Friday, 31 October 2014

A throw of the dice

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

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

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

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Mars recedes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

A cracking venue

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

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

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

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

Monday, 27 October 2014

Another poke in the QI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image from Wikipedia

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

But is it art?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Scaring yourself for beginners

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 20 October 2014

The fastest Mozart you will ever hear

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 17 October 2014

Chemistry's hero of the acid reflux battle

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

Intrigued? Discover more in my latest Royal Society of Chemistry podcast about sodium alginate. Take a listen by clicking to 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.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Black and white politics

When I was young, I believe a lot of people went to the Saturday morning pictures (cinema) and amongst other things, they would watch cowboy adventures in which it was very easy to tell who were the bad guys and who were the good, because the bad guys wore black hats, and the good white. When I grew up I soon realised life was more complicated. It helped, I think, that I went into the sciences, because the message there is usually 'It's more complicated than you thought', a message that sadly doesn't seem to have spread to many people's politics.

I'd say the majority of my friends on Facebook are left wing politically (I will discuss my own POV at the end), which is fine, but what does irritate me it that they have the tendency to repost political propaganda that suffers wildly from the black hat/white syndrome. The other day, I had cause to raise both eyebrows when confronted with this piece of work, apparently from

For me, this is the worst kind of black hat/white hat politics, because there is a serious point, worth considering behind the illogical rhetoric - but it is so covered up by that rhetoric that for anyone who doesn't have a knee-jerk positive reaction to the message, it is counterproductive.

Why don't I like it? To start with, the statements on the poster (or whatever you call these e-snippets) are blatantly untrue. There is money for schools - c £98 billion, and there is money for the health service (I'm taking "hospitals" to be a one-word version of "the health service") - c £133 billion. That's rather a lot of money, actually - so it's hard to imagine why anyone would say 'there's no money'. Is there money for war? Yes, there is money for that too - currently around £33 billion of military spending, though a fair amount of this isn't strictly 'for war'. So the statements themselves are almost meaningless, and mostly untrue.

However, I'm told I'm being too literal (allegedly a failing of the scientific education, though why would you want not to be literal about political information unless your intention is to mislead people)? What this really means is that we can't find more money, on top of the budget, for schools and hospitals, but we can for war. If this were true, it would be worth of serious comment - but I haven't seen any evidence that the fact we might do some bombing raids on the disgusting and despicable ISIS, which is what triggered this campaign, is going to mean we need extra money for the defence budget. So, again, the comparison appears to be an attempt to mislead or confused.

When I pointed this out, the person who posted it responded by saying 'I've lost my inflationary pay rise and my increment because there's "no money". Money for cruise missiles at £1.5 million apiece, though.' While I sympathise to some extent (while pointing out that, as someone who is self-employed, I current earn almost exactly the same as I did when I left BA 20 years ago, with no 'inflationary pay rise' over 20 years), again it's a false comparison. You can argue that the budget was wrong, and we should have had more for his/her pay and less for defence (unless he/she happened to work in defence). You can argue, as I probably would, that we could save a lot by getting rid of Trident. But that's not what this campaign is saying.

The reason I think this kind of thing is a real shot in the foot comes back to my own political affiliations. I am a floating voter. I have voted for all three main political parties in my time, though by default I am probably a liberal democrat (cousin Nick insists). But there's a real lesson from that one time I voted Tory. I come from a naturally Labour voting background - from a North West, working class family that read the Manchester Guardian until it did the dirty and moved down south. I wouldn't have thought of voting Tory. But when I had my first chance to vote, while at university, I got so fed up of the way my left wing friends distorted the facts in exactly this kind of way that I voted Tory in rebellion.

So, by all means make your point about everything the other parties do wrong. But do it honestly and fairly, without ad hominem attacks, and without using meaningless propaganda. Then I will listen with interest. But do this kind of thing and it will instantly make me bolshie and inclined to do the opposite.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Only £33? I pay you?

Phonetastic, pop pickers!
The other day I was walking past a bus stop and paused to admire an advert for the new Amazon smartphone. I was told that I could get it for only £33 pounds a month on O2. (Actually, as was the case initially with the iPhone, you can only get it on O2.)

Whoa, I thought. That's more than I pay for a real smartphone. Now I now that's a bit unfair as this is a fully featured Android phone, and I don't want to start the old iPhone/Android rivalry (though, of course, iPhones are better), but my point was this. Yes, the Amazon Fire phone is a nice smartphone with a couple of unique but hardly showstopping features. Set against which it has some limitations that make it anything but one of the best Android options. But the point is that this is a phone that, like it or not, has very strong ties to one retailer (a retailer that wants to rule the world). Which gives said retailer huge benefits by having a direct link to my pocket and activities. So, really, should I have to pay as much or more than I do for an ordinary smartphone?

