Monday, 5 October 2015

The joys of Man

NA week or so ago I went to the best literary festival I've ever attended. It wasn't a five ring circus like Hay, but rather a compact but imaginative mix of authors, not just speaking at events (several of them free because they were sponsored), but also spending a day in local schools. The only other festival I've ever spoken at that had the same sense of community was the marvellous Kempsford Festival in Gloucestershire. That one demonstrated that small is beautiful, while the Manx Litfest proved that you could be bigger and still have that essential link to the community.

Of course, the location helped. Getting to the Isle of Man is not a trivial exercise, especially if, like me, you choose to avoid flying and instead opt for three trains and a ferry - total journey time around 9 hours. But, of course, the great thing about travelling this way is you can work as you do, so it's not wasted time. And it was an opportunity, as I walked to the ferry, to see the Liver Building in all its glory like this.

To be fair, the island itself was on its best behaviour and gave us beautifully sunny days that meant my early morning view on the Friday, taken from the porch of the hotel, could have been the South of France. Instead, though, I was heading off to visit to Manx schools, in the morning at the Cronk-y-Berry junior school with a group of hugely enthusiastic year fours, and then off to Ballakermeen high school, where I not only had a theatre full of positive audience but the opportunity to sample the island delicacy at lunchtime. Sadly I chickened out from the chips, cheese and gravy - I should have been braver.

After a quick sandwich it was off again for the evening engagement which combined a talk by Matthew Kneale about his father, Nigel and the showing of two of Nigel Kneale's Quatermass episodes - the first of the Quatermass Experiment and of Quatermass and the Pit. I had the privilege of joining Matthew on stage part way through for a quick chat about science and science fiction, and a chance to ask him some questions in front of the audience (I'm the one in the left hand chair, with Matthew on the right and festival director John Quirke at the podium.) British TV and film science fiction was hugely influenced by Quatermass and despite the fuzzy black and white, there was real class in these productions. After Quatermass and the Pit particularly I would have loved to have watched more of the story.

At a drink afterwards with Matthew, John and others, Harry from the conference bookshop, Bridge Bookshop, asked a question no one brought up at the event, but an essential bit of info for any history of science fiction buff - where did that distinctive name 'Quatermass' come from? Apparently Nigel Kneale flicked through a London phone directory and the name caught his eye - there was just one in the directory.

The next day I had a free morning to stroll along the prom and prepare for my session on Build Your Own Time Machine. In the photo I'm just waiting to go on, seated behind a dalek (as you would be). Sadly the TARDIS that we'd hoped to have a stage prop was too big to fit on the trailer provided, so I had to make do with my standby prop, the cardboard box of time.

After my event I was whisked off for a chance to be a fan in the audience for a talk by Joanne Harris of Chocolat fame - it was fascinating to hear about her early inspiration in the Barnsley library and her new title, The Gospel of Loki, which as a re-telling of the Norse legends from Loki's viewpoint is about as far from the Chocolat image as you could imagine.

A recovering evening followed before an early ferry back to the mainland. All in all, a great festival.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Weird Wessex review

When I was a teenager I absolutely loved guidebooks to weird and wonderful aspects of Britain, and though I haven't looked at one in a long time, Weird Wessex, by Paul Jackson and Andrew May, brought it all back, with its enticing combination of very ordinary British locations and very strange buildings, monuments and legends.

The book consists of a series of short, factual illustrated articles. These don't tend to have too much narrative, concentrating primarily on being informative. Sometimes I felt that the text was too short - for instance, the Stonehenge section doesn't mention the increasingly strong evidence that the monument's most significant alignment is mid-winter, with the mid-summer alignment mentioned in the text being little more than an inevitable side-effect.

I did spot a minor error (or possibly sanitisation) - we're told Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin married Shelley in 1814. In reality this was the year that they began their relationship, and they didn't marry until 1816 (apart from anything else, Shelley was married to Harriet Westbrook until her death in December 1816). Interestingly Mary didn't marry until several months after the trip to Italy when she first came up with the Frankenstein idea and started the story.

The articles in Weird Wessex are divided into somewhat arbitrary sections like 'Weird History' and 'Weird Landscape', but there are lots of fun, interesting topics. I've always found the most interesting aspect of books like this are not the big ticket destinations like Stonehenge or Wells Cathedral, both of which appear, but the little oddities like the Langton Cross which apparently, according to legend, travels a mile each New Years Eve. These are destinations that you have to go out of your way to find, or perhaps even need to uncover from the undergrowth, and are all the more fun for it. Luckily, this well-illustrated little book contains a true plethora of these delightful oddities.

