Tuesday, 30 December 2014

While I'm away...

After such an eventful year, my blog and I are taking a two-week break. We will be back in 2015.

I completely understand if the conclusion of my globe-trotting adventures has left a gaping hole in your intellectual life, and if the additional torment of a two-week hiatus in this blog seems too great a pain to bear.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Part 9: The End

Previously: Part 8. The Meeting.


December 16, 2014. 

Here's how it all ends.

Last week's post was written way back at the end of August. You can object that I've been eking out the story of my summer over nine weeks, but I hope you can allow me this little bit of amusement while I myself have also waited to hear how it would end. You've been waiting since last week to hear what happened after I returned to New Zealand in apparent defeat -- but I've been waiting since September!

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Part 8: The Meeting

Previously: Part 7. The Magical Kingdom of Science


August 29, 2014. Wellington, New Zealand.

I agreed to meet Prof. Prick the next day at the Palo Alto Freebirds. I got a room at what I hoped was a cheap dingy motel, the sort of place where you expect to be guaranteed at least one shooting and two drug busts every night. But this was Silicon Valley: the rooms were immaculate, and I paid $150 for one night. At least Freebirds was only a five-minute walk away.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Part 7: The Magical Kingdom of Science

Previously: Part 6. The Student's Tale


August 27, 2014. The Blue Bayou Restaurant, New Orleans Square, Disneyland.

Many serious scientists have refused to believe the scandal of Professor Prick. I like to think that has changed, since I published the stories of his postdocs, his rivals, his old boss, and, most damningly in the context of the current scandal, his fellow PhD student. Of course, his many enemies could have made all that up; none of those people have come forward to testify openly. Even Dr. Boss, who is easily identifiable from the public record, refused to have his name included on the statements he sent me, and has been unavailable for comment since departing on a hiking adventure in Thailand.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Part 6: The Student's Tale

Previously: Part 5. The Music Pirate.


August 24, 2014. Los Angeles International Airport.

Today I flew to California. Back over the Andes. Now I'm in the land of good burgers and free drink refills.

After clearing security in LA, the first thing I did was log in to the free airport wifi. And I had this waiting for me. It's my last guest post, and I think it's the best yet. It's from a woman who was a fellow PhD student with Prick; they even worked together on their thesis projects. What a scoop! Listen to her story...

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Part 5: The Music Pirate

Previously: Part 4. The Postdoc's Tale


August 20, 2014. Cordoba, Argentina. 

Bangalore was a lot of fun, but my visit was obviously engineered entirely by my old friend, so that I could meet Prick's old rival. It was time to move on. Besides, after nearly a month in this vegetarian's paradise, I was in dire need of a good steak.

As luck would have it, last week I received the following email, and my culinary situation quickly changed. You'll see why in a moment. The email's author was one of Prick's early employers. He was Prick's boss on his very first postdoc. Here's the email:

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Part 4: The Postdoc's Tale

Previously: Part 3. Scientific Skullduggery


August 12, 2014. Still Bangalore.

Preamble:

One of Prick's old postdocs contacted me immediately after I began this story, three weeks ago. He worked for him for two years, and offered to write a guest post on his experiences. This is what he sent me. I publish it only reluctantly. Disgruntled postdocs are notoriously unreliable, and from his final paragraphs it's clear that he's deranged.


The Postdoc's Tale:

Dr. Rival told you that Prick rejected his paper and stole the idea and wrote it up himself. That's not the whole story.

I was Prick's postdoc, and I'm the one who solved the big problem. Prick didn't do a thing, unless you count coming in every day and going berzerk and demanding results.

Right from the start, I was the one who understood that problem, not him. I knew I could solve it. Then I could get a job somewhere else. That was why I worked so hard. And man, I worked hard. Everyone did at that place. It was one of the top U.S. universities, not like whatever English dump you work at. Everyone was in the office until past midnight, and on weekends. All the time. Everyone was driven, and I was driven even more.

There was me and one other guy working for Prick. We had both been there almost a year. He gave everyone one-year contracts, and renewed them only if you got him results. He gave us both the same problem to work on, and said that next year he'd re-hire whoever solved it.

It was miserable. There was only one person in that place who could have made my job bearable, and that was the other postdoc -- but we were in competition. We talked plenty, and shared anything we worked out, but only because we wanted to make sure we knew what the other one was doing. If either of us knew we were on the right track, we'd have shut up fast. He was about the only friend I had, and I spent every waking moment trying to screw him over.

It was August. Our contracts ended in only three weeks. Seriously. We had no other jobs lined up. We had no papers written. We had nothing. We were both just desperate to do something to get Prick to renew our contracts. And we knew that he'd fire both of us without a moment's hesitation.

Then Rival's paper showed up. Prick read it, but he didn't understand it. He thought it was crap. He gave it to us. It was a good paper. Prick had no idea. But it wasn't like the answer was just sitting there, like it was just Equation 10, and we could copy it out and we were done. Rival hadn't solved the problem yet, he'd only done bits of it. He talked like he knew what to do next, but everyone says that, don't they?

Those were horrible sleepless nights. A lot of coffee. A lot of arguing at the blackboard. Falling asleep on the sofa in the grad-student kitchen.

Then I worked it out. It was obvious. It's always obvious once you've got it. It was so obvious I couldn't believe the other guy didn't see it as well. But he didn't, and I worked out the details and wrote it up as quick as I could. He guessed I was on to the answer, and it drove him nuts, but I didn't say a thing. What else could I do? I took it to Prick, and my contract was renewed. The other guy was out.

Of course, Prick had plenty of money. He had already hired someone else to replace the other guy -- New Postdoc turned up before Old Postdoc even finished packing up his desk.

Even though I knew Prick was a complete asshole, I expected some gratitude. But you know what deal he made with me? He extended my contract on the condition that the first paper had only his name on it. Then we would write a second, longer, more complete paper, and on that one I would be first author. And can you believe it, I was so desperate and so exhausted and so crazy, that I agreed? I'd just solved a major fucking problem, and my name wasn't even on the paper!

At the time I was so screwed up that I thought it was Ok. I half killed myself writing that second paper, which was a goddamn masterpiece, and I thought I was lucky, like it was a real privilege, that he let my name go first on it. And he didn't have a single idea.

No, that's not true. He had loads of ideas. Every day he had a new idea. And every one of them was wrong. I wasted half of my time arguing with Prick to convince him that his latest brainwave was a steaming pile of shit. So his contribution to that paper was negative -- every other scientist in the world did more for that paper than him, just by staying out of my hair!

In the end it was too much. I was burnt out. I got an offer from a hot-shot software start-up, and I left.

I could have made it. I was better than most of the other people who got faculty jobs. People like you. I could wipe the floor with you gravitational-wave clowns. Just a bunch of quantum gravity rejects and python scripters who think you get a Nobel prize for writing down Bayes' theorem. Or do you think you're a numerical relativist? Is that what you are? Jesus! A numerical relativist is just someone who doesn't know numerics, and doesn't know relativity.


And I read that thing you wrote about academia. It's a lie. That start-up company I joined, they went bust a year later. No millions for me. And no millions for any of the other good people I know who gave the finger to academia. Maybe it makes you feel better, in some perverse way, to point out some guy who made it on Wall Street, but what about the rest of us? To start Google or Apple, you're smart enough to drop out before you even finish your undergraduate degree. If you quit in grad school, or right after your PhD, maybe you can do Ok. But after six years going crazy as a postdoc? By that time you're so fucked up that academia is the only place for you. To anyone else you're useless. But, you know, thanks for thinking of us.

I'm glad to hear that Prick is getting what's coming to him. Now someone just has to come after the rest of you.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Doctor Who Review: Death in Heaven

Let's get the spoilers out of the way.

Humanity's most desperate spiritual hopes become a typical 21st century let-down: the afterlife is in fact The Cloud. The Master (aka Missy) puts the NSA to shame, and doesn't just back up and peer into our lost lives, but also uses them to reboot our rotting corpses as Cybermen. But even for a megalomaniacal Time Lord turned deranged Mary Poppins, human consciousness remains an unsolved puzzle, and the heartiest of our forebears stay loyal to their former species even from within their shiny new bodies. Chief among these diehard heroes were of course good old Danny Pink, and a clever reappearance by that old hand at human preservation, the Brigadier.

A cursory glance at some of the early reviews suggests that the episode went down well. None of Robin Hood's meta madness, no sign of the poorly set-up faux-foe of Listen, the blatant scientific ignorance of Kill the Moon (science is long forgotten by now), or the fairytale sappiness at Midnight in the garden of good and evil (or whatever it was called). This time the superlatives were flying thick and fast, like the Cybermen jetting out of St Paul's.

