Science in defence of the arts.

Science or art? (Image courtesy of the BBC)

Universities are facing hard times ahead. The free market policies put in place by the former Labour government have been taken to the extreme by the current Conservative-led coalition and these are going some way to ensuring that our higher education system, one of the oldest and most respected in the world, is to be transformed into a market-driven, privatised and competitive corporate entity, concerned only with marketing innovation, management culture, performance targets and profit. The coalition has cut government funding of universities, preferring instead to let students pick up the slack via an extortionate increase in tuition fees. According to Times Higher Education these are currently standing at an average of £8,500 a year for a student starting a university course in England in 2012/13, up from £3,375 for a student starting this year.

Comparatively, the sciences have got off relatively easy. Make no mistake, the cuts to science in both the private and public sectors will still be deep and university students will have to fork out more money than ever before to enrol on the same science courses that used to be free to students in the past, including to the members of this current government. Universities are also well aware that science courses are often more costly to run with laboratory requirements, equipment and technicians to fund. It is too early to tell as to whether the cuts will affect enrolment on science courses or not. We can however take some solace in the fact that the government has pledged a further £100 million to science institutions, one of which is in Norwich, with an emphasis on space technologies and physics. Still, this is a trifling amount in comparison to the £200 million earmarked to repair potholes, for example.

The arts have not been so lucky. The UK Film and Television Council has been axed completely, and The Arts Council is facing cuts of 30%, equivalent to £100 million. Local theatres have been hit hard, and the continued funding of many of the UK’s local orchestras are being called into question. The arts and social sciences are often the first to go at universities during times of hardship, especially at research driven institutions where original publications in respected science journals like Nature or Science can bring in large amounts of revenue compared with equivalent research in the leading journals in the social sciences, but also because of the unfair reputation of the arts subjects as ‘soft’ and with little potential for further progression from continued research and fewer prospects for relevant jobs. It is claimed that all university departments would have to have been hit equally hard and unfairly by these cuts, but it is now obvious that in true Tory style the government considers some subjects to be more equal than others.

What is higher education and society without the arts? What satisfaction can we extract from a lifetime devoid of the wonders of art, magic of cinema or theatre and insights of history? The arts are the glue that acts to bind our modern, multicultural communities, as they go beyond language and cultural barriers to provide an innate sense of wonder, enjoyment and relaxation. They mould our national cultural identity and provide us and future generations with a snapshot of the present that will one day act as an insight into the past. They tell a story that appeals to our basic, core emotions – fear, jubilation, hatred and love. They reunite us with our past, our ancestors and distant relatives, their world and mistakes and they excite our imagination to consider the impossible. Powerful national art, film and theatre swells our national pride beyond the ideologically shallow primitiveness of flag-waving patriotism.

More and more, the divide between the sciences and art is becoming blurred. Art is now science, science now art. We are beginning to understand the science behind the effect that that art has on people, but we have much more to learn. There is a temptation for scientists to become focussed to the objectivity of our existence, preoccupied with the indifference of the universe and its beautiful but inherently physical laws. Art is important for scientists because it is so markedly different in some aspects – how and where it is carried out and the conventions and rationale behind it all, but it is also remarkably similar too. Both subjects serve to push the boundaries of our knowledge and perception, providing us with novel and unique ways of viewing the world and our conscious perception of it.

A call to arms should be ringing out over all university campuses across England, a call to unite in defence of our higher education system and in particular the arts, and that rallying cry should be led at the forefront by scientists.

Hodie mihi, cras tibi - Today for me, tomorrow for thee.


Ignorance is not bliss

‘The World’s Most Respected Astrologer’ Jonathan Cainer spouts ignorance in this month’s edition of ‘Reveal’ (picture by author)

Above is a picture I took (apologies for the poor quality) of astrologer and charlatan Jonathan Cainer’s contribution to ensuring that the general public, and in this case readers of the UK woman’s magazine ‘Reveal’, remain startlingly ignorant in regards to the scientific and objective reality of our existence. Here is a man, who it is claimed has 7 million readers (evidence pending, naturally), postulating on the causes on one of the most destructive natural disasters in recent times in such a unbelievably ridiculous way that I was unsure as to whether I had finally succumbed to the influence of the ‘supermoon’ and had delved uncontrollably into the blackened void of insanity.

