonist finds himself, recently moved in with his family and coping with the difficulties of a new school; making new friends at the same time as exploring this uncanny backwoods location. In parts the storytelling oozes atmosphere, particularly in the scenes with the old railroad locomotive.

What starts off as a classic 'young people discover strange things and try to sort it out without involving adults' tale takes some interesting twists as the discoveries get mixed up with Indian legend and the possibility that the woods are home to something like a tribe of Bigfoot.

Although the main character is a teenager, I had no problem getting absorbed by the book. My only real complaint was that Sutton doesn't give us enough. It's quite a short book, and I think he could have expanded the story to give it more drama and a more striking destination. In fact, in a way, the problem is that the storytelling is too realistic. This feels like what a real encounter with Bigfoot might be like, but I wanted more drama, more obstacles to overcome and more twists and turns in the plot.

Since they always say 'Leave them wanting more,' this surely is a relatively small omission on the part of the author. That apart it's a book I really enjoyed.

You can find On Parson's Creek at and

Monday, 23 March 2015

Artful chemistry

Last Friday I spent a fascinating day at the Royal Society of Chemistry's swish headquarters in Piccadilly (to be precise, in Burlington House, to the right of the Royal Academy). The event was the final of Chemistry World's science communication competition.

I really didn't know what to expect, but after a rather drawn-out arrival tea and coffee (because the judges couldn't make their minds up in the time available), the day began with short pitches from the 10 finalists who had written an article and now had presented a 'poster session' to the judges on their personal take on the theme of 'art and science.'

RSC building to right of sculptury thing
Now, to be honest, when I heard the topic, my bullsh*t detector went into overdrive. I find the money poured in to projects where artists hang around a science facility than produce some generally forgettable result that is somehow inspired by/linked to/giving extra depth to the work a little nausea-inducing. This is especially the case when sadly, as all too often happens, the suggestion is that the art in some way makes the science more approachable to the public. It doesn't.

However, to give them their due, most of the finalists had taken a different tack and were either dealing with the impact of science on art (for example, exploring the way that van Gogh's reds have changed over time) or that science was used in the creation of art. And the results were fascinating. What's more, the articles were very readable, especially bearing in mind that most of the participants were graduate students with little or no experience of science communication.
Who says chemists can't do style

Probably the best bit of the day was the lunch. (That makes it sound like a jolly, but it wasn't - you have to be paid for it to be a jolly.) In part this was due to the imagination that the catering team put into the presentation of a lunch served by people in white coats, using lab utensils. The buffet was so visually striking thatfor a little while no one dared approach it.

Nice! The syringe contains salad dressing
After a teensy problem of very limited space to eat other that standing up, which would require four hands for knife, fork, plate and glass (I led a rebellion that broke off into the building's reception seating), the best part of lunch turned out to be an opportunity to go around the poster sessions. If you haven't been to an academic conference of late, these started as people standing in front of a poster they had created, talking about their topic (hence the name), though mostly these versions were videos or computer presentations. Not only did you get a chance to find up more about the subjects up close and personal, tasting chocolate and macaroons and sampling delicate perfumes (though it was too close for some on the 'stench of purple' stand, where you had a chance to sniff rotting sea snail odour), but also there was a chance to ask questions of the finalists, who made a great job of it.

So to the actual entries. I'm not going to go through all ten here (I had hoped to point you to details of them online, but I can't find them), but I will mention feeling rather sorry for two finalists who weren't there and did their pitch by video, one entirely inaudible while being represented by an incomprehensible silent video in the poster session. They really didn't stand a chance.

Paul Brack receives his award from the RSC's president
I must give an honourable mention to one of the runners up, Wei-lun Toh, who, remarkably, is a first year undergraduate. Not only was his slideshow about the whole range of ways that science could be used to determine that Han van Meegeren forged a supposed work by Vermeer fascinating, he added the delightful concept of using a limerick on each slide (some shockingly bad, which added to the appeal) to help reinforce memorability and make the presentation more fun. I would have given him first prize.

However, I should also say that the winner's story about the use and re-discovery of Egyptian blue, one of the first ever blue pigments, and the first synthetic pigment was fascinating, making Paul Brack a worthy winner. Especially when he said in his pitch that he groaned when he heard the topic, because he wasn't interested in art.

Overall an excellent day - I'm glad I went and I congratulate the RSC (and their sponsor Akzo Nobel) for a great event. I hope some of the participants go on to do more excellent science communication - and here's to next year's shindig!

Thursday, 19 March 2015

How very different from the school life of our own dear students

My old school, the Manchester Grammar School is celebrating its 500th anniversary this year with various goings on, including a 'history in 50 objects' series.

