Category Archives: Politics

World War II Road Block – An Eerie Reminder of Darker Times

Here’s some not so sophisticated, but still deadly serious, military technology we discovered while walking along the river bank this morning.

Anti-tank Road Block
Anti-tank road block near Sunbury

Thankfully it never happened, but in 1940 there was every expectation that Britain would be invaded by Germany.  One preparation for that was the building of a series of defensive lines around London and other areas of the country.

Anti-tank roadblock concrete cubes near Sunbury
Blocks extend to the water's edge

The example here is a road block designed to slow down tanks and other armoured vehicles as they progressed in expected Blitzkrieg fashion across the green and pleasant land.  The concrete cubes extend down to the water’s edge, leaving a small gap that could be plugged with a removable barrier, possibly a duplicate of the piece of bent railway track, or hairpin, still in place.

Bent railway track or 'hairpin' anti-tank barricade
Bent railway track or 'hairpin' barricade

I did a bit of fishing around, and discovered this particular defensive position close to Sunbury-on-Thames was part of the Outer London Stop Line.  Other types of defense included concrete pillboxes, minefields and trenches, plus use of natural features like the river here.

A road block like this one would likely be defended by another firing position nearby, so it wasn’t just a case of the enemy turning up and spending five minutes pulling out the barriers.

There are many similar features around UK, but I don’t think the seriousness of the threat at the time, or the extent of the defenses put in place to counter it, are widely known.

It’s also sobering to think these blocks were put down only 22 years before I was born.

More on British anti-invasion preparations of Word War II here.

A Ramble Through Rationalism

The last thing I expected at a history talk with Stephen Fry was a discussion on the relative merits of rationalism and empiricism. But that’s what we got for part of the time at the Harper Collins Annual history Lecture at the Royal Institute of British Architects last month.   And for some reason, the topic’s stuck in my head.

Stephen Fry at the Harper Collins History Lecture (photo Sven Klinge)
Stephen Fry at the Harper Collins History Lecture (photo Sven Klinge)

A rush to rationalism?

The difference between rationalism and empiricism essentially turns on the degree to which we draw on the evidence of our senses in creating knowledge.

Fry’s comments were a warning through illustration of over-dependence on apparently rational decisions.  As the conversation moved to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Fry made the point that while it seemed rational to liberate Eastern Europe with the flourish, rapidity,  and  completeness now symbolised by the dismantling of the wall, that process also had unforeseen consequences in the form of unprecedented crime and corruption.

Fry likened it to the activation of a sleeping cancer one might find in a patient from Oliver Sacks’s book Awakenings.   These negative developments had been kept in check only by the strictures of the former regime, and were now – in some quarters – the cause of discontent and a call for a return to a more certain past.

Stephen Fry and Lisa Jardine
Stephen Fry in conversation with Lisa Jardine at RIBA (Photo: Sven Klinge)

It’s hard to know whether an empiricist approach would have predicted the unlooked for outcome, or whether the experience of Eastern Europe has informed China’s more recent and ongoing transformation.  But when looked at in this way, the Chinese process, whereby economic liberation moves ahead of relaxation in political and social controls, might not be all bad. For while the West finds elements of the process distasteful, what greater chaos might be unleashed under a less managed regime?

Yet at an emotional level, attacks on rationality can grate, especially with scientists and technologists.  I bristled when Fry likened over-zealous support for rationalism to belief in religion.  Was this the same Stephen Fry whose debate trounced the Catholic Church, and who regularly shares platforms with the likes of Richard Dawkins? But rather than rejecting rationalism, I believe he made a valid point: that it is too easy to assume a rationalist approach in all situations – however complex – when sometimes the abstract premises from which we deduce knowledge for decision making are just not up to it.

Ticket for Stephen Fry Lisa Jardine Harper Collins event

A palette of reason

Moving on, but with an eye to Fry’s sentiments, there seem to be an awful lot of reasonable sounding words out there: like ‘rational’, ’empirical’, ‘evidence-based’, ‘logical’; and indeed –  ‘reasonable’.  Whether in the context of drugs policy, climate change, faith schools, or whatever;  these words sit like so many pigments on a palette of reason, wielded by individuals and governments alike, to convince us – and themselves – that a particular course of action carries some special sanction.  But why do the same words frequently lead to misunderstandings and angst?

It seems to be down to definition and interpretation.  Boiling our list down to rationalism and empiricism (subsuming ‘evidence-based’ into empiricism and  logic into rationalism) the dictionary definitions and learned philosophical commentaries leave plenty of scope for confusion.

The  Compact Oxford English Dictionary defines rationalism as:

the practice or principle of basing opinions and actions on reason and knowledge rather than on religious belief or emotional response’, and empiricism as

the theory that all knowledge is derived from experience and observation

which seems pretty clear. But  the Oxford Pocket English Dictionary muddies the rational water by including philosophical and theological interpretations that flex the definition of rationalism to a form no scientist could agree with.  It seems scientific rationalism is just one brand.  I’ve really no idea what to make of the theological interpretation given as:

the practice of treating reason as the ultimate authority in religion’.

but it put me in mind of this quote from the current Pope, relayed in this interview by the Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno, and equally confusing to my concept of rationality:

religion needs science to keep itself away from superstition

No wonder there’s confusion

This all goes some way to explain why scientists find themselves at odds with the government on issues like drugs policy and the recent Nutt affair.

