Category: science

Snow, satellites and science

By , 8 January 2010 6:45 pm

I really do not know who reads these blogs. All sorts of people seem to dip on and off without me being aware of it. Anyway, for those who do not live in the British Isles, it’s been cold here. In fact since Christmas it’s been persistently very cold. It is eloquently summed up in the photograph below from Nasa’s Terra satellite. I added the red blob for normally mild Swansea where the cold has been almost unprecedented. Snow fell on my car on Tuesday and is still on it on Friday afternoon despite me having travelled about 30 miles in the intervening period. Many of you who live in harsher climes will no doubt snigger at we Brits throwing up our gloved hands in horror at temperatures of a mere -10oC. Well, we just aren’t prepared for it.

Britain in snow

A couple of observations. First there has been much discussion as to whether this demonstrates that worries about global warming are misplaced. The answer is surely a long the lines of, if one swallow does not make a summer then one cold snap does not make a new Ice Age. The larger-scale and longer term evidence still, to my mind, suggests global warming. I gather, for instance, that at the moment parts of Alaska are warmer than Florida. Nevertheless, I am somewhat uneasy about the way that meteorology seems incapable of medium-term prediction. To my knowledge no one predicted the worst cold spell for either 30 or 47 years (depending on who you talk to). In fact our hapless Meteorological Office, undaunted by the fiasco over its ‘barbecue summer’ predictions that predated one of the wettest summers on record had been predicting a warmer than usual winter. This leads to my second observation: the reminder that there are two kinds of science: hard and soft.

‘Hard science’ is wonderfully exemplified by this photograph. I am old enough (just) to remember the wonder of the grey grainy smudges of the first photographs laboriously transmitted from space, and now we have full colour high-resolution imagery bounced back to us almost instantaneously. The process by which we get these images: the launching of satellites, their injection into precise orbits, their painstaking navigation and the transmission and reception of digital imagery is a marvel that we take for granted. This is hard (and splendid) science. Yet medium to long-term weather forecasting – not to mention climatic prediction – is science of a much softer and more speculative nature. Clearly, the systems involved are so complex that is virtually impossible to precisely predict what is going to happen. Interestingly enough in geology we have both; the precise analytical and very measurable details of rocks and the speculative modelling of what really did happen 350 million years ago.

Both hard and soft versions are science; but they differ in methodology and the problem is that soft speculative science shelters under the aura of hard science. It’s worth bearing this in mind. I am a scientist and happy to be one. Nevertheless we who are scientists need to carefully distinguish between hard science where the results can be measured to within millimetres, fractions of a degree or milliseconds, and the softer more exploratory science which has more guesswork than we would like to admit. Scientists need to be wary that the unassailable facts of hard science do not lead them into the arrogance of claiming too much for speculative models of soft science. And those of you who are not in any shape or form scientists need to be aware that despite its stunning achievements not all science is quite a solid as its proponents would like us to believe. I suppose you could say that knowledge is a vast sea of uncertainty in which science has created small clusters of firm but growing islands. But a lot may yet be hiding in those unknown seas.

Have a good week and stay warm. Or, if you’re in Alaska, I hope things cool down.

The failure of ‘Sunshine’ and why Dawkins hates us

By , 31 August 2007 5:00 pm

Some time in spring I heard that there was this science-fiction film coming out called Sunshine. The plot was interesting, if far-fetched; let me quote: “In the not-too-distant future, the sun is about to smoke out. A crew is sent to re-ignite it with a nuclear bomb; when they fail, a new team sets out to finish the job. But they find that flying to the least hospitable place in the solar system and staying sane and alive is no simple matter.”

The director had a good track record, what I could pick up of early reviews sounded very promising (it got over 70 odd percent on the indispensable ‘Rotten Tomatoes’ scale and the British press mostly gave it four out of five stars). Yet somehow (rather like the real sunshine this year) it never materialised in Swansea. Well, maybe it did but it must have come and gone very quickly because until yesterday, I was still waiting for it. However, in the supermarket yesterday evening, I saw that it had already come out on DVD. I checked up on Wikipedia (careful to avoid plot spoilers), and found out that it really hadn’t done very well and certainly can’t have recouped the cost of the special effects. Sad. Okay, it didn’t have alien battle fleets by all accounts, but it sounded pretty worthwhile.

Now I find the demise of Sunshine very significant. It is yet another indicator that actually we do not find science very interesting. We pay lip service to science: we give scientists awards, we let them have their breakthroughs on the news (albeit mostly slotted in at the end) and we say, ‘Isn’t science wonderful?’ Yet, on the whole, increasinglywe find science uninteresting. In my own field of geology there are only a handful of areas that will arouse general interest: dinosaurs, earthquake or volcano prevention, meteorite impact, finding more oil, and that’s about it. If you don’t believe me take a look at the science section in the average bookshop and compare it in size to the sections devoted to history, politics, travel and tourism, and even pets, and you will see how low the interest in straight science really is. (Interestingly enough, many of the science books that do sell are frankly over-the-top in their chatty popularity.)

