Thursday, 28 April 2011

We know where you've been!

There has been a media storm in a teacup lately over Apple's iPhone (I suppose it makes a change from that wedding). It probably reflects the fact that none of the news media's technology correspondents are old enough to remember back to 1984 that they didn't point out the irony of Apple's famous '1984' advertising campaign. Because now, it seems, friendly ole Apple is really Big Brother.

The brouhaha (love that word) arose because it was discovered that iPhones appeared to keep a list of places you had been. Oh no. Your privacy is breached. The world has ended. Everyone who is jealous of us iPhone users can now laugh at us for being smug. However, it seems that this was a mistake - this is just a file the phone uses to keep track of locations of the WiFi and phone masts it uses to help locate its position in all those useful position based apps before the GPS can kick in.

To be honest, I think we make too much of privacy (as witness all the fuss about superinjunctions at the moment). I really wouldn't have cared if my iPhone really did store a track of where I've been. It wouldn't discover anything very exciting. More to the point, even if I had popped into somewhere dubious, the accuracy of location on WiFi and phone masts is only to tens of metres. I could easily have just driven past.

So here's what it comes to. This is the headline. Apple is not Big Brother. Why did they need to make such a fuss? All the had to do was watch the ad:

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Why the monarchy has to change

I'm neither a mad monarchist nor a rabid republican. I have no interest in royalty, but I think the associated pomp and circumstance does bring us good tourist income - and I'm not particularly worried about getting rid of our royals entirely. Apart from anything else, having a hands-off head of state strikes me as a good thing. It's just confusing when a country has a prime minister and a president, both highly active in politics.

However, the upcoming wedding has got me thinking about the viability of the current setup. It really needs to change. A small point is primogeniture. The idea that any male should inherit ahead of his older sisters is just ludicrous and needs to be done away with immediately. But there are two other, bigger elephants in the room.

The first elephant (think ears) is Prince Charles. I'm sorry, this ageing homeopathic organic biscuit seller and woo supporter is not someone I would like to see on the throne - and going on the polls, I'm not alone. If he doesn't voluntarily offer to give up the job, we need some quick legislation to prevent his accession.

But longer term there's an even bigger problem. The worst thing about our present royalty is the idea that one family should hold the position for ever. This has no historical precedent - we've always had evolutionary forces acting on our royalty before. When the ruling family started to get weak another family would simply butcher them and take over. But this isn't likely to happen any more. We're stuck with the same bunch as they gradually become less and less viable.

I seriously believe we ought to find some way to elect our monarch rather than rely on dubious breeding stock. Perhaps Andrew Lloyd Webber could be persuaded to lend us the format used to select stars for West End shows via TV spectaculars as a way of winnowing down the possibles and coming to an answer. Or we could resort to more traditional means - lock all the candidates in the Big Brother house, but rather than evict them, it's the one that's left alive that takes the throne.

Okay, maybe those mechanisms aren't quite right - but we have to change the process somehow.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

On receiving strange theories

Part of a visual proof of Fermat's
Last Theorem I was sent
One side effect of writing science books is that people send you their ideas and scientific theories. Some science writers, I'm afraid are very dismissive of this, but I consider it a compliment. Most of the times I can't understand their theories, and if they run to any length I haven't got time to read them in detail, but it at least shows an interest in thinking about how the world works.

It's also true that just occasionally someone has a real, significant idea that they send to a scientist or writer. The physicist Satyendra Nath Bose famously sent Einstein a few pages of scribbled thoughts on the way some particles behave like gasses. Einstein must have received vast quantities of rubbish in the mail, so the fact that he spotted Bose's work was interesting and responded implied that he must have at least glanced at this stuff.

As I'm a writer not a working scientist (and certainly no Einstein) I'm the last person to be able to spot something exciting among the odd and the hair-raising that does make up the majority of such mail, but it does show that being totally dismissive is not the right response.

A diagram I was sent linking my book on light
with Mayan Prophesies and Atlantis
What started me down this line is a couple of emails I've had about a new fundamental theory of physics. I have no doubt whatsoever that this theory is wrong, but it is a real theory rather than a bit of new age handwaving, mentioning 'quantum' to try to give it scientific credibility. Although, as I say, I am totally convinced it is wrong, I think it is worth thinking about because this is a great way to exercise the mental muscles - and because I believe the scientific community should be more open minded, rather than instantly dismissing ideas just because they are 'obviously wrong.'