Professor David Nutt led a committee advising the British Government on drugs policy, until he was sacked for speaking publicly in a manner the Home Secretary judged inconsistent with his position.  The sacking blew up into a huge debate about the role of scientific advisors and their advice, what they can say when, and the way scientific evidence is used in a politically cognisant, but surely still rational, decision making process.

Some of our reasonable words appeared in  the popular press; such as ‘empirical‘ in this Daily Mail  piece by A.N.Wilson:

‘The trouble with a ‘scientific’ argument, of course, is that it is not made in the real world, but in a laboratory by an unimaginative academic relying solely on empirical facts.’

Evan Lerner has argued the technical inaccuracy of this statement that leaves us nowhere to go.  If empirical facts are no good, decision makers must be following a rationalist stance or some ‘third way’ unbeknown to philosophers.  But I’d argue the politicians are just following a brand of rationalism that suits their purpose; it’s just not a scientific one.  And when A.N.Wilson goes on to invoke the R-word:

‘Those who dare question scientists are demonised for their irrationality. Global warming may or may not be a certainty, but anyone who queries it has his sanity questioned. Cast doubt on these gods of certainty and you are accused of wanting to suppress free expression -…’

he’s right;  anyone who doesn’t comply with the scientific definition of rationality is demonised.  Personally I’d like the scientific definition to be universally accepted, but while there are powerful constituencies who benefit from and delight in wooliness defended as realism or flexibility  (politicians, theologians, dictionary compilers), I can’t see it happening.

Likewise, the only kind of rationality under which a discussion on the virtues of faith schools makes sense is one that allows ethical and metaphysical propositions (e.g. is there a god).  Moreover, we’re left with politicians working up a drugs policy using an ethics-based ‘political rationality’, and an education policy that recognises and values a ‘religious rationality’.

Unfortunately, the transparency being called for concerning when and under what circumstances this flexing of scientific rationalism happens, also threatens politicians with the anathema of exposing less visible agendas traditionally played close to the chest.

Kids Leave Dirty Footprints

Want to reduce your emissions? Forget about the gas guzzler, holidaying at home, or buying local produce; cut your “carbon legacy” and have fewer children, says new research.


In recent weeks I’ve attended two public discussions dealing with the big-picture issues of sustainability and balancing development with conservation, and neither of them did much to allay my fears or educate me about the threats associated with population growth.

I may be joining the wrong events, but it seems all too easy to miss population off the formal agenda, or leave it to a brave audience member to raise the issue at question time – when it can be scooted over or dismissed with a glib reply.  A popular counter to worries over population growth in developed countries – at home as it were – is to state that growth is mainly happening in the developing world, where per capita consumption is relatively low.  For me, that seems to ignore the medium term consumption aspirations of developing countries (look at how fast China has moved) and underplays the ratio of the impact of an individual’s consumption between the developed and developing worlds.  But I suspect most of us don’t really know what to think, and lack meaningful data to work it out for ourselves.

Now that position has improved somewhat, with the publishing this month of a formal analysis of these very issues by researchers from Oregon State University.  Murtaugh’s and Schlax’s paper: ‘Reproduction and the carbon legacy of individuals‘ is published in the journal Global Environmental Change, and also  downloadable as a pdf here.  In the authors own words:

Here we estimate the extra emissions of fossil carbon dioxide that an average individual causes when he or she chooses to have children. The summed emissions of a person’s descendants, weighted by their relatedness to him, may far exceed the lifetime emissions produced by the original parent.

It’s more usual to work out an individual lifetime’s worth of carbon footprint.  But in the Oregon study, a parent is instantly given the burden of half their child’s carbon impact, and a quarter of the carbon impact from their child’s prospective child; and so forth.  When the numbers are worked through, and comparisons are made between the developed and developing world, it’s apparent that not having that extra kid is a great way to save the planet. According to the authors’ data, the impact of that decision far outweighs that of other good citizen actions – like downsizing the family car.  The figures I find most provocative are the comparisons of the impact of children born in different countries.  Take the USA and Bangladesh for example: I’d assumed just on a gut feeling that a US child’s carbon footprint would be 20 or 30 times that of a child born in Bangladesh.  The figures in the new paper, with the children’s decendents accounted for, put the ratio at 168:1 – equivalent to average carbon emissions of 56t and 9441t for the Bangladesh and US cases respectively.

The carbon reduction figures presented for the various lifestyle changes we can make, and calculated over an 80 year period, range from 17 metric tonnes CO2 saved by recycling materials, to 148 metric tonnes by increasing automobile gas mileage from 20 to 30 mpg.  Those numbers can be compared with the 9441t of emissions that could be avoided by not having an extra child.

This paper is written in the spirit of presenting data as an input for informed discussion.  The authors don’t take a moral position on human rights and population control – that’s for the politicians with the people to sort out.  And it’s not too far a stretch to make the analogy between this situation and  that which existed when the global warming debate was put on a more data-rich, objective, footing by the issuing of the Stern Report in 2006.  However the detail and assumptions in this work may be criticised, as surely they will be, it’s good to see some quantification around this complex piece of the sustainability jigsaw.


