Jan 05

My brother and I went to

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My brother and I went to this event at the Royal Society last night, because we had both read Diamond’s previous book Guns, Germs and Steel, and enjoyed it (although neither of us finished it, but hey). The lecture was introduced by the President of Royal Society, who seemed a nice chap, but one hell-bent on relieving himself of his entire store of Diamond-related anecdotes, most of which involved bird-watching. Then Diamond himself got up, and was revealed to be the aging Amish whom I had previously thought had been brought along as an exhibit. He had a strange voice which swooped around in the lower registers. As visiting Americans often do at these events, he heaped praise upon Europe and Britain for a time until we all felt suitably smug, and then launched into the main subject of the talk.

The evening made me cross. The (potentially enormously interesting) subject of societies failing or succeeding was almost entirely approached in environmental terms. The admittedly heartbreaking tale of the Easter Islanders deforesting their entire island before descending into cannibalism should have been one example, not cause for a diatribe on social responsibility. We were told about the lack of health-care in the States, arch remarks were made about Bush and Kyoto – non sequiturs abounded. I am not by any means sure that rich people living in gated communities is going to cause the collapse of society. In between there were interesting things about the Norse communities in Greenland and the Mayans, but these were never linked into an overarching theme that I could detect.

I wanted to ask during the question session how he accounted for the socially irresponsible Roman Empire lasting 1000 years, but my tentative hand was ignored. The questions were hilarious, though. Everyone had brought along an axe to grind on the Diamond. This reached a marvellous zenith when he was asked what he thought about Third World Debt. There was also a fellow who stood up and made a speech about epistemology and eventually had to be shut up by the President.

I will not be buying Jared Diamond’s new book.

Aug 04

Boy in the corner

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Boy in the corner
Private Eye seem to have taken sides in the on-going “was Hawking wrong?” debate.

Aug 04

“Clutt’ moi, phter Werune!”

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“Clutt’ moi, phter Werune!”

Say something in Proto-Indo-European!

Jul 04


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OWL. Is this Science or Engineering then?

Feb 04

Great Words In Science Number One: Martingale

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Great Words In Science Number One: Martingale

In modern probability theory, a martingale is a random process which has an expected value equal to its current value. So if you are betting on someone flipping a coin over and over again and you are given fair 50/50 odds, your winnings constitute a martingale. It’s a totally unpredictable process, but in the long term your winnings are liable to go up as much as they go down. You can expect to finish with what you started with. (The idea of “expectation” has a rigorous definition but it means pretty much what you’d expect. Hey, that’s brilliant.)

In the non-mathematical world, the word refers variously to the gambling strategy where you double your stake if you lose (you can at least see the probability connection here), a bit of horse-riding kit to attach the reins to the saddle girth, and some sort of nautical stay or cleat to fasten some sprit or jib. But according to Rabelais’s Gargantua it refers to a naughty pair of hose which fasten at the back. Rabs refers to “…the martingale fashion of breeches, wherein is a spunghole with a drawbridge for the more easy caguing.”

My OED proffers these facts helplessly for the layman to ponder. If any readers can discover the connection between these meanings then please let the compilers know. You might also tell them they’ve left out “caguing”.

Nov 03

I have a slim vol on my bookshelf called

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I have a slim vol on my bookshelf called Genes, People and Language by a fellow called Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. Using genetic tests, one can draw trees which show how early man spread around the globe. Using linguistics, one can plot very similar trees detailing the relationship between the various language families in the world. The book talks about the correlation between the two. It seems convincing, or at least worth exploring.

When I was given the book I was full of glee, because it struck me as a lovely idea. It seemed like my ideal book, in that it contained linguistics, maths and genetics in one little package. Unfortunately it’s a terrible read. It has been very sloppily translated from the Italian, but I suspect the leaden style has been faithfully rendered. The bits about the maths of correlation are badly explained, and every interesting fact and insight is annoyingly communicated. It’s not worth perservering with after a while. But this is still a fascinating subject, and if anyone knows of any better books on the subject (linguisto-genetics? geneto-philology?) then please let me know.

Just to prove I don’t complain about every pop science effort which comes my way, let me recommend a fantastic book in a similar vein called Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, which asks some very ticklish questions about race, geography and culture, and proposes some interesting answers.

