Saturday, 19 December 2009

Warp engines offline, Captain: has science fiction become confused with science fact?

The current bickering in Copenhagen seemingly ignores a rather pertinent issue: our skills and experience in reversing climate change are almost exactly zero. Of course we can drastically cut back on fossil fuels, increase energy efficiency and possibly even slow down population growth, but there is little on the technological horizon that can profoundly alter the climate in favour of our species. Yet the implicit view seems to be that if a political solution is found then a practical solution will follow in due course.

So why is it assumed that given enough Government funding, the people in white lab coats can perform miracles of climate engineering? This attitude is symptomatic of an ever-widening gap between the scientific forefront and public perception. Many strands of contemporary science are so detached from everyday life that they inhibit straightforward public assimilation, whilst the ubiquity of electronic consumer goods may be lulling us into a false sense of security regarding our abilities. We are surrounded by 'space age' gadgets and technology from Wii to Wi-Fi that only a generation ago were strictly for James Bond. And with Virgin Galactic seemingly about to usher in a new age of space tourism, becoming an astronaut will be akin to a very expensive form of air travel, though a sub-orbital hop hardly counts as boldly going anywhere.

Another possible cause that doesn't seem to have gained much notice is the influence of science fiction films and television series. With their largely computer-generated visual effects, most Hollywood product effortlessly outshines any real life counterpart. For example, doesn't the International Space Station (ISS) resemble nothing so much as a bunch of tin cans linked by Meccano struts? Yet the ISS is about as good as ultra-expensive high-technology gets, being by far the largest man-made structure ever assembled in orbit. Given a choice between watching ISS crew videos (Thanksgiving dinner with dehydrated turkey, anyone?) and the likes of Bruce Willis saving mankind from doomsday asteroids, most people unmistakably opt for the latter.

Now that the majority of humans live in crowded conurbations far removed from our ancestral peripatetic existence, the desperation for new horizons is obvious. Yet our exploratory avatars such as the Mars rovers hardly qualify as charismatic heroes, hence the great appeal of fictional final frontiers. The complex interplay between reality and fiction is further confused by the new genre of "the science behind…" book. Frequently written by practicing scientists for the likes of Star Trek, The X-Files, Dr Who, etal, the blurring of boundaries can be exemplified by one buyer of The Physics of Star Trek who compared it to A Brief History of Time (although admittedly Stephen Hawking did write the foreword to the former).

Furthermore, the designers of such disparate items as medical monitoring equipment, flip top phones and military aircraft instrumentation have been inspired by Hollywood originals to such an extent that feedback loops now exist, with arcade simulators inspiring real hardware which in turn inspire new games. Articles discussing quantum entanglement experiments seem obliged to draw a comparison with the Star Trek matter transporter, though the transportees are as yet only photons. Theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre has even spent time exploring the fundamentals for a faster-than-light 'warp' drive, although it's unlikely to get beyond calculations for some little while. Blue-sky thinking is all very well, but there are plenty of more pressing issues that our finest minds could be working on...

Closer to home, it appears that a lot of the hype surrounding sustainable development is just that. Are we simply in thrall to companies hoping to make a fast buck out of fear, flogging us technologies about as useful as a chocolate teapot? A recent report suggested that the typical British home would gain only minute amounts of electricity from installing solar panels and wind turbines, although the development of spray-on solar cells may drastically improve efficiency in the next few years. But where does this leave us now? Although our species has endured sudden, severe climate changes such as the end of the last glaciation ten thousand years ago, current population density and infrastructure forbid anything as simple as packing our things and moving to higher ground. Cutting back on fossil fuel consumption is clearly necessary, but isn't it equally as important to instigate long-term research programmes in case some of the triggers are due to natural causes such as the Milankovitch cycles? If global temperature increase is inevitable, never mind potential cooling in Western Europe due to a diverted Gulf Stream, then reducing greenhouse gas emissions is merely the tip of the iceberg (sorry, couldn't resist that one).

