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.

Monday, 13 October 2014

On the pros and cons of business tweeting

In the past I have used my blog to say nice things about a company (for instance Ed's Diner) or to be less nice (Anglian Windows springs to mind). In principle companies can keep a watch for comments anywhere online and pop in and make a response - and occasionally they do - but usually such good or bad publicity goes unnoticed by them.

Twitter, though, is different, because there is a communication element as much as it is about broadcasting to the world. Every company worth its salt now has a Twitter account, and used correctly it can be a huge PR coup, but getting it wrong makes your business look feeble or out of touch.

The big difference from a blog post is that when tweeting it is easy to use the company's Twitter name in the tweet and hence highlight the tweet to the company (or individual) that is being being talked about. So, for instance, when someone tweets about one of my books, if instead of saying 'by Brian Clegg' they say 'by @brianclegg' then their tweet appears as a notification on my Twitter feed.

Now, companies who don't understand social media spends all their time pumping stuff out about themselves and ignore others who mention them. But a savvy company responds to tweets. Because once you've had a conversation it's hard to see the other side as a faceless corporation. Unless the Twitter operative messes up the conversation, the company will improve its image.

As it happens I had occasion to tweet twice about companies at the weekend on my journey to Lichfield to speak at the excellent literary festival, and what happened as a result of this is a great reflection of that observation.

The first was my favourite newspaper, the i. I probably read a newspaper around once a week, and the i does exactly what I want from a paper (and suits the pocket of a straightened writer). I noticed the classic error below:

... and tweeted oops, the i newspaper (@theipaper) thinks Microsoft makes breast implants. They kept a dark silence, though the tweet got plenty of response from others (including pointing out that Seattle is a teensy way from Silicon Valley). So zero marks for the i.

By contrast, Cross Country Trains showed how to do it. I was (for no obvious reason) chronicling my journey to Lichfield and tweeted at Cheltenham:  First change and awaiting train to Mordor*, which like every Cross Country Trains service I've ever caught is running late.
Yes, I know rail geeks, that's not a Cross Country Trains service,
it's the one I'd just got off.
Within a few minutes, Cross Country Trains had tweeted back, 'Hi Brian, trains are delayed following a person being struck by a train earlier at #CamAndDursley - apologies for the disruption.' I pointed out that the station announcement had said it was due to the rather more amusing 'animals on the line' and again I got a quick response: 'That's a little odd Brian! We can only assume something was lost in translation between our control and station announcers! :)'

There is no doubt which of the two has gone up in my estimation, and which has gone down. (Oh, and on my return trip, the Cross Country Trains service I caught from Birmingham to Cheltenham was on time.)

* I like Birmingham, but I am convinced that New Street is, in fact, Mordor station.

Twitter logo from Twitter website: Copyright Marisa Allegra Williams (@marisa) for Twitter, Inc. and reproduced under Twitter's guidelines.

Friday, 10 October 2014


This statement is false.


"Ringedteal" by John Beniston - Taken by John Beniston. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Curiouser and curiouser

I have just finished reading for review one of Ian Stewart's popular maths books from 2008 (I missed it first time around), and it certainly lives up to its name Professor Stewart's Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities as it contains the most curious thing I've ever seen in a review copy of a book in all the years I've been reviewing.

On four of the pages are hand-written corrections.

When I came across the first one, a simple change from McMahon to MacMahon, I assumed the change was actually printed in the book, to be quirky, but no, these are pencil corrections. To understand why it's so strange, you need to be familiar with the production process for a book like this.

Early editing, including copy editing, is done on bog standard Word documents (whether on a computer or printed out first). Then the book is typeset. Of course this no longer involves setting metal blocks of type in frames, but the text is imported into software that lays it out exactly how it will be on the final printed page. The result is then sent out for proof reading, both to the author and to one or more professional readers. Again this may be as a file (by now a PDF) or printed out on a laser printer.

Also around this time, there may be bound proofs produced. These look like rather scruffy paperbacks, bound up from the uncorrected proofs and are intended for early reviewers. They are easily distinguished from the final book - the cover makes it very clear what they are. Authors often get one or two of these, but no one, in my experience, uses them for proof correction, as they come out rather later than the unbound proofs.

Then, after considerable delay, the actual, final book is produced. Authors get copies of these, but in my experience they just look at the overall thing and flip through it. They certainly don't read it page by page looking for errors. Apart from anything else, they are usually fed up with the thing by now - the last thing they are going to do is read the final printed book.

And yet what I have here is a final printed hardback - not even a paperback, so certainly not a bound proof, not even one with the wrong cover on - in which someone has added pencilled corrections. It's an enigma, or, as Prof. Stewart might put it, a curiosity, that leaves me with a number of unanswered questions.
  • Whodunnit? Are these corrections in the very hand of the mighty Prof Stewart himself? Or someone at the publishing house? They clearly aren't from a disgruntled reader who sent the book back in, as the instructions for correction imply an insider.
  • What was intended with that first error? There's a big difference between period 2 and period 8.
  • Do all hardback copies carry the same mistakes? Or was this a short run that was then corrected? Do I have a strange one off copy?
  • Was it fixed in the paperback? If you have a copy of Professor Stewart's Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities, do take a look at page 226 and compare it with my version below. Let me know what you see!