So here we go. The idea is this. Physics has real trouble with integrating gravity with the other forces. But what if gravity doesn't exist? Let's assume there is no attraction between lumps of matter. But, you say, it's obvious there is attraction because things fall to the ground and planets orbit. Okay, says this theory. Let's imagine that all matter is always expanding. If everything expands at the same rate, you wouldn't notice the change in size. But the gap between objects would naturally shrink - things would fall towards each other. You can also, in a rather strained way, argue for orbits. (See more about it here.)

Now your natural inclination might be to dismiss this instantly - but the fun thing is to think 'Okay, imagine this were true. How would things be? What differences would there be between the theory and what we actually observe.' And as soon as you do that, you are doing real science - and can discover just how stimulating it is.

I'm not going to give away my simple demonstration that the theory doesn't work (though I will say my first attempt failed because I didn't properly shift into an expanding frame viewpoint - you have to remember that you, the observer, and anything you use to make measurements are expanding) - I'm sure, if you give it a try you can come up with one.

I know many scientists and science writers regard these kind of ideas as a waste of time and get quite unpleasant about how stupid they are - but this isn't a very scientific viewpoint. No one has time to explore every single theory in detail. The vast majority are total rubbish. But we ought to glance at them before giving them the brush off, and should not dismiss a theory simply because it takes a very different and eyebrow raising approach. I think the balance should move a little, if only out of common courtesy.

Friday, 22 April 2011

The compound A-lister

Our Easter special Royal Society of Chemistry podcast is a celebrity of the compound world. It's such an A-lister that we can refer to it by its initials and know exactly what we're talking about. And boy, is it  a big celeb. In fact it's includes the biggest molecule known in its family. What's more it's very much the life of the party. Literally. We're talking DNA.


Take a listen!

Apologies to regular readers - it may be a few days before the next post.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Tales told by an old sea salt

I am always amazed by the power of the word 'natural'. It can transform the most rubbish product into something desirable. And conscious though I am of this manipulation, I still feel the pull of its siren call.

The same goes for terms that imply natural. I'm a sucker for crisps that say they have 'sea salt' rather than boring old 'salt.' And yet, when we rush out and buy sea salt at inflated prices, what are we actually getting for our money?

First of all, very little difference in taste. I've never seen it done but I can predict that the best of chefs, faced with the same stew (or crisps) flavoured with sea salt and mined salt in a double blind trial couldn't taste the difference. The trouble is if they ever make the comparison they will taste a bit of fine grained mined salt and some chunky crystallized sea salt and say 'yes there's a difference' - which there is, but it's all down to texture.

Second there's the matter of purity. A lot of people go for 'natural' things (or organics, but let's not get into the travesty that is organic salt) because they have less impurities. Yet sea salt has a lot more impurities than mined salt (which also has more nasties in it than 'chemical' sodium chloride). Don't get me wrong, these impurities are at such trace levels that they can have no disbenefit, but they are there.

Finally it has just occured to me that mined salt is more natural than sea salt. Mined salt is naturally occuring salt that has been dug up out of the ground. But sea water doesn't contain salt - it contains a mix of ions. Salt is only produced when the seawater is processed. So sea salt is manufactured salt, where mined salt is natural salt. Hmmmm.

And that's the trouble with basing your choices on loaded adjectives. But it won't stop me lusting after crisps with sea salt and balsamic vinegar. What a wuss.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

A dangerous game

Game theory is a fascinating subject. The idea that you can, in some sense, simulate serious and important issues through games where rewards and punishments parallel our interface with reality is remarkable - and there is no doubt that games like the Prisoner's Dilemma offer real stimulation for the mind.

However, you have to be careful how you use game theory - and I came across a prime example of getting it wrong today.

I've just read the book Here on Earth by Tim Flannery for review. In it, he describes an exercise where a United Nations style response to climate change was simulated. In the game, each participant (one per nation) was given 40 Euros. The game had several stages, and at each stage the participants (in smaller teams) had the choice to contribute a small amount, a larger amount, or nothing. At the end of each round, the players kept any cash that was left over as long as their group hit a certain target. The aim was to raise enough money to conquer climate change, and the simulation didn't hold out much hope for the world, as far too many people held back until it was too late.