It didn't really work for me, but I can see their point. There were many great ideas. The Doctor got to be the President, and on Air Force One no less. Then he got to skydive to the free-falling Tardis -- which then whipped back up into the air with a dematerialisation roar as victorious as the theme tune ringing out when Indiana Jones swung on that vine to the escaping seaplane. There were even Thunderbirds references. There were also encores from earlier in the season. Clara pretended to be the Doctor again, and Missy re-enacted the Mummy's death countdown. And amongst all of the soap-opera-turned-tragedy Danny drama and moral pontification, I can at least appreciate the sentimental power of the final scenes. Danny was able to achieve the impossible, and bring back the child's life he'd once taken, and, even more impressively done, the Doctor and Clara parted while jokingly covering up their respective personal heartbreaks.

As I say, it didn't work for me. The set-up felt clunky, and I had never been able to believe in the characters anyway, and there were just too many moral dilemmas and "impossible choices". The BBC voice-over before the episode was very clear on this: "Up next, the Doctor faces an impossible choice." What an understatement: in this episode he faced about five of them. I didn't understand why Cyber-Danny left Clara in a graveyard, or why the Doctor couldn't have ordered the Cybermen to incinerate the acid raincloud himself, or why the Cybermen believed Clara's bluff about being the Doctor, when she must have failed the first test of every alien scanner in the history of the show, i.e., having merely one heart.



You may complain that I'm analysing the show too much. I should just relax and enjoy it. Well, shame on you! That's not how it works. A piece of fiction should cast a spell. It should be a piece of modest hypnosis. We should forget reality, we should forget plausibility, and we should be carried away. A poor piece of fiction will fool no-one, and an incredible piece will work on almost everyone -- even the doubters, even the cynics, and even those who have turned up to knock it down. It should certainly work on those who have avidly followed what went before, not just for the last three decades, but also the first half of the story just the week before.

The reviews were mostly positive, some exceedingly, and so perhaps it did work its magic for the majority of the audience. Perhaps I am just a statistical anomaly. Bad luck for me. Oh well.

In another of the Third Doctor's favourite expressions that has come to mind lately, "Where there's life, there's hope." The Christmas Special teaser trailer with Santa Claus himself suggests we're in store for something even more appalling than what we got last year -- but I'll live in hope that my doubts will be cast aside in a flurry of sharp Arctic wind, and I'll be blown away by 45 minutes of spellbinding entertainment. There were episodes in this shaky season that have done that (precisely three: Time Heist, The Mummy, and Flatline), and I'm confident there will be more again.


For those who've loved Doctor Who, or loved complaining about it, an interminable desert of dull empty weeks lies before you. But fear not: you can join me on my own fantastic round-the-world adventures in Real Science Fiction. Who knows -- maybe the shady villain will turn out to be the Master?


Other Doctor Who reviews:
Robot of Sherwood
Listen
Time Heist
The Caretaker
Kill the Moon
Mummy on the Orient Express
Flatline
In the Forest of the Night
Dark Water

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Part 3. Scientific Skullduggery

Previously: Part 2. Bangalore Briefing



Part 3. Scientific Skullduggery


August 2, 2014. Bangalore.

Today I learned some of Prick's dark past.

We left for Shravanabelagola at 6am this morning. The Institute rented a bus, which was full of students, postdocs and a few faculty, all excited at the prospect of four hours of high-speed peril on an Indian highway.

I sat next to Dr. Friend. We immediately embarked on a serious, hushed, urgent conversation. Partly because we were anxious to discuss the scandal of Professor Prick, but mostly we just wanted to avoid the group Bollywood singalong.

He told me all about the scandal. I asked many questions, and revelled in just how much hot water my recently acquired enemy had got himself into. As explained last week, I can't give away any details just yet.

But after we had arrived and got off the bus, I realised that I had not asked Dr. Friend why he personally was so gleeful at the prospect of Prick's downfall. The man may have screwed up, but he was still a brilliant scientist, clearly a genius, a pioneer who had revolutionised his field and turned it into one of the most active and exciting research areas in science today. He had also become a popular public figure, defending science from ignorant attack, and advocating successfully for greater funding. Ok, he has decided to destroy my career, but what did Dr. Friend care about an irrelevant plebeian like me?

The centrepiece of the Shravanabelagola complex was an 18-metre-high statue, which was at the top of a hill. To get to it we had to walk up a path of stone steps barefoot. The steps were polished smooth from the passage of many thousands, or perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands, of bare feet. At the top of the hill was the huge statue. A guide gave us a tour, and a commentary so colourful that he might have been making it up. My scientist friends certainly thought so. He only got away with it because they couldn't get a 3G signal on their smartphones.


I paid little attention, because I was getting stories of my own from Dr. Friend.

"Prick may be brilliant, but he's also a monster. He's bullying, vindictive, cruel and unscrupulous, and will do anything to satisfy his ambition."

"Doesn't sound unusual to me."

"He goes too far. Everyone knows that one of his biggest results was stolen."

"As I said, doesn't sound..."

He cut me off. "I want to introduce you to someone."

The tour had finished, and Dr. Friend pulled aside a middle-aged professor. He was not Indian, but did wear a kurta.

"This is the man whose result was stolen."

We made our way back down the stone steps, and this poor fellow (I'll call him Dr. Rival) told me his story.

"At that time Prick's field was unknown. But there was one problem that he knew, if he solved it, would be a truly major discovery. Unfortunately he didn't know how.

"I also knew about the problem, and I did have an idea how to solve it. But I was junior faculty at a small US university, with one weak PhD student, no postdocs, and a heavy teaching load. So I applied for a grant to fund a postdoc to work with me. My proposal went to Prick to referee."

It began to rain, and the steps became slippery. We held tight to the railing.

Rival continued undaunted. "He reported that I had a feeble track record of only minor results -- my case was weak and lacking in details -- my basic idea was a fantasy. The grant was rejected. He was free to try my idea himself, with his own little army of postdocs and students."

Rival told his story calmly, but I was getting angry. "Wasn't there anything you could do?"

He smiled at my naivete. "You are still young. So was I, back then. I knew nothing about Prick, and I was determined to keep working."

He was so relaxed that when we reached the bottom of the stairs, he left off his story to engage with the incessant crowds of souvenir sellers. The persistent pedlars led him off to their dilapidated little shops, and I didn't see him again until we got back on the bus.

Then he fell asleep until we were almost home. That was when I witnessed another property of that miraculous emergent state of matter, the Indian traffic fluid. I had observed how it interacted as it sloshed along roads, but that was nothing compared to how it behaved when someone tried to stop it.

Up ahead was a railway crossing. A train was approaching, and the barriers went down. The traffic -- two lanes one way, two lanes the other -- had to stop. But to be truly stationary was anathema to its nature. Every vehicle edged and jostled forward as far as it could go. Some drove along the currently empty oncoming lane to get closer to the front, and then tried to wedge into the queue. Soon the oncoming lanes were bulging with cars and buses and trucks. Motorbikes weaved around the edges until the space directly in front of the barrier roared with a throbbing swarm of them. By that time the entire road leading to the barrier was blocked in both lanes.

It was the same situation on both sides of the crossing. Two implacable walls of vehicles faced each other across the railway line.

While we waited, Dr. Rival woke up and I urged him to finish his story.

"As I said, I kept working. I was determined. Utterly single-minded. After some months, I made progress. I proved that my idea was workable. I had the key to the solution. It was enough to write a paper, which I hoped would finally get me a grant. No such luck. It was a small field, there weren't many experts, and the journal sent my paper to Prick to referee."

"And he rejected it?"

"Of course. Six months later he had his own paper, and the rest is history."

"He just copied what you did?"

"Oh no, there was a lot of extra solid work in his paper. It was really a brilliant piece of science. But I had found the key."

"What did you do?"

"Nothing. I was ruined. I had thrown everything into that paper, and I just had nothing left. The next year I was denied tenure." He stared out of the window at the impatiently shuddering traffic. "My wife is Indian, and a university here was hiring, and now here I am."

"Wow."

The train had passed. I turned to watch the narrow sliver that remained of the oncoming lane. I couldn't believe we would ever see any traffic on it.

But several minutes later the first vehicles came: the motorbikes. Then a small car, somehow squeezing through. Then more cars, and then buses. I felt like I was witnessing a miracle.

