Glory of leaves
November 18, 2012, 4:42 pm
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National Geographic has a nice, evocative piece about leaves by Rob Dunn (@RobDunn) along with a typically beautiful gallery. This particular image is by Carsten Peter (@carsten_peter)


Neil Armstrong RIP
August 29, 2012, 10:03 pm
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I don’t have much to add to various wise and lovely things that have already been said about the great man by friends and others. My colleague Tim Cross’s obituary struck me as warm and perceptive

As the first man to walk on another world, Armstrong received the lion’s share of the adulation. All the while, he quietly insisted that the popular image of the hard-charging astronaut braving mortal danger the way other men might brave a trip to the dentist was exaggerated. “For heaven’s sake, I loathe danger,” he told one interviewer before his fateful flight. Done properly, he opined, spaceflight ought to be no more dangerous than mixing a milkshake.

Indeed, the popular image of the “right stuff” possessed by the astronaut corps—the bravery, the competitiveness, the swaggering machismo—was never the full story. The symbol of the test-pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave desert, where Armstrong spent years testing military jets, is a slide rule over a stylised fighter jet. In an address to America’s National Press Club in 2000, Armstrong offered the following self-portrait: “I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer, born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace and propelled by compressible flow.

Particularly grateful for the nuance he brings to the notion of “The right stuff”, which many others failed to bring out. It’s a complex and layered book, and far from a simple paean.

Clive Crook’s response struck, unusually for Clive, a personal tone. In general, I was struck by how many memories people were blogging and tweeting were about their fathers.

When it came to what NASA accomplished, [my father’s] admiration turned to awe. It makes me chuckle even now to think back to it. This reverence was so unlike him. He wanted me to understand just how difficult a thing it was–and how daring. “I know you think it’s incredibly hard, but it’s so much harder than that.” He followed the engineering as closely as he could and explained a lot of it to me. He persuaded me so well that I secretly decided it couldn’t actually be done. The margins for error were just too small. I was sure something would go wrong and they’d fail. Of course we stayed up all night and watched the video of the first walk on the surface. We were both moved to tears.

Neil Gaiman posted this picture, which is not just great fun but also seems to capture a particular happiness on Mr Armstrong’s part.

Three Neils

And Roz Kaveney was, as always, inimitable

Endymion – for Neil Armstrong

In her white silent place, the hangings dust,
grey pebbles stretching to the edge of black
so far away. The goddess feels a lack
somewhere elsewhere, an ache deep as her crust

and weeps dry tears. The gentleman is gone
the first who ever called. His feet were light
as he danced on her. Went into the night
quite soon, his calling and his mission done

yet still his marks remain. Footfalls and flag.
The others she forgets. He was the first
to slake her ages long and lonely thirst
for suitors. Now she feels the years drag

as they did not before he came to call.
Our grief compared to hers weighs naught at all.

I have little to add. He was clearly a magnificent man, and, as Tim notes, one who would never have dreamed of trying to take credit for the remarkable political and technological instrumentality that took him so high into the sky. Many mourning his passing mourn the passing of  that instrumentality, too, and would wish it revived. It is a feeling that I understand, though less well than once I did, but cannot share. It does no disservice to Mr Armstrong’s memory to believe, as I have come to, that now is not the time to try and recapitulate those achievements, nor to try and surpass them with similar feats of human space exploration.

And if you feel worried about giving up the honour that goes with the next landing on the moon to the Chinese, remember that their envoy has already been there. The process that sent him there might have been deeply rooted in the cold war: but Neil Armstrong really did come in peace for all mankind.

A crappy thing about Nature (the journal, not the concept)
August 15, 2012, 5:55 pm
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I’m very happy to have worked for Nature. I’m proud of some of the stuff I did in my time as Chief News and Features Editor there and — even more so — of the stuff I helped my excellent colleagues there to do. I have huge affection for many of the people who work there, and I think it is a great magazine and journal. I think that by and large it navigates the difficult territory that comes from being a profit-making organisation providing a public good and a cultural necessity reasonably well. I think it has served science faithfully for 143 years, and that the world would be a much worse place without it it.

However the fact that a personal subscription to Nature does not allow you access to its archive is simply crappy.