But here's the thing. Let's look at the simulation itself as a meta-game. Players were given a sum of cash. The reward for witholding payment, if they got the strategy right, was real money. The punishment for not spending the money was a disaster in the game. Nothing happened in the real world. So why wouldn't they withold cash strategically if they were acting logically?

I have this real problem with role play type games of this kind. I used to have to play them in management training exercises at British Airways, and my attitude was always to find a way to win the meta-game. Instead of thinking within the scenario of the game, think within the hotel room (or wherever it was played) and find a way to subvert the game. Usually it was much easier to win this way. I have a huge amount of sympathy with Jim Kirk in the recentish Star Trek movie, who is just about to be court martialled for doing exactly the same thing when all hell breaks loose - playing the meta-game rather than the fake scenario. It seems the sensible thing to do to me. I know a lot of people see it as cheating, but I think they miss the point.

So, yes, do use game theory to its best advantage, but don't turn it into a role play, because people can always think outside of the game - and some definitely will.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

To boldly go

Putting stuff into space is an expensive (and dangerous) business. Let's face it, if you really had the choice, which would you prefer, taking off plane-style down a runway, or balanced on top of a tall, thin, pencil-balanced-on-its-end style structure? For that matter, the technology used to get stuff into orbit is very poor on the environmental side. Okay, hydrogen/oxygen engines are green, but the way various stages of the rocket are discarded is a tad wasteful.

When the space shuttle was introduced, the idea was that this was a reusable and hence cheaper and less wasteful vehicle - but it still relies on those huge discarded boosters and fuel tanks.

So if you really could do a plane-style rocket that could take you properly into orbit, rather than a Virgin Galactic sub-orbital flights, it would be quite something. Pie in the sky? Well, yes, it is right now. But a British company called Reaction Engines believes they have the technological concept to make it possible.



You can read more about it here, provided you have a high tolerance for the word 'amazing'.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Read, learn, and outwardly discuss

For a while now, some users of the Popular Science book review website have asked if it's possible to have a forum to discuss the books. The fact this hasn't existed to date has nothing to do with an aversion on my part - I think it's a great idea - and everything to do with my technical incompetence.

Aware that this isn't really a very good excuse, I've set up as an experiment a Popular Science forum. It's linked from the main www.popularscience.co.uk site, but you can also get to it direct.

I'm hoping that popular science fans will find this useful to discuss the books we review, any other popular science books and whatever they fancy in the arena of popular science writing. At the moment it's pretty rattling and empty because it was just set up - please do pop over and say hello. You'd be very welcome.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Is this for real?

I've been sitting on this one for a while, but I can sit on it no longer. A few weeks ago there was a news story essentially asking whether children with no friends should be classed as special needs.

I'm not entirely sure this was a serious story, it was probably just a reaction to something on a web forum. However, if someone was taking this seriously, it's worrying. There seem to be two problems here.

The first is confusing cause and effect. It's entirely possible that children who do have very genuine special needs will not have any friends. For example, a child on the autistic spectrum may find it difficult to make friends. In this case, you certainly will have a child without friends who is special needs. But the lack of friends is not causal in this requirement, it's just a symptom.

The second is the dilution of the special needs label. In a sense, all children are special needs. They are all individuals, and all have particular requirements for support. However, the term 'special needs' is used in education for a very specific section of the population, and it is crucial that the resources these children so depend on are not diluted by every silly fad that comes along. We'll be suggesting next that children with red hair should be classified special needs...

Thursday, 14 April 2011

It's wind-up-a-scientist day!

I was delighted to discover that if you put 'wind up a scientist' into Google, the very first item that comes up is my post last year on this topic. Surely definitive proof that if you want to wind up a scientist, this is the place to do it (see the old post if you want to know why this date is the second annual wind-up-a-scientist day. Actually it will tell you why it's wind-up-a-scientist day - the reason it's the second one is because last year's was the first).

The point is that scientists can take themselves a bit too seriously, something that is probably worth both celebrating and deflating.

Last year I suggested many options, but this year I'd like to focus on a theme. What's your favourite item spoofing a real scientist (not fictional ones, that's cheating)? To lead off, I'd like to provide this rather excellent Brian Cox spoof:

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

What people believe about science

Apologies if posts are a little off and on until after Easter - it's school holiday time again!