Later our own bus began to move. As we inched forward, the multiple jumbled lanes on our side of the road slowly merged together.

When we finally crossed the railway line, I turned back to Dr. Rival and said, "But now all that is changing. Right?"

"Let's see," he said. "Let's see."


Next: Part 4. The Postdoc's Tale.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Doctor Who Review: Dark Water

This week's episode certainly needs a spoiler alert -- the whole point of the episode was to spring surprises.

Some of the surprises were cheerfully revealed in the pre-transmission publicity. We knew that the skeletons in the tanks were going to be Cybermen. That just changed the nature of the surprise: how the skeletons could be Cybermen. The trick was that the fluid in the tanks made all non-organic matter transparent. Once that was explained, we could sit back and wait for the shiny soldiers to emerge.

Last week I said that no finale could justify some of the terrible episodes in this series. This first installment of the finale was, for the most part, fantastic, but I stand by what I said. What went before turns out to have no justification at all. The finale required that Clara be upset by Danny's death, but no extra setup beyond that -- we didn't need all that nonsense tension between the Doctor and Danny, or Clara lying to Danny about the Doctor, or any of it. If all the Clara-Doctor drama was purely in aid of setting up the TARDIS-key stand-off in Mordor, then it was all for nothing. That scene was a good idea, but with a lame resolution: it was all a dream, and afterwards everyone got to speak some cheesy lines and move on with the story.

The setup did require a tumultuous relationship between Clara and Danny, but his character and their romance have both been so poorly rendered that my main reaction to his death was cursing that we didn't get to see it in more graphic detail. It just happens that I drove along that very road in Cardiff earlier yesterday afternoon -- it's a pity I didn't get a chance to run over the bugger myself.

After his death he was transported to the Nethersphere of the dead, which was conveniently located only ten meters away in the Cardiff National Museum. From there he had to prove his identity to Clara on a flaky Skype call, in a scene that would have worked much better if he had actually had an identity. Or, for that matter, if they actually had an on-screen relationship for him to cite. But throughout the entire season we've seen no evidence of any personality, or of any plausible emotional connection with Clara. All we've been told is that they're in love, and now that he's asked to provide proof, all he can do is repeat, over and over, "I love you." If his head had been full of poignant memories that he nobly elected not to mention, it would have been far more powerful.

In short, all of the character/drama/emotive parts of the story that have been "building" throughout the course of the season were a flop. Fortunately, though, the lurking plot was a success. The afterlife really is the afterlife (at least, so far), and Missy turns out to be the Master. Some fans decoded her name, but the sex change was enough to keep me guessing.



The original Master was an exceptional villain. He was introduced as a recurring character when the Third Doctor was restricted to Earth; presumably the only way to justify the continual appearance of new alien menaces was that some villain kept summoning them purely out of spiteful rivalry with the Doctor. His appearance was usually accompanied by a signature tune, rapidly followed by him hypnotizing some weak-minded minor character (always by staring directly at them and chanting, "I am the Master. You will obey me!"), and perhaps by zapping a few people with his creepy miniaturization ray. The character disappeared after the actor who played him, Roger Delgado, died in a car accident. Several years later he was introduced again, and although there was a complicated regeneration story involved, the new Master was chosen to have a very similar appearance to the original.

There is nothing more heartening than seeing the Master reappear, although I'm not sure why. I felt the same excitement when he appeared in Utopia back in the David Tennant days. "All right," I thought, "Now it's going to get good!" They even had Derek Jacobi as the Master. But then he quickly regenerated into a giggling fool, and the character became a huge disappointment. The same could happen again. Just because the Master holds out so much promise as a villain, that doesn't mean that the writers will take good advantage of it.

There is great potential for the final episode. Moffat has written excellent stories before, and this one is off to a flying start. But he's also penned absolute stinkers, and he's helmed what can most generously be described as a patchy season. And so we are left with a true cliffhanger: will the final episode be incredible, or will it be a dud?

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Part 2: Bangalore Briefing

Previously: Part 1: The Journey Begins.


Part 2. Bangalore Briefing


July 28, 2014. Bangalore.

It was almost a week before I saw Dr. Friend again, and finally learned more about Professor Prick. In the meantime I was busy getting settled into working and living in Bangalore.

The guesthouse room was large, with double doors leading out to a patio that would have been ideal for a drinks party, except that strung diagonally across it was a neck-level clothes line. Perhaps it doubled as a trap to strangle thieves in the night. The bathroom contained a shower that fired water from the correct hose only if I pulled three different levers in a particular order -- but, just in case I got it wrong, there was a drain in the floor.

My morning jet-lag coma was quickly cured by the fortunate timing of Ramadan. On my first night I was jolted awake in the early hours. It sounded like someone had set up the sound system for a rock band out on my patio but, entangled at the last moment in the clothes line, was now wailing their mournful cry for help directly into the microphone. I stumbled out of bed and onto the patio. There was nothing there.

The wailing filled the air.

I staggered to the balcony and looked over. There was a mosque next door. It was broadcasting the call to prayer.

"Jesus Christ!" I cried, and immediately regretted it. Fortunately no-one had yet arrived to hear the curse of a competing fatih, and I rushed back inside to hide.

It was 4.40am.

Did the Hindus and the Sikhs and the three hundred other Indian religious communities put up with this? Surely they would be arriving soon, bleary-eyed in their pyjamas, but brandishing scimitars and cricket bats?

No -- they never came. It seemed that this was a land of impressive religious tolerance. Or high-quality earplugs.

There was other adjusting to do. I was advised not to drink any tap water, and to use bottled water even when I brushed my teeth. I thought they were exaggerating. Then I noticed that whenever I went out for dinner with my Indian colleagues, they all ignored the complimentary glasses of water and ordered bottled water separately. Some even wiped the plates with their napkin before food was served. Others drank from their water bottles with the same characteristic technique, whereby they tipped the water into their mouths without the bottle ever touching their lips.

Was this environment really so toxic, or were the locals simply paranoid -- or at least their academic sub-population? Or were these some quaint rituals that I'd overlooked in my careful preparatory research with a copy of A Passage to India?

The final piece of incriminating evidence in the case against the local water was the cartoonishly oversized water filter in the guesthouse communal kitchen. It was the size of a professional espresso machine. It was all gleaming white plastic and winding pipes and tubes, and flashing lights of multiple colours. Despite only a passing familiarity with the basics of chemistry, I was fairly sure that the lights were not necessary to clean the water. They nonetheless reassured me that the machine took its job very seriously indeed.



Dr Friend was present at one of our dinners. We were at a restaurant close to the guesthouse. The locals referred to it as a "pub", but it was decorated like a trendy cocktail bar, and lit only by sparse blue neon lighting. Illumination was certainly not one of their major operating costs. We had to use the light of our mobile phones to read the menu.

Dr Friend was at the other end of the table, and I didn't have a chance to talk to him during the meal. I could barely even see him. But when we were finished, he said, "Let's get some beers and go back to the guesthouse and talk about our mutual acquaintance."

That sounded perfect to me, and much better than staying at the "pub". The pub served only Fosters.

It was a ten-minute walk back to the guesthouse, but we didn't talk on the journey. Staying alive required all of our attention. The pavement was full of dangers. My lack of a tetanus immunisation was constantly on my mind. Inexplicable shafts of metal -- rusty metal -- jutted out from telegraph poles. Wires -- quite possibly live -- dangled from them. The pavement consisted of large slabs of thick concrete, each with the suggestive dimensions of a coffin. Occasionally these slabs were missing or broken, revealing a dark chasm, and our only data from which to gauge its depths were the cries of those who had walked less vigilantly before us.

We went into a convenience store, and each bought two bottles of beer in addition to our usual supply of water. Back at the guesthouse we went out onto the patio outside my room. We couldn't find the light switch, and had to sit in almost complete darkness. Perhaps it was better that way. The darkness certainly suited our conversation. We gathered together two plastic outdoor chairs, narrowly avoided strangling ourselves on the clothes line, sat in the almost complete dark, and drank our beer and talked.

Dr. Friend began immediately on the main topic of Professor Prick. "You don't work in his field, so perhaps you don't know this," he said, "but everyone knows that he hates you, and everyone has read your blog."

"Should I be flattered?"

"If you wish," he said. I couldn't tell whether there was a sneer in that remark. I wished I could see his face. He went on. "What you also don't know is that he's in big trouble. There's a huge scandal. He could be finished."

Now we were talking. "What's he done?"

