Friday, 31 October 2014

A throw of the dice

I mentioned a few days ago how much I enjoyed doing my talk based on Dice World in the John Rylands Library at the Manchester Science Festival, courtesy of the Royal Society.

If you didn't make it, but would like to find out more about tossing a head ten times in a row, running a horse racing scam, why half my audience would turn down an offer of £5,000 with no strings attached and how a probability problem embarrassed a large number of US academics, you can now watch my talk courtesy of the wonders of YouTube.

I can obviously only touch on a tiny part of what's covered in the book (someone bought it just to read about golden retrievers and Bayes' theorem), so if this has wet your appetite, I've links to buy it in all kinds of format from its web page, or you can even get a signed copy direct from me (after all, it's nearly present buying season!)

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Mars recedes

One of the most interesting aspects of writing Final Frontier was the change in the nature of space exploration since the Moon landings. In science fiction, space travel was usually a private venture, but in reality it has been dominated by governments. But now things are changing. Not only are some of the supply ships to the ISS now privately run, we have the likes of Virgin Galactic soon to offer space tours around the bay (as it were), various would-be asteroid mining concerns making their plans and a pair of Mars missions, all from private ventures.

When I wrote the book, both Inspiration Mars, which plans a Mars flypast by a two person craft, and Mars One which plans to land at least two groups of four on the surface, had punishing schedules. Inspiration Mars was intending to get out there in 2018, while Mars One was expecting an unmanned equipment drop in 2016, with astronauts heading out in 2023 and 2025.

A lot of the media coverage has been about the way that Mars One is intending to fund its scary concept of a one-way manned mission. (It's much easier to get people there in one piece than to bring them back.) The intent is to operate the mission as a reality TV show, with all the training and flights broadcast and viewers able to decide which of the teams in training will be the first to land on the red planet. However, there has been rather less coverage of just how tight these timescales are.

Both ventures depend on the still-in-development SpaceX Falcon heavy-lifter rocket. SpaceX has a good pedigree, already successfully getting cargo to the ISS, but deadlines for this kind of engineering development are always very slippery. The chances of the Falcon heavy-lifter being ready for 2016 were always low.

Interestingly, both ventures have now slipped back their timescales. Inspiration Mars has shifted from 2018 to 2021, and Mars One from 2016 to 2018 for the equipment run, with astronauts going out in 2024 and 2026. These dates are not as random as they appear. With its separate, larger orbit, Mars goes through cycles where it is further from and closer to the Earth. At opposition, its closest point in each cycle, which comes at intervals of a little over two years, Mars seems to do a loop in the sky. From the Earth’s viewpoint it doubles back on itself, coming closest to the Earth for a brief period. But that cycle is not uniform.

Some oppositions are much closer than others. Although Earth and Mars come relatively close to each other every couple of years, 2018 gives us our best chance until the similar close encounter in 2035, hence the urgency. (It’s a shame we missed 2003, when Mars was at its closest for six thousand years.) Inspiration Mars has given up on that ideal (but thrown an additional loop around Venus into the pot as a sweeter), while Mars One has captured the sweet spot for its unmanned first venture.

Will either mission really fly? I honestly don't know. But I do think that manned space missions are important for the human race, and that the involvement of commercial ventures will have a positive impact, lifting the sights of what has been an increasingly moribund NASA, and possibly working with the ESA (to date notably shy of manned flights), and the blossoming Chinese and Indian space ventures to make the world a whole lot more interesting.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Pass me the Haynes, I've an alien dissection to do

There was a time when Haynes manuals were, frankly, rather stuffy, step by step books, beloved of those who liked taking a car apart in the garage, and mocked by everyone else. But the publisher has relatively recently realised that the books' distinctive form can be applied to all kinds of different subjects. We've seen, for instance, a maintenance manual for the Death Star and a UFO investigations manual, which took a pretty straight approach to the possibility that UFOs were indeed alien craft.