This short introduction to this week’s star signs is so jam-packed with an unusually high density of such intolerable bullshit that I was worried that my head might explode upon reading it. Where do I start? I suppose I could start by giving credit where it is due, even if in this case it is due to a quack who is under the impression that our monthly perception of the relative positions of distant stars is somehow and inexplicably an omen for the cyclical decreasing and increasing of the sexual and financial fortunes of particular individuals of a single primate species on a single, isolated planet in the corner of the universe. He is correct however in stating that the Moon is not a fixed distance from the Earth, its orbit is elliptical and occasionally it is several thousand miles (an actual scientist would use the S.I. unit, metres or kilometres in this case) closer. Whilst the lunar perigee does have some affect on tides, its total force is still very weak and there is currently no evidence to suggest that the current orbital configuration had any affect whatsoever on the intensity, timing or severity of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, or in fact any other large earthquake since records began. The gravitational affect of the Moon cannot affect the viscous contents of the mantle, or contribute to the increased subduction or shear of the tectonic plates.
The science behind this is sound, and relatively basic. The affect that any celestial body exerts on the Earth is proportional to its mass, and inversely proportional to the third power of its distance. The moon, at lunar perigee is just over 5% closer to the Earth than on average (semi-major axis) which would increase the gravitational field gradient between the Moon and the Earth by around 125%. For those interested I have carried out the relevant calculations, and the values of the gravitational field gradient, and these can be found here. Although this sounds like a large amount, the gravitational field gradient is so small that this is a barely imperceptible change. More information can be found at the USGS or at the Seismic Laboratory of the University of California in Berkeley.
Mr Cainer is also right about that fact that we are reaching the peak of the solar flare cycle, but he is fundamentally and irrevocably wrong when he states that this cycle would have anything at all to do with the frequency of earthquakes. Increasing solar flare activity may cause disruption to electrical distribution networks and satellite communications, but there is no increased gravitational affect associated with solar flares and no one has ever stated anything to the contrary. I am uncertain as to what research he is referring to when he states that “Research suggests that such times bring more natural disasters” as helpfully and unsurprisingly he fails to mention his sources.

As his editorial descends into the inarticulate, ridiculous and absurd Mr Cainer mentions the opposition of Saturn and Jupiter and the ‘T-sqaure’ that ‘formed in’ Pluto. To analyse the affect on the tiny gravitational field gradient between the Earth and these planets, please refer to the link to UC Berkeley. Pluto is not mentioned as everybody is now aware that it is no longer a planet, but rather a dwarf planet within the minor planet category, along with Ceres, Haumea, Makemake and Eris. There are also a further 269,644 minor planets, all outlined here, so to suggest that one of these bodies would have any affect on what is already a very weak gravitational gradient is patently absurd.

Just to top everything off, ‘The World’s Most Respected Astrologer’ finishes with a snide comment regarding our ‘dangerous addition’ to nuclear ‘fuel’, despite the exemplary performance of the Fukushima nuclear plant in the wake of a natural disaster well outside of its design and engineering limit.

I think that this article is perhaps one of the more upsetting examples of of this kind of pseudo-scientific astrological mumbo-jumbo. Instead of preying on his normal victims, including the grieving, naive, destitute and desperate, Mr Cainer has turned his unfocussed attention to the science regarding the dynamics of our planet, and has chosen an insensitive and offensive time to do it. Just out of shot to the left in the picture above is an image of a woman sat on the ground, sobbing amongst the wreckage of her home and country. She doesn’t need an explanation of the disaster that has cost the lives of tens of thousands, especially not one that is written in the stars or caused by Pluto and postulated by an ignorant man in a weekly magazine. This is a man who knowingly profiteers on the naivety of the unquestioning and scientifically illiterate populace of our country, who for some reason look to him to provide them with answers to the unanswerable and solutions to the unpredictability and indifference of the universe. Statistics dictate that no matter what unfounded rubbish he chooses to spout this week, with an apparent readership of 7 million, at least some of it will prove to be true for a few people, and if he keeps it ambiguous and vague enough the number of happy customers seeking order amongst the chaos increases further still. Perhaps because science cannot provide all the answers yet, and makes no claims to the contrary, people desperate for assurance or guidance in the face of unrelenting unfairness turn to astrology, like grasping at straws in the sea of the unknown. I would remain very sceptical of any individual who claimed that they could provide solutions to the stochasticity of our existence, especially if those answers are based on lies spun out weekly for profit.

