A few pictures from last night’s event at the Natural History Museum in London: Science Uncovered 2013, a once a year special as part of the Europe-wide European Researchers’ Night.
I think this format is fantastic. Ideal for Londoners spilling out of work on a Friday evening, with food and drink available and the opportunity to meet and chat with NHM scientists about current research or anything else. The place was packed out. I’ve been to some of the Science Museum ‘Lates’, and they are incredibly popular, but I’ve never seen the NHM this busy:
Jupiter this afternoon is moving in for the closest line-of-sight conjunction with the moon you’ll see until the year 2026.
Jupiter is very bright and easily viewable in the daytime – especially with binoculars; the problem is you can never find it. Because it’s so close to the moon today, that’s no problem: find the moon and you’ve found Jupiter. This is my first pic of the day. I’ll update with new ones every few hours as Jupiter moves in to closest approach and the Jovian satellites start to appear. I have only a reasonable telephoto with me, not a telescope, but we’ll see how it goes.
Get out there now with those binocs!
That’s about as close as it will get: 30 minutes of arc, or a Moon’s diameter. Some folks in the Southern Hemisphere will see Jupiter completely disappear behind the moon – an occultation. But that’s me done for the evening. Happy stargazing!
I’m conscious the blog has a science-celeb Picture Posty feel of late; but remember: (a) there have been an unusual number of cool events in London the past couple of weeks, (b) you like this stuff :-P, (c) someone’s got to do it.
More importantly, you need to know tonight’s conversation with Anthony Grayling and Steven Pinker at the Wellcome Collection was quite excellent, and it’s well worth catching the BBC World Service broadcast of the event on Christmas Eve and again on Christmas Day: details here.
The Pinker canon of academic and popular science writing covers broad ground: from the ‘Stuff of Thought‘s analysis of language and the (amazingly dull sounding but actually very interesting) irregular verbs, through the controversial nature-nurture territory of the ‘Blank Slate‘, to pontification on the (relative) demise of global violence in the recent ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature‘.
Tonight, Grayling steered the Canadian psychologist through the whole smash in about 80 minutes, including a good twenty minutes or more of intelligent audience questions. The proceedings were introduced as part of the ‘Exchanges at the Frontier’ series by Wellcome’s lead on public programmes Ken Arnold, and Charlie Taylor for the BBC.
Watch out for the broadcast; but as usual here’s a few facts, quotes, stuff-that-I-remember-or-jotted-down, mindless ramblings, as a taster:
The first part of the conversation was about language. Discussing a generic mental model of how we use metaphor in day-to-day speech, Pinker used the example of ‘grasping an idea’, ‘getting across’ an idea, to ‘unpack’ an idea – asking us to take the underlying metaphor as a little marble in a box. The box here is language, we communicate by sending the box, we open the box, the marble inside is the meaning. (Re communication and meaning, also check out my post on James Gleick’s The Information re Claude Shannon, and follow your nose from there.)
On another tack, Pinker linked our tendency for profanity – swearing – to the emotional parts of our brain (rather than the rational/cognitive) and activation of the ancient mammalian ‘rage circuit’ – as likely to be triggered by stubbing our toe or sitting on a cat (in which case from the cat’s perspective). The cat yowls to startle an attacker; our evolutionary hangover induces a good old-fashioned “F***!” (In deference to the BBC he didn’t say it quite like that).
A round of audience questions on language: “Gentleman in the russet tee-shirt” (in the nicest possible way, Grayling is very good at this), and we’re on to subtlties of the mind. Pinker elaborates his Blank Slate quote “The conscious mind – the self or soul – is a spin doctor, not the commander-in-chief” with reference to how we lie to ourselves (we do), as a means of sounding more convincing when we lie to others: a kind of practice for consistency. (Pinker referred to Robert Triver’s on this theme, who’s views are expanded here in the Guardian.)
Answering a related audience question on the necessity of language for introspection (e.g. in babies with no language yet), Pinker referenced the ‘default network’: simply put, what your brain is doing when you’re not really thinking on anything in particular. This seems pretty key, that we can think unconsciously and experience concepts without language. And while I take Pinker’s point that children must have some non-language dependent cognitive ability to be able to adopt a language in the first place, I suspect there’s a lot we don’t know.
Moving to his latest focus – violence – Pinker contrasts our violent impulses (e.g. predation, rage) with a counter-tendency for self-control: the infrastructure for his latest book’s broader thesis of inner demons versus better angels. The ensuing discussion on murder, ideological violence and sadism (an acquired taste, like chili peppers) is probably best left for your Christmas Eve listening.
