Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Celebrating Tom Lehrer

This is not a post about physics, but one to mark the birthday today of mathematician, teacher, satirist, lyricist and performer Tom Lehrer. Today he turns 85 – or, since he apparently prefers to measure his age in Centigrade – 29 (I must remember to use that one myself sometime!).

To commemorate the occasion, the BBC ran a half-hour long radio feature on his life and work last Saturday. This is available to listen to here for another four days; do try to catch it before then!

Even readers who have not heard of Lehrer might have heard of some of his better-known songs, such as The Elements Song. Other pieces of simple comedy gold include Lobachevsky, or New Math. But for me the best of Lehrer's songs are the ones with darkly satirical lyrics juxtaposed with curiously uplifting melodies. (These were probably also part of the reason that he never achieved the mainstream popularity he deserved.) So I want to feature one such example here:

Kim Jong-un, I hope you are listening.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Unnecessary spin

A few people have asked me why I have not blogged about the recent announcement about, and publication of, results from the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which were widely touted as a possible breakthrough in the search for dark matter.

The reason I have not is simply that there are many other better informed commenters who have already done so. In case you have not yet read these accounts, you could do worse than going to Résonaances, or Ethan Siegel, or Stuart Clark in the Guardian, who provide commentary at different levels of technical detail. The simple short summary would be: AMS has not provided evidence about the nature of dark matter, nor is it likely to do so in the near future. The dramatic claims to the contrary are spin, pure and simple. Siegel in fact goes so far as to say "calling it misleading is generous, because I personally believe it is deceitful" (emphasis his own).

So I'm not going to make any more comments about that.

However, since this incident brought it up again, I do want to comment on a related piece of annoying spin, which is the habit of physicists in the business of communicating science to the public of making vastly exaggerated claims about the possible practical applications of fundamental physics. The example that caught my attention this week occurred when Maggie Aderin-Pocock – who is apparently a space science research fellow at UCL – appeared on the BBC's Today programme on Thursday to discuss the significance of the AMS findings.

At one point in the discussion the interviewer John Humphrys asked a slightly tricky question: I understand that dark matter and dark energy are endlessly fascinating, he said, and that learning about the composition of the universe is very exciting. But what practical benefits might it bring? The answer Aderin-Pocock gave was that if we understood what dark matter and dark energy were, we might be able to use them to supply ourselves with energy – dark matter as a fuel source.

I'm sorry, but that is just rubbish.

Unfortunately, it's the kind of rubbish that is increasingly commonly voiced by scientists. You may argue that Aderin-Pocock was simply commenting on something she didn't understand – and if you  listen to the whole interview (available here for a few days; skip to the segment between 1h 23m and 1h 26m), including the cringe-worthy suggestion that dark matter and dark energy are the same thing really (because E=mc2, apparently), it's hard to avoid that conclusion. But a few weeks ago I thought I heard Andrew Pontzen and Tom Whyntie suggest something similar about the Higgs boson on BBC Radio 5 (unfortunately this episode is no longer on the iPlayer so I can't check the exact words they used). And here is Jon Butterworth seeming to suggest (in the midst of an otherwise reasonable piece) that the Higgs could be used to power interstellar travel ...

Why do people feel the need to do this? It's patently rubbish, and they know better. Do we as a scientific community feel that continued public support of science is so important that we should mislead or deceive the public in order to guarantee our future access to it? Do we feel that there is no convincing honest case to be made instead? Or are we just too lazy to make the honest case, and so rely on the catchy but inaccurate soundbite instead?

I think the sensible answer to the question John Humphrys posed would go something like this. Discovering the nature dark matter is a fascinating and exciting adventure. Knowing the answer will almost certainly have no practical applications whatsoever. However, on the journey to the answer we will have to develop new technologies and equipment (made of ordinary matter!) which may serendipitously turn out to have spin-off applications that we cannot yet foresee. More importantly, the very fact that the search is fascinating is part of what draws talented and creative young minds to physics – indeed to science – in the first place, from where they go on to enrich our society in a myriad different ways, none of which may later be connected to dark matter at all. I tried to make this case at greater length here in the early days of this blog.

It's a more subtle argument than just throwing empty phrases about "energy source" around, and it might be hard to reduce to a sound-byte. But it is justifiable, and also honest. And since science is after all about careful argumentation, let's have less spin all round please.