However, the latest Haynes to join my reviewing shelf is unashamedly a work of fiction - though it technically never admits this, maintaining a straight-faced attitude at all times. The Alien Invasion Owners' Resistance Manual is allegedly written by a member of the UK's 'Ministry of Alien Defence' and is packed full of entirely made up, but entertaining statistics and information on the various alien invaders, their modus operandi and just what it is they're up to. As the introduction states 'This annual is not designed for astronauts, boffins or eggheads. It's for everyone. In true Haynes style, we aim to demonstrate how with the right knowledge, training and the largest available roll of aluminium foil, the concerned citizen can really hit ET where it hurts.'

Throughout, the manual is given the look of being heavily used with oil stains and what may be cigarette (or ray gun) burns on most pages. The author has also kindly 'hand written' comments to add to the information. Someone has put an awful lot of work into this - and it is often very entertaining. I love, for instance, a section which begins 'It may seem strange to readers that while classic TV series such as Firefly are cancelled, reality shows with their "follow-a-nobody" formula are regularly getting into their fifth series,' and goes on to suggest that this might be an alien plot to damage the IQ of humans.

Inevitably some parts work better than others, and once the book has established the main categories of alien and the nature of their ships, it can feel a little bit samey as it then goes through defence strategies and the like. In the end it is a single joke carried to extraordinary lengths. But you have to admire the impressively straight-faced consistency and nice attention to detail (one section is redacted with the remark 'For legal reasons, Haynes Publishing would like to state that a cloaked Draconian vessel did not crash in Nigeria in 1983, and that three reptilian bodies were definitely not recovered and taken to Area 51') - overall it does a far better job than I imagined possible.

What's scary is that it really wouldn't surprise me if some people take this book seriously.

If you want to be prepared, and to have the best design for a stylish yet practical tinfoil hat, you can find the manual on and It's probably not suitable for younger children, but should work for sophisticated 10-year-olds who can get the joke, through to adults who enjoy a good alien invasion romp.

P.S. - Despite the title of my review, unless I missed it, one thing it doesn't mention, perhaps for copyright reasons, is the infamous 'alien dissection' movie.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

A cracking venue

I love giving talks, whatever the setting. I am happy in a school classroom or a 1,000 seater auditorium.  (Okay, I love the buzz of a big audience, but sometimes the intimate little gatherings are the most rewarding.) But just occasionally you get a chance to speak somewhere that really feels special.

That's what I call a ceiling
Perhaps the most striking example I've had of this feeling of awe is the Royal Institution. It's hard not to be a little daunted and delighted in equal measures by the string of big name scientists from Davy and Faraday onwards who have lectured there. But a close second has to be the venue for my talk based on Dice World last Thursday, the John Rylands Library in Manchester.

I had heard about the library a lot as youth, when going to school in Manchester, and I passed it on the bus hundreds of times, briefly noting the way it stands out from its surroundings rather like that cathedral in New York. Certainly the outside is striking. In fact you could well call the library a cathedral of learning. But it's only when you get into its historical reading room that you discover this example of high Victorian gothic at its most truly wonderful. (Full marks also, by the way, for the way the modern extension is integrated with it.)

So next time you are in Manchester (and, as my old history teacher used to say, 'If you haven't been to Manchester, you haven't lived!') take the time to deviate from your busy schedule and make a trip to Deansgate. Once the city's posh shopping street, and still with some fancy brand names, you will find nestling anong the office blocks, restaurants and boutiques, this architectural treasure. Pop inside and feast your eyes. Best seen, I think, in the dusk, when the extravagant lighting really sets the place off.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Another poke in the QI

I love the BBC TV show QI dearly, but since they so delight in the misunderstandings of others, they are fair game when they get something a trifle wrong. Recently they did just this - or to be precise, they omitted an important part and focused on an answer that, while true, was not the best picture.

Specifically, they were asking about Sherlock Holmes and what kind of reasoning he employed. Inevitably, someone fell into the trap of saying 'deduction', because we associate phrases like 'And what can we deduce, Watson?' with old SH, even if never said. 'No,' said the awesome Stephen Fry, 'he used abduction.' Now I would like to suggest that this is an incorrect remark on several levels. Firstly, occasionally Holmes did use deduction. And, yes, he did sometimes use abduction. But I think his main technique was, in fact, induction.