So what happens when the better angels pull ahead of the pesky demons?
Pinker says we get a general decline in violence. One that he can illustrate with statistics of murder rates, wars, attrocities – you name it – it’s declined; not necessarily in absolute terms, but on a pro-rata basis for a given population (in the book Pinker explains why this might be a sensible way of measuring things).
Graphs aside though, with all the turbulence in the world today (economic and otherwise), the thrust of the wind-up Q&A was around how permanent this new low-violence regime might be. Encouragingly – just what we’ll need at Christmas – Pinker suggests Greece won’t in fact be going to war with Germany anytime soon [despite everything], and, likewise, the USA and China will be cool (think: “they make all our stuff, we owe them too much”).
So. For the most part. We can. Relax.
(p.s. I asked my own question on how the observed virtuous developments in culture and human nature might somehow express (or have been expressed) in our biology, whether through genetics or epigenetics, and got a good answer from Pinker. They’re bound to broadcast that bit, but if they don’t I’ll expand in a future post). Update: [they did here]
Tonight I joined the 2011 Darwin Lecture, with Sir David Attenborough speaking on ‘Alfred Russel Wallace and the Birds of Paradise’, organised and hosted by the Royal Society of Medicine in association with the Linnean Society of London.
Fresh back from a trip to Borneo – no less, the spritely 85-year-old was introduced by Professor Parveen Kumar, President of the Royal Society of Medicine, and Dr Vaughan Southgate, President of the Linnean Society.
Be it via the TV or lecture theatre, David Attenborough plays to full houses all the time, and this November evening was no exception.
His account of Wallace’s ocean voyage to the Malay Archipelago and pioneering observations of that unique group of theatrical show-offs: the Birds-of-paradise, made for an informative and fun evening – all the merrier thanks to a generous ration of film clips showing the birds’ unlikely courtship rituals.
But the real take-home for me was Attenborough’s poignant re-telling of the Wallace-Darwin story: How the two independently arrived at that world-changing idea for the origin of species – natural selection – whereby only the better-adapted offspring of animals survive and pass on their qualities to a new generation.
Darwin had for years been working on his own version of natural selection from the comfortable surroundings of his home Down House, but had held back from publishing.
Then in 1858, Darwin receives a letter from Wallace, incapacitated with Malaria and holed-up in a shack on the Mollucas Islands of the Malay Archipelago. In it, he asks Darwin for an opinion on some ideas he’s had on the introduction of new species: ideas very similar to Darwin’s own.
Wallace’s communication is a bombshell. Yet for Darwin, the fear Wallace might publish first, pipping him at the post, is nothing compared to his horror of being branded a thief. So, after consultation with his scientific confidants, including Joseph Hooker but necessarily excluding the remote Wallace – Darwin’s camp decide a joint announcement of their common idea should be made at the Linnean Society in London, in the form of two short essays comprising Wallace’s note and a summary of Darwin’s work.
All goes to plan at the Linnean, and in due course Darwin publishes the full text of the ‘Origin of Species’ – with all the turbulent aftermath that comes with it. Wallace is comfortable with events, and pleased by the new associations he sees himself making in Darwin’s circle. He remains abroad, observing his beloved Birds-of-paradise .
Darwin, Attenborough said, made known his view that Wallace was capable – had he enjoyed Darwin’s own means – of producing the ‘Origin’ himself. Wallace on the other hand was more than grateful that the painstaking task of collation, supporting work, and documentation demanded of the masterwork had fallen to Darwin. In the lingo of the day, they’d reached a gentlemanly solution with no ill feelings all round.
Wallace produced much original work based on his observations of bird populations in the Malay Archipelago, which he captured in his book of the same name (The Malay Archipelago). Specifically, he identified the so-called ‘Wallace-Line‘ that runs between the islands of Bali and Lombok, separating two geographic regions whose animals Wallace found to be distinct and associated with either Australian or Asian origins. What he’d observed, without recognising it as such, was a product of moving land masses – or plate tectonics.
David Attenborough talks about his fascination with birds of paradise (Nature Video)
There are so many science events going on in London at the moment, it’s hard to know what to join and what to skip. But last night’s London Science Festival talk by NASA’s Matt Melis was a no-brainer – and quite excellent.