Weird Wessex is available on and

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Superconducting ship wrecked

One of the dangers of being a science writer is that I'm not a working scientist in the fields I write about, and though I try to make sure my facts are up to scratch, there will always be errors that slip through the net. Luckily, readers are good at spotting these, and email me to point them out.

I've had an email from a reader who say that he enjoyed reading my book on quantum physics and its applications, The Quantum Age, but identified an error when I was talking about the use of electric motors in ships.

In the book, I said existing electric motors simply can’t be scaled up to the size required to power a full-sized ocean-going ship. I had misread an Institute of Physics report, saying that its not possible to have low transmission loss motors at this scale, not that it’s not possible to have them at all. As my correspondent pointed out:
Electric motors have been used for ship propulsion since the 19th century.
  • In 1987 the QE2 was fitted with 2 x 44MW electric motors driving variable pitch propellers. The motors were built at the GEC factory in Rugby .
  • The Type 45 destroyers for the Royal Navy all have integrated full electric propulsion (IFEP) as do the new Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers.
  • Most cruise liners use podded electric motors with full azimuthing capability to provide both propulsion and steering. 
  • The QM2 has 4 x 21.5MW podded electric motors built by ALSTOM. 
  • All submarines use electric propulsion.
  • In Rugby we developed a 5MW superconducting motor, and made a contribution to the development of a 36MW superconducting motor for the US Navy for ship propulsion.
What I should have said is that existing electric motors suffer from high transmission losses when scaled up to the size required for a full-sized ocean-going ship.

Thanks again to my correspondent for pointing this out.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The Gospel of Loki review

One of the best things about speaking at the recent Manx Litfest (of which more soon) was attending some of the other author events, including one by Joanne Harris, talking about her new book The Gospel of Loki.

This is a beautifully conceived bit of fantasy writing. The idea is that we already have the 'authorised version' of the history of the Norse gods, as provided primarily by Odin in the form of the familiar Norse myths, but inevitably they are biased to Odin's viewpoint. This book is the version according to Loki, traditionally the bad guy in the myths. Of course, Loki is an inveterate liar and trickster, so it's essential to take his words with a pinch of salt, but they are all the more entertaining because of this.

Harris sets out to get under the skin of this archetypal villain, to see why he might have acted the way the myths have him behave. Apparently some fans (particularly US fans of the comic book version) have complained because it's 'not canon' - but for me this is the delight and appeal of this book, especially because Loki has a very modern way of expressing himself.

Although I was vaguely aware of the Norse myths, I had no idea until I read The Gospel how much Roger Zelazny was clearly inspired by the Norse material for his classic Amber series - not in an explicit way, but strongly coming through in the two power centres of Order (Amber) and Chaos, with the shadow worlds in between, and in the way that the ruling houses act in so many details.

Having said that, there's plenty that's original in the Amber books, and if you've never read them, I strongly recommend getting hold of a copy of them too. In fact, I can't help but wonder if Harris was slightly inspired by them herself, because Zelazny also makes full use of the opportunities to contrast a modern world first person narrator's viewpoint with the more ancient feeling universes, including the narrator's experience of being imprisoned and blinded.

So, a big recommendation for Joanne Harris's new book. It proved quite a pleasant shock to me, as (and I suspect this may be the case with most people) I only associated her with her best-known novel Chocolat, but this is a very different, earthy and delightful style. The Gospel of Loki is available on and It's also well worth taking at look at The Great Book of Amber on and

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Dr Bayes' medical marvels

The Bayesian approach to statistics is a fascinating subject, which I cover at some length in my book Dice World. What Bayes theorem enables you to do is to improve an estimate of the chances of something happening when you have additional information, and to use one set of probabilities to calculate another linked one.

This can be extremely useful and powerful when, for instance, calculating the effectiveness of disease screening tests, which can be very confusing due to wildly varying conditional probabilities. It's worth getting your head around a bit of probability symbology to get on top of this. In these simple formulae, the '|' sign is read as 'given'.

So, for instance if I have a test that will flag up the presence of a disease 90% of the time, which isn't too bad, I can write that as
P (Positive result | Disease ) = 90% - the probability of a positive result in the test, given the person has the disease, is 90%.

The problem comes, and sadly this has happened for real, when this is represented by the medical profession or (more often) the press office of a university or the press in general as the test being '90% accurate.' This is because it's perfectly possible with the same test for P (Disease | Positive Result ) to be, say, just 20%.

