Heliophage


Gravity assists and precious encounters
April 19, 2015, 3:20 pm
Filed under: Published stuff, Science fiction

I see from twitter that my latest column for Intelligent Life is now online; it deals with gravity assists — specifically the one that got New Horizons to Pluto at such an impressive speed. Seeing it up prompted me to update the recently neglected home page for those columns which I keep here. There seem now to be over 20 of them – how time flies.

The column led my friend Bronislaw Szerszynski to share with me a poem he had written about the loss of someone close in which he used Jupiter gravity assists and planetary fly-bys as a metaphor. It’s rather lovely, and Bron has kindly given me permission I am posting it below:

Joy-bringer
(for Patrick)

I have lost count of the times
We plotted our orbit
To bring us close to you,
Our greatest wandering star.

Again and again we matched our pace
With yours along your path,
Then fell towards you,
Looped, quickened around you, by you,
Brief moons in your expansive skies,
Faces shining with your reflected light,
Then departing with course replotted and tales to tell.

Yet in those latter, remaining years,
With each flyby,
We saw you moved less
As we were moved even more:
Which was action, which reaction?
With each whip-crack of your ebbing revolve
We span faster, higher,
In the moment gifted to us by your mass.

Again and again we fell, and wailed –
But then soared, and laughed,
As you turned the talk
From closed, dismal stories to open jest,
From parabolic fall to hyperbolic flight.
By what magic, what alchemy,
Did you thus turn dread weight into light,
Gravity into levity?

We looked out of the port
And knew this was the last time
We would see your shining face.
But we will always recall your name:
Joy-bringer

— Bronislaw Szerszynski

[Soundtrack, should you wish it]


Nobel prize winners: one for my fellow hacks
April 1, 2015, 8:46 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

This isn’t really apropos of anything, but I got to thinking about the use I make or allow of “Nobel prize winning” in things I write and edit. Sometimes it is obviously relevant; when I wrote about Paul Crutzen’s intervention in the geoengineering debate in my book, the meaning the prize had for his stature made it germane; when I wrote about Haber and Bosch the irony, especially in the context of Alfred Nobel’s business, seemed worth pointing up. But are other mentions worthwhile, or fair. Or are they thumbs on the scale? For example, if one says that Hans Bethe was a Nobel prize winner and nearby have cause to mention John von Neumann without such an accolade, will the reader take it that Bethe was a bigger deal in some way? When I mention Sydney Chapman close to where I mention Crutzen, do readers take the fact that I can’t say Chapman got a Nobel as evidence that he wasn’t a scientist of like stature (which he surely was; I would love to learn why his amazing work wasn’t honoured*).

I think most of the time when we are writing about science and a Nobel prize winner crops up we mention the accolade just to make our story stand a little taller — we think it will matter to the reader. But in a news story, as opposed to a feature that has time to get into who’s who and what’s what, are we not also adding a bit of bias, suggesting that this is the person to take seriously in the debate? And is mention of a Nobel prize that isn’t really germane to the story, just to the past accomplishments of one player in it, really just a way of puffing things up?

There’s an added wrinkle when you think across disciplines. It seems to me that it is in some ways easier to get a Nobel prize (or “Nobel prize”) in economics than in the natural sciences; the size of the pool is just smaller. And the rhetorical weight an economics prize adds to statements that are more likely to be policy-germane is as great or greater. So should Nobel prizes be mentioned for economists? After all, the prize isn’t for general stature, or for likeliness to say true things. It is for a specific piece of work that may have no relevance to the matter at hand.

Anyway, it seems a vaguely interesting ethical/standards-and-practices issue for people in my line of work to consider. I doubt anyone else cares all that much, and it’s quite possible most of my colleagues don’t, either. And it may be that this is mostly just to say “Sorry, Robert Shiller, I needed to cut a line…”

*When I say that I would love to know this I mean I would love someone to tell me, or to happen across the info while looking for something else, not that I would love it enough to go and , like, do some research…



If smart drug makers were serious about their stuff…
March 4, 2015, 7:35 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Interesting article in Fusion about nootropics spurs the thought that if these companies think they are selling something that works, they should sell it in trial form. You’d get a blister pack with numbered wells, half containing the active product, half a placebo. You’d record — maybe through an associated app — whether you felt that day’s pill had worked or not. At the end of a month, or whatever, the company would unblind your blister pack for you and you’d get a sense of whether the days on which you had felt the drug had had an effect were days on which you had in fact taken it.

Best if you do it with a range of drugs — that way people can find the one that works for them (assuming individual responses vary). It’s all very citizen science rah-rah and win-win: the company ends up with a good rep among evidence-oriented types and knowing more about its product (maybe you get a discount if you share some genome data with the provider?); consumers get a product that they can have some faith in; sum of human knowledge is increased.



