# Unicorns and the Juche

The authorities in North Korea have “reconfirmed” the discovery of a Unicorn lair, reports the Guardian.

Happily they were aided by the fact that someone carved the words “unicorn lair” into the rock outside the animals’ home.

Given the nature of the state we can only assume that the latest Kim to head the world’s first and last (though Cubans might disagree) Stalinist hereditary monarchy is a strong believer in the existence of unicorns. Much in the same way that the Soviet authorities promoted Lysenkoism because it was a pet theory of Josef Stalin and Nikita Khruschev despite most Soviet geneticists – or those who survived – knowing it to be garbage. (This presents another opportunity to recommend Red Plenty).

# The decline of the chemistry set

I had a couple of chemistry sets when I was young and also had great fun with them (though as they involved a naked flame my mother always supervised).

English: 1940s Gilbert chemistry set. Photographed at Shoreline Historical Museum, Shoreline, Washington. Includes: Top row * * * * (Haematoxylum campechianum) * * * * * * Powdered * Powdered * Second row * * * Powdered * * Bottom row * * solution (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One set allowed me to manufacture a foul-smelling, green-coloured gas – which the guide asserted had been used as a weapon during the Great War.

I bought my eldest daughter a kit a few years ago and it was so boring and lacking in excitement that we both gave up on it after an hour. It was not used a second time.

The BBC report that our experience is not a solitary one and that safety concerns have more or less destroyed the market for kids’ chemistry sets. It’s quite hard to justify selling anyone a set that allows them to manufacture weapons of mass destruction, never mind give it to children. But without the magic, what’s the point?

# The Copernican principle and the multiverse

Brian Greene (Photo credit: Marjorie Lipan)

Thinking about this leaves my mind in a bit of a twist, but it is worth exploring.

I am still reading Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos: a great book (just enough maths in the footnotes to make me feel I haven’t completely lost touch yet with a clear narrative in plain English in the body).

In the book there is, understandably enough, a fair bit of discussion of the “cosmological constant” – an anti-gravitational force that is powering the universe’s expansion.

It turns out that this force is just about the right value to allow galaxies to form (if it were too high then gravity would not be able to overcome it, if it were too low then gravity might just throw everything into one lump or a black hole). Without galaxies, goes the reasoning (after Steven Weinberg), there would be no life – as galaxies allow the mixing of various elements (eg everything on the Earth that comes higher in the periodic table than iron was manufactured in a supernova, while everything that is heavier than helium surely got here in the same explosive way – we are not so much what stars are made of as opposed to being made of stars.)

But there are about $10^{124}$ different values of the cosmological constant that could have a measurable effect on our universe’s physical laws, argues Brian Greene and essentially demands that, via the Copernican Principle (that humans are not at the centre of the universe) that requires there to be approximately (in fact, rather more) that number of universes out there to show that our universe, with its physical laws (or, more accurately, its physical constants – the laws being immutable) is just another typical drop off point.

And, happily for Greene, he points out that string theory allows for about $10^{500}$ universes, so it is perfectly possible for this one, with its particular cosmological constant, to be just typical.

But, while I understand this argument and, of course, it has a beauty and is perhaps the ultimate vindication of Doctor Copernicus, it also seems to me to be flawed. There seems to me to be no need to demand these additional universes. Because we can only observe the universe we are in. Were there to be only one universe (I know that term is technically a tautology, but I hope you understand the point) and it had different physical characteristics we simply would not be around to see it.

The fact that our universe has a particular set of characteristics and we can see it seems to me to prove or demand nothing very much (ie., I am not making some argument in favour of a “grand designer” either) – other than we have “won” a physical lottery. We exist because of the physical characteristics of the universe, not the other way round, which it seems to me is quite close to what Greene demands.

# Science and the conspiracy: a review of “Ordinary Thunderstorms”

There is no substantive science in William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms, though the principal character, Adam Kindred (presumably so-named as an everyman and brother), is a scientist who sees his life turned inside-out when he witnesses the murder of another scientist.

But the book – which is a real page turner if ultimately unsatisfying on many levels – offers a window on to how many do see science: in the grip of amoral big business, and corrupted by commercial pressure.

Of course, there is no smoke without fire, and there is no doubt that many of the practices of the pharmaceutical industry – on which the book concentrates – are against the interests of patients and broader science.

But the conspiracy theory of science – as presented here – is the dominant narrative. That is why works such as Contagion are such a blast of fresh air.

# The tyranny of the arts graduates continues

Image via Wikipedia

I imagine in Michael Gove‘s world, this has been a good week. The UK’s secretary of state for education has been in the news a lot this week, and that seems to be the key metric for him – after all his qualifications for the job essentially seem to be that he was once a journalist (and a militant and active trade unionist – a friend who worked with him at the BBC once told me he was deployed to ensure that “the Tories all came out” during disputes at the Corporation in 1994.)