Dr. Friend ignored my question. "For the moment it could go either way. But you can help. You can tell the world what he's really done. You have the perfect cover: you have been completely vague. You haven't used anyone's name. But all of his friends and all of his enemies know exactly who you're talking about."

"I wasn't talking about him!" I protested. "It was all made up."

"That's perfect. Pretend it's all fiction."

I gave up on convincing him. "Why me?" I asked.

"Because you're safe. Your career is over anyway."

Well, that was reassuring.

He went on. "I will tell you what's happened to him, but you cannot write about that until it's over -- if you make a direct reference to the scandal, his lawyers will tear you apart. But if you keep it vague, it could be anyone in any obscure corner of academia. As you say, it could just be made up. Who knows? Call him Professor Smith. Call me Dr. Jones."

"I'd rather call him Professor Prick."

"Whatever you like."

"Can I call you Dr. Friend?"

He didn't have a chance to reply to this clumsy request for moral support. His phone rang. He answered it and the sudden glow lit up his face. When he'd finished he said, "I have to go back to my room and take a telecon. A grant review has just gone to hell. On the weekend we're taking a trip to Shravana Belagola. It's a Jain temple with a magnificent statue. Come along. We can talk more then. There's someone I'd like you to meet."

He left. I remained out there in the darkness and finished my beer.


Next: Part 3. Scientific Skullduggery

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Doctor Who Review: In the Forest of the Night

To dispense immediately with the spoilers: a massive solar flare is going to destroy all life on Earth, so the entire surface of the planet is covered overnight in trees, in order to produce a huge burst of oxygen that the solar flare will "burn off" instead. Once this has occurred, all of the trees vanish. Meanwhile, the Doctor and his chums get worried, get chased by some wild animals, have a few arguments but, ultimately, everyone gets to go home for tea.

I know this is pedantic of me, but here are some questions:

How did the trees suddenly appear? How did they disappear? How did they (or whatever mysterious force was at work) know that the solar flare was coming? Why did this mysterious force choose to communicate with a random schoolgirl? Why was it suddenly visible and talkative when the Doctor made a slight increase in the gravitational field with his sonic screwdriver? What did that even mean? Was it a deliberate act of cruel perversity to add salt to my wounded reason by having the Doctor pronounce, "I fight monsters, but I cannot fight physics!" Are you kidding me?

Is it only because of my rarefied snobby show-offy scientific training that I happen to know that oxygen is a key ingredient in the chemical process of burning, and that pretty much the stupidest thing you could do if you wanted to protect life on Earth from a solar flare would be to pump huge amounts of additional oxygen into the atmosphere? And what was that nonsense with Tunguska?


Also:

Where were all the people in London? The episode was clearly largely filmed in good old Bute Park in Cardiff, and there is a higher density of people there than turned up in this forest-covered rendition of London.

Why did Clara and Danny, supposedly concerned for the welfare of a class of children during a green apocalypse, spend the entire time engaged in a lover's spat?

How is it that humanity's most deep-seated fear is being lost in a forest, when Listen told us that it was being grabbed around the ankle by a monster under the bed?

If you're going to take an ostensibly science-fiction show, and decide for a change that it's actually a child's fairy tale, then why do you bother with all sorts of meaningless mumbo-jumbo about solar flares and tree rings? Why not just introduce a few talking animals in waistcoats with pocket watches and be done with it? And why is it that most children's stories about fully clothed talking animals make more sense than this episode of Doctor Who?

And why, finally, am I wasting time writing about it? I thought that it would be enjoyable to write about a TV show that I've loved for many years. Yes, I would make some jokes, but they'd be in good fun, and in the end it would be a celebration of a wonderful little gem in our television culture. But this isn't that show. I'm a fan from way back, and I'm doomed to keep watching no matter how wildly it diverges from my tastes -- but I don't need to go through the additional torment of mulling it over and writing about it afterwards.

Maybe the finale will redeem it. But as the Doctor used to say, the end never justifies the means. And even if it did, no end could justify some of the stories I've sat through in the last ten weeks.


Other Doctor Who reviews:
Robot of Sherwood
Listen
Time Heist
The Caretaker
Kill the Moon
Mummy on the Orient Express
Flatline
Dark Water
Death in Heaven

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Part 1. The journey begins.

The Genius and the Faker


Part 1. The journey begins. 


Here it is. The story of my summer. Also the story, kind-of sort-of, of the biggest science scandal of the year. (In my opinion.) I was given all the juicy background, but on the condition that I kept it far in the background. To get it I travelled all the way around the world, literally. I can't honestly say it was fun. There's a good chance I've lost my job for this. That's why I've turned on the ads on the blog: soon I'm going to need all the cash I can get.

It started with those blog posts in July (One, two and three.) I told a story about a friend of mine who became a professor based on scientific results that turned out to be wrong. Then some other big shot professor decided that I must have been telling a slanderous story about him, and threatened to destroy my career.

From anyone else, that would be a hollow threat. But Professor Prick (not his real name) ruins lives for sport, and for far less than I had done. Worse: I found that he has old friends scattered throughout the senior administration of my own university. He won't just get me fired -- I'll be reduced to a bloody pulp and abandoned in a gutter out at the edge of the university hospital.

While my academic fate has been hanging in the balance, I have at least been able to tidy up my notes from the summer, and rattle off the occasional review of Doctor Who.

To begin, we go back to July.


July 21, 2014. Bangalore. 

I have run away. I've taken up an invitation to visit a colleague in Bangalore, India. Somehow he arranged an emergency visa. Within two days I was on my way.

"What about immunisations?" I asked.

"Malaria isn't a problem in Bangalore," he explained. "All you're missing is tetanus and hepatitis."

"Ummm…."

"Just don't stand on a rusty rake."

Before my flight took off from Heathrow, I got an email from my Head of Department, asking to see me as soon as I returned. I guess then it will all be over.

Fine. If my academic career is finished the moment I return home, then I'm staying on the road as long as I can. I have three years of travel money left on my Fellowship, and I may as well burn it all now. I have a visa to be in India for three months. I have an ESTA visa waiver to enter the US. There are many places I can go.

For now I am in India.

India can be difficult to adjust to, especially if you are stunned from only four hours of alcohol-debilitated sleep on the flight from Dubai. Getting from the airport to my guest house was nerve-wracking.

At Arrivals there was a man with a sign with my name on it. He held out his hand to take my bag, but I mistakenly shook his hand instead. He extricated himself and took my bag and didn't say a word.

A wave of vertiginous shock passed over me. I had arrived in a vast alien land that I knew nothing about.

Had I just committed a serious faux pas? Had I seriously offended his dignity by daring to touch his sacred hand? Or offended everyone else in the crowded terminal by acting respectfully to this low-grade servant-fella who I should have greeted with a contemptuous spit in the face? Or was it all a figment of my exhausted imagination?

I tried to explain myself by interspersing a series of broken sentences with a complex pattern of "um"s, "ah"s, and "sorry"s, the awkward duffer's equivalent of Morse code. I was finally forced to conclude that he had refused to speak to me, or was deaf, or, my final inspired guess, he did not speak English.



We proceeded to his car. I sat in the back, which was probably also offensive. How many of these clumsy cultural blunders would it take, I wondered, before it became mere child's play for Prof. Prick to whip up this entire nation into a raging mob one-billion strong, who would collectively drive me into some snake- and tiger-infested jungle, never to be seen again?

Then he started to drive, and my fragile sanity almost shattered.

We were on a long one-way road out of the airport. The road was, for the one and only instance during my time in India, empty. The road had two lanes, divided, as usual, by a white dashed line. The driver, however, seemed unable to see this line. The car weaved across it.

I had to suppress the urge to cry out. He was breaking a fundamental law of modern civilisation: stay in your lane! I would follow that line like my life depended on it. Even if the Earth's entire remaining human population had been wiped out. Even if it wasn't there. I would see a line that wasn't there in the same way that he apparently would not see it, even if it consisted of thick fluorescent paint.

I wasn't sure what was the more unusual, that he drove like this, or that it disturbed me so much. I twitched every time that line disappeared under the front of the car, like it was a row of gurgling babies.

By the time we reached the end of the road, my first step of cultural acclimatisation was complete. I decided that it was me who was strange. After all, why not take a pleasant and casual attitude to this otherwise entirely empty swath of drivable asphalt?

Needless to say, the next step was to adjust to the fact that, when we entered a busy highway, he continued to drive in exactly the same way -- and so did everyone else. It was multi-particle fluid dynamics in action. Other cars must surely contain applied physicists who had come from all over the world to observe up close complex fluid properties that had proved impossible to simulate in the laboratory.

