Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Einstein's Greatest Moment

It's November 25th, 2015 -- exactly 100 years to the day since Einstein presented the final, complete version of his general theory of relativity to the Prussian Academy of Sciences. For eleven months I've managed to maintain a mask of disdainful cynicism, but now that we reach the hallowed day I cannot resist making some appreciative comment.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Free publicity, and Free Speech

I was pleased to see Cardiff University getting international media attention recently. Not because of our incredible research and teaching, of course. Don't be silly. It was a minor kerfuffle over Germaine Greer.

For those unaware, Germaine Greer is an Australian academic who became famous as a hard-fighting feminist with her 1970 book The Female Eunuch. Since then her career in controversy has ranged across many topics. Of late, outraged attention has focussed on her view that men who undergo surgery to become women are, in fact, still men.

What does that have to do with Cardiff?

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids

I don't get out to the movies often. The last time I talked about a film on this blog, it was only because I saw it on a plane. I used to go to movies, but these days I prefer to sit around the house and entertain my family. But a few weekends ago I did see a film -- I was so entertaining at home that my wife suggested I go out.

"You could see The Martian."

"I don't know. Sounds like a lot of effort."

"I could drive you."

"It's a bit pathetic to go to the movies alone."

My son gamely sacrificed himself to the cause. "I'll go with you."

I tried to argue that the film might not be suitable for a nine-year-old. We checked the certification warning. It said, "Infrequent strong language, injury detail." It didn't sound so different from any other afternoon with me.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

A privileged Western white male reports on his summer

India, Gravitational Waves, Doctor Who, and other random updates.

Last summer I embarked on a whirlwind global tour, and in the process ensured the downfall of one of the most disreputable scientists of our time. This summer was uneventful by comparison.

That's not to say that it wasn't a busy time for science silliness. Far from it. It began in early June with Tim Hunt and his troubles with girls. I'm very pleased that I didn't join the chorus of people with nothing useful to contribute to that story [1]. The summer ended with Stephen Hawking solving the black-hole information paradox... again.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The Feynman Fallacy

My last (real) post was a rant on the crazy notion that anyone can just roll on up and get to the bottom of a technical scientific problem with merely a bit of digging around and careful thinking. Since then I've been wondering how we can finally crush this nutty view. Between the people who think that Truth doesn't exist, and those who think it's readily available to anyone with the wily initiative to open their browser and look, the number of truly sensible people in this world of several billion seems to have shrunk to approximately six. My only consolation is that I am one of them.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Postal failure

It's been about two months since my last post. Sorry for the unannounced silence -- I thought I would take off a week or two while I mulled over the next post, and then the weeks kept passing by. And they're still passing; this little jumble of excuses is hardly the next post I had in mind.

Following my rant about a scientific journalist, I tried to do a little science journalism of my own. A bit of investigative journalism, even. I thought it would be fun. How hard could it be? Even if I was a terrible failure at it, at least I would have a story to tell.

It went surprisingly well. I started to learn interesting things. In order to learn the interesting things, I had to agree to keep them in the strictest confidence. Fine. I can keep a secret. Don't worry, it's all "off the record". Just tell me what you know!

And then of course I was left with a story I couldn't tell. That was the worst outcome possible -- a failure I couldn't even brag about.

That's the sort of experience that can make a sensitive soul like mine misplace its blogging mojo.

Speaking of stories and failure... The little story I alluded to a while ago, written for a competition in honour of the centenary of the completion of Einstein's general theory of relativity -- a rare opportunity indeed -- was also a flop. It did not win the competition.

A likely explanation is that the judges were not impressed with my appalling reliance on the hackneyed device of a historical counterfactual. I was appalled by it myself, but couldn't resist. There is a lot of fun to be had with counterfactuals, at least for an author; perhaps not so much for a reader. It may also be that my story did not exhibit appropriate respect to the venerable Professor E, who, as I've noted before, I have to thank for my entire career.

(That's hardly true, is it? In a world where general relativity had never been discovered, would I now be wandering the streets aimlessly, unemployed and unaccountably devoid of purpose? I think not, although it provides yet another historical counterfactual with wonderful fictional possibilities. You see how attractive they can be?)

The final option is that the story was simply shite.