What that's saying is that the probability of a person who tested positive having the disease is only 20%. This, of course, is an important part of what people want to know after a test. I've just had the test and it came up positive. What's the chance that I actually have the disease? In this case it is surprisingly low, given the apparent 'accuracy' of the test.

The reason this can happen is that to work out the first figure, P (Positive result | Disease ) we are only considering the population of people who have the disease, which might be quite small. But for the second figure, P (Disease | Positive Result) we are looking at the population who had the test, which could be a much bigger number, overwhelming the number of correct positive result tests from the smaller population of sufferers with the false positive result tests from the larger population of tested people.

This makes those in the business who understand probability wary of mass screening programmes for relatively rare conditions - they result in tests that, even when very likely to get the result right on any particular individual, can come up with a distressing false positive more often than a true outcome, putting the patient through a time of horrible stress unnecessarily.

See David Colquhoun's blog for more detail on the risks of using these kinds of screening tests.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Trivia is supposed to be fun, not news

Two news stories have really irritated me this weekend, and since one is anti-Labour and one is anti-Tory, we even have a good, BBC-style, political balance.

The first was the press outrage that the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, was not going to attend a rugby match. I'm sorry, it's a game. Get over it. I don't give a stuff. I want my politicians sorting out important political stuff, not acting as celebrities by turning up at some event that has no significance whatsoever.

The second is that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, may have done something stupid as a young man involving a dead pig. (If you want to see some magnificent, but sometimes amusing over-reaction, take a look at the hashtag #piggate on Twitter.) This is doubly crass. First, once again, I want a senior politician focussed on the serious problems that the country and the world face, not on a silly story. But also how many of us can honestly say 'I never did something stupid between the ages of 15 and 25'?

I certainly can't. While I can assure my readers I never had anything dubious to do with dead pigs (or any other animals, dead or alive) I certainly did some stupid things that I wouldn't want made public. So, is this really news? Is there a public interest reason for sharing it? Don't tell me something idiotic done at that age tells us something about the mature individual, or we'd all be in the same boat.

Over the weekend, science writer Marcus Chown shared the quote above on Twitter. Anyone who knows Marcus and his politics might be a little surprised to hear who he was quoting. Apparently it was Margaret Thatcher. And it made an important point, reflecting the way Jeremy Corbyn has been attacked by the press. In fact, both left and right constantly attack politicians of the other side in this way. Both these 'news' items were essentially ad-hominem attacks saying nothing about how these politicians are doing their important jobs. And it's not good news or politics to use this approach.

Friday, 18 September 2015

What are the chances of that?

In the book I'm writing at the moment I'm considering the relationship of the arrow of time to entropy, the measure of the disorder in a system that comes out of the second law of thermodynamics. Entropy can be calculated by looking at the number of different ways to arrange the components that make up a system. The more ways there are to arrange them, the greater the entropy.

As an example of why this is the case, I was talking about the letters that go together to make up that book, and the very specific arrangement of them required to be that actual book. Assuming that there will be about 500,000 characters including spaces in the book by the time it's finished, then there are 500,000! ways of arranging those characters. That's 500,000 factorial, which is 500,000x499,999x499,998x499,997... - rather a big number.

It's not practical to calculate the number exactly, but there are approximation techniques, and if the large factorial online calculator I found is correct, then 500,000! is around  1.022801584 x 102632341 - or to put it another way, around 1 with 2,632,341 zeros after it. That's a big number. By comparison there is just one way to arrange the letters to make my book*. So by producing the book I have vastly reduced the entropy. This seems to run counter to the second law of thermodynamics, which says that entropy in a closed system should stay the same or increase. But the clue is that get out clause, 'closed system'. The book isn't a closed system - the arrangement of the letters has come out of my head as a result of the consumption by my brain of a fair amount of energy. And it's that energy that makes the reduction in entropy possible.

Good stuff, but it shows that we shouldn't expect a room full of monkeys to come up with the complete works of Shakespeare - or my book - any time soon.

* This is only true if you consider each letter 'a' to be different from each other letter 'a' - imagine, for instance, each letter has a serial number. In that case it is literally true. In reality I could make what appears to be exactly the same book but swap all the letter 'a's with other letter 'a's and it would read exactly the same. And of course the same applies to every other letter. But there are still vastly fewer ways to organize those letters to spell out the same book than there are of producing any pattern whatsoever.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Brian lassos the moon

It doesn't matter how many books you have published, there's still something special about getting your hands on the first copy of the finished product - and never more so than my new book, How Many Moons Does the Earth Have?, as the publisher, Icon Books, has done a great job, giving it a really impressive textured cover.

