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Touring Britain bit by bit with a pair of boots, a few bicycles, a lot of trains and a bag of lenses. I take pictures and then I write about them.

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Mon, 11 Oct 2010

Science Is Vital!

Science Is Vital!

Yesterday, a couple of thousand nerds got together outside the British Treasury to preemptively protest the cuts to publicly funded research that are expected to be announced in next week's "comprehensive spending review". The rally was part of the Science Is Vital! campaign organised by Jenny Rohn, The Campaign for Science & Engineering, and a bunch of others.

Super-strings not shoe strings Down with this sort of thing.

It was another fun day out, with fancy dress, singing and dancing, models of the planets, chemistry kits, and some fabulously nerdy puns on placards. Not the sort of protest that scientists are well known for.

Science Is Vital!
Science Is Vital!

The scientists had been shocked into leaving their labs by the across-the-board cuts that our young government likes to remind us at every opportunity are absolutely necessary to save the economy and civilisation in general. Lib-Dem business secretary Vince Cable, whose department and budget (for reasons not obvious) include responsibility for most of the country's public research funding, had previously accused British scientists of the crime of producing work that was not excellent (merely "significant"), and warned science that under his leadership it would have to produce "more for less".

Ben Petra Boynton

So in part, the protesters motives were (understandably) selfish. They had their (poorly paid) jobs and (difficult) careers to worry about. Science isn't an industry that's easy to mothball, even for just three years, and expect to be able to switch it back on exactly as it was before once the economy has recovered. Research is about projects that take years to complete. With research in Germany and China rapidly growing, and with those countries seeking the expertise of ready-trained foreign scientists, our scientists could just go to another country. And with the private-sector always in need of the skills that scientists have, they could instead go and seek better paid and easier jobs in another industry. They don't want to leave the country or leave science, but they will. And once they go, they can't come back.

Colin Blakemore

And in part the protesters were here to highlight science's achievements: why the voting public trust and value science -- the cures for cancer and the internets and the time machines. If I've counted correctly, 32 Britons have won the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine -- between them their discoveries have saved countless millions of lives and immeasurably improved the quality of our lives. Everybody in the country knows or has known somebody suffering from a horrific disease -- a cancer or dementia -- and they won't look kindly on the man who cuts the hope of a cure.

Timandra Harkness Feed The World!

But mostly, the scientists were here to highlight the sheer absurdity of the idea that cutting research spending will help the national economy. When our best researchers are forced to go abroad to continue their work, they will take with them all of the knowledge that they would have shared with our students and businesses; they will take with them their patents and start-up companies; and they will take with them the overseas students that our universities increasingly rely on. The harm that this will do to our high-tech economy will be much deeper and much longer lasting than any beneficial effect from science's share of any spending cuts (leaving us yet more dependent on our erratic, inefficient and untrustworthy banking economy). This was a plea for evidence-based policy making to a government that has so far announced a whole lot of rash and irrational policy -- something that everybody in the country is going to want to join in with as the Tories get happy with the slashing over the coming months.

Pig Headed

More photos of the protest.

[Tag] Tags: budget cuts, events, london, politics, protests, science, uk, westminster

Mon, 2 Nov 2009

Open doors other side

Charles Quackenbush stands at the far end of the platform, away from the crowds around the shelter at the platform steps; positioned well over the tactile paving and the yellow line.

"The train now approaching platform... one... is the... oh nine... oh four... service to... London Victoria... calling at... Herne Hill... Brixton... and... London Victoria."

The rails begin to sing their high-pitched wail. Charles takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. The rain rolls down his cheeks.

And the train pulls up, beside him, past him, coming to a stop twenty seconds later with Charles stood, eyes still closed, beside the final set of doors. The doors open, and the eyes open, and Charles doesn't really have much choice but to step on board. He'll just have to get off at the next stop and try again.

"Any unchecked tickets please," comes an abrupt shout. "Good morning, sir, could I see your ticket, please?" Charles, of course, has not purchased a ticket. His intention had not been to go anywhere today. At least, not via Herne Hill. He pays the penalty fare and is given his ticket.

Charles steps off the train with the few dozen passengers changing to the Blackfriars line, and casually wonders across the platform as the Victoria train continues on its way. On the Blackfriars platform, the electronic display scrolls a long list of destinations for the train through to Bedford, the reflected lights creating a psychedelic show on a warped and battered advertising display case.

"I'm sorry to announce that the... oh nine... twelve... service to... Bedford... is delayed by approximately... nine... minutes."