My trusty physicist's ego informs me that this last option makes no logical sense, and the other options are highly improbable as well. I'm left with the most likely conclusion, which is that there was an error in the electronic transference. They received 5000 words worth of random ASCII characters. No doubt they were still impressed by the stiff challenge presented by my narrative technique, but sadly only a minority of judges had the artistic backbone to vote for it as a winner. It's very likely that several of the more discerning among them were associated with major publishers, and spent some time haggling over who would make me an offer of expanding my ASCII diatribe into a book-length work. Perhaps even a series. Ultimately they may have concluded that they could achieve similar results with zero involvement from me, and a thrilling epic devoted to the stochastic exploits of 255 highly distinct characters may be chugging through the publication pipeline even as I type.

Of course, I try to shun my physicist's confidence when writing fiction, and instead assume the more authorial demeanour of paralysing insecurity. As such, I am reluctant to simply publish the original story here. That would be far too brash. Instead I will dilly and dally and offer irritating teasers like the above. But perhaps one day I'll give in and throw back a double shot of whisky and click "Publish".

Until then, I'll try to put together a "normal" blog post or two. In my current delicate state I'm not sure I can manage them weekly, but I'll see what I can do.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

A rant: "puckish", "provocative" science journalist fails to understand basic facts about scientific expertise

Time for a rant.

Last week I read a Scientific American blog post by John Horgan, and it left me fuming. It was simplistic, sloppy, ultimately misleading, and he should know better.

His post was on scientific expertise. Some people argue that we should defer to scientific experts on complex scientific questions. Sounds reasonable. Horgan instead exhorts us to be sceptical of the scientists, with the seductive cliche, "Question everything!" Which also sounds reasonable.

Doesn't that leave us with a contradiction? Yes, it does. A vanishingly small number of people have sufficient background and expertise to make a reasonable judgement on a large number of important issues, yet they may themselves be mistaken, or self-deluding, or downright lying. With our daily lives dominated by science, technology and medicine, and our planet apparently at serious risk from climate changes that only a handful of scientists are able to reliably identify, this is a severe problem indeed.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The eclipse of gravity

Last week, the night before the solar eclipse, I gave a public talk about an eclipse many years earlier, on May 29, 1919. That was when Eddington and his team measured the bending of light by the sun, and concluded that the value agreed with the predictions of Einstein's new general theory of relativity (it was only four years old) -- and in the process made the theory, and its creator, world famous.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

On knowledge, Truth, electric chairs, and quasi-local mass

My last few blog posts have been inspired by a recent fascination with the filmmaker Errol Morris. That all started with the new Stephen Hawking movie, which in turn reminded me of Morris's 1992 film A Brief History of Time. Since then I've watched numerous interviews and discussions with Morris, and several more of his films, including Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line, and his most recent, The Unknown known, and read a number of his New York Times columns, notably the excellent series of five articles on Thomas Kuhn and the dubious notion of incommensurability. I cannot recommend them highly enough. To discuss an obscure philosophical concept in a major mainstream newspaper is quite a feat; to make it entertaining, and at times even hilarious, is pure genius [1].

But the Morris moment that really dug into me, and started all of this, came from a discussion I found on YouTube. The discussion is about the current state of journalism, although we will see that its concerns range much further.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015


I apologize: this blog post is currently empty.

Each week I manage to squeeze a minuscule amount of time away from my otherwise hectic schedule of fashioning for myself an increasingly rarefied understanding of abstruse physical phenomena, and devote it to writing this blog. In the last two weeks I have used those precious minutes to compose a little story. The result is my submission for an anthology of fiction and non-fiction inspired by Einstein's general theory of relativity, on the occasion of its 100th birthday. The details of the competition are here. It seemed like a fun lark.

The story's fate will be decided by the end of May. Should it be (quite understandably) rejected, then I will place it right here, to take up its belated role as this blog post. And should it go on to glory -- then you can buy the damn book!

In the mean time, if you're curious about the story, I can assure you that no-one falls into a black hole. That's a lame idea that has already been done to death. I prefer lame ideas that can still be beaten a few more times.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Career advice I gleaned from Errol Morris, for what it's worth

Let's talk about career choices. I'm afraid that I may have some disturbing news for you. But before we get to you, let's talk about me.

I have been having serious doubts about my choice of vocation.

In fact, the very foundations of my career are crumbling beneath me.

The cracks should have been apparent in my previous posts. Not that anyone was kind enough to warn me.

A review of the facts.

1. I have confessed that I decided to study theoretical physics after I read Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time" as a high-school student. Hawking's book taught me some science that was so astounding and wonderful that I was inspired to embark on a career trying to master it.

