Thursday, 9 November 2017

Wonders of Creation: explaining the universe with Brian Cox and Robin Ince

As Carl Sagan once you said: "if you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe." A few nights' ago, I went to what its' promoters bill as ‘the world's most successful and significant science show', which in just over two hours presented a delineation of the birth, history, and eventual death of the universe. In fact, it covered just about everything from primordial slime to the triumphs of the Cassini space probe, only lacking the apple pie itself.

The show in question is an evening with British physicist and presenter Professor Brian Cox. As a long-time fan of his BBC Radio show The Infinite Monkey Cage I was interested to see how the celebrity professor worked his sci-comm magic with a live audience. In addition to the good professor, his co-presenter on The Infinite Monkey Cage, the comedian Robin Ince, also appeared on stage. As such, I was intrigued to see how their combination of learned scientist and representative layman (or 'interested idiot' as he styles himself) would work in front of two thousand people.

I've previously discussed the trend for extremely expensive live shows featuring well-known scientists and (grumble-grumble) the ticket's to Brian Cox were similarly priced to those for Neil deGrasse Tyson earlier this year. As usual, my friends and I went for the cheaper seats, although Auckland must have plenty of rich science fans, judging by the almost packed house (I did a notice a few empty seats in the presumably most expensive front row). As with Professor Tyson, the most expensive tickets for this show included a meet and greet afterwards, at an eye-watering NZ$485!

When Cox asked if there were any scientists in the audience, there were very few cheers. I did notice several members of New Zealand's sci-comm elite, including Dr Michelle Dickinson, A.K.A. Nanogirl, who had met Ince on his previous Cosmic Shambles LIVE tour; perhaps the cost precluded many STEM professionals from attending. As I have said before, such inflated prices can easily lead to only dedicated fans attending, which is nothing less than preaching to the converted. In which case, it's more of a meet-the-celebrity event akin to a music concert than an attempt to spread the wonder - and rationality - of science.

So was I impressed? The opening music certainly generated some nostalgia for me, as it was taken from Brian Eno's soundtrack for the Al Reinert 1983 feature-length documentary on the Apollo lunar missions. Being of almost the same age as Professor Cox, I confess to having in my teens bought the album of vinyl - and still have it! Unlike Neil deGrasse Tyson's show, the Cox-Ince evening was an almost non-stop visual feast, with one giant screen portraying a range of photographs and diagrams, even a few videos. At the times, the images almost appeared to be 3D, seemingly hanging out of the screen, with shots of the Earth and various planets and moons bulging onto the darkened stage. I have to admit to being extremely impressed with the visuals, even though I had seen some of them before. Highlights included the Hubble Space Telescope's famous Ultra-Deep Field of the earliest galaxies and the montage of the cosmic microwave background taken by the WMAP probe.

The evening (okay, let's call it a cosmology lecture with comic interludes) began as per Neil deGrasse Tyson with the age and scale of the universe, then progressed through galaxy formation and a few examples of known extra-solar planets. However, the material was also bang up to date, as it included the recent discoveries of gravitational waves at LIGO and the creation of heavy elements such as gold and platinum in neutron star collisions.

Evolution of the universe

Our universe: a potted history

Professor Cox also took us through the future prospects of the solar system and the eventual heat death of the universe, generating a few "oohs" and "aahs" along the way.  Interestingly, there was little explanation of dark matter and dark energy; perhaps it was deemed too speculative a topic to do it justice. Black holes had a generous amount of attention though, including Hawking radiation. Despite having an audience of primarily non-STEM professionals (admittedly after a show of hands found a large proportion of them to be The Infinite Monkey Cage listeners), a certain level of knowledge was presupposed and there was little attempt to explain the basics. Indeed, at one point an equation popped up - and it wasn't E=MC2. How refreshing!