Here's a quick summary of the three, using that most delightful of reasoning tools, the logical swan. (These examples are probably not perfect if you are a nitpicking logician, but good enough for QI purposes.)

Deduction: Mr Davies makes model swans. He only makes white model swans. I have in this box one of Mr Davies' swans. I can deduce (without looking at it) that it is a white swan.

Induction: I have been down to the river and all the swans I examined (possibly with a magnifying glass) were white. I form the hypothesis 'all swans are white' (and it holds up pretty well until I visit Australia).

Abductive: All the swans I have observed are white and the most likely explanation for this is that 'all swans are white'.

The distinction between induction and abduction is extremely subtle. Both go beyond what is logically proved by the evidence (known in the trade as being 'ampliative') but abduction specifically requires an explanation - the reason that the swans I have observed are white is that all swans are white, where induction is more statistical: 100% of the swans I have observed are white, so I will use the hypothesis that swans are white without worrying about the reason why this is the case.

So when Sherlock does his party trick of saying something to the effect of 'I see you are an ex-military medical man, recently returned from Afghanistan,' Holmes is almost certainly using abduction, but when he does his day job, using cigar ash or a footprint in the soil, it is likely that he is using induction.

Back to QI, to be fair and logical they did not say that what Holmes did wasn't induction, because no one brought it up - but to state plonkingly that what Holmes used was abduction is no better answer than the 'deduction' that got so derided.

Image from Wikipedia

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

But is it art?

Another Banksy - Shop Until You Drop
I find it interesting the way that the media gets in a state of outrage when someone defaces a Banksy artwork - most recently his new Bristol work, The Girl with the Pearl Earache. There's something that feels a touch hypocritical about the whole thing.

I'm reminded of the early performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen's Stimmung. This an a cappella vocal piece that lasts over an hour (typically) and features a single chord. This isn't as boring as it sounds, as the six singers come in and out of the chord at different places, make interesting vocal sounds and generally muck around with the concept of music. I'll be honest, I couldn't sit through the whole thing now, but when I was a student and significantly more pretentious, I would listen to it end-to-end (apart from the irritating need to turn over the vinyl record) in a darkened room, perhaps after a glass or two of something, and rather enjoy the experience.

But here's the thing. At one of the early performances, some of the audience members started joining in. In an ordinary concert, this would have been disruptive. But given the way Stimmung (it means 'tuning' by the way) corrupts and opens up the form, it seemed both a natural and creative thing to do. Yet Stockhausen was apparent furious and stopped the performance. It might be structured disorder and chaos, but it had to be his structured disorder and chaos. Which rather makes you wonder, is this about art, or is it about ego? Who was to say that the version with the audience joining in wasn't better? It was certainly likely to have been more enjoyable for the audience.

So to Banksy. It's interesting that the Metro article is titled New Banksy artwork attacked by vandals. It would have been just as accurate, but would underline the potential hypocrisy better had it been headed New Banksy graffito has more graffiti added. Interestingly, in the case of Banksy, the motivation for the hypocrisy is likely to be more about money, now his pieces are worth a lot, rather than about ego. But even so there is something here that really gets to heart of what art is and what art isn't.

What is the difference between Banksy spraying on a wall and someone else? Because Banksy's art looks prettier? That's hardly a good way of making a distinction in modern art. No one ever accused a Tracy Emin piece of being pretty. Neither is the fact that Banksy's picture takes more skill that the other graffiti artist's scrawl - if you make that suggestion I have two words for you. Jackson Pollock. Does something have to have a message to be art? Arguably the 'vandalism' graffiti have more of a message (however unwanted) than this particular Banksy. As far as I can see, the only difference is that Banksy's graffito was witty. But is that enough? Should that really transform vandalism into art?

Don't get me wrong, I like Banksy's work. I think it genuinely is art. But I suggest that it underlines the way we need to get the skill back into modern art. Banksy is very skilful. His work looks good and gets the message across. It shouldn't be enough that any old tat can be interpreted as art if you give it the right label. A true artist needs more than that. Otherwise he or she is just a piss artist.