Paul A. Murtaugh a,*, Michael G. Schlax b ‘Reproduction and the carbon legacies of individuals’, Global Environmental Change 19 (2009) 14–20

(Originally posted at


Also of Interest

Is population growth out of control (BBC September 2013)

Home Chemistry in the Golden Age of American Science

Chemistry Set Manual Cover
Chemistry Set Manual Cover

This post is a little different from anything I’ve put up before.  It’s a sort of blog-ised version of an academic semiotic analysis I made earlier in the year as part of my Science Communication endeavours at Imperial College.  It’s here thanks to a posting on Twitter earlier tonight by Chris Anderson (of TED fame) of an alert to David Hoffman’s film now on YouTube: ‘The Sputnik Moment – the Year America Changed its Schools’.  It’s all about how Sputnik, launched on October 4th 1957, shocked the USA into massive investment in, and reform of, the education system.  I’ve embedded the vid at the end of this post.

What follows is not directly linked to Sputnik; it refers to the previous year – 1956, but does perhaps remind us that the wheels were already turning towards a golden age of science.  And I guess that made the advent of Sputnik all the more shocking.

If you’re not familiar with the techniques of semiotic analysis (I certainly wasn’t), it can look a little contrived.  But be assured, there are folk out there right now using it to design stuff that will subtly manipulate you.  It’s not evil – but I think it’s useful and fun to practice deconstructing these things.  Anyhow, if you get bored, just skip to Hoffman’s vid :-).   So…

Home Chemistry in the Golden Age of American Science

And so each citizen plays an indispensable role. The productivity of our heads, our hands, and our hearts is the source of all the strength we can command, for both the enrichment of our lives and the winning of the peace.”

So proclaimed U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his First Inaugural Address of 1953[1] – emboldening a populace who, through the experience of science and technology at war, knew the peaceful role it might play in delivering America’s future.

And it’s to this background ethos of goal achievement and individual contribution that we’ll learn in this short essay how the innocuous chemistry set punched above its weight in preparing the nation’s youth for the golden age of American science.

For a deeper insight into what that meant in 1950s’ America, I’m going to look beyond the obvious, and pass a semiotician’s eye over, or maybe under, the cover-art of an instruction manual to a 1956 A.C.Gilbert Experiment Lab.

The idea is to start with a review of what the picture denotes – what is explicitly shown.  The aim of the semiotic approach is then to explore the less obvious and wider connotations of the picture, treating it as a ‘text’ that tells a certain story – to which the embedded and inter-related vignettes also contribute. We need to remember this is a story of, and in, its time – and it’s only going to make sense in the cultural context of the period.  Likewise, any connotations need to be interpreted in terms of the meanings and ideologies that might have engaged a contemporary reader.

That’s the approach – so what next?   Every good semiotic analysis needs a formal argument if it’s not to fly totally off the tracks.  So, I’m going to argue that:

marketing texts accompanying 1950’s American chemistry sets were consciously designed to support the myth of American progress achievable through an ideology of military and industrial global leadership; and contributed to an environment, the underlying ideology of which Eisenhower would in 1961 articulate as the ‘military-industrial complex’[2]’.

(some folk have found my double reference to Eisenhower’s speeches confusing – so to clarify: The first reference is to his inaugural speech, the second is to his statement in his farewell address, where he first mentions the (in)famous ‘military-industrial-complex’. The point is that the MIC wasn’t something Eisenhower set out intentionally to put in place; rather it was something he realised had pretty much evolved by the end of his term – and was something to be concerned about.)

On with the analysis of the picture….

With reference to popular images from the great American telescopes of the day[3], a hazy nebular against a dark blue sky forms the backdrop to iconic representations of the Rutherford-model atom whirl and a cartoon electric thunderbolt.  Two boys, maybe 10 and 14 years of age, do chemistry experiments at a bench.  Six small graphic vignettes arc around the boys, each denoting a real or imagined scene from one of: space exploration, chemical engineering, aviation, medicine, nuclear physics, and electronics.  A white capitalised title banner: ‘FUN WITH CHEMISTRY’, and a more reserved strap line: ‘today’s adventures in science will create tomorrow’s America’, frame the page top and bottom.   A small maker’s logo and red safety shield complete the picture.

First Impressions

The eye immediately tracks to the boys, particularly the elder boy. We’re helped by his central positioning; and the electric thunderbolt, symbolic as pointer in one direction and megaphone in the other, placed contiguous with his mouth.  The presence of two boys connotes camaraderie, but also hints at paternalistic leadership by the elder – a theme enhanced by their dress and respective positions (smaller boy leans forward, elder stands) and engagements (younger boy stirs, older boy analyses).

More perhaps from the parents’ viewpoint, the scene connotes an ideal of family life, reminding the reader of the vulnerability of a harmony so recently recovered from the disruption of war (US engagement in Korea until 1953).   From the child’s perspective, domestic clutter has been erased – leaving a brave future world in which the boys are abstractly suspended between deep space and the exciting promise of the vignettes – the whole entangled with the modernity of the atom whirl.

A Golden Career

Qualifying traits to enter this world are symbolised by the boy’s trim haircut and white vest – connoting military order, responsible self-discipline, and an appeal to conformity in an America struggling with McCarthian legacy[4].  The manual itself is symbolic of instruction and procedure; worry not – there is a plan.

Correctly, the boys do not laugh stupidly over their toy, but exude a serene dignity and confidence in the handling of their equipment; imagery that would endear any paying parent to Gilbert’s product.   And where the parent approves, the young owner idolises – the elder boy: god-like before nebulae, proclaiming through lightning, holding forth with test-tube as sceptre.