Boyhood v Birdman
February 22, 2015, 7:15 pm
Filed under: film

It’s interesting that for the first time in a long while there seems genuine doubt over which film will win best picture tonight. Guild voting says Birdman, Baftas say Boyhood — as did most everything else before the guilds voted. And there is room for reasonably people to have different opinion as to who will win best director and best actor, too.

My understanding of the Academy is far too meagre to allow me to think I can call any of these races. I have some preferences, though.

The Birdman Oscar I think I would most like to see (other than Lubezki’s, which I take to be a done deal) would be Keaton’s. I am old enough to like the idea of an oldest-ever best-actor Oscar, and it is a tremendous performance. Redmayne’s performance is terrific, too, and technically remarkable — but less moving and in the service of a far lesser film.

I’d be OK with Inarritu winning, too, though he wouldn’t be my first choice—as long as Birdman didn’t win best picture too. I think both Birdman and Boyhood are very fine films, but Boyhood is a singular achievement that deserves singular recognition. And beyond the remarkable way in which it was done — though no discussion can really avoid that — Boyhood seems to me to use the precision with which it sits in its setting to say something in a quasi universal way, whereas Birdman is less easily ported to other concerns. I would like to see it win and see Linklater win as director — but though Boyhood is clearly Linklater’s achievement, it seems to me an achievement that goes beyond what it is to direct something. So I’d be OK with Inarritu’s work as a director being recognised.

All that said, I rewatched Grand Budapest Hotel last night. If the way that the voting works sees it sneak up the middle in between the two B-beginning-bi-syllables and take the statue I think I might be quite happy. I think there’s a real chance of it being watched for longer and with more lasting pleasure than anything else on the list.

Update: Tom Shone, who is wiser, more tasteful and better informed than me, prefers Birdman (and indeed Redmayne). And the Predictinator says Guardians for VFX, which I would be fine with



20 films (and Interstellar)
January 5, 2015, 11:11 pm
Filed under: film

As ever, I am struck by how many new UK releases I wanted to see this year and which I believe were utterly fab I just didn’t get to (eg Leviathan, Winter Sleep, 20 feet from Stardom, Life Itself, The Overnighters, many more). But I saw 50 films in all, and I was rather pleased to find, looking at the list, that 20 of them had struck me as outstanding in one way or another. To wit:

12 Years a Slave — Tim’s Vermeer — Inside Llewyn Davis — Her — Nebraska — Grand Budapest Hotel — Under the Skin — Calvary — Locke — Edge of Tomorrow — Boyhood — Pride — Maps of the Stars — Ida — ‘71 — Citizen Four — The Babadook — Mr Turner — Nightcrawler — Birdman

You should probably assume that most of the UK releases you think were really good that aren’t on the list are things that I missed. The notable exception to that, I think, is Interstellar. I put this down largely to the fact that I saw it only once, on a really good Imax screen. I was blown away by some of it but also very aware of its story and structure weaknesses, and those, along with some other duff notes, stayed with me more than the being blown away did. People I respect have told me that seeing it again in 35mm lifts one’s appreciation, and I really meant to, but didn’t get round to it, and as a result when I saw it on the list I couldn’t really say it was a standout. I hope sometime soon to see it again and reach a measured conclusion that puts me closer in line with Tom Shone, though I would be surprised if I ended up liking it or admiring it as much as I did Inception.

I will however say something about the science. A huge amount has been written about the astrophysics, and the creation of new software to do relativistic ray tracing, and all that. I’m glad they made the effort even though aspects of the space travel stuff remain profoundly unconvincing. But the Earth-system science is atrocious to the point of demonstrating (and meriting) contempt. Some bollocks about a rust that breathes nitrogen? A notion that the Earth can run out of oxygen in just a few decades? It’s utterly ludicrous. If all photosynthesis stopped tomorrow the oxygen in the atmosphere would last for thousands of years.

This leads to three thoughts. One: a lot of people, both film makers and film discussers, think getting physics right, or at least seeming to or trying to, is in some way more important than getting the science of the earthsystem right. This shows, to my mind, strange priorities. The carbon cycle is a lot more easy to understand than general relativity and a lot more germane to terrestrial existence (yes, I know, GPS, OK). Why not take the small amount of trouble to get it right — or at least to fudge it with a modicum of respect?

Part of the answer is simply a sort of intellectual snobism: physics is proper hard science like what Einstein did, and Earth-system science is not. But another part (which is my second thought on the subject) is that people don’t take the trouble to get it right because they don’t feel they have to. The audience has no need to be told a convincing story about mechanisms because it has no trouble buying “the Earth is fucked” as an idea. Frederic Jameson has said that today it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism (interesting background on how he came to have said it here) and part of what that says to me is not so much that imagining the end of capitalism is hard but that it has become amazingly easy to imagine the end of the world, thanks to the practice we have been offered by the past half century of apocalyptic fiction, not to mention the threat of nuclear annihilation. We have come to a point where people just accept the apocalypse as an initiating device with no need for any argument whatsoever (though some nice CGI helps).