There is, I think, an extraordinary paradox here. The scientific method has been enormously successful and for, all its problems, delivered stunning results. (The fact that this blog can be read worldwide not the least of them.) Yet increasingly, it has failed to grasp the heart and the imagination. We find almost anything, including pseudoscience, more interesting than science itself. Sometime I may go into why I think this is, but here, I simply want to note the fact that most people find science, even scary science like the Sun dying, desperately unexciting.

And here I bring in Professor Richard Dawkins, with his well established loathing of faith. The cause of his extraordinary animosity to the faith community has often been speculated on. (I prefer the view that as an infant he was dropped on the way to the font.) But I feel sure that one thing that is driving him is the knowledge that, for all its vast achievements, science is unloved. It is like some distinguished uncle in a family: respected, honoured but not liked; someone we prefer not to spend time with. As a result, Dawkins lashes out at those he thinks are responsible and Christianity gets it. Well, isn’t that simple, and if the good professor knew a little more history, he would know that Christianity provided both the seedbed and the nutrients for the blooming of science in the 17th and 18th centuries. If he is indeed driven by a fear that a dark and superstitious pre-science era is returning, I, and most other scientists who are Christians, share his concern. We just think that in trying to blast the culprits, he has woefully misaimed.

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On a separate note, for those wanting to know news about The Infinite Day, the manuscript has been well-received at Tyndale and I have been allocated someone who, is by all accounts, an excellent editor. Very soon, I ought to be able to give you a publication date.

Have a good week.

Rowling, Arthur C. Clarke and the demise of science fiction

By , 30 March 2007 3:29 pm

The literary high point this week, at least in terms of mention on the web, etc., has to be the publication of the covers of final Harry Potter book. Unless, dear reader, you are a writer yourself, you cannot appreciate how utterly depressing it is that a mere cover (which by general agreement has told us nothing) has attracted so much attention. (BTW an interesting experiment is to ask any ordinary writer about J K Rowling. You will see the lips move into a facsimile of a smile but there will be a strange coldness, if not malice, in the eyes.)

This thought brings me to magic and science. You will no doubt remember Arthur C. Clarke’s celebrated statement that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This is, of course, one of the many barbs at religion that Clarke makes: a fact that is not however my concern here. A key part of the definition, which is not adequately expanded, is what constitutes ‘sufficiently advanced’. Perhaps a better expression would be any “insufficiently understood technology is indistinguishable from magic”. This highlights the fact that it is a relative effect: there are probably still some remote cultures where a working cuckoo clock would be seen as magic. In order to aid our understanding here I would suggest the creation of a new unit, the Clarke Value. Clarke values measure how little we understand any given piece of technology. The details need to be worked out, but I suggest that one Clarke is the gap where someone says “I’m not sure of the details, but I’m pretty sure I know how it works” and I suggest that 10 Clarkes expresses that point where someone says it “has to be supernatural”.

Now the interesting fact is that Clarke Values of technology are actually increasing. There are two factors: the first is that the technology itself is getting more and more inscrutable. So, for instance, you can go into your local mobile phone shop and find a tiny little pocketable object that will allow you to phone, used a GPS and listen to FM radio as well as play games. That that side of things is inevitable, unsurprising and probably to be approved. But, less happily, rising Clarke Values are also due to the fact that the understanding of science is declining. All the evidence suggests that kids, at least in Britain, find science tedious, and that most damnable of things, “hard work”. Science numbers, in schools are, in most places, declining. They are slightly boosted (hurrah!) because immigrant communities tend to encourage their sons and daughters to become engineers and doctors, both of which for the moment (thankfully) require science.

The impact of these effects is simple: high Clarke Values now abound. Who, for instance, among us can adequately explain how GPS works? Who can reliably inform us how broadband video works? Who can explain how I merely have to type in the words ‘Science’, ‘Magic’ and ‘Clarke’ into Google and, in barely a second, have the quote I need?

Now there is any writing corollary of this. It is that in a world of inadequately understood technology it is easier to write about magic than science. You may as well invoke magic, because most of your readers can’t tell the difference between that and science. And magic, as I have said, elsewhere, is much easier. So frankly, the attempts of Britain’s fantasy flagship ‘Doctor Who’ to make things scientific are now paper-thin. It might as well be a series about a magician and his apprentice.

It is a source of some irony – but very little satisfaction – that Clarke’s rule has worked very at prophesying the demise of the very science fiction that he loves so well. As I said at Wheaton chapel two years ago (there’s name dropping), as a Christian I find no grounds for burning Harry Potter books but as a scientist, well, it’s awfully tempting.

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