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.


For my part, I was invited back to Bangalore. What a surprise, considering that all I did last time was tell weak jokes about the traffic and the pavements. I thought they were harmless jokes, but I can never be sure when I might be causing offence. If Prof Hunt has taught us anything, it's that privileged Western white males and "harmless jokes" do not mix. With that in mind, I will resist the urge to report deep insights and pithy observations about India, or even just Bangalore.

Travel is exhorted as mind-broadening and educational. But what do you really learn? What can one reliably conclude about a foreign culture in a fleeting visit? Aspects of Indian society date back beyond 2000BC. Modern India is home to over one billion inhabitants. In contrast, I was there for five weeks, and partook of in-depth conversations with a total of seven people. And, anyway: who has ever returned from India with something reliable to say? E.M. Forster pulled it off, but he cheated. Already an expert observer of early-20th-century English society, it was no trouble to jot down a few foibles of the English on the subcontinent [2].

Perhaps all we can hope for is to be just a little less narrow-minded and ignorant than we would have been had we stayed at home. My family and I were driven around the ancient sites of Hampi by an auto-rickshaw driver who gladly shared with us his worldly wisdom. "In the West," he explained, "you spend all your savings travelling to places like India. But here in India, we care about our children, and we save our money for their education." Clearly he was unaware of the extent of our Western privilege: we send our children to good schools and travel the world. We refrained from enlightening him. We were going to feel guilty instead, but were distracted by a passing motorbike transporting an eight-person extended family, and had to take a photo.

Perhaps the least I can do is refer you instead to someone else's observations of India.

While perusing the randomly stocked shelves that you always find in the lounge of a cheap hotel [3], I came across a novel called "The White Tiger", by Aravind Adiga. The quotes on the back cover described it as "compelling, angry and darkly humorous." Sounded promising! Also, "Blazingly savage and brilliant." Gosh, that sounded good, too. The quotes even spoke to my aforementioned concerns about unreliable observations: "Not a single detail in this novel rings false or feels confected." Not only that: the quotes were all from people who possessed what appeared to my untutored eye to be Indian surnames -- so they must know what they're talking about! My fellow privileged Westerners who judged the Man Booker Prize in 2008 seemed to agree.

To describe this book as a work of satire would be a gross understatement. It is merciless. The setup alone is scathing. The narrator, a Bangalore entrepreneur who is about to tell us his shocking tale of escape from the depths of Indian poverty, frames the narrative as a letter to the visiting Premier of China. Why?
Apparently, sir, you Chinese are far ahead of us in every respect, except that you don't have entrepreneurs. And our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy, or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs.
You get the idea. If not, a page or so later our narrator explains,
Out of respect for the love of liberty shown by the Chinese people, and also in the belief that the future of the world lies with the yellow man and the brown man now that our erstwhile master, the white-skinned man, has wasted himself through buggery, cell phone usage, and drug abuse, I offer to tell you, free of charge, the truth about Bangalore.
It pretty much continues like that all the way to the end -- which was recommendation enough for me. By that time it was clear why no-one minded my own mild jibes about Bangalore traffic. A quick check of the online reviews indicated a sharp division of opinion within India, between those who felt that "The White Tiger" was an angry and timely rallying cry for Indian social change, and those who believed it "adds another brick to the patronising edifice it wants to tear down".

I of course know nothing of any of that. It's true that the main character was a little one-dimensional, and anyone searching for keenly observed social commentary initiated by a mix-up over a collar stud will be disappointed. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book, and I only wished I had read it earlier in my travels. I could have discussed it with that auto-rickshaw driver in Hampi. I'm sure he would have had an opinion.

Gravitational Waves

I got back from India just in time to rush off to a secret meeting of my fellow gravitational wave astronomers, who are all very excited to have finished building a brand new gravitational wave detector. In case you don't know, the number one goal of gravitational-wave astronomy is to make the first direct detection of gravitational waves. So far we have failed, and have suffered decades of mockery as a result. The second goal is to use these observations to make new and startling observations of our universe. Hence "astronomy", and also, considering our track record so far, the additional helping of passionate derision we receive from all other astronomers [4].

Now we've turned on the upgraded Advanced LIGO detectors, and opened ourselves up to another five years of ridicule. The plan is to run the detectors for several months at a time, and in between add yet more improvements, so that by 2019 they are roughly ten times more sensitive than their predecessors. This means that they can listen for gravitational waves ten times further out into the universe, which includes (if we know how to correctly calculate the volume of a sphere) a thousand times more space that might contain a detectable source. A thousand is a good number to keep in mind, because that's the factor of uncertainty in our estimates of the number of sources that are out there. Fortunately, even the most pessimistic estimates will be tested by the most sensitive final incarnation of the detectors.