The ideals put upon the boys are echoed and reinforced by the white coated, neck-tied exemplars of the medical and electronics vignettes, their adjustments and measurements further connoting values of care and precision. (The absence of personal protective equipment for the boys reminds us they are not yet professionals.)

For the world of the vignettes is where Gilbert Experiment Lab owners are destined to go.  In his mind, the contemporary teenager leaves home through this text’s imagery, entering an educational way-station toward an ordained industrial career in ‘tomorrow’s America’ and the Golden Age of Science.  A golden age, defined by exponential consumerism, a highways programme that would drive automobile and refinery demand for the next twenty years, and an age of popular successes in American chemistry (DDT) and medicine (Jonas’s polio vaccine).

Gilbert and his main competitor, Porter Chemcraft, reinforced the career message to both parent and child through explicit statements in associated texts[5] ; for example, the rear box cover of the Experiment Lab displayed the banner:

Another Gilbert Career-Building Science Set

While Porter Chemcraft’s box banner pulled no punches with:

Porter Science Prepares Young America for World Leadership

The Vignettes – Windows on the Military-Industrial Complex?

Given their importance to the whole, the vignettes warrant closer examination. Taken individually they denote aspects, both realistic (submarine) and speculative (space station), of their respective industries -but achieve more as elements of the greater text.  For example, collectively they reference the shear pervasiveness of chemistry as a discipline across mankind’s endeavours.  And (core to my argument), they variously reference the repeating themes of American dominance in the military, industrial, and aerospace fields – politically prescribed activities for the ‘enrichment of lives and winning of peace[6].

On a technical level we can acknowledge the clever use of white borders around the vignettes, signifying them as real photographs, fooling us that even obviously speculative scenes represent real life captured.

For a contemporary reader, the wheel-like space station of the space exploration vignette provokes a strong reference to Wernher Von Braun’s 1952 conception of a navigation-military platform [7].

von brauns wheel
Von Braun's Wheel 1952

The scene would also be familiar from science fiction texts, both print and film, and space programme news items anticipating the first US earth-orbiting satellites (Explorer I launched in 1958).

The station dominates the globe of earth.  A globe which itself is dominated by an American continental outline – a reference to the ideological exaggeration seen in the nation-flattering Rand McNally Mercator projections and consumer advertising copy of the period.[8]

Rand McNally Mercator projection with USA at centre

The combined effect is to establish a concept of an America that, projected into space, is positioned to both dominate the earth in one direction and explore the cosmos in the other.

Beside the romance of space exploration, we might today frame as pedestrian the industrial world of chemical engineering; not so in 1956 America.  Cropped of peripheral clutter, the spherical white pressure vessels become molecules – uniting with the boys’ glassware, the analytics of the medicine vignette, and the chemistry set itself, as icons of professional chemistry.  Reference to the boys’ large flask is enhanced by that vessel’s exaggeration beyond anything actually found in the set, the parallel rendered complete by the rubber tubing imitating pipe and gantry.

1950s advertisement for piston rings
1950s advertisement for piston rings

The aviation and nuclear physics vignettes both denote forms of transport. The swept delta wing and compact size of the jet aircraft signifies a military product, while the streaming contrails index for progress, movement, speed – and power.  The choice of submarine as nuclear physics exemplar, against the option of a civilian reactor or a particle physics laboratory, reinforces the military imperative.  Directly referencing the recent launch of the first nuclear powered submarine Nautilus [9], the image flatters the reader’s knowledge of this event.

Nautilus in 1954 – first nuclear powered submarine

The vessel is large and dark, with whale-like power, its speed helpfully indexed by the artist as turbulence in the ocean streamlines.  Like America, it is unstoppable and, as the scattering fish signify, all must make way before it.

A further subtle, yet reinforcing, reference to the defensive aspects of militarism can be read in the use of the red shield icon to frame the words ‘Safety-Tested’, whereby feelings of comfort and reassurance are induced on the twin planes of home and national security.

Military references are absent from the medical and electronic vignettes, these rather providing a visual link with the boys’ home activity.  The medical scientist’s equipment mirrors the boys’ rig – right down to the colour of liquid in the flask.  The electronic laboratory’s blackboard is an iconic reference to scientific intellectualism and progressive theory, but also a familiar reference to the boys’ schoolroom blackboard.  The inclusion of medicine as a theme is a calculated reference to improvements in health and quality of life – the ultimate public justification for industrial and military progress.

The predominant portrayal of individual human actors in the vignettes promotes an inaccurate myth of scientist as lone worker, at a time when the power of teamwork, recently exemplified by the Manhattan Project, was widely recognised.  A more realistic representation may simply have been viewed as overcomplicating or jeopardising of the text structures used to link home and career.

Other Features – Stereotyping

The apparent gender and racial stereotyping through omission is alerting to our modern eye, but typical of the day.   A fairer representation of gender, but never balance, is evident in later texts such as the 1960 Golden Book of Chemistry[10] – itself an icon of the genre – where boys and girls are seen working together both at home and in the professional laboratory.

An icon of the genre
An icon of the genre

Race would certainly be the basis for an oppositional reading of this text.  Despite the Immigration & Naturalisation Act of 1952, supposedly removing racial and ethnic barriers to citizenship, and the banning of racial segregation in schools in 1954, a black readership would likely receive Gilbert’s racially exclusive offering as just another slam of the door to white privilege.