The vehicle size ranged from articulated trucks, down through buses, vans, cars, auto-rickshaws, motorbikes, all the way to actual people, who were casually crossing this teeming highway, and whose only vehicular protection was the clothes they wore.

There was also the occasional cow.

It was the very definition of surreal. No matter how fast we drove at the car in front, or how suddenly they braked, or how randomly we veered to the left or right, there was never a collision. Were the cars all magnetically repelling each other? Did they have their own senses, like people in a crowd -- a frighteningly fast-moving crowd? Or were we living in an especially forgiving driver-training simulator? It was like watching a terrible action film, and longing to protest, "This could never happen in reality!" My head was full of what should have been happening: cars mangled at the side of the road, pedestrians bouncing broken over windscreens, everywhere wrenching metal and shattered glass and blood and splintered bones. When was reality going to catch up with us?

It never did.

We finally reached the guest house.

At the reception desk I had to fill out some forms before I received my key. Just as I had finished, a loud voice called my name from across the room. I turned, and was amazed to see an old friend from graduate school. He now works in an entirely different field to mine, and I'd lost track of him, but I heard that he had recently risen rapidly within the US funding system. He sits on major grant panels, holds advisory roles within the NSF and Department of Energy, and there is even a rumour that he will testify before Congress later this year. But I hadn't spoken to him since we were graduate students.

The first thing he said to me was, "I heard you've had a run-in with Professor Prick."

"How did you know?"

"I hear everything. This meeting is a lucky coincidence. I have information that might help you."

I was stunned. "Really?"

"I have to go now, but we will talk later."

For the first time in weeks, there was some hope.

I spent the rest of the day trying to work out how to operate the shower in my room.



Next: Part 2: Bangalore Briefing.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Doctor Who Review: Flatline

One of my purposes in writing about the latest Doctor Who season was simply as an opportunity to ponder a TV show that dominated my imagination when I was a teenager, and has returned, regenerated in such a different form, now that I am an adult.

Doctor Who was an early and deep influence on my decision to pursue a career in science. Beyond the questions behind the very premise of the show -- what are the inner workings of space and time? -- there was the simple fact that the Doctor is a scientist. In the first stories I saw, from the Jon Pertwee era, he far more often referred to himself as a scientist than a Time Lord. He was UNIT's Chief Scientific Advisor, and in countless adventures he argued down the military approach in favour of the scientific one, which meant being informed and intelligent and analytical, but also liberal, cosmopolitan, and compassionate. This Romantic channelling of Fifties technophilia with Sixties pacifism through the weirdly distorted lens of the Light Entertainment department of the world-straddling media outlet of a fading empire hardly resulted in a character who bore any resemblance to any actual scientist, living or dead -- but it was a hell of a potent image when further magnified through my own naive subconscious.

Such youthful enthusiasms are supposed to do their job, and then disappear, only to be recalled vaguely, and with embarrassment. At first Doctor Who played that role perfectly. It was duly cancelled in the late 80s, and I knew that I was supposed to be embarrassed to worship it even before it was over.

But then it came back, and it came back big.

It used to be, that if I was socially foolhardy enough to advertise my nerdy credentials by purchasing a toy TARDIS or Dalek action figure, I'd have to brave one of those comic-book shops frequented only by spotty misshapen teenage boys. Now I can go to the gift shop at the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff Bay and see it filled with hordes of the most abhorrently normal people, all weighed down by armfuls of Whovian merchandise for their children, their grandchildren, and themselves. It makes me happy and proud to see the Doctor vindicated in the public eye. But I also feel strangely resentful, and possessive. "You don't really know Doctor Who," I think. Maybe being 'cult' wasn't so bad after all.

As I have grown up, the show has grown up, too, with all its emotional outpourings and arguments and sexual tension. But it's also got more childish -- the frivolous jokes, and the villains who are cartoonish deliberately, and not just because of a low budget.

None of this has made it easy to appreciate the new show on its own terms. The wildly varying quality of the writing hasn't helped, either.

But the last two episodes have demonstrated for me just what this "new" show can be. As I said last week, the use of single 45-minute stories is a big part of it. They don't have time to explain everything that's happening, but that doesn't have to be a handicap. It can be an advantage. This week (we have finally reached some spoilers, in case you were wondering) the alien villains were creatures from a two-dimensional universe. How exactly does that work? How and why are they getting into this universe? How and why are they turning the local flora and fauna two-dimensional? How and why are they learning (in a wonderfully scary visual rendering) to become three-dimensional? Any answers to these questions would be nonsense, and a show that had to provide them, like the old Doctor Who, simply couldn't have included these monsters at all. In these short stories, ridiculous monsters are allowed precisely because they can't be explained -- and they can work, and they can be great.

The fast pace also allows plot gags that wouldn't survive if stretched beyond a few seconds of screen time. The sight of the classic cartoon gag of a sledgehammer emerging from a handbag was a revelation. And that was nothing beside the Doctor doing a Thing impersonation, and trying to finger-crawl the TARDIS out of harm's way. I am slowly appreciating (yes, it's taken almost ten years), that this new show can go places and do things that are entirely new and wonderful.



The other new element, of course, is more drama between the characters. In general I haven't been impressed by that, but I think it's a risk worth taking. This week's conceit of putting Clara in the Doctor's place, and letting her see the decisions he has to make in the course of an adventure, gave the story an angle that would have been unimaginable in the old series. I guess the producers would prefer to say instead that it gave the story "depth", but I don't think it got that far. It was interesting, and I appreciated it, but for me they haven't yet pulled off making the serious emotional stuff fit in with the comic lines and the comic-book adventures.

I don't know if all this means that I've finally got my head around the new Doctor Who, or if it's just that the excellent new writer Jamie Mathieson has pulled off the stunt of redeeming the whole thing. The only way to find out is to see if it lasts.

So: the anticipation builds for next week.


And speaking of anticipation: my own real science fiction adventure begins on Tuesday. I don't have the hype resources of a major television broadcaster, so you'll have to make do with last week's little warm-up, "the birth of science fiction".


Other Doctor Who reviews:
Robot of Sherwood
Listen
Time Heist
The Caretaker
Kill the Moon
Mummy on the Orient Express
In the Forest of the Night
Dark Water
Death in Heaven

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The birth of science fiction

I have decided to invent an entirely new literary genre. Stories about scientists and the world of science. Just as the bookstores, movie theaters and television channels are teeming with tales of detectives, lawyers, doctors and billionaires, soon they will also be crammed with the misadventures of scientists, comic, tragic and otherwise. I would call this new art form "science fiction" -- but some scoundrels have already taken the label.

Why would I bother doing this?

Part of the motivation to write this blog was to try to convey what being a scientist is really like.

That hasn't worked very well.

I did not want to talk about the details of science itself. That would tell you as much about the life of a scientist as an explanation of the workings of a jet engine would tell you about the life of an airline pilot. Plus, there are plenty of other people out there working themselves into a frenzy of strained metaphors and contorted examples from "everyday life", all to convince you that science really is very simple, even though it is not. (I dispensed with that "Nature is a book" nonsense last week.)

I did not want to talk about myself. The specifics of my day-to-day working life are almost as dull as yours'. Besides, if I dutifully reported my impressions from all of my encounters with students, postdocs, research collaborators, and other faculty, I would soon be writing a blog about what being a scientist was like.

And that is the real problem. I want to talk about the people.

There are so many crazy and funny and frustrating and heartbreaking and exhilarating and hilarious and painful things that have happened to me and all of my academic friends in becoming scientists, but I couldn't put any but the most mundane on this blog without pissing someone off.

One of my early methods to convince myself that a career in science was worth it (a robust collection of lies and self-delusions is of course essential), was that everyone I met was a "character" -- every single one of my fellow PhD students was an amazingly, unexpectedly fascinating and unusual specimen of humanity, but also well-informed, smart, hard-working, and dedicated to making sense of reality. Even the ones who eventually quit -- and perhaps especially them. Those were the incredible people I wanted to spend my life working with. And now I want to talk about them.

Even more, I want to talk about the assholes. In academia, some of those good people leave, but all of the vile people stay. Worse: many of the honest and fresh quickly turn sour and rotten. I've seen many an irrepressible student's idealism slowly crippled by a cancer of cynicism and desperate ambition. Including my own.