Two empty paper coffee cups are caught by the wind. They roll around in circles, catch on the corner and break dance through the eddies, colliding, bouncing violently apart, and hurl themselves from the platform edge. Charles sits on a cold metal bench and stares through the rain, across the track, over the scruffy scrub of the embankment, and out to the twin beige concrete tower blocks looming over them from across the road. "Open doors other side," reads a helpful sign placed high on the chain-link fence between the tracks and bank.

"Open doors other side," thinks Charles. The doors are open for the post-doc on the other side of the lab, whose experiments work, whose papers get published in Cell and Nature, whose smile charms committees and conference rooms. The doors were always open for the guy he lived with during his PhD, who, despite his obvious brilliance, never bothered looking for a post-doc position but within a year of graduating had already accumulated an MBA and a small but cool hi-tech company. Or his friends at Oxford -- the lawyers and bankers; and his friends from school, who had travelled the world, published novels, and were already sending children of their own to the same school. And here was Charles, at the end of a second post-doc, penniless -- personally and professionally -- and not a datum that any sane person would want to publish. His career was over. They would make him take the walk of shame.

"I'm sorry to announce that the... oh nine... twelve... service to... Bedford... is delayed by approximately... seventeen... minutes."

Charles sighs and sits back in the seat, folding his arms and tilting his head. And he sees it. The damp mouldy rope, hanging from the station canopy; one end tied securely around a beam, the other looped and slipknotted . Why? What purpose could such a thing serve? Charles stares at it for a few minutes, wondering how strong it might be. The estimated time of arrival on the electronic display revises itself. Charles hadn't considered this method. Hadn't done his research. It couldn't be a bad way, though, could it?

Charles stands purposefully, steps up onto the bench and balances with one foot on the arm rest. He reaches out and grabs at the rope. A few of the fifty-or-so people on the platform notice the performance, and wander quietly and casually away, so as not to see the finale. Charles places the loop around his neck, takes a deep breath, and steps onto nothing. He swings forward, out over the coffee cups and cracked tactile paving and faded yellow line. The rope creaks, the beam cracks, and Charles falls, pursued by the station canopy onto the tracks, knocking his head on the lip of the platform and rolling onto the dead third rail. Somebody on the platform looks up from their newspaper and screams. A distant voice rings out,

"I'm sorry to announce that the... oh nine... twelve... service to... Bedford... has been cancelled."

Charles lies on the track for a while, panting, while the stars fade. His eyes focus on a solitary white flower in the fence. Bind weed climbing the wire links. His phone rings, and he sits up with effort, loosening the rope that still hangs from his neck. There are some "yeses" and "of courses" and "thank yous" from Charles, and the occasional dizzy and vacant nod. An offer. Not science. Something about writing and publishing and online media; a startup doing something new, something interesting, perhaps. Not science, but an offer; an invitation to do the walk with purpose and a destination and his head held as high as a head could be. A fresh breeze blows down the tracks, drying his face. He nods to himself, and smiles.

Charles slowly rises to kneel, rubbing his neck and knees and brushing dirt from his damp clothes. He pulls himself up onto the crowded platform with some effort; the broken section of station canopy clattering after him. He stands there, staring blankly at the arrival of the oh-nine twenty-seven. Steps aboard, still lost in his thoughts, and squeezes himself in, with his feet awkwardly arranged around somebody's briefcase, and his face shoved into the armpit of a Metro-reading old man. Then he snaps back into the world as lightning strikes a concrete tower and thunder cracks. The train slows. "Apologies for this delay, ladies and gentlemen. Due to a broken train at Farringdon we are being held in a queue outside Elephant and Castle."

Charles takes a deep breath of armpit, turns around, and starts pounding on the doors.

[Tag] Tags: chuck quackenbush, fiction, flash-fiction, science, short stories

Tue, 3 Mar 2009

Creativity and science

Somebody said something rather odd the other day. It was in response to the observation that I know a great many scientists and mathematicians who are also amateur photographers. Their suggestion was that photography was a good way to express one's creative side.

Now, there are a few dozen photographs in my collection that I'm particularly happy with. They are technically competent and have a modicum of aesthetic value. But if they demonstrate creativity is is of the most trivial variety, and in pitiful quanta. That is not to say that photography can not be creative; only that amateur photographers rarely display any significant quantity of it. We create images that have been created before, follow formulas and fashions, and imitate each other's styles. And so what. Amateur anything -- painting, poetry, music and sport -- is about having fun, not about creating world changing work.

Science, on the other hand, has everything to do with creativity. A scientist's job is to replace a package of ignorance with a package of knowledge. Scientists do not create facts -- a task so simple that it is left to the science-fiction writers. Rather, the facts are already there, waiting to be discovered. The task of the scientist is to create the hypothesis -- to ask the question so out-there that nobody has ever thought to ask it before -- and to create the experiment that will test it.