Habitable Exoplanets: An Anthropic Principle

Artist’s conception of an extrasolar planetary system around the star Kepler 62 (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)

As the search for extra-solar planets continues to uncover potentially habitable planetary companions in the orbit of hundreds of stars across the universe, the ability to narrow down the potential target stars may save considerable time and resources spent on telescopy. Contemporary planet-finding technologies are close to reaching their full potential in terms of resolution, accuracy and the acquisition of data on extra-solar planets. Despite some future projects currently in development (such as the ESA’s Gaia Mission, set for launch in 2011), these indirect methods will most likely be superseded by the implementation of direct imaging technology in the foreseeable future, as is currently in independent and collaborative development at NASA, the ESA and other national space agencies. These missions include NASA’s Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF) coronagraph and interferometer and the ESA’s Darwin projects (both are currently on indefinite hiatus due to budgetary constraints), as well as the James Webb Space Telescope (a collaboration between NASA, the ESA and the Canadian Space Agency) (NASA, 2010).

As the still relatively youthful discipline of exoplanet detection and analysis moves to the forefront of astronomy and planetary sciences, the budgetary constraints of the launch and operation of expensive space telescope missions ensures that these resources must be utilised efficiently and with the greatest possible scientific reward. Some exoplanets have already been shown to be orbiting within the habitable zones of their stars but they remain unlikely candidates for life because of their large mass and crushing gravity, a fact that should galvanise the scientific community and their sources of funding to accelerate the implementation of more advanced imaging technologies that would allow smaller, more habitable planets to be detected. Despite the fact that the detection of extrasolar planets, habitable or otherwise, adds significantly to our understanding of the formation, interaction and distribution of planets in the universe, the primary goal of exoplanet detection remains the discovery of possible life-harbouring planets that share our celestial neighbourhood.

Students and scientists are turning to increasingly novel yet basic means for determining where to begin our search for habitable planets. A good starting point is the habitable zone theory, a concept that has been well studied for several decades. Whilst the theory has some weaknesses it provides the best indication to date of the presence of ‘habitable’ conditions, operating within the biological and physical framework of our current understanding. Subsequent study and imaging campaigns directed at the chemical composition of atmospheres of targeted planets in star systems with a high probability of harbouring habitable planets using (as of yet undeployed) thermal and infrared imaging, coronagraph and interferometer technologies can then be carried out, saving valuable telescopy time and resources.

Probabilistic analysis of stars and their planetary systems of this kind also has wider implications for the philosophy of science and is relevant in the context of our species’ position in the Universe, both from an evolutionary and physical standpoint. Outside of the sciences, several theological and cultural schools of thought place our seemingly isolated position in high regard when considering fundamental questions such as the origin of life and the evolution of complex life and humans. These issues have also been addressed scientifically by cosmologists and astronomers and have historically been a point of contention between the physical sciences and traditionally-held religious or cultural beliefs. The traditional scientific viewpoint can be described by the Copernican principle, which states that the Earth’s physical position in the Universe should not be considered to be especially favourable or unusual and that humans should not think of themselves as privileged observers of the cosmos. Given that there is little reason not to assume that the Earth is a typical rocky planet orbiting a relatively normal star in an unexceptional region of a common barrel-spiral galaxy, and that the physical laws of science apply equally to the entire universe, it seems logical that the cosmos should harbour similar environments in which simple or complex life could have evolved, and that observable life should be common across the universe. If this is true, where should we be looking?