Sadly, you can't buy a copy yet - not til November - but you can already preorder it on Amazon and elsewhere, and I think it will make an ideal gift for hard-to-buy-for people (and something of a bargain at £6.99). In fact there may be one exception to this wait - I'm doing an event at Lichfield Literary Festival on October 8 when we hope there will be early copies available on sale: see the festival's website for details.

It's a science quiz book, in part because if you like attending quizzes, it can be frustrating that they don't have enough/good enough quality science questions. But you don't need to be running a quiz to use it (in fact I suspect most readers won't) - the idea is rather to test yourself with the questions and then turn the page to find the answer, often, I hope, surprising, and a pageful of interesting material expanding on the answer.

It's a bit like taking part in your own version of QI without the pompousness and the answers they get wrong (which is reflected in the title of the book).

Here's some bumf from the back cover:

... and award yourself a small pat on the back if you recognise the movie reference in the post title.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Is this the end of complementarity?

Image © EPFL 2015
We have a report from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) of 'a photograph of light as both a particle and a wave.' HT to Ian Bald for pointing this out - the paper dates back to March, but I didn't spot it at the time.

It's interesting to dig in a bit and see a) is this true and b) is it the end of Bohr's assertion as part of his concept of complementarity that light could act like a wave or a particle but never both at the same time?

The experiment is complex enough that it's a little fuzzy when it comes to the interpretation. What the experimenters did was reported by the EPFL's press people as follows. The experimenters fired a laser at a metallic nanowire. Some of the energy from the photons in the light stimulated electrons in the wire, which meant that 'light' travelled along the wire in two directions. When these waves met they formed a standing wave which generated emitted light. They then shot electrons at the wire which interacted with the emitted light in a quantum fashion, slowing down or speeding up and producing the rather pretty image.

The argument in the press release is that this simultaneously demonstrates the wave and particle nature of the light - the wave in the standing wave and the particle aspect is in the interaction with the incoming electrons that produces the image.

This is a really interesting experiment. As Fabrizio Carbone, the leader of the EPFL team says, 'This experiment demonstrates that, for the first time ever, we can film quantum mechanics – and its paradoxical nature – directly. Being able to image and control quantum phenomena at the nanometer scale like this opens up a new route towards quantum computing.' However I'm a bit hesitant to say that we are simultaneously observing wave and particle behaviour in the same bit of light.

Unless I'm misunderstanding what's going on, we have waves in the nanowire, which strictly speaking are plasmonic, i.e. quantised vibrations rather than themselves conventional electromagnetic waves. These waves are causing electrons in the wire to accelerate, generating photons which are emitted and then interact with the incoming detector photons. So the wave-like process is generating the photons. But they are totally different entities. Of itself this kind of mix isn't uncommon - wave-like behaviour in a radio aerial generates the photons of the emitted radio - but being able to see the impact of both in the same image is. So complementarity is safe.

Whatever the correct interpretation, we must not fall into the trap of confusing models with reality. Light is not a wave, nor is it a particle (nor is it a fluctuation in a quantum field) - these are models that help us get a grasp of its behaviour, but in the end light is light, where waves, particles and fields are all models based on our experience of the macro world. However, it's certainly interesting stuff! You can read the full paper here.

Monday, 14 September 2015

On a Bacon hunt

Roger Bacon is a misty figure in the history of science. Over the years, this thirteenth century friar has been portrayed as a mystic, magician, scientist ahead of his time and second rate collector of other people's ideas. It doesn't help that he often gets confused with his unrelated (as far as we are aware) Elizabethan namesake Francis Bacon. But it is in part because of the messy way that Roger has been reported over the years (even starring in a play by one of Shakespeare's contemporaries) that he is a fascinating subject.

My book on Bacon and his science has an intentionally provocative subtitle. I ought to make it clear that in many ways he clearly wasn't the first scientist. Apart from the impossibility of coming up with a 'first' and the argument that you couldn't have a scientist before the word was coined (a terrible argument to my mind - you might as well say there weren't dinosaurs before the word was coined), Bacon was pretty bad on most of the requirements to call someone a scientist. But he did try most of them. He emphasised the essential contribution of maths long before it was fashionable (Francis wasn't impressed with maths, for instance), Roger went on at great length about the importance of experiment, rather than relying on received wisdom, he risked his life to communicate science and he was a scourge of those who claimed to be magicians (ironic, given that he would later be regarded as one himself). Bacon was pretty bad on scientific matters, but the reason I do give him this tongue-in-cheek label is that I would expect an early person to fit a label to be bad at the role. By the time you get to Galileo and Newton they were far too polished.