Yes, you get access to articles back to 1997, which is better than nothing. But science didn’t start in 1997. Nature didn’t start in 1997. Ideas that are important today are not all rooted in the very shallow post-1997 horizon of intellectual history. The random selection of articles I just looked at  in a recent issue all had references to pre-1997 work, some of it published in Nature.

Sometimes pre-1997 observations are as current as they come. Today I was looking into various aspects of the Pinatubo eruption of 1991. Around the world scientists looked into the eruption and sent their observations and ideas to Nature. The best of them got published. Have there been any better observations since? No – there haven’t been any comparable eruptions to observe since. So I can’t read the most recent relevant observations on a topic of current interest  in a journal to which I have paid to subscribe.

Not an isolated instance. A friend recently asked me about the origin of a fundamental concept in molecular biology. With a little work, I tracked it down to a Nature paper from the 1960s. That was helpful to him — but I couldn’t get the full context because I couldn’t get the bloody paper. (The friend could – irony of ironies, he works for Nature.)

I admit that I’m probably unusual in the amount of pre-1997 stuff that I want to read.  I have a greater interest in the roots of scientific discussions than most. I am interested in the continuities and lack of same between science now and science in its past. I like the day before yesterday.

But a) I think, all other things being equal, it would be better if more people moved a little way towards my approach to these things. Too many people read only the most recent publications in their field, and lack a long perspective.

And b) I BOUGHT A SUBSCRIPTION. I should be able to read the archive.

Now, I should note that this policy, while stupid, is not sneaky. The subscription page makes it clear that you don’t get the archive. And I should also note that the subscription is worth it anyway for a beautifully produced magazine that never fails to inform and fascinate.

But it is still a bad policy. And not just because it inconveniences me and leaves me feeling ripped off by an institution I esteem so highly. Because Nature should be about all of Nature. It should be about making you a part of the process of which it is, and has been, a great exemplar. And it shouldn’t salami slice that process in search of a quick buck.

I remember speaking with quite fierce pride at my leaving party about the experience of being at the head of a spear  with a haft centuries long behind it. But if you want to appreciate the haft, it will cost you ÂŁ22 quid a glimpse, even if you’re a paid up member of the spearhead. That’s wrong. If you’re part of Nature‘s wonderful ongoing conversation you should be part of all of Nature‘s wonderful ongoing conversation.


Some Mars stuff
August 4, 2012, 9:01 am
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In honour of MSL/Curiosity, which descends towards the surface of Mars at breakneck speed tomorrow morning with about a five in seven chance of ending up in one functional piece, I’ve put a couple of relevant pieces up at the mostly defunct MainlyMartian. If you want to try and hold your breath through the “seven minutes of terror” they start at 05.31 UT Sunday Monday morning.

A question about the history of ecology
July 13, 2012, 7:01 pm
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I’ve been reading a bit of ecological history for a column, and I was struck by some dichotomies. Here’s Ron Doel, in 2003

By the 1960s, two distinct ‘environmental sciences’ had emerged: one biology-centered, focused on the problems in ecology and population studies, and funded in part on the problems in ecology and population studies, and funded in part by agencies and managers concerned about human threats to the environment; the other geophysics-centered, focused on the physical environment, and responsive to the operational needs of the military services that support it.

I can see that, and I can see how it would map in part on to a distinction between critical and industrialised science of the sort that Ravetz discusses.

But here’s a different dichotomy, in a different context, as ascribed to G. Evelyn Hutchinson by Joel Hagen in “An Entangled Bank”

Population biologists tended to take a merological perspective, focusing upon independent individuals and assuming that population phenomena determined higher level community properties. In contrast to this bottom up approach, other ecologists, particularly those who later studied ecosystems, took a holological approach by studying the flow of materials and energy through food webs without considering the individuals that made up the web. Hutchinson, an eclectic biologist, seemed capable of making the transition from one perspective to the other effortlessly. Most other ecologists have not been so adept.

And this, it seems to me, also bears on the Clements/Tansley dispute, as to whether there was a sort of teleological holism in ecology (the notion of the climax ecosystem), or simply sets of relations between populations and their physical environments which could be studied rather as those in physics could be.