Anyone who looks back at the grandiose pipe dreams of the 1960's can see that our technological ambitions have profoundly reduced in scope since their idealistic heyday; what we have gained in the micro-scale technologies, we have lost in the giant engineering projects envisaged by likes of Gerard O'Neill, Freeman Dyson, and Arthur C. Clarke. Yet Thunderbirds-style macho engineering is presumably the type we will need to develop if we are heading for a chain reaction of environmental change.

Restructuring an ailing climate will take more than a few decades of recycling and installation of low-voltage light bulbs - we will have to mobilise people and funds on a unique scale if we are not to prove powerless against the mighty engine of Planet Earth. To this end we need to spread the message of our own insignificance, mitigated by research into alleviating the worst-case scenarios: there can be no Hollywood-style quick-fixes to the immense forces ranged against us. No-one could argue that even short-term weather forecasting is an exact science, so discovering whatever trouble the Quantum Weather Butterfly has in store for us will keep earth scientists engaged for many years to come (and there I go again, confusing fiction with reality, doh!)

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Lift off! Science centres and the voyage of discovery

When I was a lad and you could have a day out in London for tuppence ha'penny, the Geological Museum galleries in South Kensington contained rows of oak cabinets stuffed to the brim with enough mineral specimens to delight any Victorian geologist. Over the past few decades that style of display has practically disappeared, with only the Minerals Gallery in what is now the Red Zone of the Natural History Museum left as a reminder. Besides a dynamic, multi-sensory approach, museums today frequently provide hands-on activities specifically aimed at children, such as the Science Museum's ever-popular Launch Pad. Their aim is simple: to persuade children that science is interesting, comprehensible, and relevant, a message that British schools don't seem to manage too well.

As well as the long-established public science collections, a new type of attraction has emerged in the past few decades: science and discovery centres have sprung up across the UK; ranging from the broad-spectrum Cardiff Techniquest to the specific-themed National Space Centre in Leicester. In addition to providing a permanent base for hands-on activities, some centres also share travelling exhibitions and supply lecturers to schools, purposefully relating material to the National Curriculum syllabus.

Although any science fan should be pleased with this new phenomenon, the downside is that unstable funding means the majority face an uncertain future. Of the eighteen centres that received capital grants from the Millennium Commission, a lack of viable long-term funding has already led to two closing down and another severely reduced in scope. Most centres have charitable status so rely on commercial activity and small amounts of corporate sponsorship, in stark contrast to the well-established collection-based institutes such as the Science and Natural History Museums which receive the majority of their budgets from the State. Westminster, whilst admitting the usefulness of the discovery centres in motivating children towards careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, clearly differentiates between the two categories. English centres fare the worst, whilst some of those in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are allocated funds by their regional governments.

Unfortunately we are seeing yet another example of attitudes exacerbated by the current economic climate, with long-term research projects and support for the next generation of scientists deferred in favour of fulfilling goals within the lifetime of the current administration. This is despite recent reports highlighting the continuing 'brain drain', with lower salaries in the UK meaning science graduates, physicists in particular, are seemingly destined to leave Britain in order to continue their studies and gain employment abroad.

Though we live in a mistrustful society far removed from the na├»ve Victorian belief in scientific and technological progress, surely the need to 'engage' and 'enrich' all segments of society (to use Government phraseology) is greater than ever? The many regional events taking place during this International Year of Astronomy only serve to show that with a little effort science can be successfully promoted outside of the classroom, a step in alleviating the tide of scientists leaving the country. Science and discovery centres help fill the gaps between museum and school, promoting science to children whilst possibly motivating their parents too.

With draconian public sector spending cuts on the horizon, it is unlikely that these centres will receive future official support. Yet science collections have come a long way since T.H. Huxley argued that the Natural History Museum should be reserved for professional researchers rather than the public; after all, he claimed, what would the latter gain from seeing endless species of beetle? If you have visited the likes of the Eden Project or National Space Centre, you will know that there are still plenty of things out there for us all to discover, not just beetles.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Hawking and Dawkins: the dynamic duo

There was a time not so long ago when the defining attributes of famous British scientists were little more than a white coat, wild hair, and possibly a monocle. Today, it seems the five-second sound bite mentality of the MTV generation requires any scientist who can top a man-in-the-street poll to have some atypical personality traits, to say the least. So are the current British science superstars good role models in the way they represent science to the public, or having achieved fame are they content to ride the media gravy train, with science taking a backseat (in the last carriage, if you want to continue the metaphor)?