Not only is Melis an ‘insider’ who’s up for sharing those tidbits of information and video clips you don’t normally see; but he’s also an engineer with a math and physical modelling background that resonates a little with my own research roots; so I guess I’m a fan. The event was organised by Francisco Diego (UCL Physics & Astronomy) and Melis was introduced by writer/film-maker Chris Riley (In the Shadow of the Moon, First Orbit, Space Shuttle the Final Mission). Melis collaborated with Riley on his production Final Mission with Kevin Fong, and has his own movie Ascent out on YouTube (embedded below).
Kicking off with an all-round engineering tour of the shuttle, the focus soon turned to the intensive ‘return to flight’ programme NASA pursued after the STS-107 Columbia disaster of 2003.
The cause of the accident was traced to a wing leading-edge being damaged by a briefcase-sized piece of insulating foam detached from the fuel tank during launch. Melis described the variety of model tests used to confirm the analysis and help pre-empt future impact scenarios. So, lots of high speed film of various projectiles, from foam to ice, impacting various bits of Shuttle; the whole thing made more real by the samples of foam, orbiter leading-edge material, and a cross-section of the aluminium/foam fuel tank composite he passed around the audience.
Feeling the foam’s super-lightness in your hand brings home just how counter-intuitive reality can be. Travelling fast enough – over 500 mph in this case – the impact of an apparently harmless piece of foam is devastating. Melis showed the clip in this video of a full-scale impact test of foam hitting an actual Shuttle leading-edge section:
The key take-away for NASA, and I guess for all of us, is that we learn most through failure – painful as that can be.
Management systems and general attitudes, as well as technology, changed over the Shuttle’s 30 year life. Melis showed a photo of icicles hanging off the gantry of the ill-fated Challenger launch-pad: they weren’t the cause of the disaster – that was the booster O-rings – but they could have been if they’d got caught up in the turbulence of the launch. Nobody thought that way back then though, or the information didn’t get to the right people. Similarly, on one of the HD videos that NASA started using extensively post-Columbia, Melis showed a bunch of vultures sitting on the gantry at launch, at least one of whose number (all six foot wing-span of him), spooked by the engine start-up, ended up smashing into the rising fuel tank.
All in all a great evening, but not one I’m going to recount in its entirety here. Here’s a flavor though in Melis’s Ascent:
I’d heard of Alain de Botton’s School of Life and its “good ideas for everyday living“; I just hadn’t been to one of their ‘Sunday Sermons’.
So arriving at Conway Hall yesterday to hear theoretical physicist and all-round science communicator Professor Lawrence Krauss talk about Cosmic Connections, it was an unexpected but not disagreeable surprise to find David Bowie and a seven foot spandex-clad devil stirred into the mix. I for one can’t think of a better preparation for contemplating one’s insignificance in a miserable futureless universe than a good singalong to Space Oddity.
On the face of it, Krauss’s ultimate message is a bit grim: that our expanding, accelerating, universe will eventually dilate into cold, empty, blackness. But, more positively, he’s saying we should take all that as read and concentrate on our perspective: understand what we really are and how we connect with the universe. Then the journey to oblivion doesn’t look so miserable afterall; it looks fascinating – even poetic.
Krauss’s consciousness-raising / cheer-up therapy centred around three less than obvious connections we have with the cosmos:
First off – we are the universe. We’re made of stars. The heavy elements that make us up could only have been made in stars, and they could only end up as part of us if they were blasted out of exploding stars: the supernovae.
Call me a romantic, but I like the imagery. Bits of me: hands and feet, arms, legs, head, brain – they didn’t just pop up a few decades ago, but have been flying around for billions of years and will be around for billions more. I’ve been inside an exploding supernova – several most likely.
Next came the connectedness of life, with a nice story of Krauss sitting to write a physics paper, aware he’s breathing the very atoms breathed by Einstein as he formulated his own theories (inspired inhalation?). We’ve all got a bit of Julius Caesar in us it seems – literally. And on the larger scale of the solar system, the exchange of possible life-bearing rocks between the Earth and other planets, including Mars, could mean we’re all extra-terrestrials without even knowing it.
Krauss’s final illustration challenges our perception that aspects of reality we normally consider outlandish and irrelevant to our day-to-day life do indeed have a direct influence on us. The mundane activity in question is navigation by Global Positioning System (GPS), where the consquences of not correcting for satellite speed (Special Relativity), and height above the Earth (gravity effect/General Relativity), on measurement of the requisite nano-second scale signal transit times, would in only a day be sufficient to put ground track navigation out by several kilometres.