Intrigued at the thought of Stimmung? Take a listen (darkened room and medication recommended):

Shop Until You Drop photo by QuentinUK (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Scaring yourself for beginners

Halloween chez Clegg many moons ago
Going on the vast quantities of tat elegant merchandising on display in Asda, we are fast approaching Halloween, that most divisive of festivals. It's popular in the UK to moan about Halloween as an American import, but when our children were young, we used to decorate the house for a session of spookiness (usually while they were out, so they came back to a haunted house) and they loved it.

In our previous house we never got trick or treaters, as we were too far off the beaten track, but we do here, and so far the experience has been good. They're pretty well always small children, accompanied by parents who wait at the pavement, have been polite and no silliness. I know it isn't always that way - and I recognize the amusement value of the image doing the rounds on Facebook (thanks, John Gribbin) which shows a small child taking sweets while trick or treating with the tag 'Ok kids, don't ever talk to strangers or take candy from strangers or go to strangers' houses... except on the day we worship the devil.' - but we haven't suffered too much.

So to all those who either moan for religious reasons (come on guys, it's not really about worshiping the devil - don't believe everything you read on Facebook - and anyway, according to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (so it must be true) Halloween is the one day the demons and such don't come out), or because it's not a traditional festival in the UK or they don't like how commercial it is, I say pumpkins to you.

Something that goes down rather well around Halloween is a good murder, I feel, so I'll take the opportunity of reminding you about my website, chock full of delicious murder mystery party games and the like - many of them downloadable for those last minute party panics.

Go away and scare yourself. It's an order.

Monday, 20 October 2014

The fastest Mozart you will ever hear

Large prisms used in a tunnelling experiment
In theory, science is very flexible. It is the absolute opposite of a rigid, fundamentalist religion, because there are no absolute truths in science. Theories are just as good as the evidence available - and it's entirely possible that evidence will come out tomorrow that make a widely supported theory untenable.

However, scientists are also human, and have a tendency to cling on to favourite theories beyond their sell-by date. It's not that they go into fundamentalist mode and ignore the evidence - they are more flexible than that. But they will change and patch up a favoured theory so that it matches the latest data. A good example is the big bang theory, which has been patched several times as new data emerged. (And may need patching again if it turns out that inflation wasn't really the way we used to think.) This is not surprising, though it can be arbitrary in the short term. The great British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, for instance, pointed out to his death bed that the steady state theory he championed, an alternative to big bang, which was ruled out by new evidence, could just as easily have been patched up to match the conflicting data.

Just how flexible scientists are liable to be can depend on solid the theory is considered. Biologists, for instance, are always happy to hang bells and whistles on evolution, but it is hard to see it ever going away. Similarly, physicists are remarkably fond of the second law of thermodynamics. The astrophysicist Arthur Eddington famously said:
If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell's equations - then so much the worse for Maxwell's equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation - well these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.
Amusingly, the comparison Eddington gives, Maxwell's equations is probably now another example of a 'difficult to counter' theory. And so is the implication from Einstein's special relativity that nothing - and particularly no information - can travel faster than light.

This is why some experiments, mostly undertaken towards the end of the twentieth century, are particularly interesting. These 'superluminal' experiments sent quantum particles - typically photons - faster than light. (I will cover these experiments in more detail in another post.)

They did this by making use of an oddity of quantum physics. Left to its own devices, a quantum particle ceases to have a definite location and exists as a three dimensional array of probabilities. It is only when it interacts with something that its location is pinned down, according to those probabilities, which evolve over time as predicted by Schrödinger's equation. One implication of this is that particles can tunnel through a barrier and appear the other side without passing through the space in between. There is good experimental evidence that tunnelling time is zero for quantum tunnelling.