If today's celebrities are frequently reduced to mere caricatures of their former selves (supposing they had anything more in the first place), how can the complex subtleties of modern science survive the media simplification process? If there is one thing that defines our current state of scientific understanding, it is surely that the universe is very subtle indeed. A recent episode of The Armstrong and Miller Show highlighted this beautifully via a sketch of Ben Miller (who in real life swapped a physics PhD for luvviedom) as a professor being interviewed about his latest theory. Each time he was asked if it was possible to provide a brief description of his theory in layman's terms, he succinctly replied, "no".

Arguably the two biggest names today, at least in Britain, are Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins. After appearances on everything from Star Trek to The Simpsons, Hawking has overtaken Einstein as the scientific genius everyone has heard of. But, like Einstein's last few decades, has Hawking reached the height of fame long after completing his best work, a genius revered without comprehension by a public unaware of the latest developments in astrophysics? If it's true that theoretical physicists' main period of productivity is usually in their twenties, Hawking wouldn't be any different from other physicists his age (remembering he retired from the Lucasian Chair several months ago).

Hawking himself implies that his fame is compounded of demand from a lazy and scientifically non-savvy media (as in "who's the current Einstein?") twinned with the tedious if understandable interest surrounding his condition. It's probably fair to say that a physically-fit Professor Hawking wouldn't be considered to provide nearly as interesting copy. Of course to be able to write the best-selling (nine-million copies!) A Brief History of Time was a fantastic achievement, not least for its brevity. If it (and Hawking's later ventures) succeed in promoting scientific knowledge and methodologies then all well and good but it's not difficult to get the feeling that he is primarily viewed as a brand name. Very little of the blame can be passed to Hawking himself, but the question that must be asked is does the interest in him divert the limited media attention span for science away from a younger generation of scientists?

Richard Dawkins on the other hand seems to have deliberately cultivated media attention, no doubt revelling in his description as Darwin's Rottweiler. As holder of the Charles Simonyi Professorship until late last year he had an official position from which to promote public understanding, but for me his single-minded crusade has become rather tiresome. His role model, Thomas Henry Huxley, promoted science as "nothing but trained and organized common sense" whilst in addition espousing, via his "trade mark" agnosticism, the notion that one should not believe or disbelieve a proposition without justifiable evidence. Surely Huxley's agnosticism and the ideal of the scientific method are indistinguishable?

In contrast, Dawkins' approach is to browbeat all opposition, religious, scientific, or otherwise, with techniques that ironically having rather more in common with "faith viruses" than science. His documentary The Root of All Evil? allegedly omitted interviews with religious moderates to concentrate on the oddballs. It's understandable that documentary producers like a clear-cut argument, but skewing the evidence to fit the theory is inexcusable for a scientist. Dawkins' use of probability is his most objective method in support of atheism but when the law of parsimony, otherwise known as Occam's razor, cannot obviously be applied to resolve many aspects of the sub-atomic world, how can a glib theory along the lines of "I believe there's a less than even chance of the existence of a deity, therefore there isn't a deity", be accepted any more than a literal interpretation of Genesis? Warning of the increasing dangers of fundamentalism to both science and society as a whole is admirable, but to promote a simplistic thesis regarding complex, largely non-scientific, issues seems more an exercise in self-promotion than anything else. And Dawkins has the cheek to say that the word 'reductionism' makes him want to reach for a weapon...