I was struck by a recent entry, on the 'Handbook for Parents' illustrated here, published in 1922. Inevitably, part of the attraction is the period feel of the instructions that the powers-that-be felt should be passed on to the boys. At the time, the school was located in the centre of the city, and it was sternly observed that
Boys are forbidden to smoke, or to enter public billiard rooms, smoking cafes or smoking carriages on the railway. No boy is allowed, without special permission, to enter Victoria or Exchange Stations in the dinner interval.
There is also something of a spirit that has perhaps been retained more in our public schools, but thankfully was largely absent from MGS by the time I attended, when parents are informed that
A boy should be trained to get up sufficiently early to allow time for a cold bath…nothing is equally tonic and bracing for the day’s activities, or a better safeguard against catching cold... Frequent indulgence in the theatre or the picture-palace is as harmful and wearing as gardening or carpentry is useful and restful.
That was them told.

But the thing I found most fascinating was that at the time the school was divided in an antiquated structure from day one, as soon as a pupil arrived, between the 'classical' and 'modern' sides. The modern side (described as 'the natural resort of the boy who aims for business') covered science and modern languages, while the classical side (you're ahead of me) specialised in the classics and history. But what is particularly interesting is that the classical side was aimed at the 'Higher Civil service' and the learned professions, such as the Church, the Law and Medicine.

So even as recently as the 1920s, less than a century ago, medicine was not really considered as a scientific pursuit. It easy from the outside to equate medicine and science, but there is a distinct tension between the two sometimes. This background as a career that would be best grounded in the classics is perhaps a good indicator of where that tension originated. Things have, of course, changed hugely - but I can't help but confess I sometimes see more of that classicist in some GPs than the viewpoint of a modern scientist.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Where have all the comments gone?

Prompted by a query from Sabine Hossenfelder, I've just changed the comment system on my blog. When it looked like Google+ (which is Google's mostly failed attempt to take on Facebook) was going to take off, it seemed quite sensible to take Google's offer of switching the comment system over to Google+

The good news was that it meant any comments on a blog on Google+, but I hadn't realised until I just looked into it that it also meant that you could only comment if you had a Google+ account.

As a result I've switched the commenting back to Blogger's own. But the downside of this is that some existing comments will disappear. Many apologies if this happens to one of yours. I promise not to change it again!

Why steal a review?

I write a lot of science book reviews, both for magazines and for, and I do also put them on Goodreads and Amazon. The other day I got a couple of contacts from Goodreads users, pointing out that someone had copied one of my reviews and published it as their own on their blog. (Thanks to Russa04 and Brendan Schrodinger.)

I couldn't go the blog in question, which had been switched to private, presumably because of complaints, but my informants pointed out that it was still available using the Google cache and low and behold when I went to I found the page shown here:

Which certainly does bear a striking resemblance to my own review (written 6 months earlier):

Which I guess demonstrates that the internet is a dangerous place to resort to plagiarism. But I'm still puzzled. Why bother? Simply to pack out a fairly random website that mostly has music reviews? It seems unnecessarily hard work.

Here's how to do it, Joe Goodglass. Just read a book and write about it. It's not that hard, really.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Does my MP think that science is vital?

The Science is Vital campaign is coming into full swing again, ready for the UK general election. And with good reason. Take a look at that graph.

In the UK we spend a lower percentage of GDP on science than any other G8 country. Our spending has fallen by 15% in real terms since 2010. Germany, the USA and France are all spending around twice as high a percentage of GDP. We simply can't afford to keep ignoring our failing investment in science and it ought to be higher on the political agenda this election.

Why is this important? The reasons come in at all sorts of levels. There's a grounding of 'this is how our universe works - how can it not be important?' There's the enrichment of people's lives in knowing about it - and keeping the interest of children at school, who get turned off it and lose our country important resources.

But also there's a combination of business and survival. It has been estimated that around 35% of GDP is based on quantum physics alone (electronics, lasers, superconductors etc.) - and there's far more when you take in all of science. And everything from medical science to environmental science is central to our survival as a race.

Yet the fact is that very few MPs understand science. The vast majority are arts graduates and make little or no effort to understand what they make spending decisions on. We even have an MP on the science and technology committee who believes we should use astrology more. Unless we make our politicians more aware of the importance of this issue, we risk all our futures. It's that important.

So Science is Vital has encouraged us to write to our local MPs to ask for their support. Mine is Justin Tomlinson. He is a Tory, which means he is not someone I'd naturally support, but he has proved an effective constituency MP in the past. True to form he emailed me back after three days with the following reply. It does seem something of a politician's reply, not saying anything about our miserable spending level, sadly.
Swindon is indeed home to a vast array of science and high technology companies, many of which I have visited during my time as your MP, to see the excellent work that they do.