There's a rather interesting piece about scientific beliefs on Derren Brown's blog. Apparently over a fifth of the population believe that light sabres exist, more than 40% believe in Back to the Future style hover boards and most mind-boggling of all, 18% of adults believe they can see gravity. (I think this must surely have been them misreading the questionnaire and thinking it was asking them if they could see gravy. I can see gravy.)

But what I found most interesting of all was how much Derren Brown's post got wrong - so it's not just the British population that has misconceptions about science. For example, Brown's post crows that 30% of Britains believe that time travel is possible. Ho, ho, silly people! They've been watching too much Dr Who! Unfortunately, Derren, time travel is possible. Thanks to relativity, for example, every time we move or experience a gravitational field, we travel through time compared with people who aren't moving or feeling that field. This is why GPS satellites have to be corrected for relativity - because they are travelling in time with respect to the surface of the Earth. Not a lot, admittedly, but time travelling they are. (As Yoda might put it.)

He also listed some of the things the poor deluded public thought weren't possible, but really were. For example, Harry Potter style invisibility cloaks. He notes quite rightly that there are techniques that can make small things disappear - but they don't work well with visible light, and only with very small things. Yes, one day, some variant of this technology may be used to build some form of invisibility device (I can't imagine it would ever literally be a cloak), but we're a long way off. The public is right - they don't exist today.

Even better is his assertion that 'Seven out of ten adults questioned thought it was impossible to move objects with their mind.' Well, yes Derren, all the evidence is that telekinesis is bunk. What he then uses to disprove this is that there are devices that enable people to control things by monitoring brain activity and interpreting it. Yes, this is perfectly true. But then this is exactly what happens when you pick something up with your hand. Activity in your brain is detected and that causes muscles to act. But no one would think that picking something up with their hand is 'moving objects with their mind.' You know, and I know, and Derren knows that people are thinking of direct mental action on solid objects - for which there is no evidence.

So full marks to Derren for pointing out the odd beliefs - but minus marks for trying to manipulate the evidence to show something it doesn't.

Image from Wikipedia

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Reclaiming the icon

For a long time I have been teetering on the edge of mildly exploding (is that both an oxymoron and a mixed metaphor in one sentence? Ace!) about the popular use of the words 'icon' and 'iconic' as in 'Albert Einstein was an icon of the scientific age,' or 'this is an iconic song.'

According to my dictionary this usage of a word that previously applied to a religious painting seems to have emerged around the 1950s. But the usage should concern an exemplar, something that is representative of the height of a particular culture or movement. So Albert Einstein can indeed be considered an icon, but the same doesn't go for many other uses.

The way 'icon' is employed pretty well daily in the media, particularly on TV and radio, is much weaker. As long as someone or something is faintly well-known, they become an icon. So, for instance, according to The X-Factor, whichever hideous old song is being recycled on the show is an 'iconic song' (or even worse, an 'iconic anthem'). And the particular offending case that started me on this rant - at the weekend I heard Laurence Llewelyn Bowen (yes, I know it's my fault for listening to him) refer to the Schindler's List theme as one of the iconic film scores of the 20th century.

Leaving aside the fact that practically every great film score is from the 20th century (name me a 19th century one, or more than a couple of 21st century ones), this is a dubious statement at best. The Schindler's List theme is very good - I'd probably put it in the top 100 - but for me there should only be a couple of iconic scores that somehow typify the genre, and I'm really not sure that this can be said of this particular piece of music.

I know it's boring when people get on a hobby horse about grammar or punctuation or word usage. I know word usage changes with time. But this one of those examples where there are so many other words essentially meaning 'well-known' or 'rather good' that there really is no need to be so profligate with our icons. Keep your verbal hands (yes! mixing it again) off.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Advertising substandard authority

Anyone listening to Classic FM recently, amongst the interminable adverts voiced by Joanna Lumley (no, Ms Lumley, I do not want personal injury lawyer), will have come across ads for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). These proclaim proudly that no dubious advertiser, even on the internet is safe. I think it's time someone reported these adverts to the Advertising Standards Authority, because in my limited experience, pretty well any bad advertising is safe - this agency doesn't seem to work.

Admittedly I'm basing this on a very small sample. I have had interaction with them in two cases. The first involved a mail-based advertising campaign. In this case, the ASA had ruled against the campaign. They said it had to stop. Yet months after this, people were still adding comments to my blog day after day (until the events mentioned in the previous post occurred) saying that they had received the mailing that day. The adjudication did nothing to stop the mailings. It seemed all the ASA could do was give the company a ticking off, after which it was business as usual.

