Last summer, I helped make a (fake) time machine, an exercise in “creative misinterpretation” (in the words of my architect partner, Shin Egashira). This was part of the Beyond Entropy project organized by the Architecture Association — we showed it then in Venice but now Londoners will get a chance to see the work in the AA’s own gallery, opening Friday, 6 May. There will also be a series of events to mark the exhibit, including a night discussing time travel (and, um, shamanism) with Shin and photographer Goswin Schwendinger on May 20.
Also, in a nice bit of synchronicity, the Royal Society is hosting the great Beyond Ourselves exhibition, featuring works by artists including Geraldine Cox, Imperial College Physics’ artist-in-residence. You have to book ahead, but it’s well worth the trip to see her and her colleagues’ fantastic explorations of scientists at work.
Central London featured two important events this past weekend. First was the annual Gay Pride Parade, a riotous and joyful procession of rainbow flags, pink clothing, and (mostly) ill-fitting dresses on very large people.
Sadly, the only thing that marred the good-natured, family-friendly event were the stupid protesters. But it was wonderful to see that they were just ignored, or occasionally people would point at their sad and pathetic group and just laugh (there was also a much smaller, and yet more pathetic, group of National Front protesters who deserved and received even less attention).
At the same time, the Royal Society, right down the road from Piccadilly Circus, hosted the annual Summer Science Exhibition, and I visited my colleagues (Stuart Lowe and Michael Bridges, here) talking Planck Surveyor science, taking infrared pictures of the visitors and handing out lots of great Planck swag.
In fact, this weekend, Planck has cooled down to just about its final temperature of 100mK (that is 0.1 degrees above absolute zero!) and has made it to its final orbit at the L2 point. So we are starting to get ready to take real data, after we spend the next month or so kicking the tires and checking her out.
This week, Stephen Hawking was awarded the Copley Medal, and the BBC took the opportunity to broadcast the Today Show direct from the Royal Society, in what seemed to me a fairly amateurish production. Professor Peter Coles reprised his usual and welcome role as an anti-Hawking-hype nay-sayer. Another commentator (sorry, I’ve forgotten whom) made the crucial point that Newton, Einstein and Maxwell really invented entire new disciplines of physics with reverberations in almost everything we physicists do. In contrast, Hawking’s most famous work, on black hole radiation and quantum cosmology, consolidated existing strands (and is no less brilliant for that).
Much of the rest of the show felt like it was being broadcast from Heatheringfarnborough Village Hall with a strangely patronizing John Humphries leading on an incoherent and somewhat reactionary audience. The low point to me was a supposed discussion between the equally-exasperating Bryan Appleyard and Lewis Wolpert. Appleyard sets up the straw man of “scientism”, the idea that we scientists think that all questions have scientific answers, and for his part Wolpert manages to fall into the rhetorical trap. (I agree with almost everything Wolpert, like Richard Dawkins, says. I just wish they each would learn to say it in a less annoying way.)
Appleyard correctly points out that trying to ask scientific questions about, say, the pursuit of stem cell research or abortion, involves a category error: whether a lump of cells is “a human being” is not a question that has a scientific answer, since there is no well-specified scientific definition of the rather fuzzy concept of “human being”.
Perhaps coincidentally, BBC4’s In Our Time featured a discussion of the Speed of Light. (I will resist calling it “illuminating”…). John Barrow made an excellent analogy between a light wave and a crime wave. In a sound wave, particles are moving closer together or further apart; in a water wave they are mostly moving up and down. But a light wave, rather, is a wave of quantum-mechanical information which changes the probabilities that receptors in our eyes, or CCD chips in our cameras, will interact with the incoming photons.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell discussed the infamous “twin paradox” of relativity — but she didn’t actually explain why it’s a paradox! Consider a pair of twins, and send one out on a very fast spaceship, moving near the speed of light. If that twin turns around and comes back to earth, she’ll find that she’s much older than the sister she left behind. Why? Relativity states that moving clocks run slow, so the moving twin ages more slowly than the earthbound twin. But it’s not yet a paradox — that comes in when we remember that relativity also says that motion at a constant velocity is completely relative. That is, while the twins are moving away from one another, the space traveller would equally well say that her earthbound sister’s clocks are running slow compared to hers! But (here’s the paradox) if the situations are symmetric, how come the outcome is different? Why is the travelling twin older? The answer is that the situation isn’t really symmetric between the twins at all: the moving twin had to accelerate her spaceship with respect to the earth when she leaves, again when she turns around, and then finally when she returns, accelerations that the stay-at-home twin doesn’t undergo.