I really like this GPS example and the way Krauss presented it. There was no such thing as GPS when I was at school, so all we got were stories of atomic clocks losing time when they were shot round the world on fast planes, or hypothetical astronauts of the future going on fictional journeys. To be able to relate relativistic effects to a very real navigational error that normal folk can recognise and care about is brilliant.
Who’d have thought Sunday sermons could be such fun?
I haven’t yet read James Gleick’s latest book Information, but was glad of the chance to hear him in conversation with Nico MacDonald at London’s RSA yesterday for a flavour of what’s in store. This is a brief write-up of my notes and some observations – it’s not a book review! (That may come later…)
The broad discussion covered topics ranging from the history of Information Theory, how new communications systems and technologies come about and how they’re applied, the rapid pace of developments, and related issues around information quality, choice, control, value, and authority.
His approach of separating information from meaning in a structured scientific way was another first, launching a way of thinking that has since fed into all areas of formal communications and training.
Shannon’s ideas evolved out of work addressing real-world communications engineering problems at his employer Bell Laboratories, while other developments in information theory were driven by military objectives like those related to the codebreakers at Bletchley Park and the communication needs of the Cold War.
Development and Impact of the new
Gleick believes new technologies and systems appear first, followed by a series of highly unpredictable applications. Who, for example, would have thought the recently invented radio would play a critical role in capturing the murderer Dr. CrippenSee Note 1. Escaping to America by boat, Crippen was intercepted and arrested in Canadian waters after a wireless telegram exchange with the British Police.
But do new ideas and technologies just appear? Gleick argues that intellectual invention happens when the time is right. I’m not 100 percent clear on this, but he may have been referring to times of inspired national growth, and/or where intellectual groundwork has been done in related or previously unrelated fields, as was the case with Shannon embracing Boole’s and Turin’s legacy. And once these systems arrive, says Gleick, it’s not unusual to see “all hell breaking loose”.
Consider the geographical reach and speed at which information jets around the world today. I trust he’ll forgive me for this in the interest of illustration, but when Nico MacDonald mis-pronounced Gleick’s name during introductions today (Gleick pronounces his name ‘Glick’), that little faux pas was broadcast live, archived for webcast, and picked up by at least one troublesome blogger :-). That’s what this web-enabled, multi-media, Googlised, Twitterific world will do for you. On the other hand, those same information systems do little to inform us how we should pronounce ‘Gleick’; it’s not like every textual instance is accompanied by a phonetic brief. (I got it wrong too, so I guess we’re all better people for the experience.)
It’s also apparent that the forms of knowledge we are comfortable with are changing. Gleick recounted the story of Zick Rubin, whose recent piece in the New York Times titled “how the internet tried to kill me” describes how Rubin found his own death reported on a wiki – something of a shock to say the least. As it turned out, the wiki itself wasn’t the culprit, but a printed directory from which false information had been drawn. Had Rubin not run his search, the directory’s failings would never have come to light, and at least the wiki can, and has, been corrected at the press of a button.
Choice and control
Whether it’s the phone, radio, or world wide web, Gleick believes we’ve always driven our communications systems for more efficiency. But now the new systems and tools are coming ever thicker and faster – tempting us, thrusting themselves upon us – with Ads!
This overload is forcing us to make choices: Do I sign up to this? Who do I follow / unfollow? What’s my decision criteria? As an audience member summed up: “Our attention matters and we should think more how best to mobilise it”.
Once again, a discussion at the start of the session is topical: this time on the merits and de-merits of in-session Tweeting. As you might expect in the spirit of an Information flavoured event, the RSA had laid on WiFi and a hashtag so attendees could Tweet from the meeting. But I don’t think Gleick, while playing along gamefully, was really up for it – suggesting it might distract us from the discussion. And while I fully support in-event Tweeting, he is of course dead right; it’s a self-inflicted distraction that needs self-management. I’ve come across similar mini-controversies concerning chit-chat and questions during presentations in virtual worlds.
Value, quality, filtration
Into the Q&A, and a discussion on the potential for information to add value and generate competitive advantage. The conclusion here is that Gleick sees value linked to overcoming new economic challenges, so: publishers exploring new business models for e-books, and newspapers “scared to death about Twitter” looking for ways to compete with free news.
And as to us being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information – reliable and unreliable – that all these new systems are generating? Gleick thinks not, but only if we sort out faster methods of recovering quality information and making intelligent recommendations. Efficient suppliers of those sorts of services will find themselves in a growth business.