The third thought is that the film doesn’t need to provide end-of-the-world science because to the extent that the audience cares at all they assume that it is *really* about climate change, but the sensitivities of American marketing and an aversion to being seen as “a climate film” lead the film makers not to say so. On this reading the insulting implausibility of the apocalypse-as-explained might almost be a wink — “look, we can’t say ‘climate change’ but we’ll underline that we’re not saying anything else by making what we do say utter crap”. I don’t actually believe it is such a wink, but who knows. This, though, leads us back to thought two, by lazily conflating climate change — a huge geopolitical and humanitarian issue — with “the end of the world”,  a step that leads to talk of  climate action as “saving the planet”. And I really don’t like such talk. As I have said elsewhere:

The most important thing about environmental change is that it hurts people; the basis of our response should be human solidarity.

The planet will take care of itself.

(Gosh: for once a post about film ends up linking into the larger themes of this sorely neglected blog. What a pleasant surprise!)



Robots, robots everywhere
March 28, 2014, 10:39 am
Filed under: Published stuff

So the long project on robots I have been working on for a while has now come to fruition. The special report in the Economist, called Immigrants from the Future, starts here with an overview that uses colour from Darpa Robotics Challenge.

Then there are six further sections, one on why the field is hotting up (Good and ready), one on drones (Up in the air), one on service robots that may achieve a lot without getting noticed (The invisible unarmed), one on jobs (A mighty contest), one on care for the elderly (Seal of approval, which has my favourite pic) and a wrap-up, That thou art mindful of him.

There is also an editorial (which is probably most notable for putting a Stranglers song title on to the cover) and, god help us, a video. An off-cut about autism will shortly appear as my next Music of Science column in Intelligent Life (you can now read it here). I may stick up an afterthought or two on this site next week,  but don’t have time to post them now, because I am taking a break.

For all that, I am insanely aware of how much this doesn’t cover — stuff that I learned about with fascination and couldn’t imagine not putting in, but in the end, didn’t. I’ve rarely so strongly had the feeling of paragraphs, even single sentences, that could swell up into decent articles in their own right if allowed to.

Lots of thanks to the many many people I talked to (including those whose work did not, alas, get a look in, see apve), and to the great colleagues who helped make the report a thing, rather than just something I waved my hands about, most notably the editor, Barbara Beck, the researcher, David McKelvey, Una Corrigan in art and Lloyd Parker and Phil Kenny in graphics. Also Patsy Dryden, who kept the travel schedule on the road.

No robots were harmed in the making of these articles



Oscars 2013
March 2, 2014, 9:46 pm
Filed under: film

What I think will win and should win — and a few random comments. It was, as has been widely noted, a very good year. I remember in 2005 being pretty nonplussed, after the awards, by Million Dolllar Baby, thinking that it was pretty good, but that Hollywood should be able to produce  ten or so films that good in a year, and a few a good bit better. Last year was the sort of thing I had in mind

Best original screenplay: Will win – American Hustle, because people like the film a lot, and the screenplay, while baggy, is part of the reason. Should win — Her, because it is  remarkable and fresh.

Best adapted screenplay: 12 Years a Slave should and will win. Its use of voice and idiolect is remarkable.

Best cinematography: Gravity should and will win. I’m really interested by the debate about whether CGI is changing what best cinematography can or should mean,  whether the category should be split and so on. This will, after all, be the fifth year in a row the award has gone to something very heavy on the CGI (previously: Avatar, Inception, Hugo, Life of Pi: short titles seem to rule) and that’s not the only way of achieving true excellence in cinematography. But this is such a starting achievement, by a cinematographer that everyone already knows is terrific, that for this evening let’s put all that aside.

Best editing: Genuinely hard. The experts at In Contention seem pretty sure that it will be Captain Phillips, and it did win at the ACE awards. To my ignorant outsider eyes  that seems a bit of a stretch for a film people did not like enough to get Paul Greengrass or Tom Hanks (who was amazing) nominated. So I’m going to say Gravity both should and will win. But I’m probably wrong on the second.

Best score and best song: Steven Price Should and will win for Gravity, a terrific piece of work.  I continue to think that it is truly weird that Hans Zimmer didn’t get nominated for 12 Years, but there we go. Let it Go will win and should win best song (maybe if I’d seen Happy in context I’d feel different – but hey, it’s a belting well-built show tune with a good message and fractals too)

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