Finally, my review of Davies’ Goldilocks Enigma has made it to the top of the “Arts & Letters Daily” aggregator (look for “cosmic evolution”). Thanks to those of you who’ve read it and sent me comments; please feel encouraged to post them here for others to read.
Update: Bryan Appleyard elucidates a slightly more nuanced position in the comments.
I somehow scored an invitation to a talk by the Prime Minister sponsored by The Royal Society on “Our Nation’s Future”, specifically, on Science Policy.
(Personally, I was pleased to see an extremely large contingent from Imperial present, including Dame Julia Higgins (Principal of our Faculty of Engineering, and Foreign Secretary [!] of the Royal Society), sharing the rostrum with Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society, and the PM.)
He was full of pro-science platitudes, how it keeps the UK competitive, and how it is needed, frankly, to save the planet. The major themes were the need for the UK to remain economically competitive, and, in the wake of the Stern Review, of science’s crucial role alongside political will in fighting climate change.
He was fairly explicit in his preference for investment in applied science (i.e., stuff that can make money) over the curiosity-driven, blue-skies (i.e., useless) stuff that, for example, I do for a living (as does the President of the Royal Society, who chaired and introduced the event.) He emphasized science as a career (and tried to seduce the sixth-form students in the audience into believing it could be a reasonable moneymaking proposition). And he admitted, in so many words, that present-day science education wasn’t doing its job. Despite all of this, there didn’t seem to be any new, concrete policy announcements, just a (still welcome) restatement of his government’s (and, presumably, Gordon Brown’s) commitment to supporting — and funding — science.
There was some irony that the talk was given in the Kings’ Centre in Oxford, “an apostolic centre — that is, a regional base for sending trained and committed workers to serve God in this nation and abroad.” Blair himself said that he didn’t think Science and Religion were necessarily in conflict, although I expect many in the audience would disagree. Further irony was provided by the fact that, contrary to the usual order of things, the building that was now a church of sorts had previously been used for science: MRI had been developed there.
He specifically railed against the “anti-science brigade” and in that location I was therefore disappointed that I didn’t get a chance to ask about his Government’s financial support for at least a few schools that teach their students the blatant crypto-religious falsehoods of Intelligent Design, under the auspices of the ‘City Academy’ programme which, to be blunt, lets rich people decide what’s taught in schools.
This past week I had the honor of meeting members of various African National Science Academies visiting the UK on the invitation of the Britain’s Royal Society. I was invited to talk about my experiences in the Society’s own MP-Scientist Pairing “Scheme” that I participated in last year. These are high-powered scientists, holding posts in western universities and labs to return to their home countries, giving up the science they loved to become the administrators and bureaucrats that are needed to keep the systems running, in places from South Africa and Kenya to hotspots such as Zimbabwe and Sudan.
In most cases, the delegates were intrigued by what was going on in the UK and with the efforts for to foster engagement between “Western” scientists and those in Africa, as well as between African scientists and their own governments. But they were skeptical that any single solution, especially one coming from Europe rather than generated from within, could apply to the vast and diverse African continent. They were also concerned that any interaction between science and the political system requires considerable interest and demand on the part of the politicians as well as the scientists, a demand that rarely seems forthcoming from African governments.
Wednesday was a busy day of politicking and schmoozing (as opposed to research and teaching, which is what I actually get paid to do).