Gibson could have produced his chemistry manuals with plain covers; they would certainly have appeared business like and practical.  Yet that would disallow, as this analysis has shown, an induction into, and repeated reminders of, the world of work and modern America to which the set promised entry.   A world of progress, Gilbert’s artwork tells us – with its speeding aircraft and submarines, and the restless whirl of the electron.

We have revealed evidence of Gilbert’s subscription to an ideology of American global leadership.  And how, by integrating military and industrial images, and linking them through themes of progress and the pervasiveness of chemistry, he expertly references the whole to the domestic life and career ambition of his customer.   In doing so, Gilbert, representing a substantial share of the 1950s chemistry set market, endorses my core argument.

[1] Dwight D. Eisenhower First Inaugural Address, (January 20, 1953)

[2] Dwight D. Eisenhower,  Farewell Address (January 17, 1961)

[3] The Hale 200 inch telescope was first operated in 1948; eight years earlier.  See: Florence, Ronald. The perfect machine: building the Palomar telescope, Harper Perrenial 1995

[4] Although McCarthy was ostracised two years earlier in1954, the threat of communist conspiracy and suspicion of outsiders or the unusual remained

[5] Nicholls, Henry. The chemistry set generation, Chemistry World Dec. 2007

[6] Ibid 1 Eisenhower

[7] Von Braun’s Wheel. NASA Archives.

[8] A schoolroom series of maps by Rand McNally placed America centrally on the globe and split the former soviet union in two.  See: George Simmons, ‘Training with map power’ in Cultural Detective at

[9] U.S. Navy Submarine Force Museum,

[10] Brent, Robert. The Golden Book of Chemistry, Golden Press New York, 1960

Here is David Hoffman’s film


Also of interest:

Cold War in the Classroom – Harvard Univ. Dept History of Science Exhibition 2011


Various Chemistry Set related Web-links:

Twelve Angry Men Blog – ‘Endangered Species – the Chemistry Set’

Twelve Angry Men Blog – ‘Endangered Species – the Chemistry Set – Sightings in the Wild”

Royal Society of Chemistry – ‘The Chemistry Set Generation’

Notes from the Technology Underground – ‘Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab’

Wired – ‘Don’t Try this at Home’

Wired – ‘DIY Science’

Supping With The Devil

A short note on my latest reading – ‘The Jasons’ by Ann Finkbeiner.


The book tells the true story of a group of US scientists, ‘The Jasons,’ who still to this day get together for six weeks or so every summer to analyse defence and security issues, make reports, and propose technical solutions and further work to the US government.

The Jasons were, and are, real ‘A -List’ intellectuals from the worlds of physics, chemistry and biology. They choose the problems they are able and inclined to work on, and are self-selecting of new members – apparently without government interference.

The first Jasons were drawn from the Manhattan project pool, in the age of Dr Atomic; names like Edward Teller and Hans Bethe.

I’m not going to repeat the background: here is a NY Times review of the book and the Jason’s Wikipedia entry. But a few points stuck with me:

Ideas – the shear out-of-the-box / lateral thinking, call it what you will; these guys were having serious fun with serious issues. It’s not something the Jasons are most famous for, but Nick Christofilos’s idea in the 1960s to build one long continuous runway across the USA, so the Russians couldn’t pin down SAC aircraft, tickled me. He also pushed for beam weapons and ‘electron cloud’ defensive umbrella shields; the seeds of Regan’s SDI – however impractical and misguided. He proposed an Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) communication system for submarines, to deliver six words a minute at 25Hz; that’s a 7,400-mile wavelength requiring an antenna 8,500 miles long. One of the interviewees in the book says the system was built – wires were laid !

Motivation – there doesn’t seem to be one factor. The intellectual challenge – sure, but Finkbeiner puts patriotism high on the list too. Several Jasons have described a feeling of practical usefullness, a wish to expand their science into applied technology, to become engineers – multi-disciplinary at that. This touches on the differences between scientists and engineers….and other groups, which I find fascinating.

Despite a crying need for co-operation, there is still today much structural (e.g. funding) and cultural resistance to the inter-disciplinary ethos (I speak as an engineer who served time on the commercial dark side and now hangs out with scientists). As a related aside, check out this recent Los Alamos Study.

Of their time? Born of an acute Cold War terror, the founding Jasons’ revulsion to some of the military projects they got involved with, and the price they might pay in academic and popular reputation, was more than countered by their contemplating the result of inaction. Some Jasons felt they’d made ethical trade-offs, the magnitude of which wasn’t clear to them until it was too late. Are we in the same situation today? If you are a scientist, would you commit to work in total secrecy on projects the results of which might never be published?

And while ‘The Jasons’ deals with the great and the good of an academic elite, were not the dilemmas they faced and the decisions they made in many ways similar to those facing thousands of lesser known scientists and engineers who work in the defence industry?


Update 7/7/2011

Also of interest: article in Imperial Magazine on war and innovation (download pdf)

Life, Talk To Me About Life

Search for Life at the Royal Institution
Search for Life at the Royal Institution (Photo Tim Jones)

I kind of expect to see demonstrations at the Royal Institution, an association with the Christmas Lectures I guess.