The habitable zone theory represents a good start in our search for extraterrestrial life, but it is possible that alien life may be so outlandish and dissimilar to the biota of Earth that our preoccupation with of the role of water, sunlight and carbon may be hampering our search, and we may have to broadly extend our parameters. Nevertheless, working within the limitations summarised by the habitable zone concept, the number of active extraterrestrial civilisations (that is, advanced life capable of the sentient observation and objective examination of their planetary and astronomical environment) in the galaxy has been tentatively quantified by a number of solutions to the Drake Equation, a probabilistic formula based on the mediocrity principle discussed above and several astrophysical variables, such as the rate of star formation. The solution to the Drake Equation was given as 10 (alien civilisations in the galaxy) by the original authors and has since been a driving force behind the growing field of astrobiology and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) program. The apparent incongruity between the solution to the Drake equation and humanity’s lack of contact, discovery or direct observation of the alien civilisations, or indeed even basic extraterrestrial microorganisms that should be common across the universe given the evidence is known as the Fermi paradox.

The probabilistic approach to exoplanet discovery around low mass planets also has implications for biology and the evolution of life on these planets. The Anthropic Model of evolution suggests that the level of intelligence of life on a given planet is a function of the lifetime of the star (Watson, 2008). The model proposes that a number of increasingly unlikely critical transitions have to be surpassed in order to facilitate the evolution of advanced life. On Earth, these steps have been achieved at relatively regular intervals of ~1 billion years since the evolution of life roughly 4 Ga, and they include the evolution of prokaryotes, DNA, sexual reproduction and eukaryotes, cell differentiation and eventually the transition between primate and human societies (Watson, 2008; Szathmary & Manynard-Smith, 1995). The theoretical lifetime of the biosphere, as controlled by the increasing luminosity of the Sun and the ability of temperature regulating feedback mechanisms operating on the Earth to regulate the temperature to within habitable bounds, is likely to be 1 billion years from present, resulting in a total habitable period or biosphere lifetime of ~5 billion years (Watson, 2008). The Anthropic Model detracts from the principle of mediocrity mentioned earlier as what are considered to be the ‘critical steps’ in the evolution of the biosphere become increasingly unlikely to be achieved as time progresses, suggesting that whilst the evolution of basic life (populations of replicating molecules) may be common, the transition between basic and advanced life may be highly unlikely (Watson, 2008). Philosophically, the anthropic principle also suggests that humans, as isolated observers of the universe, may be biased in our understanding of the evolution and possible nature of life because of a logical fallacy derived from the fact all the observations of the universe made by humans must be compatible with the life known to currently exist within it (Barrow & Tipler, 1986; Carter, 1983). This bias ensures that human perspective is not tailored to consider the possibility that can life operate outside of the physical and biological boundaries that apply on Earth and that we have assumed are universal; organisms that exhibit alternative biochemistry and metabolic pathways, including the use of non-water solvents and non-carbon based life, differing chirality (the ‘handedness’ of biologically-active molecules, including amino acids and sugars) and alternative forms of photosynthesis that have evolved under different solar conditions (Pace, 2001).

If, with sufficient research, it transpires that the Earth is not typical of habitable planets and complex life is uncommon in the Universe it would contribute significantly to the ‘Rare Earth’ paradigm, and humans may have to reconsider our philosophical and biological position in the Universe as potentially isolated observers.

Earthquake prone regions, take note.

In the immediate aftermath of one of the most powerful earthquakes on record, and the most severe in Japan for more than 100 years, it is becoming obvious that the careful planning, pioneering engineering and architectural technology and the sensible and ubiquitous public education of the Japanese populace has saved many lives, homes and places of work. Tragically there will still be considerable loss of life and destruction of infrastructure, industry and houses. However, in the wake of an earthquake of this magnitude (currently measured at 8.9 Mw by to the British Geological Survey) some fatalities are sadly unavoidable despite the most meticulous planning and building and engineering regulation.