It pains me to say it but I'm not sure either of the dynamic duo, somewhat atypical scientists as they undoubtedly are, can be said to be ideal promoters of science. If such excellent communicators as Martin Rees, Richard Fortey, or Brian Cox were as well known as Hawking and Dawkins is it more likely we see an increase in science exposition and less media shenanigans? At the end of the day fame is very fickle, if the example of Magnus Pyke is anything to go by. Ubiquitous in the 1970s and '80s, Pyke appeared in everything from a best-selling pop single (and its video) to a washing machine commercial. Voted third in a 1975 New Scientist poll only to Einstein and Newton as the best-known scientist ever, this charismatic and socially-aware 'boffin' is unfortunately almost forgotten today. But then an American business magazine recently claimed that Hawking was an American, no doubt lulled by the speech synthesiser into a false sense of security...

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Monday, 30 November 2009

Horizon Event: science broadcasting in the UK today

The BBC has borne the brunt of accusations in recent years regarding the dumming down of science broadcasting, but their 17th November Horizon episode 'How Long is a Piece of String?' shows that there is still hope. For a start, it lacked two of my pet hates that are seemingly mandatory in current documentaries: blurry hand-held shots joined by jump cuts and accompanied by a pop track that changes every five seconds; and slick computer graphics sequences repeated up to half a dozen times just to get the money's worth. MTV: you have a lot to answer for!

The rather silly Press moniker 'Everymoron' belies the fact that the show's presenter Alan Davies is ideal for the role, perfectly balancing a genuine desire to learn with the difficulty of understanding abstractions far removed from the every day. What starts with the appearance of a simple mechanical problem ends up with Alan delving into all sorts areas, from fractals to quantum electrodynamics. Davies' earlier Maths-orientated Horizon, 'Go Forth and Multiply', was great for those like me who didn't even get as far as calculus; this episode was an even better combination of exposition and entertainment.

Horizon has broadcast over one thousand episodes since 1964 but with its website no longer being updated and some fairly dubious programmes in the past decade verging on New Age quackery, it could appear there has been a major loss of nerve. Horizon's Channel Four equivalent, Equinox, made some excellent programmes over fifteen years before fizzling out of a regular slot in 2001. Surely it's inconceivable that the audience for these programmes has evaporated? Channel Four still makes a few interesting short series - Inside Nature's Giants springs to mind - but no annual shows. Most of the specialist satellite and cable channels just recycle the old favourites, and as for Channel Five...

One obvious problem is simple economics: documentaries aren't usually big money spinners compared to the reality rubbish that clogs our airtime, meaning international co-productions are a safer bet. And if the co-producer is American, there are obvious issues for any biology-related stories: "We've got to be careful now - we can't afford to lose all those channels in the Bible Belt!" But is this a side issue? Are we simply seeing a frightening reflection of a society that has lost confidence in science and is turning to spiritual beliefs old and new?

I really miss the large-scale one-off series (with accompanying book), such as the classics The Ascent of Man, Cosmos and The Day the Universe Changed. These were fantastic ventures, introducing science-orientated themes to large audiences. It seems that only David Attenborough can still command these sorts of budgets, although it would be difficult not to fund him considering how profoundly inspiring he is (I confess that several decades ago I met the great man and would certainly make an exception to the rule 'never meet your heroes').

But natural history is only one segment of the great sweep of science. Horizon has shown a predilection for what could be dubbed the historical/contingency sciences in the increasing frequency of its palaeontological and archaeological episodes, no doubt deemed safe bets considering the popularity of Time Team and all-things dinosaur. Of course archaeology is a humanity that makes use of scientific techniques, so for anyone tedious enough to follow Ernest Rutherford's view that all science is either physics or stamp collecting, this emphasis won't impress.

Talking of dinosauria, the BBC has gained enormous success with producer Tim Haines, from Walking With Dinosaurs and its sequels to Space Odyssey, but these are on the order of 'docufiction' and not a substitute for Horizon or Equinox at their best. The boundaries between evidence and speculation in Haines' series, although tempered by the companion books and 'making of' documentaries, are frequently blurred to such an extent as to give the impression much of the content is unimpeachable fact. I don't want to be a killjoy: the series are excellent fun, but they are not science documentaries.