Talking of which, there was a brief rundown of Einstein's Special and General Theories of Relativity, followed by the latter's development into the hypothesis of the expanding universe and eventual proof of the Big Bang model. Einstein's Cosmological Constant and his initial dismissal of physicist-priest Georges LemaƮtre's work were given as examples that even the greatest scientists sometimes make mistakes, showing that science is not a set of inviolable truths that we can never improve upon (the Second Law of Thermodynamics excluded, of course). LemaƮtre was also held up to be an example of how science and religion can co-exist peacefully, in this case, within the same person.

Another strand, proving that Cox is indeed deeply indebted to Carl Sagan (aren't we all?) was his potted history of life on Earth, with reference to the possibility of microbial life on Mars, Europa and Enceladus. The lack of evidence for intelligent extra-terrestrials clearly bothers Brian Cox as much as it did Sagan. However, Cox appeared to retain his scientific impartiality, suggesting that - thanks to the 3.5 billion year plus gap between the origin of life and the evolution of multi-cellular organisms - intelligent species may be extremely rare.

For a fan of crewed space missions, Cox made little mention of future space travel, concentrating instead on robotic probes such as Cassini. The Large Hadron Collider also didn't feature in any meaningful way, although one of the audience questions around the danger of LHC-created black holes was put into perspective next to the natural black holes that might be produced by cosmic ray interactions with the Earth's atmosphere; the latter's 108 TeV (tera electron volts) far exceed the energies generated by the LHC and we've not been compressed to infinity yet.

Robin Ince's contributions were largely restricted to short if hilarious segments but he also made a passionate plea (there's no other word for it) on the readability of Charles Darwin and his relevance today. He discussed Darwin's earthworm experiments and made short work of the American evangelicals'  "no Darwin equals no Hitler" nonsense, concluding with one of his best jokes: "no Pythagoras would mean no Toblerone".

One of the friends I went with admitted to learning little that was new but as stated earlier I really went to examine the sci-comm methods being used and their effect on the audience. Cox and Ince may have covered a lot of scientific ground but they were far from neglectful of the current state of our species and our environment. Various quotes from astronauts and the use of one of the 'pale blue dot' images of a distant Earth showed the intent to follow in Carl Sagan's footsteps and present the poetic wonder of the immensity of creation and the folly of our pathetic conflicts by comparison. The Cox-Ince combination is certainly a very effective one, as any listeners to The Infinite Monkey Cage will know. Other science communicators could do far worse than to follow their brand of no-nonsense lecturing punctuated by amusing interludes. As for me, I'm wondering whether to book tickets for Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss in May next year. They are slightly cheaper than both Brian Cox and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Hmmm…

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Counting keruru: can public surveys and competitions aid New Zealand conservation?

Whilst some other countries - the UK, for example - have dozens of general and specialised wildlife surveys undertaken by members of the public, New Zealand has comparatively few. Whilst this might seem odd, considering the Kiwi penchant for the great outdoors (not to mention the little matter of the endangered status of so many native species) it should be remembered that the nation has a rather small (human) population. In addition, New Zealand is no different from other developed countries, wherein environmentalists often appear at loggerheads with rural landowners, especially farmers.

Since agriculture forms a fundamental component of the New Zealand economy, any anti-farming sentiment can quickly escalate into unpleasantness, as even a cursory look at agriculture versus environmentalists news stories will confirm. Farmers are often reported as resenting what they deem as unrealistic or uninformed opinions by wildlife campaigners. But lest farmers consider this particular post being yet another piece of anti-farming propaganda, it should be noted that campaigns are usually driven by a perceived need for action in the face of government inactivity: after all, New Zealand is second only to Hawaii in the number of introduced species, many of which are in direct competition with, or predate upon, native ones.

Talking of competitions, this year's Bird of the Year contest has just been won by the cheeky, intelligent kea, the world's only alpine parrot. Run by Forest and Bird* and now in its thirteenth year, it aims to raise publicity for the plight of New Zealand's native birds and the wider environment they rely upon. With over 50,000 votes cast, this means approximately 1% of New Zealand citizens and residents entered the competition (assuming of course that non-Kiwis didn't participate).