2. On other occasions I have argued that popular accounts of science can be deeply misleading. You think you have been handed the simple truths behind seemingly complex ideas, but that is merely an illusion. Scientists on screen, stage and page may successfully massage their egos, but they teach you nothing of substance.

3. Errol Morris, who directed the excellent film of "A Brief History of Time", apparently agrees with me. When making his film he concluded that, "There are many places you can get a good account of general relativity and quantum mechanics, but a movie theatre is not one of them." Damn right! He felt the same about Hawking's book. "If you tried to learn about this material from the book I believe you would be either sadly disappointed or totally delusional." You tell 'em, Errol!

4. Uh oh.

I was in the "totally delusional" category. And it was in this state of total delusion that I chose how to spend the next 25 years of my life. Or maybe, depending on how this ends, the entirety of it [1].

The appropriate reaction to this discovery was, of course, angry disbelief followed by an attempt to discredit the source of my troubles. I absolve Hawking of any blame; he is certainly no less deluded than I. No: the focus of my ire is that bastard Morris. What right does he have to tell me that my life choices were groundless? Were his own professional decisions so much better?

At first sight, a resounding No.

My initial research uncovered a slacker and a dolt, not to mention a weirdo.

He was kicked out of graduate school. Any sensible person would have realised that they had dodged a bullet with that one, but not Morris -- he just enrolled in another. He didn't study there, though. He spent all of his time hanging around a local film archive. You might think, "Ok, he was going to end up as a film director, so that's fine." Not so fast. They lumped him in with all the deadbeats and dirty old men in raincoats. The archive's director remembered, "There were a bunch of regulars and a bunch of eccentric regulars, and Errol was one of the eccentrics. I often had to defend him to my staff…"

Then he decided to make a film. (Or a book. Or a tone poem. He wasn't sure.) His subject? Ed Gein, the real-life inspiration for the film Psycho -- a mass killer, cannibal, grave robber, and amateur taxidermist, whose home furnishings were upholstered with human flesh and skin. Morris spent years interviewing Gein, and assorted nut-jobs who were equally fascinated by him, and a collection of the many other members of the quaint psycho-killer industry that had grown up in Gein's home town of Plainfield, Wisconsin. Morris's mother made feeble attempts to give him some good advice. "Errol, can't you spend more time with people your own age?" His response was, "But, Mom, some of these mass murderers are my own age."

The best story in this saga? Morris befriended filmmaker Werner Herzog -- himself hardly a model of conventionality -- and they decided that one of the most intriguing questions about Gein was, Did he rob the grave of his own mother? The only way to be sure was to dig it up themselves. Morris and Herzog made a date to do just that. Herzog was there, at the appointed midnight, ready with his shovel. Morris, the loser, did not turn up.

After that Morris decided to make a film about a pet cemetery. Herzog scoffed that if he ever finished it, "I will eat my shoe."

I would like to note that, at this point, a career in theoretical physics doesn't sound quite so absurd.

But wait. Morris did finish his film. Hardly anyone saw it, but one of those who did was Roger Ebert. He considered it one of the ten best films of all time. Twenty years later, he estimated that he had watched it around 30 times, and it "has given me more to think about over the past 20 years than most of the other films I've seen." [2]

Hmmm. Perhaps we should take a closer look at Morris's earlier history of outlandish failure. Back to Wikipedia.

His first graduate school, it turns out, was Princeton. Unfortunately, "his antagonistic relationship with his advisor Thomas Kuhn … ensured that his stay at Princeton would be short."

I beg your pardon? Thomas Kuhn? The legendary philosopher of science, who made famous the notion of the "paradigm shift"? The go-to guy when a scientist wants to sound like a true intellectual? The man whose slim volume "The structure of scientific revolutions" sits unread on every serious scientist's bookshelf (including mine)? Surely this was merely a piece of confused over-enthusiasm by a devoted -- or deluded? -- fan.

It was true. Morris has written about it. Not only was he Kuhn's student, but he knew how to punch a gaping hole in the great man's second-most-famous idea. He drove Kuhn so crazy that this legend of calm analytical reasoning one day attacked him at the Institute for Advanced Study. He threw a chunky glass ashtray at him. Morris couldn't believe it was happening. "Wait a second. Einstein’s office is just around the corner. This is the Institute for Advanced Study!!”

He then went to study philosophy at grad school number two, a little backwater called Berkeley. That didn't work out, either. "Berkeley was just a world of pedants. It was truly shocking." I think I can give him the benefit of the doubt on that one.

