Tag: rant

The Green Scientist

This week I’m writing about my attitude to some green issues, and how I think my scientific background informs my approach. The reason I’m doing this is that when discussing green issues, it becomes obvious that I have some very different starting points compared to non-scientists. I can describe my own views, and I believe various of them are shared by other scientists for similar reasons. And it might get a little bit ranty.

First of all, I really like the idea of sustainability: the idea that after our lives we leave the earth in broadly the same state as we found it so that those that follow us have something to live on. I believe we should be trying to preserve our natural environment and the species in them, even the unattractive ones. How we achieve sustainability, and what we actually focus on are the areas of collision.

And so to “Chemicals”: “Chemicals” which are always bad and must be excluded from things. From a scientific point of view this is frustrating: all things are chemicals – atoms joined up together. Even if we’re slightly more sophisticated and claim that natural chemicals are good, and man-made chemicals are bad, we’re still on tricky ground. Anyone for strychnine, belladonna or ricin? Really we can only say “good chemical”, “bad chemical” by looking at the chemical in question. There is a Romantic view abroad that nature favours us and wishes to provide us with nice things: this simply isn’t true. At best nature is indifferent, and in many cases it is actively out to get us.

There’s a biological variant of this stance, in genetically modified organisms (GMO). I think there’s real potential for GMO’s in sustainable agriculture, but it is excluded for essentially ideological grounds and with ideological fervour. Misplaced genes can certainly be a problem but much more likely when introduced en bloc in introduced organisms (rabbits in Australia, rats in almost any island environment, Himalayan Balsam in UK), and we’re surprisingly tolerant of crops that are toxic if prepared inappropriately (potatoes, rhubarb, red kidney beans, cassava). We’re in the bizarre situation where one group can complain of the contamination of the genetic purity of their crops by GMO’s for which there is no evidence of harm, and no expectation of harm. Where the detection of the contamination takes rather sophisticated scientific techniques. And beyond that even people are getting agitated by the thought of eating cattle fed with GMO’s, when we have no way of detecting whether the cattle have eaten the GMO – there is no measurable effect.

The image at the top of this post is another example, I found it buy searching for “belching-pollution” it’s the type of image you often see illustrating a story about pollution but those are cooling towers, the stuff coming out of them is water vapour – clouds. Not pollution at all.

The Food Programme on Radio 4 irritates me every week, and I really like my food. A typical script runs roughly like this:

Supermarkets are bad, lets do a taste test. Here’s Mrs Miggin’s hand-knitted pie, with Mrs Miggins who we’ve been talking to for the last 10 minutes, here’s a supermarket pie, doesn’t it look nasty? I don’t think I want to eat that. Let’s try them both, well Mrs Miggins pie is lovely, but I really didn’t like the supermarket pie. The supermarkets are evil. What’s that you say? “Mrs Miggins pie costs 5 times as much as the supermarket pie”. Well I’m sure that isn’t important.

I think I drifted off the point slightly with that last bit of rant, but it reveals something of my character. I’m actually in favour of people that do stuff, rather than the people that stand on the sidelines complaining that they’re doing it wrong but don’t really proffer a workable solution.

Much of the problem here seems to be an elision over scientific issues and capitalism / globalisation. GMO’s largely became “bad” because they were developed by very large corporations for reasons of profit. I don’t see large companies as intrinsically malign, I see them responding to a set of circumstances which makes them appear malign. The trick for society is to make an environment that makes companies to act for our collective good because it’s in their best interest to do so.

So there you are: I’m a frustrated green, I sign up to the principles but the implementation offends my scientific sensibilities. In a timely fashion, it would appear I’m not alone – see this interview with Stewart Brand in New Scientist.

Thank you for hearing my rant.

A letter to the Institute of Physics

Dear Sir/Madam

As a member of the Institute of Physics I would like to register my extreme displeasure and unhappiness at the IOP submission to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee regarding the leaking of e-mails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia (reproduced here) . In my view this submission will damage the scientific reputation of the Institute amongst scientists and other learned societies. This submission will prejudice my future confidence in any policy statements that the IOP makes.