On the other hand, shows based around practical experiments are on the increase, with even food programmes getting in on the act. Let's hope the likes of the BBC's Bang Goes The Theory and its companion website don't degenerate into the sort of lowbrow edutainment that defined the latter years of Tomorrow's World (you might be able to guess why I’m deliberately ignoring the likes of Click and Channel Five's The Gadget Show.)

Also, it's hard to dispute the excellence of science broadcasting on BBC Radio Four, with Leading Edge, Frontiers and Material World just a few of many regular series. Mention should also be made of Melvin Bragg's multi-disciplined In Our Time; it has some superb science episodes, supplying additional entertainment whenever he is called upon to pronounce 'spectroscopy'!

Where does QI fit in to all this? Stephen Fry tries hard despite the obvious gaps in his scientific knowledge, my favourite clanger being his 2005 remark that marsupials aren't mammals - eek! Having everyone's favourite quantum physicist-turned-comedian Ben Miller crop up now and then is a good idea, but if Alan Davies can keep up the good work on Horizon, perhaps we're in for some real treats. Here's to the 'Everymoron'!

Thursday, 26 November 2009

The Ghost in the Machine: the LHC, 2012 and the death of the 5th sun

As pattern-seeking animals it's always interesting to see just how many correlations we can find that aren't actually there. If today's techno-hip population of humans were primarily rational creatures the failure of numerous apocalyptic prophecies over the past century would surely have put paid to this pseudoscientific cottage industry. Yet a Hollywood blockbuster is now capitalising on yet another date for Armageddon looming on the horizon: December 2012, the Mayan death of the fifth sun. I first read about this impending doom more than a decade ago courtesy of Graham Hancock (I know, I know, but I really believe you should read all sides to an argument). However, Mayan scholars are apparently undecided as to whether translations of the Mayan calendar are accurate as to both the date and magnitude of events, as there aren't any Mayans around to verify. Of course this hasn't stopped the wishful unthinkers from elaborating the prediction ad nauseam.

Turning from the ridiculous to the sublime, when the Large Hadron Collider was nearing operation in 2008 the media interest was frankly astonishing, making the LHC an international celebrity in its own right. I wonder that if despite the size and cost, would this interest have been as great if the Higgs Boson wasn't also known as the God particle? Although I recently noticed a mortgage advertisement that proclaimed their application process wasn't akin to writing a thesis on quantum physics (perhaps the latter is the new 'rocket science'), the public understanding of quantum theory is minimal considering how long it has been around. But perhaps it's not that surprising, since most people's idea of science still clings to Victorian notions of certainty and absolute truths, not ambiguity and probability waves, never mind 'spooky action at a distance'. After all, if even Einstein wasn't convinced, why should non-scientists jump up and down with anticipation? Just don't get me started on the Copenhagen Interpretation...

The LHC-doomsday combo came together in a formal scientific sense in 2007 with the first of Holger Bech Nielsen and Masao Ninomiya's papers on whether 'something' from the future (insert creation overseer of your choice here) would sabotage the LHC and thus prevent it from destroying the Universe. The media seemed to have little idea how to handle the story when it was popularised this autumn: they were fairly certain it wasn't a spoof, yet its speculations veered towards the crackpot. Few journalists understand enough quantum theory to differentiate the implausible yet genuine hypothesis from the bizarre but almost certainly untenable. Perhaps JBS Haldane's classic 'the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose' would help, or Niels Bohr's comment as to whether a particular theory was crazy enough to have a chance of being correct.

Unfortunately other scientists don't want to debate Nielsen and Ninomiya's speculation but promptly shrug it off as a wacky thought experiment that got far too much attention. Yet wouldn't this have been a perfect opportunity to publicise the self-correcting aspect of the scientific method whilst relaying a little quantum mechanics along the way (not to mention convincing the tax payers of 40+ nations that all our little contributions were well spent)? A lot of post-nineteenth century physics started solely as thought experiments (okay, and maybe some impenetrable maths too), until years' later the experimenters managed to catch up. I'm no N&N fan club, but as the collider nears full operation surely the CERN staff would be pleased with any public elucidation. A few less worriers might help to lessen the phone calls pleading for the LHC to be shut down before it causes the end of the world...

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