If the information is good and there’s one set of agreed facts, then conclusions will speak for themselves – right? Wrong, says Gleick, pointing to those who would resist the overwhelming evidence for climate change; and that small group of Americans who still dispute Obama was born on Hawaii.
Moreover, he worries we might lose science as an “authoritative, trustworthy, account” in a world – as MacDonald observed – where some people decide a position upfront, only then looking to science to back it up – the antithesis of the scientific attitude of finding out facts and seeing where they lead.
Age of the information zombies
O.k., no one even mentioned information zombies. But the audience did wonder if access to ‘too much, too easy’ information might stop us (and particularly students) from concentrating and analysing properly. I got the impression Gleick was sanguine on this, but with a note of caution given we don’t even know the full effect that replacing mental arithematic with calculators has had, never mind the impact of the full on info-fest that is Google.
So, that was pretty much it – a thoroughly enjoyable lunchtime.
And as you see, I’ve got my signed copy of Information. Hopefully some ‘bits’ will agree with what I’ve just written :-P.
Note 1 – Updated 14/4/11. There was a mix up over stories in the conversation, with Crippen being confused with the murderer John Tawell. In 1845, Tawell was captured at Paddington Station thanks to the new telegraph (wired) being used to signal ahead that he was on the train from Slough where he had committed the murder. I’ve filled in the correct later story for Crippen, which is an analagous example but for the wireless rather than wired telegraph.
Event Audio – The audio of the event is here at the RSA’s Website
Royal Society Vidcast – Gleick presented at the Royal Society on the following day. Here is the vidcast at the RS’s website.
This beautiful flower arrangement I stumbled upon today has got to be the world’s most colourful interpretation of the Atlas myth.
In Greek mythology, the punishment meted out by Zeus to Atlas for his siding with the Titans against the Olympians was to carry the heavens on his shoulders for all time.
We’re familar with the statues of muscular bearded guys kneeling under spheres – sometimes with the earth substituted for the heavens. And in her book and film Longitude, author Dava Sobel tells how as a child she was inspired by the Atlas statue outside New York’s Rockefeller Centre.
The Atlas arrangement by Sandy Hine and Anne Harman is one of many on display under the theme Myths & Legends at the annual Florimania exhibition running 1-3 April at Hampton Court.
Do the four jackdaws taking off across the left-right diagonal here remind you of anything?
For me, the regular spacing and apparent connected motion of the birds is reminiscent of the work of nineteenth century photography pioneer, Eadweard Muybridge.
Born in 1830, Muybridge photographed many sequences of birds in flight like the one below. But he’s probably better known for his animations of galloping horses, revealing for the first time that, at certain points, horses literally fly.
Muybridge’s techniques revealed an animal’s true motion, knowledge that until his arrival had been lost in a blur of busy limbs.
I should explain that Muybridge made sequenced compilations of stills taken of a single animal, while my picture is a happenstance capture of several birds taking off in close proximity and in apparent sequence: reminiscent of an airfield scramble or ducks flying up a wall. So I’ve got an illusion evocative of Muybridge, not a simulation, and the motions of different birds cannot be linked. (Or can they? Formation take-off? I’m reminded never to under-estimate the Corvidae family!)
By another happenstance, it turns out Muybridge was born and raised in the town where I now live: Kingston-upon-Thames in Surrey. And while he spent most of his working life in America, Muybridge left the materials of his important photographic legacy to his home town, where they reside in the Kingston Museum and Archive, five minutes walk from where I’m sitting.
A good selection of Muybridge material is normally on display in the museum, representative of his animal and human figure work, but also featuring his definitive 1878 panorama of San Francisco (link to America Hurrah website).
And if you’d like to find out more about Muybridge and his legacy, there couldn’t be a better time. Beginning this week, Wednesday 8th September, the Tate Britain will launch a Muybridge retrospective, and our own Kingston Museum will, from September 18th, host the Muybridge Revolutions exhibition, featuring unseen exhibits like Muybridge’s collection of Zoöpraxiscope discs. The Kingston exhibition is part of a broader range of Muybridge related activities being coordinated by Kingston University with Kingston Council.
But returning to my jackdaws in a more romantic frame. I like to ponder Muybridge walking the same routes I take today as I photograph the wildlife of Home Park; his meeting the ancestors of present-day jackdaws, deer and rabbits; and with his frustration at the unfathomable rapidity of their movements, the seed of motion photography being sown….
Update 12 October 2010
The powers that be are projecting Muybridge animations onto the side of Kingston on Thames police station. Very nice.