I spent the morning at a meeting reviewing the current status of developments for the Planck Surveyor satellite here in the UK (Planck will measure the temperature of the Cosmic Microwave Background, relic radiation from the Big Bang). Unfortunately, as is common in these ambitious and exciting projects, not everything is quite going according to plan. We need to cool parts of the satellite down to a mere four degrees above absolute zero. This has become relatively easy to do in a laboratory, but is still very difficult up in space, where you have stringent requirements on size, weight and power and, most importantly, where you can't fix anything once it's been launched. So this part of the project is over budget, late, and indeed faced with technological problems (like, how do you build it so it can survive shocks equivalent to 3000 times the acceleration due to gravity?!).
Part of the problem is that scientists, despite thinking that we know how to do everything, are generally bad (or at least untrained) managers, and even worse “managees” -- we don't like being told the way to do things (I can certainly speak for myself here on both counts, but at least understanding that I have these problems might be the first step towards solving them.)
The rest of the day was much more pleasant. First, I went to a short meeting debriefing those of us who participated in the Royal Society's “MP-Scientist” pairing scheme. It was great to see and talk with my cohorts from November, and then we all headed down watch the wonderful Faraday Lecture by Professor Fran Balkwill on Ovarian Cancer, which was neither dry nor depressing. The evening ended with the “Scientists Meet the Media” party hosted at the Royal Society by the Daily Telegraph and Novartis (who paid for the champagne, apparently). There were scientists from crusty old white-haired Fellows of the Royal Society on down to youngish faculty members like me and media types from TV, newspapers, magazines and science journals. Power couple Gia and Brian were there, as were Adam Hart-Davies in a frightening bright blue suit, Robert Winston in a tux, all presided over by astrophysicist Lord Martin Rees, new president of the Society. We scientists tried to keep up, but the journalists did their best to live up to their hard-drinking reputation, aided by the free-flowing wine and very scarce food. Usually the scientists are the ones with the privileged information, but on a night like this, the journalists seemed to be in control, we scientists in full media-slut mode, our not-so-secret desire for fame, or at least recognition, on show.
Update: Here's a report from the Telegraph, focusing on the celebrities at their party...
...where I'm attending the fifteenth Japanese Workshop on General Relativity and Gravitation.
At some point, I'll blog about:
- All the interesting work being done by the mostly young, mostly Japanese physicists here;
- The distressing things The Royal Society is saying about open access to scientific information (which has already been covered all over the blogosphere); and
- The harsh things the Royal Society's outgoing head, Lord Robert May, is saying about science in the UK and the US (I hope the new head, astrophysicist Sir Martin Rees, will be equally strident).
- To help scientists recognise the potential methods and structures through which they can feed their scientific knowledge to parliamentarians.
- To help practising research scientists understand the pressures under which MPs operate.
- To give MPs the opportunity to forge direct links with a network of practising research scientists.
- To give MPs the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the process of scientific understanding and topical research and ultimately to be able to bring this knowledge into better informed discussions and decision making.
But, as was mentioned in the comments over at Cosmic Variance, there’s nothing here about money: the Government (which, we certainly learned this week, is not the same thing as Parliament) provides most of the science funding in the UK, and of course many of us were there to understand -- and maybe manipulate to our own, pure-as-the-driven-snow, ends -- the funding system. Briefly, our research is funded through Research Councils such as, in my case, PPARC, which are part of the Office of Science and Technology, itself part of the Department of Trade and Industry, an arm of the Government; education per se is funded separately.
Sorry I've been so quiet this week: I’ve just finished participating in the Royal Society’s MP-Scientist Pairing Scheme. They’ve linked 25 youngish scientists from throughout the UK with a member of Parliament, and let us “shadow” them for much of this week (as well as giving us presentations on the way science and scientists interact with the UK Parliamentary system): attending meetings, watching debates, going to the bar*, generally absorbing the chaos that goes along with politics and government. My MP was Anne Snelgrove, a Labour MP from Swindon, newly elected this year. More later, once I can digest it all, but first let me just say thanks to Anne and Dan and Eric on her staff for everything this week.
*Yes, “bar” as in a place with drinks. In particular, “The Strangers’ Bar” which guests (known as “strangers”) can visit.