Now think of a quantum particle, specifically a photon of light, travelling from A to B. Along the way it passes through a barrier with zero tunnelling time (such as the gap between the prisms in the illustration above). This means that the photon covers the distance from A to B in less time than it should. It travels faster than light. There are many arguments between different physicists over whether or not this is truly 'superluminal' or whether it is an effect of a change in the shape of a wavefront or other obscure possibilities. But one thing is certain. When one experimenter, Raymond Chiao, said that it didn't matter if it was superluminal because you could never send a signal this way,  only random photons, he was wrong. To demonstrate this graphically, another physicist, G√ľnter Nimtz sent a recording of Mozart's 40th symphony over four times light speed. And for your entertainment you can listen to that superluminal Mozart here. There's a lot of hiss, but it's hard to deny there's a signal.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Chemistry's hero of the acid reflux battle

If, like me, you suffer from GERD and the thought of a big, tasty meal always has to be balanced against the dread of acid reflux, you'll know what friend the compound sodium alginate can be. What's more, not only does it help with gastrointestinal nightmares, it also produces some Heston Blumenthal style delights by allowing chemi-chefs to go in for spherification. (Not to be confused with spaghettification, which is what happens to you if you get too near a black hole.)

Intrigued? Discover more in my latest Royal Society of Chemistry podcast about sodium alginate. Take a listen by clicking play on the bar at the top of the page - or if that doesn't work for you, pop over to its page on the RSC site.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Politics isn't about logic

I often see complaints on Facebook and the like about the way someone's least favourite political party (insert the party of your choice, but in my feed it's usually the Conservatives or Ukip) is doing something really stupid that doesn't make any logical sense. Similarly, those with a science background are horrified by the way politicians routinely ignore scientific evidence. But it shouldn't be a surprise.

Look at the recent Scottish independence campaign, held up as a shining example of the way politics should be (apart from 'Yes' campaigners occasionally intimidating the opposition). The 'No' side were criticised for saying too much from the head and not enough from the heart. Or to put it another way, concentrating too much on fact and ignoring feeling. The reality is that 'good' politics is at least 75% feeling and fact usually comes a poor second.

You can get a very clear feeling for this from one of the rare times that a government has tried to take a relatively scientific approach to policy making by undertaking an experiment - only to totally ignore the results.

It was back in the heady days of 1968. The UK government (Labour, as it happens) decided to experiment with staying on British Summer Time all year round, rather than switching to GMT. It was a huge success. There were about 2,500 fewer casualties on the roads, with several hundred lives saved. So what did the government do? Even before the experiment had finished they announced that the UK would go back to summertime/GMT. And we did. Where we have stayed ever since.

This doesn't make any sense - but it fits perfectly with politics of the heart. Why did it suit the heart to do this? Because even though the total deaths and injuries on the road went down, the number of accidents in the mornings (when it was dark for longer than it otherwise would have been) went up. And to the politicians, specific people, people who could appear in the media berating the government for causing the death of their child, were far more important than all those unidentified people whose lives were saved. Heart won over head, and in the 43 years since we have probably lost at least 20,000 lives unnecessarily. 

Don't you just love politics?

I was reminded of these statistics while reading for review Robert Matthews' book 'Why don't Spiders stick to their Webs'. You can read the review here.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

A mean, clean screen - Toddy Gear review

If I am honest, I am something of a stranger to having a clean screen on my phone and iPad. As you can see from the image on the right, my iPad screen, left to its own devices, has strangely straight skid-like marks, as well as lots of other fingerprinty gunge.

When I have made attempts to clean the screen in the past, it has usually been a quick wipe on the shirt for the iPhone, or an attempt with a damp tissue on the iPad, neither of which is particularly effective. Those long streaks, for instance, prove pretty well impossible to shift.

So I was delighted when I was offered the chance to try out some screen cleaning products that go under the odd name of Toddy Gear (no relation to Top Gear or Argentina).

In essence, what we're dealing with are specialist cleaning cloths. They are apparently anti-microbial, but most obviously they have two sides, a plush grey side for cleaning and a shiny, silky side for a final polish (rarely needed in my testing) - and they work like magic. I gave the screen you can see in the picture about three reasonably firm wipes with the grey side and it looked as new. I was particularly happy at being able to do this without fluids involved, as I'm always a little nervous mixing liquids and my precious electronic equipment (without which, frankly, I couldn't survive on the move).