Mw in this instance refers to the Moment magnitude scale, a dimensionless number that represents how much potential energy (stored in the crust as stress) is converted into mechanical energy by the thrust faulting of the plates. This energy is released as heat, cracks and radiatied seismic energy. The Mw scale is logarithmic in nature; a single step up in magnitude represents a 101.5 increase in the amount of energy released. A magnitude 9.0 quake is therefore 1000 times more powerful than a 7.0 Mw event (where two steps results in a factor of 103 increase in energy released).

Japan is a country more prepared to deal with a quake of this magnitude than most others as its position on the extremely active subduction zone between the Eurasian, North American and Pacific plates ensures that earthquakes are a constant threat. The effect of the stringent building regulations and revolutionary architectural technology in place in Japanese cities are evident in currently available reports of only relatively minor building collapse and failure across the country, despite the severity of this quake being some 8000 times greater than that of the February earthquake that wrought such significant architectural and structural damage across New Zealand’s second city of Christchurch. The true scale of the damage caused by the earthquake and it’s subsequent tsunami, currently making landfall in Hawaii as I type, is not yet apparent and it will likely take days or weeks to assess, but solace should be sought in the fact that the death toll in Japan will be significantly less than it could have been.

Earthquake prone areas, like California, perched atop the San Andreas fault for example, should take note of how the Japanese authorities deal with the aftermath of this disaster as they are arguably the world’s most earthquake aware country, and their response will hopefully set a precedent for emergency earthquake and tsunami relief across the world.

In the meantime, people lucky enough to be unaffected by this disaster are urged to show support and sympathy for the victims and survivors of this historical seismic event. Whilst praying is commendable as a means of increasing empathy and solidarity with the Japanese people, it ultimately of little practical use. Instead, concerned individuals should donate money to any number of relief organisations such as the Red Cross disaster fund. At this early stage a specific Japan relief fund has yet to be set up.

What should definitely be avoided is pseudo-scientific, fallacious and frankly ridiculous speculation as to the cause of the disaster, such as this article in the British tabloid paper the Daily Mail. In this fine example of quackery, astrologers claim that the increased gravitational effect of the moon, dubbed for some reason a ‘supermoon’ despite not being structurally or physically any different to the normal Moon but slightly closer in its orbit around the Earth than normal, contributed to the severity of the quake. Not only is this argument fundamentally flawed, its timing and delivery are insensitive and the level of ignorance portrayed by this ‘journalist’ is frankly offensive. The article juxtaposes sensible commentary from earthquake scientists at the British Geological Survey with astrological mumbo-jumbo and I fear that the lay-public will perceive that these are theories on equal footing, when in fact they most certainly are not. Now is not the time to speculate on such ridiculous and unfounded ‘theories’. The science behind plate tectonics and seismology is sound, empirically testable and respected and in this case explains the causes of this disaster in clear, evidence based terms.

In the coming weeks and months the true magnitude of this disaster will become apparent, as the death toll mounts and the economic damage is calculated. However, now is the time for the world to be united in solidarity, sympathy and support for the people of Japan, but to remember that many survivors owe their lives to the sensible and meticulous planning of the Japanese authorities, their foresight and the life-saving technologies incorporated into the fabric of the architecture and infrastructure of the country.

Science in Parliament (Part 2)

Following my post outlining the science credentials (or rather, the lack thereof) of the members of the House of Commons’ (HOC) Science and Technology Select Committee (STSC), I will continue on a similar tangent by providing a brief overview of the membership of the Energy and Climate Change committee (ECCC). This body is appointed by the Commons and serves to examine and scrutinise the operation, policy and expenditure of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), the government department responsible for addressing climate change and formulating energy policy and regulation in the UK. As with the STSC it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that many of the members of the ECCC would be drawn from MPs with a science background, either in the form of an academic qualification or from experience in a relevant field in the public or private sectors. Again, the credentials of its members make for some interesting reading.