The two equal pinnacles of Mr Gove’s week would appear to be his writing a preface (!) to the Bible that he is sending to all schools (he doesn’t seem to understand that Catholic schools – of which there are rather a lot – will not use the text he is sending them, never mind the questions of what the state-maintained Jewish and Muslim schools will think) and a speech he gave to Cambridge University earlier in the week where he waxed lyrical about high literature but seemed to have nothing or next-to-nothing to say about engineering, maths and science.

Matt Pearson puts it so much better than I ever could:

Gove rarely talks of skills which can be used in the modern economy, he does not mention collaboration and teamwork, communication skills and the ability to use a range of technologies to get a job done. He does not talk of creativity and entrepreneurship, of engaging with the information society and introducing young people to the rigours of engineering or computer programming. Presumably as his own education did not cover these elements, and Jane Austen wrote very little in JavaScript, these disciplines have not entered his purview.

# Is all other science “unpopular” then?

The great British distaste for science goes on.

In a central London bookshop today I noticed that the only science books on sale were the ones badged as “popular science”: bad luck if you wanted something more in depth.

# What’s next?

Image via Wikipedia

My first exam in the second year of the (part-time) MSc is tomorrow and I guess I am writing this blog partly as a way of avoiding more revision, but partly also because if last year’s experience is any guide, that exam will knock the stuffing out of any optimism I have, so I shall write something now while I still have some hope.

The exams are not the end of the degree if I pass them then technically I can claim a post-graduate diploma, but I already have one of them, in Journalism Studies from Westminster and as was said to me at the time “it’s just about worth the paper it is printed on”: I learnt a lot but nobody much else is impressed.

To get the degree I need to complete my project on memory management in the Linux kernel – it’s an ambitious project and time will be short so it may get frantic.

But when it’s over, what will I do? I don’t plan to work in IT: 45 seems quite an age to go from reasonable success and some prospects in one career to starting at the bottom in any case.

But nor do I want to abandon science for a second time. A part-time PhD? That really is a long term commitment, though.

# Do universities fail science students?

Image via Wikipedia

There is a very interesting article on the THES website today – “So last century” – which says that universities are failing students because they teach them in such a compartmentalised way.

Whether the study is conducted by the CBI in the UK or by commercial for-profit educational providers drumming up business for their remedial post-baccalaureate job-training services, everyone seems to acknowledge that today’s students are good test-takers but lack the workplace essentials necessary for the 21st century. These include people skills (especially in diverse global contexts), communication skills, collaborative skills, analytical skills, networking skills, an ability to synthesise information across a wide range of evidence, and even the most elementary skills, such as how to write a great job application letter and curriculum vitae or represent their character and talent at a job interview. No wonder they face the career centre with such trepidation.

Well, while the article is well written and an interesting read I think it is fundamentally wrong.

My objection is not just the standard, liberal, view that actually universities are not meant to be factories turning out people fit for labour (albeit higher labour) – though it is partly that. Good employers invest in their employees in any case and do not expect them to be delivered for free as the fully formed article.

I certainly do not believe that there was some golden age where graduates were being turned out with all these skills either. One only has to look at the somewhat doolally behaviour – from Newton onwards - of some of the greatest scientists to know that academic excellence and socialisation are always the easiest of bedfellows.

But it is more fundamental – degrees have to be specialised, certainly in science, because they also have to be, at least partially, grounded in research and a preparation for research.

My first degree was in Astrophysics. “Communication skills, collaborative skills…” and all the rest of it have nothing very much to do with cosmology and every minute that would be spent teaching me about them would be a minute wasted in preparing me for being an astrophysist.

The fact I never became an astrophysist is hardly the point – there would not have been much point to an astrophysics degree if it at least did not offer that path.

Science degrees need to be specialised because science is ever-more complex and specialised. Some scientists think this may be a temporary thing – in A Brief History Of Time Stephen Hawking suggests that further scientific advance might simplify our theories – but there is no sign of that at present.

So, if universities are to produce scientists they have to focus on science and not think of themselves as pre-office work trainers.

# I failed art at school

Art was the only subject in which I failed a school exam – getting a low 30-something in 1980′s end of year tests. Not that I cared much. But as the years have gone by I have on more than one occasion wished I was rather better at it. Even now, trying to write a scientific paper – and for me, at least back then, art was always the opposite pole to science – my art skills are rather letting me down.

Virtual memory and paging

This graphic shows you why – now I have reduced it in size it looks passable (as a hugely simplified explanation of paging and virtual memory, but the arrows are still very ragged. Still, this is better than I would have managed even a year ago.