Now it’s pretty clear to me that these aren’t all the same cut and dried dichotomy. You can be a military-linked energy-flow kind of guy and believe in climax systems (I think the Odums did this). But elements of it do seem to be consistent. I wonder if anyone can guide me to deeper thought on this?

Promises promises
January 3, 2012, 9:51 pm
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It’s not saying much to say that there might be more blogging here this year than there was last year. It may also have more film stuff than was its original intention, though I might get some planetary anthropoceney geoengineeringish photosynthetic stuff up too. Let’s just see how it goes, shall we?

Not in my Oxbridge name…
May 30, 2010, 6:13 pm
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Reading Sarfraz Mansoor’s review of Gary Younge’s “Who are we” over coffee this morning I was struck (and who wouldn’t be) by the sentence

Of the 23 members of the new cabinet, 22 are white, 18 are millionaires, 15 are Oxbridge graduates and 13 went to private schools.

Which really is pretty disheartening. But it also piqued my slight irritation, because I tend to bridle somewhat at “Oxbridge” as a category (non UK readers: Oxbridge is a portmanteau word denoting the universities of Oxford and Cambridge). There are obviously great structural similarities between Oxford and Cambridge, as well as architectural ones and social ones. I remember that the first time I ever visited Oxford, having spent three years as a student at Cambridge, I had the odd feeling that someone had taken a townscape I was at home in, shuffled it, and redealt it  in an odd new pattern. But there are also distinctions, and though I’ll admit that the narcissism of small difference (my absolutely favourite Freudian concept, and one of the great undervalued explicators of life) magnifies them, they may matter. While the variation within both universities is far greater than the difference between their means, from my utterly subjective view point Oxford tends more towards the worldly, the glib, the rosy, the rhetorical, Cambridge to the provincial, the constrained, the cold, the logical.

Linked in my mind to these prejudiced distinctions is the notion that, as well as being more conservative than Cambridge, Oxford is also more central to the political establishment. Evidence: all the UK’s university-educated post-1945 prime ministers had degrees from Oxford (a second degree in the case of Gordon Brown), none had degrees from Cambridge. (Less impressive evidence: I remember a nice joke in Yes Minister about the Oxford preponderance explaining its transport links, though on checking I find that’s actually rather more a joke about civil servants).

So, cappuccino finished, I decided to test out my hunch that the cabinet was in fact dominated not by Oxbridge, but by Oxford. Unfortunately, not so much. Of the 65% of the cabinet that went to Oxbridge 6 are from Cambridge, 9 from Oxford, a 40:60 split. A preponderance, yes, but not a significant one (one-tail p-value 0.30). Expand the universe to include the six people who, while not cabinet ministers, attend, or may attend, cabinet and you find that of 29 people 20 (69%) went to Oxbridge, 8 to Cambridge, 12 to Oxford — 40:60 again, p-value now down to 0.25.

Then it struck me that the problem might be that the Lib Dems in the cabinet were masking a true Tory Oxfordness. Superficially plausible, in that of the 5 Lib Dems in cabinet proper, all of whom went to Oxbridge (and all but one of whom were privately educated), the ratio is reversed, 60:40 in Cambridge’s favour. If a fully Tory cabinet replaced them with 5 Oxford graduates, the p-value would fall to 0.06. Alas, assuming they would be replaced only from Oxford stretches plausibility. In fact if you assume, following James Forsyth on the Spectator’s blog, that the Tories who were denied true cabinet seats by the advent of the Lib Dems are David Willets, Chris Grayling, Theresa Villiers, Greg Clark and Nick Herbert, you find that that quintet is also, as it happens, 60:40 Cantab.

Since I started writing this, the resignation of David Laws has slightly pushed things further against Cambridge. The Oxbridge subset of the cabinet is now 36:64 Oxford, p value 0.21. (The Scottish Lib Dems, from among whose ranks the new Scottish seccretary had to be chosen, are a decidedly un-Oxbridge lot.) Of the 7 people attending cabinet from Cambridge, two of them, Francis Maude and Owen Patterson, went to my college, Corpus Christi. Corpus is one of the smallest of the 20 odd colleges, so that is a truly striking result.

No one in the cabinet, alas, went to Hull. (Though one is, to my previously ill educated surprise, a former member of the NUM.)