The ECCC is comprised of 11 MPs and is chaired by Conservative Tim Yeo MP, who holds a MA in History from the University of Cambridge. Mr Yeo was a former cabinet minister for the Countryside and Environment in the government of John Major where he worked extensively on climate change policy before resigning amid revelations that he impregnated a Tory councillor in 1993. Joining Mr Yeo in the blue corner is Christopher Pincher, who has a BA in History from the London School of Economics, and Dr Phillip Lee, a former GP who studied Human Biology and Biological Anthropology at King’s College London and the University of Oxford, before studying Medicine at Imperial College.

Newly elected Tory MP Laura Sandys has a somewhat confusing repertoire of skills and experience, the details of which remain unclear, even on her website. After having completed an Open University ‘course’ (level unclear) in Environment and Development in 1993, she worked as a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Defence Studies, King’s College London as well as the Ministry of Defence and also apparently as a journalist and policy strategist in Washington D.C. Former Soldier and Conservative MP Dan Byles has an equally impressive CV, including achievements as a mountaineer, polar explorer, sailor and as a double Guinness World Record holder. He has a BA in Economics and Management Studies from the University of Leeds.

Representing Labour are former welfare and employment officer at the Citizen’s Advice Bureau Robert Owen MP, who has a BA in Politics from York and Dr Barry Gardiner who has a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Cambridge, as well as degrees in philosophy from the University of St. Andrews and Harvard. They are joined by outspoken socialist Ian Lavery MP, who was a former head of the National Union of Mineworkers and has a HNC (Higher National Certificate) in Mining Engineering from New College Durham.   Labour MP for Glasgow Northwest John Robertson worked for British Telecom for 31 years, originally joining as an apprentice after leaving high school. He is, rather despairingly, also a supporter of the continued funding of homoeopathy by the NHS after signing an early day motion recently tabled by Tory MP and general crazy person David Tredinnick. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that homoeopathy is a fruitless and exploitative venture, even as far as alternative medicine goes, and there is no evidence that homoeopathic remedies perform any better than placebo. It holds therefore that the continued support of this industry by a MP, especially a member of the ECCC, is very worrying for the scientific community and rational individuals in the electorate alike.

Championing the increased use of sustainable energy, nuclear power and microgeneration is Labour MP Dr Alan Whitehead, who holds a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Southampton. Dr Whitehead has been instrumental in drafting a number of policies that are now incorporated into the Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Act 2006, including a requirement for the more effective compliance of building regulations for energy efficiency and the removal of the need to seek planning permission to construct microgeneration technologies on residential lots, including solar panels and small scale wind turbines.

So far, the members of the ECCC do not hold a single science degree amongst them (medicine excluded), although there is evidence that some MPs (Tim Yeo and Dr Alan Whitehead, for example) have some significant experience in the field of climate and energy policy and their influence on the direction of the ECCC is likely to be a positive one. Some others however seem completely unsuitable for a role on this committee, enter John Robertson MP, supporter of the very profitable and completely scientifically reprehensible sugar pill industry. It is also possible that the former head of the National Union of Mineworkers may experience a conflict of interest in when analysing the means for reducing our dependency on coal and other fossil fuels, although his influence in the extraction industry may prove valuable when difficult decisions on the fate of English and Welsh coal mines have to be made. Another possible conflict arises when considering the fact that Liberal Democrat Sir Robert Smith MP, who holds a degree in Mathematics, is also the joint vice-chair of the UK Offshore Oil and Gas Industry Group, a body with significant interest in maintaining the importance of oil and gas in energy generation as well as for domestic use. That said, the oil and gas industry are likely to be vital players in facilitating our transition to cleaner energy generation via improving technology and energy and resource extraction efficiency, and having member of their board in the ECCC is likely to improve relations and cooperation between oil companies and the architects of energy policy within the government.

So in conclusion, current or former scientists remain absent within the ECCC, despite the clear scientific remit of this committee. This is an uncomfortable situation, especially in light of the increasing evidence that more drastic action, grounded in scientific evidence, is almost certainly required to mitigate the worst of the effects of global climate change.

edit (13:51) : corrected some grammar and spelling mistakes.