The more recent example was an advertising email I received. The subject line of the email said 'You have won an iPod' or some other desirable product (I don't still have the original, sadly). Now usually I delete an advertising email without reading it, but because this subject line said 'You have won' I went to the trouble of opening the mail. And guess what? I hadn't won. It was just an advert giving me the option of entering a competition to win an iPod.

I complained to the ASA - there is no doubt whatsoever that the subject line was misleading. They came back and said, yes, the subject line was misleading, but once you read the email it became obvious that it was a competition. So they would take no action.

This totally misses the point - they clearly don't understand electronic communications. The subject line is the equivalent of a headline on a newspaper article or an advertising poster. It draws you in. To say that the headline can be totally untrue as long as the body of the text is correct is ridiculous - yet that's exactly what they did. As far as I was concerned, my time was wasted by an untrue allegation in that subject line.

So next time the government is looking for a quango to axe, I suggest the ASA gets the chop, because they're a waste of money and simply don't understand electronic communication. If the powers that be are interested, I'd be happy to set up a body operating at half the cost that will take real action (provided we are empowered to impose fines, shut down businesses etc.) How about it government?

Friday, 8 April 2011

Concerts are boring

One of the joys of becoming a grumpy old man is that you can be honest about things you couldn't possibly say when you were young. For instance, while at university and for a good number of years after, if offered sherry (yes, children, we drank sherry back then) I would go for the dry stuff. I couldn't stand it, but this was the sophisticated thing to do, so I did.

Similarly, back then, I used to go to a lot of concerts. Actually I listened to a lot of music, just sat and listened to records, which I wouldn't think of doing now. But the main point here is the concerts. Some concerts I have been to have been brilliant. I pick randomly an Al Stewart concert that was superb, and an orchestral concert at the late lamented Free Trade Hall back in the 70s, when the brass in some Shostakovitch symphony or other was so powerful it made your chest cavity resonate - that's what live music is about and it stays with me to this day.

However, I have also sat through many (many) concerts where I have spent most of the time thinking of other things, or watching the music on the players' desks to see how many pages they have left to go. ('Just one page, hurrah! What? There's a repeat to the beginning?!?') I may be the only person in the world who thinks this, but I think it's more likely that there are others out there of the same opinion, but who daren't come out of the closet. Many concerts are deadly dull. Worthy, certainly. But entertaining? Hardly.

Don't get me wrong. I like music. I love performing the right kind of music. But as something to just sit and listen to, while doing nothing else, it really doesn't work for me much of the time.

Picture from Wikipedia

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Launch day

Regular readers can hardly have failed to notice the appearance of my new book Inflight Science, but today is the official publication date, which seemed worth marking. If you are toying with buying a copy, today would be a great day to do it!

To say I'm pleased with this book would be an understatement - sometimes everything just seems to come together right with a book, and this is a prime example. It was genuinely great fun to write, which I think is half the battle. It is so much harder to make a book interesting if you are struggling to be interested in the topic yourself.

One or two people have pointed out the irony that I hate flying, but funnily it really isn't an issue. I prefer to use other means of transport on environmental grounds, and if I have to fly, it scares me witless. But then most people either experience fear or boredom in flight - and I think that's why a book like this can be helpful, because it's a distraction and hopefully brings back some of the genuine wonder we ought to have when performing the amazing task of travelling through the air seven miles up.

If you feel the urge, you can get the standard book from Amazon.co.uk (sorry, Amazon.com-ers - yours isn't out until September but you can preorder), or if you are a Kindle person it's on both Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

To finish off, here's a quick quote from a couple of the early reviews:
…we should be grateful for this book from Brian Clegg, an unabashed aircraft geek. Everything about aircraft seems to fascinate him: how much they weigh, how their lavatories work, how they affect our bodies. His curiosity extends to airports, which he turns into pleasure palaces full of little-known facts rather than the dull shopping malls we normally take them to be. His book is structured as a representative flight, from check-in to customs, in which at every turn he micro-analyses the technical and scientific aspects of the experience. I consider myself reasonably competent on matters aeronautical, but he still managed to surprise me with something new on every page. For example, he digresses on why there will never be electric aircraft. The reason is that to carry the same amount of energy as 10kg of jet fuel, you'd need one ton of batteries…. He points out that only children tend still to be excited by aircraft. We should take their curiosity as a guide. With this book in hand, we have all we need to set off on our next flight with our eyes open to the sheer wonder of what is involved. Mail on Sunday (Alain de Botton)