But the point of this post isn't to put the case for Bacon, which was never intended to be taken too seriously. Instead it's a chance to share some photos of an attempt to track down Bacon in his main academic home, Oxford. He was in Oxford when the university was just beginning, both as a member of the university and of the Franciscan friary there. I did find a few traces of Bacon - but you might think there'd be a little more.

Admittedly he gets a lane, suitably small and near the sprawling location of the Franciscan friary, mostly now brutalist overpasses and uninspiring modern buildings. According to legend, at some point he had a study in the building that spanned Folly Bridge on the southern approach to the city. The building certainly existed, though there was no reason to link it to Bacon.

But that structure is long gone. It narrowed the bridge to a single track and was totally unsuited to modern traffic. Now the bridge is an uninspiring bit of architecture you could drive over without even realising you were on a bridge.

But surely Oxford could not fail to mark the presence of one of its few chances to eclipse Cambridge in the scientific field? There is indeed a plaque to Bacon in Latin and English, reflecting his one-time label of Doctor Mirabilis.

Unfortunately, the siting of the plaque could be better. It is on the side of a multi-storey car park, another of Oxford's delightful replacements for the friary:

Still, there is one place where it feels as if Bacon is being given his due. Oxford's gorgeous natural history museum contains a series of statues of scientific figures, and there, amongst the skeletons, is Roger in all his glory. Of course we've no idea what he looked like, but I think it's right that he should be remembered.

Update: I gather the car park with the plaque is being demolished (my visit was last year). Any Oxford locals know what is happening to the plaque?

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Review - Cover-Up Woodback phone case

 I like to ring the changes with my phone cases, so I was pleased to have the chance to review the Cover-Up Woodback iPhone 6 case.

In principle, a phone case can do three things for a phone - make it look better, protect it and make it feel better to hold - and how well the Cover-Up case comes across depends on how you react to each of these three criteria.

In this case, the appearance can split the jury. I rather like the real wood finish, with one proviso. Some younger observers have not been so impressed, preferring being able to see the attractive back of the iPhone and not entirely sure about the merits of wood on hi-tech equipment.

The wooden back to the case gives it a genuinely interesting and different look - in my case it was a red wood called Purpleheart, which was an attractive shade. The only proviso is that, like most people my age, I remember the horrendous plastic wood-effect finish that manufacturers (particularly US manufacturers) used to splash everywhere. Though it's obvious this is the real deal when you look at it properly, at a glance it could be reminiscent of those 1970s monstrosities.

Then there's protection. A smartphone is worth hundreds of pounds, yet it gets slung around as if it's indestructible. The good news is that the Cover-Up does a great job of protecting the back and sides of the phone against scratches. What it doesn't do is protect the screen - the bumpers on the side don't come high enough to get between the screen and the pavement if you drop it.

Where the case scores highest is in feel. It's very light, so doesn't make the phone feel like a brick, and has silky-touch sides, while the finger that rests against the wooden back feels far better than it does against smooth plastic of my usual case. It's probably the nicest case to hold I've ever had my hands on.

So if you want screen protection it's not a good bet, but otherwise, providing the wood finish appeals to you (it has definitely grown on me), it's a great little case.

You can find out more about the case (and the various woods available for the back) at and

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Operational what?

For a good number of years I was employed in Operational Research (OR).  There was a running joke among those involved in the discipline at British Airways featuring a conversation at a party.

Someone asks you what you do and, after about five hilarious attempts to explain it, the person in the joke says 'I work with computers.' These days my attempt at a short explanation is something like 'it was developed during the Second World War as a way of using maths to do things like calculate the most effective pattern to drop depth charges. But now it's used by organisations to solve business problems.'

The little squeezy plane above is from an anniversary get-together which I'm shocked to realise was three years ago. But I've had more recent OR action from a connection with Lancaster University, where I took my MA in OR many moons ago. I visited the university a year or so ago as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations and was delighted to meet up with one of my old lecturers, Graham Rand. As well as showing me around, he mentioned that the Operational Research Society was starting a new magazine called Impact which would be featuring articles on what's happening in today's OR.

I've contributed a couple of articles for the magazine, which has given me a great opportunity to revisit OR and find it still live, well and doing interesting things. The magazine is aimed at the general reader, rather than practitioners, so well worth a look. Fittingly, the first piece I wrote for them, featured on the cover of the first edition, is about a current use of OR in British Airways.