I want to talk about those people. All the egomaniacs and the workaholics, the jerks and the dictators, the fakers and the fuckwits. I'd like to wash them all out of my memory and on to the screen. To flush them away in a foul river of frustration, anger, shame, guilt and disgust. But I can't name them, and I've already discovered that to tell their story with a few changed names and vague locations doesn't protect me.

So there's no choice. I have to go all out, and mash and grind and pulp these people and experiences, and pump them through my beleaguered subconscious, and fictionalise the whole damn lot of them.

Yes, my fiendish friends, you're all going to be in there. All your pettiness, selfishness, and scheming; all your naked ambition and your cloaked backstabbing. Don't worry, no-one will recognise you from the time you stole your collaborator's glory, or screwed over your student, or devoted an entire week just to bullying citations out of colleagues. I won't be a second-rate Miss Lavish. No-one will know you. But you might know yourself. Like Claudius after the play within the play, you might run screaming from the room, crying "Give me some light!" But don't worry, the next morning you'll feel fine: guilt and remorse are not your style, and I'm probably giving you too much credit anyway: you wouldn't be where you are today if self-reflection was in your bag of tricks. And in all likelihood your tremendous ego will keep you safe, and you won't see yourself at all, but your biggest rival instead. It'll be fun for everyone.

Should you worry? I'd love it if you did, but I don't think you're capable.

Will it be all bastards and screw-ups and fakers? No, that would be boring. There are good people in science everywhere. I work with them every day. They will show up, too. But as you may be able to tell, there are others I'd like to deal with first.


But before that, I will try something a bit more modest. I need some time to disentangle myself from the habits of my usual fictional form, the research article. "The remainder of this paper will be set out as follows. In Sec. II we provide some background to exaggerate the significance of the minor result we will report in Sec. III." That sort of thing.

I will start with the story of my crazy summer. Suitably embellished, of course. The story will proceed as follows. There will be several sections, and at my current rate of embellishment, they may well get us to Christmas. In the first section my past indiscretions catch up with me, and I run away to India. It starts next Tuesday.

Let the science fiction begin!


Next: Part 1. The Journey Begins.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Doctor Who Review: Mummy on the Orient Express

(As always, there will be spoilers for this episode. Also for just about every Jon Pertwee story as well.)

Last week I complained about the science in Doctor Who. This week we had a train in space, a mummy that was "out of phase" with reality, and a personal teleporter the size of a hand grenade -- but I wasn't bothered at all. Why not? Because no-one tried to explain any of it. When they offer an explanation that defies the very laws of physics that allow the characters to stand there and utter the explanation: that's when it doesn't work.

It was a fantastic episode. The story leaped forward, powered by a series of regularly delivered revelations. There was the first death by a mummy only the victim could see. The story then established that we're on a luxury space version of the Orient Express, and that this is to be Clara's last journey with the Doctor, and that the mummy is going to murder systematically, and it's following rules laid out by an ancient formula. Once we have all the setup clear, we discover that the Orient Express was just a trick: a way to lure into one place a team to identify this creature, and stop it. Then we discover that it's killing in order of the passengers' weakness. But we witness only one more death before the Doctor substitutes himself into the victim role, and unravels the entire mystery within the mummy's 66-second deadline. Very nicely done.

This time even the story of the Doctor's character made some sense. For some reason (and I still wish we were told what it was), the Doctor is unusually alien in this reincarnation, and just can't relate to people, and this has been driving Clara crazy. But he's also compulsively addicted to adventure, and can't understand why she isn't as well. That's why he can't resist taking Clara to the mummy-train, even when he's supposed to be giving her a final pleasant outing. But we also see signs that he's trying to improve. There's a nice moment where he's tempted to wake her up to go and explore the train, and stops himself; he's not oblivious to what she's been saying after all.

All this character stuff was in the other stories, too, and perhaps as many people will complain about Clara's suddenly changing her mind and sticking with him at the end, as complained about all the relationship stuff in the other episodes. But perhaps because the rest of the story was so good, I was willing to give the Doctor-Clara relationship the benefit of the doubt. And at least this time the Doctor's behaviour made some sense: he acted heartless, but with a purpose anyone can understand.

This was the ideal episode for the New Doctor Who format, i.e., one story told in a single fast 45-minute episode. The race against the clock worked with the frenetic pace of the show. The mystery is always explained in a rapid-fire 60 seconds, but this time that became a necessity of the plot itself: the Doctor had to solve the puzzle in 66 seconds, or he'd be dead. The confines of the train, the single deadly menace, and a small cast of characters, all worked to the story's advantage. In fact, as the pace ramped up, all the superfluous characters literally vanished.



It's my opinion that the single biggest difference between the New series and the Old, is the use of single-episode stories. The structure of four- or six-part adventures required a very different kind of story. In each story there is a new set of characters, and often a whole new society on a whole new planet. All of that takes time to set up. And if the story is going to stretch over four or six weeks, then it needs many stages. The writers almost have no choice but to put the local characters into feuding factions, some with the Doctor, some against him, some befriending his companions, others waylaying them. And the enemy came in pieces, too: there were the locals who were helping the monster, and then the monster itself, and then a second wave of monsters (the three Cybermen are an advance party for the main attack, etc), or a higher power in charge of the monsters (if it was a third Doctor story, that was always the Master).

That was what gave Doctor Who stories extra depth and interest, and often turned them into excellent stories about people. The people the Doctor encountered were divided, and fought amongst themselves as well as against the latest alien menace -- that was true from the quarrelling cavemen in An Unearthly Child onwards.

The New stories can't do that. There isn't time. Somehow they have to fit in a Doctor-Who-style story anyway: between the setup, the mystery, and its resolution, there isn't much choice but to hurry. One solution is to produce low-key stories, with only one or two characters, and a simple situation with a villain; chamber pieces. The van Gogh story was a great example -- they met only van Gogh, and the monster. The danger, though, is that the story is too thin; for example, the alien traffic jam story.

Another solution is the simple race against the clock, and that's what worked with the Mummy on the Orient Express, and with Time Heist. The Mummy gets extra technical clever points for the 66-second countdown clock, and the insertion of "Are you my Mummy?" at the most riotously perfect moment.

These episodes are the biggest success of the New Doctor Who. They are the equal of anything in the old series (although too different to be in any way comparable), but also representative of an entirely different show to the old series, or to anything else on television. This season has delivered the best and worst of what the show can be. Although I never thought I'd say it when I heard the title a week ago, the Mummy on the Orient Express was among the best.


Other Doctor Who reviews:
Robot of Sherwood
Listen
Time Heist
The Caretaker
Kill the Moon
Flatline
In the Forest of the Night
Dark Water
Death in Heaven

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

A metaphysical complaint

I wish to lodge a philosophical complaint with the universe.

Some scientists object to philosophical discussion of any kind. They think philosophy is pompous and pointless. They think philosophers do nothing but wield incomprehensible ideas by means of abstruse jargon in the aid of failing to solve irrelevant problems, purely to satisfy their solipsistic egos. Which is odd, because that sounds like a fair description of many scientists.

It is natural that philosophers and scientists despise each other. Scientists resent that they cannot answer the questions that philosophers ask. Philosophers resent that they cannot answer any questions at all. But asking the questions is contribution enough.

I do not have a question. I only have a complaint.

Every time scientists make a deep discovery, in their euphoria they rhapsodise over the spectacular beauty and simplicity of Nature. They exclaim that Nature is a book, open for all to read.

The hell it is.

Nature is not an open book. If anything, it is a rambling endless Borgesian library of locked volumes filled with an illegible scribble written in a foreign language for which we have only an out-of-date tourist phrase book.

The scientist's belief in the ultimate simplicity of nature is not supported by their own favourite tool, evidence. Which makes it akin to that most blunt and primitive of intellectual instruments: a religious doctrine.

Once upon a time we could be forgiven our aesthetic delusion. Newtonian mechanics, and even Maxwell's electromagnetism, can all now be observed and verified in a high school science lab. The basic rules can be written on a single piece of paper, and anyone can make a (rudimentary) confirmation of them. It's quite fair to say that the vast range of physical phenomena that can in principle be inferred from those rules is truly breathtaking. So far Nature appears to be not just an open book, but a succinct and cherished postcard.

This little parable from the standard science sermon crumbled when science entered the 20th century. We required quantum mechanics to make sense of atomic structure, and the high school lab was no longer an adequate temple in which to recite from Nature's bible. To probe further, we required synchrotrons and cyclotrons, and then massive particle accelerators.  We have learnt a vast amount about nuclear forces, but Nature has hardly gone out of its way to show us these particular pages of its hallowed bestseller.