Nov 03

Further to Mark’s point b2 below

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Further to Mark’s point b2 below: The visuals at one point were particularly noteworthy. Voiceover: Such-and-such spent ages looking for an equation. Cue pic of (absurdly handsome) actor leafing through a tome apparently at random, searching, always searching, before closing the book resignedly and chucking it on to the growing pile. Actor then picks another book from the shelf. That the equation in question was actually 200 years old, and therefore was probably written down in a dusty book somewhere, makes no difference to the fact that this is a terrible representation of how these leaps and interconnections are made! It seemed to suggest that this sort of work was just an uncomprehending harvest of a deep and long-forgotten magick. The equation could probably be found in any number of shiny new textbooks as well! As m’colleague indicated below, the criteria for such an equation are what’s important. A small point, possibly, but communicating the flavour of the subject is perhaps the programme-makers’ real task, not telling us the definition of tachyons or whatever.

Oct 03

I think the boffins may have pranged a kite here

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I think the boffins may have pranged a kite here.

In an attempt to define a unit of fame (the “Warhol” perhaps?) they seem to have neglected its overriding property – that fame is comparative. The fame of each participant affects that of the rest of them. In an n-body world of mutually orbiting celebrity, the behaviour of the fame indices would seem a perfect candidate for not a linear or exponential relationship, but a chaotic one.

Oct 03


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The earth spins faster in the middle than it does at the poles, where (in the limit) it doesn’t move at all. If a plane in the northern hemisphere is flying south, the earth’s movement from right to left beneath it will become faster as the plane approaches the equator, and then slower past that point. This means that the plane will have to compensate for what feels like a sideways thrust from the right as it approaches the equator, and then one from the left once past it. This thrust is called the Coriolis force, and is supposedly the cause of water going down plug-holes one way in the northern hemisphere, and the other way in the south. It was recently revealed to me that this article of faith from my geeky childhood is in fact rubbish, and that the Coriolis force is far too small to make a difference to the physics of bathtime. You can change the direction of the vortex with your finger (Sidenote: Just how much science has been done in the bath since Archimedes? A lot I suspect) and I imagine that random eddies created by the shape of the bath and its inhabitant also play a role.

Anyway, this is relevant because I was wondering to what extent Toby’s spinning head (see link below) was influenced by the hemisphere of the drinker and indeed the drink. An UK resident’s head spins one way after a few pints of Special, but perhaps the direction of spin can be altered by judicious application of Fosters. You’d probably need a lot though – insert gnats’ piss jokes here. Perhaps Fosters has so little effect in this country because of the extra effort needed to overcome the natural spin of its citizens. I have only to imagine an Australian in a flying bath of Old Peculiar going south in the northern hemisphere drinking Fosters to become thoroughly confused and in need of a drink myself.

Oct 03

As a student, I once went to a philosophy of science lecture,

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As a student, I once went to a philosophy of science lecture, expecting that I might become a regular attendee. The nervous and ill-prepared lecturer was clearly a science fan, but revealed himself as a charlatan within fifteen minutes when, while talking about the March of Progress, he stated that Einstein had proved Newton wrong: that Izzy’s quaint notions of falling apples and inclined planes were no match for clever ole Al’s warped space-time and bending torch-beams. Newton had not only been labouring under a hopeless delusion when he really should have known better, he was also now as irrelevant as a Flat-Earther. This had me spluttering – not only was it disrespect for one of my heroes (not to mention the venerable Platygeans), there was also the fact that mechanics was alive and well and I had a test on it the following day. Worst of all was the ignorance of what a useful scientific model was and its relationship (or otherwise) to truth, which I had thought would be at the core of the philosophy of science. I got up and left. I had come to the lecture to get away from what I saw as the blinkeredness of my own engineering courses, not to find a misplaced version of the same. What can I say, I was a high-minded first-year.

Of course it occurred to me later that this had been just an introductory talk, and perhaps I had missed the all-important BUT at the lecture’s thirty-minute mark. However, the experience did awaken me to the dangers of science fandom. Yes, Einstein was very clever, and all of us who were born in the twentieth century have been told this before. But be cool about it for God’s sake. Better a Flat-Earther than a sir-please-sir toady.