The achievement of Watson and Crick -- determining the structure of DNA -- is often derided by those who rightly wish to celebrate the achievements of Rosalind Franklin. Franklin performed many of the difficult experiments whose results were crucial for determining the structure of DNA. According to some, Franklin was doing clever physics and chemistry while Watson and Crick were playing around with toy molecules. Watson and Crick did eventually get the structure by building a model, with a small amount of trial and error involved.

In reality, Watson and Crick got to the model by being creative. They created ideas and hypotheses from data such as x-ray crystallography and knowledge like nucleotide ratios and properties. They had the creative idea to have the toy molecules built and to cut out the tedious and time consuming experimental work that would be required to fill the remaining gaps by simply trying out variations until they found the one that worked.

Nobelist Harry Kroto does not feel like a great scientist because he doesn't know everything. He enjoys science, but thinks that all he is any good at is designing logos and posters. Harry: your designs are, ah... nice. But your science is where you are creative. And that is why you are a great scientist.

Bugger knowing everything. What fun would science be then?

[Tag] Tags: creativity, philosophy of science, photography, science

Sat, 19 Jan 2008

Experiment avoidance: a short history

I've been reading John Gribbin's In Search of Schrödinger's Cat. He casually mentions the atomic (or, rather, 'atomistic') theories of the ancients -- in particular Democritus. Gribbin accuses historians of science and popular writers of attributing too much to Democritus, whose ideas about the world do not resemble modern physics. I've been consuming quite a bit of history of science and pop-physics lately and can't say I've ever been given the impression that Democritus (or any ancient philosopher scientists) founded particle physics. The historians do credit the atomists -- notably Leucippus, Democritus and Epicurus -- with being unusually modern in their science. But science is not just a body of knowledge; it is a method for discovering how the world works. It is the atomists' approach to understanding the world that is unusually modern.

Rather than looking at the atomists in terms of modern particle physicists, compare them to the other ancient philosopher scientists. The Athenians generally shunned experimentation: though Aristotle is noted for his taxonomic observations, the Athenians were generally happiest with reason and rational thought, and were unaccomplished empiricists. Those in the Pythogorean tradition valued logic and mathematics, but they turned their study into a cult of mathematical superstitions in which the proles were defended from the subversive facts like irrational numbers and dodecahedrons. The approach to science taken by the atomists was one which valued both the rational (what Democritus called "legitimate thought") and the empirical -- though Democritus was aware of the limitations of the senses, and described the empirical as "bastard thought," noting that it must be applied with care. By advocating an empirical and a reductionist approach, the atomists are the intellectual ancestors of the most exciting and productive modern sciences.

This approach to understanding the world was to a large extent forgotten. The Romans picked over the remains of the Athenians, and they synthesised that with Christianity to produce the received wisdom of a millennium and a half. Religion ascended and the endarkenment closed in. The power of science was rediscovered, eventually, and began once again to free people from superstition. But as Carl Sagan asks: where might humankind be today had it never been forgotten?

[Tag] Tags: Aristotle, Carl Sagan, Democritus, Epicurus, Leucippus, Pythagoras, ancients, atomists, empiricism, epistemology, history of science, philosophy of science, religion, science

Wed, 3 Oct 2007

In which I predict death and revolution

From the cult of the amateur to the triumph of miscellanea, a revolution in how we interact with information is in its early stages. I don't use the term "revolution" lightly. You could be forgiven for thinking it hyperbolic, because traditional publishers have been slow on the uptake. If you still rely on traditional publishers for your information, you will not have seen much of a revolution. Sure, you can read the newspaper on the internet nowadays, and leave instant feedback on what you're reading. But "revolution" is a bit strong, surely? Well, indeed. But revolutions do not always happen overnight.

Lets go back to Stephen Fry on Room 101. He wants to consign critics to history. And it's happening, or at least, a shift in how criticism occurs is part of the revolution. Under the traditional model, what is good, what is important, and what is true, are largely dictated from on high. We have some experience of bottom up review -- bestseller charts, opinion polls, television ratings figures, and so on -- but it is usually secondary to the power of the critics. It is not my intention here to argue over the merits and pitfalls of the invisible hand of bottom-up criticism, except with regards to how it might be applied to academic publishing and the peer-review system. Because this revolution is happening, whether the publishers like it or not. And just as I believe the invisible hand of economics needs the occasional slap to keep it from making rude gestures, the invisible hand of criticism needs some discipline and manners if it is to be of any use to us. And thus concludes my tortured metaphor for today.

Continue reading under the fold...

[Tag] Tags: internet, media, peer review, publishing, science, technology

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