The Toddy Gear range seems to have three other features. First it's colourful. You can choose your cloth from a whole range of patterns - I can't say this excites me excessively, but it will work for some people. Secondly there are a number of designs. I got sent three, shown here - the straightforward cloth on the right, the pocket version that cunningly folds into itself to form a little pouch on the left, and the pyramid version in the middle.

That pyramid shape, apart from cunningly doubling as a stand for your phone as demonstrated, is particularly effective to hold for a firm grip, though of course, it has much less area than the conventional cloth, especially as only one of its sides is plush. And the final feature? They are pretty expensive as cloths go - but arguably for the effectiveness, they are worth every penny.

Is Toddy Gear going to transform your life? Almost certainly not.  Does the effect last for ever? No, as soon as you use your phone or tablet it will need another wipe. But if you find that the permanent fingerprint-covered look is something that you'd rather not have on your hi-tech kit (I also found it worked well on shiny computer screens, like my iMac, or even on spectacles), then this is a good buy.

The whole range (including decidedly more tasteful cloths than mine, which I think is best suited to a golf player) is available direct from the US-based Toddy Gear website. In the UK, a limited number of the cloths are available from Amazon (see slide show below for some choice examples).

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Shock, horror, BBC complaints department behaves exactly as expected

I knew it was a mistake the moment I pressed the 'Send' button. I knew they would treat me like someone pointing out (spoken in nasal tones): 'You do realise, in you drama on Sunday, that a commuter train from Slough in 1967 would not included that kind of carriage, which wasn't introduced until 1968?' But I did it anyway.

Here's the thing. I had watched an episode of the BBC's police drama New Tricks, a painless, brainless way of spending an hour that is to, say, The Bridge, what a McDonalds coffee is to a serious barista product. One of the suspects in the show was a physicist. Fair enough. Even physicists can be obnoxious, as he certainly was. But they showed him in his lab. This was a physicist working on antimatter. And what did we see in the lab? Chemical glassware, and him playing with cylinders of blue liquid. Wearing protective goggles. I just had to moan.

See the physicist at work
So I went through the BBC's byzantine complaint form and made this comment:
I was very unhappy that the 6 October episode showed a character identified as 'a physicist' and working on 'antimatter' actually working in a laboratory where all the equipment would be familiar from an A-level chemistry lab - liquids in tubes, beakers, burettes and the like. This bore no resemblance to any environment in which a physicist would work. You've seen CERN on the news, for goodness sake. Please don't argue that this is nitpicking, or detail no one would care about. You wouldn't show someone in a drama going into an Indian restaurant and eating chicken chow mein. Or someone supposedly working in a brewery, when they were shown working in a paper factory. But this was just as inaccurate and, frankly, condescending to the viewer. It would not have been hard to have filmed it in a physics lab - there are plenty in London. This is one of a number of examples where accuracy of portrayal of science in dramas is far below par compared with, say, portrayal of other academic subjects. It probably reflects the preponderance of arts graduates at the BBC. But it's not good enough. It's easy enough to get someone to be a scientific adviser on a drama (I'd be happy to volunteer) - and there is no excuse for this kind of sloppiness.
I could almost have written the answer myself, so well did it match expectations, but here it is:
I understand you had concerns that a physicist working on antimatter was shown in a laboratory where all the equipment would be familiar from an A-level chemistry lab as this bore no resemblance to any environment in which a physicist would work. 
Whilst we thoroughly research all our scripts and storylines, a certain amount of dramatic licence is occasionally used in order to keep the story moving forward. We appreciate that even the most minor deviation from accuracy can be irritating to some viewers, however with the number of characters in the show, and the amount of storylines running concurrently, we cannot always include the level of detail that some viewers would like us to. 
Right. They totally ignored the point about restaurants and instead considered this a 'minor deviation from accuracy.' Perlease! And how did using a chemistry lab rather than a physics lab 'keep the story moving forward?' I wouldn't have minded if it had been a bog standard university physics lab - no doubt plenty in walking distance of their studios - I wasn't insisting on a full scale antimatter confinement facility.

They can spend all that money to send Brian Cox to a beach somewhere to make a ponderous statement in a slow, lugubrious voice, but they can't spend 30 seconds thinking 'Do physicists really do this?' Sigh.