That was just the beginning. Now we are building particle accelerators bigger than a city, and struggling to measure ever fainter glimmers from further and further out into space -- and still we haven't got to the end of the story. We don't know if there is an end. Maybe one day we will build experimental apparatus as large as Earth, or as large as the Solar System, or bigger still, and finally reach a complete and consistent understanding of all of Nature's basic rules. Maybe. But if we do, we cannot can sit back and claim, "Yep, the answers were right there before our eyes."

The universe is complex -- perhaps too complex for our small brains to ever fully understand. After all, what makes us so special? Think of all the poor animals who understand even less. The reptiles have been around for millions of years longer than we have, and there is no evidence that a single one of them is aware of the Dirac equation.

And here is my complaint. Why not? Why can't it be obvious? Why do we have to work so hard to make sense of the reality we live in? Why is it that even among the human race, the little understanding we have is comprehensible only to an arrogant and tiresome minority?

In architecture there is the concept of "exposed structure". At its most extreme, this means that you put all of a building's vital structure on the outside, where it can be seen -- all of the beams and girders and struts and supports -- along with the heating systems, the pipes and ducts and cables, and the elevators and the stairs -- everything that's essential to the building's function. The idea is to be honest about how it is made and how it functions.


It is hardly one of the humanity's greatest aesthetic products, but I am glad to rescue this quaint architectural notion and elevate it to a metaphysical principle. It can be a central piece of terminology in my new field of Whinge Philosophy. I want to challenge the idealistic scientists who claim that the universe is beautiful and simple and the best of all possible universes.

"Look, Pangloss," I say, "the universe could be much simpler. It could have exposed structure. Its operation -- its complete operation -- could be so simple as to have been clear to the Neanderthals. We could all comprehend it in childhood as easily as we all learn to walk and talk. Why not?"

Why not indeed? Could such a reality even make sense? Or is there a metaphysical version of Goedel's incompleteness theorem, which proves that you cannot have a self-consistent functioning reality, where all of the laws of Nature would be clear to any child with at least three out of five operating senses, and where all relevant quantities could be measured to sufficient accuracy between thumb and forefinger? For those scientists bored of building billion-dollar experiments to eke out yet one more digit of an obscure coefficient in a contorted theory, maybe there's fun to be had with these realities that don't exist, but should.

Is it really too much to ask that all of reality be fundamentally different?

Perhaps it is. Objecting to the Universe is unlikely to be satisfying. Even if you believe in some high-level Management, you probably also believe that Its policies are immutable.

If I can't object to all of reality, then I can at least object to the naive belief that Nature is a book. By all means try to make sense of this recursive labyrinth of infinite subtlety -- but don't tell me it's simple!



In other news...

My attempts continue to write up my summer adventures in India and elsewhere, suitably embellished for your reading pleasure. As of yesterday, they were still extremely dull. So: more embellishment required.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Review: Doctor Who -- Kill the Moon

[This review contains spoilers. For anyone who lives in one of those countries whose television companies weren't duped into paying an exorbitant premium for immediate screening of the new season of Doctor Who, please return after the show has aired. Trust me, you'll need to read something to help you endure your frustration.]

People have told me that I would enjoy the current Doctor Who much more if I didn't think about it so much. So that's what I've tried to do. I have a nagging feeling that back in the old days the stories were good even if I did think about them -- but, well, I'm not going to think about that.

If I enter a suitably imbecilic state -- and in Britain we're helped by a preceding 130 minutes of Strictly Come Dancing --  then "Kill the Moon" was great entertainment. They were on the moon. There were nasty killer parasites on the moon with them. The moon itself turned out to be a dragon's egg. There was a countdown to a massive nuclear dragon-slaying, and a moral dilemma in which the entire human race got to vote, and Clara and a plucky schoolgirl vetoed them. And Clara gave the Doctor a telling-off in which she said, "I'll smack you so hard you'll regenerate." All in all, a fine way to spend 45 minutes.

The episode taunted me with many things that I had to work hard not to think about. As a gravitational physicist, I had to work very hard indeed not to think about the sudden increase in mass of the moon. If it became so massive that it had the same gravitational pull as the Earth, wouldn't it have crashed into the Earth? Wouldn't it also have got somewhat bigger? A dragon's egg as massive as the Earth but the size of the moon implies some insanely dense amniotic fluid. And where did all this mass come from? Did a passing flock of the little birdie's ancestors pelt it with a three-month-long meteor shower of mountain-sized bacon cheeseburgers?

As a trained Doctor Who viewer of many years, I know that allowances must be made for limited BBC funds. A few throwaway lines are much cheaper than simulating low gravity.

Then there was the false moral dilemma of whether to save the dragon or the Earth. If they didn't detonate the nuclear warheads and kill the dragon, then its eruption from its shell would likely destroy all life on Earth. Well. Clearly human beings are old news, and a great whopping moon dragon is something you've just got to see, so really they just had to let it hatch. It was all too much for the Doctor, who buggered off to let them decide for themselves, and was able to be smug afterwards when the shell dissolved into dust and the dragon flew away, but not before laying a new moon to replace the old one.

If I don't think about this at all, and instead just bask in the undeniably cool shots of the moon exploding into a dragon, and perhaps also distract myself by wondering at exactly which bit of local Welsh coast they filmed the final scene, then it all makes perfect sense.

As with all of these Doctor Who episodes, it honestly was a lot of fun -- if you don't think about it.

But such a low level of brain activity is borderline fatal after 45 minutes, and after reviving myself with a shot of rum and a few tensor manipulations, I feel duty-bound to register a few complaints. Especially since in the last few weeks I've written about elementary misconceptions of gravity, and before that I wrote a post about Galileo that included that wonderful footage of astronauts dropping a hammer and a feather on the moon. Not to mention the movie Gravity, which was an accomplished piece of fiction, in direct contrast to the hackwork of much of the current season of Doctor Who.

I understand that in "science fiction", there are as many letters devoted to fiction as to science. Only the most tiresome scientists complain about errors in science fiction. No-one seriously objects that the wings were superfluous on the Star Wars X-wings, or that they used parsec as a unit of time. Who cares?

But it is one thing to cut a few corners for the sake of entertainment, and another to take a flamethrower to the textbooks.

Were there no voices of dissent in the writers' meeting?

"Can't we just say that the moon base has a gravity generator, like every other show does?"

"But we want to say that the increased moon mass causes catastrophic tides on Earth."

"But everyone knows that an egg doesn't get heavier when the chick grows."

Silence. Then finally one voice: "Really? Not even a bit?"

"No, not even a bit. And certainly not six times heavier!"

"We're not saying it gets six times heavier."

"Yes you are. The Earth's gravity is a sixth of Earth's. You work it out."

More silence. Some of the writers are counting on their fingers.

They finally reach a decision. "Ok, Professor Egghead, you're fired."

"What!? Are you nuts? You wouldn't commission an historical drama from someone who thought that Shakespeare wrote Tom Sawyer. You wouldn't take a globetrotting adventure story from someone who still thought the Earth was flat. So how can science fiction be written by people who would fail basic high school science? Who can't even multiply by six?"

"Security, take him away."


There was the basis of an excellent story. The idea of the moon as an egg was bold and original. The parasites were great. But again -- again again again! -- the writers are sloppy and flub it. Having the Doctor at odds with his companion is also a promising new direction -- but why can't Clara just once voice the question, "Why is the Doctor suddenly so bizarre?" A regeneration with a personality disorder is a fine idea, but it would be nice to be reassured that this truly is the intention, and it's not just poor writing. Because we certainly need reassurance!



For an alternative take on the story, I asked the opinion of my eight-year-old son, who is not yet aware of Newtonian gravity.

"It was cool," he said. "The moon was an egg."

"And who is better -- the new Doctor or the old one?"

"The new one. He's grumpy and complains all the time."

"That's good?"

"Yeah. He's just like you."


Other Doctor Who reviews:
Robot of Sherwood
Listen
Time Heist
The Caretaker
Mummy on the Orient Express
Flatline
In the Forest of the Night
Dark Water
Death in Heaven


Monday, 29 September 2014

Doctor Who Review: the Caretaker

(Yes, yes: there will be spoilers.)


Oh dear. Another stinker.

This week's episode was about the Doctor and Danny. There was some special effects malarky with what looked like a rich kid's remote-control vacuum cleaner, and a silly story to go with it. The Doctor wanted to lay a trap for the killer Hoover at the one place in the Universe where Clara would be the ideal assistant -- the school she works at -- and he decided instead to give her the day off, and to instead play the comic caretaker. As I say, it was mostly a contorted senseless setup of an officially Antagonistic Relationship.