Inflight Science by Brian Clegg is, essentially, an eye-spy book for adults... fitting into that publishing niche somewhere between hard science and Schott’s Miscellany that was so successfully exploited by the Cloudspotter’s Guide... The great strength of this book is its ability to pull out from the mundane experiences of modern air travel - the contrails and cumulonimbus, the security scanners and salted snacks - to explain a wider technical point... We are called - it is the Royal Society’s motto - to take no one’s world for it. In that spirit, Clegg includes several of his own experiments, so you too can perform some basic mile-high science... [some] are ingenious.  The Times (Tom Whipple)

Monday, 4 April 2011

Think bike? Hmm...

Every now and then the people in charge of the information on motorways get bored. If they have no warnings to give on those big signs, they put up a slogan or two. Now, I think they're missing a real opportunity here. Rather than saying 'Tiredness kills/Take a break' they ought to say something truly outrageous, like 'Slow/UFO ahead'. That way drivers would really wake up and take attention.

Or they could copy the old US Burma-Shave signs that Bill Bryson is so fond of. The ones with the little rhyming slogans on a series of signs, for example: On curves ahead/Remember sonny/That rabbit's foot/Didn't save/The bunny/Burma-Shave - something like that would really make drivers sit up and pay attention. But no, they have to go for rather dull and worthy reminders.

One that was in evidence on the M4 yesterday is illustrated above, and I think it's a disaster of a slogan. As a motorist when I 'think bike' I think of really dangerous hazards that don't just cause near accidents every time you pass them, but have a tendency to ride across red lights and generally make things even more dangerous than they should be. Since this is a motorway we're on, where bikes are banned, I naturally assume this must be some kind of kamikaze bike, probably fitted with anti-vehicle missiles. Not a healthy thought when heading down the M4 at 70 mph.

As for 'think biker' - this is just wrong. If they'd said 'think motorcyclist' it would have been different. Then I would have imagined a weedy thin bloke with glasses who drones on about his Vincent Black Shadow (or whatever it is) and is the road's equivalent of a trainspotter. This is the kind of person you would want to look out for and preserve. However, when I 'think biker' I think of some Hell's Angels type with a long beard and unwashed clothes who is about to smash up your town and kidnap your women/men/dogs for their own pleasure. In other words, the kind of person you need to take out before they take you out in good Mad Max style. Do they really want me to 'think biker'?

Friday, 1 April 2011

The unsightly row that has thrown physics into confusion

Joyce's incoherent rambling that gave
a particle's name its spelling

When the Finnish Academy of Sciences named a hypothetical quark this week, they kicked off an unsightly row that has shaken the physics world.

Quarks are the fundamental particles at the heart of some of the more familiar inhabitants of the nucleus. Protons and neutrons are each made up of three quarks. The odd name 'quark' was dreamed up by physicist Murray Gell-Mann. It's often said he took the name from Irish author James Joyce, but Gell-Mann always denied this. He came up with a verbal name that sounded like 'kwork' (some purists still pronounce 'quark' this way). Gell Mann then spotted the quote from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, and because the word looked a bit like his particle name, plus it came in threes, he adopted it as the spelling.

Quarks come in six varieties, quirkly known as 'flavours' - up, down, charm, strange, top and bottom. Now a group at the University of Helsinki have proposed that there may be a seventh flavour, which they have given the name looflirpa - and here's where the controversy rages.

Particles generally have made up names, but the properties of particles and the sub-types of particles, like the flavours of quarks, are usually named in English. The Finnish team feel that it is entirely appropriate that their hypothetical particle should have a Finnish name. The word, literally 'run master', is a homage to the famous 'Flying Finns' - runners of great distinction through the twentieth century, most recently Lasse Viren. the word has no significance in terms of the putative nature of the quark, but the team point out that words like 'charm' and 'strange' have no connection to those particles' properties either.

As yet the jury is out. We once had imperial weights and measures, but the Finns suggest we now have imperialist naming of particles. In this case, the particle may well not exist, so there may be no decisive outcome. But perhaps it is time that the physics community thought a little more about its naming conventions.