My specific complaints of the submission are as follows:
1. Item 2 mis-represents the current scientific practice of sharing of data and methodologies. Currently methodologies are generally shared by publication in scientific journals not by the explicit sharing of computer source code. Raw experimental data from third parties is not routinely shared. To imply that the researchers at CRU are acting out of step with current practice is false. 
2. Item 4 specifically casts doubt on the historical temperature reconstructions based on proxy measures whilst not acknowledging that such reconstructions have been repeated by a range of research groups using a range of methodologies, as described in the IPCC 2007 report.
3. Item 5 accuses the researchers at CRU of “suppression” of the divergence between proxy records and the more recent thermometer based record. This is ridiculous, the CRU has published on this very divergence in Nature.
4. Item 6 makes no recognition of the un-usual circumstances that CRU found themselves in, subjected to a large number of Freedom of Information requests, culminating in the publication of a substantial fraction of their private e-mail correspondence.
The subject of climate science and it’s relationship to anthropogenic climate change is an area subject to political interference, in my view the IOP’s submission is a political attack on the CRU at East Anglia University dressed in a flimsy scientific cover.
I expect the Institute to fully withdraw this submission to the Science & Technology Committee. I feel that the subsequent explanatory statement by the IOP is insufficient in addressing the shortcomings of the original submission. It also takes no cognisance of the fact the IOP position will be taken publicly to be the sum of all it’s published statements, and indeed that this submission will be preferred, over all others, as a presentation of the IOP’s policy by those who wish to deny the position on climate science that the IOP claims to hold.
I will be cancelling my direct debit mandate to the IOP now, I may decide to continue with my membership when it comes up for renewal.

yours sincerely,
Dr Ian Hopkinson

8/3/10: update, corrected some typos

The Misanthrope

This is a blog post about other people, and their cow-like impassiveness whilst obstructing the path of the righteous. It’s also a chance to be a bit pretentious since I discover that Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in his play, “No Exit”:  that “L’enfer, c’est les autres” or “Hell is other people”, and the title of this blog post itself is that of a play by Moliere.

Mrs SomeBeans and I have just returned from holiday, so the focus of today’s rant is largely the people we have come across in the process (v. nice holiday, some pictures here). A similar species can be found around most supermarkets, on the streets of Llangollen.

It starts off in the airport, where mysterious large groups of sociable people travel together, weird extended families. Typically you’ll first meet an outrider in the queue to check-in (for us this usually happens at about 5am when we are not at the peak of our reasonableness), but then a gathering horde appear who can’t join the back of the queue: they have to join in front of you with the outrider. And nothing is simple for them, once at the check-in desk there is a great shuffling of passports and luggage as they casually mention that one member of the group will be along shortly.

Then there’s the security control, here my ire is split between authorities and punters. I mean, how the hell am I going to injure anyone with Lipsalve? To credit the cow-people they slowly seem to be coming around to the idea that they have to do a load of weird stuff for the benefit of security theatre. 

Then there are the duty-free shops, I’ll ask the rhetorical question “Why, oh why is so much space committed to the sale of duty-free which could so much more usefully be dedicated to something useful like seating?”. I know the answer, it’s because shops pay rent, punters are just self-loading cargo. It doesn’t make me less angry. I spent an hour in Salzburg’s post-security hell-hole wondering how best to foment revolution. I considered standing on a bin and urging the crowded mass to invade the duty-free shop and cast the merchandise to the floor, and lie down upon the vacated shelves.

Then you get on the plane, and it seems no one has planned for this eventuality and spends 10 minutes taking things out of their carry-on bag, putting the bag in the overhead locker, sitting down, standing up, taking more things out of the bag and putting some away again, repeat. All the while the cabin crew keep saying “Please get on and sit down so we can take off”.

Then you get off the plane and a group of teenagers have made it down the stairs off the plane and just stopped dead at the bottom. This is a recurring theme: there are places to stand, an infinity of them, where you disrupt no one elses business. However, the cow-people seek out those places where they maximally obstruct others, gazing at each other with cow-like eyes, lowing gently.

Next is baggage reclaim. At the risk of sounding like an old fogey here, there’s no way that my parents would have let me frolic about the luggage carousels in the airport, as modern children seem to be encouraged (partly because we never flew to go on holiday). There’d definitely be sharp words and clips round ear, but not these days. If it was down to me I’d be equipping luggage carousels with special finger-slicing blades.

Skiing offers special opportunities for standing in the way like a cow-person; ski lifts are natural constrictions: a world of skiers is funnelled into a narrow gap, through electronic barriers to some lifting device. So naturally you’ll find half-wits that zoom into the constriction and only then decide that they cannot proceed without friends or family. And you try acting nimbly whilst wearing skis. The people featured here:

… look like they acting purposefully, but they’re not – they’re dithering.

Naturally, through all of this we never say a word. Except now.

Schrodinger’s flippin’ cat!