So where does that leave me? Was I "totally deluded" when I chose my career based on teenage enthusiasm for a slim bestseller? And was Morris even more deluded, when he dodged a flying ashtray from Thomas Kuhn or spent months holed up in Plainfield, Wisconsin, talking every day with mass murderers? A man who is now regarded as one of the world's greatest living film directors?

It is perhaps fitting that a man who has devoted his career in equal parts to cataloguing delusion, confusion and deception, and to an unshakable determination to uncover the ultimate truth beneath them, should lead me to a modest epiphany. You might find this disturbing, but I think it's what makes life rich and beautiful. It is this.

The choices you make between the ages of 15 and 25 will determine the direction of your entire life. And they are guaranteed to be ill-informed, impetuous, and based on an understanding of the world so naive that it will look like you've taken decision-making instruction from Pinocchio. You will march off into the future, either confident and determined, or confused and hesitant, but either way without the faintest idea what you're doing.

And that's great. If it was any other way, life would be dull.

That doesn't mean it will work out well. You might end up in poverty, in prison, or in misery. You might end up a psychotic mass killer. You could even end up in academia. Let's face it, the chances that you'll end up as, for example, one of the world's top film directors, are vanishingly small. But since you have no idea what is going to happen anyway, why not naively believe that you will, and take it from there? Or not -- it doesn't matter too much either way.

If you are young and quavering in the face of your future, this may not be especially comforting. But it's made me feel a lot better.

Previously: A brief history of time (the film)

Next: Of knowledge, truth, and quasi-local mass


1. Don't give me any of that "It uncovered and inspired your passion for science" guff. I had no idea what any of it meant. I thought I was going to solve the mysteries of the Universe. I could just as easily have been duped into joining a seminary.

2. And, yes, Werner Herzog did eat his shoe. Morris maintains that it was a publicity stunt, but not his own. "I didn't make `Gates of Heaven' so that Werner Herzog would have to eat his shoe," he says "I specifically asked Werner not to eat his shoe."

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

A Brief History of Time (The Film)

A Brief History of Time was such a remarkably successful book that a blockbuster Hollywood adaptation was inevitable. The studios duly wheeled in director Errol Morris, hot off the success of his crime thriller The Thin Blue Line, and a star-studded cast of the greats of late 20th century relativity and cosmology: Dennis Sciama, Martin Rees, John Wheeler, Kip Thorne, Roger Penrose, and of course Hawking himself. The catchy score was composed by Philip Glass at his rousing, foot-tapping best.

It was the box-office smash of 1992.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

A Brief History of Time (The Book)

In the last post I reviewed the movie "The Theory of Everything". Although that film was too thin and unremarkable to make any lasting impression, it did kick up memories of many things that did. One was the 1992 Errol Morris movie based on Hawking's book A Brief History of Time, which I mentioned in the review, and will talk about again soon. The other was Hawking's book itself. Hereafter referred to as "The Book", it was the primary reason I studied physics.

That is something I have never dared to admit, until now. Why not? Before I explain, let me tell you what was so great about The Book.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Review: The Theory of Everything

What kind of film is The Theory of Everything?

The opening move cries out for the category "film bio (formulaic)", with those shots of an ambiguous event in the near-present-day, before we tumble back to the early life of our subject. However, it lacks the key plot element of a childhood trauma involving an abusive parent or dying sibling.

And who is the subject? Stephen Hawking, of course. But not quite. The film claims to be based on the memoir of his wife, so this could be her story -- or their story. Perhaps, but the focus is mostly on Hawking, who is far too attractive as the hero, what with his quest to explain the entire universe, and his degenerative disease.

Could it really be a tear-jerker disease drama? No, because (and I apologise now for the gratuitous spoilers) the hero lives.

We're left, I'm afraid, with that gentle, inoffensive genre known simply as "British film", a tale of quiet determination populated by fruity character acting.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Planning ahead

January is the perfect time to make idealistic plans for the rest of the year, just as February is the perfect time to forget them.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

One hundred revolutions

To kick off the year, allow me to apologise in advance to you, the relatively innocent, for the actions of my fellow devotees of the cult of Einstein. In the coming months, the Relativists will be out in force to accost you with breathless attempts to explain Einstein's general theory of relativity. They will gesticulate and gibber and blabber in an incomprehensible argot that they will paradoxically refer to as "simple terms". I have no idea how many of these shambling, mumbling, misshapen creatures roam the Earth, but don't worry, by the end of the year you and I will both know the precise number with complete certainty: we'll have had the opportunity to count them all six or seven times over.