Usually if you get something tied to a particular brand you expect it to be cheap - or even for them to pay you to use it. Surely Amazon has got this back to front. If Amazon paid me to use their phone, I could understand it. But as they expect me to pay a premium, I'm afraid I'll be staying well away. (And did I mention, it's not an iPhone?)

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Does Nigel Lawson's defeat mean that religions should lose charitable status?

I was interested to see that Nigel Lawson's anti-science Global Warming Policy Foundation has been rapped on the knuckles by the Charity Commission for not meeting the requirement for an educational charity to be unbiassed (and, by implication, evidence based). I presume the same requirements don't apply to religious charities, as surely they would be in trouble too.

Some while ago I wrote a post about a visit from the Jehovah's Witnesses and how their leaflet inspired me to realise that it is difficult to apply the Bible to everyday 'big questions' like 'What should we do about terrorists?' because the advice is so conflicting that it is possible to come up with pretty well diametrically opposed recommendations.

Shortly after writing this I had a bit of an epiphany*. I've always struggled to understand how climate change deniers can come up with such a strangely selective view that went against the majority scientific consensus - but now it was obvious. They don't use a scientific approach, they use a religious one.

The scientific approach is to use the theory best supported by experts in the field given the current evidence, until new evidence suggests we should do otherwise. There is always some contradictory evidence, and often one or two experts who disagree with the majority, but it is clearly not providing a good scientific view to take an alternative theory as 'fact' when it overwhelming countered by the best supported theory - the scientific consensus, as it is often called in climate change. So, for instance, most cosmologists support the Big Bang theory. Not all of them - and it could eventually prove wrong. But for the moment it is the theory that is best supported by the evidence, and so deserves the status of being the theory we currently work with.

However, those using a religious argument have a different approach. Because a source like the Bible or the Koran has so many different and contradictory concepts and interpretations, it is possible to support pretty well any thesis using religious argument. All you do is pick and choose the quotations from the Bible etc. that support your view and ignore the rest. And that's exactly what climate change deniers do. (As do those who think science is unfairly against alternative medicine, or ghosts or whatever.) They pick and choose the evidence that fits their worldview.

This is totally unscientific - but it is inevitably how arguments based on religious documents work. This isn't science, it's religion. And those who talk this way about climate change (or any other application of science) are entirely missing the point when they use this approach.

So we can see why it is that the GWPF will inevitably struggle to meet that 'unbiassed' requirement for an education charity. But, as I say, should we also be asking the Charity Commissioners to ensure that religious institutions given charitable status (think of the arguments over whether Scientology should be given charitable status) are equally required to be unbiassed or to lose that benefit? It's an intriguing thought.

* Yes, I do know what I've done there.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The Dispossessed - Review

I ought to hate this book. I was writing something about instantaneous transmitters and wanted to include Ursula Le Guin's ansible. I had read somewhere that its development and how it worked was explained in this book. It turns out it gets two mentions, each all of two lines long in 319 pages. But I don't care - because it's a great book.

I confess, I've never really read Le Guin apart from a not particularly enthusiastic attempt at The Left Hand of Darkness. The science fiction I largely read when I was younger was from the 1950s greats and the 1960s new wave, and while I read their later work too, and have started picking up on some newer writers, there's a big gap in my experience, including pretty well everything Le Guin wrote.

The book does have some science going on - the main character is a physicist developing a theory on time (hence the ansible cropping up), which seems mainly to be based on the block universe - but it's not really what the novel is about. It's far more an exploration of political systems. Our hero, Shevek, lives on the desolate Anarres, where humans can live, but are always fighting for survival. But he begins to find out more about and even to correspond with the twin planet Urras, which is lush and beautiful, eventually breaking with tradition and visiting it.

The drama comes from the juxtaposition of very different political systems. The main country on Urras is decadent capitalist, though the planet also has a Soviet-style communist country. Anarres is anarchist communist - not only is there genuinely no personal property, there are no laws, no rules.

Cleverly, in making the contrast between Anarres and Urras, Le Guin brings out the faults in both systems. It might seem at first that, despite the hardships, the anarchist Anarres is a paradise, because Le Guin manages to come up with a structure that would allow anarchy to work practically as a regime - no mean feat - but in reality humanity likes rules, and they are actually there, concealed and unspoken, until Shevek begins to break them.

It's absolutely not my kind of science fiction, and yet I found it both fascinating and enjoyable. I just wish I also now knew more about ansibles.

You can get The Dispossessed from and (why no Kindle version, btw - it should have one to bring it to a new audience.)