Assuming that my intention had in fact been to watch a time-travel soap opera, I still would have been unimpressed. The Doctor apparently dislikes Danny because he's a soldier. This makes almost zero sense, because the Doctor has been friends with many soldiers in his time, even since the advent of the apocalyptic plot device of the Time War.

And even if we do accept that the Doctor has some sudden military mania, why did this manifest itself with the clumsy nonsense of the Doctor refusing to believe that Danny was a maths teacher?

And if the excuse was to maintain a Comic Tone, why was said Comic Tone shattered by many minutes of Emotional Dialogue that made Eastenders look like Shakespeare? If I want science fiction soap opera with a comic touch, I can find more emotional depth on an old episode of Red Dwarf.

If the writers think it's a novel idea to have a companion who doesn't get along with the Doctor, there must be a million other more entertaining and more convincing ways to introduce one. Couldn't the Doctor and Danny have clashed over some real difference of opinion on how to deal with the robot vacuum cleaner? Couldn't Danny have screwed up the Doctor's plan in a more definitively objectionable way than just turning up?

One possible reason is that we're supposed to finally appreciate just how alien the Doctor is -- his clashes with Danny are inexplicable because he is inexplicable. But in that case, why is this the first time in all of his incarnations that he has been so alien? We can imagine that this might be explained in some glorious season finale or Christmas Special, but I'm sceptical that I'll suddenly jump up from my seat and cry, "Aha! The writing wasn't creaky and jarring and uneven after all! It's just that he's been zapped by an Internal-Consistency Disturbance Field so strong that it threatens to destroy the entire Universe!"

No, I think the show is just struggling with its historical inability to produce decent male companions.

Usually the companions are strictly female. Back in the 70s, the assumed justification for the Doctor being accompanied across the universe by an attractive young lady was that Seventies British Dad needed something to enjoy on those Saturday nights when he couldn't go down to the pub with his mates and get hammered and blot Seventies Britain from his mind. Seventies Mum never watched Doctor Who -- she was in the kitchen with the dinner, boiling the hell out of it.

But now we are in 21st century Britain, and the whole family contributes equally to dinner, through democratic ordering off the Indian take-out menu. So the occasional male companion is also required. But these fellows seem to do no more than continue the line of dolts who came before them. There hasn't been a decent male companion since Jamie hung out with the Second Doctor [1]. Consider this short and sad list: Harry Sullivan, Adric, Turlough, and Rory. And now Danny.

Just a minute, what about Captain Jack? Everyone loved him. In fact, he was so good that he wasn't allowed to travel regularly with the Doctor, and had to be given his own television show instead.

The other male companion of note (although he rarely travelled with the Doctor) was of course the Brigadier. If ever we need to be reminded with what wit a character can be drawn, and how wonderfully he can endear an audience for decades, then we need look no further than the redoubtable Brigadier -- with every episode of gentle sparring with the Doctor, every roll of his eyes and a cry of, "Doctor, do you really expect me to believe…?", and every time he yearned to dispatch of the latest alien menace with an air strike, we remember what Doctor Who writers could once produce.

Can they do it again? I'm sure they could -- but it's not likely to be with Danny.


Other Doctor Who reviews:
Robot of Sherwood
Listen
Time Heist
Kill the Moon
Mummy on the Orient Express
Flatline
In the Forest of the Night
Dark Water
Death in Heaven


Footnote
1.  Jamie was a highlander who was plucked briefly from his fight against the English. Jamie, from the past, was excellently paired with Zoe, from the future. The Doctor was kind enough never to allow him the heartbreak of a visit to September 2014.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

A little science lesson -- for me.

During my high school lecture tour perpetuating myths about Galileo, I met a teacher at a school in the remote Far North of New Zealand, who taught me a nice lesson about science.

Actually, he just frustrated the hell out of me, and his memory has been irritating me for the last 17 years, like a mosquito bite on the brain. But now I've worked out how to interpret his maddeningly obstinate confusion as a "teachable moment". I've found some brain ointment.

Over lunch after the lecture, this teacher complained how difficult it was to explain basic physics to his students. For example, the simple concepts of force and acceleration. Even the textbooks got them confused.

I nodded along to everything he said, but the last bit made me suspicious. Exactly how were the textbooks wrong? And which sloppy textbooks was he talking about?

"When you throw a ball in the air, it goes up and then it comes down, right?"

So far, so good. "Uh huh."

"And somewhere in between it stops, right?"

"If you throw it exactly straight up, yes," I said, watching out for the catch.

"So on the way up, there's a force slowing it down. Right?"

"Yes. Gravity."

"And on the way down, there's a force speeding it up?"

"Yes. Gravity again."

After a week of talking about Galileo, and dropping hammers and feathers from the top of a ladder, and about to embark on a PhD studying gravity, I felt I was on especially familiar territory.

"So," he continued, "there's a point in the middle where it's not slowing down, and it's not speeding up. It's stopped. And at that moment there's no force on it. Right?"

Aha! Wrong.

I tried to explain. There were two other physicists travelling with me, and they tried to explain, too. There is a constant force, acting downwards. He wasn't convinced. The arguments got increasingly complicated. At some point we imagined careful video recordings of the experiment, and complex measurement apparatus strapped to the ball, and observers suspended by hot-air balloon at the apex of the ball's flight. None of it helped. Nothing would convince him, and eventually it was time for us to leave.

What was wrong with this guy? Having completely failed to explain one of the most elementary concepts in physics, I have spent years cursing this simpleton teacher with Kauri gum for brains, bumbling about in some hick school in the back of beyond.

But that doesn't wash. The place wasn't that remote! Getting there didn't require three days of treacherous travel by mule through mountain passes. It wasn't like the only book in town was a battered copy of Gone with the Wind. It wasn't Macondo, for God's sake, beset by travelling ice salesmen and run by deranged ex-soldiers and populated by feverish fabulists. A major highway passed through. There was an airport. There was electricity, television and radio, and a public library. You could access the internet. The school certainly possessed the same basic science textbooks as any school in London or New York or, for that matter, my own high school.

And he wasn't stupid. He was very clever -- he countered all of our arguments with inventive and thoughtful reasoning, and was likely equally or more intelligent than many who teach the correct explanation of accelerated motion.

All these years later, I'll make another attempt to clobber this demon from my past, and explain it again. Let's look at some numbers. Imagine that you perform this experiment with a tennis ball, or a peanut, or a brick; any object that you can throw without too much concern for air resistance. (Poor choices include a sheet of paper, a living bug, or a handful of self-raising flour.) You throw your object upwards at 20 metres per second. That's about 70 km/hr, so I suggest you do it outdoors, and I suggest you don't use the brick.

Every second the force of gravity will cause this object's speed to change by 10 m/s. The object is going up, and gravity is directed downwards, so each second the object's speed drops by 10 m/s. It starts at 20 m/s. One second later, it's rising at only 10 m/s. Another second later it's at 0 m/s -- it's stopped. If we look at the speed of the object every second, starting at the moment it was thrown, we have 20, 10, 0, -10, and so on. The force of gravity just keeps doing its thing, in the same way, in the same direction. When we look at it this way, there's nothing very special about the moment when the speed is zero; when the numbers become negative, that means the ball is going down.

And this is where I've finally learned a lesson. If this is clear, it's because we used some numbers. In other words: mathematics. It wasn't very complicated mathematics -- your phone has a calculator app to do the subtraction for you.

The point is that before Galileo the idea of using any mathematics at all was unheard of.

Without mathematics you have to be extremely careful and precise with the words you choose, and you need to make your reasoning especially sharp to distinguish one idea from another, to refine opposing ideas, and to decide between them. Clever people could spend hours, or weeks, or years, or centuries, arguing over this sort of thing and not get it straight. And they did: that's why it wasn't clear until the time of Galileo, and it wasn't until yet hundreds of years later that it was clear enough to be put into a high-school textbook.

There aren't any numbers in Aristotle, or diagrams or equations. Just arguments. One line of flawless reasoning after another -- leading, in the case of motion, to the wrong answer.

There are no experiments, either.

We need mathematics to make even the simplest ideas clear and precise, and we need precise measurements and experiments to test our ideas. Without them we get lost.

If I had tried to argue with that teacher with a few numbers, or a diagram, perhaps I would have been more successful.

He had misunderstood one of the most basic concepts in science, but so had I.