What does that mean? It means high drama. Somewhere along this sequence of upgrades, the detectors will become sensitive enough to find something. But we don't know when. It might be tomorrow. It might be in four years. It might be anywhere in between. One day we will be having another of our endless, "So, what are we going to do if we never see anything?" discussions, and the next day, kaboom! Everything will change.

In the meantime, everyone is too busy making the damn thing work to bother with biting their fingernails. But you can bite your fingernails on our behalf, if you wish. A reasonable guess is that the world-changing event will happen in 2017. That's the most dull prediction, sitting right in the middle of our factor-of-one-thousand uncertainty, but with nothing else to go on, it seems like a fine guess to make.

The first science run of the new detectors, optimistically labelled an "observing run", began last Friday. The countdown has begun.

Doctor Who

Close on the heels of the first Advanced LIGO observing run, the new Doctor Who season began on Saturday. This year I will not be writing reviews. I found the whole reviewing business depressing. When I did it last year, I thought some of the episodes were clever and well-written, but in many the writing was silly and incoherent and, worst of all, sloppy. Saturday's first blast of the new season was no better; if anything, it was worse. The Doctor made an entrance in medieval Essex atop a tank, playing an electric guitar. The only useful review that I could write would be three letters long: WTF.

When I wrote reviews last year, I sometimes looked to see what the newspaper reviewers said. That made me feel even worse. Invariably the parts of the show I found the most painful were the ones the Guardian or Telegraph or Times reviews all thought were the best. Doctor Who is breaking new ground! Taking risks! Surprising us! Not once did they step up and say, "This is rubbish." All I could conclude was that I was missing something. I was out of touch with modern culture. I was a TV dinosaur, with no sense of humour and no sense of fun.

The only thing that makes me feel better is that the ratings were way down for Episode 1 last week. Was that because this particular episode was particularly bad? I don't think so. I think it was because a lot of people stuck with the show until the end of the last season, but then couldn't be bothered coming back. If I didn't have kids, I wouldn't have come back, either.

Other updates related to this blog:

- For readers of my series of posts on scientific expertise and climate change (conveniently listed at the end of this post), I'm afraid I have to report that the doubters and deniers have not suddenly converted to a sensible point of view. I thought I explained it all very clearly. I really don't understand what went wrong.

- The character who partially inspired those posts, Clive James, has managed, despite extreme ill health, to publish several more books in the last year, including one only last month. He has probably -- correctly -- concluded that he has bigger problems to worry about right now than climate change. It would be nice if one day he read my posts and took the time to explain to me why I am naive and mistaken, but I expect that this task is so far down his priority list that it will only happen if he manages to survive to 120. I hope he does.

- On the topic of actual scientists, in a few posts I wrote vaguely disapproving things about Richard Dawkins and, elsewhere, James Watson. At the time I felt a little guilty for disparaging my elders and betters. In the light of more recent events, I wonder if I was too kind. Watson sold his Nobel Prize medal to buy a painting, and Dawkins has taken to making appalling pronouncements on twitter on an almost daily basis. His own view may be that these are eminently reasonable statements that are horribly misunderstood, but either way, old Tim Hunt must be wondering how the hell he gets away with it.

- Earlier this year I hinted that I might post a little story I wrote about Einstein, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his general theory of relativity. Forget it. When I read back over my account of my adventures with Professor Prick last summer, I'm still very pleased with it. My only objection is that, on the one hand, it paints far too dark and cynical a picture of academia, while, on the other, it is completely unrealistic because it is not dark and cynical enough. On the whole, though, I'm pleasantly surprised with how little of it I find outright embarrassing. The same cannot be said for the Einstein story. It makes me cringe to read it. I think my only options are either to throw it away, or submit it as a script idea for Doctor Who.


1. I intended to provide a link that covers the controversy, but I cannot find one that would be widely accepted as accurate. The story also seems unwilling to fade completely from media attention. Opinion pieces continue to appear in mainstream papers, even four months after the story broke.

2. I should make it clear that I have even less personal experience of early-20th-century English society than of India, so I actually have no idea whether he was trustworthy at all.

3. Did you spot that blatant generalisation? Good for you. Shocking, isn't it? But it gives off such a lovely air of widely-travelled experience and hard-won wisdom that I couldn't resist leaving it in.

4. If you want to know what gravitational waves are, I refer you to these previous blog posts (here and then here). You won't be any the wiser after reading them, as explained here, but by that time you probably won't care anymore.

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