So it was nice to see a few props at Lewis Dartnell’s talk on astro-biology yesterday evening:  a Geiger counter, a jar of fluorescent quinine, a piece of Mars.   A piece of Mars !!! That got a reaction from the audience – along with an intelligent question – “how do you know it’s from Mars?”  As it happens, matching isotopes between the 1911 meteorite sample and material tested in-situ by the Viking lander on Mars leave little doubt about its origins.  Whether it contains signs of former Martian life, as some claim, is another matter.

Lewis Dartnell & Naomi Temple (Royal Institution) with the famous RI bench.  Photo: Tim Jones
Lewis Dartnell & Naomi Temple (Royal Institution) with the famous RI bench. (Photo Tim Jones)

The evening’s bottom line was that no extra-terrestrial life has yet been found; but there is particular hope for Mars and/or Jupiter’s moon Europa.

Dartnell structured his lecture from the Earth outwards: Earth, solar system, galaxy, etc.   With ‘Earth’ came a definition of life, and what an excuse that was to show some clips from this amazing Harvard Biovisions simulation of how a cell works; fast forward to 4:00mins for the best bit with vesicles being dragged along by ‘motor proteins’.

Moving out from the Earth, we find that the combination of salinity, pH, and temperature on which earth’s more ‘extremophile’ lifeforms thrive: thermophiles, acidophiles, psycrophiles in the lingo, are the exact same as those prevailing on Venus, Mars, and Jupiter’s moons.  Further out in the galaxy, there are candidate stars with Jupiter-sized planets at the right sort of solar distance for Earth-like temperature conditions to exist at their supposed moons (HD28185 and Gliese581 were the examples given).  So there’s hope.  Information, metabolism, blueprint  = Life.

Dartnell could see Martian material being brought back to earth for analysis at some point, but not for another ten years or so.  In the meantime, the European ExoMars probe, due for launch in 2011, will drive around the surface, drilling holes and taking samples.  It will also illuminate the landscape with ultraviolet light, organic molecules betraying themselves with their fluorescence.

No discussion on extra-terrestrial life is complete without some sort of Saganish ‘Billions’ illustration of how many stars – and presumably planets – there are in the universe: the implication being that we have a large sample size even if the odds are thin (which they aren’t necessarily).   Lewis Dartnell showed it last night.  Astronomer Stephen Warren showed it at his inaugural lecture at Imperial College tonight.  This is the now iconic Hubble deep field image showing a section of sky equivalent to only 1/30th the moon’s diameter (Warren reckoned a 1mm square at the end of your arm – sounds about right).  And most of the objects  here are galaxies.

Hubble Deep Field
Hubble Deep Field

The insufficiently humbled can check out higher resolution versions at

“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

“Life, don’t talk to me about life….”



As a quick aside.  Before Lewis Dartnell kicked off, the organisers called for a show of hands of any first time visitors to the Royal Institution, and that turned out to be a fair chunk of audience; less than 50% I reckon, but a good number.  With my SciCom hat on, that’s really encouraging – folk taking an interest in science and technology (and they didn’t look like the UFO squad either).

“Very Little Can Stop The Train” Sir David King On Media Reporting and MMR

I’ve just returned from the annual British Humanist Association Darwin Day Lecture, this year delivered by Sir David King at a session chaired by Richard Dawkins.

Sir David King and Professor Richard Dawkins at the BHA Darwin Day Lecture 2009 (photo Tim Jones)
Sir David King and Professor Richard Dawkins at the BHA Darwin Day Lecture 2009 (photo Tim Jones)

King is a former Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government, and now heads up a multi-disciplinary organisation tackling climate change – The Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment- at Oxford University.

His talk entitled  ‘Can British Science Rise to the New Challenges of the Twenty First Century?’ was very similar in content to one I watched him give at a PAWS event in November, and dealt less with British Science, and more with the complexities of tackling global climate change.   There were some new angles, but I’d refer you to my previous blog HERE – inspired by Sir David’s earlier talk – rather than repeat myself.   I believe a podcast of tonight’s event will appear on the BHA site in due course.

So perhaps, given the greater relevance to current debate over poor media reporting of science, and particularly that related to MMR (and the Goldacre/LBC radio encounter), you’d like to hear what Sir David volunteered tonight on that subject.  It came up in response to a question from the floor about the Daily Mail.  Sir David’s transposed response:

We’ve now got a measles epidemic growing in this country, and the measles epidemic is the result directly of a very poor piece of science from John Wakefield, somehow being published in the Lancet – should never have been published – the database was far too small.  And then gaining momentum in the media, and it’s not only the Daily Mail, John Humphreys was one of those pushing that… that the connection between MMR and autism raised real questions, and the take-up of the MMR vaccine began to fall very dramatically.  And my prediction a few years ago was that we would approach something like a hundred deaths a year from, amongst children, from measles as a measles outbreak occured, inevitably.

If you do models and you drop below 80% uptake of the vaccine, the measles must come back.  Of course the Daily Mail’s campaign was one of the instruments that got people very worried about that particular issue.  So I think that was an example where the science was so clear.  Let me tell you.  There was a Danish study of all the children born in Denmark over ten years of whom 15% had not had the MMR vaccine, and 85% had.  The statistical incidence of autism in the two groups was the same.   Now just to be on the…on the…..when I say the same within statistical error.  The nice thing was, from the point of view of those who were sceptics, that amongst the group who didn’t have the vaccine, there was a slight larger number- larger percentage – with autism.  Now any parent worrying about the situation, just needs surely to be given that set of statistics, and yet the Daily Mail wouldn’t publish it when I went to them.   What am I saying, [finding his words]well, it rarely gets their story right.  There is…there is a sort of disbelief, but I’m afraid when a newspaper is running a campaign, there’s very little can stop the train

To which Richard Dawkins, with a look of amazement and with apparent reference to the Daily Mail not printing the Denmark evidence, said – “I’m shocked

Back Pocket Big Picture

(This article originally appeared at

Over Christmas, according to the Carbon Neutral Company’s online calculator, my wife and I were responsible for the release of 4.2 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere – our share of a 19000km round trip flight from London to Los Angeles.   With two such flights a year, that makes our individual emission 4.2 tonnes, or nearly half the UK per person annual average of  9.51 tonnes.