The international level of awareness about the competition seems to be on the increase too, with the kea's victory even being reported on the website of the UK's The Guardian newspaper, albeit in an article written by a New Zealand-based journalist. The competition doesn't appear to offer anything to science, except a potential – if not unobvious - theory that the public's fondness for particular wildlife species is based upon their aesthetic qualities, with drab birds for example getting less attention than colourful ones. Then again, perhaps Forest and Bird are more interested in spreading their message rather than the results; as the old adage goes, there's no such thing as bad publicity. Indeed, the story of a Christchurch-based who tried to rig the vote in favour of the white-faced heron was reported by the BBC.

Another prominent example of the New Zealand's public involvement in environmental matters is the Annual Garden Bird survey, which began in 2007 and is run by the Government-owned Landcare Research. This more obvious example of citizen science states that the results are used to analyse population trends for both native and introduced bird species and so aid pest control programmes. However, it would be difficult to ascertain the validity of the observations, since less than 0.3% of the nation's gardens (or rather their owners) participate.

Whilst 5000 entries might be considerably more than could be achieved by other means, there are probably all sorts of details that are missed with this level of coverage. I have participated for three years now and have found that my observations do not agree with the reported trends. For example, last year's results show that the silvereye, blackbird and song thrush have declined in my area, whereas I have not noticed any such a drop-off for these birds -  and it's not as if I particularly encourage the latter two (non-native) species.

A more specific example of bio-recording was last month's Great Kereru Count, which claims to be New Zealand's biggest citizen science project. Clearly, they don't consider the Bird of the Year competition as science! Various organisations run this survey, which gained around 7000 reports this year. There are also continuous monitoring schemes, such as for monarch butterflies (which is interesting, as this is a far-from-endangered, recently self-introduced creature) whilst NatureWatch NZ allows anyone to supply a record of a plant or animal species, or indeed to request identification of one. The latter might not sound particularly necessary, but judging by how little some New Zealanders seem to know about their own environment (for example I've met Kiwis who cannot identify such common organisms as a tree weta or cabbage trees) this resource is probably essential in understanding the spread of non-native species.

With native species protection in mind, there are other, more direct, citizen science projects in the country, with everything from the Great Kiwi Morning Tea fundraiser this month to allocation of funding for predator control tools and traps – including in urban gardens - via the independent trust Predator Free New Zealand.

For an even greater level of public involvement in science and technological research, in 2015 the New Zealand Government initiated the Participatory Science Platform to aid partnerships between professionals and community groups. Three pilot projects are currently under way, with Dr Victoria Metcalf as the National Coordinator (or Queen of Curiosity as she has been nicknamed.) These projects are exciting because they involve the public from project development through to conclusion, rather than just using non-scientists as data gatherers. In addition, the ability to gain first-hand experience on real-world undertakings may even encourage children from lower decile areas to consider STEM careers. That's no bad thing.

Back to surveys. Although science communication (sci-comm) is in vogue, my own feeling is that participation is key to promoting science – the methods as well as the facts – to the wider public. Yes, some science is very difficult to understand, but there's plenty that is also easy to grasp. This includes the dangers facing species pushed to the brink of extinction by habitat loss, pollution, and introduced organisms. By actively involving entire communities, surveys and competitions can also play a part in preserving species whilst allowing a sustainable level of development.

Of course this requires a government with vision, but with New Zealand's Green Party gaining positions in the Jacinda Ardern-led coalition, perhaps the newly-formed New Zealand Government will pick up the slack after years of prevarication and inactivity. That way our grandchildren will be able to experience the cheeky kea and company for real, rather than just via old recordings. How can that fail to make sense? After all, at the lower end of the bio-recording spectrum, all it requires is for someone to make a few taps on their keyboard or smartphone. It's certainly not rocket science!

*Forest and Bird have actively lobbied the New Zealand Government in numerous cases to prevent environmental degradation via land swaps, mining and hydro-electric schemes. They have produced a volume on environmental law and a mobile app called the Best Fish Guide. All in all, they perform an immensely valuable contribution to ensure that development in New Zealand is sustainable and that the public are made aware of schemes that might impact the wider environment.