POSTSCRIPT: Ian Stewart has kindly got in touch to clarify what probably happened. This is not his handwriting, so was done by the publisher. It seems likely this was a copy the publisher kept to accumulate details of errors they were notified of to put in a future reprint and was accidentally sent out. 

I still think there are a couple of mysteries. First, why would you note errors in a copy of the book? They would be very hard to find. It would be much easier simply to note them as changes (or on an electronic copy). Secondly, this appears to be the 14th printing, but Ian implied that by the 12th this should have been fixed.

If you'd like to buy a copy yourself and make the comparison, you can get the book at and (These are the paperback versions, by the way, with different covers.)

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Pick a die any die

Reading an Ian Stewart book to review it, I was reminded of a delightful old paradox, cast in the form of a gambling game. And as the author of a book called Dice World, I felt I had to share it.

The game is played with three, rather unusual dice. There's a red one which has two 1s, two 5s and two 9s as its faces; a white one with two 3s, two 4s and two 8s as its faces and a blue one (very patriotic dice, these) with two 2s, two 6s and two 7s as its faces. The dice are not loaded.

The game is simple. Each of two players picks one of the dice and rolls - whoever gets the highest number wins. The players then repeat this, typically for 20 rolls, with the same dice. Whoever gets the lowest total has to pay the other person.

The person running the game says 'I want to make this as fair as possible, so you can choose whichever of the dice you want first, then I'll pick from what's left over.'

What would you choose to do in order to maximise your chance of winning?



Don't spend ages over it - decide what you will do before you read on.


Made a decision?



... the answer it that you should choose to say 'No, no, I insist. You pick first. It's your game.' If the person running the game refuses, walk away.

If you haven't worked out why, these are very cunning dice. We tend to assume that if A is better than B and B is better than C, then it implies that A is also better than C. But that isn't the case with these dice.

Statistically speaking, red beats white. White beats blue. And blue beats red. So whichever of the dice the first player picks, the second player can always pick a die that will (over time) be the winner.

You can work it all out with an outcomes table if you like, but you can get a feel for it by noting that each die has a two out of three numbers that will beat at least two numbers on the lesser die.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Spin the Moon

I get lots of emails and comments on my Facebook page and Twitter about my books, most of them very positive. But occasionally people do email me to point out an error.

And sometimes I have to hold my hand up and say 'Oops, I made a mistake.' Because I'm human, and it's easily done. Even on something absolutely fundamental. I have (briefly) forgotten the name of a close friend when introducing them to someone else, so it's not shocking I may occasionally have a mental blip on some obscure bit of physics.

However, personally, if I was going to email someone to point out a mistake, I would do so apologetically and appreciating how easy it is to make a mistake. So it was a double blow when I got an email not just pointing out an error, but doing so decidedly aggressively. Headed Glaring Bit of Misinformation! the email read:
Dear Sir,
Began reading your latest book, “Final Frontier”, but had to quit after reading page #65, when it became obvious that you really have no clue as to what you are talking about.
You are discussing the construction of a paternoster-type space elevator on the Moon, when you state “The mechanism would be designed to swing at just the right speed to match THE ROTATION OF THE MOON”.  Unless I have been lied to by every book on planetary physics that I have ever read, the Moon is tidally locked to the Earth, AND HAS NO ROTATION. Perhaps you somehow missed that small bit of information?
As I said, I stopped reading the book at that point, and will probably avoid your works in the future.
Now there's three reasons I wouldn't have done this. One is I respect anyone who gets a book published, and I wouldn't be so rude to them, even if I did think they had made a mistake. Secondly I wouldn't have made such blatant use of capital letters. But most importantly, I wouldn't have done this because, unfortunately, the writer was wrong. I had not made a mistake, he had.

To be fair, it's an easy mistake to make (which is why it's best not to be so hard on poor authors who slip up). The Moon is, indeed, tidally locked to the Earth - and that gives a mental image of it being fixed in position. But what this means is that the Moon's speed of rotation is just right to keep the same face pointing towards the Earth as it orbits. It's not that it doesn't rotate, just that it rotates at a particular, 'locked' speed. (Technically it's not so much locked as self-correcting.)

The Moon doesn't rotate very quickly - but that's not a bad thing. At the equator, the Moon's rotational velocity is about 4.5 metres/second. To put that into context, world class athletes run 100 metres in just under 10 seconds, or 10 metres per second, so at a little under half this, the Moon's equatorial surface is rotating at a jogging pace.

My message, then, is don't expect perfection from a science writer - but it pays to be polite when pointing out errors for many reasons.