To reel off excuses for this travel (my better half hails from the US, and we like to see the in-laws in the flesh occasionally) is to miss the point, which is that I, and many more like me, at least now have some awareness and quantification of the impact we’re making; our consciousness has been raised.

We’re all part of the problem, each with our own circumstances,  and each needing a plan to address our impact.   My plan might involve paying the Carbon Neutral Company’s recommended carbon off-set fee of £35.70 in support of a Chinese hydro-electric project.  It won’t on this occasion, because while I support off-setting as one tool in the bag of control measures,  I’ve chosen instead to donate to projects benefiting animals already affected by the complex interplay of climate factors – which I’m about to come on to.

Starting the year with a  knowledge of your personal carbon footprint is only part of the story.  While sufficient perhaps for the average citizen to act upon and make a difference, policy makers, industry leaders, NGOs, conservationists, educators, and the plethora of other stakeholders and interest groups directly involved in climate change issues, need the bigger picture.

This is the bigger picture I’ll be working to in 2009, and it comes from the UK Government’s former Chief Scientific Advisor – Sir David King.   It’s been in my head, sparking ideas and resonating with a whole range of experience since I scribbled it on the back of a business card back in November.   I saw Sir David at an environmental media awards evening organised by PAWS, where he used the diagram to illustrate the important challenges of the 21st Century, and their inter-dependency.

Examples of specific  inter-dependencies are well represented in Conservation Today articles: from unpredictable climate induced pathogen interactions impacting biodiversity, to corporate actions influencing food production, to how health and education are changing the global population dynamic.   King’s representation is helpful in encapsulating the whole smash; its something you can carry around in your mental back pocket.   Away from specifics,  it also for me informs at least three more oblique, but no less important, themes that I’ll now expand upon:

  • The importance of  not generalising
  • The imperative for interdisciplinary and international cooperation
  • An opportunity for business and an alternative to rampant consumerism?

Don’t Generalise

I’ll illustrate how generalisations are dangerous with reference to two processes: desalination and GM crop growing.

Desalination is a process that has been criticised for its energy intensity and associated CO2 footprint.  King referred to the Australian province of Victoria’s response to seven years of drought conditions, whereby a third of its water will in future come from new desalination capacity.  Ultimately powered by Australia’s plentiful coal reserves, the plants will indirectly yield CO2, which will warm the planet, which will intensify the drought, which will demand more desalination plants.   It’s a simplified picture – but you get the point; in this case technology is a short term fix to a  grim spiral.

I’ve since though found a more positive example of ‘Green Desalination’ in the form of California’s Carlsbad Project.  Here, a 50 million gallon per day desalination plant is being built to supply up to 8% of San Diego County’s water needs, involving co-location of the plant with a new power station at the coast.   The encouraging  part is that when completed in 2011, it promises to be the first US plant to have a net zero carbon footprint.

So why can the Americans do it but not the Australians?    First off – don’t generalise – every situation is different; processes and power stations are not inherently evil.  San Diego County currently imports 90 percent of its water from a distance of more than 800km, from Sacramento Bay Delta and Colorado River, and the electricity needed to deliver and treat that water is close to what the new plant will use.   The mitigation of the remaining ‘CO2 gap’ will be achieved at the site through initiatives like green building design; on-site solar power generation; funding renewables; and acquisition of renewable energy credits.  Further carbon dioxide will be sequestrated by creation of coastal wetlands and reforestation (we know how important those are, see here) – and that will impact biodiversity.  See how our diagram is working here?

We also generalise when we impose the luxury of our western standards on to less wealthy societies.  Increased desertification and flooding in some Asian regions is combining with a healthier, more educated, and therefore at least temporarily increasing, population, to demand that rice farming become more intensive.  This means farming on land that may flood, requiring flood resistant rice strains – which are readily available as GM seeds.  In practice though, farmers wishing to export product beyond their own needs refrain from using GM rice because of the negative attitude it attracts in the west.  As a result, such farms may fail to meet even local food needs.  Given my personal stance on GM crops, that amounts to a case of  “one man’s lifestyle choice is another man’s starvation”.

The imperative for interdisciplinary and international cooperation

Inter-relating challenges demand an increased coordination of the political, infrastructure, research, and educational aspects associated with each.   Global warming is possibly the defining example of a need for innovatory thinking combined with an imperative for pan-disciplinary co-operation; not only across the sciences, but involving engineering, medicine, commercial, and policy elements.   The slow progress made at recent climate summits suggests the required international policy infrastructure just does not exist.  So where are the rays of hope?   The world has high hopes of Obama, and his promised global energy forum could be part of a more mature future; remember this:

“In addition I will create a Global Energy Forum—based on the G8+5, which includes all G-8 members plus Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa—comprising the largest energy consuming nations from both the developed and developing world. This forum would focus exclusively on global energy and environmental issues. I will also create a Technology Transfer Program dedicated to exporting climate-friendly technologies, including green buildings, clean coal and advanced automobiles, to developing countries to help them combat climate change”

And closer to home, encouraging exemplar organisations have emerged, such as the  University College London’s Environment Institute, who are developing a pan-disciplinary approach to global warming; and King’s own organisation, the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment in Oxford, which aims to help governments, companies, and individuals meet future environmental challenges in the context of the bigger picture.