I know that both Greg Clark and George Freeman (the current Science and Life Sciences Ministers respectively) and their predecessors get how important science is, particularly to our town. Both Ministers have visited Swindon recently and alongside my South Swindon colleague, Robert Buckland, we have taken them to see the amazing work being done by companies and at research facilities across our town.

I will of course feed your thoughts into the policy-making process and continue to champion the excellent work being done here in Swindon.
Not a major response at this stage, then - but we can hope that if more of us (more of you!) contact our MPs, the message will start to get across.

What are you waiting for? Hop over to the Science is Vital site for the information you need to contact your MP and get emailing.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Lessons from Loki on authors using social media

Authors are often told that we should engage in social media. I do, using Twitter and Facebook (as well as this blog), and it certainly does get me some exposure, but I discovered this weekend what it is to have a tweet really take off.

The thing that got me pondering how authors should use social media is my tweet shown on the right. With around 1,200 retweets it is in a totally different league to anything I've put on social media before.

I shared the same image with the same words on my Facebook page - it has been liked 26 times and shared once.

I admit this is a very small sample to draw conclusions from, but it does suggest to me that Twitter is the more valuable mechanism for gaining a wider reach out into the world. Of course you have to be lucky with your content - most of my tweets are retweeted between zero and four times - but Facebook users seem far less likely to pass things on and spread the word.

Of course, this hasn't done a lot to get people excited about my books. But that's not really what engaging with people on social media is about. By all means throw in some of your writing-related material - around the same time I tweeted about a misunderstanding over Amazon rankings and about my 'How to write a popular science book' event at the Guardian - and there's no harm mentioning your books as long as you don't turn into one of these people who tweets about their output every few hours, yelling at people to BUY THEM. But your best bet to build up a following you can then interact with on Twitter (and always remember it is a two-way street) is by putting out fairly regular, quirky, potentially entertaining treats.

Of course, one success doesn't make you a Twitter star. A day later, I put out this tweet, which I thought had a certain something:

All it has achieved is 295 views and no retweets (so far).

The final irony about the tube tweet is one of the effects giving it an extra boost was having it picked up by The Metro, the free London newspaper, which featured my tweet in a little article. As a professional writer, part of me feels inclined to moan that my material is being reused free of charge and without permission - but they did give me appropriate credit, and in reality I am rather pleased.

So, simply put, my lessons from Loki are:

  • When you see something strange or funny, tweet about it
  • If someone comments on your tweet reply (or like it if that's more appropriate) - Twitter is about a conversation, not just broadcasting your words of wisdom
  • There's a huge amount of luck - you can't predict the timing, wording, image that will have this effect
  • By all means tweet about your books as well, but don't let it dominate

Friday, 13 March 2015

Hit by a Newton bomb

Excuse the blur...
I’m getting in a real mental twist over Isaac Newton’s birth and death dates. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Scientists, fuzzily illustrated here, they were 1642-1727, but I think that this is wrong. You can either say they were 1642-1726 or 1643-1727 but not plump for half and half.

The trouble is that the change of calendar we have had since Newton's time produced two effects. One is that the date jumps forwards (10 days at his birth, 11 by his death), and the second is that the date that the year changed moves from March 25th (don’t ask) to January 1st.

In the dates that would have been used by Newton himself, he was born on Christmas Day 1642 and died on 20 March 1726. (If he had died instead on 25 March, it would have been 1727.) Alternatively, if we decide to impose our present dating system on the past, he was born on 4 January 1643 and died on 31 March 1727. This is upsetting for those who like to make the handing-on-the-baton observation that Newton was born in the same year that Galileo died.

So which dates should we use? In one case, there is no argument. When talking about the anniversary, we have to use modern dating. So if you said on Christmas day 2042 that Newton was born 400 years ago, you would be plain wrong. But for the rest it's a more difficult decision. It somehow feels right to make use of the dates of the time - but then you have a problem with using BC dates. After all, when Archimedes had his twentieth birthday in 267 BC (did ancient Greeks celebrate birthdays?), he was hardly likely to call it 267 BC or to ponder on the fact that Christ was going to be inaccurately dated as being born 267 years in the future.

The other problem with using contemporary dating is that, for instance, when Newton was alive, some of his European friends were already using the Gregorian calendar. So how do you date an event where Newton interacts with someone in France, say? It's a worry.

I suspect, then, that it's probably best to stick to new style dating. So it's 1643-1727. Okay?