There comes a time in a blogs life when a bit of a rant is called for, here’s mine or at least the first one. To be honest it’s a fairly discrete, civilised rant – because that’s the sort of chap I am. It’s about cliches in science.

Quite some years ago, Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay entitled “The case of the creeping fox-terrier clone”, published in “Bully for Brontosaurus“. In it he describes how he was writing a piece on evolution using the time-worn example of the horse, and in particular an animal named hyracotherium also known as eohippus or “The Dawn Horse”. The problem for Professor Gould was that he found himself on the point of typing that eohippus was “the size of a fox-terrier”, the thing is he had no idea how big a fox-terrier was! That’s right, Prof Gould (who I think writes very nicely) was about to commit a cliche to paper, and rather admirably he stopped and had a bit of a think instead. Now the reason he was about to write this was that he’d read it many times before, it’s a very standard story in evolution. He wasn’t alone, many writers have written how “eohippus was the size of a fox-terrier”, and doubtless many of them had no idea how big a fox-terrier was. Many readers have, no doubt, read those words, nodded sagely to themselves and said “All is well, I know that eohippus was the size of a fox-terrier”. It’s not really the cliche that’s the problem, the problem is that we’ve gone through the motions of communicating an idea, but sort of failed. Just in case it was bothering you, a fox-terrier is about the same size as eohippus, or roughly 40cm at the shoulder ;-)  I reckon that’s about the same size as a large lamb.

This isn’t an isolated example, science writing (and education) is riddled with cliche, not just cliche in word, but cliche in thought. My own bugbear is Schrödingers cat, of whom surely everyone must have heard. Erwin Schrödinger was one of the fathers of quantum mechanics.

 (I have a bit of a weakness for lolcats)

Briefly, Schrödingers “thought experiment” is as follows: take one quantum mechanical system (a radioactively decaying material is common), one cat, one diabolical system to kill the cat based on a random event from the quantum mechanical system and one opaque, cat-proof box. Combine ingredients and wait…now open the box. The argument put is that prior to opening the box the cat is in an uncertain state between dead and alive (which is true of the quantum system, atoms in the radioactive material could be said to be decayed and undecayed simultaneously). 

However, Schrödinger prefaces this thought experiment thusly: “One can even set up quite ridiculous cases.” Schrödinger didn’t think his cat was genuinely in some weird half-way house between dead and alive he was quite clear that it was very definitely one or the other and the problem was that for systems obeying quantum mechanical rules this wasn’t the case. That’s the useful point in this thought experiment: “There’s something weird that goes on between the quantum and the classical and we don’t know what it is”. Yet time after time you see this experiment described without the critical proviso. People go away with the false impression that undead cats exist!

oh dear I can feel my self getting a bit incoherent now… special relativity, I’ve taught special relativity, it’s genuinely a marvelous intellectual leap that solved a couple of serious problems in physics. It has some real world applications (understanding my old friend the synchrotron, GPS satellites, lifetimes for relativistic muons in the atmosphere etc). But the text book examples we give to students are rather worn, nope, “worn” is the wrong word. “flippin’ ridiculous” gets a bit closer. Here’s one:

“You have a 10 meter long ladder, and a 5 meter long shed. How fast must the ladder enter the shed in order for it to appear to fit inside to a stationary observer?”

I can tell you the answer: it’s “really fast” – some large fraction of the the speed of light. To put it another way, a ladder travelling at the requiste speed could travel the length of the equator in something under quarter of a second, that’s probably a little faster than your reaction time and I’m sure you have an intuitive feel for the length of the equator. My point here is that (1) You’re going to struggle to get your ladder going that fast (2) if that ladder’s going past you that fast, the absolute last thing on your mind is going to be “ooo…look, the 10m ladder is fitting into the 5m shed”. If your shed is in a vacuum then you won’t get killed by massive plasma shockwave, but how many sheds have you seen in a vacuum? For part 2 of this experiment one may find some halfwit has placed a concrete block at the back of the shed to check the ladder really is fitting into the shed by bringing the ladder to an instant standstill inside the shed. Once again, when ladder hits concrete whether ladder fits into shed is the least of your worries. Assuming that you were in a vacuum, your ladder/concrete collision is going to release “absolutely loads” of energy – fusion bomb scale. There you go, I’ve lost it completely now. Special relativity teaching is full of everyday objects (trains and rulers are typical) traveling at implausible speeds, and it really winds me up!

Don’t get me started on “Alice and Bob“, the quantum cryptographers and if one more string theorist tells me that all the extra dimensions are “curled up very small”, there’s going to be some hurtin’.

And relax… I feel better now that I’ve written it down.