An opportunity for business and an alternative to rampant consumption

I could easily have overprinted the big picture interactions diagram with a giant $ sign, given that all our challenges are inescapably embedded in an economic and political web of capitalist growth imperative, feeding on consumption and wealth generation.     Question is – has that web, via the present financial crisis and to a background of increased environmental awareness, had a wake up call in any positive sense?

I’m going to stick my neck out and take an upbeat, even optimistic, tack on how business and the capitalist monster can become our greatest assest in tackling the century’s environmental challenges.   How come?   Because I believe there will be a significant shift of attitudes in (a) business awareness of the opportunities from environment related projects (like the Carlsbad desalination scheme), (b) increased government investment in such projects, both as a way of countering recession and addressing the underlying environmental need, (c) a less predictable re-think on the part of private individuals about the role of consumption – particularly excessive consumption in the west –  on their well-being.   I’m most optimistic about (a) and (b), precisely because the required technologies and management practices are at present so underdeveloped.   I’m less sure about the form of, or optimistic about how we might achieve, the revised international infrastructure needed to moderate individual nation’s interests.

Dumb Dee Dumb Dee Dumb

Okay – in September I made this little joke about the dumbing down of education standards in the UK; a tension reliever from the continuous and often anecdotal murmur around grade stats going up while exam difficulty goes down.

But the issue is dead serious, as we are reminded today by the Royal Society of Chemistry‘s publication: A wake-up call for science education?

The report describes what happened recently when 1,300 of the nation’s brighter 16 year olds were tested on chemistry exam questions taken from over the last 50 years. The selected questions were of the more mathematical type that test a pupil’s ability to analyse and understand the fundamentals (I think the word ‘hard’ has become politically incorrect), as these are the more useful skills critics say have been fogged out in contemporary tests weighted towards memory.

The report is here, but in a nutshell: the authors say there has been a real and significant reduction in the difficulty of numerical or analytical type questions moving from the 1980’s to the 1990’s, which corresponds to a change in the exam system. UK readers will recognise this transition as the move from a combination of O-Levels (for the ‘brighter’ kids) and CSEs (for the others) to the single GCSE system. Things have stabilised a bit since the transition but, as the authors observe, there are fewer of the analytical type question in the new regime.

What’s more, the average test score on these more analytical questions was only 25%, causing the RSC to call for an urgent increase in this type of question in today’s papers.

Consistent with the authors’ thesis, pupils did least well on multi-step maths oriented problems where there was no prompting of what to do next. Even problems requiring basic maths presented difficulties. Part of the explanation -although its arguably nothing to be proud of – is that some of the more complex content is no longer taught at this level.

In a double whammy that will have the sociologists wetting themselves: the study found that pupils from independent schools (that means private, where typically middle class professional parents pay for their kids’ education ) did significantly better than the state educated pupils; also that boys did better than girls on the hard maths problems. The independent school result is put down in part to the tendency for these schools to teach science as separate subjects – physics, chemistry, biology – and to them having more specialised science teachers (of which there is a chronic national shortage). The authors consider the gender result ‘unusual’.

The final conclusion was that the current system doesn’t recognise the most exceptional students with a wider knowledge of the subject. I think that reflects a tendency to ask only questions the routine solution for which has been taught. Essentially, we have gone from a situation where the teacher gave you a knife with instructions how to carve, to one where the standard tool is a pastry cutter.

What the government will make of this latest grenade lobbed into the mire of UK education policy, we will have to wait and see.

The mainstream press on this story:

from The Independent

from The Guardian

from The Times

from The Telegraph

Also interesting:

This at Amused Cynicism.

And in Telegraph, June 14 2011, this on ‘Pupils Should Study Maths to 18

Drayson’s Sixth Sense

There has been a lot of comment in the last few days about statements made in an interview with Lord Paul Drayson, the new UK science minister, concerning his beliefs around faith, god, and particularly his claim to a ‘sixth sense’ for on occasion knowing what was going to happen.

Science Minister Lord Paul Drayson (Photo WikiCommons)

What I find regrettable is the tone of reporting that might lead some to imply Drayson either claims some supernatural power, or recognises the existence of some such power. Maybe that is what he believes, but there is a difference between having a mind open enough to entertain there being elements of nature operating that we don’t understand but whose effects are manifest in the world, and believing that supernaturalism or man-made mythic influences are at work. I can read his comments either way.

It is no mystery that our subconscious is continually chewing things over in the background of our minds, and taking note of things without us knowing. The product of that sub-conscious analysis appears as our intuition; we suddenly know something without knowing why – magically if you like. So is that where Paul Drayson is coming from? Or what?

It also doesn’t help when the press latch on to Drayson’s references to the ‘magic’ of science. Here for me at least he is clearly talking metaphorically, in the same vein that Einstein and Hawking expressed themselves.